Chapter 1: Advent
Minas Tirith, 26 Girithron (December), 2979
It was the dark before dawn when Aragorn arrived in Minas Tirith: morrowdim, when the stars fade in the sky and the far horizon blushes faintly before the coming of the sun.
The great wains that fed the city-people had departed, but the rich yeast scent of fresh-baked bread, the grinding and chopping of butcher knives, the bounty of potatoes, carrots, apples, and other late fruits that spilt from baskets and crates, had already begun to draw the house-wives and kitchen-maids down to the markets of the first circle. Aragorn wove slowly through the chattering women, glad to be once again in the White City, which these ten years past had been his home. Past the second gate the streets grew silent and thoughtful, yet no more a stranger to the man they called Thorongil, the pale stone echoing his steps as he climbed to the small town house he kept in the sixth circle.
He stopped there only briefly: long enough to wash the river-smell off and sit down to the porridge, bread and butter that his housekeeper brought him. Then he arrayed himself in clean garb, and passed through the seventh gate
He did not have far to go to deliver his report. The Steward was sitting on the lip of the fountain, the bones of the White Tree casting only bare shadows on him in the early light. Aragorn stopped a few paces short of him and bowed.
The Steward looked up and smiled. "Thorongil. I am glad to see you returned."
He reached out his arm and Aragorn came forward and grasped it, helping Ecthelion to rise. Together they walked to the small garden that abutted the King's House. It was late in the year, but there was yet some colour in the yard: shiny laurel leaves dressed with red berries, bronze-leafed mahonia tucked away from the wind, and toothed wintergreen shrubs, brought from NÃºmenor long ago. Amongst them they settled on a small bench.
"I received your last letter from Pelargir," Ecthelion said, "and I am troubled by it."
"I was uncertain what to say," replied Aragorn. "I do not have the proof that you desire. Yet all that I am, and all that I know, tells me that Gondor faces a dire threat. Forests fallen to the axe. New shipbuilding yards in Umbar. Increased attacks on Gondorian shipping, from the coasts of Andrast to the Ethir itself. They are building a great fleet. And when Sauron calls, they will fall on us like a black storm."
"It has been nearly two hundred and fifty years, Thorongil, since the Corsairs have made any serious raids on our shores. I am minded to look to our more immediate problems."
"My lord, they are an immediate problem. Orcs infest Ithilien. The Haradrim are re-establishing themselves in South Gondor. And Umbar is building a great fleet. How will Gondor face all three at once?"
They were both silent for a while. The risen sun brushed lambent on the milky ramparts and towers of the White City, and for a moment they could forget the chill of winter, and the lurking shadow in the East; and Ecthelion seemed again the great and venerable lord of an ancient and mighty people. But then the light faltered, as if the Enemy had reached forth and sucked some strength out of the sun's rays, leaving only bleak fingers to stretch across the valley and accost the city's walls.
"Let me carry the war to Umbar, lord. Let me raze their fleet before it can be a threat to our shores."
Ecthelion sighed wearily. "I will think on it, Thorongil. But for now, please leave me."
Aragorn rose and bowed, and then made his way through the court to the great stone parapet that jutted out of the mountainside. Along the east wall there was an embrasure with a stone bench set beneath the sill. He did not sit, but leaned against the wall and looked out over the wide valley below and the great river that wound through it.
Anduin she was called in the noble tongue. In the North she ran fast and clear, raw with snowmelt. Here she flowed like a great slothful serpent, her belly heavy with the issue of many lesser streams, slinking around the foot of the White Mountains, growing ever wider and more ponderous as she curved toward the sea, until at last she unwound herself and slumped into the Bay of Belfalas.
Which is where he had been, not two months past, fighting for his life and his ship. They had been escorting a fleet of salt traders, heavy laden and bound for Pelargir, when three black sails materialized on the horizon. He had heard shouts on deck, and then one of his men had come barreling down the hatch, bidding him come quickly on to the deck. There he had stood and watched as the black sails were pulled down and great banks of oars dipped into the water. Nimchathol might outrun them, but the heavy cargo ships were no match for the swift slave-rowed galleys of the corsairs.
So he had called his sailing master to him, and set him to turn the ship and ready her for battle. Soon his crew was at the oars, pulling to the ever-faster beat of the drummer, pulling them into battle. They were well trained. Arrows were let loose, and the decks bristled with spent shafts. Beringol was a crafty master, and they shore off a whole bank of the lead ship's oars with a clever pass; but then the hooks flew, and they were grappled tight, and it was sword and spear work.
Morlas had gone forth with oil and torches, to set the corsair ships alight, while he had stayed behind to direct defenses. The pirates swarmed over the ship, a filthy mass of cutthroats and brigands, slashing at the rigging and struggling with his men. The bravest died the most swiftly, on Aragorn's own blade. And then there was a blaze of fire, and flame licked up into the sky. Shouts arose amongst the corsairs. His crew hastened to cut the ropes and they tore away. A few of his soldiers made it back, but Morlas never returned. Another good man lost, and none to take his place.
As he stood brooding, the sound of heavy footsteps came to him, their approach firm and measured. The guards had not said he was in the city; Denethor must have ridden in from Osgiliath after Aragorn had himself arrived. But Denethor would not consider that an excuse, so he was probably in for an unpleasant conversation.
