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The Sell-Sword and the Prince


OppositesA mirror image is not a duplicate of the original, but rather its untransposable opposite. So it is with the Steward’s son and his great rival, though only those in the innermost circle of the court can see it. A newcomer to Ecthelion’s court witnesses a strained moment between Lord Denethor and Captain Thorongil.



They stood a step behind the Steward, one on his left and one on his right. One wore black mail and the tabard of the White Tree, cloaked in sable wool. One wore a doublet and jerkin of carmine brocade beneath a mantle of sapphire velvet lined in gold. Both were tall and stately of bearing, not two inches’ difference between them – and in men of such height, a difference of two inches could scarcely be seen. Both had dark hair that they wore long, in the old manner of the nobility. The one in armour kept his bound back with a thong, soldierly and practical, while the other’s flowed in liquid waves upon his shoulders. Each was bare-headed in this hallowed place. Both were clean-shaven, black-booted, long-limbed and lean-muscled. The one on the right was a fraction broader in the shoulders, his neck not so slender and his hands less nimble, but on neither body was there an ounce of extraneous flesh or any sign of indolent habits. It was as if each were rendered on one side of a glass reflecting all but the garments. Each wore a sword at his off hip, and here the queer doubling was broken a little, or deepened, for both sheaths – the plain one and the jewelled – hung on the left. Both had eyes as liquid and piercing as quicksilver, all-seeing and yet impassive, betraying nothing. In each face could be seen proud lines as if of ancient lineage, the long lines of each slender nose curving at a degree so close to the other that a mathematician would have been hard-pressed to quantify the difference. If there was any gap in their age that too was immeasurable to the eye, but each was older than clear, pale skin and creaseless brows seemed to suggest.

From time to time as he heard the petitioners, Ecthelion of Gondor would raise an arm from its carven rest and crook a beckoning finger: sometimes the right, sometimes the left. When he did, the man on that side would put one foot forward and bend to the Steward’s ear, listening with solemn attention to his words. Sometimes there would follow a neat nod or constrained shake of the head. Sometimes a few brief words, heard only by the mighty lord himself, were uttered. Neither watched the other when he stooped, nor ever offered his own opinion unsolicited. Each maintained his decorous solemnity and unreadable serenity whatever the request, whatever the verdict, and regardless of whether he or his counterpart was called upon for counsel. To the gathered populous, to the retainers of the court who stood by, to the seneschal at his table and the guards at the lofty doors, the two were the paragon of regal advisors and a great part of the panoply of the Steward’s public audiences.

Seldom were both men present, for each was in his own way too valuable to be held on a retainer for the citizenry at large and thus bound to the city. But on days like this when both attended, folk left the Citadel with a sense of awe that Ecthelion alone could not engender. They whispered as they went of the splendour of these two grave men: the Steward’s son and his great favourite, alike as two matched diadems to adorn the realm, and as mighty as twin blades raised in Gondor’s defence to shine in the gathering darkness as a united rallying point of hope. All knew their names, and they were spoken with hushed admiration by the common people. They were Denethor, the Steward’s heir and only son, by ancient custom Captain-General of the armies of Gondor; and Captain Thorongil, one time of the Rangers of Ithilien, then of the First Company of the Guard, and now elevated beyond both to be seconded as needs must wherever he might best serve as the Steward’s sword-arm in the fight against the Shadow.

They were great men, and each inspired respect and admiration from those around him. If one more often struck his men with fear and the other awakened in them love, both commanded unswerving loyalty wherever they went. And in the minds of the common people of Minas Tirith, they were two sides of the same coin – there were jokes that such a coin would be useless in a toss, for the two heads were so very well-matched as to be almost indistinguishable.

*

From the back of the magnificent chamber, Imrahil son of Adrahil watched the audiences with interest. His own father held such sessions in Dol Amroth, but only once a month and never in such pomp. Members of Lord Ecthelion’s Council stood beneath the great black pillars, observing silently. There were servants near each of the two side doors, and a cluster of clerks and pages on hand lest their services should be needed. There were guards at the grand entrance and guards at the last pair of columns before the dais, still as graven images. At a table to one side, the Archivist-Master, the seneschal and a scribe sat in a row, making the enduring record of what transpired and noting what must be done to implement the Steward’s word on each matter. The public themselves were not admitted to watch: petitioners came in one by one and took their leave as soon as their cases were decided.

