Smoke and Ruin

Over gentle hills and plowed land they ran, with Aragorn in the van by many strides, his long legs carrying him lightly over bright green fields. The men of Gondor were hardy, but little time had they spent flying across the country by their own two feet. They huffed and endured the run silently, trying to keep pace with Thorongil, who to them, seemed to earn his name, eagle of Cair Andros, by speeding over the countryside as if on wings. He gave little heed to fences or hedges and scaled them all without a wasted moment. Any obstacles only led to Glamren and Caradol being further behind, until they saw his cloak filling with the wind behind him; wings of an eagle, indeed.

But, at last, over a small hill but two miles from the forested lands behind them, did Aragorn stop. He stood atop the mound and looked down upon a wide swathe of farmland, with small stone houses here and there, and many fences criss-crossing the lands. But, what may have been a fair place only a few days before, was now burned and ruined. The wood and thatched roofs were burned, collapsed upon their stone settings, and some burned, still. Man and beast alike lay dead across the yards and fields, and crops were torn, raked, and burned. With heavy footfalls and heavy gasps of air, Glamren and Caradol came up the hill behind, and paused there with him. Had they been full of breath, and not just ending a long flight, their breath would have been stolen from them by the sight of their kin.

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“What ruin!” Glamren said amid gasps. “Men, women, and children, I see. All left dead and bare in the hot sun. Orcs only know such savagery.”

“Yes, orcs, but from whence did they come? So far within your bounds,” Aragorn said. But Caradol cut him off at the thought.

“Surely the mighty defenders of Cair Andros have not fallen since your leaving,” he said.

“I think not. We have not been away for long, and would a host strong enough to overtake Cair Andros cross the river, they would surely be at the walls of your city by now,” Aragorn said.

“Perhaps this is some rearguard, left to ravage the townsfolk to inflict further wounds upon us?” said Glamren.

A flame arose in Aragorn’s heart and his fists were tight and his face hardened like stone and he yearned to cry out, but held his wrath within until there emerged some target. He gazed across the land and saw little movement, be it man or orc; only the black shapes of carrion birds hopped upon the ground, or roved silently overhead.

“Come, let us get a closer look. At the least, we do not wish to leave your kin as carrion upon the ground.” And, before the others could respond, he raced down the hill to the farmland, for his mood was aflame, and short was his temper.

When they came upon the farm, the smell of smoke and burning wood and grass, and the stench of hewn flesh were thick. Caradol knelt beside the body of an elder man lying face down on the earth, the grass around him dark and wet with his blood. Aragorn and Glamren looked around the stone house, and the bodies of a woman and child lay near. Dark birds sat upon the eaves of the stone above, unafraid of smoke or the new men who walked beneath them. Glamren lay his hand gently upon the back of the small boy and spoke softly to himself.

Aragorn looked away to the east, down a dirt road where it rose up to the crest of another hill, and then disappeared. He saw more smoke rising above the hill; but they could not venture forth yet, for Caradol and Glamren wished to lay the slain to rest. There were little tools at-hand, for the orcs had ravaged and collapsed the small barn, and anything that could be was broken and useless. So they lifted stone and wood from the shattered remains of the home and barn and built what mounds they could by hand, with each body lying next to the other. The day passed along and their backs ached as well as their hearts, and the sun beat upon their brows and backs.

By the time they had finished it was well into the evening and the sun was now drifting below the White Mountains and hills behind them. All the fair land seemed drenched in a foul light, red and darkening. The three men gathered their things once more and Aragorn led them off down the dirt road that passed beside a sweet smelling orchard, and it gladdened them for but a moment. As they passed the fair field and trees, they crested the hill and saw there below a hamlet; numerous buildings smoldering and wrecked.

“Look! I see folk moving about!” Glamren called.

“Indeed, this is a good sign, for it seems not all were lost,” said Aragorn.

