Many Guises and Many Names
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The Commander of Gondor: 6. Poison Most Foul
The wind turned chill overnight. Quillion started the morning by lighting the braziers in the commander's office. Unfortunately, the harvest holiday was over and there was work at hand, work that had arrived just after dawn under the guard of a gate sentry. The harvest feast brought many into the city: those honest burghers and farmers seeking business and amusement and those who follow: cutpurses and thieves. Thorongil had questioned the dark young man who had tried to gain admittance at the south gate without a pass or purpose. The guards feared he was Haradrim and a spy, and marched him to their commander.
"I simply came to seek a better life, your lordship," the young man answered, ingratiating as a stray dog. "I have been living with my brother in Lebennin. He married a woman from the Mindollen Vale and she did not want me about any longer." The youth seemed earnest; it was the third time he had told the exact tale. Thorongil sat back in his chair and studied the youth intently.
"Why come to Minas Tirith? We do not allow those without purpose or occupation to loiter about begging or worse," Fallon demanded. He had closely watched the exchange from his desk.
"I came in hopes of living with my half-sister and finding employment here. Her name is Miriel. Do you know her?" The youth naively asked. Thorongil had the good grace to immediate drop his eyes to the document before him but a smile played about his lips. His captain did know Miriel and quite well. She was an exotic beauty, a courtesan who appeared at some of the less proper functions of the military. Her golden fairness had decorated many officers' arms, including Fallon's. The lady was well cared for by a host of suitors and freely gave her favors to many handsome, rich officers in exchange for extravagances, among them a fine townhouse, servants, and a grand carriage.
"Captain, why don't you go off and see if you might find the lady and tell her her brother is here?" Thorongil suggested to his red-faced captain.
Fallon first went to Miriel's townhouse but her handmaiden told him the lady had gone out to her dressmaker. The girl had a big smile for her favorite young lord, Captain Fallon, and asked if he might not come in and wait. Fallon declined the invitation and set out to track down Miriel.
The lady led him on a wild chase from dressmaker to milliner, his blush darkening with each shop keeper's knowing look. Finally, he found her in an exclusive shop that served small sandwiches, cakes, and tea. It was a favorite of the ladies of questionable reputation but high means. She was laughing with a friend, looking like a water sprite in pale blue. The willowy Miriel tossed her blond curls and offered Fallon her hand to kiss. She looked up at him, dark lashes framing slanting green eyes, a bewitching mouth, parted in a becoming pout. Miriel shooed away the other woman she was lunching with when she heard that this was no chance meeting.
"You sought me for an afternoon together, my dearest captain?" she tilted her head and smiled.
"Nay, your brother has come to town."
"My half-brother?" Little Farocen?" She seemed delighted. She insisted they leave immediately and he escorted her along to the commander's office. Her arm entwined in his and her body rubbed against his side with each step. Fallon was glad the crisp fall air kept his focus on his mission, for the lady at his side was certainly a distraction.
"I have wanted to meet your commander, Fallon, for so long," Miriel said, as they walked along. "The ladies at the court speak of his handsomeness and the intrigue that surrounds him. An unknown Ranger who saved my dear Denethor's life and was made a commander and lord of Gondor. What a romance!" Fallon heard the lady purr his brother's name without jealousy; he was well aware he and Denethor had both been victims of the temptress' charms.
"You may meet him, my dear, but you won't get much from Thorongil, especially what you seek." She laughed delightedly.
"You underestimate me, my love! He is one officer who may have eluded me thus far, but, I have not met a man I cannot get to give me what I desire by giving him what he desires, my lovely captain." She lowered her lashes and gaze through them bewitchingly. Overcome by that glance, Fallon thought that perhaps Thorongil's steel resolve would be lost in an instant.
Thorongil's first impression was the lady was more clever than she wished to appear and was much more able, more than any man who knew her would acknowledge, to handle herself if cornered. He bowed over her hand, but did not kiss it, which caused a slight pout to form on her perfect mouth. He recognized her skill in using her femininity to overwhelm and control men, and he wondered what women thought of this temptress.
"You do not resemble your brother," he commented drily. The lady dropped charmingly into a chair with a flurry of ruffles and accepted the offered tea.