The Steward was hearing a request for a trade exemption from a golden-haired merchant in gaudy green garments. His servant and a young man who could only be his son had come with him. They were kneeling by the huge main doors where retainers and supporters waited. Few supplicants came alone: it took a brave man to face the Lord of all Gondor in his splendor. At the foot of the dais in his pale stone seat, he looked most splendid of all. The throne towered above him with its fresco behind. Ecthelion was clad in fine silk bordered all over with cloth of gold, and the White Rod of his office lay upon his lap. But what drew Imrahil’s eye was the sight of the two perfectly matched men in their strikingly dissimilar raiment.

In the livery of the Guards of the Citadel, Thorongil had a dignity beyond that of a trusted servant and Captain. He wore the sigil of the White Tree with such quiet solemnity that it inspired one to awe and love. At his left shoulder, clasping the cloak that was thrown back to bare his sleeves, was the silver star from which he had taken his name. Ecthelion himself had given Thorongil leave to wear it even with the black mail and tabard, so Imrahil had heard, and the choice had been a wise one. It glittered in the light of the flaming braziers, and enhanced rather than detracted from the simple stateliness of his dress.

At the Steward’s right, Lord Denethor was clad as befitted his rank – a rank only exceeded by that of his father. His bearing was noble and proud, and his high-boned face was a countenance to inspire the multitudes. He cut a most impressive figure, and one that pleased Imrahil’s sister, but the young lord himself was not so certain. Beside the stern simplicity of Thorongil’s raiment, worn with no less dignity, the deep and costly colours of Denethor’s clothes seemed to riot together. Despite their perfect cut and unimpeachable quality, they struck Imrahil as somehow diminished.

Thorongil bowed now towards his lord, listening gravely to the Steward’s words. Ecthelion gestured towards the man, clearly a scion of Gondor’s northerly neighbor. Thorongil did not take his eyes from the Steward. He tucked his head a little and spoke some brief words that no one but Ecthelion could hear. The Steward nodded, dismissing Thorongil back to his post at his side, and then pronounced his judgment.

The audiences continued, and Imrahil watched with interest. All the supplicants were wealthy and many of them belonged to the minor nobility. He saw faces he knew from feasts and tourneys, and it was interesting to see what these men sought from their sovereign. More interesting were Ecthelion’s resolutions, and which of his two champions he called upon for each. He seemed to choose Thorongil more often in matters of commerce and foreign policy, but beyond that Imrahil could see no pattern. Trying to guess who would be chosen was like trying to guess the outcome of a tossed coin.

The last petition admitted before the Steward that day was a matter of title dispute. The property in question was a manor holding on the northwest quadrant of the Pelennor, and both claimants loudly and vigorously proclaimed their rights until the lieutenant of the Guard who always stood beneath one of the great black pillars below the dais steps had to come between them with his hand on his blade.

‘Be silent,’ Ecthelion said, and despite the lines of years carved on his face and the grey that flecked his dark hair his voice was clear and strong, filled with vigour and confidence. When the two men at last obeyed, the Steward’s had came to rest upon the White Rod where it lay across his robed lap. He looked at the supplicants for a long moment, thoughtfully. Imrahil could not help but think the men were lucky to have their liege-lord’s gaze so fixed upon them, instead of the piercing stare that either of the men who flanked him could have mustered. Ecthelion’s eyes were clouds of intelligence, wisdom and understanding, but he could match neither his child nor his Captain in penetrating intensity.

‘This matter cannot be decided this day,’ the Steward proclaimed. Both petitioners’ faces darkened with displeasure. ‘You have each produced what you deem to be the relevant documents and proof. I shall take counsel with scholars of law and render my decision at next week’s session. In the interim, you are each prohibited from engineering any changes to the land or the structures therein contained. Be assured my displeasure shall be great if this edict is flouted. Go now, and keep peace among yourselves. You have quarrelled this long in uncertainty: another sennight will be no hardship.’

The dissenting parties did not see it. Few in the room did, Imrahil thought. But as Ecthelion spoke this last, his lefthand advisor’s heretofore obedient lips parted as if to speak. Still more significant, his own left hand moved -- not more than four inches but unmistakeably -- towards the Steward. In that moment it looked as if he was going to bend and take hold of his lord’s arm, raising a protest. He restrained himself almost at once, but those two telling reflexes betrayed him to those with both the chance line of sight and the clarity of observation to see it. And as he did, the eyes of the Lord Denethor swivelled towards him, though neither the heir’s head nor any other part of his body moved.

