Stewards of Gondor: Slashvese Arc
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Star and Stone: 7. Intersessions
"It is the nature of interrogation that one requires another, for the other has what the one has not, and this must be remedied
A/N: This chapter has to be for Aralanthiriel and Meg, who semi-regularly reminded me with various sharp objects that I had not, in fact, updated this story since forever. I hope you find this worth the wait and would want it attached to your names. I can always remove them if you'd rather not.
And yes, I'm aware that the title isn't spelled like it usually is.
"It is the nature of interrogation that one requires another, for the other has what the one has not, and this must be remedied. The art of persuasion has many tools, some forceful, others subtle, and some between these two. The latter have both been addressed. We turn now to the forceful. But this should be remembered above all: that the diversity of pain which can be brought to bear upon he who is questioned by he who questions may come to serve a different need between them. The questioner must therefore take care not to require the other's presence under his hands for more than the extremes of politic need. That way leads East."—Carandir of Osgiliath, advisor to King Tarannon Falastur, "On the Art of Persuasion."
"To tear from another what is secret in you—this is the most sublime of victories and the most cruel of torments when denied. To face the one who denies it and to wrestle with him—Ah! This is to know desire."—Amandil the Lesser, Gondor, reign of the Usurper Castamir
The gaol house of Poros was that of a frontier outpost: it was not large; most days, if it were occupied, it held men whose offenses were drunken misconduct or smuggling. Very occasionally, it might hold offenders who had transgressed the laws of "permissible fraternal association," and even more rarely, those convicted of cowardice. The Haradrim being a proud people, no one could remember the last time one had seen the inside of Poros's handful of cells. Their warriors seemed, to a man, to have a horror of the very idea of captivity, and would fight to the bitterest of ends to avoid it. Thus unless there were some pressing reason to take a captive, if the Haradrim wished to die, then Gondor would see to it they were granted their wish, rather than lose its own men in an attempt to subdue a lowly foot soldier. There were tales, though, that a few Haradrim had been brought back alive to Poros, and there were the means to deal with prisoners who might be reluctant to part with vital information: there was a room behind a heavily-built door that usually stood empty, save for a small table in the middle of it, two chairs, and the shackles required, and a small chest in a corner where other instruments might be found at need. That room and its contents had not been employed for many a year, since Ithrin's earliest days as captain, and before that no one could recall. It was only rarely that a prisoner might have information worth the pain of inquiry.
Ithrin was that exceptional prisoner, but tonight, that little-used room lay empty, and lamplight flickered in closer quarters, reflecting in eyes that narrowed as they sought after words, and Denethor turned a page. As a rule, he disliked the Decadents of Gondor. In point of fact, he disliked the literature that surrounded the Kin Strife on either side—the overwrought prose and polemics of the period leading up to the Usurpation and which had held sway during Castamir's ten years on the throne were disgusting, while the northern influence that had marked the period following the Restoration made for inelegant stylistic hybrids. Certainly, such would never make their way into Denethor's private collection, but when far from the comfort of home, one had to make do with what was available. And Amandil the Lesser was available, and so he sat on his bed in the keep and read it into the night. Again.
It could have been worse, he reminded himself, idly running a fingertip along the top of a page, preparatory to turning it. Amandil's writing at least had a certain flow, a particular turn of phrase that almost transcended the subject matter, and for days when one's mood was black, the perverse satisfaction that came of reading it fit well with the perversity of the content. There was a dark sort of eloquence to it that even Amandil had failed to match in his other, lesser writings, and one could not but react to it favorably on some level. At the very least, one had to admire, in a way, the gall of one who would assume the name of Amandil in order to write of the dungheap pleasures of fleshly excesses and call it philosophy. Even so, morbid fascination could not excuse him what would otherwise be an indulgence—he ought to sleep, as he had not done so in nearly three days, his nights having been taken up with more unpleasant business.
But that is ended now, he reminded himself firmly, gritting his teeth against the frustrated wrath that licked down his spine to tingle just there, at the small of his back, and he found himself shifting his weight again in an attempt to ease that feeling. It was ended, because Ælric had proved more successful in his interrogation of Halthar than Denethor had in his nightly efforts with Ithrin. He could not but be pleased that his aide, whom he had rather feared would prove unequal to the task, given his reaction in Cair Andros, had managed to get a full confession from Halthar, though admittedly, Denethor had judged Halthar the most likely of the three to speak. It had needed more patience than pain to convince Halthar to speak, unlike Ithrin. Ithrin required both, and more of the latter than Halthar. A pity he needed more time, as well, Denethor thought, turning the page at last, feeling the edge sting slightly as he courted a paper cut. Penance for a lie, for had it been simply a matter of time ere Ithrin broke and yielded the answer Denethor most wanted, he would not be reading Amandil tonight, when he ought to use the fourth watch for its proper purpose. For dawn would come soon, and with it, the grim ceremony of justice, and he could not appear before the men as anything less than absolutely confident.
