Denethor POV - 3 of 3
In which more battles are joined and Denethor pays the price of victory.
Minas Tirith, Early December, 2975 T.A.
Denethor was woken very early in the morning, before dawn, by the pain of his empty stomach. He could not remember when he had last eaten. Pushing the protesting cat out of the way so he could get up, Denethor tried to recall all that had happened, and then wished he had not. All my threats have been shown hollow, and all my hopes have gone awry. I have sullied even ruins. He thought for a moment of slipping out of the City and going to Osgiliath. No, that is his, now, and I must give it to him. Denethor knew that his own resistance must end. Not for the Stewards the madness of Kin-strife. The Lord Steward's will would be done, and nobly.
It took but a few minutes to dress and collect his gear. Something to eat, then to the lower garrison to escort the new Captain-General to Osgiliath. Halmir will not be pleased, Denethor thought as he braided his hair, but that is for Thorongil to decide. It would be interesting to see what the Lost made of the captain's elevation.
As he was walking out, he noticed the door ajar to the bedroom, reminding him that Aiavalë said she and Alquallë would stay. Carefully, Denethor peeked around the edge of the door. The light was dim, but he could just make out two forms in the bed in the alcove on the far side of the room. They slept soundly. Aiavalë's wings of silver stood out from the darkness. Finduilas' hair was a dark river across the pillow and pale sheet, obscuring her face. You, too, are his. All he loved was going to go to Thorongil, save only Aiavalë.
Sador was not sleeping in the alcove by the door. Instead, Beregar waited for him there.
'Good morning, my lord. Shall I fetch your breakfast?'
'No. There is work to do. Come along.' Denethor paused long enough to belt on his sword and loop the horn on his chest before walking towards the Tower. The fog had risen, blanketing the entire mountain; the White Tree was a ghost across the court.
'I must return to Osgiliath, and need you to run several errands for me ere I go. Be sure there is warm breakfast ready for the ladies when they wake, and a maid to tend them. You will go to the lower stable and tell them to saddle Gaerhûl. Please also tell Captain Thorongil to be ready to accompany me.' The words came out evenly, matter-of-fact. 'Come back at once and be sure to escort the ladies where they need to go. Has anything happened I should know of?'
'No, my lord. The ladies, all of them, even Miss Lark, have been terribly worried the last day. The Archivist sent me a half-dozen times down the mountain to get any news. When the sky burned in the night…'
'So nothing happened. Good.' They were at the door to the kitchens at the side of the Tower. His stomach growled and cramped at the scents coming through the door. The cooks greeted him, and one quickly laid out a plate of food. Beregar gave orders for the ladies' care, then trotted off to see to the horse. Denethor wolfed down the bread and stew, then ate more bread with cheese and honey. One of the old cooks, who had seen battles even in Turgon's day, wrapped him food to carry on the road, putting it into a small pouch he slung over his back.
Denethor left the kitchen and entered the Tower, intending to play the dutiful Warden and ask the Steward's directions before setting out. When he reached the second floor, where the Steward's apartments lay, however, he continued climbing the stair. Round and round he went, until he reached the locked door at the top of the steps. The key was on a chain around his neck. The unglazed windows of the upper chamber allowed the fog to fill the room. Standing facing east, he pulled the drape from the stone.
It was a black pearl in the center of the black marble table. Denethor closed his eyes and took several breaths to clear his mind, then imagined looking at Osgiliath. When he opened his eyes and looked at the stone, he could see the ruins. It took little effort to look specifically at the garrison. The fog kept all indistinct, but if he bent his will upon some particular place, soon the mists would part and he would see what was there, though he could not bring it sharply into focus. There were many horsemen upon the fields close by, Rohirrim as well as Swan Knights. Men stirred within the fortress, some whole, some not, and a large number watched upon the walls. Denethor overlooked the immediate ruins for the far bank of Anduin and soon found archers and soldiers standing guard, figures less blurred than those in the garrison. Slowly, he allowed his eyes to travel further east along the road, past the crossroads and into the fumes of the Vale. The further he looked, the sharper the images became. He traveled an eerie road that glowed greenish-white in the grey mists, turning to cross a bridge carved with tortured beasts. The vapors parted before his sight, showing him what stood there.
Uruks. Companies of them were gathering upon the road beyond the bridge. They were well armored, their breath white exhalations in the cold air. They would take advantage of the fog to march upon Osgiliath, probably to hide in the hills just above the ruins, then attack weary and sleepy defenders at nightfall. Beyond them, further up the shining road, something beckoned. Almost he looked past, but the Uruks suddenly started forward and he lost the vision.
Denethor threw the cover back over the palantír and lunged for the door, yanking it shut behind him as he passed through. Vertigo grabbed him, threatened to send him crashing down the stair until he grabbed the wall to steady himself. Carefully, fool! There is time, if only enough. Keeping a hand on the wall, he made his way swiftly down the Tower. The Steward would wait.
As soon as he was out of the Tower, Denethor broke into a trot. He toyed with the idea of taking a messenger horse down, but decided he had some business on the way. When he reached the fifth circle, he turned aside at Vinyamar and thumped loudly on the door. The servant who opened the door had to jump aside as Denethor pushed past into the house. Adrahil appeared at the end of the hall, Imrahil behind him.
'I need the rest of your Swan Knights, Prince. Uruks are massing for a second attack.' Luinil came down the stairs, obviously wakened by the knocking on the door. Ivriniel was close behind.
'You have them, Denethor, and myself. Wait one moment.' Adrahil disappeared into his study and came out with a sword. Imrahil tried to follow, but Adrahil and Denethor both pointed at him and said 'Stay!' in one voice. Luinil put her arms around her son's shoulders.
As Denethor opened the door to go out, he heard Ivriniel ask, 'Where is Finduilas?' He almost called back she was with the Archivist, but decided the women could figure it out for themselves. He set a brisk pace for himself and the Prince down the mountain.
'What was that the first night, Denethor? We saw the sky turn red over the garrison. At first, we thought it some new evil of the Enemy, but I have heard a different story.'
'It is an evil of the Enemy, turned against him. Dragon Fire.'
'That really exists? Have you found a dragon to give it to you?'
'It exists, or something like it. I found the proportions in the archives. We made up a batch of it. Too dangerous.'
'It did look as though something had breathed fire upon Osgiliath.'
