Son of Ecthelion

Hands of the King

64. Forgive

Minas Tirith, 27 March , 2980 T.A.

His head pounded if he leaned down or moved suddenly, and his ribs hurt enough that Denethor had to clench his teeth when he picked up Boromir. There was no sharp pain this morning, so he did not think them cracked, but the bruise was going to take time to heal. During breakfast he had considered going to the baths and soaking to relieve the pain. I cannot show injury or weakness, not until resistance is gone. Luckily, the bruise on the side of his head was mostly hidden by hair. Finduilas had fussed over him, fixing his food, filling his cup, and bestowing many small kisses each time she passed by his chair just as she had done when they were newly wed. Her affection made him feel guilty, as though he were a child pretending illness to get sweets from his nurse. After she left to tend to the Lady's business with Aldwyn and Wren, Denethor rang the bell to summon Beregar.

'My lord?'

'What is your measure of Borthand?'

'A bit of a hothead. Getting too old to be an errand boy.'

'Can he handle a sword?'

'No. He is a street brat. All he knows is his fists, and mostly he ducks a fight.'

'Can he be taught?'

Beregar shrugged. 'Perhaps. That pup is a sly one.'

'You don't trust him?'

'He'll die for the Lady. Anyone else...' Beregar wagged his hand in the air. 'He's not got a bad heart, but he spends too much time with Scratch.'

'He can spend more time with you, then.'

The Hound's eyebrow went up. 'What do you want me to do?'

'Train him well enough with a sword so he won't hurt himself by accident. Give him a pallet behind the kitchen - no more running loose on the streets. You have until loëndë to put some sense between his ears.'

The man sighed and gave Denethor a wry look. 'For what is he being trained?'

'I'll know when I see what you have made of him.'

That earned a quick grin from Beregar, reminding Denethor of when his nephew was a youth like Borthand, all lanky limbs and promise. 'I'd best start at once, then, my lord. I'll take him to the yards this morning.'

'I will walk with you. I need to speak to the yardmaster.' Borthand was nowhere to be found, but the runt of the pack, Ingold, was loitering in the kitchen yard trying to wheedle cheese from Nellas and was dispatched to find the older boy and bring him to the yards. They did not have long to wait before Borthand appeared, red-faced from his dash up the mountain. Beregar took command and marched Borthand to the armory. Denethor spoke of a few inconsequential things with the yardmaster, who did not mind being seen in discussion with the High Warden, before leaning on the fence to watch the men sparring. Every so often, Denethor glanced at the lane, watching for a certain person to come into view. Brandir did not appear. A melancholic feeling came over him. After a half hour, Denethor left. He walked slowly along the sixth circle, hands clasped behind him, trying to understand his own mood. Why should Brandir's absence grieve him so? He had never cared that much for his brother-in-law's company until these last few months.

Though he had not intended it, Denethor was not surprised when he found himself facing an old wooden door that stood ajar. He slipped inside, leaving it open for whomever else was called. The flowers and plants soothed him, so he took his time passing through them towards the back, pausing to admire the trickle of water in the ingenious troughs, sniff a bright bloom, touch a delicate leaf. Laanga was sitting tailor fashion on a woven mat a few feet inside the back door, a mug of tea in his gnarled hands. Another mat faced him, and a steaming mug sat in between. Denethor knelt on the mat before the apothecary and bowed his head. 'Grandfather, you summoned me?'

'The Crone said you were in pain, grandson.' A hand rested gently on the top of Denethor's head, blessing him. 'I will do what I can for it. Drink your tea.' Denethor took a seat opposite the black elder and did as Laanga bade him. The warm draught flowed through his blood, lessening his aches. Denethor sipped the tea slowly, savoring the tart taste. Laanga did not drink, content to warm his spidery fingers on the mug. When Denethor set down his cup, Laanga downed his own tea in three long swallows.

'Thank you for the tea, Master Laanga. I feel better.' The apothecary smiled and bowed his head in acknowledgement. After some silence, Denethor said, 'I did not thank you for your healing last month. My arm is sound once again.' He bared his left forearm for Laanga's inspection. The old man's fingers were still warm from the mug, and he grasped Denethor's arm firmly. The Dragon Fire scar bore scars of its own, now, a small, knotted lump rising up from lean flesh. Laanga examined the scar closely before turning Denethor's arm over to peer at small marks across his fingers. Denethor had almost forgotten the cuts he had received from the Dragon Fire-soiled stone of Osgiliath.

'Once, Denethor, you spoke to me of a mariner,' Laanga said absently as he touched the pale lines across Denethor's fingers, 'who forbade you to pass.' The herbalist turned the arm back over and prodded at the Dragon Fire knot. 'When I tended your arm, I saw a cord around your neck.'

'It was his gift to me.'

'Why did he give it?'

'He left it behind. I picked it up.'

'An odd gift,' Laanga said. He clasped Denethor's hand between his own and caught Denethor's eyes in a dark gaze. 'There are ways that are barred to us, yet it is not always so. Some ways we have no choice but to tread. Other ways, we think ourselves barred, and so they are. Have you walked in the garden, grandson?'

It took a moment for Denethor to realize Laanga expected an answer. 'No, I have not.'

'Why not?'

'I do not know. I have never wanted to.'

'Finduilas does not visit anymore. We are saddened to lose the children's company.'

'She is stronger, so she does not need to come here so much,' Denethor protested. 'And it has been winter. She will come back as the days get warmer.'

'She is very strong. The garden is open to you, grandson, if you will allow it. You have my leave, and that of Crone Apple, as well. Perhaps you will bring the little bear to see me? There has not been someone to climb upon the Crone's limbs for too long.'

Denethor felt abashed at Laanga's gentle scolding for leaving him alone. 'Yes, grandfather, I will bring Boromir.'

