Aragorn stepped onto the wharf in the harbor of Pelargir. The sun was high and the heat of the early southern summer assailed him, though a cooling breeze blew in from the sea. The elves of the Havens had supplied him with new clothes and supplies, and he entered the port of Gondor dressed in a blue tunic and brown trousers, bloused above his boots, which did not look worn and muddy as they did in the North. His hair was tied back behind his head, and he looked of noble, though not regal, birth. A grey hooded cloak draped down from his shoulders, clasped about his breast by a silver star brooch. He was in the long summer of his manhood; his face was bright, but grave, losing the softness of youth.
Many passengers, crew members, and stevedores moved about, making the dock a busy and crowded space. Men pushed past him and he looked upon the city of white stone and wood. Many buildings rose beyond the harbor and beyond them, the White Mountains towered behind a haze and mist. Snow clung still to their highest peaks. The city was a great mix of domed buildings and towers of white stone, and wooden gabled structures with facades of white paint. The city surrounded the confluence of the Sirith and Anduin rivers, and stretched out around the banks with stone walls about it. Outside the walls, small villages and encampments dotted the fields and plains.
It had been a number of years since his mother and Elrond told him the truth of his lineage. He had come to terms with such news, accepting it, though reluctantly. The days of his anguish and youthful need to prove his strength lay behind him. The dark of Moria remained a shadow in the depth of his memory, nothing more. The time to selfishly test himself, to lash out without thought or in search of punishment, had ended. And after years in Imladris and abroad in Eriador and Rhovanion, his mother had summoned him and bid him to seek the South.
He had been long training with Elrohir, learning to fight with the broken blade, shorter than the natural longsword that he traditionally carried, but greater in length than a dagger. Elrohir’s long knives and skill with them were passed to Aragorn, and he learned to fight enemies near and far. Though he carried Narsil at his side, he refrained from using it until the need was great. The broken blade unsheathed was not easily forgotten, and Elrond and Gilraen always urged caution in the presence of those who he could not trust. But few who saw the sword that was broken unsheathed, lived to tell the tale, unless they stood at Aragorn’s side.
While he knew the folds and corners of the northern lands well, little did he know of the South. Gilraen, who knew his fate lay in Gondor, advised him to travel there and learn all he could of its ways and people. He studied the lore of Gondor that Elrond made available in Imladris, but knew that he must walk the streets and forests of the southern land. More than learning the land itself, he sought to explore the hearts of men and learn the nature of his distant southern kin.
Aragorn walked the cobbled city streets and the roar of discordant sounds was ever-present, ringing in his ears. Voices shouted from windows and shops, hammers clanged, and the non-stop clops of hooves on the cobblestones rose to a crescendo in the late morning, while the steady ringing of bells from ships in the harbor provided a rhythmic undertone to the noise. He followed a street up from the docks and to a great broad avenue that ran east to west.
This avenue led to a large market square, filled with people and cloth-canopied merchant stands. He walked through the growing crowd as children ran between the larger folk, laughing and talking excitedly. The market smelled of fresh fruits and earthy vegetables; the smell of fresh bread floated on the wind and there were stands of many-colored flowers. Aragorn smiled and felt his heart rising, for he had seldom seen such a pleasant and warm environment outside Imladris.
Turning out of the square, Aragorn found a dim, grimy lane where the clear ringing of hammers bounced around sharply and the interconnected buildings sent wisps of smoke from chimneys. He stepped into one of the open doorways into a darkened room where a counter stood across the length of the back of the room and many shields and coats of mail hung on either wall. A barrel-chested man with a heavy beard on his face and neck and great broad shoulders came in from the workshop in the back of the room, wiping his hand on his apron.
“’Ello there, sir. What may I do for you?”
Aragorn wandered the small room of the shop, looking at swords and other weapons on stands against the wall, and at the armor hanging above. He came to the desk, “I am seeking a new cuirass, though, not plate,” he said.
“Ah, you may look at that piece there,” the man said, pointing across the room to the wall.
Aragorn’s eye was indeed drawn to a hardened leather cuirass on a wooden stand. Across the breast was a great eagle, wings spread from left to right, its talons bared on unseen prey below. Above the eagle were seven stars that recalled the great sigil of Gondor. Aragorn lifted it off the stand and it felt light, but sturdy. The shopkeeper came around the desk through a doorway with a heavy curtain and took the cuirass from Aragorn and held it open. They set the piece across Aragorn’s shoulders and the man buckled it at the sides and Aragorn adjusted his shoulders and ran his hands down the chest.
