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Hands of the King: 14. Salvage
Minas Tirith, Early August, 2975 T.A.
Denethor greeted him quietly without looking up. He had sent a message to Beregar the previous afternoon, directing the young man to attend him after the mid-day meal today. As expected, a summons from Ecthelion had arrived this morning, barely courteous, requiring Denethor’s presence at the afternoon meeting. Calmly, he rolled the reports he would need for the council with the Steward and slipped them into a leather tube for carrying. Denethor did not motion to Beregar when he left the study, knowing the other would follow. They were soon out of the house and on the way to the Tower.
‘What do you require of me, my lord?’
Denethor raised an eyebrow and slowed his pace, half-turning to look into the other’s face. He had not known Beregar to be either so curious or so forward.
‘I require you to watch. Carefully.’
‘For what, sir?’
‘I leave that to you to judge.’
If this cryptic answer dismayed the young man, he did not show it. Once in the Tower, Denethor led the way to the usual meeting chamber on the third floor of the Tower. Ecthelion was already there, reading over the business of the realm. In this room, his father was an honorable man. No one of reasonable mind, save perhaps Denethor himself, was ever turned away. Most would probably agree with the Steward’s cautious defense, husbanding strength and stores, resisting the temptation to move boldly and risk too much. In a time of ordinary dangers, he would have been an excellent Steward. But the Enemy has returned.
Ecthelion spared his son a cold stare before returning attention to the page in front of him. Denethor approached and bowed, then clasped his hands before him, awaiting the Lord Steward’s pleasure. Beregar assumed a similar stance near the door.
‘Where were you yesterday?’ Ecthelion did not look up from his report.
‘I was in my study, preparing for today’s meeting, my Lord Steward.’
‘Why did you ignore my summons?’
‘Sir? Your summons this morning said to be here at this hour. Am I in error?’
Denethor had to reconsider. A summons must have been sent, for Ecthelion would not make such a claim with no one to hear were it not true. Without an audience, there was no reason to lie. ‘Again, I am in ignorance, my lord. I received no summons yesterday.’
‘I sent you a summons to attend me at the fourth bell.’
‘It did not come to me.’
Ecthelion gave him a disbelieving glance, then shrugged, holding out his hand for the roll of papers Denethor carried, which Denethor handed over.
‘It is of no matter now.’ The Steward removed the papers from the case and leafed through them, leaving Denethor standing. It was an old game between them. Denethor kept just enough attention on the Steward to know if the other changed his stance, and let his own mind review the business for the day. After a quarter hour, there was a knock at the chamber door, indicating the other council members had arrived. Beregar opened the door to let them in.
First through the door was Forlong. Word of the Lossarnach heir’s arrival had come to him the previous evening, so Denethor was not surprised at the man’s presence. He was slightly surprised and very curious when the next person to enter the chamber was Luinil. A quick glance at Ecthelion told him he was not the only one to wonder at her attendance. Hathol, the Warden of the Keys followed, an ancient, dour man of some distant relation to Vanimeldë. He was followed by the usual collection of ministers and lords of the City. Thorongil brought up the rear. Denethor signaled Beregar to leave the chamber.
‘Lords, gentlemen, Captain, and Princess,’ Ecthelion nodded his head to Luinil, who smiled and bowed slightly in return, ‘we thank you for attending us this afternoon. Please, take your seats.’ Luinil took the seat at the foot without hesitation, neatly preventing Forlong from claiming it. Denethor and Thorongil sat across from each other mid-way, as usual. At a nod from the Steward, Denethor asked the first minister to present his report. It was on the state of the docks at the Harlond and what traffic was coming through them. The next reported on stone cutting in the granite quarry southeast of the City, the one after on repairs to the baths and sewers in the third circle, and so on through the afternoon. Thorongil presented all reports on the conditions of the various garrisons, though carefully noting who was responsible for each particular part of the news. Only Henneth Annûn was not spoken of; that was in the papers Denethor had presented earlier. The last to speak was his cousin Borondir, grandson of Denethor’s maternal uncle Belemir. Borondir was Quartermaster-General and in charge of overseeing the disposition of the spoils of the Easterlings, as well as presenting the reports from Baragund on the similar handling of the salvage of the Haradic plunder in South Gondor.
Borondir was five years Denethor’s junior and had been an outstanding commander until he was maimed in the battle to retake Osgiliath in 2965. His father, Boromir, the Captain-General, had been killed in the fighting. The son took the loss of an arm and an eye stoically, refusing all pity. The day he was released from the Houses of Healing, Borondir presented himself to the Steward and requested the position of Quartermaster. Every month for the last ten years, he had spoken before the Steward, detailing the condition of the ancient warehouses in the first circle near the Great Gate. Borondir spoke in the same unadorned style that had been his father Boromir’s manner.
‘Meal and flour are being replenished, though deliveries are erratic. Most of the dried meat from Ithilien was of questionable quality, very desiccated, and has been allocated for pigs…’ He went through all foodstuffs, livestock, blankets, clothing and bedding, never looking at the roll of paper before him, saying what there was, where it was sent, and how it was being replaced. The Quartermaster could say to the tharni what was the cost for any thing. Next were harness, wagons, draft animals, and boats, followed by an accounting of the weapons. Denethor and Thorongil exchanged pleased looks at how many undamaged arrows, swords, spears, shields and knives had been recovered from the battles. Last was the disbursing of wergild to the fathers and widows of the Gondorian soldiers killed over the summer wars.
