Stewards of Gondor: Slashvese Arc
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Star and Stone: 3. Heart to Heart
From the North Gate of the Pelennor to Cair Andros, it was some fifty miles, and the company that burst from those gates went with the wind at its back. Another commander might have made less haste, for clearly there was no question of setting out from the isle ere dawn of the next day, but Denethor had never made a practice of dawdling. Those who had served any length of time with him knew this well. Thus none were particularly surprised by the speed of the journey, nor by its silence, for it was well nigh impossible to carry a conversation when the wind fairly tore the words from one's lips and scattered them like seeds, planting one here or there in another's ears to spawn inquiries upon rest stops.
Yet even had they ridden more slowly, Denethor was not one for idle conversation usually, and although he rarely hushed others for less reason than danger, his silence was contagious: one simply felt unwilling to disturb him with unnecessary noise. During their one brief pause, men made close-ringed groups and spoke quietly amongst themselves, allowing Denethor his space and stillness by habit. None so much as cast a curious glance at him over their shoulders, for they were accustomed to his particular ways and would have been more disconcerted had he joined them. But if the men were circumspect and paid their lord no heed, they themselves were not unwatched. Denethor stood to the east of the group, facing north towards the isle, and while he turned over what he must say to Falthir, he watched his men out of the corners of his eyes, assessing their mood. Eager to be about their business, he judged, but otherwise relaxed enough, considering their errand.
And curious, he thought, shifting his attention to the object of their fascination. Ælric stood by his mount a little ways away, stroking the beast's nose and talking quietly to the gelding. Since his rather precipitous departure from Denethor's quarters earlier that morning, they had not spoken, save to briefly greet each other and discuss the mechanics of departure, which might be considered normal enough. But Ælric had given him an unusually close stare, and Denethor had felt the other's eyes on him a time or two since. His aide said naught, but clearly, he was puzzled by his lord's earlier behavior.
As well he might be, Denethor was forced to admit, irritated with himself for his unusual lapse in self-control. How to bridge the gap—to bring the dancers back into a useful alignment and proximity—was a question to which he had devoted some thought as they rode. As of yet, however, he had found no easy solution. Worse, his brooding on the question was distracting him inexcusably! For Ælric turned to look at him suddenly, seeming to feel his steady gaze, and with a final soft word to his horse, he came unbidden to join Denethor.
"Is aught amiss, my lord?" he asked in an undertone.
"Amiss? Think you that something is wrong in this land?" Denethor asked, avoiding the question.
"Nay, nothing strikes me as threatening. Yet you seem pensive," Ælric replied, refusing to allow him to escape.
"I merely look ahead, to a confrontation with Falthir. You might give that matter some thought, rather than playing with your mount!"
That elicited a low laugh from the other, and it did not even sound feigned, which surprised Denethor. He was not the only one startled, either, for that noise garnered a few more looks from the men, who paused to glance surreptitiously their way, hoping to discern what humor passed between their betters. "I have had all the ride thus far to think on such matters, and still there lie a good twenty miles before us, ere we come to the isle. Rest assured, my lord, I shall not fail in this for lack of consideration. Or at all, if it be within my power to succeed." There came a brief pause, and then, "Besides, Geleafa and I have not spent much time together this past week. One does not slight a horse of the Mark!"
Denethor gave a short, sharp bark of laughter himself at that, unable to contain it. The juxtaposition of deadly serious promise and concern over a horse's feelings appealed irresistibly to his sense of the ridiculous, and he shook his head. Casting a shrewd eye upon his captain, he heard himself retort, ere he could think better of it, "I trust that although you have Faith, you shall not forget your judgment in a saddlebag!"
"I hope that I have never done that, my lord," Ælric replied wryly. The two fell silent awhile, Denethor turning his eyes back to the north, while Ælric drifted to his other side to stare east at the dark mountains that rose high beyond the river.
At length, just when it seemed that silence would reign between them, Ecthelion's son said with a certain abrupt nonchalance, "They watch you, you know."
"The men do. Surely you are not unaware of this?"
"I had noticed, but what of it?"
"You are a puzzle to them. I think they know not what to make of you yet."
"Mm...." Ælric turned slightly, so that he could keep the escort in his field of vision without staring.
"Doubtless they shall decide soon enough whether I be fish or fowl. They are accustomed to strangers in Gondor by now."
"Nay, they are accustomed to Rohirrim in Gondor," Denethor corrected mildly, and glanced at Ælric to see what impression that remark made. Ælric did not blink, only smiled slightly—a demure smile that yet spoke of mischief contained—ere he replied:
"Then doubtless I am naught new to them!"
"You have a rare persistence, Ælric, I will give you that as a gift," Denethor replied, and caught the other's eyes for a brief but not unfruitful moment. Without allowing Ælric a chance to respond with words, he turned and signaled the rest of the group, who scrambled to pretend that they had not been trying to listen to their master's conversation with his captain. "To horse!" Giving Ælric a thin smile of his own, he added, "Need you a few more moments with Geleafa, or has he any objections to the swift continuation of our journey?"
