This is the first fiction I have written in a very long time, so it was with some trepidation that I originally posted chapter one. Due to changing my screen name I sadly lost some encouraging reviews for chapter one, so sorry to those who took the trouble to write them! I find that things are getting more complex as I write and I add new twists and turns, so this could run and run if I don't lose inspiration. I shall also have to wrestle some more with my limited Elvish! I would love your comments/ suggestions.

Chapter three is now here, and I find I also need help with my Anglo-Saxon! (don't worry there's very little.)

Meanwhile thank-you all for your votes of confidence. It means a lot.

And the usual disclaimer follows: I am not making any money out of this. Aragorn, Denethor and Gandalf, as well as the rest of Middle Earth belong to JRRT. Alcanore and Lanyare are Maciliel's. Other minor characters are mine.



A Strange Meeting

Denethor sighted the brown bear out of the corner of his eye as it turned down the slope towards him. He spurred his horse and raced down the rocky path, but the going was too uneven for speed and he had to check Tolka, who fought the bridle in her terror, nostrils flaring and ears flat. Suddenly fear overcame her and she plunged through the trees to the bottom of the gully. Denethor could do nothing but hold on. There was a splash as the mare tried to clear the stream and then, legs flailing, she slipped, and Denethor felt himself falling as they crashed down together into the icy water. He rolled free just in time to glimpse the bear advancing through the trees as Tolka regained her feet and bolted. In the same instant, he heard the whine and thud of an arrow striking its mark, and then the bear was down.

"It is unwise to travel alone in these woods. Bears come here often and other creatures live here, more deadly and more secretive."

Denethor turned quickly in surprise at the voice. He beheld the figure of a man astride a great grey horse. As he spoke, he was replacing an unused arrow in its quiver. The body of the bear lay some ten yards away in the trees, a shapeless brown mass, pierced by an arrow at the back of its neck.

"It appears that I am in your debt," replied Denethor, now soaked to the waist, regarding his rescuer cautiously as he got to his feet. He could not help feeling shaken after the encounter, but was nonetheless suspicious of the sudden appearance of this stranger in the depths of the forest, many leagues from the nearest habitation.

"I have been tracking the beast since noon, and when I saw you in the distance I knew that he would follow you. You were upwind of him and that is a dangerous place to be, even on horseback". As he spoke the man swiftly dismounted and began to approach. Denethor was immediately struck by his appearance; he was tall and lean, dressed as for a long journey, his grey cloak and high boots stained with travel, but the cloak was clasped at the shoulder by a silver star of strange design. It glinted in the fading sunlight. Young he looked, and yet not so, with shaggy dark hair and a pale, stern face. Yet, it was his eyes that commanded attention. They were keen and grey, and a light was in them that seemed to pierce Denethor like a shaft of steel.

"I have been in the forest on many a journey", he replied quickly, "and am well practised in the ways of bears. But my horse slipped in the stream and I was thrown. Besides I am not alone," he added, laying his hand on the hilt of his sword. He felt far from comfortable under that stern gaze. "I rode ahead of my men and they will be here before long".

"You would have been dead before you had time to call out," said the stranger. "But I see that you are not hurt. However your horse has fled and I did not mark where it went. You will not get far on foot". He spoke the Westron tongue but in a manner and tone that was new to Denethor; certainly it was not of Gondor or Rohan.

At that moment he heard hoofs and his men came into view and rode up the gully. When they saw the stranger they sped towards Denethor and drew their swords to defend their captain, for it seemed plain to them that he was being assailed. Swiftly they encircled the newcomer and closed in around him until their blades were a hand's span from his neck. He stood unmoved and silent, making no sign, but all the time watching the face of Denethor.

"What would you have us do with him my Lord?" cried Baranor.

There was a silence as the two men surveyed one other. Baranor was at once struck by the likeness between them; little different in build and in their features, strong boned and finely drawn. Brothers they might be, or cousins.

Presently Denethor broke the silence. "Lower your swords. This man has saved my life and I owe him gratitude, not bloodshed. But come sir, forgive my friends. It is not permitted for foreigners to wander these borders unchallenged, even on our northern marches with our allies of Rohan. You must tell us your name and errand here".

The stranger's face was softened by a disarming smile and immediately the tension lifted. "I am called Thorongil," he replied, "and I came out of the north, though I have but lately left the service of Thengel of Rohan. I am no newcomer to your land of Gondor for I have travelled to your borders many times, though without challenge 'til now. My errand is my own, but I ride to Minas Tirith."

"If you have been in the service of Thengel then you have my leave to ride through Gondor," said Denethor, "but in these days no stranger may enter the city without declaring his purpose at the Great Gate, by order of the Steward."

"I wish only to look upon the citadel and be content," said Thorongil, "for I have heard it is wondrous fair and never have I seen the city of the Numenoreans, that was once called Minas Anor. But since I have saved your life may I not know your name in payment for my services?"

