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Disclaimer: This story is non-profit and written for purely entertainment purposes. All recognized characters and places are property of J.R.R. Tolkien and New Line Cinema. Chapter title is direct text from J.R.R. Tolkien.
A/N: Wow, I continue to be blown away by the tremendous outpouring! I cannot begin to thank you all enough… I have no idea where to begin! Thank you all so much, from the very bottom of my heart! As usual, I apologize profusely for the delays. I’ve been extremely ill the past month or so, and for a time worried I might have to permanently cease writing. The incredible reviews and MPA nomination (eeeee! EXCITING!!! Hahah! Take THAT Certain Website Who Told Me This Was A Poorly Written Tale Not Following The Works Of Tolkien!) were more uplifting than any medication. (The latter of which, incidentally, turned me into a lethargic zombie who didn’t know what day it was, much less how to be creative…)
I’m still scrambling to catch up on the many tales I’ve fallen behind—there are so many reviews to send!!!—and attempting a slow but steady recovery (alas, patience is a virtue I have yet to find the time for).
Again, thank you a thousand-fold! :)
Happy Reading! (Er, sort of. This chapter is rather depressing.)
*The Strange Voice In the Sea- Ulmo, Vala Lord of the Ocean.
Bergil- Son of Beregond. Befriended Pippin during the War as a boy. Now Citadel guard. (creation of Tolkien)
Bitaliel- The blind madwoman who traveled to Gondor and gave Aragorn the Sea Stone
Mortsdil- Head of the Corsairs of Umbar.
* * *
~ Chapter 17: And I Must Follow, if I Can ~
“I’ve never heard a Dwarf scream.” The weasel-faced corsair pulled out a curved dagger from his tunic and deftly twirled it. “Tell me: what does a Dwarf sound like when he screams? A seagull?” The pirate’s eye twitched. “A little girl?”
Gimli gritted his teeth and growled, attempting to ignore his revolving stomach. A twisted sneer settled across the corsair’s face and the man began taking mock stabs at the Dwarf.
“The only screams in this room will be yours,” Gimli spat with a low rumble.
The corsair merely laughed. Eyes never leaving Gimli, he slunk closer. The knife blade gleamed dull yellow, the cabin’s lone oil lamp casting a murky light within the small compartment. Wooden planks creaked wearily as the ship pitched and rolled.
Gimli tensed, clenching his fists and straining instinctively against his manacles. They rattled and groaned in protest. The Dwarf blinked.
Realization struck him like a bolt of lightening. ‘These chains were meant to hold Men.’ Eyes racing along the length of chain, Gimli traced it back to the iron ringbolts in the cabin wall. ‘These chains were fashioned to hold Men,’ he silently repeated, blood beginning to surge and pound.
The son of Glóin allowed himself a grimace of satisfaction. He was of the Dwarf-kind. His hands had mined iron from the very bowels of the earth; his fists had wrought steel and mithril.
Rusted Corsair chains were not meant to hold Arda’s smiths.
“Let’s see what’s under that—“ the corsair began, tossing the blade from one hand to another with practiced ease. He never finished the phrase.
Gimli threw his entire weight forward with a mighty roar. His bellow mingled with the sharp splintering of wood and the shriek of loosed metal as the bolts were ripped from the wall. Still fettered but no longer immobile, the Dwarf swung the bolted end of his manacles at the corsair. They hummed angrily, snaking through the air with terrible accuracy.
The weasel-faced pirate leapt back in shock, but even the quick reflexes of the Elves would not have saved him from the enraged Dwarf’s blow. Iron links met his face with a sickening crack, oddly akin to the sound of splintering wood. The man toppled like a rag doll. He was dead even before the last breath of air escaped his lips. He lie in a boneless heap, broken skull stained the wooden floorboards a rusted brown.
Gimli lurched towards the door as quick as his battered form would allow it. He did not pause to give his foe a second glance. The corsair was certainly dead, and Gimli was hard-pressed to feel any sympathy for him. He had more pressing concerns as it was—such as getting off the boat. And one would have to be deaf not to have heard the damage he wrecked upon the cabin walls.
