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Hands of the King: 30. Cunning

an heirRohan, Late June, 2976 T.A.

It was three more days to Isengard. They set out early, not long past dawn, so they could travel while the day was cool. At midday, they rested themselves and the horses, then journeyed almost until sundown before setting up camp. After the meal was through, Thengel asked Denethor to walk with him. The men strolled under the stars, two of Denethor's soldiers following at a respectful distance.

'You have been quiet on this ride, Warden.'

'Have I?'

Thengel laughed softly. 'Steward Turgon would also answer with questions.' They walked a few more yards. 'I miss his counsel.'

'As do I.'

'I fear this wizard.'

'Why?'

'Why? Because he was once friend, and I know no reason why he should have become foe.' The king's voice was grave.

'Are you certain he is foe, and not merely jealous of his borders?'

'Why are you going to see him?'

'Angrenost belongs to Gondor, not Curunír.' Thengel watched him, eyes glinting in starlight. 'Gondor is sworn to defend Rohan, so if you have complaint, I must see to it.'

'Can you remove him?'

'If I need to, yes. Should he prove to be foe.'

'Ælric said not to trust him. I miss Ælric's counsel as well. At least you have him, if not Turgon.' Denethor made a thoughtful sound, but did not answer. 'Turgon would do that, too.'

'You fear Gondor will fall away from her ancient friendship with Rohan. Become a foe.'

'I did not say that. That is not my fear.'

'Then what?'

'That you will forget us, you tall men of sea and stone,' Thengel answered, 'for we are like the wind, to make things bow before us in the rush of our passing, but they spring up once more, like the bent grasses standing after a gust has raced on. You love what persists.'

It unsettled Denethor how closely the king's words captured his own recent thoughts. Stiffly, he replied, 'Gondor's oath to Rohan and her people is stronger than any stone. It will be remembered as long as Gondor herself stands.'

'We shall see.'

Denethor's pride was stung by Thengel's dismissal of Gondor's fidelity. 'You asked me an impertinent question the other day. I take no insult, but shall instead ask a similarly impertinent question in return.'

'It is fair. What do you wish to know?'

'Why do you allow your chief counselor to insult your queen in front of others?'

'I see no ins…'

'The man mocks her by speaking her tongue like a beast.'

'Still, he must speak it, for it is what I have ordered.' The king halted and faced Denethor. 'I have watched you watching Gálmód. Would you have me make an enemy of someone this wise and clever with words? When I returned, he was already a strong leader in the Westfold and West Emnet, and gaining support in the Wold. I could break him or I could tame him. I chose the latter and gained a good counselor. He makes himself a fool by his rudeness and this keeps others from completely falling under his sway.'

'That, and being a Dunlending.'

'He is of mixed blood, yes.'

'Why would you allow a mongrel to hold such high station?'

'Some might say the same of my son. I remember a story of how one of your kings was doubted for just such a reason.' Thengel resumed walking. 'When I first came to Minas Tirith, what startled me most was not the city but the people. Never had I seen so many kinds of men in one place. It shocked me, then intrigued me. There were so few who could claim to be Dúnedain, yet almost every soul was a man of Gondor. I saw that there can be peace among different kinds, but only if there is something that all may follow. As long as we are always Dunlending and Eorling, there truly is no Rohan. There is just betrayal and strife. It is a bit of foolishness I have not yet relinquished.' They walked back to the camp without another word.

Denethor had a difficult time falling asleep, for Thengel's words would not let him be. Curs. That is what the Dunlendings were, or the Haradrim – base peoples waiting to be used as weapons by those who could awe and order them. They debased what they mixed with, creating mongrels, such as Gálmód, who were not of one place or another. But what of Marach and Ragnor? Their souls are of Gondor. What of Théoden, or Eldacar? There was vigor in these crosses. But it ennobles when it goes towards the lower, not the higher. Trouble followed if the lesser blood was given higher station.

The questions were less troubling under the sun than the stars, but they tugged at the edge of Denethor's thoughts as they rode towards the Fords. What concerned him more were the words of Thengel's doubts about Gondor's loyalty. He could not say the king was entirely wrong. There might come a time, indeed, there would probably be a time not far off when all of Gondor's attention would have to be upon the eastern marches, and then it could happen that Rohan's defense would be second to Gondor's own. Did this not happen once before, in the days of Steward Beren? Rohan had been left to fend for herself while Umbar and Harad were defeated and Gondor made safe. Only then could thought be spared for the Horse-lords. But it was not forgetting; Gondor did not forget her oaths, and fulfilled them as quickly as could be done. Denethor frowned at the thought. Forgotten or remembered, what mattered was that both allies could be threatened enough on their flanks to be prevented from coming to each other's aid.

They reached the Fords by mid-morning. The eastern garrison had turned out to greet their king loudly with song and cheers. Denethor studied the approach to the river. It was more difficult to guard than the bridge at Osgiliath. The Fords were shallow, barely up to a man's knees, and very wide. Even in spring with snow-melt and storm run-off from the hills, an unmounted man could pass through. The eastern bank was steeper than the western, which gave some advantage to the defenders on this side. The garrison itself was comical – a collection of wooden buildings, mostly barracks, with some small earthworks partially surrounding them. The Rohirrim obviously expected to meet enemies beyond the Fords and use the speed of cavalry to defend the passage. This has failed before. He wondered why proper defenses had not been built around the ford when Angrenost had been raised.

After an hour or more, they splashed across the Isen and were greeted by the western garrison. It was the counterpart of the other, meant to house the defenders rather than be a defense. There they ate dinner and Thengel listened to the complaints of the soldiers and judged their cases. There was nothing of great import, but it interested Denethor to see how the king's justice was given. No case was ever given over to one side, and Thengel chastised each man who came before him. Someone cheated of his winnings in dice received them, but had then to give it all to the garrison commander for having gamed for coin in the first place. Two men who had fought each other over an insult had to repair barrels together. All five complaints brought before the king received similar treatment, and all walked away satisfied that things had been set aright.

