Courting the Lady
7. An Unexpected Inspection
The five junior recruits pulled faces of varying dismay, but obediently raised their weapons and ran through the drill once more. Thorongil had paired Imrahil with himself; the scion of Dol Amroth strained to block his captain’s moves, but this was the most effective way for him to learn as quickly as possible. Though Thorongil had made no undertaking to promote Imrahil quickly, he intended to do so if he could, and so far the lad showed great promise.
As they finished, young Arthad gave a shout. “Supply train!”
Sure enough, three wagons were creaking along the rough trail that led from the great Harad Road to the site of the company’s camp in the forests of North Ithilien. Thorongil wondered if there would be a letter from Finduilas either for himself or for Imrahil; the lady was a faithful correspondent, and nearly every courier brought some missive from the south for either her birth-brother or her adopted one.
Then he caught sight of the outriders accompanying the wagons. What in Arda is the Lord Denethor doing here? He told the recruits to go back to camp, put away their gear, and clean themselves up, asking Imrahil in addition to tell the officers that they had a high-ranking visitor arriving.
Hurrying forward, he wished that he had had warning of this visit. Not that he feared that Denethor would find aught amiss, but an extra inspection would have done no harm.
“My lord,” he bowed. “What brings the Captain of the White Tower here to Ithilien? What may we do for you?”
Denethor dismounted and handed his reins over, telling the man to be sure to check over his horse’s feet before placing it on the picket lines or in the stables. “I come not as the Captain of the White Tower, but rather in the stead of the Steward. He has asked me to survey all of the camps and companies of Ithilien with an eye to determining their best disposition.”
“I see. Do you begin with us, or end?”
“Yours is the second company of Rangers that I will visit. I expect to spend two or three days here before moving on. I would like to look around the camp, of course, and probably accompany some of your men on patrol as well,” said Denethor.
“Of course, as you choose. Come, I will have a tent readied for you.” Thorongil glanced at the sun. “The evening meal will be served in less than two hours. I generally eat with my officers and with several of the men in rotation; I find that it helps morale to give the men a chance to speak more freely. Will you join me?”
“Certainly. I am sure you will first wish to supervise the unloading of your supplies, however.”
“I do, so I will send one of the lads to fetch you when it is time.” He paused before a large tent and gestured at it. “You may sleep here; normally it is used as the infirmary, but at present we have no men wounded so gravely as to need it, and it is the largest available. There is even a table within; I imagine you may wish to write down your impressions of what you see here. One of the men will be here shortly to see if you need anything else,” said Thorongil.
“Thank you, Captain Thorongil. I am sure it will suit well.” Denethor sketched a bow and entered the tent.
Watching the unloading of the bags of flour and beans into storage, Thorongil still wondered why the Steward had chosen to send Denethor rather than coming himself, as was his wont. I hope this does not mean that Ecthelion is not well. Perhaps he simply finds himself too busy this year; he has always seemed to enjoy traveling around the lands of Gondor. Had he been born into another family, I think he would have made an excellent merchant!
“Here’s the post, captain.” Aldadil, his second, handed him the leather pouch. “A fair few letters this time, it seems.”
Thorongil quickly sorted through them. Mostly personal messages to the men, one or two official communications for himself – though he rather thought that Denethor might have more to give him – and, yes, a letter from Finduilas to Imrahil. Taking his own, he handed the rest back to Aldadil.
“See that these reach the men this evening. I wouldn’t want anyone to be delayed in hearing from his sweetheart or family! Those to the men currently on patrol, you can leave with their tentmates or bring back to me to keep for their return, as you think best. Oh, and make sure that there is an extra place at my table tonight; Captain Denethor will be joining us.”
Aldadil’s eyes widened. “Do you want the men on rota to sit there, then, or not?”
“Whose turn is it?”
“It’s all youngsters today: Imrahil, Arthad, and Baldor. Well, Baldor isn’t that young, I suppose, but he’s from Pinnath Gelin and a bit of a cut-up, so I think of him as one of the lads. I’ll be there, of course, and Dagnir, and sergeant Lasmir, but Ostoher is out on patrol. Suits you?”