‘We are a little less well stocked on our perishable goods as compared to last year, my Lord, but not greatly so. If harvests are reasonable and people do not hoard out of fear of war, there will be no problem replenishing our stores over the autumn. The damage done to transports and beasts was very little, most of it simply things wearing out rather than being destroyed. Garrisons can mend and repair most. The salvage has provided a substantial windfall. The weapons are inferior, but the best are more than serviceable while the remainder can be smelted and forged into something more useful.’ Borondir ended his speech with a respectful nod to both the Steward and to Denethor.
‘This is excellent news, Lord Steward,’ Forlong said. ‘We have not had a more victorious season than this in a lifetime, thanks be to Captain Thorongil.’ In a lifetime? You look upon Borondir, and set at naught the retaking of Osgiliath. Denethor gazed coolly upon the portly lord.
‘This is true, Forlong,’ Ecthelion genially agreed. ‘Fortune smiles kindly upon us and we should be grateful for her protection. And that of our captain!’
‘Of all our captains.’ Luinil did not attempt to hide her irritation. ‘You will not think me petty for claiming that some part of this summer’s glories belong to the Prince of Dol Amroth and the men of that land.’ She looked directly at Ecthelion as she spoke. ‘And I hope you will also think that some part of the spoils as well as the glory should redound to Dol Amroth as well.’
Denethor steepled his fingers and admired the maneuvers of the Swan House. Of course Forlong, given his proximity to Minas Tirith, would come personally to claim a portion of the booty. Adrahil left his best haggler in the City to see to the interests of the falas while he himself journeyed to the further fiefs and ensured that their claims would be made through himself. Even the most noble of men seek the advantage of their own realm. But they need utter loyalty from their seconds. For a brief moment, Denethor wondered whether Emeldir and Ecthelion could ever have been like this, but quickly shook off the thought to concentrate on the challenge before him.
Ecthelion was looking at Luinil in a bemused manner, though Denethor could tell from the way the Steward’s forefinger tapped the ivory rod on the table that he was displeased by her claim. Counselors were busily examining their documents, all ears. The Steward smiled and gestured for Luinil to continue.
‘With all due respect to Captain Thorongil, and to Gondor’s Captain-General, the ships of Dol Amroth allowed soldiers and news to be moved with speed along Anduin. The Corsairs tried to harry the coast, but were turned back…’
‘As is Dol Amroth’s duty,’ Ecthelion noted, as though schooling a simple child.
‘…were turned back though our attention was required elsewhere, as well,’ she answered without hesitation.
‘True,’ Denethor casually interjected, adopting the same slightly patronizing attitude that Ecthelion had donned.
Forlong leaned forward, tapping the table forcefully with a beefy finger. ‘Before any wares are promised to Dol Amroth, there are other fief’s needs to mind! Lossarnach has always provided Minas Tirith generously, with food and men, and we are in need of good metal for arms.’
‘Then there will be Lossarnach fruits for cellaring this fall?’ Borondir sounded pleased at the possibility of filling the army’s larder.
‘Well, yes, of course…’
‘Lossarnach men were not greatly used in the wars,’ Thorongil said slowly, as though puzzling something out, ‘though they were given unstintingly to Pelargir to free up the garrison.’
‘But Forlong has promised them again for harvesting in Anórien, so now we are doubly indebted to his generosity.’ Ecthelion’s words were gentle reproof to Thorongil, who nodded agreement and smiled his thanks to Forlong. Denethor did not missed the wicked gleam in the Steward’s eye as he turned to Forlong. ‘That is what you have promised us, my Lord, is it not? And not for churlish thanks and battered refuse, but for good Anórien cloth!’
‘True, that is what we had discussed, but I do not think we had agreed to…’
‘No, not agreed, for that will need to be done after full discussion of the different matters,’ Denethor solemnly replied, ‘but the Lord Steward is correct that kind words and some battlefield leavings will not suffice.’
‘Such things will suffice for the falas, as we have already seen to our autumn trade.’ Luinil’s irritation had disappeared, replaced by her usual calm demeanor. ‘We are not asking for common goods, but for our just share of the spoils. Lord Borondir has provided an excellent accounting. There is more than enough to supply the City and give back to those fiefs whose men were in battle.’
‘Or who would have gladly served, if they had been required!’ Forlong hastily added.
Ecthelion put an end to the nonsense. ‘What does Dol Amroth request, Princess?’ His voice was firm, quiet.
‘We do not wish refuse, Lord Steward, for we do not have enough smithies with the skill to reforge the strange metals of south and east,’ was her equally firm reply, ‘though we will not refuse them, either. The Prince would prefer that the bulk of such things remain here where they are better used. But we do wish to have iron from Lamedon, for that is known to us. I believe there is a store of it in Minas Tirith. Leather for horse harness is greatly desired. Also, we would fain trade our share of the metal salvage for other things, such as roots and corn that grow better away from the sea.’
‘Lossarnach does have need of metal, and our smiths are familiar with such things, particularly those from near Pelargir.’ Forlong was rather nonplussed at being outmaneuvered by Luinil, even as her claims did him little harm.
‘What of Lebennin? Pelargir itself? Anórien paid dearly with men, valiant and bold, who shall not walk its fair fields again. These also have just claims.’ Denethor watched Luinil closely. ‘Dol Amroth shall not be stinted in what is due to her, Luinil, but the warriors upon the plain of South Gondor and in the woodlands of Ithilien were drawn from Minas Tirith and Anórien more than anywhere else. Gold may suffice to show the Steward’s gratitude, but more is owed.’
‘The Warden speaks truly, and he will decide the disposition of spoils. Please set down your claims and deliver them to him by sundown tomorrow.’ Ecthelion rose as he spoke, right hand resting over the ivory rod. ‘We thank you once more, noble folk, for attending us this day and helping us to bear the burden of rod and rule, until the king should come again. Good day.’
