Fairer Than Ivory, Silver, or Pearls
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Courting the Lady: 14. Confrontation
Pacing, he weighed what he had heard. It seemed indisputable that Thorongil aspired to an alliance with the House of Dol Amroth. I will not endure it, Denethor thought. Who is he, that he seeks to usurp my place in this as elsewhere? He has neither lineage nor fortune to offer – has he? The rumors of his parentage surely cannot be true, or the Steward would have spoken of it. Despite the favor that my father shows to Thorongil, he has never intimated close kinship. At least it would appear that the captain had not before spoken openly to Finduilas. He frowned. She has delayed, she has put me off. Could she have been hoping for Thorongil to speak before she responded to me? Recalling the evening before, he shook his head in rejection of the idea. And yet. . . But what can I do save wait for her reply?
Once his luncheon was brought, he ate almost without tasting it. He could not decide what would be best to do in the circumstances, and was thankful that it was not tonight that Forlong would give his ball. He feared he would have been unable to be civil. No, tonight was a small gathering of the hill-lords from the Ered Nimrais, and he could be certain that neither Thorongil nor Finduilas would be present.
The best thing he could do would be to keep himself busy in the meantime, but he knew that he would be unable to concentrate in this room. Instead, he determined to make a round of inspection; though he had inspected the White Guard only the day before, a surprise return might do them good, keep them from becoming lax. He went out of the Tower, going first along the walls of the Citadel, stopping at each guard post. His sharp eyes missed no detail, no flaw in appearance or laxity in posture. No words were needed. As Denethor passed on, each man was uncomfortably aware of the slightest spot of rust on his breastplate or tear in his surcoat, and resolved to strive harder to meet the necessary standard of perfection implied by his captain’s gaze.
From his circuit of the walls he headed to the armories. By the time he reached the practice field, word had obviously spread of his coming, for the company was practicing with exceptional diligence and Denethor found almost nothing about which he could have made complaint. He watched for some time, and indulged in a bout with the lieutenant himself, pressing the man hard.
It was, as yet, only midafternoon, with several hours still of light. He wiped his brow, straightened his garments, and went down into the city to inspect the Watch and the guards at the gates. A comment or two, accompanied by the stern glance of the Steward’s Heir, and Denethor could be certain that the sloppiness he saw would return no time soon.
When he was back in his own rooms changing his clothes for the evening, a knock sounded on his door.
Ecthelion entered, saying, “I hear that you performed some surprise inspections today, my son.”
“I did,” replied Denethor stiffly.
The Steward gestured at a chair. “May I sit?”
“I hear further that the outcome of your inspections was. . . not good, in most cases.” Ecthelion tilted his head against the back of the chair, his gaze bright and intent.
“I simply require that they uphold a certain standard. One which will reflect appropriately the dignity of Gondor.”
“A worthy goal,” agreed Ecthelion, “and I am pleased that you were able to make that clear without resorting to discipline or threats. One must not be too harsh in such matters, or it will have the opposite effect to that intended. Is there some reason, though, that you felt the need to do this without consultation?”
Denethor looked in the mirror, adjusting his tunic, keeping his back to Ecthelion. “No reason,” he said. “It had been long since they had had an inspection, that is all.”
“I see. And what is your engagement this evening? Dining with Dol Amroth and his daughter?”
“No, sir, that was yesterday evening.” Denethor frowned slightly. “Tonight I dine with the lords from the White Mountains.”
“Ah, good. Remind them that though the Corsairs raid the south, their help and support too will be needed against our enemies. The center is secure only so long as the borders hold.” Ecthelion braced his hands against the arms of the chair to stand up. “Enjoy your evening, Denethor.”
“Thank you, Father.”
In the event Denethor did enjoy it more than he would have expected. He knew most of the men well, and was able to turn the conversation to serious matters without offense – though the freely-flowing wine doubtless helped to smooth the way for him. At the end of the night he felt a grim glow of triumph that he had accomplished something for the good of Gondor that day.
Sleep came more readily than he had feared, and in the morning the heat of anger had cooled to sullen embers. He broke fast and went to the White Tower for the inevitable meeting of the Council. About half of the lords, including Thorongil, were already present when he arrived, and he chose a seat that would enable him to avoid looking at the captain. He hoped that today’s discussions would again last only through the morning. The work he had left unfinished yesterday required attention; before Ecthelion decided how much could be spent on the coastal defenses next year, he would need to know this year’s costs.
Scarcely had Ecthelion arrived and the Council begun to deliberate when a servant entered and spoke low to the Steward. It must be something of great import, to warrant an interruption of the Council.
“The lord Denethor will see to it,” Ecthelion said, gesturing to his son.
