30 March 2008 | 58682 words
Rating: PG 13 for recounting of violence
Disclaimer: I can only claim my original characters, the rest belong to the genius of JRRT.
Summary: Following the first winter of the new King’s reign, events unfold that will have devastating consequences for Gondor and for the King’s closest companions.
A/N: This story has been a long time in the making. I hope the shifts in timeline and perspective will become obvious as the story progresses. This story is dedicated to my writing friends, especially Cathleen, who have been endlessly supportive over the last year when I doubted I would ever reharness a very reluctant muse.
Chapter 1 – Minnow
She was called The Grey Swan; to the crew she was affectionately known as the Mucky Duck or Duck for short. She was a small vessel sailing under the flag of the Swan Fleet of Dol Amroth, one of the many vessels that plied a healthy trade up and down the coast under the direction of Prince Imrahil’s agent. She was a sturdy twin-masted boat, low and wide with a shallow draught that made her ideally suited to both sea and river passage, although until recently her normal route was to shuttle between the ports of south Belfalas and the costal ports to the north.
A change had been brought about by the victory over the forces allied to Mordor and by the coronation of the King of Gondor. The rout of the Corsairs and a restoration of order had once again freed up the trade routes to the south and Master Cardolan had received permission from the Prince’s agent to pursue these new possibilities. It had proved to be a shrewd decision, Cardolan was one of the first traders from the north to brave the southern waters and the merchants of Harad and Umbar were quick to see the benefits of exploiting the new markets to the north.
For many months the Grey Swan sailed up and down the coast, bringing fine silks, casks of spices, hard woods and gold to the north. The markets of Anfalas, Dol Amroth, Tolfalas and Belfalas prospered with the influx of these exotic goods. Only with the onset of winter had this lucrative trade been put on hold as the treacherous seas south of the isle of Tolfalas were too risky for the little vessel to brave. All winter The Grey Swan was tasked with helping to supply aid to the northern lands of Gondor and Edoras. Dol Amroth was at the heart of the relief efforts and the river Anduin was busy with craft carrying essential supplies to ease the suffering left in the wake of the conflict.
It was boring and monotonous work in wet and miserable conditions but it was work in what was normally a quiet season for the fleet, only the dire need of the victorious but war-ravaged lands gave the sailors purpose and each return journey south with empty holds went against all of Cardolan’s trader instincts. But Gondor, as yet, had no goods to trade and ultimately it was Prince Imrahil’s coffers that would bear the losses.
Cardolan was a gruff but fair Master who was treated with wary respect by his crew of ten. Many of the men had been with him for several years and they worked well together, each man had his own responsibilities and provided these were performed satisfactorily Cardolan left them to it. The only new member of the crew was a youngster from the north who had joined the crew to replace a rooky who had lasted only one voyage before deciding that the sea was not for him. Young Tat was keen to learn and performed his duties with eager enthusiasm, he endured the subtle teasing of the older hands with equanimity, secure in the knowledge that the Master would not tolerate cruel or malicious treatment of any of his crew and that the older men would look out for him in the face of real threat or danger.
The Duck had completed its last run up river to Minas Tirith and, having discharged it’s cargo at the Harlond, was on the return journey back towards the coast. After passing through the empty but verdant regions of South Ithilien the Duck had put in to the recently liberated port of Pelargir where Master Cardolan had picked up a cargo of charcoal bound for the smelting works in Umbar. All hands were on look-out as they passed through the treacherous and shifting reaches of the river as it twisted and boiled between the rapids. It was the most risky part of the passage and all of the crew were alert for hidden dangers.
