1. The Missing Man
Denethor woke up with a dull headache, a rare occurrence whose cause, in this particular case, was all too obvious. Seldom did he overindulge in celebratory drinking, and now he was paying the price for his departure from temperance. Wincing at a stab of particularly unwelcome daylight, he dragged himself out from under his tangle of blankets, shoved cold boots onto his feet, and pulled his cloak off the back of a chair. Ignoring the congealing platter of breakfast meats someone had laid out for him, he managed to gulp down some water from the flagon beside it. Pouring the rest into a basin, he splashed his face, more for the reviving effect of the ice-cold water than anything else; dragged a razor across his day-old stubble and smoothed back his hair. Finally marginally presentable enough to appear before the troops, he strapped on his sword and shouldered his way out of this tent.
It must have rained again in the night, for puddles once again dotted the rutted mire that passed for a lane. Though it felt colder than it had been last night, it was regrettably not cold enough yet to freeze the muck solid. Soldiers spreading straw to sop it up swung their heads in his direction as he passed, and he nodded back with grim officiousness, hiding his amusement at their hopeful expressions. So the rumors of a dismissal had already spread like wildfire. Denethor smiled inwardly, not begrudging the homesickness he shared. It would be gratifying to see Minas Tirith again, especially with the holiday approaching.
As he approached the headquarters tent, one of his aides jumped off the top of a partially-loaded wagon and matched his stride. "Good morning, Lord Denethor," he said. "The vans left at first light carrying the last of the wounded."
Denethor grunted his satisfaction. "Good. Scouting reports?"
"All quiet, save that Thorongil's company has not yet reported."
"He is still not back?" As welcome as he usually found the captain's absence, the blatant disregard of his orders was beginning to rankle. Still, no good would come from fueling the already-rampant gossip about a rivalry between himself and the men's favorite officer. "Thank you," he said in a tone of dismissal. "Send for my captains."
One of the men's less-favored officers was waiting for him in the headquarters tent, lounging on the edge of the table and idly shuffling unit markers around on a tactical map. Seeing Denethor, he reached across the table to hand him a thick message pouch without bothering to stand up. "Letters. They came by messenger this morning."
"Good morning, Turgon." Denethor said, accepting the packet with a raised eyebrow. "Is there any word about the relief I requested?"
"I would not presume to open the Captain-general's mail," Turgon said with a wounded expression, "even if he is my brother-in-law. But I did take the liberty of sorting them for your convenience."
Denethor broke open the seal of the letter Turgon had placed on the top of the stack. "The relief company left Pelargir the day before yesterday," he read. "They will arrive tomorrow morning, if the weather holds."
"That is good news," Turgon said. "I hope that means you still plan to break camp and depart for Minas Tirith today."
Denethor tapped the letter against his palm, considering. In truth, he had hoped the relief troops would arrive before now. The delay meant he would have to leave some troops behind, to man the camp. "I suppose a small force should suffice to secure the camp until the relief force arrives," he said finally. "Say, one company. I'll even let you make the selection."
Turgon's elated grin collapsed into a scowl. "So you are to be the hero for dismissing the troops for Mettarë, and I am to be the ogre who picks those to stay behind, is that it?"
Denethor smiled. "Rank has its privileges."
"Well, then," Turgon mused. "Whom to select?" He paced around the table, fingering map markers and displacing them as if they were chess pieces. "If I were a good leader, I would choose myself to stay behind, as a testament to my self-sacrifice and dedication. On the other hand, if I were a clever leader, I would use this opportunity to establish my supremacy over the other captains. No wolf ever made pack leader by allowing the others to eat first, after all. Men respect strength over weakness. What do you say, Denethor - nobility or assertiveness - which would the men respect more?"
"I think you should pick yourself to stay behind, if only so you stop begetting brats on my sister every Mettarë," Denethor said sourly. "But if you want to know what the men respect, maybe you ought to ask the glorious Captain Thorongil."
"Pity he isn't here," Turgon said slyly, "or I would."
"And he would tell you to put your men first," Denethor replied. "And you would ignore him, as you do me."
