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Hands of the King: 18. Threat
Minas Tirith, Mid November, 2975 T.A.
Telperien ignored her master's admonishment. Her eyes held steady on the twitching quill, waiting for it to come within range of her paws. Denethor moved the feather away just as she batted at it. A casual swipe - she was not intent upon her hunt. They often played this game until one or the other bored of it.
He dipped the quill once more into green ink. A few more dots, two words, a small symbol in the margin, and the message would be ready for Thorongil. While it had become rapidly apparent that the captain would never grasp the full complexity of the cipher (even had Denethor been willing to teach it), Thorongil understood it far better than did the Steward, and at a level to allow fairly detailed messages to be passed. The first few missives had been lessons, but now they were true reports of sensitive news. The captain replied in kind. Or tried to – some of his cipher markings were as odd as his ordinary messages; strangely expressed, archaically written, and interesting to puzzle out. Halmir's reports would sometimes echo the language, but the dour lieutenant rarely wrote as much as the captain. The two men certainly sounded nothing alike.
The message was done. Denethor set it aside to dry, tapping the cat on the nose with the quill. A small struggle between feather and feline ensued, with Telperien triumphantly bearing off the defeated party to her lair under the chair near the study door. Denethor poured himself some wine and propped his feet up on his desk, to read over the message and think over the news from Anórien.
The harvesters from Lossarnach had arrived just in time. The garrison soldiers had begun the harvest, but there were too few for all of the lands. Forlong's men spread out across Anórien, going first to the farms where there were no husbands and sons, and then lending strength to where wounded men had despaired of collecting grain, fruit and roots. More was lost than made him happy, but the harvest was respectable. And, as he had hoped, Denethor noted more than a few Lossarnach lads stayed on in Anórien, drawn by the farms that needed new masters and the widows who wished for new loves. It was too soon for weddings, of course, but a few betrothals had been announced, and a flowering of yet more expected with the warmth of spring.
And what other betrothals shall the Spring see? Denethor scowled at the thought. Not so soon. She is too young. No, she is old enough to make a match, if not to wed. There was no hiding Thorongil's obvious interest in Finduilas when he was last in the City, nor her pleasure in seeing the captain, even as she was careful to behave decorously. She laughed at his own barbs aimed at Thorongil, but she no longer offered any of her own. She has a tender heart, and does not speak meanly of anyone. It is not true affection. Denethor snorted at his own wishful thinking. What of Beregar's report, that she and Ivriniel had a fight over Thorongil? She contests for his attention. When the Prince returned, he had no doubt but that a more formal understanding would arise.
Purge this foolishness from your heart. His hand drifted upwards until it came to rest over the book in its pocket against his chest. These dreams are a chain you wrap yourself with. She found the truth that you sensed. She saw the ring and proof. He refused to allow himself to think of how Finduilas came to be so close to Thorongil that she saw the ring, or what speech must have passed between them such that the captain would show her this treasure. Finduilas will understand her part of the tale as I have come to know mine – we prepare a king. They had to take this ragged creature from the wild and make him into a ruler, not a warlord, make sure that the scion of Isildur did not destroy the kingdom of Anárion, as his forefathers had done to Arnor, and with it all that remained of Westernesse. It was good that she, and not some creature of Beruthiel's, had captured the captain's heart.
And yet… Denethor thought of the delicate torture he endured standing near Finduilas, her innocent smiles and touches, her artless profession of sisterly love for him. When he saw her begin to collapse in Osgiliath, he thought his heart would stop. Almost he rode back to the City with the cart to be certain she did not fall ill again. When Beregar said she was upon the wall, he had to see her. She was too thin, with dark circles under her eyes, but the wind caught at her hair and her gaze upon the East was fierce, and well could he think that she was a creature of enchantment, conjured from the mists of Anduin.
And this it was that Beren heard,
And this he saw, without a word,
Enchanted dumb, yet filled with fire
Of such a wonder and desire
That all his mortal mind was dim;
Her magic bound and fettered him,
Denethor grasped the book so tightly his hand ached and the covers of the book bowed, leather creaking slightly in protest at the rough handling. He had dared to trespass and lay a single kiss upon her, so small and chaste, what lay within the rights of a brother to give, and it was almost his undoing. His head had bowed down, cheek against her hair, and his lips came nigh her ear. Her tears had stopped him, making him speak brotherly words. He could not have spoken words of love, for he knew none. And well that you stopped! You would have revulsed her with crude attentions, even as Maiaberiel's lust sickened you. He had been certain since then to keep his hands well occupied whenever he was in her presence, had made sure that he would not encounter her upon the walls, did not walk with her and let her fingers touch his wrist.
She is not for you. Greater things call us both, as her own dreams show. Denethor sat up straight and made himself attend to business, not daydreams. Thorongil must be weaned from Maiaberiel's influence, and the wizard's. Denethor had thought carefully over the wizard's increasing interest in Gondor and sudden interest in himself. If only there were a way to watch Mithrandir as I can see Beruthiel and Thorongil himself. Why are you here so often, Mithrandir? You know the Steward ages, and soon there will be a need for a new ruler. That is when you would prefer for your captain to ascend. It would fit well with Maiaberiel's plans as well, for she clearly hoped to supplant him with Thorongil when the Steward died, playing off of the rumors that Thorongil was Ecthelion's bastard. But he will need to be wed before such a claim may be made, and Alquallë will help temper his ambition. He will owe loyalty to the Prince, and will share a certain concern with Adrahil. And myself. This year-end, the captain would be kept in close company, away from Beruthiel and Ecthelion.
Umbar. Thorongil's obsession with Umbar would be the proper hook with which to snag and land this would-be king. The ink had dried on the cipher. Denethor picked it up, reading it carefully.
