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Hands of the King: 42. Misrule
Osgiliath, Mid July, 2977 T.A.
A puff of dust caught Denethor's attention and he raised the old spyglass and looked west. A messenger cantered from Minas Tirith towards Osgiliath. Tucking the spyglass under his arm, Denethor left the guard tower above the western gate and descended to the courtyard. The court's paving stones reflected the day's heat. He found Thorongil in the meeting room, looking over a collection of papers spread haphazardly on the table. The black chair sat empty. As far as Denethor could tell, the captain never made use of it. Thorongil looked up as he entered.
'We'll have the answer in a few minutes.'
'A messenger?' the captain asked, rising from his seat. He began gathering his work into a messy stack, offending Denethor's sense of order.
'He will be here within the quarter hour.' The captain smiled and collected the paper under an arm, indicating that Denethor should lead them out. They paused in the hall long enough to allow Thorongil to deposit his burden in his room; he did not bother to secure the papers in the trunk in the corner. The captain was in the same room he had used when he was Denethor's second years ago. Like the chair, Denethor's room did not appear to have been occupied since his departure a year and a half earlier.
They left the fort and descended the long causeway to the fields between the Rammas and the river. To the north of the road, near the wall of the garrison, six tall flagpoles had been sunk into the ground, each outfitted with a horizontal bar that could be raised or lowered even in strong winds or bad weather by a single man. The southernmost pole was the only one that held a flag now and it was white. For two days, they had been raising and lowering different combinations of flags, always ending with a single white flag to indicate the message was complete. Up in the Tower there were watchers who made notes of what they believed the signal code to say. The messenger was bringing the results of the observations.
The messenger drew up before them and dismounted, bowing as he held out the message pouch. Denethor took it and motioned that the man was dismissed. Thorongil followed him to the shade cast by the white banner where they sat to read the report. In the pouch were usual communications for the garrison, which Denethor handed over to the captain, as well as the results of the signal tests. His heart beat harder when he saw the handwriting on the outside; it belonged to Finduilas. The observations will have been well run. Inside, there was a small note folded into the larger report. A brief glance said it was for him, so Denethor tucked it into a pouch at his waist for later reading. The main report he read before handing to the captain.
We observed seven sets of signals. The messages were:
Attack, Morgul, mixed forces, three thousand
Attack, Southrons, human, five hundred
Execute third plan immediately
Execute first plan two hours
Rohirrim one éored
Resupply, flour, dried meat
Healers, one surgeon, medicines
There was some debate on what supplies were requested in the sixth test. The second item was guessed.
Thorongil nodded and smiled. 'Every message correct.'
'They should not guess at a meaning,' Denethor replied with a frown. Thorongil did not answer, handing the report back to Denethor before stretching out on the ground, hands behind his head, to look at the back of the banner. Denethor paid no attention to him, going over the flag color combinations and positions in his mind, trying to understand why "dried meat" would not have been obvious. Gold for resupply, then white for meal, black for flour. Ah, red next, which could have meant…
'It is a ship.' Denethor looked at Thorongil. The man was watching the banner, his expression distant, almost sleepy, which was not surprising given the mid-summer heat, but there was a glint in his eye that belied the lazy demeanor. 'Looking up, I see a ship's sail.' Thorongil turned his head, and Denethor felt trapped in the man's bright gaze. 'Why did you build it like this?'
'It is like a ship's sail. The pulleys and ropes are much like what allows large expanses of canvas to be raised and lowered on a ship.'
'Why? It is but an earth-bound flag.'
Denethor shrugged, not wanting to admit that there was no true reason for the rigging save his own desire that it should be so. Simple poles and crossbeams would have sufficed, but he had come across an engineer's sketch in the archives that intrigued him. 'If there is an attack and only a single, possibly wounded, man can be spared to raise the signal, it can be done. A woman or an older child could handle this.'
Thorongil returned his attention to the banner, then smiled. 'It is beautiful as well as beautifully done. I like that.'
'From the time of Tar-Aldarion, the kings hung the havens of Rómenna with their banner upon such standards, so they could be changed swiftly if they faded under the sun or were torn by winds from the sea.' Thorongil sat up at Denethor's words, resting his arms across his knees, attentive. 'When a great ship left the haven, its own banner would be placed upon a standard on the headland, and remained up until the ship came safely home. The banners of the Lords of Andúnië replaced those of the king when Ar-Pharazôn commanded Amandil to remove his house thither, and it was the standard of the Faithful.' The words faded, replaced by the sound of the ropes creaking slightly as the wind caught the canvas. The captain rested his chin on his arms and stared west, sometimes glancing up at the banner, sometimes looking off towards the mountains. Minas Tirith was a white spot upon Mindolluin's dark flank, details obscured by haze.
'How much longer for testing the signals?'
Denethor studied the report, then shrugged. 'It does not need more tests. I know why the one signal was confused, and will send a corrected code tomorrow. This task is done and I may go to the next.'
The captain picked at the grass near his feet. 'You mean leading Rangers in north Ithilien.'
'That is what the Steward intends for me this summer, yes.'
'Gildor is sufficient for that post,' Thorongil grumbled.
'The Steward wishes for more than sufficiency.'
'What is it this time?' Thorongil demanded, 'On what have you argued?'
'It is no concern of yours what…'
'Yes, it is!' the other snapped. 'It is my concern that the only man in Gondor who can do this,' Thorongil gestured at the banner, 'is sent to do what any moderately competent lieutenant can see to!' When Denethor refused to answer, the captain grumbled something under his breath and went back to picking at the grass. They sat for several minutes. Thorongil finally said, 'You did not try to dissuade him.'
'I tire of city walls.' Thorongil snorted in disbelief. 'I need to see for myself what is happening.'