“That is a fine fit!” The man said proudly.
“Indeed it is,” Aragorn said, looking down at the eagle across his chest. “This shall do nicely. Perhaps I could also take that fair set of bracers over there, as well?” Aragorn nodded toward them on a shelf on the opposite wall.
“Of course, of course,” the large man moved quickly and picked the bracers off the shelf and helped Aragorn affix them to his arms.
The man returned across the desk and the two completed their business. “By chance, is there a fair tavern or inn nearby?” Aragorn asked.
“Aye,” the keeper responded. “This part of town, try the Leaping Fish for a meal.” The man rubbed his bearded chin, “And I’d say if you stay for a while, the Blue Swan is fair,” he put his hand to the side of his mouth and lowered his voice, “though I don’t hear good things ‘bout the cooking.”
Aragorn smiled warmly, “Thank you, my friend! With such protections as these, the foes of Gondor will strike at me in vain.”
The words pleased the shopkeeper greatly and he nodded, “Gondor has been strengthened today, with the arrival of, uh—” and the man realized at last he did not know Aragorn’s name.
Aragorn clasped the cloak around his shoulders with the star brooch and smiled, “I am called Thorongil.”
It was late in the morning and Aragorn sat alone at a table in the corner of a tavern. A plate sat in front of him with only bread crumbs remaining, and Aragorn leaned back in his chair, smoking his pipe. He took in the aroma of smoked meats, fish, ale, and pipe weed. A great stone fireplace stood unused in the center of the room, colored black from soot and smoke. The room was dim and noisy as many patrons sat at tables spread all around the fireplace.
He passed two days’ time in Pelargir, the warmth of the southern summer sun, and the fresh air and smell of the sea captured him, filling him with an overwhelming calm that seemed to make him slow and relaxed. He would travel up river to Minas Tirith, but was in no hurry to seek a barge. Instead he wandered through the streets and markets by day, and sat quietly in the corners of the tavern at night. He overheard many conversations, though, of little importance. He merely listened to the folk of Gondor carry on with their daily routines, whether sweeping streets or selling fresh fruits. He awoke every morning to the distant clanging of ships bells, and fell asleep at night to the soft hum of voices downstairs in the common room of the Blue Swan Inn.
His peaceful reverie was cut short as a patron fell over with his chair and the usual conversations paused briefly while everyone in the tavern looked over toward the door. Three men had noisily entered, annoyed at the presence of others, they simply pushed by a table, knocking a timid man over, who just sat on the floor as his companions knelt beside him and his spilled drink, looking up at the men who walked by. Aragorn did not move, but held his pipe in front of his face, no longer drawing from it. After the moment passed, everyone returned to their conversations, though anticipation hung in the air like thick smoke, as if the patrons could sense trouble.
One of the men led the other two, and his face was harsh and scarred, a scraggly beard beneath his chin; his bulging muscles exposed as he wore simply a leather vest and no shirt underneath. His arms were covered in hasty tattoos and markings. The other two wore similar clothing, with baggy pants and faces that looked scorched by the sun. Their sneers gave themselves away as folk the patrons did not wish to argue with, and two of them went to the bar and began grumbling at the tender who gave them ale without demanding payment. The man in front, however, went to a table to Aragorn’s right, with only another table of two patrons between.
He stopped and crossed his thick arms over his chest and three men looked up at him. Two were no different than most of the other patrons, but one was fair, though he tried to conceal it. His hair was washed and straight, and pulled back. He wore a brown cloak, but it could hardly obscure the fine clothing beneath. Suddenly, Aragorn focused on them, and his ears, attuned to such sounds as animals in far off trees, began to listen to their conversation.
“Lord Alcaron, is it?” the thug said, though Aragorn did not need to strain much to hear his harsh voice. One of the men with the fair Lord Alcaron stood, and with his hand on the hilt of a sword, he tried to intimidate the thug, but Aragorn could see little conviction in his face. The man carried a long sword at this side, but Aragorn knew a broad blade would only hinder him in such a space, while the thug’s knife could easily find its mark.