Thorongil lowered his gaze to the marble floor before the broad step on which the Steward’s stone seat rested. At the same time he raised his head imperceptibly higher and straightened his already impeccable posture still further. He had schooled himself of an unseemly impulse, and now seemed determined to correct even the most minor defects in his countenance. Imrahil, who at eighteen had more self-restraint than he wanted and less than he needed, was duly impressed.

The two supplicants bowed to the Steward’s command and made their obeisances humbly before departing. The two guards without hauled the heavy doors closed, for those stationed within the throne room itself did not move at their post. Already the seneschal and clerks were gathering their scrolls and sheaves of annotations to depart. The merely interested courtiers began to file out of a side door, murmuring amongst themselves. Imrahil, still standing at the back of the room, leaned his shoulder blades against the wall and bent a knee to plant his right foot indolently upon it. He crossed his arms over his chest and continued to watch the men on the dais with interest.

Ecthelion sat back in his chair, letting the courtly posture ebb from his spine. He shook his head in a way that reminded Imrahil of his mother’s mother: heavy, somehow, and weary. Lord Denethor stepped out of his place, also relaxing from strict formality into his usual pose of easy command. In that stance his clothes looked less lavishly ridiculous. He caught the eye of a servant and motioned for his own chair to be brought. Thorongil, with the faintest of furrows showing between his right brow and the bridge of his nose, cast an unreadable look at Denethor and then beckoned for an attendant himself.

Imrahil was too far away to hear what the Captain said, but the servant nodded earnestly and hurried away. Thorongil pivoted on one booted heel so that he was now standing in towards the Steward. He put his left foot down from the dais, taking his height beneath Lord Denethor’s for the first time since they had assumed their places that forenoon. His keen grey eyes searched the Steward’s face, now slackened with weariness, but he said nothing. He was waiting to be addressed before he would speak.

‘I believe you were wrong to grant the import variance,’ said Denethor, stepping forward as his seat was brought but careful to toe the edge of the stair rather than step down to a level with the Captain. ‘If we open the borders indiscriminately to foreign trade, we will harm our own craftsmen.’

‘It was a tariff exemption for a toymaker, my son,’ Ecthelion sighed, wafting his hand vaguely before raising it to his brow. ‘One wood-carver of the Mark bringing in painted horses will not undermine the stability of the trade.’

‘I do not see why you allow such petty matters to be brought before you, my father,’ Denethor went on, not to be so easily dissuaded of his dissent. ‘Surely it is a matter best left to the Office of the Exchequer. Your own attention could be spent to greater good elsewhere.’

‘I have held these audiences all the years of my Stewardship,’ said Ecthelion patiently. ‘It was my father’s remoteness from his people that was his sole erroneous practice. I will not be guilty of the same disinterest. Thorongil will tell you that you must be seen by your people, or you will never be trusted.’

He motioned to his Captain with the hand that had been resting on the Rod, and Thorongil’s lips tightened briefly before he nodded. ‘So I too was taught, my Lord,’ he said quietly.

‘By whom?’ Denethor asked, the words coming so swiftly that it was difficult to be certain he had spoken. Imrahil was surprised by the question: it seemed strange. What matter from whom Thorongil had learned this principle? It was a good one.

Thorongil’s eyes moved to his smoothly and without hesitation. Not many men, once challenged by Denethor of Gondor, dared as much. The heir apparent of Dol Amroth knew that from personal experience. ‘Your pardon, Lord. I do not understand.’

Denethor curled his lip. ‘What is your interest in the horse-pedlar?’ he said lazily, sitting back in his chair and stretching one long leg before him. ‘Is he know to you, perhaps, from your time in Rohan?’

‘Nay,’ said Thorongil; ‘for I had scant occasion to seek a toymaker’s services. Nor indeed did I chance to pass through his village: it would have been improbable indeed if we had ever met.’ At this Imrahil grinned. He knew that Thorongil had come to Gondor from the éoreds of King Thengel, but to speak as if all those from Rohan must know each other was folly on Denethor’s part. Thorongil’s dry reply had been perfectly delivered. The Captain went on smoothly. ‘I did advocate for his case, as you have keenly surmised, but I did so because the friendship between Rohan and Gondor is a precious thing. It can only be preserved if both King Thengel and our Lord the Steward continue to make such simple gestures of amity whenever they may.’

Ecthelion huffed pointedly and nodded. Finger and thumb pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘It harms us not at all to grant the boon, Denethor, and it reflects well upon our intentions.’

