Torches in the hands of the silent crowd filled the great square behind Minas Tirith's gates with flickering shadows. Ecthelion waited with his lady at his side, tightly gripping his arm. A Guardsman rode out of the darkness beyond the open gate followed by a score or so of his fellows, a horse-litter in their midst.
As it came to a stop before them the Lady Miriel gave a low moan and released her husband's arm to throw herself on her knees beside the litter, tearing aside the curtains. "Denethor! Denethor!"
Finduilas, white as her gown but calm, put her arms around her mother-in-law murmuring comfort. "He's alive, Mama, the healers will help him - you'll see. Everything will be all right -"
The Guard Captain climbed stiffly off his horse, approached the Steward and saluted. Ecthelion looked at him. "What happened?"
"An arrow, my Lord, fired from cover just outside the old city wall. Only the Lord Denethor was hit. We searched the brakes but found no one." the Captain swallowed. "I drew the arrow myself and set it carefully aside, but when I looked for it after binding up the wound it was gone."
"Vanished." Ecthelion said flatly.
The Man looked miserable. "There was much confusion, my Lord. It could have been knocked off the stool and trampled underfoot..." his voice trailed off, unconvinced and unconvincing.
The Steward forced himself to smile reassuringly. "You are not to blame, Captain, some dangers cannot be guarded against. See to your Men." Only then did Ecthelion allow himself to go to the litter and look at his son.
Denethor moved restlessly as in a fever, muttering scraps of words, but his face was pale and when Ecthelion reached down to touch as cold as ice. Not a fever then, but something worse. Miriel had their son's hand between both of hers and pressed to her cheek as she begged him to open his eyes and speak to her.
Ecthelion tried to force her convulsive grip apart. "Miriel, darling, you must let go - just for a moment, so the healers can see to him. Please, my heart -"
"Mother." Emeldir's voice cut across his pleas. "Mother, you must be calm. Father needs you to be strong."
That did it. His wife let go and allowed him to draw her to her feet. "I'm sorry," she whispered tightly, "I'm making a spectacle of myself."
"A mother has a right to weep for her son's wounds," Ecthelion whispered back, "but we must try put on brave faces or the people will think it is worse than it is."
She smiled bleakly. "How could it possibly be worse?"
The healers could offer little comfort. "My Lord, my Ladies, we will do all we can." the Master of the Houses told them. "We have much experience in treating poisoned wounds but if it was a Morgul arrow -"
"There is nothing you can do." Ecthelion finished quietly.
"It wasn't a Morgul arrow, it wasn't!" Finduilas said fiercely.
"My little sister is right." Emeldir agreed firmly. "We must not assume the worst. A poisoned arrow from some lurking Orc is far more likely."
"We must not lose hope." her father agreed, an anxious eye on his wife.
Miriel tried to smile. "My son has a powerful will, He shall not be easily overcome!"
"And that counts for a very great deal in these cases, my Lady." the Master Healer assured her earnestly.
They took turns watching over Denethor; Miriel and Emeldir by day, Ecthelion and Finduilas by night when Denethor was more active, tossing in the bed and raving in broken sentences.
"There, there, my darling." Finduilas crooned, tucking her husband back into his bed. As always he quieted at the sound of her voice and touch of her hands. She settled back into her chair and risked a look at her father-in-law. "You must forgive him, Papa, he would never say such things in his right mind."
Ecthelion was staring at his son, face frozen, unreadable. After a moment he stirred and looked back at her. "Spoken or not he has felt so for some time." he shook his head helplessly. "I knew he was jealous of Thorongil but such venom..."
"Not jealous - afraid!" Finduilas corrected sharply. "Thorongil is a danger to Gondor and to Denethor himself. We have both seen it."
Ecthelion shook his head again, emphatically. "No! That I will never believe. He has been more than loyal -"
"I didn't say he means us harm." Finduilas interrupted. "I know he doesn't. He is a good Man, he loves Gondor - and you too, Papa, but something hangs over him, something that could destroy us all, and Thorongil knows it, I've seen it in his eyes."
Ecthelion sighed. Finduilas was not entirely wrong, he too had recognized how Thorongil's charismatic presence could become a threat to his son. But the fault lay in Denethor, not some vague doom hanging over the Captain. "Thorongil may well be leaving us soon." he said aloud.
His daughter-in-law looked pleased. "That would be best for everybody, including Thorongil himself."
The repetition of the hated name had pierced Denethor's stupor. He jerked upright in bed, "Thorongil!" Finduilas started out of her chair to calm him as the door to the chamber opened admitting a wave of cool air that twisted the flame of candles and brazier into strange shapes.
Thorongil stood in the doorway, his dark cloak billowing around him, looking for one fantastic moment like a wraith who'd been conjured by his name. Ecthelion and Finduilas both stared transfixed as the Captain moved swiftly past them to the bed, firmly forcing Denethor back onto his pillows. "I see it is as bad as they said. What happened, my Lord?"
"An arrow shot from cover outside the walls of Osgiliath." Ecthelion replied, recovering himself. "We fear it is a Morgul wound."
