My Favorite Aragorn Stories
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Toward the Sunrise: 4. Deception
The fog lay so thickly when Aragorn awoke that he thought there was no choice but to delay for a day. Beringol had listened very patiently to his grumbling all through breakfast before remarking that Estelon could probably sail safely through fog twice as thick, and that if he didn't hurry the Balhorn might leave without him.
He had rowed over and, sure enough, Estelon was preparing to raise anchor. But Valandur had a dubious look on his face, so Aragorn didn't feel quite as foolish. They had anchored in a small and secluded inlet, as close to the black cliffs as they dared. In this fog there was little danger of discovery, but he worried nonetheless as the Balhorn and the Aerandir, now stripped of as much weaponry as possible, slowly rowed out into the main body of the firth. Yet he understood, when they had passed the cliffs, why Beringol had been so confident: ahead of them, high in the sky, shone still the twin lights of the harbour towers. So long as they aimed between them, they would come to no harm.
As they drew nigh unto the harbour entrance the dromond went from busy to frenzied; the deck crawled with sailors calling out depth readings and obstacle sightings, and Estelon and his bow-officer were trying to have a disagreement across 140 feet of deck. Aragorn wedged himself in where he could get a good view, daring the seamen to roust him. But the fog was lifting only slowly, and to his disappointment Aragorn could see little of the city and the hills engirding it as they approached.
All he could see, at first, was a pair of towers: one sat at the foot of the hills, squatting almost amongst the waves, while the other was rooted on a mole thrust out from the southern side of the harbour. They were square, and built of red stone, and facing the sea crenellated terraces had been thrust out. They were a little disappointing, Aragorn thought. Though the lights shone far above his head, the towers looked rather squat, and not especially menacing. He had spent more than a year planning his assault on the Beraid Long. He wondered now if they were up to the challenge.
But that was a foolish thought, of course. Aragorn picked up a loose rope and started coiling it, trying to look industrious while he scrutinized the harbour that seemed to materialize out of the brume. It was massive, much bigger than it looked on his maps. The quays on his right were crowded with barges, coastal traders, fishing sloops, rowboats, skiffs, and others he could put no name to. The waterfront ran in a great curve out to the mole he had seen before. Every inch of it crawled with sailors and merchants and braying donkeys. The quays were built of wood and a glimmering yellow stone which ran up the stairs to a busy street. Beyond white buildings and earthy red walls and towers seemed to seep out of the fog.
He was beginning to give up hope of seeing the north harbour when the fog suddenly thinned. There was no mass of quays there, nor men, nor buildings. Instead a great bank of shipsheds stretching along the waterline, and on the hills rising above Aragorn could see long, low buildings for keeping stores. A chill swept through him as he counted the tall ships anchored in the water, and the sheds bulging with hulls.
He had been right.
Golasgil came to stand beside him as the ship nudged up against the dock. “Look at those ships-we've nothing to match them. With a fleet like this, they could reduce our coasts to rubble. If I ever doubted you, Thorongil, I am sorry.”
“Even I have doubted myself, “ he said quietly, “And right now I am wishing I was wrong. There is nothing we can destroy here that they cannot rebuild.”
“We do but buy Gondor time,” he agreed. “We all know this. But Andrast will be safe for a little while longer. That is all a lord can do.”
“And you will make a fine one, like your father. But the fog is lifting, and now we must carry out our plan.”
“I will learn all that I can. Good luck, 'Halven'.”
“You too, 'Sarnas',” he replied. Aragorn could see the whole city now, or most of it, but he tried to put it out of his mind; he needed to concentrate on the mission.
At the stern Valandur was preparing to depart, and Turagar was already making his way onto the quay. No doubt the Umbarrim were befuddled by their arrival and scrambling to prepare a welcome, Aragorn thought. He had neatly maneuvered the two men he wanted here. Pelargir was about the only port in Gondor still open to Umbar's ships. When her most powerful lord and her richest merchantman suddenly sail up together, the scent of opportunity just might disguise certain…irregularities. Or so he was betting. Though what they would make of Imrahil's proposition, he had no idea.
