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10
Fortune's Reversals

"Parley, I cry you!"

A stunned silence greeted this request. Peloren stared at the Corsair commander, then darted a hesitant glance back at Andrahar, ere returning his gaze to his opponent, unwilling to take his eyes from him overlong.

He felt Andrahar draw near, and murmur: "Parley must be answered—you are my herald, but leave my name silent or I fear all wagers are lost. Go!"

Between disbelief and hope, Peloren obeyed, and strove to master himself, to carry himself as his father had taught him, as a lord and knight ought to, though every muscle was tense lest this be some trick. But Andrahar was right: a request for parley was always accepted. It was the one rule that was never violated between North and South, West and East. The enemy must at least be heard, and must always receive an answer, ere the truce ended, at which point all was fair game once again. A difficult balance, and a fragile one, but even orcs tended to respect it, though a captain was a fool who went forth himself to receive an answer from them.

The Corsair commander met him halfway, and they stood for a moment in silent, squinting appraisal of each other, there in the gap between their companies. The commander was older than Peloren had expected, the moonlight showing a deeply lined brow and shadowed hints of crow's feet as he stared, narrow-eyed, at Peloren, and his hair showed more silver than black. An old sailor—an old hand, presumably, on such raids, and Peloren's brow knit in puzzlement, thinking over the strange tactics of the evening. But he had not come to ask after that; he had come to answer the man, and so he said:

"I am Lord Peloren. I speak for my commander. Who are you, and what would you say, sir?"

"Bhasat, son of Benhar of Umbar. The third mate of Hranam, I am. You speak Haradric?"

"A little," Peloren replied, switching tongues, and he hoped Andrahar was listening well.

"That is good, for we have but little Westron," Bhasat replied, falling easily back into his native speech. The Southron cocked his head slightly, eyeing Peloren up and down once more, ere he observed: "You bear the mark of the Swan-lord."

"We serve the Prince of Dol Amroth," Peloren affirmed.

"Swan Knights?"

It seemed best not to complicate matters by attempting to explain his own status, not to mention that it was never a good idea to admit a weakness to an enemy, and so Peloren said simply: "Yes." The Corsair grunted, but strangely seemed pleased by this.

"So I thought! I have faced your brothers before, you see. I know their mettle, unlike our late commander."

"I… see." Peloren paused, uncertain how else to respond. This conversation was swiftly spiraling away from anything Peloren might have thought would be at issue. To hear the man, and watch him as he stood, seemingly at ease, before Peloren, they might have met in a tavern and be sharing a friendly conversation. Thus: "May I ask, honored sir, why it is that you wish to speak of this?"

"You may. Mostly because we should thank you—you rid us of one we cared little for, and so did us a favor, though of course you did not know this. Our late commander and our captain, you see," Bhasat explained, "were and are newly come to Harad's service—both young, perhaps as young as you, perhaps younger. You will forgive me if I pay you less respect than your years deserve, 'tis hard for us to tell ages among the Westmen even under a broad sun."

There came a pause; it seemed this actually required an answer, and so Peloren, though still trying to sort through what was being said, replied swiftly, "Of course."

The Corsair inclined his head slightly. "Thank you. Such men, especially when young, are not often inclined to heed the wisdom of age, especially when age is more humbly born. 'Tis the way of things, and were the commander still with us, I should not speak. But since he is no more among us, naught prevents courtesy among those whom misfortune puts together."

"And I thank you for your courtesy," Peloren said, since it seemed that could hardly do any harm. Then, more cautiously: "I fear, though, that I do not yet understand. Whom misfortune puts together?"

"Aye. We did not wish to undertake this mission when not all was in place, but young commanders and captains are eager for glory. They sent us anyway, heedless of well-founded warnings, and here we are, much lessened in number and with no good chance of succeeding in the task set us, and our honor all at risk now. You slew one hothead, and we are glad of it, though 'twas perhaps a greater honor than he deserved."

What is this about? a bewildered Peloren wondered, struggling to understand it all. It was quite evident to Peloren that he was missing something in all this strange speech, clothed in courtesy and manners, and inwardly he cursed the fact that Andrahar had not come to speak in his stead. He might make some sense of this, at least! he thought.

"Please accept my apologies, Master Bhasat," Peloren said finally, after considering and rejecting a few responses as simply too complicated for him to carry off. "But I am afraid I still cannot understand what you mean to tell me—what I should tell my commander, that is. I shall of course bring him your thanks, if you wish, but… was there something else I should say to him?"