The counselors stood and murmured their thanks to the Lord Steward, then filed out. Denethor waited until the end and looked at Ecthelion, silently asking if he should remain. The Steward stared back at him without a sign. Denethor bowed politely and left.
In the corridor, Luinil was talking to Borondir about his estimation of the quality of the metals in the eastern weapons, while Thorongil outlined the general needs of Anórien to Forlong, who was trying to listen to both conversations at the same time. The other counselors were offering farewells and going about their business. Beregar stood unobtrusively off to the side. At Denethor’s signal, the man came over.
‘Have you finished your tasks?’
‘No, my lord. I have accomplished much, but I believe I will need another day to do all you have set for me. I have found something.’ Beregar’s face was bland, his voice so low Denethor had to strain to hear it.
‘A mistake.’ Beregar’s eyes glittered
Denethor was going to return to the Stewards House with Beregar to find out more when he heard his name. Luinil was waving him over. Gesturing to her that he saw her, Denethor said to Beregar, ‘The Archivist will soon leave the caverns.’
‘Attend her. I will find you later.’ Beregar bowed his head and trotted off. Denethor joined the others. Luinil greeted him with a smile, slipping her arm through his.
‘Warden, I hope I have not displeased you with my claims in council today.’ She gently pulled on his arm, beginning to walk down the corridor. Denethor allowed himself to be led. The remaining men trailed behind.
‘Not at all, Princess. You concerns are not unreasonable.’ Though you will not receive all that you ask. He had already decided that none would get all of their claims approved, particularly not Dol Amroth. Adrahil has been overly emboldened by this campaign. He forgets that he is an ally, not a ruler, in our affairs. It is not for you, Prince, to determine the course of Gondor. There would be some spies to set off on the morrow to keep an eye on Adrahil’s visits to the other fiefs. ‘I must admit, however, to being surprised to see you today.’
‘You have been months in the City and have not before come to council, not even when the Prince was away.’
‘Ah, I see. Well, those were war councils, and that is something I know nothing of.’
‘I suspect you are more knowledgeable than you believe.’
‘You flatter me, Denethor. No, I could not provide good council to the Lord Steward in such times. I was better used among the women of the City, keeping spirits calm.’
They left the Tower and entered the Court of the Fountain. Long late-afternoon shadows lay over the court and the White Tree. The branches seemed touched with an inner light, as though a hint of life still persisted, lending luminance to the bare boughs. The group paused for a few moments before it. As he always did, Thorongil bowed his head to the stricken tree. Denethor had never known the man to fail to do reverence to it, even if it meant a scant pause and quick bob of the head.
“Isildur passed through the guards and took from the Tree a fruit that hung upon it, and turned to go. But the guard was aroused, and he was assailed, and fought his way out, receiving many wounds… Isildur came at last hardly back to Rómenna and delivered the fruit to the hands of Amandil, ere his strength failed him.”
The words of Akallabêth came unbidden to Denethor’s mind. Salvage. The Tree is also a spoil of war, though of a dreadful victory. No, not a spoil – a gem, like the theft of the Silmaril. Thorongil still looked at the tree. What of you? What gems do you seek? To whose hand will you deliver them? Borondir quietly cleared his throat, breaking the silence, then bid the others good evening.
After the man left, Luinil said, ‘I would count it a great honor, gentlemen, if you would sup in Vinyamar this evening. I would not have you think I bear any ill will for the council’s contestation.’ She began walking towards the gate, not relaxing her hold on Denethor’s arm, giving him no choice except to follow.
‘It would be an honor,’ replied Forlong. Thorongil echoed the sentiment. Denethor contented himself with a pointed stare at her arm through his. Luinil laughed and patted his arm.
‘Then it is settled.’
They strolled through the warm streets down to the fifth circle. The rock pier cast a shadow over the northern half of the City, its own southern flank tinged gold and rose by the declining sun. Cats and old men lazed on stoops while children dashed up and down the lanes and courts that opened off the main road. Men and women were climbing back up the slope, through with labors in craft halls and shops, and their calls and talk sounded through the stone streets. The yeasty scent of late summer mixed with the smells wafting up from kitchen courts – seared meats and vegetables roasting upon many grills, fish fresh from Anduin frying in pans, a sharp smell of herbs and onions threading in among these other smells.
The fountains all had small knots of people about them. Cooks in kerchiefs chatted with ladies adorned with lace, passing the drinking ladles from hand to hand. Young women and their beaus would speak of nothing as they flirted, the young men offering to carry the heavy buckets and ewers with no more than a shy smile and a shrug. Their little brothers were more interested in splashing their girl playmates than helping them, and the girls reciprocated with glee.
As the group passed, most people would pause and nod or wave at the lords and lady. A few, particularly the young men and women, would call out a greeting or words of praise for Thorongil. The fifth time this happened, Denethor heard Luinil sigh.
Soon enough, they arrived at the lane leading to Vinyamar. A serving boy standing near the front gate disappeared down the side walk for a moment, then dashed back in time to open the gate and bow in the mistress and her guests. An older woman who looked familiar opened the door just as they arrived, smiling broadly.
‘Good evening, my lady! My lords!’
‘Aerin, good evening. We have guests for supper.’
‘Yes, my lady. The courtyard…’
Denethor did not hear the rest of the exchange between Aerin and Luinil because Finduilas appeared at the end of the hall. She and Ivriniel walked up and he had to make an effort to set his face into a mask of polite disinterest, nodding to the young women when they drew close. The effort was wasted on Ivriniel, who did not spare him a glance as she claimed Thorongil for the evening. After giving her mother a kiss on the cheek, Finduilas gave him a displeased look and a curt nod, murmuring “Warden”, then brushed past him to take Forlong’s arm. Luinil led them all though the house to the courtyard where a table was laid for their supper.
