41. Chapter Forty-one
'They are on this side of the river - what is it called again, Branduin?' The Ciryatur appeared to take the announcement as a personal insult. 'Are you certain?' He suppressed a yawn; when Gil-galad's messenger arrived he had probably been asleep.
'I am,' the King replied.
It was almost midnight. Glorfindel's premonitions had turned out to be correct: his scouts had sighted the yrch, as always operating under the cover of darkness, creeping towards them from positions Northeast and Southwest of the Sarn Ford. If they had not been detected, they would have surrounded the army hours before the coming of dawn would force the foul creatures into hiding against the Sun. Now, with some luck and a somewhat more co-operative attitude from the Númenorean, the troops on the wings could try to halt their advance, making it impossible for the foe to ring them in.
'If you attack them on the western flank,' the King went on, 'we shall take care of the other one.'
'We do not see quite as well in the dark as the Elves do,' the Ciryatur objected. 'Or the Orcs, for that matter.' The man was simply unsurpassed when it came to making insinuations. Gil-galad recognised the cough following this remark as Tárion's, but he knew that exchanging looks was not advisable.
'I think, my lord,' said the officer who accompanied the Ciryatur, 'that we have enough torches to light our way. And if not, well - the enemies cut down more trees than they needed for their fires, and the; wood is lying all about. Most of it is not resinous, but it will probably do well enough for our present purpose.'
Gil-galad gave him an encouraging smile. Some mortals were pleasant to work with, he reminded himself. 'Our troops will use torches, too. Not all our mounts possess the eye of the Eldar.' Many horses of Lindon were descended from the animals that Tar Aldarion had shipped from his island many yeni ago as presents to the Elves; the horses of Númenor were as famed as its archers.
'Very well then,' the Ciryatur said, nodding vaguely at the tent pole between his subordinate and the King.
After the details had been discussed and the orders dispatched, the Númenoreans left. Gil-galad turned to the captain of his guard. 'Well...' he said, pulling a face.
'Orcs indeed!' Tárion replied. 'What do you say, shall we ride?'
The King took his spear Aeglos and touched the blade; he could feel the metal vibrate under his fingertips. Like the Three Elven Rings, the spear was made by Celebrimbor son of Fëanor, but Gil-galad himself had also had a hand in its forging, wielding the hammer for the last strokes and sealing the work with a spell of his own. The spear was aware of the name of Sauron and knew that the Dark Lord was its destiny. One day, Aeglos would hit home - if it was the last thing the weapon would do in this world.
'Not yet - but we will stand by,' Gil-galad replied, addressing Aeglos as well as Tárion. He put the spear aside. 'Or do you foresee that the Ciryatur riding to the attack? If he does, then how could we stay behind?'
'I doubt it. Not that I take him for craven, but he seemed eager to continue his... beauty sleep. I suppose that being mortal, he needs it. So let us not be too harsh on him.'
'You are remarkably unforgiving, Valanya.'
'I still resent him for having upset you with his "catamite".' But Tárion was smiling faintly, Gil-galad saw.
'I think I shall tell Círdan,' he said, 'to reinforce his left flank. The country is more open to that side, so our enemies will probably advance faster there in an attempt to surround us and attack our rear.'
'They may be more numerous on the opposite flank.' Tárion spread his hands. 'But you are the strategist, Arto.'
'Sometimes,' Gil-galad told him, 'one has to gamble.'
When the King's message reached the rearguard, the two horses missing from Círdan's company were commanded back. 'The lord Shipwright needs his cavalry complete,' said the Sindarin Elf who relayed the orders to them.
'Understood,' Glorfindel nodded courteously, and the messenger left.
When they were alone again, the four of them exchanged glances. It hardly came as a surprise that Zaba was the first to raise her voice. 'I will not gallop in the dark in the company of Elvish horsemen. I do not fear those Orcs, but neither am I a fool, and I was not raised to be a rider.'
'Who suggested you were afraid?' Beregar said mockingly. 'Not I. Especially not as I am about to make the same objection. Like every Númenorean I can ride, but I never had any aspirations to be a horseman.' That was only half-true. His family had been too poor to afford more than a nag to pull the fish cart to the marketplace, and their boat had rocked as pleasantly on the waves outside Romenna as any horseback did on the hard roads. If he had envied the proud lords it had not been because of their great destriers.
You could have become a proud lord yourself if you had used the ring to your advantage, a voice suggested at the back of his mind. You would do better now if you still had it in your possession... The voice was that of a disappointed parent, but Beregar knew that it lied. There was no way he could ever have used the ring to his own advantage. On the contrary: the ring had used him in its attempt to rid its Master of his greatest enemy, the High King of the Noldor of Middle-earth. The young sailor Beregar had been no more than a disposable tool.
He listened to the voice with cold detachment; it had lost its lure. Yet he wondered why it was so clear. Beregar looked over his shoulder, his heart suddenly racing as if the Dark Lord's shadow could appear behind him any moment now. But peering into the night with stinging eyes he saw nothing but the stark outlines of trees and shrubs looking eerie in the light of their small campfire.
Calm down, he told himself. You are not going to panic. 'You two take the horses,' he said to the elves. 'We can always join the pedestrians.' He gestured at the foot soldiers aligning themselves behind their captains and a standard-bearer carrying the Shipwright's device.
