The Coming of the White Fleet
"Lord Amroth, a light has been sighted ahead!"
Amroth looked up from the journal in which he had been writing. His esquire Iorlas was standing in the door of the cabin, his head bowed under the low deck beams.
"What sort of light?"
"I don't know. We can't see it from the deck yet. Better put on a wrap. The sun's not up yet and the air is cool and damp. It's still blowing hard."
Hastily wrapping a cloak around himself, Amroth followed Iorlas up the ladder to the deck. The wind was still fair and strong behind them. The stern rose to long rolling swells, sweeping up invisibly in the dark. As each sea passed under them, the ship teetered on the crest an instant, then rolled and slid away down its receding back. The newly repaired mainsail boomed and shuddered with the strain. Amroth stood and watched it a moment, but it seemed to be holding and drawing well. Looking about the deck, he saw that the storm damage was nearly all repaired now. Working without a stop for nearly three days, the skilled Sea-Elves had spliced and knotted and replaced the more serious damage wrought by the great storm. As Sindarin, or Wood-Elves, he and Iorlas were excused from such skilled work, even discouraged from helping. He had spent much of the last week in his cabin, keeping out of the way of the real mariners.
He sniffed the air and thought that there might be the faintest hint of land in it, but he well knew that his forest-dweller's nose was not as quick to catch the subtle changes as the mariners'. He made his way to the bows and found a group of Sea-Elves assembled there, peering ahead into the night and talking quietly. He heard Cirdan's deep voice among them.
Amroth peered ahead into the darkness but could see nothing except the creaming bow wave now and again thrown out wide on either side.
"What is it, Lord Cirdan?" he asked. Cirdan stood upon the rail, grasping the forestay, his body swaying easily with the pitching of the ship. He glanced down and looked away to the horizon again.
"'Tis a light, Amroth. The lookout at the masthead believes it to be a burning afar off, though I confess I as yet see nothing."
"There, my lord," cried one of the mariners, "just to larboard of our head." Amroth recognized the gravelly voice of Gilrondil the sailing master.
"I saw it that time!" said Cirdan. "It is like a spark, very low on the horizon and we see it only from the crests. There! And there again. What make you of it, Gilrondil?"
The sailing master studied the faint flicker for a few minutes. "No small light, I think, Lord, but a great flame far away. See how the sky above it seems to pulse with the flame?"
"Yes, I see that now. How distant would you reckon it?"
"It is most difficult to say, Lord. Not less than eight leagues, I would say." He shouted up to the lookout swaying high above at the masthead. "What can you make of it, Lindir?"
A voice called down out of the dark. "It is more than one now, master. There are two fires. No, three! Another to the right."
"Are they on land, think you?"
"I cannot be certain, but I would guess they are either on the sea or perhaps on a strand. They appear to be low. Another! Four, four fires burn on the sea."
"The glow is right ahead," said Cirdan. "We should be nigh to them before daylight."
They all stood watching those faint red sparks.
"It bodes ill, I fear," said Cirdan. "It may be the flames of war we see."
"Might they not be signals?" Amroth suggested. "Perhaps the people of Gondor have lit beacons on the shore to guide us."
"Once there was such a beacon on the North Cape of the Ethir Anduin," said Gilrondil, "but it has long been dark. In time of war such lights guide foes as well as friends. Nay, if fires burn at the Ethir it can only mean evil. We shall see what the dawn reveals."
As the long night wore on, the glowing lights in the east gradually faded and one by one flickered out. Then a white light appeared in exactly the same place. Amroth was about to point it out to the others, but it soon rose from the sea and was seen to be Eärendil, the Morning Star, presaging the dawn. Soon after, a soft glow gathered on that same horizon and the looming seas around them took on long grey shapes. Then came a brilliant yellow gleam and suddenly the sun rose over the bow.
There behind them and on either side rode the great swan ships of Mithlond, their prows splitting the grey seas. Already a few were altering course slightly to close up around the flagship for the daylight formation. The new sun turned their sails a shell pink and cast diamonds into the spray at their bows. The fleet looked proud and strong, though they numbered but ten long swanships, thirty smaller corbitas, and a half dozen cogs. Most lay to windward, off their starboard quarter, and on each sail was emblazoned in gold the eight-pointed star of the Noldor. At each masthead flew the white banner of Galathilion, the Silver Tree.
Beyond the main body of the fleet loomed the dark mass of Tolfalas, the Island of Cliffs, which they had passed unseen in the night. Far away to larboard were the green rolling hills and white cliffs of Belfalas. Far ahead, just visible now in the slowly clearing haze, was a low dark line.
"What is that black shore ahead of us?" asked Amroth.
"Those are the willows of the Ethir Anduin," answered Gilrondil. "There among those immense trees, the mighty Anduin flows by many mouths into the sea."
As the day waxed and the line of trees drew nearer, many gaps began to appear, marking the passages between islands. They made for the northernmost, close under the beetling cliffs of North Cape, for it was the widest and least troubled by rips and overfalls when the tide was in flood. As they drew near, Amroth climbed into the weather rigging and searched the coasts for any signs of life.
"What see you, Amroth?" cried Gilrondil from the aftercastle. "Are there any sails?"
"No. There is nothing."
"That is not good. The Men of Pelargir keep always several picket ships at the Ethir. They should have challenged us long before. The Ethir is never unguarded. Keep a sharp eye."
At that moment came a hail from the ship nearest to starboard. "Something floats in the water, Lord Cirdan. Just ahead of us."
Cirdan stepped quickly to the rail and called back. "Heave to, Hithimir, and see what it is." The other ship quickly dropped its sail and its slow and stately pitch became a wallowing in the heavy seas. Amroth could see sailors rushing forward to peer down at some dark object rising and falling in the water.
"It appears to be wreckage, Lord," came the cry.
"Gilrondil!" shouted Cirdan. "Signal all ships to heave to. Bring us alongside Hithimir's ship." A string of flags flew to the masthead and the Elves leaped to the braces to haul the yard around into the wind. A moment of thundering canvas, then the sail was clewed up and bunted in. The ship lost way and drifted over toward Hithimir's ship. Soon they could all see the dark object bobbing in the clear blue water.
At first Amroth could make no sense of what it was. It seemed to be a jumble of blackened logs, skewed at every angle, entangled in vines. Suddenly Amroth realized he was looking at the rigging of a large ship. A crossed mast and yard drifted in a tangle of rope and blackened sailcloth. Then with a shock of horror he saw a body tangled in the rigging, floating face-downwards, the long brown hair drifting around it. Everything was burned and blackened, but the masthead was undamaged and a few feet beneath the surface a blue banner streamed in the water -- a gold citadel on a blue field.
"That is the banner of Pelargir," said Cirdan.
"There can no longer be any doubt," said Gilrondil. "The pickets of Gondor are destroyed and the Ethir is taken."
"A curse on the storm that delayed us! We have come too late."
"This can only be the work of the Corsairs of Umbar. Pelargir may already be destroyed," said Gilrondil in a voice of despair.
Cirdan turned to him. "The flames were but five hours past. The Corsairs could not have reached Pelargir yet. They must still be in the River."
"They could be hidden among the islands, lying in wait for us," said Gilrondil.
