15. Third Age 2960 - Part One
Walda came in the middle of the night, bearing food, wine, and warm blankets.
"You will have to take these back with you," Denethor laughed in the joy of the surprise visit, "else the watcher finds them and tells, though they will be sore-missed when you leave." He did not have to tell Walda that the blankets were not the only things that would be sore-missed.
"We will not look to the time of my leaving," Walda said. "We will look to the stars. They are the same as those in Gondor?"
"Yea, verily they are. Though their positions are slightly moved. But look. I have not seen that star before, off to the south of us."
"Nay, I have not either," said Walda, "It is bright - brighter than any but Eärendil's."
"You know the night star by that name also?"
Denethor sat in silence, wondering of the things that were common to both races of men, and when the rift had occurred that sundered Rohan and Gondor. He thought of Cirion and his Steward, and the act that had sundered and saved Gondor.
"If neither you nor I have seen this star before, perhaps it is some portent for our land?"
How strange that he would remember that conversation. He looked towards the south sky, marking the star again. It shone brightly in the night. 'Why would a new star appear,' he wondered again, 'in the year that the Corsairs allied themselves with He whom we do not name, the same year He rebuilt his black city?'
Signs and portents. He shivered slightly and pulled his cloak closer. Ten years had passed since that night; Walda himself had passed, stricken by wound-fever just this past month. Denethor's heart grew heavy again, so he searched once more for the star. Whatever the reason, it gave him hope. He looked up as Amdir approached.
"My Lord, here is some ale. Will you not come by the fire? The men are restless and your presence reassures them."
Denethor snorted. "It is not my presence that reassures them, but my sword."
"Yes, my Lord, you have become a warrior mightier than the great Boromir himself."
Denethor burst into laughter. "Enough of this foolery. I cannot abide your jibes any longer, my friend. Let us to the fire."
Dagnir moved over to make room for his captain. "What news from Minas Tirith?" he asked in Quenya.
"The Rangers under Dúinhir have been deployed to Henneth Annûn, at last. If we had garrisoned them earlier... but they are now ready to harass the Enemy." Denethor responded in the same tongue. Not many knew of the existence of the hidden fortress, but both Amdir and Dagnir were there at the finding of it in 2948.
Denethor raised his eyes at a sound. Two of his men, new Easterling recruits, were walking towards him. The taller stepped closer, while the other hung back. "Permission to speak, Captain?"
"Of course," Denethor motioned for the man to sit, but he did not. "What troubles you?"
"Our mission. We have been traveling more than a month, yet our orders were to foregather at Nardol. Will we be returning to the garrison soon? We have seen no sign of Orcs. Perhaps the reports were false."
Denethor's cheeks blazed. The veiled insult to Walda's men hung heavy in the air. "The men of Rohan are our allies. If they have reported Orc movement in this part of Gondor, then know it is true. We search till we find the band or their dead carcasses, fired by the Rohirrim. Their zeal appears greater than our own, if all that is on your mind is returning in safety to Nardol." His voice fairly crackled with suppressed rage. The soldier bowed and hurriedly backed away.
"Was there call for such a response?" Dagnir asked as one friend to another. "Conditions have been harsh; this winter is cruel and the men are cold and weary."
Denethor dropped his eyes to the fire. Taking a stick, he stirred the embers until the flame rose high into the air, sparks flying off into the night. "Too many men of Gondor believe that we are better than the men of Rohan. Yet, Walda's blood was the same as mine." He marveled as this thought struck him. Before he had fought in Walda's company those many long years ago, he had thought the same. At that time, he had respect for Thengel alone of all the men of Rohan, but Walda and his company changed that misconception. "If I allow this to continue, it will be as the fire before us. For now, the embers of distrust lie dormant, and I work to quench them entirely. But, if I do not stop this now, the embers will turn to fire and the bonds will be severed. Long have I toiled to hold the allegiance of Rohan, even through the loss of Thengel's friendship. I will not let it go easily." He was silent for a few moments longer.
"It was fate that had us stationed at the garrison of Nardol, else Walda would have passed ere I was able to fare well him. I promised him, before he slept with his ancestors, that I would follow and destroy this band of Orcs. And I will not break my promise, though it take even a year to fulfill!"
"Was it not Walda who pledged his company to Gondor's aid after Almiel..." Amdir stopped at the stiffening of Denethor's body.
'Yes, it was Walda," Denethor said quietly. "But Orodruin had erupted three years before Thengel was crowned King of Rohan, and that same year the Nameless One announced he held Mordor." Denethor shivered and pulled himself closer to the fire. "It seemed all of Middle-earth conspired against us. Thengel's chosen, that Thorongil, had even counseled restraint. Restraint!" Denethor threw his cup at the fire. Sparks flew as it hit one of the encircling rocks around the fire and bounced off onto the other side.
Amdir raised an eyebrow, walked over, picked up the offending cup and returned it to Denethor. "Mithrandir also counseled restraint," Amdir said quietly.
Denethor stood up, glared at his friend, and walked towards the perimeter of their camp. Amdir followed him. "You are in a foul mood tonight."
"What would you have of me?" He closed his eyes. "I cannot understand why Father gives ear to the wizard's counsel. I feel that I fight three enemies: He whom we do not name, Thorongil, and Mithrandir." His left hand clasped and unclasped the hilt of his sword.
Amdir was silent for a moment. "Thengel looks to Thorongil with respect. What is your quarrel with him?"
"I know not. My heart is uneasy whenever I am in his presence. Some premonition."
