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The Commander of Gondor: 14. Tidings from the North
His coat hung over a chair, his shirt half unbuttoned to the morning breeze, Thorongil, Commander of Gondor, sat in his office looking out east and south into the sunlight. He was marveling at the inactivity of command this summer. With any hint of activity from south or east, he could be drilling his troops or riding patrol, but the front along the river was quiet, no movement from Harad or Minas Morgul, no orcs in Ithilien at all, it seemed. So his lot was to read the stack of reports, write troop supply requests, and approve disciplines, rewards, and promotions----more paperwork than he had ever imagined!
He longed for a ride, north, far north into the cool breezes and leafy forests, to hear the musical rush of waterfalls and feel the soft lips and healing touch of his lady. It had been over ten years since he was home; six since he had last seen Arwen in Lothlorien. He had relived and savored every moment of those few short weeks together in his nightly dreams and recently in the daylight, especially when he chose to ignore paperwork and daydream out the window. Lately, his longing for her and home bordered on obsession. So, this morning, he sat unconsciously holding the Evenstar pendant as he looked out across the Pelennor.
"My lord! My lord!" Quillion scrambled into the office looking as if he'd run all the way from the palace. The boy was just as much a scamp as he had been five years before when Thorongil selected him as his squire. Quillion's morning job was to go to the other guard offices and the palace, collecting and delivering any messages and mail. Quillion, small and inconspicuous, was also a great gatherer of gossip and other important information. Often news arrived with him long before the official dispatches appeared. It was obvious from his agitation that the boy had heard something urgent this morning.
"Catch your breath and take a drink of water. And take off that coat!" The early morning was hot already and would prove baking later in the day and the regulation uniform coat of black wool lined with silk plagued both Thorongil and Quillion mightily.
"There are visitors who rode in this morning. Elves! I saw them myself! Three lords on powerful horses with fine weapons and one I thought was a boy until she took off her cloak---a beautiful lady." Thorongil did not hear the next thing the boy said for the roaring in his ears; it could not be!
"Quillion, describe them." He caught the wiggling boy's arm.
"I did: three lords and a lady!" The boy was perturbed.
"What did they look like? Their appearance?" The boythought a moment.
"Two of the elf lords were dark---black hair and dark eyes. The third was younger, I think, and blonde. The lady. Oh sir, the lady was beautiful! Pale skin and silvery blue eyes and hair like-like-"
"Like midnight silk to the touch," Thorongil finished for him. Quillion looked strangely at him.
"I suppose. It was shiny and black."
Thorongil was up, out of his chair, spilling a shower of paper onto the floor, fastening his shirt and pulling on his jacket.
"Did you see Mithrandir this morning?" he asked, tugging at the collar.
"Nay, he was gone. But, I heard Ecthelion had sent for him."
"I believe I should stroll up to the palace," he said, buckling his sword belt on. "Would you like to come along?" The boy was almost dancing in his joy. Out they went to climb the three levels from the commander's office to the Citadel. No one who saw them that morning could say Commander Thorongil was running to the palace, but Quillion found it hard to keep up with his long-legged stride. The Citadel Guard, black surcoats billowing in the constant wind of the high plaza, saluted smartly as he entered the portico. A harried-looking sergeant at arms met him in the corridor.
"Good, sir. I was not looking forward to the trip down to your offices nor the hot climb back. I have a message for you from the Steward. He has guests he would like you to meet," the red-faced sergeant puffed out, pointing toward the reception area.
The hall of kings was alive with people for so early in the day. Thorongil made his way toward the dais, Quillion close to his side, greeting and sharing pleasantries with courtiers along the way. Ecthelion, Mithrandir, and Denethor were standing with the Elf-lords. The visitors were dressed right regally in elaborate robes the blue and silver of Elrond's house, colors in remembrance of the lord's time spent in Gil-Galad's service. Lady Finduilas, big with child, sat a ways apart with some of her ladies. Next to her was Arwen. She was obviously refreshed, out of her traveling clothes and in a gown of palest blue. She seemed attentive to Finduilas' conversation, but her eyes searched the crowd.
Thorongil stopped, leaned against a pillar, and looked his fill. She was the same, ageless, young as a maid, but her eyes looked wiser and warier. Before he could step forward, Ecthelion saw him and waved him over. He introduced him to Elrohir and Elladan and Legolas. There was no flicker of recognition from the brothers, but Legolas could not hold back a faint smile, the usual friendship and devotion shining in the Elf's eyes.
"…emissaries from Rivendell." Ecthelion was saying. "My City Guard Commander, Lord Thorongil." Thorongil wondered what the room's reaction would be if the gritty commander of the City Guards did as he wanted, threw his arms around each of these high lords in turn, and thumped them thoroughly. He bowed appropriately to the group. "And," said Ecthelion, turning to the ladies, "Arwen, Lady of Rivendell." Thorongil moved to the half-circle of chairs and dropped on one knee, hand on breast, before her.
"Mae Govannen, my lady." He raised his head with such a smile that Finduilas marveled how this man stayed unmarried. He was her champion and her friend from past adventures, and she worked hard to present him with a suitable match. She saw the Elven princess was clearly mesmerized by the commander's grey eyes.
