Aragorn rode through two nights and more until he reached the Rammas Echor, a great stone wall, beyond which Aragorn gazed in amazement at the towering, white city of Minas Tirith. At Harlond, guards on the outer gates barked at him, breaking him from his wide-eyed stare at the city only a few miles beyond, but which climbed up a mountain peak. A silver spire shone in the sun high above. At the guards’ orders, Aragorn handed them the Scroll of Alcaron, and they saw the seal upon it and no longer questioned him suspiciously. In fact, their mood shifted quickly, and they encouraged Aragorn to enter Harlond and seek the stables within the walls.
In the stables, Aragorn was given another steed, and with soft words he bid farewell to the horse that carried him so far already across the lush lands of Lossarnach. Aragorn climbed upon a fresh horse and the stable hands and soldiers had gathered about to watch him, blue cloak sailing behind him as he wheeled the mount and quickly left Harlond. He rode further along the Rammas Echor, passing the Causeway Forts and hailing the guards there, who bid him enter Osgiliath. He crossed the great stone bridge amid the ruined city, and followed the road through and around fallen stones and collapsed, once-great buildings.
He turned north along the Ithilien Road and continued following it, as he did not know the land well enough to go through the surrounding forests of Lebethron and Culumalda, which were in yellow full-bloom. The pleasant scent of flowers and the bright yellow trees around the road as the evening approached, lulled him to slow his horse to a trot. He looked around at the strange land, though it did somewhat resemble the wild lands he knew in the north. The trees were different, and there were many flowers that he had never seen before.
As they trotted along, suddenly Aragorn’s horse began to bob its head and snort, stepping sideways. Aragorn held the reins and tried to steady the mount, but it would not do. The horse came to a stop and even backed away, as Aragorn could not hold it steady. He knew the steed sensed danger, and Aragorn listened closely and heard the faint sound of clinking armor, heavy footsteps, and voices in a strange tongue. He dismounted, and holding the reins in one hand, he tried to calm the steed and lead it off the road, but it would not budge. At last, Aragorn dashed off the road and into the bush, ducking down low to the ground, one hand on the hilt of his blade. As he watched, a small company of soldiers appeared around a bend in the road.
They wore clothing that clearly set them apart from the men of Gondor. Their black trousers were covered by cloth hanging from their belted waists. They wore tunics of red, brown, and their head and faces were covered by black cloth. Beneath the layered fabrics, Aragorn could see coats of mail and in some cases strange plates, but they looked to mostly be lightly armored, with curved swords and daggers at their waists. Some carried bows in their hands, or on their backs, and arrows with red fletching bunched in quivers on their legs. They spoke to one another and noticed Aragorn’s steed, which stamped its foot as they approached.
Surrounding the horse, one of the men snatched the reins in his hand and pulled as the horse raised its head and pulled back sharply, stepping side to side in attempt to jerk free. At least it reared up on its hind quarters, but the strange man would not let go and the steed brought its front feet down again, and the man rushed forward and gripped its bridle. The others began searching through Aragorn’s saddlebags, finding little of interest, for they tossed some food items to the ground, or inspected pieces of cloth. Suddenly, Aragorn heard a call, like a bird that was strange to him. The men who surrounded his steed looked around and pointed into the trees. It seemed as if one gave orders to three others, who slowly walked off the road, blades in hand, into the trees on the opposite side of the road from Aragorn. Two remained with the horse.
Another call came, this time Aragorn recognized it as a clear whistle, but the others seemed to still regard it as a native bird of the area. At last a great crack filled the forest and the men screamed and there was a rustle of leaves and the snapping of branches. Heavy thuds and further screaming echoed in the trees as one of the men with Aragorn’s horse barked some order at his companion, drew his blade, and went to follow the noise. The last soldier stood holding the reins, still. Aragorn thought whether he could then emerge from the trees and catch the soldier unawares, if the horse would conceal his approach and not spook. But, before he could draw his blade and take a step, he heard a light football behind him, and his heart raced as a sharp point touched his back.
