My Favorite Aragorn Stories
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Where the Stars are Strange: 1. A Summons from a Wizard
Early Spring, 2964, T.A.
There had indeed been pirates on the Baranduin! Perhaps if he hadn't been so skeptical of Camalac' account, Aragorn wouldn't now be trussed like a goose and laying face down in the reeking hold of their ship, nursing a headache, fighting greensickness brought on by the rolling ocean, and feeling the rough cording cut deeper into his blood-slippery wrists. As his adventures seemed to do of late, it started with a letter from Gandalf…
A Summons from a Wizard
The cold gray rain was still falling as Thorongil rode into the stable yard at Meduseld at the head of his eord. He had just returned from an exhausting forty-day tour of duty riding out from the ford of the Isen, scouting futilely. It had been maddening; his troop would gallop out from the garrison to follow up on alarms of orc sightings in the north, search fruitlessly for leagues across the Westwold, and no sooner return than a message would arrive about Orkish raiders in the south. Thorongil finally divined the origin of these elusive, unproductive chases seemed to be Isengard, but he could not fathom why such messages would emanate from Saruman's stronghold. Then the sightings had abruptly ceased. On top of it all, it had been a very wet and long winter: not exactly perfect bivouacking weather. His troop, man and horse, were worn down and he was hoping for a long rest. However, one of the king's heralds lounged in the stable, waiting for him, and announced an urgent summons from Thengel.
The young captain, still in armor, found the king alone in his chambers off the golden hall. After a brief discussion of the ongoing state of peacefulness of the Northwold, the king presented him with a message sent from Rivendell. Thengel had recognized Gandalf's seal.
"Letters from wizards, Captain?" Thengel grinned. He had long ago decided this young Ranger was more than he revealed through his story of second-son-hood, and he knew his queen Morwen was privy to more than he was. However, since Thorongil was honest and brave to a fault, one of the best leaders of men in the Mark, and trusted by his queen and his son, Thengel did not inquire too closely into his unusual friendship with Mithrandir or his sporadic disappearances north to Imladris.
Gandalf's letter requested Aragorn to ride north and west to Sarn Ford on the Brandywine; there he would meet him at the Rangers' encampment in a month's time. He had both news from Fornost and a puzzle regarding an influx of wealth into Bree and the Shire that could result in a new quest for the Dúnadan.
'Tell Thengel I need you for a bit and if he balks I'll turn him into something unnatural. There are some strange goings-on in the North and I need your help in tracking down the scoundrels responsible.' wrote Gandalf. Aragorn chuckled at the wizard's idle threat to his old friend Thengel. In the private areas of the hall, Thorongil could relax his public formality to the king and queen because of his mentorship of their son, so he shared the wizard's note with the king, knowing it would make him grin: it did.
"Wizards should never be gotten angry, my boy, so I will honor my dear friend's request. There is peace in The Wold, peace I hope will be lasting, so we can afford your absence. Besides, you can do a bit of looking for me also in your ride through Dunland and see if our neighbors have just crawled away to lick their wounds or if they truly mean to abide by Taroff's treaty and keep to the north of the Isen."
At dawn's first light, Aragorn, Rohirric armor stowed in his quarters, wearing his ranger green and gray, cantered north on the comfortably gaited Vanië along the old road through the Fords. The chestnut Meara mare's long stride carried him through Dunland without folly, and along the Greenway, across the desolate, heathed plains of Enedwaith. When he passed by their cottages, it appeared the Dunlendings were planting crops and repairing roofs instead of sharpening swords and axes for war. The people of Dunland were quite friendly to Aragorn, dressed as a Ranger. They reported no sign of orc and no news of raiders came from any of the outlying homesteads.
Spring was slowly awakening across the land as Aragorn rode north. By week's end, he had traveled one hundred leagues since the Isen and he had another four days until he would come to the Rangers' outpost at Sarn Ford. He camped under the stars from Meduseld to the crossing at the Greyflood, but there, on the northern riverbank, a small settlement of neat cottages boasted an inn, The Singing Elf. Aragorn looked up at the inn sign: an orkish looking gremlin with long, pointed ears more suitable for an ass, and grinned at the thought of the prince of Mirkwood's reaction to it. The caricature notwithstanding, the inn seemed well run, and he decided a bath, hot cooking not his own, and a roof would be most welcome, since the incessant rains had soaked him through and made the road a mire. He dropped from the saddle into the mud of the stable yard and stretched until his joints cracked. The mare nickered as if saying she too was glad to have a dry stall for the night and him off her back. He handed the reins to a hostler who led her away to a tidy stable and sloshed toward the warm light of the taproom.
The innkeeper, Kennel Oakum, was plump and talkative. He took in Aragorn's cloth, plain but well made, his fine sword, and the Ranger look about him, and immediately judged him an acquaintance worth cultivating. He offered him a room and bath at a reasonable price.
"Would you like to take supper in the common room later, my lord? It's not terribly crowded." Aragorn agreed.