‘It is nonetheless an insignificant matter,’ Denethor said darkly, drumming his fingers upon the ornate hilts of his sword. ‘The time would have been better spent arguing the question of the river guard.’

The servant had returned with the salver bearing a silver flagon and four goblets. Thorongil took the flagon and filled one with a generous measure of wine. Then with the clean economy of a practiced cupbearer, he held the vessel out to Ecthelion as if it had been he who had called for it. The Steward’s nostrils flared as they caught the sweet scent and he looked up in surprise, hastening to take the goblet.

‘Thank you, Thorongil!’ he said. ‘It is a wonder how you always seem to know my wishes before I myself.’

‘Governing is thirsty work, my Lord,’ said Thorongil simply; ‘and the Council is unlikely to adjourn in a timely fashion. Lord Denethor is correct that the matter of the river guard is like to prove a difficult one to resolve.’

Ecthelion drank deeply of the vintage, doubtless excellent, and some of the colour was restored to his aging face. Only with that contrast could Imrahil see how pale he had become over the course of the audiences. ‘Thank you,’ the Steward sighed quietly.

A knot of muscle in Denethor’s jaw had tightened during this exchange, but now it had dissolved into a look of regal disinterest. He thrust out his own hand pointedly towards the Captain, reaching across his father’s lap to do it.

Imrahil stared and launched himself up off the wall with a shove of his foot. This was interesting. Thorongil was no groom of the body, tasked with attending to the Steward’s human needs. He was a great Captain of war, who had brought Gondor many victories up and down her borders. He had called for the wine out of concern for his lord, and had proffered it himself for expediency. For Denethor to so disdainfully summon his own drink from the hands of the Captain was a silent and thinly-veiled insult. It made of Thorongil a servant no more worthy of consideration than the page who had fetched the tray.

With a gracious half-smile, Captain Thorongil filled a second cup and presented it as if the implicit command were no slight at all. “My Lord,’ he said courteously as Denethor took the goblet without a word.

A loose breath he had not intended to hold parted Imrahil’s lips. He had half expected Thorongil to refuse, or bid the youth to do it. Instead he had responded smoothly and with dignity, his every move beyond reproach and yet not in the least servile. Almost without knowing it, Imrahil began to make his way slowly up the long chamber.

The servant was waiting expectantly, and after a moment’s consideration Thorongil chose a cup for himself, meting out a modest measure before replacing the flagon. ‘Thank you, Tirgel,’ he said a low and circumspect voice. ‘You may take it away.’

The page bowed. ‘Aye, my lord!’ he said, clearly pleased to have been remembered. Thorongil’s eyes followed his withdrawal briefly before moving back to the Steward. He raised the cup slowly and wet his lips with the wine.

The Steward and his two most trusted advisors had been given their customary minutes of privacy: now other members of the household drew near. The Chamberlain bowed as he approached. ‘Wise judgements, Your Grace, as always,’ he said in reflexive praise.

Ecthelion inclined his head, accepting it. ‘Is there any word regarding the stonework in Rath Dínen?’

‘The masons have requisitioned a finer grade of marble, and we are waiting to hear whether the quarry can provide it,’ the man answered. He had a thick bull neck and a weak chin, and the combination always made Imrahil think of a toad. On previous visits he and Finduilas had made sport of it behind their napkin at the high table. Now she was an elegant lady of the court, waiting upon the Steward’s wife and drawing the admiration of all the young lords of Minas Tirith. Imrahil knew that his father had grander designs for her, and suspected that closeted negotiations between Prince Adrahil and Ecthelion were underway.

The Chamberlain was still talking. The Steward was nodding ponderously, but his eyes were vacant. Lord Denethor was swirling his goblet, staring darkly into its depths. For his part Thorongil was listening intently. He looked as though this talk of incremental repair to the funerary houses were of the utmost interest to him. Or, Imrahil thought with the prejudice of one but lately promoted from the schoolroom to accompany his sister to court, as if he might be called upon later to recite.

The Steward raised his eyes as he drank once more, and a warm smile illuminated his face. ‘Imrahil! Come near, dear boy! Come near.’

Imrahil had reached the outer ring of the corona of important men drawn about the Steward. Now these same Counsellors, some lords of very great rank and renown, parted to let him pass, callow boy though he was. Imrahil did not let his delighted surprise show. He stepped lithely forward and bowed deeply in the traditional fashion, arms crossed over his breast.

