47. Beneath the Trees
Beneath the Trees
There were arms grabbing him, clutching at his shoulder with the agony of fear, and yet the voice he had heard was not human like them. It had echoed in his head like the rumble of thunder, like the roar of the waves as they towered before his ship, dripping foam like fire from a dragon´s mouth.
The storm had crept upon them unnoticed, giving them no time to prepare against the onslaught. They had been drifting peacefully over a blue plain, when suddenly the blue had shattered into many shards, each of them pulling their boat in a different direction. The wind sang shrilly upon their heads, carrying grey thunderclouds that obscured the horizon.
"We must go back!"
Hannishtart shook himself away from the arms and knelt upon the deck, shaking violently. They couldn´t go back, not anymore. There was nothing behind them.
And there is nothing before you. There never was.
He looked around him, and saw that everything had gone pitch black. The world had shrunk, until there was nothing in it but the tiny vessel which held the four of them. And it was sinking.
With a strong, creaking noise, the planks under his feet burst open.
"He´s here! What do you want him?"
Hannishtart smothered a scream. His fall through darkness brusquely landed him in a bed of straw, wrapped in furs that exhaled a strong smell of cold sweat. A pale sun, shrouded in mist, rose behind the bars of a window, and someone was knocking at the door.
"What is it?" his voice inquired, his mind still trapped in the horror of his dream. He kicked the furs away, and his body felt the brief agony of the cold, until warm limbs pressed against his back.
"We have to meet with Rhuga. There has been a situation with those cursed barbarians", they replied from the other side of the door. He nodded, willing the last residual traces of fear to disappear from his mind.
"I am coming!"
The warm limbs moved away from his back, but this time he welcomed the chill. There was nothing like the autumn dawn of the North to bring a man back to his senses.
"You slept deep. They made big noise."
Hannishtart turned towards the woman who had left the bed, just in time to catch the sock that she tossed in his direction. She was collecting the clothes that lay scattered here and there, stark naked. Her dishevelled mane of hair, which was the colour of fresh straw, wiped the floor as she knelt to pick up something that had fallen under the bed.
Cold? What cold? he knew she would ask, if he marvelled at her ability to stay completely unaffected by what made a strong man like him shiver. It´s no cold here. Cold is up North where I was born, and warriors ride over frozen rivers without the need for a bridge. That is cold. And then she would laugh, and he would be left to wonder if she was mocking him.
He dressed swiftly, putting on layer upon layer of warm clothing while she unhooked a heavy fur cape from the wall and weighed it condescendingly. A heap of covers sprung in the wake of her steps as she passed by the hearth, and a dark face emerged from them.
"W´happened, ´rewegoingsmewhere?" the head mumbled sleepily. Hannishtart smiled.
"You can stay here and help with the cooking. I´ll be back later."
The face looked briefly relieved before he fell asleep again. If Hannishtart could not get used to the cold of the Middle Havens, the boy hated it with a passion. He had been born in Umbar, where winters were warm and summers scorchingly hot.
"Are they having dinner here too?" the woman asked in a pointed tone, putting on a shawl and tying it over her breasts right in front of him. Hannishtart had finished tying his shoes, and as he looked up he had to take a sharp breath. Her white, freckled skin fascinated him as much as it had fascinated countless shiploads of Númenoreans before him.
"Er... no", he replied, shaking the distraction away as if it had been a bug in his hair.
"Good." she nodded, pleased. He knew that she had noticed him acting like a fool, but did not mind it. "There´s not enough for many people." Turning away, she picked up the sword that rested by the door, and frowned at the renewed knocks that shook it. "Hanisar is coming! Stop hitting my door!"
In all that time, it had been impossible to get her to pronounce his name right. And it was mutual.
"Listen, Ulfin. If this takes too much time I may not be back for dinner either." He tied the scabbard to his waist, and stood at the doorstep. "Take care of Ashad until I return."
She nodded dully, already busy pulling the kettle away from the fire. A sunray pierced through the wall of clouds for a moment, wringing a golden gleam from her hair.
* * * * *
There were six men standing behind the door, all of them armed and covered in furs similar to his. Their horses had scattered behind them as they waited, and were grazing at the weeds that grew at the side of the road.
"There has been trouble with the timber workers. Rhuga claims that his men have been attacked by a horde of Northmen, and he is ranting that unless we guarantee their security the terms of our deal will be off", one of them explained to Hannishtart.
"Northmen? There´s been none of those around here since the wars. Are they sure?"
"Of course they won´t be sure, but they will claim it, and use it as an excuse to cause trouble", the Númenorean replied with a significant grimace. At a sign from him, one of the others had walked behind the hut, from where he emerged a minute later with Hannishtart´s horse in tow. Hannishtart grabbed the reins and mounted it in one sweeping motion; everybody followed suit behind him.
The land that surrounded them was very different from Umbar and Númenor. It held an almost otherwordly quality in his eyes, with endless barren hills that glittered with the morning frost. All the area had been covered in forest once, but it had receded many miles upstream because of the Númenorean hunt for timber to build and repair their ships.
What made the landscape really haunting, however, was the sky. Sometimes sunny, often clouded, it was never clear as in the other places of the world. The sun always felt veiled, as if a mist had broken it in pieces and taken the warmth away from its kiss, and its glow gave the land and the people a pale and eerie look.
