Stories of Arda Home Page
About Us News Resources Login Become a member Help Search
swiss replica watches replica watches uk Replica Rolex DateJust Watches

Ten Thousand Years Will Not Suffice  by Agape4Gondor

Prologue - Third Age, 2930

"And this I remember of Boromir as a boy, when we together learned the tale of our sires and the history of our city, that always it displeased him that his father was not king. "How many hundreds of years needs it to make a steward a king, if the king returns not?" he asked. "Few years, maybe, in other places of less royalty," my father answered. "In Gondor ten thousand years would not suffice." Alas! Poor Boromir. Does that not tell you something of him?"

"Rían is well, Ecthelion. And you -- you have a son." Turgon, Steward of Gondor, took his own son in his arms and hugged him warmly. "Your heir, my son; I am most proud of you! Have you decided upon a name?"

"Yes, Father. He will be called Denethor."

"Ah. A propitious name? I wonder. We might very well have need of another Denethor. Are you suggesting our time of peace is at an end?"

Ecthelion laughed, "Father, I have no more foresight than you in this matter. It is a warrior's name. One of honor and I deem the time is right for another Denethor. You are not yet ready to go to our forefathers and I will not readily go either. Long will it be before my son becomes Steward. He will keep peace in our land, if I have anything to do with it, just as you have."

"Well, my son," Turgon said. "Go to your wife now and tell her I am overjoyed. Thank her for bringing the Twenty-Sixth Ruling Steward of Gondor into this world."

As Ecthelion left his father, he wondered at this last request. Why would Turgon say Ruling Steward? Did his father have some premonition? Was not the king to return during Turgon's or his own stewardship -- perhaps even during his son's stewardship? Was not the saying among the common folk, 'when the king returns?' Is this not what the people waited for; the hope the Stewards kept alive in their people? Did not the ceremonies, festivals, nay every meeting end with the phrase 'until the king return?' Was this not their revered duty - to keep Gondor strong in preparation for the return of the king? Daily, the hope for the return of the king was on his lips. Was his father saying there was no hope? And yet, Ecthelion wondered, had he named his son after the Steward or the Elven king?

As he entered their room, his eyes were drawn to the little bundle in his beloved's arms. So very gently Rían held their child. ‘Their child! And an heir.’ He moved quickly to her side, his long legs striding purposefully towards her. Kneeling next to the bed, he whispered, "My love, I am so happy." The nurse grumbled as she moved to allow him to be closer to the bed. He heard and laughed. Nothing could take his happiness away.

Rían looked beautiful - tired, but beautiful. She raised her eyes and looked at him, yet through him. There was something disquieting about that look. "Ah, my Lord," Rían said, "There is a foreboding in my heart as I look at our son." She gave her hand to Ecthelion, her eyes rolled back, and she was suddenly still. The nurse snatched the babe from her arms, placed him in the crib next to the bed, and ran for the healer. Ecthelion stood as marble from Mount Mindolluin. A horrid shaking assailed his body and he fell to his knees.

"Rían! Rían!" he cried in panic. Gently he touched her cheek and his hand recoiled at the coldness of it. So quickly, so quickly the cold had come and claimed her. He forced himself to an upright position and took her small hand in his. "Rían!" he cried aloud, "Do not leave me. I need you. I need your help. I need you. I need your presence here beside me. How am I to live without you, to breathe without you?" He touched her cheek again and resisted the impulse to pull his hand away. Colder still was that cheek, and yet it was the cheek of his beloved. "I need you," he sobbed. Finally, he rose, leaned over her bed and kissed her forehead, her cheeks, her lips. He brushed back the hair that had fallen lightly upon her brow.

She was gone. In a moment. With no farewell. He studied her face -- tried to etch each detail into his memory. The smile he so loved was no longer there. Her lips had lost their luster, their fullness, their smile. He would never see that smile again. He wanted to lie next to her, to feel her in his arms one more time, but instead, he knelt again, knelt next to her, trying to feel her life force, trying to hear her voice, trying to feel her hand upon his brow. His head bent forward and rested on her shoulder. The sobs came unbidden and uncontrolled. He cared not who heard -- he only wished she could, that she would take him in her arms, as she had so many times before, and whisper that all would be well. And yet, no words came from the stony lips.

Adanedhel, Gondor’s Master Healer, came running into the room, saw the gray of his patient’s face and knew Rían would laugh no more. The healer's heart broke for, like the Steward's son, he was in love with this woman of the gentle smile. All of Gondor would mourn this passing, the passing of the Lady of Gondor. He sent the guard for Turgon. The babe had been strangely quiet. Taking him from his crib, Adanedhel walked out of the room. He would leave the Steward's son alone for the time being.

~*~

The funerary customs of Gondor dictated that Rían lay in state; for two days the people of Gondor waited in snake-like lines to bid her farewell. The escarpment itself had been roped off to give the line some order, but still in silence they waited patiently. Gone were all signs of adornment on her people. Black was the color for this time and black was the mood of her people. The untimely death had shaken them, sobered even the joy of an heir.

Turgon was not sure what to do to relieve this. It was definitely time to put an end to this mourning, to shake his people from this darkness. He ordered the procession to begin. This time reminded him too well of his own wife's demise. Long had she been gone and long had Rían been Gondor's Lady. The people had loved Ecthelion’s wife fully. Now they waited in this never-ending line to take one last glimpse of her.

There was much sorrowful singing, mournful women wailers filled the Court of the Fountain, and the sickly sweet smell of burning incense wafted through the dead air that lay upon the City as the procession made its way from the Great Hall, where the Lady of Gondor had lain in state, to the House of the Stewards. The guard opened the gate of Rath Dínen and Ecthelion recoiled at the utter silence that greeted him. Was this place of absolute stillness to be her last resting place, she who had always filled the air with such joyful laughter? None could see the desolation on his face; he hid his grief well.

Striding next to his father, Ecthelion could see naught. The only sense he seemed to have was the sense of hearing -- and it heard naught. His ears searched for some sound that would make this a bearable place to leave her. Yet no sound came in the painful stillness of the City of the Dead. Perhaps if he put a wind chime near her resting place? But nay -- there was no wind in these halls to move even the tiniest bell. She would have to be content with his sobs when he came to visit her. One almost broke through his reserve, but he bit his lip and quickly blinked his eyes.

They laid her upon the center dais -- others would place her atop the appointed vault after the mourners left. Gardenias were placed all around her body. At last, Turgon gently touched his son’s arm. ‘Ah, the sense of touch has not failed me,’ Ecthelion thought gratefully. He bent over the empty body and kissed her lips one more time. Quickly he turned and strode out of that building. The others could barely keep up with him -- his long stride cutting through the distance to the open door.

Yet again, tragedy had struck the Steward’s family. Was there never to be sustained joy, long life, peace? He remembered his mother’s untimely death and found himself walking towards the White Tower. The sun against its walls almost blinded him. Naught should be bright on this day -- there should only be dimness. He passed into the Tower's cool darkness with a sense of relief. In darkness was where he belonged for was not his light, his Rían, extinguished? Slowly, he walked the steps leading upwards. It seemed to take a hundred years, but finally he reached the room at the top. He needed to be alone. No matter where he walked in the City these past three days, people stared or gave him flowers, or bowed with tear-stained faces. Their pain reflected his own and it was too much to bear.

He was glad he had come here. Always, the sight of Gondor spread before him eased his mind. He could look out the south window and gaze towards the Bay of Belfalas. The gulls circled about the Tower -- no white ones could be seen, only gray and dirty birds -- their cries echoed the cries in his heart. Slowly he walked to the north window and saw the slopes of Ered Nimrais, and further along, the Anduin. He knew the Falls of Rauros lay in that direction and his very being went there. To be standing at that place, to see the Argonath in the distance, to feel the spray from the falls hitting his face, that would ease his mind. Finally, his steps led him to the east window and the mountains of the Ephel Dúath. His heart skipped a beat as it always did when he looked at the ruin that was Osgiliath. Dior's sister-son, Denethor, had lost this land to the Uruks of Mordor. Would his own son, his own Denethor...? Now he wished he had the gift of foresight, gifted to so many of his ancestors before him.

The river ran clean and beautiful through those ruins. The city itself, both East and West Osgiliath, was desolate, bereft of its people and of its hope. His Númenórean eyes could clearly see the gaping holes in the roofs of the great hall and other buildings though so many leagues away; the devastation was terrible. Osgiliath was a mirror of how he imagined his heart looked -- cold, empty, utterly destroyed with gaping holes in it. Bereft of love, bereft of hope, bereft of her.

The Palantír was here. Almost -- he felt its presence. He walked towards it and removed its covering cloth. ‘Where was Rían,’ he wondered? ‘Was she in the lands of the West, with the Valar? Was she in the sea on some Elven ship? Or mayhap in the sky with Eärendil? It was a seeing stone, was it not? What did it see?’ If he looked into it, mayhap it would speak to him -- of her? Or at least it might show him her face again -- yes, that would help. ‘Where was she?’

But nay, it did not even flicker. He did not touch it. The other six stones were lost forever. This was just a black, useless ball sitting here in expectation of a king's return. A hollow laugh filled the room and Ecthelion was surprised; it was his own voice. He did not like the sound of it. He no longer liked this room either. He placed the cloth back upon the stone. Looking again out the east window, he shuddered. Something was amiss in that land beyond the mountains. For a moment, his sorrow was replaced with fear. Something must be done to protect Minas Tirith.

As he strode down the steps, the light from outside grew stronger. He felt a lightening of his spirit. It was time to find his daughters and his son. Time to put aside thoughts of the last few days. But as fate will at times - an old woman met him as he exited the Tower and offered him a bouquet of gardenias - Rían's favorite flower. Startled, he looked into the old woman's eyes.

"She is gone, my Lord, but will never be forgotten. As I picked these from my garden in her memory, so too must you pick your children from their grief and give them to Gondor. For Gondor, my Lord, all for Gondor."

~*~

A/N – I struggled as to what word to use for the woman who attended Rían during her childbirth and was to be what we would call a wet nurse. From dictionary.com, the etymology of nurse goes back to around 1350, whereas ‘nanny’ is much younger, from around 1795, and wet nurse is from 1775. Therefore, I am using the Middle English term ‘nurse’ for this character since it is the oldest form of what I needed for this tale. I did not see her as a midwife since the Master Healer of Gondor himself attended the Steward’s son’s wife.

Ch. 1 - Third Age 2936

Denethor was sure the City had been built just for him as he raced along the curving road. By the time the almost six year old had reached the Fourth Level, he was again grateful, for the hundredth time, that there were no steps leading to the Citadel. His little legs were already tired; steps would be much worse, he decided. Perhaps, if he asked plainly, his father would give him a pony. It would make his life so much simpler. He wanted to explore everything in and out of the City, but he had decided a long time ago, at least a week ago, that his legs were too short!

As he ran, he held his treasure tightly in both hands, holding it against his chest for fear of losing it. It squirmed and squiggled and he was forever stopping to make sure he was not hurting it in his headlong rush. Would not his father be pleased to see what he had captured! He had pretended, in his mind's eye, that he had surprised a band of Orcs by the stream. They had fled when they saw his terrible face. He had tried to look just like his father - the time when he had 'accidentally' run away.

He had missed nuncheon - the first time ever. He had forgotten the time in the midst of a game with some of the soldiers' children on the Sixth Level. When he did not return, his nurse had gone to his father in fear. He could hear his father's roar from the Seventh Level. He knew he was in trouble; he ran and hid in one of the empty horse's stalls. After a few moments, he knew it was wrong to hide. He did not want to leave the quiet refuge, but he knew he must face his father, after all - was he not a soldier in the Steward's Army? Is that not what his father called him - his little soldier? In the depths of his heart, he knew soldiers did not hide.

He stood up brushing the straw from his clothes and strode purposefully towards the stable doors. He shrank back as a great shadow blocked the door, the sunlight, the world. It was his father; he could tell it in the stance. Ecthelion strode forward, grabbed him by the collar, and marched him out the door. Denethor took a sideways glance up at him, but the look on his father's face was terrible to behold. He did not quite understand. But he would never forget that look.

Today, he had tried to look the same way at the hoard of Orcs. One of the Orcs had slipped and fallen; Denethor quickly seized him and marched him off to his father.

"Nay!" he screamed. The treasure, his Orc, had escaped and was hopping wildly away. A cart passed Denethor on its way to one of the lower levels. The driver did not see, could not see, the little creature that ran in his path. It died quickly. Denethor stood as still as a statue. He had failed to protect his prisoner. He had lost his wondrous treasure. The cart turned a corner; the driver unaware of the tragedy he had caused.

Denethor's eyes filled with tears. His shoulders shook uncontrollably as he sobbed his sorrow. Before he knew it, he was standing before the door of the Great Hall - not sure how or when he had arrived there. One of the guards bent low, put his hand on Denethor's shoulder, and gently asked him what the matter was. The lad could not speak - by now he was near hysterics, so the soldier picked him up and entered the Hall. He could not leave the little one in such despair, though he knew that he should not abandon his post. 'One duty must sometimes be put aside for another.' He also knew Ecthelion was meeting with Turgon on matters of state. 'Well,' he thought, 'it cannot be helped. This little one needs his father’s comfort.' The guard, like all of Gondor, had worshipped the ground Lady Rían had walked upon. Her son, this little one, rarely cried and the guard, concerned, could not leave the boy in pain unhelped.

"What has happened?" Ecthelion ran forward as soon as he saw the guard approaching with his son in the man's arms.

"I am not sure, my Lord," the guard said, "but he does not appear to be hurt."

Ecthelion took his son in his arms, excused himself to Turgon, walked quickly to a side chamber, and sat on one of the chairs, hauling Denethor into his lap. He kissed the child on his forehead and wiped the tears from the chubby little cheeks. Denethor would not calm and the racking sobs tore at Ecthelion's heart. The guard brought water, said he would fetch Denethor's nurse, and left them. Ecthelion urged his son to drink and finally Denethor did. Suddenly, the boy threw his arms around his father's neck and sobbed again. Ecthelion gently detached the child's arms and lifted the little one’s chin.

"My son, what has happened?"

"I found this...this... " Sobs stopped his words. He tried again, "I found this wonderful thing. It was almost the size of a Mûmak, I am sure!" He paused for another moment to catch his breath and Ecthelion laughed to himself. The lad had never seen a Mûmak and the thought of him carrying one in his little hands almost made Ecthelion laugh out loud, but he checked the impulse as he looked at the tear-stained face. The child was too serious to even try to lighten the moment.

Denethor continued on with his tale while Ecthelion listened intently. When Denethor reached the part about the cart, the tears and sobs increased and the boy could no longer speak. Ecthelion hugged his son tightly, concern and relief fighting for dominance. He offered Denethor a little more water, at a loss for words to help ease his son's grief. The face of Rían flashed before him and, for the thousandth time, he wished that she were here beside him. He missed her terribly; not a day went by that he did not think of her. Suddenly, he knew what to say.

"Denethor, listen to me. That was such a special and wondrous bullfrog… Orc that you found. I would have dearly loved to have seen it. I am so very proud that you were able to capture it on your own, being as big as you described it. Your mother must have been proud, too. But my son, she probably knew it could not live inside our City, and so she took it to be with her. It is a special present for her from you. I am sure she is enjoying it thoroughly." As he spoke, Ecthelion felt that what he said was most obtuse and wondered why on Middle-earth he thought this would comfort the lad, but to his surprise, Denethor's eyes widened. He wiped his nose on his sleeve and a small smile crept into his eyes.

"Father, do you really think mother has it? But, father, am not I special enough for mother to take, too?" The question almost broke Ecthelion's heart. Denethor had only lain in Rían's arms for a short time. Did he have some memory of her?

"Yes, my son," he said, "I am sure your treasure is with your mother. And yes, you are very special, my son, so special that your mother wants you to stay with me for a while. She knows I need you, my son, that Gondor needs you."

'Take those words back!' his heart screamed. Why had he said that last part? It was not necessary; the boy did not need to hear that. Mayhap it was Ecthelion himself who needed to hear it. He shook his head in dismay and saw that Denethor misinterpreted the gesture. He smiled, hugged the lad and kissed his small forehead again. The nurse had arrived some moments before and stood by patiently. Now, Ecthelion lifted his son off his lap and placed the little hand in her hand.

"Please take my son to his room, wash him and give him some light food. I will be up shortly to bed him."

"Denethor, go with your nurse. I will come shortly and perhaps you can draw me a picture of this great beast. We can hang it on your bedroom wall and we will remember the day you captured an animal bigger than a Mûmak."

Denethor hugged him around the neck till his breath was almost stopped, and then quickly left in his nurse's care.

Ecthelion sat back with a sigh. The boy was almost six; a special ceremony had been planned for his sixth birth day, but now Ecthelion wondered. He thought again of the concern that had chilled his heart during Denethor's story. The child was not maturing fast enough for Gondor's weal. Ecthelion had hoped to begin his son's training this year, but perhaps six was too young. Now, the chill came back, even stronger as he thought of the weakness of Gondor. Something was wrong. He felt it in the depths of his being. Turgon did not seem to sense it. His father did not seem to see any need for furthering the defenses of Gondor. All had been quiet for many years. Yet, there ws a nagging feeling that Ecthelion could not put words to. No matter what his father thought, he knew Gondor must now prepare for this evil that weighed so heavily upon his heart. He must keep Gondor safe until the return of the king. And he would begin with his own son. That the was the crux of the matter, the cause for his concern. For Denethor was weak, the tears today showed it. If the Steward would do naught, then Ecthelion would have to do something. He would start with his son.

Ch. 2 - Third Age 2937

He had meant to give Denethor the horn on his sixth birth day, but after last year's debacle with the bullfrog, Ecthelion decided the child was not yet ready.  So, lo this past year, he spent changing Denethor's life.  He took him out of the nursery suite and placed him in a room alone.  His sisters were quartered at one end of the long hallway and Denethor's room was moved to the other end.  He forbade the sisters to let Denethor sneak into bed with them, a habit they had allowed when the boy had nightmares.  Morwen and Indis were most distressed by this order, but there was no swaying their father.  It was so very hard for them to say nay to their brother when he came begging at their door.  The boy's eyes filled with tears on those nights.  As they closed the door to him, they clung to each other and sobbed.  They were not even allowed to walk him back to his room.  The corridor was dark and always chilly.  The girls' hearts broke. 

Ecthelion was adamant; his orders were not to be disobeyed.  The boy was to be Steward.  Denethor was already a year behind in the plan that Ecthelion had devised for his training.  Naught could shake the foreboding in Ecthelion's heart.  He must prepare Gondor and, because of Turgon's refusal to listen to his fears, the only choice he had was to prepare his son. His fear was that the darkest of evils would befall Gondor in his son's lifetime; yet, he hoped that, in Denethor's time, the king would return.

So Denethor had found the library and snuck books from it to read during the long, lonely nights.  At first, some of them were very hard to understand, but he was of Númenórean blood and, through much diligence, came to understand many things.  After the first few months and the discovery of the library, Denethor was not so miserable.  His favorite books were those of the sea-faring captains of Gondor.  Many of the old manuscripts had been rewritten to preserve them.  He had found them and became quickly enamored, reading, spellbound, the tales of their great voyages. 

His favorite was of Captain Vëantur, under King Minardil.  The captain's descriptions made him feel as though he were actually sailing on the sea.  He would close his eyes and imagine he could feel the waves rock the great ship, feel the wind blowing against his body, the spray of water on his face.  He would sit on his bed and rock back and forth, imagining the bed his boat. He read of voyages to the Gray Havens, the Elven dwelling and of Círdan, Shipwright and Lord of Mithlond.  He would stand on the escarpment, eyes closed, imagination running from east to west, north to south.

In his mind, he rode with the great captain from the mouth of the Anduin, the Great River, south to the Bay of Belfalas, then further south to the port cities of Umbar and west to Dol Amroth and Edhellond.  He found maps that showed these great cities and reveled in their names.  He felt the captain's need to sail even further west, but also felt the fear of doing such a thing.  Mayhap someday, when he was a great captain, he would sail west to wherever it was that Captain Vëantur wanted to sail.  Just the thought of it made him catch his breath and the hairs on his arms to stand up. 

The captain wrote of strange creatures, half the size of men, whom he called Pheriannath, Little People, who dwelt in hillsides and meadows.  He wrote of great towers far to the west built by Elves.  There were terrible encounters with Orcs when they were ambushed north of Mithlond.  Then, Denethor found the tale of the death of his captain; it was the last book he read of the seafarers of Westernesse.

Ecthelion noted the change in Denethor and assumed that his son was growing up due to his devices.  So he began arrangements for the first ceremony of many in preparation for Denethor's becoming Steward.  He dispatched riders with invitations to Fengel, King of Rohan (Prince Thengel was already in Gondor's service), Prince Angelimir of Dol Amroth, and various dignitaries from Lossarnach, Lebennin, Lamedon and Gondor's other fiefdoms.  He even invited Curunír of the White Council.

At year's end, the guests started arriving; for three days, the festivities ran.  There was feasting and singing, dancing and fireworks, along with sporting events and exhibitions of sword fighting, archery and axe throwing.  During one lull, Prince Thengel took Ecthelion aside and asked him why the ceremony -- usually performed at a son's tenth birth day -- should be performed at Denethor's seventh.  

Ecthelion, much as he loved Thengel, was curt.  "There are things you do not know, nor can you grasp.  I have had a premonition -- I must abide by it.  Soon, all Gondorian males will begin military training at the age of six, if my will prevails.  My son will be an example of the sacrifice that Gondor requires of its people.  Do not question me again."

At last, the time had come.  At the end of the third day, Denethor was summoned to the Citadel.  He spent the morning with the Captain of the Guard.  He had brought with him his new garments and the captain helped him dress.  He first put on the long gray shirt, then his hose, then the aketon, and his hauberk, and over that a silk tunic and vambraces for his arms.  Finally, over all, was the black surcoat with the White Tree embroidered on the front.  There was no sword for him to wear yet.  Another ceremony, much later, would be held for the conferring of his first sword.

When he was dressed, he was led into the Great Hall.  His adadhron sat on the Steward's Chair and his father stood beside him.  As always, the Throne above the Chair was empty.  The Hall was filled with lords and ladies.  Denethor was frightened.  He had never seen so many people in the Great Hall and it seemed as if all eyes were upon him.  For the last three months, the Captain of the Guard had gone over the ceremony with him.  Denethor had spent all his nights remembering the words, some of which were in the Sindarin tongue, but finally, he had the ceremony memorized and the captain informed Ecthelion that all was ready. But knowing the words and saying them in front of all these people were two totally different things. He was terrified.

Drawing in a breath, he started to walk quickly towards the Chair and his adadhron when, suddenly, his face grew red.  He remembered he was to walk slowly.  What would his father say?  He remembered the count he was to use to time his steps.  He slowed his gait and counted - one...two...three...four, one...two...three...four.  He saw his father nod his approval.  He remembered to keep his head high, his eyes looking forward and his back straight, but the mail shirt was heavy and the Hall was very long.  Once again he wished his legs were longer.  Sweat beaded upon his forehead, but he knew he must not wipe it away.  He bit his lip quickly to remind himself that he must be strong.  Many times his father had gone over how very important this day was. 

Finally, he reached the Steward's Chair.  He bowed low to Turgon, then turned and bowed to his father.  How stern he looked.  Had he done something wrong?  The ceremony had hardly started.  Was something amiss with his attire?  He did not know what to do, so he turned back to Turgon, bent one knee and looked into his adadhron's kindly face.  The smile upon it lifted his spirit. 

How he loved his adadhron!  There were so few times when they could be together, but every moment was special.  Even during this last year of preparation, Turgon would find him and bring him sweets and sit him upon his knee to tell him funny stories of the strange creatures called mûmakil and various sea animals like dolphins and terrifying stories of Trolls and Orcs.  Denethor felt suddenly unafraid; he was so very glad that it was to his adadhron that he was to make this pledge and not to his father.

"In ages long past," Turgon began, "the great Steward, Vorondil the Hunter, came upon a massive kine and slew it.  He cut one of the horns from the beast and brought it to the smithy where it was bound and tipped with silver.  Ancient runes were carved upon it.  Finally, it was hung on a baldric.  And thus the Great Horn of Gondor was made.  Vorondil passed this horn on to his son.  Ever after have the Stewards of Gondor passed this horn down from one generation to another, always to the firstborn son.  Today, we recall this event by the bequeathing of this first horn - a replica of the Great Horn -- upon commencement of training of the Twenty-Sixth Ruling Steward of Gondor."

He turned towards Denethor, his eyes twinkling with joy; his face held still. "Do you accept this horn until it is replaced with the Great Horn?" 

"I do accept this horn," Denethor stated.

"Will you commence training for your duties as future Steward of Gondor?"

"I shall commence training for my duties to Gondor."

"Will you serve the king when he returns?"

"I shall gladly serve the king when he returns."

Turgon stood.  "Let it be known that Denethor the Second, son of Ecthelion, son of Turgon, of pure Númenórean blood, has been deemed fit to train for his role as Steward of Gondor." 

He turned again towards Denethor and said, "I pass this horn to you -- a replica of the Great Horn -- and bid you wear it at all times to signify your allegiance to Gondor and to the return of the king.  The Great Horn and the title, Steward of Gondor, will be yours upon the death of the reigning Steward."

"Aiya, Turgon!  By Oromë of the Valar, before whom this horn is holy, I, Denethor the Second, swear to be faithful and true to Turgon, Son of Turin the Second.  To love all that he loves, and shun all that he shuns, according to Gondor's law and according to Númenórean principles and never, by will or by force, by word nor by work, do ought of what is loathful to him; on condition that he keeps me as I am willing to deserve.  I now submit to him and chose his will."

Ecthelion was startled.  What had Denethor said?  He spoke in the tongue of the Noldor; the entire oath was correct.  But where had he heard of Oromë?  He turned towards the Captain of the Guard who shook his head.  He had said naught to Denethor of the great Hunter whose name meant 'horn-blowing.'

His adadhron had continued the ceremony, not noticing the words of Denethor.  He brought Denethor to the table with the Steward's Book upon it.  Denethor wrote his name in the book and under it, Turgon wrote his name and placed the Seal of the Stewards upon it.

He then placed his hands on Denethor's shoulders and turned him towards those assembled.  There was polite applause.  The Steward sat again in his chair.  Ecthelion saluted him, hand to chest, congratulating him.  One by one the attending lords came forward and did the same.  Even the wizard came and congratulated him.  He did not use the Gondorian salute, but placed his hand on Denethor's shoulder.  Denethor was shaken by the power he felt flowing from that hand.  He quickly looked to the floor and muttered his thanks. 

At last, the time had come and he was allowed to leave the Hall.  He had never been so glad to leave a place.  He found his friend, Amdir, in the stables and they giggled and laughed about the people from Dol Amroth and how very serious they were.  They were amazed at Fengel, King of Rohan.  He did not look like a king at all. 

"Do you suppose the King of Gondor, when he returns, will look like that -- with fur all over him and smelling of horses?"  Amdir asked.

"I am not sure, Amdir, but I am very glad that Captain Thengel does not smell like his father!"

Denethor then told him about the wizard and how funny it felt when he shook his hand.  Amdir begged Denethor to stay away from him.  "Wizards are scary people," he said, "and it is not good to spend time with someone you cannot understand."

Denethor laughed.  "I will remember that, Amdir, but now, let us eat.  I am starving!"

~*~

The story of the Horn - LOTR - JRRT

Oath paraphrased from one on dragonbear.com

Aiya - Quenya for 'Hail!'

Ch. 3 - Third Age 2939

It was the 25th of May - a very special day.  It was his sister's birth day. Indis and Morwen had been like mothers to him these past nine years.  He had racked his brain for the last few weeks trying to think of what would be best for Indis - what would make her happy.  And finally, just two nights ago, he knew!  He had gone to Amdir who rejoiced in the thought of the adventure.

And now, the day had arrived.  His father thought he was going on his monthly visit to his Uncle Cranthir, captain of the garrison in Osgiliath.  He had been going every month, for the last few years, to visit his mother's brother.  The ruined city held only happiness for Denethor. Cranthir had been teaching his nephew 'Kings and Stewards' and Denethor had found that he loved the game.  Ecthelion did not.  The only time, therefore, that Denethor could play it was when he went to Osgiliath.  This meant a game could last months, but Cranthir told him the game would teach him patience.  Little did he know that the boy would spend many sleepless nights after each visit, trying to strategize just what piece to move next. 

The board and its pieces would have dust on them when they would sit down and they would laugh together as they wiped each piece.  Cranthir told Denethor that the set had been in his family for many years, and that when he died, the set would go to Denethor.  The carvings on each piece were intricate and finely detailed.  The king and queen pieces were beautiful, but Denethor's favorite pieces were the Stewards sitting on either side of the king and queen.  The little pieces even had the Steward's Staff in their hands.  He knew that the Stewards were not as powerful as the queen or the castles, but he loved them just the same.  Cranthir let Denethor wipe those pieces himself.  Lovingly, the boy took oil and polished them until they shone so that he could almost see his face in the warm oak.

But this day, he would slip into Osgiliath, leave a note in Cranthir's door saying he would not be able to visit with him; then, he and Amdir would be off on their quest.  It was a glorious piece of fortune that Indis' birth day was on a day when there were no lessons and no training.  He ran to the stables immediately after breaking his fast and loaded the cheese, fruit, bread and water that he had secreted away while he ate his meal, into bags on either side of his pony.  He hoped it was enough for the day, but if it was not - In training, he learned how to live off the land; would not this be the perfect time to test that training!

Amdir's father, Ingold, shouted for the boys to hurry if they wanted to be a part of the weekly supply caravan to Osgiliath.  The sun was already rising and they were late!  Ingold did this every time they went and both boys laughed, but not to his face.  It was going to be a glorious adventure!

Everything went as planned - the caravan reached Osgiliath early in the morning.  Ingold left the boys at Cranthir's quarters and quickly caught up with his men.  Denethor left the note he had written the night before in Cranthir's door and then the boys galloped east - towards the bridge.  Shortly before they reached the sewers, they dismounted, wiped their ponies down, and left them in an abandoned stable with some cut up apples and water.  When they reached the sewers, they had to duck behind a pillar to let a sentry pass by.  It would not do to get caught and stopped now.  After the sentry passed, the boys slipped into the sewer.  They giggled with an excitement that was mixed with just a little fear.  Denethor was not quite sure about the sewers and where each one led, but he knew that eventually they ended in the abandoned part of the city that lay on the east side of the Anduin.  It seemed to take forever to cross under the river.  The footing was treacherous in places; lichen had grown on the floor of the sewers and created slippery patches for unwary feet.  Some parts were almost totally blocked by stones that had fallen from the ceiling above and, in these places, torrents of water from the Anduin cascaded onto their heads.  But they were fast and quickly waded through these sections.  Finally, they felt the floor rising and knew they must be near the far shore.  It had been dark for quite some time now and Denethor berated himself for not having brought torches.  He imagined his father's scorn at such ill planning and he scolded himself for it.  But there was light now - just ahead - and both boys relaxed in the knowledge that the first part of their adventure was successfully over. 

Denethor marked in his mind, and on a great stone, the place where they came out from the sewers and then marked their path with large 'X's as they passed through the city.  It was his first time in the fallen city. The quiet of it hurt his ears.  He imagined how it had been so long ago with children just like Amdir and himself playing in the streets.  But now - most of the streets were blocked with great marble stones fallen during countless battles and hundreds of years of neglect.  Dust was everywhere so that their feet left large gouges as they walked; but that was all that was there.  There were no birds, no lizards, and no insects - just layer upon layer of dust.  Denethor, not for the last time, wished they could have brought their ponies with them. 

They finally reached the grasslands outside the city and could see the gentle slopes of Ithilien before them.  He made a mental note to come back to the city sometime and really explore it.  They stopped for rest and a drink of water. 

Amdir grinned at Denethor.  "That was a fair piece of work getting through, was it not?" 

Denethor had to smile too.  He felt very tired.  It had taken longer than he had expected to reach this phase of their journey; he made a note to plan more time for their return trip. But Amdir's good spirits gave him the energy he needed to press on. 

"What an adventure this is, is it not, my friend?" he said as he slapped Amdir on the back - a gesture he had seen Ingold use a hundred times with his men to encourage them.  He vowed to himself that he would one day be a great leader and, in the wisdom of a nine year old, he thought he would even rebuild Osgiliath. 

Now it was time to focus on the purpose of the quest.  Off to the hills on his right, he had been told of a great forest of iris.  And Indis' favorite flower was the purple iris.  Somehow, he would find this 'forest' and dig up the biggest, most beautiful iris plants, bring them back, and plant them in the garden outside her window.  He hoped to find the most fragrant too, for the little scrawny ones that were planted in Minas Tirith had no fragrance whatsoever.  Indis had told him tales, passed on from their mother, of this forest of flowers.  The excitement of the gift pounded in his heart and he almost ran towards Ithilien. 

They walked forever and Denethor once again realized that his legs were too short.  He knew he had grown since the Horn ceremony, but still, he needed longer legs.  And once again he wished they had their ponies.  He also began to think that this was folly - that there was no such forest.  They walked through fields of flowers, but none were the irises that he came for.  The celandine fields alone were massive - not a place went by that they did not see myriads of the delicate little yellow flowers.  They had to watch their footing as they went through the closely clumped ilex bushes - their long, sharp leaves reaching out to slash at their arms.  The air smelt of late spring herbs; they were everywhere.  The boys found wild strawberry plants and smelt the sweet thyme.  They could not resist crushing mint and lemon balm leaves between their fingers and inhaling the scent. 

As morning turned into afternoon, Denethor began to feel that he had made a mistake.  If they did not find the field soon, they would have to turn back.  Without telling Amdir his thoughts, he decided they must stop for nuncheon.  Amdir was quite ready to sit.  They had found a gentle little stream running down from the hilltops and let the water wash over their feet.  Amdir prattled on about his father and the soldiers of Gondor and how, one day, he would be a soldier and follow in his father's footsteps.  His father still had not given permission for him to start training, but he was ready and quite envious of Denethor.  Denethor was kind and shared all that he learned.  He found it good to repeat to his friend the many details he learned about Gondor, its history, battle strategies, and survival techniques.  It helped him remember them.  The questions Amdir posed helped him to think further.  He was pleased at all he had learned, yet, it did not seem to lessen his father's own worry.  He had overheard Ecthelion, on many occasions, decry the turpitude of the lords of Gondor who did not listen to Ecthelion's urgings to start their boys in training at as early an age as possible.  Only a few listened to his impassioned speeches; most felt as Turgon did - that peace was now upon their land and it was time to enjoy it.  Besides, not that many lords thought beyond creating their own monuments in Rath Dínen.  The sight of the abandoned houses and courts in the upper circles of Minas Tirith did not seem to alarm them. Denethor himself was not sure of all that his father spoke, but he knew, in his heart, that his father must be right.

He put aside those thoughts.  It had felt so very good to stop and rest.  He only knew that he did not want to go another step.  But what was the sense of a quest with no treasure to show for it?  So after they ate the cheese and some fruit and drank some of their water, they started further up the hill.  As they passed through a large clump of bay trees, Denethor glimpsed flowers ahead of them.  Excitement filled him as he realized they were nearing their destination.  As they broke from the grove of trees, a riot of purple and yellow and green struck his eyes.  It was the forest of irises!  Denethor almost ran through the field, but stopped short at the edge of it to drink in the sight, and smell the lovely fragrance in the air.  It was beyond his wildest imaginings.  There must have been hundreds and hundreds of blossoms.  He had picked the right time to come.  They were in full bloom.  He almost cried with delight.  Indis would be so very happy; he could imagine her smiling face.  Ah, life was good. 

He searched the field for healthy, strong plants.  Only the best would do.  But something was wrong; there was some kind of blight on the flowers.  The leaves were scored in crisscross lines.  He knew it was neither black rot nor borers.  He had never seen such horror on a plant.  And yet, he now remembered that he had seen damage on other flowers and trees as they walked through Ithilien.  What had caused it?  This blight seemed to have only affected the plants on the outside of the field, for as he walked further in, he found untouched and healthy plants.  Amdir had followed with the pack and the wrappings that Denethor had brought.  They selected six plants - their beauty was such that Denethor wanted to take more, but he knew they could not carry them all, and the day was passing too quickly.  They dug up the plants, wrapped them in the cloth, soaked them with water, and put them gently into the pack.  Then they started back north towards Osgiliath.

It was now at least two hours past nuncheon.  They had been walking as quickly as they could, but they were tiring.  Denethor called a halt and they sat by another stream -- nay, it was the same one at which they had eaten their nuncheon and where they had dangled their feet.  They did so again.  Yet Denethor was becoming concerned.  They were still very far from Osgiliath.  They must quicken their pace.  They hurried down the hill, their hands touching the bay trees' bark and laughing at the sweet smell of it upon their hands.  They ate the little wild strawberries and smacked their lips at the sweetness. 

As they passed through the southern part of the bay grove, they ran into closely growing ilex bushes.  Amdir tripped and fell headlong into wickedly sharp leaves and cried out in pain.  His hands were stabbed and bleeding.  Denethor pulled him out, but at the same moment, more concerned for his friend than his footing, he stepped wrongly and a large thorn from a branch fallen from an unnoticed hawthorn tree, pierced deeply into his foot.  He yelped and hopped away.  The boys came together and helped each other out of the morass of hungry plants.  At the end of the bushes, they stopped to assess the damage.  Denethor poured water over Amdir's hands, and then Amdir looked at the thorn sticking out of the bottom of Denethor's shoe.  They both knew it had to come out.  Denethor closed his eyes, tears streaking down in dusty rivulets to find his chin.  He felt ashamed, but Amdir gently held his shoulder. 

"It will be all right, Denethor.  I will try to be as quick as I can."  He was able to get a good grip on the end of the thorn and pulled with all his might.  The thorn came out and so did blood, gushing over his hand and Denethor's shoe.  He gently slipped the shoe off and washed the wound with water.  Thyme plants were nearby and they cut off pieces and rubbed them into the wounds.  It would help stop any further malady.  Amdir then took some of the cloth used for the iris plants and wrapped Denethor's foot in it.  The shoes he had worn this day were not good hiking shoes; the thorn had gone right through the one.  Once again Denethor found himself berating himself for poor planning.  He could not keep this from his father.   He could see the scowl on Ecthelion's face. 

Amdir seemed to sense his friend's chagrin.  He started to laugh.  Denethor was in no mood for laughter, but Amdir's laugh was contagious and he found himself, quite beside himself, laughing too.

When they finally stopped for breath, he asked, "What are we laughing at?" 

Amdir laughed loudly again and said, "We look like we have ten years of dirt on our faces and there is yellow pollen from the irises on your nose and your ears!"  He started laughing uncontrollably again, and Denethor's tears became tears of laughter.

Exhausted, they lay back on the grassy slope and looked up at the clouds.  The clouds - they were black and coming close!  Denethor scrambled to his feet.  The wind was blowing towards them.  He had not noticed that it was rising.  This day was turning into a disaster.  He should have watched the skies!  The boys picked up their precious packs and started down the slope, moving as quickly as Denethor could hop with his wounded foot.  The wind grew stronger; the clouds grew blacker and closer.  They started to run.  Denethor forgot the pain in his foot as the fear in his heart grew.  This was going to be a brutal storm.  They must seek shelter and quickly.  But everywhere he looked were groves of bay trees or mighty oaks; he knew they could not hide there for fear of lightning.  A rocky area rose up in front of them; Denethor thought they might find a small cave or outcropping that they could build up around them, but there was naught. 

The drops of rain started falling, slowly, but Denethor knew that in no time at all a great torrent would reach them.  He could see it further down the hill - a black sheet of rain heading straight towards them.  In desperation, he combed the earth looking for anything that might give them shelter.  At last he saw it, the abandoned holes of the large Ithilien hares.  He yelled at Amdir and pointed them out.  Amdir knew what he was thinking and found two fair-sized tree limbs, stricken from their trunks by the wind.  He gave one to Denethor and they both attacked adjoining holes.  They dug furiously, but it was very slow work.  As the great torrent reached them, Denethor knew they must stop burrowing and jump into their makeshift shelters.  They covered themselves with the tree limbs along with small bushes that they pulled from the ground.  It was little comfort, but at least they were not the highest things on the field.  They would be protected from the lightning, if not the rain.  They struggled to hold onto the bushes and the tree limbs.  The wind howled around them and great gashes of lightning filled the sky. 

A short distance away, one of the great oaks was torn asunder by a mighty blast as lightning struck.  An explosion of white blinded them for an instant.  When they were able to see again, they found the tree was split in two and smoking gently.  The rain was such that a fire could not endure.  Denethor yelled to Amdir to make sure he was still all right.  Amdir laughed his laugh and shouted back that no storm could hurt the son of Ingold.  Denethor wished he had that confidence.  It seemed a storm was constantly buffeting the son of Ecthelion - and the storm's name was Ecthelion.  This day would be another one added to the list of failures and disappointments for his father.  Denethor shook the rain from his face, but, in truth, he was trying to shake this feeling of doom -- and the tears that filled his eyes.

Everything seemed very black and Denethor wished with all his heart that the storm would end, but it seemed to stretch from one end of Ithilien to the other.  The wind howled, the thunder roared and lightning flashed.  And the hours went inexorably by.  After a very long time, the rain seemed to slow and the thunder and lightning moved off to the north. 

Denethor shouted to Amdir, "Perhaps it is time for us to go?"  But there was no response.  His heart stopped and fear filled it.  Why did Amdir not reply?  He had not heard nor seen anything hit the little shelter that lay next to his, but there was no noise, no movement from Amdir's hiding place. 

He called again, "Amdir!"  Nothing.  He pushed the leaves, branches and assorted storm remnants off his own refuge and stretched his neck to look over at his friend's shelter.  Nothing.

"Amdir!" he shouted aloud.  And suddenly, there was hope in his heart again.  The branches were being moved slowly away and Amdir stuck his head out. 

"I am sorry, Denethor. I fell asleep," he said sheepishly.  Denethor's face broke into a grin and then into a brilliant smile as the laughter was forced from his fear-sodden heart. 

"I think some day I will have to do you harm, my friend, as payback for the fright you just gave me!"  Amdir started to laugh too and the terror of the last hours was washed away with the wind that scurried the storm to the north.

They picked themselves out of their shelters, brushed the dirt, rabbit hair and wet leaves off their clothes, and sat on the tree limbs that had helped protect them from the storm.  They broke out the last of their cheese and apples and the last of the water.  The bread had become soaked in the storm and Denethor left it for the woodland creatures.  Amdir still had hopes of reaching Osgiliath before nightfall, but Denethor was unsure.  It was a long way still.  They both sighed great sighs and stood at the same time. 

"Well, my friend," Denethor said, "Let us be off on this great adventure."  Neither of them felt much like great adventurers, but a firm face was needed to give them hope, and Denethor would find hope somewhere along their path. 

~*~

Night was falling; they were just reaching the outskirts of the ruined city.  In the dark, how would they ever find the markings on the fallen stones?  The storm had not come through the city; the dust was still as thick and dry as when they first passed through.  This helped a little as they followed their own footsteps, but soon the darkness was almost complete.  The clouds still covered the sky and not a star could be seen.  Denethor bowed his head in pain and weariness - and fright.  But he would not show Amdir his fear.  They were close to the bridge, he knew it, but if they had to, they could always find some shelter in the city and start for the sewers in the morning.  His face burned with shame as he thought of the forthcoming scene with his father.  It would be terrible.  His father would be justified in his anger and disappointment.  It had been a fool's errand that he had set out on.  And if that were not bad enough, he had dragged his friend into danger.  That was unforgivable.  He had a duty to his men. How many times had he been taught that!

He gave a heavy sigh and then stopped, looked around him and found an arched area nearby.  "Amdir, we have to stop.  I cannot see any further.  We will lose our path.  I am not familiar with the city.  It is very large.  We cannot take the chance that we will miss the sewers' entrance.  We must stop for the night." 

Amdir sensing the discouragement in his friends voice, cheerfully said, "Ah, I love to go on these adventures with you, my friend.  Naught ever goes as it should.  And that makes them such fun!  I am glad we will have some more time together.  Perhaps you will tell me the tale of the great ship captain.  You remember - you started to tell me about the northern trip where they came upon ice that was thicker than my body." 

Denethor laughed.  Amdir was a very good friend.  He was glad he was with him this night. 

Suddenly, he heard sounds in the distance.  Both boys looked at each other.  Though there was almost no light, they were able to see each other's faces and what each boy saw was fear.  There had been nothing stirring in the city on their outward journey.  What could this noise be?  It grew in sound and came closer.  There was nowhere for them to go.  They were trapped in the place they had chosen as a shelter.  There was no way out.  Rebuking himself for not having an escape route planned, Denethor moaned quietly. 

"Did you hear that?" he heard a familiar voice call. 

"I am sure I heard something off to our left.  Bring the torch over here." 

A familiar voice - it was Cranthir's!  Denethor rose and ran towards the torch and his uncle. 

"Forgive me!  We strayed too far and I misjudged the time.  I am so very sorry," he said, tears of relief choking his throat. 

"Denethor!  I am glad to have found you.  We have been searching for hours and just a short time ago found your ponies by the sewers.  Is Amdir with you?" 

"Yes, Captain Cranthir, I am."  Amdir ran to his friend's side.  He shyly hugged Cranthir in joy.  They were saved -- for the moment. 

~*~

Denethor woke to no memory - just a sense of joy and a feeling of comfort - until the pain in his foot reached through his morning grogginess and brought him back to reality.  How strange it was that he could so quickly have forgotten what happened yesterday.  All the shame of his flawed planning flooded his heart, burying the glad parts. He thought of his father, the look of disappointment that would surely cover his face, coupled with the knowledge that he had led his friend into danger, overwhelmed him and he hid his face in the pillow and wept.  A soft knock at the door caused him to use the pillow to wipe his eyes and nose.  He flung the covers off and stepped out of the bed, but the pain in his foot surprised him and he collapsed onto the floor.  Cranthir heard the thud, opened the door, and quickly stepped to his side.  Denethor stumbled on his nightshirt as he tried to get up, hoping that Cranthir would not notice his swollen eyes but be taken by the caring of his foot.  Cranthir picked him up, placed him on the bed and removed the bandage.  He moved the foot slowly; it was stiff and very sore, but healing had begun.  There was no sign of any malady upon it. 

"You were wise to use the thyme leaves on the wound, Denethor.  It is healing and there should be naught wrong with it in due time."

Denethor choked on a grim laugh.  One thing done right in a whole array of wrong decisions, foolish choices and poor planning!

He saw the light of understanding in Cranthir's eyes as his uncle studied him and he hugged the man tightly.  He knew it would be the last time - he had left childhood behind in Ithilien - he was now a man.  He would face his father and accept the punishment that was due him, but, for this last moment, he would be a child still and acknowledge the love he had for his uncle, and snuggle into the arms of someone who loved him.

~*~

Even Amdir was quiet on the ride back to Minas Tirith.  Ingold was embarrassed that his son had been part of this folly, but he could not blame the lad.  His son loved Denethor and anything that Denethor asked of him, he would do so and gladly.  But Ingold would prefer a month's tour of duty in some place of danger, like the Golden Wood where dwelt the Mistress of Magic, to the duty he had to perform next - taking this wayward son to his father.

Denethor begged Amdir to keep the precious plants until he could come for them and Amdir agreed.  Unfortunately, neither one of them knew when that next meeting might be.  The fate of the irises was tenuous at best.  Elleth, Amdir's mother met them at the stables and promised Denethor she would plant them in her own garden if he was unable to come in a timely manner and retrieve them.  Amdir hugged his friend as he started to walk towards the Citadel, but Denethor pushed him gently away.

"It will be all right, Amdir.  I am not going to my death, you know.  It was a great adventure and I will not soon forget it.  I am sorry - I did not even ask how your hands are?"

Amdir burst into tears at the kindness of his friend.  He knew what awaited Denethor at his audience with Ecthelion and yet, Denethor was concerned about him.  "They are healing.  I can even bend the fingers," he said through his sobs.  His mother stepped next to him, wrapping her arm around his shoulder.  "I will wait for you, every day by the stables, at midmorning.  I will wait for you, I promise!"

Denethor turned, straightened his shoulders and followed Ingold to the Seventh Level.  He was left in a small room off the Great Hall - it seemed hours passed.  His foot was throbbing and his head hurt.  He had had no food nor water since dawn and the sun was now full in the sky.  He was tempted to lie on the bench, just to rest for a moment.  He chided himself - that was unthinkable.  He must be strong.

Finally Ingold came into the room and beckoned him to follow.  As he walked down the Great Hall towards the Steward's Chair, his arms shook; cold chills ran up and down them.  He tried not to think of what was going to happen next.  He tried to remember the last time he walked down this hall.  It was the Horn Ceremony and Turgon, with a warm smile upon his face, was waiting to greet him.  There would be no such greeting this day.  His father stood next to the Steward's Chair, his jaw clenched and his lips held tightly closed.

"What do you have to say for yourself?" he asked softly.  The tone made a muscle in Denethor's cheek quiver.

"Naught, Father.  I misjudged.  I have brought shame to you.  I am sorry."

"Go to your room," Ecthelion said in the same awful, hushed tone.  "We will discuss punishment tomorrow morning.  You will not leave your room until summoned.  Is that perfectly clear?"

"Yes, Father."  He turned to leave, but sorrow stopped him.  He turned back towards his father.  "Father, I am truly sorry."

His father's back was turned against him.  He felt the slap of it through his whole body.  He had disgraced himself, his father and his line.  The way to his room was long - so very long.  Added to the length of it was the humiliation of an escort.  The door closed quietly behind the soldier and Denethor was left to ponder the magnitude of his failure.

A servant brought his evening meal.  Before bedtime, a healer came, changed his bandage, gave him a cup of valerian root tea and left him.  The escort, servant, and healer were the only people he saw after his morning meeting with his father and none were allowed to speak to him.  He knew he was to spend this time in thought as to the folly of his deed and to discover ways that he could better himself.  He fought the tears, but as night fell, they came - like the black deluge that had overtaken them in Ithilien.  In exhaustion, he cried so hard his face hurt. Sleep finally - blessedly - came.

~*~

The escort came for him shortly after the sounding of the first bell.  The pace set was fast, as if the soldier worried about a reprimand for himself.  Again, Denethor found himself in the little room near the Great Hall.  He now understood that his father was dealing with him in the Great Hall to further drive home the magnitude of his folly.  This was no small matter to be dealt with in his father's study.

Presently, he heard a voice in the corridor.  He crept towards the door and found that it had only partially closed.  It was his father's voice and Denethor wondered whom he was talking to.  His voice sounded sad and quiet and bitter.

"I am beside myself, Rían," he heard his father speak.  "Turgon has become stubborn and foolish in his old age!"  Denethor realized that his father was speaking to Rían, as if she were alive.  He must have not realized that Denethor was only a few paces away with an open door between them.  Denethor felt sorry for Ecthelion, that he had no one to share with.  He wished he remembered his mother, for many a time a person would stop and declare how much he looked like her and how much she was loved and missed.

"There is evil coming upon us," his father continued.  "This feeling of dread grows stronger every day.  And yet father and the elders would have us believe that all is well - that peace is still with us and there is naught to fear!  But my senses reel with the enormity of an evil I cannot see.  He thwarts my every attempt to protect Gondor, Rían.  I have tried to have him strengthen the Rammas Echor, bolster the army, and raise serious defenses in Osgiliath, but to no avail.  I feel his scorn.  He thinks me a coward and weak because I fear what he cannot see. I want to make Gondor strong."

"And now your son brings further disgrace to me.  He has been a constant thorn in my side since his birth - that same birth that took you from me.  I am forever disappointed in him.  I will wash my hands of him.  Put him under Ingold's tutelage.  There is naught further to be gained by time with him!"  He threw back his cloak and walked down the hall towards his study.

Denethor leaned back against the wall of the little room, his fingers gripping the wall.  He did not even feel the cold marble against his back.  His eyes widened; his mouth fell open.  He shook as his face turned scarlet.  He had been abandoned.  Disowned.  He was alone!  He was alone.

Ch. 4 - Third Age 2942

"Focus!  Focus, Denethor." The swordmaster lifted his sword again, ready to parry.

Denethor hissed quietly and then pulled himself together, trying to focus on the task at hand. Yet to no avail, for his mind was ever brought back to the fact that today was his twelfth birth day.  It had been three years since last he saw his father in private.  There had been numerous times, during those years, to see him publicly - parades, festivals, punishments - all lorded over by the Steward's son, Ecthelion.  Hope ever burned in Denethor's heart that his father would note his presence, smile at him, perhaps even introduce him to one of the guests, but his hope was for naught.  Today, once again, he was disappointed.  No acknowledgement of this day from any of his family.  He wondered bitterly whether or not the Captain of the Guard had been told not to allow a celebration.

'I must not think that way.  To say Ecthelion is 'lording it' is beneath me.  I must give him the respect due as the next Ruling Steward.'  But the bile rose in his throat as he thought of his banishment.  Deserved or no, he was in line for Steward of Gondor.  Was not some modicum of respect due him also?  The thoughts whirled in his mind and again, Gwinhir hit him with his sword.

"Focus!  What must I do to command your attention, Denethor?"  The swordmaster heaved a sigh and turned his back on him. "I think that you should return to the barracks, think on what this training means, and return when you can give me your full attention.  This will be reported to Captain Ingold."

At the age of twelve a boy was conscripted into the service of Gondor in some capacity or another. At his age, other lads were just starting their training; his had been in progress since he was seven.  He knew he had learned much over this time, but his heart grieved at the loss of his family.  Today, his twelfth year, tradition dictated that Turgon was to confer the Ring of Gondor upon his hand.  He had memorized the ceremony - the Sindarin words of the oath - even though none had stated it would happen.  The swordmaster's rebuke was the last straw.  

"What would you have me do?  Write a thousand times, 'I must focus?  Will that satisfy you?"  The anger was palpable in Denethor's face and his voice.  He fairly shook with rage.  

Gwinhir quickly drew in his breath.  Never had he heard Denethor speak in such a manner.  He walked slowly towards the lad, placed his hand gently on his shoulder, and asked him what was wrong.  

Denethor almost sobbed at the sudden expression of concern.  It had been many a year since he had felt any.  Where were Indis and Morwen?  Where was his mother's family, his Uncle Cranthir?  Or his adadhron, Turgon?  None had deigned to spend time with him, see if he was alive or dead - no attempt was made to contact him, to his knowledge.  Mayhap they had gone to the Captain of the Guard to inquire about his health?  He doubted it.  He had not so much as received a note from any of them. He could not believe that Indis, of all his family, would not write to him. Cranthir was most likely deeply involved with the defenses of Osgiliath.  Denethor had not seen him since their breaking of the fast in Cranthir's chambers three years ago.  Last of all, where was Ecthelion?   Did his father hate him so much that he cared not what happened to him?

Gwinhir saw the despair in the lad's eyes and relented.  He knew where Denethor would find the peace he seemed to need.  Sometimes kindness was more effective than punishment.  "I believe it is time for some study of the ancient ways.  Go to the Great Library and look up the Battle of Dagorlad.  I want a report by the day after tomorrow - something on the role of King Elendil, what his Steward was doing back in Osgiliath, the army of Gondor, the Elves.  Go now."

Denethor ran as if trolls were chasing him.  There was no joy in being let out of his training.  He had failed to do his duty; he was sent to learn swordsmanship.  Shame, along with disappointment, pushed him towards his beloved library.  He wiped his eyes with his sleeve before entering the foyer.  It was dark and cold in here - just what he needed to heal his heart and cool his thoughts.  He walked slowly down the circular stairs towards the archived areas.  He stopped short.  Someone else was here.  He coughed gently to let whomever it was know of his approach.  As he turned the last curve, he found himself face to face with Curunír.  The wizard smiled and a chill ran down his back.  

"My Lord Denethor, well met are we.  I have meant for some time to seek you out.  You have been absent from many of my dinners with Lord Echthelion.  I have asked after you, and have been told you have been in strict training.  It seems to have lasted awhile, this strict training, if I am correct?"  

Denethor felt another chill run down his spine, but the smile on the wizard's face seemed genuine and he was in dire need of a friend at the moment.  He smiled back at the veiled inquiry.  "Yes.  I seem not to be as adept as Lord Ecthelion would wish.  I am putting all my energy into my training.  At the moment, though, I have been asked to do a report on the Battle of Dagorlad.  I have heard of it, but my knowledge is slight.  Most of my time here in the library has been spent on the tales of the Númenórean sea captains."

"Ah, then it is fate that has drawn me here at the same time as you.  I myself am fairly knowledgeable about that conflict.  Perhaps we can spend some time together and I may share my viewpoint?"

"I would be most appreciative, my Lord."  

"Well, then.  Let us start.  Here is a manuscript that details some of the battle.  If we read it together, we might be able to ascertain what truly happened at that time."  For a brief moment, Denethor wondered why Curunír had the document opened.  But he let it pass in his deep gratitude for the company.

The chill stayed with him during the next hours as they poured over the manuscripts.  Denethor tried to tell himself it was from the cool air in the library, but some premonition told him that it was the wizard's presence that caused him to feel thus.  He pushed such thoughts aside.  The wizard was giving him his undivided attention; he was treating him as an equal, sharing his knowledge.  Denethor hungered for such camaraderie.  The wizard exuded confidence, yet his voice, though cold and monotonous, drew Denethor closer to him, and Denethor was startled to find the wizard's hand upon his shoulder. The shiver that ran through him drew a sharp laugh from Curunír. The wizard's white hair hung down beyond his shoulder and the smell of herbs that reeked from his body stung Denethor's nose. There was a presence given off by the wizard that mystified Denethor. But he could not push the hand from his shoulder; it would be unseemly. Despite the feeling of unease, the wizard was fulfilling a need of Denethor's, and he would not yet leave this place.

They spent long hours strategizing how to change what had happened, to negate the dreadful loss of life.  Curunír spoke as if he had himself been at the battle.  The wizard even asked Denethor's opinion on many aspects of the battle and Denethor, like someone who has been in the desert for many weeks without water and sights an oasis, threw all caution to the wind and eagerly bound himself to the wizard.  Yet, his body physically recoiled at the nearness.  He fought this feeling. He rejoiced at the attention and would let naught sway him.  He would be able to control this, to control himself.  

At last, Denethor finally pulled himself away.  "I am sorry.  I must report.  I know not the time, but I feel I have long passed my curfew.  Please, perhaps we can do this again tomorrow?" he asked longingly.

"Nay, I am afraid I must be off," Curunír replied.  Why did Denethor feel this was a lie, something to keep him further bound to this wizard?  "Next time I am in Minas Tirith, I will let you know.  Perhaps at that time, barring my duties to Ecthelion, we may meet and discuss these things further."

Denethor left the library only to discover that night had fallen.  It was long past evening report when he walked into the barracks.  Lights were already out.   He had had no supper; he had dared not go to the buttery for food, and so, on this day, his birth day, he would go to bed hungry and hope there would be no reprisal for his not reporting - though he knew that was a forlorn hope.

~*~

The morning trumpet sounded long before Denethor was ready.  Sleep had come late to him; his thoughts had been on the wizard and the strange feelings he had towards him.  When the wizard spoke, Denethor listened raptly, but when he was silent, the sense of dread became palpable.  He remembered Amdir's words from many years before, 'It is not good to spend time with someone you cannot understand.'  In the morning light, this advice seemed most wise.  Denethor would remember it the next time he and the wizard met.

Ingold strode towards his bed as Denethor was in the act of making it.  "I am told you did not report last night.  Is there some reason for this?"

"My Captain," Denethor saluted him with bowed head and hand upon his chest. "I was working on a report for Swordmaster Gwinhir and lost track of time.  I am sorry.  By the time I left the library, lights were out.  I was coming to report as soon as I was dressed."

"And that is another thing.  You are late to your post.  Do you think the morning meal is to be kept waiting for you just because you are the son of Ecthelion?" 

"Nay... Nay that was not my intent."  The sting in Ingold's tone hurt him deeply.  He did not know what else to say.

Ingold shook his head.  "You will be put on report.  You will do stable duty immediately after you break your fast.  You will miss one of your classes and therefore, you will have to make it up later during your free time.  This will place a hardship upon Captain Gwinhir, who must lose his free time also, due to your lack of respect for your duty.  Now go to the hall."  How could a man's back sting him so? As Ingold walked away, it reminded Denethor of Ecthelion's turned back and he cried in shame, frustration, and hurt as he quickly finished his bed and ran towards the company's dining hall.

As he passed the stables, a once familiar voice rang in his ears.  "Denethor!  Denethor, it is I, Amdir!" 

Denethor whirled around at the sound of that voice.  There he was before him, his friend of a thousand adventures!  "Amdir!"  He rushed to his friend's side and hugged him fervently.  "What does this mean?  Why are you here?" 

"Why am I here!  You silly goose.  I told you I would wait for you each morning in the stables.  And you have not come - until today.  But your lack of punctuality is known to me and I offer you forgiveness."  Amdir started to laugh and once again hugged his friend.  "My father has finally allowed me to begin my training.  I turned twelve three months ago.  I am now an esquire and stationed with the Horse Guard; a commission has made it easier to keep my promise!"

"Twelve.  Yes, you were always so much older than I," Denethor gently teased him.  "It is so good to see you again."

"I waited, Denethor, every day, just as I promised you.  But you never came."  The hurt was strong in Amdir's face and voice.

Never had anyone had a truer friend, Denethor thought in amaze. "I would have, if I could.  At first, after our adventure to Osgiliath, I was kept in my rooms.  Shortly after that, I was placed in Ingold's care.  He had other plans for me - plans that did not include my visiting with friends, I am afraid."  Denethor tried to keep his voice light, to keep the pain and hurt from his friend, but Amdir would have none of it.

"My mother and father have been fighting since that day, Denethor.  Mother says it is shameful how your father is treating you and -"

"Naught my father does is shameful, Amdir.  You must remember that.  He will be Gondor's Steward one day.  Then, it will be my turn.  He does what he must to prepare me, to help me be ready to rule Gondor until the return of the king."

Amdir stared in shock at Denethor.  He had changed since their last adventure.  "My mother asks me to remind you that the irises are still in her garden.  She has watched them with care.  They have grown and flourished."

Denethor started at the word 'iris.'  Tears sprang to his eyes.  He remembered the joy he had as they set out for Ithilien to dig up the plants for Indis' birth day.  He remembered the beauty of the field of irises when they first came upon it.  He remembered the last time he had seen his father - in the corridor outside the Great Hall.  The last time he had seen him as father and son. 

He shook his head violently.  "Please give her my thanks, Amdir.  It is almost a shame that your father is my warden.  I could sneak away and see the flowers, but the chance of running into him is too great!"  He suddenly smiled, "But come, my friend, I am already late - I have not broken my fast yet, and after I do, I must clean the stables.  I only stopped to see what state they were in, and for that I am glad; I might have missed seeing you.  But, tell me about you, dear friend, and what you have been doing these many long years."

~*~

"Yesterday was Denethor's birth day, Mother." 

Elleth looked at Amdir in surprise.  "Yes it was, my son."  She put down the cloth she was going to use to carry the meal to the table and stared hard and long at Ingold.  Ingold squirmed - this was not to be a quiet family dinner as he had hoped.  The captain had forgotten it was Denethor's birth day.

"I saw him this morning.  He looks unhappy and he does not talk the way he used to.  Mother, my friend has changed and it hurts to see him thus.  He received no presents.  I did not even bring my gift - he was not there last year or the year before.  I really did not think I would see him.  No one came to visit him.  He did not tell me this, but I could tell, Mother.  Why would not his father or his sisters visit him on his birth day?"

"It is not our place to question the affairs of the Steward's family," Ingold said brusquely, hoping to stop the conversation by the tone of his voice.  However, he frowned to himself and remembered what a sour day it must have been for the boy.  Ecthelion had relegated Denethor to Ingold's care almost three years ago with specific instructions not to pamper the lad - to raise him as a soldier of Gondor.  He had obeyed.  He had seen to his studies and his training, but who was seeing to his development as a man?  He had felt burdened by this and had yet to decide what to do. 

The boy was twelve.  All the ceremonies that a Steward's son was to go through had been abandoned.  There were none for Denethor - no sword ceremony, no fellowship ceremony...and this last one - the most important - the giving of the Ring.  The boy was twelve and should have been commissioned on his birth day into the service of Gondor as an ensign as befitted one in the line of Stewards.  Ingold had broached the subject to Ecthelion and had been sternly warned not to bring it up again.  But his duty to Gondor was also to this lad.  He would approach Ecthelion again.  Gossip had slowed after the first few months of Denethor's banishment; he did not want it started up again.  The people of Gondor were not fools.  They knew the old rituals and when they were to be performed.  He must speak with Ecthelion about this.

~*~

"Have I been wrong, my beloved?" Ecthelion asked quietly.  He was sitting in her garden off the bedroom they had shared.  He had not been in it for over a year, yet the garden had been well tended.  The gardenias' leaves were resplendent in their greenery, but it would be many months before they would bloom.  He found it strange that they lived such a short time, as his beloved Rían had lived such a short time. 

Yet again, doubt assailed him.  Unbeknownst to others, he had kept an eye on Denethor.  He would arrange to walk past the training fields when he knew he was there.  His only concern was to prepare Denethor for the hard life that would be his as Steward in the days of terror he knew were coming.  Naught would still this foreboding in his heart. 

He looked towards Osgiliath and the mountains beyond and a sense of desperation filled him.  There had been increased Orc attacks, but nothing more.  Reports of a great and deadly battle in the north had reached his ears - Orcs and Elves and Men and Dwarves - even a dragon.  The tale seemed too incredible to be true.  Yet, more and more as the years passed, his heart grew pinched.  Perhaps he was missing his son?  Nay, what he was doing was right.  The lad had to learn - more than any other child in Gondor.  He had to be ready when the time came.  Yesterday was his birth day.  Was Rían chiding him for not celebrating it with him?  The twelfth year. 

She had been gone twelve years.  His mind reeled.  It seemed like only yesterday.  He could still feel the warmth of her lips on his; the remembrance brought tears to his eyes.  He touched a finger to his mouth, closed his eyes, and drank in the sweetness of the memory.  He tried to imagine her face, her hair, her eyes, but to no avail.  His heart was heavy with thoughts of Denethor.  He missed her mightily, but he also missed his son.  Perhaps it was time.  Ingold had come to him months ago requesting that Denethor be commissioned, but even though Ingold was many years his elder, Ecthelion had deemed him wrong in his assessment of Denethor's readiness. He would speak to Ingold later this morning, discover the extent of his son's growth; then he would make up his mind. 

~*~

This twelfth year also weighed heavily upon Morwen and Indis' hearts.  Their father's path for Denethor collided with their own.  Yet Ecthelion was an imposing man and would not brook dissent nor conversation if it dealt with Denethor; any talk of Denethor was strictly forbidden these past three years.  They remembered the severe tongue-lashing they had received the first night they had let Denethor stay with them after he had been taken out of the nursery. The little boy's nightmare had been terrible. Denethor's eyes were wide with fright. Ecthelion had come and found him with them and dragged the lad back to his own rooms. The look of anger on their father's face had frozen them.  Morwen had had nightmares for a long time afterwards.

Indis finally decided that enough was enough.  She was going to find out what had happened that fateful day.  She was almost seventeen now.  She would stand up to their father.  Morwen was appalled.  She was ever so afraid of him.  What would he do to Indis if she pursued this?  Would she be banished?  Morwen could not bear the thought of her beloved sister taken from her.  She sobbed hysterically, held onto Indis and would not let her go. 

"Morwen, I must.  I cannot stand it any longer.  He is our brother, our little brother.  I must do something to change Father's mind.  I cannot live like this.  I will not be sent away, I promise you that."

But could she keep that promise?  She hurried along the Fourth Level and wished she knew what she was going to say.  This woman had never been a friend of theirs; she was the Horse Captain's wife and almost twice as old as Indis.  What duty of life would ever throw them together?  Yet, thrown together they would be, if Indis had any control over the matter.  Perhaps she could trip outside their door and seek help with a hurt ankle?  'That is ridiculous!'  Perhaps she could say she lost her way?  'Oh dear!  This is not working,' she thought miserably.  As she turned the corner, however, fate stepped in and she ran right into Elleth. 

"I am terribly sorry, my Lady.  I did not see you," cried Elleth in dismay at running into, and almost knocking over, the Steward's own granddaughter.  She picked up the flowers dropped in the encounter, trying desperately to hide her discomfiture.

"Nay, nay.  Entirely my fault.  I was not watching where I was going.  You are Amdir's mother, are you not?"

"Why, yes, I am."  The tone in Indis' voice warmed Elleth's heart and she found the courage to ask, "Will you not stop for a moment?  I have baked some tarts - the berries are fresh and I would love to offer you some tea.  My home is just a few houses down."  In her heart, Elleth had been trying to find a way to meet with this woman, ever since Denethor had been placed under Ingold's care.  Who would have thought they would encounter each other on this day of all days?

Indis smiled.  This was going much easier than she had hoped.  As she sat at the parlour table, she noted the simplicity and beauty of the room.  Little collectibles were everywhere.  Mostly - they seemed to be stones.  Different shapes, sizes, and colors crowded every free space in the room.

Elleth blushed.  "My son, my Amdir, loves to collect stones.  He brings them to me with such pride and joy - I would have them out of here, but he is my only son..." She blushed again.  'I sound like a schoolgirl blathering, not knowing when to hold my tongue!'

"They are lovely.  And I must confess, I have no such mementos of Denethor.  I am ashamed.  Amdir and Denethor's friendship is one of the reasons I came to see you."

Elleth was startled.  This was not chance that brought them together.  She poured the tea and waited.

Indis took a deep breath.  "My father is a noble man.  The welfare of Gondor lies heavily upon his heart.  And with our mother gone, he strongly feels the burden of his son.  I believe he sometimes is heavy-handed.  Yet his heart is pure.  And I would do all in my power to help him.  But at the moment, he has turned from any council I might offer.  I say this to prevent any harsh thoughts about him.  Please, tell me what happened that May.  I must know.  Our family is torn asunder and I would right what has happened."

Elleth furrowed her brow in consternation, not knowing what to say to ease the pain she heard in Indis' voice, nor to explain the harshness of the events that happened afterwards. 'That day seemed so inconsequential,' Elleth thought.  'Nothing untoward appeared to have happened and yet the very depths of Gondor were shaken by it.' 

"Denethor wanted to find a truly wonderful present for your birth day," Elleth began. 

Indis started, "What...! My... birth day?"

"The boys went to Ithilien together and found a great patch of irises.  They dug up six plants, wrapped them, and brought them back.  Due to a thunderstorm and some small injuries, they were very late returning.  The captain of Osgiliath sent out search parties looking for them.  The garrison there was up in arms.  An errand-rider was sent to your father.  The boys were found and returned to Minas Tirith the following day.  That is when your father handed Denethor over to Ingold's care.  Please, come with me."

Elleth led Indis through a side door into a small garden area.  Overshadowing herbs and fledgling vegetables was a sea of tall iris leaves.  They had not yet flowered; it was much too early in the season, but Indis could tell that they were large, healthy, and wondrous plants.  Tears spilled from her eyes.  She could not speak.  She remembered telling Denethor about the forests of irises in Ithilien.  She wanted to sob aloud.  She had caused this.  Nay -- it was not her fault, but her heart broke inside her nonetheless.  'Such pain and suffering over flowers.  How could this be?'

Elleth gently led her back into the parlour.  "My Lady, please take a sip of your tea."  Elleth was beside herself; perhaps she had been wrong in telling of the event.  She sat and waited while Indis caught her breath.

"I... I do not know what to say.  Would it be possible for me to take one of the flowers when they bloom?"

Elleth laughed.  "My Lady, I was just the keeper.  The plants are all yours.  To do with as you will.  They were your birth day gift from Denethor.  I could not keep them, even if you asked me too."

"Ah, but they are quite established now.  We will divide them and then you will be able to keep some and I will still have my gift.  I cannot tell you how grateful I am to you..."  She paused for a moment.  "For everything." 

She continued, "I had already decided that it was time I would go to my Father about Denethor and this confirms it.  I had no idea what happened that day.  The punishment was set, father's mind was set, and that path for our family was set.  But I believe it is high time for a change.  And I mean to do something about it.  I must go now and devise some way to bring this to father, find the words that will help me sway him.  I cannot thank you enough for your kindness to my brother and to me.  Please, please come to the Citadel soon and we will talk again.  I will send my maid to bring the plants to my garden.  I cannot wait to show Denethor.  You have made me so very happy, dear lady.  Thank you!"  And she quickly hugged Elleth and ran out the door.

Elleth sat back in amazement.  She rued some of the words she had said to her husband concerning the family of Turgon.

~*~

They say the best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry.  Naught could have stopped Indis from her resolve, naught except, perhaps, death.

The Citadel reeled from the news.  Gondor's people flocked to the Great Hall, words of horror on their lips, waiting for the Steward to speak, to assuage their fears.  More people gathered in the square by the statue of Isildur opposite the Great Gate.  Soldiers were seen sequestered in doorways and alleyways.  It was as if the City itself staggered. 

Captain Cranthir was dead - along with all those who had joined him in the day's patrol.  It was to have been a short jaunt into Ithilien - one of the daily patrols into that fair, but near-deserted land.  Usually, the Captain of Osgiliath let others lead the patrol, but today had been a glorious day and he chafed against certain restraints imposed upon him by the Steward.  So he led the men forth, but none returned.  An errand-rider was immediately dispatched to Turgon, who sat on the Steward's chair - stunned and voiceless.  The Chamberlain had cleared the Great Hall so that father and son could speak in private.  Ecthelion urged Turgon to speak to the people, but there was naught in his father's eyes but despair.  How could Ecthelion say, 'I told you so?'  There was no joy in this moment of knowledge.  There was no vindication.  He knew disaster was brooding on their very doorstep, but never did he think it would hit so close to home.  His last link with Rían - her brother now dead and gone.  Nay!  Cranthir was not his last link - it was Denethor!  Denethor was his last link.  He would find the boy.  He must find the boy.  As he walked towards the door, Turgon awoke from his stupor and called his name. 

"Ecthelion.  Help me!"  Ecthelion bowed his head.  What could he say to the Steward?  All these many years he had attempted to plead his cause for more men in the army of Gondor, greater defenses along Osgiliath, the retaking of Eastern Osgiliath, the Rammas Echor fortified.  And all these many years, his father had turned a deaf ear.  This could have been avoided, Ecthelion felt; this should have been avoided.  How ironic that it should be the death of one of the noblest families of Gondor that would finally cause his father to open his eyes.

"Father, you must speak to our people.  You must use this time to rally them to the defense of Minas Tirith and of all Gondor.  You must prepare for battle.  This is not a one-time occurrence.  You yourself heard the reports of the battle east of Mirkwood.  There will be more Orc attacks.  You know it.  I beg you - tell the people that they must send their sons for training, that the City must be prepared for war, that the men and women must focus on making Gondor strong again!"

"Nay.  Nay, my son.  They are lost and afraid and I must give them comfort."

"Yes, Father.  They must have comfort, but they must see that there is a plan to protect them."

"Yes, a plan.  There must be a plan."  Turgon's eyes clouded over and Ecthelion started at the look of age on his face.  He was only eighty-eight.  He had many years left to govern Gondor.  Yet, the bright eyes and youthful stance of the Númenórean race were gone.  When had they gone and left this old man in his place? 

Suddenly, the light was there again, faint, but present.  "I shall call my captains.  We will plan.  We must!"

All night the captains deliberated and Ecthelion fumed.  There was no substance to the planning, no thoughts but those of defeat or denial or worse, apathy.

And once again, fate stepped in and kept father from son.

~*~

The next morning broke clear and bright.  Peregrines encircled the White Tower chattering and calling to each other.  All night, Amdir had searched every level of Minas Tirith starting with the stables and ending with the barracks, but to no avail.  Denethor was nowhere to be found.  He sat dejectedly on a stoop, holding his head in his hands.  He knew he must find him.  Cranthir was Denethor's most beloved friend as well as uncle.  'Where could he be?'

Another loud cry from a diving peregrine made Amdir look up.  A smile touched his face.  He knew where Denethor was.  He ran to the back of the escarpment and started climbing the stairs.   Why had not he thought of this before?  He had wasted so much time.  Finally, he arrived at the door and listened quietly, catching his breath.  No sound.  He could not be wrong!  Slowly he pushed the door open, saw the beacon before him, the two beacon-tenders, but no sign of his quarry.  He turned to leave and as he did, he saw Denethor hunched in a corner next to a bench.  His eyes filled with tears. 

"My friend," was all he could say.

Denethor did not even look up.  His head was cradled in his arms.  His shoulders shook slightly. 

Amdir walked towards him and sat on the bench, as close to his friend as he could.  He knew he had not the words to comfort him, but he had to stand next to him, to let him know that he was there for him.

A silver trumpet sang out in the morning, dispelling all darkness and making Denethor's heart jump.  'How can I sit here in mourning?  I have duties to perform.'  As he rose, he looked at Amdir in surprise.  "When did you get here?  Last night?"

Amdir started.  "I just arrived a few moments ago.  I came to see if you needed anything."

"Nay, but thank you, my friend.  We must attend to our duties.  There are many things that must be done, preparations for mourners from far lands, cleaning of the stables for their mounts and hunting for sustenance for our guests.  Then errand-riders must be sent with the news.  The burial must be in Ithilien; he would have wanted that.  Will you come with me to your father?  Mayhap he will let us hunt together."

"You know I will follow you anywhere, Denethor.  Do you want to talk about Captain Cranthir?  I remember the last time I saw him.  You remember, do you not?  We were in Osgiliath at his home and he broke the fast with us in the morning after our adventure.  He was telling us about the time he had gotten lost.  Do you remember?"

A sob escaped Denethor's lips.  "I remember it well.  That was also the last time I saw him.  His kindness - we must go."

"Lead on, my Lord, and I will follow," laughed Amdir, but there was no laughter in reply. Amdir sighed. This was going to be a long day.

The tenders breathed a sigh of relief as the boys left.

~*~

Indis was beside herself.  She had called the Captain of the Watch and requested that Denethor be sent to her.  His emissary had returned an hour later saying that Denethor was not available.  She was furious.  Had Ingold forbidden it?  She would go to the Great Hall and demand from her father that Denethor be allowed to be with her at this time.  She threw her cloak around her shoulders and stamped out of her room, running directly into Morwen. 

"Where are you going now?" 'Wen cried.  She saw the look in her sister's eyes, the look that had been growing there these past years and knew that she was losing her childhood friend.  She also knew Indis was growing up.  Furthermore, she knew where she was headed.

"I am away to see father.  No one will let me see Denethor and I will not have this - on this day of all days!"  She shook, she was so furious.  "Cranthir was beloved of Denethor and I will not have him mourn alone.  There is no reason for it."

Morwen took a deep breath.  "Then I am going with you.  I will not let you fight this alone.  Though I am most afraid, Indis.  Are you sure we should go?  Do not you think father will be furious?  Can we send one of the servants?"

"I value our father's love, but I value my own respect more.  I will not stand by and let Denethor suffer alone.  Not another day will I let go by without doing something.  My mind is made up."

~*~

"Woman, get back to your rooms.  You have duties to perform.  There are notices to be designed and lists of guests to invite.  It is your duty to do these things, not mine.  Gondor's defenses are my ilk.  Go!  Now!"

Morwen ran back through the Great Hall, tears streaming down her eyes.  Indis stood in front of Ecthelion.  She shook inside but would not let him see it.  She would not run!  This was too important.  She must not fail - herself or her brother. 

"You would pay heed to your guests over your own son!  Lists will be prepared, but your first duty is to your son, my Lord.  I will command Ingold to bring him to you here within the hour.  I will go now to do that duty and the one that you have given me.  Father!" she begged him, "Life is very short and our span lessons with every generation.  You must speak with him.  There may not be another time.  Does not my uncle's death tell you this!  Please."

She bowed low and turned to leave. 

"I will speak with him.  But have Ingold send him to my chambers.  Now go and do your duty, my daughter.  Know that I am pleased."

She almost skipped down the length of the Hall.  She had stood up to him, with respect, but she had stood up to him.  Now, perhaps, Ecthelion and Denethor would be reconciled and the family would be one again.  Cranthir would be most pleased.  His death had meaning.

~*~

The remains, that was all they could be called, were placed in a closed coffin and displayed in the Great Hall.  When the soldiers had found the bodies of the lost company, they stood stunned.  Limbs lay far from bodies, tossed from the battlefield as if in mockery.  Heads had been severed and unspeakable tortures were visible on the torsos.  Some soldiers went off and did what they had to do to help overcome the horror they felt.  Sounds filled the air, sounds of sickness and despair.  Sobs racked many a man that day.  Sacks were brought; they massed all the parts together, to be separated and identified in Minas Tirith.  None envied the task of the healers in correcting the chaos that lay before them. 

Due to the fact that Cranthir was of the Steward's family, though by marriage only, it was fitting that he lay in state in the Great Hall instead of in the Soldier's Hall.  This distressed many of his friends; the Captain of Osgiliath had hated pomp and any show of stature.  He thought himself a simple soldier; his friends knew him as one of honor and courage and loyalty.  They would have preferred to spend their last moments with their captain in privacy. 

~*~

Only a few torches were lit in the Great Hall.  Shadows abounded, but Ecthelion was glad.  He wanted to see nothing clearly this night.  He laid his hand gently on the coffin.  "Ah, my old friend.  How I will miss you.  You understood, more than many in higher places, the need for vigilance.  You were my one ally in this battle against those who would have us sit and wait for death to tear us apart."  Tears formed in his eyes; he let them fall.  No shame for Ecthelion.  A heavy sigh left his lips.  "I am so very sorry that I had not seen you these past months.  I am so very sorry that I did not bring Denethor to visit again.  I know your heart and his were attached - beyond even any attachment that he and I had."  At this thought, he shook his head.  "I will miss your wisdom, though I did not oft listen to it.  Forgive me, my old friend."  He bowed his head, the grief too much to bear.  He felt alone this night, alone against the forces of darkness and evil.  Tomorrow this Hall would be open to the people of Gondor, but tonight, he would mourn in solitude next to his old friend.

He heard a noise, faint, coming from a corner near the entranceway.  "Who is it?  I have not given my permission for any to enter yet.  Leave me now!"

"Father?" 

What voice was that?  It rang familiar.  He turned towards the sound.  A small figure started towards him, slowly, fearfully.  Suddenly the figure began to run, legs churning down the long Hall.  Ecthelion gasped.  It was his son, his Denethor.  He stooped and hugged the sobbing boy to a chest that suddenly burned with unaccountable pain. 

Neither spoke for some time; they held on to each other.  No words were needed.  Father and son were one again. 

Ecthelion sat and leaned against the coffin, still holding Denethor in his arms.  Their tears mingled, tears of sorrow for the lost one and tears of joy for the found ones.  Indis stood in the shadows and sobbed. 

~*~

Morning brought rain, heavy, menacing.  Torches blazed to dispel some of the darkness of the day; their smell and smoke covered the Hall.  Yet the people came.  First, Cranthir's own company, what was left of it - those who had been too sick to patrol that day, or had been on leave - they proceeded to form an honor guard around the coffin.  Next came Turgon, Ecthelion, Denethor, Indis, Morwen and the rest of the Steward's family.  After that came soldiers, in their finest uniforms, cleaned and buffed till every button, buckle and clasp shown bright.  Then Rangers in their dark garb, browns and greens, adding a somber note to the scene.  Guests from far off lands came also, from Lossarnach and Lebennin, Rohan and Dol Amroth, great captains and leaders, kings and princes. Finally, the people of Gondor, proud and noble and wounded; all filed past.  After the day's viewing, the coffin was paraded to the Great Gate on a black draped wain; Captain Cranthir's horse led behind.  The entourage gathered before the gate and Turgon spoke in the Common Tongue. 

"My fellow men and women of Gondor.  The past days have been a sore trial for our land.  It has been many long years since such violence has been made against us.  Yes, I say against us for it was not against Cranthir and his company alone that this was done; rather, it was done against all of Gondor."

Ecthelion was stunned by these words.  Were they finally words of reprisal?  Perhaps the Council had come to some agreement the night of his vigil with Cranthir's body.  Perhaps something had happened that he did not know of.  He waited in hope.

"And now, all Gondor must learn to heal.  This was a random act.  There was no sense to it.  I do not believe it will occur again.  We will keep our garrison at Osgiliath for the time being, but know that the captains and I do not feel that there is cause for alarm.  A wayward Orc or two do not mean the end of the peace.  We are not in danger.  Know that, my people, and be at peace.  We go now to bury our brethren."  He started forward and the procession followed.

"Nay!" Ecthelion screamed in his heart.  How could he keep from screaming aloud?  His jaw hurt from holding it tight shut, from not saying the words that should have been said.  His shoulders shook from the fury that engulfed his being.  Then they stooped and he stifled a sigh.  He had no authority to say another word.  He must wait upon his father and obey him.  But his heart was frozen within him.  What further harm had to occur before his father would see?  The death of Cranthir was for naught.  His chin trembled at the attempt to keep from crying.  His heart despaired.

~*~

Muffled drums beat quietly, their cadence giving matter to the procession's progress.  Passing through the Pelennor, the entourage headed towards the garrison at Osgiliath.  They would pass the night there and begin Cranthir's last journey.  The next morning dawned clear and bright.  Water from a sudden storm during the night still covered the streets of the old city adding a further sense of loss.  The broken city was mirrored in puddles and Ecthelion sensed these were the teardrops of the city, crying out for revenge.  Once across the Anduin, the party headed southward, towards the old homestead of Cranthir's family, now long abandoned.  A company of Rangers had been sent ahead to scout the area.  Even though it was a mighty procession, Orcs and Haradrim were not above trying to disrupt even a solemn time such as this.  There was no way the Haradrim could not have heard of the disaster, mayhap even been part of it.  Gondor's only hope was that they would think Cranthir would be buried in Minas Tirith.  Or better yet, that Gondor was afraid to come to Ithilien after the massacre. 

There was not a word said, nor a song sung; despair weighed heavily on all present.  The drums continued their low anguish.  They passed ruin after ruin of towns and farms, lost and forsaken.  Even in the depths of their grief, the entourage was stunned by the desolation of the land.  The enemy had ravaged field, forest, and glade.  No crops were visible -- even fields that had gone wild were bare.  Something had been used to scorch the earth and leave the ground untenable for life.  Orchards, long forsaken, had there trees chopped into small pieces and left on the ground to decay.  There could be naught more to say; the silent screams of the denigration done to this land and to the people of Gondor went unanswered. 

Soldiers had gone, the day before, to the burial site and repaired the damage to the family vault.  Cranthir was laid inside and the heavy door swung shut and bolted.  Ecthelion put his arm on Denethor's shoulders and the two walked away, their heads bent in sorrow.   Denethor would not soon forget this day.  This day they had laid to rest his dearest confidant, one who held him in esteem, given him a sense of worth, challenged him to grow, and taught him how to laugh and to cry.  Sobs strangled him as he fought to hold them in.  As his shoulders shook, his father tightened his hold.  Denethor's heart lifted.  The touch of his father was long sought after and long denied.  To feel the warmth of his body next to his was beyond comprehension.  There was no condemnation in that touch -- a shared moment of grief.  

