Perhaps a half an hour had passed since the esquires and Andrahar had arrived in the village when the first shadowy shapes were observed upon the beach below. Peloren, who had been drilling some of the villagers who would be serving as spear men, was alerted by one of the younger lads, Galinbor, who came flying back from the cliff's edge, waving frantically.
"Hold a moment," Peloren advised his improvised squad. "What is it, lad?"
"There are men down there," the boy panted, eyes wide. "They have lamps—that's how Bregan saw them!"
"And Bregan has told Mistress Falwen and the women, I take it?" Peloren asked. Galinbor nodded. "Good. Are you armed?"
"Aye." Galinbor gave the pouch slung over one shoulder a pat, and rocks rattled within it.
"Then go take up your post—remember, keep low, do not let them see you standing out against the ridge. We want them to think that we do not know they are coming," Peloren replied. Galinbor nodded, made him what the boy no doubt fondly imagined was a proper salute, and then hurried off, pausing about ten yards from the edge of the cliff to drop to his belly and slither back into place.
That had been one of the first precautions he and Andrahar had imposed: no one was to approach the ridge closer than ten yards without crawling. The odds were poor enough as they stood; the element of surprise was an advantage they absolutely did not wish to surrender, and particularly not through carelessness. Hence no light shone out from the windows of the houses—there were no torches and no lamps, unless shuttered within the recesses of a home.
Once that had been established, the guards had been set: Andrahar had given the older men, who were of limited use against a younger, swifter, and far better trained opponent, the task of watching the perimeter, and put the boys on watch at the cliff-side, both because they were small enough to be less noticeable, but also to keep them occupied. It did no harm after all: there were men watching that approach from the shadows that lay upon the road, so that if the boys grew bored or inattentive, warning would not rely wholly upon them.
With those elementary precautions, and a couple of simple snares laid in the path of would-be assailants, it had been a matter of assessing what sort of resistance the villagers might be able to offer. They had discovered that there were two decent slingers—men with enough skill to be trusted in dangerously close quarters. Otherwise, the men were confined to light spears and whatever edged or blunt weapons they could scavenge, and rocks thrown by hand for any sort of range. Andrahar and Peloren had divided the men into two squads, and Andrahar had taken one group to stand watch with him immediately. The other he had left with Peloren with instructions to walk them through some basic drills appropriate to the confined space in which they hoped to face the enemy.
"Whatever lessons I can give the others, I shall give in position. I do not much care for the notion of being stabbed in the back by accident," the Southron had said, and Peloren could not but agree. Though there was no time to truly teach the men aught but the most basic moves, and there was no one in the village with any real military skill or discipline that could even be polished, Peloren had at least been able to stress the importance of not thrusting while either he or Andrahar were still fighting.
"The road is narrow—no more than two men could fight abreast on it at any time. That leaves little enough room to swing in. If you strike, then though you intend to help us, you might end by accidentally wounding one of us," he explained. "Hold, therefore, until we are both down, and then the next two men must take our places, and so on, for as long as you are able. In the mean time, your task is to hold the light steady when the time comes—and remember that at need, anything can be a weapon, including a lantern, so use it should the time come."
Now he bade his little group to follow, and crept down to confer with Andrahar once more. The cliff had a goodly overhang, which meant that the moon's light cast a shadow upon the road—a stroke of good fortune mixed with the bad for them, in that once upon the road and in the cliff's shadow, they could move more or less freely without fear of being seen. Andrahar had taken advantage of the darkness to station himself and a group of men four long turns down the road, on the logic that distance favored the defenders: the further the Haradrim had to march, the more weary they would be, and conversely, the further from the village the defenders were stationed, the more chances they had to stop the Haradrim or to wound them, making the climb more difficult. Four turns seemed a reasonable distance to make a stand.
Peloren made his way down as swiftly as he dared, every so often darting a glance out at the beach, where there were indeed men gathering. Thirty, mayhap as many as the villagers together, Peloren estimated. Which was unfortunate: although a smaller number of defenders could hold out against superior numbers if they held the high ground, as well Peloren knew, it helped enormously if the defenders were trained. And we have not an abundance of swordsmanship on our side, he thought grimly.
