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Chapter II: Detained
Thorongil was led up the main road and along a side street to a low stone building. It backed onto the city’s second wall but stood nowhere near the Second Gate. The lamp above its heavy oaken door was quenched, which to his eyes was not a promising sign. But his escort marched up the three steps and hauled open the door, shooing him inside with an impatient flick of the hand. Reading the signs, Thorongil did not hesitate. He put his lead foot on the second step and overlept the third with scarcely a stretch.
A moment later he found himself within a smoky and ill-lit vestibule. It was warmed by a lone charcoal brazier that was not really adequate to dispel the night’s chill. It sat close by a much-abused table in the rear corner of the room. This had the gouged and battered look of a surface onto which arms were frequently and carelessly flung. There was a low-burned candle in a wooden dish, and in the pool of its light sat another guard. He was clad like the men at the Gate in a simple livery of worst-black.
At present he was hunched low over the table, tucking into an unremarkable meal. In his eagerness to reach his destination, Thorongil had not paused to hunt in three days. He had eaten the last of his latest catch the afternoon before, and yet despite his hunger he could scarcely smell the food. It was long cold, doubtless brought from a garrison kitchen at some distance from the provost-house.
‘What’s this?’ asked the seated man through a mouthful of bread. He looked up as he spoke, but did not straighten. His posture and his broad features gave him the look of a disgruntled bull.
‘Another of Ecthelion’s Follies, come looking for a post,’ the younger guard said irreverently. Thorongil surmised that this particular turn of phrase was common among the soldiers of the First Level, to whom all such strangers surely applied. ‘This one claims he’s got many skills.’
The other guard let out a bark of laughter. ‘Has he, now? Well, is following an order one of your skills, longlegs?’
‘Verily,’ said Thorongil, refusing to bristle at the disdainful words and tone. He did not prostrate himself so far as address the soldier as sir. From the youth’s easy mode of address they were of equal rank – a rank that Thorongil would likely be sharing soon enough.
‘Then lay down your arms,’ said the guard, indicating the tabletop. ‘All of them. Before you think of some clever trick to hold any of them back, I can promise you we’ll find them in the end. Then it will be the worse for you. Cooperate, and if your story’s believable you’ll have them back soon enough.’
Thorongil said nothing to this, but unbuckled his belt of sturdy Riddermark leather that he might slide his sheath from it. He bore a long knife, not quite a short sword but near enough for a man with his reach. He laid it down neatly so as not to hasten the table’s demise. Then he slid his pack from his shoulder and fished within for the little paring blade he used for precise tasks: filleting fish, paring his nails, and the like. So as to give the doorwarden no quarter for complaint, he produced also his small bundle of wire snares. There were martial uses to which such things could be put, if not honourable ones.
The two guards looked at one another with shared disbelief. ‘All of them,’ the man at the table repeated.
‘I have no others,’ said Thorongil. ‘I thank you for your words of warning, but that is all the weaponry I possess.’
‘Are you a bowman, then, who lost the tools of his trade?’ asked the young guard, baffled.
‘I can use a bow at need, and with adequate precision,’ said Thorongil; ‘but foremost I am a man of the sword.’
‘Yet you don’t have one?’ said the other man. ‘I’ve never met a sell-sword without a sword to sell.’
‘It is my skill with a blade that I offer, not the blade itself,’ said Thorongil. ‘Surely there are swords enough in the armouries of Minas Tirith that one can be furnished for a soldier at need.’
‘Already making demands, are you?’ chuckled the older guard. ‘I think you’ll find that won’t get you far. Most of your sort swagger in talking a fine game, and then it comes out that they used to be tanners or turnip farmers.’
‘I have been neither,’ said Thorongil equably. ‘And I demand nothing save that my case is considered. I believe I can be of use.’
‘Right you are, then.’ The man got to his feet with a grunt and went to a side door. Without knocking he thrust it open and leaned over the threshold into a somewhat brighter room.
‘Lieutenant? We have stranger out here. Heard His Lordship’s invitation and reckoned it was meant just for him.’
