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The Hidden Fortress

Of Aearongaul in Umbar


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Prologue (begun)

 

"Foul beast, reveal yourself!" - the voice was firm and full, for a wiry old man in a grey robe that had seen better days. "ANWACANTA!!!"

 

The wolf that had seemed to be toying with him like a kitchen cat stalking an errant and overly ambitious mouse, suddenly grew larger, quite alarmingly.

 

"No - blast it, foul creature of the Shadow- your real form!"

 

The beast snarled, displaying magnificent fangs dripping with gore, and circled towards the woods that edged the meadow, cutting off one avenue of retreat.

 

From the shelter of those woods, a young man emerged. Armed, the old man could see, with both bow and sword, he drew neither, but stopped dead in his tracks, staring at the wolf, perhaps paralyzed by shock. "Flee, boy!” the elder shouted, “While you can!"

 

Instead, the young man rested his fists on his hips and scowled. "Lady, what of your promise?" He dared to scold the creature, "We are west of the Misty Mountains!"

 

To the old man's astonishment, the fierce wolf became a woman, dark of aspect and, evidently, also of mood. It was impossible to determine her age - even approximately - but her annoyance was obvious. "Bah! My promise was not to hunt Men for sport. This musty Mithrandir is no Man, and I hunt him for revenge!"

 

Her menacing frown had no effect on the dark-haired boy, who drew closer to her, quite casually. His sparkling grey eyes narrowed, "Lady, whatever he may be in the Undying Lands, here he wears the form of a Man, and, moreover, what is revenge to you, if not sport?"

 

"You quibble like a dwarf bartering for a long journey's provisions one sack at a time, or rather, like your foster father bartering with dwarfs." She let out a snort better suited to her wolf form. "His appellation in their childish trading tongue was, for once, well-earned. No doubt you are familiar with it?"

 

"Hudin let it slip, yes." The boy grinned broadly. "In front of - my foster father. Regrettably, he pretended to have forgotten my foster father's knowledge of the tongue. And my - foster brothers came to grief over it, as well."

 

"Let me guess - having seen the effect of it, they repeated it, like talking birds, also in your foster father's hearing?"

 

"Worse, in their grandparents' hearing. Their grandfather - was quite taken with it, having fallen out with my foster father over some trifling matter, and it was bantered about in the - that is -"

 

"Oh, blast it - in the Golden Wood - you may have grown, but you've not aged out of all recognition, Estel - and I make no doubt Lord Elrond merits a certain amount of grief. For discussing the nature of the Istari, if for no other reason - that was most remiss of him!" Ignored, the old man had become annoyed himself and advanced on the pair, "Most remiss, yes indeed!"

 

"The fault was mine and not Lord Elrond's, for I read of the Istari in a volume in his library." The boy stepped neatly between the old man and the woman, whose nostrils flared as she sneered, baring her teeth again in deliberate provocation.

 

The old man held his ground, glaring at the woman but addressing the boy. "A volume that should better have been kept under lock and key -"

 

"And, so it was, after I made a staff and tried one of the spells - "

 

"SPELLS?!?"

 

"From the Grimoire of Mardin. The Runic translation only - the original I was unable to locate."

 

The old man shook his head, "I have wronged Lord Elrond - it appears he had a great deal more to put up with than he made known to me."

 

"Oh, he deserved it, Old - - - - - --- --- " the Lady drawled, batting long lashes over topaz eyes, and slinking a trifle to the boy's left.

 

The old man looked rather shocked, and she added, helpfully, "As in - tighter than."

 

"A dragon's a - hem!?! A crude expression, and one unsuited to a lady - " the old man frowned, grumbling and stumbling a little to the left himself.

 

"In your dotage, misbegotten Maiar? You have forgotten already whom you address?" Somehow, she had drifted closer.

 

"Lady, that was most uncivil -" the boy bit his lip and very deliberately countered the two would-be combatants' moves.

 

"Put it down to too many hours spent, perforce, suffering the crude and uncivil company of a Dworc and two squabbling Elfdiots, boy, and that on your behalf - " She now slid right.

 

"Forgotten what I address, that would be more to the point - " The old man abandoned all pretense, and suited a gesture to his words, as if to try another spell.

 

She snarled and bared her teeth at the old man, but addressed the boy. "If you will not allow me to rend this worthless wizard - 'anwacanta', indeed! - he is fortunate he did NOT see my full magnificence, it would have sent him into an apoplectic fit - limb from limb, because of an idle promise to a precocious child - "

 

"Promises are never idle, Lady, and my age when you gave your word is irrelevant - "

 

"Apoplectic fit?!? Creature of the Shadow, so puffed up in your own conceit - take care that you do not explode from it!"

 

"BAH! Take care yourself, infirm greybeard!"

 

With that, she resumed her wolf form, larger still than before, howled ferociously, and sprang straight up toward the sky.

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Prologue (continued)

 

"What appellation, I wonder, would my friends the Dwarves have attached to that - atrocious she-beast?" the old man grumbled.

 

"My Lord Mithrandir, Hudin has termed her '- - - - - - - - - - - - - ' the young man murmured.

