6. Chapter 6
As they left Dol Amroth behind, Denethor rode up beside Aragorn, their horses falling into step with each other.
"Thank you for delivering my message yester eve."
"It was my pleasure, lord," Aragorn returned. "I trust the interview went well?"
Denethor smiled. "Yes. I believe it did. It is strange, is it not, how the sight of a fair lady may change an otherwise dull day for the better? Enliven a tedious misson?"
"Or fix an already memorable moment in your heart forever," said Aragorn. "Aye, it is strange. And if the lady can love you in return, you are twice- blessed."
"And if your father agrees to a match," Denethor added, "then you are thrice-blessed."
"I am sure the lord Steward will find no fault with the lady Finduilas," Aragorn said, "for indeed what fault could be found with such a jewel? The blood of Dol Amroth runs true and fair even in these twilight days."
"That is true," Denethor said, nodding. "Nay, my father will be pleased of the chance of an heir to follow me." He glanced at Aragorn. "As the King will never return, we must continue the Steward's line."
"I believe," Aragorn said slowly, "that the Stewards will always have a part to play in Gondor's future, whether the King returns or no. Surely no man would reject such faithful servants?"
Their eyes met. After a moment Denethor shrugged.
"I would trust not."
They rode on in silence. Soon the talk fell to their business in Dol Amroth and in Pelargir to come, and other members of the company joined the conversation.
Their road took them around the bulk of the Hills of Tarnost, and they slept that night in the open, taking turns to be on watch. In the late afternoon of the fourth day of their journey, they saw at last the buildings of Pelargir; tall masts of ships and the glint of the waters of Anduin beyond.
There was an outpost of the White Tower here by the river, manned by a company of Guards, and Denethor was welcomed warmly by the commander. A meal was hastily laid out for the party from the City, and they ate before being shown to a long communal chamber with beds and simple furnishings. Someone suggested a game, and quickly most of the party had settled down to it. Aragorn watched for a moment, and then slipped out.
He made his way down to the docks and walked along, watching the ships which had arrived that day unloading their goods. Here there were elegant vessels of Pelargir, and small fishing-boats, and Aragorn noticed also one or two great black ships: the Corsairs from Umbar. There was little conversation between the dark-eyed sailors on these ships and the men from Pelargir who were carrying away the crates from them. Aragorn made a mental note to tell Denethor of the presence of the Corsairs, and continued along the quay.
His attention was caught at the end of the dock by a ship smaller perhaps than some of the others, but built of a pale grey wood with creamy white canvas sails, now neatly furled. The prow was curved upwards, and there was an air of simplicity and grace about the vessel. Aragorn, half-concealed by shadows, watched as several large cases of the same pale grey wood were unloaded. A tall hooded figure was directing the operation, and Aragorn's eyes narrowed as he felt a tug of recognition watching the figure's movements. Then, it turned, and gazed directly at Aragorn, and he caught a direct glance from shining eyes and saw a lock of dark hair escaping from under the concealing hood. He smiled, wryly, and received a brief nod in return.
Now the cases were being hurried away into a warehouse, and Aragorn turned to retrace his steps back to their lodgings. Halfway there, someone pulled at his cloak, and he turned, hand going automatically to his sword-hilt. A small boy clutching a piece of paper stood there; he grinned and thrust the paper into Aragorn's hand before running off again.
Aragorn unfolded the note and read, written in Westron in a flowing hand clearly more used to Tengwar, "Swan and Star, half an hour." It was unsigned. Aragorn tucked the note into a pocket, and walked on.
Twenty minutes later he was seated with a tankard of ale in a dark corner in the 'Swan and Star', which had proved to be a sailor's tavern and busy at this hour. Nobody took much notice of him, and he stretched out his legs and wished he had a pipe and some tobacco. Shortly, the tall figure from the quayside appeared, weaving through the crowds, and joined him without a word. Aragorn put down his tankard, and waited.
"I had plans to come to Minas Tirith to visit you, Estel," his companion said after a moment. "You have quite spoilt my hopes of seeing the White City."
