A Captain and a Cause

by Rhymer (Eildon Rhymer/rhymer23)

"Daerion was dangling upside-down from an apple tree when the King came for the first time to Minas Tirith." Thorongil touched many lives when he served in Gondor, more than at first he knew.

Daerion was dangling upside-down from an apple tree when the King came for the first time to Minas Tirith.

The King came on a horse, which was unusual enough, and he came by the North-way, which was even more rare. Even so, Daerion would have spared him barely a glance, had he not been bored and hungry, because he had eaten all the honey cakes even before reaching the Great Gate, and he couldn't find the funny beetles anywhere, and that made Iorlas a liar, so there.

The King was not yet king, then, of course, just a tall stranger on a horse. Daerion was nine years old.

Upside-down, he watched the stranger approach. Then, because it was hard to see things clearly when your head was underneath the rest of you, he pulled himself up and scrambled astride the branch.

The stranger drew nearer. He rode a big brown horse, and he wore a plain grey cloak and carried a long sword. Perhaps he was going to do something interesting with it. Daerion shuffled along the branch, pushing apple blossom out of the way so he could see him more clearly. Blossom was stupid. Apples were much better, because you could eat them, unless people caught you at it and chased you out of the orchard, but there would be no apples until the end of summer.

It was spring time on the Pelennor, and summer felt like years away, and excitement, the true excitement that you got in stories, was like a distant dream. The stranger failed to draw his sword, or sing a song in a barbaric tongue, or even gallop or canter, whatever the difference was; Iorlas could tell him, but Daerion refused to ask. He just plodded along slowly, head bowed, dressed in boring old grey.

Then, as Daerion watched, the stranger reached the curve in the orchard wall, the place where you suddenly got a view of the whole of Minas Tirith, shining and white beneath Mount Mindolluin. And there the stranger stopped, and sat there very still, just gazing at it.

"Boring!" Daerion whispered, and started to pick away at the bark with his fingernails, planning to spell out his name.

But then, just before Daerion looked away, everything changed, like those magic tricks they said the great wizard Saruman could do in his tower of Orthanc. Instead of a travel-worn stranger, Daerion saw a statue of a mounted king. He saw a hero of fireside stories. He saw a great lord, tall and wise and mighty, with light in his eyes and a star on his brow.

Daerion clutched at the branch, and almost fell. When he recovered himself, the stranger was just a man again, just a traveller on a brown horse, riding quietly towards the city of stone.

"There you are," said Iorlas, swiping at the blossom with a forked stick. "What're you doing up there?"

"Did you see him?" Daerion asked.

"Who?" Iorlas said. "Come on! Get down!"

"The…" He wasn't sure what he wanted to say. Great lord, perhaps, or hero or prince or warrior. "Man," he said. "On a horse."

Iorlas looked where Daerion was pointing. "The horse comes from Rohan." His father worked in the stables on the Sixth Level, so Iorlas knew everything there was to be known about horses, and made sure all his friends knew it.

"He…" Daerion wondered whether to say it. Mockery could be merciless, but the memory was too strong. "Shone," he said.

"Sunshine on his armour and his horse's tack." Iorlas flapped his hand dismissively. "Forget him. He's just a boring grown-up. Come on. I've found the funny beetles. I told you I'd see them first. I always do."

It was the middle of summer, and overnight the ants had sprouted wings. Daerion watched them flying, and wondered what it must feel like to spend your life crawling on the ground, then suddenly discover that you could fly.

If he had wings, he would fly free. He would find dragons in the mountains and treasure in caves and wonderful slimy things in the river, and nobody would ever tell him off for coming home with dirty clothes, or force him to stay in and work in his father's ale house, when there was a bright midsummer's afternoon outside, just waiting to be run around in.

"Fill us up again, lad," called the scar-faced man, the one with hair all streaked like a badger, or maybe a fox; Daerion had never seen either of them, just heard about them in stories, and kept getting them confused.

Daerion hurried forward, topping up their tankards from the heavy flagon. He only spilled two drops, or maybe four, but most of that was on his shoes, so nobody would notice. Then he withdrew to the edge of the terrace. Although it was outside, it was covered with a wooden trellis, so tightly woven through with vines and flowers that the sunlight could hardly sneak through. It seemed like a very silly arrangement to Daerion.

"...and do you want to hear the strangest thing of all?" one of the men was saying. He had red cheeks and wavy hair, and Daerion thought he was one of the City guard, but only an off-duty one. Guards never did anything fun when they were off duty, like kill things. According to Iorlas, not even the Citadel guard did interesting things nowadays, just stood around all day looking solemn in silly hats.

"What?" asked Badgerman, shifting in his seat, as if he couldn't get comfortable.

"You remember Derulin?" said Redcheeks, leaning forward just like Daerion's auntie did when gossiping over the laundry.

"Captain of the Third Company? Puffed full of his own importance, and snapping out orders as if he's the very king returned?"

Where had the ants gone? Oh, there was one, busy drowning in the beer. Daerion dipped a finger in to fish it out.

"Captain of the Second Company now," Redcheeks said, "but still the same as he was in your time. Worse, really. Thinks we all stink worse than the dirt beneath his oh so expensive boots. Hates taking orders from anyone but the Lord Steward himself. He was so sure he was going to make First Captain before the next few years were out."

A red petal fell from the vine and landed on Badgerman's streaked hair. He raised a scarred hand and brushed it away. "And this Thorongil…?"

"Came from nowhere just this spring – just a mercenery, really - and already he's been put above all of them."

Badgerman chuckled. "I bet Derulin's livid. What I wouldn't give to see his face."

Daerion sucked his finger, but the ale was just as horrid as it had always been. How stupid grown-ups were, to love it so!

"That's the strangest thing." There were petals in Redcheek's hair, too, like drops of blood. "He doesn't seem to mind. He acts as if it's…"

"As if it's right," said a third man, quiet in the corner.

Badgerman shook his head, chuckling in wonder. "And this Thorongil really just came out of nowhere?"

Another petal fell. It landed in Badgerman's beer. Daerion wondered if he would swallow it, or notice it and spit it out. He couldn't see any flying ants anywhere.

"He rode in from Rohan," said the quiet man, twirling a vine leaf to and fro between his thumb and forefinger. "Came with some barbaric mouthful of a Rohirric name, but he told the Lord Steward right out that it wasn't his real name, just a name he went by. You should hear the lads in the guardroom, all of them swearing blind that they were the one who first came up with the name 'Thorongil.' It's because he wears a star-shaped brooch," he said, "on that long grey cloak of his."

"I saw him!" Daerion realised suddenly. "I saw him come! He had a brown horse."

But then his mother called him in to collect a platter of cold meat and honey cakes, and when he got back, the guardsmen were talking about ladies, and ladies were almost as boring to talk about as girls.

They ate all the honey cakes, too, even the crumbs.

They were lying side by side on the roof of an abandoned mansion, higher in the city than they had ever been. They were covered in dust from their scrambling and crawling, and wrapped in enough woollies to stop even their grandmothers from fussing about the cold.

