Aragorn ducked as a stoneware mug flew over his head. It was not aimed at him, but at a swarthy Harad soldier across the tent. It missed its intended target by about two yards, waking a neutral patron from his drunken stupor. The ranger lost his own mug of sickly-sweet Harad wine to the resulting brawl.
It was that kind of tavern.
It was also one of the best places to gather information. Within these canvas walls common soldiers and junior officers would get drunk and swap stories. A man who possessed enough patience to endure long, boastful tales of petty deeds could learn a lot. Sometimes.
Tonight however, Aragorn was just trying to stay alive. He twisted past a pair of combatants and pushed towards the tent flap. The unwashed bodies of Southron soldiers pressed in on him from all sides. They were either making their way to the exit or to the fight. Most were headed towards the latter. His adopted unit had seen little action in the past few months, and they were unhappy about being posted so far north. Brawling had become a common way of relieving tension.
Aragorn wanted no part of it; he felt genuinely happy for the first time in almost ten years. The stars were comfortingly familiar; the air was cooler then the inside of a baker’s oven, and an image of long, raven hair filled his thoughts. He was going home.
Provided he survived the wars, assassination attempts and bar fights.
An errant elbow caught him in the ear, making his head ring. He threw his weight against the offending soldier, forcing a break in the mob. He could see the door now, the lights of campfires flickering in the outer darkness. With one last shove, he made his escape.
He sighed and breathed in the cool night air. He wished that he could wash the disguising tannin off his skin and feel the breeze on his bare face. Soon, he promised himself, just a few more weeks.
Looking up, he saw the North Star through a gap in the clouds. He followed it back to the tent that he shared with the other senior foot soldiers. When he pulled open the door-flap, the heat hit him like a physical blow. Cooper braziers warmed the cramped barracks to a temperature tolerable to the real Haradrim soldiers. The air, if it could be called that, was full of dust, sweat and acrid smoke.
Some men slept under copious wool rugs but most huddled around the heat, talking and gambling. Aragorn joined them, sitting cross-legged on a rug, but declining the proffered set of dice. He was playing a bigger game.
As if to make up for the rowdiness of the tavern, the occupants of this tent seemed unusually subdued. They talked in low voices and even the habitual dicing looked to be a half-hearted affair.
One of the men spat into the brazier, causing a hiss of steam. “Well Nashir, How’s the mess?” he asked.
The ranger shrugged, indifferent. “Same as always: loud and rough. The conversation was bad and the wine worse. I should have stayed here.”
A man named Tishan laughed. “I can see that.” Then added for Aragorn’s benefit: “Your ear’s bleeding.”
He touched the side of his head; his hand came away red. “It’s nothing,” was all he said.
No one commented. The walls of the tent and the thick smoke dampened all the sound from outside. Finally, the first man broke the silence. “Were they talking of the events in the North?”
The ranger’s interest sparked. “What is this?” he asked.
“Word is that the company we are replacing has claimed a great triumph from those pale Western scum.” He spat again, this time in anger. “Had we been there but a week sooner we could have claimed their prize, and its glory.”
“What prize?” he asked, forcing himself to sound unconcerned.
Tishan broke in wanting to be the one to dole out the news himself. “Why the greatest prize our people have ever clamed, though it will go to our Northern allies.” He added darkly.
This bodes ill, thought Aragorn, but said: “You would do well to stop crowing and start talking.”
The Haradrim laughed once more. “No need for anger, friend. I will tell you.” He paused for dramatic effect. “It happened not five days past, but the news just reached us. Those manning the Fort North, the one we share with the servants of the Dark Lord, captured a man.”
“That is all?” Aragorn leaned forward in surprise. “One man?”
Another laugh, the other man was clearly savouring the suspense. “Aye, one man. Would you care to wager who among the Westerners would warrant such an honour?”
The ranger pretended to think for a moment. “Ecthelion the Second, Steward of Gondor.” He said flippantly, while his heart screamed: A Elbereth, anyone but him.
Tishan waved dismissively. “Nay, you aim too high; we’d never pry him out of that glided cage of his. Not without taking it down around him”
Aragorn sighed with relief. He couldn’t help himself; he loved the Steward as a father.
Fortunately, he was misinterpreted. “Don’t be too disappointed, my friend. What we caught is almost as good.” Again he paused for effect. Aragorn felt like beating a swift answer out off him. There was no need, he had wisely finished with baiting. “We won his only son and heir, Denethor, the second of that name. If all goes as expected, he will be taken to the Lord of the Dark Tower.”