My Favorite Aragorn Stories
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Contrapunto: 1. The Steward's Heir
Denethor did not know exactly when his opinion of the man began to change. It seemed to have crept up on him so subtly that there was no real beginning, just an imperceptible drift. But from that faint blush of suspicion his dislike had now become blood-red.
When the man had first arrived in Minas Tirith, he was far too below the Steward's Heir to merit much attention, despite the high regard of the King of Rohan. On the basis of that recommendation Denethor had, more or less immediately, placed him in charge of a troop of guardsmen within the city. An important post, but scarcely making its holder worthy of Denethor's personal recognition. However, Denethor made a point of looking out for talent among the troops, and soon noticed that Thengel had understated the case. Yes, the man was an extraordinary swordsman and a talented military leader, which the Rohirrim recognized with high approval, but he also had knowledge of the ancient lore and spoke several languages, as well as possessing a love of music and poetry that told of far more than a mercenary's life. He spoke Quenya as well as the Sindarin of the Dúnedain.
At this point Denethor mentioned the man to his father, knowing that Ecthelion was always looking for more talent to promote in building the forces of Gondor against the increased threat of Mordor.
It was then, for a brief time, as Thorongil began to rapidly gain the ear of his father and the respect of men in the city, that Denethor contemplated befriending him. He was quite sharp, when so many, to one of Denethor's capacities, merited little more than scornful pity. It wasn't until then that he gave much thought to the mystery of the man's origins and true name.
Many men served Gondor without much attention being paid to where they came from or who their fathers were. Ecthelion was, in Denethor's opinion, a little too free on this point, but he acknowledged the need for the talent. He sought to promote certain individuals on his own account so that their loyalty would be attached to himself as well as his father. And he certainly thought that Thorongil would be a good addition to his side. He made a few overtures, including an invitation to a sparring match with the sword, which was readily accepted. Thorongil was a valuable opponent, and Denethor found himself admiring the man's swift ease with his blade. He learned some things from him, which, he had to admit, had not happened for a long time. It was rather pleasant for a change. When he asked the man where he had learned his sword-fighting, the answer was, "My teachers were two brothers with extraordinary skills and experience. I was indeed fortunate."
He called the man to his office shortly thereafter, seeking to impress upon him that Denethor could prove to be a valuable master if he were willing to do as he was bid. This usually had an effect on men, who held Denethor in high regard by virtue of his abilities and his title. But Thorongil either did not understand what he was being told (which seemed unlikely) or he was strangely indifferent to such offers of advancement. It was not his words per se, "I serve Gondor, my lord, according to the commands of her Steward and his council," but the look in his grey eyes as he spoke. A proud distance out of place in a subordinate. What could the man be thinking?
It was then that Denethor began to inquire of others what they might know about the mysterious captain (yes, after two years he had been promoted to captain of the Guard, one of twelve, and then sent to Ithilien as one of the senior officers in command of the Rangers). Denethor had heard speculations and rumors spoken of, but the question had not seemed very important. As it turned out, nobody knew much. It was clear that the man had some Númenorean blood, from his appearance, his speech, and his skills. In fact, he had never denied it. But nobody knew where he had been born or much else about his past before Rohan, beyond that he was (at that time) 35 years old. That he would say. But all other questions were either ignored, deftly turned aside with an ambiguous answer, or confronted with a steady look from those grey eyes and the quiet words, "Ask me no questions, my lord, so that I may be spared the shame of lying to you."
Probably it was then that Denethor's opinion began to sour. But it did not occupy much of his attention; he had other matters to address. And then Ecthelion sent the captain to Ithilien as the top commander of the Rangers. The last inhabitants of that once bountiful land had finally fled across Anduin ten years before, after Mount Doom had burst into flame, spewing its poison into the pure air over the eastern reaches of Gondor. Thorongil, it turned out, was a remarkable tracker and hunter, skilled in woodcraft of all kinds. He recommended, and won, that weekly practice in archery should be required of every man over age 12 in the whole of Gondor—a singular emphasis on an ignoble skill from such an outstanding swordsman as Thorongil was. A truly strange set of talents he had indeed. For three or four years he was little in the city, which suited Denethor just fine. It was to be hoped that Ecthelion would retain the captain in a post far, far away; Denethor was beginning to be sick of his face.
