Many Guises and Many Names
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Toward the Sunrise: 3. Counsels
He stood at the prow of Nimchathol as she coasted in toward the sandy shoreline of Harondar, watching his fleet ground upon the beach under the paling sky. The ships had flown swiftly today, buoyed by a brisk North wind, and he expected they would reach Umbar in four days. If the weather held, of course; if his luck held.
At the top of the beach he could see the Alphion already pulled out and Imrahil’s scouting parties scrambling up the bluffs. He strode back down the deck, mindful of the sails and lines that littered it, to where Beringol stood at the helm.
"Bring us in just behind the Alphion, and signal the rest of the galleys to draw in on our left."
"Aye, sir," his sailing master responded. Aragorn stretched languidly and leaned over the bulwark, listening to the rhythmic beat of the drum and rush of the oars on the water, and the shouts of his crew as they sent up signal flags and prepared to beach the ship. Before the sun spread her last rays over the sea all of the dromunds had been pulled up onto the beach, and those of greater draught were anchored just off it, and the wafting scent of roast mutton drew men around the campfires for a well-earned supper.
Among the rows of fires and tents Aragorn made his way, often stopping to speak to those he knew, or examining the progress of the men repairing tattered sails or fraying lines. Behind him his purser fluttered nervously, parchment rustling, murmuring unheeded of rosters and supplies and ship’s accounts, until at last Aragorn invented an errand and sent him off.
When he was satisfied that the men were in good spirits, and the ships in good shape, he returned to his own camp, under the dark shadow of Nimchathol’s hull. Aragorn found Beringol seated there, beside the officer’s campfire, a sheaf of paper balanced on one knee and his quill in hand.
"Another letter?" Aragorn asked with a smile as he settled down beside him. One of his men discreetly brought his dinner.
"Aye, Captain," Beringol said, returning the smile. "Melneth is visiting some cousins in the country, and I know the steward of the villa–he has promised to slip some letters in for me."
"Finish it, and then we’ll talk."
Beringol nodded, and returned to his composition. Aragorn polished off his meal, and then turned to rifling the papers his purser had pushed at him before their parting. He supposed that a few did indeed need his attention. He was about to go searching for ink and quill when Beringol spoke:
"'As the veiled sun renews the heart,
Of weary sailors when with piercing dart,
She dusts aside the dark clouds,
Throws off her winter shrouds,
And glints again upon the sparkling spray,
Her lucent beams to light the way;
So does the spark that dwelleth in your eyes,
Split through the grey of those internal skies,
And then I know that hope is never lost,
It nothing slays or can exhaust,
And though I wander and my paths are long,
My way is lighted...'"
His brows furrowed. "Song? Strong? Yes-‘My way is lighted by your love so strong.’" He set it down, and looked to Aragorn. "What do you think?"
Setting his papers aside, Aragorn rubbed his hands slowly in front of the fire. "Have you still hope, Beringol?"
His companion set down his quill. "That I will ever win Lord Valandur’s permission? No–no, perhaps not, anymore." There was a poignant sadness on his face, a melancholy that Aragorn knew all to well. "I am not oblivious to what men think, you know; how they laugh and jest at my expense.” He ran his hand though the dirt, cupping some on his palm, and crumbling let it fall through his fingers. “I have no rank or fortune with which to woo. And youth–youth that thinks the world is won without…well,” he said, dusting his hands off, “Well, he is long passed away. But though it is folly, I cannot turn from her."
Aragorn thought wistfully of his own ladylove, far away. "I do not think you are foolish,” he said softly. “Overly poetic, maybe."
He gave a wry smile. “Thank you.” He scratched his nose and glanced at the sky; then tucked his letter away and capped his inkbottle. "But you did not come to discuss my love life, Captain. Have you decided?"
"Indeed I have. Caution the Council counsels; but fortune favours the bold. It is only by audacity, through actions unexpected in timing and stunning in scope, that we may hope to hold back the might of the East."
"Now which of us is overly poetic?”
Aragorn smiled. “We are a matched pair, it seems.”
The flames cackled as Beringol fed them a fagot. “Bold your new plan is, but maybe too bold,” he said. “You always brush off talk of political consequences. But even if we succeed, you may face trouble in the City. This is not the plan the Council agreed to. The Steward may overlook your improvisations, but will Lord Denethor?”
“Denethor and I have an…understanding.” He ought to tell him, thought Aragorn; no, not yet. When this was over, perhaps. “And the Council is not important.”
Beringol must have sensed his indecision, for he gave him a long look. “Two months ago, the Council was everything.”
“I am out of their reach now,” Aragorn said. Forever.
“For the moment, yes,” said Beringol, looking unconvinced. Aragorn picked up a stick and toyed with the fire to avoid his gaze. “That aside,” Beringol finally continued, “there are still my original concerns.”
"Yes,” Aragorn said, “You have doubted this whole expedition.” He set the stick aside. “But what ill portents grace our course? The wind is strong, the sky is clear, and the water calm. The ships are in good order and the men in good cheer. Nothing do I see that should stay my hand."