This earned a smile from the herbalist, and light glinted in his black eyes. 'That will bring spring to my ancient bones, grandson.' His face became serious again. 'I told Finduilas that some of the poison still lingers in your frame. It sits within and bides its time. Beware of Fire, Denethor, for kind calls to kind.'

'Is there no healing for it, then?'

'You alone can purge what hides deep,' Laanga replied. He let go of Denethor's hand and began to rise. Denethor scrambled to his feet and helped the old man stand.

'I can make it leave?'

'No. There is no force that can dislodge it.' Laanga motioned for Denethor to hand him the empty mugs.

'I don't understand.'

'Few do. How came you by these more recent wounds?' Laanga touched the bruise at Denethor's temple.

'I purge the City of a danger.'

The apothecary shook his head with a chuckle as he took the mugs. 'It looks like naught but a bar brawl to me.'

'It is the price of a Fool's honor.'

Laanga chuckled again. 'Wisdom may come to you yet, grandson.' The old man nodded to Denethor before disappearing into the plants.

***

Minas Tirith, Early April, 2980 T.A.

Denethor stared at the map spread out across the table in the archive map room. Why that route? A messenger had arrived from King Théoden - it still felt strange that the son, not the sire, now ruled Rohan - informing Denethor that Thorongil had been sighted upon Rohan's northern border. Denethor had expected that the Captain - no, the mercenary -

would cross Anduin before the spring floods began in earnest, and trek across Rohan on his way back to the north. A scout at the edge of the Wold had seen Thorongil walking west along the southern bank of the Limlight. The Lost forded the river near the eaves of Fangorn Forest and continued north. No one had seen the man since. That had been over a week ago. Denethor had come to the archives to figure out Thorongil's most likely path to Rohan from the last sighting of him in Ithilien, and where the man might be headed.

The only thing that was certain was Thorongil had covered a great distance very quickly. He had to have walked. He did not have a horse when he left Gondor, and there was no passage for a boat on Anduin until the Undeeps themselves. Denethor's finger traced likely routes. Not over Dagorlad. Too exposed. Between the Nindalf and the Dead Marshes, then head northeast and skirt the foot of the Emyn Muil... Unforgiving ground, rocky and dry, and an uphill climb if a traveler went north. Too far. Even one of the enduring Lost could not manage that journey, particularly as poorly provisioned as Thorongil would have been.

'If you stare at the map any more fiercely, brother, it will ignite.' Denethor spared Aiavalë a surly glance before returning his gaze to the table. He had not seen her since his return from Ithilien and knew he should be more amiable, but the mystery of how Thorongil had reached the Limlight needed to be solved. She snorted and came in the door. For some reason, she had gone back to wearing her veil, even in the archive, though her hair was now long enough to peek out from under the back of the covering. She had taken to attaching a small tassel to the end of her braid as a joke about the old braid she used as a bell pull. 'What are you looking for?'

'Where Thorongil has gone.'

'He has gone back to the Wild and let us hope he stays there,' she grumbled.

'He is going somewhere, not just north, and I want to know where.' If it is too far around, then perhaps he went around the northern edge of the Nindalf and crossed into Rohan, just like the Orcs did. As soon as he thought it, Denethor rejected that route with a shake of his head. Théoden had increased patrols along the Anduin shore, indeed the entire eastern border, because of the winter invasion. That is why Thorongil had been seen at all.

'What does it matter, Denethor?' Aiavalë leaned against a rack behind him. 'For once, all is going well. Our enemies are scattered and good fortune is ours at last.'

'We have but won a reprieve, Aiavalë, and you know it.' I don't think he can fly, even with the wizard's help. You are not that much of an eagle. But then how did the man pass over Rohan without being seen? He heard the rack creak and felt a light slap on the back of his head.

'Must you be such a grouch? It is as when you would not ask for Alquallë's hand for fear of nothing! The usurper is gone, the Corsairs are as good as gone, and Beruthiel will soon be gone. Lark will have another babe soon, and I wager Wren and Marlong will send joyful news before this year is out. Should we not be glad?'

'I suppose,' he muttered, earning another slap, this one a little harder than the first. The blow made him tip forward a little, and he had to put a hand on the map to catch himself. Denethor stared at where his finger pointed. But what if he climbed? The North Stair on the western Emyn Muil was probably still passable, if not fit for portage. Thorongil could have crossed Anduin on a log, gone up the stair, then through the hills. It was still an arduous trip, but one with water, screened from prying eyes, and probably some small game once he descended from the northern hills. 'That's how he did it.'

Aiavalë's curiosity overcame her annoyance. 'Did what?'

'Thorongil. I think I know how he got to the Limlight.' Denethor pointed to the map. 'He crossed Anduin here, and went up by an old portage stair.' His sister leaned over his shoulder, her hand next to his on the map, following the route he traced with his other hand. 'Through the hills here, and then down to the river again.'

'How can one get through those hills?' she asked, tapping lines marking the Emyn Muil. 'I know they are high and cruel.'

'There are portage ways,' he said, 'and old trails. Thorongil could find...' Denethor stopped abruptly, looking at Aiavalë's hand on the map next to his own.

He could See her.

Denethor turned quickly, grabbing her shoulders, and stared at her face above the edge of the veil. There was no mistaking the light in her. He snatched the covering from her head and went to the door, shutting it, then leaned against it. Aiavalë still stood at the table. Red had come to her cheeks, but she did not look away. The light from her heart made the difference between the two sides of her face less extreme. If the unmarred side was less exquisite than it once had been, now that sun, wind and the world had touched it, the twisted half was softened by the same exposure and had lost its tortured appearance. Aiavalë was more beautiful than Denethor had ever seen her. Crossing his arms across his chest, Denethor said, 'Who is he?'

The red crept down her cheeks and across her jaw. 'Who is who?'