 

"Mother of All Bit - " the old man broke off in a cough, "Er, yes, very fitting, that would be, and in more than one sense, indeed, yes, yes. Not in her hearing, one would hope."

 

"Hudin was - sorely provoked, and as he is most courageous, though deficient in the diplomatic arts, even for a Dwarf, no doubt he might have uttered it even had it occurred to him that a creature so ancient might well have become conversant with the Trading Tongue."

 

The old man coughed again, "And Hudin has survived to tell the tale - a wonder, to be sure."

 

"Fortunately, the Lady - perceived it as a compliment."

 

"That - is no Lady!" the old man let out a snort worthy of the she-beast, as he had termed her.

 

"Perhaps, My Lord Mithrandir, but she, too, wears the form -"

 

"Oh, bother the Mithrandir, boy, I am merely Gandalf the Grey - "

 

"Never 'merely', My Lord Gandalf -"

 

"And bother the My-Lording as well, Estel, unless you wish me to address you as Your Most Puissant Lordship Aragorn, son of Arathorn, Chieftain of the Dunedain, Isildur's Heir of Gondor, Heir of Arnor - "

 

"Aragorn, if it please you - I have outgrown 'Estel'."

 

"Then, 'Gandalf' it must be, my boy!"

 

"Gandalf it is - and, My - that is, Gandalf, long has it been a fond wish of mine, to meet you, and to speak with you. You must know that I have seen you, several times, though you knew it not."

 

"Oh, I knew it well enough, boy - a wizard has eyes in the back of his head, you know, and clever as you were at concealing yourself, little mischief-maker, you made your presence felt."

 

Aragorn smiled, "It was the most painful disappointment, to remain hidden on that glorious day when you and the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins returned from your perilous journey to the Lonely Mountain and back again."

 

"And now you are grown, and have made your own journeys into peril, and back again - your deeds in the company of Lords Elladan and Ellrohir are justly famed."

 

"I have done naught to compare with the vanquishing of Smaug and the Battle of the Five Armies - There is a King Under the Mountain once more, and a bulwark in the North against the onslaught of the Enemy, because of your wisdom -"

 

"And the valor of one small, sturdy hobbit," Gandalf sighed and grumbled under his breath, "Would that I had a burglar to send south to Umbar."

 

"Umbar? There is trouble, then, from the Corsairs?'

 

"There is always trouble, from the Corsairs, my boy. It has ever been our good fortune, first that they find easy and irresistible prey to the south - one Haradrim merchant vessel laden with rare spices will keep a corsair crew in drinking money for the proverbial year and a day -"

 

"But, are not the Corsairs allies of the princes of Harad?"

 

"Some Corsair captains are allies of some Haradrim princes. Like their ships, they seek ever the rising tides - it has been our second good fortune that both the Corsairs and the Haradrim princes fight among themselves and shift alliances as quickly and as capriciously as the winds fill the black sails. The last occasion upon which they were moved to form a united front was a generation ago, when all came to fear the power of Zhyrazz, the Shimmering - and sacked and destroyed it, down to the last of its fabled and ensorcelled mosaics.”

 

"The requirement that the Corsair Council be composed of Black Numenorians - presumably their loyalty is to the Shadow, and not to any Haradrim alliance, or even to Umbar itself?"

 

Gandalf frowned, "That requirement is not common knowledge, even among the Wise. It was begun in stealth - one of that accursed lot rose to power in the Council, and he raised up his blood brothers, one by one." He shook his head. "Their loyalty, however - "

 

"Is each to his own, and his own interests, until their own king comes to unite them."

 

Gandalf stared hard at the young man. "That, too, is uncommon knowledge - and, it is knowledge, is it not, and not a lucky guess?"

 

All at once the old man's gaze was stern and commanding, as if he dared Aragorn to try to look away. "NYARANWA! -" he began. "You have been where you should not have been, have you not? Seen and heard what you should not have? Who has seen YOU, and what have they learned from you? SPEAK!"

 

Aragorn stared back at him, his eyes impenetrable as steel, and his face suddenly old beyond his years. "Who dares to lay a truth-spell upon one of the bloodline of Elros Tar-Minyatur? Think you the line, sprung from Beren One Hand, and Luthien, daughter of a Maiar greater than yourself, is so diminished that you may command its heir thus? MUIN'VARNA! "

 

Gandalf raised his staff between them and held it steady. "It is not Aragorn, son of Arathorn alone, who answers me thus, is it?"

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Prologue (Concluded)

 

Aragorn blanched. "No, My Lord Gandalf - no, it - there has ever been a great voice which comes to me out of a mighty darkness, and sustains me, when danger is nigh." He blinked. "I - repeated what it said, without thought - forgive me, I beg of you."

 

"Humpphh! Well, I certainly won't forgive you if you're back to the 'My-Lord'ing' - I thought we'd agreed on that point," Gandalf added, under his breath, "Although perhaps I should reconsider - that sounded remarkably like a most puissant majesty of Gondor and Arnor and points west -" he broke off, seeing Aragorn's stricken expression. "No, no - but, my boy, that was one of an old man's better spells, and it was something of a shock to have it cast right back in his beard. This voice of yours - the Lord Elrond has spoken of it to me - We're not sure what to make of it, you know."