"My lord has such pretty manners," Finduilas beamed. Nodding slightly, Arwen gripped the ornate arms of the chair and could barely wrest her eyes from his. Against her father's wishes, she had forced her brothers to include her on the trip. Something inside had been needling her for months, like a splinter that would not work its way out and one she refused to examine more closely, fearful that feeling might change to premonition then to a vision of death. She knew not why, but suddenly after years of distance, she had to see him.
For days across Hollin and Rohan, they had cautioned her on maintaining Aragorn's secret identity. But she had been parted from her love so long, and the feeling of doom had become too strong, and now she feared she couldn't manage the charade. She was in danger of flinging herself at him here in front of a room full of courtiers. He looked away first, stood, solicitously talked to Finduilas about her health, and then wandered away without another word, as if his gesture had been one of detached politeness to a stranger.
Thorongil forced himself to drift back to the Steward's group before Arwen extended her hand for a kiss, destroying the control he struggled to maintain. Joining the group, he received a slight nod from Elrohir. In the midst of the conversation: banal stuff about the state of the roads and the fighting in Ithilien, Thorongil felt Elladan, standing close, slide something into his pocket. The audience ended with a feast planned in honor of the guests for that evening. As the group broke up, Ecthelion quietly told him a war council meeting would convene in late afternoon. Out of sight of the Steward and his son, Thorongil slipped behind a pillar and pulled the folded paper from his pocket. "Mithrandir's rooms; mid-afternoon." was inscribed in Quenya.
"A note from a lover?" Finduilas' musical voice was at his elbow. He folded the missive with one hand and returned it to his pocket. Thorongil turned to the lady and looked straight into Arwen's eyes. Whatever witty retort he had planned died upon his lips and his heart lurched, and then began beating more rapidly than before.
"My lord, Lady Arwen would like to see the city and since I am in no condition to provide the tour, I wonder if I might prevail upon you if you have not duties elsewhere, and" she laughed, patting Thorongil's breast pocket, "if we do not interfere with your trysting." Lady Finduilas' elvish roots made her sensitive, especially to things of the heart, and she sensed an intense attraction between her favorite and the Lady of Rivendell.
Thorongil bowed. "I am at my lady's command." He offered his arm to Arwen and with Quillion trailing, started down the long corridor.
Amazed by the strong emotion she felt between the two, Finduilas watched the pair, accompanied by charming young Quillion, walk away. They had fallen into step as if it were the natural thing for an unmarried lord to escort a beautiful guest about the city without a chaperone. Finduilas hoped her action would not offend the lady's brothers. But the look the pair had shared as he took her arm had been glorious!
"I'm such a dolt!" With sudden insight, Finduilas realized this was she! The one he had spoke of so long ago! In love and separated all these years! She was Elvenkind and he was Dúnedain: they had long years of life, but time would end, even for them. They had already spent too much time apart, in her estimation.
"My lady, is it the babe?" her hand maiden worriedly asked her silent, staring mistress..
"No, no. I am fine!" Her brain was already at work on this new and interesting problem.
As he guided her into the outer hall, Thorongil was aware of Arwen's arm tucked in his. It burned his skin through the three layers of his sleeve. Glancing back the way they had come, he stepped suddenly sideways into a dark alcove, pulling her with him.
"Quillion. Stand here. Bar the entrance." He pulled Arwen into his arms and kissed her thoroughly, murmuring Elvish endearments, his hands sliding up to caress her ear tips. Her fingers stroked the back of his neck, her softness pressed against him.
At this sudden turn of events, Quillion's eyes grew to the size of Gondor half-piece coins and he completely forgot his orders. His high esteem for his master grew dramatically at that moment. Lord Thorongil was kissing the Elvish lady like he knew her---knew her well. The soldiers who claimed Thorongil was a man of stone with ice water in his veins should witness this!
At the insistent command of "Quillion! Guard the corridor!" his eyes snapped back round. After a while, Thorongil reluctantly caught Arwen's hands from around his neck. They must move on before they were found. The rigid code of conduct and morality of the Gondorian court did not sanction a guardsman dallying with a guest, no matter how high ranking the officer was.
"Beloved, I had to see you," Arwen sighed apologetically. "It's been so long and…and I needed to be sure you were alright," she added lamely. "I had to come with Elrohir."
"The passes are dangerous. You should not have, but I'm thankful you did." He wiped a tear from her cheek, smoothed a dislodged lock behind her ear, and tucked her hand into his elbow again.
"Lead on, Quillion. We must show the lady the city." They began by strolling passed the withered white tree to the pinnacle of the ramparts. The pair stood, looking east to Mordor. Arwen shuddered as if cold and Thorongil tightened his arm around her shoulders. She leaned back against him, feeling suddenly easier and comforted by his strength. They descended the levels. He showed her the majesty and beauty of the White City as if he was already crowned Elessar and she was his queen.
Quillion, trailing or running ahead, kept up a constant stream of chatter. He was fascinated with the lady and her Elvish family so with his usual casual familiarity, peppered her with questions and shared his perceptions on all things Elvish. Arwen was delighted with the boy and in turn, entertained Quillion with stories of the adventures of her brothers. True to the habits of the natives, when the heat became oppressive, they forsook their jaunt and sought the shade.