At this, the Southron chuckled softly. "Let me say it then in words you will understand, perhaps," Bhasat replied, changing once more to Westron. "You have killed our commander, and this is good. But our orders still have us, and more than once now—we must go on. There is no welcome back for us."

"But why?" Peloren asked.

"For several reasons, but in most: our ship has gone from us with the orders to continue that what we have begun."

"Your ship left you? But…" Peloren paused, and eyed the man closely, feeling alarm beginning to rise. "Forgive me, but you seem to say you intend to fight this battle regardless. Why parley, then?"

"In most, to thank you, as I said. But also to know you, who you are—two Swan Knights, I think, and some others. A strange gathering. Yet a worthy way to end for some of us. Do not disappoint us, therefore," the Southron said.

"You wish me to tell my commander we should not disappoint you?" Peloren asked, incredulously.

At that, Bhasat laughed, and there was a predatory edge to his smile now. "Nay, honored lord, he has heard us. No need he has of a message. And that is good, for you are not a messenger!"

Steel rang as Bhasat swept out his sword, and Peloren barely dodged in time. He had no time to clear his sword, and only just enough time to get a dagger to hand and up to block the back-swing, but the force of the blow drove him back against the cliff wall, knocking the breath from him. Peloren gasped in pain, but ere he could do aught, ere even he could try to save himself, Bhasat gasped as well, and the man collapsed, dragging him down. For a moment, blind panic seized Peloren as he struggled under the dead weight, expecting at any moment to feel the bite of a blade or to be crushed as the Haradrim mobbed forward, but it did not happen.

"Amrothu nhimairaiyat!" Which ought to make absolutely no sense, and perhaps it gave their enemies pause to hear a Haradric battle cry from out of a Swan Knight's mouth. Whether or not it did, of a sudden, Andrahar was there, and as Peloren clawed his way out from beneath his foe, he noticed the precisely placed dagger sticking out from under Bhasat's arm: Andrahar had thrown true; his blade had sunk into the man's armpit, just above the stiff leather cuirass and Bhasat groaned in agony, blood trickling from his mouth. Peloren spared him a last, uncomprehending look, and then drove his own knife home, ending the other's misery, ere he dragged his sword free and rose to rejoin the fray.

For despite the fact that Andrahar had managed to kill two already, he could not block well with the dagger in his left hand, and he was fighting mostly defensively at the moment, trying simply to keep his opponents at bay, deflecting and dodging strikes from the left as best he could.

With a snarl, and a cry of, "Amroth!", Peloren fell in at his side.

It was different, though, from the first fight—different, and more difficult. Before, he had been free to swing, having only to mind the cliff wall and his opponents' blades. But fighting side by side, he had now to know where Andrahar was, to avoid hitting him, to mind the narrow space and pull his strikes, so as not to let momentum take them too wide. And this time, too, he was tired already. His back and head ached from the bruising he had just received, his breath still felt short, and though his body kept on about the deadly business of war, frenzy did not rule this fight. This time, friction held harsh, abrasive sway.

Nor did the situation improve. Unarmored as they were, there was nothing to cushion even a glancing blow, no room for any sort of close call. Whatever touched would cut if it were edged; whatever landed would bruise if it were blunt. Injured already and facing enemies who did not seek to live the night but only to destroy before death claimed them, they could not hold position, and had simply to back their way up the path, dodging as often as they could that they not utterly spend themselves blocking.

Their enemies began to take them in shifts, even as they had planned to do during the first assault. As one man tired, he would dodge back, and another would leap to take his place. Sometimes, Peloren or Andrahar would be able to take advantage of that momentary break in formation, and a man would fall. But it did not happen regularly. They had to cover themselves; they had to cover each other; and most especially they had to cover the villagers as long as possible. Arms went from weary to numb to a paradoxically achy numbness that held the benefits of neither feeling nor unfeeling, yet seemed to combine the worst aspects of both.

Andrahar had thrown one more dagger and was down to his last one by the time they had backed perhaps thirty feet and were reaching a bend in the road. The villagers took it first, and for a brief moment, there was relief for the two warriors, for it let their support stab downward at the remaining Corsairs. Andrahar's opponent reeled out of line, clutching at his eye, and another man seemed to be injured as well, but almost as soon as this new attack began, the Corsairs responded: a couple of men toward the rear of the company grabbed the edges of the path above and pulled themselves up to the next level. One of the villagers cried out and went down, clutching the leg that a Corsair blade had found, and men cried out in alarm, turning swiftly to face this threat, but slender fishing spears could not withstand blows from Haradric scimitars.

