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Unto the ending of the world: 3. Council
March 15, 3019
Needing a private word with the Steward before the others came in, Gandalf made sure he was early for the council Denethor had called. The wizard had wished to talk to Denethor that morning, but much had intervened. First was his own search for something in the library, then Aragorn's unexpected arrival with the Corsair ships, followed by the sortie to get the Grey Company off the battlefield. He had needed more time to think on everything Aragorn had told him. When he had tried to call on Denethor afterwards, the Steward had not been in his chambers. Now though, it appeared luck was with him, for Denethor was as yet the only one present in the council chamber.
Gandalf shook his head when he realised that he had not even had time to go to the Houses of Healing after guiding the Grey Company to the Sixth Circle. He resolved to go see how Aragorn was immediately after this council's end, as it had been clear that he was gravely wounded.
"Mithrandir," the Steward greeted him, "What wisdom will you share with us this night? I am quite curious."
Gandalf ignored the other's barb, and merely returned his greeting. "Denethor."
"I had a word or two with your Northern Ranger," Denethor said, "An interesting conversation."
Gandalf looked sharply at Denethor, suspecting there was much hidden behind that statement. The wizard found himself twisting Narya round and round on his finger, and stopped as soon as he became aware of doing it. His Ring had been much on his mind lately. Too much so, perhaps.
"Oh?" the wizard inquired, knowing that Denethor would only say what he wished to say and that there was no way around the Steward's games if Gandalf wanted to know before the start of the council what had been discussed between Denethor and Aragorn. He waited for an answer, but Denethor remained silent. Before Gandalf could think of a suitable prompt, Faramir walked in, and the wizard knew his chance had passed. He would have to wait for what Denethor was willing to say later on.
A few minutes later, Imrahil arrived with Halbarad and Elladan in tow. The Prince introduced Halbarad to Denethor as acting Chieftain of the Northern Dúnedain and Captain of the Rangers of the North, and it struck Gandalf that could only mean Aragorn was grievously wounded indeed.
As Denethor and Imrahil immediately engaged Halbarad in conversation, Gandalf took the opportunity to draw Elladan to the side. "Elladan, how badly is Aragorn wounded?" he murmured.
"He is dying," the son of Elrond said softly.
Gandalf briefly closed his eyes, trying not to let the sudden shock of grief overcome him. "Can I still speak to him?" he asked.
Elladan shook his head. "Alas, he is unconscious and will not wake again ere the end, I fear."
They were interrupted by Denethor calling for their attention as he asked Faramir and Imrahil to give their reports on how the battle for Minas Tirith had gone.
At first, Gandalf did not pay attention while Faramir spoke of the arrival of the Rohirrim and their failure to break the siege. Instead, he thought about what losing Isildur's Heir would mean for them in the fight against the Enemy. He pushed his sorrow to the back of his mind; there would be time for that later.
When he started listening to the discussion again, Denethor was asking Faramir how he estimated the Riders' losses.
"At least a quarter," Faramir replied, "But there are around three hundred footmen of ours, who were cut off from the City, with them. Rohan is holding near the Rammas, or at least they were at nightfall."
Imrahil interrupted. "That estimate may be low. From my vantage on the outer wall, I saw their approach. They were in bad disarray as soon as they engaged the Haradrim line."
Faramir nodded to acknowledge his uncle's words, but continued, "Our own troops were at best holding near the Gate for much of the morning, until our opponents were starting to tire. We were pushing them back when the warning went up from the battlements that the Corsairs were coming. The enemy took heart again and now started to push us, at least until your lord's standard was raised." Here he nodded at Halbarad in acknowledgement. "I gave the order to make for the Harlond, and we made some headway at first, until fresh troops, mostly Orcs, came into the field and we had to withdraw towards the Gate once more."
Now Imrahil spoke. "I had the warning sounded as soon as I saw the black-sailed ships, so our troops would not be overwhelmed by the Corsairs. Little did I expect to see Isildur's Heir raise the standard of Elendil."
Denethor interrupted, "Isildur's Heir? That remains unproven. A measure of Númenorean blood and a broken sword reforged do not make a vagabond into a king."
Elladan quickly replied, stopping Halbarad from doing so, "Then what would you accept as proof, lord Steward? Would it perhaps be sufficient that I myself have known each scion of the line of Isildur from Aragorn back to Valandil?"
Denethor snorted in what to Gandalf sounded suspiciously like amusement, and commented, "And were all this much in need of an Elvish minder?"
Imrahil cut in sharply, obviously irritated by the interruption, and, from what Gandalf could see of Elladan and Halbarad's expressions, forestalling more trouble. "If I may finish?" The others sat back in their chairs, Elladan and Halbarad sour, Denethor amused. "First, with the fresh troops, the battle finally started to go our way, at least until more Orcs were brought in by the Enemy and the Nazgûl took to the field. At that point Mithrandir advised me to risk a sortie to support the Southern troops, who were being pushed back towards the Harlond."