Fallon, typically late, had arrived at the guard offices, found them deserted, and had spent the morning looking for his commander. The captain found him by chance, after nearly walking by without recognition, in an open-air café, under a billowing awning, sipping a cool drink. He hardly recognized his steely commander, whom Fallon could never interest in either the high or low born ladies of the city. Thorongil, looking younger than he had ever seemed to be, leaned back with his coat open, arm draped over a lady's chair back, his fingers resting on her white throat, a smile of contentment on his lips, and boyish delight in his grey eyes. She was Elvish, which confirmed the rumors he had heard all morning of envoys from Imladris, but why was she alone in the city with his commander?
"My lord, where did the likes of you find this exquisite creature?" For exquisite she was. Fallon was a connoisseur of women and this one was the most beautiful he had ever seen. Tilted grey-blue eyes, full lips, flawless features and a lush figure, ebony hair braided with silver cords and gems, coiled on her head. She was tall, sitting shoulder to shoulder with his commander. She laughed at something Quillion said and Fallon suddenly pictured twilight stars blinking on and heard the music of the heavens. Fallon bowed deeply and raised Arwen's offered hand to his lips.
"Lady Arwen of Rivendell, this irreverent fool is my second, Captain Fallon, whose quick tongue and lack of respect often get him into trouble." Fallon was beyond smitten. She held his hand a moment and looked into his blue eyes. Fallon felt a peace and comfort he had not had in years. Arwen squeezed his hand, the spell broke, and the glib captain finally found his tongue.
"Lady, had I only known of you, I would have deserted my post and traveled to Rivendell long ago."
"Lady," interrupted Quillion, perturbed by the smooth-tongue captain's advances, "how did the story you were telling end?"
"Oh," Arwen said offhandedly, forgetting her place in the tale, "Elrohir and Elladan easily climbed up off the ridge but Estel lost his grip and fell into the pool. He nearly drowned before he was fished out. My father wanted to beat my brothers for that prank but they were too old."
"Estel?" Quillion asked. Arwen had suddenly added a new character to the story. She blushed and met Thorongil's eye with a look Fallon did not miss. "Estel was-was a friend of –my brothers."
The afternoon was wearing on. Summer afternoons in the White City were spent in deep shade or high on the ramparts where one could catch the strong breezes; otherwise, the heat and humidity of the stone streets could bake a person's brains. Thorongil sent Quillion to his duties, instructed Fallon to be at the war room for the council meeting, and led Arwen back through shady alleyways to the Citadel level to Gandalf's rooms. Gandalf's servant Findalion had the drapery pulled against the relentless sun and the antechamber was dark and cool after the blinding glare outside. They seemed the first to arrive. Aragorn shed the stifling commander's jacket and pulled Arwen into his arms again.
"A common soldier, sister? You can do better," came Elladan's voice from a darkened corner. Aragorn raised his head and met the Elf's laughing eyes.
"Well met, Elladan." Releasing Arwen, he walked to him and they embraced.
"I have too many brothers," Arwen said scathingly, retiring to the window seat.
Elladan slapped Aragorn's shoulder. "What do they have you doing in Gondor? Building battlements? Your arms are as hard as steel."
"From wielding too much of it," Aragorn said. "I cannot put into words how glad I am at seeing you all but why are you here?"
"Elrohir has findings from Father for Gandalf. Something important has happened regarding our cause. And things have been quite dull at home, and frankly, Elrohir misses his baby brother." Elladan grinned at him.
"Arwen, how did you ever get Ada to agree to let you come?" She remained silent. "He doesn't know?" Aragorn exclaimed, imagining the wrath of Rivendell descending on them at any moment.
"I'm sure he does by now," Elladan said. Aragorn's admonishment was cut short by Gandalf, Elrohir, and Legolas returning. Denethor had led them on an inspection of the city's defenses, including the gate that had never been breeched. Neither elf was impressed by the Steward's son, "…who has no use for us." Legolas pronounced. Findalion arrived with cool drinks and fruits, and then discreetly left to station himself outside the heavy door.
"Gandalf, bear with my tale. I know much of this and far more is known to you but not to others here," Elrohir began. "We all know the story of the Ring of Power and how it was not destroyed at Orodruin but taken by Isildur. Here in Gondor, they call it Islidur's Bane. The Ring disappeared along the Gladden at Isildur's death. Recent events make it obvious Mordor's interest in the Ring has been renewed. Father believes the Dark Lord has been searching for it covertly for many years. He now believes Sauron thinks the Ring was found and is hunting for the bearer."
"If it was just scraped up from the muck of a river bed, anyone could have it and not know of their find. Unless the Ring is known by its bearer, how will the Dark Lord ever find it?" Arwen asked.
"Rings of power have of a way of being found," Gandalf observed. "The One Ring will try to get back to its owner. Whoever now holds it is unaware of its great power and is in danger."
"So what must we do?" Elladan asked. "We can't go gadding about asking anyone we meet if by chance they have a ring of power."
"We must find out more about the One Ring: what does it look like, what powers does it hold. Father believes the libraries here may hold the answers," Elrohir said. "I admit my own ignorance. Except for the Last Alliance story, I know little of the appearance of this Ring. Unlike the Elven rings, of which much has been written, the last this ring was glimpsed by friendly eyes was for but a short time during the First Age."
"Since Aragorn is the rightful king and leader of the forces of light, should he not be able to wield the Ring to do good?" Legolas asked. Aragorn held out his hands and shook his head.
