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Note: This chapter is posted in commemoration of the Council of Elrond since I missed the real date. ;-)
Chapter XXIII: None Shall be Pleased
Word came at last that the Easterling was well enough to be taken from the Houses of Healing. Denethor had made the necessary arrangement days before, and he did not personally oversee the transfer. He would have more authority in the eyes of the prisoner if he appeared only as the looming voice of justice. For the same reason, he let the man languish for a day and a half before he at last descended from the Citadel to begin the interrogations.
The chief dungeons of Minas Tirith were located in the Fifth Circle beneath the high magistrates’ court, where thieves and miscreants wore out their sentences and murderers and worse awaited the scaffold. The Easterling had instead been taken to the lesser-known and far more secure cells in the Sixth Circle. It was said that these grim cages had housed all of Gondor’s most notorious prisoners, from the Gatekeeper of Minas Morgul to the spies of Queen Berúthiel – the two-footed ones, anyhow. Denethor had last visited them to dispatch the traitor sell-sword who had wormed his way into the heart of the City.
The Easterling was in one of the smallest and most secure cells, deep in the sub-cellar where the Sun’s light never came. At Denethor’s order, the man had been chained to the wall with a six-foot lead. This was a courtesy, for it allowed him to get up off the plank that served as a bed and to keep himself clean. The healers had been adamant that he was to have careful treatment, if he was to be expected to stay strong enough to be questioned. Still the room had the stale smell of slumber to it, and Denethor’s nostrils flared as he entered.
The guards brought with them torches to be placed in stone brackets, for only a madman would allow his prisoners fire. The servants of the Enemy had little care for self-preservation, fearing both the rumoured brutality of their westerly captors and the still more awful prospect that they might be released: thrust back across the river into the arms of Sauron’s men, ever watchful for treason. Apart from any risk of escape, an Easterling might take it into his head to burn himself alive rather than face that. It was almost piteous.
‘Do you speak the language of the West?’ Denethor demanded as he strode into the cell.
The prisoner sat in the middle of his bunk, hands and legs in irons in preparation for the Captain-General’s visit. His swarthy face was stained by the torchlight, and his lower lip was split and swollen. It seemed he had offered resistance during the relocation. Denethor’s disapproval of the wretch deepened.
‘Do you speak the language of the West?’ he repeated, this time watching the dark eyes for signs of understanding. He read only fear and a desperate belligerence. The man was determined to resist, but he was owned by terror.
That was no bad thing, not when you wanted to induce a man to talk.
‘Speak!’ Denethor commanded. Now he used not the Common Tongue, but the rasping and guttural syllables of the language of Mordor. He was far from fluent, but he had dealt with his share of the Enemy’s thralls. Those that did not have
The Easterling flinched, eyes widening as he stared at Denethor. The guards shifted uneasily, moved by the hideous sounds if not by the knowledge of their origin. Denethor took a menacing step forward. ‘Speak,’ he repeated.
‘Are you…’ the man stammered. He swallowed hard and licked his cut lip. ‘Are you…’ He spoke a word that Denethor did not know: some word in his own garbled language.
‘How many crossed the river?’ Denethor demanded. When the man shook his head slightly, he repeated the question twice more.
‘Do you speak this tongue?’ he pressed.
‘Speak,’ said the Easterling. ‘Ramin speak.’ He gestured at himself. ‘Ramin hear, Ramin speak.’
It was almost gibberish, and despite his own limited knowledge of the Black Speech, Denethor knew the sound of less poisoned syllables when he heard them. Nonsensical though the word was,
‘Do you understand this tongue?’ he tried instead.
Evidently the Easterling knew that phrase at least, for he shook his head frantically from side to side. Suddenly he was on his knees on the bare stone floor, bound hands clasped in supplication. He gibbered senselessly in the animal noises of his sort. He was begging – for what Denethor did not know – with a desperation most often seen within the shadow of death. The terror of some torment was on him, and Denethor’s command that he be silent only seemed to stoke it.
‘Silence!’ he tried again, in
‘See that the prisoner is fed,’ he said to the nearest guard.
‘My lord?’ The man hesitated. Denethor tolerated no hesitation where his orders were concerned.
