It happened every year with the regularity of the seasons; the rains of autumn gave way to the sleet and muck of winter, the men of Osgiliath grew anxious for their coming leave, and Denethor son of Ecthelion began looking for convenient places to hide. That thought struck the Steward's son as he stepped in from the cold, but almost as soon as it did, he shook it off, snorting at the folly of his own mind. Hide indeed. There was no cause for such dramatic thinking, certainly not over something so benign as an expected summons from Minas Tirith. Yet, what other explanation was there for his behavior this day? He'd been out all afternoon conducting tedious inspections of the battlements despite the unfavorable weather, despite the mountains of paperwork that awaited him in his warm, dry study, despite the fact that he'd inspected that very stonework not three weeks past. It was needless busy work, and unpleasant at that, but its one virtue was that it allowed his squire to honestly say "his lordship is unavailable at present" to any messenger who might arrive.

And what other explanation was there for his sudden whim to take his evening meal here in the common mess hall rather than in his private chambers as he normally did? Certainly, it wasn't born of any burning desire to fraternize with the rough and rude men under his command—no more than they wished to socialize with their aloof commander. "Exacting," the men called him, along with other, less polite things when they thought he could not hear. Denethor supposed there were worse reputations for their lord's heir to nurture. If they thought him a stickler for detail and discipline, that would serve his purposes well enough, and it came with innumerable side benefits. For one thing, no one questioned his unusual decision to dine among the men tonight; they simply scrambled to show proper decorum by scrubbing down the rough bench that passed for a high table and fetching a kitchen boy to serve as his cupbearer. For another, they knew better than to remark on his sudden burst of productivity, and no one seemed to connect it to the waning of the year.

As he settled into his board and bread, alone save for the stammering kitchen boy, he tried to force his mind to normal, everyday matters of supply and armament—the grinding, necessary details that kept hundreds of men able and provisioned, that kept this city, ruined as it was, free from the Enemy's hordes. He was weary, though. His arms were heavy and the chainmail that he wore even here dragged on his shoulders. However he tried to discipline his mind, it kept creeping back to that unsettling thought; that he was hiding from his father's messengers.

Self-deception was an indulgence that bespoke weak spirit. As a rule, Denethor did not allow himself such folly. So, though it was the last thing he wanted to dwell on, he forced himself to confront the uncomfortable thought. He was hiding. Any day now, Ecthelion's messengers would arrive bearing word from the city; not the usual dry orders and scouting reports, but fine, embossed envelopes tied with silken ribbons—invitations to the many banquets and galas of the court's social season.

Denethor's face tightened as he thought of the coming festivities. Night after night, the cool halls of the Citadel would overflow with feasting and music and resplendent, redundant lords and ladies. Ecthelion was in his element at such times. He would lead the people in merriment, give endless speeches and toasts, praise his subjects to the skies. The Steward had a way of making every one of his people, from the lowliest servant to the highest prince, feel that they, specifically, were loved by their ruler. And, in the waning evenings, he would arrange a series of "accidental" encounters with those he found "interesting." It was from these quiet conversations over mulled wine, while music played and dancers whirled about outside, that policy would change and new leaders would be born. And Denethor, meanwhile, would be relegated to ceremony and pomp. He would have to play the dutiful son—would have to wait in attendance at the gleaming high table, his father's right-hand man, in appearances, at least. The lords and guild masters would make small talk with him—particularly those with daughters to marry off—but with every phrase and gesture and unspoken word, he would be reminded that they would never love him as they loved his father.

That hardly mattered—or so Denethor labored to convince himself. He had long ago accepted that he would never have his father's charm. A personable nature was a sort of fool's gold for rulers; it leant them a certain glamour in the eyes of some without adding any real value. A wise and prudent ruler had no need to befriend every beggar who arrived at his door. Denethor expected to be outshone by his father; this did not trouble him.

No, it was the backroom conversations that worried him—the late night dealings between Ecthelion and some "interesting" nobody, who today was only an errand rider or minor landowner but tomorrow might be a captain or a member of the war council. The Steward could have his glitter and his amicable conversations and his populist bent if only he would show some consistency in his rule. Instead, he seemed ready to turn the kingdom upside down for every untried fool who caught his attention and Denethor . . . Denethor could do nothing. He was never privy to these "accidental" encounters, after all, and Ecthelion would hardly consult with him before doing exactly as he pleased. He had expressed concern for his father's inconstancy and been laughed off. He had asked him directly for a greater role in the decision-making and had been rebuked as impatient. He had even tried to manipulate the encounters by planting one of his own advisors and had accomplished nothing except to lose one of his few, precious allies. At last, for fear of alienating his father altogether, he had been forced to surrender, play his role, and ride out whatever political upheavals the Steward visited on him with each new year.

