My Favorite Aragorn Stories
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Where the Stars are Strange: 3. On the High Seas
The Sea-wolf sailed south into latitudes where seasons ceased and the sun blazed unrelentingly all year. The prow cut through rolling green seas where Aragorn caught an occasional sight of a fish leaping above the white-capped waves. The desolate sound of seabirds screaming overheard was counterpoint to his feelings of isolation and aloneness. He was an outcast aboard the ship. The crew of the Sea-wolf was made up mostly of men from southern regions. Many had the swarthy look of at least partial Haradrim blood. Even in the young men of Aragorn's age, there was a hardness and a disdain for the light-eyed man of the North. A few blond members of the crew looked Rohirric, but when Aragorn tried to speak with them, they answered violently in a guttural language and strode away.
"They're from the far northeast, same as the captain. Don't know what the country's rightly called but they are wild in battle. Will split a man's guts open as soon as look at him. Stay away from them, that's my advice." A garrulous old crewman with merry blue eyes cautioned him. "I'm Tholvel. Been with the Lieutenant since he was a boy." He looked at Aragorn's pitiful knots he had been practicing. "Don't know much about seafaring, do you?" Aragorn grinned at him, liking him immediately. "Stick with me, laddie. I'll teach you the ropes." The sailor guffawed at his own pun and sat down to set him aright on the knot making. "You look like a fine, honest young man; you won't last long aboard the Sea-wolf unless you forget you're fine and honest."
In the next few days, Aragorn learned the ship's workings and the expectations of him, mostly from Tholvel. Some of the lessons prove painful. His palms blistered when he was too slow to release the line when the mainsail sheeted home. Aragorn stood staring at his stinging palms, unaware of his imminent danger. The ship was lateen rigged and the boom swung across the quarterdeck, cracking him in the ribs and knocking him to the rough pine decking as they came across the wind. Lt. Kindrel hauled him to his feet by one shoulder and shook him like a wayward puppy.
"You are lucky your brains weren't splattered across the deck by that." He looked down and saw Aragorn's bleeding hands. "Have Tholvel look to those for you." He shoved Aragorn in the direction of the anxious seaman.
The crew, by and large, was silent and sullen, answering quickly to the officers' commands or to the lash if they were not quick enough. They left Aragorn alone but Tholvel warned him to be wary.
"They look for any weakness and finding it, feed like sharks."
Aragorn got a taste of what Tholvel had spoken of later that day. One of the swaggering Haradrim bumped in to him as he was turning from the mess line with his bowl of stew, spilling much of it. Aragorn looked the man in the eye, for the act was deliberate, and quietly said 'pardon.'
"Pardon?" the man repeated to the hoots of his friends, bending in an elaborate bow. "Pardon, my lord." He threw the first punch as he rose, connecting hard with Aragorn's mouth and knocking him back against the foremast. Kindrel kept all knives and swords locked up, choosing not to be short crewmembers due to petty squabbles, but fistfights were plentiful and were a source for entertainment to the crew. They gathered quickly to watch this one but they were not holding out much hope for a long bout between the quiet newcomer and Lazahal, the burly oarsman. In truth, the match did not last long. Aragorn turned swiftly, his foot easily connecting with the charging man's midsection, and then his fists hit him twice: the first bloodying his mouth, and then the second blow causing blood to stream from his nose and laying him out on the deck.
"Easy, lad." Tholvel and another seaman caught Aragorn before the fight could continue. "Don't kill him." The Haradrim staggered to his feet and his friends helped him away. The crowd drifted away slowly, new respect in their eyes, impressed with this one's fighting ability. Tholvel handed Aragorn a rag for his bleeding mouth and looked at him with appreciation. "You're right handy in a fist fight." Aragorn grinned and spat blood over the side. One of the mess crew brought Aragorn and Tholvel new bowls of stew. "That was well done," the old man said between bites. "They won't be bothering you again. None of them will." Aragorn looked up and saw Kindrel watching him from the aft deck. The lieutenant met his eye, nodded, and turned back to give an order to the watch. After the fight, the crowd was no friendlier, but they made a wide path around him and, except when assigned a task together, ignored him completely.
With Tholvel's help, Aragorn learned how to be an able seaman under the eye of the Southern sun. The days were blistering and the night air hung like gauze over the vessel. The windowless crew quarters held the day's heat like an oven. The oppression made Aragorn's head swim and he felt he was being poached in his own sweat in the hammock, lying awake until exhaustion overcame the heat and he dropped to sleep.