‘See that he is fed. The healers insist that he be given gentle treatment while he recovers from his wound.’ It was more of an explanation than the man deserved. ‘If he weakens on your watch and proves unable to answer my questions, it will be the worse for you.’
He strode from the cell, followed by the jailor. ‘Forgive me, my lord: we fared no better,’ he said. ‘The man does not speak a word of the Common Tongue. We even tried Elvish, and—’
‘What would possess you to try Elvish?’ Denethor scoffed, halting before the guardroom. ‘That thrall of darkness has never heard such fair language in his life.’
‘Yes, sire,’ said the jailor. Denethor had made the man’s appointment, and yet he could not for the life of him remember his name. ‘Was that… did your lordship speak…’
‘It was the tongue of Mordor,’ Denethor confirmed grimly. The taste of those foul syllables was still bitter upon his tongue. ‘If the Easterling understands it, he is too fearful to use it properly.’
‘Then what is to be done? How can we question him without a common language?’
A slow smile visited Denethor’s lips. He had pondered this question at length, and he had the perfect answer. ‘We shall set an Easterling to catch an Easterling,’ he said. ‘I know of one who has cause to believe that he is in my debt.’
Kitchen duty was no great hardship. Thorongil pared a great many parsnips and scrubbed more pots and pans than he would have thought possible, but the work was straightforward and hardly backbreaking. He was on good terms with the cook and his assistants, for he had ever been pleasant and never complained about the food. The lone difficulty was that the labour cut into his scant off-watch hours, leaving him little time for sleep and less still to prepare himself for the upcoming Champion’s Trials.
He wanted to perform his best, for Minardil’s insistence that he compete was tantamount almost to sponsorship. Thorongil owed him an extraordinary effort. He did not know if Minardil intended to defend his title, nor how he would approach the final encounter is he did. Yet he was determined to ascent at least so far, and that warranted diligent preparation.
Thorongil emerged from the buttery one evening, stepping out into the yard to find Forgil at work with the quintain. The old soldier’s movements were slower than Thorongil’s, but they were neat and economical. They had been sufficient to preserve his life in battle also, which was no small thing.
‘Come to best me, lad?’ asked Forgil, stepping back from the straw form. ‘I’ll give it a good hard try, but I can’t promise to be much of a challenge. The weather leaves my old bones stiff.’
‘I would be glad of a partner, to watch my form if not to fight,’ said Thorongil. ‘I must reacquaint myself with my blade.’ He drew the Númenórean sword and let it glint in the lamplight.
‘Got it bac
‘I imagine he was most thorough,’ said Thorongil, not without a trace of bitterness. He did not know how the sword had proved itself justly in his hands, but it seemed to him that the research could not have taken so long. He knew that he had antagonized the Steward’s son, but he did not precisely know how.
‘That’s our good Captain-General,’ said
Thorongil, who had spent the first of his pay upon leather wrappings for the hilt, had to smile. ‘It is a blade to take pride in,’ he said. ‘Though I say it as shouldn’t, I have done good work to restore it, also.’
Forgil chuckled. ‘No need to play modest with me. You did a fine job, better than many I’ve seen. Old swords need careful handling – not unlike old soldiers. While I’m sure you’d play gently, I think I’ll sit out this fight. Watch your form, you said? That I can do.’
Thorongil smiled. ‘Thank you,’ he said, letting the blade sing through the cold night air. There was the faint scent of spring upon the wind, but its warmth had not yet found the stone City.
The old man nodded in satisfaction. ‘Have you named it?’ he asked. ‘A sword like that ought to have a name.’
The suggestion startled Thorongil. He had not considered it. Many noblemen in Rohan named their blades, but he had never partaken of the practice: he had never considered the swords he had borne in that land his own. He had a sword of his own, and one that bore a nobler name than ever he could bestow. But he could neither bear that blade nor speak its name, not until… until.
‘Angellui,’ he declared, raising high the long and slender sword with both hands. He looked up at the shining blade that had cost him so many hours to hone. ‘I name it Angellui.’
The swarthy Guardsman kept his eyes upon the ground as he rose from his genuflection. ‘What does your lordship want of his humble servant?’ he asked.
