In which Denethor plots rebellion, challenges a mercenary, talks to an uncle, and says something he will regret for a very long time.
Pelargir, Late April, 2975 T.A.
Denethor trailed a few yards after Baragund and Thorongil, hands clasped behind his back, conducting an observation of the docks. He listened to what Baragund asked, what Thorongil answered, but his eyes came to their own judgment. The port was defended by the width of Anduin and little else. A few ocean-going ships, a number from Dol Amroth and a few from the far south, were docked at the deep quays, leaving most of those ancient stone harbors empty. Once, there was a forest of masts at Pelargir, rank upon rank of war ships, adventurers, traders, crowded so thickly you could cross the river by stepping from ship to ship. Small craft plied the current now, some with oars, some with sails, none with majesty. The officers stopped as Thorongil discussed the finer points of monitoring the Southrons who came to trade. It became an exchange on balancing the need for trade with the dangers of spies. Baragund did not approve of Thorongil's policy of allowing the traders to move freely in the city. Denethor listened closely to Thorongil's answers – it was interesting to hear how the other approached spying. So you prefer to observe things for yourself. It did not surprise him.
While he stood, Denethor squinted slightly against the glare coming off Anduin, looking at the broad, open plain to the south. Green clung to the banks of the river and for a fair measure inland. As the land rose, moisture fled, and the distance was a uniform dun color. When the summer came, they would cross the Poros and set fire to the desiccated grasslands of South Gondor, destroying grazing and discouraging attack from Harad. North of Poros was Ithilien, and Denethor would not allow it to burn.
A plume of dust marked the approach of a messenger from the garrison at Poros. The barge men began poling their vessel over the water. They were across by the time the rider was waved through the ring of fortifications on the far shore and had arrived at the ferry dock. The rider reined up just before reaching the bank, slowing the horse from a canter to a fast walk. The steed was familiar with the route, for he did not hesitate to walk onto the wooden deck, but quickly positioned himself squarely in the center of the ferry. The rider hopped off lightly, waved to the far shore, then started talking to the barge men. Thorongil and Baragund stopped their conversation and came to stand near him, watching the barge draw closer.
'What messages are coming?' Baragund asked.
'Poros, the scouts along the Harad Road and across South Gondor. Possibly from some traders. We have had no news from below the Harnen since January,' Thorongil said.
Ah, but we have. You just do not know the right routes, Captain. 'The Corsairs are preventing any from traveling into Umbar by land or sea. Or out. I do not expect news from the south for some time.' Denethor looked blandly at Thorongil as he delivered this intelligence. The captain's eyebrows went up sharply before he could assume a similarly bland expression. After a moment, Thorongil turned and called out to the barge, waving. The messenger signaled in return. After the rider disembarked, he led his horse towards the three officers. Denethor scowled when the man left the message pouches on the horse as he made his way through the crowd.
'M'lords,' the messenger greeted them, merely bobbing his head rather than giving a respectful bow.
'Duinil. Your route?' Thorongil smiled at the man and put a friendly hand on his shoulder.
'Peaceful and dry, Captain Thorongil, I'm glad to say!' The man grinned foolishly. Thorongil had to step around the fool to collect the pouches. Denethor bestowed a contemptuous look on the messenger, causing the man's cheer to fade, before turning and stalking off. Thorongil and Baragund hurried to catch up. Denethor agilely sidestepped two fishwives conducting a shrill argument about the quality of each other's wares, and plunged into the maze of streets.
Pelargir was organized like a half moon, main thoroughfares arcing from southwest to northeast, with short alleys randomly scattered between them. There were no streets that ran directly from the havens to the outer wall almost a mile beyond the riverbank. There were two walls within the outer wall, as well; one ran approximately half way between the river and the far wall, the other ringed the havens themselves, and was the original wall of the City. It was the only wall that had not been scavenged for stone, mostly because it had been too well built. It stood, black and smooth, built of the same material as Angrenost and the outer wall of Minas Tirith, but far older than either. Four gates pierced the Haven Wall, and all were built of black stone like the wall itself, their pivots set in polished sockets of the same. They swung in or out, and could be barred from either side. The Haven Wall was the first great work of the Faithful in Middle-earth as they began to abandon Númenor. They knew their enemies could come from any direction.
Denethor did not care for the city. It was too flat, too crowded, too close for his liking. He missed the vistas and crisp air of Minas Tirith, the spare openness of Osgiliath, when he walked in Pelargir. The climate was both muggy and dusty, leaving a film of grime upon everything. The streets teemed with people who did not care if they jostled one another. Barely half of them were Dúnedain, and even those were of questionable blood. The faces he saw were round, sun-darkened, with shuttered eyes. A low city among lowlands. It was difficult, seeing it in decline, to remember that it had been the first capital of the Faithful after Akallabêth. Still, it has lasted longer than Osgiliath, for all its rudeness. Though Pelargir formally belonged to Lebennin, it was more like to Minas Tirith, a city independent of the lands about it. While there were lords in residence, there was no overlord and the city was run by whomever was captain of the garrison.
It was a quarter hour before they arrived at the garrison. The building was located less than a furlong from the Haven Wall, though one had to go thrice that distance on the busy byways. I shall be glad to quit this place and cease dodging dogs and ducking laundry! The heavy wooden doors to the garrison hall opened smoothly on ancient hinges. Denethor welcomed the cool air inside the high-ceilinged stone room. Windows set far up in the thick walls let in the right amount of light. He held out his hand to receive the messenger pouches from the captain. Thorongil handed them over with a small bow. They were not very heavy.
'I will leave you in Thorongil's hands for the remainder of the afternoon, Baragund,' Denethor said, 'as I am certain you will have many questions for him.' He did not wait for their murmured acknowledgements, but turned on his heel and strode off to his quarters. The messages provided little in the way of distraction. He set aside the few personal messages addressed to soldiers stationed in the garrison and made himself attend to the dull reports from Poros. The grasslands would not be burnable until July at the earliest due to the heavy rains of the winter. That probably meant some type of incursion from Harad. The crossings had been cleared of brambles and muck from a late flood, and the watchtowers reinforced. Trade was slow so the toll collection was low. No Orc sightings.
