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Hands of the King: 12. Mortality
Minas Tirith, Late July, 2975 T.A.
‘Don’t watch. Look at me. Here, use this.’
The pale young man opened his mouth and allowed Denethor to place a roll of soft leather between his teeth, then bit down. One of the man’s hands gripped Denethor’s hand. The other was in the firm grasp of the surgeon’s assistant, who had the wounded bowman’s arm pinned against a plank. The surgeon was threading fine silk into his needle. The soldier had taken a gash in his upper arm in that day’s battle with Orc raiders along the north-south road. Both Mordor and Gondor were plundering the corpses of Easterlings left from the battle of early July and engagements were common. This was the last man to be treated from today’s skirmish.
‘You fought well.’ The man, nay boy, he cannot be more than twenty summers, flinched when the surgeon touched him. Denethor touched the boy’s cheek, making him look away from what was being done. ‘I saw you take down a quiver full of Orcs.’ Grey eyes bored into his own, pupils wide. ‘Captain Marlong said you were among his best.’ The boy tried to smile, but grimaced and bit the leather as the needle went in. His eyes did not leave Denethor’s. ‘I am glad to know my captains do not exaggerate.’ Sweat beaded on the other’s face and tears leaked from his eyes, but the soldier did not cry out. Denethor met the other man’s grip and kept his hand flat against the youngster’s face.
The surgeon worked swiftly and soon had the wound sutured, Denethor murmuring words of praise and reassurance the entire time. When it was done, he waited with the soldier a few minutes, then relinquished the spot to one of the young man’s friends. Before leaving, Denethor took a quick look at the wound. It was long, but had missed arteries and tendons. There was no poison on the blade, the wound showed no infection, and the stitches were well placed. They would not lose this bowman permanently.
Denethor walked among the pallets holding other wounded men. There were too many for his liking, but fewer than might be expected, given the frequency of skirmishes with Orcs. As he moved among the men, those who were awake would reach out to him, and he would take their hands, meet their eyes, touch their faces, exchange a few quiet words. The surgeon swore that it made them heal faster, though it seemed nonsense to Denethor. It pleased the men that he do this and gave them heart to heal, just as men fought better when they had faith in their leaders. He had begun this when he became captain of the Rangers here in Henneth Annûn, helping the then-surgeon. Somehow, it had become a practice; after every battle Denethor was in, he laid hands on the wounded. It did no harm and it made him aware of every injured man so he knew where and how badly the defense was depleted.
Tending the wounded today also kept him at the back of the refuge, away from the waterfall as the sun set. Henneth Annûn, you are too much a window for me. He heard the soft speech of the men die down and knew they watched water turned to fire, thinking of all dear to them that lay to the west. When the speech commenced once more, Denethor said a last word of encouragement to the man he attended, then sought out water for washing before supper.
The standing silence was observed, followed by a silent supper. All were weary. The food tasted better than usual, as it always did after a battle. Death makes us mindful. From his place at the table, Denethor could see the wounded. He chewed his bread and meat slowly, his mind going over the spoils of war. This many dead, that many maimed, another measure of men injured but who would sometime be once more whole. The dead animals, the destroyed wagons, the broken weapons. The armor and swords stripped from enemy corpses. The supply wains pillaged for meat, meal, and boots. Tack and shoes stripped from dead horses, the huge leather harnesses of the mûmakil, all of it making its way to warehouses and storerooms. I set it all down, or receive the reports of others who have done so, and then it is tallied and presented to the Steward, and then it is given to Aiavalë to be properly forgotten in our past. All the blood of all the tales waits to be read once more and bleed anew, as Alquallë saw…
Denethor made himself attend to his food and drink and not let his thoughts wander to fancies. Facts, not visions, were what he needed to mind. Things that could be dealt with through coin and command. The warning he had received that night more than two months past, as he and Thorongil met with Ecthelion to hear reports on Anórien, that was worth every coin he had ever provided to Morwen’s brothers and then some. One of the Faithful had intercepted a message from Harad to Umbar and had passed the information on to Marach’s spy, who had somehow smuggled it out to the north. Denethor suspected a carrier pigeon, though such birds were death to possess in Umbar.
Ecthelion had not believed the intelligence. “Wait until we have reports of crossings at Harnen,” the Steward had said, “that will give us enough time to prepare a Poros force from Pelargir.” He and Thorongil had counseled that it was worth investigating more closely, to which Ecthelion acceded. The captain left for the party at Vinyamar while Denethor secured the Steward’s permission to pick whom he wished to see what they could spy out. You thought I would send Thorongil south, did you not? And, so I did. Eventually. It had not taken much to convince Adrahil that night to commit the falas to a preemptive attack.
When Thorongil delivered the Rohirrim to Baragund, he also brought news that the Easterlings were moving towards Ithilien. For one of very few times, Denethor found himself glad that he had been wrong and Ecthelion right. Thorongil was probably the only person who could have talked more horsemen out of Thengel so quickly, and he had the battle experience to handle whatever might happen in Ithilien while Denethor and Baragund engaged the Haradrim. Most important, Thorongil could ensure Brandir’s silence with regard to Maiaberiel.
Not that Brandir could prevent the woman from meddling. Maiaberiel had spent a good deal of time closeted with the Steward, trying to convince him to use Thorongil and recall Denethor from South Gondor. Orders had been issued, and ignored. Reports back to Minas Tirith were delayed. At some point, there would be a reckoning with Ecthelion, probably upon Denethor’s next return to the City, when the Steward would have had time to consider the duplicity.