With an oath, Andrahar shoved his opponent back and disengaged, calling to Peloren, "Hold them!"

"Aye! Go!" Peloren snarled, even as he cut at Andrahar's opponent. The young knight shoved his way past the villagers, who were only too glad to let him by, to take on the three men who had clambered up to the slope above. A few moments later, a body came tumbling over the edge and Peloren saw two of the rearguard go down beneath it, and spears were thrust down after them. But the Haradrim were not the only victims. Peloren had just blocked a blow, and was pressing forward when, without warning, what felt like fire burned all down his back, and then a weight slammed into him, pitching him forward to the earth, crushingly heavy, and pain pain PAIN—!

Silence.


~ 0 ~


There was sound in the darkness, a voice that was naggingly familiar. But there was also pain, and he writhed, fearful suddenly, struggling feebly against constraining hands, as unintelligible words assaulted him. Weariness, though, swiftly leeched all strength from him, and consciousness as well and he surrendered to the blackness with but a passing regret.

How long he floated in oblivion, he did not know. But when next Peloren stirred, and managed by dint of sheer effort to crack an eye open, he thought it must have been long indeed. He ached; his head throbbed, and one eye in particular felt hot and puffy. His back burned still, and a whimper escaped him.

Clothing rustled somewhere nearby, and a hiss of sharply indrawn breath sounded. A shadow fell upon him, as someone passed between him and the lantern that stood upon a rough, wooden stand. "Pel?" came the anxious, hopeful voice—a voice he had never thought to hear again even before he went to face the Corsairs. A hand closed over one of his, shook gently. "Pel? Are you awake?"

"Elya?" Peloren managed to croak, and swallowed against the hoarse soreness of his throat. He blinked, then blinked again and squinted, 'til Elethil's face came into focus, and he said the first thing that came to mind, his words slurring: "Am I dead, then?"

"You look it!" Elethil exclaimed, but then sighed, and gave him a hesitant, lop-sided smile. "But no, you're still here."

"But… you… I thought—!"

"I know. They told me," Elethil replied, somberly, and squeezed his hand, giving him an anguished look. "I'm so sorry, Pel!"

"Where have you been?!" Peloren demanded, struggling to sit up, but Elethil was quick to press him down.

"Just lie still! Master Kendrion said you were not to trouble yourself for anything," Elethil said swiftly. "Do you want for anything? Water, mayhap?"

"I want to know where you were!" Peloren insisted through gritted teeth, for his head hurt.

"I rode out into the hills beyond Dol Amroth. I ended up on Badhon for awhile, actually, and… I don't know exactly what I was thinking. I just…" He paused a moment, then continued slowly, voice low, "I thought I should be leaving. But I did not know where to go. I don't want to serve Golasgil, or Valyon or any of them, but since Father will not have me back—"

"What?" Peloren interrupted, confused. "What do you mean, your father wouldn't have you back?"

"Just that. I thought of going home for Yule this year, you know," Elethil said quietly. "To get away from the others. I thought it could not be worse, and when you are the fifth child of six, 'tis not so hard to stay quiet and out of sight. I wrote Father about it."

"And?" Peloren asked, when the other paused.

"He said I had not come home last year, and that I should not bother, unless I came home with a white belt. That there wasn't any use for me otherwise, if I couldn't find it in me to serve well—be a knight, like my brothers." Elethil ducked his head as his voice grew brittle. "Caldor's no place for the useless."

"Elya… that's—" Peloren stopped, appalled and at a loss for words. Between the headache and exhaustion, they were not coming easily. Finally, he settled simply for asking: "You never said anything to me—why?"

"I meant to tell you," Elethil said, with painful earnestness. "At Yule. But things happened, and… they happened. And I started to think that maybe it was better you did not know—why should we both suffer?"

That at least had a simple answer, and vehemence lent him clarity as Peloren replied: "Because I am your friend, Elethil!"

At that, Elethil lowered his eyes and looked away quickly. And: "I'm sorry," he whispered, voice tight. "I never thought…"

Peloren sighed softly, and with an effort, lifted a hand to touch the other's knee. And when Elethil, after a moment, hesitantly looked back at him, he smiled a little, then prompted: "So—you thought you should be leaving. And so, what? You cleaned your room?"

"Thank you," Elethil murmured, gratefully, and laid his hand over Peloren's ere he took up the tale again. "Aye, I turned all my things out—emptied the clothespress and the shelves, took everything off the desk, changed shirts and tunics, and put all of it in my trunk. Got everything ready." He paused, and the look he gave Peloren was at once fearful and frightening, and the next words made Peloren's stomach clench. "For I was leaving, I thought, one way or another—but with no place to go… I thought… I did think—we are not supposed to fear death."