"If he has concerns, they are but over the endurance of your own poor steeds, my lord!" Ælric scoffed as Geleafa, without prompting, trotted forward to his master, apparently eager to be off again.
"Our own poor steeds shall see us to Cair Andros quite readily, thank you," Denethor replied, mounting his own horse, Nightweave, and spurring him abreast of Ælric and Geleafa. Nightweave snorted, inciting the other horse to a soft whinny and a shake of his grey head. "Forth! We do not pause between here and the isle!" And so they went, off at the gallop through the tail end of Anórien.
The night lay heavy upon the land when the company at last drew rein upon the western shore of Anduin, before the picket that guarded the Westgate ferry of Cair Andros. "Who comes hither?" the captain of the watch asked, eyeing them in the torchlight from just beyond the range of the pikemen's spears.
"The lord Denethor, on an errand from the Steward!" Ælric replied, dismounting to hand the man the official courier's signet. The guard captain inspected it carefully, then nodded sharply as he returned the ring.
"Welcome, my lord, to Cair Andros," said he, bowing to Denethor ere he signaled his men to stand down.
"Thank you, captain," Ecthelion's son replied smoothly. "Is Captain Falthir within tonight, or is he abroad?"
"He is here, my lord," the other answered. "If you would, cross now, and those on watch shall arrange for the captain to meet with you. The stable lads will see to your horses."
With a wave of his arm, the captain of the gate watch ordered his men aside, and the company, being smaller than most, was able to fit their horses all onto the ferry, though it was a bit crowded, and those who stood away from the edges remained on their horses. It was a slow ride over the smooth surface of the river, for the western arm of Anduin ran calmly, and some of the men drooped in their saddles or leaned against their mounts wearily. But as they reached the isle's shore, the gates of Cair Andros opened before them, and Denethor was quick to move them off of the ferry.
They passed within the fortress's high walls and came to a broad, cobblestone courtyard. Stables, with barracks above them and to either side, lined the north and south walls, and the high, narrow keep sat along the eastern battlement, looking out over North Ithilien. Despite the lateness of the hour, there were men about in the courtyard, huddled in groups around low-set braziers, and the company of Denethor headed towards one such cluster of soldiers, who stood before the northern stables. As they approached, the men looked up, and the firelight glinted golden off of their hair and twinkled in curious blue eyes.
"Ælric." Denethor side-stepped his mount a bit to draw quite close, then reached over and tugged Geleafa's reins to bring both their mounts from a walk to a stand-still, letting the others pass them by.
"Aye, my lord?"
"When we meet Falthir, say nothing, not even your name. Let me speak with him first. And when you do speak, try to hide your accent—you still have a lamentably Rohirric 'r'!"
"Fear not over that, my lord," Ælric replied, very deliberately smoothing away all traces of Rohirric influence. "I shall do my best!"
"See to it that you do, for—"
"Ælric hlaford!" a cry went up, and the pair glanced over to see one of the Rohirrim detach himself from the knot of soldiers.
"Breca?" Ælric replied after a moment, and dismounted, shooting a quick, apologetic glance at Denethor. "Your pardon, my lord," he murmured ere turning towards the Rider. "Wes hal, leof!"
"Gá thé god, hlaford mín! And Geleafa," the other cried, grinning when the horse nuzzled him. "I knew not that you had come to Gondor!" said Breca, bowing respectfully, but wearing a broad smile as he stroked Geleafa's velvety nose. Then he glanced up at Denethor, seeming to try to decide what to make of him.
"Breca, this is Lord Denethor, the Steward's Heir and Captain-General of Gondor," Ælric quickly informed him.
"I am honored, then," Breca replied, making Denethor a bow as well. And ere the Steward's son could speak, he went on easily, "If you would tell your men to dismount, my lord, we shall see to the horses at least, and a few of the lads could show them to the mess hall, if they wish it or bed if they would rather." That, as he glanced behind himself quickly and motioned briskly to the other Rohirrim, with a word prompting them in their own tongue.
"My thanks, Breca," Denethor replied, giving the man a bemused stare ere he dismounted at Ælric's side. Then he withdrew a bit and set about the business of ordering his company. Breca nodded, pleased, handing off Geleafa and Nightweave to one of the younger Riders ere he turned back to Ælric.
"How came you here, my lord?"
"Even as you did: I desired to serve in Gondor, and Thengel King gave me leave to do so. But although I recall your departure from the king's household, I knew not that you had been assigned to Cair Andros."
"Did you not, my lord?" Breca raised a pale brow and stroked his beard thoughtfully, regarding Aragorn with narrowed eyes, lips set in a tight, frustrated line.
"Nay, I did not. Why? Should I have known?"
"Mayhap not at first, but I am the liaison here."
"The last letter that I saw," Aragorn replied, thinking of that sparely-worded report, and of the separate complaint that the Steward had confided earlier that day, "bore Hladred's seal and was vouch-safed as his words, and I have heard no mention that he had been replaced." Breca snorted and shook his head, shrugging as he folded his arms across his chest.