The meal did not last long. Denethor conferred briefly with Marlong over the journey tomorrow to take the wounded to the river for transport to Cair Andros, then retired to the curtained alcove in the back of the cavern. He shed his boots and heavier outer clothes, laying them out carefully in case there was need to dress swiftly in darkness. That had been the case twice on this stay in Henneth Annûn.
The curtains blocked all but a few slivers of light cast by the torches in the cavern. Before he lay on the pallet, Denethor pulled the travel-worn book from the inner pocket of his tunic. There was no lamp or candle burning in the alcove. There was no need. He knew every line of the poem. Can she see me here, in the darkness? I think not. Only in the setting sun or the gleam of moon and stars through the waterfall. Why? Why does she see me then? And never as I am. Blood, pearls, fish scales, it made no sense. His hands cradled the book on his chest while he stared up towards the ceiling.
During the day he could forget. Years of practice at staying alive in hostile lands made it simple to refuse to think of anything except the danger in that copse, the threats over the next hill, the warning when the birds fell silent. Here, in the safety of the redoubt, he could not elude his thoughts.
The punishment for his cruel words to Aiavalë could not be more exquisite. I mocked her for her futile love of a Swan, and am now consigned to the same fate. There was no use in pretending.
He loved. How it had happened, he was not sure, but Alquallë had taken his heart.
and chanted some wild magic thing
that stirred him, till it sudden broke
the bonds that held him, and he woke
to madness sweet and brave despair.
Denethor mouthed the words to himself, finally understanding. I have been in a dream. My pride betrayed me, for I thought that I had no heart to capture, and I ventured into an enchanted land heedless. Then she snared me with herself…
He loved. It had crept silently into his very marrow. Finduilas had teased him about his grimness, and grimness came crashing down, as cold and powerful as the waterfall in which she could see him.
Denethor thought longingly of their dance, when he had been the victor in great battles and small deceptions and she was the most beautiful woman, Lúthien-fair, and had laughed with him and had been glad at his deeds and sorrowful for his wounds and called him friend. And will call you naught else, for you must always return what you have borrowed.
He loved. What he had sworn he would not do was done, and there was no surgeon to sew up this wound.
Denethor wished that he had been a better judge of the Prince. He would wed his daughter off to a brigand, or to a brigand he can see becoming a king. Adrahil played a careful game. The Steward was of no concern to the Prince, and both he and Luinil were staunchly against Maiaberiel and her upstart faction. You would take her place, though, would you not, Prince? You would attach your ambitions, and bind your child, to Thorongil. You seek to become his patron. It was his own fault for allowing Adrahil to become too close to the captain.
But he loved, and it was a chain upon him. “Would not a king bring hope?” Alquallë herself asked why there should not be a new lord, as any thoughtful prince must ask when presented with a man such as Thorongil. Is this what her dreams portend? The old line of kings is finally at an end, and the past shall be swept away in blood? Any fool could see her heart was becoming less hard towards the captain. Her glares and coolness were replaced by a pleasant demeanor and gay chatter. Soon, particularly if she saw that it pleased her father, more tender emotions could take hold of her heart.
Denethor’s fingers ran over the cover of the book, finding the sunken places where designs had been stamped into the leather, perhaps with gilding laid in them. Patterns the eye could not see but were there, nevertheless. What patterns is she glimpsing? What does she grasp, even imperfectly, that is obscured to all other eyes? What import that she dreams of an eagle on high? That I always disappear into darkness? Denethor sat up, fumbling for his tunic. He slipped the book back into its place.
Aiavalë would be very sensible, of course. If he was in love, and if losing Finduilas to Thorongil would bring an end to the Stewards’ rule, then claim her at once. The Prince would not reject his suit. But she does not love me. A sister’s love, at best. Their converse was that of princes, not lovers, and he did not know how to speak otherwise. I would be as tongue-tied as Thorongil. And it would not do to underestimate what calculations the Prince will be now making as concerns the captain, now that the two have spent much time taking counsel of each other. Perhaps he might spurn the suit of a steward’s heir in preference for that of a king…
His thoughts chased themselves around in circles, holding off sleep. His thoughts moved from City intrigue to the legitimacy of a usurper to the practical need of the realm for stability. Finally, Denethor dragged himself from his pallet, tossed on enough clothes for decency, and went to Henneth Annûn.
The moon was to the west, turning the water white. It was cold on his fingers when he touched it and the force of the water bent them down. Do you see me now, Alquallë? What will be upon my hands in this vision? More blood? Some fish? Hope? No, not the last. That was his answer, of course. She sought hope and would dare much to grasp it. He had none to offer. The book rested against his chest, snug in the inner pocket.
Not for us Emeldir’s fate. He would not wed for reasons of state and he would not demean her by asking such a thing. Even if he loved, it was but a chain upon him, and showed where sacrifice must needs be made. I am for the end. Hope is not my part to play – that is for others to do.
Denethor managed to take a few hours of fitful sleep ere Marlong woke him at dawn the next morning. Those of the wounded who could travel were being prepared for the trip back across the river. It would be a slow, careful day’s march through the hills down to Anduin, and then small boats at night to Cair Andros. The night’s patrol came back in shortly after the others woke, and reported that the slopes down to the crossing appeared free of Orcs. Another patrol departed to sweep the hills again and make sure none spied the injured travelers.
The young man with the stitched arm was one of those who would be going. He looked less pale than the evening before, though the arm clearly pained him. Some friends gathered near him and gave him letters to deliver, offered him outrageous advice that would get him killed if he listened, and wished him swift healing.