Then, Ecthelion started to speak to him of what had happened and what should be Gondor's response.  He spoke to him as one man to another.  They discussed the many battles that had assailed this land in times past and what course of action had been taken in response.  Ecthelion opened his heart to his son and laid upon him the burden of regret that he felt for Gondor.  He cautioned Denethor to show respect for Turgon, but decried Turgon's path for Gondor. 

"When we return to the Citadel, my son, we must devote ourselves to understanding warfare, for war is upon us, on our very doorstep.  You have spent many long years in learning swordsmanship and archery, self-defense and survival training.  I would now that you put your entire self into the matter of warfare.  I will instruct Ingold to portion a time of your day to research in the Great Library.  You cannot learn enough.  The past will show us how to prepare for the future.  We will meet once a week and you will bring me your findings.  We will discuss our preparations for defense, but we must also prepare for offense.  This we will do quietly, you and I.  For Turgon will be laid with our fathers one day soon and I will be Steward.  Then, I can protect Gondor; we can protect Gondor until the king comes."

Amdir and Ingold walking a short distance behind them looked at the heads bent close together, and smiled sadly.  Ingold was glad that his Captain-General was educating his son; Amdir was glad Denethor had his father back.  As Ingold placed his own hand on his son's shoulder, Amdir sighed.  Perhaps Cranthir's death had purpose.   

Ch. 5 - Third Age 2943

Thengel was going to be wed.  He had met the Lady Morwen of Lossarnach during a tour of duty in the southern fiefdom, and had fallen deeply in love with her.  All Minas Tirith was in an uproar, a very pleasant one after last year's events.  No one, it seemed, but Denethor and his father remembered the horror of the last year, yet Denethor remembered it too well and would not let the memory of Cranthir die, nor the reason why he died.  But he, also, was caught up in the planning.  Now that he lived back in his old rooms in the Steward's Hall, he could not but be involved.  Indis and 'Wen were forever running back and forth, clucking, chattering, and driving almost everyone 'round the bend, so to speak.

There were so many dignitaries coming for the wedding, first and foremost Fengel, King of the Mark.  The Prince of Dol Amroth, Angelimir, was coming also.  Denethor was most interested in speaking with him.  Though they had met many times, it was when Denethor was a child; he was almost of age now, and he hoped he could approach the prince.  He so wanted to speak with him about great fleets and battles at sea.  Never had he lost his longing to one day be a part of seafaring history.  He had had to put that part of his reading aside after his father charged him with learning more about the battles in Ithilien and Northern Gondor, but his heart still lay with the sea.  He vowed one day he would make an extended visit to the inlet of Cobas Haven in the Bay of Belfalas and the fair city of Dol Amroth. 

Indis gave him a light, playful tap on the back of his head.  "Focus, would you, Denethor!  There are too many details for me to handle alone.  I must needs your input on where the three Marshals of Rohan should be seated.  This is beyond me.  Why would Father put me in charge of the seating?  I have never done it before!"  Much as she groused, Denethor could tell she was pleased and proud of these new duties.

He sat at the long table in Indis' room and stayed as quiet as possible, hoping she would not notice, as she poured over her notes, that he was trying to read a book he had found in the Great Library. He had it hidden under the cloth covering the table, peeping at it every few moments.

But Indis was to be left to her own devices, and he would not yet finish the book.  A messenger came from Ingold requesting Denethor's presence.  He had been at fault for missing the morning's lessons and was in store for definite punishment.  Ah, but he was free and knew that Ingold would be merciful.  Not many would dare stand up to Indis this last year.  She had become a woman on fire; her whole demeanor had changed.  She had finally come of age and had taken her mother's role, and taken it well. 

As punishment, Ingold sent Denethor off to the Great Library.  Denethor's cheeks burned with the fire of enthusiasm.  To spend the rest of the morning in the library - life could be no better.  His assignment was the Battle of the Camp.  He relished this tale for it told of Eärnil and the way he saved Gondor.  Eärnil was also father to Eärnur, the great captain who brought his fleet north and helped defeat the Witch-king.  This was a good assignment; one that would fill his next few days and keep him far from Indis as she prepared for the wedding.  As he stepped into the cool darkness of the lower room, Curunír stepped out of the shadows.  A chill ran down Denethor's spine.  What was he doing here? 

"Forgive me, Lord Denethor.  I see I have startled you.  I hope you are well.  It is good to see that you have become so adept at your training that you are back living in the Steward's Hall?"

There was a note of disdain in his voice.  Denethor was beginning to see people - to see through their guile.  He assumed it was a gift that most had, but, in truth, it was a gift to those of purer Númenórean blood. Indis had oft said that the blood of Númenor flowed strong and fair through him.

"Well met, Lord Curunír.  Is there aught I can do for you?"

"My Lord," Curunír shrugged and tried to hide a scowl.  "I am ever your servant.  Is there aught I can do for you?  I seem to recall the last time we met here; you were studying the Battle of Dagorlad.  Has that assignment been completed?"

"I am here to study the Battle of the Camp.  The books on the Wainriders are stored in this level.  There is much that I do not know about this battle, but since I know where the books are stored, I should do fine."

"Well, perhaps I should leave you to your own devices.  I am looking for uses for some herbs I have just discovered near the Eastfold."  With that, he brusquely turned his back upon Denethor.

Denethor was glad.  He was looking forward to his time in this hallowed place.  He fervently hoped that the wizard would leave, and quickly.  It seemed a strange change from his last encounter, but then he had been abandoned and felt quite alone; now he had his father again.  The wizard, however, would not leave.  A darkness seemed to fall upon the room and the voice of the wizard bore itself into his very being.  What was Curunír saying?  His words were soft and low, too low for Denethor to hear the content, but the timbre shook him to the core.  There was a malevolence in the sound.  Denethor could feel himself being drawn towards the wizard and he fought for control of himself.  A glint of light shone off a ring on Curunír's hand.  The wizard stepped closer and their eyes locked. 

"You are a brave lad, Lord Denethor," the wizard droned.  Denethor could not pull himself away, nor his eyes from that stare.  "You have only my deepest respect and admiration.  You are most wise; I can see it already in your demeanor.  I am looking forward to working with you, for the defense of Gondor." 

Denethor found himself breathing hard.  The words were soothing, but his whole being flinched at the touch of those words.  Yet, he could do naught to fight this strange malaise that lay upon him.  More was said; he remembered not what in the days that followed.  At last the wizard gave a sigh and moved away from him.  Denethor gasped and ran to the stairs.  He told himself he would not look back, but was drawn to; it seemed he had no will of his own.  The wizard smiled at him and waved him off, as if dismissing him.

Denethor ran for his life.

As he reached the parapet, Amdir ran into him and they both almost fell to the ground.  Amdir laughed uproariously.  "You must watch where you are running, my friend.  You might run right into your sister who has been looking for you these last few hours!" 

"What time is it?" Denethor asked for the sun was low in the sky and he had gone to the library in the late morning.  He was frightened, gasping for breath.  Where had the time gone?  What had happened in the library?  He had not opened a book and yet the day was lost to him.

"It is near to the daymeal.  I came to invite you to our home.  Mother has asked if you might join us.  I thought you would enjoy being away from your sisters for at least a little time."

"I am sorry, Amdir.  I must be away.  I... I have chores to do."  He turned to walk away but Amdir put his hand on his shoulder. 

"You are shaking!  What has happened?"

"Naught has happened.  I am a little shaken by our near collision that is all."

"Friend," Amdir said with pain evident in his voice, "you do not trust me?"

Denethor looked into pure eyes, simple eyes and a portion of the chill that was on his body left him.  "You are right, my friend.  I must trust someone.  I have just left the Great Library.  The wizard was there."  He went on to explain what had happened, the time lapse, and his loss of memory of what was said or done during that time.  "I... I am frightened a little, my friend.  I would know what power he has wielded over me and I would find a way to stop it.  But I know not how he took me from myself nor how to overcome it."

"Did I not tell you, many long ages past, to keep a distance from this wizard?" 

"Yes, you did.  And the last time I saw him, I remembered your words and vowed to stay away from him.  But I seem to be thrown at him. Every time I am in the library, he seems to be there."  He shook his head trying to clear it, to make some sense of what had happened to him.

"Come.  We will eat and then we may speak with my father.  Perhaps he..."

"Nay!  I will speak to no one about this and, as my friend, I require you to do the same.  I know not what is happening, but I will determine what is to be done.  In the meantime, you must promise to say naught to anyone about this."

Amdir, distressed, nodded.  "I will do as you wish, Denethor.  But next time you run into this wizard, find me, call for me.  I will be at your side immediately.  This is no foe to take lightly."

A thought, strange yet haunting came over him; words he had heard in the library came back to him and he shivered.  "I am no foe, Denethor.  I am your friend."

~*~

The previous year, Ingold had been promoted to Captain of the Guard.  One of the privileges that came with the promotion was the fact that the family moved to the Sixth Level - not on the north side where the sun shone so warm, but on the south side ever shadowed by Mount Mindolluin.  'Never mind that,' thought Elleth, 'I am close to my husband and my son,' and that thought brought its own sunshine.  She smiled and hummed as she went about preparations for the evening meal. 

As with all of Gondor, she was basking in the excitement of the wedding preparations.  Indis had heard, probably from Denethor, that Elleth was gifted in lacework and had commissioned her to create handkerchiefs for the new bride.  Elleth was delighted; handkerchiefs bearing the White Tree upon it were what she penciled on paper and showed to Indis.  Overwhelmed, Indis hugged her when she saw the pattern.  It was just what she had hoped for.  The women had spent many days together discussing how many to present to Morwen, if they would be in colors or the purest white, when they might be completed, and how much Elleth would require for compensation.  Elleth had wanted to offer them without payment, but then she remembered the sword that Ingold had ordered from the smithies for Amdir's commissioning to lieutenant, due in two years time.  She gratefully accepted the offered coinage and placed it in her special place.  The sword was most expensive, but both father and mother would make any sacrifice to protect their son.  A sword was not a thing to be bandied about lightly, a toy; it was a weapon used to defend a soldier and to defend Gondor.  Only the best would do for that service!

As she was smiling over thoughts of the sword, Amdir and Denethor arrived without their customary racket; Elleth looked up in surprise as the boys edged through the door.  Amdir gave her a small smile and a hug; yet, Denethor stayed back, not his usual custom.  Elleth wondered what trouble the lads had gotten into.  After they had washed, they stripped peas with her and scrubbed carrots.  Neither boy spoke; a feeling of disquiet assailed her.  What could be wrong with the lads in this time of merriment and joy?  Just as she was about to speak, Ingold came in with a rush, the scent of the barracks clinging to him - a scent that Elleth had held dear from the moment she had met him.  It spoke to her of strength and courage and fidelity.   He had been all that to her in these years since first they spoke their promises to each other, and more.

Ingold wrapped his arms about her, kissed her lightly on the brow, and then proceeded to wash himself in preparation for the evening meal.  Amdir, now officially in training and a future soldier of Gondor, smiled politely.  Ingold would have none of that.  He grabbed his son and hugged him till the breath almost left him.  Amdir, as always overwhelmed by the love of his father, shoved his head into his father's shoulder and sighed.  What he would not give to speak to his father of Denethor's experience with the wizard.  His promise to his friend sealed his lips, but could not erase his need for comfort.  He was afraid for his friend and did not know how to help him.  It would be so very easy to just ask Ingold what to do.  Denethor's eyes caught his and they were filled with warning.  Amdir was surprised.  Did Denethor know what he was thinking?

"What fine thing have you learned today, my son?" Ingold asked. 

"Wizards are not to be trusted," he blurted out and reddened.  He could not look at Denethor; he had not meant to say anything like that!  Denethor tensed, resisting a foolish urge to run for the door.

"Ah, wizards.  My son, it is better to stay away from them. A soldier needs no dealings with a wizard.  He is here for the wedding, I am sure.  Ecthelion usually invites him to these events.  Remember, Denethor?" he turned towards Denethor, "He was invited to your Horn Ceremony many years ago."

"Yes, I remember the ceremony well, Captain, but I do not remember many of those in attendance," he hedged.  "It was a rather great crowd and I was only seven at the time."

"Seven.  You have grown and I will not have you call me captain in my house.  I am Ingold, father of your friend, and therefore, friend to you."

Denethor started in surprise.  The memory of the wizard was still very much upon him. Ingold's kindness brought tears to his eyes, but he willed them away.  "Thank you, my friend," he said and bowed stiffly to cover his discomfiture, "I will remember that."

~*~

Amdir walked him home after the meal.  "I am so very sorry, Denethor.  Honestly, I would not betray your confidence for all the mithril in Middle-earth.  Please forgive me."

"There is naught to forgive, friend.  I understand your fear.  It has clung to me all evening.  I cannot shake the feeling of alarm that has settled upon me.  I would that I might speak with someone about this, but I am at a loss as to whom."

"Your father?" Amdir asked.

"Father invites the wizard here!  How am I to go to him?  What am I supposed to say? 'The wizard casts spells that I am sure are all for Gondor's good?'  What proofs have I?  'I went to the library in the morning, Father, and when I left it was late afternoon?'  Fie on that; there is naught that can be done.  Except - I must protect myself.  I will go to the library tomorrow to look for some spells or enchantments that I might be able to use to defend myself.  Would you..."  He felt so very foolish.  "Would you meet me there tomorrow after nuncheon?  I would go alone, but I..."

"Do not say another word.  You would be foolish not to ask me.  Perhaps in numbers there will be strength.  He would not dare do a thing against you whilst others are about."  He laid a hand gently on Denethor's shoulder and was surprised that he had to reach up to place it there.  Denethor had grown; Amdir was almost a full year older and yet, Denethor was already a few inches above him.  "Never mind that wizard, my friend, I know a trick or two we can use to outsmart him."

"Friend you are indeed, Amdir.  What Valar do I owe this gift to?  I will see you tomorrow then.  Walk safely home, my friend, and thank you."

He turned the corner towards the White Tower and ran directly into someone dressed in a black cloak .  He shivered uncontrollably; fear gripped his stomach and his chest. 

"What are you doing out so late, my Lord?" a familiar and welcome voice questioned him.

"Thengel!  What a delight."  Denethor breathed deeply in the cool night air and breathed out the horror that had gripped him.  "What are you doing on this level yourself, this late at night?"  He greeted him with bowed head and hand upon his breast.

"You have caught me, my Lord," smiled Thengel.  "I was coming from the guest quarters.  I had to see Morwen one last time before the stars came out.  Time slipped away from us as we watched Eärendil appear." Thengel blushed at the telling of his private affairs to this child! 

Denethor perceived the thought upon Thengel and smiled.  "I have not been a child since last year's massacre in Ithilien, my Lord.  You should know better than that.  The loss of one loved beyond endurance is a loss that causes one to mature quickly."

Thengel sucked in his breath.  He had heard tales of 'gifts' that Denethor possessed. He had not had occasion to evidence them before.  "My Lord, I apologize.  I meant no disrespect." Twenty-five years separated these two, yet the blood of Númenor flowed through Denethor, not Thengel, and this was suddenly very apparent to both this night. 

"None taken, Lord Thengel.  But now, did I hear correctly, the gossip in the Tower?  Are you to be the new Horse Guard Captain?"

"Yes, your father has decided I must hone my skills as a horseman.  He wants me ready when Fengel passes, for when I must return to Rohan to take up the crown.  He wishes it for the good of all Middle-earth, but I would prefer to stay here in Gondor with my love.  There is naught as beautiful as Minas Tirith in the morning sun, or in the light of the stars of Varda Elentári.  I would leave it only if commanded.  Yet, your father is wise and I must do as he bids."

"Wise and perceptive also.  He will know you have spent the night under the stars.  Perhaps we should discuss them another time.  We both have duties that must needs be done in the morning.  Good night, my Lord"

Thengel laughed.  "Ever the good of Gondor lies upon your heart, my Lord.  You have indeed left the things of a child behind.  I have seen this before, and now I know it for a fact; yet, Gondor would survive if you laughed once in awhile!"

"Laughter and joy will flood the Great Hall tomorrow in the wake of your wedding, my Lord.  Get to your bed, for you have much expected of you on the morrow - and later."

With that, Denethor strode away, a grin upon his face. 

~*~

The ceremony was held in the Great Hall.  Indis was enthralled with the very thought of this match and did her utmost to make the day, and everything about it, beautiful.  As he entered, Denethor looked in awe at what his eyes beheld.  Garlands of gardenias were everywhere, with bunches of wildflowers lain in the laps of the marble statues lining either side.  He laughed.  What would Turgon say when he saw the 'desecration' to these noble Kings of Gondor?  As much as the old Steward loved Indis, this might be beyond his ability to forgive.  Yet, Denethor knew Indis was only trying to remove the coldness of the Hall with the warmth of Gondor's rich flora, and he could do naught but applaud her efforts.  He was also very grateful that he had not been conscripted to be a part of this.  He laughed again, and Amdir, at his side as always, chortled in glee. 

Fengel and the other ambassadors were seated in the front.  The scowl was so deep on Fengel's face that Denethor thought it must hurt -- one very sad note on such a beautiful day.  Weeks ago, Thengel had come to Denethor in the barracks and asked him to walk with him. 

They went out into the cool night air, resting their arms on the parapet near the Great Library.   Denethor waited patiently.  A heavy sigh escaped Thengel's lips.  Still, Denethor waited.  'Sometimes sharing ill news takes time,' the old saying went.

At last Thengel spoke, "Denethor, forgive me for pulling you away from the games.  Your opinion would be most appreciated.  My father opposes the match between Morwen and me.  He has asked me to reconsider.  I would do as he asks, but there is love between us.  How can I obey my father and preserve my vows to Morwen?  True - these vows have not been made public, but they were made in my heart and, more importantly, they have been said to Morwen.  I never dreamt that father would be in opposition to this match.  You have the gift of foresight. What see you?" 

Denethor bit his lip.  How could he tell Thengel that it had nothing to do with foresight, that anyone with any sense could see that Thengel's father was only concerned with wealth, riches and jewels?  How could he tell him of the times he had seen Fengel, this past week, in the ancient smithies of Gondor, fingering the mithril waiting to be re-forged?  He himself had not believed it when Ecthelion had told him of Fengel's greed; not till he had seen the avarice in the king's eye.  Ever his father watched and waited to exploit people to strengthen Gondor.  It was another link in the chain that Ecthelion was manipulating to snare Rohan's fidelity.  He kept quiet.

"I cannot leave my love.  She has become everything to me.  I cannot leave Gondor.  It is my home.  Fengel will have to accept this.  I have no other course to take.  I will not leave her! Thank you, Denethor, for listening to me." 

With that, Thengel strode away, back towards the barracks.  Denethor was grateful that Thengel had not pressed him further.  Their friendship was too important to wound with words that would only do harm. 

His thoughts were brought back by the noises of the Hall.  Chairs had been placed in long rows down the entire length of the hall, while drapes of lilies, attached with golden thread to the center aisle seats, made it necessary for each row to be seated from the left and the right only - not the center.  The women in their long gowns had a difficult time reaching open chairs.  The noises that had distracted him were the grunts and groans of the men as they tried to move chairs to accommodate the women.  Denethor laughed at the sight.  Dearest Indis, proud and wonderful, but not very practical in this instance.  He fervently hoped she would never know of the difficulty her decorating caused the guests.

"I must leave you now, my friend," Amdir whispered.  "My place is with my father and mother.  Please meet me afterwards.  I have some thoughts on that matter we were discussing last night."

Denethor gently bowed to him, trying to stifle the shiver that ran through him, and forced his attention upon the ceremony before him.  He walked towards his sister, 'Wen, and found his seat.

Silver trumpets heralded the arrival of the Steward.  Slowly Turgon walked forward.  Denethor flinched at the look of age upon his face, his body - stooped and low.  Tears pricked his eyes.  This dear beloved man was aging before his very eyes, and quickly.  Ecthelion appeared next to him and seemed to walk slightly behind Turgon, but as they drew closer, Denethor could see his father was steadying Turgon and helping him to the Steward's Chair.  This was too much for him.  He looked away, helpless, as his father eased Turgon into the Chair.  Why could not the world stay as it was and leave his adadhron as master of his own body, his own mind?

At that very moment, Denethor heard a gasp from the guests.  Morwen, fairest daughter of the land of Lossarnach, appeared in the doorway.  Slowly, she made her way towards the Steward's Chair.  Denethor smiled.  She was truly beautiful and so kind; his heart had warmed to her when first Thengel had introduced them.  Fengel was wrong in this matter.  This woman would make Thengel happy; that made Denethor happy.  Indis hid in the recesses beyond the last pillar and watched.  He knew his sister's heart, and that tears would be streaming down her face.  She had worked so very hard to make this a glorious day for all of Gondor.  The happiness was not the couples alone.  Denethor felt a lump in his throat as he looked upon his sister.  He had discovered that she was the one who had forced Ecthelion to reconsider his banishment of Denethor.  It was she who devised the placing of Denethor at the Great Hall when Ecthelion was alone, mourning Cranthir's loss.  It was she who, to this day, would remind the both of them how much Gondor needed them.  He shook slightly; this was certainly a day for tears - tears of joy and warmth and gratitude.

Thengel appeared and stood next to the Steward's Chair, his face alight with joy and wonder.  Denethor could see the smiles on those present; the tears also on the faces of several of the women.  Many of them would be sad this day, to see the fair Thengel wed.  Denethor looked towards the Steward's Chair again.  His heart broke as he watched Ecthelion fingering a white gardenia, part of a garland draped over the back of the Chair.  His father's face was white, and the muscles in his neck strained.  Indis, whose great love for their mother and their mother's favorite flower, had bedecked the Hall in them, totally unaware of the impact they would have on their father.  Ecthelion dragged his eyes away, forced them upon Turgon, but his hand never left the flower.

~*~

The parapet in front of the Citadel was filled with tables laden with food such as had not been seen in Gondor in a long while.  This fete surpassed any in Denethor's memory.  Ecthelion was sparing no expense in securing the allegiance of the son of Fengel.  Alliances were made through such events, such ceremonies, and Ecthelion was ever aware of the need for alliances as the dark days neared.  He shared these thoughts with Denethor as they walked from the Hall.  Denethor's heart was saddened by the words his father spoke.  Were alliances all that their friends were for?  Thengel was one of his dearest friends.  They had spent many a night in the barracks talking and laughing about life in Gondor, sharing their dreams.  Was he to put aside that friendship now and only dwell on Gondor's need for alliance?  In his mind, he knew that was part of all this, but in his heart, he mourned the loss of the purity of their friendship.  He would do as Ecthelion bid and further develop the alliance, but his face burned red at the shame of it.  There was, however, good news to alleviate some of Denethor's shame.  Ecthelion thought it better for the alliance if Denethor was placed in the company of the Horse Guard, under Thengel.  This was Ecthelion's way of furthering the alliance, and binding allegiance from Thengel, but it much delighted Denethor.  Try as he might, he could not look upon Thengel as an ally only, but as a friend.

~*~

Music floated from the area near the White Tree.  When was the last time he had heard music, he wondered?  It was glorious.  He could see the musicians, off to the north, with the sun streaming behind Mount Mindolluin on its westward path.  They were from the conservatory on the Second Level.  A ballad was being sung; he could not hear the words, but a feeling of melancholy struck him.  He recognized the song as one of those written to honor his mother.  Thengel and Morwen were dancing to it.  Neither knew the keen sorrow that this brought to Denethor.  He looked around, trying to find Ecthelion -- to judge what the music was doing to him.  Indis stepped up and placed her hand in the crook of his arm.

"Hello, dearest brother," she said.  "I have not heard that song in a long while. I remember mother was so embarrassed when first it was written.  She thought it was too fine a thing for a girl like her.  Come, dance with me."

Denethor leaned against his sister.  He now towered above her, but nothing would belie the fact that she was his eldest sister, his rock.  "I wish I had known her."  Once again, he remembered his father.  "Have you seen father, Indis?  I want to keep him away from this." 

"Dearest brother.  Do you not know that he also must grieve, even these long years after.  To see that the people have not forgotten her is a good thing.  Do not be concerned over this."

"But, Indis, father was holding a..." Denethor bit his lip.  He had not meant to bring the gardenias to her attention. 

"What is wrong, Denethor?" 

"Naught.  I just wanted to make sure someone who loved him was standing by him at this moment."

"Do not be concerned, Denethor.  I saw him walking to his study with Prince Angelimir.  He will not hear this."

The dancing had ended and Indis had given him a small curtsy, and then, ran off to admonish a young servant who was pouring wine in the wrong container.  Denethor pitied the servant.  He went to Thengel and asked to dance with Morwen.  A lively tune started up and, thoroughly embarrassed, Denethor quickly gave Morwen back to Thengel.  The whoop of laughter that emitted from Thengel's mouth caused Denethor to grow red, but the hug from his friend dispelled any darkness.  Off the two of them went, feet flying to the rhythm of the tune.  Denethor smiled - and breathed a sigh of relief. 

Amdir came up to him, laughing, patting him on the back.  "You were definitely saved from some serious embarrassment, my friend.  Never try to dance with a woman when you do not know how!"

"I was not going to try to dance that dance.  I thought they would play another ballad.  I can stand there, hold her hand, and make her think that this is perhaps the way Gondorian men dance."

Amdir laughed.  "There is no way she would ever have believed that all Gondorian men dance as you do.  This is one area totally lacking in your training.  I believe I shall tell my father that he must add dancing to your training!"

"And I will see to it that cleaning the stables will be your constant duty.  Do not mock me, Amdir," he said quietly, but the laughter in his eyes negated the sternness of his words.

"Well, that is not why I came over here anyway, my friend.  There is the matter of the library.  Have you forgotten?  Now would be the perfect time.  Everyone is busy with dancing, eating and frivolity.  Many of the guests have left.  The evening is coming on; travelers will start to depart.  I will stand by the door and watch, while you go down to find the books you need.  Bring them with you; you do not have to study them there.  The warden will not know you have taken them.  We can put them in your room and you can study them at your leisure."

"That is a fine plan, Amdir.  I will go now.  Whistle, like the peregrine, and I will know it is a warning to flee the place."

He ran towards the library.  The terror of the previous day's encounter lent speed to his feet.  He ran down the stairs, almost slipping in his haste.  He knew what level and room the books were in; he discovered the room was locked, but he knew where the keys were kept.  He rummaged through the desk, found them, and turned to open the door.  Curunír was there!  In front of him!  Nay, this could not be happening.  He almost collapsed from fear. 

He held his arms in front of his eyes.  What would the wizard do to him now?  He must get away.  He dropped his arms; prepared to flee.  There was no wizard there! What had he seen?  Were his eyes deceiving him?  Nay, there was no wizard there.  But he had seen him!  He knew he had seen him!  Shaking, he placed the key in the lock and turned it.  He heard the click of the lock and turned the handle.  The door would not open.  He tried again, his hand now shaking almost uncontrollably.  The click of the lock sounded again; he knew he was using the key correctly.  The door would not open.  A sense of dread filled him.  There was a spell on the door -- a locking spell.  And he knew who had placed it there.  He turned and fled from this once-beloved place.  He would not return, he vowed.

Amdir was sickened when he saw Denethor's face.  The look of fear was too much to bear.  "Denethor, what has happened?"

Denethor took great gulps of the night air.  His mind reeled.  He could not fathom what had happened to him.  He bent over, put his head down, and pushed his hands into his thighs.  Amdir took hold of his arm.   Denethor was shaking like a leaf.  He walked him towards a bench near the library, but Denethor froze and would go no further.  Amdir turned and led him towards the opposite wall.  They sat; rather, Amdir sat and pulled Denethor down next to him.  As much as Denethor willed that he was mature, the last two days events had worn him down; he was very close to feeling like a young lad again.  Thirteen years was still young, given the terror that he had endured.  Amdir went to leave him for a moment; Denethor grabbed his arm, alarm in his eyes. 

"I will be gone for only one moment."  But Denethor would not loose his grip on Amdir's tunic.  Amdir looked frantically around and saw Indis nearby.  He caught her eye; she came over, quickly.  Denethor averted his eyes.  Indis, knowing something was amiss, sat next to him, and took his hand.  Amdir ran to the tables, filled a goblet with wine, and handed it to Denethor.  Denethor's eyes were unseeing.  Amdir forced his hand around the goblet, and then brought it to his mouth.  Denethor swallowed.  Indis looked at Amdir, questions rampant in her eyes.  She could feel the trembling in Denethor's body, but could find no sign of harm.  She remained quiet.  Together, they lifted Denethor to his feet and walked him to his room.  Amdir undressed him and Indis put him to bed as she kissed his forehead.  She gestured for Amdir to leave them.  She would stay.

Denethor's nightmares began that very night.

Ch. 6 - Third Age 2945

Change was all about him. Thengel and Morwen were living on the Sixth Level very close to the house of Ingold. Indis was turning into a proper lady of Gondor. Morwen was ever closer to Turgon in his hour of need. Osgiliath had a new captain, Húrin, who was loyal to Ecthelion and upheld his views of Gondor's defense. Yet, the walls of the city crumbled bit by bit, the people did not reproduce, and the defenses were not attended to during Turgon's Stewardship. All of this Denethor could see every day as he rode his horse out on patrol with Captain Thengel and his company. Denethor's heart was heavy as was his father's. 

Thengel knew this and devised a plan to lighten Denethor's mood, if for only a few days.  They would take their horses south towards Lossarnach.  He would bring Morwen with him.  They would stop at her father's home and he would leave her there for a much needed visit.  Then, the plan would take hold.

"There is need for me here, Thengel.  I do not have time for an extended trip," Denethor had protested.  Then, there was the matter of the nightmares.  Alone, in his own room, no one heard his screams.  When they would go on overnight patrols, he devised to always take the first watch.  When he was relieved, he left camp and found some out of the way place to sleep, schooling himself to wake before he knew the rest of the camp would wake.  What would he do now?

"I myself am most ready for any kind of a jaunt that does not involve patrol," laughed Amdir.  "I am most heartily sick of these daily patrols and would accept any kind of diversion."  Amdir had been taken into Thengel's confidence and knew what the trip portended. 

"Permission has been granted by your father," Thengel stated flatly, "and we are going.  Besides, I have heard of possible warg attacks in the foothills of Mindolluin and would make inquiries of those in the area.  We will take a half company and investigate."

"Wargs!" said Denethor.  "I have heard no such reports.  Have their been injuries?  What damage has been done?"  Wargs had never been seen in South Gondor.  They were known to be in Rohan.  Perhaps some had come over the White Mountains?  He was immediately concerned and now, naught could keep him from this outing.

~*~

There was an air of excitement around Thengel and Amdir that Denethor could not fathom.  His heart was troubled by the reports of wargs and he could not rest, nor smile. Yet the two of them were almost delirious with joy.  Denethor imagined that Thengel's joy was from being able to spend time riding next to 'His Lady' as he called Morwen.  But what was Amdir so happy about? And another thing, why was Thengel even taking Morwen?  If there was danger near Lossarnach, why would he bring Morwen? True, her family was there and she had not seen them since the wedding, but still....   Once or twice Denethor saw smiles shared by the two men.  Something was afoot, he was sure. But what?

The ride was long and uneventful...the early spring sun was hidden by the White Mountains and the chill made Denethor glad he had wrapped himself in the warm cloak of his rank.  It was new and he was most proud of it.  He had been promoted to lieutenant just this past month and the thrill was still upon him.  Thengel most appreciated his skills as soldier and diplomat.  The long years of studying and training were bearing fruit.  Amdir also had finally been commissioned as a lieutenant and assigned to Thengel's Horse Guards.  Denethor was stunned when he saw the beautiful sword presented to him by Ingold and Elleth.  It must have taken many years to save for such a weapon.  He clapped Amdir on the back in appreciation and complimented Captain Ingold on the fine sword.

Morwen's village in Lossarnach was more than eleven leagues from the City.  They rose early and rode hard.  Finally, Thengel called a halt.  Indis had instructed the kitchen to make a hearty repast for them and had packed it herself.  The ride was long.  They would need all their strength, especially to combat the spring winds they would encounter as they turned west towards Lossarnach; Mount Mindolluin and the Ephel Dúath, had protected them thus far in their journey. 

Thankfully, though there was now no discernable road, another telling instance of Gondor's fall into disrepair, the land itself was soft with rolling grasslands.  This part of the foothills was not covered with stones and deep gullies as the northern side was.  Farmers were in their fields preparing the soil for their spring crops.  Cows, pigs and sheep were apparent everywhere.  This part of Gondor had been protected from the ravages of war.  It had been most necessary to guard it at all costs; this was the breadbasket of Gondor.  Denethor wished Indis could be here to see the flowers.  Spring lay rampant on the land of Lossarnach; she would so love to see the wealth of flowers.

Morwen's village was situated on the banks of the River Erui.  As the party approached, her family came out, smiling faces on these swarthy men of Gondor.  Morwen started to dismount, but Thengel was there and offered his hand.  He was still madly in love with his fair wife and never hesitated to show it.  Denethor smiled.  Being motherless, he had no training in how to treat a wife.  He could not imagine his father doing the same.  Morwen introduced Amdir to her father.  Then, Berthil started to show Thengel, Denethor and Amdir their rooms, but they stopped him and asked, most politely, if they would be allowed to bed their horses.  Thengel, being a true horseman, would not allow another to tend his mount.  The rest of the company bivouacked in the barn.  

The festivities ran late that evening and Thengel chafed at the delay.  He was ready to spend some time alone with Morwen.  Good manners dictated a different course.  Finally, the men started for their shelter, Denethor and Amdir headed for their rooms, and Thengel made to take his wife to bed.  Berthil stopped him. 

"I would speak with you sometime during your visit, my Lord," he said.  "It is about coming to Gondor.  Morwen's mother and I both are at a loss without her near.  You yourself know well what separation can do.  Would you consider this?"

Thengel was dumbfounded.  He shook his head, but only to clear it; however, Berthil assumed it was a denial of the request.  His face flushed red under the darkening from the sun.  He turned to go.  Thengel immediately put out his hand and gently took the elder man's arm in his.  He profusely apologized.

"Forgive me.  It has been a long journey and our staying up late has addled my brain.  It is a simple enough request.  I will speak with Morwen before the end of our time here.  Tomorrow is a long awaited day and I will not consider a thing of such import on short notice.  Please forgive me if this does not meet your approval.  I had no idea that you would consider leaving your farm."

"I understand, my Lord," said Berthil and walked Thengel towards his room.  "We will speak of this when you return - that should be in two days time, if I remember your letter correctly?"

"Yes, we should return on the night after next.  Keep your fires lit and we will find the house, though it be late for our return.  And do not fret over this request.  It is an honorable one and not to be taken lightly.  I will think upon it whilst we are away."

~*~

Denethor waited until all were asleep and then, packing up his bedclothes, he made for the door.  Amdir was there to greet him. 

"I wondered what you would do on this trip," his smile held pain.

"What are you talking about?  I am just going to shake these out.  I ... I found a spider on them."  Denethor hesitated.

"As at every camp since we started our patrols together?" Amdir asked. 

Denethor interrupted him, "Come, let us be outside.  We do not want to wake the household."

"I followed you, my friend, the last time you took early guard outside of Forannest.  You remember, we were strengthening the wall of the Rammas there.  We spent three nights.  One night, I rose early to play a trick on you, and found your bed empty.  You were not in the camp.  I was concerned that you would be found out and decided to search for you.  And I found you.  By yourself, some far distance from the camp.  You were not up yet.  In fact, you were in the midst of a great struggle.  In your sleep.  One in which you cried out often.  Curunír was the name most used.  I waited till you quieted down, and then went back to camp.  I have followed you every night since then.  And left you at the dawn."

Denethor hung his head in shame.  "Amdir, I would keep naught from you except that which is shameful to me.  I cannot shake myself of these dreams.  The wizard haunts my days, if I am not busy on other tasks, and terrorizes my nights."

"When we get back to Minas Tirith, Denethor, I will go to the healers and say I am having nightmares.  They will give me something to help.  You know they still have a great wealth of remedies from the days of Númenor.  They surely must have something that will help stop these."

"To be free of them, Amdir!  Please leave me now.  Get some sleep yourself.  I saw a little shepherd's dwelling as we came over the ridge.  It will make a fine place for tonight."

"And what of tomorrow night, Denethor?" Amdir asked.

"We will leave tomorrow to tomorrow.  Now, go my friend.  I will be fine.  See you in the morrow."

~*~

Rain greeted them as they awoke early in the morning.  Thengel was sorely disappointed but Amdir, ever ready to enjoy life, suggested they start out anyhow.  The rain could let up; the sky did not look dark nor was it filled with black clouds. 

"It is just a spring rain, light and swift.  I am sure it will end soon.  Why should we let a little rain stop us?" 

Denethor had overheard them and wondered what rain would do to an investigation into the activities of wargs.  The rest of the company was still eating when Amdir brought their horses forth.  Denethor started and gulped down the last of his ham.  He grabbed his cloak and quickly mounted.  Thengel and Amdir were already galloping north towards the foothills of the Ered Nimrais.  What was their hurry, he wondered, and why was not the rest of the company coming with them?

~*~

They had risen at dawn and now it was almost three hours hence. It did not seem to Denethor that Thengel nor Amdir had any intention of stopping.  They were almost on top of the mountain so to speak.  They had left the gentle plains behind and were truly in the foothills.  They had slowed down as they drew nearer to the mountain and as the terrain proved more difficult, but still - they did not stop. 

Many times during the ride, he would call out and question what they were doing and always, the only answer he received was a smile from Thengel and a chuckle from Amdir.  He was beginning to think this was no warg hunt.  Finally, he settled back in his saddle and relaxed.  His friends were up to something, no doubt.  But that something was definitely not dangerous - they were riding alone with the rest of the company sitting back on Morwen's farm.  He wondered what they were doing.  Ecthelion would be none to pleased to think that a whole half company of his top horse soldiers would be spending a day sitting at a farm.  Yet, that thought made him smile.  The men were a good lot and deserved a day's rest.  Perhaps this was Thengel's thought.  Again, Denethor smiled - this time it was at the thought of Thengel and what a great captain he had become.  And what a friend.  Denethor found more and more that he turned to the elder for council.  Amdir was as close to him as his shadow, but Thengel was his teacher.  And he was grateful.  He taught him how to lead men and gain their respect and confidence.  He taught him how to assess a situation and then deal with it.  He showed him how to react in crisis with as little loss of life as possible.  He taught him to respect his men and their lives.  Denethor slowly forgot the reason his father had placed him under Thengel's tutelage, and drank up every bit of knowledge the Rohir would give him.

The stumble of Rochallor brought him out of his revere.  Denethor gently patted his horse's neck to reassure him. He looked about and discovered that they were following the River Erui.  In fact, Thengel and Amdir had definitely slowed their forward progress and were searching the terrain - for what, Denethor did not know.  Small willow trees grew on the sides of the river.  The water was clear and rushed singing from somewhere above them.  Thengel pulled up on Nahar's reins and smiled.

"Here.  This is a good place," he said and started to dismount.  Amdir jumped off his horse, took off the saddle, and started wiping Hros down. 

Denethor looked at them, amazed.  "What is this about?" he asked.

"This is about you, Denethor," said Thengel.  "We were patrolling the area at the base of the Falls of Rauros when your birth day passed this year; we were not able to give you any presents of worth.  This, dear friend, is your present - two days of spending time with us."

Denethor groaned.  "What have I done to deserve this?" he sarcastically asked. 

Amdir laughed.  "You have been a friend and a pain and we are paying you back for it.  Now get off your poor horse, let him rest and eat, and find us some nice long willow sticks.  We are going fishing!"

"This does not seem to be the proper time for fishing.  Captain," Denethor used Thengel's title to add weight to his plea, "we must be about Gondor's welfare. That means patrols and..."

"Listen to me, dear friend," Thengel had come over and placed his hand on Rochallor's withers.  "Do you remember the night before my wedding, when I suggested that you let Gondor go for a moment and relax?  Well, now that time has come.  Turgon will have no more of defense; we are relegated to fixing fences and doing patrols.  So, while we have this moment, we are going to rest, think of what is best for Gondor as we sit by this stream, and plan for when your father becomes Steward.  We will be hard put to rest then."

Denethor knew Thengel was speaking true.  It was difficult for him to relax.  Life had been hard and strange for almost as long as he could remember; especially since his encounters with the wizard.  Perhaps he could rest.

~*~

For two days, the men walked this small part of the river - together sometimes and sometimes alone - each had found his honey hole, his favorite spot.  They would eat as they fished, tell jokes over the rushing water, and slowly Denethor felt himself smiling again.  The river was clear and clean.  Denethor had discovered the trick of finding nooks and eddies where the water lay quiet.  There the fish hid and he found them.  It was a battle, he thought to himself, between the fish and him.  One would hide and one would find.  He discovered it was not easy to catch a fish.  The worms they used were not active - early spring cool accounted for that - and, try as he might the first day, he could catch nothing.  Amdir was gloating.  Already he had four on a stringer and Denethor had not one bite.  But he would not be discouraged.  He found the exercise relaxing.  He watched the fish in the little pools.  Sometimes it seemed his hook would land so close that he felt he could hit the fish on the head, yet the fish would not bite. 

"Hmmm," he thought aloud and Amdir laughed.  "Having a little trouble there, Lieutenant Denethor?"

Denethor could do naught but chuckle.  "I will learn this fishing thing and I will catch more than you, I promise."

Thengel had walked down from a little spot further up the stream.  "I believe it is getting close to sunset, my friends.  Time we gathered firewood and settled down.  I have heard that fish like early morning for their eating time.  I am sure that is why I have caught none.  Wrong time of day, sun in my eyes, hook too straight, not sharp enough," he started a list of excuses.  Both Denethor and Amdir hooted with laughter.

As Denethor collected the firewood, Thengel set up a small tent and Amdir cleaned his fish. He insisted they be called his fish, even marking the length of each fish on a log.  Denethor knew what that was for.  Tomorrow, if he caught any, Amdir would hold them up to the log and probably howl with laughter over the size of Denethor's fish compared to his own.  Denethor sighed, but it was filled with fondness.  Amdir would die for him, he knew it, but he would give no ground when it came to this fishing!

Denethor had found some wild rice during his firewood foraging; he brought the few stalks back to their camp.  It was early for wild rice and the pods were small, but this would do.  Enough to give them something to add to their repast. 

Thengel brought out bread that Morwen's mother had packed.  The banquet was becoming quite substantial.  They laved their hands in the river, stood, turned towards the west, and gave up their moment of silence.  Then they sat and ate and were grateful.

After the meal, Thengel brought out a small flask of wine which Morwen's father had urged upon him.  The fire was warm against the cool of the night.  They were close to the snow line. Their backs were cold, but the wine, along with the fellowship around the fire, filled them with warmth.  Their talk had started out good-naturedly about the fishing and the prowess of Amdir, but gently moved towards Gondor and its weal.  Denethor found himself frowning again and willed his brow to unknot.  He took another drink and forced himself to relax.  Thengel saw his struggle and smiled.

"My Lord Denethor," he intoned, "do you not wish to tell your subjects what causes your brow to furrow?" 

Denethor laughed - how could he not! The smile quickly left his face, though, and his eyes turned dark.  "Gondor has changed just since I was a young boy.  My father has changed; he asks me to do things that, I believe at another time he would not ask of me.  I have seen Turgon take on the visage of an old man.  I have seen a wizard..."  He stopped for a moment, took a deep breath, shook his head, and continued. "There is evil lurking in the land we do not name.  I had not expected change.  I am not sure why, but I find it troublesome."

"Look about you, Denethor.  This mountain stream has not changed since men came from Númenor.  The change you see is transitory.  Gondor itself will not change.  The land will not change, nor the White Mountains, nor the plains of Rohan.  People will change and adapt to..."  He did not want to bring up the subject of Mordor, nor what terror it seemed to hold.  He did not want to speak of such things here in the beauty of the mountains.  Yet it would be difficult to speak of Gondor without speaking of the future.  He sighed.  "There is evil coming; we cannot not speak of it.  Yet, there is good also in Gondor and in Rohan.  Trust your people, Denethor, your men and your friends.  Change will come; but you are learning how to adapt to it."

They leaned back on the logs before the fire and drifted into silent thought.  These men, stalwart and strong, were Gondor's hope.  One was Rohan's hope.  Slowly, Denethor felt peace.  He closed his eyes.

~*~

For almost two years he had suffered the nightmares.  This day - he woke to find he had none.  Relief flooded his entire being.  He had fallen asleep by the campfire; he remembered that.  Now he awoke in the tent, alone.  Where were Amdir and Thengel?  He quickly threw on his tunic and left the tent.

The fire glowed; there was water gently boiling in a kettle.  A small package lay next to it, filled with bread, cheeses, and tea leaves.  Denethor looked around him.  Upstream, he saw the head of Amdir showing through a break in a great rock outcropping; further ahead of him was Thengel. 

He colored slightly.  He had slept well into the morning and his companions had left him to rest.  Gratitude filled his heart.  He could not remember a day since he had started his training at, what - was it eight years now - that he had slept in.  He found it a glorious experience. 

But nonetheless, if they thought that leaving him to sleep would assure them the spoils as fishermen, they were sadly mistaken.  Smiling at the thought, he quickly threw together his tea, grabbed the small package of food and his willow stick, and hurried to where he hoped fish would come to him. 

A touch of fog lay on the ground burning off slowly as he found his nook. He quickly baited his hook.  He tried to see what might have been the catch for his companions so far this morning, but they were hiding them.  Denethor shrugged, forcing himself to relax.  He had noticed the fish seemed to bite when there was stillness within him and quiet around him.  He would not sit; he would stand.  Focus, he told himself, and had to laugh at the memory of Cranthir during their 'Kings and Stewards' games and Gwinhir during his training with the sword saying the exact same word.  They would laugh to see him focusing on fish! 

Slowly the morning passed and not a fish was on his stringer.  He decided sitting might be more beneficial.  Perhaps his shadow was frightening the fish.  Finally, he could stand no more and walked to where Thengel stood.

"Are you doing well?" he asked.

"As well as can be expected for this late in the morning," laughed Thengel.

A hint of red touched Denethor's face but he refused to give ground.  Then a smile broke his chagrin and bad-temper. He clapped Thengel on the shoulder.

"I have caught nothing.  The fish sit in front of me and laugh," he said.  "I have used every resource I know; I have even watched Amdir to see what trick he might be using, but to no avail."

Thengel laughed.  "Did you lave your hands before baiting your hook?"

"Nay.  I finished crushing the tea leaves, drank my tea, and then baited the hook."

"Ah!  Therein lies your trouble.  The tea leaves are bitter; the fish can smell the bitterness on your bait.  Lave your hands in water upstream and try with fresh bait.  That should help."

~*~

Contentment came with fishing.  It was a strange thing to think.  But it was true.  He sat by his honey hole, his stick resting in his hand, and contemplated the feeling.  It was a feeling he was not accustomed to.  Long days of training and study, long hours on patrol, and longer discussions with his father centering on the preparedness of Gondor, left little time for contentment.  Yet, today, in fact these past two days, he was filled with this new sensation.  He relished it.  He did not want to lose it.  In fact, he dreaded the thought of the end of this time of peace.  Peace - not a word he had ever associated with Gondor - and yet here he sat, on the slopes of the Ered Nimrais, contemplating peace.  It wrenched at his heart.  How long were his people to endure the horror of war and death and evil?  He laughed and scowled at the same time.  It seemed he was not even allowed one moment of peace, for Gondor's weal was ever in his heart and his thoughts.

Thengel came over and sat beside him.  The two men, one in the prime of his life and the other just beginning it, mused in silence.  Thengel had been watching Denethor and had seen his friend's shoulders slump.  He thought he knew the reason too.  So he had left his fishing and joined Denethor.

"Life is very short, my friend.  Especially for the Rohirrim.  Yet, you have a longer lifespan than I.  You should not spend it in dark thoughts.  Here is the grandeur of Gondor and of Middle-earth before you.  Drink it in, Denethor.  Let it lighten the load.  You have only to look out your window, on any morning or any evening, and see the world at your feet.  The glint of the sun on the White Tower should bring only joy to your heart.  Do not be troubled by the future.  Live today.  Know that you have friends who will sustain you when difficulty comes.  If it be my fate, Rohan will ever be at your call."

Amdir walked over and sat also.  "Amdir too, my Lord, will always be at your call."

Denethor laughed.  "If anyone saw us, we would be laughed at.  Friends at hand, fish ready to eat, a mountain spring bubbling at our feet, and our faces drawn in scowls and frowns."  He laughed again and Amdir and Thengel joined him.  "I believe it is time for a telling of who is the better fisherman.  Time to take our fish to Amdir's log and gauge our success....or my lack of the same, for in truth, I have caught nothing."

Thengel laughed.  "I will not even question the superiority of Amdir's fishing.  I cede to his prowess."

"How am I to gloat if neither of you offer me the chance?" Amdir fumed.  "All the trouble I went to yesterday to measure my fish and for what?"

"Well," Denethor said, "you can always bring the log back to Minas Tirith with you.  I could find a carpenter to hang it in your quarters. We could come in on cold winter nights, Thengel and I and any other who might want to - to sit and admire it and the prowess that it stands for."  He ducked out of the path of the log as it flew from Amdir's hands.  "Foul, foul," he cried, falling to the ground laughing as Amdir rushed him and pummeled him mercilessly.    Laughter spilled from them both. 

"I am sorry, my friends," Thengel pulled them apart.  "We have a long ride ahead of us.  It is time to eat our fish, excuse me, Amdir's fish and depart this place."

~*~

What had been a hard climb towards the top of the mountain proved even more difficult on the descent.  The horses had to pick their way carefully through the rocks and uneven terrain.  The men were silent and watchful.  At last, they reached the sloping hills of Lossarnach.  The sun was warm on their backs as it advanced in its westward path.  Thengel was anxious to see Morwen again.  Separation from her was difficult.  He saw her face in his mind's eye and sighed deeply.  It was delightful to have her by his side.  Denethor smiled.  He knew where Thengel's mind and heart were.  It was good to see his friend this way, and he wondered if ever he would be of like mind.  His heart turned towards dark thoughts, but he pushed them aside.  He had decided, up on the mountain, that he would focus on only good.  He knew it would be difficult.  Young as he was, life had been hard, his thoughts were often dark, but no longer.  He had friends who trusted him and loved him, and he would not soon forget the lessons learned on this outing.

The night was spent in song and drink and fellowship with Morwen's family.  Berthil laid out a grand feast and invited many relatives and friends from the surrounding area to join them.  Not often was there time for laughter and joy.  The spring had been harsh, but the crops had finally been sown. It was a good moment for rest and friendship.  Morwen sat in Thengel's lap, much to the consternation of her father, but she would have none of his scorn.  Too often Thengel was gone on patrol.  She was going to enjoy this time with him - time away from his duties, from Minas Tirith and the crush of responsibility that lay upon him.  She ran her finger down his cheek. He looked at her, winked, picked her up and went towards their rooms.  None stopped him, for delight was plain upon his face.

~*~

The morning dawned bright and beautiful.  Denethor realized he loved a spring sky better than any other.  There was a cleanness about it.  A sharpness.  Berthil and Thengel had been deep in conversation during the morning meal. Denethor had wondered at it, but they soon bade their farewells, left the farmland behind as they headed southward towards the River Erui.  Before they retired, Denethor had requested that route for their way home. He had studied the Battle of the Crossings and wanted to see the site.  Thengel thought it would be a good idea, too. He had been happy in the change of countenance on Denethor. Another day away from his father would only be helpful.  There had been no messages for him when they had returned to the farm, and he deemed all was well in Minas Tirith.  

The ride was long but they did not push their mounts.  They followed the river as it rushed headlong over the terrain; it ran cold and bright from the winter snowmelt. Thengel thought they might even try their hand at fishing again.  They stopped close to the border of Lebennin about a league from the battle site for their midday repast. They sat and Denethor recounted the battle between Eldacar and the cruel usurper, Castamir.  It had been a bloody battle; one that should have quelled any further division in the land, but it only gave fervor to the Corsairs.  Umbar had been taken back, then lost again.  There had been no peace between the descendants of Castamir and Eldacar since.

Morwen was feeling a little ill and lay quietly as the men talked, some skins thrown down for her to lie upon.  Thengel gave her a glance and a smile.  'How could anyone be so beautiful,' he wondered?   He walked towards her, water in his hand, when he heard shouting further off, and saw dust rising from the hooves of horses.  Ciramir rode up to him, his horse lathered from the exertion. 

"Corsairs!" he screamed.  "Headed this way and running hard and fast!"

"Get Morwen out of here!" screamed Thengel, mounting Nahar at the same time and riding forward to meet the enemy.

Never before had Denethor fought.  Never before had he actually been on an enemy-filled battlefield.  The hairs on his arms stood up as he faced the foe.  His mind whirled... 'I am not ready, I am not ready,' it seemed to scream.  But there was no being ready - it was time to fight or time to run.  Running was unthinkable.  Thengel was before him; Amdir to his left.  The rest of the horse soldiers were behind them.  The Corsairs were before them, great swarthy men dressed in rags, not proper uniforms.  Their faces, getting closer, were dressed in hideous scowls.  The noise from their throats was deafening. Denethor tried to count them, but they were too many.  He cursed himself for bringing his friends here.  Then he cursed himself for that.  If they had not come, the folk of this area would have been slaughtered.  Perhaps, this time, fate had worked on his side.  

He drew his sword as his body shuddered.  It took all his strength to lift it.  It felt strangely heavy, this sword; he had wielded it for the last three years.  In fact, he remembered at this year's birth day, considering getting another as this one was getting too light for him. Strange. But no longer time for thought.  A Corsair ran past the already busy Thengel and rushed Denethor.  Denethor swung his blade hard and quick, but not quick enough. The enemy dodged the blow and retaliated with his own.  Denethor's speed from countless practice sessions saved his life.  He quickly moved to Rochallor's right; the foe sliced to the other side and left himself wide open for the blow that finished him.  No time for rest or breath, for another of the enemy came at him, full on.  The blow dropped him from his horse. Denethor struck Rochallor's flank to get the horse away from the battle. He had but a moment to settle his feet, and thus was able to give a full swing to his sword, neatly severing an arm; the foe fell. He smiled.  Another and another came.  Would they never stop?  

He looked wildly about for Amdir.  He could not be found.  Fear gripped Denethor's heart, but there was no time for searching as another of the foe attacked.  Blood was everywhere.  His hands slipped on his sword; he wiped one on his tunic and continued. Off to his left, he saw Thengel fighting furiously - a wide smile covering his face.  He was enjoying this.  He had been dismounted too, but it did not slow him. Denethor marveled.  He himself had not been caught up in the battle fever.  Fear still lingered too close to his heart.

He felt the blade before he saw it.  His thigh ignited in fire.  His hand automatically went to clutch the leg, but instinct told him to hold on tight to his sword. He swung blindly at where his foe should be, and was rewarded with the feel of flesh being cut.  His sword had found its mark. The enemy lay dead at his feet.  He felt the warmth of blood streaming down his leg, but another was upon him. Furious, he did not wait for the charge, but flung himself forward.  Another lay dead. And so it went on for days and nights, or so it seemed.  Time and feeling had left him.  The battleground was all his mind saw and felt.  The noise was horrific - men yelling, horses screaming, the clash of metal on metal, metal on leather. 

A moment came, one moment when none attacked nor were near enough for his blade to do damage.  He straightened himself and looked about. The field was clear of their foe.  His ears were blocked; no sound filtered through them.  He shook his head to clear them.  Thengel, standing a short space away, saw Denethor and smiled.  Denethor returned it, but somewhere in the haunts of his mind, he was missing something.  What was it?  The field was deathly quiet. The ground seemed to move gently.  It was the bodies of the wounded, trying to free themselves from the dead who weighed them down.  Denethor shuddered.  Amdir - that was what was missing!  Where was Amdir?  

"Thengel! Thengel," he cried in fear.  "Have you seen Amdir?"

"I have not - not since the battle was joined."  They both turned, looking in a great circle, searching the ground for their lost friend.  

"I am here," a quiet voice answered their shouts.  "I am all right.  Nay, I am not all right, but not wounded."

Denethor rushed to where the voice came from, far towards the edge of the battlefield. In truth, his friend sat, seeming unharmed.  Yet, something was wrong.

"Amdir.  Where are your wounds?  Thengel, bring the healer here."

"Nay, nay, please Denethor."  The plea in his voice was unbearable.

"My friend," Denethor said, "what is wrong?  Are you so grievously wounded that there is no hope?"

Thengel came up to stand beside him.  Amdir was now openly weeping.

"How did this happen?" He looked up at Denethor through his tears.  "One moment I was next to you, standing, waiting for the attack, and the next moment I found myself turning away."

Denethor fell to his knees - stunned.  Thengel shook his head.

The silence was appalling - almost as appalling as what had occurred.  A tear slid down Denethor's cheek as he looked at his friend. 

"There will be other times to show your courage, my friend.  You know now what fear can do. You will be ready for it the next time.  You will not run.  I know your heart, Amdir.  I trust you. You will not fail us again."  Denethor spoke with quiet conviction. He was making no excuses for his friend; he knew him.  He knew this encounter with fear would make him a better soldier of Gondor, if he was challenged to use it.  Thengel smiled in approval.  Denethor would one day make a great leader.

Denethor rose to stand and collapsed at the same moment.  He had forgotten his wound. Luckily, it was not deep.  Amdir jumped up in alarm.  Denethor laughed.  "Do not be concerned, my friend, it is but a scratch, whilst the wielder of the blade lies dead on the field. There are others with greater need than mine.  Go to them and help the healer."  

                                                      ~*~

The fires burned bright that night as the men tried to dispel the darkness of their thoughts while they buried their dead.  How could Corsairs have come so far north and none know of it?   From which way had they come?  Defenses were poor indeed for such a large troop to have come so far, unheeded.  It boggled the mind.  They had been on the very doorstep of Minas Tirith!  Where were the soldiers stationed at Pelargir?  Thengel, Denethor and Amdir sat in quiet discussion. 

"Long has my father warned me of this day," Denethor said.  "However, he feared the One we do not name.  The Corsairs seemed not to be a threat in this age."  

"How could they have come so far north and not be seen?" Amdir asked for the hundredth time.  "Where are the southern patrols?"

Thengel shrugged.  "Turgon has stopped them.  He said there was no need.  He deemed the need was closer to Minas Tirith.  We cannot now go to Pelargir ourselves.  Morwen must be returned to Minas Tirith. Ecthelion must know of this attack.  I will send a small patrol under Ciramir down the Anduin and wait for their report." He sat in silence for a moment. "But nay!  We must go now."  He pulled together his bedclothes and stood up. "We dare not wait till morning.  We will not rest until we reach the Great Gate, though I am loath to lay this trip upon Morwen."

"Mayhap we should go back to Berthil's and leave her there?" Amdir asked.  But Thengel would not hear of it.  With the enemy so far afoot, he dared not trust her anywhere but behind the walls of Minas Tirith.  Morwen, however, had taken a turn for the worse.  The company's healer cautioned Thengel; she was in no condition to ride.  Thengel was beside himself. 

Denethor sat in silence.  All his long life it had seemed his father had been in battle with Turgon. Today's combat proved Ecthelion had been correct, that Gondor was ill prepared for the future. Perhaps it was time for Turgon to use the gift of Eru and sleep. 'Nay!' his mind screamed, 'not Turgon.  There must be a way to break through this cloud that hangs over him, that prevents him from listening to Ecthelion.'  Denethor could not bear the loss of Turgon.  Finally, he became aware of the debate going on around him.  He rose and looked at his friend. Amdir and Denethor knew what must be done. 

"We will ride ahead to Minas Tirith and bring back help.  Our numbers are too few if there is another attack.  It would be better if it were just the two of us, less noise, and we will be less likely to be seen." Denethor knew Thengel's heart was torn. "It is little more than fifteen leagues and the South Road is flat and fast.  We should be there and back by morning, barring any difficulties.  We will have a cart follow behind, to carry Morwen back."

"You cannot go.  You are wounded.  The ride will open the wound again," cried Thengel. 

"It has been sewn closed and will not open.  I will be of no use to you in battle if more of the enemy are about.  It would be better that I be the one to go.  Our party is now very small, and with Ciramir off scouting the land, who would you have?"

"Go then, but be wary. This might have been a small troop, but it also could have been a wayward patrol separated from a larger force." Once they were horsed, Thengel gave them more instructions, then slapped the flank of Denethor's horse and they were off.

Pickets were set, the fires were lowered and the remaining men tried to sleep.  The dead had been buried, another group of mounds on an already tortured land.  

~*~

Both Denethor and Amdir rode hard.  The sky was overcast; they had nary moon nor stars to guide them.  But the road was still in good condition and their undertaking was great.  Neither spared a moment for words; they focused solely on where they were heading.  Each man's head swirled with his own thoughts. 

Denethor's were solely on Gondor and what this attack meant to it.  He shuddered at the thought of how incredibly vulnerable they were.  For Corsairs to have come so close to Minas Tirith - it was unthinkable.   Were there others along the way also?  Was this the forward thrust of a larger force, or the rear guard of such a force?  That thought sent his heart racing.  Perhaps they were too late.  Perhaps Minas Tirith was already under attack.  He spurred his horse faster.  No sooner had he prompted the horse to the faster gait, than he pulled Rochallor up again.  They were all tired, horses too.  They had been on the road, or in the battle, since early morning.  He had to give his mount a moment's rest.   Hros and Amdir needed rest too.  Killing the horses would serve no purpose.

Amdir, too, was deep in thought.  The shame of the afternoon was still upon him.  Denethor's words had been consoling, but now, in the dark and away from the battlefield, his heart sank.  After all the training he had been through, after all the mock battles that they had practiced, still, when the fight was upon him, he had run.  His face reddened at the thought.  He knew it had happened to others.  Never had he thought it would happen to him.  Thoughts of Ingold filled his mind.  What would his father say?  That thought, however, brought comfort.  He knew his father would speak to him as Denethor had.  'It is not in the running that a man is judged,' he had heard him say before, 'but in his coming back to the fight.'  Amdir knew this was just the beginning of Gondor's fight.  He would do everything he could not to make the same mistake.  If he had to chain himself to Denethor, he would be in the thick of it.  He pulled Hros up as Denethor slowed. 

'We will walk the horses for a short distance and then give them freedom to run again,' Denethor said.  'I can hardly abide this pace though.  We should be near Minas Tirith.'

The moon, recognizing the need for reassurance for these men of Gondor, broke through the stifling clouds and lit the spike of the White Tower, mirroring the ghostly light back into Denethor's eyes.  It was all he could do to not rein in Rochallor and stare at it in wonder and awe.  This was one gift he wished for his sons, if ever sons were given him, and that would be to love Minas Tirith with every fiber of their beings as he did.  He gulped a quick breath of air and forced himself on.

~*~

It was well past midnight, but the torches by the Great Gate blazed.   A lone silver trumpet rang out its call as they passed inside - a Lord of Gondor had returned.  Turning into the Rangers' barracks next to the Court of Kings, Denethor was met by Captain Inlach in his night attire.  It weighed heavily upon Denethor that the Rangers had come to such an end - not even one guard on duty before their barracks - something would have to be done about this.  He pushed that thought into the back of his mind, for there were greater issues pressing him onward.

"What is this need of yours that brings you here at this hour?"  Inlach asked.

"Quick, steeds for Amdir and myself.  Ours are spent from our journey and we must needs speak with the Captain-General immediately.  I do not trust our horses to endure to the Seventh Level at the pace we must needs set."

"As you wish, my Lord.  Hurry," he said to an underling, "bring two horses to Lord Denethor."

"And make sure our horses are tended well," Denethor shouted to the servant as he mounted his new steed.

As they hurtled up each level, Denethor chafed at the distance.  He remembered as a child wishing for a horse to make this interminable climb swifter; here he was again wishing for a speedier route.  They left their mounts at the stable on the Sixth Level and hurried forward.  As they reached the escarpment and strode towards the Steward's Hall, a guard stopped them and pointed towards the White Tower

"Lord Ecthelion is waiting for you there, my Lord.  The trumpet woke him.  He bids you enter."  He motioned them forward as the Chamberlain came, requesting they follow him.  Denethor nodded his head as the guard left, acknowledging his service.  Ecthelion bid them sit, but Denethor strode towards him, greeted him with bowed head and hand upon his chest, then began to speak.

"Captain-General," he used his father's title. "Great evil has come to Gondor. A troop of Corsairs attacked us at the Crossings of Erui. We destroyed them, but we lost many." Anguish touched his voice. "Father, it is as you have dreaded.  Gondor is under attack."

His leg throbbed and he looked for a seat. "The Lady Morwen is ill," he continued, "She cannot be moved.  Thengel has sent scouts to search the land - to see if more of the enemy are about.  But there are so few of the company left, they will all be lost if we are not swift in sending them reinforcements."

A servant brought mulled wine, bread and cheese, but Denethor turned his head.  Tears were so close.  Amdir sent the servant back for the healer.

"We will send help; however, I will not involve Turgon in this.  It is late and haste must be of paramount concern, but we must also use caution," Ecthelion said as Ingold, Gwinhir, Durahil and Inlach entered the chamber.  The healer followed behind them, quickly evaluated Denethor's wound, and made him sit by the fire as he tended him.

All in the room listened attentively as Denethor obeyed Ecthelion and told again, but in greater detail, of the attack and their flight to Gondor for help.  These Captains and Masters of Gondor were dumbfounded.  Denethor knew their hearts blazed with fury as they thought of Corsairs on their beloved roads, their defiling feet on the lands of Gondor.  They said naught, however, and waited upon the Steward's son.

"As I said as you entered, we will send Thengel the rest of his company, plus two more.  They will leave at dawn."  He held up his hand as Denethor started to speak.  "A cart will be needed; I want it protected along the way.  Haste without wisdom creates a fool's errand."

"I am going with them."  The entire company turned towards the even, low voice.

"I forbid it!" Ecthelion said as Indis stepped from the shadows.  She had entered unnoticed with the others, saw Denethor was being tended to, and stayed by the door. 

"Forbidden or not, my Lord, I am going," she said as she stepped to her brother's side.  She put her hand on his shoulder.  "Morwen will have need of me.  She is with child."

Denethor felt as if a sword had cut him once more.  He should have known; he cursed himself.   He should have known.  Morwen had been most anxious to see her parents.  Nothing Thengel had said would dissuade her from taking the trip.  Now he understood so many things, her tiredness at each phase of the journey, her wanting to be near her mother almost the entire time they had been at their homestead, her illness.  He thought of his own mother, lost at his birth, and he would not have that happen to Thengel.  "Father, we must be away now."

Ecthelion's face had whitened at the news.  Rían's cold, white face looked at him from the grave.  "Yes! Assemble the companies immediately.  The cart will follow.  What healer is with the company now?"

"Arciryas," said Denethor. 

Ecthelion turned towards Indis.  "If you are going, then wake Master Healer Adanedhel.  He must accompany you."

"I would be one of the company, if my Lord allows," said Amdir.  "And I, Father," entreated Denethor. 

"Neither of you have slept since the night before last, according to your tale.  You must rest.  And you, Denethor, must heal."

"Father," Denethor looked beseechingly at the healer, "I am well enough to travel.  The wound was tended well after the battle."  The healer nodded his approval.  "I must go to my captain. He has great need of me."

Ecthelion knew of what need his son spoke.  Loath as he was to agree, he could not forbid his son this request.  "Go then, but in the cart, the both of you, and have your horses follow behind. Rest as you can on that ride, and then aid Thengel as you may."

~*~

It seemed the whole of Minas Tirith was awake, all but Turgon, asleep in the Steward's Hall.   'Wen had held Indis close, and then bid her sister farewell.  She must stay by the Steward.  She knew she could not dissuade Indis from her path; she helped her pack warm robes, blankets and clothes.  Firieth, newly assigned to the Master Healer, helped pack ointments, herbs, healing droughts, and cloth for bandages.  She gave the packaged supplies to Indis when she stopped by the Houses of Healing to fetch Adanedhel. 

The soldiers left the City, hearts deep in sorrow.  All knew what they might find when they arrived at the Crossings - perhaps the entire company dead, Thengel and his men, and the kind Morwen.  The pace was set.  The company quickly outdistanced the cart and its occupants.  Denethor chafed to be riding in a cart instead of at the forefront with his fellow soldiers.  Amdir quietly bid him rest and Denethor knew he must.

The first pale fingers of the sun were starting to streak the sky as the company drew close to the Crossings.  Fires could be seen, lit in the distance.  Denethor had wakened an hour earlier, and was heartened to see the light.  Corsairs would never light a fire so close to Minas Tirith.  He fervently hoped it was Thengel's fires that he saw, not those of the rescuers who had preceded them. 

He scrambled from the cart ere it stopped and searched the area for Thengel.  A sob caught in his throat. Thengel was standing apart from his men, his shoulders shaking. Denethor knew the news before asking, but found compelled to ask, "Is the Lady Morwen well?"

Thengel turned slowly towards his friend.  "The child is lost."

~*~

Adanedhel and Indis had run to the tent that held Morwen.  Dropping to her knees, Indis quickly hugged her friend.  The healer evaluated her, shook his head, and spoke with Arciryas. "There was naught I could do," he said. "The babe was dead ere it was born.  I have tended to Morwen's needs, but alas, there was naught I could do.'  He shook his head in sorrow. This was the first babe Arciryas had ever lost. For it to be his captain's son! 

Indis sat next to Morwen, holding her head and rocking her gently.  Her tears mingled with Morwen's. "I suppose I should not have come," Morwen sobbed. "I knew I was with child, but I so wanted to speak with my mother. I had not even told Thengel. Never let him speak to the child within me." Her sobs increased as the warmth and love of Indis penetrated the darkness that had lain about her since the healer had told her the babe was lost. She kept running her hand over her stomach, wishing that the child was still within her.  "Indis!" she suddenly wailed.  "Indis!"  And Indis held her as if Morwen herself were a child and helped her friend release the anguish. 

Ciramir and the scouts had returned.  The camp was struck; the decimated, wounded army turned north.  Denethor shook his head. Naught would ever be the same. 

~*~

Indis held Morwen the entire time it took to return to Minas Tirith.  Thengel's beloved sobbed and slept, sobbed and slept. Arciryas road alongside the cart, his face contorted with pain.  He had seen men die before, had cut off limbs to save their lives, had told families of loved ones' deaths, but never had he felt this before.  It cut him deeply.  Life was supposed to have been here, and joy, and the promise of a future.  Now there was just death in all its finality.

His captain road at his side, head bowed, tears long spent.  Thengel would look towards the cart when Morwen was awake, trying to impart some measure of comfort to her, but she would look away when their eyes met.  The world tore apart every time she looked from his face.  His heart tore with it.  He had failed her - miserably.  The little things that he had been so very glad to do, help her off her horse, rub her shoulders during the day, hold her close at night, all were for naught.  When she really needed him, he was gone.  No good did it do to tell himself he had been needed at the battle.  He knew with every fiber of his being that he did what he must.  But riding alongside her negated everything, everything. No wonder she would not look at him.

Morwen retched suddenly and Thengel called a halt.  The constant crying was taking its toll on her.  Indis hugged her more closely and offered her water.  "Indis," Morwen whispered for the thousandth time.  "What am I to do?  I have lost our child.  Look at Thengel, how he looks at me.   He is angry, I know it.  He must hate me.  Oh, Indis, what am I to do?" 

"Hush, you silly child.  Thengel is dying inside.  He loves you.  He would cut off his arm 'ere he saw you in pain.  The look he is giving you is one of comfort.  Can you not see it?  There is no anger in him, except perhaps at himself for leaving you, but no anger at you."

"Anger? At himself?" Morwen asked, shocked.

"Yes, anger at himself for leaving you, my dearest, for leaving you."

Thengel dismounted and approached the cart.  He shook.  How would she react to his presence?  "My beloved, how fare you?"

Her eyes darted this way and that.  She looked quickly at Indis who smiled at her.  He gently reached out and touched her shoulder.  She did not recoil. He breathed a sigh of relief.  "My beloved, do not turn your face from me.  Please. Do not take your love from me.  I could not bear to lose you."  Indis beckoned him into the cart and moved over so that Thengel could sit next to Morwen.  They sat together; he holding her hand in his; she sobbing quietly.

~*~

When Thengel called the halt, the men rode slightly ahead and stopped.  Every soldier there loved Thengel.  In varying degrees, they felt for their captain.  Death on the battlefield was one thing - one thing they all understood.  But this loss was unthinkable.

Denethor and Amdir turned in their saddles to watch their friend.  They could not hear - did not want to hear - but the droop of their captain's shoulders told them volumes.  Ciramir ordered the company to stand down.  Some men dismounted; some took dried meat from their packs and ate.  Others lay on the ground, glad for the respite.

"Did you...?" started Amdir.

"What is it?" asked Denethor.

"Nothing. I am sorry, nothing."

"Seriously, Amdir, did I what?"

"Did you think during the battle or did you just kill?" Amdir asked.

Denethor still reeled from the battle, their headlong rush to secure help, the loss of Thengel's child.  He sat heavily upon Rochallor. 

Ciramir rode over and dismounted.  "Come, let us walk for a few moments." 

Denethor and Amdir did as he requested, and the three men walked away from the company.

"I would hear your thoughts, also.  Forgive my eaves dropping."

Ever since the battle, Denethor would shiver now and again at the thought of the men that he killed.  His first battle; his first kill.  Would he be able to forget their faces?  He was embarrassed.  The fear started again in his gut.  He did not want to go back to that time.

Ciramir sensed his thoughts.  "There is no reason to fear the battle, nor your reaction.  It is over and done with.  Now is the time, in the sunlight and in the company of friends, to speak of it.  Your first battle.  There will never be another like it.  It is good to examine it and your reactions to it.  This will help you become better soldiers.  It will also prepare you for the next battle."

"And what if I say that fear ran rampant through my heart and my very being?" Denethor snapped angrily, now thoroughly embarrassed.

"Then you would have answered correctly.  Once you lose fear, Denethor, you will be dead.  Never let pride in your ability overcome your fear.  Welcome fear; use it to focus on what you must do.  You did well yesterday.  I watched you - you did as you were trained.  There was one moment when you were distracted and that moment almost cost you your life, but you recovered."

How could Denethor tell Ciramir that that moment was when he could not find Amdir?

"You too, Amdir," Ciramir continued.  "You must remember this.  Fear drove you from the battlefield.  You should have grabbed it, clasped it to your heart and used it.  Instead, you let it drive you to another horror, one that will be with you until you are tested again."

Amdir hung his head and Denethor pitied his friend. 

"I... I see their faces," Denethor said quietly, almost in a whisper.  "I almost wish I had left the field of battle myself.  The moment of death..."

Ciramir put a hand on Denethor's shoulder.  "Sadly, you will lose that horror, Denethor.  One face will soon meld into another.  It is not good, but that is the way of it.  A soldier's life... a soldier's burden.  I do not believe the men of Númenor were created to kill.  Because of the lies of the One we do not name, Westernesse is no more, and we live with the evil he has unleashed on our land."

"Ah, I see Thengel has remounted.  Let us go," said Ciramir.  "Remember, the both of you, what I have said.  There is no shame in fear, no shame in remorse over killing, and no shame in relying on your friends to get you through the battle.  However, remember what is at stake.  Gondor!  And we who fight for Gondor know - it is all for Gondor."

Ch. 7 - Third Age 2947 - Part One

He was not sure why but it had surprised him when he discovered that Morwen, Thengel's beloved, was of high Númenórean blood. Her fair face and black hair all bespoke of that heritage. Her father, he found, was the son of one of the Princes of Dol Amroth. But since finding that, it was no surprise to him when Thengel and Morwen decided they would go to the festivities centered around the birth of the new Princess of Dol Amroth, Ivríniel. Berthil was going with them. He and Morwen's mother had moved to Minas Tirith the year Morwen lost their child. Ecthelion would not gainsay their need to be near their daughter. Thengel would take his entire company with him. He would not have Morwen unprotected again, though there had been no further Corsair sightings. Indis had decided she would also be one of the parties. Ecthelion had been invited, but declined, so she would take his place as representative of the Steward of Gondor. Morwen was delighted that her sister-friend was coming with her. The long trip would be shortened by their closeness.

They would also use this time to finish their gift of fine embroidery for the new princess. Indis, thanks to the kind teachings of Elleth, was becoming quite adept at embroidery and was now teaching Morwen. The laughter from the cart that Thengel insisted they ride in was infectious. Soldiers close to the women were caught smiling. Thengel relished this time and rode his steed as close as possible, within the bounds of propriety, to the cart. Discipline had to be maintained and he did not want those in his command to think him weak. That thought brought a smile to his face. His men knew him for what he was - stern warrior, brave soldier, and totally smitten by his 'beloved.' Yes, he knew he was utterly under her spell and loved every moment of it. And he knew his men were aware of his hopelessness. He laughed aloud at the thought of how completely he had fallen. He also laughed for the joy of it. To hear his 'beloved' laughing again meant all the world to him. The past year and a half had been good. They had grown in their affection. Grief, which had lain as a close bond between them, strengthened their devotion to each other. After the first few hours of self-recrimination and misunderstanding, they had clung to each other and become whole through each other's love.

Denethor requested that he be allowed to remain behind. Though Thengel looked at him quizzically, he ordered it so. Yes, Denethor had wanted to see the sea - he could almost taste it his desire was so great. He wanted to speak with Prince Angelimir, but this was not the time. All of Dol Amroth would be in a glorious uproar; there would be no time to speak of ship captains and sailing vessels and all the things Denethor's heart ached to speak of. He had ideas heavy upon his heart since the Battle of the Crossings and decided that the time was ripe to address them. Amdir, however, was ordered to go. Denethor had at least a month, perhaps two, before they returned.

~*~

He walked slowly to the First Level; he could have ridden, but wanted to take this time to think, to plan his approach. He shook his head. He still did not have the diplomacy of Thengel. He wanted to rush in, shout orders, and make changes that he felt were so desperately necessary. He knew that was not the path to take, however, and once again shook his head.

"Captain Inlach," he greeted the old man as he entered the Ranger's barracks. "How fare you this day?"

"What do you want?" The old man was beyond worrying about dallying with the heir to the Stewardship. He had been critical of Thengel's promoting him. He thought it was only because Denethor was Ecthelion's son. He would not spend time with this lad. How old was he now? Only seventeen. Still wet behind the ears. If he was as proud as Ecthelion, this would be wasted time. He wished Denethor were more like Turgon. Turgon had been the one to make Inlach Captain of the Rangers and had left him to his own devices as to what that captaincy meant. Now here was this upstart. What did he want anyhow? He still chafed over the rough treatment he felt Denethor had given him the night of the Battle of the Crossings. Just rode in and started shouting orders! 'Little whelp,' he scowled to himself.

Denethor sensed the anger in the man and was hard put to understand it. "My Lord," he said, "I have come to..." To what? That was the problem. How did he make this man understand the need for action? He knew the captain's loyalty was to Turgon. So was his! Did not Inlach realize this? But he must have seen, he must know of the dreadful dangers that were all about them. He must realize that defenses were needed. How to start? He wished Thengel was with him. Perhaps he had made a mistake and should wait for his own captain's return?

"Might I sit down? Have you a cup of tea?" He sat as Inlach, growling, motioned him to a chair and looked at the old man. "I have been studying the first Battle of the Crossings and would like to have your input on the matter. Turgon has told me of your great fondness for the history of Gondor and your knowledge. I have spent many hours with my tutor on such things, but would most appreciate the sharing you might give me... your feelings about the battle and what strategy might have been used to save more lives. Would you be able to give me a moment of your time?"

Inlach fairly bristled with pride. That his Lord would suggest Denethor come and speak with him about the history of Gondor. Well, he could not let the lad learn only one side of the tale. He was certain his tutor, whomever he was, had not properly told him the entire tale of that time. He went to the little stove, removed the hot water to the cupboard with the tea leaves, the cups and the teapot. Filling it, he returned to the table, all the while harrumphing and generally making a fuss. He talked for hours. Their tea grew cold. His knowledge far exceeded what Denethor had expected and he felt a certain embarrassment at his attitude toward the old man. That attitude was quickly changing into respect. As the sun began to wane, Denethor thanked Captain Inlach and excused himself. Again, the faint rush of embarrassment surprised him. He realized that he had judged the man, and unfairly at that. He would not be so rash the next time.

However, he had to choke back a laugh as he left the captain's chambers. He had at least made a dent in the old man's armor. He would have patience. He smiled; he felt very satisfied with the progress made. He knew he had the authority, as Ecthelion's son, to go to Ecthelion first and then order the captain to make the changes he sought. But what was the sense of that? This man had seen many campaigns, had been loyal to Turgon and to Gondor his entire life; naught would be served by demeaning him. And what good is enmity when one is courting a friend? Denethor was comfortable with his plan, had thought it through, and knew that, once he presented it, Inlach would see its merits and agree. The real dilemma lay in what his father would think. Well, he would concern himself with that matter once Captain Inlach was aboard.

He liked the image that phrase brought to his mind - 'was aboard.' It reminded him of the great ships of Númenor - those that had sailed from Westernesse as their island home sank beneath the waves. He shivered at the thought. What must it have been like to live through that time - to see friends washed away by the furious waters? He wondered if the Eldar had come and warned the Faithful. But how could the Elves ever conceive that the One would destroy something he had created?

Nay, his ancestors must have felt a warning in their hearts. Perhaps such as the warnings, premonitions and dreams that entered his heart from time to time. He could trace his family's blood back to before Mardil. He knew the blood of Númenor flowed strongly in him. He had come to realize that those with less pure blood, those whose blood had been mixed with the blood of the hill folk who were in Middle-earth before the coming of the Dúnedain, did not have the - what would he call them - the gifts of foresight that he had. He shook his head. A pity that his people would deign to mix their blood, marry outside of those with Númenórean blood. He expected to live a long life, yet knew that others in Gondor - those with mixed blood - would not. He suddenly was very grateful that Amdir was Dúnedain.

He shook his head and smiled at himself. How ever did he fall into this stream of thought? Ah, the thought of the stream reminded him, once again, of the Great Wave that engulfed and destroyed Númenor and all those left on it. He could understand the Lords of Westernesse being distrustful of the Eldar. 'It was because of the lies of the One we do not name,' he thought, 'that men took their ships West. And thus sealed their own fate. The Eldar did nothing to help them. Well, that was not entirely true. They had taught them the art of shipbuilding, had given them many gifts, had visited them often. But in the final moment, where were they? The Faithful had never been afraid of Elves. What was he to think? Were Elves to be trusted or no?' Denethor knew that Elves still dwelt further south near Dol Amroth and north of the Rauros in the forests East of the Misty Mountains, the Land of Lórien. He had even heard rumors of a dwelling beyond the Misty Mountains, in the far West. There were terrifying stories of the Lady of Lothlórien. 'If Men have dealings with the Mistress of Magic who dwells in the Golden Wood, then they may look for strange things to follow. For it is perilous for mortal man to walk out of the world of this Sun, and few of old came thence unchanged, 'tis said.' He remembered those words being spoken to him. Men of Gondor had been lost who had attempted to contact them. He shuddered and thought of how he had been changed by his encounters with the wizard and wondered if an encounter with Elves would wreak the same havoc. Were Elves like that?

However did this division come, this distrust, nay, this fear? He remembered tales of the Battle of Dagorlad. Elves were there in legions defending Middle-earth with Elendil and his sons. Yet, the Elves had drifted into legend and none ever came to Gondor. They hid in their forests and hills. He snorted. Fine use they were to him! Let them come out of their hiding holes. Were they so unwise as to not know that the forces of evil were gathering. He knew it in his heart, apart from the fact that Ecthelion had oft told him this. Misgivings of the One they do not name. Where was He? He had been defeated in the battle, but not destroyed. Where was He hiding? The Elves certainly would not hide such as this! He shook his head trying to clear it of the anger, nay, the frustration that he felt. All the tales of Elves told of their prowess with arms, their fearlessness, and their courage. What he would give to have an army of Elves at his side now.

Denethor rode towards Osgiliath, supposedly on an errand to the garrison there. His real reason none knew. As he approached the ruined city, he pulled up on Rochallor, dismounted and stood.

The sun was just rising over the mountains of the Ephel Dúath and shadows lay long on the city. As ever, his heart grew heavy at the desolation before him. This horror. He had read so much of the glory of Osgiliath. Fortress of the Stars. Jewel of Gondor. His heart ached and tears threatened. Mighty walls, towering buildings, graceful arched streets, museums, art galleries, monuments, the Dome of Stars wherein lay the Seeing Stone, all lost, destroyed during the Kin-strife. He shuddered at the thought of that time - so heinous that it crushed this beautiful city. How could he make certain that history would not repeat itself?

'When the king comes...' Words always on his father's lips. His mind whirled at the implications that thought brought. Who would discern if the claimant was the rightful king? How did a Steward make such a decision? The horror of the Kin-strife was before his very eyes! This is what would happen if he were Steward and made the wrong decision. He turned his back on the ruins and faced full upon his City, the White City. His eyes clouded and suddenly he saw fire, smoke, broken parapets - his City in ruin. Soldiers and horses, dead, strewn about the field of Pelennor like hay strewn out to dry, no sign of green grass beneath the bodies, so thick did they lay. He closed his eyes, but the vision would not leave him. He heard the moans of the dying and faint war horns, blowing in vain. Everywhere was destruction. His heart quelled in fear. There were no signs to tell him what wrought this devastation. He tried to breathe quietly, to dispel the darkness surrounding him. His nose pinched at the smell of death.

"Nay!" he screamed aloud. "I will not let this happen to my City!" At that, the vision ceased. He was alone again and the White City shone in the sun. He took a steadying breath and mounted, turned towards Osgiliath and repeated his vow. "I will let naught destroy my City. I will let naught destroy my Gondor. No matter the cost. No matter the cost!" Shaking off the horror of the vision, he rode onward.

~*~

He smiled as he reached Osgiliath's sewers. The unhappy memories of that day long ago were overshadowed by the mission he now had. Seeing the vision had made him surer of his course of action. He tethered Rochallor near a cistern and slid down the side of the sewer, keeping his head low. He chuckled. Last time he was here, he did not have to bend down; he had been nine. 'Well,' he thought to himself, 'I suppose this proves I have grown, at least in stature!' He went quickly through and soon reached the other side, slightly wetter for the broken areas in the sewer, but intact. He again laughed to himself. 'When we take back the city, I must fix that leak.' The dust of the city stifled his laughter; the lack of echo quickly brought him back to the certainty that life was not as he wished it. He swiped off some of the dirt and cobwebs that had clung to him during his passage, left a mark on the stone nearest the entrance, and started off towards North Ithilien. It was eight years since last he set foot here. He wondered why he was startled that his old markers were missing. Eight years is a long time for wind and rain and the ravages of who knew what that came here. Again, there were no tracks visible - only dust and disillusionment. Once more, that piercing ache came to his heart, the same one he had during the vision, but he swept it aside with his arm, as if physical movement could erase the feeling.

