4. The Lord of Pelargir
"The futile hunt begins again." Denethor exclaimed angrily. "We waste our resources chasing up and down the coast while Mordor threatens from the east." Thorongil shook his head. He and Imrahil, both riding guard against the pirate threat, had received summons to a war council in Minas Tirith and had only been in the city long enough to refresh themselves after a hard ride north.
"We need a new plan of attack and I believe my spies in Pelargir may have brought us what we seek. We know the townspeople have long turned their eyes away from the outlying raids because the port has the clandestine protection of the Umbrian Corsairs. The town leaders have treated with the villains to protect their own interests, and the trading families believe they have an alliance with the pirates that shields their shipping. They believe we are unaware of this and only seek the protection of the Gondorian government whenever it suits them."
"That is, whenever the pirates play too rough or their earnest fee becomes too usurious," Denethor growled. Ecthelion and Imrahil nodded; both knew of the duplicity of the Pelargir nobles.
"Many there must know the identity of this corsair who styles himself Captain of the Havens. These turncoats know who leads the brigands and where their anchorage is but up until now, they have been unwilling to part with that knowledge," added Imrahil.
"My man in Pelargir has been privy to meetings held by some of the nobles. It seems they are growing unhappy. As will happen with pirates, the raiders see poor spoils on the farms and have begun taking what they wish from the town merchants and raiding the outlying estates. I believe the time has come for us to apply equal pressure to the good folk of the port and see if helpful information will come forth," Thorongil advised.
"How has your man come by this news?" Imrahil asked. "It would be death to any man or his family if the pirates knew of this."
"He is a servant in the Lord Mayor's house." Thorongil smiled. "Those of the upper classes often fail to notice the presence of those who serve them." Thorongil, as if making his point, nodded to Allanot, Ecthelion's butler, who was surreptiously removing empty glasses from the table. The butler smiled back at him. "Allanot could make himself a fortune selling our secrets if he were not such a loyal son of Gondor." The old retainer bowed to the commander.
"Just so, my lord." The man raised a brow at Denethor's questioning look as he departed with his filled tray. Ecthelion laughed aloud.
"All right. Commander. Now that you have made my son question the loyalty of the one who swaddled his diapers and fetched his blanket whenever he toddled into my office, what is your plan?"
"We need to pressure the townspeople and flush out the collaborators. Put Pelargir under martial law and appoint a military governor with orders to close the port and install a curfew. The merchants will sing as soon as they feel their purses grow thin."
That is how Thorongil and Fallon came to be riding south at the head of a column of two hundred regulars to add to their usual troop of a hundred bivouacked in Lebennin awaiting the commander's return. Another three hundred would meet them at Pelargir from the levies of Dol Amroth and the other southern holdings. Thorongil, the new military governor of Pelargir, carried orders from the Steward to close the port to all shipping. As they had intended, the news reached the city before the troops crossed the Erui and a messenger from the wealthy merchants met them on the road, asking for a meeting to parlay information.
Thorongil leisurely housed his troops, met with the port warden, and set up his own office and quarters before answering the request. The lord mayor's assistant had presented the new military governor with the "best accommodations available" a long-deserted mansion, in need of repair and rodent-control, near the docks. The building stank of sea-rot and rat droppings, and Fallon had snorted derisively as they toured it, stepping over fallen plaster. He and Quillion immediately set about putting the place to right, easily dropping both the military governor and the lord mayor's names to secure workers and materials.
In midst of the troop arrivals, an alarm came in that the pirates were raiding. Thorongil took a company of men and thundered out of the city, hoping to at least catch sight of the marauders. In a scene that eerily mimicked the many of the previous summer, he sat Dagor, looking at the ruined farmstead, black smoke still rising. New timbers were visible in the blackened ruin, rebuilding from last season's torment now ash themselves. The surviving villagers stood gathered around him.
"What's to be done, my lord?" an older man asked staring up at him, blood smearing his tunic from a gash in his forehead. He held out the scarlet cloth to the commander. Fallon had nearly the same devastated look, his sword drawn uselessly, his arm comfortingly around a vacant-eyed young woman, her clothing ripped.
"They've been here again, pillaging and raping," he said unnecessarily.
"When will you stop them? When will you help us?" a woman's cries echoed in Thorongil's ears. He swung down from the stallion and drawing his sword, knelt in the litter before the villagers.
"You have my word, this will end now."
* * * * *
"My lord governor," the mayor began again. He was sure his ears had betrayed him and he had misunderstood Thorongil's request. "You cannot mean that. We cannot hang men of wealth…even if I knew who these collaborators were…" His white hands were held out in supplication. "…it would not be civilized to ask us to bloody our hands in such a way." Thorongil, Fallon, and several of their lieutenants for full military show, sat across the table from the Lord Mayor of Pelargir and the six most powerful of the town's nobles. The townsmen shifted nervously and fear was in their eyes.