"Did you see the hibernating moths down there in the loft?" Daerion asked.

"Of course I did." Iorlas had his chin propped up both hands. Beyond him, and far higher, rose the outer wall of the Citadel, and the Tower of Ecthelion, as tall as the sky.

Daerion rolled onto his back and looked up at the pale grey sky. A skein of geese was passing across it, following their leader in a perfect arrow shape. "I wonder where they come from," he said, "the birds that only come here in the winter, and where they go when their time here is done."

"To the north," said Iorlas. "Stupid."

"But where in the north," Daerion wondered, "and what's in the north, anyway?"

"Savages," said Iorlas. "Savage folk and savage places."

Daerion watched the geese until they were entirely gone. "There was a great kingdom in the north, once. Greater than Gondor. At least, Isildur gave it to his eldest son to rule, so it must have been the best."

"Maybe he didn't like his eldest son, like that old shoemaker down on the Street of Flowers, you remember, the one who left his eldest son nothing but a lump of coal?" Iorlas sat up and gave Daerion a sharp jab in the side. "Want to hear a secret?"

"What secret?" Daerion rolled onto his stomach. They had played this game before, and it was easier just to ask.

"You've heard of Captain Thorongil?"

"Of course. Everybody knows him." Daerion looked up at the great tower so far above them. His cheeks felt warm in the cold air of these high places. "I saw him first," he said quietly.

But Iorlas was already speaking, trampling over his words. "...on a secret mission," he was saying, "just him and thirty men handpicked from every command, not just the Citadel guard, but the City guard and the Rangers, and even some men-at-arms from the retinues of the great lords."

Daerion sat up, hugging his knees. "Where?" he asked. "What's he doing?"

"He's... somewhere," Iorlas said, waving his hand vaguely out yonder. "In the wilds, doing... something. Something secret."

A horse passed by on the street below, but it was only a white one, and its rider's cloak was black. "So how do you know, then?" Daerion demanded. "If it's so secret, how do you know?"

Iorlas started bashing at the roof tiles with a fragment of white stone. "Well, he's back now, isn't he? So it isn't secret any more. Everybody's talking about it in the upper levels." He jabbed harder, dislodging a roof tile so it fell down to shatter on the street below. "But I knew it first, when it still really was a secret, before anybody else knew it apart from Captain Thorongil and those thirty men."

Daerion hit him. He surprised even himself.

Every year, at the start of spring, the Lord Steward walked the walls of Minas Tirith.

Daerion had always thought it the most boring of all the ceremonies of Minas Tirith, because it involved neither dancing bears nor special cake. It was just an old man and his solemn-faced captains walking along and around, then down a level and along and around again. Eventually, after hours and hours and miles and miles of it, they reached the Great Gate, where all the Guard was drawn up, ready to be reviewed. They probably had really sore feet.

But the people liked to watch it, even though there was no cake. Daerion's mother's cousin was in from Lossarnach with a wagon-load of withies to sell to the basketmen. She had insisted on getting up early to claim a place at the front of the crowd at the Great Gate, and Daerion had gone with her, because he was ten now, and she needed a man of Minas Tirith to guide her.

It was a long wait. Babies of seven or eight crouched at their fathers' feet, playing with toy guardsmen. Daerion's mother's cousin was interested in everything, asking stupid questions about the towers and the gates and the flowers in the window boxes and the price of ribbons from the market. The Steward and his captains were just distant figures on far-off battlements, too far away to tell which was which. Daerion was too old to play with toy guardsmen. His stomach felt all fluttery, probably because he was hungry, and he was tired, because he hadn't been able to sleep much the night before.

It was afternoon before the captains and the Steward reached the Great Gate. Daerion's mother's cousin pointed openly, not caring who saw. "So that's the Steward of Gondor, then?"

"Of course it is." Daerion looked around him, ashamed that people might have heard.

"Everyone knows that," he said loudly, so everyone would know that he, at least, wasn't stupid like her.

"I've never seen him before, dearie," she said. "Not like you great ones in the city, on speaking terms with all the high lords." She ruffled his hair and laughed, not remotely caring what people might think.

"I never said I was!" he protested. Somebody near him gave a sharp bark of laughter.

"Oh," she cried, "and that must be the Lord Denethor at his right hand. I didn't know he was so tall! What a noble Steward he'll make! You can tell that just by looking at him."

Daerion felt his cheeks flaming. "No, that's Captain…" He looked down at his feet. "Thorongil," he mumbled. But other people all around him were saying the name, too, all turning to their neighbours, all telling tales.

"Captain Thorongil!" his mother's cousin said, louder than all the others. "Why, we've heard all about him. Yes, my dearie, even down in Lossarnach, where we're all so dull and stupid."

But then they all had to stop talking, because the Lord Steward gave a speech, talking about Guarding and Watching and Waiting, and towers that were strong, and sword arms that were stronger, and hearts that were stronger still. Something like that.

The guards all saluted. Daerion watched Captain Thorongil, and quietly practised his own salute, hidden beneath his mantle, where nobody would see it and laugh.

There were far too many crows on the Pelennor that summer. Daerion's uncle had a small farm between Minas Tirith and the Harlond, or maybe it was his wife's father's; Daerion couldn't remember, but it didn't really matter. What mattered was that a boy, even a great boy of almost eleven, could earn a few copper pennies by standing out in the sunshine for a whole day and scaring away the crows.

What mattered was that nobody had seen Captain Thorongil since before the new moon. The guards who drank in The Sword and Stars were fretting about it. The market square gossips wondered if he had gone for good, but hoped that he had not. Two years ago, they had never heard of him. Now they feared a world in which he was gone.

A crow landed on the far corner of the field. "Raaah!" Daerion shouted. He raised both hands above his head, like a dragon spreading its wings. He charged towards the crow, and it flapped away, but he carried on charging. "Raaah!" he said, then decided to be a great captain with a famous sword. What noise did great captains make? "Er… Raaah!" he cried.

Iorlas was still sitting on the wall, kicking his legs against the crumbling stone. Daerion walked back towards him, swinging his imaginary sword, breathing imaginary flame, but it was no fun being a dragon all by yourself. A great captain needed a follower, or maybe he'd accept another captain to fight beside him, almost as great, but not so famous, of course.

"This is childish," Iorlas said. Iorlas was nearly twelve. "I'm off to chase rabbits."

Daerion watched him go. Once he would have run after him; now he just watched.

Another crow landed. Daerion dragoned him away, then waved his sword, first high, then low, then twirling around in a way that great captains must surely do. He paused for breath at last, and realised quite how badly he had trampled his uncle's crops, or maybe his uncle's wife's father's. Clambering over the wall, he jumped down onto the narrow lane that snaked between the fields and vineyards. He drew his sword again, and fought orcs and wraiths and Haradrim and dragons. Then, "Oh!" he said, because there were six crows in the field, sitting there as bold as brass, so he turned into a dragon to roar them away, but they ignored him and shouted insults at him in savage northern voices.

