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Chapter VI: The Steward and the Stranger
Denethor was pacing between the feet of the statues of Isildur and Anarion where they faced one another across the broad aisle of the throne room. From his stone seat Ecthelion watched his son prowl, a brooding blankness cast as if in marble across his noble features. The pivot at each end of the course sent the skirts of his short robe swinging about his knees, showing the generous cut of the cloth and its fur-lined weight. When discharging his daily duties, Denethor always wore a pair of high boots with a pegged heel. These added a little more than an inch to his already daunting height, and they made a crisp clap-clap noise as he walked. His brows were furrowed slightly and his eyes stormy with rapid thought.
‘You ought to sit and compose yourself, my son,’ said Ecthelion, a little too conscious of the echo his words had in the great empty room. But for the two guards at the far end, flanking the door with motionless precision in their stance and posture, they were alone. Despite her sweet plea to be allowed to linger, Ecthelion had sent Anaiwen home to her mother and a fine hot supper. It seemed likely that he and Denethor would be postponing their day-meal yet awhile. ‘You will not compel him to come any more swiftly by working your own legs.’
Denethor froze mid-pass, his back stiffening from its pose of predacious command into the rigid straightness of a soldier chastised while on parade. He turned only his head towards his father, doubtless unaware of how his slender neck and cold eyes gave the motion a dauntingly serpentine look.
‘I do not see why you insist upon seeing the man tonight,’ he said. His voice was hard but perfectly respectful: that of a Captain expressing his disenchantment with his lord’s command without actually questioning it. ‘I have assured you he has been seen to, and assigned to a Company of the Guard. If we wait another week, his Captain can give us all we wish to know of his deportment and skills.’
‘I am pleased that you took it upon yourself to see him well disposed,’ said Ecthelion, trying not to sound too patient. He knew that at times Denethor took this for condescension; at other times for weakness. The Steward’s Heir did not understand the iron strength required to keep hold of one’s frustrations and irritations, for he seldom kept either beneath more than a thin veneer of cold civility. In this he was not so different from Ecthelion’s own father, and perhaps that was why the trait in Denethor seemed at times so daunting.
‘It is well that he has been assigned a post,’ he went on; ‘and I am pleased that you saw fit to keep him in the city instead of dispatching him abroad. Yet he bore to Minas Tirith a letter from the hand of the King of Rohan, and I fain would speak to him of it.’
Denethor had read the missive, between Ecthelion’s order that the man Thorongil was to be summoned and the beginning of the purposeful pacing. His face had betrayed nothing as he read, and his lone comment upon laying the paper down had been; ‘A mighty fighter, Thengel claims. Certainly he was adept enough with a stick.’
Anaiwen had giggled at this, both because the idea was comical (children, not warriors, fought with sticks) and because Denethor’s dry tone made it all the more amusing. A quick question from Ecthelion had established that his son had witnessed the end of a quarterstaff battle in the Tenth Company’s yard that day, and that the new man had been triumphant. With prompting, Denethor had gone on to say that he had asked a few questions of the recruit and found him to be well-spoken but uninformative.
Ecthelion was unsure what to make of such a remark, but he did not wish to interrogate his son too closely. Neither had he asked for the cause of the letter’s slow journey from the provost in the First Circle to his own hand. Perhaps the new man would offer some insight. It was better to raise the question then, rather than to put up Denethor’s hackles. It was clear from the way he had looked at the letter when he came before his father that he associated with it some manner of guilt, and with that guilt lay anger. Ecthelion had no wish to rouse his son to wrath, and he tried to convince himself that the reasons for this were manifold. It was not merely that he feared to let his heart be bruised by unkind and unfailingly piercing words.
‘Is there more that you can tell me of this man?’ he asked now, before Denethor could launch back into his tight, reeling laps of the room. ‘Never have I known your judgment to be flawed, least of all in the gauging of a man’s worth.’
‘He is proud,’ said Denethor; ‘yet he is obedient. He is truthful, but he is evasive. In that evasion, I fear, he is hiding much. It seems plain that he is well-liked by his fellows, though he has been among them but six days. The Provost Captain has a rather less flattering opinion of him. He found the stranger disrespectful, arrogant, boastful of his scholarly skills but indistinct about his martial ones. Had I not witnessed him in action myself, I would have said Thengel sent us a clerk, and no warrior at all.’
