Stewards of Gondor: Slashvese Arc
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Star and Stone: 6. Patterns
The clouds rose up, fleece-like, on the horizon, sweeping in from the eastern mountains with the hot winds. The humidity was nearly unbearable, but despite the promise of thunder, there was no relief in sight, for the storm would spend itself ere ever it reached the Poros garrison. Thus men sat and sweltered in the thick, tense air, waiting impatiently for sunset and a chance at the bath-house. Ordinarily, the river would have been preferred to a tub, but those not on duty were forbidden to leave the fort's precincts by order of the Captain-General. By now, of course, everyone knew the reason for such a ban, and a sense of collective shame had hung over the garrison since Lord Denethor's arrival four days ago.
Men whispered in the mess halls, and sat close to each other in small, subdued clusters, eschewing the company of those whom they considered less than fast friends, to be trusted absolutely in all matters. Men particularly avoided those of the sixth company, who spied among and dealt with the Haradrim, for that company had come under much scrutiny. Both its sergeants had been jailed, as had three of its more prominent members, and more arrests seemed likely to follow. The South Ithilien lieutenant, Belethil, and three of his company who had been sent out to the settlements had disappeared immediately with Lord Denethor upon their return.
Whatever had been said in that secret conference, it had not improved the Captain-General's mood, and a palpable dread hovered over the fort. No one wished to come to the attention of the Captain-General after all, who had proved that he had no compunction about questioning even common soldiers if he felt it was necessary. The men who had been summoned to him and who had returned came back mute and were not willing to speak much of the experience. And there was a good reason for that.
"Look," one such soldier had exclaimed when his friends had pressed too hard for details, "I have not anything to hide, but Lord Denethor told me to say nothing. And so that's what I'm saying!" And thus it stood afterwards, and men walked on eggshells and wondered who among them might be a traitor, if their captain and lieutenants were. For there must be others, even among the ranks, though no one was willing to speak much of that possibility. The Captain-General's escort of men from Minas Tirith and South Ithilien kept careful watch on anything Lord Denethor deemed too sensitive to leave in the hands of the Poros garrison, and there was a general aura of discomfort that hovered between resentment and guilty acceptance of that clear sign of distrust.
But even if the ranks were gripped with a new sense of discretion, rumor still spread, for, as was wont to be said, gossip would withstand the fall of Gondor. Ingar was still in prison, as was the lieutenant of the watches, Halthar. This surprised no one, for all knew well that as the lieutenant of the watches, it was he who oversaw all assignments, and the sixth company's in particular.
"And if Lieutenant Halthar knows, then the Captain knows," men said amongst themselves, and wondered just how long it would be ere he joined the other two in the gaol, since clearly he lived under the opprobrium of the Captain-General. Rumor again had it that the two had clashed hotly (or coldly, as some said – no one had ever heard much of Lord Denethor being hot-tempered, but there were tales that said he could freeze a man's marrow with his wrath) when first they had met, and it was quite certain that orders did not come down from him, though he was supposedly a free man.
As for the particular crimes of the imprisoned officers, smuggling, falsification of papers, murder and (most distressing of all) treason were the four that caught everyone's attention. Poros was a large garrison – two hundred men strong – and there were many who had not suspected anything was (badly) amiss, and who fretted over the possibility of having unwittingly aided traitors. At least the Captain-General had been very clear on this matter, having spoken to the men himself about it. He would not punish those who had been deceived. The degree of one's knowledge would determine the degree of one's guilt, and only those who either ought to have known better than to assist (and here, all those who served their companies in some specific capacity grew tense) or those who had knowingly assisted in illegal trade of information and goods with the Haradrim (and here anyone who had ever driven a cart grew nervous) would be punished. Anyone who might possibly know aught of aught ought to give his name to either Lieutenant Belethil, or else to Hildar, the chief of the Minas Tirith escort.
After that announcement, there had been some who had wondered what would happen to those who might have been forced to help, but no one dared to make that inquiry. It was better not to ask some questions, after all. No need to give the impression that one might be guilty of such unwilling assistance.
Had the men but known, Denethor had already considered that question, and had decided against answering it. For if I assure them that I shall be considerate of such things, it shall certainly become too broad an excuse, and I shall have it flung in my face at every turn, he thought. And so had decided he would deal with such cases as they came to light, if they should come to light. For it is not likely to be an excuse many can use. And even were it, what use, such reassurance? It rings hollow here, when every man among them feels the weight of guilt. At least he had made progress. Extensive questioning of Poros's officers, commissioned or otherwise, and also of the common soldiery had yielded quite bit of information that he had then had to check against the records, and a disturbing pattern had begun to emerge.