With the unneeded help of the innkeeper's boy, he carried his pack to his room. He sent the boy to haul water to the tub in the communal washroom and took a much-needed bath. Clean and dry, feeling almost civilized again, he descended the stairs and Oakum ushered him to a secluded corner table with a view of the entire common room and the main doorway, depositing a pint of ale before him that could rival The Pony's. The inn was quiet, the only other guests a group of five hunters, laughing and drinking in a far corner. The man bustled about him, talked about the lack of business on the road (not like in his grandsire's time) though traffic had picked up a bit of late what with the wagoneers heading south. He rambled on about a two-headed calf that had been born to a local farmer (bad omen, that!), and the news of pirates to the northwest (may Eärendil protect us!).
"Pirates, man?" Aragorn asked, skeptically. "Is there much worth stealing about here?" As he rode north, Aragorn had been aghast by the abject poverty and despair those who chose to live in this desolation faced. The innkeeper shrugged and claimed these pirates had raided a few isolated farmsteads taking cattle and chickens. "Perhaps they are simply common thieves." Aragorn suggested. The man looked shyly at him and asked if he thought the Rangers might look into it. Aragorn said he did not know since it was unusual to find Rangers this far south, but if he came upon any, he might inquire.
His dinner arrived and Aragorn set to it. At that, the innkeeper scuttled away to deal with other, more demanding patrons. The hunters soon melted out into the rainy twilight. Aragorn leaned back, listening to the rattle of crockery and Oakum's occasional comment to the tap boy who was doing the washing up. He soon went upstairs and collapsed into a comfortable bed.
By morning, the fair weather had returned. A cool, dry wind blew out of the east and a cloudless dawn greeted Aragorn as he stepped out of the inn. The grinning stable boy presented his mare well rested, well groomed, and ready to continue onward to Sarn Ford. He tightened Vanië's girth, and swung into his saddle for the last leg of his journey. The settlement soon faded behind them and Vanië tossed her blond mane and stretched herself into a long-legged canter. In the late afternoon sun four uneventful days later, Aragorn rode tiredly into the concealed Ranger camp. The place seemed long deserted but he could feel eyes following him. He reined in the mare and pulled back his mantle, revealing the star-of-eagles brooch.
"Is this the way you greet your lord?" he yelled to the eerie silence of the trees.
"Lord Aragorn, well met!" Maracus stepped from behind a broad oak. The Dúnadan swung down and gripped his old comrade's arm. Maracus looked him over. "It's no wonder I didn't recognized you at first. All that hair and it looks as if the beard is doing better."
"I've been riding with the horselords. With them, it's all about the hair and the ale and tales of daring-do." Maracus laughed and led him to one of several stone huts so moss-covered they blended near completely into the trees. Aragorn was astounded when he entered. The interior was in stark contrast: thick wall hangings and fresh rushes kept out the chill, coffers lined the walls, a comfortable camp bed was set up, and fire burned warmly in a bronze brazier. Water for tea steamed in a pot and a tray of cakes and apples set on a nearby table.
"This cannot be for me, since you knew not when I was coming, so I assume you live well here. In protecting the Shire, are you adopting some of the hobbits' gentility, Maracus?" Aragorn teased.
"This is such a prosperous land where the pleasures of life like good food, a comfortable bed, and a fragrant pipe rub off on a man." The Ranger agreed. "The farmers excel at their craft so are willing to barter with excess crops. However, lately, there seems to be competition for the goods. There are strange men in Bree bartering and they have a shifty-eyed look. Was it a hard winter in the South?"
"Not that I've heard. An innkeeper along the way mentioned wains going off on the old south road," Aragorn added. "Perhaps Gandalf has more news of this."
"Perhaps," Maracus said. He noticed the shadows around Aragorn's eyes and would bet a pint of Butterbur's finest that the young lord had not slept in days. He pointed to the camp bed. "The rest will be back afore the moon rises. We'll have a bit of dinner then. Rest you now."
"I'll just lie here a bit." The attractive bed beckoned Aragorn. "I'll be up in a moment to help you with the meal." He stretched out on the camp bed and a few minutes later, when Maracus asked him if he'd like tea, he was soundly asleep.
Owls called softly in the wood and the stars glittered overhead as the Ranger company was finishing up the last of a hearty dinner. The dozen were in high spirits, relishing having their young lord back with them again. Aragorn mopped up the last of Maracus' excellent venison stew with crusty bread fresh from a Buckland bakery as the men apprised him of news from Fornost. He was soon well aware of any births and marriages, in addition to movement of the mountain orcs and other evils besetting the North.
"There are pirates on the Baranduin," Camalac commented, as he refilled his pipe.
"You're the second one I've heard that from." Aragorn stretched his booted legs out toward the fire. "Pirates this far north? What would they be doing?"
"I expect pirate things." Camalac cast a sardonic eye at the Dúnadan, his cousin by marriage to the willful Amarië. "As soon as we get time, I'll send down a man or two to look."
"I'm to meet Gandalf here but not for several days. I'll ride downriver in the morning and see if I can't find these pirates," Aragorn volunteered.
"Wouldn't hurt," Camalac said casually, ignoring Maracus, who was standing behind the chieftain and adamantly shaking his head, "and it would keep you from under foot. Just be careful. I don't want to answer to either the wizard or Halbarad if you get mussed."
"Yes, adar," Aragorn joked, "but I don't expect to find any pirates."
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