"Aye, and I remember it, for he had to use one of the Gondorians as scribe, since I was away with my company. But Hladred died a week ago, hlaford. Cursed Orcs!" he muttered, and shot a glare over his shoulder at Denethor, who was speaking now with a man in Cair Andros's livery. For his part, Aragorn stiffened at the other's tone which, when taken together with that look, seemed to imply that he held Denethor—or some other authority in Gondor—to blame for that death.
Breca gave a grunt then, by way of untranslatable comment on an obscure topic, and continued more calmly, "I know not whether the Captain has sent the accursed paperwork to Mundburg yet, nor do I know whether you would have seen it, for I know not your duties. Are you his?" This with a scowl, and none too subtle jerk of his head towards Denethor. Clearly, Breca took a dim view of such an arrangement, and Aragorn let his own expression grow quite still as he stared back at the other.
"I am Lord Denethor's aide until the Steward decides otherwise, Breca," he replied coolly. "Do not overstep your authority to judge me, nor to judge the Steward's son in my presence when you know him not. For that matter, I like not the implication that you would lie in your greeting, either, for you do no one honor with this discussion!"
Breca bit his lip and had the good grace to look ashamed at that, glancing away under the weight of the Aragorn's disapproving stare. "My apologies, hlaford, for I am weary of Gondorians and their ways. 'Tis hard not to think them all alike at times! But I suppose that that is little excuse for poor courtesy."
"No, it is not," said Aragorn, and was silent a moment. Over Breca's shoulder, he noted that Denethor was concluding his discussion, and in moments would rejoin the two of them. I had best conclude this as well, then. With a sigh, he relented and laid hands on the other's shoulders. "Come! Let us not dwell on such an argument, though we must speak of these matters again soon, Breca. For if you are discontented, be assured that so are others, and the Steward himself sent us to discover the root of it—to repair the fault, if we can!" The other's brows shot up at that, and he uttered a soft oath.
"Truly? I did not know. Well then, I am, as I ever was, at your disposal, hlaford mín. You are always welcome among us, should you grow weary of the chill of stone, and you know that we shall see to Geleafa," Breca replied with a half-smile. "'Tis good to see you again, Ælric hlaford! Denethor lord." The man nodded respectfully to Ecthelion's son, who came just then to stand at Aragorn's side, and then he moved off.
"Captain Falthir awaits our convenience," Denethor said, watching Breca rejoin the Rohirrim. "If you have said all that you would...?"
"I have, my lord. Let us go!" The Steward's son nodded and led the way across the yard to the keep. On the third floor of the tower, Denethor steered them down a hallway that dead-ended in a single door. To either side of the door stood sentries, but they saluted and made haste to announce the pair to the occupant within.
"My lord Denethor, a good evening to you. Sir." The man who greeted them set aside some paperwork as he rose and came round the desk to make his bow. Despite the lateness of the hour, it appeared he remained hard at work.
"Captain Falthir," Denethor replied, accepting the other's obeisance. "You have my apologies for the intrusion on such short notice and at such an hour. I assure you we shall not stay long, for I have business elsewhere and we have ridden far today and shall again tomorrow, and we would not keep you long from your work or rest. Nevertheless, please report on Cair Andros's situation, so that I may give my father an accurate accounting of the affairs of the kingdom." So said he and seated himself with regal carelessness in one of the arm chairs, gesturing for Falthir to seat himself as well.
"Thank you," he added, passing a wine glass to Aragorn, who had stationed himself at Denethor's side, one hand resting on the chair's high back. Accepting a second glass for himself, the Steward's son sipped appreciatively, awaiting the tale.
"As you wish my lord," Falthir replied, sitting down across from Ecthelion's son. "Anórien has seen two serious incursions in the past three weeks, the latest coming but ten days ago...." Falthir spoke quickly, concisely, and his voice was level. He kept his eyes on his lord and scarcely spared Aragorn a glance, apparently accepting him as Denethor's secretary and nothing more, since his lord had done nothing to indicate otherwise. The Steward's son nodded at intervals, but asked no questions, simply listening in silence.
For his part, Aragorn could not help but notice that no mention was made of any trouble between Gondor's soldiers and the Mark's. Indeed, Falthir seemed to ignore the Rohirrim entirely, reminding Aragorn of something that his mother, Gilraen, was fond of saying: Mark well the silences where men hide their secrets! Certainly, she had oft demonstrated that attention to the unspoken could be an effective weapon, which demonstrations he had sometimes rued as a child.
Since coming to Minas Tirith, he had had ample opportunity to hone his skills against Denethor's omissions, and he employed those skills now more or less unthinkingly, charting the unspoken spaces in the captain's speech. And for all that Falthir's gaze never truly left Denethor's face, Aragorn disliked the oddly blank look that his eyes assumed between blinks, as if in those moments he saw nothing at all. Thus he need not flinch, for he sees no one before whom to blush, the Ranger thought, setting his glass aside. Clearly, he has decided not to trouble us with such 'details' as troubled Riders, for he knows not the purpose of our visit.