He spent long hours walking northward. He knew that there had once been farms and villages here, but there were only ruins before him. If there were people left in Ithilien, they lived in the south. Tales told of abandoned fortifications near here. He hoped he would find some. He was heading towards Cair Andros but knew he did not have the time to reach it - not without a horse. He would walk slowly, examine these woods, and come back later, after Captain Inlach was swayed to his thinking. He would bring only a few men with him, but enough to protect themselves. Something in his heart told him that Cair Andros must be refortified. Must be. And he had heard tales of a cave. This was not the time to look for it, but mayhap he would find the beginnings of an old path and thus begin to denote how he might find it again.

He took out his log and started to mark some of the paths where he had come, marking X's here and there to stand for fresh water, another to show where a deep valley ran. He would find someone to make good maps of the area. A scribe would not do. He would need someone with knowledge of terrains and warfare.

~*~

Indis and Morwen were enthralled with the festivities. The Princes of Dol Amroth besieged their guests with gifts, food, plays, and all manner of dancing and singing. For fourteen days the merriment continued. The women had rooms adjoining each other and every night, as they concluded the day's activities, they would sneak away and giggle and laugh about what they had seen, done and heard that particular day. Thengel and the men would stay up late into the night telling tales of battles and deeds of valor. These men of Belfalas were all noble looking and Morwen was ever trying to find someone special for her friend. Indis was beside herself. She did not know if she wanted anyone. She had duties to perform; after all, she was mistress of all Gondor, was she not. How would she find time to take care of a husband, as Morwen did, and still run the City? Morwen teased her ceaselessly and lovingly.

Within weeks after they arrived, Morwen turned to Indis in the garden where they had come for morning tea. "I... do not know how to say this, but I believe I am with child again. I am frightened, Indis. So far from home. How will I ever tell Thengel? He will think I have lied to him, but I have not. There were no signs before this." She wretched again as she leaned over the basin that Indis had brought for her; even tea had upset her stomach. "I kept telling myself it was the strange food or the excitement of this place, but I know now it is not." She began to wail. Indis shook her head. She knew her friend was frightened, but she was twenty-one now. This was no way for the 'beloved' of Thengel to behave.

"Listen to me, dearest sister-friend. You will be fine. Sometimes, healers have told me, the body purges itself of a first child to make the woman stronger, to prepare the womb properly. You are older than you were, and I myself have been watching your food and drink, making sure you are eating what is good and wholesome. You are a strong young woman now and will have no trouble carrying the babe. You must, however, tell Thengel immediately. He will want to return to Minas Tirith as soon as arrangements can be made. If you delay any longer, he will think that you have been less than truthful in this matter. You do not want him to think that, my dearest friend. Wipe your eyes, lave your face, and I will walk with you to him. He is in the court of Prince Angelimir. I will leave you on the terrace and bring him to you."

The party set out for Minas Tirith the next morning; two healers being sent by the prince to tend to the Lady Morwen. A carriage was provided with a great store of pillows and coverlets and mantels to keep Morwen warm in the cool winter's air, and help protect her from any untoward jarring. Indis and she spent the entire trip sharing thoughts of cradles and clothing and coverlets and such to be made for the little one. As on that last fateful trip, Thengel hovered within hearing distance of the carriage. His every thought was upon her, his 'beloved,' and he could not sleep during the nights as they traveled slowly towards the White City.

~*~

Denethor finally turned back towards Osgiliath. He found neither sign nor inkling of a hidden cave. Everything was in disarray in North Ithilien and his spirits drooped. There were no signs of Orcs, no signs of anything but a deserted country, waiting. It was this sense of waiting that most disturbed him. He continually looked over his shoulder with the distinct impression that he was being followed. He realized his folly in coming alone to this enemy-ridden land. What a fool he was. Was it pride that had sent him here alone? He held the hilt of his sword and put his left hand on his horn. He quickened his pace and scolded himself for looking backwards. What good would that do if there were any enemy behind him? He would use his other senses and walk forward. How he wanted to run. His face flushed with the thought of it. Run as fast as he could back towards the ruined city. He knew he could not. He took a deep breath and forced himself to slow the pace. If an enemy was behind him, he did not want to give away the knowledge that he was aware of it.

The hairs on the back of his neck quivered. He closed his eyes for a moment and heard it, the soft crack of a twig being broken. Fear gripped his heart and blood rushed through his body. There was definitely some one behind him. He was far from any help. He forced his thoughts to return from that other fateful day when he and Amdir had been obliged to spend the night in Osgiliath with no fire, no warm clothes, no hope for help till the morning. Yet, help had come, unexpectedly from his mother's brother, Cranthir. The thought of Cranthir brought stinging tears to his eyes. He was going to die here in this forsaken land and none would know of it, for Cranthir was dead.

'I will face my enemy,' he thought, 'It would be better to die in battle than with an arrow in my back.' He took a deep breath, pulled his sword from its scabbard and turned. His eyes scanned the trees for a sign of what might be stalking him. His fear was Orcs but it could be anything, from a panther to a Haradrim. Nothing. Nothing faced him. He gave a longer sweep of the area and still found nothing. Letting his breath out, he placed the sword back in the scabbard and turned back towards his path. Then it hit him, full in the back and knocked him to the ground. He scrambled to his feet all the while trying to disentangle his sword from between his legs, to pull the Horn around to wind it. At the same time, whatever had hit him pushed him hard to the ground again, shoving his face into the dirt. A low growl sent a shiver down his back. He found his arms were pinned behind him, held by a rope. How had he been so quickly overtaken?

"Tell me," a low voice growled, "Do all the Lords of Gondor fall prey so easily?

Denethor squirmed and tried to break the bonds holding his hands. "I will kill you, when finally I am loose," he screamed.

His captor laughed. "You and what army? You are naught without your Horse Guard and your captain ringed about you. Just a child playing at soldier."

Denethor wriggled, trying desperately to push the man off his back, but to no avail. Finally, he twisted so that he was facing his captor. "Húrin!" he cried, half in relief, half in chagrin.

"Yes, little one. It is Húrin who holds you captive. Whatever betook you to come this far north alone? Do you not know the dangers here or is your pride so great that you would think yourself immortal? The blood of Númenor might run through you, but the Lords of Westernesse do die," he said as he untied Denethor's hands and helped him to his feet. "Once again, a Captain of Osgiliath has rescued you."

"I had no need of rescue," Denethor cried hotly, though the color had risen in his face and his eyes shone with the beginnings of tears. How could he have let his guard down so much as to not have heard this detachment from Osgiliath? He saw the soldiers around him smiling openly at Húrin's barb; this did naught to assuage Denethor's embarrassment.

Húrin swung up onto his horse and held his hand out for Denethor to grab, but Denethor would have none of it. Húrin's voice grew cold. "Must I make this an order, Lieutenant?"

Denethor pursed his lips and gave his hand to the captain. The detachment followed close behind as they headed towards Osgiliath.

Húrin sighed. "You are the only heir to the Steward. If evil befalls you, what will Gondor do? Have you not thought out your purposes enough to know you, of all people, should not wander alone in these lands?"

Denethor's cheeks smote as if Húrin had physically struck him. He almost wished the captain had hit him. This rebuke hurt more than a slap would have, for he knew the truth of Húrin's words.

"I will say no more on this matter, Denethor, for I know you and I know your heart. You are punishing yourself more at this moment than I could in an age. Let us speak of why you are here."

Denethor hung his head. He had not wanted to share this with anyone as of yet. He had not even told Amdir about it. Too many questions hung about him, too many unresolved issues, too many loose ends. Yet, he almost sighed at the thought of sharing his plans with someone.

"I am convinced, as my father is, that something more evil than Orcs is planning the destruction of Gondor. I do not know what, nor when this will be attempted, but I must do something, device defenses, anything to prepare for this. When the Corsairs attacked, I vowed we would not be ill equipped to meet the enemy again. When Amdir and I entered Minas Tirith that night, the barracks of the Rangers were not even guarded. We have fallen into dishonor. We tarnish the name of the Rangers. I remember tales of the Dúnedain of Ithilien and I wonder if these are truly their descendants. These warriors I read of do not resemble those living in our barracks. It is not the fault of Inlach. He is a great warrior. I have spoken with him and, I believe, if he had the right men and the order from Turgon, he would surely make a force worth reckoning with. I believe the Rangers should be stationed in Ithilien, their presence known only to a few, and be a hidden defense for Gondor. They could be taught the ways of the bow and arrow again and cut and parry at our enemy. The forests of Ithilien would be a place of terror for Orcs instead of it being a place of terror for Gondorians!"

His passion was not lost on Húrin. "You speak wisely, my Lord. I agree with your assessment of the danger and I applaud your plans. Yet, Turgon will never allow this. And Inlach will never do what Turgon will not allow. Will you then take the captaincy from Inlach?"

"Nay. Never. He has been a faithful and true soldier of Gondor. I would do all in my power to persuade him to accept this. If I cannot do it, perhaps you would..."

"Now, now, my young Lord, I do not see what my becoming enmeshed in your plans would do to help. Inlach is Captain of the Rangers and I am Captain of Osgiliath. We each have our own devices for the safekeeping of those who have been put in our charge. Perhaps he will see the wisdom of your words. Or there might be another, not so close to him, who yet commands his respect."

"It is not Ecthelion. He loves Turgon and believes that Ecthelion has none of the greatness that is Turgon's. Thengel will not do for Thengel has promoted me and that is a sore point in Inlach's mind." He shook his head. Was there no way around this? "Ingold! Yes, I may speak with Ingold. He and Inlach have fought side by side and both are loyal to Turgon. Thank you, Captain Húrin. I will speak with Ingold when I return home."

Húrin laughed to himself. Denethor showed much promise. He listened, and that was a good trait for a Steward. Now if he would just put aside his pride. It would certainly save him grief.

~*~

Amdir had met someone while they were in Dol Amroth. Her name was Listöwel. They had met while in the Prince's palace; Listöwel was a handmaiden for one of the Prince's cousins. Amdir had been drawn by her quiet dignity and her happy smile. There was no time for anything even approximating courtship, but his heart was taken from the first. He was lost. How or when would he ever see her again? Her hours and minutes were all taken by her duties, but once in awhile their hands would touch as she poured a libation for her mistress, or they would pass in the great castle's halls and slow their opposing steps. She would smile at him shyly and he would practically walk into the nearest wall. His eyes seemed glazed; he only wanted to see her - nothing else seemed to matter. Despairing, he went to Thengel.

"What am I to do? I... I have never felt this way before. I know we will not see each other once the festivities are over. Yet, I cannot bear that thought. Thengel," his voice echoed the pain in his heart, "What am I to do?"

Putting his hand over his mouth to hide the smile that grew there, Thengel tried to think of something that he could say that would give Amdir some respite, perhaps even some hope.

"Amdir, we are friends. Listen to me now. This is not the end of things. Morwen is of the house of Prince Angelimir. We will be invited to many more festivals, ceremonies and such. I will make it a point, whenever I am able, to assign you to guard duty on our journeys back and forth. You will be able to see her again. There will be long spells between these visits, but your relationship will grow stronger, if your feelings are true. Does the lady return these feelings?"

"How can I know? How can I be sure? She seems to want to be in my company. I, of course, have twisted my schedule to be wherever she is - though it is unbeknownst to her. As for her feelings for me - she smiles when she sees me. Is that any indication?" he cried again.

Thengel could see Amdir was tormented by doubts and love and foreseen loneliness. He shook his head. "We might speak with Morwen. She and Listöwel seem to be friendly."

'I would be too embarrassed to ask. Perhaps... Nay, forgive me. I cannot ask that of you."

Again, Thengel had to suppress a grin. "I will do my best to be discreet yet trustworthy in finding an answer for you, my friend."

~*~

Morwen, Indis and Listöwel indeed had become fast friends and when Listöwel had discovered Morwen was with child, she begged to be allowed to move to Minas Tirith and serve her. Prince Angelimir had been most happy with the arrangement and so, when the company set out for Minas Tirith, Listöwel was with them, much to Amdir's joy.

~*~

"I know that what I ask might seem fantastic, given the thoughts of my adadhron," Denethor spoke quietly, "but I believe it is possible to work around these ideas of Turgon's. What say you, Ingold?"

"Nay, it does not seem fantastic. It bears much thought. Bring the Rangers back to Ithilien? Hmmm. I believe you are correct, Denethor. I believe we can sway Ecthelion. And Inlach will obey. He is a soldier. I will come with you when you meet with your father. He respects me. You were wise to not approach him alone. Perhaps Thengel will join us in this venture. Or should I say adventure. Ithilien is almost totally bereft of her people. It would do my heart good to once again know she is safe."

~*~

Through all his machinations, his heart hurt and he did not know why. There were times when he felt as if he was a third thumb. Amdir spent his days with Listöwel and Thengel with Morwen; where was he? He began to think of other things besides training, Gondor, and his father. Perhaps there were other things in life. Nay, nay, this thinking was not for the future Steward of Gondor. Others could have their happiness, but not he. He would have to find his happiness in serving Gondor. Is not that what his father had oft told him? Besides, who would want to take a wife and then have to leave her at home for months at a time, as a lowly lieutenant pulled duty in other places in the kingdom. What woman would put up with that?  Did Listöwel know that would be her fate someday, and Morwen? Of course, Morwen's situation was different. One day, no matter what Thengel thought, the man would be King of Rohan. Morwen would live at Edoras with him and he would send others off to their duty. He shook his head. This was foolish thinking. Was there a time when Thengel would let his men go without him? Would he even consider remaining in Meduseld when his troops were sent off to danger?

Action - that was what he needed. To be out on patrol with his unit. He would approach Thengel and ask for a sortie towards Rohan. They had surveyed the area directly above the North Gate, but there were other places to survey before reaching the borders of Rohan. Anórien was well known by Amdir and Denethor. They had oft traversed its forests just for the pleasure of it. He had maps sent from the Great Library to his room, poured over them, and discovered that the forests were not well mapped. They could be gone for weeks, perhaps fish a little, and return with valuable information. He pursed his lips. Amdir might be angry with him for taking him away from Listöwel, but he would be pleased once they began their trip.

His deepest desire, however, was to map Northern Ithilien, but he knew that Thengel would not allow this. They had a loud and passionate disagreement when Denethor brought the subject to Thengel's attention. First, Thengel had been furious that he had gone alone. Secondly, he was furious that Denethor had discussed anything about the Rangers with Captain Húrin. And thirdly, he was just furious. "Chain of command," he kept spouting and Denethor had to check his own temper. Did Thengel think he was a raw recruit unable to care for himself in the wild? Well, Húrin, of course, had to report about how they found Denethor, but the captain did not tell Thengel of their overtaking him unawares. For this, Denethor was mightily grateful. Once again, Denethor wished he could speak with his father. Since Thengel had become Horse Guard Captain and Ingold Captain of the Tower Guard, it seemed his father had no time for him. His loneliness, he now realized, was not just from Thengel and Amdir's distance, but also from his father's.

He kicked at stones as he walked towards the stables. Being with the horses, with Rochallor, always made him feel better. He brushed his horse's coat and nuzzled him with his head, placing it under his friend's neck and sighing deeply. Perhaps if he went to his father. That was the beginning of the chain of command - his father, now that Turgon was losing what wits were left to him. That thought brought tears to Denethor's eyes. Why was there always change? Why could not his adadhron live forever? He felt foolish - he was seventeen. But his memories were stirred by the thought of Turgon - deep and heartfelt memories of a trusted ally against Ecthelion's indifference. Here he was again, dwelling on those things which were of consequence to a boy, but should no longer disturb a man. Another sigh escaped his lips.

Enough of this! He was already disheartened and their stint of duty had just begun. He looked at Amdir riding next to him in sullen silence and another sigh escaped him. Their orders were to spend the summer charting the area from the River Glanhir to Cair Andros, including the Firien Wood and the Drúadan Forest. They were also to report the status of the beacon-hills.

His heart ached as he turned Rochallor east past the North Gate. He turned around in his saddle to speak with his men, but the glint of the sun on the Anduin and the forests of North Ithilien east of it caught his eye. 'Someday, I will cross the river and do what must be done for Gondor."

Their first night was spent on the western bank of the great river directly across from the island of Cair Andros. Denethor's palms fairly itched at the thought of being so close to North Ithilien and yet not able to cross over. He debated whether he should take a few men and cross the Anduin; at least spend a few hours on the island, exploring it. In his heart, he knew he would be countermanding Thengel's orders, and so he pushed his own will aside and concentrated on the maps that were spread out before him, adding the details of the landscape they had passed through already. How could records be so lacking in basic detail of the area so close to Minas Tirith? He shook his head in wonder at this indictment against Turgon's rule.

Their second night was spent among the pools and reed beds of the marshes of the Entwash; it turned into a thoroughly miserable night. The evening meal had to be taken in their tents for the flies, midges and other insects owned the land and filled the men's eyes, noses and mouths. Reeds and tussocks had hidden them when first their unit had pitched camp, but as night drew nigh, the crickets cries grated on their nerves and the biting insects tried to devour them. Denethor pitied his pickets. Even one hour spent on guard duty would drive a man mad with the flying creatures so thick about them. Great clouds of them swarmed everywhere. Never had he given his men only one-hour duty, but he would not subject them to more of this torture than was necessary. He himself woke every few hours, beset by the incessant buzzing of the creatures that found their way into his tent. He covered his face with his blanket but the noise still filtered through. He hated trying to breathe through his covers. He slept fitfully, awoke, covered his body with his blanket, as undignified as that was, faced the thousands of creatures that flew about him as soon as he stepped out of his tent, relieved his pickets and replaced them with new ones, and returned to his tent, all the while hoping for some surcease from the insects attacks. He spit out a body or two as he tried to settle down again to sleep.

He ordered a late departure for the morrow in hopes that the heat of the summer sun would drive the creatures away, so the men would be able to eat their morning meal in peace. But fate would not have it thus. Rain began falling ere the sun rose and Denethor called the muster, the camp folded, and he and his unit turned westward eating dried meat as they rode. 'What a miserable way to begin an adventure,' he thought. His foul mood was exacerbated by Amdir's sullenness. They had not spoken since the sortie began. Amdir, he knew, was livid at the fact that he must spend the whole summer away from Listöwel and he knew he had Denethor to blame. How was he ever going to repair the damage to their friendship? Another duty would have called to take Amdir away from her, but the instigation for this trip was Denethor's need for action, for distraction from pain, and Amdir was not about to let Denethor forget it and the misery it was causing him.

Another night camped near the marshes and Denethor scowled. 'Naught is going as I planned for this trip,' he thought. He had failed to take into account that early summer was a great breeding time for the insects that inhabited these marshes. The pickets were set and the camp settled as best it could. No moon shone this night and the relentless noises from the pests again made it difficult to sleep. Denethor tossed and turned and finally gave up the struggle. He rose, placed the cover around his shoulders, and stepped outside again. Amdir was awake also, pacing the little camp area despondently. Denethor debated whether or not to join his friend. He could not let him suffer in silence. Perhaps if he encouraged him to speak of Listöwel it would help assuage some of his grief at their separation. That is, if Amdir would not turn away as soon as he saw Denethor approaching. Well, there was naught to do but try.

As he walked purposefully towards Amdir a sound caught his ear - it was silence, the insects had quieted - and a smell assailed his nose. The hairs on his arms flew to attention. He hurled himself at Amdir, knocking the man to the ground as an arrow flew past the place where he had stood. His shout roused the camp and men dashed out of their tents, weapons hastily being snatched from their resting places. 'Why had not the pickets given the alarm?' Denethor wondered as he tried to see through the darkness. He had not even a moment to look. The camp was being overwhelmed by Orcs. He jumped to his feet, gave Amdir a hand up and cut the head off a charging Orc. Another replaced it and Denethor chopped at its arm, severing it cleanly as he turned at the grunt of another behind him. He gratefully acknowledged Amdir's rescue of him as he saw another fall. Now he wished he had ordered fires set, but they had drawn the insects, and the need for shelter from the bugs had caused this lack now. A torch would come in most handy for the Orcs were spilling from the blackness of the night and Denethor could not count their number. Not that the counting of them would do any good. Their only hope was to keep their weapons blazing.

He was glad these men had been with him at the Crossings. They knew how to fight and that skill was desperately needed as more and more Orcs spilled out of the night. Amdir's cry of pain roused Denethor from thought. He ran to his friend's side in time to annihilate the Orc that had struck the blow. Turning to help raise Amdir caused him to miss seeing the Orc on his flank. His left shoulder blazed with a pain that was quickly forgotten as Denethor, falling to the ground, swung his sword and viciously chopped the leg off his attacker. Amdir was on his feet again and was helping Denethor to his when two more Orcs attacked the friends. They placed their backs together and faced their enemies. The sound of death and dying were all about them, along with the sound of the growls of the Orcs and steel hitting flesh. Time seemed to stand still as his sword cut and chopped at the foe all about him. His ears had long since ceased trying to make sense of the noise that assailed them. Years of training had made his arms strong, but the hours of fighting were taking their toll. Would the enemy never stop coming?

As suddenly as the attack occurred, it was over. The Orcs faded into the night. Denethor called for fires to be lit. His men gathered around, their backs to each other and their faces towards the darkness. Once the fires were lit, they counted off. Tears stung Denethor's eyes as the count stopped at thirty-three. There had been fifty men under his command. He sent men with torches to the pickets' posts. They returned with grim news. None had survived. Denethor cursed himself, the night, the insects, the Orcs and anything that had ever moved upon Middle-earth. He set pickets again, but this time closer to camp, and calculated their losses and what their course of action should be. They were only two days from Minas Tirith. Should they return or continue on? He walked the camp trying to decide, but the decision was taken from him as he scanned the carnage before him. Their injuries were numerous, some of his men near death. He would send errand-riders to the City and his unit would return in ignominy. He remembered Amdir and his wounds, but was relieved to see him bending over a fellow soldier, offering him water. He walked towards him and pulled him a few steps away from the camp.

"We will have to return to Minas Tirith, Amdir. Our losses and wounded are too many for us to continue. Since this is just a mapping expedition, duty does not bind us to complete it. Our duty is to the men. Also, Ecthelion must be warned of this attack. I do not understand it. Orcs have not been west of the Anduin for an age - not on Gondor's soil. What is drawing them here against their foresworn enemy? How could I have prevented this?"

"I do not know, Denethor. It seems strange to me as well. We must retreat as you counsel but I find it most difficult to do so. I want to follow them and slay them all." A note of anger and frustration belied the calm on Amdir's face. "We did not humiliate Gondor, Denethor. We fought well. Appease your guilt with that thought." Amdir knew Denethor's nature - the constant voices of guilt that he knew assailed his friend at every moment of calamity. His task now was to stop Denethor's self-denigration and put his mind on what must be done.

"You are right, Amdir. I have sent messengers. We must make haste. We will not prove as able to defend ourselves if another attack occurs. You did well tonight." He said, embarrassed.

"You mean I did not run." Amdir's face blazed with shame. "Nay, I did not run. I wonder if you had not suffered injury, if I would have stayed."

"I saw the look in your eyes, Amdir. There was no fear tonight." He clasped his friend on the shoulder. "Let us away now."

The wounded were horsed with those able to support them and the camp was quickly struck. Much as it pained him, they would leave their dead for burial by others. The condition of the wounded demanded a quick retreat. It would take at least three days, perhaps four with the horses thus overburdened, to make their way back to Minas Tirith. A dark cloud settled on Denethor's heart and the wound in his shoulder started to burn.

~*~

He fell, fully clothed, into his own bed. He was beyond tired and the interview with Ecthelion had taken the last shreds of his strength. Now all he wanted to do was close his eyes. He had disobeyed his father and gone to his quarters instead of the Houses of Healing. The wound in his shoulder was not deep and had already been cleaned by Arciryas. There had been no need to go to another healer. Denethor had almost no recollection of their retreat back to Minas Tirith, except for the fact that he had lost three more of his men before they reached the City. He had never lost men under him before. The men lost at the Crossings had been under Thengel's command. This aborted sortie had been his first. He knew it would not be his last. How was he to endure this? These men had been his friends. He still had to go to their homes to offer his condolences to their families. Seventeen men lost in one night, three on the road, and perhaps another one or two that were still grievously wounded. His head spun as he ticked off the numbers.

The door to his room opened slowly, tentatively. Indis' face was covered with love... and concern. "Denethor," she began and as she spoke his name her tears began to flow. She knelt by his bed and laid her head on his chest, gently touching his bandaged shoulder. "I am so very sorry. Morwen told me of the battle and your loss. Thengel is concerned for you, too. What can I do?" The gentleness in his sister's voice broke the dam that held back his resolve and brother and sister shared their tears.

~*~

Once again, Ecthelion was thwarted by Turgon's utter blindness to reality. The Council was called, Denethor recounted the recent battle with the Orcs, Ecthelion exhorted them to action, and Turgon had said nay. There was no arguing his decision. He was stubborn, even at the end of his life. The Council would not go against him. Ecthelion's heart grew bitter at the folly of his father. He thought, 'I will not let this be the end of it. If Turgon will not take action, I will. In secret if needs be, but action will be taken!' He strode from the Council chamber and none would dare stop him once they looked upon his face.

He called Denethor to his chambers, his face still red from the suffused anger. "I recall your telling me some plan with regards to Ithilien. Would you refresh my memory?"

Denethor's heart leapt. "I will return in a moment, my Lord, if you would but give me leave to bring some maps back with me. They will help illustrate my plan in a clearer way." When he returned with the maps, he outlined his plan to Ecthelion, passion spilling out between the words, as he finally was able to show his father what he had been working on this last year, ever since the Battle of the Crossings.

Ecthelion listened, pointed to places on the maps, asked questions, and then sat - silent. Denethor held his breath. If only he had known this moment would come, he could have better prepared.

"I am impressed. It is a good plan. And you say there is a cave somewhere in this area?" he pointed to a spot on the map northeast of Cair Andros.

"That is what the texts in the Great Library say. Some place that was used of old to defend North Ithilien. I tried to locate it in the early spring, but could find neither sign nor road, but the time I spent there was short. If I could just lead a sortie across the river, I am sure, with the help of these legends that I will be able to find the cave. If all goes well, we might restore it as a watch point for the Rangers. One that they would be able to use as a base camp."

"Who would lead these Rangers?" Ecthelion wanted to know, wondering if Denethor had the temerity to request it for himself.

"It would have to be Captain Inlach. He knows his men and his heart is true."

"He is loyal to Turgon," Ecthelion spoke quietly.

"He is loyal to Gondor, my Lord. I have spoken with him. His love of Gondor and his men supercedes everything else. I have not found a soldier so true."

"You have spoken with him?" Ecthelion asked.

"Yes, my Lord, in the early spring. I... I needed to... I was hurt by the..." Why could he not just tell his father? "I was ashamed at how I found the Rangers when we returned from Lossarnach. Father, I have read some of the history of the Rangers, discovered they were once a great force in Gondor's arsenal against evil. I had to determine what happened, why they now were merely window dressing, sentries who did naught. I had to know if it was Inlach's fault."

"And..."

"I believe the cause may once again be laid at Turgon's feet. Father, he does not see; he... I have the fortune of having listened to your words all these years, heard from you the signs of evil about us. He has not. His councilors seem to have their heads buried in the sands of Harad. They do not read. They have no sense of history. They are fools!"

"You are a little young to be calling your elders fools, are you not?"

"Forgive me, Father. I can hardly bear to see what is happening to Gondor - to Turgon as he slowly slips away from us. And I rue the day he chose the councilors he now has. Father! You know yourself they see no further than their noses. Perhaps I have been a little harsh in calling them fools. What am I to call men who would see Gondor continue its spiral of death and despair? The people walk in oblivion, believing we, the Steward and his family, are taking care of them, when we are not! We sit and listen to the prattle of a man who has lost every vestige of sanity. His sentences make sense no longer. Long ago he should have accepted the gift of the One and laid down with his fathers. I speak thus only because of my love for him - that man who sits on the Steward's Chair is no longer the Steward. He is a shell - an empty shell and ripe for the wiles of his councilors, juggling for positions of power and full of greed."

"My son - you speak treason."

Denethor held his breath. "Nay, Father, I speak the truth. You yourself have said the same things I am saying now. But you have said them couched in honeyed terms, while I speak the same words plainly. I would not have Turgon taken from his Chair. But I would not have Gondor held captive by unscrupulous councilors. Father, we must act now. Something terrible is coming towards Gondor; I can feel it in my heart, in every sinew of my body. Please, speak with Captain Inlach. Build the Rangers back into a force that is too terrible to deal with, one that will cause our enemies to think twice before considering an attack upon Gondor. Do you think the Corsairs would have attacked us if we were strong? Do you think the Orcs would have attacked us on our very borders? Father, I beg you. For Gondor."

Ch. 7 - Third Age 2947 - Part Two

And that is how Denethor, two months later, found himself on the road to Cair Andros with a sizable unit of men following him. He had been most surprised that Ecthelion had agreed to his plan; even more surprised that he had put him in charge of the operation. He still was not sure that he should have been the one leading these men. He had asked for Captain Inlach to head this march, but Ecthelion wanted to wait. He wanted his crack troops part of this. He was not sure of the Rangers' readiness. He also wanted to have more information and a stronger plan ready to present to Inlach. Ecthelion knew that Inlach did not trust him, nor respect him. He would not have this fail because of that lack. When Denethor returned, he would bring Inlach in and apprise him of everything. Then, he would find out whether Inlach would support him on this or no. Would he go to Turgon with the information and hope that he would agree to Denethor's proposal? Ecthelion still was not sure. With Denethor leading picked men, secrecy would be upheld. He was not now ready for anyone to know of this sortie.

Denethor's heart soared. His father trusted him, had listened to him, and had accepted his proposal. Nothing could surpass this feeling that ran like fire through his heart. He must do everything he could to make this a successful venture. Ecthelion had met with Thengel and the two men chose Denethor's company. Denethor had no say in that - but it did naught to quash the joy in his heart over the trust placed in him by his father.

Amdir rode at his side. He had insisted upon Amdir being with him. His wound was not too fearsome to prevent his coming. Neither was Denethor's for that matter. The first day's journey would be easy and that would give them another day of healing. Arciryas once again was with them and for that, Denethor was also grateful. Two battles, hard-fought battles, were under his and Amdir's belts and Arciryas had brought both of them back to Minas Tirith alive. Arciryas was beginning to be a good talisman for him.

They slept on the island itself the first night. The next morning dawned bright and clear - September was warm and the sun helped cheer Denethor. 'A good omen for us - bright sun and good men,' he thought. The island itself was about thirty leagues long and shaped like a great ship, with a high prow pointing north, and the Anduin crashing on the sharp rocks at the point. Bubbling foam it was called. Denethor laughed to think of its name when it was such an important place in his great-adadhron's time. It was still the only practical place for an army to cross the Anduin except for the bridge at Osgiliath - now almost completely ruined. Turin II had been a great leader and had been the last to fortify this island. It had fallen into disrepair under Turgon's rule and no guards were left. That would now change. Ecthelion had given Denethor seventy-five men to be left at Cair Andros when their foray into North Ithilien had been completed. These men would stand guard over Cair Andros, fortify the barracks and the fort on the island, and report directly to Ecthelion. No Rangers these but crack men of the Tower Guard, now a unit unto themselves. The rest of the island was covered with trees and would prove a formidable obstacle to any who came from the east. Denethor thought there might be other uses for this island. Perhaps as the center of a warning system against attack. If Cair Andros was ever breached, some method would have to be devised to warn Minas Tirith. Denethor marked that question in his log with a footnote 'beacon-hills.'

Two days later, they left the island, crossed the east leg of the Anduin, and marched into North Ithilien. 'At last,' he thought, 'we have arrived. I must find that cave. That will be my first priority.' Weeks passed - he only knew the cave was somewhere northeast of the island. He was beginning to give up hope - to think the texts were only legends and not reality. His face burned red at the thought of his failing to find it. He based so much of his argument with Ecthelion on the existence of this cave. What would he do if there were no such thing? No other fortifications had been found. Prospects were looking grim. Amdir and Denethor sat by the fire that night, both men frustrated and angry. Amdir had been a keen supporter of Denethor's plan for the Rangers. If there were no cave to house them, to use as their base camp, how else would they survive in the wilds?

It was not a matter of facing his father. He was becoming used to the gruff way he was regarded. He had noticed that Ecthelion treated him in a rougher manner than when he dealt with his other officers. He could only assume it was because he was his son. The weight of Gondor lay heavily upon his shoulders. It would soon lie on Denethor's. Try as he might to forgive his father for this treatment, try as he might to make excuses for his father, it still hurt. He was building up resistance to the hurt though and hoped that, in time, it would make no difference. It reminded him of when he was a boy and Ecthelion had moved him out of the nursery.  'He must think me weak,' thought Denethor.  'I must continue to show him my strength.'  Now all he had to do was find that dratted cave!

The next morning brought them to the very foot of the Black Gate, built by the men of Númenor in an age past, built to keep evil contained within. It was an awe-inspiring, if terrifying sight. Denethor reassured his men that Mordor was uninhabited. 'This would be a formidable place to attack,' he thought as he sketched the gates and the entrance in his log. The gates yawed open, ominously, like a great beast ready to pounce. Scruff grew all around, and silence - silence so profound that it frightened Denethor. It felt as if a presence were there - the silence hiding it in the same way that silence reigns when animals sense that a hunter is about. He could not send his men into that land. They were too few, but he chafed at not being able to assuage his fears. With one last look, he turned his unit aside and headed towards home.

A great sigh of relief escaped many.

Amdir gave him a sideways glance that spoke volumes. His friend was glad they were going no further.

Denethor sighed and spoke earnestly. "Amdir, within the near future we will be attacked by the One we do not name. I am sure of it. We have been living on the edge. I wish we could have gone inside and looked about. I am concerned that something now dwells there.  If He ever comes back, Gondor will be sore pressed to defend itself. And for that I am heartily ashamed."

"Ashamed? Why should you be ashamed? Have you not hounded your father to prepare?" Amdir asked in wonder.

"Yes, but to no avail. I am still mystified as to why he allowed this trip.  But I am grateful."  He paused for a moment, then continued.  "Amdir, we must find that cave. We must have a hidden, fortified place for the Rangers to strike from. And we must have it soon. Evil is coming, I am sure of it."  He laughed a short, hurt laugh.  "I feel as if I have been saying that same thing my whole life and not being heard. Have you ever felt that way, Amdir?"

"With you as a friend? Nay, never. I have always known whom I could go to, who would listen when most I needed listening too. Do you not know that I am here for you, my Lord?"

The sincerity and hurt in his friends voice caused Denethor to pull up on Rochallor's reins. "My friend, does it seem to you that I feel that way? I am very sorry. I know you are here for me and I for you. It must be this place. It addles my mind. Let us away from it as quickly as possible. We will find that cave. I will not return until we do."

~*~

There had been no sign of Orcs or other enemy. Orcs would not attack if they were outnumbered. But that thought did little to console Denethor. The cave had not been found, nor any other fortress, and Denethor would return to Minas Tirith in disgrace.

Two nights later, they came upon a little sage-covered valley. Never had he seen such a field. A small stream ran through the middle of it; there was no sign of its beginnings and that made Denethor pause. He looked to his right and saw that the stream continued westward towards the Anduin.  'But where is its beginnings?' he wondered again. He looked up at the mountains to his left. Further up the hill, the sage was mixed with heather, ferns and moss. Denethor dismounted and looked around him. Amdir sat quietly, waiting.  Suddenly, Denethor's skin began to prickle, not in fear, but in anticipation. Something was here. Something was very near. They had passed close to this spot on their way to the Black Gate, but Denethor had noticed nothing about the land. Perhaps one had to approach from the north? He continued eastward walking along the stream, stopping now and then to pitch a stone into it. Further up the hill he went and then he saw it. A long, deep gorge started just where he himself stood, headed westward. He gestured to Amdir to dismount, and started walking forward. "I can feel something, Amdir," his voice was excited and Amdir could tell by the tightness of it that Denethor was forcing himself to remain calm.  "Something from long past. It is calling to me."

"Denethor, it is getting late, the men are tired, and we will soon be lost in this wilderness. Let us camp for the night and resume our search on the morrow."

Denethor stared ahead. He seemed not to have heard. His very skin trembled. He could not stop his search now, but he heard the wisdom in Amdir's words. "Order the men to bivouac for the night. I will return shortly."

"Nay, my Lord! You must not go ahead alone. Give me but a moment. I will settle the men and join you. Please!"

Denethor laughed. "Of course. Forgive me. I had forgotten my duty in the heat of this..." His voice trailed off and once more he faced the gorge.

How many years had it been since someone had come this way, he wondered? Once again he felt a presence upon him as he stood waiting for Amdir. The gifts of Númenor were many he was learning. And he was most grateful that it showed itself at this moment of great need. He walked slowly to where the men were preparing to spend the night. They would need torches, for the night was already dark.

~*~

The thrill of anticipation clung to him like a cloak, but he willed himself calm. He sat and ate with his men. Amdir looked at him quizzically. There was a self-assurance upon his friend that he had not seen before. This whole trip had brought changes to Denethor. There was a calmness and confidence in him that puzzled Amdir. And - Denethor shared his thoughts with him. As often as Amdir had wished for such a thing, had made himself available for Denethor, the sharing had been sparse. They had spent much time together laughing and telling jokes and playing pranks, when possible, upon Thengel. But deep, heart-felt sharing as he had done yesterday before the Black Gate - rare indeed. Gratitude welled in Amdir's heart. The mantle of leadership perhaps had caused these changes in Denethor. Whatever had caused this marvel, Amdir was not going to gainsay it.

At last, Denethor stood, motioned to Amdir and started walking away from the fire. "We will go alone. We will not go far, but we will spend some time in searching. I cannot sleep with this fire in my body. I have never felt anything like it, Amdir. It is as if my ancestors of old were calling to me. Perhaps the force of Turin II - I know not; I know only that we are very close to our destination. We will like as not find it tomorrow, but tonight I must spend some time exploring." He gave a short laugh. "I cannot understand this feeling, but I know it in my heart. And I do not fear it."

Amdir strode back towards the fire, took two stout branches, wrapped cloth around them, poured cooking oil on them, and then stuck them into the fire. They lit immediately. He walked back to Denethor with a smile on his face. They had not had a night adventure in a long time. In fact, the last one was almost a disaster. Denethor questioned him about the smile and he broke into a grin.

"Do you not remember the last time we used torches?" Laughter, which he could not control, bubbled through his voice. He made sure they were far from the rest of the detachment.

Denethor looked puzzled. "Nay, I do not seem to recall the event you speak of."

"Well, we had thrown down many a jug of ale at the time, my friend. So, you really do you not remember?"

Denethor shook his head. Now what had he done? He knew Amdir was not going to let it lie, that he would reveal all the nasty details, for it seemed that he must have made a fool of himself the way Amdir was laughing.

"It was about this time of year... Nay. A little later for it was cooler. Must have been sometime in November or perhaps December. We had gone to 'The Three Fishermen' with Thengel and that new lieutenant, I cannot remember his name, and a few others. You had asked Indis to come, I remember, and she hooted with laughter at the thought. I think you had already had wine at dinner. Well, Thengel left after only a few mugs and the new lieutenant was feeling a little awkward, I think, and he left and finally - it was just you and me. You had had dinner hours before, but I was eating as I drank. I think therein lay the problem! You kept drinking and I kept eating and soon we were both happy. That is when you began to sing."

"Nay! That is not possible. I do not sing!"

"I know and so do the other patrons that were there that night. You made an awful noise but sang with gusto. I was most proud of you, until the owner came over and asked you to quiet down a little. You blustered, shouted, and fell over. I thought I was going to fall over myself - with laughter that is. The owner suggested that I take you home. As we walked outdoors, you started to laugh. "I know where we may go and sing and no one will mind at all. We will disturb no one." We had conveniently carried our mugs with us - the owner was too busy shoving us out the door, for you continued your howling, er... singing. So we walked from the Fourth Level all the way to the Sixth - you singing and me shushing you the whole while. We stopped at taverns along the way, filling our mugs, and then being shoved out the doors when you began to sing again. It was a most pleasant evening. I am sorry you do not remember it. Finally, you took me to the Sixth Level and turned south, not towards the next gate. That is when it dawned on me where you were taking us - Rath Dínen - I was not that full of ale."

"You must be mad! Are you saying I took us to Rath Dínen?"

"Yes - but you were humming now. And I was protesting - this was the Silent Street that we were going to walk upon! But you stood up straight, ran your hand through your hair, and approached the porter. You told him we were going to pay our respects to your ancestors and he let us pass! When we reached the Steward's House, you were singing quietly - but I did not recognize the song you sang. We took torches from the entranceway and walked in. The hairs on my arms lifted as we walked past Steward after Steward, and you humming all the while! We finally stood in front of Cranthir's tomb. I remembered him well - a good man and a good soldier. You sat on the floor in front of his tomb, pulled out your mug, and sang one of the funeral dirges. You sang terribly. I put up my torch and put my hands over my ears. It seemed disrespectful to sing there in that place; the sound echoed horribly. Somehow, the torch must not have been in the hold tightly, for next thing I knew, it had fallen down right into your lap. Your tunic caught on fire and we both laughed as we tried to put it out, but it would not go out." Amdir stopped for a moment. "I... I thought I was going to lose you my friend, right there, before the tomb of Cranthir. Thankfully, we were able to extinguish the flames and you were not burned. What a night that was!"

Denethor stopped. His face was red. "Is this some tale that you are making up? I remember none of this."

"Well, of course you would not have in the state you were in," Amdir said, glad to put the thought of that burning tunic out of his mind. "I put you to bed that night in the barracks. I certainly did not want your father to see you like that."

"I believe we are on the wrong side of the river," Denethor changed the subject and spoke a little more gruffly than he had meant to.

Amdir understood immediately. "Well, my friend, we both enjoyed ourselves immensely that night and I am very sorry you do not remember. You and I have not visited a tavern since then."

"And I doubt if I ever will if that is what happens to me when I do! We will strike camp early, cross the river and begin our search." He shook his head, "What kind of a friend are you that you would let me drink that much ale?" He smiled and slapped Amdir on the shoulder. "I tell you this, we will celebrate when we find that cave, but more sensibly."

~*~

Just ere dawn came, they broke camp. Fog covered the stream and the forests nearby. Denethor was disturbed. This would make it much more dangerous for their pursuit of the elusive cave. He was not sure where the gorge first began. First meal was quickly dispatched and the men waited for Denethor's orders.

"We are on the wrong side of the river." Denethor spoke to his men. "First, we will turn upstream and find a crossing east of the gorge. I want no one falling into it! We will go a short ways past it perhaps and then we will make a line. Each person will walk ten paces from the next towards the west with our anchor post held by Damrod on the east. Then we will turn towards the north and begin our search. We will be like a comb running over every part of this landscape. It will be a grueling, tiresome, and minute search of the area. We will not stop until we find the entrance to the cave or night falls. Amdir will take the westernmost position and I will take the middle. I must tell you that I believe the safety of all of Gondor relies upon our finding this cave. I will say no more."

They turned eastward, crossed the river about three leagues above their camp, climbed a long bank, passed into green-shadowed woodlands, and began the long arrangement of the men. This took a total of four hours and Denethor chafed at the slowness of it, but he knew this was the only way to find the cavern. He smiled to himself - of course it would have to be off a gorge like this. He did not know why he had not thought of it before. The gorge did fall off quite unexpectedly. He wondered how many Orcs had fallen in, much to their amaze, and the thought brought a further smile to his face. His only worry was not to lose any of his men in the same fashion.

It was well past noon when a soldier suddenly yelled a warning. Denethor ran to him. "Here is the beginning of the gorge, my Lord, and the stream is now a swift torrent! There is a path here that is descending steeply."

"Captain Denethor! My Lord," cried another soldier further down the line. "I have found a fissure that is opening into the land; I cannot see where it comes out."

Denethor's heart leapt. "We will split up. I want ten men taking the downward path under Amdir's command and ten more will come with me towards the fissure. The others will continue their sweep of the land. I want pickets out in three places, to the east, the south, and the west. I want no one or thing coming upon us unawares. And, I want none falling into the gorge. It appears to be very deep."

Denethor ran towards the opening; hope filling his heart. 'This could be it. This must be it. Or the pathway leads to it,' he thought.

Damrod ran towards him. "My Lord, may I come with you?" Damrod was young and full of spirit, knew the Elven tongue, and Denethor liked what he saw in him. "And my Lord, if I may say so, it would be wise for one of us to go into the fissure first. The water may fill a small space and leave no room for air. If we tie a rope around the first to descend, we can pull him up, if danger lies below. And if I may request that I be the first to descend?"

Denethor laughed. 'Give me five hundred men such as Damrod,' he thought, 'and I would be able to attack the Corsairs tomorrow!'

The fissure turned into a long tunnel that was slippery with water. Damrod called a report back every few moments. At the heartening news that there was no lake at the bottom of the hole, Denethor had two more men tie ropes to their waists and sent them after Damrod. "Have your knives ready. The width of the hole does not allow you to travel with your swords drawn and we have no idea what might be at the end of this tunnel," he instructed. The hole, though steep was long; Damrod reckoned they had traveled more than fifty feet already. Denethor desperately wanted to be with his men, but knew he must wait. To commit any more men to this venture would be senseless. The hole was about ten feet wide at its mouth, but, according to Damrod, it was becoming smaller in diameter the farther down they went.

"We have reached what appears to be the bottom," the last man shouted up to Denethor. "The path now appears to be flat - the ceiling is very low. We are on our hands and knees."

Time seemed to be standing still and Denethor was ready to jump into the opening himself. But just at that moment, a voice called up. "My Lord," the excitement in the voice was palpable. "We have found it. It was just another fifty feet or so from the end of the descent. Send down a lit torch tied to the rope so that we might be able to see."

Denethor scowled. 'Tied to a rope? Never.' It was time for him to follow his men. His aide struck a fire, found a suitable piece of wood, lit it, and gave it to Denethor. Then he tied a rope around his waist and Denethor was lowered into the fissure.

It was difficult keeping the torch lit and away from him and still be able to navigate the long, steep tunnel. His feet hit solid ground and he was forced onto his knees. He tried to hold the torch out in front of him, gasping and choking on the fumes from it. 'Will I never reach the end,' he thought as the smoke blinded him.

~*~

He felt the sharp cold touch of a blade upon his throat. Blinking back the smoke induced tears, he tried to see who would dare draw a blade upon him. The face of a stranger loomed in front of him, dressed in garb of greens and browns, like unto a hunter. The face before him scowled.

"Who are you and what type of foolery would cause you to enter this forbidden cave?" the man asked in Sindarin. "Speak quickly, ere my arm tires and my blade slip."

Denethor looked about him and saw Damrod and his men being held captive by men just as stern, daggers at their throats also.

"I am Lord Denethor, Lieutenant in the Horse Guard of the Army of Turgon, Steward of Gondor. Put up your blade before we both do something we may be sorry for later." He replied in the same tongue; his voice was strong, but his heart quaked. These were tall, stalwart, wild men and he could not be sure how they would react. He could not, in the pale light given off by the torch, tell how many men were in the cave, but there were more than a dozen at least.

"Forgive me, my Lord." The man greeted Denethor with bowed head and hand upon his chest. "My name is Findegon, Ranger of Gondor. Steward Turgon, stationed my men and me here in 2930. I am afraid we have been forgotten."

The breath he had held was released as he recognized the Gondorian welcome. "Findegon! I have read about your exploits fighting Easterlings long ago. I... I thought you dead."

"So that is what happened to me!" Findegon laughed. "I hope 'twas in battle, my Lord, and with a victory in the end. Forgive me for the blade. We are wary of all. There are so few of us, we dared not engage you. We knew not who you were. Here, sit and we will bring food and drink." He shouted to his men who sheathed their blades and quickly brought seats forward.

"Nay, I am sorry. No word had come to us that Rangers still dwelt in Ithilien, never mind North Ithilien. It was only by reading the old texts that I even discovered the existence of this cave. It has taken us many weeks to find it."

"And that is much to our detriment, my Lord, that you were indeed able to find it. If you were able, how might not others?"

"We will speak about that later. I have some ideas. Tell me all that you have been about since your deployment here. How many men have you? Where have you found supplies? What...?"

"Peace, my Lord, I will tell all, but first, I hear others on the stairway. Are they your men?"

"Yes, I sent another contingent down the path. They must have finally found their way here. Amdir!" Denethor jumped up as he saw his friend approach.

Amdir quickly drew his sword when he saw the strangers around Denethor, but just as quickly Denethor stepped between him and Findegon.

~*~

Morwen's pains had begun and it was much too soon. Indis sent her handmaiden to the Houses of Healing requesting that a healer come quickly to the Steward's quarters. She tried to make Morwen comfortable, but her sister-friend moaned piteously. Indis sat at her side and held her hand as the tears fell. They could not lose this babe; she could not lose her friend.

Adanedhel himself came. By this time, Thengel was at Morwen's side. The healer quickly asked him to leave, though he allowed Indis to stay. His assistant, Firieth, had brought tools, bandages, and other supplies needed by her master. Flashes of the scene at the Crossings flew before Indis' eyes. Morwen had suffered terribly then; Indis hoped it would be different now. Morwen was a much stronger woman. Indis had made sure that she ate well, exercised, and was well rested. Why was this happening? She had sent for Amdir's mother, Elleth, who came quickly and stayed with her. The woman had become a good friend and at times like these, a good friend was worth her weight in mithril.

"I do not know how women do this," Indis cried. "It is a hideous thing."

"It is a blessed and beautiful thing when all is well, Indis. And most times, all is well. Morwen is strong and will be able to deliver this babe. And Adanedhel is a skilled healer, the best in the kingdom. She will be fine and the babe will be fine."

Indis flinched at the term Elleth had used - the 'kingdom.' Rarely had anyone in the present age called Gondor a kingdom. It sent chills through her. Turgon was Steward. Her father would be next in line and then Denethor would succeed him. This is the way it had always been as long as Indis could remember. Ecthelion spoke now and again of the return of the king, but Indis had no such confidence. The Stewards ruled Gondor. She shivered again. Why this dread upon her? There was no king; there was no one left in that bloodline. What did Elleth mean? Was a usurper present that she did not know of? Were the people speaking of the return of the king? It was a common saying, used by all, 'When the king returns,' 'The return of the king will,' but none had come forth and it was now just a saying, no more. Indis shook the feeling aside. It must be this birth; she was not thinking straight. There was no need for alarm. There was no usurper and she was placing too many suspicions upon her poor friend; looking for double meanings when there were none.

The wait was long.  Thengel walked the escarpment, assured by Indis that, as soon as there was news, she herself would come and get him.  Hours seemed to pass and no word.  Ecthelion had come and stayed with him for a time, but then left.  Turgon himself came and slowly walked with him, seemingly unaware of what was happening.  He was telling Thengel tales of times long past as if the events were happening as he spoke. Thengel flinched in pain. So very sad to see such a man wasting away, his mind bereft of understanding.  He felt guilty when Turgon left, but the sight had been disquieting.  He wondered about his own father.  Long had it been since he had seen him last.  Perhaps, when the babe was old enough, he would visit Edoras again with Morwen and the child. Was his father at the wedding?  Ah, yes.  He remembered now and all he spoke of was her dowry and the good prospect Morwen was.  Thengel shook his head in disdain. He wondered where Denethor was.  They had not heard from him in over a month.  He smiled at the thought of the child grown into a man.  It was good to have such a friend as Denethor - faithful and true and wise for his years.  He would calm Thengel's fears.  He wished Denethor was beside him now as he had been in battle, in sport, and in fun.  He remembered the fishing trip they took to Lossarnach and the camaraderie they had.  But that remembrance drew his thoughts to what had happened at the end of that trip - Morwen had lost their first child.  He looked towards the Steward's quarters.  No sign of anyone.  How long would this last?

~*~

"Where are your people from, Findegon?"

"We are from Emyn Arnen. And my father before me. Long have we waited for assistance, my Lord."

"Then we must be cousins in some fashion, for my family is from Emyn Arnen, both mother and father." Denethor ignored the mild, though truthful rebuke. "A fine land it is, beautiful still, though the scars of battle and neglect lay upon it. A time will come when that will change. People will return to our land and children will run in play. I promise you that. In fact, that is one of the reasons for this foray into North Ithilien. It is the first step in recapturing our land from evil."

Amdir smiled as he sat by his friend and listened. The passion in his voice always stirred Amdir's heart. The love of Gondor flowed strongly through Denethor and inspired the same love in his men.  They would succeed with Denethor at the helm of the country; Amdir was confident.

Findegon smiled also. "My Lord, long has it been since anyone gave thought to Ithilien. I am most grateful that you have finally come. Long have the Rangers labored here. None know of the many battles we have fought in stealth and unassisted. We longed for the days when help would come."

"Well, it has come now and you have my word that you will not be forgotten again. I will leave twenty men with you for the moment. I wish I could leave more, but I have orders to leave a full contingent to rebuild Cair Andros. When I return to Minas Tirith, I am sure Ecthelion will send reinforcements. It is time you and your men were given some respite from the duty you have shown Gondor. Seventeen years you have been here? You have done well and will be rewarded. All your men will be rewarded for this service to Gondor. Damrod here will stay with you and will instruct you in the history of Gondor during the last few years. I see by your reaction that you have no inkling as to whom Ecthelion is?"

"Nay, my Lord. Turgon had a son named Ecthelion. Is it the same?"

"Ecthelion II is son of Turgon II, grandson of Turin II. You must have a thousand other questions and they will be answered, but now, I must see to my men."

~*~

The wait was long. Thengel walked the escarpment, assured by Indis that, as soon as there was news, she herself would come and get him. Hours seemed to pass and no word. Ecthelion had come and stayed with him for a time, but then left. Turgon himself came and slowly walked with him, seemingly unaware as to what was happening. He told Thengel tales of times long past as if the events were happening as they spoke. Thengel flinched in pain. So very sad to see such a man wasting away; his mind bereft of understanding. He felt guilty when Turgon left, but the sight had been disquieting. He wondered about his own father. Long had it been since he had seen him last. Perhaps, when the babe was old enough, he would visit Edoras again with Morwen and the child. Was his father at their wedding? Ah, yes. He remembered now. All the man spoke of was her dowry and the good prospect Morwen was. After he had forbidden the marriage! Thengel shook his head in disdain.

He wondered where Denethor was. They had not heard from him in over a month. He smiled at the thought of the child grown into a man. It was good to have such a friend as Denethor, faithful, true and wise beyond his years. He would help calm Thengel's fears. He wished Denethor was beside him now as he had been in battle, in sport, and in fun. He remembered the fishing trip they took to Lossarnach and the camaraderie they had. But that remembrance drew his thoughts to what had happened at the end of that trip - Morwen had lost their first child. He looked towards the Steward's quarters. No sign of anyone. How long would this last? How much could his beloved stand? Thengel could stand it no longer. He strode towards the Citadel only to be stopped by Elleth. He could not read her face - weariness was upon it, but what else?

"My Lord, it is time to rejoice! You have a daughter. Healthy, sweet as sugar beets and full of laughter already!"

"Morwen?" His only thought was for Morwen.

"She is fine - very tired, but fine. She asks for you. Indis sent me to fetch you. I will..."

He was five leaps ahead of her and making his way towards the Steward's quarters.

Elleth laughed. 'Twas a good day. A grand day. 'Gondor needed this,' she thought as she turned towards her own home. 'Gondor needed this.'

~*~

"Nay, there were many times when we took turns, left this area and went to our homes in Emyn Arnen, to visit our wives and to see our children. Yes, there are some still there," Findegon said as he saw the look of surprise on Denethor's face, "guarded by our younger men. But always we came back here. We waited for missives from Minas Tirith, but none came. We knew she still stood, for the morning light shone upon her. So we did our duty and protected her."

"You will be rewarded for this service, be sure of that," Denethor told the Rangers, for that is what he now called them. "But now we must work to fortify this position. The entrance that I came down must be blocked off. We will put rocks and dirt into the opening, create a wall to block the inside of the cave with brick, mud, and stone from the shattered monuments in the area. Then we will alter the landscape where the opening had been. It will soon stay silent as to what it had once been."

They worked steadily for a week, filling the upper entrance, enlarging the inside of the cave, creating a false front on the only remaining entrance into their make-shift fortress. And every night, when possible, they would sit at the lip of the cavern that overlooked a pool some eighty feet below, and watch the waterfall catch the sunlight and spill it back into the cave in a rainbow of colors. At times like that, Denethor and the men about him knew that there was purpose for what they did, and Denethor realized how these men could have kept their commitment so long, with the beauty of Ithilien spilling at their feet. Once the sun set and the glory of the moment was but a breath in their minds, they would stay and share tales of long ago - most were spell-bound by the knowledge of the young lieutenant. He tried to sing them some of the songs that he had learned during his times in the Great Library. Mostly, he asked Amdir to do the singing. Amdir's voice was clear and strong and he could keep a tune. Then the Rangers would tell of their own time here in the forests and glades of Ithilien. They were humble men and had to be coaxed into telling their tales, but Denethor insisted that everything was important and must be written down. They would finally fall into their beds exhausted, and wake with an eagerness in their hearts flamed by their young leader and mirrored by the land that they so loved.

It was difficult to leave this fair land, just now touched by the evil of the One they do not name. It was more difficult to leave the Rangers. Denethor was still in wonderment at what these men had accomplished. He was loath to leave them alone again. Most of the men were approaching their later years. He hugged each man and pledged that replacements would be sent directly. A month at the most, he promised them. Then they were away towards Cair Andros. They helped refurbish the fortress on the island and left the seventy-five men as ordered by Ecthelion. At last, they were away for home and Denethor could not have been happier nor more at peace. Much had been done these past months to safeguard Gondor. Much was still to be done, but he had almost given up hope that there ever would be this building up of fortifications towards its defense. Now there was hope.

~*~

Morwen had born Thengel a daughter, they discovered when they returned from their sortie. The child had come much too early and Adanedhel had striven mightily day and night to save the babe and the mother. There had been too much death and dying of late, he told Denethor, and the old healer was sick of it. At last, all had turned out well. Denethor was glad that he and Amdir had been away for the birth. He could just imagine it. Indis and Listöwel running around shouting orders at everyone and Thengel pacing the Great Hall. The one regret Denethor had was not being there for his friend, but he knew that Thengel would not even have been aware of his absence - the horror of what could have been sat hard on him. He was taken aback when Thengel hugged him tightly upon their return. He happily returned the hug, heartily congratulating his friend.

The child was beautiful, marked with the light skin and dark hair of Númenor and a slight disconcerting, all-knowing look in her eyes. Thengel had made him hold her, much to Denethor's discomfiture. There had not been a babe in the Steward's Hall all of Denethor's life and it seemed most strange to have one now. Because of Thengel's status as Prince of Rohan, it had long ago been decided that he and Morwen would live in the Steward's quarters. A sigh passed Denethor's lips and his brow creased in thought. Long ago the Hall had been built with the thought of many descendants filling it with joy and laughter. Reality, this last age, had not fulfilled the hope of her builders. Slowly, as in the rest of Gondor, the population had declined. During the Second Age, fear had driven many to the south-westernmost reaches of the land. Famine and fever in this age had decimated it further. Consideration and knowledge were directed towards increasing the lifespan of the populace, not towards filling her empty homes. Slowly, monuments were being built in memory of those from the past, whilst thoughts of future generations were put off. Many buildings lay abandoned; the people who had once lived there were long forgotten. 'All for Gondor,' had been Ecthelion's creed for as long as Denethor could remember, but standing here, holding this sweet child in his arms, Denethor began to think of his own future. Perhaps he could still have children and keep Gondor's weal his own.

~*~

"You will obey me!" Ecthelion had stormed. "There will be no replacements sent to Henneth Annûn. Those men have been stationed there and there they will stay."

"Father!" Denethor almost shouted. "I promised them they would be relieved. I promised them!"

"You will, in the future, wait until you have consulted with me before making promises you cannot keep."

"Did you know that there were still soldiers garrisoned there?" he asked in amaze.

Ecthelion paused. "I was not sure. I have had no reports and neither has your grandsire. Still, our men are stretched too thin as it is. The Rangers themselves are not ready to be sent. They would be marching to their deaths. I will not abandon Henneth Annûn now that it has been fortified, that I promise you, but I will not send untried troops to the front line."

Denethor shook his head. It was a death warrant for his Rangers. They were too few and too old to defend North Ithilien much longer. All their work in restoring the post had been for naught for the men guarding it. Findegon's face rose before him. At their parting, the joy of knowing that they would soon be relieved shone on his face. Now, there would be no replacements and no joy. Denethor felt the pang of failure smite his heart. He knew that Ecthelion spoke wisely, but something had to be done for his Rangers.

"Father," he took a deep breath. "What say you to Captain Inlach and I and the Rangers in his charge going to Ithilien and training the men there? Findegon and his men know well the ways of the forest and will be able to teach the Rangers better than anyone here in Minas Tirith. The training will progress faster with experienced Rangers teaching them and with them learning in the field." There was no reply: Denethor had his moment of hope dashed quickly.

"I will not speak of this again. We will commence training here, with the Rangers in the City under Inlach's tutelage. There is naught further to discuss."

Trying to walk out of the Steward's Hall with dignity was difficult. His shoulders felt as heavy as lead and his heart was wrung with sorrow. He had never felt so helpless. He had never felt such rage. Amdir greeted him at the door, but the look on Denethor's face was such that Amdir knew what the answer was before asking. The two men walked in silence towards the Sixth Level and their barracks.

Thengel greeted them at the door, anxious to hear everything about their expedition. Seeing the look of despair on his men's faces, he drew them aside. "Come, we will go to 'The Three Fishermen.' I have details I want to discuss with you concerning your next assignment." He had not even thought about a next assignment for them, but it was a good excuse to take them away from other's ears, and give them a secure place to tell him what lay so grievously upon their hearts.

~*~

"Father will send no replacements," he finished his report to Thengel and slumped in his familiar chair in the inn.

Thengel sat back himself, bewildered by Ecthelion's response to Denethor's report. "I... I do not know what to say."

The three men sat there - disconsolate.

"I had such hopes, Thengel. Cair Andros and Henneth Annûn refortified; the eastern edge of Gondor primed to slow an attack and warn Minas Tirith. I believed that is why I was sent. I do not understand this." He placed his elbows on the table and rested his head in his hands. "I cannot leave the men there. At the least, I must go and impart Ecthelion's orders. I cannot let another take this command to them. I promised. I know that sounds absurd, but if the men cannot rely upon my promise, what are they left? What am I left?"

Thengel placed his hand on Denethor's shoulder. "You and I will go. We will go to Cair Andros and you will show me what has been done. We will review the men and then, we will take a small troop to investigate other areas in North Ithilien. Was not that your original order - to find the cave, yes, but to find other fortifications for Gondor's use? We will then find the cave and Findegon and relay Ecthelion's orders. It is a bitter pill to swallow, but going yourself is necessary."

"I would go with you, my Lord?" Amdir appealed.

"Of course. We will leave in three days time. I will speak with Ecthelion and request written orders for Findegon and his men. Denethor, it will be a swift expedition. I cannot stay too long away from Morwen, though Indis hovers ever o'er her like a hawk. I must return as quickly as possible for she is still weak."

But this hope was shattered almost as quickly as Denethor's first hope. There were no explanations. An errand-rider would be sent. No more. And Denethor was left with a bitter lesson learnt at the cost of his honor.

~*~

A/N – From the Appendixes: 2901 Most of the remaining inhabitants of Ithilien desert it owing to the attacks of Uruks of Mordor. The secret refuge of Henneth Annûn is built.

Ch. 8 - Third Age 2948 - Part One

Dancing, that is when Amdir fell in love with her, when he saw her dancing in the moonlight in Dol Amroth. He had discovered her as he searched for Thengel - but the quest for Thengel was immediately forgotten in the beauty of this woman before him. And now, now he would dance with her himself, wrap her in his arms, and find joy at the closeness of her. They were to be wed. His mind reeled at the prospect of it, the total unbelievably blessed thought of it. Ecthelion had given his approval. Early spring, when the flowers in the gardens of his mother blossomed and spread their fragrance in the air, that was the time granted for the troth pledge. How could he ever endure the wait? They were no longer able to spend time alone together. Tradition dictated a time of separation, a time of preparation, for love to be tested by distance. If only he could go on patrol somewhere far away from the City, perhaps it would help ease the pain, the tightness in his chest as he contemplated the months apart. But Thengel would not allow it. He was relegated to constant training, schooling and practice. He had twice been cut by blade when his mind had wandered to the thought of her face, her smile, and been reprimanded vehemently by the swordmaster. Yet no physical pain erased the pain in his heart. He would see her now and again on the City's streets, walking with Indis or Morwen; she would look the other way following the law of Gondor, causing his heart to tear into tiny bits. This could not be for the good. What kind of tradition would keep two such as they apart for so long?

Denethor, helpless in the face of his friend's distress, was as morose as he. There was naught he could do to cheer him, though he had taken him to 'The Three Fishermen' on various occasions trying to lift his spirits, take his mind off the woman he loved. Naught was gained; Amdir was lost in his despair. Finally, Denethor went to Thengel.

"Please, I ask you as friend, may I take a company or a half company to the North Gate and beyond or perhaps Cair Andros on the pretense of patrol for Amdir's sake? We will only be gone for a month, no more, but I cannot abide looking at his visage, wracked with pain as it is."

Thengel sighed. He did not understand the traditions of Gondor, but was foresworn to uphold them. He was well aware of the suffering of Amdir. He had hoped the training would be enough to take his friend's mind off his love, but then he smiled to himself. Had training ever given him surcease from thoughts of Morwen when they were separated?

"You will have orders in the morning," he said and was quickly engulfed in a fervent embrace.

~*~

Their orders were for two months; their destination was to be Cair Andros. Denethor rejoiced at his good fortune. His mind tried to envision an excuse that might take him towards Henneth Annûn. The thoughts of the men there, waiting for relief, and the anger of his father if he knew he contemplated disobeying his orders, were dismissed as quickly as they came. He would not lose this opportunity. Who knew that his needs would be fulfilled at the same time as Amdir's? A full company was to be at his command. Never before had he been given a full company. When last he had been to Cair Andros he had a full company, but most were left to garrison the island. Now, they would be his. The thrill of command ran through him at this unexpected grace.

One week later, the company rode out of the City, with the Steward's banner flying in the hands of Denethor's aide, Dúinhir of Blackroot Vale, newly come to Minas Tirith as a recruit. Denethor's face shone from the thrill of it - his own company, the Steward's banner flying, and his friend at his side. Could life be any better? The only thorn in this was his decision to contravene his father's orders. It could not be helped. He had given his word to Findegon. Hot blood coursed through his veins at the thought of his shame at the breaking of his promise. He would have to be careful; he would have to devise a way to meet with Findegon. How would he tell him of the refusal by Ecthelion to relieve them of their post at Henneth Annûn? Tears pricked at his eyes at the thought of it - brave men, left to rot in that cave, when replacements were available. Anger burned him afresh. He could not bring replacements, but he could offer his deepest regrets. There was naught more he could do.

Amdir, too deeply engrossed in his own thoughts to notice the agitation of his friend, rode in silence. His thoughts, as ever, were upon his beloved. A slight smile creased his eyes as he thought of his use of Thengel's term for Morwen. Appropriate, wonderful term - beloved. His eyes shone with the memory of her. This march was doing naught to relieve his need to be near Listöwel, but he knew that Denethor had risked much to take him from the City, to take his mind from the forced separation. He rode closer to him and touched his arm.

"My friend. I have not thanked you."

"For what, Amdir? We are obeying orders, that is all," Denethor said with a laugh.

"Nay, my friend. I know that is not all. You saw my distress and you have used this patrol as a diversion. I know Thengel was against it. I know that you put your friendship with him at risk. I cannot thank you enough."

"Amdir, you are friend to Thengel also. It was not difficult to remind him of that. He values your friendship, as do I. We three are stronger when we are of one mind. Today, we are of one mind. We will spend this time building up Cair Andros along with our friendship, and when we return, we will take Thengel to 'The Three Fishermen' and amuse him with tales of our adventure. I look forward to that more than anything."

"Is that really all this trip means to you?"

"Yes. We are following orders, that is all."

"You speak of us being of one mind. I feel there is more upon your heart than Cair Andros, my friend. Tell me, before you bring sorrow or shame upon yourself. What other action are you planning?"

Denethor took a deep breath. "I am being foolish, Thengel would think, but I cannot, have not, been able to forgive my father for making me break my promise to Findegon and his men. I cannot do this thing. I cannot live with myself. I must go to Henneth Annûn and explain what has happened. I cannot relieve them, but I can at least... Amdir, how am I to endure this shame? I was foolish, yes, by saying that they would be relieved before I had father's permission. But it seemed so apparent to me that there was such need. How could I have ever known that father would stay his hand in helping them? They have been there too long. And Damrod is now relegated to banishment, unbeknownst to him." His shoulders slumped and Rochallor slowed his pace as his master's hand loosened his grip.

Appalled at Denethor's statement, Amdir pulled his own horse up. "I believe it is time for us to set camp, my Lord." He turned to Dúinhir and commanded the lad to set Denethor's tent. The rest of the company dissembled and set up camp for the night.

~*~

They sat next to each other in front of the fire, all discussion stayed by the enormity of Denethor's plan. Amdir set aside thoughts of Listöwel; he now feared too much for his friend. The course of action that Denethor contemplated would spell disaster for him. Amdir could not understand Denethor's compulsion to destroy himself for the men of Henneth Annûn. They were soldiers; they had foresworn themselves to Gondor's care. How would he be able to persuade Denethor to set aside this action? Was his pride such that he would invite punishment and perhaps demotion? Fear for his friend blazed in his heart.

"By the Valar, Denethor, if you do this thing, you will surely... Do you not remember when your father banished you from his household? If you do this thing, you risk banishment again. Is your pride worth this price? These men are soldiers. They do not expect you to disobey an order on their account. They would be ashamed to have you challenge the orders of their Captain-General. Please, I beg you, do not do this thing. Not only will you have to bear this, but I will have to bear the shame and regret, knowing that your concern for me led you to a path that would cause your destruction."

The air crackled with the vehemence of Amdir's plea. Denethor sat in stunned silence. "You speak wisely," he said at last. A shake of his head and an arm around his friend's shoulder told Amdir that his words had hit home. "I... I would turn from your words of caution and concern, if I could, but the words you speak hold only truth in them. What price pride? Surely pride would be destroyed by disobedience. How could I have thought to do such a thing? This shame has gnawed at my heart these past months and has pushed aside thoughts of my duty to my liege lord. You are right about Findegon. He will understand - and endure. I owe you much, Amdir."

"No more than I owe you, my Lord. No more than I owe you."

~*~

The weeks passed quickly and Amdir breathed a sigh of relief as they finally turned towards Minas Tirith. He had not slept well since he had discovered Denethor's scheme. Every morning, he had quickly scanned the company to make sure Denethor was still with them and had not run off in pursuit of his lost honor. He would never tell Thengel how close they had come to losing their friend. The horror of it still shook Amdir when he considered what might have been.

~*~

When they returned, they found Morwen was again with child and Thengel quite beside himself, near bursting with pride. The joy that shone in his face spread to all who came anywhere near him. His laughter filled the air. Denethor loved being around him though he did not understand this compulsion to continue begetting offspring. It was not the way of Gondor. Indis was taking it all in stride, rejoicing at the tasks set before her, and loving every moment of caring for Morwen, ordering clothing, and all the myriad tasks associated with the birth of another child. Forgotten were the long labor, the struggle and the fear that attended the birth of Hild. It was different this time, she told herself. Though it had only been months since Morwen had given birth to the dead babe, Indis was sure Morwen's body was ready for another. She yearned to share in the thrill of this time before them and Thengel was not above wrapping his arms around her, swinging her in a small dance movement, and sharing the joy of the new life with her. Indis so loved this man and his joy of life. That he would include her in his family's happiness was beyond her understanding. And her gratitude was deep.

Denethor was going to introduce Thengel to a carpenter of renown. The two friends were oft seen in the barrack's dining hall, heads bent together over sketches of cradles for the little one. Thengel had a small knowledge of woods and insisted that the babe's cot be made of oak. The finest oak, Denethor knew, grew in southern Ithilien. They would gather a half company of the Horse Guard and make a sortie into that land in two days time. Hild had been placed in a cradle made for Denethor, but there were none other available that Denethor felt worthy enough for Thengel's newest addition.

~*~

The farewells lasted overlong, from Denethor's point of view. They would only be gone a few days, yet the farewells were such one would think they were leaving for two years! Listöwel, Morwen and Indis all gathered around the soldiers and Denethor's face burned with shame at the ruckus made. Would Thengel never call the men to task and take them away from this noise? At last, they were on their way. The smell of horses, the snap of the banners as they rode out of the Great Gate, set Denethor's heart skipping. He had finally been able to put away his despondency over Henneth Annûn and concentrate on his training again. But this sortie would be a blessed relief to the dull routine of that training. Perhaps, he would be able to stop at Emyn Arnen and speak with Findegon's kin. Ecthelion had said naught of that. He smiled a little at the thought. Some measure of honor might yet be saved.

The ride towards Ithilien was full of soldiers' banter, horses' hooves throwing dust into riders' faces, and the smell of fresh air, herbs, and trees starting their spring bloom. A perfect day for a soldier - except for this soldier. It had been almost two years since Denethor had left Findegon. Why would that name not leave him? Why did the visage of that man keep rising to greet him at the beginning of the day and sleep with him at night? Why? Was it guilt? He knew he was of a melancholy nature, but this was beyond melancholy. It was a fixation. Perhaps Findegon reminded him of Cranthir - they would both be of the same age, of the same Ithilien legacy, if Cranthir had lived. How was he to free himself from this shadow that haunted him?

Amdir guided Hros next to Denethor and smiled ruefully at the sight of the scowl on his friend's face. 'What could be bothering him, now,' he wondered? "Hallo, have you gotten us lost?" he laughed.

Denethor's scowl grew deeper. "Not in my charge today are you, so you have no fear of being lost."

"Ah, is that what makes you so grim? You are not in command?"

"You have so little..." A sigh escaped Denethor's lips. "It is because of me that Thengel is traveling this path. I was the one who told him of the oaks in Ithilien. Would I offer such of Gondor's wealth if I had not expected Thengel to take the company himself?" he spat out.

"You are in some mood today, my friend, but it will do naught to take away my joy at traveling at your side." For a moment, the grin left his face as he thought of what he had left behind in Minas Tirith. Then he shook himself and smiled again. "My Lord, will you not tell Thengel of our adventures in the wilds of Ithilien chasing flowers?" He outright laughed now and Denethor was hard-pressed not to join him. Finally, after these many long years, the shame of that adventure was mellowing and becoming a favored tale.

"You yourself may tell the saga tonight, my friend," Denethor did laugh. "We will be very near to the spot at our crossing this day. Perhaps we two could turn and find the field. I wonder, much as your mother loves the irises we brought back, perhaps we should dig up a bunch or two more for her."

"We would not even be able to find them," Amdir said. "They will not bloom for another two months. Neither of us would have much luck locating that field. If you remember, we almost didn't find them then and the field was fully bloomed!"

"Nay, it was your constant chatter that kept my mind from focusing on our quest. You forget how often I begged you to restrain yourself. You were so loud the birds flew from us. Any hope I had of concentrating was lost every time you opened your mouth."

"I did not open my mouth for naught, my friend. If you remember, you were frightened near out of your wits and it was my merry mouth that kept our spirits lifted. And I would do it again for you - any time!" He sidestepped Hros away from the arm that flailed towards him and beat a path towards Thengel's side. He had accomplished what he had set out to do - put a smile on Denethor's lips.

~*~

The company was passing the way to Emyn Arnen on their right as they approached the Harad Road. Denethor brought Rochallor next to Thengel, put his hand on Thengel's arm and asked if they might stop for nuncheon. Thengel was surprised. He had planned on eating on the road; the men had plenty of dried meat and water to keep them until they set camp. But Denethor's look told him there was more in the simple request than thoughts of food. The mission they were on was mostly personal and could be delayed for a time. 

He turned towards the men and ordered a halt.  Then, "Come, while the men tend the horses. I need to speak with you," he said, giving his friend an excuse for their leaving the company, and a moment to collect his thoughts once they had dismounted.

"My Lord. You have been our captain for many a long year. And I have learned much from you during this time. You have been kind to share your thoughts with me, your burdens on leading the men. I now have a question that I cannot answer myself. I am distraught with pondering it. May I... may I share my concern with you?"

"Denethor," Thengel put a hand on his friend's shoulder, "you have only to ask." He walked forward in silence, waiting.

"Ecthelion says that I must not contact Findegon." The sigh was torn from his lips. "I have always obeyed my father. Well, most of the time," he groaned as he saw the look in Thengel's eyes. "But now, this is... I must ask you. When does a soldier have the right to disobey?"

Thengel drew in his breath slowly, trying desperately to answer his friend truthfully without being treasonous himself. He lowered his head, tied his golden hair back, and sat on a rock cropping. He motioned for Denethor to sit next to him. "I have questioned your father's orders myself," he said at last, knowing Denethor spoke of Findegon and the Rangers. "To leave the men there, after seventeen years of service with no respite, is reprehensible enough, but to not send further orders? I do not understand it.

"There may come a time when a soldier must disobey. However, there must be a grave breach in the laws of Gondor before a soldier may even consider such a thing. Now, we must deliberate - has there been a grave breach? Is it right to leave men to die with no knowledge that they are being left to die?" Thengel shook his head. "Is that what Ecthelion is doing - leaving them to die? I am not sure. He said the Rangers of Minas Tirith are not yet ready to be sent to man Henneth Annûn. That does not establish a reason for not sending orders to the men already there. We are bound to obey Ecthelion, but we are also bound to obey our hearts. My heart says we must honor our fellow soldiers. But my heart also says we must obey our Captain-General. I believe he has valid reasons for doing this; I believe it is not a grave breach of the law, but I do believe it is a breach nonetheless. I cannot tell you what to do, my friend. But I myself will obey Ecthelion in this. I will promise you, though, once we are finished with this business, I will again approach him and strongly urge him to send errand-riders with new orders. What say you to that?"

Denethor lifted his head. "Yes, my Captain," he said, grief momentarily lifting from him, "I will abide by your decision. And I will hope mightily that Ecthelion will change his mind. Or grace us with the knowledge of why he is doing what he is doing. I must tell you this, though; we are near to Emyn Arnen. The families of those very men are living here. May we go through the woods instead of the Harad Road, find their encampment and make sure all is well with them?"

"Yes, it is a good thought. I would want the same for my family."

~*~

The smell of fires burning reached Denethor's nose before he saw the encampment. It smelt almost like venison being cooked, but he was unsure. 'It is nuncheon; all is well,' he thought. But all was not well. The fire he smelt was of burning cottages mixed with the pungent odor of burning flesh - not deer. His mind suddenly recognized the smell for what it was, as did his companions'. Thengel quickly stopped the company and drew his men close. "Denethor," he hissed, "take a quarter of the company towards the east, circle the camp and wait for my signal. Amdir, you do the same on the west but follow through to come up from the south. Ciramir, you take the last quarter and guard my flank. Now, go, quietly."

It took only moments to encircle the small encampment and Denethor waited. The signal came and the men charged, not able to see through the thick trees what they were about to do battle with. Fear lay cold on their minds; righteousness blazed in their hearts. As they burst through, they found no enemy; only the dead lay to tell of the cruelty of the attack.

Thengel sobbed as he saw little bodies lying next to cruelly hacked women. There were only a few bodies of men strewn about - young men at that, none with the knowledge of how to protect their charges. Denethor remembered that Findegon had said their sons were guarding their homes. He had made a fatal error in not leaving some of his veterans in the camp. The only blessing about the camp was its size; too little for a full scale attack. The casualties would be few. It seemed the enemy was a small band - but of what. Orcs, Corsairs, Haradrim? Who had come to this corner of Gondor and brought death? The defense had been so poor that none of the enemy lay slain.

Thengel set pickets outside the camp; Ciramir took a scouting party to make sure that none of their foe were left in the area; Amdir and Denethor were assigned the duty of searching for any left alive - friend or foe - in the burning huts, while the rest of the men were given grave duty. Bodies were still warm and fear held the soldiers as they watched their backs while digging the burial holes. Denethor and Amdir wrapped cloths around their faces and braved the flames. There could be little ones alive in any of the smoldering buildings. Denethor shook as he entered the first shelter. It was empty, much to his relief. The next three were empty, but he heard cries as he approached the fourth one. The flames were beyond the thatched roof and pieces of it were falling into it. He called Amdir and they both ran in. On the floor under a cot was a tiny child, dark from the soot falling around it. The only reason Denethor saw him was because of the eyes, which shone brightly with tears. His mother must have hidden him in a blanket under the cot in the hopes of saving his life. Denethor quickly scooped the babe up and ran out; Amdir stayed to make sure there were none others left behind. The roof started to collapse around him and he cried out shrilly.

~*~

Listöwel and Indis were laughing at Morwen's discomfiture. "If you think you feel awkward now, remember how you will feel in just a few months time," Elleth laughed. Morwen grimaced. Of course she remembered. How could she forget the large abdomen, the swollen feet, the... "Nay, I will think on it no longer. Nor will I grumble again," she said sheepishly. "At least for this day," she laughed and all four women began giggling. They all spoke at once of how difficult it would be for Morwen not to complain and tripped over each other's words in the delight of their friendship. Elleth brought more tea into the little sewing room and the scent of orange blossoms filled the air. "I believe next time we get together we must try some of the wine Thengel gave Ingold."

"Ah," Indis laughed, "if we did that we would surely sew two arms on one side of our dresses and end up looking like Orcs. I can just see Lord Ecthelion's expression!"

Elleth cried with laughter. The sight of the four of them entering the Great Hall dressed as Orcs was too much for her. Her friends saw the look on her face and broke out in laughter too; their fear of Orcs overshadowed by the absurdity of the vision Indis had brought to mind.

Morwen cried out, "We must get on with our sewing. There is so little time left to us and I really do not want to be bending over such fine work as my stomach grows!"

Indis smiled and hugged her friend. "We will not even consider your helping us in your later days."

For all the laughter, the sewing was going well, she thought. They were concentrating on Listöwel's attire for the moment. They had many months to prepare for the babe, but only a few for the troth pledge. It was to be in May. Indis took great delight in knowing the couple had unwittingly chosen the day of her own birth for their special day. Minas Tirith would be covered in flowers; that was all the decoration that Listöwel would allow, the natural beauty of the gardens of the City in full bloom.

"Here, look at the color of this flower," Listöwel teased. "Is it not perfect for my attendants' dresses?"

Morwen looked in horror at the bright orange chrysanthemum in the drawing Listöwel held up. She could just imagine herself in such a color, looking like a mûmak. She had said this out loud and the others howled their delight.

The dresses were not going to be finished this day, Indis thought to herself. But of what matter was that when friendship was being sewn.

~*~

"Amdir!" Denethor screamed the name as he watched in horror as the roof collapsed upon his friend.

Thengel, still mounted, drove Nahar towards the hut, dismounted and ran into the burning building. Denethor passed the child to a startled soldier and was right behind his captain. The stunned men watched as one of the side walls of the hut collapsed. Flames and smoke billowed from the open door as the remaining walls tilted crazily. No sound could be heard in the encampment - no sound but the crackling of fire and the crashing of roofs, walls and trees caught too near the conflagration to be saved.

One of the men quickly grabbed a bucket, ran to the well in the center of the encampment, filled the bucket and ran to toss its contents on the flames. Others followed his lead. Buckets, carrying too little for the task, were quickly filled, emptied, and filled again. The men worked furiously, always with their eyes upon the door - waiting. Near to seventy men kept up the work, those closest to the flames being relieved every few moments by those closer to the well. They were making headway - the flames were lessening, but the smoke was increasing, making it more difficult to see as they dumped bucket after bucket on the fire. The smoke changed from deep black to white and the men knew their battle was almost over. And still - no one came through the door.

Ciramir's patrol returned upon sighting the billowing smoke. He feared the enemy had swung around behind them and were attacking the company. They rode fast and hard back to the camp. He could not understand the chaos that greeted him as they came out of the forest into the clearing. What were the men doing? What was the haste? And where was his captain? He jumped off his horse and grabbed the nearest man by the collar.

"What is going on here?" he yelled over the bedlam.

"Men are caught in that hut. We are unable to rescue them." He pulled himself away from the hand gripping him, picked up his bucket and ran to the well.

Ciramir's heart froze. Where was Captain Thengel? He motioned for his men to join the bucket brigade and ran towards the hut. His eyes searched the site. Where was Denethor, Amdir, Thengel?

"Soldier," he screamed. The flames were crackling as they swept through the dry wood of the hut and drowned out all other sounds. "Where is Captain Thengel?"

"My Lord, he is inside the hut along with Lord Denethor. I know not who else is with them."

"What were they doing in there?" he cried in fear and frustration.

But the man could not hear him, or did not wish to answer, or was too heartsick to reply.

Ciramir saw that the fire was slowly being extinguished. But it would still be sometime before it was totally out. 'We must do something,' he thought; 'we cannot wait like this.' He ran towards his own patrol and motioned for his men to follow him. They ran to some nearby fallen trees and started pulling them towards the hut. An axe was found and branches were struck from the trunks. Then they ran towards the fallen wall of the hut. Ciramir stopped his men.

"Listen to me. We cannot wait for the flames to subside. We must venture a rescue now. Who will volunteer to help me?" All hands went up and the men ran ever closer to the hut dragging the shorn trees behind them. It was desperate work and Ciramir had little hope of success; but hope was all that was left to them.

~*~

It was only mid-morning, but Morwen was starting to feel the pangs of hunger. When she mentioned it, her friends giggled. "Eating for two, this one is," said Elleth. "Come, let us to the kitchen. I started bread this morning. It has proofed twice and should be ready to put into the oven." She had punched the dough down an hour ago and placed it into two greased baking pans. "There are cheeses on the sideboard. Listöwel, why don't you bring them to the table and cube them. Indis, there are fresh vegetables in the cooling bin. We shall have a lovely meal. Oh, and some herbs from the garden. And bring some chamomile leaves in too. That should help our dear Morwen's tummy so she can eat with ease."

The women, starting about the business of preparing nuncheon, were stopped suddenly by a moan from Morwen. "What is it?" they all cried at once.

"Some fearful thing has happened. I know not what."

"Is it the child? Are you having pains?" Indis cried in distress.

"Nay, nay it is not I." Shivers ran through her body and Indis ran to her and sat her in a chair by the table.

"What is it, dearest sister-friend?" she begged as she knelt by her side.

"It is said that night oft brings news to near kindred. Oh dear Indis, I fear for Thengel. Even though it is full day, something in my heart tells me that night has settled on him whom I love."

Listöwel's face went white.

~*~

The flames were not as strong on the open side of the hut. The men took the tree trunks and braced them against the front and back walls as close as they could get. The fire seemed to be concentrated at the other end where the walls were conjoined and dried firewood had been piled for the occupant's winter heat. Part of the patrol held back the walls with the tree trunks while others started dragging out cots, chairs, clothes, anything that was burning. Their gloves were soon smoldering. Others climbed over the broken furniture and shards of the fallen roof, still ablaze in this area. They shouted Thengel's name and then Denethor's as they pushed aside debris in a desperate hunt for their comrades. The noise of the fire, the smoke blinding them, and the shouts of the bucket brigade all conspired to keep them from finding the lost. Their throats were raw from yelling, from smoke, and from flame.