One hot night, Aragorn lay in the forecastle amid the snores and stink of the crew. Unable to sleep, he finally climbed down from the swaying hammock, pulled off the blanket, and went on deck. Under an amazing canopy of stars, he found a coil of rope in a space somewhat sheltered from the wind and made a nest. In the starlight, he could see the tall outline of Kindrel, long dark hair and shirt blowing in the wind, leaning back against the tiller, guiding the ship swiftly through the waves. The picture struck Aragorn and he softly spoke the line from "Eärendil was a Mariner":
"He turned his prow and into the night from Otherworld beyond the sea…"
The bundle of rags on the deck next to him stirred. It was Tholvel. He sat up, produced a pipe and tobacco, and soon had a red glow of ash dancing in the air as he spoke.
"Aye, I haven't heard that ballad in years but he does look that way," the old man said with pride. "He's from a family descended of Numenoreans, real quality. They own a line of ships---legitimate merchantmen and privateers out of Pelargir, they are."
"Why is he here?" asked Aragorn. "Why sail with such as these?"
"It was nigh on twenty years ago. He was master's clerk aboard the Sindhe Swan and his oldest brother was the master. I was a family retainer sent to look after them both. We were two days out of Pelargir with a load of timber when the pirates hit us in the night. They came up alongside silently without a light and were aboard before we knew the ship was there. Ascabar killed most of the crew, including the lad's brother when he found our cargo wasn't something he wanted, took those of us he deemed worth having, and sent the Sinde Swan to the bottom."
"Why does Kindrel not go home? Surely he's had the opportunity? Why did he never leave this ship?" Aragorn asked.
"Ascabar recognized immediately he had a navigator in his newest hand. He also quickly learned the boy's attachment to me. The lad was barely eighteen at the time, but stood up to the villain and said he would not become a bloody pirate. Ascabar laughed in his face. He recognized the lieutenant's sense of honor and knew once he'd committed his first act of murder, and Ascabar made sure it happened quickly, you can bet your eyes, there was no going back. Ascabar set it up neatly and Kindrel became a pirate in his own mind. He couldn't go home and soil his family with his deeds. He's been with Ascabar ever since and has done right well for himself, with me to look out for him." Tholvel looked sad. "I tried to tell him he was wrong but there's no talking to the boy when he gets an idea in his mind. He tries to do right; tries to convince the captain to let innocents go, but Ascabar laughs at his mercy and slaughters them anyway. The captain is a demon and we, lad, are unfortunate to have landed in his realm."
The old man knocked out his pipe, rolled over, and soon began to snore. Aragorn sat watching Kindrel, thinking about what his own reaction would be if circumstances forced him to do murder. Could he return home if he had innocent blood on his hands? The thought of home sent a longing through him. In his minds, he saw the faces of those he held most dear and wondered if he should ever see them again. He stared hard at the starry sky above him. Finally, the rocking of the ship through the waves lulled him to sleep.
As they glided further south, Aragorn became proficient at knot tying and was set to sail making. The heat became so unbearable, most of the crew stripped to breeches only. The blazing sun was relentless, first turning Aragorn's nose and ear tips red, then bronzing him until he was nearly as swarthy as the Haradrim. One day, the wind died abruptly and Aragorn learned about rowing. The sweeps and lash were brought out at once, and the coxswain blistered them with incredibly colorful epithets that besmirched both parents and all ancestors and then he sent the lash burning liked fire across their backs as they sang to keep time with the long oars. When the wind returned, Aragorn discovered the high places on a sailing vessel, overcoming the rolling, swinging giddiness of climbing the mast to luff the black sails. He collapsed each night dead tired and, as the weeks went by, the warrior, though lean and strong from years of training, used the sail maker's awl to punch new holes in his belt.
Kindrel was plotting their course one midday by sighting with an arcane brass instrument to the horizon and making notations in his log. Aragorn watched him intently and realized this man was probably the only one aboard, including the captain, with learning enough to navigate the ship. Tholvel said he was well educated as a boy before coming to sea and the rest was self-taught. 'Always one to be using his prize money on books and scrolls,' the old man had said. Kindrel saw him watching and called him over. He handed Aragorn the heavy brass circle he had been using.
"It's called a windrose. I can use it to plot the course by measuring the distances between the sun and the horizon. Do you know aught of navigation?" Kindrel asked.
"Not on the sea, but I've used the stars and sun to plot my course on land. I learned as a boy the stars' names and the seasonal tracks they tread." Kindrel showed him his book filled with notes on weather signs, sea conditions, and celestial observances, and another device, a horn square with a long knotted silken cord attached.
"It's a kamal; it's also used to check position." He demonstrated its use and from Aragorn's questions, he knew the young man's interest was genuine.
One balmy night, Aragorn was on watch and the Lieutenant stood next to him, drawing a star map in his log by the light of a lantern. He saw Aragorn's keen interest and they were soon comparing ideas on the stars' places in the heavens.
"You feel their singing too?" The lieutenant gestured skyward.
"Yes, I feel their songs," Aragorn looked at the sky, "though these skies bewilder me. Beleriand moves from his spot. The stars are changing."