When the captain had finished, Denethor then rattled off an account of his father's affairs—of his continuing struggles to integrate the various components of Gondor's defenses, of negotiations to the north with Dale, of the close ties of Rohan and Gondor. He spoke of a number of errands committed to him as his father's heir, commenting most of all on the likelihood of trouble at Poros and the need for firmer restrictions, a better screening process, more checks... harsher punishments.
"Gondor is not so rich in men as to lightly lose them to temptation. She must have some way to balance the lure of swift profits or easy pleasure, and if honor is not enough, then there is humiliation to fall back on at need. A strong sense of shame is essential in a captain," he said, taking a swallow of wine as he eyed the other nonchalantly over the rim. Falthir made a noise that might have been agreement or understanding; Aragorn would have said it was non-committal, but that 'unhappy' seemed closer to the mark. "With such happenings in the south, I am certain you understand, then," Denethor continued on serenely, "why I cannot remain here myself to deal with Cair Andros's difficulties."
"You have complained of the Rohirrim, Captain," Denethor said, setting his goblet aside as well.
"The Steward of Gondor takes very seriously the relationship between Gondor and Rohan, as I have said. My father holds Thengel King in great respect and accounts him a personal friend, after all. Were it not for this unfortunate business at Poros, I would remain to see the complaints of both sides settled. As I cannot, however, I shall leave you with Captain Ælric, my father's chief advisor on Rohirric policies. He has acted as my aide this past month and I value his abilities. You need not hesitate to confide in him, for you may be certain of his discretion."
Denethor rose, and Falthir hastily stood as well, eyes darting between his lord and his new... 'guest.' "I expect that he shall handle the matter adroitly, as he does all things, and that he shall not be delayed overlong here, for I shall have need of him in the south," the Captain-General concluded, then gestured minutely to the two of them. "If the two of you could arrange your meetings...?"
"I would be... pleased... to meet with you on the morrow, Captain. Say at the second hour?" Falthir suggested quickly.
"That suits me well, sir," Aragorn replied.
"Good. Now, we shall take our leave of you, for I have a long ride come dawn, and I believe we interrupted your work, captain. Good night," Denethor said smoothly.
"Good night, my lord. Captain," Cair Andros's commander replied, shooting Aragorn a wary, hooded look.
"Good night," the Ranger said in a low voice ere he followed Denethor out the door. The two of them strode swiftly down the hallway and back to the stairs. In silence they descended, while Aragorn stared at Denethor's back, seeking purchase for his thoughts. Alas, there was no tension in the other's shoulders from which to hang his speculations as to what Denethor's intentions had been.
I realize Ecthelion wished him to insure that Falthir would listen to me, yet what sort of ear will he give my recommendations after such a speech? He supposed, however, that he ought not to be shocked by the tone of his lord's conversation. Denethor was not well known for his extravagant praise, demanding and expecting competence of all who served with and under him. It took a certain standard of incompetence to earn a comment from the Steward's son, and among the servants of the Citadel, 'thrice noticed' was a mark of shame.
So now Falthir stands once noticed at the least, and I know not where I stand with him. I thought perhaps we had shaken off this morning, but I fear I may earn my second notice tonight! That was vexing, yet nearly inevitable, given how closely Denethor guarded his own counsel and ideas. As a shadow he appeared tonight, dressed in shades of black that concealed his thoughts as well as his body. Even his hands were gloved. That was perhaps, why Aragorn found his gaze drifting up Denethor's spine to fix instead upon the nape of the other's neck, for Denethor wore his hair cut short. Just a few inches of exposed flesh, pale and stark against the unrelieved black, coyly hinting at revelations.... Just as they reached the lowest steps, Denethor ran a hand through his hair and down over the back of his neck. As they exited into the courtyard's open air, the Steward's son turned towards his aide; in the flickering torchlight, his grey eyes took on an orange cast as they searched Aragorn's face.
"You have something to say, Ælric?"
"Mayhap," Aragorn said, and paused, returning the other's scrutiny, which seemed to amuse Denethor if he read that slight tightening about the mouth correctly. Twice noticed indeed! I refuse to be herded by the whispered fears of servants. And so he said softly, "Walk with me a ways, if you would, my lord. I would familiarize myself with Cair Andros somewhat." Then he waited for Denethor to digest that request, to turn it over in his mind once or twice and come to the obvious conclusion.
"If you wish it," the Steward's son replied after a heartbeat's pause. "This way." Following the wall of the keep towards the eastern rampart, Denethor walked until they came to the dark gap between the two. Stepping into the deeper shade, he asked, "Does this view of Cair Andros suit you?"
"Admirably," Aragorn said dryly, turning swiftly to more serious matters. "My lord," said he, choosing his words carefully, "I shall do what I can to amend the situation here, and to insure we have no further troubles. But I must ask: is there something more that you desire of me?"
"What might I desire?" Denethor asked, his voice smooth enough, yet with a slight edge to it.
"What are your expectations, my lord?" the Ranger demanded bluntly, abandoning his customary obliqueness for the second time that day. "You asked me not to speak until given the opportunity, and I listened to you lay out your views on justice in Gondor. Is it your intention that I use them to threaten Falthir? To teach him, perhaps, a new sense of shame?"