Glorfindel and Gildor exchanged a look, as if they expected the silly mortals to be at each other's throats the moment they would be alone. Beregar was about to tell them that neither he nor Zaba needed a guardian when his mind seemed to catch a vague warning to watch out for the girl.
Of course! he thought, hoping that his reply would find its destination.
Glorfindel gazed at him for an instant; then he nodded at Gildor and they left, looking back only once before they vanished from mortal sight.
'Shall we join the ranks?' Beregar said to the girl. 'If I understood the instructions, correctly, we are supposed to spread eastward. So let us do some spreading.' When Zaba cast him a foul look he added: 'It is not as if you will be marching with your detested Númenoreans.'
'I see at least one of them here,' she said, remaining where she was.
'How horrible.' Beregar pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. 'You saw what the enemy did to the country that we have just crossed. Did my people also leave the charred remains of children behind, in addition to cutting down trees and shooting animals?' He was convinced they had not; no Númenorean worthy of that name would ever immolate a child of the One.(1)
When Zaba remained silent he asked: 'You do not like to admit that your beloved father accepted a ring from someone whose minions commit such atrocities, do you?'
She still did not speak, staring at the Elvish warriors. They were almost ready to march now.
'That ring is evil,' Beregar insisted. You know what it made me do -'
Now Zaba did react, and savagely, too: 'Do not blame an object for your own iniquities! The ring is innocent. My father never used it to evil ends. Never!!'
How do you know? Beregar would like to ask. But that would probably only make her shout harder, and several Elves were already staring at them. Subduing his voice he said, meaning less than half of it: 'Perhaps you are right about me. Perhaps it would not affect you - or your father - the way it affected me, if you know its secret.' His next words were more sincere. 'I am sorry that I took it from you.' As he had every reason to be.
The Elvish troops set into motion. If they did not join them now, the two of them would be left behind in the dark beside a dying fire, with Orcs roaming about somewhere in the vicinity.
'Zaba, I mean it,' Beregar heard himself add. He took a deep breath, for this was important. 'What was the secret? You can safely tell me now. The ring was ripped from my finger' - poor, mortal Beregar, maltreated by a big, bad Elvish captain! - 'I cannot abuse the knowledge now, can I?'
With brisk movements, Zaba started to walk towards the marching Elves. If this was an answer, it could either mean that she refused to tell him, or that she had lied and that the ring had no secret. Well, he would never know now. Resigned to this fact, Beregar followed her.
Then, unexpectedly, she did speak. Her voice was soft and young, and it sounded vulnerable and alone, reminding Beregar of the sweetness of their kiss before the gates of Mithlond. Under any other circumstances...
'The man who gave my father the ring,' she said under her breath, 'one of Sauron's great servants, who had been entrusted a ring of his own, told him that it could make him invisible when he put it on.'
'But how is this possible?' Beregar said immediately, greatly astonished. 'I remained visible while it was on my finger. So did Orgol.'
Without looking at him she replied: 'But neither of you had a right to wear it, and the ring knows to whom it belongs.'
He could not help himself. 'Do you have it? Did you take it back?' he asked, whispering now with regard to the Elves.
They had reached Círdan's warriors and stepped into line at the rear. Whether Zaba had heard his question or not, she did not reply. But her last words were true enough, Beregar reflected. That ring knew to whom it belonged.
The King and his guard were sitting their horses in the dead of night, a host of warriors arranged behind them. Across the fairly level ground, away to the east, they could see vague shapes move around, like dancers stepping out of time. A soft, shimmering light gleamed beyond one knoll, but its source was invisible. The noises of battle were a distant, unstructured din, occasionally pierced by high-pitched screams. Though they were able to discern their own tall warriors from the greater numbers of short, misshapen Orcs, it was hard to see which party was gaining the upper hand, if any.
Celebrían wished that experience had prepared her for this situation: too many stories and songs omitted to mention that a considerable part of war consisted of waiting. They would only come into action if the enemy threatened to break through. She scolded herself for not even knowing what she wished most: that the yrch would be beaten back, or that the signal to advance would sound and they would charge. Searching the faces of the guards nearest to her she did not see her own unrest mirrored there. They were seasoned warriors; many of them had served in the War of Wrath that had ended the First Age, and before that in the Wars of Beleriand. Perhaps they had actually spent more time waiting for their foes than fighting them.
'Do not fret overmuch,' she heard someone say. It was Argon, the Captain's second-in-command, who was looking back at her. Celebrían saw that her horse had stepped out of line, ears flattened; the animal must have sensed her unrest. Though Argon was the only one who spoke, to judge by the faces turned towards her the horse's movements had not only drawn his attention.
Two of the eyes resting on her belonged to the Captain. Was it a challenge she read in them? Was he determined to find fault with her? If that were the case, he would no doubt succeed - who was infallible? - but it would not be now, before anything had happened. She bent forward to whisper some soothing words into the animal's ears and gently nudged it back to its place again.
Looking up and into the distance again, she thought the scene had changed. There seemed to be fewer fighters now, and above all, fewer Orcs. Could that mean what she thought it meant?
1)Beregar couldn't foresee that his people would one day adopt the practice of human sacrifice.
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