‘Thengel’s praise is most effusive,’ said Ecthelion. ‘He claims this man is the finest swordsman in all of his realm.’
‘The finest sword in Rohan,’ Denethor scoffed, not quite spitting the words. At the Steward’s affronted stare, he sighed and wagged a dismissive hand. ‘My father knows that they are scarcely a people of landed comment. It is one thing to strike off an orc’s head from the saddle; quite another to stand face to face with a sabred Esterling or one of Sauron’s dread lieutenants with their long, black blades.’
Ecthelion could say nothing to this last comparison, for it was true. Yet to say that the men of Rohan knew naught of swordplay was unfair. ‘Thengel himself fought for Gondor with his boots firmly planted upon her soil,’ he said. ‘He knows a man’s worth with a blade.’
Denethor looked about to argue, but reconsidered. His ankle flexed, and Ecthelion feared the volleying between the feet of the two stony brethren would resume. Instead, Denethor strode towards his sire and stopped before him, putting one foot up on the lowest step and leaning forward, forearm on thigh.
‘That is another cause for curiosity, Father,’ he said, his voice lowered to a low mutter so that the guards could not hear him. ‘The praise Thengel heaps upon this stranger is great. Yet he came to us in ill-fitting, travel-worn raiment without even a sword to his name. Has it not occurred to you that our friend the King of Rohan may have wished to inflate his adulation of the man in order to expel him from his own service without strife?’
For a moment Ecthelion could only stare at his son, a frown of bemused disappointment upon his face. Then he sighed and looked away from those piercing eyes, shading his own with his hand.
‘Denethor, must you find excuses to think the worst?’ he asked. ‘Thengel would not lie to me. Nor would he, knowing as he does of our grave need for good men, send to my court an unskilled liability. Clearly this man Thorongil is worthy of my service. The words of my friend’s own hand proclaim it.’
‘I did not mean to impugn the honour of the King,’ said Denethor. ‘Yet it seems impossible that the man of his writing and the one who refused to rise for the Provost Captain are one in the same. Perhaps the letter was seized from its rightful bearer, alive or dead, and is borne now by an imposter.’
‘That is possible,’ Ecthelion allowed. ‘Thengel himself knew it to be possible. That is why we have been given proofs to look for.’
He turned in his seat to stir the glowing embers in the brazier that lent a little heat to his small sphere of the room, at least.
‘Proofs, aye,’ muttered Denethor. ‘For no spy has ever wounded himself in aid of his craft.’
‘Wounded himself long years before the wound would be wanted?’ asked Ecthelion. ‘Thengel writes that it is an old scar. If this man bears a fresh one instead, you may imprison him yourself.’
Denethor seemed somewhat mollified by these words. Fervently Ecthelion hoped that this showed only that his pledge had put his son at ease about their ability to root out espionage, rather than an over-eagerness to clap a stranger in irons. At least he did draw back from his vulturine pose, and mount the broad bottom step to hold his hands out to the warmth of the basket of fire.
‘You should not spend these long days in the Tower, Father,’ he said, quiet but not over-gentle. ‘You will take a malady on your chest, with the weather so harsh as it has been. Your health is Gondor’s health. It must be cared for.’
Ecthelion turned to look up at his son, his tall, proud son, and he smiled fondly. Denethor was at times harsh in his words and uncompromising in his judgments, but he was also a man who loved – and who worried where he loved, though he did not often let himself display it.
There was no opportunity to look about the streets, to study the evolving intricacy of the architecture or the signs of ever more prosperous inhabitants. There was no time to gather a sense of the streets and byways that branched off of the broad chief way winding from Gate to Gate. Thorongil was led at a great pace through level after level, his sable-clad escort pausing only to deliver each password in its turn in a clipped murmur that even Ranger-sharp ears could not decipher.
The man was one of the Guards of the Citadel, the most prestigious of postings in the City. He wore black mail instead of brittle leather and his garments were of deepest sable, as rich and deep a black as any attainable by the arts of Men. Upon his head sat a lofty winged helm made after the fashion of the war-helms of Westernesse. Yet most striking of all was his tabard, shadowed but not concealed by his thick winter cloak, for upon it was broidered the device of the Heirs of Elendil. The White Tree stood bright upon the midnight field, the Seven Stars overtopped by the crown of Gondor. Silver threads picked out detail upon fine stitches of whitest silk, and the image laid upon so stately a figure had an elegance that winter’s discomforts could not dim.
