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Toward the Sunrise: 5. Battles
The Firth of Umbar, 25 Nínui (February), 2980
The sails lay bound upon the deck, and in the inky darkness the only sounds were the crash of the waves upon the bow; the sliding rush of the oars as they parted the waters; and the faint, repetitive chink of stone that kept the oarsmen rowing as one. Overhead the stars shone clear and bright, unveiled by mist or cloud, and off the bow Aragorn could see clearly Quáco, riding on the back of Nénlókë as he twisted through the southern sky.
Slowly, patiently, they crept up behind the hills, and when they drew abreast of the old harbour, now naught but a ghost town of pale yellow spires, Aragorn left his watchful post upon the prow and retreated to the aft deck. He exchanged his spray-soaked cloak for a dry one and went to stand beside Beringol.
“How does she go?” He asked softly
“Quiet,” his sailing master whispered back to him, equally captive to the still night air. To his port, closest to the rocks, hung Valandur's Balhorn, and in her wake rowed Imrahil's Alphion and the two smaller Dol Amroth ships, the Feredir and Beleghir. To starboard slinked Ostoher's massive Carmagor, followed by their two smallest taur, the Sûlion and Pendrath, and by the Ithilcair, Hwindros and Turandir. Ten proud ships-of-the-line, each armed with at least one catapult and with decks massed with archers and men-at-arms. He hoped it would be enough.
Like hungry lions they stalked closer to their prey, crouched close to the dark waters, moving with patience and menace. They were almost upon the North tower, skirting the mole that stepped down from the hills, when the first shouts went up from the fortress, like the flurried panic of a herd astonished at the sudden appearance of their hunters.
The fleet was well prepared. His men backed oars and held the Nimchathol where she would have a good shot at the tower, and the Alphion and Balhorn did likewise. Ostoher and Isolad brought their own taur to bear on the south tower. The mangonels had been loaded with cemented brick and the first shots slung off the ships before the defensive force could take aim. As they struck the terraces where Umbar's own catapults and ballistae stood, Aragorn heard in his mind the split of timber and crush of iron that the boulders, breaking on impact, had inflicted. The true noise was out bested by the swoosh of oars as the remaining six ships of Aragorn's fleet slipped swiftly through the gap and into the harbour. The catapult crews worked rapidly to prepare the next attack, while each ship was carefully maneuvered for an optimal shot. The Nimchathol was just inside the harbour now, and Aragorn saw, near the docks that Balhorn and Aerandir had put in yesterday, a burst of flame.
The attack had been as unexpected as he hoped, that was clear!
The ship rocked violently as a boulder crashed down between the Nimchathol and the Sûlion, but neither ship took great damage. He shouted at his boatswain to raise the next signal, and told Beringol to push the ship further into the harbour. The Alphion and Sûlion did likewise, leaving the Balhorn and Carmagor to torment the Beraid Long. Both were armed with the heaviest boulders they could take on board, which they hoped would give them a shot at punching holes in the towers themselves once the ramparts were clear.
The sprightly Alphion shot ahead of them as Imrahil bounded into the fray at the shipsheds. The other two ships from Belfalas, the Feredir and Beleghir, had already begun to lob at them clay vessels filled with pitch and other noxious substances. Their archers, sheltered by constructions at the bow and stern, had begun to alight their arrows and send them whizzing through the sea-ward openings, hoping to catch the grounded hulls afire.
In the distance he could hear the cries of the Umbarrim as their enemies descended upon them. 'Izi, izi,' they cried, 'Kar-kar bil! Ma bil!' The pools of lantern light began to merge with the grasping flames. Fire, fire! The harbour is burning! The ships are burning! Yes; yes indeed. It would all be aflame soon, if they had their way.
'Ugula-uru me-am?' they cried. 'Ugula-uru me-am?'
He had intended to aid Imrahil, but two dark figures broke off from the small quay that ran between the shipsheds and the north tower: Two corsair galleys, much alike the Nimchathol, though somewhat smaller, and akin to the pirate ships he had fought last fall.
“Patrol ships. They probably have a full complement of slave-rowers.”
“Can we perform a pass-through, and turn in time to face the second?”
