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Chapter IX: Well-Meant Counsel
Impatience was Ecthelion’s secret vice. Over the years he had learned to school it, to hold it fast, to hide it; but still it visited him at times such as this. He had neither the vigour nor the fiery spirit that drove his son so often to pacing, so he sat askew behind his desk and drummed upon its surface with his first three fingers. The sound and the repetitive sensation soothed his nerves and gave him a clear sense that time was passing, however slowly. That he did not know what the outcome of his request would be only heightened his pique.
He had given orders that the man was not to be taken from his watch this time, and so it was quite possible that the Guard would return alone. Ecthelion was beginning to regret this attempt at restraint. As Anaiwen had so adroitly said, he was the Steward and he could do as he wished in these matters. If it suited him to take a man off of his watch, that was surely his right… but such flexing of his power had never come naturally to Ecthelion. This was better, even if it was also tiresome to wait unknowing.
A rap upon the open door drew his eye. The Guard he had sent forth stood respectfully on the far side of the threshold. Ecthelion nodded his acknowledgment, and the man bowed. ‘My Lord, Thorongil of the Tenth Company,’ he announced. Then he stepped back to admit the other man.
The first thing that Ecthelion noticed was that Thorongil had been furnished with new livery. It was long enough at cuff and hem to accommodate his tall frame, and the inexpensive dyes had not yet begun their inevitable fading to brown. Over it the old cloak, which was far more universal in size, looked incongruously shabby. This only served to emphasize the quality and workmanship of the star that clasped it.
‘My Lord Steward,’ Thorongil murmured, saluting low. It had struck Ecthelion upon their first meeting how elegantly the man executed the movements. It took time to grow familiar with the habitual gestures of a new land, and few of the foreign recruits mastered this one in less than three months.
‘Close the door and come in, young man,’ Ecthelion said. He straightened himself in his chair and sat up properly. Thorongil obeyed, and moved to stand before the desk, posture impeccable and eyes respectfully lowered. The Steward motioned to the chair beside the Guardsman’s knee. ‘Please sit. This is not a disciplinary matter: you need not be so rigid.’
‘Yes, sire,’ Thorongil said, and he sat. He did not relax in the least, however. Either he had not brought his sword to the Citadel, or it had once again been confiscated by the Guards. Ecthelion made note that he would have to speak to them about this practice. The newcomer, and others like him, were men in the service of Gondor and should be treated with at least a modicum of trust.
‘This is your off-watch?’ asked Ecthelion pleasantly, trying to encourage the man to enter into conversation.’
‘It is, sire,’ Thorongil answered respectfully.
‘I pray you will forgive me for borrowing you from your leisure,’ Ecthelion said, trying again. ‘Are you adapting well to life in Minas Tirith.’
‘I hope that I am, sire,’ said Thorongil. Still his eyes were hooded in humble deference.
Ecthelion sighed. ‘Look at me, my boy.’ Thorongil obeyed, the faintest flicker of apprehension in his eyes. The Steward offered a gentle smile. ‘Why do you imagine I have called you here?’
‘My Lord, I presumed you have more questions for me,’ said the man. His lips moved as if to add something more, and then fell still. He did not cast his eyes away again, however, but maintained a steady gaze now free from any sign of trepidation.
‘I confess that I have,’ said Ecthelion; ‘but you need have no concern. I shall try to be less insistent than my son.’
‘The Captain-General was discharging his duty, my Lord. I understand full well,’ said Thorongil. ‘Whatever you would know of me, I will answer as best I may.’
‘I thank you for that undertaking,’ Ecthelion said. ‘Know also that I abide by the words of my proclamation. A man’s birth and home bear no weight upon his ability to serve in Gondor’s defence. All are welcome: there is no need for subterfuge.’
‘I understand, sire,’ said Thorongil. ‘What would you ask?’
Thengel’s letter lay upon the desk, for Ecthelion had fetched it from the drawer after summoning the man. He picked it up.
‘The King of Rohan speaks very highly of you, and now I hear that you have bested one of my Captains in single combat,’ he said. ‘How did a lowly Rider obtain such skill?’
‘I was trained in the use of a blade from an early age, sire,’ said Thorongil. ‘Although my time in the éoreds of the Mark helped me to hone my skill, and to develop others, I did not come to Edoras with an untried hand.’
‘Even so,’ said Ecthelion. ‘I have seen Minardil of Lossarnach in combat, and to outdo him your skill must be remarkable. Have you served in other lands, under other lords?’
‘I have served no lord save Thengel King, and now your noble self, sire,’ said Thorongil. ‘Save in defence of my home and my lands, I have fought only beneath the banner of Rohan.’
‘You are a landowner, then?’ Ecthelion asked. ‘Who tends your holdings, now you dwell so far abroad?’
‘I left them in the care of my mother’s sire, Lord. There is nothing that need be done in care of them that would be beyond his scope.’
