8. Hope and Folly
"I had not. Not yet," Peloren replied, feeling his heart speed.
But before he could nerve himself to return to his original purpose, Imrahil said, "Wait here, then. I will look—and I shall be discreet, no fear! I should only be a little while."
Peloren only nodded, not trusting himself to answer, and as Imrahil disappeared quickly around the corner, making for the door on the western wall and the door, he put his head in his hands and squeezed his eyes shut and breathed, trying to steady himself.
It had been a miserable day. Summoned early to speak to the masters, he and Elethil had arrived at Ornendil's door, where Barcalan had asked Elethil to wait while the masters had a word with Peloren. Once within Ornendil's office, the questions had been quick to come, and Peloren, angry, fearful, and feeling both betrayed and ashamed at once, had struggled to answer without answering, to obey as much as he could without mentioning the specifics of what had happened. For although he was fairly certain his own conduct would not have been faulted, he knew Elethil's might be, and did not wish to be the one to implicate him. About the only thing he had been able to assure the masters of was that Andrahar had not struck either of them, that he was unhurt, and that he had not intended to press the unnamed, but personal, matter between him and Andrahar.
Oddly, that had seemed to suffice, and he had been dismissed to pace anxiously before the Armsmaster's door while the masters had had their time with Elethil. Eventually, he had been recalled, at which point Ornendil had informed them both that for the time being, no action could be taken, but that they should expect to be called upon later once the masters had gained a clearer understanding of the circumstances.
"Think carefully, therefore, about this course you seem to be upon," the Armsmaster had warned. "When next we ask you for an explanation, silence will not be tolerated."
With that, he had dismissed them to their own devices, and Elethil had almost immediately made for his own room. But when Peloren had tried to follow, his friend had shut him out. "Just leave me be," he had said shortly.
"But Elya, we have to think what we'll say—"
"No, we do not. 'Tis done, Pel," Elethil had said harshly. "At least for me, 'tis over—if Andrahar wants me out for disrespect, there's nothing to contest. There is nothing more to think of. Now go!"
And the door had shut rather violently. Peloren had stood there for a time, stunned and dismayed, but eventually, he had left. And being disturbed and distressed over the thought of losing Elethil so close to the end of their training, he had done as he always did, when the option existed: he went to the stables, saddled Lightfall, and went for a very long ride on the Belfalas side of the bay. Once he had reached a secluded stretch of the shore, he had stopped, dismounted, and sat upon a flat outcropping of sandstone, watching the sea roll in. His horse, sensing his mood, had stayed close, nuzzling him gently, but Peloren had been able to muster only a distracted caress for the gelding.
Eventually, he had returned to the city, but Elethil had not responded to his knocking, and imagining that his friend must be ignoring him or else, exhausted as he had been these past few weeks, asleep, he had left him alone once more. It had not been until supper that he had truly begun to worry. Peloren had waited in the halls for Elethil to emerge from his room, but he never had. Supper was well begun by the time he knocked again on Elethil's door, and this time, receiving no answer, he had opened it, calling cautiously, "Elya?"
When still he received no response, he had entered and lit a lamp, then stood staring about the empty chamber. Everything was in order: the bed immaculately made as required, and nothing left lying about, not even upon the desk. Even for an esquire's chambers, it was spotless, and Peloren had begun to feel very odd and alarmed, for at a closer look, it was as if his friend had cleaned up for holidays and a long stay elsewhere: books were missing, and the clothespress and desk drawers, upon inspection, had been emptied. The only thing left was the trunk sitting forlornly in a corner. The room simply did not feel lived in; it had been swept clean. Terrifyingly clean. Abandoned.
There had been a lad once, some years ago, when Peloren and Elethil had first arrived in Dol Amroth—an older lad, Meldarion. Peloren had never come to know him well—he had not had many friends, it seemed. And then one day he had gone missing. By noon, the hunt had begun, and by evening, it had been called off. One of the healers had found him—where or when or how, precisely, no one had ever been told, but the talk had it he had cut himself and simply sat down to wait for the end. No one knew why. At the funeral, the Prince had spoken eloquently of the burden of loneliness, but in the end, there was simply no explanation. These things happened sometimes, just like training accidents; one never could predict when or who or for what reason.
At the time, Peloren had pitied Meldarion's few friends, who had been badly shaken. One had even gone home, unwilling to continue his training. Peloren had thought the other lad too grieved then, but it occurred to him now that guilt might have been the worse burden. How, after all, could one be friends with a lad, in his company daily, and not see it coming? For faced with the possibility that Elethil's absence might end as Meldarion's had, Peloren found it entirely too easy a matter to look back—now—over the last two terms and see his friend floundering, slowly sinking into despair. Yet somehow, it had never occurred to him that low spirits might mean something more and worse than what he himself endured.
How could I have overlooked it? he asked himself, and had consciously to remember to add: There's nothing to overlook yet. He might be anywhere—he might have gone out for awhile. After all, what if his things are gone? He might have put them away—the trunk was heavy enough, and he has had reason since last term to fear what others might do in his absence. He is upset, and I know why, but surely…!