Aragorn turned and bowed courteously. "Lord Denethor."
His glance flickered to the valley below. "I see you are safely returned."
"Indeed. My ship arrived this morning."
"And do you bring what you sought?"
"No." Aragorn sighed. "But you have read my dispatches."
"Have I?" Denethor inquired.
"Whatever you think, Denethor, I have made no secret reports."
Denethor snorted. "Naturally. And I'm sure you and the Steward were having a delightful conversation about dahlias or dinner parties or some such this morn."
"I went to him because you were not in the city," said Aragorn defensively, "and spoke naught new. He will think on my words, but he will not act on them."
"So it always is," Denethor agreed, "but I like it not that you went to him first, when I would soon arrive myself."
"Then I apologize, lord." Denethor seemed assuaged, though inwardly Aragorn wondered that he had escaped so lightly from his wrath. Denethor was ever suspicious of him, and quick to call him to account. But it seemed he had weightier things on his mind this morning.
"Suspicions, rumours, that is still all you have."
"To gather intelligence on the sea, it is most difficult," he said, "and by the time information reaches us from Umbar, it is months out of date."
"We cannot strike if we do not know the size of their force, let alone where it is located. Without such knowledge, how can we form successful plans?"
"From here we cannot. We must rely upon the Captains we send."
Denethor turned towards him angrily. "You mean we must send you, and let you decide! Why should we put our faith in you, and not trust to our own wisdom? You are not the only able Captain in Gondor."
"Am I not Captain of the Ships?"
"Against my desires, yea. My father has put great trust in you, Thorongil, but you are no great mariner."
"No," retorted Aragorn, "but those who serve me are, and I know when to rely upon their expertise."
"Are you implying that I do not?"
Denethor's voice was low and threatening now, but Aragorn would not back down. "Do you not hesitate to do so now? But it is not yours, son of Ecthelion, to be always in the place of battle."
"You overrate yourself, Thorongil. Such wild offenses you make-one day you will fail, and then what will be the price for Gondor?"
"No greater than if she stood, immovable as a mountain, until the flood swallowed her up," he said hotly. "If we do not now thrust apart some number of our enemies, even these ramparts will not save Gondor."
"Three thousand years and more these walls have stood unbroken, outlander. Not by wizards or mercenaries has she been made strong, and she needs neither now!"
If their conversation had begun quietly, it was not so now, and they were beginning to attract attention. Ecthelion, surrounded by a bevy of lordlings and advisors, had now appeared upon the green, and were approaching with what rapidity the Steward could.
Denethor looked at them come on. "Half the city fawns at your feet, Thorongil, but not I. I would that you would take your sword and your honeyed tongue elsewhere. Then maybe Gondor would know peace." Denethor's hand had strayed to his sword-hilt.
"For a time, mayhap. But this war is greater than you understand. And by wizards and mercenaries, maybe, will her fate be decided!"
"It is not yours to choose!" Denethor retorted angrily.
"Nor yours!" Sharp his words were, but quiet, for he saw that the Steward and several other lords were almost upon them. He realized he, too, was gripping his swordhilt, and removed his hand rather hastily before bowing to the Steward.
"What in Middle-earth are you two doing?" the Steward demanded, wheezing slightly.
"We were merely...discussing Gondor's future, my lord." Aragorn replied, perhaps less smoothly than was his wont. Denethor merely scowled.
"And do you always do that with your hands on your sword hilts?"
"Sometimes, my lord." Aragorn admitted wryly. His arguments with Denethor had never actually come to blows before, but they were legendary nonetheless. (Gandalf said it was because Denethor was stubborn and misguided. Aragorn thought that he and Denethor were just too much alike-both in nature and ambitions.) It was for the best, he thought, that they had been interrupted this time!
"I expect better of you both, and I do not wish to see this scene repeated." the Steward said. "Denethor, if you have nothing better to do than badger Thorongil, you can scribe tomorrow's agenda for me."
"As you wish, Father."
Ecthelion looked at his son suspiciously for a moment, but then turned and with his retinue walked back to the tower. Denethor caught his eye before following, but Aragorn turned away with a sigh. How had their conversation gone so askew?
Wearily he padded back through the gate and down to his town house. Perhaps he could rest for a while before his duties descended upon him. As he climbed the creaking stairs to his room he heard his housekeeper call out to him.
"Oh, Master Thorongil, I quite forgot. 'Twas a letter came for you last week. I've set it on your desk."
Girithron: December. The Dúnedain continued to use the Sindarin month names, although most peoples who spoke the common tongue used the Quenya forms. (Canon)
Captain of the Ships: 1) A Gondorian military post, held by Castamir during Eldacar's reign (Canon) 2) The second highest post in the Gondorian military; used primarily when the Captain-General was uninterested in or too busy to direct Gondor's naval operations himself. Currently held by "Thorongil".
This is my first long story & has been through many revisions. Compliments & criticism are both appreciated, and I will try to reciprocate.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fan-fiction, and the characters, settings, places and languages, save those that are original to me, belong to the Tolkien Estate.