3. Puzzle Box
Denethor froze. Just a moment ago, a flicker of light had caught his eye, somewhere out there in the blackness. Now it was gone. Still gripping the candle he had been about to light, he rubbed his grainy eyes and stared at the spot where he had seen the flicker for just an instant. Now, nothing but blackness and more blackness met his eyes. Just as he decided that exhaustion and nerves were playing tricks on his eyes as well as his mind, he saw it again - a yellow flicker out in the middle of the river, like flame upon the water. And it was moving. A boat, he thought for an instant; then realized the light was a reflection only – the reflection of flame carried by something unseen, moving toward him along the riverbank but still hidden from view by an outcropping of rock just downstream. As he watched, the dancing light moved closer. Flattened against the cliff face, out in the open, he debated whether to stay where he was or try for the shallow recess where Thorongil lay. Thorongil – Denethor's breath caught anew at the thought of the injured captain, lying helpless just yards behind him. If he woke and called out, or made a sound in his sleep, he would give away their position. With all his strength, Denethor willed the injured captain to silence.
A horse snorted, and a torch appeared around the bend, carried in the hand of a dark-cloaked rider. Behind him followed more horsemen, dark as shadows and silent as the snow. Denethor could not discern their hooded features, or make out any emblem on their gear or garb, but the straight-backed silhouettes assured him of their race, at least – these were Men. He could not yet tell if they were friend or foe.
He held his breath, straining to make out any whisper of speech that might reveal their origin. For desperate moments he heard only the faint, unavoidable noises of movement – the dull jingle of a bridle, the creak of leather; the clink of a scabbard against a stirrup. Heartbeat by pounding, agonizing heartbeat, the column of riders drew closer. Just as the first rider's torch illuminated a large boulder not twenty feet in front of him, a faint groan issued from the narrow recess in the cliff behind him. Denethor grimaced, hoping against hope that the sound had not carried. His hand tightened on his sword as he saw it was no use. The lead rider had pulled up short. "Swords!" he barked.
Denethor nearly laughed with relief. The strain evident in the leader's voice had failed to disguise its most endearing quality - a cultivated and wholly familiar Minas Tirith accent. His attention now focused on avoiding being skewered by his own men, Denethor sprang forward into the light. "Turgon! Hold! It is I!"
"Hold!" Turgon bellowed. "Hold! It's Denethor!" He leapt to the ground and caught Denethor around the middle, squeezing until his ribs hurt. "You're safe! We feared you were dead!"
A second figure, slightly shorter and broader, stepped up beside him. "Lord Denethor! Is Captain Thorongil with you?"
Recognizing Thorongil's lieutenant, Beleg, Denethor indicated the dark maw at the base of the cliff. "In there."
"No!" Another figure rushed forward. Beleg thrust out a hand and caught hold of the writhing form that Denethor realized was the messenger boy, Cirion. The boy squirmed to free himself. "Let me go! He's not dead! He can't be dead!"
"Wait, lad" Beleg ordered, holding fast to the boy. Fixed on Denethor, his eyes were wary, set for bad news. "Is he…?"
Beleg murmured a blessing and his eyes briefly closed, then he released Cirion and ruffled his hair. "What did I tell you?" he said. "Our Thorongil is not so easy to kill. Though maybe he needs to be reminded that he is no falcon to go launching himself off cliffs! Come, lad. Let us see how our reckless captain fares."
A half dozen soldiers followed him to the alcove, enclosing Thorongil's blanketed form in a protective semi-circle. Turgon crossed his arms and looked skeptical. "How bad?"
"He'll live." Denethor looked away from the spectacle unfolding around Thorongil. "How did you find us?"
"Cirion brought us to the spot where Thorongil fell, but it would have been impossible to descend that cliff in the dark, or to bring you back up that way. Luckily, one of the scouts has spent some time in this area and knew another way down. Longer, but safer."
Denethor spied Cirion, on tip-toe behind the circle of soldiers, peering worriedly over their shoulders. He called his name and beckoned to him. "Come here, boy."
Cirion hesitated for just a moment before tearing himself away. When he shuffled forward to present himself to Denethor, shadows and a lock of untrimmed hair obscured his down-turned face.
"Look at me," Denethor commanded. "Why did you leave?" he asked. "You disappeared before I gave the order. I did not know what happened to you."