"Truly I lack leadership ability," Turgon said. "Lucky for me I married well. I confess I didn't believe you when you said we would conclude the campaign before Mettarë. It seemed a hopeless task."
"You must have lost a pretty penny on that bet."
"My lord Denethor," Turgon said, mustering an insulted expression, "gambling is strictly prohibited amongst the Guard corps."
"As is drinking to excess," Denethor said dryly, smiling to himself as he recognized the seal on the next letter, "but that does not seem to stop anyone." He brushed his finger gently over the delicate ridges of the wax before slicing through them with a fingernail. "You really ought to trust me more, Turgon. I had no more desire than you to spend the winter in this bleak mud hole. I plan to spend Mettarë feasting, drinking, and dancing in the bright hall of Merethrond – though somehow I suspect feasting and drinking are the least of your priorities." He blinked and fell silent as he began to digest the troubling contents of the second letter.
"Your guess is right," Turgon answered, oblivious to his preoccupation. "It has been exactly five months and sixteen days since I last held your buxom sister in my arms, and I do not intend to extend that record more than one week longer. But how can you pretend to disdain my mortal weakness while you yourself are glowing like a campfire? Or am I mistaken in thinking that is your lady's letter you fondle so gently?"
Only too aware he was flushing from his throat to his hairline, Denethor looked down at the letter it would be more accurate to say he clutched rather than fondled. "It is indeed her seal, as you well know, but you mistake my mood. Finduilas sends word that she is traveling with her family to Minas Tirith for Mettarë."
"That is wonderful news," Turgon said, his expression darkening only as he noticed Denethor's. "Isn't it?"
Glaring daggers at him, Denethor threw the letter onto the table. "It is a conspiracy," he pronounced. "Her family never travel to Minas Tirith for Mettarë."
"A conspiracy?" Turgon rolled his eyes. "Have you considered that she might simply miss you? That her heart longs for you; that she cannot bear being parted from you?"
"Rubbish," Denethor answered. "It is a proposal she wants. She has been hinting at it for months, and she is full aware that betrothals are toasted at the stroke of midnight on Mettarë. Mark my words, Turgon - she is maneuvering for her attack."
Turgon laughed. "She is a lady of Gondor, Denethor, not an opposing general."
Denethor looked at him disdainfully. "Do you truly think there is a difference?"
"In that case, rejoice in your good fortune," Turgon said, mockingly raising a stale glass of ale, "for you shall never be defeated by a more beautiful rival."
"I do not intend to be defeated at all," he replied. "By anyone."
"Ah, Denethor, when will you realize that not all defeat is bitter?" Turgon said. "Love is not war, but a grand game. As men, we are fated to chase a woman until we permit her to catch us. And it is high time you allowed yourself to be caught, my friend. For more than two years you have been courting this lady. There is already talk in the city of your unseemly delay in offering a marriage proposal."
Denethor looked up from a supply report. "What kind of talk?"
"The girl's reputation is suffering, and her family are becoming insulted on her behalf. In fact, her father intends to speak to yours when they are here for Mettarë."
"You cannot be serious," Denethor said.
"This is no tavern wench you are courting," Turgon said. "The Prince of Dol Amroth is no man to trifle with. His daughter could have any man in Gondor."
Denethor looked down at the maps layered on the table. "Then let her have him."
"Do you not love the lady?"
"It is not that simple."
"It is just that simple," Turgon said. "You find a pretty, well-bred girl, with nice broad hips – preferably of a higher social class; although in your case I suppose we must ignore that restriction – and simply get on with marrying her. It is done every day."
Denethor scowled at him. "How do you know all this?"
"What, that people marry? Gracious Elbereth, I must make a point of circulating you more in society."
"No," Denethor said coldly, "how do you know that Finduilas's parents are planning to speak to my father?"
Turgon smiled. "As it happens, I also received a letter from my beloved this morning."
