4. Chapter 4
When the knock came it took him a moment to respond, and he called out "Come in!" in Sindarin before realising it and switching to Westron. However the door had already begun to open after the first call, and Aragorn put his book down carefully and stood up.
Denethor closed the door behind him and looked around with evident interest at Aragorn's small room with its sparse furnishings. He crossed to the corner and picked up Aragorn's sword in its sheath from where he had laid it on coming in, drawing it.
"Good evening, my lord," Aragorn said, part of him detesting Denethor for touching his weapon. Denethor turned his gaze on him for a moment and then turned his attention back to the sword, swishing it experimentally through the air. Putting it back in the sheath, he spoke.
"This is a good weapon."
"Yes, my lord," Aragorn agreed.
"As I told your father, my lord," Aragorn said, "I spent some time in Imladris in my youth, and there my sword was forged for me."
"Imladris?" Denethor said. "Is that not the home of Elrond Half-Elven, brother of Elros Tar-Minyatur?"
"It is, my lord," Aragorn replied, wondering where Denethor's questions were leading. The Steward's son shot him another piercing glance and then sat down in Aragorn's chair, casting a disdainful look at the book. Aragorn perched on the edge of his bed and for a moment there was an awkward silence.
"I came," Denethor said, eventually, "to thank you for your counsels in these difficult times. It is long since we had someone who knew much of the world outside Gondor, and although neither myself nor my father wish to admit it, until you came we were in danger of becoming somewhat isolated. You have cured a little of that."
"I am glad to be of service," said Aragorn. Denethor grunted.
"Yet still I find myself wondering about you, Thorongil. Believe me, I have watched you saying little and noting everything that passes by. What do you wish for?"
"In life, Thorongil. Women. The other Guards have wives, or sweethearts - or mistresses. Yet you have none. Is there a woman?"
"None that love me," Aragorn said, an image flashing into his mind of Arwen's white skin and luminous Elven-eyes, and he heard for an instant, or thought he heard, the notes of her singing. "None that love me," he repeated.
"Well, then," Denethor said. "What do you wish for?"
"That in difficult times men follow wisdom rather than folly," Aragorn replied. "That if I myself am ever tested, that I pass the test."
"A strange wish," Denethor returned, shrugging. There was another pause. "What know you of Mithrandir, Thorongil?"
Aragorn contemplated his fingernails, short and ingrained with dust. "I do not think that any Man, or any Elf for that matter, can truly know Mithrandir, my lord. It is true I have been acquainted with him for much of my life; yet he remains mostly an enigma to me."
"But is his counsel good? Do you think it right that my father should trust him?"
"Absolutely," Aragorn said with certainty. "Indeed I should say that the lord Steward would do well to heed Mithrandir's counsel above all other."
"Even that of Saruman's?" Denethor asked, his keen eyes meeting Aragorn's.
"Even that, yes, my lord."
Denethor grunted, and appeared to be mulling over Aragorn's words as the bell rang nine times. He rose, and Aragorn stood also. The Steward's son bowed briefly and went to the door, and Aragorn returned the bow and watched as Denethor went out.
The conversation awoke in Aragorn many thoughts and memories that had been lying dormant, and he lay restless in his bed once he had given up with the book, thinking of Elrond and Imladris, of his mother Gilraen, alone and isolated, and of Arwen Undómiel, dancing in the moonlight. Suddenly he found himself missing the North intensely, missing the freedom to be himself amongst people who knew him and knew who he really was, missing the sound of light Elvish voices.
He rose early after little sleep, and before the hour had come for the breaking of the fast, he had walked a brisk circuit of the gardens of the Tower. Refreshed, he joined his company for the morning meal and then set out with three of the men down through the City towards the Third Gate, where he was on duty for the morning. There was a steady stream of people coming through the Gate, both ways, for the weekly market was being held in the fourth level of the City. Aragorn and his fellow guard were greeted with warm voices and women and children tossed them small pieces of food - apples, or cakes - as they passed.
Towards the eleventh hour, however, there was a clatter of hooves and armour from below, and shortly three riders with helms plumed with horsehair appeared, accompanied by a guard from the Great Gate. Aragorn started, and took a step forward.
"Thorongil!" the guard said, gratefully. "Here are three Riders of Rohan, come to speak with the Steward on urgent business. I heard you were on duty here and am ordered to replace you whilst you accompany them to the Tower."
"Gladly, Sirgon," Aragorn said, and the guard, looking relieved, swapped places with him. Aragorn stepped up to the horses, who were fidgeting in the unfamiliar surroundings, and looked up at the lead Rider. "Hail, Léod!" he said in Rohirric. "Glad I am to see you well."