Most of the injured men could walk or limp, but a few were in stretchers. It took almost an hour to move all of the men out of the cave and into a protected glade north of the stream. Denethor ordered Rangers into positions east and north of the troop to watch for enemies. When whistles indicated that they were in place, Denethor signaled to start. He did not know how many times he had led an injured patrol from the hideout to the river – since he was a ranger himself and first commanded Henneth Annûn twenty years past.
While they walked, Denethor carefully examined the land, looking for signs of over-used pathways or of damage to trees and bushes that might give away the redoubt. There was little to be seen. The old farmsteads in the area had been dismantled and burned to discourage any pillaging. The old orchards grew wild, thickets encroached upon what had been cleared fields, and the woods were dark and peaceful. The lands along the stream and down to Anduin were a living jewel, unmarked by man or demon. The birds seemed not much dismayed by the silent, slow-moving line of green-clad men, and small animals went about their business after only a short glance. There was no sign of deer, but every so often the leavings of feral pigs could be found, all that remained of the farms that once flourished in the Enemy’s shadow.
They paused every hour, and rested for two hours when the heat of the July day was at its worst. The scouts reported naught amiss. The afternoon march was as the morning’s, save stickier and with more flies. They reached the banks of the river across from Cair Andros just before sunset. A discreet flash of a mirror warned the island garrison that there were soldiers to be rowed across. The Rangers settled in for cold supper and waited until dusk for the boats. The moon was out which made it easier to see the boats, but also made it easier for spies to see them, too. The scouts were sent on patrol.
Denethor nodded approval at the efficiency with which the injured were transported across and fresh Rangers were left in their stead. The lieutenant now in charge of Cair Andros, Anbar, had been recommended by Baragund and strongly seconded by Marlong. Cair Andros had been in his care for over two years. He was of a distinguished Ithilien family, though a reasonably indifferent fighter. Anbar’s talent was in keeping things running smoothly, and his love for his family’s lost homeland was second to none. He thoroughly detested Brandir as a fool, which made him unlikely to become part of the King’s Men, and like most Ithilieners did not much care for anyone not originally of Ithilien stock, particularly the Lost, which meant he stood somewhat aloof of Thorongil. Denethor thought this a good arrangement on all counts.
Anbar took him on an inspection of the fortifications the next morning. Stone-work replaced old wooden walls in key locations. The barracks had been expanded, the docks along the swift-running west-channel were in excellent repair despite the floods of the spring, and all provisions were accounted for. Anbar shared Marlong’s obsession with archery, and all in the garrison were drilled in use of several kinds of bows. The only thing Denethor did not like was that Anbar was not training up a good second for himself. As soon as one was prepared, the man was sent to Marlong or down to Osgiliath. Denethor told Anbar that there would be no more transfers of officers out of Cair Andros without his own approval.
The ferry ride across the west-channel afforded the opportunity to inspect its maintenance. All was well. Along the west bank, for several miles north and south of the landing, poplars and willows huddled along the shore. They were almost mature enough now to provide a good screen of their own activities from prying eyes. Planting the trees, as well as some bushes and tall grasses, to make a living wall had been his uncle Belemir’s idea as part of the river defense.
Gaerhûl was waiting for him in the stables on the far bank where he had left the horse two weeks before. The Gondorian stablehands gladly gave care of the brute over to the Rohirrim who were stationed there. The company of Eorlingas rode the lands north of the road in swift patrols, looking for Orc bands who tried to cross Anduin in the meandering stretch where the Entwash turned itself and Anduin into more swamp than river.
After all the stealthy patrols in Ithilien, Denethor enjoyed riding openly and swiftly along the tracks of Anórien. As he rode, he watched the bulk of Ered Nimrais grow larger, sharp and beautiful against the sky. Five days in Anórien to take a look at what needed little attention, and then he was free to attend to a small matter along the Anórien road. The trip to Anórien, if truth be told, was to provide a suitable excuse for that stop.
In the weeks after his return from the southern council and before the invasion by Harad in May, Denethor had spent his time tracking down obscure references in ancient texts, older than Gondor herself, and had come across something both intriguing and unsettling. An account of a weapon that had not been used since the time of Númenor.
In Pelargir, before marching out to meet the Haradrim, he had met with Ragnor and asked when Marach was due to return from Harad with the rock oil. Ragnor thought late summer or early autumn. All that remained was for Denethor to come up with the other parts, and figure out how they should fit together. Alquallë’s book was in his breast pocket, but several other volumes were in his saddlebags. Each night in Henneth Annûn that he was not too tired, he had read over certain passages, trying to puzzle out lost secrets of the Númenóreans.
The ride to Anórien allowed him time to reflect and organize his thoughts on these matters. By evening, he was at the garrison at the western edge of the Druadan Forest. Thorongil and Brandir walked out to greet him.
‘What news?’ Denethor said as he swung off Gaerhûl, not bothering to acknowledge their greetings. He pulled his packs from behind the saddle and strode towards the barracks, making the other two trot to catch up.
‘There is little news, my lord, which is perhaps the best news.’ Thorongil fell into stride beside him. Brandir could not quite match their steps and kept trotting.
‘And that little news is…?’
‘The men are weary from fighting, and there are no replacements. There have been no incursions…’
‘Marlong holds the river crossings well…’
‘Yes, and his losses are worse…’
‘…and replacements even more difficult to come by…’
‘Does he need more? There are some archers here…’
‘No, Anbar supplies those…’
‘Of course. Rohan reports nothing since the attack in late June over the Undeeps. Even the Dunlendings are quiet.’
