Chapter I: The Wanderer
Many were the miles that lay between great Rauros Falls and the ancient City of Kings. The land undulated with stony hills and shallow dales, sprinkled liberally throughout with woodland. It was not an onerous road but neither was it a leisurely one, and it had been many years since Thorongil had gone so far afoot. Still he found that he had settled into the rhythm of travel well in these last weeks. He was keeping a good pace even without cause to hurry, and both his legs and his boots were holding up. He had been worried about the boots. They had been made to fit him and to his specifications; he had taken care to break them in well in the month before he took his leave. But the cordwainders of Edoras were accustomed to crafting footwear that would stand up to manual labour or long days ahorse, not a trek of six score leagues through unpredictable wilderness. Still, these boots were serving him well and he deemed them worth their steep price.
There had been no cause to husband his coin in any case. The incomes Thorongil had held by gift of Thengel King had been largely put to use in the equipage and maintenance of his own éored and the supplementary support of the others beneath his command. For himself, Thorongil had only ever reserved enough to meet his daily needs and to see to the orderly management of the small stone house that he had also occupied by the pleasure of the King. In settling his affairs in Rohan, Thorongil had remanded custody of the dwelling back to Thengel. The farmholdings and their tithes had been deeded at his request to his most trusted lieutenant, now Captain of what had been known as the Eagle's Éored and Undermarshal in Thorongil's place.
It had all been settled very neatly, but the final result was that Thorongil had left Edoras with scarcely more than he had brought to it almost nine years before. He had the new boots, a little coin, a few simple garments too worn or personal to gift to friends and subordinates, and a book of songs and stories of the Riddermark that he had compiled over the years. He had had also his packful of travel fare, but that was long eaten now. Most important of all, he carried a letter of introduction from the King of Rohan in Thengel's own hand. This, Thorongil hoped, would be his surety that despite his reduced circumstances he would not be starting with nothing in his new life.
It was not that he had been driven destitute from Rohan, even with the reversion of his royal warrants. On the contrary, Thengel had tried to lavish rewards for his services upon Thorongil. The King had offered treasure and other moveable assets. When his erstwhile servant had courteously declined these, he had made the princely offer of Thorongil's pick of a breeding pair of horses – any two he wished, save only the royally reserved Mearas themselves.
Thorongil's reasons for turning down the gifts of wealth were threefold. First, he had not come to Rohan with the intention of enriching his person, but to learn all he need know of the Rohirrim, their hearts and ways, and of mounted warfare. Second, he had no wish to come to his destination as a prosperous lord from Gondor's closest ally. He was not interested in learning how the people of Anarion's city greeted and treated a newcome luminary, but in how they – and perhaps most importantly, the Steward – were disposed to a foreigner of no name and few prospects. Last of all, Thorongil still possessed a young man's doubts about his own worth. He wished to be taken on his merits alone, which allowed the use of the recommendation but not the trappings of privilege. Ecthelion son of Turgon, twenty-fifth reigning Steward of Gondor, had made it known far and wide that he welcomed all men of worth, regardless of their birth, into his service. Thorongil intended to put that to the test.
As for the horses, he was bound for a city of stone where he would have neither pasturage nor the means to procure livery services. Thorongil had no wish to curb the liberty of the fair steeds of Rohan merely to wait upon a day when he might have the means to provide for them.
He had not made for Minas Tirith by the most direct path. His years in close community among the good folk of Rohan had been rich and rewarding, but they had left him yearning for a taste of solitude. Thorongil had felt the need for quiet contemplation and reflection upon his duties and his destiny, whatever the last might be. Therefore upon departing Thengel's court in honour and friendship, he had set out upon a pilgrimage to the ancient seat of Amon Hen.
The choice to visit this place of reverence and history had seemed natural and almost foreordained. Having drawn so near it – within but a hundred miles – he could scarcely have failed to make the journey. It was a relic of the days of the great kings, and a wonder of the world as it had been. There long ago had Gondor kept a watch, and there still stood the Seat of Seeing.