 

"It has been ever my friend, and has counseled me well. I owe my very life to it. And yet, there is no danger here, no threat -"

 

"I wonder," Gandalf mused, "I am not alone, you know - there are other Istari -"

 

"The Great Lord Curunir - "

 

"Yes, and it is to Orthanc that I journey, to seek his counsel on this matter of Umbar - but there are others as well, the blue wizards, and it has been many years since we have heard of or from them. Can it be that one or the other has fallen into Shadow? Or perhaps this Voice of yours mistrusts wizards on principle. Hmmpphhh! I'm rambling - where was I? Oh yes, I'd asked you a question, boy. Spells and so forth aside, would you care to answer it?"

 

Aragorn sighed deeply. "It is true - I have gone where I should not have gone, and seen and heard many things I wish I had not. I have promised - not to speak of those places. But I have not betrayed myself. Or, that is, I may have betrayed myself, through my own folly, but I was very fortunate -"

 

"Women, were they?"

 

"They - were - female, yes," Having no intention of explaining that the females included vampires and a hellish serpent, he cast his eyes down.

 

"A little youngish, to be starting in that line, aren't you, boy? Well, never mind - but you can't trust to that sort of luck. You don't want to go about leaving a string of broken hearts behind you, not deliberately - and you don't want to learn a lesson about, er, the behavior of the female of the species when scorned, the hard way - "

 

"My L - that is, Gandalf, never would I trifle with - that is, my heart I have given, for once and for all, and - that is another matter of which I should not speak."

 

"The father doesn't approve? An old story, but given time he may change his mind, you know -"

 

"Not in this Age." The boy's expression was grim and again, he suddenly looked far older than his years.

 

It was Gandalf's turn to sigh deeply. "Oh, my boy! When did you see her?"

 

"The day I learned - that I was not Estel, or rather, what Estel - meant. I thought I had strayed into a dream of the Ages of Glory: 'Tinuviel, Tinuviel' ."

 

"One of Lord Elrond's few mistakes, that," Gandalf mused, "Better had he brought her back earlier, when you were a child, or kept her longer away - "

 

"Perhaps even Lord Elrond - could not foresee the degree of my presumption."

 

"Oh, there have been other Heirs, boy, who have fancied themselves entranced with the Evenstar, written and recited shockingly bad poems - 'woe my soul had struck upon, foresook I forsooth the wan, dull sun' and so forth - they all grew out of it -"

 

"More likely the wandull sons of Elrond beat it out of them - "

 

"Ah, Lord Elladan was once moved to reply, 'Oh, fie is come upon us, that Men grow so foresickly -' it proved most costly."

 

"To Lord Elladan's person, or to his purse?"

 

"To both, as his father was moved to hurl his goblet of Moria silver at his son's head - I know not whether it was the resulting bruise or the Dwarves' price to repair the goblet which pained Lord Elladan the more."

 

"Most probably, neither, if his brother remained unscathed."

 

"Lord Ellrohir's person might have remained unscathed, had he not added, 'And the Half-Elven are foresotted'. Fortunately for his purse if not his pate, the Lord Glorfindel had the wit to place a piece of undistinguished crockery in his lord's hand at the crucial moment."

 

"At the least I wrote her no poetry, bad or otherwise." He flushed, "My folly - was far greater."

 

"Oh, all boys must play the fool for their first loves, in some manner or other. Yet, I must charge you with a greater folly, my boy - this business of this Wolf. It is a bad business, indeed. Bad enough that you fell in with her as a child - yes, yes, Lord Elrond told me why it was he did not allow you to greet Bilbo Baggins and myself." He sighed, "Even the mightiest wizard, which, of course, I am not, dare not intervene in the discipline of children, you know, albeit the parent is overly strict."

 

"The Wolf has kept her word, as you have seen."

 

"After a fashion, and at your prompting - and mind you, she might well have bitten off more than she bargained for, I am not always quite as decrepit as I make myself out."

 

"I am sure that it would have proved an epic battle, Master Gandalf, but I am most happy NOT to have seen it. And she has counseled me wisely upon other occasions."

 

"What?!? You have had other dealings with this Wolf?!? Ah, this female wolf, eh? She was responsible for where you should not have gone, and what you should not have seen! And you've not spoken of that to Lord Elrond, or I would have known of it - "

 

"And I must ask that you not speak of this to Lord Elrond, either - there are - reasons -"

 

"Oh, there always are, and none of them good ones - this is a dangerous secret, boy -"

 

"It is one shared by the Lady of Light."

 

"Then doubtless the Lady has also warned you to steer clear of this Wolf."

 

"Yes, she has. But, enough of wolves, and the follies of boys - what of this new threat from Umbar?"

 

Gandalf scowled, and pulled at his beard. "You know the manner in which the Corsair Council is ordered?"

 

"I know that it is composed of nine, eight of whom captain the great war galleys, with their fierce crews and the miserable slaves below deck. And the ninth, the Hargam, who resides in uneasy splendor ashore. Like the Steward of Minas Tirith, he rules where once a King reigned, but unlike the Steward, his power lies in his strength and cunning alone, for his authority derives from his fellows, most of whom dream of supplanting him."

