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8
Road by Sea

Road by Sea

The tall Man in trader’s robes walked confidently down the way of the harbor toward the pier where foreign vessels might dock. The guard set by the agents of Mordor watched him with suspicion. The stranger was inordinately tall. The stranger had eyes of grey. The stranger’s skin was paler than that of those native to this land. The stranger had a look of a swordsman, the walk of a warrior. He did not move or hold himself as did those of Harad.

The guard had been told to watch for spies from the Northern lands, spies who would come in the guise of traders but who actually came to examine how Mordor held power over the people and government of Harad. He had been told that such would carry about them tokens of stars, either rings set with stars of gems or silver or gold, or cloak brooches in the shapes of stars, or pendants of stars. He was to stop any who appeared to be from Northern lands and search them for such things; and any who carried about them such tokens was to be held for the coming of the Dark Ones. So it was that the guard stepped out before the one in trader’s robes and ordered him to halt.

“Why must I halt?” asked the tall stranger.

“I must search your person,” the guard replied.

“Search my person for what?”

“I will know when I find it.”

Aragorn looked on the guard with concern, not certain what he might have been told to look for. He did not carry his sword--he’d been warned to place it and any weapons from Gondor or further North in a case to make it look as if it were among the goods he traded for and let them be brought to the ship when it was loaded for the voyage north, and to carry instead a dagger or long knife of Haradri manufacture; and this he’d done. He’d bought a long knife in Far Harad, one which was of excellent steel, and this he carried in his belt. He carried the license to trade he’d purchased on his arrival in Risenmouthe, and the tokens of Khafiramun and Bhatfiri as signs he’d employed legitimate caravan masters and guards.

There was one thing which he carried he did not wish seen--the ring he wore now on the chain about his neck. He’d not dared leave it in his quarters, hadn’t shown it to any in Harad, had guarded it within the house of Sohrabi and that of the Farozi, even in the Valley of the Sun. Was this what the guard sought for?

“And if I do not wish to be searched?” he asked.

The guard smiled with a level of satisfaction and gave a gesture; others came out to join him. “I will have help in searching you, then,” he said.

Realizing that refusing the indignity of the search would draw too much attention to himself, Aragorn straightened and held his hands, plainly empty, out for them to search him. They were quick about it, soon had taken his belt pouch and had it open, saw the license signed by an official whose name, signature, and seal were all well known; found the tokens of caravan master and guard, both of them of good repute; found a snake carved from bone which he’d purchased that morning to bring to his foster father, who’d ever been enamored of serpents; found the cord of ring coins he carried; found a smaller bag containing twenty sisterces.

“Where did you get this?” demanded the guard.

“It was paid me for a horse I purchased on my arrival and which I’ve now sold again for I cannot take it aboard my ship with me.”

They found thrust into his belt the long knife of Haradri design, again one which happened to have a figure of a snake curled about the pommel. The guard directing the search was growing more uncomfortable. A carving of a snake in his bag, and a knife which also was decorated with the same animal. Ghanset was the name given the goddess of Far Harad who wore the snake’s aspect, and she was often seen as consort for Seti. For all he answered to the servants of Mordor, the guard held a healthy fear of Seti and his bride. True, Ghanset was one of the patrons of rebirth; but rebirth indicated that the one who was being reborn had died first; and that was not an experience this one looked forward to. He shuddered as he returned the knife to the trader, looked for signs of items hidden in pockets or hems....

The silver chain about the trader’s neck was seen, and the guard reached quickly to pull what hung from it into view. He held it cupped in his hand, paled, and quickly thrust it back into the neck of the stranger’s robe again. Once more, serpents--this one must be a member of the fabled Ghansi cult, which it was said took individuals whom they found alone and flayed them alive in imitation of snakes losing their skins in honor of Ghanset. Of course, the priests said such cults did not exist, but the guard was not so certain. Too many stories had he heard.

“Well, have you found ought of interest on this one?” asked an officer emerging from a nearby building.