The main road went side by side with the Agathurush, retracing its meandering course as the Haven by the sea grew smaller and disappared in the distance. It climbed slowly through higher and higher hills full of scattered stones, and broken stumps of what had once been mighty trees. There was no boat coming down the river that day, no barge foundering under the weight of timber sliding with the current towards the haven. Both land and river were ominously empty.
The ghost of a sun was already high up in the sky when they reached the village of the barbarians, and found a throng of men gathered before the gates. They were people of short stock, stronger than the Haradrim and also wilder-looking. In the past they had ambushed and killed Númenoreans in the wilderness, burned their timber and raided their encampments, and all these years later their outlandish paint and long beards still bore witness to their ferocity. Today in particular, the somber look in their eyes made Hannishtart acutely aware that allies could revert to enemies as easily as one could flip a blade.
As they drew closer, there was a murmuration, and someone shouted at them. Hannishtart ignored it, climbing down his horse with perfect dignity.
"I will speak to Rhuga and learn what has happened here."
His eyes sought one of the barbarians, whom he knew to be the brother of their chief. The man swallowed.
"He wants to see you", he said, his forced bravado shrill to the ears. Something had put those people on edge, beyond their usual mistrust of Númenoreans, and this did not help Hannishtart´s feeling of unease. As he followed the barbarian through the crowd, who stepped aside before him like reluctant waves before the keel of a ship, he wondered if things could have such an easy explanation as his men seemed to believe.
A horde of Northmen...
If it was true, it was dire news indeed. The tribes of the land had been a nightmare for the Númenoreans and their enterprises during centuries of raids and bloody ambushes. Like the Haradrim, they felt wronged by the Sea-men who had come to cut their forests and settle in their lands, and there was great tenacity in how they had refused to leave the desertic hills that had once been their home to make sure that their enemies would find no peace in them. Beaten over and over, they had just licked their wounds and attacked again.
This situation had come to an unexpected end twenty years ago, when suddenly a new people of fierce warriors with yellow hair had swarmed down the riverbanks, hacking and burning everything in their path. They came from the far North, rode horses, and did not know fear. Overnight, the local tribes had found themselves between two blades, driven relentlessly towards the territory of their ancestral enemies by the spears of their new ones. The old Commander of the Middle Havens, who had immediately seen the benefit of this situation, had agreed to take them all in. Then he holed up in the coastal settlements, well-protected by a fleet that brought regular supplies, and a sea that the Northmen could not penetrate. Before six months had passed, the Northmen were decimated for lack of provisions, and ships full of trained soldiers sailed from Sor and Umbar to prepare for a full-scale offensive. When the time was ripe the Númenoreans launched their attack, and such had been the slaughter that it was said that not a single yellow-haired warrior had been sighted ever since. Only the tales remained, of Northmen who sang in battle, of large Northwomen who killed themselves and their children before falling in the hands of the enemy -and of one girl who was taken before she had the chance to do so.
Ulfin -that was not how her name sounded in truth, but neither the locals nor the Númenoreans had managed better- had been quite young when her people came. Hannishtart had tried to ask her about the reason which had driven them to undertake such a journey, taking their women and their young with them, but that was the point where their usually fluid conversation dissolved into an excruciating jumble of strange words and broken concepts. All Hannishtart had been able to gather is that something ominous had happened, something that forced Ulfin´s people to leave their lands, but she did not know how to put it in words that a Númenorean could understand. She spoke of fire and worms, which reminded Hannishtart of tales he had heard a long time ago, and mountains, and strange people who didn´t seem to belong to any of the races that he knew of. There were some who were human during the day and prowled the woods as beasts by night, and others who lived deep underground and never came out until they turned into stone. Hannishtart had been frustrated enough to accuse her of lying; she had glared at him and refused to speak for the night.
As she had been captured by their new allies, who had been forced to agree to lay down their weapons and start cutting what they had heretofore claimed to be their timber for the benefit of the Númenoreans, they had let the barbarians keep their loot in order not to cause more ripples. She was, however, an object of the deepest fascination for locals and islanders alike, and after a rather ugly trouble arose between her and Rhuga´s main wife, the Númenoreans had been more than glad to take her in. In all these years their patronage had not dwindled, a remarkable circumstance given that she was of the short-lived people of Middle-earth. Hannishtart had been introduced to her as soon as he jumped off the ship two years ago, and soon they had grown quite close. Because of the boy, he had told himself. The boy liked her. They came from the opposite ends of the world and still he was fonder of the furs in the floor of her cottage than he was of any Númenorean blankets woven across the Sea.
"This way", his guide announced, as if he had never been there before. Hannishtart blinked to accustom his eyes to the darkness of the thatched cottage. It would not do to look disoriented once he was facing them.
Rhuga sat on a high chair, looking markedly down on him. His grey beard almost reached his belly, and his eyes were small and proud. Hannishtart had been warned hundreds of times not to give in to a barbarian, whatever his rank or the circumstances, so he did not bow.
"Greetings, chief Rhuga. I was told that there have been incidents with the workers," he began, getting quickly to the point. "I came here to be informed."
Those barbarians usually had two expressions when dealing with Númenoreans: fear and distaste. Rhuga´s face was brimming with the second now; though there was also something beneath, the same anxiety he had felt in the people outside. He spoke words in his language, which one of his men translated for Hannishtart´s benefit.
"See for yourself." Everybody´s gaze turned to the floor at his right, and as he followed them he realized that a large bundle of cloth was lying there, as if covering something. Even as he began opening his mouth again, two of Rhuga´s men knelt around the bundle and jerked the cloth away. Hannishtart could feel the breath of his companions, who had entered the building behind him, get caught in their throat at the same time as his.