He paused, while Peloren stared at him in horror, then continued quietly: "But I thought I should not bother anyone about it. I had been enough bother. So I left. I thought I should go somewhere else, since I was not wanted in Dol Amroth. But I did not want to take Greywind, either—if I could not go home, I wanted nothing to do with anything from Caldor, and Father gave him to me. He's a good horse—Father could use him again, so I left him with my things to go home, and took one of the spare horses instead. But then I still did not know where to go."

"So you went to Badhon," Peloren murmured.

"I ended up there," Elethil sighed. "I cannot say I meant to go there, I just was there, after a time. And I sat on the summit I do not know how long, waiting 'til it seemed right… " Abruptly, Elethil shook his head. "No," he said, voice hardening, "That is not true. I was not waiting, I just kept staring out and thinking how I liked it there. I did not want to spoil it."

"You did not… just because you thought the view was pretty?" Peloren demanded, uncomprehending.

Elethil bowed his head. "Yes. And no. I did not do it, because—" and here, he gave a soft, unhappy laugh "—because at bottom, I was too much afraid! There is the plain truth of it—nothing happened, because I was too much a coward for it. Some knight I should have made! Too afraid of life to live it, but too fearful of death to risk that either! In the end, it was not even shame that moved me: it got dark, and I thought I should take the poor horse back at least. So I left and went back."

A heavy silence fell, and Peloren shut his eyes, feeling more than a little dizzy. That close! Valar! And he did not know what to feel—rage, that Elethil should have gone so far and said nothing, or fear, that he might yet go further than even this. One thing only was certain, and that was shame. For I should have known. I should have known—I did know, and it was blind luck only he did not go through with it. Blind luck, or something else mayhap, as he opened his eyes, and saw Elethil gazing down at him, eyes haunted, it seemed, with the dread of a bad year's furtherance. It was that, perhaps, that cooled his wrath, and kindled something a great deal more tender in its place. For whatever else he might be, was not Elethil his dearest friend?

And so he laced his fingers in with Elethil's, and squeezed, and said, "'Twas fear made you go to Badhon, Elya. But it did not bring you down from there. That was something else."

"How can you say that?" Elethil demanded hoarsely.

"Because," Peloren said simply, "I am your friend. And I know you." He paused, watching as something awful twisted in the other's face—twisted, and then suddenly broke, as Elethil drew an unsteady breath and blinked hard, turning away to wipe at his eyes with a sleeve. Peloren felt a sympathetic ache in his own breast, and murmured, "I'm sorry. I should have seen—"

"'Tis all right," Elethil cut him off, and he cleared his throat. Blotting once more at his eyes, he looked back at his friend, and he seemed at least a little calmer then. And he pressed Peloren's hand back, essayed a smile as he husked, "Thank you."

For a time, they simply sat thus, hand in hand, not speaking, while Peloren lay with his eyes closed against the steady, dull throb of his head. But at length, he urged, "What happened then? After you went back?"

"Well," Elethil said slowly, and sighed, "when I returned, I found that everyone was out looking for me. 'Twas Aldan I met up with, and he told me that he, Teilin, and Ambor had gone to tell the masters. Once he realized I wasn't… well, you know, going to do anything rash, Aldan nearly took my head off. He probably would have if Master Ornendil hadn't wanted a word." Elethil paused a moment, his cheeks red, and he gave Peloren a sidelong look. "He and Théorwyn and Illian will want to speak with you, too, as soon as you are well enough for it. I, ah… they know everything now," he said hurriedly, and shrugged; "So no need to stay silent on my behalf."

"Everything?" Elethil nodded, seeming quite subdued indeed. Peloren closed his eyes again and for a time, thought of nothing at all. But at length: "How came you here?"

"Truthfully, I am not quite certain myself. I was still with the masters when Imrahil came bursting in with a pair of knights with the news. I guess the masters had sent a few men after all of you, and when Imrahil met them, they accompanied him back. In any case, as soon as they heard what was happening, the masters went to go and gather men to ride with them. I just followed." Elethil shrugged once more. "Either Master Ornendil thought it fitting I should come and so did not stop me or else he did not wish to bother arguing when there were Corsairs on the loose and you and Andrahar out here with naught but a handful of villagers for help." He hesitated, then added, in a bit of a rush, "And maybe he thought, too, that if you were hurt or worse, he would rather have me where he could watch me. I do not know."

"And… is Andrahar…?" Peloren trailed off, afraid to ask.