'You never seem ill-informed.' Again he was pinned in Thorongil's probing gaze. 'Nothing I report surprises you. You knew of the raiders from Harad before the scouts did.'
'You know my southern spies are effective,' Denethor coolly replied, 'and I have been fighting Orcs in Ithilien since I was eighteen. They are creatures of habit, as is their master. It takes little to know when and how they will strike.' He stood, dusting himself off, not wishing to answer any more questions about how he knew of things far off, better than did those who were near. He also wanted some privacy in which to read Finduilas's note. Denethor collected the old spyglass. It was heavy and awkward to carry about, but he had not yet decided where the glass would go, whether to watch the City or the Enemy.
Thorongil gave him a sour look, then sighed and also rose. They walked back to the fortress. 'Will you be able to speak to your spies if you are in the north?'
'I don't need you there. I need you thinking up codes. Making things. Recovering what has been lost.'
But I am. I'm recovering you. They passed the gate into the court. Denethor halted, making Thorongil stop and face him. 'What you need or want is irrelevant, Captain, unless you can convince the Steward that he also wishes for such things. Let that be a lesson to you.' With a curt nod, Denethor walked off. He knew of a high spot on one of the outer walls that was little used, being a precarious perch, where he would be shaded from the sun. It was a perfect place to read Finduilas's note undisturbed. He was quickly ensconced in the niche, commanding a fine view of Anduin and the ruins as well as the bridge to the north. Setting the spyglass next to him, Denethor took her note from his pouch.
How I miss thee and long for thee. There is naught but heat and duty here since you left. The house knows my sorrow at your absence and all do their best to distract me. I shall not sit here mournful, of that you may be sure. There are fools who think a victory has been won when they have only roused a greater determination in an unnoticed foe.
The signal flags were simple to see. Gethron has already learned your code by heart and expects all of the watchers to do so as well. Think me not a silly goose for having hoped to glimpse you through the glass. Alas, all I could see were a few forms, none distinct. I shall have to wait for sleep to grant me that vision, even as I dread what else may be revealed. Keep the mariner's gift upon thee, my love.
Denethor read over the note several times before carefully refolding it and placing it in the pouch. He stared idly in the direction of the bridge, not ready to rejoin the garrison, not even for Galdor's brandy and laconic observations. He was glad that Finduilas had thought to use the Tower glass to look for him. Forgive me, Alquallë, for leaving you unguarded now. He had not missed Maiaberiel's sour face at the loëndë feast, nor the way she had stared at Finduilas as she left. His own argument with the Steward the next day… Denethor sighed and rested his forehead on his arms, pushing away the memory of the encounter. He had been careful not to say that Finduilas had seen the incident, and left Ecthelion with the impression that he had learned of it from Wren. Even so, he feared Finduilas would also suffer the Steward's ire for protecting the girl, particularly if Maiaberiel interfered. Though would you dare to speak of this with Beruthiel? Would she be horrified or merely jealous? Denethor had left Beregar and Borondir with instructions that Finduilas never be left alone, not even in the archives. Morwen and Adanel had also promised they would have watchers upon her. There was no question but that Wren would be wary of any who approached her mistress. She has friends as well as protectors, which is more than you can say for yourself; she is the beloved of the City.
Her sign was everywhere, now. Had a potentate from a far-off land walked into Minas Tirith, he could be forgiven for thinking the black wing to be the device of the ruler. Thorongil at his most popular never commanded the adulation Finduilas received. Here in the garrison, her guardsmen were openly called "Queen's Men" and looked upon with envy. Ordinary soldiers wished to know how they could belong to her. The guardsmen wore their badges proudly; one had even gone so far as to fletch his arrows with the cock feather white and the others black, instead of the usual dark green.
Below, the door to the bridge creaked open and closed. Thorongil and Halmir crossed the bridge and swiftly entered the ruins. From the set of their shoulders, they were in disagreement over something. Looking for a place away from the Lost in which to have your argument, no doubt. Thorongil's words earlier had left him flattered, truth be told. There had been no falseness in the man's admiration of the flagpoles, nor in his declaration that only Denethor could understand and create such things. You also wonder at how I know what you do not. The southern spies were very good, but it was the palantír that provided the most valuable knowledge, though it was dearly bought. Denethor had almost worn himself out at first this spring with too much use of the stone. It was difficult not to use it once he had begun, to lose himself in the shimmering depths and dart from here to there, all of Gondor laid before him. Alquallë's worry made him stop. After that, Denethor allowed himself only brief looks at specific things to keep himself from being drawn in. It was peculiar what he could see; all the way to Pinnath Gelin, yet not into Mordor, which lay closer. Denethor had tried to look into the Enemy's lands, hoping to see the movement of fiendish troops, or the Black Tower rebuilt, but all he could perceive was thick fog and dread. On the second time he had tried to penetrate the Enemy's stronghold, he sensed something wicked approach and felt the mariner's lanyard tug at his neck, so he threw the drape over the palantír. He had not attempted to look due east since.
In the ruins, Denethor saw Thorongil and Halmir come to a stop, standing close to each other. Curious, he reached for the spyglass and trained it on them. They stood still while their hands moved. Halmir spoke to the other Lost with the hand signs and finger taps in front of Denethor, wise enough to know better than to try to hide this speech, but he did not speak so to Thorongil. From the motion of their heads and lips, there was probably a murmured conversation as well. It was difficult to follow the motions of the hands, swift and slight.
[How go wrong?] motioned Halmir.
[No word. Not know.] answered Thorongil.
[Fight. Anger.] There were motions obscured as Thorongil turned away, then back. Something undecipherable, then [eat. Bad lady?]
[Lady? Bad!] Halmir looked outraged at whatever the captain had told him.
[Yes. She good, wrong fight.]
[You confuse force. Home!]
