9. Chapter 9
"Two, six, heave!" the cry came, and with grunts and shouts, the sails were lifted, and the ship began slowly to move out of port. Standing at the bow, Aragorn could see to his left two other ships getting underway, sailors moving swiftly about the decks. He turned to the group of men around him.
"I will not keep you long," he said, "for I know you all wish to get back to your own ships. Yet I delayed my briefing until now for specific reasons, and I would ask you all to keep our course and our aim a secret until we are in open ocean, past Pelargir.
"As I think you know, we have recently come under attack from the Corsairs issuing from Umbar. They are growing ever stronger, and the lord Ecthelion has decided that this must be halted soon, else the pirates gain supremacy over us. You and your men were selected as being the best Gondor has, and I trust you will repay the Steward's faith in you."
The five men glanced at each other, and nodded.
"We are to make our way down river to the Sea, and thence set our course southwards towards Umbar. We drop anchor close by, and only set sail for Umbar itself once night has fallen on the evening of our arrival. Then, we land, and attack."
Aragorn's listeners exchanged further glances, and one of them let out a short laugh.
"Forgive me asking, Captain, but what exactly do you intend to do once we have landed? Attack is a broad term."
"We are a force of one hundred, if we leave each of our ships manned with enough sailors to retreat swiftly," Aragorn said. "Thirty of the men under my command will attack any Umbarians on the quays - with sword and bow. The rest, in two groups, will set about destroying any ships in harbour. Set them alight, or hole them. They must not be allowed to set sail again. The group under Captain Barahir will target those ships at the east of the harbour, and the group under Captain Pharon the west."
"And we'll remain on board, for the retreat?" one of the three sea captains confirmed. Aragorn nodded.
"Correct. This is to remain secret from the men, for now. Keep them fit and keep them happy. Morale is of the utmost importance. I trust the supplies will be sufficient?"
The oldest of the mariners nodded. "We took on board enough for two months at sea, as we were ordered."
"Good. Then I will not keep you any longer, gentlemen. Return to your vessels, and may Ulmo protect us all until we come to Umbar."
"When it'll be out of his hands," Barahir, a man of some fifty years muttered. "We'll send a boat if we have problems, Captain Thorongil, yes?"
The other captains acknowledged this with nods. Aragorn and Minastir, the captain of his ship, watched them as they clambered down the rope ladder hung over the side of the vessel to regain the small rowing boat bobbing alongside. Shortly they saw the boat pause beside the other two ships, and the passengers climb aboard.
"It's quite a mission we have been set," Minastir said, turning to Aragorn.
"But not an impossible one," Aragorn returned.
"I hope not." Minastir shaded his blue eyes with a tanned hand and looked up at the sails. "Tsk, look at the set of the foresail! I must go and get that remedied. You need for nothing?"
"Not at all, my friend. Do not let me keep you from the running of your ship."
Minastir grinned, and hurried off to bellow orders at his crew. Aragorn, picking his way round ropes and barrels, went to stand at the stern, and catch his last glimpse of Minas Tirith. The Sun was beginning to lower, and on this early summer's day, the last remaining snows on Mindolluin, the small clouds floating in the sky, and the White Tower glistening made Aragorn's eyes smart with the brightness. He leant on the rail, the wind whipping his hair backwards, and watched as gradually the Tower grew smaller and the Sun set, sending rays of golden-red across the City. For a moment, he thought he could hear the sound of the trumpets calling people to their evening meal. He kept on looking backwards until someone came up behind him and coughed. "Captain, we are called to table."
Aragorn turned to see one of his men. "Good. I'm hungry. Will you show me the way?"
After they had eaten, the soldiers went to the section of the hold assigned as their cabin, hung with hammocks, and the sailors not on watch did likewise. For a little while, Aragorn sat reading in the cabin which he had been given, the lantern hanging from the ceiling casting strange shadows in the corner. But he quickly gave up, and shutting off the lantern, he pulled the blanket off the narrow bunk and went up on deck.
Above the sails the stars were bright, and Aragorn settled himself on a coil of rope, the blanket wrapped around him, and lay back to gaze upwards. The constellations rocked gently backwards and forwards with the movement of the ship upon the estuary, and he spent some time naming them in his mind and relearning the ones he had forgotten - the strange stars of the South. At last, his mind growing weary, Aragorn fixed his eyes on the brightest star in the heavens, and murmured a brief prayer to his ancestor, before drifting off to sleep.
He was woken early by Minastir, who stood over him grinning widely.
"You slept on deck, Captain?"
"I did." Aragorn sat up, and pushed his hair away from his face. "The cabin was too stuffy."