 

"This present Hargam, he has been cunning indeed, and is like to be the first in many a generation to die naturally, if expiring of an excess of drink, gluttony, and debauchery may be termed natural."

 

"More natural at least than death by sorcery - it is - said that that they practice as well," Aragorn frowned.

 

"They are skilled at weather workings at need, and some are rumored proficient at killing from a distance, though -"

 

"Though that may well be attributed to a familiarity with deadly herbs and poisons. And the weather spells are simple enough. It is also said, that the Black Numenorians can summon the dead, and hold converse with them, again, simple enough if one -"

 

"Boy, how much of Mardin's grimoire did you read before Lord Elrond confiscated the volume?"

 

"I had read it in its entirety."

 

"Dear me! At any rate, the present Hargam, this Malthovor, though rapacious and greedy enough, has posed little threat to the West, since he has cared overmuch for his own pleasures and has lacked the ambition to interfere with Gondor - "

 

Aragorn sniffed, "Or has lacked the courage to stand against Gondor's swift response."

 

"That, too, but two of the remaining eight are made of much sterner stuff. He who assumed the name 'Nifthaur', after the Corsair fashion of taking a high-sounding Captain's name - "

 

"No doubt the appellation of 'The Ugly' having been appended to his birth name -"

 

"And ugly in mind as well - this Nifthaur is justly famed for his treachery and skill at ruses and deception. His chief rival, the one who calls himself Hunamlug, is equally famed for his physical strength and skill at arms -"

 

"If not his mastery of dragonlore, if he equates those creatures with high courage -"

 

"Aragorn, if you continue to interrupt me at every turn, I cannot answer your original question. If you recall it -"

 

"What, I who have been accustomed from veritable infancy to take part in the conversations of the Sons of Elrond?" Noting a suspiciously purple tinge suffusing the wizard's craggy features, he added in a small voice, "And to emulate them, most foolishly, in evil hours," and his voice trailed off.

 

Gandalf raised one eyebrow and stared fixedly at the embarrased young man. Finally, he continued. "AS I was saying, both Nifthaur and Hunamlug are ambitious and as swollen with spite and hatred as the dragons you have just disparaged - BLAST it, you've got me interrupting MYSELF! - And to make matters even worse, both are skilled at inspiring their followers - yes, rabble-rousers, I will interject that before you do - and it is almost a certainty that one or the other will succeed Malthovor." He sighed deeply. "And either will prove a formidable enemy. If we could but tip the balance of power in favor of Corchrin -"

 

Aragorn sniffed, “What sort of name is King of Crows, for a corsair?”

 

Gandalf smiled, “He is a cunning scavenger – never will he lead an attack, but always will he share in the spoils, and as Hargam, he would see to it that his foes would be busy squabbling and conspiring against each other. Divided, they would continue to pose a much lesser threat.” He sighed deeply. " It is fortunate that Saruman - Curunir - is cunning too, as well as wise, and no doubt he can devise a plan to further Corchrin’s chances. Forgive me, my dear boy, but time is of the essence, and the greater part of the journey to Orthanc still lies before me."

 

Gandalf held out his hand, "And, it is most remiss of this old man, not to thank the one who has cleared that road for him." He smiled, and his old eyes twinkled. "One who is both a new friend, since it is only now that we have met, and an OLD friend, since it is thus that I have thought of you, my boy, ever since I first saw you at play in Rivendell."

 

Aragorn sprang forward and embraced the wizard, "My Lord - OW!" He rubbed his shoulder, where the old man had just struck him with a shockingly strong fist. "Gandalf, then!" he laughed. "Fare you well!"

 

Gandalf the Grey laughed in his turn, and whistled. And a shaggy but sturdy horse emerged from the woods where it had prudently concealed itself when its master had first joined battle with the wolf. The wizard mounted the steed, and they resumed their journey.

 

Aragorn waited until the two were out of sight and hearing.

 

"It should be a simple matter, to ensure that neither of these two who so disgrace the appellation of Numenorian become the next Hargam of Umbar. My Lord Mithrandir has already advanced the solution, though he is not aware of it," he mused. He raised his voice, "But, I will need your help, Lady, once again."

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Chapter 1 - A Ring and a Plan

 

The Wolf sprang out from the woods and resumed her human form. "A nauseating display," she muttered. "And a simple matter, is it? But not so simple that it does not require the help of a Wolf of Morgoth?"

 

Aragorn's grey eyes widened imploringly.

 

"Bah!" the Woman snorted. "Consorting with the blood sipping ninnies of Minas Morgul has taught you bad habits, boy. All that is wanting in that simpering expression is the batting of eyelashes!"

 

Aragorn demonstrated what was wanting, and the dark Woman shook her head disparagingly, "Sercina to the life."

 

"Not Nwalcalmie?"

 

"Nwalcalmie is made of sterner stuff - she was always the best of a poor lot."

 

"'Minx of Melkor', the Witch King termed her, as he was displeased when she gifted me with a bauble from his treasury."

 

"Gifted you - with what?" the Wolf Woman raised one eyebrow.

 

"This." Aragorn removed the gold chain he wore around his neck, a chain which passed through a most unusual ring, wrought of gold and mithril in the shape of a cat's head, with glittering crimson eyes.