"All this is true,” Beringol replied. “Yet no Man is master of the Sea. Some luck or favour you have, but the Powers are fickle, and none more so than Ossë. I fear that you depend too much on his goodwill. To win the day, but lose the fleet–that would be no victory."
"It is the Sea you fear then?"
"The Sea and the Skies, and all those things independent of men’s hearts. For those you see better than I. But if the fog lifts at the wrong time, or the Sea impedes our progress, our cover is blown. And even if we are successful, the battle will weaken men and ships both, and even a meager storm might ruin us upon the cliffs.” Beringol picked up his own stick to nudge the logs around. “You say that you rely upon my sea-judgment, and then you set sail not three months into the year! Mark me, Captain, I have never seen such a calm spell in Nínui. It cannot last. And when the weather turns, what will we do?”
“What mariners have ever done: find shelter and make the best of it.”
“And when the Umbarrim rally against us? When fire arrows rain down on us and swordsmen fight their way onto our ships? What will we do?”
“We will wreck such damage on Umbar as they have not suffered in a thousand years. Then we will withdraw.” Then he added: “And make the best of it.”
“I do not understand, Captain. The old blood is failing. The shadow in the East is sucking us dry. The age of heroes is over. But you–we fight like cornered dogs, desperate to keep our enemies at bay, brooding over the few hours that remain to us. Our youth passes, and with it go all thoughts of victory.
“But you wade out amongst our foes, and call, ‘The sun is rising!’ Far aloft a star glimmers in the dawn. Forgetting ourselves, we follow you. But it will be our doom, Captain, and yours. For the shadow is greater than either of these, and a day will come when it blots out all the sky. Then what will we do? O my friend, what is it that makes you so certain?”
“That poem you wrote–repeat it to me,” Aragorn said quietly.
With a doubtful look, Beringol complied.
“That is what makes me certain.”
Aragorn shook his head. “Estel.”
“Thorongil!” a voice shouted from behind Beringol. “Captain Thorongil!” It was Imrahil; and here were the other ship captains, Aragorn saw, come to take counsel with him. They would have to finish this conversation later. He gathered his papers up and stood.
"This will be a long night. Get some sleep, and come to me in the morning.”
“Aye sir,” he said.
“And Beringol?” He smiled at him. “It is a good poem. She will like it."
Aragorn went to welcome the Captains and invite them into his tent. It was much too small, but they squeezed onto benches and camp stools, and got enough lamps lit to see each other’s faces.
“Lords, Captains,” Aragorn said, “thank-you for coming. We are now four days from Umbar, and it is needful now that I reveal my plan to you.”
“We know the plan,” Valandur said.
“You know some of it,” he corrected. “We have come well-equipped. We have mangonels and ballistae, pikemen and swordsmen and bowmen.”
“Aye! And we’ll set half the city alight, ne’er you fear!” boasted Anardil.
Imrahil clasped his cousin’s shoulder. “All of it, if I have any say!”
Ostoher had a patient smile, but the others looked less convinced. Verion shifted nervously on his rickety cap stool, and Valandur was scowling.
“Just say it,” said Valandur. “What mad plan have you got this time?”
Aragorn tried to ignore him. “The city is not our object. We could burn it to the ground, but if their ships and shipyards are left intact, we have failed. We do not have men or time to waste. We must know precisely where our targets are, and where their defenses are weakest, before we make our attack–for which, I remind you, we shall have only the light of the moon to guide us.
There was muttering amongst the Captains.
“You make our chances sound dim,” said Golasgil. “The moon is full in but five days. How can we possibly acquire this information?”
“It cannot be done,” said Valandur. “Thorongil has admitted it before.”
“Yet he must have a plan,” said Ostoher, “that will net this for us.”
“And so I do,” Aragorn said. “I have admitted only that we cannot from Gondor obtain timely intelligence. From here, it is another matter. Here is what is desired: to get several men into Umbar, so that they may observe such things as we wish to know, and back out again–without, of course, arousing their suspicion.”
“But how may this be done?” Asked Imrahil. “Are you certain we shouldn’t just set everything on fire?”
“Very certain, my young prince. Here is my plan: we shall send the Balhorn into Umbar. While Valandur keeps them distracted, some of us, disguised as ordinary seamen, shall scout out the shipyards. Then we will reconvene with the fleet, and attack while our knowledge is fresh.”
“This was not the plan,” said Valandur. His fists were clenched rather menacingly.
“It is but a small change. What campaign does not include scouting missions?”
“I will go, Thorongil,” said Imrahil. “I could do it just as well as he!”
“Nay, Imrahil, I shall need you here,” he said. “Valandur, I know you doubt me, but think what we shall gain if it works. Um-gîrtab shall take you seriously. He will never expect that it is a ruse.”
“Valandur the Duplicitous. The name I always wanted.”
Ostoher chuckled. “You are ill-tempered this eve, Valandur. Are you quite well?”