Upon it Thorongil had sat, long descendant of kings and heir to Elendil himself. At first he had felt absurd, with the grime of travel upon his face and his body clad in his old clothes. These he had worn on his southward journey to Rohan years ago, and they were now ill-fitting upon a body grown both taller and stronger with his labours. But as he sat and breathed the cold air of winter's dying days, Thorongil had felt himself changing. His aspect grew more stern and ennobled, and his posture straighter and more regal than even a skilled swordsman's finesse ordinarily allowed. His heart had beat quick and strong with the essence of Westernesse within his blood and he had known, with a certainty that he belonged here on this high seat of kings, looking out upon a world given at least in part into his stewardship.
First to the West had he looked, from whence he had most lately come. There the coarse woods and rocky soil had stretched for a moment clear to the horizon. Then his sight had lengthened: not a seeing of the eyes so much as of the mind. And Thorongil had looked upon the broad plains of Rohan, yet brown and dormant but soon to be clad in the brilliant green of springtime. He could see the horsemen riding, the plumes of their helms rippling in the wind in echo of their mounts' silken tails. He could see the cotholds and the rural manors where dwelt people both simple and wise at once, good of heart and strong in their resolve to live out that goodness each day. He could see the three rings about the city of Edoras, and the glint of the golden roof of the Meduseld. And he saw a land still beleaguered upon her borders, but more secure now than she had been in many a year. And he saw and he knew that this security was due in some small part to his own contributions, and he was glad.
Then he had looked to the North, where lay the Hithaeglir and the long road home. He had feared to gaze that way, lest the longing for the lands of his youth and the haven of his childhood should overpower his resolve. But his farsightedness spared him this. It did not stretch so far. He could see the Misty Mountains, tall and majestic, and he could see the dark things – orc and beast and watcher – that were crawling back into them with each passing year. A time would come when such dangerous vermin would have to be dealt with, but now was not the time. Thorongil saw a dale like a great basin at the feet of three lofty peaks, and though there was nothing there to be seen but the empty land his heart had filled with a cold dread, and a lump as if of sorrow had risen unbidden in his throat. He looked no further northwards.
Steeling himself, he had turned to the East. He was yet many leagues to the North of the northmost marches of Mordor, and yet it seemed as if he saw them: grey barren mountains swept with ash and the bones of those long slaughtered. His pulse beat quick as he beheld the Dark Tower: Barad-dûr slowly rising again from the black plain of Gorgoroth, blacker still than the land and the clouds of belching poisons that hung low upon that place. Its foundations, the restoration of which had begun in the very year Thorongil had come into his own by the gift of Master Elrond of Imladris, were now complete. Its middling walls were high, and growing higher with the days as the slaves of Mordor toiled. From them already rose turrets and battlements and the half-grown spires of terrible towers to come. All about that place there was a portent of dread and despair, and before it glowed the fires of Orodruin. That sight had held Thorongil transfixed, lost in horror and dismay and a growing righteous rage that swelled within him until his strength, so bolstered, allowed him to tear his eyes away. Then all he saw were nameless forests on Anduin's far bank, stretching off many miles in emptiness.
Last of all, Thorongil had turned to the South: towards his most immediate future and his long intent. He beheld the curl of Anduin: at his feet crashing over Rauros and sweeping away down, down through the ruins of the great city of Osgiliath; down past the river-havens of Pelargir and the high sandy walls of Dol Amroth to the Bay of Belfalas upon the Sea itself. And beyond he saw other things: sly gatherings to ocean ports, and the busy hives of new construction where of old there had been dilapidation and poverty. He saw deep barks upon troughs of dry-dock, crusted with scaffolding and crawling with shipwrights. Thorongil saw danger: not immediate, but inexorable.
And he had seen the broad lands of Gondor away to the southwest, fair and fertile but troubled with wild men and brigands and the servants of Sauron. He saw the dells and orchards of Lossarnach, yet dormant in earnest of spring's fertility. He saw the busy valleys of Lamedon, and the far hill-country of Pinnath Gelin. All this he saw, and he saw that it was fair and wholesome and vibrant with life and with pride. He saw that it needed to be safeguarded, protected from the incursions upon its borders and the threat of worse to come – from South and East both. And Thorongil knew that he had chosen his course aright.