Thorongil shook his head, exasperated. [No. There no rule.]
[You force! You wrong!]
[There not. You harm. Stupid!]
[No wrong me!] Thorongil protested.
[Again! Again! Stupid!]
[No. Here not.]
Halmir cut him off, jabbing a finger into Thorongil's chest. [Stupid!]
[No stupid now.]
[No. No more.] Thorongil crossed his arms over his chest and stared at Halmir, face stormy. The elder Lost shook his head and moved to one side, obscuring their hands. The two spoke for another minute or so before walking back towards the bridge. Denethor slipped from his perch and returned to the barracks. By the time Thorongil entered the officer's meeting room, Denethor was sitting in the black chair, copying out a modified flag code to prevent any misunderstandings in the future.
Henneth Annûn, Mid August, 2977 T.A.
At the same time as she had taught him Quenya, Aunt Andreth had taught Denethor how to sew. He found them equally useful. He sat upon the cave floor a few yards back from the waterfall, where the light was brightest, and mended clothes. Garments sat in a basket next to him, waiting their turn. Denethor did this to remind all of the Rangers that no task should remain undone if there were free hands to do it. Sewing was interesting in a way scrubbing dishes was not. It was like building. Andreth had explained why one would use this thread rather than that, how to make knots one-handed by rolling a strand off a finger, when you would wish for cloth to flex and when to hold firm. It allowed him to work and think at the same time.
The day after Thorongil and Halmir held their obscure debate, Denethor had turned Gaerhûl's head north on the river road, arriving in Cair Andros that afternoon. By the next morning, he was across the river with fresh soldiers to relieve men stationed in Henneth Annûn. Gildor had been downcast at first, thinking he had done poorly and was to be replaced, but Denethor stopped that notion at once. For a day, the two had reviewed everything that had happened in north Ithilien since the spring Uruk attack, then Denethor charged the man with devising how best to use expanded forces through the summer, particularly for scouting during the night when Orcs would be on the move. The strategy needed few corrections, and Anbar was notified that one-hundred and fifty more men would be needed for ranging.
Southwards, there was little trouble, for Halmir did not allow the beasts from Imlad Morgul to escape his grasp very often. Danger came from the north. It was a rare day when the scouts did not bring word of another band of Orcs creeping their way from the Morannon into the green foothills of Ithilien. Gildor and Denethor agreed that they must not be allowed to come very far south, lest they come upon the stream and be tempted to follow it west. The more experienced Rangers were put under Gildor's command and performed the northern patrols. Denethor took charge of newer men and used the southern patrols for training. Thorongil and Finduilas both approved of this strategy.
Torn sleeves and frayed cuffs were the most common things to be mended, swiftly followed by worn patches on knees and seats. Denethor knew how to fix all of them. The waterfall muted sound and made the sunlight liquid upon the lip of the cave. One of the Queen's Men approached, setting down a wooden cup of tart yellow wine and collecting the neatly folded stack of mended clothes, departing with a polite nod. Denethor paused to sip the wine and watch light ripple across stone. The guardsmen whose folk had been of Ithilien were now here, twelve in all, as envied in Henneth Annûn as their counterparts in Osgiliath. One of them, Dírhavel, had already been stationed at the redoubt for several months and was known to Gildor, for their families were friends. Denethor made him the leader of the guardsmen and a lieutenant to Gildor. The young man was a good fighter and even older men looked to him for direction. He would be a strong captain in time. The guardsmen held Denethor to be their own captain, and tended him when they were in the cave.
Wine finished, Denethor returned to the mending. A few men entered the cave, one bearing a basket of greens, the other carrying a sack that would hold early fruits taken from the wild orchards that dotted the abandoned land. This would augment their plain fare of dried meat, smoked fish, and cheese. Denethor found himself wishing for a fresh loaf of bread, not the flat, tasteless waybread carried in every so often from Cair Andros, inedible unless coated with butter. Sometimes not even then. A thick slice of bread, warm from the kitchen, spread with soft cheese and jam. Even that would not satisfy him, for he would eat it by himself, not with Finduilas.
Her letters were regular, even if delivery of them was haphazard. Finduilas wrote every three or four days, and gave him news of all she heard. Marlong continued his healing and was starting to ride a horse again. While there was much chatter in the markets about the constant fighting, there was not a great deal of worry, so stalls were full and prices stayed steady. Beregar's sister, Rose, was expecting a child. Lark reported that pest-ridden grain had been burned, along with the ship carrying it, upon an eyot south of Pelargir, and Borondir had sent inspectors to grain silos all along the falas. Several guardsmen had asked, through Gethron, for her permission to marry. Mithrandir had showed up and stayed in the City for three days, visiting the archives once and speaking to the Steward twice, then had walked away north. Beruthiel had not been allowed to enter the Stewards House since loëndë, though she had called. Aiavalë had paid a visit, on August 1st, to celebrate Finduilas's birthday. It was only when he read that letter that Denethor realized he had not known her birthday.
Most of his days were spent on training patrols, four to five days out ranging through the silent hills, then returning to the cave to rest for a day or two. Twice, they had come upon some Orcs who had eluded the southern defenses to creep north, but they were pitiful bands, poorly armed, worse led, and easily defeated. There were no more Uruks, whether from Morgul or from the Morannon. When he was in the hideaway, Denethor sat each evening on a flat rock near the waterfall, waiting. The men knew not to bother him once he had taken this seat. Sometimes it came soon, sometimes he dozed off before, but always he thought he felt a touch on his face or a hand coming to rest on his own or the weight of a head upon his shoulder. Only then would Denethor retire to his pallet and sleep. While he woke each morning longing for Finduilas to be with him, Denethor could remember only a single dream. He had climbed to the top of the Tower, looking in one empty room after another. The stairs were covered in silver writing he could not understand. The door to the topmost chamber opened at his touch. Finduilas slept upon the compass rose table, and a huge fearsome beast stood between them. It was not Huan, but something grim and vile, like to Carcharoth. Denethor stood at the door while the beast crept closer, hoping to lure it away from her.
