Chapter One: The Steward's Heir
Denethor did not know exactly when his opinion of the man began to change. It seemed to have crept up on him so subtly that there was no real beginning, just an imperceptible drift. But from that faint blush his dislike had now become blood-red.
When the man had first arrived in Minas Tirith, he was far too below the Steward's Heir to merit much attention, despite the high regard of the King of Rohan. On the basis of that recommendation Denethor had, more or less immediately, placed him in charge of a troop of guardsmen within the city. An important post, but scarcely making its holder worthy of Denethor's personal recognition. However, Denethor made a point of looking out for talent among the men, and soon noticed that Thengel's men had understated the case. Yes, the man was an extraordinary swordsman and a talented military leader, which the Rohirrim recognized with high approval, but he also had knowledge of the ancient lore and spoke several languages, as well as possessing a love of music and poetry that told of far more than a mercenary's life. He spoke Quenya as well as the Sindarin of the Dúnedain. The Rohirrim, being largely unlettered and valuing only their horses and arms, were too ignorant to even know what Quenya was. At this point Denethor mentioned him to his father, knowing that Ecthelion was always looking for more talent to promote in building the forces of Gondor against the increased threat of Mordor.
It was then, for a brief time, as Thorongil began to rapidly gain the ear of his father and the respect of men in the city, that Denethor contemplated befriending him. He was quite sharp, when so many, to one of Denethor's capacities, merited little more than scornful pity. It wasn't until then that he gave much thought to the mystery of the man's origins and true name.
Many men served Gondor without much attention being paid to where they came from or who their fathers were. Ecthelion was, in Denethor's opinion, a little too free on this point, but he acknowledged the need for the talent. He sought to promote certain individuals on his own account so that their loyalty would be directed at himself and not only his father. And he certainly thought that Thorongil would be a good addition to his side. He made a few overtures, including an invitation to a sparring match with the sword, which was readily accepted. Thorongil was a valuable opponent, and Denethor found himself admiring the man's swift ease with his blade. He learned some things from him, which, he had to admit, had not happened for a long time. It was rather pleasant, for a change. When he asked the man where he had learned his sword-fighting, the answer was, "My teachers were two brothers with extraordinary skills and experience. I was indeed fortunate."
He called the man to his office shortly thereafter, seeking to impress upon him that Denethor could prove to be a valuable master if he were willing to do as bid. This usually had an effect on men, who held Denethor in high regard by virtue of his talent and his title. But Thorongil either did not understand what he was being told (which seemed unlikely) or he was strangely indifferent to such offers of advancement. It was not his words per se, "I serve Gondor, my lord, according to the commands of her Steward and his council," but the look in his grey eyes as he spoke. A proud distance out of place in a subordinate. What could the man be thinking?
It was then that Denethor began to inquire of others what they might know about the mysterious captain (yes, after two years he had been promoted to a captain of the Guard, one of 12, and then sent to Ithilien as one of the senior officers of the commander of the Rangers). Denethor had heard speculations and rumors spoken of, but the question had not seemed very important. As it turned out, nobody knew much. It was clear that the man had some Númenorean blood, from his appearance, his speech, and his skills. In fact, he had never denied it. But nobody knew where he had been born or much else about his past before Rohan, beyond that he was (at that time) 35 years old. That he would say. But all other questions were either ignored, deftly turned aside with an ambiguous answer, or confronted with a steady look from those grey eyes and the quiet words, "Ask me no questions, my lord, so that I may be spared the shame of lying to you."
Probably it was then that Denethor's opinion began to sour. But it did not occupy much of his attention; he had other matters to address. And then Ecthelion sent the captain to Ithilien as the commander of the Rangers. The last inhabitants of that once bountiful land had finally fled across Anduin ten years before, after Mount Doom had burst into flame, spewing its poison into the pure air over the eastern reaches of Gondor. Thorongil, it turned out, was a remarkable tracker and hunter, skilled in woodcraft of all kinds. A truly strange set of talents he had, indeed. For three or four years he was little in the city, which suited Denethor just fine. It was to be hoped that Ecthelion would retain the captain in a post far, far away; Denethor was beginning to be sick of his face.