‘Floods in some areas kept planting late, but…’
‘…I know that. What now?’
‘There will some trouble getting grain in, even if it is late.’
‘What is needed?’
‘Harvesters and threshers.’
‘Wheels. Axles. If it is…’
‘…easier to deliver the entire wagon, yes. If they have not enough hands to repair, they lack the hands to replace. I think…’
‘…Lossarnach? Forlong did not send any great numbers beyond Pelargir,…’
‘…and has whole enough men to spare. And once here…’
‘…perhaps some could stay?’ The two men exchanged a conspiratorial look, and Thorongil flashed a quick grin. Denethor nodded.
‘I think some may be persuaded to stay. But Forlong will want something in return.’
They reached the door of the garrison, heavy, polished, carved from a single plank of wood. Brandir grabbed the handle but did not open it at once, not wishing to lose his audience.
‘Forlong can use cloth,’ he informed them, ‘and Thengel has much wool. Weavers here are mostly women, unlike the City, so they have kept up their work.’
‘See you work something out, then, Brandir.’ Denethor reached over his brother-in-law’s shoulder and opened the door, making Brandir jump out of the way lest he be hit. Denethor walked into the building and made his way upstairs to the officers’ quarters.
Unlike Osgiliath or Pelargir, this garrison was relatively new, less than five-hundred years old, built shortly after the Rohirrim settled in Calenardhon, and had been well-maintained. The stairs were wooden and the treads recently replaced. The officers’ quarters were comfortable, the furniture in good condition, and the windows looked out on field and forest, not ruin. It was the one command Denethor had never spent much time at and he did not care for it. It reminded him of Brandir – simple, honest, pleasant to look upon, and not of much use.
After dropping his packs onto the bed in his room, Denethor paused only long enough to wash his hands and face before attending supper. The meal provided varied and plentiful dishes, quite different than the cold fare of Henneth Annûn or the warm but dull offerings at Cair Andros. Even Osgiliath, sitting at the edge of the Pelennor and the richest farms of the realm, could not present as good. He was seated next to Brandir and across the table from Thorongil in the center table of the mess hall. The other officers were sitting in similar positions at the other tables. The officers’ table at the front of the room was empty. Denethor caught Thorongil’s eye and motioned with his head towards the empty table.
Thorongil glanced, then shrugged. ‘On Highday only. When there were more, yes, for then we needed seats. Now, this is more reasonable.’
Brandir nudged Denethor’s arm to get his attention. ‘I have been thinking about the cloth for Forlong. I think we should go the weaving hall at the village a league north and see what they have. You know better than I what kinds of cloth would be desired in Lebennin. You know everything.’
‘Hardly.’ Even so, Denethor was flattered by Brandir’s praise. His brother-in-law might be a fool, but Brandir’s heart was generous, his words what he really thought. And he is proving more useful than you had believed. The letter from Thengel was exactly what Denethor had been hoping to collect; it sat safely in the archive’s Dwarf-hold with other priceless treasures. Perhaps more attention would bring forth more information. ‘When should we go?’
‘Tomorrow? After breakfast?’
‘Yes. Captain, we will do the review of garrison records day after tomorrow.’
‘As you wish, sir.’
‘Denethor, though it is true the grain harvest will have difficulties, as Thorongil said, there are many other crops that are faring well, not to mention the good condition of livestock…’ Denethor made himself pay attention to Brandir’s nattering. Though all could have been said in half the words, the information itself was sound. Most interesting was to observe how Thorongil artfully brought Brandir back to the point whenever the talk strayed too far.
As soon as the meal ended, Denethor excused himself to rest. The rigors of the last few days, and the lack of sleep in the nights, were catching up with him. Sleep eluded him again for most of the night as he pondered what to do about the captain. There was, at times, an ease and accord between them, and he could not think of much, besides Mithrandir and whorehouses, on which they were in opposition. How much of your ambition comes from your own heart, captain, and how much from the encouragement of the Steward and Beruthiel? When he finally dozed off, Denethor dreamed of the sound of swan wings rushing past.
Brandir was much too cheerful the next morning, making Denethor rue his promise to travel to the weaving hall. The day was already muggy, with no cool breezes from the mountains. They set off north with two attendants at an amble to avoid overtaxing the horses in this weather. Brandir pointed out landmarks, recounted local gossip, and chattered on about small facts he was reminded of by this or that they came upon. Denethor tried a few of the verbal prompts Thorongil had used on Brandir the previous evening, but soon tired of having to pay close attention.
The weaving hall was worth the visit, however. The foreman, an older, heavy-set woman with hard eyes and grey hair, showed off wares, work and accounts with calm efficiency. It did not take long to explain what was desired. She called for the hall master and the groundwork for several trades was laid. They ate a simple dinner under a spreading oak tree outside the hall, then the village mayor escorted Denethor about. The village was nearly a town in size. Many men bore scars from Gondor’s wars, and there was both prosperity and sobriety all around.
Denethor ignored Brandir on the ride back to the garrison. He was caught up in thoughts of wool trade, troops and harvest, fighting off sleepiness, which is why he did not notice the snake sunning itself on a rock as they rode down a steep slope. None of them did. The horse to the side of and slightly behind Gaerhûl let out a squeal of terror and careened forward, crashing into the other and making Gaerhûl stumble. Denethor struggled to keep his seat, but the bitten steed was frantic to escape the serpent, trying to leap over Gaerhûl’s back. The other horses were neighing and fighting to get away, adding to the confusion. Gaerhûl belled and tried to turn to fight the other horse just as the snake-bitten animal lunged up and threw Denethor off, giving his ribs a painful blow and knocking the wind out of him in the process. He tried to roll away, but something hit his head.