The boat pitched sideways as Gimli threw his shoulder into the cabin door. It swung open wildly. The Dwarf toppled into the blinding sunlight, meeting the ship’s hull with a dull thud. He would have been flung overboard had his manacles not snagged in the doorframe nor the ship rolled backwards. He was jerked into the opposite wall, stout frame connecting heavily with the outer cabin planks. Dazzled by sunlight and convinced even the ship had turned against him, Gimli cursed and attempted to struggle upright. Flinging himself through the treetops like an Elf would have been easier.
“Aye-yuh!” A shout of warning carried from the mast and oiled canvas sails above. “Escape on portside!”
Blinking furiously in the blinding sun, Gimli paused to glare in the direction of the voice. ‘I shall give you a ‘portside,’ he thought vehemently, lurching forward as the ship rose and fell yet again. However, the Dwarf was given little time to contemplate how to go about doing so, as the decks of the Umbria were soon swarming with Corsairs.
Yanking his chains from the doorframe, Gimli doubled them and wound the links around his wrists. If he was going to meet his end, he certainly wasn’t going to go alone. “Khazad aimęnu!” The ancient battle cry rang proud and strong across the waves and over the Corsair shouts. “Baruk Khazad!”
“Where’s the harpoon—I’ll spear the little digger!”
Gimli threw himself at the oncoming horde with a bellow of rage, managing to wrap his chains around the neck of the first pirate he met. He snapped the man’s neck with little ceremony. ‘One down…’ Gimli bared his teeth and snarled; ducking as a dagger aimed for his eye instead clipped his ear.
They came from behind. They came from the front. They even came from the rigging above. Gimli whirled and struck out blindly. His heavy fist met a jaw with a satisfying crack. His boot a shin with equal force. Daggers nicked his back, cutlasses his arms and legs. Once, twice a club met him full across the face.
Gimli staggered. Sweat stung his swollen eyes. His nose was broken. Blood ran freely from his mouth, his forehead, and numerous gashes along his stout frame. ‘I will fight. I will fight. I am a son of Mahal! I will not falter! I will fight.’ Silently and doggedly did the Dwarf repeat his mantra. They would not take him alive.
He doubled over as a blow caught him unawares in the gut. A knife bit into his calf. A third blow to the head sent him reeling.
Gimli’s vision tunneled, yellow flashes exploding before his eyes. It suddenly occurred to him he was lying prostrate on the deck, and could do nothing about it. Shadows fell across his face as he was looked down upon and prodded. He groaned when he was kicked, sharp pain searing up his side.
“Keel-haul ‘im,” a voice hissed.
Despite his half-conscious state, Gimli found himself irked he was unable to lash out. His attempts to strike his captors were feeble and easily stilled. ‘What would Legolas say were he to see me now?’
Legolas, whom he had driven away with his harsh and careless words. Legolas, whom he had failed. Gimli’s gut twisted. When the Elf needed him most, he—Gimli son of Glóin—had faltered.
“Aye,” called a second voice. “Keel-haul ‘im!”
The chant was taken up throughout the boat. Even the seagulls shrieked in agreement.
Dazed, heartsick, and seeming to view a world enshrouded in cotton, Gimli idly wondered what a keel-haul was. Rough hands grabbed him by each arm. He was half-carried to the bow of the ship, feet scraping the wooden planks as they dragged behind him.
A noose was placed around his neck. Gimli struggled as it was tightened, twisting weakly within the calloused grasp of his captors. A vicious pummel to the brow quickly stilled him.
“Survive this, Dwarf,” were the last words Gimli heard as he was thrown overboard.
* * *
Down, down, the waters pulled. It was as if the Sea wanted something Legolas could not give, yet continued to paw greedily at him as though she might somehow find it. She claimed the air in his lungs, the strength in his limbs, and the warmth of his body. Legolas felt his very soul strain within the confines of his frail form. The Sea sought to draw even his inner light. And yet still she was not satiated
The Elf ceased his struggles. He was weightless and suspended. Slowly, ever so slowly, he felt himself begin to fade. No longer was he chilled or numbed by the embrace of icy waters. He was free. Free…
It struck Legolas as odd that the last thoughts running through his head were not his own.
