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Hands of the King: 4. Faithful
Minas Tirith, 1 January, 2975 T.A.
A light tap at the door to his front room woke Denethor. He sat up quickly in his chair and rubbed his eyes. The reports he had been looking at late at night were partly in his lap and partly on the floor, having slipped from his grasp as he dozed. Very faint light showed through the window and he could hear the sound of rain. It was probably not yet dawn, but close to that hour. Denethor sighed and gave his head a shake to clear it. This was the third night he had fallen asleep in the chair. The dropped pages were quickly gathered and set on the desk. He made his way through his dim study into the darker main room and yanked open the door.
Thorongil stood in the hallway, wet cloak gently dripping onto the tiles. Denethor said nothing, leaned on the door jamb, and waited for an explanation. Thorongil said nothing, reached under his cloak, and held out a folded and sealed piece of parchment. Denethor took the proffered message, examining it closely. What he saw was most… interesting.
‘You had best come in.’
Once back in the study, Denethor tossed the parchment on the desk and took a candle to the fireplace to light it from embers. He handed that to Thorongil to light other candles, and took a seat at the desk, looking at the missive. There was nothing on it to indicate where it was from, or from whom, or who it was intended for, only the thumbprint in the seal.
‘Why did you bring this here?’
‘The messenger from Pelargir only arrived two hours ago with the message pouches, sir. I went through them and found that, and knew you should see it at once. I did not wish to entrust it to anyone else.’
‘That is not what I asked, Captain.’ The two locked eyes briefly, then Thorongil looked away.
‘I would not presume to wake the Lord Steward at this hour, sir.’ The captain refused to meet his eyes.
‘Neither would I.’ Denethor rubbed his eyes again and wished he was not so tired. This was a difficult position to be in, and he should face it with a clear mind, not a stiff neck. ‘Were you woken to receive the message pouches?’
‘No wonder you look a mess. There is no point in you returning to the garrison. The council will be in three hours and we need to talk beforehand. This can wait.’ Denethor slipped the anonymous message into a sheaf of papers. He walked past the captain, retrieving his cloak from a hook on the wall. ‘Let us start our day. I will worry about waking the Steward later.’ They left the rooms and went downstairs to the entry hall. The night doorward rose and bowed, a look of trepidation on his face.
‘Good morrow, my lord. The captain said…’
‘It is all right. Please have my usual breakfast readied, enough for two as the captain will be joining me.’
‘Yes, my lord.’
Denethor pulled up his hood and they stepped out the door into the wet dawn. From the look of the sky, it was going to rain all day. At the back of the circle was the bathhouse. An old attendant, wrinkled and stooped, nodded his greetings to the two men and took their cloaks and boots. Most men preferred to wash in the cold shower first, then soak in one of the warm tubs, but Denethor needed to wake up.
He hung his clothes on the pegs near one of the tubs and stepped in. Thorongil followed suit. Denethor said nothing, concentrating on relaxing and allowing the warm water to ease the crick in his neck and the aches in his back from sleeping in the chair. Why did he bring me the message? All captains were taught to recognize such sendings. They were also taught to take them directly to the Lord Steward. He must know I dare not open it. Was he told to bring this to me? Only the Steward himself, or Maiaberiel, would have done so.
After a quarter hour, they stepped out of the warm soaking tub and walked to the shower room. A few small falls of water ran from pipes in the far wall, and soap and small, rough towels sat in niches behind the water. The frigid water removed any remaining sleep from his mind. He let it chill him, then stepped out of the downfall to soap up. Thorongil gestured with one of the wash rags and Denethor nodded, turning his back so the other could scrub it, then returned the favor. He soaped his hair last and plunged back under the cold stream to rinse off. As much as he needed the cold to wake, Denethor was very glad for the warm towels that awaited them on the bench near where their clothes were hanging. They reclaimed their cloaks and boots from the attendant, and swiftly walked back to the Stewards House.
The study was well-lit and warm on their return. A fresh flagon of wine, a pot of tea, warm bread, butter, and soft cheese were waiting. Both of their stomachs growled.
‘Warm some of the wine,’ Denethor directed Thorongil, and stepped around a screen into the alcove to change into clean clothes. There was a bed in the alcove as well as a chest of drawers. He never used the sleeping chamber on the other side of the front room. After he changed and tossed his soiled clothes into a basket, he laid out another set on the bed. Why not? We are like enough, and he is not presentable with what he has on. Besides which, it will come in useful later if things do not work out well.
As he came around the end of the screen, Denethor said, ‘I laid out clean clothes for you, Thorongil, on the bed.’ The captain looked up from where he was tending a pot of warming wine at the hearth, and smiled.
‘Thank you, Denethor.’ Thorongil poured them both a cup of wine before going to change. Denethor set out the food at the side of the desk where it could be reached without getting in the way. No “my lord.” No “sir.” The captain was being very peculiar this morning. Tea was poured into large mugs. Denethor spread some cheese on a chunk of bread and ate. It would not be wise to drink wine without some food in his stomach first. Thorongil appeared and sat in the seat opposite to pull on his boots. The clothes fit the captain well.
Denethor studied the man while he sipped his tea. He cannot be more than a year different from me in age. The captain mixed butter and cheese on his bread, took a bite, and set it down. Aiavalë had investigated all the births in the city for the year before and the year after Denethor’s birth, and had accounted for all the children that resulted. Thorongil looked at him expectantly, sipping his own tea. Denethor lifted up a stack of papers and handed them to the captain.
‘This is what the Steward wishes to address during the council. I have added my own notes. Look them over and tell me what you think.’ Thorongil paged through the stack once quickly, then settled in to read, exchanging his mug of tea for the wine. The captain did not look up when Denethor retrieved the message from the morning, but the tension in his form betrayed where his attention lay.