They set out again to ride within two leagues of Isengard before setting up camp. Some of the soldiers from the garrison joined them, which displeased Denethor. He wanted to speak to Curunír and evaluate what the wizard was plotting, not threaten him. Yet. As they rode up the wide, well-kept road, he thought again of those who built these places. Thengel is right. The Rohirrim are as a storm across the plain. They occupied the work of past peoples, building nothing of their own that would last. A thought came to him. What of the Lost? Once more he wondered what held them to the vanished north. What is up there, besides the Lost themselves? He remembered something Mithrandir said the day they spoke in Minas Tirith. The beer of Bree. A small village, no, several villages of rustic folk. Well, there are wizards in the north, beer, and the Lost. I wonder if there are still Elves?

Unlike the previous nights, they set a guard to patrol. In his tent, Denethor once more found it difficult to sleep, unable to shake the sense of being watched. Though they had looked, none had seen signs of Dunlendings or of any folk between the Fords and the fortress. Who knows what spells a wizard has to spy upon others? Mithrandir always seems to know when to appear. Denethor scowled at the thought. When Thorongil had first advised Ecthelion, it had been to eschew seeking council from Curunír, even though the wizard had not been in Gondor since the funeral of Turgon in 2953, when he renewed his pledge of loyalty to the new Steward. Denethor had been pleased by Thorongil's words, for he had never cared for Angrenost to be in the hands of the same kind of creature as the Enemy, no matter the wizard's seeming friendliness, and Ecthelion had always dismissed those concerns. Then the captain had argued that the Steward should welcome Mithrandir directly into his counsels. Denethor's distrust of Thorongil's intentions dated from that meeting.

Denethor recalled what he knew of either wizard, and was dismayed to find it was so little. One dressed in white, the other in grey. One remained in a tower, the other wandered as he would. Curunír was supposed to be a great loremaster, while Mithrandir did little but poke his nose into other people's business. Yet he spoke of many having a hand in dislodging the Enemy from Dol Guldur. Perhaps Curunír was one of those. If Thorongil had warned Thengel against Curunír even before coming to Gondor, it was unlikely that these two wizards had many dealings. Or perhaps they did, and they were too subtle for the captain to understand their connivance. What do these wizards plan, and do they plan it together?

***

When it was time to go the next morning, Denethor noticed that both Thengel and Morwen wore corselets of mail. For a moment he wondered if he should also be so garbed, but dismissed the thought as cowardly. They walked the six miles to the fortress slowly, carefully examining the surrounding countryside as they passed. When they were only one league away, the top of Orthanc itself could be seen, black and sharp against the mountains. The valley around them was at the height of summer glory before grasses browned under a harsh sun, yet there was no sign of life. There were no birds singing, no track of deer or even rabbit, no croak of frogs or chirp of crickets, naught but a watchful stillness. The land rose gently but steadily before them as they drew near the ring-wall, Orthanc looming over all. There were some tilled fields close to the fortress, but no sign of farmers, not even cottages. When they finally reached the gates near midmorning, the gates at either end of the tunnel stood open and unguarded. A dozen riders and half of the foot soldiers insisted on going through the tunnel first to make sure there was no treachery.

Denethor dismounted for a better look at the fortifications. The double set of gates intrigued him. Reminding Gaerhûl to follow, Denethor examined one carefully. It was twice the height of a man, wrought from iron but it was not solid; the crafting was of many vines and branches intertwined in panels that stood one behind the other within a great steel frame. It was as though he looked upon the Gate of Writhen Iron. When he touched it, however, it said nothing to him. He continued through the tunnel, the light at either end reflecting off the polished stone floor and revealing glimpses of the carvings that covered the walls. Like the gates, they were of living things, the branches of the carved trees reaching up to create the vault of the tunnel. At eye-level was a profusion of flowers, each one distinct. In the left hand wall, a short flight of steps had been carved, parallel to the tunnel itself, and its face was adorned with stone flowers. At the top, a narrow door of iron let into some type of room, carved vines wrapping the opening. Two tall, narrow windows, barred with iron, looked into the tunnel.

As he walked, Denethor held out his hand and brushed his fingertips along the wall. The stone recognized him and clung to him, catching at his fingers, trying to hold him back. The petals of the flowers and the whorls of vines pulled on him, an unfelt wind allowing them to whisper a warning of danger. Gaerhûl snorted and skittered away from the dark walls as though he heard their plea. At the far end was another many-paneled gate; like its mate, it also ignored Denethor's touch.

Emerging into the sunlight, Denethor's eyes went to the tower. It rose proudly from its isle of stone, glinting like waves or the facets of a gem. It is beautiful. Orthanc was like a mirror of the Tower of Ecthelion in Minas Tirith, black and angular where she was white and curved, both towers full of grace and nobility. They spoke of the power to dare, to make, and to endure. At once he understood why Cirion would not surrender Angrenost to Eorl as he had Aglarond. These Horse-lords, these cobblers, they would not understand what they held. This was the work of Dúnedain. A powerful longing came over him to go to Minas Ithil, the third great tower of Gondor.

Denethor was brought out of his trance by someone bumping into him. Gálmód's son, Gríma, was staring open-mouthed at the tower, oblivious to having walked into him. This reminded Denethor that he could not allow himself to be so distracted in the wizard's lair. He remounted Gaerhûl, who snorted and pranced, disliking the place. The garth was filled with trees and one could not see far in any direction. Looking back at the ring-wall, Denethor saw small doorways carved into the stone, their wooden doors firmly closed. Thengel whistled loudly and the Rohirrim formed up around their king and queen, peering suspiciously into the trees. Denethor sighed, then urged Gaerhûl forward, waving his own guard into place behind him. They walked down the main avenue towards the tower a half-mile beyond. Partway there, they saw a woman walking towards them. She was short and dark, obviously of Dunlending blood, but was dressed neatly. When they drew up, she curtseyed and addressed Denethor.

