3. Chapter three:Black Ships
Disclaimer: Not mine of course. Just playing in ME.
As always, thanks to the wonderful Anarithilien for her betaing and suggestions to make this something readable and fun.
Warning: As before. Violence, mention of sexual violence.
And a reminder that this is AU- ish but follows the overall storyline with some shocking liberties taken.
Chapter 3: The Black Ships
The Grey Company rode fast, the pounding of hooves on the short turf, wind dragging its fingers through his hair, and the distant Sea teasing the edge of his senses. Elrohir shifted his weight slightly to glance behind him to where his brother rode, still with that Dwarf clinging to his back. Elladan seemed fascinated and was even now trying to converse with him. He kept glancing back over his shoulder and speaking, and the Dwarf would look up and shout 'Eh?'
In contrast, the Mirkwood Elf rode almost on his own, leaning slightly into the wind that swept from the West, from the Sea, sometimes eyes closed, head tilted, listening , for he could not quite have heard its call, but there, and again there, sometimes it just pricked the edge of his awareness. Elrohir knew, for he had already heard the Sea in his dreams on this road to Pelargir.
In this dream, he was once more standing on the quay, watching without seeing the grey ship that waited, its hull gently knocking against the grey stones of the harbour. He was aware of the grey water, white-rimmed, splashing, and of salt spray on his cold lips, but his focus was on the small figure moving along the quay towards the ship, huddled under a grey Lorien cloak, strands of golden cornsilk hair escaping. She seemed to have shrunk and the unkind wind buffeted her small frame. She huddled close to the wall as she was hurried away from him and he felt a knife pierce him as she disappeared. She did not even turn for one last look at her child.
He watched the white sail until it disappeared and the Sea swallowed her. The grey Sea. Endless. Restless. It lured him. The gulls wheeled and mewled like lost souls. He could not tear himself away from that desolation… in his dreams, he stood alone but he remembered that Elladan had been there too and had wept as their mother sailed away from them.
So he was prepared for the Sea, and he was ready for the tantalising Song that wound about his heartstrings and beckoned to him. But he was Noldor, and Peredhel at that, so he was strong and could withstand the longing that stirred in his heart. He did not hear the Song as their silvan kindred did, and he glanced across to see the Mirkwood Elf, as yet unaware that he was already helpless and lost in its net. Elrohir remembered the warning his Grandmother had sent, and hated the fact that he cared that the other Elf might die. Elrohir urged forward his black horse and they galloped onward on the road to the Sea.
It was still dark on the third day. They had ridden from the Stone of Erech and had crossed the rivers, Ciril and Ringlo. In that gloom, the Shadow Host seemed to grow stronger and more terrible to look upon, some riding, some striding, yet all moving with the same great speed. Silent they were, but there was a gleam in their eyes. In the uplands of Lamedon they overtook the horses and swept around the quiet Grey Company, and would have passed them had not Aragorn forbidden them. He raised his hand and the black banner fluttered imperceptibly.
'Back! I command you,' he said. 'It is not yet time.' He did not raise his voice but so strong was his will that they fell back.*
At last Aragorn signalled a halt. The horses were tired and needed to rest. Elrohir was impatient but Aragorn gave him a rueful smile and dismounted, stretching his arms and slackening the girth on his horse. Other horses pulled up alongside and Dúnedain let their horses breathe, snatch at the grass and drink their fill from the streams that fed into the River Gilrain below.
There was no sunrise. Not even thin yellow light streaked the sky; the world seemed dimmed in twilight. Elrohir pulled his cloak about him and smoothed his gloves. He was glad they were not stopping long for his dreams haunted him still. He rested his hand against the warm shoulder of his horse, Barakhir, breathing in the clean sweat and warm animal smell. It soothed him, even though the still, silent ghosts thronged around them, and the quiet Dúnedain were even more silent than usual. Even he felt the cold prickling at the back of his neck and it was only the Mirkwood Elf who seemed unaffected. Elrohir squashed the surge of irritation that spiked through him at the thought- it was unworthy of him.
He felt his brother's presence nearby, calm, blue, cooling his spirit.
