„My Lord, I was sent to inform you that Captain Thorongil is on the path of recovery. His fever broke last night and he has grown stronger ever since."
The servant, after delivering the message, left with a deep bow and on the faces of both the steward and his son remained two equally unreadable expressions. A cutting silence filled the room before a small smile reached the lips of the steward.
"Wonderful news! I already gave up hope that he would recover at all. Inflamed wounds can be very treacherous, as you can surely testify, my son."
Denethor remained silent for a few moments and his gaze was still locked on the maps spread out before him. A hard edge came to his eyes and he locked his jaw tightly. Only then did he look up and for once he did not pretend he was pleased with the news.
"My Lord, it was pure luck that Captain Thorongil survived. The wound to his chest is deep and serious. I have seen it with my own eyes. A blow such as he received should have been deadly."
An eyebrow rose high to the hairline as the steward Ecthelion stared at his son coolly. Two pairs of eyes, so similar in looks and equally shrewd, met in battle.
"If I did not know better, I would say you had something to do with the Captain’s injury, Denethor."
"Well, my dear father, then I am relieved that you do know me better than that. I despise Thorongil as you have surely noticed, but my honour would never allow me to raise arms against my ally. Although untrustworthy and mysterious he may be."
For a moment longer both father and son, lord and servant, looked at each other intently before Ecthelion averted his gaze. He had detected something akin to steely determination in Denethor’s eyes and suddenly had the feeling that his son knew more about the shadowy Captain of the North than he did. If that awareness led to the open dislike Denethor showed towards Thorongil or if it was mere envy, Ecthelion did not know. However, the unrelenting struggle between the two of them had started the very first day they had met. The steward had grown weary of the many quarrels, as he had grown weary of the world around him. His life was draining away at a steady trickle. No embitterment came with the thought for he had led a long and content life, but the strife between the two most powerful men in Minas Tirith beside himself gave him much cause to worry about the security of Gondor after his death. Denethor held the power by rightfulness of birth, Thorongil by skill and natural leadership. It gave the old steward much to think about of late.
"Is there something else you wanted to say, father? I would like to visit Captain Thorongil in the Houses of Healing, there is much we need to talk about", Denethor steely said.
Ecthelion glanced once again sharply at his son. Denethor had not once paid a visit to the Captain in his quarters or in another private room, not in all the years since Thorongil came to Minas Tirith.
"I hope you know what you are doing."
A small smile came to Denethor’s lips, a rare occurrence.
"I do. Do not worry, it is all to Gondor’s best intention."
With a short bow, Denethor took his leave.
A soft purr right beside his right ear woke Aragorn suddenly from his fitful doze. He could not suppress a slight start and the deep and raw wound across his chest protested painfully. He opened his eyes slowly and blinked a few times before his vision was clear. Something big and white loomed above him and it took a moment before he became aware of the fact that a cat sat right next to him, purring and blinking lazily at him.
Aragorn slowly shook his head. Sleep still clouded his mind and the wound throbbed painfully but he was still fairly sure that the cat was real and no imagination of his exhausted mind. He slowly reached out and petted the head of the beautiful animal. The purring became louder and the cat leaned into his touch. Well, it felt rather real. Never before had he seen a cat in Minas Tirith, not to mention such a fine-looking and well-fed creature.
A slow smile spread over his face as he continued to stroke the white cat. It was a truly amiable animal, if truth be told more welcome than the fretting healers he had to put up with. Since he had woken up only this morning, the healers had bustled in and out, asked him dim questions and forced foul brews down his throat. It reminded him a little of his childhood home in the North.
As the caresses slightly lessened, the cat suddenly butted his head against Aragorn’s as if to pull the whole attention again to himself. The Ranger chuckled softly but immediately regretted the action as pain shot up his chest. As he hissed, the cat looked at him curiously.
"Careful, my friend," Aragorn murmured fondly. "Do not make me laugh and I will promise to caress you further. Do you agree with these terms?"
A soft meow was the only answer he got and again he had to suppress a chuckle. What his brothers would say when they saw him negotiating with a cat? It reminded him of the time of one of his first trips with the Rangers when he had got caught by Orcs and had gotten a severe lashing. For weeks after Elladan and Elrohir had rescued him, he had been tied to bed and only been able to lie on his stomach. His brothers had found a young fox in the wood, beside his dead mother, and had decided to bring it to the sick brother for company. The fox and the Ranger had befriended immediately and his brothers had accused him to spend more time with the animal than with them.