Denethor sighed and rang a bell. When a soldier appeared, he handed over the private messages and asked for wine. Sipping from a simple tin cup, Denethor leaned his chair back against the wall, propped his feet up on the battered desk, and pondered. The winter had been wet and the ground was saturated, but the wind spoke of a dry season ahead. There would be Uruks in the north and Haradrim in the south. The road from Osgiliath to Pelargir will be busy this summer. That had been the chief reason he wished to ride from the former to the latter, though it was a longer and more dangerous route than taking a ship down the river; Denethor wished to judge the condition of the road, whether it would favor them or their enemies. Again he felt a certain annoyance with the Steward's decision to move Thorongil out of the south. But is it not better that Baragund be the one to achieve victories? The Prince of Pelargir does not need to make a greater name for himself than he already has. The people of the city greatly loved their captain, even if they did grumble about his obstinance over whorehouses.
He swirled the wine in his cup, considering Halmir's words. "Him" was most certainly Thorongil, for that was the name he himself had tapped out on the table. "Now" was rather simple – it meant at once. Or did it? "Back." That was the curious part. Does he wish Thorongil to go back North at once? Or, perhaps, to go back to Pelargir, not remain in Anórien? He sipped, the liquid sour in his mouth. Or that he is back, has come back… but back from where? From Rohan? When was he here before? Was he among the Lost of some time past, but unknown? Or returning to where he was born…No. Denethor no longer believed those rumors. Whatever Halmir meant, however, the Lost did not wish to serve with the captain.
Denethor drained the cup and poured another. Even though I do not believe it, Aiavalë is correct. I need proof that he is of the North. Perhaps Alquallë can uncover something. His stomach began to complain about the wine. It was odd that Thorongil was so loved by people not his own while his own treated him with wariness bordering on resentment. What have you done in the north, secretive eagle, that the Lost look at you askance? It was difficult to believe that there could have been some crime committed. Denethor had no doubt that the Lost meted out swift justice for any transgression, no matter where the criminal might flee. Though perhaps the punishment is exile? He spent the rest of the afternoon considering what the answer to his questions might be.
As dusk drew near, he washed and dressed for supper with Adrahil. The Southern Council yesterday had been tendentious. The lord of Dol Amroth was not pleased to hear that the captain was to be withdrawn north. Lebennin was not eager to see their protector leave, and Lamedon was wary. Forlong had been the strongest ally, for he knew his own fate more closely tied to Minas Tirith than to the Ethir. Adrahil had not directly rejected Ecthelion's decision, but all of the falas would clearly follow his lead. The Prince's displeasure would encourage the other lords to be fractious.
Tonight would be the true council, aboard Adrahil's ship, Seabird. The large ship was moored in the deep quays. Tomorrow, he would embark upon her and sail up Anduin to Minas Tirith, along with Adrahil and his family. At some point, the ship would depart from the City, bearing the Swans of Dol Amroth back to their haven. Between now and then, Denethor knew he had to win Adrahil solidly over to his side.
Thorongil was waiting for Denethor at the garrison door, for they were both to attend the Prince. They wound through the tangled streets, ground as sticky as the air in certain alleys, and passed through the second gate of the Haven Wall.
The city was active inside the wall. Fishermen took command of unused wharves in the evening, hanging up their nets to dry and to be mended, singing, joking, and exchanging clever insults as they worked by the light of fish-oil lamps. Standing at stone benches with carved basins, women gutted the day's catch and prepared some for cooking, some for drying, and some for sale in the outer-city the next morning. The gulls swooped in to grab leavings. Children and dogs were everywhere and cats prowled the shadows.
Adrahil stood on the deck of Seabird waiting for them. Imrahil waved to them from up in the rigging before nimbly clambering down. The young man was barefoot, wearing pants that came to just below his knees.
'Welcome, Lord Denethor, Captain Thorongil,' Adrahil warmly greeted them. None of the anger from yesterday's council meeting was present in the man's voice or bearing. He led them to a deck at the rear of the ship where braziers kept the spring night's chill away. Luinil and Ivriniel were waiting near a table laid with a simple meal. After the expected pleasantries were exchanged, they supped. Ivriniel tried to flirt with Thorongil who pretended not to notice her attentions.
After the meal was done, Luinil bid the men good evening and firmly escorted the cygnets elsewhere. Adrahil poured them more wine. When he finished, the prince leaned back in the wooden folding chair and regarded the other two coolly, his geniality of earlier gone. Denethor matched the other's gaze and waited.
'Why have you changed your mind about Umbar?'
'I have not changed my mind.'
'Then why do you leave the south unguarded?'
'It is hardly unguarded, my prince,' Thorongil quietly objected. 'The only change is in captains, not in troop strength.'
'I distinctly recall a conversation with both of you, almost precisely one year ago, when you spoke of rumors and fears so great that I could scarce bear to remain in Minas Tirith. Then I am sent word by Finduilas that the rumors are fact, and that the Steward was enough alarmed to change his own counsel.'
'Your memory serves you as well as ever, Adrahil,' Denethor replied, 'as do our own. All is as you say, but you neglect the greatest part of the news. The Corsair fleet was ruined, and the threat is greatly reduced. Do you not remember this from yesterday's council?'
'I fear it will be difficult not to recall that council. I thought I came to help organize the defense of the south, and I find that my advice is neither heeded nor wanted.'
'To the contrary, your advice is more necessary than before.'
'On what shall I advise?' Adrahil did not bother to cloak his anger. 'All matters concerning Gondor are decided without discussion and are handed down to the lords to follow. Does the Steward seek anything from me save a smile and my assent to his decrees?'
'Probably not.' Denethor leaned back in his chair and sipped his wine. He knew what he was about to do could redound to his misfortune. If Ecthelion should hear of it, he might well find himself a mercenary in the north. 'But I do. The captain does.' Thorongil shot him a startled look. Captain, will you have me as a master? I will give you the chance. I will give you Umbar. 'All that we spoke of a year ago is still true, though we now have been granted a greater period of time in which to address our earlier folly.'
As Denethor had hoped, Adrahil's anger began to become curiosity. The older man studied both him and Thorongil with his bright eyes. 'I am intrigued now, Denethor.'
'The Steward and I have discussed these matters a number of times since yestarë,' Denethor lied, 'and we are in agreement on most points. He is now convinced of the Umbar threat, though not in the same way as myself. You will need to speak to him directly on this matter in a few weeks.' Adrahil nodded. Thorongil had slouched down in his chair, making himself inconspicuous. Denethor weighed his next words carefully.