Aragorn dared not turn, but took his hand off the hilt of his sword and held both hands aloft beside his head. Whoever held the point to him did not speak, nor move. Aragorn continued watching the road and through the trees, he could see no movement on the other side. With a high whistle, an arrow emerged from the trees and struck the last soldier in the chest. Another followed and the soldier collapsed on the ground, the horse shook and reared up in alarm, and backed away from its fallen captor. Then, Aragorn saw multiple figures move at once, as if the forest itself came to life and the trees walked toward him. But, as they reached the road, he saw that they were indeed men, clad in green, brown, and grey.
“Move,” the man behind him finally spoke. Aragorn stood and walked toward the road as instructed, his hands still raised. There he found himself surrounded by another company of men, but clad in green hoods and cloaks, carrying bows, searching the dead man on the ground. Another soothed the spooked horse, and Aragorn looked around but could not discern their leader, for they all wore a brown or green cloth over their faces, that covered up to their eyes. Aragorn knew them to be rangers, but of a different breed than his kin up north.
“Tallagor, who is this man?” One of the rangers asked, stepping away from the body of the fallen soldier. Aragorn saw that this ranger had dropped the covering from his face. He was roughly-shaven, and his brown hair reached out beneath his green hood. He wore a green jacket, lined with brown leather, and leather bracers. A quiver of arrows rattled at his side and his curved bow was on his back. His clothing appeared handmade, but his weapons looked expertly crafted in an armory of Gondor.
“I found him stooping in the woods across the road, Celador,” the one called Tallagor said.
Celador stood face to face with Aragorn, and inspected him. “What is your name? You do not look to be a Southron,” Celador asked.
Aragorn relaxed slightly and lowered his arms slowly, “No, I am not. On the contrary I come from the North. Thorongil is my name,” he said with no hesitation. “I am on errand for a Lord Alcaron, of Minas Tirith.”
Celador narrowed his eyes and looked deeply into Aragorn’s own. A few of the other rangers around them looked at one another, whispering. “Alcaron, you say? And what errand is this?”
“I carry a message for Tiror, defender of Cair Andros,” Aragorn said boldly.
The rangers began speaking among one another, the surprise clear in their voices. They wondered aloud who this Thorongil was to carry such a message for a lord of Minas Tirith, but who did not hail from this land himself. Aragorn looked around at them as some shot accusatory glances at him, while others seemed rather annoyed by the interrogation. He glanced over his shoulder to look at the man behind him, who had golden hair beneath a brown hood, his face covered in a brown cloth. Aragorn did not speak, and Tallagor did not speak either, but he held his bow, an arrow knocked on the string, down in front of him.
“Let me see this message,” Celador demanded, holding out his hand.
“I have told you who I am, but you have told me nothing. I came upon this errand suddenly, at the urging of fate it seemed, and I know few in this land, and whom they serve remains mysterious to me,” Aragorn said.
The rangers around him became on edge and he could feel Tallagor’s eyes looking through him, hearing the tightening of the bowstring at his back. Celador’s face was stern, but mostly annoyed. “You say you came upon this errand by chance. But say you came upon Alcaron purposefully and drove your blade through him, taking this message. I know who each man here serves, save you, Thorongil. It shall be enough for you to know that you stand among the Guardians of Ithilien, and that we have found you, hiding in the trees, while a company of Southrons stood by your horse. That is enough for me to suspect what master you serve. And that I speak to you now, and not have Tallagor leave you among these fallen enemies, shall be enough for you to follow any orders that I have given.”
Aragorn looked around at the sharp, dark eyes of the rangers surrounding him. He knew that he had erred, for Celador spoke clearly and with the conviction of any man rightly defending his homeland. Aragorn nodded and produced the scroll from his cuirass, handing it to Celador. The ranger did not open it, but closely inspected the seal and tapped the paper in his gloved hand.
“I deem your errand, true, Thorongil,” he said, giving Aragorn the scroll. “Forgive me and my company, for we protect Ithilien from more than orcs. Many would pass through on some errand that may weaken Gondor, and those who serve other masters do not always look as they do,” he nodded to the dead Southron on the road.