‘I see.’ He did not clarify it, for Ecthelion did not wish to shame the earnest Guard, but plainly Thorongil was not a man of means. A holding small enough to be within the energies of a lone old man to tend surely produced little more than the bare sustenance of life. ‘The land; it was your father’s before yours?’
‘Yes, sire,’ said Thorongil quietly.
He was still meeting the Steward’s eyes, and there was only truth in his own. Ecthelion felt his like for the young man grow still more. ‘The provost’s report is vague on that matter. You are noted as the son of no man.’
‘I cannot give my father’s name,’ said Thorongil. ‘The provost was inclined to interpret that thusly.’
‘And how should I interpret it?’ asked Ecthelion. ‘You had a father, presumably, and knew him, if he left you his property.’
‘I did not know him, my Lord,’ Thorongil said softly. ‘He perished when I was little more than a babe in arms.’
Ecthelion felt a wrench of pity for this well-spoken and well-formed young man. His own father had been at times a difficult taskmaster to satisfy, harsh in his criticisms and sparing with his praise, but a life lived without his presence would have been empty indeed.
‘Why do you not carry his name?’ He phrased the question as circumspectly as he could. From the wording on the record he could see what the provost had made of that omission, but Ecthelion was not about to make such an ungenerous accusation aloud.
‘It would aid me nothing,’ Thorongil said. ‘I have done good work under the name I bear, and it suits both my temperament and my station in life. No other would serve me better.’
Perhaps he did not know of the Gondorian way in such matters. ‘I am not sure of that,’ Ecthelion ventured. ‘Much value is placed upon a man’s lineage here. Be it ever so humble, a man is better off with one than without.’
‘Not I, sire.’ Something flashed in Thorongil’s eyes. Ecthelion thought it to be pride, but that was not precisely right. It was something greater – something, as Anaiwen might have said, more ennobling. It made him uneasy, and he knew that his son would have been wholly unable to let such a remark pass.
Determined to be more welcoming than that, Ecthelion drew Thengel’s letter nearer to himself and consulted it again.
‘Much praise is given you here,’ he said; ‘and yet the King makes no mention of your cause for departure. Is that too a matter you wish to keep close?’
‘No, my Lord. I served Thengel King faithfully, and learned much from that service and from his folk,’ said Thorongil. ‘But Rohan is a land at peace, troubled but occasionally by ruffians and raiders. Gondor stands firm against the very borders of Mordor. If I am to advance the fight against Sauron, it is here I must do it.’
Ecthelion’s eyes widened, not at this grand and noble purpose, but at the artless way in which the Enemy’s name came from the young man’s lips. There were few who spoke that name at all, and fewer still who did so effortlessly and with no sign of fear. Either he was indeed naïve, as might well be expected of a cotholder’s orphan who had fought for none but the Riddermark, or he was as unfailing in his courage as Denethor.
‘It is ever my aim,’ he said, mastering his surprise. ‘In that fight I seek men such as you, and I am glad that you have come. But tell me, Thorongil: in what capacity did you serve Thengel? That also he has left unsaid.’
Thorongil looked at him for a long moment, weighing something in his mind. ‘Sire, I came to him as a lowly soldier. In time I was made a sergeant in the household of the Lord Mayor of Edoras. I took my turn as a Lieutenant in the King’s own éored. In time, I rose to muster and lead one of my own.’
This Ecthelion had not expected, and his lips parted in astonishment. ‘Your own éored,’ he echoed. ‘Then you were a Captain of the Mark.’
‘I was.’ The words were clear enough, but Ecthelion would have expected more finality to them. He did not pause to wonder at this, however, for his dismay at the revelation was greater than his desire to puzzle.
‘You should not have been assigned as you were,’ he said. ‘I am sorry for it. Had the provost brought your letter to me in a timely fashion, I could have spoken to my son about finding a post more suited to your talents.’
‘I am content wherever I am needed, my Lord,’ said Thorongil. ‘As for the provost…’
His words trailed off in a glaze of hesitation, and then his mouth snapped abruptly shut. Ecthelion frowned.
‘As for the provost?’ he prompted.
Thorongil looked at him, something in his eyes that was akin to helplessness. Then he bowed his head and shook it slowly. ‘The Provost Lieutenant was unsure of what to make of it, I think,’ he muttered. ‘It seemed to be outside his experience.’
Ecthelion surprised himself with a laugh. ‘I daresay it was!’ he said, as Thorongil looked up to the sound of his mirth. A restrained little smile twitched at the corners of his stately mouth. Ecthelion leaned in over the desk and added conspiratorially; ‘I need hardly say that those seeking my service seldom come with such a remarkable testament to their character.’
‘No, my Lord. I imagine they would not,’ said Thorongil. ‘I would ask a question, if I may.’