To Minas Tirith he had not looked, for he wished to behold that great city first with his own keen sight and not the hazy and changeable eyes of the mind. He had risen from the seat then, but long had he lingered in the cobbled ring; long into the night while he sat in deep thought with his back to the tumbled stone battlement. When at last his eyes could no longer hold themselves open, nor his mind keep its alertness, he had descended the steep slope with its crumbling stairs and found a place that was fit for the mundanities of supper and slumber.
All that had come to pass twenty-two days before, and since that time Thorongil had been making his way steadily south along Anduin. His progress was hampered somewhat by the need to hunt, for his rations were utterly depleted and winter was not a time of plentiful foraging. He managed to keep hunger at bay with his catches: snared rabbits, wild pheasant felled with a stone from a sling, and fish from shallows of the Great River. When he had come to the marshy delta of Onodló, Thorongil had been faced with a choice: brave the uncertain and changeable lands, or take the long westward road around, back into Eastfold from whence he had come. He had settled upon the more expedient route.
It had turned out to be a treacherous and most unpleasant road, but here the woodscraft learned from the sons of Elrond and his own Dúnedain had served Thorongil well. He could navigate a marsh, however broad, and he had good boots upon his feet. Of course it had proved impossible to keep dry in such a place, and he had taken a couple of very mucky duckings. The nights had been most miserable of all, huddled upright on sodden ground or, if he was very fortunate, stretched out upon some obliging stone washed here long ago in the changing of the world. Still he had emerged after six such nights alive, four-limbed and still soundly shod.
He had been very hungry upon his return to dry land, for there was little fit for eating in such a place and what game there was proved difficult to overtake when one was splashing and squelching through a flooded bog. Thorongil had managed with a few hours' labour to secure a plump rook to break his fast, and had braved the icy bite of Anduin's shallows to bathe his body and soak the worst of the mud from his clothes. They had dried by degrees over the next two days, but they looked much the worse for his floundering. They were stained and ground deep with dirt that he had no hope of removing without fuller's earth or soap. He had also torn wide the left knee of his hose in a particularly nasty fall across a sunken boulder. Long removed from wandering, Thorongil had not thought to bring needle and thread, so he went on with the skinned section of his leg bared to the elements.
He was walking now through Anórien, passing through fertile farmland instead of empty forest. It made a pleasant change, but Thorongil did not tarry. He could taste his goal upon the wind now, and he pressed on at a great pace. His long legs had strengthened considerably in his three weeks' steady walking, and he took great, swift strides as he followed rutted byways or the ditches of harder roads on his southward march.
He met a few folk as he went, but it was yet early in the year to be abroad in the fields. Those Thorongil did see were wary of strangers, but endeavoured to be kind. Anórien was border-country, and only its northwesterly edge drew up upon the dominion of a friend. More than once word had come to Edoras of orcs crossing over Anduin to worry these lands, and the Easterlings came still more frequently. But Thorongil had about himself the look of Númenor, and he was not waylaid. Neither was he offered any hospitality beyond the use of a well or leave to camp for a night in the shelter of a meadow hedge, but he sought none. He was content to maintain his rustic arrangements until he came to his destination.
He knew it was near. The land was ever more densely peopled, and that morning he had passed through the outskirts of a busy little town. He was eager now, his heart quick within him and the ambitions that he so often laid aside for the sake of more immediate efforts now foremost in his mind. If one day he achieved all that was foretold, these lands and the tower that overlooked him would be under his hand and entrusted to his care. He was walking not into a strange place, but towards his own city: the city of his birthright, the citadel of his forefathers, and the seat of the empty throne he longed one day to fill that through his service might follow a greater grace.
These thoughts were still fresh in his mind when the market-road he was following crested a hill, and Minas Tirith rose before his eyes. Its concentric white walls seemed to spiral up the slope of stony Mindoluin, bright in the sunshine with the grey of the streets between each to separate them. The ancient strength of that city, thrust up above the fruitful farmlands of the Pelennor Fields, awoke in Thorongil's breast an awe that he had scarcely imagined even in the dreams of his youth. A feat of Númenorean architecture such as the masons of these latter days could not hope to echo, the City of Kings seemed rooted to the mountain instead of built upon it. It looked as though it always had stood and would always stand just as it was at this moment: lofty and proud and glorious.