Slowly, Denethor turned the message over in his hands. In the brighter light of lanterns, the seal was unmistakable. There was a carefully shaped scar in the thumbprint embedded in the wax. I should hand this to the Steward, unopened. To what end? The Steward will do nothing with this news. Denethor carefully set the message down and took up his wine. The captain did not look up from the pages he was reading, but started reaching for the quills and ink. Denethor moved them closer to Thorongil, and the captain grunted his thanks. Is this a trick? The other scratched a note in the margin of a page. Denethor picked up the message again and noted how the captain’s eyes flicked in his direction. It could be innocent. Thorongil was quite right to bring the message himself as soon as he saw it. But it should not be on my desk. So, why did the captain bring it here? For the sake of the message, or the sake of the Steward? Or the sake of someone else? For Thorongil to hand it to him was acceptable. For himself to open it, treasonous, and thus a trap. But if meant sincerely, then Thorongil brought it to him so that he could know of it, would read it.
Denethor opened a drawer on the desk and pulled out a thin-bladed knife. He rose and took the message to the window and carefully pressed the seal against the cold pane. A little moisture from the window came off on the parchment. Once the seal was cold, he slipped the blade under the wax and gently lifted it, careful not to crack or damage it. He returned to the desk and sat, then looked at Thorongil. The captain stared back, glanced at the message, then deliberately turned a little away and pretended to concentrate on the council notes. It had been meant sincerely.
Careful of the seal, Denethor unfolded the paper and looked at the gibberish written upon it. There were many true words, but much was symbols, dots, squiggles of color, random letters. He leaned back in the chair, put his feet up on the desk, picked up his wine, and concentrated on deciphering the code. It took almost an hour. When he finished, Denethor smiled grimly and handed the note over to the captain.
‘Here, take a look.’ Thorongil took the paper, then shook his head, handing the note back.
‘I know not that cipher. You will have to tell me what it says.’
‘It is very good news. The fleet we believed the Corsairs to be building is real. Or, rather, was real. The great storms from last month, the ones that damaged the coasts so much, wreaked even greater harm on Umbar. It appears that their shipyards took a pounding, and that the storm drove ships into the docks, damaging, in some cases destroying, both. Their yard master says it will take a year to repair the damage alone, and no new ships can be built until that is done. There will be many ships to replace. They will not be able to build during the winter in any great amount, so we have nearly a year and long season respite before they can even begin to recover.’
Thorongil let out a laugh. ‘Excellent news!’
‘How far does that put them back?’ Thorongil asked. ‘I know you have spoken of years, but how many?’
‘Counting from the spring, we had at the least two, at the most four, years before their fleet would be built, manned and ready,’ Denethor answered. ‘Now, one year simply to rebuild the shipyards, which will mean cannibalizing their worst damaged ships for wood. They have been building for three years, but let us assume they can recover that much in two, so three to be where they were before the storms. Then I think another two for building, plus a winter, so the sixth spring from now.’
‘Six. Much can be done in six years.’
‘Possibly. Our immediate problem is to determine how we may convey this news to anyone else, as neither of us have business knowing it.’ We are both traitor for this, captain.
‘Not as of yet, but time can have the news spread north, and we may speak later,’ Thorongil said slowly.
The captain’s words implied that he expected Denethor would not tell the Steward about the message. How deep does your duplicity run, Captain? Denethor shook his head. ‘It will be dismissed as mere rumor if it does not have this message to back it up. The time for this knowledge is now, at this council, when the lords are gathered.’
‘The Steward has no plan to discuss Umbar,’ the captain replied, leafing through the notes.
‘I know. Which is why you are going to bring it up.’ Thorongil shot him a sharp glance.
‘It is generally not advisable to contradict one’s lord in front of other lords.’
‘Agreed.’ Which is why you will be doing so, and not I. Denethor precisely refolded the message, aligning the wax seal with its stain on the folded edges, then turning it all seal-side down on the desk. He held the tip of the knife in a candle flame, getting it hot, and carefully wiped any soot clinging to it onto a fold of his pants. Gently, he applied the flat of the hot knife to the parchment, allowing the heat to warm and soften the seal through the layers of paper. He pressed firmly until the wax clung and resealed the message. The apparently unopened message went into a sheaf of papers he was taking to the council. He looked up at Thorongil, grimly amused.
‘Captain, you really should have woken the Steward, you know.’ After a moment of thinking, Thorongil’s eyes hardened. ‘I will have my own bad news to deliver to the Lord Steward this day, so I fear I shall have to leave certain things to you. I trust you will make a strong case. I will take care of explaining how this message came to be in my hands first, not his. After the council.’
‘As you wish, sir.’ The captain’s words were only slightly clipped, but his face clearly showed his chagrin at being outmaneuvered. Denethor refilled both of their mugs with tea and stared down into his own, watching stray bits of herbs settle to the bottom, before setting it aside. You thought to capture me, did you not? Place a temptation in my way and then gain some power when I failed to resist it? You should know better how to use power. That had been the most valuable lesson learned from Aiavalë, and one of the first. Maiaberiel had set him up for blackmail when he was about eight, tricking him into taking something from Ecthelion’s desk. He had gone crying to Aiavalë, afraid of what Maiaberiel would do. When Aiavalë heard his tearful account, she slapped him, hard.
‘That is for stealing.’ She slapped him again, harder.
‘That is for being stupid around an enemy.’ She slapped him a third time, knocking him down.
‘That is for wasting my time with tears.’ She yanked him to his feet and gave him a shake. ‘Do you see me cry when Beruthiel goes after me? No, you do not. I do not bother with such things. I plan on how to turn her conniving back on her. Are you done with your sniveling?’ He nodded, and Aiavalë grinned her widest, most grotesque grin at him. ‘Good. Now, dry your face. It is time to figure out how to get her back. Never allow an adversary to beat you, not even in small things. It is for you to say how things shall be. That will make them think twice before trying such again.’ They exacted revenge and he never forgot the lesson of power.
Denethor broke off more bread and spread cheese upon it. He leaned back and retrieved the pot of wine from the embers, refreshing their cups. ‘It should go well with your account about the tidewater wreckage.’
‘Yes, I suppose it will,’ was the acerbic reply. Denethor ate a few bites of bread before replying.
‘What notes have you made? Is there anything else that has been left out?’ Thorongil put the pages on the desk and they spent the next hour figuring out what they would say. The window let in more light, a soft grey light that illuminated little and left a feeling of gloom behind. The second hour was rung, and they gathered their reports and papers for the council in a half-hour.
