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Hands of the King: 7. Descent
Minas Tirith, Late March, 2975 T.A.
The shadow of Mindolluin stretched across the Pelennor. As the sun left the sky, the mountain’s shadow swiftly blended with the dusk. Denethor and Thorongil stood upon the seventh wall, looking east. This day marked the end of the meetings with the Steward and various officials and officers necessary to transfer Thorongil from Pelargir to Anórien. After the Southern Council, the captain would come north and take over the garrison at the eastern edge of the Druadan Forest, south of the great road. Captain Baragund, currently Denethor’s second in command at Osgiliath, would go south to replace Thorongil. Just as I sent Thorongil south to Pelargir from Osgiliath three years ago. It was the usual path; the second at Osgiliath would be promoted to the captaincy of Pelargir.
Denethor glanced at Thorongil from the corner of his eye. The other was lost in contemplation. The transfer had been presented to Denethor as a decree upon his return from Cair Andros a week past. The Lord Steward and Mithrandir had decided upon this when Denethor was out of the City reviewing north Ithilien. In truth, Denethor could not argue against the decision. Anórien would be endangered sooner than the Ethir, and Thorongil’s connection to Rohan made him the best suited to the northern marches.
What grated was how the decision had been made. You have none but yourself to blame this time. Did you not make yourself traitor to your lord? In the months since the Council on yestarë, he had considered his actions and knew he had allowed the desire for an immediate victory to compromise his larger concerns. You should have drawn the same conclusions about Umbar as the Steward and the wizard. You should have ensured that Thorongil would be implicated in the interception of the message. The outcome today is the same as what the Steward wished then, but you have lost almost all of your power. It meant little that Thorongil himself still believed he should remain in Pelargir. Worst, the southern lords were now alarmed and it would be difficult to win back their trust. In this, Ecthelion was right. The Southern Council was a formality for announcing what would be. The true diplomacy would be conducted privately, with Adrahil. The sea-fiefs would follow Dol Amroth’s lead. Denethor’s own position was quite precarious.
‘How long will it take you to prepare the garrison for transfer?’
Thorongil turned to face his Captain-General. ‘I anticipate it will take three weeks once I return. Perhaps four, depending upon when Baragund arrives.’ After a long pause, he added, ‘I would that the Steward would wait until this fall.’
‘There is more to the Ethir and the lands of the Poros than defense against Umbar. Only now are the waters subsiding enough to take full stock of the winter storm damage and to begin repairs. Lebennin and Lossarnach do not tend to anything beyond the west bank of Anduin, so it falls to Pelargir. There is much to be done in the summer lest people suffer when winter comes again.’
He truly cares for the kingdom, all of it. Fools like Isilmo looked for ease and advantage in command, but Thorongil gave thought even to the fisher-folk of Ethir. He builds loyalty. It is best to take him away before he is the Prince of Pelargir. ‘You do not believe Baragund to be competent to care for such things? Or do you think only yourself able to mind this business?’
Thorongil shook his head. ‘No, my lord. I meant no disrespect to Captain Baragund. I am simply attached to the tasks drawn up this spring for the Ethir and would wish to see them through. I fear I am not yet convinced of the urgency for me to be reassigned to Anórien.’
Below them, lamplighters walked the different circles, pouring in oil, trimming wicks, lighting the lanterns, and hanging them again from their poles. The City was dark, though the lands east were still in soft twilight.
‘I am convinced of the urgency,’ said Denethor.
‘Then I am satisfied,’ Thorongil replied.
‘When do you leave?’
‘On the morrow.’
‘Why were you so delayed in arriving? You received the Steward’s summons on Friday. He was expecting you late Tuesday, when Lord Brandir and I returned.’
‘I did not understand the exigency. There was nothing in the summons to indicate…’
‘Mithrandir did not inform you of the substance of his discussions with the Lord Steward?’
Thorongil did not answer at once. ‘Yes, Mithrandir did. However, he did not convey to me how strongly the Steward desired my presence. Also, I expected messages from the south and decided to delay and see if they would arrive.’
‘Ah. They arrived?’
‘And you had no need to wake me.’ Denethor stared at Thorongil until the other dropped his eyes. ‘Or have you learned a new cipher?’
‘I have learned no new cipher.’ The captain stared out over the City, jaw clenched. You know that you were as treasonous as I, don’t you, Thorongil? And you know you would read those messages yourself if you could only figure out how. Just as you would order things to your satisfaction, if you could but take power. Well, I may be weakened, but I am not without resources.
Ecthelion had been surprised on the Tuesday of Denethor’s return from Cair Andros that Denethor offered no objections to the transfer, only warning of discontent among the southern lords. Brandir had been greatly pleased by the news, of course. Neither of them had liked what they saw in Cair Andros, and Denethor decided he had other plans for Marlong. Not that he had bothered the Steward with that decision. The next morning had been spent reviewing copies of Ecthelion’s secretary’s records for the previous two weeks, seeing whom the Steward had met and what directions had been issued. That is how Denethor uncovered the wizard’s visit. Beregar’s report about Finduilas’s own meeting with the wizard angered him out of proportion. She is your best spy upon Beruthiel and Thorongil, now. You cannot risk losing that access, nor can you risk alienating the Prince by treating his daughter poorly. Luckily, she seemed eager to overlook the argument and to go back to spying. Perhaps too eager.
The messenger pigeon from the Harlond had informed Denethor when Thorongil’s ship docked. He decided he would meet the captain at the Great Gate and they would walk together up to the Citadel. Aiavalë delayed his start, and then he had reason to slip over the wall between the fifth and sixth circles and see whom Maiaberiel had invited to supper that night. He was back up on the roof of the villa, preparing to return to the wall, when he noticed the captain in the street before the house. Thorongil walked up to the door, but did not knock, and eventually retreated to an alleyway across from the house. Denethor took a seat and waited. When Finduilas left the house, the captain followed at a distance. Denethor quickly went back over the wall to the sixth circle, dropped to the road, passed through the tunnel, then scrambled back up onto the wall using the hidden handholds that pocked the houses and walls of Minas Tirith. If you knew what to look for, you could always find them. He caught up with them at the gate and watched Thorongil escort the others the rest of the way to the Citadel.