'You are Denethor, High Warden of Gondor?'

'Yes.'

'My lord, Saruman of Isengard, sent me to welcome you and guide you to him.' With another curtsey, the woman turned and walked towards Orthanc. Denethor dismounted and walked, not wishing to outpace her on the horse. His men did likewise, though the Rohirrim stayed mounted. As in the valley beyond, the tree garth was silent. It was not long before they emerged from the trees and entered a wide open ring surrounding Orthanc. The tower cast a short shadow to the west. A tall man in white descended the broad black stairs in the angle of the tower, and waited for them upon the bottom step. Denethor paused to allow Thengel and Morwen to catch up with him. The rulers dismounted, as did half the riders. With a nod, the three approached the wizard, Thengel's counselors immediately behind them. The boy, Gríma, tagged along.

Curunír smiled and bowed slightly as they came close, an arm extended in hospitality. When he straightened up, Denethor looked into the wizard's dark eyes and felt a small shiver in his spine. For a moment, Denethor imagined he felt the touch of the mariner's hand upon his shoulder and his apprehension departed, washed away with a wave of seawater. He nodded graciously to the wizard and waited.

'Welcome to Isengard.' The voice flowed over him, wrapping him in something like sleep. There was kindness and wisdom in equal measure, with amusement dancing alongside. It was nothing like Mithrandir's brusque tone, or the curmudgeonly grumbles of the mariner, or the songs of sea and stone, and Denethor's stomach clenched as it did when Beruthiel touched his skin. 'It is long since Gondor or Rohan came to my tower.' It is not yours. It is mine. 'May I know why you have come to see me?' Denethor glanced over at Thengel and Morwen. The two were staring at the wizard like children entranced by a juggler's tricks. The counselors, too, were caught in this snare. Denethor decided to play along.

'Lord Curunír, I journeyed to Rohan to attend the wedding of Prince Théoden, and to invite the king to my own that shall be this winter. I thought it meet that I should continue my journey to bring this invitation to you myself, rather than send a mere messenger.'

The wizard smiled and bowed again, obviously pleased at the attention. 'I am honored, Warden.'

'I also come to resolve any misunderstanding between two great friends of Gondor, yourself and the king,' Denethor continued.

Curunír's dark eyes grew suspicious, though his voice was silken. 'Misunderstandings? I am in ignorance, Warden.'

'So I thought,' Denethor politely agreed, 'and have come to set all aright. The affairs of lords should not be conducted by minions.'

Once again, the wizard preened under the compliment. 'You show great wisdom, Lord Denethor. Please, all of you, abide as my guests for as long as you desire. There is pasturage for the horses in a meadow to the east. My lords and lady, if you will follow me?' Curunír turned and walked up the stairs. Denethor signaled for his men to remain behind and walked after the wizard, eager to see the inside of Orthanc.

He had imagined it would be dark, but it was not. The many tall windows let in much light, and the black stone reflected it over and over. Even in the very center where the four piers of stone met, light penetrated and illuminated the rooms. Unlike Aglarond, each room was well appointed with ancient and beautiful tapestries, elegant furniture, and beautiful lamps. They passed through a great library that Denethor would gladly have spent days or months exploring. He wondered if an index of its holdings existed in Minas Tirith. Here and there, they would come across a Dunlending servant, each one neatly and soberly dressed and with perfect manners. Most were women. Through all of it wound the wizard's voice, serpent-smooth. Denethor found himself putting a hand to his chest as they walked, touching Finduilas's book but also the mariner's lanyard.

At one point, Curunír showed off his laboratory. It was filled with fascinating things – flasks and jars holding unknown substances, sheaves of parchment covered in notes, odd contraptions for looking or weighing or measuring, and odd smells. Denethor paused before leaving, wondering what the wizard was trying to find out. For the second time that day, Gríma bumped into Denethor because he was too busy staring to notice his own feet. Denethor gave the boy a small shake to wake him out of his stupor.

'This,' the boy gestured around at the laboratory, eyes full of awe, 'is this what Gondor is like? ' He almost bumped into Denethor again as he turned, trying to take it all in. Denethor grasped Gríma's shoulder and guided the boy after the rest. Gálmód waited a few paces beyond, scowling back at them.

'This is Gondor,' Denethor firmly replied. 'It is greatness.'

'It is garbage!' Gálmód growled in Rohirric. 'We don't need it. Come along!' The man glared at Denethor, then said very distinctly and correctly in Sindarin, 'Garbage,' then turned on his heel and stalked away. The boy hurried after his father, but cast one long glance back at the laboratory before disappearing around a corner.

Denethor found himself alone in the passage. He reached out and touched the wall. The anger in the stone made him stagger, and he scrabbled at his chest to find the lanyard. As his hand closed around the cord, the mariner's hand rested on his shoulder, steadying him. Again, Denethor reached out to the stone. The walls looked at him askance, wanting to know why they had been abandoned. He imagined he heard sounds from the deep root of the tower, almost as far below as the pinnacle was above, and they were sounds of torment. Free us. Free whom? What? Tell me! But the black stone's voice subsided and the walls hunkered down.

'Warden?' The serpent's voice was close. Denethor let go the lanyard and turned with a slight smile to face Curunír.

'You keep the tower very well, Lord Curunír.'

'Thank you. If you will come along? It would not do for you to be lost.' The words tried to force Denethor's feet to move. He kept them still until the command passed, then walked.

When they rejoined the others, Curunír suggested that they dine outside, under the trees. All found this agreeable. The wizard pulled a bell rope and gave directions to the woman who appeared, the same woman who had met them upon the road, before leading them out of the tower. They waited near the edge of the trees in a shady spot while several servants laid out a meal upon a clean cloth spread nearby. The soldiers were not far off and explained that they had already set up a camp near the meadow where the horses grazed. They ate from their own rations, but gladly accepted the ale sent over by the wizard.