They were almost to the Wall door when they heard steps on the stair to the ground floor. In a moment, Finduilas appeared, dressed in black, with a heavy veil over her hair. In her hands was a soft sheet of leather folded over a sheaf of papers. Her cloak was over her arm.
‘Good morrow, gentlemen,’ she said. They nodded and returned her greeting. ‘I heard the bells. The council will commence shortly, is that not so?’
‘Yes, within the half-hour. Am I to understand that you will sit for Dol Amroth, prince?’ As she approached, Denethor could see that Finduilas looked tired, as though she, too, had not slept well.
‘That is correct, sir. My lord father, the Prince, has granted me authority to speak for Dol Amroth in this meeting. I may not commit funds or troops, but in all else I act in his name.’ Her eyes on him were stern, cool. Denethor regretted again his harsh words of the evening before. What had possessed him to lose his temper and speak so bluntly to this girl? Your pride, fool. She told you. Aiavalë would slap you if she knew that you let yourself be goaded so. Denethor gestured at the door.
‘Allow me to show you to the council chamber, then, Dol Amroth.’ He helped her on with her cloak but did not offer his arm as he did not wish to risk her refusing it where Thorongil could see. The three stepped out upon the wall. The rain was coming down more heavily than earlier in the morning and the wind had picked up. They hurried along the high walkway above the inner court to the Tower door. The wind snatched at the door when it opened and Thorongil had to wrestle it closed. Denethor led them up a flight of stairs and along a few corridors to the council chamber.
It was a high-ceilinged room with windows looking east. A large, oblong table stood in the center, and some of the lords and their heirs were already gathered. Denethor felt a soft touch on his wrist and looked down at Finduilas.
‘What seat is mine, Denethor, or does it matter?’ she quietly asked. He felt a sense of relief when she said his name. Offering his arm, he guided her to the foot of the table.
‘It is traditional, Alquallë, for Dol Amroth to sit at the foot of the table, opposite the Lord Steward,’ he murmured. ‘It is also traditional for Dol Amroth to speak last of all the lords, being the most senior of the Outland holdings.’
‘Whom do I follow, then?’
‘Thorongil, who will speak for Pelargir and the Ethir.’
‘And when do you speak?’
‘After you, prince.’
‘Thank you, friend.’ Finduilas smiled up at him and patted his hand gently before letting go his arm and taking her seat. He could not help but smile back.
Denethor moved to his chair, half-way up the table and facing west, and stood next to it to indicate that others should take their seats. Thorongil stood opposite him. Brandir beamed and nodded from his place at the Steward’s right hand. Knowing how much the man must have drunk the previous night, Denethor wondered how his brother-in-law could keep from looking hung-over, let alone be cheerful. He nodded back gravely. The door opened a final time and Ecthelion entered, somber and noble. All stood and remained standing until the Lord Steward took his seat. Ecthelion placed the ivory rod of his office on the table, then stood again to address the gathering.
‘Lords, captains, friends. We thank you for attending us, forsaking your own hearths and halls for strange lodgings in a distant city. We also thank you for your kindness to us in a time of sorrow, and for paying final respects to our lady wife.’ There were murmurs of condolence around the table. Denethor wondered how many knew the gesture was wasted on Ecthelion. He glanced at Finduilas and saw her sit with her head bowed. One here, at least, mourned Emeldir’s passing with a true heart. ‘But even when grief afflicts us, the realm demands to be watched over. Let us tell each other how Gondor fares, and plan how we shall govern our lands in this new year.’
Ecthelion sat, took up the rod, and gestured for the lord of Pinnath Gelin to rise and report. The man shuffled a few pieces of paper, and began to drone on about flocks and fruit harvests. His heir, Hirluin, sat to his sire’s right hand, and spent the entire time of the report attempting to catch Finduilas’s eye. From the look of the boy, he was somewhere between Finduilas and Imrahil in age. Pinnath Gelin did not produce much, did not trade much, and had very little to say for itself. All asked a few polite questions afterwards, and Finduilas carefully praised the lord for the quality of the fruit that came to Dol Amroth from Pinnath Gelin. The young lord of the Ringló Vale, Morvorin, spoke next, and so went the morning. Each lord reported, all questioned afterwards, and each received some specific bit of praise from Finduilas. She showed the same deft touch with handling the other lords that her father possessed. Her questions, though gently asked, were carefully thought out and not always easy to answer. It was exactly as if Adrahil sat in the chair. Well, aside from the fact that the heirs, and even a few of the lords, would not have looked so avidly at the Prince. Obviously, Adrahil had trained more than his heir in the art of politics and rule. Denethor was pleased that her cough did not appear to be bothering her greatly this morning.
It was approaching the noon hour. Now, only Anórien, Ethir Anduin, Dol Amroth, and Minas Tirith itself required reporting. Denethor glanced at Thorongil, who briefly caught his eye and gave a tiny nod. These were the war locations. Brandir would give his report on the beacon fires, and then Thorongil could begin the explanation of Umbar. Not that the Steward knew Umbar would be on the agenda, of course.
Brandir stood for Anórien, as Denethor would speak for Minas Tirith and Ithilien. ‘My Lord Steward, my lords, Anórien does well enough. I shall not bore you with the grain harvests or the herd counts or the bolts of cloth woven – I have had documents on all such things drawn up and copies made for each of you.’
Denethor was impressed at Brandir’s foresight, but suspected this was done at Maiaberiel’s suggestion. This report would go very swiftly, as there was not much to say about the beacons. He made a small note that, for the next year’s council, all such reports should be copied out and distributed to the lords. Denethor made himself pay attention to Brandir’s words.
‘What is of greatest interest to me and to the province is our relations with Rohan, and with our defense of Anduin. I journey much between our realms, and am quite aware of the two points of crossing that directly affect ourselves and our ally – Cair Andros and the Undeeps. The defenses of Gondor are not properly used to counter the growing threats to the river crossings.’
