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Unto the ending of the world: 26. Commission
May 28 – 29, 3019
"My lord, will you take the helm to bring her into port?" At the question from the Falcon's captain, Imrahil looked up from the map he had been studying.
"If you will," he replied.
As it had when he steered the Falcon out of the harbour at Dol Amroth, Imrahil's mood lifted with the ship's response to his touch. He had not wanted to do it; to enjoy even the simple pleasure of sailing felt wrong when Erchirion… Yet the crew would be upset if he broke with tradition; having their lord at the helm at the beginning and the end of a trip brought luck, and he would not have them sail under a bad omen.
Apart from that brief stint out from Cobas Haven, it really had been too long since he had held a ship's wheel in his hands, Imrahil thought as he followed the captain. Even so, the task failed to take his full attention, letting him continue his train of thought about what he would find in Pelargir. Before he returned to Dol Amroth, there had already been talk among some of the minor lords, questioning Denethor's leadership and even his sanity, after the Steward had placed Gondor's crown on the pyre beside the one who had come to claim it. The lords had attempted to draw him into their plotting, but he had been clear that he would have no part of it. He had little taste for such games, and Gondor could not afford division. Also, unlike them, he would not make the mistake of assuming that Denethor did not know what he was doing, or that he would long tolerate this dissent.
Of course, Imrahil had questions he wanted to ask Denethor. Though he did believe that Thorongil, Aragorn, had been the Heir of Elendil – even if proofs would have been required had he formally declared his claim on the throne in front of Steward and Council – the Prince was uncertain of Denethor's position. Had the Steward merely made clever use of an ambiguous situation? Imrahil knew of the scroll in which Aragorn had confirmed the position of the Stewards in Gondor, and with that in hand, Denethor could do no other than publicly aver that he believed Aragorn was what he claimed to be. That said, the Steward would not have needed to go as far as he had in his acknowledgement if his purpose was solely to strengthen his own position. Expediency did not explain that; there had been no need to acknowledge that Isildur's Heir was also Elendil's Heir in Gondor.
Imrahil was willing to wait for clarity; if there was one thing he had learned over the years, it was that trying to second-guess Denethor was rarely successful. Denethor had acknowledged the claim, but he had also made it clear that Aragorn had been the last one anywhere who had a valid claim on the throne of Gondor. Yes, Imrahil would wait and see how things developed.
And then Aragorn himself... Imrahil had recognised him as Thorongil as soon as he set eyes on him on the Pelennor, and regretted still that there had been no opportunity for them to speak. Even after these many years, he would have liked to know why Thorongil had abandoned Gondor so abruptly after his victory against Umbar. But there was little point now in considering might-have-beens; all that was in the past, and he had enough to occupy him without further adding to it.
They were still some distance from Pelargir when they were hailed from a smaller vessel. Not long after, the Falcon's captain approached, leading a man whom he introduced as their pilot.
At Imrahil's questioning look, the pilot explained, "There are too many wrecked Corsair ships along the river to let anyone come in without guidance."
Letting the pilot take the helm, Imrahil moved to the railing to watch as they approached the port, joining Elphir who had been there most of the morning. From out on the river, the damage Pelargir had suffered in its capture and retaking was much more obvious than it had been inside the town. From what he could see of the work being done, it was more than just repairs, and some thought was being put into strengthening the defence of the quayside.
Elphir waved at someone standing on the quay, and Imrahil realised Faramir had come to welcome them. Imrahil raised a hand in greeting as well, then as soon as they were moored, he jumped down to the quay.
"Welcome, uncle," Faramir said, adding with a smile. "You seem eager to come to land."
"Hardly," Imrahil replied, "But it is better than waiting until the plank is finally lowered."
Faramir said nothing to that, then asked after a while, "How are Lothiriel and my aunts?"
