3. Chapter 3
Nothing between him and Umbar but an expanse of dark ocean. Imrahil leant comfortably against the neck of the Swan-prowed ship, his cloak wrapped tight around him, staring down at the froth of bow wave as the wind powered them through the silky water. Above, Ithil hung as no more than a shard of silver, but still streaked light across the waves, topping them with foaming glitter. The beauty of night sailing never failed to move him, even when he seethed from his first meeting with Thorongil.
A pertinent question from Tondir had forestalled his immediate outburst; Sergion's hand on his arm had helped, too. He supposed he was thankful. Strict upbringing ensured that he had managed to hold on to his temper for the rest of the meeting. Plus the discipline that decreed you did not question your commander's orders. For a moment, just for a moment, he had come under Thorongil's spell, but the magic had disintegrated into disenchantment. Entitled to obedience, a commander was also expected to show confidence and expectation that his captains could be trusted to perform the duties allocated to them. To demonstrate lack of faith so blatantly was not good leadership, especially in front of others.
Imrahil supposed his age gave cause for concern, but he had been trained for war since he could walk. Dol Amroth had not been held safely for generations by its Princes being shy of battle. And he had never suffered from diffidence when it came to his own ability. The day you didn't have belief in your own skill was the day you hesitated. And that day you were lost. He firmed his lips defiantly. Well, he would just have to prove himself to Captain Thorongil. But right now he should get something to eat; hopefully by going late he could avoid his commander. Imrahil sniffed; his stomach growled when the door to the crew quarters opened and the smell of stew wafted past his nostrils. The low rumble of conversation and a burst of laughter issued out before the door closed again. Wanting to take one last look at the splendour of the netted sky, he didn't turn around, assuming a sailor had come on deck to tip the remains of the meal over the side. But instead, soft footfalls approached him. Imrahil caught sight of the flapping edge of a dark cloak and a glint of steel when the person joined him at the bow, and immediately pushed himself upright. Shunning the handhold of the prow he folded his arms and stared out over the sea, letting his body sway to the motion of the ship as the waves rolled under her belly. Damn the man! Why couldn't he stay away?
"It certainly is a beautiful evening," Thorongil remarked grasping a stay with one hand.
"Yes." Imrahil said.
"I have been briefing the crew on our plans, they seem a good bunch. And all are keen to strike a blow against the Corsairs."
Imrahil nodded. "Excuse me, I haven't eaten yet." He half turned, but Thorongil put his other hand on his arm. A warrior's hand, Imrahil noted: long fingered, strong, calloused.
"There is something you are not happy with?" Thorongil waited for an answer, but when none came he pressed the point, squeezing his fingers into Imrahil's forearm. "If you have any issues with me then it is better that we discuss them now. A demanding few days lie ahead and we need to understand our roles and trust one another to fulfil them."
"Trust," Imrahil rounded on him, "is a two way thing. I am expected to trust you, a paid soldier, who tells no one of his origins, his birth and his homeland. But you, Captain Thorongil, cannot trust me, whose ancestors have defended this realm for generations by land and sea, to even command a small raiding party without wanting to oversee it."
For a moment Thorongil looked stunned, he opened his mouth to say something and then closed it again. When he said nothing, Imrahil shook off the restraining hand and took a step away.
"No, Prince Imrahil," Thorongil stopped him with a cold tone. "This is something we need to talk about. I take it you are displeased to be taking orders from a mercenary. Even one with vastly more experience of warfare than yourself?"
Imrahil stared into the man's eyes, but they were dark and veiled. "I know nothing of your motives, and that worries me."
"Can you not accept that my motives are the same as yours – to rid Gondor of her enemies?" Thorongil said it so low that Imrahil could only just catch the words before the wind whipped them away. "Or do you think it is only the high and the mighty that are loyal to the west and wish for all men to live in peace." He twisted his lips mockingly when Imrahil didn't answer. "If you do, then you must doubt the allegiance of the common soldier and the men that pull the oars. And believe that courage and bravery belong only to those who wield the finest swords."
"No, of course I don't," Imrahil retorted, stung. "But I believe duty and responsibility march hand in hand with rank and birth. And that the common soldier, as you put it, can walk away easier than those that lead them."