They rushed down the road as dusk fell upon them. The once fair land was laid to waste, blackened with fires since extinguished, and some smoldering still. Had they come only a few days ere the orcs came, the hamlet would have been a sight of peace and beauty. Green fields and trees beside the road, while great golden mounds of straw stood as monuments to many days work. The homes were of simple wood and stone; thatched roofs and fair wisps of smoke coming from their chimneys as food was prepared.

But all peace and color seemed stolen away, as the houses stood crooked and broken. Thatched roofs lay all around and within the eaves below. Trails of thick black smoke still rose as some fires burned into the gathering dark. The great mounds of straw themselves were cast to the wind, spread across the field. But Aragorn and the others heard voices and shouting as they approached where the houses stood close together along the south side of the road. The buildings surrounded an open space, with a great stone cistern, and here, the hamlet’s people made their fortifications.

Aragorn, Caradol, and Glamren turned off the road and passed by the short fence of a house, with its gate hanging open by a solitary hinge. Rounding the corner they saw down a simple path between yet more homes, a great mass of detritus: barrels, beams, pieces of broken barns and homes, upturned wains, their wheels and chains scattered. The great haphazard wall stood across the street, and Aragorn saw men behind, and two men sitting upon the stoop of a still standing farmhouse. They talked among themselves and only noticed the three men approaching as they nearly passed by.

“Halt! Who comes hither as the night gathers?” One of them called, standing up swiftly.

“I am Thorongil, Captain in service of Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor, and Lord of Minas Tirith,” Aragorn said in a commanding voice that cowed the two men who stood watch, now shown clearly as little more than farmers, the hardy but innocent folk of Gondor. The two men looked at one another, unsure of what to say to such a man, as if their master had ill-prepared them to greet a friend.

“Thorongil?” A voice cried in searching hope, as if looking for a fair memory among such recent horrors. From behind the hasty fortification came another man, but this one looking fair and lordly, with his dark hair pulled back behind his ears, and his face darkened by soot and dirt. He wore a grey cloak lined with red, and Aragorn saw also fine leather and a pauldron upon his left shoulder.

Quickly the man recognized Aragorn. “Hope unlooked for! Thorongil! Indeed, it is you.” The man strode up to them and Aragorn realized that he looked upon Lord Alcaron, whom he met weeks prior in Pelargir.

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“Lord Alcaron,” Aragorn bowed his head, and Caradol and Glamren did the same, their hands upon their chests. “I am pleased to see you again, though, no less surprised. How long have you been here, since our last meeting in Pelargir?”

“A week or more, I would say,” Alcaron said. “Fearing further attacks after your victory at Cair Andros, the Steward sent me to Anorien, to gather and inspect the levy. But, we were scarcely able to gather many before the orcs attacked.”

As they spoke, the folk of the hamlet and surrounding farms ventured out of doors and opened shuttered windows, as word of fair knights from Minas Tirith had come to aid them. Though glad they were to see Aragorn and his two companions, they murmured amongst themselves, So few have come?; These three are all the aid our lord sends?

“The orcs attacking farms troubles me greatly, for they have rove far into your lands,” Aragorn said. “Tell me what has happened here, and if you or these folk would be so kind as to provide food and water for myself and my men, for we have traveled a fair distance, and in little time.”

“Of course, come with me, and we shall take rest and speak quietly, though darkness descends, and I fear that soon another assault will be upon us.”

Alcaron led them away, around the barricade and into a wide barn, with straw lining the floor and tables and barrels set up within. Once filled with tools, livestock, and stores of food, the barn was now a guard house, and what tools the folk had were now weapons in their hands, pitchfork and scythe. Alcaron sat upon a barrel and bread and water were brought to Aragorn, Caradol, and Glamren. Fruits there were also, and some cheese, and the men took them gratefully and ate their fill as Alcaron spoke.