Denethor pushed his chair back and followed the man out of the room. Waiting in an anteroom was a messenger come from Belfalas, bringing the hoped-for news of the Corsairs.
“Speak, man,” said Denethor. “What word have you?”
“I bring a message from Vardil, steward to Prince Adrahil,” the man said. “I was charged to give it to the Lord Steward Ecthelion.”
“The Steward is in council. You may speak to me instead, and I will bring word to him,” Denethor said.
“Vardil desired me to say that in his judgment, the Corsairs are at present only feeling out our defenses. The raids have not yet been extensive, but every coastal town has seen their fleet. He believes that they are preparing to attack in force, most probably in the late spring when they will not run the risk of the winter storms. Here,” a sheaf of parchment was thrust into Denethor’s hands. “All of the details – number of ships seen, when and where – he has written here, for the Steward and the Prince’s use.”
“Thank you. I will tell them immediately. Go down to the refectory and refresh yourself; I am sure that the Prince will wish to speak with you later.” Denethor turned on his heel and left, unrolling the scroll and rapidly scanning its contents. It looks as if they are sending five-ship squads all along the coast. Doubtless when we get word from Anfalas it will be the same. This makes no sense; for years the Enemy has concentrated on Ithilien. He has outmaneuvered us, may his name be cursed.
The information, though expected, touched off a minor uproar in the Council when Denethor returned. Half of the lords – the inland half, thought Denethor with a touch of asperity, despite their words to me last night – were convinced that Vardil must be overestimating the threat; the rest wanted troops sent immediately to the south. The Council scribe, Galdor, now recovered although still wheezing occasionally, could scarcely keep up with their words as his quill flew over the parchment.
Denethor paid close and admiring attention as Ecthelion deftly calmed the room, eliciting more constructive comments and suggestions, assuring the lords that he would listen to the advice of all with due consideration before taking any decisions.
In the past, when the Corsairs threatened it could take decades to resolve the situation and drive them off for good. Or at least for generations, since now they return again. Whoever is chosen to command our defense is likely to remain in the south for years, far from Minas Tirith. For an instant Denethor considered the possibility of leading the army himself, but he doubted that Ecthelion would spare him. In any case, he had less experience in command of actual battles than many of the captains in Ithilien, though he had served stints on the frontier before. Even if it were certain that the conflict would result in an easy triumph for Gondor, he would not be the best choice for a leader, and he knew it, although part of him wished that he could be at hand for a victory.
Discussion of the situation continued through the rest of the morning, and Denethor privately felt some suggestions showed a lack of common sense, such as the notion that all of the coastal villages should raise walls for their protection. We have neither time nor funds for that, and the walls that a fishing village could build would scarcely hold off attacking Corsairs, unless those manning the walls had much better training in war than seems probable!
“If I might interject, my lords,” he said, “I would recommend a gradual repositioning of our forces. The reports from Ithilien are excellent, and I believe that we could reduce the number of troops there by a quarter, perhaps even a third, if we are careful as to which companies they are drawn from. How much do you trust Vardil’s judgment, Lord Adrahil?”
“He’s not a man to panic, and overstate the situation,” the prince responded. “I trust him implicitly.”
“Then his assessment that the Corsairs will probably not raid in force until spring is likely to be accurate. If we move men slowly to the south over the next several months, our defenses will be strong than their present scouting would suggest to them, and we will have the advantage of surprise as well as numbers. Their strategy has traditionally been to bring the largest forces they can, and ravage our lands like locusts. We will need someone experienced in command on land, more than at sea,” Denethor concluded.
“Good points, all,” Ecthelion complimented him. “I am inclined to follow your suggestions. Had you anyone in particular in mind? Or do any of the rest of you have an idea for who might be best-suited to command our coastal defense?”
“Not at this time,” said Denethor, and others around the table also shook their heads. The discussion continued, considering how Denethor’s ideas might be implemented, and what alternatives should be considered.
In early afternoon Ecthelion looked around the room. Every man present had given his opinions, several more than once, and he dismissed the Council until the next day. Forlong, in particular, had looked anxious to leave – he took the threat more seriously than most of the inland lords, but he also wished to return home in preparation for the entertainment he was giving that evening.
Among those who lingered to say a few last words of advice was Thorongil. Denethor clenched his teeth and rose to intercept him before he could leave.
“Yes, my lord?” The dark head so like his own turned courteously.
“Would you have time to remain and speak with me for a few moments? I believe you know where my office is, on the first floor?”
“Certainly. I will meet you there shortly – I wished to speak to the Prince of Dol Amroth, but then I will be free to attend you.”
Dol Amroth? But he cannot mean to speak of anything except the Corsairs, not here, not now.
