"I am going to leave word with the smiths, and from there Ecthelion has provided me with horse and food enough to get to Isengard with haste." Gandalf moved with a brisk ease that Aragorn momentarily envied; people parted before the Istar almost unwittingly, but they lent him no such office. He was jostled roughly back as a man rushed by with an armful of polished helmets. "The Order holds a council in six days, and I would not be absent."
"A council," Aragorn repeated, shouldering aside someone as he tried to stay beside Gandalf. "How long will it last?"
"That does not concern you. You are to stay in Gondor," said Gandalf, veering sharply toward a dark doorway with the insignia of a smith carved into the stone frame.
"What?" He ducked into the forge after Gandalf only to encounter a smoky wave of heat; he backed out again, shaking his head, and waited until the old wizard came back out. "You can't mean to leave me here!"
"You are not a child, Estel!" Gandalf said sharply in Sindarin, and Aragorn pulled up abruptly. "Aragorn. I did not take you away from Rohan to the end that you would follow my path till the end of your days. I have need to leave, and to leave alone, just as you have great need to stay. You will do well here, I promise you. Everything will become clear to you upon my leave."
"I thought we were to return to Imladris," Aragorn fumbled, glancing up at Gandalf with a desperate brand of hope. To be alone in a city of strangers.. Even Selenithas and the other rohirrim had left two days since. But Gandalf fixed him with a knowing, almost reproving look, and at length Aragorn was the first to drop his gaze.
"You know it is not your time to return." He felt a hand upon his shoulder, and looked up to Gandalf again. "Heed me. Do not give your true name in the city and do not show undue confusion, but do all in your power to aid the men of Gondor. Take them as your own people." The hand lifted, and he stood motionless as the grey-clad Istar turned away and walked down the winding road toward the stable.
It was not until he saw the swiftly-moving form of the wizard and horse dwindle into the approaching dark that he moved away from the forge, and someone beckoned for his aid in pegging a banner to the gate.
The morning was still grey and damp when the trumpets of the city began to sound. Aragorn sat up in alarm, still half-asleep; the noise grated on his ears like a call to arms, and he rubbed a hand over his face with a tired sigh as he realized that it -- wasn't.
His room, barely more than a closet with a cot in the patrol-house closest to the gate, had a single shuttered window, and as he crossed the floor to open it, someone began shouting outside. People were moving already despite the dimness of dawn, and Aragorn pulled the shutters closed before he leaned out his door to catch the nearest passerby by the elbow. "What is this?"
The woman, slight of frame with dark eyes and hair, pulled away impatiently. "'Tis the day of the recruit. The summer games, you know. You'd best get outside quickly if you want to find a good spot to watch from."
Fifteen minutes found him dressed and outdoors, wandering toward the gate -- the partially-marked arena of the day before had been roughly turned into a raked space similar to Rohan's great practice field. Even as the sun rose, people gathered and gossiped at the edges of the ring, laying out benches that seemed to find themselves filled before they were settled on the ground.
"A pint of the old Druadan brew says that Cheteyne's boy makes it into Eanil's riders, what do you say?" Aragorn heard from one woman nearby before his arm was grabbed and he was pulled bodily toward the racks of hanging swords and spears that had been dragged out. "Here, lad, you've a sword?" a voice grated from behind him, and he could only nod, bewildered, before he was propelled toward the spears. "Take one, then, there's a lad-- Arconnal, we've got another one for the spears!"
Buffeted back and forth by a series of gauntleted hands, Aragorn eventually found himself within the ring looking out, surrounded by the unfamiliar faces of Minas Tirith, some cheering and other shouting their discontent. He could smell the mugs of flat ale being distributed among the crowd, and reached out with one hand to stop another boy from falling as he too was pushed into the ring. "Are they always this -- rough?" he asked, raising his voice to be heard.
"What, the officers?" The youth straightened with a grin, brushing floppy brown hair out of his face. "Most like, they are. You're in for spears first, too?"
"So it would seem." Aragorn looked down at the spear in his hand, and then more dubiously at the squared targets being positioned partway across the field.
"Y'see how they're putting those hardly midway down the ring?" The boy nodded toward the targets, and Aragorn obligingly looked as well, stepping aside to let a few more pass behind him. "That's new, this year. Last year, there were a few folk as missed the targets but the spears nearly hit the people behind them. I'm thinking that's why I wasn't picked then." He lifted his spear with another crooked grin, tossing it from hand to hand. "Figure I won't do it again, seeing as I've been practicing for months now. I'm Riesel, son of Remies." Another flashing grin. "You're new to Minas Tirith?"