Visibly startled, Thorongil mused for a moment before answering, his eyes searching into the night. "That is true. But have not there been those in Gondor's past, high and noble men, who have led rebellion and spilled blood. Rank and birth have never stopped men being corrupted by evil, whereas others of lesser status have remained faithful."
Imrahil sighed; knowing Thorongil spoke the truth and no man should be judged by birth alone, but by his actions also. But it was this man's birth and this man's actions that he questioned. Thorongil stood tall and resolute; noble in bearing as well as speech, and Imrahil knew without doubt that had Ecthelion not fathered him, then some other man of Númenor could claim the deed. "I may be wrong to doubt you, as so far you have proved your loyalty to Gondor. If your motives are as you say, then I wish you well. But because of you there is a cup of bitterness filling between Denethor and his father…"
"That is not my intent," Thorongil interrupted.
"Even so, it is happening. My sister is concerned. Gondor has suffered before from usurpers driving wedges through its ruling families to try and seize control themselves."
The moonlight sparked on the star on Thorongil's cloak, the thin shaft lighting his weather-beaten features. "I swear to you, Imrahil, I have no such purpose. I only wish to help rid Gondor of the evil surrounding her."
He said it so simply, so truly, that Imrahil believed him. Their eyes met for a moment as the ship pitched in the rising swell. He nodded, and Thorongil smiled.
"Now, as to your other complaint that I am on this ship to oversee your actions, I apologize for not making myself plain. But there was much to talk about and explaining all my decisions would have taken too much time. I wanted to get away."
Imrahil stiffened. "You are in command here, you have every right to do as you see fit."
"No, I left you with the wrong impression and that was a mistake. Be assured, I have no doubts that you will not do otherwise than what is asked of you. I am on this ship merely because Captain Arandir had sailed into the Firth of Umbar many times in his youth, and I therefore value his experience. Also, I need a seaman to advise me whether it is safe to proceed. I would hate to risk the men's lives unnecessarily, but I don't want to pull back as a result of craven counsel. Your captain, besides being a seasoned sailor, has a reputation for daring, so I will trust his judgement. "
"How did you know he has sailed into Umbar?" Imrahil felt a fool, in his indignation he had forgotten that Arandir had once served on the trade ships.
Thorongil leant back against the prow, taking up much the same position Imrahil had vacated. "I met him at the Harlond when he brought your sister back from a visit to Dol Amroth. We had a long talk about the difficulties of sailing into the Firth. It narrows considerably, and is only navigable on the northern side where the watchtower and the garrison are. But he also assured me that although the cliffs are high, they are climbable by those agile enough. There are difficulties, too, once we get to the Haven. The Corsairs have considerable strength and not all will be reeling from too much Arak. But by not taking the dromonds right up we allow ourselves room to escape. After I confirmed that we could tow small boats, I felt confident to put the scheme to Ecthelion. The information I obtained from Captain Arandir helped me persuade him."
"I suspected the idea came from you," Imrahil admitted. "But whatever, I am glad of it. For too long we have allowed the Corsairs to harass our shipping and our coasts. We never expected them to get as far as Linhir, and it will only get worse." He caught hold of one of the forestays as the ship ploughed into a wave.
"The motion is changing." Thorongil braced himself against the prow, but looked in no discomfort.
"The tide was due to turn about now; it must be already running from the east. The opposing west wind will kick up a bit of a chop," Imrahil explained.
"You must have been brought up knowing much sea-lore."
Imrahil shrugged. "My grandfather was the sailor; he took me on many voyages. I love it, but have never wanted to make the sea my life. When I am not battling, horses claim most of my time." He thought of Blade and sighed. "I took a new horse recently, but have hardly got to know him before being called away."
Thorongil smiled sympathetically. "It is a long time since I have owned a special horse; my feet have served me well. But oddly I find the sea no stranger; although before coming to Gondor I did not know it well."