The coltish frame shifted uneasily, the boy dropping his gaze again to stare at his boot tops. "B-begging your pardon, my lord," he said, "but I did just like you ordered. When you were almost down to the river, the slave started shouting at me. I couldn't understand his words, but when I looked up there were orcs coming across the hillside, straight for us. Lots of orcs. I knew if I left the rope tied to the tree they'd look down and see you. I couldn't untie it - the knot had pulled too tight - so I cut it with my knife and threw it over the side. Then I did like you ordered - I got the slave up on the horse and rode away as fast as I could, hoping they'd follow us instead of looking for you."
"It worked," Turgon said. "When we found him he had ten orcs on his tail."
Feeling abashed, Denethor gripped the boy's thin shoulder gently. "You did well," he said. "You may have saved our lives."
"By the time we came upon Cirion, it was nearly dark," Turgon said. "Even with the woods crawling with orcs, I knew we could not wait until morning to search for you."
Cirion's gaze had shifted slightly at Turgon's self-proclaimed valor. Denethor smiled sourly. More likely, the zealously loyal, bear-like Beleg had threatened to go alone if Turgon didn't agree to lead the party. "I knew I could count on you," he said dryly.
The unmoving figure of Thorongil was once again the object of Cirion's attention. "Is Captain Thorongil going to be all right?"
"Certainly," Denethor said. "Captain Thorongil has survived much worse than this." It was probably true, he reckoned, thinking of the many old scars he had seen on Thorongil's body.
"He'll be on his feet in no time," Turgon echoed.
With a reassuring pat on the boy's shoulder, Denethor moved forward to stand behind Beleg. "How much longer?" he asked. "It will be light soon. We ought to be moving."
His attention fixed on the semi-conscious Thorongil, Beleg grunted his acknowledgement but did not answer immediately. On the ground beside him lay the remains of Denethor's makeshift patchwork of blanket strips. They had been replaced with much more professional-looking wrappings, which Beleg was finishing tying off. When he appeared satisfied with them, he covered Thorongil with a blanket, rose to his feet and drew Denethor a few feet away. "Wrist, collarbone, and a couple of ribs," he recited matter-of-factly. "If he did not have such a hard noggin it surely would have cracked as well. Has he coughed up any blood?"
"That is good. Nor is his belly tender, and I did not find any other broken bones."
"He told me earlier that his left ankle was broken, but would not permit me to remove his boot."
Growling, Beleg dropped down beside Thorongil and flipped aside the blanket. With one slice of his knife, he had off the muddy boot, probing the swollen and discolored flesh around Thorongil's ankle. "Splints," he spat at the nearest soldier, "and find some padding as well."
Having no stomach for bone-setting, Denethor took the opportunity to go look for his horse, grateful to find that Cirion had managed to save it. He avoided looking at the unmistakable, blanket-shrouded shapes across the backs of two of the mounts as he reached to stroke his gelding's velvety black neck, remembering only as the first rays of dawn flashed against something green on his hand that he still wore Thorongil's ring. He froze and glanced about, but no one was looking in his direction. Turgon was deep in discussion with his archers, and the throng around Thorongil was occupied with carrying him out of the cave. Denethor relaxed, then started again at a slight movement in the corner of his eye. It was the rescued slaves, huddled together on the ground so silently that at first he had failed to notice them, though they sat only a few feet away from the horses. They were staring at him now like a flock of starved owls, their eyes bulging accusingly from hollow sockets. His lip curling involuntarily in distaste, he twisted the ring around on his finger so the gems faced inward. They dug into his palm as he clenched his fist. After a moment he pulled out his riding gloves and put them on. He would have to wait until later to get a good look at the ring. Even now, Cirion passed to his left, fetching a horse which he led over to Beleg. Several of Thorongil's men lifted him up onto it and one mounted behind him, supporting him. Once he was settled more or less securely, Beleg strode over to Denethor. "If you're ready, we're ready."
Denethor frowned at the reeling Thorongil skeptically. "Are you sure he is well enough to ride?"
"No other way. He'll have to be." Beleg stabbed a thick finger at the trail leading downstream. "A mile or so downstream, the path ascends from the riverbank into the hills. The trail is too narrow for a tandem litter, and a hand-litter would be too slow."