Andrahar had six men with him, all single file for the moment, and sitting with their backs to the cliff face. Peloren gave a soft word of greeting, signaled his own five to join their fellows, and then passed silently to the head of the column, where Andrahar crouched, watching the shore intently. He laid a hand upon the Southron's shoulder, and the other glanced up briefly at him as Peloren came to kneel at his side.
"Are they ready above?" Andrahar asked quietly.
"As ready as can be. You?"
"The same." They fell silent for awhile then, watching as the men below began to move, making for the cliff wall.
"Do you think they know where they are going?" Peloren asked abruptly. Beside him, he felt more than saw Andrahar shrug.
"I do not know. I thought before that they might be scouting the area, and perhaps they were, but I wonder now whether I was not mistaken. Why land here, without knowing what they would face?"
"Then you believe that they knew about this place."
"It would make sense. But if so, I do not understand their delay, or why they did not come in closer before sending their men to shore. These walked here—they did not land a boat here."
Peloren thought about this for some little while, then said slowly, "As I recall, the water here is quite shallow over a rocky floor for more than a mile before the seabed drops suddenly. 'Tis what makes it such a good place for crabs and the like. A ship could not come in very close—even a rowboat would find it a difficult task by daylight. Mayhap the shore beyond the cove was a better place to land, or perhaps they thought it best to conceal their men as long as possible."
Andrahar grunted softly. "Perhaps. They are not hiding now."
"I should give them a little more than a quarter hour to reach us once they start to climb, if they do not hurry themselves," Peloren murmured. "Can you tell whether they are Corsairs yet?"
"'Tis too dark for me to see colors, and too far to hear any speech they may have amongst themselves. But if they keep their lanterns lit, we shall know soon enough."
"Mayhap they are Gondorian coast guard," Peloren said after a moment.
"Without mast lights?"
"We should have to report them for that," Peloren observed, in a moment of gallows humor. Rather to his surprise, Andrahar gave a snort of laughter. He said nothing, however, and they fell once more to silent waiting.
Time seemed to creep by, or perhaps it was simply that his heart was beating rather more swiftly than usual, and so Peloren's count was distorted. Or mayhap the enemy—if enemy they were—was simply overly cautious. It was impossible to say, but as the minutes slipped away, Peloren could feel the tension at his back wax, as the men pressed into service grew restless, nervous. But no one spoke, and beside him, Andrahar remained absolutely still as he watched the lanterns progress across the strand and up the long path, hugging the rock face for safety. But other than the faint glow of partly shuttered lanterns, it was too dark to see much once they passed into the cliff's shadow.
Eventually, the faint sound of booted feet upon sandy byways reached Peloren's ears, and he stiffened, reaching out to touch Andrahar's arm. The Southron, in response, laid a hand on his knee in warning and acknowledgment, and then carefully eased to his feet, flattening himself against the cliff face, sword in hand, though not yet drawn. Peloren followed suit, and he made certain to reach back and brush the shoulder of the man behind him, and touch by touch, the warning spread: They come! Be ready!
Light illuminated the rock face as the troupe took the turn below them, and Peloren, squinting, caught a glimpse at last of faces in the dim, half-shuttered lamplight: definitely not Gondorian, in feature or in dress. Not that he could see much of either, but men did not in general favor turbans or headscarves in Gondor, and he knew of no Gondorian unit whose uniform would permit such. Strangely, he felt some relief. At least we know now that we shall not be killing our own! he thought, as he once again reached back to tap the shoulder of the man behind him: twice this time, the agreed upon signal for the slingers to stand forward and prepare for the first attack.
Andrahar let the enemy come until there were perhaps twenty paces separating them, ere he gave the order: "Now!"
The Haradrim, naturally, froze a moment, consternation rising from their ranks, ere it turned to fear. As little as the close quarters and untried men would permit any elaborate planning, Andrahar and Peloren had nevertheless managed to contrive an opening gambit that had two stages at least. The moment Andrahar had spoken, the first man in line, one of their two slingers, had hurled his rock, then ducked to the ground so the second man could throw, the two trading off shots. The stones were aimed at the lantern-bearers—though they might have thrown blindly into the advancing company, it had been discussed ahead of time that were there any bearing lights, they should be taken first. For as soon as the lamps dropped along with their bearers, the next stage of their attack was launched.