But there was no 'surely' until he saw Elethil walk up and greet him, and that had not happened yet. Memory of Meldarion had sent him frantically about the keep, seeking Elethil in the usual places: the salle, the library, laundry, baths, the kitchen, the courtyards and terrace gardens of the keep, his own room (just in case), and even Aldan's—all without success.
He had inquired with the bell tower's wardens—none recalled an esquire or anyone who did not attend the bells ascending. The armory had presented itself as the next place to look. But desperate though he was to know what had become of Elethil, he had not been able to make himself go within immediately, dreading what he might find. For though practice arms were meant to lessen the chance of serious injury, any man with some training in weapons could use one to lethal effect…
With a shiver, Peloren blinked his eyes open, refusing the awful images imagination conjured, and hands fisted as he pushed them through his hair. And: There is no reason to think so. No reason. He is fine. He is just out for a time. He is fine…
But Valar, Valar, what if Elethil were not? What was he going to say to Elethil's family? To his parents? His brothers? They're all Swan Knights—all of them, we are all supposed to be brothers, and then this happens! What am I going to say to them?
Hands drew back then and he buried his face in them, as he tried to put a stop to racing thoughts. Valar, let him be well, let him be well, let him be well, or I'll kill him myself…!
"Pel?" Imrahil called to him, and he startled badly. "No sign of him—the guardsman said he hadn't seen him about, either," the Heir hastened to reassure him as he rejoined Peloren.
"Valar be praised," Peloren muttered, feeling his stomach unclench just a little.
"Not until we find him. And he will be well—I am sure he will be," Imrahil said, and pressed his arm as he bid him: "Come. Let us continue looking. Tell me where you have been already, and we shall go from there."
In the end, they decided it would be swifter, and they would cover more ground, if they divided up the keep and grounds within the inner wall. Thus once Peloren had detailed his hunt, they had each taken a section to search—east and west—and agreed to meet by the stables by moonrise.
So it was that, half an hour later, perhaps, Peloren hurried towards the stables, having sought Elethil throughout the better part of the eastern wing of the keep without success. The moon was just rising by the time he arrived, and pale light fell upon the forms of several horses and riders gathered in the yard.
As he approached, one of them—Aldan—stepped forward, his brow knit with worry, and he gripped Peloren's shoulders. "Pel," he greeted him quietly. "Are you all right?"
"Has anyone seen Elethil?" Peloren demanded immediately.
From behind Aldan, Teilin answered, "Not since yesterday." And beside him, Ambor shook his head.
"Same here," Aldan replied heavily.
"Then there is your answer," Peloren said shortly, and glanced round. "Where is Imrahil? And Andrahar?"
"Within. They'll be but a moment," Aldan assured him. "Imrahil wanted a word with the stable hands."
"Why?" Peloren asked. "I took Lightfall out earlier today. Elethil's horse is still in his stall."
Aldan shrugged. "Mayhap he went out for awhile and came back. Someone might have seen him."
"Better than that!" came Imrahil's voice, as he emerged from the stable. Behind him, Andrahar followed, leading two horses, one of them Peloren's. As the four of them gathered about the Heir and his friend, Imrahil explained: "I did ask the stable hands whether anyone had seen Elethil. As it happens, the chief hostler, Berendil, was about earlier today. And he saw him—he said Elethil came in sometime about mid-afternoon and took one of the spare horses out."
"But why?" Peloren demanded, puzzled. "There's nothing wrong with Greywind. I know, for I saw him this afternoon when I came in!"
"Berendil was curious about that, too. He said he asked Elethil that very question," Imrahil replied. "According to him, Elethil said something about not wanting to be beholden, but no more than that. Berendil said he seemed much preoccupied, and wished him a good day, and then left."
"Did he say where he was going?" Peloren demanded, anxious and eager.
"No. But he has not returned—the horse is still out, and no one has seen Elethil since," Imrahil said, unhappily.
A brief, heavy silence fell, ere Teilin broke it to say, "That does not sound to me as if he meant to stay in the city. We could separate—search the outer wall, then spread out from there."
"But where would he go? He could be anywhere!" Ambor murmured, dismayed.
"We need more men," Aldan said, and looked to Imrahil, who nodded reluctantly, even as Peloren replied:
"No. Not yet, I do not—"
"All of you seem to forget his purpose," came Andrahar's quiet voice, and immediately drew all eyes to him.
"What do you mean?" Imrahil asked.
"If Peloren is right to fear his absence, then Elethil does not mean to come back. Such men choose their time and place and means with care, not by hazard. So—" and here, Andrahar raised his voice a little, speaking oppressively over Teilin's somewhat outraged "In Harad, mayhap, but surely—!" "—we need to know: has he some place he prefers to go? Would Elethil go toward Caldor? Or would he choose a means other than the one available to us all—" Andrahar gestured to the daggers at their belts "—that might need some specific place? What say you, Peloren? You know him best."