"Yávien and Lothiriel are well, under the circumstances. Ivriniel has been ailing, though she finds some distraction in my grandson." Imrahil did not voice his concern for his sister, who had grown increasingly frail over the winter.
"Alphros is two now?" Faramir asked.
Imrahil nodded, but before he could say more, Elphir joined them and with a proud paternal smile interrupted, "Yes, and walking and talking well for his age."
"If I have time, I will come to Dol Amroth soon. It has been too long since I last visited," Faramir said as they started the walk from the harbour to the castle.
The next morning, Imrahil cast an impatient look at the door to the council chamber, then glanced at Elphir sitting next to him. At least his son kept his impatience with the delay well under control. Imrahil could barely keep from getting up to pace as they waited for the last arrivals to the Steward's Council. It would have to be Faramir who kept them waiting.
Imrahil's relief that he and Elphir had not been the last to arrive, turned to wondering what had delayed his nephew. Glancing at the Steward next, the Prince was surprised to find his own unrest echoed in the tension in the other's posture; Denethor was usually better at hiding his emotions.
It was strange; they had spent their lives watching and waiting for the Enemy to attack, and now the War had come, and after the initial confrontation they still waited. Yet it was not the same. Too much had happened that he would not have held possible a year ago; Sauron held the One Ring again, and had thus regained all his strength of old; Minas Tirith was in the hands of the Enemy; the King had returned – and how that phrase would have set his imagination alight that year ago – and had almost immediately been wounded beyond hope. Imrahil still wondered if he should have ridden out in support as soon as he had seen Elendil's standard raised over the Harlond, rather than wait for Mithrandir's prompt.
Though Denethor had not said anything to him about that sortie beyond the last Council in Minas Tirith, Imrahil knew his willingness to follow the wizard's lead had not been forgotten, nor had his conciliatory position in the Council. Denethor's behaviour towards the Northerners had been an outrage, even if Imrahil understood why the Steward had been goading them as he had. He had been impressed by the control the northern Chieftain and the Half-elf had shown; even he would gladly have struck Denethor more than once in that meeting, and he had the advantage of being used to his kinsman's manner.
Faramir's arrival, together with the Lord of the Keys, allowed Imrahil to stop his thoughts before they turned to the evacuation of Minas Tirith and having to leave Erchirion behind. He had gone over it more times than he cared to consider already; better to clear his mind and pay attention to the council.
Meanwhile, Faramir had turned to Denethor. "My apologies for our late arrival, my lord, but a messenger from the garrison at the Crossings of Erui came in as I made my way here. There was an attack there three days ago."
Denethor's expression immediately moved from disapproval to keen interest and, as Imrahil noted Angbor of Lamedon leaning forward anxiously, asked for more details.
Both Húrin and Faramir sat down as Faramir replied. "A group of about a hundred and fifty Uruks attempted to overrun the defenders of the Crossings. They were beaten back, though some few made it across before they were killed."
"Losses?" Angbor interrupted sharply, then immediately cast an apologetic look at Denethor. "Your pardon, my lord."
The Lord of Lamedon was in an interesting position, Imrahil considered. His quick support of Aragorn had not done his relation with Denethor much good, even if he now emphatically supported the Steward against the murmurings among the minor lords that Denethor's rule – or his mind – was failing. Whether or not Angbor had realised it at the time, the decision to give horses to the Grey Company so that they could leave Gondor the quicker had been important for more than one reason. While it allowed the Northerners to return home and start preparing their lands for war, it had also removed a source of internal strife from Gondor.
Imrahil had spoken long with the northern Chieftain, and he had learned that Halbarad was close kin to Aragorn, though apparently not close enough to claim the title of Isildur's Heir without challenge. Had Halbarad and his men remained in Gondor longer, no doubt some of those who now stirred against Denethor would have been emboldened by the presence of one who could be used to weaken the Steward's position, and might have attempted to build a plot around him, whether or not he was willing to support it. While the spectre of the Kinstrife had not the power under the Stewards that it had when there still was a King, the memory of that dark time in the history of Gondor was never very far away.
