Hands of the King: 53. Smoke

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53. Smoke

Minas Tirith, 4 July, 2978 T.A.

'Friend?' It was difficult to open his eyes. His lids wished to remain shut, and he did not want to stir and disturb the baby's rest. There was a faint smell of smoke. The voice was closer. 'Denethor? Are you well?' Something warm and furry stirred in his arms. He raised a hand to rub the sleep from his eyes. 'Please, wake.' At the touch on his arm, Denethor forced himself to look and had to squint as the bright lantern light blinded him. Finduilas pulled it away from his face. 'Forgive me. Can you see now?'

In a moment his eyes adjusted to the dim room and the lantern. The window stood open at the end, a warm breeze making the curtains flutter and bearing the smell of smoke from braziers and kitchen fires as evening meals were prepared. Telperien was resting on his chest in a deep sleep, purring contentedly. Denethor carefully dropped his feet to the floor so as not to disturb her slumber. He tried to recall how he came to be sleeping in the chair. Tower business had finished, he had come home, Finduilas was with visitors, so he had come upstairs to work on something... There was something else, but his thoughts drifted back towards sleep. Denethor shook his head to clear the cobwebs. 'I am fine. I just dozed off.'

Finduilas looked at him with a mixture of concern and exasperation. 'Were you looking in the...' She cast her glance upwards at the ceiling, then back to him with a raised eyebrow.

'No. The heat, the events of the day and the cat all conspired to lull me to sleep.'

'Are you too tired to come to supper? I can have Aeluin bring a tray.'

'Only if you join me. I have seen naught of you all day.'

She smiled, leaning down to kiss him. 'I will.' When she left the room, Denethor gently lifted the cat from his chest and set her on the desk. Telperien roused enough to protest with a sleepy mew, but quickly curled into a ball and returned to her nap. He placed his hands on the desk to help himself rise, an odd lethargy still claiming him, and started out of the chair when one hand came to rest on the pouch holding the lanyard. How did this get here? Denethor glanced at the door, grabbing the pouch and yanking open the desk drawer to dispose of it before Finduilas returned. Something was not right. He could not recall taking the pouch from its usual place. A quick examination showed paper, a few quills and an ink pot had also found their way to the desk top. In the other room, he heard Finduilas speaking to Aeluin. Denethor stooped over the sleeping cat. 'What do you know, your Majesty?' he murmured, scratching her behind her ears. Telperien purred, rolling on her side so her could rub her belly, never opening her eyes. He straightened when he heard Finduilas's footsteps coming near.

'Aeluin will bring a tray shortly, friend.' They were soon seated in the front room, Denethor taking his usual place near Finduilas's feet, the tray set upon his own chair where it was nearer to hand than the sideboard. He put aside his questions of the lanyard and concentrated on picking out the best delicacies from the tray for Finduilas. When they finished, he leaned against her legs and touched her lightly.

'How do you feel, Alquallë?'

'A little tired, but well. I haven't been sick to my stomach in days.'

'You should...'

'...do as I please.' Finduilas's voice had an edge to it, startling him. With a sigh, she touched his cheek. 'I have been given all of the advice I can bear since loëndë, friend. Most of it sounds perfect nonsense.'

Denethor thought how to phrase his words. 'Will you see Warden Lhûn soon? I trust her wisdom.'

'Tomorrow. I think I shall listen only to her and to Master Laanga.'

At the mention of the apothecary, something stirred in Denethor's thoughts, but it fled as soon as he tried to grasp it. 'Good.' He placed a hand on her belly. 'Have you felt anything?'

'Not yet. Soon, though. You are wrong, by the way.'

It felt nice to sit here in the warmth of summer, the wine from supper making him drowsy once more, so Denethor simply chuckled at Finduilas's challenge. 'Undoubtedly. On what am I wrong?'

'The firstborn is not always a girl. So this could be a son.'

'Who?'

'Your great-great-great-grandfather, Belecthor. He was the only child of Steward Beregond.'

'You read the Annals?'

'Yes.'

'You did not read the birth records, for they...' Denethor stopped abruptly, looking away. They sat silent for several heartbeats. Finduilas spoke first.

'There was a girl who did not live, is that so?'

'A stillborn girl, yes.'

A hand raised his chin and made him look in her face. 'I do not think we shall know such sorrow, friend. Let us not think such things.' Finduilas smiled and kissed him. 'Let us think of our beautiful daughter.'

***

Minas Tirith, 5 July, 2978 T.A.

The scent of pipe smoke let Denethor know that Thorongil was waiting. The captain stood looking north out the window, a small curl of smoke barely visible above his head in the faint light. For a moment, Denethor hesitated. He had not met the captain here since Malantur's abduction. Where else could you speak? There would be a council with the Steward on the morrow, then Thorongil would begin an inspection of the garrisons. There was no other time or place to speak privately.

The captain turned. 'Good evening, Denethor,' he said with a nod and a smile. There was a note in the man's voice, slight and enticing, that made Denethor wish to smile in return and offer a hand in friendship. Denethor reined in the exuberance of his heart and made his voice matter of fact.

'Captain. Thank you for being prompt. I will not keep you long.'

If the cool answer dismayed Thorongil, the man did not show it. He stepped away from the window, waving Denethor to his usual seat. 'My time is yours, my lord. But if I may borrow a minute or two...' The captain strode across the small chamber, collecting something from a bench, and returned, proffering the item. 'I have a gift for you.'

'A gift? Why?'

'In honor of your joyful news and in thanks for the gifts you have given me.'

Denethor tried to discern any falseness or mockery in the man's words, finding none. He took the leather pouch from Thorongil and worked open the thong at the neck. Inside was a smaller pouch, much worn and fat, and a wooden pipe. 'I do not indulge in this northern habit.'

'So it is high time you learned,' Thorongil replied with a grin. 'That's Longbottom Leaf, and you'll not find better, not even at The Pony.'

Denethor undid the top of the sack, sniffing at the contents. It smelled good, savory and sweet at the same time. He held out the pipe and the pouch to the captain. 'Teach me.'

The hardest part was timing striking the flint and drawing air through the herbs at just the right moment so that the sparks would set the shredded leaf on fire. The smoke was cloying at first, making Denethor cough, but he soon grew used to the sensation of it at the back of his mouth. The pipe itself fascinated him, the curved stem cooling the hot smoke just enough to warm his mouth and not burn it, while the thick wooden bowl protected his hand from the slow burning pipeweed.

The lesson taught, Thorongil sat on the floor of the room, back against the wall, where he could face Denethor. 'What news from the south?' he asked.

Denethor drew on the pipe ands exhaled before answering. 'The most immediate news is that the Prince has agreed for Imrahil to be assigned to Osgiliath and learn warcraft.' Thorongil made a sound of disapproval. 'Adrahil had several of his arms masters test the young prince. He is as prepared as any green man sent to soldier and better than many.'

'He should be placed in Anórien first, then, and learn the garrison...'