Denethor rapped his knuckles once upon the jailor’s table. ‘I have a task for you. There is a man in custody, one of your countrymen. I want you to find out what he knows of our defences, and I want you to find out how his company breached the line in Ithilien to cross the river.’
‘I, sire?’ said Jamon. ‘What do I know of such things? Surely it would be better to use a man skilled in interrogation…’
‘Perhaps it does not occur to you that the wretch does not speak the Common Tongue?’ Denethor drawled. His tone brought a shadow of a grimace to the Easterling’s face; he knew that he looked the fool in front of his master. That was good. ‘You have served Gondor for several years now, but do not tell me you have forgotten the language of your birth.’
‘I have not, sire,’ Jamon promised. ‘Am I to translate for the questioner, then?’
‘You are to be the questioner. The only questioner,’ said Denethor. ‘You will affect to be a prisoner of the Steward, that you may woo the man to trust you. You see the faith I place in you, Guardsman.’
‘My lord, I am honoured,’ said Jamon. His voice was steady, but his hands trembled. ‘Yet I do not thing I am worthy of such an assignment. I fear I may fail you.’
‘You had best not,’ Denethor declared. ‘Our defences in Ithilien – indeed, the very security of Gondor – may rely upon it.’
The Easterling swallowed painfully, raising his eyes at last. They were plaintive. ‘Sire, I beg you…’
‘Show your loyalty to Gondor, man!’ Denethor snapped. ‘This is your opportunity to prove your worth to the Steward and to your Captain-General. It is not a request.’
‘But sire…’ Jamon looked sidelong at the jailor where the man stood in the corner. He found no help in that quarter. The dark eyes vanished beneath dark lids. The Easterling seemed to brace himself. ‘I am to learn what he knows of our defences, and how his people crossed Anduin,’ he said quietly.
‘And anything else you can get out of him,’ Denethor agreed. ‘Now you may disrobe.’
Jamon’s eyebrows furrowed. ‘My lord?’
Denethor’s temper flared. It was a day to be beset with fools, it seemed. ‘Disrobe,’ he repeated as if speaking to a dimwitted child. ‘If you go to the cell in the garb of the City Guard, the man is bound to be suspicious.’
To the Easterling’s credit, he did not argue further. Hurriedly he stripped to his linens and stood barefoot before his lord. His toes curled against the chill of the floor. Denethor looked him over. ‘The shirt as well,’ he said. ‘It is far too clean. I see that you keep your livery well.’
The man did not seem touched by the compliment, but he crossed his arms and lifted off the garment. The jailor had another ready, ragged and stained as befitted a captive, but as he offered it Denethor raised a staying hand.
Jamon’s ribs bore livid bruises, round as fists dotting his flanks. Some were dark and fresh, others yellowing against the brown skin. There was a bruise to match upon his face as well, and several more oblong ones on his thighs. Clearly he had been brawling, and had come out the worse for it. Either that, or not all the men in the Ninth Company approved of a thrall of Sauron wooing a daughter of Gondor.
‘That is good,’ Denethor said, gesturing at the marks. Jamon’s cheeks darkened and he crossed shamed arms over his chest. Denethor nodded. ‘You can prove to the prisoner how we have brutalized you. He will not doubt your loyalties.’
He motioned to the jailor, who gave the dirty garment to the Easterling. Jamon slithered hastily into it, as if ashamed to go uncovered. Perhaps his breed was not entirely without modesty.
‘Your hair,’ said Denethor.
A hasty hand rose to the long black locks. Jamon’s eyes widened, but he did not speak.
‘Muss it,’ Denethor instructed. ‘When you reach the cell, put some straw in it. You must look as if you have lain there for many days. You were captured across the river, by the rearguard of Cairon’s army. The rest of the tale I leave to you. See that it is a good one. Do you understand me?’
‘I… I understand, sire,’ Jamon stammered. His fear was evident: fear of failure and fear of the task ahead. Denethor had to fight his disdain. After all, the man had been trained to walk the ramparts and to dispel market brawls. What did he know of spy’s work? Yet there was no time to teach him. He would have to manage.
‘Good. Hold out your hands.’
