9. Growing Up, Middle-earth, Pelargir, 397
"Get going, damn you!"
The young sailor ducked under the whip of the boatswain's cane, steadying his load. But the boatswain just smiled and adjusted his aim. He knew the seaman would never drop his load or falter. The "Aredhel" was almost ready to leave port. Only a small stack of crates and chests were left to stow, valuable athelas, pot-pourri of roses of Imloth, crystals of Aglorond, valuable, breakable goods that had to be stowed where no salt-water or rat could reach them. Not that a rat would ever touch athelas...
"And do something about your damn hair, you rat!"
"Aye, aye, sir." The young sailor drew up his shoulders and hurried up the plank on board the ship. Where the cane had hit his calves, blood seeped through his trousers, yet he moved as if he did not feel anything at all. But the boatswain had been right about the young sailor's hair. It was a tangled mess that covered his ears completely and touched the frayed collar of his dark blue sailor's shirt.
Under the scrutiny of a bored midshipman, the sailor carefully stowed the valuable goods in the special storeroom. He made sure that everything was tucked in securely and that the ropes holding the chests were tight. Then he stepped back, giving the midshipman a bow, a jerky nod, rather, but polite enough as far as sailing etiquette went. The midshipman, who was a rather friendly young man, son of a rich merchant out of Edhellond, only raised an eyebrow at the sailor and then stepped to the hold to control the sailor's work.
"Well enough," he said finally. His gaze dropped to the man's legs. The backside of his pants was soaked with blood. "Ye'd better go see the quack. I'll have a word with Corch." He hesitated, it was obvious that he wanted to say more but knew that, in his position, he should never, ever criticize the petty officers in front of an able seaman. In the end, he only added curtly, "But ye'd better do something about your hair."
Elentar bobbed his head, mumbling another "Aye, aye, sir" and ducked out of the storeroom, just in time before the next seaman arrived with more crates and barrels. Pipe weed, from as far away as the Shire. He could smell the distinct flavour even from within the barrels, above the salty tang of rotting seaweed and tar, and the ubiquitous scent of unwashed bodies. He hurried below deck, where the quack would be found, if he was not still in one of the taverns, drinking and whoring, before the "Aredhel" finally put off to sea. He would not actually go to what passed for a healer on board the ship, but he'd better be where he was expected to be... or he would be in more trouble than he was in already. It was best to stay out of sight. And silent.
He had learned that during the years since he had left his father's house in a fit of youthful anger. He had learned it the hard way. That, and many other things besides. Below deck, he found a shadowy corner where he could sit down and rest a moment, until the sting of the beating had faded. The boatswain knew too well what kind of beating he could take and walk away. Elentar leaned with his back against the cool wood of the ship's rump and closed his eyes for a moment. He did not like the stench of the harbour, or the way the ship's movement were constrained as she lay moored to the quay.
When they were at sea, Elentar was sometimes almost happy.
When he could hear the songs of the deep, the faint echo of the magic that kept this world alive, the lingering blessing of Eru...
When the stars shone brightly and mirrored in the dark waters of the Sundering Seas, he could almost believe that somewhere out there, somewhere far beyond the western horizon was another shore, white shores and high mountains, and people like him...
And maybe even those who had cursed him with this lonely existence, forever a stranger in a world of men...
He curled his fingers into fists, his nails biting into the softer flesh of his palms, below calluses earned in many months of rigging sails and working the ship.
He did not want to think of his family now.
He did not want to think of the fact that once there had been a place he had belonged to, a white, beautiful house in Esgaroth. He did not want to remember that once he had had a family, with father, mother and sisters, friendly eyes and smiles and love.
He could not wait to be out at sea again. It would be a dangerous run, this time of the year. It was still winter here in Gondor, and the season of storms that made sailing south of Umbar impossible during winter, was not over for a few weeks yet. But the "Aredhel" was a big merchant vessel, and her owner, the richest merchant in all of Pelargir, knew very well, that if his vessel made it to the big ports south of Umbar, maybe even to the far harbour of Dheing at the coast of Khand, he'd make the biggest profits yet. At this time of the year, no other vessel dared to make this route. If they made it, they would have virtually no competition, they would be able to ask almost any price they wanted for the goods they carried.
Elentar huddled into an ever smaller heap in the shadows, his breathing shallow. He had a bad feeling about this trip. This winter the storms had been bad even this far north. No hurricanes, of course, but bad enough. For some reason he was almost sure that the idea that the season for storms was over for this year would not turn out to be true.
