Son of Ecthelion

Hands of the King

13. Relations

Minas Tirith, Early August, 2975 T.A.

Thorongil's face clearly showed disapproval at Denethor's announcement at breakfast that they would ride from the garrison to Minas Tirith in a single day, but the man nodded agreement. Denethor did not argue with the captain's announcement that they would have an escort of several men, though he had hoped it would just be the two of them riding swiftly. Brandir voiced his approval for the escort, sending Denethor a significant look.

'If you are riding back today, brother, may I entrust a letter to Maiaberiel to your care? I will be off to Rohan for several weeks, and the messenger will not pass through on the return journey to Minas Tirith for three more days.'

'Of course, but it must be ready to go when I am.'

'It is ready now.'

Ordinarily Denethor would not tolerate anyone else preparing his packs for a journey, but his ribs still ached and his head would pound if he leaned over, so he allowed Brandir to do the packing. The other man knew well enough to wait to be told what to put where. Through the window, he could hear the horses being brought out. Denethor surreptitiously patted the breast of his tunic to make sure the book was in its proper place, then motioned for Brandir to follow him downstairs. He insisted on carrying the smaller of the two packs, though his side disapproved as much as Thorongil had done earlier.

In the yard before the stable, Thorongil was giving quiet orders to his lieutenant. Denethor casually handed his pack to one of the soldiers to tie to Gaerhûl's saddle. Brandir followed suit. As Denethor took the reins from the stablehand and turned to mount, Brandir laid a hand on his arm.

'Brother,' Brandir said in a quiet voice, 'thou art dear to me. I am simple and say foolish things, but I beg thee think close on what I said. Hear not the clumsy words, but the loving wish within them.'

'I have done little else these last days, Brandir. See, I am taking an escort!'

'Give my love to Maiaberiel.'

As so many others do. Denethor smiled briefly and nodded, then steeled himself to swing up on Gaerhûl. The horse behaved himself much better than usual. Has the captain enchanted you once more? Whatever the reason, he was grateful. He rode over to Thorongil. In a minute, two riders moved out before them, four remained a respectful distance behind, and they were headed east. They walked for a half-hour to allow the animals to warm up, then began an easy trot. After a half hour they walked again, then cantered. They alternated this pattern of walking, trotting, walking, cantering, through the morning, riding along the eaves of the Druadan Forest.

At the brisker paces, he and Thorongil rode in silence. When they walked, they conversed. Denethor recalled Brandir's various rambles about the state of Anórien, and asked the captain for his own opinions. The differences between the accounts were instructive. The captain had an extensive knowledge of crops and livestock, and he knew the territory, but he was not well versed in the local personages. He knew the names and the positions well enough, but Thorongil lacked Brandir's deep understanding of the tensions, alliances, rivalries and agreements that bound this land together. To be fair, the captain had spent much of his assignment to Anórien in the Ithilien battles, but that was weeks past. What most concerned Denethor was Thorongil's apparent lack of curiosity in such things.

Denethor pondered this during one of the trots when they could not speak. It was thus in Pelargir as well. He knew his garrison to a man, he walked the streets and observed, but he never involved himself with the city's lords. Except to close the whorehouses. Refraining from common gossip was well to the good, but the man seemed oblivious to the workings of power in the territories he served. This was not at all unusual for one of the Lost, who tended to hold themselves aloof from all during their service, but it was peculiar in someone who aspired to a more permanent role in Gondor. Perhaps you are not as ambitious as others are for you. It is you I do not understand. The captain was a greater mystery now, six years after he arrived, than when he presented himself one early spring day. Denethor found himself missing Finduilas and her keen observations; she would have something of note to say about both Anórien and Thorongil.

When they reined in and walked again, Denethor said, 'Your estimation of Anórien is in accord with my own and with Brandir's.'

'Then we are all right or wrong together.'

'Perhaps. However, what do you think of the dispute between Brandir's maternal uncle's second cousin, the elder one with all the pigs, and the Halifirien guardsman?'

Thorongil looked at him in confusion. 'The what between whom?'

'A dispute that is rather important.' Thorongil's brow creased as he tried to recall the argument. After a minute the captain sighed and shook his head.

'I fear I do not, sir.'

'The cousin's son has had his suit for the guardsman's middle daughter rejected.'

Thorongil looked at Denethor askance. 'This is important?'

'Yes.'

'Why? I do remember Brandir shaking his head over it, but he thought it not a serious matter.'

'Do you not pay attention to such things, Captain?'

'Ordinarily I do not pry into the affairs of the simple folk, no. It is for them to order their lives as they see fit. It is a matter for kin, not for soldiers.'

'And what is the matter for soldiers?'

Thorongil gestured about them. 'This. The realm, its defense.' He pointed to the dark scrim of the eastern mountains. 'That. Mordor and the Enemy. These are my proper concerns.' The captain looked at him keenly, grey eyes alight. 'I care for these so that the good folk of this land need not think of more than where to sell their wares, or who shall wed whom.'

'I did not ask if you were intervening in this dispute, Captain, only if you were aware of it.'

'Then, yes, I am aware of it. Why is it important?'

'Figure it out when you return. It will be a good lesson for you.'

'A lesson in what?'

'How to keep an eye out for snakes.'

Thorongil made a thoughtful sound, but did not reply. They rode in silence for the rest of the walk. A canter followed. When they walked again, it was nearing noon, and they were between Eilenach and Amon Dîn. The horses were tiring as the day grew hot. The forward soldiers trotted ahead to find a shady spot where they could eat and rest for a few hours during the height of the day, then commence again, to arrive at the City near sundown.