"He's alive," Elethil assured him quickly. "A mess, and he's got a hole in his arm, but he walked back up the road on his own."

"The villagers?"

Elethil shook his head. "That I do not know, I fear. There were some wounded at least, but then they brought you up, and..." He shrugged.

Peloren grunted and shut his eyes again a moment, before reopening them to gaze about at his surroundings, all while trying not to move his aching head. "Master Dorhan's and Mistress Falwen's room," he murmured after a moment, forcing himself to speak slowly and clearly. And as he listened to the wind, and the voices that sounded beyond the walls, he frowned. "Just how many came with you?"

"Sixty, I think. Master Ornendil brought half a company, and Master Théorwyn brought another thirty men to sweep the area, to make certain there were no roving bands of Corsairs preying upon the farms and villages."

Ninety men… nearly a full company! Peloren groaned. "Master Ornendil'll kill us!"

"If anyone, I may kill Andrahar," came a new voice, and Peloren cringed, but then struggled to sit up. Elethil, however, quickly laid a restraining hand upon his shoulder, even as he rose to make the Armsmaster a salute, which Ornendil waved off impatiently. The Armsmaster was in full battle gear still, save for the helm, and a quite intimidating figure he cut in the midst of a humble cotter's home as he came to stand over Peloren. "Knights are not nursemaids," he continued, "and he ought to have better sense than to let Imrahil go off on one of his flights of fancy like that. Especially without telling anyone, and with you in tow!" So he said, and scowled so fiercely that Peloren felt compelled to say:

"Do not blame Andrahar or Imrahil overmuch, sir." And when Ornendil raised a brow, he explained: "'Twas my fault. Andrahar said we should tell you, not go off." He paused, closing his eyes wearily for a brief span, before forcing himself to continue: "I wouldn't hear it, not even from Imrahil. And when we wouldn't be stayed, he came with us, for Imri's sake. We never thought to find trouble. Not this sort. But he got Imrahil out of it. Saved my life, too."

Ornendil stared at him a moment, then glanced at Elethil. "Out," he said shortly, and Elethil, after but a brief and anxious look for Peloren, made haste to absent himself, closing the door behind him.

The Armsmaster sighed then, and removed his gauntlets, tucking them into his belt. Then he carefully settled upon the stool Elethil had been occupying. It creaked rather alarmingly beneath his weight, but he ignored it, reaching instead to lay a hand to the side of Peloren's face. Peloren gently chewed the tip of his tongue as Ornendil's fingers brushed lightly along the edges of bruises ere being withdrawn.

"Master Kendrion says you are concussed and subject to confusion because of it," he said then, in a less acerbic tone. "We shall speak later of responsibility in this and other matters, therefore."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir," Peloren murmured softly, though in point of fact, he rather wished to get it all over with, not to put off misery 'til the morrow when he could suffer it all at once today and have it done with. But one under judgment could make few demands, and so he resigned himself to anxious days ahead…

"Peloren." The Armsmaster's sharp call made him start, and he blinked, realizing his eyes had closed without him telling them to do so. He glanced up at the other once more, and Ornendil raised a brow at him. "Are you with me lad? Should I fetch Kendrion?"

"'Tis just that I’m tired, sir," Peloren said after a moment. At that, the Armsmaster seemed to relax a little and he nodded.

"Well," he said, and this time his voice was gentle and a little wry, "that is certainly understandable. You put up quite the fight, Andrahar said, and having seen your back and face, I can believe it."

"But not enough of one," Peloren said softly, feeling guilt sting once more. "Not everybody who came with us came back, did they, sir?"

"There were some casualties among the villagers, yes," Ornendil confirmed. Then: "Peloren, 'tis a rare and fortunate commander who fights a serious battle and loses no one. Do not blame yourself for the deaths of a few—had you not been here, all of the villagers might have lost their lives, or at best been made slaves."

"But that is not true! We should not have been able to do it," Peloren protested. "The Corsairs should have killed us! And it would not even have helped Elethil!"

"I will grant you that there was a more than fair amount of luck and strange circumstance involved," the Armsmaster said patiently. "And make no mistake, neither I nor Valandil nor the Prince will condone the fact of your being here under the circumstances: if you thought Elethil truly were desperate, you should have told us immediately, no matter how late it might have seemed for such intervention, and no matter what other costs there might have been. That he thankfully in the end had not the heart for such an act changes nothing. You panicked, and in your panic, you were willing to risk Elethil's life, so far as you knew, rather than trust your fellows to do right by him and to help you. That should not have happened, and it cannot happen again."