It was Tat who raised the alarm. From his position half way along the starboard rail his sharp eyes were drawn to the unexpected sight of a body washed up against the boulders by the river bank. His shout drew others to his side and he pointed over towards the shore. It wasn’t the first time they had come across a corpse in the river; in the first days after the great Battle on the Pelennor the river had been defiled by the many victims of the conflict and the pollution from so much corruption had poisoned the river and fermented disease and plague. By and large the river had flushed itself clean but a Royal Edict was still in force and any vessel finding a body in the river was required to retrieve it and at the first opportunity bury it or consign the remains to a funeral pyre. Some Masters ignored the Edict, not wanting the inconvenience of dealing with the funerary arrangements but Master Cardolan took his responsibilities seriously; the river was part of his livelihood and the health and wellbeing of the crew was dependant on the health of the river. Cardolan gave orders for the sails to be loosed and the anchor dropped. Moments later one of the more experienced sailors plunged into the water, a stout rope tied about his waist as the rest of the crew made the boat secure. Retrieving the body was a tricky and dangerous manoeuvre and the crew watched nervously as their comrade swam across the current. There was an anxious moment when the swimmer had to dive to avoid being hit by a large branch floating in his direction. The man surfaced, caught hold of the branch and pushed it before him as he neared his target. Using the branch for support he slipped a loop of rope around the chest of the pale lifeless body and signalled to the crew to reel them in.
They hauled the sailor and his burden up on to the deck. The Master handed responsibility for getting the vessel underway to his boson, knowing that he could trust the man to get the boat into a safer anchorage than their present perilous position. It fell to the Master and young Tat to deal with the corpse.
“Sir, he ain’t dead!” the lad cried as he turned the lifeless body onto its front and hand nearest to him twitched.
“He soon will be lad; there is nothing we can do for him, not in that state!” The Master said quietly, having taken a quick assessment of the state of the poor wretch. “The best we can hope for is to make him comfortable and help ease his passing.”
There was no further sign of life from the man. “Go and fetch a blanket and make ready my cabin, the least we can do is give him a comfortable bed,” the Captain ordered.
While the lad was away the master examined the stranger more closely and mentally catalogued the man’s numerous injuries. The Man was naked and his face so swollen as to be almost unrecognisable. There was a large wound above and behind his left ear where the skin was broken and gaped under the pressure of swelling. It was impossible to tell the colour of his eyes for his lids were swollen shut, his hair had been crudely shorn leaving only sparse wisps of indeterminate colour. There were bruises circling the wrists and ankles indicating that he had at some point been bound but worst of all was the state of his back, from shoulders all the way down buttocks, thighs and right down to the soles of his feet the man had been thrashed, the feet and back bore the heaviest damage but it was clear that this had been a prolonged and systematic beating. The man’s skin was icy cold and any blood had been washed away by long emersion in the water.
“Whoever did this to you, my friend, surely meant business? I wonder what his quarrel was with you? One thing is sure, he never meant for you to survive to report this abuse!” The sight of this poor tortured stranger touched a deep well of anger in Cardolan’s heart; there had been enough of death and cruelty in the war and to now encounter such evil in this time of peace was a travesty. Without waiting for the boy to return with a blanket, the Master picked up the stranger and carried him aft to the shelter of his cabin.
“I am not giving up on him,” the Master announced through gritted teeth as he placed the stranger on his own bunk. He set the poor wretch onto his side to avoid putting pressure on his worst injuries. He layered several blankets over him and issued more instructions to Tat “We need to get him warm. Go and get some of those small sacks of grain from the kitchen stores and put them to warm in the galley oven.”
“Grain sacks, Sir?”
“Yes, not for long… just long enough for them to absorb the heat. When they are warmed we will wrap them in cloth and place them next to his body to get some warmth into him. Also, see if there is any warm broth in the galley, I’ll need a mug and some drinking water and some ground sugar loaf, quick lad! There is not a moment to lose.”