'At his age, I was second at Osgiliath. His father and grandfather were lieutenants upon the ruins when scarce older. Imrahil would be shamed to be placed elsewhere. In the winter, he will go to Anórien with Marlong, but this summer and fall he will be Halmir's shadow.' Denethor paused to smoke. He could see the effectiveness of a pipe. It gave you time to gather your thoughts. A cup of wine did the same, but this did not leave one's thoughts addled. 'And when you were twenty-three, Thorongil, what ruins did you command? More to the point, what cities and towns did you defend? Aught besides Bree?' The captain held his tongue, retreating behind his own pipe. 'Imrahil will go to Osgiliath and shall learn what he can while there is a quiet summer. When he returns in the spring, he will be better able to meet true war.'

'Yes, my lord.'

'Have you thought more about our folly?'

The captain shrugged, taking his time to answer. 'It depends on how many boats we have, and of what kind. '

'They will all be small.'

'Many?'

'We'll know when we have them.'

'I think...' Thorongil rose to slowly pace. 'I fear we shall have no choice but to wait for them to come north, and try to attack them in the straits around Tolfalas.'

'Those that attack the Ethir. They will assault Dol Amroth and Langstrand as well. Perhaps Rohan from the west, though I am not certain they have that strength.' But they may be augmented by a wizard. 'The land forces will have to repel the attack. The fleet will need to go behind their advance and bring havoc to their own port. To attack us, they will have to leave themselves poorly guarded.'

'Or catch them in port, as Imrahil proposed. Be a fly on a mûmak.'

'The young prince has yet to learn the ways of war. We would lose our fleet in such an attack, and we will need them yet. The corsairs must come ashore to conquer, so our army will battle them.'

'And what if our army is already engaged in fighting an invasion from east and south?'

'We shall hope our Captain-General is well prepared, shan't we?' This elicited a mirthless chuckle from Thorongil. 'It is folly, all of it. As long as the Enemy persists, we live in peril, for his hatred is unending.'

The captain stopped his pacing and looked at Denethor. Little starlight came through the window, but there was enough to make the man's eyes glitter. The rest of him was a darker shadow in the dim chamber. 'Yes. All is folly. All is peril. All is ruins. We shall do as we must, and what remains is hope.'

Denethor drew a long pull on the pipe and let it out slowly, admiring the thin stream of smoke. 'No, captain. Not hope. Power. Hope for us, certainly. That is all we have ever had, and a pitiful, worthless thing it is. Hope has never saved us.'

'That is not so, Denethor, though it is all we may hold with certainty.' Thorongil's voice brooked no disagreement, and Denethor had to fight against it to hold to his own thoughts. The fire in the bowl of his pipe died.

'We can hold it, discard it, or have it torn from us, but hope does not save us,' Denethor answered softly. 'Power is what saves us. Power to match the power that would destroy us. We are preserved or undone, by power, and we have not enough of our own to overcome our peril.'

'There will be no army from the West. Not again,' Thorongil sharply replied.

Denethor rose and tapped out the ashes from his pipe as he had seen Thorongil and Mithrandir do before. He tucked the pipe and the sack of pipe weed into the pouch at his waist and walked towards the stair, stopping before Thorongil. 'Then we are doomed. Good evening, captain. Thank you for the gift.' With a nod, Denethor went home.

***

Minas Tirith, 6 July, 2978 T.A.

It was an ordinary ministers' council. Hallas had provided his account of the purse and Borondir presented meticulous reports on supplies. It looked to be another good growing year. Brandir bore news of Rohan and the western reaches of Anórien. Ports and roads, waterworks and waterways, mining and milking, the fruit of looms and forges as well as of fields and farms was examined. Imrahil played scribe to them all, for his hand was fair and his writing quick.

The last to be discussed was battle. Thorongil was there, as were Baragund, Anbar and Marlong. There was some risk to having all of the major garrison captains gathered at one time during the height of war season, but Denethor and Thorongil had agreed that if a significant attack had not come during loëndë, it would not come until September when the cooler nights favored the Orcs, as had happened last year. They also had agreed that there would not be another large assault from Mordor until Umbar was ready to lay siege to the south. Even so, patrols had been stepped up in Ithilien and most of Éomund's éored was in Pelargir, waiting to be ferried across Anduin to Poros, sending only an honor guard to escort Princess Hilda to Dol Amroth. Denethor had not been pleased to hear that Éomund had abandoned his duty to her to ride east with the éored. The foolish wish for battle was almost as contemptible as the lack of diplomatic judgment. He hoped Thengel had the sense to keep this hot-head no more than an éored captain.

Thorongil sat quietly and listened to the Minister of Metals speak of the opening of a new silver mine in the Hills of Tarnost. He must have felt Denethor's gaze upon him, for the captain glanced across the table, meeting his eyes. They both nodded a fraction, knowing their roles. Denethor would agree with the Steward's position of opposing an attack upon Umbar, while Thorongil would rally the other captains in support of bolder measures. Imrahil would argue for a preemptive attack as he had in the winter, and would make Thorongil and Denethor's wish for a surreptitious campaign appear moderate.

Ecthelion thanked the minister and laid his hand upon the White Rod as it sat on the table before him. 'Captain Thorongil, please give us your guidance on how best to defend Gondor from her foes.' The Steward's manner was brisk and his usual unctuousness towards Thorongil absent. Denethor allowed himself a barely audible sigh - just enough for all to hear and notice - and deliberately picked up a report to read. 'If you would deign to give this your full attention, Warden, it would be appreciated.' Father and son locked eyes while the room fell silent and others tried to appear not to have noticed anything amiss. Denethor smiled thinly and nodded his head a fraction to the captain to indicate he should speak. He wondered if anyone else knew the tightness around Thorongil's mouth was suppressed laughter, not disapproval.

'My Lord Steward, Warden, gentlemen,' Thorongil said politely, 'the best news is that Captain Marlong will take up the Anórien garrison this fall. The Orc incursions into Rohan have only grown bolder and our western and northern marches must be strengthened. Onodló is a discouragement, not a bar, to our enemies.'

'I go just ere yáviérë,' Marlong confirmed, 'and will have the garrison put to rights before the winter.' The Steward smiled, nodding his approval. Do you know this is to be your newest son-in-law? Denethor did not know if word of Marlong and Wren's betrothal had reached the Tower, or if Ecthelion would recognize her from just her name. There had been some Tower servants asking after Beregar since the sword tourney, though most of that was probably Erellont looking for a way to lure the Hound into the Tower Guards.

'As agreed upon by yourself, the Warden and Prince Adrahil, Imrahil will go with me in a week to serve in the Osgiliath garrison.' Thorongil's voice was even, but he did not look up from the table as he spoke, signaling his disapproval. At his elbow, Denethor heard Imrahil shift in his chair and caught the young man giving Thorongil a hard look.

'You are not going to remain there, Captain, are you?' Brandir asked.