"Eleven badly wounded, eight dead." Imrahil was drawn from his musings by Faramir's reply to Angbor. "The messenger has a detailed report from the garrison's captain."
Angbor nodded his thanks for the answer as Denethor went on. "Did they expect further attacks?"
"No, not from what the messenger said," Faramir replied.
Angbor spoke again. "What do we do now? It will take me several days to reinforce the garrison."
Denethor responded. "Only replace the casualties, but keep another company within a day's march from now on. Other than that, we wait; and prepare for when the real attack comes."
"We just wait?" Forweg blurted out. "Cede the advantage to the Enemy?"
"He already has the advantage," Imrahil reminded the young lord of Lossarnach, "Unless you can think of a way to retake Minas Tirith and Osgiliath both." The Prince noted Denethor's nod of agreement as Forweg remained silent, looking daunted after daring to speak up in his first council. Imrahil made sure not to smile at the young man's unease. Forlong's grandson and heir had only been confirmed as lord of Lossarnach three days before. At least he was old enough at eighteen, even if only just, that no regent had to be named. Succeeding Forlong was a daunting task at best, and under the current circumstances...
It was a pity Denethor had decided not to reveal the return of the One Ring to Sauron's hand to more people, Imrahil thought. It would have been easier if all those present knew the truth of their situation. Húrin knew, and Imrahil had told Elphir, but Angbor, Forweg and the Harbourmaster did not.
Forweg took a deep breath before speaking again. "But what must I do? Half of Lossarnach will be cut off when the Enemy advances to the Erui, and there are still so many of my people in the mountain valleys."
"What do you yourself think is the best course?" Faramir now asked the young man in a gentle tone.
The lord of Lossarnach thought for some time, his uncertainty clear. Finally he replied. "If those in the north stay where they are, they can only escape into the mountains when the Enemy attacks, so maybe they should come south now. But Grandfather said before he went to Minas Tirith that I should hang on to the valleys as long as possible if we were to come under attack; and a lot of people would not want to leave either."
And that was the crux of it, Imrahil knew, for all of them. It could not be long until the Enemy advanced again; they would have to know where they should fight, and where to fall back and concede terrain without offering resistance. Yet Denethor would be loath to give up the mountains and access to the ancient secret strongholds that might become their final refuges.
"We must at least hold at the Erui," Angbor said, "But you should perhaps empty the high mountain valleys except for a small force of fighting men."
Denethor reacted after a brief pause. "Not yet; there will still be time for the people to take the mountain paths when Sauron advances again. It will be wise to be prepared for that event, though."
Forweg looked pensive. "Then that is the course I will follow, my lord."
The Harbourmaster was next to speak, sounding slightly peevish. "And what about the Crossings of Poros? Do we just wait there too until Umbar marches across?"
Faramir started to reply, but Elphir was quicker. "Umbar will not attack over land. They will concentrate on building a new fleet, and their losses have been bad enough that I do not expect them to attack again this summer."
"How soon do you expect an attack from Umbar?" Denethor asked.
Elphir considered the question before answering. "Unless they come before the autumn storms begin, not until next spring."
Imrahil shook his head. Elphir was right in theory, but he was more pessimistic than his son. "Do not forget that their current lord" – he would not refer to the lord of Umbar by the title of King-in-Exile the Umbarites claimed for their rulers – "was likely deposed as a result of losing his fleet. His successor will be eager to prove himself. Umbar will do everything it can to attack sooner rather than later."
The Prince would prefer to know for certain what was going on in Umbar, but his spying network relied on traders and smugglers moving about, and trade had come to a halt with the war. What little they did know made a change in leadership very likely. Imrahil wondered which of Angamaitë's sons would grab power, or had already done so. No doubt whoever it was would seek the Dark Lord's continued favour by sacrificing his disgraced predecessor on the same altar on which Angamaitë had slain his own father after Thorongil's raid on Umbar. And though the thought of those dark altars was enough to turn Imrahil's stomach, he found there was a certain poetic justice in the probable fate of the lord of Umbar.
