Ambassador from the South
They rose early to a fine morning. The Eredrim women brought them olives and mutton and white goat cheese with which to break their fast. Isildur sent Ohtar to seek out Romach, and he found him in his hall, in council with several of his lieutenants.
"But surely he will turn back when he sees that the Gondorrim are here?" asked one.
"I would hope so, but you know how arrogant he..." began Romach, then his eye fell on Ohtar at the door. "Yes?" he called loudly, clearly a sign to the others to break off the discussion.
"My lord Isildur sends to know if any word has been received from the other tribes."
"No, not yet. The first are expected this afternoon. We will send word when they arrive."
Ohtar bowed and departed, feeling their eyes on his back. He paused just outside the door, but the door warden stepped towards him and he hurried back to Isildur.
"So they do expect other visitors," said Isildur when Ohtar reported what he had overheard.
"Yes, someone who would not want to appear while we're here."
"Some mischief is afoot here, but I cannot guess what it might be. We must remain alert. Pass the word to your friends among the men to see if they can learn anything."
The men were employed repairing their gear and sharpening their weapons. Isildur met with his lieutenants, informing them they would likely remain in Erech several more days. In midmorning Ohtar heard shouting and looked up from his grindstone. The watchman that Romach kept posted at the Stone was running as fast as he could toward Romach's hall. Others of the Eredrim were gathering nearby. Ohtar joined them and found Isildur already there.
Romach and his lieutenants were whispering excitedly among themselves. Isildur strode up to them.
"What is it, Romach?" he demanded. Romach's face blanched white. Ohtar noticed he was trembling.
"R-riders are approaching, Sire," he stammered.
"The Elders from the other tribes?"
"No, Sire. An embassy from another land."
"An embassy? You did not mention yesterday that you were expecting an embassy."
"No." He wiped his sweating face. Hoof beats could now be heard from the direction of the ford. "We did not expect them to..." he gulped. "We did not expect them today, Sire," he finished.
"And whom do they represent? If they are from Anfalas, it would save me a long ride to Ringlond to meet with their lord."
"They rode from Ringlond, Sire, but they are not the men of Anfalas."
"Not Anfalas? Then who are they, Romach? Stop stammering and..."
Suddenly a high shrill wail cut through the babble of voices. It was a woman's scream, full of grief and terror, and it chilled the hearts of every man there. All fell silent in amazement.
Even as they wheeled to look, six riders thundered into the village under a white banner of truce. They were tall and dark, with swarthy, sun-darkened skin. Their raiment was black and red, and their leader wore a helm in the likeness of a sea eagle, its great hooked beak mirroring his own.
Ohtar gasped. "Sire!" he exclaimed. "Those are no Uialedain!"
Isildur stared, his jaw set hard. "No. We saw enough of their like at Anglond to ever forget them. The Corsairs of Umbar!"
A man came running up from the camp, sword in hand. He was followed by another, then another -- the men of Ethir Lefnui. Isildur's people grabbed up their weapons and came running as well.
"Stop!" shouted Isildur. "There will be no fighting until we know what game Romach is playing."
The men stopped beside the king, but they glared at the riders, now calmly dismounting by Romach's hall. Their eyes were cold and hard, and their knuckles were white on their sword hilts. Ohtar called some of the Ithilien men to join them, but whether to attack the Corsairs or to restrain the men of Ethir Lefnui, no one was sure. Isildur stalked over to Romach's hall, his eyes blazing.
"What means this, Romach?" he roared. "Do you then betray us to our enemies?"
Before Romach could reply, the leader of the newcomers turned to Isildur.
"I am Malithôr," he said in a smooth unctuous voice. "Ambassador of his Imperial Majesty Herumor of Umbar. And well do I know you, Isildur Elendilson. But I must point out to both you and my friend here," and he nodded toward the white-faced Romach, "that your enemies, Isildur, are not necessarily his." The ambassador glared insolently at the king. He was nearly as tall as Isildur, but thin and narrow-shouldered, with a long face and high cheekbones. He stood drawn up to his full height, head thrown back proudly. Dark eyes glittered as he peered down his long nose. "My lord Romach must first choose his friends before he may know his enemies," he said.