The scouts found a good place just beyond a small stream that ran through a culvert under the road. To the south of the road, the land dropped gently down from the forest eave to the brook, providing a place for the animals to graze. The company left the road and rode down the slope, horses nickering at the sound and scent of water.

Denethor breathed a sigh of relief and was careful not to jar himself as he dismounted. The last hour had been trying. His ribs ached and every step Gaerhûl took sent a stab of pain through his head just behind his left eye. The sticky heat did not help matters. The horse immediately began rubbing his head against Denethor's shoulder, trying to scrape off his bridle, leaving smears of sweat and slobber all over his master's arm in the process. Denethor gave Gaerhûl an affectionate slap to make him mind his manners, then undid the girth on the saddle. When he grasped the saddle and began to lift it off the horse's back, it felt as though someone had jabbed a knife into his ribs. Denethor had to take in a sharp breath and clench his jaw to keep from crying out. In a moment, Thorongil was next to him, reaching to take the saddle.

'Don't. You. Dare.'

The captain froze at these words, barely above a whisper. Denethor took a breath, steeling himself for the next bout of pain, and smoothly finished taking the saddle off Gaerhûl. He turned and called for the nearest soldier to take it away. When the man left, Denethor led Gaerhûl to the creek for water, Thorongil trailing with his own horse. He did not speak until they stood at the creek bank.

'I am not an invalid, Captain,' he said softly.

'You are in pain, sir.'

'And I do not care to have that known.'

'There is no shame. These men know you were…'

'…hurt, and they believe me to be recovered.'

'They know how long ribs take to heal.'

'The injury was minor.' Denethor partly turned his back to Thorongil to let him know the discussion was over. By the time he had finished watering, brushing down and hobbling Gaerhûl, dinner was laid out. His and Thorongil's meal was apart from the others. Denethor sat cautiously. Thorongil filled a plate and cup for him before taking his own seat. The two each drank several cups of water, then began to eat.

'Have you your report for the Steward?'

'Yes. I wrote it up last night. Do you know when we will meet?'

'No. Tomorrow is not the usual day for a general council, so I suspect the day after, though the report should go to him with the announcement of your arrival.'

'I will do so.'

Denethor set down his plate half-finished and drank more water. The pain in his head was slowly subsiding, but that and the heat robbed him of appetite. 'You have told me how things are in Anórien, Captain. Tell me now how things shall be.' The other man pushed his food around the battered plate for a moment before sighing.

'As I spoke when you first arrived, how things shall be is lean. Crops went in before the campaign, so food is there, but there are not enough hands to collect it and there are not many fewer mouths to feed through winter, for which we should be grateful. The war was fought well, yet still there are newly made widows and families bereft of sons. Their grief is made more bitter by the sight of food gone to rot or in danger of it.'

'The Steward has been apprised of Brandir's counsel to bring harvesters from Lossarnach and approves. It will be done.' Thorongil shook his head, and ate another bite before continuing.

'I do not discount the hands, but I think that it will not be enough. It will be long before they are here, there are things to bring in before then, and work to be done after they leave. They have their own larders to worry over, as well.'

'So? You have men enough. The garrison must do the work.'

'They are weary and a number are wounded.'

'But they are alive and they can work. Unless maimed, even the wounded can do something.'

'They must also patrol and guard.'

'Marlong and Anbar are guarding. This garrison does nothing. Use the Rohirrim for patrols, and set your men to something useful. Start with the widows' holdings. Do it well and there will not be so many of those, either, by winter.' Denethor stared at Thorongil until the other met his eyes. 'The affairs of the simple folk may not be the business of soldiers, but they are my business and the Steward's. How else are granaries filled and oak supplied for the watch fires?'

Thorongil nodded, then stared intently back. 'Close your right eye, Denethor.' There was an urgency in the captain's voice that made Denethor comply. 'Can you see?'

'Yes…' He could see, but it was odd in a way he could not identify. 'What is it?'

'The pupil in your left eye is several times the size of that in your right eye. The riding is not doing you any good. We should stay here and set out tomorrow to give you rest.'

'I cannot afford to remain away from the City any longer.'

'You also cannot afford falling off your horse in a swoon because you are too stubborn to admit you are hurt!' Thorongil hissed.

The two stared at each other, then Denethor shrugged and picked up his plate again. 'I am resting now. We will not ride for several hours. If my eye is still not right by then, we will stay until it is.' He fixed the captain with a cold look until the other nodded reluctantly. Denethor made himself finish what was on his plate, then settled in to rest.

When he woke from his nap a few hours later, the pain in his head was gone. Denethor patiently submitted to the captain's examination and did not argue when the other told him to drink a cup of water with athelas steeping in it. The infusion was weak compared to the week before, for the leaves were very dry, but it did make him feel more clear-headed. While he drank, Thorongil saw to both their horses. They were soon on their way.

'I do not think we quite finished our conversation, Thorongil.'

'About…?'

'What shall be.'

'Hmm.' Denethor waited while Thorongil considered. 'It will be dry.' Denethor turned to look at the captain, who stared down the road, lost in his own thoughts. 'It will be dry, but Harad will not be able to take advantage of it. Nor Rhûn. They are too much harmed from these campaigns.'

'There were too few Uruks in the Morgul forces for my tastes.'

'You're right. Which means there will be a winter strike from Mordor.'