Denethor groaned. "I should have known." His sister was an insufferable busybody, but her gossip was always accurate. Suddenly the prospect of feasting Mettarë away in Minas Tirith seemed much less appealing. Not only would he be scorned by the entire Dol Amroth contingent for insulting the honor of their beloved princess, but now he would have his father and Finduilas's conspiring against him as well. He rested his aching forehead in his palm. "You are right, Turgon. Love is not war. War is much, much simpler."
Turgon slapped him on the back. "So it is. And you handled this war masterfully. My congratulations."
Denethor snorted. "Save your congratulations for Thorongil."
"You give yourself too little credit, my friend." Turgon said, pouring him a glass of ale from a flagon that had probably sat out all night. "Here. Drink this; you look like you need it. It was your brilliant strategy and execution that brought about the quick success of this campaign."
"Yes, my strategy was indeed brilliant," Denethor said, taking a drink of the vile liquid. It could hardly make him feel worse, after all. "But it is not the subtle strategy, the clever placement of the pieces, or the flawless execution of each move that the men remember - only the final, courageous gambit of one piece - Captain Thorongil."
"Courageous!" Turgon scoffed. "Brazen, you mean. Foolhardy, even. He should have been slaughtered, along with his entire company."
"I would have agreed with you," Denethor said, "but for one small thing. He wasn't. In fact, he came through it without a scratch." He pursed his lips against a sour taste that had nothing to do with the ale. "It was the most brilliant maneuver I have ever seen."
"It was luck," Turgon maintained loyally. "Don't fret over it. Soldiers are like flighty birds, Denethor. Their gaze is easily distracted by a flash of colorful feather. But do not think they have forgotten who their Captain-general is. The men would follow you anywhere. They would die for you."
"They would follow me, yes," he said, "but it is Thorongil they love." It had been in Thorongil's name that he had been forced to raise his cup last night, again and again; Thorongil's name that rang out in the camp until his ears pounded from hearing it. He forced the memory aside and squared his shoulders. "But no matter. The men are soldiers of Gondor and I need not own their hearts to command their allegiance. There is only one heart that I refuse to cede to Thorongil – the Steward's."
"Surely there is no risk of that," Turgon said.
Denethor once would have found it nearly inconceivable to imagine that anyone, much less a nameless foreigner, could threaten his standing with his own father, yet the outrageous now seemed hideously close to realization. In Ecthelion's eyes he had seen a spark of the same enchantment that so captivated the men. There was something magical about Thorongil, some spell he cast on everyone around him. Not surprising, he supposed, in someone so suspiciously friendly with Mithrandir. The crafty conjurer never did anything without some hidden purpose. "We shall see," he said, "when we return to Minas Tirith for the victory celebration. Maybe I was foolish to quietly endure Thorongil's ascendancy, believing his star would eventually sputter and burn out. Instead, his renown has grown until he threatens to eclipse me even in my own house."
"He is nobody. He is no threat to you."
Denethor looked at him sharply. "Isn't he?" With a finger he traced the long, winding line of the Anduin on the map before him, from the mouths of Anduin to Minas Tirith. "You are loyal to a fault, Turgon. It makes you blind. And a blind man is of no use to me."
"You summoned us, Captain-General?"
Denethor beckoned in the two captains who stood at the door. "Where is Thorongil? Is he with you?"
They looked at one another uncomfortably, before finally the taller of the two spoke. Hador, a thin young man from Pelargir with pale eyes and a scar across the bridge of his nose, shuffled his feet slightly, as if fighting the urge to flee. "A messenger arrived a little while ago, bringing word from Thorongil that he would be delayed until at least tomorrow. His scouts spotted orc sign east of the Poros crossing."
"Orc sign." Denethor felt fire rising in his face again. "We have just concluded the greatest campaign against the Southrons in nearly a hundred years, and you mean to tell me that Thorongil is running around hunting ors?"
Hador winced. "It appears that way, my lord."
