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The Last Prince

Chapter Text

The shrill blast of the sentry’s horn cut through the silence of the winter evening, warning of travellers approaching on the road. In his sparsely furnished chamber in the keep Prince Merendir, commander of the garrison rose from the table where he had been deep in thought studying reports and rosters and strode over to the window, both curious as to who might be approaching at this hour, and glad of the distraction their unexpected arrival provided. He did not have long to wait before a call went up below and the gate was opened and a rider, a messenger from Amon Sul judging by his garb and harness, made his way into the courtyard and dismounted from his horse, steam rising in clouds from its flanks in the chill air. A few moments later he heard the clatter of boots in the passage outside and there was a rap on the door. The Prince’s adjutant Vardamir, a gnarled old soldier with a limp entered with the messenger in his wake. Merendir recognised the man as one of the regular riders from the tower and thought to himself that whatever he carried must be of some import if he had been instructed to hand it over directly rather than simply passing it to the guards.

The messenger bowed and saluted and opened his satchel, pulling out the bound leather tube that contained the scroll, and gave it to the Prince. He was young and looked apprehensive, for Merendir’s reputation as a severe and exacting commander was widely known, though he was never capricious. “Wither comes this message?” he asked, “that will not wait for the weekly baggage train?” The messenger looked doubtful and replied “I know only that it came from Cardolan my Lord, from the citadel at Ost-en-Tyrn four days since and I was instructed to carry it with all haste here and hand it to you directly. I pray that it carries glad tidings”. Merendir shook his head “Good news rarely flies on such swift wings, but I thank you for your service. Vardamir here will see that you and your mount are well fed and rested”, With that the two men bowed and left the room, and Merendir carried the package over to the table, where a candle spluttered and smoked and cast an ever brighter pool of dancing light as the darkness deepened outside. Seating himself slowly, he undid the lace that bound the lid to the casing and drew out the document within, noting that it bore the royal seal of his house before breaking it and unrolling the parchment. It was written in a fair hand that he immediately recognised as that of his elder brother Maenir, for they had long maintained a correspondance, but what was written here could be no idle account of the doings of household or court.

“Merendir, it is with the greatest sadness that I must inform you of the passing of our eldest brother and liege Aglareb, Ruling Prince of Cardolan. He died after a short illness, and so passed a man of great courage, and strength who ruled our realm with wisdom during some of its darkest days. It will be a hard task for any to follow him, but by law and custom that duty now falls to me and I will try to rule to the best of my ability. My burden would be greatly eased with you at my side brother, as Captain General, and so I ask that you make preparations forthwith to return here and take up your new duties. I have appointed our nephew Amarion to replace you as Warden of the Eastern Marches, a position which you have devoted yourself to tirelessly for years beyond count to the great renown of your name and that of our house. He will depart for Amon Sul in the next few days and should reach you by the end of the month.

Maenir, Prince Of Cardolan and Lord of Ost-en-Tyrn”.

Merendir remained seated, his mind in a whirl at the many implications of his brother’s words and filled with conflicting emotions. He had been the youngest of five sons, and his eldest brothers had tormented him incessantly in his youth, accusing him of receiving undue favour and indulgence from their mother and father, so there had been little enough love between them. And then there had been the matter of Ivrien, daughter of a noble house and his beloved, who Aglareb had taken to wed against her wishes as a matter of political expediency. Heartbroken and filled with anger and despair, he had sworn to depart Ost-en-Tyrn and never return, devoting himself into a life of hard service and danger fighting the incursions from Angmar and later Rhudaur in the east of their realm. Nigh on seventy years, almost the whole of his adult life had subsequently been spent in the wild and empty lands of the east defending the road and the tower of Amon Sul alongside the men of Arthedain. But now he would be returning home, for though Maenir might be mild of manner and gentle his words were now those of command and to gainsay him would be treason. Merendir’s hair was now silver, his noble features lined with the cares of many years and his old wounds often agued him when he first rose in the morning, so he was well aware that the day when a younger man would replace him would come sooner rather than later. His nephew was a fine warrior from what he knew of him, if a little impetuous like their brother Durchon, the fourth of the brothers, so he could not in truth be too concerned on that count. Furthermore it had been largely peaceful on their borders for many years now and there was little sign for the moment that anything would change.

Home… despite his youthful vow he had of course by necessity returned there from time to time but never tarried and had never done more than his bare duty, returning as soon as possible to the east. The garrison at Amon Sul and subsequently the fortress at Amon Perin at the half way point along the road to Rhudaur which he had instigated the building of were his true home now and it would be hard to leave. But leave he must, for he could imagine his brother would indeed have need of his aid to rule. Where his two eldest brothers had been cruel and unrelenting in their treatment of him Maenir had always showed him kindness. He was unusual, for unlike his siblings he was neither tall nor strong and from the beginning showed himself more adept at learning and book work than skill at arms. This had not made him any less suited to command, for he had a quick mind and sharp wits and was a skilful administrator as a result, but it made him an easy target for mockery in a land full of soldiers and he would now be faced with trying to tame the restive leading houses of Cardolan and all their plots and intrigues. The arrival of Prince Merendir, so called Wolf of the Eastern Marches would change all that, he thought with a wry smile. Perhaps it was time indeed, and certainly time to lend aid to the brother who had often lent it to him in their youth, for he loved him well. Still weighed down by the implications of the letter but now a little clearer in his mind he rose from the table and went over to the door, opened it and called for Vardamir. The men would have to be gathered at once in the main hall and the death of the Prince made known to them, and the necessary formalities observed thereafter.

