People. Severus turned around slowly, looking with hooded eyes upon the mass of unwashed humanity crammed together in one of the most medieval-looking Muggle hospitals he'd ever seen in his life. Too many people. His thought processes felt sluggish and useless; he stared dully at the fistful of familiar-looking herbs thrust under his nose and the frantically gesticulating warrior at his side. I wish they'd go away. He turned away from the expectant eyes of the ruler.

He was tired.


"H-he's probably just temporarily incapacitated, milord, we've had a terrible journey. I'm sure that all he needs is some rest, and sleep, a-and..."

Tiredly, Denethor raised a hand, quelling the nonsense spilling out of the stammering Ranger. Watching the dark stranger stand in the middle of the House of Healing like the useless lump of an imposter that he was, Denethor could only feel gladness at the fact that Mithrandir wasn't there to witness this problem. Thank the Valar for small mercies. For a brief moment, he felt a surge of pure loathing for the dark stranger and all the trouble he brought. If only he could set his interrogators on him! The faintest hint of his intention to do so, however, had nearly resulted in the destruction of delicate balance of power Denethor was currently fighting to maintain. The crow traveler's unproven healing powers, along with the Rangers' conviction of his innate goodness as well as Mithrandir breathing down his neck trying to whisk the man away as quickly as possible, limited his power in the most infuriating way. Once more, he stifled the wholly inappropriate urge to bury his head in his hands and groan. Was it too much to ask that the man would show a modicum of talent after all that Denethor had said to Mithrandir in his temper tantrum?

"Milord?" The voice of Mormeg, Denethor's valet, was calm and neutral, though a hint of disapproval lurked in his eyes. "There is much work awaiting your attention at the Tower."

And yet again did his responsibilities as the Steward clash with his private affairs; Denethor felt his headache increase exponentially at the thought of all that he still had to do. Motioning curtly towards the guards, he snapped out, "Take him back to the Tower and put him in a guestroom. Grant him any amenities he asks for, but do not let him out of your sight. And as for you," with an effort, he kept himself from glaring at the trouble-making Rangers, "return to the Tower with the crow-traveler; should any problem arise, on your head be it. Keep your speculations to yourself; talk to no one, no one, about this man."Without waiting for their assent, he turned and strode back to his carriage, Mormeg scurrying behind him.

Settling down onto the carriage seat, he sighed softly as the horses began to wend their way along the cobbled streets of Minas Tirith. Not for the first time, Denethor wished fervently that his erratic gift of Sight had thought to warn him of this mess; though at this stage, he didn't even need his gift to predict what would happen next. People's memories were short; already, they seemed to have forgotten the unpleasantness of the failed coup and turned their attention to worries closer to home. Denethor was well aware of how desperate many in his city were for a hint, any hint, that the King would return to them, especially now when darkness was slowly making its way felt through the land. The crow-traveler had come at the worst possible time; the dark omens which Mithrandir had spoken of – dark winds sweeping out from Mordor, increased Orc attacks and Nazgul sightings, mass Crebain nesting within the countryside – had only made the people's fear even more acute in the past few weeks, and they would be eager to welcome hope into the city. It was only a matter of time before rumors of the crow-traveler and his claim to kingship leaked out; news of that magnitude would be impossible to keep quiet, especially since it involved Mithrandir, of all people.

The wizard was viewed with fearful curiosity by the populace; gossip ran rampant about what powers he possessed, how old he really was, where he'd disappeared to in the years he'd shunned Minas Tirith...everything about Mithrandir fascinated them. Denethor's public hostility against him only made his presence all the more interesting; their loud fights about Finduilas and the wizard's quest were common knowledge by now. As it was, stories about the ruckus Mithrandir and the Rangers had made outside the city gates were already spreading fast; as Denethor's carriage rumbled along, snatches of conversation drifted in through the carriage windows.

"...let those crows into the city, don't know what they're playing at..."

"...stormed through in a temper, nearly knocked over my wares..."

"...dark hair and sallow skin. He's a foreigner through and through..."

"...dragging a Ranger along! Suspicious characters, the whole lot of them..."

"...was guarding the gates, and said that he'd never felt so scared in his life..."

"...might just be seeking shelter, what with the Orc attacks these days..."

"...ask me, the wizard is dangerous, something feels really off about him..."

Denethor tensed involuntarily at the last snippet. I hadn't thought that anyone else had noticed. Public speculations were, more often than not, seven parts false and three parts exaggerated truth, but on the subject of Mithrandir, he was currently inclined to agree wholeheartedly with any and all of their complaints; it was nothing less than what he'd observed over the past few days of fighting over the issue of the crow-traveler.

Something was wrong with the wizard. Badly wrong. Denethor had initially dismissed his disquiet, chalking it up to the long years which had passed since Mithrandir had visited Minas Tirith; it was only natural that they'd all changed, after all. But he'd soon come to realize that there was a strange...damaged feeling...about his erstwhile ally. Mithrandir was tired all the time and needed constant rest. He was much more easily distracted, frequently drifting away from the conversation with a faraway look on his face which suggested that he was not quite all there. Their last confrontation had been the most lively he'd seen the wizard so far, and even then, it appeared that he'd lost some of his adeptness at verbal sparring. Denethor still remembered the explosive arguments they had frequently engaged in when he was younger; Finduilas had been in constant despair over their inability to make peace. Their fights now were but a poor imitation; it was quite clear that Mithrandir could no longer match wits as well as he had, though he still managed to irritate Denethor just fine. Indeed, Mithrandir's crude attempts at argument made Denethor even more irritated; that he'd believed he could order the Steward of Minas Tirith around when he was so clearly outclassed, that he believed he was superior to Denethor even in his weakened state was utterly infuriating. But the worst issue by far, the one which kept Denethor wary and hostile, was the lack of control Mithrandir had over his temper.