"I think not. If they had known we were here they would have attacked us out here in the open bay. They would never let themselves be bottled up within the River, with us the stopper."
Gilrondil studied the islands and the openings between them. He pointed to the North Cape. "We could lie in wait beyond that headland and fall upon them as they return. If we strike just as they attempt this pass, we will have the weather gauge and they will be on a lee shore in close waters and will be sore hindered."
But Cirdan shook his head. "Gil-galad sent us to aid Gondor against its enemies. If Pelargir is now to be besieged, it would be small aid to its people to strike its attackers after the city is fallen. We must attempt to prevent the attack, not avenge it. Nay, our way lies up Anduin, and as fast as may be."
"My Lord," said Gilrondil, "it is unlikely we will overtake them, for they have at least five hours head start. From the look of those bluffs along the west bank, the wind is sure to be fickle in the River and we may have to tack against the current while they can row against it even if the wind dies completely. Also, if they dare to attack Pelargir they must be in their full force and must surely outnumber us. Even if we were to catch them in the River, the current will be in their favor. And they have great experience in combat in narrow waters. In pursuing them we are giving up every military advantage."
"These things are all true, Gilrondil, and it is your duty to point them out to me. Nevertheless, it is my duty to help defend Pelargir. With the picket ships destroyed, most likely the city is unaware of the danger approaching. We have no choice but to try to warn them and give what assistance we can. The Corsairs must soon encounter the main body of the Pelargrim fleet, and it is mighty and experienced in these waters. No matter their strength, they cannot hope to pass up to Pelargir without heavy losses. Most likely the two fleets are engaged already. If we were to appear suddenly at their rear and fall upon them, they would be pinned between us and the Pelargrim. And we should have that most able of allies, surprise, at our side.
"Now we must fly before it is too late. If the Corsairs were to best the Pelargrim fleet before we arrive, we would have a hard time of it ourselves. Hoist the signals to get under way and to prepare for battle. We are unlikely to see them before they see us, so we must be ready to attack as soon as we sight them."
Gilrondil bowed and raised his booming voice. "Cast off the brails! Brace the yard round! Haul and belay! Sheet home! Sheet home!" The mariners leaped to the rigging and the ship surged forward as if struck with a whip. At the same time the signals broke at the masthead and all around them the great sails dropped and bellied. The fleet formed up and drove for the northern mouth of Anduin.
As soon as all lines were coiled the mariners went below and brought forth bows and quivers and long slim swords. These were stowed in receptacles for that purpose just under the gunwales. The pieces of a small catapult were brought up from the hold and assembled on the forecastle. Long lances were fitted into sockets pointing outward from the rails and boarding nets were stretched between them.
Amroth donned his mailed shirt and his cuirass and helm. He set his bow and quiver ready to hand and buckled his sword belt. As he stood stringing his bow, Gilrondil called to him. "You had best use one of our longbows, Lord Amroth. Your short Sindarin bow is unsuited for the long shots required at sea."
Amroth looked askance at the tall weapon Gilrondil held. "I am unused to your Noldorin bows, Master. I fear I would give too many shafts to the waves," he laughed. "This bow of mine will bring down a stag at nigh a furlong, and yet it is small and light and easily handled, for it was designed for hunting in the forests of Greenwood the Great. When drawn by a steady hand, it is more accurate than your longer bows, and handier in close combat."
Now it was Gilrondil's turn to look dubious. "A furlong? Very well, Lord. Perhaps you are right. But for myself I shall keep this old yew of mine. It has served me well for many yén."
They both strung their bows, fitted arrows, and drew several times. "What will the range be, think you?" Amroth asked. "I know not the ways of war between ships. When should I shoot?"
Gilrondil lowered his bow and his voice. "In truth, I know not. We have fought no pitched battles at sea since this New Age began. Many of us here were not yet born when last the Swanships of Mithlond fought an action. But distances can be deceiving at sea. When we rendezvous with another ship, I notice it often seems to take forever to approach within bowshot, then suddenly we are alongside. You can try a shot when you feel sure of hitting your mark. But I would think that except for a lucky shot or two, little damage could be done until the ships grapple one another. Then would the fighting be hand to hand and eye to eye and we will need our swords, not our bows.
"If the Corsairs have already landed, I would advise that we land at some small distance so that we might disembark, form up our companies, and fight a land engagement. I fear at sea the pirates would have the advantage of us, for they sail in long galleys with hundreds of slaves to draw the sweeps. They could easily outrun us, especially if the winds are light. Their ships are very long and narrow and I believe they would not maneuver easily, especially in narrow waters. If we can come upon then suddenly in some narrow strait, I believe we would be on nearly equal terms, for we could wheel and turn and attack their flanks. My greatest fear would be a calm, for then we would be at their mercy.
"They bear beneath their bows, below the waterline, long sharp rams which can tear the belly out a ship in seconds. Neither your bow nor mine would avail us then, Amroth. An Elf will not swim far in a suit of mail. So pray that the wind holds steady and fair."
The wind did hold, and they raced up the broad lower reaches of Anduin hour after hour. The Great River at this point was many miles from shore to shore, and but for the smooth water, they would have thought they were yet at sea. League after league rolled by under their keels as the day wore on, but never a sight did they have of another vessel.
Just before dark they approached the confluence of the River Poros, which joins Anduin from the southeast, bringing the waters of the dread Ephel Dúath across many leagues of hot and barren sands. The Anduin narrowed considerably just above the Poros. Cirdan had reasoned that the Pelargrim might have fallen back to these straits so the galleys would be more hindered. He had hoped to find a battle in progress here, or even better, the Corsair ships lying on the strand under the colors of Pelargir. But the rivers and beaches were silent and empty. The lookouts strained their eyes for any hint of a masthead away up the Poros, for fear of an ambush after they passed, but there was no craft of any kind, nor even wreckage. It was difficult to believe that this land was at war. They could only assume that the Corsairs had run unopposed toward Pelargir. But no one could explain why the Gate of the South should stand thus open.
They passed the Poros and the banks of Anduin closed around them. They were passing now through a flat land, the banks lined with willows and cottonwoods, broken here and there by a sunny beach. It was a lovely peaceful land, cool and inviting, but they noted only how slowly the banks crept by, an indication of the strong current against them. At last night fell and some hours later the first quarter moon sank into the River behind them. Much against his will, Cirdan was forced to reduce sail to navigate the many turns of the River in the dark.
The mariners had feared the sun would draw the wind after it, as their saying goes, but it held and even increased, so that they fairly flew up the River. Even with reduced sail, their progress seemed more swift at night, for they could hear the water rippling along the side and the creaming wake rolled out astern, and they could not see the shore creeping past so slowly. The yard was braced nearly square now as the River bore more to the north.
The fleet swept on through the night, parting the black water with a white rush of foam. The great lanterns in the prows had not been lit, so the other ships were mere curling white waves astern. The smaller ships were falling back in the formation, though Cirdan was careful not to let the larger corbitas outrun them and divide the fleet.
Amroth stood on the aftercastle, just behind the two helmsmen at their steering sweeps. Gilrondil stood on the gallery at the stern, beneath the long curving neck of the swan. He leaned long on the rail, silhouetted against the glowing wake. At long last he climbed the ladder to the aftercastle.