“That will be fine. I told Captain Denethor that I normally eat with some of the men as well as my officers, so he’ll be expecting that. Just make sure that Denethor sits next to me, and perhaps place Imrahil to his other side. Put Baldor at the other end of the table, I think,” Thorongil instructed.
Aldadil winked, saying, “Your reputation for wisdom is once again proved accurate! Don’t worry, I’ll make sure that Baldor is as far from the Lord Captain as possible.”
Thorongil went to his own tent to splash water on his face and change into fresh clothing for the meal, something he rarely bothered to do out in the wilds. Whatever Denethor is looking for, we’ll show him our best.
Denethor nodded politely, if rather stiffly, at both officers and enlisted men as he moved to sit next to Thorongil’s side at the table.
“I fear that we have only standard camp fare to offer you,” said Thorongil lightly. “The supply wagons came too late today for anything more.”
A wave of Denethor’s hand dismissed the matter. “I would expect nothing else. I do not require special treatment; in fact I prefer to share what your men eat.” He looked down at his plate. “Indeed, I see they dine quite well.”
“The advantage of the season; there are still enough abandoned farms nearby that it is quite easy to get the men to gather a few fruits and so on, as they return from their patrols. They know it will improve their meals, at least for the time being.”
“I see.” Denethor turned toward his right.
Oh, no. I forgot to warn Denethor that Imrahil was maintaining anonymity here. An ordinary recruit would not be known to the Steward’s Heir!
Luckily Denethor did not address the young man by name, merely inquiring, “And how do you feel about acting as half-farmer, then? Was this what you expected when you joined Captain Thorongil’s company?”
“Not what I expected, no sir, but I don’t mind it. I would willingly pick a few plums, and even dig a few carrots, rather than live on dried beans and bread all the time,” Imrahil responded.
Thorongil added quickly, “Young Imrahil is one of our best new recruits this year, Captain Denethor. I believe you are scheduled to go out on patrol tomorrow, are you not, Imrahil?” At the boy’s nod, he continued, “Since you wished to join one of the patrols, I would recommend that one. They will be sweeping southward as far as the waterfall of Henneth Annûn, and then returning the next day.”
Denethor raised a forkful of beans to his mouth. “That would suit. I will wish to speak with you and your officers privately as well, tonight or later.”
“We are at your command, sir,” said Thorongil, inclining his head in respect.
The other man gazed at him a moment, plainly suspecting mockery, but there was nothing to be said. The conversation at table then became general, about the state of the roads and the weather – Lasmir claimed it was the worst year for thunderstorms he had seen in twenty-three years’ service in Ithilien. Denethor listened carefully to what both officers and men had to say; Thorongil was relieved that Aldadil was sitting next to Baldor, ready to intervene if the latter began some unfortunate story.
At the end of the meal he offered Denethor another mug of ale and a pipe in his tent. The Steward’s Heir accepted the first, but remarked that he saw the pipe as a filthy habit.
“Perhaps so,” Thorongil admitted, “but one I learned in my youth. I have shared many a pipe with a companion.”
“Such as?” Denethor lifted an eyebrow.
“The lord Mithrandir, for one. He visited Rohan while I was in Thengel-King’s service.” True so far as it goes, if not the entire truth of the matter.
“Ah. So you know Mithrandir. And what drew you to Gondor? I do not believe I have ever heard your reasons.”
Careful, now. I do not know why he enquires thus, but I mislike the gleam in his eye. “I found life among the Rohirrim too limiting. I wished to see more of the world, to find a place where I could hone my skills and put them to good use,” said Thorongil.
“Do you not find captaining a band of Ithilien Rangers too limiting as well, a man of your evident abilities? I know the Steward sponsors this company; I am surprised you have not asked him for more. No doubt he would grant whatever you wished,” Denethor shut his lips tightly.