'The Steward will continue to hold his silence on the Corsairs to avoid any panic among the less experienced southern lords. Surely Finduilas informed you of how little they grasped the threat when the High Council was held?'
'Yes, she did. She also spoke of how strongly you and the captain argued, and that your words did strike quite a bit of fear into even the more sensible of them.'
'Quite so. And now the immediate fear has abated, for it was presented as part of other news. But they believe there is a threat and still they are wary.'
'They are not fools. I believe this, too.'
'There has been an additional confirmation from sources – not the Faithful – that there was great damage done to Umbar over the winter.' Thorongil stared intently at that news. 'There was a fleet, but it is destroyed, and the Corsairs seek to hide their actions even more thoroughly than before.'
'So, is this not the best time to try something against them, when they are weak?' Adrahil asked, his gaze as intent as Thorongil's.
'In this I may only repeat the Steward's words: How? How shall this be done? I have done little since the Great Council save give thought to this matter. Their havens are guarded more fiercely than before; they have spies all over southern Gondor to look for signs that we prepare an attack. I assure you the fact that we held a council here in Pelargir will be known within a fortnight in Umbar.'
'Swiftly gather a raiding fleet,' Adrahil countered, 'arm it well, and mount a small incursion across Poros as a feint. While they are distracted, strike from the sea.'
Thorongil shook his head. 'It is fortune that we may not take advantage of, my prince. Even organizing an extensive raiding fleet would do us little good. The land attack would only draw off a portion of their eastern defenders, while they would draw the net of warships left to them tightly across the mouth of the firth. Our own forces would spend themselves in that battle. Even if we won through, what would we do? We have no targets.'
'If anything,' Denethor added, 'we would do best by acting as if we had no designs upon them, or no hope of assaulting them in their own lair.' Which, in fact, we do not. 'As I said, this council is closely watched. Removing the captain to another command will appear to be either over-confidence or resignation on our part. In either case, it indicates we are not preparing for war. They will take their time to rebuild instead of attacking sooner.'
'That may reassure Umbar, but it does little to reassure me,' Adrahil sourly noted. 'I should hope that we would prepare for war.'
'And we do. Tell me, Captain, what is the state of South Gondor?' Denethor turned to Thorongil. Answer the question rightly. After a moment's thought, the captain shook his head with a soft growl of annoyance and glared south across the river.
'It is ready for a summer war, my lord.' You understand.
'I recall both of you discussing a large land invasion, as well, last spring. Is that what the year shall bring us, Denethor?'
'Not a great invasion, no. But there will be some substantial fighting, and they will be quite serious about trying to make inroads upon our borders. The land and the weather are in Harad's favor this year, even as the winter went ill for Umbar.'
'Does the Steward know of this, my lord? The condition of South Gondor?' the captain said quickly, not taking his eyes from the dangerous lands hidden in darkness.
'Not yet, but I know what you are thinking, and it would not change his counsel or my own, captain.' Denethor sipped some wine. The argument was going well. Now for the kill. 'You know, of course, Adrahil, that the message from the Faithful was presented in the High Council. Both of you know this. But there was more.' He paused and sipped again. 'What ships will they have been building, captain? How many?'
'Fighting ships, oared and outfitted for attack from the river or bays,' Thorongil replied without hesitation, 'for those are what they have most lost. I think at least forty, probably sixty of them. Up to one-hundred smaller craft that are for raiding.' Adrahil shook his head, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees.
'Those are numbers we can scarce stave off, gentlemen. We were spared indeed if they were destroyed.'
'Also destroyed were fifteen great ships. That is what the Faithful said.' Adrahil and Thorongil looked stunned.
'Great ships? Why did you say nothing of this?' the captain demanded. 'This is dire news! I had not thought they could still engineer such vessels.'
'Evidently, they can. I know not where they find the wood for them.'
'From the Raft Folk,' said Adrahil. 'There are a people from the far south, of whom I have only heard rumor, but from reliable sources, and they journey far on floating islands of logs lashed together. They could deliver large amounts of great trees, though perhaps not swiftly.'
I shall have to ask Marach about this. 'However the wood arrives, it is there and in enough quantities to make such ships. Or was,' Denethor continued. 'The threat has been reduced, not removed by this storm, and what we need to do is make sure that we use the time to be ready to strike when and as we choose.'
Thorongil nodded thoughtfully. 'But we now have a war season upon us.'
The three lapsed into silence. Denethor allowed the other two to consider. If he had estimated correctly, they would see what was needed. It was not long before Thorongil started tapping his fingers, counting, calculating things out. The man nodded again, decisively this time.
'Harad will mount some attack in early summer,' Thorongil said with certainty, 'before we can burn the grasses, but it will not be as great as they would wish. Umbar will object to activity along its borders after their winter losses and Harad will be forced into less friendly paths to approach Gondor.'
Denethor nodded and replied, 'We cannot extend much beyond Poros, but also cannot allow anything to come north of it, lest Pelargir be threatened…'
'…and the wetlands will be high south of Poros, which makes the Ethir safe, as long as the fisherfolk stay north. So Baragund is south to coordinate with Osgiliath for the defense of south Ithilien…'
'…and you are north because the Enemy will be seeking to drive the Rohirrim away from the River along the Emyn Muil, so as to secure a northern front.'
'Dol Guldur,' Thorongil muttered under his breath. Adrahil cocked his head.
'Dol Guldur? What do you speak of?' the prince asked. Thorongil shifted uncomfortably and sipped his wine. You did not mean to say that.
'A stronghold of the Enemy's north of the Emyn Muil, at the edge of Mirkwood. Mithrandir told me it is where the Enemy hid himself for long ere he returned,' Thorongil jerked his head towards the east, 'and it strikes me that a northern attack might call upon that stronghold. When I served in the Wold, the Orcs did not always seem to be from the south, though I had mostly thought them out of the Misty Mountains.' Denethor considered this. Do you know of this from Mithrandir, or of your own experience? Perhaps Thorongil knows more of the eastern reaches than we thought. Interesting or not, it would wait until later. Denethor cleared his throat to get the prince's attention.