"Thorongil!" Léod returned. "And I may say the same. But this is no time nor place for conversation. Our errand to Ecthelion may not wait. Lead on! and I hope I may speak further with you later."
Aragorn nodded, and walking briskly led the horses and their riders up the stony paths. The group was met with many curious glances and calls from the people to come and see the Riders. Léod's two companions, for their part, looked around at the City with astonishment and wonder, and Aragorn heard them speaking in low tones to each other as they ascended the levels.
At the seventh gate, Aragorn explained to Léod that they must leave their horses, and reluctantly the Riders dismounted. Calling to a guard, Aragorn gave instructions for the horses to be stabled, fed, and groomed, and for the baggage of the travellers to be taken to their quarters, and then he led the Rohirrim into the Citadel of Gondor.
They were announced by the servant at the door to the great hall of the Citadel, where they found Ecthelion alone, looking through papers on a low table by the side of his chair. He glanced up as the four men made their way up the long avenue between the pillars and the statues. Aragorn paused, a few steps away from the dais, and bowed.
"My lord Steward, I bring before you three Riders of the Mark of Thengel King. They say they come on urgent business to you." He beckoned Léod forwards. "Their leader, my lord, is Léod, First Marshal of the Mark."
Léod bowed in his turn, and Ecthelion, with a brief incline of his head, acknowledged the obeisance. "Do they speak Westron, Thorongil?"
Aragorn glanced at Léod.
"I do, my lord Steward," Léod said, "though my companions, Wulf and Aldwine, do not."
Ecthelion grunted. "That is well. However, Thorongil, I believe it would be best if you remained here whilst the Marshal gives me whatever news he has brought from Thengel." He gestured to one of the silent servants who stood around the hall, and soon seats were brought for all. The Rohirrim removed their helms and sat, and Ecthelion had wine and some bread brought to them.
Léod, once he had drunk deeply of the wine before him, brought out a thick sheet of parchment folded and sealed with the sign of a running horse, and passed it to Ecthelion. "Thengel King bids me to say that he begs you take heed of this missive, lord."
There was a rustle as Ecthelion opened the letter, and silence in the stone hall as he read it twice through slowly and then dropped it on the table.
"Saruman has never done Gondor wrong," he said. "So a wizard is causing smoke and fire - who are we to meddle in his affairs?"
"Our scouts have seen strange Men entering Isengard, lord," Léod said. Aragorn sensed he was holding his emotions tightly in check. "Saruman was . that is, he used to send regularly to Edoras for news and to offer us counsel in return, but of late he has become reticent and closed. Thengel has had no word from him for a year. The Gap of Rohan is of utmost import to our land."
"But not to mine," Ecthelion said. "It is many miles distant."
"Yet Gondor's borders reach far," Léod returned, "and Thengel wonders whether you have seen or heard aught of Men travelling from the South towards Isengard and the North."
"There is still much traffic from the South," Ecthelion said. "Though we are not friendly with Umbar, with Khand or Harad, still we are not at war outright. Merchants are allowed. Surely Thengel does not expect me to keep an eye on all movement in South Gondor?" The Steward raised an eyebrow. "When Calenardhon was given to Éorl, that was Gondor's gift to your people. The West Road runs through Rohan as well as Gondor." He sighed. "Still, in token of our long alliance, I will send to Pelargir and to Adrahil of Dol Amroth to see if aught has been seen of strange ships, and I will heighten the alerts elsewhere. Still my heart is against this. Saruman is a powerful ally and it would not do well to be seen to be against him."
Aragorn coughed. "My lord Steward, if I may?"
"Go on, Thorongil?"
"If you remember, my lord, Mithrandir also counselled you to be wary of Saruman. I would urge you not to stint in any action that you may take to be certain of his good intentions. I believe Thengel King is right to be a little suspicious, and certainly the cease in communication between Isengard and Edoras concerns me."
"Always Mithrandir," Ecthelion said. "Why trust one old man over another?"
"Because those I have held in high esteem trust Mithrandir also," Aragorn replied, "and although, as I said even to the lord Denethor yesternight, I cannot claim to know him, I have been acquainted with him long enough to have confidence in what he says."
For a moment, Ecthelion's eyes met Aragorn's, and the latter held his gaze steady until the Steward looked away.
"Very well. I do not see that it was worth Thengel sending his First Marshal with this, but I will see what can be found out. Thorongil, take our guests to their quarters. I imagine they will wish to see to their steeds. I will order the parties for Pelargir and Dol Amroth."