Supper with Finduilas the next night both reassured and alarmed him. The greatest lesson was that she could not be ordered about, but she would be a reliable ally if treated like the prince she was. And I need not concern myself with Aiavalë’s meddling. The girl sees me as a friend and no more; an elder brother from whom she may gain advice. No matter what his eldest sister might wish, if the girl’s heart did not incline towards him, he would do nothing to encourage such thoughts. It seemed obvious, however, that Maiaberiel, Mithrandir, and Thorongil very much wished to encourage Finduilas. And she intends to befriend him. Her heart is against him now, but if she learns to admire the man, that could change quickly. All he could hope was that the Prince would strongly disapprove of his young daughter associating with an older man and forbid her.
Denethor had not stopped his inspection of the captain. When he considered the man himself, he wanted to trust him. Thorongil was a leader of the finest sort, and he had never known the captain to act with less than Gondor’s best interests at heart. More than defenses had improved since the man’s arrival near seven years before. Areas near the river could be repopulated, the hearts of the people had been lifted up, the lands were more prosperous. When he had explained the river defense to a taciturn stranger that long-past spring, Denethor finally found the person who understood how it worked and who agreed with him that it was the best approach, though not without its risks. For almost three years they had worked together hand in glove, Thorongil swiftly rising from a scouting leader to Denethor’s second at Osgiliath, and there had been true victories. Then, Thorongil had come to prominence, whispers had started about their close resemblance and the Steward’s favor, and others attached their ambitions to the newly made captain. Has he attached his ambitions to theirs? And, yet, the ciphered message had come to his hands.
Thorongil ceased his study of the rooftops and faced him. How honest will you be with me?
‘I am curious, Thorongil. Why did you commit treason against the Steward?’
‘I merely delivered a message.’ The man’s eyes were bright, fierce.
‘Do you deny to me that you brought it for me to read, and for you to know?’ The captain did not answer. ‘You endangered both of us greatly.’
‘There is something you do not know. The Steward cannot read that cipher any more than you can. He knows a bit of it, but not much. Eventually, they all come to me for deciphering.’ Thorongil’s eyebrows went up sharply.
‘How is it that you alone know it?’
‘The Master Archivist knows it as well. Some years ago, there was reason to believe the existing cipher had been broken. I invented a new one. I traveled to Umbar secretly and taught their cipherist the new code.’ She had learned it swiftly, even more quickly than Aiavalë.
Thorongil looked at him with astonishment. ‘When was this?’
‘About twenty-five years ago.’ Denethor could see the captain doing some calculations in his head to figure years and ages. He tried not to feel pride at the clear expression of admiration on Thorongil’s face.
‘That is quite amazing, my lord. The Steward would allow his heir at that age to go off into such danger?’
‘It is the duty of the Stewards’ line to serve, no matter their age. At that time, though, I was but the heir of the Warden.’
‘So you have seen the Havens?’
Denethor nodded. ‘It took a year to arrive, teach, and depart safely. It is a well-guarded city. I remain curious, though, as to what you thought to gain by delivering that message to someone other than the Steward.’ The captain held his tongue. ‘What is it you want, Thorongil?’
‘To serve whom?’
Denethor shook his head slightly. ‘No, Thorongil, you must serve a master. Or be one. Your oath is to the Steward.’
‘As is yours.’
‘You have an interesting idea of loyalty to the Steward, captain. You serve when it pleases you, and otherwise not.’
‘I do as the Steward commands.’
‘Perhaps. You should pick a master and be honest with him.’ It was full dark now and little could be seen of Thorongil’s face save the gleam of his eyes. ‘There is much you do not know of the City.’
‘Would you care for a lesson?’
‘From you? Yes, my lord. It is said none know the City as you do.’
Denethor pulled off a ring. ‘I did not say it was a lesson about the City, though there is that as well. Take this ring and go to the Great Gate. Hand it to whomever is the highest ranking officer you meet.’ He held out the ring to the captain, who took it gingerly.
‘That is all?’
‘Whomever receives the ring will instruct you further.’ Thorongil bowed slightly, then turned and went down the stair from the wall to the alleyway. Denethor watched the other man enter the tunnel to the sixth circle, then emerge and turn south towards the gate to the fifth circle. As soon as Thorongil passed, Denethor looked around to see if there were any observers, then leapt lightly to the top of the seventh wall.
In a moment, he found the handholds that let someone climb down into a small court in the sixth circle. He moved swiftly across the main road, keeping close to the rock pier. In another alley was another set of handholds to the top of the wall between the fifth and sixth circles. Thorongil would only now be coming through the gate from the sixth to the fifth. Denethor traversed a few rooftops, then slid down a drain pipe to a footpath between two great houses. A few minutes later he was atop the wall between the fifth and fourth circles.
This was the difficult passage, for this was the tallest of all the walls, there were no handholds on the front face, and the houses were arranged so that one could not get from the wall to their roofs. The top three circles were a fortress inside a fortress. The fourth circle was the widest of all, save the first, and was where most of the people lived.
Denethor went to the center rock and felt for the handholds leading up. They were very widely spaced and started high up, so that only a tall man could make use of them. In a moment, he was a dozen feet above the level of the wall, three times that above the tunnel through the pier, edging along a narrow shelf that sloped down the rock. It spanned the fourth circle and became a steep watercourse with a narrow lip when it neared the next wall. He skidded down it. It stopped short of the wall itself, and he had a good eight foot drop to the roof of a house. A downwards leap over a narrow alley brought him to the wall between the third and fourth circles. Thorongil was nowhere in sight, and was probably only in the fifth circle.