Thorongil had seen the device before, of course: illuminated in books, stamped or sealed upon royal edicts, inlaid in artefacts, or rendered in the rippling echoes of a tapestry scene to flutter above woven lords in their eternal gallop. He knew it as he knew the curves and strokes of his own signature, and for the same end. Yet to see it worn upon a living body, as it would have been worn throughout the land in other times, was a hallowed thing indeed. It filled him with the same wonder he had felt upon the Pelennor, looking up for the first time at the spires and pinnacles of the White City. It was the wonder of tales laid out in life instead of sketched in wistful imaginings. It was the awe of discovering a tangible fragment of a vast and storied past made living by its few vital remnants.
The sight had dispersed his fears, or at least muffled them. Now he was striding through the evening-quiet streets of the City of his forefathers, his heart strong within him and his limbs sure. The shaded lamp borne by the Guard lighted his way, and his steps were sure and swift. Each Gate they passed through brought him closer to the Citadel of Kings, where once Isildur and his brother had sat in state. Each time they were drawn into the eyeless dark of a vaulted tunnel, they passed again beneath the great buttress of living rock that thrust out from the Court of the Fountain, where stood yet the lifeless bole and branches of the White Tree of Númenor.
So brightly did that image stand forth in his mind that when he passed through the Seventh Gate and under an ancient archway Thorongil did not realize at once when it rose before his eyes. Yet there it stood: the strong bole and naked branches in their mournful splendour. Above the frozen surface of the fountain the dead boughs drooped. Even in death the roots clung deep enough into the soil beneath what would be in warmer months a well-tended greensward that the tree stood firm. No lichen dared assail its trunk, nor any rot take hold within its heart. It stood as if frozen in the moment of its death, waiting for something.
‘Come along: you’re not here to gawp at the marvels of the Citadel,’ the black-clad Guard said, annoyance tempered by a curt understanding. Long familiarity had inured him to the wonder of this spectacle: Thorongil now saw the men standing motionless at guardposts about the Court. Yet he remembered, if only vaguely, how he had felt when he first looked upon this tree out of legend. For the sake of this tree and its forebearers Isildur had climbed into the gardens of Ar-Pharazôn by night, imperiling his life and bringing upon himself grievous wounds. That fruit, stolen from the maw of destruction, had survived the Sundering Seas to be borne to this place. This tree was its second descendant, and perhaps the last.
Yet Thorongil could not tarry to study it, nor to contemplate the unspoken hope that had lain behind the tale of the White Tree when first he had heard it from beloved lips. His guide was hurrying onward now, and he had to follow. The high doors at the foot of the White Tower were flanked by four of the Guards of the Citadel. The innermost pair drew open the doors, while the others stood motionless. None spoke a word.
Inside the echoing space beyond, lamps and clean-burning torches were lit at intervals sufficient to guide movement but not to wholly dispel the shadowy spell of the place. A servant, mustering to the sound of footsteps, stopped when he saw the two men, each in his own livery of greater or lesser honour. The look of schooled sycophancy was replaced with one of haughty satisfaction: there was little work here for him. The man who had brought Thorongil through the city handed off his lantern with a low word, and the servant nodded with the air of one bestowing a favour. The look Thorongil received from him was still more condescending. The Guards in their sable were afforded at least the respect of those entrusted with a sacred charge. Clearly men serving in the lower City were worth little consideration.
Down a stony passage they walked then, its mouth flanked by two more Guards with the high silver helms. It led at last to a high door wrought of bright metal. Upon it knocked Thorongil’s escort, and smoothly and silently the doors swung inward. A swift glance at his guide’s expression told Thorongil he was to go on alone. Drawing a deep breath to rein back exhilaration and trepidation alike, he took a long, smooth stride across the threshold and into the long, vaulted hall.