"How close a watch can you keep on Umbar?" Denethor asked Imrahil.
"Not close enough," Imrahil replied. "We cannot even get within sight of the coast. They may have lost their main fleet, but the coastal defences are still there."
"You may do better once the captured fleet is used," the Harbourmaster said. "You should perhaps not wait until the ships have new sails. Black sails may give a better chance to approach unchallenged."
Imrahil wished it was that simple, but then the Harbourmaster held his post because of his administrative talents, not his military insight. Any Umbarite ship's captain worth his salt would recognise these ships as the ones they had lost, and know that they were not manned by their own crews. Still, Master Indor had given him the opening he had been waiting for. From the quick narrowing of the Steward's eyes it was clear he had also noticed.
To the Prince's surprise, Denethor spoke himself, rather than let him broach the subject. He quickly dismissed the Harbourmaster's suggestion, then went on. "Once all ships have new sails, and they are otherwise ready for service, the fleet will leave Pelargir to be based at Linhir."
Linhir? That was unexpected. Imrahil had thought Denethor would, despite the ancient port's vulnerabilities, favour Pelargir as the fleet's base. As he looked around, it was clear all were surprised by Denethor's announcement. However, on second thought Imrahil could see that it made sense. If this fleet was to protect Pelargir and the Ethir as well as the falas, Linhir was almost as good a choice as Dol Amroth, even if its harbour was small, and the largest ships would have to go to Dol Amroth or Pelargir for repairs.
Even so, Imrahil felt a twinge of regret that he had not advised Halbarad to let him have control of the fleet the Northerner had inherited from Aragorn. Alas, Denethor would have taken that as an outright challenge to his position, as indeed it would have been. They would have done Sauron's work for him as Gondor destroyed itself in a second Kinstrife.
"Linhir?" the Harbourmaster said. "Why not Pelargir, my lord?"
Indor was not doing himself many favours in this council, Imrahil thought as Denethor replied. It was a good thing for him that he had at least turned out to be a capable administrator, for that made it unlikely that Denethor would replace him as Harbourmaster. The defence of Pelargir was another matter, and for that Imrahil expected either Faramir or Húrin to be named soon, if the Steward did not take charge himself. And who would be put in command of the ships? That would perhaps show where Imrahil himself stood as far as Denethor was concerned. There was also still the Captain-Generalcy to be considered; Denethor had already waited long to announce his decision on that, and it could not be much longer before he did. Imrahil knew the chance that it would be him was very slim, even if – or perhaps because – he would be a popular choice with many of the common soldiers.
With the Harbourmaster looking well-chastened, Denethor turned his attention to the others around the table again. He caught Imrahil's gaze as he spoke. "I trust I can count on you to command the fleet for me, kinsman?"
There was only one possible reply and Imrahil quickly nodded his acceptance. Once good crews were found and a patrol schedule set up, he would not need to spend all his time with the fleet. In the meantime, and while he was at sea, Elphir was fully capable to take charge of Dol Amroth's own defence.
"We shall discuss the details later between us," Denethor added. He then turned to Faramir and asked him to repeat his account of what he had found in Ithilien. Faramir did so, concentrating on the armies he had seen marching north from the Cross-roads
"I wonder where those troops were going," Forweg said once Faramir had finished.
"Rohan, I would think," said Húrin.
"No," Faramir and Denethor replied almost in chorus.
"We would have heard by now," Faramir went on, "And there has been no word of more than skirmishes. They must have gone further north. Have we not heard from the messengers from Rohan that the Rohirrim have allied themselves with Lothlórien?"