There was a long scramble down the carvings on the outer face of the wall to the third circle, then across several rooftops to the central street. The main street here was narrow enough that he jumped over it to the other side. Once he scrambled up to the top of the wall to the second circle, Denethor returned to the center stone and walked along another hidden ledge, this just above the arch of the tunnel from one side of the circle to the other. There was no way down for this ledge except to slide partly down the pier to a rooftop of a guardhouse. From there, the remainder of the path was simple – a few rooftops, the wide wall between the second and first circles, and then use the wave carvings at the foot of the center stone climb to the street.
Once on the ground in the first circle, he walked over to the Great Gate. The guards greeted him, not having noticed that their Captain-General had appeared from an alley rather than the main street. Denethor leaned against the gate and waited. It was a considerable wait, so he studied the mountain he had just descended.
He had discovered the handholds in the walls and in the houses when he was about ten. Most young boys found some of them, but he was determined to learn them all. By the time he was fourteen, he knew every alley and rooftop in the City and every way there was to get around without touching the ground. The fourth circle had confounded him for several years, though. Denethor could not figure out how to get from the fifth to the third without using the gates into the fourth circle. He knew there had to be a way and finally a trick of moonlight revealed the hidden stair.
Footsteps to his left alerted him to the arrival of Thorongil. The captain stopped abruptly a half-dozen yards off when he recognized Denethor. It was a good minute before the captain moved again, and then he approached slowly and held out the ring.
‘Your instructions, Lord Denethor?’
‘Tell me how I am standing here.’
Thorongil turned his back and studied the mountain as Denethor had been doing. After a few minutes, the man shook his head. ‘I cannot say.’
‘You have never heard of the King’s Stair?’
Thorongil nodded. ‘Yes, I have heard the name, though not much else. I thought it a legend of a stair cut out of the rock…’ The man turned quickly and stared at the center stone, then turned back. ‘Then it is true? There is a stair inside the stone?’
“For five long years did Anárion hold back the black tide of the Enemy, while his brother, Isildur, gathered strength in the north. All the peoples, of Anórien and of Ithilien both, he gathered in Minas Anor, and his army held firm the passage of Anduin in Osgiliath. Rumor came of a great army in the north, and ever did he long for the aid of his brother, for the Enemy was cruel. One clear spring evening, as the light faded, Anárion stood upon the height of Minas Anor and espied a fair company of knights crossing the plain below. He sent forth a great shout of joy, for he saw the banners and knew his brother had returned. Anárion strode down the mountain like a giant, from wall to wall, and was waiting at the foot of the King’s Stair to greet his brother, Isildur.”
The two stood silently while the captain pondered the tale. Finally, Thorongil met Denethor’s eyes and raised an eyebrow. ‘And the lesson?’
‘The descent on the King’s Stair is swiftly done. There is no similar return.’
A faint, humorless smile crossed the captain’s face. ‘I… see. ’
‘That remains to be seen. I must now return to the Citadel. It is a long climb. I wish you a safe journey to Pelargir, and shall see you at the Council. Good evening, Captain.’
‘Why did you read the message that morning if you knew it would come to you eventually?’
Denethor smiled and walked off.
Minas Tirith, Early April, 2975 T.A.
‘Lord Denethor! How good to see you again, sir. If it pleases you to wait, I will tell the Matron that you are here.’
He nodded to the scantily clad young woman, clasped his hands behind his back, and surveyed the parlour of the brothel. It was early in the day, so only a few whores were on display. They were chattering gaily among themselves, though they had paused to greet him when he came in. They knew better than to bother him. He was a regular visitor and only did business with the mistress of the house.
An older woman, soberly dressed, walked up to him. ‘If you will follow me, my lord, the Mistress will see you now.’ He followed her into a small corridor at the back of the house and up two flights of stairs. Another narrow corridor led to a bright room at the front of the house. The older woman opened the door and gestured him in. Her chair and a basket of needlework stood near the door in the hall. The door quietly clicked shut behind him. He crossed the room and stopped before the large carved desk, inclining his head to the woman who stood behind it.
‘Good morning, Morwen.’
‘Good morning, Denethor. I hope all is well with you.’
‘It is, and my hopes for the same for yourself.’
‘I leave nothing to chance, so all is as usual.’ She gestured to a nearby chair. ‘Please, be seated. I have the accounts prepared.’
The black-haired, tawny-skinned woman was dressed in clothes that even Maiaberiel would envy. While they both knew she was one of Ecthelion’s bastards, they never spoke of it. Unlike the other sisters, neither the Steward nor Maiaberiel had any idea she existed. She ran the most successful brothel in the City, inherited from her mother twenty-odd years ago. Morwen asked for nothing and provided nothing that did not have a price.
Though she refused to provide any information about her establishment’s patrons, she was instrumental in setting up the only reliable spy network they had in Harad. Her elder half-brothers ran merchant caravans into the south and their most valuable item was information. She brokered it to Denethor. He paid a very steep price to ensure it came to his notice exclusively and considered it a good exchange. It was her brothers, Marach and Ragnor, who had smuggled him into and out of Umbar so many years before. They were all half-breeds, with Gondorian sires and a Haradic mother. To provide a cover for collecting the southern information, Denethor visited the house several times every month or two, whether or not there was news. He and Morwen would sit and speak Haradic to keep his familiarity with the language sharp. She was paid for this time as well. He had not been able to pay a visit since before Emeldir’s funeral due to his travels. There had been no news from the south.