The tall black pillars that upheld the roof created two narrower aisles to either side of the chamber’s main body. In the outer walls there were windows, set deep and high in the stone. Naught but starlight passed through them at this hour, and the room was lit instead by long wax candles. Eight were held in an iron ring atop an ornately wrought shaft set at the foot of each pillar. The circles of light they cast did not quite overlap, neither side-to-side nor with the one across: the curves of darkness gave the floor of polished stone a look of a tessellation of tiles, each longer than a man. The light rose high along the raiment and arms of the graven likenesses of ancient kings that stood between the pillars, but their faces were cast in shadow.
All this Thorongil took in during the swift moment in which his eye was drawn up the sweep of the hall to its far end. There, beneath a marble canopy carven in the shape of the crowned helm of Gondor, stood a great throne. Behind it the wall was sculpted with the likeness of the White Tree itself, flowering and set with many gems. From the throne cascaded the many steps of its dais, each somewhat more broad than the one before. The last of these was broadest of all, and deep. Upon it were two men: one seated in a black stone chair, and the other standing proud and puissant at the first’s right hand.
Ecthelion son of Turgon was a man whose middle years were past him, though not yet dimmed in memory. His hair was long and lustrous in the candlelight – only the two on either side of his seat were near enough to overlap their glows, and the Steward was placed precisely where the light was brightest. More silver now than black, it leant to him an air of authority long-held and rightfully earned. He wore no adornment upon his head, but the White Rod of his Stewardship rested across his lap. Long hands were folded over it, neither wholly protective nor entirely restraining. His face was bestowed with all the qualities that Thorongil would soon come to associate with the high nobility of Gondor: clear brow, proud bones, a long and well-centred nose. Yet though he sat with grace and majesty, his eyes were warm and quietly wise.
At his side, the Lord Denethor looked much as he had that afternoon. Indeed, he wore the same garments and had the same bright sword at his side. Still more ennobled than his father’s were the features of his face, and in the nose there was a distinctive curve that Thorongil knew all too well – for his own was very like it. His eyes were darker than Ecthelion’s, and seemed to pierce more deeply. Certainly in them there was no warmth, at least not for the one who stood before him now.
The doors swung closed, and Thorongil took another step forward. He was about to stride up the hall towards the Steward and his son when Denethor raised a white hand, palm outward in stern command. Thorongil stopped, crossed his arms over his breast, and bowed deeply.
Denethor’s voice rang resonantly through the chamber, echoing even to the stony vault above. ‘Do you let a stranger come armed before your Lord?’ he demanded. ‘Take his weapons.’
Only then did Thorongil become aware of the two Guards behind him. It was they who had drawn upon the doors, and they stood now on either side of the archway from which those hung. As he straightened, thumbing his cloak back over each shoulder to facilitate the search, they converged upon him. One took the other’s halberd so that both hands were free to search, but Thorongil was already unbuckling his sword-belt. He yielded the half-restored weapon without reluctance or remark, and suffered himself to be swiftly but thoroughly pawed by seeking hands. His knives had been returned to him on his first night in Minardil’s Company, but he did not carry either on watch. There was nothing to find.
When the Guard was assured of this, he held out his empty hand for his iron-headed staff. He turned towards the throne and nodded neatly to his masters. Denethor’s lips drew taut, but he gave the smallest of dismissive gestures. The two men withdrew to their posts, the one carrying Thorongil’s sword and belt with him.
‘Come forward,’ said the Steward, beckoning in an air more of invitation than command. ‘I pray you, pardon the precautions. These are dark times, and my son is ever vigilant.’
‘It is not for me to pardon my liege-lord, sire,’ said Thorongil. Though his tone was humble and mild, he knew his words carried with as much weight as Denethor’s had. He heard himself calling faint echoes far above as he started up the great length of the chamber with smooth, steady strides. Three arm’s lengths from the foot of the dais he halted and bowed again, still more deeply and with one foot slightly forward, a flourish of an Elven upbringing. As he rose from this obeisance he was already dropping to one knee. ‘You have sent for me, my Steward, and I have come.’
Ecthelion’s head began to tilt to the left, ever so slightly, and a small smile touched his lips. ‘You are the man Thorongil, lately out of Rohan?’
‘I am, my Lord,’ he answered. ‘I have been graced with a position among they who guard your fair city, and it is my humble joy to serve you.’
The smile grew by two clear degrees. ‘That is very prettily put,’ said Ecthelion. ‘Hold your head high, Thorongil, and let me look at you.’