"The slaves of Sauron are the enemies of all free peoples," replied Isildur through clenched teeth.
The cold eyes kindled. "The Men of Umbar are slaves to no one! We are our own agents, acting for our own ends."
"Your ends are murder and pillage," growled Isildur. "I was at Anglond when your ships attacked that city and slew many peaceable farmers."
The ambassador of Umbar gave a grim smile. "Peaceable farmers, were they? And what was your errand to Anglond, Isildur? We captured a few of those peaceable farmers alive, and upon questioning they told us you were there to turn them from farmers to soldiers."
"Questioning? You mean torture."
The ambassador shrugged. "They required some persuasion, of course, but what of that? We needed to know why you were there and they were at first reluctant to tell us. We could learn nothing from their silence or their lies. In the end of course they told the truth, as they all do eventually. You're a soldier, Isildur. You know torture is the quickest and surest way to learn the truth."
Isildur glared, his eyes full of hatred. "We do not torture prisoners we capture. It is barbaric."
"Then you are fools. I am sure you took a few of our people during the fighting at Anglond. They were brave and loyal men, I'm sure, but I have no doubt that torture, skillfully applied, would have induced them to tell you we planned to sail to the River Lefnui next. If you had known that, perhaps you could have saved that city."
Isildur's face went red with anger. "The sack of Ethir Lefnui is an outrage and a crime," shouted Isildur, his voice shaking. "Those people had done nothing to you. They were no threat to you."
The ambassador's face remained calm, even careless. "That's quite true, of course. They were completely unimportant. The people of Lefnui have always been peaceful and trusting. But we needed to set an example, and burning Lefnui would cost us little trouble. We wanted the people of all lands to know that the hand of Umbar is long, and neither high walls nor the promised protection of Gondor will stay that hand when people insist on allying themselves with the wrong side." He glanced meaningfully toward Romach.
"You have a strange way of enlisting allies in your cause," said Isildur. "Do you seek to make your friends by killing them?"
"We do not seek friends," snapped Malithôr. "Umbar is so mighty it has no need of allies. But when a city threatens to rise up against us, it could give others ideas. And so we crush it, as we would a disobedient dog. Other lands that might have thought of wavering soon find new resolve to avoid a similar fate." He smiled at Romach. "Might we go into your hall, my lord? We have much to speak of."
Romach started. "Yes, of course. Come in." He glanced at Isildur's face, now dark with fury. "Both of you, come into my hall." He led the way under the low door. Isildur turned to Ohtar.
"Keep a close eye on the Umbardrim. And keep the Lefnui people away from them. They are under a flag of truce." He turned and entered the hall behind Malithôr.
"You have no right to threaten these people," he said as soon as the door was closed. "They are free to choose their friends as they will."
"We have every right to do whatever we want!" replied Malithôr, showing signs of anger for the first time. "Herumor is the rightful lord of all these lands, not your Elendil. Umbar was founded long ago by the mighty kings of Númenor, and we have ruled this land for long ages before Gondor existed. What would the Uialedain have been without us Dúnedain? We brought the first corn and wine to Middle-earth. We taught them farming and shipbuilding and constructing in stone. We have been their teachers, their protectors, their lords, for over two thousand years, while your forefathers sat in Andúnië and mooned after their friends the Elves. Where were your noble Elves when fair Númenor was torn asunder? Drinking, no doubt, with their allies the Valar, they who cast our homeland under the sea!
"We have lived with the men of Middle-earth for centuries. We know each other well. They have always looked to the mighty fleet of Umbar for their protection. They are our grateful wards. It is you, Isildur, and your father that have stirred them against us. We are merely bringing them back to their senses."