His grandfather was smoothing a cool hand over his brow, calling his name. It was their treat in the mornings to wake up near sunrise and walk along the wall to see the sun break the horizon, then share a slice of bread and mug of tea before Turgon would go to the Tower to begin his duties. Grandfather would wake him and tease him about being lazy, then they would walk, always first to the north, then back to the south, before returning to the house for their breakfast. As they walked, the old man would tell him stories of the City and of Gondor, or would ask to know what Denethor had learned from his tutors.
‘I’m awake, Da,’ Denethor sleepily replied, trying to force his recalcitrant eyelids to open. It was dim in the edges of his dreams. Shapes moved in damp, clinging fog.
‘Denethor, you must wake now.’
‘I am,’ he stubbornly replied. He moved towards the lantern Turgon was holding, trying to see through the mist.
‘Say something. Denethor, answer me.’ His grandfather’s voice become more insistent, while tendrils of fog tugged on him, pulling him back towards indistinct creatures in the gloom.
‘I am! Aren’t you listening?’ Finally, he could open one eye. And quickly shut it again when the bright light made his skull protest in pain.
It was not dawn. It was full day. This was not home, he was not in his bed, and this was not Turgon talking to him. Denethor did not try to sort things out. A cloth mopped his brow. It smelled of something wonderful. The dream mists recoiled at the scent.
‘Denethor.’ That insistent voice again. It made him listen, just as Grandfather’s voice had done. ‘Can you hear me?’
‘Talk.’ That was all he could manage as a reply.
‘You were kicked by your horse. In the head. Please, stay awake.’
My horse… Some scattered thoughts began to cohere. Hot. A snake. Thrown. ‘Too bright.’
‘Pull the curtain!’ Sounds of feet, the light beyond his eyelids dimmed. ‘The room is dimmer, Denethor. Can you open your eyes now?’
Denethor tried and found he could squint. Soon, his vision returned and the light and shadows resolved into Thorongil and the garrison healer. He could hear another set of feet elsewhere in the room, but knew moving would probably hurt. His ribs were making themselves known. Thorongil put down a damp cloth he was holding and took one of Denethor’s hands into his own.
‘Can you see?’
‘Yes.’ His tongue was thick, throat parched, making his voice a croak. Thorongil motioned to the unseen person. In a moment, Brandir came around the bed, holding a wooden cup. Denethor closed his eyes again and let his brother-in-law help him sip. The water was infused with some herbs that tasted as the cloth had smelled. At once, he felt in less pain. When he dared to open his eyes again, it was much easier to see.
‘Denethor?’ Thorongil’s eyes searched his face anxiously.
‘I can see. More water.’ Another cup appeared and he drank greedily. The herbs cleared his mind of the last confusion as well as slaking his thirst. Even so, his head and ribs ached. When Brandir brought a third cup, Denethor waved him back and tried to sit up. Thorongil and the healer helped him upright. The effort sent sharp pains through him, and he thought he might faint or vomit, his head swam so much. The sensation passed quickly, so he held out his hand for water.
‘Do you see equally well with each eye?’ the healer asked. Denethor shut one eye, then the other.
‘How do you feel, my lord?’ the man persisted.
‘Rather like I have been kicked by a horse.’ At that, Thorongil burst out laughing. The cheerful peal sounded much as the herbed-water tasted, soothing and heartening at the same moment.
‘I believe you are near recovered,’ the captain teased, stooping to retrieve items from the floor. Thorongil handed a basin of water to the healer. ‘Steep more herbs every hour. They are good to breathe when one’s head hurts. Plain water to drink from now on, though, and much of it.’ Turning back to Denethor, he said, ‘You know well…’
‘…I should not sleep again so soon after waking. Brandir can talk to me for a while.’
‘Of course I will! You may go, Thorongil. I will tend Denethor.’ The room was soon sorted out. Brandir brought a pitcher of water to the bedside and drew up a chair. Denethor sat and thought, sipping from his cup. As he emptied it, Brandir would refill it.
The light was red-gold and dimming, so it must be near sunset. They had been on the way back in mid-afternoon, so he had to have been unconscious for a few hours. Then Turgon called him back. No, not Grandfather. Thorongil. He was speaking to me. I would have ignored Brandir’s voice. But it was so like Grandfather… It was difficult to shake the sense that Turgon had spoken to him. It was the voice of the Steward. Denethor could never really think of Ecthelion as the Steward, not compared to the tall, spare man who carried himself with such nobility and had taught him to love the City. The thinking made his mind reel. Enough memories.
‘Talk to me, Brandir. Tell me what happened.’
‘We were going down the slope, don’t you remember?’
‘If I did, would I be asking?’ Brandir’s obtuseness irritated him.
‘No, of course not, my apologies. We were part way down the hill when Gundor’s horse was bitten by a snake. The poor beast lunged into Gaerhûl, and all of you went down in a heap. You rolled almost to the foot before you stopped. By the time Haldar and I got our horses under control, Gundor had killed the serpent, his horse was dying of its bite, and Gaerhûl was standing guard over you.’
‘Rohirric horses are taught to do that.’
‘Well, it was nearly your death! The brute would not allow us to approach! The way he was standing over you, we could not kill him, either, because he would fall right on you. I sent Haldar running back to the garrison for Thorongil. He talked to Gaerhûl and calmed him and convinced the horse to let him take a look at you. He kept talking to it until the beast did his bidding. Gaerhûl would not let anyone else approach, so Thorongil had to bring you back by riding him and holding you.’