Aragorn was surprised by this, for it was asked in the form of Adunaic spoken in Umbar. He quelled his response to it, not wishing the other to realize he understood the language, realizing that his knowledge of Adunaic would be seen by many as more suspicious than whatever he might carry on his person. So far the only thing returned to him had been the long knife, which had obviously frightened the guard who’d led the search; everything else was still in the hands of those who had aided him, and one of the guards had been slipping ring coins off the strip of cord on which he’d secured them, and another had slipped the bag of sisterces into his shirt. These guards had been told to look for certain things, but what exactly those certain things were he had no idea. The main guard had been upset by the carving of the snake and more so by the long knife; and at his glimpse of the ring he carried on the chain had thrust it back inside the shirt with a decided grunt of distaste and fear. Aragorn turned to look at the officer--yes, this one apparently bore some blood of the Black Numenoreans, although he had the darker skin common to Harad.

In the trader’s tongue he asked, “What must I do to get back the profits of my trading from those two?” pointing to the one who’d pocketed his sisterces and the one involved in stealing ring coins from the cord.

The officer looked at the two Men in question, who looked at him from under their brows, uncertain whether they’d be able to keep that which they’d just taken. In the same dialect, the officer asked, “What have they taken?”

“A pouch of heavy cotton tied with a silken cord containing twenty sisterces paid me for the horse I just sold, and several ring coins taken from the cord he holds in his hands. I had twenty-eight upon it, nineteen of silver and nine of bronze.”

The officer took the cord and quickly counted the coins upon it. He held out a hand, commanding, “All the coins you hold--now!”

In a moment he had restored the cord and coins to Aragorn, who did a quick count, restored those which had been removed, and made to return the excess to the officer. “No, keep them as recompense for the dishonesty of this one, who will suffer for thinking to profit at the expense of the goodwill of those who would trade in this land.” He turned to the other guard. “The pouch?”

His eyes frightened, the guard brought out the pouch; the officer poured the coins out into his hand, counted them back into the bag and again saw them restored. In Adunaic he quietly asked the one who’d led the search, “Does this one carry any star token?”

“No, my Lord.”

Aragorn was surprised to realize what particularly they searched for, and suddenly was grateful he’d made the sacrifice asked of him in the Valley of the Sun. So, they looked for signs of agency from Gondor or Arnor, did they? He kept his face schooled to look wary and confused, doing his best not to let it be seen he had understood what was said privately between officer and guardsman.

The officer continued, “Any sign at all of any allegiance?”

The guardman answered, “Indications he has an interest in Ghanset--carvings, sword, and on a chain about his neck.” He indicated the long knife he’d returned and the green belt purse lying on the ground. At a gesture from the officer he lifted the purse and handed it over, and the officer quickly went through it, examined the carving of the serpent. After making certain it didn’t contain any hidden compartments, he put it back into the pouch, looked at the tokens given by Khafiramun and Bhatfiri and replaced them also, then the license to trade and replaced that as well. After going through all items sitting there, he asked, “Did he have anything hidden in hems or pockets?”

“No, captain.”

The officer examined the trader for a moment. In Adunaic he asked, “Are you from Umbar?”

Aragorn kept his face neutral and asked in the trader’s tongue, “What did you say? Did you speak of Umbar?”

In Adunaic the officer commented, “Your mother must have mated with a camel.”

Aragorn stifled the impulse to laugh aloud at this attempt to identify his possible roots by means of insult, looked questioningly at him. In Westron accented as it was spoken in Rohan he asked, “Are you willing to use a tongue others understand?”

Finally deciding the trader was not of a culture that spoke Adunaic, the officer again addressed the leader of the guard. “No signs of stars, then?”

“None, sir. Just snakes.”

“Where are you from?” he asked of Aragorn directly in the trader’s tongue.

“From Dunland, sir.” This was in keeping with the information on the trader’s license he’d purchased.

“Where does that land lie?”

“In the lands immediately north of the Gap of Rohan.”

“What kinds of goods did you bring to Harad?”

“Mostly woolen cloth from the far northern lands and tanned hides. Some ceramics and wooden items.”

“What kinds of goods will you take back to the North?”

“Bolts of cotton cloth of various weights, carvings of your wood, bone and ivory, camel felt, camel saddles, brass work and bells, knives from Far Harad--the workmanship will be much appreciated my homeland; dried figs and dates. I hope to purchase some bolts of silk before I leave, for such materials can fetch a good price in Gondor as I travel north and west again. And I have a buyer for medicinal herbs.”