"Crows," murmured a low voice behind him. "So many crows on the Pelennor."

Daerion swung round, and his heart almost stopped beating. It was… No, it couldn't be. Captain Thorongil would never wear such simple clothes, such worn clothes, such dark rags stained with the dust of travel. He would never look so plain, so humble, so ordinary, with dirty hands and a dark hood. But it was him. Surely it was. There were few in the world who looked like him.

"Where have you been?" Daerion blurted out, then could have bitten off his tongue. "My lord," he added. "Captain. Sir."

Captain Thorongil turned towards him, and shook his head a little, as if waking up from a dream. "Scouting," he said with a smile.

"Oh." Daerion swallowed. "I…" Another crow landed, and another. He flapped his hand limply, but you couldn't play at great captains in front of a captain who truly was great, even if he was all dusty. "There's so many crows," he said. "I should… I don't… You…"

"Indeed there are." Captain Thorongil raised his hand, and Daerion frowned, because he couldn't tell if it was some sort of salute, or a forbidding. All the crows flew away, though.

Daerion watched them fly. Captain Thorongil walked on, back towards the City, and Daerion remembered all the things, all the clever, wonderful things, he might have said to him, but had not.

The brindled cat was back again, curled up on the cracked flagstone in front of the fire. Daerion crouched down to stroke her. She gave a low chirrup, and curled herself tighter, her head turned almost upside-down and her paw folded across her nose. Her fur was warm and very soft.

Daerion's father was sitting at the table, frowning over lists. Daerion opened his mouth, then closed it again; breathed in and out, then in and out. He watched his hand move across the cat's side. "Da?" he heard his own voice saying. His heart was beating very fast.

"Yes, my boy?" His father sounded distracted.

"You know grandpa?"

His father chuckled. "I met him once or twice, yes."

"Sorry." Daerion rubbed the cat's white belly, his fingers sinking into the fur. The cat opened one eye, and swatted a warning with half sheathed claws. Daerion snatched his hand away. "I mean… Grandpa was… He was in the City guard, wasn't he?"

"You know he was." Daerion heard his father lay down the sheaf of papers. "Served for nineteen years, then quite suddenly decided to get married. Then his new father-in-law died – that's your great-grandpa – and his brother-in-law died just after, and suddenly he found that he'd married an ale house."

"So he left the Guard?" Daerion risked another stroke. The cat purred, her fur vibrating against his touch.

"When the terms of his oath were fulfilled, yes." His father sighed. "I wish you could have known him like your brothers did."

The cat's body was pulsing with the rhythm of her breathing, warm against his palm. The fire crackled in the hearth. "Can I have his sword?" There, he'd said it. "Not to keep, or anything, just to…"

"Play with?" There was warning in his father's tone. "A sword is not a toy."

"No. No," Daerion protested. "Not to play with. I want…" His mouth refused to utter it. His hands were damp against the cat's dry fur.

"To use it in anger?" His father's voice had never sounded so cold.

"No. No!" He had to say it. He had to. "To practise," he said. "To learn how to hold it and to train my sword arm and to practise the moves because they don't feel right when you do them with sticks and I want to join the Guard, I want it more than anything."

The cat uncurled herself, and stood up, stretching. Her body quivered from her head all the way to the tip of her tail.

"You do, do you?" his father said quietly. "You're not yet twelve, Daerion, and many things will change."

"They won't," Daerion swore. The cat padded away, and stood pointedly at the back door. Daerion scrambled to his feet and went to let her out. "They won't," he said, as he lowered the latch again behind her. He had seen it all in so many hundred daydreams: drawing the Captain's eye with his precocious talent; handpicked for secret missions; saving his Captain's life in ways that changed from day to day. "Please," he begged. "I'll take good care of it. I won't play with it or hurt anyone with it, I promise."

His father smiled a strange smile, and left the room. Daerion tried so very hard not to cry. A log crumbled, sending up a rain of sparks. Everything blurred. Daerion rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand.

"We are not like the great lords," he heard his father say, "with their priceless heirlooms mouldering in tombs." Daerion wiped his eyes again. His father was unwrapping something on the table. "Things are meant to be used," he said, as he drew out the sword. It was dull, and clearly it had never been beautiful. But then his father moved it just so, and it seemed to blaze in the light of the fire. "I used to dream of joining the Guard when I was your age," he said quietly, "but I was the only son, so my future was written. But you…" He laid the sword down again, and placed a hand on the flat of the blade. "With four older brothers, Daerion, you are free."

Daerion went to stand beside him, and touched the time-worn hilt. His fingers trembled. "I'll try…" His mind was lost in dreams. He swallowed hard. "I'll try to be worthy of him."

His uncle had replaced Daerion with a scarecrow, but Daerion still came to his field. "High," he gasped. "Low. Feint left. Swing right. Aim at the head." He ducked and rolled as the scarecrow swung back at him, narrowly escaping death. Then, in one smooth action, he surged up again and came in with an unblockable blow. "Yield," he gasped. The scarecrow said nothing. "Yield!" Daerion shouted, with all the strength of his ragged, breathless voice. The scarecrow just stood there, stubborn and undaunted, so Daerion unleashed the full power of his gaze.

"What're you doing? Why're you pulling such a stupid face?"

Daerion whirled round. Iorlas was tall enough now to lean quite naturally on the top of the wall. Daerion was panting, sweat dribbling down into his eyes. He wiped his face with the back of his hand. "I'm practising fighting," he said.

"Against a scarecrow?" Iorlas gave a bark of laughter. "Some opponent! It just stands there. Or were you pretending that it was fighting back?" He laughed again. "Oh, you were? That's priceless! Little boys play such silly games, don't they?"

"You're not much older than me," Daerion retorted.

"And where's your sword?" Iorlas was still laughing. "Oh, I see, that's just let's pretend, too. It's just a stick."

Daerion gripped the stick more tightly. His whole face felt as if it was on fire. "I've got a real sword at home, so there, but I don't bring it out. It's not a toy. I can't trust it to stupid boys like you."

"Stupid yourself." Iorlas scrambled over the wall, and whistled softly under his breath. "You're in trouble," he sang.

Daerion followed the direction of his gaze, and saw that a wide circle of the field lay trampled. The scarecrow was coming apart at the seams, leaking straw everywhere. He bit his lip. "Oh dear."

"Just as well you haven't got a real sword, or you'd have killed it completely." Iorlas picked up a handful of straw, and jammed it down the front of the scarecrow's breeches. "Come on. Let's put it back together all wrong. Then we'll go on to the Harlond."

Daerion remained when he was. "What's happening at the Harlond?" His voice was still broken up with breathlessness.

"Don't you know?" Iorlas pretended to have a sudden realisation. "Oh. No. I forgot. Of course you don't."

The silence stretched out. I won't ask, Daerion thought.