One of the corpses had had both head and arms hacked off. The other had been cut in two by a very strong blow; the rictus of pain was somehow similar to a sinister lopsided grin. Blood had congealed over their clothes and skin, acquiring an almost black tinge and exuding an acrid smell that reached his nostrils in waves as the cover was lifted. He fought the urge to cover it.
"This wounds are known. Northmen did it."
"And where are those Northmen now?" a man of the Númenorean party asked, hiding his repugnance by arching an eyebrow. "From what I have heard of the past wars, stealth was not among their strengths."
"They came by night, swift in their large beasts. Up there, upstream." Rhuga´s arm pointed vaguely North, towards the river and the cutting areas. "Our people were sleeping, and they were all killed. No survivors."
"Then how...?" Hannishtart cut his companion with a sharp motion of his hand, and turned towards the old man in his chair.
"Guide me to the place. I want to examine it."
This time, Rhuga did not pretend that he hadn´t understood him. Before the intepreter could speak, he had already started to deliver his answer. Around them, a flurry of excited whispers arose.
"We don´t need examination. We need Númenorans to kill Northerners that kill our people."
"If you need us to get rid of your enemies, you will have to ask in a different tone", Hannishtart spoke forcefully now, though in his heart he was worried. Those people had been known to be quite cunning in the past. Could they be up to something? "I will not risk anybody´s life by acting rashly."
"We will not work until they are gone", Rhuga replied. "No timber. No ships."
"That is no good. You have to choose." Hannishtart looked directly into the old man´s eyes, and it soothed him just briefly that he saw him balk. "Who is your enemy, the Northerners or the Númenoreans? You can´t be an enemy to both." When neither he nor the interpreter made a reply, he shrugged. "Think about it."
The barbarians liked effect. They chose their chiefs among people who had mastered the ability to yell threats and glare at the others afterwards, and Hannishtart could perceive that he had hit the mark. Taking advantage of it, as their tempers were also volatile enough, he turned to the interpreter.
"I need two guides. Food, too." And the guides will taste it first, he thought as he saw a familiar, gaudily-dressed woman stand up at a nod from Rhuga and head towards the back door. "Zakarbal."
"Yes?" The young man who had argued against the barbarian logic turned towards him.
"Ride back to the Havens and tell the Commander that we need reinforcements. Go as quick as you can."
Zakarbal bowed, and strode away from the darkness of the building.
* * * * *
The guides offered to them were both young men. Though on foot, they were able to keep the speed of the horses, and did not seem tired even after trekking several miles upstream. Hannishtart remembered stories of those tribesmen as they had been before they joined hands with Númenor; how their swift and silent deployments had been impossible to trace until their axes were upon them. He hoped he had not been wrong to leave without waiting for the reinforcements.
"This way", one of them called in heavily accented Adûnaic. They had just left the desert behind and entered the Forest; an almost impenetrable mass of trees that made the islanders feel even more uneasy than they already were. Here, the barbarians seemed to walk at ease, choosing their path without a second thought and only stopping, now and then, to wait for them. It might have been Hannishtart´s imagination, but in this twilight they looked different, dangerous like shadows that were cast by no owner and powerful like warriors in their territory. For this was their territory, more than the cottages beside the river that they now called home.
That was why it came as a relief, mingled with shock, when the trees suddenly gave way to a clearing, littered with stumps that exhibited the marks of the saw like gaping wounds on flesh. When the weak sunlight fell upon them, some of Hannishtart´s companions muttered a prayer of thanks to the Lord of Battles, and the grip on the reins was eased as their companions shrunk back into their familiar clumsy and short figures. Suddenly, in a brief flash of insight that burst into his mind as the light into his eyes, the Númenorean warrior felt he understood, both his people´s strong will to cut all the trees that grew like a dark menace around their own settlements and the rage of the men who were made to tear their home and their strength apart with their own hands.
Those were dangerous feelings, and distracting, so he dismissed them with a shake of his head.
"Is this the place?" he asked. Beyond the clearing the Agathurush was full of barges, some empty and some already loaded with timber, but all of them tied to posts. Three wooden cabins stood behind them, and as their horses trotted towards them they had to wade through logs that had been half-chopped or just dropped there to await their turn.
"Did everybody flee after it happened?"
"No flee." One of the guides shook his head. "All dead."
They seemed to be growing shifty as they trudged on through the open space towards the river and the cabins. Hannishtart, who had been distracted by his thoughts, fell back on his guard. Starting with that fateful day when he arrived to Umbar many years ago, a young man in age and experience, he had been ambushed and trapped more times than he could count.
"Why do you stop?" one of his men barked at the barbarians. They had frozen in place after jumping over a log pile, right in front of the first cabin´s broken door, and seemed to be whispering among themselves. When they realized that the Númenoreans were right behind, they fell silent at once.
"Can be more of them", one of them explained.
"More Northerners, " the other supplied.
Hannishtart had heard enough.
"Northerners do not ambush. We would have heard them come from leagues away." He dismounted and stared both of them down, threateningly. "Why do you insist so much on them being behind this?"
"That´s right." The other soldiers followed his example, and fell behind him. "It is your people who have sneaked on us and stabbed us in the back since we ever set foot on Middle-earth, so how do we know it´s not some conspiracy of yours?"
"No conspiracy. Please." One of the guides was really young. "See."
Shaking away his reluctance, he advanced slowly towards the door and crept inside. Hannishtart prevented the other barbarian from following him with a sharp gesture of his hand.
