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Truce: 4. Trickery and Deceit
- Chapter 4 -
Turgon groaned and struggled to roll over in his narrow bunk. "Has it stopped raining yet?"
Denethor could not tell if it was sleep that slurred his voice, or the open barrel of Lebennin brandy on the deck beside his bunk. "Yes, finally." The stormy night had yielded at last to a grey dawn that half-heartedly illuminated flat brown water stretching toward barren fields. A cold mist coated the fine hairs on the hand he extended out the tiny porthole of their cabin. "It's much colder, though. Nearly freezing."
Bare feet thudded onto the plank floor. "Can you see the Citadel yet?"
"No, but we shouldn't be far from the Harlond." The captain had promised an early morning landing and it seemed the crew was preparing for one. Purposeful footsteps had been moving about on the upper deck since long before first light. If all went as planned, Denethor could deliver Thorongil to the Houses of Healing by mid-morning, leaving the rest of the day to resolve the looming catastrophe of Finduilas's marriage ultimatum. He dared not hope for enough time left over before the feast to explore the mystery of Thorongil's strange two-headed ring. It would probably have to be left until after Mettarë. He turned from the window to see Turgon dipping his cup into the brandy again. "That's very expensive stuff."
"The best," Turgon agreed. "Try some?"
Denethor waved away the cup. "Not before breakfast. Please tell me at least you paid for it, this time."
"I am an honorable man!" Turgon affected an offended look. "I won it playing cards with the first mate."
"Well, I think you've had enough of it," Denethor said. "I've no intention of hauling you up six circles." Hauling Thorongil up six circles would be challenge enough. A wagon would have to be found, and the streets would be clogged with holiday travelers who even now could be seen moving along the road to the city. Denethor frowned at an enormous winter-bare tree that stood between the road and the river bank. Wagons, horses, and people moved steadily past it, but the boat should have left it behind by now as it slowly progressed upriver. Instead, the tree remained stubbornly planted exactly in the middle of the porthole. He reached for his boots and jammed them onto his feet.
"Where are you going?"
"Topside. We're not moving." Denethor pulled his cloak on and stood up, stooping to avoid hitting his head on the low ceiling. "I'm going to find out why."
"Traffic," the captain grunted, with a resentful glare at the impenetrable clot of vessels blocking the river ahead. It extended as far as Denethor could see, all the way to the bend in the river just south of the Harlond. Cargo of all kinds was stacked on the decks – casks and crates, livestock, great pottery jars of oil, enormous mounds of wood and charcoal – all of it destined for Minas Tirith. Through the mist, Denethor could faintly see the spike of the Citadel looming high above the city. "I worried this would happen," said the captain, jabbing at the offending vessels with his pipe. "The delay getting out of Pelargir, waiting for your healer and all his special supplies."
"He's not my healer," Denethor corrected.
The captain raised a bushy eyebrow. "It's your man he's tending' to down there, ain't he? It's like this. If my merchandise doesn't get to Minas Tirith in time for the festival, I don't get paid. Simple as that."
Denethor stepped forward, forcing the captain to crane his neck to meet his icy gaze. "Now, see here," he said. "My 'man' down there is a Captain of Gondor, gravely wounded in battle on the very fences of Mordor. He risked his life to keep you and your precious cargo safe. How dare you speak of profit."
The captain's face drained of color. "Begging your pardon, sir," he said with a shakier voice, "I didn't mean no insult to your ma- your officer. But you can see there's no gettin' round this log jam anyhow."
"What's going on?" interjected a blanket-draped Turgon, whose curiosity had finally drawn him out of his bunk. His bleary gaze followed Denethor's pointed finger until he focused on the bobbing mass of vessels filling the river. "Oh," he managed, sagging onto a cask. "So much for an early arrival."
Behind him, climbing awkwardly up the ladder from the lower deck, Denethor could see the healer from Pelargir. Denethor kneaded his forehead. "How long until we reach the docks?" he asked the captain.
"All day, at this rate. You can see nobody is moving."
"We don't have all day!" The healer scuttled toward them with his robes flapping. "My patient must be taken to the Houses of Healing without further delay! These conditions are entirely unsuitable! Damp, cold, filthy – it is an abomination! An abomination! It is a wonder that the patient does not have the lung sickness yet, especially given the deliberate attempts –" at this he shot a glare at Turgon – "at sabotaging my treatment plan. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to keep wounds clean under these conditions? No, I can see you do not. Well," he concluded a heartfelt sigh, "I simply cannot work under these conditions."
The captain stared at him as if considering whether anyone would object if he simply threw him overboard. Then he turned to Denethor. "If you want," he said, "I can put you off over on the bank there."
Along the bank, where farm fields were giving way to the outlying villages around Minas Tirith, Denethor could see other boats that had already abandoned the queue for the docks in favor of dumping their cargo directly on the bank. Some of the freight was already being loaded onto wagons and hand-carts to join the long line of traffic snaking toward the city. "No," he said. "The road is just as clogged with traffic as the river. Thorongil is too weak to withstand that much jostling."
"Out of the question!" echoed the healer.
"We'll just have to wait our turn in line, then," said the captain.