"The Captain's expected back today," Iorlas said. "He's been off somewhere on the Anduin, somewhere sneaky, just three small boats. He-"

"I met him," Daerion blurted out. "He talked to me. We had a conversation."

"Liar," Iorlas said quite simply, stating it like a fact.

Daerion gripped the stick with both hands. "It's true. It was right here. He was coming back from scouting. You could have met him, too, but you'd run off after rabbits."

"Pah!" Iorlas slapped a handful of straw at the scarecrow's chest. "I've spoken to him loads and loads of times. I was the first person ever to see him, remember? You were… What were you doing? Hiding in a tree and prattling about beetles, wasn't it?"

"That's not true!" Daerion shouted. "I saw him first! I did! You said he was just a boring old grown-up."

"No." Iorlas folded his arms and stuck his chin in the air. "That was you. I knew he was special right from the start. I told you so, but you wouldn't listen."

"That's not true!" Daerion screamed. Hurling the stick away, he threw himself at Iorlas, and punched him again and again and again.

The Captain was training men on the Anduin. The Captain had led a great sortie from the eastern shores of Osgiliath, and had secured a new refuge in Ithilien. The Captain had fought a great orc chieftain in single combat, and had felled him without suffering a single wound.

According to the chandler, whose wife had heard it from a friend whose cousin was a scribe in the Archives, the Captain was also a great loremaster, easily the equal of Lord Denethor. According to the herb lady, the Captain often came down to the lower levels, sometimes to talk to people, and sometimes just to listen, unseen in his dark hood.

But if that were true, then surely he would have come to The Sword and Stars. Daerion said as much, but, "Perhaps he has," the herb lady said, with a smile, "but you didn't know him."

"But you did?" he asked.

"Of course." She opened her casket, and showed him all the neatly arranged herbs. The smell filled his mind with half-glimpsed memories. "He introduced himself. Very polite he was, but not humble; none of the silly flattery that some of them do. He had questions about our herb lore; things he wanted to learn. He repaid me in kind many times over, with herbs and uses I'd never heard of. He is a true healer, is our Captain Thorongil."

"But he's a warrior," Daerion protested. "A captain."

"And who sees more of pain and injury than a warrior? Some lords find it easy to send men to bleed and die for them. The healers see the cost of it, afterwards, while the lord sits out of sight and feasts off gold and silver. But a lord who is also a healer… He will not waste lives needlessly, because he knows the cost." She took his hand, feeling the calluses on his skin. "You want to be a warrior, boy? What sort of captain would you rather follow?"

Daerion pulled his hand away, blushing. "I know who I want to follow."

The herb lady laughed. "You and all the other lads in Minas Tirith."

But it's different with me, Daerion wanted to say, but he knew she would just laugh louder, because she didn't understand. "Teach me herb lore," he said instead. "Please."

"You'd have to get your father to pay me first." She ruffled his hair, although he was thirteen now, and almost as tall as she was. "But if he balks at it, your mother is not without knowledge, although I doubt you've ever noticed it." Her laughter faded, and she looked suddenly sad. "You boys all play at fighting, but who plays at healing?"

"Gondor needs warriors," he protested, because he was old enough now to hear dark conversations and to see fear unmasked in his parents' eye when they looked to the East. "Gondor will need warriors more than ever."

"And that means she will need healers, too." The herb lady looked up at the Citadel, where the tower was lost in the cloud. "Who will heal your warriors, when all is said and done?"

On the Pelennor, the leaves were beginning to turn, and night came earlier every day.

Daerion had been foraging for feverfew and late-blooming marigolds. He hurried homewards as darkness thickened around him. Ahead of him on the walls, the first horn sounded, announcing that the Great Gate would close after one half turn of the great hour glass. It would be time enough, he thought, but he started running, even so.

As he neared the Gate, a small group of horsemen overtook him. When he reached it, they were talking to the gate wardens, lit by the flickering flames of the mighty lamps.

It was Captain Thorongil. It was Captain Thorongil, and Daerion hadn't recognised him. Daerion stopped walking, then began to move forwards again, but slowly. His heart was beating very fast.

One of the Captain's companions laughed. The Captain had changed his horse, Daerion realised; perhaps that was why Daerion hadn't known him. This one was black, with a flash of silver on its nose. The Captain was wearing mail, and had a large wrapped bundle draped across the saddle in front of him.

Daerion came closer, and closer still. The second warden saw him, smiled, and waved him through. Daerion lingered, then walked through the Gate, then turned to look back.

"…and, Captain," said the first warden, "welcome back."

"Thank you, Hallas," the Captain said, and his voice was grave, but there was a smile in his eyes.

The wardens saluted, his hand on his breast, and held the salute even when the Captain and his party had passed through. Rather he seemed to deepen it, turning it almost into a bow.

Daerion stepped back into the shadows. There were four of them in the party, and they stayed close to each other, like people who had shared many things together. The captain turned and said something quiet to the man on his right. The other man laughed, not formal like a follower, but as relaxed as a friend. What had they endured together? What perils had they faced?

The fourth member of the party was young, Daerion realised; only a few years older than he was himself. I want to be him, he vowed. In a few more years, I will.

He followed them, but only as far as The Sword and Stars. Soon he could no longer hear the sound of their horses. It seemed much darker than it had seemed outside the Gate, as if the high walls of the city were a cage that kept the twilight out.

When Daerion was fourteen years old, he tried to join the City guard.

They told him he was too young.

"Of course you are," said Iorlas. It was months since they had seen each other, but sometimes old habit drove them to seek each other out. "You've always been younger than me."

"Why d'you want to join the City guard, anyway?" Iorlas said a little later, as he kicked stones across the empty market square.

"Because I do."

"Well, you can't," said Iorlas.

"Not yet," Daerion said. In truth, he had almost cried when they had refused him, and really had cried when he was back in his room, his grandfather's sword clutched close to his breast. "But I'll get older."

Iorlas flapped his hand, as if Daerion's dreams and disappointments meant nothing at all. "Come on. There's this great place over on the Street of Sorrows where the dancing girls wear hardly anything at all."

"No," Daerion said, "I'd rather not."

Iorlas drew himself up to his full height. Daerion was surprised to realise that Iorlas was barely a finger-width taller than him. "You know," said Iorlas, "I'm a man now, and you're only a boy. I think I've outgrown you."

No, Daerion thought, as Iorlas ran away, I think I've outgrown you.

They never met again, or only in passing, seen from a distance, nodding to a stranger that you once had known so well.

When Daerion was fifteen years old, the Guard rejected him for a second time.

He lay awake all night. He screamed silently into his pillow. He swung his sword in the grey silence of his little attic room, until his arm ached so badly that he could barely hold it. He stared at his mother's notes on herb lore until the letters blurred.

"Thorongil," said the Guards drinking below his window. "Thorongil," said the traders in the street and the women in the market and the messengers from the world outside. "Thorongil," said the geese in the sky and the sparrows on the windowsill and the mice in the wainscot. Daerion saw him in the crackling of the flames and heard his name in the rustling of herbs drying in the window.