Now we come to it. He fears my ambition, and is surely aware of the rumors of my parentage. No wonder, then, that he sees me as a threat to his position as both son and commander.
“I have no immediate wish to leave this station,” he answered mildly. “The Steward assigned me to serve in Ithilien, and here I will remain until he chooses otherwise. I swore oath to serve faithfully, obey willingly, and advise wisely; and should he ask my advice, I would say to strengthen the forces here, yes, but also to look to the south. When last I was in Minas Tirith I heard rumors that Umbar prepared for war. I imagine you have heard them as well.”
Denethor favored him with a long look, then raised his ale to his lips. Setting the emptied cup aside, he replied, “Umbar may be a distant threat, but Gondor’s true enemy is the Dark Lord to the east. I would support adding to the defense of Ithilien, but not diverting our strength southward at this time, not until and unless we are more immediately threatened there. Since I speak for the Steward, what would your advice be to him there – to enlarge the present companies, or add more of them? I am inclined to the latter.”
Thorongil frowned, pondering the implications of the different possibilities. “It depends on the number of good, reliable officers available,” he said. “More smaller companies would perhaps serve the purpose better, but only if led by competent men.”
“True,” conceded Denethor, “though I think that need not be seen as a grave difficulty. Many of our present lower officers might be worthy of promotion, though their captains would doubtless regret the loss to their companies. Would not your own second – Aldadil, is that not his name? – make a fine captain?”
“He would,” Thorongil agreed. “But the hour grows late. Shall we discuss this further upon your return, two days hence?”
Denethor nodded, but remained seated.
“Was there something else you wished, my lord?” inquired Thorongil.
The Captain of the White Tower hesitated. “No – no – nothing. That is – young Imrahil is one of those who will go out on patrol tomorrow, is he not?”
“He is,” said Thorongil, puzzled.
“Very well.” Denethor nodded curtly and rose, bidding the other a good night.
The next morning Thorongil beckoned Imrahil to him as the lad was packing his gear to leave.
“Captain Denethor was inquiring about you last night. He wanted to be sure that you were one of the men on today’s patrol. Would you happen to know why his interest?”
Imrahil grinned. “I can only imagine that he wishes to speak to me of my sister.”
“Why, because they have been corresponding since Narvinyë. She says – and I expect she is right – that Denethor would like to wed her. Though he has not yet said so to her in so many words, I believe he may have spoken to our father. I received a letter from Finduilas last night, you know, and while Denethor is probably not aware of that, he may well hope I have fresher news of her than he.”
“I see,” said Thorongil thoughtfully. That would explain what I saw at the Steward’s dinner, last winter; though I am rather surprised that Finduilas has made no mention of this to me. He clapped Imrahil on the shoulder. “Ready to go? A two-day patrol should be no trouble to you.”
“Indeed not.” Imrahil patted the breast of his tunic. “And I have a charm for luck, now; Fin has sent me a rose from the gardens at Dol Amroth, with the injunction to bear her in mind as I carry it.”
“A kind thought.” Thorongil paused for a moment, then added, “It might be wise of you not to mention that your sister corresponds with me as well as yourself, should the subject arise. Though she calls me a second brother, I do not know but that Denethor might misconstrue her affection.”
“True enough,” said Imrahil. “He seems not to be a warm man, himself, and might not understand the emotions of others. I shall be discreet, I promise.” He looked over and said, “It seems that the others are all now ready; so I will see you in a couple of days, captain.”
Thorongil spoke a few words with Dagnir, who was in charge of the detachment, and watched them depart. Denethor asks for no special treatment, he thought, which is as well since we have little ability here to provide such! I will be curious to know how he fares. Commanding the Guards of the Citadel and acting as his father’s assistant is an honorable position, but not the best preparation for an excursion into the back country of Ithilien.
Two evenings later the patrol returned, without incident. It seemed that the drowsy heat was keeping even the Orcs denned up in their caves in the Ephel Dúath. Thorongil was relieved; he had not seriously worried that some harm would come to Denethor, but accidents could always happen and it would not look well to have the man injured while – in a sense – under his authority.