"We'll see about that," Denethor said. "Wait here." With Turgon following, he spun on a heel and made for the ladder to the lower deck.
"What are you going to do?" asked Turgon, as he stormed into the galley and snatched a dish towel from a startled deck hand.
"I do not intend to spend another day in this leaky wreck while it floats within sight of the Citadel," Denethor said, "or endure one more minute of that healer's yapping about the unhealthy vapors in the bilge." Clutching the towel, he climbed back to the top deck and thrust it at the captain. "Take this and hoist this on your mast."
The captain stared blankly at the swatch of plain white cloth. "Hoist this? It's a towel!"
Denethor returned his incredulous look with one of regal impassivity. "Not anymore," he ground out. "Now it is the standard of the Steward. Hoist it on your mast and order the other traffic to make way."
The captain looked at the towel skeptically. "If you say so, sir." He whistled for the mate. "Raise this atop the mast, like he said." When it was done, the captain stepped up to the prow and cleared his throat. "Ahoy there! Make way! Make way in the name of the Steward!"
The response to the captain's order was immediate, if not particularly gratifying. "Pipe down, you old blowhard!" a grizzled seaman called from a barge hauling charcoal. "What is that on your mast, eh? A pillowcase from your cabin?"
"You're drinking too much of your own cargo if you think you can bully your way to the front of the queue like that!" called another.
"Hauling Ecthelion's special brew, are you?" a third cracked. "Send some of that Lebennin brandy over here, and we'll think about letting you by!"
The captain turned to Denethor and shrugged. "You can see for yourself, sir. It's useless."
Denethor exhaled through his teeth and brushed the captain aside. Stepping up to the prow, he took a deep breath. "Listen to me!" he bellowed. "I am Denethor, son of Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor." He watched with grim satisfaction as heads swiveled and jaws dropped open. "In the name of my father, the Steward, I order you to make way for this vessel. We are on urgent business and must not be delayed."
For a moment he was answered by only stares and dead silence. "Did you not hear Lord Denethor?" shouted the captain. "Move those lard-buckets you call ships out of our way!" That did it. All at once, idle deckhands leapt to their feet, boots scrambled on rain-slick decking, and voices could be heard shouting up and down the line of boats. "Did you hear that? That's Lord Denethor himself! Make way, you fools!"
Even with an improvised and slightly gravy-stained banner of the Steward banner flying proudly from its mast and the full cooperation of the other vessels, it was already mid-morning by the time the humble beer barge of Captain Calas finally sidled up to the docks at Harlond. Denethor's relief at gaining the docks was short-lived, for there, tied up in a berth, could be seen a sleek, swift ship flying the unmistakable white swan standard of Dol Amroth.
"She's here," said Turgon helpfully. "What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to get a wagon for Thorongil," he answered brusquely. "Help the healer off the boat with him while I find one."
He pulled rank for the second time of the morning to commandeer a conveyance for Thorongil, which the healer promptly but predictably condemned as unsuitable. "A donkey cart?" he shrieked, skinny arms flapping in bird-like outrage. "I simply cannot transport a wounded man in this fashion! A proper casualty wagon must be brought from the Houses of Healing."
"You must be joking," Turgon said. "Look at the traffic. It will take all day to get a message to the Houses and bring back a casualty wagon."
Denethor looked down at Thorongil, lying beneath the awning of a shed where they'd put him to get him out of the way of the steady stream of freight sleds being moved along the wharf. "What say you, Captain Thorongil? Donkey cart or wait all day for a proper wagon? "
Lines of pain pulled at the corners of Thorongil's eyes, but a spark of mirth shone within them. "No need for either wagon or cart," he said. "If a horse can be found I would be glad to ride."
Affecting a studious expression to conceal his enjoyment of the healer's horrified gasp, Denethor nodded. "Very well. Turgon, find him a horse." It was utter nonsense, of course - Thorongil was in no more condition to sit a horse than he was to sprout wings and fly, but Denethor did not have the heart to deny him this brief revenge on his captor.
The captor was having none of it. "I forbid it!" he yelped. With impressive speed, he rushed to Thorongil, nearly getting himself run over by a cart full of apples in the process, and pinned him to the deck. "You are in no condition to get up!"
Denethor astonished himself by winking conspiratorially at Thorongil. "Now, now. The good Captain has been lounging about for four days. A bit of fresh air and exercise might do him good."
Without taking his hands off Thorongil, the healer threw him a pleading glance. "Lord Denethor, I insist you forbid this course of action."
Denethor shrugged. "Captain Thorongil is a most headstrong officer. He usually gets his own way."
Turgon came trudging back, pulling hard on the lead of the sorriest beast Denethor had ever seen. Denethor looked at him in disbelief. "What is that?"
"You asked for a horse."
Denethor stared at the animal. "I meant a live one."
"It's alive!" Turgon said indignantly. "Granted, it has seen better days – "
"Yes, sometime in the Second Age. Where is its saddle?"
"I do not need one," piped in Thorongil.
"He's an excellent rider," Turgon said. "I've seen him ride without –"
"Saddle or no saddle, I refuse to allow it!" shouted the healer, releasing his hold on Thorongil to advance on Denethor. "This man is in no condition to ride! He cannot even stand!"