Thorongil shook his head. 'For a week at most. Imrahil will be under Halmir's tutelage. I go to Poros and Pelargir, and will return in August.'

Borondir motioned for Thorongil's attention. 'Where else will you travel before year-end?'

'I look to ride through Gondor,' was the captain's answer. 'Most of my time has been spent in Ithilien or upon the river. With the Steward's assent, I will go to the southern vales of Ered Nimrais in summer and early fall, where I have not yet journeyed. I would know the condition of such places, for there is need ahead of us.'

'Cair Andros and Anórien?' Anbar pointedly inquired.

'In the fall, when the harvest is underway, I will come to Cair Andros and end my inspection with Anórien, if it pleases you and Captain Marlong.'

'It does,' Marlong cheerfully answered while Anbar nodded with somewhat less enthusiasm.

'In January, Captain Thorongil, you said that our enemies rebuild their strength,' Ecthelion said. Again, his manner was brisk, almost curt.

'Yes, my lord.'

'The need ahead of us, it is to counter this rebuilding, yes?'

'It is to counter it, yes.'

'And has anything changed since you last spoke to me of this?'

Thorongil shook his head. 'No. Nothing has changed.'

Ecthelion's eyes narrowed. 'You are wise, Captain, but you do not know everything. There has been a change.' Denethor kept his eyes trained on Ecthelion though he wished to see Thorongil's reaction, for a glance now could betray their collusion. The Steward addressed Denethor, not Thorongil. 'My thoughts have turned, and I now agree that there is a great need to counter Umbar before we are attacked, if a way may be found.'

A murmur went through the council chamber and all leaned forward to hear the argument. Even Imrahil pulled his chair almost to the table. Denethor allowed his eyebrows to rise slowly, then looked pointedly at Thorongil. The surprise on the captain's face was real, so this was not a case of Thorongil knowing of other plans, as had been so when he was first moved to Anórien. Returning his attention to Ecthelion, Denethor said, 'Indeed? I am most curious, my Lord Steward. Please tell us how your mind was changed when your own arguments compelled our agreement.'

Ecthelion chuckled and said lightly, with only an edge of mockery, 'I consent to be guided by those wiser than myself, and am not so contrary as my ministers.' He lifted his hand from the White Rod, looking at it intently, then touched it once with his fingertips. The false cheer and half-hidden scorn vanished, and Denethor saw Ecthelion as he was, an old and tired man, weighed down by the knowledge of the futility of their acts. Ecthelion looked at Thorongil. 'In your counsel last winter, Captain, you said words I had not before heard, that we could not leave our long sundered kin to their fate, no matter that they have pursued a path of wickedness. It is not right that we should leave any of our kind in darkness if they would fain live in the light.'

'So I said, and so I still hold, my Lord Steward.'

'I pondered these words, for they spoke a great truth which I could not set aside. Lord Mithrandir spoke to me but a few days past, and I told him what you said and of my own doubts. He agreed that you spoke truly. His wisdom is not that of arms and battle, for he knows the grief that follows, but he said I should give you a chance to devise a way to relieve us of the threat of the Corsairs and also to lift the Shadow's yoke from the necks of our pitiful cousins, indeed, more for the sake of the latter than the former.' Ecthelion had not raised his voice, yet there was command in it of a kind Denethor had not heard from this man before. 'So I charge you, Captain, to find a way to do this. Redeem our kin from their darkness.'

Thorongil bowed his head to the Steward. 'I accept this charge, my lord. It will be done.'

Ecthelion stood, holding out a hand to signal for the rest to remain seated. 'I will hold you to that promise. Your fealty is rewarded with our love. Your valor will earn you equal honors.' Taking up the White Rod, the Steward said, 'I leave you now, you men of war, to decide how the impossible may be done. We thank you for attending us this day and helping us to bear the burden of rod and rule, until the king should come again.' He nodded and left.

The door closed behind the Steward and all sat in silence. Denethor knew that he should be glad for Ecthelion's change of heart, but all he felt was fury. You have never heard such words? What words did I speak to Steward Turgon and to yourself in this very room when I returned from Umbar thirty years ago? I spoke of the torment of the Faithful, I warned of the Shadow's spread. You would not heed me then or any time else. No wonder you care naught if Thorongil swears, for you place greater trust in the words of Northmen than in your own people. Pity the souls that suffer? You have not a dram of pity in your heart for any save yourself. Ragnor is a truer man of Gondor than her own Steward, for he weeps for the slain and chastises his lord for doing nothing to punish the killers. I have already taken up this oath, and you usurp my honor, you wretched excuse for a steward, with your meddling wizard and your upstart king. He could feel heat rising in his cheeks and knew the others were looking away, slouching in their chairs, trying to avoid being a target of his wrath. Only Thorongil would meet his eyes.

The man's gaze was as fierce as his own, but with joy, not rage. Slowly, the sharp edge of anger dulled and Denethor regained control of his heart. Did I not swear another oath? Gondor is already forfeit. This is but the means to that end. One lady for another. Denethor wished he could touch stone, if but for a moment, and be reassured by the City's song. A small smile came to Thorongil's face, and Denethor returned it. 'All is folly and peril, Captain.'

'We are left with but hope, Warden.'

'Not entirely.' Denethor glanced at Imrahil. 'There is also the fleet Prince Adrahil is raising.'

The exchange released the others from their alarm. 'Yes, say more of that,' Brandir entreated, 'for I have heard naught of your journey to Dol Amroth.'

Denethor motioned for Imrahil to speak of the preparations Adrahil was making along the coast. The young prince eagerly spoke of the craft being built, the way they were fitted to carry soldiers hidden from view, how sailors from all over the falas were being brought to Dol Amroth and taught how to handle their ships in battle. 'We prepare also for battles upon the shore, to be certain, for the Prince will not leave lands unguarded, but we will be ready to give them battle upon the waves as they have not had to face in over a thousand years,' Imrahil proudly concluded.

'This is good news,' Baragund said approvingly, 'better than waiting for them to land, but how soon will these new boats be ready? And can they really take on a Corsair ship?'

Imrahil nodded. 'Yes, they can, though not one on one. There must be several to attack each one of theirs. The first should be ready now.'

'Can they be sent out to patrol beyond Tolfalas?' Baragund pressed. 'To see an attack and send word, as well as perform their own defense?'

Thorongil glanced at Denethor, who nodded a fraction. 'Some should be sent on patrol at once,' the captain answered, 'for they will try to harry and spy upon us. But most must be held in reserve...'

'...in secret places along the coast, to hide that they are one fleet,' Imrahil eagerly interrupted.

Thorongil smiled at the youth's outburst. 'Yes, to hide our true strength.'

'But there is a problem, is there not?' Hallas turned his face towards Thorongil's voice though his sightless eyes stared off another direction. 'The Steward has commanded that you attack Umbar and free them. And so you have sworn.' Again the room fell silent. 'I do not mean that unkindly,' the old man said, 'but you have been set a greater task than looking out for pirates.'