Denethor raised a slow eyebrow at Gandalf at the mention that the sortie had been at the wizard's urging, but said nothing. Prince Imrahil continued, "We were in time to stop their van from being overwhelmed by the enemy troops, though by then…" Denethor leant forward, his earlier amusement gone, his lips opening to speak. Gandalf began to interrupt, but the prince was more swift than either, and pointed a finger at the Steward, saying, "Denethor, do not tell me that I should not have ridden out in support. Any man of Gondor would have no other choice than to come to the aid of the standard of Elendil."
"Even though you do know the claim behind that standard to be at best doubtful?" Denethor sharply countered.
"As it is, I still do not know that, and the middle of a battle is not the place to decide such matters."
"Were there any merit in it, the claim would have been pursued before. That he chose not to, even with the support the hero of Umbar would have had, ought to tell you enough."
Gandalf only half-listened as Denethor changed the subject and proceeded to ask a number of questions of both Imrahil and Faramir on the strength of the enemy troops, with the discussion rapidly turning to the future.
"My view is that the best we can do now is to hold the City, and in the longer term maybe push the Enemy back into Ithilien, but even then he will come again next year or the year after," Imrahil said. "With the loss of the Corsairs' fleet, the South should be secure for some time to come, but the danger will be here and in Anórien."
"We do not know how many armies Sauron is still keeping in reserve against us," Faramir added.
"His next attack may not even be against Gondor," Elladan said. "Rohan is vulnerable as well."
"Do you not mean 'once Rohan falls, Eriador lies wide open'?" Denethor commented.
"The Fords of Isen and the Gap of Rohan can be defended for some time," Elladan replied.
"Not while Saruman sits in Orthanc," said Denethor.
"Saruman now commands no armies, except the few Dunlendings who may still be prepared to do his will," Halbarad said. "But perhaps Gandalf can offer us some advice on how to deal with a wizard?"
"He cannot be 'dealt with' while he sits in a position of strength within Orthanc," replied Gandalf. "Even if the Ents have him under close guard, Orthanc is impenetrable." Denethor looked at him in disgust. Gandalf caught his gaze and pointed out, "It was a Steward of Gondor who gave Saruman the keys."
"Be that as it may," Denethor said, "It is obvious that the North needs us more than Gondor needs the North."
Halbarad interrupted, "And yet Gondor will not stand forever. You know what you must do."
"The Isildurion does not rule Gondor, especially not now that he has ceded Arvedui's claim. I am not bound by his decrees."
"Nor by common sense, it would seem," Halbarad retorted.
While Imrahil stepped in to end the verbal skirmish, Gandalf looked pensively at Denethor. So Aragorn had abandoned Arvedui's claim on Gondor? What else had been discussed and what other concessions had Denethor managed to gain? For that matter, what had Aragorn and Halbarad discussed? Gandalf distractedly rubbed at Narya, until, looking away from Denethor, he caught Elladan looking at him oddly, almost with suspicion. He met the peredhel's gaze and the other looked away quickly.
"To get back to more immediate concerns, even if Minas Tirith stands for now, as long as Sauron has the Ring, we could only gain temporary victories," Gandalf observed, "And we do not have the strength in arms for even those."
"At least Gondor will fight to the last. And as for the Ring, whose counsel led to it being returned to Sauron's hand? The Ring should have been hidden, not sent off on this fool's gamble, and you know it, Mithrandir," Denethor said, voice cold, making Gandalf glance away.
"Have we not talked about that enough, Denethor?" the wizard replied wearily, "I have told you before that hiding the Ring would have been only a temporary solution. And what would you have done, had you had the One hidden in the deepest dungeon in Minas Tirith, and the Enemy came to the Gate of the City to collect what was his?"
"That I do not know," Denethor admitted, "But at least we would have stood a better chance than we will when he comes to the Gate wearing It."
Faramir interrupted, first addressing the Steward and then Gandalf. "Even with the Ring safely hidden from his grasp, I doubt we would have found it easy to hold back the Enemy long. Do not forget that when he started this war, he did not yet hold the Ring, yet still felt secure enough to attack. And Mithrandir, I think I understand why the choice was made to try to destroy the Ring, but did you really not plan for the chance that this quest might fail?"
Gandalf said nothing at first. Faramir met his gaze and waited for a reply. It suddenly struck Gandalf how much the young man looked like Denethor at that age. As the silence dragged out, all present were looking at Gandalf. Finally, the wizard sighed and spoke, "Yes, we did consider that possibility, but the necessity of putting an end to Sauron once and for all was seen as such that the risk was worth the taking."
"So, if you did consider that possibility, what should we do now? Is there any counsel you can offer that will give us even the smallest chance of defeating or at least holding back the Enemy?" Faramir pressed.
Gandalf again waited before speaking. Could he say here that the Wise had known full well that it was an all or nothing gamble, and that they had thought there would be little point in making plans to deal with failure? No, to say that would take away all chance that any here would listen to him in future, and if there was to be any hope of defeating Sauron, they would have to follow his counsel. He did know that much. What to say then? He had to be careful, for Elladan was deep in his father's counsel and Halbarad had most likely overheard him when he had admitted to Aragorn that he did not know what to do now Sauron had the Ring.
