Stewards of Gondor: Slashvese Arc
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Star and Stone: 4. Scratch the Surface
As the cock crowed the day to life, Denethor's men assembled in the courtyard, readying themselves for a day's ride that promised to be both long and hard. The morning was still young, and the sun still naught but a sliver over the eastern mountains, yet the escort was wide awake, which was more than could be said of some of the faces that peered down from the barracks. Bleary eyes narrowed as the newly wakened men took in the identity of those departing, and Aragorn noted the relief that crept over their sleepy features when they realized who rode in this company. Just as a Ranger in the Wild was wary of any unexpected footfall, for these men, the noise of hoofs on cobblestones signalled the possibility of trouble—until they knew the errand of the riders, either departing or arriving, that sound might well be the herald of imminent danger. The most ordinary things we learn to fear, Aragorn thought, with no small sympathy, ere he shoved away from the wall against which he had leaned, and slipped in amongst the riders. He had already spotted Nightweave, whose dark coat stood out like a beacon amidst the browns and greys of the other animals.
Denethor was checking his tack, assuring himself that all was properly cinched, buckled, and strapped down, and at first did not notice him. When at length he glanced up to find Aragorn standing nigh at hand, he could not quite hide his startlement. It was a brief thing—a hesitation and a widening of the eyes, mainly—but nonetheless real, and in response to that look, the apology slipped out automatically, the habit of a Ranger among friends. "My apologies, my lord, I did not mean to startle you." Denethor frowned slightly at that, which prompted Aragorn to wonder whether he ought not to have remained silent out of deference to Denethor's rather pricklish sense of pride. Yet after a moment's scrutiny, Ecthelion's son seemed to dismiss the incident.
"I had wondered if you were awake yet," he replied, slapping Nightweave's great, arched neck. The stallion snorted, shaking his head, and Denethor moved aside a step to avoid the locks of mane that threatened to get in his eyes. "You know your duties?" he asked, quirking a dark brow questioningly.
"I do, my lord."
"And you know that the Steward depends upon you in this, over many others that he might have sent."
That was not truly a question, yet nevertheless, Aragorn recognized prompting when he heard it. "Yes, my lord." A slight smile tugged at his mouth, seeing the rather concerned, measuring look in Denethor's eyes. "You need not fear! I have already visited Geleafa and emptied my saddlebags, as I said I would," he said, assuming a placating tone, his smile broadening as he spoke. Nonetheless, despite his humor, he, too, took advantage of the moment to scrutinize his Captain-General, and a tense sort of silence fell between them as the customary testing of wills commenced in earnest. After awhile, aware that they were in public, they broke off, by mutual, unspoken consent, and Denethor gave him a sharp nod.
"Good," he said, economical as ever in his approval. "I shall look to see you in Poros in short order, then. Good day, Ælric. Mount up!" With that, and without so much as laying a hand on him, even to clasp arms as was usual among warriors, Denethor dismissed him, turning his attention to the men. Obedient to their captain's command, they hastened to mount, and Denethor watched from his vantage point on Nightweave's back. The eastern gates stood wide, opening onto the broad shallows of the eastern bend of the river. The water came no higher than hip deep to a tall man on that side, and so the company forded with little trouble. No sooner had they reached the opposite shore when they broke into a trot, and then a canter, passing quickly out of sight beneath the trees.
Aragorn was not the only one to look after them 'til the gates closed again, but he did not doubt that his was the most ambivalent farewell. Granted, he supposed he had no real reason to expect anything by way of comradely parting from Denethor, since the two of them scrupulously maintained their distance from each other. And I am not his equal in this time and place, and am untried in his eyes, Aragorn reminded himself firmly. Nevertheless, he was somewhat surprised by the other's abruptness—it was one thing for them to spar in private; it was another for them to do so before the men. Of course, none of them have ever seen Denethor touch me either, so it may not seem so strange to them as it does to me. Still, although Aragorn was willing to allow for differences in temperament and his own, quite unusual, up-bringing, he could not help feeling rather exasperated by Denethor's behavior.
But whatever perplexity his Captain-General aroused in him, Denethor had left him with Cair Andros's problems with less compunction than Aragorn might have expected. Even if I could do without the particular expression of that unlooked-for confidence, he thought, ruefully remembering Falthir's haunted—hunted—look last night. The second hour, and his conversation with Cair Andros's captain, would come soon enough, and Aragorn had a mind to use the intervening time to such advantage as he could manage. And so, good Rider that he was in all eyes but Denethor's, he turned from the gates and headed back for the stables where his own mount was housed. With the dawn, Cair Andros was waking to life and another day's vigil. That was well and good, yet for a Rider of the Mark, the day invariably began with a visit to the stables, and so Aragorn went thither himself, though he had more on his mind than a simple visit of courtesy to his horse.
When he had at length excused himself from the Rohirrim the night before, he had gone not to bed but up onto the walls. As he had walked the ramparts, the Éorling in him had bickered quietly with the Ranger that he was, the two parts of his soul knowing between themselves too well the points of tension likely to lie below the surface here at Cair Andros. Trouble might spawn in many places, high and low, and he had thought long about Eadwin's unusual fearfulness when it came to the matter of his duties in the stables. An unlikely breeding ground for trouble it might seem, yet as he had thought over the matter the night before, the possibility of discord had come to seem all too real. Let us see whether my guesses have aught behind them, then, he thought to himself as he crossed the courtyard.
When he arrived at the stables, he found a few of Éorl's fair sons were within already, occupied with their own mounts' care–younger men, all three of them, but none quite so young as Eadwin. They acknowledged him politely, murmuring greetings in Rohirric, which he returned. News of his arrival and identity had evidently spread as swiftly as Aragorn could wish. There were also a few Gondorian stablehands attending to the other horses; they glanced up at his entrance, frowned slightly at the smiles of the Riders, and then went on about their business, ignoring him. Yes, the news had spread, and there was certainly something amiss in the stables: the Riders upon one side and the Gondorians upon the other, each making a certain show of being occupied with their own business, all the while watching each other like hawks. And where is Eadwin in all of this? Aragorn wondered, casting about in the dimmer light for the young man. Ah! "Eadwin!" The lanky lad glanced up sharply in his direction, pausing in his ministrations to one of the horses. The animal butted him insistently in the chest, and Eadwin made haste to ply the brush over the glossy grey coat once more.