"Does slaying them bring them to their senses, Malithôr? Do you truly believe that it is in their interests to bend their knees to Sauron?"
"Of course it is in their interest. It is always in one's interest to be aligned with a victor. It is fruitless to stand against Sauron. Do you think to defeat him with your puny weapons? He is not a man such as we, nor is he yet like to the Elves. For he is one of the Maiar, the mighty ones who were present when the world was made. You cannot dream to defeat him. Not all the Elves and Men in all of Middle-earth could so much as approach him. Why, he learned his powers at the feet of Melkor the Vala himself."
"Speak not that name!" spat Isildur. "He forfeited his right to bear a name and shall ever be known only as Morgoth, the Black Enemy. Like his lackey Sauron, he too, once thought to set himself to be Lord of Middle-earth. Infinitely mightier than Sauron was he, and yet Elves and Men cast him down and he was driven from the circles of the world, and thus the Elder Days passed away and the New Age began."
"He was overthrown only by the might of his fellow Valar, not by puny men nor Elves. Now the Valar have withdrawn from the world and they have sworn never to enter it again. And Sauron has grown much greater since his master's downfall."
"You defend Sauron as if you spoke for him instead of your Emperor. Are you then Herumor's creature, or Sauron's?"
Malithôr's eyes flickered at that. "I am a loyal subject of his Imperial Majesty Herumor of Umbar. His Majesty bows his knee to no one, not even Sauron. I was only pointing out the futility of your struggle against Sauron."
"Sauron is bent on enslaving all the peoples of Middle-earth. Does your Emperor think to become one of his slaves? Or does he plan to stand against him when he moves to bring Umbar under his dominion?"
"Umbar will never be ruled by Sauron! But he is a great power to be reckoned with; it is not prudent to openly oppose him. Yet he can be appeased, placated. And when he is victorious over the Elves and you Gondorrim, he will remember his friends." With another significant glance at Romach, he added, "As he will remember those who fought against him. And if you think Ethir Lefnui's fate hard, tempt not Sauron's anger."
Isildur made a sound of disgust and abruptly broke off the debate. He turned to Romach.
"Do not be fooled by his lies, Romach. Do you fancy that you can ingratiate yourselves with such as Sauron? He does not make allies, he makes slaves. This Malithôr may deny it, but I tell you the Umbardrim are the agents of Sauron -- if not actually in his service, they are at best working his will for their own ends. Listen not to this tool of the Enemy. He says he is the ambassador of Umbar, but I say he is naught but the mouth of Sauron."
Malithôr actually hissed. "And you, Isildur, are the pawn of the Elves. Do you think they truly love Men? Gil-galad is using you as a minor distraction against Sauron, as a fallen warrior might throw dust into his enemy's eyes in the faint hope that his death stroke will go astray."
"The Elves have ever been our friends and our allies," retorted Isildur. "They fought beside us against Morgoth in the Elder Days, and they fight with us today against Sauron."
Malithôr shook his head resignedly, as at a foolish and stubborn child. "They are using you, Isildur. You spill the noble blood of Númenor for them, but the Elves are a fading race. They are no longer concerned with the affairs of Middle-earth. Always they are sailing away, never to return. Hardly a month goes by that a ship does not sail from the Grey Havens, bound back to their home in the west. Your Elvish allies will tire of the war and dwindle away. Soon all will be gone, and you will be facing Sauron alone. Would you still stand against him then?"
"Gil-galad and the Elves of Lindon will not abandon us while this war persists. And were there no Elves to aid us, still would we fight Sauron. Even if all hope of victory were gone, better to die his foes than to live his slaves."
Malithôr gave a mirthless laugh. "Bah. Your line has always been dreamers."
"And you Black Númenóreans have ever been the tools of evil," snapped Isildur. "Long have you harassed the people of these coasts, and many of them even now sit chained to the oars in your ships. You are nothing but common pirates."