He passed another night without sleeping. Just before darkness fell, he found himself snatching up his sword and tearing madly through the city, running up, up, up, as far as he was allowed. He passed the mansion that he and Iorlas sometimes used to climb. White moths fluttered in its empty windows.

"Hello, Daerion." It was Iorlas's father. "I haven't seen you for a good long while."

Daerion said nothing, just stood there panting, needing to get past.

"I can't let you in the stables, I'm afraid."

"But Iorlas…" Daerion gasped.

Iorlas's father chuckled. "Told you he was frequent visitor, did he? Told you he was let into the Citadel itself, and knew all its secrets? He's an audacious one, is my boy Iorlas."

Daerion turned and fled. He ran into the empty mansion, and pressed his forehead against the cold wall. Something stirred his hair, and he cried out, but it was only a moth.

What am I doing here? he thought. His dreams were dust. He was so very tired.

Night had fallen when he began to drag himself home. Lights were lit outside houses and mansions. Far below, the third horn sounded, and the Great Gate was closed. The sky was still pink behind Mount Mindolluin, but in the East, beyond the scattered lights of the Pelennor, it was fully dark.

Someone came up behind him, walking almost silently with a long, swift stride. A thief! Daerion thought, but when he whirled around, he saw that it was Captain Thorongil.

"Captain!" Daerion cried out. "Captain Thorongil. You have to listen to me. Please!"

The Captain turned towards him. A lantern shone behind him, crowning him in light, but casting his face in shadow.

"I want to join the Guard." Daerion was wild and giddy and stupid, and surely this wasn't real, only a dream. No, no, this was the only real thing, and the rest of the world has ceased to be. "I want to join the City guard, but they keep sending me away. They say I'm too young. But I'm not. I can fight. I've got a sword." He drew it out, brandishing it fervently.

Somewhere in the darkness, somebody shouted. "Peace," the Captain said, raising one hand. Other than that, he was entirely still, not even stepping back from the blade. "I think," he said at last, "that a man old enough to join the Guard would also be wise enough not to draw a naked weapon on a captain in the dark."

Daerion dropped the sword, sending it clattering to the paving stones. "I didn't mean…"

"I know," said the Captain, and it was gentle, but Daerion thought there was warning in it, too. "How old are you, boy?"

Sixteen, he wanted to say. "Fifteen," he said. "My birthday was two days ago." His cheeks were blazing. His heart was racing in his throat. He was cold all over, then hot again, and he knew he had lost all chances when he had drawn his sword, but that just meant that he had nothing further to lose. "But I'll grow," he said. "I can learn. I know some herb lore for when people get hurt, and I've got a strong right arm, and there must be jobs even for boys. I'll… polish things. Armour. I'll bring you things, things a captain needs. Weapons and... and things. I can blow a horn, it can't be hard."

"Peace," said the Captain. "Take up your sword. I have things to do, I'm afraid, but walk with me for a little while."

Daerion grasped at his sword, but his fingers shook so much that he could hardly hold it. He stumbled as he ran after the Captain. The Captain was so tall that Daerion felt like a little boy again.

"The time may come when we are forced to arm boys in our defence, but we have not yet come to that pass," Captain Thorongil said. "Why do you want to join the Guard?"

"To follow you," Daerion said instantly, before his nerves could stop him.

The Captain faltered for a moment between one long stride and the next. "To serve Gondor, surely? Is that what you meant to say?"

His voice demanded that Daerion agree with him. Daerion opened his mouth to shape the words, and began to nod, to lie.

Nothing more to lose, he thought.

"No." He shook his head, and discovered that he had pride, still, in the depths of his humiliation and despair. "To follow you."

The Captain turned his face away. He was silent for a while, as if lost in thought, but then he murmured something, speaking just to himself. "…too soon," Daerion heard him say. "…too far."

Daerion swallowed hard. Far above him on the Citadel, an owl hooted in the dark. Daerion shivered. "Captain?" His voice sounded young, just the voice of a stupid boy who wanted to play at being a man.

Captain Thorongil turned back towards him. "What is your name?"

"Daerion," Daerion told him. "My father keeps an inn on the lowest circle, near the Gate. The Sword and Stars. "

The Captain placed a hand on Daerion's shoulder. "Serve a cause, and not a captain, Daerion. Pledge your sword and your life to Gondor and the free peoples of the world, and not to a mortal man."

"But…" Daerion protested, but the words ran away and he was left speechless, frozen in time.

Captain Thorongil reached to his belt and unbuckled the knife that hung there. "Take this, Daerion, and remember. The cause, not the captain."

"I can't…" Words returned to him, but faltering. "It's… I can't…" There were strange patterns on the sheath, gleaming in the flickering lamp light. "I can't take…"

"It is a gift, freely given," said the Captain. "I have many such knives." Almost he smiled, just like a normal man. "A Captain of Gondor receives many gifts, far more than he can take with him. This one comes from Rohan. Remember Rohan, Daerion, before you pledge your sword. Remember the West and the North, and all the free peoples of the world. In the time that is coming, pledge it to them, or pledge it not at all."

Daerion took the knife. "My lord…"

"No," the Captain said quietly. His hand fell once again on Daerion's shoulder. "Farewell, Daerion."

And then he turned and walked away, but not onwards, but back, back to the Citadel, and there was purpose in his stride.

Afterwards, ridiculously, Daerion wept.

The vine had died a few years back, but its dead wood remained, still twined so tightly around the trellis that it could not be removed. Daerion's mother had decorated it with ribbons for a festival one spring, and the ribbons had never been removed, although the ribbons were limp now, speckled with dirt and mildew.

"I wish I could have gone with them," said a man, a Guard, gazing down into his flask of ale.

"Peace," said his companion. Daerion remembered the Captain saying that word in just such a tone.

"I wish…" said the first man, and Daerion walked away.

He no longer knew what to wish for.

Then came news of a mighty victory. Captain Thorongil had taken a force down the river, and had utterly destroyed a great fleet that was being raised against Gondor. He himself had fought the enemy captain on the quayside and had struck him down. Never again would Gondor fear attack from the corsairs of Umbar. Why, surely even the dread lord of the Land of Shadow would tremble if Captain Thorongil chose to turn his gaze upon him.

No command came down from the Citadel, but the people of Minas Tirith prepared a triumphal return. The ribbons on the vine were tied afresh, and the best barrels were tapped. Garlands hung from upper windows. When a breathless boy came running from the Harlond to say that the ships had been sighted, crowds began to gather with flowers in their arms.

The warriors walked in slowly. Captain Thorongil was not at their head.

The leaders were grim of face. The men who followed after were walking as if in a daze.

Captain Thorongil was not there.

"Dead," wailed an old woman, clawing her face with her hand. "He's dead."

The leader shook his head, barely moving it. "Gone," came the news from the Gate, from those who had been close enough and had overheard it. "Gone away and left us."

In silence, the column passed through the city, and into the Citadel. The wind whispered through the garlands, and no flowers were thrown.