‘Of course,’ said Ecthelion. ‘If ever you find I am unreceptive to a question, you have my leave to call me up short.’
‘I would not presume to do that under so brief an acquaintance, sire,’ Thorongil said handsomely. ‘Yet if I may have my query, it is this: have many men come to Minas Tirith to claim the amnesty and patronage you offer?’
Ecthelion could not help a pleased smile. He was proud of his initiative, and the fruits it had borne. ‘Many more than I hoped when first I made that pledge,’ he said. ‘In the years since it was sent forth, I have been proud to welcome eight score men and six to bolster the ranks of Gondor. You make it seven.’ He did not count the spy. The traitor.
‘Are most from Rohan?’ he asked. ‘Not ones such as I, but true-born men of the Mark?’
‘Many,’ agreed Ecthelion. He considered, then allowed; ‘Most. But there have been men from Dunland and Enedwaith; strong woodsmen from Anduin’s northerly vales; three brothers from far Minhiriath where few men now dwell.’
‘And from the tributaries of Mordor?’ Thorongil asked quietly.
There was no judgment in his eyes, nor any in his voice. Yet Ecthelion hesitated. This aspect of his policy, most of all, had drawn criticism throughout the ranks of his armies and the homes of his people. Denethor, who had never liked it even in the days when it brought only the flaxen-haired sons of Éorl, deplored this aspect of the law.
‘Some,’ he said at last, warily and watching for any sign of scorn in the Guardsman’s eyes. He saw none, and found himself continuing. ‘A few brave men, brave and desperate and too often bereft: out of Rhûn, out of Harad. Out of the unhappy land of Nûrnen itself. Yes.’
Thorongil nodded, and Ecthelion could see that he had known this already, at least in part. ‘I have met one such man in the Second Circle,’ he said. ‘What of the others?’
‘A few serve in the City,’ Ecthelion admitted; ‘but it is not easy for them to take to the stony heights and our ageless rituals. I have found gladder work for most in Pelargir or west beyond Pinnath Gelin. None will consent to serve in Ithilien, though it is there that their intelligence of the Enemy’s ways would prove most valuable.’
‘Small wonder is that,’ said Thorongil. ‘I have witnessed the penalties the servants of Sauron exact for indolence and failure. I can only imagine the torments to which a defector would be put.’
He said this in such a grim and knowing tone that a chill ran up Ecthelion’s spine. ‘I would set no man to a duty he is unwilling to take, whatever the reason,’ he said. ‘It gives me no pleasure to send any of my soldiers to face death and capture on the far side of the river, but to send them against their will would be a hateful thing.’
Thorongil was silent. Perhaps he understood, if Captain he had been, that there were times when a leader of men was not free to abide by so lofty an ideal. There were times when men did need to be sent unwilling to their deaths. It was a mercy that Gondor was not yet at such a pass. Presently Ecthelion spoke again, turning deliberately from such dark talk.
‘Tell me more of your deeds in Rohan,’ he invited. ‘The proof Thengel gave me to ask of you was the name of a rescued mare. There must be a tale there! If she was one of the Mearas, it is plain what a service you did to the King. He holds his horses almost as dear as his children.’
‘So I have seen, sire,’ said Thorongil with a smile. ‘Yet I fear that tale does not serve to cast me in a favourable light before one who would have me as his obedient servant. Shall I tell you instead of Edoras as I left it short weeks ago? There is much to be said of the city and her folk.’
Ecthelion settled back in his chair and motioned that he should begin. With the lyrical cadence of an accomplished storyteller, Thorongil began to speak.
Coming into the city in the late afternoon, Denethor did not go directly to the Citadel to seek his father and resume his duties. Instead he left his horse in the keeping of the grooms and walked through the clean and well-paved streets of the Sixth Level until he came to the house of Esgalad. He was greeted courteously by the servants and relieved of his heavy outer garments. He needed no escort to lead him to his sister’s chamber on the uppermost floor, nor anyone to usher him in when she answered to his knock. He fixed his face in glad contours before opening the door.
‘What hail, my sister?’ he said bracingly as he swept over the threshold. ‘Your errant champion has returned from afar, and he longs to look upon your fair face.’
Telpiriel was reclining in bed, propped up upon a cloud of colourful cushions. Her pearl-embroidered robe was artfully arranged, and her hair freshly brushed and twisted into a long, fat plait that coiled from her shoulder like a black rope. She held out both hands to him in greeting and he strode across the room to take them, drawing to a halt at the right side of the bed.
‘Welcome to the White City, dear champion,’ she said warmly. Then she slipped one had from his and patted the coverlet next to her. ‘Sit, and let us talk awhile. It grows quite dreary with only my ladies and the footmen for company.’
‘You could command companions from the four corners of the realm, and they would come to you,’ Denethor declared airily, as he arranged his garments and sat. In his present mood, he was suited perfectly to the role of the cheerful brother. He leaned in towards Telpiriel and added confidentially; ‘And if any declined to come, I would fetch them to you myself!’