Denethor’s office was so arranged that he sat with his back to the eastern windows, thus facing across the dark wood of the table anyone who entered and crossed the wide stone floor. It was especially effective in the morning, when the sun made him a silhouette against the light, but served even at other times of day, as now. He leaned back in the heavy leather chair and waited.
When Thorongil entered, closing the door behind him, Denethor did not rise until the man was nearly to the table. He moved over to the hearth and added wood to the blaze.
“The weather has finally changed,” he remarked.
“Yes,” agreed Thorongil. “I would guess that a storm is on its way.”
“I believe so, too.” Denethor paused, clasping his hands behind his back and deliberately looking the man up and down. “You strike me as a man of ambition, Captain Thorongil – would you say that is so?”
“Only as ambitious as suits my station,” said Thorongil, meeting Denethor’s eyes squarely. “For my own honor and respect I cannot do less than I am capable of doing, however.”
“I see. Given that station, would you be content to remain in Ithilien, captaining the rangers there, all your life? Would that suit your ideas of honor and respect, and achieve your hopes?”
“No, it would not.” How can his eyes be so clear, yet I cannot read him?
“How then can you hope to become greater than you are? I see only two roads to success for a man such as yourself – through prowess in war, or a noble alliance with a woman of good family.”
“Those are the traditional methods of advancement,” agreed Thorongil.
“And which is to be yours?”
“I do not intend to raise myself through marriage; marriage for me would be a reward, rather than a means to an end. The merit in serving one’s country and people is far greater, and more apt to bring esteem from those whose good opinion is worth having. If one yearned only for a soft living, a good marriage might be the preferable course, but it is not like to satisfy any man of true honor,” Thorongil said.
“I’m afraid I cannot believe you, sir. Do you not love a lady of high family?” Thorongil’s calmness was provoking, and Denethor bit off the words as he spoke.
“I do love such a one, yes.”
He admits it freely! I knew he was capable of insolence, but this? “You love her,” he repeated. “And are you not planning to woo her and wed her, if indeed you have not already begun to do so?”
“I should indeed wish to court that lady,” said Thorongil, with a glint in his eye that Denethor found inscrutable, “but at this time it is not possible, I fear.” He cocked his head, a mannerism that gave him an almost uncanny resemblance to Ecthelion, and added, “Finduilas’s father is a great prince, and my lineage unknown. How could I pin my expectations on so improbable a match? My position in Gondor is not such as would allow me to reasonably seek her hand. Yours, however, is, my lord. Indeed I envy your luck, that you could ask the lady you desire to wed.”
“Do you indeed?” said Denethor. I sense nothing insincere in his voice, but how then is what I heard yesterday to be explained?
As if he could hear Denethor’s thoughts, Thorongil said, “I do. She told me of it herself, and asked my advice, as befitting the brother she thinks me.” His face remained smooth, his voice calm. Denethor had to admire the man’s control when he continued, “Of course I cannot speak for Finduilas, but I will tell you that I urged her to accept your offer. Believe me or not, as you choose, but I have realized that destiny must lead me down a different road than the one that leads to Belfalas.”
Proud, he is, a nobody to speak of destiny in such terms! “And what do you imagine this destiny of yours to be?” Denethor asked, curiosity and disdain warring in his voice.
“I do not know, yet, though I hope it will be in Gondor,” said Thorongil, “where the Enemy presses hardest against the realms of Men. I have seen his hand in Ithilien, and now his allies threaten the southern coasts. There is much to be done, to preserve this land from harm.”
With a pang Denethor realized that the sincerity in Thorongil’s voice was genuine. He loves Gondor more than he loves Finduilas. Do I? He cleared his throat. “I see. Thank you, Captain Thorongil, for explaining your feelings on this matter. But I believe your future may not fall out as you suppose. As you have said, a man of such ambition as yourself, with such laudable goals, will not be content to stand still. You came to Gondor from Rohan – have you not thought of returning? A man of your abilities would doubtless be welcomed back to Thengel’s court.”
“I have no plans to return to Rohan,” said Thorongil. “For the moment my ambitions are better satisfied by remaining here, in Ecthelion’s service, and Gondor’s.”
Denethor looked askance at him for that. Ecthelion’s service, not the Steward’s service. That, I will remember. I do not think I have ever met a man so contradictory, so hard to pin down, as Thorongil. With one breath he says that he has encouraged Finduilas to accept me – and why should he have done so? – and yet he says he loves her, and behind all is this will to success, to power. But that may be turned to our use, may it not? If he wishes to serve Gondor, perhaps his destiny will take him southward after all. Aloud, he said, “Your service has much to recommend it. But I should keep you from your duties no longer – I am certain you have matters to attend to yet today, as do I.”
“So I have,” said Thorongil, and bowed. “Until tonight, at Forlong’s.”
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