‘Hmm.’ Even my horse takes orders from the captain, it would appear. ‘So I have been senseless for how many hours today?’ Brandir stared back for a moment before answering.
‘Denethor, you have been near death for a full day. We brought you back near sundown yesterday. The healer tried without success all through the night to wake you. Thorongil left this afternoon and brought back athelas from near Nardol. He insisted that it would help, and it did.’
That was it. Turgon often drank tea made from athelas and other herbs “To clear my mind of fogs and fears, grandson,” was the answer when Denethor asked why he drank it.
‘Well, of course it does. Do you not know this? More importantly, does not the healer?’
‘Evidently not, though I dare say he does now.’
Another thought came to mind. ‘Has any word of this been sent to Ecthelion?’
‘No. Thorongil forbade it. He said it would not do to worry the Steward until we knew…’ Brandir broke off and dropped his eyes.
‘Whether I lived or died?’ Brandir shrugged, then nodded. ‘Well, I have lived, so there is nothing to tell.’
Brandir stared at the floor and shrugged again. ‘The Steward should know. Someone should know.’
‘You and the captain and the entire garrison knows,’ Denethor replied calmly. ‘All of you know that I am well. Thorongil is right – there is no need to worry Ecthelion.’ To his surprise, Brandir glared at him, obviously angry. ‘What is the matter?’
‘I beg pardon beforehand for speaking so to my lord, but when will you stop being such a fool, Denethor?’
Denethor could do nothing but stare. In the near twenty-five years he had known Brandir, never before had the man spoken to him sharply. He was not sure he had ever heard Brandir speak sharply to anyone. Denethor motioned the other to continue, more amazed than insulted. Brandir rose and began pacing.
‘Denethor, you are the High Warden! You are the Steward’s heir! Why must you place yourself in such danger?’
‘I got knocked down by a horse and kicked. It was an accident.’ His head began to pound.
Brandir waved his arms about. ‘That is not what I mean! You are off leading armies. You are tramping about the lands unattended. You are…’
‘…the Captain-General of Gondor. That is my duty.’
‘No! That is not your duty. That is what some soldier does. You, brother, you should be preparing.’
‘And how am I not preparing?’ Denethor had to close his eyes and concentrate on breathing. The pain moved from his skull down his spine and across his back.
‘Where is your heir?’ Brandir’s footsteps crossed and recrossed the floor. ‘You are all that is left. Maiaberiel and I are barren. The Archivist, we will never know and with her form it cannot be risked. Borondir is maimed and will never wed now. And if that is not dangerous enough, to be at your age with no wife and no son, then you go about and put yourself where you are most in harm’s way. And you set yourself at odds with the Steward. He is old. He has not much life left. Can you not make peace with him?’
The footsteps came to a halt at the side of the bed. Denethor opened his eyes. The room was now dim, for the sun was nearly set. Brandir glared down at him, arms crossed over his chest, looking for all the world like an indignant hen.
‘You do not understand.’
All the anger drained out of his brother-in-law and Brandir sat heavily in the chair.
‘No, I probably do not, Denethor. I am not wise, like you. You are like a wizard, and I have never known you to be wrong in great matters. But this is wrong! There would be chaos were you to die in this state. You are rightly concerned with grand things, but you cannot always have your own way. In some things, you need to bend. What good that you make Gondor great again if she dies with you?’
You do not understand. I am not certain I understand. Brandir’s words made such sense until one began to consider why this state of affairs existed, and just what would need to change for it not to be so. I cannot give you answers, Brandir. Gloom began to descend upon his mind once more, making his vision blur.
‘More herbs, athelas, Brandir. And no more arguments. I cannot think.’
‘Forgive me, Denethor! Oh, I am the fool and worse than a fool, to scold you so when you are injured!’ Brandir hurried to the door and called for a kettle of hot water. Soon, the herbs were steeping in the basin. A soldier brought up a pot of broth and some bread. Denethor’s vision cleared once more, but the gloom retreated only so far. Brandir hovered and worried. Denethor waved him back to his chair.
‘Do as the captain bid you. Talk to me about unserious things. Tell me more about the villages around here.’
Brandir happily complied. He chattered almost non-stop for more than an hour, until Thorongil and the healer came in to check. Both were satisfied that it was now safe for Denethor to sleep again. Another infusion of athelas was set in the basin, they helped him lie down, and the three bid him good-night. Between his pain and his thoughts, sleep eluded Denethor until early morning.
Mortal. The Stewards are mortal. He remembered the last walk he had taken with Turgon ere his grandfather’s death. They walked the wall and looked across the plain towards Mordor. Turgon was as stern and upright as he had been when Denethor was a child, but his eyes were filmed and his skin slack and mottled. I am mortal, but bound by blood and oath to the only thing that is unceasing, undying, in the lives of men – the battle with Sauron. We are abandoned to our fate, without hope of salvation. The greatest of our kings struck the Enemy down, and Sauron has returned.
Brandir’s words were but common sense save for this fate. Light would be, then Darkness would despoil it, and struggle followed. Never had the Enemy been brought low, save by the hand of the Powers, and always was the destruction horrific in the doing of that deed. There had always been the hope and the pride, no matter how dark the days of Kin-strife and war, that Elendil had done what no other Child of Eru could do – banish the Enemy from the world. A life forfeit was worth that boon. Now, the Shadow returns, and the sacrifice made hollow. Our darkest times lie before us.
