Stewards of Gondor: Slashvese Arc
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Star and Stone: 2. Tête à Tête
"Good morrow, my lord."
"Good morrow, captain."
Denethor and Ælric greeted each other briskly, sparely, as was their habit. And as Ecthelion's son bent a measuring stare upon the other, Ælric met it. For a lengthy few moments, he returned the look, and then deliberately averted his eyes. It was an exquisitely calculated gesture, precisely executed with just that combination of ease and deliberation that Denethor knew quite well that it was not accidental. Indeed, he could hardly mistake it after a month's acquaintance with it, for Ælric was nothing if not consistent: each time their eyes met, he would turn away just so. My lord you are, but take no liberties with me, for I am not a servant—so said that veiled, carefully neutral and impenetrable gesture, and the heir to the stewardship felt a thin smile curve his lips. Few could have managed such an artistic evasion without sliding over the boundary into defiance, yet thus far Ælric kept both his composure and his confidences, demurely denying his captain any glimpse of his thoughts. It amused Denethor, and so he never commented upon it, for that would have been... inelegant. And so it was on to the next step:
"Have you that analysis I set you?"
"Aye, my lord," said Ælric, and handed a respectable sheaf of paper to him. Denethor received it, flipping through the pages and skimming the rows of graceful script, absorbing the main matter in silence. He had been pleased to discover that he had not been saddled with an illiterate for a help. His newest aide, despite his Rohirric ways, could read and write both well and quickly. Such abilities were usually prized less than a prodigious memory among those Rohirrim not of the nobility; and even among the nobility, books were rare in Rohan. "My mother gave me more than her looks, my lord," Ælric had replied when questioned on the matter, which Denethor was inclined to believe, though how much was contained in that 'more', he had yet to discover.
But at the moment, he had more pressing matters than the by now well known source of his aide's penmanship. For the past two months, the news out of the south had been bad: the Rangers in South Ithilien had been losing men, and indeed, sometimes entire patrols—ambushed and overwhelmed, they simply disappeared, and bodies were rarely recovered. The Captain of Ithilien was not known for his love of the careless or lazy, which made it doubtful that the fault lay with him or his training. Yet men continued to disappear. And to replace such men is difficult, Denethor thought, frustrated, as he leafed through the summary Ælric had provided on that topic.
That was not the end of the matter, either. For at the same time that Ithilien was suffering from a steady whittling away at its strength, the Poros garrison, which controlled the Crossings and aided in the patrolling of the regions nigh to the river, seemed curiously unaffected. Indeed, its loss reports were indecently low, if one could speak thus of such matters. Poros having been his first command after the war in Ithilien, Denethor knew very well its business, and he liked not this latest, puzzling pattern of losses north and south of Poros river.
And I like even less the suggestion that Poros garrison may serve to facilitate smuggling once more, he thought, feeling his anger rise as he turned the page. It was a perennial problem in the southern fiefs, where the uneasy détente between Gondor and the more southerly provinces of Harad meant that a lucrative, if carefully regulated, trade had sprung up along the sea routes. Indeed, much of Dol Amroth's contribution to Gondor's exports came from such business, which was very nearly the exclusive domain of the princes of that land. For between the hazards of an inhospitable and largely pathless Harondor, brigands, and wary border patrols, overland trade with Harad was the province of the foolhardy... or the criminal. For there was one advantage to risking a long, dangerous journey through a land largely given over to desperate settlers, thieves, and regular skirmishes between the servants of the two towers: there were no taxes.
Poros, prior to the war, had been a favored smuggler's relay, if only an officer could be found there whose sympathies and service could be bought. Denethor had not been such an officer, although he had not entirely stamped out the business whenever he found it. As a matter of policy, it was better to keep a few contacts with the more successful of the lot and gift the profit either to Gondor's state coffers or else to the military's.
For such men take care to be informed on matters of interest to us, and if nothing else, one may always trust that they, unlike their braided brethren in arms, can be bought, Denethor thought humorlously. And when they cease to serve, then one may guess that something is indeed afoot. Such as seems to be the case at the moment. He had not thought initially that the two disparate reports—the mismatched losses of Poros and Ithilien and the notice from the General Exchequer regarding certain lordlings in the Pelargir area who seemed to have more wealth than could be accounted for by the earnings of their lands—might have aught to do with each other. Not until a common name had turned up between them, if rather indirectly.