The Easterling obeyed, and the jailor took up a pair of heavy manacles. Jamon’s eyes grew wide and his lips moved as if to protest. Wisely, he held his tongue and let himself be draped with the chains.
‘Go now,’ said Denethor. ‘Prove your competence. Prove your loyalty.’
The jailor led Jamon from the room, his bare brown feet skidding on the stones. Satisfied, Denethor sat back. He did not know his new spy’s abilities, but he was quite certain he had impressed upon the man the need for excellence. It remained to be seen what came of it.
One name upon the list of Guards and Guardsmen requesting audiences with the Steward stood out to Ecthelion. He tried not to disrupt the order of the applications, as a rule, but this name struck him and he made an exception. One Thorongil, of the Tenth Company, sought counsel with his lord.
He was brought into the Steward’s study by one of the Guards of the Citadel. Denethor was not present to have the man derobed, and his long sword hung at his side. Ecthelion’s eyes widened when he saw the blade – no longer bare, but unmistakable.
‘That is your sword?’ he asked, raising a staying hand before the young man could kneel.
Thorongil glanced down. ‘Sire, it was issued to me by the armoury in the Second Circle. The Captain-General himself has deemed me worthy to carry it.’
The words cut Ecthelion, for he knew his son thought no such thing. ‘I should think that one who has been a Captain to our closest ally is worthy of the best we have to offer him. Sit, Thorongil, and tell me why you wish to see me.’
‘Sire, it is more fitting that I stand,’ said Thorongil. There was an unease to his stance and his expression that troubled Ecthelion.
‘As you wish,’ he said. ‘It is said that you deported yourself well in the unlooked-for battle to the north. Your Captain has written a fine letter in praise of your deeds.’
A flush of colour touched Thorongil’s pale cheeks. ‘I did not know that, my lord,’ he said. ‘Many men fought bravely that day.’
‘Bravely, yes,’ said Ecthelion; ‘but few so skilfully, from what Minardil claims. You should be proud. Gondor has need of good men. Have you come to ask a reward for your deeds? I have been known to offer silver to men who have given extraordinary service; that is well known among my soldiers of fortune.’
The flush deepened. ‘Sire, I would ask no reward for the discharging of my duty, nor could I accept one if it were offered. I have come… I have come to make my confession.’
A flutter of apprehension rose in the Steward’s breast. Were Denethor’s doubts about the man warranted? His son had insight into the hearts of men far greater than his own. Had he seen deception from the start? ‘What have you to confess?’
The words came steadily, though in the grey eyes Ecthelion read dread and shame. ‘I have been less than forthright with you, my lord,’ Thorongil of the Guard said. ‘I was indeed a Captain in Rohan, and I served with all the skill and loyalty I had to offer. Yet that is not the whole of the tale.’
So he had been disgraced, Ecthelion thought. Somehow this man had erred and lost his position. Then doubt visited him. Thorongil had lost his position and kept the favour of Thengel King? That notion did not hold water. The letter was no forgery. Ecthelion knew his friend’s hand as well as he knew Anoriel’s, and even Denethor had proclaimed the seal genuine.
‘Will you not sit to tell it, then?’ he asked kindly. The poor lad looked unsure upon his feet, and there were shadows beneath those keen eyes. They kept shifting for the door, too, as if Thorongil meant to make a swift flight. ‘I do not like my men to tower over me thus.’
Thorongil’s face opened in frank dismay. ‘My Lord Steward, I did not think!’ he breathed. Swiftly he sat, angling his sword with long practice. His slender hands knotted together in his lap.
‘Now tell me your tale, and do not be afraid,’ said Ecthelion. ‘I have executed no man yet for the sin of being less than forthright.’
‘I did not lie,’ Thorongil murmured; ‘but I have not told the whole truth. I was indeed a Captain in Rohan…’
He was repeating himself, which in one so well-spoken was usually a sign of a difficult tale. ‘Go on,’ coaxed Ecthelion.
‘My service was noted by my Marshal and by the King himself,’ said Thorongil. ‘When a chance arrow took the life of Eamon of Westfold, I was chosen to take his place. As… as Undermarshal.’
