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Gamesmanship
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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1
Gamesmanship

I awoke from what was more of a miserable daze than a true sleep to the sound of loud voices. My misery having been caused by seasickness, I was still muddleheaded on waking, since, sadly, we were still on the wretched creaking boat - ship, as my wife, whose brother commands the thing, has oft told me. I looked about, my eyes making out the sleeping forms of Lothíriel and little Théodred. Elfwine, my firstborn, had also just awakened, wide-eyed, in his nursemaid's arms.

What was happening? The loud voices did not cease. Neither did my sore head and churning belly. I shook Lothíriel awake. She frowned at my rudeness, then, as she became aware, frowned deeper.

"Éomer, something is amiss."

I had thought perhaps my brothers-by-law, Faramir and Elphir, had drunk too much ale or were still arguing about the afternoon's chess match. Elphir does not take well to losing, and Faramir has a habit of winning.

By now, my sister and her son and their maids had also awakened. The ladies and children were quartered in the guest cabin of Elphir's ship, which was bringing us to Dol Amroth and our annual summer visit there with Prince Imrahil, father of Elphir and my wife and also my sister's uncle-by-law, and my good friend. I had shared Elphir's large bed last night, but had thrown myself abed here earlier, too weary to travel far through the narrow passages of the hold.

"Shhh", whispered Lothíriel, when Elfwine and Elboron would have spoken. Éowyn lifted her babe to her breast, the lass still slept. Théodred, cheerfully unwary at two years, burrowed closer to his mother and yawned.

Elfwine, a bright lad of four years, looked about him suspiciously, but heeded the example of his elders.
I had fallen fully dressed into the narrow bunk, so all I needed was Gúthwinë, and my boots. I hurriedly shod my feet, then quickly fetched the sword-belt round my waist and unsheathed the blade.

"We must be quiet now" Lothíriel whispered to the children. "Like good soldiers, hush."

Éowyn handed little Míriel to Elboron, who for once did not protest being made to hold the babe. I had noticed that the infant tended to stay quiet longer if held in the arms of her brother or mother than in the hands of her worthy nurse. Though the boy, oldest among the children at six, was usually the most forward among them, he had the sense to obey orders and keep still. Perhaps he understood the danger betokened by Éowyn's sudden pallor.

My sister never traveled without a sword of her own, not even on this short a journey. Éowyn took up the short, mithril-veined sword that had been a gift from Gondor and Arnor and Rohan to the Witch-King's slayer, and came with me to the door. "Go, brother," she whispered; her fair face barely visible in the dark. "I will lock the door behind you, and guard it well."

There was time only for a last look at my sister, my lady and the maids and four little children she sheltered.

Then the door closed, and I stood alone in the creaking, narrow passage outside it. I could hear the shouts above somewhat clearer now, and realized that some were in a foreign tongue. That certainly did not bode well. Could they be Corsairs? Elphir had said Gondor's waters had been scourged of piracy. Whoever these intruders were, I would fight them, even on foot. I felt naked without my horse, never having gone into battle without one, but there was no help for it.

"Faramir!" I heard Elphir scream the name of my sister's husband. Was he calling for help, or had Faramir come to harm? My heart misgave me for the fate of both my brothers. Faramir was a kind-hearted man who had made Éowyn more content than I had ever known her. If someone had killed him, I would carve out the wretch's heart myself! And our horses, borne on the smaller freight-bearing boat that had accompanied this one - had they been seized, or worse?

I hurried up the ladder, opened the hatch, and peered out of it, to see the lay of the field, actually, deck, which was now streaked with rain and blood. A force of strangers, clad in varied garb and wielding cutlasses and knives, pressed Elphir's crew and Swan Knights hard. My own guards fought the invaders at the rails and seemed to be holding their own.