From within came an irate voice. ‘What, at this hour? Why did they let him through the Gate? He would have kept ‘til the morning.’
Thorongil’s youthful escort was shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other, eyes lolling longingly for the exit. It was no easy thing to stand and listen to unfair criticism, prohibited by rank and post from voicing any defence.
Taking pity on the boy, Thorongil shouldered the onus upon himself. ‘You have handed me off, and seen to it I did not wander,’ he said quietly, as if merely curious. ‘Will they not be wanting you back at the Gate?’
The guard looked enormously relieved, but he managed to sound almost casual when he spoke. ‘I suppose I ought to go, now you make mention,’ he said. ‘You’re the provost’s problem now, anyhow.’
‘I am,’ said Thorongil obligingly. He watched, not without some amusement, as the boy made a hasty retreat.
The sound of the door swinging closed brought the other guard’s head whipping around. When he saw who had departed, the incipient anger left his face. ‘Go on in: the Lieutenant will see you now,’ he said, motioning for the door in a mockery of courtly manners.
‘I thank you,’ Thorongil said as he passed. His own comportment need not suffer for want of reciprocity. The guard snorted softly, but stepped back so that his arm stretched to keep hold of the door handle. Once Thorongil was over the threshold, the guard yanked it closed.
This room was not so different from the other: sparsely furnished, poorly heated, and showing the hard wear of many years. In place of a table there was a desk, and against the wall across from it a hard, narrow bench. Behind it sat a stern-looking man with indifferently brown hair and a thick but closely trimmed beard. There was a memory of Númenor about his eyes, but it was plain that he was of mixed heritage. He too displayed the worst-black livery, well worn and beginning to fade to walnut at elbows and shoulders. A lieutenant he might be, but he was one who sat the evening watch in a provost-house in the lowest level of the City.
As Thorongil was taking his measure subtly, moving not even his eyes, the Lieutenant was looking him over in his own turn. His assessment was not so circumspect: it was obvious what he made of the ill-fitting and mud-stained garments, the torn hose with the scabbed knee showing through the rent, and the tousled hair that Thorongil had not thought to put right before approaching the Gate. The careful gauging of the soldier’s thoughts distracted somewhat from the sting of being thus regarded.
‘I am Bregold, Lieutenant of the Twelfth Company of the Guard,’ the soldier said. ‘It is my responsibility to question those who come to claim the places offered by His Lordship the Steward, Ecthelion son of Turgon. It is for me to deem whether you are fit to be considered for his service. Do you understand?’
‘I do,’ said Thorongil neatly. It might have been merely a closing note to the introduction. It might have been an attempt to gauge his lucidity. But he thought it most likely that the question was a means of determining whether he understood the Common Tongue. ‘It is my honour to be thus considered. I thank you for your attention to the matter, particularly given the lateness of the hour.’
A flash of irritation rippled across Bregold’s face, but he did not speak to it. He reached into one of the niches beneath the desktop and brought out a sheet of cheap but sturdy parchment. It was discoloured in places, and had not been thinly scraped. The lieutenant laid it out and pared his quill, then dipped it.
‘Your name?’ he asked.
‘I am called Thorongil.’
Bregold’s eyes narrowed. ‘That’s Elvish,’ he said. ‘Are you one of our men? If you have come to us from anywhere in Gondor you do not need to suffer this questioning or any of the rest.’
‘I have come to you out of Rohan,’ said Thorongil. ‘Until this month I had never laid foot upon the soil of Gondor.’
‘Hmph.’ The soldier gave him another quick appraising look, then fixed his eyes back upon the page. ‘What is your parentage?’
‘I cannot say.’ This question had been asked of him in the Riddermark, though seldom more than once. Less store was placed in lineage upon those windswept plains.
‘What do you mean by that?’ the lieutenant asked. ‘Have you something to hide?’
Of course, he did, but that was an answer even more unacceptable than the bald truth. Thorongil shrugged one shoulder. ‘My mother was a northern woman,’ he said. ‘I never knew my sire.’