It being a village of fisher-folk, there were fishing nets aplenty, some half again as long as a man was high, all meant to be used by one or two people. At first, Peloren and Andrahar had considered the possibility of throwing nets at their attackers, but Dorhan had pointed out that actually, the ground was fairly sandy everywhere, including upon the trail. Why bother with throwing nets when one might hide one under a layer of sand, and then pull it out from under one's enemies, sending them tumbling? It had been worth a try, at least, and so, having attached two long ropes to the edge of one net, they had done as Dorhan suggested, and left the ropes in the hands of the men in the rearguard.
As soon as the lights dropped, the last six men in the line had yanked upon the ropes, heaving with all their might. And from the cries of alarm, pain and curses, the ploy worked, while the slingers continued to lob their stones by turns. Poor as his Haradric was, Peloren found it was nevertheless up to the task of translating the irate commands to regroup, as well as some of the moaned complaints from men injured in the fall or else by the stones.
"Bucklers to front! Up the road, lads, move it! Now!" the Corsair commander was snarling, and as one, Andrahar and Peloren went for their swords.
"Let's have some light!" Peloren called back to the rearguard, for though it was a risk, neither he nor Andrahar were eager to fight the whole way back up to the village in the dark. For one thing, it was simply harder to know where the enemy was, but for another, they needed to know where they were. For it was apparent to both Andrahar and Peloren that they had the best hope of slowing the enemy, of holding the Corsairs to the path. But even they could not fight forever, which meant either that they fought 'til they fell, or they fought one on two and found some way to spell each other. Despite the risks, they had decided to try for the latter.
"If it does not work, we will know soon enough, and in the end it would amount to the same result," as Andrahar had pointed out.
But that meant they did need light to make the switch, and Peloren breathed a bit more easily as the light from three oil lanterns blazed into being, illuminating the ground before them… and momentarily blinding their enemies. Andrahar, who had assigned himself the lead, wasted no time, nor any opportunity: the moment he saw the lead Corsair flinch from the light, he struck, using his sheath to bat the man's sword safely to one side, while his own blade arced upward beneath the man's buckler, and caught him across the throat. Even as the body fell, Andrahar was already moving to take the next man, who barely had time to cry out ere the Southron's blade found him.
After that, however, their enemies were more prepared, and Peloren watched, every nerve taut with anticipation, as Andrahar met a pair of men, who kept him occupied for a few minutes before he found an opening. Then one of the men reeled back, clutching at his face. The other staggered, off balance, as the flat of Andrahar's blade struck the side of his head, and the Southron shoved him over the edge, just as the next pair of men launched themselves at him.
Peloren stood a little ways back, one eye on Andrahar, the other on the Haradrim—at least insofar as he could see them. It was probably a good thing that they were far enough from the turn in the road that no one could easily retreat to a vantage point to throw knives or sling stones. No one wished to risk killing their own with an ill-timed or poorly-aimed shot—
Or so he thought. Andrahar had managed to take down one of his opponents, and for a split second, as the other man dodged and ducked, Andrahar stood exposed, and in that moment, something flashed through the air.
"Ware!" Peloren cried out in warning, even as Andrahar dodged back, half-pivoting as he dropped his sheath, almost as if to catch the knife, save that even he could not possibly be so cocky as to try that sort of stunt in the midst of battle. But then Peloren saw the knife spin off to the side, deflected but not by any weapon. Still, Andrahar did not seem to flinch, and in the next instant he was back about, quick as ever, to face his opponent, who gave a strangled cry as Andrahar slipped just to one side of his enemy's blow and his own sword scythed up and inward, cutting through flesh to lodge beneath the sternum. With a snarl, the Swan Knight yanked his blade free, and shoved the dying man back into the arms of charging comrades, knocking one of them off-balance. And:
"Peloren!" he shouted.