Dúinhir, Denethor's aide, upon seeing what Ciramir's men were about, ran into the hut himself, pulling aside everything in his way like a Wose of the Drúadan Forest. His head moved to and fro, from right to left in his frantic search. At last, he cried out so loud that all in the burning building could hear, "My Lord!" and tugged at a cot near the door. Pulling a body from under it, he swung it over his shoulder and ran for the opening. Ciramir was next to him immediately and tried to take the body from him, but the lad would not let go. Dúinhir ran towards the center of the square and then gently laid his burden down. Arciryas, waiting to do something, anything to help, ran to his side and bent down to look at the man. He drew his breath in sharply. The blackened face was indeed Denethor's. Sobs racked Dúinhir's body.

Ciramir, finding new hope in the discovery, ran back into the hut towards the place where Denethor was found. Nothing there. He turned towards the other side of the door and his heart stopped in pain and swelled in hope all at the same time. It was Thengel. He gently picked his captain up and ran into the open. Running towards the spot where Denethor lay, he placed his captain down before the healer. Arciryas stopped for a moment and turned towards Thengel. He laid his head upon the Thengel's chest and listened. Noise was everywhere. He pled with Ciramir to quiet the troops; Ciramir stood and bellowed, "Silence!" Immediately, all quieted, but the buckets continued to be passed from hand to hand. There was one still left in the hut.

Arciryas looked up at Ciramir. "They both live, but are sorely burned. I must have men. I have brought no unguents for burns; only salves and creams for wounds. We must send the men to find aloe plants and lavender. Oh, and Comfrey root, we must find some for their lungs."

Ciramir looked at him as if he spoke Dwarvish. "My Lord, I have no idea as to what these plants are or what they look like. How are we to find them?"

"My Lord," a soldier stepped up close. "I know these plants. I will help find them, if I may."

"What is your name, soldier?"

"Baranor, my Lord, newly recruited from Lebennin."

"Ciramir, send ten of your men with this man. All these plants grow here in Ithilien. Even though it be winter's end and many lie dormant, still their medicinal qualities will not be diluted. Baranor," he turned toward the soldier, "go as quickly as possible. Haste is our greatest weapon now. Please!"

Ciramir sent off ten men with the soldier and another ten towards Osgiliath for reinforcements and for a cart to carry the wounded back to Minas Tirith. Then he turned towards the hut. Amdir was still missing. Thengel would never forgive him if they found him too late.

By now the conflagration was diminished to small fires here and there. The hut itself looked wretchedly despoiled. The roof was gone, a wall was missing. Men were pulling out the last of the rubble. Still, there was no sign of Amdir. Ciramir shook his head. Where could he be? A soldier came up to him.

"My Lord, the men are looking in the wrong places. Amdir was already in the hut when the roof collapsed. It was only then that Denethor and Thengel moved to rescue him. He cannot be near the door."

Ciramir shoved the man aside and ran towards the back of the hut. The last of the furniture was still here. He pushed a cot aside and knelt in the soot. Tears sprang to his eyes. Only nineteen and to be wed this spring. Gently, he lifted Amdir and strode towards the square. The men all stood back, buckets hanging useless at their sides. One or two of the men kicked their buckets in anger and frustration. "All for naught," he heard one man say. He looked up. "Our captain is alive," he said loudly, "and Lord Denethor also. There may still be hope for this one. Start a fire and boil water. I want clean cloth found and cots set up. Get them from the other huts and place them next to the healer. Then finish your burial duty. Dúinhir?"

The lad came to him, swiping tears from his eyes. "Yes, my Lord?"

"I am raising you to the rank of lieutenant. I need you to take two squads and sweep the area. We are most vulnerable now. We must not be attacked unawares. The pickets are still out, are they not?"

"Yes, my Lord. They know their duty. They have not left their posts, though some are great friends of the wounded."

"We all are great friends of the wounded, Dúinhir; you also," he put his hand on the lad's shoulder. "I wish I did not have to put this burden upon you, but fate has happened that you are next in command of those left able to fight." A small humorless smile touched his lips.

Dúinhir placed his hand upon his chest and bowed. "My Lord, we will do as you bid," and walked off. In short order, the patrol road off into the woods. Ciramir shook his head. Almost as soon as men were recruited, they were either dead or promoted.

~*~

His mind stirred and bits of a wizard's words trickled through the darkness. "You will die in fire and ash." He wanted to go back into nothingness, to hide from that voice. Not only was his mind torturing him, but also the faint touch of wakefulness brought incredible pain with it. His body trembled. Someone was pressing a cool cloth to his forehead, but his hands were on fire. Fire - now he remembered and his eyes flew open. "Amdir," he tried to cry, but only a whimper came from his cracked, bleeding lips.

"Shh," a voice whispered in his ear as his eyes, too tired to stay open, fell shut again. "All is well, my Lord Denethor. Rest now," and a cool draught, made from the herbs brought back by the patrol, was poured down his throat. The world drifted away again. Gratefully, he sank into its darkness.

Ciramir stood. How would they ever get back to the City? They could move none of the injured. And yet, fear lingered in the back of his mind. Osgiliath had yet to answer his call. Where was Húrin? Was this massacre a ruse by the enemy? Perhaps the foe was even now attacking Osgiliath, or worse yet, Minas Tirith? He shook his head. 'I must stay calm,' he thought. 'There is naught more to fear. The pickets are out, Dúinhir is patrolling the land, and I am tired.' He walked towards his captain. Thengel sat propped against a tree; he had refused the offered cot. Ciramir squatted down next to him.

"My Lord, should I send others to Osgiliath? Night has fallen and still no reply. Five leagues are not that far. Someone in Osgiliath should have seen the smoke and sent a patrol out long before our errand-riders even left here."

Thengel looked at him; the tiredness in his eyes was cruel to see. "You should rest yourself. How long has it been now - you say we have been here the better part of eight hours - most of it with you and the men fighting the fires? You have worked tirelessly. Sit, here beside me, and rest."

"But you, yourself. How fare you, my Lord?"

"It hurts to take a breath and my head aches, but Arciryas says if I keep drinking the comfrey tea, I should feel better soon." A fit of coughing racked his body. After a few moments, which increasingly alarmed Ciramir, the hacking ceased. "Please, sit with me."

Trying to sit as cautiously as possible so as not to cause his captain further pain, Ciramir positioned himself on the ground next to Thengel. He laid his head back against the tree's harsh bark and closed his eyes. He told himself it would only be for a moment.

~*~

Baranor was finally relieved by another. Arciryas heaped thanks upon him for finding the herbs needed. He shook his head in denial. "I am glad I was here to help." He walked up to the two men leaning against the tree to report in to Ciramir. Seeing him asleep, he turned to Thengel, "My Lord Thengel," he whispered, "you should sleep yourself. Arciryas has prepared this draught of Valerian tea for you. It should help you sleep, and you must needs sleep now. Please drink it."

"In a moment," Thengel said, the thought of the pungent smelling tea almost nauseated him. "Tell me, how is Denethor?"

"He woke for a few moments but is asleep again. He is restless. The Valerian seems to do naught for him. I believe he worries for Amdir. He calls his name. Arciryas says he will recover. It will just take time."

Thengel looked at the lad. "Dúinhir has been promoted; he will no longer be Denethor's aide. Will you now take that post?"

Baranor was stunned. "Yes, my Lord, if that is your wish."

"It is my command. You have shown yourself well this day." He was afraid to ask the next question. "And Amdir? Is there hope for Amdir?"

"Arciryas has not stopped his ministrations. He had the men place him in a trough of water for a few moments as soon as they brought him out of the fire, as they did for Denethor and you, then he made a poultice of aloe and lavender. He has been reapplying it to his burns every few hours, then wrapping him in clean cloth."

"How much of his body was burned?"

Baranor shook his head. "His back is difficult to look upon, but it seems to be where the burn is the worst. Blisters are already forming. He must have tucked his hands under his stomach for they are unscathed. And, though much of his hair has been singed, the scalp does not seem to be badly burned. Arciryas is, nonetheless, very concerned." If the lad lived, Baranor did not tell Thengel, it would be a marvel.

~*~

The women insisted that Morwen be put to bed. They would call her when they had aught to report. Indis would go to Ecthelion and inquire as to any happenings in and about Gondor.

"All will be well, my dearest," she whispered to Morwen. "It is only the carrying of the babe that is giving you distress. Thengel, and all his company, are well. Now please rest. Listöwel will stay with you while Elleth and I go to my father." Listöwel looked at the two women - their heads bent together in discourse. She could see the love that flowed between them. And she wished with all her heart that one day she would be as close as they.

Elleth and Indis started to run as soon as they left Elleth's home. Both knew women with child were more susceptible to visions.

Ecthelion was just releasing Húrin and his troops as the women reached at last the High Court and the place of the Fountain before the feet of the White Tower.

Indis stood back for a moment, assessing what was happening. Then she stepped forward. "My Lord, why is the battalion from Osgiliath here? Has something untoward happened?"

Confused, Ecthelion looked at her. "What do you speak of? Húrin is here at my command. There is naught amiss."

"Forgive me, Lord. I... Morwen had a vision. I was concerned. Now, I see that all is well. Again, forgive me, my Lord, for interrupting." She made as if to turn away.

"What say you about a vision?"

Indis turned back towards her father. "She saw Thengel, seeming unable to breathe and lying against a tree, my Lord. But if Captain Húrin is here, then she must have interpreted it incorrectly."

Ecthelion looked towards Ithilien. His face whitened and his hands clenched. "There is smoke rising from the forest. Húrin, take your men immediately and determine what is amiss. I will expect an errand-rider before dawn.

~*~

Arciryas himself walked over. "Thengel, you should be sleeping by now. Where is that draught I sent over?"

"It is here at my side, waiting for me to drink it. The smell would cause a mûmak to run for cover."

Arciryas quietly laughed. "It is sleep that seems to run from camp this night. No one is resting and I fear I will have more patients on the morrow if certain people do not rest." He looked at Ciramir. "Though I see one such has finally taken my advice."

"He did not take your advice, dear Arciryas. Sleep overcame him unbidden."

"I would it would do the same for you, my Lord."

Thengel gave a harsh laugh. "I myself would this night were over. Bitter has this day been. My heart gives me more pain than these burns. I would that we were here earlier to save these people, these children." A sob broke from his burned lips. "I grieve for them as I would for my own. Soldiers' children should not die in this manner; nor their homes turned into a battlefield."

Arciryas sat for a moment, bereft of words. "The men are very helpful," he finally said, trying to turn his captain's thoughts to easier matters. They are not used to doing healing work, but they are adapting well. I have two men keeping the fires burning and two more soaking cloth in the boiled water. I have another two stripping aloe leaves and crushing the lavender for my poultices. Those who are on 'tea duty' do not seem to realize you must cover the tea while it is brewing to keep the healing qualities potent, but they will learn." Arciryas' droning voice nearly put Thengel to sleep.

There was the clamor of horses' hooves and a horn rang out. Thengel's head snapped up and he tried to stand but could not. Arciryas held his shoulder. "Do not, my Lord, you will undo all the good we have done. It is Húrin. I can see him from here. Osgiliath has at last answered our call."

Húrin drove his horse towards where Thengel lay. "My Lord, forgive my lateness," he cried as he jumped off his horse. "We were called back to Minas Tirith. Ecthelion deemed Ithilien safe with your company here. Forgive me!"

Thengel acknowledged the bow and motioned for Húrin to sit by him. "I will not ask you the purpose of that summons. Suffice it to say, I am most grateful that you have arrived when you did. The men are exhausted. Dúinhir has been on patrol for too long. Our pickets need strengthening..."

"And," Arciryas interrupted, "our captain needs his rest."

Thengel glared at the healer. "We must decide what action to take now. I confess I am too tired to think." Another fit of coughing engulfed him.

Arciryas looked at him in dismay. Thengel stopped his retort with a look. "Denethor is badly hurt but will recover. I seem only to be burned on my hands and the poultice is cooling." He smiled at Arciryas. "Our healer is quite adept at his craft. However, Amdir is in need of additional remedies. He needs to be in the Houses of Healing."

"We have brought no cart, my Lord. I will send for one immediately..."

"How is there no cart?" Thengel started in surprise. "The errand-riders were told to ask that a cart be brought."

"My Lord, we met no errand-riders."

Silence engulfed the camp, as the few who were awake understood what Húrin's statement meant.

"Ciramir," Thengel gently shook his aide's shoulder. "Ciramir," he said again.

The eyes fluttered open and Ciramir quickly stood. "My Lord?"

"Ciramir, when was the last time Dúinhir's patrol reported?"

"How long have I slept? Nay, wait, it was about an hour before I came to your side."

"When was he to report again?"

"Every four hours, as is our custom. What is wrong?"

"The errand-riders never made it to Osgiliath. We should have sent more than two men."

"My Lord," Ciramir said, "I sent a full patrol - ten men."

The healer saw the sudden chill that swept Thengel. He quickly took another blanket and threw it over Thengel's shoulders.

Húrin sat down next to Thengel, more to keep the captain still than for easier discourse. "I have brought half the battalion with me. If you would allow, I will send two companies out to relieve Dúinhir and another two towards Osgiliath to search for the errand-riders and to return with a cart. That leaves your company and my last one to guard this area. Granted, your men are tired, but we will place extra pickets. My men will take first duty while yours rest."

"We seem stretched too thin," Thengel said more to himself than Húrin, "but it will have to do."

"I could not leave Osgiliath untended," Húrin said, apologetically.

"Of course you could not. I was not suggesting that," Thengel snapped and then immediately apologized. "Forgive me."

"Nay, forgive me. If this plan meets your approval, I will set it in motion."

"Yes, the sooner the better," Thengel said. "I would know what further danger we may yet face."

Arciryas stepped forward. "My Lord Húrin, I must beg you to use your influence upon Captain Thengel. He must rest. He is grievously wounded and has yet to close his eyes."

Thengel once again found himself glaring at Arciryas, but naught would stop the healer from taking care of his captain.

In the midst of this, and at the sound of the horn, Denethor awoke. His head ached terribly and his mouth tasted of soot. He tried to will away the pain in his hands and to concentrate upon the talk around him. He did not understand why, but he knew they were in serious trouble. None heard his moan, he thought, and for that he was thankful. The question he had tried to ask went unanswered. Baranor had heard though and went immediately to his side.

"My Lord, you spoke?"

"Is that Captain Húrin I see?"

"Yes, my Lord. He brought half Osgiliath's battalion. They are relieving our men now. Here is some more tea, my Lord. Please drink it."

Denethor tried to brush the cup aside, but found he could not control his own limbs. Shaking his head to clear it only made it ache more. "Baranor, that is your name, is it not, what is happening?"

"It is as I told you, my Lord. We are being relieved. Please, drink the healer's tea."

Denethor lay back, exhausted. His mind whirled trying to make some sense of where he was at and what had happened. Finally willing it, he raised his bandaged hand and tried to touch Baranor's face. "Baranor, please tell me. Is Amdir...?" He found he could not ask it.

"My Lord, Amdir lives. He is badly burned, but a cart is being sent for and Arciryas is tending him."

"Too many words with too little meaning." Tears of exhaustion and grief sprang up in Denethor's eyes. "Is there any hope for him? Nay, do not answer that. I am sorry I asked. Go and do your duty."

"My duty is to help you drink this tea and to stay by your side," he said as Denethor finally ceased his struggling and drank the tea.

Dúinhir's patrol returned shortly after and was relieved, pickets were exchanged, and Húrin sat by Denethor's cot. Thengel had at last fallen into a troubled sleep. But it was sleep nonetheless. Arciryas was tending Amdir. Húrin's duty to Ecthelion had brought him to Denethor's side. 'Only eighteen years,' he mused. 'I remember him when he played with frogs and things. How could time have passed so quickly? Is there ever to be peace so that children may grow up carefree with a real future before them - not death and destruction?' The lad stirred and Húrin picked up the moist cloth, wiping the sweat from Denethor's brow. The gray eyes flew open and Húrin was struck by the depth of those eyes. He had seen portraits of the Kings of Westernesse, and, if ever a man of Gondor looked like one of those kings, this one did. Those eyes now burned into him and he found he could do naught but answer the unspoken questions.

"We still do not know the enemy we face nor the extent of the damage done. This village has been wiped out. The only survivor is the boy you found. The patrol sent to Osgiliath is surly lost, probably ambushed. New pickets have been... " He was interrupted by an old man who pushed him out of the way.

Findegon stood before Denethor, his sun-darkened face contorted with pain. "Denethor," he hissed, "what has happened here? Where are my people?"

Tears welled up in Denethor's eyes. "Your people are all lost. I am sorry, Findegon. The village was attacked early this morning. We do not yet know the enemies name. We came too late. Only one child was found alive. He is over by the third tent."

Findegon turned and moved towards the tent. Baranor was instantly at his side, bidden by a sign from Denethor. The Ranger bent over the sleeping child and a cry of joy and despair escaped his lips. "Damrod! Damrod," he cried and hugged the babe to his chest. Baranor walked him to a stool and helped him sit. A few moments passed. Húrin made as if to speak, but Denethor motioned to him for silence. At last, Findegon rose, placed the babe back in the cot, walked over to Denethor, placed his hand on his chest and bowed.

"Baranor tells me it was you saved my grandson. I thank you."

Denethor hung his head. Fate was so strange. Out of all those lost this day... The burden was too great, he thought, his heart breaking for Findegon.

"My son was one of those guarding this camp. Would you know where he is?" Findegon asked.

"Findegon," Denethor sighed, "we have buried the dead already. If your son was here, he did not survive. I am so very sorry. We have swept the land hoping to find survivors. There were none."

"Not only my son, but all my kin lost as well. My wife, the wife of my son - all gone.  If only we had seen the smoke earlier, or if I had...  Nay, there was no warning, no time for ought but grief."

Silence and sorrow engulfed the men. None were untouched by the horror of the day. For a fleeting moment, Denethor felt the fight was not worth the price. Perhaps they should desert this area and move west. But as quickly as the thought came, it passed. He could never leave Gondor nor Minas Tirith. Again, the memory of the White Tower as they had returned from Lossarnach swept through his mind and the feeling of joy and awe as he looked upon it encompassed him. Nay, never could he leave her - not alive.

~*~

The next morning dawned bright and beautiful. Birds sang and still the huts smoldered. Denethor introduced Findegon to Húrin and Thengel. The men sat around Denethor's cot.

Thengel turned and spoke to Findegon. "I believe you should return to Henneth Annûn and bring your men back here. We will abandon that place for the moment." The look of grief on Findegon's face caused Thengel to pause and he put his hand on the Ranger's shoulder. "You have done everything you could to protect Gondor. Now, we must collect our forces and report to Lord Ecthelion. I will not leave the few men you have left here alone."

"My Lord is wise in all things, I see. We will do as you command. Our hearts will leave this place with a heaviness that I had not thought possible to bear. All I have loved and honored were in this land!"

"We will be back!" Denethor interjected passionately and the coughing started anew. Baranor stepped to his side, a steaming cup of comfrey tea in his hand. He held it to Denethor's lips and Denethor tried to swallow sips between the coughing.

"Yes," Thengel said, "we will be back. Your men will be refitted with new uniforms and weapons and reinforcements. You will again be Rangers of Ithilien."

"Nay, my Lord," Findegon turned towards Denethor and bowed his head. "I will not return here. I ask your leave to return to Minas Tirith and serve Gondor there."

"It is not my right to accept or reject your request, Findegon," Denethor said. "Your fate is in my father's hands, but I will do everything in my power to make this happen, if that is your wish." The men sat in silence.

~*~

Two companies of men, full one hundred forty soldiers rode into the camp, a horse-drawn cart following behind them. Húrin went to speak with his men and returned shortly. "I now believe it was Orcs who attacked this camp. The remains of the patrol have been found. It appears to me that a band came out of the mountains and attacked this village. They had begun their feasting when your company was discovered coming towards them. They fled and hid nearby, saw the errand-riders sent out, followed and attacked them. The band was small but there was little hope. Where the Orcs have gone, I do not know, but I do believe they have left the area. It was not a large enough band to attack against our strength."

Denethor remembered the state of the bodies of his Uncle Cranthir's company so long ago. Will we never be free, he wondered?

"We will leave tomorrow morning for Osgiliath," Thengel stated. "We will send four companies out today, west, east, north and south for one last survey of the area. Then we will head back to Minas Tirith."

"Ecthelion ordered me to send errand-riders to him," Húrin said.

"Nay, I will not risk a patrol. It has proven too dangerous unless I send an entire company and that I will not do. I have better uses for our men than to send them off thusly."

Denethor sighed. His father would be ill pleased to have his orders countermanded. Another sigh escaped his lips and Thengel looked up, questioning. When Denethor said naught, he turned towards Ciramir.

"Replace the pickets and send out the remaining two companies."

Húrin interrupted him. "My Lord, if I might, I would take a company out myself?"

Thengel nodded, weariness suddenly overtaking him. "Ciramir, take Findegon's men and one company of ours, go to Henneth Annûn and bring the remaining Rangers back here."

"My Lord," both Húrin and Ciramir brought their hands to their chests, bowed their heads, and walked away.

"Well, Denethor, it seems you are having your way at last. The Rangers of Ithilien have been relieved! Now tell me, what are your thoughts? Your sighs were loud enough to wake the dead."

Denethor's face turned as red as his burned hands. He shook his head. "I would ask your pardon, Captain Thengel. My mind has been in a thousand places, least not Minas Tirith. My... Ecthelion will be most displeased. Húrin should have sent errand-riders as soon as he reached our camp. You know this would have been my father's order. Now, a full day and a night have passed and still Ecthelion waits."

Thengel moved his stool closer to the cot. His eyes were heavy with fatigue and pain. "You would question me?" he asked gently.

Denethor shook his head. "Nay, I know you are wise, as Findegon noted, but in the ways of diplomacy...? Know you not that my father stands waiting? What do you gain by not obeying him?"

"What do I gain? How can you ask that? Do you not see the need for conserving our strength?"

Again Denethor sighed. "My friend and counselor. What have you taught me about obedience? You are commanding Húrin to disobey his Captain-General. We could survive with one less company. Would it not be better to send one of the more worn companies at a gentle gait to the City? Show Ecthelion the respect he is due. The men know he waits."

Thengel let his head drop and finally Denethor realized his friend's need for rest. He motioned to Baranor, ever close at hand, who stepped forward. "Please ask Arciryas to attend me if he has a moment." Baranor nodded and swiftly left.

"Thengel?" he touched a bandaged hand to his friend's cheek. Thengel looked up in surprise. "It is very near to nuncheon. Your orders are being carried out as we speak. Would you join me for the meal?"

Arciryas arrived and, at a look from Denethor, turned his attention to Thengel. The bandages on his captain's hands were removed, new salve was gently spread over the burns, and fresh cloth was applied.

"My Lord," Arciryas said, "it is time you took rest again."

Thengel looked surprised at Arciryas' request, saw Denethor's concerned smile, and laughed quietly. "Your invitation for nuncheon was a ruse I see, to keep me by your side until our healer could arrive. Diplomacy!"

Denethor's smile widened. "Perhaps you will join me in a cup of that foul-smelling Valerian tea and an hour's rest?"

Baranor brought a cot and placed it next to Denethor's. The two friends laughed quietly.

"Only for one hour," Thengel retorted.

~*~

Morwen had been moved to Thengel's quarters in the Steward's Hall and Adanedhel had given her a gentle sleeping draught. Indis sat at her side while Listöwel paced outside in the garden. Elleth brought in tea.

"A day and a night have passed since the vision. Do you think it was real?" Elleth asked.

Indis sighed. "Yes, I believe it was real and that our men are in danger. I would that it were not so."

Listöwel had overheard them, came into the room, and sat at Indis' feet. Indis laid her hand on the girl's head. "This is a fine way to make wedding preparations," she smiled gently at the girl. "Our men are strong, dearest, and when joined as they are, the three of them are strongest. I do not feel that any of them will ever fall when they are together."

Listöwel smiled through the tears that now fell at Indis' words. She had sensed the friendship, courage and strength that bound these three men together. The gentle words of Indis gave her much hope.

Elleth poured the tea and the three women grew in their own strength and courage.

Ch. 8 - Third Age 2948 - Part Two

In the morning, preparations were underway for the battalion's departure. The fires had all been put out, the dead were buried and the cart had been prepared. Amdir was placed next to Denethor and Thengel. No sound had passed his lips, nor was there any movement from the burnt body. They had laid him on his stomach and in so doing, part of the bandage became dislodged and Denethor caught a glimpse of the damaged back. He cried out in horror, "Amdir!" but there was no answer. Thengel took Denethor into his arms and held him close as his friend wept over the wreckage before them. Arciryas quickly jumped into the cart and rearranged the bandages.

"This is an order. You will both drink this before we begin our journey or we will not begin it." Authority rang in his voice. Húrin stood by the side of the cart. Thengel and Denethor drank the draught and lay back. The grim procession started towards Osgiliath and soon sleep overcame the two friends.

~*~

It took a full day to reach Osgiliath. The cart rode slowly with its precious cargo. Three times Arciryas called for rest. He changed bandages, heated prepared tea, and administered it to his charges. Then they started forward again.

When they reached Osgiliath, they found Ecthelion waiting for them. He permitted Arciryas to take the wounded to the battalion's barracks. He allowed no one to tell Denethor or Thengel that he was there. Húrin brought him to his own quarters, ordered dinner to be brought, and closed the door, telling his aide they were not to be disturbed. Ecthelion gave him a moment to lave his hands and face and prepare tea. When Húrin finally sat before his Captain-General, he found a very angry man across from him.

"First, tell me how it is that no errand-riders were sent to me as I had ordered?"

"My Lord, I have disobeyed you. May I give my full report before you pass judgment against me?"

"It matters not what caused this disregard for my orders, Húrin. You know yourself that obedience is everything in service to Gondor. There must be punishment for this."

"Well I know it, my Lord, yet punishment should be tempered with wisdom."

Ecthelion gave a soft smile. "Perhaps if you would offer your Captain-General a cup of tea, punishment could be stayed?"

Húrin jumped up, chagrin written plainly upon his face; Ecthelion laughed warmly.

"Nay, dear Húrin, I will serve myself. And while I am doing so, please tell me what you have found."

So Húrin sat and told of the village, the wounded, the lost patrol, and all the while Ecthelion feigned being thoroughly engrossed in the making of tea. At the end of Húrin's report, he went to the door and ordered the aide to bring Arciryas to him, if he was not needed. Húrin started to speak again, but Ecthelion held his hand up for silence. The two men sat, both deep in thought. At last, the gentle steps of the healer broke the silence.

"My Lord," Arciryas said as he bowed his head and placed his hand on his chest. Ecthelion nodded and Arciryas reported on his movements during the battle and afterwards, the state of his patients, and what the recovery for each would entail.

Ecthelion nodded when he was finished and excused him.

Húrin sat in wonder. At last Ecthelion spoke. "This has been a hard few days for us all, has it not?" Húrin knew he was not required to answer.

Both men jumped as Denethor burst into the room. "Father!" he cried, hugging him close. Ecthelion, startled, remembered Cranthir's burial day, the day he and Denethor had been reconciled. He held him at arm's length. "My son," he said warmly, "it is good to see you. Here, sit at my side. Arciryas said you were resting."

"I was, Father, but I knew you were here. I... I had to see you." He suddenly blushed at the remembrance of the exuberance of his greeting.

Ecthelion smiled at his discomfiture. "As I said, it is good to see you."

Húrin stood as if to leave. "Nay, please stay. Our greetings are done. You have relieved the Rangers?"

"Yes, my Lord. The Orc band has not been found. We deemed it prudent."

"Yes, it would seem so. Yet now Ithilien is empty of her soldiers and those who live there are unguarded. I cannot leave Ithilien unprotected."

"Nay, my Lord, I see your point. Perhaps we should abandon Ithilien entirely?"

Ecthelion looked up, sharply. "That will not happen! Ithilien is part of Gondor and will be under the protection of Gondor." Vehemence sharpened his voice.

"Father, Captain Inlach has been preparing the Rangers in Minas Tirith for the last year. He has five full companies, well trained. Two companies - one hundred and forty men - can be sent to Henneth Annûn. It will be a tight fit, but the men are stalwart. Another two companies may be stationed at Emyn Arnen and another company at Cair Andros. The forces at Pelargir will be able to patrol South Ithilien. If we could devise a long-distance signaling system, like the one Captain Vëantur had for his ships." Excitement tinged Denethor's words as his thoughts raced to the great sea captain of Númenor. "They used a system of flags, Father, dipped a certain number of times for words. We could make shields, perhaps coat their surface with mithril, or put polished crystals on them - anything to reflect the light of Anor - then device some code to communicate between the three garrisons. Well... I have not thought it all out, but it would work."

Húrin clapped Denethor on the shoulder. "I do believe it will work. Where did you read about this code?"

Denethor blushed. "As a youth, I spent quite some time reading of the sailors of Númenor. The accounts are all in the Great Library."

Ecthelion sat back; Denethor could not tell if he was angry or interested. He held his breath. His father stood, poured tea, and set it before Denethor who looked up in surprise. "Drink this," Ecthelion said. "Arciryas left it for you. And then retire for the night."

Walking back to his barracks, Denethor did not know whether to laugh or cry. He knew they could devise a system. The captains of the ships out of Pelargir used a system that was close to what they needed. It should be easy enough. And Ithilien must not be abandoned. It was now too dangerous for errand-riders. What would Ecthelion do, he wondered as he fell into bed? His heart was still racing at the joy of the challenge, but his body succumbed to sleep almost immediately.

~*~

"Why are they not back yet? Why were no errand-riders sent? Where is Ecthelion?" Morwen wrung her hands. Dawn had found her pacing the little garden of their apartments. Indis stood by, waiting patiently, letting her friend spend her anguish in words and motion. Finally, Morwen looked at her, and smiled apologetically. "I am sorry, Indis. I know Ecthelion is doing all he can. I just need word."

"I know you do. Word will come when it is time. I believe we should go to the Houses of Healing after our meal and help prepare for the wounded. The battalion will probably have spent the night in Osgiliath. They should arrive here around noon. Father did send an errand-rider with word that there were wounded, but no other word did he send."

Morwen blanched. "My heart tells me that all is well, but the vision stays with me. I will go with you to the Houses."

After breaking their fast, the women walked slowly down to the Sixth Level where Adanedhel met them.

"We have come to help," Indis answered his unasked question. "Morwen will take her time and do only tasks that require sitting. I myself, along with Listöwel and Elleth when they come, will prepare salves, unguents, and teas, with your instruction, of course."

Adanedhel sighed. "There are only three wounded and a babe, orphaned. Perhaps you will deign to take the child?"

Morwen gave a cry. "A babe? A babe has been found? But how? Why?"

"I know none of the details. Nor the names of the wounded," he said as he noted Indis' open mouth. "You will have to wait, as I must."

"I believe I can speak for Elleth. She will take the child. Know you not its parentage?"

"Nay, as I have told you, my Lady, I have no further details. We must needs wait."

Morwen and Indis left the Houses with no clear idea as to what they would do next.

~*~

By late afternoon, Indis and Morwen were sitting by the escarpment on the Seventh Level watching and waiting. Dust became visible in the distance and they knew a great company was approaching from the direction of Osgiliath. A quick hug and then they ran to Elleth's home, found Listöwel with her, shared their news, and proceeded towards the First Level and the Great Gate. They paced their steps to assure Morwen did not tax herself beyond endurance; they must protect the babe. Sober were they and quiet. Each woman walked silently, engrossed in her own thoughts, afraid of what each would find. At last they reached the Great Gate, which was opening as they approached. Holding hands in solidarity, supporting each other through their touch, they searched the faces of the soldiers. Morwen crumpled into Elleth's arms as her eyes told her Thengel was not with the riders. Indis ran to the cart. The entourage was so long, the cart had yet to pass through the gates.

Denethor smiled wearily up at her. She cried out in relief. Though the ride had been long and hard for the wounded, it was a joy to see her face, in all its state of worry. "Your hair is a mess," he laughed quietly and held her hand. Tears sprang into both pairs of eyes as she gently took the bandaged hand. Denethor loved this woman so dearly. Always, he could rely upon her for support, love and counsel. Did she know of his love for her? Life was so short, he had discovered. He must tell her. He would pick a night and meet with her, share a meal and remember times, friends and family. He would be in Minas Tirith for awhile. He could not hold a sword and was useless to his company until he was healed. He would use this time to spend with her. He started to tell her of Amdir when she caught sight of Thengel, seated behind him.

"Thengel," she cried. Immediately she turned towards Morwen. The smile on Indis' face told her friend all she needed to know. Morwen pulled herself out of Elleth's arms and ran towards the cart, with Elleth running after her trying to make her slow down. The driver by this time realized he must stop or run over the group of women descending upon him. Listöwel made her way past her friends, a smile upon her face. She knew Amdir was safe if he was with Denethor and Thengel. She cried his name as she ran forward.

Indis stopped her. "Just a moment, dear one, let me help you up." She had seen the small nod of Denethor's head towards the body lying next to him. She knew whom it was and that the injuries were serious by the pain in her brother's eyes. How was she to help her friend? She stepped down from the running board and turned to Listöwel, gently taking her in her arms. "Amdir is seriously injured, Listöwel. I will help you up to him, but you must not touch him," she whispered in her ear. Tears started streaming down both women's faces.

"Yes, I understand," Listöwel whispered, scarce able to breathe and hugged her friend. Two soldiers took her arms as she reached up and helped swing her into the cart next to Amdir. She bent low, found a clear space on the burned forehead, kissed it gently, then sat down next to him and waited for the cart to continue its journey to the Houses of Healing, his hand in hers.

Indis turned towards the people in the square as the contingent of soldiers hurried up the street, Morwen and Elleth beside her. "My people, another battle has been waged for good by the men of Gondor. The enemy is at bay again, fearful of our strength. It is now our turn to come together under our beloved Steward and stand firm. There is no need for fear or panic. Return to your homes, prepare the evening meal, and commit yourselves again to Gondor's defense." She turned, gathered her friends and followed the entourage. Thengel looked back at her in amaze.

~*~

Firieth hushed Denethor for the tenth time. "You will sit here until I deem your wounds are fully cleaned, bandaged, and you have drunk the teas prepared for you. I have just now finished your hands. The burns on your back still need unguents poured upon them. Then they must be covered with clean bandages..."

"Please, Firieth. I must to Amdir's side. At least stop your chattering, do quickly what you must, and release me!" He chafed at every word she spoke, every movement she made. He grew tired of the constant ministrations. He had been treated by Arciryas; was that not enough? He hated the Houses of Healing - always they seemed to him a prison. This time, of all times, he must be with Amdir. He knew secret ways that would take him to the room where his friend lay, but the woman seemed aware of his thoughts of escape and would not leave him alone for a moment, always using others to fetch supplies, teas and unguents.

Suddenly, tears filled his eyes. He grabbed her arm. "Firieth, I do not know if my friend lives or is dead. I promise you, I will remain here, quietly, and endure your ministrations, but please," with his freshly bandaged hand he turned her face towards his, "send one of your drudges for news, please!"

~*~

Thengel stood with the women in the little courtyard off the main door of the Houses. Morwen was seated on a marble bench near the hedge of aloe that protected this recess from the wind. The smell was soothing; she had not noticed that a small peace had descended upon her. Indis sat next to her, holding her hand. She was grateful, more than words could tell, that Thengel had not been burned too badly. Yet her heart was broken for Listöwel as she stood clinging to Elleth. Thengel had told them in glowing words of Amdir's bravery but the women were not concerned with bravery. Bravery was becoming a euphemism for death in Gondor. Now they looked for a word of hope from him, but Thengel had none to offer. He had seen Amdir's back as the healer had stripped the bandages off, one by one, had seen the look of horror in Ecthelion's eyes, and had to leave the room to empty his stomach. When he had returned, Ecthelion had motioned him out. Now he found himself here with the women, looked upon for strength and feeling weak.

"I will go to Denethor," he said quietly. "The healers must be finished with him by now. We will then go to Amdir. As soon as I am able, I promise, I will return with news." He bowed his head, gave Indis and Morwen quick hugs and strode through the main doors.

As he walked towards Denethor's room, he shook his head. How were the women of Gondor able to endure this constant contact with death? They were the brave ones, left to send their men to war, left at home to raise the children, make the bandages, and keep a measure of sanity to lead the people by their example. He knew the four women he had just left were leaders in the City, unbeknownst to themselves and others, but at times like this, when fear ran rampant through the streets, he knew these four leaned upon each other and became an example for all the women of Gondor. He had seen Indis grow from a terrified child, at last standing up to her father, to a strong woman whom others turned to for comfort and courage. He remembered the sight of her in the square and he shook his head, wonder filling him.

~*~

"There are three places that greatly concern me," Adanedhel said pointing them out to Arciryas. "These two spots on the flesh that cover the bones of his lower shoulders and this one further down on the left side of his back. These are different burns than the rest and these will be the burns that will kill him, if we do not treat them vigorously."

"But my Lord Healer, are not the others as bad - they blister and weep?"

"Nay, though their look is not pleasant, they are not as serious as these three places, and will heal in time. This is your first burn patient, is it not?"

"Yes, my Lord."

"I wish it were your last, but alas, the enemy appears to grow bolder each day." He turned to Ecthelion. "What say you to this now? Is it not time to override the Steward's Council and protect our people?"

"You speak unwisely for an old man," Ecthelion stated, surprised at the healer's boldness.

"I am old - yes. I have no more purpose in life than to care for Gondor's people. I can no longer hold my tongue. Would you cause more of our people to suffer this and also death? A whole village wiped out, my Lord. The defenses in Ithilien are weak and the soldiers too few. You continue to throw lives away by your cowardice."

Ecthelion froze. He breathed in slowly and deeply. He would have struck the healer, though his words rang bitter and true in his heart. "I would have you remember," he hissed, trying to keep from shouting, "your function is to care for the wounded. You are not on the Steward's Council nor are you a soldier. You do not know all that pertains to these matters. I will speak of it no more."

"And that has been the problem," Adanedhel spat out. "No one speaks of what must be spoken to. Not only are the soldiers, the Council, and the Steward affected by the paths our Steward leads us on. It is the people themselves. And it will not stop in Ithilien. Are you too blind to see that? The evil will spread. Next will be Osgiliath, then Minas Tirith and the whole of Gondor. Orcs run rampant through our land and naught is done to stop them. Remember when the Corsairs attacked Thengel's company in Lossarnach? There was no reprisal. None of our enemies fear us. We are looked upon as weak. And I am forced to care for more and more of our people and the underandfónd bury more and more of our dead."

"What would you have me do?" he whispered curtly as he pulled Adanedhel away from the bed. "I have no authority. I have spoken to my father. I have placed my thoughts before the Council and I am rebuffed at every turn. Go back to your patient, which is where your responsibility lies. Leave me to my father." He strode from the room.

Denethor and Thengel heard the angry voices as they approached Amdir's room. They stood with mouths wide, watching as Ecthelion stormed out. Had they heard right? Had Adanedhel not just berated their Captain-General? Denethor's face burned with shame. How dare he? How did his father not strike the man? Then he shook his head. Was violence his only recourse when he was angry? And why was he angry? Did not a citizen of Gondor have the right to question? Did not he have the right to question? Yet he knew the obstacles that faced Ecthelion and pondered what could be done. He glanced at Amdir, quiet and unmoving on the bed. He turned to Adanedhel.

"My Lord, you speak wrongly to my father." He said quietly. "He has tried, seriously tried for years now to open Turgon's eyes to the dangers present. The Council seems to be more afraid of war than protecting Gondor. These lords have been too long from the battlefield. Their memories cloud their judgment. They forget that all will die if this evil is left to grow. I do not know the answers, but father needs your support now. You are his healer, Master Healer for all of Gondor. If others hear you speaking thus..."

"Well am I aware of your father's words, but no deeds have sprung from those words. Denethor, this cannot continue." He paused, "I am tired," he wiped a bloodied hand across his forehead. "I spoke in the heat of my grief over the villagers. I... my sister-son had family there."

"Adanedhel!" Denethor cried, "I am sorry."

"Nay, 'tis I who am sorry. I will go to your father. There is naught I can do for Amdir. He must fight this battle alone. I will return in one hour. Please send someone to me if his condition changes. I will be in the Steward's Hall." Denethor watched the healer retreat, shoulders bowed. His heart ached. So much death, so much sorrow.

~*~

The men stood at the foot of the bed. Adanedhel had left an attendant to sit and watch over Amdir. Denethor did not understand why there had been no movement from him, no sound issuing from his lips since they had found him. What kind of death was this? The attendant moved at Denethor's request and he sat and took his friend's hand.

"Amdir. It is I, Denethor. Thengel and I are here with you. Do not lose hope, my friend. We will stay and fight this battle with you. You are not alone. Amdir? Amdir, please, do not give up. Do not leave us. We have much to share yet, many adventures and battles and drinking and dancing and laughing. Why - Listöwel is waiting for you as we speak. They have started to make her gown. Is not that true, Thengel?

Thengel stepped closer to the bed. "Yes, Amdir. I just left the women. Your mother and Listöwel have been quite busy with the preparations for your troth taking. You have much yet to do, my friend. Please wake up."

"Perhaps he is waiting for his captaincy, Thengel; I am sure we can do something about that after his deeds in Emyn Arnen." He tried to keep his voice light, the fear from it.

"Amdir?" he tried again and was rewarded by a stirring, a low moan. "Amdir!" he bent low and put his mouth near his friend's ear. "Amdir, it is I, Denethor. We are here for you."

Another moan and the eyelids flickered in the pale face before him. He held the hand tighter, the pain in his own negated by his concern for his friend. He kissed Amdir's brow and called his name again. At last, the eyes opened and pain flashed across them. The moan turned to a cry and Denethor wished with all his heart that he had not awakened his friend.

The attendant quickly came forward and pressed liquid to Amdir's lips. Through his thrashing, Amdir swallowed some of the drought. Fear flickered in his eyes and Denethor forced his face in front of him.

"Amdir, you will recover. You have been injured, but you are mending. Drink what the healer is giving you. It will help ease the pain."

Amdir's eyes did not convey recognition and Denethor took his friend's face into his hands. "Amdir, I am here. Drink this," he had taken the cup from the healer, "It will help ease your pain. You will be well soon," he kept repeating as some of the liquid made its way into Amdir's mouth. The fear seemed to lessen.

"Send for Adanedhel," Thengel demanded and the attendant ran from the room as Thengel knelt by the bed. "Amdir, we are here. Do not give into despair and fear. Your friends are with you."

There was recognition - Denethor was sure of it. The thrashing had lessened and the eyes were focusing, no longer rolling wildly. Once again Denethor gave him the cup and Amdir drank of it, slowly. His eyes were wide now, but clear.

"Do not speak, my friend. Lie still and rest. We will not leave you." Amdir's eyes closed, then opened and a smile, small, touched his face. The eyes closed again and the breathing became slower, quieter. Denethor sat back, relief flooding his entire body. He turned towards Thengel. Through tears, both men smiled.

~*~

"How do I say this without you thinking me mad?" he said to the still figure on the bed. The others had left the room, their ministrations done for the moment. "How do I say this and retain your friendship, your love. You will hear it and only hear the words - not what my heart is speaking, but I must say it, if only in the hope that one meaning will seep through the words, the hurt."

He had begun to weep openly. "Amdir, my friend, my brother. You must not die. You must not. Gondor has need of you, of your courage, your goodness, if only to tame me, to keep me in check, my pride, my stubbornness, my anger. You know of what I speak. Ever have you been the gentling agent in this mass that sits here before you. I ask not for myself, that you live, but for Gondor, for it is my fate that I will one day rule Gondor as her Steward. I see things before me that terrify me. Things that I will do if you are not with me."

He could hardly speak for the sobs that wracked his body. "If all else fails, I will fail. I can see it, Amdir, in my mind's eye." Fear constricted his throat. He found it painful to continue speaking, but he pushed through the pain. "I fear Isildur's Bain." There! He had said it. "Is it real? Is it in the hands of our enemies; is it as terrible a weapon as I imagine it? Will Gondor fall because of it?"

He wet his lips. "There is a presence in Mordor; I can feel it. It is thoroughly evil. It will destroy Gondor and I know of no way to stop it. Yet, left unhindered as it now is, it will only grow and feed on us. And it feeds on my fears. Amdir, I want desperately to have you live for me, for our friendship, for our love. But it has gone beyond that now. You are Gondor's hope - not I. I will be the one who sits on the Steward's Chair, but you will be the one behind me, guiding me, controlling me, softening what I do so that I will rule in wisdom, not in frailty. I know my faults. I know they are many and I will fail without you. Amdir, you must not die." He buried his head in the blankets that covered his friend, sobbing uncontrollably, fatigue and fear overcoming him, until sleep took him.

~*~

Ecthelion sat alone in his study. The words of the healer burnt him. His face was flushed though he had laved it as soon as he had come into the room. 'I am at a loss,' he thought. 'I have tried every conceivable approach to change Turgon's mind. Yet all for naught. Our defenses are useless; our men die upon the battlefield; our people suffer daily. None of this has changed his mind. He lives in a dream world. And his counselors with him. I have just reprimanded Húrin for his disobedience. Disobedience, no matter by what disguise or name I would use, would still be disobedience. But I must to do something. Mordor - there is now an evil presence there.' Denethor had told him such and he knew the gift that Denethor had been given - some sense of events unknown to other men, some sense of the future. 'How am I to defend Gondor while not Steward? And now my men look askance at me, those in authority distrust me, and I sit, weak and incapable of doing what must be done. My hands shackled.'

Indis had quietly entered the room. "My Lord," she said, "is there ought I can do to help? I notice your disquiet."

He stood and walked towards her. Fiercely he took her into his arms and hugged her. "I am most in need of your comfort, your support." A chill ran through her. "Nay, Denethor is healing. I have heard no news of Amdir as of this morning. It is Turgon who causes me this pain. Well you know his state of mind. You have become my helper, my right hand in the affairs of Gondor, unbeknownst to others, and I have need of your counsel. I believe the time has come for drastic measures, measures which some would say were treasonable. Yet, where Gondor's weal is involved, I must consider all alternatives. I will call my captains to me. We will meet in secret. But where? Osgiliath." He gave her no opportunity for comment. "Will you come with me and act as servant, listening to all that is spoken of?"

"Of course, my Lord. Will you send missives today? When do you propose this meeting? I would spend some time with Denethor before we leave, if that is possible? As it concerns him, will Denethor be one of those commanded to attend? He is only a lieutenant, but he is your heir."

~*~

Firieth heard the cries of the Steward's heir and ran to find the healer. Adanedhel knocked gently on the door. When there was no answer, he pushed it open and found Denethor slumped over the foot of the bed. 'At last, he sleeps,' he thought, 'at last.' He moved towards Amdir and noted the pale, glossy skin, the shallow breathing. His forehead was hot to the touch. He understood why Denethor had cried out. Amdir was failing. It had been four days since the company had returned from Ithilien. Adanedhel had seen signs of recovery and been heartened by them. Now, all seemed lost. He sent for Arciryas and unguents, herbs and fresh bandages. And Thengel. He had been sleeping in a room nearby and was with him in an instant.

"Thengel, help me move Denethor - but gently. I do not want him to wake. If I am correct, this is the first time he has slept since your return."

"Yes, Thengel shook his head. "I have never seen anyone with such will. He would not leave Amdir's side."

"We will place him on this cot. Then you must help me with Amdir. Fever has taken his body. We have a new enemy to fight, besides the burns."

Quickly and quietly the two men undid Amdir's bandages. The sight of the ruined back once again made Thengel ill. "Be strong, Captain! I have need of you. Breathe through your mouth. That will help. You cannot tell, but the burns are indeed healing. One of the three most severe has changed for the better. I had truly hoped we were well on the path to recovery. "

Seeing his men injured was difficult, painful for Thengel, but to see his friend like this took everything out of him. Flashes of memories of other warriors brought low by the evil that surrounded Gondor caused him to lower his head in grief. He marveled at Adanedhel and said so aloud.

"Nay, my Lord, I do naught special. I have a talent for healing and must use it, just as you have a talent for leading men. You would not be happy doing anything else, as I would not." The gentle words of the healer, Thengel discovered, helped give him the strength to continue aiding him. Arciryas had come into the room and moved swiftly towards the unguents set by Firieth on the sideboard, mixing them with honey, dissolving herbs in hot water, and preparing healing tea. All the while, Adanedhel spoke of bravery and duty and men. He had long ago discovered that words could also be used for healing and some sense told him Thengel needed healing at this moment. As soon as the last bandage was removed, Arciryas scooped the unguent and lavished it upon the burns.

"There is fever," Thengel heard the healer tell Arciryas and noted the grave looks that passed between them. "It is time for harsher measures."

Arciryas nodded and left the room. He soon returned with drudges carrying a large tub. Others followed carrying buckets of water. The tub was placed in the center of the room and filled with the water and Thengel wondered what the old man was doing. Next, buckets of ice from the ice chests in the kitchen were brought in and dumped into the water. The drudges left. Adanedhel wrapped a sheet of cloth around Amdir and he and Arciryas started to lift him from the bed. Thengel quickly stepped in to help, but, as they started to lower Amdir into the tub, he cried out in concern.

"Hush!" Adanedhel whispered. "The fever will kill him. We must needs stop it. This will reduce the fever quickly. It is a harsh treatment, for other risks become involved, but it must be done."

It seemed only a moment that they left Amdir in the frigid water, and then quickly they stripped the wet cloth off him, and wrapped him in a blanket made of soft fleece. They laid him in the bed and Adanedhel felt his forehead.

"A little cooler," he said with satisfaction. "We will wait a quarter hour. If the fever rises, we will do the same again. If not, there is possibility for recovery."

Arciryas took the tea he had prepared, checked to ensure it was cool, and sat with Amdir, gently forcing drops into the cracked lips. The silence in the room was oppressive - Denethor, making no sound in a sleep of exhaustion and Amdir, making no sound, his breath so shallow none could hear it. The vigil continued.

~*~

"If we are not allowed to visit, at least they must tell us what is happening," Elleth hissed between clenched teeth. "I will go mad with this silence."

Listöwel looked at her in amaze. None of the women had been told of the progress of Amdir. Twice Thengel had come and spoken with them, saying all would be well, but there was an undercurrent in his speech that did not assuage their fears. They were gathered in Morwen's chambers, trying to sew, trying to uplift each other, but as the days passed, fear gripped them. Denethor was well on the way to recovery, according to Thengel, but the healer had forbidden them to visit either man. Their only contact was through Thengel and his guarded tongue did them no good.

"Where is Indis?" Morwen asked. "I have not seen her since we broke fast this morning. She could go to her father and demand that we be allowed to visit the Houses of Healing. I was under the impression that we were to help in the care of our men?" Her embroidery sat in her lap, untouched for the last hour.

"She was going to Ecthelion. She said she would plead our case before him, but she has not returned," Elleth said. "If he had not allowed her an audience, she would have returned by now. Her absence gives me hope."

"She has changed this last year. Have you not noticed? She seems stronger and yet more distant, as if she knows things she will not share with us," Morwen whispered. "I miss our times of laughter and... silliness. She does not laugh as often nor as warmly as was her wont. What do you suppose has happened, Elleth?"

"She spends more time with Ecthelion than she used to. I do not think she is any longer taking care of the physical work as Lady of Gondor, but more she spends her time with him. I find it strange. He will not give his time to Denethor, yet he will to Indis."

"That is because she is a strong and wise woman and besides, Denethor is off with his company. He has other duties that take him away from Minas Tirith. There is no opportunity for him to spend time with Ecthelion," Morwen stated.

"If Ecthelion wished it, Denethor would be stationed here in the City learning what he must as future Steward. Has there been some disagreement between the two?" Elleth asked.

"I think that is not our concern," Morwen said flatly, then smiled. "The plotting of the Steward's family is legend. Has been for eons. There is naught we can do, dear friend, to... What are you doing?" she asked, her eyes wide as Listöwel took up Thengel's practice sword.

"It is heavy, heavier than I thought," she giggled nervously. "Do you honestly think, if the battle comes to Minas Tirith, that we will be allowed to stay?"

Silence greeted her. Morwen and Elleth looked at each other. Indis had come in and they rushed to her side.

"Nay, sisters. I want to hear further of what Listöwel is asking."

Listöwel flushed. "Do you seriously believe that I will leave Amdir?" She looked pointedly at Indis, a challenge in her eyes. "If he lives," she faltered.

"He lives," Indis said, "though the battle being waged is deadly. His friends are at his side. So - you would let us leave Minas Tirith and you would stay?"

"I would not stop you and I would stay, but I would stay with a sword in my hand. I have discovered a secret, Morwen," she looked hard at her friend, "Your maidservant is from Rohan and knows how to wield a sword. One word from you and she will teach me. What say you?"

Morwen's mouth opened in surprise. "Yes, she is from Rohan, a sister of one of Thengel's friends, but I know naught of her training."

"She said she was trained as a shieldmaiden. What is that?"

Morwen blanched. "It is a name for a woman who has renounced relations with men to become a warrior for her people. Shieldmaidens are specially trained in the art of self-defense and war." A gleam shone in Morwen's eye. "If only I were not with child..."

"Morwen!" Elleth cried. "How can you say such a thing?"

"Because I can see it in your eyes. You are all lusting after such training. Therefore, I will be sent from Gondor with the other useless women and children and you will stay and fight for Gondor."

~*~

At last, Adanedhel could contain his anger no longer. "Why does not Ecthelion give Denethor some task to keep him busy. I have told him of Denethor's recovery. Light duty would not harm him. But this vigil is killing his spirit. He needs to be elsewhere for a part of the day. Yes, his mind will be here, but activity is needed - some surcease from the fear that is tormenting him. I did not know the two were so close - almost as brothers."

Thengel looked up in surprise. He had almost been asleep himself in the quiet of the room. "Yes, they have been like brothers for a long time. And they have fought together, even as young as they are, and seen friends die on the battlefield. But this was a different kind of battle. It had already been waged and lost by the time our company arrived."

He thought of the babes and children's bodies strewn upon the ground, the half-eaten... Nay! He pushed the memory from his mind and started pacing the floor. "These two are hardened soldiers, even at their young age. They have battled the enemy for many a year. And yet, any hardened soldier would need healing from the memory of the sights we saw that day. You are correct, Adanedhel. Denethor needs to be doing something to take his mind off that carnage and the desperate illness that now assails his friend. I will speak with Ecthelion himself. But not until Amdir passes this crisis."

"That might be quite some time. Come," Adanedhel sighed, "we must needs try the remedy again. The fever returns."

~*~

"According to Adanedhel, you will be fit and able to join the company shortly. You must be tired of the honeysuckle mist. Granted, it smells lovely, but to have to breathe it every day to clear the lungs? Pure torture. I myself was very glad when that part of my treatment was done with." Denethor smiled as Amdir groaned at the thought. "Thengel and I have become tired of waiting for you to join us. We have missed you. I believe you linger here in the Houses to be nearer to Listöwel." Denethor shook his head. "I do not understand how being with her could possibly cause such a rapid recovery. Is it perhaps the thought of your troth taking?"

Amdir blushed furiously. "She comes only once a day..."

"And stays all day. Thengel and I never have time alone with you anymore. What you speak of during such long visits, I cannot imagine."

Amdir's blush turned a brighter red.  "Just things.  Plans.  Hopes and dreams.  Just things."

Denethor walked towards the window. He did not understand this whole process. Women were meant to take care of the home, the children, the affairs of their men while they were away at war. Or if called to service, then work in the Houses of Healing, or the kitchens, or the shops. What was there to speak of? And yet many a night he had seen Thengel and Morwen sitting by the parapet in deep conversation. Now Amdir and Listöwel did the same thing in the gardens adjacent to the Houses. It made him nervous. He had his friends to share with, his sister, when she had a moment. Why would he want to share with anyone else?

"How are your hands?" Amdir asked, mistaking the uncertainty in his friend's face.

"I am frustrated! I still have trouble grasping my sword. Arciryas says the strength will return in time." He shook his head. "I do the exercises daily, yet the hand seems slow to heal. My left one has no difficulty holding the shield, which I should be grateful for. The fire caused more damage than I thought."

"You have had too many brushes with fire, my friend. I am starting to think fire is Denethor's Bane," Amdir laughed as he gently hit Denethor's arm.

"Nat, it is not," Denethor snarled. "Twice now, it has tried to engulf me and twice now I have won over it. I will not die in fire." Again his thoughts flew to Curunír's words the last time they had met.

Immediately, Amdir regretted his words.  "What causes you to such anger over such a little jest, my friend?"

Had he never told Amdir of that meeting? The skin prickled on his arms. He tried to quell the fear and nausea that assailed his stomach. It was - what? Only a year ago. When Amdir and Thengel were in Dol Amroth. The same year Amdir had met Listöwel. That is why he had never discussed it with his friend. Amdir had returned from Dol Amroth a changed man. All he talked of was this vision of charm that he had met. How he wanted her to be his forever. Denethor had given up trying to talk with him about anything that mattered.

To Amdir's credit, Denethor himself had been caught up in trying to find Henneth Annûn at the time. It had been early spring; he had returned from Ithilien. He had returned to the City very much ashamed. Húrin had surprised him in the forest and Denethor was still smarting from the chastisement in front of Osgiliath's battalion. He needed to find the old manuscripts; he needed more definite directions as to where the cave lay. He had gone to the Great Library, the first time since Thengel's troth pledging. He had heard no word that the wizard was in Gondor, so he had steeled himself and gone, for great was his sense of urgency. He found the manuscripts almost immediately and should have brought them with him to his room, but he had been fascinated by the very first passage he read and had sat down, oblivious to everything around him.

"My Lord Denethor," the whispered voice caused Denethor to jump from his chair and face the wizard. "You are studying late this night." Denethor looked at the candles; they had burnt down almost to their ends. He started gathering up the material around him and tried to head for the door. The wizard stood in front of him - Denethor could not recall him moving.  "I understand you have been allowed to run free through the fields of Ithilien?" His voice dripped with scorn.  "What have you found there, my friend?"

His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. Finally he was able to squeak out, "I found naught but herbs and soldiers."

"Ah, but that is not what you went looking for, was it?" The wizard moved towards him. "You were looking for things that do not concern you. There is another who is close to becoming Lord of Ithilien, One whom you would do well not to cross. I would warn you to stay away, but you are yet headstrong and proud. That pride will cause you great sorrow in the future. It might even cause your death." He paused, turned and moved away. After a moment, he turned back towards Denethor. He held out his hand and there was a ball in it, round and obsidian black, yet beautiful, dark and baffling. It seemed to shimmer as if it had a life of its own. Denethor felt strangely called to it.  "Perhaps you should be looking for other things.  Tools that will help you know what people refuse to tell you. You might even be able to see into their hearts."

"I see just fine now," Denethor was able to blurt out.

"Yes, and so you do. I have noted the gifts of Númenor that have been given to you. You might consider developing them further, just as you have developed your military skills. There are tools available from the ancient ones that, as future Steward, are your right to use."

"Is that... Is that a Palantír?" Denethor asked in amaze. Fear was gone and intense curiosity filled him.

The globe vanished. "I know not of what you speak, my Lord," Curunír smiled.

Denethor suddenly felt weak. He knew he had been tricked.  "You see much, Wizard," he snarled and was surprised at his tone.  "What do you know of me?  Of my fate?"

The wizard laughed, loud and long.  "What is your fate? I see fire and ash and soldiers with flames mirrored in their helms. I see a man lying on a byre with a dead black stone in his hands, flames licking those hands, that stone. I see despair and death."

"Denethor?" Amdir asked for the third time.  "Are you well?"

Denethor smiled bleakly, rubbing the sweat from his forehead. At least after this last encounter, he had not hidden under his bed!  "Of course I am well. It is just... I do not like to think about that fire."

~*~

However the rest of Minas Tirith might have felt, there was one who was terrified. And that one was Morwen of Lossarnach. When first she suspected, she went to Adanedhel and tried to explain her fears to him. He waved them aside, telling her she was strong and young and built to bear children. She next turned to Indis, but Indis was totally taken in the affairs of state - Ecthelion leaned more and more upon her for counsel.

She was afraid to go to Thengel. She remembered his white face as he stood beside her during the long wait for Hild's birth. Besides, there was no use in speaking with Thengel. He and Denethor spent most of their time in the Houses of Healing with Amdir, or planning which rooms to move the ever-increasing family into, what toys needed to be made. Morwen felt miserable, frightened and alone.

As she sat in the garden of the Houses, 'Wen came to her. She was startled. She had not seen Denethor's older sister for some months. When she had, the woman had quietly glided past with only a nod of her head. Thengel had told her that 'Wen spent all of her time caring for the old Steward.

"My Lady," Denethor's sister started to speak. "Forgive me. You do not look well. Is there ought I may do for you?"

Morwen looked at the kind face and burst into tears. "I am frightened, my Lady Morwen. I..."

"Please, call me 'Wen, it is the name my brother uses when speaking to me and I hold its sound tenderly in my heart. If we are going to share as friends, we should address each other as such. Now - what frightens you, Morwen?"

The tone of the voice, the kind hand gently laid upon hers, all lent strength to the words of friendship and Morwen found herself pouring out her heart, her fears, her foibles to the calm woman beside her. "I feel so very foolish. I am no longer a child, but I would cower under my covers if I might. Mayhap if life had moved in a different path, I would not now be so fearful. To lose my child at the Crossings broke my heart. And the pain... I could barely stand it. Then Hild was not an easy child to birth. The pain and fear of her coming are still branded into my mind and my stomach. I do not want to go through that again. I have spoken with Adanedhel and he bids me be quiet. As if I am a wayward child." She wiped the tears from her eyes. "I feel like a wayward child. Lost and alone. Forgive me, My... 'Wen, forgive me, I am whining. I am wife to the Captain of the Horse Guard who is confidant to the Steward's heir. How do I learn courage? How do I learn patience?"

'Wen moved closer to her. "You are most courageous, my dear Morwen. Everyday you take up the challenge of living in Gondor, when you could have stayed in Lossarnach with the green fields all about you and peace and soft rains and joy. Yet, you follow your lord and live in this city - a city some love with a passion, but a city nonetheless, dirty, smelly, noisy, with untended gardens and abandoned homes looking out at us. You do it for love of your lord. You will birth this child in the same way. Do not be ashamed of these feelings. It is good to share them - bring them out into the open where we may dispel them. Adanedhel is old and has forgotten the ways of women. He is now ever consumed with tending battle wounds. His duties have changed from physician to surgeon. The women of Gondor rarely give birth. Those in the lower halls use midwives and those in these halls... Do you not notice that it is only your babe that runs through the halls of the Citadel? Gondor is failing. Her men look to creating statues in remembrance of themselves before they have even passed beyond; they think not of creating children. The women are left to their own devices." Her face turned hard as she spoke. "It is now the custom of the men of Gondor to wait until they are well into their prime before they even consider taking a wife. By that time, the women are weak and spent and have lost all hope. Nay, my sweet Lady, you are most courageous. I am proud to know you."

Morwen burst into tears. "You are too kind. You know not what you speak of. I am..."

"You are the beloved of the next King of Rohan!" 'Wen chided her. "You will remember Gondor and make certain that Rohan and Gondor are always joined in friendship and fealty."

"Yes, My Lady, my friend. I will remember your words and your kindness and the kindness that we have ever felt here in Minas Tirith. Thengel will not leave Gondor, even when his father passes beyond. His love and loyalty to Denethor run deep in his heart. So you will not be rid of me soon, 'Wen." She smiled. "And for that I am grateful."

She leaned her head against 'Wen's shoulder and sighed. "Thank you. I am no longer afraid. What were you doing here in the Houses of Healing? I have not seen you here before."

"My adadhron, Turgon, has a slight chill and I had come for a remedy. Now, I see I had other reasons for coming. I am pleased that I was here at this moment. The Valar protect us in our needs."

Morwen sighed and closed her eyes. Gently, 'Wen kissed her forehead as the dark haired woman fell into sleep. "Tears often cause fatigue. I must speak with Arciryas. He will be able to help her."

~*~

"Three months and still the sword feels foreign in my hand. My knitting needles fit better."

"Ah, perhaps that is our problem, Listöwel. Perhaps we should go to the armorer and request swords made that fit us?" Elleth wondered.

"If we go to the armorer, questions will be asked. And how do we respond? I need a sword for slicing the turkey. I need a sword for cutting my thread.  I need a sword..."

"Be still," Morwen laughed.  "Someone will hear our giggles and inquire as to why."

"We have giggled so much this past month, ever since Amdir started to recover, that I doubt anyone has any questions left for us. And it has been most good to laugh, has it not?" Elleth asked.  "By the way, where is Indis? Did not she say would meet us here at this hour?"

"She did and she is not here, which means she is probably with Ecthelion - again," Morwen sighed.  " I miss her.  Have I said that before?"

"Yes, you have. But I wonder where our shieldmaiden is? I am ready to begin practice. We have such little time for this. Morwen, should you really be lifting that sword in your condition?"

"I spoke with Arciryas," she blushed. None had known she had gone to him, pushed towards him by 'Wen and he had helped her. Helped mitigate her fear. She could not share this with her friends; they thought her strong. "He said he will advise me as to when I should stop doing this."

"You told him?" Listöwel almost shrieked in alarm.

"Of course I told him. Did you think I would enter upon such an undertaking, something that might harm my child, without counsel?"

Eledhwen strolled into the courtyard, her sword swinging back and forth in front of her. Slowly at first, and then faster, and the women gaped.

"I believe I have been lax in your training. You still hold your swords like women," the shieldmaiden sneered.   "And where is your erstwhile captain. Does she think she is ready for what lies ahead?"

~*~

She was delirious with joy. Arciryas had watched over her like a pelican with her brood; Morwen felt well and rested and calm. This birth would be different; she felt it. She had given up training a week ago, but the sinews in her arms and legs felt strong and ready for any battle. She would still train with her sister-friends, but without sword. Arciryas had been adamant; Morwen had been respectful, and they had come to an understanding. She would obey his wishes and not use the sword, but he would allow her to continue the less strenuous fighting exercises that Eledhwen was teaching them. She would dearly miss the feel of the sword in her hand, but she would at least be able to hear the clash of sword upon sword as Elleth, Indis and Listöwel battled each other.

A smile lit her already luminous face as she thought of Thengel. She did not know what he would think. Nay, she knew. He would be angry - and concerned. How could she train thusly whilst carrying a child, he would ask. She giggled guiltily at the thought. How wonderful it had been for her to pick up the sword. Eledhwen had said that she had a gift for it. She knew not if it was gift or no, but she relished every aspect of the training. It had been difficult, at first, for the women to train in secret. Thengel's company was still recovering from the sortie to Emyn Arnen and so, left the City rarely. Thankfully, Morwen and the others used the excuse of wedding preparations to cover their long absences. Indis had secured an old chamber in the very depths of the Citadel for their practice. None ever came so deep of late.

Morwen giggled as she raced towards the Citadel. Gondor's weal was not the only matter on Indis' mind these days. She did a little leap of joy as she remembered coming upon them unawares in the garden outside the Houses of Healing. Arciryas must have forgotten her appointment with him for there he sat, holding Indis' hand and speaking quietly to her. Indis had dismissed Morwen's queries with a wave of her hand, but Morwen had seen the light in her eyes, the flush of her cheek, and heard the faltering speech of Arciryas as she greeted them. She had told no one, for her friend's privacy was most important to her, but she wanted to shout it to the whole of Middle-earth.  Nay - she wanted to share it with her friend, this special time, but, until Indis was ready, she would remain quiet, hoping her friend would one day trust her and come to her. A small sigh, half happy, half sad, escaped her lips.

~*~

"We will meet at 'The Three Fishermen' at the setting of the sun. I will bring Amdir with me. I will feign a sadness, and as ever, he will suggest that we go and I will go - reluctantly." Denethor laughed. "What a night this will be. But remember," he turned serious for a moment, "we may be late. Amdir still does not have his full strength back. I will have to walk at his pace."

Thengel smiled. "But he is healing well. I could not deny him by putting off his troth pledge any longer."

"Have we orders yet?" Denethor asked. "It has been six months since we left Ithilien unguarded. My father shares none of his plans with me," he said bitterly, "mayhap he has said something to you?"

"Nay, he has not." Thengel sat next to his friend and laid a hand on Denethor's knee. "I understand your frustration for I myself feel it. It would have been easy enough for Inlach's men to be stationed at Henneth Annûn or at least sent to swell the ranks in Cair Andros. He was not happy when we brought Findegon's Rangers with us, yet, now he waits. Is Turgon still the problem?"

"I have not seen the Steward in months, but I do not believe my father goes to him any longer. I think Turgon is Steward in name only." He stood up, strode back and forth, gripping the pommel of his sword in anger.

Thengel stood up and advanced upon him, clutching his arm and forcing him to stop and look at him. "You are still young, my friend. Do not take this to heart nor as a sign of disrespect. Your father loves you and values your counsel."

"Hah!" Denethor laughed bitterly. "Little do you know." He sat again; his shoulders slumped. "I feel as if I am trapped on a child's seesaw. One moment he listens, even seems to want my views, and then he changes and keeps me away, turns to ice! I do not understand any of this."

"That is not all that is causing you distress, my friend. What else is there?" He sat down again next to Denethor.

Denethor took in a deep, slow breath. "It is the ceremony."

"What ceremony?"

"The ceremony! My coming of age. It is in two years time." He stopped; bitterness contorted his face. "The only ceremony he has ever held was the giving of the Horn at my seventh year. I want this ceremony. I need this ceremony. Every Steward has held it since the line of the Steward's began. And the Kings of Númenor before that held it with their sons. I fear that he will again disregard tradition. But more than that, this ceremony is the most important, more so than even the conferring of the Stewardship, for it signifies the heir. With this ceremony, I will receive my final sword; I will receive the Horn of Gondor; I will receive instruction into the ways of Gondor and the secrets of Númenor. Without it, I am nothing."

"Feign sadness!" Thengel laughed warmly. "You do not need to feign it; it fairly leaks from you!"

Denethor looked up in surprise. "Verily, you speak the truth. I... I am sorry."

"Nay, friend, I am glad you shared this with me. Would you tell me more of this ceremony? Why it is so crucial?"

"It started when my people first came to this land as fugitives. All we loved and cherished had been lost. The very land even, disappeared from under our feet. If Elendil had not been aware of what Ar-Pharazôn's sailing westward meant, if he had not prepared the fleet, Gondor would not be as you see it now and only a few Númenóreans would still live in this land. The rest would all be at the bottom of the sea."

"How is that possible?"

"The Valar had gifted us with the island of Westernesse with one restriction - we must never sail to the Undying Lands. My people lived there - free from fear, protected, and happy. But the Dark Lord was brought, as prisoner, to our land. Slowly he twisted the mind of the kings and pride engulfed them. Then the king, spurred on by the Dark Lord, took the fleet westward and broke the Ban. As Ar-Pharazôn's fleet headed west, Elendil boarded ships on the easternmost side of the island and waited. After more than thirty days, the mountain exploded, the wind roared, the waves grew to great heights - higher than mountains - and all in our boats were afraid. Would Ulmo himself come against us? Those who looked behind saw unspeakable horror. Our homeland, our cherished island, sank before our very eyes and was lost forever. Ever eastward our little fleet was thrown, struggling against the wrath of the Valar." Denethor started to sob.

Thengel sat - stunned. "You speak as if you yourself were there!"

"Nay, I was not," Denethor took a shuddering breath. "I have read many accounts of that time, written in pain and sorrow and tears. And I have dreamt. The message has been branded, white-hot, upon my heart. The saddest time in our history - though I fear worse is yet to come. Will we again lose our adopted homeland? The evil that encompasses us seems of the same ilk as that which assailed Númenor. Do you not see why, do you not understand the terror I feel from the east?"

They sat together - silent. At last, Denethor shook his head. "Tis a sad subject to be telling on such a momentous day."

"But you have told me naught of the ceremony," Thengel said.

"Ah yes. When my people landed, they were disconsolate. But Elendil was resolute. 'We will not lose our memories. Númenor will live in our hearts.' He made it law that the king, when his heir was of age, would take him to a revered place and there speak of Númenor, the duties of the king, and many other secret things. At this time, the keys to the Royal Treasury, the Great Library, and other places that I do not yet know of, were given to him. Before King Eärnur left for Mordor to foolishly answer the Dark Lord's challenge, he took the Steward, Mardil Voronwë, my ancestor, to the revered place, gave him the keys, told him the secrets and rode away, nevermore to return. The Stewards took up the tradition." He looked at Thengel. "Perhaps Ecthelion truly believes the king will return. Perhaps that is why there is no mention of the ceremony. There would be no need, if the king returns. Perhaps he has some foresight in this. I do know not."

"My friend," Thengel said, "Why distress yourself over this? There is still time. Your father knows the importance of the ceremony. He will not break this tradition, of that I am sure."

"Then your surety will be mine! Let us go. I promised Amdir I would visit this morning. Listöwel is busy with the final preparations for the troth pledge."

"Nay, I will leave you two alone. I have errands for tonight that must be completed." And then Thengel, sensing the need for tradition, farewell'd Denethor with the Gondorian hand to chest. Denethor smiled, returned it and walked away, his heart lightened.

~*~

Indis finally decided that preparation for war was needed. As she and Ecthelion poured over maps and missives from Gondor and beyond, she realized the depths of evil in their land. She glimpsed a small portion of what Denethor had spoken of all these long years, and she was finally feeling the horror that she perceived in his eyes when he left himself unguarded. Her poor brother. The gift of foresight that was growing in him was a bitter gift indeed, and coupled with his years of knowledge of their past, gleaned from his many hours studying the books from the Great Library, perhaps were too much for him. She pushed that thought away. As Listöwel had said, she too did not mean to be sent off with the women and children, if the time every came to defend Minas Tirith. She would stay and fight next to her father, her lord. She was not as adept at the sword as Morwen was, but she was learning nonetheless.

 ~*~

"There will be no training today," Listöwel wailed. "Indis has an appointment, she cannot break it, and Elleth says we must sew.  The troth pledge is too close."

Morwen laughed.  "Then come, sister-friend, and we will sew and sing and enjoy this day."

"What has made you so happy?" Listöwel demanded and then blushed.  'Ah, the babe.  Have you felt it?"

"Yes, oh yes!  Many times now, Listöwel,' Her face glowed.  'I am so happy.  Would you like to feel him?"

"Him - so you are sure it is a him?"

"Yes, I know not why, but I am sure.  I have more to tell, but let us wait till we reach Elleth's."

Morwen fairly skipped as they turned towards the Sixth Level.  Listöwel laughed and the women held hands and sang an old tune rejoicing in their friendship.

"Ah to be a' walking
A' walking in Gondor
And ah to be a' singing
In this fair land.

Land of sweet beauty
Land of rivers flowing
Land of mountains rising high
As a' walking we go by.

Ah to be a' laughing
A' laughing in Gondor
And ah to be a' playing
A friend held hand in hand.

Sweet Minas Tirith
Slender spike of pearl
Pure and bright your tower glows
In my loving heart."

They arrived at Elleth's breathless and laughing.  She quickly ushered them into the parlor and held her fingers to her lips. "I believe I have a secret," she exclaimed mischievously.  "Indis is in love!"

Listöwel squealed. "Who, what, when, where, how?"

"Hush now! I saw her with Arciryas in the garden by the Houses."  Elleth's eyes brimmed with tears.  "I have said naught of this to anyone, but my heart is so very glad for her.  She knows I saw her and has said naught.  Therefore, I feel I may tell you, as her dearest friends."

Morwen smiled.  "I have seen them too."  She started to cry. "Is not this most wondrous?"

Ch. 8 - Third Age 2948 - Part Three

The noise was deafening - howls of laughter, flagons clinking, chairs scraping. Denethor sat back, bemused. Life was good! He watched as his friends competed in arm wrestling, shouts of encouragement ringing in his ears. This lot of soldiers was a valiant group; he was glad to name them among his friends. Smiling, he shook his head. Soon enough they would be going out to battle, mayhap to death, but that did not deter them from enthusiastically encouraging Amdir in his forthcoming nuptials. Denethor laughed as he watched his friend, eyes slightly glazed, huge smile on his face; Amdir would have to be walked home, or mayhap, carried. Denethor himself remembered the time he had taken too much and almost burnt himself and the Steward's House down. He would not be so foolish this night. This ritual, was it brought from Númenor or adopted from the folk of these lands? His mind could not envision the Númenórean Kings doing such things. He grew more thoughtful and shivered. He remembered the tales of the kings of old, the last ones before the great wave engulfed Westernesse, sacrificing their children to... to what? Some dark force. He could not remember. But he knew there had been human sacrifice. What would drive a man, nay a king, to such an action?

There was a hint of sorrow assailing Denethor and he was not quite sure what elicited it. They all looked the same, these comrades of his, stalwart and brave, those married and those not. There seemed to be no difference. Why would one want to pledge to a woman with all the attendant problems, when there seemed to be no difference in countenance? Yet, he knew this to be untrue for a select few. He marveled at Thengel and Morwen. They seemed uncommonly close. Spoke often together. Missed each other when they were separated. Peculiar. He wondered about Ecthelion and his mother. Were they as his friends? His father's moments of melancholy - were they to be attributed to Rían's loss? He wished, not for the first time, that he had known her. Always, Indis had been his mother, but now, with the thought of pledging to a woman, he wished he knew more. He thought he understood the courting time - the body had a tendency to need certain things when a man came of age and appetites were whetted. Once the troth pledge took place, though, he noticed ardor seemed to fade for most. Yet, not with Thengel and Morwen. Would it be the same for Amdir and Listöwel? A far corner of his mind wished it would be for them as it was for Thengel and Morwen.

His chair was knocked out from under him as one of the combatants went flying, to the uproarious laughter of the others. Laughing, Denethor hailed the maid, took another mug to replace the broken one, and found a quieter corner a little further from the merriment. Just as he sat, Thengel joined him, pushed his chair slightly to the side, and straddled one across from him.

"What say you to the high spirits of the men, my friend?"

"'Tis a good thing to see," Denethor replied with a smile.

"'Tis better than a good thing to see. You should be there with the wrestlers. Your arm is strong now. Get yourself up and join the battle."

"Nay, the left arm is strong, but the right... It will be strong soon. I do not see you offering your body for torture?"

"I am Captain," Thengel snorted. "Do you think one of them would not let me win?"

Denethor laughed. "Nay, it is not that you are captain, but that you would conquer in a thrice. They may be full of ale, but they are no fools."

Thengel started laughing in earnest. "Look. They are now showing each other their battle scars. Should we join them? We have a few here and there."

Just as Denethor moved to stand up, Findegon entered. Thengel's laughter caught in his throat. Here was a man who had the right to show off battles scars. His face - battle worn with tough, hardened skin, wrinkles everywhere - showed pride and courage and rock-solid strength. A doughty man. Life shone from his eyes. They did not quiver; they did not turn away. Focused and steady, they looked at Denethor and Thengel. Denethor immediately gestured for the man to join them and hailed the maid. The friends felt embarrassed at the thought of showing of their paltry scars. The man that stood before them was scarred both mind and body. Both men stared at this soldier and realized that Findegon was a man worthy to emulate. His face still bore the sorrow of his lost family. He waved aside the ale, but Denethor insisted.

"Just one toast, my friend, before the night is o'er."

Denethor stood, scraping the chair back in his fervor. There were things that should be said, that should have been said before the night started, but better late than never. His heart blazed within him. Such was his presence at this moment, unbeknownst to him a shade of the kings shone in his face, that the room quieted immediately.

"My friends," he raised his flagon, "Today we celebrate many things, friendship, good times, and most especially, the upcoming troth pledge of our friend and comrade, Amdir. Time has been set aside later in the night to lift our cups to that event. For now, I would bid you stand and remember with me the fallen dead, our comrades who have passed. Almost, we had lost our friend that day, but others fell. Their doom was such. Not only soldiers, schooled and ready for death, nay, innocent women and children. None deserving of such a death." There was silence. He lifted his flagon higher. "To the fallen of Gondor!" he raised and emptied his cup and all the men with him.

Hard enough to put aside such thoughts, but another day would be upon them, while this day was a day for celebration. "Now," Denethor bellowed, "let us sing of Gondor!"

Flagons were filled again and cups and voices lifted in the ancient song.

"Hail, Gondor!
Beloved land we sing
Realms bright honor
Cherished soil, to thee we cling.

Hail, Dome of Stars
Osgiliath the fair
Jewel of this realm of ours
Watched o'er with loving care.

Minas Ithil, Hail the strong
All salute her blazen'd sky
Her banners ever unfurled long
Among the crags so high.

Hail, Minas Arnor
Fortress mountain-hewn
Clothed in marble armor
Spike'd tower shining in the moon.

Hail, Gondor!
Beloved land we sing
Realms bright honor
Cherished soil, to thee we cling.

Hail, Gondor! Hail, Gondor! Hail, Gondor evermore!"

At long last, they all sat, tears in the eyes of some, pride shining forth. Quietly, Amdir walked to Denethor's table and began to sing another tune, long and low.

"When I return

I will find her
I will hold her ever close
In her ears I much prefer
To whisper sweet and tender prose.

She is precious, oh most cherished
To no other love I'll turn
I will love her till I perish
For her alone my being yearns.

Nevermore will I leave her
Nor forsake her nevermore.

How I ache to touch her raven hair
How I long to see her face
In the light of the fire's glare
Full of beauty and of grace.

As the battle rages round me
Still I hear her gentle voice
She would comfort and console me
At her touch I would rejoice.

Nevermore will I leave her
Nor forsake her nevermore.

As an arrow struck deep into me
Through the flesh it gently tore
Yet so softly did my love tear me
I will love her evermore.

Now the light of day is leaving
Final breath my body makes
She will wither and go to grieving
That fair maid who my heart takes.

Nevermore will I leave her
Nor forsake her nevermore.

When I return."

The old soldier's song hung over the air long after Amdir finished. He sat at table with Thengel, Denethor and Findegon. None spoke for some time. At last, Denethor turned to Amdir.

"You have always sung well, my friend. However, tonight you sang exceptionally well. It was from your heart, was it not?"

Amdir blushed.  "My heart is taken, truly. I would have it no other way. She... she fills me. She gives me breath. She..." He went to drink, then set his cup down. "I think I will go back to the Houses now.  Would you accompany me?"

"Of course you will not go alone; I will accompany you. It is early though and your friends have come to prepare you for the event. Would you not stay a little longer?"

"I am tired."

Denethor jumped up, alarmed.  "Forgive me.  Need you a hand to rise?"

Amdir laughed.  "Nay, I am well. I think the pace up the hill will be a little slower tonight, though." He stood and Denethor watched, anxiously.

Thengel stood and hugged him.  "Sleep well, my friend. We will see you on the morrow."

Denethor had hoped to spend time with Findegon. He desperately wanted to speak about the Rangers and Ithilien, but Amdir came first.  "Mayhap tomorrow, Captain Findegon, we may meet?"

"Yes. I am staying in the Rangers quarters on the First Level. I am at your disposal."

Walking up the road to the Sixth Level, silence enveloped the two. Denethor's thoughts were awhirl with the song. The sentiment held him spellbound. A thousand times before he had heard it, yet, tonight, it held a different quality about it. His thoughts again went to Amdir and Thengel. He had no jealousy, but a feeling of discontent filled him. He tried to wish it away. All he needed was to get out of Minas Tirith, to feel his horse under him, his sword in his hand.

"Denethor, will we go on patrol again soon?"

"Yes, the Company will. Alas, I am sorry to say, dear friend, you will not. Arciryas will surely not give approval for you to return yet. You are still staying in the Houses. Another month? Perhaps two? Though you are sorely missed. The barracks have been silent and cold.  Laughter is rare."

"There has been naught to laugh about. Who is Ecthelion sending to replace the men Captain Húrin lost?"

"He has said naught to me.  There was a captain and a lieutenant, besides the men." Denethor shook his head, visions of the dead patrol swimming before his eyes.  "It would seem that only a full company will be safe on any of our roads from now on. This is a hard thing. There are not enough men - never enough men. I would lay it at the feet of the kings. Even before their line fell, they did naught to encourage planning for Gondor's defense." Bitter was his tone.  "Now, we pay with our lives, and the lives of our people.

"But let us put our thoughts to merrier matters. Tomorrow is the last day of Yavannië and your troth pledge day. I will come for you at the sixth bell. We will meet Thengel and Ingold at the Citadel and have nuncheon. After that, we will go to your home where we will meet Listöwel and Elleth. We will meet Indis and Morwen in the White Tower. Do you have everything you require for the morrow?"

Laughing, Amdir said, "I require naught but my friends and my beloved."

Denethor heaved a sigh. This would not be an easy task. Indis had offered the garden for the ceremony, but would not ask Ecthelion's permission. Denethor thought it a mistake. Amdir had no inkling as to what they were about. 'May the Valar protect us,' Denethor thought. Ecthelion was busy with preparations for the harvest-feast day, Yáviérë, and would remain in seclusion with his advisors the entire day. He was surprised Indis could get away for the day. But, their little party would be long gone 'ere he came back to the White Tower. A shiver ran up Denethor's back. Amdir looked at him quizzically as his body betrayed him.

"This will be a good day, my friend. You and Listöwel will be pledged, we will laugh, eat and drink, and all will be right with the world."  They had reached the Houses. Denethor gave Amdir a quick hug and turned to leave.

"My Lord," he heard a voice calling him. As he turned back, Arciryas stepped from the shadows of the doorway.  "My Lord," he repeated, "may I have a moment?" Amdir had gone into the Houses.

Denethor's heart skipped a beat.  "Is there aught amiss?"

"Nay, my Lord, all is well. I have a... a personal matter I wish to discuss with you. Is this an inappropriate time?"

Brow furrowed, Denethor bowed his head.  "'Tis fine.  Would you speak here?"

"Nay, I have a workplace where we may sit and share some tea."

"Lead on."

'What could Arciryas possibly want?' Denethor mused.  Arciryas was Thengel's company healer. All Denethor's dealings were with Adanedhel, Healer to the Steward. The only concern between them was Amdir's health. Was there something wrong? Perhaps Amdir was not strong enough for tomorrow's ceremony. His heart raced a little faster and he wished they had sat on one of the benches by the entryway. At last they reached the little compartment that was Arciryas' and entered. Hot water was already bubbling on the fire in the corner as Arciryas motioned Denethor to the only good chair in the room. Denethor's frustration was starting to mount at the silence from Arciryas, but he tried to hold his tongue.

As Arciryas passed him a cup of tea, Denethor could contain himself no longer. He tried to be civil, but anxiety coated his words.  "Amdir is well?"

"Oh, yes, my Lord," Arciryas looked startled.  "Amdir is healing well. Not at the speed that he would wish, but better than I had thought. I am quite pleased with his recovery. Of course, he will have scars but we are using blueberry, grape and wild pansy extract on the burns. That will help minimize the scarring."  Arciryas stopped and took a deep breath. "I asked to speak with you on a personal matter, as I have said."  He stopped again and took another breath. Denethor almost laughed at the healer's discomfiture. 'What matter could be so grave...?'  Denethor's breath caught. Not Ecthelion? There could be naught wrong with his father!

"I beg of you, Arciryas, please do not hesitate. Tell me what it is that is causing you such distress." He tried to keep his voice even.