Denethor did not wish to answer any more questions, so he increased their pace. Beregar passed them on his way back up, saying all was ready at the stables. Once there, Adrahil hurried off to collect his horsemen. Thorongil stood with his own horse near Gaerhûl before the stables.
'There is trouble.'
'Report of Uruks readying for a march out of the Vale. The Prince brings the rest of his knights to help with them. There are three hundred Rohirrim waiting for us at Osgiliath.'
The men mounted up. While they waited for Dol Amroth, Denethor spoke to the lieutenant, ordering more men to be marched to Osgiliath to relieve the battle-weary troops. It was not long before Adrahil emerged from the fog, leading one-hundred riders. Denethor rode out before the Prince, who trotted forward to flank him. Thorongil moved to the other side. With a signal, the three captains set out. The Swan Knights began to sing as they followed their lord to battle. They crossed the Pelennor at a steady trot, not wishing to tire the horses too much. The morning was still early when they drew near the garrison. Rohirric scouts saw them first and charged ahead to announce them. The knights who had remained at Osgiliath shouted "The Swan! The Swan!" as they saw their Prince, while the Rohirrim sang a song of greeting to the knights, praising their horses and their valor. The horsemen reined up in the field before the garrison while the captains continued in.
Halmir was in the court to meet them. 'My lords.' He bowed to Denethor, then to Adrahil. 'Captain.' Thorongil received a curt nod. 'The hills have been clear…'
'You have approximately a thousand Uruks massing in the Vale.' A look of surprise crossed the man's grim face. 'Though, by now, I suspect they are already on the march.' Adrahil and Thorongil were also staring at him. 'They will slip down into the hills north of here, and attack tonight.'
'And where came you by this news, my lord,' Halmir asked, 'when we have no word ourselves?'
'Obviously not from your scouts, who could not see three thousand Orcs but two nights past.' Halmir's cheeks grew red, though he did not look away. 'I see things you do not. Now let us plan how to meet them.'
A few shouts summoned the officers of the garrison to the meeting room. The captains of the horsemen were also present. Denethor deliberately took the black chair at the head of the table as his own. It might be the last time he sat in it. When all had gathered, he said, 'Word has come to the Tower that the Uruks Morgul held in reserve during the last battle are marching under the cover of fog. It takes little wit to see that they will disperse soon after the crossroads and lie in wait on the northern slopes to attack in the night when they are strongest.' He steepled his fingers and waited.
'If they disperse in the hills, it will be difficult to bring horse against them effectively,' Thorongil said.
'Word has been sent to watch them and track them,' was Halmir's defensive reply. The man looked very uncomfortable.
'Can we get to them before they split up?' Adrahil asked.
'Possibly, Prince, but we cannot risk being surrounded,' one of the younger lieutenants, a green-clad Ranger said. 'There is a place upon the road, just west of the crossroads…'
'…which they should avoid, but probably won't,' Halmir agreed, 'counting on the fog to cover them.' Denethor knew the place they were thinking of, and glanced to Thorongil, who was nodding, obviously understanding what the other two planned. Even so, the captain did not speak his mind, but looked expectantly at Denethor. You are the Captain-General – you should speak. Then again, nothing had yet been said.
Since Thorongil was silent, Denethor said, 'The Uruks will be to the Crossroads in two hours, though their own scouts are probably a league beyond there already. Keep our watchers out of sight, and set up large fires about half way. Let their first scouts think we are unawares, so they'll stick to the road.'
'Rangers do the scouting,' Halmir ordered the lieutenant, who grinned and saluted as he stood to leave. Thorongil still took no lead. Very well, captain. Whether you defer out of respect for me, or whether you position yourself to be dutiful in the face of my defiance, it matters not.
'You will oversee the horse, Captain,' Denethor told Thorongil. 'You know where we seek to attack, so be sure the Rohirrim and Dol Amroth understand.' The captain nodded his assent. With brisk efficiency, Denethor and Halmir planned the rest of the defense, to draw as much of the advancing forces through the shallow ravine as possible before cutting off their escape. This would be dire fighting. Within half an hour, the commanders were organizing soldiers, preparing for a march upon Ithilien.
Denethor and Adrahil went to the walls to look upon the ruins. The fog was increasing in density, which would greatly diminish the use of bowmen against the enemy. The air stank from the carnage in the ruins, but there was something else in the air as well, the stench of the Vale. It was worse than the smell of rotting bodies and dried blood. It crept into one's heart and made cowards of good men.
Adrahil sighed. 'We could not meet any of these attacks were it not for the bridge.'
'The Steward believes that we would not suffer such attacks were it not for the presence of the bridge,' Denethor answered, 'and I do not think him entirely wrong. To capture this bridge would be a great victory. But I think Osgiliath itself the greater prize the Enemy seeks. The attacks would come with or without the bridge.'
'Is the Steward determined on this course?'
Denethor shrugged and did not answer. They stood in silence until called by Adrahil's captain to mount up. Denethor rode with Dol Amroth. Once past the bridge, the Rohirrim slipped away to either side of the road, following narrow paths through the trees and meadows. Gondorian men at arms strode swiftly into the gloom, also treading the hidden ways to avoid detection. All were in large enough groups to handle any Uruks they encountered, but not so large that they would look like more than ordinary patrols. The Swan Knights were the only ones holding to the road. A small band of them were to break upon the first companies of Uruks through the ravine, then retreat, as though on a patrol, allowing the fog to hide their true numbers.
In three hours, the battle was joined. It went as well as could have been hoped, given the size and strength of the enemy. The first Morgul scouts had called all clear, and the second never returned. The main body of the army marched swiftly through the ravine, bunched together, and they pursued the bait of the two-score Swan Knights right into a charge of more than two-hundred of the heavily armored horsemen. Rohirrim swept down upon the flanks and rear of the Uruks, then whirled away, vanishing into the mist, only to charge from another direction. The soldiers turned swords, pikes, and axes on the enemy and prevailed, though they suffered much heavier losses than against the lesser Orcs of two nights past.
Denethor wished that the weather had favored use of his longbow, but found much to keep his sword busy. Several times he blew the horn to rally his soldiers and help them find their way in the fog. He ended up on a rise south of the ravine and north of another drop down to the poisoned stream. In the distance, Denethor could hear the sounds of skirmishes, mostly to the north. The fog was thinner, but more noxious to breathe.