In the next year, the first of two things happened that quite clinched Denethor's suspicious dislike. Ecthelion promoted Thorongil to Captain of Gondor and made him a member of the inner council. There was even talk of granting him lands and a minor title. No mysterious strangers had ever been given such power before. When Denethor pointed this out to his foolish father, the Steward said, "If Thorongil's services are conditional on my respect for his wish to remain unknown, I am happy to grant it, for his worth would merit a much greater reward." At least, due to his assignment in Ithilien, he was in the city so seldom that many council meetings took place without him.
Then, the next spring, yet another incident proved far more disturbing. Denethor went to Ithilien on the Steward's behalf to conduct an official inspection of the Ranger operations. Naturally this involved extensive contact with Thorongil. Despite their mutual dislike (at least Denethor assumed that by now the man returned his negative feelings, although it was often difficult to read him), they worked together smoothly. Certainly Denethor had no intention of ignoring the man's ability. He made it clear to him and to any others that might notice that he valued and respected the captain's opinions and capacities. Not to show respect for Thorongil would have been foolish on several counts: first, Denethor would have deprived himself of a valuable servant, and second, others might have misinterpreted any animosity as due to jealousy or resentment of his father's favor. Denethor was far too proud to risk gaining a reputation as petty or susceptible to feeling in any way threatened by a subordinate. And usually they thought alike, in fact—except on the matter of Gandalf the Grey, whom Denethor could not abide. The captain, on the other hand, seemed to know him rather well.
In Ithilien, however, he was surprised at the extent of the respect and trust that the men displayed toward their commander. And he had to admit (he made it a habit to examine his motives and to insist on honesty with himself) that he did feel a certain resentment and jealousy in this case. While he himself commanded the loyalty and respect of many, never had he seen in another man's eyes that sort of trust; he was more accustomed to a look of wary fear. This had never bothered him, as he considered it to strengthen his own position of authority. But in Thorongil's case, the men's trust led to the same reinforcement of his command—or more so. They were willing to take risks on his behalf that would have required more coercion from Denethor or most other commanders.
This, Denethor could tolerate. After all, an effective commander was an asset to Gondor's military defense.
But that display of uncanny powers—that was an entirely different matter.
He found out about it when a number of men badly wounded in an ambush were brought back to Henneth Annûn by their companions. One had been pierced by a poisoned arrow to his chest, and was bleeding from the mouth with shallow, agonized breaths. He was semi-conscious, white with shock and not far from death. While the healers saw to the needs of the others, who suffered from blade cuts needing to be cleaned and stitched and other such wounds, Thorongil had the injured man taken to a separate alcove in the back of the hidden stronghold. He knelt by the soldier's bed and placed his hand on his forehead.
"What do you intend to do?" Denethor asked. "Let the healers see to him."
"I have some skill," the captain said. "He cannot spare the time." He turned to an attendant. "Bring me hot water and clean cloths." He picked up the man's hand and held it firmly for a few minutes, closing his eyes, while Denethor watched impatiently. Then the captain turned his eyes on Denethor and said, in that quiet manner he had—which, Denethor thought, employed a seeming deference to cover an actual command, "It would be best if I could attend to him alone, if you would be so good, my lord."
Denethor tightened his lips, but he could see no reason not to comply, so he moved away, but watched from a distance. Thorongil further directed the attendant to bring him a leather bag from his own personal effects, and took some herbs from it. Then Denethor lost interest. This was just some sort of foolishness. When one of the other healers was finally free, he would make sure they looked at the poor man, if at least merely to ease his passing.
It was an hour before this proved possible. By then Thorongil was nowhere to be seen, and Denethor felt a kind of grim satisfaction. He directed the healer to the wounded man, and asked him to see what could be done.
"Is that the man the captain was attending, lord Denethor?" the healer said.
"Yes. Please see to him. I would not leave him suffering."
The healer gave him a strange look, but only said, "I will look at him."
Denethor turned away to deal with some other business, and did not see the healer for some time. Then, when he went to inquire about the well-being of the other wounded, he asked him, "And how is the man we spoke of?"
"Oh, very well. He is sleeping peacefully and should recover with time."
This was astonishing. "And what did you do to make this possible?"
"I did nothing, my lord. It was the captain."