There was no time to think about it. Obeying that summons, Peloren stepped forward, sliding past Andrahar to take the lead man of the next pair of attackers as the injured Swan Knight retreated. And it was as if he were moving in molasses, for time seemed to slow suddenly, and every movement seemed to stretch out, and he was simply not going to be quick enough to block that strike. Everything seemed terribly, horribly clear, and he knew, in a flash of insight, that if he survived this night, the face of the man before him would be forever with him, seared into his mind in awful detail, as he watched the other's blade rise and fall—
—and then he heard the clang! and felt the jarring impact all down his arms, which moved as if with a mind of their own to disengage his own blade and strike. Something wet and hot splashed across his face, and the other man was falling away, eyes ludicrously wide and white, white, white like a ghastly moon. And then he was gone, as if he had never existed, and Peloren ducked under the other man's blow, then launched himself at the Corsair, driving his shoulder into the other's side, ramming him by main force into the cliff-face. He heard the anguished gasp, felt bone crack and give, even as he stabbed downward, hamstringing his opponent. He left the man for Andrahar to finish and turned to face the next Corsair, as everything seemed to fade way. There was nothing beyond the reach of his sword—the world did not exist. He moved in a void without substance, meeting resistance only in the men who joined him… and who then fell away in death. It was strangely freeing, and a sort of heady, fierce exultation coursed through him as his body flowed through motions so long practiced they had not even to be thought of—he knew without words, and to know was to do, and he wrote his deeds in blood.
It was a shock, therefore, when he turned to face the next man, and found no one awaiting him. No one, unless it were the one calling: "Peloren! Peloren, 'tis over! They're retreating—put up! Peloren!"
Peloren blinked, turned, and then swayed a bit, shaking his head once, twice, trying to clear it. He found he was gasping of a sudden, weak in the knees as the world came rushing back with almost crushing force, and his legs buckled. "Peloren! Look at me—are you hurt?"
"I'm all right," he tried to say. "I'm fine." He was not sure, however, whether he got any of that out, and ended up simply waving a hand at Andrahar, whose face swam into focus.
The Southron was scowling, and keeping a certain cautious distance. "Giver's bones," Andrahar swore, and shocked Peloren all over again for saying it in Westron, which he had never heard the other do before. "Do you hear me?"
"Aye, I hear," he panted, and Andrahar closed his eyes a moment, seeming relieved. Then he opened them again and asked:
"Can you stand?"
"I think so. Just give me a moment," he replied, sucking in a few more lungfuls of air before he pushed himself to his feet. And he looked about, bewildered, at the trail of bodies, then up at the sky, where the moon had yet to appear over the edge of the cliff. "What happened?"
"They retreated. I heard their captain ordering his men to return to the beach. I don't know why," Andrahar replied, sounding both frustrated and puzzled. "As impressive as that performance was, they are still fifteen swordsmen to our two and eleven improvised pike men unless I missed my count." A beat, then: "You're bleeding."
"It is not serious, I think," Peloren replied, then asked: "Do we pursue them?"
At that, Andrahar grimaced slightly, and he glanced downward, looking after the Haradrim, apparently in full flight, and for the first time that night, Peloren saw him waver. But at length:
"No. 'Twould serve no purpose to chase after them now. We will let them go this time."
Despite a certain misgiving, Peloren could muster no objection, for now that the danger had passed, he could feel every bruise, nick, and cut that he had taken in the fight, and he felt drained. Looking once more upon the carnage in his wake, he was gripped with a sense of unreality: granted, he knew he was responsible for a goodly part of it, it seemed impossible now that he should have managed any of it. Master Kendrion just cleared me for light practice. I am not even wearing armor!
"I said, are you certain you are all right?" Andrahar asked, and Peloren shook himself, glanced once into the other's face, then down, and his gaze fell upon Andrahar's left arm then, which had been hastily bound with the cut-off remains of his sleeve. The bandage was blood-stained.
"Fine. What about you?" he asked, frowning.
"'Tis my off-hand," Andrahar replied, ruthlessly dismissing the injury. Black eyes searched Peloren's face a moment longer, but then he nodded and stepped back, eyeing the bodies now.