"We are making a goodly speed, Master," said Amroth.
"Aye," said he. "The log gives it as nearly eight knots, even under reduced sail, though the River must be taking back at least three of that. We should reach Pelargir before midday if we come not upon a battle before then."
"Is it not most strange that the Corsairs have seemingly met so little resistance?" asked Amroth. "The River is swept clean. We sail through the heart of one of the largest and most populous nations in Middle-earth, yet we might as well be at sea for all the signs of life we see. Where can the fleet of Pelargir be?"
"I cannot guess. By all accounts the River should be full of ships. Besides their main fleet, their patrols along the coasts, and the pickets always at the Ethir, there are many smaller craft that always patrol the River, protecting trade and preventing crossings by the orcs that now infest southern Ithilien. And there is always much commercial traffic on Anduin, for it is not only Gondor's South Gate, but also bears the cargos of Pelargir and Lebennin, and even some from your lands far to the north, portaged around the falls of Rauros. The River is never empty, so we are told.
"I like it not," he said. "The pirates could not have swept the River clear of all traffic so quickly. There is no sign of battle, no wreckage. It is as if the entire nation of Gondor has been swept away to the moon. No, there is much we do not know here, and that makes me most uneasy."
He lowered his voice so that the helmsmen should not overhear. "I have had another thought which sore troubles me, but I am loath to speak of it, for it involves a most evil chance."
"Speak, my friend," said Amroth. "I would know your fears, lest they prove true in the end."
"Very well then. What if the Corsairs have already taken Pelargir some time ago? If they rule in Pelargir and their fleet guards the River, that would explain the absence of shipping or people on the shores."
Amroth's heart chilled and he drew his cloak more closely about his shoulders. "Then we would be hurrying to our doom. But what of the fires yesternight, the wreckage we saw?"
"If the Corsairs held the city and the River, would they not station their own pickets at the Ethir? And if ships of Pelargir returned unknowing from some long voyage?"
"Ah," said Amroth, seeing again the blackened timbers in the pellucid water, "they would have been unprepared for an enemy lying in wait in the Ethir."
"Aye, and they would have lighted the night for us."
"But we saw no pickets, Corsair or otherwise."
"But we came there at dawn, looking into the rising sun. The light would have lit our sails long before we could see the Ethir clearly. And if a Corsair picket sighted an Elvish fleet approaching?"
"Would they not have attacked us as we entered the River?"
"A handful of picket galleys would be foolish to attack us. But if they concealed themselves among the myriad islands of the Ethir and allowed us to enter the River, they could even now be following us, waiting gleefully for us to meet their main fleet. Then we would be trapped between their forces."
"If that is true," said Amroth, "then the trap is already sprung, and we are already in its jaws. There would be nothing we could do."
"Aye," he said. "That is why, when all other eyes are looking up the River, I look down it."
Amroth looked astern with a shudder and imagined low sleek galleys pulling toward them with muffled oars, their brazen rams gliding along in the Elves' wakes. "Ah, Gilrondil," he sighed. "You have not brightened this night for me."
He turned and started down the ladder to the gallery again. But at that moment came a shout from many throats, and lo, the eastern sky was ablaze.
"Pelargir!" groaned the mariners. "The city is aflame. The Corsairs attack and we are yet many leagues away. Alas, alas, for Pelargir!"
Gilrondil leaped back up the ladder and stood gazing at the pulsing red glow ahead.
"Our friends are attacked," he said. "And yet even from this comes some comfort, Amroth. My fears were unfounded. Pelargir yet stands, and we come unlooked for. There is hope yet."
The flames of Pelargir gave them one more service: they could now see the River ahead. Cirdan ordered the reef shaken out of the sails and small triangular sails were set between the yards and the mastheads. Their speed increased noticeably.
All through the rest of that long night they watched the sky ahead. The wind became variable toward dawn and backed to the south. They feared that they would be becalmed, but then it steadied again. They braced round the yards and the ship heeled in the stiff breeze. Brown water coursed along the larboard scuppers.
As the sky lightened with the dawn, a great pall of smoke could be seen rising ahead, so the sun rose a baleful blood red. On either side, the growing light revealed low hills, green with trees and meadows. Now and again they passed lone cottages or small villages on the left bank, surrounded by tended fields and with a fishing coracle or two drawn up on the strand, but they saw no sign of life or movement. Still there was no evidence of damage, and they surmised that the people of Lebennin had fled from their homes in fear as the Umbardrim fleet passed.
The wind continued to back, reaching southeast, but as the River was trending now more to the northeast, the sails could still draw well with the tacks taken well forward. The sun was climbing high in the east and burning a sickly yellowish-red in the battle-wrack when they heard shouts from the ships to their left. The nearest ship hailed.
"Lord Cirdan!" cried her captain. "The ships to leeward report that Pelargir is just coming into sight around that furthest point, distant perhaps three leagues."
Cirdan lifted his speaking trumpet and called back. "Pass the word to close up to windward, Hithimir. If we skirt the east bank we can preserve secrecy as long as possible. How fares the city?"
Hithimir turned and spoke the next ship as the yards were braced up hard. The ships began to close with the flagship. There was a brief conversation they could not make out, then Hithimir turned back to them.
"Pelargir does not yet appear to be burning, my Lord, though it is wreathed in a great column of smoke that rises from someplace near the River. Anduin itself seems to be clear as far as they can see."
"What? No ships from either side? Where are they?"
Hithimir held up his hands. "They said no ships could be seen, my Lord."
Cirdan lowered his trumpet and turned to Gilrondil. "What think you of this, Sailing Master? Where is the fleet of Pelargir?"
The Master shook his head. "I know not. Perchance they were taken unawares at the quays and had not the time to cast off. And yet they have patrols in the River and watchers along the banks. There is some mischance or evil here we know not of."
"There will be no more mischances today!" cried Cirdan. "Clear for action! Let the archers prepare."
Then everyone hurried to their appointed tasks. Pots of pitch were brought out onto the castles and small fires were built under them. The round shields were taken down from the bulwarks and placed by each fighting station. Those Elves not at the sails or helm gathered atop the castles. Their esquires drew buckets of water and soaked the decks and rigging, then dipped cloths in the River, ready to beat out flames. Grappling hooks stood ready beside coils of line.
Finally all was in readiness. The fleet had drawn in hard against the eastern bank and formed into two columns. No word was spoken as they rounded the last bend and came in full sight of the city of Pelargir.
There before them in the angle between two rivers stood a high round hill, crowned by a great walled city. Banners fluttered from tower and battlement and from the highest point a tall slim spire pierced the sky. A great bridge arched over the smaller river on the left. At the eastern end of that bridge, under a bluff close beneath the western walls, the fleet of Pelargir was clustered at the quays. But lo, they were all aflame, and a great black column of smoke licked with red tongues of flame rose above the walls. Along the strand to the right, many long black galleys and galleasses were drawn up on the sand. A roar of many voices and the sound of clashing steel drifted across the water.
Cirdan steered directly for the quays, and with the wind more free the water curled back from their bows. Now they could see men on the shore, like a black tide flowing out of the galleys and up the road toward the city. Near their head some huge engine crept forward: a massive battering ram pulled by thousands of slaves.