"You could be brothers, you look so alike. Is he of the blood of Númenor?"
"I know not, and that is another thorn in my side. Naught is known of him, other than that he comes from the north. Yet he has become Thengel's second!" A heavy sigh escaped him. Thorongil's presence had made it more and more difficult for him to visit his old friend and captain, and their friendship had suffered.
"And Mithrandir?" Amdir asked.
Denethor spat. "He is a wizard. Need more be said?"
Amdir smiled. Long had it been since Denethor had been in such a mood as this. "The men wonder at their captain's actions. Mayhap if you came back to the fire...?"
"I am tired, Amdir. Check the pickets. I am turning in."
"Yes, my Lord," his friend said and turned back to camp.
It was almost dawn and still sleep eluded him. The snows had come during the night, laying a blanket of white over the sleeping men. Denethor rose to relieve himself, and somehow became separated from the rest of his company. He could see only mere feet in front of him. He turned his head right and left. 'Where are they?' he wondered. He had only gone a few steps, he thought, but the snow had changed the landscape, and he found himself confused. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up. He quieted himself and listened. There, off to the left, he heard the faint clink of armor. He knew he best find his men. This was going to be a full-blown mountain storm; they must move to the lowlands as quickly as possible. Born in the fire and dark of the mountains, Orcs hated snow. They, too, would quickly retreat to the warmer clime of the foothills. He smiled. They would be easier to track there.
Heading towards the sound, he crept as silently as full armor would allow him. He cursed the wearing of it now. The frigid air embedded itself into the metal; he was becoming very cold. 'At least I have gloves,' he thought. The sound seemed to be going away from him. Had the men broken camp? That was impossible. Amdir would not leave without him. He quickened his pace. "What...?" he cried aloud. Before him stood a man, at least something akin to the shape of a man, but squat and round. He remembered the old tales and stood still. This was not an ally, but mayhap it was not an enemy. The creature had not moved. Denethor himself kept still, then slowly raised his hands, palms outward. The Wose, for Denethor knew that is what it was, grunted, gestured for Denethor to follow him, turned and moved off to higher ground. Denethor stood for a moment, unsure what to do, but the Wose kept moving. Denethor knew he needed to follow, to discover what manner of men these were, and what their plans for Gondor were. The creature could have killed him, when first they met; Denethor knew he had been caught unaware.
They walked for close to an hour, always climbing. Denethor knew Amdir would be deeply concerned, and probably form a search party. The snow, however, was covering any tracks they had made. He was becoming more and more concerned himself. Finally, the Wose pointed to a cave, barely discernable in the trees, and motioned for Denethor to go inside. After a heartbeat's hesitation, Denethor bent low and entered the cave. The warmth of the fire hit him as he unbent himself and stood. For that, he was grateful. For what stood before his eyes, he was alarmed.
Dagnir shook Amdir frantically. When finally his eyes opened, Dagnir whispered, "Denethor is missing."
Amdir looked at him as one who had lost his wits. "What are you saying? He has nowhere to go. He would not stray from the camp. Mayhap he moved closer to the fire?"
"I have looked. I have looked everywhere and I tell you, he is not in the camp!" Dagnir hissed.
Amdir stood, quickly looked around him, and had to accept what Dagnir said as true. "I do not understand. Were there signs of a struggle?"
"Nay. His blanket has been moved back as if he had left it willingly, but there is no sign of him."
Shivers ran down Amdir's spine. "Wake the men. We must search for him."
The camp quickly woke; Amdir sent patrols out in all directions. After an hour, Amdir knew they were in serious trouble. Denethor was nowhere to be found, and there was no sign of him, nor any trail to follow. The snow had covered even the patrol's tracks as they searched.
"What are we to do?" he heard the tall soldier ask. "We should leave, go back to Nardol and get aid."
Amdir strode towards the man, grabbed him and snarled, "I will hear no further discourse from your lips. Do you hear me? And when we return to the garrison, you will hold yourself under house arrest. Now pick up your belongings and join your patrol." He turned towards Dagnir. "We will keep our base camp here. A small contingent will keep the fires burning. The rest of us will..."
'Where will we start,' he wondered. 'Should we go in all directions or just concentrate on one area?' They were only one company, seventy men. 'How do I best use them?' Dagnir waited.
"We will break into seven patrols," Amdir continued. "Each patrol will walk forward, towards the summit, for one hour. At the end of that time, the outer two companies will turn east and west. The other three will continue northward." He turned towards his trumpeter. "You will sound the call once every hour. Dagnir, you will command those left here."
"Nay, Amdir, I will not stay. Please, put someone else in charge. I would be about the search."
Amdir looked into his friend's eyes. "I have almost no hope that we will find him. The storm rages. After three hours, I would have you take a unit and return to Nardol, as quickly as possible, and bring the entire garrison, less one company. Once you return, you must start the search from the base of the mountain, whilst we continue on upward."
Dagnir shook. "I understand. I am sorry. I will do as you command."
Amdir turned, assigned those to lead each patrol, and started off northward. Cold seeped into his very being, but he was unsure if it was the cold of the snow or the cold of fear.
Thorongil walked towards the throne, the last rays of the sun catching in the windows high above, sifting through the banners hanging low, and leaving strange streaks on the floor. Thengel's face lit up when he perceived him, standing silently, waiting for his king.
"Come, Thorongil, we are going to feast tonight. Théoden has had a fine day of sword practice, and I have promised him we would celebrate." He stopped as Thorongil kept silent. His tone hardened. "What is it? What news bring you?"
