Many Guises and Many Names
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Toward the Sunrise: 2. Politics
He had risen with the dawn, as was his habit, and after breaking his fast had walked down to the gates and out onto the Pelennor. The fields were slick with last night’s rain, and the road gave a sloppy crunch under foot. He turned off the main way fare and onto a gravel path rutted by wagon wheels. He leapt the small ditch at the roadside and pushed his way through the tall weeds that skirted it, coming alongside a rotting fence and a pasture studded with old oaks.
Aragorn leant gently against the fence, aware that he had got his boots and breeches soaked, and his hair disheveled, and that he looked not at all a proper Gondorian, and gave a low whistle. From across the field the old stallion looked up, and then trotted over to greet his master. Ælfweald had been his stalwart companion through many campaigns, but age had settled on him now in a heavy blanket, Aragorn thought, offering the apple he had brought along. Ælfweald chomped contentedly, and then nosed around for more. His manner was easy, but he was thin and his back had begun to sag. He might bear Aragorn in parade or on a country jaunt, but he would never again carry him into battle.
Of death in battle, Aragorn knew a great deal. His father had died so, and many men he had known, and horses also. But this sad withering of flesh…Ecthelion had not looked so agéd, when he had left in the autumn, nor Ælfweald so timeworn. Now, he saw, their years were coming to an end; and Thengel’s also.
It was with thoughts of death that Aragorn returned to the city, cleaned himself up, and eased into his seat in Ecthelion’s council chambers. It was already half-full of lords: Denethor, scowling indiscriminately; Belvorin, the fleshy lord of Ringo Vale, half-asleep in his chair; Fóldur and Angnor, bickering over tariffs on the lower Ringló; and many others besides, some sitting, some standing, and some hunched over in varying states of drunkenness or recovery. For a moment his presence went unnoticed; but then Eradan, the Warden of the Keys, came over to greet him, gripping him on the shoulder and settling into the chair beside him.
“Captain Thorongil! A belated entry, but a most welcome one–what has delayed you so? We expected you last week.”
“The weather in the bay turned ill on us,” Aragorn said, “and of our battle with pirates you have no doubt heard already.”
“That is right,” he replied, “Ecthelion mentioned it last afternoon. I had forgot. I hope your losses were not too great.”
“Good men–men who could not be spared. So it always is in war.”
“Technically we are not at war.”
“Tell the Corsairs that!”
“I am sorry,” said Aragorn, after a moment. “I did not mean to be sharp with you.”
“It is no matter,” said Eradan slowly. “I have never liked ships, nor trusted the sea. Give me stone walls and stone floors, and I am content. I was so ill the last time I sailed that I made the Steward promise never to make me take ship again.”
“Your duty lies here.”
“Yes. But to you and the coastal lords, I must seem sheltered and narrow-minded. I have not been out of sight of the City in more years than I can count. I cannot think of war upon the sea without feeling green.”
“Even you might get your sea legs in time, Eradan. But if ships suit you not, then leave them to me.”
“And so I do, Captain, and so I do. But enough serious talk–look who comes now! It is my favourite jester.”
Aragorn looked up to see Béladur stray into the room: muttering to himself, nearly colliding with the upstart furnishings, the Steward’s treasurer absently landed in a seat, his usual absorption with notes and figures uplifted to an obsession even a Balrog could not distract him from.
Eradan leaned over and whispered into Aragorn’s ear. “If ever I look that way, Thorongil, you must put me on a ship, whatever I say, and find me some battle to stir my blood.”
“Only if you promise to do the same,” Aragorn murmured back, feeling his heart lift a little.
The Steward entered then, followed by his secretary, Duilin, and Adrahil, the Prince of Dol Amroth; all the lords rose respectfully, and then it was time for the council to settle down to business.
"Prince Adrahil," the Steward began, "I have called this council at your behest, in order that we may consider the matter of Umbar."
"Indeed my lord," Adrahil replied, raising his chin from where it had rested on his hands. "Over the past year the Corsairs have grown increasingly bold. Thirteen of our merchant vessels were accosted last year, and we have lost four warships fighting them."
Forlas snorted, and rumbled from his seat down the table. "Thirteen out of a fleet of how many hundred? While you worry about trading profits, Prince, Mordor sits upon our very doorstep."
"Protecting Gondor’s shipping is not a luxury, but a necessity." Prince Adrahil replied smoothly. "Even the Bay is no longer safe; several of those vessels were salt traders, bound for Pelargir. Half of Gondor depends on those shipments–including Lossarnach."