His fingers moved quickly, patching what was once whole. A shirt was finished, then another, now a pair of trousers. No doubt a master seamstress could make the garments as good as new, but his handiwork sufficed for the task at hand. Denethor wondered if the Steward was sufficient to the wizard's designs still, and what the conjuror planned for when that was no longer the case. It was difficult to see how Mithrandir would wish to treat with someone as contemptible as Ecthelion. Perhaps there is no choice, even for a wizard. Thorongil had been brought south by the wizard at the time that the House of Húrin was failing. We have lost continence, potency, honor. Looking upon the white banner of the Stewards now, Denethor felt revulsion, as though he looked upon a lie. When he had returned to Finduilas, having failed to bring any honor back to his pitiful house, Denethor had wanted to do as Aiavalë had done and Wren had tried, and flee that place of humiliation. Alquallë's courage shamed him. You would not flee, though the Enemy himself hammered the gates. You defy fate itself.
Denethor took the last item out of the basket, and fished in his pocket for what he needed to patch together what had been so terribly rent. This would take many tiny stitches with fine thread to make it lie flat and not open greater holes, yet be strong enough to stand up to much wear. The light was beginning to fade, so there was not much time. Pierce, slide, pull, smooth, and again. Never again. It will never happen again. He was done serving a lie. Finished with his mending, Denethor knotted and bit the thread, then folded the tunic just so. He carefully replaced the needles and thread into the pouch where they were kept and set the pouch in its place on a shelf before returning to the waterfall. Behind him, men were preparing for the evening meal. Denethor pulled off his shirt and thrust his hands into the cold fall, splashing it onto his face and chest. The water made his skin tingle, as did the touch of the mariner's lanyard. He scrubbed at his skin, liking the cold. His ablution done, Denethor picked up the tunic and slid it over his head. He smoothed a hand over the black wing on a white field that adorned his left breast. The badge had arrived for him along with Finduilas's last letter. I am a Queen's Man, now.
Anórien, Early September, 2977 T.A.
The northern engagements were constant but small and no Orc had been seen in central Ithilien since the first week of August. There had been one more significant raiding attempt from Harad, but now the plains had been burned and that way was closed off. In a few weeks, summer would turn to autumn and the rains would come, ending the war season. Training of the newer soldiers was done, and Denethor decided it was time for him to attend to the Warden's business. He put Dírhavel in charge of the central patrols and left for Anórien. His reports he kept in his saddlebags, to be rewritten once he returned to Henneth Annûn, but Denethor was sure to send a letter each day to Finduilas by the regular post riders who traveled the lanes between the villages. He told her not to write back, as he did not know where he would be next or for how long.
Without a need to be anywhere in particular, Denethor took his time riding the land. He had visited each warning beacon first, from Amon Din to Halifirien, then wended his way east, allowing fancy to pick his road. Anórien prospered. Grain ripened, stock fattened, and every village had some handicraft to show him - baskets, woodwork, cloth, leather goods, even metal and glass. Even so, there were too many farms gone fallow, too many cottages shuttered and forlorn. Particularly north and west, long stretches of the land were as empty of people as Ithilien.
Denethor was riding east early one morning on a lonely lane that overlooked Onodló due north of the Druadan Forest. In a few days, he would return to Cair Andros and cross the river. Gaerhûl snorted, content to amble down the green track next to an old, crumbling wall. Several weeks of constant riding had taken the edge off the stallion's fiery temper. The Ephel Dúath dominated the horizon, the cool morning air free of the summer haze that usually obscured them from sight. Denethor scanned the dark wall that stood between Gondor and their foe. Just above the mountain tops, the air was a sickly brown. You were wrong, Thorongil. There was no great assault this summer, though there was trouble enough. It was of no matter. At some point, there would be some great attack, and the signal flags would be used. Thorongil had told him that the flags were already in use to indicate when Osgiliath needed food and healing supplies.
Staring idly at the distant mountains, Denethor allowed his mind to go over his favorite puzzle – what had the conversation between Thorongil and Halmir actually meant? In almost two months, he had not been able to decipher it to his satisfaction. Halmir had wanted to know what had caused his own fight with the Steward and Thorongil had guessed that there was a problem with the loëndë feast, or perhaps with the captain's own appearance at the Stewards House. [Lady] could only mean Finduilas or Maiaberiel, and Denethor was certain that it was Finduilas. [Bad Lady?] was either a lady was being bad, which would match his sister, or that someone was being bad to a lady, which would mean Finduilas. Thus, a fight came about because someone had behaved badly towards Finduilas, and it had something to do with the feast, which was very close to the truth. Denethor wondered if Thorongil had spoken to Brandir. From there on, the meaning grew increasingly murky.
[You confuse force. Home!] How is force meant? Has Thorongil used force? Is using force? Is confused about force? Has forced confusion? The first did not apply to the captain in his political dealings, but then there was the ambiguity of [Home!], where perhaps he had used force. Or perhaps it was a command to return home. The last sense seemed most likely, particularly given the exchange between the two Denethor had overheard a year earlier. Thorongil has brought confusion and Halmir wishes him to return home. But what of home?
[There no rule.] It could be that the north was a lawless place, which Denethor thought likely, but that did not entirely explain a reluctance to return. Perhaps the captain did not or could not rule. What of the step-family Thorongil once alluded to? If he was the heir of Isildur, as seemed almost certain, then why had his mother remarried, particularly to a man with children? Perhaps the north no longer recognized that line. Had he tried to force a question of rule, and had been ousted?