'Yes, Lord Hallas, I know, nor do I take offense that you speak the truth.' Thorongil's face became stern. 'It is a great task, and I have not an answer. I and Lord Denethor have both thought long on how battle may be taken to Umbar.'

'A surprise attack,' Imrahil insisted. 'That is the only...'

'Of course it will need to be a surprise,' Denethor snapped, growing impatient with Imrahil's impertinence. 'But a surprise can also lead to defeat for us.' Imrahil's face grew red and he dropped his head, scooting his chair back from the table.

Borondir tapped the table for attention. 'Denethor, you know the answer already. It lies in our hands. Morvorin said it, and I shall say it, too - Dragon Fire.' He held up his hand to forestall protests from Denethor and Thorongil. 'I know why you do not wish it. It is dangerous, and may do us harm as well. But, cousin, it is in your hands to change it, make it less fearsome but no less useful,' Borondir pleaded. 'Can you not tame this Fire?'

'Can it be tamed?' Thorongil asked.

Pride and common sense struggled in Denethor's heart. He settled for a guess. 'I have not tried to change the formula since it was used. That was only to be a test in any event. If it can be tamed, I will do so. But Fire alone will gain us nothing.'

This seemed to please most in the room, and they agreed that it should not be dismissed out of hand. Thorongil looked somewhat doubtful, but nodded and offered no objection to experimenting with it. Supper was drawing near, so they agreed to meet again on the morrow and speak of more ordinary defense. When they parted, Thorongil came over to Denethor. 'Shall we meet later?' he quietly asked.

'No. Before you leave for Osgiliath.' Thorongil bowed shallowly and left with the other captains, saying they should sup at The Messenger's Rest, joking with them about the bland food in the garrison. Denethor and Imrahil returned to the Stewards House along the upper walk. The young man was lost in thought, his brow furrowed. Denethor halted before they reached the Wall Door. 'Is something wrong, Imrahil? Are you cross at being rebuked?'

'What? Oh, no, not at all, Denethor. I spoke without thinking,' Imrahil hastily assured him, but he would not quite meet Denethor's eyes.

'Something worries you, yes?' The youth nodded. 'The Fire.'

'Yes.'

'You dreamed of this, and it was ill-omened.'

'I do not know what I dreamed of, Denethor, whether of your Fire or something else.' Imrahil's gaze was like Finduilas's, bright and searching, difficult to meet. 'But I know that something burning in the south threatens to be our undoing.'

'Things already burn in the south.'

'Perhaps that is what I see, then.'

'Perhaps. What else have you seen, besides the flames Angelimir held back?'

'An army of smoke on a ship of darkness and fire. A shadowed king brings it from the south and marches upon the Enemy. Do you know what that means, brother?'

'No.' Denethor gestured to the door. 'The women will scold if we are late. I will think on the dream.' He had no doubt as to what Imrahil's dream meant. Thorongil shall use Dragon Fire. He shall be king. But his power is as smoke. 'For now, Imrahil, do not speak to Finduilas or any other of the house about today's council. I do not wish any rumors to spread until a plan is in place.'

'Finduilas will not be dissuaded.'

'She will be patient if I ask her. When it is time for her counsel, be sure I will seek it.' As luck would have it, the only thing Finduilas wished to know was when Imrahil was to leave for Osgiliath, leaving Denethor free to ponder the reversals of the day. Now that his anger was under control, he began to think carefully about Ecthelion's words. Mithrandir had spoken to the Steward the first day of the tourney, was in the archives the next day and spoke to Thorongil and Halmir that evening. Yet the captain was surprised at Ecthelion's change of heart. The wizard did not warn him? Given the closeness between the wizard and the Lost, it seemed unlikely that he would have said nothing. Who knows what plans Mithrandir actually holds? We may all be as pawns to him, even Thorongil. Denethor realized he had heard nothing more of the wizard's movement in the City since the old man had met with the Lost. If he was still in Minas Tirith, Denethor wished a few words with him. He asked Beregar to summon Borthand and let him know when the pup was in the kitchen court.

He did not wait long. At Beregar's murmured notice, he left the others to enjoy the summer dusk upon the roof. Borthand bobbed his head when Denethor entered the court. 'Good evening, sir.'

'Have you followed the wizard?'

'Yes, sir.'

'Where did he go?'

'The day of the archery, he went again to the Tower. One of the scullery maids said he met with the Lord Steward all morning. At dinner, he went back to his rooms and stayed there the rest of the day. Ingold sat on the stoop and waited to see if he had any messages to send. There weren't any, but the wizard gave him another piece of cheese for his trouble.'

'Did he meet anyone that night?'

Borthand shook his head. 'No. The next morning he walked around the City, and ate dinner in The Messenger's Rest. He talked to people here and there, but no one of importance. You know he was here that afternoon.'

Denethor felt a chill run down his spine despite the hot summer night. He hoped the dusk hid his expression from Borthand. Mithrandir, here... 'And after?'

'As soon as he left here, he went to his rooms, collected his bag, and left. He rode away...'

'Which way?'

'North.'

'If he ever enters the City, be sure I know. Or Beregar if I cannot be found.' The youth nodded. 'Have you eaten?'

'No.'

'Come in, then.' Dúlin greeted Borthand warmly and quickly had him sitting with a plate of food before him. Denethor retreated to his study. The lanyard had been taken out. He had fallen asleep at his desk, and could not remember the time before sunset. The wizard was here. He needed something to remind him, as he had been reminded of his converse with the mariner. Denethor took the lanyard's pouch from the drawer, opened it and touched the cord within. Nothing. He put it away and rose, walking around the room, trying to recall. Warmth. The cat. A smell... He wheeled and walked to the alcove where he had put the pipe and herbs into a drawer. Denethor worked open the lacings and sniffed the pipeweed. He smoked. It was still in the room. We spoke of... Bringing the pouch with him, Denethor sat near the hearth. His hands trembled as he prepared the pipe and he almost could not light the herbs. He sat in her chair. Words came to him, jumbled and broken. A badger. Ale. A dragon killed in Rhovanion. No, that is Scatha, killed by Fram. Umbar. They spoke of Umbar, and Mithrandir did not wish them to suffer from the plague, but they already had. Denethor inhaled another mouth of the smoke and held it in, wondering if it was magical or intoxicating, like incense many burned in Umbar to make them forget their own heart's torment. When his chest hurt, he let it out slowly, recalling what he had asked. You will not oust Curunír. He finished the pipeweed, but remembered nothing else.

It was not long before Finduilas came in. She sniffed the air in the room and looked around. 'Was Thorongil here? Is that why you left?'

'No.'

'Then why does it smell like him?'

Denethor held up the pouch. 'I am the cause.'

She took it from him, sniffed then handed it back quickly, putting an hand over her mouth. 'Put it away. It makes me sick.' Denethor hastened to obey. Finduilas stood near the windows, breathing fresh air. 'Why are you doing this?'