Today, however, he was conducting City business. Denethor contracted with Morwen to provide all whores for the Osgiliath garrison. He was here to settle quarterly accounts on that service. Morwen laid out a set of papers before him. Her motions were efficient and certain, reminding him greatly of Aiavalë. Of all his sisters, these two were the most alike, despite their physical differences. As far as he knew, the two had never met, though they corresponded on spy business.
‘The expenses are somewhat higher than last quarter, though in keeping with the year before, as I had to find two replacements,’ she said calmly. Like discussing replacing two milk cows, or a couple of geese. Much as Denethor might admire Morwen’s business sense, he could not ever accept the matter-of-factness of her trade in flesh. ‘Those two girls married their sweethearts. A third decided not to, and asked to remain in the City, so she was simply traded for another.’ Any of the whores at the garrison who accepted a marriage proposal from a soldier was dowered by the City to ensure she would not return to her previous occupation.
Denethor picked up a page and scanned it. Every cost was carefully noted. Explanations would be on the next page. He always found it amusing that Morwen was the most honest provisioner to the army.
‘Have there been any problems? Are there any complaints?’ he asked. She shook her head.
‘None within the house. The boys are well-mannered for the most part, and the guard makes sure that none are allowed in if they are drinking too much.’
‘They have no business drinking too much in any case,’ was his stern reply. Morwen shook her head and chuckled.
‘You would forbid them any pleasure, if you could, Denethor.’
‘No, only excesses that distract them from their duty.’ He tired of this argument with her.
‘I heard informally that a few of the married men have tried to seek entrance to the house,’ she continued, ‘but you will have to ask your own officers if this is true, as the Matron saw none.’ Morwen sat back in her chair, amusement in her grey eyes. ‘Really, Denethor, what do you care if a married man seeks some pleasure that his wife knows nothing of?’
‘I do not care what licentiousness some fool wishes to engage in. I do care that all understand oath-breaking is not permitted. If he will break that vow and troth, he will break others. Do you permit your whores to take on customers of their own?’
‘Well, I will not permit oath-breaking among my subordinates, either. Not without penalty. What his wife will permit when he is back in her care is not my concern.’ Denethor smiled genially. ‘And I think my order not so objectionable compared to that of Captain Thorongil.’
Morwen wrinkled up her face. ‘That man! He is a nuisance!’
Thorongil was even more fastidious than himself on the question of whores. It disgusted Denethor that such things happened and he fundamentally distrusted any man who availed himself of a woman in that way, married or not. It was self-indulgent weakness, more base than the rutting of animals, for men knew better. His views were mild compared to the captain’s.
The one true argument he had ever had with Thorongil was over the whorehouse at Osgiliath, when Thorongil was his lieutenant. The other was horrified at its presence and named it a true evil that betrayed and perverted souls. He forbade the soldiers to go there, and refused to supply or defend it. Finally, Thorongil had threatened to leave the Steward’s service rather than support it. Denethor had solved the matter by placing it under the power of a different lieutenant, and ordered Thorongil to stay out of its business. After several tense days when he thought that Thorongil would make good on his threat, the man had grudgingly backed down.
Morwen had complained loudly that Thorongil was ruining her business in the City as well, for soldiers feared their commanding officer’s opprobrium if he found out they had frequented brothels. As much as he was admired by his soldiers and the City, more than a few breathed a sigh of relief when Thorongil took his animus to Pelargir. There were no openly run brothels in that city anymore.
‘I may not like how you limit my business, Denethor, but at least you will be reasonable,’ Morwen went on, crossing her arms, a scowl on her face. ‘That man is impossible! I would have to remove my house to Harad if he became King! He is an enemy of whores.’
‘Why would you think that such a thing would happen?’ Denethor quickly asked.
Morwen stared at him, then looked away. Finally, she nodded. Leaning forward on the desk, she spoke in a low voice. ‘You should know this, Denethor. I have made a rule of never repeating what is heard in this house, but this is something that threatens us both. Two days ago, a group of carousers came in. No one important, save that they were all Maiaberiel’s lackeys. I know she is Thorongil’s patron. They were fairly drunk, but cheerful and with a good amount of coin, so they were allowed in. A few spoke of how Thorongil was coming north again, this time to stay. One toasted to “King Thorongil” and was shushed by his fellows. There was much unpleasant talk of you, and much whispering of the word “king”.’ Morwen held his eyes. ‘What can you tell me of this?’
‘I can confirm that the captain has been assigned to the Anórien garrison, effective within a month. As to the rest, that will depend on how effective Maiaberiel is in promoting his interests with the Steward and with the City.’ Denethor shrugged. ‘I do not know about being king, but I expect he will become quite powerful.’
He shrugged again. ‘It is possible.’
‘That is as bad as if he were king,’ she growled. ‘Well, the whores will not speak so kindly of him if they hear words suggesting he should be more than an officer.’
Given her power among the City’s brothels, this could be a great deal of trouble for the captain. Denethor inclined his head. ‘Please let me know if there is any more news of interest to us both. For now, though, I must conclude our business. The accounts are accurate, as always.’ He took a quill sitting on the desk, dipped it in the inkwell, and signed the papers as approved. ‘I will be leaving Minas Tirith today for Osgiliath, and then south. I shall return in a few weeks.’
‘I have some other news for you. The word from Harad is that no trade caravans are being allowed near the Havens, and have not been since December. There is a new bazaar set up several leagues away, and all trade occurs there. Anyone caught coming closer is killed and hung up as an example. Soldiers patrol the bazaar and do not permit idle talk. The Corsairs do not want news of Umbar to travel. Word from further south is that merchants who take their ships into that bay are not seen again.’
Denethor was shocked. Never before had Morwen given him news from the south prior to being paid.
‘When did you hear this?’
‘Two days ago. Marach is in Pelargir and sent me word.’
‘Will he be there when I am there? In two weeks.’
‘I do not know. I will send word to him, but I doubt that would make him delay his travels if you do not arrive in time.’