Denethor crossed his arms. "What you suggest, then? Leave him here on the wharf to be pecked at by gulls? He cannot walk to the Houses of Healing and you did not like the cart."
The healer wrung his hands. He looked unhappily at Thorongil, whose demonstration of fitness for duty had progressed as far as propping himself up against the wall of the shed, and then back to Denethor. Finally his shoulders slumped. "The cart," he said meekly.
"An excellent choice," Denethor said. "Let us be on our way."
A city perched on the side of a mountain does not have the luxury of broad thoroughfares, and the festival had left Minas Tirith's narrow ones even more choked than normal. At the city gates, Denethor conscripted a pair of uniformed guards and ordered them to clear a path ahead of Thorongil's cart, but even so, progress through the six levels of the city was slow and torturous. People, carts, animals, street vendors, and even puppet theaters encroached on the thoroughfare, threatening complete paralysis. By the time Thorongil was carried inside the Houses of Healing, he was as white as the Steward's banner, and Denethor was as exhausted as if he'd fought a legion of orcs. A legion of orcs would not have been nearly as difficult to get out of the way, he reflected with annoyance as he plunged back into the throng to make his way to his quarters. It was with utter relief that he shut the door behind him, dropped his pack on the floor and threw his cloak across a chair. His boots and sword belt quickly joined the pile on the floor. He padded barefoot to the window and looked out onto the blessedly distant commotion below. He could see the traffic on the road from the Harlond, but now it looked like a trail of ants carrying crumbs back to the nest. Scents of roasting meat and baking bread wafted through the air, reminding him that he had not eaten since dinner last night. His stomach grumbled, and he would have liked to take some time to inspect Thorongil's ring in the privacy of his own quarters, but protocol demanded that he report to the Steward as soon as he was presentable. Reluctantly, he locked the serpent ring in his safe. As soon as he was bathed, shaved, and dressed, he went to see his father.
He should have anticipated that word of his return would race through the city, right to the seat of the Steward. He should have guessed that Ecthelion would rush to be at his favorite captain's side, even before receiving the report from his commander. Even before seeing his own son. Denethor stomped out of his father's vacant office and marched back to the Houses in a state of raging disgust, scattering passersby from his path like startled chickens. He did not slow even to acknowledge the greeting of the doorkeeper who had helped him carry Thorongil inside barely an hour ago.
The room Thorongil had been taken to, at the Warden's insistence, was one reserved for Gondor's elite citizens. That he was no citizen of Gondor at all save for the favor of Ecthelion seemed to be a fact lost on everyone but Denethor.
Denethor barreled down the hallway now and nearly barged straight into the room. At the last instant, he made out his father's voice and skidded to a stop just outside. Leaning around the doorjamb, he saw Ecthelion standing by the bed, along with the black-robed Warden and the pasty healer from Pelargir.
"…utmost confidence in your staff, Master Warden," Ecthelion was saying.
"We shall do all we can for him," the Warden said. "Without the expert care rendered by our esteemed colleague, Master Saerbellas, the task would have been far more difficult."
The fish-eyed Saerbellas wrung his paper-pale hands together. "Master Warden is too kind," he said. "I only did my humble best under very unfortunate circumstances. If my counsel had been heeded, the captain would have been properly cared for in the Houses of Healing in Pelargir instead of suffering in the damp, moldering bilge of a beer barge." Denethor cringed as Ecthelion's shoulders stiffened, but the Pelargirian took no note of it. "This man's recovery," he continued, "indeed, his very survival – was gravely endangered by this reckless and needless expedition!"
Denethor's hands clenched into fists, but before he could step forward to defend himself, another voice spoke up. "Master Saerbellas exaggerates, my lord Steward," said Thorongil. "There is nothing wrong with me that a bit of rest will not remedy."
Ecthelion laid a hand gently on Thorongil's head. "Such rest is well-deserved. You are heralded as a hero of Gondor, and I could not be prouder of you if you were my own son."
Denethor was able to count his next ten heartbeats, so loudly did they whoosh in his ears. Torn between stalking into the room and stalking off to sulk in private, he instead stood rooted in place. My own son. Here was where his generosity and indulgence of Thorongil had got him. By failing to keep him in check, to counter every shift in the power balance, he had lost valuable ground. Unforgivable ground. Possibly unrecoverable ground. My own son. In the beginning, Thorongil had been nothing but a foreigner, a stranger. Now, it was Denethor, not Thorongil, who was the barbarian at the gate. The time for failed strategies was over. He must engage Thorongil directly. Yet it would not do, not do at all, for Ecthelion to see his resentment or his rage. It was time to play Thorongil's game, and to beat him at it. He took a deep breath, affected an easy smile that ached down to his gut, and stepped into the room.
"Denethor!" Ecthelion rushed forward and embraced him. "Welcome home, my son!"
"It is good to be home," he said, and for an instant he meant it, returning the embrace with the warmth that his father seemed unfailingly able to draw out of him, no matter how stubbornly he tried to maintain his indignation.