'When I returned from my last review of the northern defenses, Adrahil, I became convinced that Ithilien would be the main target in a mild, dry summer, particularly in the north. So, for this season, I am in agreement with the Steward to reorganize forces to put our greatest strength in the north.'
'So, what is it you require from me, Denethor?'
'The obvious. Do not oppose the Steward's decisions. Hold southern Gondor together. Focus attention upon the defense of Pelargir, for that will be a target very soon. Baragund can command a battle, but he will not have time to command hearts in the Ethir. But this is not what I really need of you. I need you to begin to plan how Gondor is going to have more than a raiding fleet. For Umbar will recover, and we need to be able to bring war to them and not wait upon their pleasure.'
Adrahil regarded Denethor carefully. 'And what of the Steward's opinion? Does he wish for such planning?'
'I neither know nor care what the Steward thinks on this matter.' There, it was said. Umbar was the wedge that would force Thorongil and Adrahil to throw their support to him, not Ecthelion. Or else it will be what throws you out of power entirely.
Adrahil said nothing. Denethor did not press him. There would be time. He signaled for Thorongil to rise as he stood himself.
'At what time tomorrow shall I present myself, Prince?'
Adrahil rose. 'Just after the first bell. I hope to leave within a half hour of then.'
'I will not be tardy. Please give my regards to Princess Luinil.' They exchanged small bows, and Adrahil escorted them to the gangplank. The docks were still active, though less boisterous, on the return trip. Thorongil was silent until they passed through the Haven Wall.
'Does the Steward know of the great ships?'
'Why was nothing said in council?'
'We thought it unwise.'
'You speak of it now.'
'I am not in council.'
'Is it your choice that I be moved north?'
'The Steward, Lord Brandir, and I came to a common agreement that you would be needed in the north this summer.'
'You did not speak your mind to me on this in Minas Tirith.'
'I speak when it is time, and not before.'
'Of course, my lord.' A few heartbeats. 'It will not take long to order affairs with Rohan.'
'I am counting on that.'
'What then? Or is it not yet time to speak?'
'And then you will oversee the Anórien garrison, support Lord Brandir in his diplomatic efforts with Rohan, and report directly to the Steward every three or four weeks.' Silence. 'Is this a problem, captain?'
'Nay. Save it is a waste of my efforts.'
'You think rather highly of yourself, Thorongil.'
'I think of where I may best serve. If there is danger from Easterlings and Orcs directly out of Mordor, would I not be better placed in north Ithilien?'
'Mercenaries are not permitted to serve in north Ithilien, captain.' They did not speak again until they entered the garrison. Denethor stood patiently while Thorongil studied him, waiting for the captain to say something. Finally, the captain gave a shallow bow and began to walk away.
'The only master I know you serve, mercenary, is gold.' The captain stopped. There was something – anger? – in the man's face. 'Though I have reason to think you may serve others, as it pleases you. It shall be interesting to see what master you end up with. Good night, captain. I shall see you in Minas Tirith in a week.' Thorongil walked off.
Denethor waited until the man was out of sight, then left the garrison. There was more business to attend to that night. He moved silently through the tangled streets and alleys until he came to a decrepit storefront at the southern edge of the Merchants Quarter and tapped a careful code on the wood door. It was a long while before the door opened. A small boy gestured for him to come in. Denethor followed the child through the dim front of the building to a small, sparely furnished room. He was left to wait again, but not long. A tall, old man with a grizzled beard and dark brown eyes entered. Denethor knelt and bowed his head.
'Nephew.' The old man laid a hand in blessing on the top of Denethor's head, then helped him up and embraced him. 'Yusil, it is good to see you! I tire of messages.'
'As do I, Ahnkoral. I fear I can stay only a short while.'
'Then let us speak.' Marach leaned out of the room and called for tea and cakes. While he and Denethor settled onto the soft carpet and cushions, two women and the young boy brought in a beautiful tray with refreshments. Marach gave his grandson a playful swat on the rump when the three exited the room, the little boy giggling and making a face at his grandfather in return.
'Morwen says you have not one of those yet, Yusil.'
'If you like not these northern women, I can bring you one from Harad. Several, if you wish. Choose the one you like.'
'You are too generous, uncle. No, thank you.' Marach smiled and gestured helplessly, to say he had tried. 'I am interested in hearing from you directly, Ahnkoral, of what you have heard of Umbar.'
'Very little, which says much.' They spent the next hour discussing Ragnor's report on the bazaar at the edge of Umbar's territory. The Haradrim were becoming wary of approaching even that close. The raiders in the region were a little too well armed and disciplined, rather like soldiers, and any merchant foolish enough to agree to move large caravans of goods directly into Umbar was never heard of again.
'What of Harad itself?' Denethor asked, mindful of the conversation with Adrahil and Thorongil. 'I expect war this summer.'
'So do I, nephew,' Marach sadly replied. 'Even so, I must travel. Traders must trade, regardless of war.'
'When do you go?'
'Within the week.'
'I am looking for something.'
'I am not certain. It is something I have read of in a book, and perhaps it is legend, but supposedly there is something from Far Harad called rock oil.'
'No legend, but rare.'
'How can I get some?'
'How much gold do you have?'
'I need two barrels.'
'Eight pieces of gold each. More if there is fighting.'
'I will give up to twelve pieces for each, but no more.'
'You may have to wait.'
'But not long.'
'Have them delivered to the Quartermaster, Borondir.' The two men rose, then Denethor bowed once more for the elder's blessing. After the blessing, they embraced, and Denethor made his way back to the garrison. He was almost asleep when he remembered he had forgotten to ask Marach about the Raft Folk.
Denethor was at the quay well before the first bell the next morning. Luinil and Ivriniel waved to him as he came up the gangplank, Adrahil's voice calling some orders from the port side. A cabin boy took his bags and trotted off to a hatch leading below deck. Denethor greeted each woman with a polite kiss on the cheek. The women were dressed in mannish garb, though their trousers were full and imitated skirts, and they had bare feet like all the sailors. Luinil tucked his arm into hers and led him towards the bow.
'Come with me. I will keep you out of harm's way while we set out.'
'I place myself in your hands, Princess.' The three stood quietly while sailors bustled about, efficiently readying Seabird for the journey up Anduin. Soon, Adrahil strode up, Imrahil at his heels, barefoot and cheerful.
'So you are here already, Denethor, most excellent! We will set out at once then, by your leave.'