‘No he should not delay, but he should look for me. Thank you. This confirms other news. I will send a message to the Master Archivist to have your gold delivered.’ Morwen provided him with paper and wax. He used a simple cipher on the message, but distorted it in a way Aiavalë would understand. An errand boy was dispatched with the note. Morwen escorted Denethor to the door. When they reached it, she laid a hand on his arm.
‘I know time has passed, but I offer my condolences for the loss of your lady mother.’
‘And what do you care of wives?’
Morwen’s eyes became hard, like Ecthelion’s. ‘A good deal more than you expect, Denethor. Most whores hope to become one.’
She smiled and looked about. ‘I am one. To my house.’ Squeezing his arm, she said softly, ‘I am sorry for your loss. I, too, lost my mother.’
‘Thank you. Pray, forgive my outburst.’
‘Of course. I wish you a safe journey, Denethor. Please send a note when you have returned. I have missed our evenings these last months.’
‘If I can. I will be at the garrison this night. Do you have any messages for the matron?’
‘No. And, remember, if you have need…’
‘…of a mistress, yes, I will let you know.’
Morwen considered him a moment, then squeezed his arm again. ‘I think not. You are not one for a mistress any more than you are one for whores. You will have to find a wife, or no one.’
Denethor did not reply, but inclined his head to her and let himself out. He paused in the corridor outside the parlour. A few male voices could be heard intermixed with the chatter and giggles of the girls. No one. He left the house and walked to the stables at the foot of the City. Soon, he was heading along the road to Osgiliath.
It was a pleasant journey across the Pelennor. The day was mild, if not precisely warm, and the brown of winter was almost overcome by the green of spring. Wildflowers lined the road, fruit trees bloomed, and tiny yellow-green leaves clung to every branch. It smelled green. He let the horse walk, in no hurry to end the solitude. A few wagons were on the road, hauling supplies to the garrison or silage for farm beasts or goods for the market in the City. Half a league from the outskirts of the ruins, the farms gave way to open pasture. None liked to live so far away from Minas Tirith or so close to the ghosts of the past. A few shepherd lads tended goats or cattle, but all the herds stayed as far west as they could. The Ephel Duath loomed dark across the river.
Two furlongs west of the causeway forts stood the whorehouse, a large estate house abandoned five-hundred years before and repaired ten years prior during the rebuilding of the bridge in Osgiliath. Keeping it apart from the garrison itself protected the house from any unexpected attack and allowed soldiers’ visits to be observed.
The sentries at the inner forts recognized him and called a greeting, and the gates opened to allow him to pass. He breathed a sigh of relief. Osgiliath. Others were haunted by the ruins and afraid of the eyes that stared out from secret places across Anduin, but Denethor liked it here. He had first served in the Osgiliath garrison under Ecthelion’s command after he had returned from Umbar in 2950. Not that they actually controlled the ruins. They prevented incursions into the Pelennor and little else. It was during that time that the Enemy returned to Mordor and rebuilt his stronghold. It was also during that time that Ecthelion despaired of defending the City against the growing darkness and they had quarreled over Ecthelion’s treatment of Emeldir. Denethor had gladly taken the dangerous task of leading secret patrols in Emyn Arnen; better that than see Ecthelion’s negligence in the garrison.
When Steward Turgon sickened and Ecthelion was recalled permanently to the City, there was finally an opportunity to make Osgiliath more than a place of retreat for ineffective patrols. Denethor’s maternal uncle, Belemir, was Captain-General, and had been well-trained by Turgon and by Prince Angelimir of Dol Amroth, Adrahil’s father. Belemir, in turn, schooled his own son, Boromir, the Rohirric prince, Thengel, Prince Adrahil during his time of service to the Steward and finally Denethor himself. Though Thengel left upon the death of King Fengel in the same year that Turgon died, he approved of Belemir’s plans and willingly sent all the Riders who could be spared.
Boromir was made the captain of Osgiliath and Denethor became his lieutenant. Boromir was Belemir’s only child and eighteen years Denethor’s elder. They were double-cousins, for Belemir’s wife was Andreth, Ecthelion’s elder sister. Within two years, Belemir made Denethor captain of the north Ithilien Rangers. The constant travel across the river from Cair Andros gave Denethor the idea that would become the river defense.
The river defense was a bold plan to make them the masters once more. They would control the eastern banks, not hide beyond the western ones. They would retake Osgiliath completely, including the eastern ruins, fortify Cair Andros and Henneth Annûn, put regular forces into the Emyn Arnen, and use Pelargir as a base for patrolling the eastern shore of Anduin. If they did all of this, they would regain control over parts of Ithilien. Most dear to Denethor’s heart, they would rebuild the bridge in Osgiliath, an engineering project not seen in Gondor since the time of the Kings.
Ecthelion did not precisely approve of his Captain-General’s plan, but neither did he forbid it. Five years into laying the foundation for the new strategy, however, Belemir died young of ague. Boromir became Captain-General, and Denethor was made Captain of Osgiliath. It took five more years of planning, with many set-backs and skirmishes, but they retook the ruins and much of Ithilien. The cost was enormous – too much, some said – for they lost a tenth of their army. Denethor lost Boromir and became Captain-General.
Osgiliath’s bridge was built within the year. The northern Rangers remained hidden in Henneth Annûn, though increased in number, while a southern group was assembled openly and patrolled from the bridge to the Crossroads, and south beyond Emyn Arnen. Cair Andros was made stronger and the roads along the west bank from Cair Andros to Pelargir repaired and made safe. They even reclaimed the road from the Crossroads south to Pelargir, though only soldiers ever traveled upon it. Adrahil rallied the Sea-fiefs to support the strengthening of Pelargir and Linhir, won the battle of Langstrand, and soon there was a strong base for the south, though no one to take command in the Pelargir garrison. That was to have been Denethor’s command while Boromir ordered Osgiliath. Within a month of taking Thorongil on in Osgiliath, Denethor knew he had found his commander for Pelargir.