With Hildar handling most matters of daily command, Denethor had applied himself to the question the connection between Ingar's smuggling and the creation of what was effectively a new company of spies. From questioning the men of the garrison, he had learned that Ingar was quite familiar with the sixth company's sergeants, and that Ithrin had assigned Lieutenant Halthar to help Ingar with the garrison's financial matters. This despite the fact that neither Halthar nor Ingar were known to be very fond of each other. Neither Halthar nor the sergeants had aught to say on that matter, other than that Halthar insisted he had been assigned more to keep Ingar's poor habits in check. As Denethor could not imagine Halthar had not at least tacitly supported the movement of men in and out of sixth company, that argued that Ithrin, Ingar, and Halthar each had to know something of the smuggling, at least, if not more than that.
Such suspicions were only confirmed by the fact that Halthar's own record-keeping was hardly what one would call 'useful'—certainly, Denethor would never have chosen him to check another's poor clerking. For as with casualty reports sent to Minas Tirith, names were omitted from the lists of who had been transferred between companies, and assignments were often recorded generally, such that only the company could be identified. Whether the sergeants in that company were the same as the month before could not be ascertained from examining the records. One might expect officers to remain with their company of record short of death or a need elsewhere, but again, questioning the men had revealed a habit of short assignments. An officer might be assigned to a company, but he might be asked for a week or a few days, even, to oversee some task in another company. There was nothing in Halthar's records of such affairs, which were hardly the usual manner of conducting business in Gondor's army. The excuse Halthar had given him for such instability was that it was convenient, and it kept men from becoming to caught in their own ways.
That it was convenient Denethor would not dispute, for it was a very convenient manner of masking who had been given what assignments. It also meant that the men were so accustomed to such practices that they no longer thought to see them as odd. That dulled men's memories, made it more difficult for them to remember anything as remarkable, and Denethor had to take good care to keep his frustration on a tight rein when speaking with common soldiers.
But if specific events and details remained elusive, it was clear that Halthar and Ingar were complicit in something. Worse, given that Halthar's records up until roughly eight months ago showed no sign of such deliberate vagueness, Denethor decided the affair had begun at least at that point. Thus Halthar and the quartermaster now kept each other company in the gaol, and Denethor bided his time with Ithrin. The captain knew this – of that, Denethor had no doubt, and Ithrin must know that as well. But Denethor had as yet no evidence against him, other than that it should be impossible for a captain to be ignorant of something of this magnitude in his own command. But no one could (or would) implicate him and Ithrin's family was powerful—the Lord of Pelargir was his uncle, after all.
And we need Pelargir's support, and I dare not give Lord Celenar any pretext of bias on my part with which to save his nephew, he thought, bitterly, resenting that influence from afar that hampered even him. At least he need not fear that Ithrin would run, for that would seal his guilt, ruin his family, and Denethor would hound him to the ends of Arda if he did. And so the days stretched out and they kept their distance, while everyone watched and waited.
This must end soon, though, Denethor thought, moving back along the short length of his acquired office to stare at a map he had managed to pin to the wall. That was the other half of his investigation. He had marked off all the patrol routes from Ithilien and Poros. South Ithilien, despite its fewer numbers, was carrying the bulk of the weight of responsibility for keeping the Haradrim clear of the river, and especially of those points where a crossing could be made, if only one knew how. Circles denoted all the instances of attacks, their locations, the (approximate) dates, and the number of men in the patrol, and from the assemblage of these facts (most of them from Erethrin's careful notes), Denethor was beginning to wonder whether there might not be a nest of Haradrim hidden along the edges of the Ephel Dúath. It would be a simple loop up and back along the river, and given that Ithilien's people had been caught even in the foothills, that said to Denethor that their assailants had information about such far-flung patrols.
Which implied that someone must have given it to them, and that sent Denethor back to comb through the records and memories of the sixth company, seeking anything that might prove that along with the more usual smuggled goods and contracts for goods, information about South Ithlien's patrols was being traded. Belethil's Rangers had heard only rumors of soldiers abroad in Harondor, but as that was no unusual thing, it hardly counted as evidence. Worse, attempting to uncover who it was that dealt with Poros's agents had gained nothing but silence or threats of violence.
"Amindir is one of my best, my lord," Belethil had reported. "He says 'tis more than a man's life is worth to ask after that with any insistence. Speak but about Poros, and the Haradrim refuse to tell you aught, and who knows but that the next word may earn a knife in the gullet? 'Tis a fine measure with the Haradrim, but Amindir knows it, and knows when to leave well enough alone." That was ominous enough, but it proved little in itself, and Denethor wished he had moved a little less quickly in that matter. I should have waited until I had questioned more of the sixth company, to see whether or what passwords or signs they may have used with the Haradrim, he reproached himself. 'Tis likely too late now; the Haradrim would be suspicious of anyone they did not know. He supposed he could ask for names from members of the sixth company in any case, and then send a squad of Rangers to try to arrange to catch particular individuals alone, but that might do more than any inquiry to convince the Haradrim to go to ground.