"Thengel King. A messenger has come from Halifirien. There has been an ambush and Walda is dead along with many of his men. Men from Gondor, under Captain Denethor, came to the company's aid, but too late."
Thengel stood. "This is old news given nigh unto a fortnight ago. Have I not sent forth Éomund's éored to search for and kill their attackers?" He stopped. Thorongil was unusually quiet. "What further news?"
Thorongil took a deep breath. "Denethor is missing. It is nigh unto three days since last he was seen. They have searched the Drúadan Forest, but to no avail."
Bewilderment clouded Thengel's eyes for a moment. He sat hard in his chair. "What has Ecthelion done? Has he sent his knights?"
"I have heard naught but that the garrisons at Amon Dîn and Nardol have been emptied to help in the search."
"Ready my horse, and yours too. We ride in one hour." Thengel almost ran from the room. Thorongil attempted to stay him, but the king had left the room before a word had left his second's mouth.
Morwen pulled his heavy cloak from the cupboard, shook it and held it out for him. "I would away with thee, my King, if not for this." She stroked her full belly. Thengel and she always spoke the language of Gondor when they were alone together.
"I know thou wouldst, my beloved. Even if thou wert not with child, I wouldst not allow thee on this venture. The Orcs must be fierce and strong to have killed Walda and so many of his éored. His prowess as leader is legend. He will be sorely missed."
"Yet," she pointed out, "I have proven useful in skirmishes in the foothills to the south of Edoras."
He strode towards her, took the cloak from her outstretched hands, and put it on their bed. Then, he took her in his arms. "They do not call thee Steelsheen for naught, my love. Thou art a true shieldmaiden of Rohan, though, thankfully, thou hast not vowed thyself from our bower."
She leaned into his chest and sighed. "I seem to do the opposite," she said and gave a small laugh.
He hugged her tighter. "Thou fillest the Golden Hall with the laughter of our children. What more could King ask for? Warriors and Shieldmaidens for Rohan, and comfort for our old age."
She tried to push herself away in anger, but he held her ever closer. "So that is what I have become," she mocked, "a begetter of warriors?"
He clucked his tongue, kissed her brow, and wept openly. "Nay, my beloved. Thou art my very life."
Nonplussed, she folded into his body. "Forgive me, my King. Verily, thou art my life. I will not tell thee to take care, for I know thy wisdom in matters of battle. Remember thou that wisdom, when it is needed, and come back to me."
Struggling to quell the fear that assailed him, Amdir strode towards the fire. Dagnir stood. "There has been no word?"
"Nay, my Lord. Naught. The men from Amon Dîn arrived last night, and have begun searching the lower foothills. Here is the map that Denethor made five years ago. I have marked where each company is searching."
Amdir stared. The forest and mountain were so large; they would need more than three times the men they had now if they were ever going to find Denethor. "The band of Orcs was found?"
"Yes, my Lord."
"Stop it! Stop calling me that! It is Lord Denethor's title, not mine!"
Dagnir stopped. The soldier hung his head, biting his lip. He knew what Amdir was feeling; a part of him felt it too. Long had he served Denethor. Long had they been friends, but not for as long as the man who stood before him.
Amdir strode from his side, shaking his head as he walked. A moment later, he returned. "I am heartily sorry, Dagnir."
"Nay, my..." He wanted to kick himself. "Amdir, we will find him. There was no sign of struggle. The Orcs were found, killed by the Rohirrim, but he was not among them. Some magic, perhaps, that we have not considered."
Amdir looked up at that. He remembered Denethor's brushes with the wizard. A shudder ran through his body. "You speak true. Denethor is brave and battle wise. He will know how to take care of himself. There is something else here that we are not considering. Let us take a moment and think of the legends and tales that have come out of this place." He wished mightily that he had spent more time with Denethor in the Great Library.
Both men sat by the fire. Amdir fingered the braid that outlined the tree of Gondor on his tunic, while Dagnir poked the fire with a stick. "This is hopeless," Amdir suddenly cried. "I know naught of this place."
"Amdir," Dagnir said, "mayhap one of the men stationed at Eilenach knows something of the tales. After all, there is a small garrison at the summit. I can send for their commanding officer and we can question him?"
"Amlach, Captain of Eilenach, at your service, Lieutenant." The man saluted, then stood silent, waiting.
"There are tales told about many places in Gondor, Amlach. I need you to think. Have you heard any tales or legends of the Drúadan Forest? Of this area that we search?"
"Yes, my Lord. There have been tales of strange men, rushing from the trees, attacking any who would stand in their way. Yet, I have heard no tales of them harming men of Gondor. They are said to use arrows tipped with poison, that they hate Orcs, that they are half-naked, and that they wear only grass skirts. These are only tales, though. I myself, nor none of my men, have ever seen one. We stay to the outskirts of the Wood, high above the tree line though, and venture not far into it, unless following Orcs."
"Then where do you patrol?" Amdir snapped. "Never mind. We will discuss that later. So, do these men, these creatures, have a name?"
"The only name that I have heard is Wild Men."
"That does not bode well for Denethor, if he has become entangled with Wild Men," Amdir stated dryly. "Thank you." He gestured and the captain left him. Clearly, Amdir was in charge of this undertaking.
Dagnir stood. "Let us assume these Wild Men have Denethor. They must leave some sort of trail as they pass through the forest. The snow stopped falling this morning. If our men begin the search again, starting from here and fanning out, we must come upon some sign."