"Your sister, Indis."

Denethor jumped to his feet.  "What is wrong with her?"

"Naught!" Arciryas stated as loudly as Denethor's shouted question.

"Please sit, my Lord. I am doing this very badly.  Indis and I," he plunged forward, "we would, we want... we are seeing one another. She has been most kind and accepted my feelings towards her; I would that you would know before..." Arciryas had never felt so tongue-tied in his entire life, not even during his testing by Adanedhel when he had applied to become a healer. "I love your sister very much." His face turned various shades of red. "I know I am younger than she is, and that she is of the House of Húrin, but my forebears' lineage is of some worth."

Denethor sat back, his hand brushing his hair from his forehead in hopes to hide the smile upon his face. He had not known, had not surmised anything of this sort.  Indis!  He could contain himself no longer. He jumped back up, grabbed Arciryas by the arms, and gave the man a mighty hug.  Arciryas' gray eyes widened in surprise.

"Does this mean that I have your support when I approach your father?"

The sigh that escaped Denethor's lips could not be hidden. He sat back down. How could he tell Arciryas that Ecthelion would never give his approval? How could he himself have even given the poor man a moment's hope by his exuberance?

Arciryas noted the change of countenance. He was a healer after all. Was not he trained in such observation? So this would be harder than he had thought. Once Denethor had responded so positively, his heart had swelled with joy. Now, the pallor on the lieutenant's face told more than words.  "There is a problem," he stated flatly.

"My father... How can I say this? He has come to rely heavily upon my sister. She is, and has been for some time now, the Lady of Gondor. You look very high in this pursuit." He tried to keep his tone flat. He valued Arciryas as friend and healer. His blood was Númenórean. Yet, he was not a Lord of the Court, nor was his family high placed.

"Is there aught that can be done?"

"My sister's feelings are the same as yours?"

Arciryas nodded, miserably. Even the sweet thought of Indis did naught to allay his torment. There did not seem to be much hope for their future.

"There must be something we can do," Denethor groaned.  "If Indis loves you... But I cannot see a way out of this.  Even as Master Healer you would not be deemed worthy enough for her."

"I am not worthy of her, of that I am certain," Arciryas cried, "but I love her nonetheless."

"Come with me." Denethor rose and pushed him through the doorway.

"Where are we going?"

"You will see.  Be still while I try to think."

~*~

He was a fool. The thought slapped him in the face, hard, as he grit his teeth. How long had this been going on? How long had he been blinded to his own sister's anguish? On the road from Emyn Arnen, he had vowed that he would spend more time with her, listen to her, and now, further evidence of his disregard, his selfishness. He could hear the labored breathing of Arciryas behind him, but Denethor could not slow his steps as he made his way towards 'The Three Fishermen.' He had put himself before all those he loved, and now that his eyes were no longer blinded, he would put things to right, if he could. 'How do I begin to notice? How do I school myself to pay attention to others' needs, others' wants? How do I become wise in things other than battle?'

~*~

"We will do what...?" Thengel exploded. He quickly lowered his voice as half the company still in the inn stared at them. "We cannot. What fey mood has you in its sway that you would even consider such a thing?" he hissed, and then turned towards Arciryas in frustration, but the poor healer's face was as white and drawn as he imagined his own to be. "Do you have some remedy to heal him of this madness?"

Denethor's lips quirked into a small smile. "I am not ill. There is no other way. I have pondered it from the Sixth Level to here; there is no other way. Ecthelion will not hear of it; that way is shut. So, we must find a new path, a new way. I believe this is our only course." He sat back, holding the flagon in his hand. It was the only thing that felt solid as his mind tried to pull itself together from the whirl it had been in. The course he had suggested was madness, he knew, but there was no other way. The consequences for him would be terrible, but too long had he allowed his sister to bear the weight, the fury of their father. He remembered how she had brought them together after Cranthir's death. She had stood up to Ecthelion. Now he was going to crush any repair that had been done.

"It is the only way," he stated again, the smile now wiped from his face. "I will bear the brunt of my father's displeasure, nay, anger. Too long has Indis loved me with no recompense. Too long has she suffered for Gondor, given all of herself to its affairs, to my father, to our family. I will not let this continue. I know I speak madness," he paused, "If I could, I would go to Ecthelion, plead her case before him, but he will not listen. Thengel," he put his hand on his friend's shoulder, "you know I speak the truth."

Thengel sat back; the horror of the action planned was almost too much to bear. "If you do this, you will be banished from Gondor, not Arciryas, not Indis."

Silence deafened Denethor. "I know too well, but am I not accustomed to this kind of treatment? Nay, I will not be banished from Gondor. Mayhap I will be banished to some odious garrison, some unwelcome duty. I can bear that. In time, he will reconsider and order me home." He paused as the remembrance of his three-year banishment when he was a mere lad assailed him. The loneliness, the shame of that time was almost too much to bear, but he was a man now. Would he be banished that long? Or mayhap longer? He tried to hide the shiver that ran through him, but Arciryas' healer's eyes caught it.

"I cannot let you do this for me, for us."

Another slight smile played on Denethor's lips. "It is for me, too, my friend. Too long have I listened to my sister weep alone, too long have I seen my sister's drawn, sad face. If what you say is true, that happiness has come to her, then it is my duty to help her."

"Then let us go find her," Thengel said. "Let us see what she thinks of this madness."

They walked slowly towards the White Tower, all three ensconced in their own thoughts. As they approached, Denethor saw that there was no light in Indis' quarters. 'She cannot have retired yet,' he thought.  'Nay, she is at Elleth's.'

"Come, we are at the wrong place. She is with Elleth, Morwen, and Listöwel at Captain Ingold's home. They must still be preparing for the morrow."

~*~

As they walked through the door, the fire swept its warmth and light into Denethor's heart and he knew what he contemplated was only right. Indis ran to him, questions in her eyes, but he hugged her tightly and whispered in her ear, "I love you, my sister." She pulled herself away, sudden tears spilling down her face.

"Brother, is there aught amiss?"

"Hah," he whispered softly. "I am the fool even more, if you think I come to you only in time of danger or in time of need."

"Thengel, what has come over my brother?" She turned and saw Arciryas behind them and her eyes widened. "Amdir?" she whispered.

"Nay," Denethor said quietly. "But I must speak with you alone." He turned towards Elleth. "May we?"

The group went out of the parlor and left brother and sister to themselves. Denethor could hear the whispers as they went into the kitchen. He was grateful that Thengel would explain his plan to the others. He did not have the strength to even think that far.

"Sit, my love," he said and walked to the settle. She sat next to him, wonderment still upon her face. "Indis. I need you to be forthright with me. I need you to answer my questions truthfully."

She was silent and bowed her head. 'What could he want of me? What questions?' She wondered.

"Are you in love with Arciryas?"

Her head flew up, mouth opening, cheeks flaming red, and he knew. He put his fingers to her lips. "Nay, say not a word. I understand now." They sat in silence. "You have ever been my help, my comfort, my support, Indis, and now I would make it up to you." She tried to interrupt, but his fingers flew again to her lips. "Please, let me say what must be said. When I returned from the carnage of Emyn Arnen, I vowed that I would place you before me, your needs and your wants. You became - nay, you always were - all that I hold dear in this world. Now, I wish to repay you. I have an idea that might seem foolhardy to you. But you will see the wisdom in it, once you consider it fully."

He sat back, put his arm around her shoulders, and held her close. "Tomorrow is the troth pledge for Amdir and Listöwel. Tomorrow, if you agree, I would make it your troth pledge to Arciryas." She tried to pull away, but he clung tightly to her. The fear in her eyes burnt him as much as the fire in the hut. "There is naught to fear. Father will be able to do naught, once the formalities have been accomplished, once the pledge has been made. You and Arciryas will slip into Morwen's suite to complete the pledge. After that, there is naught even the Valar could do to separate you."

Tears streamed down her face. "And who will tell father?" she whispered.

A smile creased the corners of Denethor's eyes, but no smile touched his lips. "I will, my dear sweet sister. And he will punish me for it. But it will be light and naught will be able to dim the joy I will feel at your happiness. Please, let me do this for you."

She hugged him closely, her tears wetting his tunic. He smiled. It would all be worth this moment.

~*~

The day dawned with the sun brilliant, even hurtful to the eyes. Warmth already filled the streets of Gondor; it would be hot for this time of year. Thengel met Denethor for breakfast in the barrack's dining room. Thengel was quiet and withdrawn. Denethor smiled. He had an inkling of the thoughts that raced through his friend's mind, but could do naught to assuage the fear he saw in his captain's eyes.

"I thought we were being brave using my mother's gardens for the ceremony. Such a little thing now compared to what we will be doing," he laughed.

Thengel shrugged and looked away. He was angry with Denethor, nay, furious. But he could think of naught to do or say to sway his resolve. He loved Indis too, but the cost of this enterprise seemed too much. Of all times when he needed his lieutenant by his side, this was it. They were scheduled to begin patrol immediately after the harvest-feast. Denethor would not be with them, of this he was sure, and neither would Amdir. 'A double blow. Arciryas? Would Arciryas even be allowed to go? What healer would Adanedhel send with our Company, if Arciryas is not allowed? Nay, Ecthelion will be eager to get Arciryas out of the City, away from Indis. Perhaps he will try to convince her to reject the pledge? Ah, she would not.'

They ate in silence; Denethor hurt by Thengel's turned back. There was naught to be done, however. All their plans, nay, his plans, were in place. Both ceremonies would take place today and tomorrow he would be sent off to who knew where. But his heart was light. Indis would be happy.

Many chores had lain before them, but the sixth bell finally rang. Denethor was at the door of the Houses. Amdir and Arciryas stood waiting for him. Amdir's eyes were bright and his cheeks were flushed. Denethor looked at Arciryas in alarm, but Arciryas smiled.

"Our friend Amdir is quite ready, methinks." He laughed and Amdir's cheeks become rosier still.

"Then it is time we met your father, Amdir. He waits in the Citadel with Thengel."

"My stomach is roiling and I do not believe I could eat anything. May we just, perhaps, sit by the parapet, look out on the fields of the Pelennor?"

"Whatever suits you, my friend. It is your day. They will find us when the need arises. We are to meet at the White Tower at the eighth bell."

Amdir had not been told what other event was going to be happening this day. Denethor had questioned whether or not to tell him, just let it happen and answer questions when the time came, but this appeared to be the opportunity he needed. And he would use it.

Once Amdir's mouth closed, Denethor smiled. "This does not take from the pleasure of your day, does it? I had not thought you would mind sharing this day?"

"Nay, I am... at a loss for words. I did not know."

Denethor laughed. "None of us did. But the women did. They had no trouble changing Indis' gown into one more appropriate. They spent the night laughing and singing. To hear them, you would have thought all Gondor knew and rejoiced. In fact, I do believe all Gondor will rejoice when the news is released."

Amdir placed his hand on his friend's arm. "Yes, all Gondor will rejoice, except those lords who had hoped to advance their careers, or the careers of their sons, by a match between their houses. And what of Ecthelion? Do you seriously believe there will be rejoicing from the Steward's House?"

"Leave that to me, Amdir. All will be well." He gave a smile to Arciryas. "You both have much to rejoice at."

~*~

The garden was in full bloom. Flowers cascaded from the windows and the embrasures above, benches had been placed, and music floated through the air. Indis had done everything possible to make this day splendid for her friend. How strange that all the preparations had been for herself too. The dress fit well, but the alterations made her uncomfortable. It brought to mind exactly what she would be about this day, and the thought still took her breath away. Her love for Arciryas was strong, surprisingly sudden, but strong, and she blushed as she thought of it. He had been assigned to Denethor's Company only a year after he came to the Houses. When was that? Just two years ago. Rarely did they have opportunity to meet, until this year, these last few months when she took turns visiting Amdir. The blush deepened. She remembered when first they had sat in the garden on the vestibule outside the Houses. She had been concerned for Amdir. Denethor had been distraught and she needed to know whether Amdir would live or die. She had to be prepared to help Denethor if the answer was hard. He had taken her hand, purely in comfort, and the touch sent tingles down her spine. She saw his eyes widen at the same time and they were lost. Or found. A tear slipped down her face. She truly loved him. Yet, the course that Denethor was leading them on... She was still terrified. Denethor had promised there would be little repercussion to this action, but she did not believe him. How could she not hurt her brother and hurt her affianced? Or how could she not hurt her affianced and hurt her brother? She should run away. Or tell Arciryas she did not love him. Nay, he would not believe her. And running would do naught! Ecthelion would find her or she would die in the wild. Her frightened eyes swung right and left, looking for some escape.

'Wen stood before her, took her in her arms, and hugged her tightly. "My sister, you look like a frightened rabbit. What ails you on this day? Do you doubt yourself, or Arciryas?"

Indis sobbed. "I cannot save him, nor Denethor. This is madness. I should never have agreed to it.

"Yes, this is madness, a blessed, marvelous madness and I am most happy for you. Time enough you have given to Gondor, to father. Time now for your own happiness. I watch Turgon and I see life slipping from him. I would have life for our family. I will not give children to the line of Ecthelion, but you will; you must. I would see a sweet babe, laughing in your arms. Time now to put aside fear, my beloved sister. Time now to take the happiness given you." She wiped the tears from Indis' eyes as their friends entered the garden.

Sweet and precious were the words as each couple spoke the pledge. The music had been stilled, not a sound but the voices of each as they made their pledge, and then the kiss. Tears flowed and arms hugged and voices cracked in joy and love and friendship.

The trio played with flute, crumhorn, and harp, gentle music as the revelers ate the simple repast the women had prepared. Their talk turned to laughter, and laughter to dancing. Indis and Arciryas were pushed forward as was Amdir and Listöwel. The benches were moved out of the way and the pledge dance begun. Slow and rhythmic went the music and the dancers followed it. Their hands were held together above their heads, then brought down and around from left to right and then right to left. Their feet lightly marked the time in small circles. Then arms encircled waists and kisses were gently placed on foreheads. The dance lasted only a short time, yet all were enthralled. Slowly, each couple dropped their hands, turned and bowed towards their friends, smiling shyly.

Gracious clapping greeted the end of the dance, but the trio of musicians had other thoughts in mind and quickly started a livelier tune. All joined hands and started the circle dance. It had been so long, Thengel and Morwen's ceremony, since any had danced. Toes were stepped upon, groans were heard, but laughter covered the day. The circle started slowly, with hands again clasped and raised, then all swung in towards the middle and then out again, while the men started to stomp their feet and the women gently kicked out and back again. Denethor liked these dances. No partner was needed. All joined together and most made mistakes. He did not feel self-conscious. Amdir's smile was bright as he nodded towards him. It was good to see such laughter and joy. The twisting of his stomach had stopped as soon as the pledge had started. Morwen and Thengel sat for most of the activities. Arciryas' presence gave them both ease of mind. The babe was not due for another two months; Morwen would be fine. For more hours than Denethor had expected, they danced and sang and laughed. At last the sun was waning and Denethor gave thought to his father. It was time they left this garden. If Ecthelion came and saw them, he would be livid, but Denethor and Indis felt that their mother would be most happy to have it used for such a purpose. Too long it had lain unused - a testimony to naught. Now, fond memories trailed through their minds as they wandered out the door. Elleth called the servants and the area was cleaned 'ere the last guest left. She gave the garden a quick look, 'Wen came and hugged her, and they left, feeling a smile from Rían covering them.

~*~

"Esquire!" Denethor heard and turned around. He had recognized his father's voice, but wondered whom he was addressing. As he turned, his eyes met Ecthelion's and the storm in his father's eyes told him exactly whom he was addressing.

"My Lord," Denethor placed hand on chest and bowed. So this was the punishment, or a part of it. Ecthelion had finally discovered what had happened. It took him all of fifteen hours.

"Did you think naught would come of your total disregard for my wishes?" Ecthelion hissed so low none could hear but Denethor.

"Nay, my Lord. I would wish different, but that is not to be, I see."

"Do not bandy words with me, you little..." He took a deep breath. "It does not stop here, either. When I call you, I would have you come to my chambers. There we will discuss your career." Ecthelion turned brusquely and headed for his place at the head of the festivities.

A silver trumpet called out for attention and all heads turned towards the temporary Steward's Chair, placed at the foot of the Great Hall's stairs. "Today is the feast of Yáviérë," Ecthelion began. "Today we rejoice in the bounty of our land. My deepest thanks to all for coming, for bringing their wares, their harvest, their friendship. Today we celebrate. And, as is traditional for this day, I will announce promotions within the ranks of the knights who protect us. First, bring forward Ingold, my Captain of the Tower Guard."

After an hour of announcements and congratulations, Ecthelion completed his work and left the Chair. He motioned towards Denethor, who bowed and started to leave his comrades. It was time to endure his father's wrath. Thengel put his hand on his shoulder to stop him. "I would come with you." Amdir and Ciramir stood behind him, resolute.

Denethor laughed. "You are now Captain of the Tower Guard. Is this part of your new duties or do you wish to be demoted as I am and spend your days in the stables? And, before another has the occasion, I would be the first to wish you congratulations. You also, Ciramir, for becoming Captain of the Horse Guard. Well you both deserve these positions. Gondor is strengthened by my father's wisdom in choosing you. Amdir, give your father my deepest regards on becoming Captain of the Armies. I would no other. Who would have thought those many years ago! This means your family will be moving into the White Tower! How delighted I am for Elleth too. She will finally have a casement that looks out onto the east and south. But she will have to leave the iris garden behind." Sorrow touched his voice.

"It will still be in the family, Denethor. Father is giving me their home. Listöwel and I will make sure the garden flourishes; you may come and visit those flowers anytime."

"And now I must take orders from you, Lieutenant! Will wonders never cease!" He laughed uproariously. Naught could take from him the joy of Amdir's promotion.

"We will meet at 'The Three Fishermen' at eight bells. If you are able, please join us," said Thengel and Denethor smiled. "I will be there, if I am able."

~*~

"You will never do such a thing again," Ecthelion shouted. "You have trod on my plans. You have placed yourself above me. You have placed yourself above Gondor." His father's wrath was tangible. His neck tensed as his hands clenched and unclenched. Never had Denethor seen him so angry. Spittle spewed from his mouth as he screamed.

"Father, that was not my intent."

Ecthelion spun around as if to strike him, but held his hand. His voice shook. "I will not allow such disrespect. Too often have you spoken of the Council in this same manner and I allowed it. I see now that was a mistake. Your disrespect has turned from the Council to me! You will leave immediately for the beacon of Amon Anwar. One of the tenders has passed. Another is needed. The head tender and his family will not know who you are, just a drudge sent from Minas Tirith to replace the one who was lost. You will leave your livery here. You will not need it where you are going. You will stay there until I bid you return. You will not show your face in Minas Tirith. Do you understand me? If I see you in the City, you will be banished from Gondor. Do I make myself clear?" All the pent up rage of years past exploded as his voice rose again to fever pitch. "Ega!"

"Yes, my Lord." Denethor bowed and walked from the Tower. The beacon-hill. There was no further outpost in all of Gondor, except perhaps the seaport at the mouth of the Lefnui! He felt a flush rising in his cheeks and tried to shake off the feeling of shame. He had never expected to be demoted. Nor had he expected being sent to one of the farthest outposts of Gondor, but neither had he expected better. His friends - he would send a note. Ecthelion, his fury enkindled to an extreme state, had sent a guard with him to escort him out of the Citadel and out of Minas Tirith. Thoughts of his last banishment flooded through him, and the shame of the ten-year old burned in the man's heart. Once again, an escort to sunder him from his City, his friends, his family. He was not allowed to send the note.

~*~

Silence cut through the inn like a sword through soft butter. None of the men smiled, nor spoke. Most of the others who frequented the inn had left, the feel of anger and alarm rank in the air. The bell had rung four times, the middle of the first watch, and still no sign of Denethor. "He is gone. I feel it. Ecthelion knew we would meet and he has sent him off with no chance for farewells."  Amdir's voice was bitter.

"Yes, I believe you are right in that. Well, there is naught to do for it, but go back to our homes. Tomorrow, we will find where he has been sent. What happens after that I do not know."

"Well, at least you will be here for the birth of your child," Arciryas said. "Had you known you were to be promoted to Captain of the Tower Guard, Thengel?"

"Nay, Ecthelion said naught to me of this. I almost wish it were not so. At least as Captain of the Horse Guard I was able to leave Minas Tirith. I am now fixed to her and know not when I might be able to visit Denethor, wherever he is."

"I too will not be leaving Minas Tirith any time too soon. I have been appointed as permanent healer at the Houses. I will no longer go on patrol with our Company. I find this most disturbing. I... have enjoyed field learning. Though I cannot quite believe Ecthelion has allowed me to stay here. He has not announced Indis' marriage and I fear for that too."

~*~

"Has there been no word? Naught of where he has gone?" Elleth asked.

"Nay, my father has not spoken to me since my troth pledge. He sees me in the halls and turns the other way. I am sore pressed to understand this. There was love for my mother during their life together. I had thought he would understand." She scuffed at a wisp of dust in front of Elleth's fireplace. "Arciryas has been forbidden from the Seventh Level and I am forbidden from the Sixth." Her laughter turned slightly hysterical. "I am held prisoner in all but name."

"Then it is time for us to continue our lessons. If you have naught to do, we must use this time. It is prized. Morwen will not be with us, but come, let us find Listöwel and Eledhwen and begin. Too soon will come other duties."

Their practice chamber was becoming cooler. The nights were shorter and the women suddenly determined that a new sense of urgency was needed. They practiced hard and long. Laughter was only found in short bursts as they focused more and more on the skills they were learning.

"How many times do I have to tell you, keep your hands below the crossguard. Otherwise you will find a finger missing! Your sword is too short for a ricasso; it is sharp blade down to the hilt."

Indis blushed.  "I am sorry.  I will try again." She held the sword by hilt and pommel and tried to raise it again.  "This sword is too heavy."

Eledhwen scoffed at her. "This sword is too heavy,' she mocked. "The other was too light and would not cut a hare's head if you had tried. You speak of protecting Gondor, of guarding those you love, yet you refuse to obey me and train as I ask. What of your resolve?"

Indis' blush deepened. "I am sorry," she repeated.

Listöwel giggled and Eledhwen turned to her in fury. "Who was it that let her sword fly from her hand last week? Who said the pommel was not wide enough to keep the sword in her hand? You are full of excuses, all of you. I am ashamed to be your teacher."

"Please, please do not say such a thing," Morwen begged. She had joined them this day, though the walk down the steep stairs had been difficult. "We are foolish women perhaps, but we know what gift you are giving us. Do not be discouraged. We will try harder." She looked pleadingly at her sister-friends. "Oh..."

Indis rushed to her side. One look at her drawn face and she ran to the stairs. "Lay her down and get her some water. I am fetching Arciryas."

~*~

Thengel took the cup of water offered by his aide and walked towards the window. Morwen's time was close and he found it disconcerting that she would disappear for hours. Where was she now? His aide had spread the roster for the coming week before him. This was not work that he enjoyed. He wanted to be on a horse, with his men, riding across the Pelennor. He snorted in disgust - a place of high honor, to be Captain of the Tower Guard. Why did he feel it was a bribe from Ecthelion for his service, nay his allegiance to Gondor? Gondor had his loyalty; did not Ecthelion realize that? He would not leave. There was naught in Rohan for him. His father's ways were not his own. He loved Gondor with a passion. He loved the people, the City, his friends, yes, even the language felt sweet upon his lips. Ah, Gondor. Now he must spend his time doing paperwork, not finding Denethor. "Where is Denethor?" he muttered under his breath. Two months had passed and not even a whisper of what had happened to him or where he had been stationed. Baranor had not been sent with him. This had stunned Thengel, but upon further thought, he realized a lowly ensign had no need of an aide. Baranor must be crushed.

A cry caught his attention. He saw Indis running across the escarpment, her skirts flying and her hair waving in the breeze. His heart flinched. "Morwen," he cried and ran from the room. Where could she be? He had seen Indis leave the White Tower, but had no idea where she might have come from. He could not go through the halls yelling Morwen's name. He ran to follow her; it was his only recourse. She had run into the Houses of Healing and was just reappearing as he came to the garden. "Indis!" he called.

"It is Morwen, Thengel. She is in one of the rooms at the bottom of the White Tower and I fear the babe is coming."

Arciryas pushed him aside. "Instruct the Guard to bring a litter," he shouted as he ran past him, "and quickly."

His knights had heard the screams and were already at his side. By the time he reached the White Tower, six men were close behind, one carrying a litter. Gratitude swelled at the discipline of these men. Ingold had done well. The Tower Guard was the brightest and boldest company of knights in all of Gondor. They reached the bottom of the steps and a cry greeted them. It was not a frail cry, but one filled with strength. His child! He ran into the room where the crying was coming from and saw the babe in Morwen's arms. Collapsing at her side, he pushed the hair from across her face, kissed her sweat-soaked forehead, and smiled in delight. She was smiling back at him, healthy and happy, though tired.

"It is a boy," Arciryas smiled as he wiped his hands. "Hail and fit. His lungs attest to that, do they not? And what name have you chosen for him?"

Thengel looked at Morwen. She smiled, turned her head towards the healer and said, "Théoden."

*Ega - Quenya command, "be gone." Imperative and very superior in meaning.

Ch. 9 - Third Age 2953 - Part One

An errand-rider came with orders for Denethor to return to Minas Tirith. He had few possessions and none worth saving. He left them in the watcher's hut, swung up onto the horse the rider brought, and spurred it towards home. 'Home,' he thought. A shudder ran through him. Alas, he had begun to wonder if he would ever see his City again. The beacon watcher stared, mouth agape, as Denethor rode off.

~*~

The months had turned into years and frustration had grown into something akin to hatred. Denethor was at once ashamed and proud. He knew Ecthelion would have to send for him sooner or later, but five years! Early on, he learned how to make his body hard. He watched for the beacon light at night and, once relieved of this duty in the morning, started out walking. He walked till nuncheon, living off the land, returned to the hovel for a quick lie-down, then returned to his post as night settled. He would not succumb to lassitude nor despair. He was determined to know this land and to learn all he could from it. The watcher and his family were quite dull, knew naught of reading or writing, and contented themselves with games that would keep a youngster happy, but held no challenge for Denethor.

Watching for a signal was monotonous work, but he wrote during the long nights, when his body did not freeze in the winters nor roast in the summers. His mind tried to remember all that he learned during his eighteen plus years. He started a timeline at first, and then wrote the kings' names from Elendil forward and all that he could remember of their histories; then he concentrated on the line of Stewards. By the end of the second year, he began to fear for his sanity.

At last, one morning, as his path took him close to the border of Rohan, he was commanded by a hidden voice to give the password.  Excitement filled his heart as he heard the language, not his own but that of Thengel's. He was delighted that he correctly interpreted the voice's question. 'Ah, men more of my own station than those I dwell with,' he thought. He held his hands in front of him and assured the voice, in halting Rohirric, that he was not a threat, but a beacon watcher. The voice came forward upon a magnificent horse. Denethor caught his breath at the beauty of the beast as it pranced impatiently in front of him, the sun shining on its ebony coat. The rider had a lance thrust before him, pointed at Denethor's throat.

"How comes a beacon watcher to know the language of Eorl?" he spat.

"I am friend of Thengel, son of Fengel, lord of the horse-masters," Denethor said quietly. "I have been..." He paused in consternation. "I have been stationed here to learn obedience." Shame colored his face, but he would not lie.

"Obedience. Then you are no lowly beacon watcher." The stranger's eyes narrowed to slits. "You are high born. Lessons on obedience are only taught to those who are worthy of it. I would have your name and quickly." The lance moved closer to Denethor's throat.

"My name is Denethor of the line of Stewards."

The man drew in his breath. "Nay, not only of the line, but son of Ecthelion!" He lowered his lance, dismounted and strode forward. "My name is Walda, sister-son of Fengel and Third Marshal of the Riddermark. I know what it means to be taught obedience," and his smile burnt the sun.

Denethor smiled back. "'Tis good to meet one of Thengel's family. He and I are great friends." His face colored again. "He was my captain before this.... posting."

"Are you free at the moment? My camp is only two leagues from here; perhaps we might share 'obedience' stories?"

And so the friendship began. Denethor nearly wept that night as he sat under the stars - to finally have someone to talk to again - someone who had lived the same kind of life Denethor had. He added Walda's name to his log with a drawing of him and his great horse. They had sat together for many hours as old soldiers do. Denethor laughed at this thought. 'Old soldiers, indeed! I am just twenty-three and Walda is twenty-eight.' But the laughter was not in earnest for had not he fought many a battle against Orcs and such, and had not his new friend told him of the battles of the Rohirrim against the same?

~*~

Denethor shook his head. He must put aside reminiscing and discover what had been happening to Gondor during his long absence. Walda had given him some news, but there had been rare visits between the two countries, so his news was not current. Of this, Denethor had been mortified. He made another vow to himself and wrote it in his log. When he became Steward, he would open the borders between the two countries, allies from long past, and ensure that errand-riders would bring news to and from Rohan and Gondor. The errand-rider was loath to give any news to Denethor; he was, after all, only an errand-rider. But Denethor, having learned the ways of perception during his long years in the wild, bent his will to discover what he could from what the rider did not say. He grew cold as he saw fear flit in the man's eyes as he casually mentioned the Ephel Dúath. So, something had been happening there while he had been gone. Also, there seemed to have been a change in authority in Gondor. Of what, he could not be sure, but there was a hesitancy on the man's part whenever Denethor mentioned Ecthelion.

It was becoming maddening and Denethor was close to losing his patience. Three days now they had ridden at a fast pace and the Rammas Echor finally came into view. Denethor held his breath as they turned towards the North Gate. Minas Tirith lay before him. Three leagues and he would be in his City. Tears stung his eyes. It was beautiful, more so than he had remembered, though ever had it been before him, in his mind's eye, during his long banishment. He was home!

He heard his name called the moment he passed through the Great Gate. Running towards him was Amdir, fully healed, with a smile that threatened to break his face, so wide was it. "My brother, my friend!" he cried and tried to hug Denethor, but Denethor, as soon as he had recognized the voice, had swung down from his horse and pulled Amdir into his arms. "Amdir," he choked, his voice constricted with emotion. "Amdir, my dearest friend." Long moments passed 'ere either man let go. Finally, Denethor distanced himself from Amdir and looked him over. "You look well, my friend," he battled the tears that wrecked havoc behind his eyes. He had also learnt control whilst away and would not let them fall. "Are you? Well, that is?"

"Yes, and long healed. It is good fortune that has me in the City at this time. I have been stationed at Pelargir for the last year. But due to Turgon's death, I..."

Denethor's eyes widened and his mouth fell open. "What is this you speak of? Turgon is dead?"

Amdir stepped back a pace, stunned. "Yes, Denethor, your grandsire passed seven days ago. Did not the rider tell you? Did not your father send a missive with the news?"

His face turned hard and scarlet. "Nay," he said and jumped back up onto his horse.

"Denethor!" Amdir yelled, "Wait," as Denethor urged his horse forward. Amdir shook his head. 'The Steward's family is again in the midst of upheaval. Why do they not speak to each other?' he wondered as he hurried to follow his friend up the long road to the Citadel.

Denethor's chest hurt and his breath came in short bursts. Fury and grief drove him upwards and his horse, straining to obey his rider's will, stumbled at the Fourth Gate. Denethor jumped from the horse and immediately rubbed its leg. "I am sorry," he said to his mount. "My anger has caused me to hurt you," he spoke to the horse in the language he had learnt from Walda. He was sorely ashamed. The poor horse was not at fault. He took the halter and led the horse up the remaining levels. He tried to use the time to quell the shaking of his limbs and the racing of his heart. What was he going to say to Ecthelion? What could he say? He wanted to scream at him. He wanted to punch him. He wanted to put his sword through his heart. 'Stop this!' he reprimanded himself. 'I must be calm. I must hide all feeling from him.' Tears again threatened as he thought of the ill he had been done these past five years. Never to see Turgon again. It was almost too much to bear and brought remembrances of Cranthir, his uncle. 'How had Turgon died? When?' he wondered. 'Who was with him at the end?' Now he wished he had not ridden away from Amdir. He had many questions and would have preferred to have had them answered before he faced Ecthelion. Just as these thoughts came, Amdir caught up to him.

"I am glad you finally decided to walk. I have had a hard time catching you," his friend, always ready with a smile, beamed at him. "I am sorry for your loss, Denethor, but I am so very grateful that you have been called home. Is that selfish of me?"

Denethor stopped and turned towards Amdir. "Nay, friend, it is valued. Look! It is 'The Three Fishermen.' Let us stop for a moment. I have many questions, and I am afraid I must compromise our friendship by sating my curiosity. There is much I must know before my audience with Ecthelion." He pushed the door open and the familiar smell caught at his heart. He wondered where Thengel was as he sat down in his old chair. The mugs were cool and the ale was strong. Denethor sighed. Amdir sat quietly next to him.

"Amdir, I am sorry to ask again; my mind is still reeling. When did Turgon die?"

"Not seven days ago."

"Seven days. Ecthelion must have sent for me immediately," he refused to use the word, father in the same sentence as Ecthelion. He had long stopped thinking of him as that. Nay, that was not true. He still, in the far recesses of his mind, wished that Ecthelion had been his father, but no father would treat his son the way he had been treated. Bitterness welled up in his mouth and he washed it away with the ale. "Where is Indis? Are she and Arciryas still...?" He could not ask that question.

"Indis is living within the Citadel and Arciryas is living in the Houses. They see each other... infrequently." Amdir shook his head. "There has been no child," he said, his voice reflecting the pain he had heard in Indis' voice when last he saw her. "I have not been in the City, as I said, for quite sometime, but Indis came to dinner not three days ago and her pain was writ plainly on her face. We invited Arciryas also, but, of course, your father left orders that he was to be assigned to the Houses that evening. Your father knows everything that goes on. It is difficult to arrange a meeting between the two."

"Would you please refrain from calling him my 'father' in my presence, Amdir?" Denethor asked. His tone was soft, but his jaw was clenched.

Amdir's eyes widened. "Of course, Denethor, if that is your wish." He thought of Ingold and thanked the Valar for the father he had. Though Captain of Ecthelion's personal guard, the Steward's harshness had not transferred to Ingold. Whenever Amdir saw his father, they embraced. How strange to have a father like Ecthelion.

"He is my Lord and Steward now," Denethor hid the hurt in his voice. Amdir, who knew every nuance of his friend's voice five years go, was not now sure what he heard in it.

He finished his ale and stood. "Please do not come with me. This is something I must do myself. I will visit you and Listöwel when my audience is complete. Where are you staying whilst you are in the City?"

"My father's old house on the Sixth Level is still mine. We are there. And the iris still bloom," he smiled.

"My friend," Denethor crushed him with a hug. "I will be there, if I am able."

Amdir shivered. Those were the same words Denethor had used that fateful night five years ago.

~*~

Denethor entered the Great Hall's foyer. The Chamberlain gawked at him at first, and then, upon a curt command from Denethor, escorted him into the Hall. Denethor took a great gulp of air and walked towards the Steward's Chair. Ecthelion sat in it. 'This is almost too much to bear,' he thought. Officials swarmed around the Chair. The din of their voices was too much for Denethor, accustomed as he was to the silent sweep of the White Mountains. Ecthelion looked up as he heard the footsteps approach. His face blanched and his teeth clamped together.

"My son!" he said with a faint note of sarcasm running through it. "You come home at last." He turned and spoke to the men about him. "Leave me." They scurried away in fear.

"Come away from here and sit with me. It is almost time for the evening meal." As he said this, the sundown-bells rang. He walked towards his private chambers and Denethor, steeling himself for the upcoming interview, walked behind him to his study.

"You look well. A little too thin for my taste, but well, nonetheless." He walked towards a cabinet and pulled out a decanter of wine. "Please, sit," he motioned Denethor towards a hard-backed chair next to his desk. The Chamberlain entered, took the decanter from the Steward's hands and began pouring the wine. "Leave us," Ecthelion hissed.

'Ah, so this is how it will be - a gentle dance for control,' Denethor thought. Well, Ecthelion would be surprised. He had learned to dance this kind of dance.

"I am well, my Lord, if not for the ache in my heart at my long absence, although much has been learned. I am most grateful for your kindness in sending me off." He kept his tone flat and soft.

Ecthelion looked up, annoyance painting his face. "Are you making a complaint, my son?"

Denethor almost gagged at the word 'son' but held himself in control. "Nay, my Lord." He would not use the term 'father' if all the Orcs in the Ephel Dúath attacked him! "I am saying that I have missed your counsel." He raised the glass to his mouth and smiled into it.

"And I have missed your smile," and a part of him truly had. Ecthelion pushed that thought away. Did the ungrateful whelp think he had sent him off for his own purposes? Nay, he had sent him to teach him respect, obedience, order. And now this... this upstart thought to mince words with him! "You have spent your time wisely, I hope?"

"My Lord. I have spent every waking moment learning the things I believe you sent me to learn." Denethor's mind screamed the words - abandonment, treachery, malice, but his face only showed a tight smile.

"And those lessons would include?"

"Obedience, my Lord, respect for authority, respect for the Steward, and above all, undying love for Gondor. To spill my blood for her and my Steward at the Steward's request."

Ecthelion smiled, so cold it burnt Denethor's heart. 'This man must never have loved me,' he thought bleakly. The truth scored his very being. "What would you have me do, my Lord, now that I have been allowed to re-enter the gates of the City?"

"I will send orders to you shortly. In the meantime, I would request that you go to your quarters, they have been made ready for you, and await my summons."

Denethor placed his hand to his chest, bowed low, and left the room. 'So, I am to be prisoner in my own quarters,' he thought. 'Again.'

~*~

He stood by the casement looking out upon the Court of the White Fountain. His tears finally fell. Too long held in, they scorched his face. Turgon was dead, buried, and he had not been here. Arciryas and Indis were all but separated. All of his planning had come to naught. It was now the second day since he arrived and still Ecthelion did not send for him. There was even a guard stationed outside his door. He praised the Valar that Amdir had been at the Great Gate upon his arrival, else they would not have seen each other. Even Indis had not come. Perhaps she did not know he was in the Citadel. But nay, Amdir must have told her. If he saw her. Things seemed so disjointed, so confused here. He almost wished he were back on the plains of Rohan, his horse under him, the men of Walda's éored around him. The last three years had been filled with laughter, friendship, hardship and joy. Walda was a natural leader and his men were devoted to him. Denethor's time with the men of Rohan made the nights at beacon watch bearable.

~*~

 "The éored will assemble in one hour's time," Walda said. "Will you join us?" Pre-dawn fog hung over the foothills and made it difficult to see, but Walda had come purposefully to include him. Denethor's night watch was over. He almost laughed at the invitation, swinging onto the back of Walda's mare. To be on a horse again, in the thick of soldiers; the smile on the young man's face was answer enough for Walda. "Then come, pick out a horse and we will ride." And they did, directly into the camp and right up to the pen where the horses were kept.

For the horse-lord to give him the pick of the new herd! "The chestnut one, is he old enough?"

"A fine choice, yes, he is ready. And I see he likes you," Walda said as the horse nudged Denethor from behind.

"Where were the Orcs sighted, my Lord?" Denethor asked as he saddled his mount.

"Denethor, I am no more your lord than you are mine," Walda smiled; then he sobered. "The band was seen about two leagues to the north, in the foothills of the White Mountains. There is a village just east of that area. We will go there first and hope that..." He need not finish; Denethor knew his meaning.

The sun, poking intermittently through the clouds, warmed his face and the men of the éored warmed his heart. They were strong and stalwart, yet friendly and kind. To be among valiant men again! They rode quickly through the plain and turned into the foothills. Walda had given him a sword, not as fine as the one that was in his rooms in Minas Tirith, but a good sword nonetheless. It hung at his side and gave him a sense of completion. Too long had he been without one, and he wondered if he would be up to battle. He had kept his arms strong, but were his reflexes still swift? No further time to ponder as the Orc band appeared directly before them, running from the sun and the Rohirrim. It was a large band, a little larger than the éored and Denethor knew they were in for a fierce fight. He swung at the first one to attack him and the blade hewed an arm. Denethor grunted in satisfaction. His own arm still worked. Another came at him and his horse sidestepped as it lunged towards him. The blade of the Orc struck his mount on its left flank and Denethor was at a disadvantage trying to cross over the horse's head with his sword and swing down, but he twisted his body to the left and was able to just slay the beast before his horse fell. He scrambled to get out from under it as another Orc attacked from his right. The sword clashed with the Orc's spear and Denethor found the sword hewn in half. He jumped back, but the Orc pressed his attack, a sneering smile on its face in anticipation of the quick and painful death it would give its enemy. The snarl turned to a grimace and a howl as it lost its head to Walda's sword. Walda reached down and grasped Denethor's arm and Denethor swung up onto the horse behind him. Walda raced to the edge of the fray and quickly let Denethor down.

A warrior was standing at the edge with a sword and a spear, and he shoved the spear in Denethor's hand while flailing at Orcs as they assaulted them. Denethor had never used a spear in battle before, but war constantly teaches new skills and he lunged at an Orc as it pressed forward. The spear went through its neck and Denethor grimaced in surprise. He tried to pull the spear out, but it held firm. He pressed his foot to the Orc's forehead and pulled with all his might. It let loose and he fell backwards, almost to the ground. Another Orc saw its advantage and rushed him. Once again, the Rohirrim saved him. The man who had given him the spear was behind him and quickly severed the head of the Orc. He nodded curtly to Denethor and turned to slay another. Denethor turned towards the one that was coming behind him and the spear found another victim. He wished he had a sword. Another Orc was upon the Rohirrim and Denethor saw the man fall. He rushed forward, picked up the sword and decapitated the Orc, screaming his rage.

A riderless mare ran past him and Denethor rushed forward, grabbed the hanging bridle and pulled himself into the saddle. The horse's nostrils flared and fear enlarged its eyes, but Denethor held the reins firm and pulled the horse up. After getting control, he turned the horse back into the battle. Another Orc went down under his sword, and Denethor grunted in satisfaction. Too many they seemed but the courage of the Rohirrim ran the battle. The Orcs turned towards the mountains, but the éored would not let them escape. Screams streamed from their mouths as they killed the last remaining foe. Others of the éored rode slowly through the bodies and hewed the still-living ones. Some were walking through the corpses, kicking now and then to ensure the enemy was truly dead. Denethor stopped his horse and sat, stunned. These men fought with such anger.

Walda came up behind him clasped him on the arm and said, "I am glad you have come unscathed through that."

"As am I. You have lost many men this day."

"Yes," Walda said, "I had not thought the band that large and my scouts were also killed. We have much to be grateful for though; the village was their prime target; we have saved it and those who live there."

"What will you do with the bodies of the dead?"

"We will bury them here. We will burn the Orcs, as is our custom, and our dead mounts, though in a separate pyre. We would not sully the memory of our brave steeds by burning them with that foul lot."

They worked long and hard that day, stopping only for a quick wash and nuncheon, and then plunged back into the harsh task before them. As the smoke rose and the sun began to set, Denethor knew he had to return to his duty. It was hard to leave these men. The work of burying the dead had just begun. His heart wished to stay, to help with the task, but he knew he must return. A message would be sent to Ecthelion stating he was disobeying his... disobeying orders. Who knew what further punishment that would bring?

He rode towards Walda, deep in the mound of bodies, trying to sort out who was who, so that families could be given their effects. His face was hard as he pulled swords off bodies. "I must leave you now. I am sorry. I have lost the mount you gave me. I will leave this horse with you and walk back to Halifirien," he used the Rohirric name for the beacon. "I am sorry I cannot stay to help bury the dead, but duty calls me." He felt wretched at the thought of leaving these brave men with such sad work.

Walda shrugged. "I understand. Keep the horse and join us when you are able."

"I wish I could, Walda, but if I come back to the camp with this horse, the beacon watcher will know I have been about other things and might report back to Ecthelion. I dare not take that chance."

"Then let me send a rider with you. When you are in sight of the beacon-hill, you can dismount and he will take your horse and return it to me. Then you can walk into camp with no one the wiser."

"I cannot let you give up a man just to return me to Halifirien. You are in sore need of every able-bodied man to help bury your dead."

"One man, more or less, will make no difference. It is not the custom of my people to let a friend walk when a horse is at hand. Take it. I hope to see you again soon."

"Where will you be camped? Might I find you on the morrow?"

Walda smiled. "That would be good. We will camp near the same place I brought you yesterday." He clasped Denethor on the arm. "You fought well today. I am glad you have joined my company."

Denethor smiled. He was glad too.

~*~

There was a shout in the courtyard below. Denethor looked out the casement and spied Indis speaking frantically with Amdir. A guard stood by, brandishing his sword. What could possibly be happening? Would one of the Tower Guard dare to draw a sword on Indis? He saw another guard running towards the three, drawing his sword as he ran. Denethor was dumbfounded. He ran to the door, opened it, and his guard stepped forward, sword drawn. Denethor stood, amazed. What had come over his City? He drew a deep breath.

"Listen to me," he said. "Something is wrong with my sister and I must go to her side. Kill me here or come with me. Either way, I am leaving this room."

The soldier blinked, sheathed his sword, and followed Denethor as he ran down the hall towards the stairs. Taking them two at a time, he descended, but not quickly enough for his purposes. His heart was in his mouth as he finally reached the door that opened onto the courtyard. He ran towards Indis and took her in his arms. "Sister, sister, what is wrong?"

Indis' eyes widened. "Denethor, you have returned," she sobbed and sank into his arms. He held her close and kept whispering her name till she calmed. "Denethor, Denethor, it is 'Wen. She is nowhere to be found and I fear for her."

"'Wen? Why are you afraid for her?"

"She has not been herself for weeks, not since Turgon started slipping away from us. She stayed in his room and would not eat, nor speak with anyone. When we laid him in the Steward's House, she wailed and wept. None could sooth her. Finally, Arciryas came and forced a draught into her. She succumbed to it and was carried into the Houses of Healing. She has been under constant watch since. But her maid has told me she has disappeared and I cannot find her." Indis started sobbing again and Denethor smoothed her hair, spoke her name and held her close.

"Shush," he said, "I am here now and we will find her. I promise." He kissed her forehead and hugged her tighter. Arciryas had run up to them by this time. Denethor gently passed her to him. "Take her to her quarters and stay with her."

"Nay, Denethor, please," Indis cried. "I must continue my search." Her eyes were wild.

"Nay, my sister. You will obey me and go to your room. When you have rested, Arciryas will bring you to me. In the meantime, I will go to Thengel and muster the armies."

"Denethor, have you not heard? Thengel is no longer in Minas Tirith!" Amdir whispered in his ear.

"What say you?" Denethor stood back, stunned. "What say you?" he repeated again, hardly aware he had asked it before.

Amdir stepped closer. "Arciryas, take Indis to her rooms. Denethor, come with me."

"Where is Thengel?" Denethor asked as they ran towards the stables.

"Fengel has passed beyond this life. Thengel was called home. He left two days ago."

Denethor stopped, lowered his head, bent over and put his hands on his thighs. He tried to breathe, to take in everything that was happening. "This is not possible, that both the Steward and the King of Rohan should die so close to each other! Say it is not so, Amdir. Say that Thengel still is here." The anguish in his voice almost broke Amdir's heart.

"He is gone these past two days, against his will, but he is gone. And we must find 'Wen."

"Yes." Denethor straightened again, pain obvious on his mien. "Sent away on the day I arrived. He could have waited; Ecthelion could have held him one more day." He ran past the Seventh Gate and towards the stables. "Who is Captain of the Tower Guard?"

"One has not been appointed yet. Everything has happened so fast."

"Is Ciramir still Captain of the Horse Guard?"

"Yes. And the company is here today. We should find them in the barracks." Amdir said just as they reached the stable doors.

Ciramir was brushing his steed. He turned as he heard his name shouted. "Denethor!" he grinned, taking a quick stride towards him, and then stopping as he saw his friend's face. "What is amiss?"

"'Wen is missing. A search must be made," Denethor said as he hugged Thengel's old aide. "Will you muster the Horse Guard?"

"You need not ask." He stepped to the doorway and furiously rang the old warning bell.

Chaos reigned for a few moments as the Horse Guard came at the call of the frantic bell. They quickly lined up, waiting for their captain to speak. To their surprise, and pleasure, they saw that Denethor stood next to him.

"The Lady Morwen is missing," Ciramir began. "She was last seen in the Houses of Healing. We will break into seven squads. One will away to Rath Dínen, another to the Houses of Healing... "

He droned on and on while Denethor bit his lip. Too much time was passing. 'When was she last seen?' he thought. He would take the squad to the Houses, with Ciramir's permission. He stepped forward.

"Of course," Ciramir stated when he heard Denethor's request. Amdir was already walking quickly with his squad towards Rath Dínen.

~*~

"Adanedhel!" Denethor shouted as he entered the front gate. A healer strode up to him, shushing him furiously. Denethor took the man's arms in both his hands and pulled him close. "I will speak with the Master Healer now!" he gritted the words out between clenched teeth. The man turned and raced down the hall. Denethor ordered his men to search the rooms and strode through the hall, following the man as quickly as he could. Suddenly, Adanedhel was standing in front of him. "My Lord?"

"When did Morwen leave her room?" Denethor asked, holding his temper in check. Was the man witless? What did he think Denethor wanted!

"My Lord, we have no knowledge of the time. I am sorry. She had been asleep and her attendant left her for a moment, I am told. We notified Indis as soon as her absence was discovered."

"So no one saw her leave? You have no idea which direction she went? Was anyone with her?"

"I am sorry. I have no answers to any of these questions. We have asked the staff and no one, it seems, saw her leave, no one went with her, no one knows where she went. We have searched every one of the Houses, all the hallways and storage areas, but she is no longer here."

Denethor saw genuine concern in the man's face and stepped back. It was not until this moment that he realized he had thrust himself close to the healer and had been poking him with his finger at each question asked. He shook his head. "Forgive me. If you hear of anything, any report at all of where she might be, or if anyone has seen her, please send a messenger to Indis or to me." He called his men to him as he strode back to the gate.

'Where could she be,' he wondered? And then a chill ran through him. 'Nay, it is not possible. She would not have gone there. She could not have gone there without someone seeing her leave the City.' He started running towards the Seventh Gate, the men following close behind. "Ciramir," he shouted as he came to the stables, "get someone to saddle a horse. We are searching in the wrong place."

Ciramir shouted out orders and the entire company's horses were saddled.

"I cannot wait," Denethor hissed, "for the whole company to muster. Too much time has passed. She could be well away by now."

Ciramir pulled him aside. "My Lord, I beg you, tell me what you fear. Where do you think she has gone?"

"Ithilien - Emyn Arnen," Denethor whispered, tears coming to his eyes.

"Do you know something? Has someone seen her leave?" Ciramir asked.

"Nay," Denethor whispered again, leaning hard against the stable door. "She is going there. I do not know how I know it, but I do." He pulled himself up and started to run towards a saddled horse.

"Someone would have stopped her at the Great Gate. We would have heard the alarm sound if she had forced herself past the guards."

"You do not understand, Ciramir. Her mind is addled. She will find a way to get out without anyone seeing her. She is not herself."

"Then you and I shall ride immediately. I will leave instructions for the others to join us as each squad returns." He ran towards Dúinhir and gave him quick orders.

Denethor smiled. Dúinhir was still with the army and now a lieutenant in the Horse Guard. A long way from Henneth Annûn; Dúinhir had been his aide then. He called to Ciramir, "I would have Dúinhir join us."

Ciramir came to his side, leading two horses. "Yes, my Lord. We will find reinforcements in Osgiliath. Come." They mounted the horses and road towards the Sixth Gate, while stragglers hurried to follow them.

~*~

"I will not stay here. I must find Morwen, Arciryas. Please, help me," Indis cried.

"We will find Denethor and hear what information he has. That as is far as it will go. You heard him order you to rest."

"I will not rest until I know she is safe. Arciryas, I am strong. I had a moment's weakness in the courtyard, but I am better now. I have a terrible fear in my heart for her. Never have I felt such dread. Please help me find Denethor. Time is short for her; I can feel it in my entire being."

"Listöwel, you have come!" Indis cried as her friend ran towards her.

"I just heard now and came as fast as I could. Has there been any word?"

Arciryas shook his head. He was glad Amdir's wife had joined them. "We are going to the stables. Denethor should be there. Hopefully, he will have a report for us."

"What are you doing?" he said in amaze.

"I am strapping on my sword. It might come in use. Listöwel, you should probably get yours also."

"I have it, friend. And I am ready." She lifted her cloak and Indis saw the blade fastened at her side.

"What madness is this?" Arciryas almost shouted the question. "What do you think you are doing? You know not how to wield a sword."

Indis smile was crisp and cold. "You know not who you have standing before you, Arciryas. For six long years now, Listöwel and I have studied under the tutelage of a shieldmaiden of Rohan. Do you think we have been unaware of the evil that has come to Mordor? Did you think we would not prepare ourselves in any way for Gondor's defense? We are quite adept at swordplay. We know not what terror has befallen my sister and I will be ready for any situation. Come, we are wasting time. Let us to the stables."

~*~

They rode hard and reached Osgiliath before night fell. How they were ever to find her once the sun set, Denethor did not know. Would she still be alive? His heart burned with fear for his sister. 'I have not given report to... Ecthelion,' he thought. 'Well, perhaps another five years in banishment. She must be found.' They had stopped at the garrison to exchange horses. "Ciramir, we must send an errand-rider to Ecthelion. He must be notified of our actions."

"Yes, my Lord. I will send Dúinhir."

"Nay," Denethor said. It was strangely comforting to have his old aide by his side. "Send another, but quickly. I would be away within the quarter hour."

Dúinhir strode forward leading three horses. "We are ready, my Lord. I have brought dried meat and water for you. Please take a moment to refresh yourself. Horses are not the only things needing rest."

"Are their no others from the Horse Guard with us yet? Have none caught up to us?"

"Nay, my Lord. You have pushed our mounts hard. It will take time for the others to reach us. Captain Húrin is preparing replacements for their horses and food for them, when they come. Would you not wait for one hour?"

Denethor wiped a hand across his forehead. He was very tired. "I cannot, Dúinhir. Do you remember Henneth Annûn? Do you remember when I knew we were close to the hidden entrance? I feel the same way now. I know Morwen is in Emyn Arnen. I know she is in danger. I cannot wait."

Húrin strode forward, two large torches in his hands. "We will need these. There will be neither moon nor stars tonight. The clouds are too dense. My company is at your command, Denethor. Are you ready to begin?"

"Yes, my friend," Denethor said quietly. "You are in command, please."

"Very well, my Lord." And Húrin, Captain of Osgiliath, shouted the order for advancement. Denethor looked behind him and was comforted by the sight. The entire battalion had been called to muster. The torchlight made the company seem even larger. For the first time in many hours, hope flickered.

The rode was still in good condition. The company rode east, towards Mordor. Something was different and Denethor could not put his finger on what it was. He turned to Húrin. "Captain, has some event occurred recently with Mordor. I feel a heaviness in the air."

"The One we do not name has come to Barad-dûr. He has openly defied your father and is rebuilding the tower."

Denethor gasped. 'So all these years of waiting and watching; Ecthelion's greatest fears have been realized.'

"That is not the end of it either. The Corsairs of Umbar have allied themselves with him. We have been under attack from both the east and the south for more than two years. The great monument at the Havens has been destroyed." Húrin's shoulders seemed to sag.

"The great white pillar at the headland? The one that took the rays of the Sun and of the Moon and shone like a bright star? This cannot be true. They would dare to destroy Ar-Pharazôn's monument?"

"They dare not only that, my Lord. They send sorties to harass the few left in Southern Ithilien. The garrison at Pelargir is constantly on the alert. Evil times have come to Gondor."

~*~

Indis chafed at the slowness of Arciryas, yet her heart went out to him. He was a healer, after all, and not used to horses and such. Their pace was slowed by his inexperience; always, when with the Horse Guard, he had ridden in a wagon. She almost wished he had not come with them; they could be in Osgiliath by now. The band of seventy warriors surrounded her. It had taken some time for the various patrols to return to the stables, but once they had and Amdir had heard the orders that Ciramir had left for them, he had quickly ordered the rest of the horses saddled and the company set forth. They would reach Osgiliath well into the night. 'Why had Denethor gone to Osgiliath?' She wondered. And the fear that constricted her heart, once again squeezed tighter.

Amdir had not been surprised by Listöwel's carrying of a sword. They had been in Pelargir for nigh unto a year. Listöwel had refused to stop her training just because she had left Minas Tirith. She had come to him one evening, plying him with wine and cheese and a smile. Gently she had told him what the four women had been doing these past five years and requested assignment of a swordmaster to continue her training. Amdir had met with her the next morning and put her through a thorough test of the different techniques. He had been proud of her. She had done well. And so he had assigned her a swordmaster and she continued her practice. The year before, many terrible changes had befallen Gondor; her prowess with a sword lightened his heart. She would be able to protect herself, if the worst happened.

Now he was riding towards danger with her at his side. Indis would not be left behind and Listöwel would not leave Indis' side. The torches lit the old city in a macabre fashion. Eyes seemed to follow them as they passed the ruins and arrived at the garrison. Ciramir and his company had been gone for over three hours. They would surely be at Emyn Arnen by now. If only he could persuade Indis to remain here. But he knew that hope was forlorn. He helped Indis from her horse and she quickly hugged him, whispered in his ear, "Thank you," and walked towards the well. Listöwel had been helped by one of the men left behind to guard the garrison. Fresh horses were quickly saddled; meal was thrust into their hands along with water flasks. Haste was on everyone's mind. They remounted and rode over the bridge into Ithilien.

~*~

Húrin's battalion reached Emyn Arnen, passed through it quickly, and headed towards the resting place of the line of Húrin. It was three leagues south of the forest. Denethor hoped he was wrong. Perhaps 'Wen had gone to Lossarnach to visit Morwen's family? He should have thought of that before rushing out of the City. 'Nay, she is not there,' he thought. Here is where his heart was being dragged to and here is where he would find her. What end had his family come to? Drawn and quartered like cattle; cast out as silage for the masses of Gondor. His father's, there he had thought it, the one word he had vowed not to use again! Well, it was done. His father had spent the family in the hope of the king's return - denying Indis her happiness, shaming Denethor, and waiting on defensive preparations for that return. Perhaps that is why he had been sent in exile to Amon Anwar. Did Ecthelion think the king was returning now and that Denethor would not accept him? Nay, that was folly. Even if the king returned, he would need a Steward. All the kings before had Stewards. As for the defense of Gondor, would he not want to show the king that he had kept Gondor in good repair awaiting his arrival?

They were upon the monuments before he knew it. The dark of the night had hidden them from view and he quickly reined in his horse to prevent a collision with one of them. Ciramir halted his horse and strode forward, holding a torch high. Others of his company dismounted and came forward too. Some were sent to the east and some to the west while Ciramir, Dúinhir and Denethor strode straight ahead. Slowly, with bated breath, Denethor walked, hoping against hope that he was wrong. "She cannot be here," he kept whispering. A shout. 'Nay!' his mind screamed and the pain of the unuttered cry filled his head. "My Lord," one of the soldiers shouted. "Over here, my Lord Denethor." His legs would not move. Dúinhir grabbed his arm. "My Lord," he pretended Denethor had not heard. "You are needed over yonder." And gently forced him forward.

It was Cranthir's tomb. She sat at the edge of it. Her dress was spread out before her, as if arranged for a party, the red stains creeping along it. Her head... He turned, fell to his knees, retched, cried and screamed all in one breath. The blood rushed through his head and he could hear naught but a torrent of noise, unimaginable pain in his heart, and eyes that burnt like the fires of Mount Doom as the tears burst through them. Dúinhir collapsed next to him, holding his hand over his own mouth.

~*~

The Orcs' screams as they descended upon them, fractured the trees of Emyn Arnen, and shocked Indis. Never had she heard such a sound. She pulled her horse closer to Listöwel's and drew her sword from its sheath. Her hand trembled; but the arm was strong. She knew it was only fear that caused the sword to shake. She would have none of that. She drew in her breath, bit her lower lip and gave a quick smile to her friend. "This is what we have been preparing for these last years, is it not?" she screamed over the noise. Listöwel managed a small smile back at her; Indis could see that Listöwel had her sword in hand also. At that moment, she dearly wished that she had asked the smithy to make new ones for both of them. She would rectify that when they returned to Minas Tirith. 'When you return?' her heart questioned. 'When we return!' her mind answered.

The men tried to protect them, and for this, Indis was most sad. She did not want to have any of them dying to protect her; yet, she stayed within the circle the unit had set around them; she would be patient. As much as she wanted to join the fray, she would obey the unsaid command and wait. Sooner or later, the Orcs would break through. There were many, many more than this band of men. In the distance she could see Amdir and she was grateful that he was with them, but where was Arciryas? Her heart skipped a beat; he was not with Amdir. Gratefully, she felt a hand reach out and touch her shoulder. She knew that touch. He had pulled next to her when she was looking around, his heart burdened with the thought of what might happen. He did not care if he died. Yes, he did, but he did not want her dead. He thought of their short time together as man and wife. But the Orcs were coming closer. He stood taller in his saddle and fervently hoped he would not fall off.

~*~

Ecthelion received the errand-rider. The guards had already told him his daughter was missing. He had sent for Adanedhel and listened to what had transpired. He ordered a search to be made of the Citadel and the area around it. She would be found, he knew. When he read where the company was headed, he paused. He wondered why Denethor had raced to Osgiliath. What was Denethor about? He sat back in the cold black Steward's chair. The errand-rider was still there. Why did not the fool leave? There was naught in the note requiring a response. Brusquely, he waved the soldier off. He called for the Captain of the Horse Guard. The Chamberlain ran forward. "My Lord, the captain and the whole company went with Denethor to Osgiliath." Ecthelion's face turned bright red. "Denethor took the whole company with him?" he screamed. The lad was more arrogant and rebellious than he had thought. What further could he do to curb him? His rage made him shake. "Send for my personal guard." The Chamberlain scurried out of the Great Hall. Never had he seen his master angrier.

A thought, too terrible to imagine, crept into his mind as he sat waiting. She had gone there before, soon after Cranthir had died, but she had taken a squad of men with her. Did Denethor think she would go there again? It was impossible to think it; yet, she had acted strange, of late. He cursed himself for not visiting her. Why was he not told she was so very ill? He could sit no longer. He strode from the Hall and walked towards the stables. His guards rushed around him, encircling him as he walked.

"Ingold," he bellowed. "Ingold!" His captain ran forward.

"My Lord, I have been gathering the reports of those who are in charge of the search. Has aught been heard?"

"Get my horse and bring your men. We go to Ithilien."

Ingold stopped and stared. "Yes, my Lord," he quickly recovered. Shouting to his men, he ran towards the stables. After a few moments, he rode up to where Ecthelion had stopped. He held the saddled horse while Ecthelion mounted. Ecthelion turned the horse, snapped at it with the reins, and headed towards the Sixth Gate. The company scurried after, quickly gaining their mounts and weapons and joined their Captain-General.

~*~

Slowly, life crept back into Denethor's mind. His head still hurt dreadfully, but his breath was returning. Ciramir had been busy. He had wrapped her in a cloth, while sending searchers to find the head. He hoped with every fiber of his being, that it would be found. He ordered a fire started so that his company's healer, Siriondil, could prepare a draught for Denethor. He sorely needed something. This horror was even beyond the pain of Cranthir's death at the hands of Orcs so many years ago. There were signs of Haradrim. It would not bode well for the folk of the south once Denethor was told.

"Ciramir," the whisper came to him. He looked over and saw Denethor, still kneeling, looking towards him. "Water, please."

"I have something stronger for you, my Lord. Please drink this. Siriondil has prepared it for you."

"What is it?" Denethor asked, shaking his head to clear it. "I must be fully alert. We know not if the beasts who did this are still in the area."

"It is only mead, my Lord. And weak at that. It will give you a measure of strength and replace what you have lost."

Denethor drank it quickly, the sweet taste of it cleaning some of the foulness left in his mouth. As he stood, he swayed and Ciramir quickly held him up. "Dúinhir, your master has need of you," he barked at the man, still on his knees.

Dúinhir quickly rose and stepped closer to Denethor. "My Lord, there is a seat here. Please, for just a moment, until the mead takes effect and strengthens you."

Ciramir handed a flask to Dúinhir. "Take some yourself, lad."

Denethor sat and motioned for his aide to join him. Yes, if he were reinstated to his post, he would need an aide and Dúinhir would suffice. He shook his head. He could think of naught at the moment. He must erase the sight of her. Even that small thought brought nausea and pain with it. He leaned over and retched again. After, all he could do was gasp. His head reeled and he started to fall off the log they were sitting on. Dúinhir grabbed him by the shoulder and held him upright. He pressed his own flask against Denethor's lips. Denethor's eyes steadied and he drank deeply. 'I am useless in this state,' he thought. 'I must gather my wits. We must return to Minas Tirith as quickly as possible. We must gather our armies and find the creatures who have done this.' Again, he closed his eyes, but the nausea passed. He stood and was able to hold himself up. Ciramir approached him.

"Your orders, my Lord?"

~*~

Ingold met his company, seventy strong, mustered and ready at the Great Gate. As soon as their captain and the Steward joined them, they started out across the Pelennor. Travelers stopped and stared as the Steward's own guard rode by. When they saw the Steward himself in the forefront, tongues wagged and distress flooded the City. Rare were the times the Steward left Minas Tirith in the company of his knights. The pace they set as they vanished from sight only furthered the alarm of the people. Farmers called out to their wives to come and see the spectacle before them as the men passed their farms and rode ever eastward.

They approached the Rammas, passed through the guarded gates, and rushed on towards Osgiliath. An errand-rider had been sent ahead and fresh mounts were ready for them at the old city's garrison. The lieutenant in charge of the remnant of Osgiliath's defenses told Ingold that Amdir's group had passed only a half hour before. Ecthelion was heartened. They were not in so great a hurry. Denethor must not be as sure of himself as Ecthelion had feared. As he stated this to Ingold, the lieutenant interrupted. "My Lord, Captain Húrin took the battalion and followed Denethor into Ithilien. They left more than three hours ago." Ingold stared at Ecthelion. His Steward had been misinformed. Denethor had not taken the Horse Guard. He had not waited for them to muster. The tightness of his Captain-General's jaw, the white sheen of his face, told him they must spur their horses on at an even faster pace. Night had fallen; they must hurry.

~*~

The Orcs' howls turned to cries of triumph as they saw the pitiful band of men standing in opposition to them. Though the men were on horses, the Orcs knew they had the advantage of number. And they were not afraid to die. This fact was all too apparent to Amdir as he watched more than three hundred of the enemy pour through the trees. "I should have sent an errand-rider," he swore, but his mind had been on Listöwel and the danger she was in, never mind that she would not hear of their staying behind. He looked wildly towards the middle of their party. His smile was bittersweet. They were there, his beloved and Indis, with swords drawn and heads held high. 'If she can keep her courage, she will survive the first onslaught,' he thought. After that, none of them would probably survive. He clenched his teeth and turned towards the hoard. It would be a swift death and for that he was grateful. His heart swelled for one moment. This would be a different battle than his first one, where he had turned and run. His cheeks flamed at the remembrance, but his heart told him he had ever since been true.

'They do not fight as we did during our practices,' Indis thought in dismay as the first of the Orcs broke through the line of men guarding them. It had almost taken her sword with its blow; she had clung to it desperately. Now, she raised it and swung down hard and was surprised to feel it connect. The Orc howled its shock as it looked at the gash in its arm. It did not stop but for a moment; Indis had to pull her horse back to avoid the swing of its weapon. A split second's thought, then she spurred her horse forward, lashed backwards with her sword, and missed entirely. The motion almost caused her to fall off. She clung to the mane and tried to right herself. As she did, the Orc grabbed the reins and pulled hard on her skirt, trying to pull her off the horse. Just as she started to slide off the saddle, the hand loosened itself. Arciryas had struck the miserable creature on its neck and it slumped to the ground. She had no time to thank him as another of the beasts came at her. Once again she swung her sword and this time it did more damage. The Orc fell to its knees and then face forward. She sat for a moment, stunned. She had actually done it. Her arms started to quiver and tears sprang to her eyes. Dead - she had killed it. She shook her head trying to persuade herself it was necessary. The point was moot though as another came through. 'Will they never stop,' she wondered? Again and again she was attacked and again and again she repulsed the attack until one of the men near her could finish the task, or until she herself had killed the enemy. Her hands were beginning to slip on the sword and she looked down, amazed that it was covered in a black, sticky substance. It took seconds before she realized it was Orc blood. She almost dropped the sword in horror. Her eyes lifted and as they did, she saw Listöwel fall from her own mount. Indis screamed.

~*~

Ecthelion's company reached the forest close to the mid night hour. He wondered whether to go by the Harad Road or to go through the forest. It would be safer, given the blackness of the night, to go by way of the road, but his heart misgave him and he felt he should make haste. Therefore, he turned at the path that led into the forest and his men followed. They had been traveling well over two hours since leaving Osgiliath. He would let the horses set their own pace, give them a small rest and then urge them on after a quarter hour.

The sound of battle reached his ears at the same moment that Ingold reined in his own horse. "I will send scouts, Lord Ecthelion," he said. "We cannot go in headlong. We are not many."

"Nay, if it is Denethor, we will still be needed, though his company is many, but if it is Amdir, I fear they will fail if the attackers are substantial. We must press forward." And he spurred his horse into the forest. His men followed. They reached the clearing. The enemy, indeed, were many. And there were few Gondorians left. He screamed his rage and urged his knights forward. Urging, however, was not needed as the knights poured into the clearing, their screams rising above the screams of the dying. His drawn sword meted out his punishment to the enemy for daring to trespass on the land of his fathers.

~*~

Denethor looked up at Ciramir. "We ride back to the City. I must report to the Steward. We must mount a full-scale attack. I will not bring us to war. That is the Steward's prerogative. If I am correct, it was men from Harad?"

"Yes, my Lord. All signs point to that. I will prepare the company." Ciramir walked away.

"We have a full battalion with us, five hundred men. Yet, I cannot risk going south with only a battalion. I would we had taken the full regiment." He turned towards Dúinhir. "Take a squad of men with you and ride as fast as you are able to the Steward. Do not tell him what has happened to Morwen..." He closed his eyes for a moment, swallowed tightly, and opened them again. "Tell him we have been attacked by Haradrim and that I am returning to make my report. I will not wait till dawn."

"Yes, my Lord," Dúinhir said and strode towards a group of men. They mounted and headed north.

Denethor walked towards the healer. "My head is aching. Would you have something that might help?"

The healer quickly looked through his bags, pulled out a powder and mixed it with the mead, handed it to Denethor and asked him to sit.

"Nay, I have no time for sitting." He met Ciramir as the man was approaching him. Taking his shoulder, he took him away from the company. "Give the men time for a brief rest and then we will be off. There is naught we can do here. Though I would be away from this place as quickly as possible, the horses and the men need rest. After you have finished, please join me. I would discuss what our response might be. I must have a plan to present to the Steward when we return." He turned and walked back to the log. He had to sit; his legs were giving way under him. He must come to terms with what had happened. He could not face his father in this state.

They rested for more than an hour and Denethor was just ready to muster the men when Dúinhir rode madly into the camp. He swiftly looked around, spotted Denethor and galloped towards him. As he jumped from his horse he cried, "My Lord, Orcs are attacking a company of men in the Emyn Arnen!"

Ciramir came running as Denethor grabbed his shoulder. "Now?" he asked.

"Yes, my Lord. The rest of our squad stayed to fight. They are outnumbered and will fall soon. They are desperate."

Denethor ran to his horse and mounted. The rest of the battalion did the same and soon they were racing northward. Dúinhir was at his side, Ciramir on the other.

"Your sister is with them, my Lord," Dúinhir said quietly.

Denethor stared. "What say you?" he cried.

"I am sorry, my Lord, but I could not mistake her. She was there in the middle of the attack with our men surrounding her, but they are undermanned. I do not think..." His face turned bright red and he bit his lip.

Denethor spurred his horse on, not heeding the trees as they entered the forest. His mind reeled as they broke through to the clearing where the attack was taking place. So few left standing. He swung his eyes from side to side trying to see Indis, but she was nowhere in sight. A sob broke from his lips, but he drew his sword and charged into the battle. The Orcs tried to overwhelm them, but Denethor's numbers were too great. Denethor glimpsed Ecthelion to the north of the battle and realized his forces had just entered the fray also. The Orcs, beleaguered on two sides, started backing away, hacking at anything that was behind them as they tried to hide among the trees. The men of Gondor would have none of it. They pursued with scowls upon their faces, screams issuing from their mouths. They had seen too much already this night. They would tolerate no more.

~*~

"Where is she? I saw her fall; I thought it was here," Indis mumbled words bled through her sobs. She was kneeling in the midst of the carnage, clawing through it, digging into it, but to no avail. Arciryas had reached her by this time and was trying to help her to her feet, but she turned a tear-stained face towards him. "I cannot find her," she wailed.

Arciryas stopped trying to help her up and knelt next to her, pushing away an Orc arm with his knee. "We will find her, my love, we will," he said, shoving another body off the pile. He did not know why the Orcs suddenly retreated; he did not care. She was alive; his eyes were only on her. A hand touched his shoulder and he was stunned to hear Denethor's voice.

"Arciryas, is Indis unharmed? What are you looking for?"

"Denethor," he stood and pulled him close in a great hug. "You are why the Orcs ran?"

"I suppose so; my errand-riders came upon your company and called for help. We were only a short distance away. But again, what are you looking for?"

"Listöwel. Indis saw her fall. She thought it was here." He turned again, knelt and pulled more bodies away.

Denethor gave a quick look around. Where was Amdir? Did he know his beloved was here? He thought he spotted him in the distance, sitting holding his head, but he was not sure. There was so much blood.

Denethor knelt next to Indis and helped move the corpses. Too many Gondorians lay dead here, only a few Orcs. Indis did not realize he was kneeling next to her, so great was her single-mindedness. He touched her hand. Still, she did not look. He pulled another body off, just then hearing Indis' anguished cry.

"Listöwel, Listöwel," she sobbed.

Arciryas and Denethor both stood and pulled the last bodies off the pile. Indis had recognized her friend's cloak hidden from the men's eyes. Gently Arciryas knelt again and looked for a sign of breath. He turned to Indis and said, "She lives." He picked Listöwel up and moved away from the battlefield. Others had started fires, boiled water, and assembled cots in readiness for the wounded. Siriondil was preparing salves, unguents and bandages. As they approached, the healer indicated a cot; Arciryas laid Listöwel on it. Indis hovered behind Arciryas as he tended her friend's wounds. Denethor moved to Indis side and held her close, though she had not eyes nor ears for him. Her whole being was directed to the body on the cot. It did not matter to him. He was content to support her in his arms. 'One sister left to hold,' he thought. He would not lightly let this one go. The tears fell, unbidden and he did naught to hide them. 'Better they fall now, when others are too busy to notice.'

Ch. 9 - Third Age 2953 - Part Two

Ecthelion saw Indis and his heart soared. She was well and so was Denethor. Who were they carrying though? Was it Morwen? He strode through the bloodbath and reached Denethor's side. It was not Morwen. Who? He did not recognize her, but knew it must be friend to Indis. He noted the tears in Denethor's eyes and started to rebuke him. But something stayed the words; time for that later.

"Where is Morwen?" he asked.

Denethor jumped, dropped his arms from Indis' shoulders and stepped back. "Fa-" but the word would not be spoken. "My Lord. She is not here." How was he to tell him? "Please, speak with Indis. She has need of you."

Ecthelion reddened. The slight reprimand stung. "Of course I will speak with her." He turned towards his daughter and pulled her away from the cot. Indis' eyes were locked on her friend. Gently, he took her chin and turned her face towards his. "Indis. I have need of you," he said. She blinked twice. "Indis," he said again. "I have need of you."

Finally, she realized who was speaking. She drew in a deep breath. "Father, what may I do for you?"

"I need you to listen to me. A healer tends your friend. She will be well, I am sure. Now, tell me why you are here? What power caused you to leave the City? These are dangerous parts. I would not have you harmed."

"Morwen!" The name escaped her lips in a groan of despair. "It was Morwen, Father. She has gone and I am trying to find her."

Denethor slipped away. He was not ready to speak the unspeakable. He needed to find his friend. Amdir was being brought to the healing area. Denethor nodded to the soldier helping him towards it, took his place, and slowly walked with him.

Amdir looked up. A small smile crept across his face. Weariness and pain struggled across his eyes. "Thank you," he said quietly. "Thank you for coming." He tripped and Denethor put a hand under his arm.

"Do you need to sit for a moment?" he questioned him.

"Nay. I must find Listöwel. She was fighting in the middle of the fray and I have lost sight of her."

Denethor's heart twinged. "She is alive, Amdir, but she was injured. I do not know the extent, but Arciryas is with her. He loves her as his own. He will tend her well. I think you should sit for a moment."

"Nay," Amdir shuddered. "I must to her then. She needs me." He tried to quicken his pace, but again faltered.

"Here, lean more upon me and slow your pace. We will reach her more quickly if you rely upon me." And with that, he put all his strength into half carrying, half walking his friend towards the cots.

By the time they reached the healing area, Listöwel was breathing easily. She was not awake, but her color was returning. Amdir fell forward trying to stoop beside her and Denethor quickly caught him, helped him to her side, and knelt next to him, gently holding him up.

Amdir caught her hand in his, stroked it and called her name. After a few moments, her eyelids fluttered and she woke. He placed his hand on her cheek and she looked at him in wonder. "I am alive? I did not think it possible. Indis?"

"I am here, sister-friend. All is well." Indis stepped to her other side, knelt and took her hand. She looked up at Denethor and nodded towards Amdir. The blood was seeping from his wound. He needed to be tended to.

"Amdir," Denethor spoke quietly. "You must come away. You are in need of care. You will not be able to help her if you are dead. Indis will stay by her side."

Amdir turned towards Denethor. His eyes were uncomprehending. 'He needs help and quickly,' Denethor thought. He took his arm and started to lift him, but Amdir balked and moved closer to Listöwel. She looked at him and gasped in dismay. "My husband, you are injured!"

He tried to shake his head, but the pain caused him to reel slightly. "Soldier," Denethor commanded. "You are to come with me." Amdir nodded, tried to stand and both Arciryas and Denethor took his arms and helped him to the cot next to Listöwel's.

Ecthelion's hard hand gripping his shoulder broke Denethor's concentration and he turned in surprise. "My Lord?"

"Where is Morwen?" The fury in his voice made Denethor cringe. He remembered the slight rebuke and realized he would pay for it later.

"Please, walk with me a pace, away from this area?"

Father and son moved away and Indis, though she wanted to remain at her friend's side, knew she must force herself into their presence. She had suddenly realized that Denethor was there and yet Morwen was not. Her father scowled at her as she approached them, but she would not let this prevent her from listening.

Denethor would have kept walking, but Ecthelion, impatient and angry pulled him up short. "Speak now!" he commanded.

"Morwen..." he started and then stopped, turned towards Indis and said, "Indis, please sit here next to me." He showed her to an oak limb fallen in their path. She paled, but obeyed. He sat next to her, took her hands in his, and brushed the hair from her eyes. He flinched at the Orc's blood streaking the left side of her face. "Indis, Morwen is dead." She nodded. His heart rose in pride. She was so strong, this sister of his. Her eyes asked further questions. "We found her by Cranthir's tomb." He hung his head. How was he to tell her what state they found Morwen in? What could he say that would soften the blow? He must tell her the truth. It would be found out in the end. "All signs point to an attack by a force of Haradrim. Her head was... severed, as is their custom." She drew back a little, but he held onto her hands. "Siriondil thinks she was not otherwise... interfered with." His heart broke; too many hard things to say. "We did not find her head. I had soldiers looking when Dúinhir spread the alarm of the attack on your company. We will return to the tomb in the morning and search further." He did not tell her they had little hope of finding it. A trophy for them to display. He knew Indis surmised the same. She was no fool. For that, he was grateful and sad. These are things no woman should know.

She moved towards him, hugged him tightly and started to cry soft, gentle tears. Ecthelion's shoulders sagged. He did not know why, but Denethor was surprised at this reaction. Arciryas looked up, saw the trio and knew that the worst had happened. He was torn. He wished to be with his love, but she was with her family. Did he dare intrude? The Steward hated him; of this he was sure. He shook his head. She will need me, he thought. For love of her, he walked forward. Sitting next to her on the log, he touched her shoulder. She took her hand and pulled him closer, never letting go of Denethor. They were bound together. Ecthelion stood alone beside them.

~*~

Amdir's wounds were not serious. The head wound had bled profusely, as all head wounds do. The loss of blood had caused his dizziness, but once his wound was bandaged and his stomach filled with herb-enhanced mead, he rejoined his company. Listöwel had been knocked senseless by the fall from her mount, but otherwise was unharmed, with only small cuts and bruises to show for her time in battle. Neither would countenance being sent back to Minas Tirith until the task at hand had been completed. After burying the dead and sending the wounded back to Minas Tirith in carts fetched from Osgiliath, the battalion and its support rode south towards the House of Húrin's burial grounds. Two companies had been sent ahead to continue the grim search. The normal chatter of a marching army was lacking this day. The only sound was the livery of their horses, clanking as they progressed south, for the sound of their hooves was muffled in the soft leaves strewn upon the forest floor.

~*~

Neither Ecthelion nor Denethor had spoken to each other. The estrangement was clear to the entire company. Indis rode next to her father with Húrin and Denethor riding behind. Every few moments, Indis would turn and give a gentle smile to Denethor and one to Amdir who rode behind them. Arciryas was in the back of the company in the healer's cart. They were bringing an extra one in case of further attack. Siriondil had gone with the wounded to Osgiliath. He would stay there until the battalion returned and then rejoin his company.

"Father, you must speak with Denethor, if for no other reason than to hearten the men; let them see that all is well with the Steward's house," Indis spoke quietly.

Ecthelion was silent. He had only pain in his heart, feeling bereft and alone. Even with Indis' words spoken so no other could hear, he felt the sting in her remark. Morwen was dead. Indis, though he knew she loved him, was torn between father, brother, and husband. And Denethor. He pulled back his shoulders a little further, lifted his chin, and tried to sort out his thoughts on the man. For man is what Denethor had become while he had been away on the borders of Rohan. His actions these past two days had clearly shown it. All this time Ecthelion had been trying to raise a warrior for Gondor. He remembered the words of the woman at the time of Rían's death. "All for Gondor," she had said. Ecthelion's heart had ever been for Gondor.  For her king, when he would return. Yet his own house was in ruins. Turgon had never, in his heart, believed that the king would return. Those were just words said after the Silent Prayer or at the end of meetings. But Ecthelion's heart ached for that return. He was so sure that the king would return. He hoped it would be in his time, or perhaps Denethor's time. The urge to have the kingdom in readiness was a heavy burden that he carried, alone it seemed. Now that Turgon was dead, he was free to do all the things he had planned. He remembered with a start that some of those things had been planned with Denethor the year after Cranthir died. He had forgotten that and their camaraderie during those few fleeting years. He did not remember what had caused the next estrangement. The strain of Turgon's reluctance to do anything, his memory loss, his frailty, and finally his death had been long, gradual, and painful. All the while, Ecthelion had tried to put his plans into action, and all the while, Turgon had fought him bitterly. The Council had agreed with Turgon, and Ecthelion sat as a man chained to the walls of Angband. The price, this day, seemed too high.

He pulled his horse up and waited for Denethor to reach him. "Come, we have much to discuss," he bid him and led him to a clearing. He dismounted and waved Húrin and the company on. A small detachment of his personal guard, along with Ingold, pulled up a short, discreet distance away.

"My Lord," Denethor said. "It is not safe to tarry here with so small a company."

"Yet it is no longer safe to continue as we have done. Much of the fault lies at my door."

Denethor dismounted, surprise and concern on his face. "Of what do you speak, my Lord?"

"My son, we have had our differences.  Nay. I have... I do not know how to say this. Things must change. I see your time at Amon Anwar was well spent. You have learned much. I had sent you to learn about yourself, but your time with Walda has taught you many other skills." He smirked at Denethor's amazement. "Did you think I would not know of your time with the Rohirrim? A leader must know all things. You must know all things, Denethor. Naught must catch you by surprise. You must use every tool available, every person available, to govern Gondor. When we return to Minas Tirith, we will have the ceremony of the Passing of the Title." Ecthelion was pleased and startled by the expression of wonder that lit Denethor's face at the mention of the ceremony. "Did you think I would not do this? Did you think I had entirely abandoned you?" His voice broke as he spoke. "You are my son. Along with that, you are Heir to the Stewardship. To whom else would I leave Gondor and her weal until the king comes? Long overdue is the ceremony. We will fulfill the requirements as soon as possible, once we return to the City."

Denethor stood in stunned silence. Never had he heard his father speak this way to him.

"We must be away now. This is a hideous business that we are about. Morwen was much loved by me. To have her perish in this fashion..."

The tears pushed against Denethor's closed eyelids. He could not cry here, not after his father showed this confidence in him, but his heart was bleeding with such pain for dear, sweet 'Wen.
 
When he opened his eyes, he found Ecthelion already astride his horse and waiting for him. He scrambled to catch up with his father, still wondering what had caused this change, but his heart felt lighter as he exalted that he finally would be named Heir to the Steward.

~*~

Three weeks, only three weeks had passed but so much and yet so little had been accomplished. The Council ruled the City, too many of Turgon's captains were still in places of importance, yet Denethor felt hope. Ecthelion and he had been poring over the rosters. Slowly they were moving soldiers and battalions. Those troops loyal to the Council and Turgon were being transferred to garrisons on the outskirts of Gondor. Those who were loyal to the Steward were promoted and given positions in the City. Soon the Council would know who was in command of Gondor and then the Steward and his son would put their plans into place.

Arciryas had been allowed to rejoin his wife in the Tower. They lived now in the upper rooms, where the old nursery had been. Indis even had her own garden. The smile on his sister's face wiped much grief from Denethor. Poor 'Wen, to have her death bring healing to the family.
 
As the day for the ceremony grew closer, Denethor found himself more and more anxious. This ceremony was the culmination of all he had hoped for since he was six years old. This was the beginning of his life as Heir of the Steward. He was given back his commission as lieutenant as soon as they had returned from Ithilien, but he was no longer with the Horse Guard; he had been transferred to Ecthelion's own company under Ingold. Soon he would become a captain.  His head reeled. It was all so long hoped for and all so sudden.  There was naught to learn for this ceremony. No words were to be said except those said by his father. And Denethor's one short word of acceptance. He walked the parapet to the edge, to the place where the rock out-thrust and jutted into the open air, which was warm as it lifted the peregrines up towards the mountains. He stood in awe and wonder. Such beauty, such majesty. Even the Ephel Dúath could not dispel the sense of joy and ownership and oneness with this sight before him, this land of his. He sensed someone behind him and he turned. "Father."

"Be ready when the sun sets tonight. We will be walking, once we reach the foothills. Do not wear your armor, perhaps just light mail will do. And bring your sword." That was all Ecthelion had said and then he had turned his back and walked towards the Citadel.