"Hlaford mín, god morgen," the boy answered, making a quick but sincere bow. Aragorn approached, holding out a hand for the horse's inspection, and smiling slightly when the beast nosed about for something more substantial than good intentions. "Mærthu!" Eadwin reproached the horse. "I fear this one is a bit of a beggar, hlaford!"
"I am trying to avoid spoiling horses, but 'tis a hard habit to break. Geleafa has me well trained," Aragorn replied, stroking the velvet soft nose, and following the white stripe up the animal's face 'til it ended in a star-like patch between the eyes. Mærthu blinked and seemed to turn his head slightly to examine the stranger, eliciting a soft chuckle from the Ranger; for a horse, it was so human an expression. "A fine beast. Is he yours?"
"Aye, hlaford. He came from my cousin's herd, one of the late foals five years ago. I suppose that makes us both summat new," Eadwin confided, flushing slightly, though whether in embarrassment for having said so much or out of pride for his steed, it was impossible to say.
"I suppose you see to all the horses here, as is customary?"
"Aye, I do," Eadwin said proudly. But then he paused, frowning ere he added hastily, "Well, not all of the horses, of course: only those of my company or those who need tending when others are busy. I do not steal from the others." Aragorn nodded at that, though he wondered which 'others' Eadwin meant: the other Riders or the Gondorians. Although each Rider looked after his own mount, as the youngest member of his company, Eadwin would be bound by tradition to see to the messier tasks associated with the care of his company's horses while on campaign.
A young man had much to learn from his elders, and the Rohirrim held firmly to the belief that a man could learn much of the Rider from the horse. Hence such as Eadwin were assigned to tend to a company's mounts as a way of knowing their comrades, and even their lord or captain. Good sense and good discipline both came of the stables in the Mark. Besides, no true son of the Mark could resist the opportunity to handle well-bred, well-trained horses. As a rule, therefore, the Rohirrim made light of such fledgling duties. Given the rather rapturous look that Eadwin cast round at the Rohirric steeds stabled here, Aragorn decided the lad's enthusiasm for his chores was unfeigned. Indeed, Aragorn suspected Eadwin had never managed to convincingly feign anything–he was too young and his native disposition too honest to appreciate yet the value of dissembling.
He was also, no fault of his or his fellows who were likely as ignorant, unable to appreciate whence his troubles came, given his pride in his station, be it ever so lowly. For the Gondorian stablehands likely did not view their duties in the same light. The stablehands of Cair Andros were proficient, and certainly not unkind—they knew well that the lives of the garrison might rest on these horses, who could bear a man swiftly hence for help or meet the pillaging Orcs ere they could threaten the folk of Anórien. But they were stablehands and nothing more, and Aragorn had wondered last night as he had paced the battlements what they made of this gawky Rohirric intruder. Some doubtless would have been happier had he taken over the maintenance of the entire stable; others likely resented him for having implied by his very presence that Rohan did not trust Gondor even to muck out the horse stalls. In small men, pride was more often easily bruised.
And given Eadwin's anxiety last night, I suspect bruises of one sort lead to bruises of another, Aragorn thought, even as he observed, "From the look of things, you do well."
Eadwin flushed slightly at the praise, but he seemed pleased, and ducked his head in a short sort of bow. "My thanks, hlaford. 'Tis my pleasure."
"Indeed. Do you talk much with the others, then? The Gondorian stablehands, that is, for shared duties make for better companionship, I expect, when your friends must hasten to other duties or are gone on patrol," Aragorn asked casually, watching Eadwin for his reaction. And it needed no keen eye to glean it, either: Eadwin flinched. Obviously. Violently. If Aragorn had ever doubted his sense that trouble lurked in the stables, his uncertainty was laid immediately to rest. Eadwin went rigid as a post, and his voice, as he answered, was tight, pushing it up an unwelcome note.
"Summat, hlaford. Not much, but a bit... every now and again," the lad cleared his throat at the end, trying to settle his voice once more. Aragorn raised a brow, and Eadwin paled slightly.
"Meaning, I take it, that when trouble arises, you have words and more than that," the Ranger said. "You do not get along well with them, then."
"I try, hlaford mín! I swear, I have not said a wrong word that I know of! Not... not first, at least," Eadwin turned an imploring look on him, one laced with frustrated confusion and no small fear. Doubtless, after last night's warning, he feared his name would be among those sent back to Edoras with a reprimand.
"I said not so. But you have argued with them, and you have fought with them over your presence here?"
"Sometimes. We've all–I mean, t'isn't so bad since we–" and here Eadwin jerked his head at the other Riders "–have taken all our shifts together. Things are quiet now."
"Do you tell me it takes four of you to do your chores in peace?"
Biting his lip, Eadwin nodded.
"Have not any of you spoken with Breca or Hladred, or even the oldest of your company about this matter?" Aragorn asked, arching a brow. Eadwin flushed, but he stood straight as he answered.
"Everyone has his troubles–there were other... things... and we lads thought... Well, hlaford, are we not also men? And Riders? We did not wish to complain. And I am sorry about the times when I didn't, or when we didn't, hold our tempers. For my part, it'll not happen again, hlaford, I swear it on my oath as a Rider! I'll swear on–"
"Be easy, lad!" Aragorn interrupted this frantic speech. Giving the lad a reassuring smile, he gripped Eadwin's shoulders, squeezing 'til he felt the boy relax a bit under his hands. "I need no oaths from you, nor apologies at this late hour. I sought you out for it seemed to me last night that some trouble attached to you concerning your duties in the stables. You have done no wrong to recount it; indeed, you have done well by your fellows to speak for them, and also by me. If there is to be a fair reckoning, I must know how matters stand in Cair Andros, and I cannot know if I do not ask. I am not here to find fault with you or any man in this matter."