"My half-brother. With my mother, my father was—indiscreet? He was an Ithilien Ranger, and once when he was riding in the north, he met her. She was a Sylvan Elf and it was Midsummer…Do you understand, yes, Commander? We came south to abide in Ithilien but my mother was soon killed by a Southron's arrow. My father took me to his wife who did not want me so when I was old enough I escaped to the City. I have done well since then."
"Indeed." Thorongil doubted very much that the lady's mother was Sylvan or any other Elf, but it made an exotic tale for her admirers.
"I am glad young Farocen came to me. I have been planning to leave my profession. I have an aunt near Esgaroth who has invited me to come live with her there and now that Farocen is here, he can be my escort. It will take some time for my affairs to be in order. Until then I'm am sure he might find work in the city." The lady smiled sweetly; Thorongil was not taken in, but the story, what was told, was acceptable. Thorongil released the youth to his sister's care and the pair went off.
"That is a dangerous woman," Thorongil pronounced, eyes narrowed as the two disappeared up the flagged street toward her residence.
Miriel decided her visit to the commander's office now presented her with an open invitation. She began appearing regularly to have Fallon escort her to lunch or to fawn over Quillion, who for being only six, was much besotted by her fluffy loveliness. Whenever she appeared, Thorongil was polite and gallant but would not rise to the lady's subtle pursuit. For that, she found him fascinating and a challenge equal to her skill. After many rebuffs, she complained to Fallon that Thorongil's heart was made of stone. The captain's laugh sent her blood boiling, but she bit off her caustic retort, smiled prettily at him and vowed she would grace the Commander's bed before the next full moon.
One afternoon, Thorongil sent Fallon and Quillion off to take inventory in the armory. The commander, his coat thrown over the back of his chair, was working alone in the office. He heard the guards outside greeting someone who answered with a throaty laugh, and knew Miriel had come to call. She swirled in wrapped in a sable fur cape, shuddering at the coolness of the wind. The lady casually dropped the cloak and came to stand next to the brazier to warm her hands. Perfume of sandalwood and vanilla and something more exotic wafted on the air. Thorongil gallantly rose and came to stand beside her. Her gown seemed made of gossamer, thinly veiling her lush body.
"I just can't get my hands warm!" she exclaimed and held them out to him. He took them politely though they seemed quite warm to him, but she wrapped them around his. "Oh, Commander," she breathed, "your hands are so warm and strong."
"You may want to consider a pair of gloves," he advised clinically. "The ones lined with rabbit fur are best. Otherwise, you may scar your hands with chilblains." She smoothed her hands up his arms and pressed herself against him.
"Thorongil, I could offer you much," she whispered, her rouged mouth against his neck. Her hands slid inside the throat of his shirt.
"Lady," Thorongil said evenly, "since Fallon is absent, you may want to sit and warm yourself before you venture back outside. However, you offer me nothing I want. I, though, can offer you some hot tea if you would like." She went still, straightened, and stepped away from him.
"You are a cool one, my lord." She laughed shakily. The lady had never had such obvious advances rebuffed before and took a moment to smooth her feelings. "You are quite attractive, my darling commander, quite mysterious and charming. Quite a good lover, I would imagine," she assessed. Her eyes ran up his body to meet his; her lips parted in invitation. She abandoned all coyness and leaped directly to her goal; it had worked in every case before.
"I'm sure my lady finds me adequate." He arched a brow at her boldness.
"Ahhhh, I see. Loyalty and fidelity I add to your many qualities. Those weigh little to most men and many of their wives in matters of pleasure. Your lady is far from here. A half-warrior Ranger woman, rough from riding and fighting, stinking of sweat and horse?" Her voice held an ugly edge.
"Loyalty and fidelity do matter most to me." He smiled at her. "You show your fangs, my dear…really, a trait your suitors would find very unattractive." She sighed deeply and shrugged, conceding defeat. "So now we have an understanding, Miriel. You will not be enticing me to your bed." Miriel sipped her tea, conversed politely and plotted how to overcome this setback.
A while later, Thorongil was helping her into her cloak when Fallon walked in. He greeted Miriel enthusiastically, stared curiously at Thorongil a moment, and stepped aside to allow the lady to leave. She rustled away and Fallon turned to his commander, am impish grin playing on his mouth.
"Did you have a nice visit with the lady?" He walked over to Thorongil's desk and looked down at him. He leaned forward, staring at the commander but not meeting his eyes.