'Is it not strange?' Elladan said, his eyes animated and humorous, arms folded and watching the Mirkwood Elf who stood at the edge of the camp, and the Dwarf who watched him anxiously. 'Here are two that set out sworn enemies and yet one comforts the other in his fear. And is comforted in his turn.' Elladan glanced at his brother and flashed a smile so sweet his brother had to smile back. 'I find great hope in this, Elrohir. It makes me feel that Father was right to send them. That such a friendship flourishes in such times is a beacon for us.'
'You are fanciful,' Elrohir said amused. 'But if it gives you hope then I am glad.' He let the warmth flood him, ease his muscles and soothe his blood. Barakhir shifted slightly, nervously. At the edges of the brief camp, the shroud of grey ghosts hung, silent and still, tattered banners hung limply although there was the wind from the west.
His brother suddenly shivered. 'We are near the Sea.'
Elrohir looked at him for a moment then he said quietly, 'It is not the first time.' And his heart twisted to remember again the small huddled figure, the grey waves splashing on the stones of the quay. He had barely heard the call of the Sea that day, so wretched with grief he was. Now he barely heard his brother's reply.
'It is not our first time, but it is his.' Elladan glanced towards the Mirkwood Elf, who stood on his own, near the edge of the tight circle of the Grey Company. He leaned forwards slightly as if listening, listening to sounds that were deeper than the world, and his eyes were half closed as if in sleep. Elladan was an Elf, but he was Peredhel and no Wood Elf. He watched curiously for a while, for he had heard the stories of Mirkwood, and only believed half of them. Elrond's library was full of lore and only some of it accurate. He wondered what the other Elf heard.
'What is he listening to?' he wondered, 'Does he already listen for the Sea?'
'If he does, then he listens for his death.' Elrohir said brutally, 'He has been warned. He should not be here.'
Elladan glanced at his brother, concern and surprise on his fair face, 'He loves Aragorn, as we all do. He is sworn.'
'Ask yourself this, Elladan, is it not strange that he would rather be here than face his own people?' Elrohir sneered, and he saw Elladan flinch. But Elrohir continued relentlessly, 'Do you not wonder why he wishes to face Death rather than return home? Perhaps he cannot face them, cannot bear that he has abandoned them to the torment and violence of the Orcs.'
Elladan would not meet his gaze then and Elrohir felt a tight squeeze in his chest. He knew Elladan thought him unfair, knew too that his brother was drawn to the Mirkwood Elf, that he saw something desirable, worthy in him.
He had protected Elladan. Together they had searched those dreadful tunnels but it had been Elrohir who found her. And in that moment, all his delight in life had been sucked out of him. He had held her to him and told Elladan it was because he loved him that he did this. But Elrohir remembered the disbelief in his brother's eyes, for how could he know the agony of her distress. How could Elladan possibly understand what it was like to find her, with her torn rags and the smell of the Orc's semen upon her thighs? And it was that. That smell. He recognised it, for it was familiar. He almost gagged again with self-loathing at the memory. For he could not bear the smell of his own release since that moment.
Then he saw the pitying look in his brother's eyes and thought perhaps he guessed at something.
Legolas stood at the very edge of the camp, where the shades of Men stood silent and still. He watched them even as they watched him; their eyes gleamed though there was no light, a forest of pale spears, thin threadbare banners amongst them. These forgotten Men, dishonoured and penitent, their armour archaic and heavy, were ranked before him, soldiers, archers, riders. A ghostly horse snorted and for a moment he imagined himself standing with Isildur himself in the Last Alliance. He almost expected to see Oropher striding out, buckling on his heavy sword and the round shield that now hung in Thranduil's halls, forest green pennants streaming, snapping in the wind… Elendil standing tall with Gil-Galad, shining and valiant… These dishonoured Men had seen them all, had witnessed the last battle. And despaired. There were so many songs beneath the one song they shared, the notes that strung together, the chords that made up their song. But it soothed them that he listened and Legolas found he could not ignore their insistent, whispered pleas...
Long have I lain in the grave of my own making, long unheard…
…Not felt the brush of the wind, the whisper of tall grass...
Aye, naught but silent graves, empty bones forlorn
…so long dead; so lonely...
We have forgotten the beat of blood in our veins,
the pulse of flesh…
Only the creak of old bones, crumbling into dust, decay….
We have lived in darkness, in utter silence, stillness.
Forgotten the throb of blood, the feel of flesh, the snap of sinew, hunger and thirst….