 

The Wolf Woman's nostrils flared as she drew in a breath. "By my Master in the Void! Boy, unseen powers act ever on your behalf! You propose to venture forth to Umbar, and of all the loot in Minas Morgul it is THIS you came away with!"

 

"It is of some significance, then?"

 

"Think, boy, think! Cats, and Umbar - what comes to mind?"

 

"Queen Beruthiel, and her cohort of slinking, purring spies! But that shadowy Queen and her black cats -"

 

"And one white one, mark you -"

 

"Yes, yes, the chief of them was white - they have been gone these many centuries."

 

"No, Aragorn, they still sail the seas about Umbar."

 

"My Lady, surely that is a tale told by codgers sipping their ale and by lonely widow women in front of their fires - that a ship of sable and silver crewed by cats and captained by a dead queen is glimpsed in the dark of the moon, a harbinger of death and disaster for all who encounter it."

 

“Much the same sort of tale as the one regarding the return of a King Under the Lonely Mountain, yes? Or perhaps the return of yet another King?”

 

Aragorn flushed.

 

“In any event – this ring in the form of a cat once belonged to Queen Beruthiel, or rather to the most beloved of her favourites, and it possesses a most cunning power - ”

 

“Is there any trinket in this Middle Earth that does not . . .” muttered Aragorn.

 

“Which I will not bother to describe, as the subject evidently bores you,” rejoined the Wolf acidly. “We will proceed then, to the matter at hand. Just what is it that you require from me, or rather mean to cajole from me?”

 

“Merely - ”

 

“Mere and mire I will not brook – speak plainly and to the point,” she growled.

 

“Plainly, then, I require a supply of fresh loterauca from the Morgul Vale and I would prefer not to fetch it myself.”

 

“If you propose to use it to silence the babbling of the sons of Elrond forever, consider it yours.”

 

It was Aragorn’s turn to scowl. “Lady, this is not a matter for jest.”

 

“Who then do you intend to poison?”

 

“No one, Lady. It is my intent to insinuate myself into the confidence of the Corsairs of Umbar at the loftiest levels, and to do that, I will need to impersonate a Black Numenorian. I must replicate exactly their sigil.”

 

“WHAT?!? That sigil is known to no man who is not a member of the brotherhood, and they take care not to draw it save on living flesh!”

 

“With a blade dipped in the aforesaid loterauca - I saw it so drawn in Minas Morgul and I took care to commit it to memory.”

 

“Then draw it for me now, with a stick, in the dirt.”

 

Aragorn did so, and shuddered.

 

“What did you see, in your mind, as you drew?”

 

“That which the sigil resembles, a throne, shrouded in shadow and flame.”

 

“Then you have drawn it correctly, save for one detail which is known to few in this age, and none in the present Brotherhood.” She made a sound somewhere between a sigh and a growl. “From past experience, I know that none can dissuade you from this patent folly.” She rolled her eyes most disconcertingly and added, “If I do NOT fetch the cursed plant for you, you would no doubt hatch a supremely stupid scheme to obtain it. Dispatching the Brolairi buffoons back to the Morgul Road – “

 

“Lady, that was not my doing, and indeed, I would have dissuaded THEM – “

 

“Oh, Sauron himself would throw up his gauntleted hands in despair, tasked with preventing those two harebrains from –“

 

“Lady, both the sons of Elrond and I are in your debt for accomplishing what indeed Sauron could not have –“

 

“Stooping to flattery, are you? Having honed your skills with those mincing excuses for vampires –“

 

“I am stating a fact.”

 

She snorted. “Very well, I will fetch the cursed plant for you, this very night, for its efficacy is at its height if it is cut when the moon is in this phase. Go amuse yourself as you please, but meet me here before cock-crow, for you must use the lauteroca while it is fresh.” Shaking her head, she stalked off into the woods.

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Chapter 2 - Details

 

Aragorn paced restlessly beside a small fire. “This night has proved as long, “ he muttered, “As the eves of my birthdays, all those years ago, in Rivendell. Endless, those nights seemed, and then I waited only for some longed-for present from Lord Elrond.”

 

He stopped, and laughed. “Most of which I should never have dared ask for, and which Lord Elrond should never have granted – I was very much indulged.”

 

He resumed his pacing, “This occasion is far different – there is a clear and present danger, first to Gondor, and then, should Gondor fail, to all of the lands in the West, from these accursed brigands of Umbar. It is a threat that cannot wait for the deliberations and the well-studied plots of wizards. Action must be taken, and it must be taken now!”

 

He struck a pebble with one toe, and kicked it far outside the tiny circle of light cast by his fire. “AND I possess the knowledge to pass myself off as one of them, certainly an easier task than the one set for the hobbit Bilbo Baggins in the matter of ridding the Lonely Mountain of the evil Smaug. All that is lacking is one noisome herb . . . “

 

“Which I have now delivered as My Lord requested,” the Wolf growled as she stalked into the firelight. “Along with a mortar and pestle with which to reduce it to its poisonous juice. My Lord, like his Elfdiot mentors not having bothered to incorporate into his plan the many tedious details required for its success.”