The riders stared at Thorongil in his boldness in so addressing their captain, but Denethor laughed and replied; "How can I refuse one who holds my own city in such high esteem? Very well, I am Denethor, son and heir to Ecthelion II, the Steward of Gondor. Tell me, in which company of the Rohirrim did you ride?"

"I served in the king's guard," said Thorongil, "and when the King himself was not abroad, with the Marshall of Westfold."

Denethor looked in wonder at the face of Thorongil, considering how one so young and an outsider could be held in such high honour, but he said, "Rumours have reported trouble on Thengel's western borders close by the stronghold of Saruman the White at Isengard. Do you know anything of truth in them? No more, perhaps, than skirmishes with the Dunlendings, though some report that Saruman has withdrawn his treaty with Rohan and is strengthening his borders on his own behalf."

"No more than skirmishes and rumours, as you say", replied Thorongil, but he would not be drawn on the subject, and continued, "You should seek your horse if you do not wish to return on foot to your city."

"She is away yonder in the valley lord", broke in another of Denethor's companions. "Shall I fetch her now?"

"Lead her back gently if she is still afraid, Earnur", he replied, and turned back to Thorongil. "We camp here tonight. Will you ride with us tomorrow? Our road leads back to our city and I would speak with you of Rohan, for news of our allies concerns us greatly in these troubled times."

Thorongil looked steadily at Denethor, considering his offer with care before he made an answer. "Thank-you", he said at last, "I will travel with you. I have ridden alone for many days and a man may weary of his own company."

The riders made camp in a clearing in the valley below the stream, which passed over natural terraces in the rock as it wound its way down the hill through holm oaks and elms. They skinned the bear and made their meal from the carcass over a good fire, which kept away other beasts, and then they buried the remains to ensure the carrion did not attract wolves, which in those days were still plentiful in the foothills of the White Mountains.

Thorongil spoke little as they ate round the fire. He sat apart from the company wrapped in his cloak, his face half-hidden by a hood and his long legs stretched out before him, smoking a pipe, curiously carved. Denethor and his men eyed their new companion with interest, but though courteous he skilfully evaded all but their most superficial questions about his past, and this did not go unnoticed by the son of Ecthelion.

Denethor took first watch and sat by the fire, keeping it well tended for the night was cold. He found himself fascinated by the stranger. Where was he from and what was his real purpose in Gondor? As he sat on silently through the small hours, he wondered if he had been hasty in revealing himself so soon. He was disconcerted by Thorongil's cool reserve and detached manner, but despite this and his youth there was something compelling in his demeanour that made Denethor warm to him, and which commanded respect.

It occurred to Denethor that he had little knowledge of the lands north of Rohan, never having travelled further that way than Edoras or Rauros Falls on the Great River. Of course, he had learned much from his father the Steward, who was reckoned one of the wisest of his line. Denethor too excelled as a scholar, and had read a great deal in the citadel library of the old northern realm of Arnor, before the line of Kings failed. But the whereabouts of Arnor could only be guessed at, for that knowledge was lost even to the wisest of his city. He had seen precious scrolls preserved with reverence by the keepers of the library, but none now could read what they might tell, for they were written in an ancient tongue with an elvish script unlike the characters used by the men of Gondor. Other tales of the lands beyond the Gap of Rohan and the Misty Mountains were dismissed as stories for children, or related the dark and dangerous deeds of mysterious folk long since gone, or so it was believed.

After four hours, Earnur took over the watch and Denethor lay down wrapped in his blanket, but he slept only fitfully until the grey dawn. When he awoke he saw Thorongil standing alone on the edge of the clearing looking eastwards towards the sunrise and Denethor wondered whether he had slept at all.

The company departed within the hour for they wished to reach Amon Din by that evening, and the city within two days. The encounter with the orcs so close to Rauros had disquieted Denethor as much as the rumours of trouble in Rohan. Never in his lifetime had the enemy been so active this far west and he began to feel that Gondor was becoming hemmed in, an island in a sea of storms. As they rode he confided his fears in a low voice to Baranor, but Thorongil was close behind and he felt constrained to say too much.

"I have rarely seen these foul creatures by day in the open as we did at Rauros, and never in such numbers. And why were they west of Anduin where they have never dared to cross before? Eomund was right to redouble his watch on the Entwash plains. I wonder how they are faring in Ithilien if the Dark Lord has stretched his hand so far."

"Mayhap he is trying Rohan's resolve by testing her when all elsewhere is so quiet", replied Baranor, his fair face drawn with concern. "I can think of no other reason for it unless there is worse to come for us all".

Even as his friend spoke, Denethor was aware that Thorongil had ridden close by them, and was now at his side. He had evidently heard all that had been said.

"It is not the first time that these great orcs have been seen in Rohan", said Thorongil, "if as you say they were abroad in daylight. They are not like the goblins from the East or even those from under the Misty Mountains. They are bigger, with long hair and thick hides and they wield great scimitars as well as bows. I have followed them at times and know something of their ways. They do not fear the sun and can move at great speed if they must."