“North I came with four riders from Minas Tirith. We rode throughout the farmlands, issuing the Lord’s summons, and we rode across the eastern lands, even within sight of Cair Andros. We called men to rally at arms at Amon Din within the fortnight. But, not four or five days into our errand, we soon saw the savagery of the orcs on farmlands near the western bank. I sent one man to Cair Andros, yet he did not return.

“I rode here, with my other men, as we would surely see the levy coming down the road toward Amon Din, should any answer the summons. But, none came, and soon it was clear that orcs roamed the lands and were sacking villages and farms. Men stayed in their homes to defend themselves; we were attacked just last night, and though we held them at bay, it seemed only a small party. I fear the worst is awaiting us.”

“Indeed, they did not settle for your village here,” Caradol said. “We saw a farm not a mile away burned and the folk there dead, man, woman, and child.” Alcaron hung his head, his arms upon his knees.

“These are evil tidings, Alcaron. For I cannot see how a party of orcs could cross the river. When I was with Celador and Tiror, they assured me that no such crossing was possible, save for those the Rangers in Ithilien keep secret,” said Aragorn.

“Then such crossings they must have found, or slayed our brethren in Ithilien who guarded them,” Alcaron said.

“The force that attacked Cair Andros did pass over Anduin in rafts and other watercraft. I was upon the banks when they came ashore, and we drove them back, and set fire to their rafts and boats. Perhaps they had others and in their retreat, merely rallied for another sortie,” Aragorn said.

“That is to be determined in days to come, for night settles, and my men have done well to direct the villagers to protect themselves, and our number is strengthened! For surely the Eagle of Cair Andros shall not fall upon the grass of a simple hamlet. Far from here is your doom, I suspect,” said Alcaron, standing gladly and clapping a hand on Aragorn’s shoulder.

Aragorn wilted from the touch, from weariness or fear, he did not know. But Alcaron at least was right, for they strengthened the hamlet’s defense, and all must be done to protect the folk they could through the night. Aragorn stood and looked at Caradol and Glamren, “Go now and seek out Alcaron’s men, and find where we may be of use.”

“Aye!” Glamren said, and they stood and hurried away.

The village was quiet. The barricade was built so that it protected a wide arc from one house to another, walling off the cistern yard, and behind, stables and storehouses stood at their backs, where all now gathered. Women and children sat upon straw within the barns, and the men watched into the night, by the light of the moon and small burning torches upon the barricade.

Glamren and Caradol stood apart, and around each of them were a small handful of men and young lands. Farmers, farriers, and stable boys they were, and the soldiers attempted to rally their spirits, and each was in charge of a small company, now, defending their keep. Some guarded the stables, and Alcaron’s men were with them as well. Alcaron’s men did the same, and there were watchers in the stables, looking out over the land to the north, for though they had a strong defense in front, there were ways to attack from all sides, if the orcs proved numerous.

Aragorn stood calm and silent, and several of the townsfolk looked upon him like a graven image in the far off white city that existed to them, largely, within their own imaginations. For he looked lesser in age than Alcaron, but he was lordly, and he carried around him an air of wisdom. They whispered about him in the night, though none spoke to him directly.

Over the quiet whispers and the soft wind blowing, they heard a sharp shrill cry in the dark. A babe cried behind in the stable. Men sat up alarmed, and Aragorn’s eyes narrowed to the hills to the south, and upon those once fair green slopes, dark shapes massed and broke over their crests and small torches were among them, and the sounds of orc cries and calls carried on the wind.

“They are coming!” Aragorn cried out, and he drew not Narsil, but held a stout spear in his hands, for a faint but powerful call in the back of his mind bid him to keep the blade sheathed until the uttermost need.

He could not count their numbers, but their snarls and cries were numerous, and they raced across the fields and over the broken fences and the road, a teeming rush of darkness. Not all ran down the small lane between the houses toward the barricade, but many tossed their torches through windows or upon roofs, and Aragorn recognized their works from Cair Andros. Orc arsonists howled as fires lit within the dark windows of the homes around them. Though, all were empty save the stables and storehouses around the cistern.