In the next year, the first of two things happened that quite clinched Denethor's suspicious dislike. Ecthelion promoted Thorongil to Captain of Gondor and made him a member of the inner council. No mysterious strangers had ever been given such power before. When Denethor pointed this out to his foolish father, the Steward said, "If Thorongil's services are conditional on my respect for his wish to remain unknown, I am happy to grant it, for his worth would merit a much greater reward." At least, due to his assignment in Ithilien, he was in the city so seldom that many council meetings took place without him.
Then, the next spring, yet another incident proved far more disturbing. Denethor went to Ithilien on the Steward's behalf to conduct an official inspection of the Ranger operations. Naturally this involved extensive contact with Thorongil, which was fine. Despite their mutual dislike (at least Denethor assumed that by now the man returned his negative feelings, although it was often difficult to read him), they worked together smoothly. Certainly Denethor had no intention of ignoring the man's ability. He made it clear to him and to any others that might notice that he valued and respected the captain's opinions and capacities. Not to show respect for Thorongil would have been foolish on several counts: first, Denethor would have deprived himself of a valuable servant, and second, others might have misinterpreted any animosity as due to jealousy or resentment of his father's favor. Denethor was far too proud to risk gaining a reputation as petty or susceptible to feeling in any way threatened by a subordinate. And usually they thought alike, in fact—except on the matter of Gandalf the Grey, whom Denethor could not abide. The captain, on the other hand, seemed to know him rather well.
In Ithilien, however, he was surprised at the extent of the respect and trust that the men displayed toward their commander. And he had to admit (he made it a habit to examine his motives and to insist on honesty with himself) that he did feel a certain resentment and jealousy in this case. While he himself commanded the loyalty and respect of many, never had he seen in another man's eyes that sort of trust; he was more accustomed to a look of wary fear. This had never bothered him, as he considered it to strengthen his own position of authority. But in Thorongil's case, the men's trust led to the same reinforcement of his command—or more so. They were willing to take risks on his behalf that would have required more coercion from Denethor or most other commanders.
This, Denethor could tolerate. After all, an effective commander was an asset to Gondor's military defense. But that display of uncanny powers—that was an entirely different matter.
He found out about it when a number of men badly wounded in an ambush were brought back to Henneth Annûn by their companions. One had been pierced by a poisoned arrow to his chest, and was bleeding from the mouth with shallow, agonized breaths. He was semi-conscious, white with shock and most likely not far from death. While the healers saw to the needs of the others, who suffered from blade cuts needing to be cleaned and stitched and other such wounds, Thorongil had the injured man taken to a separate alcove in the back. He knelt by the soldier's bed and placed his hand on his forehead.
"What do you intend to do?" Denethor asked. "Let the healers see to him."
"I have some skill," the captain said. "He cannot spare the time." He turned to an attendant. "Bring me hot water and clean cloths." He picked up the man's hand and held it firmly for a few minutes, closing his eyes, while Denethor watched impatiently. Then the captain turned his eyes on Denethor and said, in that quiet manner he had—which, Denethor thought, employed a seeming deference to cover an actual command, "It would be best if I could attend to him alone, if you would be so good, my lord."
Denethor tightened his lips, but he could see no reason not to comply, so he moved away, but watched what he could from a distance. Thorongil further directed the attendant to bring him a leather bag from his own personal effects, and took some herbs from it. Then Denethor lost interest. This was just some sort of foolishness. When one of the other healers was finally free, he would make sure they looked at the poor man, if at least merely to ease his passing.
It was an hour before this proved possible. By then Thorongil was nowhere to be seen, and Denethor felt a kind of grim satisfaction. He directed the healer to the wounded man, and asked him to see what could be done.
"Is that the man the captain was attending, lord Denethor?" the healer said.
"Yes. Please see to him. I would not leave him suffering."
The healer gave him a strange look, but only said, "I will look at him."
Denethor turned away to deal with some other business, and did not see the healer for some time. Then, when he went to inquire about the well-being of the other wounded, he asked him, "And how is the other man?"
"Oh, very well. He is sleeping peacefully and should recover with time."
This was astonishing. "And what did you do to make this possible?"
"I did nothing, my lord. It was the captain."
"Don't play with me, healer," he barked.