It was always difficult, in this time of festivities, to sit idly by while he drifted further and further from any real influence and (he reminded himself that self-deception was for fools) while his father drifted further from him.

Far better to stay here, among the discipline and order of their fastness at Osgiliath, where every man knew his place and no one expected him to be anything other than their dour, exacting commander. But, of course, it was not up to him to decide. Absent some pressing military concern, he would be expected to turn over command of the garrison to a lieutenant, return to the city, and sacrifice all his leisure time to the decadent celebrations he was coming to loathe. He would sooner stay, even if the spare, tedious life of a garrison commander left little to envy.

The doors at the back of the hall blew open and a small knot of men strode in, talking and laughing raucously. From their gear, these were not men assigned to the garrison, but a loosely attached company of scouts. Doubtless, they had blown in like dry leaves and were hopeful only of a hot meal and a roof to keep the wet off awhile. From the grime and wear on their clothes, they had recently seen battle, but none seemed to be wounded and all appeared to be in high spirits. Even from a distance, Denethor could pick out a Captain right there in their midst, his shoulders shaking with laughter, his large hands reaching out to clap man after man on the back. The dozen or so merry warriors commandeered a table and gathered food and drink. As soon as they had tankards in their hands, they began toasting to their Captain's good health.

To Denethor's mild chagrin, he felt his face assuming a wistful cast. Long ago when he was still a foolish boy, he had imagined the great campaigns he would one day lead. In his idle fancies, he had conjured scenes not so different from the one before him: a close knit company of men returning triumphant, united in brotherhood and in their love and reverence for their Captain. The boy in Denethor still wanted to weave elaborate tales of excitement and heroism to explain their bedraggled appearance and still dreamed of being part of that.

But, he had long since become a man who knew the truth; that a Captain could be the sort of man who led great sorties and was a hero to a dozen men or he could be the sort who kept thousands fed and provisioned and in so doing actually contributed to the war effort. For him, the die had been cast long ago.

The Captain seemed to sense Denethor's gaze upon him. He turned and met his gaze briefly, his eyes politely questioning. Denethor looked away, his expression abruptly souring. Assured that the Steward's son was not trying to gain his attention, Thorongil turned back to his companions.

Denethor returned his attention to his plate, trying to quash his sudden, irrational surge of irritation. It was pointless to let himself be bothered by Thorongil's latest theatrics; for all that he was fast becoming a folk hero, the man was still a nobody in all the ways that mattered. The rootless Captain had blown down out of Rohan just that past spring, borne on the questionable strength of Thengel's recommendation. He was an admittedly strong tactician, particularly with small companies, though Denethor thought him a bit too enamored of stealth and ambush tactics. Beyond that, he was just one of a dozen field commanders that Denethor was occasionally saddled with. If he was more fair-spoken than most, that ought to make him easier to get along with. There was no reason why every encounter with the man should set Denethor's teeth on edge.

The Steward's heir did his best not to waste his energy fretting over the fortunes of unimportant men. He pushed the matter from his mind and tried to focus again on his meal. After only a few bites, though, the doors opened once more and a liveried messenger stepped in, already opening his oilskin satchel. Denethor took a sip of water and tried to keep his face impassive. It might be innocuous. Perhaps the man brought quartermasters' reports or instructions from the war council . . . but, no, the envelope the newcomer pulled from his satchel was as white as lamb's wool—small and delicate and encased in a silken ribbon. It seemed his social duties had caught up with him at last. With grim good humor, he steeled himself to accept his fate . . . but was unexpectedly spared at the eleventh hour. The messenger veered away from the high table and approached Thorongil instead. The foreign Captain accepted the envelope with a nod of thanks and a slight frown of confusion.

Denethor's expression, which up until that moment had been admirably controlled, suddenly darkened. Thorongil might be confused, but Denethor knew exactly what was going on here: this was his father's machinations. Doubtless, the Steward found Thengel's sword thain fascinating and was just breathlessly eager to get to know him better. The invitation that the man was even now stuffing into his pack was not simply to some ball or banquet, but into Ecthelion's confidences. Denethor waited for the messenger to pull another from his satchel, but the man merely offered a perfunctory bow in his direction and exited the hall.