"Oh. Oh," Eadwin looked considerably relieved at that, and at his second utterance, his tone changed completely, as realization set in of what Aragorn intended. Blinking in astonishment, he asked, "You mean to do this as you would in the Mark? Will they let you, hlaford?"
"I mean to do this according to my judgment of what is best for both Gondor and the Mark. In the mean time, as I cannot be everywhere, I suggest that you speak with your Gondorian fellows and explain why it is that you are here in just such terms as you explained yourself to me: you are not a thief, you do only what you have been asked to do by your captain and tradition."
"Well of course I do! Why else would I be here?" Eadwin asked, genuinely puzzled.
"Perhaps you might ask that of one of the friendlier stablehands, lad. Good morning to you." With that none too subtle hint, Aragorn gave the boy a nod and went over to bid Geleafa a good day and see to his horse's needs, thinking over this seeming small piece of the puzzle. And yet such matters were never so small as they seemed. What one man overlooks, another deems the treasure of his house, he reminded himself. Horses, and a sense of right, of place in the world, and of pride in that place—one may count upon the Éorlingas to hold these things dear, and in that order, whereas in Gondor, one may be certain such concerns are ranked differently, horses being near the bottom of a longer list. Best then to deal with such 'minor' matters as quarrels among stable lads soonest, so that they might, with luck and perseverence, resolve themselves without ever reaching Falthir's attention. For judging from last night's interview with the Captain and the grievances voiced by the Riders, he doubted that Falthir would see such disputes as anything but proof that the Rohirrim were apt to make trouble over even 'trivial' matters, which would not incline him favorably towards a 'compromise' with his subordinates, who were also his allies.
Our allies... and now my people in too many ways, perhaps. It was easier to respect a people from a distance, rather than deal with them in close quarters—that much a Ranger knew well. It was easier to learn to live with one man in close quarters than to share one's home with many; hence Thengel's ready acceptance in Gondor and, he supposed, his own, back in Minas Tirith. For one man learned more swiftly to follow the customs of his hosts, whereas put him with another of his race, and immediately native habit resurfaced, confounding outsiders. And the outsiders resent being made such, especially when they are not themselves strangers in the land; whatever my place in Gondor, I shall be Éorling first to those with a grievance against them, Aragorn sighed inwardly, even as he succumbed to Geleafa's soulful look and searching. Reaching into his wallet, he surrendered the apple he had intended to eat later, laughing softly at the rather triumphant snort Geleafa issued ere accepting the treat. He caught Eadwin grinning over Mærthu's lowered neck, before the lad hastily attempted to look interested in braiding his horse's mane. I had best talk to Breca about him, Aragorn decided. As soon as I may, that is. That poor lad is so new to the ranks, his horse could break him in!
Eadwin had brushed Geleafa down last night, so there was no real need for him to repeat the process, yet he had another hour before he was due to meet with Falthir. Not that he was precisely nervous, but sitting still was not an attractive idea to him at the moment, and brushing Geleafa was at least something to do, and a very soothing something at that. "Do not grow to expect such pampering, Geleafa," he muttered in Sindarin as he retrieved a brush from a shelf in the back of the stall. The horse whiffled at that, and had Geleafa been human, the sentiment would have been clear enough—smug gloating. Shaking his head, Aragorn let his mind wander as he took the brush to the animal's already glossy hide, and the minutes slipped slowly away.
Falthir frowned, leaning his elbows on his desk as he ran claw-like fingers through his hair, and contemplated what was likely to be a most unpleasant hour. Assuming, that is, that it was a full hour–the Rohirrim were notoriously lax in their notion of timeliness, particularly the newcomers, and he had no intention of allotting more than an hour this morning to Captain Ælric. I should be working now, he thought miserably, and ground his frustration under a mental heel. Still, it whispered and preyed upon his thoughts as he reviewed the past three years that had led to this point. His captain's death in a skirmish with the Orcs had left Cair Andros under one Lord Torost, until word had come through courier that the Steward had chosen Falthir, of all people, to take up the mantle of authority upon the isle.
As one of the younger lieutenants, the promotion had come as something of a surprise (albeit a pleasant one). Following the tradition of nobility in Gondor, he had served as an officer for several years at Cair Andros. Captaincies, however, were hard to come by, particularly for one just shy of thirty. Men like Lord Denethor, who were captains by twenty, were rare, and usually their social station dictated their early rise to independent command, although ability also had much to do with such elevated rank. Still, as far as Falthir could remember, there had been but one example of a second son inheriting the rank of Captain-General of Gondor over his elder brother, for 'with age comes wisdom,' as the saying went. Thus Falthir was acutely conscious of being one of very few who had gained his current lofty title despite his youth.
Of course, Lord Torost would likely have become captain, had not the Steward wished him to go to Ithilien instead, Falthir thought. Moreover, there had been others who might have sat in this chair. Yet it seemed that fate had conspired to single him out: once promoted, two of the lieutenants who had been candidates for his present office had been killed while helping Ithilien repel an unusually strong attack, leaving him suddenly the most experienced officer in Cair Andros. Those who had replaced them were younger than even Falthir was, as the older, more experienced men were sent south to deal with the creeping Haradric threat. The first year as Cair Andros's captain had thus been a trial, but he had managed well enough, and had been pleased to repay the trust granted him. But the second year....