Yet though it was well past midnight, he remained awake, pouring over this book which made his nerves crawl and tingle. He read because it was Ithrin's, and because Ithrin had known better than to keep journals, and his correspondence with his uncle, Celenar, Lord of Pelargir, and others of his family had proved to be innocuous, so far as Denethor could tell. He read because, of the pitiful collection in Ithrin's quarters, On Pain and Pleasure had been the only book with dog-eared pages, and it seemed Ithrin took notes. Quite a few notes. Very... 'revealing'... notes. Names, even, Denethor observed. Had he not had enough to hang him with even three days ago, he likely could have had Ithrin stripped of his rank simply based on those notes, for certainly "Arthandir" was no woman. One of Pelargir's 'finest', I wonder? The distaff nephew of the Lord of Pelargir would surely know his way around the Mariner's Row... Idle speculation, that, and he had no intention of investigating the matter. He had been quietly disgusted the first time he had read through the book, in search of something–anything–that would help him goad Ithrin into a response, that would break his silence and wear away at his resistance. Deprivation of food, water, sleep, blankets, and privacy might be the basis of persuasion, but all in service to humiliation that strips away all masks, and which could take many forms in the interrogation chamber.
Alas, he had not found the key to unlock Ithrin's tongue. And so now he read more deeply, his disgust quieted by the need to find something more elusive than Ithrin's voice, which he had managed to force from him once or twice, though never in any useful manner. Ælric's success with Halthar, however, meant that he could not justify a final visit to Ithrin, which left him with naught but this travesty of a book and scandalous notes to tell of the mind that had brought them to this pass. And memory, that, too...
Denethor sighed and settled the book in his lap, holding his place with one hand, while he pressed thumb and forefinger against tired eyes with the other. Much though it discomfited him to admit it, Ælric had struck a chord (or a nerve) that first night when he had teased him about the worth he placed on Poros. For though he was hardly a sentimental man, Denethor could not deny that he held this particular "far-off patch" of Gondor more dear than some others which would be deemed more lovely. Which was why it was nearly physically painful that the man who would hang tomorrow for his crimes was the very man that Denethor had surrendered command of the outpost to when his father had recalled him to Minas Tirith. Poros had been his first post, and his first command after the loss of Ithilien. Ithrin had been with him throughout, both before and after Ithilien, as the most able of his lieutenants. And though he was not free of entangling political ties that Denethor would have preferred to avoid, he was one of few who had an understanding of the Haradrim as a people. That had made him ideal for carrying out Ecthelion's orders to suborn where possible, so as to gain a stealthy native presence in ancient Harondar once more. It had been a risk, certainly: too close an association with the enemy can occasionally turn to dangerous liking. But against the lure of collaboration and bribery had stood those ties that Denethor otherwise mistrusted, seemingly the perfect balance against corruption.
For Pelargir and the Ethir region were the thorn in Ecthelion's side, politically—it was a southern tradition, ever since Elendil and his sons had claimed the kingship and settled at Osgiliath, rather than at ancient Pelargir, the oldest port in Gondor and the City of the Faithful. The steady loss of territory after Atanatar II had only exacerbated that sense of injured pride, which had led eventually to the Kin Strife. It had been Pelargir and Umbar, then a vassal province, that had been instrumental in placing Castamir on the throne, in a transparent bid to make one of their own king, and reclaim the prestige of the south. It was Pelargir now that vied with Dol Amroth for pride of place in Ecthelion's council, and argued against the Steward's efforts to reclaim the authority that had been eroded over the long years of Mordor's sleep. And it was Pelargir that without fail each Yuletide pointed to the threat to its borders that the Haradrim posed. That fundamental animosity towards the Haradrim had convinced Denethor to make Ithrin Captain of Poros when he had returned to Minas Tirith, rather than another. And yet he betrayed us.
It was incomprehensible. It remained incomprehensible, despite his best efforts to force sense out of that juxtaposition of faith and faithlessness. Even where explanation existed, it was insufficient. For Denethor could accept that Ithrin would use his post to his uncle's advantage in thwarting Ecthelion's attempts to reassert his sovereignty after the king over all of Gondor, and especially in matters military—the Kin Strife had taught some hard lessons, after all. And there was a certain logic in the idea that Ithrin might very well wager Ithilien in a bid to make Lord Celenar's case, that the south, and Pelargir especially, being closest to Poros, must be made more prominent, given more weight in council, and more freedom to do as it judged best. He could see his way to such a perverse scheme, and Ithrin's notes made it easier to swallow the idea that he was capable of it.