"We need more men." And as he spoke these words, men on horseback broke through the forest into their camp. "Thengel!" Amdir cried. "You have come. How did you know? Are you prepared to search?"
"Stop, stop," Thengel smiled good-naturedly. "Take a breath. I will wait."
As Thengel dismounted, he found himself in a hearty embrace.
"You have been missed, my friend." Amdir said, and then, remembering whom he was addressing, stopped. "I am sorry. I o'erstepped my bounds."
"Nay, Amdir, you under stepped by not sending for me immediately. Has there been further news?"
"How many...?" he could not answer Thengel's question, for his entire being strove, yet feared, to hear the answer to his own question.
"Four hundred strong; three éoreds and then some," Thengel said. "Show me what you have done thus far." The king gently took command and Amdir gratefully relinquished it. Two heads bent over the map table, looking at the large scrawl that was Denethor's - one fair-haired, the other raven.
"After all this is over," Thengel finally stood straight, "we should go fishing."
Amdir stretched and smiled. It was the first upon his face in six days. "It is good to be with you again. Your plan is sound."
Thorongil stepped forward in response to Thengel's gesture. "Here is where you will lead the éored," Thengel pointed to the map. Thorongil bowed and turned away. Soon, the sound of horses' hooves was heard as the Rohirrim moved away.
Indis paced back and forth in front of the Steward's Chair, clasping and unclasping the hilt of her sword in much the same way her brother did. She had strapped her sword to her side as soon as the messenger came to her study, his face vividly telling her something was seriously wrong. 'Did Ecthelion think that he and Denethor were the only ones in the family with any foresight?' She thought as she stomped to the Great Hall.
"What do you mean, he is missing? How do you misplace a Captain of Gondor?" Indis spat the words. Her father sat back, bitten by her anger. "Do you think I will countenance one more member of this family being harmed in any way? What have you done, then?" she asked. "How many battalions have you sent?"
Ecthelion stepped out of his Chair and put his arm around her shoulder. She wanted to swipe it away, her fear and anger were so great, yet she stilled herself and permitted it.
"By the time I sent my knights, I believed he would have been found. You know your brother; he is resourceful. He will return shortly."
She pulled herself away, stunned beyond words. He saw the look in her eyes. Perhaps he had erred; perhaps he should have sent a company or two of his own guard.
It had been at least two days since Denethor had seen or heard anyone, three since he had eaten anything. He had naught to reckon the time with; his prison was as black as the sewers of Osgiliath. Yet, his training had taught him ways to mark time. He laughed to himself. 'It is the grumbling of my stomach that keeps time!' The smile quickly faded. How long would he be held? Did they have any intention of releasing him? What were their plans for him?
When he had entered the cave, he was greeted by the sight of at least one hundred of these dark, foreboding men staring at him, scowls on their faces. They were short, hairy men, all looking strangely the same, with wispy whiskers sticking out of their chins, and wearing only grass skirts, even in the dead of winter. He had tried to stand up straight, but his head had bumped itself on the low ceiling well before he was halfway standing. Low for him, but not for the Wose. Most of them moved aside as he entered, and his gaze was drawn towards a chair at the far end of the cave. Upon it sat a most gruesome looking old Wose. Neither crown nor device of any kind did he wear, yet Denethor knew this was their leader.
He took a deep breath and walked forward. Some of the creatures started towards him, and he realized that he had his hand on the hilt of his sword. He had been unconsciously clasping and unclasping it. He let it go and slowly raised his hands, palms opened. He wished sincerely he could let go the fear that coursed through his veins. There had been no tales of Wose attacks upon Gondorians, but their demeanor was far from friendly. The Rohirrim, in ages past, had oft hunted these creatures.
As he approached the chair, a slight stir arose and he slowed his gait. He stopped about two rods from the Wose, bowed his head and placed his hand to his chest. The Wose just growled and gestured to two creatures standing next to him. They strode forward and started to take his sword. Before Denethor had even thought, he unsheathed it from its scabbard and assumed his battle stance, the sword held comfortably in his hand. The creatures stepped back, picked up bows, and began to arm themselves. 'This will not do,' Denethor thought, 'the arrows are no doubt poisoned. I will be dead before I am able to take any with me.' He stood up as far as he was able, turned the hilt away from himself, and offered it to the head Wose. The sword was quickly taken by one of the creatures; he was searched, but since he had been taken directly from sleep, he had nothing else with him. Thankfully, he had his cloak. Two others grabbed his arms and forced him to the back of the cave. A stone was moved; he was pushed into a little alcove. The stone was rolled back and that was the last he saw of the light of day.
He walked the perimeter of the alcove hundreds of times since being deposited there, and combed every corner, hoping to find some means of escape. There was none but through the stone-covered entranceway. He attempted to move the stone, but it would not budge.
He heard a noise, stone scraping against stone, and moved away from the entrance. In the faint light, he saw the stone rolled away, a bowl and a cup set down, and the stone rolled back again.
'Wonderful,' he thought grimly as he picked up the bowl and felt twigs and shrubbery in it along with a few berries, 'just like at Amon Anwar. The best of food.' He devoured it quickly and found that the cup held clean, clear mountain water. He wished for more. He also wished his silent keeper had taken the chamber pot. The smell was becoming almost too much to bear.