"I warned you that things might change," Daerion's father said, when enough days had passed to talk about it. He put his hand on Daerion's shoulder, just as Captain Thorongil had done before he had gone.

Daerion shivered.

"What do you want to do now?" his father asked gently. "The Sword and Stars is doing well, and there are always jobs to do. Perhaps we could take you on full time…?"

Outside, a dog was barking. The kitchen smelled of stew and bread and safety and home. Daerion touched the knife at his belt, tracing the patterns etched in its sheath.

"You knew, then," he said. "You knew why I wanted to join."

"Your face has never been good at keeping secrets, I'm afraid," said his father, "and your mother and I have known you for quite some time."

"Oh." Daerion sat down, his legs suddenly refusing to support him. "I thought…" Thought it was such a secret. Thought that he was the only one in Minas Tirith who felt the way he did, but surely half the boys in the city had dreamed of war, and longed to earn the notice of Gondor's greatest captain.

"Your ma says you've taken well to herb lore." His father sat down beside him. "Do you want to learn more of that? Perhaps we could see about getting you an apprenticeship."

Up and down went Daerion's finger on the sheath; up and down, and round and round. Already the patterns were deeply familiar to him, although on the day when the news had broken, he had wondered if he could ever bear the pain of looking at the knife again.

"You all assume I won't want to join the Guard any more," he said, "because the Captain is gone."

"Do you?" His father looked at him. "Do you, my son?"

The cause, not the captain, said the patterns beneath his fingertip. The cause, not the captain, he had heard in the middle of the night, as he stared up at the moon.

No, his heart said.

I don't know, he thought.

"Yes," he said slowly. "Yes, I think I do."

The City guard accepted Daerion when he was seventeen.

Training was challenging. He knew how to hold a sword, and his sword arm was strong, but he had never sparred with a flesh and blood opponent. He thought it best not to tell anyone about his bouts with his uncle's scarecrow, but after half a year, he decided to confess, and exaggerate it, and make it a joke at his own expense. They laughed at him, and they laughed with him, and some of them confessed similar things, and soon they were vying with each other to come up with the most ridiculous story of their own childhood stupidities.

They were better friends after that, better than Iorlas had ever been.

He drew his sword in anger for the first time when he was eighteen years old, when training with the Rangers in Ithilien. They stumbled upon a small patrol of orcs, and Daerion drew his sword and prepared to fight, but the orcs were all killed before any could come near him. The Ranger captain praised his steadiness, though, and passed on a good report to Daerion's own captain back in the city, and even though he was not the Captain that Daerion had longed for, it was good.

When he was nineteen, the Lord Steward died. Daerion had never met him, but he mourned him. It was no secret in the Guard that Lord Denethor had never liked Captain Thorongil.

Daerion was now serving alongside men who had fought under Captain Thorongil. "Fought beside him, rather," said one of them, as he and Daerion sat on the stone bench outside the guardhouse, relaxing with a flagon of ale between them. His name was Eradan, and he was almost thirty. "Because when you're off in wild places, just you and twenty men, you don't stand on ceremony. I saw him crouched in a ditch, covered in mud, looking like a wild man himself, except that we were just as wild. We would have followed him anywhere."

"I met him," Daerion found himself saying. "Twice, really. The first time he was messy like that. He said he'd been scouting. The next time…" He gazed down into the flagon, where his own face looked back at him, distorted in the dark liquid. Nineteen years old and a warrior, but still he found himself blushing. "I begged to serve him. I was just a boy, and he sent me on my way, but he gave me this."

Eradan took the knife almost reverently, and whistled through his teeth. "I saw him killing an orc chieftain with that. Why would he give it away?"

"He said he had lots more. He said he didn't need it."

"That's true." Eradan nodded. "People were always offering him gifts – even the great lords, because they knew he had the ear of the Lord Steward. Even the envoys and embassies honoured him, especially those from Rohan, who always sought him out."

"He said he didn't need it," Daerion said again. Perhaps it was the ale, and perhaps it was just because he was finally growing up, but he decided to say it out loud, the thing that he had never spoken of before. "He said he had more than he could take with him. I think… I think he already knew that he was going to leave us, that he was leaving all his possessions behind. Sometimes I wonder if that was when he decided to leave us."

Eradan prodded him "I can see why talking to a squirt like you would drive a man to leave."

"Ha-ha." Daerion elbowed him in the ribs, and they laughed together, because sometimes you had to.

Eradan snatched the flagon, and took a long drink. "Seriously, though, why would he give you his dagger?"

"It came with a lesson," Daerion said, "because I was just a stupid boy who needed one." He took the knife back, and ran his finger across the deeply familiar patterns. "He told me to follow a cause, and not a captain. He told me to pledge my sword to Gondor and the free people of the world, and not a mortal man."

Eradan snorted. "Easy for him to say."

Daerion's hand froze in its pattern. "You think he was wrong?"

Eradan let out a slow breath, and raked his hand through his hair. "Not wrong as such, no, but it was different for him. He was a commander, a great leader of men. He knew how to lead, but did he really understand what it feels like to follow?"

"But he followed the Lord Ecthelion," Daerion protested.

"Did he?" Eradan asked. "Oh yes, he was loyal, scrupulously loyal, but was it the man he served, or the cause? He left us all, remember, without his liege lord's leave." Eradan sighed again, shaking his head. "I mean no criticism of him, but he didn't see it all. A captain needs a cause, but a cause needs a captain. Yes, we fight for our wives and our children, and for Gondor and for the future, and because we know that the power of the Enemy is growing, and needs to be opposed. We know all this. But out there in the wilds, when death stares you in the face, you fight because your Captain tells you to."

"Because of your oaths," Daerion said.

"No." Eradan shook his head. "Oh, yes, because of our oaths, too, but…" He closed his eyes, and pressed his hands against his mouth for a long moment, before lowering them again. "We would have followed him into the very Land of Shadow itself. We would have carved out our hearts and given them to him on a platter, had he but asked us to. And we would have done it not because Gondor needed it, but just because he asked."

"Because you loved him," Daerion said. "And you think he was wrong."

Eradan smashed his fist into the stone bench beside him, but when he spoke, his voice was quiet, even sad. "Not wrong, lad. I just think perhaps he didn't fully understand quite what he was to us."

Daerion looked at the knife, and remembered the one who had given it away, and the words that he had spoken, both quietly and out loud. "Perhaps he realised at last," he murmured, "and that was why he left."

Years passed, and some of them went quickly, and some of them were slow. Daerion's father died, and his brothers took over The Sword and Stars between them, although their mother stayed on and ruled the kitchen as before. Every spring, she tied new ribbons to the vine, but every year, she left the old ones where they were. Soon it was far more thick with ribbons than it had ever been with flowers.