"I—I do not know. A moment, just let me think!" he snarled when Imrahil opened his mouth to speak. And he shoved his hands into his belt, bowing his head, seeking some little escape from the pitying, anxious, and unbearably expectant regards of the others. The question of what means Elethil might choose was too painful to consider in much detail and so he racked his memory, seeking an answer to the other. Where would he go?
At length, and hesitantly, he said, "There is a place up the coast—north, towards Caldor side. 'Tis a cove, below a village that sits atop a steep cliff—Calardin cove. We have gone there sometimes, when the weather first starts to warm. He likes it—'tis quiet, and the villagers have grown used to us: they are kind enough but leave us be. And it is some ways away." He paused and glanced up, letting his gaze rove fearfully round the circle of faces, and come to rest at last upon the Heir's face. "But I do not know with certainty…"
"None of us do," Imrahil said, soothingly. "Well, we shall keep that in mind for the moment. But before we consider it further, let us at least make a pass down the main streets of the city." Imrahil paused, glancing round at the five of them. "We will ride in pairs and each take a separate way down through the city. Should anyone catch sight of him or of a horse with our tack that you do not recognize as belonging to anyone in particular, stop and look. We regroup at the gates, and if none has caught sight of him, then we'll make a quick circle about the outer walls—half of us shall go one way, and half the other. If we still do not find him, then we will discuss this cove of yours, Pel. Andra, you'll ride with me. Teilin and Ambor, you ride together. Aldan, go with Peloren. Agreed?"
"Aye!" came a murmured chorus, and with that, they mounted up. Wordlessly, Andrahar handed off Lightfall to Peloren, then kneed his horse to go and join Imrahil.
Once settled in the saddle, Peloren turned Lightfall to stand abreast of Aldan, whose expression in the moonlight was not particularly pleased. "Aldan?" The other glanced up at him inquiringly. "Can you keep up?"
"Don't much like night riding. Too quick and dark," the former footman replied, voice a bit taut. But: "Lead on. Let us go find Elethil so I can thrash him for the scare!"
"If only it is one," Peloren murmured. Then: "Come!" So saying, he urged Lightfall to a trot and made for the gates that led down into the city.
But Peloren saw no sign of Elethil on their way down Dol Amroth's streets; nor did Aldan; nor did anyone, and the ride about the walls showed up no trace of him either. And the guards at the gates, when questioned, could not recall seeing a lone rider depart from the city, though they were swift to add that there had been a number of merchants coming and going all day, with and without guards, which made it difficult to be certain of anything.
"How far is Calardin?" Imrahil asked, as they gathered to consider their course.
"'Tis the better part of an hour north," Peloren replied, and swallowed hard against the lump in his throat. For it needed no one to say it for everyone to know: if Elethil had been driven to such desperation as to desire death, then if he had gone north, they would never reach him in time.
Andrahar looked to Imrahil, then back at Peloren, and then back to Imrahil, ere he said: "We should go to Master Ornendil—tell him what we fear and ask for assistance."
"It does not need so many to search one cove," Imrahil replied, but got only an impatient shake of the head in response.
"That is not the point! We do not even know whether he has actually left the city—"
"You were the one who asked where he might go," Peloren began, rather hotly, only to be cut off just as quickly.
"He may be here or he may not," Andrahar retorted. "And he may be there, or he may not be, but it is an hour even to reach this cove, you say. If we are wrong, that is two hours' lost time at least."
"He's right, lad," Aldan murmured, and Teilin nodded agreement.
"Some of us should stay," Ambor said, glancing round. "At least a few of us: we could continue looking, and more carefully at that."
Peloren hesitated then, torn. For he knew that it was reasonable advice. And what if Elethil really is here, somewhere in the city? Or nearby? What if I am wrong? Was he willing to risk Elethil's life on his own admittedly chancy estimation? And we do not know, still, whether he is in any trouble. He might be well and simply in need of silence for a time… But his heart did not believe it. And yet, believing otherwise, somehow he could not yet admit the most likely possibility: that they were already too late; that it would make little difference whether they spoke to the masters about Elethil's state of mind, for the judgment of the masters as to a man's suitability to the ranks meant nothing to the dead.
Which was why Peloren, after a moment's anguished consideration, shook his head. "No," he replied, and looked straight at Imrahil. "He's all right. He's fine. We just… we have to go and find him," he said, with just a hint of pleading in his insistence.
Andrahar sighed. Aldan bit his lip, and Imrahil looked as though he were regretting his earlier words, but Peloren held his eye. And: Don't! he willed him, and did not dare to finish the thought, lest thinking should somehow communicate itself and bring about the very thing so carefully left unthought. The others were all looking to Imrahil now for guidance, and Peloren watched him waver, knew that if Imrahil were to turn back, there would be none to go forward… perhaps not even he himself. And that would be unbearable—the death of hope, however, foolish.
