The deck of the Umbarrim ship is slick with blood.
The bodies of her crew lie strewn where they fell, most of them with blades still in hand. Some of them, those who were knocked or pushed overboard, lie facedown in water that’s thick with debris and burning wreckage.
The Corsairs of Umbar had ravaged Gondor’s coastline with near-impunity until their defeat at the Siege of Pelargir. Some of them had fallen back to regroup and rejoin the Morgul-Host, but many more had fled when they realized that Gondor was not the land of easy pickings they’d been told to expect. Discouraged, they’d beaten a hasty retreat to their ships and the safety of the open sea.
Lord Adilyr dispatched us to make sure few of them made it.
Our red cloaks are soiled and torn and stained, but I wouldn’t trade mine for anything no matter how threadbare and tattered it looked. The cloak is what marks us out. It’s what we receive when we take the oath.
The Red Company. Where angels fear to tread, we kick down doors. We’re not an army—our numbers are too small for that—but we don’t need to be. Every Man, Elf or Dwarf in our ranks is worth fifty of Rohan or Gondor’s best. We take the jobs no one else will, because we’re the only ones who can.
I’m still getting used to the teamwork thing, honestly. More often than not the knights of the Company are scattered to the far ends of Middle-Earth, working alone or in small groups to thwart the designs of the enemy. A targeted, surgical strike by a handful of elite warriors can often succeed where sieges and armies would fail.
But then word came, carried by rider or messenger bird. Lord Adilyr was marshaling the Red Company to march south into Gondor after the defeat of Isengard, for so great was the peril faced by the White City that it would take all of us to save it from certain doom.
And from the far corners of the compass, we answered the call.
Some came from Ered Luin. Others rode from the wilds of Eriador. More still came from Mirkwood in Rhovanion and the depths of Moria. Elves, Dwarves, Men, Hobbits and even a scattering of hulking Beornings rallied around our phoenix banner. Some of them were old and trusted friends, but there were many others that I had not even met before. But what united us all was the red cloak, and the desire to see the power of Mordor destroyed.
We’d done a bit of that at Pelargir, but we all knew in our bones that the fighting there was only a taste of what was to come. The fate of Middle-Earth had not yet been decided.
But although he was keen to move on to Minas Tirith and reinforce the garrison there, Adilyr couldn’t let the Corsairs escape to wreak more havoc along the Gondorian seaboard. So he’d given that job to Lantharion, and his orders were simple and grim.
Take a handful with you and kill them all.
This was not the first straggling Corsair vessel we’d ambushed over the past few days. It likely wouldn’t be the last. We’d slipped alongside it in a longboat with muffled oar, scrambled over the side and taken its crew completely by surprise. The battle had been as brief as it was bloody.
I try to step over one of the dead and the man grab sat my heel, gasping despite the trio of arrows stuck in his chest. His lips move—I guess he’s trying to say something—but only blood comes out. A moment later, I end his suffering by cutting his throat.
Lantharion watches with mild interest. “Resilient, that one.”
“I should say so,” I reply. “Three shafts, Lanth? Really? Usually it takes only one. You sure you’re not losing your touch?”
“Ha hah,” he says, rolling his eyes.
“I thought it was funny,” Tullir chimes in.
“Is the last of them?” I ask, changing the subject. “We’ve put paid to the crew, but where’s the ship’s captain? Tullir, did you slay him?”
“Me? No, I thought you did.”
“I didn’t even get a glimpse of him. Did you, Lantharion?”
“No.” A scowl creases my old friend’s face. “You think he got away?”
“I doubt it,” Tullir says. “The water here must be deep, otherwise they wouldn’t have picked this spot as an anchorage while they scavenged for food. If the captain jumped overboard in all his war-gear, he’s feeding the fishes by now.”
“Good point,” I say grimly. “And that means he must still be hiding somewhere aboard. Think he’s holed up in his cabin?”
Lantharion dismisses the idea immediately. “Too obvious. And there’s only so much space to hide below deck. No, he’s somewhere up here with us.” His eyes narrow into angry silts. “Hiding amongst the corpses, most likely.”
“How do we tell?” Tullir asked. “They’re all smeared with blood.”
I shrug and kick one of the bodies between the legs. If the man had been alive, he’d be howling in agony. “That’s one way.”
I see him wince but don’t share his pity. I’ve fought in this accursed war too long, lost too many friends, to feel any pity for anyone on the other side.
Lantharion must feel the same way, because now he’s doing the same thing, methodically kicking each dead man in the groin until finally one of them doubles over and shrieks in pain.
“Found him,” he says, deadpan.
The Umbarrim captain is white with pain and fear. His knees give out from under him, but Lantharion hauls him roughly to his feet. “Your men died more bravely than you,” he says, contempt in his tone.
The Corsair either doesn’t hear him or ignores the barb. “Please,” he moans, holding out his hands in a pleading gesture. “Mercy. Mercy!”
“Mercy?” Lantharion asks incredulously, but disbelief quickly gives way to anger. “You ask that, after burning a scar across Gondor from Dol Amroth to Pelargir? After laying waste to towns and villages and enslaving women and children?”
I nod in agreement, my voice cold. "You will receive as much mercy as you showed. None.”
“What goes around comes around, mate,” Tullir adds.
“Please!” the Umbarrim’s voice cracks with desperation. “I only want to get to the sea! I’ll put Gondor to my keel and never return, I swear it!”
“You’ve already reached the sea,” Lantharion reminds him. “And you will never leave Gondor alive.” He pauses, then nods at a loose piece of coiled rope. “Bind him to the rail, Agawaer.”
It’s an unusual order, but I follow it regardless. The Corsair tries to struggle, but Tullir and Lanth hold him fast. In a trice, he’s helpless and bound.
Then Lantharion tears a strip of linen from his tunic and wraps it around a piece of timber to form a makeshift torch. “Do either of you have a piece of flint?” he asks.
“That I do,” Tullir says, reaching into a pouch on his belt and handing it over. “Never go into the wilds without it. It’s good for starting campfires on a cold night.”
“Exactly.” Lanth strikes the flint against the steel of his blade, creating a shower of sparks that set the torch smoldering. He blows on it for a few seconds until tongues of flame begin flickering to life, then turns to the Umbarrim.
I realize what he’s about to do an instant before the captain does. A scream of despair escapes the doomed man’s lips as Lantharion hurls the burning brand into a pile of coiled rigging and sets it instantly alight. From there, the hungry blaze slowly begins to spread. Tullir and I waste no time getting off the blazing wreck, but Lantharion lingers a moment even as the inferno grows around him.
“The fire comes for you,” I hear him say over the roar of the flames. "You will pass into your beloved ocean nothing more than a blackened pile of bones, and your watery mistress will not recall your name, for she has swallowed a million of your villainous kind before you, and she will swallow countless more before we’re done. Goodbye, pirate."