Where was Faramir? I could not see all the fighting. But I heard a cry, a curse in Sindarin. I caught but a glimpse of my wife's beloved brother in peril, fighting on one knee, the other leg bleeding, trying to fend off a hulking brute half again his girth, and six or so men between them and me. Elphir was flanked by two Swan Knights; I could see the glimmer of their helmets' white plumes in the moonlight. They were outnumbered. I had come none too soon.

"Forth, Eorlingas!" I roared, and leaped on the floor, deck, oh perdition-take-it! The cursed wood was slippery and I sprang out too hard. I landed on my arse. Actually, that was well done, because my rolling body tripped the Corsair who had been about to cut into me from behind. He was younger, but I was quicker, righting myself hastily and stomping all my weight onto his sword-hand. He screamed; I kicked him in the head, grabbed up his long knife, and left it in his belly.

There was rain, I noticed. Luckily it was weak, but it still obscured my sight more than I would have wished. If Firefoot were here, he would smell out the danger, and beat these two-legged vermin down with his great hoofs. Ah, another one barred my path, screaming 'Die, strawhead' in bad Westron. Soon he was crying out different words, presumably to his gods or his mother, as I pulled Gúthwinë out from his thigh, and then jabbed down again towards his heart. I could not spare the time to see if he was fully dead, but he was close enough to cease delaying me.

If I were not afeard for the safety of my family, alone in the room with only Éowyn's blade to guard against who knew how many Corsairs, I would have sung for the joy of slaying these foes of all good men.

The next two I took on at once - a ratlike starveling boy and a strapping black-skinned fellow nearly my height, with gold bracelets. The big fellow sang out a challenge in an unknown tongue, grinning and whirling twin knives in his big hands. Looking hard at both of them, I could see which bore me the greatest danger; so I feinted a charge at the noisy pirate, then quickly turned and cut the boy's shoulder before he could finish his attack. I managed to grab him and hold him long enough to push him at his comrade. We all three went down in a struggling heap. I managed to stab the black man in the groin; he would bleed to death soon, but was still thrashing about enough to impede me from finishing off young Ratface.

Then Ratface contrived to rise and engage me far closer than I would like. My hounds had sweeter breath than this lad, who was grunting and laying a few scratches on my side with his knife. I would have words with Elphir about his promise of pirates banished from the seas of the West; I surely would, after we finished off these sea-vermin!

I was giving ground, trying to find some proper room to fight when my foot came down upon what felt like someone's arm instead of the deck. The ship rolled and I lost my balance and fell for the second time since the battle had started. This time Fortune did me no favors. Ratface took quick advantage and pounced, pinning my sword arm with his free hand. His blade bit lightly at my thigh as I struggled. But the Corsair prevailed; curse him to death-and-dark! He sat on me, his knife laid across my throat, grinning just as pleased as he could be. I could not meet my death at the hands of a dirty pirate with missing teeth, especially one so young! Whatever would I say to Théoden and Théodred?

But I did not have to fear explaining such a mean death to my brave kinsmen. The pirate's pleased look changed to one of surprise as he was seized from behind and speedily hauled off of me. Then I would I laughed had I not been still short of wind, as Ratface stared down at the point of the sword that had suddenly pushed through his chest. My would-be killer's body was thrown aside; and a strong arm pulled me to my feet. I looked, somewhat surprised, at my gentle brother-by-law, the kindest man I knew. The man I had sworn to avenge. "Faramir?" I croaked.

He did not look so gentle now, his shirt torn, his fine Númenorean features bloodied from a cut on the forehead, and his eyes burning with battle-fire. "Can you walk?" Faramir asked shortly.

"Aye, and fight," I promised, feeling my strength return. The rain had stopped, and the full moon shone in clear skies. Just in time, for, before us, Faramir's Captain, Beregond, and one of my Riders, Brytta Grimboldson, were hard-pressed in a struggle against four pirates.

I felt myself smile as Faramir and I charged our foes. I did not get a chance to slay anyone; Faramir was simply faster. He carved up one man as neatly as I had seen him slice a roast pig at dinner, though with less joy, mouth shut tight and a fey, grim look to his face. Beregond and Brytta took the other with a bit more mess and a shared whoop of victory.