Falthir sighed softly, staring at the watch roster, with its mixture of Gondorian and Rohirric names. The Rohirrim had come that year, and although Falthir had proved adept enough at ordering the ranks of Gondor's soldiers, the Rohirrim seemed to resist him at every turn. None of them had managed to be on time for their watches at first, according to the watch captains, and although that problem had seemed to resolve itself, they remained less than willing to appear on time short of an officer's insistence. Then there was the matter of their appalling state of readiness–most had had very few encounters with the enemy when they arrived, yet showed a disturbingly haughty dismissal of the dangers and seriousness of the business of war, which did nothing to inspire confidence in their abilities. It made their unasked for advice the harder to stomach, and to Falthir's disgust, the nominal leaders of their particular units proved argumentative, which only incited the rank and file to unruly insolence. They seemed constitutionally incapable of following orders without voicing comment.
And those are their better traits! he thought sneeringly. That some of them had trouble understanding the Common Speech might be expected, although that did not prevent arguments from arising, even from those whose command of the language was questionable. But that most of them were unlettered, unable to read posted orders or schedules, was as ridiculous to Falthir as it was irritating. Then there were the horses. The Rohirrim loved their horses more than their comrades, certainly, and did not bother to hide that fact–men had lost teeth over discussions of horses of Rohan. And the excuse was always the same: In the Mark.... Punitive duties had curbed their behavior for a time, but in the last two weeks, resentment had burst violently into the open once again, much to a captain's bewildered frustration.
There were days when Falthir asked himself what he had done to merit this, and why it should drag on for two years only to become unbearable now. To write the whole, sorry tale out for the Steward's review had been excruciating, and he had dreaded the Captain-General's reaction. He had half-hoped that Lord Denethor had simply been passing through Cair Andros last night, and the conversation had seemed to make that hope reasonable. Until the end, Falthir thought, feeling trapped and betrayed. It was bad enough to involve Lord Denethor in such matters. Falthir had spent quite a long while wavering over whether to send his letter in the first place, fearful of revealing his inadequacy to deal with the task at hand. But then the Captain-General had handed him over to one of the Rohirrim for judgment! Or so Falthir judged, given the name, his speech, and how well he had gotten along with Breca and his lot the night before. "They know him, sir," the watch captain had said when he had come to make his report early that morning. "No doubt about that. And he knows them."
Probably that meant that Ælric had a Rohirric mother or father, and Falthir instinctively mistrusted that influence. He may look the part of an officer of Gondor, but if he favors the Rohirrim, he likely has more than passing interest in such culture as they have! Mayhap I could claim an unfair alliance with the Rohirrim, and get a new judge. It was a tempting idea, yet he hesitated to consider it too closely. For Lord Denethor vouches for him, he reminded himself. If he trusts this Captain Ælric, then I should not presume to doubt him, should I? I ought to take that trust as a hopeful sign, surely. Nevertheless, and despite the stigma of earning Lord Denethor's disapproving attention, he found himself more willing to face the Captain-General's razor-sharp criticism than that of this... this... hybrid unknown. At least the Captain-General could be counted upon to give clear, unambiguous orders. When problems presented themselves, he took them in hand, and one always knew where one stood with him and why. When he issued judgments, they made sense, and if they did not, one could trust that his reasoning was sound.
With a sigh, Falthir resolutely set himself once more to the task of organizing the next quarter's budget. He had just begun to sort through the figures when a knock sounded. Cair Andros's captain looked up in surprise as the sentry opened the door wide enough to reveal Captain Ælric standing to one side behind him. "Captain Ælric is here to see you, sir," the man announced.
"Ah... of course," Falthir managed, surreptitiously glancing at the clock. It was, indeed, the second hour–precisely so. "Come in, Captain," he beckoned after a moment's hesitation. Ælric stepped past the sentry with a polite nod for the door-warden, and then turned studious grey eyes on Falthir. What the captain might be studying, Falthir did not know with certainty, and he was unwilling to speculate. At the least, though, he would not give the other cause to fault his courtesy. "Good morning, Captain," he offered, in a tolerably off-hand manner, as if the man's very presence did not send tension up his back.
"Good morrow," Ælric replied, then paused ere he asked, "I apologize for the interruption. Do you need a few more minutes?"
"Ah... no. Why do you ask?" Falthir demanded, thrown off by the question. And on the heels of momentary confusion came a certain resentment. I said the second hour. Does he think me as lax as the Rohirrim in matters of punctuality?
"I ask because you seemed surprised to see me. I assumed you were preoccupied with some other matter," the captain replied easily enough.
"No, not at all," Falthir replied, recovering himself somewhat as he waved towards the chairs. "Please be seated, as we have much to discuss."
"Indeed, we do." Ælric waited until Falthir had taken a seat, then lowered himself into the chair across from him, watching him closely in a manner unnervingly similar to that of Lord Denethor. Falthir had not paid overmuch attention to him the night before, had only truly looked at him when Denethor had informed him of his fate. And although he had been struck by the incongruous pairing of name and features, even then, he had noted more than a passing similarity to Lord Denethor. Another young captain, this one, and an even younger advisor, and Falthir felt less than comfortable beneath his gaze. "I have read your complaints, and also those of the Rohirrim. Two years can breed much resentment, when no efforts are made to alleviate the conditions that give rise to such complaints." Falthir felt his jaw clench at that, mindful of the rebuke despite Ælric's easy tone. "Had you served with Rohirrim, ere you became captain here?"
"No. I served on the isle from the time I accepted my commission. Cair Andros was the first garrison to receive a company complete of Riders, and that occurred not long after I became captain here. That was some two years ago, that they came under my command. Before then, most of them had gone piecemeal to the south, as their numbers were never enough to make a worthwhile company or addition in the north." So he said, and kept his opinions as to their worth en masse carefully behind his teeth. From the way the other man looked at him, however, he suspected the captain sensed the omission.
"I see. From what I know of your career, Falthir"—and despite the fact that rank permitted the other to speak his bare name, Falthir found himself resenting the intrusive, Rohirric familiarity—"I own myself somewhat surprised by the troubles in Cair Andros. Usually, such difficulties as you describe are evident much earlier, yet we had received no complaints. And then came letters from yourself, from Hladred, and also from Rohan. I would have preferred Hladred to be present, as it was his letter that inspired Thengel King's response. As that is now impossible, it were best that we spoke with the new liaison. Who is he?"