But that the quartermaster in Poros was the scion of a father who had done inexplicably well this year, according to anecdote and subsequent observation by eyes trained to notice such discrepancies and report upon them to the Steward—that had struck Denethor as a suspicious coincidence. So he had set Ælric to look into the matter, curious to see what the other would make of the chore. And he had quietly gone about his own investigation in the meantime lest his aide prove unequal to the task.
However, he could find no fault in Ælric's reasoning this morning, and it appeared he had been thorough. And while Denethor read through the final pages, he felt the pressure of the other's eyes as Ælric did his own reading, though there was no text laid before him. After a short while, the heir to the stewardship gave a soft grunt and looked up again, once more meeting his aide's eyes. Ælric made no effort to pretend interest elsewhere, only endured his searching look for a time ere he once again shifted his gaze slightly without ever admitting defeat.
"I see," Denethor said after a moment. "Your conclusion is more or less my own: something breeds in Poros, but what besides smuggling cannot be discerned until one or both of us tours that outpost." A pause, then wryly, despite such a grim conclusion: "I might have spared myself the trouble and left the matter to you." And how shall you respond to that, I wonder, Ælric of Rohan?
"I know too little of Gondor yet to have earned such trust, my lord. When think you that we might obtain permission to make such a tour?" the other asked, pushing past that difficult compliment with singular disinterest.
"True enough that you are unready," Denethor acknowledged, and watched the other's eyes narrow ever so slightly. "Unfortunately, I suspect we shall be forced to leave the matter aside for a time, much though I would prefer to move ahead with an inspection. If Poros does not its duty, then Ithilien shall soon be too weak to stem the tide. Especially given reports that several of the lords of Harad are willing to 'grant' land in Harondor to any who can take and hold it. An old tactic, and one that draws the poor and desperate among their people into the fight against us who bar their way further north as often as not." He tapped another report that lay before him and leaned forward, bracing his hands on the edge of his desk.
"Does not Gondor maintain ties to such people?" Ælric asked. " I have seen a number of writs on the matter of attempting to win their cooperation against their lords and masters."
"We 'have ties' with high lords with whom Dol Amroth and Minas Tirith do business," Denethor corrected wryly. "With such rabble as these, we 'have contacts'; the effort is always uncertain for contacts are tenuous. They may change without warning as the settlers see their advantage now with us, now with their own lords, and more often with the latter. Naturally so, for if their loyalties lie mostly with themselves, 'twas their own lords who 'granted' them leave to try to scratch a living in Harondor, and their lords who promise to aid in their protection from us."
Denethor paused a moment, considering whether to continue in his aide's education, but after a moment's reflection, he shook his head. "Suffice it to say, it is a complicated matter, and one that we shall need to address ere the end of this affair. However, much though I would prefer to move ahead in the matter of Poros and Harad, I believe my lord father has other plans for us. We are to meet with him this morning, and I doubt not that it has somewhat to do with Rohan, since he especially wishes you to be present."
For although Ælric might not be ready to command independently in Gondor, other than the Rohirric ambassador and his staff, there was no other so knowledgeable in matters pertaining to the House of Éorl. Thus had the newest captain of Gondor found his place amongst the Steward's many advisors, surprising many with his eloquence. And his boldness, Denethor thought. Of course he has served as a captain in Rohan, and from what Breald said, he was one of Thengel's champions. More, he was the king's confidant. That will accustom a man to be easy when dealing with those of high rank. And yet...
"This summons does not appear to please you best, if I may say it," Ælric said at length, interrupting his train of thought and his aide's slight smile reminded Denethor that he was staring once more.
"As I said, I would rather concentrate on Poros's activities. If there is something amiss there, as there seems to be, then it is past time I spoke with its commander. And South Ithilien's troubles, whatever they may be, must be addressed sooner, rather than later, for we cannot afford the losses. But Rohan is our best ally, and we must do all in our power to maintain friendly ties, even if efforts on the Mark's behalf delay the resolution of other problems," Denethor replied somewhat sourly.
"Then shall we turn to South Ithilien for a time, since we have exhausted Poros?"