Many came upon the barricade and broke upon it, though some leapt atop the crude wall, and screaming in vile speech, came down among the farmers, who leapt back in fear, save a few stout fellows who thrust at the orcs with their pitchforks. Some orc bodies piled up, others simply laughed and broke the staves of their attackers, swinging their scimitars and cutting down farmers and young boys like wheat in a field. But Aragorn came there swiftly, and with his spear, he drove it through two orcs, driving one before impaling the other. And as they squirmed upon the pike, Caradol came there in a fury and hew the heads off the orcs with one great stroke of his blade.

But their foes were not yet cowed. Orcs with broad blades in one hand and lit torches in the other crashed upon the barricade and the wood burst alight as the defenders stood back from it. Some overtook the barricade and orcs clad in dark and marked plate came upon them. They rushed at the defending farmers but Glamren and one of Alcaron’s men met the marauding orcs and drove them to the ground, and smote them together.

“Hold firm!” Aragorn cried, “Douse these flames!” He pointed to the wide section of the barricade now licked by red flames and free farmers rushed from the cistern with buckets; back and forth they ran until the flames were awash and a thick grey smoke filled the air.

Aragorn heard a cry behind and the clashing of swords and the crash of scattered debris as he turned and looked between the stable and a farmhouse, where orcs rushed through the small space between, trampling the dead bodies of farmers and one of Alcaron’s men. The new foes tossed fresh flames at the barricade and within the stable, and Aragorn rushed toward them as he saw Alcaron away to his right, shouting at his company and pointing to the orcs at their backs.

All was noise and fire, smoke and ruin. For the open space surrounding the cistern became a frightful battleground, as the orcs came in. A score of them breached the defenses and the villagers panicked and they ran this way and that. Some fled into the stable and with horse blankets, attempted to smother the flames upon the straw, but they were harassed by the murderous orcs who saw the defenseless within, thirsty for the blood of Gondor.

But as the orcs fanned inside the yard, Aragorn threw his spear with a mighty effort, and it felled an orc of great size, tossing it upon its back, piercing through its plate-covered chest. Thus, he was unarmed, and the battle swirled around him, and his thoughts became a haze; his eyes burned with smoke, but his heart was aflame as the men, women, and children of the village cried out in sorrowful gasps, their numbers dwindling. He stood upon the stone cistern and with a heavy hand he swung Narsil from its sheath, and like a great blazing brand, the broken blade shone bright against the moon and fire all around.

“Harken to me, foes of Gondor! See now Thorongil; Eagle of Cair Andros, Captain of Ecthelion, Dunedan of Arnor!” His voice broke clear through the din as if a herald blew upon a great horn and all who were there looked upon him, a great shape rising before the fire among the barricade behind, and his blade shimmered as if it too were lit with fire. The orcs seemed stricken dumb by his display, and their gaze turned long enough for the men of the hamlet to rally behind Aragorn and the cistern, as Alcaron strode up behind him as well, his face black and bloodied.

“Send forth your vile captain, the one who drives you cruelly so! For you war with children, and seek not the valiant, for their hearts surely would drive you to ruin!” Aragorn cried. The orcs looked about and cowered as one pushed through them, a dark shape, green beneath black armor upon its chest and shoulders. A great pelt was on its back and upon its belt were skulls of men and beasts. In his right hand he held a jagged blade, and in the other, the severed head of an elder man, face frozen in fear. The orc captain strode forward defiantly and tossed the head at Aragorn’s feet.

“Here am I, Ghulat,” he snarled, his long tongue licking across his teeth and lips.