Not Breca, as you know perfectly well, since the Rohirrim doubtless told their tale last night! thought Falthir, and cursed his own timorousness that had led to a too-long delay between his writing the original draft of complaints, and his sending a revised one to reflect the latest concerns that had surfaced with Hladred's death. He had never met King Thengel, although to hear the older men in Minas Tirith speak, he had been unusually circumspect for one of the Rohirrim, and was a friend of Ecthelion. Which only made this worse, as he had not realized that Hladred's complaints had been sent back along the Beacon Hills to Rohan. Doubtless, he had slipped them to one of Rohan's errand riders who routinely delivered messages along that route. "For the moment, we have none," he replied. "I have found, in fact, that the Rohirric liaison can be more trouble than help, I fear. It is one reason I am hesitant to accept the man the Rohirrim propose to take Hladred's place. They argue much for concessions that I see no need to grant. I suppose," he asked, unable to resist, "that you learned of Hladred's death from them?"
"I did–" Ælric began, and then raised a brow when Falthir cut him off.
"Without wishing to seem too forward, there was nothing that could have saved him, and accidents happen in battle," Cair Andros's captain insisted, with just a touch of heat.
"I said not otherwise, nor did the Rohirrim last night."
"Oh?" Falthir demanded skeptically. "Your pardon, Ælric, if I seem doubtful of that, for I have heard quite a few complaints that verge on accusations of murder. And three of my lads have stitches or broken bones from fights over that... incident."
"You may rest assured that there will be no further brawls, else those responsible will answer to their own lords, as well as to you, for disgracing Rohan," Ælric said, cocking his head slightly as he gazed steadily at Falthir. "However, what I meant was that couched thus, no one, Rider or Gondorian, would doubt that accidents happen, or that Hladred's wound was mortal. But whether Hladred's death was necessary is another matter, to be addressed later. For the moment, what is most important to my mind is that the fights cease. The Rohirrim, at least, shall not initiate any further brawls, and I would urge you to seek a similar promise from the Gondorians."
"Were it not for the Rohirrim, my men would have naught to quarrel over. Can I trust that that promise shall hold among them?"
"It shall hold," Ælric replied, with rather oppressive certainty, and pinned Falthir under his stare, silencing him with a look. "You realize the seriousness of Hladred's death, do you not?"
"It was regrettable, but I begin to regret more the disruption it causes!"
"Falthir, what know you of Rohirric custom?" Ælric demanded.
"I have little knowledge of it," Falthir admitted uncomfortably, sensing that Ælric had suspected as much. "What reason had I ever to study it?" he asked, defensively. "And since I came here, there has been little opportunity, other than–"
"Had you studied it, or had you listened more carefully, perhaps, to the complaints voiced, you might have realized that the death of an officer, when perceived to be unnecessary, is a matter his men might well bring before a court in Rohan."
"I–what?" Manners escaped him entirely, and Falthir stared in disbelief. "They would bring it to a court as unnecessary? Hladred did his duty, no more and no less. It ended in death, as it did for many others beside him."
"I do not doubt it," Ælric replied, grimly, shaking his head. "Yet the question remains: need he have died? The Rohirrim believe not, and that would be grounds for accusation in Rohan. Were you to be convicted, you would pay a wergild."
"This is not Rohan–"
"But they are Rohirrim," Ælric interjected. "They are also your men, as much as any of the Gondorians here are, and if you are not willing to claim them, then there will be no end of trouble. You dislike that they argue with you? Or that I speak to you now and call you by your name?" Falthir stiffened at that, for he had thought that he had hidden his resentment well. The corners of Ælric's mouth twitched slightly at that, as if he were amused by Falthir's reaction. "I assure you, Captain, that if you do not learn of them in such matters, resentment shall continue to grow and make your task more difficult. For my part, I shall do what I can to make Gondor's ways clear to them, to spare us all needless frustration. But it is not necessarily my place to do such explaining–it is the business of the liaison officer... and of the Captain of Cair Andros."
"Breca is arrogant," Falthir retorted, instantly defensive, even as he tried to digest what had just been said.
"But not insubordinate, else you would have disciplined him already," the other said, with utter certainty, and Falthir gritted his teeth. "More importantly, the Riders, to a man, trust him," Ælric continued on, pointedly. "They have formally asked him to speak for them, and that means that any man who took his place at your request would be seen as a usurper."
"Many are they who might prefer another commander to the one that they have," Falthir replied, his voice taut. "Yet we do not elect them to suit the desires of the men. I will not make an exception in this case simply to please a troublesome lot of letterless green soldiers! That is my right, and my duty–to keep order in my command through the officers that I choose."
"It is your right, yes. And it is your duty to keep order," Ælric conceded, and paused significantly, eyeing Falthir expectantly. Falthir blushed before that too neutral regard, which reminded him that indeed, the very lack of order was what had brought Ælric hither. "Strictly speaking, it is the right of a captain to appoint whomever he wishes, so long as the laws of Gondor are kept. However, in practice, it is a wise captain who picks the man who is not only competent, but one whom others will follow. The Riders support Breca, and he would be an asset to you if the two of you would agree to work with each other instead of at cross purposes. Your command gains, Gondor profits by your decision, and your right as captain remains intact."
"And shall the Rohirrim crow over my capitulation?" demanded Falthir, archly, still quite tense.
"This is not a matter of surrender. The Rohirrim are not your enemies, to be denied in principle, Falthir of Cair Andros," Ælric replied, his tone sharpening a bit. "Nor are they unwilling servants, as you shall discover, though in some matters, allowances must be made for their differences. So long as the Rohirrim cannot serve Gondor effectively, they do a disservice to Rohan, and they are not unaware of this. Their honor is at stake as much as is yours in this matter," Ælric pressed on, in a deadly reasonable tone, pinning Falthir with a painfully intense regard. "Gondor's honor is at stake, for the care of men entrusted to her by Rohan. Now, will you accept Breca, or will you choose another? If another, I suggest you explain to me his merits over Breca's–for Breca's I know, having served with him before–so that I may explain your choice to them, and spare us all an ordeal."