'The man you are lying with.'

A look he did not recognize came over her face. 'I am not. There is no one.'

'Yes, you are. Do not lie to me, sister. I can See you, just as you See me.'

'I suppose,' she answered, drawling the words.

'That is why you wear this,' Denethor held the veil up. 'Did you think no one would notice? You have lain with a man, and I want to know who it is.'

'I think it none of your concern, Denethor.'

'It most certainly is my concern who my sister consorts with!'

'You never cared what Maiaberiel did, and I will thank you to pay me no more mind than that!'

'That is nonsense, Aiavalë, and you know it. I cared very much as it endangered my life. Our lives - you, me, Alquallë, Wren,' he hotly answered. 'but if you are going to be like her and play the whore, I cannot stop you.'

At those words, Aiavalë came over to the door, bristling. He brought his hands up, ready to ward off a blow, but she just looked at him in disgust. She hooked a chain around her neck with a finger and pulled it out from under her collar. A man's ring set with a ruby was strung upon it. 'Whore?' Aiavalë said softly. 'Is that what you call your wife? A whore for coming to your bed? Here is his pledge. I am a woman wed and have given myself only to my husband. I am no more a whore than Alquallë. Or yourself.'

'You had not my permission to do this.'

'I neither need nor want your permission, Denethor, and shall do without your approval, too. Do you truly prefer that I remain alone, a shriveled spider in her lair beneath this dying tower? You would deny me the happiness you have with Alquallë?'

'No...no! I want you to be happy,' he said, 'but, but what...who...who is this? Who has taken you to wife without a word to your kin? What kind of man is this?'

Aiavalë yanked her veil out of Denethor's hands. 'I shan't tell you. You are being a brat.'

Denethor snorted derisively. 'As you wish. I will see through your veils and find out where he keeps himself.'

'Where is he? Oh, I will tell you that, brother. He lies at the bottom of the harbor in Umbar, and I lie with no one now.'

For a moment, Denethor just stared, not wanting to understand. He shook his head. 'No. I can See you.'

'He is dead, Denethor. I was wed and widowed within two weeks.' She sighed and looked down, pulling her scarf over her shoulders. 'We had thought to wed this summer, but when I learned he was going to Umbar, a feeling of dread came over me, so I went to him.'

'Violet.'

'Yes, she helped. Lark knew my heart and arranged things with Violet.'

'Tell me his name, sister, please,' Denethor pleaded, reaching for her. 'Let him be known and honored. No one should look at you and think...'

Aiavalë slapped his hands away. 'I don't care what any of you think! All you see is a monster. Save your honey! I am not going to forgive your cruelty so quickly. I will speak when you deserve to know and not a moment before.'

'What of Finduilas, does she know?'

'No, and I will not tell her, either, so do not think to use your wiles on her!'

Denethor glared at his sister. 'I will find out. I know who perished in Umbar, and I will uncover who gave you that ring.'

Aiavalë returned to the table and began rolling up the map. 'That is all it is to you, Denethor, isn't it? A mystery to solve. A will to bend to your own. You can See I love, yet you are spiteful, not happy. I rejoiced when you wed Finduilas, but your heart has no room for me and my love if it is not you.' Her gaze was hateful. 'That is why I left your house, brother, and why I will not return to it. Better a widow than that.'

'And who tutored my heart into its cold courses, sister?' he snapped before stalking out, slamming the door loudly behind him. People scuttled out of his way as he walked back to the Citadel. Telperien bolted from her usual nest in his reports basket and vanished under his bed when he came into the study. He flopped into Finduilas's chair before the hearth and glared at the ashes. More had changed without his knowledge, the chaos of the world beyond had crept in, like the Fire in his bones and the king in his heart, and had turned the solidity of what should be into an unruly bog. His hands trembled slightly in anger at the trespass he had uncovered. Why didn't she say anything before? Who is this thief? He felt betrayed. One of his own men had wooed his sister without leave or warning. Love is noble, but this is deceit. Why would you not speak to me? Denethor tried to remember a hand marked by gold and ruby.

The door to the study creaked. A small face with two large grey eyes peeked around the jamb, wary and curious. 'Papa?'

Denethor patted his leg. 'Come here, Morcollë.' Boromir's face lit up and he ran over to his father, arms lifted to be picked up. They wrestled and tickled for a few minutes. When they finally paused for a breath, the tight band around Denethor's heart had loosened. He could not look on his son's delighted face and remain angry. He brushed his fingers over a chubby cheek, wondering at its softness. Well, the parts of it that were not sticky, perhaps. Would you really forbid Aiavalë this? That made Denethor's brow furrow. Could she still conceive? She was sixty-five, but he knew of pure-blooded Dúnedain women who had borne children as late as their seventieth year. The queens of Númenor were all over one hundred when their children were born. Even as late as the Downfall, few women bore children before their sixtieth year. He hoped that it would still be possible for Aiavalë. Mid-February, now April... She would not yet be showing if she conceived. It was a foolish thought, yet one that made him happy. 'What do you think, Morcollë, hmm?' he said to Boromir. 'Would that not be good? You love your Auntie Aiavalë, don't you?'

'Is that who put you in such a dark mood? I should have known it was one of your sisters.' Finduilas was leaning against the jamb, looking at the two fondly. Denethor stood. 'On what did you argue?'

'Shut the door.' He waved her to the chair, and remained standing, holding Boromir. It was easier to speak of what he knew if he was touching the baby. 'You have not heard of Aiavalë's latest adventure, have you?' She shook her head. 'It is.. I don't know. I was in the map room in the archives speaking to her. I can See her.'

It took several heartbeats before the import of his words sank in. 'Aiavalë? In love?' Finduilas let out a whoop and drummed her feet on the floor. 'I knew it! I knew it would happen! Did she say his name?'