Peloren swallowed hard at that, for he could not deny it, and he did not wish to, yet he did not know how to explain himself, either. For I cannot. What excuse could I make for myself? Certainly none that would have done aught to ease his conscience had anything happened to Elethil, and so he only whispered, "I am sorry, sir, to have failed so!"

"I know that you are. But," the Armsmaster said, "I doubt me that you would have, had you been given any good reason to trust us in the first place."

And when Peloren gave him a startled look, Ornendil gave him a thin smile in return, and said, "As I said, we shall speak of those matters later, when you are somewhat more recovered and when the Prince is present to hear it all. But for your peace of mind, what I came here to tell you is simply this: where an incident this spectacular occurs, it may happen at your hands, but 'tis on my watch, and I may not disown that. So: rest, recover, and do not worry overmuch, either for yourself or for your friends, or for the villagers, who despite their grief for their dead think well enough of you and Andrahar that they've not ceased since we arrived to tell every Swan Knight they encounter what you did for them."

And while Peloren gaped slightly at him, Ornendil rose and said, "Get some rest, lad. I'll send Elethil in to sit with you again."

But ere he could, Peloren stopped him, asking anxiously, "Sir?" And when the Armsmaster raised a brow at him, continued: "Does that mean that nothing will happen to Elethil, sir?"

At that, the older man sighed softly. "That is a question for later. But we shall see to him until then, and in his favor, he is still here and needed no prompting to walk home to us. So—we shall see. For now, you may at least be reassured that he shall suffer no punishment. There has been enough of that."

With that, Ornendil rose and made his way out, calling softly for Elethil, who reappeared within moments and hurried to Peloren's side.

"Are you all right?" he asked, worriedly.

Peloren did not respond immediately. Instead, he lay silently, trying to decide how he was. The night had been so anxious, so filled with frenzied feeling, the manic heights of elation caught hard between the depths of horror and the numbing certainty of death, it exhausted him even to think of it now. Everything felt strangely distant at the moment, as if in the absence of acuity, nothing were quite real, as if everything were reduced to the flat, dull ache that suffused him. And so:

"I do not know." A pause, then softly: "Don't go anywhere tonight, will you, Elya?"

"I won't," Elethil promised, and reached to take his hand once more. Pel gave it a tired squeeze and then yawned.

"Good," he murmured, as he let his eyes close. And assured of his friend's presence, he slipped easily into a dreamless sleep.

~0~


Meanwhile, Ornendil stepped out of the bedroom and into the kitchen, which had become the impromptu command center of the flock of Swan Knights that had descended upon the village. Not for much longer, I hope, he thought. The night was growing late indeed, and was more than half over already, and Ornendil intended to take the bulk of their company and depart in the morning, leaving a small number to patrol, and to bring Peloren and Andrahar back with Kendrion.

For the danger seemed to have passed, but even had it not, a few Swan Knights, with the help of the marines and navy, could most likely handle matters, he thought, as he eyed the commander of the marines that had come ashore just recently. Lookouts had spied him and his men on the beach perhaps an hour after the Swan Knights had arrived at the village, and the newcomers had been swiftly brought before Ornendil.

"Commander Albarion, off the Telmar, Captain. Glad we are to find you here," the commander had said when presented. "We feared to find Corsairs."

"You knew of them?" Ornendil had asked, surprised.

"Aye. 'Tis quite the tale, though it seems we missed the last chapter...?" Ornendil had briefed him, then, giving the short version of what he had heard from Andrahar and others. The commander had seemed quite interested indeed, and had petitioned both Ornendil and Kendrion for permission to speak with Andrahar himself.

"If he is awake and if he feels up to it, you may speak with him for a brief while. But a brief while only, Commander; I shall accompany you, for I do want him to get some rest this night, if he has not already," Kendrion had warned. Ornendil had raised no objection, intent upon having a word with Peloren if he could get it—a word that would no doubt come easier if Kendrion were not hovering over Peloren like a pelican over her brood. They had parted, then, with Ornendil inviting the commander to meet him in Dorhan's kitchen once he was done, to hear the apparently more far-flung beginnings of this tale.

Now Commander Albarion beckoned Ornendil to join him over a map that he had spread upon Mistress Falwen's table. "What have you, Albarion? You said you could add to the tale of tonight?" he asked.

"Aye, I believe so, having spoken to your young Southron," Albarion said.

"His name is Andrahar," Ornendil said, with just a touch of frost. The commander heard it, paused a moment, and then inclined his head.