There it was again. A sliver of ice went through Denethor, and Gaerhûl snorted and danced nervously. The presence was ahead of him, more distant than he had felt the previous day, but no less evil. It called, and he was certain it was what he had sensed in the palantír that morning. Denethor urged the horse forward, determined to find out what it was. Though he tried to draw closer, the presence kept retreating.
He turned Gaerhûl down to the road so he could make better speed. The horse fought him some, but finally allowed itself to be urged into a canter. Small groups of soldiers appeared and disappeared out of the fog along the road. Denethor had to rein up sharply, a half-mile short of the crossroads, when Thorongil and a troop of Rohirrim barred the road.
'Out of the way.'
Thorongil drew close. 'The road is not secured further on, my lord.'
'I have to go.' Denethor peered past the other man, starting to lose the keen, cold shiver in his heart. 'It will get away.'
'Are you mad?' Thorongil's question was barely a whisper.
'You know it's there, too.' Denethor's voice dropped in reply. 'Quickly, we can hunt it down.'
Thorongil slowly shook his head. 'No. It is beyond us.'
'Let me pass.'
'No.' Thorongil maneuvered his horse right against Gaerhûl. Ordinarily the stallion would fuss and bite if he was bumped, but this time he nickered and jostled back, not wanting to leave the other horse. 'Please, my lord, don't.' Denethor could see the other was ready to grab Gaerhûl's reins if he tried to force his way past. The unearthly cold vanished, leaving him shivering from the ordinary damp winter day.
'How far are you securing the road?'
Thorongil's horse side-stepped away. 'We are working with the Rangers up in the woods, sir. The way will be clear to the crossroads when we are through.'
Denethor nodded, still trying to see through the fog. The smell of it burned his nose and his head was pounding. 'Athelas.'
'I beg your pardon, my lord?'
'Athelas. What you used in Anórien.' Denethor fixed a sharp gaze on Thorongil. 'The vapors out of the Vale, they are very heavy. That herb is good for clearing the head of bad air.'
'Yes, it is.'
'I know there must be some nearby, close to the road.' He thought for a minute of where they were, of his many walks through these trees and dells. 'I remember where. The surgeon will want some, though he may not know it.'
'Show me where, and I can have soldiers gather a few branches of the leaves.'
Thorongil gave directions to one of the horsemen before Denethor led them back towards Osgiliath. Just short of the ravine, Denethor turned aside and rode into the brush. A hundred yards off the road was a thicket with several of the athelas shrubs growing amidst other plants, though he had to dismount to get close enough to be sure. Denethor wished to take some back with him at once, but did not particularly care to burden himself with a bundle of branches. The growling of his stomach provided the answer. He pulled the extra food the cook had packed for him out of the pouch at his back, handed half to Thorongil, and set his portion on the saddle while he used his knife to strip off leaves to fill the pouch. The scent that rose from the scraped bark and bruised leaves drove away his own ills and allowed him to eat. They parted at the road, Denethor continuing to Osgiliath.
Adrahil and his knights were gathered west of the ravine, collecting their dead and wounded from the battle field. They had taken more than their share of harm, for they had held the road firmly against the Morgul army. The prince watched sadly as one of the dead men was wrapped in his cloak, the hood pulled up to hide his shattered skull.
'I did not bring them to Minas Tirith to die, Denethor.' Adrahil ran a filthy hand through his short, sweat-matted hair. 'I thought the wars were over for this season, and that they would have the freedom of the city.'
'It shames me that the City has given you strife, not celebration, at year end.'
Adrahil yawned and stretched, shaking his head. 'It is no fault of the Steward's nor of yours, Warden, that our enemy is so cruel.'
'I do not think I speak out of place when I say that the Steward and the City are both in the debt of Dol Amroth these last few days. This would be a darker day were it not for your knights.'
The men rode back to the fortress together. Denethor took the herbs to Galdor. The surgeon smiled as he breathed in the scent of the athelas. 'Yes, this will be very good, along with the rosemary, for clearing out the fumes. They are worse today than I have ever known.' He called for a few of the whores to place bowls with steeping herbs around the sick ward. Denethor went into the curtained off area to check on the burned men. Five of the dozen had died, but the rest were expected to live. They were all awake and reached for him, telling him to see that they no longer burned. Their faces were cool. The sores on their limbs no longer wept green ichor, but they were not crusting over, either. Galdor looked at the wounds closely, then asked if there were more of the athelas leaves. When Denethor left, the surgeon was directing a young women to grind the leaves with some other ingredients into a paste to be placed on the burns.
Then there was no time. The new wounded were coming in and Denethor took his place at the stone table, urging them in one more act of valor as limbs were lost, mangled flesh cut away, needle and thread pulled muscle and sinew back together. There were more of these men than there had been yesterday. He lost track of time, though not of the faces, the wounds. It was late afternoon before the worst had been cared for. The whores brought water to wash with and some rags to scrub away most of the mess, and then stew. The healers devoured the meal gratefully, washing it down with wine.
Denethor assumed that Halmir would bring him important news were there any, but was curious as to what was happening. He thanked the girl who took away his empty bowl and cup and walked out to the court. The yard was a mass of purposeful motion. A few men were sweeping away horseshit, already the forge was clanging and pounding, fixing damaged weapons, barrels and hand-carts and wagons moved about, and beneath it all the thud-thud of the City-side gate opening and closing as men passed in and out. The fog had thinned a great deal. A crowd of the less badly wounded men gathered to one side near the barracks, telling stories and remembering the dead. He headed there.
'Captain!' 'M'Lord.' 'Blessings upon thee, Warden.' 'Lord Denethor.' The men greeted him, making way for him, a few hands offering cups of whatever was being drunk. He accepted one, asking how they fared. Each had a tale, and all helped to tell it. They would hold out injured limbs, show him their wounds, and he would touch them. The touches drained him, left him cold. Denethor drank the brandy and asked for more to keep himself warm. It pleased him that so many had taken such little harm – most would be fit again shortly past the year's turning. As he held out his cup for more drink, he saw a face he recognized. Motioning the man to follow, Denethor excused himself from the crowd.
'What is your name?'
'That is a northern name.'
'My grandfather on my mother's side is Rohirric, sir. The name is from him.'
'Have you done as you were told?'