This was not on the agenda. Denethor schooled his face to calm and risked a look at Thorongil. The captain’s face was grave, but showed no surprise at this argument. He expected this. He knew Brandir would talk of this. A small prickle on the back of his neck let him know he was being watched and he did not dare to look at Ecthelion. Denethor began to wonder if the message this morning had indeed been a trap. Is this what you were discussing over supper with Beruthiel and Brandir, captain? He could already see the arc of the argument. The Umbar threat… No, that would not be an immediate enough problem to delay an attempt to move north and have influence in Minas Tirith itself.
‘As I was discussing with the Lord Steward,’ so Ecthelion is in on this as well, ‘there has been an alarming increase in Orc incursions into the Wold and East Emnet over the Undeeps, harassing the herds of our ally. Reports are that Orcs are increasing in north Ithilien as well, and may endanger Cair Andros.’ Denethor felt his temper rise at the slight to his own command. Orcs have been increasing east of Anduin for twenty years, since Orodruin came back to life. ‘I do not doubt but that our Anórien commander, Marlong, is a solid and competent fellow, trained as he is by Captain Thorongil,’ and trained by me for seven years prior to that, ‘but he may lack the diplomatic experience necessary to coordinate defenses between Gondor and our ally. I know King Thengel and his marshals would be more willing to take direction from Gondor for how to patrol their own lands if they had more trust in the Anórien garrison commander. That is the pressing news from Anórien. Oh, and the beacons between Gondor and Rohan are well maintained, with oiled wood available for burning even in the great storms we have felt this winter.’
Report completed, Brandir sat and smiled genially around the table. You are too simple to even know how you have been used, I dare say. There was nothing to do at this point but understand Thorongil’s role in the Lord Steward’s maneuver. A move to Anórien was in preparation for moving him to Osgiliath, that was clear. And what of the Captain-General, my Lord Steward? Or do you think to have another by then? Denethor nodded his thanks to Brandir and motioned for Thorongil to speak, not allowing time for questions. He wanted to get to the bottom of this maneuvering right away. His curiosity was as strong as his anger.
‘I fear I am not as well prepared as Lord Brandir, having no reports to give to each of you,’ Thorongil began, ‘but he has brought up a concern of mine. The storms this winter have been punishing, particularly in the Ethir and up Anduin to Pelargir. The river runs higher than it has in two-hundred years, and will run higher still when spring melts the snows of Hithaeglir. I doubt Rohan or Anórien will have much difficulty with Orcs until mid-summer at the earliest. The river will not be fordable until then.’ Denethor finally risked a quick, surreptitious glance at Ecthelion. The Steward’s expression was guarded. So, this is not according to your agenda, either. You expected the captain to agree with the threat of Orcs, not prattle on about storm damage. Thorongil evidently had his own plans. Denethor steepled his fingers and assumed his most thoughtful expression, wondering where the secretive captain was going to take things.
‘The Ethir and upper delta are greatly harmed. All but one major ship channel to the Bay has been ruined through floods and wrack. The wells in the region are threatened with sea water, and a number on the delta are ruined. The tidewaters are greatly damaged, with most of the population retreating northwards to Pelargir. Luckily, most are fisherfolk and boatmen, and their ships were saved. So, while the land is harmed, the people are safe. And, I believe, what is ruin in the short run may be to our advantage soon enough. With all due respect to King Thengel, Lord Brandir, a few Orc raids on poorly minded horse herds are of no threat to Gondor. With your assistance on diplomatic matters, Marlong should be able to arrange for suitable patrols by mid-summer. The true danger to Gondor is an old enemy – Umbar.’
‘Umbar has done no more than perform a few raids since Prince Adrahil defeated them at Langstrand,’ Forlong, heir of Lossarnach, broke in. ‘They are little better than pirates. Dangerous, yes, but few and of limited threat. I hear from fishermen and traders upon Anduin that they are losing old ships on the shores. The Corsairs are failing.’
‘No!’ Finduilas’s voice was sharp. ‘Pardon my impertinence for correcting you, Lord Forlong, but you are wrong about this threat. River men do not understand the dangers of the coasts, and the falas is where Corsairs do their great damage.’
‘Always is Dol Amroth concerned about the sea,’ Forlong responded phlegmatically, ‘but what proof is there that Umbar does not fail? Every season sees less of them and their black sails.’
‘Because they are busy building up their strength, my lord,’ Thorongil interjected. ‘For months I have heard news in Pelargir that the ships they lose are the ones they do not care to save. They do not strike important targets on our coasts, but they patrol their own very closely, keeping outside eyes away from their haven. There is good reason to believe that they are husbanding their power and building a great fleet.’
‘There is some reason to believe this.’ For the first time, Ecthelion spoke. Denethor took the opportunity to study the other’s face openly. Ecthelion was smiling as though nothing of great import was being discussed, but his eyes were not amused. The tension in his shoulders gave away the Steward’s anger. ‘Lord Forlong, I do think that there is still some mischief that the Corsairs may perform upon the falas, and we must all be grateful that Prince Adrahil is vigilant against their threat. But there have been no reliable reports out of Umbar for almost five years. Rumors, of course, but nothing that we can confirm.’ Denethor sent Thorongil a darkly amused glance. The captain was obviously gritting his teeth to keep from contradicting the Steward in front of the other lords. Rumors? What of our dead and missing spies? What of the reports that do get through? The captain was probably thinking the same thing. ‘They are always a concern, though perhaps not such a one as we must keep all of our best strength located so far south?’
‘Perhaps not, my Lord Steward,’ Thorongil conceded, ‘though I hope we shall not discount them too much.’
Ecthelion chuckled and shook his head a little. ‘Always Umbar with you, captain! You should have more faith in your own preparations. We shall discuss this more later, in its place.’ He smiled genially at Thorongil, dismissing the other’s objections with a look, then gestured to Finduilas. ‘My dear girl, do you have some message from your lord father for this council? Though your lovely presence is the finest gift the prince could bestow upon us.’ The lords assented to this with laughter and bows towards the woman.