‘My Lord Steward,’ he said respectfully.

‘What did you make of today’s proceedings?’ Ecthelion asked with the same kindly familiarity he showed Imrahil in private. It was a heady brew to swallow: such a gesture of trust and welcome before the members of the Council. ‘Do you think my time would be better spent elsewhere?’

Imrahil considered carefully, and spared a vain thought to the hope that he looked suitably grave. But the question was not an easy one to answer. He did not wish to criticize how the Steward divided his time – but he did not have the courage to disagree with Denethor.

‘Perhaps some of the petitioners could have been dealt with at some lower level: by a city magistrate, for instance, or in some cases a member of the Council,’ he said carefully.

Denethor snorted softly and nodded his approval, easing the boy’s anxiety somewhat. Ecthelion watched his son’s face for a moment before looking back to Imrahil.

‘Thorongil,’ he said, and the Captain inclined his head. ‘Can you explain to the young Lord of Dol Amroth why I hear such petty matters?’

Thorongil turned his eyes upon Imrahil, and the youth was suddenly overawed. The Captain’s exploits were the stuff of legend, and had not failed to travel to the coast. He had had few prior dealings with the man on his childhood visits, and had only been formally introduced to him upon his arrival. Thorongil had ridden out for Ithilien with new recruits for the Rangers that night, and had returned only yesterday. He was a mystery to Imrahil, but his piercing gaze was pleasant and his voice melodious and courteous when he spoke.

‘Those who come before the Steward have already sought aid elsewhere, and often from several quarters,’ he said. ‘Either they have not received justice, or they are discontented with the judgment. Only then may they appeal at the last to the highest authority in the land. Most receive a just resolution, though not all depart contented.’

‘Thorongil suggests an open audience, in which I may be approached even by those who have sought no other recourse. Even the lowliest citizen should be welcome, he says: they who have not the means to pursue a lengthy dispute. I have told him this is not workable: the appeals would be too many for one man to hear,’ Ecthelion confided to Imrahil. Then he looked up at the tall man with a chuckle. ‘And most receive justice? It seems my Captain feels I am not always just.’

‘Nay, my Lord. I have ever seen you strive for justice,’ said Thorongil matter-of-factly, with none of the anxious obeisance that most of the watchers would have fallen into if so challenged by the Steward. ‘But no man, however wise, can know all: thus he cannot promise perfect justice. Further, Your Lordship relies much upon the words of your advisors in such matters and we are, after all, fallible.’

Ecthelion’s smile deepened with affection. ‘My noble Captain, always willing to admit his limitations. What of you, my son? Are you a fallible advisor?’

Imrahil, whose own father possessed a wicked sense of humour, recognized amiable teasing when he saw it. It seemed that Denethor did not. His brows hunched low, and his lips grew taut. It seemed he thought his father had nudged him into a corner: either cast himself as foolhardy and arrogant before the Council, or admit to imperfection and share in Thorongil’s joke. Imrahil did not know why he might scorn the second choice, but he apparently did.

Still it was the only choice to make if he wished to keep face. ‘All men are fallible, my Lord Father,’ he said. ‘I hope I may succeed more often than I fail.’

Ecthelion laughed again and put out his left hand to Thorongil, who clasped it from below. The Steward rose smoothly, but Imrahil thought that he saw an exertion of lean muscle beneath the cloth of the Captain’s sleeve. Ecthelion released the hand and patted Thorongil’s arm. ‘I must stretch my legs before the Council meets. Give me a quarter of an hour, my friends: then let us gather.’

The lords and captains stood aside to let him descend. He started for the door on the left, and his seneschal followed him with a string of murmured questions. The scribe raced behind.

Now the gathering dissolved. Most wished to see to their own needs before gathering for what promised to be a lengthy session. Imrahil was glad of this, though he was likely the only one. He was to sit in and observe the Council at work: part of his apprenticeship in ruling as a mighty lord. The longer the meeting, the more he might learn.

He was waylaid by the Comptroller of the Household, who had no place upon the Council but many questions about the suitability of Imrahil’s accommodations and the contentment of his sister. By the time he was finished the room was empty: even the pages were gone. Imrahil looked around the vast emptiness of the throne room and felt suddenly insignificant: a small figure upon the vast tapestry of Gondor’s storied history. He bade the other man farewell and hastened for the door to the right of the throne. He thought it led by a curving hall to the Council chamber. Upon entering, he saw at once that he was correct. But he had scarcely drawn the door to behind him when he heard a voice coming from just out of sight around the bend.