Before long an armoured man appeared on the pier, followed by an array of warriors and men dressed in long robes. He was tall for a southerner, vigorous but not young, with short black hair; and Aragorn guessed that this was Um-gîrtab himself. His voice was low and guttural, and when he walked up the gangway Aragorn got a glimpse of grim brown eyes entrenched over a short crooked nose.
Shortly after Valandur greeted him and was escorted off the ship the fog wavered, split, and was gone. Seizing the opportunity, he grabbed Golasgil and Isolad and stepped off the ship, leaving Anardil to take notes from ship-board. It would have been safer, of course, if they could all have stayed on the ship; but they needed to confirm where all the shipyards were, as well as identify all the ships they needed to destroy.
As he and Isolad walked north along the great curve of the harbour Aragorn eyes alighted on various landmarks, matching them to the map in his mind. Umbar was now a composite city. The old city, with its golden walls and towers and brilliant turquoise domes, was mostly abandoned now. Ceaseless wars had worn it into ruin, and the Haradrim had been unable to keep the old harbour from silting up. He could see some of the ruined towers still, perched on the line of hills behind the north harbour. But its legacy was all around him, for the quays and walls had been built of the salvaged stone.
The newest walls and towers were red, like the Beraid Long, and square instead of rounded. The inner walls started at the mole, and ran south beyond his sight, before turning up the slope to crest the ridge of hills that ran along the east of the city; then it turned and split through the harbour, dividing the new city from the sprawling and irregular middle city that encased the north end of the harbour. He couldn't see it from the street, but he knew that on the other side of the ridge lay the old harbour and original city, and that the original, massive, outer walls that the Númenoréans had built more than three thousand years ago still enclosed the entirety of the havens.
He and Isolad soon passed through Watergate and into the middle city. On the left ran the quays, visible only as breaks in the low wall where stairs led downwards, but marked with the cranes perched along the wall to hoist cargo. The streets became a little louder and rougher; glutted not just with sailors and guardsmen and citizens, but with mercenaries carrying wickedly-curved blades and scowls or shifty eyes, dirty beggars who grasped at robes of passers-by, and vociferous merchants hawking street food from panniers they carried across their shoulders or hauled around on woeful-looking donkeys.
Though some of the smells he remembered from the markets in Pelargir and Dol Amroth, most were wholly exotic to him. He tried to focus on watching the harbour, but it had been a long time since breakfast. Isolad raised an eyebrow when he stopped, but he bought some too¬-rice with a spicy meat stew. After several days of cold food his tongue was glad for the challenge.
“I didn't come to Umbar to eat street food,” said Isolad.
“We're blending in,” Aragorn replied. “Just eat.”
So far they had indeed accomplished little, but as they continued along the street the merchant docks began to fade out, and Aragorn went over to the wall. These were what Aragorn had been seeking: the tall ships that he and Golasgil had remarked over that morning.
There were about sixteen scattered along the quays. They varied a bit in size, but all were larger than a gwael, which was the largest sailing ship that the Gondorrim built. They had three masts, of which the middle was the largest, and the front two were rigged for square sails; and they were deep-draughted, made for ocean sailing. At the bow and stern castles had been erected, perhaps to shelter their bowman. Their appearance was formidable, to say the least, and they fit the description of the ships that had been harassing the Langstrand. He slipped down the stairs to get a closer look. He was half-way there before Isolad cried out to wait for him.
“Stay there,” called Aragorn. “I won't be a minute.”
These lines, these riggings¬-he was not an expert on seacraft, but he did know something of their history, for he had grown up surrounded by ancient scrolls and texts. Middle-earth had seen ships like these before, and some, indeed, which were much greater; but that lore had been forgotten. That the Umbarrim were rediscovering it was very troubling. For though it might be of independent origin, he feared now that Sauron, or one of his lieutenants, was disseminating some ancient knowledge, the better to dog Gondor's heels.