“No offense has been taken, Lord Celador,” Aragorn bowed his head. “I, too, would take such care when enemies are about. But, now, I fear we may be weakening Gondor by the moment, if I may, though you do so unknowingly.”
“What do you mean?” Celador asked.
“Before I left Pelargir, Alcaron told me that he learned of an attack upon Cair Andros, and that I must deliver this message to Tiror with all speed. I fear what this delay might mean for the success of my mission,” Aragorn said.
Celador rubbed his bearded chin and looked around at his companions. “Aye, unknowingly have I delayed you; but, we might make up for such delay by taking you upon safer paths to the fortress. We have sought Southrons and their forces through Northern Ithilien for days, though never in great numbers. It appears now we have learned why their parties are this far north. Come, Thorongil! You shall accompany us, though you shall not wear such garments, for your blue cloak will stand out too much among the wood.”
Aragorn smiled and removed his blue cloak. From a backpack, one of the rangers brought to him a brown coat, which he put his arms through and fastened around his neck with his star brooch that glimmered in the gathering dusk. The rangers set his horse off south again, and it ran swiftly as it knew the way back to Harlond.
But Celador and his rangers turned the opposite way and led Aragorn north. They passed off the road and into the trees, and they walked silently. Many yards of the road, Aragorn saw Celador and the rangers in front of him step around a large opening in the ground, freshly disturbed. As he walked by, he saw down inside the hole the bodies of the three Southron soldiers, bloodied and pierced by sharpened wood stakes. There were arrows in the bodies, and they lay draped over the trap like beasts slain in the hunt. Aragorn paused there to look upon the rangers’ work, but a hand gripped his shoulder.
“Such devices we have used for ages to protect this land,” said Celador, standing beside Aragorn. “We make it seem as if the land itself protects Gondor. But, fear not, stay in our line, and you shall not meet the same end.” Celador and the other rangers laughed as they walked by Aragorn, who took one last look at the Southrons lying dead upon the rangers’ spikes, and continued walking with the company.
The company walked along pathways through the wood that few could see. Even with his long experience, it took Aragorn nearly a day to clearly see the rangers’ trails as they followed them. When they met, Celador and his company saw Aragorn merely as a lord, perhaps from some northern city who sought glory for himself in Gondor. The first day they treated him as a burden, such as an extra pack to carry among them. But as he walked swiftly beside them and his long legs and feet carried him softly and as quietly as their own, the rangers soon realized that there was more to Thorongil than they originally expected.
The rangers’ hidden paths carried them far north, and safely into a wide secluded glade. The turf was thick and green, with fragrant Eglantine and yellow and white Asphodel spread among the grass. Celador and the rangers sat among large rocks that dotted the glade as a handful of rangers went about to keep watch. Aragorn came and knelt beside Celador, who drank from his waterskin and watched across the glade as if looking for a messenger.
“How much further to Cair Andros?” Aragorn asked in a quiet voice.
Celador scanned the treeline surrounding the glade, took a drink and closed up his waterskin. “Less than a day. But we must wait here for a little while.”
“For what purpose? We are all able, your men do not look weary,” Aragorn said.
“We are few, and along the way I have sent messengers to more of our people in the wood. I am not the only captain in Ithilien. More men will join us, and we shall reinforce Cair Andros, if indeed an attack comes as you say,” Celador said.
Aragorn could sense a hint of doubt in Celador’s voice. Perhaps the ranger captain still did not believe him. For many of his years, Aragorn followed his brothers, Elladan and Elrohir while they ranged, and seldom did he take the lead. He thought of Celador now as one of the twins, not hesitant, but vigilant, and taking care to protect those under his charge. He could not blame Celador, for if he sought to increase his numbers in case Aragorn led them astray, it would be a wise course of action. But, as Aragorn pondered the nature of Celador’s decision, he heard the same call that presaged the attack on the Southrons.
Celador waved to Aragorn and he put his back to a large boulder. Aragorn crawled beside him and laid his body flat on the turf. He put his ear to the ground and heard footsteps approaching, and the earth told him of approaching men, though not rangers, for the footfalls were heavy and unconcerned about the path that they walked. Raising his head, Aragorn could no longer see any of the rangers in Celador’s company, but he did see men emerge from the trees. They were clad in the same raiments and clothes as the Southrons he had seen on the road.
