A/N – For Joanna, whose constant support, encouragement and help was more than I deserved. I don't know if you're reading this, because you've been lost in cyberspace for quite some time, but do tell me if you do. Happy Birthday. :)
For Viggo too…..for bringing a character to such life. Thanks, Mr. Mortensen, and Happy Birthday.
My Balrog is actually smiling.
The Mantle of Stone
Mere rock, some say. Crumbling stone, people laugh.
I looked up to the gigantic Pillars, still frowning with crannied brow and stern eyes.
They are fools, those who say that.
Who am I? None need bother to know. Nameless and unknown to all but a few – simply another of the many inhabitants of this kingdom. For I am no soldier, no captain, no farmer, no trader. A smile grows on my lips. Indeed, everyone in Gondor should have a set, determined occupation. But I do not.
The City is far away, and I have been there only once. Long before, to attend the ceremony in which the late Lord Denethor took his oath. Much has happened since then, and a curious mixture of regret and happiness rushes through my heart when I think of it.
A King sits in the Tower now.
They say he passed this way during the War.
I frown. He rules in the White City with his queen at his side, returned from the wastes of the North. A great champion and leader of Men, to be true - for he fought the Dark Lords forces with courage, will and a sword that would only permit one of Nùmenor's blood to wield it. What a story it was, one remarkable enough to be immortalized in song and verse for all Ages to come.
But valour and courage do not make a King a worthy successor.
Was he Nùmenor's child, or simply a northern captain and a distant, remote heir who looked akin to the line of kings, but had not even half their qualities? History was littered with landmarks and graves of their prowess and their ruin, but in the end it was not even comparable to the present. Time changed, people changed, the world changed. Had Gondor accepted it, or did it still cling to the last vestiges of a waning glory? Would the King be a renewer of hope and strength, and not merely one who succeeded to the throne by virtue of spilt blood and war leadership? Would this land bloom once more with the laughter of children and the music of minstrels and the splendour of silver trumpets?
I look back, eyes feasting on a sight I have worshipped since a mere lad. Strength that once was - that still ran through the rivers of this land.
Images – tall, terrible and glorious – towering above mortal land and mortal glory, pinnacles in the sky that no storm could uproot. Long lost wardens of a vanished kingdom, sentries that held a hand against the onslaught of Time.
They had had no successors in might or splendour, in ruin or folly. They came out of the sea, driven from the gifted land by evil and misfortune. In a distant land they arrived, its greatness not comparable to the place of their birth and its soil drenched with the blood of wars uncounted. Kings in exile, but they still bore the burden of their lineage with nobility and courage. The line of Men dwindled, and the blood of the Peredhil sustained only with the immortal. The star shaped land no more, conquered by the avenging sea and unbridled eagles – lives, honour and legacy lost. Glory that once was – forgotten, even condemned. Yet, with some it perhaps remained.
Both fell, one by sword and the other by evil. Yet even as the mistake was made, even as the jewel that should have been destroyed was retained out of mannish pride and a desire for vengeance, history could not fault their radiance.
My own pride could always be assuaged when I looked at them. Awesome, they were – to say the least, and everything else seemed insignificant and petty in view of their sheer greatness. To many it was unthinkable that mere sculptures of rock and stone could be so, but even as the beauty of the twilight evening was unknown if not seen, they were unmatched.
What King could possibly compare to them? What ruler, what heir could match their strength?
They rose up high, piercing the sky with sheer height. Carved out of the steep mountainside, they towered even above it – the only companions to the visible horizon. Ominous stone – given life by the craftsmanship of old. With stern brow and majestic hand, they sat upon great pedestals of rock, stoic witnesses of a history detailed with magnificence and blood. The left hand of each was stretched palm outwards in a gesture of warning – not to be questioned or revoked, and in each right hand there was an axe; upon each head there was a crumbling helm and crown. Kingdoms they had ruled, North and South, fleeing from a rightful land only to achieve glory in another. A land that would never arise from the depths of the bottomless Sea, lost forever except in lore and song.
Sentinels of Nùmenor, guardians of Men. A last symbol of its rise, and a reminder of its decay.
Returned King or no, Gondor will live.
I lament my lack of communication with the City and its news. A land must know its ruler, and I do not know mine. There are rumours, certainly, but then, rumours are always rumours. They call him Elessar, the Lord Elfstone – a name derived from a great green jewel he bears that shines with piercing radiance. Given to him by the elves, it is. I sigh. Always elves.