Indeed, while the construction wasn't precisely shoddy, the vessels were plain and without ornament. The Gondorrim always carved their ships elaborately, and he had seen fishing boats with more care lavished on them than these. These were ships without souls, turned out by unloving hands; or perhaps the shipwrights had known that their children were to linger only briefly in this world.
“Halven! Halven!” Dimly he heard Isolad calling for some one. With a jolt he realized he was calling for him. He looked up and saw that Isolad was surrounded by three Haradrim sailors. He cursed and jogged back down the quay and up the stairs. He put on his best “annoyed” look, and summoned his best Pelargir wharf-rat accent.
“Edwen, what did ye do? What did he do?” He asked the men. “I swears, Edwen, you're more trouble than a mouse in a larder. I shoulda left you a' coiling ropes all day 'stead of bringing you along.”
“Who are you?” scowled the tallest of the sailors. An old scar slanted down his right cheek, and he had the hard, dark eyes of the desert.
“Halven,” he said, “Halven of Pelargir. Off the Balhorn.”
“This man of yours,” he said, shaking Isolad quite hard, and nearly lifting him off the ground, “was drawing pictures of our ships. An' we don't like spies.”
“Spying? Lemme see that.” He took the scrap of paper. Isolad had indeed been sketching the ships with charcoal. It might have proved useful, but it was a stupid risk. “This is terrible,” he said. “My mamma's dog could do better.”
The second man barked a laugh at this. He wiped a stray slash of green sauce off his clean-shaven jaw with his sleeve and gave a shrug.
Aragorn leaned in a little closer. “Look,” he said to the men, with a bit of a goofy smile. “My ship-mate ain't a spy, he's just stupid. Get's distracted, like. That's why he can't be trusted to do errands alone. Now I'm just a sailor. I only know 'bout ships, and not politics. But we was rousted for this trip so as my lord and yours could make some deal, e'en though it's still winter, leastways it is up north, no time to be sailin'. Now if you drag us in for a bit of paper, maybe we all get in trouble for upsettin' them.”
The third man shifted uncomfortably. He was fairer of skin and hair than his companions. There was a dagger tucked in the sash at his waste, but he stood with the hunch of a man who doesn't know where a whip might come from next. Aragorn drew a hand across his throat, and lowered his voice. “Maybe we lose our heads, e'en, if they get's real mad. Ain't nothin' gets them folk touchier than honour, you know? We're all sailors here. Why should we be fightin'?
“My purse is heavy with coin, so as we could buy supplies. But whatcha say we spend it on somethin' more tasty than salt fish? There must be a tavern here where some seaboys could getta drink.”
The man with the grip on Isolad still looked uncertain, but Aragorn thought he was winning the other two. “Say, is that your ship down there? The handsome yellow, with the long bowsprit?” He pointed to the second largest of the ships, one of the vessels he had been admiring earlier.
“Yes,” said the second of them, “that be our Na-baga-in this speech, Sea-crown, you call her. You like her?”
“Like 'er? Nothin' like that at home! Must be a howl runnin' in the wind, six knots I bet she does.”
“Seven,” said the second man. “Come, Gab-diriga, Dusa, they do not mean harm. I am Igi-dagal. Let's get some rum. You like rum?”
“Nothin' better,” Aragorn replied.
The tall man, who must be Gab-diriga, released Isolad, who sighed in relief. “Rum is good,” he grunted, and the pale man fingered his dagger and then nodded.
And so Aragorn found himself downing rum before the sun was midway in her tracks, in a tavern that smelled like fish and sweat and stale drinks, learning the finer points of the new ships of Umbar. Isolad was still looking a bit queasy, and mostly kept silent. By the time they'd finished off the keg the slightly tipsy sailors were now slightly tipsy friends, and offering to show him around the port. He sent Isolad off to “fetch those supplies,” and availed himself of his new tour guides.