"Nay." Denethor straightened and offered a smile of his own this time. "We shall away to meet with my father, for he commanded us to appear when you arrived." Ælric blinked at that, and Denethor's smile broadened a bit at the other's momentary discomfiture. "So, since you have just arrived, let us not force him to wait upon us, mm?"
In the days when Ecthelion was Lord of Minas Tirith, there were still many who could recall the time when Mordor, though a land of peril with a fell name, still slept. For it had been late in Turgon's reign that the Shadow of the East had returned, declaring itself in its pride and taking shape once more. Indeed, it was not yet fifteen years since the first messengers had arrived: terrified steaders of Ithilien, bearing with them naught but the clothes on their back, and sometimes not even that.
To Pelargir they had fled, or found passage over the river, and thence to Minas Tirith, where they had spilled the tale that had made them Mordor's first and most unwilling heralds: Orcs and Easterlings of unknown origins stormed through the land. All had come boiling out of Durthang, which nestled at the edge of the Black Land, and they had turned south to bypass Cair Andros. There had been no warning, for the enemy had been too swift and fierce, and the border patrol had been swept away, as grain scattered in the wind. The attack had ravished Ithilien's remaining northern population, yet for all its wantonness, a number of traumatized survivors had been allowed to flee west with the message ringing in their ears:
Sauron, Lord of the Earth, has returned to Mordor. Bow to him, or fall to him!
With the passing days, as more and more refugees had fled south, whence the news had passed to Poros, or trickled across the Anduin to the White Tower, it had been learned that Sauron had taken shape again: not as mortal being, but as the Eye of Wrath before whom all must in time be revealed. Such was the horror of that gaze as it focused upon Ithilien, and the intensity of the attacks that few could endure the dread, and all but a pitiful handful of steaders had fled west, seeking safety in Lebennin, in Morthond Vale, in Belfalas, or in Minas Tirith itself.
From that day forward and for three bloody years, it had been a running battle: the Red Years of Gondor. The forests of Ithilien had become one vast graveyard, from one end to the other, and Gondor's forces, if not precisely in disarray, had certainly been strained as Ecthelion, not yet Steward, had scrambled to find the men to meet this and other threats. When, three years after Sauron's proclamation, Mount Doom had erupted, raining ash as far as Halifirien, the Citadel had been blackened with the soot, as if mourning the desolation of the people of Gondor. For the last of the Ithilien steaders had been forced from their homes—sometimes at the hands of Gondor's own men, who had been charged to evacuate them at sword-point if necessary—and the Land of Moonlight had lain in thralldom to Mordor's malice.
That had been a blow to his pride and also to his heart, but Ecthelion of Gondor liked to think that he had learned something from those chaotic years. Not least of which is humility... I hope! In the Steward's Dayroom that served as his office, he stood by the window and gazed out at the bright new day—at Ithilien and the confines of Mordor. As it whistled past the tower, a northern breeze pulled and teased at his hair—dark locks streaked with grey throughout, and when he frowned, his brow furrowed and the lines that had cut deeply into his face creased. He had aged since those days; even before his father's death, the suddenness of the attack and the desperate conditions had marked him. For he had seen the dead towns, had helped to evacuate the last steaders east of Anduin, and had watched Orcs and Easterlings and Haradrim come screaming from beneath the trees to fling themselves into the defenders' faces.
For two long years, he had fought in Ithilien, and in the midst of a military crisis, his father had died, leaving him quite suddenly Steward of Gondor. But he could not simply have left to return home, and so he had remained in the field, delaying the formal rites, and instead had watched the Enemy whittle away at every regiment he threw against Mordor until Gondor was gasping. Fortunately, it seemed that even as the Dark Lord had grievously reduced their ranks, Gondor's soldiers had bled their enemies white as well. A year after Turgon's death, a weary and much changed Ecthelion had returned to Minas Tirith to take up the rod and rule of the land.
And now here I stand and watch from afar as the Enemy moves all about us, and try to prevent another bloodbath that would prostrate us, he thought, broodingly. Fourteen years ago, we were surprised, but today we see too clearly what lies before us. I know our strength is not what it once was, though at least our ranks are not nearly as depleted as when I became Steward. But Gondor was still in a precarious position, and it would be so for as long as it remained alone in this fight. And that was why Ecthelion had gone elsewhere for men and advisors, seeking allies and commerce to the north with the Bardings, or to the west among the Rohirrim. Even south, in the northernmost reaches of Harad and in sophisticated Umbar, he sought secretly information and dealt in secret with those who would speak of Mordor's movements or of the Haradric Council of Eight.