Not that I am one to pass any judgment or verdict on the King's character and upbringing. I have not seen him – but only heard of the likenesses he has to the sea kings of old. But elves…. Blurred eyes of stone stare back at me, brows drawn together in an expression that almost resembled displeasure. I smile reluctantly.
So you do not approve of my hesitation, do you, my Lords?
Of course there were no replies. I would be a madman if I expected any. But there was something in the stance weathered through storm and ruin over hundreds of years - I had not noticed it before. Fierce pride glowered upon earth and forest, anger ignited against any who dared to question them or the heirs of their body.
A sudden noise intrudes upon my thoughts. Very soft it is - almost imperceptible, and only a hunter's instincts warn me to its occurrence. My hand unconsciously closes around the hilt of a worn, though sharp knife that I always wear, for the forests are filled with dangers unnamed and unaccounted for. Cautiously, I step towards the leaves of the tangled bush, and push them aside, ready and alert.
I step into the clearing - one that affords a direct view of the Pillars - but to my surprise there is no one. No bush seems trampled on, or anything else out of place. A skilled creature, whatever it was. I am almost sure that it meant no harm, for I had been standing in a visible area for quite some time, and if anything wanted to attack me, it would have done so quite easily. I sheath my knife and turn around.
But there was indeed someone there. And whoever it was seemed to have been aware of my presence long before I was aware of his, and was standing behind me, a little removed. I start in surprise.
My eyes run over him quickly. His physical appearance could mark him as one of Gondor's men for miles – raven hair, leather coat and grey eyes. One of the Prince Faramir's rangers on a mission, perhaps, for the men from the city were seldom seen in these parts. There were no immediate marks of age – no grey streaked hair and no stoop of the broad shoulders. Indeed, he stood impossibly straight, and it increased his formidable height even more. His face could be handsome, if he wished it – but this was not a man who smiled often. A long sword hung by his side, and his hand lay on the hilt with great familiarity. A warrior, I decided. Silver hued eyes regarded me as seriously as I stared at him, and under the keen gaze, I found little to hide.
I stepped closer warily.
"Well met, though stranger you may be."
He nodded, and light eyes glittered behind hooded lashes. "Well met."
"What business have you in these parts?" The question was somewhat direct.
A black eyebrow rose. "What business is it of yours that you ask me mine?"
He was not insulting me, I knew. Though the words could be made to sound offensive, the soft, steady voice was proof enough that he was attempting courtesy. "Then we shall remain silent, sir, and say no more about business and work." I said gruffly.
"Concealment does not sit well with me." His eyes were wary, alert and bright as those of a predator on the lookout for prey. But then he smiled suddenly, and it transformed his lean, angular face into something quite becoming. "My path leads beyond, but I thought it would be no waste of time if I stopped here."
His head turned, and he faced them. I was dismissed in a mere movement of body with no words. Royal this one was not – he was not well heeled enough – but his demeanor certainly was that of a lord. He said nothing, no words of exclamation or wonder, but simply stared. I might be imagining it, and I think I do, but an invisible murmur escaped his lips.
But after a while, my voice shattered the silence.
"Magnificent, is it not?"
"Truly." His voice was not that of a breathless, awe-struck traveler. Neither was if of an established lord of the Kingdom, respectful but slightly disinterested. It was contained emotion, that voice – and in one word, the tremendous wonder that he felt was clear. Whether Gondorrim or not, the sight of the Pillars moved him greatly – and it was testament to his character that he was so affected by the Kings of stone, even if they were not his. His head flung back, he drank in the view as one who had done it before, and yet beheld its wonder for the first time. And I knew that here was a man who would not attempt to describe what he saw, but rather revel in seeing it, and he turned towards me in silence.
For a moment, something flitted across his face – something raw and elemental. Perhaps it was the way his eyes bore into mine - the colour of angry storm clouds, or perhaps the slight illumination of the noble face with aquiline nose and carved jaw. I had seen that look, that face before – but I knew not where. But the moment passed, and he appeared same as before, a traveler bound for a long journey.
I might have been staring, and he caught me out. A faint smile spread across his face. "Forgive me, my friend." He said softly. "I have delayed too long, perhaps more than what was necessary. Accept my thanks for allowing me the sight."
"No thanks, kind sir. They are not mine to hoard."
"And yet you know naught of your good fortune that you may see them every waking day."
"It is humbling, indeed."
An arched brow creased and he made no reply, but nodded. The dark head inclined in polite, cold farewell and he gathered his cloak around him once more, making for the trees, when my voice stopped him in his tread.