He obeyed, rising smoothly to his feet. He kept his eyes veiled as the Steward searched his face before moving down over his ill-fitting uniform and his excellent boots. Coming up again, Ecthelion’s gaze caught upon the silver star and lingered there, thoughtful.
Meanwhile at his side, Denethor was performing an appraisal of his own. With his attention fixed upon the Steward, Thorongil was able to watch the Heir with his mid periphery. Those eyes, the stern deep grey of unyielding granite, held no pleasant interest. Instead there was a fearsome inquisitive gleam. There was no welcome in those eyes, but only a thinly restrained challenge. And although his search was the swifter, Denethor saw far more than his father could. He did not appear to think very highly of what he saw, either.
Ecthelion, apparently satisfied, let his gaze fall momentarily to his lap. From behind the Rod, he picked up a familiar packet of paper – no longer either compact or snowy white. It had been opened, pressed flat, much handled, and re-folded with neat but imperfect care; and it had been marked with ink that someone had made a good – but also imperfect – attempt to scrape away with a very sharp little blade.
‘Tell me of this,’ said Ecthelion.
‘Sire, it is a letter,’ said Thorongil crisply; ‘given into my hand by Thengel King, Lord of all the Riddermark, that I might bear it hither. It contains within it the King’s assessment of my service to him.’
‘Have you read it?’ the Steward asked.
‘My Lord, I have not,’ Thorongil answered, ever truthful. ‘I was most graciously consulted as to its contents, but I do not know their precise dispersal.’
‘You did not think to break the seal, and see for yourself what your former master thought of you?’ asked Denethor, a note of doubt in his voice and in his eyes.
‘Never, sire,’ Thorongil said. He turned his head to meet the Captain-General’s eyes. In the sparring yard it had been difficult to tell, standing at first at a distance and then kneeling before the man, but Denethor was very tall. In his heeled boots he would have been almost eye-to-eye with Thorongil. Barefooted there would be less than two inches’ difference in their heights, and standing one step elevated Denethor seemed to tower above him. It was an unsettling sensation. Even among the Firstborn there were few who could be said to tower above Thorongil.
‘I would no more presume to open a letter addressed to another than I would be to bear another man’s name,’ he finished.
‘And yet the name you bear is not your own: you have admitted as much already,’ Denethor challenged.
‘Forgive me, Lord, but you are mistaken.’ Even as the words left his lips, Thorongil knew he should never have spoken them. He would have done less to anger the Steward’s son if he had simply let the slight pass unremarked.
Behind him there was a soft rattle of mail as one of the sentries stiffened involuntarily. Ecthelion’s eyes widened, and he raised a conciliatory hand. ‘Perhaps you are unaware of our ways, young man—’
But Denethor’s clipped words cut him off. ‘I am seldom mistaken, vagabond, and I have no need of your correction.’
‘Again I must implore your forgiveness, sire, but in this some correction is wanted,’ said Thorongil. He kept his voice mild, humble and courteous, but he could not yield now. If he gave upon this point, all his time in Gondor would be coloured with the taint of a false name and a feeble protest. ‘I have spoken plainly: the name Thorongil is indeed my own, though born with it I was not. Many names may a man carry in his lifetime, not all bestowed over his cradle. I am Thorongil, and Thorongil only I.’
Ecthelion looked up at his son in fondness. ‘You are called Aglarion yourself, my son, though neither your mother nor I bestowed it upon you. Would you say that name is not your own?’
Hastily Thorongil cast his eyes upon the White Rod in the Steward’s lap, for these words were no help to his cause. Denethor’s pride exuded from his every word, his every act, even the way in which he turned the jewelled rings upon his fingers or cast his cloak back to bare only his sword-arm. For his father to place him upon a footing even near that of a newcome soldier would be an affront to that pride, even if in doing so the Steward’s intention was to lift up the stranger rather than diminish the lord. Yet it was not Thorongil’s place to speak, neither against a Steward’s instructing of his Captain-General, nor against a father’s correction of his son. This time, wisely, he held his tongue.
‘What do you know of relations between Gondor and Rohan?’ Ecthelion asked after a moment of strained silence. Thorongil raised his eyes again to find the Steward looking pensively upon him.