The food was good, if odd. The meat was cured with spices Denethor had not tasted before, the preserves were made with strange berries, and the cheese was unlike anything he had ever seen, pale gold and full of holes. But the bread was hearty and the fresh greens and vegetables welcome after days of eating from saddlebags. Two of the serving women sat near, silent, ready to refill cups and plates. They did not speak to each other and had nothing to keep their hands busy.

When the meal was finished, Curunír cleared his throat and looked directly at Denethor. 'Warden, if we may return to words you spoke upon arriving, I would know what misunderstandings you think exist between Isengard and Rohan? There are none I am aware of.' The wizard smiled benignly at Thengel, whose brow creased with the effort of his thought. After a moment, Thengel gave his head a small shake and looked entreatingly at Denethor. Once more, Denethor felt chilled and then a ghostly touch heartened him.

'I have heard complaint that your favor for the Dunlendings,' Denethor motioned towards the silent women, 'is being abused by those who seek shelter from you after performing mischief against Rohan.'

Curunír's eyes widened in surprise. 'Indeed? That is not acceptable.' He turned to Thengel, face grave, 'I am sorrowed to hear that some savages may take advantage of my kindness.'

Morwen interrupted, 'Lord Curunír, I am surprised that you even allow these savages within your domain. They have seized and used this fortress before.'

'Would you have me chopping wood and growing carrots, Queen?' Curunír's voice was at the edge of mockery, but quickly shifted to an aggrieved tone, 'Would you have me without servants? I shelter a few who are willing to serve me. They have quarters in the fortress, may keep all that they grow which is not used in the tower, and need give me only the courtesy and obedience due a lord. In turn they need not live like animals in the wilderness. I have never had offer from the folk of Eorl to provide similar service, so how should I not accept these folk?'

'But there are reports that some of these folk come across the river, using the bridge we saw but a mile south, to harass the people of Westfold,' Denethor added, very careful to keep sharpness and disbelief out of his voice. 'This I fear the Steward cannot allow.' This is still Gondor, wizard, whatever claim you think to make. 'I hear also you will not permit Rohan to pursue these raiders over the Isen.'

'Indeed not, for it is not their land.' Curunír made no attempt to soften his curt answer. The Rohirrim exchanged suspicious looks. The wizard smiled and spoke again in his serpent's tongue, 'But it is not good that my favor has been abused. I will speak to the folk here and let them know it displeases me.' Once more, the Rohirrim smiled and nodded, content with the wizard's words.

Denethor excused himself and strolled along the edge of the trees, circling the tower. One of the silent women followed him at a distance. No bees buzzed, no ants crawled, no butterflies flitted by. The trees stood, but there was no fruit upon them. Here and there, Denethor glimpsed small domes of stone back in the trees; all looked recently built and one had some vapor emanating from it. He lies. He does not belong here. There is mischief at work all around. Denethor stopped to look at Orthanc. But it cannot be abandoned and left empty, else the Dunlendings will retake it. It seemed that it would have to be put in the care of the Horse-lords after all. The answer came with a sudden rush, and Denethor wanted to laugh. The Lost! They could hold this. Surely there cannot be more left than would fit here. Who else should hold this fortress than the Dúnedain? They would not be lost anymore. He continued his walk in better humor.

The afternoon passed quickly. Curunír guided his guests along paths in the tree garth, asking polite questions about Rohan, Gondor, and the wars of the last year. He congratulated Thengel on the marriage of Théoden, offering good wishes foran heir to be born soon, spoke approvingly of Denethor's betrothal, saying of course he would attend the wedding if the season permitted him to travel. None of the Rohirrim remarked on the silent women or the stone domes in the trees, and Denethor wondered if they even knew either was there. The one thing that made him curious was the wizard's interest in Thorongil. Curunír kept asking about the man's successes, rewards, and plans. Denethor did his best to not answer. Thengel and Morwen chattered happily, including confirming that the man was of the Lost, from the north, and friends with Mithrandir. This did not appear to be news to the wizard. The evening meal was like that of midday, simple but filling, and all retired early. The soldiers remained near the horses while the lords were given chambers in the tower. Denethor touched the walls within his room, but the stone would not speak. He lay on the musty-smelling bed and clasped the lanyard and the key, hoping to feel the mariners touch, wishing it were Finduilas's…

With a jolt, Denethor sat up in bed. There is a palantír in this tower. How could he have forgotten this? He cast about, trying to imagine where it would be. In a chamber, near the top of the tower. Has Curunír found it? It would be locked up, but perhaps the wizard could have broken in. He would not dare use it, would he? Thinking about the laboratory, Denethor was willing to wager that the wizard would presume so far. I would not need the palantír of Minas Tirith if I had this one. He made himself lie down and rest until late, then dressed and slipped out. It did not take long to find the stairway up. Denethor did not pause to investigate the rooms in middle levels, though he wondered what they might hold. In the topmost floor of the tower there was a large central room, with doors in each of the four stone piers. Denethor tried all of the doors, and was not surprised to find them locked. He pulled the key from around his neck and tried it in the first lock with no luck. He went to the second door, the one facing east, and tried. The key slipped into the lock easily and turned smoothly. Before he could open the door, Denethor felt something, like a sharp tug on his shirt sleeve and quickly relocked the door. He barely got the lanyard back around his neck and tucked away before the wizard entered the room. Curunír stared at him, his eyes dark shadows in his face.

'What are you doing, Warden?' The voice made Denethor's skin crawl.

'Looking for the top of the tower. I wish to see the stars, but the doors are all locked.' The mariner's hand rested on his shoulder, and the stone beneath his feet growled at the wizard as Telperien had done to Beruthiel.

'You should not walk about at night.' The wizard sounded amused. 'Accidents…happen.'

'Can we go to the top?'

'Of course. This way.' Curunír pulled a ring of keys from pouch at his belt and unlocked the western door. Beyond was a stair that opened onto the roof. When Denethor would have stepped out onto the top, the wizard held up a hand. 'Watch.' Curunír walked out upon the top, murmuring words too soft for Denethor to make out. Slowly, the floor began to glow with lines and strange symbols. After a moment, Denethor recognized them as a star-chart, meant to tell stargazers where to stand to watch the heavens. The air was cold this high up and stars gleamed like crystals.