Mayhap the Heir understood that. Or mayhap he understood, too, that what time they had had, had most likely run out already—that whatever they did next would matter to no one but Peloren. Who could say? But it seemed to Peloren that something, some insight, flickered in his eyes as he stared back at him, and then Imrahil nodded, once and sharply.
"Very well," he said, and urged his mount to come about. "We will split up: I will go with you, Peloren. The rest of you, keep looking about Dol Amroth."
"You are not going to Calardin, Imrahil," Andrahar interjected immediately.
"I'll be with Peloren—"
"Who will be preoccupied with Elethil no matter what the outcome. If you must, let Aldan go with him, but stay in the city and send for help in this search!"
"I wouldn't mind going," Aldan assured them all swiftly. But Imrahil shook his head.
"Aldan knows the lower docks areas of Dol Amroth better than I do. For that matter, I'm certain you know some areas of Dol Amroth better than I do, Andra," the Heir said, and gave his friend a significant look.
"You are not leaving the city with one esquire for escort, Imri!"
"I did it all the time two years ago," the Heir pointed out mildly.
This elicited what might well have been a curse, or else a prayer—quick and low and obscurely Haradric as it was, Peloren could not tell. "Imri, you cannot simply leave. You must tell someone."
"But I may not," Imrahil replied.
"Because," the Heir said quietly, and glanced aside at Peloren. "I promised I would not bring any tale."
"What do you mean, you promised—?"
"Andra," Imrahil interrupted. "We are wasting time, and there's little enough of it."
"This makes no sense!"
At which Peloren, who had listened to this debate with mounting impatience, to say nothing of fear, and no little resentment, snapped at Andrahar, "You are not the one who could be undone by this! You've nothing to lose in this!"
"You think Elethil's li—" Andrahar began ominously, but was once more interrupted.
"Gentlemen!" Imrahil intervened, and pressed a restraining hand swiftly against Andrahar's shoulder, then shot Peloren a warning look. "We will follow both suggestions: Aldan, Ambor, Teilin, Andrahar: search the docks, search the city, do what you must. Peloren thinks Elethil might have gone north—very well. He and I will go and return as soon as we find sign of Elethil or our search of the cove proves in vain."
Andrahar glared at Imrahil a fulminating moment, then gave Peloren a black look ere addressing the Heir once more. "Imri, be reasonable," he urged quietly.
"Are you going to ask me to break my word, Andrahar?" Which was a purely rhetorical question in no need of an answer, and everyone knew it, including Andrahar, though by the look on his face, he was sorely tempted to do just that. But instead he changed tacks to say:
"Four men are not enough, and you know it. The which being so, it hardly matters if you stay and I go."
"No offense, Andra," the Heir said firmly, "but I think the two of you alone would be less than useful to each other. 'Tis not so far, and there is little to the north in any case to trouble us, or so the maps tell it, as I recall."
"I do not care how little there may be! If you insist on this journey, Imri, I am coming with you."
"Then come if you must, but let us end this dispute," Imrahil replied, sounding just a little irritated. "The quicker begun, the sooner done! The three of us will go, the rest of you, continue searching. Peloren, let us go," he said, and Peloren felt a vast relief sweep through him, despite his reluctance to have Andrahar along. So long as he does not interfere! Peloren thought, and then pushed the matter aside as his thoughts turned once more to Elethil. But the undesired third of their search party, it seemed, was not quite ready to depart.
"Aldan," Andrahar said, as Peloren and Imrahil turned their mounts. "Your sword, please!"
At that, Peloren glanced back over his shoulder to stare in puzzlement at Aldan, who quickly unstrapped his blade from its place just under his leg. Then seeing Peloren's look, he shrugged, and said, by way of explanation: "Habit—always keep something to hand, and I've always preferred something with a bit of reach." So saying, he tossed the weapon to Andrahar, who caught it, then handed the sword to Imrahil.
"Let us get this folly over with," the Southron said tersely.
Imrahil shook his head with a certain fond exasperation. "All right, then, since you are satisfied. Pel—lead the way!"
Eager to be away, Peloren obeyed without another word to either of his companions and spurred Lightfall to gallop, glancing back only once to see the other two fall in behind him, spreading out a bit at Imrahil's signal to watch the ground as they went. Not that any of them were trackers or Rangers, but they would take no chances. And as they rode, Peloren shut his eyes a moment and prayed that he was right, for if he were not, if it should happen that Elethil had been in Dol Amroth the whole time, and had not been found soon enough for want of closer searching…
Thought shied away from the unthinkable. Instead: He will be well, he told himself. He will be well. He has to be. As Lightfall sped through the night, the words repeated in his mind, unfolding in time to his horse's hoofs, to his own heartbeat: He will be well… he will be well… he has to be… for he is well…
They followed the road north for some miles and then, as it curved inland, they abandoned it to cut over the scrub plain and down onto the strand, onto the still firm earth between the undergrowth and the sand. The moon crept higher in the sky, an incongruously cheerful sight whose watery light faintly lit the land and played upon the waters. Still, there was no sign that Peloren could see of any rider; it was simply too dark, and the earth too much a blur, beneath and before him, for him to remark aught of note.