Denethor turned towards Thorongil and looked at him thoughtfully; "It was a foolhardy thing to follow the Enemy except at great need. It is said that Orcs are quicker than sight when roused and can smell a man a mile away. What do you know of these creatures? Are they not from Mordor like the rest?"

"I do not know. They are unlike any of the creatures of the Enemy that I have seen before. And why they concentrate on Rohan I cannot tell. You say that you met with Eomund. Was that in the Eastemnet?"

"He was patrolling the areas round the Entwash with twenty of his household when we met him," replied Denethor, amazed at his own candour. "He had seen a host of these great orcs on the Emyn Muil, but was outnumbered and dared not engage them with so few. We pursued them together but they crossed the River at night and we lost their trail on the hard ground. Is Eomund known to you then?"

"I have met him at Edoras. He is a very valiant man, one of Thengel's best, though he is but twenty years old. He will be Marshal before many years are out, if fortune permits."

They rode on out of the Firienwood and, skirting the foothills of the mountains, they passed Min Rimmon, Erelas and Nardol and entered the Druadan Forest. It was a cheerless day; the late autumn sunshine had gone by noon and a mist was settling on the moorland of Anorien. They stopped only briefly on the way, and Denethor continued in silence for the most part. He had surprised himself at his openness in the presence of the stranger, whom he found he trusted against his better judgement. "Why, if I had found any other man in the wild", he thought, "though he had rescued me from a pit of snakes, I should have done my duty and taken him prisoner, to be brought for judgement before the Steward. Yet here I am confiding in this stranger tidings that should go first to my father." His behaviour startled him exceedingly and he began to debate what he would do when they reached Minas Tirith.

The company used Eilanach Beacon as their guide through the thick woodland and reached Amon Din without mishap. The mound rose up out of the mist and the sun was once more visible as it began its setting in the west. No creature larger than a deer had they seen all day, but as they made camp at the foot of Amon Din, Earnur glanced up and exclaimed:

"What is that great bird away over the beacon? It is wheeling in circles as though it was awaiting our approach."

Denethor looked up and saw high above them a dark shape with huge wings spread wide.

"It is an eagle", said Thorongil. "One of the Great Eagles of the Misty Mountains. I have never seen one so far south before. I wonder what has brought it down from its stronghold?"

"You have sharp eyes, Stranger", said Denethor, and laughed. "That befits your name I think*. No doubt the bird followed you to see what one of his own kind was doing so far from home!"

Thorongil smiled, but his face was troubled as he watched the eagle. Presently it left the beacon and disappeared from sight towards Mount Mindolluin, whose snow capped peak loomed before them in the south.

The next morning the mist had returned so that the top of the beacon was scarcely visible from the camp. The company quickly made ready to ride, for the pine forests of the Druadan had an unwholesome feel in the poor light, even on the great West Road, which they joined as soon as they could now that Denethor judged it safe to do so. No orcs had ever been reported in Anorien, but the forest hid secrets older even than Gondor, and few left the road unless they had to, or ventured into the trees beyond Amon Din.

The road soon took them due south so that they were looking straight at Mindolluin ahead of them, making good speed for the going was flatter and the mist had gone. Four hours after noon they reached the Rammas Echor, the great out-wall that had protected the Pelennor and the city since the fall of Osgiliath. The guards at the gate waved the company through, bowing their heads before the son of the Steward.

Now they rode over the plain that lay at the foot of Mindolluin, and ever closer the mountain rose before them, the highest, most easterly peak of the Ered Nimrais. Its slate grey faces and snowy heights beckoned them on, for at its knee on a great dark spur stood the City of the Tower of Guard. In a sudden shaft of sunlight it gleamed bright as the snowfields above. Ancient as the mountain it seemed, with its seven encircling walls of stone, and surmounting all, the Tower of Ecthelion.

Not for nought did Thorongil wish to look upon that tower, thought Denethor, as he rode swiftly at the head of the company. His heart was high as he made for home, and he experienced the familiar rush of love for his city. He turned and there was Thorongil at his side, and his eyes were shining as he beheld Minas Tirith, and Denethor felt a well of pride to see him so moved.

As they crossed the Pelennor the riders passed field after field of rich soil, dug now for winter and a new sowing in the spring. Here and there vineyards could be seen, and mellow farmhouses of stone and timber, golden in the afternoon light. Eastwards the road bore round the high city wall, which reared up above them, black and impenetrable. Then it swept up to the Great Gates, which solemnly overlooked the river far below.

There it was, Anduin, flowing in a wide arc south and west up to the Harlond, majestic, slower now as it spread lazily over the plain, washing the fertile fields with autumn rainfall gathered above Rauros from the Misty Mountains. "Anduin", thought Denethor, "What tales you could tell me from the north if I could but hear your voice." He felt a sudden desire to follow the river upstream and see what lay beyond Rauros, beyond Rohan, and to seek the truth in the stories he had learned, to know the land this grey stranger called home. But it was not the fate of the stewards or their kin to travel far from Gondor in those days, for too pressing was the need at home.