'I am glad to have an opportunity to speak with you, Warden, without the Horse-lord.'

'Really?'

'Yes. You are a man of subtlety, who sees more than most.'

'You flatter me.'

'No, I but say what I see before me. There is much you left unsaid today, and wisely, for it was not for simple ears.'

'And what would that be?'

'That we share a common concern.' Denethor stayed silent. Curunír continued with impatience, 'We are both concerned about Mithrandir and his meddling.'

'I think you right. Why do you say I should be concerned about the wanderer?'

'He plots against you. Against the Stewards. Against all of the Wise.' Curunír's voice was soft, but intense. 'He wanders about making foes of friends, and turning all to his desires. He has secrets.'

'You, of course, have none?'

The wizard chuckled. 'All men of thought have some, it is true, but his are dangerous.'

'I am inclined to agree, Lord Curunír, but you say nothing I do not know.'

'The captain he has brought to you, the one the Rohirrim call Ælric and you name Thorongil, he intends for that one to usurp power.'

'I care not what Mithrandir intends for that man,' Denethor replied with a shrug, then turned to walk over to the edge of the floor, looking down at the tree garth. There were lights among the trees, a large fire where the soldiers were camped and smaller lights here and there. Denethor imagined that there was a dome near each of those lights. 'The captain is a soldier and a mercenary. If he gets too large for his boots, I will send him off.'

'Mithrandir already has Rohan under the man's sway. Can you really be rid of him so easily?'

'Do you know something of this man I do not?'

'Perhaps.'

'Then speak it, or hold your peace.' Denethor turned to face the wizard. 'I look at a man who is a good captain and inspires loyalty. I have much experience with those who seek advantage and to place themselves above the Stewards. If the wizard intends to set up this vagabond as a warlord through whom he may rule, he will be sadly disappointed. I can prevent the captain from being more than a soldier.'

'You have not prevented him from becoming Captain-General.'

'I made him Captain-General, and I can unmake him at my whim. I am curious, however, why it is you think Mithrandir is dangerous to yourself. Are you not more powerful?'

'Of course!' Curunír snapped.

'Then…?'

'He is whispering in the Steward's ear, and speaks against me. These lies about the Dunlendings are of his making as well. Yes, they raid upon Rohan, but when have these two not been at each other's throats? If anything, I am civilizing the wild men. Yet Mithrandir uses their old opposition to paint me as an enemy.' The wizard sighed. 'All I want is to be let alone to pursue my studies. Is that so much to ask? I pursue wisdom and strength against our great foe. You know that is the only threat that matters. Mithrandir cares naught for that. He knows that peace will put an end to his own influence.'

Your own, as well. Denethor allowed himself to sound confused. 'I still fail to understand why you need to speak to me of this. You must wish for me to do something – what is it?'

'To ensure that the pledge between the Stewards and myself remains in place, that I may stay here unmolested by these idiot brigands!'

Denethor nodded. 'That much, I can ensure.' He glanced at the heavens. 'I think I have had my fill of stargazing tonight, Lord Curunír. Will you guide me back to my chamber? Now that we understand each other, it would be best that an…accident does not happen.'

'Of course, Warden. Follow me.'

***

Pelennor, Mid-July, 2976

The heat of the summer day did not recede with the twilight. Gaerhûl loped along the road from Osgiliath towards Minas Tirith. Returning from Cair Andros, Denethor decided to ride through the farmlands instead of heading to the Great Road, ending up on the Osgiliath road where it intersected the Rammas before turning west and home. He had not seen the City since early June. The ride from Isengard back to Edoras had been uneventful and slow. Thengel's age was catching up to him. Beregar and Imrahil were happy to see Denethor safely returned and regaled him with stories about drilling with the Rohirrim. When they reached the Anórien garrison, he had sent them on with Brandir while journeying to Cair Andros and Henneth Annûn himself. He spent most of a week in North Ithilien, patrolling with the rangers. Every night, he stood before the waterfall, watching the sun set, willing that Finduilas would see him and know all was well. After supper, he would sit near the falls, letting the sound of the water lull him to the edge of sleep. Once he thought he felt something touch him. When he came back across Anduin, he carried a pouch heavy with letters from the men for their loved ones.

Beregar and Imrahil were waiting for Denethor at the stables. The morning messenger from Cair Andros had arrived well before him, bringing news of his arrival. The garrison just inside the gate was their first stop, leaving the letters from Henneth Annûn with the lieutenant there. They stopped at The Messenger's Rest for supper and ate out in the kitchen court. The two young men gave him all of the news of the City, most of it important. What mattered most to them both, however, was the news that Beregar's eldest sister, Rose, was to be wed the following week to a fellow from Lossarnach, the grandson of a neighbor of Beregar's paternal grandsire. Both had met the intended husband and approved of him. At the close of the meal, Adanel came into the yard and told Beregar he was needed in the cellar. Imrahil followed along to lend a hand. Denethor held out some coin to pay for the meal, which Adanel refused.

'I hear your daughter is to be wed next week.'

'Yes. Her husband is a good man and will stay to help with the tavern. When we die, it will be theirs. Beregar does not want it.'

'He is needed elsewhere.'

'I have found a suitable girl. The wedding will be in the fall.'

'Have you told him?'

'It does not concern you.' Adanel nodded and left. The youths returned and they climbed to the Citadel. Denethor sent a message to the Steward announcing his return, then looked through the mountain of messages and reports that waited for him. Telperien was not satisfied until she could lie on his chest as he sat with his chair tipped back against the wall and his feet propped up on his desk. Denethor ignored the reports and read the five letters from Finduilas before retiring.