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“Then, your doom is now at hand!” said Aragorn, and the band of men, numbering little more than ten, now, at his back cried out in triumph; and the orcs behind Ghulat sneered. Alcaron looked up at Aragorn in amazement, for he had seen his prowess in a scuffle among the patrons of the Leaping Fish, but then he knew not that he had met a proud captain with bold words and deeds. And he saw that Aragorn held a broken sword, though not shattered from the battle at hand, but ancient it seemed, and he thought he saw upon the blade carven runes, and he looked at it with wonder and suspicion.

“Kill them!” Ghulat hissed and his orcs ran forth. Aragorn leapt from the cistern and past the onrushing orcs, who clashed behind him with Glamren, Caradol, Alcaron, and those who stood with them. Aragorn saw Ghulat, only, and with a great rush and shout he swung Narsil at his foe, but their blades crossed, and Ghulat’s great strength became clear.

The orc captain stood tall and wide and with his free arm he knocked Aragorn back. But Aragorn faltered only a moment and was prepared for the next assault; he parried and with a swift hand, he drew the knife from his belt and thrust it into Ghulat’s sword arm as it was held up in lock with Narsil. Ghulat shrieked and Aragorn stepped just outside a blow from the orc’s other arm; and now free from the orc captain’s weight, Aragorn came forward again and Narsil hewed Ghulat’s arm off just below the elbow. The captain’s jagged sword fell into the dirt, hand still clasped upon the hilt. Ghulat fell to his knees and roared, holding his hewn arm, but Aragorn brought Narsil down upon his head and the captain fell silent.

The orcs wailed and cowered in fear at the sight of their fallen captain. Though they had slain many, they broke and ran in many directions. The makeshift fortifications became a pen that hemmed in the remaining orcs, for they frantically searched for exits while Glamren, Caradol, and the villagers pursued them. Some fled over the burning barricade, or back through the stable, and Caradol rallied men to his side and they ran after them, in pursuit until no orc remained living. And Aragorn sat upon the cistern, his heart beating and his arms and body sore. He looked around the yard and saw many dead: women and children, and the men who tried to defend their homes. Aragorn wept in the deep night.

The morning dawned red and every heart in the village was heavy. The villagers and those who lived in the farmlands around sat together and they comforted one another, for their losses were great. The hamlet smoldered as the barricade was broken into many fragments, burnt and black, wet and smoking. Fires had been put out in the early hours of the morning, yet some of the houses suffered. Caradol and Glamren aided the villagers in arraying the dead, and a great mound was lifted outside the hamlet for their bodies, and they were laid to rest with reverence.

The noon hour was quiet and the townsfolk sat and ate together. In the afternoon they went to work dismantling the barricade and sifting through the jetsam to save what was not touched by flame or broken in battle. As the day dragged on, Caradol and Glamren looked to Aragorn for what they would do next, but he was weary, and the loss of the townsfolk weighed heavily on him. He would not abandon them yet, and the three stayed another night, and then, after a second day, they sat with Alcaron and took counsel together.

“I should stay until my rider returns,” Alcaron said. He had sent his remaining guard to the hinterlands and spread the news of the orcs’ defeat, and Alcaron intended to still call the levy to Amon Din. “But, your orders were not with this errand, and you should return to Minas Tirith and report to the Steward what you know of the conspirators’ and the demise of the orcs here.”

Aragorn was quiet, but Glamren and Caradol looked at one another and spoke freely. “Do you feel men will answer the muster, with their homes being in such recent danger?” asked Caradol.

“The Lord Ecthelion feared new assaults upon our border since Cair Andros, and the raids by these orcs add only more reason for the people to muster, now,” Alcaron said.

“To ask so much of these simple folk who have lost,” Glamren said in despair.

“All live to serve our lord,” Alcaron responded sternly. “Those who are called must answer, lest their honor and life be in question.”

At last Aragorn spoke, “From Cair Andros to Minas Tirith, and all fair lands between, I fear a cloud is falling upon Gondor. Enemies are circling, and I feel that Alcaron is right in wishing to call the levy. Though I cannot begrudge those who defend their homes, for Gondor’s need is not yet dire. But, we here must decide what to do ourselves; for me, I wish to stay until your man returns, bearing what news he may have gathered.”