The responses were in accordance with a trader’s thoughts, and the officer lost interest in this one. “Return the rest of his goods. And you two,” addressed to the two who’d tried to steal the coins, “you will report for discipline in an hour’s time. There will be no more stealing from traders while I am captain here.” He turned back to the trader. “Have a pleasant return to your land, sir.”

“Thank you, captain.”

As the Man started to walk away, Aragorn spoke again. “Sir, to keep this from happening again....”

The officer turned, only mild interest in his eyes. “What is that?”

“I may have to return here several times ere my ship returns to retrieve me and my goods. I do not believe any of these will stop me a second time--” this he said knowing that it was all too likely they would indeed do so unless their resentment at having been overruled and disciplined by their commander were forestalled now, “--yet if others are on duty they may yet again search me, and others who are willing to enrich themselves at my loss may again seek to pocket my profits. If I may have proof I have already been searched and passed by you and this group, it will keep me from having to disrupt your work in the future.”

The officer thought it over. “You are correct. Stop by my office when you leave the pier and I will have it ready for you. What is your name?”

“Peredrion of Dunland, sir.”

“‘Half-son’?”

“I did not know my father, sir.”

“I see.” The officer gave a sardonic smile. “Well, Peredrion of Dunland, stop by my office when you are finished on the pier and I will give you the writing you desire.”

“Thank you, captain.”

Aragorn watched the officer leave, gave a bow to the sullen guards who knew now that they’d best not disturb this one in future, and went down to look for signs of the coming of his ship.

From other ships’ captains he heard news his ship had been sighted along the coastline of Belfalas, and thus was due at any time. He thanked them, remained watching for the day, and finally an hour after sunset reported to the captain’s office in the building for the guards. Advised a trader waited without, the officer came out and, having assured himself it was the trader who’d caught everyone’s interest, he signed for him to enter.

“So,” the captain said as he retook his seat, “your ship is not yet here.”

“I am assured it comes, sir. It was sighted off Dol Amroth a few days past, apparently having come from further north.”

“Do your father’s people sail it for you?”

“As I told you, sir, I knew not my father. It belongs to my mother’s family. They were not happy my mother stayed away from them for so long, but they have accepted me as a son of their house.”

“You are likely enough. You have the stance of a swordsman.”

“I have worked as a hired sword.”

“Yet now you try your hand at trading?”

“It is less likely to lead to my early death than serving as a mercenary.”

“You appear to have done well at trading.”

“I believe I will have made a clear profit when all I take back with me has been sold.”

“Would you like to enter my service?”

Aragorn paused. Sohrabi and Bherevrid had understood his unwillingness to enter any service likely to fall under the commands of Mordor, but this one would not. He’d best tread lightly.

“As I said, working as a trader is less likely to lead to my early death than working longer as a mercenary. I’ve been injured too often, and the last could have been deadly had it been only slightly one way or the other. I do not wish to tempt fortune any further in that manner.”

“Yet traders and their caravans are often the targets of bandits.”

“Indeed my caravan was targeted, and I fought alongside Bhatfiri and his Men. However, I do not wish to do more than that. It is one thing to defend against those who hope that surprise and violence will win them the prize; another to willingly walk onto a battlefield knowing the enemy has many as trained as I am, or better in the end.”

“You carry a long knife from Far Harad. Why not a sword?”

“I was told that doing so would make me appear suspicious to those who serve in Harad. But I will not go without a weapon of some sort.”

The officer seemed to accept this, and nodded. He pulled toward himself a roll of parchment and wrote out a quick note, signed it, then drew out a stick of sealing wax and marked it with his signet ring. He handed it to the trader, who looked at it, then asked, “What does it say, sir?” Aragorn could read it well enough, but still did not wish the captain to know he knew Adunaic.

The captain sighed. “It says simply that you have been already searched and cleared of carrying contraband.”

“Thank you, captain.” With a loose salute of the sort used by those of Dunland, the trader pocketed the small scroll as he turned and walked toward the door.