"You can follow me. There are nobody. Only dead," the young man called, almost beseechingly. He sounded unnerved.
Hannishtart nodded. His men and the barbarian walked with him towards the door.
The first thing that struck him was the smell he had perceived down at Rhuga´s house, when the corpses were exhibited before him. Here it was stronger, and also more insidious, and he almost reeled at the impact. One of the Númenoreans grumbled a curse.
"What in the name of the Wolf..."
There was some light coming from the door, and from a window on the opposite side of the building. By its dim gleam, they could see that the ground was littered with corpses, every one of them as gruesome as those that had been brought to the village downstream. The air was buzzing with flies, worrying at their mouths and eyes.
The barbarian who had entered first was shivering. The other said something to him in their language, something sharp that sounded like a recrimination, and he tensed.
Mastering his repugnance, Hannishtart approached the corpses that lay closest, and started examining them. Various parts of their bodies had been hacked off, or sported large gashes through which they must have lost their blood. The tale they told was of axes, and a quick, frantic struggle after being caught by surprise.
"There", one of his men whispered, pointing at a corner. A man appeared to be sitting there, with his back against the wall; as he looked closer, Hannishtart realized that the body had been pinned in that position by an arrow that pierced its flank and then embedded itself on the wood. He walked over six corpses to kneel at its side.
The arrow was black and feathered. He grabbed the shaft and pulled with all his strength, until it wrenched free first with a shrill, then with a squelching sound. Some blood oozed from the re-opened wound as the corpse hit the floor.
Hannishtart brought the point to his nose, and sniffed. Beyond the scent of caked blood, there was another -one that he knew very well.
"Orc poison", he spoke to the silence.
"You liars!" There was the sound of running, and a struggle, and then a sharp noise as the angry Númenorean pushed the barbarian against the wall. His hand closed around his neck. "You knew all along! You probably are in league with them, you...!"
"Let him go." Hannishtart turned back sharply. His mind was still reeling from the implications, but he could not afford to look confused in front of the others. They had not wanted them to come here. They must have known they would see this.
"Why didn´t your leader want us to know about the Orcs?" he asked the young man, who was on his knees gasping for breath. Belatedly, he realized that the other had fled.
"Because they are in league with them!" the Númenorean who had held him a moment ago spat in anger. The barbarian shook his head, pointing at the corpses with his chin.
"No... league. No friends. Look."
Hannishtart knew where both his defiance and the other man´s suspicious attitude came from. He had heard the stories about tribesmen of the distant past, who left their land with the warriors of the night and never returned. Legends said that their skin had darkened until they became like them, but also that now and then a tribe warrior had killed an enemy that looked strangely like one of their own. The Númenoreans, who already saw this dark and elusive people as little better than Orcs, and who had dealt with the alliance between Haradric tribes and the folk of Mordor down the South, had not found this story hard to believe. There had been some interbreeding in the past, probably.
"You want to direct our attention elsewhere because we would not help you fight the Orcs." It was a statement, more than a question. "If it was the Northmen, we would have to go up in arms and protect this site because it was in the treaty."
The young barbarian seemed uncomfortable. He spoke without meeting his eyes.
"I...I do not know. I only... guide."
That was the truth, then.
"Once we were here with all our men, Rhuga hoped that we would be forced to finish the work even after we noticed that we had been deceived", Hannishtart continued.
"I knew we could not trust this lying Orc spawn!"
"No." For the first time, his glance was met with a defiant glare. The barbarian was frowning at him. "Orcs kill you. Orcs kill us. Night warriors hate us all. But we will not beg. That´s why."
"That´s why what?"
"That´s why they said it was the Northerners", Hannishtart finished for him. "They will not beg for protection." He looked beyond the belligerant young man, at the corpses that rotted around them. Orcs were not like Men, like any kind of Men, or so he had been taught long ago, in another life beyond the Sea. And yet, here in this shadow world, he had often seen them do the same things.
The Númenorean men, too.
"We will wait for the reinforcements outside" he determined. "I can´t eat here, there are too many flies."
"Maybe we should ride to meet them instead. There´s no point in remaining here", somebody suggested as he crossed the threshold, hungry for fresh air.
"Someone has been killing people here, and interferring with business", he replied, shrugging his shoulders. "Whoever it is, I will have them."
"I´ve heard it wasn´t pleasant when the forest tribes were our enemies." He opened the pack that hung from the horse´s flank, and extracted the bag of food the woman had given him. Her hands had been almost as large as his, they said she had drowned Ulfin´s baby with them. "We won´t convince Orcs to ally with us, but with this people it has been working for the last twenty years. By the Eternal King, how is one supposed to eat this?"
Inside the bag was a bowl of meat, raw and finely minced with herbs, and no tool to pick it up. Not even bread. Still wearing a stormy frown, the man who had argued with him made a disgusted noise and turned away.
"Put it on leaves, and roll them", the barbarian told him. Hannishtart realized that there was a roll of long, tender green leaves at the bottom of the bag, and sat on a log to extricate it out. Tree people, they called themselves.
The young man was staring at the distance, and did not reply. Still, as Hannishtart was wolfing down his food, he could surprise him stealing strange glances in his direction. It was only a moment until he realized it and looked away.
"What meat is this?" he asked, to break the uncomfortableness.
"Rat meat." The young man´s voice could not hide a trace of smugness as he said this. Hannishtart cursed to himself.