‘Honestly, I have not a clue why Manwë and Varda love the Firstborn so. You are all too arrogant and mournful for your own good, in my opinion. Foolish elfling. And do not think your curses fell upon deaf ears! You dare to shake your fist at those who created and watch over you? Hmph. Were it my choice, I would let you drown. You are deserving of such a fate.’
The voice rose and ebbed like the tides. Its rumbling undercurrent reminded Legolas of pounding surf upon distant sands.
‘Moan and gripe, moan and gripe. Ai, but you can be a pitiful little creature when the mood strikes you. We shall have a talk, you and I, should you ever pass by the Halls of Mandos.’
Legolas, before losing consciousness a final time, fancied he was slapped half-heartedly by a wave.
The Sea frothed furiously, her waters swirling and spraying as she attempted to hold the Elf within her clutches. She could feel it—the weight of her precious stone.
‘Not yet, my Cold Mistress. Not yet. Put the little fool back on the earth for now. You shall not have long to wait. I promise you this, my cruel and wild pet. The jewel shall be yours once more, but you cannot claim it now. For if you do, it will torment you as it did before.’
The waters gathered and released a final spray of fury. But in the end, she chose to obey His words. She did not always listen to Him, but if it meant reclaiming her most treasured possession, she would do unto his bidding.
Glittering waves rolled into themselves, curling around the nearly drown Elf, and carelessly spat him back upon the beach.
Legolas, to the best of his knowledge, had never before regained consciousness by receiving a blow to the head. He was cruelly jolted back to the waking world the moment his head met the wet sand. Sucking in a ragged gasp, the Elf began to cough convulsively. He rolled onto his stomach, body shuddering as his lungs attempted to rid themselves of every drop of seawater.
After several final dry heaves, the Elf was at last able to draw normal breath. Exhausted, Legolas allowed himself to collapse in the sand, cheek resting against the salty grains. He stared at the Sea through hooded lids. Sunlight danced off wave-crests, and the water appeared more green than blue. He turned his head opposite the water with effort, not caring his wet hair was matted with sand, or that it stuck to his skin in muddied patches. The peaks of Ras Morthil rose solemnly in the east, seeming content to merely watch the exhausted Elf and his peculiar struggles.
The son of Thranduil closed his eyes, but found himself unable to block the surf’s hiss as it crashed upon the beach. The Sea’s image burned brightly in his mind—rolling and churning in ever-changing shades of blue and green. His blood pounded in time to the waves.
Legolas extended his fingers in the sand and then balled his fists, releasing a short and despairing laugh. ‘Even now do I feel the waters’ call. I fare no better than a flame-drawn moth.’
“Cap’n! Cap’n! Great Seas, you were right!”
Eyes still closed and sand grating harshly against his skin, Legolas sighed wearily. Mayhap if he remained still, whoever walked the beach would think him drowned and leave him be. Company was the last thing he desired at the moment, especially that of awe-struck mortals. He was in no mood to answer their tiresome questions, or to be stared and ogled at.
“Oy, do ye think ‘e be dead?” The briny wind carried a second voice to Legolas’ ears. “’E ain’t moved a bit.”
‘Yes,’ the Elf thought sourly, schooling his breath as shallow as he could, ‘I am dead. You have no further need to look upon me. My corpse is of no interest.’ He could hear wet sand shifting beneath bare feet as the Men drew near. His ears distinguished seven different strides. Some of the Men were panting heavily, and Legolas could almost feel the heat they gave off beneath the smoldering sun. Strange hitches in their steps suggested they weren’t entirely used to walking upon land.
The footfalls stilled. Legolas held his breath.
And then a strange tremor ran over him; he felt it run up the nape of his neck and down into the pit of his stomach.
“No, Jesseral. He’s not dead.”
