Claiming the Throne
5. Before the Black Gate
Imrahil, his silver armour glittering, rode up beside the Steward.
“My lord,” he said softly, and Denethor started and looked round.
The Prince nodded. “I am glad you chose to ride.”
“I chose to fight,” Denethor corrected, glancing at Aragorn, who seemed to be arguing about something with Elladan or Elrohir.
“For what?” Imrahil asked.
“If you are trying to ask, for whom,” Denethor said, “then for nobody. I fight for Gondor, because that is my duty as Steward.”
Imrahil smiled and fell silent.
“If he refuses you will never have Arwen!” Elladan said to Aragorn, their mounts close together so they could talk privately. “All your life you’ve dreamed, Estel, and you would throw that away?”
“I am throwing nothing away!” Aragorn returned. “And it is not for Denethor to refuse to surrender the Stewardship – rather it is for the people to agree that he should do so.”
“I know the old customs as well as you,” Elladan said. “Words, Estel, only words. ‘Shall he be king and enter into the City and dwell there?’ Well, you have already entered, and dwelt there, and so the point is moot. If Denethor stubbornly holds on to his power, you would not fight for it. I know you too well to think that.”
“Peace, Elladan!” Aragorn said, conceding the point. “Please, let us not speak of this any more – and tell your brother the same. Before anything can be decided there are more battles to be fought.” Elladan nodded, a glint in his eye, and Aragorn shook his head. “And of course you at least will never tire of battles.”
The cavalry pressed on once they had passed Osgiliath, by noon on the first day of the march, and leaving the foot soldiers behind reached the great crossroads by Minas Morgul. Denethor sent for the heralds and had them proclaim Gondor’s lordship over the lands, before ordering that camp should be made. The host went about its business quickly and efficiently, whilst the Steward watched. He noticed that the company of northern Rangers had not brought tents with them this time, instead laying out blankets on the ground and lighting a fire. Aragorn moved easily amongst his men, helping with the fire before settling down by it and lighting a pipe.
Denethor turned away and went to find his own tent.
The next morning they waited for the rest of the army. Towards noon Denethor called the commanders together.
“Though we agreed not to destroy Minas Morgul,” he said, “I wish to ride to look upon it, and would ask that Mithrandir and whomsoever chooses to would ride with me.”
“I will come,” Gandalf said, nodding.
“And I too,” Aragorn added. “But it grieves me to see Minas Ithil so marred.”
“It has long grieved me,” Denethor said. “Imrahil? My lord Éomer?”
“The horses need attention,” said Éomer. “And one stone city is much like another to my eyes, my lord Steward. I’ll stay here.”
Imrahil glanced shrewdly at Aragorn and Gandalf, and shook his head. “I also have business with my men, my lord Denethor.”
The Steward nodded curtly. “Then the three of us shall go. Do you need long to prepare?”
“Just enough time to saddle Roheryn,” Aragorn said briefly.
Denethor acknowledged this, and Aragorn slipped away. Gandalf got out his pipe and lit it, settling down contentedly. Denethor called for his horse to be saddled, and stood waiting, his hands folded behind his back.
“What is that weed you smoke?” he asked, sniffing the air.
“The hobbits name it pipe weed,” Gandalf said. “This happens to be Longbottom Leaf, discovered by Masters Took and Brandybuck in the cellars of Orthanc. An excellent crop.”
“It is a habit of the halflings, then?” said Denethor, his voice betraying some curiosity.
“Of the halflings, the Dúnedain, and one wizard.” A smoke ring circled the Steward’s head. “Ah, here comes Aragorn.” Gandalf knocked out the burning embers of his pipe and tucked it into his belt before whistling sharply. Shadowfax, his head held high, came trotting across the grass to his master. The wizard mounted, murmuring something to the great stallion, and once Denethor was also on horseback, the three of them set off east towards the tall pale tower of Minas Morgul.
All around the lands were silent, and no sign of activity could be seen outside of their own camp. Looking around as they rode, Aragorn thought he saw the occasional glint of light off a sword, and knew that the guards they had posted were watching. They rode straight towards the city, and as they drew closer it seemed that darkness was falling again. Speaking softly to Roheryn to comfort and reassure the stallion, Aragorn rode on by the side of his companions. In the gloom, Gandalf’s robes shone faintly, and the light was reflected in a sickly way by the defaced marble of the city above them.
As they crossed on to the white bridge, their horses’ hooves thudded hollowly. Shadowfax lifted his head and whinnied, and the noise echoed off the walls of the city and the cliff-face.