Denethor immediately went to his tent to write up his impressions of the patrol and the company. Thorongil was in the midst of another practice with his recruits, and was pleased to see Imrahil drop his gear in his tent and come to join them.
“How fared you with the captain?” Thorongil asked in an undertone as he showed the lad what he had missed.
“He is well enough as a soldier,” shrugged Imrahil. “He made no complaint at the pace nor the discomfort.”
“And did he speak with you of your sister?”
Imrahil shook his head. “Hardly at all. He watched me a good deal, but we spoke little. He did ask if she was well, the last I had heard, and I assured him that she was, although distressed by our mother’s health.” After a moment he continued, “Speaking of which, sir, Finduilas begged me to ask if there would be any chance of my obtaining leave to go home to visit before the end of this year; it seems unlikely that my mother will live much longer.” His face tightened and he bit his lip.
“I will see what may be possible. I will certainly oblige you, if I can; though it might cost you your anonymity, to have special consideration given,” said Thorongil. “We will speak of this again. Now, take the stance as I showed you, and let us have at it.”
His attention divided between his defense against Imrahil and the actions of the other four recruits, Thorongil was nonetheless startled when the heir of Dol Amroth managed a touch on his wrist.
“Well done,” he congratulated the panting lad. “Especially coming at the end of a long day! All right, now,” he called to the others. “Put up your weapons. We will practice again tomorrow, those of you who are here. But now it’s time for the evening mess, so off to your tents to stow your things first.”
The young men jogged off towards the line of flapping canvas, and Thorongil followed more slowly. He saw Denethor standing, speaking with Aldadil, but the men broke off their conversation as he approached.
“Did you enjoy your two days out in the hills?” he asked the other captain.
“Well enough,” said Denethor indifferently. “I was more interested in seeing how your officer and men conducted their business, and the lay of the land. I was just speaking with Aldadil here,” he laid a hand on the other’s arm, “about the possibility of adding new companies. I trust you would be willing to relinquish his assistance, should it come to that? I would not rob you of all your officers, of course, but you spoke well of his abilities and he sounds a likely man for promotion. No changes would happen until after the year’s turning, but I thought you should be forewarned.”
“I should be very sorry to lose Aldadil as a second, certainly, but I would not stand in the way of his advancement,” replied Thorongil, receiving a broad smile from the man in question.
“Good. I will make note of that, in my report to the Steward.” Denethor looked toward the mess tent. “Is it time for the meal? You will excuse me for a moment to get ready. I will be there shortly.” He turned towards his own tent.
Aldadil nudged Thorongil’s arm, grinning openly. “How about that, then? A promotion! Not that I haven’t enjoyed serving under you, sir, but the chance for my own command – well, you can see that I wouldn’t turn it down.”
“No, of course not. We can talk about the differences between a second and a captainship, over the winter, if you like, so that whenever this might come through, you’ll be prepared for it.”
“Do you suppose that you’ll get a new officer assigned in my place, or will you just move everyone here up a rank, and find some bright fellow to fill Ostoher’s position? There are several likely possibilities; Sarnegil, for one, or even young Imrahil, perhaps. He puts me in mind of someone, that lad, though I’m not sure who,” said Aldadil, brow wrinkling.
“Ah, he looks like every other lanky lad, as far as I can tell,” Thorongil turned the conversation, and chatting companionably, they moved on.
We shall see what we shall see. I begin to understand Denethor’s purposes here; I wonder if he sees what he does as clearly as I.
That evening at dinner Denethor sat away from Thorongil, talking earnestly with Aldadil on his left and Dagnir on his right. Ostoher’s patrol had returned late that morning and the junior officer sat opposite the Steward’s Heir, listening.
Thorongil smiled at the three enlisted men on his end of the table. “Any news or complaints to give me today?”
They looked at one another, and Horon glanced furtively along the board towards the other officers. “Not at present, sir, no,” he muttered.