Had he stopped there, his own council might not still howl with dismay, but Ecthelion had gone further than any before him save Cirion—rather than simply affirming treaties, he had, over the protests of many, opened Gondor's ranks to outsiders five years ago.
Because there is no other way, he thought. Gondor is too isolated, and we can no longer command loyalty south of Poros, in the disputed regions. We have even grown away from the Rohirrim, and have had too little contact with them, though we shall need their strength when the pinch comes. True, the foreigners among them were few still, but their numbers increased yearly. It helped that Thengel was king of the Rohirrim, and advocated service in Gondor as a way of seasoning younger warriors. But it was not enough...
Just then, a knock on his door sounded, and his esquire scurried quickly to answer. "Father," his son's voice came ere the lad could announce him properly. Ecthelion turned from the view to see Denethor enter, followed by Ælric at a discreet distance.
"My son. Ælric." The Steward greeted them with a nod and a smile, indicating that they should seat themselves on the chairs drawn up for that purpose. When they had done so, he stood gazing down at them for a moment, struck all over again by their uncanny similarity. Denethor was his only child, for Nirthel, his wife, had proved unable to bear any more after that difficult birth. Yet did I not know better, I would say that indeed he has a brother, so alike are these two! Both were of an age, and lean men for their height; both had the purely grey eyes and finely shaped, almost severe, features that were hallmarks of Dúnadan blood. Both had coal-dark hair, though Denethor's was cut much shorter than Ælric's, who had let his grow according to Rohirric custom. But as the latter had it pulled back much of the time, the difference was hardly noticeable face to face. Even beyond simple appearances, their mannerisms bore a certain resemblance: there was a precision to their movements that favored economy, and both could radiate intensity when working on some problem.
But Denethor's posture and movements were subtly different from Ælric's, being more tense, sharper, less easy—in other words, it took one of great fortitude to approach him, and Ecthelion sighed inwardly once more. Well, there is naught I can do about that at the moment, and that is not why I called them here in any case. Clearing his throat, he turned to the business at hand. "Ere I begin, I would know your opinions of Poros. What are your conclusions?"
"For a garrison stretched so thin according to its duties, it has remarkably low losses compared to South Ithilien, which shares in the task of guarding our southern borders. More, its quartermaster, Ingar, is very likely involved in smuggling," Denethor replied.
"Or else worse," Ælric added, and Denethor nodded sharply ere he continued.
"Or else worse. I had wondered about South Ithilien's complaints when there were so few from Poros, and if Ingar does abuse his position for his family's benefit, then I like not that Ithrin, who is captain in Poros, has done nothing. I know him well and so I know he is not so blind as that. I recommend we make an unannounced inspection, therefore, to determine what precisely passes in Poros that it has such good fortune, when across the river men die in Ithilien."
"I see," Ecthelion replied, and rather wished that he did not, for he was loath to believe that some of his own men might be responsible for Ithilien's new vulnerability. But the matter had gone on long enough, clearly. And for an inquiry of this magnitude, I must send one vested with all the authority of the Steward, and my son is well-suited to bear that responsibility, just as Ælric is well-suited to the other matter. "Consider your recommendation an order, then.
"But there is an additional difficulty that needs careful handling, and it must be settled quickly, ere you attend to Poros even," he cautioned, seeing the eager light that lit two pairs of eyes at his words. "Cair Andros has one of the largest contingents of Rohirrim cavalry in Gondor, as I believe you are both aware." Nods from the two younger men affirmed that knowledge, and the Steward continued briskly, with a slight edge to his voice, "According to the garrison commander, Falthir, the Rohirrim are a disruptive influence among the men, and he has resorted to splitting their company in an effort to lessen the potential for trouble. At the same time, the Rohirric liaison complains of unfair treatment. Anórien is a common border, and news goes back and forth between Rohan and Gondor quite often along the Beacon Hills Route. You may imagine what news has trickled back to Edoras, and from Edoras to me."