‘—prevent you if you wish to advise him to let some wild horseman peddle his trinkets,’ Lord Denethor said. His voice was deep with stern warning. ‘But in the matter of the river guard you had best defer to me.’

Imrahil moved quietly up the hall, his booted feet making scarcely a noise. As the youngest in his family he had learned the art of moving unheard as a means to learn what would have otherwise been kept from him. Now he wondered who could have brought out such ill-concealed loathing in the Steward’s politic heir. He stopped when he could see the two elongated shadows cast in torchlight on the smooth stone wall.

When the second voice spoke, Imrahil was astounded. ‘I gave His Lordship my best advice in the matter of the toymaker,’ Thorongil said calmly. ‘I shall do the same in Council. It is my duty to my Steward.’

Denethor took a step nearer: his shadow almost touched the other now. His hair made of his head a queer misshapen mass, while Thorongil’s profile was so clear that Imrahil could have made an accurate sketch of his long, straight nose. He lacked the crooked bridge so often seen among the soldiers of fortune who served in the city: the mark of a nose broken in the course of a hardscrabble life beyond the certainty of Minas Tirith.

‘You are a soldier of Gondor. You have a duty to me as your Captain-General: the duty to do as you are told!’ Denethor snapped. ‘The placement of the river defences is a matter that will impact the security of Gondor for many years to come. It will shape the course of my own Stewardship, when the sad time at last comes to pass. I cannot sustain your propositions.’

‘My Lord, you are my Captain-General and in all matters of war I defer to your command,’ said Thorongil. Still his voice was low and level, untouched by any of the reined-in emotion with which Denethor’s seethed. Imrahil did not know how the man could remain so serene. He would have been weak in the knees if such harsh words had been turned on him. ‘I would never question your order in the field, nor voice dissent before my men. But as a member of the Steward’s Council my responsibility lies elsewhere: to give my soundest advice to your noble father and to decide for myself which course of many is the more meritorious. And once decided, to defend that course against all dissenters, even unto my Captain General. Verily, I may even be called upon to argue against the judgment of the Steward himself, should it ever stray. It is no challenge to your authority, my Lord, nor to his: it is merely a Counsellor’s duty to his master.’

For a moment there was silence. Then there was a swish of fine fabric and the clatter of mail, and Thorongil’s shadow was thrust back against the wall with a low gong. Denethor had his mighty sword-arm across the man’s chest, driving him so forcefully back against the stone that his head tilted back onto the flat of his parietal plate. His chin rose in a pose that was almost defiant, though he would have had to look down his nose to meet the eyes of the man crowded close against him with strong legs braced.

‘Do not take such a tone with me, sell-sword!’ Denethor snarled. ‘I remember how you came to us if no one else does: pastless, nameless, without home or kin or title. Posessing only a few ragged garments, a small purse of foreign coin and a letter bearing the seal of my father’s dearest friend – as if you knew that of all things was most likely to secure you a place. I remember your days as a common soldier, you thankless viper of cold ambition. You may wear your triumphs like paste jewels in a strumpet’s crown and woo my father with fine words and a fair smile, but you are naught but a vagabond of no birth and no consequence who has slithered into the high places by his wiles and yet can never belong there!’

Imrahil realized he was holding his breath, and he released it as slowly and silently as he could. Thorongil’s head turned for a moment, as if lolling to the side to avoid another’s foul breath. Then he faced Denethor head on again, and Imrahil could imagine the pale fire leaping in his eyes.

‘My Lord, I am indeed nameless,’ Thorongil said. There was a tightness in his voice now that spoke of some enormous effort of restraint, but still his cadence was steady. ‘I have indeed risen high by your father’s pleasure. It is not for me to judge the value of my deeds, but I believe I have served Gondor with the best of all I have to give. If my want of lofty lineage makes of me a viper, I am sorry for it. I am sorrier still to hear such words from you, who shall one day bear the White Rod.’

Imrahil heard sorrow in these words, but there was something else, too: a steely disapproval like a judgment passed down from on high to a transgressing footsoldier. Such words are unworthy of your position, that note sang knowingly for all its regret. For shame, Denethor. For shame. For shame.

