Stewards of Gondor: Slashvese Arc
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Star and Stone: 1. Prologue
'Here do I swear fealty and service to Gondor, and to the Lord and Steward of the realm, to speak and to be silent, to do and to let be, to come and to go, in need or in plenty, in peace or in war, in living or dying, from this hour henceforth, until my lord release me, or death take me, or the world end. So say I, Ælric Eardstapa, who claims no land his own.'
There is naught so lovely as Minas Tirith at sunset, or so men said in the south and even believed it. Certainly the Tower of Ecthelion, its sheer sides aglow with the evening's colors, was a marvel not to be missed: unearthly it seemed, standing tall and fair against the Ered Nimrais and a darkening sky. Work of Númenorean hands, preserved by the liberal outpouring of Númenorean blood, a comfort to the Dúnedain who remained, and the symbol of a defiance that sprang from the depths of time and over the seas: the tower was all of these things and more. Hope and despair, it was at once the sword raised high against Mordor and that of Damocles, as other, later peoples might call it, for should it fall, the West would fail. A heavy burden for him who sat within that weight of high-built stone and brooded upon the fate of all the Western lands.
And perhaps it truly was the fairest sight in all the South Kingdom, mused Ælric as he stood upon the battlements and gazed thoughtfully up at it. Since his arrival this morning, he had scarcely had a moment to stand still—questioned, queried, helped and hurried along from the lengthy interview with Ecthelion to the "quick" tour of the city and a long list of passwords to remember, there had then followed meetings with various commanders, wardens, armorers, and the quartermaster. And despite the seemingly ruthless haste, everything had taken longer than projected, so that it was late afternoon ere he was allowed to breathe a moment and enjoy something of a lull in the mess hall of the seventh company. Being a newcomer, however, he had been immediately surrounded by the men coming off of their midday watches, and though the company was congenial enough, it was tiresome to repeat the same answers to the same questions over and over again.
So he stood now on the heights, reveling in the first bit of real solitude he had had since the day began, and stared up at the Citadel as the sun went down. If only for the courage it symbolizes, it would be worth the journey to see it...
"Many are they who find hope in the sight of that tower," a voice said from near at hand, and Ælric lowered his eyes to fix his gaze upon the dark-haired, trim man who had paused some ten paces from him, and even as he bowed politely, berated himself silently for laxness, for he was not one to allow another to come upon him unnoticed. The Steward's son glided forward slowly, eyes darting between that glowing spindle of a keep and Ælric, who watched him come in silence. "You have not seen it before." It was not a question, and the other gave a minute shrug and replied:
"Nay, I have not, my lord."
"Then I envy you, for I have grown up in its shadow and can no longer remember the first time," Denethor said casually, coming to lean beside him against the low wall of the walkway. Beyond that frail guardrail, the natural face of the mountain plunged down in a sheer drop, a good hundred feet, to the next level of the city. "Is it all that you might expect?" he asked, and Ælric sighed inwardly. He had not been in Minas Tirith a day yet, but the Steward's heir seemed to have taken an interest in him. An interest not altogether welcome, he thought. There was that in the other's manner and bearing that bespoke a veiled suspicion of him, which he might have expected given all that Thengel King had said of the man.
"Ecthelion is a wise and good-hearted man, but you shall find none so far-sighted as his son, the Lord Denethor. Nor one more to be feared," the king had said, and Ælric had wondered, both at the words and at the deadly serious tone.
For Thengel was not a man easily intimidated: in all things his own master since he had come of age, he had taken service under Turgon and then Ecthelion, living in self-imposed exile until his father's death. More grave than was the wont of the Rohirrim, Thengel even spoke Rohirric with a slight but not imperceptible Gondorian accent, and his manners and bearing spoke more of Gondor than of Rohan.
Still, no one would mistake him for Númenorean, either in looks or temperament. A passionate yet straight-forward man with a preference for the simple truth, he could speak one fair if he had a mind and had long studied the arts of the Rohirric wordsmiths. Nevertheless, Éorling that he was, he tended to trust such glib-tongued souls less readily than others, which only made his friendship with Ælric the more unusual. Indeed, it had been Thengel who had clepped him 'Ælfric,' playing upon his name and declaring that his poet's soul made him a changeling. That had garnered much laughter from the courtiers who had overheard that comment, but the nickname had stuck. So also had the king, to the surprise of many.