Denethor shivered, his face pale and drawn. “This is an evil place.”
“Yet long ago it was fair and lovely,” Aragorn said. “I wonder if it could be made so again.”
“In many years, and with a fair bit of rebuilding, perhaps,” Gandalf observed. He appeared to be less bothered by the oppressive atmosphere than his companions – or maybe it was that the atmosphere did not encroach on him so much. “I imagine that, if we win through, some of Gimli’s folk would be willing to help.”
“Time will tell,” said Denethor hoarsely, as they rode off the bridge and on to the road that led up to the city gates.
The silence was even greater here, and the air stank of some evil that had been wrought there. The Steward pulled his cloak up and wrapped it around his mouth and nose.
“Death,” muttered Gandalf to himself. “And something else ...”
“Nazgûl,” said Aragorn softly. “They are gone, but they were here. Orcs, too, I’d warrant. Whether they are all gone, I do not know.” He drew his sword, and it rang as it left the scabbard. Denethor looked round quickly, but relaxed as he saw the bright metal in Aragorn’s hand.
The road wound upwards into the valley, with the city built between two spurs of the mountains. As they ascended, Denethor turned his head and saw in the distance the topmost spike of the Tower of Ecthelion, gazing still on its twin. The cliffs were black and craggy, trapping the riders between impenetrable rock.
“The kings of old chose well,” Aragorn commented. “I am glad we do not have to assail this fortress.”
Denethor’s face had darkened slightly at the mention of kings, and Gandalf shot Aragorn a piercing look before saying, “I judge we have ridden far enough. Nothing lives here now.”
“Only evil memories,” Denethor said, turning his horse. Aragorn paused, looking still on the pale walls, and briefly raised Andúril in salute, before kicking Roheryn gently with his heels and following the Steward and the wizard back down towards the camp.
Denethor said nothing on the return ride, his eyes introspective, until they were nearly at the camp. Then he unwound his cloak from his face and sat up straighter. “I will order that the bridge be thrown down and burnt,” he said. “Should we return a new one will be built. What think you?”
“It is a good plan,” Aragorn approved.
Denethor nodded, and said nothing more.
By nightfall the infantrymen had caught up with the cavalry, and early on the next morning the whole army set out north. It was a dark and weary journey, and the mood of the forces did not lighten. Ere long, even the laughter of Legolas and the sons of Elrond had fallen silent. They met their first resistance two days from the Crossroads, but scouts ahead had warned of the ambush and the Dúnedain riding on had dealt with the Easterlings before the rest of the army came up.
Before many more days had passed, they had left behind the fair woodlands of Ithilien and the desolation of the Dagorlad was ahead. For a day or so, Legolas had reported seeing dark shapes wheeling above them, and as they broke the march for camp, six marches after leaving Minas Tirith, Éomer and Imrahil approached Aragorn looking concerned.
“Some of my men, and some of the men under the command of Dol Amroth, have been complaining that they cannot go further,” Éomer said. “It is strange – almost as if something has taken their will from them.”
Aragorn squinted into the night sky above them, and nodded. “I can well believe it. The Dúnedain who rode to join me are all experienced men, with many years of battle in the North under their belts, yet even they speak of fear they have never known. It is this place, and the watchers we have overhead. Have you spoken to the lord Denethor?”
Imrahil shook his head. “We were about to, my liege.”
Standing, Aragorn fastened his cloak and together the three of them crossed to Denethor’s tent, from which the flickering glow of a candle came. The Steward was writing orders, his quill scratching over parchment, but he laid down the work as they entered.
“My lords. It is late.”
“And we would not bother you, if we did not have important business,” said Éomer, and told Denethor what he had just told Aragorn. Denethor frowned.
“We cannot have men slowing us down.”
“They cannot help their fear,” Aragorn said. “The Nazgûl’s power, even without their lord, is stronger than aught we can imagine.”
The Steward grunted, and sat back in his chair. “So what do you suggest – my lord Aragorn?” he said, adding the title almost as an afterthought. By him, Aragorn felt Éomer bristle, and spoke before the Rohirrim could answer Denethor.
“There is Cair Andros, my lord. These men could ride to her defence. The castle will be held by the Enemy, but not with such force that we could not take it back. In that way, they will yet be useful, and not hinder us.”
“Very well. Speak with them in the morning. Is that all?”
“Yes,” said Aragorn. “Good night, my lord Steward.” He bowed his head, and left the tent with Imrahil and Éomer close behind him.
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.