"It´s nice. You should have some, too. So it won´t go to waste, " he added, looking at the others, who were sharing some mouldy biscuits and markedly ignoring the barbarian food. The strange glance came back, with something that seemed like confusion.
"Are you going to fight Orcs?" the young man finally asked. Hannishtart nodded.
"Is there anything else you have been hiding on Rhuga´s orders?"
There was more silence for a while, only broken by the whispers of the other soldiers. Some were not happy with him, he was sure.
Finally, the barbarian spoke.
"It started three moons ago. They come at night, and they come to kill. Men fight bravely, but warriors of the night come again. And again. And again."
"So this has been happening for a while." The Commander had been complaining of the low level of production. "But this time was different."
The young man nodded.
"Too many of them. There was nothing we could do." We? "I had idea, of jumping inside barge and float downstream like logs."
"You were there?" Hannishtart was surprised. "Rhuga said there were no survivors."
Rhuga lied. Again. And of course he wasn´t going to hear that from this man.
"Come over here." The Númenórean put the bowl aside, and sat on the ground, pointing to a spot across him. After some surprised reluctance, his companion followed his example, watching as his fingers draw a neat square next to a winding line. "This is the river. This is the cabin. Now, can you explain exactly what happened?"
The young barbarian seemed torn. He looked at the figures as if he did not understand, then dragged his hand through the earth, as if fascinated by the lines that his fingers drew on it. His muscles were in tension, like those of a trapped deer.
"I... I was here", he finally stammered, pointing at the Southern wall of the square. His voice came out like a hiss, and Hannishtart was glad that the other barbarian was not there anymore "As guard. I was alone. Sleepy. And then... I heard..."
Behind them there was a small commotion. Three of the soldiers stood up, one of them pointing at the horizon while another muttered "At last!!" Hannishtart narrowed his eyes against the wind to take in the sight of the Númenorean host riding upstream.
"We have time. What happened then?" he asked the young man,whose misgivings had returned with a vengeance. Slowly, he set himself to coax him to look at the map again. "We are going to fight them. We could use your help. What happened then?"
The barbarian bit his lip.
"Then... they were here."
* * * * *
They were barely three hundred men, raised and equipped at short notice. As they trudged along the riverbank Hannishtart could make out their leader, a thin and severe man by the name of Barekbal who acted as vice-commander of the garrison at the Havens. He advanced at the head of the column, riding a bay horse, and motioned to him from the distance. Hannishtart stood up to receive him.
"Now what on the name of the Lord of Battles has been going on here?" Barekbal tugged at the reins until the horse was still; then fixed him with a grave look. "I trust you would not raise an army out of a whim."
Hannishtart considered this new development carefully. The arrival of this man meant that the decisions to be made would no longer be in his hands. Given what he had chosen as the best course just a while ago, and what he had been able to get out of the young barbarian in the meantime, this could easily lead to disaster.
"There has been... there has been great slaughter up here." He chose his words carefully. "Whoever did this, they were many, and strong."
"There were Orc arrows in there", one of his men informed, coming forwards. Hannishtart bit back a sigh.
"So it wasn´t the Northerners." Barekbal did not look neither angry nor relieved. "I wondered."
"As I said, whoever did this came in great numbers," he repeated in a louder voice, before anyone else could interfere. "I have been gathering information, and I think that their aim was not just raiding or pillaging. This is a cunning enemy, gathering and deploying their forces in preparation for a farther-reaching strike."
Barekbal arched an eyebrow.
"And how do you know that? Did you have the chance to chat with their general?"
"No. But they were very careful not to leave anyone alive. And they took nothing. They did not even stay to burn the timber." He levelled his incredulous superior with a frown. "This is not normal Orc behaviour. They are either allied with another enemy or following someone´s orders."
"Allied with another enemy, you say?" Barekbal´s small eyes fell on the young man who had been talking to Hannishtart until the Númenoreans came, and who was still sitting under the log, tracing lines in the dust with his finger. "Such as an enemy who showed every interest in the world in luring us here, and who lied to us about the threat we were facing?"
"That would make no sense, Lord Vice-Commander." Hannishtart protested. "They have suffered brutal casualties."
"Orcs tend not to respect agreements when there are humans to kill." Barekbal snorted, not amused. "That´s why they don´t make very good allies."
This entire train of thought was so absurd, and at the same time so predictable, that Hannishtart felt a momentary urge to scream in frustration. The irony of the fact that the barbarians had the better measure of them than they had of the barbarians was not lost on him.
"There were no survivors. The people who came up here to see what happened were distracted by fear. They would attribute this disaster to the fiercest enemy they could recall to have faced. And in any case" Hannishtart pointed North with his chin, "this is a serious threat that we should face, lest we want it at our doorsteps next."
"I will see about that. They still lied, and we must discover with what intent." The tone of the Vice-Commander´s voice was discouraging of any further argument. "By the way, Hannishtart. You are required to go back at once."
"I have been trying my best to do my duty since I was summoned", he protested. "I only ask for an opportunity to see it through."
"You did not understand me." Barekbal´s eyes narrowed. "You are immediately required to go back to Númenor."
For a while Hannishtart merely stood there, wondering if the humourless man was trying to pull a joke on him. A swarm of mad ideas took his mind by the storm, together with a fear he had almost forgotten he had felt once, before all these long years of living in the margins.
"What...?" he began, but his voice sounded as if it had come from a great distance, and he was not sure that Berekbal had heard it. "Who...?"