After all, anyone who would treat bedtime sport as if it were war, knowing full well it was not, and so demean the honor of those who lived the difference between the two and never mistreated a weapon by handling it lightly—such a person, to Denethor's way of thinking, was capable of the tangled, perverse logic of such a betrayal, for the line between fantasy and fact was clearly already cut and crossed for such a one. And yet, as logical as the explanation was (even if Ithrin had refused to confirm it), it was deeply unsatisfying. He could reduce Ithrin to naught but tormented flesh, mindless 'til the pain ended—and in that last session, he had—and yet still, that empty look that whispered Nothing to tell, nothing to see confronted him when he asked Why? Where it mattered most to him, he did not know why Ithrin had chosen as he had. And that was torment.
You should have let Hildar or me deal with Ithrin. He frowned at that, irritated by how readily his memory dredged up Ælric's voice and transformed what had been an offer into a rebuke. His aide had repaid his inquiry over Breca twice over once he had learned of the specific nature of Denethor's relationship to Ithrin. "Are you certain it would not be better if Hildar or I did this, my lord?" he had asked as they had discussed the matter in private after dinner the night Ælric had arrived.
"Know you aught of the south, that you could question the nephew of the Lord of Pelargir?" Denethor had replied, knowing well that Ælric could not but admit his ignorance, there. "Then study to know what drives the council, oversee the watch, learn what you may from Halthar, and keep peace in the ranks. Leave Ithrin to me." So it had stood between them, for Denethor would not be gainsaid. Nevertheless, despite having given Ælric work enough for two men, his aide had not failed to present himself at the third hour each morning to hear and read Denethor's report of what had occurred the night before in that one room of the gaol house. It would have been amusing, but that Denethor was well aware of the temptation that his own honor, as the agent of his father and lord, presented to him: This do I hear, and will not forget, nor fail to reward that which is given: oath-breaking with vengeance.
Vengeance. In the name of the Steward, he had sworn to uphold that oath, and so did that mean he had sworn himself to vengeance, though men understood that ancient formula to mean justice? In his mind's eye, Ithilien ghosts leered at him—old ghosts, from the Red Years when the Enemy was newly returned to his ancient stronghold. He had not been touched so closely as his father by the experience, but he remembered four nights of wakefulness on the retreat to Cair Andros and the struggle to hold that Isle, and thereby the main of Gondor, against the Enemy until his father could win north to relieve him. He remembered the lost ones of that retreat. They were joined now by faceless Rangers reduced to numbers on a map—little red circles with dates next to them. Here lie twenty, slain this day, in these places (perhaps). And with each loss, Gondor's southern gate grew weaker. That demanded to be remedied, demanded more than justice... demanded assurance that it would not happen again. Yet Denethor could not give that assurance; Gondor surely deserved it, yet he could not give it, for Ithrin's silence remained, no matter how prettily he cried out at extremes.
'Prettily.' I have been reading this too long, clearly, he thought, then, lowering his hand and gazing down at the pages laid open in his lap. Eyes straying over the words, he paused upon an underlined section: He knoweth not power's truest pleasure who hath not himself been made to be nothing—to be only his flesh for another, and so not even that for himself. And beside it in the margin, was the scrawled note: True. Denethor shook his head tiredly. Prosaic! As a youth still bound to his studies and a taskmaster, he and some childhood friends had argued circles around this one passage, and it had been amusing to take either side at whim—an exercise in versatility that had won Denethor much admiration and a bit of fear for how readily he could go either way. Dead now, all of them, he thought. They had all of them won their spurs in Ithilien, and three of the four with whom he had sat and wrestled verbally that afternoon had died there. The other had been shot three years after the Red Years in Anórien. Another four for whom to hang Ithrin, for such was the way of war, that made wolves of men, he thought, with a slight smile.
Which brought his mind back around by tangled paths to Ælric. His attention fixed on Ithrin, and determined to avoid any more discomfiting poetry, Denethor had not attempted to spar with him, and it seemed that Ælric was not yet so bold as to try to draw him out. Nevertheless, he found himself wondering what the other would make of that line which, despite its origin, could have been written for war. Which way would he argue, I wonder? For or against? Most likely, he would argue against, but then again, his aide had shown an unexpected willingness to dance on the edge of decency with that poem the other night, and he was quick-witted. Much as Denethor fought against the acknowledgment, he knew very well that no one who was able and who played word-games with such skill could do so were there not an underlying love of the sport. And so perhaps Ælric might make an interesting defense of Amandil's particular claims. It was mildly entertaining to construct reasons which might suit the other for either case, not that he had any reason to think Ælric would know anything of Amandil, even the name. Thengel and his wife might have begun to introduce the notion of recording Rohirric poems and the like in Rohirric for Rohirrim, but he rather doubted that the royal couple would have considered importing a copy of On Pleasure and Pain for their private library. And if they had, he doubted Ælric would have had the opportunity to read it. There were some books one did not admit to owning, even if "everyone" read them...