"Well, since it seems we are none of us badly hurt, let us see what we have. Iliman, Turos, start collecting weapons. Porion, collect purses, check for any papers and bring whatever you find up to Master Dorhan's house. Balan, Ciryar, keep a watch on the Corsairs—two hours on, two hours off, rotate through the men; come find us if aught remarkable happens. Everyone else, get some rest while you can."
There was a general murmuring of acknowledgment, and then the men split up to their assigned tasks. Andrahar watched them for a moment, then, seemingly satisfied, he gave Peloren a look and jerked his head in the direction of the village. "Let's go."
"Where?" Peloren asked.
"You said Mistress Falwen was an herbwoman?"
"Then we are going to pay her a visit," Andrahar replied. "Come on."
Some quarter of an hour later, Peloren sat in Master Dorhan's table, still wincing a little over the cleansing wash Falwen had had her friend, Dolwen, use to tend to his cuts. It reeked of liquor and likely tasted as bad as it felt upon an open wound. He supposed he ought to be grateful none of his injuries was deep enough to require overmuch care beyond that and a light bandage. Andrahar had had to suffer the same physic, but at much greater length and in much greater quantity. Peloren had watched Andrahar's head go down, and his whole body tense, heard the harshness of his breath and seen how the knuckles of his good hand whitened as he gripped the edge of the table and had felt vaguely, sympathetically ill.
Falwen was stitching the wound shut now, which apparently was somewhat less of a torment, though Andrahar remained tense and his expression shuttered. For his part, Peloren still felt drained, and there remained a queasy aftertaste to life; simply watching Andrahar stoically endure Falwen's ministrations threatened to sap what energy remained him.
When at length, Falwen finished, Andrahar was therefore not the only one to let out a sigh of relief. The herbwoman bound the arm up with a clean bandage and gave Andrahar a grandmotherly pat on the cheek. Andrahar flinched, sheer reflex, and Falwen clucked her tongue sympathetically. "Poor dears! I'll just fetch some tea for you both," she said, and whisked away.
With a grunt and grimace, Peloren ran his hands through his hair, and he gazed at Andrahar a long moment ere, prompted by the intent look upon the other's face, he asked: "What is it?"
Andrahar said nothing immediately, simply staring down at the tabletop, though clearly his thoughts were elsewhere. But at length, he replied: "I do not know. There is just something I mislike in all this. Why would they retreat? It makes no sense!"
Peloren, who had been considering the same question, said, after a moment: "It is, as I said, an odd time of year for a raid, and they are far from their usual hunting grounds. They might have come expecting an easy victory, and departed when they realized it would not be."
"I suppose that might be it. Still… I do not like it. I do not trust it," Andrahar said, scowling, and then he winced a little when an injudicious gesture towards the pile of papers and purses Porion had delivered pulled at injured muscles. "I hope these shall yield something useful, though in truth, I doubt it shall. Their commander escaped, and I doubt a sergeant or a bosun would carry orders on them."
Peloren frowned. "You do not really mean to look through everything Porion found tonight, do you?" he asked.
"As much as I can, aye."
"You're hurt, though."
"'Twas my arm that was hurt, not my eyes or my head, Peloren," Andrahar replied, just a little sharply. "And I should like to keep it to just the arm."
"You truly think they may be back?" Peloren demanded, feeling stomach clench and churn at the notion.
"I do not know. It is simply… there is something that troubles me, as I said," Andrahar said, giving him a one shouldered shrug. "I shan't be able to sleep with it preying upon me, so I might as well read."
Peloren did not respond at once, for Mistress Falwen returned and set two mugs of tea before them. "Drink up," she ordered. "'Twill do you good."
"Our thanks, Mistress," Peloren murmured, and Andrahar inclined his head politely. Once she had withdrawn to her bedroom to give them some privacy to speak, Peloren asked: "How long has it been, do you think, since Imrahil left?"
"Mayhap an hour, or a little longer."
Which meant probably another hour and half before they could expect any help. In the meantime, there were Corsairs, and the prospect of yet another outnumbered battle tonight… He swallowed hard, ran a hand through his hair and down over the back of his neck, pausing a moment to rub the muscles there. Then: "What should I do?"