"The Elven rings were made by Celebrimbor and are wielded for good. Sauron made the ring of power and it will corrupt any who wear it. I don't think it's possible for anyone to wield the ring for good or ill and not become a slave of the Dark Lord. Though I think there are those well-intended who might try," Aragorn stated.
"You have someone in mind?" Elrohir asked.
"The Steward of Gondor has been waging a losing fight for years. Mordor and its allies are slowly bleeding this city dry of the flower of its manhood. Ecthelion would yield up the Ring if it came to him, but I believe Denethor would see use for such a ring of power if he thought it would destroy his enemy. For the leadership of Gondor, he would take any chance," Aragorn answered.
"That does not bode well for our plan of returning the high king to the throne. If the Steward's heir gets the ring, there will be no king but him. And it will be just a matter of time until Sauron corrupts him."
"Ring or no, Denethor has no use for a king," Aragorn stated. "I fear we'd face Gondor's army if we tried to place one on the throne, which as commander of it," he smiled, "would put me in an awkward place."
"As Elrohir said, we need more information. If there is any fact or legend from the Ring's past, it would be here in the Archives. And though we don't need to gad about, Master Elladan, we also need to be suspicious of anything unusual. Saruman also is casting about but does not have the Ring and I watch him as carefully as I may. I feel we still have time. The Ring seems well hidden and I hope, will stay in safe keeping for some time to come."
Aragorn rose from his seat next to Arwen and pulled on his tunic.
"Regretfully, I must resume my role and do my duty or the battle commander of the White City will lose his head at dawn," he joked. "I am summoned to a council where I'm sure you're the topic." He finished with the silver buttons and kissed Arwen lightly. "I will see you at the Steward's gala."
The war room hung with maps,---Ithilien, Mordor, Harad, Umbar. Documents, the top one inscribed in red: the accounting of the dead, covered the table. Each meeting started with it. Five o'clock was fast approaching but not many had assembled yet. Fallon entered and walked to his father's chair. Ecthelion looked tired and his age was beginning to show.
"Does this day find you well, sir?" Ecthelion smiled on his younger son, the one that had his grandmother's eyes and such a winning smile.
"Well enough, my boy. Where have you been? We never see you in the palace. You must come see me more often. These things are too formal a setting for a father and his son to talk."
"Thorongil works me near to dropping, sir," he said, excusing his avoidance of Finduilas. Fallon's teasing eyes caught his commander's who had just entered.
"Mae Govannen, my liege." Thorongil bowed to the Steward.
Ecthelion acknowledged his battle leader with a nod and said dryly. "Fallon, you are so taxed you almost have no strength for the wenching and the drinking."
"A soldier's life for me, Father." Fallon, avoiding a lecture on his dissolute ways, drifted over to sit just behind Thorongil at the war council table. Denethor with his retinue of officers and clerks entered to begin the meeting. As Thorongil had suspected, the opening topic was the Elven visitors. The misgivings of Denethor's staff were obvious.
"The whole reason they are here is strange," Captain Melenac, Denethor's newest aide, began. "I don't like elves anyway and the sudden visit by these ones seems awfully suspicious. Perhaps they are really in league with Mordor." There were several assenting comments.
"The Eldar of Imladris do not ally themselves with the Dark Lord. What is strange about the Elves' concern over Mordor's strength? Isn't that the concern of all the Free People?" Thorongil questioned, challenging the ignorance of the group.
"What do you know of them, Thorongil? I hear you seem awfully friendly with that she-elf," Melenac challenged. Thorongil ground his teeth at a few loudly whispered comments that disparaged the lady's honor. It was obvious his escorting Arwen had not gone unremarked. The scraping of a blade from a scabbard quieted the room.
"I'll not have anyone impugn the Lady Arwen," Fallon said, almost to himself, laying his bare sword across the table.
"Cease your accusations," Ecthelion said. "Why have we become so suspicious? The Elves have historically been friends to Gondor. Have we not spoken of sending emissaries north to parley with Imladris?"
"If they are such friends, I should like an Elvish archer regiment or two at Osgiliath," Denethor commented. "We protect the south so they can dance freely in the woods."
"Elves and Men fought side by side in the Last Alliance," Thorongil said quietly. "They work together still to kept the roads open in the North. The day is coming soon when they will fight again together."
"Men won that battle. Men will win the next one," Melenac responded. "Elves have no use for men, and we have no use for them."
"Why should they have use for us?" Thorongil looked at him coolly. "Men may have helped win that battle, but men, or rather, a man, negated the deaths of so many Elves and men. Isildur, not the Eldar, is the reason for our current strife." There were opposing grumbles from around the room.
"That's blasphemy and insult. You owe respect to your betters." Melanac jumped to his feet, hand on his sword hilt. "You besmirch the ancestor of the Stewards."
"I wouldn't if I were you," Thorongil said softly, standing tall and stern and looking much like the statues of the Numenorean kings lining the Citadel Hall.
"Enough!" Ecthelion's sword slammed down on the table. "Thorongil does but tell the truth. Learn your history better, Melenac. Isildur was not my forefather so I take no offense. Besides, I don't believe Isildur is about to show up to defend his honor," Ecthelion stated. "The lords of Rivendell have come to tour our defenses and examine our need for aid. So be it. They will be treated with the openness and courtesy given to any friendly people. I'll allow no insult to my guests from officer or man, on pain of death."