Denethor sighed softly. Clearly he did need to sleep, given how far afield his mind wandered. None of these meandering, idle speculations left him with any greater insight into Ithrin's fatal choice to hazard Ithilien in what seemed a political game, and yet must be more than that. Thick as thieves, thin as water—so the Rohirrim were wont to say when speaking of loyalty, making silence the measure of conviction. By that scale, Ithrin was well and truly bought, and yet even that could not explain his purchase by the enemy in the end. Mayhap there truly is naught to be told of his decision, and that is why there is that silence, Denethor mused wearily, and grimaced to feel the weight of three days of lost sleep that were doomed to remain unredeemed by any sort of success or satisfaction. For certainly, he could imagine nothing (and so could attribute nothing to Ithrin) that would induce in him even the faintest desire to trade Gondor for the East. Not even the answer to this very question Why? that tormented him. And so, after a moment, he set the book aside and put out the lantern, curling up beneath the sheets despite the heat.
A few hours later, though dawn had not yet come, he woke again, and rose. He had sweated in his sleep and somehow managed to tangle himself quite thoroughly in the bedclothes, which led him to wonder what his dreams had been. But by the time he had washed and dressed, Denethor had brushed all such wonderings aside and faced the rising of the sun with a sort of grim anticipation. On his way down the hall, a door opened a little further ahead of him, and a figure emerged. Ælric glanced over his shoulder, hearing him approach. His aide looked him up and down once, and then offered a civil, "Good morning, my lord."
"Good morning," Denethor replied, as the other fell in step at his side. In silence they made their way out of the keep, to the yard, in which now stood a hastily erected scaffold. He could feel still the pressure of Ælric's gaze from beside him, and when he turned to look, he found the other engaged in covert surveillance out of the corners of his eyes. Which furtive regard became the more shameless for the quite neutral, politely inquiring look that Ælric turned on him just then. Denethor raised a brow, and asked, "Time runs short. You have some reservation over the sentence?"
"No, my lord," his aide replied promptly, which assurance was welcome.
"What, then?" Ælric hesitated, searching his face in the grey light of the coming day. Any moment now, Belethil and Hildar would have the companies summoned and in the yard to witness the Steward's justice, and Denethor drew breath to prompt him again, when the other spoke:
"You may take it ill, but I had half-expected to see you come from the gaol rather than your room, sir." There were very few men in Gondor who would be so foolish as to insult Denethor to his face. There were not even many fools who would dare such behind his back, and Denethor turned that (indecently?) frank admission over in his mind several times, attempting to decide how he ought to take that.
At length, he said simply, "Then you misjudged. For that way leads East." And he held Ælric's eyes with his own until his aide bowed his head, at once acknowledgment and apology. At the same time, barracks doors opened and men began to pour out into the yard, there to form long lines according to their companies. All ways lead east, but this one would end here, Denethor thought, already looking ahead. Ithrin and Ingar would pay their dues, but there was a price left to collect still from the Haradrim...
And so, when sentence had been carried out upon the silent prisoners, and time sufficient had been spent in contemplating the fate of traitors, Denethor turned to his lieutenants. "Ready the men. Henceforth, Poros is under a general standing order to be ready to depart. See to it," he ordered.
"Aye, sir," came the collective reply, although Ælric, after a moment, asked further:
"My lord? May we tell the men whither and when?"
Denethor raised a brow at that. "For their part, they need only know to stand ready. For yourselves," Denethor said, gazing at each in turn–Ælric, Belethil, and Hildar, "assume that this journey will take us to the Ephel Dúath and back, and plan for delays."
"Good. Attend me this evening, all of you, at the sunset bells. Dismissed." They scattered then, and Denethor watched them go, waiting until the men had in general been dispersed to chores. Then, with a last hard look for Ithrin and Ingar, he turned and made his way to Ithrin's office, newly his own, where awaited still the map and the need for judgment: east to the Ephel Dúath, or south into the wastes? So let the day begin...
This do I hear, and will not forget, nor fail to reward that which is given: oath-breaking with vengeance. (RotK, "Minas Tirith," 30).
The history of the Kin Strife is in Appendix A. I wanted some additional motivations that might have been present for Pelargir and the southern parts of Gondor, so look on my account as running parallel to the Appendix rather than rewriting or ignoring it.
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