"Rest if you like. I shall wake you if I find aught."
Peloren scowled. "Other than that."
A shrug. "There is no need for both of us—"
"As if there's any need for you to do it!" Peloren exploded of a sudden. And when Andrahar's eyes narrowed, he continued, as frayed nerves snapped at last. "Varda's stars, you're wounded, we're all weary, there are Corsairs still on the prowl, and despite what you may think, I can read Haradric! I'm an esquire, I should be doing something, and for Valar's sake—I just killed men tonight! I—oh!"
With a suddenness that shocked him, nausea welled up and struck, and it was like being punched in the gut: the breath went out of him all in a rush, and the next thing he knew, he was retching violently. Vision swam, and in the midst of the black spots, there were flashes of battle—men screaming and falling, staining him with their blood. Ai Valar, I did kill those men! he thought sickly, as another wave of nausea washed over and through him. Over the faint buzzing in his ears, he was aware of Falwen's concerned inquiries, and heard Andrahar saying: "—be fine, Mistress, it happens this way sometimes after a battle."
The spasm continued for another minute ere it eased, and Peloren found he could breathe once more, though he was shivering now, chilled. Of a sudden, a cloak, still warm from someone's body, was draped round his shoulders, and he gathered it about himself before looking up to find Andrahar regarding him intently… and with just a hint of pity in his eyes.
"I'm all right," Peloren croaked, then cleared his throat. "'Twas just… everything went a bit queer for a moment." So he said, striving for some dignity as he forced himself to sit up straight, grateful, then, that he had missed supper. Bile coated his tongue, but at least he had not sullied the floor.
"It strikes men like that on occasion," the other agreed without fuss, which somehow but made Peloren feel worse.
"Right. I suppose you would know," he said, a little resentfully. This garnered an exasperated oath, and then:
"Must you always—" the Southron began heatedly, but came to an abrupt halt. And after a moment's glaring, he very deliberately settled himself across the table once again, leaning back in his chair to cradle his left arm in his right, all the while gazing shrewdly at the esquire. Then:
"What is it you want, here, Peloren? An argument? Outrage? Is there something particular you require so we can get back to what we were talking about before?" Andrahar inquired with pointed sarcasm. That brought a flush to Peloren's cheeks, and he quickly bit his tongue against a too-quick reply. Instead, he snatched up the tea cup and took a cautious sip, and then another when that did not seem to upset his stomach. And: Breathe! he told himself. Think, Pel, you do not need to be an idiot thrice this evening!
At length, he lowered the tea cup, and said softly: "I'm sorry. I told Imrahil there should be no quarrels between us tonight."
Somewhat to his surprise, this elicited a rather frustrated, disdainful snort, and he lifted his head to stare at the other curiously. In response to that look, Andrahar replied: "So it's Imrahil to whom you're beholden in your regrets, is it? If you wish to apologize to me, Peloren, then apologize to me. Otherwise, we shall get along better without the semblance."
"Semblance. Seeming. The fatherless gelded pig prefers to know where he stands, not pick through seeming apologies."
Peloren felt his face heat again at that, and the other's sardonic tone did not help. "I never meant it that way!" he protested, temper flaring once more.
Andrahar raised a brow. "Perhaps not," he replied, but there was in that concession not a shred of yielding, nor, as Peloren seethed quietly, any sense that this excuse, whether true or not, held any worth in his eyes.
But why should it? Peloren thought suddenly. Nothing has ever been right between us. What matter, what I mean? It does not truly change things. The trouble was, he did not know what might, and frustrated, Peloren spread his hands helplessly. "I do not know what to say," he said, and meant not only their present quarrel.
"Then say nothing—help me read, if you will. Otherwise, rest," Andrahar replied, as with ruthless efficiency he reached and tugged a few of the papers across the table and began sorting them out. Peloren bit back on a response, caught on the wrong side of a conversation that was clearly closed now, ambivalence skittering along nerves already strained to nearly their limit. But it seemed evident there was no point in continuing—he had what he had said he wanted, did he not? With but a brief hesitation, Peloren followed Andrahar's lead. He snagged a note and began trying to decipher it—whoever had written it, his penmanship was nothing to praise—as he tried to put tensions behind him, to concentrate on the task at hand.