"None of the others are suited to the task, that I know of," Falthir murmured, and winced inwardly at his sulky tone. As he ended, he cleared his throat, painfully aware of the fact that he was being chivvied to a decision like a child... and that he might possibly deserve it.
"Then it is to be Breca."
"I... would rather think further on it. There are some I have not considered yet." Which was a way of forestalling the inevitable, and also an oblique way of admitting he had not so much as looked at the records of the others, so intent had he been on countering the maneuvering of the Rohirrim. Ælric sighed softly, seeming somewhat frustrated, but in the end, the look he turned on Falthir was not disparaging so much as disappointed.
"Very well then. We shall speak further on this tonight. I expect that you shall have come to a decision by then."
"Yes... yes, of course."
"Good day then, Captain," Ælric rose and made him a polite salute ere he turned to head for the door. Falthir stared after him with mixed emotions, wondering to what precisely Lord Denethor had delivered him. Ælric did not behave as he had come to expect Rohirrim to behave, and he felt himself on shifting ground with the Captain-General's aide.
"You are Rohirric, are you not?" he found himself asking, just ere the other reached the door. And then he had to grit his teeth in the face of the other's searching regard.
"Why do you ask?"
"Are you doing this–" Falthir paused and drew as circumspect a breath as he could manage, and then blurted the burning question out ere he could think better of it. "Do you speak thus because you truly believe me so unreasonable, or because you are one of the Rohirrim and wish to protect your own?" In truth, it was likely a foolish question, but one vital to Falthir's peace of mind in this matter, and though he felt the other's stare grow hard as steel, he did not retract it. Ælric's expression was almost painfully neutral, but it was clear enough that Falthir had just stepped onto thin ice indeed.
"No, Captain, what I say has naught to do with blood allegiance, nor was I sent to paint either the Riders or the Gondorians as villains. What actions I take, I take because I do serve Gondor, and beyond her, any others who would oppose Sauron." Falthir jerked at that, startled by the blunt and unapologetic naming of the Enemy, and Ælric gave a slight smile, which startled Falthir anew. "You cannot fight what you will not name, nor treat with what you do not know. Now you know my purpose–use the knowledge well when next we meet, and to Gondor's profit." So saying he left, and it was a very subdued young captain that remained behind.
Since there was no one to see him, Aragorn took the last set of stairs two at a time, obeying some primitive instinct that clamored for movement. For all that the Elves had taught him first how to endure long, exhausting journeys, he suspected this particular urge derived from the restless Númenoreans rather than the Eldar, who, after untold millennia of strife, yearned for stillness. For a Man, however, to succumb to such quietude was to invite death, or so he saw it, and liked not Falthir's tenacious clinging to a precarious and unworkable situation. He hoped that he had not pushed the man too hard, but Cair Andros's captain had that stale aura of one entrenched, who needed badly to be shaken, ere ideas ossified to the detriment of all concerned.
Of course, I perhaps did not need to rattle him quite as severely as I did in the end, Aragorn thought, and suppressed a flash of irritation. It had been long, however, since he had been quite so thoroughly insulted by another's words, even if he sensed that Falthir had needed to question his motives. In the end, it may work to our advantage that he did, if he is convinced of my sincerity. He may not be unreasonable, then, Aragorn mused, and sighed inwardly as he reached the bottom of the steps and emerged once more into the courtyard, which was now alive with activity as men went about their chores. He paused to watch them, noting the way they clustered whenever they paused: the Riders held together in the midst of Gondor's soldiers, and the Gondorians did their best to ignore them unless their business brought them in contact with the Éorlingas.
Like Elves and Dwarves, the thought occurred, though he immediately dismissed it as an insulting comparison on all sides, not to mention baseless. Gondor and Rohan had a long history of friendship—at times closer, at times more distant—but five hundred years barely scratched the surface of the Ages-old bitterness between the elder children of Middle-earth. For which I may be grateful, Aragorn reminded himself, firmly quelling the self-pity that writhed and whined on its (short) leash. Instead, he considered again his approach to the troubles of Cair Andros, aligning players and problems, wondering how long it would take for Falthir to address the fort's difficulties rather than shrink from them.
Even if I believe I understand why he does turn away from the Éorlingas, I cannot excuse the habit. We are all of us a bit too young, perhaps, for our charges, Falthir and Denethor and I! he thought of a sudden. Yet that absolved none of them of responsibility, and he wondered how Denethor fared as he made his way south to Poros. Better than Falthir or I now, I hope, though I suspect just as badly. Aragorn felt a stab of sympathy for the escort, who would be forced to endure their lord captain's brooding silence for the next few days. For he doubted that Ecthelion's son would take the time to step away from the problem, as Aragorn had last night, exchanging tales with the Riders. Briefly, he tried to imagine Denethor telling stories to his men, but quickly abandoned the effort as fruitless. Denethor was not the sort to find relief in such pursuits, although Aragorn admitted that the unlikely image was quite entertaining in its way.
Across the way, just then, he noted Breca in conversation with another Rider, and his interest shifted quite suddenly. Some of the lieutenants are more lenient than others, the man had said the night before. And he would know which they are, Aragorn thought. The Captain of Cair Andros would naturally be the final guarantor of peace within the fort's ranks, but at the moment, Falthir's reluctance hindered them all. But his lieutenants would be a part of this in any case. I need another voice from the Gondorians, one more objective than Falthir's. Determined to find one, he made his way across the courtyard towards Breca, intent upon his task once more.