“Oh, Peredrion----”

Aragorn turned and looked at the officer as if only half interested in what he might say.

“If you change your mind, my commanders have a place for clever fighters.”

“Thank you, captain. I will keep that in mind.

*******

Relieved, Aragorn returned to the caravansary to learn that his caravan had been reported a day away and should be arriving by tomorrow’s eve. He went into the room he’d hired, saw to it his goods hadn’t been disturbed--the urchin he’d hired to watch them smiled at him as he received his final payment for the day, and with the promise he’d be back tomorrow the boy disappeared into the darkness of Risenmouthe. Aragorn closed and secured his door and settled down to sleep.

His ship didn’t arrive the following day before sunset, and again he headed for the caravansary, to find his caravan just beginning to unload into the warehouse he’d hired. Khafiramun nodded his recognition. “You did well, trader,” the caravan master said. “And I see you followed my advice about the warehouse as well.”

“So far all of your advice has proven good, my friend. I would be foolish to go against it at this late date.”

“I am pleased enough, for so many from the North fail to listen and so must pay for their lack of trust in me.”

“You have proven worthy of trust, Khafiramun. Oh, and I have a gift for you.”

Khafiramun followed his employer to the paddock where the camel obtained from the Bhatsis was being kept, and looked on it with delight.

“This is a wonderful beast, Master Peredrion,” he declared. “You cannot just gift it to me!”

“Think of her as a bonus for the advice and good trading you have helped me to do. But I cannot take her with me--she would not be amongst her own kind, and neither the climate nor the vegetation would be familiar. Know this--I cannot think of anyone who would care for her as well as you save for those who gifted her to me.”

Only after the one he thought of as Peredrion explained how he’d come by the camel did Khafiramun agree to accept her, but he did not cease thanking his employer for her for the rest of the evening.

Aragorn assisted in the unloading, speaking to several of the camel men, then to Bhatfiri and his guards about the return journey. Only one group had followed them for two days, but had never attacked them, word having come that this group had a fierce trader as well as being under Bhatfiri’s protection. Aragorn nodded his satisfaction and paid Bhatfiri the agreed-upon price, adding another substantial bonus for himself and his men. “You have done more than I’d imagined, my friend. If you ever choose to come North, I think my people would be willing to accept you and your services, although I would be loth to see the unwary traders entering your land lose your able protections.”

Bhatfiri nodded, smiling. “Now, if you were to desire to enter my troops, I’d make you full partner.”

Aragorn laughed. “You are the fourth in these lands to offer me a position. No, my heart is of the North, and there I must return. Besides, if I were to seek to remain, my cousin would strike me over the head, tie me up and carry me off by force. He’s one of the few I do not wish to match weapons with.”

“Well, Peredrion, if you enter these lands again, you will be welcomed. Know this, that I will ever turn away other custom to serve your needs.”

“Thank you, Bhatfiri. The welcome of such as you and Khafiramun means much.”

“Now, one last thing--I will set Ba’alrabi to watching your warehouse alongside the guards here. He will see to it that not too much will find its way into local hands. No, you do not need to pay more--you saved both our lives, and you’ve paid us both well already. It is the least we can do in your honor.”

Aragorn bowed deeply in respect, and went to help in the last of the unloading, managing to slip the box from his room and his northern sword and dagger into the mix.

*******

Two days later the officer stood in the shadows of one of the customs sheds, and watched the tall trader, who sat on a great coil of rope, his knees drawn up, his hands about them almost as would sit a boy, watching out to sea. Suddenly the trader straightened, becoming more alert as a ship rounded the hook which broke the fury of the further waves before they entered the protected waters of the harbor.

The captain of this ship was a master, the officer recognized, as the ship approached the pier in a stately manner, the sails being expertly tilted to slow its progress as it neared the pier. The harbor master was now upon the quay, signalling where the ship must tie up, and swiftly heavy straw mats were thrown over the side of the ship and heavier buffers set into place on the quayside. Slowly the ship turned sideways, ropes were tossed from both sides, caught, fastened, reeled rapidly in to draw the ship against the dock. Meanwhile the waiting trader had dropped a foot to the dock, still half sat, waiting for the docking to be completed. When the last rope was fastened and the gangplank was being set into place he stood upright expectantly. A similar tall figure now stood beside the captain of the ship, attired as a hand, but with the air of command. He looked at the one on the dock, and called out in Westron, “So, there you are, then?”