'He perished in Umbar. That is all I know.'

Finduilas's joy vanished like the cat. 'Dead? Oh, friend, that is too cruel!' She stood and brushed past him. 'Sister, why did you not say anything! I must go to her.' She hurried to her room, Denethor trailing.

'She refuses to name him,' he said as Finduilas hunted for shoes and her cloak. This made her pause.

'And how did you receive this news, friend?'

'Poorly,' he muttered, looking at the ground, 'so we quarreled.'

Finduilas sighed and collected her cloak. Bestowing a kiss each on Denethor and Boromir, she went downstairs, calling for Beregar. Denethor went back to his study and played with Boromir. He was shamed, now, at his sharp words to Aiavalë. There are too many people coming and going, leaving us changed and in want. He thought of the faces around the table in Pelargir. As after Turgon's death, they depart, but even more swiftly, for our doom draws near. On the table were hands, pointing at maps, and on one winked a red stone. And in his presence, we both found beauty. Denethor placed a kiss on Boromir's head. 'We shall hope for joyous news, Morcollë, yes?' He would be patient and not ask again for a name.

***

Pelennor, Mid May, 2980 T.A.

They rode swiftly across the Pelennor in the cool morning air. The final session of the Captains Council was to be held in Osgiliath. The trip was to allow Baragund, the new Captain-General, to address his officers at the seat of his command, present his plans for the coming year, and make clear what he expected of them. Though the men knew who was assigned where, Denethor and Baragund had agreed, given Thorongil's shocking departure, that certain things needed to be established beyond question. Imrahil and Angbor were also in the company, attended by Borthand. As Beregar trained Borthand in arms, Imrahil had been told to see to the pup's horsemanship.

Imrahil had made much progress with Borthand in barely two months, though Aldwyn had helped. Denethor suspected that the girl had taught Borthand more about handling a horse than Imrahil had done. Not that Borthand minded the attentions of a beautiful princess. Once the spring rains had ceased, the young people of the Stewards House had gone riding almost every day. Wren and Gethron regularly joined Imrahil, Aldwyn and Borthand in their rides, and Denethor encouraged Finduilas to go also. When he could, he joined them. While improving Borthand's riding was the ostensible reason, who could fault any of them for wishing to be out upon the Pelennor in the spring?

Denethor could not recall when the lands had been more green or the people more gay as they went about their tasks. The winter battle victories were followed by a perfect spring for planting. The orchards perfumed the plain with masses of blossoms and it seemed that every birth among the livestock produced twins. When Finduilas rode the land, people came to the lanes to cheer her and beg a blessing of her. Denethor tried not to notice the less cheerful looks cast his direction or the mutters that rose as he rode past. They will have forgotten him by harvest.

Whores waved from the house near the river as the captains rode past. Morwen had lost no time getting Borondir to renew her contract. Ahead, even the ruins seemed more cheerful. The white banner of the Stewards hung on the battlements. Denethor had ensured that only that flag was displayed in the garrisons. The people of Anórien insisted that the Lady's banner also adorn their garrison in honor of her bravery during the Orc invasion. To that, Denethor assented. Though only her guardsmen could wear her badge, many soldiers had a single black feather embroidered on a cuff or collar. That Denethor also allowed. He deemed it wise to supplant misguided infatuation with steadfast love.

Beyond the ruins, Ithilien rose in verdant folds, the green blanket of tree and meadow adorned with flowers like living gems. Nothing had dared poke its snout beyond the Accursed Vale since the Morgul forces had been defeated in March, giving Ithilien a spring unmarred by their marauding. The Ephel Dúath were no more than a dark rumor on the horizon, as though they, too, had retreated. But they have not, and the Enemy will return. What do you see when you look at us? When scouring the ground between the palantír chamber and his study proved fruitless, Denethor had turned to scouring the archives for every scrap and note that might pertain to the stones.

A few things were good to know. The Ithil stone was the weakest of all seven, and even when properly used had never been able to see much further than the boundaries of Ithilien, perhaps to the Minrimmon beacon to the north and just past Pelargir in the south. That still meant a determined user could survey Minas Tirith, Osgiliath and Cair Andros, though probably not the Poros crossings. It had been used mostly to speak to the other stones, and had little power over them. Minas Ithil was never much more than a fortress; the royal house had abandoned it when Isildur fled to Arnor, never to return. The fortress commanders used the stone to give their reports to the Captain-General when he looked into the great stone of Osgiliath. During the Kin-strife, Aldamir used the Anor stone to speak to the Faithful in Minas Ithil and coordinate attacks upon the rebels in Osgiliath.

Unfortunately, the Anor stone was the next weakest of the seven. The two small orbs had been placed in their towers so they could speak to the Osgiliath stone and gather visions from it. Denethor suspected the ancient vision of the Last Alliance he had seen was actually taken from the great stone. He took no small pride in the fact that he had been able to see further and more clearly with the Anor stone than anyone who left a record of their feats. Viewing places was more difficult in any stone than speaking to another stone, for the crystals were unruly. They showed what pleased them, a welter of scenes and color, and only a masterful will could tame the torrent of images.

The veiling of vision he had encountered was a common experience, particularly when one came to the edge of a stone's range. He was almost certain now that he was vouchsafed sight of Umbar only because he had been there before and knew what should be seen. This gave Denethor hope that Henneth Annûn could remain hidden; between the Enemy's usurpation of the treasure, the weakness of the Ithil stone, and the secrecy surrounding the redoubt, it was unlikely Sauron could gain a clear view of the location. If he knew where it is, he would have assailed it as he has other forts we have tried to build and hold in Ithilien. Denethor knew he had to be very careful never to use the palantír to look directly at any place that he wished to keep secret, so the other stone could not seize that vision. A peculiar fact he had uncovered was that none of the stones had ever been able to look into Mordor, not even the Osgiliath stone. Denethor wondered if the Enemy could survey his own lands, or if he, too, was blind.

