“Didn’t know you were a bearsark, sir,” Olwen’s second mate told his captain, as Imrahil surveyed the aftermath of his boarding action. The decks of both ships crawled with activity as wounded were dealt with and dead prepared for burial at sea. Fully half of Olwen’s complement were laid beneath shrouding canvas, and two out of three of the Haradrim were likewise disposed.The young prince was wearier than he’d ever been in his life, far too weary to be truly curious, but the statement seemed to require some sort of response.
“Bearsark?” he asked quietly. He’d heard the term before, but was too tired to place it.
“Aye, Captain.” Siweard was that rarity, a man of Rohan who had preferred the waves of the Sea to the waves of grass in his homeland. Tall and lean, his hair bleached almost white, his blue eyes gleamed happily in his sunburned face. Like his land-bound brothers, he was always up for a fight, the fiercer the better, and his contentment was palpable now.
“Way up North, where my folk originally came from, there were tales of shape-changers, men who could become bears and bears who could become men. The fiercest of fighters, terrible in battle. And some of our folk, legend has it, mated with them. Those who did were blessed by Bema, ‘twas said, and had the battle madness. They felt no wound when the madness was upon them, and no man could stand against them. Bearsarks they were named because some of them wore bearskins into battle to honor their kin.”
“I don’t think I’m a bearsark, Siweard. I’m reasonably certain that there are no bears in my lineage.” Imrahil’s mind was churning, running over the lists of things still to be done. The remaining Haradrim officers to be ensconced in chains in Olwen’s hold, their crew chained to the galley benches of their own ship alongside the galley slaves. A prize crew to be selected, and repairs made to both ships. The wounded of both crews to be succored and the dead to be laid to rest in the deep. His shoulder wound throbbed, and he wanted nothing more than to tip into his berth and sleep for a week, but there would be no rest for some time yet.
“Mayhap Gondorians have something like it, Captain. You looked it from where I was fighting. When Commander Andrahar went down you…changed. I’d never seen the like from you before. Or anyone else for that matter.” He pointed to Imrahil’s shoulder. “Do you remember when you got that?”
“Did it trouble you till after the battle?”
“Well there you are.Bearsark.”
Valar take him, can the man not just be quiet and go somewhere else? Imrahil thought desperately, only to immediately reproach himself. I will not rob him or the others of their joy in the victory. I have robbed enough of them of life and limb!
Siweard, oblivious to this inner dialogue, continued on enthusiastically. “You scared the piss out of those Southrons, that’s for sure, sir! I think you’re the main reason they surrendered! How many of them do you think you killed?”
“I do not know, Siweard, I wasn’t counting. Andrahar killed some you might have thought were mine.”
The mate grimaced sympathetically. “Aye, he’s a good man, your sword-brother. Any news there yet?”
The young prince shook his head wearily. “The last time I asked of Master Palarran, he said ‘He’s still alive and I’m still sewing. I don’t know if I can save his life or his leg yet. Leave me alone. I’ll send word when I have word to send.’”
“The surgeon’s a rum one and no mistake, sir. But he knows his business.” That was no surprise, for Imrahil’s father had assigned his only son and heir Master Kendrion’s best student as his ship’s surgeon. That Master Palarran had never wanted a sea career had been of no consequence to Adrahil. “I’ll say a word to Bema for the commander,” Siweard added softly, finally starting to move off.
“You do that, and my thanks, mate,” Imrahil said after him, then called him back. “Siweard?”
The mate turned around. “Aye, Captain?”
“Are you happy with how things turned out?”
Siweard grinned. “Why would I not be? Was this not a victory worthy of a song?”
“We lost a lot of men.”
A white-blonde brow raised. “They lost more.” His smile grew even broader, and he moved off, whistling.
Imrahil stared around at the rest of his crew. They were for the most part, perfectly happy with their victory, judging from the smiles and snatches of song he was hearing. It was almost obscene. Andrahar was right. He said, ‘You might prevail, but the cost will come too dear. Better to find some help.” I overruled him, and now he may die. And even if he does not, there have been too many widows and fatherless children made here today. I am going to regret this victory for the rest of my life.
He moved slowly across the deck towards where the wounded were being tended under awnings, and as he did so, he saw his men part before him, noted the looks of respect and even awe given him by his crew and the fear in the eyes of his enemies, as they were ushered towards the hold. You wanted to be a legend, Imrahil. How do you like the price now?