Ecthelion glanced at Thorongil. "I was greatly concerned when I heard Captain Thorongil was wounded. I thought perhaps I might find you here with him."
Warm sentiment fled as quickly as it had come, leaving him speechless and staring. As if campaigning in the freezing mud for three months, tracking a reckless and disobedient glory-hound through an orc-infested wasteland, rescuing him at great personal risk and then personally delivering him into the hands of the healers were not enough, evidently he was expected to change his bedpan as well. He swallowed his rage and forced an indulgent smile. "Captain Thorongil has already seen quite enough of me over the past weeks, is that not true, my friend?"
"I owe Denethor my life," Thorongil said. "If not for him, I would be dead."
Denethor clasped his adversary's hand. "A warrior's duty, nothing more. You would have done the same."
Ecthelion's calculating gaze swept from one to the other until Denethor felt he could not hold the pose one more instant. Finally he nodded. "Well, done, then. But let us not tire Captain Thorongil. He has earned his rest." With a nod to the Warden, he made for the door. Almost as an afterthought, he turned back. "Come, Denethor. You and I have much to talk about."
There was no chance to talk on the way back to the Citadel. A much more public figure than his son, Ecthelion was repeatedly forced to stop and exchange holiday greetings with crowds of cheerful and slightly drunk holiday revelers wishing him a good year and long life, offering him cups of spiced wine or sweets, and asking for his blessings upon their children. Denethor had never been able to read his father well enough to know if he truly enjoyed interacting with the common people or viewed it as a necessary duty. But when finally Ecthelion shut the door of his private study behind him, Denethor sensed relief in the way he cast off his cheerful demeanor as quickly as his cloak. He poured two glasses of cordial from a decanter on the side table and handed one to Denethor. "The more worry weighs on the people's minds, the more they need the diversion of the festival." He took a drink as if he needed it. "That healer – what was his name, Saddlebags? He seemed quite displeased with you."
Denethor shrugged. "He wanted me to leave Thorongil behind in Pelargir."
"Good that you didn't." Ecthelion patted his own thigh. "One of those Pelargirian bloodsuckers tried to take my leg off once. Have I ever told you the story?"
"Yes," Denethor said quickly.
"I took an arrow behind my knee in a skirmish with –" Ecthelion paused, possibly because Denethor had begun intently examining a book of poetry on the desk. "Well, in any case, Thorongil is better off here in our own Houses, where we can keep an eye on him."
"My thoughts exactly," Denethor said. He put the book down.
"Tell me about the campaign."
"The Southrons should not harry us for a long time."
"Forty-eight dead, all told."
"A hard won victory, but a victory nonetheless." Ecthelion raised his glass in salute. "My congratulations."
Denethor did not raise his glass. "Is it me you congratulate, or Captain Thorongil?"
"Must it be one or the other?" The level gaze narrowed sharply. "Thorongil spoke highly of your campaign strategy."
Denethor felt his neck burning. "I was not aware I needed Thorongil's endorsement."
"Would you rather have his criticism?"
"I would rather be subjected to neither!" Denethor said more sharply than he intended. "Thorongil is not my better, to pass judgment for good or ill."
"He does not judge you." Ecthelion sat down in a chair by the fire and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Nor do I. But he is a man of keen insight, can you not see that? This incessant competition, this jealousy of yours, begins to tire me." When Denethor did not answer, he swirled the amber liquid in his glass. "Do you know why the House of Dol Amroth has chosen to grace my hall this Mettarë?"
It was Denethor's turn to take a badly needed swallow. "Adrahil wishes a proposal for Finduilas."
"And will she get one?"
He stood up and looked at the fire, suddenly feeling more like an awkward child than a seasoned commander. "I do not know."
"Do you love the girl?"
Denethor let his forehead fall forward against the mantel with a faint but audible thud. "It is not that simple, Father."
"What could be simpler? Do you love her or not?"
Denethor spun, incredulous. "You of all people should know there is more to it than love!"
The barest flicker of emotion flashed across Ecthelion's face, before his expression hardened into calm imperturbability. "If love does not concern you, then you are a fool. But it is your affair. If you do not care to speak of love, let us consider more pragmatic matters. Dol Amroth is a powerful house."
"It would be a good match."
"A good match." That was an understatement. "Is that what matters, a good match?"
"Well, you have already discounted love. You must understand, a courtship of this length raises certain expectations. It is not fair to the girl, if your intentions are not serious -"
"It is not –" Denethor reintroduced his forehead to the cool stone of the mantel. "It is not that I am not serious."
He rolled his head to the side to see Ecthelion looking at a portrait above the mantel. It was the portrait of a woman who had been a very good match. "Denethor," he said wearily, "I have been patient, but you are nearly 50 years old. You are my only son, and heir to the Stewardship. You must think of Gondor."
"I think of nothing else!" Denethor's fingers tightened around the stone slab. "My duty to Gondor leaves little time for a wife."
"Your duty to Gondor requires you to have one."