The sentries in the guard towers hailed the captains and opened the gate for them to enter. Halmir was waiting in the courtyard. He bowed deeply to Denethor and almost as deeply to the rest of the captains as a group. 'High Warden, Captains, the meeting room is ready for us.' The Lost's hair was almost completely silver now, and his expression was more tired than stern. He looked old. With a nod, Halmir led them to the small chamber upstairs. Denethor took his usual seat in the black chair. In a few minutes, the rest of the captains had entered, joined by the garrison officers. Even Galdor had emerged from his apothecary to hear the news.

'Gentlemen,' Denethor said quietly so they would have to be still and attentive to hear his words, 'our great victories early this year have provided us with a peace Gondor has not known in three generations. Even so, we suffered injury and will need to move quickly to repair those wounds so that our success does not disappear in a few seasons. We mourn the loss of Minohtar, captain of Linhir, and of Îbal, captain of Dol Amroth, heroes of Umbar.' He paused. 'We have but contempt for the flight of Thorongil. He is an oath-breaker, abandoning his sworn duty to the Steward. Should he show his face again in Gondor, he shall earn his proper reward: fealty earns love, valor earns honor,' Denethor paused again. Every eye was trained on him. He could not hear any breathing. 'And oath-breaking earns vengeance.' Imrahil nodded sharp assent to these words, though most others dropped their eyes. If the threat against his kinsman dismayed Halmir, he did not show it. He is gone. It is time for other things.

'Baragund has been named the new Captain-General.' The man nodded to the others, who bowed their heads and murmured congratulations to him. A quick glance at Halmir let Denethor know the Lost approved of the appointment. This was not surprising as the two men served together for several years when Baragund had been Denethor's second at Osgiliath. 'Prince Imrahil is his lieutenant.' Given Dol Amroth's support in the Umbar assault, great honor was due the Swan House. It also meant Imrahil would act as personal messenger between himself and Baragund, which would keep the young prince out of danger and near Finduilas. For fealty, love. 'Baragund will be replaced in Pelargir by Gildor.' The former captain of Henneth Annûn bowed his head to Denethor, then to Baragund. 'Marlong will remain in Anórien.' Denethor had been tempted to place Marlong in Pelargir, but knew to take advantage of the calm to season other commanders. 'Linhir wishes to have its own lord, Angbor, lead the garrison there.' The sober young man half rose from his seat next to Imrahil and bowed, 'and Gethron will move from the Lady's Guard to captain the Minas Tirith garrison.' Now came the interesting part. 'Calmacil will take over Cair Andros.' This earned a slight scowl from Anbar, who was not reconciled to losing that command. You are too comfortable on your island. You must prove yourself, or step aside for one better. Dírhavel would command Henneth Annûn. The guardsman had proved himself a more than able commander during the last two campaigns. 'Anbar will command Osgiliath.' It was not wise to move Ithilieners too far from their ancestral land. Denethor looked at Halmir. The Lost returned the gaze, impassive. 'And Haldan will be his second.'

Halmir began to nod, then froze. One blink, two, and the Lost turned slightly to face his replacement, gravely bowing his head to the man. And for evasion, removal. Denethor looked around the room. 'Are there any questions?' Heads shook. 'Captain Baragund, I leave you to order your officers. Good day, gentlemen.' With a nod, Denethor stood and left. He went to the eastern gate and signaled to be let out. For once he did not examine the bridge, but stared at the southern ruins. If he looked carefully, he could still see soot from the Fire clinging to crevices. A breeze off the river brought a faint smell of corruption, as though Orc corpses still rotted amid the broken stones. Umbar smells of this now. He reached over the side of the bridge to touch a crumbled wall. Under his fingers, Osgiliath gloated over the desecration to the south. Denethor turned away with a shudder and sought a path north. At the northernmost edge of the ruins, he found that the tiled pier still stood, so he jumped across the gaps to reach it. Below his feet, Anduin ran swift and brown, obscuring the double throne that lay at the bottom of the river. Stupid. Halmir is right. Both stupid. Umbar was but the latest battle in the Kin-strife. The struggle here had thrown down the hope of joint rule and buried the Dúnedain's vision in the mud of the riverbed, layered with the bones of the Faithful. What drowned in the harbor of Umbar? More than men. Thorongil's faith in Gondor.

Denethor abruptly found himself sitting down on the tiles of the outcropping. He had not considered that before. If your love was wrong... Near his feet, Denethor saw a tile with a moon. He pulled his knife and began loosening the mortar binding it to the stone. You wanted what was here, but now we are forsaken. Like Vinitharya, you seek other allies. The mortar was not very well laid under this tile; there were gaps and pockets of air, the substance easily crumbling under the invading blade. At the edge of his vision, he caught sight of motion amidst the ruins. No doubt Halmir had sent one of the Lost to keep watch. Why have you withdrawn your love from us? You let a wizard council you, and listen naught to me, your steward, and he bade you to depart. Denethor dug savagely at the tile. We're like this tile, pieces left to salvage, leavings of something once great and now just waiting to be cast down and washed away. For almost a thousand years, his house had kept its pledge, trying to keep all from falling to ruin. And you spurn our sacrifice. What more do you want of us than this? You don't even know what I did at the last. The tile popped loose from its bindings and Denethor had to lunge to grab it before it skittered away and fell into Anduin. He stuffed it into his pouch and returned to shore.

Halmir was squatting on a flat stone nearby, watching. When Denethor approached, he stood. The Lost looked pointedly over Denethor's shoulder at the unstable piers standing over the river. His hands moved. [Stupid.]

[Yes.] 'Is the meeting over?'

