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Unto the ending of the world: 22. Report
May 13, 3019
Every morning, Denethor walked to the river, and told himself he did so not to watch for the return of his son's patrol as the people of Pelargir thought; the walk merely helped to settle his mind before the day's work. In truth, the strain of waiting for the Enemy's next move was starting to tell on him, and this day too would be busy - not that they could do more than talk and plan and wait.
Denethor remained standing on the quay for a while to watch the sun rise. It would be another warm day for the time of year, but at this time of morning it was still pleasantly cool. He missed the cooler clime of Minas Tirith, and he missed watching the first light of the day touch Mindolluin's white flank. Sunrise over Anduin, no matter how fair, was only a poor second to that. How long had it been since he had spent this much time in Pelargir? He frowned; it must have been the year of Thorongil's attack on Umbar.
Umbar... Denethor's frown deepened as he looked at the captured Corsair ships moored nearby. Pelargir was too vulnerable. Why did the Enemy not attempt to push them back further? Even if Umbar was out of the reckoning at the moment, an attack across the river with small boats would be hard to stop.
It still puzzled him that they had not been pursued as they fled Minas Tirith. He could not believe that their escape had gone unnoticed, but there had not been as much as a token attempt at pursuit, and so far the Enemy's troops had not stirred beyond the Pelennor. Did Sauron think the defenders of Minas Tirith beneath his notice now the City itself was his? Though the Steward's pride bristled at that thought, he was at the same time glad of the reprieve. Had the Enemy pushed on immediately, Lossarnach would have been lost for certain, and much of Lebennin as well. Now, with one of Angbor of Lamedon's companies stationed at the Erui, they would at least have warning once Sauron advanced again.
It might well be that the Mouth of Sauron had needed time to establish himself in Minas Tirith and could not spare the troops to come after them. Denethor doubted that the Nazgûl's underlings had meekly accepted another master placed over them, and he regretted that he was in no position to profit from any infighting. Sauron's losses before the City had been severe, even in victory, and Denethor was grimly proud of the accounting Minas Tirith had given of herself. Still, Sauron had time enough, and with his Ring back in his grasp, it mattered little whether he made his next move now or in five years' time. Or fifty, Denethor added darkly. Their enemy could afford to bide his time. Even so, Gondor had the strength to stand in resistance for some time yet.
Scowling, Denethor turned away from the river to return to the castle. Despite the hour, the city was already bustling; to the casual eye, there was little out of the ordinary to be seen, but he knew Pelargir well enough to note the tense, fearful atmosphere underneath the appearance of normality. He was far from the only one who wondered when the Enemy would continue his attack on Gondor.
Walking along the narrow streets of the city, Denethor also noticed the sidelong looks he was given by some. He did not have to guess what those were about; he had caught enough of the rumours and whispers that were circulating among the Minas Tirith courtiers and minor lords.
Even if it sorely tested his patience, the Steward would not complain that the Enemy held back, but it did leave the displaced nobles of the City cooped up together at Pelargir with too much time on their hands, time most seemed set on spending in intrigue and speculation. At least for now, he might as well leave them to their pastime. As long as they merely talked, it kept them occupied, and served to reveal to him hidden tensions and dissatisfactions among the lords of the land.
He should still not let the talk go too far, not after it had been suggested that his judgement was no longer to be trusted, that he had lost his mind in his grief over the fall of Minas Tirith. Others, more ominously, argued he must have been slipping much longer. After all, had he not been too late in preparing for attack from the East? Should he not have anticipated last summer's attack on Osgiliath? Had he not sacrificed his eldest son in some unexplained mission to the wild north when Boromir had been sorely needed in Gondor? One thing almost all seemed to agree on, Denethor thought as he entered the castle gate, was that he had either been taken by some madness or had finally entered his dotage when he placed the crown of Gondor on the pyre with the mysterious Northerner who claimed descent from Elendil.
A few of the lords might even wish for open rebellion, but with both Angbor and Imrahil keeping their distance from the dissatisfied nobles, they remained without leader or purpose. Still, even if Angbor - the only one of the southern lords to do so - had marched to aid Minas Tirith as soon as the threat to the southern provinces had been removed, he had done so at the behest of Isildur's Heir; he had also been more than willing to help the Northerners after the fall of the City. Denethor suddenly wondered how much Angbor knew. He doubted the Lord of Lamedon knew of the Ring, but why was he so eager to strengthen his ties to the North? And then there was Imrahil. He, too, had been quick to befriend the Northerners, and he did know their situation in full.