After a time, the land to their right began to rise again, slowly at first, and then more swiftly as sandstone cliffs shot up to tower over their heads, and then began to encroach upon the beach. The scrub fields began to grow sparser, disappearing eventually as the land narrowed, leaving only beach. The waves sounded loudly, echoing off the rocks as they passed in a shower of sand kicked up by their horses.
At length, Peloren drew rein, holding up his hand to signal his companions to stop. When they had, he pointed up ahead of them. "There is the southern spur—beyond that lies the cove and above it, the village," he said. The Heir grunted and gave a nod.
"I remember this place now. I've been here before a few times, when I was a child," Imrahil replied. "The villagers are divers, mostly—seeking crabs and the like in the shallows and out on the shelf where the water grows deep. 'Tis a very open beach."
Which was good, in a way: even dark as it was, with the moon above and a few torches, they ought to have little trouble searching the shore. Peloren breathed in deeply, striving for calm. "Let us go," he urged, and kneed Lightfall to a quick canter. The gelding obeyed, and Imrahil and Andrahar followed suit.
The beach curved about the rocky outcropping, and they came to a point where they could look out from the tip of one side of the cove to the other. Though thin and weak, the moon's light reflected off the white sand, making it seem eerily bright, save where the cliff's shadows lay. Over long centuries, the waves had chiseled away at the beach, forming a terrace: a higher and a lower level. Kelp lay in dark and trailing mounds, marking out the reach of the tides; the air was heavy with its scent, and other than the rush of the sea, it was silent.
"Let's spread out—take a look around," Imrahil advised, and laid a hand upon a stricken Peloren's shoulder, shaking him gently. "Come on."
Out of habit more than belief that they should find aught, they obeyed. The three riders fanned out. No one spoke; no one called. It seemed plain that there was no purpose in doing so. He isn't here, Peloren thought miserably. We would have found his horse at least, but there is nothing, there is—
Light flashed suddenly in the darkness, out upon the water, and Peloren stiffened, confused. Again it flashed and then disappeared. What is that? he wondered, kneeing Lightfall forward, and urging his mount out into the surf, even, as it came again. 'Tis close, he thought, squinting into the dim-lit darkness. Something pricked at memory, though he could not quite bring it to light. But he did stand in his stirrups and call out: "Imri! Over here!"
In short order, there came the sound of splashing as Imrahil, with Andrahar hard on his heels, joined him in the shallows. "What is it?" the Heir asked.
"Do you see it?" Peloren demanded.
"See what?" Imrahil asked, puzzled, as Andrahar, too, leaned forward, gazing into the night.
"There," Peloren said, pointing past the northern point of the cove and out over the waters. A light flashed, one, two, three, and then died.
"’Tis a signal," Imrahil murmured. "From a ship—I can see the outline, though just barely. They are sending a message."
"But to whom?" Andrahar demanded.
"There is no light on the mast," Imrahil murmured, sounding alarmed. "Gondorian ships always run with a lantern on the mast at night—blue or red, usually."
"It might be some fishing boat, not a naval ship," Peloren hazarded, though even to his ears, his voice lacked conviction.
"Why would a fishing boat use signals like that?" Andrahar spoke, giving voice to his doubt. "They are aimed at shore—we are in the line of sight, or we should not see them at all, but there are no lighthouses here for any to signal to." An uneasy silence settled, each man gazing out into the darkness, wondering, as once more, light flashed—twice, then a break, and then once more.
"'Tis the fourth time," Peloren murmured anxiously.
"I think," Imrahil said slowly, as he stared out to sea, "that we ought to get off this beach." And when Peloren and Andrahar stared at him, he explained: "We are in the line of sight, as Andra said. They have no mast lights, yet are signaling someone to shore-side, using a code I do not know. And although I can just make out the ship's outline against the sea, I cannot see the sails—not as I would expect, even in moonlight. White should show, at this distance." At which Andrahar sucked in a breath.
"If they were white. These are not," he declared, and shot Imrahil a look.
"No, I do not believe they are," the Heir replied grimly.
"Corsairs," Andrahar growled.
"In March?" Peloren demanded, incredulous.
"Cunning is no respecter of seasons, and we know the Corsairs have been growing bolder," Andrahar retorted, but then added impatiently: "Gentlemen, we can debate all of this later. For the moment, let us get off the beach. We should make for the village if we can. Peloren, how do we leave?"
"There is a road, there, toward the midpoint of the cove. But it winds—we cannot take it too quickly."
"But we can get to it quickly. Let us go—but have an eye out for men on the move!"
With that, they were off at the gallop, Peloren taking the lead since he knew the way. And: Corsairs! What under the stars are they doing here now? he wondered, bewildered. Thinking over the past two years, he supposed Andrahar was right, that they had been more of a threat—he had heard more of villages and townsteads burned or threatened, and the sailors and marines down in Dol Amroth’s taverns were wont to complain of them more often than in the past, it seemed. And Illian had said, had he not, that knights more often shipped out as part of a warship's complement these days?
