“Plague and death to the king and all he holds dear!”
Mumbling curses, the crippled man dragged his body closer to the crates behind the tavern. Holding on to his crutch, he searched with his free hand through the garbage. A piece of moldy bread, a half-eaten potato and a couple of bones revealed a slow night for the tavern.
“Curses on those cheap Northerners,” he spat. He shoved his findings inside the folds of his tattered clothes and continued to search through the trash, but a sharp pain made him yelp and retrieve his hand. Sucking his injured finger, he kicked the crate with his good leg and almost lost his balance.
“Damned rats!” As the crate fell over, a fat rat came out of it. For a moment, it paused and turned around, rising on its hind legs. It sniffed the air, squeaked, and then ran into the shadows. The crippled man suspected that the rodent had cursed him back in its own vermin tongue, but he had no time to loiter in dark alleys picking fights with rats. He needed to make haste and return to his corner, before one of the numerous beggars of Umbar seized it. The crippled man walked down the alley, just across from one of the most popular taverns, and sat down beneath an arched doorway - one of the few corners at the area offering protection from the night breeze. Reaching inside his shabby clothes, he took out his loot.
The moldy bread tasted strangely salty that night, and when a draft brushed against his face, the crippled man realized that his cheeks were wet. Wiping his tears away with the back of his hand, he struggled to control his distress. How had it come to this? I was a good captain, my crew respected me and my ship was the pride of Umbar,
he thought, still chewing on the bread. I had an honourable name; Adnan the Black they called me, and my enemies feared my sail and my blade.
It took some effort to swallow his bite as the memories of past grandeur rushed in his head: riches, women, respect, and nightly feasts in the taverns, dining on juicy meat and drinking the best ale. Adnan stared at the piece of bread he held in his right hand. His face twisted, his left fist clenched until his knuckles turned white, and with one hasty move he tossed the bread away.
“May his house burn and his heart rot!”
A mouse appeared from the shadows, ran to the piece of bread, sniffed it and then ran away with the loot in its fangs. Adnan’s head fell backwards and leaned against the wooden surface of the door. How did I come to this, fighting rodents over scraps of food?
The memory of that fateful day rushed in, driving a spear through his gut.
They came riding the morning mists, shadows with fangs and talons, shades wielding axes and spears. They came upon them hissing and spitting, drooling poison upon the wounded, feasting on their fear, rejoicing in their deaths. They stormed the ships as they followed the banner of Seven Stars and the hand wielding Andúril, the Flame of the West.
The Dead came upon them and no Southern blade could cut them. When Isildur’s Heir released the Dead from their oath, Adnan’s crew lay dead or dying. The king’s men thought him slain and threw him overboard. The sudden chill woke him and he found himself amidst countless floating corpses in a red river. The glassy eyes of his former crewmen stared at him in frozen wonder and his heart fluttered frantically inside his chest as he swam away from the dead, leaving part of his sanity among his fallen comrades.
Adnan lost more than a leg that day. The agony he experienced when the healer sawed his decaying limb off paled in comparison with the everyday torment of his current life. In a town now occupied by the accursed Northerners, the former Corsair captain lived in shame, begged for scraps, and searched through garbage for food, fighting with vermin or other beggars over pieces of rotting leftovers. No matter how desperately he sought employment, no work could be found. The war had left Umbar a devastated city, its wealth spent and most of its people either crippled or lost. All I was ever good at was sailing,
he thought, lowering his head and folding his arms on his chest as the night grew colder. No ship captain would hire me now, the worthless cripple that I am. Not that there are many ships left – Gondor seized most of them, may their king die in pain and his house burn.
The memory of a white sail under a glorious sunrise and the sea-wind lashing his face as he stirred the wheel against the weather flashed in his head, making his eyes water anew over a life lost.
Adnan’s head suddenly jerked upward as the sound of a falling crate at his right pulled him out of his sulking. Another form came out of the shadows and Adnan studied the stranger, the fingers of his left hand gripping his crutch. Come to take my food, have you? I’ll crack your skull open, I will!