"Orcs," Denethor repeated incredulously. "Orcs are everywhere, like mice in a cornfield! Why is he wasting his time chasing orcs?" Out of the corner of his eye, Denethor could see Turgon, smirking. With a vicious wave of his hand, he dismissed the two newcomers. "Get out of here. Make ready the troops to move, but wait for my order. And send me that messenger of Thorongil's." When they had left, he spun to confront Turgon. "You think this is amusing? I will not stand for insubordination. I ordered him to return last night."
Turgon snorted. "What of it? Leave him to his orcs! For his tardiness, let him be the one chosen to stay behind. Of all of us, he alone has no family waiting to celebrate the holiday with him."
"None except for my own," Denethor retorted. "Do you know what my father would say if I returned victorious to Minas Tirith without the Steward's favorite captain? I would be scorned as a sluggard for making merry while the hero of the hour toils away in Gondor's defense; reviled for leaving my rival to clean up the field of battle while I rush home to claim all victory for myself. Indeed I will even be accused of engineering his absence to deny him the glory and honors awaiting him. No, Turgon. I will not return to Minas Tirith until I have Thorongil firmly under my wing. It will be I who raises the first toast to him in the great hall of Merethrond – as his proud and gracious commander."
"My lord?" A young soldier stood hesitantly in the doorway.
Denethor waved him inside. "Are you the messenger from Captain Thorongil?"
"Yes, my lord. Cirion is my name." The boy was clutching his hat in his hand, nearly shaking with fear. Evidently Hador had told him the Captain-general was in a foul humour.
Denethor crossed his arms. "Let us hear the story. Where did you leave Captain Thorongil?"
"It was about an hour's ride upstream from the Poros crossing," the boy answered. "The captain wanted to make sure the retreating Southrons did not double back and try to flank us. He split the company into two platoons, one scouting south of the river and one north. He took the northern party. Around noon yesterday, one of the forward scouts saw orc sign to the east of us, in the foothills. That was when the captain ordered me to ride back to camp and give word that he would delay his return until tomorrow, at the earliest."
"Very well. Go tell the stable master to ready my horse for travel," Denethor ordered him, "and get a fresh one for yourself. Requisition supplies for three days, get them loaded onto the horses, and be ready to depart in one hour." When the boy had gone, he turned to Turgon. "Go to your tent, pack your things, find two bowmen who are not too hung over to shoot straight, and meet me in the stable."
Turgon stared at him disbelievingly. "You actually intend to go after Thorongil."
"Instead of leaving for Minas Tirith."
"I intend," Denethor said slowly, "to go after Thorongil and march him back to Minas Tirith in time to celebrate Mettarë. In fetters, if necessary. And you," he emphasized by poking Turgon in the chest, "are coming with me."
Following Thorongil's path along the north bank of the Poros, toward the jagged line of the Ephel Dúath, Denethor led from the front, relishing the silence. He was still in too dark a mood for conversation, though over time his rage at Thorongil had subsided to a dull and rather peevish annoyance. In fact, he had begun to feel slightly childish for making a show of dragging his recalcitrant captain back to Minas Tirith, instead of simply leaving him to his ridiculous orc hunt. He was forced to admit, privately, at least, that it would be extremely unlike Thorongil to deliberately provoke him through insubordination. Always scrupulously proper, Thorongil would certainly not jeopardize his position now, even as he poised himself to penetrate Ecthelion's inner circle. He played the game very, very well; never seeming to aim higher than his station, even as his station simply seemed to rise of its own accord, like a raft bobbing in a rising tide. And even Denethor was forced to admit that Thorongil knew orcs like no man he had ever met. He would never reveal where he acquired such instincts and skill, but Denethor did not think it was from Rohan. The Rohirrim fought orcs like they fought everything else – on horseback, in mass formation, screaming bloody war cries, obliterating all that stood in their path. But where the Rohirrim were all brute force and no cunning, Thorongil hunted orcs silently, stealthily, like a fox stalking its prey. Denethor had the uneasy feeling that he must have seen something unusually troubling to prompt his uncharacteristic disobedience.
It was a a few leagues east of where Cirion had been dispatched back to camp where the tracks of Thorongil's party intersected with those of a large group or orcs.
"Look here." Turgon dismounted to examine the tracks.