And we cannot have that, Denethor thought darkly, returning his attention to the map with its grim tally. Assuming I am correct, it would be more than a band of Haradrim, Denethor mused, adding up the numbers in his head. Given the sizes of the patrols that were being attacked and forced to retreat (to say nothing of those which simply disappeared, or left a handful of lucky survivors), it had to be a fairly considerable body of men. Nothing so large as Poros, but certainly a good seventy or so of them.
And if they have a refuge, then ridding ourselves of them may be difficult. But it must be done, and now do I wish indeed we knew which of the Haradrim in the settlements might be able to confirm my guesses, he mused. Captured Haradrim soldiers were notoriously unwilling to talk, and the settlers had their share of native stubbornness. But even so, a farmer, whatever his native endowment in nerve and fury, might be another tale, particularly if isolated from his fellows. At the moment, Denethor would rather deal harshly with the Haradrim than with the lieutenants or sergeants sitting in the gaol – morale was low enough at the moment that he was unwilling to add to it with such tactics applied against some of Poros's own if another source of information could be found. But that would mean delaying a resolution, for he still had no notion of why Ithrin or anyone would be interested in such a scheme....
I should simply force the issue with Ithrin, and let the consequences fall as they may. Let Ithrin's family make what trouble they will, they must bow to the Steward in the end if they would be faithful, Denethor thought angrily. Almost without realizing it, he had begun playing again with that bit of string he had taken to keeping in a pocket. He was restless here in a way that unsettled him, for he could not quite fathom why. Or rather, he would not fathom why, were he to admit it to himself. There were few men to whom he gave his trust, and even fewer to whom he gave it willingly, and to contemplate betrayal by such a one pricked the depths of Denethor's being in ways that (were he to admit it) frightened even Denethor. And so he thought not overmuch of what Ithrin might owe him personally, but let his mind slide off of his own sense of grievance to what it could think without touching too closely on matters too personal. And so restlessness increased, pulled patience taut as a wire, and he puzzled over that unease with a blind eye, wondering at his sleepless nights and finding answers to suit him.
There were, after all, any number of reasons for a captain to find rest elusive. There was frustration, certainly, for there was no satisfaction to be had in the verbal warfare that he and Ithrin engaged in whenever he questioned the man. Such would come only with either exoneration of the captain or a noose at the end of the day. Even so, it would be a poor sort of satisfaction indeed, either way. Then there were the myriad details of administration that grated on his nerves – the poorly kept records, the deliberate falsifications, the general sense among the men that it was quite normal to be plucked from one duty and given another with no warning, to say nothing of whither his own questions were leading him as regarded the nature of the problem in Poros. And then there was the weather: the heat did not help matters, for it brought tensions among the men to the fore, and made them snappish with each other, when they were not looking over their shoulders and jumping at shadows.
This must end....
"I am not certain whether I dare to enter, my lord, though I am told you will see those who have something to report," said a voice from the doorway behind him, and Denethor looked sharply over his shoulder (for fear of disturbing the piles if he turned too suddenly), hastily stuffing the string back into his pocket, thankful that his body shielded that action. I really must break myself of that habit and soon, he thought, disgusted, as he took in the identity of his visitor with some surprise.
"Ælric," he replied, as smoothly as he could manage, eyeing the other's road-dusty form. "If you would, do remain in place – paper can be fragile, and needs not dust to rub the words away." Ælric inclined his head at that, but did not seem much chagrined. Folding his arms across his chest as he turned fully (and carefully) towards his aide, Denethor continued casually, "You seem weary. Did you hasten?"
"We started very early, Geleafa and I," Ælric replied, eyes straying over the floor and the tiny desk. And if he did not smile at the piles, his eyes sparkled with a familiar amusement. Tight-fisted though Denethor might be in other matters (and Gondor would thank him in later years for his frugality), he was as prodigal with paper as other men were with coin. "May I hope, my lord, that this–" a gesture at the papers that trailed off of the desk and onto the floor in neat, evenly spaced stacks "–means that the mystery is nigh to being solved?"
"You may hope if you wish," Denethor replied, unconsciously reaching to brush a hand across his brow, as if to push hair from his eyes, though it was Ælric who needed such attention. A wind-blown strand hung down unheeded in his face, and for some reason, that irritated Denethor, as he continued quickly, "What I need are more names, and quickly. I want Ingar, among others, on a rope. Solid proof of my guesses would also be welcome, though we may get that yet, if I am right about the Haradrim...." He trailed off, staring now at the map to his right, as speculation ran down its varied channels once again. "It must be as I guess, for I can see nothing else that would fit what we know, and yet I still know not the main matter–"
"Have you eaten yet?"