Yet, he was bound to continue, no matter the futility. There was, sometimes, in his heart, a sudden urge, as he had felt on Seabird, as had claimed him on the long-ago journey to Umbar, to continue and not return.
A why then go?
Why turn we not from fear and woe
beneath the trees to walk and roam
roofless, with all the world as home
The argument of the ancient lovers wove in and out of his own arguments. Is that what I truly envy of you, Thorongil, mercenary, wanderer, who are not bound to this fate? That you may dare as far as you will, and then may go as it please you? The Steward’s bond could not be laid down. It was as he had argued to Alquallë, and she had confirmed, that he could not relinquish his oath to Gondor simply because some were enamored of a successful captain, any more than he could surrender it in despair.
Of one fair gem thou must be thief,
Morgoth’s or Thingol’s, loath or lief;
Thou must here choose twixt love and oath!
So many loves. So many oaths. I have sworn that I shall not bind futurity to this doom, yet I love Gondor and would not leave her to an end. I have sworn I shall give Gondor over to another only in death or the return of Lúthien’s line, but would I deny her a king and bridegroom if one should claim her before times? Finduilas, how I love thee! But you love not, and I shall not use an oath to bind you to me. Twixt those two claims, how should he choose? Even those lovers chose their oath. To his oaths he must hold.
Denethor fumbled with the pitcher of water and the cup in the dark, not trusting his own feet to hold him upright to light the candle on the table near the door nor wishing to call for someone to pour him a drink. A good deal ended up on the floor on the first try, but he soon found the right motions. He tried to push himself upright until his ribs made him think better of it, and drank hanging over the side of the bed.
To his chagrin, Denethor had to admit that Brandir was right. He needed a second, an heir. Did I not chastise Anbar for just this failure but a few days past? He had been leaving too much to chance. Always, his thoughts had been on the struggle between himself and Maiaberiel, between himself and Ecthelion, how he would win those struggles. He had not considered what his own death would bring.
That is twice in a very short span, he wryly thought as he poured more water, that I have failed to think of the obvious. Alquallë would be laughing at me if she knew. He wondered if she would know of his being kicked. Could she see something that did not happen in Henneth Annûn? If I will not beget a child for doom, still I hold this rule in trust for what will come after me. In that, I may not argue with Brandir. The question was who that heir should be.
Adrahil was the obvious choice, except that the Prince was even older than himself. Imrahil was too young. Forlong was the most capable of the southern lords, after Adrahil, but he was as yet but the heir of his own lands and the rivalry such a designation would create would destroy the realm. There cannot be strife over this. Sauron would let Gondor exhaust herself in petty wars, then gobble up the remains, as happened to Arnor. With a sigh, he set down the cup on the floor and rolled back into bed.
“Perhaps that is what my dreams mean, that it is time for a new line of kings. Would not a king bring hope?” That was the question Finduilas had asked, not to displace him, but to wake him. As you have woken in me so much else… He looked around the room, trying to make out where his clothes had been laid. A little moonlight came through the window. On a peg near the wall he could make out the shadow of his tunic.
Denethor gritted his teeth and levered himself upright, ignoring the protests of his head and side. After he swung his feet over the edge of the bed, he sat and thought carefully how he was going to stand and not fall down. He gripped the top of the bed’s headboard and used it to steady himself as he stood. One careful step at a time, he walked the few feet to the tunic and retrieved the book from its pocket. Denethor turned too fast to return to bed and had to catch himself against the wall. After his head stopped swimming, he made it back and lay flat, holding the book on his chest.
Perhaps this, then, is my part of the tale. To prepare an heir.
He lay and gave some thought to this task until sleep finally came. In his dreams, he walked hand in hand with his grandfather, save that his grandfather was a child and he a man grown, and he spoke to Turgon about secret stairs and the building of bridges.
When Brandir came in with hot water for the herbs and for washing, Denethor was already dressed and sitting at the desk near the window, working.
‘But, but… Should you be doing this so soon?’
‘It is good after receiving a knock on the head to stay upright,’ Denethor crisply informed the other, then lied, ‘and I have no great ache or pain any longer. The captain should consider becoming a healer.’
‘Oh, well, if you say so.’ Brandir sounded confused but disinclined to argue. ‘Do you wish something to eat?’
‘Yes. And send up Thorongil afterwards if he is about. And parchments. And as many differently colored inks as can easily be found in this uncouth place.’ Denethor nodded a dismissal and went back to his letter to Ecthelion outlining the plan to exchange cloth for harvesters from Lebennin. In minutes a tray with breakfast arrived. He managed just a single piece of bread with some cheese and butter spread on it. A knock on the door a half-hour later announced Thorongil.
‘You wished to see me, sir?’
‘Yes.’ Denethor continued writing a letter to Adrahil, saying he would be delayed a few days on his return and they should meet at the Prince’s soonest convenience afterwards. While he wrote, he heard Thorongil pull up a chair opposite him across the desk. He considered writing a note to Aiavalë saying he would be delayed, but decided she could hear it from Alquallë if Adrahil informed Finduilas. He sealed the letter, poured himself some water, and took stock of the captain. The man returned his gaze and did not look away or otherwise indicate that he was unsettled by the examination.
‘I do not think I need to see the accounts. Have them copied and sent to the Steward.’
‘What do you wish to know, then?’ There was a quiet challenge in Thorongil’s words, though his tone was even and courteous.
‘I asked you once whom you served, Thorongil.’
A light tap on the door interrupted. Thorongil answered it and brought in a tray of ink pots, setting them on the desk. A pile of quills accompanied them. Denethor tested the different pots, seeing what colors he would have. It was a pitiful selection, but enough to serve.