The afternoon went better than he could have hoped. Igi-dagal and his friends were not fools, and Aragorn was careful with his questions, but they boasted proudly of the Sea-crown's speed and handiness, and took him up to the middle city. All the best sailor's taverns were there, Dusa said, and tried his best to lead him to every one of them. After a while Aragorn claimed defeat, and staggered down to a nearby pier to empty his stomach in the muddy water. He had not drunk that much in several years, and looked it; but it had been less than it seemed to Igi-dagal and Dusa and Gab-diriga, for Aragorn was canny even in his drinking.
They lay awhile on the pier (which was really just a small dock, once his head stopped spinning) and Aragorn took the opportunity to make a good reconnaissance of the ship-sheds. By the time they parted company in the late afternoon, following another round at the taverns, he thought he could sketch out where all the ships to hit were, and he'd gotten a good look at the northern tower.
Aragorn wished he had time to tarry as he strolled back up the street that Isolad and he had come down that morning, for he had much to think upon. The Sea-crown was still where it had been that morning. Everything had happened a little too easily today. He wondered at Igi-dagal and his ship-mates, Dusa and Gab-diriga. Did they really believe him, and think there was a chance for peace? Or did they know the inevitability of war, and think the joke was on him?
Well, it would be the other way around. Before the sun rose the Sea-crown would be ablaze, and they might well be dead. Better dead, perhaps, he thought. Before they could realize their mistake.
It was just the booze that was affecting him, no doubt. He had come seeking a nasty and perilous foe to grapple with and beat down for no prize but a brief peace for Gondor. It was to be cool and calculated, without the mess of ambition and pride and history that had weighted down Gondor's previous attacks. But now a strange elation seemed to overtake him, as the snapping sea wind, rimy with salt, tugged at his jersey and hat and the bare skin of his cheeks as it rippled inland. When he breathed in it was like he breathed in all of Umbar in with it; and it filled him, all these ancient towers and fallen fortresses and moss-eaten walls, all the ships and quays that danced with the sea, and the great city that rose behind them, leaning and groping for the red walls and towers it sheltered behind; the walls, maybe, that held the desert out.
Get a grip on yourself. He tried to calm his mind with all the tricks learned over long years, to stem the tide of emotion and to separate himself from things that must remain in the past, or go unrealized. But Umbar nagged at him still, and as he passed through the Watergate he leaned against it for a moment, running his hand over the rough stone arch. He felt every point of it against his hand, in that moment, and the tremble that swept him had nothing to do with the coolness of the wall.
Had he been deceiving himself, all along, to think that he could leave now?
Isolad approached him as soon as he returned to the ship. His brow was furrowed, and the other sailors seemed to be keeping their distance.
“You are finally back,” he said. “I have been worrying all afternoon.”
“Were you too busy worrying to get your job done?” Aragorn said moodily.
“Of course not,” he snapped. “I wrangled a good look at the shipyards. I've never seen any of that size before. But most of them are not in use right now. Either they've finished their work, or they're waiting on something.”
Aragorn nodded in acknowledgment and turned away to the rail to watch for Valandur.
“Is that all?” Isolad said. “Did you get a good look at the shipsheds, or were you too busy drinking with your new Haradrim friends?”
“I got a good look, no thanks to you,” he replied. “What were you thinking, sketching a picture in the middle of the street?”
“I wasn't in the middle, I was at the side. And it would have been useful if you hadn't tossed it away.”
“It was dangerous. You are lucky I was there and smoothed things over. If you'd been dragged in for questioning, the whole operation might have been in jeopardy. You do know what “disguise” means.”
“Of course! But we are not all so practiced at deception as you are, Thorongil. Agh. I give up.” He stalked off and left Aragorn in peace.