The wizard had always been an easily-provoked individual, but he'd been careful to express his grievances using mostly his words; he was always more eager to befriend people rather than intimidate them. He'd rarely stooped to physical violence, unless he was dealing with enemies, and he certainly, most certainly, had refrained from using his powers to bully those weaker than he. And yet, Denethor had personally witnessed him dragging around a hapless Ranger and fain near breaking his shoulder, as well as unleashing his power in public, thereby threatening not just the crow-traveler, but the Rangers, the city gate guards and Denethor himself. The Mithrandir of old would never have done that; he would have been much careful. His powers now...Denethor shuddered inwardly to remember the terrifying feeling of it lashing about, seemingly eager to destroy anything in its path. They were still his powers, but they were bruised. Damaged. ...Frightening. Too wild, too fiery, too uncontrolled. Denethor shuddered again. He'd initially desired that Mithrandir use that power to aid Finduilas, but now...he did not want it anywhere near his wife. He could not trust that it would not damage her further rather that heal her.

Reluctantly, he put aside his worry about the wizard as the carriage pulled up at the Tower entrance. Ignoring his valet's fretful chivvying, he walked unhurriedly towards the Tower Hall, stiffly nodding at the people he passed along the way. It would be wise to start planning out how to deal with them all once the news breaks out.

There strode Councilor Gycan, chastising his sulky-looking son for some perceived misdemeanor. Sly and ambitious, he'd barely escaped from being sent into exile with the other masterminds of Halen's failed coup. That he still held his head high and remained an influential councilor was testament to his silver tongue and the strength of his political sway over the other council members. Once news of the crow-traveler broke out, he would be seeking to use him to further his own interests, and perhaps even decide to set up another coup to make the crow-traveler his puppet king. Denethor made a mental note to watch out for him.

Further on slouched Councilor Yraen, smiling teasingly at a flustered chambermaid. Incorrigible flirt though he may be, his unquestioning loyalty to Denethor had been proven time and again; it was thanks to him and his skill at smoothing things over with his easy charm and ready grin that the reins of power still remained firmly in Denethor's hands, despite the power void left by sudden mass exodus of traitorous councilors. He would be a useful pillar of support and fount of information in the future.

Councilor Bleon and Councilor Moran were side-by-side, heads bent over a sheaf of papers. The long shadows cast by the large pillar beside them were not enough to hide how Councilor Bleon's eyes narrowed resentfully upon seeing Denethor. Though eventually found innocent and released from his incarceration, the proud councilor was still seething over the indignities he'd been forced to suffer during his arrest as a suspected collaborator of the coup. Denethor was still in the process of appeasing his anger; he was going to have to find a quicker way of re-securing his firm support. Level-headed Councilor Moran would be a welcome help in this; as an old friend of Councilor Bleon, he knew well how to mollify Bleon and his temper.

In some ways, Denethor knew that the failed coup had been a blessing in disguise, as it had given him the excuse to crack down hard upon the growing dissent within the council and bring about its drastic reformation. The current chaos was but an expected part of such a large power transition, and had everything gone as planned, it would have taken only a few months more for the dust to settle and for the strength of the new council to reassert itself. But now, Denethor was finding the careful maneuvering he'd been doing increasingly difficult to handle, what with the appearance of the crow-traveler, the instability of Mithrandir and most importantly, Finduilas' illness to contend with.

Denethor's face darkened at that thought, his mind brought back to the worry which lurked constantly at the back of his mind. Grimly, he squelched the urge to visit Finduilas' sickroom and check on her again. The maidservants would have told him if anything had happened; it would do no one good for the ruler of Gondor to be incapacitated by his sorrow over his wife. However, as he held court in the Tower Hall, careful to keep his distraction from showing on his face, his mind repeatedly returned to the problem at hand.

Finduilas was dying. In the months leading up to Mithrandir's and the crow-traveler's arrival, Denethor had been forced to watch helplessly as she deteriorated, to see her face grow paler and her body thinner, to hear her once-sweet voice turn hoarse and broken by hacking coughs. He had suffered and mourned the injustice of being unable to ease her suffering and heal her pains. He had been resigned to his helplessness...until now. Mithrandir and the crow-traveler both constituted worrying threats to the city; by all rights, Denethor should drive them away from his city as quickly as possible. The best, the easiest, the most logical path to take was to give the crow-traveler to Mithrandir; the thrice-be-damned stranger could then be Mithrandir's problem to deal with, and Denethor could hold that favor over the wizard's head. Once they were gone, the rumors would be so much easier to squelch, the councilors so much easier to handle, and he could get on with his efforts at strengthening the city. But to do that was to ignore the fact that he was not just the Steward of Gondor, but also a man with a family, with a beloved wife and two young sons. He had grown up knowing that his private life would always have to come second to the well-being of the city; even now, he knew that should Mithrandir and the crow-traveler manifest any clear threat to the city, he would send them away without hesitation. But so long as there was a chance that his concerns would remain unfounded suspicions, he would not act rashly. Not when his wife's life was at stake, not when they were Finduilas' two best chances for survival.

To be sure, they were by no means reliable characters; one an unstable wizard of frightening power, another a suspicious imposter of unknown skills, it was all too likely that they might hinder rather than help in his wife's recovery. And yet, they were better than nothing; Denethor could not let any chance, however slim, slip out of his grasp just yet.

All he had to do now was find out more information about them.

All he had to do now...was consult the palantir.