The man ducked his head. 'No sir. I was on my way up the City to do as you ordered when the alarms sounded. I had to return to the garrison, then I was sent here.'
'Mostly tired. A few cuts.' Denethor could see the young man's arm was wrapped tightly and suspected there were stitches under the bandage.
'Can you drive a wagon?'
'I can do anything you ask, sir.'
'Except propose to a young lady. Come along.' Denethor led the way to the barracks door. They went to the meeting room where Denethor rummaged in a small desk until he had quills, ink, paper and a leather pad to guard against the rough wood of the table. The note was quickly written. 'You will drive one of the wagons of wounded back to the City this afternoon, Bard. This note commands that you not be called back to service until a five-day has passed. When I return to the City, I expect my earlier commands to be fulfilled.' The young man beamed as he saluted. Denethor waved him out. He found more paper and took time to prepare quills and ink. All of today's events needed to be written up very carefully for the Steward. Except for the palantír.
Halmir and Thorongil presented themselves just before dark. They told him of the hunt for Uruks in the hills to the east, detailed the dead and missing, and offered their counsel on what should be done. Through all of it, Thorongil did not indicate that there was a new Captain-General. Denethor thanked them for their reports, and told Thorongil to remain.
Halmir was almost out the door when the Lost paused, turned back. 'You may already know this, captain, but the two lords you were with when you found the Uruks yesterday, they are dead.' The Lost did not look terribly grieved at the news.
'I assumed so, but did not know for certain. Thank you, Halmir.'
After the door closed, Denethor gestured for Thorongil to sit, then handed over the report. 'This is for you when you speak to the Lord Steward. You will need one from Halmir and the Rohirric captain, as well as any other minor officer reports you deem necessary. I will ask Adrahil if he wishes to write a report or speak directly to the Steward himself. He will return to the City in the morning with the knights.'
'You wish for me to accompany him, my lord?'
'No. I wish for you to take over your duties and responsibilities as Captain-General, according to our lord's orders!' Denethor leaned back in the black chair, suddenly very tired and very angry. 'You find yourself in possession of something you have sought…'
'I did not seek this division.' Thorongil eyes were intent, though his words were softly said.
'You have sought prominence, even as you have served well. It is a poor captain who does not have some ambition. Heed your own words and beware when possessing what you seek. However you did or did not want this position, it is yours now.' Thorongil finally looked away, staring at the table with his jaw clenched. 'What is it?'
'I would not be disobedient.'
'Say whatever it is you wish to say. I will hear it out.'
'Do nothing for now. Allow the Steward time to reconsider his orders.'
'I think the Steward should bear the burden of his decision. And that you should understand the price of your ambition.' Thorongil met his eyes again. 'Or perhaps you are afraid of these burdens, mercenary? Once taken up, they may not be cast aside lightly. Only the Steward may relieve you of them. Or death.'
'I do not fear.'
'Then gather the officers. It is time.'
Thorongil did not move at once. Finally, the man closed his eyes and shook his head in resignation before rising. It is time. Denethor sat as still as he could while waiting for the others to gather. It is time for this battle to end. Even as he was angry at Ecthelion and Maiaberiel's manipulation, at Mithrandir's meddling, there was a thread of relief winding its way through his heart. The choice of Fire, of bridges, of who shall die first so that the rest shall prevail, that is passing from me, and now is time for another to choose. He tried to think of what he would say when the officers gathered but could not.
Even Galdor was in attendance. The surgeon looked as though he had been woken and was not pleased by that fact. The rest were curious at the summons, particularly Adrahil. Thorongil obviously had not warned them what was going to happen. 'Gentlemen.' They murmured greetings in return. 'My thanks, the thanks, too, of the Lord Steward and of the realm, go to you for your valor this day, turning back a great assault with little warning after the hard fighting of yesterday.' Adrahil was giving him a sharp look. You wonder how I knew. 'The Steward watches the sacrifices made for Gondor, and he values those of worth who serve her well. To those, he gives not only thanks, but rank and rewards in keeping with the service.' The men glanced about at each other. 'When I planned yester eve to ride to Osgiliath this morn, it was not to fight another battle. It was to bring word of the Steward's approval. Now that the fighting has been dispensed with, I return to my original purpose.'
Denethor gestured for Thorongil to step forward. A rustle went around the room as the other men exchanged glances and nudges. 'By order of Ecthelion, Lord Steward of Gondor, you, Thorongil, are promoted to the rank of Captain-General, and are now responsible for the disposition of Gondor's armies.' Denethor rose from the great chair and nodded amiably to Thorongil as the others stood in shocked silence. 'Congratulations on your success, Captain. I leave you to order your officers. Good evening, gentlemen.'
It was less than five minutes before someone was knocking on the door to Denethor's quarters. 'Come.' As Denethor expected, Adrahil entered.
'What was that?'
'The will of the Steward.'
'He is a mercenary! The Captain-General of Gondor is always the Steward's heir…'
'Not always. The High Warden is always the Steward's heir. The captaincy is sometimes given to a younger son or another kinsman. Think of Belemir and Boromir.'
Adrahil drew up a chair next to the bed. 'Is it true, Denethor,' the prince asked in a murmur, 'that Thorongil is…?'
'My bastard little brother?'
'It suits the Steward that people should think so.'
'But what is the truth?'
'Ask Thorongil. Only he knows who his mother is, where he was born, and under what circumstances.'
'You countenance this?'
'I have no choice in this.'
Adrahil did not reply. As Denethor watched the prince's face, he could see the thinking behind the eyes. The startlement and offence at the elevation of this outsider was replaced by evaluation of the altered structure of power in the White City and culminated in a new judgment of where and how and by whom Dol Amroth's interests would best be served. When Adrahil once more met his eyes, there was a veil over the man's face, the calculating mask of someone who knows you have only so much to offer him. The prince stood with the new Captain-General.
'If you will pardon me, Adrahil, I have a long journey before me tomorrow.'
'Forgive my intrusion, Denethor.'
Denethor found breakfast in the general mess the next morning rather entertaining. The common soldiers clattered in and out as they always did. The Lost huddled in one corner with Halmir, for once their hands occupied only by cups and knives. Halmir knew Denethor knew some of the tapping code, but suspected they were silent more due to Thorongil than himself. Thorongil sat somewhat apart, busy with his meal yet somehow managing not to eat any of it. The King's Men were in their usual places, save for Isilmo. Well, at least the right husband is returning for my sister. He hoped Maiaberiel would not be emboldened by Thorongil's elevation to try another attack on Lark.