Ecthelion paused, and Denethor and Ælric cast a quick glance at each other, as if in grim anticipation of the next words. "I do not wish to risk Thengel's cooperation in our defenses, but nor do I wish to make of this more than needs be made of it. Therefore I want this ended—quickly and decisively. Since you must go to Poros in any case, your orders are to go north to Cair Andros and then pass south through Ithilien. Thus you will be able to speak with Erethrin ere you continue on to Poros."
"Should not Poros be seen to more swiftly than that, Father?" Denethor asked. "I realize that Cair Andros may breed a diplomatic incident, but if, as we suspect, Poros is now actively involved in the black market and may be responsible at least in part for the losses in Ithilien, then surely that must be our first priority."
"You need not remain together, the two of you. Ælric, I would prefer that you spend more time in Cair Andros, for you know the Rohirrim best of all of us. Denethor, you need not remain long, only long enough to impress upon Falthir my desire that all be resolved as speedily as possible. Assuming that fortune favors you, Ælric, you may take ship from Cair Andros to Harlond and thence to Pelargir. From there, it is not so long a journey to Poros, and you may pass word of affairs in Cair Andros to me as you make your passage south."
"As you wish, my lord," Ælric replied, and then arched a dark brow at him. "I assume we are to leave later this afternoon?"
"Indeed, yes. I have, in fact, ordered men to prepare for departure already," Ecthelion said,
"Then with your leave, Father...?" Denethor replied, as first he and then his aide rose.
"Go, Denethor! But Ælric, I would have a word with you." The Steward watched as Denethor shot the other a quick look. But then his son nodded, as if granting his shadow permission, bowed to his lord and father, and then silently departed. Ælric, meanwhile, remained, hands clasped behind his back as he awaited enlightenment. "Thank you for waiting."
"You have only to ask, my lord," Ælric replied. "How may I serve?"
"'Tis not a matter of service but of understanding," Ecthelion explained, his gaze resting upon the other's face, his tone of voice serious. "Know that I do not lack confidence in you, but you are quite new to the ranks, and Falthir does not know you. That is why I do not send Denethor directly south, and why I would have you give him this." Ecthelion found a pen and a paper on the low table between the chairs and quickly wrote out a few lines. Folding it, he handed it to Ælric, who accepted it and tucked it into his belt pouch. "Have you any questions?" In response to his concerned look, he received but a slight smile and a shake of the head in return.
"I understand, my lord, and I have no complaints, for 'tis true enough that I am unknown outside of the city, and shall remain so until I have opportunity to prove myself. If you judge it best that Lord Denethor oversee me in this, then I shall be well content to be seen as his deputy."
"Good. I am glad of that, for," Ecthelion replied, eyeing Ælric shrewdly now, "I know well that my son is not easy company to keep." And when the other made no answer, save to raise his brows at that, the Steward chuckled wryly. "They say that a man is wise who knows his son, Ælric. I make no claim to wisdom, for in truth, I know him not as well as I ought, being his father. Yet I know enough to realize that he is a difficult man with whom to work."
"I have no particular quarrel with him, sir."
"Few go so far as to invite one. But believe me when I say you need not fear retribution if you say that you are uncomfortable with him. I have watched the two of you, and you in particular, the better to learn your strengths. I will say, Ælric," Ecthelion admitted, "you are one of few willing to argue with him at length. And given your foreign origins, I am surprised that he likes you so well."
"Likes me?" The other sounded rather bemused, and just a bit surprised by the choice of words.
"Aye, he does. Or so I would read it. You intrigue him, at least, and that is rare. He does not read you easily. No one does," the Steward added pointedly, but Ælric merely smiled slightly.
"I am a private person, my lord steward, even as the lord Denethor is. It is likely because of that that he can endure me, foreigner that I am. I do not flaunt my strangeness," he responded, deftly turning that phrase about to suit him.
"Yes, well, that may be so. For myself, I trust Thengel, who trusts you, and my own observations do nothing to dissuade me in my faith in the King of Rohan. We served together, we two, in Turgon's day, and it is largely thanks to him that we have as many Rohirric volunteers as we do in our ranks. I should hate to jeopardize that with an ugly incident in Anórien!"
"What precisely is the complaint against the Riders, my lord?"