The journey to Pelargir had been fruitful. Baragund had completed the salvage work in South Gondor well in time for the harvest. Warehouses, granaries, and barns were filled and over-filled, and lords were releasing men to return to the forts and garrisons along the river. One of Morwen's brothers had met with Denethor secretly, the true reason for his sudden trip. Marach had also supplied rare powders, two from Harad, one from Khand, salts Denethor had needed for some experiments. Harad had suffered a double blow in the summer wars, it turned out, soundly defeated by Gondor in the north and raided continuously by Khand in the east. There would be no threat from them for many months. Umbar was still belligerent towards travelers, moving the trading fairs further and further away from the main settlements. Interesting news from Far Harad was that the Raft Folk were not allowed to bring their great trees to the harbor. Shipwrights from Umbar went south and bought the logs in Harad, or even at sea, towing them back with their own boats.
There would be time to prepare in the coming year, to try to figure out how they could strike at this threat. The north will need our attention first. That had been the substance of his and Thorongil's last exchange of ciphers.
The air felt close. Denethor rose and walked out, picking up a cloak as he left the room. It took less than a minute to reach the roof of the house, where he stood and gazed east, shading his eyes against the low morning sun. The rains of November had relented that day, though the clouds clung to the mountain tops and roofed the Pelennor. However dangerous Umbar, there lies the source. There is the true enemy.
Finduilas was not the only person at Osgiliath who had been overcome by the evil fumes from the Vale in the last month. More soldiers than usual were affected this season. Halmir's reports detailed who had been weakened, who overcome, and when. Always, when fog rose upon the river and reached up the poisoned stream to Morgul, fumes would stalk through the gloom. More telling to Denethor's mind was the drop in Orc patrols through Emyn Arnen and up the east side of the North Ithilien road. There were few, and those few were mostly Uruks. Halmir argued, and Denethor and Thorongil concurred, that these patrols were to keep Rangers away from the Vale, not to do any great damage themselves.
Thorongil's last cipher said he believed there would be a winter campaign out of Mordor itself, launched as soon as the winds changed and the ground was made dry by the cold, probably in mid-January. Denethor's reply said he strongly agreed, and advised that Thorongil should not plan to return soon to Anórien after the year-end celebrations. "When you and Prince Adrahil are returned to Minas Tirith, we shall hold council with the Steward. I expect you will be kept here to see to these matters." He did not imagine the captain would object to spending more time in Finduilas's company.
With a final look down upon the City itself, Denethor left the roof to attend to the business of the day. He stopped long enough in his study to collect the cipher and a packet of the rare powders before setting out again. He thought of sending the missive directly with a messenger as he passed the upper stables, but decided it would draw too much attention. He also made himself walk briskly past the archives where he knew Finduilas would be. In any event, his cousin Borondir was waiting for him at the lower stables, and they had much to do to that day.
Borondir allowed the stable boy to hold his horse's head as he mounted, but politely declined any greater help. Borondir was the only one with enough discretion for the task he had been set upon, to deliver things secretly and without question to a secluded location north of the City. Belemir had taught his son and grandson deep disdain for Ecthelion along with an equally deep devotion to Gondor, and Denethor made good use of both.
The men set out upon the north road toward Rammas Echor and an old stone storehouse tucked into a fold of a hill a mile beyond the ruined wall. As they rode, the Quartermaster delivered his report of how things stood with Minas Tirith as winter approached. They both agreed that foodstuffs should be used with care in case winter clung long or was greatly harsh. Two hours later, they reached the storehouse. A burly man emerged, wary, then grinned and waved as he recognized the visitors. A younger man was summoned with a sharp whistle to take the lords' horses.
'How are the casks coming along?'
'Slowly, Lord Denethor. The oil is slow to extract from the wood. It would be faster from coal…'
'…and unsuitable for our needs, Beleg.'
'Yes, m'lord. Would you like to observe…'
'Yes.' Denethor brushed past Beleg and walked around the back of the storehouse. There was the result of all of his research, of long nights spent combing obscure references in almost unreadable scrolls, of small experiments and a few rather dangerous accidents. Several men were diligently working away, pausing only to nod their respects to the visitors before returning to work on the contraption of pipes, cauldrons, and fire. The smell was wretched, but the result was a light liquid that burned. The highly distilled naphtha mixed easily with sulfur, pitch, and rock oil smuggled out of Far Harad. All that was missing was the powders.
Beleg gestured for Denethor and Borondir to follow him through the trees and into small quarry beyond. A light catapult was set up at the front of it, and the stone walls were scarred from the impact of the catapult's missiles. Another burly man, a younger image of Beleg, was waiting for them.
The man simply bowed in reply. Without waiting for directions, he began winding the arm of the catapult down, readying for a throw. He wore a heavy leather apron and leather covers up his arms, and his head was tightly wrapped in a cap of the same material. His hands, however, were bare. Belegorn took a small cask from a table nearby and carefully inverted it, then again, and again, gently mixing the contents. The cask was set into the cradle of the catapult. He looked at Denethor expectantly.
Though he had seen a few tests before, Denethor felt his chest tighten. This is the final proof. No one man knew all of the ingredients and proportions, save himself. The previous tests had all been acceptable, but not as powerful as he had hoped, and less manageable than the mixtures they traditionally used. He had adjusted the measures fractionally, providing Borondir with carefully weighed packets of this, vials of that, all in pursuit of a legend. Denethor handed over the packet of powders. It was mostly quicklime with traces of the other salts.
Belegorn took the packet, reached out and removed a plug on the cask, carefully poured the contents of the packet into the cask, and released the catapult. The cask soared through the air, trailing fire. It hit a large pile of logs standing in the middle of the quarry, broke open, and sprayed gouts of fire all around. The logs were coated with the flames and fully ablaze within a few seconds. The fire would not go out until there was nothing left to burn.