~*~

They rode to the southern feet of Mount Mindolluin, just before the lands where Denethor, Thengel and Amdir had fished many long years ago. A small stable was found and the horses were unsaddled, tethered and left with food and drink. Ecthelion unwrapped a small pack, pulled out some meal and water and handed half to Denethor. They ate as the walked. At the base of the mountain, Denethor watched as Ecthelion strode back and forth, mumbling to himself. Finally, he gave a short gasp and motioned for Denethor to follow him. He had found a path that looked as if it had been made in ages long past. They followed the path, which quickly turned into the steep ways of the mountain. Eventually, they came to a high field below the snows that covered the White Mountains' peaks. The sun was just beginning to rise in the east. Denethor saw that the field overlooked the precipice that stood behind Minas Tirith. He gasped as the sun hit the various towers turning them into white pencils and the Citadel shone like a slender spike of pearl. The Vale of Anduin lay before them also, dressed as a garden, and the Mountains of Shadow were veiled in a golden mist.

Denethor pointed in delight, "Look, Rauros, I am sure I can see Rauros beyond the Emyn Muil. Do you see it, Father?" He could hardly contain his excitement. Never had he seen the land laid out before him as it was in the brilliance of this summer morning. "And there, if you follow the river, there is the Pelargir, I am sure, and look, Father, the sea, it must be the sea." He was almost in tears.

Ecthelion smiled. "This is our realm, until the king comes. We must preserve this land, Denethor. I bring you here now, as the kings did of old, to pass on to you the secrets of the realm. It was the custom of the kings, and then of the Stewards after them, to visit this hallow with their heirs. Here is the tomb and memorial of Elendil the Faithful. Isildur said, 'Unless he be an heir of Elendil...' before he went north, never to return."

Denethor was silent, his eyes wide as he listened to Ecthelion.

"I hold in my hand the scroll that contains the 'Tradition of Isildur.' Our forefathers declared the tradition void after Calenardhon was given to the Horsemen of the North. But I am ever hopeful that the Great King will return and therefore, I will keep the tradition." Suddenly, Ecthelion was weeping. "Our line has been disgraced these many years. The kings before us, in truth, had begun to destroy Gondor by their lack of concern, yet our line did naught to stem the tide. Though the Stewards judged it of old that, since Madril had exercised the authority of the king in his absence, we, his heirs have the same rights and duties of the king until he returns. Too many of our line have wasted their time, have abrogated their duties, have looked towards the stars and such for guidance, and Gondor slowly declined. My son," and at this Ecthelion grabbed Denethor's shoulder so hard it hurt, "we must stop this! We must prepare for the return of the king! You and I, Denethor, we will do this together. As we have come together here at the Hallows of Minas Tirith, so shall we come together to rule Gondor until the king returns!" His face shone through the tears and Denethor was taken aback. "Do not think that this reign is ours though, my son. Yes, the blood of Númenor flows through us, even more so through you, but, Denethor, ten thousand years would not suffice to allow one from the Line of Húrin to become king. Our ancestor, Pelendur, rejected the claim of Arvedui, who was related to the Line of Húrin by the blood of Ondoher's daughter, Fíriel. And with that rejection went our own right to the claim, for Pelendur wanted only a prince descended in the male line from Anárion. You know yourself that the Faithful clung to the right of the father to decide for his descendants. Well, our forefather Pelendur rejected his own claim; therefore, we have no claim to the Throne. You must remember that and be faithful to that. It is our fate."

His father sounded almost wild and Denethor wondered at the passion he heard in his voice. Turgon had never talked of the return of the king. None before him had, as far as Denethor remembered from his readings, not for the last thousand years. Yet his father seemed sure that the king would return. So, no Throne for Denethor. A chill ran down his spine as the thought came to him. Well, if that was to be his fate. But no usurper would come and take the Throne, that he promised himself. He would test any claimant thoroughly. But he said naught to Ecthelion.

Ecthelion moved towards a bundle, unnoticed by Denethor until this moment. As it was unwrapped, Denethor saw it contained a sword and a shield and a horn. He sucked in his breath quickly. It was the Horn of Gondor. Sweat started beading upon his forehead and his body fairly shook in anticipation. At last, he was to receive the Horn. Tears sprang to his eyes.

"I have much to tell you of the secrets of Gondor, my son, keys to give you to the Great Library, the vault, the Citadel and its many rooms, the dungeons, the kitchens, all for the Heir of the Steward. You will have a Warden of the Keys, but for the moment, I want you to take them, feel their weight, see the glitter of them in the sun, and know that you are being entrusted with all that is of worth in Gondor. Not only these rooms, my son, but the people also. They will be entrusted to you to guard them, protect them, not as slaves but as free men of Númenor. When you become Steward, you will hand out judgment, gather troops, you will be lord of the fiefs as long as the state of Gondor endures." He looked long and hard at Denethor. "Are you ready for this, my son? Are you ready to give your life to Gondor? All for Gondor?"

Denethor found he had been holding his breath. He let it out slowly and replied, "Yes, my Lord Steward, "I am ready to begin my duties as Heir of the Steward of Gondor."

~*~

It struck Denethor, hard. His father's contempt and scorn for Turgon had been laid as a seed in Denethor's heart and it had grown. He saw it now. So he had abandoned the man - the man who had loved him so as a child. He walked slowly to the Houses of Healing - found the bench that he used to sit on as a child - the one he and Turgon would sit on when he was young. Tears would not come. He first had to cleanse his heart of the contempt, the anger, and the frustration that he had come to associate with this man. All he could think of was the sad state that Gondor was in. All of it Ecthelion laid at Turgon's feet. Was this true? Did it matter anymore?  Turgon was dead.  And so was Morwen. And Denethor was reconciled with his father because of their deaths. It seemed so cruel. Why could they not have lived, as Amdir's family, in love and peace? In the midst of the darkness that enveloped them now, would not peace have been a good thing? Indis came and sat with him. He laid his head on her shoulder, as he used to when a child. "Indis, will we ever have peace?" he asked. "Will we ever look upon the Pelennor and see not the path that the enemy might take, but the farms and villages and fields of our people? Will we ever see 'Wen and Adadhron again?" A sob caught in his throat but he quelled it and held tight to his sister.  "I do not know what has come over me. Just last week I could have flown like the peregrine. I thought the ceremony would change things. But it has not."

"Some things never change. Evil seems to be upon us as it has been upon Gondor for many ages, little brother. Look about you with hope - here is the grandeur of Gondor before us. Let the sight of it lighten the load. Do not be troubled by the future. Live today. Know that I will ever be at your side. We are together, you and I, and always will be. I love you dearly,"

"Not more than Arciryas?" he asked slyly.

"Nay," she smiled, "not more than Arciryas. But differently."

"I still do not understand this love of man and woman."

"You will, dearest, when you meet the woman whom the Valar have chosen for you."

Denethor guffawed.  "Hah!  The Valar have naught to do with Gondor anymore. They have abandoned it, and us. Would the servant of one of their own be dwelling in... there," he pointed towards Mordor and she noted his shaking finger. "if the Valar cared? We have been left to fend for ourselves. Oft times, Indis, it seems there is no hope. If the Last Alliance could not contain him, could not stop him, how are we men to do better? I never thought he would return." He shivered and held Indis tighter. She kissed his brow gently and they sat till the sun hid behind the mountain.

~*~

Walda had come and the sight of him lifted Denethor's spirits. The trumpets of Minas Tirith had sounded the welcome and Denethor ran to the parapet to see who was coming. The flag of Rohan waved proudly in the breeze as the small troop came to the gate. Denethor used his old boyhood passage to reach the First Level as quickly as he could. Just as Walda walked through the Great Gate, Denethor pounced on him, pummeling his back in joy. "What brings you here, my old Captain?" he cried.

"I have been sent by Thengel King, my Lord.  I am on a diplomatic mission." Walda tried to keep a straight face, but the joy of Denethor and his own joy caused a smile to break through his resolve. "I have a missive for the Steward, and one for you. Will you open yours while we walk to the Citadel?"

"Nay, I will wait until my father opens his. It has been too long, Walda, I have missed you and our company."  He blushed at saying our company, but Walda understood. And he was grateful that Denethor felt that kinship with the Rohirrim.

"So now he is called your father?" Walda asked in amaze as they walked from level to level. "When last we were together, you did not speak so familiarly of him."

Denethor's face fell. "Much has happened since last we battled together. My grandsire, Turgon, has passed and my sister, too. Haradrim murdered her.  Then Thengel was taken from me for the good of Rohan. It has been a long month. Too much has happened. Too much that is cheerless."

"You are not saying your beloved 'Wen is dead? The one you spoke oft of?"

"Yes, Walda. Just a month ago. She had been addled by Turgon's death and fled the City. We found her at his grave. The traditional way the Haradrim kill their enemy was used upon her."

Walda was silent for some moments. "What will the Steward do? Does he plan to attack Harad?"

"Much discord has enveloped my City, Walda. His plans have not been communicated yet.  There are many stages that must be completed before he will lead an attack. But your coming brings with it the winds of the plains of Rohan and I would breathe them in again."

"And so you shall, my friend, so you shall if your father accepts Thengel King's invitation."

"Now you have me wishing to tear open the missive. But I will wait. Have you eaten? Need you water?"

~*~

Ecthelion's emissaries for the new king's ceremony pulled up just east of the mountain. The wind whipped the banners of Rohan and the crackle of them could be heard even this far away. Never had Denethor seen Edoras, though many times Walda had spoken of it. It was a glorious city, much different from Minas Tirith, more rugged, but beautiful. Meduseld's, roof shone in the sunlight as if thatched with gold. Denethor was nigh speechless at the sight. His City shone white in the sun; this one shone of gold. Walda urged the company onward; his urge to be in his city supplanted any need for rest.

~*~

They stood before the Golden Hall, brothers in arms and in friendship.

"Thengel King," Denethor smiled. "It has a nice sound to it."

"Perhaps, some day?" Thengel asked.

"Nay, ten thousand years will not suffice," he mumbled and then spoke louder. "I am of the line of Anárion and Heir of the Steward of Gondor. That is enough for me."

Just as he spoke, Thorongil walked up and stood between them. Denethor looked in amaze. 'How dare he stand between us?' he thought. But the man took no notice and whispered in Thengel's ear. Thengel quickly apologized and left with the man.

'What ill luck is this?' thought Denethor. 'What could be so important as to take Thengel from my side as we were celebrating his kingship?'

Immediately his anger at the slight turned to anger at the man. Who was this Thorongil? From whence had he come? Thengel had said he was from the north. 'Well, folk from the north must have no manners!' He watched the two warriors walk off and his heart was bitter.

~*~

 "He is a good man," Thengel was saying, but Denethor was still bristling over the slight done to him. "Truly, Denethor, I wish you would befriend him. His battle sense is excellent and the men respect him. Are you...?"

"Forgive me, Thengel. My mind was on other things. You truly like this man? Respect him? Even though you know naught of him?"

"Yes, I do, Denethor. True, he came from the north with no kit, nor letter to establish who he was. He dresses like a vagabond, but he has an air about him. I felt I could trust him from the moment I met him. But, Denethor, you have the gift of foresight. What think you of him?"

"At this very moment, I find I cannot be very impartial, my friend. I feel foolish," he said with a gentle laugh, "but I must speak plainly. I had hoped that we might be able to spend some time together now that the ceremonies are completed. Perhaps we could have gone hunting, Orcs, or boar, it did not matter. But every time we had a moment together where we might be off on an adventure, he stepped in and took you away for some meeting or another. I am jealous. I admit it. And I must needs leave tomorrow. I know not when we will see each other again. We will likely turn to Rohan for aid in the coming battle with the Haradrim. I would see you in happier times before we go to war. But that is not how it will be. As I said, I am jealous and selfish."

"Nay, it is not selfish. Much has happened to both of us these past months. We have had no time to sort out these events nor to share our grief. When Ecthelion sent you away, I could hardly believe or understand it. However, there was no swaying him from his decision. As each year passed, I petitioned him to bring you home. And when he denied those petitions, I begged to be allowed to visit you." Thengel sat on the stone steps and looked out over the plains of Rohan. "I cannot tell you how I despaired for you. When word reached me that you had surreptitiously joined Walda's company, my heart was glad. I had been afraid for you, for your sanity, just sitting there year after year watching for a signal."

Denethor groaned aloud at the thought. "'Twas not a good time - those first two years. I feared for myself." He laughed gently. "I had thought that perhaps you had sent Walda to find me, though now I see that was not so."

"Nay, Denethor, I would not disobey your father, though my heart cried out in pain for you. It was a bitter time for me also. And then, when Fengel died and I was called back to Edoras, my very being rebelled. Denethor, I love Minas Tirith, you know that, and I love Gondor. I would not be here, if my own will prevailed."

"You would have been the next Captain-General," Denethor said quietly. "Gondor already misses you."

"Who is Captain of the Tower Guard?"

"None has been appointed, as of yet." Denethor looked up at the path between the mountains that led to Gondor. Already his heart ached to be back in Minas Tirith. The path seemed to beckon to him and he had all he could do to not jump upon a horse and ride away. "I believe Húrin is the next in line for either position. He is loyal to my father and his ideas."

"Yes, he is a good man, but what of Captain Ingold?"

"He is still in command of my father's personal knights. I do not see my father moving him."

"So now we are allies!" Thengel changed the subject.

"Nay, not allies. Friends, brothers-in-arms. Forever." Denethor laid his hand upon Thengel's shoulder and smiled.

~*~

ROTK - Chapter Five and also - 'The Men Who Would Be Steward' by Michael Martinez... see link

http://www.merp.com/essays/MichaelMartinez/michaelmartinezsuite101essay120

Ch. 10 - Third Age 2960 - Part One

Walda came in the middle of the night, bearing food, wine and warm blankets.

"You will have to take these back with you," Denethor laughed in the joy of the surprise visit, "else the watcher finds them and tells, though they will be sore-missed when you leave." He did not have to tell Walda that the blankets were not what would be sore-missed.

"We will not look to the time of my leaving," Walda said. "We will look to the stars. They are the same as those in Gondor?"

"Yea, verily they are. Though their positions are slightly moved. But look. I have not seen that star before, off to the south of us."

"Nay, I have not either," said Walda, "It is bright - brighter almost than Eärendil."

"You know the night star by that name also?"

"We do."

Denethor sat in silence, wondering of the things that were common to both races of men, and when the rift that sundered Rohan and Gondor had occurred. He thought of Cirion and his Steward, and the act that had sundered and saved Gondor.

"If neither you nor I have seen this star before, perhaps it is some portent for our land?"

~*~

How strange that he would remember that conversation. He looked towards the south sky, marking the star again. It shone brightly in the night. 'Why would a new star appear,' he wondered again, 'in the year that the Corsairs allied themselves with the One we do not name, the same year he rebuilt his black city?'

Signs and portents. He shivered slightly and pulled his cloak closer. Ten years had passed since that night; Walda himself had passed, stricken by wound-fever just this past month. Denethor's heart grew heavy again, so he searched once more for the star. Whatever the reason, it gave him hope. He looked up as Amdir approached.

"My Lord, here is some ale. Will you not come by the fire? The men are restless and your presence reassures them."

Denethor snorted. "It is not my presence that reassures them, but my sword."

"Yes, my Lord, you have become a warrior mightier than the great Boromir himself."

Denethor burst into laughter. "Enough of this foolery. I cannot abide your jibes any longer, my friend. Let us to the fire."

Damrod moved over to make room for his captain. "What news from Minas Tirith?" he asked in Sindarin.

"The Rangers under Dúinhir have been deployed to Henneth Annûn, at last. If we had garrisoned them earlier... but they are now ready to harass the Enemy." Denethor responded in the same tongue. Not many knew of the existence of the hidden fortress, but both Amdir and Damrod were there at the finding of it in 2948.

Denethor raised his eyes at a sound. Two of his men, new Easterling recruits, were walking towards him. The taller stepped closer, while the other hung back. "Permission to speak, Captain?"

"Of course," Denethor motioned for the man to sit, but he did not. "What troubles you?"

"Our mission. We have been traveling more than a month, yet our orders were to foregather at Nardol. Will we be returning to the garrison soon? We have seen no sign of Orcs. Perhaps the reports were false."

Denethor's cheeks blazed. The veiled insult to Walda's men hung heavy in the air. "The men of Rohan are our allies. If they have reported Orc movement in this part of Gondor, then know it is true. We search till we find the band or their dead carcasses, fired by the Rohirrim. Their zeal appears greater than our own, if all that is on your mind is returning in safety to Nardol." His voice fairly crackled with suppressed rage. The soldier bowed and hurriedly backed away.

"Was there call for such a response?" Damrod asked as one friend to another. "Conditions have been harsh; this winter is cruel and the men are cold and weary."

Denethor dropped his eyes to the fire. Taking a stick, he stirred the embers until the flame rose high into the air, sparks flying off into the night. "Too many men of Gondor believe that we are better than the men of Rohan. Yet, Walda's blood was the same as mine." He marveled as this thought struck him. Before he had fought in Walda's company those many long years ago, he had thought the same. At that time, he had respect for Thengel alone of all the men of Rohan, but Walda and his company changed that misconception. "If I allow this to continue, it will be as the fire before us. For now, the embers of distrust lie dormant, and I work to quench them entirely. But, if I do not stop this now, the embers will turn to fire and the bonds will be severed. Long have I toiled to hold the allegiance of Rohan, even through the loss of Thengel's friendship. I will not let it go easily." He was silent for a few moments longer.

"It was fate that had us stationed at the garrison of Nardol, else Walda would have passed ere I was able to farewell him. I promised him, before he slept with his ancestors, that I would follow and destroy this band of Orcs. And I will not break my promise, though it take even a year to fulfill!"

"Was it not Walda who pledged his company to Gondor's aid after 'Wen..." Amdir stopped at the stiffening of Denethor's body.

'Yes, it was Walda," Denethor said quietly. "But Orodruin erupted shortly after Thengel was crowned King of Rohan. It seemed all of Middle-earth conspired against us that year. Thengel's chosen, that Thorongil, had even counseled restraint. Restraint!" Denethor threw his cup at the fire. Sparks flew as it hit one of the encircling rocks around the fire and bounced off onto the other side.

Amdir raised an eyebrow, walked over, picked up the offending cup and returned it to Denethor. "Mithrandir also counseled restraint," Amdir said quietly.

Denethor stood up, glared at his friend, and walked towards the perimeter of their camp. Amdir followed him. "You are in a foul mood tonight."

"What would you have of me?" He closed his eyes. "I cannot understand why father gives ear to the wizard's counsel. I feel that I fight three enemies: the One we do not name, Thorongil, and Mithrandir." His left hand clasped and unclasped the hilt of his sword.

Amdir was silent for a moment. "Thengel looks to Thorongil with respect. What is your quarrel with him?"

"I know not. My heart is uneasy whenever I am in his presence. Some premonition."

"You could be brothers, you look so alike. Is he of the blood of Númenor?"

"I know not, and that is another thorn in my side. Naught is known about him, other than that he comes from the north. Yet he has become Thengel's second!" A heavy sigh escaped him. Thorongil's presence had made it more and more difficult for him to visit his old friend and captain, and their friendship had suffered.

"And Mithrandir?" Amdir asked.

Denethor spat. "He is a wizard. Need more be said?"

Amdir smiled. Long had it been since Denethor had been in such a mood as this. "The men wonder at their captain's actions. Mayhap if you came back to the fire...?"

"I am tired, Amdir. Check the pickets. I am turning in."

"Yes, my Lord," his friend said and turned back to camp.

~*~

It was almost dawn and still sleep eluded him. The snows had come during the night, laying a blanket of white over the sleeping men. Denethor rose to relieve himself, and somehow became separated from the rest of his company. He could see only mere feet in front of him. He turned his head right and left. 'Where are they?' he wondered. He had only gone a few steps, he thought, but the snow had changed the landscape, and he found himself confused. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up. He quieted himself and listened. There, off to the left, he heard the faint clink of armor. He knew he best find his men. This was going to be a full-blown mountain storm; they must move to the lowlands as quickly as possible. Born in the fire and dark of the mountains, Orcs hated snow. They, too, would quickly retreat to the warmer clime of the foothills.  He smiled. They would be easier to track there.

Heading towards the sound, he crept, as silently as full armor would allow him. He cursed the wearing of it now. The frigid air embedded itself into the metal; he was becoming very cold. 'At least I have gloves,' he thought. The sound seemed to be going away from him. Had the men broken camp? That was impossible. Amdir would not leave without him. He quickened his pace. "What..." he cried aloud. Before him stood a man, at least something akin to the shape of a man, but squat and round. He remembered the old tales and stood still. This was not an ally, but mayhap it was not an enemy. The creature had not moved. Denethor himself kept still, then slowly raised his hands, palms outward. The Wose, for Denethor knew that is what it was, grunted, gestured for Denethor to follow him, turned and moved off to higher ground. Denethor stood for a moment, unsure what to do, but the Wose kept moving. Denethor knew he needed to follow, to discover what manner of men these were, and what their plans for Gondor were. The creature could have killed him, when first they met; Denethor knew he had been caught unaware.

They walked for close to an hour, always climbing. Denethor knew Amdir would be deeply concerned, and probably form a search party. The snow, however, was covering any tracks they had made. He was becoming more and more concerned himself. Finally, the Wose pointed to a cave, barely discernable in the trees, and motioned for Denethor to go inside. After a heartbeat's hesitation, Denethor bent low and entered the cave. The warmth of the fire hit him as he unbent himself and stood. For that, he was grateful. For what stood before his eyes, he was alarmed.

~*~

Damrod shook Amdir frantically. When finally his eyes opened, Damrod whispered, "Denethor is missing."

Amdir looked at him as one who had lost his wits. "What are you saying? He has nowhere to go. He would not stray from the camp. Mayhap he moved closer to the fire?"

"I have looked. I have looked everywhere and I tell you, he is not in the camp!" Damrod hissed.

Amdir stood, quickly looked around him, and had to accept what Damrod said as true. "I do not understand. Were there signs of a struggle?"

"Nay. His blanket has been moved back as if he had left it willingly, but there is no sign of him."

Shivers ran down Amdir's spine. "Wake the men. We must search for him."

The camp quickly woke; Amdir sent patrols out in all directions. After an hour, Amdir knew they were in serious trouble. Denethor was nowhere to be found, and there was no sign of him, nor any trail to follow. The snow had covered even the patrol's tracks as they searched.

"What are we to do?" he heard the tall soldier ask. "We should leave, go back to Nardol and get aid."

Amdir strode towards the man, grabbed him and snarled, "I will hear no further discourse from your lips. Do you hear me? And when we return to the garrison, you will hold yourself under house arrest. Now pick up your belongings and join your patrol." He turned towards Damrod. "We will keep our base camp here. A small contingent will keep the fires burning. The rest of us will..." 'Where will we start,' he wondered. 'Should we go in all directions or just concentrate on one area?' They were only one company, seventy men. 'How do I best use them?' Damrod waited.

"We will break into seven patrols," Amdir continued. "Each patrol will walk forward, towards the summit, for one hour. At the end of that time, the outer two companies will turn east and west. The other three will continue northward." He turned towards his trumpeter. "You will sound the call once every hour. Damrod, you will command those left here."

"Nay, Amdir, I wilt not stay," he said in Sindarin. "Please, put someone else in charge. I would be about the search."

Amdir looked into his friend's eyes. "I have almost no hope that we wilt find him. The storm rages. After three hours, I would have you take a unit and return to Nardol, as quickly as possible, and bring the entire garrison, less one company. Once you return, you must start the search from the base of the mountain, whilst we continue on upward."

Damrod shook. "I understand. I am sorry. I wilt do as you command."

Amdir turned, assigned those to lead each patrol, and started off northward. The cold was seeping into his very being, but he was unsure if it was the cold of the snow or the cold of fear.

~*~

Thorongil walked towards the throne, the last rays of the sun catching in the windows high above, sifting through the banners hanging low, and leaving strange streaks on the floor. Thengel's face lit up when he perceived him, standing silently, waiting for his king.

"Come, Thorongil, we are going to feast tonight.  Théoden has had a fine day of sword practice, and I have promised him we would celebrate."  He stopped as Thorongil kept silent. His tone hardened. "What is it?  What news bring you?" 
 
"Thengel King.  A messenger has come from Halifirien.  There has been an ambush and Walda is dead along with many of his men.  Men from Gondor, under Captain Denethor, came to the company's aid, but too late."
 
Thengel stood.  "This is old news given nigh unto a fortnight ago. Have I not sent forth Éomund's éored to search for and kill their attackers?"  He stopped.  Thorongil was unusually quiet.  "What further news?"
 
Thorongil took a deep breath.  "Denethor is missing.  It is nigh unto three days since last he was seen.  They have searched the Drúadan Forest, but to no avail."

Bewilderment clouded Thengel's eyes for a moment. He sat hard in his chair. "What has Ecthelion done?  Has he sent his knights?"
 
"I have heard naught but that the garrisons at Amon Dîn and Nardol have been emptied to help in the search."

"Ready my horse, and yours too.  We ride in one hour."  Thengel almost ran from the room.  Thorongil attempted to stay him, but the king had left the room before a word had left his second's mouth.

~*~

Morwen pulled his heavy cloak from the cupboard, shook it and held it out for him.  "I would away with thee, my King, if not for this."She stroked her full belly.

"I know thou wouldst, my beloved. Even if thou wert not with child, I wouldst not allow thee on this venture.  The Orcs must be fierce and strong to have killed Walda and so many of his éored. His prowess as leader is legend. He will be sorely missed."

"Yet," she pointed out, "I have proven useful in skirmishes in the foothills to the south of Edoras."

He strode towards her, took the cloak from her outstretched hands, and put it on their bed. Then, he took her in his arms.  "They do not call thee Steelsheen for naught, my love. Thou art a true shieldmaiden of Rohan, though, thankfully, thou hast not vowed thyself from our bower."

She leaned into his chest and sighed.  "I seem to do the opposite," she said and gave a small laugh.

He hugged her tighter. "Thou fillest the Golden Hall with the laughter of our children. What more could King ask for? Warriors and Shieldmaidens for Rohan, and comfort for our old age."

She tried to push herself away in anger, but he held her ever closer.  "So that is what I have become," she mocked, "a begetter of warriors?"

He clucked his tongue, kissed her brow, and wept openly.  "Nay, my beloved. Thou art my very life."

Nonplussed, she folded into his body.  "Forgive me, my King. Verily, thou art my life. I wilt not tell thee to take care, for I know thy wisdom in matters of battle. Remember thou that wisdom, when it is needed, and come back to me."

~*~

Struggling to quell the fear that assailed him, Amdir strode towards the fire.  Damrod stood.  "There has been no word?"

"Nay, my Lord.  Naught.  The men from Amon Dîn arrived last night, and have begun searching the lower foothills.  Here is the map that Denethor made five years ago.  I have marked where each company is searching." 

Amdir stared.  The forest and mountain were so large; they would need more than three times the men they had now if they were ever going to find Denethor.  "The band of Orcs was found?"

"Yes, my Lord."

"Stop it!  Stop calling me that!  It is Lord Denethor's title, not mine!"

Damrod stopped.  He hung his head, biting his lip.  He knew what Amdir was feeling; a part of him felt it too.  Long had he served Denethor. Long had they been friends, but not for as long as the man who stood before him.

Amdir strode from his side, shaking his head as he walked.  A moment later, he returned. "I am heartily sorry, Damrod."

"Nay, my..." He wanted to kick himself. "Amdir, we will find him.  There was no sign of struggle.  The Orcs were found, killed by the Rohirrim, but he was not among them. Some magic, perhaps, that we have not considered."

Amdir looked up at that.  He remembered Denethor's brushes with the wizard.  A shudder ran through his body.  "You speak true.  Denethor is brave and battle wise.  He will know how to take care of himself.  There is something else here that we are not considering.  Let us take a moment and think of the legends and tales that have come out of this place."  He wished mightily that he had spent more time with Denethor in the Great Library.

Both men sat by the fire. Amdir fingered the braid that outlined the tree of Gondor on his tunic, while Damrod poked the fire with a stick. "This is hopeless," Amdir suddenly cried.  "I know naught of this place."

"Amdir," Damrod said, "mayhap one of the men stationed at Eilenach knows something of the tales.  After all, there is a small garrison at the summit.  I can send for their commanding officer and we can question him?"

~*~

"Amlach, Captain of Eilenach, at your service, Lieutenant."  The man saluted in the Gondorian manner, then stood silent, waiting.

"There are tales told about many places in Gondor, Amlach.  I need you to think. Have you heard any tales or legends of the Drúadan Forest?  Of this area that we search?"

"Yes, my Lord.  There have been tales of strange men, rushing from the trees, attacking any who would stand in their way.  Yet, I have heard no tales of them harming men of Gondor.  They are said to use arrows tipped with poison, that they hate Orcs, that they are half-naked, and that they wear only grass skirts.  These are only tales, though.  I myself, nor none of my men, have ever seen one.  We stay to the outskirts of the Wood, high above the tree line though, and venture not far into it, unless following Orcs."

"Then where do you patrol?" Amdir snapped. "Never mind.  We will discuss that later.  So, do these men, these creatures, have a name?"

"The only name that I have heard is Wild Men."

"That does not bode well for Denethor, if he has become entangled with Wild Men," Amdir stated dryly.  "Thank you."  He gestured and the captain left him.  Clearly, Amdir was in charge of this undertaking.

Damrod stood.  "Let us assume these Wild Men have Denethor.  They must leave some sort of trail as they pass through the forest.  The snow stopped falling this morning.  If our men begin the search again, starting from here and fanning out, we must come upon some sign."

"We need more men."  And as he spoke these words, men on horseback broke through the forest into their camp.  "Thengel!" Amdir cried. "You have come.  How did you know?  Are you prepared to search?"

"Stop, stop," Thengel smiled good-naturedly.  "Take a breath.  I will wait."

As Thengel dismounted, he found himself warmly hugged.  

"You have been missed, my friend."  Amdir said, and then, remembering whom he was addressing, stopped.  "I am sorry.  I o'erstepped my bounds."

"Nay, Amdir, you under stepped by not sending for me immediately.  Has there been further news?"

"How many...?" he could not answer Thengel's question, for his entire being strove, yet feared, to hear the answer to his own question.

"Two hundred strong; three éoreds and then some," Thengel said. "Show me what you have done thus far." The king gently took command and Amdir gratefully relinquished it.  Two heads bent over the map table, looking at the large scrawl that was Denethor's - one fair-haired, the other raven.

"After all this is over," Thengel finally stood straight, "we should go fishing."

Amdir stretched and smiled.  It was the first upon his face in six days. "It is good to be with you again.  Your plan is sound."

Thorongil stepped forward in response to Thengel's gesture. "Here is where you will lead the éored," Thengel pointed to the map. Thorongil bowed and turned away. Soon, the sound of horses' hooves was heard as the éored moved away.

~*~

She was pacing back and forth in front of the Steward's Chair, clasping and unclasping the hilt of her sword in much the same way her brother did.  She had strapped her sword to her side as soon as the messenger came to her study, his face vividly telling her something was seriously wrong.  'Did Ecthelion think that he and Denethor were the only ones in the family with any foresight?'  She thought as she stomped to the Great Hall.

"What do you mean, he is missing?  How do you misplace a Captain of Gondor?" Indis spat the words.  Her father sat back, bitten by her anger.  "Do you think I will countenance one more member of this family being harmed in any way? What have you done, then?" she asked.  "How many battalions have you sent?"

Ecthelion stepped out of his Chair and put his arm around her shoulder.  She wanted to swipe it away, her fear and anger were so great, yet she stilled herself and permitted it.  

"By the time I sent my knights, I believed he would have been found.  You know your brother; he is resourceful.  He will return shortly."

She pulled herself away, stunned beyond words.  He saw the look in her eyes. Perhaps he had erred; perhaps he should have sent a company or two of his own guard.

~*~

It had been at least two days since he had seen or heard anyone, three since he had eaten anything. He had naught to reckon the time with; his prison was as black as the sewers of Osgiliath when the night sky was bereft of moon or stars. Yet, his training had taught him ways to mark time. He laughed to himself. 'It is the grumbling of my stomach that keeps time!' The smile quickly faded. How long would he be held? Did they have any intention of releasing him? What were their plans for him?

When he entered the cave, he was greeted by the sight of at least one hundred of these dark, foreboding men staring at him, scowls on their faces. They were short, hairy men, all looking strangely the same, with wispy whiskers sticking out of their chins, and wearing only grass skirts, even in the dead of winter. He had tried to stand up straight, but his head had bumped itself on the low ceiling well before he was halfway standing. Low for him, but not for the Wose. Most of them moved aside as he entered, and his gaze was drawn towards a chair at the far end of the cave. Upon it sat a most gruesome looking old Wose. No crown nor device of any kind did he wear, yet Denethor knew this was their leader.

He took a deep breath and walked forward. Some of the creatures started towards him, and he realized that he had his hand on the hilt of his sword. He had been unconsciously clasping and unclasping it. He let it go and slowly raised his hands, palms opened. He wished sincerely he could let go the fear that coursed through his veins. There had been no tales of Wose attacks upon Gondorians, but their demeanor was far from friendly. The Rohirrim, in ages past, had oft hunted these creatures.

As he approached the chair, a slight stir arose and he slowed his gait. He stopped about five meters from the Wose, bowed his head and placed his hand to his chest. The Wose just growled and gestured to two creatures standing next to him. They strode forward and started to take his sword. Before he thought, he had unsheathed it from its scabbard and assumed his battle stance, the sword held comfortably in his hand. The creatures stepped back, picked up bows, and began to arm themselves. 'This will not do,' Denethor thought, 'the arrows are no doubt poisoned. I will be dead before I am able to take any with me.' He stood up as far as he was able, turned the hilt away from himself, and offered it to the head Wose. The sword was quickly taken by one of the creatures; he was further searched, but since he had been taken directly from sleep, he had nothing further with him. Thankfully, he had his cloak. Two others grabbed his arms and forced him to the back of the cave. A stone was moved; he was pushed into a little alcove. The stone was rolled back and that was the last he saw of the light of day.

He walked the perimeter of the alcove hundreds of times since being deposited there, and combed every corner, hoping to find some means of escape. There was none but through the stone-covered entranceway. He attempted to move the stone, but it would not budge.

He heard a noise, stone scraping against stone, and moved away from the entrance. In the faint light, he saw the stone rolled away, a bowl and a cup set down, and the stone rolled back again.

'Wonderful,' he thought grimly as he picked up the bowl and felt twigs and shrubbery in it along with a few berries, 'just like at Amon Anwar. The best of food.' He devoured it quickly and found that the cup held clean, clear mountain water. He wished for more. He also wished his silent keeper had taken the chamber pot. The smell was becoming almost too much to bear.

~*~

She chided herself for letting her temper get the best of her. She could not imagine that he would not have sent a rescue party. She stormed the balcony of her bedchambers, yelling her anger into the wind. At last, she sat on the cold stone floor and sobbed. This is how Listöwel found her. She gently helped her to stand, walked her to an overstuffed chair, and forced her to sit upon it. Quietly, she fixed tea at the fireplace and brought it to her friend. She sat at her feet, waiting for Indis to speak.

"I cannot keep from shivering. Thank you for the tea; it was much needed." She sat back in the chair and sighed. "My father is a mystery to me, has always been so. Every time I think that we are becoming closer, that I finally understand his ways, he does something that is beyond my comprehension. Did he not consider that Amdir would not have sent the message asking for help, if help was not indeed necessary?"

"Has he sent it now?"

"I do not even know. I... I left the Great Hall before I did or said something I would regret."

"I will go to Elleth. She will discover from Ingold what plans are being made, if any. And, if none are contemplated, we will very much use all our powers of persuasion to make sure he speaks with the Steward. Even if help is sent too late... I am sorry. That is not what I meant to say. Even if help is not needed, because they have found Denethor, it is help not wasted."

Tears again sprang to Indis' eyes. "Too late. Always, for the Steward's family, help seems to come too late. My poor beloved 'Wen." Sobs shook her body again and Listöwel rose to hug her.

"Be at peace, my dearest friend. 'Wen is now. Ever was she in pain here. There had been no peace for her after your mother's death. Her timid, gentle nature was not for this place. She is in a better place, I am sure. And happy, I hope."

"Yes, she is happy, I am sure. All I want for our family is happiness and peace. Is that too much to ask of the Valar, sister-friend?"

"Nay, it is not too much and it will one day come to pass. There will be happiness in the House of the Stewards."

Indis drew in her breath. 'The House of the Stewards.' What had Listöwel said? Was this foresight? Nay, she could not think that. The House of the Stewards was the burial ground for her family. There was no happiness there. Only cold and dark and bitter visits. She shivered.

Listöwel's eyes opened wide, seeing the shiver. She realized that her words of comfort were far from comforting. "Absenen, forgive me, dearest sister. I misspoke again. I do not know why my tongue betrays me."

"Na lerya, Gwathel," Indis slipped into Sindarin. "Va mahta."

Slowly Indis' eyes closed, the tea fulfilling its purpose. Sleep came.

Tears filled Listöwel's eyes as well, and she again sat at her friend's feet.

~*~

 "Tracks have been found further up the mountain, my King. I have sent one entire éored in that direction. They are not the tracks of men of Gondor, nor of men of Rohan."

Thengel looked up at his second. The sun caught his eye. Only the outline of Thorongil was visible through its strong light. He caught his breath. They could be twins! His mind reeled. 'There is something here. There is something strange about this man and the Steward's son.'

"My King?" Thorongil asked.

Thengel blinked, looked away, and when he looked back, Thorongil had moved slightly, the sun was no longer directly behind him, and Thorongil was fully visible. Still, the likeness remained, but not so apparent. "Place three éoreds in that area. Have them search every nook and cranny. It is now seven days. I want him found!" His voice cracked from the force behind it. He took a cup, filled it with wine, and handed it to Thorongil. "I love the man as if he were my brother. I will not see harm come to him. Do you understand, Thorongil?"

"Yes, my King. He will be found before night comes again, if I have any say in the matter." His face was now grim and reflected the concern of his king. "By your leave?"

"Go." Thengel turned towards the maps and held his breath. 'It is too long. I cannot begin to think where he might be or what has happened to him. How he could have been taken so easily?'

"My Lord?" Amdir stood at his side. "Is there word?"

"Yes. Thorongil's company found tracks near the beacon. Three éoreds have been sent hither. We will find him. Thorongil is the best tracker I have ever seen. He puts my men to shame. He has vowed to me that he will find him before night falls. And I trust his word."

"Then I will trust it too, my Captain," Amdir said with a smile, using Thengel's old title. "Ever, when you commanded the Horse Guard in Minas Tirith, your trust was most difficult to attain. But once attained, it was never lost. I will trust the one you have put your trust in."

Thengel smiled. "I will tell you this, Amdir. Thorongil is an enigma. I know naught of his background, nor of his people, yet he is my trusted right hand. I... I know Denethor is not happy with this, but I must put my people's security above my heart's own wants. Denethor must learn this, too. Someday, he will have to put his trust in another. I had hoped it would be sooner, but he is stubborn and proud. I know he trusts you and that he trusts me, but not wholly. And that is what is needed. Else he will fail. It would be a disaster if he fell, for all of Middle-earth, for there is greatness in him, my friend."

"I wish the same for him. He turns to me now only in the most desperate of times. In years past, it was difficult for him to reveal his thoughts; now it is nigh unto impossible. It grieves me, Thengel." Amdir had slipped into the speech of friends. "Do you remember our fishing trip? Life was sweet then. I believe we should have made that a yearly occurrence. It might have helped Denethor to be open and frank with his friends. He had been at that time. Now... I miss our camaraderie, our friendship. We have been stationed apart too many times; he has no other that he leans upon. And because of the times of separation, he no longer leans upon me."

"Ah. So you think it is not just Thorongil's presence that causes our friendship to wane?"

"It is his years with no friend at his side, with his father's constant manipulations, with his sister's death, with the constant questioning of his own worth that taunts him with his every decision. I would that Ecthelion had kept me ever at his side. I know not where his path takes him."

Thengel sat heavily in his chair by the fire. His face looked haunted and old. "There are many paths that may be taken by each of us, Amdir. Many do not look wise, in hindsight. Would that I had never left Minas Tirith. The strength and safety of Rohan depends much upon our brethren in Gondor, and I would that I was still part of that strength. We fight only skirmishes in the Mark; the real war is in Gondor."

~*~

Six days now and no contact, no inkling as to what his fate would be.  The twice a day feeding times were the only exchange he had with his captors, and yet, even at those times the stone was not rolled far enough back for more than a shaft of light to filter through. No word was spoken to him, though he cried out time and again, trying Sindarin, the Common Tongue, and Rohirric. He did not even know what tongue would be spoken should they deign to reply to him. The stone cup and bowl were shoved forward; his empty one was taken; his calls were ignored, and the chamber pot remained. The darkness, cold, wet, and stench were almost too much to bear, yet bear much under Ecthelion's parenting he had already done.  He would endure this, somehow. Surely, they would soon come for him; they had not captured him for naught. He availed himself of every device he could think of to keep hope in his heart, but it was fading fast as his strength faded.  The food he was given was palatable, but it was now doing strange things to his body. Contractions of pain welled across his stomach and abdomen, and his body reacted in kind.

Then, suddenly, as if the Valar finally heard, the stone rolled back at a time that was not the customary feeding time.  He tried to stand, but the sickness that had begun to assail his body two days past, left him weak.  He clung to the wall and pulled himself up. He wiped his mouth from the last bout just passed, shivered and waited. The light blinded him as the stone was pushed fully away.  He waited.

~*~

The noise of the scuffle drew his attention. "What is going on over there?"

"Thengel King," a man shouted.  "Thorongil comes and he brings something with him."

At that, Thorongil pushed through the crowd of men gawking at his prisoner.  Standing before his king, he shoved the hobbled creature to the ground.  "We found this holding this." And there before him, in Thorongil's hand, unmistakably, was Denethor's sword. Thengel's face fell and Amdir took a step forward, bent on wreaking havoc on the prisoner to drive an explanation from it.  Thengel put his arm across his friend's chest and stopped Amdir's forward progress.  'So this is a Wild Man,' Thengel thought.  A shiver ran down his spine as he thought of the tales of their lightening-like strikes, the poison that could fell a man almost the moment the arrow pierced him, of children being stolen for food.  These could not be true tales.  Old men, sitting around fires on the cold winter nights that assailed Edoras, told them.  They could not be true. And yet, here stood one before him, come out of legends, in the same likeness as the stone carved ones by the Hold of Dunharrow.

He sat in his chair and beckoned the creature forward, but it shook its head and would not come.  Fear played on its face and in its eyes; yet a glee seemed to shine in those same eyes.  The creature knew!  It knew they were looking for Denethor, and it knew it was safe as long as it kept his whereabouts secret. 'How am I to get this one to speak, to tell us where the sword came from?  I had not heard they were cunning, yet this one is.'

Thorongil grabbed the creature by the arm and brought him closer to Thengel. "Speak, if you value your life," he growled at him.  The thing looked up and smiled.  Amdir, enraged by the insolence of this being, stepped forward and would not be held back, his knife flashing out quickly, finding its way to the creature's throat.  "If you do not tell me," he snarled in the Common Tongue, "I will cut off your ear.  And then, I will cut off the other, and then another part of your miserable body, until you have told us what we want to know, or until you are dead. It matters not to me." The thing whined, if that is what one could call the sound, and looked towards Thengel, but Thengel turned away.  

"Tall man dead.  Tall man walk on Wild Men land.  All tall men die soon."

Thengel turned in shock.  The thing knew the Common Tongue.

~*~

They brought him out into the light of the cave, one holding either side for he could not, in truth, stand himself. They crossed to another opening close by his prison, and dragged him to an underground stream. He was thrown into it and immediately his armor and mail pulled him down. He quickly sank. Blinded as he was by the sudden light, he had not seen the stream and had not the time to take a breath as water rushed into his lungs. 'I am going to die,' he thought, struggling to break the surface. The icy cold of the water, coupled with his weakened state, worked against him, and he sank further. Gratefully, he felt a hand grab his collar and pull him up. He was thrown onto the bank and lay there, coughing, till his sides hurt. A hand tried to pull him up and force him to stand, but his knees buckled and his head lolled to the side. Once more, another came and grabbed his other arm and the two dragged him towards the main cavern. His head was filled with shooting pain from the cold; his sides ached from the coughing fit; and his stomach was taut from the cramps and the last two days' retching, while his gut was on fire.

The Wose rose and came forward. "Why man from Stone-houses come here?"

'I was kidnapped!' he wanted to shout, but instead whispered, for he had no strength or voice left, "You requested my presence."

"No. Tall men come to my land. We no ask you to come.  Why you come?" His tone was growing harsher, and the guttural voice was becoming more difficult to comprehend.

"Your land?  I am sorry. I did not know when we crossed into your land."

"You come to mountains.  You come into my land."

 "We were hunting Orcs. They had murdered some of our friends."

"Horse-riders your friends?" the Wose fairly screamed at him.

Denethor shook his head, trying to discern which way this questioning was going, trying to make sense of it, and trying desperately not to fall into a trap. But every sinew of his body ached and he could not think. He tried to shake his head again, but his ears started ringing, and cold sweat poured down his face. Shivering, he continued to try to respond, but at last, darkness came.

~*~

"We will leave tonight," Indis whispered.  "After the Great Gate is closed. I have friends among the Rangers stationed in the garrison on the First Level. I have arranged for them to open the gate, give us horses, and then we will be off. We will go to Amon Dîn and find out what is happening. Denethor's men will know and will tell me. I will stay here no longer, bereft of any hope of helping my brother."

"You speak rashly," Listöwel moaned. "Ecthelion will never let us go. And even if we find our way to the garrison, his men are all gone from there, involved in the search no doubt."

Indis interrupted her. "Of course he will not let us go! Why do you think I am speaking of leaving at night? As for Denethor's men - they will not abandon the garrison completely. Someone will be there and Amdir will have communicated more to them than he would to father."

"Indis. Ecthelion will send help. He must. Denethor is his son. This is folly on our part. We have never been on a sortie at night alone. What fey mood has come over you that you would even consider this?"

"The fey mood is my father's making. I know him too well in this respect. He will not let us go; he will not send help to Amdir, thinking that Amdir will be able to rescue Denethor. But the forest is wide, and Amdir does not have enough men, and my brother will die!" She pushed more clothes into the satchel and whirled around to face Listöwel, tears streaking down her cheeks. "You do not have to come with me. I know the dangers are great. If there was any other I could trust, I would go to them, but there is no one who will dare to go against Ecthelion's orders. Even though those orders be wrong." She looked Listöwel full in the face. "You and I, dear sister-friend, we have been trained well. We have even been through battle. We can care for ourselves. We will be heading north. The area from here to Amon Dîn is protected. We will stay the night at the North Gate and then, as soon as daylight comes, we will be off to the garrison. We will be safe."

"I wish Eledhwen was with us. I wish Morwen was with us. Dare we ask Elleth?"

"Nay, however much I would value having her and her sword at our side, she would tell Ingold, and we would be imprisoned in our own rooms. You know Ecthelion would do this. Therefore, dear sister-friend, it is up to you and me." She belted her scabbard across her hips, thrust the newly sharpened sword into its place, and tied her cloak around her neck, pulling the hood up close around her face. Listöwel did the same. They then quietly walked down the seven levels of Minas Tirith.

By the time they reached the First Level, Listöwel was hoping that her friend had changed her mind. Given time to think of what she was about, surely she must realize it was a fool's errand. But when the man from the garrison stepped out of the shadows with two horses, Listöwel knew they were lost. She could not let her friend go alone, no matter the dangers.

They passed through the Great Gate with no questions even asked, and turned their horses towards the North Gate. Immediately, the wind grabbed their cloaks and they had to quickly pull them close around them. The cold was intense.

~*~

Amdir's hand slipped at the word that Denethor was dead and blood flowed from the slight cut in the creature's neck. Thorongil stepped in, quickly putting a piece of cloth to the wound to staunch the flow. The creature fell, cowering before him.

"No, no. Tall man live. Tall man live," he screamed.

"Where?" Thengel walked closer. "Where is he?"

"Cave. We keep in cave. You no find. Hidden." The eyes gleamed with fear. "I take you to cave," he said suddenly and the company flew into action.

Horses were brought, weapons were strapped on, and excitement and hope finally filled the men. Thorongil brought Thengel's steed and helped him mount. "It may be a trap, my King."

Thengel grimaced. "Yes, but we must go."

The Wose led the company upward towards the summit. In less than an hour, they found themselves standing at the tree line, near the beacon of Eilenach, in front of a well-hidden cave. "I passed this way myself at least five times," Thorongil muttered, "and not once did I see it."

"Wild Men smart. Wild Men know how to hide things."

Amdir held his breath. Was this a trap? Was Denethor, in fact, dead and being used as bait?

~*~

He woke to the stench and retched again. After he was finished, he rolled over, trying to pull his cloak closer about him. He found his clothes had dried upon him, and his armor had been removed. He wondered what day it was, how long he had been unconscious.

The stone rolled away and the two who had come for him the last time strode into the alcove. Denethor tried to back away, but his legs would not do as he told them to. A Wose each grabbed an arm and pulled him up. Placing their hands under his arms, they again dragged him forward.

Denethor shook, envisioning another dunk in the icy waters of the underground stream. "Please," he struggled to speak, "let me speak with your leader." They only grunted and continued to drag him forward.

But they did not turn towards the part of the cave that held the stream; they dragged him towards the main cavern. He found himself in front of the head Wose. The two let go his arms and he fell forward.

"Why you come, Tall Man?" the Wose bellowed. "Why you attack Wild Men?"

"We did not attack Wild Men," Denethor said wearily. "We were hunting Orcs."

"Gorgûn. Yes! You kill Gorgûn who kill Horse-riders? Horse-riders kill Wild Men!"

"Gorgûn?" he repeated, not comprehending what the word meant. 'What could be gorgûn?' he wondered. 'Orcs! He must be speaking of Orcs.' He lifted his head, trying once again to shake the lethargy that crippled him. "Yes, Orcs, we have come to kill Orcs."

"Then - you stay, you kill Gorgûn! After - you leave mountain. Leave to Wild Men. Yes?"

Denethor reeled at this statement. What was this creature saying to him? Why the change? He looked around and saw the cave was empty. Only the two men and their chief were left. Where had all the others gone?

Shouts were heard at the entrance to the cave. The Wose disappeared, running into hidden alcoves. Denethor fell forward as his guards deserted him. Blackness once again enveloped him as his head hit the cave's floor.

~*~

They had ridden only an hour, the winter storm long over and the full moon, thankfully, lighting their way, when they heard the sound of hooves behind them.  They looked at each other in panic, thinking Ecthelion had found them out and sent riders after them.  Indis reined in her horse.  She listened intently. There was the sound of only one horse.  They were not discovered; she breathed a sigh of relief.  'But who could it be?' she wondered, 'Mayhap an errand-rider with news.'  She strained her neck, trying desperately to see.  Nay, it could not be.  The rider was behind them.

Listöwel pulled her horse closer to Indis' and her friend whispered, "Who do you think it is?" 

A familiar voice rang out, "Indis, Indis are you near?"  She almost cried.  'Arciryas!  The dear sweet man, and him not even liking to ride. Here he comes alone and in the dark.' Her heart swelled as the thought came to her.

"Here, Arciryas, we are here," she cried and soon saw him approaching them. She did not want to hear the tongue-lashing he might be preparing to give her, but her love for him overcame any trepidation she felt.

"It would be better, my love, if you had asked me to come with you," he stated flatly as he pulled his horse next to hers.

She saw the hurt in his eyes.  "Would you have let me do what I must if I had told you?"

"Of course not."  He had to bite his lip to keep from shouting.

"You would stop me even now?" she asked as her heart sank.  She did not want to quarrel with him, not now with Denethor missing, but she would not return to the City.

"Nay," he sighed. "I will join you, as I joined my life to you.  I do not condone this action, my love, but if you feel it is what you must do, then I must follow. May I ask what your plans are?"

"We are going to Forannest.  We had hoped to camp just beyond the North Gate until sunrise, and then reach Amon Dîn by midday. However, it is taking longer in the dark than I had surmised. We have at least another hour's ride before reaching Forannest."

"Then we should be on our way," he stated flatly.  Suddenly, he leaned over and kissed her.  "I am glad I was able to find you," he said through unforeseen tears.  "Do you think you are the only one who fears the fates that come to the Steward's family?  Am I not now part of that family?"

Impulsively, she dismounted and flung herself towards him.  He slid from his own horse and held her in his arms.  Neither would let go for many long moments.

~*~

The waves slapped furiously at the rocks, trying to escape those coming up from behind, and then they fell back upon themselves.  The sound barely reached his ears, high as he was on the cliff top.  Yet, still he strained, trying to hear them.  He wanted to hear anything but the thoughts in his mind.  She was beautiful.  He drew in his breath as he thought of her again.  'Stop this!' he told himself angrily.  'She is but a child.'  So he strained again to hear the sea and the gulls and anything that would take his mind off her.

"Lord Denethor," she called and he cursed himself for not finding a better hiding place.  He turned, despite himself.

"Lord Denethor, Ada would like you to come to his study." She paused for a moment when he did not rise.  "Shall I wait for you?"  She smiled and his heart tightened.  

That sweet smile almost undid him.  He drew in another long breath, and turned away from her.  "Nay, you go ahead.  I will be there in a moment."  He knew he was being rude, but he dared not come near her, not when they were alone in this desolate place. 'Why would her father let her come this far to find him?  Why would he send her?' The thoughts attacked every fiber of his body.  He did not dare ask her. 'Did she come of her own volition?'

"As you wish," she sighed and turned to go.  He heard the sigh, and wanted to take her in his arms and kiss it away, but he could not.  He was Steward of Gondor and she was Princess of Dol Amroth.  And - this was the telling point - she was only ten years old. His face burned with shame.  The waves came up and covered his face in a cool spray.

'Nay, it is not the waves.  Where am I?' His eyes opened and he looked into the eyes of his enemy.  

"Do not speak, my friend," the gentle voice said as he felt his face being laved.  "You are weak and need to use all your strength for healing.  Know that Thengel King has rescued you. You are in his own tent, and I have been caring for you." The man smiled. "He says I have some talent with healing."

Pulling in a breath, which caused a flurry of coughing, he looked away from the kind face. Another type of shame enveloped him.  He closed his eyes and felt the cool cloth on his forehead.  'Why do I think him my enemy?'

"Would you like some water?  You have lost much weight in the short time you were captured.  I am afraid we found the food was poisoned.  It is good we discovered you when we did, though I do not believe it was poisoned to kill, but to weaken, to keep you biddable."

The prattle continued, but this last piece of news startled him.  "'Twas only twigs and berr..." he started, and then realized how easy he had been to overcome.  Cheeks blazed again.  

"You were already weak, my Lord, when they gave you the food.  Your mind was clouded.  You had not the strength to discern wisely."

'Why is he making excuses for me?'

"I have prepared a tea.  Perhaps you would drink some?"

A tear slid slowly down his cheek.  "Please, do not be kind to me.  I..."

"My Lord, save your strength.  Do not speak.  All is well now.  You must get your strength back.  We were afraid we had lost you."

His eyes closed and dreams began again, dreams of the child running through the waves, sable curls flying in the wind, gulls soaring about her as she held up pieces of cake. Naught seemed to frighten or dismay her.  Her nana called to her to come back, but she continued running.  The woman turned to him for help.

Absinen - forgive me
Na lerya - let it go
Gwathel - sister (sworn)
Va mahta - I will not fight

Ch. 10 - Third Age 2960 - Part Two

"The Wild Men have a just complaint, my King," he heard the voice saying.  "In times past, the Rohirrim have hunted and killed them. I do not believe they tried to kill Denethor, just question him.  To their mind's eye, we were trespassing."

At this, he tried to pull himself up. "This land belongs to Gondor," he snorted, his eyes wild.

"Yes, my Lord, of course it does, but the Pukel-men have lived here for ages before your people stepped foot on this land. They feel it is theirs."

"Do not try to coddle me, to placate me. I see through your words. No matter what they feel, this land is not theirs. We will teach them whose lands these are!" Denethor shouted, then fell back upon his cot, coughing violently.

Thorongil stepped closer, bent and touched his forehead. He looked towards Thengel King.  "Fever," he whispered.  "I was hoping he would be spared. The poison and the dunking in the icy mountain stream have weakened his body. He must be taken to the Houses of Healing, and quickly."

"Thengel," Amdir spoke for the first time, "you should return to Edoras. My men will take Denethor home. There is no need for your full compliment. The Orcs have been killed, the Wild Men run off; they will not bother us further, and so great a company as yours will only slow us down."

"I would not leave my friend in this state," Thengel sighed.

Denethor snarled, "Talk... not here... must... think."

Thorongil raised him slightly and held a cup to his lips. "Drink this, my Lord. It will help you think." The eyes that looked back at him were suddenly clear and Thorongil started, respect growing in his own eyes. "It will help you think clearer when you have awakened," he corrected himself.

Denethor smiled, acknowledging the respect shown, drank, and slept almost immediately.

"I would ask a great favor of you, Thorongil." Thengel took his arm and led him out of the tent. "Amdir is right. This great a company would move too slowly. And my councilors would rail if I attempted to go ahead alone. Though my heart will be with my friend, I deem it prudent that I return to Edoras. The favor I would ask... Would you go with Denethor, care for him until he is received into the Houses of Healing? My heart would be much at ease, if you were with him."

"Yes, my King. I will go to Minas Tirith."

~*~

He could not shake this darkness. He left the festival and headed for the cliffs. Sitting down, he tried to calm himself in the sound of the sea. It crashed against the rocks at the base of the cliff and the sound stilled his heart. Where had this sense of doom come from? The sky was whitewashed blue. Gulls flew overhead, not a sound came from them. He thought this was odd. The gulls in Minas Tirith were forever screaming their complaints. Here, all was silence.  Sleet gray fingers of clouds drifted overhead. The sun was just beginning to set; however, a low cloudbank, hidden due to its coloring being the same as the sky, suddenly started to hide the sun itself. There were only pieces of the crimson light left showing. Denethor, though his eyes were wide open, drifted. His mind was not his own any longer. The cloudbank and the half-hidden sun turned into a mountain spewing forth fire and smoke. Higher and higher the flames reached until its red and malevolent light covered the entire sky. A darkness started to creep from it, filling the sky, moving closer and closer to where he sat. A hand touched his shoulder and the darkness was gone, replaced by bright white light.

~*~

"Indis," Arciryas took her in his arms.  "What must I do to earn your trust?"

She averted her eyes; she could not look at him, and he grieved.

"Come, please. Sit here beside me." She made as if to leave, but he pulled her closer to him.  "Listöwel is sleeping; the horses are bedded down for the night. We will not leave for at least another three hours. The way to Amon Dîn is rough. We must wait for the sun to rise." He gently pulled her to the bed. They were in the captain's quarters at the garrison of the North Gate.  The captain, once he had ascertained who his late night guests were, had given Indis and Arciryas his room.

She sat, her back straight. He could feel the faint shivers of fatigue and grief running down her arms. "My love," he whispered, "have I been so cold, so unfeeling a husband that you will not turn to me in your time of need?" He wanted to cry out, his pain was so great, but he held his tongue. If someone under his care was wounded and could not speak, he used other means to discern how to treat them. Whispering her name, he sat quietly, stroking her hair.

She leaned closer. Sobs shook her body.  He said naught. At last, she surrendered herself to her grief; he let her cry. "I... I thought I was over 'Wen's death; I am not. I cannot endure more death.  I cannot."

He continued whispering her name, saying naught more, hoping she would pour out her heart so that healing could begin.

"I think if Denethor dies... If he is dead... How will I bear it? How will I continue to live?"

He leaned back against the wall, pulling her closer to him, wiping the tears from her checks with his gentle hands, as he continued to whisper, "Indis, my love, my own."

"You are too kind," she sobbed, "I have not been the wife you had hoped for, I know. It is hard for me to speak of the things of my heart. Long have I had to protect it, to protect those whom I love. I cannot stop being strong.  But, I so want to stop. I want to hide, to scream, to cry and be protected.  I am so tired." She hiccupped and he smiled.

"Wait one moment, my love." He gently leaned her back against the wall, walked to the captain's table, poured water from a jug, and brought the cup to her. She drank, closed her eyes, and leaned back against the wall again.

"I would protect you, if you would allow it," he said quietly, speaking into her hair as he sat and held her in his arms. "You are strong, Indis," he emphasized the word 'are.'  "You will always be strong and I love you for that." He kissed the top of her head. "A soldier cannot always fight without rest. He must trust those around him: someone to cover his back, someone to sharpen his sword, someone to fetch arrows to replace those he has let fly, someone to stand guard. Yet you, my love, have fought without rest since your mother died. May I take this watch for you? Will you not rest for a time? Will you not trust that I will protect those you love? Do you not know that I would die to protect you and them?" He put his hand on her chin and turned her face up, towards him. "I too love Denethor. He has been my friend for many a year; he has been my brother and my captain. I will do everything I can to help him, to protect him. Will you let me carry some of this burden?"

She drew in her breath. Oh, the love and pain she saw in those deep gray eyes! How could she have doubted him? She threw her arms about his neck, burying her face in his shoulder. "I am so sorry, Arciryas.  I will try.  I will try."

~*~

Thorongil poured a little more of the draught down Denethor's throat. Within a few hours, they would be at the garrison of Amon Dîn. Amdir promised him that they would only stop long enough to procure fresh mounts. Thorongil had done everything in his power, with the few herbs he had with him, to stay the progress of the poison.  Denethor's fever slowly rose, and he was becoming incoherent.  Thorongil's supplies, especially the dried athelas, were dwindling.

Amdir dismounted and walked towards Denethor's litter.  "He is worsening," he said, his brow furrowed in concern.

"Yes. He was chilled to the bone by the dunking in the icy stream, the lying in sodden clothes for hours, the eating of the poisoned food. All these are now fighting against anything I do. We should light a fire to warm him, the blankets are not enough, but we do not have the time."

"Are you saying his time is short?"

"Yes, I am afraid so." Thorongil stood and stretched. He had not slept since they had rescued Denethor, and the lack was starting to affect him.

"Are you finished with your ministrations?"

"Yes. We can go forward."

"Then let us!" Amdir shouted and the company mounted. "I have sent a rider ahead to warn the garrison of our coming and to prepare fresh horses for us." He turned Hros' head and motioned for the company to follow.

~*~

Arciryas, Listöwel, and Indis finally reached the beacon-hill and the garrison of Amon Dîn. A small contingent of knights was there. As they entered the compound, they were surprised to see much activity. Arciryas quickly dismounted, and grabbed the arm of one knight as he ran past them. "What is happening?" he asked.

"Lieutenant Amdir approaches. We are preparing fresh mounts for the main company.

They are going on, immediately, to Minas Tirith.  Now let me do what I must do," and he tore himself away from Arciryas' hold.

Indis dismounted and ran over to where the two were. "What of Lord Denethor?" she cried to the knight's retreating back.

He turned, recognized her, and spoke. "I know not, my Lady. I have only received orders from Lieutenant Amdir." With that, he turned and ran to the stables. Men were leading saddled horses out of the stables into the courtyard.

A loud commotion drew their eyes towards the garrison's gate. It was Amdir. Indis cried out, but Listöwel, at a signal from Arciryas, ran to her friend's side and held her close.  When Indis saw Denethor on the litter, she cried out in pain. Amdir quickly dismounted and ran towards them.

"What are you doing here?  Did Ecthelion send you?" he asked in confusion.

Arciryas, in the meantime, ran to the litter.  Thorongil reported to him all that had happened, along with what he had done to slow the effects of the poison and the fever. "We must get him to the Houses of Healing as quickly as possible," Arciryas said.  Then he turned to the man standing before him, "Thank you, whoever you are."

But Thorongil just bowed and walked towards Amdir.

~*~

Once they passed through the Rammas, they rode as swiftly as possible towards Minas Tirith. Finally, Denethor was placed in the care of the healers.  Amdir, accompanied by Thorongil, went to the Great Library to look for legends, tales, or lore books that would help the healers combat the poison.  The warden pulled all his assistants from other chores, and placed them on the task at hand.  After too many long hours, the poison, and its antidote, were found. Amdir sent the information to Adanedhel. Then, he took Thorongil by the arm and led him to the Fourth Level, stopping at a familiar haunt.

"I will report to the Steward within the hour," he stated as they sat at table, "however, I wanted to have a moment with you. I must thank you."

"There is naught to thank me for, Lieutenant. My liege, Thengel King, requested my aid.  I could not deny him." The maid passed their drinks to them, eyeing the stranger appraisingly before she left them.

"You did more than many would have done.  I would think you had used some sort of magic to keep him alive.  I saw his face, heard the labored breathing. If not for you, he would be dead. Where did you learn your craft?"

Thorongil looked long at the man seated across from him. 'Is this a trap?' he wondered.  He knew Amdir was close friend, besides first lieutenant, to the captain. "I have served many long years in other armies, besides those of Rohan. I have learned much in that time. The craft comes from here and there," he said, evasively.

"Where e'er you learned it," Amdir said, placing his hand on the man's shoulder, "I care not. Only know that I am glad you brought the knowledge with you to the Drúadan Forest when it was most needed."

The sincerity in Amdir's voice and eyes quelled Thorongil's suspicions. "Your captain has earned my respect, Lieutenant. He is a brave man. And one that is not to be toyed with, if I read his eyes truly.  He has suffered grievous wound, but will recover."

"Again, thanks to you. I have a house on the Sixth Level.  Let us finish our ale and I will take you there. I would be most grateful if you would deign to stay with my wife and I?"

"Yes, I would be obliged."

~*~

Ecthelion strode into the room.  The healers bowed and backed away.  Indis rose from her place next to his bed, still holding Denethor's hand.  "Adanedhel has told me he will live. For that, I am glad," he said quietly.  He sat on the opposite side of the bed.  "Is he awake?"

"Nay, Father. They have given him a sleeping potion.  He is beyond all endurance. His body needs rest. I am sure Adanedhel told you that."

"Yes," he said. Looking down at his son, the image of his beloved Rían, he wept quietly.  "I am an old fool. I am worse than Turgon was in his blindness. Always, I put Gondor before those I love. Forgive me, my daughter."

"I am not the one to ask forgiveness from, Father," she stated crisply. She could not keep the anger from her voice. "Mayhap, when Denethor is healed, you can ask for his forgiveness."

"Yes.  Would you mind if I sit with you for awhile?"

~*~

Denethor gasped and looked around.  The bright light that had been about him had moved off.  It was the Elf - he could just barely see him moving swiftly north.  It was the same Elf that he had found in his room; it was at least a year ago.  He awoke from a deep sleep; the Elf stood over his bed, great gray eyes staring at him. He jumped from his bed, but the Elf disappeared, gone quickly out the window. Denethor ran to follow him, and discovered that the window led to a sliver-thin ledge overlooking the rocks of the Bay of Belfalas. He looked to his left and his right, but could see naught in the dark of the storm-laden air. Yet, here again was that self same Elf.  He called to him in Sindarin, but the Elf never swayed from his path. He screamed again. "Daro!"

"Hush, Denethor.  All is well," Indis whispered, putting her head close to his.  "You are safe. Estelio nin! You are in the Houses of Healing.  I am here by your side. Please, little brother, wake up."

His eyes still hurt from the brightness of the light. He could see it, in his mind's eye. He tried to lift his hand, to cover his eyes e'er he opened them, but his hand would not obey. He felt a cool cloth on his forehead, and heard the whispering voice of his sister. Again, he tried to open his eyes, and this time, he was successful. Looking down upon him was Indis' beloved face.

"I was in Dol Amroth.  I saw something..."

"Nay, my sweet brother, you have been held captive by the Wild Men. Thorongil, Thengel's captain, saved you.  He brought you back to me, to Minas Tirith."

He touched her cheek. Finally, his body was responding to his will. "You have been crying," he said softly. "I am sorry to have caused you pain. Goheno nin."

"Ú-moe edaved!" she cried. "Were they terrible to you? Did they...?" She could not ask.

"Thorongil." Denethor said in wonderment, finally realizing what she had said.  "Yes, I remember him now. He was kind. He did not lie to me. I knew I was in great danger, yet he did not hide it from me. I owe him my life."

"Yes, that is true."

"Would you ask him to come to me?  I would speak with him for a moment."

"Yes, brother.  Rest a little longer and I promise, I will bring him to you."

~*~

At last, Denethor moved from the Houses to his own chambers.  Thorongil, feeling quite uncomfortable, sat in an overstuffed chair that had been pulled up to the bed.  Denethor was finishing some broth, while Indis watched, militantly.  Thorongil hid a smile when she chided her brother to finish the last spoonful.  She quickly kissed him on the forehead, took the bowl from his hand, smiled at Thorongil and left them.  Thorongil sat back in the chair, trying to hide his discomfiture. Denethor, he could tell, seemed to feel the same way.  Neither man appeared ready to begin any kind of a conversation.  Thorongil wished he had a pipe.  He could not have smoked it, though; he had noticed that none seemed to smoke, here in Minas Tirith.

"I thank you for coming," Denethor started.  "I wished to thank you for all you have done for me." Thorongil started to speak, but Denethor held his hand up. "Please, this is most difficult for me and I would like to... I am sorry. How can I say this is difficult when it is my life that has been saved!  I am a poor wretch that did not deserve saving. I have harbored ill will towards you. And for that I am most sorry."

"I well understood your feelings.  I was discourteous too many times while you visited in Rohan.  It seemed there was much to do, and I was very new to the Rohirric way of life.  I was brusque and rude," Thorongil said. "Forgive me."

Denethor hung his head. Would this man not let him thank him properly? He was becoming upset again. He shook his head. 'I am an idiot,' he thought. 'Why does this man seem to continuously aggravate me?"

"Let us stop right now and begin afresh. Perhaps if we shared a little about ourselves, we would find some common ground?" Denethor said, politely.

Thorongil was immediately suspicious. Though Denethor spoke courteously, Thorongil deemed there was purpose behind the question. "My Lord, if you would begin..."

Denethor smiled. This was not going to be easy. "My life is public.  You must know much about me already.  I am Heir to the Steward of Gondor, in the line of Anárion, of the House of Húrin.  I am Captain of the garrison at Amon Dîn, just having returned from a five-year stint at Dol Amroth.  Indis, whom you have already met, is my sister.  I..."  He took a deep breath. "I lost a sister to the Corsairs many years ago. Thengel... Thengel King was my commander for a time, while he lived in Gondor. That is all that is pertinent. Oh, yes. I served under Walda many years ago. And - I am a hideous fisherman."

Thorongil laughed.  "I am a good fisherman, I am sorry to say,"

Now it was Denethor's turn to laugh. "Then you must go fishing with Amdir and Thengel. I go with them to stoke the fires. I am utterly useless when it comes to the sport, but they seem to like my company. You also have the hands of a healer, it would seem."

"I have been on my own for a good number of years. I learned, through expediency, the ways of healing. I would have preferred not to have had to learn them at all." The mood in the room had sobered quickly.

"Yes," Denethor said. "As a soldier, I know whereof you speak. Ever we must do things we would prefer not to.

There was silence in the room for a time; the fire crackled and snapped. Thorongil was not sure if Denethor had fallen asleep or not. He sat quietly, waiting.

"What have you done," Denethor's voice startled him, "that you would have preferred not to have done?"

Thorongil thought for a long moment. "I would not have left my mother alone, all those long years. I would have spent more time with her." He surprised himself with the answer. "My father had been killed when I was but a small child. She was left alone among those who were not kin. It occurs to me now, that she must have been lonely."

Denethor thought of the many years when, as punishment, he had been sent off amongst strangers. "Yes," he said, "that is a very difficult thing. And yet, you remember her well?"

"Yes.  She was kind." He stopped. He would not continue this.

Denethor noticed the straightening of Thorongil's shoulders, and knew he would share no more. "Perhaps you would like to see something of Minas Tirith. Or has someone already shown you around my City?"

Thorongil smiled at the inflection he heard when Denethor said 'my' city. "Your city?"

Denethor returned the smile. "I have become possessive of this City. It is dear to me.  Ever do we fight to protect her." A slight scowl crossed his face. "Orcs and other foul creatures continuously attack. Corsairs from the south and Easterlings from the East cross our borders with seeming impunity. Have you seen the mountain? The one that spews smoke and fire? It seems nature itself attacks Gondor. We fight, but desperately, it would seem."

"I have heard stories of the courage of Gondor," Thorongil said quietly. "Rohan relies upon Gondor."

"As Gondor relies upon Rohan," Denethor whispered. He pulled the bell and waited.

Thorongil realized his interview was over. He stood and bowed to Denethor. "Perhaps I may come and visit again?"

Denethor looked up. "Yes.  I would like that, very much." He suddenly felt an overwhelming gratitude for the candor of the man.

~*~

"I do not understand," Denethor strode towards the White Tower. He had finally been allowed to leave his rooms, deemed well enough to return to duty. "How could Ecthelion open the ranks of the Knights of Gondor to outsiders?"

"Mithrandir counseled it.  Your father agreed.  It seems he has been most pleased with Thorongil's service."

"As am I," Denethor stated flatly. "He is a very good soldier. I am glad I asked father to ask him to stay and fight for Gondor. Yet, I do not think it wise to have strangers in Gondor's service.  I cannot imagine fighting next to a Corsair.  I would rather cut off his head, than fight on his side. You remember the two of mixed blood in my company this past spring? Terrible men. I do not understand what Mithrandir hopes to accomplish by this."

"Were you able to speak with your father about it?" Amdir asked.

"Nay. It was decided without me. I should not be surprised." A heavy sigh escaped his lips.

"Orc attacks have been more numerous of late, the loss of life has grown, and there are other considerations," Amdir said.

"Yes. The most difficult consideration is lack of men." He shook his head. "I should wed myself and give father an heir, but there is no time and no woman who has even tweaked my interest."

Amdir laughed.  "You are enjoying the life of the bachelor too much, my friend.  Listöwel introduced you to that young friend of hers months ago, yet you have made no attempt to further the relationship."

"She was an idiot.  Forgive me. She only talked of who was going to what party, or what new dance was the rage.  She spoke of naught of substance. I could not abide listening to her."

Amdir hooted with laughter.  "You have become too accustomed to Indis and her great knowledge of the things of Middle-earth, strategies, and battle talk.  Having women around you, like Listöwel also, who know how to wield a sword, makes a regular woman pale in comparison, I must say."

"Well, let us to the buttery and see what food we can scrape together.  I would eat on the escarpment today, not with the lords and ladies in Merethrond.  They watch to see whom I will sit next to and then their tongues wag.  I will never find a wife here."

Absenen - sorry
Na lerya - let it go
Gwathel - sister (sworn)
Va mahta - I will not fight
Daro - stop
Estelio nin - trust me
Goheno nin - forgive me
Ú-moe edaved - there is nothing to forgive

Ch. 11 - Third Age 2973 - Part One

'I am not myself,' he thought. 'How will I ever be able to tell father?' He had asked for, and received posting to the garrison near Dol Amroth, but for three years only. He had not told his father the real reason he wanted posting there. It had been part of his plan, once he had set eyes upon her at that night's ball.

~*~

There was now the duty of attending the inevitable party in the Hall of Feasts after the affairs of state were completed. He stood at the great entrance doors and watched the lords and ladies of Gondor as they danced. He wanted no part of this. Prince Adrahil had come to Minas Tirith for some function or the other and had brought his family with him. She was twenty - great gray eyes, blackest hair, fairest skin - she took his breath away. He remembered the times when she was but a child; she always mesmerized him, not by her beauty, though that was exquisite, but by the light that shone about her, through her and emanated outwards. Amdir laughed when he told him, saying it was probably an Elvish air. 'It could be,' he thought. 'There are rumors, old tales told of an Elven ancestry for the house of Dol Amroth.' Whatever it was, it filled him with a peace, a joy, and a sense of wonder. When he realized that he was falling in love with her, he asked to be transferred. Up until that time, he made it a point to join as many family activities as possible, and had been warmly welcomed by the prince.

Now he could laugh, for he remembered how he had chafed at the thought of the party, knowing his father required his attendance. He had felt he was being used, as fodder for cattle. His face had blazed at the humiliation of it. Ecthelion was determined to marry him off, and Denethor was determined not to be! Let Indis' progeny carry the title. As the years passed, and his role as Heir to the Steward became more and more public, the great Lords of Gondor fawned over him. Not a day would pass, when he was in the City, that one or another of them would not 'bump' into him, towing an eligible daughter behind. 'Simpering fools,' he called them, 'Duty!' his father called it.

Yet, there was a place in his heart that ached for a love such as Thengel and Amdir had. To his chagrin, not one of the women presented to him held a candle to the strength that was Indis, the compassion that was Listöwel, or the warrior that was Morwen Steelsheen!

And then - she walked into the Hall, her hand resting on her father's arm, and the light that surrounded her dazzled him. Amdir tried, numerous times, to swing his attention away from her, but Denethor's whole being was caught, as in the great fishing nets of the men of Pelargir, and he knew he did not want to be released. He would not even struggle.

It was well into the night when his father came to him, chiding him for not dancing, not mingling with the guests. He barely heard him. How could he dance? His body would not obey him; his feet would not move. He heard his father's exasperated groan, and breathed a sigh of relief when Ecthelion left his side. Amdir had long ago left him for the pleasure of Listöwel's company.

He realized Prince Adrahil was coming towards him. She was again holding her hand lightly on his arm. He wanted to take that delicate hand and hold it. He wanted to run away. 'I am not myself,' he thought.

"Lord Denethor," the prince saluted, hand to chest. Denethor returned it, but found his mouth incapable of movement. "May I present my daughter, Finduilas? Finduilas, the Heir of the Steward of Gondor, Lord Denethor." He turned towards Denethor. "I have been reminding her of the times you were stationed at our humble garrison, and were considerate enough to visit Dol Amroth from time to time."

Denethor's brow creased. 'Is that all I am? Heir of Gondor? Can I not be a man? Can I not have feelings? Can I...?' His thoughts were interrupted by a startling smile that took away whatever breath was left him. Never before had he begrudged being named heir; in fact, he relished the title when it was used, but never before had he been in the presence of a Vala, for surely, she must be one.

"My Lord." She gave a small curtsy, though her eyes laughed and sparkled. It was as if the Star of Eärendil itself blazed from her eyes. He realized, through the fog that blanketed his mind, that he should make some response. He bowed deeply and feared that the sudden dizziness that assailed him would not pass ere he straightened. 'This is a dream,' he told himself. 'This cannot be Finduilas, child of laughter and light.'

Not realizing that he had spoken the last words aloud, he started at her gentle laughter; then she spoke. "I remember my dear friend, Denethor, now Captain of Gondor. Do you remember, my Lord? You used to call me 'Jewel' when we would walk by the shore."

"I remember our picnics," he said as he tried to push aside the thoughts of his Jewel, for now, she had truly become one, sparkling, radiant, precious, and valuable. "Our picnics were delightful."

She laughed again; the sound burned his ears, so sweet was it. "I am very grateful for your kindness. Father, did I tell you of the little breads I would make, covered with the spreads of the bounty of Belfalas, packed for our picnics?"

Adrahil was silent, watching in surprise as his 'child' matured before his very eyes. 'Or had she been grown?' he wondered, 'When had this happened?'

"Lord Denethor would join my companions and me at the shore, and we would eat these little morsels - he with his large hands holding such tiny delicacies - covered with wind-blown sand!" She smiled again and it pained him to see the beauty in it. "You were most courteous, my Lord. The food was really not palatable, Father, now that I think on it."

"It has been ten years, my Lady Finduilas, since last we met. I am honored that you remember."

She looked up at him, black lashes hiding those eyes, gray as the Star Sapphire in the treasury. He lost his breath again.

"I would not forget you, my Lord Denethor. Once you were a dear friend of mine. May we not renew that friendship?"

Prince Adrahil stepped between them. "Perhaps we shall see you again, before we leave? Now, I fear, it is time to retire." He turned towards Denethor. "My Lord, it was a long trip. Forgive our leaving so early. Please give my respects to your father."

Denethor, his tongue now tied and his face blazing, merely nodded as the couple turned and walked away. He yearned to have that little hand on his arm.

The prince and his family left early the next morning. That is when Denethor started to put his plan into effect.

~*~

Three years now he had been at Dol Amroth, stationed at the garrison outside the city. Days were spent on patrol, on diplomatic missions to the lords of the near-by fiefdoms; nights were spent in agony, wishing he were with her, and when he was with her, they shared the starlit nights of Southern Gondor. When he was not on duty, he found that he haunted the halls of the castle of the prince. He walked along the corridors in the palace, hoping that there might be a chance meeting, a short moment to drink in the essence that was Finduilas. Then, he walked the gardens, the porticos, the gazebos; the landscape of the castle leant itself to the mystery that was this woman. Great slabs of marble, dark-hewn and gray, lined every surface. The great rounded portico leading out of the palace on the seaward side with its twelve stately pillars looked towards the sea; the large stairwells that a mûmak could pass down so wide and deep were they, curved from the portico on each side, then led down to the sea; the tree-lined alleys, covered with drooping wisteria and clematis plants, spilled into the sea; and the rock walls with their ledges and sculpted swans leaned forward into the sea. All around, the salt-smell of the water overcame all the scents of the roses, wisteria, clematis, and simmleri. Never had he seen such a profusion of flowers; blues, violets, yellows, scarlets, mauves - a feast of colors. His mother's gardens were put to shame.

He turned as she came towards him. 'Nay,' he thought, 'all these are put to shame by this one before me.' And he drew in his breath.

"Ada would like to see you now, if that is possible," she asked with deference.

Now that she was here, the loneliness that had pervaded his heart just moments before, fled and was replaced by a great joy, so great he thought his heart would burst with it. "Did he... Is it urgent?"

She gazed at him quizzically and he hoped that the sweat he felt on his brow did not show. "He did not say, but there were some shipbuilders with him."

"Would you sit here, with me, for a moment? I will rush to his side if you but give me one moment."

She sat on the wall and he sat beside her.

His face burned and hers shone. 'I cannot do this,' he thought, miserably. 'She will never accept me. My tongue is tied every time I am with her. I trip over my own feet. I sigh continuously. I am not myself, when she is near. By the Valar, how will I govern in this state?' He tried to move away, but her hand caught his and sent shivers up his arm. His ears seemed to have gone deaf. He knew gulls cried and birds sang and the sea roared, but he heard naught.

She accepted his request for her hand. She would be his wife. Tears sprang to his eyes at the wonder of it all. Never had he thought that such a thing would be possible. He would not upbraid himself nor look to his many failings. She knew them, after these past three years, knew him better than he knew himself. Yet, she still accepted. He would concentrate on her 'yes.' He had to let the breath out. It crushed his chest. Every sinew of his body was affected by the mere thought of her. If he could not breathe now, nor function with any rationale thought, how would he ever - when she was at his side?

They agreed that they would not speak to her father until he had asked permission from Ecthelion. It seemed only wise. He would leave in the morning. Yet, he found it incredibly hard to leave her. His heart soared at the magnitude of his love for her. And groaned at her love for him. How could she? Nay, he would not think on that. Suffice to say, she had said yes and willingly, with nary an argument from him. A simple yes that changed the world, made it bright again, made a future seem possible. At last he left her and hurried to his meeting with Imrahil.

He would travel light, with only one company as an escort. What excuse would he use when he faced his father? Why had he left his post? It was almost time for the monthly errand-rider to return to Minas Tirith with the numerous reports required by the Steward. He would take them himself, saying their import was such as to not leave to the hands of an errand-rider. Hmm. That did not hold. Errand-riders were capable of taking any message. His mind whirled. He must act now. There had been rumors that others had been to Adrahil on behalf of their sons. Well, haste must be had, and he would risk his father's anger for his Lady's hand. His mind raced and he heard not a word. As soon as the meeting ended, he was at his garrison, horsed and out the gate before any hardly knew.

~*~

He stood before his father, wondering how he would broach the subject. But there was no need to wonder, for his father was paying no attention to him. Thorongil had been giving some report. Ecthelion turned towards Denethor and asked his opinion. He blushed slightly. He had not been listening.

"Once again, I ask, what think you of Captain Thorongil's theory?"

'Captain!' thought Denethor. 'When had Thorongil become a captain? When had anyone, not a citizen of Gondor, been appointed a captain?' He scrambled for a coherent sentence. "My Lord, having just returned from Dol Amroth, I have not read the report. I have not even received a copy of it."

"You do not need to read it," Ecthelion said, his lips pursed tightly. "I have given you a summary and I would have your opinion."

"If I would be of service to my Lord Steward, I would be remiss to speculate on a report I have not read. I trust your summary, my Lord, but knowing 'Captain' Thorongil's attention to detail, I must ask to read it first before commenting."

"Very well. Read it and return after the evening meal. I will expect your 'wise' words!" Ecthelion snarled the word and turned to go to the Hall of Feasts. Denethor moved to follow. Ecthelion stopped, turning swiftly towards him, and said, "I want your opinion when I return from dinner. Now, go." He turned again towards the Hall and motioned for Thorongil to follow him.

Denethor stood back, trying desperately to keep his face clear of any emotion. His arms fairly shook with rage. He had been dismissed! He, the Heir of Gondor, had been dismissed and that... that Thorongil had... 'Nay!' he thought. 'I will not do this. I will not fall into anger or jealousy. This is not Thorongil's doing. My father, as always, has decided this is a propitious time to discipline me. For what, I do not know.' He turned on his heel, seized a copy of the report from a scribe, and walked to his rooms.

The report, as he had expected, was well written. He had to laugh; yet it was bitter. Some of the suggestions were ones he had given his father nigh unto fifteen years ago. Cair Andros would be refortified - this time, with more men and more weapons. 'So,' he thought, 'Ecthelion has forgotten the times we spoke of these very matters. He takes the advice of a man from the north. Well, it matters not where the advice comes from as long as it is taken. And I am glad. Cair Andros will be our first defense, if the One we do not name attacks from the northeast, coming from the Morannon. Thorongil will do well in preparing it for such an attack. Though I still do not understand how he has become a Captain of Gondor.' He shook his head. What other things had changed since he had been gone?

~*~

The bell rang for the hour. He was in the Great Hall.  No one was about.  'The daymeal must be long over,' he thought, 'yet, where is the Steward?' Just then, Thorongil came through the entrance hall. He strode quickly towards Denethor, his arms opened wide.

"My Lord Denethor. I am sorry we did not have time to talk before the Steward's meeting. It is so good to see you again. I have missed your company." And Denethor knew, by the tone of voice and the smile on the man's face, that what he said was true and heartfelt.

He returned the embrace and laughed. "So, you are now Captain of Gondor! I am very happy for you. What garrison are you captain of?"

"No garrison. I am in charge of Ecthelion's personal knights."

Denethor stepped back, stunned.

Thorongil quickly said, "I am sorry. I thought you knew."

"Nay, I did not. I am just surprised. It is well deserved, I am sure." Yet his mind could hardly grasp the enormity of the posting. He was next in line for this posting. He had expected to be called home months ago and it given to him. He walked towards the vestibule and Thorongil followed.

"Is there something amiss, my Lord?" Thorongil asked gently.