Denethor tried to distract himself from the ache in his chest over Alquallë’s snub by watching the others. It was obvious from the furtive glances of Forlong and Thorongil that each wished the other girl was the one on his arm. No one would wonder at Forlong’s eyeing of Ivriniel. The girl was stunning. She was shorter than Finduilas by nearly a head, and her limbs and body were harmoniously curved. Her carriage was graceful, her attire and hair accentuating her beauty. In a few years, Maiaberiel would no longer be considered the most beautiful woman in Gondor. The wonder was that Thorongil did not appear to notice who attended him.
No one could call Finduilas unlovely; it was only in comparison to her sister that one could fault her. Denethor supposed some would think her too tall for a girl, for she was the height of most men, and her figure was still boyish, particularly next to Ivriniel. Finduilas did not seem aware of how beautiful she was and held herself with matter-of-fact collection. Place her with any other group of young women and she would be the center of attention. Look in her eyes, and even Ivriniel could not compare. But there was hurt in her eyes. What has made you sad, Alquallë?…
Denethor hastily looked away. Her eyes are your undoing, fool. He did not look up again until he had steeled himself to meet that knowing gaze. Finduilas was still watching him. He stared back unblinking, refusing his heart’s demand to let her see what was there. She eventually turned away, leading Forlong to the now-ready table. Ivriniel did the same with Thorongil. Denethor insisted that Luinil take the Prince’s seat at the table, putting himself at her right hand next to Forlong, where he would not be able to see Finduilas.
This did give him an excellent view of the captain and Ivriniel. The girl was doing her best to flirt with Thorongil and became increasingly peeved at his unwillingness to respond in kind. She did not miss the looks he cast across the table at Finduilas, nor did her mother. Finduilas herself sounded either oblivious to or uncaring of the captain’s glances, asking Forlong to describe the fields and dells of Lossarnach in late summer, to speak of his journey to Minas Tirith, and any number of questions about his holdings along the Erui. Denethor kept a surreptitious eye on the situation while chatting quietly with Luinil about news from Dol Amroth.
When supper ended, they left the table so it could be cleared more easily. In the mix, Thorongil started to drift away from Ivriniel’s side towards Finduilas, but Luinil looped her arm through the captain’s, keeping him at her side. She also gestured to Forlong to step closer. Ivriniel kept near the captain.
‘If I have not wearied you gentlemen too much today with talk of trade,’ Luinil teased, ‘may we speak a bit more about this Anórien cloth that is being exchanged for harvesting? There are some strong fellows along the falas who will not be needed…’ In a moment, Denethor found himself standing alone with Finduilas as the others walked into the house. Luinil had done this purposefully, but for what purpose? To leave him with Finduilas, or to take the captain off with Ivriniel? He looked over at Alquallë. Her expression was no friendlier than it had been in the hallway.
‘Did the supper disagree with you, Finduilas?’
‘No. Why do you ask?’
‘You look as though you have eaten something sour.’
‘It is the company, not the food, that is unpalatable.’
‘You appeared quite pleased with Lord Forlong.’
‘I was not referring to him.’
‘Really, the captain is not the boor you make him out to be. Well, not completely.’ Finduilas could not entirely stifle her snicker at that comment. She quickly regained her sternness.
‘I refer to you, Warden.’ He did not answer, stung by the way she said his title instead of his name, and motioned for her to go on. ‘I would not wish to risk slipping into gaiety and offending you, sir.’
‘As I have said, you may do and say what you please, Alquallë.’
‘How very gracious of you to grant me that.’ Finduilas crossed her arms and scowled at him. Denethor sighed and began to follow after Luinil. Love her or not, the girl was aggravating. He was brought up short when she said, ‘And I grant you all the grimness you wish for, sir, since that seems all you desire.’
‘No.’ Denethor faced her. ‘I desire that my City be saved. I desire that the Enemy may be defeated finally, forever. I desire that our lands need not be charnel houses and places of ruin.’ I desire you, and love, and hope. ‘And while these are but desires, grimness is my wont.’ Finduilas’s face reddened and she dropped her head.
‘Once again, friend, I must beg forgiveness for my impertinence.’
‘It is given, Alquallë. I scarcely expect other from you by now.’ Her blush deepened and she bit her lip. ‘Come now, girl, no faces. I may correct you, but I take no offence. Impertinence is the vice of the young.’
Finduilas glanced up shyly, measuring his words. Denethor smiled a little to show he meant as he said. The light came back to her eyes with a twinkle. ‘Just as rudeness is the vice of the old?’
‘Some of us become adept at a young age,’ he blandly replied. To his delight, Finduilas burst out laughing. She reached out and placed her fingertips on the healed scar on his wrist.
‘I am glad you are back, friend. Are you well? How is this?’ Her fingers tapped the scar. ‘Lady Lore and I were worried when you were so long delayed on your return.’ Alquallë’s eyes searched his face. What has she seen? Does she know I was kicked? No, the fall happened after Henneth Annûn; she would not know of it.
‘There was no reason to worry. I had more to attend to in Anórien than I had thought. Look, this heals well!’ Denethor reached and tugged his sleeve up his forearm a few inches, showing the lower edge of the scar. Finduilas traced the smooth red mark with a cool forefinger, then shivered before pulling the sleeve back over the scar. She did not pull her hand away, but took his own in hers.
‘It still looks horrible to me!’
‘I assure you, it is healing as it should.’ His heart was pounding so hard in his chest he wondered that she did not hear it. Carefully, Denethor extricated his hand from hers and motioned for them to walk into the house. ‘Your mention of Aiavalë reminds me that I am negligent in paying a call upon her since I returned. I must make my farewells to your lady mother and go lest the Archivist send Beregar to drag me there by the collar.’