'I have no further business here, Adrahil, and wish to return to the City as quickly as can be done.'
'It shall be done then, sir. We have a strong breeze from the Sea this morning. If it holds, we shall be to the Harlond by this night, though not before nightfall.' The prince nodded pleasantly before leaving to order the lines cast off and the journey begun.
Imitating his hosts, Denethor quickly shed his low boots and stockings, and cuffed his trousers a few turns. The gleaming deck of Seabird was easier to grip with toes than with boots, anyway. Before an hour had passed, the ship was free of the docks and sailing north, her prow cleaving the current and turning the water to foam. For one wild moment, he wished they were sailing south, not north, out to the Sea. The prince's words about the folk who sailed the oceans upon islands of wood had taken hold of Denethor's imagination, and he had dreamed of them all night. Luinil walked him around the ship, pointing out where it was safe to sit or stand and remain out of the sailors' way. The two of them whiled away the morning watching the shore go by. The princess had many questions about what she could see in south Ithilien — when had it been settled, who were the great families who had lived there, what had been grown and produced in those lands, where had the people gone to, and so on. Denethor was strongly reminded of Finduilas in the High Council at yestarë and knew it was not Adrahil alone who trained the cygnets of Dol Amroth.
The winds remained strong and they were almost to the inflow of the Erui by dinner. The meal was hard cheese, smoked fish, dense bread, and red beer. The sailors ate the same food as the Swans. Denethor sat with Adrahil and Luinil on a storage chest near the starboard rail aft of the main mast. The prince had not spoken of their conversation the night before, nor did Denethor expect him to for several days to come.
'Please, call me Denethor.'
'Denethor, forgive me if I touch on a sorrow you have put behind you, but I offer my condolences for the loss of your lady mother. Lady Emeldir was so gracious to us in our visit last year and Finduilas always wrote of her kindness. I am sorry for your loss. And you must call me Luinil!'
Denethor bowed his head in acknowledgement. 'It shall always be a sorrow to me, Luinil, though time has softened the blow. Thank you for your condolence. Though you now remind me of a small sorrow yet to come.'
Luinil's brow wrinkled slightly. 'And what sorrow would that be?'
'That you shall deprive the Stewards House of a dear guest within a day.' Both Adrahil's and Luinil's faces lit up at the mention of their reunion with Finduilas.
'Surely you cannot begrudge us our girl when you have had her company for nearly a year!' Adrahil scolded, smiling broadly.
'Certainly not, though it shall be a sorrow to us. Lady Emeldir called her daughter, and Finduilas sat with my mother much in her last weeks, keeping her spirits strong. In their grief, she was a great consolation to both of my sisters, and they shall be loathe to let their new-found sister go completely. I fear you shall be much asked for as guests, so that they may have her near.'
'It is a burden we shall gladly bear, Denethor, for Finduilas has spoken much of the generosity shown to her by your sisters, indeed, by all of your family. The only consolation we have had for not having our child near is knowing she was in the Steward's good care,' Adrahil earnestly said.
Maiaberiel will be most pleased to hear this. Nothing would suit her better than to be presenting the Swan House as her guests. Denethor rather doubted there would be many occasions involving Aiavalë. Unless you would like to spend a day in the archives recording reports. As soon as he could write legibly, Aiavalë had made that his task.
When they finished their meal, Luinil excused herself to attend to some business. Denethor walked about Seabird with Adrahil, learning of the ship. He had never before been aboard a vessel so beautifully crafted. Every inch of the ship gleamed and the sounds she made were interesting, not alarming. The crew was well-dressed, polite and efficient, each carrying himself proudly, no matter the task at hand. The prince took delight in pointing out details. Every part of the ship had a story and each story became a story of Dol Amroth. Denethor paid close attention. Adrahil explained where the wood had come from, how the brass was Dwarven-wrought, as was the crystal in the lanterns and portholes, why the rope used was always woven by a particular family of ropers, and so forth. The main mast of Seabird was carved from the trunk of a single tree that had been harvested in Hyarrostar and had been used as the mast for all Seabirds captained by his forefathers, from before the Downfall, from before the imprisonment of the Deceiver, in the time of Tar-Minastir, when the first such ship took to the Sea.
The winds began to die down near sunset when they were still ten leagues away from the Harlond. The crew took to the oars, though the Prince made sure the pace was mild. Close to midnight, they docked. Denethor bid Adrahil and Luinil good night, saying he would return early with a wagon for their luggage and horses for the journey to the City. There was no news waiting for him at the Great Gate. He took a messenger horse up the hill to save himself the walk to the Citadel. When he arrived at the house, Denethor gave the doorward instructions for having a wagon and steeds sent just after dawn to the Harlond for the Prince and his household, and for himself to be wakened then as well.
Denethor breathed a sigh of relief when he entered his study, then pulled up short. In the center of his desk was Finduilas' cat, Telperien. The tabby was nestled contentedly upon a stack of papers, paws neatly tucked under herself. She opened one eye, then the other, looked upon him in an insolent manner, and yawned widely before closing her eyes and going back to sleep. He bowed slightly to apologize for disturbing the queen's rest, then went to bed.
The cat was gone when he woke, leaving behind hair, a few paw prints and an indent on the papers. After Denethor returned from the baths, he could hear Aiavalë and Finduilas moving about, readying themselves for the day. Soon, they were calling up the stair for him to hurry. Finduilas was giddy, unable to hold still, alternating between snatches of song and happy chatter. Aiavalë chuckled at the girl and scolded Denethor to make haste lest Finduilas decide to run all the way to the Harlond. At that, the young woman laughed gaily and darted out the door, calling back for them to follow. Aiavalë took his arm and they did as they were told.
Denethor did not actually trust Finduilas not to try riding ahead, so he walked between the messenger horses bearing the two women down the mountain, a firm hold on the reins of each. They did pause at Vinyamar to make sure all was in readiness, but otherwise did not tarry. The early morning streets were near empty. As they passed through the second circle, the smell of fresh baked bread filled the air. They switched horses at the stables. Denethor was glad to be riding Gaerhûl again. The blood-bay horse had been a gift to him from King Thengel on his fortieth birthday and was the finest steed he had ever ridden, not to mention the only one tall enough to match his own height. The garrison horse he had taken to Pelargir was serviceable enough, but he had greatly missed Gaerhûl's smooth gait within a few miles of leaving Osgiliath. The fact that the horse was vicious enough to face down an Uruk only made him more valuable.