A little laugh passed her lips, amused and yet also a little bitter. ‘I shall not hold you to that promise,’ she said. ‘But tell me of the manoeuvres! How are the soft men of Minas Tirith adapting to life in the field?’
‘Well enough,’ Denethor said honestly. ‘There were some who found the frozen nights a shock, but they will grow used to it. By the end of the fortnight, they shall be all the more grateful for closed booths and warm beds. I am pleased to say that in the first melee both Companies deported themselves well. I was surprised that the Ninth Company won, but I should not have been. Beleg is a competent Captain and good in a tight place.’
‘And the Ninth Company are scrappers beside the Second,’ said Telpiriel. ‘Men of lesser rank most often are. They have had to fight harder for what they have in life, and they fight harder still to keep it. No doubt the men were eager to prove themselves before their Captain-General.’
‘Perhaps,’ said Denethor. He would not debate with her the merits of lesser men, not when he had come to brighten her confinement. ‘It will be interesting to learn how matters proceed in my absence. I trust it will not degenerate into a ten-day revel in the foothills, but I suspect less serious work shall be accomplished than it would be under my eye.’
‘Less serious does not perforce mean less valuable,’ Telpiriel countered with a sly little smile. ‘I recall a certain little lordling who could not learn his tengwar by rote, to the despair of his tutor. Yet when they were presented to him in an amusing little rhyme, he mastered them in an afternoon.’
In any other company, Denethor would have been discomfited to have this tale remembered. Between Telpiriel and himself, it was a shared memory to cherish. ‘You never did explain to me how rómen rhymed with boring,’ he said.
Telpiriel pursed her lips and bristled in mock indignation. ‘I had only begun my education in poetry and song,’ she said primly. ‘It was a novice’s very earnest attempt.’
‘And it worked,’ Denethor allowed. ‘Though perhaps you might refine that particular piece before this little one has need of it.’
His hand reached out and brushed the rich nap of her bed gown where it swelled over her belly. Her pose made her new girth more prominent than usual, but in their banter Denethor had almost forgotten it. Now he withdrew his hand as if it had been scorched and cast his eyes away.
Telpiriel reached for his wrist and guided his hand back. ‘It’s all right,’ she said quietly, spreading his palm and placing against the firm roundness beneath the rich fabric. ‘You will not hurt me.’
This was not the source of his discomfiture. Matters of childbed were not for men, but Denethor knew enough to understand that a touch would not harm a quickening woman. It was the reminder of the pregnancy itself that had called him up short – that, and the casual way that the child had slipped into his mind and his speech. It had been at about this stage that Telpiriel’s stillbirth had occurred. At the time he had believed the loss might break her.
Worse yet had been the awful, dead-eyed resignation that had followed the last miscarriage four years before. His proud and perceptive sister had been reduced to a fatalistic shadow, thin, wan and wholly without spirit. She had not even wept. She had come back to him, to them all, that time, but Denethor was afraid. If such a loss came again, with her hopes so fragile and Esgalad abroad, he did not know if her mind would hold.
He forced a strained little smile. Her hands were over his, too firm in their hold for him to slip casually away. ‘Very nice,’ he said awkwardly. ‘You must be so proud.’
Telpiriel’s brows knit together in perplexity and the ungainly words, and then she laughed and released him. ‘Go on, then: sit back and keep your lordly remoteness!’ she sang. ‘Heavens, what a torment it must be for you to visit me so often! Poor Denethor: is my situation such an embarrassment for you?’
‘No! I mean… that is…’ He straightened up, drawing further from her and smoothing the front of his jerkin where his coat fell open. Both garments were meant for winter travel, and in the close room with its lively fire he was beginning to feel uncomfortably warm. ‘I am not embarrassed,’ he managed finally, meeting her eyes so that she could see that it was so. He hoped that the deeper truth was hidden from her sight, but he could not be sure. ‘It is simply uncomfortable to sit thus with my hand upon… upon…’
‘Upon your nephew?’ Telpiriel challenged, eyes sparkling. ‘You will be expected to touch him once in a while when he is born, you know.’
‘That is some matter different, and you know it,’ he said, shooting her a dirty look quite unbefitting of his dignity. When she waggled her eyebrows, he let out a rush of air that was not quite a laugh. ‘Surely you cannot expect an unwed man to be conversant in such things. It would be most unsuitable.’
‘Come to that, it is most unsuitable that you are still an unwed man, my brother,’ said Telpiriel, cocking her head to one side. ‘You are drawing on in years—’
‘I am not yet six and thirty!’
‘—You are drawing on in years, and you have no prospects of wife or heir,’ Telpiriel went on blithely. ‘I am surprised that one who places such pride in his lineage and position is not taking steps to secure the succession.’