"My lord mayor," Thorongil returned, his eyes glittering, "your hands are already bloody. Every villager along the river who has died on these brigands' swords over the past two years is blood on your hands. Mark my word, as military governor, I will have the names of those helping the pirates, or" he looked directly at the mayor, "I'll hang you first." The commander rose, and with his grim-faced staff following, left the befuddled, terrified mayor to deal with the bedlam of outcries as soon as the last uniform coat disappeared.
Fallon waited until they were alone back in their quarters in the old mansion. Quillion had been scuttling about, an imperious little tyrant, ordering the workmen about and bandying Thorongil's name to procure furnishings. Now, at least they had a passable office with a fireplace that did not send out billows of sooty smoke when lit.
"If we get drummed out of the army for this," Fallon observed, spreading himself out over a crimson couch that formerly must have been housed in a brothel, "our next choice of careers may be the stage. Your fine acting skills could be put to good use there." Thorongil smiled.
"At this moment, the mayor is trembling and his nobles are demanding he give up the guilty parties." Thorongil was silent for a moment and Fallon recognized that distant look in his eyes that said he was remembering the past. "But, we may not need the mayor's help. Did you notice that tall man with silver hair?" Thorongil asked.
"The silent one with the military air?" Fallon nodded. "He looked out of place among that simpering group. He has the look as if he has seen too many far horizons."
"As if he had looked on too many far horizons." Thorongil murmured. "Yes, that was he." For Thorongil had recognized the man immediately, though many years had passed since the young Ranger had been kidnapped from the forests of Eriador and forced to sail with the pirate Ascabar and his lieutenant Kindrel. Fallon checked his notes.
"Lord Kindrel, the head of one of the noble houses. The family's wealth is from a merchant fleet---" Quillion at that moment stepped inside the door, bearing a letter.
"A servant brought this for you, my lord. He did not wait for an answer." Thorongil looked up from the elaborate gold seal depicting a ship under full sail and winked at Fallon.
"He will have our answers."
As prescribed in the letter, the closed carriage arrived as the sun set and soon Thorongil and Fallon were rattling through the countryside outside the city. On a partially hidden road that turned away from the main east track to Gondor, the carriage wheeled through massive gates of heavy banded timbers. It rolled down a long drive lined with blazing torches and stopped before a sumptuous mansion. Guards stood before it. They were heavily armed and looked rough and unsavory despite their civilized livery.
"A comfortable, inviting cottage," Fallon understated, stepping through the arched portico. Lord Kindrel met them just inside the massive entry door. Time had silvered his hair but his body stood straight and tall.
"My lord Thorongil." He held out his hand and the commander took it, watching the man with sharp eyes. There was no flash of recognition. "You may wonder why I have brought you here so mysteriously. I have information that will help you in a military strike against Umbar, but I have concerns for the safety of my family. When I tell you my tale, you will understand." He ushered them into a dining room where seven places were set with lavish linen and crystal.
"We do not dine alone?" Thorongil asked casually, folding his hand behind his back to check on his hidden dagger. At that moment, the doors at the far end of the room opened admitting a petite blond woman and three boys, the eldest a few years older than Quillion. Thorongil heard Fallon slowly release his breath, as he also relaxed and smiled as the lady came forward to greet them.
"You must forgive my informality. Lady Kindrel and I prefer to dine with the children." The meal was excellent and his lady was most gracious, asking of Minas Tirith and looking to her husband with affection as he describe his merchant fleet to the officers. Thorongil asked many questions that revealed his knowledge of the sea to Fallon's amazement, and Kindrel nodded to him shrewdly.
"Are you a career military man, Commander? It sounds as if the navy should have been your calling."
"I have been many things, my lord, and did spend a time at sea in my youth."
"My husband loves sailing ships, my lords," said Lady Kindrel, "but he rarely leaves home any more. I think he spent too much of his youth in exotic ports." Kindrel's sons were fascinated with the soldiers and soon Fallon was embroiled in telling them his usual exaggerated and romanticized versions of the adventures they had had. Finally, Lady Kindrel pulled the boys away from the stories and off to their beds, and Kindrel led them into a study where he poured glasses of fine brandy.
The walls were covered with shelves that held many exotic and interesting items from Kindrel's travels; all were things a sailing master might bring home from his adventures at sea. Fallon stopped before a case that held two objects: a round brass windrose and a horn square attached to a long knotted silken cord. He puzzled over the devices.
"What do you suppose these might be?" he asked the commander, who was browsing the shelf next to the case.
"They are navigational tools used the plot courses when a ship is out of sight of land," Thorongil said offhandedly. "The square is called a kamal." Kindrel overheard the conversation and looked at the man shrewdly, suddenly uneasy with this military man's knowledge of the sea. Could this guise of governor be a sham? Could this one be in the pay of Ascabar sent to complete his revenge? He ushered the two officers to seats to begin his business.
"Thank you for the kindness you've shown my family; it tells me what sort of men you truly are," he said courteously. He looked directly at Thorongil. "If you had the means, Governor, would you strike Umbar and wipe out that pirates' nest once and for all?" Thorongil raised his hand and stopped Fallon's enthusiastic affirmation.