Something about the voice, something lying underneath the words, sent Legolas’ skin crawling. It was repulsive and paper-thin, like brittle fall leaves skipping over a deserted forest path.
The Elf’s eyes snapped open. He found himself staring directly into Mortsdil’s sea-colored gaze. The pirate’s eyes were depthless and hollow.
The Man had no soul.
Legolas recoiled instinctively, words in his own tongue escaping his lips at a low hiss. “Be gone, dead one!”
“I ain’t never seen an Elf afore.” A sallow-faced corsair with one eye leaned forward tentatively, his lone eye greedily taking in Legolas’ appearance. He and his crewmates nervously fingered their weapons. “What if ‘e curses us or something?”
Mortsdil smiled lazily. “He won’t. He can’t. In fact,” his smile grew broader and more twisted, “he’ll even wish to help us.”
“I shall do no such thing!” Legolas leapt to his feet. The startled Corsairs, all save Mortsdil, drew back. “I have fought against the likes of you since I was first able to draw a bow. Never will I ally with such foul company!” He drew himself to full height. Mortsdil’s crew muttered warily and retreated further. The Elven Prince was an imposing sight: head tilted proudly and bright eyes flashing.
Legolas carefully concealed his relief. Balling his fists, the Elf glowered. It had been at least four days since his last meal, and the ensuing near drowning had done nothing to help matters. Legolas was greatly in tune with his body—as were all warriors—and knew his limits. ‘And,’ he thought darkly, ‘swiftly do I approach them.’
Mortsdil crossed his arms and eyed the Elf with the confidence of a man on the brink of victory. It was then Legolas realized the corsair knew. Mortsdil knew him to be on the brink of fatigue, knew him to be at great disadvantage. Still, pride and stubbornness would not allow the son of Thranduil to admit defeat. He did not drop his façade, and ignored the increasing anxiety twisting within his gut.
Mortsdil held forth a calloused hand. “Give it to me.”
Legolas’ jaw tightened. “There is naught I have to give.”
“Give it to me.”
The Elf stared at Mortsdil’s hand, repressing uncomfortable memory of an eerily similar confrontation only weeks before. It was during these instances the weight of his burden was keenly felt. The stone in the pouch at his side felt heavier than a boulder. His hand unconsciously strayed to it.
Mortsdil’s eyes followed the motion. “Give it to me,” he repeated yet again.
“No.” Legolas took a step back, angling his body so that the pouch was no longer in Mortsdil’s line of view. The Sea, upon capturing sight of the pouch, seemed to grow louder. Legolas fought the urge to give the waters his full attention. The waves only sang more insistently, insulted by his inattentiveness.
Mortsdil’s eyes narrowed. He stepped forward, ragged crew tentatively behind him.
For one hysterical moment, Legolas thought himself utterly lost. It vaguely occurred to him he ought to run, but to do so would mean traveling further along the shore. The water’s call was too strong; he was likely to end up washed out to Sea yet again.
“I’m going to cut off the Dwarf’s head and nail it to the spar,” Mortsdil snarled. “The rest of him I’ll use as fish bait.”
“I’ll bring the Umbria near the beach, so you’ll be able to hear his screams. Do you think he’ll beg, Elf? Do you think we can get him to plead for mercy?”
Mortsdil watched the Elf’s agitation quickly turn to fury. In the ensuing silence, the hiss of ocean surf became thunderous. The Elf’s eyes leapt and burned with such intensity several of Mortsdil’s crew were forced to still their shaking hands. Anger radiated from him in palpable waves, heated as the sun’s own rays.
Mortsdil chuckled as the hair on his arms and neck rose and his skin danced with some unnamed charge. “Impressive.” He absently rubbed his arms to dispel the strange tingling. “I’ll cut off the Dwarf’s beard and give it to you, since the thought of losing him irks you so.” He sneered. “That way, you’ll always have a piece of the filthy hole-dweller.”
A small tremor ran through the Elf. Legolas lunged with a strangled cry of rage.