"Orcs?" Denethor scanned the surrounding hills, seeing nothing but bare trees and rocks.
"Plenty of them, but something else as well."
Denethor knelt beside him and fingered the faint impressions in the moldy earth. "Bare footprints?"
"Men's footprints," Turgon said.
"But barefoot men?" Denethor scowled at the impressions. "Southrons, do you think?"
Turgon shook his head. "Soldiers would not be barefoot."
"I would wager. Though we're a bit far north for slave trafficking. Odd."
Denethor sighed and sat back on his heels, scanning the leaden sky that threatened snow before morning. If Thorongil had indeed come upon a group of slaves being taken as tribute to Sauron, he would not give up the chase, even if it took him to the fences of Mordor. Denethor felt a chill run up his spine. He turned to his grim-faced captain. "Leave a marker here," he said quietly, "to signal anyone coming behind us." Though there would be no one looking for them, he reckoned, until at least tomorrow afternoon. He stood up and glanced around at his men. "String your bows," he ordered. "Have your swords at the ready. It looks as if we may have to use them."
The afternoon wore on and the light grew greyer as they made their way eastward, along a high path above the Poros. The group rode in silence, ever alert for the stray snap of a twig or bird call. If there was a small blessing, Denethor reckoned, it was the time of year that left the bare woodland sparse, the undergrowth winter-dead. The risk of ambush was low in the open forest. Only when the trail bent sharply around the jutted shoulder of a hill was Denethor forced to send a scout ahead to clear the trail. It was at one such bend that he waited, with Turgon and the two bowmen, while Cirion, the messenger from Thorongil's company, climbed up the ridge above them to scout the trail beyond.
"It will be dark in a few hours," Turgon said.
Denethor took off his gloves and tucked his hands into his armpits to warm them. "I know."
Turgon said nothing else, though Denethor knew what he was thinking. After nightfall, this area would be infested with orcs. They would soon need to scout for a campsite, someplace hidden and yet defensible, to hole up and wait for the dawn. "If we do not see any sign of Thorongil's party soon," he said finally, "we will start looking for a place to make camp."
Turgon nodded, then a sharp whistle came from above. Seeing Cirion frantically gesturing, Denethor drew his sword and glanced behind him, satisfied to see the archers already sliding behind the cover of tree trunks as they fitted arrows to their bowstrings. Turgon's sword was at the ready. A second whistle followed the first, and Cirion made the hand signal for "friendly troops" just as Denethor heard hoofbeats fast approaching around the bend. He glanced backward, not sure the archers had seen the signal. Risking a voice command, he hissed, "Hold your fire!"
An instant later, four horses thundered into view, each bearing a Gondorian soldier and a ragged, skinny figure wearing tattered scraps of clothing. The riders rushed past their comrades before wheeling around, leaving the archers a clear field of fire to cover any pursuers. Denethor strode forward and caught the reins of the lead soldier. "Are you pursued?"
"I don't think so," the man gasped. He was a veteran of Thorongil's company, a sturdy Lossarnach man named Hallas. "The orcs have no horses, though we lost one man to their archers before we could get out of range."
"Where is Thorongil?"
The soldier's bleeding left arm was wrapped around his rescued slave; with his right he jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. "Back there," he said. "Maybe a league. They were still fighting, when we left. We rescued five slaves from the orcs, and the captain ordered us to flee with them."
"How many men does Thorongil have?" Denethor demanded.
"There were nine of us. The four you see here, our comrade who fell, Captain Thorongil, and three others still with him."
"And how many orcs?
"A dozen or more. We killed several while rescuing the slaves. The fighting was still going on when we left to get these to safety."