Reports went on to other topics. Thorongil sat back and watched Denethor with hooded eyes. Melenac's tirade had been planned and rehearsed. The heir was wary, more wary lately than he had ever seen him. Something had caused him to greatly fear the Elves. Thorongil loitered in the council chamber as the meeting broke up, gesturing for Fallon to wait outside. He waited until Denethor was about to leave with his lieutenants, and asked if he might speak to him. Denethor dismissed his staff and took a chair across from Thorongil.
"What ails you, my lord? Why are you troubled so by this Elven visit?" asked Thorongil. "Rivendell's lords, of all the Eldar, are most friendly to men of both the north and south. Your allies, the Dúnedain, have ridden with the sons of Elrond against the darkness that haunts the Misty Mountains ever long."
Denethor looked at the man who he once counted as his friend, who had saved his life, and his resistance failed. He shook his head in almost a futile gesture.
"You know the legends and history, Thorongil. This coming conflict with Mordor needs but the return of the King of the West to fulfill the prophecy. I fear the Elves to secure strength might pose a pretender to the throne."
"The Elves would support no one but Isildur's heir---" Thorongil exclaimed.
"Look, Thorongil, the line of Isildur died out long ago." He paused a moment. "What if the king did come? Suddenly, a magical leader with no knowledge of the needs of Gondor appears and we are to feel blessed? It is the Steward's job to protect Gondor, with or without a king. I fear the appearance of a prodigal at this moment would weaken us and open the gates to the enemy. I will not let the White City fall, even if that means defying legend."
"Lord Denethor, you are an able leader. I am sure that when the High King returns, you will recognize him and be true advisor. He will recognize your quality." Denethor heard the power rise in Thorongil's voice and it frightened him deep inside.
"When he comes? Have you not hearkened to my words? Thorongil, you're as star-crazed as the Elves." He looked into his commander's eyes and made a bold request. "Swear to me now you will stand with me against any who would claim to be king and demand the throne of Gondor." The commander remained silent. "Swear to me, Thorongil!" Denethor pleaded, real fear in his voice.
"My lord, of any oath you ask of me, that one I cannot swear. The rightful king should sit on the throne of Gondor and reunite it with the northern kingdom," Thorongil answered quietly.
"I will allow no king to endanger our city! When Mordor stands before our gates, we will stand alone!" With this ominous statement, Denethor walked from the room, leaving Thorongil alone and uneasy.
"My lord, it's too hot for that cloak." The squire admonished his master, not looking up from his work. Quillion admired his polishing job on the buttons of Thorongil's black dress tunic and wished he owned that coat: silver braid, enameled medals, a deep red sash wound around the commander's waist and that curious starburst brooch Thorongil always wore. It wasn't regulation but it was regal, and who would dare gainsay the commander?
"It may get cooler later, Quillion," Thorongil answered, folding the cloak over his arm and hanging his sword belt on a peg near the door. No arms at the palace was the decree.
"Or the ground might be damp," Fallon observed, his feet propped on the commander's desk, finishing the last of the roast meat and vegetables Quillion had brought him from the barracks' cook. Thorongil cast him a baleful look.
"Are you sure you won't go?" Thorongil asked. "I could send to Pelontar. He owes a watch." Fallon leaned back further in the chair.
"No, you know I gave up palace parties several years ago. But I do regret not having the chance to talk with the lords of Rivendell." Fallon's interest sounded genuine. Often it was hard to tell lately; his personality had gotten bitter and his sarcasm sometimes stepped over the line, especially since Finduilas' pregnancy was heralded.
"Perhaps one day you and I will finally ride to Rivendell," Thorongil suggested.
"More likely I'll be skewered by an orc on our next tour in Ithilien," Fallon countered, pessimistically.
"Go home and to bed now, Quillion," Thorongil ordered as the boy held up his uniform jacket. By his disappointed frown, Thorongil knew he had planned to stay with Fallon and hear stories that were too old for his young ears. "And don't try to wait up for me." Fallon caught his eye with a knowing look over the boy's head, but Thorongil's sternness kept him silent.
The arrogant Fallon was on Thorongil's mind as he climbed the stone streets to the palace. Any other commander would have broken Fallon for insubordination by now. Some of the other officers claimed covertly it was because Fallon was the Steward's son that Thorongil allowed his insolence. Thorongil's reason was he genuinely liked his subaltern and his quick, bold tongue, and wished they might regain the easy friendship they once had before Denethor destroyed his brother's dreams.
It was a hot night, the steep streets were dark; most shops long closed or even longer deserted. He walked past empty houses and barren gardens with dry fountains but he could see the upper levels were ablaze with light. The palace hall glowed with candles and torches flared in the hot wind.
On such a night as this, he saw the ghosts of the splendor of the city of old and he felt the pull of kingship strong within him. He imagined strolling through the streets on such a night to his own gala, but his streets were filled with nightlife: cafes and open shops, musicians and light. He shook the vision from his head. The Citadel Guard snapped to attention as he came up the stairs, white-winged helmets glittering in the torchlight, white trees embroidered on their tunics, capes flowing in the breeze. On such a night, it would be fine to be king here. He stopped, tugged at his collar and cuffs, and remembered who he was: only Commander Thorongil of Gondor, servant of the Steward, and stepped into the music and light of the hall.