"I beg your pardon?" Denethor blinked, turning back towards his aide, not quite certain that he had heard that correctly.
"I ask because you seem almost to speak to yourself, as is not your wont, my lord. And also because I am told you have been scarce today, and already the sky darkens," Ælric replied. And then he gave a half-smile and added, "And I have had a long ride and would welcome a rest. It would be... efficient... to discuss over dinner all that we have accomplished since last we spoke." There followed a brief moment of silence, during which the two of them stared at each other, each attempting to discern what passed through the other's mind. I have just been asked to dinner by my aide, Denethor thought, feeling as though north and south had just been reversed, though he tried not to show his perplexity. Most aides would not have made the offer, particularly since Denethor had never invited Ælric to eat with him. Of course, most aides were not captains in their own right, nor could count a king among their friends. Nevertheless, it was hardly the usual protocol between a captain and subordinate when not traveling together. Thus:
"'Twould be too crowded, for the watch has just changed, and I think it best if the men do not feel I am watching them always," Denethor replied, which was a valid excuse. Then, "Take an hour and meet me in front of the keep."
"Aye, my lord. One hour." With that, his aide offered a courteous salute and then disappeared, his boot heels clicking against the stone of the corridor. A door opened at the end of the hall, and then shut again. All the while, Denethor stood there silently, trying to decide just when his tongue had grown so boldly independent of his mind. He had not meant to accept, and yet he had. Mayhap I do need to take some time away from this, he thought. He was feeling a touch light-headed, now that he thought about it, for in truth, he had last eaten early that morning. And after all, it was not as if the time would be wholly wasted by small talk or any such tedious nonsense.
I have an hour still, he mused, stooping to collect the testimonies of several men as to Ithrin's activities. Another hour to ponder the wretched failure of anything resembling honor or integrity in Poros; Denethor sighed as he began reading again, and reached automatically for that string.
Aragorn ran his fingers through wet hair and wrung the water out of it over the washstand once more, wondering how long it would be ere the heat wiped away all memory of the cool depths of the bath-house. The river route between Cair Andros and Pelargir was the swiftest way south, taking only two days even without oarsmen, yet one still had to ride overland to reach Poros, and he had come far and swift indeed with Geleafa. I have not ridden that hard for too long, he thought as, with a sigh, he collapsed onto his bed in a graceless sprawl, grateful for the privacy of the moment. He probably should have traveled more slowly rather than letting Geleafa have his head, but freedom was intoxicating – Geleafa had wanted to run, and if he were honest, after a month in Minas Tirith, he had been just as eager as his horse. And it is not as if I am not a courier of news, he thought, rationalizing and enjoying it.
And perhaps that was another part of it – he admitted to a fair degree of satisfaction for the way Cair Andros's troubles had been settled. Once Breca and Falthir had agreed that the involvement of a Rohirric court was undesirable, they had moved with remarkable speed to try to remedy the ills of the fort. Falthir had taken good care to announce the changes concerning the treatment of slain horses to all parties, Gondorian and Éorling alike, adding that all men would be expected to help the Rohirrim in their burial work and so expedite the process. Breca had firmly informed the Riders that they were to adopt more fully the ways of their hosts, and as a sign of good faith, the Éorlingas had given a separate pledge of obedience to Falthir.
With Rothil and Eadwin, Brything and Hirion (who had struck up a rather swift and fast friendship after their first sparring match) holding forth in favor of reconciliation, men had fallen less suspiciously in line. I doubt that we shall hear from the Mark or Falthir again of such troubles, he thought, and smiled a bit. And this despite my deplorably Rohirric 'r,' as Denethor calls it.
Aragorn sighed again, playing with a strand of his hair, wincing when his fingers caught in a snarl and he had to yank them free. It was something of an annoyance to him at this length, but rather as he dared not simply cease to speak as he did, with a light but noticeable Westfold slur, he dared not cut his hair. Although he had quickly shed some of the habits of a Rider of the Mark, there were others that needed to be kept for the sake of appearances.
"Anywhere you go, lad, you shall be a stranger and known as such," Caranthar had told him once, on his first visit to Dale. "More, you carry weapons; you are no merchant, to ingratiate yourself to the folk who live here. Were you to seem too readily like a Barding, they would think you one of those honey-tongued liars, set to flatter and steal from them. So, be certain that you play to their expectations, and hold your strangeness about you like a cloak to hide other things. Odd though it may seem, they shall find you less threatening for it."