Still they sailed on undisturbed. Now they could make out a group of men by the ships; officers, they supposed, from their high gilded helmets. They were all looking up at the city and the siege engine toiling slowly toward the gate. They seemed to have no eyes for the River at their backs.
Finally, when the Elves were nearly halfway across, someone must have turned and seen them. A lone trumpet sounded, high and clear above the tumult. And the men of Umbar turned at the sound and beheld the White Fleet of Lindon bearing down upon them with war, and they were smitten by a great fear. Then did Cirdan have all the trumpets be sounded and the Elves gave a great shout and clashed their arms together and made a fell clamor.
The legions of Umbar turned and raced for their ships, heedless of command. The slaves dragging the ram dropped their ropes and milled in confusion. Several of the ships cast off and backed desperately into the stream to meet the foe, their banks of oars flailing wildly. Others hesitated, waiting for their complements to return. Those arriving at the strand leaped aboard the nearest ship, so that many galleys sailed with barely a warrior aboard, and others with so many that there was but little room to stand. The slaves at the oars, hearing the trumpets and tumult but unable to see what was happening, panicked and crossed their oars and the helmsmen struggled to hold their courses.
Havoc reigned amidst the black fleet as each ship tried to back and turn to meet the foe. Ship collided with ship and men were thrown into the water. Oars clattered together as neighboring ships tried to gain room to maneuver. One long galleass became turned across the strand and was struck by several other ships attempting to move away from shore.
But the Corsairs were accomplished seamen and were soon bringing their ships under control. Within moments a score or more of bireme galleys and six or eight heavy trireme galleasses pulled free of the wheeling, jostling press of ships. Across the water came the beat of drums and the cracking of whips, and the banks of sweeps began to rise and fall as one. They looked like great birds of prey, the oars like beating wings. They quickly formed into a wide arc, the flanks slightly in advance of the center as they moved out to meet the new enemy.
As they approached, the Elves could make out better their appearance. The hulls were long, narrow, and low, the oarsmen protected by leather covers so that only their oars could be seen. Narrow raised walkways ran the length of the ships, and these were crowded with armed men. The sterns curved up into carved heads of dragons or other foul beasts, but their prows terminated in long brazen rams edged with sharpened teeth on either side.
Cirdan ordered the mainsail braced round to spill its wind and allow the rest of the fleet to form up into a wedge behind. The warriors stood motionless, gripping their weapons and watching in fascination as two thousand black oars dipped and fell and the Corsair fleet gathered speed.
When the fleets were separated by no more than two cables' lengths, the Elvish archers dipped their shafts in the burning pitch and sent a continuous rain of fire into the advancing galleys. Several sails burst into flame and men toppled from the fighting bridges as they were pierced by flaming arrows, but the line did not waver and the oars continued to dip and rise with a terrible regularity.
As the ships closed further Cirdan let a horn be sounded and the Elven ships behind wore ship to meet head-on the enemy flanks, now closing around them. But the flagship steered directly for the center, straight at the largest galleass, a giant trireme with a battlemented aftercastle. A few scattered arrows began to fall among them, but with little effect. The Corsair archers were pinned behind their shields by the hail of Elvish fire-arrows, and smoke now streamed from a hundred places on the hull.
Cirdan had the helm put over slightly to starboard, exposing his larboard bow to the cruel ram, now less than a hundred yards away. The galleass swerved slightly to keep the ram aimed at their bow. Cirdan snapped out a few quick orders and held his hand above his head. The ships rushed together at tremendous speed. Then, just as collision seemed inevitable, Cirdan dropped his arm. The yard was braced hard around just as the helm was thrown hard to larboard. The great sail was brought aback with a thunder of thrashing canvas. The ship lurched and groaned, but was nearly stopped by the sudden pressure of wind on the front of the sail.
The bow swung sharply toward the enemy. His ram frothed by but a few feet from their bow as, with a terrible rending and splintering, the entire starboard bank of oars was sheared off by the white hull. Then her aftercastle was drawing alongside Amroth where he stood in the stern. He saw her commander sitting in a high seat like a throne. He was leaning forward, shouting to his helmsmen, but before he could speak Amroth had put a shaft through his chest, pinning him to his seat. Quickly fitting another shaft, he brought down one of his officers and Gilrondil beside him felled another, even as they passed out of range astern, crippled and aflame. The Elves cheered as they leaped to the braces to come about while the esquires carried the wounded below. They had lost only two dead and three wounded and the galleass was destroyed.
As they wore ship close under the shore, Gilrondil turned to Amroth. "Fine shooting, my Lord Amroth. You sent two shafts true to their mark before I could get one away."
The Wood-Elf grinned. "Perhaps my poor short Sindarin bow is not without its uses at sea, Master." But he thought Gilrondil still looked unconvinced as he bent again to his quiver. A young Elf ran by, his arms full of arrows, filling each archer's quiver.
Then they were heading back toward the fray and found a brief moment to look about. Several galleys lay motionless in the water, wreathed in flame, and men were leaping into the River, only to find themselves amidst a mass of maneuvering ships and razor-toothed rams. The River was choked with the wrack of ships and many white hulls lay split and broken. Finarthin's fair corbita was gone, and Linroth's, and Belcarnen's drifted rudderless and aflame.
Then out of the tumult and smoke, two lean galleys drew off and made straight for the flagship. One soon pulled ahead and the other followed close on his larboard quarter. The Elves again let fly their rain of flaming arrows, and in a moment had nearly swept the leading ship's forecastle clear.
"The helmsmen!" Amroth shouted. "Aim for the helmsmen on the second ship!" A dozen keen-eyed Elves let fly at once and one helmsman slumped to the deck. Another leaped to his place just as the second helmsman clutched his chest and toppled into the River. A final deadly volley cleared the aftercastle and the galley rowed ahead with no hand to guide her. Seeing this, Cirdan put his helm to starboard and swung across their bows. The leading galley wheeled to engage them, and the other drove full into her side. The wounded ship was lifted high onto the other's prow, spilling men into the River and fouling her sister in rigging and wreckage.
Cirdan came about and hove to close to windward of the crossed hulls. He called for the grapples and three hooks looped out over the enemy ships. Many eager hands tailed on to the lines and drew the hulls alongside. While the archers sent a hail of arrows into the warriors clustered on their aftercastle, Gilrondil and a score of bold Elves leaped to the rail. "Elbereth!" they cried, "Elbereth a Manwë!" Then they threw themselves onto the enemy ship and cut a bloody path along the fighting bridge with their spears and swords.
At the foot of the ladder leading to the aftercastle, they were halted by a desperate defense. There stood a man, tall for his race, in a captain's lofty helmet, and surrounded by six knights. They held long curved sabers and their eyes were hard and fearless.
Gilrondil halted and called out, "You are defeated, Men of Umbar. Lay down your weapons and your lives shall be spared." But their captain gave a grim laugh.
"Accursed Elvish meddlers! Would you spare my life? But I would rather take the life of an immortal!" And he swept his saber over his head to slash down at Gilrondil, but he fell pierced through by Gilrondil's spear. The captain's knights fell upon the Elves fiercely, but in a few moments of deadly fury all lay sprawled on the deck, though two Elves lay stretched out beside them. Then Gilrondil took up the captain's saber and with a single stroke hacked the black banner of Umbar from its staff and it fluttered into the River. The boarding party freed the grapples and scrambled back to their own deck.