He sighed and pushed himself away from the hearth, walked over to the bookshelves and ran his hand along the leather-bound spines. "For duty's sake," he said, "I could wed a lady of high breeding and higher ambitions, with expensive tastes and courtly manners, who would clothe herself in my title and leave me to my own interests. But Finduilas is not that kind of lady." Denethor smiled privately at the memory of Finduilas challenging him to a race on horseback along the dunes of the coast. "She wants more out of marriage than that. She wants romance, and happiness."
"Then give it to her!"
"How?" He turned to face his father. "Minas Tirith would imprison her like a soaring gull trapped in a flock of clucking, fussing pigeons. She would be homesick for the sea, and lonely so far from her parents and family."
"So it always is at first, with girls from the country. They get over it, eventually. She will adjust. Your sisters will help her."
"My sisters will ruin her!"
"Think then on this," Ecthelion said. "The granddaughter of the Prince of Dol Amroth will not end up a spinster. If you do not marry her, someone else will." He carefully scrutinized his son. "At the Mettarë feast a year hence, could you bear to see her betrothed to another – someone, say, like Thorongil?"
"Thorongil!" Denethor said the word with more venom than he intended. "Surely it would be unthinkable to marry a princess of Dol Amroth to a foreigner."
"Probably," Ecthelion agreed. "Unfortunately for Finduilas, she will end up married to someone of more breeding and less character than Thorongil. And then, my son, because indeed you do love her, it will be your bitter fate to watch her from afar for very many long years. You will steal glances with her from across crowded rooms, you will watch her children play and wonder what they would have looked like, if they had been yours. How do you think you will feel, when you see her for the first time on the arm of another man?"
Denethor's chest felt tight. "As long as she were happy, I would rejoice to see it," he said. "I would sooner set her free than be the cause of her suffering."
Ecthelion grunted out a bitter chuckle. "If you think to spare her suffering by rejecting her, then you have a great deal to learn." He laid a hand on Denethor's shoulder. "Adrahil has asked to meet with me at eight o'clock this evening. I do not think we need to guess the reason why."
"I expect you to be there. With an answer."
"Of course," he answered, as if it were that easy. Twelve hours in which to decide the small matter of the course of his life. "I will return by eight."
He opened the lock box. Twin emerald-eyed serpents flashed as he held Thorongil's ring up to catch the sunlight. Before he could examine it more closely, there was a knock at the door. "Come in," he called, thrusting the ring into his pocket.
He waited, but the door remained shut. A servant would have simply let himself in, and he was expecting no other visitors. Curious, he rose and opened the door himself. When he recognized the tall young man who stood there, he wished he hadn't. "Lord Denethor," the son of Prince Adrahil said with a small bow, "I hope I have not disturbed you."
Denethor stared for a second before he found his voice. "Imrahil! Of course you are not disturbing me. Come in." He could not imagine what business Finduilas's younger brother could have with him – it would be the height of impropriety to dispatch one so young as an envoy in marriage negotiations, and the House of Dol Amroth was nothing if not fastidiously proper in such matters. Yet he could not leave the lad to stand in the hallway.
Imrahil did not respond to his invitation, but remained standing awkwardly, nervously, in the corridor. "I was hoping, that is, we were hoping…" His gaze kept shifting to something, or someone, to his left.
"What is it?" Denethor saw the boy's gaze again flicker to one side. "Is someone there?" He stepped out of his apartment and looked down the hallway. Half hidden in the shadows at the far end of the corridor he made out a slight figure cowled in blue. His heartbeat quickened as he realized who it must be. He turned back to Imrahil. "Does your father know she is here?"
"He thinks we are at the market. But Finduilas insisted on seeing you."
Denethor stepped back into the room and grabbed his cloak off the back of a chair. It would not do, would not do at all, for Finduilas to be spotted lurking outside his chambers, brotherly chaperone or not. "Come. Follow me." With Imrahil on his heels, he paused only long enough to take Finduilas by the hand before leading the pair to a secluded courtyard near the kitchens that was usually deserted at this time of year. He bade Finduilas sit on a bench beneath an apple tree. "The cook uses this place as an herb garden in the summer," he said, "but it is little visited in the winter. We should not be disturbed here."
Finduilas pulled her hood back, shocking Denethor with the change in her appearance. The face he thought of as he fell asleep every night was radiant with health and happiness, reflecting all the colors of the seashore – sparkling eyes that reminded him of silver waves against a blue sky, skin lightly tanned like the finest gold sand. The face before him now was as colorless as the stone walls, the eyes as brooding as the clouds overhead. "They said you were not expected back until after Mettarë," she said.
"I just arrived this morning. I was escorting a wounded officer, or I would still be on the road from Pelargir."
"Maybe that would have been better." When he did not respond, she looked away. "My father is neither patient nor subtle. I pleaded with him, but he feels my honor is at stake. He intends to demand an answer tonight but I ask you to let me hear it first."
Denethor sighed. "If it were only a matter of love, I could give you the answer you desire."
She released a harsh breath and withdrew into her cloak as if seized by a chill. "If not love, then what is it you stumble over?"
"I want you to be happy."
She laughed disbelievingly. "Is that all? Then be with me. That is all I need to be happy."
"I know you believe that." He took her hand; small but not delicate, the palm hardened from horse-riding and sailing. He ran his fingertip across the ridge of callus. "I fear you were never able to make a sailor out of me."