The Lady of Gondor chided herself for letting her temper get the best of her. She could not imagine that her father would not have sent a rescue party. Indis stormed the balcony of her bedchambers, shouting her anger into the wind. At last, she sat on the cold stone floor and sobbed. That was how Listöwel found her. She gently helped her to stand, walked her to an overstuffed chair in her sleeping chamber, and forced Indis to sit. Quietly, she fixed tea at the fireplace and brought it to her friend. She sat at her feet, waiting for Indis to speak.
"I cannot keep from shivering. Thank you for the tea; it was much needed." Indis sat back in the chair and sighed. "My father is a mystery to me, has always been so. Every time I think that we are becoming closer, that I finally understand his ways, he does something that is beyond my comprehension. Did he not consider that Amdir would not have sent the message asking for help, if help was not indeed necessary?"
"Has he sent it now?"
"I do not even know. I... I left the Great Hall before I did or said something I would regret."
"I will go to Elleth. She will discover from Ingold what plans are being made, if any. And, if none are contemplated, we will very much use all our powers of persuasion to make sure he speaks with the Steward. Even if help is sent too late... I am sorry. That is not what I meant to say. Even if help is not needed, because they have found Denethor, it is help not wasted."
Tears again sprang to Indis' eyes. "Too late. Always, for the Steward's family, help seems to come too late. My poor beloved Almiel." Sobs shook her body again and Listöwel rose to hold her.
"Be at peace, my dearest friend. Almiel is now. Ever was she in pain here. There had been no peace for her after your mother's death. Her timid, gentle nature was not for this place. She is in a better place, I am sure. And happy, I hope."
"Yes, she is happy, I am sure. All I want for our family is happiness and peace. Is that too much to ask of the Valar, sister-friend?"
"Nay, it is not too much and it will one day come to pass. There will be happiness in the House of the Stewards."
Indis drew in her breath. 'The House of the Stewards.' What had Listöwel said? Was this foresight? Nay, she could not think that. The House of the Stewards was the burial ground for her family. There was no happiness there. Only cold, dark, and bitter visits. She shivered.
Listöwel's eyes opened wide, seeing the shiver. She realized that her words of comfort were far from comforting. "Forgive me, dearest sister. I misspoke again. I do not know why my tongue betrays me."
"Let it go, sister," Indis murmured. "I will not fight."
Slowly Indis' eyes closed, the tea fulfilling its purpose. Sleep came.
Tears filled Listöwel's eyes as well, and she again sat at her friend's feet.
"Tracks have been found further up the mountain, my King. I have sent one entire éored in that direction. They are not the tracks of men of Gondor, nor of men of Rohan."
Thengel looked up at his second. The sun caught his eye. Only the outline of Thorongil was visible through its strong light. He caught his breath. They could be twins! His mind reeled. 'There is something here. There is something strange about this man and the Steward's son.'
"My King?" Thorongil asked.
Thengel blinked, looked away, and when he looked back, Thorongil had moved slightly, the sun was no longer directly behind him, and Thorongil was fully visible. Still, the likeness remained, but not so apparent. "Place three éoreds in that area. Have them search every nook and cranny. It is now seven days. I want him found!" His voice cracked from the force behind it. He took a cup, filled it with wine, and handed it to Thorongil. "I love the man as if he were my brother. I will not see harm come to him. Do you understand, Thorongil?"
"Yes, my King. He will be found before night comes again, if I have any say in the matter." His face was now grim and reflected the concern of his king. "By your leave?"
"Go." Thengel turned towards the maps and held his breath. 'It is too long. I cannot begin to think where he might be or what has happened to him. How he could have been taken so easily?'
"My Lord?" Amdir stood at his side. "Is there word?"
"Yes. Thorongil's company found tracks near the beacon. Three éoreds have been sent hither. We will find him. Thorongil is the best tracker I have ever seen. He puts my men to shame. He has vowed to me that he will find him before night falls. And I trust his word."
"Then I will trust it too, my Captain," Amdir said with a smile, using Thengel's old title. "Ever, when you commanded the Horse Guard in Minas Tirith, your trust was most difficult to attain. But once attained, it was never lost. I will trust the one you have put your trust in."
Thengel smiled. "I will tell you this, Amdir. Thorongil is an enigma. I know naught of his background, nor of his people, yet he is my trusted right hand. I... I know Denethor is not happy with this, but I must put my people's security above my heart's own wants. Denethor must learn this, too. Someday, he will have to put his trust in another. I had hoped it would be sooner, but he is stubborn and proud. I know he trusts you and that he trusts me, but not wholly. And that is what is needed. Else he will fail. It would be a disaster if he fell, for all of Middle-earth, for there is greatness in him, my friend."
"I wish the same for him. He turns to me now only in the most desperate of times. In years past, it was difficult for him to reveal his thoughts; now it is nigh unto impossible. It grieves me, Thengel." Amdir had slipped into the speech of friends. "Do you remember our fishing trip? Life was sweet then. I believe we should have made that a yearly occurrence. It might have helped Denethor to be open and frank with his friends. He had been at that time. Now... I miss our camaraderie, our friendship. We have been stationed apart too many times; he has no other that he leans upon. And because of the times of separation, he no longer leans upon me."
"Ah. So you think it is not just Thorongil's presence that causes our friendship to wane?"
"It is his years with no friend at his side, with his father's constant manipulations, with his sister's death, with the constant questioning of his own worth that taunts him with his every decision. I would that Ecthelion had kept me ever at his side. I know not where his path takes him."