"I am no surgeon," Denethor pressed, "but I would not suffer a man with a broken leg to ride even a single mile, much less a hundred."
"It cannot be helped. But he will not have to ride a hundred miles. I'll send a rider ahead for a wagon to meet us at Poros Crossing. From there the road is good to Pelargir."
Turgon swung a leg over his mount. "Once in Pelargir, we can take ship to Minas Tirith and save ourselves a week's march."
"If a ship can be found to carry us," Denethor said. "All of Gondor will be traveling to Minas Tirith this week."
"How fortunate that I travel with the Lord of the White Tower," Turgon said cheerily. "No ship captain in Gondor would turn away the son of the Steward."
Denethor refrained from rebuking him only out of the mercenary realization that Turgon's willingness to put loyalty before scruples might become useful before this was over "We are a long way from any ship yet," he said mildly. "Let us be on the road."
The muddy trail and Beleg's desire to spare Thorongil pain slowed the pace of travel, and a pale midday sun reflected off the river by the time they arrived at Poros Crossing. The snow, if it had fallen at all down here in the valley, was long melted, and despite his lieutenant's care, Thorongil's face was pale and drenched with sweat when Beleg hauled him from the horse and carried him to a bed of blankets in the grass by the river. Soldiers and freed slaves set about gathering firewood and water as Denethor watched Beleg tend his captain, warrior's hands working nimbly as a tailor's. As expertly as if he'd been detailed straight from the Houses of Healing, Beleg inspected Thorongil's splints and wrappings, then measured and mixed powders and herbs. Recalling that Beleg was a career soldier, the son of a drunken dockworker from the Harlond, if Denethor was not mistaken, he stepped closer. "Where did you learn your leech craft?" he asked conversationally. "You seem to have some skill."
Without pausing in his work, Beleg nodded at Thorongil. "From my patient. He taught me well. He taught us all."
"Indeed." Denethor felt unease building. Over the years, he'd heard occasional remarks about Thorongil's unusual skill in healing, but had paid them little mind, assuming the man had picked up an odd bit of healing craft here and there just as he seemed to pick up odd bits of knowledge about the stars, plants, animals, or ancient history. Now, he realized, it had been a piece to a puzzle he had ignored in his eagerness to dismiss his adversary as a pretentious upstart. Watching Beleg's scarred hands move with the confidence of a guild healer, Denethor wondered what other clues to Thorongil's origins he had too hastily dismissed.
He felt something digging into his palm and realized it was Thorongil's ring, pressed into his flesh as he clenched his fist. At least now there was no longer any reason to postpone inspecting it. "I'm going to scout the area," he said to Beleg. "Call me if the wagon arrives." He looked around, spotting a stand of trees on the hill above the crossing. He climbed the hill and walked deep into a thicket of brush and winter-bare saplings. Anyone seeing him would assume he was conducting such business as soldiers normally conduct in the woods. Hidden at last from prying eyes, he unclenched his fist and removed his glove.
The ring was beautiful. In the light of day, the emeralds he had caught such a fleeting glimpse of earlier were revealed to be the eyes of a pair of serpents, coiled around a clump of what might have been flowers, or perhaps a stalk of wheat. It was difficult to tell. Details that must once have been intricately wrought had been worn nearly smooth. His own ring, worn by every Steward's heir since Eradan, looked almost new by comparison. A lump of worry was forming in the pit of his stomach. This strange serpent ring, he knew instinctively, was no mere piece of jewelry. If it were, an upstart like Thorongil would have displayed it openly, to impress, instead of secreting it away in a locket around his neck. Besides, Denethor knew a heraldic emblem when he saw one. Yet this was the emblem of none of the noble houses of Gondor or any other realm he knew of. The pieces of the puzzle were forming a picture he did not much like - a secret, ancient ring carried by a wandering mercenary from the North, a mercenary who looked like a Dúnadan, spoke like an Elf, and knew Númenorean history as well as he did. The knot in is belly hardened into a rock as fragments of ancient tales, long-dismissed and half-forgotten, rushed like startled pigeons to flutter against the walls of his mind.
Shouts of greeting echoed through the clammy air, scattering his thoughts. He took off the ring and put it back in his belt pouch. The average soldier would pay no mind to a new ring on the finger of the Steward's son, but Turgon was pretentious enough to notice things like emerald rings, and nosy enough to ask about them.