The speed at which the Elf reverted from statue to lightening was terrifying. Despite the weighted rope netting his men threw over the enraged Elf, Mortsdil was still forced to leap backwards. Unbalanced, the corsair fell into the sand. Legolas was dragged to the ground, though not before managing to snap one unlucky man’s wrist and delivering a few broken ribs to another.
Mortsdil picked himself off the beach with a humorless chuckle. “Almost had me there, eh Elf? Almost.” Brushing off his leggings, he kicked sand at the restrained Elf.
Legolas struggled, whipping his head side-to-side as his face was pushed into the ground.
“Bind and gag him.” Mortsdil crouched cautiously in front of the snarling Elf. Legolas spat grit from his mouth and glared furiously at the pirate.
Mortsdil sent him a twisted smile before motioning one of his men to club the Elf.
The spear butt met Legolas’ head with a sharp crack. He immediately went limp.
“Enough.” Mortsdil raised a hand to stop the pirate as the man lifted the spear a second time. “I need him alive.”
He pursed his lips, eyes traveling hungrily to the pouch fastened at the Elf’s waist. Victory swelled his chest, and the corsair allowed himself a small exclamation of satisfaction. He hastily untied the pouch’s drawstrings. His eager hand closed around an object smooth and hard.
Mortsdil slowly removed his hand. In it he held the Sea.
At last, the jewel was his.
* * *
The Dwarf’s captors had made no effort to conceal their trail; the tracks were visible across the sloping grasslands and sandy dunes to even an untrained eye. Aragorn rode like a man possessed, never releasing his hold upon Gimli’s axe as he charged towards the sea.
Bergil fancied the Ranger had appeared as such during his great chase after the captured hobbits so many years before. It was a sight Bergil would never forget, and he felt honored to ride astride so great a Man.
As for Bitaliel… Bergil cast a sour glance over his shoulder at the ranting madwoman, her curses oddly punctuated by the steady gallop of her mount.
Bergil was still waiting for that cliff.
The Ras Morthil mountain chain rose and fell beside them, and stretches of hilly dune announced the coming of sanded beaches. Over the dunes they galloped, horses snorting and Bitaliel moaning. A strange roar filled the air, and Bergil nearly gagged at the overpowering smell of warm salt. Gulls cried out angrily as the company flew by.
And then the sea stretched endlessly before them. It was more water than Bergil had ever seen in his life, and he almost fancied it a living thing. A large, heaving, beautiful monster.
The tracks of their quarry converged upon the pale sands. A flattened trail led to water’s edge, suggesting a small boat had been dragged across the beach and into the waters. Aragorn leapt from his mount and ran into the shallows, heedless of the water as sloshed over his boots and across his leggings.
The waves told him nothing. The trail was gone—even the boat’s telltale path was softly washing away in the surf. Keen were the eyes of Rangers, but even they could not follow invisible trails in the waves.
Clenching his fists, the King of Gondor released a cry of frustration. Far across the rolling waters, he could just barely make out the shape of a vessel bobbing upon the waves like a blackened cork.
Aragorn’s jaw tightened. He had failed. He was too late.
He blinked several times, startled by Bergil’s voice.
Bergil frowned and shifted uneasily atop his steed. “My lord,” he said again, grey eyes narrowing as they focused on a point further down the beach. “There is a small craft dragged ashore. We are not alone.”
Aragorn took off down the beach at a dead run.
“King Elessar! King Elessar—wait!” Bergil leapt from his mount, hastily untying the scabbard strapped to the stallion’s saddle. Fingers tugging furiously at the straps, he glanced over his shoulder in attempt to keep an eye on the charging king.
How Bitaliel managed to maneuver her horse in front of him he never knew. The woman’s wiry fingers bit into his arm. “Do not go,” she hissed, lowering her unseeing face to his own. “Can you not hear the Sea’s anger? Can you not feel it? Listen! Listen to the waves! To the wind! To the gulls! Do not go!”
Bergil yanked his arm from her grasp. “And abandon my liege when I have sworn to stand by his side? Never.”
“Then you are a fool!” Bitaliel flailed wildly, seeking to grab some piece of the young guard. Bergil’s horse sidestepped in agitation.