An owl's hoot sounded, full and vibrant as it pierced the thin, incessant hum of crickets. All is well, the night is fair, that cry said, and Denethor allowed himself to relax fractionally, there, inside himself, where his men would never note the difference in his outward demeanor. To the escort's eyes, their lord found a night passed beneath Ithilien's eaves no different from one spent at Cair Andros. And that was how it ought to be, Denethor reflected, for a commander who was too apt to allow the land to dictate his perceived mood was one who encouraged fear and doubt in his men. And that we cannot afford, ever! Nevertheless, Denethor could admit, privately, that he would never be at ease in the wilds of Gondor—not that he could not function in them (and quite well and lethally at that, insofar as his enemies were concerned), but in the absence of an established camp, there were too many variables, too many things left to chance, and the land itself threatened to swallow them into its depths, leaving no traces behind. Even as it did Isildur, he thought, gazing into the night from his position atop a fallen tree trunk. The tree must have fallen ages ago, for it was thickly covered in moss, and there was no gap in the canopy to tell of its loss. The moss, at least, provided some cushioning, and Denethor was not above taking advantage of what comfort he could in Ithilien and elsewhere. In the midst of the woods, after a hard day's ride, he could allow himself that much.
Fortunately for his peace of mind, some of the men in the escort were farm-bred, or hunters by trade, and therefore accustomed to a wide waste of untamed space surrounding them. So long as they were undisturbed, Denethor could watch the darkness of the forest with less mistrust and (if he were honest) fear. Tonight, the outland lads were calm, even congenial, so long as low-voiced conversation did not turn to their mission. But of course, none could resist the lure of scandal, particularly not one so large as to be almost unthinkable. And so, interspersed between tales of home and hearth, of tavern exploits and bedroom (Or rather, boarding room! Denethor thought cynically) conquests, ever and anon, someone would mention Poros, and immediately, faces would fall as the specter of treachery reared its head.
"I know a lad from my village who went to Poros," one of the men was saying even now. "Anzîl his name was—or is, so far as I know." A pause, then, "I hope he's all right still, that he has not turned. It would kill his parents to learn that he got involved in this sort of shameful doing!"
"Ah, but when the high fall, the lesser do, too," said another morosely, stroking his salt and pepper beard with thoughtful grimness. "There are officers mixed up in this, or it would not have gone on so long, nor grown to be such a problem. What can a man do, if his betters tell him to meet with the cursed Southrons and deliver goods or contracts?"
"Refuse," said a third, sounding somewhat indignant.
"And break his oath to serve and obey his captain?" the second challenged. "That, too, is treason. And how would he know his captain wasn't straight? Do you ask your captain to explain himself to you any time he gives you orders that you cannot understand? I doubt these officers tell their men what they intend—they just order them to do such and such, and naturally, it is done."
"But after a time, how could a man not know what is being done under the veil of authority? And sometimes it is right to break with orders—look at the Southrons who do cooperate with us, against the orders of their lords and captains. And we encourage them!" argued the other.
"Most of them are criminals anyway," the bearded man replied, contemptuously. Spearing his interlocutors with his eyes, he stabbed a forefinger into the palm of his hand for emphasis. "Mark my words, lads! If you had the choice, you would obey your captain and your lord, rather than argue and refuse. Why? Because you know you don't know all that he does, and because you swore an oath to obey him. It's an easy path downhill, and I, for one, don't think many would know enough not to slide if their betters bid them slip. I know a lot of men, on the other hand, who would throw themselves down that slope, if their captain ordered them to do it."
Murmurs arose at that, as men began debating the matter, and from his place across the clearing, Hildar, the taciturn chief of Denethor's escort and well known to the Steward's heir, raised a brow at him, as if trying to ascertain whether he ought to intervene. But just then, the talk died a bit as the first lad's voice rose above the others. He spoke slowly, almost hesitantly at first:
"Anzîl swore an oath to obey the Steward. He swore to live and to die by Lord Ecthelion's command, and that came first, before he was sworn into his post at Poros." And as he spoke, his words came more quickly, and he glanced round at the others for support as he continued with more confidence, "I hope he thought of that, if ever he came to that slope you speak of, Laeros. So long as a man remembers his oath to the Steward, then he should know his duty, whatever his captain tells him." There were some oblique glances cast in Denethor's direction at that, as if mention of the Steward had reminded them that latent in their commander's blood was the authority of twenty-five generations of Mardil's House. Something akin to embarrassed hopefulness settled over the group, as if to name the Steward was to invoke that office, to provoke the heir to that station to answer their fears and confusion in this difficult matter. Even Hildar seemed curious. And what reassurance do they think I can give them? Denethor thought, with a flare of annoyed frustration. What they wish to hear is not the truth, for who wishes to learn that there are no innocents in Poros? A commander's treachery perverts the service of all, for his men obey a man who has forfeit his authority, even though most of his orders be in accordance with good sense.
"The Steward serves Gondor first, and in serving her, serves all. However, the decisions and reasoning of the steward are not made public, but come through those whom the Steward appoints. Therefore, to serve your captain is to serve the Steward, and you should not look to judge your captain lightly," he replied at length, and watched as uneasy glances flitted round the campfire. It was the only answer he could give, however, without descending into details that were not the province of men-at-arms, and which would do more harm than good for them to consider. He was not about to foster among the rank and file a spirit of skepticism towards Gondor's officers, after all, not even in the name of the Steward, his father. Better that they obey on principle, despite their questions, than that they stand like mules against every decision they could not fathom. One could always pardon them later, and according to the degree of their complicity, as he planned to do at Poros once he had that matter well in hand.
After an uncomfortable silence, the men returned to their talk, which predictably moved immediately to other, less difficult subjects. It was almost amusing, how swiftly and fervently they were willing to forget the topic, and cling instead to the mundane matters that filled a soldier's day and occupied his thoughts during the long hours of waiting on danger. Home, family, lovers, friends, the complaints of ailing joints and sore muscles, a horse's laming or some amusing tale of another's misfortune—the men turned their conversation inward once more, leaving their commander once again outside that circle, and Denethor was content to remain there. He had enough to think about without trivial distractions, for he had Poros to deal with in a very few days, and therefore no desire to clutter his mind with useless stories.