‘And have you come up with another answer, captain?’
‘No. I serve Gondor.’
‘But whom do you call master?’
‘Not gold.’ That was said with a bite. Denethor smiled thinly.
‘Very well, then, you will not need to be paid?’
‘If it pleases you.’
‘It does not, any more than I am pleased by your unwillingness to declare simple loyalty.’
‘I am loyal…’
‘…to Gondor, to the Steward, to your oath. Spare me the litany, Thorongil. You are loyal to yourself, and your desire is to serve Gondor. As you have done well for some years.’
‘I am loyal to you.’
Grey eyes met. ‘To me? How so?’
‘I would think the entire campaign of this summer would be sufficient proof.’
‘Loyalty is in the doing, not in what is done and over.’ Denethor set out a piece of parchment and began writing on it. He changed inks a few times and had to stop and consider some of the marks. Thorongil sat and watched.
‘I am surprised, Thorongil, that you did not mention the obvious act.’
‘And what is that?’
‘I am alive. And you are to thank. Or blame. Not all would be pleased with the news.’
‘That was not loyalty. I help any injured man if it be in my powers to do so.’
‘Ah, so I shall not feel myself flattered. Where did you learn such talents?’
‘Here and there. Wherever there is a healer or midwife who will share some wisdom.’
‘Do you ever give a straight answer?’
‘As often as yourself.’
‘Hmm.’ With the addition of a few purple dots, the message was done. Denethor fanned the page to dry the ink, then handed it to Thorongil. The other studied it a moment, then looked quizzically at Denethor.
‘It appears to be the cipher of the Faithful.’
‘As cautious as always. Yes, it is that cipher.’
‘Do you wish this sent?’
Thorongil waited a long minute. ‘Then…?’
‘It is a lesson in loyalty.’
The captain’s eyes narrowed. ‘I cannot say I wish for more lessons.’
‘You will this one. I am going to teach the cipher to you.’
The look of astonishment on Thorongil’s face made Denethor want to laugh. ‘Why?’
‘Very simple. I could have died yesterday. Who else is there to read these messages? Few know to take them to the Master Archivist. Someone must be able to read them.’ Denethor paused, weighing what to say next. ‘I know you will make proper use of this knowledge. You will use it for the good of Gondor.’
Thorongil glanced back at the cipher, then met his eyes once more. It was the same look he gave to Finduilas or to Umbar. ‘Yes, Denethor, I will.’
And so the heir is chosen. ‘It remains to be seen whether you can learn it, of course.’
‘Do know I will not teach you the entire cipher. Only as much as you need to understand the basic message. As I feel the need to expand your knowledge, I will teach you more.’
‘And if you die before you have taught it all?’
‘Then you will need to gain the Archivist’s trust and have her teach you the remainder.’
‘May you live a long life.’ Denethor stared at him coldly. The captain’s smile disappeared at once.
‘What is the first thing to be done when receiving a cipher, captain?’
‘Determine if it is authentic.’
‘Correct. There are several markers for this. If any are missing, the message is suspect. The first thing to look for are certain words in a particular order…’
The rest of the morning was spent showing Thorongil how to recognize an authentic message. When dinner time came, Denethor was very hungry and thoroughly exhausted. He ate with Brandir, then napped, soothed by vapors from the basin of herbs. He woke shortly before supper, feeling rested, and ate downstairs in the mess. The men all watched him carefully, looking for signs of illness. When they could see nothing amiss, they soon went back to their own business.
The stay at Anórien was only to have lasted five days. It stretched to twice that. Denethor did not allow himself to sleep in the afternoons after the first day to quell any rumors that his injuries were serious. The mornings were ciphering lessons, the afternoons reviews of the garrison and receiving local lords and notables who heard the High Warden was present and had matters to discuss. In the evenings, if he could stay awake, he studied the books from the archives and wrote careful notes to himself full of formulas and calculations. His ribs continued to hurt terribly, leading Denethor to believe that one or more may have been cracked in the fall. The pain in his head behind his left eye came and went.
On the morning of the tenth day, Denethor said he was to depart on the morrow.
‘Your ribs are sound enough for such a ride?’
‘They are not broken, captain.’ Not completely.
Thorongil shrugged. ‘They should be rested another five days.’
‘I will rest them in Minas Tirith. You are coming along.’
‘I had not thought to go to the City until the week after next.’
‘It does not matter. You are going tomorrow.’
Thorongil nodded and looked over the new lessons. ‘And how shall I learn this in your absence?’
‘I will send you messages to decipher. On each visit to the City, you will present your work and get another lesson.’
‘I do not understand you, Denethor.’
‘Was I not clear?’
‘On the lessons, yes. It is simply you I do not understand.’
‘It is not terribly difficult, captain. Like yourself, I serve Gondor.’
‘And your master?’
‘Doom.’ To his surprise, Thorongil shuddered and grimaced, looking away. ‘What is the matter?’
‘Then why the face?’
‘An echo of ill-omen. That is all. It has passed.’
Denethor folded his arms over his chest, pressing the book against his breast. ‘It is always here, and shall never pass.’
Thorongil did not respond to that. ‘If we are to depart tomorrow, my lord, then I need to see to things today.’
‘Do so.’ The captain bowed himself out.
Characters introduced in this chapter, in order of appearance:
Marlong – OC, Captain of Henneth Annûn , 37 years old.
Anbar – OC, Captain of Cair Andros, 36 years old.
Gundor – OC. Soldier from Anórien garrison.
Haldar – OC. Soldier from Anórien garrison.
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