‘May I come with you?’ Finduilas entreated. ‘Please, save me from an evening of discussing the merits of good Anórien cloth!’
For one long moment, Denethor considered it, then shook his head. ‘I will be selfish and say I do not wish to share Aiavalë’s attention with anyone else.’
The girl colored again. ‘Nay, I am the selfish one to intrude upon your visit. Give her my love.’
‘Tell me, Alquallë, is there anything I should know before I see my sister? Is aught amiss with her?’
‘Nothing, save that she will probably box your ears for making her wait to see you.’
‘And I shall deserve it.’ They walked into the parlor where the others were. Denethor gave Luinil a shallow bow.
‘I beg your forgiveness, Luinil, for I must depart. I have not yet paid a call upon my lady sister, the Archivist, and I must do so tonight before she retires.’
‘There is none to give and you must not tarry! Please give your lady sister my fondest regards. Our house is much indebted to her for her care of Finduilas. Do not make us wait too long for your next call, Denethor.’
‘I fear I also must go, my lady,’ Thorongil added, ‘though I am loathe to leave such kind company.’ Though the captain smiled at all, his eyes lingered on Finduilas.
‘Ah, I have worn you out with all my talk of trade! Good evening Captain, and a safe journey on your return to Anórien.’
Denethor waited for Thorongil to join him before bowing again and departing. When they reached the end of the lane, Denethor paused. The captain looked at him expectantly.
‘Do you count yourself among the simple folk, Captain?’ Thorongil shrugged. ‘So you do not mind if I pry into your affairs?’ The captain watched him warily, but said nothing. ‘You don’t have sisters, do you?’
Thorongil’s look was a mix of startlement and confusion. ‘How do you… What does…’ There was a long silence and Denethor thought the man would not answer when Thorongil grudgingly said, ‘I have a step-sister.’
‘Older or younger?’
‘What matters it?’ the captain shot back. Denethor crossed his arms, waiting. ‘Much the elder.’
This was very interesting news. A much older step-sister. Mayhap a much older step-brother as well? Perhaps there is an inheritance dispute between the children of the first wife and those of the second. This would go far to explain why Thorongil might be reluctant to return north, particularly since he was so well received to the south. It suggested a few other things as well, but Denethor did not wish to spare them thought right now.
‘Here is advice from one who does have sisters reasonably close to my age. It is not wise to give too much attention to one if the other is present. Both girls and their mother made note of who you watched this evening.’
‘Why is it of concern to you?’ Thorongil challenged.
‘It should be obvious. I always try to look for snakes. It would greatly displease me should the Prince be upset at the boorishness of one of my officers towards his daughters. I do thank you for finally getting your coarse ogling of the younger girl under control. It was most unseemly.’ Thorongil’s face flushed under his tan, and he stared at his boots. ‘Good evening, captain.’ The other walked off quickly. Denethor went the other way, back up the mountain to Aiavalë’s house in the sixth circle.
Beregar sat on a chair outside the door, mending a bridle. It took Denethor a moment to realize it was Gaerhûl’s bridle. The young man stood as soon as he noticed his master, setting aside his work.
‘The Archivist is in, my lord.’
‘Very good.’ Denethor motioned Beregar to step inside the dim, cool entry hall of the house. ‘What did you discover?’
Beregar drew a scrap of paper from a pocket in his tunic. It was a few fingers square and burned on three edges. A few partial words could be made out on the singed paper, but they were enough for Denethor to discern the handwriting belonged to the Steward.
‘You found this…?’
‘In a grate, with other ashes, in the kitchen of your own house, my lord. Nothing else has been burned there in many weeks.’
‘All of my meals since returning have been cold.’
‘Yes. One of the scullery maids from the Tower said they have sent over baskets each day since there is no one to cook in the house.’
Denethor tucked the scrap of paper into a pouch at his waist and walked to the door to his sister’s rooms. He rapped lightly, then opened the door a crack.
‘It is Denethor. May I come in?’
‘Yes, yes! Come in!’ came Aiavalë’s voice. He gently embraced her after she limped over, then ruffled her silver and black hair.
‘You are getting shaggy, sister. It is time to be sheared again.’ She gave him a playful punch in the side, right in his bruised ribs. There was no hiding his grimace of pain. Aiavalë stepped back, hands on hips, and glared. Denethor found himself tired of pretending he was well.
‘I got kicked by a horse. My ribs are bruised. That’s why I delayed my return.’
‘Let me see.’ He pulled off his outer tunic, dropping it over a chair, unbuttoned his shirt and slid it half off, exposing his side. She tapped his arm, telling him to move it out of the way. Cool fingers carefully examined the area.
‘No. Luckily. And, no, I have not been to the healers.’
Aiavalë snorted at that and grumbled something under her breath. As she turned away, she motioned for him to get dressed. Denethor pulled the shirt back on but did not bother with the rest. A large, leather chair that had not been in this room before beckoned from one corner. He did not mind that Aiavalë chuckled when he sank into the chair with a contented sigh, then brought him a glass of wine before pulling a foot stool from under the table and placing it before the chair. She dragged her own chair over next to his, taking his hand into hers after she sat. They did nothing but sit for some time while Denethor drank his wine. He looked around the room as he sat, taking note of the braid bell-pull, small objects and many books scattered on shelves and every flat surface, baskets of handiwork poking out from under things, and a cat curled up asleep in a wicker basket in the corner.
‘You are not coming back.’
‘Good. You should not. It is not a fit place for living things any more.’
‘Yet, you stay.’
‘It is where I belong.’
‘I think you belong in this chair. There is room aplenty.’
‘What would be said if I left? No.’
‘You would not be so lonely were you wed.’