Nevertheless, he listened with half an ear to one of the older men advising a younger comrade on matters feminine. As a matter of principle, and out of habit, he preferred to be informed on all fronts, although a part of him resented the attention devoted to such topics. And while he tucked away into memory the pertinent points of the conversation unfolding before him, he debated the best tactics to take when confronting Poros's captain. Ithrin of Pelargir and once my lieutenant, he thought, recalling the man from many a past campaign with him. What could be behind his allowing what seemed so large a smuggling operation to pass through Poros? And what, if anything, did it have to do with the uneven losses suffered by Poros and Ithilien?
After a time, however, he found himself feeling oddly unsettled—more so than seemed warranted even by his errand to the south. As casually as he could manage, he let his gaze drift about the clearing, pausing momentarily on each of the sentries who stood calmly, watching the trees. Almost as soon as it arose, he dismissed the notion that something about the woods disturbed him, for those on guard were reliable men, who knew well the signs of danger in a forest. And when he paused a moment, chasing that odd sentiment down the pathways of his mind, he realized that it was not a feeling of warning that disturbed him. It was anxiety, of a sort that Denethor had little familiarity with, though its source, upon reflection, seemed familiar enough: Ælric.
With a soft sigh, Ecthelion's heir rose and stalked down the length of the log until he was well beyond the lit circle of their camp, though not so far as to be out of sight entirely. He was not so foolish as that, but he did not wish others to glean aught of his troubled frame of mind. Ælric and Cair Andros: he had left the latter in the hands of the former on his father's orders, but he could not rest easy with that arrangement. Why not? Surely I ought to trust my father's judgment of a man, for he is my lord as well as my sire, and I owe him that respect, he thought. Ecthelion's experience was greater than his own, after all, and if the Steward felt Ælric was trustworthy, then Denethor ought to accept that. Yet he could not. Perhaps it was that his doubts about Ithrin threw into sharp relief the untried loyalty of his newest captain. Certainly he mistrusted how easily, how naturally, Ælric slipped back into a Rohirric persona when set amid Rohirrim, as if he had no solid core, only faces that he put on to present to others, according to the style and expectations of his neighbors. Or perhaps it is that he does have a core, but I cannot see it clearly, in spite of all the time that we have spent together, Denethor thought darkly. Have I not caught glimpses of it? What is it in him that resists explanation? What is it that remains untouched by either Gondor or Rohan, and whence comes it? And why, when I have such reservations, do I still wish to trust him?
That was a new question, and one that struck Denethor like a blinding revelation—unsurprisingly, considering that revelation was precisely what it was. I wish to trust him! When did that happen? He hoped that it was only after Ecthelion had written him that note—a note that had come through the very one it concerned—instructing him to be certain that all, including Ælric, knew that Denethor trusted his new captain utterly. I hope, because truly, what cause, other than my father's orders, have I to trust him? I have done my best to fulfill that directive, yet I did not think that I believed it, or would believe it, myself. Do I believe my own words? Does Ælric? He supposed that Ælric did, given the man's ready acceptance of Denethor's rebuke the other day, and his amused assurance this morning. Yet the look in the other's eyes, and the very fact that he had brought up that pointed reference suggested that Ælric knew full well that Denethor had his doubts, and that he had yet to earn his lord's trust. There was also, if Denethor had read that look aright, a sublime confidence that he would earn that trust in the end, which intrigued Denethor almost as much as it irritated and frustrated him. Who are you, to assume so much? he wanted to ask, and yet refused out of pride, out of the need to play the game according to the rules that both of them knew. One did not lead into a close set when the dance called for coy distance, after all.
I should not be thinking of this! the voice of conscientious duty insisted. The problems at Poros were larger than one man, however (maddeningly) mysterious. Yet his mind continued to turn the enigma that was Ælric over and over, seeking the key that would unlock that mind and lay the other bare to his scrutiny. But thus far, nothing suggested itself, and Denethor strangled the impulse to curse the other's absence. It galled him to admit it, but what distracted him tonight was not Ælric's presence, but his very absence. It was the frustration of a strategist without a map, or a craftsman called away from a half-finished project, forced to endure the proddings of conscience that reminded him of work left undone. And yet as much as I wish to ravel this knot, still, I enjoy the exploration of its ways, Denethor thought, amused, in a somewhat disgusted fashion, with his own contrariness in this matter. And more than that, he admitted that were Ælric here, he might resent the questions of the men less, for he could have been assured of having at least one intelligent conversation about Poros. If nothing else, Denethor was quite willing to acknowledge that Ælric, at least, had wits, and a keen mind that followed Denethor's chains of logic without difficulty, even to the bitter and unpalatable conclusions that had led them both to suspect treachery in the south. Hildar, though a stolid enough man, and discreet and careful, had not that same mental agility, and so Denethor did not trouble him with speculation but only with orders.
Drawing a deep breath to settle himself, Denethor moved back along the log, eyes fastened on his men, watching the aspect of that circle of faces change with the changes in his position relative to it. Ælric's ghost trailed in his wake, and Denethor fancied that the shade of his imagination's crafting smiled at his preoccupation—a perfectly polite, unrevealing smile, such as he had come to know entirely too well in the past month. Folding down into a cross-legged position, Denethor lowered his eyes, thinking he knew not what as he stared meditatively at the intricate weave of the moss on which he sat, and which draped the log completely. Shown up by the fire's glow, strands of dark, almost grey, green stole into that carpet of green-gold like thieving fingers… like corruption… Like Ælric! he thought with wry resignation. Thief he might be, to steal Denethor's attention when it ought to be focused elsewhere, but he would be caught eventually. And then we shall see what sort of man you are in truth, Ælric Eardstapa. And Valar help you if you are not as you seem, for the pleasure of the hunt will not make me overlook injury to Gondor.
So resolved, he sat and watched the night until the watch changed, then joined his men in curling up in blankets about the fire. His watch would come early in the morning, and when it ended, they would be on their way south again.
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