"Indeed, my lord, I am not. I have seen this before. The captain has an ability such as we would all wish to have. I don't really understand what he does. But I see that he is not present; usually, after one of these healings, he needs to rest. I believe it is some Elvish magic."
Elvish magic? Denethor decided not to grace this with a reply. He strode over to Thorongil's quarters and drew open the curtain that separated the alcove from the main room. The captain lay on his bed, eyes closed and rather grey-faced.
"So, captain Thorongil, I hear that you are an Elf."
The eyes opened. After a brief moment, the captain rose from his bed with a faint smile. "Your pardon, lord Denethor. I am quite weary. How shall I answer you? I am no more an Elf than are you. But you knew that."
"How did you help that man?"
"I have been trained. It is a skill."
"I suppose I will not get an answer if I ask where you received this training? And how is it that you can put life back into a man who should be dead?"
"I did what was needed."
"Ah. The usual non-answer. Well, I will not further waste my time. You may continue to rest."
"Thank you." But he waited until Denethor had left before making any move to lie down again.
At that moment Denethor decided that it was time to get some answers about Thorongil. This farce had gone on long enough. First, he confronted his father.
"Tell me, father," he said to Ecthelion, "that you truly know nothing about this man to whom you have granted so much power in Gondor."
"I know that he can be trusted and that he is extraordinarily able. What more must I know?"
"Where are his loyalties? How can you be sure he is not an extraordinarily able spy?"
"My son, in the end, all we know about any man is what our judgment tells us. I have learned to trust mine in such cases as this. I believe that he is as loyal to Gondor as you or I."
"Tell me that you know, or guess, something more than that."
"I know nothing more about Thorongil than do you. What I may guess is not worth considering."
"Oh, I think it is." But Denethor did not pursue the discussion. He knew he would get nowhere.
He began to have Thorongil watched. The man had few vices. Beyond the occasional drinking bout, he lived quietly. He appeared to be entirely honest as far as money was concerned. He spent his free time (what little there was of it) riding or sparring with fellow swordsmen. He was quite fond of music and poetry. He was known to pursue the occasional affair with a woman, always one of noted beauty. He had a reputation for being very kind to these women and never speaking ill of them; good feelings, unusually, seemed to prevail when these affairs ended. That frequent source of quality information, a disgruntled woman, was not available in the captain's case. However, he showed no interest whatsoever in marriage. This was in itself strange. What easier way for a foreigner to establish himself among Gondor's elite? True, he would not be an eligible husband for the daughters of the cream of the aristocracy. But there were many families of the lesser nobility that would be delighted with such a son-in-law.
Working through some helpful underlings, he offered a bribe to a woman close to Thorongil to try to uncover some of his secrets. This scheme did not prove successful. The silly twit was so obvious in her attempts that Thorongil just laughed and ended his affair with her immediately. She apparently whispered in his ear something like, "Oh, captain, I must know what name to call you when you bring me to such ecstasy! I want to know the real you!" and wouldn't let up when she didn't get her answer. Women were such fools.
He realized he was going to have to look further afield for the answers. He sent a trusted man to Rohan to make inquiries there about anything that might be known about the captain. He learned little, nothing of importance. Therefore it was necessary to go yet further afield. But where? What clues did he already have about the captain's origins? He had never denied some Númenorean blood. Therefore he must have come from a land where the Dúnedain lived—unless his father was a wanderer who left a son behind as he passed through some foreign country. That could be. But it made sense to begin with the former and see what could be uncovered through a process of elimination.
All of this took time. Denethor had many more important things to do than to pursue Thorongil's identity, and sometimes he let the matter lapse for months at a time. But when his father made Thorongil the captain-general of Gondor's armed forces, he determined that the answer must be found. And why not begin with a direct challenge? He summoned the captain-general to his office.
The man entered the room with a warrior's feral grace. He wore mail with a surcoat bearing the White Tree, as was his habit, and that star on his shoulder. His sword hung at his side as if he were born with it there. None of this put Denethor in a better humor.
"Lord Denethor, you sent for me. How may I serve you?"
Denethor kept him waiting before he looked up. "Captain Thorongil, I grow weary of your secrets."
The man did not reply, merely watched him with those steady grey eyes.
"I mean to discover who you are."
The eyes gleamed with a sudden light. "You may find that difficult."