‘I know what is commonly known in Rohan,’ he answered; ‘as well as what Thengel King told me himself, and what more I have learned in my brief days in Minas Tirith. The two realms are ancient allies in a present state of great amity, owing in large part by the welcome shown by Gondor, by your father and by yourself to he who now reigns in Rohan when his fortunes were fallen. Ever is Gondor ready to rise to Rohan’s aid, and always doth Rohan await but a word to ride for Gondor.’
Ecthelion smiled broadly at this: a smile of joy and of pride that made it plain the Steward treasured this accord every bit as much as did his friend the King. It was a smile that roused in Thorongil a reflexive fondness for this great-hearted lord before him. With it came again the doubt that he had felt when speaking to Minardil. He did not believe that the Lord of Gondor knew how his noble intent had fallen into spite and suspicion below.
‘Then you know already what I would have you understand,’ Ecthelion said. ‘And so knowing, you will surely see that when Thengel of the Riddermark speaks, I am compelled by love and loyalty to listen.’ He rocked the letter in his hand. ‘In this, he speaks of you. His words are fair and earnest, and never before have I known a great lord speak so highly of one of his soldiers.’
Thorongil bowed his head, feeling a warm flush of pride within his breast. He had served faithfully and with all his strength and skill. It was gratifying indeed to know that his labours had pleased the one to whom they had been rendered. ‘I am honoured by his regard, my Lord,’ he murmured.
‘So I see,’ Ecthelion murmured, regarding him thoughtfully for a moment. Then he spoke again as if it was his intention to be heard. ‘Tell me, Thorongil: if I welcome you into my service, will you proffer me such love and earnest reverence as I see you bestow upon my friend?’
Knowing still so little of the Steward’s heart, Thorongil could not make so grave a pledge. Yet he raised his eyes to meet Ecthelion’s kindly ones, and he saw in them a frail and honest hope. He offered a small smile, ever meek but always truthful.
‘Sire, it would be my joy to be given the chance to nurture such fidelity,’ he said quietly.
Denethor cleared his throat, drawing Ecthelion’s rapt gaze from Thorongil. The Steward’s son was regarding the new man coldly enough to chill Thorongil’s teeth.
‘The King of Rohan offers proofs: tokens you must give to show that you are who you claim to be,’ he said. ‘He states that you will be able to name to us a certain horse.’
Sooner or later they had to come to the proofs, of course, and Thorongil nodded. He fixed his head so that he was directing the answer to Ecthelion, as was fit, but he did not do Denethor the discourtesy of looking away from him. ‘Verily, I can, Captain-General,’ he said. ‘It is the horse, a certain mare, whom I led down the stony mountain ways upon the day I was first brought to the most noble attention of Thengel King. Dicea, she is called, and then she was a two-year filly both fair and fleet of foot.’
‘And?’ challenged Denethor. Ecthelion shot his son a puzzled look, but Thorongil understood.
‘And she was one of the Mearas, my Lord,’ he said. ‘I handled her only by her grace and consent: they can be compelled to nothing.’
Denethor made a soft sound somewhere between assent and discontentment. ‘Now show us the mark,’ he said.
His father frowned at him. ‘My son! Not here,’ he said, his voice hushed so that it did not carry to the far end of the room. ‘It can wait until some more opportune time, without onlookers and in some warmer chamber.’
These words very nearly spurred Thorongil to uncharitable and injudicious speech, but he caught his tongue just in time. A decade past he would have lacked that degree of self-control, and he could not help but feel some satisfaction in knowing he could wield it now. He was no longer the undisciplined youth who had come to Edoras in the wake of Gandalf the Grey.
‘I am glad to show you the mark, my Lord,’ he said; ‘and to show it at once if you would see it. I have naught to hide, and this chamber is warmer than many I have known.’
Ecthelion shook his head decisively. ‘It is unnecessary,’ he declared. ‘I have all the proofs I require, and all the answers but one. Thengel writes as though he expected you to present this letter with your own hand, and yet I received it by a circuitous journey of which I know but the last few turns. How did this come to be given by my son to his secretary, and thus to my daughter who bore it to me?’
Thorongil had to make an effort not to frown in puzzlement as he tried to track this path in his mind. From Denethor to a clerk to the Steward’s daughter? He shook his head.