Dragon Fire. He had found it. He had reproduced a weapon unknown since Númenor, one not used since the overthrow of the Enemy. Indeed, it had been created to defeat him. I have found it. It was still crude, still required work, but the basic formula was correct. We have some might left to us that even the Enemy will fear. Denethor glanced at Borondir, who was grinning broadly at the burning wood.
'How good is the rock oil supply from Harad, Denethor?'
'Good for a while. We need not much.'
Denethor shrugged. 'A certain amount per cask. What we need will be here before year-end.' That was the other purpose of the meeting with Morwen's brother – to ensure that ten barrels of rock oil were procured through various means. That amount would allow several thousand casks of Dragon Fire to be prepared, if necessary. He also waited for the salts. They cost more than the oil.
The two lords thanked Belegorn for the demonstration and Denethor told him to be ready to go to Osgiliath within the week, to prepare the catapults there and train a few key men on how to handle the dangerous missiles. The two then went into the storehouse and examined the casks. There were a few dozen, each three hands high and half that wide, set in pairs and marked with brands. The wood and rock oils were mixed in one and tightly sealed. Sulfur and pitch in exact amounts sat in a twin, waiting to have the oils poured upon them and mixed. At time of battle, they would be poured and set at ready for loading into the light catapults. Once ignited with the quicklime mixture, they burned so hot and fiercely, they consumed their own wood in a minute. Most of these would be sent to Osgiliath, with a half dozen provided to Cair Andros.
Directions for their transport were given, then Denethor and Borondir departed to be back in the City before night-fall. Borondir was very pleased at what he had seen.
'Denethor, I think this is brilliant!' he exclaimed. 'It can be used in all of our fortifications to keep attackers and siege engines well back from our walls.'
'Yes, though I am also very interested to see some test done with it upon wood in water.'
Borondir let out a loud whoop, startling the horses. 'You are a genius, cousin!'
'But it must remain secret and be used sparingly, or we will lose our advantage,' Denethor said sternly, though he was pleased at how strongly Borondir felt about the Dragon Fire. It was difficult to get the man to show much besides mild curiosity. 'Not a word of this to anyone, either. There will be time enough to explain it after we have won a victory with it.'
Victory. That was a good thing to contemplate. Even were it hopeless in the end, there could at least be some victory for now. Not unless we have the power of the Enemy himself can we hope to triumph, but we can show we are not mere pawns. There was only so much damage that could be done with Dragon Fire, just as there was only so much of Ithilien they could command, but it was better than sitting and waiting for doom to take them. What remained was to think carefully and see how best to use the few weapons they had. They could not count on fortuitous winter storms for defense.
The ride back was cold and uneventful. Upon arriving, Denethor found a summons from the Steward waiting for him at the garrison. He did not hurry on his walk to the Citadel.
Ecthelion gave him a cold stare when he entered the Steward's study and they played their waiting game. Denethor did not mind as he used the time to continue to think of how best to deploy the Dragon Fire. Ecthelion completed a letter and poured himself a cup of wine. He did not offer any to Denethor.
'You are much from the City of late.'
Denethor coolly replied, 'There is much to see to before winter closes in and year-end is upon us, my Lord Steward.'
'You may cease your condescension, Warden.'
'I speak only the truth.'
'You speak the obvious to avoid speaking the truth.'
Denethor wondered briefly what Ecthelion might know of the Dragon Fire, but then decided that the Steward was trying to intimidate him. 'I do not know what you mean, my lord.'
'Of course not. Well, are things in good order? Have I any reason to doubt what my counselors have told me for the last two months?'
That would depend upon the counselor. 'Given the major wars of the summer, we are in excellent shape.'
'And what of this winter? Have we aught to fear?'
'Perhaps. There is agreement among your captains that there may be a winter campaign out of Morgul.'
'Bring down the bridge.'
Denethor could not speak at first. 'What? Bring down the bridge? Why?'
Ecthelion's eyes were filled with glee, though his tone was mild. 'Because it is a danger should full forces be brought against it.'
'It was handily defended this summer, and was the reason we won!' Denethor snapped.
'And I deem that we would not have been attacked in the north, save for the desire to take the bridge. As for our victory, the spoils from it have sown their own dissension within the realm, and have caused some lords to regard themselves too highly. Faction is a great foe. This is what I have discussed with Lord Mithrandir, and have found him to be wise in this matter, as in others.'
Denethor forbade himself to be baited. What faction do you speak of? Your own and Maiaberiel's against all that is good for Gondor? Do you know what I plan with Adrahil? In truth, the Steward had good reason to be angry and wary at what he and Adrahil were planning. Destroying the bridge would be a good way to teach them a lesson. Denethor was not inclined to learn it.
'The captains will soon gather in the City, my lord. Before doing so great a thing, I would have them hear your counsel and offer you their own.'
'You defy me.'
'No, Lord Steward. Your Warden and Captain-General advises you to hear other voices than our own on this matter. If the wizard should be here, I say he, too, should be asked to give counsel.'
Ecthelion sipped, then shrugged. 'We will wait. You may go.'
Denethor bowed and left in a leisurely manner. He walked slowly through the Tower towards the side door, pondering the Steward's threat. Destroying the bridge was sheer folly, yet the Steward could command it done. This may be the price for having ignored him this summer. He will assert his power this way, though it gut our defense. Denethor wondered if the wizard would be near the City – it would be interesting to pull Mithrandir out of his whispering shadows and make him give his reasons before many.
As he passed a side corridor, Denethor paused. Something tickled at his memory, a talk he had with Turgon shortly before his grandfather's death. They had been going through the items in the Steward's desk, and there had been a key inside a fine leather case.
"This opens the greatest treasure in the kingdom, Denethor. This is the key to the chamber at the top of the Tower, where sits the last palantír. It is the eye of the King upon the realm."