And crowing it all was the White Tower, erected to its present splendour by he from whom the Steward took his name. It shot upward to the sky, a spire as straight and true as any known upon the earth. White as pearl it was, and it shone in the noonday Sun with such silvery brilliance that it reminded Thorongil of nothing so much as the spear Aeglos out of legend. It was not surprising. His mind was filled with thoughts of Elendil and his mightiest ally, of his sons who had overseen the building of this towering city and its mate, of all he had read and all he had been told of these greatest of his forebearers ever to walk these easterly lands. His heart was filled with reverence and a sobering sense of his own smallness before such a legacy.
Yet his legs were filled with strength and eagerness, and they carried him swiftly down the hillside and along the road towards the first great gate. He had many miles yet to walk through the fertile fields and fallows of the Pelennor, but in that moment it seemed that nothing stood betwixt him and his destination but the length of his stride.
In the council chamber of the White Tower stood Ecthelion son of Turgon, second of that name and twenty-fourth in direct descent from Mardil Voronwë himself. His back was to the great table littered with the detritus of that morning's meeting of the Steward's Council. It had been a less productive session than Ecthelion had hoped, and it was a childish but very real comfort to turn his gaze from its ruins. Far better to look out upon the Court of the Fountain, even though winter's last fruitlessness still lay upon it and left the carefully tended greensward an indifferent brown. The water flowed, dancing high and beading like diamante on the bare and drooping limbs of the White Tree. It was a heartening sight for Ecthelion's eyes: a tangible reminder that though the line of Kings had faded, Gondor yet endured and would continue to endure so long as her Steward remained faithful and strong.
Yet at times strength was a burden, and never more so than when the Council was in disagreement. Presiding over a room filled with argumentative noblemen was no easy task, and today Ecthelion had not even had the aid of his son. For Denethor had sided against his father in the debate, and had had no interest in reigning in the quarrel while it delayed any further action in the matter of the wall.
There had been no opposition five years before, when Ecthelion had first proposed the idea. The fortification of the causeway that lead eastward to the ruins of Osgiliath and the perilous road to Morgul Vale had been universally approved and funds swiftly allotted from the realm's Treasury to finance its making. Now the construction was complete: the gate with its flanking turrets and strong, high walls that sloped down to either side for a distance of a mile or more in either direction. The time had come to implement the second phase of the defences: the building of a great ring wall to enclose the fields of the Pelennor and secure the farms and orchards that supplied Minas Tirith with the greater part of her foodstuffs. Yet now the Council balked, and there was dissension even between the Steward and his Heir.
Denethor argued that such a defence was nothing more than a token: a placating gesture that did more to ease the minds of common folk than to safeguard them from the Enemy's advances. To his voice were added others: Belthil, Lord of Lammedon argued against the impracticality of such a massive undertaking; the Exchequer was concerned about the strain upon the finances of the realm. Still others spoke to the want of stone, the pressure on the undermanned quarries to produce, and the difficulty of finding qualified stonemasons to erect a barrier that could endure a true assault. Most damning of all were the words of Adrahil of Dol Amroth, who sat in his father's place on the Council.
'Will it not serve only to show the Enemy our fear?' he had asked in his quiet but knowing way. 'Were I the Master of Barad-dûr, I would look upon such labours and say to my servants; "Lo! I have broken them at last. See how they scurry like ants shoring up their little hill before the mighty tide!".'
It was then that Ecthelion had known the debate was lost, despite those who argued on his side. The great wall would not be built this year; that much was certain. And in that lost year, as with every year, the Shadow would deepen and the fires of Orodruin grow fiercer. The Dark Tower would climb higher by slow but ineluctable degrees. Gondor's defences could not match its pace. That was the dread he had borne through the years of his Stewardship, and now it rested more heavily on his heart than ever before.
A soft cough alerted him to a second presence in the chamber, but Ecthelion did not turn. He watched the water dripping patiently from the Tree, and he thought to himself: Gondor will endure. She must endure. I must make her endure.
'Yes?' he asked tonelessly, not knowing whether it was lord or servant who stood behind him. It might even be his wife or one of his daughters, if Denethor had told them of his opposition and the Council's hard debates.
The voice that spoke was the one Ecthelion had least expected to hear.