‘A bastard, then?’ said Bregold bluntly. Thorongil gave no answer, but maintained his steady, guarded gaze. The lieutenant snorted softly and dipped his pen afresh. ‘Son of no man,’ he muttered as he wrote. Then he looked up again. ‘You do not have the look of Rohan about you, and I ought to know. Near half the men we get come from Rohan, seeking their fortunes. They make good outriders but poor patrolmen.’
To this there was little to say. Thorongil was visited by a memory of his men, his bold and loyal éored that had followed him so fearlessly into battle. Ever had they been the first to charge, before the rest beneath his command. To hear such men spoken of with curt dismissal was an ugly thing to bear, but he held his tongue. He had chosen this, he reminded himself. It would not do to deport himself like an Undermarshal of the Mark; that would be deemed naught but insolence and harm his prospects, perhaps irreparably.
‘Where were you born?’ asked Bregold, making another cursory notation upon the parchment.
‘Many leagues to the North, beyond Edoras and the realm of Thengel King,’ said Thorongil. ‘I came southward nine years ago, and have served Rohan since.’
‘In the North? That’s vague enough to be useless,’ said the lieutenant. ‘In what land?’
‘I cannot say,’ said Thorongil. ‘Those lands have many names, both young and ancient. I do not know them all.’
This sounded far too much like the evasion that it was. The guard’s eyes narrowed. ‘What’s the town nearest your birthplace?’ he pressed.
‘I have no memory of my birth, and cannot testify to its whereabouts,’ Thorongil said carefully, treading the line between equivocation and falsehood and trying to balance so that if he stumbled he would fall upon the former side. ‘I was raised in the shadow of the mountains, where there are no towns.’
‘You’re a woodsman, then? Or a farmer?’ asked Bregold.
‘I once sustained my life with the fruits of the forest,’ said Thorongil. ‘Now I am a soldier.’
‘You claim you served in Rohan. Have you any proof?’ the lieutenant said.
‘I have,’ Thorongil told him. ‘May I take it from my pack?’
The man gestured impatiently that he should do so, and Thorongil dipped his hand in amongst his few spare garments. He found what he wanted at the very bottom, laid carefully where it would not be creased or mutilated in transit. He brought out the little packet, enveloped in leather and bound about with oilcloth and twine. He considered unwrapping it before yielding the letter, but he decided that was not fitting. He had not held the bare paper in his hands since he had taken it from Thengel to be placed in its cocoon. Now he placed it before the guard.
A flick of the penknife cut the string, and hands flung aside the wrappings roughly, with greater care for speed than gentleness. He drew out the letter, its unmarked front still a creamy white.
‘Letter from your sergeant?’ he asked. ‘Your Captain, perhaps? It’s good quality paper.’
Thorongil said nothing. The man turned the packet over so that the seal could be seen. The red wax was imprinted with the signet of Thengel himself, and above it was written in the letters of Gondor; To my old Comrade and dearest Friend, Ecthelion son of Turgon, Lord Steward of Gondor.
Bregold shot Thorongil a very sharp look. ‘What is this?’ he demanded.
‘It is a letter of character from the King of Rohan,’ said Thorongil, unable to keep a note of pride from seeping into his words. ‘He deemed that I had served him well, and he wished me to bear his salutations to the Steward.’
The lieutenant looked uncertain, but he was not about to break the seal upon a missive addressed to his liege-lord. He laid the letter on the far corner of the desk, as if he feared it might burst into flame if handled too roughly.
‘We shall see about that,’ he said brusquely, trying to regain his composure. He looked down at the page before him and found his place again. ‘So you came from Rohan and you were raised near mountains,’ he grumbled. ‘I suppose that’s all I’m going to get from you on the matter?’
Thorongil inclined his head: not quite a nod, but an unmistakable affirmative.
The lieutenant scowled. ‘You’re as cagy as a Southron,’ he muttered, but he went on without further inquisition into that most dangerous of matters. ‘Have you any languages?’