"Of course, my apologies. Sir Andrahar was kind enough to recount in more detail what passed in parley between the Corsair commander and your other young knight—"

"Esquire Peloren."

"Esquire Peloren," Albarion corrected, without missing a beat, "and to recall, as best he could, the signal lights that he observed. 'Tis difficult—he did not see all of them, and what he saw, he did not understand, of course. What escapes understanding more easily slips from memory, but given what he has said, I think we can reconstruct matters."

Albarion indicated a set of inked in black lines that crisscrossed the sea and the bay. "Sea lanes," he explained, and then indicated chalked in white ones: "Pirate routes. They change from time to time, so we don't bother with permanent marks. But some are regular. See here? These three lines, stretching from Tolfalas to the Faldor islands, and down to Port Inkilon and back, form the Red Triangle: most of the shipping we lose, we lose here. You’d think it would be around Hurrhabi, but the Haradrim are careful to keep things quiet about Umbar. ‘Tis a different sort of snare there." The commander waved a hand dismissively, then continued:

"In any event, lately, we've been seeing changes: more raids that attack the coasts, rather than the ships themselves, but there hasn't been a drop in shipping raids in the Red Triangle, either. More, they've been striking earlier in the season and continuing 'til later in the year. That suggests we are dealing with more ships than in prior years. Indeed, we've been counting, and there are more Corsairs on the water. To crew an increase of ships of the size we've been seeing, the Haradrim cannot simply be running privateers anymore, however much they may act the part. There is only one source of men trained or able to be trained for such actions as coastal raids: someone has deep pockets, and pays for regular army, navy, and marines.

"We think that they launch for Gondor from Inkilon, just like the others, though the ships cannot be made there: not enough slips, not enough wood, though we've had a good pair of eyes among the Haradrim in the last year—just got word this Yuletide which may help us."

"Intriguing, and I wish you luck, for we should like to stop fighting pirates ourselves. But what has this to do with what happened here tonight?" Ornendil prompted, recognizing the look of a hunter engrossed in the pursuit of his own problem. Fortunately, Albarion seemed the sort of man who found the company of others no hindrance to his pursuit, and so rather than resent the question, he took it up with enthusiasm and barely a pause.

"Well, we had got wind of something in the works—something that was to shock and surprise us. We figured it would probably be an early raid, and likely sizable at that. And rumor kept pointing us to a ship we had been watching, but had never caught with contraband or stolen goods: her captain had the right pedigree for this sort of thing: younger son of a minor lord, looking to increase his family's standing. You know the sort."

"Indeed. Continue," Ornendil murmured.

"We were fortunate: we did catch him, after a fashion: we caught the ship that was carrying orders for him at one of the Faldor islands. According to those orders, our man was to meet another ship a day out from Dol Amroth and make landfall here at Calardin—or so we thought from the description. We're used to raids around the Ethir and even up around Linhir, but no Corsair has made landfall that close to Dol Amroth for more than a hundred years, and north-side at that!

"So, we've been hunting for those ships ever since. We caught one of them earlier this week, but only because we were waiting for her in Faldor. Once we had her, we made for Calardin as swiftly as we could, hoping to arrive ahead of the other. Alas, we were lately come: we overtook her on the bay here, heading back out to sea as swiftly as she could run the moment she caught sight of us on the water, for we could not answer her code properly. So she fled, we followed and caught her a little less than a mile out of anchorage. Strange thing, though: when we boarded her, there were crew, but no marines. Not even mercenaries, though there seemed to be plenty of space for them and more than enough sea-bags."

"For while you were chasing the ship, our lads were facing the missing marines," Ornendil finished, and shook his head, amazed. "They must have been waiting for the other half of the raiding party—the other ship you caught. That is why they delayed so long before striking."

"The part of the signal sequence Andrahar observed would work out to: No sign, more or less. No doubt the whole thing was No sign of ship. If what Andrahar overheard at the parley was not a lie, the older, more seasoned men in the raiding party had misgivings about the plan, and apparently prevailed on the younger commander to wait for a time. But eventually, it seems as though the commander signaled his ship once more, and was told to go ahead, despite the fact that they were unexpectedly alone."

"And when they met unanticipated resistance, and their commander was killed, they retreated to wait again, signaled their ship with the news…"

"And discovered they had been abandoned," Albarion finished. "I suppose they must have first tended to their wounded—we did find some men on the beach who had clearly been treated for wounds received this very night, but who either killed themselves or were killed by their fellows, to prevent them from being captured once it became clear that they had been left."