Finduilas' impatience could not be checked another minute, so the three galloped the first mile towards the Harlond. Denethor allowed Aiavalë and Finduilas to run a little ahead, enjoying the sight and sound of his sister's delight at the impromptu race. Before he had so many burdens, so long ago it was hard to remember, they would go out from the City as often as they could to ride in the Pelennor, sometimes going beyond the Rammas Echor on the north road. It was a joy to watch Aiavalë ride, for the steed became her legs and there was nothing ungraceful about her. After his return from his southern sojourn, Denethor made her a special veil to wear when riding, modeled on the ones he had seen the women of Harad wear. It was weighted at the edge with small southern coins he had brought back with him, fastened with stout thread that passed through tiny holes he had drilled by hand. Even after they had pulled up the mares, giggling and teasing each other over who won, Denethor let the women ride ahead of him. He was not sure how much longer Aiavalë would have with Alquallë, and did not wish to intrude.
Too soon, they were approaching the Harlond's outer wall. The stone was less a defense than a border, marking the end of the neat, tightly packed village that serviced the busy docks. He guided them over to the stone square west of the road just beyond the Harlond wall. The wagon and horses were there, oxen munching on a pile of hay while stevedores moved carts of belongings up the road and over to the wagon. Denethor was pleased at the amount they were unloading, for that presaged a long stay, though he began to worry that perhaps one wagon would not be enough. He swung off Gaerhûl, dropping the reins to make the horse stand, and assisted Aiavalë and Finduilas to dismount. It was not a long wait.
Simultaneous cries of joy announced the reunion. Finduilas was mobbed by her parents and siblings, all of them crying, hugging and exclaiming over the other. There was a small pause to allow Finduilas to cough, but soon all five were in full cry again, as the lost cygnet rejoined the flock. Aiavalë slipped her arm into his and leaned her head on his shoulder. She sighed and turned her face into his arm. After a moment, Aiavalë looked up at him. Her eyes were sorrowful, and small lines crept outwards towards temples and cheeks. She sighed again, then shook her head and made an exasperated sound.
'Let us go. Now. I have to return to the archive.'
Denethor knew better than to argue with Aiavalë when she was so curt. He directed a hostler to take charge of Finduilas' horse, boosted Aiavalë back onto her mare, and returned with her to the City.
The next four days were taken up with his duties as Warden; reports, meetings with officials and clerks, inspection of goods in warehouses, audiences with Ecthelion. The Steward did not treat him with any favor, but neither was he subject to disapproval, so Denethor counted it all as good. Telperien wandered about the house for one day, mewing for her vanished mistress, then decided that a chair in a dark corner of his study was her preferred abode. He became used to the sound of her purr as he worked. She roused from her chair only to sample whatever he was having for a meal.
The fourth evening was for politics. Maiaberiel, as promised, was throwing a great party in honor of the Swans, to take place in Merethrond. It was the thirtieth anniversary of Adrahil and Luinil's marriage, and the celebration promised to be a study in excess. Before the feast, the Steward had invited Adrahil, Denethor, and Brandir to join him for some wine. The Prince had not yet come to offer his greetings to Ecthelion, a subtle snub for having been left out of the decision to move Thorongil.
Denethor walked with Ecthelion back to the Steward's private chambers in the Tower, discussing shipments of iron from mines in Lamedon. Wool, wheat and gold were to return in the empty carts. They quietly spoke of how the iron should be allocated – what part reserved by the City, what part sold to forges, what to go to Rohan. They were but Steward and Warden, not father and son, and Denethor wished all their converse could be so agreeable. At Ecthelion's direction, he set out cups and decanted wine. Brandir and Adrahil arrived within a few minutes. Greetings were exchanged, cups were filled, and the men sat in comfortable old chairs near a window.
'Adrahil,' Ecthelion asked, 'how does Dol Amroth?'
'Well enough, Ecthelion. There was damage from the winter that cannot be repaired until things are drier, but the harbor itself was unscathed. I fear I shall have to leave my ladies here in Minas Tirith for longer than I would like, as the keep itself took harm. Repairs will be easier if they are not in residence. And then I am not certain the coast is as safe as it once was.' This was said casually, but the prince's gaze upon the Steward was keen.
The Steward smiled. 'Ah, well, the ladies of Minas Tirith shall be glad for the news! Your ladies will be much appreciated, and the longer they remain, the greater shall be the fortune of the City. But what of your lord father, Prince Angelimir? If the keep is not fit for residents, where is he? Should he be brought to the City?'
Adrahil shook his head. 'Father is too old to make the journey even were he not too stubborn to leave the keep.'
'How does he fare?' Brandir inquired, concern on his face. 'I hope he is not ill!'
'The twisting disease has made his hands almost unusable,' Adrahil replied with a sigh, 'and I know he is in greater pain than he will speak of. But his wits are sharp and he has the wizard, Mithrandir, for company.' Denethor sipped his wine to cover his startlement at the news. He sensed rather than saw his father's sly glance in his direction. 'The wizard asked leave to stay for a time and visit with Father. They sit in the sun and talk as old men talk – slowly and little.'
'And how long is the wizard visiting?' Denethor was glad Brandir asked what he himself wished to know. Adrahil shrugged.
'He has been there since early April and will stay as long as he and Father have anything to speak of, I imagine.'
'Yes, the wizard is good to talk to, particularly if you are an old man.' Ecthelion's voice was amused, gentle. 'I find his counsel gets better as I age.'
'Why is this?'
'I finally understand it, Adrahil. The wizard's virtues are those of old men, and one must become much of one before his wisdom is apparent. With age, if one is fortunate, will come patience and a broader understanding of things. I became reconciled to what is.'
'Surely, my lord Steward, these have always been among your virtues, though honed with age?' Denethor said. Ecthelion gave him a sharp look.
'No. They are virtues that are hard won. Before Thorongil had me speak to Mithrandir, I had none of this. From after the Enemy's return until I could hear his wisdom, there was but defeat in my heart.' There was something in his father's voice and bearing that demanded attention. 'If the might and glory of all our civilization could not bring final defeat to this fiend, what was left for us, poor shadows of that glory? We sat and we talked as old men will and he spoke to me of things subtle and wise, and mostly of how our dark enemy is not the only power at work in Middle-earth.'