It was advice he had heeded in the five years he had spent among the Rangers, and he had modified it to aid his assimiliation into the Mark. And so now, as he slowly settled into Gondor, Aragorn shed his éothéodic habits gradually, and considered carefully which ones to quietly do away with, and in which order. Even a man as subtle as Denethor was more likely to look to the more obvious tell-tales than to notice the smaller things. So long as that larger image remained convincingly Éorling, then he ought to rouse no undue suspicion.
Of course, inviting him to dinner might have been more than even éothéodic brashness can explain away, Aragorn thought, closing his eyes. He knew that Gondor followed a more rigid code than did the Mark, and he had been scrupulous in observing it thus far. Until tonight, when he knew not what impulse had seized him. The first conversation we have had in eight days and I think I must have shocked Denethor. Falthir would be justly appalled at my behavior, he decided, ruefully recalling his final (and rather unexpected) discussion with Cair Andros's captain. Despite the fact that it seemed the isle garrison would suffer less from the friction between the Éorlingas and Gondorians, he and Falthir had remained on quite formal and uneasy terms with each other. In point of fact, their discussion had been unusual twice over, both because Aragorn had not expected to have any such conversation with Falthir, and because of its content.
"You will have trouble in Poros, Ælric," Falthir had said, just ere Aragorn had left Cair Andros. "I would not ordinarily presume to speak thus to one above me, sir, and mayhap it shall seem to you naught but the result of my own poor experience with Rohirrim, Captain, but hear me even so." As he had paused, seeking, it seemed, a sign of assent from Aragorn, his discomfort had been palpable. Yet his words and tone had made it clear that he had spent much time marshaling both his points and his courage to speak on what he felt was an important matter, and Aragorn had motioned for him to continue. Falthir had nodded, and had seemed to force himself to relax slightly as he spoke: "Many in the ranks grew up under the Shadow, and we face it with a certain... discipline. Many of us have known only Lord Denethor as Captain-General, and the older ones, who remember Lord Ecthelion ere he became Steward, fought in Ithilien. You know the tale of Ithilien, do you not, captain?"
"Rumor came to us in the Mark, though reports were harder to come by," Aragorn had replied.
"Then you must have heard how the last of our people were forced off the land by Gondor's own soldiery. Some were slain, even, because they refused and fought those who should have been their protectors. And at the end, they say, it was a near thing – we nearly lost the province entire, and would have, but for the discipline that Lord Ecthelion imposed. One did not question – one simply did as told. I was not there, but my father and my grandfather were. Grandfather did not return." There had come a pause, and Falthir had glanced away for a moment, folding his arms across his chest. After a short while, he had continued, "Lord Denethor became Captain-General after the campaign was won, and he has kept all orderly. For us, that is enough, and we look for nothing more than that he governs us well and with a firm hand. That is all that we ask of any captain. Do you know how Lord Denethor is called in the ranks?"
"No, I do not," Aragorn had replied, quietly.
"The Stone Wolf of Gondor, which ought to tell you much of him." Falthir had paused a moment then, ere he had concluded, "You are too easy with us in your speech and your manner. One hardly knows whether to call you captain or guardsman or Rider. One is left feeling either that one has not said enough or else that one has said too much, and more often the latter, I think. You seem too familiar for your rank."
The Stone Wolf of Gondor. And what am I to be, a pebble's echo of him? Aragorn wondered, as his thoughts ran in circles behind his eyelids. Certainly, it had been the greatest sign of trust that Falthir could have offered, for him to speak thus to one set over him. Indeed, given what Falthir had said, Aragorn still marveled that the man had spoken at all, and he had turned those words over in his mind more than a dozen times since leaving Cair Andros.
If Falthir spoke for even a quarter of the other officers of Gondor, then Aragorn would have difficulty dealing with them, and with the ranks who were accustomed to Denethor's particular style of governance, to say nothing of Denethor himself. Prudence said that he ought to accept that and bend to follow that advice, yet he could not. Not in this at least, when his own apprenticeship in the North and in the Mark had taught him so differently; not if he were to be of any use to Gondor. Which meant that he would need to find some other way, to reach some other accommodation. And men can change, after all, as I know from having earned back my name from 'Estel' to 'Aragorn', and as Falthir and Breca proved, he thought.
Which brought him round by a wide and twisting path to that invitation that he had unexpectedly issued his captain. Do I truly think that I can change Denethor's habitual coldness? Is that why I asked him to dinner, even if it is only to Poros's mess hall? That seemed slightly too simplistic an explanation, not to mention a venture doomed to failure. It was a very rare person who could force such a change in another, and Denethor certainly deserved his reputation in many ways. The name fit, and a wolf long alone could be dangerous when its isolation was breached. And this is Denethor, after all. Aragorn liked to think that he was not one to attempt the impossible, and yet....