But some things are not so easily discarded, and after only a few moments, he sighed and set the paper aside.
"Andrahar," he said, and the other looked up from his chore. Peloren bit his lip as black eyes met his, but he did not look away, uncomfortable as it was to be subject to that gaze. All term we've side-stepped each other, and that is the best part of anything we have ever managed in four years! I would have this settled finally—if there are still Corsairs to face, I want it settled and done between us. So:
"I don't know what to say, truly I do not. Not about any of it. I never thought… I didn't think, then, of any of this. I don't know what I thought." He paused, then finished: "I do not want to know anymore what I thought."
Disjointed and confused as this confession was, he meant every word of it, and as he gazed at Andrahar, he willed the other to understand. And it seemed Andrahar tried to—his eyes were narrowed, but Peloren did not sense anger so much as cautious consideration. At length: "So what you are saying…?"
"What I am saying," Peloren said, quietly, "is that I was wrong. And I am sorry for it. For all of it."
So he said, and held his breath, waiting on an answer. Andrahar was silent for a long moment, but finally he nodded slowly. "Then I accept your apology." A beat, then: "Thank you." And he extended his hand. Peloren reached, and they clasped arms, gripping firmly. No smiles—matters were not that easy between them, and even had they not to worry about Corsairs tonight, there was still the question of whether they even liked each other. But that did not matter—the thing was done, and Peloren sighed softly, relieved.
When they released each other, they fell wordlessly back to their task, but this time, the silence, for once, was bearable.
They emptied the purses and pouches and a number of small wallets on leather strings, combing through the contents for paper or parchment before returning the other items to their proper places. Much to Peloren's dismay, there was a surprising amount of written material, much of it on smaller sheets that were tightly rolled up or folded. Andrahar, however, had been less concerned.
"Most of them will be prayers," he had said, setting one such aside after but a cursory glance. "Scribes or the keepers of temples and shrines will write them out for petitioners. 'Tis common custom for warriors to carry them."
That had certainly made matters simpler. In the end, there were but a few letters; Peloren swiftly realized he could determine whether or not to bother with skimming them if he paid attention to the writer's gender: letters from wives or betrotheds or mothers were set aside without further investigation. There was one that had seemed more promising at first—a letter to a loved one, where the writer said t'hol of himself, not t'hil, but after a certain amount of confusion, he realized that the bearer of the letter had not been the author of the letter; that this was not a letter home but a keepsake, and that the author of the letter wrote to his absent beloved from some city in Harad…
Belated understanding dawned, and as soon as it did, he refolded the letter and quickly set it aside with the others, feeling a bit flustered. Andrahar had raised a brow at him.
"Nothing?" he inquired.
"Nothing," Peloren confirmed. Then: "What now?"
"Now we wait." Andrahar rose, and wincing a bit, pulled his heavier overtunic on. "I shall return to the cliff side to watch. And if the bodies remain on the path, have a word with the villagers about moving them."
"I can come—"
"Nay, bide here, or find some place to rest. One of us should be ready should aught happen."
"You'll wake me in half an hour, then?" Peloren asked, wanting clarification.
"Half an hour is not very long."
Peloren snorted. "If fortune is kind, in little more than an hour, Imrahil will return with help. Until then, half an hour will do for each of us." Andrahar appeared to consider this, and after a few moments, acquiesced. Peloren pulled the other's cloak from his shoulders and proffered it. "You'll be wanting this more than I."
The Southron silently accepted it back. "Get some rest," he repeated, and then departed.
"Lord Peloren?" Peloren turned then to see Falwen standing in the doorway to her chambers. She gestured to the departing knight, and said, a little apologetically, "I could not but overhear. If you would like to have a bed to rest on, Dorhan and I shan't rest 'til this bad business is done with. I don't know that I could, even!"
"That is very kind of you, Mistress, but—" Peloren gestured to himself, to the still damp bloodstains "—I fear I should utterly ruin your sheets as I am."