Thengel sat heavily in his chair by the fire. His face looked haunted and old. "There are many paths that may be taken by each of us, Amdir. Many do not look wise, in hindsight. Would that I had never left Minas Tirith. The strength and safety of Rohan depends much upon our brethren in Gondor, and I would that I was still part of that strength. We fight only skirmishes in the Mark; the real war is in Gondor."
Six days now and no contact, no inkling as to what his fate would be. The twice a day feeding times were the only exchange Denethor had with his captors, and yet, even at those times the stone was not rolled far enough back for more than a shaft of light to filter through. No word was spoken to him, though he cried out time and again, trying Sindarin, the Common Tongue, and Rohirric. He did not even know what tongue would be spoken should they deign to reply to him. The stone cup and bowl were shoved forward; his empty one was taken; his calls were ignored, and the chamber pot remained. The darkness, cold, wet, and stench were almost too much to bear, yet bear much under Ecthelion's harsh discipline the Steward's son had already endured. He would suffer this, somehow. Surely, they would come for him soon; they had not captured him for naught. He availed himself of every device he could think of to keep hope in his heart, but it was fading fast as his strength faded. The food he was given was palatable, but it was now doing strange things to his body. Contractions of pain welled across his stomach and abdomen, and his body reacted in kind.
Then, suddenly, as if the Valar finally heard, the stone rolled back at a time that was not the customary feeding time. He tried to stand, but the sickness that had begun to assail his body two days past, left him weak. He clung to the wall and pulled himself up. He wiped his mouth from the last bout just passed, shivered and waited. The light blinded him as the stone was pushed fully away. He waited.
The noise of the scuffle drew his attention. "What is going on over there?"
"Thengel King," a man shouted. "Thorongil comes and he brings something with him."
At that, Thorongil pushed through the crowd of men gawking at his prisoner. Standing before his king, he shoved the hobbled creature to the ground. "We found this holding this." And there before him, in Thorongil's hand, unmistakably, was Denethor's sword. Thengel's face fell and Amdir took a step forward, bent on wreaking havoc on the prisoner to drive an explanation from it. Thengel put his arm across his friend's chest and stopped Amdir's forward progress. 'So this is a Wild Man,' Thengel thought. A shiver ran down his spine as he thought of the tales of their lightening-like strikes, the poison that could fell a man almost the moment the arrow pierced him, of children being stolen for food. These could not be true tales. Old men, sitting around fires on the cold winter nights that assailed Edoras, told them. They could not be true. And yet, here stood one before him, come out of legends, in the same likeness as the stone carved ones by the Hold of Dunharrow.
He sat in his chair and beckoned the creature forward, but it shook its head and would not move. Fear played on its face and in its eyes; yet a glee seemed to shine in those same eyes. The creature knew! It knew they were looking for Denethor, and it knew it was safe as long as it kept his whereabouts secret. 'How am I to get this one to speak, to tell us where the sword came from? I had not heard they were cunning, yet this one is.'
Thorongil grabbed the creature by the arm and brought him closer to Thengel. "Speak, if you value your life," he growled at him. The thing looked up and smiled. Amdir, enraged by the insolence of this being, stepped forward and would not be held back, his knife flashing out quickly, finding its way to the creature's throat. "If you do not tell me," he snarled in the Common Tongue, "I will cut off your ear. And then, I will cut off the other, and then another part of your miserable body, until you have told us what we want to know, or until you are dead. It matters not to me." The thing whined, if that is what one could call the sound, and looked towards Thengel, but Thengel turned away.
"Tall man dead. Tall man walk on Wild Men land. All tall men die soon."
Thengel turned in shock. The thing knew the Common Tongue.
His captors brought him out into the light of the cave, one holding either side for Denethor could not, in truth, stand himself. They crossed to another opening close by his prison, and dragged him to an underground stream. He was thrown into it; immediately his armor and mail dragged him down. He quickly sank. Blinded as he was by the sudden light, he had not seen the stream and had not the time to take a breath as water rushed into his lungs. 'I am going to die,' he thought, struggling to break the surface. The icy cold of the water, coupled with his weakened state, worked against him, and he sank further. Gratefully, he felt a hand grab his collar and pull him up. He was thrown onto the bank and lay there, coughing till his sides ached. A hand tried to pull him up and force him to stand, but his knees buckled and his head lolled to the side. Once more, another came and grabbed his other arm and the two dragged him towards the main cavern. His head was filled with shooting pain from the cold; his sides ached from the coughing fit; and his stomach was taut from the cramps and the last two days' retching, while his gut was on fire.
The Wose rose and came forward. "Why man from Stone-houses come here?"
'I was kidnapped!' he wanted to shout, but instead whispered, for he had neither strength nor voice left, "You requested my presence."
"No. Tall men come to my land. We no ask you to come. Why you come?" His tone was growing harsher, and the guttural voice was becoming more difficult to comprehend.
"Your land? I am sorry. I did not know when we crossed into your land."
"You come to mountains. You come into my land."
"We were hunting Orcs. They murdered some of our friends."
"Horse-riders your friends?" the Wose fairly screamed at him.
Denethor shook his head, trying to discern which way this questioning was going, trying to make sense of it, and trying desperately not to fall into a trap. But every sinew of his body ached and he could not think. He tried to shake his head again, but his ears started ringing, and cold sweat poured down his face. Shivering, he continued to try to respond, but at last, darkness came.