Now there were but three more pirates barring our path to Elphir. I heard our kinsman call out and his voice was clear, though not as strong as I would like. He was not calling to us, but cried in the Common Tongue: "Yield now, or die" to our foes.

The largest laughed, and lunged at Elphir, only to meet Beregond's sword against his own blade. I could see that Elphir could not stand; he was kneeling on one knee, his fine sword ready.

We charged. Well, I charged. Faramir bounded across that slippery floor like a leaping stag, quickly placing himself between Elphir and a pirate who was reaching for him. I made short work of a big gold-toothed rogue. Good thing too, for I was growing weary. Perhaps I had known too much contentment of late, and too many banquets fit for a king.

Suddenly finding myself unhindered by foes, I looked to see how went the battle. Four Swan Knights came up suddenly to guard and attend Elphir. Beregond finished off his man. Brytta stood down, tearing off strips of shirt to bind a bleeding forearm.

"Lower decks are secured, lord," A Swan Knight told me. "The ladies and children are unscathed, these Umbari scum never came near them." That was heartening news indeed!

And all around me, the Corsairs were dying, or dead. But where was Faramir? A clatter of blades answered my question. Two men fought hard upon the high-castled end of the boat - stern, as Elphir reminded me just this afternoon. One was a slender pirate with a cloth hat and gewgaws dangling from his hair. And the other was Faramir.

"Brother," I called; setting off towards them at a run, then cursing 'neath my breath as I slipped on the entrails of a gutted sailor, and nearly fell onto the rain-slicked floor. "Is all well?" Faramir managed a quick nod, but spoke not as he fought. Elphir, leaning on his lieutenant's shoulder, directed the Swan Knights to surround them, keeping a distance.

It was a fairer match than I might have thought. The pirate, while smaller than Faramir, wielded his light blade with strength. Knave he might be, but he was no stranger to battle. He danced about nigh as graceful as Legolas, pausing often to simper and jape in slightly accented Westron. In the bright moonlight, I could see that the pirate had the doe eyes of a comely maid, and wondered idly at his prettiness and frilly ways. I would have thought such a fellow would have been killed long ago. Could he be more dangerous than he seemed? And if so, should I warn Faramir to be wary?

Faramir appeared to need no warning. He was tireless. He battled with a rare combination of power and grace, parrying the other's thrusts and driving him around the castled upper deck. I glimpsed the legendary strength of the sons of Númenor in him, as I had seen in our kinsman Imrahil, and of course, in greatest degree, in Aragorn. As Éowyn and the men of Ithilien so oft reminded me, Faramir had been a captain of Gondor for many years.

He pressed the Corsair toward the rail, denying him any opening. With a sudden burst of speed, the pirate leapt up onto the railing. He skittered along the rail like a mouse, Faramir chasing him. Elphir's sailors climbed the rail as well on the other side, barring the wretch's passage.

The cornered Corsair turned, casting woeful looks upon his hunters. "Well now, this is interesting," he said loudly. Then he made an elaborate bow to Faramir, and dove neatly into the sea. We crowded at the rail, peering out to see if he would rise to the surface. But the only sign of the pirate was his cloth hat, floating on the dark water.

Later, we would learn that we had been passing within a league of Tolfalas at the time of the pirate's leap, and that a small boat was stolen from the island's only harbor before the sun rose. For now, we mended wounds, counted losses, cleaned our blades, and spoke of the raid. The Corsair vessel had been taken by our escort ship, and the ferry boat that bore our horses had not been touched. Three sailors had fallen, with two more not expected to survive their wounds. Four of my men were hurt, but would ride again. Faramir's White Company mourned two, and the surgeon worked now to save a third. Elphir's leg would mend, the wound painful but not deep. And most of his Swan Knights had been on the escort boat; their armor and skill had saved them serious harm. As for the Corsairs, six had yielded, and would go to trial and most likely a quick death, in Dol Amroth. The other pirates were dead; their bodies shrouded and shoved off to feed the fishes.