The strange tongues of the Southrons began to echo in the glade and Aragorn watched them with his eyes just above the grass. With a slight turn of his head, he saw that Celador had silently moved around the boulder and Aragorn could see only the ranger’s arm, his bow in-hand. Another call from unseen rangers came across the glade and the Southrons stopped, their leader halting them as if he recognized the sound. But, their fate was already sealed.
A whistle from the trees, then another, and another, as arrows found their marks on the Southrons. Two dropped quickly, and four others began to scramble, turning their backs to one another to look all around them. They fled, running toward Aragorn and Celador. As they approached, Celador leaned out from the boulder and another Southron fell with the twang of Celador’s bowstring. Aragorn leapt to his feet, drew his blade and quickly met another, whose own curved blade was in hand. They crashed together and the Southron grunted as he swung wildly and Aragorn parried each blow. Aragorn grabbed the soldier by the neck, pulling him closer, but the soldier gripped his other arm, preventing him from dealing a blow.
Aragorn used his weight and fell back, pulling the Southron with him, and as they fell, Aragorn flipped the soldier over him, throwing him, the Southron’s body rolling in the grass. They became untangled and Aragorn quickly found Narsil in the turf, picked it up, and realized he held the Southron’s black cloth in his other hand. He quickly looked up and saw the soldier slowly climbing to his feet. Aragorn paused. The Southron looked back at Aragorn with awe and fear. He was a young man, his olive skin soft, with barely a mark or shadow. His eyes were bright, and fearful.
Suddenly, with a thud, the Southron trembled and Aragorn flinched at the feeling of an arrow flying near to his face. He saw the arrow pierce the young man’s chest; then, another. The Southron’s eyes rolled back and his body fell to the grass. Aragorn turned as Tellagor brushed past him.
“You’re welcome,” the ranger said. He went to the body and knelt over it, pulling the arrows from it, and wiping their points on the grass.
Aragorn came beside him, but did not speak. Tallagor looked at him, then simply stood and walked away. Aragorn stared into the young face, which slowly lost its light. The young man’s eyes were still open, and Aragorn softly closed them.
“Thorongil,” Celador called from behind. “We must go, now. Our companions have come.”
Aragorn turned from the young man in the grass and stood to see the glade filled with nearly forty rangers. They all greeted one another as old friends would, but they still dispersed into their own groups of five or ten. It was clear to Aragorn that the rangers all knew one another, but formed more intimate bonds with the few men with whom they roamed Ithilien. Celador carried much respect among all of them, and though he told Aragorn he was not the only captain in Ithilien, all others seemed to defer to him. Aragorn walked toward the larger group, sheathing his broken sword as Celador spoke. Few rangers paid the newcomer any mind.
“So we march to Cair Andros. If Alcaron’s message is true, then we may arrive to find it besieged already,” Celador said to the gathering of rangers.
In a moment that Aragorn could not have expected, the ranger Tellagor, who had been so threatening to him, appeared to soften and put a hand on Celador’s shoulder as if reassuring him. “We will reach Cair Andros swiftly,” Tellagor said, and Celador nodded and smiled.
“Let’s move!” Celador roared to the group.
They all spoke softly amongst themselves and gathered their things. Celador was speaking quietly with Tellagor, nodding. Tellagor then walked away and Celador turned to Aragorn. “I trust you are more than a messenger, Thorongil.”
“That I am,” Aragorn said defiantly.
“Good. For if we reached besieged Cair Andros, a moment’s pause at the enemy will leave us one man short,” Celador said disapprovingly.
Aragorn bowed his head, “Forgive me. I do not know what came over me.”
Celador sighed and his shoulders dropped. He nodded his head and rubbed his bearded face. “Forgive me if I am harsh. Tiror is close to me, and I am simply grieved at the thought of reaching the fortress too late. Come! You shall walk with me at the vanguard.”