And this is on the road to Dol Amroth, he thought. ‘Tis an approach we do not watch so carefully, and they would have the high ground most of the way, and a clear path inland… Perhaps it did make sense—even too much sense, despite its being March, and Peloren urged Lightfall onward more swiftly, all his thought bent upon the village and the road and the climb that awaited.
For this is no game now: we must reach the top first!
Despite their fears, they met no one on their way, however; this might be good, for it might mean that any raiding party was behind them. But it might also mean that the pirates had got ahead of them, and so risky though it was, they kept to their horses and moved alertly up the path as it scaled its hairpin way up the cliffside. On unspoken agreement, Peloren went first, followed by Imrahil, while Andrahar brought up the rear, that they might take advantage of Peloren's knowledge of their road on the one hand, but also that Imrahil might be protected from any danger that might lurk ahead or behind. Peloren tried not to think overmuch of that, though of course, he knew his duty. Meanwhile, he gave Lightfall his head, trusting his horse’s eyes and nose more than his own senses in the darkness. He simply clung to the saddle and prayed his faith was not misplaced.
Happily, it seemed it was not: Lightfall made good time, guiding his fellows with a soft snort or a whiffle of warning from time to time as he navigated the turns and the narrow space. At last, the gelding surged forward, up the last of the slope to the crest of the cliff, and stood there, ears pricked forward as he minced a bit, alert for danger. Nothing greeted them, however, but silence and a cool night wind. With a sigh of relief, Peloren turned his mount toward the village and spurred him forward, glancing back only once to see the others following.
The little village of divers and fisherfolk was dark and quiet—a sleepy gathering of small wooden houses turned inward against the squalls and weather of winter. Ripe for burning, Peloren thought darkly, as he drew rein and dismounted.
"This way," he beckoned his fellows, and jogged toward a house that stood at the center of the others. The few times he and Elethil had come here, they had learned that the old man who kept it served as the head of the village, he and his wife, the herbwoman, tending to the few needs of their neighbors. But those needs had never included an armed response to pirates, and Peloren found time to wonder, as he banged on the door, what precisely the three of them were going to do. And I am not even armed! he thought, and swore viciously to himself, self-deprecating in his fear.
But there was no time to think of that, for just then, the door cracked open, and a pair of eyes in a wizened, lantern-lit round face peered out. "What is the—who are you?" This last came out rather sharply.
"Master Dorhan, you may not remember my name, but we have met," Peloren said quickly. "A friend and I have come here to visit before—my name is Peloren."
"Peloren?" Dorhan frowned, holding up his lantern to peer more closely at him. And after a moment, his face cleared. "Ah yes! I do recall you now. You’re with one of the city’s companies, is that not so?"
"Aye, I am. And for that very reason, we must speak, sir. There may be trouble—we believe there are Corsairs on the bay, and that they are making for the village!"
"Pirates? Here? At this time of year?" Dorhan shook his head, an unwitting echo of Peloren's disbelieving reaction. "Are you certain?"
"Master Dorhan," Imrahil stepped forward then. "We cannot be certain, but do you wish to chance that we are wrong? Please—rouse your folk. At least make them ready; better a false alarm than false safety!"
"And who are you?" Dorhan asked. The poor old man seemed most bewildered, and Peloren bit his lip and the impulse to shake the fellow to his senses. However:
"He is Imrahil, son of Prince Adrahil of Dol Amroth," Andrahar said quietly, but in a tone that would admit no challenge. And when Dorhan gaped, he added, rather oppressively: "Go and wake the others—there’s a matter to be dealt with."
That seemed finally to spur him from stunned confusion, as Dorhan called within to his wife, and then stepped outside. With a short, awkward bob for Imrahil, he then went as quickly as he could to the next house, and from there to another, pounding on doors and calling to those within. In the meantime, Imrahil, Andrahar, and Peloren retreated a ways with their horses to confer.
As soon as they had, Andrahar turned to Peloren and asked: "Just how isolated is this village? Are there others in the area? Perhaps beyond this cove?"
"I do not think so. The villagers say it takes them a day to walk to the next town north of here. And 'tis still some ten miles inland, back toward the road and Dol Amroth, before you find any farms, for 'tis all sand that way and poor for growing aught."
"Then that is one small mercy!" Imrahil said. "But we should have some care for them, nonetheless. I doubt me that we should be able to stop the Corsairs here; those further south should be warned to flee or arm themselves, if possible."
"Imri, there are only three of us," Peloren pointed out. "And you are the only one with a sword—"
And then he stopped at the sound of steel slithering from a sheath strapped under a saddle flap. Andrahar eyed the edge of his blade—not the scimitar he preferred, but the bastard sword issued to Swan Knights and esquires—and nodded, seeming satisfied with it.
"We have two swords," Andrahar corrected coolly. "Imrahil, if these are fisher-folk and crab-hunters, as you say, then I imagine someone here has a spear he could lend, yes?"