He waved dismissal, and they bowed and left the hall.
Outside, Léod relaxed his stiff bearing. "I see you have come to a very different place than Edoras, Thorongil," he said in Rohirric.
"Ecthelion is a good Steward," Aragorn said, gently. "He is stern, it is true, and often unwilling to accept counsel, but he will listen and his people respect him."
"I am not surprised he is stern, living in this dead stone world," one of the Riders, Aldwine, said. "How can you cope, Thorongil?"
"Here in the Tower it is quiet," Aragorn agreed, "but elsewhere the City is alive with people, and there are gardens too. It is not all grey stone, my friend! And here are your lodgings, I believe." He opened a door and showed them into one of the Citadel's guesthouses, furnished simply but comfortably. The Riders' bags were already laid at the foot of their beds. Aragorn waited until they had changed their travel-stained garments and laid aside their helms, and then led them to the stables where they discovered their horses had been well cared for.
They were inspecting the rest of the stables, Léod and his companions having expressed an interest in seeing what provision for mounts Gondor had at her disposal, when the bell rang for the noonday meal. Aragorn took the Rohirrim with him to his company's table, where Léod, as befitted his position, was seated next to the captain, and Aragorn close to Alfwine and Wulf where he could translate for them. The Guards were welcoming and warm towards the strangers, and the meal passed quickly and in a lively fashion. Afterwards Aragorn was forced to take his leave of the Rohirrim, but he directed them to a guide who could show them the City whilst he went back to his duties.
In the evening, after meals had been taken, Léod came to Aragorn's chambers and took a seat with a deep sigh.
"We ate at the table of the Steward this evening," he said, stretching out his legs. "Scarce a word was spoken throughout the meal in any language. Quite unlike the board at Meduseld."
"But this is not Meduseld!" Aragorn said. "You are comparing two very different places, Léod."
"And glad I am to live in Rohan and not Gondor," Léod returned. "I grant that the White City is fair, and masterfully built, but it is cold and enclosed. Instead of the warm golden sun on the roof of Thengel's house, there is only the glint of silver like steel on the Steward's banner. I say again, Thorongil, how can you cope?"
Aragorn shrugged. "I am not a Rohirrim, Léod, mayhap you forget that because I rode with you for so long and speak your tongue? I am a wanderer. I can make my home anyway, should I have to. And though a portion of my heart rests in the North, another part yet lies here and always will." He smiled at his guest. "But let us not talk of me. Tell me how Rohan fares. How is the King?"
"Old," said Léod. "He leans more and more on Théoden and Éomund. It is fortunate indeed that Théoden, though young still, will be a good and wise king. I fear though that Thengel King will not live many more years. Yet he is sound in his wits. I and some of the other Marshals do what we can."
"That is good," Aragorn agreed. "And abroad in the Mark? The people prosper? The land is fertile?"
"Yes. We are stockpiling some of it at the Hornburg," Léod said, "in preparation, in case. Every day the threat of war comes closer, and with these foul fumes rising from Isengard, and the stories of Southerners coming, I fear for the Riddermark. Would that Ecthelion took us more seriously!"
Aragorn smiled ruefully. "He will send out his scouts and if he finds news, he will send to Thengel. I fear that the attitude of Gondor towards Rohan will not change soon, my friend. For Ecthelion, and I think perhaps even more for Denethor his son, Gondor's lineage and power are still counted greater than that of Rohan's, though Rohan has a king and Gondor . does not, not at the moment."
"You think the king will come again?" Léod asked with lively interest. "You think this is possible?"
Aragorn was silent for a moment before answering, and when he did speak, it was slowly and thoughtfully. "Understand, Léod, I have the greatest respect for Ecthelion and for his line. They have kept Gondor great through many years of strife, and have governed well and wisely. But they are not of the line of the Kings. If the king should come again, at some point in the future, I believe the time will be appointed not by him and not by the Stewards, but by fate, and an intermingling of many threads. I dare not hope that day will ever come."
Léod smiled reassuringly. "He may yet, Thorongil, he may. Till that day, I remain happy that I am a Rohirrim. We speak with the Steward again on the morrow before departure; Thengel bade us return as swiftly as we may. Shall I see you again?"
"I doubt it," Aragorn replied. "Ride safely, and send my humble service to Thengel King."
"I will do that. And return soon yourself, for there will always be a warm welcome in Edoras for you, or a bed at the end of a long ride. Farewell, Thorongil."
They clasped hands, and Léod went out of the door. Aragorn watched as he crossed the courtyard out of sight, and closed the door softly behind his friend.
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.