The company reached the Gates and they stood open, for it was not then the custom to close them before dusk. The guards saluted their lord and then beheld Thorongil and stood amazed. For though they knew him not, the man they saw seemed to them like one of the lords of Gondor, noble and fair of face, yet stern of glance, dark-haired with eyes of grey that proudly held their gaze. But there was something loftier, more remote in him that made them stare, and they gave way before him, and permitted him to pass.

Through the gates they rode, and climbed the steeply twisting way that passed to this side and that as it threaded through the seven circles of the city. At each level it passed a great arch under the Keel, the great spur of natural rock like the hull of a vast ship, that thrust through the circles and overlooked the Gates. At length they reached the sixth level, where stood the stables of the guard, and here men took their horses and tended to them. Denethor bade Thorongil wait with Baranor at the gatehouse by the stables, for he would not permit him to enter the citadel without the Steward's leave, and he alone strode up to the seventh level.

The Steward had finished his meal and was alone in his private chambers, save for one servant in waiting by the door. His son found him pondering a letter, which he concealed when Denethor approached. Ecthelion turned to his son and they embraced.

"I thought to see you six days ago," he began. "Is it as I feared, that all is not well with our allies?"

"I have much to tell you my lord. But I must eat and rest a little, and then the tidings will be better told." Denethor thought his father looked strained and ill. His face betrayed a weariness that comes of many sleepless nights and of pain that will not pass. The Steward rose with an effort and leaned on his staff.

"Bring food and wine for my son," he commanded, and the servant went to do his bidding.

"Father, there is one matter more pressing." Denethor hesitated for a moment. "A stranger waits at the stables. He met with us on the border. I would not have him left at the door like a beggar."

Ecthelion frowned. "What do you mean by "stranger"? You do not say "friend", and I take it he is not your prisoner. So what is he? An emissary of Saruman?"

"I must speak truthfully father - I do not know. He has served under Thengel, or says that he did. I think he is a nobleman, but he is not of the Rohirrim, and he has not, I think, been frank with me. But he saved my life in the Firienwood."

"Saved your life?" The frown turned to surprise. "Then bid him enter. I will not have such an act rewarded with discourtesy in my own house. Show him into the antechamber and have rooms prepared for him."

"Is that wise my lord?" replied Denethor. "We know nothing of this man but what he tells us. He may speak the truth, but he has answered few of my questions and there is something about him. I cannot describe it." He tailed off, unable to put his uncertainty into words.

"Nevertheless I will meet this stranger and make my own judgement, since you are not yourself it seems." The Steward felt suddenly irritated. His son's uncharacteristic indecision was disconcerting and he was more than usually troubled by the pain of his old wound.

Denethor knew from his father's tone that it was pointless to argue. He returned to the gatehouse and found Baranor and Thorongil where he had left them.

"You may enter the citadel, Thorongil, for the Steward wishes to speak with you. Come, I will take you to him."

They passed through the tunnel under the Keel and came to the Great Arch that led on to the court of the Fountain before the Tower itself. As they left the arch Denethor heard a sharp intake of breath as his companion beheld the Tower of Anor, which just then was bathed in a golden light, as the last rays of the setting sun glanced across the battlements before she disappeared behind the mountain. Thorongil paused and looked on the fountain beneath the high tower, and then he gazed long at the dead tree in the centre of the greensward. Gently he took in his hand one of the thin, lifeless stems that hung down low, and murmured something in a strange tongue. Then he took a deep breath and followed Denethor into the hall of the Kings.

In the antechamber the steward was seated on a small dais, awaiting their arrival. Thorongil approached and then knelt before him, his eyes cast down. Ecthelion studied the face of the stranger long before he spoke.

"It seems I must thank you for the life of my son and heir. I have not yet learned the manner of this deed. Will you tell me what happened?"

"It was a chance meeting with a bear in the Firienwood, my lord", he replied, without looking up. "Lord Denethor's horse fell and unseated him just as the creature came upon him. I was close by and shot the bear. No more than that."

"And where was your escort while this animal was attacking?" Ecthelion turned to his son.

" I was riding some way ahead of them, lord. They did not see it happen."

"Even knowing as you do that your life is too valuable to risk without need, you did this thing?"

"There was no cause to think there might be any danger, sir"

Ecthelion sighed and was silent for a while, and then he addressed Thorongil again. "Tell me your name and business in our land."

The stranger stood up tall and looked the Steward straight in the eye. "I am called Thorongil and I came out of the north. But I have spent these past thirteen years in the service of Thengel of Rohan. I led the King's guard. But he has released me from his service for I wished to journey south. With his full accord I have come to offer my sword to you my lord Steward, and to Gondor." Thorongil drew from a sheath that had hung concealed at his side a long sword of strange design and, bowing low, laid it at the feet of Ecthelion.