I am surprised he likes you so well, Ecthelion had said, and opened up a rather troubling horizon with his words. For I am surprised that he likes me at all, if this is the manner in which his affections are shown. Yet despite the danger to his disguise, he had to admit that their verbal sparring was not unpleasant, even if it did weary him at times. Honesty compelled him to admit that, whatever else he might think of Denethor, the man was possessed of a certain irresistible charm. A frustrating, difficult charm, one able to inspire fascination more than friendship, but nevertheless.... I am his aide, and if I do not know him as well as I know others in Minas Tirith, still, I have spent more time in his company than in any other's. If it is to be contention between us, then let us have that clear between us; and if not.... Mayhap it was that his warm relationship with Breca over the past week had made him feel his loneliness here, a loneliness then exacerbated by Falthir's words. For if it was not to be strife between himself and Denethor, then Aragorn was unwilling to let things remain as they were, as if word games were the sole measure of liking between them.
It should be an interesting evening, if nothing else, he concluded with a certain eager trepidation, as he swung his legs over the edge of the bed and stood. A quick tug at his tunic and a comb remedied the worst ills (and thankfully, it was dark in any case), and then there was nothing for it but to see whether a wolf could learn to endure the company of a man.
"... extrapolate their location," Denethor was saying an hour or so later, as he and Ælric sat in a corner of the mess hall, away from the few stragglers, and talked of Poros's troubles. As Denethor's account ended, his aide gave a soft grunt of disgust and ran his fingers through damp hair. He had taken advantage of the hour to clean up and settle in; Denethor would not have been surprised to learn that he had already gone about the garrison's grounds, for he had been quick to explore Minas Tirith when newly arrived. It seemed a habit of his in new surroundings, whether so humble as a room or as grand as a city.
"Even if the Haradrim do hide in the hills, we can track them. Surely the Rangers among your escort should be more than equal to the task," his aide replied.
"And they shall have a part in it, for that is only fitting," Denethor replied, spearing a vegetable with more force than was strictly necessary, eliciting a long look from Ælric.
"How many men shall go with you?" he asked, after a moment.
"I would rather take a company of Ithilien's men, truth be told, yet if Poros is to regain its pride, it must now help expunge its guilt. There are two lieutenants here with whom I have spoken who, I am certain, were not involved in the crimes of their fellows. One of them shall have to remain in charge here, and the other shall come with me. I would leave you here as well to help try to put the garrison back together, but 'tis better, I think, if you learn now the ways of the Haradrim. What do you know of them?"
"I have heard a little of them in the Mark, from those who had served in the South, and a little more from this affair. A fierce people, by all accounts, and your ancient enemies. 'Tis said they give no quarter," Ælric replied.
"Their warriors do not, as a rule, and they have peculiar customs. 'Tis true, they have ever been easily swayed by the Dark Lord and his puppets, though at times, some of them lived under our sway as well. But during the Kin Strife, many a defeated and rebellious house fled to their hospitality and there remained, breeding malice and arming our foes with their knowledge," Denethor replied, pausing to scrape the last of the stew from his bowl. "Even now, Umbar is their haven, and such truce and commerce as we have with that province cannot last. Their numbers are grown great, and I fear that their many plots and attacks against us may one day cost us dearly." For a time, neither spoke, each intent upon finishing the meal. At length though, when they had done, and one of the younger lads came by to take their dishes, Denethor continued, changing the topic somewhat, "How skilled are you in the hunt?"
"Among my own people, I am accounted promising," Ælric replied with becoming modesty. Denethor narrowed his eyes.
"I asked not what your people thought, but how skilled you are in fact."
"More than adequate to the task, then, my lord. Any other judgments I leave to others," his aide replied.
"You realize that the area in which I believe the Haradrim to be hiding is wooded in places?"
"We are not all of us strangers to woodland who hail from the Mark," Ælric replied, with a faint, enigmatic smile. So you hold yourself a woodsman, do you? Denethor thought, and made a note to check the maps of Rohan more carefully when he had an idle moment. If that is so, then I may have a better guess as to what part of Westfold he comes from. For the moment, though, we shall let it go, and let him prove to me that a Rider of Rohan may indeed know his way round a wood. He gazed steadily at Ælric who refused to look away, and for a time, they strove thus against each other. After the tension and deadly serious matters of the past week, it seemed a silly game, yet Denethor refused to surrender.
They were interrupted, however, by a loud clap overhead that seemed to throb in every man's bones, and a murmur of startled voices broke out among the stragglers in the hall. Denethor and Ælric both glanced upwards a moment, and then, as the unmistakable sound of rain began to drum against the roof, Ælric gave a sigh and said, "Well, mayhap we shall have some relief from the heat after all."