The barb was not lost on the Steward’s son. There was a song of steel rings rippling as Denethor pressed harder against the other man’s chest. Imrahil was still struggling to grasp what he was hearing. He hated him. The Steward’s son, who scarcely seemed to step to his father’s right unless Thorongil was at Ecthelion’s left, hated the great Captain who was beloved of all of Gondor. He had led the hosts of Anorien to victory against the Easterlings. He had thwarted the wild men at Ethring and closed the Harondor gap. He had secured Ithilien as it had not been secured since before the fall of Osgiliath. And yet the Captain-General to whom all these triumphs had been brought to his credit hated him. It was beyond comprehension.

‘When that day comes, son of Nothingness, be assured it will be an ill day for you,’ hissed Denethor. His voice tightened and he pushed still harder against Thorongil’s front as he added; ‘Do not dispute my plans for the river.’

‘I cannot oblige you in this, sire, and I cannot give my word with false intent,’ Thorongil said, enunciating each word so carefully that he was almost – but not quite – spitting them at his adversary. Still there was no vindictive note to his voice: only immutable truth and a struggle to force out the words despite the iron-hard arm pressed into his chest. His breath caught queerly in his throat. When next he spoke there was a wisp of cold, prideful resolve in his voice. ‘Do what you would do, Lord, and have done with it. If we tarry longer, we shall be missed.’

Imrahil did not know what happened next, but there was a rush of swishing fabric, silk and wool alike, and Thorongil’s mail clattered again. The shadows became one as if the two men were now pressed chest to chest and almost chin to chin. They scarcely seemed to move at all, but there was a rippling of Denethor’s cloak as his elbow flexed, and the dull thud and jangle of bone striking flesh beneath delicate conjoined rings. Then in a flurry of motion and whispering velvet, Denethor’s shadow was gone and all that remained was Thorongil, his head bowed and his back against the wall, stooped a little as though he had landed hard upon his booted feet.

Imrahil swallowed painfully, wanting to slink back into the throne room and come around to the Council chamber by another way. But his curiosity was too great, and the scene he had witnessed to extraordinary. If he did not speak of it now, he never could. Hastily he induced his slender legs to move and he rounded the bend in the passage.

Startled eyes flew to him as Thorongil’s body stiffened with the instinct of one who has learned always to be wary. It was not a movement fitting for these noble halls and the genteel, often dull life of the Citadel. It was the motion of a soldier in the field, too long without sleep and unsure what might lurk in the overgrown trees. Then recognition came to the Captain’s eyes and he relaxed visibly.

‘Lord Imrahil,’ he huffed. Even in the dancing light his face was a ghastly shade of grey. Where could Denethor have struck him to awaken such pain? Imrahil felt his stomach do a slow, lazy roll as his bowels tightened. The blow had looked too high to be truly dishonourable, surely? The Steward’s son would never stoop to that.

‘The Council chamber is at the end of the corridor to the left,’ Thorongil said with such a strained attempt at normalcy that Imrahil had to grimace. ‘I shall be along directly.’

‘I heard it all,’ Imrahil said frankly, not caring for the consequences a youthful eavesdropper might garner from such a stern and mighty commander. He looked less than mighty now, anyhow, slumped against the wall with his legs driven out to brace him. He was hugging himself across the chest in a pose that reminded Imrahil of nothing so much as a lost child he had once seen in the dock-market at Tolfalas. ‘From Lord Denethor’s instruction not to challenge him in Council, I heard it all.’

An unsteady smile, wry but strangely not entirely without humour spread across Thorongil’s sickening face. ‘Ah. Then you know what the Captain-General thinks of his second-in-command. I fear it does not reflect well upon either of us.’

‘His words about your birth – nameless, homeless, without kin,’ said Imrahil. ‘Is that true?’

‘Thorongil is not the name given me at my mother’s bedside,’ the man said. He appeared to be trying to collect himself, working himself further up the wall by rolling his shoulder blades until he could almost straighten his right leg. Still he leaned heavily upon it, taking shallow swallows of air. ‘But that I left behind ere my third year of life could wax. What more am I to say to a lord of the highest birth?’

For a moment Imrahil thought he meant Denethor, but Thorongil thrust his chin in a brief but telling gesture and the younger man flushed crimson. ‘High birth is not enough to give a man true worth,’ he said. It had been a favourite saying of his mother’s in his younger years, meant to keep him from abusing his position in a court where none of his fellows were his equals.

‘That certainly is true,’ Thorongil agreed. ‘Lord Denethor has both high birth and true worth, whatever his faults, and I? Who can say? Certainly His Grace the Steward thinks highly of me, and it has pleased him to be generous with his esteem and those positions in his gift. You must not think worse of his son because he has not taken to a stranger.’