‘Sire, I know not,’ he said. ‘I presented the letter to the Provost Lieutenant, who I presume gave it to his captain. I believe someone was sent to bear it hither to the Citadel, but I know not who.’
‘It was a runner from the First Level,’ supplied Denethor. ‘He bore it to me, and I gave it to Valacar. The rest you know.’
Ecthelion looked from one younger man to the other, pensive. ‘I see,’ he said. ‘All this took six days? And what of the date on the letter itself? How did you come to take so long about seeking the White City?’
‘I came by an indirect route, my Lord,’ said Thorongil. ‘I am a traveller at heart, and I wished to see something of the fair lands that lie between East-fold and your Great Gate.’
‘And were you pleased by what you saw?’ asked Ecthelion kindly; a question of polite interest.
Thorongil smiled. ‘Sire, I was,’ he said. ‘Pleased and yet stirred to face my next great challenge.’
‘And what is that?’ Ecthelion queried. Now he seemed amused as well as engaged.
Thorongil’s smile hardened into stern resolve. ‘To defend Gondor, and to buoy her ramparts against the incursions of the Shadow. To serve you, my Lord, in word and in deed. And to defy to the last the will of the Enemy in all things, be they great or small.’
Ecthelion sat back in his stone chair, hand curled about the pommel of the armrest. ‘Noble words, Thorongil,’ he said warmly. ‘If such is your intention, it shall be my own great challenge to furnish you with the opportunities for all. Yet I think we have said enough for one night. Other questions may wait for other days. Soon I would have you sit with me and tell me the news out of Rohan. It has been some years since last I rode thither, and I would be glad of any tidings.’
‘Gladly, sire,’ said Thorongil, no artifice in the warmth of his voice. ‘You have but to send word, and I will come.’
‘Good,’ Ecthelion said. ‘Now, have you supped?’
‘I took some food before my watch began,’ said Thorongil. ‘Had I not been summoned I would have patrolled through the day-meal, but there is always something for the latecomers at the change of hour. Thank you for your kind concern, my Lord, but I shall be amply fed.’
‘Nonsense!’ Ecthelion wafted a dismissive hand before snapping his fingers. From the shadows beyond the left-side pillars came a page, perhaps fourteen and very slender. He looked quick upon his feet, too, and the blood of Westernesse showed in his colouring. Likely he was the son of some noble family, entrusted to the Steward’s service and the tutelage of his household.
‘Show Thorongil to my kitchens and see that he is given of the best,’ Ecthelion said to the boy. ‘Those who come from afar must be Gondor’s guests ere they may become her sons, and they should be treated with due consideration.’
This last was directed to the new Guard, not the page, and Thorongil inclined his head. ‘Thank you, my Lord Steward. You are generous indeed,’ he said.
‘Find the man who brought him hither, and have him see about taking him back when he has eaten,’ Denethor instructed, fixing the page with an eye stern enough to make the lad squirm. ‘He may be a guest, but he does not yet have the passwords for the upper levels of the City, and he must be attended.’ Then he turned his penetrating gaze upon Thorongil and added; ‘So experienced a soldier will surely understand.’
‘I do, my Lord, and I thank you,’ said Thorongil with impeccable politeness. He understood very well; he might have the Steward’s approval, but the Heir did not trust him. He bowed again, and looked to Ecthelion. ‘If I am dismissed, sire, permit me to thank you for the boon of your audience. I stall strive to ensure your faith in me is never misplaced.’
‘Good,’ said Ecthelion warmly. ‘And you are dismissed, my boy. I shall send for you again ere long.’
One final time Thorongil bowed, and then he let the young page led him from the room – away from the welcoming smile upon the Steward’s lips, away from Lord Denethor’s searching gaze, and away from the tall carven figures that had looked down with patrician detachment upon the proceedings. The three nearest the throne Thorongil knew, for their likenesses were preserved also in Imladris, and in more diverse forms than chiselled stone alone. Anarion stood to one side, Isildur to the other. And watching over the Steward entrusted with his southerly kingdom, was Elendil himself.
When the door closed and the echo of its closing died to silence, Denethor crossed his arms and turned to his father.
‘You like him,’ he said. He knew that his voice was as hard and slick as the ice in the Fountain without, but he could not soften it.