'Yes. Umbar will harry the falas, though they would lief remain in harbor.'

'Agreed.'

'Rohan?'

'Unhappy.'

'I thought their losses to be small.'

'Yes, but Thengel likes not how they were taken across Anduin without his leave, and he likes even less the stirring tales the riders have brought home, which makes the young men eager to perform such deeds for themselves.'

'Of all Rohirric kings, I would think that Thengel would be sympathetic to such desires.'

'His heart is more of Gondor than Rohan, and he does not rejoice in battle for its own sake.'

'Will Brandir be sufficient to answer him, or should you also go to Edoras?'

'I think it best to keep the Rohirrim on the west bank.'

'They are not much use in Ithilien, once off the road.'

'True.'

'There is another conversation I recall, Thorongil.' A tension came to the other's shoulders, though captain's face was bland. 'You were not pleased at being moved to Anórien, thinking yourself poorly used here.' The other nodded once. 'And now? Do you still think yourself poorly used?'

'No. But I still think that I could be better used.'

'In what way?'

'That is the threat.' The captain pointed east. 'I should be closer to it.'

'I disagree.'

'On the threat, or that I should be closer to it?'

'Both. The battle field is a simple place, Captain, filled with simple folk. Where lies our greatest enemy?'

'In the Dark Tower. He is enemy to all,' was the cautious answer.

'And on that you base your loyalty?'

Thorongil fell silent. He did not answer until the next time they walked.

'You have made clear what is obvious, Denethor. I am a… mercenary. If you wish an oath sworn to you directly, you shall not have it.' The captain's stare challenged him.

'To do so would forswear you to the Steward, which would displease me. I take oaths seriously.'

'I swear to none who do not fight Mordor or resist Sauron.'

'Is that all you can say of your own heart?' The captain shrugged. 'Do you believe there are powers in the world besides the Enemy, powers to succor and sustain us against him?'

'Yes.' There was utter certainty in Thorongil's voice.

'Why? How can you look upon what is before us and believe such things?'

'That is not all there is to see, Denethor. Look away from the eastern shadow and see how much more there is than his dominion.'

'It is only what he has yet failed to seize.'

Thorongil emphatically shook his head. 'Nay, think not that. He would pull it within his dark grasp if he could, but it is denied to him.'

'Aye, by us.'

'By all who oppose the Shadow.'

'That I will grant, but who are they? I see Gondor. Rohan. I see a wilderness beyond where a few grim men dwell, at times emerging to do battle, then gone again into the unknown. I see not any of these powers that you believe in. I know them only from tales. Where are they?' His hand had left the reins and had come to rest over the book.

'They watch and they hear,' Thorongil replied. 'You do not see all that is, and neither does the Enemy. Not all shadows are from his darkness and quiet deeds are done that foil his plans and strengthen our own.'

'We are watched, that much I will believe, but we care for ourselves. We are left to our own devices, and counseled to do nothing, to seek wisdom other than that of futile battle. Futile it may be, but what if there had been none at all this summer? Are we to be dead men of virtue, or live men of action?'

Thorongil dropped his eyes, pondering. Finally, he shook his head. 'I know not what counsel you have received, or from whom, that you should say such things, Denethor. But it cannot be that we are alone in this struggle. We would have fallen to Shadow long before, were that so.'

Denethor did not reply. As when Ecthelion had spoken of Mithrandir's teaching, there was something in Thorongil's words that stirred him. There were things both right and wrong in what this secretive man said, but he could not puzzle out what or why. Certainty. He is so certain of what he speaks. In the moment that Thorongil spoke, Denethor had wanted to believe with as much certainty, as much faith, that there could be hope. As soon as the words ceased, doubt crept back.

The pain in Denethor's head returned along with the doubt, and he did not speak again as they rode to Minas Tirith. He did not stop at an old building near an abandoned quarry as he had intended. It would have to wait for another day.

Thorongil insisted that they do no more than walk or trot the horses, so it was several hours past sundown before they passed the Rammas and covered the last league to the City. The air was still warm, but the stickiness had subsided with the wind that came down from the mountains. Denethor gave Gaerhûl his head and gazed upon Minas Tirith. The horse knew his way to the stables well enough. The moon turned Minas Tirith into adamant, and the walls had a sheen as of opals. It did not look real and Denethor amused himself with wondering if he was once more walking in a dream and seeing some other great city upon a hill, Tirion or Gondolin, not his own beloved place. If he listened carefully, he could hear sounds floating down from the heights; laughter, shouts, a dog barking, the low hum of people about their business in the evening's cool embrace. As they came to a stop in the stable yard, he saw Thorongil from the corner of his eye catching Gaerhûl's reins.

'I am perfectly well,' he grumbled in the man's direction as he slid off the horse. The moment of his feet hitting the ground was agony on his ribs and back.

'And why wouldn't you be, my lord?' That was not Thorongil's voice. It was not Thorongil. Beregar held Gaerhûl. 'Is something the matter, my lord?'

'What are you doing here?'

Beregar ducked his head at the sharpness of the words. 'The Mistress sent me, sir, your lady sister. She heard you were to return this day, so she sent me down to attend you, since you would be tired from riding.'

'Your place is tending the Archivist and the other ladies of her house,' Denethor replied, though more mildly. It pleased him that Aiavalë would give him such consideration. Perhaps she will forgive me soon and come home. A stable hand approached and took the war horse, freeing Beregar to begin to pull packs from behind the saddle.