Adrahil leaned forward and poured himself some more wine. 'Well, I do not find that a great mystery, my Lord Steward, though it may be a comfort. Those who have not forgotten know that other powers are at work in the world. Not that there is much evidence of them.'
'Young men!' Ecthelion laughed softly and held out his own cup. 'You are all alike. You have the virtues of hope and boldness, but they will only go so far. You think only of doing.'
'Then help us acquire some of the wisdom, if not the virtues, of old men, my lord,' Denethor prompted. He wanted to know what it was that Mithrandir had been speaking into the Steward's ear, of course, but Ecthelion's own confession of losing heart made him wonder. 'What are we to understand of the work that these other powers do? The work of the Enemy is all too clear. It can be seen from the City walls.'
'The City itself can be counted among his works, for it would not be save for him.' The Steward subsided into thought. His voice was very soft when next he spoke. 'They work upon us as the Enemy works upon the land, crafting and shaping. He takes the earth and stone, and manipulates it to his desires. They touch lightly our hearts, prompting us to shape ourselves.' His voice grew louder and his eyes twinkled with some mischief. 'And they work in ways that are invisible to us – chance or fortune we might say.'
'As in the destruction of the Corsairs' havens?' Adrahil suggested.
'So I deem, though Mithrandir himself had little to say. So, by these ways are our fates shaped. So far as we shape our hearts to their designs, we shall be deserving of other works. Whether we deserved the fortune of the storms or not, we were granted some small grace in the doing.'
Brandir's brow had become more furrowed the longer the exchange had gone on. 'But, my lord, how do we know that this is so? Because some rumpled old man says so?'
'There is no way to know, Brandir, there is only our faith that we are not abandoned to the clutches of evil if we can tame our pride and show reverence for what is granted us.' As he said this, Ecthelion looked not at Brandir, but held Denethor's eyes. The words were humble enough and spoken with a gentle tongue. His father's gaze upon him was anything but kind.
'I can well believe that the storms were no mere chance, particularly when Gondor itself was left near untouched by their fury,' Denethor responded. 'I most fervently hope that it is so, and that we are under some grace. However, it seems not enough to merely trust in this beneficence. Just as we should craft our hearts, should we not seek to craft some part of our fortune?'
Adrahil nodded emphatically, and quickly swallowed his mouthful of wine. 'I must concur on that. The virtues of young men, left untrammeled, are not enough, but surely they are there for good reason? The time is ripe for preparation, and for action, I should think, to take advantage of what fortune has been presented to us. Fortune favors both young and old who act, when boldness is required. Is it chance that the Corsairs have been struck such a blow while we have been recovering in these last few years? We have been granted a space in which to act.'
'You begin to sound like Denethor.' Even Brandir could tell that was not meant as a compliment. Adrahil's eyes glittered at the insult to them both. Denethor was content to allow the other to conduct the argument.
'I do not like the news that comes to the south, Ecthelion. Young you call me, yet I am hardly a green boy. There is a proper time for action, and that is the duty of a leader to discern and to seize. Will you not care for Gondor? Are you not the Steward?'
'I call myself a pupil of the wizard, prince, for I would learn his wisdom which is other than that of futile battle.' Ecthelion's voice was cool, anger showing at the edges. 'Of course one must give thought to practical things, which is why I bring Thorongil north. That is your true complaint with me, is it not, Lord of Dol Amroth? But there is more at work than you can imagine. You would command fate, if you could, when what is called for is humility and to do only what is before us. We must attend to the work that is done in our hearts, for there alone the Enemy cannot reach without our invitation. Do not be so certain that what you wish is what must be. Listen to the whispers of your heart, not the stubborn notions in your head.'
Some color had come to Adrahil's cheeks while Ecthelion lectured him. 'And perhaps you should listen to your own counsel, my Lord Steward, and imbibe of humility. You are not the only person to reflect on the relation of the life before us and the greater unfolding of the world. Nor are you the only steward.' The two men looked narrowly at each other. Denethor gently cleared his throat to get their attention.
'One could philosophize for long and not have any answers, though the thinking be fruitful,' he matter-of-factly stated, 'but there is a question left unanswered. If our proper task is to do what is before us, and not go grasping for what we should have naught to do with, does that not yet encompass bold acts? Not done in pride, and perhaps done without great hope, yet done they must be.'
'Such as the recapture of Osgiliath and rebuilding the bridge!' Brandir cheerfully offered. Denethor was rather amazed his dull brother-in-law came up with that as an example.
'It has never been proved to me that was a wise thing to do,' Ecthelion icily responded. 'I am not certain that we would not have been better off keeping the river as a wall rather than making it into a bridge.'
'But even Thorongil approves of it.' Brandir was again confused.
'There is wisdom and advantage to both bridge and wall, but a bridge may be made a wall more easily than the other way round.' Denethor said this quickly, not wishing to leave the defense of the argument to Brandir, but also not wishing to draw out the Steward's ire. Ecthelion set his cup down on the table between them, then sat back in his chair, eyes full of contempt.
'You are too proud of your handiwork. The bridge will not last. It will fall to ruin, like all other things wrought out of pride.'
'It will fall to ruin, like all things, prideful or not. But, before it does, it will serve us well.'
'Vanity. And vanity makes it already a ruin.'
Denethor did not argue, and merely inclined his head towards the steward. It would not do to draw out this argument before the Prince. His sire's unreason would be sufficient to move Adrahil into support of himself and Thorongil. Though, there was something in Ecthelion's words that rang true. Perhaps I should myself speak to the wizard when next he comes to the City.
A soft tap on the door prevented the Prince from saying whatever he was drawing breath to say. Brandir hopped up to answer the door. The servant said that the four lords were summoned by Lady Maiaberiel to Merethrond, for guests were arriving and the celebration was about to begin. Denethor quickly excused himself to go collect Aiavalë. She was impatiently waiting for him in the house, dressed beautifully and well veiled.
'Why must I attend this ridiculous thing?' she complained as they made their way to the hall.