Denethor stared down at the table and seethed. He supposed that he should be pleased that Umbar had more of a hearing this year than it had received in the past, but it was infuriating. Why was the Steward so determined to ignore this threat? It made no sense. Neither he nor Thorongil could get an answer from Ecthelion, and neither could come up with one on their own. And you will turn aside the discussion again, as you always do. When I give you the message, will you bother to inform your lords of what is in it? You will sit here and flirt with a girl younger than your own children, two days after you buried your wife, and you will ignore this. A wild, reckless idea came to him. He liked it. You are preparing to replace me anyway, are you not? Very well, I shall give you a reason to do so. It was time to teach a lesson in power, once it was his turn to present.
‘My lords, my Lord Steward, I must beg your indulgence for my youth and my ignorance of high councils. The Prince has provided me with certain communications on the state of Dol Amroth and the falas under his command, which I shall attempt to do justice to. He sends his regrets and apologies for not having made the journey himself, and hopes you will forgive him.’ Finduilas paused to cough quietly into her hand, then launched into a detailed and crisp account of Dol Amroth. Denethor was reminded of the exchange between Adrahil and Luinil he had witnessed the previous spring. The girl acquitted herself better than most of the lords, though her coughing grew more pronounced as she spoke. What impressed Denethor most was the way in which she wove the reports from earlier in the morning into her own, supporting (and sometimes disagreeing with) the information from the other lords. You are a prince to be reckoned with, Alquallë. Adrahil can be pleased with his pupil. Though I wonder if anyone here has heard a word you have said. None of the young heirs, to be certain.
‘As you have heard, Dol Amroth and Belfalas do well, despite the storms, though some low-lying areas have suffered greatly from the high tides, just as in the Ethir. Something that must needs be said, however, is that the Prince agrees with Captain Thorongil – Umbar is a greater threat than we believe. The coast knows.’ Denethor and Thorongil exchanged looks at her words. Another ally, though it would have been better for the Prince himself to be making this argument. A young woman would too easily be discounted.
‘Lord Forlong has already pointed out that Dol Amroth is ever concerned about the sea,’ Ecthelion said in a mild, distant tone, the one Denethor knew meant the Steward was becoming angry, ‘so I do not think we need to take up more time with restating this.’
‘I must report what my lord father has charged me to say, I fear, so I beg again your indulgence, my Lord Steward,’ Finduilas firmly replied.
‘Please, prince, give us your father’s words as succinctly as you can,’ Denethor added, sending her a warning look that Aiavalë would have understood. He did not want Ecthelion to declare an end to the discussion yet, and the Steward would do just that if Finduilas pushed this issue too much.
‘As you request, Warden. Briefly put, ocean-going smugglers who do some trade with Umbar have brought news that the Corsairs are building a fleet with which to attack Gondor.’
‘And the word of these fellows is to be trusted?’ Forlong said derisively. ‘This is naught but more of the same rumors that we always hear, the same as those that the captain said but a few minutes ago.’
‘They claim to have glimpsed a fleet being built,’ Finduilas stubbornly replied.
“Umbar is always building ships! What news is that?’ Forlong snapped.
‘These are not just rumors!’ A spasm of coughing seized her, and one of the young men sitting near lost no time in fetching her some water.
‘My dear, be calm, I beg you,’ Ecthelion soothingly entreated, ‘lest you make yourself ill. There is no point in becoming upset over some rumors reported by scurrilous fellows.’
‘It is not rumor. It is fact.’
Denethor enjoyed the moment of silence and the confused looks that followed his pronouncement. Thorongil raised an eyebrow, then looked down at the table, hiding a smile. Denethor put on his most serious expression and pulled the message from the morning out of his stack of papers. As he did so, he slipped a finger under the seal and broke it. He shook it open and held it up so all could see. A few of the older lords recognized what he held, and sent nervous glances towards the Steward.
‘This was delivered by a messenger to me before dawn this morning. He did not wish to disturb your rest in this time of mourning, Lord Ecthelion, and so it came to me. It is a most rare and most reliable missive – a ciphered message from the leader of the Faithful in Umbar.’ All craned forward to see better. Denethor held it aloft for a few moments, then laid it face down on the table. The Steward’s voice rang out crisply.
‘I believe a break is in order. We shall pause for dinner, my lords, my lady, and meet back in one hour. Good morning and thank you.’ Denethor did not look up from the message. Chairs scraped and creaked as the lords stood. Soon, the room was empty save for himself and Ecthelion. Only then did Denethor look up and face the Steward.
They matched cold stares. The Steward held out his hand for the message. Denethor rose and brought it over, sitting at the other’s gesture. Ecthelion perused the document, checking for signs that it was authentic and not written under duress. He handed it back after a few minutes.
‘And what does it say?’
‘It says that the shipyards of Umbar were thoroughly ruined in the two storms of early December. They lost the bulk of their usual fighting ships, at least thirty, and those that still float are in dire condition. Most will need to be scrapped. They suffered loss and heavy damage to the majority of the smaller raiding vessels, the ones they use up the rivers…’
‘I know how their ships are used.’
‘Of course. Forgive my presumption. Forty smaller vessels are accounted total losses, and most of the rest are partly damaged. Most costly to them were the fifteen great ships, all that they had.’ Ecthelion’s face paled at the news they were building great ships. ‘They also lost many workmen who lived in barracks along the docks, and so will need to retrain as well as rebuild. All told, their work of the last two to three years has been lost, and they will need another year besides that to repair their haven to where shipbuilding may begin again. So, instead of being attacked in three years, we have been given that much of a reprieve. They will rebuild.’
Ecthelion nodded, thoughtful. The two sat silently as the Steward considered the news. The old man stood and walked over to a window and looked down upon the city. Denethor followed and stood to the other side of the window.
‘So we have been spared.’ Ecthelion’s voice was far away, almost dreamy.
‘What do you mean?’
Ecthelion leaned a shoulder on the wall and crossed his arms. ‘Good fortune has come to us unlooked for and has destroyed our enemies. We should be grateful.’
‘Grateful? Well, yes, I suppose, but would it not be better to be prepared? What if fortune had not smiled upon us, if the season were mild and dry, and we looked at two years instead of three before an invasion?’
‘But fortune has blessed us, and we should be grateful. We have not much but fortune.’
‘We have arms and wisdom! Fortune is a fine thing, but if we do not take care of the former we are in no position to make use of the latter, such as now.’