“Of course, cousin--here I am indeed. My caravan has returned, and my goods have sat in the warehouse awaiting your return for two days now. What took you so long?”

“Contrary currents and winds a day out, and helping another ship caught in them. Good trading?”

“I certainly think so. We will be ready to load the ship in an hour’s time.”

“We will be ready, then.” A mutual nod, and the trader turned back to the shore to order the loading.

The captain of the guards soon learned that a full inventory of goods had been given to the customs officer, and he now stood watching as porters began carrying boxes and bundles aboard. Each article had Westron numbering upon it, and as it was carried aboard, customs officer and trader both marked it off on their sheets.

“What is in this crate?” asked the customs officer as a narrower box was carried aboard.

The porter stopped, watching the two Men for permission to proceed. The trader checked his inventory. “Swords and knives from Far Harad, sir. We have a ready market for such in Dunland, for we have few sources of metals without trading for it, and fewer swordsmiths than Gondor or Rohan.”

The customs officer signed for the case to be lowered to the dock, and indicated it should be opened. The trader had it undone quickly, and stepped aside so the officer could see. The officer leaned down to rifle through it, then picked up a particularly fine weapon, decorated with a crocodile and serpent on its sheath. He drew it and checked out the blade. “Fine metal, this,” he commented.

The trader nodded. “I believe I have already a buyer for it, in fact.”

The captain of the guard smiled, remembering that the guard who’d initiated the search had indicated this one had shown a marked interest in Ghanset. Perhaps a Ghansi, then. Interesting. The customs officer nodded, returned the sword, and indicated the crate could be refastened, and signalled it was to be taken on aboard. Aragorn, meanwhile, was breathing relief that he’d not searched toward the side of the crate where his own sword lay among the rest. The star set in its hilt would have caught the attention of the guards captain who stood watching from the shadows, and would perhaps have ended in his arrest. Hardorn would have seen him freed, but it would have been a messy business at best. Better it not be seen.

Three more crates and bundles were opened, and as each contained precisely what the inventory indicated, the customs officer seemed to be pleased. He then drew the trader to his office while the sailors took aboard some ships stores and barrels of fresh wather, figured the fees owed, adding in a small amount for his own troubles; and after accepting the payment offered and giving the receipt, he indicated the trader and his ship were free to go at any time.

It was with regret that the guards officer watched the trader finally go aboard the ship, saw its gangplank withdrawn once captain had also paid his fees and gone aboard. They’d not even stay through the next changing of the tide. He wished he’d been able to find some reason to keep the trader, thought either he’d make a good Man to have under his command, or would possibly have interesting intelligence to offer the Dark Ones on their next visit. But he had no reason.

As for the guard who’d stopped the trader, he was glad to see the back of him at last. Two of his folk had been lashed for stealing, and he resented the fact. The captain would be watching them more closely for similar graft in the future, he knew; this trader had robbed them of the chance to fatten their salaries using that ploy. Well the damage was done, and the trader gone before he could find the other ways the guards had of of making profit from their service. Lucky they hadn’t tried more on him, for he’d have alerted the captain to more....

*******

Hardorn looked with interest at the loosely constructed crate which Aragorn had instructed was to be placed in a secured place within the forward hold. “An agent of Mordor, you say?”

“Yes, one of two I encountered on my arrival in Thetos.”

“How did you get this one past the customs officer?”

“He was told this contained a crocodile for the entertainment of Lord Veleri of Dunland.”

“Veleri would love to have a crocodile to feed with his rivals. An apt description for the agents of Sauron, I must say. What happened to the other agent?”

“He died under my knife, and fed a crocodile himself.”

“Excellent end for him. Once we are in the open sea we will bring this one out and question him.”