Forlas just grunted. Aragorn wondered idly whether Forlas would change his tune if it were wine shipments, not salt shipments, which were in jeopardy.
"And the merchant crews?" Erandir asked from beside him.
"There has been no word of them. Very likely the survivors were kept captive to work the oars, or sold as slaves in Umbar."
If they did not act soon, Aragorn knew, it would be more than merchantmen under their cruel whips. For a moment, indeed, there was silence at the table.
"For your losses you have my condolences, Prince Adrahil, but I wonder why you have brought this before the council,” said Galadan of Anórien. “Piracy is nothing new. Your fleet, and that of the other coastal fiefs, has been dedicated to fighting it for centuries. Why do you come to us now?"
Fóldur spit out his words before Adrahil could answer. "Because it is no longer enough. We may defeat one ship, but the next month there are two more. You sit safe behind the barrier of the Anduin. Our farms and villages lie open to the sea. Bolder they grow, the Corsairs. Soon piracy will turn to plundering. Must our settlements fall under their swords before you will listen?”
"Speculation!” Forlas bellowed. “’Tis a hundred years since they’ve dared attack our shores in strength.”
“More like two hundred,” muttered Eowél of Lebennin.
Fóldur scowled at him. “They are coming,” he said. “Coming, coming, coming.”
“A creeper may seem harmless enough as it twists it’s way up a trunk,” Adrahil said, “but if left untrimmed, the vines may strangle the whole tree."
"And were Umbar a vine to be shorn with a knife, then I would do it, Prince," Galadan said. "But we do not have the strength to take Umbar–we have not had it for many long years. We cannot war with both her and Mordor."
"Nay, we cannot." Ostoher, the Lord of Tolfalas, at last spoke up, his urgent voice rough and raspy. "Which is why we must act now, to forestall the growing strength of Umbar before we have no choice but war."
"What is your proposal?" asked the Steward.
"A strike-a strike upon the ships of Umbar. Torch their ships and yards, and it would be many long years before they could rise again in threat to us."
Forlas caught Aragorn’s eye–not difficult, as he was sitting right across from him–and gave a long ‘ahhhhh’. "I wondered where Captain Thorongil fit into all this." Returning his gaze to Ostoher, he continued, "This is hardly a new plan, Lord Ostoher. And as I recall, it has already been rejected by the Steward–as unfeasible."
Aragorn leaned forward, lacing his fingers. "Say rather–problematic, which I do not deny. It is true that a raid on Umbar would be difficult. Secrecy would be critical, as would be no shortage of good luck. But our ships are faster, and our archers of surpassing reach. If we can catch them unaware in the harbour, we can decimate their fleet with little loss to ourselves."
He returned Forlas’ gaze levelly. "We cannot choose our enemies, lord, but we can choose the manner of our meeting. Open sea battles carry far more risks, and offer far lesser gains. Better to pile the advantages in our favour."
"More risks?” said Eówel. “You propose to risk the better part of our fleet."
"The fleet need not be so large," Aragorn replied. "Our spies report that Um-gîrtab, the Captain of the Haven, has grown overconfident. Thinking that Gondor would not dare to attack Umbar, he has withdrawn resources from the Ab-anzakâr in order to strengthen his raiders. Those two towers are all that guard the harbour. If they are compromised, even a small fleet can do significant damage before Um-gîrtab can mount a strong defense."
"And can you compromise them, Captain?" Galadan asked.
"We believe so, lord, by outfitting several of our largest dromunds with heavy mangonel."
Ostoher began to speak, but was interrupted by a fit of coughing. "Ah, forgive me," he said, clearing his throat. "As to the mangonel, the Prince, Valandur and I have been discussing the matter. We have a sufficient number already built that, with a little modification, will suit admirably. They will be heavy enough to throw boulders, and should have good effect against the stone towers. We will still outfit the smaller ships with fire-throwers, of course."
"I take it that the Pelargir Council is in agreement with this plan, then?" Galadan asked, rather dryly.
"We have some reservations, but Pelargir feels the need as clearly as Dol Amroth," Valandur responded. "Nonetheless, in the absence of agreement from the Steward and Captain-General, I find this discussion somewhat pointless. The decision is not ours to make."
“Denethor?” Forlas prompted.