"I expect so, though it would be a bit short and thin for a pike—"
"But it should serve as a dart," Andrahar said. "A rider with three or four of them ought to be well enough armed. So hand Aldan's sword to Peloren, and take Lightfall with you for speed—"
"Now wait a moment," Imrahil objected. But before he could say more than that, Andrahar was on him, face to face, and despite Imrahil’s greater height, this time it was Andrahar who stared him down.
"The Heir to Dol Amroth is in my keeping, and I do not intend to explain to the Prince how I lost his only son! You are riding back to bring help," Andrahar informed him in no uncertain terms. "You will take the road south, stopping at the farmsteads and townsteads long enough to warn them to flee towards the city or arm themselves. And when you reach Dol Amroth, you will warn the city guard, then ride immediately to tell Master Ornendil what has happened."
"This is not a request, esquire," Andrahar said flatly, and there was an authority in his voice that Peloren had not heard before. Imrahil stiffened. Peloren found himself holding his breath as the silence spun out and still, neither Imrahil nor Andrahar moved or spoke. It seemed a small eternity, but at last, Imrahil took a step back and bowed.
"Yes, sir," he said, softly. Andrahar nodded. And despite the urgency of the situation, a great coil of tension seemed to unwind.
"Go swiftly, then. Take Lightfall with you—he's faster than Bhraina—and switch off at need," Dol Amroth’s youngest knight said.
"Aye, sir," Imrahil said, sounding still quite subdued. He turned to Peloren, then, and wordlessly exchanged Aldan's sword for Lightfall's reins, swiftly digging long lines out from saddlebags, that he might be able to guide him more easily. Peloren, meanwhile, unsheathed the blade and gave it a practice swing or two, testing the balance. It was perhaps just a little short for him—he had two or three inches on Aldan—but it was well made and would certainly serve.
Imrahil finished tying lead lines just then, and he stood by his horse, hesitating a moment. Andrahar grunted softly, then reached behind himself, hands busy at the back of his belt. Then: "Here," he said, and held out his dagger. "Take this with you."
The Heir shook his head, appalled refusal. "Andra," he protested, "you will need it more than I—"
"If fortune favors us, that shall be true. But on the chance that it does not, I do not wish you to face anyone with a staff and dagger. Your sword-play is more than adequate, and you can fight with a pair of daggers well enough, but your staff work is not that good," he replied.
"Whereas yours is?" Imrahil demanded.
"It is better than yours," Andrahar countered, and this time did not waste words. He simply took Imrahil's hand and placed the dagger in it. "No time for debate," he said, sharply. "See about those spears, and then go. Peloren—go with him and find out what they have here that will serve to arm the men. I'll have a word with Master Dorhan."
"Aye," Peloren said, and then caught Imrahil's arm, giving him a tug. "Come on, Imri."
The two esquires turned and made for the growing crowd of people gathering about Master Dorhan's house. Already, there were perhaps twenty or thirty villagers—men and women, and not counting children, all hovering about Dorhan's porch, huddled in a frightened group. Peloren felt his heart sink at the sight of them, but he schooled his expression as the two of them approached and Master Dorhan's wife called to them:
"What word, young lords?"
Imrahil gave Peloren a quick look, then replied: "Two things, Mistress. We're sending a rider for help, and we need every man in this village armed. Peloren here," and here, Imrahil laid a firm hand upon Peloren's shoulder, "will help with the latter task. Sir Andrahar has given me the former, and I will need a couple of fishing spears, if you have them. If not, anything with some reach would do."
"Fishing spears, you say? We have those aplenty," the old woman said, turning to scan the crowd. "Halbar! Run and get yours for the young lord. Hurry now! And what else?"
"Mistress… Falwen, I believe?" Peloren said, stumbling a moment on the name, but she nodded, and he continued: "We are seeking a way to protect the village in case we are right, and there are Corsairs loose in the land. There are two of us with swords, but I want every spear, mattock, staff, and cane you possess—anything that can be used as a weapon. Be swift!"
"We shall. You heard him, lads—be about it!" There was a general clearing out, as the men and older boys dashed off to fulfill the order, while the women began gathering the children together and herding them into Master Dorhan's home. "If there are Corsairs," Falwen said, "there will be men wounded, will there not?"
"Most likely, mistress," Imrahil replied gravely, which was certainly, Peloren thought, the diplomatic thing to say, given the odds.
"Then we should ready ourselves to tend them. Maldis! Dolwen! We'll be within a moment," she told the esquires, and then disappeared with two of the other older women into her house. That left Imrahil and Peloren a little space, and Imrahil touched Peloren's arm, drawing him a bit aside.
"Will you be well?" he asked in an undertone. And when Peloren grimaced, he clarified: "I mean, with you and Andra? You've not been saying much to each other since the city gates."
"There's been little to say to anyone," Peloren countered. But then he shook his head. "This is no time for quarrels, and I know it. Besides," Peloren said, drawing a deep breath and letting it out heavily, "whatever I may think of him, he knows his way around a sword. We'll do well enough together—as well as can be."