[Home not.] I may be wrong – perhaps he abandoned rule, and he does not consider that to be home any longer. Denethor shook his head, trying to understand the meaning. He was certain if he could know about this home, the rest of the conversation would be revealed. Where is your home, wanderer?
[You force! You wrong!] Whatever the situation, this elder of the Lost was angry with his lord for something. [No wrong me!] Don't wrong me, or you are wrong about me, or I have done no wrong, or I am doing no wrong? [Again! Again! Stupid!] Was Halmir saying that he thought Thorongil stupid, or that Thorongil was again doing something that was stupid? If he had caused discord in the north and had to flee, then has begun doing so again in the south… But that would mean almost for certain that the north rejected the claim of his line.
[Lie! Still!] [No. No more.] About what have you lied? Or are you lying now? What will you not do again? The key lay in what had happened in the North, before Thorongil began his wanderings, something that kept him from returning. Denethor looked south at the line of Ered Nimrais march across the land, white capped even in the summer. You left. Is that because you could not stay, or you would not? Had he not felt that desire himself? Why turn we not from fear and woe? To leave. It was a temptation. If honor had vanished and destruction loomed, why stay? His fingers found Alquallë's badge. For love. While there is any hope, you must defend what you love.
With a sigh, Denethor returned his gaze to the east. The dark band of air above Ephel Dúath was much thicker at the northern end, near to the Morannon. Perhaps his house was without honor, but he loved Gondor and could not leave her at the mercy of the Enemy. Or the Steward. He glanced southwards, to where he knew Osgiliath lay. And you, Thorongil? Is there no hope in the north, or is your love not steadfast enough? Murky brown haze mounted in a peak due east of Osgiliath…
Denethor jerked upright, gathering the reins. Fool! There is the attack! The thicker gloom announced the presence of armies, a two-pronged attack from north and east, just as Thorongil had predicted. The dust clouds kicked up by their passage would not be visible to any on the far side of the river, or even to any in the western lowlands. He urged Gaerhûl forward, racing towards Cair Andros. Was it soon enough? If the armies had not begun their marches, but were still gathering, there was probably time. No doubt but that forces were striking Rohan in the north to draw away their strength. As he rode, Denethor tallied up who would need to be told and how.
Four hours later, he reached the island. His first stop was at the Rohirric camp to order one of the éoreds to arm and ride to Osgiliath while the other was to be on alert for anything coming across the fens of Onodló or attempting to cross Anduin. A Rider sped west to warn Thengel. Once across the channel to the island, Denethor had Anbar send several carrier pigeons to Osgiliath so Thorongil would know to move the extra soldiers from Minas Tirith to the Harlond. A messenger took a more complete letter from Denethor to Thorongil, explaining what he had had observed and how he had ordered the Rohirrim. Every spare soldier in Cair Andros was armed and readied to cross the river by nightfall, with only a token force left behind. Word had been sent to the Anóríen garrison to send more.
On the far side, the soldiers gathered in the Field of Cormallen. Scouts had been sent to Henneth Annûn to warn them of the pending attack, and to say what forces were coming across the river to succor them. Anbar and Calmacil were both there, getting troops in order. Their men gathered in groups of fifty, waited for Anbar's inspection, then set off to prearranged meeting points south of the stream. Anbar led the final group himself. Though he was not an eager fighter, Denethor had to admit that Anbar did not shrink from it, either. By four hours after sundown, three hundred men had been ferried across the river and were ready to battle the Enemy.
Denethor headed for Henneth Annûn, arriving just before dawn. Gildor and Dírhavel were still there, but almost ready to set out. News from the Cair Andros messenger had arrived but a half-hour after their own northernmost scouts had brought news of a great host, perhaps two thousand, issuing from the Morannon at sunset, moving fast. They were mostly Orcs, so would need to reach the shade of the trees in Ithilien soon after sunrise. Whips could drive them only so far under the sun. The van of the force would be in the Ithilien foothills by now.
'We need to attack them in the daylight,' Gildor said, 'else their numbers may overwhelm us.'
'Yes. As we did two summers ago, keep them on or as close to the road as we can,' Denethor replied. 'It will be too late to do much today, for they will be gathered in force, but they will not be able to stay so tightly bunched when they climb. The hills will make them spread out. See if we can get them south of the stream before a large attack.' Denethor indicated for the Queen's Men, excepting only Dírhavel, to stay with him. These he set as a guard upon the stream just west of the road to prevent any Orcs from following it. They waited out the day. Rangers guarded the northern portion of the road, while Anbar and Gildor positioned their men to attack the army at the next dawn. That night, they heard the foul beasts marching down the road, snarling at each other, armor jingling and whips cracking. After they passed, the Queen's Men followed.
With dawn came destruction. The Rangers struck first with their longbows. The Orcs tried to take shelter in a series of thickets to the east of the road, but that simply concentrated them and made it certain that arrows would find targets. Their Uruk masters drove them out of the trap with whips and blades. After the first assault, friend and foe were mixed, and fighting was hand to hand in the dappled light of Ithilien. Swords, scimitars, knives, clubs, feet, teeth, fangs; no weapon was eschewed. A Ranger battered in the skull of an Orc with the butt of his sword. An Orc gripped a soldier's throat in his fangs while another ripped open the man's belly with knife and claws. An Uruk hacked into a Ranger's chest with an axe, and was blinded by the gout of blood that poured forth. Two Orcs were spitted together through the gut by a single arrow, and they screamed and thrashed, tearing at each other. Near them, a man screamed, his leg half severed, knowing he would die. Though the sun was worse for the Orcs, it sapped the strength of men as well, and was made worse by the muggy air. Flies descended upon the battlefield, drawn by blood and spilled bowels.