"Nice enough." The commander leaned back in his chair, wondering at his captain's bizarre behavior.
"Hhhhmmmm," murmured Fallon, cocking his head to one side. Thorongil looked up at his captain, who seemed bursting with some emotion. "You may want to change shirts before you make your meeting at the Citadel." Thorongil looked at him curiously. He rose and walked to the polished silver mirror hung near the door. In his reflection, he saw the imprint of Miriel's lovely lips in a red smear on his shirt throat.
"Blast!" he exclaimed to Fallon's released laughter.
At the end of the harvest festival each year, Minas Tirith hosted the annual military conference of all the leaders from Gondor. The lords of Lossernach, the Commander and Prince of Dol Amroth, Lords of Gondor and Ithilien, and many smaller lords holding lands and supplying troops for the defense of the south attended. The centerpiece of the meeting was the first night banquet and the drinking of the Steward's famous wine punch.
As Commander of the City Guards, Thorongil's first conference coincided with his first diplomatic assignment. His command was responsible for the comfort and safety of the military leaders. Fallon assured him it was simply pomp for the visitors but Thorongil demanded his usual perfection from himself for any assignment, even a "diplomatic" one, and in extension, his regular troopers found extra patrols, duties, and escorts added to their rosters.
After several long-houred days of intensive work, Fallon felt his commander needed a respite and dragged him to The Laughing Dwarf for a midday meal. The north wind blustered outside and flurries danced in the air making Nell's hot stew and warm cider comforting.
"Quillion will be disappointed he is not here with us," Fallon observed. The Laughing Dwarf was one of the boy's favorite places probably because Thorongil strictly limited the amount of time he could spend in taverns with ribald, off-duty soldiers. Also, the three winter months meant schooling for the boy, and today he was off with his mathematics tutor. The boy hated being away from the guard officers for any length of time, but he hated mathematics worst of all. He even preferred Lady Andranel's deportment class that included dancing with girls to the mystery of numbers. Thorongil was well weary of the subject having listened to Quillion's anticipatory whine all last evening. Reasoning did not work when Quillion was in high dungeon.
'You need mathematics to be a military engineer.' Thorongil had reasoned with the petulant boy.
'I do not need it! I shall be a commander like you or perhaps a herald or a famous bard---' The boy's arguing had exacerbated the low pounding in Thorongil's head that had begun with this whole "diplomatic" adventure. Now, with luncheon before him, he sat silently, sipping his tea, and refusing to discuss his squire. Fallon tried another tack.
"The guard assignments are complete for the summit," Fallon announced. "All the preparation for the assigned duties is complete and we can relax until the commanders arrive." Thorongil uneasily shifted in his seat.
"I feel uncomfortable with this conference. Must every war leader in Gondor come? The very air does not feel right and if something should go wrong, the White City would be left near defenseless."
"This meeting has been held as long as I can remember. There has never an incident, except that sometimes a few of them drink too much punch and want to ride out against the Orcs. How could anything happen? How could anyone get into the city, battle their way up seven levels, get passed the Citadel Guards, and then have enough desire or blood left in their bodies to fight the best of Gondor?" He smiled at his commander. "This is your first diplomatic assignment. It is supposed to be nothing of danger but lots of show!"
"Nay, Fallon, I agree. No real threat would come in the form of such an attack." Thorongil signaled to Nell for another pot of tea. "The attack would be subterfuge. An assassin…or poison." Poison: why did that thought make Thorongil's blood run cold and raise the hairs on his neck?
* * * * * *
"Quillion, you misbegotten wretch! Where have you mislaid that?" Thorongil entered the office to hear Fallon's angry voice belaboring the boy. The child turned dark eyes to his commander and Thorongil saw his squire was about to burst into tears. Quillion's soft answer was that it had been on the captain's desk.
"Captain, what do you search for?" Thorongil asked.
"The list of approved merchants for the First Night Reception! That dratted boy has lost it!" Fallon shifted then slammed down another stack of papers.
"Is it vital to have for your work?"
"Nay, but Quillion's carelessness---" Fallon began exasperated.
"Then, leave be. You make my head pound." Thorongil had not been able to shake his headache of several days and had sleepless circles around his eyes and a volatile temper to show for it. Both Fallon and Quillion studied their commander worriedly.