"Give it the night, and see if tomorrow is not as bad as today," Denethor replied with glum certainty. "I served here many years ago, and such storms as these cool the air only while they last. Once the sun returns, the air is more damp than before. Still, I had not expected it to reach us with aught but thunder. I suppose we shall have to wait for it to pass."
"I might have simply waited 'til now to wash the dust off," Ælric replied, with a soft chuckle. A pause, then, "Since you have served in Poros before, tell me something of the lands here. How do they speak to you?"
"How do they speak to me?" Denethor frowned, felt his brow furrow as he gazed skeptically at his aide.
"Aye. A man must love the land he was born to, and you were born to Gondor, even this far-off patch of it. What does it tell you?"
"'Tis a dry land for all that it lies along a river, being closest to the deserts. An unyielding land to live upon and long a place of strife," Denethor answered, eyeing the other, uncertain what the other sought from him.
"There must surely be some redeeming quality to it, if you speak of it with that tone."
"A fierce one that says, with a fine ring of steel, 'mine!'" Ælric replied. Denethor had the awful feeling that he was blushing, and found himself looking away quickly.
"It is Gondor," he said simply, uncomfortably.
"Mm." Denethor shot the other an irritated look, irked by that too-knowing noise and the gleam in his aide's eyes, for all that Ælric maintained an admirably bland expression.
"I see now why they call you 'Ælfric.' Do you wax poetical often?" Denethor demanded, with something of a growl in his voice.
"When the impulse strikes, and if my audience does not," Ælric answered, even as thunder rattled the hall.
"I see. And what does Gondor say to a stranger, then?" Denethor asked archly. "Indulge your lyrical side, since it is already manifest this evening." There was a silence, and Ælric seemed to be considering this request, when another of the lads on kitchen duty appeared just then, with two cups filled with a dark, steaming liquid. Denethor gave a soft grunt at that and took one for himself, sliding the other squarely before Ælric, who sniffed at the rather earthy aroma suspiciously.
Ere he could ask, Denethor said, "The spoils of victory, unless they are more brazen here than even I had imagined. 'Tis Haradric tea." Ælric pulled a face that said clearly that he did not trust either Denethor or the 'tea.' Denethor hid a wicked grin as he took a sip. Then, gesturing carefully with the mug, challenged, "But come, speak, answer my question, and earn your reward." For I would hear this, and see where Gondor lies in his heart.
"Considering the reward, I think I may be pardoned if I say that I should not deserve it," Ælric retorted, but then pursed his lips slightly, thoughtfully. After another short silence, he gave a nod and began:
"The homeward leagues so heavy lie upon the lonely heart.
Never shall they lightened be, nor know I of levity
Who 'twixt Thengel's hall and Minas Tirith miles mark.
Westfold sings loud and leal, strives 'gainst longing's open field
That in my flesh and in my bone speaks to me of Gondor's stone.
Yet although he pays me court of kings I cannot yield."
Denethor was not certain what he had expected – something like the songs he had heard during his visits to Rohan, or had seen in the studies he had been set as a child, perhaps. And there was something of that Rohirric tradition in this rhyme – indeed, there was much of Rohan in it. Yet it was not quite Rohirric, in a way that Denethor was not quite able to articulate. As it unfolded, he found himself staring at Ælric, caught by the strangely luminescent quality of the other's grey eyes. Ælric, undaunted, returned that gaze, seeming, as in the staves, almost to court him, to court comment, and for the first time, Denethor felt something stir in him under that look that had naught to do with their sharp and wary relationship.
What has it to do with, then? He did not know, and when the poem ended, there was a long silence between them, one charged with a certain expectancy as they gazed at each other. But at length, Ælric shook his head, breaking the lock of looks, and took a cautious sip of the 'tea.' One sip only, and then he set the mug aside carefully, saying, "However rough the rhythm, I hold it was not so ill as to deserve that!"
"Such a prize as this comes but through blood; 'tis no mean gift, even were Sathros to have penned the verse," Denethor countered then, as the moment passed, and they returned to more familiar ground. For there were other questions to ask, other insights to be gleaned, as he turned the hastily-crafted staves over in his mind. Was it his imagination or had he noted a rather bastardized version of a linnod in among the more Rohirric patterns? And where did he learn that, I wonder? Off the top of his head, and in a foreign tongue, yet a Rohirrim spits out a linnod? And what was that undercurrent that went through those words? What was that look in the other's eyes? "Why 'he'?" he asked, then, watching Ælric carefully.
