My Favorite Aragorn Stories
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Where the Stars are Strange: 5. Deviltry in the Desert
At a table set back in the deep shade of the plaza, Ascabar sat drinking with Kindrel, Aragorn, and a man of the desert. Ascabar had sworn long and vehemently when, after explaining to his plan to Kindrel, his lieutenant said he would bring the young northern lordling along with them, but the captain also knew his second's instincts had yet to fail him. The fourth man was the trader who had bought their plunder. He was a big man, dark with piercing eyes swathed in robes of midnight blue. A jagged tattoo, resembling claw marks, graced the right side of his brow and ran down his cheek into his beard. Belezat was loquacious, generous when it suited him, and just honest enough to have gained the trust of both the desert tribes and the corsairs. Belezat had just inquired if they enjoyed the city's offerings.
"Ah, the women, gentlemen! Or the boys, if you prefer!" His booming laugh filled the place. He poured another small cup of the dark, sweet coffee favored by the city's citizens.
"To business," said Ascabar, feeling less than friendly toward this loud individual. The pirate did not appreciate the slow nuances of desert negotiations and felt business could be quicker concluded with the flash of a sharp sword.
"As you and I have already agreed, captain. Your lieutenant will be going with me to do a bit of business for my master. He should return with the second rising of the full moon. That gives you near three months to sample the delights of the city and time to refit your ship. My master wishes to meet you, Kindrel, before we start out." The man rose. "I will await you, lieutenant, at the northern gate at twilight and I will escort you to his fortress." He walked off, skirting along the galleries to avoid the burning sunlight of the open square. At Aragorn's questioning look, Kindrel explained.
"Belezat is the agent of a mysterious desert lord who lives in a walled fortress some leagues north of here. Both corsairs and the desert tribes know and fear this man. He is in need of an overseer for a caravan going north and has paid well for my services." He nodded to Ascabar.
"Raiders have taken some valuable items from the last caravan and this king of thieves wishes to suffer no more losses. Belezat says he cannot trust his usual hired guards for the escort; they have allegiances to the raiders and are fearful of this lord, so this Eilcabol has put together his own guard. But, the man needs an overseer for them; one who speaks both Westron and one of those other dialects Kindrel knows—some Elvish tongue. Knowing of our ruthless reputation, Belezat asked me if I could be of service. Kindrel will lead this caravan as far as the boundary of Nurn."
"Nurn? That is in Mordor!" Aragorn exclaimed. Ascabar regarded the young man with a degree of amusement.
"Would you expect an agent from the lord of that land to send his spoils to Dol Amroth?" Ascabar tossed back his drink. "Lieutenant, choosing to take young Estel here with you is wise. He seems of better use than a map and is in need of such work as you will face to improve his appreciation of the sea." He rose and stared down at the pair with madness in his eyes. "This lord has offered me more gold than the merchantman and her cargo brought for your services. Serve him well and we all will be rich men. And, remember, Kindrel, I hold your old retainer. If you fail to return, I shall slit his throat and consider it a pleasure."
"Wealthy men if we do not become dead men." Kindrel observed as they watched Ascabar walk away. "I get the unpleasant feeling we have been sold."
"Why would a caravan bound for Mordor need someone who speaks Sindarin?" puzzled Aragorn. Kindrel shook his head.
"That comment simply showed Ascabar's ignorance. Belezat wasn't looking for someone who spoke any Elvish tongue. A few years ago, we fired a lugger off the coast of Harad. It turned out to have empty holds and its mission we never discovered but the captain didn't want to be taken. The few surviving crewmen were orcs. Ascabar heard me questioning them in the Black Speech; that is what Belezat seeks: an overseer for orkish guards. Our job, Estel, will be to control a slavering band of orcs for one hundred leagues across a desert wasteland."
"What makes you believe I speak the Black Tongue?" Aragorn asked deprecatingly.
"Estel," Kindrel sighed, "I suspect with the education you obviously have, you do. I need someone quick and trustworthy to go into Mordor with me so I shall take you." Aragorn glowered at Kindrel.
"I think the bit of glam'orn I know, including globi and Burzat* shall work quite well!"
The pair met Belezat as the blazing sun was setting. He nodded when he saw Aragorn accompanied the lieutenant and had anticipated that since he held the bridles of three horses. With the setting of the sun, the desert cooled quickly and Aragorn was glad for the thick robe, the akhnif, Belezat had given him. They rode swiftly east and north as untold stars blazed in the
moonless bowl of sky overhead. The desert landscape was a monotony of shifting sand. Three hours later, they cantered up the side of a dune and reined in. Before them, stood the hidden fortress, white in the starlight. Tall, thick walls soared from an oasis of waving palms and guards walked the parapets. Aragorn immediately felt an oppressive evilness seeping from the place. Belezat seemed pale and nervous.