Aragorn looked out at the crowd, saw them parting for some figure at the back. "In a sense." The noise began to fade, and he added in a lower tone, "My name is Thorongil." Then the trumpets roared again, and he fell silent as Ecthelion stepped onto an ancient-looking (and portable, Aragorn noted) wooden dais at the far end of the ring.
"Children of Gondor!" he cried, hands lifted. "Another day of the recruit is upon us, and another day of the summer games. Our sons have once again come willingly to test their skill, to test each other, and to find among them who will best serve Gondor under the guidance of our seven beloved captains!" The crowd rose again in a cheer as a group of men fanned out around the dais stepped up behind the steward as their names were called. "Diuln. Medirren. Coranril. Ierandir. Sadef. Theriet. Eanil.
"But I will speak no more; the day is already well upon us, and it will go longer still before our captains have chosen their new men. To the first match!"
While Ecthelion had spoken, some half-dozen of the officers had been moving through the group within the ring, pulling some forward, others back. Aragorn found himself pushed forward again, tugged into a line with some ten other men facing the targets and, beyond those, the dais; he followed their lead in bowing to the steward.
The other men had already thrown their spears by the time he had risen from his bow, and the crowd was startlingly quick to change from the ragged cheers for those who had struck their targets to a less-ragged chant of 'Throw, throw'. An officer at the end of the line shouted, "Hurry up, there! We haven't got all day!" After a blank moment, Aragorn too collected himself before loosing his spear; his Rohirric training served him well, and the point buried itself at the center of his target with hollow thunk audible even over the sudden burst of cheers.
The ringing of raucous, human approval remained in his ears long after he was pulled toward the other side of the arena, a longbow thrust into his hands. Elfsong was sweet and haunting, but this wild, impulsive notion of applause was something mortal and fleeting. And suddenly, aiming his first shot toward a new target, Aragorn laughed.
They were cheering for him.
It wasn't until the sun had broken through the clouds, fierce and almost-white, that the games were put to a temporary end for the recruits and the spectators to eat and rest. Aragorn found himself, upon leaving the ring after two more shooting rounds and another spear-throwing, the object of some approval -- and more appraisal.
Beside him stood Riesel, who was busy splitting his attention and animated chatter between both Aragorn and an exasperated-looking woman to his side. "Res, you of all people should know that I wasn't aiming for the people -- hey, hey, Thorongil!" Aragorn looked up again. "This is my sister, Reslin--"
"--who is very, very capable of introducing herself?" Reslin finished drily but with a smile, inclining her head respectfully toward Aragorn. Riesel snorted with laughter, moving off after one of the women bearing trays filled with mugs of ale. "My brother is of the opinion that your skill with a bow is skill enough to drive my courtesy out of me, as it appears to have done to him."
"I would little trust that opinion over your word, my lady." Aragorn took a hunk of meat and bread from a passing tray, and Reslin did the same but with a defter hand than his; she was taller than Riesel by perhaps a hand's width, leaner and lankier than Gondor's fashion dictated with an unnatural swift grace that spoke more of practiced movement than instinctual. She shared her brother's brown hair and gray eyes, but there was a gracious severity in her manner that he did not have.
"You talk like you know what you're saying." But when Aragorn looked at Reslin again, she was still smiling. "You are not from the city."
"I come from Rohan."
"And where does one of the riders of Rohan learn to use a longbow?" The low voice came not from Reslin, but from behind Aragorn. Its speaker stepped forward -- a short man but heavily built, with gray streaks pulled through dark hair and a faded scar down the left side of his face. The tilt of Reslin's head in greeting to him was deeper than it had been to Aragorn.
"My brothers are more skilled in archery than many of the Rohirrim," Aragorn answered. "They are the ones who taught me what I know."
"They did not come with you to Gondor?" Aragorn shook his head. "Hm. What is your name?"
"Thorongil of Rohan." The man paused, rubbing at his cleft chin as Reslin slipped away. "I could use another archer, even one who shoots like you do. A bow like that -- a man could say you killed an elf and took it off him," he chuckled. "Your spear-work isn't bad, though. Would you be willing to serve with my men?"
Aragorn was caught rather off-guard by the sudden offer -- he had expected more of a critique, as Elladan might have given, or the jovially one-sided conversation that would have come from Selenithas. The abruptness of this whole city was unsettling. "Er -- yes." Why not?
"Very good." The man nodded his approval, turning away. "Thorongil of Rohan. Hm. The men will gather at the west gatehouse in four days at dawn to be equipped and split for training. If you have need of me before then, ask for Sadef."