He turned, but only slightly.
"Do you come from the White City?" I asked, no small amount of hesitation in my voice.
"I thought we made an agreement to not inquire about business and work." His voice was mild, still soft.
"I ask you naught of what you do for a living, or from whence you came. Simply tell me, if you are kind and honourable, and I know you to be that," At this his mouth curved, and I detected faint mirth in his eyes. "Tell me if you were within its walls recently."
"What would you want to know if I tell you I was?"
"You have seen the man they now call King?"
A wary, slow nod. He was not one for talking without thinking.
"Tell me of him." I said quickly.
Sharp silence hung in the air, but disappeared almost at once. His eyes were a bit different now, keen as ever, but something lurked behind the grey depths that I could not quite fathom.
"What would you have me tell of him?" My companion's voice was neutral.
"Tell me what he is like." I was nearly frantic with curiosity now, having found someone who could satisfy my questions, and yet was more mysterious than the monarch I so wanted to hear of.
"That is a subject that requires much time, my friend."
"I have time."
"I do not."
He turned to leave again, but I stopped him once more. "Wait! A few questions, perhaps, and you need not explain more than you would like to."
He hesitated for a moment but nodded eventually. "Agreed."
"Was his father anything like them to look at?"
A pause, and his head turned towards the Pillars. Again, something flew across his face, something I could not understand. When the response came, it was quietly murmured. "His father was perelda."
"So the rumours are true then…. that he is more Elf than Man."
"In some ways, perhaps."
"What does he wield better, bow or sword?"
"His sword is….legendary."
"I asked not about the sword, stranger, but of its wielder."
"His skills are adequate." came the measured reply.
I continued with the interrogation, though I suspected that my friend was restless to leave. Knowledge of a man who had taken the throne of the land that I loved spurred me on, and I paid no heed to the soft, almost imperceptible shuffle of my friend's feet.
"He speaks both the common tongue and elvish language, I have heard."
"I distinctly got the impression that you have been starved of information. You perhaps know more than I do." His impatience was now clearly beginning to show, and he turned on his heel once more.
Immersed in thought, I pondered. This King was turning out to be a rarity. The rumours were then true, perhaps. Rightful heir he might be, and just, kind and merciful as others said, but a combination of things that simply were not meant to be combined in a Man. "He sits in the throne of the most glorious Kingdom of Men, brought up in an Elvish stronghold, fighting the Shadow with both men, elves and a dwarf, married to an Elvish queen, equally at ease with both dialects and being well versed in lore of both races… With such different influences in his life, is he a Man?" My voice was a murmur, more to myself than to him.
"What is he?" My question was unprompted, and not thought over. Sheer bewilderment at the person who I would now see as King of my land overtook me, and I regretted the question the minute I asked it. Of everything I said so far, it was most offensive, but still, even now I wanted to hear the answer, for it would be the one I was waiting for.
He stopped, and turned around. Vermillion light was creeping towards the horizon, and the morning sky blushed with faint hues of pink, yellow and red. Even from a distance, I felt the power of his gaze pierce my mind, sharp as the glint of sunlight off the newly sharpened sword, and I was laid bare once again under the eyes of this stranger who was such a mystery to me. In the dim light, I could see his image between both Pillars, tall and broad-shouldered in his stance.
A brief, quiet smile appeared on his face, and his voice was quiet, but deep and smooth.
"He is King."
Without adhering to another word I might have said, he commenced to walk away. Slow and steady were the footfalls of the unknown stranger, his cloak gathering about him like a cloud of black charcoal.
My gaze returns to the kings that I know – the only ones I ever will. But as dawn arrived and the world was once more awash in song and laughter, the stranger I had known for so little time had said words that I would not forget. Elessar was King, and I accept it – unnaturally satisfied by reassurances from a man whom I had not known for longer than one meeting. But they say that words that are true are accepted faster by the heart, however unusual.
The dawn grew, and Anar rose in the sky to begin a new journey. A relinquishing of night to day, of old to new. A mantle upheld, a crown recovered, a bloodline restored. Searching rays illuminated the Pillars, and as I do every morning, I greet the day with homage to my Lords.
Kings will come, and Kings will go. Time will oppose, attempting to reduce them to shards and crumbling boulders. The Black Land may yet threaten in future years, violating the sacred space. The Arognath – the pillars of the Kings.
They are immortal, as only rock, stone and hope are.
A/N – Many thanks to Nell Marie, Noldoris, Acacea and Lindorien for comments. I owe you guys.
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