He stood at the crest of the hill. Down below, on the riverbank, men were moving about, quenching fires and gathering belongings. A wagon was being loaded – no proper healers' van, but a mere supply wagon hastily pressed into service. Denethor reached it just as Thorongil was being settled upon a layer of grain sacks padded with blankets.
"No healer," Beleg said curtly, adjusting a cushion under Thorongil's splinted leg. "They've all been dispatched to Pelargir with the battle wounded." With that he climbed into the back of the wagon beside his captain. "At least they sent some poppy. It should ease his travel."
"Do the best you can, Lieutenant," Denethor said. Though he derived no pleasure from seeing Thorongil indisposed, he could not help but note that the poppy would dull Thorongil's memory of the journey, permitting, perhaps, a reconstructed version of events to be impressed upon him, should that be required later. Nodding to Beleg, he mounted his horse and signaled Turgon to lead the column.
The road from the ford to Pelargir was well-maintained to support rapid troop deployments to the border. They reached the city at nightfall of the second day, just as the torches were lit on the city walls. Thorongil was turned over to the care of the lord of Pelargir's healers, who promptly insisted he should not be moved for at least a month. Denethor just as promptly overruled them, earning the ire of the healers, the exhausted gratitude of Thorongil, and the immediate suspicion of Turgon.
"I don't understand you," Turgon complained the next morning, once they were underway aboard the only merchant ship that could be found on short notice whose berths were not already spoken for by holiday travelers or holiday geese. In a last minute change of heart, Denethor had relented and allowed Turgon to come along He had already begun to regret his decision. "Why not take the chance to be rid of Thorongil and return to Minas Tirith to claim all the glory of the victory for yourself?" Turgon stepped over his pack and handed Denethor a plate of food.
"Because it will appear that is exactly what I am doing," Denethor answered, scowling at the galley's meager offerings. "For an aspiring courtier you are remarkably unsubtle, Turgon."
"How is Thorongil?"
"Either sleeping or beaten into submission. The healer shooed me out of the room before I could get a good look at him."
"A bit of a fusspot, isn't he? The healer I mean. Still, I suppose it's lucky he insisted on coming along. I didn't fancy nursemaiding Thorongil all the way back to Minas Tirith."
"It will only be two days."
Turgon impaled a piece of meat and attempted to chew it. "Are Thorongil's quarters any better than this?" he complained, patting his mattress for effect. "I cannot believe this is the best accommodation that could be found for the Captain-General of Gondor."
"Just be thankful you're not sleeping on the cold ground out there," Denethor said gruffly, indicating the darkened fields across the water, gliding past beyond the tree-studded riverbank. From the boat, all looked silent and peaceful. Here and there a yellow glow signaled the presence of a farmhouse, and Denethor imagined families gathered around the hearths, singing songs and eating hot stew with fresh bread. All seemed tranquil and safe, as if no mountain of fire loomed to the east, threatening to consume it all. At times he envied the people their simple lives, their freedom to live them as they chose. With him, there was nothing but duty, always duty. "Half of Gondor and all their livestock are trying to get to Minas Tirith before the holiday," he said to Turgon. "Do you know how much I had to pay the barge captain for these berths? My father will have a fit."
"Not when he finds out it was for the comfort of his beloved Captain Thorongil," Turgon said. "Now, I would have simply commandeered the vessel. Actually, no, I would have commandeered a better one. I feel like a bilge rat cooped up in here."
"If the accommodations did not meet your expectations," Denethor said tightly, "you could have ridden back to Minas Tirith with your men like the other captains."
"I'm surprised you didn't order me to," Turgon said, "to build my character, or some nonsense."
"That nonsense is called leadership. You might try it sometime." Denethor gave up on the plate of grisly meat and reached behind him for the flask of brandy he had bought at a stall by the wharf. He took a long drink from it and handed it to Turgon. "Thorongil would never have left his men."
"Thorongil." Turgon's voice was thick with scorn. "I didn't think you approved of Thorongil."
"If you spent less time mocking him and more time studying him, you might learn something." Seeing how quickly Turgon was dispatching the brandy, Denethor snatched back the flask. "It is a fool who underestimates his opponent." And I have been one, he thought.