A stablehand ran up to take his horse as he dismounted. Denethor nodded curtly to the man, who gave him a brisk salute before walking the horse away. The crisp, wordless exchanges of the garrison stood in good contrast to the deceitful chatter of the City. He slung the saddlebags over his shoulder and walked across the yard to the barracks. Old sections of the original city wall formed part of the outer wall, an ancient gateway barred and guarded by more towers giving access to the bridge. Baragund came out of the barracks to greet him.
The simple title said all that was needful. They nodded to each other as Baragund held open the door for them both. The interior was exactly as it had been for all the years Denethor had known it – dark, close, smelling of tired men. Lanterns were not wasted on the corridors or the stairs. He knew to the breadth of a hair how far the foot of the stair was from the door. One long stride, then a half-stride and a foot raised two hand-spans from the ground. His left foot touched worn stone, compensated for the inward slope, and his right foot took him three steps higher. Six strides, turn left, four strides, hit the wooden door with a right shoulder, push, and a casual toss put the saddlebags onto the cot across the room. He continued down the dark hallway to a lighted doorway at the end. His lieutenant followed a half pace behind.
The officers’ meeting room had a south-facing window, heavily barred, a large table, heavily scarred, and a set of ramshackle chairs, heavily used. There was one larger than the others, made of lebethron, that had been salvaged from a half-destroyed house close to the southern edge of the ruins. It was the only chair large enough to hold Denethor comfortably. It was plain save for a half-sun adorning the high back. It could have been rising or setting, but it displayed behind the head of whomever sat in the chair. Most men were too short for the chair, and the entire carving showed. When he sat in it, or when Thorongil did, the face of the sun was obscured and only the rays showed above and around his head. Denethor sat. Baragund poured them both cups of wine, then took his seat nearby. The man patiently waited for his commander to speak.
‘What are your questions?’
Baragund shrugged. ‘Not many. Why the change and when do I go? And who replaces me?’
‘You will go with me in a week. I wish to ride through south Ithilien and then cross over at Pelargir. For now, no one is replacing you. Marlong will be moved after Thorongil takes command, and formally will be second.’
‘He’s not suited.’
‘I know. I am not bringing him here for that.’
‘Isilmo is making noises.’ Baragund’s expression clearly expressed what he thought of such noises.
‘No.’ The lieutenant nodded, pleased. ‘It will be decided later, when I return. It will not be Isilmo.’
‘As for the change, my last tour of the north made me rethink what the coming year will be like. We need the Rohirrim to hold East Emnet and The Wold very strongly, and that will take Brandir and Thorongil. Henneth Annun needs to be strengthened as well…’
‘Yes. The losses in Umbar are going to be off-set by greater marauding in the north to prevent us from gaining any advantage. I am trusting you to ensure that we remain strong in the south while we deal with Orcs and Easterlings.’
Baragund nodded, absorbing the news. He drained his cup, stood and bobbed his head. ‘If you’ll pardon me, Captain.’ Denethor made a small gesture, dismissing the man. So, Isilmo makes noises. Denethor was reasonably certain, given Finduilas’s news, that Isilmo was probably one of the carousers in Morwen’s brothel. King’s men. That is what Beruthiel is gathering. The lesser houses were hungry to overtake their betters, to displace the more pure-blooded and noble supporters of the Steward. They are lesser creatures, selling their allegiance to whomever will provide them with spoils. If they lose, they will turn and betray, just as all Black Númenóreans will do. How can Thorongil ally himself with such mongrels? Morwen’s brothers are truer men of Gondor than these. Denethor pondered what to do about Isilmo and the other brash, troublesome young men. He thought putting Isilmo in command of refuse collection and disposal would be suitably tedious and demeaning. There was little else where the man could be placed which he would not turn to his, or rather Beruthiel’s, advantage.
Denethor supped in the general mess downstairs, as he usually did. He watched the men interact, noting carefully where there appeared to be strong friendship, where mere courtesy. It was easy to see the King’s Men – he could think of no better name for them, now – among the others. There was something sly about them and they seemed too pleased with themselves. At a far table were four of the Lost, eating silently. They had a few small gestures that they used among themselves for communication; a flick of a finger, a motion of a head, a tap on the table. Denethor had parsed out many of the gestures over the years, though an equally large number were unknown or equivocal.
The eldest of the Lost, Halmir, was older than most who ventured from the north. He had been here for almost three years, and Denethor was not looking forward to losing him when his term came up. He organized the south Ithilien Rangers and never smiled. Halmir cast one, dour look upon the King’s Men, then tapped a complicated message on the table to his fellows. So, you have not much liking for them, either. Denethor had to look away before the other three Lost could reply, so as not to be noticed watching. He retired early but stayed up late reading the book he had borrowed from the archive.
It was a very old book, having come from the great library of Armenelos, and was on naval warfare. Denethor had chosen it because of its detail on the great ships, the floating fortresses invented by the Númenóreans but little used by Gondor after the reign of Hyarmendacil. While greatly informative, it was not greatly encouraging. It was almost impossible to assail one of them with anything less than another great ship. They had surprisingly shallow drafts, allowing them to bring large numbers of men close to shore, or far up rivers, yet remained stable in the open ocean. Their size made it almost impossible to set fire to them and their hulls were difficult to pierce. With a sigh, Denethor set the book aside and tried to sleep in remaining hours of the night.