Ornendil grunted, lips thinning at that, though he was not wholly surprised. Warrior caste, no doubt of it! At length, he said, "That does explain much that was puzzling. You have my thanks, commander."

"Thank your men. Little good our knowledge would have done the village folk had your lads not been here ahead of us," Albarion replied, and shook his head incredulously. "One knight and an esquire and a lot of villagers with fishing spears!"

"Yes, it has been a very interesting night," Ornendil said dryly, though inwardly, he winced, thinking once more of what might have been, for they themselves had arrived only just in time. If Andrahar and Peloren had not held as long as they did, if the villagers they had with them had fled or panicked, if their first plan had not worked as well as it did, if the Haradrim had not called parley, if we had been just a little less swift…

Any slight change, and their work this night would have been more vengeful than saving. And though in the end, fortune had favored them all, putting Andrahar and Peloren in place to defend Calardin, making it possible that they should have been able to make their cobbled-together defense effective, that did not change the fact that they should never have been there in the first place had matters been less desperate at home for all of their black swans. And there, too, chance alone had saved them—for Elethil might not have come down from Badhon…

'Twill be a long report to the prince, Ornendil thought unhappily. But as he had told Peloren, it had been on his watch, and a captain reaped the consequences of his failures or he was no captain at all. Setting such concerns aside therefore, he said, "We will take your news to the Prince tomorrow when we make our report—if you have aught else you would send to him, please call upon us."

"My thanks, I'll have a sheaf of papers for you, captain. And we shall stay in the area for some days, to be certain the threat has passed," Albarion replied, even as the sound of hoofs and horses signaled the arrival of more riders.

"That should be Théorwyn. Would you excuse me, please?" Ornendil asked, and when Albarion inclined his head, he made his way out, ducking slightly as he passed through the doorframe.

It was indeed Théorwyn, the Master of Horses immediately ordering his men to hobble their mounts and turn in for the night. He caught sight of Ornendil approaching, and clicked his tongue at his steed, which obediently began following him over to meet the Armsmaster.

"What news?" Ornendil asked.

"Nothing, save a number of relieved farmers and villagers. Imrahil was quick, but he and the escort he met coming back did get the word out," Théorwyn reported. "And the north seems secure as well—no sign of marauders."

"Thankfully. But we cannot take for granted any longer that the northern capes and shores are safe—if the Corsairs are willing to try once, they will try again. We need more of a presence here," Ornendil said.

"Sweep riders at least," the Master of Horses said, and Ornendil nodded. Théorwyn grunted, then asked, in a lower voice, "How are our lads?"

"Exhausted. Chagrined. More than a little amazed to have their lives and that a defense thrown together with straw to bind it worked," Ornendil answered.

"That sounds about right," Théorwyn sighed. Then: "And Elethil?"

"With Peloren," Ornendil said simply, and the younger man nodded slowly.

"What does Kendrion say of them?"

"That they ought to recover with time and rest, so long as matters change at home."

"And shall they?"

Ornendil laid a hand upon his colleague's shoulder, and as he began guiding Théorwyn back to the spreading encampment of Swan Knight bedrolls, he said softly, "They must change. But how? That is the question, my friend!"

~~~

Author's Notes: On parley: There are at least three instances in LOTR where parley is called for. Firstly: the parley at the Black Gates. Granted, that was a 'going-through-the-motions' meeting that Sauron used to torment his enemies, it would be a strange move on the part of Gandalf et al., if they did not expect to be received, and as even the Mouth of Sauron said, ambassadors have immunity from harm when they act as such.

Secondly, during the final stages of the battle for Helm's Deep, Aragorn goes out upon the wall above the gates, and holds his hand up, "palm outward in token of parley"; and the orcs actually do speak to him, and don't shoot at him immediately. In a third instance, Halbarad makes the same gesture when he answers Éomer's challenge in "The Passing of the Grey Company." Either Aragorn and Halbarad both use that sign because they are commonly Dúnedain of the North, or they use it because it is the appropriate sign in Rohan and they know this, or else it is more wide-spread in Middle-earth than the North and/or Rohan. I've chosen to go with the third possibility, and to give it a more explicit and binding imperative, not simply to respect the immunity of the speakers, but to answer a request for parley in the first place.

Attempts to write Peloren as concussed are based on the Mayo Clinic's descriptions. Thanks also to Lyllyn again for suggestions on recovery times and ways of injuring poor Peloren and Andrahar that would fit with the scenario I had wanted.

Finally, Altariel pointed out that "Telmar" is the name of a country in one of C.S. Lewis's Narnia novels. This is purely coincidental!


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