They held the field, but it was a more costly victory than in the spring. The battle was larger, spread out across a greater area, and the fighting dragged on for hours as the last pockets of the Orcs were hunted down. The distance meant that more wounded men died afterwards, too far away to be carried to the surgeons. Denethor walked the three mile length of the battle several times between mid-day and nightfall, surveying the damage and helping the healers. Just before sunset, a messenger galloped up the road with a message for him. It was from Thorongil in the cipher:
The warning is in time and the signal sent. Halmir marches north as though to relieve you, but will turn back to catch Morgul when it advances. Rohirrim, too – good that you sent them. We hold the Crossroads and will allow Morgul to go south. Rangers are in the hills. Send south whatever you can spare. Wagons are on the way for wounded.
A camp was set up at the southern end of the battle, and wounded were brought there. In conference with his commanders, it was decided to rest the men well tonight, then send one-third of the uninjured south with Gildor. Anbar would return north with Dírhavel and guard against any other northern incursions, while Denethor would wait for the wagons to bear the wounded to Osgiliath and oversee burying the dead.
It was four days before the wagons arrived. The return journey was longer as they needed to stop often and give the men some respite from the jarring of the carts. They traveled in the early morning when there was enough light to see until the heat of midday, then rested until the afternoon cooled and walked as long as they could make out the road in the twilight. Each day brought messages from north and south. There was another sortie from the Morannon, turned back at the foothills. Several hundred men from Anórien had been brought over the river and guarded the road. The Morgul hordes did exactly as Thorongil had guessed, lunging to capture Emyn Arnen instead of advancing on Osgiliath, and had been surprised by the forces already in place in the hills. Thus, they themselves had been caught in the open lowlands between the green hills and the shadowed mountains where the Rohirrim charged and trampled them. Few were left to flee back to Imlad Morgul.
Two days out from Osgiliath, Halmir appeared with a few hundred men to escort the wagons the remaining leagues to the garrison. He brought two healers with bandages, herbs, and other medicines, which pleased the Cair Andros surgeon, Vardamir, whose supplies were nearly exhausted. Halmir had a message from Thorongil and not much to say. The next day, the Lost walked beside Denethor, silent as stone. Denethor let him be for the morning. After dinner and the midday rest, he decided it was time for some questions.
'Is the defense of Ithilien still poorly done, Halmir?'
The Lost gave him a wary look, and shrugged. 'Poorly enough.'
'I'm talking to you.'
'I am such poor company?'
'You're the Warden. I'm a soldier. I'm where I belong.'
'No, you are not.'
'It has been five years. Your service to the Steward ended in August. You should have left.'
The Lost did not reply for nearly a quarter-hour. 'I swore again.'
'Last month.' Halmir kept his eyes on the trees to the side of the road. Given how much the man's eyes moved back and forth, Denethor knew it was as much to watch for danger as to avoid facing him.
'You are like him, then.'
'How not? He has sworn again. He stays.'
'He should go.'
'The captain has his uses. He figured out the Enemy's plans perfectly.'
'Gondor's not the only place with Orcs.'
'So, why is he here? Do you need gold that badly?'
'No.' The word was spoken with disgust and Halmir spared Denethor an equally disdainful look before returning his attention to the trees. 'We don't need your gold.'
'A meddling wizard.'
Halmir's directness startled Denethor. So, I was right about this as well. A power struggle, and a young heir lured away by promises of glory by a wizard? Denethor had calculated that Thorongil had spent most of his adult years in Rohan or Gondor. 'I do not much care for wizards. I have one of my own to be rid of. You know of Angrenost?' Halmir did not reply but finally looked away from the trees. 'I think it should be in your hands, not Curunír's.'
'Me?' Halmir almost looked amused.
'The Lost. So the captain may have a tower of his own and not meddle in the affairs of mine. He appears to have lost his taste for the north.' Halmir nodded curtly to Denethor and walked to the other side of the cart.
The Lost did not speak to Denethor again on the way to Osgiliath. The last leg was a short trip in the early morning. The air was crisp in a way it had not been the previous day, hinting at the approach of autumn. Thorongil was waiting for Denethor at the eastern end of the bridge. As they preceded the wagons across the river, the captain reported on everything since the last messenger. Inside the garrison, Galdor took charge of the incoming wounded. Denethor turned to take the stairs to the top of the western wall, when the captain caught his arm.
'Here,' Thorongil said, fishing in a pouch at his waist, 'This came for you yesterday morning.' He held out a message with the Steward's seal upon it.
When you receive this message, you are to return to the City and present yourself. Wash first, but I shall brook no other delays.
Denethor read it over twice before handing it to the captain and calling for a horse to be readied. Thorongil returned the note to him, a doubtful look on his face, but said nothing. While he waited for the horse to be brought over, Denethor emptied his pack of everything except his water skin and the reports he had received.
The trip across the Pelennor went too swiftly. Denethor stopped at the garrison in the first circle. Gethron and Marlong hailed him as he walked in. 'I have no time to waste,' he told them briskly, 'the Steward awaits.' A guardsman was sent hurrying up to the Citadel to tell Beregar to have suitable clothes ready at the men's bath. Denethor left his sword to be cleaned, his bow to be restrung, and his quiver to be replenished, keeping only the Horn. People nodded to him and spoke quiet greetings, but did not detain him as he walked through the streets. Beregar was waiting for him at the baths and helped him to wash and dress in plain, clean clothes. They were exactly what a soldier would wear, and Denethor sensed Finduilas's hand in the choosing. Upon the cuff of the shirt, a small black wing had been stitched. Scarcely an hour after he arrived in the City, Denethor was standing outside the Steward's door, reports under his arm. He was left standing there another half-hour, before a servant emerged to say the Lord Steward was ready to see him.