The King's Men whispered among themselves, with gloating looks and muffled snickers. The loss of Isilmo had not dampened their spirits. A few times they motioned for Thorongil to join them, but the captain steadfastly ignored them. You may think yourselves his men, but does he agree? Who will the captain gather to himself? The Lost do not appear much pleased at your success. Denethor found he did not wish to watch the crush of politics that would grip the City at year-end when the lords found out and started their calculations, as Adrahil had last night.
With a sigh, Denethor regarded his own plate. He had not eaten very much more than Thorongil. It was time to leave. He rose and walked to the kitchen, asking that food for a day's journey be prepared and brought to him in the stable. When he turned to go, he almost ran into Thorongil, who stood right behind him.
'If you will excuse me, Captain.'
'Do you return to the City?'
'No. I ride north.' Denethor did not care to be more specific than that with his plans.
'I believe most of the Rohirrim return to Cair Andros today. You should ride with them if you go north.'
'If they are ready to go when I am, then I shall consider it.' Denethor nodded curtly and went to the stable. He waved off the stablehands and saddled Gaerhûl himself. A soft cough at the stall door announced Halmir, bearing a bundle from the kitchen. Denethor stowed it into a saddlebag. The Lost walked next to him through the yard and down the causeway to the field before the fortress. Denethor waited patiently for the man to say something.
'I am your second. Not his.'
'I have no second anymore. He will need to choose his own.'
'Why? Why now?'
'You will see the answer, in time.'
'No. You'll stay.'
'Is that an order?'
'I cannot order you now. A request.'
Halmir stared back, then shook his head. 'You are as bad as he is.'
'I will take that as a compliment.'
'Don't.' The Lost turned and stalked off.
It turned out that the Rohirrim were mounted and ready to return north. They cheerfully agreed to be Denethor's honor guard for the ride along the river. Fifty of them were to remain and help with patrols. On the south side of the causeway, the Swan Knights were putting their dead into wagons, preparing to return to the City. Adrahil was not in sight.
The captain of the éored called the riders to move out. Denethor rode next him at the head of the singing column. As they rode past the whorehouse, he saw that most of the women had returned. There were men in the yard talking and joking with the women who were outside, helping the whores get settled back into their home. The horsemen did not stop their singing when they rode past the house, but the song changed to one about lusty women. The whores whooped and clapped at the serenade. Denethor made a mental note to have extra gold sent to Morwen, and Yule gifts sent directly to the whores, in thanks for their care of the wounded men during the attacks. What shall Thorongil do with this now that he orders Osgiliath?
After a mile, the company turned north onto the river road and settled into a ground-eating trot. Denethor watched the brown fields go by, the same fields he had swooped over in the palantír. I have failed. A year ago he had thought to thwart Ecthelion's blind and timid defense of Gondor as well as to block moves to promote Thorongil. After the successes of the summer wars, he had dared to believe that he, Adrahil and Thorongil could order things as were needful. You allowed your pride in your own cleverness to blind you. Even after he had come to understand that Thorongil was to be king, when Alquallë revealed through dream and ring who truly stood before them, he had thought himself still the master. My master is doom. I am an instrument, an ending. A poor instrument it seems, and so I am ended. Finduilas had unearthed a king and hope, while he had discovered Fire and brought forward faction.
The bridge will come down. Ecthelion undoubtedly would demand that as proof of Thorongil's loyalty. Would the Captain withhold from his lord the fact that he could read the ciphers of the Faithful? And it would be yet one more proof of my own treachery, that I did teach it him. The chance to tutor Thorongil in the ways of rule was lost, as well, for the man would be warned to avoid the company of a rival whose star was falling. In all, he had reached too greatly and too greedily, and now the care of the realm and the guidance of its king fell to others. It had been tempting to wait, to see if the Steward could be mollified, but that would only have put off the moment to another time of conflict, when it could not be done as smoothly with as little danger to Gondor. They could not be divided while under attack, and now they could never consider themselves at peace.
The ride to Cair Andros went swiftly, the troop arriving before sundown. He swung away from the Rohirrim, going towards the ferry with one spearman while the rest continued on to the pasturage to the west. It took several shouts to get the ferrymen's attention. As they rowed over, Denethor put Gaerhûl into the Rohirrim's care, saying it might be several days before he came to collect the horse. The light was almost gone by the time he was on the ferry, so Denethor could not perform any significant inspection of the craft. From the sound and the feel of it under his feet, there was nothing serious amiss. Anbar met him halfway to the fort.
'Lord Denethor! How do you fare?'
'Tired from the ride, but well.'
'You should have sent word ahead.'
'There are no messengers to spare, so I bear my own news.'
'And Osgiliath?' Anbar asked, 'What of the attack?'
'Two attacks, actually. Both turned back at great cost to Morgul, and little to ourselves.' If you only count wounded men, that is.
'Supper is underway, my lord, so please rest and eat. More news than this can wait until then.'
After a plain, filling meal, Denethor sat with Anbar and his officers and spoke of the battles. He did not speak of Thorongil being the new Captain-General – that would wait for a private conversation with Anbar on the morrow – nor did he speak overly much about the Dragon Fire, only to say that it frightened and drove back the Orcs, but was too dangerous and uncontrollable for battle use. After he retired to his cot in a small room, sleep would not come. He kept wondering what was going on in Osgiliath, and what Adrahil had said to the Steward upon his return to the City.
'I beg your pardon, my lord?'
Anbar stared at him in amazement.
'You heard rightly. The Lord Steward has promoted Captain Thorongil to be Captain-General.'
'But…you are Captain-General. Are there now two?'
'There can only be one. I have relinquished that rank to the captain. He will give all of his attention to the ordering of the armies so that I may give all of mine to the ordering of the realm. The many attacks in this last year do not bode well for what we may expect in times to come. It does Gondor no good if the Warden is upon the marches or the Captain-General haggling over tax revenues.'
'I…see.' The man's brow was furrowed as he tried to sort out what was said and how much truth there was in it. 'And Henneth Annûn? If he is Captain-General, he will need to know about it.' This thought did not please the Ithiliener. 'Has he forsworn himself as mercenary, and made himself a man of Gondor?'