Fallon was correct: the ground was damp from the humid evening mists. The path up the mountainside behind the palace to a small waterfall and pool was steep, but the starlight glowed on the white luminescent rock. A late moon hung white in the eastern sky. They sat, holding hands, quiet in the comfort of each other, looking out over the sleeping city. Arwen raised her eyes beyond the plain to the reddened sky above Mordor. Aragorn felt her apprehension and tried to ease her mind.
"Can you be content to be queen here?" he asked. She squeezed his hand.
"I can be content if I am where you are. And there is much to do here. The city is near-deserted. The people who are left seem to devote their entire existence to war; there are few gardens, and no shops that carry the smallest luxury. It should be a beautiful city, full of friendliness, color, and light: a crossroad of cultures, but it…it seems to be holding its breath, waiting for the storm." She lapsed into silence again.
Over the years, Aragorn had learned Arwen was his sounding-board and whether through many-paged letters, his waking dreams, or rarely, long conversations in the galleries of Rivendell or the bowers of Lothlorien, she always thoughtfully listened and shared wise advice. As with any astute political couple, they spent as much time talking strategy as talking love. Over the years since her acceptance of Aragorn's love, Arwen had developed into as insightful a leader as he.
"The interplay between the Steward and his sons confounds me," Arwen spoke again. Aragorn leaned back against the rock face and rested an elbow on one knee.
"Ecthelion is a good man. He sees the danger growing closer and would fight the darkness off as long as he can. But Denethor, there is an ambitious man! He'll brook no rivals and he fears the future. Denethor will fight the return of the king and this country needs no civil war. He likes the power of the Stewardship and will be reluctant to give it up. He's envious of his father and is anxious for his chance to lead."
"Would he kill Ecthelion?" Arwen asked.
"No, I don't believe him evil, but he would do all to undermine a rival, even his own brother who has no claim. Yes, that he is capable of."
"The charming Fallon? A man so troubled and in such pain. There is a great sadness in him."
"He cannot forgive Denethor for Finduilas." Aragorn kissed her hand. "I can understand his pain. If your father gave you to a high elven lord-----"
"Any would flee before the wrath of a grim commander of Gondor," she teased. Aragorn looked away to the south again.
"Perhaps it is the atmosphere here. Or something else, but both Denethor and Fallon have changed much, gotten angry, distrustful, ruthless. Though Fallon has no claim as bastard son, they hate each other now as rivals. I believe Fallon would take the rule of the city away from his brother if it were offered." He was silent for a long time, his eyes closed. Arwen thought he had fallen asleep.
"Sleep, my love," she thought, leaning close to him. "So stern and dark you have become. You need the healing of home, of Rivendell. Come home to me soon." She brushed his lip with her fingertips. "Only when you smile do I see the boy I fell in love with." She was startled when he began to speak again.
"The thought that the Ring could be found terrifies me. Gondor, because they have been at war so long, could easily claim it, thinking it would do them good."
"Are you sure the High King could not wield it, could not defeat Sauron and do good with the Ring?" Arwen asked again.
"The Ring corrupts; under its influence, good would turn to evil. I could be corrupted as easily as any of the Nine were."
"You are stronger than Isildur," she assured him.
"Thank you, my love." He kissed her lightly. "But no, I do not desire this Ring. I would not take it if it was offered to me. I made that decision long ago after staring at the Dagorlad mural as a boy. The Ring, if found by us, will finally go to Orodruin to be destroyed, even if I must take it." Arwen instinctively shuddered at the suggestion. "If it is found by Sauron, well," he smiled, "then we will continue to have hope for a hopeless cause. I will fight on until I am killed and you, my love, will leave for the Undying Lands." He looked at her and she saw sudden sternness in his eyes. "Pledge to me again."
She pretended not to know what he asked of her. "You already have my pledge, in the orchard at Imladris on a cool fall day with the fragrance of apples in the air."
"No, Arwen. Pledge to me you will go to Eldamar if all hope is lost…if the Ring falls to the Dark Lord…if I am dead. You promised once, now pledge again."
She looked into his eyes and could do aught but what he asked. "I pledge----but it will not come to pass. The White City needs a queen."
He stood and helped her to her feet. The eastern sky was lightening.
"I need to secret you back to the palace before you're found missing. I'm not sure even Elrohir could convince Denethor not to behead a mere guard commander for ravishing a guest." He led her down the first steps of stone.
"I'd come to your defense," she smiled, leaping lightly down the next drop, "for I believe the guest did the ravishing."
Fallon's morning stop at the bakery included a purchase of six hot sweetberry cakes, a favorite of Quillion's. The tower clock had barely chimed eight and already the heat and humidity were oppressive. The boy sat outside Thorongil's office, jacketless, polishing the officers' helmets and badly singing an Elvish ballad he'd learned from his commander.
"Good morning, Quillion." Fallon waved the basket of cakes. The boy's eyes brightened. "Want to play a game?"
"I have to do my work…" Quillion said, reluctantly.
"You can work and play. It's a question game." Quillion perked up; Thorongil often played such a game when he wanted to see if Quillion had memorized his Sindarin. However, Thorongil never gave berry cakes as a reward. "First question: where did Thorongil sleep last night?"
The boy looked at him blankly, pondering how this was a game. "In his quarters?"
"Definitive answers, please. Did he wake you when he came in?"