Imrahil stared at him. Seeing the faraway look in his eyes he wondered just where the man did come from. "Then perhaps the sea is in your blood, as it is in all the men of…" But at that moment a rogue wave broke over the larboard bow, dousing them with cold water. "Damn!" Imrahil pushed sodden hair from his eyes. "Now I am wet and hungry besides just being hungry."
Thorongil stood and shook himself like a dog, his long hair spraying more water. "Then I will not keep a young man from his food."
Imrahil hesitated, but he had to say it. "I am sorry for the way I reacted. I took offense too quickly."
"Dare I say that time will cure you of that," Thorongil ventured, laughing. And when he laughed his stern faced showed a humour, hitherto unseen.
Grinning, Imrahil nodded. "I deserved that. But you need a young man to climb those cliffs."
"True." Thorongil held out an arm for a warrior's clasp. "So, the sell-sword and the prince can go into battle together."
"And defeat the bastards." Imrahil slammed his hand around the hard muscle of Thorongil's forearm. Now he too had fallen under the spell; damn the man!
For three days they had crossed the open sea towards Umbar. The small fleet only closed on the Cape under cover of darkness, and then, like a ghost ship, her sails stowed away and the great oars muffed with linen, Windsong had crept in as near as she dared, letting go of the tow a mile from the shore.
Her task fulfilled, the dromond slipped back into the night. The two squid-boats were left to battle through the waves to the shore. Imrahil stood in the bow of the first, searching the land for any sign they had been seen. The cliffs loomed above them. Somewhere up there was the watchtower that looked over the entrance to the narrow inlet leading to the corsair's famed sanctuary. He could only hope that the lookouts were sloppy in their guard and in the cold hours just before dawn they would be huddling around their fire, dozing.
The boat went in silently: the sailors pulled the slippery little craft cleanly through the choppy water. All had covered weapons and faces with cloth so no gleam of flesh or steel would alert the watchers. But still Imrahil scanned the beach. Thankfully he saw nothing except the foam of the breakers sparkling against the dark sand. Although, as little as he wanted to meet some unexpected opposition, even less he relished tarnishing his mail by being tipped into the cold water when the boat hit the surf.
"It's a bit lively, will you be able to get her onto the beach?" he asked the boatswain.
"Should be all right. But get ready to jump, lord, the tide's still going out and I want to be able to get off again."
Imrahil nodded. It would have been better on a making tide, but by then it would be light. So it would be wet boots and cold feet during a day of waiting.
The little boat plunged into the breakers and spray spewed high over the bow, drenching everyone. Imrahil went over the gunwale first, drawing his sword as soon as his feet hit something solid. A wave washed over his boots before he could gain the firm sand. The men followed quickly, two sailors jumped as well to push the boat back out. A glance to his right showed Imrahil that the other boat had reached the shore and he saw Sergion leap for the beach. He too drew his sword; anyone watching would have seen them now. But no cries of alarm sounded over the crash of the waves and Imrahil signalled them all to get up under the shelter of the cliffs. He put up his arm to wave to the bosun, but the man was busy getting the boat back through the surf, as the oarsmen fought to keep her straight to the waves. Both boats made it safely. Hidden by a trough, they disappeared into the spray, heading back to Windsong. The fleet would be secreted in a deserted cove along the coast, and two dozen men were alone in a hostile land. Imrahil ignored the churning of his guts: there was too much to think about.
"Get those footprints covered." He pointed to where the dry sand had been scuffed by their run up the beach. He could do nothing about those in the wet sand, but the tide would be back at dawn. They would have to hope no one came looking over the cliffs at first light.
"We need somewhere to hide up." Sergion said. He also had his eyes on the footprints, but with the moon resting, they were safe for the moment.
"Yes, I spotted some dark patches that could be caves." He pointed to the right where a fall had tumbled rocks across the sand. "That way. Go in file, the last man hides the prints."
Not a cave, but an overhang of rock. A poor shelter, and there were still hours before he could risk moving. His plan was to climb the cliffs as the shadows lengthened, reaching the top before dark. This would enable them to be sure of the route to the tower and judge the distance to the fort. It was always easy to become disorientated on a black night, although as they had approached the coast he had seen a faint light on the cliffs in the place he imagined the garrison to be. The watchtower should be unlit if the lookouts wanted to see anything. He intended to circle behind it and come up to it from the east. With any luck nobody should be looking that way as the small fort with its garrison guarded the landward approach, although he shouldn't rely on that.