Imrahil hoped that, if the Enemy was indeed attacking there, the alliance between the Horselords and the Elves would allow both to stand longer than they would alone. Lothlórien was little more than a name out of distant legend, and few in Gondor had ever seen an Elf. Yet in Belfalas and Dol Amroth there were still remains of ancient buildings, and coves that held what was left of harbours from which Elven ships had once sailed West – long abandoned and fallen into ruin – to bear witness of Elves having inhabited these lands once. It was even rumoured that on occasion Elves from Wilderland would still sail from such hidden coves, but he knew of no reliable sightings. And of course there was the legacy of one Elf who had loved a mortal in his own blood, though little more remained than an occasional touch of foresight and a beardless chin. He wondered what had become of Mithrellas after she abandoned husband and children. Had his foremother sailed West, or did she yet wander the wilds of Middle-earth?
"Speaking of Rohan," Angbor now said, "Must the cost of the new messenger stations in Lamedon be borne by us, when I already contribute a considerable number of troops, while Lebennin contributes nothing except one messenger post?"
"Lebennin will provide much of the upkeep of the fleet at Linhir," Denethor responded, holding Angbor's gaze until the lord of Lamedon looked down.
Imrahil spoke immediately, addressing Denethor. "Should we not discuss the North also? Rohan is securing its northern borders, but there are also the Dúnedain and the Elves of Eriador to consider. Should not messengers be sent there soon?"
"They will be," the Steward replied curtly.
"And who will be sent?" Imrahil went on, ignoring the look Denethor gave him. The idea that Gondor might need to accept aid from the remnants of Arnor was a sore subject for Denethor, yet it had to be discussed.
"I have not decided yet," the Steward replied. "But most likely one of the higher-ranking lords of the realm, perhaps the Lord of the Keys, and one other."
Imrahil nodded, while noticing a distinct lack of enthusiasm from Húrin at this announcement. Had he not just been appointed to the fleet he would have offered to go himself, as he was more than a bit curious about what the North held. Perhaps Denethor might consider Amrothos as the second envoy.
After a longer silence, Denethor spoke again. "I shall think about the North later, but for now I would like to turn to Ithilien again. It would seem that even if North Ithilien is lost, the southern half is not yet."
Faramir, who had appeared to be deep in thought, looked up as the Steward addressed him. "Not yet, but it will be perilous to patrol near the Cross-roads. There are likely still Ringwraiths at Minas Morgul, and we have no cure to offer those who are stricken by the sickness they spread."
"But it can be done?"
"Yes," Faramir replied, "Though I would need to set up a new schedule for patrols to cover the south effectively."
"Leave that to one of your lieutenants; I have another task in mind for you," Denethor said.
Faramir looked at him expectantly, but Denethor waited until he held the full attention of all. "Captain, if you be willing, I herewith appoint you to the position of Captain-General."
Imrahil was watching his nephew, but still caught Elphir's surprised glance. Surely Elphir had not expected him to be given the post, certainly not after he had been appointed to lead the Corsairs' fleet?
An elated smile spread across Faramir's face as he replied to the Steward. "Thank you, my lord; I will give you no reason to regret your decision." Then his expression turned solemn again and he said softly, "I will try to be a worthy successor to my brother."
Once all had congratulated Faramir on his new rank, the meeting quickly came to an end, and Imrahil stood up to leave, but waited at a sign from Denethor. Elphir had joined Faramir and Húrin in a corner of the room. Denethor quickly came over to Imrahil. "I would send Elphir north if you can spare him in Dol Amroth."
"No," Imrahil replied immediately, "I was thinking that Amrothos might be a good choice." While he did not look forward to sending either of his sons into the unknown so soon after losing Erchirion, it would be good experience for Amrothos. Denethor looked doubtful at first, but then gave his agreement.
There had been many surprises in the day, but one thing was certain, the Prince thought as he considered the Council, any who believed that the Steward had lost his ability to rule, would do well to examine their own faculties, for Denethor had lost none of his.
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