"Pirates?" cried the ambassador. "We are the descendants of the kings of Númenor. Are their deeds as naught to you? You are Númenórean yourself. Have you forgotten the glory and might of Ar-Pharazôn the Golden? He that landed at Umbar with a thousand ships, each with a thousand warriors? Even the mighty Sauron came then to his summons, and bent his knee before him and pledged fealty to him and gave himself up as hostage."
"Yes, and lied and deceived and whispered until he rose from the king's prisoner to his chief councillor. And by his craft and urging he brought down all the might of Ar-Pharazôn and sank all our fair land beneath the waves."
"It was not Sauron that destroyed Númenor," snapped Malithôr. "It was your friends, the ever-protecting blessed Valar."
"Do not speak ill of the Valar, Mouth of Sauron," roared Isildur, "lest I forget your claim of emissary and have you hanged as a pirate!"
Malithôr's guards stepped forward. He started back, but he quickly regained his composure. He grinned insolently.
"But you wouldn't do that, Isildur. I am an emissary of my Emperor and I bear a flag of truce. You believe in diplomatic protection, surely."
"I believe in honor, yes. I believe that the conventions of war must be observed, even to such as you."
"And yet you know that we would feel no compunction in a similar situation." He nearly leered. "Maddening, isn't it?"
"Civilized peoples must behave in a civilized manner. Your people were civilized once and did great works, but you destroyed it all and now merely prey on the shipping of your neighbors."
"Their ships cross our territorial water carrying rich goods. If they will not pay our duties, we seize them. We are within our rights."
"Your territorial waters? You raid all the way from Minhiriath to Harad. Both are a long sail from Umbar."
"Such is our territory by ancient right. We have always been the masters of these seas. We provide for the safety of shipping. All seamen know no pirates prowl the sea lanes where Umbar rules. It is our custom to ask those who use our waters to make payment for our protection."
"In exchange for it you mean. Your duties are nothing more than a ransom for the freedom of the captains and crews."
"If they cannot pay our duty they must work it off in labor. It is a long-standing practice. Call it what you will."
"I call it piracy," said Isildur. "Know you that I will not rest until you have ceased your raiding and returned our people to us."
Malithôr snorted. "Then you shall go without your rest for a long time, Isildur Elendilson. Your threats are idle. You have neither the ships nor the time to contest the seas with us. Gondor has all it can do to try to contain Sauron. Do you think for a moment that he could not leave the Barad-dûr any time he wishes? He has no need to fight you. His reach and his sight ever lengthen, and his power grows even as you camp on his doorstep."
Isildur seethed with rage, and only with difficulty did he contain his voice. He wheeled upon Romach, cowering back at the wrath of the two mighty Dúnedain.
"And what of you, Romach? You have heard the threats of the Mouth of Sauron. You are sworn allies of Gondor. You owe these Umbardrim nothing save the toe of your boot. Remember the Oath of Karmach."
"Remember also Ethir Lefnui," whispered Malithôr.
"Yes, remember the people of Lefnui," said Isildur. "They were your neighbors and trading partners, their race akin to yours. If they died as a lesson to you, let that lesson be that you cannot trust the Corsairs of Umbar. Send these pirates packing and join us against our foes."
They both stared expectantly at Romach. Romach looked uneasily between their faces.
"It is a matter for the Elders to decide, my lords." he said. "I cannot speak for the Eredrim."
"The time to decide is now, Romach," said Malithôr.
"All the Elders will be here tonight, or in the morning at the latest. Tomorrow we will hold council together."
"Let us hope they remember their friends of old," said Malithôr.
"Let us hope they remember their oath," growled Isildur, and he turned and stalked from the hall. The crowd of men near the door parted to let him pass, for none could withstand his glare.
Back in the camp, Isildur fumed up and down before his tent. None came near him, save Ohtar sitting on some packs nearby. Ohtar remained silent until he judged that Isildur's rage had cooled sufficiently to speak. "Do you think he will keep their oath?" he asked.