“I see,” said Thorongil slowly. “Well, then, would you pass that dish of beans along to me? I don’t know what they’ve seasoned it with, but it’s more flavorful than usual.” Taking a large spoonful, he tried another topic. “Did you reach Henneth Annûn in time to see the sunset from behind the waterfall?”
Horon’s face broke into a smile. “Yes, we did. Who would have thought a cave could look like that? Ciryon here said it would be better than living in a palace.”
“Not that he’s ever been in a palace, I’m sure,” Sarnegil interjected.
Ciryon dug an elbow into Sarnegil’s ribs. “As if you have, either. Captain, what would you say? You’ve been in both.”
“Palaces have their uses, but for beauty I would take the Window on the Sunset,” Thorongil admitted. “Not that I am likely to ever spend much time in either, any more than any of you.”
“But you have to report to the Steward when you’re in Minas Tirith, don’t you? And I heard that he invites all the captains to the Feast at mettarë, those in the city at least, so you must have gone last winter,” said Horon.
Sarnegil added, “I heard the captain danced with the daughter of Dol Amroth there. Reason enough to aspire to an officer’s position for me!” He chuckled to show that he did not really think that was a sufficient motive.
Thorongil noticed that Denethor had turned his head at the sound of the words “Dol Amroth.” And you would expect otherwise? Best to shift the topic, now.
He spoke to Sarnegil. “If you really are interested in the chance of becoming an officer, then show it. We are always on the lookout for men who want responsibility.”
The fellow’s eyes widened and he swallowed. “Thank you, sir. I will. I mean, I do. I mean. . .”
“He’s overcome,” said Ciryon. “Don’t mind him, he’ll learn to speak again sometime. Here, Sarnegil, have another helping of stew and you’ll grow up big and strong like the captain here.”
Talk then turned to more general matters for a few minutes until the meal was ended. When the three men had left to go to their assigned chores for the evening, Thorongil stood and asked Denethor and his officers to join him in his tent.
Handing around mugs of ale, he said, “You wished to speak with all of us before your departure tomorrow, I believe, my lord.”
The Captain of the White Tower nodded, accepting the drink. “Yes. I have spoken with each of you already at least once, but to ensure that everyone knows what the Lord Steward’s plans are, this meeting is wise.” He sat stiffly upright on the one chair in Thorongil’s tent; Thorongil himself and the other officers made do with camp stools. “The Lord Ecthelion is concerned about the encroachments of the Orcs and other vermin into Ithilien and intends to strengthen our presence here. The most probable decision – the one I shall certainly urge – is to increase the number of companies, rather than the size of each. So it is quite likely that some of you junior officers may be promoted and dispersed. Captain Thorongil will, I expect, remain in his present command here, where his talents at training recruits seem to be put to good use. He has indicated that he has no particular ambition to move.” Denethor smiled coldly.
Thorongil heard the speech in wearied annoyance. That is not exactly what I said. But to say otherwise now would only show me in an ill light, caviling at changes and unwilling to accept the promotion of good men. Cleverly done. Denethor will do well as Steward, someday, but it will be best for me to be gone before that day arrives – unless I choose to press my own claim.
Aldadil was looking at his captain in some surprise. He knows better; we have spoken of the rumors from the south. No, don’t speak, man.
To forestall any time-wasting arguments he forced a pleasant expression and said, “I will, naturally, do as the Steward decides. I trust that you have a good report to make of what you have seen here in this company, or you would not be considering promotion for my officers?” Two can play at the game of compliment and undercut.
Denethor frowned slightly. “There is always room for improvement, of course. No man may take his position for granted.” He looked Thorongil in the eye. “Whomever he may look to, in Minas Tirith. . . or elsewhere.”
The junior officers looked confused. “Excuse me, sir,” said Dagnir, “but who is in command, except the Steward?”
“None commands Gondor but Ecthelion,” said Denethor. “I am sure that you agree, Captain Thorongil?”
“I have said so,” Thorongil replied quietly.