“If they continue abreast, I think so.”
“Then let's do it. ” Aragorn ordered the archers at the stern to concentrate on the starboard ship, and then hurried up the forward deck. The catapult crew had taken aim at their new target, but the stone sank into the harbour just short of the corsair ship to port. The Nimchathol swung tightly around to face their new opponents, and sprang forward with a rush as the oarsmen rowed at their utmost speed.
“Hold tight!” shouted Aragorn to his archers, who had been exchanging arrows with the ship to port, as the oarsmen nimbly swung the ship forty-five degrees to port and brought the ship's ram crashing through the oar bank of the corsair ship. They cleared perhaps four-fifths of the enemies oars before they drifted too far off.
They had caught the first ship by surprise, and she was out of the fight, limping back to the docks, barely able to move with nearly half her oars gone. But the Nimchathol was now in an awkward position, her momentum carrying her starboard side toward the rocks at the edge of the bay, and her catapult and archers in no position to oppose the second ship.
In the dim light Aragorn could just make out the pirate galley as she turned on her haunches and came full speed toward his ship, aiming to puncture the taur's broad side and push them onto the rocks. But Beringol was prepared. Groaning the ship's nose swung back into the harbour, and the drummer sped up again as the oarsmen strained to give the ship enough speed to meet the massive iron ram that was bearing down on them. The two ships collided, the corsair ship's ram smacking into the plates that attached the Nimchathol's ram to the ship's beams. Though the ship groaned at the impact, the metal had kept her from being holed.
Before the corsair ship could break away Aragorn shouted at his men to throw the grappling hooks and prepare to board. Beringol edged the two ships together, the oarsmen shipping their oars just in time to avoid breaking them against the other ship's hull. Aragorn wished he could lead the boarding party himself, but knew their situation was still too tenuous to risk it, and sent his lieutenant instead. The corsairs, oblivious to the planned raid, had only a part of their men onboard, and the ship was soon overrun.
Soon his soldiers were crossing back over, escorting three Gondorian prisoners they had found in the hold. Aragorn spoke briefly with one of the other slaves, a tall dark-skinned man with a proud bearing; he agreed to spare the ship so that the slaves might escape in it, so long as they promised not to let it fall back into the corsair's hands. It was not an ideal choice, but the Nimchathol had not the space to rescue them herself, and Aragorn would not leave them to drown or be caught again trying to escape the city.
He had too much else to worry about. With this threat faced down, and the other ships moored nearby set alight, Aragorn could turn to examine the state of the fight. The Balhorn and Carmagor were still lobbing rocks at the Beraid Long. Past the Carmagor he could see the Hwindros, attacking the ships moored against the southern mole.
The Ithilcair and Turandir he had sent to Turagar's aid, and they had set to burning the new ships-ma-sua, they had called them-that Aragorn had seen yesterday afternoon. Isolad's Sûlion and the Pendrath set upon the shipyards in the north-east corner of the harbour. The Dol Amroth fleet were still assaulting the ship-sheds.
At first the Gondorian ships, aided by their exacting knowledge of where everything they wanted to hit was, had made fairly easy work of the grounded Umbarrim ships. But as more sailors and warriors stumbled down to the quay front the battle intensified. Leaving Valandur to keep the tower busy he ordered the Nimchathol closer to the ship-sheds.
Aragorn had known after his tour that these would be the hardest to eliminate, for the slips were made mostly of stone. Once set on fire the ships inside burned mightily, but most had to be set alight individually, for the builders, anticipating this weakness, had built solid stone partitions at regular intervals; and some were of fine masonry indeed, built by Castamir's sons, or by Hyarmendacil II. The Alphion, Feredir and Beleghir had set the westernmost sheds afire and then pulled in close to land squads of marines near the center, who had sortied up the hill far enough to set fire to some of the ship's stores and armouries. While the Feredir and Beleghir backed off to bring their heavier weaponry into play, the Alphion was under attack where it stood at a small quay, awaiting the marines return.
Seeing her in this plight, Aragorn ordered his ship there as well. He had his own contingent of soldiers, and left Beringol in charge while he led them onto the dock.
