Many Guises and Many Names
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Rangers of the North: 5. Isildur's Heir
So they rode north instead of south in company with Armegil, two attendant Rangers, Hawkeye and his nephews on borrowed horses and, to Hurin's surprise, the girl Laebeth.
Cutting Northeast from Gwathlad they soon encountered the grass grown remains of a stone road winding its way between the downs. They followed this for the rest of the day coming at dusk to a gap between two hills guarded by tall stone pillars carved in the form of helmed and cloaked knights with swords set upright before them. Passing between these they entered a narrow way between high earthen walls, its end guarded by a second pair of statues in the form of maidens holding the welcome cup.
A wide valley opened before them, hemmed in by steep cliffs to the south and east, the long slopes of the downs to the north and west clothed by trees. The different hues and shapes of their leaves showed like kinds planted in orderly rows, orchards rather than woodland.
The floor of the valley, like the vale of Gwathlad, provided pasturage for cattle and sheep and many horses but the fragmentary remains of stone pavements, foundations, statues and fountains showed it had once, long ago, been a garden. And overlooking it from the top of a northern hill was the stronghold itself.
Percipitious slopes rose to grassy dikes topped by stone battlements and above this a second massive wall, smooth as glass and built of gigantic blocks of pale stone, circled the hill crest like a silver crown on the head of a king.
A horn sounded from the hills behind them and an answer came like an echo from the walls of the fortress. The great iron bound gates of the lower circle stood open by the time they reached them. Inside a cobbled way ran between two rows of half timbered buildings, stables and storehouses, workshops and barracks. The air sounded with the rhythmic ring of a smith's hammer and carried an aroma that reminded Hurin of the inn at Bree.
There were a number of Men in evidence. Tall, dark haired, keen eyed Dunedain in worn Ranger dress moving briskly about their business or resting on benches under overhanging eaves. Hurin was struck first by their silence. There was no loud talk or laughter, none of the cheerful boisterousness he remembered from his own experience of military encampments. Secondly by their watchfulness, every eye seemed fixed bright and unblinking on the little cavalcade. And finally by the fact that many of them seemed to be breathing smoke.
Almost all the seated Men had between their teeth a long stem of wood or bone with a bowl at the end and were surrounded by drifting clouds of pleasantly scented grey-white smoke. Hurin had seen other Men in Bree and along the South Road similiarly occupied but it gave him a faint shock to see Men of his own kind engaged in so odd and barbaric a practice.
The party dismounted. Men came forward to take the horses and Rumil made as if to follow them but Cemendur shook his head and the groom fell reluctantly in beside Hurin. The two Rangers who'd accompanied Armegil melted away among their fellows so only seven Men and one Woman climbed the long curving stone stair to the upper gate.
Suddenly Hurin caught at the Councillor's arm with a hissed, "Look!"
The keystone of the arch was carved with seven small stars above one larger with many rays, the emblem of Elendil and the Northern Kingdom, and below them four tengwar letters R*N*R*TH.
"Aranarth." Cemendur breathed.
The others must have heard but said nothing.
They passed through a short, dark tunnel to emerge into a different world. Instead of the monolithic stone keep and outbuildings Hurin had expected he saw a rambling country villa built on terraced levels around garden courts lit by crystal lamps, sweet scented with flowers and sounding with the music of fountains. Only the frowning walls and a stumpy watchtower savored of the fortress. The main block of the building was directly in front of them, golden light streaming from the open double doors.
The three Gondor Men exchanged slightly dazed looks then followed their hosts into a candlelit great hall, its walls covered with frescoes of flowering orchards and sunny gardens. Floored with colored marbles inlaid in intricate, interacing designs reflected by the traceries of the vaulted ceiling high overhead.
A long table of some burnished, red-golden wood stood on the dais at the far end of the hall surrounded by high backed chairs. Men clad in grey and white were taking down trestle tables and benches and carrying them away.
Laebeth vanished silently through one of the several doors opening off the hall. Hawkeye and his nephews through another. Armegil took a lit taper from a nearby candle stand and opened a third door. He led them a short way down a dark, colonaded walkway to a spacious guest chamber and would have lit the candles for them but Rumil took the taper firmly from his hand and did it instead.
Armegil's eyes glinted with amusement but all he said was; "The evening meal is over as you saw, I will have food brought. If you need anything else you have but to ask. Good night."
Scarcely had the door closed behind him when Hurin turned to the Councillor in a bedazzlement of awe. "Cemendur he's -"
"Yes." the old man sank into a chair looking every one of his one hundred and three years. "It would seem an Heir of Isildur still lives."
"And what are we to do about it?" Rumil wondered. but neither of his lords could give him an answer. ************************************************
"Bringing them here was a mistake." the man Hurin knew as Hawkeye said bluntly as the Chief of the Rangers entered the small room he used as office and workplace.
Armegil sat down in the high backed chair behind his writing table and looked across it at his sister's son. "They've already seen and guessed too much. Our only choice now is to make them understand why we have chosen this path and why we must be allowed to continue on it."
"Showing yourself to them was a mistake if you like." offered the third man in the room. "Once they laid eyes on you, Belecthor, the truth was as good as out."
"I know, Borondir." wearily he rubbed his eyes. "But it was either that or let them walk into Gwathlad for Dame Bronwen to deal with."
"It's a pity it wasn't some of my men they met. We could have turned them around right enough and none the wiser."
Armegil and Belecthor nodded rueful agreement. Borondir and his people were not Dunedain but Men of Rhudaur, descendants of those Hill-Men who'd sworn fealty to the Kings and held true to that oath for nearly three thousand years. Tall Men, like the Dunedain, but broad and burly in build. Dark of hair and eye with swarthy skins.
"If we'd had some warning, a chance to prepare a reception for them." Belecthor said helplessly.
"It worries me that we did not." Borondir frowned. "Surely the Dunadan would have tried to get word to us?"
"If he knew of it, which I doubt." Armegil replied, leaning back in his chair as he filled his pipe. "This is Ecthelion's doing, though why this sudden curiousity about 'Thorongil's' origins after nineteen years in Gondor's service..."
"Could Ecthelion suspect the truth?" Belecthor worried.
"If he does not, then his Lord Cemendur surely does - now." Armegil returned grimly.
A moment's silence broken by Borondir. "Is the Dunadan in danger?"
"Not from Ecthelion, if I read his men aright." the Chief Ranger said thoughtfully. "But from others - perhaps."
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