"Just hold here. I'll come back as swiftly as I may," Imrahil promised.
"I know," Peloren murmured, and left unsaid the grim truth that that promise covered over. An uncomfortable silence settled, broken only when Halbar returned and trotted over to them, bearing four light spears.
"Here, my lord," he said, proffering three to Imrahil. "Will that do?"
"No doubt it shall," Imrahil replied, taking them in hand. "My thanks."
"No need for thanks, but I could do with a few more blue tabards, if I might say it, lord," Halbar replied, and then retreated. Imrahil mounted his horse then, transferring the spears to his left hand; and he reached down to Peloren, who clasped arms with him, squeezing tightly.
"Tell Elya, if it comes to that," Peloren found himself saying, all of a sudden and without quite knowing how, "that it was not his fault. He'll think it is, and you mustn't let him."
"I'll tell him."
"Make him believe it!"
"No fear, Pel—he'll be able to chastise you himself," Imrahil replied, just as if he believed it in truth.
"Good speed to you."
"Valar guard and guide you both," Imrahil said solemnly. And then, a little hesitantly: "Tell Andra… well, just tell him. You know."
"Aye," Peloren replied softly. "I do."
And with that, he stepped back, and Imrahil urged his horse to a trot, calling to Lightfall, who obeyed, though with a snort and shake his head. His eyes rolled white as the gelding tossed his head, looking back towards Peloren. But he settled then, following Imrahil's lead, while Bhraina nickered, calling after his retreating companions.
Which left Peloren, still, to carry out his orders, and he turned back to the villagers congregating with an assortment of tools: canes and fishing spears, hammers and awls and whatever knives were to hand in their kitchens. Some of the boys were dashing about finding stones with which to fill belt pouches or other sacks.
"Will these serve, young lord?" one of the men asked.
"They shall do," Peloren replied, as he made a quick headcount. "Hear me, all of you! Any man who has had any training or experience with handling weapons, take what you're used to and stand to the right. The rest, to the left. And any lad older than—" he paused a moment, swiftly revising downward his initial thought in light of what he had learned of Haradric slavers in the past three years "—ten, I want him carrying something he can defend himself with."
"They gonna take us?" a young voice piped up worriedly.
"Not while I breathe," Peloren replied, and only hoped he could hold to that—and that he would be breathing two hours hence! "Now, do as I say. Get the rest of the children into the houses at the center here with the women and girls. Move!"
As the villagers began to separate themselves out, Peloren turned away a moment, breathing in deeply, and he closed his eyes against his own fear that pricked now sharply, stabbing through heart and gut, it seemed, and he felt a need, ridiculously, to relieve himself.
Not now! he told himself sternly, and opened his eyes to see Andrahar watching him, the Southron gazing over Dorhan's shoulder as they spoke. Peloren gave the other a nod. All is well, that gesture said, and Andrahar lifted his chin slightly, acknowledgment or perhaps challenge.
At length, the conversation ended, and while Dorhan went to join the villagers, Andrahar stalked over to Peloren. "What did he say?" Peloren asked.
"A few things of use. The road we came up is the swiftest way to the village for more than ten miles, and one would need to cut inland to come around from the northeast. If the men being signaled had only just made landfall, they might have been told to explore a bit first, to get a sense for the lie of the land and the best way forward. That might be why we haven't seen anyone yet."
"Maybe they are fishermen," Peloren said, and got a snort.
"Mayhap. I'll not wager my life or anyone else's on the chance that you're right, though," Andrahar replied, before continuing with serious matters. "We know that someone must have come to shore fairly close to the cove, given that we could see the signal, so I doubt me they shall take the longer road around. If there is anyone out there, whether for good or for ill, we ought to see sign of them soon. 'Tis a pity the cliff overhangs so much of the road—'t'would be almost too easy to defend it otherwise!"
"So," Peloren said, and tipped his head towards the cliff and the path, "we make our stand there?"
"Against so many as a raiding party sports, the road is our only chance to stand against them."
Peloren considered this a moment, then asked: "What if we took the villagers and fled?" And he steeled himself for the charge of cowardice that might well come. Andrahar, however, simply shook his head.
"'Tis open countryside, Dorhan said, and women and children and the old move slowly—if the pirates are as near as we believe, I do not think we should succeed. But more to the point," Andrahar argued, "if we do not stop them here, they will continue onward and ravage some other town or village, where there may be even less hope of withstanding them."
"We may still fail to stop them," Peloren pointed out, and Andrahar grunted.
"We might at that. But 'tis less labor for others, even if we fail. And if we fail, they still cannot do more harm to these people than they would have had we been elsewhere. So," he finished, "we stand, and hope that with the villagers at our backs, it will be enough!"
Author's Notes: "Aldan knows the lower docks areas of Dol Amroth better than I do. For that matter, I'm certain you know some areas of Dol Amroth better than I do, Andra," the Heir said, and gave his friend a significant look.—See Kin-Strife, chapter 7.
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