The Steward could only look at the squabbling and plotting lords with contempt. Did they not see, even if they did not know about the Ring, that the only one to profit if he let them tear apart Gondor would be Sauron? Still, Denethor also knew that he himself had at least partly caused their lack of trust, and he still did not fully understand his own motivation in acknowledging the validity of Aragorn's claim to the Kingship in Gondor in as admittedly dramatic a manner as he had when he placed the crown on the pyre with him. It had not been just expediency; if his sole reason had been self-interest, there would have been no need to go beyond recognising that the other was Isildur's Heir. That would have been enough to give validity to the scroll in which Aragorn ceded Arvedui's claim on Gondor.
In fact, despite his words at the last Council in Minas Tirith, it had been a long time since Denethor had doubted Thorongil's identity, not after the day he caught a glimpse of what could only have been the Ring of Barahir on a chain around his neck. He had suspected - nay, known - for over forty years who Thorongil was, or at least what he was, for his real name had always remained hidden. Not that Denethor had not tried to find out; he had traced him as far as the village of Bree on the old North Road, though he was certain that was not where Thorongil came from. Unfortunately, the few Northerners with any Dúnedain blood his men had been able to find were too wary of outsiders to speak to them of one of their own. He only stopped his investigations when he discovered that his own continued interest in Thorongil was leading the Enemy's agents in the North to also look for him.
There was yet one question he had never come close to answering. Why? Why had Isildur's Heir come to Minas Tirith in the guise of Thorongil and then not gone through with claiming the throne? Had he returned from Umbar to do so, it would have been his. Ecthelion would not have refused him at that time, whether he believed the claim or not. Yet Thorongil had done as he had, choosing to abandon Gondor, to disappear, in his moment of triumph, rather than press his advantage. Why had he abandoned those who would have welcomed him? Also, Denethor mistrusted Mithrandir's hand that had been so visible in it all. Even if Gondor had accepted a King of Isildur's line, what good was the return of the King if that King was himself ruled by the wizard standing behind his throne?
The final confirmation, even if he had not really needed it, had been that he was certain that the son of Elrond spoke the truth at the Council in Minas Tirith. That much he knew, even if both brothers had been otherwise unreadable to him. No, Aragorn might well have been Mithrandir's pawn, but he also was Isildur's - and Elendil's - Heir.
Resolutely, the Steward set aside his musings before they soured his mood even more than they already had. There was no point in any of this; Aragorn had been the last Heir, and there was no use in further speculating about what might have been. It was over and done with.
Entering the corridor that led to his rooms, Denethor nodded a greeting at the Halfling standing outside his door, adding, "You can have my meal sent in now." Despite his mood, he smiled as the Halfling hurried off; though his esquire performed all his duties well, anything involving food, even if not for himself, always made him put in an extra effort.
There was still some time before the first meeting of the day, and he could eat while reading any messages that might have come in. Before he could sit down, though, there was a knock on the door, and another Guard of the Citadel came in.
"My lord, Captain Faramir's patrol has been seen on the other side of the river. They should be here by the afternoon," the guard said.
At last, Denethor thought. "Do you have news yet of what they found?" he asked.
"No my lord, not yet, but they are not rushing, and the Captain is leading them. They are several men short, though."
"Have the Captain report to me as soon as he arrives." Denethor was curious what his son had found. There had been no further news after the message that the Crossings of Poros were held by a Variag garrison and that Faramir would be going north into Ithilien rather than attempting to cross Poros. Once he heard Faramir's report, Denethor could send out messengers to call a council in Pelargir.
As Denethor considered what news there might be from Ithilien, he was interrupted again, now by Peregrin Took.
"Master Indor sends his regrets that he will not be able to meet with you this morning, my lord," the Halfling said, handing him a note.
Denethor unfolded the note and read it. The Harbourmaster had apparently been struck by a fever and requested that their meeting be moved to another day. The Steward quickly penned his agreement, and waiting for the ink to dry, he asked Peregrin to bring him one of the ledgers from the locked chest in the corner of the room. He returned his attention to the other messages on his desk, and started replying to the ones that needed an answer, but he was soon disturbed by a gasp of surprise from his esquire. Annoyed, Denethor looked up.