'No. They didn't need me.' Halmir looked again at the ruins. 'I knew you were heading here.' After a long pause, Halmir shrugged. 'Same as always. I'll be back to patrols.'

'You are pleased, then.'

'Not one or the other. Just another commander.'

[Him back now.]

[No. Gone.]

[Back.]

[Not seen. Too long. Gone.] Halmir's expression was weary and his eyes looked north.

It had been long enough, two and a half months. Thorongil should have reached the north by now. [Where now?]

[All lies.] The Lost hunched his shoulders, as though he felt a chill wind and not the soft breeze of May. [Never back. Not now.]

[Him lie. Him run.]

Halmir's jaw clenched and unclenched. [You force him.]

[No wrong me. Him choose.]

'What did you do to him?' Halmir's voice was a ragged whisper.

'I let him do as he pleased.'

[Sent him kill!]

[No kill him.] 'I asked the Steward to send me. I told Thorongil I would take the fleet. The wizard said he should not go. It was his choice.'

[Make him! Heed you. Love you.]

Denethor's hands moved sharply. [Him say love not me. Love none. Gone.]

[Lie. Still lie.] Halmir sighed. 'Do you want me to leave as well?'

'Is your term of service complete?'

'No. Two more years.'

'Then you will remain.'

'Why do you keep me?'

'I asked you this before - should I not trust you?'

'I was only here for him.'

'And he has abandoned you here.'

[No. Him not.]

[Him harm you. Me.]

'I serve as I am sworn.' [Him love you.]

Anger rose like the river in Denethor's breast. [Him love lady.]

The Lost's face twisted, and he whirled around, moving swiftly away through the ruins. Denethor had to hurry to catch up. At the bridge, Halmir turned around, quickly signed [All him love wrong!], and strode off again. This time, Denethor did not try to match the Lost's pace. Once inside the garrison, he wandered about, inspecting things until Baragund finished his own business and it was time to return to the City. The ride back was full of conversation which continued over supper in the lower garrison mess. Borthand was sent to the Stewards House to let Finduilas know what kept them. It was late by the time Denethor and Imrahil finally walked up the mountain, and Finduilas had gone to bed.

Denethor went to his study to shed his dirty clothes and to think. He pulled the moon tile from his pouch and used the corner of his soiled shirt and the last of the wash water to scrub off the worst of the grime. Another king, flying away to the north. Isildur, then Eldacar, now Thorongil. He shrugged into a robe before taking the tile to its companion, the sun tile he had chipped loose almost exactly four years before. Their colors were rich, luminous, with a shimmering in their depths, reminding him of the paired crowns in the Dwarf hold. No, you don't love me or Gondor. Perhaps you love Alquallë. We all loved you, but that did not matter. He moved the tiles around, seeing if the edges matched, trying to find the placement that would catch the most light. Stupid. Even in a pair, one is the greater, the other is less. A throne may be doubled, crowns may be paired, but never are they equal. I would have yielded. For love.

There was some wine in the ewer, so he poured it into a cup and sat at his desk. Halmir said Thorongil had not returned to the north. He's not dead. Though he could not explain it any more than he could explain why he could find the king in the palantír, Denethor knew he would know if Thorongil died. Could I have forced him to remain? Ordered him? Denethor pondered Thorongil's words of last summer. "Because I love what is there, as you love what is here. But I would not be disobedient." If he had ordered the man directly, or had convinced the Steward to do so, and before witnesses, perhaps. You came, you did as you pleased, and only Finduilas thwarted your desires. Perhaps I should have done so as well. Denethor drained the cup and went to Finduilas's bed to sleep.

***

Minas Tirith, Mid June, 2980 T.A.

Denethor kept to the rear and allowed Gethron to play host. The new captain of Minas Tirith proudly led Baragund and Imrahil up the City to the sixth circle training yards. Once they were done with the inspection, they were to meet the Steward for dinner. Baragund had handed over command of Pelargir to Gildor last week and was now in Minas Tirith for councils with the Steward, Denethor, Borondir and the rest of the senior ministers of the realm as he assumed the duties of Captain-General. After loëndë, Baragund and Imrahil were to travel to each of the major garrisons, returning after yáviérë.

Loëndë was going to be an enormous festival this year. From the look of things, there would be more visitors to Minas Tirith than there had been for the wedding. A number of traders had already arrived and set up camp before the walls of the City in anticipation of the crowds. Umbar's defeat had opened roads all over as the merchants bargained that no armies would march this summer. The tents along the road held people from south, east and north, their wares only slightly more diverse than their tongues. Denethor suspected they would spend the rest of the summer crisscrossing Gondor taking advantage of the peace to fill their purses.

The yard was full of men practicing their arms. Gethron hailed the yardmaster, waving the man over to speak to Baragund. There were laughs and friendly insults exchanged for the two men knew each other well. Imrahil stayed with Denethor to watch the yard. On the far side, Borthand and Hunthor were sparring under Beregar's critical eye. Borthand handled himself well, though clearly overmatched by the older, more experienced Queen's Man. Three months of training had given some discipline and maturity to the rangy youth.

Denethor glanced at Imrahil. 'How is Borthand on a horse?'

'Reasonably good, but he needs more practice,' Imrahil answered, eyes never leaving the match. 'What are you up to with him, Denethor?'

'He wants to be a messenger.'

That got Imrahil's attention. 'Really? Yes, it would suit him. So why isn't he mucking out stalls at the stable?'

'I did not say I wanted him to be a messenger.'

'Why not?'

'He is too young, yet. They only want men over twenty, and he is at most seventeen. Possibly younger.'

'You don't know how old... ah, right.' Imrahil looked back at Borthand. 'He does not look a mongrel. He could be the Hound's younger brother.'