There was a protracted silence, in which Ecthelion groped for fitting words. ‘Undermarshal,’ he managed at last. It was not eloquent.
Thorongil was staring at his hands. ‘Yes, sire,’ he sighed.
Slowly, carefully, Ecthelion spoke. ‘An Undermarshal commands a thousand men.’ There had to be some mistake.
‘Yes, sire,’ said Thorongil. ‘A thousand and more. I had under my command twelve hundred and ninety-six at greatest capacity.’
Ecthelion shook his head. ‘But you are serving in one of the lowliest Companies in my city,’ he said weakly. ‘You are not even an officer. You… you guard the flour!’
‘Sire?’ Thorongil raised his eyes at this last, puzzled.
‘Something my son once said,’ Ecthelion muttered dismissively. He fixed steady eyes on Thorongil. ‘You have made a fool of me in this. Why did you not speak the truth at once? Why did you not come riding to my gate clad in fine mail and mounted upon a mighty steed of Rohan?’
‘That I could not do,’ said Thorongil. ‘I did not serve Thengel King for the sake of reward. For the other… I hoped I might be taken upon my own merits, and not upon the rumour of past deeds. It seemed to me that coming to Gondor as a humble man was the best means to learn of her ways.’
It was baffling. That a great commander of men should humble himself merely to learn the ways of Gondor was beyond understanding. Yet for the rest… Ecthelion had oft times wondered, in his youth, whether he would have merited such deference from his Captains and his men had he not been born the son of the Steward. He thought he understood the need to measure oneself anew.
‘Had you but told me, had you even told me of your captaincy at the outset,’ said Ecthelion; ‘I would have found better use for your talents. Would that not have been to the greater good of Gondor?’
‘I do not know, sire,’ Thorongil said softly. ‘I am still learning of Gondor’s needs.’
‘Her ways and her needs. Do they merit such careful study, and from such a lowly vantage?’ asked Ecthelion.
Again Thorongil raised his eyes, and in them was an earnest fire that startled the Steward. ‘Does my lord know how those he invites open-handed to his City are greeted?’ he asked.
Ecthelion was taken aback. ‘I have given orders that they are to be treated with the courtesy due to any son of a gentleman sent to serve me,’ he said. ‘Is it not so?’
‘I fear your provost has misinterpreted your orders, sire,’ said Thorongil. ‘Others could perhaps tell you better than I, but until I came beneath the command of Captain Minardil I did not feel welcome in Minas Tirith.’
The Steward shook his head. ‘It grieves me to hear it,’ he said. ‘You should have been greeted as a great warrior, so it now seems.’
‘Sire, I would have been content to be greeted as a man,’ Thorongil said.
Ecthelion very nearly flinched at those words. He had trusted that his orders would be obeyed. He had not considered that those selfsame soldiers who had named his recruits Ecthelion’s Follies might extend that jibing into true disdain and ill treatment.
‘I am sorry,’ he said, earnest and uneasy. ‘It shall be rectified. I will see that my son has words with the provost.’
Thorongil looked ready to speak again, but he thought better of it. ‘Sire, it would be wise,’ he said at length.
‘It shall be done,’ said Ecthelion. ‘As for your own position, I will see that improved as befits your experience.’
Something like vindication flashed in Thorongil’s eyes, but his countenance grew grave. ‘My lord, I beg you to let that matter rest awhile,’ he said. ‘I am ill positioned to rise higher now. There would be men embittered by it; men whose disfavour I have already courted. I have been in the City less than six weeks. It would not be fitting for me to be reassigned so soon.’
‘It would not be unprecedented,’ said Ecthelion. ‘Yet I do not wish to reassign any man unwillingly. It is a hard necessity of war, but I do it only when pressed. If you wish to remain with the Tenth Company for a time, I will not stop you. But know that you will now be watched. When the need arises, I will have to move you, willing or no.’
Thorongil inclined his head. ‘Yes, sire,’ he said. ‘I seek first to serve Gondor. I ask only time, that I may discern how best to do so.’
‘Time I can give you, at least for a little while,’ said Ecthelion. ‘Yet you should know – and as a leader of men yourself, surely you already see – that my policy of welcome is not driven solely by altruism. Gondor has desperate need of soldiers both lowly and great. I cannot waste a gifted man on simple duties.’