Their shipmates greeted their triumphal return with a cheer, but it died in their throats, for at that moment a trireme passed by close to larboard and sent a deadly fire into them. All around Amroth Elves fell to the deck, pierced by long black-feathered arrows. Gilrondil fell groaning, a shaft through his thigh. One of the helmsmen dropped and another took his place. The galley sheered off and swung about to engage them again. Amroth took careful aim as it receded and put a shaft through the back of its captain. The ship wavered and the drum stopped. The oars hesitated briefly, and in that moment an Elf on the forecastle let fly the catapult and sent a great stone hurtling toward her. It dropped through the leather shield into the slaves' benches and must have torn right out through the bottom, for the oarsmen on that side threw back the shield and began leaping into the water.
The Elves had no time to attend to them. They left the crippled ship dead in the water and listing heavily, and jibed to return to the fray. There near them was Hithimir's great corbita. Her forecastle was aflame and her decks were littered with the dead. Though there were few left to sail her, she was coming about to return to the battle with Cirdan. Side by side they drove grimly down on the wheeling, circling ships.
As they approached, a galleass moved out to meet them. Their fire raked her decks and took a terrible toll, but her men were staunch and quailed not, but stood and returned shaft for shaft. Then her catapult clattered and a huge ball of flame arced roaring toward Hithimir's ship. It burst full on the sail and burning oil drenched all the rigging and those on the deck below. Amroth could see Elves rolling on the deck and beating at their clothes, but soon the whole ship was aflame. Many leaped into the River but they could not aid them, for the galleass was nearly upon them now.
Cirdan tried his old trick, throwing down his helm and backing the sail. The bow veered to larboard and the flagship heeled steeply, dangerously close to capsizing. But the enemy captain was quick and swung his bow to point at their exposed side. They could hear the slavemaster's drum beating an ever-quickening rhythm and saw the warriors on her bridge clashing their swords on their shields and howling with the battle madness.
They braced themselves for the inevitable collision, but in that last moment came aid unlooked for in the shape of a hellish apparition. Between the two closing ships drifted a blazing tower of flame. For one instant they could see Hithimir at the helm of his ship in the midst of the flames. His clothes were scorched and blackened, his hair was smoking, but he seemed not to notice as his blistering hands strained at the steering sweep. Then came a deafening grinding crash and a long black ram burst out of the flames and stopped, quivering, a few feet from their side. Hithimir's blazing rigging toppled and fell with a roar over the black galleass, impaled on its own bane. Cirdan circled the burning ships, but from that inferno came none alive, neither Man nor Elf.
"Helm alee!" cried Cirdan. "After them!" Amroth looked up from the burning ships and saw a black galley pulling away from the engagement, making for the eastern shore. It was just then passing close under their stern as they began their tack. Looking back, he saw a group of tall men in dark robes on her quarterdeck, not fifty yards from where he stood. Just forward of them, a group of seamen were clustered around some kind of engine he could not make out, but a column of smoke rose from it. They suddenly jumped clear, and with a loud explosion, a ball of flame arced straight toward Amroth.
He had only time to shout a warning and throw himself to one side. He heard a deep-throated roar and felt a blast of heat as the projectile sailed past his shoulder, then a crash behind him. Wheeling around, he saw that the ball had struck the quarterdeck rail, sending a wave of flame along the deck and down the side of the ship. Instantly a dozen Elves leaped forward, beating at the flames with their wet cloths. He heard a cry of triumph behind him and turned to see the Umbardrim officers jeering at them. One, taller than the rest, stepped to the rail and shook his fist at them. He had a long aquiline face and a great hooked nose. For an instant their eyes met, and Amroth was struck by the look of pure hatred in his gleaming eyes.
In spite of the flames licking around them, the Elves soon brought the ship around in pursuit of the fleeing galley. With the ship close-hauled, the wind fortunately carried the flames away from the sail and rigging. Soon a hose was brought into play and the pump manned, and the fire was extinguished. The galley was rowing into the eye of the southeast wind, so the Elves were forced to beat into it, losing ground to her at each tack. They were perhaps two hundred yards behind when she reached the shore opposite Pelargir and drove heedlessly straight into the strand at full speed. Her mast toppled forward, crashing down into the banks of rowers. All aboard were thrown from their feet, but the officers were soon up and running forward, clambering over the backs of those struggling to free themselves from the tangle of rigging that now covered the fore part of the ship.
Cirdan tacked once more, heading for the beach beside them. The boarders had already gathered on the forecastle, ready to leap ashore. Figures were now pouring out of the wrecked galley, jumping over the bows or clambering over the tangled mass of oars along the side. Most seemed to be in panic, trying to reach shore, but one group around the bow was still under command of the officers. A gangplank had been let down to the sand. Several figures jumped onto it to flee, but were shoved off by the officers. Then the Elves saw why. A great black horse, snorting and struggling in fear, was being led up from below. Somehow they managed to get that mighty stallion down the plank in the midst of much shouting and confusion. The swan ship's prow scraped onto the sand a hundred yards to the left of the galley.
With a cheer of "Elbereth Gilthoniel," the boarding party leaped down. Amroth followed, his bow and short sword at the ready. After over two weeks at sea, the land seemed to be still rocking under his feet. Fifty strong, they quickly formed up and began trotting toward the stranded galley.
The horse was ashore now, and the officers were clustered around it. Amroth saw one mount the horse, and recognized again that sinister face he had seen glaring at him. He cast a quick look in their direction, then spurred the horse viciously and it leaped forward, throwing up sprays of sand at each stride. He was making for an opening in the trees that stood behind the beach. The Elves veered to their left to cut him off. He never slackened his pace, but drove straight toward them. Several Elves drew arrows from their quivers and prepared to bring him down, but he burst straight into their right flank. The horse simply rode down two of their number and the Corsair slashed down with his sword, slaying another Elf reaching for the reins. A dozen arrows whistled around him, two rebounding from his mail, but then he was past. The horse plunged up the steep slope of loose sand, then they were gone amid the trees. They last saw him riding hard, not south to his allies in Harondor, but northeast, toward the mountains of Mordor. A ragged cheer arose as the Corsairs saw their chief escape. The Elves turned and advanced toward them and the battle was joined in an instant.
Many deeds of bravery were done in the next few minutes, and many a brave Man and Elf died there, their lifeblood seeping away into the sand. But in no more than ten minutes the fight was over. Many of the slaves had refused to fight and stood now in a terrified group at the water's edge. But the Corsairs fought bravely and well, asking and giving no quarter. At the end only two of the Corsair officers remained, standing back to back amid a circle of their slain comrades. They would not yield and glared at the ring of Elves around them, waiting for the end. But then an Elf grabbed up a piece of boarding net lying there and threw it over them so they were encumbered. Several Elves leaped forward and bore them down, disarming them and binding their hands. They raged and cursed at their captors, as if by sparing them they had been done a grievous insult.
Cirdan called to the frightened slaves, saying "You are now free men. If you wish, we will take you to Pelargir. If you give your bond not to take up arms against us or Gondor, we shall see what can be done to return you to your homes."