He never voiced his warning, though, waiting for the stranger to come closer. Under a starlit sky, Adnan saw that this person walked with a limp, dragging his left leg behind him, a long, ragged cloak over his features. Scratching his crotch, the stranger kept mumbling something; something like a nursery rhyme. When the words became clear, Adnan felt his skin crawl.
“Pretty, pretty stalks the night,
Pretty curses the sunlight.
Pretty comes without a breath,
Pretty walks a living death.”
Adnan recalled having seen this person before, yet always from a distance. This man was simply weird. Among Umbar’s beggars and rogues, rumour had it that this individual had once stumbled upon forbidden power and knowledge that eventually cost him his sanity. Others claimed that he had served the Dark Lord as his lieutenant during the war, but such a thing seemed simply absurd. The king had eliminated all of the Dark Lord’s servants, had he not? Often seen walking at the old harbour, this man spent his days mumbling his creepy rhymes and picking up all kinds of strange things: seashells, feathers, dried seaweed – even the corpses of various sea creatures. As the stranger walked closer, Adnan played with the idea of leaving in search of another place to spend the night. By this time, however, all the good spots would be taken. A sudden draft made him grimace, reminding him that his stump ached badly every time the wind changed, so, Adnan decided to stay at his protected spot and take his chances with the madman.
“Pretty, pretty pain and fears,
Pretty tastes of blood and tears.
Pretty comes without a breath,
Pretty comes on wings of death.”
Hardly an arm’s length away from Adnan, the man became suddenly aware of his presence. His hood fell back and Adnan saw the toothless, twisted grin appear on the man’s face.
“Hello, mate,” he cried, rushing to Adnan’s side. “This is a good night for a strong brew, is it not?”
As the man made himself comfortable beside him, a foul smell filled Adnan’s nose. More than the stench of an unwashed body, this smell reminded him of his lost leg, when maggots began to crawl out of his flesh. He reached out to his crutch with both hands to pull himself up and get away from this madman, but the stranger produced a flask from the folds of his filthy cloak and shoved it under Adnan’s nose.
“Care for a sip, mate?”
Adnan stared at the rough hand wrapped with stained rags, the yellow nails curved like talons and the dirt underneath them. With the taste of bile in his mouth, he shook his head.
“As you wish.” The man shrugged, uncorked the flask and brought it to his mouth. He gulped three mouthfuls with loud, slurping sounds and then put the cork back on. Hiding the flask inside his clothes, he turned back to Adnan with the same twisted grin on his face. “Strong stuff, I tell you,” he mumbled. “Make it myself, you know,” he added, his grin widening. The stranger eyed Adnan’s stump. “Been to war, have you?”
Adnan nodded, avoiding eye contact. If I ignore him, perhaps he’ll go away,
No such luck. The stranger patted his own bad leg. “I played my part in the war as well,” he said, lowering his head.
For a few moments, the grin vanished from his face, as if painful memories had resurfaced. Out of the corner of his eye, Adnan saw a multitude of emotions playing upon the stranger’s face: pride, lust, remorse, and most of all, hatred. Adnan crouched as far away as possible, regretting his decision to stay. Then the man raised his head again and looked him right in the eye.
“You have a name, mate?” His voice rang casual now.
The old sailor nodded. “They called me Adnan the Black.”
“Ah, a sailor, I bet,” replied the stranger, and winked. He raised his eyes to the starlit sky. “I too had a name once,” he said, his voice distant. “I cannot recall that name, but I remember the one my Lord gave me, so all would know who I spoke for.” A long sigh escaped his throat. “Were you indeed a sailor, Adnan?”
Adnan nodded. “I was a captain. Lost my ship and my leg at Pelargir.”
The site of Adnan’s last battle sparked the stranger’s interest. “Where the Dead came following Isildur’s Heir? I remember the black birds crowing the news of this battle when I rode to the Morannon. Ah, who could have known that the cursed ones would march against the Lord of Mordor?” He remained silent for a while, lost in memories and occasionally sipping from his flask.