It was beneath those ribbons that Eradan broke the news that he had asked to be released from his oath. "I haven't got the heart for it any more," he confessed, "now that the Captain is gone." He lowered his voice to a whisper. "And Lord Denethor bore him no love." He was still 'Lord Denethor' then, out of long habit. When people said "the Lord Steward," they meant Ecthelion, and it remained that way until children grew up who had never known another Steward.

Daerion still wore his dagger though all his waking hours. He touched it now, his thumb rubbing the worn patterns. The cause, and not the captain. "The Captain wouldn't want you to do this," he said.

"I know." Eradan passed his hand across his face. "But I am only a man."

Daerion never saw him again.

When he was twenty-six, Daerion saved his captain's life, but not through a feat of arms, but through knowing enough herb lore to stop the rot from setting in, when they were injured and far from home.

Most of the time, though, he stayed in Minas Tirith, and took postings on the City wall. There was less glory in it, perhaps, but Minas Tirith was the Tower of Guard, and when war came, it would need its walls defended.

Two years after he had saved his captain, and quite out of the blue, or so it seemed to him, he became a captain himself, although his command was only the lowliest company on the quietest stretch of wall. Captains were required to make their oaths to the Steward in person, and so it was that Daerion met Lord Denethor for the first time, and thought him as hard and distant as a statue of stone, and very like Captain Thorongil, but yet somehow not like him at all. His son, Boromir, stood at his right hand, glowing with all the pride of a sixteen year old with his first command. Daerion wondered if Captain Thorongil would have dared to tell the Steward's son that he was too young to fight in Gondor's defence. He thought he probably would.

In time, Daerion came to command the Fourth Gate, and a few years after that, they moved him to the Third, and then to the Second. Some years after that, they gave him the choice between staying where he was, or moving to the Great Gate itself, not as its captain, but as his second.

He chose the Great Gate without a moment's thought.

Men followed him, and he thought they followed him gladly. Boys joined the Guard, and he watched them become men, men who had never known Captain Thorongil, and never known any Steward other than Denethor. The cause, not the captain, he thought, as he taught those men to serve Gondor, the bastion of all the free people of the world. But he also remembered Eradan, and he strove always to be fair, and to earn their trust, and to consider well the impact of a commander's words upon the young men who served beneath them.

When Daerion was forty-five, Lord Boromir asked for him by name, and offered him a high command in a great sortie he was leading out from Osgiliath.

"Are you asking me if I want it," Daerion asked, "or is it a command?"

Boromir laughed. He was as free with his laughter as his father was sparing. "You are bold, Daerion, but, no, it is not a command. I want men who follow me freely."

And they did, of course. Daerion had watched the young men who flocked to Boromir's banner, and knew that they were Boromir's men first and foremost. It was the same with his brother. Faramir was younger and quieter, and less obviously a leader of men, but he had his own command in Ithilien, and the Rangers who followed him loved him dearly.

"Then I will stay here, my lord," Daerion said. "Gondor needs your armies and its Rangers and its ships, but it also needs its walls and a strong Gate. This is my posting, and this is my place."

He thought that Boromir would be angry. Almost he was; Daerion could see that in his eyes. But then Boromir smiled, and laughed again. "Bold indeed! Gondor needs more like you."

Daerion wondered if his refusal would be held against him, but two years later, he was given command of the Great Gate.

Darkness grew in the East. The Nazgul took Osgiliath, and Daerion strengthened the Guard on the Great Gate, and stood in readiness, lest the Rammas Echor fall. But Boromir rallied the armies of Gondor, and the western shores of Osgiliath were retaken, but few now believed that it would be held for long.

Then Boromir rode away, heading north alone. "What will we do without him?" wailed the young men, men who had never served another captain. It seemed to them that he had left them in the hour of victory, but a fragile, partial victory that could be lost at every turn.

"Fight," said Daerion. "Be vigilant. Do our duty." And of course he remembered Captain Thorongil, but he did not speak of him. Few remained who had known him, although his name was far from forgotten.

Then came the dark months, the dark weeks, the days yet darker. The Pelennor was evacuated, just at the start of seed time. No longer could a boy from the lower levels wander outside at will, because passwords were required at every Gate. Women and children were sent away, and Minas Tirith stood alone and half empty, a city of warriors waiting for the blow to fall.

Daerion readied his men and readied his defences, but against the force that came out of Mordor, not even the Great Gate could withstand.

I have failed, he thought, as the Nazgul rode towards him. I have failed!

Terror filled him, and the Nazgul's regard fell upon him, and he knew no more.

In dreams he wandered through dark places. He was a little boy, lost and weeping. He was a child, seeking something, seeking something so desperately, but he had forgotten what it was.

"You know what it is," said Captain Thorongil, grave but gentle in the shadows. "You have always known."

"What?" Daerion asked him. "Tell me what it is."

But Captain Thorongil just smiled at him, and told him to awaken.

"Captain," Daerion murmured. "Captain Thorongil. Wait."

"You're dreaming, Captain," a voice said. Daerion moved his head. His neck was very stiff, and he felt weary, more weary than he had ever felt, and cold. His aide was sitting at his bedside, and there was no-one else in the room.

"I thought…" Daerion managed. "I remember…" No, no, he would not remember. "Hador, the City…?"

"The City still stands," Hador said. "The enemy was driven away. The Gate…" He lowered his head. "The Gate was broken."

Daerion turned his face towards the wall. "I remember. I failed."

"No. Oh no, Captain." A warrior fully grown, Hador sounded close to tears. "You didn't fail. The enemy was just too strong. Nobody could have done it better. He said that. He said I had to tell you. You did everything you could have done, and more. Nobody could have saved the Gate, and some would have lost it earlier. He said that, but of course it's true. We wouldn't believe anything else, Captain, because it's you."

His voice faded, as dreams rose up again to take him. In his dreams, this time, his young self spoke with the voice of Hador, and the man he chased after bore Daerion's own face.

He woke again to shuttered daylight.

"What happened?" he asked. "I remember the Nazgul."

"You fell," Hador said. "Everyone else ran away, but you wouldn't have run. Of course you wouldn't have run. Then the Nazgul did something to you. It was the Black Breath, I think; that's what he called it. I tried to get you back as soon as I could, but I couldn't, not for a long time. I thought you were dead."

"Who's 'he'?" Daerion asked, because he did not think he could bear to remember the Nazgul any more, although he knew that he could never forget.

"The healer who saved you," Hador said. "He was going through the streets, and one of the lads, he came and told me, so I sent him to beg him to come here."

The dark places of his dreams were still so very close. Now that he was awake, if anything he saw them more clearly. "Captain Thorongil," he murmured. "I saw him. He called me back."

"He called you back, yes," Hador said, "but he wasn't Captain Thorongil. Thorongil was around when my father was a little boy. This healer was younger than you. He came from the north. Mithrandir was with him, and elves. Elves."

The dream swirled around him. The Captain had looked older than he was in Daerion's memories, although how good was a boy at judging a grown man's age? But the grey cloak had been similar, but not the same, and he had worn not a star but "a green stone," he said out loud, just as Hador said those exact same words: "He wore a green stone on his breast."