While waiting for the grain bags to warm, the Master concentrated on dribbling small trickles of warm sweetened broth into the poor wretch. It was a slow process, the injured man made no spontaneous efforts to swallow the broth and showed no signs of waking; at times he seemed to be barely breathing. It took an hour to get a cupful of fluids into him and most of the day for him to warm up enough that his flesh no longer felt like ice. As his skin lost the swollen waterlogged appearance of one who had been in water for far too long the Master and Tap attended to the worst of his injuries. They slathered a thick layer of unguent over the weeping wheals where he had been beaten and where ropes had bitten into the skin of his wrists and ankles. They could do little for the bruises over his ribs. The wound on his head was wide and deep, white bone shining through the gash; there was no apparent fracture of the bones visible and so all Cardolan could do was to pour some spirit over the wound to cleanse it and then to stitch the edges closed. Throughout these ministrations the man never moved or uttered a sound.
While the Master went off to check that the boat was secured in a safe anchorage for the night Tat replaced the now cooled bags of grain with warmed ones and gave the man another few mouthfuls of broth. The Master returned with a hammock from the storage locker and secured it to the roof beams of his cabin. He dismissed Tat for the night with his thanks and settled himself into his makeshift bed, more than half convinced that the stranger occupying his cot would be beyond all mortal aid by dawn.
Over the next three days the burden of caring for the stranger fell largely on Tat’s shoulders; morning and evening the Master would look in and assess their silent guest but there was no change in his condition, he remained deeply unconscious. Tap took care of him with surprising tenderness and spent most of the day at his side, coaxing down fluids, tending to his injuries and attending to his personal needs and changing soiled linens with quiet good humour. All the time he kept up a one-sided conversation with the man as though he were merely resting with his eyes closed and could hear every word. He told the man of their voyage, of the landscape they passed and finally of the sights and smells of the open ocean as the Duck passed out of the river estuary and turned south along the coast towards their next port of call.
Cardolan and the boson were at the helm discussing their course. The port of Cantria was still more than a week away, given favourable winds and good fortune, but these were now busy waterways and required constant vigilance. Their council was interrupted by Tat who approached carrying two mugs of hot tea.
“What is it, Lad?” Cardolan asked when the boy hesitated after handing over the drinks. Tat wasn’t normally reticent and this uncharacteristic behaviour caught the Master’s attention. “Are you tiring of your new duties?”
“No, Sir. But I was wondering if you could come and take a look at him for me.”
“Has he woken then? Or spoken?”
“No, Sir, not a word… but he seems very hot and his breathing is off…”
“What do you mean off? I take it he is still breathing!”
“Of course… it’s just, well, he seems to be struggling… like he can’t quite snatch a breath… and he’s making a funny sort of rattling noise.” The Master and Bosun exchanged a significant glance.
“You have the wheel, Bosun,” Cardolan announced, placing his untouched tea on the rail and making briskly for the cabin.
If the battle to warm the stranger had been hard won, the battle to keep him alive as he struggled to breathe was as agonising for the carers as it was for the man. With no medicines and no experience beyond common sense every minute was a victory. As the man’s temperature climbed ever upwards they did what they could to keep him comfortable. They propped him up on pillows despite the fact that this put extra pressure on his wounds, Tat bathed him in cool water and they fought a constant battle to get fluids into him, a task made more difficult by the fact that he was restless and delirious. He mumbled constantly and occasionally screamed out, his words incoherent. And still the fever refused to break.
“What else can we do, Sir?” Tat was exhausted but steadfastly refused to leave the man’s bedside.
“Prey that his God has a place for him,” the Master sighed, all but having given up any hope that the man could survive.
“And what God would that be? We don’t even know what land he hails from.”
“Does it matter as long as he believes?”
“I guess not… How long before we reach Cantria? Maybe we could find an apothecary there to help him?” Tat suggested, still hopeful.
“Five days… he wont last that long, Tat. I’m sorry.”
“But we must do something… please!”
Cardolan paced back and forth the length of the cabin, five steps over and over. With sudden decision he pulled a rolled chart from the rack and cleared his desk to unroll the parchment. His finger traced a path over the faded and much annotated data and he pulled a compass from his pocket. “Keep him alive, Lad, we’re changing course!” the Master announced as he hurried on deck, carrying the chart with him.