‘I do see that, my lord,’ said Thorongil quietly. ‘I thank you for your indulgence, and this I promise you. Were I to be elevated to greater position now, there would be discord in the ranks – and not in the Tenth Company alone. If you will trust my council on the strength of my former position, I beg you to trust it first in this.’
Ecthelion considered. He wanted to press the man further, to demand details of this anticipated discord. Yet he did wish to trust the man, and to show that trust. It was the surest path to unswerving loyalty. ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘For the time being you may remain where you are, unless your Captain-General should decide otherwise. He may well do so when he learns the extent of your past service, and I do not override Lord Denethor in matters concerning his armies.’
‘Yes, sire,’ said Thorongil. ‘I do not think he will wish to have me moved.’
‘I would not be so certain of that,’ said Ecthelion. ‘Yet I wish you good luck in your endeavours. They seem needlessly difficult to me, but a good man is worth his price. If this is yours, you may have it.’
Thorongil rose and bowed deeply. ‘I thank you, my lord,’ he said. There was a pause. ‘Have I your leave to go?’
Ecthelion granted it, and the Guardsman departed. The Steward was left to his puzzling.
Denethor seethed with anger, pacing the breadth of his office with such fervour that Valacar could not help but glance up from his work with each pass. The secretary was uneasy but unafraid. Nor should he know fear: this farce was not of his making. Another was to blame, and another would be duly punished – as soon as he got his worthless hide up to the Citadel.
The letter of request lay upon Denethor’s desk, bearing the seal of the Tenth Company and the signature of the well-meaning but unperceptive Captain Minardil. Denethor did not understand the man’s reasoning. It was a grave matter that Dúrion could not return to the post of First Lieutenant, and the need for a replacement was immediate. Yet the natural choice would have been the Second Lieutenant, Herion. The young Captain’s suggestion cast aside convention and disrupted the natural order of things.
Perhaps, Denethor thought wrathfully, Minardil knew already what his own informant had just brought before him. Perhaps he knew of the act of grievous insubordination. If so, he would be rewarded for his reticence with the wrath of his Captain-General. Denethor son of Ecthelion tolerated no hesitation in the discharging of his orders.
Upon the threshold, the sable-clad Guard cleared his throat. The sight of Denethor pacing was enough to cast unease in the bravest of hearts. ‘Lord Warden,’ the man said steadily. Anything less than steadiness was not to be tolerated in these elite men. ‘I have brought before you Lieutenant Herion of the Tenth Company.’
The man in question stepped into the room, looking about with great interest. He had never entered the Captain-General’s study, and he was clearly expecting favourable news. The thought stopped Denethor in his tracks, and he drew up to his full and most impressive height. ‘You may go,’ he said to the Guard. To Herion he said; ‘Get out of the threshold and close the door.’
Herion hesitated – small wonder – and looked unsure. Denethor’s tone was not that of a man bestowing a coveted promotion. He obeyed in his own good time. He seemed too inclined to do things in his own good time. Denethor’s temper flared again.
‘Do you think me a fool, Herion son of Hergil?’ Denethor demanded, fixing fiery eyes upon the man.
‘S-Sire?’ There was fear in Herion’s voice and bewilderment upon his face.
‘Do you think I do not know everything that happens in this City? Among my own Guardsmen? Do you think me an incompetent commander?’ snapped Denethor.
‘Sir, no, sir,’ said
‘Then tell me why you do not obey my orders!’
The stunned silence was most gratifying. Even moreso was the tremor in Herion’s voice when he said; ‘I do not understand, sire.’
‘Nine days ago, a messenger came to you with a clear command,’ said Denethor. ‘What was that command?’
At least the imbecile did not furrow his brow in laboured thought. ‘To return the ancient sword to the son of no man,’ Herion yipped.
‘And did you?’ Denethor demanded curtly.
‘Sir, yes, sir,’ Herion stammered. It was the second time he had used the lowly epithet, but Denethor did not upbraid him. It was the least of his transgressions.
‘T-Two days past?’ It was more question than statement.