"Don't play with me, healer," he barked.
"Indeed, my lord, I am not. I have seen this before. The captain has an ability such as we would all wish to have. I don't really understand what he does. But I see that he is not present; usually, after one of these healings, he needs to rest. I believe it is some Elvish magic."
Elvish magic? Denethor decided not to grace this with a reply. He strode over to Thorongil's quarters and drew open the curtain that separated the alcove from the main room. The captain lay on his bed, eyes closed and rather grey-faced.
"So, captain Thorongil, I hear that you are an Elf."
The eyes opened. After a brief moment, the captain rose from his bed with a faint smile. "Your pardon, lord Denethor. I am quite weary. How shall I answer you? I am no more an Elf than are you. But you knew that."
"How did you help that man?"
"I have been trained. It is a skill."
"I suppose I will not get an answer if I ask where you received this training? And how is it that you can put life back into a man who should be dead?"
"I did what was needed."
"Ah. The usual non-answer. Well, I will not further waste my time. You may continue to rest."
"Thank you." But he waited until Denethor had left before making any move to lie down again.
At that moment Denethor decided that it was time to get some answers about Thorongil. This farce had gone on long enough. First, he confronted his father.
"Tell me, father," he said to Ecthelion, "that you truly know nothing about this man to whom you have granted so much power in Gondor."
"I know that he can be trusted and that he is extraordinarily able. What more must I know?"
"Where are his loyalties? How can you be sure he is not an extraordinarily able spy?"
"My son, in the end, all we know about any man is what our judgment tells us. I have learned to trust mine in such cases as this. I believe that he is as loyal to Gondor as you or I."
"Tell me that you know, or guess, something more than that."
"I know nothing more about Thorongil than do you. What I may guess is not worth considering."
"Oh, I think it is." But Denethor did not pursue the discussion. He knew he would get nowhere.
He began to have Thorongil watched. The man had few vices. Beyond the occasional drinking bout, he lived quietly. He appeared to be entirely honest as far as money was concerned. He spent his free time (what little there was of it) riding or sparring with fellow swordsmen. He was quite fond of music and poetry. He was known to pursue the occasional affair with a woman, always one of noted beauty. He had a reputation for being very kind to these women and never speaking ill of them; good feelings, unusually, seemed to prevail when these affairs ended. That frequent source of quality information, a disgruntled woman, was not available in the captain's case. However, he showed no interest whatsoever in marriage. This was in itself strange. What easier way for a foreigner to establish himself among Gondor's elite? True, he would not be an eligible husband for the daughters of the cream of the aristocracy. But there were many families of the lesser nobility that would be delighted with such a son-in-law.
Working through some helpful underlings, he offered a bribe to a woman close to Thorongil to try to uncover some of his secrets. This scheme did not prove successful. The silly twit was so obvious in her attempts that Thorongil just laughed. She apparently whispered in his ear something like, "Oh, captain, I must know what name to call you when you bring me to such ecstasy! I want to know the real you!" and wouldn't let up when she didn't get her answer.
Denethor realized he was going to have to look further afield for the answers. He sent a trusted man to Rohan to make inquiries about anything that might be known about the captain. He learned little, nothing of importance. Therefore it was necessary to go yet further afield. But where? What clues did he already have about the captain's origins? He had never denied some Númenorean blood. Therefore he must have come from a land where the Dúnedain lived—unless his father was a wanderer who left a son behind as he passed through some foreign country. That could be. But it made sense to begin with the former and see what could be uncovered through a process of elimination.
All of this took time. Denethor had many more important things to do than to pursue Thorongil's identity, and sometimes he let the matter lapse for months at a time. But when his father made Thorongil the captain-general of Gondor's armed forces, he determined that the answer must be found. And why not begin with a direct challenge? He summoned the captain-general to his office.
The man entered the room with a warrior's feral grace. He wore mail with a surcoat bearing the White Tree, as was his habit, and that star on his shoulder. His sword hung at his side as if he were born with it there. None of this put Denethor in a better humor.
"Lord Denethor, you sent for me. How may I serve you?"
Denethor kept him waiting before he looked up. "Captain Thorongil, I grow weary of your secrets."
The man did not reply, merely watched him with those steady grey eyes.
"I mean to discover who you are."