This earned him the ghost of her old smile. "It was not for lack of trying."
"It was easy to be happy in Dol Amroth," he said. "It would be different here." He glanced about at the tall stone walls. "How could you be happy in this barren wasteland, so far from the sea, where every sunrise is defiled by the smoke of Mordor? Tell me you did not die a little as you first caught sight of that evil mountain."
Her eyes darkened still more. "I do not deny it," she whispered. "It felt as if the claws of Mordor were reaching for my throat. But you must endure the threat of Mordor every day of your life. I would not have you suffer through it alone."
"And I would not have you suffer at all!"
"Life brings its own suffering, Denethor. Against that suffering, all we have is love."
"If it were within my power," he said, "I would go with you to Dol Amroth, and ride with you every day atop the dunes. Every evening we would watch Anor set over the sea together, and laugh at the antics of the sea birds. I have thought of little else over the past months. But my duty and my life are not in Dol Amroth but here, in this prison of stone. I cannot live in your world. I cannot ask you to live in mine."
Her voice was barely audible. "You cannot, or you will not?"
For a long moment he was silent, failing the words that would make her understand, or for the wisdom to make himself see another way. For a long moment, he was silent. And then she pulled her hand away, and was gone.
The archivist was busy copying a book of poetry, so engrossed in his work that he noticed his visitor only when he stepped forward and blocked the sunlight streaming through the western window. He jerked his head up then, first in annoyance, then in startled delight. "My lord, Denethor! What a pleasant surprise!" Denethor noted that he kept his writing hand perfectly still so as not to smudge his work; evidently he remained hopeful that the interruption would be brief. "I had not heard you were back in the city."
"I hurried back so as not to miss the feast."
"Ah." From his expression, it was not clear the archivist realized or cared what feast was currently being celebrated by the unenlightened classes. "Your campaign went well, I take it? Where was it now, Ithilien or…?"
"Harad. Very well, thank you." Denethor smiled fondly; he always found the archivist's curious detachment from the real world around him somehow endearing. "I wondered if you might help me with something." Though his voice betrayed none of his apprehension, his heart was pounding like that of a thief hiding in a house at night, waiting to make off with the silver.
The archivist put aside his pen and dabbed at his stained fingers with a rag. "Of course, my lord. How may I help you?"
Denethor's tongue seemed suddenly to be made of dry wool. He swallowed. "I wondered if there might be any extant accounts of the Council decision regarding Arvedui."
"Arvedui! Those records date back a thousand years," the archivist said. "Original documents would have crumbled to dust long ago."
Denethor's heart sank. "Dust," he repeated in a whisper. "They are all gone, then?"
"Copies would have been made, of course. Documents of such historical value would be kept in the private archives. As the son of the Steward you are naturally welcome to view them." The archivist pushed back his chair. "I just have to remember where I left the key. It has been some time since anyone has been in there." He got to his feet and went to a large cupboard against the wall. "I don't keep that key with the others. Wouldn't do to have just anyone wandering in there and fingering ancient documents like that. They shouldn't be handled at all, really." He looked at Denethor hopefully, then let out a long-suffering sigh. "Well, then. Let me see…where did I put that key?"
"Stop, stop." Denethor caught the archivist's arm. Perhaps it would not be necessary to view the documents themselves, if the archivist knew what they contained. "Are you telling me that you have read a chronicle of the decision regarding Arvedui survives?"
"Oh, yes." The archivist's voice was muffled, coming as it did from inside a cupboard in which he had buried his head as well as one arm up to the shoulder. "I have read it. Sometimes I hide keys down here. There is a hook high up on the right, just so….no." He crawled back out and wiped his hands on his robe. "Perhaps in the foreign acquisitions…"
Denethor shadowed him as he shuffled to the next room. "Do you happen to remember," he said, striving to keep his voice level, "if it was recorded that Arvedui presented tokens of the Northern Kingdom? I seem to recall my tutor mentioning something about it."
"Tokens." The archivist was preoccupied with scanning the shelves lining the walls. For a moment that stretched until Denethor was tempted to leap forward and shake him, he did not answer. "Yes," he said finally. "The Council made no ruling on their authenticity, though it was largely presumed they were genuine. Ties were still quite strong between the Northern and Southern Kingdoms in those days, and Arvedui was well known in Gondor, having married the daughter of Ondoher, as you know."
"Yes, yes," Denethor said impatiently. "But you say that he did present evidence of that lineage."
"There were three items: A broken sword, purported of course to be the shards of Narsil; the Ring of Barahir; and the Scepter of Annúminas."
"The Ring of Barahir." Denethor swallowed as his finger traced the faint ridges on Thorongil's ring. "What did it look like?"
"It was said to bear the emblem of the Noldor house of Finarfin," the archivist said, reaching to pull down a container off a high shelf. "According to legend, it was gifted in the Second Age from the Noldor Finrod Felagund to Barahir of the Dúnedain. It passed to his son, Beren, and eventually came into the possession of the Faithful of Númenor. Ah, here we are!" He proudly held up an ancient-looking key. "I knew I put it somewhere safe."