The poor bedraggled group gave a weak cheer, and all gave their bond. Gilrondil led them and the two prisoners back to the ship, and in a few moments more they had pushed off and were returning to the battle on the River.
But lo, every sail they saw was white. On every side burning ships and capsized hulls settled hissing into the befouled water, now choked with bodies, and a brown smoke masked the scene. The pungent reek of battle burned their nostrils. After the shouting and tumult of battle, the River was again quiet, save for the crackling of burning ships.
They stood silent at the rails, gazing sadly out over what had been but moments before two proud fleets. The Black Fleet of Umbar was no more, but of the forty sails that had sailed from Lindon, two and twenty would never again part the blue river Lhûn, and many a fair Elf that should have lived yet long ages would never see Elvenhome.
At last Cirdan winded his horn and the remains of the White Fleet drew up behind him. Squaring their yards, they ran up the Sirith to the Havens of Pelargir.
A fierce battle was still raging between the city gate and the bridge ahead. Although their fleet was broken, the Men of Umbar were not yet defeated. Those who had been unable to reach their ships had made a determined stand. When the city's defenders had seen the fleets engage, they had sallied forth and fallen on their discomfited foes. The Men of Umbar, their means of escape destroyed and their ranks in great confusion and disorder, quickly found themselves on the defensive. Their slaves, ignored and leaderless, flung down their weapons and either fled the field or lay down in surrender. Their former masters had fallen back from the gate and regrouped, forming into tight-packed squares of archers with pikemen around the edges, forming a bristling wall. Now they were driving determinedly toward the bridge and the road to Lebennin. Even now they drew near the eastern towers of the bridge.
The Pelargrim defenders still held the bridge, but they seemed strangely few and greatly outnumbered. It was clear that they could hope only to hinder but not halt the retreat of the Umbardrim.
"Cirdan!" Amroth cried. "Land me on the west bank with a stout band and I will hold the bridge!"
He turned in surprise. "Are you not yet weary of battle, Sinda? Or is it perhaps that you long for the land under your feet?"
Amroth grinned and pointed to the swan's head above him. "Your swan has served us well this day, Lord, but I will not miss her overmuch. I prefer more solid footing when I fight."
"So be it then. Curulin! Starboard your helm! Put her on the strand there nigh to the west end of the bridge. Our Wood-Elf here would go ashore. And not too near the rocks there. Gilrondil, signal the fleet of our intentions. Let all those who would follow Amroth have their chance."
The war-torn little fleet drove its stems into the sand. Amroth lifted the staff and banner from the taffrail and leaped to the shore, followed by a score of archers. Then more and more mariners leaped down, until the ships stood nearly empty.
At last even Cirdan jumped down beside Amroth. He gave a quick smile. "It would seem that I must follow if I am to continue to lead. Let us then fight together on land as we have at sea. And he took from him the flagstaff. "Onward now!" he cried. "For Elbereth! Elbereth and Gil-galad!"
"Elbereth!" went up the cry from many throats, "Gil-galad our king!"
From every ship Elves poured down until a large company of several hundred lined the narrow beach. They climbed the bank to the road, formed up again, and marched to the bridge. There stood two strong towers with a lofty arch thrown between them. But their parapets were empty. Many of the Elvish archers climbed the towers and took their positions in the embrasures and in the windows. Those with pikes or spears knelt across the road under the arch, forming a triple wall. The rest stood behind them with arrows already notched to their strings.
A few minutes of waiting, then there came a triumphant shout and a body of armored men rushed over the crest of the arched bridge. Their panoply was black and crimson and their faces wild and fierce, streaked with sweat and smoke beneath their golden helms. One bore a staff with a standard of a sable ship on an red sea. The were looking over their shoulders as they ran, laughing and jeering at their pursuers. When they saw the Elves blocking the road they halted, cursing and looking from them to the men rapidly coming up behind them.
Cirdan stood forth and called to them in a loud voice. "Men of Umbar!" he shouted. "Yield, for you are bested. Do not make widows of your wives!"
But the one carrying the banner spat toward him and shouted, "The women of Umbar would rather be widows than the wives of cowards." Then he rushed forward with a hoarse bellow, followed by all his comrades. A hundred bowstrings sang as one, and not one of the Corsairs reached the lines unwounded. Their leader, pierced by many arrows, swung his standard like an axe, striking down several Elves, then he disappeared beneath a flurry of flashing swords. In a moment it was finished. Not one knight of Umbar remained alive.
Then came another company of men racing onto the bridge, but these bore plumes and shields of blue. They halted when they saw the Elves standing over the dead Corsairs. Cirdan and Amroth advanced to meet them at the center of the span. Their standard bearer dipped his banner and their captain lifted off his helm and knelt to Cirdan. He was fair of skin and dark of hair, with a stern and proud countenance. He had some of Isildur's and Elendil's look to him, but to Amroth's Elvish eyes he looked more like to those other Númenóreans who lay about them.
"Well come indeed, Firstborn," said the Man. "I am Duitirith, son of Barathor, the Lord of Pelargir. And I say unto you: Pelargir is yours, for you have purchased it this day with your immortal blood. Come into the city, and Pelargir will do what it can to welcome you with honor and gratitude."
But Cirdan bade him rise, saying, "Nay, stand, Prince Duitirith, for today you have shown that you can stand against all odds. I am Cirdan, and we came not to accept your city but to aid you in your hour of need."
"And verily," said Duitirith, rising, "that hour had for us come, Lord Cirdan, for we could not have stood an hour more. Come, all you brave Elves, and visit the city you have preserved. We shall feast in your honor."
And he led the Men and Elves together back to the city. As they approached, they could see that the walls were blackened and streaked with smoke. The huge oaken gates were cracked and splintered, and the immense brazen battering ram lay flung down beside the road amid piles of the fallen.
They reached the gates and stopped. A voice called down from the ramparts above.
"You are come to Pelargir upon Anduin. State your name and your land and the name of the lord you serve."
Cirdan stepped forward and called out, "I am called Cirdan Shipwright, Master of the Havens of Mithlond and Guardian of Lindon in lieu of my king, Ereinion the Gil-galad. These are my friends and allies, of many Elven lands."
"You are then a friend of this city," replied the voice. "Enter in peace, Cirdan of Mithlond." The gates creaked slowly open with a great rasping squeal, for the hinges were sprung and the timbers splintered. They trooped into the city as the citizens of Pelargir cheered from the rooftops and balconies.
Cirdan looked about in surprise as he walked slowly through the streets.
"I see many women and children, Prince Duitirith, but few men. Where are the rest of your warriors?"
"We had fewer than a thousand men in arms, all told, when the Corsairs fell upon us. I do not rightly know how many remain, my Lord."
"How can this be?" said Cirdan. "Pelargir is a great city ringed with fertile fields and many villages."
"Aye. Last week, my Lord, we had more than six thousand, but they have ridden with Barathor to Osgiliath to give aid to the king of Gondor."
"The king? Isildur came here? When?"