"Would you do so if I told you to do it?"
"How does this answer my question?"
"I believe it answers it quite well," Denethor replied, and Aragorn frowned in the darkness, uncertain how to interpret the somewhat condescending tone of voice. "You dislike the notion of using such threats, therefore I would be exceptionally foolish to expect you to deal in them." A pause. "I expect, Ælric, that you shall use that judgment of yours. The judgment you assured me you would not leave in a saddlebag!"
The Ranger grunted softly, the corners of his mouth twitching in response to the jibe. I suppose I did warrant that! Nevertheless, whatever Denethor's expectations of him, clearly Falthir's perception of his task would be colored by his lord's advocacy of harsh measures. Denethor knows quite well what he does. I should likely be grateful that he is willing to give me such support, but I dislike being so manipulated! I cannot gainsay him without seeming either to reject his authority or else to play a game with Falthir. "I shall visit Geleafa, then, and retrieve it," he finally responded, deciding that it would be best to focus on the humor, however pointed, than argue overmuch with what could not be changed now.
"Good." Denethor seemed pleased, but he paused then, and even in the dark, Aragorn could feel the other's eyes on him. "Now that we are clear as to my expectations, what are your own? Do you expect to be able to deal fairly with Falthir?"
"Is there a reason you would question me in that, my lord?" Aragorn demanded.
"How long have you known this Breca, and how well?"
"He was a member of Thengel's household, a Rider in the King's éored and of good family; I cannot claim to know him very well, but neither is he wholly unknown to me. A promising Rider—very likely to rise to command, I should say."
"He seemed quite friendly with you for one merely 'not wholly unknown' to you," Denethor's voice came back somewhat sharply, and Aragorn felt a certain surprise at his obvious unease. I would have thought he knew the Mark's customs better. He seemed to understand them quite well in our discussions in the past weeks....
"He is young and impulsive, and in any case, that is the way of things among Éorlingas, my lord. I doubt not that there may be others that I shall know—by sight at least, if not well—but you need not fear for my impartiality. If they are in the wrong, then they shall know of it," Aragorn assured him firmly.
"I see," Denethor replied, seeming only slightly mollified. The Steward's son stood silently for a time, and then sighed softly. "There is naught I can do to change this, so I must trust you to handle the affair to the benefit of both lands. Nevertheless, keep it somewhat quiet that you know Breca, else Falthir shall not have much faith in you, I think."
"It is already too late for such secrecy, my lord," Aragorn responded after a moment's consideration, and fancied he could see the other's frown. "Breca will have told the other Riders who I am, at least. I know not whither that might spread from there." At Denethor's frustrated noise, he continued with a certain quiet force, "Even were he to remain silent on the matter, I do not doubt that I would be recognized. The king's household sends a higher percentage of men to Gondor than any other single éored, for reasons that are self-evident. I would recognize a few, at least, and they me. Best therefore to remain honest about it." Another soft noise, though this one seemed to be more resigned than irritated, and even somewhat amused.
"True enough that someone would recognize you. You look a poor Rider, Ælfric, and the name does little to make you any more a son of Éorl than it does to make you Gondorian! When you rid yourself of that 'r,' we shall have to do something to salvage the rest of your speech. Whence came your mother again?"
That by way of an artful attempt to catch him off-guard. Always he returns such questions, Aragorn thought, amused in his turn even as he quickly marshalled a response. He did wonder how long Denethor would tolerate his evasions, though. Even if Ecthelion is correct and he has some liking for me, surely at some point he shall weary of this game. For the moment, however, such sparring, however pointed and deadly earnest, still amused them, and Aragorn was willing to play again.
"You have a good ear, my lord, if you detect aught of her accent! I assure you, however, that despite my mother's migratory ways, I am as much Rohirric as my name is odd. But," he said, quickly changing the subject, "I think I shall have a word with Breca and his fellows nonetheless ere I retire, so that all are clear as to my function here. If I may, my lord?" And as he said it, already he was moving away, and as Denethor did not stop him, he turned and walked briskly back toward the stables.
Meanwhile, Denethor stood there, musing in silence as he listened to the other's footsteps recede. At length, he laughed softly, conceding this match at least. But not the next! No less Rohirric than your name is odd, is it? 'Tis only odd in Gondor! Struck by a certain fancy, he moved along between the wall and the keep until he reached the northeast corner of the tower. There Denethor leaned against the stones and watched as Ælric stepped into the flame-lit circle of Rohirrim....
"Welcome to our fire, hlaford," Breca said when Aragorn appeared at the edges of the group. To the others, he announced, "This is Ælric hlaford, lately of Edoras."
"Thengel King's champion," someone else said, sounding surprised, and excited murmurs spread throughout the group. "We know of you, hlaford mín."
"Aye, you honor us with your presence," another added.