"Nay. It was a long journey from Dol Amroth and I am tired. I had hoped I could report to the Steward and then be off to bed. Yet, I see this will not be so. I must wait for his return, for I have promised to give him my opinion on your report." He turned to Thorongil. "By the by, it is a good report, well-written. The advice you have given is fine. I myself have thought long and hard about the defenses of Cair Andros. You have explained the need very well indeed. You should be proud of your report."

"There is naught to be proud of. I read some of your papers and expanded upon your ideas. I said as much to the Steward."

'Ah,' Denethor thought, 'it is as I believed. Straightforward and true is this man. Not a back-stabber.' He smiled. "Whoever sways the Steward to action is not important; what is important is that he acts."

"Yes. But I would not have you think that I would take your words and make them my own."

"The thought never crossed my mind, Thorongil. You have been a friend since the Drúadan Forest. I will not doubt you."

They walked out the great doors of the Hall and stopped at the Court of the Fountain.

"Do you think the king will return?" Denethor suddenly felt impelled to ask.

This time, it was Thorongil's turn to be startled. "I have not thought of it much. It is not my place, as a simple man in Gondor's service, to think of such things."

"Yet, it seems right to ask it of you. You have been in Gondor for thirteen years now. Does it not seem strange that we wait for a king long lost?"

"I do not think it strange. I hear the words of hope from your father. He believes the king will return. Do you not?"

"I do not know what to think. I know I will keep Gondor as strong as I am able. If the king returns, he will find a people of courage waiting for him."

"Would you deny him his throne?"

"Nay, if proof is sound. Have you ever heard the tales of the Kin-slaying?"

"Yes, I have. Yet Gondor still survives."

"Because of the Stewards," Denethor spoke with more vehemence than was his wont. He softened his voice. "The Stewards have held Gondor in trust for the king for twenty-five generations. If not for Mardil Voronwë, when King Eärnur foolishly went off to answer the Dark Lord's challenge, Gondor would be in the thrall of evil and there would be no kingdom to return to!" Again, he had raised his voice. He apologized.

"I understand what you say, my Lord, but..."

"When I received posting to Dol Amroth, did we not leave each other as friends? Why, now, do you continue to say, 'my lord'?" Denethor wondered.

Thorongil laughed. "Yes. I consider you friend. Your subject is weighty however, and therefore, I spoke as befits such a discussion."

"Then, let us leave weighty discussions to another day. It has been too long since we have visited a certain inn. As soon as I report to father, I would very much like to share a drink or two with you. Is Amdir still at Pelargir? And where is father?" he wondered, looking about him. "I will go back to the Hall and wait upon him. Perhaps you will save me a seat?"

Thorongil laughed. "Indeed I will. The Steward spoke of going to bed, however. I do not think he planned on going back to the Hall tonight."

Denethor's face blazed again. He turned his back upon his friend and bit his lip. 'So, I am not worth eating with him, nor giving my report.' He shook his head. 'Nay,' he thought, 'I cannot, I will not let my thoughts sway to these feelings. Finduilas loves me. She has said yes to my proposal and we will be wed. That is what is important tonight.'

He turned towards Thorongil and apologized. "I am sorry. I forget. I must see my sister. Will you meet me tomorrow night at the sixth bell?"

"Of course. Good night to you then."

Denethor bid him good night, then chided himself for forgetting Indis. He ran up the Citadel steps two at a time; he turned towards her chambers. His face hurt from the smile that had covered it as soon as he left Thorongil. He could not wait to tell her.  How he wished she had been there. But now, she would share his joy. Warmth filled him as he thought of Indis - the love he had for her, her steadfastness, and her courage.  He stopped at her chamber door and knocked gently. The hour was late; he hoped she was still awake.

Her chambermaid answered the door and gasped to see him. "My Lord, we were not told you had returned. I will get my mistress. Please, enter and sit." She turned and ran to the bedchamber's doors.

"Denethor!" Love and joy filled her voice and he rejoiced in the love of a sister. "Why did not father tell me you were ordered home?" She quickly hugged him and gestured for the maid to bring food and drink.

"Father did not know I was coming," Denethor stated flatly. "I needed to speak with him; I did not ask his permission."

"It must have been an urgent matter, for you to do such a thing," she whispered. "I have not known you to flaunt his authority.  Except perhaps," she laughed gently, "when Arciryas and I were wed. Tell me now, what caused you to return so unexpectedly?"

He pulled her down to the couch and held her hands tightly. "Indis," his hands shook slightly and she looked upon him in amaze. "I... by the Valar this should easy! I have asked Finduilas to be my wife."

"Oh!" She looked deeply into his eyes. "And did she accept?"

He burst out laughing. "Yes! Yes, by all the Valar she said yes! I cannot tell you the joy that fills my heart, dearest sister. I cannot begin to tell you what she means to me. I have spent the last three years courting her, carefully, trying not to frighten her. I know I am not the easiest man to live with. She has learned all my weaknesses, all my moods, and all my worst habits. Yet she still said yes! I cannot believe it." He sat and held her hands tightly.

"Brother, my dearest brother. You are noble and kind and good. Why would she not say yes?"

"Nay, sister. You see me in a different light than others. You have always loved me, cared for me, and accepted me as I am. But others have not." The image of his father caused his brow the crease.

"Brother, I know of whom you speak. Father... father knows your strengths and relies upon them. He needs more. Gondor needs more. You will never be able to give as much as is needed. No one man can. Do not chastise yourself for something you cannot change."

"Let us not discuss father or Gondor now. I want to discuss her, tell you about her, and revel in the delight that is Finduilas. She is so beautiful, Indis, so kind, so loving. And she is wise too. Many nights we spent discussing Gondor, its history, and its future. She knows what needs to be done. She agrees with me, not because of who I am, but because she has considered the problems and has come to the same conclusions that I have. It is amazing to me. I can share so many things with her. Not feelings, though those I have shared, but more than that, my hopes and dreams for Gondor and what we might do, together, to save her. I tell you, it is a dream come true. A dream I did not even know I had." He slumped back into the cushions on the couch, a smile on his face.

"Denethor.  I am so happy for you. What has father said?"

He shook slightly and she knew he had not confronted their father with the news. "When will you ask his permission?" she asked quietly as the maid entered the room, placed cheese, bread and wine on the table in front of the settle and withdrew.

"I had meant to tonight. I wanted it done and over with, but when I reached the Citadel he was in the midst of a meeting with his counselors. I deemed it not the right moment to broach the subject, though my heart was near to bursting with the need to ask. I cannot tell what he will say; ever has he been a puzzle to me. I know you have felt the same; therefore, I sit here before you in trepidation. I do not know what he will do."

"Let me invite him here for nuncheon tomorrow. I know he will come. And you, too.  After we eat, I will leave the room on some pretense and you can then ask him."

"Would you do that for me?"

"Of course, little brother. It will be perfect."

"Bless you, dearest Indis. I will see you on the morrow. Now, I find exhaustion o'ercoming me. I rode as fast as the wind. There are others who are courting her. I need an answer immediately. I will rest now and see you on the morrow. Good night, my dearest sister, good night." He hugged her tightly, apologized for not eating, and kissed her forehead.

Arciryas came into the room, yawning. "Denethor! It is good to see you. I am sorry, I did not know you were here."

"I am leaving. Forgive me for disturbing your sleep. We will speak in the morning. It is very good to see you again, Arciryas." He bowed low and left.

"What was he here for, Indis?"

"I will tell you in our chambers. Come, it is late and I need your warmth." She shivered at the thought of tomorrow's assignation.

~*~

"You dared to make an alliance without my permission?" his father bellowed. "Did you think I have not been preparing someone for you already? The Lord Amandil's daughter has come of age. He traces his lineage directly to Númenor, and he is the wealthiest man in Gondor. He is owed allegiance from many lords of Gondor. He is a formidable foe and would be a welcome ally. Yet, you look to an Elvish tag and rag as a bed partner. Have you considered what kind of offspring she might bear?"

He clenched his fists as hard as he could to keep from swinging at Ecthelion. 'Tag and rag! How could he call her...?' He could not even think the words again. A fire crept through his entire being, yet he did all he could to keep it in check. This was not the time for violence; nay, even screaming would do naught to sway his father. So this is where his distrust of Elves came from - his father. He spoke not for fear the scream echoing in his mind would be released.

Ecthelion seemed to struggle to control himself. "The answer is nay. You will not wed the girl. You will look to Lady Almarian. An alliance is needed between our houses. Or, if she truly is repugnant to you, we can speak with Thengel King and look to his daughter, Hild. She has yet to marry. Your friendship with Thengel seems to have cooled some. Perhaps this will rekindle the bond between Gondor and Rohan. Through her mother, she has the blood of Númenor in her." He stood and walked about Indis' room.  "Yes, perhaps Hild would be the perfect candidate, though I had forgotten her. I will write to Thengel this forenoon. Is that not better? I know Almarian is a little capricious.  Hild will be a better match for you. It is settled. I will relieve you of command of the garrison of Dol Amroth and you shall prepare for your betrothal." He called Indis, kissed her cheek, and left the room.

Denethor strode to the balcony, his hands still balled into fists. Indis walked quietly behind him. She had, of course, heard everything. He looked towards the Ephel Dúath and shrugged. "I cannot believe he would wish Almarian on anyone." He tried to laugh to ease the strain. "I have never liked Hild. She was always a little horror when she lived here. What am I saying? There is no one else. Only Finduilas." He shook his head. "I must think. There must be a way to sway him. I cannot marry, you know I cannot, Indis, without his permission." He hung his head. "I must have her," he whispered hoarsely, the tension in his body constricting his throat. "I must."

"I know, dear brother. We will think of a way. I was so proud of you. You showed your quality. He was nonplussed; I know it. He expected you to lash out. This will be for the good when you approach him again."

He looked at her in shock. "Approach him again? How will I ever approach him again on this subject? That is the question. I must think. Whenever did he acquire this hatred of Elves?"

"Come. Sit by me. We will find some path to walk that will bring us to our destination."

Two hours later, he left Indis' chambers, no closer to a plan than when they had first begun. He turned towards the Great Treasury. He needed something done and he had better do it now, while he still had the courage. Once the task was complete, he walked slowly to the crafters' level. He found the bench jeweler's shop and walked in. Semi-precious gems were displayed in cases all about the dim lit room. He walked towards the desk at the back. "I have a ring here that I would like repaired and sized to fit a finger of this dimension." He passed over the ring and the circlet of paper that he had made before he left Dol Amroth. "I have brought a small square of mithril which I would like layered over the gold of this ring. The stone needs polishing. How long will it take you to complete this task?"

The jeweler looked up, stunned at the beauty of the ring being handed to him, and awed by the mithril square. Never had he held real mithril. "I cannot say. I have only worked with mithril one or two times," he lied. "Perhaps one month?"

"Where is your master?"

"He is in the back."

"Then get him, and quickly." The man ran and returned in a moment followed by a very old man.

The older man adjusted his eyepiece and looked at Denethor. "My Lord," he said in confusion. "You have not been here in an age. What is your pleasure? What may I do for you?"

"The ring you made for my sister has only brought her joy. I have a ring," and he took it from the hands of the apprentice, "that I need resizing. I would also like the golden band covered with mithril. Would you be able to do this?"

"My Lord, I recognize this ring. I made it myself. If you would indulge me? I would like to melt it, instead of just coating it with mithril. I would like to intertwine the two metals, the gold and the mithril and remake it. Would that be acceptable?"

Denethor was joy-filled. "I would most appreciate that."

The jeweler shooed his apprentice into the back room and lowered his voice. "It is for a special occasion, my Lord? When is it required?"

Denethor blushed. "It is for such an occasion. One week," said Denethor. "No longer. Thank you! By the way, your apprentice is a liar. I would be rid of him, if I were you." With that, he left the shop. He ran into Thorongil as he turned the corner.  Both men laughed. "I was making my way towards 'The Three Fishermen.' It is almost the sixth bell. Are you still able to meet with me?"

Thorongil smiled. "I was going there myself. I wanted to reserve a table towards the back. I would speak with you on matters that a more public area would not allow."

They sat at the back of the inn, cold draughts of ale in their hands. Denethor sat back after a mouthful and looked quizzically at Thorongil. "What matter weighs upon you so heavily?"

"Your father has asked me to take a missive to Thengel King."

Denethor drew in his breath. "I know what missive he is sending. I am surprised he has acted so quickly. And I am surprised that he is sending you."

"He asked me to take it first thing tomorrow morning. I thought, perhaps, that you would like to accompany me."

Denethor laughed bitterly. "Was that father's suggestion?"

"Nay," Thorongil answered puzzled. "It is long since we have had time to ourselves. I thought we might stop at the little river near the beacon-hill at Nardol. There is good fishing there, I am told, and I would most enjoy a few hours sport. We can push the horses a little faster from there and reach Edoras still within a good time. You would like to see your friend, I presume?"

"Of course," Denethor furrowed his brow. "I thought there might be another reason. That perhaps Ecthelion ordered me to accompany you."

"Why would he do that?"

"Because he has determined that I am to wed Hild."

"Hild! She has been promised to Walda's son, Éofor. They are to be wed this coming summer."

Denethor's laughter rang through the inn. Then, he stopped short. "That means I am to wed Almarian." Sighing, he called for another flagon.

"Almarian is pretty," Thorongil tried to sound positive.

"Yes, she is pretty enough, but that is all that speaks for her. Though I would obey father and marry her if not for..."

Thorongil kept still. The silence lengthened.

Afraid to share something so intimate, Denethor hesitated. Then he remembered the friendship that had grown between the two of them these past thirteen years, and he relented. "I have asked for the hand of Finduilas, Princess of Dol Amroth." He let out a sigh.

Thorongil sat back, waved for another flagon, and waited until he had taken a mouthful. "Your father is against the alliance?"

Denethor snorted. "He would flay me alive if I so much as breathe another word of her."

"So that is why you have been so quiet tonight. I should have guessed."

"Humph.  How could you know? I just approached him at noon."

"Indis called me to her chambers at the ninth bell. She asked me to find you."

The hairs on Denethor's back stood. "Is that why you were outside the jeweler's?"

"Nay.  I told her I would not; I told her I was meeting you here.  She said naught as to why she wanted you found."

"Forgive me. My heart is distraught. I know not what I am thinking or doing since my meeting with the Steward. How am I to persuade him to let me wed her? I cannot disobey him on this. It could mean war."

"Yes. You are probably correct when you say that. Perhaps there is something I can do?"

"What?  He seems to have a distrust, nay, a hatred for Elves. I cannot understand why.  This is his reason for forbidding it."

 "'Tis only a rumor. Yes, the house of Dol Amroth prefers to spread that rumor. As it is, it has been nigh unto twenty-five generations or so since Elvish blood mixed with a man of Dol Amroth. If the tales are true. Mayhap we can dissuade your father from that line of thought. We can malign such a rumor. Once that is done, we can persuade him that an alliance with Dol Amroth would be propitious. What think you of that?"

"It sounds wondrous, but will it work?"

"Give me time. I will see it done, my friend."

"I am not sure how much time we have. The Princess is quite beautiful. There are others who are vying for her hand. We agreed not to approach her father until I had the Steward's permission. For all I know, she could be promised to another even as we speak."

"Then I will leave you and go to your father.  It will take a few days time, I think.  Will you trust me for that long?"

"I cannot thank you enough, Thorongil. You save my life in one moment, and my heart in another."

"Nay, do not say that yet. Your father is strong-willed. But we will hope. There is always hope!"

~*~

"You took the ring from the treasury?" The horror in her whisper chilled him, but he would not be shamed.

"Yes!  It was mother's and she would want me to give it to my own wife."

"I cannot believe this. How do you ever think that father will agree to your betrothal if you stubbornly rebel against his authority, his wishes, at every turn? You are mad. Some fey mood has overcome you. I do not know how to help you."

"I need no help," he said between clenched teeth. "You have not asked for the ring for yourself. It sits and gathers cobwebs and dust. It means something to me! I would have her have it. Is that so strange?"

She shook her head, thoroughly exasperated. "I cannot believe your temerity. How did you even get the keys?"

He pulled himself up haughtily. "I am Heir to the Steward of Gondor and received the keys at the Ceremony. I had only to ask the Warden and they were mine."

"You can keep your conceit to yourself, little brother. I know you better."

He collapsed a little at that. Yes, she knew him well. But with Finduilas, all thoughts of sane action left him. He would do anything for her. He tried to explain his feelings to Indis, but she interrupted him.

 "I am delighted that you are standing up to father. However, I do not agree to the manner you have done it. The Treasury is revered, Denethor. It is not full of things to be handed down from one to another. Yes, mother's ring was there, but the ring symbolized more than the marriage of two people; the ring symbolized the coming together of two families, two countries... two people."

 "Is that not what I am proposing? Could it not be any clearer? In my brashness, I may have done wrong, but is it not for Gondor that I do this? Is not an alliance with Dol Amroth more important than an alliance with some besotted lord of Minas Tirith?"

"Now you would say that doing an evil for a good is to be commended? I do not think so, dear brother." She shivered slightly. "You are twisting my words to justify your actions. I will not have you do that."

He sat down hard on the ledge.

She came over to him, smoothed his hair back, and sighed. "You would not do this if not for the anger in your heart over father's refusal. You must look beyond the actions of others, Denethor, not use them as an excuse for improper actions on your own part. No matter the reason, your actions must be just and pure. As you said yourself, you are Heir to the Steward of Gondor." She stood still, hoping her words would weave their way through the hurt and despair she saw in his eyes.

He held her close to him. For a moment, he felt as a child again. All he wanted was Finduilas. All he cared about was Finduilas. Finally, fate had given him something wonderful, and he wanted it, desperately. "I... am... sorry. Long have I obeyed every one of father's orders. Long have I subjugated my needs for Gondor's.  Is it too much to ask for one thing?"

"Nay, dearest brother. It is not. It is the way you are trying to make it so. You said that you have spoken with Thorongil. In your absence, Thorongil has become a great captain and father respects him. He will think of a way to make this happen. Trust him, Denethor."

Denethor looked up into her eyes.  "I have seen this myself." He shuddered. "I am not sure... I am not sure that this is a good thing. Do you not wonder that he was made a captain? Never has a man not of Gondor been made a captain.  Father respects him, you say. Yes, I see that and wonder why a man from the north commands more respect than the son of the Steward." A note of bitterness crept into his voice.

"Denethor." She shook her head. "I have never understood father. I know you do not either. Thorongil is an honorable man. He has done naught to usurp your rightful place.  He will do naught, of that I am sure. Do not degrade yourself by thinking ill of him."

He hung his head in weariness. "I will trust him. I am close to despair. I will lose her if we do not act quickly. I know it."

"Do you have such distrust for your beloved, Denethor? Do you not think she is, at this very moment, doing everything she can to assure that the oaths you have made to each other will be kept?"

"Indis. Ever wise Indis. You are correct, as always.  I have been a fool. She will stay her father's hand. I will wait for Thorongil."

~*~

"My Lord Steward?  May I have a moment?"

"Of course, Thorongil. I need merely to finish signing these papers; then we may take a glass of wine and sit and enjoy a moment's peace. How strange. Gondor has been peaceful this last year. I believe it is your influence, Thorongil."

"My Lord," he laughed. "You give me too much credit. Orcs still roam Ithilien, Corsairs still build ships to destroy Gondor, and your borders are still compromised. I have done naught to bring about peace."

"Yet with you at my side, Thorongil, I have confidence that we can overcome these things."

"My Lord. You are too gracious." He sat back in the proffered chair and sipped the wine.  "Do you know aught of Dol Amroth, my liege? Its people, its customs?"

"Not as much as I would wish. Long have they kept themselves separate from Gondor.  Yes, they give lip service saying they are loyal, but they do not send men to our army.  Their sons stay at home, protected. Their daughters..." Ecthelion looked into the face of his captain. "So, that is why you are here - to wheedle permission for Denethor to wed?"

"Yes, my Lord. Will you not consider your own words? Long has Dol Amroth accepted the protection of Gondor with one hand and defied you with the other. How many times have you asked for assistance and they have not answered? Is this the way a fiefdom shows its loyalty? My Lord, Prince Adrahil is a good man and a wise ruler. He protects his people. But he must remain loyal to Gondor, not only to Belfalas. I am not saying that he is treasonous - far from it. He only does what he deems best for his people.  He must realize that Belfalas is not a country unto itself. If Gondor falls, Belfalas will surely fall.  That is his error, my Lord. Do you not see that an alliance with Dol Amroth is necessary? It is as if the Valar themselves have ordained this pairing."

"Yes. Yes. I believe you are correct. I do not like the thought that the blood of Húrin should be mingled with Elvish blood; yet I see the wisdom in your words. What matter it, the blood, when we wait for the king's return. Our focus should be on that. On keeping Gondor strong until the king returns."

Thorongil lowered his head to hide the color that rose on his cheeks.

~*~

He swallowed his pride a thousand times, because Ecthelion had agreed to the match.  However, the Steward had insisted they wait three years. 'Three years!' Denethor moaned. 'How will I survive three years?' He would be stationed at Cair Andros, in charge of the refortifications, while he waited for the discussions to be completed. How he wished he could be with Thorongil in Dol Amroth. He did not wholly trust the captain, and yet, what recourse was there but to accept his father's will in this? He begged to be part of the nuptial negotiations, but the Steward laughed at him. 'A man does not do his own negotiations. It is not the way. Be grateful for what I have given you.  Do not push me further!' And so, Thorongil had gone to Dol Amroth; he had gone to Cair Andros.

He lay awake at night wondering where she was, what she was doing. Were there dinners and balls being held in Thorongil's honor? His heart was torn from him at every imagined meeting between the two. Would she be overcome by Thorongil's charms as had Ecthelion? Would he woo her away? He could hardly bear the thoughts that assailed him and took to the ramparts of the fortress long before Anor rose. He would walk for hours, and when the first blush touched the sky, he would return to his bed in hopes that he could obtain a few hours rest. Oft as not, he could not.

He wished with all his might that Amdir was stationed with him, but Amdir was now captain of the garrison at Pelargir. Ecthelion, with the urging of Thorongil and Mithrandir, had decided to send more men and weapons to that fortress. Denethor shook his head. How often he had counseled the Steward to do such a thing, but it took a wizard and Thorongil to accomplish the deed. He could not fathom why Ecthelion would trust a wizard. His heart quivered at the remembrance of the many encounters with Curunír. Wizards were not to be trusted. He smiled a little; Amdir had said that so very long ago. He missed his friend.

~*~

His men were good men, well trained and of good spirit. The refortification was going well. He would lead a sortie out after nuncheon to survey the eastern side of the river.  They would not go too far. He was at Cair Andros to refortify the garrison not recapture North Ithilien. Damrod, now his second in command, had hand picked a sturdy lot to accompany him. As they set out, Denethor's mood finally lifted. He loved Ithilien. To be going back was a joy. Reports from his Rangers told him that Orc activity had increased, but it was daylight, and he was wary. He was taking enough men with him, a full company. They would not dare to attack.

Four hours from the river, as the band of Easterlings screamed their filthy battle cry, Denethor rued his decision. Why would Easterlings be here? They did not pass the Dead Marshes. Never had he heard of any, for an age at least, that had dared to set foot on Ithilien soil. He swung his sword, but the enemy's armor was such that his sword was almost useless.  He felt Rochallor's shudder before he saw the polearm connect. The curved spike on the top of the weapon had sliced through his steed's hamstring. Denethor tried mightily to jump away from the horse as it fell, screaming, to the ground. He wanted to cover his ears. Quickly, he drew his sword back and sliced through his friend's throat. Tears scalded his cheeks, but the attacking Easterling now focused his attention on Denethor. Drawing a quick breath, Denethor tried to work his way to his enemy's back, for only there was an Easterling defenseless. It was not to be. The enemy knew what Denethor was about and kept his back from him. As the scimitar came down upon him, Denethor turned and fell to the ground. He held his shield before him, but the Easterling replaced his weapon and drew forth his shorter polearm. Thrusting it at Denethor's wriggling body, he knew he would overcome the Gondorian shortly. Just as the last thrust was pulled back, the Easterling arched forward, an arrow in its back. Denethor rolled to his side, grasping the wound in agony while trying to stem the flow of blood.

~*~

"There were traitors, my Lord, that is how the Easterlings surprised us." Damrod's snarl told of his anger and sense of betrayal. "The two that served you at the garrison at Nardol. The same that questioned your orders there. They have been captured. Would you judge them now?"

Denethor drew in his breath at the news. "I do not understand. Tell me of what you speak, Damrod.  It makes no sense!"

"My Lord," Damrod started more slowly. "Forgive me. The healer told me I might speak with you, but if you are not well enough...?"

He held his hand to his head. "What you have just told me is more important than my healing," he snapped. "I cannot lie here with treachery afoot. Tell me of what you speak!"

Damrod knelt closer to Denethor's cot. "I sent the Rangers after..."

"The Rangers?" Denethor would have shouted had not his head hurt so badly. "What Rangers? What do...? I remember naught after I fell. You must begin at that moment."

"Yes, my Lord.  I am sorry." He drew in a breath. "We were lost, my Lord, and would have been Easterling fodder if the Rangers of Henneth Annûn had not arrived when they did. As it is, we lost nigh unto forty-seven men. The Rangers descended upon our foe with ease and dispatched them all. When the battle was done, scouts were sent out; two men were discovered hiding near a stream only a league from the battle site. They were brought back and found to be soldiers under your command. We thought they were just cowards, men who had not faced battle before and knew only to run. Not one of us ever suspected treachery. But Captain Dúinhir did. The Rangers took them away, they confessed, and were brought back here. What means were used to acquire that confession, I do not know. We have them under guard and awaiting your judgment."

Denethor realized he had half-risen from the cot and now lay back upon it. His breath was shallow and pain-filled.

The healer, one he did not know, came forward. "My Lord, you must rest now."

His pain-glazed eyes looked up. "Rest? Be gone from me." Silently he cursed himself for not knowing the man's name.

"My Lord," the healer said more sternly. "You must rest. You are under my care and I will not allow further converse. I let your second speak with you only for a moment. That moment is long past and you will rest."

The authority in the man's voice rang out; Denethor was pleased to see such fervor. It reminded him of Arciryas; he placed more trust in the man's orders. "Yes. If you command, I will rest - but for only an hour." He turned towards Damrod. "Come back to me in one hour's time. We will finish this discussion." He closed his eyes, fervently wishing for sleep to quickly overtake him.

The healer stepped closer. "My Lord, I would that you would drink this. It is Valerian tea. It will help you sleep and ease the pain."

"I know full well what the tea will do and I will not drink it. I would be asleep for much longer than the hour I require. Now leave me be so that I may take as much rest as I am able in the short time I have left." He tried to turn on his side and immediately, pain lanced through his entire body. He stiffened and the healer dropped to his knees beside the cot.

"'Tis weak tea, laced with honey, my Lord. You will sleep for only a short time. You must needs relief from the pain else you will not be able to even think, once you wake."

When he did wake, the camp was being struck. Men were mounting their horses; trumpets were blowing. He wondered, for a moment, where he was. Then, slowly, his memory returned, along with the pain. The hiss of his breath caused the healer to come to his side.

"I am glad to see you awake, my Lord. The draught must have been more potent than I thought."

Denethor looked askance. Was the man lying? Had he tricked him into drinking a heavier sedative than he had promised? The contrition in the man's eyes belied those thoughts.

"I must have needed the sleep. Send Damrod to me." The healer turned and swiftly ran towards Denethor's second.  He felt very tired at this moment, more so than his forty-three years should feel.  Of course, it was the wound, his responsibilities to his men, the thought of the forty-seven dead, and the treachery of two of his own. Nay, it was naught but treachery that made him feel as old, wizened, and dead as the White Tree.

Damrod stepped forward. "My Lord, I hope it does not go against your will, but I deemed it wise to strike camp and leave this area. The healer said you are well enough to travel. The Rangers wish to return to their patrols. We cannot stay here with our number so diminished."

Denethor's short laugh was swallowed in the pain the laughter caused. He clung to consciousness by a thread.

Damrod knelt next to him, "My Lord?" and turning, screamed for the healer.

Denethor put his hand on Damrod's shoulder. "Just give me a moment. I am better. I must learn not to laugh when wounded." He started to laugh again at the incongruity of it all, but bit his lip to silence himself. 'I am giddy. I must be injured more than I had thought.' He lay back on the cot. Opening his eyes again, he looked towards his second. "How were you planning on getting me out of here? I see now that I cannot straddle a horse."

"The healer ordered a cart from Cair Andros. It was a little difficult getting it across the Anduin, but we succeeded. It will serve its purpose."

He smiled. "Thank you, Damrod. There was mention of treachery, if I recall rightly?"

"Yes, my Lord. Two of our men. They are bound and under close guard."

"We will convene the trial once we have returned to Cair Andros. We will need the Rangers who questioned them." He thought for a moment. "Nay, we cannot do it there.  We will have to wait until we reach Minas Tirith. The men's Fief Lord must be present, along with myself, and Captain Ciramir, the commander of our branch. This must be done correctly. I want them dead. I want their heads severed from their bodies. And I want every man not born of Gondor to know that treason means death!"

"Yes, my Lord. It will be done correctly. Do you want them taken directly to Minas Tirith?"

 "Nay, we are too few as you rightly pointed out. When we arrive at Cair Andros, you will dispatch a detail. Make sure their orders are to immediately throw them into the dungeons of the Citadel. Neither food nor water is to be given to them until I return.  Do you understand?"

"Yes, my Lord. It is time we begin our journey back. The men are ready."

"Damrod," how he hated to do this, "you take command. I cannot." He lay back on the cot; it was gently lifted to the cart, and the decimated company turned westward.

Ch. 11 - Third Age 2973 - Part Two

He tried to hide the smile that played in his heart. Of late, he had found that humor sprang to his mind unbidden. Yet, it was a terrifying humor, dark, cold and forbidding. Everything seemed incongruous. Everything seemed folly. He bit his lip. Tears stung his eyes, but he would not let them pass. Ecthelion had raved for nigh unto an hour. Denethor's back stayed straight, but his heart flinched at every invective, every false accusation. Being upbraided for something he had done was bad enough. 'To stand here and listen to this harangue about my failings in Ithilien is indeed bitter,' he thought. He realized Ecthelion was waiting for a reply. To acknowledge fault - he would not do that. To apologize - nay, that was not within him. Not for this. His mind scrambled to find a suitable reply. There was none. He stood mute.  

Ecthelion hissed. "You have naught to say?" he mocked him. "Then, go to your quarters. Mourn your lack of judgment. Mourn the men you lost - men that Gondor desperately needs. Mourn your demotion. I will not speak to you again until you can tell me what purpose was accomplished by this disaster."

He saluted, turned, heard the word 'disappointed' fall from his father's lips, and continued walking. He tried to straighten his shoulders as he left the Hall. 'Must keep them straight. Must not falter,' he intoned over and over until he passed through the doors. The fog covering his mind seemed to lift as he entered the door of his own chambers. Damrod stood inside, waiting for him. "I do not like the look on your face, my Captain. Please sit here.  I have made tea."

Denethor flinched as he sat. "Please ask Arciryas to attend me at his earliest convenience. You may go."

Once the door had shut behind his lieutenant, he started to laugh. The sound shook him to the bone. Tears fell. The cackling stopped. 'I am going mad,' he thought, 'I am going mad.' He laid his head against the chair's leather back and sighed.  

"I am here, dearest brother," he heard Indis' voice say quietly.  "I am here."

He opened his eyes. She was kneeling by his feet. "I am afraid, Indis.  I fear I am going mad. I cannot listen to him without fearful laughter choking me."

She shushed him, poured the tea, and held it to his lips. Arciryas entered the room and heard the last of his words. He stepped forward, took the tea from Indis' hand, and walked to the sideboard. He quickly ground some leafy thing with his pestle, poured it into the hot tea, stirred it, and returned to Denethor's side. "I have never understood why Ecthelion insists on grilling a man when he is injured. You should be in the Houses." The anger in his voice was palpable. Denethor, not caring what was in it, took the cup and drank. Arciryas pulled a foot stool close, picked up Denethor's feet and placed them on it. Then he pulled a chair close and sat on it. He motioned for Indis to leave. She hesitated. He gave her a sad smile and she obeyed.

They sat thus for hours. Denethor's breathing slowed. At last, his head nodded. Arciryas still sat. As evening came, Indis peeked in. Arciryas waved her off. She bit her lip and left, anger sparking from her.

"Thorongil," the sound startled Arciryas into wakefulness. Denethor had not moved, but his lips moved as he slept.  "All... lost... better man...  loved... father..." A heavy sigh shook his frame and his eyes opened. Arciryas almost cried at the pain evident in those eyes. So many years they had been together, soldier, friend, healer, and brothers by marriage. So many enemies they had faced together, so many deaths; Morwen sprang to mind... Yet, through it all, they had overcome adversity. How was he to help Denethor recover this time? The injury to body and soul was grave. 'Mayhap I will stay silent,' he thought. 'And hope he will confide in me. I wish Amdir were here.'

Indis again entered the room, this time with a tray of cheeses, breads, jams, and roasted meat. "You will both eat." She spoke sternly and both men laughed. Denethor sighed with relief. His laughter sounded genuine and sane. She kissed his forehead and left.

"Ever has she been a help to me," Arciryas stated. "And ever has she ordered me about." He laughed again. "You will discover this yourself, Denethor, when you are wed to your Finduilas."

Denethor sat still. "What hope is there for marriage, now? Adrahil will not allow her to marry a disgraced and demoted soldier, no matter his other titles." His chin shook and tears ran down his cheeks. "Forgive me," he whispered. "I am going mad, weeping like a child."

"There is naught to forgive. Your body, my friend, is in shock. The wound is severe. You will be fit again within a month's time. Until that time, do not be concerned about your mind's reaction. It will pass. Your father is mistaken, forgive me for saying this, but he is. You are a great captain, wise and thoughtful. You were prepared for anything but treachery. I cannot remember when such a thing has happened in Gondor. It is enough to make one go mad. Treachery, betrayal... these are things that happen not in Gondor. I do not understand, though, why you did not..." He pursed his lips in thought. "Your father was wrong. That is all I can say."

Denethor shrugged, hissed at the pain, and bowed his head. "I did not know what to say. He has not cowed me like that in a very long time. I have gone over the battle often. I cannot see any way that we would have won it. If not for the Rangers, I would not be here now." He pushed back his plate of uneaten food and gazed into the distance. "Ecthelion is saying that I should not have gone out on patrol. I had sent out scouts. I had placed pickets when we stopped for supper. We were alert."

"What happened to the scouts?"

"Our own men tricked them, their throats were cut, and the Easterlings were waved forward. This is what comes of having foreigners in our army. Ecthelion should never have opened our ranks to any not of Gondor."

"The traitors were Easterlings?" Arciryas asked.

"Yes. I had not been comfortable with them since the Drúadan Forest.  I should have listened to my heart and drummed them out of the service right there and then. Their impertinence and lack of discipline were great, but we need men, Arciryas, no matter how lacking their abilities. Now, I have paid for it with the lives of my men."

"Eat, before Indis returns. You will feel her wrath, if naught else. And you do need your strength. You must convene the trial. Have you set a date yet?"

"As soon as it is possible. Their Fief Lord is coming in from the north. As soon as he arrives, we will do it. I want them dead," he snarled, "as soon as possible. I want the other foreigners to see that Gondor is not weak, that we will not countenance treachery.  I want Ecthelion to see the kind of men he has allowed to enter his service."

~*~

'The kind of men allowed.' Thorongil had returned. Ecthelion fairly beamed as he listened to the results of his negotiations. The dowry was not too dear. The treasury was needed for metals, weapons, food, and soldiers' pay, not for marriage. Denethor could see the tautness of his father's jaw as they discussed the offering. He stood next to the Steward's Chair in silence. He should feel shame, for he was presented to Thorongil as lieutenant, yet naught could diminish the joy he felt at the messenger's news. He had been dismissed soon after, yet Ecthelion had ordered Thorongil to stay further. Denethor left the Hall, again shoulders pulled stiffly back. He would show no sign that he had been disgraced.

Instead of returning to his chambers, he headed for the Fourth Level and 'The Three Fishermen.'  The lass brought his flagon and he motioned her away, though she obviously had hopes for other orders.  He tried to keep his mind focused on her, his Finduilas, but he could not. Thorongil's face stared out of his misery. The love and respect Ecthelion showered upon the northerner was plain to see. Denethor bit his lip.  Perhaps he would be made Captain-General.  He drew in his breath sharply. Never had anyone but the Heir been made Captain-General, but all rules, protocols, and policies seemed to have been thrown off the escarpment. Bitterness welled in Denethor's heart; he endeavored to push it aside. Thorongil had done what had been asked of him. And for that, Denethor was heartily grateful. He looked up as he heard the chair across from him scrape across the floor.

"May I?" the captain asked.

"Please." Denethor said and motioned for him to sit. Yet no words were spoken between the two after that. Several moments passed and Denethor spoke. "Is she well?" he asked haltingly. "Does she remember me in a fair light? Did she give you, perhaps, a message for me?"

"I have a missive here, my Lord." And with that, he handed Denethor a packet wrapped in gold ribbon.

Denethor looked up in appreciation. "Thank you!" He turned his face away from Thorongil and undid the package. Tenderly, he opened the letter inside and a flower fell out and onto the floor. Thorongil stooped and picked it up, handing it to him.  After reading the note, Denethor was again silent.

Thorongil finished his ale and gestured for another two to be brought to their table. He kept still, all the while watching Denethor's face; smiling at the joy that filled it. He gave a short chuckle as he thought of how the emotions mirrored those of the woman who gave him the packet. 'Two peas in a pod,' he thought. 'I will be very happy to see this union take place.  I wish it were sooner.'

Denethor put aside all happy thoughts and turned towards Thorongil. "There has been treachery in the army.  I cannot remember ever seeing treachery within the ranks. Cowardice, perhaps, but never treachery. Would you tell me - you have never taken oath to Ecthelion nor to Gondor. Would you do such a thing? Should I, knowing that half-truths are given, and subterfuge is employed by one very close to the Steward, consider treachery in others?" His eyes were sharp and drilled into Thorongil.

The man sat back in amaze. He did not answer for a moment, then took a sip of ale, and set the flagon down. "'Twould seem honor would not be served, my Lord..."

"There! Again you speak as if we were not friends, calling me your Lord!  How is this?"

Thorongil clenched his hand on the flagon and Denethor noted it. "Twice now, my Lord," Thorongil spat the title out, "you have come to me with questions of loyalty. If you do not trust me, why do you not banish me from Gondor?"

Denethor's dry laugh hurt. "I have no authority to do such a thing and I have lost all my father's regard, Thorongil, my friend." He looked up into steel gray eyes. "I would speak with you, not in honeyed-terms as the counselors of my father, but in the bluntness of friendship. I am concerned. I am beyond angry and would stop this canker that is brought from outside. Forty-seven of my men were killed. Forty-seven that Gondor can ill afford to lose. Is an oath required of foreigners? What think you of that?"

"Oath or no, Denethor, if there is treachery in a man's heart, an oath will not stop it. If there is no treachery in a man's heart," and he looked pointedly at Denethor, "then an oath will not start it. You asked me earlier this year if I believed the king would come.  Would you accept him or would you ask an oath of him also?"

"Of course an oath would have to be given; it is part of the ceremony," Denethor snapped.  Then sighed and took another drink. "And I have told you before, there must be proof, proof as strong as mithril, that the claim is true." He looked down at the cup he held in his hand. A heavy sigh escaped his lips. "I would not require an oath of you, my friend." Then he finished the cup and stood. "I must return to my company. I must report to my captain." Bitterness fell from the words.

"Your father has erred," Thorongil said. "I have heard the reports of the attack and know you did well. May I speak on your behalf?"

"Nay.  I am used to father's punishments, his whims; I will wait for the air to clear before I approach him." He turned and strode out of the inn. Cursing, he realized Thorongil had never answered his questions about Finduilas. He turned to step inside again and ran directly into the captain.

"She is most anxious to see you. She sends her love," Thorongil said as he clasped Denethor's shoulder. "Mayhap, I would be allowed to accompany you, next time you are granted permission to see her. As your chaperone."

Denethor clasped Thorongil on the shoulder in return. "Yes," he smiled and the brilliance of it lit his face. "We will ride together, when father's anger is spent, and we will fish on the way." The men laughed as they walked towards the Citadel.

Ch. 12 - Third Age 2976

A sparrow lit on the parapet and Denethor almost lost his footing in surprise. He was standing upon the wall itself, hanging onto one of the marble pieces that was placed upright for beauty's sake, craning his neck for signs of the entourage. He laughed ruefully, 'Twould be well and good for me to fall and crash below. An interesting way to greet my bride!' The laugh changed to a startled cry of joy. Dust was disturbed in the distance, along the South Road, more dust than a lone horseman or cart would kick up. It must be her!

He jumped off the parapet, onto the escarpment, ran to the wall that began his shortcut, and started down, level by level. On the Fourth Level, he had to stop for a breath. "I am growing too old for this," he moaned softly. The pause gave his body a chance to complain. He looked at his burning hands, surprised by the blood oozing from various cuts. 'I think I will have to stop climbing these walls soon, and use the streets.' Too anxious to take the slower, longer road along those streets, he once again grabbed a handhold and crawled down another part of his childhood shortcut. He startled a servant who was hanging out her mistress' wash, but only gave a grunt of apology and continued.

By now he was on the Second Level and decided it would be prudent to take to the streets; he ducked into one of the inns. The hosteller was startled by the appearance of the son of the Steward, but, upon request, led him to a room with sink, towels, and a mirror. Thankful, Denethor noted none of the blood had dripped onto his clothing. After cleaning up and running a hand through his hair, he left the room, flipped a coin to the hosteller with a mumbled thank you and walked out into the sun. It was the first he had noticed the day; it could not be more beautiful. Spring flowers were in full bloom; a wind, strong enough to carry the odors away from the City and to snap the Steward's banners, blew from the south.

As he walked into the Ranger's Quarters on the First Level, he smiled. Damrod never failed to amaze him; his horse was saddled and ready. The mane was braided as was the tail, and a mithril-edged helmet covered the horse's head. He was glad he had worn his own best livery. 'Twould not do to have his horse look more elegant than himself.

Horse and rider passed through the Great Gate as the City's trumpets sounded. A herald rode behind him holding the White Banner of the House of Húrin. He rode slowly; it would not do to appear too anxious. He heard hoof beats behind him and espied Thorongil riding towards him, followed by a contingent of Ecthelion's personal guard, the Steward's banner flying in front of them. Denethor pulled his mount up and waited. Thorongil drew next to him and smiled. "Forgive my temerity, my Lord, but I did not think it proper that the future Steward of Gondor should be left to greet his Lady without escort." Denethor smiled, turned his horse south again, and continued his journey, Thorongil at his side. The Knights of Gondor, mounted on the best horses in the land, rode in a double file. Denethor turned slightly in his saddle to see. Pride swelled his heart for at that very moment, the sun, coming from behind a small white cloud, touched the Citadel. The glory of it, the beauty, took his breath away. She could not help but fall in love with his City, not on a day like today.

They reached the Harlond. Her escort had stopped at the ancient port and awaited him. Adrahil stepped from the coach. One of his men brought a fine looking steed, which the Prince of Dol Amroth mounted. He clasped arms warmly with Thorongil and then turned and saluted Denethor. The slight was swift but not unnoticed. 'So,' Denethor thought, 'we play games. If this smoothes the ill content of our marriage, then I will endure any slight for her.' The three turned their horses and rode at the front of the column. Thorongil chatted amiably with the prince, who chose to ignore the Steward's son. Denethor held his anger in check. All he wanted was to jump off his horse, open the carriage in which she rode, and take her into his arms. But - she was not yet his. The entourage passed through the Great Gates while the trumpets sang out the joy that was in his heart. He had never heard the full swell of trumpets. His banishment had caused him to miss Ecthelion's coronation ceremony, the only time within his lifetime that the full call of the trumpets of Gondor had rung out. Indis had told him how the sound had filled every nook and hollow in the City, echoing off Mount Mindolluin itself. He shivered for the grandeur of it. Despite his anger and frustration over the binding of the two houses, Ecthelion would not shame Gondor by not presenting a mighty exhibition of welcome and celebration.

The men dismounted at the great square of Isildur. Her carriage stopped; Adrahil opened the door, took her hand and helped her out. Denethor craned his neck, trying to manage a glimpse of her, but the Knights of the Swan barred his way. He lifted an eyebrow. Another snub. He would be forced to walk behind Adrahil's men. Thorongil, it seemed, would not allow this affront to pass, though. He took Denethor's arm and walked him to the front of the company. The man, well loved by the Swan Knights, commanded respect and the company let them pass. Refreshments were served under a portico set up purposefully for this event. Light drinks and pastries, designed to refresh the road weary travelers, completed the fare. After this short repast, at which Denethor could get no closer to her than ten yards away, flanked as she was by her family, she was returned to her carriage and the procession started towards the Citadel.

When they reached the Sixth Level, the carriage stopped. Finduilas stepped out, blinded by the morning light shining off white Mindolluin marble. She smiled when she caught sight of him. He stepped towards her, but Adrahil took her hand and turned her towards the tunnel that led to the Citadel. Denethor took a step back, longing filling his face. He had forgotten any insult as soon as he had seen her.

Thorongil, putting his hand on Denethor's shoulder, whispered, "Soon, she will be yours forever. Let Adrahil have his moment."

Denethor grunted in agreement. "Now that she is here, in my City, I can hope."

"I know," Thorongil chuckled, "Believe me, I know." His thoughts went back to the last three years. Four times a year Denethor had persuaded Ecthelion to allow him to go to Dol Amroth. Thorongil had no trouble procuring permission to accompany him. Four times a year they would fish on the return trip. Never on the way, for Denethor was hard-pressed to see her - his beloved. Thorongil smiled, thinking of the hours he had spent, line in a river somewhere between Dol Amroth and Minas Tirith, listening to minute details of Finduilas: her qualities, her expressions, her profound wisdom, until he would have to cry, "Stop, my Lord! I can stand no more, else I will woo the fair maiden myself." At which Denethor would blush and mumble an apology. The two men would laugh, pull their lines in, and bed down for the night. For three years Denethor's spirit had grown lighter and lighter.

Now the time was come at last.

The tunnel ended and they stood before the Courtyard. He gasped. She was overcome with emotion; he could see it in her face. He wanted to cry seeing the beauty of it reflected in her eyes. The stunning white marble, the great expense of the Courtyard and escarpment itself, the Guards of the Citadel before the Court of the Fountain with their black surcoats embroidered with the White Tree and their winged mithril helmets, the swatch of green grass in the whiteness, and then - she paused and drew in her breath - the White Tree. Was that a tear on her cheek? Was it anguish over its deadness? He had forgotten; he should have told her. Adrahil seeing none of the beauty, took her arm, and forced her away from the sight. They walked to the Citadel. His heart broke. How he wished he could have stood next to her, drinking in the beauty and grandeur of the Courtyard through her eyes. How he wished he could have held her and told her the tree would bloom again. How he wanted to sweep her into his arms and love her right there, on the spot. His face was on fire for the thought of her. He would never be able to thank her for this glimpse of a first time sight. He wanted to fall to his knees and worship her. He leaned against the tunnel wall trying to catch his breath. Thorongil spoke softly. "My Lord, you do not want to miss her entry into the Great Hall?" Denethor blinked twice, drew a breath and started forward.

The guard opened the doors into the Great Hall; Prince Adrahil led Finduilas in, Denethor and Thorongil followed. She turned to him for one moment, her smile subdued, but the twinkle in her eyes stopped his breath. He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to let his heart return to some semblance of normalcy. The group moved forward; Thorongil gently took his arm and led him along. He was grateful; the Hall looked magnificent, marble walls and statues polished till they shone; he could see his face reflected in the glass-like shine of the floor. He had Indis to thank for this, he knew.

As they approached the Steward's Chair, Denethor's heart dropped. A blush of shame covered his face. Ecthelion should be on the Throne, his heart said, but he shook his head, chided himself and continued to walk forward. 'Ten thousand years will not suffice.' His father's words wound their way around his heart. Though their blood was as fine, nay even better than many in Minas Tirith, and those from Belfalas, never would the sons of the House of Húrin be aught but Stewards. He bit his lip, remembering Prince Adrahil's grand throne at Dol Amroth. His father was better... Nay, he must stay this thinking.

They bowed low, Prince Adrahil and Princess Finduilas, to his father, and for that, Denethor was grateful. Ecthelion rose from the Chair, stepped down the few steps, and kissed Adrahil on both cheeks, then turned his gaze upon Finduilas. Denethor noted the slight rise of his father's eyebrows as he looked upon her. She looked breath taking, even after such a long journey. Denethor's heart stood still for one moment, then Ecthelion pulled her close, kissed each cheek lightly, and led them to the Hall of Feasts. Denethor sighed and Thorongil laughed at his discomfiture.

"I tell you, all will be well, my friend," Thorongil whispered. "She has charm and wit and courage. She will hold her own against the Steward."

Denethor laughed and walked behind the group. "It is still a whole month before the ceremony. I will be able to neither eat, sleep, nor breath until that is completed. Perhaps we should go on patrol or some such. Anything to not be a witness to these grueling moments. My heart stops every time a new situation arises. I know she will hold her own against all, but I would that she did not have to. I would that we could run away, marry, and live together in joy. I sometimes think that will never be."

Thorongil chuckled. "Fate would not be so cruel as to bring you two together only to separate you. Rest in the knowledge of her love, her loyalty. She will be yours forever, and soon, my friend."

"It is good to hear you say such things." A cloud passed over Denethor's face.

"Is there aught wrong?" Thorongil asked quietly.

"A shadow sometimes seems to pass over us, as I try to look into our future."

"Then," Thorongil laughed outright, "You must stop looking!"

Denethor laughed loudly. "Yes, my friend. I will stop."

~*~

Though Denethor had only jested about going on patrol, a situation arose the very next day, and he was ordered to Cair Andros. Thorongil stayed in the City. Damrod rode with him, along with a full battalion of knights, though the number in a battalion was now five hundred, compared to the seven hundred of just thirty years ago. As they reached the island, signs of recent battle smote their eyes. There were dead horses, battered carts, and armor strewn along the shores of the Anduin. The battle must have been great. He thought of the men he had commanded just a few short years ago, and hoped that those he loved and respected had not fallen. No bodies were visible. They had all been buried and the Orcs' carcasses burned. The mound still smoldered. Denethor put a hand over his nose as they passed it. Never could he become inured to the smell. They stopped on the west side of the great river, pickets were set, and two companies rode forward on patrol.

Damrod brought Denethor tea where he sat on a great fallen hickory tree. His captains congregated around him. "We will wait until our scouts return before we cross the river," he said quietly. "I would that we could cross over immediately, but seeing the signs of a battle that looks ended does not mean it is so; we cannot trust that it is over. Nor that Orcs are not waiting in ambush on the island itself. We must content ourselves to wait here. I want no fires this night. And I want the pickets doubled. Caution the men to keep quiet. We will leave in the morning, if the patrols do not return by then. If they have not returned, we will assume the worst and go in battle formation. Now, take your rest, it might be the last you have for many a day." He walked to his tent and entered it. Damrod was inside, another cup of tea waiting. "You are the best aide I have had," Denethor smiled. "Thank you. Get some rest yourself now. I will need you at my side tomorrow, awake and alert." He fell into the cot, still dressed. Damrod shrugged, pulled off his captain's boots, and left him.

~*~

The patrol had returned in the middle of the night with the news that the battle had indeed been won, and that those stationed at the garrison were back guarding it. Denethor did not strike camp, but decided to wait till the morrow. Once they had broken the fast the next morning, Denethor called Damrod to his tent.

"Do you know how much your worth is to me?" Denethor asked his aide as the morning's light bathed the tent. "Nay, do not answer. I ask you this now for I would have your total allegiance."

"My Lord," Damrod started to reply but was interrupted by Denethor.

"You will never be named a Captain of Gondor. I think you know that. It is custom in Gondor that only those with pure Númenórean blood are made up to captain. There has been an incident recently that has broken this tradition, you know of whom I speak; yet, there is only the one instance. I have asked Ecthelion to raise you, but he has called upon this tradition and refused me. I am... I have not words to tell you the value I place on you. I speak now, for another will be raised to captaincy, one whom has been only a short time with our company. I wanted you to know, before his promotion is announced, that you were, are, and will be my first choice for captain. If it were in my power, you would be one today. I..." He could not continue.

Damrod held his face impassive. Denethor was pleased, but the man's stoic behavior only further angered Denethor at his father's refusal. "I am sorry. I... I would ask that you continue as my aide, as my first officer, and as my friend. I would understand if you would prefer to transfer to another battalion."

Damrod blinked. "My Lord, my duty is to Gondor and to the Steward. Whatever he wills, I will. May I be dismissed?"

Denethor wanted to hug the man in gratitude. Too long had they been comrades-in-arms to let this pass without further words. He struggled to think what he might say to assuage the grief he expected his aide felt.

"My Lord," Damrod felt his captain's chagrin, "There is naught further to say. When I took commission in the service of Gondor, I knew what her traditions were. My heart had been set on only serving Gondor. It is my everlasting joy that I have been allowed to serve her through you. I will go and prepare your horse now." He saluted Denethor and backed out of the tent.

~*~

The garrison itself had been spared. Scouts had discovered the Orc hoard before they crossed the Anduin. Their goal seemed to be Osgiliath. Those not killed had run back towards the Nindalf.

As he and his men entered the gates of the island fort, a cheer went up. Denethor noted the diminished numbers of the battalion. 'Their losses were heavy,' he thought. A sudden anger filled him. 'How do these Orcs dare to trod on our land?' his mind screamed. 'We cannot continue to countenance this affront.' Dismounting, he strode quickly to his old office followed by the captain of the garrison. As he sat in the chair, he realized he was no longer captain here and stood up in embarrassment.

"Nay, my Lord," Captain Hathol said. "Please, sit. I await your orders."

He sat back down. "Alas, I have none for you. Your orders remain the same: guard the fort, patrol for Orcs and other enemies, and keep Gondor safe. A little thing." His sarcasm was not lost on the captain. "How many have you lost?"

"A full company, nigh unto seventy men and twenty horses. Neither supply easily replaced."

"I know. I will view the men before nuncheon. Please have them assembled at that time. I am sorry..." he paused for a moment. "Is there aught that I can do for you? That my men can do for you?"

"Burial has already been performed. We had planned a small ceremony..." he hesitated. "In the morning. Would you be able to stay?"

"Of course! I would be honored. May I have the roll of those lost? I have friends here..."

"You will have it on your desk within the hour." He saluted, turned and left.

Denethor rubbed his hands over the top of the desk. He had many fond memories from his stay here.
 

~*~

He decided to remain on Cair Andros for another fortnight. Walls needed reinforcing and the battle-weary troops needed rest. His men could provide that help and that rest. As he sat in his office, Damrod entered. "My Lord, the horse situation is not good. They have lost too many in this last battle. The troops here need horses for patrol. Their territory is vast. They need them more than we who are stationed in Minas Tirith."

"I have been thinking on the same situation," Denethor stated. "I would like to lead a foray to the Mering Stream, meet with the Rohirrim; if memory serves me, they have an outpost there. Mayhap they will have extra mounts that we might trade for. Send two errand-riders to the Rohirric garrison. I will write the missive now."

The next day, before Anor itself had risen, the errand-riders were dispatched. Three days later, Denethor led half of his battalion west. On the third day after that, they pulled up to the Rohirric camp at the Mering Stream as the sun reached its peak.

"My Lord Denethor?" a soldier came forward, hand brought to his chest in salute. He laughed at the surprise on Denethor's face. "Thengel King himself taught me the proper way to greet the Steward's son." Then he pulled Denethor into a huge hug. "I am Éomund and I am in charge of this lowly camp. I am honored and pleased to meet the friend of my king." He paused. "And Walda's. He was a cousin and a friend. I understand you were with him at the end?"

Denethor sat on the proffered seat, a grimace covering his face. "Yes. Would that I had arrived sooner. He was mortally wounded by the time I reached him. We spent three years together, serving Rohan. He was a good Marshal and a good friend. I owed him my life many times over."

"And he you. I have heard of the battles you two were part of. Songs, even, have been made of some of them. Perhaps tonight we might sing them 'round the fire?"

Denethor blushed slightly. "I have heard of no such songs. If it pleases your men to sing them, we will listen - but - I believe songs of Eorl, Helm Hammerhand, or even Thengel King would sound sweeter."

~*~

After the noon meal, Éomund took Denethor to the horse enclosure. Over fifty horses were gathered together.

"Are all for sale?" Denethor asked incredulously.

"Yes, Denethor. As soon as the errand-riders showed me your missive, I knew my king would want me to do all in my power to help you. I sent runners to nearby posts. We have assembled what we could. I am ashamed, however. I know Gondor loves the black stallions of the East Emnet, but I have ill news. Most have been stolen." He held a hand to silence Denethor's questions. "It is not Orcs. Our custom was to leave our horses to wander free until we had need of them. A year ago, we noticed that the blacks were disappearing. We know not who, or what, is taking them. We now keep them in holding pens. But it harms their spirit. They are accustomed to being free."

"I have heard no such reports. Has the Steward been told?"

Éomund drew himself up. "The men of the Riddermark do not need Mundburg's help in such a little thing."

"My deepest apologies, Éomund. The sons of Eorl have long protected the western borders that abut Gondor. Would you think that I, who have served under Fengel King, do not know of your courage, your wisdom? Yet, Gondor cannot survive without knowledge of what happens on her borders. You must see that." He paused for a moment, letting his words sway the young soldier. "It is not in disparaging thoughts that I asked my question. Gondor would be foolish not to listen to her league-fellows."

"Nay, forgive me," Éomund blushed. "I am hot headed and rash. Wisdom would be served by knowledge. You speak true. If you would allow, I will send monthly missives to Mundburg with news of the goings-on in our part of the Riddermark, with my king's permission."

"No apology is needed. You fight a desperate battle. I know; I have been there. Your mind and wherewithal are on other matters. Yet, it would be in the best interest of Gondor and the men of the Riddermark to converse as often as possible. Let us to your tent to discuss terms for the horses."

~*~

Night came, pickets were set, and the fires were lit. Instruments of all sort were drawn forth and the night's entertainment begun. Denethor smiled to be back among these warriors. He knew many of the songs by heart; it felt good to sing them again. 'Ah, Amdir would laugh to hear me sing, but I believe my voice has improved since our little jaunt to Rath Dínen.' He shared warm ale and a bedroll with Éomund. Leaning against it, he thought, 'I rather like this young warrior. Headstrong, yes, but wise too. If he can keep from becoming enmeshed in fighting, he should turn into a strong leader for Rohan.'

Suddenly, he sat up. He recognized the song as one of Walda's favorites. 'Where now the horse and rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?' The singer sang while the harpist picked the notes. He held his breath, such beauty in the words and the simple melody. He never understood the last two lines, but it mattered not. Haunting was the melody and haunting were the words. 'Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning, Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?' The camp was silent for many long moments after the last note fell.

Another man began to sing and the harpist quickly followed.

Northern fields touched by sun
Awake to horns mighty sound
Rohirrim ride strong and bold
Rise with them, we must away.

Fealty to our king with mighty oaths
Shields raised, spears held high
Swords shining in the Riddermark
Ride now! Ride on!

Foe-beleaguered our steeds striding
Marching forth, to battle called
Fight and fall, buried deep
To heart's breaking, grief awaking.

Buried deep in snow-covered mounds
Where Gentle Simbelmynë rest awash in tears
Warriors before the Golden Hall
Sons of Eorl sleep at last.

"Mundburg has songs, too? Forgive me," the banner-bearer stood before him. "I am called Guthláf."

Denethor smiled. This one was very young. "We have songs. I, however, cannot sing. I will spare you pain. Damrod. What say you? Will you give these men a song? We cannot have them strain their voices all night. And, they must have time to down a flagon or two. Can you give them that time?"

Damrod smiled broadly. "Yes, Captain. I can." He stood and turned towards the company.

Golden fields stretch to greet her
Sundering seas is her allure
Shimmering mountains tower high
Touching moonlit mountain sky.

Hoping, waiting, all welcoming
Minas Tirith's glinting towers
Lum'nous spikes, gleaming white
Smite the darkness, ream the night.

Anor waits to greet the day
Wishing darkness all away
Shadows lurk, they do not sunder
Light nor shade nor worlds of wonder.

Night lies still and will not leave
Warrior widows sit and grieve
Light will come 'tis part of life
As with battles as with strife.

Gondor sits, mirrored moonbeams
Light her walls in Elvish dreams
All is well; Eärendil shines
'Pon my City, beloved, mine.

Hoots, hollers and backslapping followed the song. Denethor had to laugh.

"You men of Mundburg," Éomund laughed, "only sing of the White City? Have you no other love besides?"

"She is love and mistress enough for any man, Rohir. Mark my words; if ever you should happen upon her, especially when the morning sun touches her, you will be caught in her web. None who see her forget her."

"Then," Éomund sobered, "I wait to see her."

"And I will gladly show her to you. Someday. For now, we must rest. Tomorrow we must be off. Our men await these mounts. Gondor is indeed blessed to have such friends as the Sons of Eorl."

"You are to be wed, I hear?" the young warrior asked as Denethor stood. At his nod Éomund continued, "Has my king accepted your father's invitation?"

"Yes, Éomund, he has. He sent missives saying he will arrive sometime soon. The ceremony will take place less than a fortnight from now. I must away tomorrow, or I might miss my own vow taking! May I wonder why you asked?"

"I had hoped to see his daughter again. Has the Lady Théodwyn been invited? I..." His cheeks turned a pale red under the sun-darkened skin. "I was hoping the Eorlingas might rest here on their journey to Mundburg."

Denethor smiled, knowing why the young man hoped the entourage would stop. He remembered the child Théodwyn and wondered. 'The last time I saw her,' he thought, 'she was only ten. I wonder how she appears now. And what makes this man think Thengel would consider him? Hmmm, hope dwells always in a man's heart.' He spoke aloud, "Your king did not say what day he would arrive, but I had hoped it would be soon. Which again makes me anxious to retire now, so that we might strike camp early on the morrow. Please forgive the abruptness of this, but my own love will be anxious at my absence."

"Oh! I am sorry. Yes, please, sleep now. My tent is yours."

"Nay, I will not take your tent. Damrod has already set mine. I will farewell you now. I am hoping we will be gone before the first light. I thank you for your hospitality. Gondor thanks you for the horses. May the men of the Riddermark live long."

"Farewell to you, Captain Denethor. Fair weather and flat lands greet you."

With that, Denethor turned and walked to his own tent. Consternation filled his face. It was not till they had talked of the arrival of Thengel that Denethor had remembered how perilous short was his time. Damrod greeted him. "Tell my captains I would see them now."

He barely had time to take a sip of the tea brewed by Damrod when the tent flap was pulled back and his captains strode in. "We will leave before first light. The horses will follow the main company. Have drovers ready. We will eat on the road." They bowed and made to leave. "One other thing, we must not tarry. I must start for Minas Tirith as soon as we arrive in Cair Andros. Go now and tell the men."

He strode up and down inside the little tent, tension causing his neck to ache. Damrod entered and Denethor poured out his unease upon his aide. "I have misjudged the time. She will be wondering where I am. I cannot let her be anxious over me. I still have preparations that must be made. The ring is done. For that I am thankful. I know Indis will arrange the festivities, but I wanted to buy her some little offering, some token of my love besides the ring. I have found naught."

"My Lord, there is an heirloom in the treasury, a dirk worn by Turgon's mother. My father saw it with his own eyes and told me of its beauty. The handle is encrusted with emeralds. If I remember correctly, the emeralds are the seven stars; there is a moonstone at the base of the White Tree. It would be a fair gift for Finduilas."

 "Yes! I remember it well." Denethor grasped Damrod's shoulder. "Thank you. I will ask father for it when I return. It is a fitting gift for a Princess of Dol Amroth." A smile lit his face. "How can I sleep now? My heart is o'erburdened with this joy. Yet sleep I must. And so must you, Damrod. Go now. Wake me an hour before the company rises."
 

~*~

Damrod watched the furrow on Denethor's brow grow less and less distinct the closer they came to Minas Tirith. It had taken longer than his captain had thought to drive the horses to Cair Andros. It had been tedious work; the men were not used to herding horses. He had had to laugh at the sight of one or another of Gondor's Knights urging his own steed on to catch a wayward mare of Rohan that had tried to head off to parts unknown. Too often, the horse seemed to win, and more of the knights would be needed to bring the animal back to the herd. He sighed. It would be good to enter the White City, bathe in warm water, sit on a cushioned chair, sleep in his own bed, and not smell of horse! 'Ah,' he thought. 'I am becoming soft.' He turned to look back at the men. Denethor's sharp intake of breath caused him to quickly turn around. His captain had pulled up on his horse.

"My Lord. Is aught amiss?"

"Look! Look at the City! It... it begs description."

Damrod stopped his horse and stared. Indeed, he had never seen the White City so beautiful. Banners snapped in the stiff northern wind. White banners everywhere. There seemed to be not one inch of Minas Tirith not flying the Steward's Banner. From every parapet, from every tower, cascading down windows, covering the Great Gate, banners flew. It was staggering. The City looked magnificent. Damrod's smile filled his face. "My Lord, 'tis a wondrous sight."

"'Tis indeed," Denethor concurred. "This is the work of Indis. Where and when she had the time to plan this, I do not know. It is wondrous." The familiar tingle prickled his body; the same sensation he felt every time he looked at his City from afar.

Simultaneously, both men clicked their tongues, urging their horses to a gallop. The knights followed; amazed at the sight before them. "I cannot fathom," he whispered, "any place more beautiful. Surely the Valar themselves had a hand in the making of her."

~*~

Piercing gray eyes stared at him from the back of the Hall. He could almost see the fire in them, not the fire of love or want, but the fire of anger. His face blanched. He knew she was furious. This was the first they had seen each other since the day she arrived. E'er since his return, two days ago from Cair Andros, his father busied him with small errands. Were these used to keep him away from her, he wondered? Beyond that, reports needs be written and offered, replacements found for those lost at the battle of the River, remuneration for the horses discussed, a myriad of tasks laid at his feet. The matter of Rohan's horses was the worst. They had spent an entire day arguing about it.

Even this morning, on his oath-taking day, Ecthelion had summoned him again to berate him for his actions. He had been enraged when he heard the price Denethor had agreed upon.

"And not even black stallions!" his father had shouted. "What possessed you to agree to that price with no stallions?"

"My Lord Steward," Denethor spoke softly. "The Rohirrim gave us the best horses they had. They are worth the price. They are healthy and of good breeding stock. We paid for sires, mares, and their future offspring."

Thorongil tried to step between the two, but Ecthelion waved him away. As he stepped back, Denethor noted a glint of green coming from a weapon hitched to Thorongil's belt. He drew in his breath. He knew this dirk! Thorongil looked at him in surprise, saw where his eyes were looking, and blushed. Ecthelion noted naught but his own anger.

Pulling himself as tall as he could, Denethor said, "My Lord. It is done. Gondor cannot go back on her word to her allies. If you deem the price too high, you may take it from my pay. Or," and he looked pointedly at Thorongil, "you may take one of my prized possessions. Perhaps great-grandmother's dirk - the one she promised to me?"

Thorongil's face grew a deeper shade of red, but Ecthelion was oblivious to the barb. "You will certainly pay for this in the years to come - when you are Steward and the Treasury is empty because of your folly!"

Ecthelion's words stung. "Yes, Father. I will pay for it, as I will pay for the sons not born because your lords think only of the building of monuments to lie in dead; I will pay for it because my ancestors thought that Gondor was safe and not in need of defense building; I will pay for it when our allies turn their backs on us because we demean them; I will pay for it when wizards rule the House of Húrin instead..."

"Enough!" Ecthelion bellowed. "I have had enough of your whimpering and whining, your softened heart. Gondor will be strong! Gondor's allies will see that they cannot take advantage of us." He strode back and forth in front of the Steward's Chair. Reining in his anger, he turned to Denethor. "I have spoken with the wizard. He has assured me we are doing well. He suggests we strengthen Pelargir and I agree. I am sending my captain, Thorongil, to replace Captain Amdir at Pelargir. He has been commissioned to restock the fleet, encourage foreigners to join our forces under him, and remind the lords of the southern fiefs to call up their sons for Gondor's service. He will be leaving as soon as the ceremony is complete. He will not deplete the Treasury, nor give excuses as to why our allies rook us, nor fail us in our need. Go now. Prepare for your vow taking to this... this..." He stopped at the look upon Denethor's face, and seemed to quail for a moment.

Denethor saluted him stiffly, glared at Thorongil, and left the Hall.

He shook his head to clear it of the memories of these last two days. He must focus on her and on the ceremony. He must let all thoughts of the last few hours dissipate. She had every right to be angry. He had duties to perform, but she was now part of those duties. How would he ever explain himself? What a night this would be.

The procession moved forward; Finduilas holding her hand lightly on Adrahil's arm, as she had the night he fell in love with her. She looked like steel - a fine sword, honed to sharpness. By the Valar, he wished he had left his father hours ago. The Swans reached the Chair and bowed low before Ecthelion. Denethor took his place to the right of the Chair. Ecthelion stood, addressed the company, motioned for Denethor to join them, and continued. By now, Denethor's ears were ringing. He knew she was angry, could see it in her stance, but the anger seemed to make her even more beautiful. Daughter of Elves indeed.

He leaned closer and whispered, "I will not forsake thee again; I vow it, here in front of the Steward's Chair."

She laughed and his face turned scarlet. The next moment, she placed her hand lightly on his arm. Her brow furrowed as she spoke, "Never leave me nor forsake me, my Lord. Thou art my very breath. I cannot live without thee. I cannot think without thee. I cannot love without thee. Thou art my all."

Ecthelion, listening, stared at her. 'Elves,' he thought. 'Strange creatures.'

Denethor shook at the touch of her hand. He took it in his own hand and kissed it gently, not caring what the guests thought.

Another withering look from Ecthelion, but she smiled at the Steward and spoke. "My Lord," she said to Denethor, "Do not stake thy life on that vow. Thou and I wilt talk - but that time is not now. 'Tis time for my own oath."

She turned fully towards him and spoke in a loud voice.

"How canst I say that I love thee, my Lord? What words might I use? No word, no thought, no feeling is strong enough, eloquent enough to tell thee of the love that o'erflows my heart - because thou, my Lord, hast filled my heart with such joy, such longing, such peace.

"Thou hast open'd my eyes to the world around me, to its beauty, its smells, its colors, its sounds - birds chirping, gulls calling, children laughing - because of thy love for me.

"Thou hast opened my heart by giving me family and friends who love me without question," she turned and smiled at Indis, "accept me as I am, hold me to faithfulness, cherish me, and find me of worth - because of thy love for me.

"Thou hast opened my mouth to sing, given words to thy love and fidelity, shared the joy of thee with others, cried with others, and laugh'd with others - because of thy love for me.

"I am entire because thou completes me. I am thine, my Lord, from now until always."

He swept her into his arms, holding her close. Never had he expected words of such passion, such commitment to fall from her lips. He lifted her chin and kissed her deeply. Turning towards the Steward, he bowed, placed her hand on his arm, and walked down the long Hall. The smile on his face lit the room and caused his people to rejoice!

The ceremony was over. As she walked with him towards the Great Door, she quietly reminded him that they had much to speak of. He stifled a sigh. Then he spoke to her in Sindarin - love phrases he had learned from books found in the archives. He would persuade her to begin this day anew, from this moment onward. He would show her he meant the vow he had just made. Whispering sweet names to her, he continued towards the Door. "Beloved, Precious, Star of Eärendil, Daughter of Varda, Fairest Lady of Gondor," on and on he went. He closed his eyes for a moment before they reached the entrance. Turning towards her, he begged forgiveness, then took her in his arms and kissed her passionately. Long and slow was that kiss and the guests started tittering, but he did not care. At last, he loosened his hold upon her and turned her towards the door. They walked forward, smiling, out of the North Door and into Merethrond, the Hall of Feasts.

~*~

Their moment of happiness was short-lived, however. Thorongil came, the next morning, to speak with him. He did not want to see him; did not want to give him a moment to explain the meaning of the dirk. And yet, he knew that is why the northerner came. Memories tried to flood his mind, memories of their friendship; he willed himself not to remember. Finally, he bid the servant let the man enter.

Thorongil quickly strode into the outer chamber, saluted, and bowed on one knee. "My Lord."

Denethor blushed. "Stop it. Get up. There is no need for that." The memories would not be checked; he could not let his friend kneel to him. "Finduilas sleeps. Let us to the balcony." A servant followed and laid tea, cheeses, breads, jams, and sweetened rolls on a table. "Have you broken your fast?" At Thorongil's shake of the head, he bid him sit and eat. After a few moments silence, Denethor asked, "Would you tell me why father gave you the dirk?"

"I do not know myself, Denethor. I truly do not. He gave it to me at the same moment he gave me the captaincy of Pelargir. A token of his esteem. I did not want to take it. It is too grand a gift for one such as me."

"I..." Denethor laughed hoarsely. "I was going to give it to Finduilas as a gift." He shook his head. "There are other items in the Treasury that would be more appropriate. She does not countenance violence and would probably put it in some corner, or at the top of some storage area, and it would be lost. Better you have it," he said with a small smile.

"There is another matter, Denethor."

"Yes? What is it?"

"Pelargir. I know you have wanted to command the fleet. I know you trained for it under Prince Adrahil. I did not ask for it. I must have you know that."

"I know. And my father knows I wanted it." He stood facing the parapet. Gulls called to each other and the sound broke his heart. He thought of the books he had read of Minardil's captain of old, Captain Vëantur. Reading of the great sea captain's voyages had helped Denethor through the torments of his early childhood. Now he would never sail the seas on adventure. Not only Thorongil's appointment, but also his taking of a bride, had put an end to those dreams.

"It is best you go. But first, I have another question. Did Mithrandir suggest that you have the captaincy of Pelargir?"

Thorongil bowed his head. Denethor knew he had his answer. His mind whirled. Bits and pieces of old thoughts, old fears, ran through him. 'Wizards are not to be trusted,' he remembered Amdir saying a very long time ago. He sighed heavily. He had learned to fight Curunír; now he would have to learn how to fight this wizard.

"I would spend time with Finduilas." He laughed at the memory of the hours he spent bending Thorongil's ear on the graces of the fair lady. "You understand what I mean. I look forward to our next meeting."

"Yes, I understand, my friend. I will think on you often. I would hope that, upon your trips to Belfalas to visit her kin, you might take the Pelargir road and visit with me?"

"I will do that. You may outfit your best ship and transport us by the Bay to Dol Amroth. We will laugh and sing, and perhaps put a line out. The fish in the Bay are known for their great size!" He gave Thorongil a great hug and showed him from the room. As he walked back in, she stood in the bedchamber's doorway.

"Art thou so eager to leave thy bed, my Lord?"

He smiled. Let Thorongil have the sea. He had Ulmo's own, a water sprite.

~*~

A/N - 1) The title Marshal is used for many army postings in LOTR. Marshal of the Riddermark, Marshal of the Mark, etc. There do not seem to be any other titles for those in Theoden's army. So I used Marshal of the garrison as Eomund's title. He is young and this is probably one of his first commands. For precedent, I used this quote from TTT, Ch. 8, The Road to Isengard. 'More were scattered than were slain; I gathered together all that I could find. Some men I sent with Grimbold of Westfold to join Erkenbrand. Some I set to make this burial. They have now followed your marshal, Elfhelm.' 2) Denethor calls Rohan 'league-fellows' - I used this term from the one in ROTK, Ch. 6 - Battle of the Pelennor Fields. From the song, The Mounds of Mundberg. 'In the Mounds of Mundburg under mould they lie with their league-fellows, lords of Gondor.' 3) Banner-bearer -This is his first assignment, under Éomund. Guthláf is Théoden's banner-bearer and dies next to his king on the Pelennor. ROTK, Ch. 5 - The Ride of the Rohirrim. 'With that he seized a great horn from Guthláf his banner-bearer, and he blew such a blast upon it that it burst asunder.'

Ch. 13 - Third Age 2978

Indis waited for him at the Great Gate. 'Always patient,' he thought with a smile. He quickly dismounted and strode towards her.

"Denethor!" she ran to him and relished the feel of his arms as he picked her up and swung her about. "Too long have you been gone. Finduilas has been beside herself. I have tried my best to assuage her fears for you. I have told her you are rock-hard and unable to fall to any enemy or fell beast. But she would not listen. And she told me her secret."

His face beamed and burnt at the same time. "I wanted to tell you myself, big sister," he placed her back upon the ground, looking down at her. "Though I am most happy that she confides in you, that you have become friends. It is true. Arciryas said he might even come by Yáviérë."

"He! And how do you know it is a he? It could be a she. She carries her high. That is the usual sign for a girl baby."

He grinned. "Nay, 'tis indeed a boy."

She looked up at him impertinently. "You have some knowledge that I do not?"

"I had a dream, a premonition. I do not know what it was, but I do know she carries a boy. And that he will be a leader of men. And strong, steadfast and... and valiant. He will need to be all those things." A shadow crossed his face. "I sometimes wonder if it is ill-advised to bring another child into this world." His voice trailed off and he looked behind him towards the Ephel Dúath.

"Little brother! Come; let us not sully this day with thoughts of darkness. There is only light that comes from Mindolluin. The white of the great marble walls that our forefathers carved shines forth for all to see. And your little one will shine like a great jewel."

Her carefree laughter dispelled the darkness that tried to settle upon him. When he had heard the news from Arciryas' messenger, he had immediately returned to the City. Away for only a fortnight, his heart ached as if he had been gone for a year. In that time, he had been visited twice by unwanted thoughts and feelings, dark thoughts of a time of greater peril still for Gondor. And for his family. Once he had heard the news, he quickly finished his task and returned to the City.

They walked up the streets towards the Citadel, her arm cradled in his. Long had it been since they had had such a moment together. She drank in the joy of it. Being a generous creature, she had never begrudged Denethor time with others. Though her heart sometimes ached with the loneliness she felt, she rejoiced in her brother's joy. Arciryas, now Master Healer, was too often in the Houses; too much blood, pain, and sorrow lay upon him. It seemed the darkness of the One they do not name crept further into the very depths of Gondor. Besides being healer, he insisted on trying to find new remedies to help heal the men. He labored in the Houses sometimes for days and nights at end, wrenching bits of sleep on a little cot in his office, until she would fear for his health and compel him to come to their chambers for a good meal and an extended rest. But never enough.

"The enemy seems to be redoubling his efforts. Ithilien turns darker and darker each day," he whispered to her. "We need more men. I do not know where we can find them, but we need more men."

"Then Ecthelion was right in bringing in outsiders to the ranks of the army?"

"I cannot say. It seems not to have made a difference." He rubbed his forehead to try to release the tension constricting it. "We must exhort the other lords to give up their sons, their servants to fight for Gondor. We will not be able to survive; Gondor will fall."

She drew her breath in sharply. Accustomed as she was to his nay saying, she was unprepared for the depth of it this day of all days. Such good news should have rivaled all other news. Yet, he seemed not to be able to shake the desolation she heard in his voice. Her own brow knitted. The enemy truly had launched stronger, albeit furtive assaults on Gondor. The lists of dead increased daily - lists showing the destruction from the numerous sorties of the enemy who reamed Ithilien and the southern reaches of Gondor. The need for Arciryas in the Houses on such a steady basis told the tale in more gruesome fashion than Denethor's words.

"I cannot greet her like this," he sighed. "Is it my imagination...?" He did not want to give word to his fears, yet Indis had spent much time with Finduilas - she would know the answer. "Does she grow sad? Does she laugh less? Does she sigh more and louder? I have noted a change in her, do you?"

"Nay! It is as you say. But now, her heart is lightened. We must kindle the fire of joy that is permeating her. We must keep all ill news from her. I amar prestar aen. If she is to survive, she must not see what is happening. We must keep her eyes fixed on the babe."

"And after that? What then, my dear sister?"

Indis laughed. "After that, my dear brother, she will be so busy running after the little one that she will have no time for any thoughts!"

~*~

He held her in his arms, cradling her gently. His breath stirred the hairs on her forehead.

"That tickles," she giggled.

"Absenen," he sighed, stroked the hair back from her face, and continued breathing gently.

She turned her face towards his and ran her fingers lightly over his forehead, trying to ease the creases that furrowed it. "Le melon," she whispered.

"Nay, 'tis I who loves thee." He took her hand from his forehead and kissed it lightly. He must banish the dark thoughts. Too well she knew him. She would know. "My mind is elsewhere. Names."He smiled as he looked into her great gray eyes. "Hast thou thought of a name for him?"

"Him. Thou continuest to say, 'him.' Art thou so certain, melethrilnîn?"

"Yes. 'Tis true. Trust me."

She sighed. "An heir for Gondor. It is thy wish, is it not?"

"My wish is for health for thee and for our babe. It matters not if it be boy or girl, though I am certain 'he' is a boy." He tickled her gently and she laughed.

Another sigh. "My arms ache to hold him." She smiled. "'Tis a long time before that will happen."

"'Tis only Tuilérë. Six months more must we wait. But there is much to do. Among which is picking his name."

"Thou art relentless, hervenn nîn!"

"What thinkest thou of Boromir?" He had remembered how Indis had said his son would shine like a great jewel. Indis had no more far-sightedness than any other maiden of Gondor, yet her words had lodged in his heart. A great jewel. A faithful jewel. His son must be faithful to Gondor, to his duty, and to his people. It would be easy to convince Finduilas to name him thus - a jewel of great price. But for him? He smiled, remembering the first Boromir, the great Dorthonion leader, and also Boromir, son of Denethor I. How fitting to continue the tradition of a Boromir following a Denethor! And that Boromir was also a powerful warrior. His hopes started to climb. Perhaps his son would lead Gondor to victory, would become king... His heart stopped for a moment. 'Ten thousand years' - the words screamed at him.

"Boromir," she rolled the name over her tongue, her lips moving silently as she contemplated it. "Dost it mean faithful jewel?"

"Yes,melethril nîn. Does that not seem perfect?"

"Boromir. The name pleasures my lips." She said it again and he swiftly moved forward and kissed them.

"Daro han!" she said as she leaned closer to him. "Daro han," she whispered as he drew her even closer, but he would not stop. "Boromir it will be," she sighed.

~*~

He reported early the next morning to Ecthelion. His mission had been simple. Reassure the captains stationed at Cair Andros and Henneth Annûn of the Steward's support, examine the garrisons' strengths, and observe their needs. Then report back. It seemed a waste of time. Daily, errand-riders brought reports back far more detailed than the ones Ecthelion had asked for. He did not understand the need for this mission. He could not, however, question his orders. So he had gone and returned in a timelier manner than Ecthelion had anticipated. As Denethor entered the Great Hall, he was surprised to see Thorongil attending the Steward. He stopped for only a moment, brow furrowed; then continued forward.

"Denethor!" Thorongil welcomed him warmly. Ecthelion did not raise his eyes. He studied a map laid open before him.

"My Lord Steward," Denethor greeted his father. Ecthelion kept his eyes on the map.

"I see we need to shore up our defenses here and here," he pointed to the map. "The men I sent you should be sufficient. I also want more ships built. How fared you with Adrahil? Is he ready to give us what we need?" He looked up finally, but not at Denethor, at Thorongil.

Denethor made not a sound. So this is why he was sent on that worthless mission. Ecthelion had not wanted him to be here whilst Thorongil was. And from the sound of it, Thorongil had been very busy indeed, meeting with Adrahil, receiving fresh troops, shoring up defenses. His face started to burn as he tried to will himself to remain calm.

"My captain has returned with good news, Denethor," Ecthelion finally acknowledged his presence. "He is working wonders in the south. Pelargir will ultimately be the garrison Gondor needs, not the sleepy seaport it had been under Amdir. You can take a lesson from his deeds. He has kept the costs low, too. The price for new ships is well within reason, not overstated, as some would negotiate. Perhaps I should place you under his command. You would learn much." Ecthelion turned towards Thorongil. "You met also with Mithrandir? I would hear of your discourse with the wizard." He paused for a moment, turning towards Denethor. "You do not need to hear of these things, Denethor. Go back to your troops and wait for my summons." He turned back to Thorongil. Denethor, smiting from the veiled reprimand and the dismissal, saluted and left.

"My captain! He called him 'my captain.' And this is not the first time he has done so," Denethor growled as he walked into the sunlight. The sight of the White Tree burnt his eyes. 'Does he hold me responsible for that, too?' he wondered bitterly. He walked to the parapet and sat on the wall overlooking the Pelennor. His love for Gondor caught in his throat as he looked out at the fields and orchards before him. Still a beautiful sight, even knowing what evil lay beyond the River. "My captain," he said again and tears stung his eyes. As the noon bells rang, he left his reverie and turned towards his quarters in the White Tower. Head lowered, he almost walked into a man. He looked up quickly, an apology on his lips that died as soon as he noted it was Thorongil.

"My Lord," the captain said gently. "You did not see me? I called your name a moment ago, as soon as I saw you sitting on the parapet."

Denethor smiled, hiding his anger. "Nay, I did not hear you," his eyebrow lifting as he spoke.

"What have I done, my Lord?" Thorongil asked in dismay.

"What say you?" Denethor queried. "There is naught amiss." He tried to walk past the man.

Thorongil put out an arm and immediately took it back, recoiling at Denethor's glare. "Did you not know that I was recalled for this meeting? I was summoned a fortnight ago."

'Summoned at the same moment I was ordered to leave Minas Tirith,' Denethor thought sardonically. 'He must fear me if he waits till I am gone before he brings my usurper into our City.' The term startled him. 'I must think. I must discover what causes Ecthelion to approve of this man over me.' He moved forward. "Forgive me, Captain Thorongil, I have duties I must be about. Perhaps we may meet later."

Thorongil trounced on the invitation. "Yes. Let us meet at 'The Three Fishermen.' Is Amdir in the City? Perhaps he will join us?"

"Nay, he is not good enough to captain a garrison here in the City. He is at Amon Dîn, watching over the sheep," Denethor sneered dryly.

Thorongil's brow creased. "My Lord. I had naught to do with your father's assessment of Amdir's accomplishments at Pelargir."

Denethor strode past him, unwilling to speak further. Thorongil stood silent.

~*~

As Denethor approached the Great Library, Arciryas met him. Denethor smiled, strode quickly towards the healer and hugged him tightly. "Thank you for sending the messenger. I would not leave her alone now for all the mithril in Númenor."

"She is strong, Denethor, though her mood had troubled me for a time. Yet, the babe within her seems to have strengthened her. I deem all will be well. You have naught to fear."

Denethor gave a short, derisive laugh. "My own mother died having me. And you tell me I have naught to fear! 'Tis all I have done since your message arrived."

"Again I say, you have naught to fear. Her body is sturdy. The blood of Númenor flows strongly through you both. The babe will be well also."

"And we have the best healer at our disposal," Denethor laughed fully. "You must continue to remind me of this, my friend."

"And... she has Indis as her constant companion. One could not ask for better."

"Yes. Forgive me; I must away now. Please, come to dinner tonight. We will celebrate. I wish Amdir was with us. 'Twould be great fun to have us together again. I miss Thengel."

"Thorongil's company would be pleasant also?"