‘Two days past,’ said Denethor, tasting each word. ‘I entrusted you with a valued piece of property and a direct order, and you waited seven days to obey me.’
‘Sire… I thought it was what you wanted,’ Herion protested. ‘All can see that you mislike the sell-sword, that he is not high in your favour. You bade me set him to draw water on manoeuvres with the malcontents; you did not reward him for his deeds on the field. You… you took the sword in the first place because you do not trust him!’
‘Whom I may trust or distrust is no business of yours,’ snarled Denethor. ‘Obeying my orders is. You were to carry out my instructions immediately, and yet you delayed. What am I to make of that?’
‘But sire, the water—’
‘Did it not occur to you, fool that you are, that I might have assigned him that task because he was most suited to it?’ Denethor demanded. It was not a falsehood; merely a hypothetical question. ‘Is it any business of yours if I chance to dislike some particular Guardsman? Is it any reason to court my displeasure yourself?’
‘I thought you would be pleased,’
Denethor’s glare withered the man. ‘Pleased. To have my word so wantonly disregarded. And why? So that you might watch the man squirm like a worm upon a hook?’
‘Well…’ Herion had sense enough not to say it, but it was clear from his tone. Then he stiffened defiantly. ‘He is an upstart. He is too much in favour of the Captain. He has designs upon—’
‘And what have you designs upon?’ snapped Denethor. ‘The post of First Lieutenant, no doubt. I had thought to give it to you, against your Captain’s wishes.’
‘Against his wishes?’ cried Herion. ‘Then Minardil would promote that bastard mercenary over me?’
‘Captain Minardil,’ Denethor spat. ‘You will show your superiors the proper respect. I will teach you that by any means necessary, son of Hergil. Make no mistake about that.’
He took a slow round of the room, turning regally to find Herion cowering. ‘Do you know what I hate more than a disobedient man?’ Denethor asked, speaking slowly and with grim relish. ‘A place-seeker. One who seeks to curry favour on the heights, instead of to serve diligently and with honour. When you sought to please me by your negligence, Guardsman, that is precisely what you did.’
‘Silence!’ Denethor barked. His tone was so sharp that even Valacar tensed. Herion very nearly fell back against the door in fear. ‘Do you know what your disobedience has bought?’
He stepped to the desk and picked up the letter from Minardil of the Tenth Company. He thrust it into Herion’s hands.
‘I now have no choice but to ratify your Captain’s appointment,’ he hissed. ‘I cannot put forward my own candidate, for that candidate is a conniver and a mutinous wretch. Because of your attempt to please me, that proud and equivocating sell-sword will be First Lieutenant.’
He stood silent to let the ramifications of this sink in. From the dawning dread in Herion’s eyes, Denethor wondered just what the precise circumstances of the returning of the sword had been. Since Thorongil surely did not know the source of the delay (and was that not the most galling thing of all, for the Lord Warden to be thought incompetent in his research?), Denethor guessed that Herion had taken the opportunity to humiliate the man. He would not ask, for he had no interest in punishing that. Let lesser men behave like lesser men: there was no stopping it.
‘As for you,’ said Denethor at last; ‘I could strip you of your rank for what you have done. Nay, I could remove you from the Guard and banish you from the City.’
‘Sire, I have lived all my life in Minas Tirith!’ Herion pleaded. ‘I am true! I am loyal! I erred in my judgement of your wishes, but it was only out of the desire to please you…’
He realized what he had said, and looked ready to swallow his tongue. Denethor curled his lip scornfully. ‘You will oversee the cleansing of the City when the weather turns,’ he said. ‘If you wish to keep your place, you will do so without complaint. I have eyes in every Circle, in every Company. Even the stones bear me tidings. I will know if you are discontented in this.’
Herion’s cheeks burned red. The punishment was not as great as it could have been, but it was disgraceful. All would know that he had fallen from favour. And the work he was to oversee was some of the most unpleasant to be had in a great city. His discomfiture pleased Denethor.
‘And I trust you will think twice ere you again delay my commands or waylay my messages,’ he said with cold satisfaction.
Herion pledged many times that he would, until Denethor grew tired of the grovelling and drove him from the room.
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