“I am a soldier of Gondor,” Bergil returned. “And you are mad!” Turning his sheathed blade on its flat side, he soundly smacked Bitaliel’s steed across the rump. The horse squealed and bolted down the wave-smoothed shore. Bitaliel could do naught but shriek and hold on for dear life.
Releasing a breath of satisfaction, Bergil tossed aside his scabbard and sprinted after them.
* * *
A figure bound and half-ensnared in crude netting struggled against several corsairs, who were attempting to drag him into a weathered rowboat. Aragorn recognized the captive immediately.
That the Elf was alive—that he was not yet beyond Aragorn’s reach—suddenly seemed more important than whatever injury Legolas had caused. For all his anger, Aragorn could never hate the Elf, nor would he abandon him.
The steady thrum of hoof-beats gradually overpowered the hiss of wave and wind. Seagulls screamed angrily as their resting spots along the shore were interrupted, and the single, continuous shriek of Bitaliel seemed only to encourage their calls.
The small group mulling about the Elf was immediately alerted. Swords and rapiers were drawn. Two men leapt from the rowboat and into the shallows, leaving only a single corsair to man it. Legolas, though bound, managed to roll onto his back and swiftly kick the legs out from under one of his captors. The man struggled to lift himself from the brackish waters with a roar. He and a second crewman immediately turned upon the Elf, kicking and beating the archer while waves frothed angrily about their ankles.
Aragorn’s blade was instantly aloft in his own hands.
Legolas appeared to struggle against the Men until at last a command from the single corsair in the rowboat halted their beating. Aragorn found it odd that the Elf, too, ceased fighting at the corsair’s words.
Bitaliel’s horse hurtled past Aragorn, kicking up clods of wet sand in its wake.
Bergil increased his pace, silently thanking the Valar for his long legs and overslept mornings, and soon found himself alongside Aragorn. “Death take us all!”
The young guard’s blade glinted white; he felt the sun’s rays as they seeped through his hair and tunic. The sword remained cool in his hands and Bergil decided he liked the weight of it.
The group of corsairs—for Bergil could now clearly identify them—hunched into defensive postures. Instinctively he knew their wide-legged stances would not benefit them on sandy ground. He risked a sideways glance at Aragorn. The ferocity and sheer power emanating from the King was awesome in its strength and intensity. Had he not known better, Bergil would have sworn he ran alongside an Elven lord from Middle-earth’s younger days.
The young guard suppressed the strange urge to grin.
The lone corsair in the rowboat, who until then remained with his back to them, slowly turned to face their charge.
Bergil gasped and nearly stumbled to a standstill. He felt Aragorn’s stride hitch and then suddenly halt at his side. It vaguely registered that Bitaliel’s mount was cut down by a well-aimed spear, and that the blind woman was thrown viciously to the sand as her horse reared and then collapsed with a final agonized scream. Bergil only knew that Time itself seemed to pause, holding its breath for an extended moment.
In the corsair’s hands rested a jewel. But it was unlike any Bergil had ever seen. It flickered and shone; it was as deeply blue and green as the very waters of the sea. And it cast a strange light within the corsair’s pale eyes.
“You are too late,” said the corsair, eyes never leaving the glittering jewel in his palms. The rowboat rocked gently in the waters, but the man appeared unaffected by its motions.
Aragorn’s face tightened and grew cold. “We shall take our chances.”
Bergil schooled his face to an equally grim expression, feeling a spark of awe at his liege.
Legolas’ muffled cry of rage and distress was quickly silenced by the several blades pressed against his throat.
The corsair’s glittering eyes lifted and flickered over the two men of Gondor. A thin sneer slowly spread across his tanned face. He nonchalantly reached to his belt. “I’ve never been one to take chances.”
A gull shrieked in warning, wings casting a distorted shadow as it wheeled above.
Mortsdil’s dagger whistled as it flew through the air.
* * *
*releases shaky breath* Next chapter has been written since before last Christmas. With all my heart do I wish to change it, but…
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