"That they offend men with their brashness, thereby causing fights in the ranks; that they disturb the others and argue overmuch. I suspect that Denethor may have some sympathy for such complaints, especially the latter ones," Ecthelion said with a humorless smile. "The Rohirrim, for their part, complain that they are subject to ridiculous restrictions and are treated as... how was it phrased? 'Stable hands not fit to roll a farmer's hound,' I believe." Ælric winced at that, shaking his head, but the corners of his mouth curved suspiciously into something like a smile over the colorful language. "You are familiar with such complaints, I take it?"
"That is... one of the more serious comments one might make to one's lord. It may take some time to placate the Riders if that is the level of their grievance, my lord."
"Nevertheless, I doubt not that you shall have a better chance of resolving this than my son. I fear that Denethor is an impeccable analyst, but others do not lead with logic, nor follow one who does, necessarily. And it is important to me that we avoid alienating Rohan," he ended in almost a growl as he turned and stalked to a shelf set into the wall behind his desk, at chest height to a man. Upon it, there sat a long, narrow box, black and unadorned, save for the pure white of the steward's crest. Opening it, he ran his fingers down the matte black steel shaft and over the scarlet head of the arrow within.
Taking it carefully in his hands, he turned back to Ælric and indicated with a jerk of his head that the other should approach. When the captain stood once more before him, gazing down at the dart, Ecthelion said, "The Red Arrow: symbol of the ties that bind Rohan and Gondor together. Ironic, and yet quite appropriate, for even as this arrow obliges Rohan to aid the Men of Minas Tirith, it is a weapon of war, and hence also a symbol of division. You who have been in Rohan and have served now both Edoras and Minas Tirith should know this well from experience. We are divided—the Rohirrim who come here find it difficult to remain for more than a few years, for their ways are not ours, and many are the commanders who misunderstand them and make no effort to accommodate them. That is why your oath, in contrast to Denethor's, for example, must be renewed every three years. Thus can men fulfill the requirements of honor, without being compelled to remain in a poor situation."
Gently, Ecthelion replaced the arrow and closed the lid once more. His hands resting flat atop the shallow coffer, he cast a shrewd look over his shoulder at the other. "Thengel spoke highly of you as a personal friend, so I think I do neither of you injustice if I tell you that Thengel himself, in his private letters to me, has attested to the fact of our prejudice. And he suffered from it despite his years of acculturation. Nothing so deliberate or blatantly ugly as what passes at Cair Andros, but nevertheless, he was not unaware that others looked askance at him."
"Thengel King said more than once to me that he felt some of the... 'doubt'... that men felt about him here stemmed more from the impression that he had abandoned the Mark than that he was a foreigner. He much admires Gondor and its customs, to the dismay of his court in some instances! Think not, my lord, that Gondor alone has a narrow view," Ælric replied. "Were the Men of Gondor in large numbers to seek service in the Mark, the complaints might flow the other way."
"Denethor tells me your mother was not Rohirric," Ecthelion said, turning fully towards Ælric. He did not make a practice of prying into his officers' private affairs, but this was too much of an opportunity to bypass, and so he took advantage of the moment to indulge his own curiosity. "I imagine your looks might have made you... quite distinct."
At which Ælric snorted in fine contempt. "Quite! But I can speak no ill of the Éorlingas, for they mean well. If I may serve the interests of both my lands, then it is my honor to do so."
"Well spoken. Then I shall leave you to ready yourself. Here." Ecthelion turned to his desk and quickly picked out the set of papers he desired. These he proferred Ælric, who accepted them, glancing over the first page. "The pertinent correspondence between Cair Andros and Minas Tirith, and again between myself and Thengel regarding the difficulties of the Rohirrim," he explained, and the other nodded. "I shall leave you to read it in the time remaining. It is not extensive, though it details a far longer history than I could wish, and one I wish I had known earlier. One thing, though, ere you leave," the Steward held up a hand when Ælric bowed and would have excused himself.
"For all your glib tongue, I think it clear enough that although you will do your duty, you are not at ease with Denethor. Should that tension grow to the point that it impairs your ability to carry out your obligations, I will place you elsewhere under another, assuming that you are not by then ready for your own company. But should that come to pass, I expect you to tell me of it, Ælric!"
"As you wish, my lord, but I repeat: I am well able to handle myself, and your son and I have no grievance with each other. Good day, sir."
"Good day. Fair journey!"
"Thank you, my lord." And with that, Ælric bowed once more and quietly slipped out of the room. Ecthelion stared after him for a long while, musing over their conversation. At length, he gave a soft snort and shook his head in wry amusement, with just that edge of sharp bafflement.