‘When the time is right, I shall be married,’ Denethor hedged. This was an uncomfortable topic. Eight years before there had been an aggressive campaign among his father’s Councillors to see him wed. All the eligible maidens of the nobility had been paraded before him, to no avail. He knew that his father had harboured a secret hope that he might take to one of the two eldest daughters of Thengel of Rohan, but that too had come to nothing. Comely though they were, they would have made an unsuitable match for a son of Westernesse. Still more significantly, strange though it seemed to admit it, he had felt no affection for them or for the many daughters of Gondor from whom he might have had his pick. Denethor was not a sentimental man, but heartfelt closeness in marriage was the old way, and he did not wish to bend to modern expediency.
‘There, now: I was only teasing,’ Telpiriel soothed, very much the elder sister as she reached to pat his leg. ‘You have a long life before you, and if our father is any indication the men of the line of Mardil can produce well-appointed children well into their later years.’
‘Has Anaiwen been down to visit while I was gone?’ Denethor asked, glad of the change of subject. ‘I suggested to her that she might do so with a little more regularity.’
‘As a matter of fact, she has,’ said Telpiriel with a slanted smile. ‘She was here just yesterday, filled with gossip and merriment. Her sewing is coming along beautifully, too. The cloths she is preparing for the Hallows are exquisite.’
Denethor had little interest in his youngest sister’s exploits with a needle, but sharing the gossip would entertain Telpiriel and keep the conversation from turning to any more awkward things. He could not think what they might possibly discuss that would be more awkward than what was past, but he feared there was something.
‘Tell me the news, then, since you surely know more than a soldier lately returned home,’ he invited, getting to his feet forcefully to compensate for the deep softness of the mattress. He strode to the sideboard. ‘Wine?’
‘Please,’ said Telpiriel. ‘Well, now, let me see… the Lord Chamberlain’s wife is in a tiff with her sister. They’ve been quarrelling all week, and two days ago they stopped speaking to one another at all. It’s uncomfortable, you know, for with spring just around the corner they will need to be working together on the – oh, thank you!’
She took the silver cup he offered and sipped of it as he drew up one of the richly cushioned chairs. Denethor stretched his legs out comfortably and drank deeply of his own wine. It was a fine vintage out of Anfalas, sweet and strong.
‘Where was I?’ Telpiriel asked. ‘Ah, well. Anaiwen was most excited about some duel that was fought in the lower City. It seems a new man – quite a new man, from the sound of it – defeated Captain Minardil in single combat. Wasn’t he the Champion of the Guard last year?’
Denethor’s jaw was tightening, and his grip on his goblet grew painful. ‘He was,’ he said tightly. ‘I expect him to claim the title this year as well. He is one of the best swordsmen we have, for all that he is inexperienced in matters of command. Defeated, you said?’
Telpiriel nodded absently. She was watching the dark vortex in her cup as she swirled it. A contented smile was upon her lips. Today, at least, she was not beating upon the bars of her healer-sanctioned cage. ‘It seems it made for a remarkable bout. I think our bright-eyed little swallow rather wishes she had been there to see it.’
‘Been there?’ Denethor snorted. ‘At a Guardsmen’s brawl in the Second Circle? I can think of no more unsuitable place for a young girl to be!’
He took a deep swig of his wine, conscious of Telpiriel’s uncomfortably piercing look and trying not to squirm beneath it. Few indeed possessed the power to make the Heir of all Gondor squirm, but such was an older sister’s power.
‘How did you know it took place in the Second Circle?’ she asked. ‘Have you been patronizing me all this time, letting me impart news that is old to you?’
‘No,’ Denethor said, the word coming out almost at a growl. He cleared his throat and shook his head. ‘No, I know of the newcomer in Minardil’s Company. A nameless vagabond who came out of Rohan with a letter that has won our father’s favour.’
‘A letter from Thengel King,’ Telpiriel agreed. She always remembered to use the Rohirric form of address; something Denethor had never mastered. ‘Yes, Anaiwen told me about that. The provost kept it back for a week before bearing it to you?’
Denethor could not answer this, but before he could light upon some other subject Telpiriel saw the subtle sliding of his eyes.
‘Oh, Denethor, you didn’t!’ she breathed. ‘You held back a letter that the King of Rohan sent for Father?’
‘Well?’ he challenged. ‘What of it? I am the Captain-General, and the disposition of new men falls to me. The letter would not have changed that. I deemed it unfitting that the Steward should be bothered with such a—’
‘Careful,’ Telpiriel warned, wagging a finger. ‘Remember to whom you are speaking, Aglarion. Your splendour does not dazzle these eyes.’ Then she grinned so that her teeth shone white against lips subtly stained with wine. ‘You forgot.’
He glared at her, shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and then took a long quaff from his cup. ‘I was occupied with other matters,’ he muttered.