“The threat from Umbar is real,” said Denethor, “But I am unconvinced by this so-called plan. Thorongil has admitted to me that his intelligence is out of date and incomplete. We do not know what their true strength is, nor can we be certain of their intentions. We cannot afford to waste men and resources on Thorongil’s derring-do, not when our war with Mordor is so unrelenting. We should choose a more defensive plan.”
“Defensive!” Fóldur scoffed. “What would you have us do, build a curtain wall out of seaweed?”
Verion placed a gentling hand upon his uncle’s shoulder. “We have built up defenses as best we can, my lord, but our coastlines are long and our people spread thinly. Lord Ostoher has spoken truly. While our taxes and tariffs come here to fight Mordor, how can we raise a fleet large enough to defend our coastline? We must strike, and quickly. And Thorongil is an able captain. Andrast would prefer no other leader.”
Aragorn nodded his thanks. “It is true that we have no certainties. But who does, in war? It is better to strike early and hard, before they may expect us. In three months the sea will be quiet and Umbar will return to menacing our coasts. We must act now.”
“To all of you I have listened,” said the Steward, “and your thoughts I will consider closely. But still this plan seems too rash to me. Failure would be too costly.”
“Sometimes risks must be taken,” said the Prince.
“Yes,” replied Ecthelion, “but they must be chosen carefully, as Thorongil has said. We will discuss this further. But it is nearly noon, and time to break for lunch.”
Aragorn sighed unhappily as the council members trickled out of the room. Ostoher placed a hand on his shoulder as he passed. “It is up to you, now,” he muttered.
Aragorn mulled his options. This was the broadest coalition yet, and still the Steward hesitated! For a brief moment he wished Forlas would just keel over from too much wine. But that was unkind, he knew, as well as unlikely. Which left only one choice, he thought, as he rose.
He caught up with Denethor in the hall. “May I have a word with you, sir?”
“Of course, Captain.”
They walked down the stairs and out into the courtyard. A chill wind swept down from the North, and the paving was wet from rain showers. Beside the fountain stood the withered white tree, its barren branches forlorn in the clouded light.
Aragorn led him out onto the citadel’s granite prow. They stood there for a moment, looking into the East, cloaks flapping, before he turned to Denethor.
“We both see the threat from Umbar. Your father sees it also.”
“Only Umbar gains from our delay.”
“Then why will you do nothing?” Aragorn asked, frustrated. “Is Gondor not more important than our own quarrels?” He leaned against the parapet, resting his forehead upon the knuckles of his right hand. “I can do this, Denethor. I can defeat them. I must. Can you not see this? If we spoke together, you and I, surely Ecthelion would listen!”
For a long while Denethor looked out over the valley to the dark peaks of the Ephel Duath and the angry mountain behind them.
“Yes,” he said at last. “But there would be a condition. I will let you have this mission, Thorongil, when I could deny it. But it will be your last.”
Away east looked Aragorn, and then north; and he thought of the letter in his pocket; and said: “It is agreed, then.”
To the council chambers they returned, and when the lords reconvened Aragorn and Denethor spoke with one voice.
Um-gîrtab: the Captain of the Havens of Umbar. Haradric, ‘the scorpion of Umbar’.
Ab-anzakâr: the towers that guard the entrance to the main harbour of Umbar. Haradric ‘sea-towers’.
Present at the council:
Eradan. Warden of the Keys.
Denethor*. Captain-General; Heir of Ecthelion.
Aragorn (as Thorongil)*. Captain of the Ships.
Duilin. Ecthelion’s Secretary.
Béladur. Ecthelion’s Treasurer.
Mallor. Ecthelion’s Chamberlain.
Vilmar. Ecthelion’s Chief Justice.
Galadan. Lord of Anorien.
Forlas. Lord of Lossarnach.
Forlong*. Heir of Forlas.
Valandur. Head of the Council of Lords of Pelargir.
Eowél. Lord of Lebennin.
Malthor. Heir of Malthegil, Chieftain of the Ethir-folk.
Angnor. Lord of Lamedon.
Angbor*. Heir of Angnor.
Belvorin. Lord of Ringlo-Vale.
Amálith. Lord of Dor-en-Ernil.
Ostoher. Lord of Tolfalas.
Adrahil. Prince of Dol Amroth.
Derondir. Lord of Morthad.
Fóldur. Lord of Anfalas.
Golasgil*. Heir of Fóldur.
Hirluin*. Heir of the Lord of Pinnath Gelin.
Verion. Heir of the Lord of Andrast; Fóldur’s nephew.
* Canon characters.
Individuals in italic have no speaking lines.
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