In the early morning hours the crate was opened, and then the inner crate, and at last a much thinner and paler Virubat was lifted out by a couple of sailors who brought him to the captain’s cabin. In the captain’s own chair sat the one who, dressed as a bodyguard, had taken him prisoner and had questioned him alongside Sohrabi and Sohrabi’s steward. Nearby on a table stood Virubat’s own wooden chest, open and the papers it had contained neatly stacked near it. How had they managed that? Virubat wondered. Beside him stood another who looked remarkably like the false bodyguard, only bearded, carrying a knotted cord. Virubat looked at that knotted cord and paled further, for he knew all too well to what uses it could be put. Another chair was brought and he was seated in it, his hands and feet bound to it. And the questioning began again.

At the end the one with the cord looked down on him. “Will you take this back to the Lord Elrond?” he asked his fellow.

The seated Man looked up with surprise. “Do you think he will welcome one such as this in his land? No, cousin, I would not do such a thing. No, I think we’d best end it here.”

“I’ll take him up on deck, then, and finish it.”

“No, I will do it.”

“My cousin....”

“I am the chieftain of our people, and the captain of our Rangers. No, it is for me to do, not always to burden you with executions.”

The bearded one sighed. “If you say so, Aragorn.”

“I do say so, Hardorn.” He came forth with the reclaimed dagger given him by Adrahil, cut the prisoner’s bonds, drew him to his feet.

As the two sailors supported Virubat to the deck, the tall Northerner followed, checking the seat of his sword in its sheath.

“So,” Virubat said as he knelt at last on the deck of the ship in the growing dawn light, “you would kill me.”

“How many was it you said you killed by stealth, poison, treachery? Thirty-eight, was it not? Do you question you deserve death yourself?”

A flicker of his eyes to the dagger in the Northerner’s belt, and Virubat lunged. His hand, however, was gone before he could touch the other. Stupidly he clutched at the bleeding stump, looked up, saw the descending blade....

Hardorn lifted the corpse, head, and hand and threw each in turn over the side, watched as triangular fins broke the surface. “Nothing will wash ashore, I believe,” he commented, and he signed for one of the sailors to draw aboard sea water to wash the deck.

“It was easier, him having lunged for the dagger,” Aragorn said heavily.

“Is that why you carried it so obviously there in your belt?”

Aragorn didn’t answer, went below to his own cabin. Soon after Hardorn followed him. “The cook’s boy will bring steaming water in a minute. Let me have one of the leaves.”

Aragorn waved at his white bag. Hardorn sighed, opened and rifled through it till he found the athelas, and finally, when the cook’s assistant had brought the required basin, held it out to his cousin. Aragorn straightened, breathed on the two leaves handed him, rolled them and dropped them into the water, finally leaned over it and inhaled deeply. He sat back in his chair at last, and Hardorn took up a cloth and saw to the cleaning of his cousin’s face and hands, helped him out of the stained garb he wore, into a clean shirt and trousers, then aided him into the bunk. Seeing the basin lying on the edged table by Aragorn’s head, he finally left him to take what rest he could, smiled down at him from the doorway. “It is good to have you back, my Lord cousin.”

“It is good be heading home at last, Hardorn.”

Hardorn smiled again, and closed the door behind him.

*******

A month later Amonrabi entered Sohrabi’s study with a highly carved chest and set it on the table before his brother. “A trader came to the door, indicated this is intended for you.”

Sohrabi examined it closely, then smiled. “A falcon and stars.”

“From the Northerner, then.”

“Apparently.” Sohrabi opened it. Inside were bolts of fine northern woolen and linen fabrics, and in the midst a keen dagger of a design neither had seen before. He unrolled one of the bolts of fabric to find that inside was a thick packet which, when opened, contained letters in Adunaic and Haradri addressed to Virubat, letters which the Farozi was likely to find very interesting, for they detailed several courses of action aimed at gaining further power over the peoples and forces of Harad and Far Harad, as well as plans for another assassination plot against Bherevrid, and a listing of thirty-eight slain directly or indirectly by Virubat of Umbar.

Sohrabi and Amonrabi smiled at one another. “It appears,” Amonrabi commented, “that Horubi’ninarin also wishes to assist the people of Harad to become self-governing, then.”

Sohrabi nodded. “Whoever he might be, he has proven honorable, brother.”

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