The Southland's officers' arrivals in Minas Tirith kept Fallon jumping, assigning their quarters and seeing to their comfort. It seemed just as he had one group settled, another was trumpeting at the gates. Although the missing list did not turn up, the captain even made his peace with Quillion who helped keep track of which officers were quartered where.
Thorongil himself greeted the most important of the leaders. One chilly, bright afternoon, he sat at the gate on Dagor as the Prince of Dol Amroth rode in, followed by his retinue of armored officers, sky blue capes sweeping over their horses' rumps. This was Thorongil's first encounter with the Prince and he assessed the man carefully, judging him from his experience with his father and sister. Imrahil was a tall man, of Thorongil's age, his dark hair worn in a close military cut and his green-gray eyes were the color of the breakers off Befalas. For having a parent and sibling whose eyes held glints of humor and mischief, the brother looked overly serious.
"Welcome to Minas Tirith, my lord prince. I am Thorongil, Commander of the City Guards."
"Thorongil?" The prince looked at him curiously, a question in his voice.
"Yes, my lord?" Imrahil seemed about to speak then thought better of it.
"Nothing, Commander, a momentary lapse. I thought I recognized your name, but you cannot be that person." Imrahil put his spurs to his stallion, thinking there was no possibility that this stern and proper Gondorian commander was the wild pirate lord of his sister's fancies. He did not see Thorongil's wide grin as the commander followed him up the streets of the city to the Citadel.
Sometime later, Borgorath, the Ithilien Ranger commander, was sitting in the Guard command office with Thorongil, enjoying a drink of his fine northern wine and reliving their days together as Rangers in the Wild. Miriel wrapped in a blazing fox coat fluttered in at that moment to gather Fallon up for lunch. Bowing prettily to the Ranger and to the commander, she linked her arm in Fallon's.
"Thank you, Captain, for helping Farocen obtain the position with the wine merchant," she cooed to Fallon. "He seems so happy with his work." The pair went off, the air redolent with Miriel's musical laughter and her exotic scent.
"That's a pretty wench. She'd give great comfort to a man," Borgorath observed.
"Aye, that she will, old friend, but you do not have enough wealth for such as she. Beside, you probably knew her as a child; her father was a Ranger. Tirithiedain of Lond Galen," said Thorongil.
"Tirithiedain?" Borogroth searched his mind to put a face to the name.
"He married a Harad girl he met in Pelargir and retired to a farm in Lebennin," Thorongil said to stir his memory.
"Nay," said Borgorath. "I've known all that had been part of the Rangers for twenty years. None were called Tirithiedain and none certainly married a Haradrim."
Thorongil sat at his desk thinking. The wind rattled leaves along the colonnade outside. The commander wore his dress uniform, silver braid gleaming and red sash tied at his waist. The minutes ticked away. It was the evening of the officers' gala and he needed to be leaving soon for the Citadel. Vague, half-ideas flitted around the edges of his thoughts like fireflies blinking on for just an instant, and then dark and gone. He did not find an answer to the question that had been puzzling him all day so he rose, swept on his cape, and left.
A short way up the walk, he met Fallon coming to collect him and they climbed the hill together. The commander was silent and brooding.
"You certainly are going to make a fine impression on the other lords tonight!" Fallon mused. Thorongil left off his pondering and made conversation, knowing Fallon was correct.
"You were away most of the afternoon," he pointed out to his captain, "in Lady Miriel's company?"
"Nay, with my father. The lady has actually left the city to visit a friend in Harlond before she leaves for the North."
"That enterprising lady has no intentions of genteel retirement," Thorongil said. "I'm sure the only plan she has involves a man and his wealth."
"I can't see Miriel settling down to a domestic life either," chuckled Fallon.
"I said nothing about marriage."
Their boot heels clicked on the marble of the corridor of the Citadel. The Commander had lapsed into silence again and Fallon despaired in his attempts to continue the conversation.
A harried young man, dressed in serving livery, rushed towards them carrying a large crate. As he got closer, Fallon saw it was Farocen.
"Hello!" Fallon blocked his path and the youth looked up nervously. "How goes your work?"
"My master does not let me dawdle!" Farocen blurted out, dodged the captain, and anxiously scuttled on his way.
Fallon looked after him curiously. "Lack of gratitude."