'Borthand is of pure blood, if not honorably born,' Denethor softly answered. 'He sheds the low ways of the street when given the right master. Beregar will soon need to give his attention to other matters, unfortunately.'

Imrahil mulled the words, then grinned. 'You know, brother, I do not have a man to go with me on my travels. Let me take Borthand. It would provide him plenty of riding practice. I could use my own Hound.'

The bells rang the hour, letting them know it was time to go to the Steward. They dined in the Steward's chambers. Ecthelion was dressed in a simple linen robe because of the warm day. Denethor studied the man carefully. Ecthelion had lost much of his bulk over the last year and was almost as lean as Denethor now. There was a rheumy cast to his eyes that had not been there but a few months past. He did not seem able to sit up entirely straight in his chair. The Steward's voice was still strong, though, and he presented his new Captain-General with questions, advice, and stories through the meal.

Baragund accepted all with dignity. He had been slightly behind Denethor and Brandir in training, closer to Borondir in age, and though he came of a good family in Lebennin, he was not noble. That did not keep him out of Belemir's carefully cultivated group of talented young officers - Belemir cared nothing for station, only for competence. Even so, listening to Baragund discuss strategy with Ecthelion, Denethor found himself wishing for Thorongil. Baragund was an excellent soldier, and nothing else. He understood danger, battle, and how to care for his men. There were few commanders as good, and none better, left in Gondor's army. Marlong, perhaps, but that was all. What the new Captain-General lacked was a vision of what else could be, the way that Turgon, Belemir, Boromir, Thengel, Adrahil, Thorongil or Denethor himself could look at something like a riverbank and imagine how to transform it into a defense. Imrahil was too green now, but he had that spark. For a moment, Denethor wondered if he should have reclaimed the post of Captain-General. None would have contested. He glanced at Ecthelion's stooped shoulders. No. Greater burdens will soon be mine. The thought left him uncomfortable.

At the end of the meal, Ecthelion rose and thanked them for their council. 'And even more for your company,' he said with warmth, walking them to the door. 'I look forward to more of these meetings ere you two have to depart for the garrisons. Warden, if you will please stay? I have a matter to discuss.'

'Of course, my Lord Steward,' Denethor replied.

The Steward retook his seat and did not speak for several minutes. Denethor stood patiently. It did not have the feel of their usual waiting game. Finally, Ecthelion sighed greatly. 'You have been more merciful to me than I expected, Denethor.'

Denethor did not know how to answer. 'What do you mean?' he hedged.

'I thought you would be cruel in your victory, but your words and acts have been just. To me, at least.' The Steward gave him a sharp glance. 'Mayhap Brandir chastised his wife, but what I saw could not have been done by his hand.'

'My concern is for Gondor. I have no wish for faction. Maiaberiel does. Did. She earned her punishment, and deserved worse. I was merciful to her.'

Ecthelion glared, then sighed and slumped lower in his chair. 'Yes. I suppose you were.'

There was another long period of silence, the Steward staring at his hands all the while. Curiosity and impatience built in Denethor's breast. Reluctantly, he asked, 'What business do you wish to discuss, my lord?'

'No business, in truth, but a penance. I have sat here for three months, looking upon the salvation of our land, and considering my own folly. I am proved wrong. Your warnings and councils of twelve years have come true. You knew I had placed my trust in those who had no loyalty to us, and you thwarted all of their designs.' There was no anger in Ecthelion's voice or form, only weariness. 'When others would have strayed from the oaths of our longfathers, you held us steadfast. I would have fallen into that apostasy, save for your warding.'

'Would have fallen? Nay, you embraced it.' Denethor made his voice soft and cold, forcing down the rage that threatened to seize him. 'Did you not conspire with Maiaberiel to have one of her paramours kill me in battle? Have you not declared to me in this room that you wished that mercenary to be given the crown of Anárion? Did you not encourage the rumors that Thorongil was your own son? Were you not willing to sacrifice Gondor herself, assailed by enemies without, rent by faction within, to do a wizard's bidding? You are wholly fallen. Or do you deny that you did these things?'

The Steward's head bowed more with each accusation until he sat with his face in his hands. 'No. Those were my deeds. Save the first - never did I speak to Maiaberiel on that,' he whispered.

'You never wished for my death in battle?'

'Your defeat, yes, to humble your pride, but never your death. You are my son.'

Denethor started to say one thing, then realized what the Steward had admitted. 'And what of your pretense that you had another son?'

Ecthelion shrugged, dropping his hands. 'It was not pretence. I thought he was.'

'You thought...' Denethor stopped, searching for words. 'Yours? Why? How could you think that? Thengel said he was from the north.'

A hint of amusement came to the Steward's face. 'Thengel always said the ravens were from the north. But he also said that Ælric had Gondor in his heart. That was his way of saying the man was from here.'

'Then you expected...' Denethor shook his head. 'Aiavalë and me, we searched the birth records. There is no boy child unaccounted for.'

'He was never in the records,' Ecthelion evenly replied. 'Father sent him to Fengel when I could no longer keep him hidden, when he was two. The day Thorongil presented himself, I was meeting with all the counselors of the purse. It was chaotic. Hathol should have known better than to bring the man in, but he did. I only glanced at Thorongil and thought it was you, in from Osgiliath.' The Steward chuckled. 'He must have thought me mad, for I addressed him as you and told him to look over a report. He gave me the letter from Thengel and, well, it seemed obvious.'

'And when did you know yourself wrong?'

'Always, I think. But I wanted it to be so.'

'Why?'

'What man would not want two such sons?' was Ecthelion's soft reply. 'The finest men of Gondor. You were harsh and unyielding, so my heart turned towards the more kindly of the two, yet I would have spurned him could I have had your good regard. He was what I had wished you would be, but he was always a stranger.'