"We will leave tonight," Indis whispered. "After the Great Gate is closed. I have friends among the Rangers stationed in the garrison on the First Level. I have arranged for them to open the gate, give us horses, and then we will be off. We will go to Amon Dîn and find out what is happening. Denethor's men will know and will tell me. I will stay here no longer, bereft of any hope of helping my brother."
"You speak rashly," Listöwel moaned. "Ecthelion will never let us go. And even if we find our way to the garrison, his men are all gone from there, involved in the search no doubt."
Indis interrupted her. "Of course he will not let us go! Why do you think I am speaking of leaving at night? As for Denethor's men - they will not abandon the garrison completely. Someone will be there and Amdir will have communicated more to them than he would to Father."
"Indis. Ecthelion will send help. He must. Denethor is his son. This is folly on our part. We have never been on a sortie at night alone. What fey mood has come over you that you would even consider this?"
"The fey mood is my father's making. I know him too well in this respect. He will not let us go; he will not send help to Amdir, thinking that Amdir will be able to rescue Denethor. But the forest is wide, and Amdir does not have enough men, and my brother will die!" She pushed more clothes into the satchel and whirled around to face Listöwel, tears streaking down her cheeks. "You do not have to come with me. I know the dangers are great. If there was any other I could trust, I would go to them, but there is no one who will dare to go against Ecthelion's orders. Even though those orders be wrong." She looked Listöwel full in the face. "You and I, dear sister-friend, we have been trained well. We have even been through battle. We can care for ourselves. We will be heading north. The area from here to Amon Dîn is protected. We will stay the night at the North Gate and then, as soon as daylight comes, we will be off to the garrison. We will be safe."
"I wish Eledhwen was with us. I wish Morwen was with us. Dare we ask Elleth?"
"Nay, however much I would value having her and her sword at our side, she would tell Ingold, and we would be imprisoned in our rooms - if not the dungeons! You know Ecthelion would do this. Therefore, dear sister-friend, it is up to you and me." She belted her scabbard across her hips, thrust the newly sharpened sword into its place, and tied her cloak around her neck, pulling the hood up close around her face. Listöwel did the same. They then quietly walked down the seven levels of Minas Tirith.
By the time they reached the First Level, Listöwel was hoping that her friend had changed her mind. Given time to think of what she was about, surely Indis would realize it was a fool's errand. But when the man from the garrison stepped out of the shadows with two horses, Listöwel knew they were lost. She could not let her friend go alone, no matter the dangers.
They passed through the Great Gate with no questions asked, and turned their horses towards the North Gate. Immediately, the wind grabbed their cloaks and they had to quickly pull them close around them. The cold was intense.
Amdir's hand slipped at the word that Denethor was dead and blood flowed from the slight cut in the creature's neck. Thorongil stepped in, quickly putting a piece of cloth to the wound to staunch the flow. The creature fell, cowering before him.
"No, no. Tall man live. Tall man live," he screamed.
"Where?" Thengel walked closer. "Where is he?"
"Cave. We keep in cave. You no find. Hidden." The eyes gleamed with fear. "I take you to cave," he said suddenly and the company flew into action.
Horses were brought, weapons were strapped on, and excitement and hope finally filled the men. Thorongil brought Thengel's steed and helped him mount. "It may be a trap, my King."
Thengel grimaced. "Yes, but we must go."
The Wose led the company upward towards the summit. In less than an hour, they found themselves standing at the tree line, near the beacon of Eilenach, in front of a well-hidden cave. "I passed this way myself at least five times," Thorongil muttered, "and not once did I see it."
"Wild Men smart. Wild Men know how to hide things."
Amdir held his breath. Was this a trap? Was Denethor, in fact, dead and being used as bait?
Denethor woke to the stench and retched again. After he was finished, he rolled over, trying to pull his cloak closer about him. He found his clothes had dried upon him, and his armor had been removed. He wondered what day it was, how long he had been unconscious.
The stone rolled away and the two who had come for him the last time strode into the alcove. Denethor tried to back away, but his legs would not do as he told them to. A Wose each grabbed an arm and pulled him up. Placing their hands under his arms, they again dragged him forward.
Denethor shook, envisioning another dunking in the icy waters of the underground stream. "Please," he struggled to speak, "let me speak with your leader." They only grunted and continued to drag him forward.
But they did not turn towards the part of the cave that held the stream; they dragged him towards the main cavern. He found himself in front of the head Wose. The two let go his arms and he fell forward.
"Why you come, Tall Man?" the Wose bellowed. "Why you attack Wild Men?"
"We did not attack Wild Men," Denethor said wearily. "We were hunting Orcs."
"Gorgûn. Yes! You kill Gorgûn who kill Horse-riders? Horse-riders kill Wild Men!"
"Gorgûn?" he repeated, not comprehending what the word meant. 'What could be Gorgûn?' he wondered. 'Orcs! He must be speaking of Orcs.' He lifted his head, trying once again to shake the lethargy that crippled him. "Yes, Orcs. We have come to kill Orcs."
"Then - you stay, you kill Gorgûn! After - you leave mountain. Leave to Wild Men. Yes?"
Denethor reeled at this statement. What was this creature saying to him? Why the change? He looked around and saw the cave was empty. Only the two men and their chief were left. Where had all the others gone?
Shouts were heard at the entrance to the cave. The Wose disappeared, running into hidden alcoves. Denethor fell forward as his guards deserted him. Blackness once again enveloped him as his head hit the cave's floor.