"Who did you say Farocen works for?" Thorongil asked.
Fallon's rely was cut short by the noise as they entered the main reception chamber. It was filled with the glittering array of Southern military might. For this banquet, no wives or ladies were allowed. The only women were those in uniform, and most of those were Rangers. The main buffet displayed the large silver punch bowl. Shaped like a floating swan, it had been presented to the Stewart by Dol Amroth long ago. The room swirled with the multi-colors of the military coats: Dol Amroth's were light blue; the deep wine, Lebennin; Minas Tirith regulars, black; and the forest greens and leathers of the Ranger Captains.
"The wine merchant…" echoed in Thorongil's head. He remembered Miriel thanking Fallon for getting Farocen the job with the wine merchant…the missing list of approved merchants…
Ecthelion was just pouring the first of the punch and the valets carried large trays of cups to the commanders of the South. The Steward raised the ornate cup to begin his toast as the smiling attendant presented Fallon and Thorongil with their cups. The commander looked into the swirling ruby deeps and a moment of foresight came to him. He felt a fire in his belly and the swimming, giddy feeling of a lack of air; the room whirled like the wine and he looked up to see Fallon beside him drop to the floor, his blue eyes open but unseeing, the ruby liquid staining his lips. Thorongil shook the mist from his head and the room came back into focus. Ecthelion was still speaking and Fallon watched his father, his cup raised in the air, ready for the Steward's toast.
"Poison!" Thorongil shouted to his captain and sprinted toward the dais where Ecthelion stood, Denethor and Imrahril at his side. The commander knocked Ecthelion's cup from his hand, sending it ringing against the far wall. He spun and caught Denethor's hand before the man could put the cup to his lips. Imhrahil's arm stopped in mid-air, stunned to inaction by these audacious actions of this officer. Fallon, a step behind his commander, reached the banquet table and shoving with both hands, overturned the punch bowl with a great crash, sending the wine flowing like a flood over the marble tiles.
"What is this about!" Ecthelion thundered, sure his commander and son had run mad.
"Poison," Thorongil breathed. Ecthelion stared in horror as two Lebennin officers who had drunk early lay kicking and gagging on the floor. Thorongil lifted Imrahil's cup still held in mid-air from his hand and dashed the contents to the pavers.
"She's been caught fleeing on the north road," Fallon announced two days later. He and Thorongil found their way through the maze of tunnels dug below the Fountain Court into the dungeons of Minas Tirith. The stone was cold and the way lit only by torches. The lady, dressed in a man's coat and leggings, tossed her hair and did her best to look mistreated as the lock turned on her prison door. She gave up the pretext and stared at them defiantly when she saw it was the Commander of the City Guards and Captain Fallon.
"Ah, the celibate commander," she greeted sharply. "Pity I could not entice you, I feel quite inadequate but," She smiled at Fallon, "those weaker than you provided for my needs."
"You stole the list of merchants from my office."
"And when Fallon so gallantly helped my sweet brother get a position with the wine merchant at my suggestion, I had no more need of help from either of you."
Fallon was angry. "We would have drunk the poison, too."
"But of course you would have, my darling." She bared her teeth in a grotesque imitation of her seductive smile.
"Treacherous viper!" He snarled and stormed out.
"He's dead you know, your brother." The blond was unmoved by the news. "He died escaping the Citadel that night. He miscalculated the depth of a drop when running from his pursuers." Thorongil quietly informed her.
"That's unfortunate. He was a master assassin; and not my brother." Her eyes were uncaring as she shrugged.
"Who hired you for this, Miriel? You are no terrorist with a cause."
Nay, I was paid and paid well. I don't know who they really were. They worked with agents from the deep south---perhaps Harad perhaps agents from the east. It mattered not to me." The woman turned away from him and paced to the far side of her cell.
"Many who would have died lay with you." She turned back to him amazement on her face.
"Why would that matter to me?"
The tribunal was short with Ecthelion presiding; the evidence was clear. The Steward bore no sympathy for the treacherous beauty or tendered no regret felt by many of his staff. He signed the order and one fair morning, just as winter chill crept into the Southland, Commander Thorongil led the beautifully weeping Miriel to the gallows. Many officers of the city in attendance bowed their heads as the axeman's blade swung and later raised a glass to the end of that deceitful beauty.
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