"It fit the line." A casual enough answer, that, though still with that hint of challenge, as if daring him to disagree.
"Is it not a poet's convention to say 'she' of lands and vessels?"
"A Rider of Riddermark can never lay claim to Gondor, nor be laid claim to by Gondor. Thus to me, Gondor is 'he,'" Ælric replied, "even as it would be 'she' to a shieldmaiden."
"Mm." That was not the answer that he had anticipated, and Denethor took another sip instead to avoid a reply. Most men say 'she' of things forbidden, though, he thought, and narrowed his eyes at his aide, wondering if he were really so bold as to jest so, and if so, what it meant. But when, after a bit, scrutiny failed to settle the matter in his mind, he sighed inwardly and set it aside, unhappily conceding the match in this case. It had been an odd evening, all things considered, and what was he doing, discussing a rhyme made up on a moment's notice? I had thought to avoid a casual conversation, he thought. After all, he still had not heard of Cair Andros. Cocking his head slightly, he stared at Ælric, at this enigma out of Rohan, whatever his roots, and wondered, and wondered, picking and pulling at all their words together....
Ælric's attention drifted from the scattered pairs of soldiers about the room and back to Denethor just then. Noting the stare, he let a slightly perplexed look slide across his face that asked silently, Is something amiss? It took a split second to respond with an appropriate diversion, but when he did, Denethor did not attempt to conceal his wicked amusement. Raising his mug, he said, "To Gondor, then, long may she remain unclaimed by foreign hands."
Custom forbade refusing a toast raised in Gondor's honor, even if one had naught more than water in one's glass. Ælric knew it, and managed, with admirable composure, to empty his mug despite his aversion. Denethor chuckled at that, thinking, That for the last round, and to even the score tonight. But then he sighed softly as another peal of thunder hushed the low murmur of conversation, and said, "Let us hope that, as the Haradrim say, khave shall indeed sustain a man from dusk 'til dawn, for the longer the rain keeps us here, the later our night." With a shake of his head, he abruptly changed the subject, returning them to business. "Tell me of Cair Andros, since we must remain here awhile longer."
"The main trouble concerned the recent death of the liaison officer, Hladred, my lord," Ælric replied, resuming his station as aide in word and tone. "It seems there were a number of grievances that had not been properly dealt with, and his death was the final straw, as we say in the Mark. I believe that Captain Falthir now has the situation in hand, and he and his new liaison, Breca, have addressed the more serious complaints that came of misunderstandings about various customs. I remained for one night after they came to terms, but saw no real sign of trouble or opposition to their decisions. If there are further complaints worth a second review, I shall be surprised, my lord."
"In a few months, then, we shall judge your success there. In the mean time, we may at least set aside the lesser matter without overmuch fear." Denethor paused then, considering the other as Ælric sat listening, with one forearm flat on the table, while the fingers of the other hand wandered over the star-brooch he always wore. An absent-minded habit, that, one that Denethor had noted in passing before. Tonight, for some reason, it caught his attention fully, perhaps because his own habits had broken loose so often in the past week in lonely moments, and he stared for several moments, ere curiosity got the better of him. "Whence comes that? I cannot place the craftsmanship, yet clearly 'tis not Rohirric work."
Ælric blinked, gazed at him a moment, then apparently realized what he did, and gave a slight smile as he lowered his hand and laced his fingers together before him. "It came to me through my mother. As to the craftsmanship, well, 'tis not dwarvish."
"Ah," Denethor replied. Nay, 'tis not dwarvish. It seems rather akin to some of the silverwork from the older schools of Gondor. Dúnadan work... Tharbad, perhaps? That ancient settlement had been drowned and deserted not twenty years before his own birth, and the survivors had settled over a wide area, a number of them in the Westfold. Most had left Rohan for Gondor in the following years, but a few remained, and Denethor wondered that he had not thought of that before. Mayhap because Tharbad had so little to do with Gondor...
"Will you never cease, my lord?" Ælric's voice put a halt to speculation, and if his expression was ironically bemused, there was that in his voice that was serious. Denethor regarded him a moment, surprised by that sudden, unprecedented frankness in acknowledging their habitual contest. For suddenly, they were back in that strange place that that poem had woven for them, and it seemed almost that there was an odd note in his voice, a note of....
"No," Denethor replied quietly. Then he rose, breaking the mood once more, and Ælric followed suit. The patter of rain had grown appreciably softer in the past few minutes, and it was clearly time to leave this place.
Making a short, gesture, as if to sweep all their words aside, he said briskly, "Enough of this. 'Tis time we spoke of Ithrin and other matters not fit for common company. Come." Denethor turned then and headed for the door at a brisk pace, and Ælric followed. And was it his imagination, or did a sigh trail after him?
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