 

Aragorn sighed, “Thank you, My Lady, and although I would have made do with these stones I had collected, it will be far easier with a true mortar and pestle.”

 

She sniffed, “There is also the tiny matter of the oath that accompanies the drawing of the sigil – I am assuming that you overheard it –“

 

“That I did, but I am not such a fool as to repeat it –“

 

“Keep still!” she roared, “And do not dare to interrupt me again!”

 

Wisely, Aragon shut his mouth.

 

“It is imperative that you do not even THINK any of the words in that oath while you deface your flesh with that sigil – the words need NOT be spoken aloud to bind you to the service of that which the sigil represents.”

 

“Then I must empty my mind – “

 

“Which is already vacant of any form of sense or reasoning else you would not propose to embark on this folly in the first place. No, you must take care to form another thought, or a picture in your mind more powerful to you than the image you will see again in clearer form when you draw the sigil. Think on the face of your beloved, if that will give you strength.”

 

He nodded.

 

“There is one other detail,” she said softly, “One that was known to very few of the Black Brotherhood, even when it was first formed. When you have finished drawing the sigil, you must add, above it, seven marks representing seven stars.”

 

He nodded again, opened his mouth, and then shut it again, but raised an eyebrow.

 

“You are bursting to ask me why – but that is a question I may not answer. Suffice it to say that the addition should not cause any of the Black Brothers to question its authenticity – should they do so you have only to remind them that, in this degenerate age, the full initiation can be conferred only in Minas Morgul. The initiation that they have received themselves is only a partial one, and of a lesser degree.”

 

“I thank you again, Lady,” Aragorn sighed. “I am most grateful for your help.”

 

She snorted, “I will leave you to your folly, then.”

 

In an instant, she was gone, and Aragorn began to use the mortar and pestle she had flung at his feet to grind the herb. The odour that began to surround his fire was so sickly sweet and foul that his eyes began to water.

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Chapter 3 - A Warning from the Dark, and a Dark Deed

 

Aragorn stared at the knife he had drawn, and which he was about to dip into the pale green juice from the lauteroca.

 

“HAVE A CARE, BOY!!!” thundered a voice in his ear, a voice he had not heard in some long time. “ONCE YOU WEAR THAT SIGIL, THE CREATURES OF THE SHADOW, GREAT AND SMALL, WILL BE DRAWN TO YOU!!!”

 

“The better to accomplish my mission,” Aragorn replied softly, “Is it not meet that the weapons of the enemy be turned and used against them?”

 

“YOUR ENEMY IS CUNNING AND A COWARD, AND HIS WEAPONS ARE THOSE OF A SCHEMING POLTROON – EVER WILL HE HIDE, RELYING UPON TREACHERY AND TRUSTING IN HIS FOES’ OWN WEAKNESSES TO DESTROY THEM.”

 

Aragorn frowned, “I will take care not to be drawn into his webs –“

 

“MOREOVER, BOY, IF YOU DO THIS DEED, I WILL NO LONGER COME TO YOU, AND Y OU MUST TAKE CARE TO REMAIN FAR FROM SUCH COMPANY AS THAT OF THE LORD OF RIVENDELL AND THE LADY OF LIGHT – AS THEY, TOO, WILL SENSE THE EVIL MIASMA ABOUT YOU!”

 

“Then must I thank you for your care and your counsel, for well I know that I would not have survived so long without it. But this is something I must do, for the safety and well being of those who cannot protect themselves.”

 

“THEN, AS BEFORE, WHEN YOU ARE IN THE PRESENCE OF GREAT EVIL, REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE – FOR NONE MAY PREVAIL AGAINST ONE OF THE LINE THAT HAS NEVER FAILED, UNLESS HE DEFEATS HIMSELF! AND ONCE YOU HAVE WON THROUGH, YOU MUST REMOVE THAT MARK OF THE DAMNED, AND YOU MUST REMOVE IT WITH CLEAN FIRE!!!! NOW, FARE YOU WELL.”

 

There was a sudden silence in his head, and Aragorn shivered. “Then I am truly on my own. So be it.”

 

He took care to let only the tip of the blade touch the lauteroca, and then he drew it slowly and shallowly across the flesh of his left arm, barely scratching it. “Valar!, “he breathed, “Fire and ice, and something more.” He gasped, “It is the Throne of the Enemy!” He shuddered, “But indeed, never will it prevail against the line of Elros Tar-Minyatur!” He finished drawing the cursed sigil, and began to draw the seven star-like marks above it, as the Wolf had shown him. And he laughed, then. “I see no throne surrounded by slinking shadows! I see a thousand ships, and another thousand, and another and another and another. Riding at anchor in a harbor beside which Umbar itself is as a toy for halflings! I see the sun blazing from the blades of a thousand thousand swords, and the tips of another thousand thousand spears. And I see a host of Men. Men of the West, and in their vanguard a King who would bring the Enemy to his kness, groveling and sniveling at his feet!!” Aragon laughed again, and he poured the remaining lauteroca over his arm, as he had seen done in the Tower of Minas Morgul. He hissed as it sizzled and then evaporated, and he breathed, “And now, may these Corsairs of Umbar beware, for it is their enemy who comes to them boldly, wearing their own recognition signal, to their great undoing!”