‘And what would we do? What have we to be able to take advantage of this fortune?’
‘Why, my Lord Steward? I want to know why.’
‘Why are you so determined to ignore Umbar, to disregard this threat that I and Thorongil, and indeed Prince Adrahil, all perceive?’
‘Answer my question and you shall answer your own, Denethor.’
‘You see no way to counter the threat, so you choose to ignore it.’
‘No, I choose to wait.’ The Steward traced an invisible design on the window with his finger. ‘You are… impetuous. You have not learned how to be patient.’
‘I fail to see how it is impatient to understand fully what we face and to think on it and to lay plans, to consider options, to…’
‘You are as much of a scold as your mother. You speak to me as though I have done none of those things, as though I choose a foolish, even cowardly, path.’ Quick as a snake, Ecthelion seized Denethor’s collar and yanked him forward and down, so they were almost nose to nose. There was no hint of rheum or age in his father’s eyes; only cold contempt. ‘You have greatly overstepped, Warden. I shall not forgive this presumption. Ever.’ The Steward let go Denethor’s collar and swept back to his chair. ‘I wait, Denethor, for the simple reason that we cannot take war to Umbar. We can do naught but wait until they should see fit to bring it to us, to come within our reach upon coast and rivers. I wait, and do not seek to frighten or alarm the sea-fiefs so that they will be honest about their harvests and their strengths, and so that we may build up our own reserves from them. I wait, and I watch my own heir turn to treachery.’
‘I have asked you your reasons before and you have refused to take me into your counsels.’
‘Then you should have been content with my silence. Or made yourself worthy of my trust. You have done nothing to change my mind.’ Ecthelion studied Denethor, then shook his head. ‘You need to learn humility. Not all things are to be mastered, and then one must trust to fortune. Though your irresponsible act has destroyed that trust.’
‘Trust? If I have acted rashly then it is because you have not trusted me with your reasons. You have left me blind, and demanded that I act in ignorance of your true intent. Yes, shall we speak of trust when you connive with one child to displace another? It is your desire to move Thorongil to Anórien, is it not?’ Denethor demanded.
The Steward shrugged. ‘He is the obvious choice to oversee that region, given his long youth in Rohan. I am surprised you did not put him there to begin with.’
‘I put him where he is best used. And if we now speak truth, my Lord Steward, will you speak truly as to whether you intend him to remain in Anórien?’
Ecthelion chuckled. ‘I will put him where I think him best used.’
‘If it is your wish, my lord, that he should command Osgiliath, then say so and it shall be done,’ Denethor coolly countered.
‘No. You are sufficient for that command.’ Meaning what? That I shall sit upon the river and the northern eagle shall alight upon the city, as Alquallë dreamed. Ecthelion’s plan, with Beruthiel’s support and Brandir’s witless assistance was becoming clear. You will be rid of this heir for another. ‘For now, I will defer to Thorongil’s judgment that Marlong will handle Anórien well enough. After your stupidity in council, the southern lords will demand the reassurance of Thorongil at Pelargir. You shall speak of this message when the council assembles and shall emphasize the destruction of Umbar’s shipyards. You will not speak of the great ships, but say whatever you wish of the smaller ones. River raids will frighten them to the right degree. You shall apologize for having spoken out of turn on this matter, before taking counsel with me. How shall that be explained, hmm.’ Ecthelion paused, then nodded, ‘You were expecting to speak with me at this time, knowing I would wish it said, and could not help your outburst. Your respect for my age and your concern for my… grief kept you from disturbing my poor rest in the early hours. Yes, that will do.’
‘Have you no grief, or even mere decency?’ Denethor stalked from his place by the window and glared down at Ecthelion. ‘Was the Lady Emeldir just another bit of fortune you happened upon? Did you ever care for her, ever love her?’
‘No and no. It was my bad fortune to wed her, and I am relieved it is done.’
Denethor closed his eyes and gripped the edge of the table for a moment. This should not be a surprise, should not make his chest hurt and his knees weaken. He had seen his parents’ contempt for each other, but had thought, as Finduilas had said, that it was estrangement. That it was always thus… ‘You are more appalling than I had imagined.’
‘When you have been wed for sixty years, and have sat in the black chair for twenty, then you will understand. Though I doubt you will be any less appalled.’ The Steward’s voice was soft, almost kind. Denethor’s lack of sleep gnawed on him as the tide of his heart ebbed away, and he wished he could find a dark corner in which to rest and to plan how Ecthelion could be made to pay for his affronts to Emeldir, to himself, and to the City. Denethor willed weariness to leave him be, and let ice take its place. He refused the pity in Ecthelion’s eyes as he looked upon his sire again.
‘I do not doubt it. Is it true what I hear in the street?’
‘That you prefer your second son to your first?’
Ecthelion smiled, quite amused. ‘And why should I not prefer the one who is more dutiful and grants me more respect?’
‘Then you name him your bastard?’
‘I am naming you rebellious and treacherous.’ But you are wrong. Both your sons are traitors. You have not asked who played messenger. Perhaps I do have the brother I need.
‘Unlike your servant, my good opinion cannot be bought.’
‘That works both ways, Denethor. The captain has earned my trust by knowing when to be silent and how to be patient. You have squandered both a father’s love and a lord’s regard. You have ever failed in your duty to me.’
‘Better that than to fail in my duty to the City. If you will pardon me.’ Denethor wheeled and left. He made his way to the dining hall where the lords were taking their noon meal. Before he sat, he directed one of the servers to provide the Lord Steward his dinner in the meeting chamber. A quick glance showed Finduilas to be sitting between Brandir and Thorongil near the head of the table. Thorongil was waiting to catch his eye and gestured for him to join them. He knew all eyes were on him, so Denethor took his time to get there, politely greeting the lords and conveying a calm he did not feel.
‘Is all well, Lord Denethor?’ Thorongil murmured as he took his seat at the head of the table.
‘Of course, all is quite well. Better than we could have hoped. I fear I surprised the Lord Steward, but he has been apprised and his approval has been granted,’ Denethor replied with a slight smile. ‘Lady Finduilas, how do you fare? The damp cannot be good for you.’