All the fond memories of his home and younger days made Aragorn smile. Perhaps twenty-three years in foreign service was enough and it was after all time to turn North again. Friends and family awaited him, as well as many chores and responsibilities. However, he had also grown to love Gondor, Minas Tirith and the people who lived in it. He could not leave them, not yet. Not while there were still so many enemies luring at the borders, waiting for a weak spot to strike all the harder.
Deep in thoughts, Aragorn did not notice the door open and a shadow slip in.
"Dil! Thewe you are!" a children’s voice exclaimed.
Aragorn looked up and saw Boromir, Denethor’s little son, standing in front of the bed, his eyes fixed on the cat beside the Captain.
"So this is your cat?" Aragorn gently asked. "He kept me company for a while."
The child suddenly looked at the man with big eyes as if he had only realised in that moment that there was someone else in the room beside himself and his cat.
"I’m sowwy… " Boromir stammered and Aragorn could almost see all the discipline lessons about disturbing his seniors running through his head.
"It is all right, little one," he soothed. "You did nothing wrong. What did you say is the name of your cat?"
The embarrassment was instantly forgotten when Aragorn mentioned the cat and the eyes of the boy began to glow.
"Dil. I gotted him yestewday. Fwom Uncle Imwahil," the child chattered happily and as the cat heard his young Master speak he hopped off the bed and wriggled around Boromir’s legs so the boy nearly lost his balance.
"A fine cat you have there, and very clever," Aragorn answered and wanted to say something more when the door opened a second time. He was quite sure that it would be the healers who told him to rest some more but instead it was the steward’s son who stood before him, stern and gloomy as ever. Probably even sterner than Aragorn had ever seen him.
"Boromir. Take your pet out of the Houses of Healing. I am sure the healers do not like to see it in here," Denethor said.
The lad only nodded and grabbed Dil around the middle. The cat gave a protesting meow as his hind legs were dragged across the stone floor, for he was too big for Boromir to lift up entirely. Denethor held the door open and closed it behind his son again.
Aragorn caught a twinkle of amusement and affection in the eyes of the other man as he turned around but it quickly disappeared again behind a guarded expression. Only now the Ranger began to wonder as to why Denethor came to visit him. Even though the dislike between them was an open secret, Aragorn knew that the other was no cruel man. The steward’s son was loyal to Gondor although he had sometimes strange ways to show it.
"It seems that my messenger did not lie about your state of health. You truly seem greatly improved since the last time I saw you, Captain. Although still a bit pale around the nose," Denethor derisively said and let his eyes roam over the prostrate body of the other man.
Aragorn felt the intent urge to sit up. He hated to be looked down upon and all the more he hated to be looked down upon by the man he had struggled with for the last fourteen years. Steeling himself against the pain and dizziness, he managed to heave himself in a more vertical position, although he was nowhere near sitting up and he was paying his effort with black spots speckling his vision. The soft snort from Denethor nearly snapped his suddenly short temper.
"Did you come to gloat?" Aragorn demanded harshly but his breathlessness ruined the effect.
"No, essentially not," Denethor easily replied. "It does have the appearance of a spectacle to see the invincible and virtuous Captain of Gondor bound to bed, but it is not the main reason for my visit."
Forcing himself to remain calm, Aragorn took as deep a breath as his wounds allowed. This intended maliciousness was normally not Denethor’s wont and he seemed dangerously at ease. Something was off and the Captain did not think for one moment that Denethor came only for a chat.
"What is it then that you came for, my Lord?" Aragorn asked apprehensively.
"My Lord? My Lord? Have I ever truly been your lord, Thorongil, or only a pawn in your game?" Denethor fiercely asked.
Silence met this question and for one moment Aragorn forgot to breathe. Then slowly the air streamed back in and he had to force himself to keep his gaze steady. ‘Well, there we go at last,’ he thought with weary acceptance. Over the years, the more successful Thorongil had grown to be, the more forceful Denethor had investigated to learn the secrets about the Captain. Aragorn knew that the steward’s son had sent messengers to the North to inquire about him but since he had never heard anything else he had concluded that the messengers had come back unsuccessful.
