The Steward of the city walked now with him, and even though he saw signs of worry in the furrowed brow and contracted jaw whenever they chanced to gaze eastwards, Ecthelion was in a good mood, so he sought the opportunity to enquire further about the city and the recent developments. All the information the Steward supplied had served to confirm his suspicions about the nature of the raids and attacks in the borders of Gondor, and he was glad that, at least, he had arrived before war was openly declared. As Ecthelion spoke, his gaze turned to the soldiers. Soon enough there would be time for them to show their worth. Would it that it could be prevented! He tightened his fists and allowed his eyes to linger there for a while, studying their moves as they attacked and retreated. Their shields and armor glittered in the sun, and so did their blades, sending blinding flickers of silver.
“To which of the companies do these soldiers belong?” he asked, gesturing to the courtyard with his staff, but looking forward to where he saw the figure of a tall man leaning against the railings. The straight line of his back and shoulders revealed a proud and regal sort of character, and the degree of attention he bestowed upon the practice bout told him that this man was not only very keen, but had a great interest in the performance of these soldiers. Gandalf smiled; the man seemed young, noble, and looked like the perfect portrait of concentration; an aspiring General, perhaps; or, mayhap he was one of the new-made Captains.
“Several of them, actually, as you may see from their uniforms, Mithrandir,” Ecthelion said. “Those in black mail belong to the citadel guard; those clad in green have come from Ithilien, brought here to teach the young ones about life and stealth in the forests. Those in brown,” Gandalf turned to him, brow raised and curiosity piqued; the man he had been gazing at wore a brown uniform, “belong to the hosts of Gondor, our main military force, as you know. You may wish to ask Denethor, my son, about these matters, for he- Ah!” The steward turned from him and smiled broadly as he greeted the young man. “There you are, Denethor.”
“Good day, father,” the man said before he had fully looked at them, and this did not escape Gandalf, who raised his brow in surprise. The youth had noticed their approach while they were still away, without even turning his eyes from the courtyard. What an unexpected coincidence that this intriguing young man was Ecthelion’s heir.
"May I introduce Mithrandir?" the Steward said. "This is my son, Denethor. It has been a little over five years since he joined the corps, as you may have observed, and will soon step into his duties as Captain of the Guard."
Quite young, Gandalf thought; according to gondorian custom, not over twenty and two years, I should say. And a difficult time for him to become Captain-General, too. I wonder whether he fully realizes the scope of this... He noticed how Denethor observed him with an interest cautiosly concealed by his quick eye and steady demeanor; yet, to him, he revealed a curiosity that matched his own. He had been desirous to meet the heir to the Steward; if his foresight proved true, this man would have to face the greatest threat this age of the world had produced. Would he be equal to the challenge? For all their sakes, he hoped so. The young man was surely a mystery, and although Gandalf could hear Ecthelion speaking now, he was more interested in this new puzzle. The keen way in which Denethor watched him was both amusing and disturbing, but when he said ‘Good to make your acquaintance,’ Gandalf could not help but widen his eyes. Out of all the words he could have used, he had chosen the word ‘good’ –not pleased, nor delighted, or any other of the courteous variations used for such occasions. He marked this. Had a conceited young heir spoken, or was there something else to his words? Numenorean arrogance? He had seen rulers and kingdoms rise and fall because of it. His gaze narrowed slightly.
“I trust you are having a fine stay at the city?” Denethor asked him, his tone perfectly agreeable.
“Indeed,” he answered, “as fine as could be expected, thank you. Gondorian hospitality is never lacking.” Now it was Gandalf’s turn to appear agreeable, and he tried, observing with amusement how Denethor raised a brow in what he interpreted as a sign of curiosity. The young heir wanted to find more about him! How amusing. Perhaps he ought to give him something to ponder about; riddles, as it were. He was very good at that.