"If I had known you were to come," Aragorn returned, "I would have made certain to be absent. It's been a long time, Elladan."
"A mere eighteen years," the Elf said, smiling. "Yet you look much older."
"I am older," Aragorn said, "as well you know. But this is not the time for jokes. Why are you in Pelargir?"
Elrond's son dropped his smile. "Running errands for my father, and for Círdan," he explained. "Círdan wanted some goods delivering in exchange for certain items he needs at the Havens - some Men still are willing to trade with the Eldar. My father wanted news from the South, and news of you. And of Mithrandir, if you have seen him lately?"
"Not for a twelvemonth," Aragorn said. "He did not say where he was headed."
"He comes and goes as he pleases," Elladan nodded. "And you? How goes it in Minas Tirith?"
Aragorn gave him the news and explained why he was in Pelargir. "And I believe Denethor has found a wife, if Ecthelion approves, which he surely will. I am glad of it. The line of the Stewards must continue."
"Even if ." said Elladan, raising an eyebrow.
"Even if," Aragorn agreed. "But this is neither the time nor the place, brother. Tell me of the North."
"The same, or nearly," Elladan said. "My father is well, though concerned about any rumour he hears from the South. Elrohir has remained with Círdan for the time being; we rode to the Havens together. Our sister is in Lórien, no doubt learning suitable arts and wisdom from the Lady. We see her if we pass by."
Aragorn gazed into his ale. "And my mother?" he asked in a low voice.
"Is well," the Elf replied, smiling gently at his friend. "Elrohir and I halted briefly on our way to Mithlond. She sends her love and her support to her son, and bade me tell you that the Dúnedain have noted some Southerners in Breeland, but that the Shire remains a haven. Be sure to tell Mithrandir, should you see him."
"The news about the Southerners is concerning," Aragorn said. "I wish I could warn Ecthelion. But it is not safe ." He paused. "If you pass that way again, Elladan, send her my greetings."
They sat in silence for a few minutes, each occupied with their own thoughts. Elladan broke it, softly.
"It is a lonely life, I see. I fear you are not happy, Estel."
"Happy?" Aragorn let out a short laugh. "That is not my lot. I am content. Thengel is a great lord and the Rohirrim are generous people, I liked riding for them. In the same way, Ecthelion is a strong leader. The White City is a beautiful place. He who was ill at ease there would be a fool indeed. But you must surely know my heart's desire, and no doubt like your father are unhappy for it; yet will I never be truly happy until that desire is fulfilled."
"I hold both you and her amongst those dearest to me," Elladan said. "I wish you both joy, even if that joy is not found together. Make of that what you will."
Aragorn nodded, and drained his tankard. "I must go. Be sure to pass on to your father the news, and keep a watch out yourself. We must be wary in these times."
"Be safe, brother," Elladan said.
Aragorn nodded, and left the inn without a backward glance at the Elf. On the way back to their lodgings, he kept alert for signs of anyone following him, and was reassured that this seemed not to be the case.
In the morning, he found Denethor sitting alone reading a sheaf of reports from the Pelargir guards.
"What is it, Thorongil?" Denethor put down the papers, and glanced up at Aragorn. "I hear you went out walking last night."
"To stretch my legs and see the city a little," Aragorn said. "I went to the docks. There were three Corsairs, my lord Denethor, all with full crews. Is it not possible that these are used by those coming north to act as spies? The Corsairs are not averse to working against Gondor, particularly if it is to their own benefit."
The Steward's son frowned. "It is true we are not friendly with Umbar," he said, "but neither are we currently at outright war with them. They trade with us."
"They are a naval power to be reckoned with," Aragorn said firmly. "They hate Gondor and will do aught to bring her down. They should not be permitted into Pelargir or any other Gondorian harbour, my lord."
"So as well as being our expert on the Rohirrim, Thorongil," said Denethor, "you are also an expert on the Corsairs? I did not know."