The morning was grey and still. Fog hung low and pale across the Pelennor, the City a ghost at the edge of sight. Denethor slipped through the eastern gate and walked into the past. Sounds were muffled and below all of it was the gurgle, hiss, slap of Anduin. His feet found the way of a long-vanished lane, his fingertips brushed crumbling walls that hinted at what once was. Most was gone, torn down before the river passage was taken back to eliminate hiding places for spies and Orcs. It mattered not to Denethor; he knew with certainty where the ways of the capital had been, where they turned, how they crossed. Even before he had studied ancient maps, plans of Osgiliath drawn up in the first few decades of Gondor’s founding, he had known what was supposed to be.
He circled back to the causeway leading to the bridge. Baragund was waiting. The two men walked along the side of the road until they were near the foundations of the bridge. Denethor clambered among the supports, examining the combination of ropes, stone and wood that kept the bridge standing. It took him months of research in the archives and months more of work by the most skilled craftsmen and engineers to create this strong, delicate span. The lesson of Nargothrond was well heeded with this bridge. One strong man with a great hammer would need to knock out but two key stones, and the bridge would fall. This was the longest part of the set of bridges that reached across Anduin. Most could be destroyed.
Denethor nodded confirmation to Baragund, who sketched a salute and walked back to the garrison. In a moment, Denethor had scaled the side of the supports and was up on the bridge itself. He walked east, examining the surface and checking to see if all the hidden sentries were in place. They were. One-third of the way across, at the end of the great bridge, the ruins became more dense, with heaps of stone poking up out of the brown water, small islets littered with partial walls and patches of greenery, and many great stone pillars, the foundations of Osgiliath, that allowed a city of stone to float upon a river. A few places nearer to the eastern shore held almost-intact buildings. The ruins extended south almost to the old borders of the city, but the northern ruins were nearly gone, destroyed by centuries of bearing the brunt of Anduin’s floods and currents. If one did not mind the risk of falling into the river and drowning, it was possible to move through the tangle of stone crouching upon Anduin and trace the roads, squares and great halls that once stood. With a sigh, Denethor turned away from the beckoning ruins and returned to the garrison. The rest of the day was spent in the officer’s meeting room, reading over reports, writing up directions for when he was absent in Pelargir, and trying to figure out whom to name as his new lieutenant once Baragund went south.
The second day, Denethor dressed for ranging. He pulled on the dull green and brown garments, then braided his hair tightly, binding the end with a small bit of wire to hold it secure. The first stop was the garrison’s storehouse. The other rangers were also arriving. Efficiently, the men took up their packs and filled them with the provisions the quartermaster laid out for them – dried meat, hard cheese, flatbread wrapped well in green leaves to keep it pliant, dried fruit, blankets, skins for water, rope, some medicines – in short, all the group would need on their patrol, aside from their weapons. That was the next stop. Denethor already had his sword and a good belt-knife, so only needed to gather his longbow and a quiver of arrows. Every man inspected his arrows carefully, then signaled to Halmir when he was ready. Halmir said nothing.
When all had confirmed, the Lost walked east, the others falling in behind him. Denethor took up the rear-guard position. The day was foggier than the previous one. When they were two-thirds across the river, Halmir signaled. Smoothly, the patrol slipped into the ruins, picking precarious routes through the maze of stone. Underneath, shaking the pillars and echoing in tunnels created by suspended slabs of disintegrating streets, Anduin made its presence known. Within a half-hour, the patrol was at the south-east edge of the ruins, off the river. Before going further, they pulled on their hoods, covering faces. They moved out in a wedge, just at the edge of each other’s vision, shades in the fog.
The patrol arrived at the Morgul stream before the fog lifted. Here, the deadly water cut deep into the earth, running in a narrow course before spreading out just before it flowed into Anduin. All the mud of its banks was black and oozed oily rivulets, as though the land wept at Morgul’s touch. A putrid stench hung in the vapors rising off the stream. Denethor gave a low whistle and took a position on a hillock overlooking the water. Another ranger stood further east looking into the gloom. The others pulled a log out of a hiding place under some casually arranged fallen branches. It was soon a narrow bridge over the stream. Halmir and another agilely crossed, taking up guard positions. It took a few minutes for all to pass, then seize the log and put it into hiding on the southern side. Halmir whistled, and they moved forward once more.
They covered the distance between Osgiliath and the foot hills of Emyn Arnen by noon. Dinner was cold, but welcome. Two days out, two days back. It was a short patrol.
Twice in that afternoon they came upon fairly recent signs of Orcs. One was a patch of trampled, filthy grass in a hollow, a camp from a few weeks before. The other was an old pear orchard where some trees had been hacked and chopped. That was at least a month old, but not more than two. In a murmured consultation, Halmir agreed to Denethor’s suggestion to range further up the slope. The trees were more difficult to walk through than the grasses and old farmlands lower down, but they also offered better cover. They camped that night against a stone wall built before the Kin-strife.
The next day was much like the first – Orc signs, but no orcs, clinging fog, hillsides, and cold meals. Just before sunset, a strong wind blew up from the South, clearing away the mists. They took shelter for the night in a ruined manor high upon the hills, from which one could see Minas Tirith and Osgiliath. Denethor pulled a midnight guard shift. The stars were so bright, he cast a faint shadow. He climbed up onto what had been the second floor of his family’s ancestral home. His great-grandfather, Túrin, was the last of the line to have been born here, and it had been used as a fortress until Denethor’s twenty-fourth year, when an army from Minas Morgul captured the northern and eastern slopes of Emyn Arnen, forcing a retreat.
The rear of the house was ripped apart and the whole canted back. The exposed wood was half rotted and often gave way without warning, so it was not safe to walk inside what remained. Before the invasion, Denethor had sometimes daydreamed of reclaiming the house as his own, just as he had dreamed of retaking Ithilien and making it habitable again. He walked along one derelict passage, letting the soft give of the floor remind him about the dangers of dreaming. At the end was his true goal – a very tall tree with a well placed set of branches. It commanded the long slope to the northeast, as well as providing a view of the City, a white gleam in distance almost due west from the manor.