“I am fine!” he snapped. “But the closer we get to Umbar, the more crazy I think I was to go along with this. And his plan is flawed: I cannot just sail in one morning and sail out the same night. They will be suspicious.”
“Then let me go with you, my lord,” said Turagar, who had be quiet thus far. “My name is known there. They will not question me risking the sea so early. They will just think me greedy for profits.”
“That is true,” said Aragorn. “Very well, the two of you shall go. Perhaps, Turagar, if you remain, they will be less suspicious when Lord Valandur departs.”
Valandur still looked dubious. “Perhaps that would work. But I still do not see how I may get in and out of the city so quickly.”
“Well,” said Ostoher, “could you not propose a fantastical scheme, and take offense when they deny you? Then you would have an excuse…” Here Ostoher had to break off, for a sudden fit of coughing overwhelmed him. Aragorn sent a ship-boy to fetch water.
“I am sorry,” he said, when he could breathe right again, “I was saying that it would give you an excuse to go quickly.”
Frustration seemed to have faded to resignation. “What sort of scheme?” Valandur asked bleakly.
“Fantastical ideas are the domain of the young.” Ostoher replied. “Perhaps we should ask the young lords of Belfalas.”
Imrahil conferred for a moment with his cousins Anardil and Alcarin. “We shall think up something very clever,” he promised. “But Thorongil, may I not at least go as an observer?”
“I think not, Imrahil; you have been in Umbar before, and might be recognized.”
“I could disguise myself. Dol Amroth should not be left out of this.”
Aragorn considered this. “I shall take Anardil then, and he may give you a good report.” Imrahil looked disappointed, but gave a nod. “Two more I need. Isolad, you have a sharp eye–will you come?”
“Of course,” he replied.
“I will come also,” said Golasgil. “I may look the sailor’s part, when there is need.”
“It is settled, then. Young prince, I do have a task for you. The fleet shall be in your charge while I am gone.”
Imrahil looked pleased. “I will not fail you.”
“Then this meeting is adjourned.”
Aragorn followed the last of them into the night. The winter sky was like black velvet, rich and dark, and the pale light of the moon did little to illuminate it. Overhead the bright stars of Elbereth sparkled, and luminous beyond all others soared Eärendil, a bright beacon even far from the lands of his birth. Wherever his journeys took him, ever did Eärendil shine overhead, and by its light he was much eased of mind.
"Do I choose the right course, far-father?" he whispered into the night. "Ever did the sea call you, and beckon you to your destiny, but I have no such guide."
He had been long in the southlands now, long away from his people. He had now dwelt longer amongst the Gondorrim than he had the Dúnedain! He would return a stranger again. They might accept his strange fate, his strange destiny, but they did not understand it. He did not belong to them wholly, and larger purposes drove him ever forth. The letter had demanded nothing. But he felt in his heart that he had been away too long, that absence had turned to neglect, and that it was time to assume fully the mantle of his responsibilities in the North.
Aragorn. He tasted it with his tongue. Estel. They were like old boots. It would be strange to wear them again, but soon he would remember how they fit him. They would be comfortable again, and he would wonder why he had ever taken them off.
Giving in to Denethor had been painful. But perhaps it was for the best. Yes. This one last campaign he would undertake for Gondor, and then he must go.
I’d like to thank CapriceAnn, grumpy, sielge, Athelassa, & viggomaniac on FF.net and Raksha the Demon & Astara on HASA for their reviews. You swell my heart! The advice was deeply considered, and the encouragement means a new chapter quicker. Unfortunately, the next chapter is still just a bunch of white space. It’s going to be about two weeks before I update. But don’t wander off too far–Umbar is dangerous place, as Aragorn is about to find out…
Ossë: The Maiar vassal of Ulmo tasked with the keeping of the Inner Seas. The Númenoréans seem to have used their Quenya names; I’ve gone along with this for the Gondorrim, also because there are three possible Sindarin equivalents for Ossë, Aeros, Yssion, and Gaerys, and I’m not sure which would be most appropriate. (Canon)
“…in a thousand years”: Actually eleven hundred & seventy. The last recorded campaign of Gondor against Umbar was in 1810. King Telumehtar Umbardacil gained the city, but lost it within fifty years to the Haradrim. (Canon)
Nimchathol (“white blade”) -Cptn “Thorongil”*
Ithilcair (“moonship”) -Cptn Niomir
Balhorn (“impelled by the Valar”) -Lord Valandur
Aerandir (“sea wanderer”) –Master Turagar
Pendrath (“passage”) -Cptn Lómiol
Sûlion (“wind’s son”) -Lord Isolad (son of Lord Amálith)
From Dol Amroth
Alphion (“swan’s son”) -Prince Imrahil*
Feredir (“hunter”) -Lord Alcarin
Beleghir (“mighty lord”) -Lord Anardil
Carmagor (“red swordsman”) -Lord Ostoher
Hwindros (“whirling foam”) -Lord Verion
Turandir (“powerful wanderer”) -Lord Golasgil*
* Indicates canon characters.
Name translations are approximate
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