‘Please, Aiavalë, not that argument. Not tonight.’
‘You just came from Vinyamar.’ Denethor did not answer. Aiavalë poured him more wine, then began stroking his hair as she would do when he was small. ‘Is it such a terrible thing, little brother?’
‘It is not as if you are being asked to marry a monster like me.’
‘I hate you calling yourself a monster. It isn’t true!’
‘Well, I am certainly no beauty!’
‘I have always thought you beautiful,’ Denethor truthfully replied. Aiavalë rewarded him with a quick kiss on his temple.
‘It is obvious that you are either stupid or mad, my sweet Denethor, if you call me such,’ she teased.
‘You do know what the trouble is, do you not?’ he teased in return. She shook her head. ‘You have set such a great example of intelligence and common sense and – yes! – beauty that you have quite spoiled me for any ordinary girl. You are everything I could want, and no one else can compare.’
Aiavalë sat up and fixed him with a stern eye. ‘House of Húrin though you be, Denethor, you cannot marry your sister.’ The two stared at each other very seriously until Aiavalë began to grin and Denethor could not hold back his chuckle, and the two dissolved into laughter. When they each had their giggles under control, Denethor kissed her hand, and held it.
‘Please, Aiavalë, no more of your match-making. I wish for no wife, and Alquallë thinks of me as she thinks of you; an elder sibling she may come to for advice. Yes, I have come from Vinyamar, and I have seen other things. The Prince has made it clear he will wed one of his daughters to Thorongil, and the captain cares only for the younger.’
‘You will just hand…’
‘I do nothing of the kind. Have more faith in me than that. All I wish for right now is to be here and not fight with you. I have done naught but battle since May, whether with sword or with wit. I need some respite. Please.’
‘I cannot promise I shall never cross wits with thee, little brother, but for tonight we will not squabble. I had this chair brought here so you would always have a place to rest while I scold you,’ they both chuckled, ‘and anything else you wish you need only ask for. Have you had supper?’
She went back to stroking his hair and he finished the wine. They did not speak, but just held each other’s hand. Denethor closed his eyes and let his mind wander back to Finduilas’s touch upon his arm. It was the opposite of Maiaberiel’s just two days before. The sensation had been as if her fingers drew out pain and sorrow, leaching away the poison of Beruthiel’s violation. You should not have allowed that, nor should you look in her eyes. She is not for you. He should not return to Vinyamar. It would tempt him to think of things that could not be, where neither oath nor love held sway. To the contrary, he must do the opposite, and turn her heart towards Thorongil. Denethor tried to think of how this could be done, but his thoughts defied him and lingered upon the feel of Alquallë’s fingers on his own skin.
When it was clear that thinking was futile, he sighed and stood. Aiavalë pulled a veil over her head and walked him to the door and would not hear of anything save that Beregar go with him back to the Citadel. They parted at the door of the Steward’s house, the young man quietly assuring his lord that he would track down the mystery of the burned message. Sador slept peacefully in the alcove, as did Telperien on Denethor’s pillow. She protested a little when he made her move, but was soon curled up in the crook of his arm as he drifted off to sleep. He dreamt of dancing.
The week went by swiftly. Much business had built up in his overly-long absence, and Denethor had little time for much besides meetings with counselors, particularly Borondir, and working out the details of saving the harvest in Anórien. Forlong drove a hard bargain for the harvesters, but it was a fair-enough exchange. Luinil said nothing over the stinting of Dol Amroth, but had given Denethor a look that promised the matter was not closed. Thorongil departed mid-day on the sixth day. Aside from the meal at Vinyamar, the captain had supped every evening with Maiaberiel, though never alone. Denethor himself had remained in the Citadel except for visits to warehouses with Borondir or to repair sites to measure progress. In three days, he was to go to Osgiliath to meet Halmir. Denethor did not intend to return from Osgiliath for at least a month.
Denethor sighed to himself as he walked down the lane in front of the Stewards House. Sador sat in a chair by the open door, dozing in a patch of late-afternoon sun. Beregar had not been able to uncover any more about the destroyed message, save only that the doorward had been sleeping when the message would have been delivered. Beregar had pleaded with him to take him on as doorward and guardian, given Sador’s inattention, but Denethor refused. Now that he knew mischief was afoot, he wished to see just what else would be attempted.
He was half-way up the stairs before Denethor noticed something was different. He stopped and waited, listening carefully. From in his rooms, he could hear odd sounds, soft thumps and then a skittering noise he could not place. A moment later his nose caught scent of smoke. With all the years of practice he had from ranging, Denethor stealthily crept up the remaining steps, hugging the wall. He slipped down the hall and peered around the doorjamb into the front room. No one was there and nothing appeared to have been disturbed, but there was definitely someone in the study and something in there was burning. Two silent strides brought him to the entry.
In the center of the rug squatted Mithrandir. The wizard’s cloak was carelessly cast over a chair, a tall blue hat poked out from under the edge of it, and a rather battered pack sat on the floor next to the cloak. His staff leaned against the chair. The wizard was puffing on a clay pipe. Telperien was crouched a few feet away, eyes glued on the wizard, tail lashing back and forth. Mithrandir drew in a large mouthful of smoke, then blew a smoke ring over the cat’s head. The beast leapt up in the air, batting at the smoke, then dropped back to the floor with a thud. Another ring went sailing another direction, and the cat dashed after it, nails scratching the floor when she over-shot her target and had to halt lest she charge into a wall.
Denethor did not know whether he should be amused at the cat’s antics or annoyed at the wizard’s presumption, and contented himself with leaning against the doorway and clearing his throat. The wizard did not turn around and the cat did not look away from the wizard.