'Not to my knowledge, though I know not what assurances the Steward has asked of him.'
'He should not be given knowledge of this place if he will not so swear!' the lieutenant declared.
'He will be told whatever knowledge the Steward wishes him to know.' Denethor finished his cup of wine and rose, ending the meeting. 'I wish to review the fort, and then I have some business to care for this afternoon. Be sure there is a boat ready tonight to take me across the river. I need to go to Henneth Annûn myself.'
The fort was in good shape, as was to be expected. Immediately after dinner, Denethor made use of the archery yards, watching the men practicing and working with several different bows himself. One longbow he liked greatly and asked to take it with him to Ithilien.
In the afternoon, he had the Dragon Fire casks that had been sent to Cair Andros brought to a bare and rocky place on the shore near the southern tip of the island. A pit was dug, the casks carefully mixed and poured into it, and then Denethor approached with the igniting powder. There was no scale in the garrison, so he had been forced to guess at the amount necessary to light the pit. He carried a long wooden stave to stir the powder into the oils. As soon as he sprinkled it in, the mixture began hissing and sputtering. He tossed away the cup that held the powder and thrust the stave into the center of the thick solution. A few strokes and it flared up, spattering gobs of flaming gunk all around. Denethor dropped the now-burning stave into the fire, backing quickly away.
Not quick enough. A small splat of it hit his left forearm and seared like a drop of molten metal. Scrambling further away to avoid other spatters, Denethor ground his teeth to keep from crying out at the pain. He ripped away the sleeve of his shirt, which was starting to burn, then dug his right hand into the river mud and rubbed it across the fire to put it out. He remembered in the records that only sand or earth could extinguish the blaze once it caught hold.
The soldiers with him were suitably frightened by the raging fire in the pit and by the ugly burn on his own arm. Back at the fort, the healer applied a poultice of butter and herbs to take down the heat and pain. Denethor knew it probably would not work. The pain was scarce less than when the Fire fell on him. I should feel this. I should know what it was I had made and ordered used. This small spot was nothing compared to the burns the soldiers had suffered or what had happened to the Orcs. He could feel the flesh around the burn become warmer.
The river crossing was uneventful. Six Rangers crossed with him. They set out through the dark to a waiting place mid-point between the river and the hideout and rested there until morning. The burn drilled down through his arm, a steel rod driven into bone and blood. The heat reached from his wrist to his elbow. So it was that they burned. When he peeked under the edge of the poultice, Denethor saw that the burn was blistering. By the time he reached the cave just past midday, he was fevered and pain consumed his bones. The healer hissed at the green, oozing mess exposed when he unwrapped the poultice, and bathed the arm with water drawn from the fall. The cold liquid brought some relief. Denethor was dosed with a foul tasting draught to bring down the fever and had to eat an herb powder mixed into a spoon of honey before lying down to rest in the alcove.
Something in the medicines rendered him senseless. When he awoke once more, he thought he could see the flames that consumed him. He could not move his left arm anymore. His right hand touched the left, felt the Fire, then came to rest on his chest over Alquallë's gift. In the heat that seized him, Denethor thought that eyes were upon him, gladly watching flesh cook upon bones turned white-edged coals. He imagined he heard a soft voice speaking out of the fever:
Thû laughed: 'Patience! Not very long
Shall ye abide. But first a song
I will sing to you, to ears intent.'
Then his flaming eyes he on them bent,
and darkness black fell round them all.
Only they saw as through a pall
of eddying smoke those eyes profound
in which their senses choked and drowned.
Denethor struggled to his feet, knowing now the eyes that somehow watched. Your Fire draws you. Do you exult in this, Fiend? The stone walls were cool as he leaned against them, but they did not give any relief. Perhaps this is just. I know the secret of its making, that which should never have been. It has already been my unmaking. Let it finish its task, and it will be no more. When he thought to lay himself back down, however, he found he could not. The sound of water drew him. Carefully, he made his way through the sleeping Rangers, heading for the falls.
They gleamed, pearls and adamant falling in sheets before him. The weight of the eyes lessened, in the same way as the icy cold had retreated from him in the fog two – or was it three? – days before near the crossroads. Denethor's legs trembled, forcing him to sit suddenly upon the rock before the water. He rolled up his sleeve and tore off the bandage over his arm, releasing a flow of ichor. The blistering had spread. For some time he sat, burning, staring at the wound, unable to move his arm. It could just end. It was a sad thought, but left him calm.
Even as he thought it, he felt his head swim and fancied himself embraced. It was soft and silken at once, and so very cool. For a moment, he recalled the feel of his cheek against Alquallë's hair, the day he had dared to lay a kiss upon her, the one and only kiss he had given her in love, and he wondered if she watched. That roused him from his melancholy. This was not for a gentle heart like hers to know.
Denethor hitched himself closer to the waterfall until the rock was wet under his rump and he could feel the spray. He plunged the burned arm into the water, gasping at the cold. It might still flow, but it felt like ice. The water spattered upon his face and chest while he sat there, keeping him awake. The feel of an embrace returned while the waterfall leached away the Fire. When he knew it was gone, he had just enough strength left to roll away from the lip of the cave before he passed out.
A soldier found him there near dawn. Hands shook him awake. 'My lord! Lord Denethor! Help! Our lord is hurt!' The men lifted Denethor to his feet, exclaiming at the cold of his limbs. Liquor of some kind was forced into his mouth, nearly choking him before he could swallow. There was a strange lump under the tunic. It took a moment to realize that the book had been soaked along with him. Aiavalë will be very angry with me for ruining the book. The only thing he could think of was how was he to break the news to her.
The healer was near-frantic for they could not risk a fire in the redoubt to warm Denethor up. He was stripped of his sodden clothes and wrapped in blankets still warm from the soldiers who had been sleeping in them. Denethor felt his arms and legs being chafed through the blankets to get the blood flowing.
Three full days passed before Denethor regained enough strength to leave. On the morning of the fourth day after the Fire was washed away, Denethor left to return to Cair Andros. The healer and Marlong both insisted that he had to go where there was better care and more warmth, though Denethor himself would fain have remained. Marlong led the group that escorted Denethor back to the river, crossing in the boat with him to confer briefly with Anbar on the island. Marlong's reaction to the news of Thorongil was much the same as Anbar's. Neither trusted an outsider with Ithilien. Denethor left them to argue and sought out his bed. There was naught any of them could do about Thorongil, so he might as well rest.