“We have a change of plan, Bos’n. We make for the port of Kalavir with all speed.”
“Aye, aye, Sir.” The Bosun gave the orders and the crew responded, there actions precise and well ordered. “A new cargo, Sir?” he enquired.
“No. The Lad needs a healer and we don’t have time to get him to Cantria.” They poured over the chart. “How long till we make port?”
“We should be there by nightfall. I’m not familiar with Kalavir, Sir. Anything I should be aware of?”
“I’ve only put in there once and that was many years ago, before the troubles. It is a small port but if memory serves me it has a good market; while I get some help for the Lad I will leave you to seeing to replenishing our supplies.”
“What about our cargo? How long can we delay?”
“We can spare a day or two… by then we will know one way or another.”
“And what are his chances?”
“Chances are this is a fool’s errand and he will have passed before we even get in to port… but at least if that’s the case we can see he is sent off with the proper rites.
“We don’t even know his name!”
“And we have no way of letting his kin know what befell him.”
“Sad but true… but we can see him off well, Sir. Funny how quickly his fate has wriggled under the skin of the men… they are not known for taking a liking to strangers!”
“ ‘Specially not a silent, battered one,” the Master agreed.
“Young Tat will take it hard if he goes!”
“Aye, he has a kind heart and surprisingly gentle hands… funny what you learn about a person when you throw them into a new situation. My heart tells me that lad won’t stay with us long… he needs an education, he is a born carer. I’ve a mind to see if I can find an apothecary to have him apprenticed to.”
“It’s a noble thought, Sir, but it will cost a pretty penny; the boy will never be able to afford the setting fees.”
“I’ll find a way,” the master announced.
“But why would you?”
He didn’t get an answer but from the determined glint in the Master’s eye the Bosun gathered there was something he was missing. He also knew that the Master would keep his own council: they had known each other for years but the familiarity of shared hardships and long established respect had never approached the boundary of friendship and once again Castamir had re-established the hierarchy.
The port of Kalavir was small, with the air of benign neglect common along this part of the coast. The history of piracy and conflict in the area had long ago robbed the small community of anything of value; the slave trade had vanished and there were no commodities locally to bring in the bigger trading vessels. It was a fishing port and, with a wide, sheltered, natural harbour a safe haven in bad weather for vessels plying their trade to the more prosperous ports further south.
The arrival of The Duck caused a flutter of interest until it became clear that they were here only for assistance. The urgent request for a healer threatened to sour their welcome, for the risk of bringing fever into the community was a risk the harbour master was not prepared to countenance and he insisted they pulled away from the dock and anchored in the bay until he was sure they posed no threat of contagion.
Kalavir was too small and insignificant to have its own healer and it was the harbour master himself who rowed out the small dinghy and who held the boat steady as the crew lowered a wooden seat to hoist the wise-woman aboard.
She was small, barely measuring to the Master’s shoulder and she was almost as wide as she was tall, a fact exaggerated by the jewel coloured robes that enveloped her from head to toe. Only her face and hands were visible to give testament to her origins; brown and wrinkled as a walnut with black bird-like eyes and a wide knowing smile that revealed betel stained teeth. She wriggled her ample girth free of the confines of the seat and took a moment to shake and rearrange herself before addressing Master Castamir in clear but heavily accented westron.
“You sent for me, Sir? My name is Zerbah, how may I be of assistance?”
“Welcome, good mother. One of our number is sick and it is beyond our skills to help
him. We would value any aid you may give him,” the Master explained. She dipped her head to acknowledge his courtesy and allowed him to lead her aft to his cabin.
She hissed in a sharp breath when she first glanced at her patient. “You have left it too late,” she whispered before she had even laid hands on him. “I’ll not be taking the blame when this one breathes his last!”