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Chapter 4 - Creatures of the Night

 

In an instant, the night air was filled with bats – bats as large as foxes, bats as tiny as baby mice, and all sizes of bats in between. Aragorn stood still and stretched out his arm, and one of the tiniest alighted on his finger, its delicate wings fluttering a little, until it held perfectly still. There was a rustling from under the trees, and dozens of rats came creeping into the clearing, sleek and glossy, scrabbling on little pink feet.

 

“What is this?” Aragorn breathed.

 

“The creatures of the shadows,” drawled the Wolf, who had returned, from the woods. “The small ones will flee as the larger approach.” A chorus of growls from all sides, and hooting from overhead did indeed put them to flight, and then Aragorn was surrounded by a pack of wolves, who circled close and closer. Curious, he held his ground, and the largest of them stalked up and lay down at his feet. Claws clutched at his shoulder, as a huge horned owl flapped around him. Aragorn held his arm out again, and the bird set itself down as if it had been a falcon and Aragorn the falconer.

 

Aragorn frowned, “My Lady, this is wondrous, but I cannot –“

 

“March into Umbar trailed by packs of wild things?”

 

“Exactly.”

 

“They will hear your thoughts, boy – thank them for their offer of service, and dismiss them.”

 

He did so, and his eyes widened as, in a flash, they dispersed. “If they can hear my thoughts, it would follow that I should hear theirs, as I have known the thoughts of horses –“

 

“In time, perhaps, but their thoughts are small and wild and you are not yet attuned to them. And, in the matter of horses, you must take great care now, when you approach them. It is the creatures despised by your kind who will greet you as friend, now, and the creatures that have long befriended your kind who will see you as their foe. You must beware, particularly, of dogs.”

 

Aragorn fingered the chain at his neck. “And – of cats?”

 

She laughed, “The cat serves only itself and regards all other creatures as inferiors. It will purr or hiss according to its own whim.”

 

Aragorn frowned and bit his lip. “I had not taken this into account, and now –“

 

“Your grand scheme, like so many hatched by those Elven fools, is like to come to grief through poor planning?”

 

He sighed, “I admit to a set-back, yes, but not one that is insurmountable.” He paced a little, as he thought. “Aescwig will carry me – he knows me and moreover was accustomed to the Black Riders – he will trust me.” He stopped suddenly. “Aescwig is at Rivendell, and I dare not enter Lord Elrond’s presence with this mark of evil upon my flesh! Moreover, there are certain other items I should have fetched from Rivendell before I embarked upon this –“

 

“Fool’s errand.” The Wolf snorted. “Doubtless there is a good reason for the blasted horse to be at Rivendell when it is wanted here.”

 

“That horse ridden by a Man attracts far too much of the wrong sort of attention for a Ranger,” Aragorn replied. “However, for my purposes in Umbar, he would prove the perfect mount.”

 

“As all and sundry within the pest-holes you no doubt plan to frequent will assume you stole him –“

 

“Exactly. And I have recalled that there is another source, not all that far from Rivendell, from whence I may obtain the other items.” Aragorn frowned again, “With some little effort, however.”

 

“And how do you plan to fund this idiot venture? I assume you left the Witch King’s gold with the Elf Witch, and there is another whose presence you dare not enter with that sigil upon your arm.”

 

“Oh, sufficient funds are easily obtainable, from any number of watering holes in the vicinity of Bree.”

 

“Another facet of this plan, to trust it and your fate to games of chance?”

 

It was Aragorn’s turn to snort, “There is precious little chance involved, for one who learned early on every trick in the repertoire of –“

 

“Crudin the Dworc!” exclaimed the Wolf, “And I had thought him a particularly useless creature!”

 

“HUDIN”, Aragorn replied, “Was an excellent teacher.” He sighed then, “There remains only the matter of reaching Rivendell, or rather, its outskirts, in an expeditious manner.”

 

“Oh, very well – the moon is in the right phase for that, too, but we must depart NOW, before she sets.”

 

Had Gandalf remained behind, he would have been horrified to see the shadow of a truly monstrous wolf and a small rider pass across the moon shortly before dawn.

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Interlude – Nocturnal Disturbance the First: An Equine Exit from Rivendell

 

“Aescwig, my friend,” Aragorn thought, “I have great need of you, your strength, and your trust – come to me at first light, if you are able –“

 

Before he could fully form the thought as he waited in the woods across the bridge to Rivendell, there was a tremendous series of crashes and a general alarm, with much shouting.

 

He had forgotten the extent of Aescwig’s capacity for mischief and destruction.

 

The great stallion, far from waiting for first light, had taken the opportunity to kick down the gate of his stall and bolt.

 

“HAH! Talathoron the Tardy!” Aragorn caught the stallion’s challenge to the Lord Glorfindel’s mighty warhorse. “Even should you muster the courage to match my daring and escape your Elvish confinement, you could only EAT MY DUST!!!”

 

There was another, even louder crash as another sturdy gate was reduced to kindling.

 

“HOW IS THIS?!?”

 

“TALATHORON! HALT UPON THIS INSTANT!”