“Perhaps you should be on your way,” the man said to the thug, but the thug simply looked over to him without care and smiled, a tooth missing on the upper row. “Did you not hear?”
But the thug heard him clearly, and instead of speaking venom in return, he simply threw his head forward and cracked the man across the bridge of his nose. Blood then covered the thug’s forehead and the man collapsed back into his chair, hands to his face, screaming. The lord jumped back at the quick and brutish movement, but the second man at the table with him stood as quickly as he could and began to draw his sword. The thug, however, was quicker, and with a lunge, produced and stabbed a knife into the man’s shoulder. It was then that the other two thugs came from the bar toward them.
Patrons began to dodge away from the commotion, but Aragorn stayed seated. Despite the knife in his shoulder, the second man jumped to his feet and tackled the lead thug to the floor. The man with the broken nose attempted to stand and fight, but the other two thugs subdued him and began beating on his chest and stomach. Lord Alcaron left his chair and backed away in panic, searching the tavern with his dark eyes.
The second man with Alcaron could not fight well with one arm, and the thug overpowered him on the floor, and pulling the knife from the man’s shoulders, plunged it into his chest until he no longer moved. Standing and turning, the thug saw Alcaron against the wall and came toward him with the bloody blade, but then Aragorn decided to move, too. With great speed he lunged for the thug and while the long swords of the men of Gondor could scarcely be wielded in a crowd, Aragorn slipped the broken blade from its sheath and drove it into the thug’s ribs. The thug gave out a last gasp and cry, but he froze and dropped to the floor. Alcaron looked at Aragorn in shock.
“It appears you have found some sort of local trouble, my lord,” Aragorn said to him. “Flee, into the street, I shall take care of these men, here.”
Alcaron stared blankly at Aragorn for a moment, but with a strong hand, Aragorn gripped the lord’s shoulder and pushed him to get him moving. Finally he turned his attention to the other two thugs, who dropped Alcaron’s battered mate and drew crude knives of their own to face Aragorn. He smiled, and they ran at him. A quick step to the side, a thrust, and a quick duck, followed by a final cut, put the thugs on the floor with their leader. As Aragorn looked to the front door, he noticed that Alcaron had not moved far, but simply watched the stranger dispatch his foes with ease.
While Alcaron’s eyes were on Aragorn, a door to the back of the tavern had opened, as Aragorn noticed a quick ray of light shine across the floor and tables. He looked back, noticing a hooded man with a crossbow standing in the doorway. Aragorn leapt and threw his body into Alcaron. They crashed together at the same time as a bolt struck Aragorn in the back. He stood and dragged Alcaron to his feet as well. The pain in his back came to him quickly, but reaching back and beneath the cuirass he could feel the point of the small bolt had barely pierced his skin. He could not pull the bolt out of the armor without taking it off, so he left it there.
In the meantime, the hooded man had entered the tavern and readied another bolt in his crossbow. Aragorn pushed Alcaron forward and shoved him through the patrons and tables, flipping a table behind him as men screamed and fell out of their way. He and Alcaron burst through the front door into the city street. It was a grimy lane, and Aragorn looked to his left and right as people going about their business noticed him, Alcaron, and the commotion within the Leaping Fish.
Aragorn picked Alcaron off the street and noticed down the lane, a fourth thug, unmistakably part of the group that entered the tavern, moving toward them. At the same moment, another crossbow bolt whistled by, but missed. Aragorn ducked instinctively and began pushing Alcaron down the street. People moved out of their way, and Aragorn had to push several aside and avoid carts and horses along the lane. Alcaron stumbled along with him, saying little. At last, he saw a door to his right and with a strong shoulder, he burst through it, and pulled Alcaron inside.
Aragorn shut the door behind them, though it hung awkwardly from the force of their entry. They were inside a storehouse, lit by lanterns on the wall, with wooden crates spread around and wooden beams leaning against the wall. The lanterns bathed the room and stone walls in orange light. Alcaron’s heavy breathing filled the room and he sat on a crate as Aragorn turned from the door and put a hand on his shoulder.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
“I…think not,” Alcaron said, his hands feeling his head and then quickly searching inside his cloak until they paused on whatever he had been looking for. Aragorn watched him curiously.
“Why did they attack you?” Aragorn sat on a crate as well, catching his breath. The wound on his back was not severe, but still burned.
“I do not know you, sir,” Alcaron snapped.
