Footsteps. They created a rather loud vibration on the floor, alerting him that more than one person approached. He listened attentively, without removing his eyes from the sparring soldiers. Footsteps. One was firm and steady; he could almost time the moment when the foot would enter into contact with the ground; it was very rhythmic and well-paced. His father. He would recognize that step anywhere, so similar it was to his own. But the other footfall puzzled him. Heavy it was, and at moments it seemed as though the walker had the need to drag his legs around. An old man? Nay, the fall was still brisk, much too lively to be that of an old man. It aroused his curiosity. Denethor distinguished another sound, a sort of ticking, which he identified as a rod rasping the railings and occasionally, the stone-paved floor. A staff?
"There you are, Denethor."
"Good day, father," he said before his eyes had fallen completely over his father’s person. He noticed how the stranger raised a brow and, as he bowed, Denethor allowed his gaze to linger on this man for a mere second, sufficient time to ensure a good appraisal, and not too long as to be considered intrusive. He was called to attention by the odd garments he wore: they were ragged and wayworn, and all grey, a pointy blue hat topping it all. His eyes were drawn to the stranger's hands almost instantly where, sure enough, he found a staff.
"May I introduce Mithrandir?" Ecthelion glanced toward the stranger. "This is my son, Denethor. It has been a little over five years since he joined the corps, as you may have observed, and will soon step into his duties as Captain of the Guard." Then, speaking to Denethor, "Mithrandir, as you will no doubt notice, is a very perceptive man," and he added in a whisper, "An interesting match for you."
"Good to make your acquaintance, Sir." Denethor noticed the way the stranger's eyes widened behind the bushy brows at his use of the word 'good' as though he was marking it. "I trust you are having a fine stay at the city?"
"Indeed," Mithrandir answered, "as fine as could be expected, thank you. Gondorian hospitality is never lacking."
It was Denethor's turn to raise a brow, his curiosity inmediately piqued, for it seemed to him as though this man had chosen, on purpose, the precise words that would convey much and still leave him without the full picture. This is a man of intelligence, he thought, and impressed upon his mind the need to watch him with more care, if not interest. It was clear that he had visited the city more than once. How could he not recall having ever seen him? Surely here was a man whose presence would not go unnoticed.
"I am glad you still find that statement true, and are well satisfied with our attentions," Ecthelion said. "It has been many a year since the Grey Pilgrim last visited Minas Tirith. I must confess it amazes me that you were even able to find your way around!"
"An old man does not forget old ways, my lord Steward," he replied in good humour, matching Ecthelion’s tone.
"Very true," the Steward said, "In your case, at any rate. Yet, I hardly think you are an ordinary man, or old; therefore, you might find that phrase to be somewhat ill-applied to you."
"Say rather, my lord, that what is once learned well, takes long years to be unlearned."
"As you wish, Mithrandir," Ecthelion laughed. "I will not enter into a contest of words with you. I do not have the time, nor the disposition. However," and he looked at Denethor, "you will find in my son a most excellent companion, and one very much suited to your tastes. Denethor has a sharp mind and a clever tongue, much like yours, I should say."
Denethor smiled to his father, folding his arms behind his back. He stood in an upright manner, a soldier's manner, his broad chest forward and his chin lifted, the shoulders in a perfectly perpendicular line with his back. A very fitting heir for the Steward. "I see our guest has a like for the old proverbs," he said.
"And you will see he has a like for many other things, Denethor." Ecthelion leaned against the balustrade. "Forgive our intrusion. I see you were surveiling the soldiers. You have done a good job with the sparring competitions; the men’s performance has improved, both physically and mentally."
Denethor nodded. "A battle is won in your mind before it is won with your sword. Physical performance is important, but it will do nothing with a poor strategy. Their minds needed proper training, and these matches give them a good supply of it.” He sensed Mithrandir’s intent stare fixed on him, but he chose to avoid the glance.
"I must depart now; there are a few things I must see to before the council. I have invited Mithrandir to join us." Denethor jerked at the words, and then cursed himself for indulging in such a gesture that revealed lack of control on his part. "He has wisdom that we could use. Would you keep him company until we are ready to begin? I will see you in fifteen minute's time." With a slight nod, Ecthelion departed, the regular pacing of his steps vanishing to the cries of the excited soldiers in the courtyard, and Denethor was left alone to form his own opinion of the 'wise man.'
"I see you are acquainted with my father," he observed as they started to walk along the rampart, careful that he was the first to speak, and attempting to maintain a neutral tone to his voice.
"I have known Ecthelion since very young." Denethor disliked to have his father referred to without his proper title, yet let it pass. "I also knew his father, and his father's father."
Surely this man was not so old as to have seen Turin's day? A madman, perhaps? No, he appeared to be much too... measured for a madman. Did his father trust him so, as to disclose before him such serious matters as those discussed with his counsellors behind closed doors? "Then I see reason in the Steward's inviting you to join us in today’s council. Your wisdom, as he said, must come from long knowledge," he probed.
Mithrandir regarded him for a while; yet, with all his shrewdness, Denethor was unable to see in that stare or demeanor a sign to betray the man’s inner thoughts, and it pricked him. At last, the pilgrim spoke, "Wisdom comes as much from experience as it does from observation. I use both, and then determine the truth for myself. There is much one can see when one pays attention to the right things at the right moment."