‘Poor Denethor!’ laughed Telpiriel again, shaking her head. ‘Better to be thought presumptuous than careless. What a burden perfection must be, even upon such strong shoulders.’
‘If you will do nothing but mock me, I shall take my leave,’ he bridled, draining his cup and getting to his feet. ‘I have much business to which I must attend. Four days’ absence is no small thing for one with a great land to command.’
‘You do not command it yet,’ Telpiriel warned mildly. Then she turned up her cheek for a kiss. ‘If you must go, begone. I shall expect you for breakfast on the appointed day. Take care not to break your back in the contortions needed to grasp at flawlessness.’
Though his mood was now sour, Denethor bent and kissed her. As his lips grazed her cheek, no longer the velvet-soft of a maiden’s but the strong smoothness of a woman full-grown into her power and influence, a chill crossed his heart. He could not help it. Whenever he bade her farewell now, he knew in his soul it might be the last time. It was no secret from keen eyes that the healers feared as much for the mother as for the babe, and the most merciful of childbed deaths were swift.
‘I shall come tomorrow evening, and we can have a game of chess,’ he murmured absently. Telpiriel said something light-hearted in answer, but he knew she had read the thoughts of his heart. Denethor fled the room before either of them had to face it.
Thorongil had just come to the end of an account of the autumn festivities in Edoras and the charming spectacle Thengel’s small daughter had made in her first girlish gown. The Steward was smiling beneficently, his eyes clouded with fond thoughts of his friend. Presently he nodded.
‘Thank you, young man,’ he said. ‘I confess I have missed Thengel and his family. I would have liked to have journeyed to visit upon the occasion of the girl’s birth, but circumstances did not permit it.’
‘The burdens of state cannot be lightly set aside,’ Thorongil agreed softly. How often had he had to lay by his own mirth for the sake of his duty? ‘Have I said all you wished to hear, sire?’
Ecthelion looked at him, eyes momentarily wounded. Then he saw that this was an invitation to further questions, not a plea for dismissal and his smile returned. ‘You know much of the doings of the court of Rohan,’ he said. ‘You must have been an advantageously placed Captain indeed.’
‘I had the favour of the King,’ said Thorongil. As long as he was not asked outright if he had left Thengel’s service a Captain, he could keep from flying his standard too high. ‘He is a gracious lord, and generous with his Riders.’
‘His father was not,’ said the Steward with a rueful curl of his lip. ‘Do you know of the despotism of Fengel?’
Thorongil did, and in far harsher terms than he was likely to hear from the lord of a neighbouring country, but he merely cast down his eyes. ‘Such things are not fit for you to discuss with one of my rank, my Lord. The private lives of the great ones should not be a matter of entertainment for common soldiers.’
‘True,’ allowed Ecthelion. ‘Yet most hold that the onus is upon the great ones to conduct themselves in a manner that does not invite entertainment, rather than upon the soldier to be circumspect. He was not your lord, and yet you afford him respect even in death.’
‘He was the King of Rohan, sire,’ said Thorongil. ‘It is not for me to speak ill of him.’
Ecthelion regarded him thoughtfully for a moment, and a fondness touched his lips. ‘You are a man of integrity, Thorongil of… what shall we call you, my boy? You cannot be “Thorongil” only, and if you will not speak your father’s name—’
‘Cannot, sire,’ Thorongil corrected, realizing too late that he had not merely contradicted but interrupted his liege-lord.
‘But why?’ sighed Ecthelion, shaking his head in bewilderment. ‘What shame is there in admitting his name? Surely it cannot be that your mother kept it from you!’
Here was an opportunity to speak the truth, but Thorongil hesitated. Would it do more harm than good, raising still more impossible questions? Yet he had been courteously used this day, and he owed his new lord some small gesture of trust, even if it might not be recognized.
‘She did, sire,’ he said quietly. ‘I was brought up under a name I was not born to, far from the place where I was delivered into the world. Not from my mother’s lips did I learn my sire’s name.’
Ecthelion stared at him, stricken. In that more than in any of his other kindly words could Thorongil see the gentle heart within the Steward’s breast. This pained him: this picture of a child bereft even of the concept of a father. And it was not a picture that did justice to those whom Thorongil loved and honoured.
‘I was brought up in the house of a kinsman,’ he said. ‘A… aye, an uncle. I did not want for affection or for models of noble manhood, but I never knew my father.’
‘And can you not take your uncle’s name?’ asked Ecthelion. ‘I do not know if you understand, coming as you do from the freeness of Rohan, what an impediment a lack of name and lineage will be to you. There is little time to answer the deficit. Soon all will know that you are fatherless, and that will pursue you however much you may excel in my service.’