***

The next morning, the Steward sent a note welcoming him back to the City and saying they would meet two afternoons hence when Thorongil came in from Osgiliath, unless there was pressing business. This left the day free. The first order of business was to see what had been done to the house. Most of the work on the Stewards House was complete, and Denethor was glad to have his old room restored, though he was displeased that Imrahil had taken Aiavalë's old rooms as his own. The suite of rooms that had been sealed off after Vanimeldë's death were now open. There were four connected rooms that reached from the front room to the wall-end of the house, intended for children and a nurse. Next to them was Turgon's bedroom, washed, repainted, with a new rug and hangings on the walls. There were a chest of drawers, a small table, and a large chair he did not recognize; he assumed these had been sent from Dol Amroth. The tick on the bed in the sleeping alcove was new, well stuffed with feathers. Denethor heard uneven footsteps on the stair and knew Aiavalë was there. She soon limped in to embrace him, then stepped back and gestured around.

'Better, yes?'

'It looks the same to me.'

'You are being contrary.' Her tone was light and she tugged on Denethor's arm to make him lean down for a kiss. 'Have you seen everything?'

'No. Show me.' He followed Aiavalë around and enjoyed seeing her so happy. On the second floor, Emeldir's solar had been prepared for Finduilas, and a dining room unused since Turgon was alive looked ready for a meal. The large room in the front was still empty. On the ground floor, the kitchen was usable once more and there was actually a cook sent over from the Tower kitchens. They climbed up to the fourth floor. Ecthelion's rooms remained empty, but all of Emeldir's belongings had been returned to their rightful place. In her bedroom, a small wooden box of jewelry sat on top of the beautifully carved chest of drawers. Denethor unlocked the jewel box.

'You should take this,' he said to his sister.

'Why? I have everything from there that I want. What need have I for gems?'

Denethor shrugged. 'Because I want you to have them.'

'They are for your daughters.' Aiavalë slipped an arm around his waist and leaned her head on his shoulder. 'You will have at least one beautiful daughter, my dearest, and these should go to her.'

'That will be a long time yet. Why should you not have them first, and you may give them to your niece?'

'I don't want them.'

'Very well.'

They had dinner together to test the quality of the cook – excellent – before Aiavalë returned to the archives. After she left, Denethor did not wish to remain indoors. He took Finduilas's letters and sat upon the battlement, reading them over several times, savoring each word. Then he studied the Tower. Two palantírs and he could not get his hands on either of them. He desperately needed to see Finduilas's face. The letters were not enough. His good mood of the morning turned dark, and Denethor stalked along the Citadel wall, glaring at everything he saw. He stood for long at the back of the circle, looking down at the Tower Guard practicing in their yard. With a sigh, he turned away and glared at the Tower, then froze. Glancing about to see if he were watched, Denethor left the wall by the back stair and began to stroll towards the Tower, surreptitiously studying its western face. If he went there, then there… He returned to the Stewards House and drew some diagrams of what he could remember of the inside of the Tower. Before Beregar and Imrahil returned, he took them down to the kitchen and burned them.

When it was full dark, and the young men had fallen asleep, Denethor stealthily dressed and slipped out by the Wall Door so as not to wake his too-attentive Hound. It took a half hour to slip across the circle to the west side of the Tower, avoiding all of the guards on the regular patrols. There, Denethor slunk up a narrow stair to the end of the walk above the Court of the Fountain, crept along almost on hands and knees until he could go over the rail and drop down to the roof of the Tower kitchens, then edged along a ledge from the kitchens to a spot below a window that, if his calculations were right, opened onto the stairway just beyond where the new door stood. He pulled a knife from his belt and worked it in between the sash and the window frame, sliding it up to lift the latch on the window. It took a few tries, but he got it open. Climbing in was difficult, as he had to pull himself up using only his arms, the Tower wall giving his feet no purchase. The window was almost too narrow for him to pass. Once inside, Denethor was rewarded with being on the right side of the miserable door. He wasted no time ascending to the top chamber. He wrapped the palantír snugly in its drape and stuffed it into a sturdy leather pouch. Once he had wiggled back out of the window, almost falling when his toes did not find the ledge on the first try, Denethor realized he had no way to relock the window and had to be content with pulling it mostly shut. In twenty minutes, he was back in the Stewards House.

Denethor knew he could not keep it in his own rooms. Where to hide this where the Hound will not sniff it out? He crept up the stairs to the fourth floor and unlocked Emeldir's room. Setting the stone upon the bed, he looked in all of the drawers, searching for one that was not sized correctly. Sure enough, there was a drawer too short for the space it should have taken up in a wardrobe. He pulled out the drawer and tried to place the palantír behind it, but there was already something there. Denethor reached in and pulled out a stack of papers and a bound book, replacing them with the wrapped palantír. He took the papers down to his study and put them in a desk drawer, then went to bed. Telperien was next to him, purring, and he had to agree. Tomorrow, he would see Finduilas.

***

The next morning was taken up with Borondir and his many reports. In the afternoon there would be the council with the Steward. At midday, however, Denethor went down to the second circle and collected his spyglass. Primrose was rightfully proud of her work. She had not used all of the lenses, and he told her to keep them and see what else she could come up with. He wrapped it and packed it into a quiver, lacing a leather cover over the top to keep anything from falling out, so he could carry it to the Citadel.

Somewhere in the third circle, Denethor knew he was being followed. He did not hurry, and did not look back. In the fourth circle, he turned off the main way and into the tangle of alleys and courts along the upper side, making his way towards a partly deserted area he knew well. He could sense his pursuer was not being lost in the maze. Entering a twisted lane, Denethor ducked into an alcove that led to a stairway, scooped up a few pebbles, and moved to the second floor. He threw a pebble down the lane and through a dim arch. As he hoped, his follower went past the alcove and towards the arch. As he expected, it was Thorongil. Denethor continued up the stair and onto the roof of the abandoned house. It took little effort to get ahead of Thorongil and toss pebbles to lead the man further into the maze. Finally, the captain went into a court with no exits. The last pebble landed squarely on top of the man's head. Thorongil looked up at Denethor two floors above him.

