2. The Great Gate
[Misquoting ‘The Houses of Healing’, ROTK.]
“Estel. Estel!” Someone was shaking his shoulder. “Valar ... Estel, wake up!”
Aragorn rolled over and unwound his cloak from around him. “Elrohir, I’m awake. I’m awake. What is it? What’s the time?”
“Mid-morning,” Elrohir said, his face concerned. “The Steward is at the Gate demanding to see Thorongil, and Mithrandir sent me to get you.”
Aragorn sat up and ran his hands through his hair. “Is there any water?”
His foster-brother found a bowl of slightly dirty water and brought it, grimacing slightly. Aragorn splashed some on his face and hands and stood up, buckling on his sword. “Is the banner up?”
“It’s furled in the corner,” Elrohir pointed out.
“Good. All right, I am coming!”
“You look rather more like a Ranger than a King,” observed Elrohir, regarding Aragorn critically.
Aragorn fastened his cloak with the mallorn-shaped brooch from Lothlórien and scowled at Elrohir. “Not now, I pray you, brother.”
Elrohir nodded, and followed the Man out of the tent.
Underneath the broken arch of the Gate, Denethor stood in black armour, cloaked in white, a sword at his hip and the white Steward’s rod in his hand. He was flanked by Guards in full livery. Nearby were Gandalf and Imrahil. As Aragorn and Elrohir walked towards the Gate, Elladan appeared and silently joined his brothers. Close by, some of the Rangers clad in grey waited.
Aragorn paused a few metres away from Denethor and the Gate, and bowed. “Good morning, my lord.”
Denethor barely inclined his head. Imrahil’s face flickered, and some of the Rangers’ hands moved, but behind Aragorn the sons of Elrond stood still as statues.
“Thorongil. You returned to serve Gondor again at a timely moment,” said Denethor. Now Imrahil’s brow creased, and he shot a look at Aragorn, though he said nothing.
“I think, my lord Steward, you have been told of the manner of my coming?” Aragorn said.
“Once again you defeated the Corsairs,” Denethor acknowledged. “The City is grateful.”
“My lord Steward!” Imrahil interjected. “Kinsman – do you not know who stands before you?”
“A captain of the Guard who disappeared many years gone,” Denethor said. “A captain of our Northern kindred, I see.”
“He is your liege lord,” Imrahil returned. “Your king, my lord Steward.”
“So I am told,” Denethor said, staring at Aragorn coldly. “Is this true, Thorongil? Do you claim the kingship?”
“My true name is Aragorn, son of Arathorn,” said Aragorn, meeting Denethor’s eyes steadily. “I am descended in direct line, father to son, from Valandil Isildur’s son of Arnor.”
“This I am told,” Denethor said. “But where are the tokens of your house, and how can I be sure that the line remained unbroken these long years?”
Aragorn drew Andúril and held the blade up, glittering in the sun. “This is Andúril, Narsil reforged, the blade of Elendil, my lord.” He glanced round. “Meneldil. Fetch me the standard, and the Elessar.”
“Aye, my lord.” The Ranger Meneldil, serious of expression, bowed and strode away. Denethor eyed Andúril, which Aragorn had lowered to his side. It rested point downwards, the engravings catching the light. After a short while Meneldil returned, bearing the furled black standard in one hand and the green stone in the other. Aragorn nodded his thanks and took the Elessar.
“Unfurl the banner,” he said softly, and Meneldil pulled at the binding cords. Unfettered, the standard blew open in the wind. The silver and mithril embroidery shone, and Denethor’s eyes narrowed – whether against the brilliance, or against the symbols, none could tell. Aragorn held the Elessar up, the green stone glowing in his hand. “And this, my lord Steward, is the Elessar, the Elfstone, and it was foretold that I should bear it. My foster-father, Lord Elrond Peredhil of Imladris, has the Sceptre of Annúminas in his keeping.”
“And the Ring of Barahir?” Denethor demanded. “That, I know, is another sign of the House of Isildur.”
“The Ring of Barahir is bestowed elsewhere, for now,” Aragorn said softly.
“And for the lineage,” Elladan said, stepping forwards, his eyes bright, “my brother and I have watched each Heir since the line of the Kings died out, and we can vouch for Aragorn’s ancestry.”
Denethor’s face was growing blacker by the minute. “And you are?” he said.
Elladan nodded a curt bow. “Elladan son of Elrond son of Eärendil, my lord Steward. I and my brother rode with the Dúnedain to Gondor.”
There was a long silence. Gandalf leaned on his staff and looked from one group to the other, but said nothing.
At length Denethor stirred. “I will consider the claim, as it is my right to do. We who have safeguarded the throne for so many years will not give it up on the spur of the moment. It seems to me strange you did not assert your claim forty years ago, instead of hiding your identity.”
Imrahil again took an impulsive step forwards, his eyes bright. “My lord Denethor, the Lord Aragorn rode the Paths of the Dead to reach the City in time, and his coming saved Minas Tirith. Had you seen him in battle you would have no doubts.”
“I saw him in battle, many years ago,” Denethor said.
“My lords.” Aragorn’s voice broke through the heavy silence that had fallen between the Steward and the Prince of Dol Amroth. “My claim will be void if we do not take counsel now for the next assault. We have won the Pelennor and the City, but other battles need to be fought before we can say we have won the war.” He looked directly at Denethor. “My lord Steward, if you do not wish me to enter the City I invite you to join the council in my tent. And it would be appropriate for Éomer King to attend also; I believe he is with his sister.”
Gandalf nodded approvingly. “Aragorn is right, my lords,” he said. “Sauron will be gathering his forces for another attack, and we must not let him regain the advantage.”
The Steward said nothing, looking long on Aragorn, and then he stepped out from under the Gate. “Take word to Éomer of Rohan in the Houses of Healing that counsel is to be taken on the field,” he ordered, and one of the Guards hurried away. Denethor came to Aragorn and fell into step by his side.
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