The following weeks during which he waited for Amarion to arrive allowed him time to come to terms with his new situation, and to prepare for his own departure, though he had few personal possessions and would need no more than a pair of pack horses to carry them. He could only think that the Prince’s burial would already have taken place in his absence and that he would be laid to rest with his forefathers in one of the ancient barrows high on the downs. It was not conceivable that they would wait for his return, for even a rider exchanging fast horses would not be able to make the journey in less than five or six days, let alone wait for another party to arrive more slowly first. It was the immense breadth of the realm, so sparsely populated despite its hospitable and fertile lands that had made it so vulnerable to the initial orc raids from the north eighty years before. Those raids had devastated the few widely scattered settlements between the South Road and the Greyflood and the Kingdom as it then was had been too slow at first in mounting a defence. A least he and his men’s long service in the east had meant that it could not so easily happen again.

And so it was that the day came when that service was finally at an end. Snow was falling thickly and by the time the small column of riders were sighted and sentry’s horn sounded the column were already quite close by. Merendir,who had been watching some of his men practising their swordplay in the main hall put on his cloak and made his way out into the small courtyard, and as had been prepared a small guard of honour formed up near the gate, though the snow soon began to settle on them to the detriment of their meticulous preparations. The gates were opened and the riders entered, climbing up the short slope from the road below. Amarion, who was in the van on a great black horse dismounted with a curse and threw back his hood. Handing the reins of his mount to one of the guards he strode over to Merendir, saluted and then embraced him. “Greetings Uncle, I trust the weather is not always so foul here! We thought to turn into Lossoth ere we reached this place”. Merendir smiled, sizing up the man before him and forming a favourable first impression. “Greetings Lord Amarion, long is it since last our paths crossed, but I see that you have prospered in the years since last we met. Come within, we will see you and your men warmed and fed, though you may find it plainer fare than that to which you are accustomed here in the east”. With that the horses were unloaded and attended to, the baggage brought in from the courtyard and food and drink served to the grateful new arrivals.

Afterwards Merendir showed Amarion around his new command, introducing him to his men. He took pride in the evident good order and discipline they demonstrated, but his successor seemed unimpressed and the jovial manner that had been evident when he first arrived had evaporated. Merendir became increasingly irked by this, and wondered if he had been unduly hasty in forming a good impression of his nephew solely on the basis of his manner and appearance.

Afterwards they passed up to his chambers and he closing the door he turned to face the younger man, asking tersely what troubled him. Amarion, his expression betraying some surprise at Merendir’s directness paused before answering “I will speak freely and admit this place is not what I expected. I fear I may have been ill used by your brother and my uncle, our new ruler, for he used words like honour, courage and duty freely to beguile me into agreeing to come here and replace you. Now I find myself facing the prospect of whiling away my days in this rustic keep sixty leagues from home in the middle of the nowhere. It may have suited you uncle, but I am a man of considerable influence in our realm and I fear that it has suited Maenir to put me out of harms way with this posting”. Merendir instantly rounded on him in cold quiet fury, in a tone that all who had served under him recognised with dread. “Honour? Duty? What do those words mean when you live in comfort and spend your days in idleness? They are not measured by rank or titles, costly plate or fine gear, but by hard deeds, suffering and sacrifice. You are of high rank merely by dint of your birth, and though I doubt not that you have some ability, you have never been tested in battle or truly driven to any extremity of pain, hunger or weariness. Until you have proven yourself, do not bandy them so lightly, and worse still do not presume to comment on my own motives. Forget not that I will be your commander, and I brook disrespect from none, be they common foot soldier or princeling. You are warned, and I will not tolerate another instance of it from you”. Amarion looked shocked at being scolded in this way, and a look of anger suddenly flashed across his handsome features, but he kept his counsel for the moment and Merendir continued. “As for rustic the forts two days ride east of here on the Mitheithel make this place look like a palace, and I expect you will make it a priority to visit and inspect them. You will find the men who serve there keeping a watch on our border do so dutifully and without complaint, though they are given little thought and less thanks by those they protect”. He paused before continuing in a slightly more conciliatory tone. “Now perhaps we understand each other a little more clearly we can continue with your instruction?” Amarion’s expression had by now become more abashed than angry, for he too had revised his first impression of the old soldier who stood before him, and he spoke quietly in reply. “None have addressed me in this manner since I was a mere boy, reprimanded for some transgression, and none else in this realm would have dared do so. I could not have borne it from anyone other than you uncle, but whilst my pride rails against your words, my heart hears the truth in them. I will serve here as I must without plaint and as well as I may”.

Afterwards Amarion gave Merendir cause to think that he had perhaps not so badly misjudged him after all, and he gave every impression of having been sincere. The snow had continued to fall, delaying Merendir’s intended departure and this gave them an opportunity to spend a few more days together getting to know each other better. Respect and even friendship grew between them, and by the time the weather had abated sufficiently and preparations were once again put in hand for Merendir to leave he was content that he was leaving his old command in good hands.