Denethor kept him waiting yet more. "Perhaps you will save me the trouble and tell me yourself. Because I will not rest until I find some answers."
"You will pardon me, Lord Denethor, if I decline the challenge."
"You shelter once again behind my father's protection. But surely, captain, you do realize that my father will not always be Steward here."
Again there was no answer, just the intense grey eyes that waited for his next move.
"I say again, I mean to discover who you are. And I will do it, whatever it may take."
"If you succeed, Lord Denethor, you will also know why I keep my true name hidden."
This appeared to be spoken from the heart, without the usual dissembling. "Is that so? Your origins are indeed that shameful? Are you perhaps the spawn of some ungodly lust, like that of a brother for a sister? Or have you committed murder in some far-off land and are hiding in Gondor from the justice that you deserve?" He was deliberately provoking him, trying to elicit a betrayal of some kind of information.
But instead Thorongil smiled. "I will only say that if you discover the truth, you may well agree with me on the need for secrecy."
"You are insolent."
"I think not, my lord. But I suggest you consider whether this truth is indeed one you wish to know." There was a deliberate challenge in those eyes.
"You intrigue me, captain Thorongil." And he spat out the name. "There will be a day when I reveal your real name, whatever it may be, in council and put a stop to this masquerade."
"Lord Denethor, that day will never come."
It was almost as if the man were warning him, implying that the secrecy was in Denethor's own interests. A wave of rage swept him and he glared at the captain before snarling, "Leave me."
Thorongil bowed his head—perhaps even lower than necessary—and left the room with that swinging stride of his, without saying another word.
Denethor developed a plan. There were two main places of Númenorean settlement besides Gondor: Umbar to the South, where many renegades had lived and ruled, and the Northern Kingdom of Arnor. At first Umbar seemed by far the better possibility. He could see Thorongil as a descendant of the Black Númenoreans: that would certainly explain the secrecy, if his family were some clan immersed in evil. And the mysterious powers perhaps drew on some Southern craft. But in the end Denethor decided to look in the North first. After all, the man had come to Gondor from Rohan, and the kinds of knowledge that he had did not point to an upbringing in the desert. Certainly he would have had to learn Quenya elsewhere. Furthermore, his friendship with Gandalf the Grey also pointed North. And the North was one big question mark. Few men of Gondor went there any more, and stories spoke of an endless wilderness. Nevertheless it seemed quite possible that some of the blood and culture of Númenor survived, no doubt greatly diluted by commingling with lesser men after the disastrous collapse of the Northern Kingdom. Perhaps Thorongil, being ambitious, had found the wilderness (or some pig farm) too unpromising a place and thought that he could use his scant Númenorean connection to find advancement in Gondor. A resourceful man could acquire the knowledge of arms and lore that he had by any number of means.
Progress was slow. He had a servant whose discretion and loyalty he trusted, and through him he looked for suitable men to dispatch North. Only this servant knew the goal of the search. Over the next few years messengers were sent North, but they discovered little concrete information other than confirming Denethor's hunch that this was the right place to look. In fact, there was quite a mixed population in the North, from the quaint halflings to traveling dwarves and Elves and Men of many races and tongues. Traveling, however, was extremely difficult and time-consuming, while the messengers required substantial reward and accumulated real knowledge at an excruciatingly slow rate. Finally, the servant took it upon himself to go North in person, bringing another man with him.
Denethor had one other opportunity to discover something from Thorongil himself, when the captain was badly wounded in a skirmish with Orcs in Ithilien. Again showing the man's amazing ability to make himself look good, he saved the lives of several of his soldiers, at the cost of being struck down himself. For a brief time it looked as if he might not survive; Denethor hoped his problems would only be so easily solved. As the captain lay fevered and semi-conscious, Denethor arranged for one of his men to pass a stiff bribe to the nurse caring for him, asking for anything that he might say. The opportunity did not last very long, for the captain soon pulled out of his delirium and began to recover.
"Well?" Denethor looked intently at the man come to deliver the report.
"Nothing of use, my lord. He spoke little, and mainly of the battle."
"The nurse said he mentioned the name of a woman several times, but it was no name that we know."
"I do not want your opinion, man, I want the facts. What was this name?"
"Arwen. The name was Arwen."