“I will follow my Captain,” Caradol said, looking to Aragorn. “Aye,” answered Glamren.

Alcaron looked at the three of them and searched their faces, and he remarked that in such a short time, it seemed some men of Gondor had begun to look to Thorongil as their brethren and were eager to follow him, from Cair Andros to Minas Tirith, indeed. He rubbed his darkened chin and at length spoke again. “Perhaps you should stay, Thorongil. These men look to you, and indeed the townsfolk here owe you a great debt. Your presence may inspire those to rally and join the weapontake, if you ask it of them.”

Aragorn considered this, but he hesitated to agree, for he felt called by his duty to Ecthelion, and the errand of the cabal in Minas Tirith, for Denethor awaited news of their fate. And to ask the people to assemble their arms while they laid to rest their neighbors, seemed to him a grievous request. But, Alcaron alone among them held authority in the absence of the Steward and Aragorn weighed his counsel carefully.

“I will do as you suggest, Alcaron,” Aragorn said. “For though I wish to return to Minas Tirith and report to Ecthelion, there is more that can be done here. I do not want to abandon these folk, and if I can aid them further, then I will.”

Alcaron smiled and the answer pleased him, though he could not be sure whether Aragorn agreed willingly, or out of a sense of duty. The men with him, though, would follow him. They broke their counsel and awaited the return of Alcaron’s rider. It was a day before he returned, and in the early morning, Aragorn, Glamren, Caradol, Alcaron, and his rider prepared to depart the hamlet for Amon Din.

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The villagers provided them with horses, and as Aragorn stood beside the saddle upon his mount, a woman and child approached him. She was fair and hardened, for she was now a widow, whose husband fell to the orcs; and the small boy at her side had still red cheeks, and his eyes were downcast, but he tried to straighten his back and show not his pain. “My lord,” she spoke softly as they stood beside him. The boy held in his hands a parcel, wrapped in rugged cloth. “We wish to repay you, as best we can,” she said, and the boy handed up the bound cloth to him.

As he took it, and unwrapped the cloth, he saw a fair material there concealed, and rolled up, and he unfurled it in his hands, and the sight shook him like no fearful battle or vengeful orc had yet in his life. For he held a bright banner, green as the fields and farms around them, and white, and blue. And at its broad end was a great bird, and eagle, and the bright sun. Aragorn wavered, and his heart stirred.

His voice shook. “Rarely have I received such a fair gift,” he said. “Though I call the elves, in a way, my kin, such beauty and skill would rival that in Rivendell.” The woman blushed and the young boy looked up proudly at Aragorn, his face full of light again. Aragorn touched his curly hair, and smiled. He bowed low to the woman and with care, wrapped up the banner lightly again, and concealed it beneath its cloth covering until he should affix it properly. He mounted his steed and looked back to them and he appeared as a great knight, the likes of which they had never before seen.

“Should I ride to war, again, for Gondor, I shall carry this and the spirit of Anorien will ride with me, and the enemy will lament my coming and fly from me,” he said.

They rode on, southwards, and they crossed the great road and ahead, a great rocky hill rose above all others, silent and watchful. Amon Din towered above the green and wooded fields around it, and the Druadan Forest lay to its west. Upon its knees to the east were heavy thickets, grey and shadowed. And Aragorn could see atop the rocky promontory a dark shape and a humble housing for the beacon guards.

“Amon Din is the oldest of Gondor’s beacons, and it has long looked over the lowlands from here to Anduin, and even to Cair Andros and North Ithilien,” Alcaron said to him as they approached.

Below the hill and in its deepening shadow, they saw many tents and horses, and men gathered together around fires. And there was a tent, larger than all others, that stood at the center. Alcaron lifted in his saddle and his face broke into a wide smile. “Many have come! We shall hold a council tonight, before we ride to Minas Tirith.”