'Warden,' the captain greeted him politely.

'Captain. Are you headed to the council meeting?'

'Yes.'

'If you go back to the road, you'll be late.'

'Do you know a better way?'

'Yes.' Denethor turned and slowly walked across the rooftops. A few minutes and some rather alarming sounds later, Thorongil joined him. The captain's tunic was dirtied and bore two small rips. 'Is there anything I should know about the garrison before the meeting?'

'No, sir. Is there anything I should know of Rohan?'

'No. King Thengel and Queen Morwen send you their regards.' Denethor led them to an old, debris filled stairway that came out in an alley close to the fifth circle gate. They walked in silence almost to the sixth circle gate.

'What are you carrying?'

'Something.' They stopped long enough at the Stewards House for Thorongil to exchange his ruined tunic for one of Denethor's, then they proceeded to the council. Denethor brought the covered quiver with him. The council was dull; absolutely nothing of consequence was happening anywhere in Gondor. When it adjourned, Denethor asked the Warden of the Keys to remain and signaled Thorongil to stay as well. He hefted the quiver over his shoulder, and said, 'My Lord Steward, I have need of a favor from you.'

Ecthelion looked at the quiver, curious. 'And what would that favor be, Warden?'

'I need to go into the Tower and put something into place in the top chamber, which requires the door being opened.'

'What are you putting up there.'

Denethor smiled. 'A surprise.' The Steward looked at him sourly, then shrugged and led the way to the door. Denethor walked up the steps, confident the others would follow. They did. When he reached the chamber below the locked one, he set the quiver down, unlaced the cover, and removed the spyglass. Even Ecthelion had to exclaim over its beauty.

'Why did you have this made, Warden?' the Steward asked.

'The one that is here is poor. In Pelargir, I had a chance to find a powerful lens, so I asked a jeweler to make me a new one,' Denethor replied. 'Captain, if you would remove the old one and open the window?' Thorongil lifted the old spyglass from the stand, putting it into the empty quiver, then threw open the window and shutters. The new spyglass fit neatly into the old frame. Denethor fiddled with it for a moment, then stood aside with a bow. 'My Lord Steward, would you care to look?'

Ecthelion looked into the odd, side-mounted eyepiece. After a few moments, he looked up with a smile. 'This is very strong.'

'That was the intention. May I?' Denethor took command of the glass once more and adjusted it. Osgiliath was in sharp focus. He gestured for the key warden to take a look, then for Thorongil. The captain looked, then began adjusting settings.

'What is that door to?' Hathol asked, pointing to the entry to the top-chamber.

'I don't know,' Denethor answered, pretending great interest in what the captain was doing, 'Why don't you unlock it and see?'

'I haven't a key for it.'

'Are you certain?' Ecthelion interjected, 'You have all the Tower keys.'

'Almost all,' Hathol replied with a pointed look. 'If I have a key to that door, I do not know it.'

'Well, try the keys,' Denethor suggested reasonably, 'perhaps one will work.'

'Yes, that would be a good idea,' Thorongil agreed, straightening up from the glass. He gave Denethor a look and gestured towards it. Denethor leaned down to the eye-piece. It took a moment, but he realized that he could just make out the very top-most part of the Tower of Minas Morgul where it peeked up over a ridge of the mountains. 'I would like to see what is up there.'

'Well, take the keys and try them,' Ecthelion urged. Thorongil took the two rings of keys from Hathol and ascended the steps to the upper door. Denethor tore himself away from the glass and joined him. For several minutes, the two fiddled with the lock, trying every key. None worked.

Thorongil returned the keys, saying, 'There is no match. The door will have to be broken if you wish entry.' Ecthelion said nothing, but stared at Denethor with suspicion. 'Does anyone know what is up there?'

'Another chamber of the Tower,' Denethor offered. 'From the outside, it looks like an open room. But we can find out more. Come here.' Thorongil followed him over to the window. Denethor turned his back to the window and held out his right hand. 'Take my hand and hold tight.' Thorongil did as he was told. Denethor grasped the edge of the window with his left hand and climbed up onto the wide sill.

Thorongil gasped and tried to pull him off the ledge. 'Denethor, what are you doing?'

'Taking a look.'

'You're going to fall!'

'Not if you hang on.' With that, Denethor leaned back out of the window and looked straight up at the top of the Tower. The three-hundred foot drop below him left him giddy. All that stood between him and a fall was Thorongil's grip. Denethor could see the open windows of the palantír chamber and metal fixtures on the window sills. He had no time to glimpse anything else, for Thorongil yanked him back into the room with such force that they both fell to the floor.

'Idiot!' the captain hissed in Denethor's ear as he helped the other up. Thorongil's eyes were bright with anger.

'What did you see?' Ecthelion asked.

'Not much. There are no shutters or glazing for the chamber above. There is a metal bracket on the sill, so I think a spyglass was once mounted there, perhaps the old one,' Denethor answered as he dusted himself off. 'I think that was used for observations, but don't know why it stopped being used. I could look for a reason in the archives.'

'It does not matter,' the Steward irritably replied. 'What about this new glass?'

'I think it could be used to watch for signals from Osgiliath, my lord,' Thorongil said. 'It would be faster than messengers.'

'But that would mean keeping someone here all the time,' Hathol protested. Ecthelion turned and walked out, followed by the others. Hathol and Thorongil argued all the way down the stairs about signals versus messengers. The Steward locked the door and dismissed them curtly. Denethor motioned for the captain to follow him out. The two left on the upper walk and went to the far end of the battlement. Denethor leaned against the wall and waited for Thorongil to talk.

'That is a powerful glass.' Denethor nodded. 'I think it could be used for things other than watching for signals.'

'I agree. But it is also good for signals. The Steward must permit it to be used at any time.'

'I do not remember that door.'

Denethor ignored the implicit question. 'I am interested in towers.'

'In what way?'