Denethor regarded the slave, compassion mingling with disgust. The creature, barely recognizable as a human, trembled in the arms of the soldier. It was stick-thin; hunched and hollow-eyed. Dull skin clung to wasted limbs, and sparse hair of a drab, indeterminate color stuck out from its scalp. Clearly, this was no healthy new tribute offering being delivered to Mordor, but an escapee from the infamous fields of Nurn, or from some unspeakable mine in the bowels of the Ephel Dúath. He was surprised any had made it this far before being recaptured. Sauron was said to pursue escapees relentlessly, and put them to a gruesome, public death to deter further attempts. Denethor unfastened the pack full of provisions from his saddle and strapped it to Hallas's. "Take these people as far as the crossing of Poros" he said, "make camp there and feed them. Send a messenger back for help. In the morning, if we have not returned, leave one of you to safeguard the slaves, while the other two return to aid us. Go!" Without waiting for acknowledgement of his order or for Cirion to climb down from his perch, he mounted his horse and spurred it into a gallop even as he turned hard around the bend.
No more than two miles further on, Denethor came upon a wounded horse, stomping restlessly beside the body of a man in Gondorian armor. The horse was bleeding from an arrow in its rump, and the man had taken two in his back. A matted mess of bloody hair clotted against the back of his head. This must be the fifth horseman Hallas had mentioned. He was too short and stocky to be Thorongil, and Denethor slowed only long enough to make sure he was dead before resuming a gallop. A few more minutes of hard riding brought him to what must have been the main battlefield. It was eerily quiet now, with five dead orcs strewn about a small clearing puddled with blood and littered with battle debris. Denethor dismounted and paced around the clearing, scanning the confusing tangle of hoof prints, boot prints, and bare footprints in the churned earth. "Where did they go?" he barked at Turgon, kneeling beside some tracks on the far side of the ravaged area.
"It looks like they split up," Turgon answered. "Three of Thorongil's men rode that way," he said pointing to a straight path leading eastward, toward the Ephel Dúath, "chasing a group of several orcs with two or three slaves. "All the other riders turned around and went back that way," he said, indicating the direction from which they had just come.
"Three in pursuit of the orcs, and five escaping with the slaves," Denethor said. "That makes eight. But Hallas told us there were nine in all."
"I am sure only three riders followed the orcs." Turgon followed the tracks a little ways away from the churned earth of the battle site. "The hooves imprinted well in the soft soil just here, and the ground is undisturbed beyond the clearing but for the tracks leading away." He stood and walked back to the near side of the clearing. "It is harder to read the ground over here, but I it looks like six sets of hoof prints lead back the way we came."
"Six sets? But only five riders escaped with rescued slaves." Yet there must have been a sixth rider, if Turgon was right that only three pursued the orcs. But if so, where was he? Denethor cursed under his breath. "All right," he said after a moment. "Turgon, take your two men and track the larger group. And you," he said to Cirion, "keep your bow out, and come with me. We are going to find the missing man."
I would have one of my lieutenants flogged for doing something this foolhardy, Denethor thought as he trotted back down the path the way he had come. Reaching the place where they had found the wounded horse and its dead rider, he dismounted and knelt beside the corpse. The boy came to stand beside him stiffly. "His name was Carandur," he said in a small voice.
"There is no time to bury him now," Denethor said, trying to be gentle. "We will come back and do it later, if we can." It was a fiction. The body would be gone by morning, eaten or dragged off by one of the foul creatures that prowled these woods at night. "Take his sword, and any other valuables you think his family would treasure." When the boy did not move, Denethor himself retrieved the man's sword from the ground and handed it to the boy, then rolled the body over to check for valuables, finding a small leather bag tied around the man's waist, under his clothing. Metal – probably coins – clinked inside as Denethor cut the thong around Carandur's waist and handed the bag to Cirion. "Here. Keep this safe. Now let us go find our sixth man." He stood up and looked around. He was not the tracker Turgon was, but even he could not fail to spot crumpled underbrush and broken twigs where a horse had passed. The sixth man had evidently ridden to where his comrade fell - maybe in his defense, and then for some reason left the path here. "Look there. Your missing comrade rode down the hill, toward the river."
"What about the slave, sir?"
"If Carandur was the fifth man in Hallas's group, where is the slave he was carrying?"
Denethor stared at the boy. He had forgotten about the missing slave. "The horse will be easier to track than a man," he said finally, "and our first priority must be finding our own. After that, perhaps we can look for the slave."