The five riders entered the camp, and those at guard deferred to Alcaron, and looked up at Aragorn in wonder, and waved to Glamren and Caradol, being more near to them in standing. They dismounted and were shown to tents where they could rest and feast, and as the sun slowly fell behind the mountains, there were but a few hours before Alcaron would call the council together.

Aragorn wished only to rest, and his sleep was disquieted by dreams and memories. He dreamt of that day only years past, but that still felt near, when Elrond and his mother delivered unto him the heirlooms of his house, and the truth of his lineage. And though the Ring of Barahir and the Sword that was Broken passed to him, there was yet one artifact that Elrond withheld. For Elrond said to him, “With these you may yet do great deeds; for I foretell that the span of your life shall be greater than the measure of Men, unless evil befalls you or you fail at the test. But the test will be hard and long. The Sceptre of Annuminas I withhold, for you have yet to earn it.” And when Aragorn awoke, he dwelt on those words, and the test that Elrond spoke of, and the earning of the Sceptre, which was held long by the Kings of Arnor.

But as he sat upon his bedding in the small tent, he remembered then another happening, for on that far off evening, as he walked under the setting sun, he sang, and his heart was gladdened by the Lay of Luthien. Then, he saw there the fair daughter of Elrond, Arwen Undomiel, and the thought of her now filled him with love and hope. And such were those early days of truth, where questions and doubt were mingled with bright hope, and the love of those around him.

“Lord Thorongil,” a voice said softly from outside his tent flap. “Lord Alcaron calls a meeting.”

“I shall come at once,” he responded, and he stood and took nothing with him from his tent, for he had shed his cuirass and greaves and only the sword of Elendil hung at his side, for he dared not leave it unwatched.

Within the great tent, many men stood about, and there was a fire in the center, smoke rising up through a hole in the tent above. Many talked amongst themselves, and the tent was full of many voices, but Alcaron and a select few talked together near the fire. Though the men around him were no lords, nor captains, they marshalled men from their own towns, villages, and homesteads, and thus, spoke for the groups that now rallied together beneath the beacon hill. Glamren and Caradol saw Aragorn enter and greeted him, but they mingled with the soldiers and common folk, as Aragorn left to join Alcaron.

“Ah, Thorongil,” Alcaron said as he approached. “I am just hearing reports of those who have come, and I am pleased with the muster. Nearly three hundred are here. A fine weapontake for this land. We are now discussing our ride on the morrow.”

“To Minas Tirith?” Aragorn said.

“Nay, for I have received new word from Ecthelion!” Alcaron said. “Let me deliver it now to the company at hand, and we shall all consider it together.”

Then, one of the men blew a light call upon his horn, and the men quieted and turned to look upon them in the center. Alcaron stood, holding a scroll, a message from Ecthelion. “Men of Gondor, I am Alcaron, and am sent by his Lordship Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor, to raise your levy in response to growing threats upon our eastern lands. You know of the victory at Cair Andros little more than a fortnight past; and many of you have defended your hearths from roving orcs in recent nights.

“We now stand at a call to arms, for Ecthelion has called for us to marshal at the Rammas, for we join the levy of the Pelennor, and Knights of Minas Tirith, to ride across the river and make an assault upon Osgiliath! The defeat of the enemy at Cair Andros was not the final stroke, for more have come to Osgiliath, and the eastern shore is under threat again,” said Alcaron. The tent filled again with many men’s voices, as they spoke to one another about such a move.

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“We should ride at the coming of the sun!” One voice called above the rest.

“Aye, it is in my mind to ride at once, though I am no soldier or captain,” Alcaron said, humbly. “Who among you would ride at the head of such a force?” And the room was quiet, and all men looked around, for there was none who stood forward, all thinking that Alcaron would lead them, being a high lord.