Imrahil wondered about that. In the quarrel he had overheard, one party had been possessed of quiet dignity and the greatest of patience while the other had raged, albeit under a firm controlling hand, like a maddened bull. Indeed he was not certain the encounter could even be called a quarrel, so one-sided had been the fury.

Thorongil’s eyes fluttered low, and his lips moved querulously. He tipped his head back into the same position it had taken when Denethor slammed him up against the stones. Then he drew in a long breath through narrow nostrils and pushed himself the rest of the way up and off of the wall. As he stood of his own accord, his shoulders slumped forward.

‘Why did you argue with him?’ Imrahil asked. What he really wanted to know is where Thorongil had found the courage. Denethor was an iron-fisted disciplinarian with his troops and a daunting opponent in a dispute. He had the power to make the life of any man a misery, however high in Lord Ecthelion’s esteem he sat. This man was mad to challenge him, even in secret and especially before the Council.

Again Thorongil smiled, but this time it was unsteady: his lips were quaking. The chalky grey of his face was now unnerving. ‘I should have thought that self-evident. I disagree with his opinion of the proposed river defences: I believe they should be transient and ever-changing, the better to undermine the Enemy’s intelligence. And I disagree with his assessment of my greater duty.’

The tactician’s mind was trying to picture transient defences on Anduin, and the boy’s mind was trying to understand endangering all one had built by antagonizing the next most powerful man in the nation for the sake of them. It did not matter that, lowly of birth or not, Thorongil was in effect the third most powerful, even above his own father: he was still clearly vulnerable to Lord Denethor’s displeasure.

‘Where did he strike you?’ He needed to know this perhaps most of all. He did not want to think of the possibility that a man he had admired all his life, and fairly worshiped in his younger years; a man to whom he would one day be sworn in fealty, could strike such a dishonourable blow as the one that was the only possible means of draining the colour from a man’s face that completely with a blow that had not even had the shoulder behind it.

Thorongil’s smile had faded again into the lines of dour resolve, but his lip curled now as though he guessed Imrahil’s thoughts. ‘Here,” he said, untucking his left hand to splay it broadly over his chest where a moment ago it had been hugging so tightly. ‘I do not think he expected it to be quite so effective. I took the flat of an orc-blade five days ago. He was a massive brute, and he fought with the off-hand. I was fortunate that he was clumsy as well as strong, or it would have gone ill. As it was I cracked three ribs.’

Imrahil cringed, his own chest contracting in sympathy. He was next struck with wonder at how perfectly Thorongil had concealed the hurt. He endured the heavy mail, when it surely must be a burden, and not once had he shown his pain when he bent to attend Lord Ecthelion’s request for counsel. Third, an awful thought struck him. ‘Does Lord Denethor know?’ he asked.

‘I did not tell him,’ Thorongil promised with another small smile. ‘It was my misfortune.’

He lowered his right arm from his chest and then moved it to square the hem of his tabard. The wrinkles vanished from the eradicated roots of the White Tree, though its foliage was still crumpled under the hugging left arm. After a moment of shallow breathing, Thorongil released it as well. His fingers touched his hair to be certain it was still tidily contained, and he arranged his cloak as it had been before. ‘Come,’ he said, once again the unshakeable Captain Thorongil. ‘The Council will be gathered, and we must not keep the Steward waiting.’

It was only as they stepped out into the chamber with its lofty windows, sunlight revealing that Thorongil’s face was once more its smooth and natural, pale shade, that Imrahil realized that the Captain had not truly given him an answer to that last question. He swiftly took the seat reserved for him, between the Lord of Lamedon and the Exchequer of State, and he looked up the table to Lord Ecthelion. He sat in his tall, carven chair with a sheaf of scrolls at his left hand and a long map of Gondor laid out before him. He was flanked, of course, by his two honoured champions: one on the right, and one on the left. Neither face betrayed anything of what had passed between them in the quiet of a back corridor: steadily they met one another’s eyes across the table and then each turned as if by secret sign to wait upon the Steward’s word that the Council should convene. They were alike as a pair of matched war horses: tall of stature, noble of countenance, keenly intelligent and so near in age that it was impossible to say which one was they elder. Imrahil did not now know what to think of them, and that uncertainty troubled his heart and filled him with a cold fear.

They were Gondor’s great line of defence against the Shadow.

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