"Opponent?" Turgon spread out his blanket and wedged his lanky form into the cramped bunk. It was too short; he had to crimp his neck to prop his head against the bare plank wall. "You do him too much credit. Thorongil is nobody. You are the Steward's son."
"Nobody? My father does not think so. His men do not think so. Thorongil's men love him."
"Love!" Turgon scoffed. "Not that again!"
"Thorongil's men would die for him, to the last man, because they know he would do the same for them. My men, though they may not love me, would do the same, because they respect me. Yours not only do not love you, they do not respect you, because all you think about is your own comfort and reward. How then are you to lead?"
Turgon made a sour face. "Why should I concern myself with pleasing those who charge it is to please me? Why should you and I deprive ourselves of comfort to prove we are worthy to lead? I do not understand where you get these notions, Denethor. I do not see your father forsaking the Citadel to huddle in some leaky First Circle dump. Nor will you when you return to Minas Tirith, I think. It is a false modesty to abase ourselves in hopes the men will not resent our superiority. Do you not see - it is superiority that they crave. If they question our superiority they will challenge our orders. And then they will not be so eager to die on them, I think. I have not risen as high as this to live like a conscript. By the good will of your family, and the good luck of mine, there remain only two men in Gondor whose approval I need concern myself with."
"Only two?" Denethor cocked an eyebrow. He had never heard Turgon speak so boldly before. Maybe it was the brandy.
"The Steward and his son. I do not think I have forgotten anyone." Turgon asked blandly. "Unless the king should come again, of course."
"Suppose he did."
Turgon's left eye narrowed as it did when he was trying to figure out if his opponent was bluffing at cards. Then he chuckled and took a drink from the flask. "That would depend," he said. "Would he offer me a princedom, do you think?"
"Perhaps if you married his sister. Pity you already have a wife."
Turgon laughed and handed over the flagon. "Perhaps he is to be a heathen king, and shall decree that we should each have ten wives."
It was Denethor's turn to chuckle. "You couldn't handle ten wives."
"You are right. I can't handle the one I already have. But you are the lore-master here, my friend. Tell me, from whence is he to come, this king of yours?"
"Whence would he, do you think?" Turgon did not answer. Caught up in his own thoughts for a time, Denethor looked up to see a pained expression on his brother-in-law's face. He chuckled. "I will spare you the torture of speaking the uncomfortable truth, Turgon – it is a fact that no king will ever come from the line of Húrin. If it were not so, the high throne would not now be empty, the crown of Ëarnur would not now be moldering in a tomb, and above the White Tower you would see flying the splendid banner of a king instead of a plain white sheet."
"If you insist," Turgon said diplomatically. "But if this is so, there will never be a king again in Gondor. The line of Anárion is perished. The line of Isildur was rejected a thousand years ago, and has vanished into the wastes. There is no other."
Something in those words gnawed at a very old memory, but Denethor could not put his finger on it. "Yes. And it would be foolish to keep a throne vacant for a thousand years, waiting for a king who will never come. And yet that is what we do. Why?"
"Gondor waits for the king." Turgon scratched his forehead. "At least that is what I was always taught."
"The people think they want a king. They imagine he will come riding on a white horse and save them from the threat of Mordor, from the terrors that haunt their dreams. It is a comforting fable that gives them hope as the cloud in the east grows darker and their doom approaches. But Gondor - if Gondor had wanted a king it would have simply crowned one and been done with it long ago. Gondor does not want a king – it fears the thought of one. The princes and the lords fear the power a steward might claim, should he decide to make himself a king. As a steward, he is manageable. He is not too far above them. A king, on the other hand, they would have to obey without question. They like things the way they are."
"So do I," Turgon said. "My family has worked for generations to endear ourselves to your family. It would be a shame if we had to start over."
"I am glad to hear it," Denethor said. "In the days ahead, I think I will have need of your loyalty."
"Why?" Turgon asked sharply.
Denethor was not ready to tell him the real reason, to tell him about his dark, still-forming suspicions about Thorongil. There were yet things he must do, once he returned to Minas Tirith, things he must know, before he told Turgon, if indeed he told him at all. "Finduilas is in Minas Tirith," he said instead, "awaiting an answer. I do not know what it will be."
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.