Denethor looked at the corridor, which led to a larger one where one could find the stair to the top of the Tower. He had climbed it many times to look out across the plain from the next-to-topmost chamber. There was a spyglass set upon one of the window sills to help gaze out towards the East, though it did not show a great deal. But what if one could see more… He had been intrigued by Turgon's revelation, and had begun to research this seeing-stone, but the Steward's health failed, and other things needed tending, and then the Steward died. Aiavalë collected all of the archive's books, and he had never bothered to pursue the palantír.
Perhaps, it is time I do so. He set off at a determined pace to the Stewards House. First a meal, then some reading.
Denethor leaned against the stone in the tunnel, head spinning. The bouts of vertigo were getting less intense.
Like a bird!
The dizziness passed almost as soon as it came over him. When it was gone, he peeled himself from the stone and continued out of the Citadel.
I soared. I flew over all of Anórien.
This afternoon, he had finally dared to look into the seeing stone. For two weeks he had pored over the writings on the palantíri. Most were in the Dwarf-hold and he had a difficult time procuring them without Aiavalë's notice. The choice to look north and west was guided by a desire to see if he could discern Thorongil upon the road. The captain should have departed the garrison this morning to come to Minas Tirith.
Thorongil was there to be seen, but Denethor gave it little thought. Seeing the troop of soldiers was nothing compared to allowing his eyes to range over the entire land, swooping and sailing, plummeting towards the ground to see a particular farmstead, a certain tree, then racing up and further on to stride a league, two leagues, ten leagues at a time across the hills and woods. At some point he had swooned and only woke when the stone floor of the tower grew cold at nightfall.
A cat hissed at him as he walked into the lane that led to Aiavalë's house. The Stewards House was dark and cold, like the Tower chamber, and he needed to be warm. Thoughts of the leather chair, a cheerful fire and Aiavalë's scolding set him on this path.
Denethor thumped the front door once. Beregar greeted him cheerfully.
'Good evening, my lord! The Archivist and the Lady Finduilas are in. Shall I announce you?'
I should go, not tempt fate. 'No, no need. I will announce myself.' It was unwise to see Alquallë, particularly in his giddy mood, but Denethor could not bear the emptiness of his own house. I will sit in my chair, and listen to them chatter. No harm can come of that. He tapped on the parlor door, then opened it a crack.
'It is Denethor. May I come in?'
He could not help smiling at the shouts of delight the women made. When he entered, Finduilas dashed over and kissed his cheek, then pulled him across the room to where Aiavalë stood. His sister hugged him solidly and he wished that he would never need leave this room.
'Have you supped?' 'Give me your cloak.' 'Oh, you are all cold from the night!' 'Hador tells me you are stealing books again, brother.' 'Let me pour you some wine.' 'I think I shall pay you a visit, if only to collect back my archive.' 'The roast has cooled, but we could warm slices on a fork over the fire.' 'You do need to eat something; you look gaunt.' 'Take the wine and sit while I warm the meat.' 'What lords have arrived in the City?' 'Father will be here any day! And Imrahil, too!' 'You had better eat something as well as drink, Denethor.' 'Did you receive Mother's invitation for…'
Denethor settled into the large chair with a happy sigh, letting the women's words float over him as he had skimmed the trees of the Firien Wood. When it became clear that he was not going to provide any conversation, Aiavalë and Finduilas went on with their own, giving him food, pouring him wine, and letting him sit in contented silence.
Finduilas sat opposite of him, allowing Denethor to look at her without being too obvious about it. To his relief, she no longer looked ill and worn as she had after the trip to Osgiliath. The wild, mysterious glamour was gone, and she seemed but a pretty, cheerful, chattering young girl, someone he could look upon with mere brotherly kindness. Then she turned her head, the shadows in the room catching the hollows and curves of her face, and a dizziness took hold of his head again. Her magic bound and fettered him.
Denethor gladly would have sat there staring at her, enchanted dumb, for the rest of the evening. A shout and slamming doors in the entry hall made all three of them jump. Feet pounded down the hall and Lark burst into the parlour followed by Beregar. The girl was sobbing and, from the looks of her clothes, had been attacked. Denethor stood, all of the joy of the evening gone.
'Lark! What has happened?' Aiavalë demanded, waving Finduilas and Beregar to silence.
'I was… in the alley… coming back… and they,' she gasped out, 'and they…'
'Stop sniveling, pull yourself together, and say what has happened, girl!' Denethor barked. 'Or else go away and come back when you can.' As he hoped, the words stopped the girl's panic and she stared at him hatefully. 'Speak up. If it is worth telling.'
'I was coming back from seeing someone,' Lark snapped back at him, 'and was going along the alley just before the gate to the fifth circle…'
'From the fourth?' Lark nodded. 'The crooked alley two streets below the wall?'
'Yes. Someone grabbed my arm and I was yanked into a small court. There were three men.' Lark stopped.
'They tore your clothes?'
'Are you raped?' She shook her head. 'Injured so that you need a healer?' Another shake. 'Can you say anything of any of them? A voice, a cloak, something?'
'Not very tall, any of them. One has no hair, and his cloak smelled of tar. Another I saw for a moment has a scar in the corner of his mouth. The court was dark and they struck at my face which made me cover it.'
'Did they say anything?' Lark stared back at him, fury growing, but she said nothing. He and Aiavalë exchanged a glance and nodded to each other. Denethor left the room, taking Beregar with him.
'Tonight, hound, you hunt.'
Denethor fished a silver coin from his pocket and held it out for Beregar to take, then pulled off his signet ring, handing that also to the young man. 'Go to your mother. Tell her what has happened, and say the coin goes to the first person who finds these three. She will know what to do. When they are found, take them to the garrison and have them held unharmed but in silence until I come. Show my ring to the lieutenant there as proof of my command.'