‘I speak the language of Rohan,’ said Thorongil. ‘The Elven tongue I can also ply, as it is spoken in Gondor.’ He said no more of his others: of Quenya, of Andúnaic, of the less common Elven dialects and his smattering of the Dwarven language. The two he named were the most pertinent, and would be quite enough for the permanent record.
‘Can you, indeed?’ said Bregold. Switching seamlessly to Sindarin, he said; ‘I know much of that tongue myself, for it is much used in the City. How did you come to learn it in the shadow of these wild northern mountains far from any town?’
His diction was fine but his accent coarse. In the same mode of speech, Thorongil answered far more smoothly. ‘My mother spoke it also,’ he said. Again that was true enough, though she had used it little until their retreat to Imladris.
‘What kind of woman was she?’ asked the other man, lapsing into Westron and narrowing shrewd eyes. He thought he had laid a clever trap.
‘She was an honest woman and a loving one,’ Thorongil answered, eluding the pitfall.
‘I meant what sort: what race?’ Bregold said crossly.
‘Forgive me, Lieutenant,’ said Thorongil mildly. ‘Is that a question you ask all supplicants?’
This earned him a look of blackest anger, but it was tempered with chagrin at being caught out. He flipped his quill so that its vanes hissed against the desktop and a fine spray of ink misted the edge of the parchment. Irritated by this, Bregold snapped out his next question.
‘Can you read or write at all, or are you ignorant of such things?’
‘I can read and write in the Common Tongue and in both of the languages I have named to you,’ said Thorongil, still trying to keep his detached demeanour. He was weary of this interrogation, and his questioner’s antagonism did nothing to improve his mood. ‘I can cipher also, and I can interpret musical tablature.’
‘Well aren’t you a fine one?’ the man sneered. ‘I suppose you’ve got a whole list of gentlemanly skills to share with me.’
‘I would sooner prove my skills than speak of them,’ Thorongil said. ‘Yet you may write that I am deft with a blade and that I can wield a spear well enough to be praised among the Rohirrim.’
Lieutenant Bregold frowned, but wrote it nonetheless. Last of all he asked; ‘Have you travelled or dwelt in the lands of the Enemy, or walked upon ground held under the sway of Mordor?’
‘I have not,’ said Thorongil, very clearly. The guard made a quick notation and then signed his name at the bottom of the page. He turned the sheet and offered the pen to the newcomer.
‘Just below mine,’ he said. ‘Mind you don’t smudge it.’
Thorongil had been taught his letters by some of the most exacting masters in the world, and he had not smudged a document since inadvertently falling asleep over an exercise page at the age of ten. Still he kept his peace. He dipped the quill neatly and penned his taken name with the elegant husbandry of a scribe. Bregold had, intentionally or not, left him at a disadvantage in this: the nib of the quill was spreading and needed to be trimmed afresh. But compensation for a poor tool had also been a part of Thorongil’s education, and when he lifted the pen his signature was immaculate beneath the other, lopsided one.
He straightened his spine and stepped back from the desk again. Bregold turned the sheet back and dusted it with sand from a small horn shaker. He blew it off in a wrathful little puff, and then got to his feet. In the corner stood his sword, belt dangling from the loops of the sheath. He girded it on and then collected both the record of the questioning and the sealed letter.
‘Wait here,’ he said, brandishing the latter. ‘I need to ask of my Captain what is to be done with this. Do not touch the desk.’
Then he was gone. Thorongil had just eased out of his soldierly pose and was eyeing the narrow bench with avarice when a sound made him stiffen. It was the grinding of a heavy key in an iron lock.
He did not run to the door: he had more dignity than that. Yet when he heard the mumbled words on the other side die down to silence, he crossed the floor on whispering feet. He took hold of the ring that served as a handle, and drew slowly upon it, not wanting the guard without to see the door buck. It was locked fast.
He supposed he ought not to be confounded by that. He was, after all, an alien in these lands. The Steward’s proclamation may have been one of welcome, but caution was also warranted. Of course each man must be vetted, so that the Enemies spies could not merely stride into the City on the strength of a claim that they were men of worth. It was logical, and it was prudent. If it was also somewhat humiliating, that was his burden to bear.