'I do as my lady commands,' the boy responded as he unbuckled the straps holding the bags in palace, 'and she bade me do this. But she and the other ladies are all safely home, sir. I made sure of that ere I set out.'

'Then we should not tarry, so you may return to your post.' It will be good to have another to carry the pouches, and none will remark if it is Beregar. A throat was cleared just past his shoulder, asking for Denethor's attention. Denethor did not turn.

'Yes, Captain?'

'I was going to ask if you would remain in the barracks tonight, but I see you have a porter.'

'It is best if I go to the Citadel, but if you need to speak with me more… ' Denethor turned to face Thorongil, the moon shining full on his face. Thorongil stepped close and stared intently at Denethor's eyes, then smiled slightly, shaking his head.

'I see no reason why you should stay. We have spoken enough and I think I must use my last waking minutes this eve to go over my report to the Steward.'

'Good evening, Captain.'

'Good evening, sir.'

Denethor motioned for Beregar to precede him. Though he was tired and ached, it felt good to walk. The streets were lit every so often with lamps and light fell from windows and rooftops. Flowering vines of many kinds reached up from their pots, clambering up walls, wrapping doors and sills, and filling the air with sweet scents. People bowed and nodded as he passed if they noticed him, but most were too caught up in their own merriment. He did not mind – he did not wish to be noticed. As they walked, his stomach growled. They had supped lightly north of the Rammas, but that had been a few hours past.

When they reached the fifth circle, Denethor noted that lights burned in the windows of Beruthiel's house. He came to a halt before it. Tucked into his tunic was Brandir's letter to Maiaberiel. Ordinarily, Denethor would simply have had a messenger take it to the house in the morning. It was not wise to call upon the lady unannounced in the evenings if Brandir was not there. From somewhere inside, he heard the clink of tableware and a throaty laugh. Briskly, he strode up to the door and let himself in, motioning for Beregar to stay outside.

'My Lord Denethor?' the doorward inquired, blocking the entry hall. 'How may I serve you, my lord?'

'You may not. I shall see to things myself,' Denethor airily informed the man, trying to pass him.

'I am sorry, my lord, but the lady is not receiving any visitors…'

'I'm not a visitor. I am kin.' The doorward grasped Denethor's arm, pulling him up.

'I am sorry, my lord, but you will have to return on the morrow.' Denethor dug his own hand into the other's wrist until the doorward gasped and tried to wriggle free. He finally stopped, glaring at Denethor with equal parts resentment and fear.

'I am here to deliver a letter from the lord of this house to its lady. I trust you will remain here until I leave?' He dug his fingers in again, then released the man. 'Well?'

'Yes, my lord. I'll mind the door.' Denethor smiled, then went in search of his sister. It did not take long. She was sitting at the dining table with Isilmo, wearing something that must have been quite cool, given the thinness of the fabric and the amount of herself it did not cover. The two had their heads together as they giggled about something, Isilmo's hand resting on her thigh. For a moment, Denethor was tempted to turn and leave the adulterers to their tryst. Brandir deserves better than this. The thought of Brandir made him stay. Breaking up this one evening would not mean much, but it was the least he owed his brother-in-law. Besides, the dinner looked rather appetizing.

'Good evening!' Denethor called out in a cheerful voice, making the other two jump and knock their heads. He sauntered over to the table from the doorway. Isilmo looked frightened, though Maiaberiel simply scowled at him.

'How wonderful, you're back. Now go away.'

'But I have come for supper. You wouldn't turn away your own broth…'

'Yes, I would. Leave.'

'And I have ridden all the way from Anórien in a single day, to bring you a message from your loving, devoted, faithful husband.' Isilmo's face turned very red, and he began to stand. Maiaberiel waved him back to his seat.

'I do not care to see it. Leave it with the doorward and go.'

'You are heartless, sister,' Denethor said sadly, leaning down to place a kiss on her cheek, 'tossing me out unfed.'

'Then go to the kitchen first.'

Denethor turned to Isilmo, grabbed the man by his shoulders and hauled him to his feet. 'I am so terribly sorry, but my sister and I have businesses to discuss.' He grabbed the plate of half-eaten supper and shoved it into Isilmo's hands. 'But I would not wish to be inhospitable. You just take this upstairs,' cutlery was tossed on top of the plate, 'and make yourself comfortable in her room – I trust you know which one it is? Excellent! – and wait,' a wine glass was tucked into a large side pocket, most of it spilling, 'and be sure that you finish it all,' a napkin was crammed into Isilmo's collar, 'for you will need all of your strength to deal with this woman.' Denethor spun Isilmo around and gave him a shove that nearly sent the man sprawling. 'Hurry along.' Isilmo whirled and gaped. Denethor took one step towards him and whispered, 'Now.' Isilmo complied.

Maiaberiel sat, arms crossed, very much unimpressed. He pulled Isilmo's chair up almost on top of her own and appropriated her plate. Denethor began eating, taking up as much room at the table as he could.

'So, where is the letter?'

He fished it out of his pocket and tossed onto the table. Maiaberiel did not move to pick it up. Denethor finished the supper, then regarded his sister. He had to admit he understood why men wanted her favor; she was beautiful and commanding.

'If you are through taking my food and assaulting my guest, you may go.'

'Your guest? Is that what Brandir would call Isilmo if he knew what hospitality you were offering?'

'It is none of your concern. Go.'

'Does Brandir know? That you whore about when he is gone?'

'It is none of your concern.'