“You are his last hope, mother! If you cannot cure him perhaps you may at least make
his passing more peaceful.”
“You want me to ease his passing?”
“No, I want him to live but even I can see that he is in great distress, I would have him given respite from his torment; all we have to ease him is some brandy!”
“I’ll need my bag,” she nodded. “And who are you?” she demanded pointing to Tat.
“Tat, Ma’am. I’ve been looking after him,” the youngster explained, hovering protectively by his patient.
The Harbour Master who had come aboard, waited in the doorway. “Is he contagious, Zerbah?”
“No. Listen to him, this is lung fever.”
“So I can allow the boat to dock?”
“You’d better. I refuse to leave this vessel by that infernal swing contraption!”
“Did you not enjoy the experience?” She did not gift him with a reply and waved him and Castamir away. She swept the desk top clear and plonked down her capacious carpet bag.
Zerbah was thorough in her examination. She pulled down his lids and pressed down on his chin to open his mouth. She ran a finger across his pale brow and tasted the sweat against her tongue. She then moved her attentions to his torso, palpating his bruised ribs and pressing gently into his abdomen. Tucking her veil behind one ear she placed her head against his chest, moving over all areas to assess the bubbling rasp of each tortured breath.
“Too late… too late,” she whispered to herself under her breath. She now acknowledged Tat and indicated that he should help her sit the patient forward. She was about to put her ear to his back when she noticed the wheals and bruises.
“What is this!” she demanded. She removed the banked pillows from the bunk and gently laid the man down, rolling him onto his side so that she could examine him fully. She hissed at the extent of his injuries.
“Fetch the Captain. NOW!” she thundered. Tat shot to his feet and made for the door. He didn’t get far, Castamir had obviously heard her summons.
“What kind of a fool is it that beats a man to within an inch of death and then wastes my time and his own coin to save him!” she demanded, forcing Castamir backwards until he was trapped between the outraged healer and the hard edge of the desk.
“Peace, Mother. He did not suffer his injuries aboard my vessel,” Castamir explained.
She hissed in disbelief but backed off slightly. “I do not beat my crew,” the master assured her.
“It’s true, Ma’am. I’ve never known anyone mistreated aboard the Duck”, Tat was at pains to point out
“We pulled him from the water a few days ago, half drowned and cold as death. He had
these injuries when we found him. We have done what we can for him but we haven’t the skills or the medicines to help him.” The master explained, smoothing down his tunic.
“A few days! Then he should be dead. Sea water in the lungs should have killed him in hours.” Zerbah moved back to her patient without apology to the Master. She rolled her patient back and proceeded to finish her examination.
“He wasn’t in the sea. We pulled him from the river,” Tat explained, assisting her to raise the unconscious man back up against the pillows. “We don’t know anything about him; not his name or where he comes from. He had been stripped and beaten; there was nothing on him to identify his origins”
“Well, we can’t keep calling him stranger. We’ll need to give him a name until he wakes and can tell us who he is and where he belongs.” As she spoke she unwound the bandage from his head and examined the sutured wound. “That at least is healing nicely; we will leave the bandage off, it is keeping too much heat in his head.”
“What can you do for him, Mother?” Castamir asked.
“Chest first and then we must try to relieve the fever.” She called for a kettle of boiling water and a bowl. She created a tent of fabric over the man’s head and had Tat hold him upright, his face over the bowl. She poured the steaming water into the bowl and added a few drops of camphor and eucalyptus oils. Every few minutes she placed her hands on the sides of the man’s chest and shook him gently, vibrating his ribs and forcing him to breath out more deeply.