Thorongil went to the bench and pulled it a handspan from the wall. Then he sat, leaning back over the gap to rest his shoulder blades on the cool stone. His legs he stretched before him, allowing himself a low sigh of pleasure at the relief of taking his weight off of them after a long day’s journey. He folded his hands over the base of his breastbone and let himself relax against the wall. His head tilted back and he closed his eyes against the candlelight and the brazier’s orange glow.
Now that he paused to consider it, the lieutenant’s obvious misgivings were perfectly rational. Thorongil would have stirred doubts long before his elusive answers. From the moment he had admitted that he was not of Gondor, he would have, or should have, been suspect. A man of his looks – tall, dark, pale of skin with piercing eyes and lofty cheeks and a long, straight nose – who was not a man of Gondor would not be taken for distant kin from the North. The most natural assumption to draw was that he was in truth a Black Númenorean out of Umbar, or even Mordor. He had the look of Westernesse: that Thorongil knew perfectly well. There were only two enclaves from which such blood had come to Middle-earth: the foul and the Faithful.
He would not let it trouble him, he reasoned. There was no cause for anxiety. His tale was true, if incomplete, and the last nine years of his life were minutely accounted for. The letter would stand him in good stead, and if they were mistrustful enough to send messengers to Rohan, there would be nothing but proof. Now he need only wait for the lieutenant’s return, and he would almost certainly be put through the next stage of the intake process.
That gave him pause. Now Thorongil remembered the warning he had been given: that concealed weapons would certainly be found, much to the deceiver’s detriment. He had no arms to hide, but there was something else; something that would not escape the sort of scrutiny that could be relied upon unfailingly to turn up a blade or a dart.
He had let his pack slide down onto the bench at his side. Now he sat up and dragged it into his lap. In Rohan he had had little cause to hide it, though never had he flaunted it. Here, such things might yet be remembered. Not by a lowly lieutenant in the First Level of the City, it was true, but likely by some. Such an article would be worthy of remark if it were found, for with his bedraggled raiment and his want of material wealth it would seem strange that he owned such a thing.
He found it tucked into the leather wrapping of his little book of songs, just where he had placed it when he had packed his belongings in Edoras weeks ago. Drawing it out into the light, Thorongil looked upon the one heirloom of his house that he had dared to bring south.
The ring was of silver, untarnished and with a sheen that Elven smiths had perfected beneath the light of the Two Trees before the kindling of the Sun. The serpents and their crown of flowers stood out in intricate detail so fine and delicate that they seemed almost to deceive the eye. And the green stones in their perfect settings glinted as if with a fire of their own. It was the Ring of Barahir, that had secured for Beren the aid and amity of Finrod Felagund, that had survived the sack of Doriath and the razing of the Havens of Sirion. It had been passed from eldest child to eldest child in line unbroken through all the long years that the heirs of Tar-Minyatur dwelt in Númenor. On Elendil’s own hand it had crossed the raging seas, and down the prime line of his blood it had travelled to be laid at last upon a young man’s hand by one who had a claim to it as equal as that of Elros himself.
Yes, it was best to keep it from becoming an object of curiosity among the guards of the lower levels of Minas Tirith. Thorongil considered. Searching his pack would of course be the first measure of caution. Truthfully he was surprised that they had not done so already. Yet to hide it on his person would avail him nothing if his suspicion proved out. He did not dare to secret it somewhere about the room, for he could not be sure he would ever again have access to this place. He could try to conceal it in the spine of his book, but he had bound it himself and he knew the leather cover was taut and well-filled. Briefly he considered knotting the ring into the hair at the nape of his neck, but of course that was folly. Even if they did not wish to search his every possession they were sure to check him for fleas before allowing him anywhere near a barracks.