Denethor had no trouble following the trail of the sixth man. The slope he had forced his mount to descend was perilously steep, and deep gouges marked the soil where the horse's hooves had slipped. It was not long before Denethor was forced to dismount to make a safer descent, wondering at his nameless comrade's recklessness. He must have been chasing something, Denethor reckoned – or been chased. Picking his way down the slope as fast as he could without risking a headlong tumble, hearing Cirion do the same behind him, he was still a good height above the river when he spotted the dead horse lying on the ground. Motioning quickly to Cirion for cover, he made his way over to it, finding that it had not been dead very long – the body was still warm, and the blood pooled beside it was fresh. It was when Denethor craned his head around, scanning the surrounding terrain, that he saw the dark shape of a dead orc on the ground a short distance away, near a steep drop-off that must fall toward the river. Denethor's hand tensed on his sword and he froze in place, listening for sounds of movement. Hearing nothing over the sound of Cirion's boots crunching the underbrush, he turned to silence the boy, seeing only then that he was staring in horror at the dead horse. Denethor rose and caught him by the shoulder. "What is it?"
The boy's face was dead white as if had just found his own mother skinned alive. "What?" Denethor repeated, shaking him by the shoulders to jar him out of his shocked daze. "Tell me. What is it?" Surely the boy had seen dead horses before; in fact he had not reacted this badly to seeing the other one just a short time ago. Denethor glanced back at the horse, dawning suspicion quickening his breath as he noticed something familiar in the white blaze running along the dark. "Cirion," he said slowly, "whose horse is that?"
The boy took in a hitching breath, then answered without taking his eyes off the animal. "Captain Thorongil's."
Denethor hissed a curse that he was quite sure Cirion had never heard before and bent beside the horse. As he leaned over to unfasten the pack strapped to the saddle, he heard something like a whimper, or a sob. He turned around, thinking it was Cirion, but the boy's eyes were wide with surprise, staring at a thick oak tree a short distance away. Motioning for him to ready an arrow, Denethor drew his sword and made his way over to it. When Cirion had himself positioned at an angle from which to take a shot at whatever might spring forth, Denethor raised his sword and stepped around the bole.
The slave shrieked.
Denethor dropped his sword and clamped a hand over the man's mouth. "Hush," he said. "We won't hurt you." He had no idea if the man spoke Westron. With his free hand he pressed an index finger to his lips. "If you scream, the orcs will come. Do you understand? Orcs."
The man must have understood his meaning, if not his words. He nodded frantically, as if desperate to convince Denethor he intended to comply with whatever he was babbling about.
"Good," Denethor said soothingly, as if speaking to a frightened child. "I'm going to take my hand away now, and you must be quiet. All right?" The man seemed calmer now, and Denethor slowly he removed his hand. The man did not move or speak, though his eyes were still wide with fear and his breath came in shallow pants. Now that Denethor could lean back on his heels, he saw that the man was bleeding from a dirty gash on his leg. He wore nothing but rags, and he must be shivering with cold as much as fear. "Get me some bandages and a blanket," he said quietly to Cirion before turning back to the terrified slave. "Do you speak Westron? Westron. The common tongue?" The man stared at him blankly, then shook his head and said a few words in the Southron language. Denethor sighed. He knew exactly three phrases in Southron, one of which was, 'What is your name?' He used it.
"Tilkar," the man said.
"Tilkar," Denethor repeated, pointing at the slave. Then, pointing at his own chest, he said, "Denethor." He repeated the same sequence with Cirion, and finally he pointed to the dead horse. "Thorongil," he said slowly. "Thorongil's horse." Then he spread his arms wide, raised his hands palm-up and mimicked looking around for someone. "Thorongil?" he said, letting his voice rise in a question.
The slave nodded. He understood. Raising a skeletal arm, he pointed over Denethor's shoulder. "Thor-gil."
Denethor spun around, following the line of the slave's extended finger past the dead orc, to where the sloping hillside abruptly dropped off into nothingness.
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.