The next morning, Denethor returned to Anórien. On the walk from the ferry to the stables, he tried to count how long it had been since the first assault. This was the tenth morning since the night the torches had appeared in the hills above Ithilien. Five months since he had last ridden from Cair Andros to the Anórien garrison. Gaerhûl was eager to go, so Denethor let the horse gallop for a while.
When he reached the fork in the path where a track branched off to the south to meet the main road below Amon Dîn, Denethor paused. He should continue west, to the garrison, to bring news of the battles and of the change of Captain-General, but he longed for his City. Let Thorongil send word. It is his own command. He turned Gaerhûl's head south, following the narrow track through the hills and woods. Farmsteads dotted the land, smoke rising from chimneys. Few people were out in the cold air.
This was the land he had soared over but a few days past, the land he was sworn to defend. Can the Steward choose another as Warden? That would be the next point of Ecthelion and Maiaberiel's attack upon him. The Warden was always the eldest son of the Steward, save in the cases of Dior and the first Ecthelion, who had no children and entrusted the post to a nephew. Mayhap it should pass from me. Faction dogs my heels. Though the Fire was gone, his arm ached from the burn. What other fires will follow upon my opposition? As he had seen, even Osgiliath could still burn.
As they passed through a stand of trees, Gaerhûl's ears snapped forward. Denethor freed his right hand in case he needed his sword. Ahead, he heard whistling, and relaxed somewhat. An Orc would not whistle. On the slope below the trees, Mithrandir walked briskly up the track, whistling a jaunty tune. The wizard stopped when he saw Denethor and leaned on his staff, waiting. Denethor reined up Gaerhûl when he reached the wizard. 'Denethor.' Mithrandir's tone was not particularly inviting and his eyes were stern under the brim of his hat.
'Mithrandir. What brings you here upon this way?'
'What brings yourself?'
'I survey the realm.'
'As do I.'
'And what have you found?'
'Terrible things. Destruction and pride.'
'The Enemy we face is terrible.'
'You need no enemy. You are quite sufficient yourself. Your hands have set loose a dark fire.' The wizard bristled, anger clear upon his face, and his hands gripped his staff more tightly. 'What other mischief have you done in your arrogance, you foolish man?'
'What would you have us do?' Denethor demanded. 'We are set against a power beyond us, and fight as we can.' He wondered who had told Mithrandir that he had made the Fire, whether the Steward or Thorongil.
'You should not use his weapons. You will turn into what you oppose by laying hand on evil things.'
'Very well, my Lord Mithrandir, where shall I draw a line? Let me set aside Fire. Shall I refuse also all catapults? Rams? Spears? Arrows? Pikes, swords, knives? He uses such.'
The wizard's face softened into sorrow. In a kinder voice, he replied, 'I would that you never need touch such things.'
'I think that we have found something on which we agree, wizard. I would that my hands held naught but books and scrolls. If you would lay down your staff, then shall I lay down my sword. Can you do so?'
'It is not your sword but your pride that you must lay down, Denethor. It turns your hands to wicked things.'
'You would have us as supplicants, dying at the hands of one of your own kind, and beg mercy of the powers to save us. The powers give salvation when it pleases them, when they consider us impious children suitably chastised for the folly of our forefathers. Why is it not wicked for you to let us perish thus?'
'No, Denethor, no,' Mithrandir said with alarm. 'Follow not these dire thoughts. They are the whispers of the Enemy in your heart. They seek to confound the truth and make all seem but deceit.'
'I hear little but deceit no matter which voice I attend. But you need not waste your concern nor your scolding upon me, wizard. I believe you have been speaking to the right Steward after all. Your counsels have worked marvelously well upon the Lord Steward. I am dismissed from my post and your own pupil my replacement.'
'Dismissed from your post? What mean you?'
'Did you not hear? The Lord Steward has named Thorongil Captain-General of Gondor. The next time you return to put your whispers into Ecthelion's heart, you shall find me yet more diminished. Indeed, by then I may be entrusted with nothing else save books, and you shall have all of your desires.'
Denethor did not wait to hear Mithrandir's reply, urging Gaerhûl forward. He broke into a gallop once past the wizard and did not slow until he came to the main road below the watchfire. A half a mile further down the main road, Denethor reined up and turned toward the trees. Everything about him ached with weariness and his burned arm throbbed. He slid off of the horse and stood, face against Gaerhûl's neck, wanting to weep at the collapse of his world. No tears came, only a few sobbing breaths.
How could he return to the City? The wizard was right that he had loosed a wicked thing. The pain in his arm told him of how he had killed. His command, his station, his love – all this was now for Thorongil. There was only dishonor and humiliation left. I should have let the Fire take me. Having left Henneth Annûn, he could not now go back. He would need permission. It is where he would prefer to be. There he would be of use, for he knew how to command that secret outpost. His hands could not be turned to wicked inventions, nor to strife, holding only bow and sword.
But still there lived in hiding cold
undaunted, Barahir the bold,
of land bereaved, of lordship shorn,
who once a prince of Men was born
and now an outlaw lurked and lay
in the hard heath and woodland grey,
It would be boon and punishment both, to be there apart from his downfall, yet also severed from his City.
Denethor turned away from Gaerhûl and began walking slowly towards the road, the horse following. He would somehow bear the humiliation through the year-end celebrations, then he would ask. And what if it is denied? What if the Steward will not grant you this? Then I will go north, even as Thorongil came south. He may name his own steward. I will go tend what he has abandoned.
He was brought out of his ponderings when he realized Gaerhûl was not following him. The horse was a dozen yards back, looking north. By the time Denethor walked back to him, the horsemen were in sight. Even at this distance he could recognize Brandir. He mounted up and waited.
'Denethor! What luck to meet you on the road!' Brandir called out as he drew nearer. There were about fifty men with him. Brandir's smile faded when he was close enough to get a good look at the other. 'Brother? You look wretched.'
'Really? How odd. I feel worse.'
Brandir waved off the closest soldiers, telling them to wait. 'Should we camp here, Denethor? If you are not fit to ride…'
'Fit enough. I will rest better in the City.'