Imrahil wrapped his damp cloak tighter, trying to shut out the chill of dawn. He had kept watch himself ever since the sun had thrown a pink flush over the breakers. Another cloudless, winter day, but the sun would not reach the base of the cliffs till it westered. The climb up could not come soon enough. But no point in going early, as that would leave more time for their ploy to be discovered. Who knew if the lookouts were expected to signal an all's well every so often. Not able to relax, he cast his eyes in an arc across the beach.
"We're not expecting anyone are we?" Sergion passed him a piece of twice-baked bread and a lump of cheese. "They reckon this place is deserted."
Imrahil chewed on the hard bread and looked back to where they had landed. The sea incessantly claimed back the sand, the red crabs skittering back and forth as they dodged the surf. Farther along a small flock of sanderlings were doing the same – about fifty pretty little birds with their thin black legs moving in restless harmony as they grabbed morsels washed in by the tide. He breathed a sigh of relief as the next wave filled the last of the footprints. The sand was firm and clean again. "So we are told. It's possible someone comes fishing here, but not today, eh."
Sergion laughed. "No, let us hope they are already pouring it down their necks."
Imrahil stamped his feet trying to get some life back into his toes. "I could do with something warming myself."
"Well, if we find any of their fire-water up top, we'll have to keep it away from the men. Or they will be rolling back down the cliff."
Imrahil nodded; he wasn't really worried, having picked soldiers he could trust. And those he thought could climb.
The hours passed slowly, but he steeled himself to wait until the light started to fade. They had been lucky so far, but one vigilant guard on the cliffs and all could be lost. When he did give the order to go, their luck held again as the crag that soared above the beach presented little problem. It rose in a series of rocky steps with cracks and crevices that afforded generous handholds. They ascended in two lines, those behind benefiting from the path-finding of their leaders.
Imrahil stepped up onto a wide ledge studying the heights above him. He could not see the top, but stretching up to the beginning of the vegetation was a steep slope of shale. Damn! That wouldn't be easy. What was more, if they started the stones moving it could be noisy. He hoped to come out some way behind the tower, out of sight and sound, but couldn't be sure.
Only a few steps upward and he realised it was nigh impossible, every movement brought down a shower of shards on those below.
"We will have to go around. The solid rock continues higher over there." Sergion pointed to their left.
He nodded his agreement, but that would bring them close to the tower. They had no choice. Signalling to the men to follow him, Imrahil started to work his way under the scree slope to reach the easier ground. His feet cramped in his boots from the sideways scramble on the steep incline, and a finger bled from where he had put his hand down on a splinter of shale. The light had started the fade, a pale sun sinking behind them. He needed to get up this hillside and take a look at the fort before the landscape coalesced into uniform grey. As dusk fell, Thorongil would be edging the dromonds back under the cliffs, waiting for the signal to enter the Firth.
The rock gave way to a scrubby, stony hillside, dotted with thorn bushes and low growing pines. Imrahil started up the slope, with each step he made, his mail shirt weighed heavier. Not the best outfit for climbing, but it would have been stupid not to wear it. At least he carried no ropes or grapple hooks like many of the soldiers. Imrahil glanced behind to make sure they were keeping up and then started to angle across the hill towards where he thought the back of tower would be. A few more yards of hot climbing up a steep gulley and he stopped. "Do you hear that?" he whispered to Sergion. The men behind them paused for a breath, grinning – raucous voices sounded from above them, rising up to a crescendo at the culmination of a bawdy song.
"Sounds like more than just a couple of the bastards up there."
"Hmm… come on. Let's see what we're facing." Imrahil started moving again.
Another fifty yards thigh-burning climb and he could see the top of the tower. Light blazed out of its slit windows. The last thing he expected. He stared as the ramifications hit him like a cold wave: they had expected the tower to be in near darkness. As the sun dropped, Thorongil would see the glow and think it their signal. He would bring the fleet into the inlet before the fort had been taken.
To be continued
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.