Steel rusts, crumbles, light fades, darkness only…
…I have needed to feel the wind rushing past me, to hear the drumming of horses galloping and the ring of steel and stirrup, to see the high cloud and huge empty skies…
He could not help but listen, for it was a long ago echo of the Song of one he loved, and it reminded him of Rohan, of the wind across the steppe and the wild horses wheeling, galloping across the plains beneath the high blue sky…..He became aware of movement in the grey shroud that surrounded them a whisper of anticipation, of yearning. They longed to be free. And lightly across the edge of their Song, lay another, like a skein of silk, a deeper, endless note that breathed and soughed, and whispered of home…
He opened his eyes to see Gimli's earth-brown eyes steadily regarding him. The Dwarf breathed out with relief and Legolas blinked, bringing himself back into the present once more.
'Aragorn has been asking for you…' the Dwarf was saying, his hand straying to his beard and tangling his fingers in the forked braids. Legolas smiled slightly to reassure him and drew in a breath. The echo of the Shadow Host's memories still haunted him but he looked away, seeking the Man. 'Over there.' Gimli nodded, 'He's been restless as a cat in a forge.'
When had a Dwarf ever been so dear to an Elf, Legolas wondered? Had even Celebrimbor been as devoted to Narvi? But they had not been battle companions. He wondered what he would tell his father… and a hot knife of pain twisted in his heart suddenly.
And if Gimli Gloinsson could read his thoughts he did not say, but he put a warm, capable hand on the Elf's arm. 'We can only do what we can do, Legolas. And you and I have done all we can. Peace. Aragorn needs you.'
Legolas stirred and looked about himself. The company was preparing to leave and some were already mounted.
'I did not know…' he murmured, 'Has so much time passed?'
'Yes. You've been too busy staring at those ghosties. So were you singing to each other or were you telling them a bedtime story?' Gimli smoothed his beard and tucked it into his belt. The braids were coming loose.
Legolas noticed and he ran a quick hand over his own braids to check everything was in place. He felt warmth steal over him and smiling, he leaned over and patted Gimli on the head; he knew it would both delight and irritate the Dwarf. He was rewarded by an astounded snort, as he expected.
'Legolas!' Aragorn's voice interrupted them. 'Tell me what you see.'
The Elf and Dwarf quickened their pace so they stood alongside their friend.
Behind them, where the sun should have risen, the Mountains loomed darkly. Ahead, the world was grey and dim, like a great storm threatened. All colour seemed to have seeped from the world and Legolas narrowed his eyes to see black smoke billowing across the fields below. Fire licked lightly at the edge of the river and turned the flickering water red. Black ships, their sails low, pulled ever closer to the shore where he could make out the shapes of Men fighting, blades catching the firelight and gleaming red as the river.
'The fords are below?' he looked at Aragorn. In the strange half light the Elf looked unearthly, his own colour leeched by the threatening storm. Silver and grey, his eyes reflected the light like a cat's, and on the Lorien bow it seemed the runes were molten silver.
Aragorn stared but this was the least he had seen. 'That will be Linhir,' he answered.
'Black ships from Umbar have sailed up the river to contest the fords with the Men of this land,' Legolas said. 'There are many ships and Men pour from them like beetles. There are very few Men on the shore and there is fire all along the edge of the river– that will be where the town is I think. They have set the town on fire.' He turned to the Man and Dwarf, both squinting into the distance trying to see what he described. 'There are Orcs among them,' he said and then he bared his teeth and they gleamed white. He looked at Gimli. 'There are enough even for you my friend.'
Aragorn turned quickly and even as Halbarad hurried to his side the Rangers were already hastening to mount. 'Make ready and fast!' he called, striding quickly to his own grey horse and pulling the girth tight. 'The town is under attack from the river. They have sailed up the coast and contest the fords.' He put his foot in the stirrup and swung astride the horse. Legolas turned and grasped Gimli's arm, swinging both himself and the Dwarf astride Arod in one easy motion and surged forwards at Aragorn's side.
Aragorn's face was grim and stern. The great banner was unfurled and fluttered, and it seemed the white tree caught a sliver of moon or sun for it glowed with an eerie light against the dark. It was the moment Aragorn truly was revealed. Gone was the careworn Ranger. Here was Isildur's Heir, the last of the race of Numenor, noblest and proudest of Men. Elessar.