And yet, he could not wait to get away. His longing for the sea was a constant ache in his heart. Although by rights he should have felt even worse at sea. At sea, he was as close to Aman as he would probably ever be – and still so far away from this mythical land and its people. He knew by now that he would never reach those white shores. He knew that, and still he signed on for ship after ship, just to be out on the sea. Just to be a little closer to that elusive western horizon...
What a fool he had been!
Running away from Esgaroth, he had planned to simply "get" a ship and sail off to people who were like him, people who would understand him, people who would welcome him as the long lost...
What a fool he had been!
"Get" a ship and set sail! With the sailing experience of a child on a lake!
"Get" a ship – steal away the livelihood of a small fisher, only to certainly sink the ship and find out how easily elves did die...
It was, he had to admit in retrospect, a miracle that he had even made it to the coast.
But he had made it. Eventually. And eventually the beggar had become a sailor.
A sailor's life suited him. Many of the ordinary sailors and simple seamen were nothing but vagabonds with very good reasons not to stay in port for long. He fitted right in with that motley crowd of petty criminals and conmen. At least he was not the only one with no home to return to.
A noise shook him out of his musings.
Heavy feet stamped up the gangway and onto the planks of the deck. Rough voices called out bawdy jokes. The seamen and officers were returning on board. The "Aredhel" would sail with the first light.
His keen ears picked up the whispered endearments that wives kissed their men goodbye with on the quay. There were sailors who had wives and – or – a lady love. Sometimes, indeed, in more than one port.
Elentar envied them.
When they put into port and he saw the women waiting on the quays, sometimes with little children dressed to the nines in what finery they had, the dull ache in his heart intensified to agony.
Could he have returned to his family?
The years slipped by so quickly for him. He hardly felt the passage of ten years. He had learned to change ships and stay away from the sea after a period of twenty years, so his unchanging features would not arouse suspicion.
Could he have returned?
Up to a certain point in time, he probably could have. But that point of no return had come and gone, and Elentar had never noticed until it was too late.
It was too late now.
His parents, both mortal, would be dead by now. His sisters grown, with families of their own. He was not sure if he would even be able to recognize them. They would probably recognize him – for although he had changed since the day he had left his father's house in Esgaroth, he had only matured.
He had not aged.
The darkening sky, the low, racing clouds and the rolling waves, cresting into bursts of foam told Elentar that he had been right.
The season of the vicious, southern storms that made voyages to Umbar and beyond so dangerous in early spring was not over this year.
A storm was rapidly approaching, and it promised to be a bad one.
They were far away from the coast, alone on the high seas, veering in a southeasterly course towards Umbar. But the winds were changing, wreaking havoc with the sails and netting, blowing them off course, and steadily westwards.
Already they were farther west than Elentar had ever been before, and the storm was not yet upon them.
At other times, Elentar would have been delighted and thrilled to find himself so far to the West. Perhaps there was still a corner of his heart that still hoped against hope to find the Straight Way one day.
But not today, not with this storm blowing up around them.
Not while the captain had gone below to take a last glance at the oil painting of his wife and daughter he had in his cabin. Not while the helmsman was whispering prayers asking Uinen, the Lady of the Seas, to restrain her husband, Ossë, the Lord of the Storms.
Ai, there was a wildness to this storm that filled Elentar's heart with evil foreboding. In his time at sea he had weathered many bad storms, but somehow he knew that this storm would be beyond anything he had ever witnessed before.
So he did not call upon Uinen and Ossë, who were but servants to the true lord of the seas of Arda. Elentar was saying Ulmo's name in his mind. His father had taught him that this Vala had never abandoned Middle-earth and those who dwelt there, be they elves or men.
Elentar believed that he had heard Ulmo's voice before, like the echo of a voice in the water, deep and wild and almost lost in the rushing of the waves. Elentar glanced at the horizon that was ever darkening. A strong gust of wind whipped back his hair, and he hoped that no one had time to take a look at the suddenly revealed ear.
The helmsman kept muttering, Uinen, Uinen..., and his hands were cramped on the wheel, the knuckles showing up whitely through the deep tan of the sailor's skin.
An officer called out a command to the crew. The sails had to go down, and storm sails had to be rigged, their only chance was to go with the storm now. Another point of no return had come and gone without Elentar noticing it.
As he jumped to follow the orders, pulling and heaving rhythmically with his fellow seamen, he wished that he dared to speak Ulmo's name aloud. They would need the Vala's help before the night was over.
The ship rolled heavily, the waves crashing high against the sides of the ship, flinging up enough foam to drench Elentar's hair. But the elf kept silent. While every sailor called upon Ossë and Uinen, Ulmo's name was seldom heard in this day and age. People who called upon the Valar with reference were looked upon askance.
Elentar ducked under a beam and grabbed a line just in time to prevent men and sail to be knocked overboard.