The old man stiffened, and then his eyes softened and he said: "I see truth in your face, Thorongil, though your story is strange and I would hear more of it before I accept your service. Take back your sword. A chance meeting you say with my son, but it was timely and you have my gratitude. You will be my guest tonight, not my servant, and tomorrow we will talk again."

Ecthelion rose and slowly left the chamber, leaving Denethor and Thorongil alone. They looked at one another for a moment, and then Denethor spoke.

"My father is a cautious man and not easily deceived, but he reads truth in what you say, that is plain."

"I see that you on the other hand have not yet made up your mind about me," replied Thorongil. "It is your duty to be wary of strange wanderers, whoever they say they are, especially in your own house. I would do the same in your place."

A shadow of suspicion passed over Denethor's face. He thought for a moment how he might test Thorongil's story, and then began: "Your speech is courteous and you have pleased my father's honour with your offer. But I would have more surety before I let you sleep in this house. Did Thengel send no token of his trust for you to give to the Steward? The Rohirrim write no letters it is true, but something from his house he might have sent with you."

Thorongil's eyes glinted and he looked sternly at Denethor. "I prefer to earn trust on my own behalf and not bandy tokens or recommendations. But as you know well, your own tongue is spoken daily at Meduseld. King Thengel lived for twenty-nine years in this very city and is as skilled in the writing of your speech as you are. He took Morwen of Lossarnach to wife, who is seventeen years younger, and they have a son, Theoden, who is twenty- two years old. Their youngest daughter is called Theodwyn and she is but seven years old. She is dark-haired and takes after her mother. Do I pass your test?"

Denethor was not daunted and things might have gone ill, but suddenly he smiled broadly and exclaimed: "Forgive me my doubt, friend. You have answered well on all counts. A cloud has been over my sight, so disturbing has been the news of late. I wished to trust you from the first, but you are a strange fellow in your garb and your speech and your manner. Like a creature out of a tale you seem to me. Will you not now be more open with your story?"

At that moment servants brought food and wine enough for both men and they set it on low tables and drew up couches. The two men sat down and began to eat. Denethor dismissed the servants and when they were once more alone Thorongil said: "It is nineteen years since I left my home and I wandered far in the wild and saw many strange places, ere ever I came to Edoras. My old life seems now like a dream and I will not speak of it. It will be long before I return north, if I ever do. It is not my fate to serve in the land of my birth, so I seek to offer my sword for the use of others who would defend themselves against the evil in the East."

"Will you ever speak in riddles be there a sword at your throat or a cup of wine in your hand?" Denethor gave a wry laugh. "I submit. I will ask no more tonight for I am very weary. Tomorrow there is much to discuss and you may find my father less easy to deter."

"We shall see. But tell me of Gondor while we eat so that I may begin to know it better."

"You appear to have heard a good deal already. What would you know?"

"Tell me of the Stewards. Why is there no king in Gondor?"

And so Denethor began to tell Thorongil of the last king, Earnur, son of Earnil, who died without an heir in torment in Minas Morgul, that had been Minas Ithil, and then of his Steward, Mardil, who ruled in his stead, there being no heir apparent who could rightfully claim the throne. He briefly related the history of the twenty-five Stewards of the House of Hurin, who each vowed to rule in the name of the king, until he should return, and never once sat upon the throne or wore the crown of Elendil. From the Watchful Peace, when Sauron submitted to the White Council, Denethor told of the ruin of Osgiliath, and the alliance with Rohan, of the surrendering of Orthanc to Saruman and the terror of the Corsairs of Umbar. Last he told of his grandfather, Turgon, in whose time Sauron re-emerged and entered again the tower of Barad-dur.

Thorongil listened intently and when he had finished asked: "Do you think a king will ever come again to Minas Tirith?"

"After twenty-five generations? You may as well ask if the moon will change places with the sun. We carry on the traditions of our house and our people keep up the old sayings." The face of Denethor hardened. "No Steward would dare unfurl the royal standard on his own behalf. But how, if one came, would he prove his claim except to children and dullards?"

"How indeed?" agreed Thorongil, and fell silent. His host began to turn over in his mind the report he must make the next day, and as he did so he studied Thorongil, who sat on, eyes unfocused as though he walked in a waking dream.

In the morning Ecthelion called Denethor to his chambers even as he breakfasted.

"Now you are fed and rested tell me your news from the north. How goes it with the Riddermark?"

"We patrolled the border with Eastfold for six days, my lord. For five days we saw no one but as we returned east along the Entwash floodplain we found everywhere the tracks of many companies of orcs, some fresh, some several days old. The land was rent like an open wound where they had passed. Then we came upon Eomund of Eastfold with twenty of his eored. They were following the most recent trail as it led east towards the River. They had sighted a company of at least one hundred orc but were too few to risk riding close. We joined them and caught a look at the enemy before we lost them in the Emyn Muil. They were the biggest orc I have ever seen, father. Swart of face and black of garb for the most part, tall and thick set. They had long hair and wielded scimitars like the Haradrim, and by their marks they were shod with iron. And they ran by day and night so that were we not mounted we feared we would have lost them sooner. I have never known their like before."