Beregar appeared slightly confused about taking the news to Adanel, but bowed and hurried off. Denethor returned to the parlor. Someone had draped a shawl over Lark's shoulders to cover her ripped dress, and she was drinking wine. He came to a stop in front of her.
'So, what did they say.'
'A curse upon you and your miserable family!'
'That is what they said?'
'No! That is what I say to you!' Lark snarled back.
'Mind your tongue, girl. Why am I to be cursed?'
'This is the doing of your sister. Beruthiel said she would do me mischief if Wren did not marry as she demanded, and forbade us husbands save as she chooses. She sent these after me because there is a man paying me court whom she did not pick. They called me whore and promised worse if I did not mend my ways.'
'Very well, my sister does as she always does. I repeat, why am I to be cursed?'
'You are a cursed house! You are barren and twisted, and you ruin all that you touch! The Stewards are naught but misfortune, and Wren and I are plagued by your cruelty!'
'Then you curse yourself.'
'I was born cursed and despoiled,' was her venomous reply, 'no thanks to my sire.'
Denethor did not answer at once, but stared down at the enraged woman. 'It is no more my fault that I am the Steward's get than it is your own, but it is a fate we share. Curse me if you wish; I care naught. You should show greater courtesy to the Archivist, who is all that stands between you and full ruin. In truth, the only person you should curse is your mother, who whored herself to a man not her husband.'
That left Lark gaping. Denethor shook his head and gathered up his cloak. He picked up Finduilas's and tossed it to her.
'Come along, Alquallë. I will walk you back to Vinyamar. You should not walk alone with such ruffians about.'
Denethor was almost to the front door before Finduilas caught up with him. He paused long enough to let her wrestle on her cloak before striding out into the cold. She had to hurry to keep up with his long strides.
'How could you… What possessed you to… You were cruel to Lark!'
'She was rude to me.'
'How could you speak so to her of her own mother?'
'Because it is true.'
Finduilas grabbed his arm and made him stop. He could make out her face in the starlight, and thought her even more beautiful in her anger than she had been before the fire, merry and teasing. Denethor grasped the folds of his cloak so he would not be tempted to touch her, trace the perfect line of her jaw, tangle his fingers in her hair.
'Perhaps she is rude, but you speak most vilely of her mother!'
'The woman is a whore. She worked in one of the houses in the third circle, she became Ecthelion's mistress quite openly, and then was cast back into the houses without a thought when the Steward Turgon demanded his heir behave more decorously. Were it not for Aiavalë, that is where both Wren and Lark would be, too.'
'That is not the point. Whatever the truth, that was most cruel to …'
'The Steward's house is a cruel one.'
'So you are excused for speaking so to your sister? After she was attacked?'
'Lark is not my sister.'
'You have the same father. That makes her your half-sister.'
'We share a sire. She is Ecthelion's discarded bastard, whom my sister has taken pity upon and has taken in.'
Finduilas stared at him in disbelief, then walked on. Denethor trailed after her to the door of Vinyamar. She did not bid him good evening or otherwise acknowledge his presence as she went through the door. Good. She may have not even a sister's regard for you now. He tried not to rue his harshness towards Alquallë. After toying with the idea of joining the hunt, Denethor returned to the Stewards House on its silent street. It took long to fall asleep, and his dreams were filled with flight.
Beregar was waiting in the outer room with his breakfast when he awoke. The young man gave his report as he laid out the meal.
'The three were found in an inn in the first circle. Luckily, the gate was closed for the night, which made them stay. Two fit Miss Lark's description exactly, and the third one is obviously with the others. They are being guarded beyond the walls in a storehouse.'
'Who found them?'
'My father and me.' Beregar dug into a pocket, pulling out Denethor's ring and the silver coin, placing them both on the desk. Denethor took back the ring, motioning to the silver.
'That is yours.'
'Mother did not want it. She said to bring it back.'
Denethor did not know quite what to make of that. Adanel always took payments for her information, even if she did not measure her worth so meticulously as Morwen. Perhaps it had to do with the girl being attacked. 'What do you know of the man who is courting Lark?'
'He's with the garrison. From the City, in the second circle. Never says anything, just waits for her at the door and walks her where she needs to go. He must have been on duty last night.'
'It shames the City that any woman cannot walk its streets unmolested.' Denethor sipped his tea, thinking. 'I will have a note for you to take to the lieutenant. I will deal with the three this evening. Let them spend the day wondering of their fate.'
'I believe I have also discovered who was lighting fires with messages in the kitchen, sir. There is a messenger in the Tower who is wed to the daughter of the brother of the wife of Lady Maiaberiel's doorward. The Lord Steward has been using him much of late for carrying messages. A number go first to the lady's house.'
'Though not that one.' Denethor set aside his bread and wrote up the note to the lieutenant. 'Take this down after the ladies are safely to the archive. I will come to collect you at the women's house this evening.' Beregar took the note and left.
After breakfast, Denethor looked through several reports and a few messages announcing the arrival of this or that lord for the year-end celebrations. It was only early December, but a number were already here. Adrahil and Thorongil should be here in the City by tonight. Brandir would return in the next week or so from escorting Queen Morwen and her children back to Rohan. Denethor hoped he could keep a decision about the bridge from being made until Brandir's return.
After finishing his breakfast, Denethor dressed in plain, warm clothes and went to the kitchen of the Stewards House. It was cold and bare, but in a store room he found a small stone flask with a tight cork. He tucked it into his pocket and headed to Rath Dínen.