“I am glad you still find that statement true, and are well satisfied with our attentions,” Ecthelion said. “It has been many a year since the Grey Pilgrim last visited Minas Tirith. I must confess it amazes me that you were even able to find your way around!”
“An old man does not forget old ways, my lord Steward,” was all he replied, and he meant it.
“Very true,” the Steward said. “In your case, at any rate. Yet, I hardly think you are an ordinary man, or old; therefore, you might find that phrase to be somewhat ill-applied to you.”
He was, of course, flattered, and did not strive to conceal it. “Say rather, my lord, that what is once learned well, takes long years to be unlearned.” He noticed how Denethor looked at him, pointedly, but for a brief moment. Ah! He pays close attention to my words, he thought. I wonder what he read there.
“As you wish, Mithrandir,” Ecthelion laughed. “I will not enter into a contest of words with you. I do not have the time nor the disposition. However, you will find in my son a most excellent companion, and one very much suited to your tastes. Denethor has a sharp mind and a clever tongue, much like yours, I should say.” Denethor smiled openly to his father, seemingly pleased; and in that unguarded moment, Gandalf had an opportunity to observe him with more care. His pale complexion created a strong contrast with the dark of his hair, which made him look slightly older than he in truth was. His proud bones were perfectly set, and the strong jaw enhanced a manly appearance. A full Numenorean. Yet, the most remarkable feature on his face were the dark deep eyes that peered back at him with such intensity that sometimes the glance turned hard to bear, almost burning. He should make a masterful steward, provided that he was smart enough to use his assets to his advantage. And, he seemed to be smart; he was now speaking of military strategy and mental training; an interesting notion, and one that would prove useful against the dark foes that assailed them who were cunning as they were strong. Good, he thought. This heir had a sensible head on his shoulders; he was clever, keen, sly... and, mistrustful. Gandalf saw how he jerked when Ecthelion informed him that ‘Mithrandir’ had been invited to the council. Was that a bad sign, or a good one? Gandalf himself could not decide, but was astonished at the sudden excitement he felt when, a few minutes later, he saw the Steward depart, leaving him at his leisure to form his own opinion of the ‘shrewd heir.’
“I see you are acquainted with my father,” Denethor remarked as they resumed the walk along the rampart.
“I have known Ecthelion since very young.” Gandalf saw Denethor’s mouth twitch. Had he been bothered? Ah! the title, he thought. “I also knew his father, and his father’s father.”
After some hesitation, Denethor said, “Then I see reason in the Steward’s inviting you to join us in today’s council. Your wisdom, as he said, must come from long knowlege.” There was something to his voice that made him seem somewhat taunting, daring even. Gandalf noticed a foreign tilt to his otherwise uplifted head. He does not believe me, he thought, much less trusts me; he thinks me a dotard, perhaps. What a thought! He is very guarded, this one.
“Wisdom comes as much from experience as it does from observation,” Gandalf said. “I use both, and then determine the truth for myself. There is much one can see when one pays attention to the right things at the right moment.” There it was; that should teach him to peer beyond one’s looks. His remarks caused the desired effect; Denethor gave him a half-smile, wry and subtle. He had understood.
“ ‘Tis unfortunate that most people’s attention is, sometimes, bestowed upon matters of lesser importance. One can, most easily, miss a good chance of grasping truths that words won’t say.” Gandalf nodded, and forced himself to smile, but the words silenced him. How should he read that? The heir had a strong will, and, indeed, a sharp tongue. Gandalf noticed how he straightened the collar of his shirt, again, and lingered so that he would remain behind as they descended down the stair. Denethor was seeking for an opportunity to watch him, and he would indulge him.
“Are you interested in the instruction of soldiers?” Denethor asked. “I noticed the way you observed the practice session only a while ago.” He had resorted to the topic of the military now that they were in the courtyard surrounded by soldiers whose swords clashed together in ominous blasts. Gandalf was glad for the turn of the conversation; tension had been building and it had to be relieved if he was to continue his perusal of the young man. What would the best way be to achieve this? Through reflections, proverbs, praise....
