My Favorite Aragorn Stories
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Where the Stars are Strange: 4. Tastabarin
The thick-walled city that clung to the high white cliffs was part frontier outpost, part trade center, and boasted it was the home of every ill-gotten occupation and the hidey-hole of miscreants from all lands. Aragorn and the pirate crew, led by Ascabar tricked out in his green finery, climbed to the city gates up a curving three-mile, stone-paved road under the relentless sun. The road before the gates swung dizzyingly out over the docks one thousand feet below. Ascabar doled out coin to the crew of the Sea-wolf and sent them off to explore the bazaar while the captain haggled with the buyers who cast a blind eye to the original owner of any merchandise that came their way.
Not long after sunrise, Kindrel and Tholvel, with Aragorn and Radur, the carpenter's mate, in tow, sauntered through the bazaar. The sellers were already there, their best business occurring before the heat of mid-day drove buyers inside. The smells and sounds were an assault on the senses. The crowd filling the bazaar was a myriad of cultures and nationalities; Aragorn heard snatches of conversations he understood and many languages he did not. The sailors of the Sea-wolf would have walked unnoticed through the throng except for Radur, an extremely handsome youth of mixed Haradrim and Easterling parentage. He attracted attention from women and several of the slavers along the way, who boldly offered Kindrel gold coin for the boy.
The sights fascinated Aragorn. He puzzled over the fantastic animals with humps on their backs; cair eru, he remembered drawings of them in Elrond's books. Other goatish creatures with long, spiral horns stood alongside fine horses and strange, thin cattle. Booths hawked roughly forged ironwork and exquisite jewelry, exotic fruits and vegetables, fine, sheer cloth shot through with threads of gold and silver, a multitude of goats and sheep on the hoof, and succulent skewers of lamb straight from the braziers.
They came upon the slave trade in one square. Peoples of all nations, young girls and boys barely out of childhood, wide-eyed and frightened, strong men and women, seeming resigned to lives of service and labor, even those that looked to be learned: clerics and healers, were offered. Piles of gold and silver coin and written script changed hands at a dizzying rate. Aragorn witnessed the auctioneer selling a young family to four different buyers. The mother sobbed in Westron as their buyers led away her bruised husband and dazed young children. The beseeching eyes of the young mother held his as a tall nomad dragged her off.
The town's permanent businesses, housed in brick buildings ringing the market, catered to the merchants and the sailors: inns and taverns lined the square. Some of the establishments were devoted to games of chance. Aragorn watched a bearded merchant lose a pile of gold coins that would have fed his Dúnedain well for a year with the spin of a gaming wheel, then shrug and walk to another table to bet again. Amid the various inns and eateries were brothels, the wenches sitting on balconies, displaying what they were selling. The bold beauties called down invitations to promising street traffic. Everywhere seemed to be women of all varieties, shapes and stations, selling their charms or being hawked by male companions.
As the sun rose to midday and the square began to bake, the four stepped into a place off the main plaza Kindrel said the captain recommended. The open entry corridor was set so that it caught the breezes from the ocean. Their eyes adjusted to the dimness after the outside glare. Potted jasmine lined the tiled hall; palm fronds waved in the breeze. Kindrel pushed aside the gauzy draperies and the place they entered seemed to be part-alehouse and part-brothel. Music jingled from tambours and lyres played by musicians hidden from view. The cloying smell of incense and something else burning filled the air. A servant clad in deep crimson and gold cloth led them into the dark recesses of the building.
"Delights to dazzle a man…" he claimed as they sat on low cushioned benches around a table set with glimmering goblets and a large ewer filled with dark wine. "We have herbs and draughts that cause a man strange and wondrous visions, strong, sweet wine, and the finest dancing girls." He soon returned with highly spiced meat and rounds of flat bread. Kindrel poured the proclaimed wine, which was strong and powerful in its own right, but seemed laced with some exotic drug. One cup sent warning bells jangling through Aragorn's giddy head and he declined as Tholvel poured again.
It was not long before the girls appeared. They wore loose drapes of gossamer fabrics that did not hide much but certainly tantalized the imagination. Bells softly jingled at ankle and wrist, and gems winked from ears and noses, navels and toes. Dancing, though, did not seem their intent. A dark haired, sloe-eyed beauty dropped into Aragorn's lap and murmured to him, twining her arms around his neck. He did not understand the indecipherable tongue she spoke, though her message was quite clear. For a moment, pledges and promises seemed to fly from his mind, but steeling himself, he tried gallantly to remove the warm and wiggling girl from her seat. The men around him laughed.
"Our princeling is shy," Kindrel observed, pouring another cup of the wine and catching the hand of the beauty who massaged his shoulders.
"No," Aragorn dislodged the girl and rose, "simply feeling too much wine. I need some air to calm my head."
"We'll see you at the meeting place then, after we take care of this problem for you." Laughing, Kindrel settled the girl onto his lap. He looked up again, eyes serious. "Watch your back, Estel. The streets are full of thieves and ships' captains trying to restock their crews." Aragorn heeded his words, though the wine, the dizzying perfume of the girl, and the strange air of the place haunted his weaving path back to where the Sea-wolf's crew agreed to meet her captain.
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