Thorongil shook his head. "It looks much like it I grant you, but I have a remedy that will serve I think.(1) I will need a bowl and some hot water, my Lady."
The Captain took a handful of long, glossy leaves from a pouch at his belt, bruised them then arranged them in the wide bowl Finduilas brought and poured boiling water from the kettle on the fire over them. A fresh, pungent scent filled the room.
Ecthelion felt suddenly calmer, comforted by Thorongil's sure presence, and a touch of color came into Finduilas' white face. The Captain took the steaming bowl to the bedside, unwound the bandages and bathed the wound high on Denethor's arm. The patient sighed deeply and his eyes no longer moved restlessly under closed lids. As wife and father watched hopefully Thorongil laid one strong, square hand upon his brow and said softly but with powerful authority: "Denethor son of Ecthelion, hear my voice, return to the Light!" He took Denthor's hand and put it into his wife's. "Call him, my Lady, you above all will draw him back."
"Denethor? Denethor, my darling, time to wake up dear." her voice broke. "I need you, my love. Please, please wake up."
The heavy lids fluttered and opened. "Finduilas?" his voice was a thin thread of sound, barely audible.
She gave a cry of joy, and the tears she'd been restraining for three endless days finally flowed free. "Yes, darling, I'm here! I'm here!"
Ecthelion felt Thorongil brush past him to the door, turned and followed him into the dim, cool passage. "Thank you."
"I am glad I could be of help, my Lord." the Captain glanced through the open door where Finduilas now wept in her husband's arms. "Very glad.
Denethor woke to sunlight streaming through the casement of his chamber with Thorongil sitting silent and watchful on the window seat. For a moment the two Men just stared at each other.
Denethor tried to convince himself the luminous figure with eyes as bright as the star burning upon its brow that had commanded him back from the shadows was nothing more than a fever dream - and failed. It had been real enough. And he knew now exactly who and what 'Thorongil' really was. "So who are you?" he heard his own voice say harshly, "some bastard byblow of an exiled princeling whiling away his days among the Elves?"
"I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, heir of Isildur, Elendil's son of Gondor." the Captain answered, his calm voice holding a note of reproof just as Ecthelion's so often did.
Denethor felt himself flush with the usual miserable mix of humiliation and anger. "Isildur's heir you may be - but you have no claim on Gondor!"
"I have no intention of making any claim on Gondor." the Man he had known as Thorongil rose, features set in grim lines, eyes bleak. "I admit I had some thought of doing so when first I came but I long ago realized it would be folly. Gondor is the bulwark of the West, she must not be weakened by divisions and controversies."
For a moment Denethor could not answer, struggling against a treacherous undertow of ancient loyalties. Long ago his fathers had sworn allegiance to this Man's ancestors. Served and followed them faithfully for a hundred generations. Part of him felt the call of those oaths and longed to submit to the power hidden within the Man before him. He armored himself with pride and old hate and pushed the temptation away. "We are in agreement then."
A faint smile touched the King's face. "For once. I ask only that you keep my secret, Lord Denethor. Should Sauron discover an Heir of Isildur still lives he would not rest until I was destroyed."
"And he had taken his vengeance on any who had harbored you." Denethor said grimly. "Never fear, my Lord. I will keep silent - for Gondor's sake."
The door opened unexpectedly, making both Men start. Boromir darted through to throw himself with a glad cry upon his father. Finduilas followed, face darkening as she picked up the tension between the two Men.
"Surely you two are not quarreling again so soon!"
"On the contrary, my Lady, the Lord Denethor and I find ourselves in perfect agreement." Thorongil bowed to her, to Denethor, and left closing the door gently behind him. Finduilas gave the door a dark frown, then turned it on her husband. "What did you say to him?"
"So this is the answer to all the mysteries."
Aragorn glanced up from his maps to see Finduilas standing in the doorway. A look of annoyance passed over his face and then resignation. "Of course, I should have realized Denethor's promise of silence would not extend to you."
She came into his small workroom, closing the door behind her, her blue eyes fastened piercingly upon him. "Isildur's heir. You could bring destruction upon us all should the Enemy learn you exist."
"I know." Aragorn agreed. "But, as I told you, I have decided against that course."
Looking at him with less hatred and more perception the Woman saw the hidden pain her husband had missed. "Do you want so much to be a King?" she wondered. Such deep ambition seemed out of character for the Thorongil she knew.
"I am a King, my Lady, acknowledged or not." he answered quietly. "And as King I must put the welfare of the realm before my private desires." then the pain broke through, tightening his mouth and darkening his eyes. "But if I spare Gondor a new kinstrife, I also condemn my people in the North to fade away and be forgotten. Arnor will never rise again." (2)
Finduilas wanted to reach out to comfort him somehow, but had the wisdom to recognize this a was grief nothing could mend. "I'm sorry." she whispered.
He shook his head, smiling wearily. "It's not your doing, my Lady, or your Lord's. Even if Denethor and Ecthelion were willing to accept me, my decision would be the same. Gondor must stand, or all the West falls."
1. Notice how Aragorn carefully avoids a direct lie.
2. This is true but of course there's also the matter of Arwen...