Thorongil’s pulse was quickening, and he was beginning to feel very much like a trapped animal. He closed his eyes and tried to calm himself. This was no crisis, no matter of life or death. If he was caught, the worst would be a barrage of awkward questions, and afterward could find a safe place to hide the ring so that inquisitive parties could not get a confirming sighting. Yet if he could just clear his mind a solution might present itself. It might. It had happened before. It might…
Scarcely had he drained all conscious thought from his head than his eyes snapped open. He looked at the ring, and suppressed a grin. It was a ring, after all: what else was it meant for but to adorn a hand? In this City of wealth and pretention, such a sight would be commonplace. Though it made a stark dichotomy with his clothes, his searchers would like as not find the silver star more interesting – and certainly in greater proximity. He knew no better way to safeguard his treasure. It was worth a try.
Thorongil slipped the Ring of Barahir onto the next-to-last finger of his right hand. Then, taken by another flight of inspiration, he turned it so that the richly ornamented top was in towards his palm and the far less remarkable lower half of the band showed on the back of his hand. He curled his fingers casually inward and considered the effect. Yes, it truly might work.
Satisfied and with nothing more to fear, he sat down again to wait for Bregold’s return.
In the deep middle night, Denethor was wakeful. Lying abed beneath the damasked tester with its rich velvet drapings was out of the question, so he flung back the bedclothes and slipped his feet into the soft leather shoes he most often wore in the evenings. Not troubling with a candle, he moved by moonlight. The windows were shut fast and there had been a riotous fire burning in the hearth when he lay down to sleep, but now the embers had burned low and the room was cold. He could feel the chill of the smooth flagstones through the supple soles of his shoes, and icy fingers plucked at his back through the fine linen of his night garment.
There was a dark robe thrown over his customary chair by the fire. It was lined in vair, and it cut the deepest cold. Denethor shrugged into it now, drawing together the broad revers and clutching the front closed with one long and slender hand. The fur tickled his jaw, and he moved his head further into it so that an irritant became a comfort. In doing so he turned towards the windows. They seemed to glow with the diffracted moonlight spreading through a thick crusting of frost that coated the bottom of each pain, leaving a U of bare glass through which the night was still dark. It evoked the look of the vair, which was a strange thought to strike one in the depths of the night.
Denethor could not say what had awakened him. That meant it had most likely been one of the dreams. They still came to him at times, most often after a day of turmoil. Through the years they had become garbled, fragmented, and he was far better equipped to cope with them. Still, when he could remember them on waking they would haunt him, and when he could not they always left behind this feeling of profound unease. It was as if the waking world itself was a dream, and the lapping fire, the wailing winds, the dark and sundering waters were the reality.
He turned his mind forcefully from such thoughts. His mother often said, in her fond but frustratingly naïve way, that he had been given a melancholic disposition. This both annoyed and amused Denethor, for he knew it was not the appraisal most would make. His men, for instance, would quite likely describe him as choleric. And his father…
That was the tempest that had tainted his day and laid open his mind to the dreams. The council meeting had been a mockery of the process of government; all of them squabbling like fishmongers, talking at once and climbing over one another’s words as though the loudest voice would hold the greatest sway. Only Adrahil of Dol Amroth had come out of the fray with his dignity unruffled. All through the three excruciatingly long hours he had spoken but once, and then the languid modulation of his tone had silenced them all – at least for a minute. When he had finished, they had to a man fallen back into the quarrel.
They had all been wrong to give into their furies and frustrations in what should have been a measured debate, but that was small comfort. It was Denethor’s responsibility, as Heir and as Captain General, to hold the Council on course when his father could not. And the sorry fact of the matter was that at times Ecthelion could not. He was a patient man, and he well understood the hearts of men, but his desire to think well of all those about him had its disadvantages. Such had been the case today. Unsure in his own mind, he had wanted to hear each of them in turn; yet he had been unable to make any of them await that turn. Ordinarily that would have been Denethor’s cue to seize the wobbling rudder and compel the others to behave themselves. But he too had been caught up in the heat of the dispute. He had railed with the rest, and he had enjoyed it.
He moved to the window, tiring now of the collar’s silky caress so that he pushed it irately back from his cheek. Outside, the courtyards and gardens of the Citadel lay dormant. It had been an unremarkable winter, but it was viciously cold tonight: else the room would not be so chilled, nor the windows so thickly frosted, nor the glass radiating dull waves of cold that could be felt even at eight inches’ distance.