Denethor went first to his mother's sepulcher in the tomb of his house and knelt. Forgive me, Emeldir. You cared nothing for the fate of his bastards. Perhaps you would approve of your daughter's act. Even so, the Stewards House may not flout the Steward's Law, or all the realm will succumb to bastardy. After he rose, he did not pursue his task at once, but walked among the tombs until he came to that of Eldacar. Vinitharya, half-blood prince, forefather, you came from the north and plunged Gondor into Kin-strife. Those there were who preferred destruction to your reign, and who broke all oath and bond to drive you away. It cannot be allowed to happen again. Denethor knelt once more, head bowed, and thought. The Steward and Beruthiel would destroy all to put Thorongil on the throne, whatever the wisdom of such a thing. Was he wrong to resist their plans? The Ring of Barahir proved a claim that he knew not how to measure. Alquallë spoke of the hope a king might bring to the hearts of the people, but was it a false hope? I swore to defend the realm unless the king should come again. What if the king is the danger? But do I not myself bring down Kin-strife if I oppose the Steward? Denethor wished he could return to the Tower and lose himself in the palantír.
His knees ached from the stone. With a sigh, Denethor stood and walked further into the recesses of the tomb, and then into another, and yet more, until the flask was filled. He shared a dinner with the stable hands in the upper stables, then returned to the Stewards House to read until nightfall.
Lark did not wish to go with him when he walked to Aiavalë's house to collect the girl. Only begging by Wren and orders from Aiavalë convinced her to do as he asked. Denethor walked down the City with her, Beregar following, taking her to the garrison. He held a brief conversation with the lieutenant, then motioned Beregar to the side.
'Lark's suitor is a soldier here?'
'Is he here now?'
'I don't see him.'
'Let me know if you do.'
The three of them followed the lieutenant over to the storehouse, where a dozen soldiers waited. Beregar tugged Denethor's sleeve and nodded at one of the men. Denethor pointed to the man, and then three others.
'You, stay outside and make sure no one approaches.' There was no hiding the concern on the face of the young soldier when he realized the cloaked woman was Lark. She stared at him, then shook her head and refused to look at him again though he tried to catch her eye. Denethor took her arm and led her into the room.
The three ruffians were a sorry lot. Two did match her descriptions quite well. The lieutenant motioned that they be made to stand up in front of Denethor. He studied Lark out of the corner of his eye. She was examining the three coldly.
'The young lady was molested by some ruffians the evening past,' Denethor said to them.
The one with the scar glanced up at Denethor, then away, and shrugged. 'Sorry to hear that, Miss.'
'Are these the three?' Denethor asked the girl. He was not much surprised when she boldly walked over to them and moved among them, looking carefully. She was a child of Ecthelion, after all.
'The scarred one, most certainly, and the middle one. I recognize his stink,' she said firmly. 'I cannot say of the third.'
'I wasn't anywhere near these two and their mischief,' that man quickly protested. Denethor pulled Lark away as the other two rounded on him and began shoving him. The soldiers quickly broke it up.
'Well, I think that answers the question of who you were with,' Denethor dryly noted. Turning to the lieutenant, he said, 'They roughed her up and threatened worse. Beat them until the lady is satisfied.' With a nod to Lark, he retreated to lean against the wall. At their commander's signal, the soldiers began pummeling the ruffians. Lark stood, arms crossed, grimly watching the beating.
The soldiers did a thorough job, bloodying the men up. As it went on, Denethor began to wonder when she would call a halt. The lieutenant shifted and shot a questioning glance at Denethor. Just as Denethor was about to say something, Lark spoke.
'You are satisfied?'
'Very well then. Beregar, escort the lady back to her home.' The two left. When the door closed, Denethor motioned that the beaten men be made to stand.
'How much did she pay you?' he asked the scarred man who appeared to be the leader.
'Don't know what you're talking about.'
'It will go worse for you if you try to deceive. You were hired to attack this girl. Why else did you stop when you did, or say certain threats? How much were you paid?'
'What's some whore to you?' the man growled. One of the soldiers belted him across the side of the head, knocking him down.
'A whore is nothing to me. The young lady you attacked is an archivist and companion to my lady sister, who is much upset that one of her servants has been misused. How much?'
The scarred man staggered back to his feet, holding his head. 'Three silver coins each.'
Denethor reached into his pocket and pulled out a heavy leather pouch. He carefully counted out three stacks of five coins, being sure the men saw him lay them on the table at the side of the room.
'There are five coins for each of you. If you touch that money, you are mine. If you are mine, and you are false, you will die. If you serve her again, you will also die, whether or not you serve me. Your choice.' Denethor left the store house, followed by the lieutenant. As they walked past the four guards, Denethor pointed to Lark's suitor and gestured for the man to accompany them. He walked until the storehouse was out of sight, then turned and stared down at the soldier.
'Do you know what happened?'
'The ruffians behaved crudely towards Miss Lark as she walked home yesterday.' The man's hands clenched. 'They have been punished to her satisfaction. You will attempt nothing more.'
'She told me you are courting her.'
'Not exactly, sir…'
'Not exactly? That is what she thinks. Are you lying to her?'
'No, sir! I am honorable. I just haven't said anything, for I haven't…'
'You have no business asking her. You have not been given permission to court her.'
'She has no father to give…'
'She has me. So, are you courting Miss Lark, or not?'
'I will, but haven't yet the means for a wife.'
'Your attentions to her have made others think meanly of her.' Denethor narrowed his eyes. 'What is your father?'
'A cobbler, sir.'
'Is it a good family?' he asked the lieutenant. The man made a bit of a show of scratching his head and thinking, before nodding.
'Yes, Captain, it is a good family. His father's an honest man. And a good cobbler!'
'Hmm. I am inclined to deny you simply for your impertinence and for showing so little care for the young lady's reputation. She has narrowly escaped great dishonor because of your presumptions.'
'Forgive me, sir,' the soldier whispered.