That one had been a mistake, he thought. Not like his father at all-he had a keen eye, true, but he was no good at thinking on his feet. Golasgil, he hoped, had done better. More alike Aragorn, he was, ready to move with change instead of dragging his feet. He had enjoyed the role-play that afternoon, once the immediate danger had passed-well, maybe he had enjoyed all of it.
But Isolad was like Denethor: bull-headed when it was time for action. A good man for guarding your back, but unequipped for the unexpected. And what was the history of Gondor come to, but falling back? The heartland remained, and Denethor and Isolad and their ilk might long defend it, but Umbar had been lost, and all the southlands; Calenardhon had been given up; Ithilien was only a haunt for orcs, and barely held at that; and the great domes and spires of Osgiliath lay fallen to their knees, or tumbled in the muddy bed of the Anduin.
Denethor, for all his diplomatic deftness, could never have brought the Council together on this, or even conceived such a plan; nor would he ever have dared to carry it out. If he left now, Aragorn thought, who might set things right again?
His ruminating was interrupted by the return of Valandur, who swayed pompously up the ramp, trailed by several harried-looking Haradrim officials. He dismissed them imperiously and bellowed a few commands before stalking up beside Aragorn.
“How did it go?” Isolad asked, trailing after him, with Golasgil close behind.
“I played it as straight as I could,” Valandur said. “But they must think me half crazy.”
Aragorn wasn't paying much attention. He had looked for it all afternoon, but now the clouds had been shoved aside and he could see it presiding high above the city. Only a stout watchtower stood on the heights now, but once a great monument had risen from it, which they say could be seen even from the coasts of Gondor. Here Sauron had been humbled by the might of Men.
By Ar-Pharazôn, you fool. And yet-was he not Isildur's heir, the last of Elendil's proud line? If he had not the courage to spit in Sauron's face, and deny him for once the prize he coveted, who would? The thought worried at his mind like a hungry dog. So close to so much, all his decisions had a faint whiff of defeat. This city he had never wanted, dressed in gold and turquoise and stammel, taunted him through the alleys of his mind, and the sunset was tinted with shades of consonance as Aragorn grasped, for the first time, what had driven so many men to stain the walls of the Havens with their blood.
The sun was but a shimmer in the west when they rounded the cliffs and came on the fleet hidden below. The other captains had left him alone at the stern to watch Umbar fade from view, seemingly unaffected by their brief brush with the city, but they joined him now as the Alphion lowered her tender and Imrahil came over.
“Everything has been quiet here,” reported Imrahil. “We have men up on the bluffs keeping a look-out. But no-one has come near. How did the scouting go?”
“Well enough,” said Valandur, “at least on my end. I think they bought it, absurdly enough.”
Imrahil grinned. “And Turagar?”
“He stayed to smooth things over,” Anardil said.
“He and his men will be ready,” Valandur added.
“I checked out the river, but there was no sign of ship-building there,” reported Golasgil. “If there is another yard, it is a long way off. But I got a good look at the south tower and the ships anchored there.”
“I scouted the ship-yards,” Isolad said. “Beyond that, you will have to ask Thorongil.”
“I saw what I desired to see,” Aragorn said after a moment.
“Well,” said Imrahil, “it is a success then. The details you can give us later. But what are we to do now, Thorongil? Do we attack or not?”
The gathered captains looked at him expectantly.
“We will attack tonight.”
What was one more deception?
Ma-sua (“deep-draughted boat”): An Umbarrim name for their new three-masted sailing ships.
Estelon: Sailing Master of Valandur's Balhorn.
Gab-diriga (“enormous strength”): Sailor from the Sea-crown.
Igi-dagal (“wide-seeing eyes”): Sailor from the Sea-crown.
Dusa (“companion”): Sailor from the Sea-crown.
I've opted to represent the speech of Umbar as a sort of pidgin Sumerian. I hope it is exotic without being distracting.
My thanks to everyone who has reviewed-sorry it took me so long to get this chapter finished! The penultimate chapter, Battles, will hopefully be out in early July.
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