"No…" Fallon placed a cake on the table. Quillion stared, mesmerized by the ruby filling.
"Did you serve him this morning?"
"He was gone before I woke." A second cake appeared. This game was a lot easier than any of Thorongil's, Quillion thought delightedly.
"Did you straighten the rooms before you left?"
"I didn't have to; everything was in order. I did it all last night."
"Didn't have to brush off his dress boots or tunic from the party?" The boy shook his head.
"The commander's still wearing them." The captain chortled and dropped entire basket into the surprised boy's lap.
"Take the basket back when you're finished. Enjoy, my lad; I plan to!" Fallon walked, whistling, into the office. Quillion, with the first cake already crammed in his mouth, shook his head at the captain's strangeness.
Thorongil looked up from his paperwork. From the size of the completed piles, it looked as if he'd been in since dawn. Fallon grinned broadly.
"A fine day, Fallon," the commander greeted, noticing his light mood.
"And a fine night, my commander." Fallon spied Thorongil's dress tunic hanging on a peg and ambled over to it.
"It was a fine party," Thorongil said easily. "It lasted well into the night but I was fatigued and left early." Fallon brushed grass from the tunic shoulders and plucked off a leaf.
"As Wereaton said when I breakfasted with him the morning." He smelled the leaf as if it were a flower--- "He also said the fair Elven princess, alas, was over come by our heat and went to her rooms early." ----and presented it to Thorongil. "Wereaton said her brothers noted her departure, and yours, also." Fallon sat on his desk, swinging one booted leg, contemplating Thorongil. "Shall I double the guard outside against a later visit from the sons of Elrond? They look to be formidable, especially when defending their sister's honor."
Thorongil pushed back his chair and tossed down his pen. "What payment will make you quit plaguing me?" He was in too good a mood not to rise to Fallon's devilry.
Fallon laughed, delighted. "I like the image of you as man of granite: it plays well with the men. But, rogue seducer could have advantages. You and I would have more in common then."
"It's not like that," Thorongil sighed.
"Some detail please, but not too much. I want to keep my pedestal for you intact." Fallon collapsed into his chair and sat up expectantly like a boy ready to hear a bedtime story.
"I warn you, you'll be bored. Ours is a long relationship; a pledge that might one day be fulfilled."
Fallon interrupted, "You're capable and well-mannered, and for some reason the women treat you kindly, and some even believe you special, though you are too grim and too aloof, but the war commander of Gondor is not for the likes of her."
"So says her father," Thorongil answered truthfully. Fallon noted the hint of sadness in his voice. "But, all may change and even Lord Elrond might be swayed."
"The lady is willing," Fallon encouraged, "and, her brothers? Their feelings on this?"
"No need to fear attack. They are my friends, and Legolas also."
"The prince of Mirkwood? Oromë save me! You run in high company." He thought a moment. "I don't suppose you'll tell me all? There's a puzzle here and I still am missing pieces."
"I've told you more than I ought already. Fallon, I need not ask you to keep this to yourself. There are those with other pieces of your puzzle that could endanger Gondor and us all." Fallon recognized the seriousness of Thorongil's tone so the smart salute and "Yes, sir" were not said in mocking.
The lords of Rivendell continued their official visit, Arwen and Aragorn stealing as much time together as discreetness would allow. Much of this time was at the command of the Lady of Minas Tirith, who designated her champion as the escort of the Elvish princess much to the dismay of many Gondorian lords. Elrohir, as resourceful as ever, found diplomatic reasons to meet with the Steward, while Gandalf and Elladan spent untold hours in the dusty archives, researching the One Ring. Still using the ruse of examining the defenses to make the case in the north for sending support to the city, Elrohir and Legolas, making copious notes supposedly for Elrond and Thranduil, dragged Denethor to ever armory and training field.
When it came time to tour the garrison at Osgiliath, Denethor threw up his hands and assigned the duty to Commander Thorongil and his brother. Since the ruined city on the Anduin had been quiet most of the summer, the commander agreed it was a safe enough ride for all, including the Lady Arwen and Quillion, who was pleased to show off his much improved riding skills. Elladan rebelled against spending another day buried in the stacks of scrolls so he and Gandalf rode along also.
Once the gates of the White City were behind them and the Fields of the Pelennor stretched out to the river, Fallon noticed the commander seemed to change from the stern field captain he knew and years fell away from him, secure as he was in the companionship of those around him. Fallon, reserved at first, also soon fell into easy company with Legolas and Elladan.
Aragorn had been riding along between Arwen and Elrohir, watching Gandalf chat with Quillion when he realized Fallon had been repeatedly calling "Thorongil".
"I didn't realize you were talking to me," Aragorn said honestly.
"Anyone else here named Thorongil?" was Fallon's insubordinate muttering, caught by every Elf ear and Aragorn.
'Actually,' Aragorn thought, 'there's no one here named Thorongil.' He mused at the indiscreetness of this ride. With another sharp ear, Aragorn heard Quillion ask Gandalf to tell him about Estel.
"I think I should like him," Quillion said, ingenuously, riding beside the wizard. "I think he was a boy just like me." Gandalf chuckled, his merry grey eyes catching Aragorn's.
"Quite like you, lad." Elladan rolled a merry eye at Aragorn and the story teller began some of his favorite tales, generally reserved for the amusement of the family, loosely based on fact but, Aragorn felt, much embellished in the telling. Elladan once said he would write them down and call them The Disasters of Estel.