'To remember something. Mithrandir was here. The day you found me asleep, he had been here and he smoked his pipe. I burned the same herbs to try and remember what we spoke of.'

'Did you?'

'Some. I asked if he would help remove Curunír from Angrenost and he refused. He said he had spoken to the Steward about Umbar. That is all I can recall.'

'What did he say of Umbar?'

'He told me nothing, but Ecthelion said today that he no longer opposes an attack upon it, and says Mithrandir convinced him.'

Finduilas said nothing for a while, her eyes cast down and her brow furrowed. 'So, all now wish for this.'

'Yes.' When she met his eyes, Finduilas's expression was sorrowful. She came to him and kissed him, gently at first, then more intently. When they lay down, she would not be denied and Denethor did as he could. He knew it was the last time his body would obey him to mate her until after their daughter was born. He dreamed of walking along the quay of a great harbor. There were ships in the harbor, anchored in the bay, and others were lashed to the docks, being loaded for a long journey. There was no more time to build others; what they had would need to suffice. Behind, to the west, a pall clung to the foot of the mountain. Some pillars of smoke rose above the murk, like shadows cast by Avallónë.

***

Osgiliath, 14 July, 2978 T.A.

They rode just as dawn was breaking to try to cross the Pelennor before it became too warm. Finduilas insisted on walking to the stables with them to bid Imrahil farewell before he left for the garrison. Denethor took his time getting Gaerhûl ready to give the two of them time to speak. He had not intended to leave the City, but Finduilas was adamant that he would see Imrahil settled in Osgiliath and threatened to ride out herself if Denethor would not do as she asked. He did not trust Gull to refuse her mistress, so agreed.

The ride itself was pleasant enough, though it was hot by the time they reached the causeway forts. Imrahil and Thorongil had done most of the talking, the young lord answering the captain's many questions about the boats. Imrahil had fallen silent as they drew near the ruins, looking at them intently.

'The Warden is here!' the sentries called out to the garrison when the party was recognized, 'The Warden and the Captain approach!' The gates creaked open to let them pass and some men gathered in the yard to greet them. Halmir strode from the barracks, grizzled hair standing out among all the dark heads, expression grim. He waited until they were dismounted before greeting them.

'Lord Denethor, Prince Imrahil,' he said, bowing crisply to each. Halmir spared a nod to Thorongil who returned the acknowledgement in kind, apparently unbothered by the abrupt welcome.

'Lieutenant, is there any news?' Denethor asked, walking towards the barracks. Halmir fell into step beside him.

'None to speak of. All men are whole, there are no fumes from the vale, and the last patrol Morgul sent out was hunted down four days past.'

'The last one you know of.' Denethor gave Halmir a sly glance.

The Lost's expression was sour. 'Aye, the last we know of.' He opened the garrison door and motioned the others in.

Denethor did not pause but went directly to the meeting room and took his accustomed seat. Imrahil was looking around with great curiosity. 'I will need to leave to be back to the City by sundown,' he said without preamble. 'I wish to see the garrison ledgers as soon as they can be gathered. Tell Galdor I will speak to him in the hour before dinner. Imrahil, you are to attend Captain Thorongil today. He will show you the garrison and explain what your duties will be to start. Halmir, there is not time for a patrol, but I wish to inspect the bridge and the ruins after dinner. You will accompany me.' With a nod, Denethor dismissed them. Halmir soon returned with the reports and the quartermaster. They answered Denethor's questions as he went over the pages - how much stores were consumed, how many patrols went out and to where, whether it might be safe to send pickers to the wild orchards closest the river.

Galdor joined them at the appointed hour and brought his notes on the condition of his medicines and his men. He said he would have a letter for Warden Lhûn to send back with Denethor. When Galdor heard of the plan to send pickers to harvest the fruits and nuts on abandoned farms, he recommended bringing herbalists to hunt for plants. 'I know where there are patches of herbs that are more plentiful than I need here. We need not wait for the plums to ripen. If it is quiet, a few can come now.'

To Denethor's surprise, Halmir did not object, but nodded. 'Now's the time to look, while days are long and hot. They will have to stay within two leagues of the ruins, and be under guard.' Denethor had an idea that Imrahil would be one of the guards and thought it a good use for him.

Dinner was short for the dining hall was hot. Most men collected their meat, bread and ale and sought a cool spot in the shade. Denethor sat upon the eastern wall in the shadow cast by a watchtower and looked out at the ruins. He could not smell anything. When he focused on the stone, he could not see anything different, but if he allowed his gaze to look at nothing in particular, dazzled by heat rising in waves from the rock, then he could almost see Osgiliath as she once was and knew what was no longer there. The warmth and ale both took effect, making him light-headed. Under the brush of his fingertips, he felt the anger of Osgiliath, her hatred of those who put her to flame and her scorn for those who fled rather than defend her. She watched east and south, the jagged edges of her broken walls like fangs bared against any who would attack.

Halmir was already waiting for him near the gate to the bridge, long bow in hand. Denethor did him the honor of not carrying a bow himself to show he trusted the guard the Lost provided. The bridge was in good repair, with signs of recent work. To their south, Denethor sensed movement in the ruins and knew there were soldiers in place. He looked at the Fire-singed tangle of lanes, sniffing to see if the carrion stench still clung to the stone. It did. He left the bridge and entered the ruins, picking a path to the center of the devastation. There were more holes now in the lanes, and the cracks in the stone were deeper. An ancient square was pitted in the center with a black mark. He walked to the middle and squatted down, touching the flame darkened stone. It would burn the ships, and the docks, and shatter the proud towers upon their cliffs. The ruins regarded him suspiciously. A flake of stone poked up from the rest. Denethor put two fingers under it and pried it loose, not caring that the sharp edge cut him. The blood mixed with the soot, making the rock sticky. He tucked it into his pouch and wrapped a handkerchief around his fingers. As they once burned you, so would they feel the bite of flame. The city turned her gaze south, and her smile was cruel. Denethor looked at Halmir. 'Who is listening?'

'None. They are far off. What are you thinking, coming here?' Halmir did not try to hide his ire.

'The ruins are not safe?'

'You should not leave her.' The Lost's eyes blazed. Denethor looked into Halmir and saw a faint light over his heart. You can be trusted.

'I came here at my lady's bidding, for she loves her brother and wished me to see him settled. Beregar watches while I am gone.' This mollified Halmir somewhat. 'But it is not my presence, or absence, that places her in danger, is it?' Halmir shrugged, some red coming to his cheeks. Denethor signed [Wrong home. Stay long. Force.].

The Lost turned half away from Denethor, refusing to look at him. Denethor waited, watching the man struggle with his thoughts. 'I have told him to go. I cannot do more.'

'You said he is here because of the wizard.'

'Maybe.'

'Maybe you said it or maybe because of the wizard?'

Eyes averted, arms crossed. 'Maybe.'