"He rode from Linhir and the lands to the west, but five days past. He bore evil tales and ill tidings and sought our help against Mordor. But my father was loath to yield so many fighting men when we lay under the peril of a Corsair raid. Then did Gildor of your people arrive, saying you were but a day behind, and Barathor departed with the army of Pelargir, leaving us to hold the city until you arrived."
"We would have been here two days ago, but we were delayed by a fierce tempest that swept down on us from the east and carried us many leagues from shore. Have you suffered heavy losses by our delay?"
"We needed every man upon the walls, and so dared not keep the fleet manned. We lost too many at the quays when they came on us in the night, but most of us reached the walls. We maintained some pickets at the Ethir, but they too must be destroyed."
"Alas, it is so," said Cirdan. "We saw the fires from afar yestermorn, but could not come to their aid in time to save them. We saw no survivors."
"The Corsairs do not leave survivors. It is as we feared. Many good men have died."
"They died unbowed, Prince, for their ship's wrack bore still the colors of Pelargir. They died in a hopeless fight, but not in vain, for the very fires of their death called us in haste to your aid. Grieve not overmuch, Duitirith. Your city yet stands, your people are still free. My fleet shall remain here with you and my shipwrights and sailmakers are at your disposal. We shall guard the Ethir and the coasts until your fleet is ready once more. And with the Black Fleet destroyed, there should be little fear of attack. Long will it be ere Umbar again sails against Pelargir."
"Aye, my lord, our hearts are indeed gladdened in the midst of our sorrow. Long have we lived in the shadow of fear. It is difficult to realize it is over at last. We shall feast this night, a night we thought never to see but a few hours ago."
They reached a great hall surmounted by a towering blue spire and entered in. A man came to greet them, his head bandaged and his arm in a bloody sling.
"Lord Cirdan," said the Prince, "this is Luindor, Captain of the Ships of Pelargir. He has done great deeds this day."
Luindor bowed to Cirdan and was surprised when Cirdan bowed in return.
"All the people of Pelargir have done much and borne much today," replied Cirdan.
"Thank you, Lord," said Luindor. "From all the people of Pelargir, thank you. You have saved our city and our lives. I saw your engagement from the battlements near the gate, and I have never seen a naval maneuver carried out so handily."
"We took them unawares and unprepared. If they had been fully manned and had time to prepare for us, the day could have had a very different outcome."
"Nonetheless, you made use of your advantages and reacted with great alacrity. Smartly done, sir. I salute you, one naval commander to another." And he brought his sword across his chest in salute. Then his face darkened. "But I forget myself. I am no longer a naval commander, for a city without a ship has no need for a Captain of Ships."
"You will be Captain of Ships as long as you can stand a deck, Luindor," said Duitirith. "The fleet shall be rebuilt immediately. Have you not told us many times that we needed newer ships? You are forever bringing us plans for more modern innovations you want to incorporate in the next ships. Hardly is the keel laid before you want to change the plans."
"But they are all gone, my Lord. All my beautiful ships: Míriel, and stately Indis, and long-honored Melian, and... and all. Long will it be ere such ships grace Anduin again."
"Perhaps not so long, Captain," said Cirdan. "For among my people are many shipwrights and sailmakers and all the maritime trades, for we have been building ships in Mithlond all this age. They shall remain here to help you to rebuild. And I will send our own pickets to guard the Ethir and patrol the coasts, so that the South Gate of Gondor remains safe while your ships are building."
Luindor's face brightened at once. "I would be most happy to talk with the architects who designed your corbitas, my Lord. Never did I think a ship so large could turn in its own length, yet I swear I saw it happen more than once in the engagement. With a score of ships like that I could hold the Bay of Belfalas against all foes!"
Duitirith smiled at Luindor's eager face. The waterfront was still smoldering, and already Luindor had twenty swan-ships on the ways.
They were seated at long tables in a large and lovely hall. Platters of food, hastily prepared, were brought out with flagons of wine and mead. Then a beautiful woman appeared and bowed to the Elven lords. She wore a flowing green gown that accentuated her long red hair. She went to Duitirith and threw her arms about him. She held him tight as if to convince herself he really had survived the battle. Duitirith kissed her and smiled at his guests.
"My Lords, may I present my mother, Lady Heleth? Mother, this is Cirdan of Mithlond and his lords and allies." Cirdan introduced his companions, and her eyes were shining as each was named. Finally she burst into tears of joy.
"Welcome to Pelargir, my Lords," she said, wiping her eyes. "Forgive me, but I cannot contain myself. Since the earliest hours of the morning we have seen our ships burned, our people slain, our gates shattered. We looked only for death before the evening. I tell you, Lords, when I looked out from the Blue Tower and saw your ships gleaming in the morning sun, I thought I saw Eärendil returned from the sky to save us. We shall forever be indebted to you."
"Fair Lady," replied Cirdan. "I am only sorry we did not arrive earlier and spare you this day of horror."
"Lord Cirdan, you have freed us of a horror that has loomed over us all our lives. We have paid a terrible price, but if the might of Umbar is broken, the cost is well spent."
They fell to their food then and all ate with good appetite, for none had broken fast that day. Men and Elves laughed and talked together and exchanged tales of their parts in the battle. Amroth sat between two ship captains, one of Pelargir and one of Mithlond. The Elf told of driving his ship toward a great trireme, using the Corsairs' own ramming tactic against them.
"I kept the helm over slightly," he said, "so that we turned into them, like this." He swung two loaves of bread in the air, arcing one into the side of the other. "They saw us coming at them and put their helm hard over. I could hear their slavemaster drumming for all he was worth. If they had pulled hard, they could have slipped past us, but the oars just drooped into the water and stopped. It was as if they just gave up and waited for us.
"Then the oarsmen on the side toward us threw back that leather cover they're under and stood up, shouting and waving their arms. I thought they had panicked, but just before we struck, I could hear what they were shouting. They were cheering, crying 'Gondor! Gondor! Gondor!' Then I realized they must be captives taken from Gondor. They were being forced to attack their own city, and they would row no more for Umbar." He shook his head grimly. "We cut them in two. We cut them in two and had to leave them there in the water, and still they cheered us. I'll never forget it."
The Pelargir captain was silent a moment. "It was always thus when we fought the Corsairs," he said. "We knew they had our people at the oars, but what could we do? We had to do our best to sink them, knowing our brothers or sons might be aboard. Many more brave men of Gondor died today than fought in Pelargir."
"None were braver than the garrison at the bridge," said a Man sitting on his other side. "Young Foradan had only twenty men to hold the bridge over the Sirith. Several of the Umbardrim galleys landed beyond the Sirith and their companies had to cross the bridge to come at the gates. I saw the battle from the top of the gate. Foradan's men formed a line across the road at the near tower, though hundreds of the enemy were already on the bridge. They didn't have a chance and they knew it. It was a terrible bloody fight and soon over, of course, but every one of them fell where he had stood. Not one had been pressed back a foot." He shook his head sadly. "Young lads, they were, all of them, not one more than eighteen."
Though their conversation was grim, many others in the hall were joyous, and laughter was often heard. The people of Pelargir felt as if delivered from a sentence of death, and the Eldar were ashore again after a long and perilous voyage. And all felt that strange guilty joy a soldier feels after a deadly battle when he realizes that, though many have fallen, he has survived.