The rangers moved swiftly now, flying from the glade through the woods. Celador and Aragorn traveled at the van, as other groups of rangers ran with them, spread out to their left and right. Celador did not speak, and Aragorn heard little of the rangers around him. It seemed they all flew with urgency, as need drove them on to Cair Andros. They pushed through the night, and the wind was in the trees out of the east, and Aragorn could begin to smell fire and upon the air. While the wind blew among the trees, the rangers moved like the wind along pathways and over rough ground without faltering.
The moon rose high that evening and the woods were not as thick as the company ran north. Aragorn heard the rushing of water away to their left, and the smell of wet stone drifted on the wind. They had come near to Anduin, finally turning westward. A ranger called out in a soft whistle and Celador slowed the company to a stop. Two rangers emerged from the shadowed trees ahead and came to speak to Celador. Aragorn did not linger near, but could see Celador’s face become weary and he rubbed his beard in thought. At least he put a hand to both rangers’ shoulders and they flew from him, back through the trees and shadows ahead. Celador came over to Aragorn and other rangers gathered near.
“Scouts have reported that forces move on Cair Andros,” Celador said, with worry clear in his voice. The other rangers looked at one another, and though they appeared troubled, their faces turned steely and quiet. “We are less than two leagues from the crossing. The enemy comes from the northeast. We may arrive ere they attack,” Celador said. “Fly!”
He waved his arm and the rangers sprang forth once more through the night. Aragorn’s long legs kept up with Celador, who though shorter, knew the lands far better and his footfalls were surer than Aragorn’s own. Near the dawn, they emerged from the trees on a gently sloping bank of the Anduin. There, they met a handful of rangers who had prepared small boats for the company. Carved of fair Lebethron, they were large enough to hold five men, and the rangers had ten laid up on the bank. The men began breaking into groups to board the boats and they emerged from the trees with more provisions than Aragorn had seen them carry. He gathered this was a common secret crossing for the rangers, as the waters of Anduin were wide and rough around Cair Andros, so that no army could cross, save for taking the fortress itself.
As Aragorn upon the bank, watching Celador direct his rangers, Aragorn looked to the northeast and in the treeline he saw a dark shadow. It moved swiftly from one tree to another. He walked that way, among the rangers so as to not draw suspicion, and trained his ear upon the forest. He heard the footsteps of the shadowed figure halt. Standing just outside a group of rangers at the last boat in the line, Aragorn knelt and looked into the wood, seeing clearly at last a figure there. He knew not the calls of the rangers, but he let out a sharp, clear-ringing whistle, which turned every head on the bank.
Aragorn pointed and shouted, “A watcher in the woods!” But, he did not move his eyes from the dark figure, which suddenly stood and began to run in a panic.
At least six rangers sprang into the trees after him, and after a few moments, they returned. Two of them dragged the body of a man cloaked in dark leather and cloth, arrows in his back. Celador ran over to them and looked upon the scout. “The enemy is here and they scout the banks for any crossing point,” he said.
“Can they cross here, without boats?” Aragorn asked.
“No, the river is too deep to ford on foot at any place but the approaches to Cair Andros,” Celador said. “Let us go! We cross, and approach Cair Andros by the southwest.”
With Celador’s orders, the rangers launched the small boats into the river and Aragorn leapt into Celador’s boat, being the last to push it off the sandy bank. He rowed with the others and they swiftly crossed, the current carrying them southward only a short way where the river bent and the bank was small, but made of small rocks and sand, with only a few feet before it rose sharply in mud and tree roots, to the forest floor on the western side. The rangers tossed ropes and hooks, and they skillfully found trees and root to moor their boats. Though the boat rocked, Aragorn managed to leap from it onto the muddy bank and climb the small rise with Celador offering a hand.
The rangers gathered their things once more, and teams of three pulled the boats up the embankment and onto the ground, quickly covering them with twigs, branches, and netting to camouflage them at the base of trees along the bank. Celador ordered a few men to stay behind to watch the boats and the river, while the company raced north again, to the island fortress. High above the trees, and across the river, a great island, shaped like a ship, stood in the middle of the river. A great white stone tower rose on the southern end, surrounded by high walls. And across the river to the east, mingled with the rising sun, a smoke and flame approached the borders of Gondor.