Ecthelion was trying to help him, to give him the chance while a chance there still was to take unto himself the protection of respectability – even legitimacy. Yet in all conscience Thorongil could not do it. The name that was rightfully his he had laid aside to safeguard his life, but he could not bring himself to belittle that lofty lineage by replacing it with a subterfuge. A lie. To the name of son of Elrond he had some claim, for it had been given him freely and with love, but it would serve him no better than his blood patrimony. Beyond that he had no other claim save that of his mother’s kin, and that would be grievously mistaken even by credulous minds.
‘That must be as it will, sire,’ he said, trying to keep his turmoil from filtering into his words. ‘I must bear my lot as I may and hope that it will not diminish me in your eyes, nor impede my capacity to serve Gondor.’
Ecthelion looked upon him sadly, but nodded. ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘Let it be as you wish, and I shall quell hateful rumours should any reach my ears. I think you could count upon your Captain to do the same, if he is not embittered by your victory over him.’
Thorongil smiled now. Minardil had, in fact, been as affable as ever these last few days. He was looking at his newest man in a different light now, and Thorongil could not help but feel that Minardil now held them as nearer to equals than to Captain and Guardsman. They were set to work together during the dawn watch two days hence, for Minardil was anxious to be shown the fault in his feet and this was the first opportunity their duties allowed them the same period of leisure.
‘I do not think he is, sire,’ he said honestly. ‘It was but an informal bout in any case: more an opportunity for my Captain to assess my skill than any show of martial might.’
‘Yet that is what it became,’ said Ecthelion with a wry little grin. ‘Well, that is all well enough. Better that you should be appreciated for your talents than that you should remain unnoticed on a market corner, watching for cutpurses.’
‘Sire, I am quite content to—’
Thorongil’s polite demurral was cut off when the door to the study was suddenly thrust open, and a man whose stride had scarcely been broken to turn the handle sailed in. It was Denethor, tall and puissant in garments stained by the trail but unmistakable in their costliness.
‘Father, what is this I have heard of the new man—aah!’ Denethor’s eyes had gone first to the Steward and he had not immediately recognized the face of the namelessly common Guard seated before him. Now he did, and he drew up to his full and not unimpressive height. What had been a look of stern inquisition turned now to one of dark disapproval. ‘You,’ he hissed, his lip curling almost into a snarl. ‘What business have you in the Citadel?’
‘I summoned him, my son,’ Ecthelion said placating, looking up at his heir with paternal pride. ‘So you have returned to us. How are your eager combatants faring?’
‘Well enough,’ said Denethor. He looked Thorongil over coldly, almost disdainfully. It took a noted effort to remain still beneath such scrutiny, but Thorongil had borne more penetrating eyes than his. ‘I have heard of your victory, stranger. It takes a man of some skill to best Minardil son of Mardhir.’
Perhaps it was only the lingering taste of his conversation with the Steward, but it seemed to Thorongil that Denethor placed a subtle emphasis upon Minardil’s parentage. Meekly he said; ‘My Captain’s expertise is great, my Lord. It took great fortune, and not skill alone, to outstrip him in combat.’
Ecthelion smiled warmly at him, and gestured to Denethor. ‘Will you not sit, my son? I have been getting to know our newest man. He has much to say of Rohan and of the happenings in Edoras.’
‘He does not stand when his lord enters a room,’ observed Denethor coldly.
That was unfair. Having been bidden to sit by the Steward, etiquette did not require Thorongil to rise until instructed by his Lord, or until Ecthelion himself stood again. Yet he would have done so out of courtesy had he not been so startled by the Captain-General’s sudden entrance and immediate hostility.
‘Forgive me, sire,’ he said, rising now to his feet but bowing his head as he bent in salute. ‘I am accustomed to a court some measure less formal.’
‘It’s quite all right, young man: sit and be at ease!’ said Ecthelion, motioning to the vacated chair. ‘Denethor, sit. You need not hover there like an uneasy herald.’
There was a gentle teasing lilt in his voice, meant to put the younger Lord at ease. Its effect was exactly the opposite. Denethor’s jaw clenched and twitched ominously, and his back grew still more rigid. Inwardly Thorongil cringed. It was not the first time he had seen this: Ecthelion’s attempt to placate his son being met with mounting tension. It was plain the Steward did not know his words had such an effect, and equally plain that Denethor would never tell him.
‘I think not,’ the Captain-General said, his lips moving in spastic jerks as he formed the words. He cast a sidelong eye at Thorongil. ‘I will wait until your… guest has departed, my Lord Father, and then I shall make my report.’
‘Now, no need for that,’ Ecthelion said warmly, again indicating the other seat. ‘I have quite enjoyed the chance to know Thorongil a little better. He was telling me how he was brought up by a kinsman, far from the place where he was born.’
‘And where was that?’ asked Denethor coldly.
‘Sire?’ Thorongil’s stomach churned uncomfortably. He had wished to ease the Heir’s suspicions, not stir them up afresh. He had hoped he might find some way to placate him. Plainly this was not to be the day.