'Can he return?'

Halmir's shoulders hunched. 'He has to.'

'Mithrandir spoke to me after he spoke to you. What did you speak of?'

'My business.'

'I have heard conflicting rumors of discord among the Lost, but all involve the wizard. Did you argue with him to get Thorongil to return?' A nod. 'The wizard will not help me reclaim Angrenost.'

'We don't want it.'

'But I do.' The Lost did not move. 'What does he lie about?'

'The wizard doesn't talk to me.'

'No, your kinsman.'

Halmir's hands moved furiously. [All!] The Lost turned and walked swiftly away. 'You should return now, Lord Denethor, ' he called over his shoulder, 'if you wish to reach the City ere dusk.'

Denethor followed at his own unhurried pace so that Halmir had to stop and wait for him to catch up. His fingers ached from the cuts. When they climbed back on the bridge, he stopped, leaning on the low wall. 'Your wife, is she still alive?'

Halmir glanced north and his face softened. 'Yes.' The Lost did not seem surprised at the question.

'Yet you leave her.'

'Her son knows his duty.'

'Have you others besides your son?'

'A daughter, too.' The older man looked at Denethor forthrightly for the first time, with no secrecy or grimness in his mien. 'Heed my wisdom. Do not be parted from your wife now. If you are, she will pine for you, and that weakens her. You need to return. Come on.' Halmir briskly led the way back to the fort, calling for someone to ready the Warden's horse as soon as they entered the courtyard. There was a small flurry of activity as messages were brought for Denethor to take back and Thorongil and Imrahil bade him farewell. Halmir walked him to the western gate, holding Gaerhûl's head while Denethor mounted. 'Don't come back, not even if she orders you,' the Lost sternly told him. [Stay.]

'I won't.' [Home yes.]

***

Minas Tirith, 18 July, 2978 T.A.

Finduilas had been cross when he returned from the garrison and her mood had not improved appreciably since. Denethor thought it best to hold his tongue but was certain to watch her carefully to see if he could anticipate what she wished. This morning, she had snapped at him, ordering him to quit acting like a broody hen and take himself elsewhere. She had actually shoved him to make him leave. Denethor retreated to his small room in the archives to sulk.

Lack of sleep did not help his temper, either. The last four nights Denethor had dreamt of Osgiliath burning. Around him towers crashed down and people threw themselves into Anduin to escape the flames. The Dome of Stars crumbled in upon itself, a pillar of flame rising through the hole in the roof. He stood upon the eastern wall, firing arrow after arrow at the forces of Castamir, covering the retreat of the Faithful into Ithilien where they sought safety within the walls of Minas Ithil and upon the heights of Emyn Arnen. Behind him, Eldacar rode away, not east to the stronghold of the Dúnedain, but north towards his mother's kin.

Denethor's fingers still hurt from the cut of the stone. Though the edges had closed, the flesh was puffy and sore, with a purplish color like a bruise. His reading gloves would not fit on his hand, so Denethor could not look through the older works on alchemy he had gathered, leaving him as foul tempered as Finduilas. Denethor stared resentfully at the scrolls. Halmir's words had not cast much more light on the situation in the north. [All!] He lies about everything. Halmir does not wish me to trust Thorongil. Perhaps he hopes I will order him to leave. It did not make sense. If Thorongil had lost a dynastic contest, then how did he bear the Ring of Barahir? Perhaps it was relinquished as part of a settlement, even as the sons of Eärendur had partitioned Arnor. Denethor wrote a few dates on a scrap of paper. Twenty-six. Thorongil left the north and took service with Thengel when he was twenty-six. Perhaps now the victor in that struggle had turned out to be a lesser lord, and the Lost rued their choice. Or perhaps Thorongil had not been driven away, but had forsaken his own people at the behest of the wizard who had his own plans for who would rule Gondor after the current Steward. But, why then a lie? With a sigh, Denethor stood, shaking his head. The captain remained a greater mystery than before, and he had learned nothing important.

No, I did learn something. I know what kind of man Halmir is. And that he is of kin to Thorongil. As soon as he saw into the man's heart, Denethor had been reassured. It did not surprise him that Halmir would love fully; the exasperated devotion to his wayward lord bore testament to the steadfastness of his heart. There was something about the Lost now that was not simply an exchange of steel for gold, or a dogged pursuit of a master gone astray. Halmir was not yet old. The man's children would be younger than himself or Thorongil, perhaps the age of Thengel's children. "Her son knows his duty." Meaning the captain did not know his towards his own mother, and this angered Halmir. Why would this anger Halmir? Mother's brother. Uncle. With a grunt of satisfaction, Denethor felt certain he had teased out a little more.

There was a sensation in his chest like a tug. Denethor did not question, but began walking, not thinking of where his feet led him. He knew where his heart traveled. After some wandering, he found himself at a strange door in the sixth circle. When he tapped on the door, Denethor let out a hiss of pain and clenched his wounded hand. Though the tap was light, the door swung open, not having been latched shut. Denethor cautiously entered the house. Finduilas was in here, somewhere, and he suspected it was Master Laanga's home. The house was filled with exotic plants, some of which Denethor had not seen since he was in Umbar. A clever set of tubes and troughs crafted of light wood and shells carried rivulets of water around the rooms, dripping measured amounts on this plant or that. His impulse to join Finduilas faded and he wandered around the house, investigating.

Eventually, he found the apothecary. Master Laanga stood at a work bench in an alcove in what had once been a dining room, but was now given over to plants. The man held himself with great dignity, nodding to Denethor, but not leaving off his work. 'Good afternoon, Warden. I am honored that you have paid me a call.'

Denethor felt awkward before this elder, only now realizing that he had invaded the man's home without permission. Bowing, he said, 'I am remiss in not paying my respects before now, Master Laanga.' The herbalist smiled and nodded his head once more. 'Forgive me for entering without your leave, but...'

'You have my leave,' Laanga imperturbably interrupted. 'The door is open to you.'

'But the way is barred.' The words were out before Denethor knew he said them. Laanga's dark eyes regarded him curiously. Denethor cradled his injured hand against his chest and fought off a desire to weep. 'There is no rift through which I shall pass.'

'Why are you so sure of this, grandson?' the herbalist said in puzzlement.

'The mariner told me.' Denethor had to screw his eyes closed to hold back tears. A warm hand touched his.

'This is a sorry wound, Denethor. You should have come to me before.' Denethor opened his eyes and watched Laanga examine his cut fingers. The old man's hands were knotted with age, yet held his own firmly. 'Over here.'