"A ship came in this morning. They came from the Bay of Gadir, with orders to bring you to Sor." You must pack your things and report to the Commander in the Havens as quickly as possible." The man´s forehead creased in a frown. "Your role in this mission is over now."
A moment ago, Hannishtart would have protested, asked for a little more time and worried about how the situation could escalate into a conflict with the local tribes if his advice was disregarded. But like his voice, all this suddenly seemed very distant now. Blood pounded in his ears.
"Who wants me in Sor?" he asked, trying to school his features into not showing his inner turmoil.
Barekbal looked at him. For a moment, Hannishtart could see something strange in his eyes, but he did not know what it was.
* * * * *
The sky was clouding as Hannishtart galloped down the riverbank and through the coils of the hillroad towards the coast, as swiftly as if a horde of Northerners was chasing him.
An attack by the yellow-haired savages had always been a possibility in this place, and those who claimed that they had known it was not them would lie, if they said that it had not crossed their mind even once. Now, they knew that Orcs were gathering their forces under the command of someone who had the ability to strategize, something that had not happened this far North except on the dusty scrolls of the Great Temples. The natives, themselves, were a fierce people on their own right, and a mere twenty years ago fathers still taught their sons how to creep behind their Númenorean enemies and cut their throats. Since he had landed on the Middle Havens, Hannishtart had awoken every morning ready to deal with these dangers, and before that he had dealt with many others, alliances of Orcs and Southrons sealed by their common hatred of Númenor, armies bred in Mordor to attack the Bay and secure its riches, villagers who turned out to be deadly fighters ready to catch him in an unguarded moment, merciless sieges and gigantic monsters who could trample a man with only one of their oversized legs. He had been horrified, he had been scared and he had been nauseated, and yet none of those emotions could compare with the old fear, which had remained deeply buried inside his chest since so many years ago that it had almost seemed gone.
Now it was back, racking his body with sharp pangs that alternated with the no less painful bouts of remembrance. For all these years, he had forgotten that the feelings connected to his homeland could be as bright and intense as the colours of its landscape, when compared with the veiled skies and foggy horizons that surrounded him now.
Once, he had been a prisoner in a merchant house, chasing the imaginary enemies of his mother´s tales through busy corridors and narrow stairs. He had been taken before the King in an endless hall of obsidian, a terrifying man with black and frozen eyes who wanted him dead though he did not know why. He had buried his head in the chest of a woman who shook, her fingers cold and clammy against his back after the unknown men fled from his chambers. His face had been pressed against the fumes of an altar of fire until he thought he was burning, but a man saved him. He had served Melkor, he had served Ashtarte-Uinen, he had thought that any day, at any moment, the king with the frozen eyes could change his mind and kill him, or murder his son. He was the offspring of traitors, of people who spoke strange languages and spoke of the Elves as if they were friends, and good, and wise. Through all these years he had forgotten their tales, but he had remembered their faces, and they had been kind and loving.
They had named him Amandil, in their tongue.
News of the death of the King and the sucession had not reached this Northern outpost until a month after it happened. He remembered feeling happy for the death of Ar-Gimilzôr, but the hopes he may have harboured in much earlier days, of the world turning upside-down and reuniting with his family and becoming a great lord had died long ago. He had chosen to live in the fringes, away from the sight and reach of the powers of the Island, and there he would remain until the end of his days. Nobody would be able to trace his son back to him, which would be a good thing for the boy and his mother, and his family would never know that he had betrayed them and sworn allegiance to the gods of their enemies and those who fought for them. This certainty had seeped through his very bones year after year, until it became the only thing he could see in the horizon.
And now, this certainty had blown to pieces.
What could the new king want of him? How could he have known where he was, who he was? Was he like his father, rooting the members of his family away from their hiding places to asssuage his fears? And if so... if he had found him, even here, wouldn´t he have found his son, who lived under his very nose in Armenelos? The idea frightened him more than facing a swarm of Orcs in a dark wood.
Reeling, he dismounted and walked away from his horse. His course had steered automatically towards Ulfin´s cottage, and it was there that he had arrived while he was too absorbed in his thoughts to pay attention. As he made it to the doorstep, he could hear voices coming from the inside, and stopped to peer through the window.
Ulfin and Ashad were sitting next to the fireside. She had bent over a pot, which she stirred with a large iron spoon while her other hand stretched to pick up something that he was giving to her. All of a sudden, it struck Hannishtart that he had inadvertently been building a family here, a family like the one he had left behind.
Ulfin raised her gaze from her cooking, and leaned towards the boy to tell him something. Their foreheads almost touched, Southern dark against Northern white, as if they were sharing a secret. The first raindrops pattered against the thatched roof and slid down the side of Hannishtart´s face.
She was not his wife. And he was not his son, not even hers.
Everything in this land, the fear, the love, had been false, a mere semblance of something that existed somewhere else.
The skies were dark with the colour of storm.
* * * * *
The sound of the door creaking open made them jerk apart from each other. Then she stood up, seeming strangely relieved to see him.
"I greet you back", she said. Behind her, Ashad hurried to pick up the spoon that she had discarded, and continued stirring without looking up. "A sea-man came earlier, a new one, and gave me something for you."
So they had been here, too. "What is it?"
Ulfin walked towards the darker back of the cottage, as the raindrops started hitting louder and quicker. While she rummaged there, Hannishtart turned his attention to Ashad, who had not looked at him yet. It dawned in his mind that maybe they knew.
"Did you have a good day?"