Time stopped. "Thorongil…" Daerion breathed. "But how…?"

No. No. He shook his head. Perhaps his son…? He pressed his hand to his chest. His heart was beating faster than he remembered it beating since he was a little boy, caught up with wild hopes.

The next time he awakened, he found himself alone and desperately thirsty.

Rolling over, he found that Hador had left a glass of water by the bedside. Beside it was his knife.

He reached out and almost touched it, then drew his hand back. His sword was stowed in its normal place. His armour was on its stand, and his clothes were neatly stashed away. Of course they were; Hador would be tidy even at the very brink of doom. But the knife was there, not at his right side, where he sometimes kept it, but on the table to his left.

It was almost like a signal, but a signal for what?

Hador burst in breathlessly. "You're awake. I'm sorry. I didn't want to leave you. I tried to get back as quickly as I could." He passed Daerion the water, and took the glass away again when it was empty. "They're saying the strangest thing in the City."

Daerion looked at the knife. Underneath the sheets, his fingers traced the shape of its patterns. "What are they saying?"

"That the healer, the one with the green stone… That he's the King."

Daerion stopped breathing. He had to remind himself to start again. "Why is my knife there?" he asked.

"He put it there," Hador said. "I couldn't get all your armour off, not all by myself, you see. He helped me. He saw the knife and looked at it for a while, and asked your name. Then he put it there. He told me to leave it, so you would see it when you woke up."

The King, Daerion thought. The Captain. He's come back to us. He's the King.

Of course he is, he realised, and he said it out loud. "Of course." And then he laughed, or maybe he cried, and maybe he did both of them, both at once.

The dagger was a message and a lesson. It always had been.

When the Host of the West was assembled and rode out through the shattered Gate, Daerion did not beg to ride with them. He did not beg to follow his Captain and his King. He did not even beg an audience of him. He saw him just once, and only from a distance. Then he slept until he was strong enough to perform his duties without failing those who depended on him, and returned to work.

The Gate was gone, but the men of Gondor remained strong, and Daerion worked to ensure that any enemy who strove to take the City would still face a fierce fight. In this, he recruited the aid not just of his own men – those that remained, for some had gone with the King, and many more were dead – but of the Rohirrim who remained in the City, and men from the riverlands to the south.

And all the while, day by terrible day, they waited.

Then light failed, and time halted. Daerion gripped his sword hilt, and stood at his post. The world around him trembled, and lightning flared in the East. Daerion nodded reassurance at a young man who fell to his knees in silent terror.

And then the sunlight burst free from the shadows, and joy flared in every heart, and the people sang or wept, according to their nature. Then the Eagle came, and sang its song of victory and hope unlooked for, and the bells rang in broken towers, but Daerion just nodded once, for there was work to be done.

The banner of Elendil flew once more from the Tower of Ecthelion, and the time had come for the captains of Gondor to pledge their oaths in person to the King. Few remained who had sworn their oaths to Denethor, for many had died. Daerion looked at the new captains waiting outside the throne room, and thought he saw a difference between these men and the old. More of them came from humble backgrounds than had been common in the days of Denethor, and more, too, came from the outer lands, not from the City herself.

The oath was sworn upon a naked sword. Daerion remembered how he had swept his grandfather's sword from his scabbard, thrusting it almost in his Captain's face. Not for the first time, he wondered how close he had come to being slain in that moment, killed by someone who thought only to protect their captain from some mad fool who struck him in the night.

His turn came, because he was one of the first, although not the greatest. He was strangely free of fear. "My King." He bowed low. "Sire." It was not the scripted opening. He heard people shifting, their clothing rustling, but his King remained unruffled. "I beg your leave to swear my oath on my knife and not my sword."

"You have it," his King said calmly, but his eyes were sparkling.

Daerion drew the blade from its sheath, and pressed his hand to the blade. He said the proper words, swearing to serve Gondor and his King until death took him or the world ended. Then his King took the knife and said the right reply, but he did not pass it back when he was finished.

There were whispers at the back of the throne room. The King ignored them. "You kept it, then."

"I kept it, Captain." Daerion dared to say it. The whispers grew louder. "I remembered what you said. I tried to act upon it."

"I can see that you have," his Captain said. He sheathed the blade, and then he, too, traced the patterns with his fingertip, just as Daerion had so often done. "But I was not entirely right that night. You opened my eyes to things I should have seen more clearly. I thank you for that, Daerion."

"But you left," he said, sounding like a boy again.

The King smiled gravely. "It was time. It was well past time." He handed back the knife, pressing it into Daerion's hand. "Take it. Wield it. Remember."

The cause, not the captain, he thought. But Eradan had said it was the other way round. It was a dangerous and terrible thing to know that men would follow you to their deaths, just because you asked them to. Daerion had spent the last forty years devoting himself to the cause, but he had never forgotten the power that a captain could wield. Which should have a stronger claim on a man's heart: the cause, or the captain? It depended on the man, he thought, and it depended, too, on the captain.

Or maybe, sometimes, there was no tension at all, because the cause and the captain were one.

"I will, my King." Daerion bowed, then gave a salute, as a man-at-arms to his captain. "Captain," he said, and almost he thought that his King and his Captain laughed.



Outsider viewpoint is one of my Favourite Things in fanfic, and hidden identities are just about my Best Thing Ever in fiction, especially when they lead to the Big Revelation Scene, so it was inevitable that my first story in this fandom would be something like this. The challenge now will be to move on to new things, and not just spend my entire time writing outsider viewpoints of the future king, because I could quite happily spend many happy months doing just that.

I could find very little firm information about the military organisation of Gondor. Through Beregond, we learn something about the Citadel guard, but when Pippin and Bergil watch the armies arrive, it seems very much a case of feudal levies, with men wearing the liveries of their own lords. However, it seemed to me that if there are at least three companies guarding the Citadel, there must be at least as many guarding the rest of the City. Therefore I've gone with a City guard as well as the Citadel guard. (In my mind, the Citadel guard recruits mostly from the upper classes, while the City guard is open to all classes.) But I've made it quite a flexible system, in which even gate guards might find themselves out on campaign, if their skills suit the needs of the mission, and if the captain of the venture asks for him.

The source material is a bit confusing when it comes to the chronology of Aragorn's time in Gondor. In The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen, it strongly implies that after leaving Gondor, Aragorn went on to have considerable adventures in the East and the South, before coming to Lorien in 2980 and meeting Arwen. However, in the appendix dealing with Gondor, we hear that Denethor became Steward four years after "Thorongil" left Gondor. Denethor became Steward in 2984, so that suggests that Aragorn was in Gondor until 2980. This is the dating I've gone with.

And while I'm rambling… Tolkien also states that Aragorn was called Thorongil in both Rohan and Gondor. However, he also states that Thorongil was a name bestowed on him by others. Why would people in Rohan give him a Sindarin name? Therefore in my mind the people of Rohan called him by some other name in their own language, and he is only Thorongil in Gondor.