Chapter Two: The King's Heir
Aragorn dismounted at the appointed meeting place and allowed his horse to graze while he strolled about the grassy knoll, waiting for his friend. It had been three years now since Gandalf had last visited Gondor. As usual, he had left then with messages for the North from the Chieftain of the Dúnedain, including, this time, a discreet message to the acting Chieftain to watch out for possible agents from Gondor. Aragorn knew Denethor well enough to take his stated intent seriously; that he would inevitably turn his eyes North was only a matter of time. But the stealth and security of the Northern Rangers were unmatched in Middle-earth, and Aragorn did not expect that Denethor would find his answers very quickly. But he would also not abandon the search.
He saw his friend approaching at an easy gallop from the city and lifted his arm to wave.
They embraced warmly and regarded each other, clasping hands to shoulders. "You look well, son of Arathorn," the wizard said, his eyes twinkling. "I had heard you were wounded."
"That is now past. And you, old friend, are as wise and as wizened as ever," Aragorn laughed. "It is very good to see you indeed. And my family? Is all well in Rivendell?"
"Does it ever change, under Elrond's guardianship?"
"It will not be much longer before I return to see for myself."
"You are planning your departure?"
"Not quite yet. I mean to accomplish a sound defeat for the Corsairs at Umbar first. This may well entail another year or two of convincing and planning. Then the time will be right."
He then gave Gandalf a full accounting of the military disposition of Gondor, and the work he had done to reinforce the defenses in the East.
"I heard much of this report from the Steward," Gandalf said. "But yours is more complete. These are sound accomplishments, and I am glad to see Gondor's defenses improve. This country remains our first and most important bulwark against the Enemy."
"Well do I know it," Aragorn said. "And I regret every blade of grass that suffers Mordor's blight and every drop of Gondor's blood spilled."
"It is unfortunate that you cannot stay here."
"We have discussed this before, as you know. But regardless of the other problems, I have a duty to the Dúnedain in the North, which is also urgent."
"Indeed, I don't bring good news on that score. I am afraid that Hallor is ill."
"That is sad news indeed. Has Halbarad assumed command, then?"
"Yes. And he is doing it quite well."
"Of course. I would expect nothing less. But all the more reason for my return. Hallor is a great loss to the Rangers."
"But Aragorn, there is another matter I must tell you about. I'm afraid it makes an ugly story."
Aragorn turned worried eyes to his friend's face.
"I believe that Denethor's spies have finally made a breakthrough. And they did it by kidnapping a young Ranger and beating him for information."
Aragorn exclaimed in horror and out of sheer anger struck his fist into his hand. He said through clenched teeth, "Tell me."
"They must have been watching Ranger operations in and out of Bree for some time in order to do this, as I know you must guess. They have never been able to penetrate the defenses of the Angle—or even to identify the location of Dúnedain lands, Halbarad believes. It is not easy to kidnap even an inexperienced Ranger. But they lured him with a false message into the wood outside the town and held him prisoner. A very young man, only 18 years old."
The wizard sighed. "Your cousin, your mother's brother's son. Dírgon. He will be all right, but he was fairly badly beaten. They may have also used a truth drug, we do not know for sure. But he was asked about you."
Aragorn was trembling with rage. He leaped up and began pacing. "How dare he," he muttered grimly. "Whether Denethor ordered this explicitly or not, he is responsible. How I wish I could take revenge! But you say the boy is well?"
"Yes. He will recover completely, but he is very ashamed. He does not remember all he said. I spoke with him myself."
"This is not his fault. When you return, I wish you to see that a personal message from me gets to him on that. When did this happen?"
"Just before I left. It is one reason that I am here. It may be that the news has not reached Denethor yet."
"It won't matter, one way or the other. He already suspects enough. Which only makes this outrage worse."
Gandalf waited while Aragorn expended his rage in pacing. He was glad he had chosen this spot far out of the city walls to break this news, for the Chieftain was so angry that Gandalf suspected he might have forgotten himself and drawn swords in the citadel. Finally, with a deep sigh, Aragorn sat down again.
"My friend," Gandalf said, "the real danger is to you."
"Oh, I don't think so. He will not touch me. He cannot break my influence in the council or with Ecthelion, and he knows perfectly well that any ruffians or assassins he might send against me would meet a swift end. I am not an easy mark, and I often now have a personal guard as well. He would find it very difficult to find anyone at all who would be willing to try."