'My father,' said Denethor in the same measured manner.
Now Ecthelion did turn, looking to his third child and the great pride of his heart. Denethor was taller than his sire – the tallest man in the city, and likely in all the land. He had the dark hair and steely eyes so common among his race, but in his noble features and his bearing, in his height and his insight and his power to stir the hearts of men to loyalty unmatched he was more than an ordinary lordling of Gondor. In him the blood of Númenor seemed to run pure, or nearly so. Ecthelion knew that in his heir he had met his better, and he was glad. Gondor deserved great men, and such a one was Denethor.
Yet he was also stern and often impatient. He had little tolerance for the failings of others, and little time to lavish upon the gentler aspects of human interaction. At five and thirty he was already a hardened Captain-General, but more than that he was a hard man. Forgiveness came slowly to Denethor's heart, and forgetfulness came never. In battle his disposition served him well, but in the training of green recruits it was no asset. Nor did it make the mending of quarrels between father and son any easy matter.
'I respect your concerns about the fastness of the proposed wall,' Ecthelion said carefully. He knew he must seem neither anxious nor patronizing, for the second Denethor would resent and the first he would scorn. 'It is true that such a fortification will be vulnerable during the years of its making. Yet the stonemasons of Gondor know much of strong walls and mighty defences. Consider the Ring of Isengard, impenetrable to the most fearsome assault. I aspire only to give our folk such protection.'
'I have argued my case already, and I shall not do so again merely for the advantage of a private audience,' Denethor said coolly. There was high pride in the tilt of his head, but no disdain in his voice.
In times past, Ecthelion had borne much from his son; more than most fathers would have tolerated from the vagaries of adolescence. During the early years of Denethor's majority, Ecthelion wondered whether he had erred in allowing his son the freedom to speak his mind so long as in his actions he was obedient. Yet now he had a clear-headed and strong-willed advisor and tactician to lean upon, and that was worth the wounds of harsh words and the sting of disrespect he had endured then.
Now he nodded. 'An admirable position, Captain-General,' he said. He knew that it pleased Denethor to be addressed by his rank, and he deserved it. He had earned the position through far more than right of birth alone, and in thirteen short years of holding it he had already spilled more foes' blood than Ecthelion had in all his own tenure.
'Why did you return, if not for that end?' he asked pleasantly, daring now to smile as his son's eyes softened a little. Ecthelion gestured to the clutter on the table. 'Have you come to help me put this mess to rights?'
Denethor sighed with the endurance of one repeating an old grievance out of love alone. 'There are servants to do that,' he said, drawing near and brushing clean a swath of the board. Parings of quill nibs, scraps of torn paper, and a dusting of blotter sand fled before his hand as only a fortnight past the Easterlings had fled before his standard. 'Must you take it upon yourself to put everything to rights, even the tables?'
Ecthelion chuckled and clapped his heir's arm. 'Must you always rise to my baiting? I spoke in jest, and well you know it. Lend me your aid with the map, at least. One of my trusted councillors advised me to take greater care with such things, for it may be a pageboy can be bought.'
Denethor's mouth curled in a wry half-smile. It had been he, of course, who had made the argument. He had a caution of spies and traitors that Ecthelion himself could not quite understand. Certainly there were watchers aplenty, both near and abroad. But never in the years of his rule had Gondor been betrayed by one of her own.
Denethor would have added to our knowledge to qualify such a claim.
Together the lifted the great map of the city and the lands about her feet. Like housemaids shaking out a sheet they tilted it, making the parchment shiver and ripple to clean it of any sand. It was not often that any of the maps were marked, for they were costly to reproduce and their accuracy was of paramount value. Yet today Ecthelion had sketched in ink his proposed path for what he hoped one day would be the Rammas Echor of the Pelennor fields. It had seemed at the time a gesture of optimism. Now he wondered whether it had been one of desperation instead.
Denethor held his corners of the map taut so that Ecthelion could roll it. Then the Steward held the tube snug while Denethor took up the scarlet ribbon that had bound it. He knotted it deftly, and accepted the map while his father moved to the tall cabinet that housed all the charts of strategy employed in Gondor's defence. Captains and companies of soldiers had their own copies of one or two at a time, as befitted their need and their responsibilities, but here were held the masters. The contents of this cupboard would be worth a princely price to the Enemy. Thus it was kept locked fast and secured in this room in the White Tower, where the sable Guards of the Citadel kept a constant watch. Talk of pageboys or chambermaids absconding with a map was unreasoned wariness on Denethor's part.