'I rue the day I introduced the two of you. A simple fool trapped by a great spider who cares nothing for him.'

At that, a fierce look came to her face. 'That is untrue. I care greatly. I love him.'

Denethor had to laugh. 'Love him? You say you love your husband when you share your bed with whomever knocks at your door? Or shows up through your window.'

'You do not understand. You don't know anything about love.'

'I do not believe I would wish for your understanding of such things.'

'You should try. At the least you might learn to be more discreet.'

'I have no spouse to betray, so what discretion is required?'

'You pay no mind to how you appear. You are the High Warden, and you frequent common whorehouses.'

So he was right to be cautious. Did Maiaberiel truly believe he was whoring, or did she suspect he was collecting information? 'What is the matter? I believe that is where one finds whores.'

'It is base. Have enough sense to keep a mistress, or at least have the whores brought to you.'

'As you do. Hmm, perhaps I can learn from you.'

'It is hardly the same.'

'You bed men as it pleases you, I bed women as it pleases me. How is it not the same?'

'I don't pay, and I gain power as well as pleasure.'

'Poor Brandir.'

'Save your pity. He knows what he wishes to know. He has gained far more than he has lost. I deny him nothing.'

'Nothing save your fidelity.'

'He is satisfied and it concerns you not, so keep to your own business.'

'While you lecture me on whores.'

'I could not care less what you bed, Denethor, but you demean the honor of the our house with your base pursuits. Stay out of whorehouses.'

He leaned on the arm of her chair and pulled a long face. 'But then I would never get to see you.'

'This is becoming tiring. If you care not for how you appear, then do as you will, but you should find a mistress.'

It amused him that Beruthiel should sound so like Morwen. 'I have found one I like. Denethor reached up and brushed a finger over Maiaberiel's eyebrow, 'I like her because she reminds me of someone. Here, around the eyes.' His finger trailed down her cheek. 'And near the jaw.' He let his hand move along her throat, wondering when she was going to object or try to strike him, and ran his fingers across her breasts above the neck of her gown. 'Though I must admit, her bosom is not so fine.' His sister slipped her hand onto his wrist, fingertips resting on his almost healed scar, but made no attempt to push his hand away.

'Why are you wasting time with a whore, then?' Her voice was amused, her gaze inviting.

'I fear I am not interested in sleeping with my father's mistress.'

Denethor had to move quickly to seize her wrist before she could stab him with the knife she grabbed from the table. He tossed the knife onto the floor beyond the table, then sent the fork after it for good measure. Maiaberiel struck him across the back of the head, right where Gaerhûl had kicked him. For a moment, he thought he was going to swoon from the pain, but kept a tight hold of her so she could not retrieve the knife. He also had to fight nausea. That had started well before the blow, when her fingers had trailed over the old wound. In a moment, he had mastery of head, sister and stomach. Maiaberiel glowered and tried to wriggle away.

'Now, an interesting question is whether I finally said something scandalous enough to outrage even your jaded taste, or whether I simply hit too close to the truth.'

'I will see you dead, Denethor.' The Haradic warriors in battle had not looked upon him so murderously as his sister did now.

'I would not answer, either, were I you.' Denethor leaned back a little in his chair, not letting go of Maiaberiel. 'Enough insults. Now to business. You spent entirely too much time during the wars this summer trying to influence the Steward to make him countermand my orders. Had he been able to change the plans, we would still be doing battle with Easterlings in Ithilien. Or even upon the Pelennor.'

'And what did I do?'

'You tried to have Ecthelion recall me from Pelargir and send Thorongil instead. He was needed to move the Rohirrim, and to guard against the Easterlings.'

'No one knew of the Easterlings. Had you been less secretive…'

'All who needed to know, knew.'

'Not Father!'

'As I said.'

'You are a traitor!'

'No, I am the Captain-General. You made traitors of all of us with your meddling. Your beloved husband and your celebrated captain had to defy the Steward's orders, which would not have been made without your whispers and cajoling. Or whatever it was you did to win him over.'

'If you knew, why didn't you tell Father? If you had failed in South Gondor, none would have known of the Easterlings.'

'Do not confuse your own ignorance for what is known by those who deserve to know.'

'And the Lord Steward does not deserve to know?'

'Consider that even your precious Thorongil did not see fit to inform the Steward.'

'I am telling this to Father. He will want to know how you have suborned his officers.'

'And you think him ignorant now of the fact that his orders were ignored? I think not.' He let go her wrist and rose, fighting back another wave of nausea. 'And do not think me ignorant of your plans to supplant me with another. Just beware – meddle again in the conduct of battle, and you are the one who will be dead.'

Denethor did not wait for a reply, striding quickly out of the room. The doorward opened the front door for him and slammed it shut on his heels. The street was almost empty. Beregar hurried after Denethor as the other swiftly walked towards the gate to the sixth circle. Just past the tunnel through the pier of stone, Denethor had to stop and throw up.

'My lord? You are not well! Stay here, I will fetch some water!' The young man scurried off. He returned with a large dipper full of water. Denethor rinsed the sour slime out of his mouth, then drank a few sips. Beregar hovered protectively by his shoulder.

'I should not have eaten such rich food after a long ride in the heat.' He sipped a little more water from the dipper, and suppressed a shudder at the thought of Beruthiel's hand on his arm. She meant it! She would have… Their taunts at each other usually bordered on the obscene, and Maiaberiel had made free with her hands on him more than once when he was not quite a man, seeking to humiliate him. Not even when she had found him lying on her bed in the dark last summer and had begun to kiss him, thinking him one of her lovers, had he felt like this. There was no mistaking tonight that she truly meant for him to bed her. His stomach threatened to heave again. Her touch; it was as though lust had seeped from her fingers into the wounded flesh of his arm, and his soul had rushed to repulse the violation.