Minastir acknowledged this with a knowing look. "You're not one born to be cooped up inside, I can see that. Though should the weather turn, you'll be glad of that warm, dry space."
"I have slept outside in many weathers," Aragorn laughed, standing up and stretching, "and I would still choose that over that box, any day. How are we progressing?"
"Not bad," Minastir said, leading the way forwards. "As you see, we are still sailing as a fleet," he gestured to where the two other ships were visible, to port side and slightly astern of the flagship, "and we expect to arrive at Pelargir tomorrow morning. The wind is strong and to our favour." He paused, and spoke a few words to the man at the helm, and then turned again to Aragorn. "Thorongil - if I may call you Thorongil?"
"Do you think we will succeed in this venture?"
"I do." Aragorn leaned against the rail and faced the sailor. "This might be the first campaign I have led from the sea, Minastir, but it is by no means the first campaign I have ever led."
"I did not mean ." Minastir began.
"I know you did not. And I know it sounds a foolhardy and possibly suicidal venture, and that we risk losing many men. But I know the Umbarians, and I know the way they fight. They are a brave and proud people, but they are disorganised compared to Gondor, and their men do not have the unity ours do."
"No leader to follow?" Minastir asked.
"Not as such. They have captains, certainly, but no Steward to guide them and be their figurehead. Our men know that they are fighting for Gondor, and I hope that will give them the extra courage and strength they will need." Aragorn shrugged. "I hope also that they are better trained and that I have chosen them well."
Minastir turned, and called an order to the helmsman, and then faced Aragorn again. "So do I. I hope we can return to Gondor in triumph, Thorongil, and not with bad news for the City."
Aragorn nodded in agreement, and smiled, and the captain returned the smile and then hurried away to order a change in the setting of the sails. Turning, Aragorn looked out at the wide river and the banks slipping by, and wondered when he would return to Minas Tirith - and how.
The waters foamed under the keels of the ships that day, and the night - which Aragorn again spent on deck - and by the time the Sun was high overhead, they had passed Pelargir. Some of the soldiers expressed irritation that they were not allowed to go ashore, but Aragorn promised explanations, and they fell silent and turned back to their card games.
By late afternoon, the ships had turned south out of the mouth of the Anduin, and were rocking a little on a gentle swell. Aragorn called his men on deck, and asked Minastir to gather the sailors not currently needed to keep the ship on course.
"I apologise for not allowing you to leave the ship for a time at Pelargir," Aragorn began, looking down at the men from his perch against the foremast. "I trust you will forgive me when I explain our mission, for which you were all especially chosen. Some of you I know well, the rest of you were recommended to me by your captains, and your participation in this operation was ultimately approved by the lord Steward himself. I trust the significance of that is not lost on anyone." He glanced at the men and saw he had their attention. "In a few days' time we will cross from the waters controlled by Gondor into those ruled by Umbar. You all know that our two countries have for a long time maintained an uneasy peace; recently that peace has been broken and our Steward will no longer countenance the violence which the Umbarian fleets have been practising in Gondor's seas.
"We are therefore going to attack Umbar, at her heart, and destroy her capacity for piracy."
There was silence, broken only by the murmur of the helmsman as he adjusted the ship's course, and the breath of wind in the sails.
"You will be with me for the attack, and will be in close combat with any of the Umbarians on the quayside. You have all fought like this before, but remember that in Umbar they use curved blades rather than our straight ones. I'm not going to pretend this will be easy, gentlemen. The companies from the other two ships will be targeting the Corsairs, and destroying them. Mariners will remain on board our ships, ready for instant retreat should that be a necessity; and your captain will remain with you. This will be a night attack, and therefore I would ask that you remove or dull any bright parts of your armour. Are there any questions?"
"What happens if it all goes wrong, captain?" someone asked, frankly.
Aragorn smiled and hoped it was reassuring. "It will not go wrong. But you all swore, when you joined the Guards, or your company of Rangers, that you would give your life for Gondor. If it goes wrong, that may be an oath brought to fulfilment. If any of you have doubts, you may remain on board ship and aid the sailors."
"Is this your plan or the Steward's, sir?" another man called.
"The details are mine, Daeron," Aragorn returned. "The blessing is the lord Steward's. I hope that suffices?"
"Aye, captain!" Daeron said, cheerfully. Indeed, Aragorn noticed that the men seemed to be happier with the idea of attacking Umbar now they knew Ecthelion had not formulated the plan. He stored this fact away to reflect on later.
"I believe we will arrive off the coast of Umbar in a few days - Captain Minastir?"
Minastir nodded. "Maybe four days, five if we're unlucky with the wind. We anchor and go in at night."
"We will spend the days until then in readying ourselves for the attack," Aragorn added. "As the water is calm now, I thought we could begin with some sword practice. Go and fetch your weapons, unless there are any other queries?"