The Steward smiled. It was the same smile he always wore after watching some promising young man on the tourney field or hearing of his grandson’s latest mischiefs: proud and indulgent at once. ‘I do. He is an upright man.’
‘He is low-born,’ said Denethor
‘He is eloquent,’ added Ecthelion.
‘He is evasive,’ Denethor countered.
‘He is courteous.’
‘He is obsequious.’
Ecthelion fixed his son with a withering gaze that could no longer quite shrivel Denethor’s outspoken frankness. ‘He is exceedingly patient with you, and all your misgivings,’ said the Steward.
‘There is cause for misgivings, Father,’ said Denethor, almost hissing as he lowered his voice below the register of the guards at the far end of the hall. ‘A man who conceals even his own name conceals much: far more than is reasonable. Nor has he yet proved himself to be the man who was sent to you!’
His sire shook his head almost sadly. ‘What would you have had me do, Denethor? Commanded the man to strip off his raiment in the midst of the hall, so that you could examine his hide like a horse in the market? When a suitably discreet time arises, you may satisfy yourself. For my part, I need no further proofs. There was truth in his eyes, and in all of his words. He is who he claims to be.’
‘And who is that? Someone who served Thengel in some indistinct capacity,’ said Denethor. His frustration with his father’s credulity was beginning to mount dangerously towards an apogee. His father was a good man, a noble man, and that was good. Unfortunately he also longed to believe everyone else to be equally upright, especially those with whose charms he was taken. And Thorongil did undeniably have his charms, in amongst the evasions and the equivocations and the artful half-truths.
‘He served Thengel well, in whatever capacity,’ said the Steward. ‘And I shall ask him for more detail of his service at some other time. Tonight I wished only to meet a man who should have been brought before me a week ago. Why was he not?’
‘It is the provost’s responsibility to gauge a man’s worthiness to enter your service,’ said Denethor. ‘It is mine to see such a man assigned. All that was done. Would the letter have made any difference to those decisions?’
‘I believe it would,’ said Ecthelion bluntly. Denethor fought to hide his surprise and his indignation. It was not the answer he had expected, nor did he wish to be chastised or to have his judgments questioned. ‘To begin, I would never relegate a man so highly praised by Thengel to the Tenth Company of the Guard.’
‘It was the most suitable vacancy available,’ said Denethor, hanging his honesty upon his own idea of what was suitable for the itinerant prevaricator.
‘There is a vacancy in the Second Company,’ countered the Steward.
Denethor’s skin went suddenly cold. His father did not mean the Second Company of the Guards of the City.
‘I would not assign any newcomer to the Citadel,’ Denethor said tightly. ‘Men must be tried first before being elevated to the heights. Your own policy decrees it.’
‘I suppose it does,’ said Ecthelion with some reluctance. ‘Yet should we truly waste such a man on market-day patrols and guarding deliveries of flour?’
‘A hungry city is an imperiled city,’ said Denethor. ‘Someone must guard the flour.’
‘Thengel writes of his prowess in the field,’ Ecthelion went on. ‘Perhaps he should be assigned to an active battalion. The Army of Ithilien is in desperate need of good men. If Thorongil consents to go, we could send him with the next convoy of provisions.’
‘With your leave, Lord Steward, I say no,’ Denethor declared, shaking his head and fixing his father with his most coldly appraising Captain-General’s eye. ‘Not yet, not when he is still untried. Let him remain at present with the Tenth Company. Minardil can keep a keen watch on his skills, and measure his loyalties. In a few weeks I will send his Company out on maneuvers, and we can see how well this Thorongil truly performs in the open. Then we can decide if he should be given to Cairon in Ithilien.’
The sincerity in his voice was no fabrication. As much as it would have pleased Denethor to send the meek-mouthed braggart safely to his death, a dead man revealed few secrets. He was determined to learn what Thorongil was keeping from them all: from the King of Rohan, to whom he professed such loyalty; from the Steward, whom he swore he longed only to serve; and from the Captain-General, who had never before failed to compel a man to disclose to him anything that he asked.
‘Very well,’ Ecthelion said after a moment’s thought. ‘I confess I would sooner not send him from the City just yet. He is an interesting young man, and I would very much like the opportunity to get to know him better.’
‘As would I,’ Denethor said smoothly. In his heart it echoed, with far less courtliness. As would I.
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