"A private person indeed! Say rather an irresistible puzzle. And my single-minded son, despite what passes in Poros, will nevertheless find time to hound after your past." But that was not his concern at the moment, and he sighed as he went to his desk, picked up a number of military dispatches that had arrived recently, and began to read. So long as it seemed Denethor and Ælric had an understanding, and could manage themselves, he had no cause to interfere. Denethor may have met his match at last, he thought,for I think me the newest captain of Gondor is not one to be driven, whether by fear or another's questions. And for that, I am grateful!
After he left the Steward, Aragorn went quickly through the halls until he reached Denethor's quarters. There he paused at the door to tuck the papers Ecthelion had given him into his purse ere he knocked. Then he waited some little while until the gangly lad who served as esquire peered out. "Haldor," he greeted him quickly, getting a nod in return. "I have a message for the lord Denethor from his father. Shall I leave it with you?"
"Oh no, sir. My lord said that you might come, and that if you should, then you were to go back and speak with him briefly," Haldor replied.
"Thank you, lad," Aragorn responded, suppressing a sigh. What he wanted, given that he had been granted an unexpected few hours' grace to do as he pleased between packing and departure, was to read the letters, then take a walk and ponder Ecthelion's words on the topic of his son. But it seemed that rather than think about Denethor—Or Poros, or Cair Andros and the Riders, or other matters that deserve attention—he would be required to deal with the Steward's Heir directly. Ah well, we had meant to discuss just such issues. And in matters of character, I have always been one to trust my own eyes; Denethor is not a man to be understood easily at a distance.
So he thought and followed Haldor back through the sitting room to (he was surprised to note) Denethor's inner chambers, where he had as yet had neither invitation nor cause to go. When he reached the door to Denethor's bedroom, he paused and glanced at Haldor, who simply gestured to the door, then bowed and went to resume his post. Feeling somewhat out of place, but seeing no alternative, he knocked firmly, and received a muffled "Come!" as answer. Leaning into the heavy door, he pushed it open, and then paused on the threshold.
What did I expect, after all? he wondered to himself as he gazed about. After a month, he knew well that Denethor, despite a rigid adherence to even the most elaborate ceremonies prescribed by custom, was not particularly ostentatious in his personal tastes. Not that his tastes were simple or beneath his rank, but he was hardly one to surround himself with things. That was the first thing that struck Aragorn, after the overwhelming air of... enclosure. Dark blue predominated, drowning out the touches of red or green, and in places it faded into black, reminding the Ranger of shades of nightfall. Shelving on each of the four walls accommodated a considerable collection of books and the occasional decorative stone figurine. Carved book ends, mute and heavy with the weight of the knowledge of centuries at their backs, seemed to glare down from all angles. A few chairs, a small table with a chess game on it, and a large trunk at the foot of the bed ordered the space by quadrants, and on one wall, above a low book case, hung knotted creations.
"In Gondor, 'tis not considered good luck to stand in doorways overlong, Ælric," Denethor's voice caught his attention, and the Steward's son raised a severe brow at him, a hint of a smile on his face. Closing a book with an audible clap, he set it precisely in the center of the bed and glided towards him a few steps. "Come in if you will, otherwise, let us repair to the other room."
Aragorn merely gave a soft grunt and entered, reaching into his purse after the paper. "My apologies, I would not blacken your doorstep with ill fortune, my lord," he replied by way of recovering himself. "Your father bid me give you this."
"Thank you," Denethor took the message, opened it and read quickly. And was it merely a trick of the light that made it seem that those grey eyes grew darker as they perused the contents? "Yes, thank you." Ecthelion's son went to one corner, where a set of saddle bags lay and he tucked the note into an outer pocket. In the mean time, Aragorn had drifted closer to the wall on which hung the braided knots, eyes following the intricate patterns of loops and crossings. After a time, he sensed Denethor come to stand just behind him, and he glanced over his shoulder, folding his arms across his chest.
"What are they?" he finally asked.
"An ancient tradition. Reputedly, Elendil sponsored this particular art ere ever he left Númenor, and it has flourished ever since in Gondor. If you go along Mariner's Row in the first circle, or even out to the docks of the Harlond, you will find many who trade in them."