Lothíriel had stood by my side for an hour when weariness hit me like a sudden blow, making my eyelids nigh too heavy to keep open.

"Come back below decks, Éomer," She urged softly, reaching up to touch my face. "There are still hours left before we make landfall. I would have my husband safe beside me when I sleep again."

"Soon," I answered, too tired to care about the crowded cabin's close air. I could at least clasp her hand beneath the blankets; it would comfort us both. Thinking of comfort, I glanced at Faramir, who stood a few paces away, at the railing, his face pale and quiet. "Are you well, brother?"

"Quite hale," He answered, with a gentle smile. "Éowyn," he bespoke my sister, who was attempting to wind a bandage around Faramir's forehead. "I do not need that; 'twas but a scratch and you have already cleaned it."

"Very well, husband," she replied. "But you must let me clean the cut again before the morning, and see the surgeon."

"Agreed, my lady healer," Faramir promised.

"You fought like a hero of old, brother," I said, fighting off a yawn. In truth, Faramir's ferocity in battle had surprised me. "Like Boromir and Théodred."

"They would surely have led the charge," Faramir answered, a faraway look in his eyes. "But for a man unused to even the motion of a ship at sea, you more than upheld the honor of the Mark against the Corsairs who assailed us. And you helped save Elphir's life."

"As you saved mine." Felaróf's balls, would he not just accept the praise he deserved instead of turning his words to the deeds of others?

"What was your count this night?" I asked, ignoring the quick turn of Éowyn's head and the sudden anger on her face.

"Éomer, they were men, not pieces in a chess game," Faramir's voice rose only slightly, but his body tensed. "They could have lived worthy lives, rather than choosing to pillage and kill. I would slay them ten times again to protect this ship, but the only joy I can find is that their deaths ended the danger they brought and thus saved lives I hold dear."

No wonder he seemed so burdened, carrying such heavy thoughts after a grueling battle. I shrugged, looked the Steward of Gondor in the eyes, and said firmly: "Brother, you think too much." I would not begrudge anyone the wit to think out a problem, but I feared such sorrowing over what could not be helped would serve no purpose save to rob Faramir of much needed sleep.

He gave me a long, glowering stare. I am told that Steward Denethor used to terrify the unwary with such baleful scowls; but I was the grandson of Morwen Steelsheen as well as Lord of the Mark, and could stand up to it.

Suddenly, Faramir's mouth relaxed into the smallest of smiles as he said: "Brother, you are right."

We both laughed. I would remember to tread more carefully with Faramir on the subject of battle counts. My grandmother had taught me that the High Men of Gondor prized peace and boasted little of war; though I seem to remember that Boromir had spoken quite gladly of the scores he had slain in Gondor's defense. Still, you do not poke at a warhorse still restless after a bloody battle; you walk him about and soothe him before currying and feeding him. So it is also with men of war, and in particular as brave a man as my sister's lord.

Lothíriel and I were finishing each other's yawns by now; so I bade a good-night to Éowyn and Faramir. We left them standing by the rail, watching the moon cast a bright path on the water. The rain had stopped some time after the battle, and the clouds had passed away.

We returned to the cabin, where I stripped off my blood-stained clothing, donned fresh raiment with the aid of Lothíriel's able hands. I kissed my sleeping sons, then crawled under the blankets with my lady and held her close against me. I was too weary to do more. I noticed that the churning in my belly had finally ceased. I might even feel hunger later. The creak of the timbers seemed a peaceful, homely sound rather than an annoyance. For the first time since I set foot on the ship, I fell easily into a sound sleep.




~~~

Author's Notes:



Brytta Grimboldson is an original character. I have assumed that he is the son of Grimbold of the Westfold, who fell in the Battle of the Pelennor in ROTK.

Thank you, Isabeau of Greenlea for excellent advice on the fight scenes.


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