The eyes gleamed with a sudden light. "You may find that difficult."
Denethor kept him waiting yet more. "Perhaps you will save me the trouble and tell me yourself. Because I will not rest until I find some answers."
"You will pardon me, Lord Denethor, if I decline the challenge."
"You shelter once again behind my father's protection. But surely, captain, you do realize that my father will not always be Steward here."
Again there was no answer, just the intense grey eyes that waited for his next move.
"I say again, I mean to discover who you are. And I will do it, whatever it may take."
"If you succeed, Lord Denethor, you will also know why I keep my true name hidden."
This appeared to be spoken from the heart, without the usual dissembling. "Is that so? Your origins are indeed that shameful? Are you perhaps the spawn of some ungodly lust, like that of a brother for a sister? Or have you committed murder in some far-off land and are hiding in Gondor from the justice that you deserve?" He was deliberately provoking him, trying to elicit a betrayal of some kind of information.
But instead Thorongil smiled. "I will only say that if you discover the truth, you may well agree with me on the need for secrecy."
"You are insolent."
"I think not, my lord. But I suggest you consider whether this truth is indeed one you wish to know." There was a deliberate challenge in those eyes.
"You intrigue me, captain Thorongil." And he spat out the name. "There will be a day when I reveal your real name, whatever it may be, in council and put a stop to this masquerade."
"Lord Denethor, that day will never come."
It was almost as if the man were warning him, implying that the secrecy was in Denethor's own interests. A wave of rage swept him and he glared at the captain before snarling, "Leave me."
Thorongil bowed his head—perhaps even lower than necessary—and left the room with that swinging stride of his, without saying another word.
Denethor developed a plan. There were two main places of Númenorean settlement besides Gondor: Umbar to the South, where many renegades had lived and ruled, and the Northern Kingdom of Arnor. At first Umbar seemed by far the better possibility. He could see Thorongil as a descendant of the Black Númenoreans: that would certainly explain the secrecy, if his family were some clan immersed in evil. And the mysterious powers perhaps drew on some Southern craft. But in the end Denethor decided to look in the North first. After all, the man had come to Gondor from Rohan, and the kinds of knowledge that he had did not point to an upbringing in the desert. Certainly he would have had to learn Quenya elsewhere. Furthermore, his friendship with Gandalf the Grey also pointed North. And the North was one big question mark. Few men of Gondor went there, and stories spoke of an endless wilderness. Nevertheless it seemed quite possible that some of the blood and culture of Númenor survived, no doubt greatly diluted by commingling with lesser men after the disastrous collapse of the Northern Kingdom. Perhaps Thorongil, being ambitious, had found the wilderness (or some pig farm) too unpromising a place and thought that he could use his scant Númenorean connection to find advancement in Gondor. A resourceful man could acquire the knowledge of arms and lore that he had by any number of means.
Progress was slow. He had a servant whose discretion and loyalty he trusted, and through him he looked for suitable men to dispatch North. Only this servant knew the goal of the search. Over the next few years messengers were sent North, but they discovered little concrete information other than confirming Denethor's hunch that this was the right place to look. In fact, there was quite a mixed population in the North, from the quaint halflings to traveling dwarves and Elves and Men of many races and tongues. Traveling, however, was extremely difficult and time-consuming, while the messengers required substantial reward and accumulated real knowledge at an excruciatingly slow rate. Finally, the servant took it upon himself to go North in person, bringing another man with him.
Denethor had one other opportunity to discover something from Thorongil himself, when the captain was badly wounded in a skirmish with Orcs in Ithilien. Again showing the man's amazing ability to make himself look good, he saved the lives of several of his soldiers, at the cost of being struck down himself. For a brief time it looked as if he might not survive; Denethor hoped his problems would only be so easily solved. As the captain lay fevered and semi-conscious, Denethor arranged for one of his men to pass a stiff bribe to the nurse caring for him, asking for anything that he might say. The opportunity did not last very long, for the captain soon pulled out of his delirium and began to recover.
"Well?" Denethor looked intently at the man come to deliver the report.
"Nothing of use, my lord. He spoke little, and mainly of the battle."
"The nurse said he mentioned the name of a woman several times, but it was no name that we know."
"I do not want your opinion, man, I want the facts. What was this name?"
"Arwen. The name was Arwen."
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