"And do you know how to make them, my lord?" Aragorn asked, curious.
"Nothing so elaborate as that. Seaman's knots, and a few others of greater complexity, but there is often no time for such idle pursuits, for it takes many years to master the art," Denethor replied casually. Nevertheless, Aragorn heard the slight hardening of his tone, and thought that the other regretted that lack of time. Even as he sought some response, Denethor moved forward to stand beside him, and he watched as Ecthelion's son traced the intricate loops and coils through their maze-like, wending ways. An 'idle' pursuit, is it? he thought, but did not smile. After a moment, though, Denethor tore his eyes away, turning a sharp glance on Aragorn, and Aragorn had the impression that the other resented him for having observed that brief moment of distraction. "Haldor tells me that preparations are well underway for we who take the overland route, and for you as well. Father must have anticipated what answer we would give with regard to the matter of Poros. In any event, the sooner it is settled, the better. How swiftly can you pack?"
"I need not long. Half an hour, perhaps," Aragorn replied, accepting the quick shift in their conversation.
"Good. We should be able to set out an hour past noon, then," Denethor replied, turning away from the wall to go and stand before the window that looked east over the battlements. A pause, and then, "Is that all, then?"
"Aye, my lord," Aragorn said, and blinked, surprised. He asked me in, and as he never does aught without purpose, I thought he would wish to discuss something more... substantial.
"Very well. One hour after noon, meet me at the stables in the second circle. Good morning." And so saying, the lord steward's son simply turned his back on him, dismissing him with a gesture.
"Good morning, my lord," the Ranger replied, retreating. And as he passed through the outer chambers and thence to the hall without, he frowned, thinking through that encounter. What was that about? He had the oddest feeling that it had had nothing at all to do with business, and everything to do with privacy, and yet that seemed to clarify nothing. All that he could think was that his observation of Denethor when the other's attention was distracted made of him an unwitting sort of trespasser. It seemed so little a thing, though, and although Denethor had an eye for detail, Aragorn had never gotten the impression that he was that petty a man.
Or perhaps I disturbed something deeper than I realized? I know not! As he went swiftly to his room to see to his own saddlebags, he shook his head and sighed as he set that memory aside in the mental coffer labeled "Denethor" and closed the lid. It was but another encounter to weave into the tortuous pattern that was the steward's son, and he would spend far too many hours on it later. For the moment, though, he had other tasks to see to. I thought to leave Thengel's service, but it seems I cannot. Ah well. Let us go and see what the Riders of the Mark have to say of Gondor.
Denethor, staring out at the Ephel Dúath, heard the door close after Ælric, and though he did not permit himself to relax, nevertheless, he felt the coil of tension in him unwind a bit. In truth, he knew not why he had so quickly ended the interview, for he had thought to probe the other's vague past again, and to discuss Poros and perhaps to continue his aide' s instruction regarding Harondar.
Yet feeling Ælric's eyes on him in that unguarded moment, he had suddenly changed his mind. Irritation, and just an edge of uneasiness had welled up lightning quick, and he had simply dismissed him. Denethor snorted. What is the matter with me, that I let him provoke such reactions in me? 'Tis hardly reasonable! Nevertheless, he had acted instantly upon that feeling, and he wondered at himself. A good commander listened to his instincts, and it was as if instinct had demanded he be rid of the other. We are not at war, he reminded himself, and felt a rueful smile spread over his face. At odds, yes, and he dances quite well, but this is not a war, he thought, turning away from the mountains to stare down at the chess game.
The table itself was the playing field, its surface inlaid with marble and obsidian square, and the pieces sat as he had left them last. Black's move. Denethor frowned a moment, then chose the queen's knight and advanced it past a set of pawns. Then he paused and considered the white pieces, ere he reached out and moved the king's captain* to cover a gap in the defense.
Check mate in six, unless white can claim that rook.
The sun's rays lanced through the window, gleaming brightly upon the board, and Denethor retreated before the glare. Later would be soon enough to finish that match. For the moment, he had spare time (a rare luxury!) and so he retrieved his book, settled himself in the middle of the bed, and quickly lost himself and all thought of Poros and of the troubling and troublesome Ælric in the long march of words.
*King's captain: Since bishops don't exist in Middle-earth, I figured it'd be reasonable to make them into captains for those knights.
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