During the uneasy silence, Adnan felt his lids growing heavy. He longed to rest his brow against the door, cover his body with his rugs, and fall asleep. Yet the strange man still sat comfortably beside him and Adnan sensed that he should never let his guard down around this individual. A burst of drunken laughter turned his attention across the street as a group of harlots came out of the tavern.
The stranger licked his lips. “I’d love a nice piece of those,” he mumbled, a lewd grin dawning on his face.
“It seems it’s a slow night for everyone,” replied Adnan. If he goes with the girls,
he thought, I will finally be rid of him and get some rest.
“Perhaps on such a slow night they’ll even accept clients like us, if this means a coin or two in their pockets,” he added.
“A coin, huh? They will need no coins after I’m done with them,” the strange man replied, his voice icy.
Adnan felt a tremor run down his spine. During his life as a Corsair, he had witnessed more than a few atrocities. I am no innocent man,
he thought, rubbing his arms as the chill reached his bloodstream, but I have never hurt a woman.
His fingers searched for his crutch and his eyes darted sideways to the other man’s twisted face as he watched the prostitutes. The stranger had grasped the side of his cloak, his fingers twisting and clenching the fabric in the most unsettling way.
“Pretty, pretty, such a pity,”
the madman chanted and Adnan realized that the crutch had slipped from his wet palms. Despite the cold, he was drenched in sweat. “Girl, I’ve got something for you,” cried the stranger, his eyes filled with evil intent, fixed on a plump redhead across the street. The woman never heard him – or else she simply ignored him. “Pretend not to hear me, filthy whore?” This time he kept his voice low, though, for a group of soldiers had just stepped out of the tavern and begun conversing with the women. “During my days of greatness, a single wave of my hand would bring an army of orcs to raid towns and villages,” he said bitterly. “Captive youths, Men or Elves, were mine to play with as I pleased. Ah, my crippled sailor, there is such pleasure to be found in pain, such purity in torture!” He turned and stared at Adnan. “But I suspect you already know that, my friend, do you not?” His hand now clenched Adnan’s stump as he leaned closer, so close that the former sea captain could see the veins in his eyes.
Adnan saw more than that, as the other’s face seemed to change. His features became foggy, his skin turned transparent, and a grinning skull surfaced before him. A forked tongue lashed between rotting teeth, dripping venom. Then an owl hooted nearby and the horrid vision vanished. As the stranger’s stench filled Adnan’s nostrils anew, he had no way of telling if his vision was the result of an illusion dispelled or a game of his frightened mind. I’ve had enough,
he thought, deciding he did not want to find out the truth. With a coppery taste in his mouth, he pushed the man’s hand away, grabbed his crutch with both hands, and pulled himself up. “Stay away from me, filthy madman!” he cried, hopping away as fast as his good leg could carry him while the stranger chuckled. The eerie rhymes accompanied Adnan’s frantic escape until distance and the sound of waves drowned the disturbing chanting.
“Pretty, pretty, kiss my blade,
Pretty shadow, pretty shade.
Pretty, pretty lies in mud,
Pretty tastes her tears and blood.”
Adnan never returned to spend the night at his arched doorway. A little voice inside his head kept telling him that he had barely escaped death. Sometime after that night, luck favoured him and he found employment in one of the ships, where an aged but skilful carpenter adjusted a wooden leg on his stump. In the months that followed, every time his ship docked at Umbar, Adnan stood at the bulwark, his gaze searching the alleys for a crooked figure. He never saw the strange man again.
The moon waxed and waned and the strange rhyme still troubled Adnan’s sleep, mostly during the hours before dawn.
“Pretty, pretty lies in mud,
Pretty tastes her tears and blood.”
He always woke up with a taste of blood and tears in his mouth.
Adnan never set foot on Umbar’s soil again.
Mady thanks to Lady Elwen for her beta!
Title belongs to Shakespeare.
The rhymes are inspired / adapted from a rhyme found in the computer RPG “Baldur’s Gate: Shadows of Amn.”
The madman Adnan meets is the character known as “Mouth of Sauron”, if you hadn’t already guessed. Of his fate after the Downfall of Barad-dûr nothing is known.
Morannon: The Black Gate.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.