"My lord Eilcabol…he is not Haradrim…he is a man of the northern lands and fey. Beware of his wrath." Belezat edged his horse down the side of the dune. Kindrel paused a moment and his eyes blazed.
"This Eilcabol is a descendant of the black Numenoreans," he hissed to Aragorn. "These people have caused mayhem for my family for centuries. They feed the Umbrian corsairs with hatred for all civilized people and are behind many of the attacks on Gondorian ships. Watch your back at all times. Let no one know you are but a common sailor." Aragorn raised a questioning brow.
"I am naught but a common sailor, Kindrel," Aragorn protested. The lieutenant eyed him knowingly and spurred his horse after the desert agent.
Belezat cantered across the open plain to the fortress gates. At them stood a tall man, watching as they rode out of the dunes and drew rein before him. His white robes looked new and he was clean-shaven. He was as dark haired and fair eyed as Kindrel or Aragorn. The lord raised his gaze to Kindrel, dismissing Aragorn as a subordinate, and ignoring Belezat completely. He took in Kindrel's unflinching measure and nodded, satisfied.
"Come with me, lieutenant, and bring your second. I have refreshments and a proposition for you." His voice chilled Aragorn like the desert night breeze. The lord turned, his white robes sweeping the stone, and entered the main building. Kindrel shrugged at Aragorn, dismounted, and they trailed Eilcabol inside.
They followed him silently through an opulent anteroom where jeweled silk covered the walls. Aragorn immediately noticed the lack of guards. The corridor of the building seemed near deserted. Eilcabol led them down a dim passageway that opened into a grand square courtyard, shaded by a canopy. A large, cobalt-tiled fountain cascaded in the center, a rare thing in the desert. Eilcabol seated himself on a cushioned chaise and indicated they should sit also. The lord clapped his hands and an orc moved from the shadows at the summons. Aragorn took in an involuntary breath and Eilcabol laughed, mistaking Aragorn's reaction.
"They smell fear, young pirate. See you don't exhibit any or they'll have your innards for supper." He turned to Kindrel, waving a hand at a long table set with delicacies and drinks. "If you would, lieutenant."
"Thrak! Snaga dug!"** Kindrel barked, staring down the snarling orc. The creature obeyed, going off to the table. It soon returned, presenting a tray of refreshments: dates, cheeses, and flat bread.
"I prefer tea to the desert coffee, I hope you don't mind." Eilcabol poured strong tea from a gold service. As they ate, Aragorn surveyed the room. Three other passages led off into the building. Against the far wall stood a large table covered with many ledgers and tablets. There were more ledgers open on the carved wooden table beside the desert lord. Although servants came and went, some human and some orc, Aragorn noticed there were no women in this place; here was none of the decadence they had witnessed everywhere else in this desert land. This was a military stronghold and ancient fear and the smell of death infused the very blocks of the walls.
"As Belezat has probably told you, I am an agent of Lord Sauron of Mordor." Eilcabol began without preamble, and paused to see what reaction that news would bring. Kindrel met his sharp gaze over the rim of his cup. "Good, I see that does not cause you alarm. Ascabar's name has come to our attention. His sacking of ships is causing the disarray we seek for the southern Kingdom. It seems we have common goals." He grinned in comradeship at Kindrel, who in return, bared his teeth. "There is great reward for you in this venture. Unlike your captain, you, I am told, have skills at diplomacy; those are needed in handling the desert men and the rights they feel they have to oases. I need an overseer to manage the protection of a shipment of great wealth as far as the Sea of Nûrnen in Mordor. My guards are orcs of Mordor. I do not anticipate any problems with raiders; they superstitiously fear those good soldiers, but I need an agent who can keep the guards in line and treat with the desert chieftains to obtain water." He stopped to pour another cup of tea. "Kindrel, I believe you are the one I search for. Once you reach Nurn, you will be free to return here to your captain or…" he looked closely at them both, "the Dark Lord is always in need of good men who can lead." Kindrel remained silent.
"We graciously welcome these opportunities presented us," Kindrel said looking up from his cup, "but the reputation of your master and his dealings with his underlings does not exactly encourage us to join you."
Eilcabol laughed. "You are a diplomat, Kindrel. As with most tales, the reputation of Lord Sauron is greatly exaggerated by those fearful of him in the North, particularly the accursed Elves. Envy is a powerful emotion and they envy my lord his wealth and power. He can make you great leaders of men, kings if you so desire it."
"Your offer is most gracious but we shall need some time to weigh its merits to us," Kindrel answered, not at all fearful of this agent of evil.