"If I had the means," answered the commander calmly.
"You may be interested to know there is a winter gathering of the corsairs planned for just after Yule in Umbar. All the captains will be there. It would be an ideal time to send a force."
"How do you come by this information?" Fallon asked suspiciously.
"My sources are reliable; more I cannot say," said Kindrel. Thorongil, who had been swirling the brandy in his glass and watching the amber depths, spoke then.
"My lord, in his earlier story telling, my captain omitted one tale unknown to him of adventures that befell me when I was a young man. You might care to hear it." Kindrel shrugged a nod, a curious smile on his lips as if he feared the military governor was a bit self-promoting. "It's the story of a young man, kidnapped from Eriador, from along the Baraduin one fine spring day…a young man who was forced to sail south with pirates and rode into the desert with the ship's lieutenant. There they dealt justice to a Black Numenorean, an agent of Mordor." Fallon, mouth agape, stared at him as if he had suddenly run mad. Kindrel's face was a frozen mask of horror. He groped in his memory for a name.
"Estel…that young Linden lord...I thought you'd died in the hurricane off Dol Amroth."
"What news is this?" Fallon asked.
"A ghost of my past," Kindrel whispered.
"My Lord Kindrel can certainly supply us with the information that we need to attack Umbar because he was the second in command twenty years ago on the Sea Wolf, sailing under Ascabar, one of the deadliest corsairs to captain out of the Havens." Kindrel was pale under his tan.
"I've played my game so well and so many years have past, I thought I was safe. Now young Estel returns to expose my falseness," Kindrel sighed, looking closely at the commander. "Even so, I'm glad you survived." He rose, resigned. "To disguise my villainy, I've woven a tale of ship-wreck that survived for twenty years. Please, my family does not know. They are innocents." There was fear in his voice and his hand trembled as he wiped it across his eyes. "I shan't need long to get my papers in order. I trust one of you will want to accompany me so I won't do anything rash?" Fallon had risen also, his hand on his sword hilt.
"How is Tholvel?" Thorongil asked conversationally, still sitting relaxed in the leather chair, sipping the fine brandy.
"He died peacefully in his bed three years ago, happy to be home at last." A ghost of a smile played about Kindrel's mouth. "He encouraged me to finally flee that murderous life. Ascabar dropped anchor in a cove near Belfalas to make repairs from the storm and one starry night, THolvel and I slipped away."
"May Ulmo protect him." Thorongil raised his glass. "He was a fine friend to you and me. Sit down, Lord Kindrel, and let us talk of how we might destroy this Captain of the Havens." Thorongil motioned to Fallon. "Sit, Captain, enjoy your wine."
"My lord," Fallon protested. "This former pirate is as like to sell us to his cutthroat friends as to help us."
"Nay, Lord Kindrel is one of the most honorable men I have ever known," said Thorongil, his steady gaze on Kindrel.
The three talked the night through, Fallon taking copious notes and Thorongil and Kindrel pouring over maps Kindrel unfolded and laid across his desk. Kindrel supplied the ships' names, their crew complements, and the captains sailing them. He identified the Captain of the Havens as a Gondorian ex-patriot named Toradan. He was a member of a petty noble family. His father had gambled away the family fortune and estate, and the son took to the sea; pirating seemed to come naturally to him.
"Be cautious who you share this information with," Kindrel warned. "There are those in Pelargir that are friends with Tonadar and his family. That is why none was willing to deliver him up to you. He is one of their own. In his youth he saw brief service in the Dol Amroth navy and also in Minas Tirith."
"Could Toradan be in the pay of Mordor? In these times, any criminal must be suspected of having evil backing." Thorongil asked.
"Nay, I don't believe so. Tonadar fashions himself a gentleman; that is why he preys mainly on the farmers. I believe if war came, he would actually defend his homeland."
Dawn lit the eastern sky as Kindrel finally escorted them back to the carriage. Thorongil had the information he needed and a plan for the destruction of the entire pirate fleet was taking shape in his head. Fallon climbed inside, but Kindrel grasped Thorongil's arm, stopping him.
"You spoke to your captain of honor and I know the kind of man you are, Commander. Your honor demands justice be done. How long will you wait before you come to arrest me? Do not mistake me: I do not wish to flee what I see as just punishment for my crimes, but I want to send my wife and boys away to my holdings in the north. They need not be a part of the ugliness of my past."
"I will not wait." Thorongil handed Kindrel a scrolled paper and climbed inside the carriage, ordering the coachman to drive on.
Kindrel stood in the growing light, remembering the kind-hearted young man whose loss he had truly mourned, shocked now at Thorongil's coldness. He gathered the courage to read his writ of death, feeling he full well deserved it, but regretting the pain it would cause his family. He unrolled the paper and read. His hand was shaking badly by the end and he raised wet eyes to the receding carriage. On the page was written:
On this date, I, Thorongil, Military Governor of Pelargir, grant a full pardon for all past crimes on land or sea to Kindrel, Lord of Pelargir, for services rendered and extreme bravery in service to the Steward of Gondor.