Denethor forced himself to smile. Was that remark directed to himself, particularly? " 'Tis unfortunate that most people's attention is, sometimes, bestowed upon matters of lesser importance. One can, most easily, miss a good chance of grasping truths that words won't say." Had that been too forward of him? No, he had to let this foreigner know that he had the possession of his own mind, and he was no child to be swayed. The stranger nodded, and smiled in turn; but, surprisingly, he let the conversation drop. Denethor straightened the collar of his shirt and lingered so that Mithrandir would pass him first as they descended down the stair; this gave him a chance to further observe the man. His manner was commanding, and he could see traces of a strong personality in the line of his shoulders, the curve of his nose, the keen eyes that he chose to conceal under the brows and the shadow of his wide-brimmed hat. He gripped his staff firmly, and yet did not seem to stagger as he walked; it was as if he had no need for it at all, and used it only due to ornamental purposes, rather than out of necessity.
"Are you interested in the instruction of soldiers? I noticed the way you observed the practice session only a while ago." They were now in the courtyard, where the scent of sweat mingled with the fresh smell of wet grass.
"Your soldiers seem to have a very good technique,” Mithrandir said. “Their blows are guarded and controlled; they are very... patient, which is a necessary virtue in any good soldier. Quite impressive." He eyed Denethor, and the young man could not but get the oppressive feeling that he was being examined. Had he read in those remarks more than there was for him to read? He ran a hand through his hair, brushing a lock aside, and was ready to lead his father’s guest away, when the man addressed him once more. "I saw your concentration as you watched the battle practice. Are you always that incisive in everything you do?"
Denethor glanced back, feeling the muscles in his jaw relax into a half-smile against his will. He had been pleased by the words... and it was not right. This man had seen too much in him, or perhaps he had shown too much; but, he had lost the mastery of the conversation and it was now his turn to be questioned instead of being the questioner; of guarding his defenses, instead of attacking. "Always," he said in a determined voice, that edged into a rebuff. "As you have wisely remarked, there is much to be seen when paying attention to the right things. The core of the matter lies, then, in recognizing the right things from the excessive amount of babbling."
Mithrandir laughed, a reaction most unexpected that put Denethor aback. The Steward's son twisted his mouth in what he intended to be a grin, used to conceal the surprise this outburst had caused. He had deliberately aimed his questions so he could get this Mithrandir to speak, to reveal himself, yet the man had managed to duck every single blow as skillfully as a clever old fox. It was almost time for the council to start, and all Denethor had been able to get from him were a few superficial facts: the tone of his voice; the main expressions of his face; the firm grasp of his hand on his staff, the stair's railings; the pitch of his laughter. This information would have to do, he decided, and perhaps he would be at leisure to analyze it later; but, at the moment, he was too vexed. They had been swept into a bout, thrust and parry, advance and retreat, speak and conceal, and he did not intend to come out in defeat before this man. His eyes narrowed, and he glanced up at the tower of guard, where a soldier clad in black mail was standing with his horn in hand, expectant. "The council will commence shortly. All the great lords and captains of the kingdom will attend; and us," Denethor said curtly. "My father may have mentioned the topic of discussion?" He shot wider; this question allowed only a straight answer.
"You wish to know whether I am aware of the shadow that is rising above Gondor, do you not?" Without waiting for a reply, Mithrandir answered his own question. The stern tone of his voice carried deep to Denethor’s ears, and disturbed him. “Yes, I am well aware of it. That is why I have come.”
So he knows, Denethor thought grimly. He must have betrayed some sign of distress, for the next sound he heard was that of Mithrandir’s low laughter, and he could not help but glare.
“Even as I have already learned of this, some others have and will. There are many ways to gather news, son of Ecthelion,” Mithrandir said, “and at this moment news are there, waiting to be gathered.Your father will not be able to conceal the threat for long.”
Denethor scowled. How dared this man advise the Steward or question his policies? It took all his self-restraint to nod politely but he crossed his arms behind his back to hide his paled knuckles. Whence does this man obtain his knowledge? There is the wisdom my father speaks of, all of which will be unavailing if it is not drawn out of him properly. In a desperate attempt to regain his control, Denethor tried his last move, "And, are you here to... help?"
Mithrandir's answer was lost in the air under the cheering voices of the soldiers. Swords rang for the last time, shields were tossed away, and exulting cries issued from the combatants. The match was over. The horn from the tower echoed with a shrill note and for a moment the world stood still. Denethor's stare fixed on the pilgrim, intensely, and the pilgrim answered back with a sharp, focused gaze as though no other person was there, but them.
Suddenly, Denethor was jarred from this abstracted state by the voice of a guard calling, "The council is about to begin, my lord. Your father awaits." Reluctantly, he was forced to acquiesce and watch the stranger follow his father's man, staff in hand and hat concealing that smouldering glance of his. He pursed his lips and, before turning, gave a final look at the soldiers in the courtyard. One of them, retrieving his armour, lifted his sword victoriously in the air; the other thrust it discreetly on its sheath, gripping it tightly. Defeat, Denethor thought, biting his lips. He ran a hand through his hair, straightened the collar of his shirt once again, and walked away, his own steady footfalls reverberating in the wide hallways until they were shut out as he entered the council chamber, disappearing behind a door in the White Tower.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.