He finished the dipper of water and handed it back to Beregar. 'I need to rest.'

The two continued to the Stewards House where Denethor bid the other good night. Beregar left, though reluctantly. Denethor entered the house. In a nook to the side of the doorway, he could hear the old doorward's snores. Nothing else was to be heard. He walked away from the sleeping man, making his way down the long hall to Aiavalë's rooms. The door was ajar instead of shut as it should have been, as it always was. How did this house empty?

The door swung open with a small creak and his footsteps echoed, bearing witness to empty rooms. He did not wish to see what they looked like without her in them. These had been her rooms for all of his own life, forty-five years, and Aiavalë said she had lived in them since she was an infant. Denethor had heard all of the stories. Emeldir wished nothing to do with the monster she had birthed. Vanimeldë, who had not cared for her daughter-in-law, blamed the monster upon Emeldir, and argued for both mother and child to be sent away and a new bride found.

Grandfather saw more deeply. "This is what afflicts us all, writ upon our hearts. We shall not be barbarians." Turgon left the women to their squabbles, and Ecthelion to his infidelity, and taught his monstrous granddaughter to speak and to read. The Steward insisted that Aiavalë be veiled before servants and commoners, so that she would not be ridiculed. He insisted just as strongly that she would never be veiled in his own presence. No one else of the family would bear the sight of her uncovered until Denethor. I drove her away. Death or honor takes us from this house, and she would not suffer my mockery. He edged out of the room, heading for the stairs.

Once upon them, Denethor felt he needed to see the rest of the house. The packs he left on the landing of the third floor where his rooms lay. As he set them down, his head swam and he clutched at the wall for balance. The stair to the top floor was shorter than he remembered. Unlike the emptied rooms of the ground floor, these chambers were still filled with things.

The last time he had walked here had been to collect the pearls for his mother's hair. She left in death. The door to her rooms was locked, as it should have been. Emeldir would not approve of your heir. She hated all of Ecthelion's bastards, and had fully believed the rumors concerning Thorongil. The captain had not been much welcome in Minas Tirith while Emeldir ruled as the Lady of the White Tower. Even Maiaberiel could not be too obvious with her favors to the man while their mother lived. Denethor doubted the news of Thorongil's northern origins would have swayed Emeldir's opinion.

Down the hall at the end were Ecthelion's rooms, unoccupied for twenty-four years. Denethor could remember going into them only once, to sneak something from his father's desk on Beruthiel's instruction.

You, wretch, left in shame and dishonor. They had returned from Osgiliath, a long-ago spring, he and Ecthelion. His own fears over the Shadow he had shared with the Steward, while Ecthelion had spent most of his days in the house in the fifth circle he kept for his mistress. It had been alarming to hear his father's voice coming down the stairwell one afternoon, haranguing Emeldir, mocking her coldness and extolling his mistress's charms. It did not occur to Denethor not to intervene.

'Do not speak so to my mother.' He had stepped between the two, taller by a head than his father.

'I shall speak to my wife as I see fit. Go away.'

Denethor had shaken his head and turned to Emeldir. 'You need not listen to such vileness. It is not for a lady to hear.' His mother had nodded stiffly, then retreated to her own rooms.

'You are insolent, Denethor. Apologize for your arrogance at once.'

'No. I do nothing save defend a lady's honor, which you try to demean.'

'I do no more than chastise my wife for failing in her duty to me.'

'She has fulfilled all of her obligations to you.'

'Bearing you? I should have had a son years before.'

'You have broken troth with her.'

'You understand nothing.'

'I understand that you are an oath-breaker.'

'An oath…? What are you babbling on about?'

'You broke your oath to your wife, to be faithful. There is no place in this house for such as you. You should leave.' Ecthelion had laughed at that.

'I should leave? I should abandon my own house and inheritance because of a jealous wife? An oath is only for those who may impose them upon others, else they are vanity. There are not oaths, only what we may seize and hold.'

'We have our honor. Some of us, at least.'

'I will not stand for this insolence! You have no right to speak to me so…'

'No, he does not.' Turgon's voice cut through the argument. Grandfather leaned against the wall near the stair. 'You should not speak so to your elders, boy. Apologize.' The tone in the Steward's voice left no room for argument.

'I apologize, sir, for speaking insolently.'

'No, this young hothead has no business speaking to you like that. But I do.' Turgon walked over and kept walking into his son, making Ecthelion back up several paces. 'Denethor is insolent, but he is right. You are a disgrace to this house. You have brought shame upon it with your carousing, and you sicken me with your cruelty to Emeldir. You will be gone by sundown.'

'Father… what? I… This is nonsense!'

'You are not a fool, Ecthelion. Why do you behave like one? You will leave or I will have you thrown out into the street. If you care at all for how you appear in the eyes of those you would command, I suggest you take rooms in the Tower, and not with your whore. If you would mend your ways, and not just seem, then you will be rid of her.'

That was that. Ecthelion had lived in the Tower since that day. Even after Grandfather's death, he did not presume to lay claim to the house. He had come to the house to take Turgon's papers after the funeral, but Denethor had not allowed Ecthelion to touch the Steward's effects any more than he had allowed the man to touch Turgon's body after death.