"The southern skies are strange. The stars are different there. I'll show you my maps in the light of day." Kindrel was good to his word. As the ship sailed ever southward, they conversed often about the sky and weather, Aragorn proved an insightful and interested pupil, and the lieutenant developed a liking for the kidnapped young man. Kindrel lent him books and seemed to be on deck whenever Aragorn was on watch. The pair held lively discussions on historic events and the current state of the world as one or the other gripped the tiller of the pirate vessel, circling the waters like a shark, searching for a prize. It was not long before Ascabar took some notice of the attention Kindrel paid the northern lordling and began to needle his lieutenant.
"That one's cut of the same cloth as you," Ascabar observed. "You're always looking for a pupil, except most of these whoresons are only just bright enough to tell the difference between the sun and the moon. You should have decided to be a teacher instead of a bloody pirate, but if I remember it correctly, you didn't have much choice." He slapped the lieutenant on the back and laughed at his own joke. "It would be most unfortunate if your young pet Estel met an untimely end." Kindrel remained quiet but something unreadable moved behind his eyes. "See that you give me no reason for that to happen."
"Sail! Sail! A merchant ship!" the crewman sang out from the crow's nest. He pointed off to the northeast. The sail showed between them and the shoreline.
"See how low she rides," Kindrel pointed out to Aragorn. It was nearing mid-morning and the Sea-wolf was cruising far off the mouth of the Anduin. Both Kindrel and Aragorn were on deck: Aragorn because he was on watch and Kindrel always seemed to be there, preferring the wind and crew to Ascabar's company. The lieutenant jumped up on the rail and leaned out, holding the lines for a better look. "She's laden with a large cargo. She could be a valuable prize. Send word to the captain."
Ascabar gave one look to the merchant ship, and ordered the Sea-wolf to give chase. The pirate approached innocently, seeming to be another ship plying home up the mouth of the Anduin. When they were too close for the merchant ship to slip away into a protective cove, the drum summoned the crew to the deck and Kindrel ordered weapons distributed. The distance closed between the two vessels, the pirate ship bearing down ominously with the wind. The master of the merchant ship proved to be no fool. With the black sails nearly upon him, he recognized his danger and clumsily came about, hoping to outrun the pirate. However, the Sea-wolf's speed was unsurpassed by most coastal vessels and she easily caught up with the prize.
As they came up on her, the crew sent three large grappling harpoons over her sides. Soon the merchantman hove to and the Sea-wolf was made fast. Kindrel handed Aragorn a cutlass, his eyes blazing, his own sword in his left hand.
"You're with me. Stay close." Kindrel grabbed a line and leapt up onto the gunwale. The pirates swung aboard to face the merchant crew and the fighting was intense. The bloody tenacity of the doomed ship's crew showed the pirates there was something of value aboard and they fought the harder for the prize.
Kindrel worked his way aft with Aragorn at his back. Aragorn held his cutlass defensively. He would not kill these innocents unless he fought for his own life. Kindrel seemed bent on disarming, not murdering, the defending crew. The others had no such qualms. Aragorn watched in horror as the pirate crew, especially the blond Northmen, gleefully slaughtered the merchant sailors who were poorly trained fighters. Suddenly, the maddened master saw his crew was being overwhelmed and launched himself at Aragorn with a crazed yell. The young man sidestepped lightly and deflected his attacker's blade, trying to disarm him. The man jerked suddenly, cursed him for a bloody pirate, and fell, a dagger run through his ribs by a laughing Ascabar.
"No fancy fencing required here, princeling. Our work is best done quick and wet!" he sneered, driving his cutlass into the dying man's chest.
With the master dead, the remaining crew lost heart and quickly surrendered. Ascabar selected five able seamen from the two dozen remaining to replace his casualties and ordered the rest executed with a wave of his hand. The man's disregard for life sickened Aragorn, and he startled forward with a cry of protest, his cutlass raised. Kindrel grabbed him and swung him hard against the wall of the forecastle, knocking the cutlass from his hand. He pinned him there and whispered intently.
"Keep your mouth shut! Ascabar would like nothing better than to have you join the doomed ones." While the blond berserkers cut the crew's throats and tossed the dead and dying overboard, the lieutenant dragged the stunned Aragorn below to the master's cabin. He broke open the strongbox with a hand axe and pulled out a sheaf of papers. Kindrel studied the merchantman's bills of laden: she was a mercer vessel, weighted down with fine wool and linen cloth. This was a prize the captain would judge worth the deaths of five pirates!
Breaking a lock on a cabin door, the lieutenant found a room stacked with chests. Inside were folded beautiful ells of silk, their jewel tones shimmering in the lantern light. This booty was nearly more valuable than gold. The sale of such fabric in the southern ports would fill their purses with enough gold to count them all as princes for a short time ashore. Kindrel, Aragorn and a prize crew were put aboard and the ship followed the Sea-wolf into Tastabarin, the most nefarious seaport beyond the southern coast.
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