As Ecthelion listened to his son and captain his face became grave and he closed his eyes as if to shield them from some memory that had scarred his mind. When Denethor finished the Steward moved to the window that looked to the East, beyond the Tower and over the Keel, across the valley towards the broken teeth that topped the Ephel Duath, some fifty miles away. In between lay Ithilien, the once fair land that had soaked up the blood of a thousand valiant warriors. At once he was there again, ordering the retreat that had ended in that last desperate stand-off, and then yet again he felt the rush of pain as the curving steel bore down on him and he longed to make an end. Fifteen years a virtual cripple, imprisoned in his own citadel, had so sharpened the memory that he doubted he would ever be rid of it.

Denethor watched his father's private torment and wished for the hundredth time that he had the words to release his pain. Instead he felt the familiar void that daily came between them in all but matters of state.

Presently Ecthelion turned and spoke with an effort in a harsh whisper. "What you saw my son were Uruks of Mordor. In his hatred and his malice Sauron has crossed orcs with men from Rhun and Harad and produced this perverted race to serve his evil purpose. They were very few at first, but he must have perfected them so now he has enough to use in force. They fear nothing save their master, and they thrive on hate, embracing cruelty and feasting on death."

"You speak as one who knows these creatures!" Denethor was incredulous.

"It is not the first time they have been abroad, though it is many years since they last came west of Minas Morgul, and never in the numbers you speak of." Ecthelion sighed. "But we can only watch and wait."

"Until Sauron has us trapped like rabbits down a hole for his dogs to flush out, I suppose."

"Will you never learn patience Denethor?" The Steward's voice rose in frustration. "We may not test our foe until we know his strength, lest he take Gondor by the scruff and shake the life out of her. Would you see him on the King's Seat supping on our grief and pain before the year is out? For that will surely be our lot if we call his hand too soon."

"Then why does he toy with these sorties in Rohan if he is as strong as you fear?" Denethor fought against his father's stinging riposte, the crushing rejection he had known from childhood.

"No doubt because he hopes his enemies think as you do." Ecthelion broke off. He knew that he was being unfair, but sometimes his son seemed to him to lack his father's resolve, the strength to do nothing until the time was ripe. Or was the Steward deceiving himself? Could it be his own fear that stayed his hand?

"And what of Westfold?" he continued. "Are the rumours true regarding the Dunlendings?"

"Eomund had no news to add to what we already know, my lord. The Dunlendings have been making forays into the Mark and some farmsteads have been sacked. Maybe Thorongil could tell you more. And orcs have been reported in the north by the forests of Fangorn. Thengel sent word to Saruman to ask his advice but no answer has yet been brought."

"The wizard becomes more reclusive as the years go on. Like me he feels his age perhaps." The flicker of a smile played on the Steward's lips and he went on, "Forgive my temper Denethor. I have nothing to reproach you for, except your youth and vigour, of which we will all, I think, be glad before long. But tell me what do you think of this stranger from the north?"

"I have never met his like before, sir", replied Denethor. "Like a silent shadow he seemed in the woods where we met, as if he were one with the trees. He says little and listens much, but I have heard him speak a tongue that had a music in it like rippling water. I don't know, my lord, but I think I heard Elvish words in the court by the fountain."

"Elvish! No one in Gondor has used that tongue in my time or my father's."

"I cannot be certain but it was not Rohirric. The words sounded familiar to my ears. But he is close and will say little of his past."

"We shall question him further in time," said the Steward. "So, he wishes to serve Gondor. A man who speaks Elvish is hardly likely to be a servant of the Enemy. Do you believe his story?"

"Yes Lord, I think I do."

"Then he shall have his chance. Have him brought to me at noon. But before you go there is another matter."

Ecthelion drew the letter from the chest where he had placed it the night before and showed it to Denethor. "Adrahil has sent ahead to tell me that he rides to the city within the month. He wishes to consult with me regarding our southern defences. And he writes that he will be bringing his daughter with him."

"Surely she is still but a child, father. Is it safe for her to make such a journey?"

"Finduilas is fully twenty years old and by all accounts is grown early to womanhood. In any case, is it not customary for Dol Amroth to send its children here to finish their studies? And she begs her father to let her look upon Minas Tirith while we still enjoy what peace remains in Gondor." Ecthelion watched his son's expression with curiosity as he digested the news. "I had thought you might wish to see her yourself."

"Meaning that she's the only suitable match this side of the White Mountains I suppose." Denethor humoured his father but his smile was not heartfelt. "She is but half my age and the last time we met she was on her mother's knee."