Alcaron looked around and finally at Aragorn, and there was a strange light in Alcaron’s eyes, and a smile on his face. But Aragorn was reluctant, and he remembered the words of Elrond of years past, for in his heart, he knew the time was not now to stand above and speak his claim. He looked at Alcaron, but did not stir. No others came forth.

At length, a familiar voice called out, Glamren, who rode with Aragorn from Minas Tirith. “Lord Thorongil shall lead us thither!” Aragorn looked at once at the soldier, who wilted under his gaze for a moment, like a child speaking out of turn. But, his conviction shone through, and he stepped to the center of the tent. “Many of you here do not know him, and I and my companion, Caradol, have ridden with him for only a short time. But we know of his deeds, for he has already won renown in Gondor! He saved Lord Alcaron’s life in Pelargir,” Glamren said.

Alcaron stood tall and nodded, “Aye, it is true, for he came to me solely of his own heart, and did not know me when he preserved my life.”

“And, many of you know him as the Eagle of Cair Andros! For he stood upon the battlements of that fortress and repelled the enemy, and the lord Tiror called him his friend and ally,” Glamren continued. “For these deeds, the Lord Ecthelion named him a Captain of Gondor; the only Captain now, here among us.”

Many men rang out in a chorus, “Aye!” and it seemed to Aragorn that he could not refuse the summons, now. He looked at Glamren reluctantly, and the soldier was bright and full of hope and strength. Alcaron came to Aragorn and put an arm around him and they stood out together by the fire in the center of the tent and all the men gazed upon Aragorn at last, knowing now his station and valor.

“It was not my intent to stand before you,” Aragorn said. “For I am only here by the Steward’s leave, for I came out of the far North, from Rivendell. But I am descended from the remnants of the Northern Kingdom, and that in a way, makes us kindred, through a long count of years. If this be your will, then I shall answer, and only ride at your head by your leave.”

Then, all men in the tent rang out “Aye!” and they sang his name, and Alcaron clapped his hands and saw that Aragorn could not conceal his mirth beneath a veil of humility or regret for long. Men greeted him happily, and Glamren and Caradol introduced others to him, and they came to know him as best they could. They accepted him on the word of Ecthelion, who named him Captain, and upon the word of another, who like them, held little station in Gondor, but served greater masters. And if Thorongil be a worthy Captain to Glamren, son of Glamrenor, then those men now mustered from the farmland of Anorien would follow him.

The following morning, all arose with the sun, and Aragorn emerged from his tent in full stride and heart. His cuirass was fairly polished and the hardened leather shone anew. He wore his blue cloak, clasped at his shoulder by the fair elven star brooch. He had taken new clothes from the store that men gathered in the muster, and he felt renewed. All men, mounted or on foot, gathered with sword and spear, shield, and bow, and formed up in companies as Alcaron and Aragorn, as well as Glamren and Caradol, readied at their head.

Climbing into the saddle, Aragorn looked back to the north at the throng of men there, and then away, far into the misty morning, he thought of home. Glamren mounted beside him, and a great smile was upon his face, for he held in his hand a great wooden pole, and upon it, unfurled in the wind, was the banner made for Aragorn by the townsfolk whom they had saved. Aragorn looked up at the green and blue and white banner, flapping in the wind, and the sun caught behind it, shining through. Glamren carried it, and the banner of the Stewards, white tree upon black, rode on the other side of Aragorn, carried by Alcaron’s last rider.

Thus, the host departed Amon Din to a great horn call from the beacon guards upon the hill, and they waved as the host marched past, a great column of men. They marched around the hill, and to the east, passing the grey thickets on the right, they came to the road. Then, they turned right and south, following the road past the Grey Wood, which would at last bring them to the Rammas Echor, and there, Aragorn intended to halt at the North-gate for a time, sending word ahead into the City of their coming. And as they marched, Alcaron looked upon Aragorn and the banner that flew above his head, and wondered.