Any relief he might have felt at dodging the inane festivities for another day was overshadowed by an immediate surge of antipathy. He expected his father's choices to tend towards the inexplicable, but Thorongil? The man was nothing—just some sellsword who'd wandered out of the northern wastes. Or, at least, he was nothing now. By the time he finished sipping wine and swapping war stories with the Steward, the hapless Captain might find himself in control of military strategy for all of Gondor. Denethor shuddered at the thought. And there was nothing he could do; his few past attempts at sabotage had only served to heighten Ecthelion's interest in his fortunate targets. Unless Thorongil was kind enough to undercut himself in the Steward's eyes, Denethor would simply have to accept his father's mercurial interest in the man.

He did not have long to stew, though, because the doors swung open yet again, and this time the newcomer was not bearing festive holiday tidings. A young scout limped into the hall, dragging one leg and dripping mud and blood as he went. He picked his way towards the high table, but Thorongil rose swiftly and fell into step beside him. Denethor saw the sellsword gesture towards the newcomer's wounded leg. The other shook his head and the two exchanged a few quiet words as they approached the table. That was another thing that bothered him about the upstart, Denethor reflected dimly: his ability to insert himself into any situation as if he had all the right in the world to control it. Clearly, the wounded man was here to report to Denethor, his commander, but thanks to Thorongil's quick legs, he would probably draw the whole story from him before Denethor had a chance to hear a word. All the same, Denethor pushed his annoyance from his mind; there was no time for petty disputes when men were bleeding.

He smoothed his face and rose as the two men reached him. "What have you to report . . ." he searched the bloodied man's face and his own memory, "Dengon?"

The man attempted a proper bow, nearly unbalanced himself, and had to accept a steadying hand from Thorongil. "Orcs, my lord," he bit out, "A raiding party attacked our outpost to the south. They killed . . . they killed . . ."

He must be speaking of the nearest outpost—three leagues downstream along the Anduin. It was a small garrison—just five men in tower of logs. "You were the only survivor?"

Dengon closed his eyes and nodded. Denethor's jaw clenched and Thorongil looked away. "How many orcs, Dengon?"

"T-twenty? Twenty-five?"

"Well, which is it, twenty or twenty-five?"

"Twenty-five." Despite his injury, the man straightened and collected himself, apparently remembering that he was a soldier and that lives could depend on the accuracy of his report. Denethor acknowledged his sudden change of spirit with a firm nod.

"Go and bathe and have your hurts seen to. These marauders will be dealt with."

With a word of acknowledgement, the man turned and limped away, slowly but under his own power. Thorongil watched him go, but hovered where he was, a pace from the table. Denethor reluctantly turned his attention to him. "Was there something you wished to add, Captain?"

Thorongil gave a graceful bow. He could at least be counted on to show the proper respect, but Denethor had a sneaking suspicion that he meant to pacify the Steward's son through his politeness. He resented the implication that such tactics were necessary. "Your pardon, my lord, I merely wished to ensure that Dengon had no need of assistance. He took an arrow graze to the thigh in the skirmish, and perhaps other wounds besides."

"He appears well enough for the present. If you are concerned, you may attend on him in the infirmary."

Still, Thorongil did not retreat. Denethor knew what he wanted, but he refused to make it easy on him with another query. Instead, he simply waited, his face expectant, until the other man was forced to turn away or break the silence awkwardly. Of course, he chose the latter. "Ah, my lord, this raiding party could pose a threat to the other outposts. Not to mention our farms and villages to the west."

"Undoubtedly. It will be dealt with. I know my duty, Captain Thorongil."

"Of course," he answered smoothly, "I merely wished to offer the services of company in eliminating this threat."

Denethor frowned. "Your men are battle-worn. They have been in the field for . . . nearly three weeks."

"Three and a half," Thorongil answered, "But they are well enough. We saw only one skirmish in that time, and the men took no wounds. I believe we can rout these orcs."

"If Dengon's report is true, they outnumber your men more than two to one. I can easily send thirty."

"Numbers matter less in the face of certain tactics."

Of course. He meant to try another of his death-defying ambushes and further add to his legend. "Rest your men. We've enough garrisoned here to deal with this threat in greater safety." He nodded at the delicate envelope that poked out of his pack. "Besides which, you have an engagement elsewhere, no?"