'It is not my forgiveness you will need.' Denethor crossed his arms and stared intently at the other, silently counting to thirty. 'This is what you shall do. Within two days, you shall present yourself to the Archivist at her house, and ask to see Miss Lark. You will ask for her hand. If she agrees, means will be found and you shall be wed before mettarë. If she spurns you, as she rightly should, you shall not approach her again. Whatever her answer, you will go to the Pelargir garrison after yestarë. Do you understand?'
The soldier stared back, determined. 'Yes, sir! I understand. It will be done.'
'Dismissed.' The young man saluted smartly, and strode off. The lieutenant was hiding a smile behind his hand. Denethor shrugged, bid the man good night, and headed back to the City.
There was yet work to do.
He strolled up to the fifth circle and walked down the lane past Maiaberiel's house. In a side alley, Denethor quickly found niches in the wall that allowed him to scramble up the side of a neighbor's house to the roof and make his way back to his sister's. A moment's work with a knife on an upper window was all it took to let himself in. Sounds of merriment could be heard downstairs – Maiaberiel's throaty laugh and a man's voice, loud and braying. Ah, Isilmo is here. He went to her bedroom and opened the window as he would have to leave quickly when the time came. After Denethor's unexpected visit of the previous summer, his sister had the vine growing up the side of the house hacked down. Getting in was the problem. If he hung off the underside of the balcony, the drop to the ground was not too bad.
Denethor made himself comfortable in a chair, waiting for the adulterers to come upstairs. As he sat, he gazed out the window and up at the stars. What do stars look like in the seeing stone? Can one look up all the way to the heavens?
It was close to an hour until Denethor heard feet upon the stair. Quickly, he turned down the cover on the bed, unstoppered the flask, and shook its contents all over the sheets. He replaced the cover to hold the contents in place before hurrying out the window. After dropping to the ground, he waited under the balcony. And waited. And waited. Aren't they going to bed? What are they doing? Hurry up! At long last, a very satisfying, blood-curdling scream was heard. Denethor grinned and sauntered off.
He paused as he walked past Vinyamar. It was well-lit. The men must have arrived. Denethor stood a long while gazing at the house, more wistful than envious of the happiness within it. He wished to turn back a day, to the hour he sat before the fire across from Finduilas in Aiavalë's parlor and was simply content. In an upper window, for just a moment, he saw Finduilas as she walked into a room to get something, then walked out. I have wed one sister off to an honorable soldier. It should not be too hard to do so again. With a sigh, he continued up the mountain.
Denethor was woken just past dawn by the sound of Telperien growling and hissing, crouched under the bed. He lay very still, listening to other sounds in the room. Someone was in his study. Not Beregar - the cat would have trotted out to greet that visitor. Stealthily, Denethor reached to lower shelf of the small table near the bed and pulled a knife out of its sheath. Trying not to make any noise, he cleared away the bed linens. There was no helping the creaking of the bed frame when he stood, but he did not need to be tangled in a blanket. The intruder was just past the screen, near the desk, moving papers around. In a single lunge, he was out of his bed, around the end of the screen and ready to take fight.
Maiaberiel jumped when he appeared, but quickly regained her composure. A stack of reports were spread across the desk. She very deliberately ran her eyes over him, then smiled and raised her eyebrows approvingly, making his stomach lurch. Denethor returned behind the screen and pulled on his pants. He was tempted to keep the knife with him.
'Have you ever heard of knocking, sister?'
'Have you?' She sat down in the chair and continued her study of the documents. Denethor moved in between her and the desk, resting a hip on the table top much as Finduilas had once done to him. 'What did you wish to see me about, Denethor?'
'What do you think?'
'I think that you play childish games to tell you me you are displeased over who I have in my bed.'
'No. As you explained, that is between you and your husband.'
'You did not enjoy the feel of strange hands grabbing at you in the dark?'
Maiaberiel stared in confusion for a moment, then comprehension dawned. 'You put spiders in my bed because of that little whore?'
'Alas, those were the only creatures I could convince to stay in your bed. And you'd best be careful whom you call whore.'
'The Monster put you up to this.'
'Aiavalë knows nothing of it. Though she will laugh mightily when I tell her the story.'
'It is no concern of yours.'
'I told you last summer that you are to leave Wren and Lark to Aiavalë. I meant it.'
'I will do as I please. I do not take orders from you.'
'I tire of your willfulness, Beruthiel.'
She smiled lazily, leaning back in the chair. Again she ran her eyes over him, making Denethor wish he had also pulled on a shirt. 'You threaten, brother. You bully me in childish ways, but you cannot stop me from getting what I want.'
'And what do you have? You cuckold your husband. You whisper in the Steward's ear, but you do not change what happens – my will has always prevailed over yours. You force a few young girls into miserable marriages, and then lie with their husbands. You are a conniving little spider.'
'I have the Steward's ear and his trust. That is worth more than all your threats. The truth is, brother, Father has come to the end of his patience with you and your arrogance. He and I have spoken about what to do with you.'
'I do not care what you have spoken of.'
'You do not care what anyone says. You are so certain you are right, and only you, that you trample upon the Steward's authority and disgrace him before his own counselors. Your belligerence brings enemies down upon us.'
'This is bluster and threat, sister.'
Maiaberiel laughed, the same gleeful malice in her eyes he had seen in the Steward's when commanded to bring down the bridge. 'We hoped the summer would give you a glorious end in battle, so you could be remembered with honor, but you were not obliging. You will be brought down, Denethor. All you will be left with is worrying over the marriage of whores. Unless you see fit to make yourself agreeable to the Steward, your reign is over.' She slid her hand up the inside of his thigh, stopping just short of his crotch. 'Which means making yourself agreeable to me.'
Denethor fought down his nausea and his rage, and stared at her until her smile faded and she removed her hand. He wished to strike her but feared he might not stop.