Duitirith seemed in particularly good spirits. He offered toast after toast to Cirdan and the other Elven-lords. His young face glowed red with pleasure and with mead. Suddenly his clear laugh cut across the room. He was standing, holding up his drinking horn.
"I just want to see my father's face," he roared, "when he returns in great haste and finds us not besieged but besotted!"
Cirdan turned to him in surprise. "Lord Barathor is returning to Pelargir? You sent word to him?"
"Oh, aye, many hours ago. When the pirates first struck, I sent my esquire riding as fast as he could after him."
"But this is not good," said Cirdan. "If what you have told me of Isildur's fortunes is true, the loss of Barathor's men will leave Osgiliath but weakly defended."
"But the battle is over," said Duitirith, suddenly sober. "The Corsairs are destroyed and the Gate of the South is secure. We have won."
"Do you think that because we have destroyed its fleet we have defeated Umbar? Umbar is mighty yet. It has other ships. It has great forces on land, and they have allies: the men of Harondor and Far Harad will rally to Herumor's banner. And Umbar is but one weapon in Sauron's arsenal. Even were the Empire of Umbar broken and humbled, he could discard it like a broken bow string and simply take up another. Nay, this was but a skirmish before the true battle begins."
Duitirith paled and the hall fell quiet.
"The Lords of the West decreed that a council of all our allies be held in Osgiliath in but three day's time. If Barathor is not there the council could be delayed and our long-planned stroke go amiss. The war could yet turn on this chance. Indeed, this could have been the whole purpose of the Corsair attack -- not to take Pelargir, but to delay the council." He sat a moment, deep in thought.
"Duitirith, Lady Heleth," he said. "We thank you much for your hospitality. Long has it been since we sat at board with friends and laughed. But we must go to Osgiliath with all possible speed."
"Now?" asked Duitirith in amazement. "But you are just out of battle. You have barely eaten. Rest here tonight, and in the morning..."
"We cannot wait until morning. You do not know all that hangs on this. If our plans are thwarted and we are undone, you will find a far greater peril than the Corsairs of Umbar at your gates, and there will then be none to come to your aid. Cardur! When can we have a ship ready?"
Cirdan's senior surviving captain pulled himself gingerly to his feet, a bandage about his wounded leg. "There is hardly a ship fit to sail, my Lord," he said. "but in a few hours, I suppose, if we..."
"Good. Luindor! How long would it take a ship to reach Osgiliath?"
"It is sixty-five leagues, Lord Cirdan, against the current. Three days, at best."
"And if we ride?"
"The road is but fifty leagues. A day and a half, perhaps."
"Then we must ride. Just as well, we would have a better chance of intercepting Barathor. Prince Duitirith! Can you provide me with six swift horses?"
"Of course. Glamrod, make it so. Have them brought to the ships of the Elves. And provide them with plenty of provisions, for let it never be said that a guest of the Lord of Pelargir went away hungry.
"And Lord Cirdan," he went on, "when you meet my father he will wish to come here to help us. He must not. Urge him to return to Osgiliath with you, for the greater need is there. Assure him that we are well and with the help of your Sea-elves we are secure and repairing our defenses."
"My lord," said Cirdan, "I shall do so. Clear it is to me that you are managing a difficult situation admirably. You will be a great lord one day."
Duitirith fairly swelled with pride and pleasure at this compliment.
"Cardur," said Cirdan. "I leave you in charge of the fleet. See first to the repair of the ships. When a dozen are ready, send them at once to the Ethir and see that no other unwanted visitors enter the River. Luindor, you have full use of all our resources. Use them to begin rebuilding your fleet. Amroth, Gilrondil, you're with me. Bring your esquires. The rest of you, give all necessary aid to the Men of Pelargir. If you are attacked, hold the line of the River at all costs. Now, let us away. Farewell to you all, people of Pelargir."
And with that Cirdan strode from the hall. There was a moment of stunned silence, then everyone jumped to their feet and hurried to their duties. Amroth bade a hasty farewell to his new friends and hurried after Cirdan.
As they passed through the city they saw people busy on every side. Some were tending the many wounded, others were still dousing fires set by the Corsairs' catapults. A wagon rattled by with several still figures lying beneath shields. There was much emotion in the air, a mingled grief and joy. Many bold warriors wept openly even as they toiled, for nearly all had lost friends and comrades in the battle. And yet Amroth could see in many faces a light of happiness, for the battle was won and the city safe, at least for the moment. At the feast too, he had been struck by the almost carefree joy of many of the young Men and Women there, who only hours before had been prepared to die and leave the world forever. For his part, Amroth knew that the events of this day -- the fear and horror of battle, the friends slain -- would be in his heart for thousands of years. Amroth thought as he watched them how the emotions of Men seemed to flit through them more swiftly than do those of the Elves.
He had time to note also the city around them. This was his first glimpse of a city of Men. He had often heard tales of fair Annúminas, Elendil's city by Lake Nenuial, but he had never visited it, imagining it but a crude imitation of Mithlond or Caras Galadon. But now he saw he had misjudged Men. Pelargir was a much newer city than even the most recent of the Elvish settlements, though doubtless its people would think a thousand sun-rounds a long time. And it was not built with the arts of the Firstborn. It was built of stone, without spell or power to bind it save that of plain mortar. How many brief lives of men had it taken to cut these stones and drag them here and erect this city; to carve its columns; paint its frescoes; tile its courts; pave its streets? And each artisan knew that he could not hope to live to see the work completed. Did they build it for themselves, or for their children, or for some other goal? And he realized that he would like to return to this land in happier times, if such were ever to come again. He wished to know more of this curious race, to live among them for a time and learn their ways.
They reached the gate and waited but a few minutes for it to be dragged open, then hurried down to the ships. They gathered their belongings and called their esquires, Cirdan snapping out orders to his officers all the while. They had hardly finished when Duitirith's Man Glamrod appeared with six beautiful sleek horses.
"These are noble animals," said Amroth, stroking the neck of one. "They are from Duitirith's own stable, my lord," said Glamrod. "They will bear you with the speed of the wind."
Cirdan leaped to the saddle of the first horse. "They will be cared for and returned to your lord as soon as may be. Our thanks to you, and to your master."
"Follow the road from the bridge, my lord," Glamrod called. "Take the larger road at each turning, and the second evening should find you before the walls of Osgiliath. A fair journey to you."
Then the esquires ran up, still chewing their dinners, and began strapping the packs to the saddles. Gilrondil limped up, his wounded thigh wrapped in a linen bandage. He mounted without requiring aid. Amroth turned to the people of Pelargir who had come down to the strand to watch them.
"We thank you all, good people of Pelargir. You have made us feel at home in a distant land."
"May Eru bless you and your city," called Cirdan. "Now, we ride."
They spurred their horses up the bank to the road, turned left, and galloped up a long rise. At the crest they paused to look back at the city. The high towers of Pelargir gleamed against the afternoon sky. A thin smoke still trailed up from the valley of the Sirith just beyond.
"A fair city," said Amroth. "I would not like to see it a citadel of the Enemy."
"Nor I," said Cirdan, "and if that is not to be its fate, we must ride as if borne by eagles."
Then they turned and thundered down the slope to the long road winding away across the plains.
This story was inspired by Tolkien's work.
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