And so rather than fight against the inevitable, 'Ælfric' he had elected to remain save on somber occasions, even here in Minas Tirith where men stared at him who heard that name. Who heard either of his names, truly, either punned or plain—Denethor certainly had, and it had needed but one moment beneath the other's eyes for Ælric to understand the uneasy deference that the man inspired even in Thengel, who was a king in his own right. And so he had better answer the man's question, lest curiosity peak once more.
"'Tis a beautiful sight, my lord," he said, and meant it. For I do not regret the sight, but only the company. I had forgotten how difficult it is to begin again in a strange land. I always forget. Mayhap 'tis a strange form of grace, for else, I might not take up the challenge so readily! So he thought, smiling inwardly with wry humor.
"But not so dear as others to you, I take it," Denethor said with a low chuckle. "It must be difficult, to leave a wife behind."
"I imagine that it must be, but I cannot speak from experience," Ælric replied smoothly, having fielded that question before. Nevertheless, he sensed the probing intensity that hid behind Denethor's seeming-innocuous comment and silently thanked the Valar that he had not had to think about his reply.
"Truly? You surprise me, which is rare enough. Something there is in Rohan, though, that you miss, clearly…"
"Many things, my lord," Ælric said simply, turning from the Steward's heir to gaze now out towards the Ephel Duath. In the waning light, they seemed as fangs that rose up to swallow the land, sinister in the ruddy light. All Ithilien, which nestled between Anduin and the roots of those cruel peaks, lay now in dusk's deep shade. The Mountains of Shadow: there lies Mordor, that from afar governs our lives… and our deaths! Perhaps even more than to see Minas Tirith, he had come here to look upon those mountains—to look and to learn what it was that he fought against; to learn the ways of those born and bred before the Shadow of the East.
To learn the ways of my cousins, I suppose I must learn to call them. Alas, if the Gondorrim are as cousins, I fear I have yet to learn fully the ways of my brothers, he thought. Memory borne upon the swift wings of longing brought him back to the wild plains and frowning mountains, the shadowed eaves of forests and the silent, tumbled bones of cities long dead. And to the people... To my people. Grim and fell they were, marked by each passing year of toil, and yet they looked to him with love and painful hope. Strange to think how dear those places and faces could become to me in so short a time. I have been a captain of the Mark for longer than I was an apprentice to my proper craft, and yet I miss the Riddermark less.
Such were the thoughts that passed through his mind, and since Denethor still stood expectantly by, watching him with darkened eyes, he added softly, "Many things indeed, my lord, and doubtless I shall remember more that I miss as time passes."
"Doubtless so. We who were born to the sight of those mountains learn to forget, I suppose, else the struggle would be too hard for many to continue it. Few outsiders come to swell our ranks, and of those who dare the Shadow, few learn to endure it over the long weeks and months… and years. Most come to honor the memory of some scion of their family, or a lost uncle or cousin," Denethor replied, and Ælric darted a sharp-eyed glance at the other.
"My lord seems displeased with such memorials," he said cautiously, wondering at the contempt that colored Denethor's tone.
"Do I indeed?" the other replied, and now his lips curved in the slightest of smiles. Clearly, he felt no chagrin and an untried stranger's veiled opprobrium meant little to him. "'Tis a noble sentiment, but feeling alone is naught. It needs a steel-bound will to face that," and here the Steward's son inclined his head sharply towards the mountains, "with each dawn and yet go forth to fight again. Oppressive as the sight of them is, there are worse things. Soon enough, Ælric of Rohan, you shall learn them, and then we shall know whether you are as constant as your oath demands."
Ælric was silent for a time, digesting this lecture and the manner in which it was delivered, and he decided that it would be a very long sojourn if today were a measure of what lay in store. Granted, even in Gondor he was a captain in his own right, which gave him some rank to stand upon at need—for Thengel, in an unprecedented move, had sent Breald, Marshal of the Eastfold, to introduce him to the steward of Gondor, and to give also the recommendation of the King of the Mark. No stranger since Thengel himself could claim so high a patron (and Thengel had not claimed his father in any case, relying upon his own status as prince) and Ecthelion had been pleased to accept his peer's advice.