"...yes." The monotonous, almost inaudible tone contrasted sharply with the renewed vigour of the stirring. At that moment, Ulfin re-emerged with a small cylindric box in one hand. Hannishtart could recognize it as a Númenorean box for letters, and took it in some trepidation. It had no name or seal on the outside, but as he extracted the roll of paper his eyes widened.
"Who gave it to you and what did he say?" he asked, trying in vain to keep his expression guarded.
"He was tall. Dark eyes and dark hair, like all your people. Clothes smelled of salt", she began. "He said he came from Ga-dir in the South, and he had heard that you stay here for the night. So he gave me letter to make sure you read it and nobody else before you."
"And you read it", he hissed, more to find an outlet for the unbearable tension as he skimmed through the first lines. Absorbed in them, he missed her defensive frown.
"We are worried! And we cannot read all. Too many letters", she spat, as if she found that a cause for censure. Hannishtart´s eyes were starting to blur, but he still managed to decipher Pharazôn´s message.
Your house has been recalled and allowed to return home in the West, and this includes you. The King, however, does not know where you are. He is not as far-seeing as he wants others to believe, but I am. This ship will take you directly to Sor; all the crew is to be trusted. Do not trust anyone else. The merchants of Gadir are out for your blood, and their allies of Umbar and Sor will be only too glad to help them. Something about your ancestors being their rivals in business.
Destroy this letter as soon as you have read it, and then get into the ship without delay. We will talk about the rest when we meet in the Island.
(Your family is doing well.)
Hannishtart lowered the letter, taking a deep breath. His head was beginning to turn. So it was Pharazôn who had sent the ship for him. The King seemed to mean no harm, but there were other people who did, as it had always been since he was old enough to remember. It was difficult to decide what enemy was worse; everybody knew that Middle-earth belonged to the merchants, and so did the Númenorean harbour where the ship would be bound.
On the other hand, his family had been recalled. This had to mean that they were not traitors anymore, as they had always claimed. They would be able to go back to their beautiful stone harbour, their green lands and their groves of golden trees, which he had never seen but somehow kept in a corner of his mind, together with other blurred things that he associated with his blurred mother.
He should be happy. However, he did not seem able to muster that emotion anymore, not in a pure, proper way disentangled from the claws of worry and fear and confusion.
Ulfin heaved the pot away from the fire.
"How long since you saw your wife?" she asked, jerking him brusquely away from his thoughts.
"Thirty years", he answered mechanically. Her eyes turned into large wells of grey shock.
"Is she still young? Like... you?"
It occurred to Hannishtart, all of a sudden, that she might not be as young as him anymore. He discarded the thought. It was not the time to be worrying about such things.
"Yes", he replied. She muttered something that sounded like "Elf", and started pouring the stew into the bowls. As he looked at the fire he remembered that he was still holding the letter in his hand, like a child would a toy, and folding it he gave it to the flames. Ashad watched wide-eyed for a while before remembering that he was not supposed to look at him.
Ashad. Hannishtart knew now why he had been behaving like this.
"I would take him", Ulfin spoke conversationally, sitting beside him and looking at the boy as if she had guessed Hannishtart´s train of thought. "He grows fast, doesn´t he? And then he will fish in the river and repair the roof and protect me." He began opening his mouth, but she was faster. "But he doesn´t want to. He wants to go with you."
"But Númenor..." Hannishtart took a deep breath. It did not escape him that the boy was heavily pretending not to hear the conversation as he wolfed down the stew. "Númenor is not a good place for..." Númenor was a sanctuary. "It is the sanctuary of the Sea People."
"Many of my people were taken there."
"To be killed." Hannishtart retorted, wishing that this discussion could be posponed, ignored or taken outside. "Oh, there are some barbarians in Númenor who are alive, but they are not... "He sought for an appropriate word for her to understand, and came up with none. "It´s not a good life", he finished simply.
"But he would be with you." Ulfin´s voice became a little fiercer. "Don´t he?"
"That´s not the point!" Hannishtart seethed. The Númenoreans in Middle-earth felt superior to the barbarians, everybody knew that, but none of them could imagine how it was in Númenor itself, where they were few and seen as exotic animals from the mainland. And none of them had ever gone willingly to the island beyond the Great Sea, which was so far from their own world and so different. "You don´t understand."
Ulfin didn´t reply. Ashad, meanwhile, had snuck away at some point of the conversation. Hannishtart wondered if he would be back to say goodbye, or if things were better left as they were for the boy´s own good. He deserved to live with those who grew and aged like him, marry one of their women and have children like him. Hannishtart could do no more good in his life from now on, as unfair as it seemed.
"Please, take care of him. I´ll leave..." He looked around him, and stood up to gather his cloak, his bag, his sword. "All this is yours now. They will give you good money for them."
"You have to enter sanctuary naked?" Ulfin asked curiously. Hannishtart would have laughed, if only he could. Anxiety had tied his gut too much.
"And the horse. You can take the horse, too, for both of you. We ride ships." He swallowed down the last of his stew. "He´ll be fine."
"You never hoped going back." Ulfin put the bowl aside, watching him as if in dawning comprehension. "You thought you will stay here, all your life."
"That´s..." Hannishtart shook his head, as if to dismiss her words, then gave up. Maybe he had. Maybe he did not know how to feel about it all, maybe he was too far gone to be able to live in the Island once again. The sanctuary, he thought with a bitter smile.
Maybe it was just a brief confusion, and after the world settled around him, he would regain his clarity. Ulfin was not his wife, Ashad was not his son, and the Middle-havens were not his home. He had just pretended that they were for too long.