"How much does he suspect, do you think?"
"He knows where I am from. He knows there are Dúnedain in the North, living in the shadows. He lets me know that he has discovered these things by making pointed remarks about the history of Arnor, things like 'ragged remnants of Númenor' and such like. He suspects that at least some lines of noble descent remain, maybe even fairly intact. That I am directly descended from Elendil, I do not think has occurred to him yet."
"He will probably soon know it as a fact."
"So be it." He was silent for a while, then he laughed bitterly. "We are quite a pair, Denethor and I."
"Hmm," the wizard said. He agreed with this remark.
"In a better time, we could have been friends, sworn brothers, perhaps. He is an extremely intelligent and capable man, such as I would have wanted for a friend. Instead, we end up enemies—at least, he thinks of me that way, although I do not feel the same—each envying the other for having what he cannot get for himself."
This surprised Gandalf. "Well, I know what it is you have that he wants, but not the contrary. Can you enlighten me?"
Aragorn looked at the wizard, an eyebrow raised. "I think that you sometimes forget that I am but a man like any other. I mean a loving wife and a small son."
"Ah," Gandalf said. "You will have these things, Aragorn. Some day."
Aragorn made no answer, but only stared at the ground between his feet. Gandalf pulled out his leaf pouch and two pipes, offering one to his companion, whose face brightened. "Thank you, my dear old friend. How wise of you to remind me of the one great virtue of the life of a Northern Ranger over that of a captain of Gondor." He lit up the pipe and for a while smoked in silence. "Gandalf, this land is where I belong; it is more my home than even Rivendell was in my childhood. I love this country with all my heart. And by now I have been Thorongil more years than ever I was Aragorn. It will be hard to leave, knowing that I may never return."
"Nevertheless, Aragorn is who you are. And you know what Elrond would say on the matter of your return. He has always seen this in your future."
"I am not likely to forget, am I? But surely even Elrond would now admit that the hatred the next Steward bears for the Heir of Isildur is not going to make claiming the crown any easier. Not that I have ever seen any way that it would come about, in any case."
"That event remains before us. And meanwhile, whatever you may say about your own belief, you are preparing to be an able ruler. Is this not so?"
"I have done my best. Certainly I do not want failure to be laid at my own feet. But there is little that I, or any other one man, can do to influence such large events."
"Who knows what the years will bring?" said Gandalf. "Many pieces are in play. And ever we wait and watch for the next threat from the Dark Lord."
It was not long after Gandalf's departure that Denethor let Aragorn know he had received the message from his spies. Again, it was an indirect statement that was clearly meant to be understood by Thorongil alone. Aragorn was quite sure that Denethor would never again speak to him directly about his identity. He now knew that Thorongil had spoken the truth when he warned Denethor that he, too, would want secrecy.
It was after a meeting of the council, where, in fact, he and Denethor had supported each other in arguments to the Steward on a particular point of defense. This was often the case, as it had always been. Then, as the lords and captains stood around the council chamber, continuing discussion and debate on certain points, Aragorn heard Denethor slightly raise his voice in a comment to another.
"It is known that the kings of Arthedain continued at least for a while as 'chieftains.' I believe they kept up the appearance of royalty by giving their sons names beginning with 'Ar' or 'Ara,' coming from aran, of course. Perhaps an attempt to seek solace after the loss of any true lordship. No doubt, if any still exist, the line is quite bastardized and they can provide no proof of legitimate descent."
Aragorn deliberately did not look toward Denethor, so as to avoid any eye contact with him, and smoothly maintained his conversation with the captain of ships from Pelargir. But he saw Ecthelion turn his eyes toward his son, with a thoughtful expression mixed with some alarm. This was evidence of what he had long suspected, that Ecthelion had guessed something of the truth. The only question remaining was whether Denethor now knew his full name, or only the first three letters.
It proved even harder in the event than he had anticipated, to turn his back on Gondor and walk away. But it had to be done. His future lay before him. He would extend his knowledge of the borderlands of Mordor. He would return to the Northern Rangers and once again be their Chieftain. And he would seek out Arwen Undomiel and try again.