Denethor braced his back against the trunk, standing on a heavy branch that stood out straight from the tree. He scanned the slope, then gazed at Minas Tirith. So, the eagle circles closer. Soon, he will alight. And what then, Thorongil? Mithrandir does not believe it was an accident that you and Finduilas were drawn to the City at the same time. Neither do I. For a moment, he wished that it had been north, not south, where his path led, so that he could stand before the waterfall in Henneth Annun. Would she dream again? Why does she dream of me? Her open, gentle statement of friendship, and no more, had convinced him that her dreams were not fanciful romances. No, they are all of ending, destruction, of succumbing to Darkness. She sees me swallowed, kept from the west by the curtain, even as the rain fell between herself and the City. Even as Anduin stands guard against the Enemy. Even as the Sea threw down the Númenóreans. Caught between the flood and a fiend. What he could not figure out was the captain’s role in all this. Should he not take her up?
He glanced about, then shut his eyes and listened carefully. It was quiet, more so than Denethor liked. It could be their own presence on the hill, but… There was a prickle along his spine and he slowly examined the surrounding land, watching for motion. He silently took an arrow from the quiver, green feathers black in the starlight, and nocked it. Something to the east. He raised his bow, shifted slightly to compensate for the way the tree trunk prevented a full draw, and waited. Soon, a shadow detached itself from the trees, creeping through the grass. Denethor watched, letting the Orc come close so he would be assured a clean shot. It paused and half rose out of the grass, snuffing for signs of men. The bow made a soft twanging noise and the Orc scout dropped with scarcely more sound. Denethor whistled a warning, then shimmied down the tree trunk.
By the time he arrived where they were sleeping, all the men were awake and most were ready to fight. Halmir came over.
‘Scout. Due east. Small.’
Halmir nodded, then whistled a command. In minutes, the patrol had vanished into the trees up the slope behind the manor, slipping through night-dappled woods in an effort to outflank the Orc troop. They would not have long before the dead scout was discovered, and then they would be tracked themselves. A tug on his sleeve made Denethor pause.
Halmir leaned forward and whispered, ‘Better place for fight?’ Denethor nodded, and gestured for the patrol to follow him. There was a clearing the Orcs would have to cross about a furlong from the slope, and they were probably waiting for the scout to return before venturing the open ground. A dozen yards short of the treeline, the rangers halted. A few terse words, the sound of heads nodding inside their hoods, and the patrol spread out to cover the field. Denethor halted at the feel of another tug on his sleeve. Halmir shook his head and gave Denethor a small shove on his chest.
The Lost turned on his heel and melted into the shadows. Denethor did not disobey the patrol leader’s order. He did move along the line until there was a relatively clear break in the trees, and got ready to shoot. There was not long to wait. A creeping group of Orcs edged into the meadow, snuffling and growling among themselves. Thankfully, they were all small, crouching things, not Uruks, and there were not a great number of them. The rangers held their fire until the last of the ragged group entered the clearing. The bows of Gondor sang, and only a handful of the Orcs even had the wits to run. None attacked the woods where the arrows came from, all were dropped. Without being told, a few rangers broke away and ran through the trees, seeking out any enemies that might be hiding on the far side of the clearing. There were none. The patrol collected arrows from corpses and departed.
Another camp was made east and south, in a thicket a mile away from the manor. Watches were set and the others slept. The next day was spent circling east and north, looking for the tracks of the Orc band they killed. Those were easy enough to locate. As hoped, they found no others. This was probably the same band whose sleeping nest they had found, but unlikely to be those who despoiled the orchard. That was Uruk work. They crossed the Morgul Stream just before sunset the next day, fog coming off the river cloaking their movements. One man twisted his ankle coming through the ruins, but otherwise it was a whole and uninjured patrol that passed back through the east gate.
The next evening, Denethor wrote a letter to the Steward detailing the state of the garrison and saying he had decided to ride through south Ithilien rather than take a ship from the Harlond. He also wrote a letter to Aiavalë letting her know he had borrowed a book for the trip to Pelargir. He considered writing a note to Finduilas, but could not think of anything worthwhile to say, so left it at that.
The letters were deposited in the messenger pouch for the next day as he went to supper. Denethor gestured for Halmir to join him for the meal.
‘Captain Baragund and I depart on the morrow for Pelargir.’ Halmir took a bite of stew, listening. ‘You are second until I return.’ The man nodded a fraction. ‘There will be need of seconds both here and in Anórien.’
‘I’m not going to Anórien.’ Halmir said this the same way one might say that it looked like rain, or that flour was running low.
‘If I wish you in Anórien?’ Halmir took another bite of stew and shook his head.
‘I’m not going to Anórien.’
The other concentrated on his stew. Denethor drummed his fingers on the table for a moment, then carefully tapped out a message. Halmir stared at Denethor’s hand, then very deliberately finished his meal. As he did, his left hand tapped a reply.
Him. Back. Now.
‘I think you will make an excellent second for Osgiliath, Halmir. Please do not lead any patrols until I return.’
‘As you command, Captain. The Uruks won’t attack for another month.’
‘I will be back by then.’ Denethor bid him good-night, and went to bed.
Characters introduced in this chapter, in order of appearance:
Morwen – OC. The Dark Madam, owner of the most successful brothel in Minas Tirith, half-sister to Denethor, 53 years old
Belemir – OC. Denethor’s maternal uncle, Captain-General of Gondor 2914 – 2960, deceased.
Boromir – OC. Denethor’s double first cousin, Captain-General of Gondor 2960 – 2965, deceased.
Baragund – OC. Lieutenant and second in command of the Osgiliath garrison, soon to be captain of the Pelargir garrison, 41 years old
Halmir – OC. Northern Dúnedain, one of the Lost in service to Gondor, soon to be second in command of the Osgiliath garrison, 64 years old
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