 

Lord Elrond’s and Lord Glorfindel’s voices overlapped.

 

“Aescwig the Outlaw – had I the lack of breeding and the abysmal lack of respect for my master that you wear as a badge of DISHONOUR – I would even now be showing you my –“

 

“Spoiled and fat and lazy arse? In your dreams, plodding beast bred from a molly-coddled mare – and it is ONLY my true master I respect!”

Aescwig neighed loudly, and Talathoron snorted in rage, but evidently allowed Lord Glorfindel to arrest his flight, for next Aragorn heard Lord Elrond shout, “Fetch my sons, for it is they who will bear the responsibility for making repairs to my stables! And good riddance to that miserable animal, for he has done naught but cause disruption and teach evil manners and foul behaviour to his fellows!”

 

“Shame upon you, Talathoron,” scolded Lord Glorfindel, “For following the lead of an ungrateful animal taken in as an act of charity.”

 

Talathoron pawed the ground in frustration and there was a shout of outrage from a well remembered voice, “The bastard tried to nip me!”

 

And another joined in, “Better you than me, brother – your wits must have been wandering, not to steer clear of that ugly customer when he’s in one of his fits.”

 

“Unlike yourself, I was attempting to answer Father’s summons without dawdling – and, my Lord Glorfindel, you should really restrain that animal!”

 

“SILENCE.”

 

There were two audible sniffs.

 

“It was not Lord Glorfindel’s horse which instigated this disturbance. It was that equine son of Sauron which the two of you introduced into this household. And do not imagine for a second that I was convinced by your claim that he ‘merely followed you home from the Morgul Road’. OR that I have forgotten the tales of your behaviour upon that highway of ill fame. Indeed, it was the talk of Elvendom on Earth! You will see to it that the damage is repaired immediately, and moreover, no Elf will lift a finger to help you!”

 

A long silence ensued, then, “We’d best make haste to hire a dwarf or two.”

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  • 2 weeks later...

Interlude – Nocturnal Disturbance the Second: Mystery at the Mathomhouse

 

“Unaccountable, that’s what it be!” The sturdy little Shirrif put his hands on his hips and stared at his companion. “The side door to the Mathom House smashed in, and no alarm sounded!”

 

“And after false alarms three nights running,” the other replied. “Strange, that, and otherwise you’d not have thought up this here pateroll, and this here burgalry’d gone unnoticed!”

 

“Until morning.” Shirrif Bollmes mused.

 

“I say it’s another prank, and the ringleader is a Took or a Brandybuck!”

 

“No, no – no need to disturb the Thain or the folk at the Hall, Cottson – this is no prank – it was prevericated!”

 

“But, how?!”

 

“Elelmentary, my dear Cottson – the three false alarms were failed attempts, foiled by the watchgeese, the question is, why?”

 

“And what has become of the geese?”

 

“You know my methods, Cottson, extricate the impassable, and the reminder, however improveable, confirms the solution.”

 

“What’s missing – that’s it!”

 

“Exactly.”

 

With the aid of a rather large lantern, carried by Cottson, the two entered the Mathom House.

 

“No footprints,” Cottson remarked.

 

“Mind you, it is a dry night, and the Michael Delving Auxiliary keeps the front of the House well swept . . . But wait, what is this! Shine that light to your left - Your other left!”

 

“Master Bollmes – some fool has broken into the old annex, which has been boarded up time out of mind! All’s back there is that collection of musty mathoms what the old founders found, or brought with them – some say they go back to when there were kings in Fornost. Some say, too, that a few of them were of Elf make, and cursed!”

 

“Curses are ill follicle, Cottson, but let us proceed cautiously – AHA!”

 

“What?!?”

 

“The game’s afoot! Or rather, the foot’s to blame!” Bollmes shouted. “This crime, if such it be, was committed by a Bree hobbit!”

 

“But, how can you tell?”

 

“There are prints in the dust, Cottson, hobbit prints.”

 

“Well, that much we knew – there haven’t been big men in the Shire, and no dwarves have shown their beards about since that troop of ruffians Bilbo Baggins was supposed to have run off with. AND even a so-called wizard, as was supposed to have come with the dwarves, wouldn’t have left prints.”

 

“Mark the little toes.”

 

“They’re there.”

 

“Use your eyes, Cottson, they’re MORE there.”

 

“Big little toes.”

 

“Belonging to either a Mugwort or a Fernie!”

 

“Upon my life!”

 

“And the prints lead around to –“

 

“The far side door!”

 

“And there, around the back, are the watch geese!”

 

“Asleep on the job, the foul creatures –"

 

“You wrong them, Cottson, they were drunked.” Bollmes had picked up a saucer. “Have a sniff of this, my dear Cottson.”

 

“It’s mead. Butterburr’s best, at that “

 

“And there’s a hogshead of the stuff, left behind.”

 

“But, Bollmes, the mead –"

 

“Is worth far more than anything in the Mathom House. A mystery indeed!” Bollmes sighed.

 

“The thieves must be mad, Bollmes – to pursue them could prove dangerous.”

 

“We’d best just set a few Under Shirrifs to watch the next few nights.”

 

“In case the thieves come back.”

 

“With more mead.”

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