‘Well enough, sir. I sat for too long. Lord Brandir and the captain escorted me for a short walk, and then have kindly kept me company. Will the afternoon be as long?’
‘Yes, I fear it will be.’ Denethor avoided further conversation by pretending to eat his dinner. Brandir chattered away and prevented the need for any of the other three to speak. Too soon for Denethor’s liking, it was time to reconvene the council. The Steward smiled broadly at all, and gestured for Denethor to stand and speak.
‘My Lord Steward, my lords, I must humbly beg apology for my outburst this morning. Lord Ecthelion has forgiven my failure to speak privately with him first, and I shall now present his counsel. Until this very morning, we have had but rumors to work upon, and guesses to guide our thoughts, with unreliable witnesses. Now, we have the word of the Faithful. They took advantage of the disarray of the winter storms to smuggle out this most valuable message. The word is both alarming and reassuring…’
Denethor presented the information as Ecthelion requested, holding perfectly to the Steward’s directions. Thorongil listened intently, as he expected. The southern lords did not doubt and voiced approval of the Steward’s change of mind over moving Thorongil north. The captain was questioned closely about ship strength, river defenses, and ways to warn of attacks. Another council was planned for Pelargir in the late spring, to ensure Prince Adrahil’s presence. The condition of the quays at the Harlond and the bridge at Osgiliath were discussed, and Brandir enthusiastically detailed the state of the fort on Cair Andros. No one appeared to care that the report for Minas Tirith and Ithilien was not presented. It was just as well – Denethor had other things to think on.
The light in the windows went from dull grey to full dark far too quickly. Soon, it was time for supper. Only the lords were allowed to attend it, leaving Thorongil to his own devices for the evening. Denethor saw to it that Brandir played escort to Finduilas, as Hirluin looked ready to presume upon her company, and tried to catch Thorongil’s eye. It was not possible to do so until Alquallë left the room. Repressing a sigh of exasperation, he motioned slightly with his head, indicating for the captain to wait for him in the hall. The captain lingered at the end of the group and they allowed the others to leave them behind.
‘Yes, my lord?’ Thorongil’s tone was even. As if you were not playing several games in council this day. Who are you serving, besides yourself, with these feints? The Steward? Maiaberiel?
‘You depart tomorrow.’
‘Yes.’ Denethor closely studied the other’s face.
‘I think you wasted in Anórien.’
‘I agree, sir. Marlong does well.’
‘So why did you allow Ecthelion to believe that you would serve there?’
‘The Steward may order the realm as he pleases, with all due respect, my lord.’
‘Then, if you truly believe that, I suggest you cease to wake me. Or else learn ciphers for yourself.’ Thorongil’s face remained still. ‘Good evening, captain.’ Denethor took a step, then said, ‘Do give my best to Maiaberiel. That is where you sup tonight, is it not?’ Thorongil looked a bit cross, but nodded.
‘Don’t.’ After a long moment, Thorongil bowed shallowly.
‘As you command, my lord.’
‘It is not a command, Thorongil. It is a bit of advice. Do as you please.’
Denethor left the captain. When he arrived in the dining hall, he went to his seat at the foot. He welcomed the West-facing silence, needing the moment to collect himself. His mind was getting clouded with weariness. The funeral, the year-end duties, the Council, and now the contestation with Ecthelion were exhausting him when he needed to think clearly. Near the head of the table, he saw Finduilas at the Steward’s right hand. She saw him and smiled, then raised an enquiring eyebrow. He nodded to say he was well. Brandir leaned across the table and asked her something. Soon the two were chatting animatedly. Ecthelion would interject and joke, teasing his son-in-law and flirting with Finduilas.
The sight made Denethor feel ill, with a clenched stomach and a tight chest. He picked at his plate, then gave up and drank. The wine did nothing to soothe his stomach but it did relax and warm him. The final piece of Beruthiel’s planning had fallen into place and it was more than he really wished to consider. Emeldir was no longer alive to rein in her younger daughter’s more shameless meddling. Maiaberiel and Ecthelion were in agreement about supplanting him with Thorongil. Brandir would be a witless and reliable pawn. And Thorongil, it appeared, could probably be tempted, if given his head on Umbar. Is he the Steward’s bastard? Was that a confession? The Steward would probably never directly claim the man, but he would allow rumors to do the work for him. The uncertainty would work to Thorongil’s favor, in truth. But there was one last part to be performed, the keystone to the arch.
Denethor made himself stop after the third cup of wine, and choked down a bit of bread. He did not need to be drunk or sick in this company. The meal was not lavish and the lords were tired from the Council, so it did not last long. His head spun slightly when he stood and he had a sense of floating. Too much wine, not enough sleep. At the far end, he saw a few servants bringing the cloaks from the meeting chamber to the dining hall so the lords would not have to climb back up the Tower to get them. Denethor collected his own and Finduilas’s, then sought her out to escort her back to the Stewards House. Ecthelion bid her a fond farewell, but only gave him a cold stare. Brandir walked the Steward out. Denethor stared after them.
‘Denethor?’ Finduilas put a hand on his arm, looking up at him curiously.
‘May we go now? I am quite worn out from the day.’
‘Of course, forgive my rudeness.’ They left the dining hall and made their way towards the door to the upper walkway. When they were well away from the others, Denethor asked, ‘Will you need to make plans to return to Dol Amroth? Since you can no longer be Lady Emeldir’s guest, I presume your parents will wish for you to return as soon as possible.’ Finduilas shook her head.
‘No, actually, my parents do not wish for me to travel in this season. I sent word to Father of the lady’s passing, and asked if I should return. He replied that he would prefer I remain in the city. I spoke with the Lord Steward at the meal, as it happens, and have received his permission to remain safely as his guest until my parents journey here in the spring. Indeed, he was most gracious, saying that I was always welcome as guest in his house.’
‘I agree with that sentiment, Alquallë. I can scarce think of you as a guest, so dear have you become to my family. Your own kin must miss you sorely.’ They arrived at the door out of the Tower and wrapped their cloaks more closely. The weather was foul, with pouring rain and strong winds, and Denethor took Finduilas’s arm firmly to keep her from slipping or becoming disoriented in the dark. They ducked their heads against the wet as they splashed and slipped through the puddles on the walkway. Once at the house, he saw her to her door and bade her good evening.