Laanga led them back to the work bench. 'Wait.' Soon, there was a mix of herbs steeping in very warm water. When Laanga liked the strength, he placed Denethor's fingers in the cup to soak. Denethor stood, gritting his teeth against the sting of the liquid while the apothecary practiced his trade, selecting herbs and powders from the cupboard of jars above the bench, grinding things in an ancient mortar, preparing a paste of medicine. He rinsed Denethor's fingers in fresh water before opening the edge of the wounds with a very sharp bone knife. Black pus oozed out. Laanga was careful not to touch it and squeezed Denethor's fingers until the wounds bled cleanly. The smell reminded Denethor of what Finduilas had coughed up after being afflicted with the Black Breath. Only when he was satisfied that all poison had been removed did Laanga bind up the cuts with the paste.

'Thank you, Master Laanga,' Denethor said.

'It is not wise to allow dark things to fester, grandson,' the old man gently scolded as he cleaned the workbench. 'Do you like my plants?'

'Yes. Your watering troughs are most clever. I do not know if this would be of interest to you, but Surgeon Galdor has asked for herbalists to come to Ithilien and harvest plants while there is some peace.'

'Yes, Denethor, I am. I have never seen Ithilien and I would touch the earth there ere my time here is at an end.'

'Warden Lhûn is gathering herbalists. Speak to her.'

'I shall go now.' Laanga gestured for Denethor to follow, walking to the back of the house. A door stood open to a garden. The old man collected his walking stick. 'Finduilas and Aeluin are in the garden. They would enjoy your company.' With a nod and a gentle smile, the apothecary left. Denethor went to the garden doorway, but remained in its shadow. He could not see Finduilas through the tangle of branches and greenery, but he heard her singing. His feet would not go forward. It was as though he were barred from the haven, given a glimpse of something he could not claim, but could only love. He sat on the floor inside the door and closed his eyes, thinking of nothing, just listening to her voice and smelling the growing things. His bandaged hand touched the earth just outside the door.

Denethor did not know how long he drowsed there, but his heart was peaceful when he stood and stretched. He left quietly. Finduilas might become cross with him again if she thought he had been spying on her. Nothing would bother her in the garden. Denethor could not explain how he knew that and did not look for an answer. He was hungry and stopped in the kitchen where Dúlin fed him and he watched the cook and the guardsman Hunthor silently flirt. They did not notice when he excused himself. Telperien greeted him loudly in the study, making a pest of herself when he tried to read the messages of the day. Denethor was thoroughly engrossed in reading a report by Hallas about increased revenues from taxing southern dyes and textiles when there was a light tap at the door. Beregar was there, freshly washed, his hair still wet from the baths.

'Yes, Hound?'

'Forgive me for disturbing you, my lord. Is the Lady still at the garden? Borthand said you had gone there at dinner time.'

'You have the pups watching me?'

'Of course,' Beregar replied matter-of-factly. 'The Lady wishes you watched, and you wish her watched, and I obey you both.'

'So why do you not watch her?'

'I do. When she is in a place of safety, I do my training with the Tower Guard. Borthand said you had gone there, so I went to wash and be presentable'

'I did not disturb her, but needed to speak to Master Laanga. There will be an opportunity to gather medicinal herbs in Ithilien and I wished him to know.'

Beregar paused for a moment, glancing away as though shy. 'And... Aeluin? Was she there?' Denethor looked at Beregar as he had not since he had discovered the poisoned tea and had been disgusted by the young man's opacity. Faint, a flicker of something like the glint of the gold band on the man's hand, but definitely a seed of love had taken root in Beregar's breast. It gladdened Denethor that his man had given his heart. No, not my man. My nephew. Beregar finally met Denethor's eyes, a question in them.

'Yes, Aeluin was there. I heard her voice.'

There was no hiding the sweet smile on Beregar's face. 'Good. I should go wait on them.'

'Beregar,' Denethor hesitated, not certain what to say, but wishing to speak kindly to the man about his love. 'Tell me, has Aeluin recovered fully from the plague? I know she was hard struck by it.'

Concern crossed Beregar's face. 'Mostly, my lord, yes. She is still weary at times.'

'Has a new girl been brought on so she need not work too hard?'

'Lady Finduilas insisted on it. She has been so kind to Aeluin, treating her like another lady. I know it has helped her to heal more quickly.'

'Aeluin is dear to Finduilas. To both of us. As are you.'

Beregar flushed to the roots of his hair and stared at his boots. 'You are most kind, my lord.'

Do you know? Did Adanel ever tell you? Have you heard rumors and of what? There was nothing he could risk saying without knowing what Beregar knew. 'It is not kindness, but what is due to you and your wife. When noble service is given, humble gratitude and honor must be returned. No other can take your place. There is no truer heart in all of Gondor.'

'Or beyond it.' Beregar's words were proud and fierce.

'Or beyond.' Denethor set aside Hallas's report. 'You have my love and my trust, Beregar. Is there anything else you would have of me and my house?'

'No. My wish is to be the Lady's Hound, and you have given me that as well. You have kept me near, even as I failed you.'

'Failed me?'

'Malantur.'

'True.' Beregar's pride disappeared and he hung his head. 'The Lady wished you forgiven, and so you are.' The man nodded slightly. 'Nor were you unharmed.'

'I took no harm. Would that I had instead of our lady!'

'Ladies. Was not Aeluin also afflicted?'

'Yes.'

'I ask not to pry, but out of concern for those who are dear to me - is this harm permanent?'

'We don't know.' The sadness in Beregar's voice was difficult to listen to.

'Have you spoken to Master Laanga?'

'Aeluin did. He counseled patience, particularly after the plague.'

'Follow his wisdom and that of Warden Lhûn.'

'We will. And we hope.' Beregar motioned towards the door. 'I should go fetch them.'

'Go.'

Finduilas and Aeluin were soon home and Moraen followed afterwards, having spent the day with Luinmir. Wren sent word she would sup with Aiavalë, which meant that Marlong was there visiting. They were to wed in early September as Marlong wished to be at the garrison by yáviérë. Denethor was certain to look at Aeluin and was rewarded with a glimpse of light similar to Beregar's. When Finduilas sat near the hearth to sew before they retired, Denethor made himself sit at his desk and not hover near her. It was not long before she sighed and set down her mending, holding out a hand to him.

'Come here, friend.' He swiftly sat at her feet. Finduilas smoothed his hair. 'I have been a dreadful scold these last days.'

'You are worried over Imrahil. And it's hot.'

'Yes, but I am still a scold.'

'I fear to agree with you or contest,' he teased. She gave him a light slap, but laughed and bent to kiss him.

'And I have paid little mind to you,' Finduilas said in a more serious tone, taking his injured hand in her own. 'You are hurt.'

'This? Nothing. I put my hand on a sharp rock and got a few small cuts.' She kissed the bandaged fingers, not entirely reassured. 'It was a final reminder to me that I should not go wandering about in the wild and should be here with you. Halmir made me return as soon as it happened and forbade me to come back.'

Finduilas nodded. 'A man of common sense. No wonder I like him.'

'I saw a wonderful thing today.'

'What was that?'

'Beregar.'

The smile on Finduilas's face was beautiful. 'Aeluin, as well.'

'Yes, I saw. When did you See it?'