Tat was beginning to despair of the treatment when suddenly the patient was seized by a violent paroxysm of coughing. Zerbah quickly removed the bowl and tilted him over so that his chest and head were draped over the edge of the bunk. With Tat holding him secure she tapped sharply over his back. Moments later he began coughing up copious amounts of muck from his chest, gasping and wheezing as he fought to clear his throat and snatch a breath. When his coughing ceased Zerbah and Tat bathed him and coaxed some warmed broth down him. Zerbah allowed him to rest for an hour before repeating the process, by which point his chest was moving more clearly and his breathing was less laboured.
“Now for the fever,” the healer announced. Sponging the patient’s skin with cool water was having no effect and so Zerbah called for more drastic measures. There was no ice to be had in Kalavir but they did have a large body of cold water to hand. It took some organising but the Master and the Bosun removed the wooden seat from the hoist and rigged up a spare hammock to the end of the rope. The Bosun went into the water and the crew lowered the patient over the side in the hammock until he was submerged up to his neck but supported by the fabric.
The man sucked in a strangled gasp as the cold water touched his overheated skin and he struggled weakly before sinking back into a stupor. They hauled him up before he began to shiver. Just before dusk they repeated the manoeuvre and finally, just before dawn, the fever broke. Zerbah sent Tat off to his own bunk to rest and she remained to tend to the man.
When the Master and Tat appeared at first light Zerbah was preparing food for the patient, she had procured a thin porridge from the cook and she was mashing up fresh fruits into the bowl. As she started to lift a small spoonful onto his tongue, the man’s eyes fluttered open. There was no recognition in the man’s expression, just confusion. He tried to turn his face away from the spoon but Zerbah firmly but gently turned him back, smiling reassurance. Reluctantly he allowed the spoon onto his lip and flicked out his tongue to test the offering. He managed several small tastes before his eyes flickered shut and he lapsed back into oblivion.
“He seems a little better, Zerbah. Will he recover?”
“If the Gods will it and he fights to stay,” she pronounced, handing the bowl to Tat and setting out her potions to begin treating his injuries.
“We really need to get under way today, would it be best to leave him here in Kalavir under your care?” the Master asked her.
“I have no facilities to care for him. I do not have room in my home for a sick man and it would not be proper. You could pay for a room for him at the Inn and I would look in on him,” she offered.
“No. I thank you for the offer but he would be better aboard the Duck; at least we would have Tat to keep an eye on him. I mean no offence, Mother, but I have had experience of sailor’s Inns in the past and I would not feel comfortable leaving him under such circumstances.”
“Then I will leave instructions for you and the lad over how to care for him. Provided the fever does not return he should do well. He needs small regular meals; lots of fresh fruit, lightly cooked fish, eggs and cheese if you can get it. Make sure he drinks plenty and in a couple of days start sitting him out in the fresh air for an hour or so a day, though not in direct sun and as soon as he is able get him moving, just short walks to begin with but the longer he stays in bed the weaker he will become.”
“Thank you, Zerbah, you have saved his life. I will be forever in your debt,” the Master thanked her. “Is there anything I may do for you to show my appreciation for your care?” he asked, handing over a pouch of coins which she swiftly hid within her robes without bothering to examine the contents.
“Where do you make for next?”she asked
“We sail for Cantria on the next tide… if you deem he is fit for the journey.”
“He is as fit as he is likely to be. I am short of some herbs and spices. You would be doing me a great service if you would collect some for me from the merchants in Cantria… it would also give you an excuse to call here on your return journey so that I may see how young Min is doing.”
“Min?” the Master queried.
“Aye, Min. That is what Tat here has taken to calling our patient,” she explained.
“Min, Tat? Where did you come up with such a name?”
The lad blushed and fidgeted with the potion bottles Zerbah had left lined up on the desk. “Come on Lad, out with it.”
“Min… short for Minnow! …he was a poor pathetic scrap fished from the river on the end of a line,” the lad explained, “I couldn’t think of anything else and-and it seemed to fit.”
“Well let’s just hope he wakes up soon and can tell us who he is and where he belongs,” the Master said with a smile, “I would hate for him to be saddled with such a name for long.”
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