Denethor entered, bowed, and waited to be acknowledged. Ecthelion was dressed too formally to be seeing someone in private chambers. The White Rod was laid on the table within reach. You must insist that you are Steward. Denethor clasped his hands behind his back, reports tucked under an arm, the Horn hanging openly at his hip, and turned his ring with his thumb. I am a Queen's Man, now. There is naught of you in me.
'As you commanded, my Lord Steward.'
'I had hoped my command would be unnecessary.' The Steward paused, expression hateful, 'You should know to return without being commanded.'
No, you hoped I would be dead. 'I was ordered out to see to north Ithilien. You have been content to receive all of my other reports through the Captain-General.' Denethor made his voice its most gentle, knowing that would infuriate more than opposition.
'You need not dissemble, Denethor. I know your tricks and conceits well,' was Ecthelion's sharp reply. 'I have finally seen your plans and know how you are crafting your betrayal.'
'You crafted your own downfall long ere I was born.' Denethor said this in the same mild tone as before. 'Have you dared to present the case to Mithrandir for his judgment? Was he not here but a month past?'
The Steward indicated that Denethor should place the reports on the table. 'Always spying to learn men's foibles and twist them to your own advantage. I would not grieve that great man with word of your dark designs and obscene calumny.'
'Obscene, yes, but the truth.'
'The truth is that you brought it about!' Ecthelion roared, surging to his feet, scrabbling on the table for the rod. 'You have made crime of an innocent compliment!' For a moment, Denethor thought the Steward would attack as he had before, but the man kept to his side of the desk. It took almost a minute for Ecthelion to regain control of himself. 'The sight of you offends me, as it should all honorable men. You may go wait outside. Do not think to wander about. I will have a message for you to take to Captain Thorongil.'
Denethor bowed and left. He was not surprised to see Beregar loitering in the hall. 'Are you done, my lord? The Lady waits.'
'I fear she will wait longer. The Steward bade me remain here until he has read the reports and has written a message to the captain.'
Beregar shot one resentful glance at the door. 'Then you will not be returning to the house this day, sir?'
'No. Tell my lady not to wait. I know not when I shall come back.' Beregar nodded and left. Denethor leaned against the wall, considering what he had heard. You wish to see only that you flirted with a pretty girl, not that you do not know your own get. But your lie has found you out and you may no longer pretend innocence.
It was not long before Beregar returned. Denethor raised an eyebrow. 'The lady would not have you wait alone.' The younger man joined Denethor in supporting the wall. Almost a full hour passed before a servant emerged from the Steward's chamber, bearing a sealed message addressed to Thorongil. Denethor walked out of the Tower into the bright sun, then stopped. At the end of the courtyard, Finduilas sat on the stairs up to the top of the wall. She remained sitting when he approached, shading her face with one hand as she looked up at him. She was dressed simply, in a shirt as plain as his own, trousers and low boots. Her hair was caught in a single braid at the nape of her neck. A straw hat sat on the step beside her, and a tunic lay across her lap.
'Huan says you are to depart at once. Do you ride to Osgiliath?'
'If you will permit it, I would like to ride at least part of the way with you.'
'Yes, I would like that.'
Finduilas smiled and stood, holding out the tunic. 'This is for you. The one you left with Beregar could not be cleaned.' Her badge was sewn to the front of it.
'You cannot ride back alone.'
'My hound will come with us, as will Gethron. Let us leave this place, friend.' Denethor slipped the tunic over his head and held out his hand. Finduilas took it with a smile and they left the Citadel. Their descent of the mountain was swift, pausing only at The Messengers Rest for Beregar to retrieve a basket from the kitchen. Gethron and Marlong awaited them at the Great Gate, Gethron holding Denethor's sword, while Marlong had his bow and quiver. At the stable, horses were already saddled. It took only a few minutes for them to stow their burdens and be on their way. The three men followed their lord and lady at a discreet distance.
'What makes me think that had I said "no" to your wish to accompany me, you would have done so anyway?' Denethor asked.
'Because you know your wife well,' Finduilas replied, smiling mischievously.
'Not well enough. I have rued these months.'
'As have I. But I do not wish to speak of that now.'
'No. Tell me of your deeds. I have not received a letter in weeks.' They spoke of the City and what Finduilas had done until they were past the thickly settled farms close to Minas Tirith and into more open lands. Beregar rode ahead and had a supper laid out for them in the shade of some trees a few dozen yards off the road. The food was plain and plentiful; until he smelled it, Denethor did not realize how hungry he was. There was little left when he finished.
Finduilas put the remains into the basket before coming over to him and nestling in his arms. It was enough at first to hold each other tightly, letting hands and limbs remember how to fit together. Kisses followed. When Finduilas would have loosened his clothes, Denethor held her wrists firmly. 'That is for our bed.'
'Not always,' she answered.
'The men will keep anyone away.'
'No. It will wait.'
With an angry sigh, she pulled away. 'I have waited enough. I detest waiting! Shall you ever be allowed to return?'
Not if the Steward has his way. 'With the rains.'
'More than once, friend, I have been tempted to take Gull and come find you.'
Denethor took her arm and pulled on her gently. At first, Finduilas resisted, but finally allowed herself to be embraced. 'Patience, Alquallë. It will end.'
'I am afraid, Denethor.' Her voice was soft. 'I fear the messengers and their account of who has come to harm. I fear that you will not return and I will be left with naught.'
He took her face in his hands and kissed her. 'I will return.'
She placed her hand near his collar and searched until her fingers found the lanyard under the cloth. 'I have seen this when I look for you. It looks like sea grasses all woven together, or a twining length of vine covered in thorns and blooms.' Finduilas shivered, dropping her hand. 'It has protected you?'
