In Umbar, at the Docks

Listen carefully, boy: in Umbar, the docks are not a safe place.

After dusk, no law-abiding citizen walks the streets around the docks or visits the dimly lit establishments that serve brews more dangerous than ale. In the back alleys, shady deals are closed – exchanges made in gold and blood. Harlots invite the night's denizens for a cheap trip on their hired curves, rogues with fast fingers relieve careless travelers from their pouches, and countless drunkards and beggars seek shelter in the shadowed corners and doorways to sleep and dream of another life.

In Umbar, at the docks, looks can be deceiving.

The light of the day often finds lifeless bodies lying in the gutter, already stripped naked from their earthly possessions. The less fortunate people of Umbar emerge from their huts and enter their daily struggle for survival, seeking work at the docked ships, at the fishmongers, scrubbing floors at the taverns and brothels or whatever chores pay enough for the day's bread and ale. But not all of them are lucky. People with tired, desperate eyes gather outside the taverns at midday, gazing at those with an honest day's toil with envy written on their hardened faces.

A woman is often seen among them, an old crone with long, dirty strands of grey hair crowning her face. They say that she is mad, this one. You will see her walking on the streets, oblivious to time and weather, mumbling incoherently to herself. Some days she is better and then she'll seek work at the taverns and the public baths. In her good days, she works fast and efficiently and the owners of the local establishments usually pay her an extra coin for her hard labor. But her good days are few.

On most days, you will find her in the market, searching through the garbage of the fishmongers. She picks up heads and entrails and all they throw away, filling her sack with the bloody remains. Some laugh at her; others of harder hearts kick her or push her to the ground just for the fun of it, but most of them have grown used to her presence and simply ignore her. She never utters a word to her abusers - she only continues with her bizarre harvest until her sack is full and then she departs, her lips moving relentlessly to the voiceless chanting of the insane.

Yes, boy, she is mad; mad and ugly. Age and hardship have turned her face to a withered parchment, tales of unspoken sorrow written upon it. The stench of dead fish rarely leaves her, and her unkempt gray hair is smeared with mud and fish-blood. Under strands of dirty hair a pair of wild eyes stares into thin air, vacant of all memory and reason. I have never seen her wear anything but her ragged black dress, either in winter or summer. It must have been a fine piece of clothing once; now it barely keeps the morning chill away. She hardly ever notices, though.

What she does with the fish parts, you ask?

She feeds them to the cats. With her sack full, she comes to the docks and sits at her corner. Then a low sound leaves her throat and the street becomes alive as cats appear from everywhere. Old toms come out of the tavern cellars, mousers jump off the ships, queens leave their nests with their kittens following close behind them, large cats, small cats, black cats, ginger cats, striped or spotted, they all come to her calling. With tails erect and trembling they greet her, stroking their heads against her hands and face, mewing, purring, asking for food. For all of them she has a treat and for all of them she has a blessing. Her face changes then: warmth spreads over her features and sweetness colors her voice as she speaks to them, calling each cat by its name.

In Umbar, at the docks, the people laugh at her, at this crazy woman who talks to the cats. The children throw dirt at her and flee when the cats hiss at them. Some pity her, for having neither family nor home, but most turn their eyes away, ignoring her. Another insane beggar, they deem her. Is she aware of their pity, their mockery - their indifference? This I cannot tell. But I do know of the way her face lights up when she watches kittens playing, when old toms curl on her lap and purr themselves to sleep. Sometimes, when a woman with a baby walks by her corner, the old crone's face changes. For a fleeting moment, the ghost of an unspoken sorrow passes behind her eyes, as if old sins have resurfaced. But then a cat mews, a tom purrs, and the kittens hiss and fluff up and the sorrow dissolves to the sea breeze.

No one knows where she came from. She appeared one day at the harbor, her clothes torn and her mind gone, in the company of a white cat, after a night when the storm raged. Some said that she was the sole survivor of a shipwreck, others that she fell overboard from a passing ship during the night's storm and swam to shore. I guess we will never know her name or birthplace; she has probably forgotten it herself.

In Umbar, at the docks, people call her the Crazy Cat Woman.

Still, sometimes, when the moon is full and the wind blows from the North, carrying the scents of distant lands, whispering secrets and tales of a white city, you can see her walking on the docks at night, her hair flowing silver under the moonlight. She no longer walks as a crazy cat woman, but holds her head high and her shoulders straight, clothed in the black of the night and the silver of the moon. A white cat accompanies her walk those nights, a cat with an amber gaze that reaches inside your head and sees all the things that men wish most to keep hidden.

And then, I wonder… If the old tales are true, in Umbar, at the docks, resides a Queen.

Author's notes:

Clothed in the black of the night and the silver of the moon.: Black and silver are the colors of Gondor. But you probably already knew that.

"She was the nefarious, solitary, and loveless wife of Tarannon, Berúthiel lived in the Kings house in Osgiliath, hating the sounds and smells of the sea and the house that Tarannon built below Pelargir at Ethir Anduin. She hated all making, all colors and elaborate adorment, wearing only black and silver and living in bare chambers, and the gardens of the house in Osgiliath were filled with tormented sculptures beneath cypresses and yews. She had nine black cats and one white, her slaves, with whom she conversed, or read their memories, setting them to discover all the dark secrets of Gondor, so that she knew those things "That men wish most to keep hidden", setting the white cat to spy upon the black, and tormenting them. No man in Gondor dared touch them; all were afraid of them, and cursed when they saw them pass. At last King Tarannon had her set on a ship alone with her cats and set adrift on the sea before a North wind. The ship was last seen flying past Umbar under a sickle Moon, with a cat at the masthead and another as a figure-head on the prow. And her name was erased from the Book of the Kings."

Unfinished Tales, Part 4, Ch II The Istari Note 7