Finduilas motioned him to stand so she could get up. 'After loëndë.' She walked to the alcove and got ready for bed. 'Wren in love, and then this. I begin to think that there is hope for Lady Lore after all.' Denethor chuckled, lying down next to her. Finduilas was asleep almost at once, but he lay awake, spooned against her, enjoying his contentment.

***

The next morning, Denethor made himself attend to his own business and not dog Finduilas's steps. She and the other women left the house early to allow Wren and Moraen to practice their archery before it became too hot, and planned to return up the mountain slowly, paying calls upon many people and not returning before supper. Marlong, Beregar and Borondir were all to attend, so Denethor knew Finduilas would be well guarded.

Among the letters and reports in the basket was a letter from Marach. The old man thanked him for seeing to taxes, spoke of how his trading went and congratulated him upon the news of Finduilas's pregnancy. After Marach's signature was a note in Ragnor's hand.

You swore. I wait. They burn.

Denethor frowned. I swore. You swore a long time ago, but have done nothing. Have they truly taken up their ancestors' abomination? Do you need to know that? Is not their current butchery enough to condemn them? It mattered. There was wickedness and then there was evil.

He sat and thought for a moment, then walked upstairs to Emeldir's rooms, being sure to lock the door behind him. Denethor has not looked into the palantír since the autumn before, when he had looked into the past. He removed the stone from its hiding place and set it into the improvised stand. His attempts to look south last summer had not been successful, for he had encountered the same kind of mist as when he had gazed north. But Umbar belongs to Gondor! I should be able to see it. What of your promise to Finduilas that you would not use it? I only said I would not use it for little cause. Denethor pushed back his doubts and pulled the drape from the palantír.

At first, it was difficult to concentrate for he was out of practice, but soon he flew along the southern coast, sun-browned lands to one hand, glittering Sea to the other. Ahead, a bank of fog blocked his view. As he had when he looked north, Denethor focused his mind upon the place he knew was there. Perhaps having seen it with his own eyes helped, perhaps because it was still claimed by Gondor, but the grey curtains parted before his will, and he glimpsed the cliffs of Umbar.

A forest of masts stood in the harbor. Never had he seen so many ships together in one place and for a time Denethor was lost in marvel at their beauty and intricacy. Perhaps some could be taken, not destroyed. It would be a shame if we could not study them. Are they like Seabird upon the waves? With great reluctance, he tore his gaze away from the ships and began to look at the city. Little was changed from his youth. Almost no one was about in the searing heat of midday. His eyes moved where his feet had trod, traversing the steep narrow ways, reluctant now that he was there to look upon Umbar's black heart. Finally there was no path left save to the great square upon the harbor.

In the center was a raised platform and in the middle of that a blackened altar. It was a grid of steel set upon pillars of stone, and underneath was the remains of a fire. Upon it rested desecration, further defiled by carrion crows. Denethor made himself look at it fully, committing every detail to memory - the chains that reached from the four corners of the grid, the long slender iron staves that pierced downwards all the way to the embers, carefully placed not to cause an end, the skull with skin burned away, but only across the back, so many of the teeth still there.

When he had seen his fill, Denethor allowed himself to look upon the ships again. No, you shall all be destroyed. The black tar on their hulls was like the pus Laanga had removed from his hand, the result of flesh rotted away by evil. He placed the drape over the stone, unwilling to touch it directly while the image of Umbar filled it.


This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

Story Information

Author: Anglachel

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - The Stewards

Genre: Drama

Rating: Adult

Last Updated: 07/01/09

Original Post: 02/23/04

Go to Hands of the King overview

Comments

WARNING! Comments may contain spoilers for a chapter or story. Read with caution.

Hands of the King

Rugi - 06 Nov 06 - 4:35 PM

Ch. 53: Smoke

I am so glad I found this story.  You do such a good job of portraying a younger Denethor - the seeds of the man he will become are there and I enjoy how you handle the character.  I also like your interesting take on his relationship with Finduilas - they are unusual people living an unusual life and you show that well.  I also love how the many secondary characters enrich the plot (which is so complicated and interesting that I am really impressed by that alone).  I look forward to more.

Hands of the King

Anglachel - 10 Nov 06 - 7:16 PM

Ch. 53: Smoke

Hi Rugi,

I'm sorry I didn't answer sooner. It's been a busy week.

I am so glad I found this story. You do such a good job of portraying a younger Denethor - the seeds of the man he will become are there and I enjoy how you handle the character.

:) It has been both a joy and a challenge to "find" Denethor and let him speak with a true voice. It is easy to caricature him - either as a malicious villain or as clueless oaf - so the question was how to allow him his very real and sometimes disturbing flaws along with powerful blind spots, yet have him remain a rounded character.

I also like your interesting take on his relationship with Finduilas - they are unusual people living an unusual life and you show that well.

I *loathe* the typical fandom story which has Finduilas as some kind of abused or neglected woman who leads a fundamentally unhappy life. It is so stereotyped. It also doesn't really provide a reason for Denethor to love her. A doormat is not interesting to be around. Her world may be circumscribed compared to Denethor's, but here is a person who is a force to be reckoned with. She's a cross between Caterina Sforza and Isabel Archer, and a woman capable of capturing and holding Denethor's desire.

I also love how the many secondary characters enrich the plot (which is so complicated and interesting that I am really impressed by that alone).

Well, um, yeah, and there will be more of them. ;-) The side plots are more than half the fun. It does get somewhat Dickensian.

I look forward to more.

If my writing continues, I should have another chapter next weekend. Thanks for the comments!

Ang

Hands of the King

Agape4Gondor - 11 Nov 06 - 11:29 AM

Ch. 53: Smoke

Ooh! What blind spots do you see? 

And I agree... this is an intense, thought-provoking ride you are taking your readers on!

Hands of the King

Larner - 13 Apr 08 - 8:36 AM

Ch. 53: Smoke

So this indeed begins and ends with smoke--the fairly benign smoke of Shire pipeweed (and I love that it was indeed Shire pipeweed that was offered the Steward-to-be) first smoked by Gandalf then by Thorongil and at last himself; continuing with the dark smoke staining the ruins of Osgiliath, and ending with the black smoke of blasphemy from Umbar.  Yes, the ships there need to be burnt--a counter-sacrifice, perhaps.

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A Writer Reads - 8 stories - Owner: Aiwendiel
Of course there are thousands of stories out there, and I have only read a fraction of them. NOT intended to be a scientific survey! My picks of stories that I feel are particularly well written, stylistically interesting, lyrical... Regardless of era, topic or character.
Included because: Truly exceptional writing by the very talented Anglachel, marvelously nuanced and mature, enriches understanding of the main characters as well as enhancing grasp of Gondor's recent history. Utterly believable backstory of Denethor II as portrayed by JRRT.

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Hands of the King - 545 posts

Discussion centered on Anglachel's novel-length story, "Hands of the King," a look at the courtship and marriage of Denethor and Finduilas.

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