Elrohir approached him swiftly, still on foot, his sable cloak swirled and he held out the silver horn. Elessar lifted it to his lips and blew. The sound was unearthly – growing slowly in strength and volume. To Legolas it was the sound of Orome's horn. The ghostly pennants that had hung still and lifeless now fluttered a little and then one ray of light broke through the massing cloud, and seemed to glint off the forest of spears.
For a moment there was absolute stillness, and then a long sound like a sigh. The wind shimmered and trembled across the darkened grass. Then that moment of utter stillness was broken by a sound like waves breaking as the Dúnadan and his Shadow Host charged down the slopes of Lamedon and down to Linhir.
Legolas heard the Dwarf shouting his gleeful battle cry, was aware of two sable chargers galloping alongside them, a glint of steel from their riders' swords. He heard the great banner of the White Tree tug in the wind and Aragorn overtook them, his sword raised high. Legolas felt the Dwarf unhitch his axe even as he reached behind him and strung his bow.
Suddenly they were overtaken by a storm, a grey tide that rushed past them and he saw the gleam in the eyes of Men long dead, heard the echo of horns blowing… distant, faded songs brushed his senses… and forgotten pennants streamed in the wind… the distant clash of swords that had rusted and been destroyed by time and only the memory of them remained in the ghostly hands of riders long dead… he listened even as they surged past him.
But in his chest was a growing excitement that was not battle lust, a scent on the air he had never smelt before but that was as familiar as his own. A keenness in the wind that fluttered in his breast. He glanced around him, suddenly his senses stretched out beyond the battle and he thought he heard his father's voice. But the sky was grey and low above him and he was far away from home.
Suddenly they were in it. The heat from the burning town seared his skin, the crackle of the flames and stink of blood. Around him was screaming and the terrible clash of steel in flesh, in bone and sinew; the noise of war.
The Men of Lamedon turned wearily to face this new onslaught and there was a terrible cry that was taken up.
'The King of the Dead! The King of the Dead is come!'
Warriors fell terrified to the churned and muddy ground, spears were thrown away and Men began a maddened scramble to escape. The Grey Company charged forwards, swords aloft and battle light in their eyes. Archers dropped their arrows and fled. Men who had been wading ashore with the red fire of battle and lust in their eyes turned and scrambled to get back to their ships, which hastily unfurled their dark sails and lurched to catch a wind. For the terror that went with the Grey Company was the only weapon they needed.
Gimli was pulling at Legolas' arm, wanting to get to the ground and swing his axe, so he slowed enough for the Dwarf to slide down. They glanced at each other briefly and nodded, 'Forty- Two,' said the Dwarf resolutely and laughed loudly. Legolas grinned back and immediately killed two Orcs with one arrow.
'Forty- three.' He said cheekily and careered off into the battle, forgetting the strange keening in his breast and the warning of Galadriel. For this was not the Sea and there were no gulls. There was only the here and now.
Elrohir had heard the gleeful shout from the Dwarf and the even louder shout of the Mirkwood Elf and together those two had plunged into the fray like it was a friendly competition rather than a full blooded battle. He had seen the Rohirrim warhorse charge forwards, and sweep past his own black steed, his thigh jostled against the other Elf briefly and then in a flash of steel and gold, Legolas was gone, disappearing into the grey fog that was the Shadow Host, amongst the pale ghostly banners that did not need the wind to fly but seemed to snap and stream in the memory of some great storm. Gimli had lost his fear of the dead it seemed with the prospect of adding to their numbers and Elrohir could hear the clash of steel of his great war axe amidst the screaming and terrible din of battle.
He urged his own horse to follow and saw the Mirkwood Elf emerge and disappear again like he was lost in the billowing waves of a storm.
His own sword flashed and struck either side of him, flesh sucking the blade as if reluctant to release it. There was such panic amongst the Men from Umbar that they fled and it was too easy to strike them down. Elrohir pulled back a little to gauge where he would have most effect and glanced around to find his brothers. Then he charged forward into the midst of the fleeing host and plunged his sword into the stomach of a Man, his upturned face fixed in fear. Elrohir did not pause or think. He turned and slashed across the face of an Orc and Barakhir surged out from the fray for a moment before plunging back in again.