Isildur clenched his fists. "He had better! I can not abide oathbreakers! Has the spirit of their race sunk so low that they will break their troth? Is honor and fealty as nothing to them?" He stalked away, spun on his heel, stalked back, while Ohtar watched in sympathy and also some foreboding.
Ohtar well knew the depth of the sense of honor and virtue in Isildur. It was a large part of the reason he loved him, and it was the source of Ohtar's own unswerving loyalty to Isildur as his king and his friend. But he also knew that intensity of feeling created a blind spot in the king. It was inconceivable to Isildur why a man would break his bond. Isildur's confidence, his bone-felt certainty of what is right in every situation made him truly incapable of understanding the motives of lesser men.
Ohtar, however, was not a Dúnadan. He was but thirty, born long after fair Númenor sank beneath the waves. He had been a hunter in the forests of the Emyn Arnen, the hill country in southern Ithilien. He knew and understood the mixed feelings of many of the Uialedain lords to the Dúnedain kings. Many of them had been powerful local warlords when Isildur and Anárion's ships were driven upon this coast near their old trading station of Pelargir.
The Uialedain at first fled at their approach. The newcomers were numerous and well-armed, and looked like the feared Corsairs that the coastal dwellers knew all too well. But these new Dúnedain proved to be peaceable and generous, offering their help freely. Their healers cured the sick, their kings wielded powers that seemed as magic. None of the small states and tribes in the region dared stand against them. They were given land along the Great River and they built their cities of stone. Intervening in local conflicts and rivalries, they soon brought peace to a region that had never known it. The common people loved and feared them, but some of the lords yet longed for the days when people trembled at their names. And many liked it less when their children began to speak in the tongue of Gondor and there was estrangement between the generations.
Ohtar always felt it his part to speak for the Uialedain. He thought of himself not as an advocate, but as a translator.
"The Uialedain lords," he said when he felt the time was ripe, "have learned by hard lessons that loyalties may change. They lack your long sight, Sire. Romach is frightened. Perhaps he values his honor less than his skin."
"You think him merely craven? I fear he may be falling under the shadow of Sauron."
"It is possible," Ohtar shrugged. "But if you will pardon me, Sire, it seems to me that he is between a hammer and an anvil. Herumor openly threatens him and holds up the rape of Lefnui as a dreadful example."
Isildur growled. "A fair city destroyed, hundreds of innocents slain; all for no more than a demonstration that they are capable of it. Would that I faced that arrogant 'ambassador' in battle. I'd separate that grinning head from his body. Sauron would have to speak through another mouth."
"Still," said Ohtar, "if Romach rode with us, Erech could face a like attack. He would have to leave a strong force behind."
"We do not ask him to leave Erech undefended. But the Eredrim are numerous. He could yet muster a considerable army and fulfill the oath."
"Perhaps he only speaks the truth. Perhaps he truly cannot make the decision alone."
"I do not believe that, do you?"
"No. I deem that if he wished he could speak for the Eredrim without contradiction. But he thinks either decision is dangerous and he doesn't want to be the one to cast the die. I think he was stalling for time because he knew Malithôr was coming and he wanted to know the views of Umbar."
"Yes. Though I think he would have much preferred to not have us both here at the same time." Isildur laughed suddenly, his great booming laugh.
"Hah! Did you mark Romach when I was contending with Malithôr?"
"Aye. His head was going back and forth like a shuttle," laughed Ohtar. "His mouth dropped open when you called Malithôr a pirate."
"The Mouth of Sauron bandied words with me, but they are no better than pirates. It matters little to a galley slave that he is serving a life sentence for being too poor to pay tribute. Would his bondage be more onerous if he had been captured by a pirate rather than a king's ship? He still loses both his ship and his freedom.
"And what of the dozens of small seaports and fishing villages along the coasts? Are they avoiding the duty fees of Umbar, too? The Corsairs make no apology for their plundering and murdering."
"Aye," Ohtar agreed. "They would say it is just part of protecting their trade."