Indis and Listöwel had ridden only an hour, the winter storm long over and the full moon, thankfully, lighting their way, when they heard the sound of hooves behind them. They looked at each other in panic, thinking Ecthelion had found them out and sent riders after them. Indis reined in her horse. She listened intently. There was the sound of only one horse. They were not discovered; she breathed a sigh of relief. 'But who could it be?' she wondered, 'Mayhap an errand-rider with news.' She strained her neck, trying desperately to see. Nay, it could not be. The rider was behind them.
Listöwel pulled her horse closer to Indis' and her friend whispered, "Who do you think it is?"
A familiar voice rang out, "Indis, Indis are you near?" She almost cried. 'Arciryas! The dear sweet man, and him not even liking to ride. Here he comes alone and in the dark.' Her heart swelled as the thought came to her.
"Here, Arciryas, we are here," she cried and soon saw him approaching them. She did not want to hear the tongue-lashing he might be preparing to give her, but her love for him overcame any trepidation she felt.
"It would be better, my love, if you had asked me to come with you," Indis' husband stated flatly as he pulled his horse next to hers.
She saw the hurt in his eyes. "Would you have let me do what I must if I had told you?"
"Of course not." Arciryas had to bite his lip to keep from shouting.
"You would stop me even now?" she asked as her heart sank. She did not want to quarrel with him, not now with Denethor missing, but she would not return to the City.
"Nay," he sighed. "I will join you, as I joined my life to you. I do not condone this action, my love, but if you feel it is what you must do, then I must follow. May I ask what your plans are?"
"We are going to the North Gate. We had hoped to camp just beyond Forannest until sunrise, and then reach Amon Dîn by midday. However, it is taking longer in the dark than I had supposed. We have at least another hour's ride before reaching the North Gate."
"Then we should be on our way," he stated flatly. Suddenly, he leaned over and kissed her. "I am glad I was able to find you," he said through unforeseen tears. "Do you think you are the only one who fears the fates that come to the Steward's family? Am I not now part of that family?"
Impulsively, she dismounted and flung herself towards him. He slid from his own horse and held her in his arms. Neither would let go for many long moments.
The waves slapped furiously at the rocks, trying to escape those coming up from behind, and then they fell back upon themselves. The sound barely reached Denethor's ears, high as he was on the cliff top. Yet, still he strained, trying to hear them. He wanted to hear anything but the thoughts in his mind. She was beautiful. He drew in his breath as he thought of her again. 'Stop this!' he told himself angrily. 'She is but a child.' So he strained again to hear the sea and the gulls and anything that would take his mind off her.
"Lord Denethor," she called and he cursed himself for not finding a better hiding place. He turned, despite himself.
"Lord Denethor, Papa would like you to come to his study." Finduilas of Dol Amroth paused for a moment when he did not rise. "Shall I wait for you?" She smiled and his heart tightened.
That sweet smile almost undid him. He drew in another long breath, and turned away from her. "Nay, you go ahead. I will be there in a moment." He knew he was being rude, but he dared not come near her, not when they were alone in this desolate place. 'Why would her father let her come this far to find me? Why would he send her?' The thoughts attacked every fiber of his body. He did not dare ask her. 'Did she come of her own volition?'
"As you wish," she sighed and turned to go. He heard the sadness in her sigh, and wanted to take her in his arms and kiss it away, but he could not. He was Steward of Gondor and she was Princess of Dol Amroth. And - this was the telling point - she was only ten years old. His face burned with shame. The waves came up and covered his face in a cool spray.
'Nay, it is not the waves. Where am I?' His eyes opened and he looked into the eyes of his enemy.
"Do not speak, my friend," the gentle voice said as he felt his face being laved. "You are weak and need to use all your strength for healing. Know that Thengel King has rescued you. You are in his own tent, and I have been caring for you." Thorongil smiled. "He says I have some talent with healing."
Pulling in a breath, which caused a flurry of coughing, Denethor looked away from the kind face. Another type of shame enveloped him. He closed his eyes and felt the cool cloth on his forehead. 'Why do I think him my enemy?'
"Would you like some water? You have lost much weight in the short time you were captured. I am afraid we found the food was poisoned. It is good we discovered you when we did, though I do not believe it was poisoned to kill, but to weaken, to keep you biddable."
The prattle continued, but this last piece of news startled him. "'Twas only twigs and berr..." Denethor started, and then realized how easily he had been overcome. Cheeks blazed again.
"You were already weak, my Lord, when they gave you the food. Your mind was clouded. You had not the strength to discern wisely."
'Why is he making excuses for me?'
"I have prepared a tea. Perhaps you would drink some?"
A tear slid slowly down his cheek. "Please, do not be kind to me. I..."
"My Lord, save your strength. Do not speak. All is well now. You must get your strength back. We were afraid we had lost you."
His eyes closed and dreams began again, dreams of the child running through the waves, sable curls flying in the wind, gulls soaring about her as she held up pieces of cake. Naught seemed to frighten or dismay her. Her nana called to her to come back, but she continued running.
A/N - 1) The star Walda and Denethor see is the star birthed in the same year as Finduilas' birth. This is NOT canon. 2) Measurements - 1 league = 3 miles; 1 mile =8 furlongs; 1 furlong = 40 rods; 1 rod = 6 paces (which in later days to provide consistency among surveyors was quantified as 5-1/2 yards); 1 pace = the length of a grown man's stride. However, Hobbit measurements are entirely different: 1 nail = ½ in. 3 nails = 1 toe. 6 toes = 1 foot. 3 feet = 1 step. http://articles.latimes.com/2004/mar/24/nation/na-tolkien24