Elladan spun his tales to Quillion's delight as they rode along, and as the hapless Estel found himself in scrapes usually not of his making, Aragorn fell into the role as the champion of the wayward boy, cheering when Estel did well and making excuses when the naïve boy caused a disaster. The family and Gandalf and Quillion were laughing heartily. Fallon edged his horse up beside Thorongil and said quietly.
"You're Estel, aren't you?" Aragorn eyed his friend and shrugged.
"Estel was a young boy; I am old: remember, you told me so last week."
"No so old as you pretend, but be that as it may, you spent your childhood at Rivendell. What wonders!" Aragorn heard longing in his voice.
"Aye, 'tis wondrous. The waterfalls; the starlit skies; Ada's library…"
Fallon was staring at him intently. "You do that sometimes." Aragorn raised a brow in question. "That out-of-focused look. Usually when we ride long ways or after a fight. You're thinking about it then…" he gestured to the other riders. "…about them…about her."
"Fallon, you see too much." Fallon rode in silence for a bit.
"You and the elder one are much alike." He gestured toward Elrohir.
"Le hannon. That is a compliment I longed for much of my life. But," Aragorn joked, "Elrohir would consider it an insult. Besides, they are twins."
"You all have such an easy way together. I'd like that in a family." Aragorn heard something break in Fallon's voice. Impetuously, he said.
"Come to Rivendell with me one day. It is a welcoming place."
"My place is here in Gondor. Gondor needs strong men." Aragorn thought for a moment that Fallon was mocking Ecthelion's recruiting call. Spontaneously, Aragorn held out his hand.
"Ride by my side; you still ride for Gondor." Fallon, just as spontaneously gripped it, saw something noble deep in Aragorn's eyes, and laughed, shaking his head, and breaking the spell.
"So serious! I feel like I've just sworn fealty." He touched his spurs to his horse and caught up with Legolas.
Aragorn sighed to himself. "You forget who you are, Thorongil."
The Osgiliath garrison was quiet; the men, sharpening weapons, standing casual guard, and repairing armor and harness, snapped to attention when the brass and dignitaries arrived. The group dismounted. Thorongil greeted the regular troops and a band of Ithilien Rangers resting before heading back across the river at nightfall. The lieutenant in charge was glad to explain the defenses and eventually they picked their way through the broken town, out onto the causeway and up stairs, standing on the elevation as he pointed out the smashed bridgework, the rubble-strewn riverbed.
Suddenly, an arrow slapped the wall behind them, sending out a spray of shale. Thorongil commanded "Down!" in a voice that brooked no refusal from any. Somewhere close enough for accuracy was an archer: a sniper or assassin. The arrow had hit between him and Fallon.
"Legolas, your bow." The Elf prince had it strung, an arrow already at the ready. Thorongil shed his jacket quickly, and borrowing a bow and quiver from an Ithilien Ranger, he ordered Fallon to see the visitors down and back to the near shore.
"Does he realize he's ordered a guest to follow him?" asked Fallon incredulously.
"They hunt well together," Elladan said calmly. "Many orcs in the Misty Mountains could attest to their prowess if they were still alive to speak." No one moved to follow Fallon's command so he gave up and settled down behind the rampart to watch.
The two experienced hunters worked their way through cover first with hand signals as long as they were in sight, then with strange calls of Mirkwood birds not heard in Gondor before. Then for a long time the ruins were silent.
The sniper, a young Haradrim archer, sat in his perch in a tree overhanging the river. He saw movement back on the wall and stood up on his thick branch for a clean shot. His bow was of powerful pull that could send the arrow soaring far and he was an excellent shot. He knew the soldiers could not see him through the leafy cover from their positions and their middling skill did not frighten him. He nocked an arrow and pulled back for release. Suddenly he looked down at a green feathered shaft protruding from his chest. As he watched in fascination, a gray one suddenly joined its fellow. His arrow dropped harmlessly from nerveless hands into the Anduin and he slowly followed it.
The Osgiliath troops cheered as both hunters, dark and blond, leaped up onto a ruined walkway, about one hundred yards from where the sniper fell. The two friends gripped forearms and headed back to the watching groups. There, the soldiers greeted them with enthusiastic praise. The elf-prince's shot had earned him great respect from the Ithilien Rangers.
Fallon slapped his commander's shoulder in delight. "I didn't know you could shoot that well." Then he noticed Thorongil's left shirt sleeve was streaked red with blood. His barked order brought a healer running but Thorongil waved away their attention.
"I forgot I wore no vambrace and the bowstring caught my wrist. I'm sadly out of practice and nearly did myself more harm than the sniper." He sopped at the freely bleeding cut with his shirt until Arwen caught his hand, muttering about being away for a few years and forgetting everything he knew about healing. She led him to the shade of a tumbled wall and soon, with the assistance of the anxious medic who was unused to ladies dabbling in his soldierly art, had the wound bound.
"You're still the reckless boy I've loved for thirty years," she whispered to him, leaning her head close. "It's amazing all the bits and pieces of you are still attached."
"All but my heart," he said, fingertip tracing the outline of her ear. For that pretty turn of phrase, Commander Thorongil was rewarded with a kiss in the ruins of Osgiliath.
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