The men glanced at each other, and shook their heads, and then several of them stood up and disappeared below decks to fetch their swords. The sailors cleared a space on the afterdeck, making sure ropes were looped up out of reach and that barrels were not blocking the movement. Several of them found places to watch, and even Minastir stood a little further astern than he strictly needed to.
As the ship beat her way southwards, and evening lengthened, Aragorn took his men through their paces in pairs, six men at a time, rotating through until all of them had sparred with at least one other. They ended the practice as the bell rang for the evening meal, and Aragorn noted with pleasure that the mood of the company seemed to have risen.
Morale stayed high as they hurried southwards, the sailors working throughout the day to ensure that the ship was moving as fast as possible. The other two ships in the fleet were just within sight during the day. The men kept busy with more weapons practice, games, and songs and stories, exchanging battle-songs with the sea-shanties of the mariners. For the most part, Aragorn stayed silent and watched, but he oversaw the practices and offered a few songs in Elvish, which always received loud applause.
At noon on the fourth day after passing Pelargir, Minastir guided the ship into a sheltered, lonely cove and dropped anchor, and they waited for the rest of the fleet to join them. The sails were lowered, and the men were ordered to keep quiet below decks until nightfall. Aragorn sat in his cabin, recalling the quays at Umbar as he had once seen them.
By evening, the companies and the ships were ready, and silently they hoisted sail and slipped out again to sea, prepared for battle. The men waited tense and silent on deck as the sailors hurried about their business, Minastir giving brief orders in a gruff whisper. The coast slid by, dark against the night sky, and Aragorn at the rail heard little but the rush of water under the keel.
As the ships altered course to turn into the harbour, Minastir came to Aragorn and tapped him on the arm. "Good luck," he murmured. "We'll be ready to leave as soon as maybe."
Aragorn nodded, and the captain turned back to his ship. Up ahead, there were a few lights on the quayside, and the bulk of several Corsairs moored. Aragorn glanced round at the shadowy mass of his own company, and raised a hand. As one, they stood up. The ship was close to the quayside now, and a voice hailed them in Umbarian from the shore. Stepping up on the rail, hanging on to a shroud, Aragorn drew his sword and leapt, calling, "Gondor!" as he did so. Behind him there was a roar from the men as they followed, but Aragorn had little time to think about this as he came upon the first of the Umbarians. The man was taken by surprise, but had his sword half-drawn, and Aragorn swiftly ran him through with a twist of his hand.
The houses by the quayside were awake now, and men were beginning to emerge, clad in loose robes and wielding their curved swords. Aragorn let himself slip into the rhythm of fighting, the noise around him swelling as the battle was truly joined. Away to the left, a crackle and a yell alerted him to the fact that the first of the Corsairs was alight.
He fought on, suffering a blow to his left arm, a cut to his leg, a slash on his temple. Despite the cool night air, sweat was rolling down his face and moistening his hands as he turned and twisted his sword in the air, in flesh. He dodged an uppercut blow from an opponent, barely heeding the cries around him, people shouting "Fire!" in Umbarian, other people shouting, "Gondor!" He slashed at the man he was fighting, and left a bloody gash across his stomach. The Umbarian fell.
For a moment, Aragorn stood still, nobody by to aid or to fight. Then there was a roar, and looking up he saw a huge Umbarian warrior, fully dressed in red and black armour ornamented with gold, braids tied back behind his head. He carried a long curved blade shining with care in the light of the burning ships.
"Scum of Gondor," the man growled. "For this night's work you will surely die."
Aragorn adjusted his grip on his sword and summoned his rusty Umbarian. "For the piracy on our ships, you will pay."
The Umbarian attacked, quicker than Aragorn would have expected for a man of his size, and he only just had time to dodge the assault and spin to bring his sword up through the air. It missed, and he followed the move through sideways, connecting with his opponent's left arm. Now their blades clashed, steel ringing on steel, and Aragorn changed to a double-handed grip and gritted his teeth. The Umbarian moved gracefully, and brought his blows down with crushing force, but his weight was evidently a burden to carry.
They fought on, each man breathing hard, blade clashing on blade, sharp edges sinking into flesh. Aragorn had stopped registering the other noises around him, the light from the flames, and was wholly concentrated on the duel. This was no combat for a prize, this was a real, deadly battle - to the death.
He ducked a slashing sideways blow and returned it with an upwards one that somehow connected. There was the ring as the other man's sword hit the ground, and a cry from the Umbarian. Suddenly Aragorn realised that this was his moment, and he swept his arm back and around.
The body collapsed to the quayside, and Aragorn followed it into blissful darkness.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.