“No, you do not,” Aragorn admitted. “If you wish to continue not knowing me, I shall be on my way; though, I have saved your life, now, and should we part, I am more confident in my leaving safely, than yourself.”
Alcaron looked at Aragorn and his eyes narrowed. The barb landed, but it did not fully sway the lord, who remained cautious. He looked Aragorn up and down, eyeing the eagle on his armor as Aragorn turned his body, wincing, and tried to pull the bolt from his cuirass. Alcaron at last sighed and leaned his elbows on his knees.
“Forgive me. You did save my life, and I know you had no duty to do so. I am Lord Alcaron, and I was attacked by those thugs, likely in league with traitors to Gondor.”
Aragorn stopped and looked at Alcaron, “Traitors, you say?”
“Indeed, there are forces at work within Gondor that would see her fall. I left Minas Tirith to meet with men whom I trust, and now, I was set to hand a message off to be carried to the defenders at Cair Andros.”
“Cair Andros? The island fortress?” Aragorn asked.
“I learned of an attack that would be carried out upon it. As you can see, though I now have no one to carry the message,” Alcaron looked at Aragorn sideways. “What is your name?”
“I am called Thorongil,” Aragorn said. The name now felt right and he no longer showed any reservations in repeating it. “I arrived here at the behest of Elrond of Rivendell. He wished that I come to serve Gondor, and I think now the Elven lord’s sight is keen indeed. By chance I have come upon you, and a mission to serve this land.”
Alcaron looked astonished that Aragorn would be in the confidence of such a figure as Elrond. Though he had not met Elrond, or been to Rivendell before, Alcaron knew his name, and his stature in Middle-earth. His respect for Aragorn seemed to grow, as did his confidence.
“If you have the favor of Elrond, then you have mine as well,” he said. “Would you carry the message to Cair Andros? I fear time has run short, though you may yet reach it before the attack is launched.”
Before Aragorn could answer, he held up his hand in a bid to quiet Alcaron. His ears picked up a strange quiet on the lane, but still he heard soft footsteps that crept nearby. Though the footfalls may have evaded the notice of a lord of Gondor, or those in his service, a ranger such as Aragorn could not mistake the boots on the stone, which stopped suddenly. With his hand held up to quiet Alcaron, Aragorn glanced at it, and noticed blood on his fingers, smeared and now dried. He quickly looked to the door and realized his folly.
He stood quickly and quietly, moved across the storeroom and put his back to the wall. A shadow came across the doorway, blocking the light that shone between the door and the stone floor. With a great crash a boot kicked the door, finally off its hinges. It fell, to the attacker’s surprise, and the room was bathed in new light. Alcaron shielded his eyes with his arms, still sitting upon the crate across the room. The hooded figure in the door stepped forward and raised his crossbow.
Before the assassin could fire, Aragorn grabbed his arm and threw a heavy fist into the mysterious figure’s head. The assassin dropped the crossbow and stumbled. Aragorn swiftly drew his broken blade and still tightly clutching the assassin’s arm, with his left hand, he brought the blade across and then down again in swift strokes. The figure fell to the floor, blood flowing from beneath him.
Alcaron stood and lifted the hood as Aragorn sheathed the sword again. “A man from Umbar,” Alcaron noted. “It appears Gondor’s old enemies are circling.” He sighed and stood. “Thorongil, you must hurry.”
The lord pulled a scroll with a red wax seal from inside his cloak and handed it to Aragorn. The wax seal was stamped with a tree, the official sigil of Gondor. Aragorn stuff it safely into his shirt, beneath the cuirass.
“Please, this message must reach Cair Andros. The lord there is Tiror, defender of the island. He will see you, if you present this scroll to those who guard the gates,” Alcaron said.
“Do not fear, I will reach Cair Andros ere it falls,” Aragorn said.
“Thank you, my friend,” Alcaron said.
“You should stay here for a short while. City guards I am sure shall be looking for our trail. There are many villains that lie behind us.” Aragorn looked out the door at the lane and found that most traffic was back to normal, and common people moved about unawares of the previous disturbance.
“I shall stay, the guards will know me. Hurry, Thorongil!” Alcaron urged.
Aragorn nodded once more and ran out the doorway and down the lane. Alcaron did not watch him go, but rather he bent low over the assassin’s body, studying the lightless face and reaching beneath his robes.