"My thanks," Aragorn replied, casting his gaze round the fire, picking out familiar faces. Men of Thengel's éored, or of Breald's household, mostly, for he had been often among the latter in the service of the former and so knew many who served the Third Marshal. "But as I am new to Gondor, doubtless you honor me more with your welcome than I do you by my presence!" That elicited some laughter and men shifted on stools and short benches, making room for him to sit. "How fares Geleafa?" Which question was inevitable, and it was only courtesy to answer, for they were the Éothéod.
"I have him stabled near Denethor hlaford's steed, and both are well fed," one of the men replied. Aragorn noted it was the same lad who had relieved him of the two horses earlier: a young fifteen he looked, still gawky and awkward in the company of older men, most of whom were closer to twenty. And still they are so very young! Breca likely was among the oldest of them, being twenty-three, and a few of them he knew to be close to thirty—married men, their families left behind in Edoras or the Eastfold. Thirty-four felt oddly mature by comparison, though he and Denethor were both accounted young—he more so than Denethor, in the reckoning of his own people. But there is no need for them to know that, he thought, focusing on the young Rider.
"What is your name, lad?"
"Eadwin, hlaford," the boy replied, straightening slightly, his voice rising a note. "I brushed Geleafa down as well, since he seemed not to take it ill." And the lad's rather anxious look made it manifest that he hoped Geleafa's master would not take it ill, either, which struck Aragorn as odd. Such matters were simply the duties of a stablehand; wherefore should Eadwin worry that Aragorn might take ill the care of his steed? However, there were other more pressing matters he intended to deal with ere the night was out, and so he simply tucked the question away for later investigation.
"You have my thanks, Eadwin, for pains taken on Geleafa's behalf," he replied kindly, and proffered a smile as he searched the lad's face. "Which is your éored?"
"I ride with Othyr hlaford, Captain, the Lord of Ostfal, in the Eastfold," Eadwin replied more calmly, and with a certain pride in his voice.
"Most of us are Eastfold men, hlaford," another Rider volunteered. "And a fair number of us look to the Third Marshal for our maintenance."
"That follows, for Anórien is of much interest to many, not least Breald," Aragorn acknowledged, and got a round of nods and murmurs. "Tell me how fare you here? Do you like serving the Riddermark from afar?" At this, there was an uncomfortable pause as men glanced back and forth at each other, every man seeming to wish someone else would speak first.
"Is it true, hlaford, that the Steward knows of trouble here?" someone from the back of the group spoke up. One of the older men, as Aragorn might have expected, someone who had years enough not to be cowed so easily by authority. His broad face marked by a long scar that just missed his eye, the Rider stared back unblinking, and Aragorn nodded slightly, both in response to his question and by way of acknowledging his courage.
"It is true. Ecthelion hlaford would see it settled, as would I. In the morning I meet with Cair Andros's captain to hear his complaints."
"Just his? Sir," the man asked skeptically, and Aragorn chuckled softly.
"That would hardly help the situation, for the complaints come from both sides. Spread the word through Breca and among the other companies that I would have a word with the Éorlingas. How have your ranks been split?"
"Each of the four companies has mayhap fifteen of us," Breca replied. "No more than are gathered here. If you would speak with them all, hlaford, it should not be so difficult a task if only you know when to find them!" Murmurs of assent greeted this and the sense of relief, of anticipation, was palpable.
"Good. Tell me then, what are your grievances?"
"That they treat us like pups or crippled hounds!" the scarred man muttered.
"And how do you call yourself, sir?"
"Brything, hlaford," the Rider replied. "Brything of Aldburg."
"What mean you, when you say you are treated as pups? That you are mistreated?" Aragorn asked, raising a brow. That he found hard to believe of the Gondorians, but there were always a few men who did not fit the mould of their fellows.
"Well, no, not so to speak. But they treat us as children." When Brything paused, seeming to seek agreement from his brethren, Aragorn motioned for him to continue. "I have been here for two years, hlaford, and if my luck holds, I shall return home next year when my oath is fulfilled. I would not stay here another three years, and I think most here would agree with me in that!"
"You hold that the Gondorians are arrogant? That is your complaint?"
"More than that, hlaford," Breca broke in. "Condescending sons of mules they may be, and if a man cannot write, they hold his counsel near nothing worth. But if they would give us our due, we would not complain. Yet they spit on our honor, and that we cannot bear."
"As we have said, they think we are children, not warriors, and they treat the lot of us as if we had never seen a hard fight in our lives. 'Tis true, we are all shorter on experience than we could wish—that is why we come—but we shall not improve if we are not permitted to fight."
"Aye," Brything agreed, gesturing to Eadwin. "Eadwin is our youngest, if he will forgive me saying it! He is a good lad, and I have no fear that he shall prove himself. But we are all treated as if we were no older than he, and more soft than a maiden's... as if we had never held a sword before," he quickly amended.
"Aye," another Rider added, stepping smoothly into the other's awkward pause. "We stand ready, but usually, we stand in the rear ranks or in reserve. Or we are messengers, and never see the battle, unless we look over our shoulders!"