'As I said before, Beruthiel, bluster and threat. I have listened to yours, and now you shall hear mine. You were warned to leave the youngest bastards alone. You have not. I have done several things with regards to that which you will discover soon enough. What I tell you now is that you will make amends to Lark for having set your ruffians on her. You have until the end of the year. If you do not, I will lay waste all of your plans.'
'How? Give me some proof that you can do as you threaten!'
'And what is your own proof? It is just threat against threat, but I already know what you have been doing, and you know naught of my plans. Now, go home. You know what I want, and why. Decide how much one marriage is worth to you.'
Maiaberiel stood and swept out of the room. Once he heard the door close downstairs, Denethor returned to his bed, feeling utterly wretched. Telperien crept out from under the bed, leaping up to purr and rub her face against his. Beruthiel is right; I have nothing but bluster, except for making a marriage for Lark, which will only enrage her more. He suspected she was behind the Steward's demand to pull down the bridge, though once said, he was also certain that Ecthelion needed no urging to pursue it.
Sleep would not return. After an hour, he gave up and readied himself for the day. Notes were delivered from Adrahil and Thorongil, greeting him and advising him of their presence in Minas Tirith. Adrahil thanked him for his care of Luinil and the girls, and asked him to supper that night. Denethor was in the middle of penning an acceptance when Ecthelion's summons arrived. There would be a meeting in the early evening to welcome the visitors to the City.
'He cannot mean this!'
'I fear he can and does, Prince.'
Adrahil shook his head in disbelief. 'Denethor, this is madness! To suggest pulling down…'
'Adrahil, peace,' Denethor warned. It was two hours past sundown, and they were walking above the Court of the Fountain, going towards the wall. The Prince was outraged at the idea of destroying the bridge at Osgiliath and his voice was rather loud.
'What has set him on this course, my lord?' Thorongil quietly inquired. 'He is quite… insistent that it be done.'
'Insistent? He conjures up demons to frighten these Outland lords,' Adrahil grumbled. 'They do not understand that we need this bridge to defend ourselves. All of Gondor relies upon a dry passage over Anduin. Whatever risks there may be are far outweighed by the advantages. We must command the east bank of Anduin, and to do that we must be able to pass over it at will.'
'When I first spoke with the Steward on this matter, Captain, he said it was part of the advice he received from Mithrandir,' Denethor offered.
'No.' The firmness of Thorongil's voice made the two other men pause and turn. The man's face was stern. 'Mithrandir would never give such counsel. If the Steward thinks this is what the wizard instructs, then he misunderstood what was said.'
Denethor motioned for them to walk further, away from the court where they might be overheard by someone below. When they reached the wall, they stood together so that they could see any who approached.
'I know nothing of the wizard's counsel, and it was not clear what the Lord Steward meant was said by Mithrandir and what not. The one thing he was clear on concerned the conduct of the war over the summer and how poorly informed he was during it.' He looked pointedly at the other two.
Thorongil dropped his eyes, but Adrahil shrugged. 'The battles were won with small loss. It is a mean heart that is so jealous of others' victories,' the prince tartly replied.
'We face our reckoning with the Steward for the conduct of the summer war, gentlemen,' Denethor warned with a sigh.
'We must convince him, openly and honestly, that the destruction of the bridge is not in the best interests of Gondor,' Thorongil said, 'else we shall meet greater sorrow in our victories than in a defeat.' The captain glanced sharply at Denethor before dropping his eyes once more. 'The realm cannot be divided against itself.'
'Yes, it must unite,' the Prince agreed, 'but behind policies and strategies that do not guarantee our defeat. Do you agree with the Steward's wishes, Captain?'
'I am sworn to serve the Steward, my Prince,' was Thorongil's even reply. 'I can only counsel him in what I think best.'
That was not what you did during the campaign, Captain. You lied, deceived, ignored and subverted his wishes. You served Gondor. Denethor stared out eastward into the dark, knowing by habit where Osgiliath lay. The realm cannot be divided, yet we are supposed to be loyal to a leader who refuses to be one. He glanced briefly at Thorongil, then back out into the night.
'We need to discuss this, Denethor,' Adrahil insisted.
'Yes, but not here upon the wall.'
'In that, I presume to say we are in agreement!' was the prince's cheerful reply. 'A warm house, a good meal, and several beautiful women await us, gentlemen.'
'Perhaps it is best we let the matter lie for a few days, my lords. The Steward himself said he offered it only as something to think upon, though he thought it sound.'
'I think we should think upon it together, captain. It seems to me…'
Denethor ignored the two, looking at something eastwards. He rubbed his eyes, wondering if he was simply seeing things. No, there was clearly a light across the fields, across the river, beyond Osgiliath. Then another, and another, and a river of torches burst to life in the hills of Ithilien.
The Enemy had not waited for the ground to dry.
Denethor whirled around and bellowed over the court, 'Alarm! Alarm! Osgiliath is attacked!' Thorongil and Adrahil's voices joined his own. Horns began to sound. He grabbed Adrahil's shoulder. 'Go to the Tower! Tell the Steward!'
'I will! Take the Swan Knights!'
'You stay in Minas Tirith. See to the defense here!'
Adrahil nodded and charged off towards the Tower. Denethor and Thorongil began to run towards the Citadel gate. When Thorongil would have broken off to the stair, Denethor waved him on.
'Not that way. Follow me!' Denethor jumped up to the top of the outer wall and ran along it almost to the rock pier, then skidded to a stop to scramble down the face of the wall, Thorongil right after him.
Characters introduced in this chapter, in order of appearance:
Beleg – OC. 60-ish. Overseeing camp extracting volatile oils from wood.
Belegorn – OC. 40-ish. Catapult operator in Gondorian army.
Bard – OC. Soldier of Minas Tirith, 34 years old.
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