His stomach was sour and his head was pounding. Denethor knew he should sleep, but walked back out upon the wall. He hoped the cold and rain would sober him up. The wind tore back his hood and he did not bother to pull it up, turning his face into the rain. The cold seeped in with the wind. It was good. It made his flesh, his bones, as cold as his heart. Denethor stared out into the featureless night, sensing rather than seeing the city dropping down the mountain below him, trying to perceive the deeper Darkness of the east through the curtain of rain.
When he returned to the house, his fingers were stiff and he could scarcely open the door. Aiavalë was waiting for him in his study. She looked at his sopping condition and sighed.
‘Little brother, I despair of teaching you anything when you have not enough sense to come in from a storm.’
‘Big sister, you have taught me that we are always in a storm. I think I prefer rain to the other weather.’
‘Get out of those wet things and warm up. I want to know what happened at the Council.’
‘May I tell you tomorrow? I fear I shall not make much sense right now.’
‘No. Off with the wet clothes. I am not leaving until you stop shivering.’ She limped over and began divesting him of sodden garments. Knowing she had no qualms about stripping him bare, Denethor batted her hands away and retreated behind the screen to change. Soon, he was sitting in front of the fire, wrapped in a warm robe, sipping tea while Aiavalë used her shawl to dry his hair. It took several minutes and two mugs of tea before he stopped shaking.
‘It went well for Gondor, but badly for me.’ Aiavalë rose and disappeared behind the screen, returning with a comb in hand. She pulled her chair near his and began combing out his hair. ‘Ecthelion finally addressed Umbar, though I had to force his hand and present a communication from the Faithful to the Council against his wishes.’
‘What did he do?’
‘Called a break. Sent the others out to get dinner. Named me traitor. But he agreed to allow me to speak. Thorongil and I informed the lords of how things stand.’ He studied the dregs in the mug. ‘I asked him if he preferred his second son to his first.’ Her hands stopped.
‘He refused to name Thorongil his, but let me know he would allow the belief to stand. He and Brandir tried to move the captain out of Pelargir and up to Anórien. The Umbar news caused the lords to protest, so the captain remains south.’
‘So, Beruthiel would move her paramour closer.’
‘He’s not that. While I do not think she would flinch from bedding her half-brother, she would care what others think. She wants him in power more than she wants him in bed.’
‘You think he is our brother, then.’
‘I have no idea. No, no, I cannot believe it. He is of the Lost. But I want to believe it.’ Denethor rubbed his eyes with one hand and held out the mug for more tea. She poured more for him and resumed taking the tangles out of his hair. The mug warmed his fingers.
‘Why do you want that, Denethor?’
‘Thorongil… he is not just the Steward’s or Beruthiel’s creature, though I am not certain the Lost would claim him any more. He has his own mind. But I think him loyal, to the City. To Gondor. He has…’ Hope. Thorongil has hope in the face of the Shadow. How? Denethor’s mind balked, refusing to think more clearly. ‘He has ideas about… things. He is useful, and more honest than not. I think he intends to stay. And I think he may have ambitions.’
‘Ah, you are finally listening to me! A good officer always looks to advance, even if he is trustworthy.’
‘What does he lack to contest for true leadership? That is what I had to ask. And what Thorongil lacks is an anchor.’ Denethor laughed, amused at the thought of the Umbar-obsessed captain walking about dragging a chain with no anchor to moor himself. ‘Even were he Ecthelion’s bastard, he has no lands, no fortune, no station. He can be a great captain, but no more than that. So where shall he obtain such things, if he is of a mind to be Steward? Or King?’
‘He would not presume to that, would he?’
Denethor shrugged. ‘Maiaberiel would presume to be a queen, if she could. But he must secure his power, and not merely his popularity, if he would be ambitious.’
‘He must marry into a great family.’ Denethor sipped and nodded. ‘Beruthiel must be regretting Brandir rather greatly.’
‘He must marry one of the daughters of the Prince of Dol Amroth.’
‘Well, you must marry one of them first, then.’
‘You know my mind on this matter.’
‘I know you are stubborn on this matter. Denethor, look at me.’ He did as she asked. The right half of her face, the one closest to him, made even Maiaberiel look plain. The cruelest part of her deformity was how exquisite the other half of her was. ‘You must marry.’
‘It is your duty, even as it was Mother’s. You must marry and you must get an heir, the sooner the better. If you have set yourself against the Steward, as you say, then you must do this or you might as well hand the realm over to this northern brigand!’
‘At this very moment, Aiavalë, it is not an entirely unappealing thought.’
‘Crawling off into a corner? Letting Beruthiel rule? Why does that appeal more than marrying Alquallë?’
‘Marrying…? I am not marrying anyone, Aiavalë, least of all someone scarce more than a child.’
‘He would have no such scruples. I have seen how he stares at her.’
‘Shall I conduct myself by a brigand’s morals?’
‘Shall you leave her to him, then?’
‘I think it not my concern whom Finduilas accepts. I rather doubt she would agree to be married off as breeding stock, nor do I think the Prince would permit it.’ He drained the last of his tea.
‘It is your duty.’
‘Yes, it is my duty, and I am through with duty for this day. Please go and allow me sleep, sister. I promise you may scold me on the morrow.’
Aiavalë sighed, then smiled a little and patted his cheek. ‘Very well, you troublesome boy. I will leave you be, but do not think this argument at an end. You need…’
‘I need to sleep.’
‘You need to sleep, and then you need to consider the truth of what I say.’
‘I will. Tomorrow.’
‘Tomorrow.’ Aiavalë kissed him good night, and left. He banked the fire, snuffed the candles, and went to bed. This night, sleep came quickly.
Characters introduced in this chapter, in order of appearance:
Hirluin – heir of Pinnath Gelin, 24 years old
Morvorin – OC. Lord of the Ringló Vale, 30 years old
Forlong – heir of Lossarnach, 40 years old
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