‘Good afternoon, Warden,’ Mithrandir said genially, though his attention remained on the cat. ‘I looked in the kitchen and could find not wine, nor cheese, nor bread, so I brought up water for our refreshment.’ The wizard sent one last smoke ring in Telperien’s direction, then stood. His coarse robes were clean, though much mended, and his hair and beard neatly brushed.
‘I apologize for the spareness of the larder, Lord Mithrandir. The house has been empty most of this summer, so it makes more sense to have meals sent over from the Tower kitchens. If there is something you desire, I can send…’
‘No, no. I come well-fed and water is as fine a drink as any could wish. Save perhaps the beer of Bree.’ The old man smiled, but his eyes were sharp under his bushy brows.
‘Bree. Where is that?’ Denethor peeled himself off of the door frame and set a chair before his desk, gesturing for the wizard to sit.
‘Far in the north. A small collection of villages where folks think of little besides harvest, beer, and pipe-weed.’ Mithrandir nodded politely before taking his seat. Denethor poured a cup of water for the old man and another for himself before taking his own chair. Telperien jumped up onto the desk and sat, keeping a close eye on the wisps of smoke rising from the wizard’s pipe.
Denethor could not recall ever having a conversation with Mithrandir. They had been introduced in passing by the Steward six years ago and they had exchanged greetings two or three times since then, usually as one was leaving and the other meeting Ecthelion.
They sat in silence for several minutes, then Mithrandir smiled to himself. ‘What did you wish to speak to me about, Lord Denethor?’
‘I do not recall summoning you, sir.’
‘Perhaps you did not, but so it seemed. You are a man of questions.’
‘Perhaps.’ The wizard drew on his pipe. ‘I am glad to see you are well.’
‘And why should I not be?’
‘I have word you were injured not long ago.’
This explained much. Mithrandir and Thorongil must have met and spoken ere the captain returned north. Is this your master, Thorongil? Perhaps Mithrandir’s meddling had become more ambitious. ‘I am well.’
‘It would be a grave thing, Denethor, were you killed or maimed.’ Is this a warning? A threat? ‘The Enemy would count it a great victory should harm come to you. Gondor would suffer grievously at such a loss.’
It was odd to hear Brandir’s argument of a few weeks before being repeated by Mithrandir. For a moment, Denethor was grateful for the old man’s concern, but suspicion swept back in. ‘What is it you are here for, wizard? I do not care for flattery.’
‘Flattery?’ Mithrandir’s eyes flashed and he sharply blew out a mouthful of smoke. ‘Do not flatter yourself, Denethor, thinking I would do such. I flatter no one. Save a burglar of long acquaintance.’ As quickly as anger had come to his face, humor replaced it, though Denethor sensed the anger had not gone far.
‘You are friends with burglars, Mithrandir?’
‘Only a very small one.’ Denethor did not reply. Again they sat silent. The cat grew tired of watching the smoke and settled into the basket holding the reports Denethor was working on.
‘May I ask my own questions, Warden, if you cannot think of any?’
‘If you wish.’
‘Why is this house empty?’
‘That is for the Lord Steward to answer.’
‘I know what he says on the matter. What do you say?’ Mithrandir’s eyebrows cast shadows over his eyes.
‘Because our stewardship is set at naught.’
‘Naught? I do not understand, Lord Denethor.’
‘I think you understand too well, lord wizard. The Shadow has returned.’
Mithrandir’s brow furrowed and he took his pipe from his mouth, toying with it as he thought. ‘One could say that the Shadow has never departed. So your stewardship is unchanged.’
‘The Steward has spoken to me of your counsel to him. I confess I do not understand what you advise.’
‘What do you not understand?’
‘Once, when the Enemy proclaimed himself returned and we saw our doom, Ecthelion despaired. So much the Lord Steward says. He offers you thanks for supplanting despair with reconciliation. He calls himself your pupil, and says you have taught him to forebear from action, to eschew futile battle, and to have faith in salvation.’
‘What is it that you do not understand?’ the wizard repeated.
‘I see not any great difference between the two, if this is indeed what you counsel. In the Steward’s despair, he said not to rebuild the bridge at Osgiliath. In his reconciliation, he says the same. He gives some thought to practical things, but the business of the City is conducted as though there is no Enemy to the east, as though we have no armies marching against us. The Steward names all acts to counter the Enemy mere pride and vanity, and scorns them. He counts the City itself as a work of the Enemy, for it would not be unless the Enemy also was. So he says to me.’
The wizard stood and wandered down the room to the window. For long the old man stood, hands clasped behind his back, looking out the window, tendrils of smoke rising to the ceiling. ‘And you, Denethor. Do you also despair?’
‘It matters not.’
At that, the wizard turned, curious. ‘And why not?’
‘My oath is to Gondor, whatever enemy may take the field. If there is some grace upon us, well and good, but even hopeless doom cannot relieve me of my obligation to her.’
Mithrandir made a thoughtful sound, then said, ‘I have become confused, I fear. I had thought you a younger man. What is your age?’
‘I will be two score and five in December.’
‘Only that? So, I remembered rightly.’ The wizard’s attention wandered again. Denethor thought it time for a few questions.
‘Are you an Elf?’
‘What? An Elf? Oh, no, no, I am not an Elf,’ was Mithrandir’s amused reply.
‘But neither are you a man, or not a natural one, for you do not die.’
‘It has not caught up with me yet.’
‘The Steward says you speak to him of powers in the world. Thorongil, who calls you friend, speaks strongly that such powers are at work.’ The wizard left the window, slowly walking back to the desk. ‘Are you such?’
‘I believe in them.’
‘That is not what I asked.’
‘It is, though you do not know it.’
‘What do you believe, wizard?’