Lightning flashed overhead.
The storm was there.
The mast came down. Pieces of burning rope and sail cascaded onto the deck as it fell. It must have been noisy, with the crash of breaking spars and the ripping of sails and strong tows, but between the thunder and the roar of the sea, Elentar could not hear any sound. It was a silent, dreadful spectacle -
and he only managed to jump out of the way at the very last second as a strong beam suddenly, out of nowhere, veered towards him, crashing the railing like toothpicks and knocking five seaman and a midshipman who had not been as quick on their feet as Elentar into the sea.
The mast, broken, but not free of the vessel, keeled over starboard, dragging the ship athwart.
"Get rid of the mast! Get rid of the mast! Cut off the rigging! Get out the axes!" The desperate shout of the officer was almost lost in the storm.
Together with twenty other sailors, Elentar violently attacked the mess of ropes and tows that still attached the mast to the "Aredhel", dragging her closer and closer to the huge, roiling waves, closer and closer to drowning.
If they could not sever the mast soon, the ship would capsize.
As Elentar brought down his axe again and again on the splintered wood of the huge beam that had once been the proud mast of the "Aredhel", he suddenly realized that it was to no avail.
They would not make it.
It was a strangely quiet thought, clear as glass, almost as if it was not his own thought, but a thought that someone else had placed into his mind.
Sadness swept through him, for all the men he had worked and toiled with on this ship – for – for – slightly stunned, he realized that he had been on the "Aredhel" for fifteen years now. They would die. They were far beyond the reach of any other vessel and this far west there were no islands where a shipwrecked person could be swept ashore.
Then another thought struck him, and so unexpectedly, that amid the turmoil of the storm, he lowered his axe for a moment.
Not only they would die.
He would die with them.
He was an elf – therefore he never was sick, would never grow old. But he could be killed. He knew that. He could be slain in battle, and he could drown.
He would drown.
He raised his axe again, using all his strength to separate the mast from the ship.
The waters of the stormy sea were icy cold, and he was immediately sucked underwater, the heavy fabric of his simple clothing weighing him down mercilessly.
Around him he could see the helplessly flailing forms of drowning seamen and officers, and much too close above him he could see the dark shadow of the "Aredhel", keeling over, filling with water, breaking apart...
Soon the foundering vessel would create a maelstrom of death he would never be able to escape.
Wildly striking out, he cast off his shoes, and then began to fumble frantically at his trousers, never realizing that he was able to hold his breath comfortably and survive in these icy waters far, far longer than any human being would be able to.
Finally naked, he struck out to reach the surface, instinctively trying to get away from the sinking ship as quickly as possible.
As he shot out of the water desperately trying to avoid pieces of wreckage, beams and planks were being tossed about by the waves like small toys. Only a few feet away from him, he glimpsed another face above the water, arms reaching, heard a faint scream for help, then a piece of the mast hit the face and it was gone.
A wave crashed over Elentar and he found himself under water again. This time the currents seemed much stronger, even if the shock of the cold water around his head was not as bad as the first time. He felt that he was closer to the wreck instead of farther away.
And it was sinking!
He had to get away from here, or soon he would be caught in an inescapable mess of sail, rigging, netting, planks and beams.
With something like a shock he realized that he did not want to find out if his fëa would be called to Mandos after his death, or if he would, even in death, be caught somewhere in between, not quite elf, not quite human...
The current pulled at him ever stronger, for every move away from the ship and towards the surface of the ocean he seemed to be pulled down at least one foot again. As he felt himself drawn deeper and deeper under water, it seemed to him that the water was filled with voices, with a male voice and a female voice.
The male voice was deep, and angry, cracking with thunder and the crashing turmoil of the ocean, while the female voice was much gentler, like the rushing of the wind on the waves, and the foam dancing on soft seas.
Once more he attempted to reach the surface, but he felt that his movements were getting weak, sluggish, the cold of the water slowly reaching even his muscles. And although he possessed a strength and endurance far beyond the level of an ordinary human being, gradually the icy cold of the water penetrated his body, paralysing him.
He looked up and saw that he had to be at least ten fathoms below the surface of the stormy sea.
Panic flooded him, as he realized that he would not make it to the surface before he needed to breathe. He struck out blindly, trying to get upwards, upwards, with panic giving him strength, but at the same time pressing in on him, taking away his reasoning...
When he had no air left, he could not think clearly anymore.
Still at least a fathom underwater, he opened his mouth to scream for help.
Gargling the name he had called upon in his mind since the onset of the storm, he lost consciousness.
"Ulmo, help me! Ulmo!!!"
A/N: a fathom equals six feet
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.