The Halfling was still half-bent over the chest he had been rummaging in, and was staring in shock at the palantír. "You have one as well?"
As well? the Steward thought as he cursed his lack of care in letting the Halfling open that particular chest. He noticed his esquire avoided looking directly at the Stone and Denethor wondered where Peregrin might have seen a palantír before. Did Mithrandir have one? Which of the Stones would he have been able to get his hands on? One of the Northern ones, most likely. Although as far as he had been able to find out, those had all been lost long ago, and surely, if one had been kept in Rivendell, Aragorn would have had it along with the other surviving heirlooms of Arnor.
He should ask; the Halfling would stay silent rather than lie if he did not want to reveal something, and Denethor had found those silences easily interpretable the few times they had occurred. "You have seen one before?"
Peregrin looked down with a half ashamed, half fearful expression on his face. "Even looked in it, though I should not have."
"How did that happen? Surely you did not look by accident?" Denethor asked sternly. He already knew the Halfling had an insatiable curiosity about everything he encountered, but he needed to know this tale in full.
Peregrin shook his head, still looking down, and softly said, "No." Denethor was about to prompt him to continue, but then the Halfling looked up to meet his gaze and went on. "It was in Rohan, or rather in Isengard. The wizard..."
"Mithrandir?" Denethor interrupted, then checked himself; he ought to control his impatience and let the Halfling do the telling at his own pace.
"No, the other... umm... Saruman. Someone threw it from his tower trying to kill Gandalf. I picked up, but Gandalf took it. Later, I... sort of borrowed it from Gandalf and looked in it. Sauron..." He fell silent, and Denethor saw that he had gone pale, but then he swallowed a few times, and went on once more. "He saw me, and he sent a Ringwraith to come get me, because he thought I had the... the Ring." The Halfling was shivering now, and Denethor waited until he calmed down again.
"What happened then?"
"Gandalf took the Stone away from me, and he gave it to Strider, the Lord Aragorn I mean, to keep it safe, and because it was really his anyway, and not Saruman's. Then Gandalf took me to your city."
Denethor said nothing for some time, considering what he had just learned. So Aragorn had indeed had a palantír, even if not for long. Had he used it? He had certainly possessed both the strength and the right. Was that how he had known of the Enemy retaking the One Ring? What else had he seen? Had he been able to break the Stone from its attunement to the Ithil-stone? Denethor had not used the Anor-stone since before the siege of Minas Tirith. There had been no need; their situation could be seen plainly enough by looking from the walls of the City. And now, he would not chance it, not when he risked an encounter with Sauron; especially not now that the Enemy might have his hands on the Orthanc-stone as well. Or had Mithrandir taken it with him when he left Minas Tirith? Or ...
"My lord?" Peregrin's anxious voice interrupted his thoughts. "I would not ever again want to look in those Stones now. I know they are too dangerous."
While the Steward did not doubt the Halfling's sincerity, he still gave him a long sharp look, wanting to make sure that any lingering curiosity was quelled. He was about to dismiss his esquire, but realised he might know what had happened to the palantír. "Do you know what happened to your friend's Seeing Stone?"
"I think his cousin has it, because he is now the Chieftain."
Denethor repressed his frustration at not knowing the details in the scroll Aragorn had made for the North. Not that he expected the palantíri to become of great significance, since even if they attempted using them only for communication between the two realms, their purpose of old, the danger of confronting Sauron would still be too great. "Are you certain of that? Mithrandir does not have it?"
Peregrin resolutely shook his head in denial, though he did not elaborate upon his gesture.
"Enough about the palantír, Master Peregrin. Now bring me those accounts," Denethor reminded the Halfling in a milder tone of voice. Even if he would not speak with the newly appointed Harbourmaster this morning on how Master Indor thought to deal with settling the last of the refugees from further north and repairing the remaining damage from the Corsairs' attack, he still needed to know how Pelargir was coping with handling so many extra people.
"Of course, my lord," his esquire responded after a brief pause. He quickly brought over the ledger, then at a gesture from Denethor stood aside waiting. The Steward first finished the messages he had been working on earlier, and handed his replies to the Halfling to deliver before he turned to the ledger.