‘Where were you born?’ he enunciated almost painfully. His rearmost teeth were set fast. ‘What manor? What town? What pitiful hamlet of tumbledown cots? What gutter?’
‘Denethor!’ Ecthelion exclaimed, but neither of the younger men heard him. Their eyes were locked upon one another, measuring each other from behind armoured bastions of the mind.
Thorongil knew he could not evade again. The serpentine suspicion in Denethor’s glare was purest poison. If he did not give some tangible answer, he would make nothing but trouble for himself.
‘It was a village, sire,’ he said calmly, his voice deferential even as his eyes held fast. ‘A small village, not prosperous, perhaps, but sufficiently endowed to sustain healthfully the lives of its inhabitants. I have no memory of my brief years dwelling therein, but know only what my mother told me of them.’
‘And what did your mother call this… village?’ asked Denethor with a taciturn twitch of the lips.
‘She called it home, sire,’ said Thorongil. ‘In the Elvish tongue, bardh. In the language of the men of Rohan, eardlufu. In the High Elven speech, Mélamar.’
That was indeed what the settlement was called, where the Heirs of Isildur had dwelt and their families had been reared through many generations fraught with care and strife. Mélamar, the home of the heart to which one must return: what more fitting name for the chiefest haven of a scattered and wandering people?
‘You know many different tongues, Thorongil,’ said Ecthelion in gentle approval.
‘Or many different ways to say nothing at all,’ muttered Denethor, eyes narrowed. He could see the truth in Thorongil’s eyes, a truth that ran deeper than mere honest equivocation, but he could not understand it.
‘I hope to make Gondor my home, my Lord,’ Thorongil said to him. In this, too, there was nothing but truth. ‘Have I need of any other?’
Denethor’s eyebrows shot up and his lips parted in astonished reaction, but he reined in the impulse to speak in haste. He closed his mouth and made another slow study of Thorongil’s face and form. This time his eyes lingered for a moment upon the silver Star of the Dúnedain at his throat. There was a calculating look in the Captain-General’s eyes, but the black wrath was dimmed a little.
‘We shall see, Guardsman,’ he said with all the aloofness of a mighty commander answering the question of a lowly recruit. ‘We shall see.’
‘Thank you, my Lord,’ said Thorongil humbly. ‘Have I your leave to depart, sire? My watch draws nigh, and it is a lengthy walk back to the low places of the City.’
He had addressed this question to Denethor, knowing that Ecthelion would take no offence and hoping that a show of submission might ease the Heir out of his posture of attack. Likewise, the tacit reminder that he knew that he belonged in the low places rather than the heights was meant to mollify Denethor’s affronted pride. He had returned home to find a vagabond ensconced in the very heart of the court, conversing like a friend with the Lord of the land. It had shaken his sense of his own position, as a lead hound might be shaken by the coming of a new hunter in the pack. Thorongil had no wish to challenge him, and it would do no harm to let Denethor see that.
‘Very well,’ said Denethor loftily. ‘Where is your guard tonight, soldier?’
‘Upon the wall, my Lord,’ Thorongil answered truthfully. ‘The easterly rampart.’
‘Be sure to keep to your post,’ the Captain-General admonished with something like satisfaction. ‘We have had difficulty with guards pacing to keep warm on harsh nights. The winds will be cruel this night. See you stand fast.’
‘Yes, sire,’ Thorongil deferred, rising and bowing deeply into his salute. ‘My Lord Steward, I thank you for your kind consideration. It is a soldier’s pleasure to bring tidings of friendly lands for once, rather than hostile. You are remembered lovingly in Rohan.’
This, too, was more for Denethor’s benefit than Ecthelion’s: a reminder that he was but a soldier, and valued more for his news than for himself. It was also a reassurance that their talk had been of a far-off city and a foreign court, rather than matters more relevant to the present. When Denethor stepped back from the doorway, allowing Thorongil a clear avenue of retreat, he knew that he had succeeded at least in part.
‘Go with my blessing, my boy,’ said Ecthelion warmly. ‘I hope we shall have the opportunity to talk again ere long. And remember: it is better to sway a little than to freeze.’
‘Thank you, sire,’ said Thorongil, bowing again. With a final brief obeisance to Denethor, he slipped from the room and crossed the gloomy Council chamber as swiftly as he could. Even so, the door was swung fast behind him to cut off the firelight before he reached the corridor. In the grey shadows of dusk, he found the door that opened on the torchlit way winding to the Tower’s main doors, where hopefully the Guards still kept his sword. As he walked, Thorongil realized there was a flutter in his breast and a tremor in his hand. He did not fear the Steward’s Heir, precisely, but speaking with Denethor was rather like sparring with sharpened blades. The stakes were high, even between allies, and it left the same exhilarated exhaustion in the blood.
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