"Then rest assured she will have changed since then," said Ecthelion. But if you will not have her or she you, then what hope have I of knowing your heir while I still breathe?"

"Let us wait until we meet and I will answer you then, father."

Denethor left the chamber with the air of a promising, but idle student, reproached by a disappointed tutor. He put the matter from his mind and went outside to the Keel to look across the vale, a ritual he had performed daily since childhood. Standing on the battlements, he leaned over the wall and surveyed the Pelennor, but it was blanketed in autumn mists and not even the river was to be seen. Beyond lay the Ephel Duath in the distance, seeming to beckon him closer towards its jagged peaks, as daylight advanced slowly behind.

Just then an almost imperceptible footfall made him stir and he found Thorongil beside him. He too was looking out over the wall and he smiled at Denethor.

"My lord."

Denethor nodded abruptly. He hated to be disturbed on the Keel, which he had come to regard as a place of private contemplation. Thorongil seemed immediately to understand for he said no more, but stood silently, deep in his own thoughts.

~~~

Aragorn had breakfasted alone and walked in the court of the fountain, but he knew that the watchful eyes of the door wardens were following him. He had slept little that night as he turned over the events of the last few days. His plan, as far as he had made one, had been to spend time alone in Anorien, perhaps several weeks, reacquainting himself with the land, before approaching the city. He had enjoyed the sense of freedom that had come over him after he left Edoras for the last time, for he never felt more at ease than when he was alone in the wild, self reliant, practising the skills that he had learned of necessity, but which for years had felt as natural to him as breathing. Moreover, he had to own a feeling of tension that was close to dread at the thought of finally entering the city of his people, a moment for which he had for so long prepared.

At the same time, it had pained him deeply to leave Thengel, whom he had long counted as friend no less than liege-lord. The news from Westfold had reached Meduseld even as Aragorn had been saying farewell. Thengel had insisted that if he chose not to leave then, a right moment might never come, and only this had enabled him to go through with it. Their parting words made Aragorn wonder even now if Thengel had suspected more than he had ever let on in their thirteen-year friendship. Had Rohan's king the foresight of the Dunedain?

Then to meet, of all people, the son of Ecthelion, and in what circumstance! Events had moved on apace and the Ranger had had little time to consider his course. Denethor was the last person to risk offending if Aragorn was to come himself to the citadel, which he knew he must before long. Now here, before the White Tower at last, he was confronted by an inner turmoil that he had not felt for nearly twenty years. Not even Gandalf's gentle warning at their last meeting had prepared him for this moment. His glance strayed again to the tree of Nimloth, standing naked by the fountain, and its withered boughs seemed to whisper the futility of long years of hope. Caught out by his emotion the day before, his thoughts had found a voice unbidden, in the tongue that came most easily to him, from the time when he had known no other. That Denethor had heard his words he was certain from the other's face as they had crossed the court. What he had made of them Aragorn could not imagine.

Just then Denethor had come into view, striding along the battlements that topped the Keel. Following at a discrete distance, Aragorn had silently made his way along the wall until he too overlooked the valley. For some time the Steward's son had not noticed his arrival, but was wholly absorbed in his own thoughts, until he had turned suddenly and their eyes met.

I presume on his privacy, the Ranger realised at once as he greeted him. This man would be my friend, but does not suffer easy intimacy. Nor should he! I forget to whom I speak. How different had been his first days with the Rohirrim, amongst whom even his looks should have isolated him; and yet he had felt at home with the easy, straightforward charm of the riders of the Mark. Now here in the citadel of the Dunedain he was ill at ease, and it came to him that he had never felt more alone. The very air of the city seemed heavy with years of attrition, so that Aragorn felt almost choked by it, even there on the battlements, seven hundred feet above the plain. His thoughts turned unbidden to Imladris, and he had swiftly to wrest his mind back to the present lest he be overwhelmed by the memory.

~~~

"So, Thorongil, now that you have seen my city does it meet your expectations?"

Denethor's question brought him to himself and he instantly recovered his composure. "It surpasses every image in my mind," he replied. "I never thought to see such beauty carved in stone, or on such a scale. But its splendour veils a sadness that seems to shroud the very walls in weariness and regret. Has it always been so?"

"You feel the presence of the shadow over yonder," said Denethor. "It has been many lives of men since a time when our people could look towards the east and not be touched by it. And through all the years our children grow fewer, and many families forsake the city to seek peace in the vales and the woodlands of Lossarnach or Lebennin. But who knows how long we may keep them safe from the great Eye?"

"The Riddermark is full of tales of Gondor's strength of arms. Is it not then so?"

"Our forces are many times the strength of Rohan, certainly. But our allies number Rohan alone, and who knows if that is strength enough to trouble Sauron, who calls on all the lands east and south of Anduin? But come, my father wishes to see you in the Tower at noon and there is much to be done."

As they left the battlements the eagle was again just visible as it soared high above the tower, before it wheeled away to the north and was lost to sight. Before they reached the fountain a young man clad in the uniform of the king's guard came across the court to meet them. It was Baranor.