Still it was with great care that Ecthelion turned the key in its heavy lock, testing the doors to be sure they held firm. Denethor looked on with tacit sanction of this caution, his hand at his hip. He fingered the silver tracery of the Great Horn where it hung from its silken baldric. He did so often at such moments, when he saw his sire in some act of which he heartily approved. It was a thing only a father might notice, and Ethelion believed he read the gesture for what it was. At these times Denethor was looking at his father's deed and thinking that this he too would do when he was himself the Steward.
When the great ring of keys was returned to its place on Ecthelion's belt, Denethor spoke. 'I came to ask your counsel, my father,' he said, looking off into the middle space above Ethelion's head. It was an easy thing for one of his height. 'Will you walk with me in the Court, and hear my concern?'
'You need never ask that,' said Ecthelion, both surprised and pleased by the request. 'My counsel is ever at your disposal, as I hope yours is to me.'
'It is,' said Denethor, holding open the door to the council chamber so that his father might pass through before him. Such protocols came naturally to him, but there were times when they seemed more the product of reflex than of true humility. 'Yet in this matter I have counselled in vain, and now I must ask what my Lord Steward in his wisdom intended in such an exigency.'
They took a torchlit corridor to the small door that opened near the back of the Court of the Fountain. The great entrance to the Tower stood almost a quadrant away, and the guards before it were out of earshot of speakers who kept their voices low. There was only one open arch into the courtyard, and so no need to guard this lesser door.
Denethor's boots clicked upon the white paving stones, and Ecthelion's soft shoes whispered with the hems of his robes. His son was dressed for action, as he most often did in daily matters, but Ecthelion had long ago done away with jerkins that brushed the knees and snug hose that allowed for swift movement. He was a man at the end of his middle years of life, though in that older than lesser men were. His days of springing into battle or sparring in the barracks-yards were past him.
'What is this exigency that proves beyond the scope of your judgment?' asked Ecthelion. He regretted his wording almost at once, for he saw how his son might misconstrue it.
Yet Denethor gave no sign of offence. With perfect credulity he said; 'I wondered only how Your Lordship intended such situations to be dealt with when he made public his unprecedented policy of welcome. I do not know what you wish me to do, for I do not wish to overstep the constraints of my rank.'
Now Ecthelion understood. There was a problem with one of the foreign soldiers that he had welcomed into his service. This policy had been one of the first he had implemented upon his ascension, and even as a youth of four and twenty Denethor had disputed its prudence. Emissaries of Gondor had let it be known far and wide than any man of worth who wished to pledge his fidelity to the Steward would be welcomed into his service. In the last few years, as the Shadow grew and the need to bolster Gondor's defences increased, the promotion of this proclamation had become more aggressive.
As a result, the influx of men from far and wide had become greater. There were procedures in place for the vetting and acceptance of such men, for their housing in their first days in Minas Tirith (for many were indigent and some had crossed through the Enemy's lines with nothing to their name), and of the placing of recruits with appropriate companies. Ecthelion was compelled to wonder what might have arisen that his advisors had not foreseen.
'Is there a newcomer who has given you cause to doubt the sincerity of his suit?' he asked. There were measures in place for this also, but it was always a delicate situation.
'It is no newcomer, but one who has dwelt in the city now seven years,' said Denethor. 'Jamon the Easterling, soldier of the Ninth Company of the City Guard, has asked leave of his Captain to wed.'
'That is scarcely a matter for your concern,' Ecthelion said mildly. It was customary for a soldier of lowest rank to ask his commanding officer's permission before taking a wife, but it was not required under any law or regulation. It was merely a courtesy, because of the changes marriage required of a man's situation. While it was true that such a matter had never yet arisen among the outland soldiers, it was hardly baffling. 'Let Beleg decide for himself whether the union has his blessing.'
'It has,' said Denethor. Now his voice was very hard. 'It has not my blessing.'