He found himself near the river and the black ships rocked and pushed against the turning of the tide. The river seemed to run with blood but he looked again and saw it was the red flames reflected in the black water. Pirates thrashing through the black water to the ships called to their shipmates for help but they were too busy trying to raise the sails to help their drowning crewmates. The terror of the Shadow Host was upon them.
Legolas was suddenly beside him, with neither Dwarf nor horse, but fighting on foot and pulling his knives out of a Corsair pirate. He whirled and his blades flashed silver and red, plunging down and then flashing up again, gleaming crimson. An Orc fell beneath his blades. His green tunic was spattered with blood and a thin scarlet ribbon wound down his cheek. Elrohir had seen silvans before in battle, heard their unearthly battle song, seen in their eyes the glazed bloodlust - like a trance. But he wanted to stare at this Elf, to watch the savagery and killing. He knew the pounding of his own blood was not only from exertion.
Nestor could hear the battle raging outside the ship and strained against the chains that kept him bound. His huge muscles bunched and he pulled at the metal links until he felt he would burst. His fellow slaves looked at him, some with pity, some with resignation. They knew he would do this until he exhausted himself. It had happened often.
Anor shook his head beside the big Man and muttered something Nestor could not hear.
'I will not give up, Anor. Not until I am free,' he ground out through his teeth, picking up the chains once again and heaving at the welded cuffs on his wrists.
'I know.' Anor replied softly, and although he had given up long ago, it was clear also that he wanted Nestor to carry on his futile efforts and to rage and strain against the captivity. It gave him hope.
There was a sudden sound of wood scraping and metal and the hold opened.
'They are back.' Anor was suddenly frightened. Last time Nestor had been discovered standing with the heavy chains in his hands, he had earned himself a flogging that would have killed a lesser Man. 'Sit down, Nestor. Quickly.'
But Nestor still stood, the heavy cuffs on his wrists gleamed with a slick of blood. He bowed his head and said quietly so only Anor could hear, 'I cannot give up. If Fatsia comes I will strangle him with his own chain. I cannot bear to hear the cries and piteous weeping above while I sit here and do nothing!'
A thin ray of light pierced the absolute gloom and some of the men groaned and tried to hide their eyes. Nestor braced himself and lowered his hands so none might see he had the heavy chain caught ready to wrap around the throat of any pirate within striking distance.
The thin light was suddenly obscured as a figure appeared, bright with sudden sunlight. Golden hair gleamed and a strong and beautiful face smiled down at him. Like one of the Valar. Nestor's mouth dropped open. He wondered if he was dead. And then the figure spoke. 'We have come to release you if you will fight for Gondor.'
'Gondor?' Nestor could hardly believe it, he was dreaming surely? 'You are from Gondor? You have come to release us?'
'Well not exactly from Gondor,' the man called and then he leaped the twenty feet of so from the deck to the floor of the hold without seeming to stumble or even pause for breath. 'I hail from further North but I am bound for Gondor.' He grasped the huge chains that bound the slaves and looked about for a key.
'The key!' groaned Anor, beside him, 'Fatsia will have had it with him. The big bastard in the green …' He stopped because there was a small click and the shackles broke. The stranger glanced up at him with the brightest, strangest eyes he had ever seen, and he felt a strange familiarity wash over him. In his fingers a thin white knife gleamed. 'You just picked the lock? You must be good!
'Oh I am.' The stranger declared with a grin. 'The best!'
Nestor stared, 'Are you a fool or an angel?'
'Neither I hope. My father would not have any fools and I am no angel.' The grin that lit the stranger's face confirmed his words were wicked and full of glee 'Now, come, above and meet the one who will lead you to freedom'
Nestor rattled the chains that bound him to his fellows and with a mighty roar he pulled the heavy clanking chains through the rings that secured them one against the other. The stranger whipped round, his long pale gold hair swirled and the next thing, Anor was standing, amazed and staring in astonishment at his unmanacled hands. The chafed wrists were weeping with sores and the stranger's face changed slightly when he saw this. But he did not pause but strode between the benches stooping and freeing slave after slave.
There was a thud and another stranger appeared. He was tall and lithe like the first, but his black hair was held back by a leather band and his grey eyes glittered in disgust. Nestor admitted the smell was probably terrible to someone unused to it.