But even so, he remained an unknown here in Gondor, and it would doubtless take several trials ere he was accepted in full. In the mean time, though, he would need to watch his step where the lord Denethor was concerned. No captain could afford to be at odds with his lord's son, particularly not when that son was also Gondor's best strategist. At least, that was Denethor's reputation in the Mark, but Ælric intended to make his own judgments as soon as the opportunity arose. For the nonce, however, and despite his resolve to be cautious, he could not resist his own uneasy irritation which prompted him to speak.
"I doubt not that I have much to learn, my lord, but the eager student learns swiftly. I doubt not that I shall learn to call even the Ephel Dúath beautiful in their way," Ælric said, gesturing to the forbidding mountains and he offered a very slight smile though his eyes held no mirth at all.
"Ah? And why is that?" Denethor asked, narrowing his own in response.
"Because, my lord, however fair the Tower of Ecthelion, there is no sight so lovely as the end of the journey. My heart tells me that we shall be drawn there one day... and then is doomsday come! A good evening to you, my lord Denethor," Ælric replied, and bowed respectfully, but did not move to leave. For some moments, the Steward's son stood silently, considering him, but at length, he simply nodded, though the look of sharp interest in his eyes promised many more such encounters to come, and then departed, the click of his boot-heels against the stony way receding into the distance. Once again, Ælric stood alone.
Breathing out a soft sigh of relief, he turned his gaze up from the back of the retreating son of the Steward to the tower once more. The white standard that fluttered at its peak seemed to bid the sun farewell, and he drew a deep breath as he lowered his eyes, leaning his forearms upon the railing to gaze down at the people milling about on the streets below. So very many of them... more than in Edoras, even. Far more than in my father's house, or in the Angle. A moment he felt his heart speed at the thought, for it had taken him some time to accustom himself to crowds, being accustomed to a comfortable sparsity of people about him.
At least, though, I shall get few stares here, he told himself. Here, my looks do not mark me immediately as eltheodig, even if my name betrays me, he thought, willing to take what comfort he could from that fact. His lips twitched slightly as he reached up with his right hand to trace the familiar contours of the brooch. A rayed, silver star it was, and held his cloak securely in place, fastened somewhat left of center as was decreed by northern custom. Strange to think what comfort it brings, when for a time I cursed the fate that had brought it to me! What if I am a stranger here? Soon I shall not be one. And what is a name, after all? Nothing, for as ever, I shall soon enough get another that better suits this land and its people. Another name to add to all the others. Yes.... another name, for I have been Ælric long enough!
With that, Aragorn, son of Arathorn, pushed himself away from the wall and walked slowly down the streets of the Minas Tirith, and let the weight and wonder of Gondor sink into his very bones.
'Here do I swear fealty and service to Gondor, and to the Lord and Steward of the realm, to speak and to be silent, to do and to let be, to come and to go, in need or in plenty, in peace or in war, in living or dying, from this hour henceforth, until my lord release me, or death take me, or the world end.'—RoTK, pp. 29-30.
*** Dedication: when this becomes an actual story, the dedication will go to Kneidinger, who has persistently begged for this story since November, I think it was.
Note on Names: Ok, " a name", actually. "Ælric" is not canonical. "Thorongil" is. The reasons I don't have Aragorn start as "Thorongil" in Gondor are as follows:
1) In Appendix A, RoTK, we find: "Thorongil men called him in Gondor, the Eagle of the Star...." The way it's worded, as a distinct reference to his cloak clasp, I take that to mean that "Thorongil" is a name given him by the Gondorrim, who would, unlike the Rohirrim, have a reason to christen him in Sindarin. It is not, as I read it, the name that he chose for himself, as it says explicitly he was called "Thorongil" in Gondor, with no reference to Rohan or to his own choice in the matter.
2) We have at least three separate instances where Aragorn answers to pseudonyms: In Bree, Butterbur tells Frodo: "What his right name is I've never heard: but he's known round here as Strider" (FotR, At the Sign of the Prancint Pony, emphasis mine). Not necessarily elsewhere, but specifically in Bree. Again in Rivendell, Bilbo calls him "The Dúnadan" and explains that the Elves often call him this. "Thorongil" I've dealt with already. The first two examples I read as support for the idea that Aragorn takes up different names that are appropriate to the people among whom he is staying, just as he uses Westron differently depending on whom he's talking with or to. Gandalf does the same. Thus I've given Aragorn a Rohirric name which he will eventually shed in order to build on that particular mode of operating.
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