This surprised a little laugh from the Steward's lips. 'And is the blessing of the Captain-General needed for a wedding?' he asked. 'As you have but lately reminded me, there are those beneath you to see to that.'
'Ordinarily, yes,' Denethor said. The words came out tightly, as if through teeth biting down upon some unseemly sentiment. 'Yet as the man is not one of our own—'
'He has served loyally for seven years, has he not?' Ecthelion asked. Sooner or later all soldiers of fortune were brought before him, but he could not remember this Jamon. It was all but certain, then, that there had never been any lapse of discipline upon the Easterling's part. 'Does that not make him one of our own?'
'One of our soldiers, yes,' Denethor conceded. 'But he is not one of our folk; of our blood. The girl he wishes to marry is a merchant's daughter of an old family. A daughter of Gondor, of Westernesse. It is thoroughly unsuitable.'
It was on the tip of Ecthelion's tongue to ask what other sort of girl Denethor thought a Guard of the City might wed, unless it be one of the few children of Rohan who dwelt in Minas Tirith. His decree had brought few women to Gondor, for itinerant swordsmen were a solitary breed and those who came from Mordor's tributaries were often driven to defect by the loss of their wives and children at the hands of the Enemy's servants. Yet he did not speak his mind, not wishing to belittle his son by picking at his reasoning.
'Have the girl's parents made any complaint about the man's conduct?' asked Ecthelion instead. Harassment of the citizenry was strictly forbidden for all soldiers of Gondor. She might be a kingdom at war, but the Steward refused to see her reduced to a military state.
'To my knowledge, no,' Denethor said. 'Captain Beleg has met with the father to ensure they have his consent to the match. Of the mother's feelings I know nothing. Yet it cannot be allowed, my Lord. If we permit such rabble to wed our daughters—'
'Rabble?' Now Ecthelion was flummoxed. 'You said he was a Guard in my service. I have never heard any complaint against him, and it is required that accusations against any of my soldiers of fortune be brought to me. Do you know something I do not?'
'I know he is an Easterling, swarthy of skin and deceitful by nature,' Denethor spat. 'I will not stand idly by while one of our women shackles herself to such a creature of Sauron.'
Ecthelion stiffened, and not only at the rancour in his son's voice. The name of the Enemy was seldom spoken in the city, so wound was it with dread and destruction, yet Denethor insisted upon using it. This act of defiance against the Shadow was admirable, but the ease with which the name came to the man's lips filled his father with disquiet. Denethor spoke of the Dark Lord of Mordor with the same cool disdain with which he would have named some mere Captain of the foe. Ecthelion did not know if it was a mark of courage or of arrogance.
'If she is of age and her parents do not object, there is nothing to prevent the match,' said Ecthelion, trying to focus on the matter at hand instead of his concerns for the state of his son's mind. 'Would you forbid it even in the face of Beleg's consent? Is that an act worthy of a great leader?'
'It is a needful act, and I will do it if none other will,' said Denethor boldly. Then he frowned and went on with more subdued puzzlement. 'I had thought you would take my part in this, Father. Surely you never intended these mercenaries to wed the daughters of Gondor and to pollute the blood of our forefathers?'
Ecthelion looked at his son, saddened by his want of understanding. Denethor had never liked this policy, it was true, but it was a hard thing to learn that he did not see its value. 'I intended them to make their home among us,' he said. 'Wedding is a part of that. A man may face danger for silver coin, but he will only face death for love of his family.'
Denethor looked at him, grey eyes tempestuous and noble features drawn down into a grim scowl of disapproval. For a long moment he did not speak. Then he tore his gaze away.
'Very well,' he said, with the unfeeling cold of a Captain accepting a misliked order out of duty alone. 'I shall tell Beleg that there is no impediment to the union in your eyes. Yet if evil comes of it, I will demand that this precedent be stricken down.'
'If evil comes of love, we shall have more to fear than half-caste children,' said Ecthelion softly.
Dusk was drawing nigh when Thorongil reached the Great Gate. It was still open wide, allowing the outward flow of folk who had come to the city to transact their business. There were farmers driving wains or pulling handcarts that had been filled with sacks of flour, dried peas or like unperishibles, which would command a higher price now than they had in the autumn. Cottage weavers and potters and other small craftsmen were returning to their homes with unsold wares. As Thorongil passed into the shadow of the wall, two noblemen on horseback clattered through and forced him to dance backward into the ditch to keep from being trampled. He followed them with his eyes as they cut out across the fallow fields.