“Imrahil!” he called. The younger lord turned and grinned briefly at him, clearly glad for aid. They held the quay and a bit of ground, but the air was swiftly filling with such smoke and ash that they could hardly see the streets rising up the hillside in front of them. A mass of mercenaries in various states of dress and sobriety had already gathered, armed with swords or short-bows or just with hastily improvised clubs.
Heckling on the growing crowd was a thickset corsair of rich dress, waving his sword in the air and shouting 'Genu-u! Genu-u! Ma-ma uru-u!' Others had taken up his cry behind the screen of smoke, and more and more men rallied to their cry. It was all close and messy work, for all the bows had fallen silent, their wielders unable to see clearly enough to shoot. The larger battle was lost to him for awhile as they held a small breathing space together amid the conflagration of their own creation. His throat burned as he shouted orders to his men, who were struggling to hold the shield-wall tight against the crowd.
At last Aragorn saw the skirmishers beating their way back through the mob. The Gondorian soldiers, wielding their ovoid shields and long pikes ruthlessly, redoubled their efforts to press the angry natives aside. In the middle Imrahil had rallied his swordsmen and was cutting through the crowd. Aragorn grabbed his lieutenant and turned the line over to him, and then followed the young prince, leaving his bodyguard scrambling to catch up with him.
Block, thrust, parry, riposte. Slit a throat, hack off an arm, send entrails slithering to the ground. There was no pleasure in this work but there was pride. From the crush of forces vinaceous rivulets dripped into the salty waters. Most of it was their unready foes'. Block, thrust, parry, riposte. Most of their foes were unarmoured, and Aragorn's long blade made quick work of them. But in the wild melee the fight had degenerated into, a crafty corsair had slipped through their lines and was rounding on Imrahil. He and his bodyguard, oblivious to the danger, were ramming fervently through the crowd in front of them. Aragorn knew (in the way he sometimes did) that the stab of his wicked blade would be true, if he were let to make it.
Aragorn snatched his dagger smoothly from its sheath and sent it winging into the corsair's back. Imrahil paused from his slaughter when he heard the man grunt as he staggered sideways and slumped to the ground. He must have recognized the eagle-headed pommel, for he yanked it free. He wiped the blood off on the man's shirt before straightening.
“Thank you,” he said, offering it back to Aragorn, who had quickly closed the gap between them.
"No. Keep it. It has brought me luck; mayhap it shall bring you luck, too." You will need it, he thought.
And then the battle swirled around them again, and they turned back to their grimy work, side by side.
When at last the two forces had joined up Aragorn ordered a swift retreat, and he practically shoved Imrahil back aboard his own ship.
It was none too soon. The captain of the tower had finally sent reinforcements, armoured guards with javelins and halberds. The Nimchathol and Alphion fled the quay front, glad to escape largely unharmed from a very close encounter.
“Fall off, Imrahil,” he shouted, “but keep the fires going. Be ready to retreat when I give the signal!”
He turned his attention then to the state of the battle. Both towers were burning. If Valandur and Ostoher were getting bored, they didn't show it; they were still pummeling the towers zealously. The Hwindros had left the moored ships on the south mole in tatters, and had turned to assailing the largest ships at the merchant docks. The battle burned brightest at four o'clock, where the Turandir and Ithilcair had joined the Aerandir at the docks. Though the Umbarrim had shouted for their captain at the ship-sheds, they had done so in vain; Aragorn thought now he knew why, and ordered Beringol to bring the Nimchathol to their compatriot's aid.
So we will meet at last, Um-gîrtab.
At the quays where yesterday he had gazed upon the Sea-crown and her fifteen sister ships the battle was far more orderly than it had been to the north, and the Gondorian ships were suffering accordingly. Golasgil's gwael had tangled with two ma-sua that had broken from their mooring, and all three were on fire. The Pendrath had swooped in to help and was blanketing the two enemy ships with arrows while the Turandir wrestled free and tried to put out the fires. That had left only the Ithilcair to aid Turagar.