'Yes.' They sat silent afterwards. Only when shadows were very long and a chill edge was on the breeze did Denethor reluctantly stir. 'I must go if I am to reach the fortress by nightfall.' They rode together for another mile until Denethor insisted that she could go no further with him. A swift kiss and he turned his horse away, urging it into a canter lest he be tempted to remain.
Thorongil was watching for him on the western wall and was in the courtyard to greet him when he rode in. 'Good evening, Warden.'
The two walked into the barracks. 'Have you supped?'
'Yes.' Denethor led the way upstairs to the meeting room. Thorongil poured them both wine. Denethor handed over the Steward's note without a word. The captain read it slowly, frowning, before handing it back to Denethor.
I am most pleased by your news. The defense was handled well and with small loss. Your foresight has once again kept us from ruin.
As soon as the garrison is back in order, return to the City. You have earned your rest this fall. I am in need of your counsel. Mithrandir says I need no other, and I find that I agree. I fear Denethor does not trust to your wisdom and insists on commanding the northern defenses. Allow him to do so for now.
Steward of Gondor
'Do you distrust my wisdom, my lord?' The question was asked quietly but firmly.
'I was not aware I held that opinion,' Denethor said, setting the note on the table.
Thorongil sipped his wine, eyes on the message, considering. 'Do you trust to Gildor's wisdom?'
'Yes, though not in all things. More now than at the start of the summer.'
'Would you be displeased were I to say that I shall not allow you to command the northern forces?'
'That is not for you to allow or disallow. The northern forces do not answer to you.'
'So you insist on commanding them?'
'No. They are left to my command. I am satisfied with my captains in that area.'
'Your reports have made that clear,' Thorongil agreed. He looked up from the message and examined Denethor's face and then his new tunic with Finduilas's badge for several long seconds. 'Unless you require me for something else, my lord, there are several things I must attend to before I retire.'
'Good evening, Thorongil.' The man rose and bowed himself out. Denethor re-read the message, folded it neatly, and placed it back in the pouch at his waist. Weariness overtook him. He did not bother to finish the wine, but went directly to bed, too tired to dream.
The next morning, Denethor rose early, intending to ride to Cair Andros. Thorongil was not at breakfast. Denethor saw him standing upon the western wall, looking at Minas Tirith through the old spyglass, and joined him.
'Denethor,' Thorongil greeted him, not taking his attention off the city.
'Thorongil.' He fished in his pouch for the Steward's letter. 'You left this yesterday.'
The captain lowered the glass and took the note. 'You are going?'
'To Cair Andros.'
'I believe the Steward wishes for me to be there.'
'Yes, I believe he does. However, I think you have earned your rest.' Thorongil cocked his head and smiled. 'Be back here no later than the last day of the month.'
The captain's smile grew. 'On yáviérë, we return to Minas Tirith.'
Minas Tirith, Yáviérë, 2977 T.A.
Gaerhûl snorted and pranced, wishing to run. They were headed home and the stallion did not care for the slow pace. It had taken only a few days to meet with the northern commanders and determine all was firmly in hand – Denethor had not even needed to cross the river. Thorongil had greeted him happily last night when he arrived and was in a cheerful mood for all of the ride back to Minas Tirith. As they rode, they went over the September campaign and looked ahead to the winter. They both agreed that there would be little coming out of Mordor until the spring.
Denethor did not ask what Thorongil intended to do about the Steward, though he was intrigued. Gethron and Marlong were very surprised to see him with the captain, and Gethron sent a guardsman hurrying up the mountain with the news. The City was celebrating the harvest festival with much drinking and more eating. Every tavern was filled to overflowing, the markets were bursting with marvelous foods and goods, and people wore their best in honor of the day. Throughout the circles, Denethor saw guardsmen walking about, giving away bundles of food, helping set up a stand for musicians, and otherwise making themselves useful. When people saw Denethor and Thorongil pass, they waved and called out greetings and thanks, often accompanied by offers of a good tankard of ale. It might have been his imagination, but Denethor thought people greeted him more warmly than usual when they saw his badge.
To his disappointment, Finduilas was not upon the wall to greet him, nor waiting in the courtyard. Thorongil, too, looked about when they reached the Citadel, and his cheer faded somewhat. The two walked the court, stopping to do reverence to the White Tree. Thorongil turned to Denethor and said softly, 'Wilt thou trust my wisdom, Denethor?'
'What is thy counsel?'
'That dangerous times call for dangerous acts.'
Denethor smiled thinly. 'Lead on, Captain.' They presented themselves at the Tower door and were shown into the Hall of the Kings, where Ecthelion sat in the black chair, White Rod in his hand. The two approached and bowed.
'Captain-General, Warden, welcome,' the Steward said formally. 'What news do you bring?'
Denethor nodded to Thorongil regally, indicating that the man should give his report. Thorongil answered, 'Only to say to you here what has been said in letters – that the enemy has been vanquished for another season.'
'We are pleased.' Ecthelion did not so much as spare a glance at Denethor. 'It is meet that you should bring glad tidings to the City on a festival day.'
'And so is joy increased, my Lord Steward,' Thorongil politely replied.
'Warden, what brings you here? We understood that you wished to oversee the north more closely,' Ecthelion asked in a gentle tone. The grip of his hand upon the rod was the only sign that the Steward was less than pleased at Denethor's presence.
'I changed my mind.' Here, Denethor turned a cold, disapproving stare upon Thorongil, who kept his eyes fixed on the floor. 'As the captain does not believe there to be a great threat, I thought it wise to return and hear his counsel. Would it be acceptable to you, my Lord Steward, to meet on the morrow to hear the captain's words?'
'Yes, of course.'
Thorongil raised his head and looked to the Steward. 'Yes, my lords, there is much of importance we must discuss. This coming spring marks ten full years that I have served you and Gondor. I think I must consider if that shall also mark the end of my service.'
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