He said something in a foreign tongue to their saviour, who glanced back with an impassive expression and replied in the same language. Nestor did not recognise what they said but the new stranger shook his head sadly and turned away.
Suddenly the light was blotted out by several faces looking down into the hold. There was a flurry of voices and then the ladder was lowered and the tall stranger with black hair caught it and secured it deftly.
'Come my friends,' he beckoned to the captives who were staring. 'You are free. We have defeated your captors and this ship is yours to return to your homes.' Nestor later thought they should have cheered, but they could not believe it, so cowed and pitiful were they.
Nestor ushered Anor up first; the man had not seen sunlight for months now and had been sorely used by the Corsairs. He pushed each man forwards and then up into the daylight until only he and one other remained with the two strangers.
The golden-haired man was bending over the last chained captive, a boy captured in a raid only a month ago off Dol Amroth. He gently raised the boy by his arms. The boy had been thrown in here after two days of hell above decks; Nestor knew what he would have endured. Sitting at the front of the benches he heard the first mate talking and the drunken jeers of the Corsairs. The boy's face had been swollen with crying and his bruised lips and eyes told Nestor everything he needed to know.
Nestor made as if to approach but the other held his hand and stopped him.
'No, let him be for a moment. He will come....'
Nestor looked at the stranger for a moment, met his strange green eyes that had pupils wide as a cat's in that dark hold. Then he nodded and smiled. His heart felt suddenly at ease and he remembered the sound of the farm he had left behind to seek his fortune at Sea, and the laugh of his children at play.
He turned to follow the other men up the ladder when he paused. He thought... he almost heard… but it had gone… and in his heart was a deep longing for home and he thought he smelled the sea on the wind.
Emerging from that dark hole, he expected to find the sunlight, and clouds whipping along a bright blue sky, white foam scudding over the water. Instead, low dark clouds hung pensively over the sullen landscape and the water churned darkly around the ships. Masts clanked and black sails hung limply for there was no wind. On the shore there was burning and flames shot up from a building as it slowly crumbled and fell.
Nestor quickly found Anor. He was standing near the other freed captives, wondering at their new found freedom and staring at the terrible scene of battle on the shore.
'Where is the man who freed us?' demanded one – a man from Lebennin. He was a big gruff man with fiery red hair and a beard that was matted and uncombed. But his eyes were black with anger at those who had imprisoned him. 'We will follow him, will we not, my fellows?'
'It is not I who released you in truth,' the stranger seemed to appear from nowhere. The other stranger led the boy from the hold into the strange twilight. 'It is another who led the forces who freed you- look yonder, for that is his symbol. The White Tree!'
A murmur went up – the White Tree? That was surely Isildur's line…?
'Aragorn, son of Arathorn, Isildur's Heir,' said the other stranger, the dark one.
'Will you fight for Aragorn?' another voice joined them. He too had raven-black hair and his grey eyes glittered with a terrible bloodlust that had not yet seeped from his bones. Nestor stared. He was the twin of the other, but there seemed a darkness over him that was not over his brother.
Nestor stared for suddenly a breeze stroked the hair back from their faces and he saw a pointed ear. Elves!
He looked in astonishment at those who had freed him and his fellow slaves. Two Elves, identical, black haired, grey eyes, strong, tall, clad in black tunics of fine cloth and girded with fine swords. They stood on the deck side by side and looked out at the destruction on the shore. One raised his hand and pointed. A man rode a grey horse along the shoreline and the men who had been fighting now dropped their weapons and knelt before him. One man, his armour notched and dented but still standing proudly drew near and bent his knee before the man on the horse.
'Behold Aragorn, son of Arathorn, Isildur's Heir.' said one of the twin Elves.
'Will you follow him? Take this ship and sail to Pelargir, for we will have need of you there,' said the other.
Nestor lifted his head and grinned 'Aye!' he shouted and his voice was joined by his fellows, free at last and ready to fight.
He looked at the other Elf, the one who had freed them. He was standing near the stern of the ship, one hand on the rigging and the other on his knife. He gazed out across the silver expanse of water. The wind rippled his long pale hair over one shoulder and teased it into long silk strands. He did not look towards the shore however where the Heir of Isildur rode. He looked West towards the Sea.
* ROTK The Last Debate
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