"What did it look like?"
"What did what look like?"
"The Ring," Denethor said, very slowly, "of Barahir."
"Oh. It was said to bear the emblem of the House of Finarfin."
"Something unusual, if I recall." Key in hand, the archivist set off down a narrow corridor that ended in an ancient oak door. "I seem to recall there were scales involved. Dragons, perhaps? No, no. Scales but no wings. Scales but no wings. What was it, then? Fish? Oh! Now I remember – serpents. Yes, that was it. Two serpents, with emeralds for eyes."
Denethor turned on his heel.
"Or was it sapphires?" he could hear the archivist say, as he stalked out of the archive. "Either way, quite a unique design, really."
Denethor was halfway out to the street before he heard a faint voice calling, "Wait! Don't you want to see the scroll?"
Denethor moved like an aimed arrow through crowds of laughing people, the scents of roasting meat and spiced ale that filled the air, the sounds of laughter and singing wafting from inns and private houses, oblivious to all of it except as obstacles to his progress. Downward through all the levels of the city he moved with relentless, desperate purpose.
He mustered a grunted reply to the gate guard's holiday greeting and walked out to the deserted promenade by the river. The water flowed past, sluggish and grey beneath a pale sunset. There was a bench by the riverbank, near the path where lovers walked through fields of daffodils in the springtime. He sat down there, staring at the river. How could he not have known? How could he not have guessed? The clues had been there all along. It was his own arrogance, his logical, rational assumption that since Thorongil could not be of Númenorean blood, then he was not. He had been a fool. Had his own blood not leapt in his veins in recognition of its own kind? It had. He had felt it. He had known it, and yet refused to believe it.
A few flurries of snow drifted into the flat brown water and melted away. So it could be with Thorongil's ring. It would be easy, so easy to throw it into the river, to let it sink below the grey water and bury itself into the silt below, never to be seen again. He stood up, clutching the ring. He looked at the water. After a time, he sat back down. He did not even hear the approach of footsteps in the snow.
"What are you doing here?" He recognized the voice without turning. Turgon. "I've been looking all over for you."
He did not bother to look up. "Why?"
"Adrahil is going to see your father."
"He thinks you're not going to propose to Finduilas tonight."
"I am not."
Turgon stepped around to the front of the bench, forced himself into Denethor's line of sight. He was dressed in festive garb. Evidently he had dragged himself away from a party. "Are you mad?"
"Does it matter?"
"What is wrong with you?" Turgon sat down beside him. "You've been stubborn and pig-headed as long as I've known you, but you've never been stupid before. Are you trying to start a feud with Dol Amroth?"
"Of course not."
"Do you not love Finduilas? I know you do!"
"Stop." Denethor raised a warding hand. "I've already been through this. Twice, in fact. It has nothing to do with love."
"Maybe it should!"
He got up from the bench, walked to the river's edge. "There is no time for that now."
Turgon followed him to the bank. "No time? The House of Dol Amroth has invaded in force. The two most powerful men in Gondor are facing off like enraged bulls, all of Minas Tirith is awaiting an announcement which you have just informed me you do not intend to make, you have broken a lovely girl's heart and botched the most important decision of your life. What could possibly be more important than that?"
He turned to face Turgon. "The Return of the King," he said.
Turgon stared at him. "The what?"
"This." He opened his hand, revealing Thorongil's ring. The Ring of Barahir. "Before I say another word, kneel and swear an oath of loyalty."
Turgon's brows leapt upward. "An oath? What oath would you have me take? An oath to Gondor and its Steward I have already taken, and you are not yet my lord."
Before he knew what he was doing, Denethor had Turgon's collar in his fist. "Are you with me or not?" he snapped. "Choose now or get out of my sight!"
Turgon's face blanched. He dropped to a knee. "'Here do I swear fealty and service to Gondor," he said hoarsely, "and to the Lord and Steward of the realm, and to my lord Denethor, to speak and to be silent, to do and to let be, to come and to go, in need or plenty, in peace or war, in living or dying, from this hour henceforth, until my lord release me, or death take me, or the world end. So say I, Turgon, son of Ondoher, Captain of Gondor."
"Now swear on your honor as a Captain of Gondor that you will never reveal to anyone what I am about to tell you."
When Turgon had obeyed and risen to his feet, Denethor held out the ring. "Behold the Ring of Barahir."
Turgon shook his head blankly.
"It is an ancient token of the Northern Kingdom. The last time it was seen in Gondor, it was on the hand of Arvedui himself."
"Pretty," Turgon commented. "The northern Dúnedain had perished, I thought. Where did this turn up?"
"It was secreted into Gondor years ago and kept hidden in plain sight, indeed, right under our noses. It is the lynchpin of a grand scheme concocted by Mithrandir, to infiltrate a usurper into our ranks, concealing his true origin and treasonous ambitions behind a façade of honor and loyalty, pretending to serve Gondor while stealing enough hearts to be received with adoration when at last he casts aside his disguise and reveals his true purpose – to claim the throne of Gondor for himself. Oh, he is patient, this one, and cunning. In this he is a good pupil of his master."