A chink appeared in Thorongil's armor. His brow furrowed and he shuffled his feet, looking for a moment more like an awkward schoolboy than a capable Captain. "His lordship is kind to think of me," he said without looking at Denethor, "But I am little used to events as fine as this gala promises to be. I fear I would be quite out of my element."

Denethor gleefully reflected that he was probably correct.

"At any rate, I could do more good for Gondor by turning back these raiders than by dancing in your father's hall. So, my own preferences matter little."

Denethor was ashamed to admit that he toyed with the idea of acceding to Thorongil's preferences all the same. However little he might like it, the other man had had some fantastic successes with his unorthodox tactics. Perhaps he could handle the raiding party. And perhaps the lord Steward would simply have to find someone else with whom to while away the tedious hours . . . He shook off the thought. He had a duty to keep this region safe, after all, and letting Thorongil caper off on some wild, doomed orc hunt was a gross dereliction of that duty. He shook his head. "Rest your men," he repeated, "Do not insult the lord Steward with your absence. I will handle the orc incursion."

As Thorongil retreated—reluctantly, as if Denethor had ordered him to the gallows rather than a party—a cheerful thought struck Denethor. Thorongil was right that a response was needed, and someone would have to command those men in the field. Denethor didn't often get the opportunity to command true engagements anymore, but they never failed to make him feel more alive. And besides, this raiding party certainly constituted a "pressing military concern."

In better spirits, he began to mentally organize how best to counter twenty-five orcs with thirty men.

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Returning after two weeks in the wild, Denethor felt like twice the man he'd been before. Truly, he'd let himself get bogged down with logistical duties for far too long. It felt incongruously wonderful to feel dirt in his pores and a sword at his hip once more, and to be reminded that the chainmail he wore was not meant simply to keep his body strong. Best of all, the social season had come and gone while he tramped through the bushes with the common men. He would not have to spend one hour standing in the shadow of his increasingly erratic father.

As for their hunt, it had gone well enough. After a few false starts, they had picked up the orcs' trail and come upon them before they'd had time to do more than burn a few abandoned cots and terrorize a traveler or two. In the ensuing battle, Denethor had lost a few men, but fewer than he'd expected given their nearly matched odds. He'd made no hero of himself, he knew—the men would sing no songs and raise no toasts to Denethor the Bold—but he had acquitted himself well and had accomplished all his aims. His men would be safe, if not overly grateful.

As he passed through the gates of their fortification, he happened upon none other than Captain Thorongil, who was clearly returning from his own dangerous incursion into the Gondorian court. The other man was cleaner than Denethor had ever seen him. His clothes were freshly laundered and even his much-weathered cloak had been beaten out. As Denethor stepped past him, he realized that the man still smelled faintly of the many perfumes that always permeated the banquet hall. Denethor pushed his hair back from his muddied face. The repressed boy in him took smug satisfaction at the reversal of roles, while the political schemer delighted in picturing the sellsword lingering in the back of Ecthelion's halls, a fish out of water, with his inadequacies obvious to even the blindest eyes.

Denethor's good mood inclined him towards magnanimity. "Captain," he said pleasantly enough, "How did you find the city?"

Thorongil turned to him, a faint smile on his face, and Denethor was disappointed to note that he no longer appeared awkward or unsure. "Quite enjoyable, actually," he said, his voice mild, "I had some . . . interesting conversations."

Denethor's heart sank as he exchanged the bare minimum of pleasantries with him. From the other man's expression, it was clear what had happened; whatever discomfort Thorongil might have felt, it did little to dampen the Steward's interest in him. Ecthelion, it seemed, had a new favorite captain. No matter. Whatever changes might come, Denethor would weather them as he always had. He would be Steward one day, after all, whether Ecthelion heeded him now or not. Things would be different in his reign. Until then, he could handle the likes of Thorongil.

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An hour later, he was back in his study, reviewing the pile of missives that had arrived in his absence. Scouting reports, updates from the quartermasters, equipment requisitions . . . all on rough parchment, wrapped in leather. Nowhere in the heap could he find the fine stationary of the Citadel.

Frowning slightly, he summoned his squire.

"Have no other letters arrived for me?"

"No, my lord."

"Truly? Nothing from Minas Tirith?"

"Nothing, my lord."

"Very well." He dismissed the boy with a wave. His father, it seemed, had no use for him this year, even as a convenient decoration.

He told himself he was not disappointed. Then he remembered that self-deception was for fools.

fin