For a moment, Denethor could not breathe for the tightness in his chest. He turned and began to walk out, the feelings in his heart wheeling like the visions in a palantír, but halted at the door. He waited until his hands stopped shaking and he knew his voice would not betray him. 'Yes, a stranger.' Turning to face the Steward, he said, 'Brandir has a letter from Thengel that says the man arrived with Mithrandir out of the north. I know which of the Lost are his kinsmen. He has spoken to Finduilas of his family. You could have found out the truth with a single question. It suited you to sow doubt and turmoil. Do you wonder that you have earned only my contempt?'

'No. I do not. But you are a pitiless man, Denethor. There is no room for the fools and the flawed in your heart. Only one such as Thorongil could please you.' Once more, Ecthelion hung his head. 'I am sorry for the danger and grief I have brought down upon my house and people. I am fallen, as you say, cozened by those who sought their own ends through my jealousy. None of my children regard me with kindness. There is not a more wretched man, or one more deserving of his fate, in all Gondor.'

'At last, my Lord Steward, we have found something on which we may agree.'

The Steward flinched from Denethor's words. 'Then this tower shall be my prison and my office a chain. But I beg one thing of you, Denethor.'

'What?'

Ecthelion rose, came to him and knelt. 'I beg your forgiveness. Take what vengeance upon me you desire. I submit to your will and chastisement, even to the end of my life. But when your honor has been satisfied, say you will forgive me.' The Steward laid a tentative hand on Denethor's arm. 'Please, son.'

The blood pounding in Denethor's ears sounded like the Sea. A voice was in the sound, but he could not make out the words. For a moment, Denethor thought he would weep. His hand rose and sought the lanyard to try to hear the mariner more clearly, but the cord was not there. He pulled his arm from under the Steward's touch, stepping away.

'Never have I raised my hand to you, nor shall I begin, for it is not through me that war will enter this Tower. You are the Steward and you are owed my obedience. But my good regard you have squandered.

'Once, my Lord Steward, you said you would never forgive my presumption for having spoken out of turn in the Great Council. Another time, you said you could not forgive me exposing your obscene dalliance with your own daughter.' Ecthelion moaned and sank to the floor, arms around his head as though to ward off a blow. 'In this I shall be your son, if in nothing else. Never will I forgive you your trespass against Gondor. That I swear upon my honor.'

Denethor walked away, leaving the Steward weeping on the floor. He resisted the urge to break into a run and made himself walk with dignity back to the Stewards House. Beregar, Imrahil and Borthand were talking loudly downstairs, while Finduilas was not in her study. Denethor went upstairs to their rooms to find Boromir, but he, too was gone. Ivrin said that Finduilas had taken him with her to have dinner with Warden Lhûn. Denethor asked her to inform him when they returned, and went to his study.

He reached into his tunic and drew out Finduilas's book. He had stopped carrying it upon him after she had conceived Boromir. With her near, Denethor did not need it as a reminder of her. Nor have times felt so dire. Mostly he kept things tucked between its pages - his favorite letters from her, a lock of Boromir's hair, a small drawing Aiavalë had done of Finduilas holding Boromir. Since he returned from Ithilien, though, he kept it close, preferring it to the lanyard to guard him.

Also tucked inside the pages was the final missive from Thorongil. Denethor pulled that out, laying it on the desk, and returned the book to his pocket. For several minutes, he sat and stared at the letter. What did you think to do here? Become king. Anything that said otherwise was a lie. Did not Halmir say all of your words were lies? But this was not a lie. Thorongil knew what would happen should he set foot in Gondor. No, he fled. He and the wizard, they knew something they did not wish to say to us. Some doom too great for a king to take up. Denethor opened the letter and slowly read the cipher.

Cast away the name Thorongil. No longer is it fit to be spoken by honorable men. Forgive your wretched student. All of your teaching has been for naught. Your last lesson was the most bitter, for it was simply to choose. I thought I chose the Imperishable Flame, but it was Fire. I chose the wrong thing for I have loved the wrong thing. The Lady was right. It is not time. I will not divide Gondor against herself, and to return now is to bring back the Kin-strife, to bring the flames of ancient faction with me from Umbar. She would not survive that contest a second time. I love you too much to risk that fate. Forgive me, friend.

Anger and grief weighed equally on his heart. Why did you not speak to me? You could have found me. The wizard must have warned Thorongil, told him of the words the Powers sent through Finduilas. They do not wish you here. It no longer suits them. His eyes kept going over a few certain marks, trying to make them turn into different words, but they stubbornly refused. "I chose the wrong thing, for I loved the wrong thing." How could it be wrong to love Gondor? To love Finduilas? Yet, the Powers had interceded to remove the king. You think I would have fought you, but have I not trusted you? What else could I have done to prove my heart? I would have gone in your stead and been consumed, but you would not have it so.

He stood and paced. What was clear to him was that the Powers cared naught for Gondor, save as it served their designs. She was but a discarded tile amidst the ruins of their work, clinging to a crumbling perch, waiting to tumble into a torrent and be swept out to sea unless taken up and protected from the forces that pounded upon her with no regard for what they harmed. Denethor gazed at the sun and moon, touching each tile gingerly. Pieces of salvage. Bits rescued from destruction and dishonor. A fiery gem, a pale tree - what shall be saved from our downfall? What the Powers willed. That was the answer. What they chose to protect was safe from the cruel nets that snared the rest. "There is hope beyond thy sight, child, though it is not for you to bring it, nor does Fate hold a rift through which thou mayest pass."

Denethor returned to the desk, took the letter and laid it in the hearth. It was soon alight. There was no room in his heart for beings that used Men as pawns, nor for a king who cast his lot with these creatures and abandoned his own people. No, Thorongil. Never.


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.

In Challenges

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Author: Anglachel

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Rating: Adult

Last Updated: 07/01/09

Original Post: 02/23/04

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