The Aerandir, stripped of her catapult for guile's sake, had only small arms to wreck havoc with; and Turagar, after setting alight the ships nearby with fire-arrows, had broken toward the middle city and moored at those quays, where his marines, on loan from Valandur, could make a difference. (He followed orders about “no unnecessary risks” no better than Imrahil.) But the battle was clearly not going his way, for though most of the sixteen ships were on fire, so was the Aerandir. The Ithilcair was wisely hanging off the shore, using her two small catapults against the ships; but as they drew closer he could see a white flag flying amongst the soldiers on the quay, and he knew that the Ithilcair had let off at least some of her men-at-arms (all sturdy guardsmen Aragorn had pulled from Osgiliath for this mission.)
There were twelve quays stretched along the waterfront of the middle city; close to Watergate there were some merchant ships that had gone mostly ignored, but at the fourth quay Turagar had drawn up, and the fighting was fierce. Trying to stay out of the way of the burning ships, some of which had started to drift out and south with the mild current, he ordered his ship in at the eighth quay.
As soon as they were close enough he leapt out, and his men followed speedily, led by his squint-eyed lieutenant, Lóthion. They swept easily aside the few angry sailors desperate to preserve their ships, and flowed up the landing to join the battle.
“Mahla-e si-ig-u!” a man bellowed, his words spat out in a sort of chant. “Bal halam-u! Bal halam-u!” Aragorn looked up to see a tall man highlighted on the ledge of the street perhaps a hundred yards distant; dark-browed, with a short, crooked nose, and a face twisted with rage. Um-gîrtab. Aragorn's grim smile morphed into a pucker as he contemplated the best way to reach him.
“Sailors, put out the fires! Destroy the enemies! Destroy the enemies!” The Captain of the Havens repeated his rally, as Aragorn signaled to his bodyguard and took off for the stairs. His men already held the landing, and he left enough to defend it while he battered his way toward Um-gîrtab. The man would not live to see the sunrise, if Aragorn could help it.
It took forever to cross those hundred yards, and no time at all. Near the halfway point they merged briefly with the Ithilcair's marines and then parted again, like two schools of flashing fish that entwine and separate seamlessly. Still Aragorn stalked his prey. The flames and showering sparks lit up the earth and sky, and reflected in the dark waters of the cove, and it was a hundred times more satisfying to his eyes than any fireworks display.
Then he was there, his momentum carrying him deep into the crowd of soldiers rallying around their Captain, his blade a whirling nightmare. He felt a brief sting as a blade sliced shallowly under his shoulder-guard, but it was no more than a scratch, and he fought on. His men had driven into them with a sharp wedge, yet they struggled to break through, for more re-enforcements were stumbling down the hills. One moment Lóthion had been at his side, his shield wielding off blows for them both, and then next his lieutenant lay gasping on the stones, blood welling up from his abdomen. His men surged forward to surround and protect them, but Aragorn could feel the tide turning against him. With one last glare in the direction of Um-gîrtab, painfully close, and painfully out of reach, Aragorn prepared to order his men back.
Then something happened which he did not expect.
From the quays on the other side of Um-gîrtab came a roar like a great wave smashing against a cliff-face. The defenders shuddered as the fresh surge of fighters under the banner of Dor-en-Ernil crashed into the mêlée. For a moment Aragorn was too caught in surprise to react. Isolad?
Then his training took over, and he threw himself back into the fray, beating through the thinning crowd of men, many of whom had turned to face the new threat. His men had regrouped and followed him forward.
In most battles an enemy is an enemy, and you just kill whomever gets in your way. He had never liked being behind the action, and always led his men himself, when he could. But this was a strange fight, fought in the chaos of a burning port, where smoke drifted helter-skelter across the battlefield, and clusters of men, as often leaderless as not, clashed in a confusion of blood. Aragorn stumbled into an open stretch of street, the body of his last opponents falling with a thud beside him, to find himself not five yards from Um-gîrtab.
It was like he had wandered into one of the old lays he had spent so many drowsy hours listening to in the Hall of Fire: as if the wreaths of a dragon's smoky breath had parted for them, the two opposing Captains, a wind amid the dust and an iron-crowned tower. And though Aragorn was battle-wearied, yet madness gave him strength, and his hands were steady.