Denethor silently withdrew from the top floor. This past was not for him. He belonged on the third floor, just above the level of the wall. When he reached the landing, he heard the cat mew, then heard her paws upon the floor as she trotted to greet him. Telperien bunted her head against his ankle, meowing, welcoming him home. When Denethor tried to walk, she twined her way in between his boots, nearly tripping him. He gave her a gentle tap with his foot to warn her away. The bags were heavier than he remembered when he retrieved them, and he briefly considered just leaving them on the landing.

His own rooms were more familiar to him than Osgiliath, and he did not pause as he retrieved a candle from a small table inside the door. The flint lay on the edge of the bookshelf just to the right of the doorway to the study. Soon, he had a light. The desk showed signs of the cat – hair, paw prints, crumpled paper. The cause was now sitting primly in the midst of her mess, unabashed. Denethor dug into his pocket and retrieved a few pebbles. He studied them, then half turned to the cat.

'Shall you hear a tale, your majesty?' The cat yawned and settled into the nest of paper on the desk. 'This stone, this comes from the road in Ithilien, north of the crossroads, near the small pile of Easterlings…'

Denethor spoke the story of where the stone came from, and why he picked it up for each of the three stones. The first white pebble was from Ithilien, the second mottled green pebble was from the east bank of Cair Andros, while the last came from under the eaves of the forest along the road, dug up after he woke from his nap that afternoon. Telperien listened politely. As he finished the story of each stone, he put the pebble into the old pan with the other pebbles he had collected on his journeys about Gondor.

Grandfather had started him in this habit just after he moved into these rooms. 'This is the land of stone, and all of its stories are contained within the rock. The walls sing, the houses are dense with history, if you will only hear it. Even the stones on the ground can tell a tale.' Each time Denethor returned from his travels, he would take out his pebbles and tell Turgon what could be said of the place where he had picked up the rock.

The stories over, Denethor sought out his bed in the alcove. He had slept here, in Turgon's study, since he was ten. A few weeks after Vanimeldë died, his grandfather told him he would now live in Turgon's rooms and act as his scribe. Denethor had been glad to get away from the top floor, with Emeldir's grimness and Maiaberiel's cruel teasing. Turgon made him copy and made him privy to the running of the realm, but also encouraged him to read old, odd, and interesting things. Denethor would fall asleep to the scratch of Turgon's pen and wake to his grandfather's voice saying that it was time to walk the wall. Until he was old enough to begin training in arms, his days were spent in this room or else in the archive.

Denethor sat heavily on the edge of his bed, setting the candle in the holder on the small table wedged in between the head of the bed and the chest of drawers. He wrestled his boots off and slid them into their place under the bed. The book was next, placed carefully on the table so wax would not drip on it. His clothes went into the basket to be washed the next day. The bed linens were fresh and had only a little cat hair on them – Aiavalë probably sent someone to change them just as she had sent Beregar to collect him at the stables. Grateful, he snuffed the candle, slid in between the sheets, and stretched out.

His thoughts teased at him, keeping him from easy sleep. This alcove had always been a comforting place, what he needed and all that he could think to want. Until now, it had been a retreat, not an exile. Perhaps it was time to leave. He could make Osgiliath his home, stay with Aiavalë when duty brought him to the City… No. Though the Stewards be mortal, our House is bound by oaths immortal. This house has emptied when the promises were fulfilled, or honor failed. There is no escaping it, save in death or for honor. Grandfather left you to this, as you will leave it to the captain. The thoughts subsided into murmurs, and he slept. He dreamed of the scratch of a pen upon parchment, writing down all the words of all the Stewards, and sometimes the pen was a quill dipped in ink, sometimes a talon writing in blood.

***

The cat woke him early, purring and rubbing her chin against his face. The light in the room was enough to see by. Before going to bathe, Denethor penned a brief note of greeting to the Steward and said he would be in the Citadel all day should he be needed for a meeting. This was not the usual day for councils, so he did not anticipate being summoned. He dug several reports out of his bag to accompany the note. Denethor had to wake Sador to give directions that it be sent to the Steward and that a breakfast be ready when he returned from the baths. The fellow looked inclined to grumble at being set to tasks so early, but bowed and said it would be done. Denethor found himself wishing for Beregar's competent attention.

The bath was a good idea. Denethor soaked a long time in one of the warm tubs to ease the ache in his side. Several of the other men washing stared at the yellow and purple marks mottling his ribs, but none said more than a quiet good morning. The cold shower afterwards left him alert. Upon Denethor's return, Sador had dozed off once more.

Even so, breakfast was waiting, though it was good he had not tarried longer. Telperien had her head in the basket, trying to work the cover off the small crock of butter. He tore a bit of bread off the loaf and set a generous dollop of butter and soft cheese each upon it, then offered it to her. After a suspicious sniff, she batted it to the floor and followed after. Contented purring soon rose from under the desk.

Hunger was soon satisfied. The first thing he read was a letter from Adrahil that was very carefully sealed and looked several days old.

Denethor,

I hope this finds you well, my friend.

I cannot stay away from Dol Amroth any longer. Though nothing amiss has been reported, a land needs her lord, particularly in times such as these. Please think me not an ungrateful guest for departing before your return. Imrahil accompanies me.

My dearest treasures I leave in your care. Luinil does not wish to travel while the season still favors war, and I have learned to trust in her wisdom. If I may impose upon your good will, would you keep my ladies' welfare among your concerns and leave them not without your regard, as your duties permit?