"The blackguards. If only we could win this war with Sauron, defeat him once and for all, then would I humble these Corsairs. Before the war Anárion and I had many debates about how best to deal with them. He ever counseled that we should build more ships and strengthen the fleet, then confront the Corsairs openly wherever we found them. But I was the elder, and had seen too much of battles at sea, of burning ships and good men borne down by their armour to graves in the deeps. I advised defense and patience. We strengthened our coastal cities. We set up strong places on the headlands and at the mouths of Anduin, with unsleeping watches to sound the alarm should the black sails be sighted.
"It worked, too. The Corsairs dared not attack Gondor or her allies, though they continued their depredations to the south. Then came the war, and the greater part of Gondor's strength was drawn away to fight Sauron. We thought the war would be won in a few months, but it has dragged on now for twelve years. The strong places were left undermanned, our ships without crews. The Corsairs were free to roam at will. They nibbled away at the edges at first, raiding fishing villages in the remote regions of Minhiriath, then small seaports on the Gwathlo. Two years ago they raided nearly to Tharbad, where the road to Arnor crosses the Gwathlo. Now even strong cities like Anglond are besieged. Anárion was right. We should have driven them from the seas when we could.
"I tell you, Ohtar, this stalemate in Gorgoroth is like to drive me mad with frustration. We can't get into the Tower or draw Sauron out, and yet we dare not leave or turn our attention to other pressing matters, such as retaking Minas Ithil and cleansing Ithilien, and driving these accursed Corsairs from our coasts. We have so much to do, and yet we sit here and wait while merchants like Romach weigh their loyalties like cheeses in the market."
A man hurried up to Isildur. "My king. Riders approach from the east."
"What now?" grumbled Isildur. "Do the Easterlings seek to treat with the Eredrim too?" But they walked toward Romach's hall. Many of the Eredrim were hurrying there as well.
A score of horsemen approached: young Eredrim warriors fully armed and four old grey-bearded men. They dismounted, and Romach emerged from his hall to greet them. As they spoke, Isildur noticed Malithôr watching from the door of the hall. Isildur strode forward quickly.
Romach was already talking with the Elders in a low voice when Isildur approached. He looked up sharply.
"Ah, there you are, Sire. Revered Elders, I have the honor to present Isildur Elendilson, King of Gondor. Sire, the Elders of the Eredrim."
As Isildur was introduced to each in turn and was struggling to memorize their names, Ohtar studied the old men. He noticed each glancing uneasily to where Malithôr stood watching from the shadows. It appeared that the ambassador was already known to the Elders.
"Now," said Isildur. "The Elders are present. Perhaps now we can take counsel together and come to a resolution."
"Oh, no, Sire," stammered one of the Elders. "We are not all here yet, Urmach of Kiril Vale has not arrived, nor Fornen from the high valleys of Fornoch in the west. We could not proceed without them."
"Could we expect them soon?" asked Isildur, irritation evident in his voice. "Time is precious."
"Urmach should be here before dark. It is possible that Fornen could arrive tonight as well."
"But more likely tomorrow,"said another.
"Let me know when they arrive," growled Isildur, and returned to his tent. Ohtar saw the nervous looks exchanged among the Eredrim. It was all too clear that Isildur's patience was wearing thin. Ohtar remained long enough to see the Elders join Romach and Malithôr in the hall, then he returned to camp.
Isildur was still in a foul mood, and Ohtar made no attempt to break his silence. When night fell with no sign of the two remaining Elders, they said little, but sat long before the fire. At last, when the moon, now waning gibbous, peeped over the eastern cliffs, turning the valley to ebony and argent, they went to their beds.
That night Ohtar could hear Isildur rolling about in his bed, and knew the king was sleepless, thinking no doubt of all that depended on this fateful mission. Ohtar too was awake long, watching the moon as she crept slowly across the sky, her face demurely half-covered in her lacy veil.
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[Glossary]; Colophon (Still unavailable.)
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