The Scorpion of Umbar faced him unwaveringly and hefted his gruesome sword. It's edge was level and red with blood; while the upper line of the blade was longer and curved slightly skyward to a point before hooking back down to the edge. In his other hand he carried a round iron buckler.
They needed no introduction. Aragorn moved first, sweeping in to parry his opponent's first swing, stabbing, blocking, whirling to attack again, using his speed and greater reach to his advantage. They tangled and broke apart, sliced and hacked, grunted under the force of each other's blows. Um-gîrtab clouted Aragorn's hip hard with his shield, but paid for it when Aragorn's caught him off-guard and moved in at half-sword to trap the man's sword-hand. He grunted in pain as he struggled to force Aragorn off him.
When he finally broke free and they had backed off each other, Um-gîrtab spit out a curse at him, saying “Am gal lu sar-re gaza-gin nig-ba-bi gar-ra!”
“As dug-ga-gu as nu-mu-un gi,” Aragorn replied, returning not a curse but an old proverb; for everyone knows that cursing is a dangerous business, and the Heir of Isildur must be even more careful than most in such matters.
Um-gîrtab seemed affronted by his answer, perhaps not expecting that he understood their tongue so well. In any case he did not speak again, but grunted and hefted his sword, preparing for another attack. They struggled there in the street, exchanging stroke for stroke, but at last Aragorn got the upper hand, and his last blow, barely blocked by Um-gîrtab, left a great dent in his buckler. Before Aragorn could recover and strike again the Scorpion retreated backward down the steps to the quay below. Aragorn followed swiftly, pressing him again at the bottom of the staircase. Both were too well-armoured for a slashing blow to do much damage, so it was a dance of lunges and thrusts, like the flickers of a flame.
Aragorn was drenched with sweat and knew he could not allow this battle to continue much longer. Both weary, they drew back for a moment, each poised at one side of the quay. Above Aragorn loomed the Sea-crown, fire scorching up her sides and along her deck. The smoke and heat became more intense with every passing moment. But the battle had moved elsewhere; only the dead and dying littered the stones now. The flames shimmered in their glazy eyes, like some strange reflection of boys gathered around a hearth, watching with fascination their little paper ships crumple and burn.
Um-gîrtab's eyes shifted. Aragorn blocked his blow easily, then pivoted to drive his blade hard against his opponent's, throwing him off balance. He brought his sword back across and stabbed the inside of his elbow. Um-gîrtab quickly struck out again, but the attack was weak, and Aragorn knew he had wounded his opponent gravely. Um-gîrtab threw down his buckler and switched his sword to his left hand, drawing his dagger with his right.
The fighting, contested on every side, had found them again, and men poured-not always volitionally-over the walls and down the stairs, blades and clubs swinging through the air. The pair, absorbed in the heat of their hate, ignored them all.
Aragorn parried Um-gîrtab's strike cleanly and feinted right; but then he swept left instead and brought his sword down hard against his enemy's right hand. The dagger clattered on the stones. He barely got his guard up in time to parry Um-gîrtab's sword as it swung wildly toward his head; with a hand on his blade he stopped the thrust and rammed the hilt of his sword into Um-gîrtab's chest, knocking him backward several feet.
Many of the combatants had become aware of the fight raging in their midst, and the two sides had begun to take form again, breaking off to regain their breath while the two Captains swung at each other. It was lucky, then, that Um-gîrtab stumbled into his own men, and they blocked Aragorn's move forward to give him time to recover.
Um-gîrtab thrust them angrily aside and crept toward his opponent once again. Aragorn let him take the initiative, parrying each blow, but driving him subtly into more aggressive plays, judging that he now had the advantage in endurance. Um-gîrtab charged with an overhand cut, but Aragorn anticipated this and redirected his blade past him. Twisting he stabbed his left leg in the path of Um-gîrtab, and threw him to the ground. His sleek blade plunged between the plates of the Scorpion's armour, pinning him to the blood-soaked ground.
Rising from the broken form of Um-gîrtab, Aragorn saw, in the swirl of the crowd, the wide eyes of Igi-dagal, staring straight at him, before a blade thrust out from his dark abdomen, and he too collapsed upon the quay. Isolad stepped over him and made his way toward Aragorn. With Um-gîrtab dead the defenders were unraveling, fleeing from Aragorn's might up the narrow streets.