"My lord Denethor, I have word that Thorongil is to be brought before the Steward to swear his allegiance and to be assigned a post. He must be prepared if he is to be presented in the Tower, and time is short."

"Then you had best make ready, Baranor. Take him to the guardroom and see that he is properly equipped."

Baranor led Thorongil away to be clad in the battledress of Gondor, the tradition when a new soldier was to be sworn in. He put on the habergeon over his tunic, and Baranor handed him the black surcoat of the Guards of the citadel. But when he beheld the emblems emblazoned on the front, the white tree surmounted by the silver crown and seven stars, Thorongil handed the surcoat back to Baranor asking: "Who has bidden you to give me this livery? Is it not reserved for the citadel guard?"

Baranor turned away in confusion and bowed his head. "Why yes, lord, but I assumed that you were to join the guard. You were King Thengel's champion, were you not? Am I mistaken sir?" He raised his eyes to meet Thorongil's gaze but could not hold it long.

Thorongil smiled down at the young man and said gently, "I know not how the Steward intends me to serve him. But I will make no presumption of my rank. A plain soldier of Gondor I will be, until I may earn a reward for my own merit, if that is my fortune."

At length they came before the White Tower that rose high above the citadel and could be seen from the furthest fields of the Pelennor. Smooth and sheer, its pale stones were set with such skill that none might climb the outer wall. In the north face a single large doorway gave access to the Great Hall. The doorwardens silently escorted Thorongil into the Tower and through a wide, paved walkway as far as the entrance to the ancient vaulted chamber of the Kings. On the black stone chair of the Stewards, was seated Ecthelion in formal attire. Behind him on a dais of many steps a high throne stood empty beneath its marble canopy.

Slowly Thorongil approached the dais and knelt before Ecthelion, who observed him coolly with hooded eyes for several minutes before he spoke.

"You came last night to offer your sword to the service of Gondor. Such an offer should not be lightly made, or put aside. Do you still stand by your words?"

"I do my lord."

"And was that your purpose in leaving Thengel of Rohan?"

"It was."

"A grievous blow to the King to lose his champion so, but a generous gift on his part, wouldn't you say?" The Steward raised a questioning eyebrow. "We shall see. Tell me how you came to earn such an office. How long did you lead the guard?"

Thorongil stood up and said; "Seven years, my Lord. Before that I rode with the Mark in Westemnet. I proved my worth against the Dunlendings, for they have long troubled the borders around the Gap of Rohan."

"Ah, Dunland, the gadfly at Rohan's flank! And what of Saruman, for he too shares that burden? How does he counsel Thengel in the defence of the Riddermark?"

Thorongil looked at the Steward thoughtfully. "Saruman has long kept his own counsel and comes not to Edoras as he used. It is five years since he sat at Thengel's table, and two since any message came. The king sent word to him that orcs have once more been harrying Eastfold, but the doorwardens of Orthanc dismissed the embassy, saying their master was abroad. The riders waited above one week outside the gates like so many stray dogs, but he came not, and so they left."

"And whose counsel will Thengel take now I wonder?" murmured Ecthelion, as though to himself. Then he continued, his dark eyes probing the other's features. "Thorongil, Star Eagle; a strange name for a strange fellow. The Rohirrim do not use such names for their folk. But I am forgetting, you were not born in the Mark. Still, you must have come there very young, I think. And you are from the north, you say. Is that where you learned the Elvish tongue?"

Thorongil smiled briefly in admission. "Yes, my lord."

"And was that in the Golden Wood, or somewhere else?"

"I have been in Lothlorien, and, yes, I learned much there, Lord."

"Did you indeed?" He paused again and then looked sternly at Thorongil and said; "Now tell me why I should take you into my service, and not send you back to the Mark, or, perhaps, to the Lady of the Wood."

"Very well, my lord. I can shoot and ride as well as any man in Rohan, and better than most. I can wield a sword, which I learned long ere I came there. I have some skill in hunting man and orc, and can live a year in the wild using no more than what I can carry. Is that enough? I seek no high office, for merely to serve will be my reward."

"You seek no high office? Few men of Gondor earn that honour, and many fail in the attempt. And why would it please you to serve Gondor?"

"No man who has seen your city would not be moved by its splendour. Gondor has the greatest strength of any land east of the Sea, and above all she is the enemy of Mordor, and men should flock to her banner for that reason alone."

Ecthelion suppressed a look of amused irony. "You have high hopes for Gondor's strength against the Shadow in the East. Few would now claim that for her, strong as she is. But we can only resist as we may. I will accept your sword, stranger from the north. You will be assigned a post when your skills have been established. Now hand me your sword."

And so Thorongil swore fealty to Gondor, and to the Steward, and Ecthelion accepted his service and bad him remain in the citadel as his guest until his duties were assigned.

* "Thorongil" means "Eagle of the Star" in Sindarin