'Because Alquallë specifically requested you be here,' he replied. She grumbled something under her breath. The Steward, Beruthiel and Brandir greeted the guests at the door. When Denethor and Aiavalë entered Merethrond, people bowed respectfully, but were careful to stay a few arm lengths away. Denethor glared at them all. Near the front of the great room, he could see the Swans flocking. Finduilas waved when she saw them, hurrying over to take Aiavalë's other arm. Soon, all were sitting at the head table. He spoke politely, and Aiavalë did not speak at all. The others, aside from Finduilas, ignored his sister.
Too soon for his liking, Ecthelion, Beruthiel and Brandir arrived. The Steward made a short speech thanking guests, all stood for the West-facing silence, then the feast commenced. Everything about the celebration was too much – the food, the music, the number of guests, all of it. Beruthiel chattered gaily with Luinil and the daughters, Ecthelion was jovial, though Adrahil's responses were more short than they had to be. Through it all, Aiavalë sat as silent as one of the statues along the wall, neither eating nor drinking as she would not remove the veil over her face. Denethor tried to take her hand under the table, but she pulled it way. After the dishes were cleared, people stood so that tables could be moved aside for dancing.
As the guests of honor, Adrahil and Luinil led off the dancing. The two stood for one moment, looking at each other as the music began. A smile touched both of their faces. Adrahil bowed grandly, to which Luinil replied with a deep curtsey, and both broke out laughing. In a moment, she was in his arms and they were moving about the hall, joy in their steps as they traced the first measures of the dance. All who watched applauded and laughed. Finduilas clapped loudly and bounced a little on her toes as she watched her parents.
'Are they not beautiful?' she exclaimed to Denethor and Aiavalë, never taking her eyes off the couple.
'Oh, yes. Did I not say to you they are the stuff of song and poetry?' Aiavalë made a soft, but distinctly rude, sound. He gave her a poke with his elbow, hoping Finduilas had not heard. Soon, other couples joined Adrahil and Luinil. Finduilas tapped Denethor on the shoulder.
'My dear sir,' she said in a cheerful, teasing way, 'I do believe I owe you a dance. Will you allow me to honor my debt?' Now Aiavalë poked him with her elbow. Denethor ignored her, giving Finduilas a small bow.
'It is I who would be honored, Alquallë.' It was not until they were dancing that he realized just how tall she was. She was easily Maiaberiel's height, perhaps a finger taller. Finduilas was not quite as accomplished a dancer as his sister, but she was still very good and far more pleasant company. Too soon for his tastes, the dance ended, and he relinquished her to Imrahil, accepting Ivriniel in exchange. This sister, too, was an excellent dancer, though she obviously wished for another partner. Denethor finished his obligations with two more dances, one with Luinil, one with Maiaberiel, and retreated to Aiavalë's side.
The siblings stood, watching the dancing. Ivriniel was even more popular a dance partner than Finduilas with the young men, though Finduilas did not lack for attention. Beruthiel danced every so often, but mostly walked among the guests, chatting and watching. The Steward danced with each of the Swans, then gathered Brandir and also walked among the guests. Adrahil and Luinil escaped from inquisitive well-wishers by dancing often.
As Denethor watched them on their sixth or seventh dance, he heard Aiavalë make an odd sound. He looked over at her. She had her gaze fixed on Adrahil. In her eyes there was an expression that made him wince and wish to look away. Denethor quietly said her name. Aiavalë did not look up. She simply turned and limped towards a side door. He caught up with her in three strides and looped his arm through hers. Wordlessly, he escorted her back to the Stewards House.
When they got to her rooms, Denethor did not wait to be invited in. Aiavalë stopped in the center of the room and pulled off her veil. For the first time, he thought she looked old. All I love is in ruins. Gently, he touched her arm. She whirled and slapped him hard, then clutched at him when her bent leg did not bear her weight. Denethor carefully held her steady.
'Sometimes I hate even you!'
'What have I done, sister, to earn your hatred?'
'Why won't you?'
'Why won't I what? What is it you want?'
Aiavalë began hitting him on the chest with her fist, punctuating her words. 'You. Damned. Stubborn. Man! You. Selfish. Willful. Miserable. Brat!'
He grabbed her hands. 'Aiavalë, what are you talking about? Stop this! Tell me what is wrong!'
'You aren't marred! You aren't Shadow-touched and cursed! There is only your own willfulness. You so easily give up what I would fain have. Nay, you take lightly what I would give my very life for, and spurn all else as beneath you!' There was nothing beautiful about either side of her face. All was contorted in her fury.
Denethor could not figure out what she meant, and grasped at the only thing he could think of. 'Are you speaking of Alquallë?'
' "Are you speaking of Alquallë?" ' she sneered. 'What else could I be speaking of? Do you know what it is I wish for?' He shook his head. 'Once, just once, I wish to dance. A single dance without a limp, to know beauty for just that dance. I do not even ask to be rid of the veil. Just to dance, and not lurch like a monster. For that one thing, I swear, I would exchange my very life. You take a single dance and think nothing of it.'
There was nothing he could say. Aiavalë pulled out of his grasp and bent to retrieve her veil. She toyed with it for a moment, then looked at him again. Her face looked almost normal again, but she was still very angry.
'You enjoy your solitude, brother. Very well. I shall not intrude upon you another day.'
He crossed his arms and sighed. 'Sister, I do not care for threats. What are you planning?'
'I will move myself into rooms in Widow Almarian's house tomorrow. There is nothing and no one I wish to be near in this wretched house. I shall go stay in my lair, where I will be closer to my sisters. You can stay up here in the Citadel and rot!' Her spitefulness angered him.
'Just how long have you been in love with Adrahil?' As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Denethor knew he would regret them a very long time. He braced himself, expecting that she would hit him again. But she did not. Aiavalë pulled herself up and stood with dignity. In her eyes… That was from his words. He dropped his head, face flaming.
'Since I first saw him, when I was six and twenty. But he cared nothing for a monster, and found himself a woman of whom minstrels sing.'
Aiavalë said nothing more. Denethor left.
Characters introduced in this chapter, in order of appearance:
- Duinil – OC. Messenger between Poros and Pelargir, 28 years old.
- Marach/Ahnkoral – OC. Morwen's eldest half-brother, 76 years old.
- Gaerhûl – OC. Denethor's horse, given to him by King Thengel on Denethor's fortieth birthday. The name means "red/bloody wind." My thanks to Nath for her help with the name.