Imrahil took Thorongil's usual seat near the foot of the long council table. The Lord Steward, Imrahil's father Adrahil, and the other councilors looked at him in some surprise doubtless wondering where the Captain was. So did Imrahil, and he wondered even more why Thorongil had chosen this moment above all others to vanish back into the mists from which he had come.
The Steward, seeing his nervousness smiled kindly. "Well, Imrahil? sailor's gossip says the attack was a great success but we would hear the details."
"We were fortunate beyond our wildest hopes." the young Prince answered. "We attacked by night and took them by complete surprise.
"How so?" Adrahil asked puzzled, "their scout ships and watch towers should have given them warning."
Imrahil shook his head. "They did not see us, we were covered by a sea fog once we passed out of our own waters."
There was a moment's silence as the councilors exchanged glances. Imrahil knew what they were thinking, he thought the same. It was not the whim of Osse that had concealed them from unfriendly eyes but Thorongil's will. Though how he could have accomplished such a thing none of them could say. Except perhaps the Lord Steward, who seemed the least surprised of them all.
"The harbor was full of ships," Imrahil continued, "not just the usual coastal raiders but monstrous diremes and triremes."
There was another stir among the councilors. Such ships could only have been intended for a large scale attack on Gondor's ports, perhaps even a seaborne invasion of the kingdom. Gondor might have suffered bitterly had the Steward had not finally relented and allowed Thorongil to make the attack he'd argued for, for so long.
"The fleet," a grandiose name for two or three squadrons of small ships, "separated upon entering the harbor and attacked simultaneously at many points. The confusion was great and the Umbarmen were unable to organize any real defense.
"The Captain himself landed on the quays of the City and put the shipyards to the torch." Imrahil swallowed, trying not to remember that inferno of tarred timber and the screams of the wretches trapped within it. "We were caught on the quays by the Captain of the Haven and his guard but we bested them. Thorongil himself slew the Black Captain."
"We withdrew before dawn; the greater part of the Umbar fleet, including all the great ships, was utterly destroyed, as were the shipyards. Our own losses were incredibly light, perhaps fifty Men all told out of twelve hundred. Of course there were many more wounded but they are expected to recover."
"It is wonderful." Adrahil said, shaking his head. "Once again Thorongil has performed miracles. But where is he? Why has he not come himself to make report?" a look of sudden alarm flashed over his face. "Say not that he is wounded!"
"He was unharmed," Imrahil said quietly, "but he has left us." A movement of consternation stirred the councilors, excepting only the Lord Steward and his son. Imrahil was instantly certain his news was no news at all to them. "He returned with us to Pelargir, saw the fleet disbanded and the Men paid. Only after all was done did he tell us he was not going back to Minas Tirith. We argued with him, pleaded, but he would not be moved." he looked at the Steward. "The Captain sent you a message, my Lord; "Other tasks now call me, Lord, and much time and many perils must pass, ere I come again to Gondor, if that be my fate."
Ecthelion nodded impassively. He had expected this. Perhaps he even knew what these mysterious tasks were and who had summoned Thorongil back to them.
"Is it known where he went?" asked Narcil of Anorien.
"Yes, my Lord." Imrahil answered reluctantly. "He took a boat across the Anduin and on the farther shore said his final farewell to those of us who had accompanied him. And then - he just walked away into the wilds, his face towards the Mountains of Shadow!"
That had distressed Imrahil, and all of them, above all. It was impossible to believe any evil of Thorongil but why, why had he gone eastward, towards the Enemy? The councilors were equally perturbed, breaking into little murmurs of consternation. Imrahil bristled, wanting to defend his Captain from their suspicions, but how?
Incredibly it was the Lord Denethor who found a simple answer to the puzzle. "I see no evil in that," he said, "no doubt Thorongil merely wishes to say farewell to his officers among the Rangers."
The Lord Steward gave his son a look of unconcealed gratitude and every face showed relief. Even Imrahil felt better. Of course, he should have thought of that himself. He felt a sudden impulse of friendliness towards Denethor. It was generous of him to do justice to a Man he'd always regarded as a rival and a foe.
Ecthelion was similarly impressed. "That was good of you, son." he said quietly as they walked away together from the council chamber.
Denethor grimaced a little. "Not really. You and I both know that Thorongil cannot possibly be in league with the Dark Lord. I would not have our people waste their energies on unnecessary fears."
"That too was a good thought." said Ecthelion. "Denethor, I will be needing a new Captain of the Citadel, would you accept the post?"
The son looked at his father in amazement. "Me?"
"Who else?" The Steward asked simply. "I need a Man I can trust completely in that place."
Denethor's eyes filled with tears that he was hard pressed not to let fall. It was true then, Thorongil and Thorongil alone had stood between them. Now he was gone all would be as it should be between him and his father.
"Of course, sir, if you wish it." he said when he had mastered himself. "But what of my present post as Captain of the Marches?"
"I think it would be best if you continue to hold that title as well." Ecthelion replied. "Lieutenants can perform the actual duties - under your command of course."
Denethor frowned. "Who?" It seemed to him his father's sidelong glance held a touch of apprehension.
"I have some Men in mind."
His nephew Hurin was a romantic young idiot Denethor thought grimly. Still, it would be as well to learn as much as they could about these raggle-tailed northern kinsmen of theirs, especially if their chiefs still harbored notions of claiming Gondor's throne. And Denethor found himself, rather reluctantly, thinking the better of Thorongil as well. At least he had left hostages for Hurin's safety rather than relying on Ecthelion's besotted confidence in his bare word.
Denethor gazed without friendliness at the twins, young Men with Thorongil's look and bearing, standing quietly before his father's writing table. They were dressed in simple black, each with a many pointed silver star pinning his cloak at the shoulder. These at least could harbor no kingly ambitions being kin to the Royal line only on the distaff side! But there sat Ecthelion, looking to his son for support and council. For his father's sake Denethor forced himself to speak courteously:
"If you are willing to serve as your uncle did you are more then welcome."
"Most willing. Mordor is the enemy of all Men." said one twin.
"We have been trained as Rangers and scouts," said the other, "and trust we may make ourselves useful to you, Lord Denethor."
"I doubt not but you will." Denethor said graciously, trying to hide his inward exultation. This pair would be under his orders, not equals - and never rivals. He would see to that! "By what names will you be known?"
"Mormegil." said the Steward before either twin could answer. "Mormegil and Morandir."
All three young Men looked at him startled, then the two Northerners bowed. "As you wish."
'Black Sword' and 'Dark Wanderer', Denethor reflected, suitable enough names. Men were always coming from the provinces and beyond to take service in the White City. There was no reason why these two should ever be connected in Men's minds with Thorongil. Denethor meant to keep them out on the marches where they'd useful and harmless and completely unknown.
No sooner had the twins been dismissed then they found themselves called back again, this time to face Ecthelion alone.
"Why did the Lord Aragorn turn east?" he demanded.
Ellenion - Morandir - smiled. "Your son had the right of it, my Lord - at least in part. Uncle has gone to tell our watchers on the Black Gate that he is leaving Gondor and future reports must be sent elswhere."
Ecthelion frowned. "You keep a watch on the Morannon?"
"Gondor is not Mordor's only enemy." Ereinion, now Mormegil, answered. "We too have some interest in the doings of the Dark Lord."
Ecthelion cocked his head thoughtfully. "How many other watchers has my Lord Aragorn set - and where?" The two young Men exchanged an uneasy look and he smiled reassuringly. "You need not answer that. I am only thinking out loud as old Men do." his eye strayed to the eastern window, smile vanishing.
"I shall miss him."