“Your soldiers seem to have a very good technique. Their blows are guarded and controlled; they are very...” he groped for the proper word, “very patient, which is a necessary virtue in any good soldier. Quite impressive.” Gandalf hoped to flatter him, yet not any kind of praise would do. His words had to be sincere, and they were, for he was indeed impressed by what he had seen of Denethor; not pleased, nor disatisfied, but deeply impressed. Yet, he saw that he did not quite succeed in his attempt, which impressed him the more. Denethor’s face remained unreadable, and brushing a lock aside, he was already leading him away, when he decided to thrust a risky blow. “I saw your concentration as you watched the battle practice. Are you always that incisive in everything you do?”
Denethor glanced back and smiled, though the smile was somewhat tight at the corners, and Gandalf caught a flicker of something odd in the piercing eyes. “Always,” he said in a voice too pointed to be merely confident, and too determined to be merely contented. “As you have wisely remarked, there is much to be seen when paying attention to the right things. The core of the matter lies, then, in recognizing the right things from the excessive amount of babbling.” Gandalf could not help but laugh, and even more so after seeing the strange grin in Denethor’s countenance. The Steward’s son was surprised by his laughter, and he, in turn, was surprised by the artful, subtle, double-edged, charming answer that he had received. Such a way with words the lad had; such audacity woven so carefully within a tapestry of courteous speech. There was surely more to this heir than appearances showed, even though, at present, it was too soon to determine how time and circumstances would make their work on him. The young man intrigued him immensely; he was a most complex, perplexing riddle for him to solve, even though he had been able to read much in the forward and easy attitude, the studious speech, the mask of polite interest that concealed such deep observations, the curious glance, and even the unguarded gestures that escaped him at times and reminded Gandalf that this man was but a young mortal. He had read much, indeed, but he was only left with the sensation that he had also missed much. This pricked him. No one was ever difficult for him to make out.
“The council will commence shortly,” Denethor said. “All the great lords and captains of the kingdom will attend; and us. My father may have mentioned the topic of discussion?”
Gandalf did not fail to notice the implied taunt behind the curt words. A bout, he thought, as the echoes of the soldiers’ lively cheering reached him; would he be the victor? He narrowed his gaze over the youth as he felt his own face burn. “You wish to know whether I am aware of the shadow that is rising above Gondor, do you not? Yes, I am well aware of it. That is why I have come,” he said sternly. The expression in the young man’s countenance was puzzling, an odd mixture of vexation and awe, and no verbal answer. Gandalf seized the opportunity to aim his last dart. “Even as I have already learned of this, some others have and will. There are many ways to gather news, son of Ecthelion, and at this moment news are there, waiting to be gathered. Your father will not be able to conceal the threat for long.”
Denethor nodded, yet a scowl quickly stroke his features, underlining the increasing tension on the forehead and jaw, and thus he stood in deep contemplation for an awkward moment, at the end of which he asked, “And are you here to... help?”
Even as he answered, the air resounded with gleeful noises and exulting cries as swords clashed a final time and shields were tossed away. The match was over. Amid the cheering voices of the soldiers, Gandalf heard the familiar note of the horn from the tower, high and long, that held his heart and mind in a spell as his stare fixed on Denethor, sharply and most intently, and Denethor answered back with a piercing gaze of his own. For a moment, the world stood still, and that brief, straining moment ended by the voice of a guard calling. “The council is about to begin, my lord. Your father awaits.” Gandalf unwillingly mumbled an acknowledgement that was choked between the strands of his grey beard. He touched the brim of his hat, bowed low before the Steward’s heir, and walked away, leaving behind the cries of victory, the blows, the swords, the shields, until only the echo of his heavy footfall remained, and that of his staff against the stone-paved floors in the corridors of Ecthelion’s Tower.
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.