Down in the enclosure before the Steward’s House, a lone Guard was pacing. He had his shoulders slumped against the cold, and his hands in their sable gauntlets were buried in the pits of his arms for warmth. It was a most undignified posture, and Denethor made a note to discover who had been on watch this night and see the proper man was reprimanded. He could not see the Guard’s partner, which most likely meant that he was still at his proper post by the great front doors. That might make disciplining the offender difficult. If both refused to say which of them had been wandering, he would either have to punish both or neither. The first would make him look vindictive, and the second would make him look weak.
There was a third choice, and it was the one his father would make in his place. He could simply pretend that he had not witnessed this flagrant disregard for proper practices and let the matter slide. Simply. Only it was not simple to leave a matter unresolved, a problem unaddressed. If a lapse in discipline were allowed to continue, neglected either out of laziness or misguided sympathy, it would only continue to grow and to spread. Next the men on the stone allure above the Gate would take the excuse of a frosty night to duck into the guardhouse, abandoning their posts and leaving the Citadel vulnerable for the sake of a few minutes of warming their hands at a fire. It could not be permitted.
Yet still Denethor was troubled by the sure knowledge that his sire would not approve of such a reprimand. He would argue that the man had not abandoned his post, but was within the same line of eyesight he would have had from the door. He would say that it did no harm to let a Guard warm himself as best he could on a bitter night. He would smile in his forgiving way and point out that spring would be here soon, and the whole issue would dissolve with the passing of harsh weather. Even when he could not countenance his father’s way of governing, it still stung Denethor to know he had the Steward’s disapproval.
That had certainly been the case with the matter of the Easterling’s marriage. Denethor had earnestly expected some support for his position: a stern nod of agreement and leave to do what must be done, not a gentle chiding for his inhospitality and an equally docile recitation of the lesson that loyalty could only be earned, never bought.
As Denethor saw it, the Easterling had more than enough reason to be loyal without plucking up a daughter of the realm for his own. He had been welcomed into the City, as no other Lord of the West would have welcomed him. He had been given gainful employment and a position of some respect. He had been fed, clothed, and sheltered by the grace of the Steward. He had been granted the chance of a life he never would have dared to imagine in Sauron’s dominions in the East. He ought to be prostrate with gratitude, not demanding more.
The policy by which Ecthelion had thrust open the City gates to the rabble and paupers of the world had galled Denethor from the first. He had predicted that no great good would come of it, and the years had proved him right. His father had hoped they might attract great warriors, skilled tacticians, leaders: men of might and accomplishment who would bolster Gondor in her fight against Mordor. Instead, most of the newcomers were nothing more than common soldiers or worse. Few had risen through the ranks, though the rewards for extraordinary service were generous. Of those few, most had come from Rohan.
All that the declaration of welcome had brought to Gondor was a swell of men fit for little more than patrolling the back streets of the City and flinging their bodies upon the scimitars of the Enemy. It was a waste of time and resources that might have been put to better use elsewhere. Like the dream of an impenetrable wall, it was nothing but pap to soothe the fears of the masses. Look, they could say: look how our Steward stops at nothing to guard us! Look how he turns the Enemy’s own men against him! We need not fear!
Denethor felt that a rational measure of fear was a good thing. It kept one alert and ever-watchful. As for the business of turning Sauron’s men against him, that was absurd. An Easterling was an Easterling, just as a mad dog was a mad dog. Both might seem benign for a time, but sooner or later each would bite. When this man Jamon bit, Denethor did not want to see an innocent girl of Minas Tirith caught between his jaws.
He had had no choice but to tell Beleg of his father’s position, and the fool of a Captain had actually been pleased. Ah, well. There was more than one way to discourage a marriage. Denethor’s first duty was to his people; to protect them and to see to their best interests. It was not in the best interests of the merchant’s daughter to wed this swarthy stranger. He had only to help her see it.