"No colourful speeches, Captain?"
"I cannot answer your question since I have not yet heard your accusations," Aragorn answered firmly, finding his wit once again. "I always did what was best for Gondor and her people."
"Accusations? It is merely an inquiry that I wish to have answered, no accusations. Do tell me how you came to speak Elvish in your fever dreams, to talk about the lord Elrond and Imladris, and a destiny unfulfilled? About Isildur’s bane?" Denethor quietly asked.
It was only Aragorn’s willpower which kept his gaze steady while the circumstances screamed at him to close his eyes and shy away from the burning eyes that measured him. Had shrewd Denethor truly looked through his disguise or was he only guessing? As apt as Aragorn was in reading people, he could not tell if the steward’s son was only gauging for a reaction or if he was sincere.
"A feverish mind can conjure up all sorts of imaginations. And you knew already before that I was fluent in Elvish, as are you," Aragorn replied carefully. Even to his ears the answer sounded meagre and pitiful, but he would never outright lie to the other man.
"I thought that you would say that, Captain. Well, if you deny having any kingly blood in you, but still stayed for the last fourteen years in Gondor’s service without ever revealing your name or your history, there must be another reason for your secrecy. Your injury uncovered another hidden detail to me."
Denethor paused for a moment and for the first time his gaze turned away from Aragorn to look out of the window and over Minas Tirith. His upper body was twisted slightly so he talked to the wall rather than to the other man.
"There are marks on your back," he continued softly but so distinctively as if to drive every word home. "Scars from a lashing, angry looking welts. As you surely know, even in the North lashing is the tradition that is reserved solely for serious lawbreakers, such as traitors. Would it not be highly convenient for a traitor to leave his former identity behind to begin a new life in a foreign land? He has absolutely nothing to lose."
Aragorn felt stunned and the small gasp that escaped him gave away much, even with Denethor’s back facing him. The scars on his back! The ill-gone product of a Ranger patrol now came back to serve as blackmail to relieve him from a powerful post. Indignation rose quickly in him. He had always seen in Denethor a cunning but honourable opponent, who was striving for the same aims as he did, but he had never suspected the other man to go as far as to make false accusations.
Slowly, Denethor turned around to face him once again. His shoulders sagged and he suddenly seemed weary and bitter, as if pressed to make decisions that pained him greatly.
"So, Thorongil, which one will it be, king or traitor?" he asked laconically. "The decision only suits my curiosity for it will not help your position at all. Gondor has neither need of a king nor of a traitor."
Aragorn still remained silent, no appropriate words coming to his mind. He only stared long and hard at Denethor, his eyes answering the question that had been asked. The steward’s son finally averted his eyes, seemingly flustered by what he saw but still determined.
"I..I think that you have stayed long enough," Denethor continued. "At present, no one else knows what I learned about you. You should turn North once more, when you are well again of course, and no one needs to know your secrets."
With these words, Denethor stormed out of the room, as if it pained him to remain only one moment longer in Aragorn’s presence. The Captain, sighing heavily, lay back down on the bed. His head throbbed mercilessly, as did his heart. The decision was at last taken out of his hands. There was no doubt that Denethor would see his threats come true and there was nothing Aragorn could do. He was not willing to take the throne by force or by lying and without Isildur’s heir staying hidden, there was no way he could remain longer in Gondor.
Closing his tired eyes, Aragorn exhaled slowly. Perhaps it was after all time to go home, he had stayed away long enough. He did not like the way his decision was taken away from him, but maybe it was not such a bad decision after all. However, there was one more thing he had promised do before he could turn North. The corsairs. He would fight the corsairs, after that he would leave.
After Denethor had left the Houses of Healing he paused a moment in front of the skeleton of the White Tree.
"So it is true," he murmured to himself. "There is a last descendant from Isildur’s line, a rightful king of Gondor. For no traitor would leave out the opportunity to name himself king while only an heir of the Old Kings would rather have himself branded as a traitor than reveal his true ancestry. However, these are no days of kings, but of stability and unity. A pity he was born too late, I would have gladly followed him as a steward in different times."
Looking up once more at the White Tree, he turned around and walked in the citadel.