The sun was cresting the far horizon; the dawn rays already baked the air and burned across the sand to touch the stone walls with searing heat. Eilcabol rose and clapped for a servant.
"To your own room; you have the day to rest if you can do so in this heat. I shall send for you at sundown and have your answer." A burly man, his sharp scimitar hanging by his side, led them down a corridor, deep into the building.
The high-ceiling room was a cooling respite from the courtyard where the temperature had dramatically soared in the few minutes after sunrise. Kindrel stalked the perimeter, searching behind the potted plants for secret passages or echoing panels
where a spy might hide and listen. Finding none, he threw himself down on one of the couches.
"What think you, Estel? Shall we work for the Dark Lord? A trek to Nûrnen would buy us a way closer to home."
"Will we be free once the goods are delivered, or held in thrall by such a master? Or shall our throats be cut here in the sand if we say nay?" Aragorn asked.
"I believe it matters little what our decision is: what ever this treasure is, is too precious to let us live after it is delivered. Whether here if we say no, or after the trek on the shores of the inland sea, I feel a blade awaits us." Aragorn stared in horror at the lieutenant's hopeless tone. Kindrel grinned but the humor did not reach his eyes.
"The heat of this land could kill a man," Kindrel complained, mopping his face with the burnus he pulled from his head. "I need rest to think of a plan for our escape." He rolled on his side and was soon asleep. Aragorn lay down also but did not fall asleep immediately; he was curious about the ledgers in Eilcabol's courtyard. Perhaps when all were resting away from the blazing heat, he could have a look. Willing himself to awake by midafternoon, Aragorn settled in an uneasy doze.
His own sweat stinging his eyes awoke Aragorn. The room had gotten unbearably warm. The only relief was a slight breeze moving the fronds of the potted palms. Kindrel slept on, turned on his side, breathing steadily. Aragorn rose and stepped into the dark passageway. The breeze there was stronger, and carried a metallic smell of heated rock. He paused in the deep shadow of the corridor opening onto the courtyard, all of his honed Ranger senses in play. There seemed to be no one near. The slanting sun still needed several hours until it slipped to rest below the far horizon. The plaza was deserted; no servants seemed to be about in the heat. Like a lizard keeping to the shade, the silent Ranger edged around the courtyard and closer to Eilcabol's desk.
He slipped to the table and began reading the ledgers; the bold strokes of the letters formed sentences of perfect Sindarin! That was why they were carelessly left open! Eilcabol's arrogance allowed that no one here possessed the ability to decipher them. Reading quickly, Aragorn discovered the best of the goods purchased from the pirates was carried overland to Harad's capital city and sold. Part of that gold bought raw materials for the forges of Mordor; the rest went north to Rhûn and, Aragorn was stunned to find, agents distributed it into Eriador. Men of questionable character but unrepoachable greed grew wealthy purchasing goods from Bree, the Shire, and Esgaroth and shipping the lot south for Sauron's use. The unsuspecting men, hobbits, and dwarves would be appalled to know they supported in trade the evil they fought so hard against!
The wains on the Greenway! Aragorn suddenly remembered old Oakum's comments and Gandalf's vague suspicions about an influx of wealth! This was news the wizard needed swiftly. But, in the time it would take for Aragorn to get home, if he could, and action taken against the dark lords' agents, Sauron could continue building his war machine.
Aragorn leaned against the stones, thinking. Eilcabol was key to this enterprise. This lord of Mordor, highly valued by Sauron himself, had won the uneasy trust of the desert tribes and the pirates, a task that probably had taken long years of negotiating. It would not be simple for another to build such a relationship quickly, if Eilcabol met a deserved end in the desert sand, if somehow Eilcabol met a deserved end…
"Does the pirate seek to rob me?" The oily voice of the desert lord made Aragorn twitch. He turned to face the man and eased the scimitar from its scabbard at his waist. The man laughed. "You dare challenge me? The dark lord is my master." His voice grew deep and powerful. Aragorn had learned the trick of voice control himself from Gandalf so Eilcabol's bluster did not cow him. "My power is only less than any of the Nine! I am Sauron's voice here!" The desert lord paused; his thunder did not seem to affect this sailor. Curious, he looked closely at this man who should have collapsed groveling; instead, the upstart stood, challenging him coolly, the sword still balanced in his hand.
"Ahhh, perhaps you are not what you play at…perhaps you are not really pirate scum, but an agent of light, one sent by the cursed elves. You have the look of Numenor; perhaps you are one of the Dúnedain?" The man laughed and examined Aragorn closely as a scientist would an interesting specimen. "My lord Sauron will pay well for you, maimed or whole, and will make you scream the names of your leaders as you beg for death." Eilcabol drew his blade, the scrape of steel sending a shudder of dread up Aragorn's spine. He gripped his blade tighter and stepped forward to meet the challenge, willing to die here if that was his fate.