"If I was going back to my people, I would be afraid," Ulfin said. "What if I find enemy tribe instead? What if my family is dead? What if they do not know me? And, what if they do not want me because I lay with Sea people and Forest people and drove me away?" Hannishtart turned towards her, and was surprised to see her blue-grey eyes staring at the window, darkened by a strange emotion. "But I still want to go back. I still wish it. This is not home."
Shaken, he realized that her words had mirrored his own unvoiced thoughts of moments ago. He looked at her, as if it was the first time he saw her at all.
"Ulfin..." he began. A knock on the door made the rest die in his lips.
"Coming!" she shouted, struggling to her feet and rushing towards the source of the noise. An unfamiliar man, Númenorean by his looks, stood at the threshold.
"Isn´t he back yet?" he asked, then peered behind the woman and saw the other figure sitting by the hearth. His eyes narrowed. "Lord of Battles! You´re whiling your time with women when there is such need of speed! We are leaving right away."
"This is the man who brought letter", Ulfin explained. Hannishtart stood up.
"I am not whiling my time. I was just having a bite before I went away on a long trip", he said in a steely voice, refusing to feel embarrassed. Ulfin hurried to get his cloak, but he refused it. "I said you could have it."
The newcomer raised an eyebrow.
"You are Hannishtart, aren´t you?" Before he could reply, he waved it away as if it had been a stupid question. "We must be swift."
"I will take my horse, then. "Hannishtart turned to Ulfin, unsure of what was one supposed to say to a woman who had shared your bed and would never do so again. "You can go tomorrow and take it back. Or Ashad could go."
"What horse?" the man asked, surprised.
"My horse is outside." The Númenorean soldier shook his head.
"There are no horses outside."
Hannishtart walked towards the doorstep, and crossed it. It was raining still, as it would be raining the next morning, and the next evening, and the one after that. Once it started to rain in this land, it always lasted long.
His horse had disappeared. He called for it, whistled for it, all in vain.
"We could both ride mine." The man was obviously not forming a very good opinion of him. "The Havens are not far."
As Hannishtart trudged behind his rescuer, shivering and wet and wondering what had happened with the horse, he saw Ulfin standing under the glow of the threshold, gazing at him with the superior look of a woman who knew something else.
* * * * *
It was wholly dark by the time when they reached the Havens under the drizzle. Hannishtart was not taken to the Commander, but led through the deserted streets towards the place where the ship lay anchored in the harbour. When he asked about it, his companion shrugged under his cloak.
"Orders from the captain. He has arranged it all."
Of course. Speed was crucial, and anybody could be an ally of the Merchant Princes, he guessed, but still he wished he could have taken his leave and begged him to reconsider the matter with the Orcs that seemed now a lifetime away, buried in the recesses of a different world. It seemed unlikely that he ever would know the outcome of it: in Númenor, the wars of the mainland were a matter of small importance, and knowledge of what happened beyond the sea quite scarce and inexact. He remembered himself believing, with his friend Pharazôn, that all of Middle-earth was but one great battleground where heroes in shining armour fought and defeated the evil creatures of Mordor.
As they approached the ship, they heard the sounds of turmoil on the docks. Alarmed, his companion unsheathed his sword and stood before him. Hannishtart was not used to being protected, and his impulse was to push him aside to better gauge the situation. To his shock, he heard a familiar voice rising above the shouts and curses of the men who struggled before the prow.
"I said go away, or I´ll throw you into the water! Do you know how to swim, boy?"
"I said he sent me ahead! Lord Hannishtart did! If you don´t let me in, I´ll tell..."
"You´ll tell me?" Hannishtart advanced towards the group, not knowing whether to scream or laugh. Stupid boy. "And I suppose you would also tell me about my stolen horse?"
Ashad stopped struggling. Even in this light, anyone could see him blush to the root of his hair. As if on cue, the two men who were holding him let him go.
"I-I wasn´t going to keep it", he mumbled after a while, so quickly that the words came out as an almost undistinguishable jumble.
"Do you know him?" one of the men who had been struggling, clearly a sailor, asked in an ill-tempered voice. Hannishtart was tempted to say no, but then they might throw him into the water for real. The men of the South hated swimming as much as they hated the sea and whatever came from it.
Why was this one being so stubborn?
He met the large, pleading eyes for a moment, and then, as his look travelled downwards, he noticed something that had fallen upon the irregular pavement. Leaning towards it, he realized it was Ashad´s few belongings, wrapped on a piece of red cloth that he remembered seeing at Ulfin´s house. It was lying half-open, the clothes strewn upon the floor, and a muddy footprint was upon one of them. He sighed.
But I do not want to go to Armenelos! I want to stay here! Mother, I want to stay here!
He resented the memories. Why did they flow into his mind now? He had always suppressed them, first because they brought him pain, and then... then, he guessed he had just forgotten, and good riddance.
That boy had not wanted to listen to the Merchant Princes or his mother or be reasonable. He wanted to stay with those that he loved.
"What do we do with him?" his escort since Ulfin´s house asked in a low voice. One of the sailors moved to grab Ashad by the arm again, but the boy didn´t even look at him. He, Hannishtart, was the only person in the world for him now, and he had to wince.
"I did send him. He is coming with me. He might have... misinterpreted the part about the horse, though." Turning away from their shocked glances, he pointed at the ship with his chin. "I thought we were on a hurry?"
It seemed to him a long while before he heard footsteps behind him.
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.