Sleeplessness and dark dreams forgotten, Denethor rounded the bed and strode out into his study. Deftly he lit the candles upon his worktable, and he sat. Taking a piece of paper from a drawer, he began to compose his orders.
First the candle burned out. That was when Thorongil began to wonder whether the lieutenant intended to return at all. He sat quietly for a while longer, mulling through his own thoughts with a patience learned in the long, dull hours of fixed watches upon roads or simple little villages. He was a patient man. He could wait.
But the glow from the brazier grew dimmer also. He rose from the bench and stirred it, trying to bring some life to the embers. It was little use. They were dying. Soon the only light would come in from the small windows set high in the wall. These were unglazed and unshuttered, and they let in the draft of an increasingly frigid night. A hard frost was setting in, and the water in puddles and catchment-pails would be frozen by morning. Thorongil hung near the brazier while the last of the charcoal seared away to ash, relishing the warmth while he could. Then he wrapped his cloak snugly about his shoulders and went back to the bench.
This time he lay down upon it, and the feeling of stretching his backbone was nearly as delicious as resting his legs had been. For a time he was content, neither quite dozing nor entirely wakeful with one foot up on the bench and the other hanging off its end. But it was too narrow to make a comfortable bed, and eventually its rough edges began digging into his ribs. Furthermore, he had not eaten in almost thirty hours and he was ravenous. His stomach growled and grumbled, unused to such deprivation after nine years of regular meals. Thorongil reminded himself that he had known hunger ere this, and it had not killed him yet. Still, the discomfort remained.
He had water in his pack, and he brought out his bottle to drink. That helped a little, and certainly eased the tightness in his throat. This was absurd. It was one thing to lock a man in for an hour or two while you went for orders concerning an unusual situation. It was quite another to neglect to come back.
His unease was mounting, but he did not realize how apprehensive he had grown until he found himself knocking upon the door that led to the vestibule. It was not a frantic knock, only a light rapping. But he had not intended to do it.
When no answer came from without, Thorongil was forced to face the truth. He was trapped here until morning, shut up in a small stone room with a heavy door. The lieutenant’s desk and the long-cold brazier did not make it any less of a cell. He was being detained – possibly until the letter could be examined, more likely because they truly did believe him to be a spy.
But no, that was not reasonable. If they believed him to be a Black Númenorean sent on a mission of espionage and villainy, they would not have left him here in an empty guardhouse. He would surely have been brought to a proper cell somewhere, locked away fast behind iron bars with a watch upon the door. It was far more likely that they simply did not care for his discomfort or his unease. He had been insolent enough to turn up at the end of the working day, and Bregold had simply done what he had said the men at the Gate should have: left the stranger to keep ‘til the morning.
Thorongil paced the length of the room, as much to work off his agitation as to warm himself. He wondered how many other men had bided here, knowing neither their fate nor the cause of this detainment. He wondered what a man out of Dunland or Near Harad would make of such a predicament: a man, perhaps, who did not speak the Common Tongue and could not even have the frugal comfort of knowing he had given clear answers to the provost’s questions. There had been talk in Thengel’s court of men who had escaped even the slaveholdings of the Black Land to claim asylum under Lord Ecthelion’s edict. What would such an unfortunate think of this treatment?
He had the advantage of understanding what was going on, of knowing with a commander’s certainty that it was most likely lethargy, not malice, that had left him here. He had a letter addressed to the Lord of the City from his most trusted ally and the friend of his youth, now in the hands of the Guards and doubtless beginning its winding journey up to the White Tower high above. He had a good cloak and warm clothing on his back (torn hose and chilled knee notwithstanding). And he had no one’s welfare but his own to consider. He was fortunate.
Again Thorongil sat, this time eschewing the uncompromising bench for the chair behind the desk. As instructed, he did not touch the table or any of its contents. But he did turn the seat so that he could stretch out his legs. He flipped his hood up to shelter his head from the cold, and drew his cloak tight about his lean body. Crossing his arms to hold it thus, he tucked his chin and tried to sleep a little.
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