"These Gondorians are crafty fighters, granted," Breca took up the tale. "So often we have little to do but watch their sword play or ferry news from one captain to another. But that means only that when they do find themselves in a tight spot, we suffer the worse for it. For Captain Falthir's lieutenants do not use us well nor heed much our counsel, and so when we fight, our losses are higher than they should be. Thus we lost Hladred in the most recent raid. It should not have happened!"
A murmur of darkly voiced agreement ran round the ring, and Breca shook his head ere he continued. "We were thrown in at the last moment to cover the left flank, which had broken formation. We had to pull them out, but the right flank moved as well, and we were caught in the snare! Hladred held us together and got us out of it, but he took a mortal wound and died three days later." A pause. "A number of men took it very hard, hlaford. Hladred was a good man, and he always spoke well for us. There were some hot words over that, as over other, like incidents."
"Only hot words?" Aragorn asked, pinning Breca under a knowing gaze, and the man grimaced.
"Well... nay, in truth, not words alone. I cannot hide that some arguments came to blows." Aragorn nodded, grimly aware that with that revelation, they had moved into the legal realm. A fight might require a delicate negotiation in order for proper restitution to be made, but especially in the case of a fight over a captain's death, he doubted any individual soldier of Gondor had gold enough to buy peace. No wonder Breca looked at Denethor so! With him lies the purse of Gondor, and he could arguably be made to pay for this and other affronts.
"It might not be so bad, if only these Gondorians would cease to think of us as props of war or allow us our ways," Breca continued. "Know you why the Citadel thinks Hladred is liaison still?" Aragorn shook his head, although he was beginning to suspect the reason. Best to let such accusations come from the mouths of the aggrieved parties, however. "Because Captain Falthir did not appoint me to the post, nor any other, though he says that he is considering the matter. But we have spoken of it, we Éorlingas—all decided to support me for because I can write, I often scribed for Hladred. Therefore all that he knew, I know, and more besides: my family knows the law, as told and as written, and argues it when needed before the court in Edoras.
"Now the Captain says Éorl's law does not stand in Gondor, and I grant that that is true. Nor do I not seek to overturn him in that," Breca said quickly, forestalling any objection. "But there must be some bending when two peoples are put together, and this is a small thing but important enough to us. The Captain seeks to govern us in every way, and he does it poorly! Why should we let him pick us a poor leader as well?"
"I see. What else?" asked Aragorn grimly.
"Tell him of the horses!" Eadwin muttered, then blushed scarlet for having spoken. But a dangerous growl seemed to arise at that, and Aragorn sighed softly.
"What of them?"
"When a horse and Rider fall together, we bury them together, as is our way," Breca said tautly. "But for the horses that are lamed or slain, while the Rider yet lives... then 'tis off to the charnel fires or the knackers, or they leave them to rot. And in any case, they are neither buried nor sung over, not even the ashes."
"Aye, the horses that go to the knackers are served in the kitchens the next day! 'Tis ungracious!" Brything snarled, rousing a spate of angry agreement. "They have no feeling, these Gondorians!"
"We have explained a number of times," Breca said, shooting a quelling glare at the others ere the mounting resentment got out of hand. "'Tis less bad than it used to be, for some of the lieutenants are more lenient in this custom and look the other way. At the least, they no longer insist that their people put all horses down together. We take care of our own in that event, just as it ought to be. But some will collect the corpses afterwards, and there is nothing we can do about that."
"And how many fights has this bred?" Aragorn asked heavily.
"Many," Breca replied darkly. "You know what it is to ride a steed of the Mark, hlaford. A man unhorsed has lost his place and must begin again with a new mount. And though we do not denigrate the horses of Gondor 'tis not the same to ride one! Most often, that is the fate of those who lose their steeds, unless we can request remounts from the Mark, which is rare."
"I would rather walk home than ride one of Gondor's horses back to the Mark," Brything spoke up. "They cannot be bred there, after all, yet they are not pack animals. Better to leave them here or at the last messenger post, at Halifirien."
"I see," Aragorn replied. This would be a most unpleasant knot to untangle, clearly, and he wondered whether other jointly maintained outposts had similar difficulties or whether it was Falthir's singular talent that kept Cair Andros off-balance. Nay, that is too much to lay on one man's shoulders. There is a web of misunderstanding here and I shall have to find a way to cut the snarls out... somehow! "Very well then. Know that your complaints are heard, and I shall speak with Falthir of them when the time is right.
"However," and here he swept the circle with his gaze, pinning each man under his eyes a moment, "I have not come to speak only for the Éorlingas, but to deal with Gondor's needs and complaints as well, once I discover them. But this I can say now: for the brawls initiated by the Éorlingas, I hold you responsible. Your grievances make such fights understandable, but that does not justify them in my eyes or the eyes of the law. Henceforth, once I have spoken with a company on such matters, I do not expect to hear of another violent confrontation by any of its members. If I do hear of one, those responsible will render payment according to Gondor's laws, and I shall give the names of the guilty to Edoras and leave it to your lords to decide what fitting penalty to impose on one who makes trouble for him with the king." Which would be no pleasant affair, certainly, and as he glanced around the circle, he saw that knowledge reflected in their faces. "Is that understood?"