In Rohan he would never have been thus disregarded, renown as he was for his service to the King. It was a stark reminder of his willful toppling of his fortunes. That he had set his mind to it did not free him from doubt, and it was such petty indignities that were likely to rankle most keenly.
He scrambled back up onto the roadway, his boots slipping on slick dead grasses, and he came up to the Gate. There were four guards before it: two on each side. On the ramparts above were half a dozen more, not all alert to their watch. The ones on the ground were, however, and one of them stepped into Thorongil's path.
'Do you dwell in the city?' he challenged. 'I do not know your face.'
'As if we could remember every face,' one of the men above muttered to his partner. Doubtless he thought his comment too low to be heard, but Thorongil's ears were as sharp as his eyes.
He could have taken the implication in those words and bluffed his way through, but that honour would never allow. He did not wish his service in Gondor to begin with a falsehood, however inconsequential. The wisest of his kindred had taught him with no uncertainty that such lies exacted their price in the end.
'I do not,' he said courteously, meeting the guard's eyes but keeping his own meek and veiled.
'It's late to be coming in for business,' said the guard. 'And if you're here to buy you'll find most of the shops closed and the markets sparse. You haven't time to get as much as a cold loaf before we shut the gates with you inside them. Best go home and come back in the morning.'
Thorongil considered his answer for a moment, as clearly the soldiers expected. 'I thank you for your forthright advice. Yet I have no business to guide me hither, nor have I come to buy – not even a cold loaf,' he added with a thin twitch of a smile. 'I have no home to which I may return, and I seek entry into the White City that I might alter that circumstance.'
Thus qualified, it was no lie. He could not return to his home at present, not with his labours yet unfinished and his education incomplete. Still to make such an admission aloud left a hollow in Thorongil's breast, as if he had by speaking somehow sealed his long discerption from those he loved.
'We have no need of vagrants here,' said the guard, stern but not cruel. 'Have you some skill to offer the folk of Minas Tirith?'
'I have many skills,' Thorongil said, raising his head a little. 'I hope to offer them not only to the folk of Minas Tirith, but to the Lord Steward of Gondor himself. It is said that he welcomes into his service those who are willing to aid in the defence of his lands, if they be worthy.'
The guard raised his eyebrows. Until that moment he had taken Thorongil for one of his countrymen: a citizen of Gondor coming in from some other fief to seek his fortune in the great city. It was a natural assumption, for his looks and colouration were as commonplace here as they had been exotic in Rohan. Now he was known for what he was: a stranger to this land seeking a position in the service of the Steward. From speaking with Thengel of his old friend, Thorongil knew that not all in Gondor liked Ecthelion's practice of welcome. He wondered now if this soldier might be among that number.
'They must be proved to be worthy,' the guard warned. 'It is not a matter of strolling up to the Gate and demanding a place.'
'I understand,' said Thorongil equably, though the condescension in the man's voice was hard to take. Again he reminded himself that he had chosen this route into the city. He might have come mounted upon a fine stallion with a mare in tow, clad like a lord with the gifts of the King of Rohan in his saddlebags. Instead he had decided that this way was best. He must uphold that decision and prey upon no man for its repercussions.
The guard looked him over again, eyes lingering long upon the torn knee of his hose and the mudstains ground into his garments. Then he beckoned to one of his compatriots. 'Show him to the provost,' he said. 'See he does not wander.'
The other man, younger than the first and with very blue eyes, nodded as he murmured; 'Yes, sir.' Then to Thorongil he said, curtly; 'This way. Follow me.'
Thorongil followed, passing through the deep shadow of the Gate onto a broad street lighted by the lamps of nearby buildings in the gathering gloom. There was a squall of iron and a grinding of heavy hinges as the Great Gate was drawn to behind him. The resounding clang of the huge locking bar made his pulse quicken with more than the startling noise. He felt a hot surge of mingled eagerness, apprehension, and potent resolve. He was now within the walls of Minas Tirith. What came next he could not say.