"Thengel once granted me leave to travel," Aragorn explained briefly. "I went South, and learned much about Umbar and Harad. You may see them as in Gondor's control, but they do not. If Saruman has taken a path deviating from that of Gondor and her allies, my lord, Umbar will be with him. I beg you, trust me."
Denethor shrugged. "I will consult the Steward, Thorongil. It may be that he sees fit to heed your counsel. Now, I wish to finish these reports. You and some of the men, go and ask those guards stationed here what unusual activity they have seen, and report to me before the evening meal."
"My lord." Aragorn bowed, and walked away to carry out Denethor's orders.
He and five others of the company from Minas Tirith spent the day interviewing the Pelargir guards, who proved sociable and happy to talk. It became clear that they viewed their posts as easy ones, and their duties consisted mainly of patrolling the docks and quays and inspecting the occasional cargo. They had had few problems with the sailors from Umbar. "They don't drink liquor, not like our folk," one grizzled old guard said, with a laugh. "If there's any who choose to fight, it's those who take in too much on arriving safely at home. The Corsairs keep themselves to themselves."
Aragorn noted this. The guard watched him write, and added, "I know we don't get many, but it's the Elvish ships that cause the greatest trouble."
"In what way?" Aragorn asked, pausing in his notes. The old man shrugged.
"Well, they're different, aren't they? Folk feel that the Elves feel themselves superior to us Men. They don't provide any trade in the hostels, and their goods are of no use to ordinary people."
Aragorn glanced down at his page, and after a moment nodded. "I understand this," he said, "but what happens?"
"Nothing happens, as such," the guard said. "We don't talk to them and they don't talk to us. But it creates an uneasy atmosphere, you understand?"
"Try and make it clear to the people that the Elves are our allies," Aragorn said. "We need them, and not only for trade. Their wisdom and knowledge could be Gondor's greatest prop in times to come. Antagonism can only lead to ill."
"We can try," the guard said, frowning.
"Thank you," Aragorn returned. "Have you aught else that may be of use to the lord Denethor?"
"I think not," said the guard. "But it's good to see him here, to know that the City still cares for her land. He'll be a good Steward, when the time comes."
As they were walking through the corridors to the next guard's post, one of Aragorn's companions remarked casually, "I did not know you were such a supporter of the Elves, Thorongil."
"I meant what I said," Aragorn replied. "They are our allies. And though it may now be greatly diminished, there is still some of the blood of Elros flowing in the veins of Gondor."
"I'd wager they take little interest in us these days," someone else remarked.
Aragorn said nothing.
By the end of the day, they had gathered enough information to satisfy even Denethor's rigorous standards. It seemed there had been a slight increase in traffic from the South, but until the arrival of the party from Minas Tirith, little attention had been paid to it. Now the commander of the garrison promised to keep a close eye on any newcomers to Pelargir, and to report their presence to the City. Aragorn agreed with Denethor that Thengel would be grateful for and satisfied with the news.
He went out to the docks again before retiring to bed, and arrived just as the grey Elven-ship was setting her sails and casting off, lanterns hung to port and to starboard. Gracefully she moved out into the wide estuary, and slipped away westwards towards the sea. Aragorn watched from the quayside until her white sails had faded into the twilight, and then turned away.
* * *
Author's notes: I've taken a few liberties here. But the whole point of this fic is to fill in the vast gaps left by Tolkien, who, after all, was far more interested in developing the earlier history of Middle-earth than telling us about Aragorn's wanderings. From this period all we know is that officially Gondor and Umbar were at war. I have no idea whether there would be trade between Men and Elves - my reasoning is that there must have been things manufactured by each race that would be useful to the other; and things from the north useful in the south, etc. I wanted Aragorn to have some contact with the north, and Gandalf's already visited twice! Hence the appearance of Elladan. Clearly, with the possibility of spies, the conversation in the inn was a risk, but I think they were vague enough. Anyway I don't think I've contradicted anything Tolkien said, merely added to it. I hope you enjoyed this instalment, so long in coming - any constructive criticism is more than welcome.
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