"Then spread the word to the others and I shall be well pleased."
"We shall see to it. We understand, hlaford," Breca assured him, "that none of us serve only the Riddermark here. If only you can make the Gondorians see some reason in these matters, we shall be content!"
"Good. Then let us leave such matters for a time. Surely not all runs ill here!"
"Nay, not everything. Anórien would be lovely, were it not for the Orcs," Brything declared. "And the folk who dwell in this land are not so stiff as our comrades in arms. Particularly the women!" There was some laughter about the circle, and that seemed to ease the chill of resentment quite a bit as the Riders spoke now of the things that they enjoyed in Gondor. Many were in awe of the forests, for neither Fangorn nor the Drúadan forests were particularly safe, and the rest of the Mark was largely open fields and downs. Those who lived not in the larger cities of the Mark found clocks to be of fascination, and the artistry of the stonewrights of Gondor was unparalleled by any other race of Men.
"Mundburg, from what little I saw of it, is a marvel," Breca said, shaking his head.
"Aye," Eadwin piped up, eyes wide with remembrance. Ostfal was not a large town, and until he had come to Gondor, he had never seen so great a city in his life. "Would you... would you tell us somewhat of the White City, hlaford, since you live there now?" he asked, somewhat hesitantly.
"Gladly. For she is, indeed, a marvel. A fair sight, but with some wondrous strange tales wound about her!" Aragorn replied, grinning now in his turn as men leaned closer, eager for the story. This was a setting he knew well, after all. Evenings in Bree or on the edges of the Shire were taken up with tales, as Rangers recounted their journeys or teased the younger men, and a fine story-teller was prized. Aragorn, or so Halbarad often complained, had an unfair advantage in that respect, having lived among Elves for so long. But all in good humor, such complaints, and he was always pleased to be able to set his talents in the service of his people, be they Éorlingas or Dúnedain, or even the townsfolk of Bree. "They say in the South that there is no more beautiful sight than the Citadel at sunset, and that, I say, is only truth. But listen more closely to the words of the people, and you will find that in its eastward shadow, lie many passing strange events...."
And as the Rohirrim listened, Denethor watched, and his meticulous observations he wove into a more detailed image of his newest and most mysterious captain. Although it was difficult to hear much from this distance, he picked out the cadence of Rohirric, noting that none seemed to have difficulty understanding Ælric, despite that slight, odd accent that showed through occasionally in his daily speech with Denethor, and which hinted at more exotic origins than an unnamed corner of the Westfold.
Of course, one might expect the Captain to be quite fluent, having served in Rohan for he knew not what length of time. But it was more the acting that intrigued him. Or rather, the ease of it. Most foreigners, even those who lived long amongst their chosen people, were never quite able to abandon the particular habits of their native land, and usually, Denethor noticed such differences. Ælric quite readily conformed to the more expansive habits of the Rohirrim once among them, but there remained a subtly different feel to him, and to his mannerisms.
Just as when he plays the Gondorian, there remains something elusively other about him that has naught to do with Rohan. There is an antique cant to his manners and the odd word or usage that makes men wonder... if they have any imagination, that is! Yet it was a very subtle thing—so subtle, Denethor could do no more than feel its presence. He could not give it a name, and so point to a place, a people, an origin for his newest captain. All of which suggested a natural mimic, or else one who was much practiced in the art, to affect so readily the habits of others that his own strangeness went all but unnoticed.
And that troubles me, Denethor admitted, frowning. Much as he enjoyed their game, he was an officer of the realm and stood first after his father in authority. He owed it to Gondor to be certain that nothing ill came of permitting this stranger to serve her, and the more capable the other was at disguising himself, the more difficult it was for Denethor to judge him. At the moment, he hoped only that the other's easy affectation of Rohirric ways would not affect his dealings with Falthir and the other officers of Cair Andros. There comes ever the unhappy point when one must stand aside and allow a man to show his mettle, whether he be captain or soldier, Denethor reminded himself, and smiled wryly to himself in the darkness. If Father in his wisdom believes that time is come, then let Ælric show that he can be a captain and a diplomat. The North is not in such peril as the Harondor, after all. There is time to let his efforts bear their fruit these next few months, and thereby measure his success in this endeavor.
Having so decided, Ecthelion's son turned away from the light of the fire and went back to the keep, to the room that had been set aside for him. He and his men would have a long ride tomorrow, and for each of the three days after that, and what promised to be an unpleasant task at the end of their road. But as he lay in the dark, drifting towards sleep, his dreams turned once more to Ælric rather than Poros.
Thanks to Alawa for her beta-reading and many helpful cultural suggestions.
Anglachel is the proud owner of Cair Andros's ferry. Many thanks for the shoving and for finding that dratted moving passage.
—— mín= 'my lord'
"Wes hal, leof!"— Be hale, sir!, i.e., "May you be well!"
"Gá thé god, hlaford mín! And Geleafa!"— May it go well with you, my lord. And with Faith!
(Yes, Hope rides Faith. Go figure.)
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