Denethor soon found the numbers on the pages in front of him were not enough to keep him occupied. It would be some time yet before Faramir crossed the river, and he would not stoop to pacing to ease his impatience, so after walking over to the window to check the weather, he returned to his desk and with a sigh reapplied himself to his task.
At least most refugees had by now found a place either near Pelargir or elsewhere in the south. Still, too many of the women would not be rejoined by their menfolk, and it remained to be seen how many widows and orphans would require aid to make a living, provided the Enemy gave them enough time for such things to become urgent.
Messengers from Rohan had already confirmed that the inhabitants of Anórien who had fled into Rohan rather than going south, preferred to stay there. Anórien itself... it puzzled the Steward that it had not yet been taken by the Enemy, and he would have to hope that Rohan could defend it for some time. Letting the Rohirrim salvage what they could of the Anórien grain harvest would not cost him, and served to express Gondor's gratitude for Rohan's attempt to succour them. Regrettably, unless this year's harvest elsewhere in Gondor was extremely good, which was unlikely given the reports of damage to fields and farms in the southern fiefs, they would need at least some grain from the North; but Denethor had already resigned himself to that.
At last, there was a knock on the door and the guard on duty came in to announce Faramir. As he doubted his son had taken the time to refresh himself before coming to the castle, Denethor asked the guardsman to have some food and wine brought. It was not long until a servant arrived with a tray; Faramir took a goblet of wine, then sat down in the chair Denethor indicated.
"Your report, Captain?" the Steward asked, once Faramir had taken a few sips of the wine.
Faramir quickly related the first part of the patrol up to reaching the Osgiliath Road. As he mentioned seeing the Morgul companies on the march, Denethor looked at him sharply. "Where did they go?" he asked.
"North," Faramir replied. "Beyond that, I do not know. They must have been heading for the Black Gate or even further, into Wilderland."
"Could they have been heading for Rohan?"
"I doubt it; even if the Enemy seeks to attack there from the north, he would go through Anórien also and come at them from two sides."
Denethor agreed; had Rohan been the Enemy's target, he would have heard of an attack by now. Alas that he dare not risk the palantír.
"Was there any sign that the Minas Tirith garrison will be reinforced soon?" the Steward asked.
"Not from what I saw," Faramir replied. "I think it likely that the troops camped in the Morgul Vale were intended for the north also."
Denethor nodded. His spies near Minas Tirith had not reported more troops coming in either. Perhaps... Could he muster enough men to retake Minas Tirith? It was a tempting thought, for he found the loss of his city hard to accept, both strategically and for knowing the heart of Gondor in the Enemy's hands. They might even have surprise working for them, since it was unlikely Sauron expected a counterattack.
Apparently, Faramir's thoughts had been running along similar lines, for his son now said, "My lord, ought we to try to reclaim Minas Tirith? Take the initiative back from the Enemy?"
"Only if we can also take Osgiliath and the crossing of Anduin."
Faramir grimaced as he set down the empty goblet he still held in his hands, and got up to walk across the room to the window. He looked out for some time before he turned around to reply. "Then, no. The Enemy will not easily yield Osgiliath, even if we retake Minas Tirith, and there is little point in trying to hang on to the City if we do not also have control of the river crossing."
Shaking his head in frustration at having to let the Enemy keep the initiative, Denethor indicated that Faramir should continue his report on his patrol. He winced at the destruction of the statue at the Cross-roads; it was only a little thing, but it marked the Enemy's intent to have everything fully within his control.
"How much of Ithilien is still open?" Denethor asked now. "Could you reach Henneth Annûn to harry troops from there?"
"No. The Enemy is tightening his grip near the Cross-roads, and likely in North-Ithilien too," Faramir said. "The southern part is still mostly empty."
"And your losses?" the Steward asked his final question.
"Three. Good men all, who will be sorely missed," Faramir replied sadly. "Now if you will excuse me, my lord, I should go to inform their families of their deaths. Shall I join you again later today? I would know what has been happening here and elsewhere, too."
Denethor gave his agreement, then, despite his earlier resolve not to do so, took to pacing while he considered what he had learned from Faramir's report. If the Enemy was consolidating his position in Ithilien and sending troops north, he was clearly not playing his waiting game everywhere...
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