“The Aerandir is on fire,” said Isolad, by way of greeting. His voice was almost conversational. “And she has a hole in her side. She'll never make it back.”
“Alive. But you know what that ship means to him.”
“We're done here. Get back to your ship and get his men on board. You can take the lead out.”
Isolad nodded and turned off, yelling to his men to pull back to the ship. Aragorn gathered his own men and those of the Ithilcair as he headed back to the Nimchathol. It was slow going, for their were many injured and dead to carry back. The Pendrath was hovering just off the quay, and Lómiol seemed to understand his arm-waving, as he turned about to nose back toward the harbour mouth.
Beringol grasped his arm fervently and hauled him back on board. They strided to the stern and saw the Sûlion back off from the quay and come about. But his face paled when he saw the smoldering Aerandir push out into the harbour.
“The current will push the ship into the market quays,” said Beringol. “He may do a great deal of damage.”
“It isn't worth his life,” Aragorn replied firmly. They both knew that Turagar, who had made his fortune by his own toil, would never entrust that mission to another.
The whole harbour front was in flames, from the shipyards in the north to the merchant docks lining the new city. There was nothing he could do for Turagar now; but Aragorn knew the man would fight to the end.
How foolish his thoughts had been. It was time to go. He sent Beringol off to order up the signal to withdraw and bring the ship out. Soon the gwaels had drawn up and skipped out through the harbour mouth under the cover of the taurs' mangonels, but the Umbarrim paid little heed, too desperate to control the fires to organize a quick pursuit. The Turandir was limping, but only the Aerandir had been wholly lost; and he knew Gondor would remember this last victory for many years.
But he wasn't done with Umbar.
Quáco: “the crow”, aka Corvus (Quenya)
Nénlókë: “the water serpent”, aka Hydra (Quenya)
Izi, izi! Kar-kar bil! Ma bil!: Fire, fire! The harbour is burning! The ships are burning!
Ugula-uru me-am?: Where is the Captain of the Havens?
Genu-u! Genu-u! Ma-ma uru-u!: Come! Come! Guard the ships!
Mahla-e si-ig-u!: Sailors, put out the fires!
Bal halam-u!: Destroy the enemies!
Um-gîrtab's sword is based on the sword-dao of the hill tribes of the foothills of the eastern Himalayas. It looked suitably nasty.
Am gal lu sar-re gaza-gin nig-ba-bi gar-ra: May you be like a great wild bull killed by many people, to be divided into portions. (Slightly modified from the Sumerian; an (apparently nasty) curse from 'The exploits of Ninurta')
As dug-ga-gu as nu-mu-un gi: I did not answer the curse uttered against me with a curse of my own… (Slightly modified from a Sumerian proverb)
Inspiration for Aragorn's tactics comes from an attack by the Moors on a naval blockade of Algeciras in 1278. The Moors gathered a fleet at Tangiers of about 74 ships, and then sent a single galley to Algecieras with an embassy. While diplomatic niceties were exchanged, men disguised as ordinary seamen carefully noted the positions of the Christian galleys. Two days later the Moors attacked, destroying almost all of the 104 ships in the harbour.
Somehow this chapter turned out a lot longer than I expected, with a flurry of different battles, and so became delayed. I am determined to have the final chapter, Valediction, up by the end of the month, so stay tuned!
Addendum: Viggomaniac has asked what a dromond is. A dromond (also dromund, dromon) is a Byzantine war galley. I've used taur ("mighty") for the Gondorian form. ["dromond" comes straight out of RotK.] Both sides also have smaller galleys. The Gondorian's also have gwaels ("gulls"), which correspond roughly to a caravel. [Not directly attested] The ma-sua are somewhere between a caravel redunda and a carrack; my best interpretation of "ships of great draught with many oars". Tolkien sprinkled references to ships all through his work, but taken together they seem irreconcilable, and lacking an understanding of actual historical development (yes, very un-Tolkien!) I have a half-finished essay that tries to un-tangle it; it's up on at HASA.
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