No black sails have been sighted since the three ships were turned back from the falas. The Lord Steward is of the opinion that no more shall be seen in this year, and I guardedly agree. I intend to travel to the Ringló Vale and then across to Pinnath Gelin in early September after the weather turns, so be not concerned if letters go astray. Look for me again in Minas Tirith at the year's end.

Adrahil

Denethor considered the Prince's words. Adrahil was worried, which made Denethor wonder what news had come from the south. He had to agree that the Corsairs were not going to offer much threat beyond an insignificant raid in the coming months, perhaps not for a full year. Perhaps Adrahil is not worried, at least, not about raiders. It was true that the Prince had been long away from his lands, though Angelimir was there and could do as well a job of ordering the falas as his son. He is doing as you asked him to do in Pelargir. Gather the southern lords and reassure them that danger is met and vanquished. But what else are you saying to them, Prince? Luinil's words sounded both like and unlike the Princess. She would be aware of war, but she would also know from her husband how safe the western lands were. They both conduct careful business, I believe. Oh yes, Adrahil, I shall give Luinil very careful regard.

Denethor set the letter aside, to think on it more later. The rest of the correspondence on his desk was composed of routine reports. He leafed through them to ensure there was nothing particularly urgent, then settled in with Halmir's report on Osgiliath. The Lost was as terse and precise with his writing as with his speech, deftly describing the salvage work being completed at the eastern edge of Osgiliath, the patrols sent out – whether by themselves or by Morgul – and what they observed, and the condition of the garrison a month after the campaign. What was interesting was what went unsaid, such as Isilmo's presence in the City when he should have been in Osgiliath. A few oblique sentences indicated that there would be more to discuss in the privacy of the garrison. Denethor wrote a short reply, saying he would be in Minas Tirith for a ten-day, then would return to the garrison for a full inspection.

With a sigh, Denethor turned to the remaining reports. The reservoir above the City remained high, despite the lack of rain, as the snows had been deep upon Mindolluin and they kept the lake full with their melt. Trade in southern Gondor was nearly back to its usual levels. The merchants in the City market who had been charging overly much for their goods were now paying overly much to rent their stalls. Most of the soldiers who had been brought to the Houses of Healing were back in their homes and farms, or barracks. A half-dozen babes had been delivered, with only one dead, since the month's start, and all of the mothers lived. And so went the word of the realm. There was worry, there were sorrows and misfortunes, but most signs were for the good.

It was just past the noon bell, and he was reading about the condition of peaches and olives in Dor-en-Ernil, when Denethor heard steps coming up the stair. He had only to listen a moment to know them for Thorongil's. The captain soon appeared in the doorway, looking concerned.

'Captain.'

'My lord.'

'You need not hover in the doorway. Come in.' The captain smiled a little at the jibe and approached the desk. Denethor set the report down and managed a slight smile in return. 'To forestall your questions, I can see perfectly well, I have no dizziness, my ribs ache only a little and my head not at all. Had I known you would be concerned, I would have sent a message down to the garrison so you would not have wasted a walk up the mountain.'

'I had no concern this morning, my lord. It was only during the meeting with the Steward…'

'You were summoned?'

'Yes. As were you, according to the Steward.' Denethor did not answer, but motioned for the captain to continue. 'I met with the Steward, as asked, at the fourth hour. He was… not pleased that you were absent. I grew worried then, for I could not imagine you would disregard a summons.'

'But you did wonder, as there should have been some word if I were found… ill.'

'Yes. I thought, perhaps, that as no one would wish to disturb you in your sleep, none would realize if something was amiss.'

'Hmm. Well, as you can see, I am not ill.'

'Yes. I see.'

'Your audience with the Steward is over?'

'Correct. I am on my way to the garrison.'

'You have no afternoon audience, then?'

'No. Tomorrow afternoon.'

'Thank you, Captain. I appreciate your concern. That will be all.'

Thorongil bowed politely. 'Good day, sir.'

Denethor listened carefully to the echoes of Thorongil's steps until a door closed, signaling the captain's departure. This was a peculiar problem. The captain was probably telling the truth. The look of concern on the man's face appeared genuine. So, what then of the claim of a summons?

Would the Steward lie about having sent a summons? If it suited him, yes. Why? The only answer that made sense was to see what Thorongil's reaction would be. But what if a summons had been sent? Sador was just old and witless enough that he could have forgotten to deliver the message.

Denethor stood and quietly descended to the entry hall, Telperien trailing after him. The old man sat in a chair near the door, asleep. Denethor looked in the message basket and then on the tray on the narrow table along the wall. There were a few messages, but all were several days old, and none of any importance. He slipped back upstairs, not waking the doorward.

A summons would have been written, if no reply was expected, or it would have been delivered by a servant who would have insisted on speaking it directly, if a reply was required. No summons was sent. It would be dangerous to go now to Ecthelion, for then the Steward would know that Thorongil had paid a visit. Denethor went back to his desk, to spend the rest of his day as he had said he would. Tomorrow's council would be most interesting.

*******

Characters introduced in this chapter, in order of appearance:

Turgon – Twenty-fourth ruling steward of Gondor, father of Ecthelion, grandfather of Denethor, deceased.
Vanimeldë – OC. Wife of Turgon, mother of Ecthelion, grandmother of Denethor, deceased.


This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

In Challenges

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Author: Anglachel

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Rating: Adult

Last Updated: 07/01/09

Original Post: 02/23/04

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