‘That there is great peril in the Enemy’s return. That all men who would not be Shadow’s thrall must join, as they always have, and set aside jealousies and squabbles. That pride is the greatest danger.’
‘For it kills not its enemies, but its own.’
‘And what of secretiveness? Duplicity?’
The wizard retook his seat, fixing Denethor with a measuring eye. ‘They also hold their dangers, but they are not so dreadful save when emboldened by pride.’
‘You will forgive me, Mithrandir, if I disagree.’
‘In what way?’
‘Pride may bring one low, but even the meek cannot succeed without power. That is what our Enemy has which we do not, or not in measure with his own. Arrows care not whether the chest pierced is prideful or meek. An army swelled with pride and numbers is a formidable foe.’
‘When the Enemy has been defeated, his power, his armies, availed him little. It is due to his own over-reaching pride…’
‘No! It is not!’ Denethor snapped. Mithrandir raised an eyebrow. ‘When has he been defeated? When a greater force opposed him. Perhaps he has been betrayed by his pride into thinking himself stronger than he is, but always he has been defeated by power superior to his own. Three times I count him bested: by Tar-Minastir; by Ar-Pharazôn; by Elendil.’
‘And the pride of Ar-Pharazôn turned that victory into the grave of Númenor.’
‘I do not deny that. Nor do I deny that the victories over the Enemy are temporary, at best. His is the greater power.’
‘The Shadow never truly departs.’
‘But he is better kept at bay with an army than with humility.’
‘Perhaps it may seem so, but I think the choice not so stark.’
‘I listen to the Lord Steward’s words, Mithrandir, and… I hear a certain… wisdom in them,’ Denethor said slowly. ‘He speaks both of doing what is before us and of not doing, to… not over-reach. Did you speak of such to him?’
‘How is one to know what is before us and what is over-reaching?’
‘The latter is usually accompanied by a large army and little humility.’
Denethor stared at the wizard until the merry twinkle left the other’s eyes. ‘How amusing. I did not know you were such a fine court jester. Enough of philosophy. Shall we try geography? What is Dol Guldur?’
The wizard sat for a moment before asking, ‘How do you know this name?’
‘From Thorongil. He said you taught him of it, and that it was a stronghold of the Enemy.’
‘It was for a time. He was driven from it.’
Mithrandir regarded him sourly and began fussing with his pipe. ‘Almost thirty-five years ago.’
‘Shortly before he took up again his abode in Barad-dûr.’ Mithrandir nodded curtly. ‘You were among those who helped drive him forth, were you not?’
The wizard rose and went to the fireplace, busying himself with preparing a new pipe. ‘I played a role in that, yes,’ he said carefully as he worked.
‘You defeated him.’
‘No, not I! There were many who had a hand. And it was not a defeat, in truth, but simply a rout…’ Mithrandir’s voice faded away and his hands stilled. He nodded and muttered something to himself before tucking the pipe away into a pouch at his waist, then went to the chair where his belongings sat.
‘From Thorongil, I have heard that you believe yourself forsaken, Denethor, that you have no faith in any power save what army you can muster.’
‘No. Not forsaken. Toyed with.’
‘How mean you that?’
‘You said yourself – the Shadow does not depart. And what is the Enemy? He is a power, immortal, beyond the reach of Men, or even Elves, to destroy. We cannot ever be rid of him, for only other powers may remove him and they will not do so. Meek or prideful, loyal or traitorous, opposing him or succoring him, it matters naught. Against him we can have no final victory.’
Mithrandir did not reply at once, but began pulling on his hat and cloak. ‘It matters, Denethor, very much if you are allied with the Shadow or stand against it, for in the latter only can there be hope. Consider this – how is power built, alliances founded, save by setting aside pride? And suspicion, even enmity. My little burglar could tell you a grand tale on that count.’
‘And all of our alliances but fend off the Enemy’s power for a while. We know a few years, a generation or two, of peace and happiness, and then we are once more assailed. What we build is ruined; what we plant, despoiled; what we dream of, denied. We salvage what we can and are diminished. You say we are brought low by pride, but would we suffer so were it not for a power that seeks naught but our misery and enslavement?’
Mithrandir slung his pack over his shoulder. ‘I have not an answer for that question, Denethor, nor would I give it if I did.’ The wizard looked at him with an expression Denethor could not make out at first, but then realized was sorrow. ‘Even the powerful err, and their faults are that much more terrible.’ The old man sighed as he turned to the door. ‘I fear I have been speaking to the wrong steward.’
‘Mithrandir!’ Denethor stood. ‘Do not think to walk off after such words. To whom should you have spoken?’
‘You would have made of me your pupil, and not Ecthelion?’
‘In a manner of speaking, yes.’
‘You would have failed.’
‘I know.’ The wizard picked up his staff.
‘I have a question.’
‘Did you know my grandfather, Turgon?’
‘He did not fail.’
‘Good day, Warden.’ Mithrandir walked off. When the echo of the wizard’s boots faded, Denethor sat. His mind was still trying to grasp all that had been said in but a few minutes. This was a testing. For what reason did you think to measure me, wizard, particularly now? Thorongil’s words had caused Mithrandir to seek him out, that was all he could determine. You would have failed to make me your pupil, but is that for good or ill?
An hour later, he still could not puzzle out why the wizard had paid a call, or what the man wanted. With a sigh, Denethor lifted the cat off of the reports, smoothed the rumpled paper, and began to read. There was much to do before he left for Osgiliath.
Characters introduced in this chapter, in order of appearance:
Hathol – OC, Warden of the Keys. A distant relative of Denethor’s through his grandmother, Vanimeldë.
Borondir – OC, Quartermaster-General of Gondor, Belemir’s grandson, Denethor’s first cousin, once removed, 38 years old.
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