"Mithrandir?" Faramir prompted.
He had to say something. "No, I do not know of any way to defeat the Enemy right now," and though he knew he deserved it, Faramir's look of disbelief pained him much. Denethor's gaze was unreadable, Imrahil, Elladan and Halbarad kept carefully blank expressions.
Not sparing the wizard as much as a contemptuous glance, Denethor turned to Imrahil and asked him to give an overview of their strength and the losses they had sustained during the day. Gandalf knew that he and his counsel had been dismissed. The Prince estimated that they had already lost well over a third of their numbers, even when he added the fresh troops that had been on the Corsair ships to his count. Halbarad added that as well as the troops they had brought up on the ships, Angbor of Lamedon was marching from Pelargir with around four thousand men on foot.
"When will they be here?" Imrahil asked.
"Depending on the speed they can make, and the condition of the road, in two or three days," Halbarad replied.
Denethor looked pensive, then spoke, "That is good news. However, with our losses so far, I fear we still have to give up the Pelennor. The Gate will remain closed tomorrow, unless the Rohirrim manage to break through." Imrahil and Faramir agreed, though they were clearly reluctant to give up the ground they still held. Denethor continued, "As long as the Gate holds, the City will stand. Our food store is enough for many weeks. I doubt it will come that far though. With Angbor's troops and the Rohirrim we should be able to break the siege in a few days."
"But what if the Gate is breached?" Imrahil asked. "We do not know what sorceries the Enemy has at his disposal."
"Hold until the Third Circle is taken," Faramir suggested and Denethor shook his head in disagreement.
"Second. Any higher and the risk of having our escape route through the Hallows cut off would become too great," the Steward corrected him.
Gandalf suddenly thought of the Orthanc palantír. After the council, he would ask Halbarad to let him use it. It was the only way they had to find out what the Enemy was up to. While he was as good as certain that Denethor was using the Anor-stone, he very much doubted the Steward would either admit it or let him use the Stone. Halbarad would have no objections.
When Gandalf paid attention to the discussion again, the conversation had moved on to immediate concerns and small details for the morrow. It was not long before Imrahil and Faramir left, followed by Halbarad and Elladan. Gandalf did not want to talk further with Denethor at this point, not after the way the debate had gone, and it was now more urgent that he speak to Halbarad, so he followed the others.
Coming out of the White Tower, Gandalf almost had to run across the Court of the Fountain to catch up with Halbarad and Elladan.
"Halbarad!" he called just before the two reached the tunnel leading from the Citadel to the Sixth Circle, "I need a word with you." The other slowed down slightly, but only stood still when the wizard had caught up with him.
"What is it, Gandalf?" he replied curtly.
"You are to be Chieftain? Has Aragorn entrusted the guardianship of the Orthanc palantír to you?"
"Yes," the other replied with a guarded expression.
"It is urgent that we uncover what the Enemy intends next. You must let me use the Stone."
"No, it is not safe to ..."
Gandalf interrupted him, "Not for you perhaps, but there really is no time to argue about this. There is no risk in it for me, so I do not see why you should not let me use it. We must know the Enemy's plans before he strikes again."
Halbarad gave him a level stare, grey eyes expressionless. "My answer remains no. And even if I would, you forget that the right to allow others the palantír's use is not mine until Aragorn's death."
Gandalf returned the stare, but knew that he had pushed too hard and that the other would not now let him use the Stone, despite their need. He had to try another approach. Heaving a sigh of frustration at the Ranger's stubbornness, he turned to Elladan instead, "Surely you agree with me, Elladan? It is vital that we find out the Enemy's next moves, and the palantír came into our hands to be used, not to sit idly."
Elladan replied, "I agree with Halbarad. And it seems to me that you would do well to question your judgement in this, and perhaps in other matters as well. Will you answer me this, Gandalf: are you still drawing on the power of Narya?"
Gandalf noticed Halbarad starting at the mention of the Elven Ring. "Elladan! That is no matter to discuss in the street like this," he snapped.
"Nor are the palantíri," replied Elladan, "But answer me. Are you still using it?"
"I will not be questioned by..." Gandalf grumbled.
"Gandalf, yes or no?"
Gandalf remained silent until the other repeated his question, and then reluctantly replied, "It would be foolhardy to use it now the Enemy holds the One."
"Indeed," said Elladan, "For we are hard pressed as it is, and could ill afford to lose you."
Gandalf stared after the two as they walked down the tunnel, wondering what plans they, and likely Elrohir too, had been making, and especially whether Halbarad's famed loyalty to his lord would last long beyond Aragorn's death. The Ranger was after all close enough kin that a case could be contrived that would make him King of Arnor, and he might well find the title of Chieftain insufficient once he achieved a measure of power. On the other hand, if he had the right advisors, that might not be a bad way to solve the problem of who should lead the Dúnedain in what was to come, at least for the North. Time would tell, but Gandalf had his doubts, especially after Halbarad's stubbornness over the palantír. With a sigh, the wizard turned around and walked to his lodging.
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