"Who is?" Turgon was looking at him as if he had just sprouted a second head. "What are you talking –" His mouth dropped open as realization dawned in his eyes. "Thorongil?"
"That ring is his? How did you get it?"
"I found it when I rescued him. He thinks it has been lost. I went to the archives today and confirmed my suspicions about it." Denethor held out the ring. "See for yourself how old it is."
Turgon handled the ring delicately. "This was Arvedui's ring?"
"His, and that of all his forefathers before him, back to Barahir himself. Yes."
"But even if Thorongil is his heir -" Turgon cocked an eyebrow. "Is he?"
"There is no way of knowing. At the very least it appears that he is descended from the northern line and fancies himself its heir."
Turgon cocked an eyebrow. "Not necessarily."
"How else do you suppose he came to possess Arvedui's ring?"
"The way unsavory men always come upon things of great value. Thievery. Grave-robbing. Luck at dice."
Denethor shook his head. "No. There is something too righteous about him, too bold. It is in pretending to be a low-born rustic that he has ever struggled. This," he said as he took the ring back from Turgon, "is real. If Thorongil is not Arvedui's heir, at least he has reason to believe that he is. He is no simple fraud."
"If he is Arvedui's heir, then he must know he'll be sent packing, just as Arvedui was."
"Must he?" Denethor took one last look at the ring before slipping it back into Thorongil's locket. "Arvedui did not enjoy the favor of the Steward."
"Neither will Thorongil, once he is exposed," Turgon said. "Once we tell your father."
"We shall do nothing of the kind!" Having spent many sleepless hours agonizing over this very decision, he was now certain of his course. "It is far too late for that. The wool has been pulled over my father's eyes for too long. Do you not see how he loves him? If he had any inkling that his beloved captain was no nameless mercenary after all, but a true-blooded son of Númenor, and Arvedui's heir at that -"
"But if he knew that Thorongil had lied –"
"No!" Denethor grabbed one velvet-draped sleeve and yanked until Turgon's face was inches away. "I forbid it! The Steward's judgment has been so corrupted that he is likely to embrace Thorongil and condemn me for disloyalty. No," he repeated, releasing Turgon's arm, "no one is to know. Not my father, not the Council, most especially not your gossipy wife. If you cross me in this I promise I will extract payment that you cannot imagine."
"Why did you risk telling me all of this if do not intend to expose Thorongil?"
"I need you to remember a little story," Denethor said. "You need tell it only if someone questions you. The story is this: After we reached Poros crossing with Thorongil, you sent scouts back to the area where you found us. They came upon this locket, lying on the riverbank. We had already left Pelargir when they got there, so they joined the company traveling overland. They should arrive in Minas Tirith tomorrow or the next day."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"To account for where the ring has been, in case Thorongil is suspicious after I give it back to him."
"Give it back!" Turgon stared at him uncomprehendingly, stomped off a few paces, did an about-face, and stomped back. "You are mad! Why would you give it back? Throw it in the river!"
"I am no thief."
"Throw it in the river," Turgon repeated, "and no one ever need know. Isn't that what you came here for? Let Thorongil go on believing it was lost the night you rescued him. Without it, he has no claim."
"Certainly he has. There are other tokens of Arvedui's house which I must assume he can produce at need. In any case, my father is the weapon he intends to wield, not this trinket. By now, he has realized just how crucial and perishable that weapon is. He correctly perceives that I will oppose him, if I become Steward. He knows he must make his move before then. Now that I recognize the threat he truly represents, he will find his way much more difficult, I think. Our truce is over. The match is about to begin."
"Then I would remind you of the first law of combat – do not give your enemy a weapon he can use against you. I tell you again – throw this thing into the river!"
It would be so easy. Denethor cupped the ring in his hand, stroking the tiny entwined serpents. It would be so easy to make it go away. "No," he said finally. "It is Thorongil who sneaks into Gondor like a thief in the night; Thorongil who tarnishes the failing honor of his ragged house through trickery and deceit. I will not buy victory over him with my own honor. I do not need to. I will give him back the ring. Let him do with it what he will."
"And then what?"
"What do you mean?"
"You just said that his plan is to gain your father's favor. He looks like he's doing a fine job of that. How do you plan to stop him?"
Denethor sighed. "I do not know."
"Well, then, would you take a suggestion from an old political hack?"
"What is it?"
"Outmaneuver him. You are Ecthelion's son. Start acting like it. Get closer to him than Thorongil is."
"How? My father is enamored of him. He has charm, charisma. I am merely Ecthelion's son. Thorongil is his delight."
"For an intelligent man, you are a fool, my friend. You have the power to delight Ecthelion, but you simply refuse to exercise it."
"What power is this?"
"Do you truly not see the one thing you can give Ecthelion that Thorongil never can?"
"What is that?"
Turgon grinned triumphantly. "A grandchild. Remind him who his son is. See how much time he has for Thorongil when he's bouncing his grandson on his knee."
Denethor stared at him. "I have been a fool."
"Yes, you have."
"I have to marry Finduilas."
"You have to marry Finduilas." Turgon clapped him on the back. "And you had better get moving. There isn't much time."
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