“So you have.” Denethor pushed his cup away and stood. “I shall depart early in the morning, and I have reports to write yet, so I shall bid you all a good night.” He ducked out through the tent flap.
Aldadil looked at Thorongil. “What did Captain Denethor mean, saying you do not wish to move? You told me only last month that you hoped you might serve in the south, should it come to war there.”
“He hears what he wishes to hear, I think, as many men do,” said Thorongil. “The captain – and perhaps the Steward, though I do not know – does not wish to think that war might be stirring in Umbar once again, and hopes that by ignoring matters they will not come to pass. But he has said that if a serious threat arises there, it will not be lightly dismissed.” He shrugged.
“He doesn’t seem to like you very much,” said Ostoher, speaking for the first time. “It looked to me as if he were challenging you. And what was that about looking to someone besides the Steward? You came to Gondor from Rohan – but you’ve sworn oath to Ecthelion, surely he doesn’t doubt your loyalty?”
“I don’t think he was speaking of Thengel,” said Thorongil. No, I think he spoke of Mithrandir. But why mistrust the wizard? Unless he mistrusts me because I know Mithrandir, and Mithrandir because he knows me? That makes no sense. At least I did not swear to Ecthelion himself, but to Gondor. I could not take oath to a man whose rule I might need to challenge.
“Oh, well. Denethor’s a fine captain, I hear from my brother in the Guards, even if he is a bit cold; and he’s the Steward’s Heir, so I suppose it makes sense that he’d be worried about politics and loyalty as well as military ability. Well, if he ever asks, we all know that our captain is loyal, don’t we, lads?” said Aldadil. He rose and stretched. “I’m supervising watch tonight, so I’d best be off.”
Ostoher and Dagnir remained for another mug of ale, then also bade Thorongil goodnight. The captain worked on the company accounts for a while, and was nearly ready to blow out the lamp when someone scratched at the entry-flap.
“Come in,” he called, blowing to dry the last line of ink.
A pause, and then Horon and Imrahil entered and hovered uncertainly just inside the canvas.
Thorongil gestured for them to take the empty stools. “What is it, lads?”
They looked at each other, clearly undecided as to who should speak.
Imrahil took a quick breath and began. “Well, sir, Horon and I were talking tonight; sergeant Lasmir was showing us some tricks for fletching arrows and the two of us were working together on it. Now, Captain Denethor didn’t say anything to me while we were on patrol together. But Horon says he was asking a lot of the men there what they thought about you, sir, and asking as if he had some hopes in mind about the kind of answers he might get.”
“That’s right,” Horon added. “I don’t know why he didn’t ask Im – maybe he just didn’t have time to talk to everyone – but he spoke with me, and Ciryon, and Sarnegil, for sure, and I think most of the others. We didn’t have much bad to say, other than the usual sort of gripes, I’ll swear to that, but I thought you should know.”
“I wish he’d asked me,” said Imrahil. “I could have told him about your training me and the others at swordplay. I learn more from you than from the sergeant, and that’s saying something.” He blushed. “Why do you think he was making all those inquiries, sir? Are you going to be transferred?”
Thorongil shook his head. “Not that I know of, I assure you. I suppose he simply wanted the viewpoint of some of my men on how this company operates. If any changes are planned, I’m sure I’ll be told, and I wouldn’t keep something like that secret from my men.”
“Thank you, sir. That’s a relief to hear,” said Horon, and Imrahil nodded agreement. “We’ll be saying goodnight then. We just wanted you to know.”
“Goodnight,” said Thorongil absently. This news gave him much to think on. I knew Denethor disliked me; at least he seems unaware of my friendship with Finduilas, since I doubt that would change his feelings toward me for the better. But what other explanation can there be for his questioning of the men, except an attempt to find reason to make sure I cannot advance higher in Gondor’s service?
He shook his head. The Steward’s Heir. I wonder, does he wish his father King, not Steward? It would not be surprising, if so. If he should, he might find himself taken unawares.
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.