"Water for washing is one thing we do not lack," the old woman replied, with a slight smile. "But as you will. If you simply wish a quiet place, however, you could lie down within and none would disturb you, unless you were needed." And when he hesitated, she added: "Please, lord, we are all beholden to you, and if it comes to a fight, we should all feel safer knowing one of you was rested."
Which was surely blackmail, but Peloren did not possess the will to resist. He made her a courtly bow that made her blush, and replied, "Then I thank you for all your courtesy and care, Mistress. Please wake me should word come from Andrahar."
In the end, he did not use the bed. The Swan Knights' sergeants had instilled a lasting horror of an untidy chamber, and so he simply curled up on the straw mat at the foot of the bed and pulled his own cloak over himself. And he did managed to sleep a little, if lightly, so that when the banging on the door began, he was quick to rouse.
Aiya! He winced, for even in that brief space of time, muscles had stiffened, and he cracked his neck as he rose, and then his back, before answering the summons. Mistress Falwen stood there, her expression taut but determined, though the fear shone clearly in her eyes. "They've returned, I take it?" he asked her.
"Aye. Come quickly!"
Peloren quickly grabbed Aldan's sword off the floor and checked his dagger, making for the cottage door as he did so. "Thank you, Mistress," he told her. "See to your folk!"
With that, he hurried without, where the villagers were gathering. The men stood along the ridge, spears and appropriated swords to hand, while the women gathered in a clot before Dorhan's door, waiting on news. Peloren took a moment to find Andrahar, then set out at a trot to join him. And he frowned, as he glanced up at the moon riding high overhead.
"How long did you let me sleep?" he demanded without preamble when he had reached the other.
Dol Amroth's youngest knight glanced sideways at him and said, by way of greeting, "Long enough that it may do you some good. But never mind that." He nodded to the shore below. "They look to be coming on more swiftly than before."
"Why is that, do you think?" Peloren asked, gazing down at the little knot of men moving once more up the beach.
"I do not know." A pause, then: "I think we may assume they shall not fall for our tricks again."
"No nets, then?"
"I do not believe it would work a second time. 'Tis not hard to counter if one knows to expect it."
"More's the pity," Peloren sighed. Andrahar tipped his head slightly to one side and made one of his little gestures, and though often Peloren was uncertain of their meaning, this one he understood: Such is fate! Indeed:
"Fortune delivers all men to their destiny," the Southron said aloud, and jerked his head in the direction of the path. "Let us meet it as best we may, therefore."
They left the older men and boys arrayed near the top of the road with their rocks and knives and the like, while the women got the children under cover once again and prepared their own defenses. Once more, Andrahar and Peloren led their little band of defenders down the path. This time, however, they decided simply to keep moving until they met up with the enemy, for they desired at least a little unpredictability, and also that the Corsairs should be made to suffer the land as much as possible. There was nothing like having a long climb still ahead of one after a fight, after all.
There was little in the way of change to their tactics—there were few options, after all, and with men who had never drilled together and who were, in any case, untrained, neither Andrahar nor Peloren thought it good to risk improvising overmuch, other than to designate one man a runner.
"As soon as we are forced to begin retreating in earnest," Andrahar told Iliman, "run to warn the others to expect the Corsairs. Make your stand with them."
Beyond that, the only change in their ranks was in the lead: despite dread, Peloren insisted on taking it. "I know the road a little better than you, at least," he argued, "and that arm will slow you down."
"We shall see," had been Andrahar's response, as he hefted a dagger he had acquired from what remained of the pile of weapons Iliman and Turos had collected. But he had followed Peloren down without protest.
The moon was beginning to show itself over the edge of the cliff, casting a faint light upon the way as they made their descent. They had come a little more than halfway to the bottom, when Peloren held up a hand, signaling a halt. For he could hear others moving close at hand, just a little ways below. Indeed, barely a minute later, they appeared as they came around the bend and began to climb.
But the moonlight did not help only the Gondorians: the Haradrim, too, could see now, and at the sight of them, a cry went up—but not a war cry. 'Twas no command or insult, but the most unexpected word of all: even as Peloren raised his sword, the commander of the Corsairs raised his hand, empty palm turned outward, and in heavily accented Westron called out: