1. The Cloak
Cirion was patient, he was thorough, and he knew how to keep his mouth shut. I paid him handsomely for the use of a safe ship, and to date he’d never lost one of my cargos. We were both keen to keep things that way. My regular trading trips to the south had been severely curtailed for some years. It was no longer safe for me to land openly in Umbar despite being known there. Or rather, because of it; there were agents abroad now who realised quiet traders could hear much that was to the advantage of others. Still, money finds a way around war and politics. We arranged to meet vessels from the south in ‘neutral’ waters, where cargos could be exchanged in private. The small-minded might term it smuggling – but then the small-minded man has never known the thrill of a deal well done, and the anticipation of a nice profit for goods safely stowed away under canvas. Neither do they know the satisfaction of taking a slave’s manacles off, and telling him – ‘You give me a year’s work… then, you are free to go’. Oh yes, I am a slaver of sorts – but I am a buyer, not a seller. I buy pale Northern skins whenever I can. I remember my own time as a slave too clearly to turn away from their haunted eyes. Some are too ashamed to leave me and return to their homes; some are ruined; some… are driven mad. I’m the part owner of salt-flats on the coast; there’s always heavy work to be done there. The able ones work, then move on. The ones who are too damaged by the experience – they find their own level. There’s food and shelter if they want to earn it – or they can drift, knowing that they can come back if they choose to. It’s the best I can do; no man is owed a living he doesn’t earn.
Cirion’s ship was crewed partly by some of my freed men. Loyal now to a captain who was firm but fair; loyal enough to me to defend what I needed defending. I don’t expect undying gratitude; I expect a fair return on what I did for them in that they don’t betray my business, or the other trips that run beyond simple trading. I expect that they do an honest day’s work for their pay – with a bonus for the occasional ‘dishonest’ day I may require from those willing to give it.
I was recently returned to Pelargir with a new bondsman – a good find. He’d been kept as a ‘steward’ on a corsair trader. The captain had a fancy for yellow hair, clear, pale skin and a firm, white arse. I doubt if he was much more than eighteen, but his eyes looked a hundred years old. He’d been aboard ship just over two years he said – and his skin wasn’t as perfect now as it once was. He knew when sweeter meat came along he’d be sent to the market, or down to the rowing benches. He was as eager to leave as I was to buy him. Captains often have loose tongues in the safety of the ward-room and each other’s company. They ignore slaves, especially when they’ve been ‘used’ to entertain visitors; they become as invisible as if they were part of the furnishings. This lad had the sense to keep his wits about him, listen and remember. He’d heard of Anisah the Trader, as such I’m known in Harondor and Umbar. He’d told his captain he’d heard the other slaves boast of how their masters had rooked this foolish woman who traded with the northerners, and how I was ripe to be easily hoodwinked. The captain was a greedy man; he took the bait and agreed to rendezvous at a small port I use. His citrus fruit was half green and scabby, though his spices were reasonable, but much of his cloth was poorly loomed. He thought he had the better of me, but I paid him partly in salt-meat that I’d bought cheaply. He’d have been lucky if it hadn’t run off the dock by itself by the time he landed it – so we were even. Except, among the other goods, I had acquired two bales of very fine silk velvet, conveniently mislabelled on their bindings, and a useful bondsman with a wealth of information on the shipping patterns of the corsairs. This was worth the trip alone.
He was a good-looking boy of Rohirric stock, intelligent, but in his own eyes, too used and damaged to go home a man. He was wide-eyed and thin, almost as willowy as an elf when he arrived. He’d learned to submit to slavery the hard way. He had tried to run, as I had once along while ago; they’d caught him and administered the usual punishment for a runaway. His left foot was crippled from the beating, but his scars were worse than mine because his hadn’t been tended to when fresh. He was fortunate the captain was lazy and couldn’t be bothered to beat his other foot the stipulated one month later. He did have the indignity of having his nose pierced and ringed like a female slave, so all the crews knew he was the captain’s whore. That was the first thing I let him do – take out that hated nose-ring and fling it over the side. It was as if a great weight lifted from him and he could hold his head up once more.
He told me that many ships were being built, enough to carry an army north to the Anduin and beyond so the rumours said. Slavers were cruising the coasts looking to raid for healthy slaves to man the galleys. I made a mental note that the salt-flats would need extra hands to act as guards for the workers. We were ready to return up river to Pelargir when word reached me that the vessel bringing down goods from Lune had a nervous captain who had also heard the rumours of corsair raids. He was refusing to enter the Bay of Belfalas, but had sheltered north of Cape Andrast. He would either meet us there or send the cargo east in wagons. That would become an expensive business; with the added danger of slow vehicles becoming rich pickings for whatever wild men were there to spot them. I decided to refit and head west immediately. Cirion knew there were bonuses to be had for him and his crew for the extra voyage. The chances of avoiding a corsair ship were well in our favour if we struck out across the bay rather than hugging the land. I had most of the cargo unloaded; sold some and paid to store the rest in bond at an inn. Then I dispatched the Rohirrim boy back to Minas Tirith in a cart, with letters of introduction, three men, some spices and the bales of velvet. He refused to ride. Blushing, he told me quietly he couldn’t sit a horse. I reassured him that after ceasing the activities that had been forced upon him, in a few months he’d once more be fit for the saddle. The captain had not been a gentle lover. Bastard! The men were for his protection as much as the cloth’s. He had news Lord Denethor needed to hear – whether he took notice was another matter. The Steward had been distracted of late. Now much of my ‘news’ I gave to Lord Boromir, in his capacity as Captain of Gondor. It also gave me reason to see my grown-up bairn. To those unaware of the extent of my travels, it was simply a dutiful master visiting a retired servant. A few might suspect his old amah did more than merely trade in Harondor, but they had the sense to keep quiet and not enquire too closely. After all, we were at war in all but name.
We met the nervous captain and transferred his cargo of winter furs; good pelts all of them, from the Blue Mountains. A link I’d established many years ago guaranteed me good quality without my needing to supervise every bale. Trusted men, men whom I’d helped in the past, ran it; a retired Ranger too crippled now to ride was my representative. It was he who dealt with the elves that hunted the high mountains. True, I would have liked more time in their company, but they were reticent now about entering the world of Men as they saw it - who can blame them?
On our way back, disaster struck: a corsair ship, fresh from raiding the coasts, came across us. The corsair was heavy laden, but she carried more sail; though we tried to outrun her, she caught up with us as we neared the coast of Belfalas. They threw ropes to board us and swarmed over. We lost several good men within minutes, but that made the others fight the harder. I’ve long had a talent with knives and I fight dirty… so I’m told… to me it’s more important to stay alive than to ‘play fair’. The corsairs themselves, when they found more resistance than they thought to get, were prepared to back off. That idea was ripening for them when a warship from Dol Amroth came on the horizon, making swiftly to our aid. The warship had a sister ship and the two of them tackled the corsair and bought her down after a short chase. Not that I saw very much. In the last skirmish before they fled, an ill-favoured pirate tried to hamstring me – I suppose with a view to carrying me back alive to sell. He still had a look of surprise in his eyes when I tipped his carcass overboard, the wound in his throat gaping like a second mouth. I hadn’t had chance to put my heavy buff-coat on, which left me unprotected. The bastard with the cutlass had missed my knee, but sliced deep into the back of my thigh. Blood gushed like a mountain spring and hurt like fire. I managed to tie my sash around it before I passed out altogether.
Later I came to, to find the ship’s healer on the Dol Amroth ship had come aboard and seen to the stitching – it was that that woke me, clumsy fool! As usual for such men, he used the same needles to treat all without cleaning them. This was one of the first rules my old master taught me, ‘never allow old blood to mix with new’. The humours don’t mix, and will cause a fever as one fights with the other. By the time we landed at Linhir the leg had swelled and I needed to be carried off the ship. Here at least I was able to send for Minastan; my old companion in slavery. He’d watched enough of our master practising his art to be able to make a fair job of undoing the unintentional damage. He had to make a deeper wound to cut away the infected scar – but at least he had the anodyne to knock me out while he did it. Minastan wasn’t his true name; he couldn’t tell me that. To make sure he kept our master’s secrets, his tongue had been cut out long before I met him. A year or so after the master’s death and my escape, I’d returned to Harondor and found Minastan by accident. I’d been able to buy him from the ignorant merchant who kept him chained as a mere labourer, and he’s been able to help me through my… illness at the time. Bless his black hide! Minastan is from the very far south where all men have black skin to protect then from the fierce sun. I, and later the little pickpocket from Umbar, had been the only ones who could understand his sign language fluently, other than the master of course. Now he was a freeman, and managed our salt extraction and trade along the coast.
The upshot of all this being that two months later I still wasn’t fit enough to ride long distances and so couldn’t see him off; far less ride north with my bairn as I should have wished. I’d bid him come to see me when I first knew of his plans in the early part of the year. Boromir had insisted he would go in pursuit of this vision himself and his father had reluctantly agreed. I wasn’t supposed to know, but I can always tell when he and Faramir are keeping secrets. It hadn’t taken that much to get Boromir to tell me, but what I’d guessed, I couldn’t tell him. That’s what really pained me – I’d given a solemn vow never to reveal who he was, my northern captain. It was a vow I couldn’t possibly break. Boromir told me of their dreams, and I knew such dreams are not to be taken lightly. That Faramir had some of my lady’s ‘sight’ I’d known from when he was a small child. He always knew when someone needed comfort. A small thing and nothing a sensitive child wouldn’t be aware of, but even then they’d been dreams that hinted at more; though this… was different.
It was high summer and the paving was warm underfoot in the courtyard. I’d paid good money for this house on the Second Circle because it lay on the southern side of the city and had its own well. It was worth it in this weather to be able to draw my own water without going to the public wells and waiting in line. Boromir arrived to say his farewells as I was turning the crank to bring the bucket up; which was useful, because having him fill the stone cistern saved my back and kept him in one place while I talked to him. I tried to tell him as much as I knew; that the country would be wild, that most of his troubles would come from the land itself rather than orcs. That the elves, when he found them, were a stiff-necked people and full of pride, even more than he was!
Boromir had near sneered at that as he emptied the bucket into the cistern and let it down again. He half believed his dream, and half worried it was folly to chase this vision of a riddle to be answered in a fabled valley; especially when the threat from the East was so great. Then he saw I was in earnest and turned on that bright smile that made all forgive his arrogance. He laughingly claimed that I had got him here on false pretences and all I really wanted was for him to act as labourer for me.
“Listen to me,” I said. “Here you are a Captain and the Steward’s elder son – there you will be nothing but a young man among ancients. These beings count their ages in centuries, not years, some by the thousands; they will not stand being slighted. You must hear what they say, hold your tongue and take note.”
He gave me that easy grin – which meant he thought I was spinning him more traveller’s tales; but content to humour me, he merely nodded. I shook my head. He had his father’s pride, and many times it overcame his mother’s good nature.
“Come inside, my leg aches,” I said.
I limped towards the main door from where we’d stood, in the courtyard. Boromir idly plucked a golden leaf from my tree in passing. I watched him; he knows I prize that tree; which made him glance down sheepishly like a naughty boy. “Just… a memento,” he faltered.
I smiled, “You’re welcome to a memory of home, my bab…”
He sighed deeply in exasperation.
“I know I know…” I said, “…don’t call me that!”
“Amah,” he said, “When do you listen to what I want?”
“When you’re old enough to know,” I replied, more tartly than I’d meant to. Suddenly, he caught me up in a great hug, laughing as he swung me off my feet. The sudden movement pulled at my leg and made me cry out. I brushed away his apologies, angry with myself for admitting the pain and discomforting him. He held my arm.
“Amah, a wound is a wound. There is no shame in admitting a hurt.”
“Hush, you concern yourself too much…”
“I don’t think so.” He hugged me briefly. “So – shall I carry you indoors?”
“Try and you’ll find yourself on your back!”
He laughed, and made me laugh with him. He has far more charm than is good for a man. “Come, Ba…” He raised an eyebrow. “Come Boromir,” I finished.
He followed me in and sat where I pointed. I went to the chest and pulled out the cloak I’d worked on for the weeks I’d been forced to stay at home. Damn that corsair! The sleek velvet fell through my fingers as I shook it out in front of him. The glossy pelts of the sables glistened in the sunlight from the window; his eyes widened.
“But… it’s too much…”
“Nonsense – I wouldn’t have the Steward’s Heir appear as anything less in front of the Elvish court!”
“Amah – that is if there is such a thing. I may be chasing legends for nothing.”
“Don’t doubt – they are there.” I assured him
“Is this another of your tales?”
I playfully slapped his arm, “Mind your manners, boy!”
He just grinned and stroked the fur, which sprang up glossy and black under his palm.
“The best of last winter’s batch,” I said. “Let me see you in it.”
He turned and I stretched up to drape it over his shoulders. When he turned back it made my heart catch to see him – as fine as any lord ever was. He twisted his shoulders, taking pleasure in the swirl of the fabric.
“It’s warm… almost too warm.”
“The north will be colder – even if you leave soon, it will be months before you get there. You’ll need warmth in the nights to come.”
He frowned. “Surely not months.”
“It’s a long way to the northern valley…”
“If Imladris is to be found there… ”
“Oh it’s real. You will find it – go towards Edoras, then towards the Gap of Rohan. Your friend will direct you.”
He smiled shyly – for a big man he blushes easily. Then he looked me in the eye. He knew I knew of his ‘friendship’ with the King of Rohan’s son – what of it, if it gave him happiness? There would be time for duty-wives later, and plenty to pick from. There’d always be one content to have her babies and her needlework in return for status and an apartment in the Citadel. For that she’d ignore his trips abroad and his soldier’s ways. He might even love her – if she was lucky. In the meantime if the blond horse-lord made him happy, then I was content as well. Not that he’d have time for more than a passing visit, if that.
“Pay attention Boromir!” He too had drifted into reveries, of a tall man with flowing golden hair, riding a great war-horse. “Take the Great West Road to Edoras; after that head north-west and try and find the road to Tharbad, where it fords the River Gwathló. Follow the river north on its east bank. You’ll come to marshes, so you’ll have to turn east to go around them. Find the river again to the north and follow it. At the confluence, stay on the eastern side and keep going north. Eventually it will lead you up into the valleys. Then like as not, they’ll find you.”
“You’ve been there?”
“No, not there,” I shook my head, “but a… friend of mine told me of it. It does exist, Boromir. Believe me… you will find it… but it should be your brother who goes, it was his dream.”
“And if Faramir goes to the Elves he may not come back! You know that.”
“Nonsense! His love wouldn’t divert him from his duty…”
“I know – but it might break his heart to have to leave.”
I too knew their allure; it is never their intention to captivate us, but somehow they do. It had been my plan to make the journey at least some of the way. This before I took the boat to fetch those furs and was cut. I’d a fancy to see the northern valleys again, maybe even trace down some of the family I’d left so many years ago. My brothers must have married by now; I might even have nephews and nieces. But that bastard pirate had seen to it I couldn’t ride, and a horse and wagon was out of the question – too slow and too obvious a target. So I’d sat in my courtyard and stitched and with each stitch I’d muttered every spell of protection and every charm for good luck on the roads I could think of. I’d sung the old Weaver’s Song, repeating the lines to keep him warm and free from harm, I hadn’t sewn like this for a long while, certainly not this many furs. I’d pricked my thumbs raw, and the charms were bound with my blood. The fine silk velvet was easier to work; I’d had a mind before to make a cloak… an idle pipe dream of years ago. My captain, he’d no need of a velvet cloak. I‘d thought one day I might be able to introduce them – the grim Ranger he’d become, and the Steward’s heir I’d had the raising of – now there would be a difficult first meeting… whose heart would be captured by whom…?
“Amah? Come back…”
I was startled by his light touch on my arm.
“You were miles away,” he said.
“Yes,” I sighed. “As you will be soon enough,” I smiled as well as I could.
“This is still too good to take into the wilds…”
“You’ll need a good cloak. I want you to have it. I’d hate to think of you cold and shivering out there. Think of it as my birthday present to you. Early I know, but you’ll not be back before then, if at all…” I don’t know why I said that – it just slipped out. If he noticed, he ignored it and wrapped his arms and the great cloak about the two of us.
“Thank you. I won’t let you down,” he whispered.
“I know you won’t, my bab, I know.”
That was much the last I saw of my Boromir, my jewel. Later, his brother told me his cloak was under him in the grey Elven boat filled with shining water that floated down the Anduin and away to the west over sea. I hope it at least kept him warm – for even with all the charms I laid upon it; it could not keep him from harm.
The Weaver's Song
When the wind blows from the river, my lord will not feel the cold.
I’ll weave my love like armour, to shield him from all harm.
I’ll wrap him in velvet and sable, glorious as kings of old.
When the wind blows from the river, my lord will not feel the cold.
Valour, beauty, honour: a thousand tales will be told.
Dark velvet and black sable, my blood and tears to fix the charm.
When the wind blows from the river, my lord will not feel the cold.
I’ll weave my love like armour, to shield him from all harm.
[courtesy of annmarwalk, who wrote the triolet and was a very gracious beta for the story. Thank you Ann.]
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.