At that moment, someone behind them cleared his throat. Kindrel stood in the entrance, leaning casually against the doorframe.
"Ah, Estel," he drawled. "This is where you got off to. Not waiting for me before you pledge yourself to Mordor?" The tall officer lounged into the room, thumbs hooked through his belt and walked past Aragorn, ignoring the two held blades drawn. He loafed to the table and poured a cup of steaming tea. Eilcabol half-turned to the lieutenant, not willing to take his eyes completely from Aragorn.
"Your young comrade plays you false, Kindrel. He is an agent of the enemy, a spy for the Edhellen. Help me take him; my master will pay well for him," Eilcabol announced. Kindrel raised a skeptical brow and his laugh startled the desert lord.
"Pay for Estel? You do not have enough coin. He has become quite priceless to me."
"Do you not understand, you fool! He is an agent of the Elves! He would cut your throat as readily as mine!" Eilcabol's eyes flicked to Kindrel. In a blur of movement, hot liquid splattered Eilcabol's face from the lieutenant's flung cup. He cursed, but swung from Kindrel, back to meet Aragorn's blow. Aragorn erupted from where he stood, his spinning attack keeping him free from the evil lord's sword and his blade drove in higher than the villain expected. Since he did not hold his longsword, his reach was diminished so he did not decapitate Eilcabol, but the blow was effective, nonetheless. The sword sliced across the side of Eilcabol's neck, and arterial blood spray misted the air. Hand raised to staunch the flow, Eilcabol dropped to his knees as gurgling death took him.
"An agent of the Elves? Has the heat gotten to you?" Kindrel nonchalantly continued his conversation with the dying man, standing over the body. Aragorn, sword still raised and eyes wild, waited for Kindrel's response. The lieutenant finally raised his eyes and looked at him quizzically. "Desert madness must have taken him that he would cut his own throat." He noticed Aragorn's poised, dripping blade. "Shall you use that again?" he inquired.
Aragorn lowered the blade. "Nay. He would have killed me---killed us both."
"That is likely. Nonetheless, you and I shall be just as dead if his men find us." Kindrel suddenly became serious, gesturing to Aragorn to help roll Eilcabol's body behind the couches. He shook his head at the blood hoping the patterned carpets would hide its damning trail for a bit. "We need to make haste back to Tastabarin, back to the ship, and set sail. The desert holds naught but a slow death for us, and a quicker one awaits us here if we hesitate. There will be hell to pay from Ascabar anyway." They slipped out into the passageway, cautious at each corner to avoid any servants. Half way to the outer walls, they met Belezat bustling toward the courtyard.
"Ho, Belezat. Eilcabol is not available. He did not take our decline of his offer well. We are needed back on the Sea-wolf immediately," Kindrel announced, throwing an arm around the agent's neck and steering him back toward the stables. Belezat paled at their news and quickly decided he had other duties to attend to before he went to the desert lord. He felt there was no longer any rush for an audience with the desert lord since his payment for securing a caravan leader would not be forthcoming now. Instead, Belezat walked to the stables with them and ordered their horses saddled.
"Believe me, if I could avoid dealings with such as that--" he gestured back toward the main building "--I would. Safe journey, esteemed ones."
"Safe journey and prosperous life to you, Belezat." Kindrel brushed aside offers of a guide and assured the trader he could find the way back to Tastabarin. As the sun set, they urged their horses away into the desert. They kept a moderate pace until out of sight of the oasis then both spurred their horses to a gallop.
"I'm sure you have reason for doing what you did, Estel!" Kindrel shouted over the beat of the hooves. "But I'd prefer not to know it!" In the late hours of the night, they clattered by the sleepy guards at the northern gates, trotted through the streets and down the road to the docks. Kindrel thanked the Valar when they found Ascabar aboard the ship, sober, and supervising the stowing of supplies, preparing to set sail. Obviously, he had not planned to await their return. The captain looked surprised at the arrival of the pair.
"I trust we are re-supplied, Captain," Kindrel said, dropping to the deck. He stepped near Ascabar. "I'd advise sailing on the tide by morning. Make haste else all might be dead before noon."
"I thought not to see you so soon," Ascabar said mildly. "You have riled our brethren? Thievery?"
"Murder," said Kindrel matter-of-factly.
Ascabar, forever a pirate at heart, laughed loudly and clapped his lieutenant's shoulder. As the sunrise drew out the tide from the harbor mouth, Sea-wolf cast off and her black sails spread like a crebain's wings as she beat up the coast north.*fools and Death (Black Speech)
**Bring (it), slave filth! (Black Speech)
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