Brandir said nothing for a moment, looking worried, then sighed and motioned to the soldiers to start out. He and Denethor rode far enough ahead to talk privately.
'Where are you coming from, Brandir? Surely you have not been in Rohan all this time?'
'For much of it. I was still in Edoras when word came of the attack on Osgiliath. You sent the messenger.'
'Yes. From Minas Tirith just before we rode out to Osgiliath.'
'I came at once. When I reached Anórien on the sixth night from when you sent the message, there was another from the Steward telling me to wait and order the garrison, as Thorongil was not there. A message came last night directing me to return with fifty horsemen, so I ride.'
Denethor looked at him curiously. 'What other news was sent in that last message?'
'That the enemy was turned aside. I must say I am surprised to see you here, not in Osgiliath.'
'It is not mine anymore.'
'What do you mean? Remember, Denethor, be plain in your words, for you speak to one of slight wit!' Brandir teased.
'We were victorious in the battle, and so again two days later. Morgul will be long rebuilding those forces. But the Steward cared not for how it was conducted, nor for how other campaigns have gone in this last year, and he relieved me of my post as Captain-General. I am here because I had to take word of this to Cair Andros.' Brandir stared at him, open-mouthed, shocked at the news. 'Thorongil has been named to that post. I command nothing now.'
'I can scarce believe this, Denethor.'
'You obviously spend very little time with your wife or you would know all about it.'
Brandir faced forward and nudged his horse into a canter. Denethor dropped back a pace to give the man some privacy. When they slowed to a walk a half-hour later, Brandir's face was serious, almost stern. He motioned for Denethor to ride closely next to him.
'Thou hast a sharp tongue, Denethor, but not as sharp as thy sister's. I am glad to hear that thou art no longer Captain-General, but not as others are glad. I hear much, though most I forget as soon as may be, for it is naught but empty boasts come from drink. Even so, I have heard some wish for thy death upon the field, and it chilled me, for they meant it most soberly, and I have been very afraid for thee, brother. I know the confusion of war, and how easily an arrow may go astray.'
'You know your wife well.'
'Yes.' Brandir looked at him and there was no humor or foolishness to be seen. Pain was there, and anger, but also determination. 'Oh, yes.' Denethor understood that his sister greatly underestimated her husband as surely as he himself had done. Then Brandir smiled in his usual simple, honest way, and chuckled. 'I need not be so worried over you, brother, for you will be kept from harm's way. And now you may set yourself a truly worthy task, and let the captain worry about Orcs and alarms.'
'What task might that be?'
Seriousness returned to Brandir's face. 'Mend the rift between yourself and Ecthelion. I have told you before, you must make peace with the Steward.'
'I do not think I need bother. You must know that he and my sister plan to make me of no account at all.'
Brandir let out a great sigh. 'And here I thought there was one member of your house who was not a great fool. As long as you live, Denethor, if there is discord between you two, mischief will be done.'
'I would not even know where to begin, Brandir,' Denethor confessed. 'All I can think of is to absent myself from Minas Tirith. If I am not there, we cannot fight.'
'But the division will be obvious to all. Besides, I do not wish you to be anywhere but the City. It is where you belong!'
'What may I do to bring about peace, brother? I know of nothing that would sway the Steward's opinion at this late date.'
'Nonsense!' Brandir cheerfully replied. 'I do not say it will be easy, but there is one thing he desires above all else that only you may give him.'
'Do not look so surprised! It is what all men of that age most wish for.'
'He has grandchildren aplenty.'
'None he may call so.'
'That is his own fault.'
'Do not increase it with your own stubbornness. Denethor, what is so terrible about a wife and a child?'
'Who would wed me?'
'Any woman you asked.' Not any woman. Not the one I love. 'And if you know not how to ask, simply tell me the woman's name, and I will ask for you.' Brandir wore his most winning smile. 'That is what brothers are for, you know.' The cheer faded slightly and concern came back to Brandir's face. 'For now, though, I shall be content simply to get you back to the City in one piece.'
'I shall not oppose you in that task, Brandir. Enough of my woes. Tell me how it is in Rohan.'
Brandir took full advantage of Denethor's invitation, going into a day-by-day recitation of all he had seen, heard and done. For once, Denethor was not impatient with his brother-in-law's chatter as it kept him distracted from his own thoughts. By the time they passed the Rammas, it was growing dark and he was shivering from the cold. Brandir made them halt long enough to drape a spare blanket around Denethor's shoulders, then urged them all into a swift trot. At the garrison, Brandir once more took charge, ushering Denethor into the warm barracks and getting him settled in front of a fire with some brandy within a few minutes.
As soon as his fingers were warm enough to hold a quill, Denethor wrote two notes. The first was to the Steward, simply saying he had returned. The second was to Thorongil, saying the same and directing the captain to be in Minas Tirith by dinner on the morrow. Denethor was reasonably certain the Steward would wish a meeting now that he was back.
'Are you rested enough to walk, Denethor?'
'Come have supper with me.'
Brandir did not look surprised at the refusal. 'As you wish. But we shall walk together, shan't we?'
The walk up the City became more difficult with each step. Denethor did not wish to go to the Citadel and his empty room. When they reached the third circle, he stopped before Morwen's house and bade Brandir good bye.
'What are you thinking, Denethor?'
'I cannot walk another step and I wish for some company.'
He did not wait for Brandir's answer, but entered the house and went to the parlor. It was quite full and cheerful, though the noise quieted down when he was noticed. Whispers filled the edges of the room. The Matron was soon at his side, smiling and asking him to follow her. They went to a small, neatly furnished room where she left him. He had only shed his cloak and boots by the time Morwen tapped on the door.
'You look terrible.'
'That appears to be the common opinion.'
'What would you like?'
'A meal, a bath, and a bed. How much do you usually charge for it?'
'It also comes with a girl.'
'No, thank you. Though I would appreciate a rumor that there were two keeping me company.'
'Done. Two tharni. The rumor is free.'
Denethor pulled a silver coin from a purse and tossed it to her. 'Credit the extra to the garrison accounts.'
'Is it true?'
'This is bad news for whores. We will have to talk when you are rested.'
'Yes. By the way, your women made themselves of great use tending the wounded after the battles. There will be rewards.'
Morwen smiled and inclined her head. 'We are all grateful to you. I will see to the meal and the bath.'