'What do you think of Curunír?'

'That is a wizard, not a tower.'

'He is a wizard in a tower. Well?'

'You know what I think.'

'I would hear it again so I do not misremember.'

'Not to be trusted.'

'Because?'

'Because he is not to be trusted,' Thorongil stubbornly repeated.

'I shall have to trust you on that, then. So, what would it take to dislodge that wizard from that tower?'

'Another wizard. Perhaps more than one.'

'You are on good terms with another wizard. Would he help us in this?'

Thorongil shook his head. 'No. They do not meddle in each other's affairs.'

'They only meddle in ours,' Denethor wryly noted.

'Why do you want Saruman out?'

'I do not trust wizards, and I have better use for Angrenost than leaving it to him.'

'What would you use it for?'

'Obviously to guard the Fords and other things in that area.'

'There is no one to man it.'

'There might be.'

'Who? The Rohirrim do not have the men.'

'Not them.' Denethor caught Thorongil's eyes. 'It is for the Dúnedain. It is for the Lost.'

Thorongil stared back for several heartbeats, then turned away, shaking his head. 'No. We don't want it.'

We? The authority with which the captain spoke was absolute. 'What else do you have?' He could see Thorongil's jaw clench. 'You said yourself to me there was little in the north.'

'It is enough.'

'You grow less with every year, don't you? If there is nothing left…'

'We have our honor!' Thorongil snapped, turning about. His face was fierce. 'We have hope…'

'Housed inside your own forms, yes, and too much pride for your own good. But where do you house your forms? Where is your place in the world?'

'That is no concern of yours.'

'Yes, it is. As you said your concern is Gondor, mine is also for the Dúnedain, no matter where they are or of what line.'

'No. We are of the north.'

'The north.' Denethor leaned against the battlement and looked that direction. 'You say it would not interest me. That of itself makes me curious.' The captain held his tongue, watching Denethor warily. 'I tire of your evasions, Thorongil. I have placed great trust in you, and you return naught.'

'You receive my service and it is true.' The man's words were said calmly enough, but his cheeks flushed.

'I want answers.'

'Then ask.'

'Tell me of Bree.'

Thorongil showed astonishment before he could school his face. 'How do you know of Bree?'

'I thought I was asking the questions.' Again the captain was silent. 'I learned its name from a tinker upon the road. He spoke of it as a place of beer and pipeweed and that it was far north. Is that true?'

'Yes.'

Denethor decided that he would ask questions rapidly and see if he could catch Thorongil unawares. 'Farther north than yourself?'

'No.'

'Are you of Bree?'

'No.'

'Is it one of your settlements?'

Thorongil hesitated a moment, then shook his head. 'It is a place of simple folk, the same stock as the Dunlendings.'

'They are allied?'

'I think they have forgotten each other.'

'How many?'

'Perhaps four thousands in the town itself. If you include all the lands and villages around it, a little over twice that.'

Larger than Edoras. There most certainly was something in the north. 'How many are Lost?'

Thorongil's eyes were crafty. 'Depends on how drunk they are.'

It was an effort to keep a straight face. 'Is it walled?'

'A stockade.'

'A market?'

'Yes.'

'Built of wood or stone?'

'Both.'

'Beer and pipeweed?'

'Good and plentiful.'

'Where should a traveler go for the best beer?'

'That's easy. The Prancing Pony.'

'How far to a larger settlement?'

Thorongil stopped, considering. 'A long way. South. The Deeping Coombe.'

'North?'

'Waste.'

'West?'

'Nothing greater.'

'East?'

Thorongil glanced away north. 'Over the mountains,' he eventually answered, 'Erebor, Esgaroth and Dale. Together they are larger.'

'What kind are they?'

'Men of Rhovanion. Dwarves.' The captain kept his eyes fixed north.

You are lying. The Lost's settlements must be to the east of Bree, wherever that was. Denethor knew he would find a tinker to figure out the location. 'Are there pigs in Bree?'

Finally the captain looked at him again. 'Yes.'

'But you do not meddle in the affairs of those simple folk.'

'No.'

'So the Lost live nowhere, in the middle of nothing, and have not even a village the size of Bree to their name, yet you refuse a great and ancient home of the Dúnedain. Do you fear ousting a wizard?' Thorongil's face became a mask. 'Do you speak for all of the Lost?' Denethor challenged, 'Do you have that authority? Do they follow you?'

'I tell you what it is any of the Lost would think.'

'Shall I ask Halmir?'

The captain shrugged. 'If you wish. The answer will be the same.'

'Two opportunities missed in one day,' Denethor softly mocked. Thorongil stared at him. 'Keep the shirt. It wears better than honor. Or hope. Though a fortress might be better than either.' The captain nodded curtly and walked off.

Denethor returned to the Stewards House and went to Emeldir's room. Locking the door behind him, he went to the wardrobe and took out the palantír. Denethor sat on the bed, facing towards Dol Amroth. Taking several deep breaths to compose himself, he looked into the stone. The colors swirled, then formed, and he swooped down upon the keep. It did not take long to find her. She sat in the sun on a balcony, reading to Angelimir. To Denethor's delight, she faced east and he could look upon her eyes and smile directly. He watched until she rose and helped her grandfather inside.



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Last Update: 10 Mar 12
Stories: 8
Type: Reader List
Created By: Aiwendiel


Of course there are thousands of stories out there, and I have only read a fraction of them. NOT intended to be a scientific survey! My picks of stories that I feel are particularly well written, stylistically interesting, lyrical... Regardless of era, topic or character.

Why This Story?

Truly exceptional writing by the very talented Anglachel, marvelously nuanced and mature, enriches understanding of the main characters as well as enhancing grasp of Gondor's recent history. Utterly believable backstory of Denethor II as portrayed by JRRT.

 

Story Information

Author: Anglachel

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - The Stewards

Genre: Drama

Rating: Adult

Last Updated: 07/01/09

Original Post: 02/23/04

Go to Hands of the King overview