Denethor took a deep breath. His cheeks flushed and Arciryas noted. "Thorongil has been with my father these last days. I do not think he has time to spend on frivolity."

He quickly turned towards the Great Library, as the healer watched him go. Taking the steps two at a time, he descended into the bowels of that vast storehouse, holding a torch high. A slight shiver assailed him, but he steeled himself to try the locked compartment. To his surprise, it was not locked. The wizard's spell had been lifted, but when? Lighting a candle, he sat at the scribes' table, pouring over book upon book. Now and again, an archivist would ask if he needed help, but he waved each one off. The pile on the table grew and the candle that he had lit, burnt to a nub. The suddenness of darkness surprised him. The candle had spent itself. He groped in the table's drawers, found another and lit it from the sconce in the hall. He was very close. He sensed it. He could not leave yet. Secrets would be his soon. A sudden tug at his heart caused him to stop. She was waiting for him. He could feel her in his bones. Clutching two large tomes in his arms, he grabbed the now extinguished torch, lit it from the candle, and ran up the stairs, two at a time.

~*~

He sat at his desk, fingering the base of the goblet, watching Finduilas knitting in front of the fire. He had asked her to come to their chambers, upon his return from the Great Library. He was spending too much time, these last few months, in the library, but a fixation for knowledge was upon him. He did not know how to quell it. Something about Thorongil gnawed at him ever since he had returned from his sortie to Cair Andros. He had discovered, upon questioning the servants, that Thorongil came to the City at least seven or eight times a year, summoned by Ecthelion. Denethor had not once been asked to join them in whatever discussions they had. The wizard, Mithrandir, had also been guest to the Steward. Thorongil never once sought him out whilst he was in Minas Tirith. This, more than anything, rankled him.

At first he had not been able to find her. Their chambers were empty, but he had gone to his own study, and there she was, waiting patiently for him. His breath caught at the presence of her love; it filled his heart, his very being. Nothing could describe this feeling of completeness, of pure peace and joy. He put the goblet down and walked towards her. She smiled up at him and he dropped to his knees in front of her, tentatively touching her stomach.

She placed her hand over his. "He sleeps, my Lord."

He raised her head, kissed her gently, and sat back on his heels. He looked long upon her and love filled him. Did she sense at all the depth of his love? To hide his tears, he knelt upon the floor and gently rested his head upon her lap.

She stopped her knitting, put the needles aside, and placed her hand upon his head. "Thou wast deep in thought, my Lord. Wouldst thou share thy thoughts?"

Denethor sighed. "Thengel seemed so old, the last time I saw him. At our oath-taking. And Théoden is a man, already Second Marshal of the Riddermark. I used to bounce him on my knee!" He remembered Thengel's pride in his son and a warm glow spread over him. He would soon feel that self-same pride for his own son, of that he was sure. "And now, he too is destined to have a child. Elfhild is due even before thou art. It seems strange to think of my old friend and captain as being a grandfather."The face of Cranthir slipped before him, hardly age'd. The blood of Númenor made such a difference. It almost hurt. Thengel was seventy-three. It seemed impossible, that at seventy-three a man would look so old, yet Thengel had. Whereas his own father, at ninety-two, was still hale and hearty with many years left to him. He creased his brow and she tried to sooth the wrinkles from it. "Even Théoden seemed old, somehow, though he be just thirty years. The legacy of men is a hard thing. I wondered, in my youth, as to why so many of the lords of Gondor sought for potions and talismans to keep them young. I think I understand now. To see a loved one grow old before my very eyes... 'tis a hard thing," he repeated. "Death is a gift, I am told. I do not think I like such a gift."

She leaned over him. "Hervenn nîn, thou art my love, my own. Turn thy thoughts from these dark paths. Let me see the light of Anor in thine eyes. Turn thy mind to thoughts of our son. The gift of Eru is far from us this day. Thou art to be a father. Joy should be thy feast."

"Yea verily, melethril nîn. It is. And thou art the reason for the feast."He joined her on the settle and laid his head against its back. He pulled her to him. She snuggled close, and soon, he heard her breath slow into sleep. His thoughts had flown from Thengel and Cranthir to his mother. He was desperately afraid. He could not lose her.

~*~

Adanedhel, even though retired, came to assist. He would not leave the room. Ecthelion himself paced outside their chambers and did not sleep. Haunted looks covered both men's faces. They frightened Finduilas and unsettled Denethor. Finally, Arciryas had to speak to them. Pulling Adanedhel physically from the room and forcing the two men into an antechamber, he spoke. "My lords, if anything untoward happens, I will call you both. Please, you are frightening the Lady. You must stay away."

Adanedhel interrupted him, a ghost-like smile on his face. "She was well," he muttered, "well. All had gone as planned. She was just a little tired, something to be expected. I left the room. I... I left the room and was called back. She was dead." His voice had dropped to a whisper. "She was well. She was well."

Arciryas stopped. Cold shivers ran down his arms. "Tell me what happened. I must know if I am to save her."

"The babe had become trapped in the passage. I used my hands, as is customary, to turn him. Then everything progressed as it should. He was born shortly thereafter. I made sure he was healthy, then turned to her. Her breath was short, but only from exertion. I read the signs. All was well." The healer closed his eyes. "She was well. I... I know not what happened. Perhaps some malady was upon her before labor started. I know not. She was well." His voice had risen in pitch, turning hysterical.

Arciryas put his hand on the old man's shoulder. "I see. That is good to know. I will now attend her. I will look for other signs, to make sure there is no malady upon Finduilas. And you, my Lord Ecthelion, please do not let her see you. Either of you. She must be at peace, as much as is possible at this time. You bring anxiety with you. You must not enter; I will not allow either of you in the chambers until it is over. You may stay here, if you wish, but you will not be allowed back in that room. I do not want you speaking with Denethor either. Old wounds are coming to the surface and I cannot let that happen. They will transfer to my patient. I will have one of my assistants bring news every few moments. That is all I can do."

Adanedhel made as if to speak, but Arciryas held his hand up. "Nay. I will brook no discussion on this."

He turned towards the Steward, but no words were needed. The man looked miserable and cowed. Arciryas put his hands on his Lord's shoulders and looked him in the eye. "I have learnt much these past years; I will not let her die. I promise." He squeezed the man's shoulder, turned and left the room.

As soon as he reached the door to Denethor's chambers, he motioned for a guard to attend him. "Go to the Houses and tell my assistant, Firieth, to bring the notes of the Lady Rían's care. She knows where they are." The guard bowed and left. Arciryas entered the outer chambers. Denethor stood in the doorway to the balcony, his whole body crunched over. Arciryas stepped towards him, and Denethor, hearing the soft step, turned. His face mirrored the disquiet that had filled the antechamber.

"Is aught amiss?" he whispered.

"Nay, my Lord. All is well. Finduilas must be supported at this time. She notes your concern. It causes her concern. May I ask what is the reason for your unease?"

"I have just had word. Théoden's own Elfhild has passed away. During childbirth!" The horror on Denethor's face alarmed Arciryas. The news devastated him further. "We have spoken of this before," Denethor almost hissed. "You know the history of my family. You know what happened to my mother. How else should I be? Is Finduilas' fate to be the same as my mother's, as Elfhild's? Childbirth is not such an easy thing as you would have me believe!"

"You, my Lord," Arciryas voice was firm, "do you have any knowledge as to the number of births I have attended? Do you not remember Morwen's many trials? Did not she survive, and the babes all born healthy? I will tell you now, as your Master Healer, but most importantly, as your friend, that I will not let her die, nor the babe. I will not leave her for a moment. Even after the birth, I will attend her until I am sure she has recovered fully. This is my oath to you, my friend. I will not let her die."

Denethor grasped Arciryas arms, so tight the healer flinched. "I will not let her die either. I will not leave her side, no matter that you order me away. I will not leave her alone." His voice broke.

"I will not ask you to leave her. Come, let us to her chambers. She has need of you. But you must be strong. You must not show any terror." He gently took Denethor's arm and led him through the doors. Indis smiled as they walked in and Denethor's heart eased.

Immediately after, Firieth entered the room, carrying a thin, rolled parchment, which she gave to Arciryas. He sat in a chair by the window and carefully read it. Denethor sat on the bed, holding Finduilas' hand. She smiled at him; then closed her eyes. This was lasting much longer than she had expected. Denethor murmured words of love to her.

Arciryas sighed. He motioned for Denethor to join him and walked towards the bedchamber's terrace. As they stepped through the opening, Arciryas placed his hand upon Denethor's shoulder. "I know now what caused your mother's death."

Denethor's heart stopped.

"When the babe turned, a tear must have opened in her womb," Arciryas stated. "The notes of those who cleansed her for burial witness to a great loss of blood. Adanedhel did not mention it. I believe, since she passed while he was away from her, he did not further investigate. Terror and pain were upon the whole of Gondor. Rían was much loved. And your father took it hard. It is not surprising to me that naught further was done."

As the healer spoke, the warning call of a trumpet sounded. Denethor looked up in alarm; he ran to Finduilas' side. She grasped his arm; he could not leave her. Others would have to answer the call. He had vowed to stay with her; he would not break that vow.

As the day progressed and little advancement was made, Finduilas slept more and more between the spasms of birthing. The pangs lasted overly long, and wore her out, yet seemed to produce little change. Arciryas could not tell when the babe would come, and he was beginning to be concerned. Firieth had brought medicaments to help ease her Lady's growing fear. When she was awake, her eyes mirrored the fright in her heart. Arciryas wished her mother were here, though Indis did everything in her power to help her sister-friend.

Listöwel suddenly appeared at the door, and joy lit Finduilas' face. Denethor started in surprise as he saw her. 'What is she doing in Minas Tirith? Why is she not with Amdir at the garrison of Amon Dîn?' If she were here, would Amdir be also? Where was his friend? She gave him a long look, and turned her attention to Finduilas. "My sweet little cousin," she cried fondly, "you look a mess. Here, let me fix your hair. Indis, plump her pillow. Does no one note that our little one needs some reassurance! 'Tis time to draw back the curtains; let a little light in. And some air; the place smells like the Houses of Healing, herbs and medicaments enough to smother one. This is a good thing that is happening here! How very sad you all appear. And none of us with any experience in birthing a babe! Oh! Forgive me, Arciryas," she giggled and the room smiled, "You have spent much time doing these things. I meant Indis, Denethor and I. None of us have done such a great deed as our sweet one does now!" She leaned over and kissed Finduilas on the forehead, willing herself to smile and throw cheer about the room. The gloom that she had experienced when she entered had all but made her recoil. Coming from the blackness and despair that she had just witnessed... 'Nay. I will think not on that. I must dispel this darkness and help my dear one smile.'

Arciryas could have hugged their friend. She brought fresh hope to the room. 'Just what the healer would order,' he thought. As he kissed Listöwel on the forehead in greeting, Finduilas groaned. Arciryas, quickly examining her, smiled. "'Tis almost time," he sighed gently. "The pains are stronger; he is coming soon." All flew into action; Denethor being pushed roughly to the side. Water, bandages and medicaments all were arranged and Arciryas stood next to the birthing bed, waiting for the babe to appear. Denethor held his breath.

~*~

As Finduilas lay in sleep, the child bundled in her arms with Indis sitting next to her on the bed, Listöwel went to Denethor's side. "My Lord," she said quietly. "Amdir must needs speak with you. He awaits outside with your father. A terrible thing has happened. I would not speak of it before, knowing your place was with Finduilas. But she rests now, and it is urgent!"

He remembered the alarm horns. His face whitened and he left the room. Amdir sat in a chair in the antechamber, his face and hands covered in blood. Denethor's cry of 'Amdir' made him stir. He tried to stand, but could not, weariness overtaking him. "Amdir, my friend. What has happened? Why are you returned from Amon Dîn?" Ecthelion and Adanedhel were nowhere to be seen and Denethor wondered, but concern for his friend kept him at his side.

Amdir took a moment to catch his breath. He had been on the edge of sleep, so weary was he, yet he barely rested as visions of death and destruction assailed him. "Orcs, Denethor. Too many. Took the garrison by surprise three nights ago. A great number of them swept down. They were silent, as is not their want. They had o'ercome the guards before any knew of their presence. They were large, Denethor, larger than any I have ever seen and cruel. They came over the plains of Rohan, from the northwest. We had no chance to fight back, hardly any at all. I sent errand-riders out, but none got through. Ecthelion said they had no word of the massacre. And that is what it was, Denethor," Amdir's eyes filled with tears. "Only twenty-three men left. Twenty-three out of five hundred. I did not run, Denethor!" Amdir cried, his voice breaking as it rose. "I did not. I was knocked unconscious. The Orcs left at daybreak. My men, those who survived, found me and brought me back here. We could not stay. They torched the buildings. Once she realized she could fight no longer, Listöwel hid herself and the other women in an underground storeroom, apart from the buildings. The Orcs did not find it. The beacon has been destroyed."

Denethor knelt at his friend's side. "You are not hurt yourself?"

"Nay, just a head wound, but not serious. Adanedhel tried to care for me, but your father drew him away, calling for the guards. I know not where they went."

Denethor could not believe Ecthelion had left Amdir in this state. He gently helped him up and brought him to the bedchamber's door. Opening it gently, he quietly called Arciryas to his side.

When Arciryas saw the state Amdir was in, he made as if to leave the room, then thought better of it. "She sleeps," Arciryas stated, "Yet, I will not leave her. Bring him in here, Denethor. I will minister to him by the terrace. She will know naught of it."

Denethor helped Amdir to a chair in the corner. He glanced towards the bed, noted Indis and Listöwel seated by Finduilas' side, and knew he had a moment to speak with Listöwel. As Arciryas tended Amdir, Denethor drew her from her seat upon the bed. "Thou art and have always been most brave, dearest Listöwel. But that was folly to stay and fight. Didst thou not know the toll thy loss would have taken upon Amdir? Didst thou not know the toll thy loss would have taken on thy friends?" In his concern, he had lapsed into Sindarin.

"My Lord, I could not leave him," she said simply. And tears started to fall. "I could not leave him," she whispered.

He held her tight, knowing the horror that lay upon her. 'Twas difficult enough for a man, a soldier, to see the sights that she must have seen before she retreated. It grieved him to see her pain. He had no words of comfort. The only comfort he had were his arms. Holding her closer, he whispered her name, stroking her hair all the while.

Indis moved close. "My brave, sweet Listöwel. You have proved yourself a warrior, dearest sister-friend, many times over. I am so proud of you. Eledhwen would be so proud of you. We must write to Morwen, tell her of your deeds. She will be sore-pressed to rival them!" Indis had not known the extent of Gondor's loss.

Listöwel turned towards her. "Only a handful left, Indis. Only a handful left." She bit her lip to keep from screaming her horror.

Indis blanched. "How many, Denethor?"

"Nigh unto five hundred. The stronghold burnt to the ground. The beacon destroyed."

Tears welled in Indis' eyes. "So many?"

"Yes. But look, Arciryas is finished with Amdir. Listöwel, take him to his father's quarters. Ingold will help him, and Elleth will help you. Go, now. We will speak of this on the morrow."

As Listöwel and Firieth led Amdir away, Denethor's thoughts grew dark. "Ai!" he cried aloud, grief for the lost men and for Gondor overwhelming him. "I swear by the Horn of Gondor, Boromir will not endure what I have had to endure these last forty-eight years. I will free Gondor from this Enemy, so that my son may live in peace! I swear by all the Valar!"

He was shaking as he finished his vow. Finduilas, awakened by his cry and frightened at the violence of his manner, quickly pressed the babe closer to her breast. What had started as a day of celebration at the birth of their son had been turned into a day of darkness and pain. Again! Nothing remained beautiful here in Gondor. It was not Denethor's fault. She knew how dearly he loved her. 'But,' she thought, 'there must be a curse upon this land.' Her thoughts, as always, took her back to Belfalas and her home in Dol Amroth by the sea.

Indis hovered over her as she saw the sadness grow in Finduilas' eyes. She came to them from Belfalas, sparkling and alive, one of the fairest flowers of the line of Númenor. Yet, now, just two years after arriving in Minas Tirith, sadness showed at the corners of her mouth and lingered in her eyes. Indis looked at Denethor in dismay. Perhaps flowers from her garden would ease her pain. She ran to pick some, suggesting that they open the terrace doors for air; Finduilas declined. Today of all days, she could not bear the view. She shuddered as she thought of Mt. Orodruin glaring at her, mocking her happiness. She saw in her mind's eye the redness of its fires scorching the blue sky, the black smoke rising upwards, creeping closer and closer to Minas Tirith. She could not abide that sight with her son in her arms! She swore she could feel the tremors of its hateful spewing rock her bed. She drew in her breath. She could not continue this way. Instead, she willed herself to see the sea from her window in the castle in Dol Amroth, on a clear, bright day. She could feel the sea air on her face, feel it gently blowing the strands of her hair across it. Ever, when this mood of gloom fell upon her, she would retreat in her mind to dear Belfalas and her home.

Suddenly, she shook herself. This was her home now. Lovingly, she opened her eyes and stared down at the precious bundle in her arms. She must put that other life behind her. The Valar had sent her a son, beautiful and strong - he held her finger tightly in his little hand - and she knew she must be strong for him. She echoed her husband's vow in her own heart. Somehow, she would fight with Denethor to bring peace to this land, and somehow she would wage her own war against this curse. This child of theirs would not grow up with war and death and evil. 'Somehow,' she thought, 'a weapon must be found to help Gondor, to release Gondor from this evil. To release my family from this evil.' They had been fighting for so long, her husband, his father, and his father's fathers. Could a weapon be found that would destroy evil forever? Did such a weapon exist? She sighed. Perhaps the king would return...

Denethor went again to Finduilas' side. He knelt by her bed, apologizing profusely as he gently stroked her hair, and for the thousandth time he rejoiced at the fate that had brought her to his side. His anger was spent. He could not remain angry in her presence. He had to learn to curb it when he was with her. She must not lose the joy that wrapped itself around his heart when she was near. Tears filled his eyes as she moved the wrappings from around Boromir's face. Ah, could any man be more blessed than he! His son was beautiful. He saw the face of Eärnur in him, and hoped that his son would be as brave as the king who defeated the Witch-king of Angmar. Yet, as soon as that thought, that vision of the face on the statue of Eärnur in the Great Hall assailed his mind, he remembered the ending of that king. Or the supposed ending of Eärnur, for never did he return from the Black Gate. 'It was that king's leaving his throne that has forced the Stewards to rule Gondor until the return of the king... or until the Steward's line itself runs out,' he thought bitterly. Almost a thousand years had passed and yet, as Ecthelion had told him long ago, and as he knew he would tell Boromir sometime in the future, 'Few years, maybe, in other places of less royalty... In Gondor, ten thousand years would not suffice for a Steward to become king.' His duty was to his king, whether present or no. And he would teach that duty to his son. The rightful king would return.

Dark were his thoughts this day; he could not help the shudder that swept his body as he thought of Eärnur not returning... Some foreboding about his son? And then, perversely, he thought of Finduilas' namesake being killed by Orcs. Why was he being tormented on this day of great joy? What other dark feelings would attack him?

He looked again at his son and his wife and willed the thoughts to be gone. He willed peace to settle upon his countenance. He would not succumb to these dark thoughts. He would not succumb to despair - now that he had everything he had ever hoped for...

Finduilas held out her arms and took her friend into them. Whispering Indis' name over and over, she stroked her friend's hair. "My dearest sister-friend, forgivest thou me. I had forgotten thy own barren womb." Her tears mingled with Indis'. "I am foolish and very selfish. Thee and thy friends opened thy hearts to me when first I entered Minas Tirith, and all I have been is a burden. My thoughts ever fly to my needs, forgetting those whom I love. Please, forgivest thou me."

"Nay," Indis exclaimed. "'Tis not true! Wast thou not ready, just now, to have me leave thee and care for Denethor? Thy heart is good and pure, Finduilas. I speak not of my pain for I have Arciryas and that is wonderful and good. I am most fortunate. I think not often of our lack, for a moment here and there, but our bounty is beyond understanding. Think no further on this, my sweet Lady. Think only of returning quickly to thy duties. 'Twill be such fun to join thy family in these years to come, to rejoice at the growth of thy child, to see the love between man and woman develop into an even deeper bond." Indis' quick smile heartened Finduilas. "I love thee, dearest sister-friend. Thou fillest a deep void in me. Left by my sweet sister's absence. To have been given another sister, 'tis a gift from the Valar. Your love is gift to me. I thank thee." She gave Finduilas a quick hug and pulled away. "Now, rest thou whilst I seek out Listöwel, tell her of thy concern, and return within the hour."

~*~

Denethor had bidden Arciryas stay with Finduilas, once she had fallen asleep, and quickly left the room. Ecthelion had left Amdir wounded and alone in the hall and he would discover why. For what purpose had he left so quickly and ungraciously? As he turned the corner heading to the Great Hall, he heard loud shouts coming from his father's study. He quickly walked into the room. His face fell as he saw Amdir, standing before the great oak desk, bidden to attention and reporting to Ecthelion.

"Father!" The word came out louder than he had meant. "Father," this time softer. "Captain Amdir has been wounded." The evidence was still clear. Adanedhel, who stood in a corner of the room, had done naught to clean the wound. Listöwel was nowhere to be seen. "Do you not see that, Father?" he asked gently.

"Of course I see it," his father replied crisply, scowling as he leaned forward to speak to Denethor. "I only ask as to the state of the garrison. I will let him be ministered to once I am done with him." He turned to face Amdir again. "Now, again. Tell me where the patrols were? How many had you sent out? What time...?"

"My Lord Steward." Denethor interrupted. "Perhaps 'twould be best to have Captain Amdir," and he stressed the word 'Captain' loudly, "sit? Adanedhel can tend his wounds while you question him." A servant stood by the door and Denethor motioned for him to come forward. "Bring a cup of mead for Captain Amdir. And a decanter of wine for Lord Ecthelion." As the servant left, Denethor strode forward, moved a chair behind Amdir and gently helped him sit. Ecthelion's face was blazing, but Denethor did not care. Adanedhel hobbled forward. It hurt to see the man so old and weak. He remembered how once, a long time ago, Adanedhel had spoken forcefully to the Steward for Gondor's weal.

Ecthelion sat back in his chair. His face still shone scarlet, but Denethor could see the Steward had pulled in his temper. "Captain Amdir," he sneered. "Are you comfortable now?"

Amdir said naught, but Denethor had to clench his hands to keep his fury in check. 'Never would Ecthelion speak thus to Thorongil,' he thought bitterly. He kept his mouth shut. Amdir was, at least, finally being cared for.

"My Lord Steward," Amdir said calmly, and Denethor wondered that his friend had such control. "We sent out ten patrols every four hours, as is our wont. Darkness had come, the fires were lit, and all was quiet. It was almost time for the replacing of the patrols, when a sudden quiet filled the air. I had come out of my office to oversee the changing of the guard. I felt something was wrong, but could not discern what. Everything seemed as it should be. I doubled the guards on the wall. The patrols were overdue, but not by but a few moments. A patrol finally was sighted, the gates were opened, and the Orcs attacked. They had lain hidden against the walls. They had left one patrol untouched, and, unbeknownst to that patrol, used them to gain entrance to the fortress. All the other patrols had been o'ercome and destroyed before the Orcs e'er entered the area. There were more than a thousand attackers. They came in waves. Our archers did their best. We used boiling oil to repulse the ones still on the outside, but they continued to come. Our knights fought as best they could, but the quarters were cramped with the number of the enemy. It was hard to even wield a sword and pikes were nigh unto useless. Sometime, after the mid of the night, I was wounded and lay as if dead. I know not how the other men escaped. The women, after Listöwel saw they could not defend themselves any longer, hid in an underground storeroom. They were not, mercifully, discovered. I awoke to a cold cloth on my head, wielded by my aide, Damrod. It was well into the morning by this time. We quickly searched the grounds for survivors, removed the dead bodies that barred the entrance to the place where the women hid, and quickly freed them. All the horses were gone. We walked to the North Gate. I left my men there and rode here as quickly as I could. There has been no sign of the Orc army since that night." Amdir sat still, not moving a muscle.

Denethor had walked to the nearby window and listened quietly, proud of his friend's courage.

Ecthelion sat for a moment. "So, you have lost your entire battalion?"

"Almost, my Lord. We lost well over four hundred and seventy."

"Men Gondor desperately needs?" The question was not supposed to be answered. "Well," Ecthelion said as he stood up and walked around the desk. "Are you well enough to return to your command?"

Denethor made as if to interrupt and Ecthelion raised his hand and shot him a look of pure rage.

"Yes, my Lord." Amdir said quietly.

"And where do you suppose you will get the men to replace those you have allowed to be slaughtered?" He paused for a moment, brooking no reply. "Or do you expect me to find you men to fill your garrison?"

Denethor blanched at the cruelty of the questions. Ecthelion had had men under him. He knew what it was to lose men. How could he interrogate Amdir in this manner knowing the depth of sorrow that encompassed the captain?

"I am relieving you of the command of Amon Dîn. You will go to the Houses to have your wounds attended to. I have need of my healer at the moment. Then, you will wait upon my pleasure for your next assignment." He turned his back, strode towards his desk and sat shuffling papers, his entire body saying they were dismissed.

Denethor strode towards Amdir, making sure Ecthelion heard the anger in his stride, helped his friend to his feet, and left the room. Neither man spoke a word until they felt the cool air greet them as they reached the entrance to the Citadel.

Denethor did not know where to start, so many apologies to be made to his friend. But Amdir spoke first.

"I will be fine. The wound is not deep. I would prefer to go to my own home on the Sixth Level, if I may? Please, Denethor. I have not the will to see another at the moment. I know Listöwel waits there for me. She will care for me."

"Tell me this, friend," Denethor wondered, "I cannot see Listöwel letting the Steward take you away from her without words being said."

Amdir laughed, then groaned as his head split in pain. "He called a guard as we left your quarters. The guard took her by the arm before I even knew it. I could hear her curses... yes, my friend, curses that I did not know a woman would know... as she was escorted out of the Citadel. I could do naught. Unfortunately, I hardly had the strength to take care of myself." Amdir laughed again. "You should have heard the words she said. Oh!" He bent over in pain and Denethor swept him into his arms and carried him towards the gate. "Please put me down, Denethor. I can walk."

"I do not think so, friend. I do not think so. And I am not taking you to your home. I am sorry. I am taking you to the Houses. Father may be wrong about many things, but of this he speaks well. You need time with the healers. I will bring Listöwel as soon as I am assured you will stay in the bed they assign you."

~*~

"Avo doltho mhorn, tôr nîn," Finduilas spoke soothingly. "Light lives now in thy son - a bright shining star for Gondor. Thou wilt raise him to be all that Gondor needs. Through him, peace will come. Thou, with him at thy side, wilt defeat our enemies. Avo 'osto! I am with thee. Never wilt I leave thee." As she caressed his check, she spoke again, "Dost thou not know that thy father is beset by many burdens? Little does he know that he has only to look to thee to find strength, and courage, and wisdom. I see it in thee, hervenn nîn. I would that he would see it; the cares of Gondor blind his eyes. Do not hold this against him, melethril nîn. Wait, thy time will come. His eyes will open and he will do what is right and good for Gondor."

He hugged her tightly, holding his breath as he listened to her precious voice speaking words his heart could hardly bear to hear. He wanted desperately to believe her, to know that he did have the strength to save Gondor, but he could not see it. If Ecthelion's eyes were blinded, so were his. 'How will I fight this? How can I be what Gondor needs? How can my father ever believe that I can help save Gondor when even I do not believe it?'

She sensed the anguish in his tightened shoulders, heard the in-drawn breath, and wondered if ever she would be able to do as Indis had said she could - give him the strength he needed. She spoke gently. "Melethril nîn, doest thou not believe me? Doest thou think I am only a woman with a woman's foolish thoughts? Doest thou think I married thee for thy looks only?"A gentle laugh. She continued, "I know thee to have wisdom. Might I not have wisdom also? Thy son has much thy look, fair and good. He wilt have much need of thee, garn nîn."

He looked down upon the babe lying between them. A small fist, shoved into the little one's mouth, kept his son's attention. He shivered as the babe held his finger tightly. Tears glistened in his eyes. "Le melon," he whispered to her and then, bending his head to kiss the little one, whispered it again to his son, his Boromir.

~*~

Morwen had come. Unbidden, she had come. Indis hugged her so tightly, she thought she would lose all breath. Then, she had her hands grasped and found herself being swung around and around, joyful laughter pealing through the air. Morwen, in mock embarrassment, tried to disengage herself from her friend, but no amount of struggling would tear her from Indis' loving hold.

"Morwen, my dearest sister-friend. You could not have come at a better time!" Indis said as she collapsed on the fountain's encompassing wall. She pulled Morwen down with her, both women catching their breath.

After a moment, Indis pulled her towards her and again gave her such a warm hug that Morwen sobbed with joy. To be back in Minas Tirith again, to sit next to her dearest friend, to laugh and cry together, no words were sufficient to tell of her joy. "Nay, I have been remiss in not coming sooner. How is Finduilas? How is the babe? Denethor, does he father the child well?" Her words tumbled from her and she giggled deliriously. She hugged herself as she looked about the square. Naught had changed here in Isildur's Square. The merchants still had their stalls lining the street, the shops still had crowds coming into and going from them, and the Knights of Gondor still strode through the streets as if they owned them. She breathed a heavy sigh and leaned upon Indis' shoulder. "'Tis so very good to be home." Tears glistened in her eyes. "Home, Indis. Yes, it always will be home, at least in my heart."

Indis had given her friend a moment to settle herself before she answered her questions. "Finduilas does well. Your birth pangs were much worse than hers, but she seems not to have the endurance that you have. And the babe, Boromir," she said the name lovingly, "he is everything you would expect from Denethor. Handsome, strong, blackest hair and lovely gray eyes. To look upon him is to love him!"

Morwen laughed. "So, this Boromir has already stolen your heart?"

"Yes," Indis laughed. "Stolen it and locked away the key. My heart is no longer my own."

"And Denethor?"

"Denethor is beset by many things. How fare's Rohan, Morwen? Are there more attacks this year? Does it seem to you as if... I do not know how to ask. Evil... but I will not speak of these things now. I will only rejoice in your presence. And for Thengel to bring you; that is such a good thing for Denethor. Thengel's presence and wisdom can only help Denethor."

"You speak of harsh things, Indis. Tell me truly. Was Listöwel really in a battle again?"

"Yes! And without us! Can you even imagine such a thing? I was sore-pressed to not be angry with her, having all that fun without me! And..." Indis paused with a frown marking her face, "I understand you have been named 'Morwen Steelsheen' for the ardor of your sword arm! Is that true? You were always so good with your sword."

"'Tis true. My Lord's people shame me by calling it out as I ride through the streets of Edoras." Her face reddened even as she recounted it. "I am no true Shieldmaiden. There are many others who are so much better than I, yet the people honor me."

Indis smiled. Her friend's genuine humility touched her. She had missed this woman, missed her sorely. "Come, my dearest friend. I will take you to your quarters in the Citadel. After you refresh yourself, I will take you to Finduilas. You will meet our Boromir. Then, you will see he is the fairest babe in all the land." Her smile split her face. "After that, we three..." A sudden cloud passed over her face. Her sister's face swam before her eyes. It used to be 'we four.' She drew in a breath, let the pain go, and smiled again. "We three, Listöwel, you and I, will then find some hidden place and squeal and laugh over all the adventures we have had since last we were together!"

~*~

Thengel sat quietly, waiting for Denethor to explain himself. He was dreadfully tired. The journey had seemed so much longer than ever it had before. Morwen took it in stride, but he was ready for sleep. He could not rest yet. Denethor had come to him late in the evening, troubled. His pronouncement of Ecthelion's latest movements forced Thengel to question the Steward's good sense. He trusted Thorongil implicitly, all the while understanding Denethor's unease. He knew very little of Ecthelion; the Steward did not readily welcome familiarity with his captains. What could have possessed Ecthelion to send Denethor off like that? He should welcome his son to the proceedings. To all counsels. Thengel leaned his head back against the couch. The thought of his own son, of Théoden, Second Marshal of the Mark, caused his lips to curl in a smile. He heard Denethor's cough and pulled himself back into the moment. Denethor was obviously waiting upon him.

"I do not understand Lord Ecthelion, Denethor. You know I do not. You should have been made Captain-General already. Your postings, these last years, have not been ones that would help you to familiarize yourself with your future duties. Your father, you say, has been devious. I see where you would surmise that." He shook his head. What could he say? "I will tell you this, and I have told you this before, Thorongil is an honorable man. He seems to be a pawn in your father's hands, much as you have been. Do you not see that?"

"I see only that my father leans towards naming Thorongil Captain-General." At the look of shock in Thengel's eyes, Denethor continued, earnestly. "He calls him 'my captain' takes him into his confidences, invites him to meetings that I am barred from participating in, and mocks my men and me. He has made him a captain. Never has someone not of Númenor been made a captain in the army of Gondor. What difference from a captain to Captain-General? What else am I to infer?" He stopped for a moment, poured some more wine for his friend and continued, "My heart is heavily burdened with this estrangement from Thorongil. I remember our friendship. Fate has set our own, my friend, in stone, yet it had been the same for Thorongil, I had thought. Now, my heart cries out in anger and despair. I cannot abide the sight of the man."

~*~

 "You should have seen Thengel's face the first time I put my sword on in front of him as he sat on his throne. He had thought it was but a passing fancy." Morwen laughed for the hundredth time. "Orcs had attacked very near to the foothills of the White Mountains while the king's éored had been sent on some task. Did he think I would not go out and help defend our people when we were so short of men? Eledhwen joined me and he knew he did not have a hope to combat our resolve. The band that attacked the village was small. Walda's son, Éofor, had command of our half-éored. Hild... Oh, I forgot to tell you that Hild had started training with Eledhwen when we moved to Edoras. She is very good, too. I remember hearing Denethor, when she was but a youngster, call her a 'terror.' Well, that day the Orcs knew what terror was. She wielded her sword and screamed invectives against them as she hewed them down." Morwen laughed again. "'Tis a delight to surprise our men, is it not?" The smile covered her face.

Indis laughed in joy. "You are a delight, dearest sister-friend. It is good to hear your tales. I did not know you had time, what with the children you have been begetting, to even lift a sword!"

Morwen rolled her eyes. "In truth, it seems as if children flow from my womb as waters from the mountains. Do you suppose Finduilas will have more? I never thought I would, after I lost my first."

"That was a hard time for us all." Indis shivered. "Too many of our women have suffered so. It seems the strength of Númenor has left the women of Gondor for other places."

Listöwel sighed. "It seems the birthing of children has left the women of Gondor."

Indis strode towards her friend and hugged her tightly. "Yes, you speak the truth, my little sister."

"'Tis the wizard, some in the City say," Listöwel clung to Indis, all thoughts of merriment banished by the pain of their empty wombs.

"Do not help spread those rumors, Listöwel. Mithrandir is wise and seems to have Gondor's weal at heart. The advice he gives to father is shrewd. Denethor oft bewails the lack of men. If Mithrandir did not counsel the Steward to open our armies to men of other countries, we would be sore-pressed to defend Gondor."

"E'en now, more men are needed," Morwen stated sadly. "But you, little sister," she said as she looked lovingly at Listöwel, "you yourself have been through a deadly battle just recently?"

Listöwel looked up. "At Amon Dîn. You know the horror, mixed with exhilaration, that o'ercomes one in battle. Would that you both were at my side. So many men killed. I am still in shock that the women were saved."

"Because of you," Indis said quietly.

Listöwel blushed. "Ever have you both been my shining lights, my guides on how to live. You give me hope. During the battle, I thought of you, imagined you on either side of me, and that gave me the courage to continue. Seeing Amdir lying as if dead would have totally undone me, though. I am glad I did not see that!"

Morwen shook her head quickly. "We did naught but love you, dearest sister-friend. Now, we must send these morbid thoughts from us. My heart has been eased by the joy of our reunion. Let us now to Finduilas. I am sure she is ready for the company of women. Denethor still scowls too much, even when he holds the babe!"

The others quickly moved through the door, but Morwen pulled Indis aside. "I do not remember the floor shaking so, nor the stench filling the air as it does today? What has occurred?"

"'Tis Mount Orodruin. I have become accustomed to it, I suppose. It has increased over the years. I had forgotten, nor noticed with everything else that has happened. When the east wind blows, it is almost impossible to take a breath. Denethor has had fans made that are secured to the ceiling in their bedchambers. A servant is always working the mechanism while Finduilas is abed these days. She notes it and compares the air to that of Dol Amroth. I feel for her."

~*~

Thengel closed his eyes. Gondor was being torn in two. By what forces? The wizard? "How often has Mithrandir been here in Minas Tirith?"

"He practically dwells in our library. He searches for something. I know not what. I myself have met him on many occasions, pouring over old tomes, accounts of battles, and other dust-covered scripts from ages past."

"And what have you been looking for, my friend?" Thengel asked gently.

Denethor's face reddened. "I have Gondor's weal as my uppermost concern. My father speaks of the return of the king. I have been studying volume upon volume of the earlier writings of my kin. I am missing something, but I will find it. The key to this mystery." He twirled the goblet in his fingers, face distorted in a frown.

Thengel knew he could do naught to dissuade Denethor from searching for lost history, but it seemed useless to him. Better to prepare his own son to write a new history for Gondor.

"Boromir reminds me of you, Denethor." He smiled at the memory. "I was but twenty-five at the time. I would hold you, now and again, in my arms. He has your look," he said warmly.

Denethor's smile lit the room. "Thank you." A companionable silence filled his study. "Never had I thought such a moment would come. Oft did I wish I could find someone like your Morwen, or Amdir's Listöwel, or even my dearest sister, Indis! And now I have Finduilas, Jewel of Dol Amroth, and I am happy." He gave a short laugh. "With all father's talk of the king's return, I thought there would be no need for an Heir to the Steward. Heir or no, nothing is better than having a son."

"The king will always have need of a Steward, Denethor, especially one of your quality."

"And I will always have need of such a friend as you," Denethor spoke quietly, emotion cracking his voice.

Ch. 14 - Third Age 2980

'Will Ecthelion appoint Thorongil Captain-General?  Or even worse, will he name him Heir to the Steward?'  He paced the parapet, his hand clenching and unclenching his sword's pommel. ' 'Tis a nightmare; one I thought never to have.  The wizard has wormed his way into Ecthelion's heart and with him he has brought the enemy.  For that is what Thorongil is, the enemy.  I am certain of it.  Or perhaps more certain of another thing.'  He shivered, but it was not from the cold.  'Is he the usurper in more ways than one, a deeper, more sinister way?  Not from the line of Anárion, of that I am certain.  But of another line, long ago destroyed.  The line of Isildur?'  His lip curled in scorn.  'If it is as I suppose, my fathers' fathers denied that line and I, if I am allowed, will deny that line again!'

He strode towards the Great Hall, alight with torches.  The sight of it sickened him. The torches, the celebrations were all for Thorongil, for his victory this day at Umbar.  He had learned too late, always too late, that Thorongil had persuaded the Steward to allow him to lead an attack against the Corsairs.  Denethor knew, from the sources he counted as allies, that the men of Umbar were building their fleet to defeat Gondor, but he had hoped, nay, had even asked his father to allow him to lead an attack.  'But when the time came,' he thought bitterly, 'beloved Thorongil was sent.'  He stood for a moment before the stairs, holding his hand to his head, and let the harsh tears fall.  He turned away and strode into an alley.  Leaning his head against the Tower's walls, he wept.  'Father will take my title from me.  He will give it to Thorongil and I will be...  I will be what?' he sobbed.  'All these years I have put Gondor before everything, and now he rewards me in this fashion.  I will leave Gondor.  I will go to Thengel in Rohan.  Or perhaps to Dol Amroth.  What?  I will go in ignominy?  With my tail between my legs? Dishonored?  Is that what I have spent my life for?'  The sobs slowed; deep breaths were taken.  He walked towards the King's House, deep in thought.  'Have I truly spent my life preparing to throw it away?  All those years of banishment, hoping for reprieve.  And when reprieve came, little did it matter.  Thus it is with my life.  Yes.  This is what I have spent my life preparing for.  If this be for the good of Gondor, then so be it.  Has that not been what I have been taught?  All for Gondor?  I will swallow my pride.  If father appoints him heir, then I will bow to this man from the north.  Ever has the line of Húrin been Stewards, but no more.'  He stopped for a moment; his head hurt from the strain of his thoughts.  'Steward,' he laughed and it hurt his throat.  'Nay, he will not be content with being Steward.  He will be king.'  The enormity of it struck him.  'If he be king, will I remain Steward?  Will I want to be Steward to him?'  He started to pace the little alleyway.  'I will continue the line, if for naught but for my son, my Boromir. I will be this man's Steward.'  He choked on the thought.  'It will serve no purpose one way or the other.  Unless the man be a worker of magic, Gondor will fall, whether I be Steward or he be king, Gondor will fall.'  He strode back to his quarters; he did not have the stomach to face Ecthelion.

~*~

Indis searched the Hall for him.  'Where can he be?' she asked herself.  'He promised he would come.'  She knew his heart, knew that he would be sorely hurt by the betrayal of Ecthelion.  She had heard Denethor ask for command of the fleet, and heard the scorn in Ecthelion's voice as he denied him.  Their father had not told him of his plans for Umbar, for the attack, for Thorongil.  She had known.  What good would it have done to tell Denethor?  Listöwel and Amdir stepped towards her.

"Have you seen him?" she asked.  "I have looked everywhere."

"Nay," Amdir shook his head.  "I too have been to his quarters, his study.  He is nowhere to be found."

"Finduilas is here, but I will not upset her by asking his whereabouts.  She looks happy."  Indis frowned.  "She thinks the victory will make a difference.  And perhaps it will, for the present, but it is not enough.  Thorongil has not defeated the One we do not name."

Amdir held Indis' arm.  "It will help. It will stop one part of the vice that the enemy plans for Gondor.  It will be long before another fleet can be assembled.  Thorongil sank every one of their ships.  The enemy ran in terror.  I wish that I had been there."  He stopped for a moment. "Denethor, I know, wishes he had been there, too.  That is the crux of the matter.  Too long has he dreamed of sailing, the ships of Gondor under his command.  Indis," he turned to face her fully.  "You remember the tales of Mardil's captain, Vëantur?  He even told me of that man's voyages.  Ecthelion could find no better way to crush his son than this!"

"I am just glad that Thorongil himself is not here.  I understand he is finishing up his reports and then will return to Minas Tirith." Indis spoke quietly.

"Mayhap he wants to give more people time to reach the City so they can welcome him properly."  Listöwel put her hand over her mouth.  "I am sorry.  I should not have said such a thing.  But their shouts for Thorongil wound me deeply.  I can hardly imagine how Denethor feels."

Amdir pulled her to him. "Your loyalty to Denethor is not to be apologized for.   Yet, Thorongil has been friend to all of us here."

"A friend does not betray a friend," Indis said quietly.  "Who is the betrayer?  Is it Thorongil or Ecthelion?"

"What father puts another man over his own son?" Listöwel whispered.

~*~

He finally had to attend the festivities.  His father sent his knights to him, ordering him to the Hall. He sent them back with word that he would follow shortly.  Laving himself in cold water helped the swelling from the tears, but not the gash in his heart.  'So long ago, in Rohan, I learned to keep my thoughts and feelings to myself.  I must do even better.  Tonight he will see naught on my face.  No emotion, no thought.  I wonder if the wizard will be there, gloating on his triumph?  That should not concern me.  The wizard now has all he has ever wanted, my place in Gondor is no longer my own.  How often I had thought such would be the case.  Even as a youngster, never feeling that I measured up to father's expectations.  It is the perfect ending.'

He found her as soon as he entered the Hall.  Standing with Indis and Listöwel, ever-faithful Listöwel.  He remembered how she had fought to be stationed at Cair Andros with Amdir, but the garrison had become too dangerous for the women of Gondor to stay there.  She spent more and more of her time in the practice yards, her sword slashing at any that would dare challenge her.  The swordmaster had told Denethor that she was better than most of the young esquires.  He wished he had her strength, her will to fight.  It seemed to desert him now. Yet, in the midst of his suffering, he saw that Finduilas appeared tired. "My love, art thou not well."

"Just tired, my Lord. Boromir fussed and wouldst not let me leave him. It broke my heart. I would go home now."

"Ah, dearest, I must see father. Then, mayhap, we may leave. Forgive me?"

She shook her head. "I understand." She kissed him gently on the cheek. Indis moved closer and held her. Denethor gave his sister a grateful smile.

He saw Ecthelion sitting in the Steward's Chair, returned Finduilas' kiss, and moved forward.  "My Lord," he said and saluted.  "You requested my presence?"

"I should not have had to."  His father's anger was palpable.  "You shame me by not being present.  You shame the line of Húrin by not being present.  What am I to tell those around me?  My son sulks in a corner somewhere?  You have never learned to obey me fully.  You never will.  I have turned my thoughts to another, one who obeys my every order.  Obeys my thoughts before they are spoken.  I will place you under him, for a time, so that you may learn obedience.  Your banishments have never taught it to you, though I sorely hoped they would. When Thorongil returns, I will establish him here, in Minas Tirith.  You will be his aide.  Do you have anything to say?"

Denethor was caught unawares.  He had not thought his father would require any response; he never had before to the charges leveled against him, to the actions threatened.  Never had he expected to be made Thorongil's aide! He blinked once; then said, "Whatever is your will, I obey, my Steward.  I will await his command.  Thank you for seeing me tonight.  If I may have your leave, Finduilas is not well.  I would take her to our quarters."

"So, you use your wife as your excuse!  Still a coward at heart."

'Is he baiting me,' Denethor wondered.  He steeled his heart.  'He will not succeed.'

"If that is your thought, then I am sorry.  But I must take her home now.  If you wish, I will return, once I have seen her safely to our quarters."

"Nay!  I wish to see you no more this night.  Go!"

~*~

"I do not understand it," Denethor protested as they reached their chambers.  "How often have I asked father to be stationed at Pelargir?  How often have I asked for a ship?  I have trained and trained for such an occasion as this, and he sends him instead. And now Thorongil has the victory.  He has killed the Captain of the Haven.  The Corsairs flee in terror.  And all Minas Tirith, nay, all Gondor shouts the name of Thorongil.  I expect banners to be made and hung by morning!  Now he will place me under him as an aide!  An aide!"  Fury stung his words.  He could feel the anger sliding down his arms. Finduilas touched his arm and the shock caused him to flinch.  He saw the pain in her eyes.  "My love."  He took her in his arms.  "Wouldst thou forgive me?  My anger causes my whole body to seethe.  I did not flinch from thee.  I flinched from me.  Thou art the only thing in this whole world that has not harmed me, nor forsaken me, nor caused me pain.  Only happiness have I received from thee.  And only pain hast thou received from me."

"Nay, 'tis not so, le melon.  Thou hast always treated me tenderly. Fear not  my thoughts of thee.  They are only good."

"Good and pure and lovely.  As thou art.  Naught have I ever done to deserve such a love as thou art to me.  There is naught that can come between us.  By the Valar, I swear I love thee more than life itself, more than the line of my forefathers."

"And knowest thou that I love thee in full measure, my Denethor. How I love that name.  How it feels upon my tongue, my lips."

He pulled her to him, kissing those sweet lips, momentarily forgetting his anger, frustration and pain.  Always, when he brought his concerns to her, she turned them into joy.  Why did he not confide in her more often, he wondered.  Yet there were dark secrets that would terrify her if he shared them.  He trembled slightly at the thought of her fair mind and heart confronted by the evil that continued to spread nearer and nearer to Minas Tirith, the evil that would one day claim his land.

She felt the shiver and held him tighter; misunderstanding the cause, she wondered what she could do to help allay this anger.  If only he could have been stationed at Pelargir.  If only he could have commanded the fleet.  Her heart jumped at the thought of the nearness of the sea to Pelargir.  She could have been happy there.  She tried not to shake her head.  She should be happy here.  What was wrong with her?  Her love doted upon her, their friends were many, her husband's father treated her well, especially now that she had given Denethor a son - what more did she need?  And yet, always, there was that sight before her - from the moment she woke till the moment she placed her head again upon her pillow - that horrible sight, belching and rumbling and sometimes waking her in the middle of the night.  There was evil there; she knew it. She trembled and he held her.

~*~

Thorongil kicked the stone in front of him and Berelach looked questioningly towards him.  'If I stay,' he thought, 'I will continue to damage Denethor's place in Gondor.  Ecthelion is foolish when it comes to his son.  I know not why.  Denethor tries, does everything he can to obey him, and yet he turns to me for council.  I will never earn Denethor's trust at this rate.  And trust me he must, for he will be my Steward if things come to pass as Elrond sees them.'  He sighed.  'My heart is happy here. I love him. I love his son. And Finduilas and Indis could not be more courteous nor attentive.  If I leave now, if I do not return to Minas Tirith, perhaps Ecthelion will turn to Denethor and use him.  This parting would be most painful though.  I love Minas Tirith.  I love her people.  Would I be abandoning them?  Nay, it is more important that I not abandon Denethor, for this is not yet my time. The longer I stay in Gondor, the deeper grows Ecthelion's attachment to me, and the deeper grows the rift between Denethor and myself.  I cannot let this continue.  How will I tell them?  Nay, there is naught to say.  I will leave a note and go.  Just say that other duties call me.  Bitter is this time!'  He kicked another stone.  'This is not what I planned.'  He turned towards his aide.

"I will not be returning with you to Minas Tirith.  I am writing a missive and will give it to you.  In fact, I will give you two.  One I wish you to take to the Steward and one to the Steward's son.  Do you understand?"

"Of course, my Lord."

He sat on the gunwale of the boat and wrote quickly.

My Lord Steward.

Forgive the abruptness of my actions. Some concerns have arisen that must be dealt with.  I must be off.  I will not return to Gondor.

Your servant, Thorongil

This was hideous - what else could he say?  He quickly signed and sealed it, wrote Ecthelion's name on the front and gave it to Berelach.

My Lord Denethor,

He sat back, chewed on the stylus as if it were his pipe and tried mightily to think of something to say to mend the hurts his presence had caused.

I have written to the Steward and informed him that I must leave Gondor.  I have said I will not return, but I hope to, one day in the distant future.  At that time, I sincerely hope that we may start our friendship anew, devoid of all that encumbers our amity now.  Ever have I meant to befriend you.  To your mind, mayhap this has not seemed so.  I will endeavor to do all I can, when and if I return, to be forthright and loyal to you and the throne of Gondor.

He scratched that part out.  If he mentioned the throne...  Denethor already looked askance at him.  If he put in something about the throne, it would make him question.  He looked at the missive again, crumpled it, stood up and threw it into the fire.

My friend,

He began again.

I have written to the Steward and informed him that I must leave Gondor.  I have told him I will not return, but I hope to, one day in the distant future.  At that time, I sincerely hope that we may start our friendship anew, devoid of all that encumbers our amity now.  Ever have I meant to befriend you.  To your mind, mayhap this has not seemed so.

He tried this part again.

I will endeavor to do all I can, when and if I return, to support you as Steward of Gondor.

I leave with you the dirk of your kin.  I had meant to return it to you upon your taking the Steward's Chair, but that is not to be; I will not be here for that happy occasion.

'Ah, that should help.  How do I sign it?  Your friend, the usurper, the traitor.'  His brow creased.  He had done nothing wrong, naught to harm Denethor and yet he felt responsible for the rift between Ecthelion and Denethor. 'I will just sign it Thorongil and leave it at that,' he thought.

He finished the missive, asking Denethor to bid Finduilas and Indis farewell, signed and sealed it, wrote Denethor's name on the front and gave it to Berelach.

"There, it is done.  Take these immediately to Ecthelion and Denethor.  Please, make sure you give it personally to each."

"Yes, my Lord."  Berelach said, then looked on in astonishment as Thorongil, after wrapping his belongings in his blanket and slinging them over the back of his horse, mounted, saluted him, and rode off eastward.

"Well..." was all he could say.  Then he mounted his own horse and rode towards Minas Tirith.

~*~

The missive burnt his hand and his heart.  Long past, his heart had turned against the writer.  The eyes reading it could only see danger lurking.  "So, he intends to return. For what purpose, I wonder."  And then, a sudden longing for friendship long lost assailed him.  "Friend I had called him.  Nay, closer to brother."  Bitter tears burnt his eyes.  "My heart recalls his kindnesses, his loyalty, his openness.  Always, he shared all with me.  Gave me no cause for regret, nor anger, nor jealousy."  The tears fell in earnest.  "I would go back to those times.  I would take him in my arms and embrace him and thank him for everything he has ever done for me, from the moment of healing in the Drúadan Forest, to the negotiations for thy hand, to his friendship.  And yet - I cannot forgive him for this... this estrangement from my father."

Her soft voice beside him shushed him.  "It seems to me, my Lord, that thy father bears the brunt of guilt here.  'Twas not Thorongil's intent neither to deceive thee nor to tear thee away from thy father's esteem.  Thou knowest this."

"I knowest not what to think. Clandestine meetings, gifts given, the people exhorted to cheer his name in the courtyards. What am I to think?  That Thorongil was unaware of the repercussions, the destruction that these things brought about.  I am the Heir, not he.  My mind tells me he and the wizard engineered these things.  Swayed my father's heart towards him, and away from me.  Yet my own heart would deny such accusations."  He pulled her towards him.  "I will speak with Ecthelion, in couch'd terms and try to discover where the treason lies.  Yes," he said as she pulled away from him at the word, "'Tis treason to plot to o'erthrow the rightful Heir.  Is that not what he did?"  His anger simmered again.  "He and that wizard."  He spat the word.  "Wizards speak in riddles, tell half-truths, and endeavor to take control of peoples' minds.  Hideous creatures.  Long bereft of honor."  He was droning the phrases, alarming her.  "Wizards are not to be trusted.  They lie.  They steal information.  They trick leaders into unwise decisions."

"Denethor!" she cried, "Thou art frightening me."

He drew a breath in sharply.  Somehow, he had been back in the deep archives of the Great Library, listening to a feared voice.  He shook his head to clear it.  'I have endeavored to keep my mind my own.  I will not go back to being the pawn of another wizard,' he thought.  'I will not!'

He hugged her quickly to assuage her fears and left her.  Striding towards the Great Hall, he toyed with the words he would use to question Ecthelion.  How was he to couch his words so that his father would not realize where his questioning was leading?  He was, however, unprepared for the onslaught of his father's rage.

"You!" his father screamed as he entered the Hall.  "What did you do to make Thorongil leave me?  What did you say to him that made him abandon Gondor? With him at my side, there was a possibility that we would win, that Gondor would not fall.  But you," he snarled out the word, "you have destroyed all hope with your petty jealousy.  Did you not know that my captain would flee from your accurs'd finger pointing?"  He slumped back in his Chair.  "I... I cannot do this alone," he whispered.  "Finally, Gondor had an ally of stature!"

"Father!" Denethor tried not to shout.  "I said naught to Thorongil.  Naught. Always have I obeyed your will, though you would see it otherwise.  Do not blame me for Thorongil's change of mind.  Never had he made oath to Gondor, nor pled fealty to you; never had he promised to remain here.  His loyalty was a delusion.  Always, he looked only to himself, to his own ends.  Now those ends have sent him in a different direction and we must stand without him.  Know that I valued his quality.  Know that I esteemed his leadership. Know you not that his heart was not beholding to Gondor.  I appreciate your need of his skills, but father, others have skills too, skills that perhaps you have not seen."  He did not want to beg, but suddenly his entire being longed mightily for his father's approval.  "Would you not teach me?  Would you not use me to help Gondor?"  He knelt before the Steward, his heart beating wildly.  Perhaps there was the slightest likelihood that Ecthelion would value him.  He knew Thorongil was loyal to Gondor, knew it in his heart, and he found it repulsive to use that ploy to sway Ecthelion, but he must use something to further his own cause, and Thorongil had, indeed, abandoned Gondor.

His father stood up.  "Leave me now," he said wearily.  "We will talk in the morning."  He turned as if to leave, then turned back.  "Come to the Council meeting tomorrow."  Then he turned again and left.

Denethor almost leapt for joy.  He had not been admitted to a Council meeting in over five years; summoned once in a great while to give report, but not attend!  He could not believe his ears.  He ran towards his quarters, ready to envelop his love and rejoice with her in the implied meaning of the invitation.

However, the Council meeting did not go as he had hoped, but it was a beginning.  He was not introduced, and that disappointed him, yet the members of the Council knew him well.  Why should his father introduce him?  He sat halfway down the table from the Steward.  The place of honor was given to Lord Amandil.  Ecthelion did, however, notify the Council of Thorongil's decision.  There were great sighs and harsh comments towards any who would have had any part in that decision.  Denethor knew their thoughts accused him. He tried to keep his head up.

Many decisions were made that day that alarmed him.  The forces at Pelargir would be cut in half, now that the threat from Umbar was presumed abolished forever, thanks to Thorongil (he cringed).  The Gondorian ships used in battle were left to sit at the docks.  Funds were not allocated to repair them.  Their crews were sent to the garrisons at Pelargir and Dol Amroth.  Denethor questioned many of the decisions, but in his own heart he deemed it was not yet his time to partake of the discussions.  Ciramir was sent to Pelargir and Amdir was stationed in Osgiliath.  Listöwel would be sorely hurt by this decision.  No woman was allowed to accompany her husband to the garrison at Osgiliath.  Concern for Amdir's safety battled with pride for his friend.  Osgiliath was deemed a very good assignment.  There was no mention of an assignment for him.  He kept his mouth closed.  He was, however, placed as a member of the funding board, to learn, as Ecthelion told him bluntly, how to effectively negotiate, use the treasury monies, and contribute to the well being of Gondor.  Denethor wanted to gag.

Once the Council was adjourned, Ecthelion called him forth.  "I would have you spend the next months in the Great Treasury.  I want the items there catalogued.  It is a worthwhile assignment, and one that will teach you many things.  It will also help you in your role with the board."

"Yes, my Steward.  I will begin this afternoon.  If I may have your leave?"

~*~

The Great Treasury.  He ran back to their chambers and hugged her tightly.  All the excitement at his inclusion in the Council was mitigated by the task laid before him.  "I am to be a clerk," he stated sourly.  A bitter laugh escaped his lips.  She ran her hand through his hair.  "First I was to be an aide and now I am to be a clerk.  So this is what I have trained for all my life."  He stared at her for a moment.  "Wouldst thou forgive me?" he said, looking into her bright gray eyes.  "Always, my heart turns to the unpleasant aspects of my life, and away from the gifts I have.  Away from thee. I am a fool; nay, more than a fool, I am an idiot.  No other, looking at one such as thee, holding a Vala in their arms, and hearing the sweet cooing of their son, would spend one moment on such thoughts.  'Tis folly.  And I am sore pressed to make excuse for it.  Yet, I would beg thy forgiveness.  Thou knowest me too well.  Thou knewest me before our oath taking.  Art thou surprised?"

She laughed, holding him closer to her.  "Nay, thou art the most precious gift the Valar could give.  Almost as precious as thy son.  Come, thee must see what he hast done this day."  And she led him into the nursery.  As soon as Boromir saw him, he lifted his arms and cooed.  "Ada, Ada, Ada," he sang over and over. Denethor's face blushed at the joy he felt looking upon the little one.  "My darling Boromir," he cried and lifted him from the cradle, swinging him around and rejoicing at the gentle laughter emitting from his son.  "Nana tells me thou hast been up to some sort of devilry?"  He laughed as Boromir looked at him questioningly.  "What great feat hast thou done this day, my son?"

Boromir looked shyly at his Ada. "Down, Ada," he said simply.  Denethor smiled and placed him on the floor.  The little one moved quickly to his cradle and climbed right into it.  Denethor gasped.  "How didst he learn to do this?  Who taught him?" he asked Finduilas in astonishment.

Boromir and Finduilas giggled.  "Want sleep.  Cradle soft, Ada."  He yawned.

Denethor walked back to the bed, pulled the coverlet over him, and kissed him on the forehead.  "Sleep now, my sweet Boromir.  Ada is so proud of thee.  And Ada loves thee very much."  He turned to hide the tears in his eyes, walked towards Finduilas, and buried his head in her shoulder.  They walked slowly from the room.

~*~

"It... is.... not.... possible.  He cannot be dead.  He was here, with us, just two years ago.  Dead.  It cannot be.  Too young to be dead." He had slid back into his chair, hands hiding his face.  "How?"

"He was not of Númenor, le melon.  He just died.  It happens."  She had not wanted to sound unfeeling, but she knew the frailty of men who were not of Westernesse blood.

He pulled her to him, down onto his lap, and held her tight.  "He was more brother than friend, Finduilas.  I cannot abide the thought that he is gone.  I had wished to fish with him one more time.  I sent a missive to him, after Thorongil deserted us, asking for his advice.  But he did not reply.  I was hurt, at the time.  I thought, what with his love for Thorongil, that he would not listen to me.  That he thought I was being foolish.  He must have been ill then.  I should have known better.  I knew him well, Finduilas.  How could I have thought he would abandon me?"  Tears formed in his eyes.  "When?"

"Not five days past.  An errand-rider was dispatched as soon as...  There was no warning, Denethor.  He had been ill for only a short time.  He died in his sleep.  Morwen was at his side.  Théoden had returned from the Fords of Isen a fortnight before.  Will you go to Edoras?"

"Of course.  I must.  And Amdir will go too.  We must send a rider immediately to fetch him.  Recall him from Osgiliath.  Indis... Arciryas too.  He would not want to be left behind.  Oh, Finduilas.  Does Indis know yet?"

"Nay, melethril nîn.  I thought you would want to tell her."

"Yes.  Call the guard in.  I will meet her in our chambers."

~*~

Indis insisted, once Denethor told her the news of Thengel's death, that Listöwel be allowed to accompany them.  "We three, Denethor, are bound as sisters.  You cannot separate us.  She must attend," Indis stated. And so it was that the entire company of friends, less Elleth who had taken ill, arrived at the gates of Edoras.  Dust and heat assailed them as they passed through.  Banners hung silent in the dark.  It had taken them longer than usual to reach the Rohirric city.  Though rivers were only tiny trickles or dried up beds, they were not the stumbling block that caused the trip to be long and arduous.  He rued the fact that Indis and Listöwel accompanied them.  They did not show it, but he knew the two-week journey had taken its toll on them all.  It had been a dangerous journey.  Orc bands had attacked at night four times during their long sojourn.  Gratefully, he acknowledged that they had lost none of their company; he smiled, though, as he thought of the battle readiness of the women!  They would not be put off, nor encircled in protection, but had fought hard and long, as the men guarding them.  It irked him to think Orcs would have the temerity to attack a full Gondorian battalion. Gondor must be deemed weak indeed to be held in such disdain.

~*~

As Morwen held Denethor's arm tightly, she recounted the ceremony. "I began the song of mourning.... "Bealocwealm hafað... They laid him in a mound prepared for him, the mounds on the left being part of the second line of the Kings of Rohan.  Little white flowers have already sprouted from its base. The day was beautiful.  White clouds spotted the sky; the mountain snows mirrored their whiteness and the river Snowbourn glimmered in the hot sun.  All was white and blue and gold.  The roof of the Golden Hall hurt the eye, such was the brightness of the sun that day.  How I wish you had been here.  I should have sent for you earlier.  I could see he was failing, but I would not accept it.  Nor did I expect it to happen so quickly."  She leaned against him, clinging to his arm.  "He bade you farewell, Denethor. He awoke in the middle of the night, clutching his chest, bending near over with pain.  It subsided for a moment.  His eyes, misted with tears from the pain, suddenly cleared.  He looked at me and smiled, gave me his love. We lay together for another few moments, he recounted his love and pride for Théoden, his wish that he could have accomplished more, his thoughts of friends near and dear to him.  You, my dearest, Denethor, were part of those such named.  Another few moments and Théoden and the healers were at his side.  But he was gone by that time."

"He was a brave warrior, Morwen.  Songs and tales will be told of him until the end of time.  I learned so much from him.  A truer friend I have not had.  Gondor has indeed lost one of her sons.  Ecthelion would have had me use him for Gondor's end: I know he knew that, but I would not sully our friendship with that crassness.  I had only the deepest respect for him.  Though his years were many more than mine, he held me in esteem.  I considered him our finest captain. Will you come back to Gondor with us, Morwen?  You are sorely missed.  Your old quarters would be prepared."

She looked at him in surprise.  "Nay, Denethor, though I would wish it mightily, for I miss my sisters terribly.  Théoden and Théodred have need of me.  The little one needs a mother, and I am that for him, and always will be.  But I thank you for the kindness.  He loved you very much."

"And  I him."

~*~

Laughter swept down the hallway and into the main hall.  Théoden, Amdir, and Denethor looked up in surprise.  "'Tis the sisters," Denethor said in mock anger.  "They cannot stop that cackling whenever they meet.  'Tis a disgrace!"  The smile belied his words.

Théoden laughed.  "Have they always been like this?"

"Yes.  They drove your father mad with it.  Some nights, 'twas hard to sleep.  I think he relished being sent to a far away outpost now and again.  I know I did."

All three men laughed heartily.  Denethor clapped Théoden on the back.  "My lad," his tone grew serious.  "Know that I will be here for you. In whatever your want.  Need I say that the promise of Cirion, Steward of Gondor, will hold as long as Ecthelion is Steward, and then after, when I am Steward.  We will not forsake the men of the Mark.  The boundaries will not change, nor your sovereignty.  I swear it."

Théoden hugged Denethor.  "Father spoke truly of you.  He told me that, if ever I was in need, I was to call upon Gondor.  That Gondor would answer.  Know you also, Denethor, that Rohan will answer any call of Gondor's.  We know the oath of loyalty taken by Eorl on the Halifirien, the oath of perpetual loyalty to Gondor.  Know that I will keep that oath, Denethor, as long as I have breath!"

"I find it strange, my friend, that we should be swearing oaths that were created by our ancestors so long ago.  But the friendship between Gondor and Rohan has been strong, and always will be." He paused for a moment.  "Did you know that Cirion's father was named Boromir?  I find it strange that I sit here with you as father of Boromir.  I think it bodes well for our people.  Do you not agree?"

Laughter again erupted from down the corridor and Denethor and Théoden joined it.  Amdir shrugged.  "'Twill be hard for them to be parted again."

~*~

"I tell you there was smoke coming from his nose!"

"Nay, 'tis not true," Indis cried.

"'Twas," insisted Morwen.  "I saw it myself.  The wizard had drawn on that pipe he uses and smoke came from his nose!  After that," she paused for emphasis, "he blew out a round ring from his mouth that drifted to the ceiling of the Golden Hall.  Then it stayed there, till evening came!"

Indis laughed loudly.  "I have heard tales of Mithrandir's love of the stuff he calls pipeweed.  I remember one time in Minas Tirith, he had some children of the Tower Guard running over the foothills of Mindolluin harvesting bunches of sweet galenas. He brought it to the laundry and spread it on the drying tables. After a week, he went back to retrieve it.  He was furious; the laundress had thrown it away.  They bellowed back and forth at each other until I was called to settle the matter."

The others laughed with her.  "Great was the courage of that laundress, I must say," said Listöwel.  "I would not cross the wizard myself.  Dark are the memories of wizards for Denethor, that much I can say!"

"Yes," Indis frowned. "He truly distrusts them.  All wizards.  Yet, I myself, find Mithrandir to be pleasant company. He regales me with many tales of Elves, and great forests, strange creatures - the very type of tales that Denethor loves.  But Denethor will not allow himself to be anywhere near when the wizard visits Gondor."

"'Tis a shame," Listöwel echoed her friend.

"What is the real shame is that you will be leaving me soon.  Théoden said that Denethor plans on leaving the day after tomorrow.  I will rue that day, my sisters.  Blessed has your company been to me.  You have eased my heart.  I know Théoden has been lifted by Denethor's presence.  Would that we could stay together always.  Do you remember, Indis, when I was with child and had the vision of Thengel helpless?  Do you remember how you said that, as long as our men were together, they would be all right?"  Tears started to fall.  "'Twas an omen of this day.  We should never have left Gondor.  I know Thengel would be alive today, with Denethor and Amdir at his side.  I know it."

Indis leaned in and held her sister-friend.  "Nay, my sister, you know that the life of an Eorlingas is short.  His time had come.  Your curse is that of one of Númenor.  You chose one of lesser blood.  You knew your life would last longer than his.   But be heartened, for Théoden's blood flows with yours and he will live longer because of it.  That, my sweet sister, is very good."

"Yes," Morwen sighed.  "'Twill flow through the line of Thengel forever.  That does hearten me, my sweet Indis.  Thank you."

~*~

Darkness enveloped her and she hid under her cloak, willing it to be gone.  But her heart had been o'ertaken by it; she was helpless in its power.  Such terror had never assailed her as this did.  She felt it, physically, and burrowed deeper into the cloak: the cloak he had given her on their wedding day.  Darkest blue with mithril stars scattered about.  The cloth was so thick she could not see through it.  And this was a blessing. The mountain belched and stormed at her, shaking the very foundations of Minas Tirith, causing her to grasp the cloak in panic.  Three times the room had shaken so badly she was afraid she would be thrown from the bed.  She clung to the great oaken headboard as her tears fell.  'How could he leave me alone like this? Does he not know I will go mad with this terror?  Is there no one who can help me?  I am so alone.  I am so alone.'  The tears fell faster as she cowered further and further into the precious mantle that covered her.   Another tremor hit the room and she screamed into the night, "Where is he?  Why did he leave me?  Why did they all leave me?"  But there was no answer.  Even the mountain had quieted.  The silence almost hurt it was so deep.  "Silence before the storm?  Is that what this is?" she wondered aloud.  But after a few moments, she realized the mountain had stilled.  She held her breath for another moment, then slowly moved the cloak back just a bit.  The fire still burned brightly in its place, the candles still flickered, but now gently, and she could hear the soft sound of wind blowing outside her windows.  Another deep breath and she sat up.  Her fingers hurt from holding so tightly to the headboard. She flexed them, then sat up, moved off the bed and walked to the terrace opening.  'Why am I doing this?  I do not want to see it.'  But some compulsion, some fixation made her look.  The sky in the east was lit up as if by the sunrise, but it was no sunrise; it was the flames of that horrid mountain reaching towards the firmament itself.  She pulled the cloak tighter about her. The stars were the same as those back home in Dol Amroth.  Yet, not the same, for these were being o'ercome, supplanted by the fire and smoke that spewed out of that horrid, cavernous peak.  She closed her eyes.  Such sadness, such gloom, such despondency beset her that the tears, which had stopped when the shaking had stopped, poured forth again in such torrents it frightened her. 'By the Valar, I will die here in loneliness and grief.'  She screamed wildly, "Denethor! Denethor, save me!"

The guard flung open the chamber doors, sword unsheathed, searching for the cause of his Lady's distress.  Stepping a few paces into the room, he called her name.  When his call went unanswered, he strode quickly to the bedchamber's doors, knocked, then opened them.  She lay by the great terrace doors overlooking the Courtyard of the White Tree.  Rushing towards her, he sheathed his sword, took her in his arms, and gently called to her.  She did not respond, but her chambermaid ran in at the same moment.

"My Lady," the wretched girl screamed.

The guard shouted for her to be still; then motioned for her to come to him.  She wept openly as she tiptoed across the room.

"The Lady Finduilas is ill. Go to the Houses immediately and bring back the Master Healer. Go, now!" he shouted as she looked at him in confusion.  With a start, she ran from the room.

Denethor's groomsman entered the room as the chambermaid left and quickly ran to the guard's side.  Kneeling, he put his hand on her forehead, touched her cheeks, and finally felt her neck.  "Quickly," he whispered.  "Place her upon her bed. I believe she has only fainted."

The guard sighed a great sigh of relief, picked her up and placed her under the covers.  The groomsman removed the cloak and pulled the covers up around her neck.  "I will stay with her.  Please inspect the rooms.  Make sure there is no sign of an intruder, naught that might have caused this distress."

The guard obeyed.  After a few moments, he came back.  "There is no one here.  Nor any sign that an intruder has entered these rooms."

"Yes.  It is as I thought.  I believe she has never felt the quaking of the earth before.  Though not as hard as when the mountain first awakened, the shocks were strong.  She fainted in fright, I think.  Go, back to your post.  I will stay with her.  When the healer comes, send him in."

A few moments later, a man stood in front of the guard.  "The Master Healer has gone with Denethor to Rohan.  My name is Siriondil and I would look to the Lady Finduilas,"

~*~

He held Morwen in his arms, comforting her as best he could.  He knew there were no words to assuage her grief.  Yet, he was grateful to be with her, to at last hold her and tell her of all that Thengel had meant to him, to Gondor and to the Rohirrim. He knew he did not want to leave her here.  And yet, he must. His friend's son needed her.  She had such wisdom and strength. He thought, with awe, of the women in his life.  Morwen Steelsheen.  Aptly she was named.  He saw it in the steel of her eyes as she bid them farewell.  Indis was weeping openly as was Listöwel, but each waved, smiling through the tears.  The entourage went through the gates, down into the valley and towards the road that led home.  As much as he wanted to stay, to spend more time with Théoden, he knew he must leave.  His heart had been filled with pain these last days.  He needed to be with Finduilas and Boromir.  He had been gone too long.  He had never meant to stay for Théoden's coronation, but the man had begged him, and so he stayed.  It had recalled to him Thengel's ceremony.  Bittersweet these days seemed to be.  To raise a cup of cheer to the new king delighted him, for Théoden had become quite a man, so like unto Thengel, but still, he wanted to still see Thengel seated on the throne.  How hard for Morwen to sit next to her son and not her king.  'Ah,' he thought, 'but Théoden is now king.  I can only wish the best for him.  The days are growing darker.  I have warned him about the wizard at Isengard.  I hope he takes my advice to heart.  Would that my ancestor had never given the keys of Orthanc to a wizard! 'Tis fruitless to follow that line of thought.' He shook his head. 'The damage has been done; the wizard resides in the tower.  And I must leave it in the hands of a child.'  He had to laugh.  Théoden was no longer a child, but his fondest memories of the man were in Minas Tirith, bouncing him upon his knee.  How he wished they had more time together.  'Ah, someday I will take him fishing with me.  Thengel told me he excels in the sport.  Then again, perhaps I will not.  I really do not want to have another abject lesson in humiliation.  I have never been able to fish well. I know not why.'  His smile filled his face.

Indis drew alongside him.  "What brings a smile to your face, my brother?"

"I was thinking of Thengel and how much he loved to fish.  I imagine he has drawn forth all the fish in the Snowbourn and left none for his son!"

"I too miss Thengel.  It is a very hard thing to lose a man such as he was.  Besides being a friend, Gondor needed his strength."

"Indeed, sister, you speak well.  I cannot forget the pride Thengel had in Théoden.  I think Rohan will remain loyal to Gondor, will do her best to keep the evil forces at bay, and will guard our shared border well.  We discussed horses, and he has promised another herd to be sent to Gondor within the month.  We have needed new mounts desperately."  He shook his head slowly.  "We lose as many mounts as men in this age.  Too many, dear sister.  Too many."

She placed her hand on his.  "When you are Steward, my Lord, you will exhort men to join Gondor's armies.  They love you, the men who serve under you, and all will know that love.  You will have no difficulty encouraging the other lords of Gondor to send men to swell the ranks.  You are eloquent and wise.  They will see the wisdom in your words and they will respond in like.  I have no doubt.  Ecthelion has been ruled by frustration and enmity towards Turgon and the legacy he left him.  If you leave aside these things, you will be strong and Gondor will survive."

"I know not how Gondor will survive, Indis.  We have not enough men and the lords of the surrounding lands do not send us recruits.  It is as you say; I must persuade them to act and now.  Else Gondor will surely fall.  I thank you for your confidence in me, dearest sister.  It is most needed. If father would only..." he stopped in confusion.  Better to leave those thoughts somewhere in the dark recesses of his mind.  They only caused pain.  "We have been missed, Indis, of that I am sure.  If only there were some way to fly over these mountains into Finduilas' arms, 'twould make me most happy."

~*~

Siriondil had paced the room for nigh unto a fortnight.  She still languished.  All the medicaments he used did naught for her.  She had not even wanted to see her son. The healer was most concerned.  'Perhaps it is fever. Nay,' he wished it were.  He could deal with fever, knew how to fight it, but this was different.  It assailed her mind.  Would that Denethor would hurry home.  Ecthelion had not thought it necessary to send an errand-rider to the party; he thought they would return within the month.  Denethor had now been gone almost two months.  She was awake and aware, most of the time, yet her speech slurred at times, and her eyes would cloud over.  He shivered.  'I must do something.'  He jumped at the sound of running feet. He stood away from the bed and turned towards the doors.  Denethor pushed them open and ran into the room.  His face was terrible to behold.  The healer quickly moved out of his way.  Denethor knelt by her side, taking her hand into his.  Arciryas joined him.  Siriondil left the bedchamber and waited in the outer rooms.

"Finduilas?" he whispered.  Her eyes were closed, her face gray, her hair lay wet about her face, drenched in sweat.  "Finduilas," he moaned.  "Lasto beth nîn, cuiva!" She did not stir. "Garn nîn, absenen. Too long have I been gone. Absenen, melethril nîn, absenen!" He turned towards Arciryas.  "What ails her?  Why will she not wake?"

"My Lord," Siriondil stepped through the doors.  "I gave her a draught to help her sleep.   The last time she awoke, she was delirious.  Screaming about death and fell beasts and I know not what else.  Afraid she would hurt herself, I gave her a potion."

Arciryas stepped to the man and walked him back out the door.  They spoke for some moments; then Arciryas came back and stood by Denethor.  "The potion is weak. She should wake soon.  Please, Denethor, take a quick bath; make yourself presentable, so that when she wakes your appearance or your demeanor will not affright her.  She needs you strong now."

Denethor quickly kissed her forehead and moved to the antechamber.  His groomsman was issuing orders for a bath to be drawn.  Denethor pulled Arciryas close to him.  "What ails her?"

"Siriondil tells me there was a time of great activity from the mountain while we were away.  Three or four tremors hit the tower. She was alone, frightened, and fell prey to a 'madness' - it will pass, Denethor.  Once she is in your arms, it will pass.  She is weak, however, and I think it best you do not leave her for long periods.  Either you or Indis or Listöwel must be with her for now.  She should not be left alone."

Arciryas gave him a hug, surprising Denethor.  "Brother, her love for you is deep.  Let that thought comfort you while she heals.  I will stay by her side until you are ready."

~*~

Indis ran into the room while Denethor was still in his bath.  He looked up surprised and she blushed.  "Forgive me, brother.  I heard the news of Finduilas' illness.  Is it serious?"

Arciryas had stepped through the door as soon as he heard Indis' voice. "She will be well, my love," he said.  "You will have to help her regain her strength and her will to live.  I am told she refused to see Boromir.  He must be brought to her.  The child has such life and joy within him; he can only help to raise her spirits.  But not for a day or two. I cannot believe they kept him away, even if she had requested the separation.  A mother needs her son, as does the son need his mother."  He wanted to throttle the nursemaid and her chambermaid.  How could they leave her alone during the tremors?  It was becoming commonplace to have the tower shake; though, from Siriondil's description, it had been a fairly violent event this time.  Still, had the maid hidden under her own bed?  He would ask Indis to find another to take care of Finduilas, someone stronger.  'Ah,' he thought suddenly, 'Firieth.  She will be perfect.  Strong and no nonsense.  Finduilas will not be able to order her about.'

~*~

Denethor finished dressing and joined his sister and her husband.  "I will go to her now.  You both should go to your own quarters.  I will see you in the morning, both of you.  Arciryas, at that time, I would like a full report from your healer."

"Yes, my Lord," Arciryas said, and, taking Indis arm, left the room.  Denethor walked to their bedchamber, closed the doors behind him, and lay next to the Swan princess.  Tears slowly welled up in his eyes; he let them fall.  At last, he fell into sleep.

Awakened by a fist hitting him in the cheek, he sat up.  She was still asleep, but her arms flailed about.  He tried to grab them and suffered another hit to his shoulder.  Gently, he whispered her name.  Arms kept flailing and a moan escaped her lips.  "Save me," she whimpered.  His heart broke.  "Oh sweet Finduilas.  I am here.  Thou art safe.  Cuiva.  Losto, sedho, hodo." But naught seemed to calm her.  As he readied to call the guard, her eyes flew open.  "Finduilas!" he sobbed. "Melethril nîn, it is I, thy husband." She looked uncomprehendingly at him, and then her breath hitched and she flung her arms about his neck. "Denethor!" she screamed.  "Denethor, save me!"  Her eyes were wide and her breath came in ragged gasps.  "Finduilas," he whispered, trying to soothe her.  "Finduilas, thou art safe. I am here at thy side and I will not leave thee."  She clung even harder and he had to struggle for air, but he would not let her go.  "Finduilas.  There is naught to fear.  I am here.  Thou art in thine own bed.  Guards stand at the door.  Thou art safe, garn nîn.  Thou art safe."

Suddenly, there was a knock on the door.  The guard cautiously opened it.  "My Lord, is there aught wrong?  I heard screams."

"Yes.  Thank you for entering.  Go to my sister's chambers and bring Arciryas here."

The guard left and Denethor once more turned his full attention to Finduilas. She had calmed to the point that her arms were no longer flailing about wildly, but her eyes still rolled in her head, and drool covered her lips.  He was very frightened.  She should not look this way.  It reminded him of a horse, mortally wounded in battle, not knowing that it was going to die, and pleading for surcease from the fear and the pain.  "By all the Valar, she cannot die," he whispered.  "She cannot."  He tried to still the fear in himself, lest she feel it and her own fear rise further.  Whispering her name over and over, stroking her hair, he waited for Arciryas.

When the healer entered the room, he strode immediately to the bed.  Indis was directly behind him.  After a few moments, he sighed. "Finduilas," he called gently.

She did not react; only continued to keep her arms about Denethor's neck in a stranglehold.  Denethor did not attempt to free himself.  He continued his litany of gentle, loving words.

"Finduilas," Arciryas called again, and this time, she looked at him.  He placed his hand under her chin and smiled.  "Dearest sister, Indis has come to visit you. Will you speak with her?"

Indis stepped into Finduilas' line of sight.  She blinked two or three times and then started to cry, quietly at first, and then more frantically.  Indis knelt and took her hand and held it tight.  "It is all right, Finduilas.  We are all here now.  All here for you.  All will be well."

Finduilas sighed and the tears slowed.  Firieth had arrived by now and shoved a cup of tea into Arciryas' hands.  He recognized the smell of the valerian root.  She was smart, this one.  She would watch over Finduilas well.

Denethor also recognized it.  The odor brought back memories of the horror of the fire at Emyn Arnen and Amdir's near-fatal injuries.  Too many bad memories.  But he knew the tea would help her.  He almost laughed as she pushed it away.  He had oft done the same thing, but he took the cup from Arciryas and held it to her lips, gently speaking her name.  She looked up at him, and the pain in her eyes lessened.  He smiled and she drank.  Soon she was asleep.  Denethor sat back with a sigh as Indis took the cup and gave it to Firieth.  Indis and Arciryas sat down on the bed.  Firieth moved to the doorway and sat in a chair nearby.  All three sighed with relief at the same moment.  "I fear it will be a long night," Denethor whispered.

"Yes, but she is much better than any time previous to this, according to Siriondil.  That heartens me," Arciryas whispered back.  "If you do not mind, I will stay here with you.  I am sure she has turned for the better, but I would be amiss if I left now."  He turned towards Indis.  "You may go back to our room if you wish."

"I cannot leave her," she smiled sadly.  "My heart breaks for her.  Such a little thing.  Like a tiny bird, pushed from the nest too early.  We should not all have left her.   Our thoughts were for Morwen, though, and who could have envisioned such a quake at this time.  It is almost as if the mountain itself knew she was here alone."  She shivered.

"Do not give the mountain power over you, sister.  It cannot do such a thing.  It is only moving because of its nature.  Not for evil purposes."  But in the depths of his heart, Denethor wondered.

~*~

Adrahil gasped when first he saw her; then, quickly he put on a smile as he pulled her into his arms. "My beloved daughter. How happy I am that you have returned to your home." He smiled an apology to Denethor, but it was not needed. Denethor knew she must feel safe if she were to heal, and here, in her childhood home, safety dwelt. "And Lord Denethor. It gives me much pleasure to greet you again. I hope your stay will be long?" he hinted.

"We hope not to o'erstep your generosity, Prince Adrahil, but we also hope to stay for quite some time."

"Your chambers have been prepared. I have placed you at the front of the palace, o'erlooking the Bay. It is a spectacular view, and one of my dear Finduilas' favorites. What think you of that, my darling daughter?" the prince said as he turned towards her once more. "Does it please you to be in the 'Elven Wing?'"

A smile, weak, but a smile nonetheless, graced her face. "Father! You know how much I love that part of the palace. Thank you!"

Denethor saw the look of weariness that passed over her and took her hand, gently pulling her away from Adrahil. "My Lord," he said quietly. "We look forward to spending time with you, but at the moment - our journey was long, may we be excused? I would rest for a time, and I believe your daughter is also ready for a rest."

"Of course."  Adrahil's voice boomed out, "Ivríniel, come, take your sister and Lord Denethor to their chambers." He turned towards Denethor. "Perhaps, after you have rested, you will join me for dinner?"

"We will see," Denethor stated simply. "I am grateful that your kind invitation included my sister and her husband." Indis bowed and Arciryas smiled. Denethor led Finduilas away.

Adrahil called after him. "They have chambers set aside on the south side of the palace. My son, Imrahil, will show them the way," but he realized Denethor did not hear; his focus was on Finduilas.

~*~

And so he found himself once again in the guest chambers at Dol Amroth. The sea sparkled in the sunlight, reflected light shining into the room and lightening every corner. He shuddered briefly. It was in this very room that he had seen his first Elf. He had come to court Princess Finduilas, so very long ago, and yet... What? Was it only eight years ago? It felt so much longer. They had been wed now these past four years, happily wed until this month. When he had returned from Edoras, the guard at the Great Gate had greeted him with the news that the Lady Finduilas had been taken seriously ill. He had commandeered a fresh stead from the Rangers' stables and ridden as fast as the horse could struggle up the interminably long streets to the Sixth Level and the entrance to the Citadel. When he opened their chamber doors, his heart stopped. She lay on their bed, face as white as the sands of Belfalas, hair drenched in sweat. He did not even see Siriondil; he knelt at her side, taking her cold hand into his. He remembered calling her name over and over. She lay as if dead. 'Death!' his mind screamed. 'I cannot abide it!' He had poured every ounce of his being into his voice, into calling her back from wherever she had wandered off to. That was all the remembrance he had. The memories of that horrid, fearful night of vigil would come back to him, eventually. Now, his mind pushed them away.

'Not tonight. Tonight we will sit on the terrace and watch the sun set over the bay and listen to the sound of the waves, and she will be well again,' he hoped with all his might. He heard the rustle of her skirts and turned from the beauty of the Bay to the beauty of Finduilas. Pale green dress sculpted her body. 'Too thin,' his mind screamed, but he pushed that thought away, too. Black pearls about her neck, a welcome home present from her sister Ivríniel, accented the pallor still left over from her illness. The gauntness of her face half hid beneath her black hair, that hair which had once been so shiny, soft and beautiful. It looked thin, dull, and flat. He fought back the shudders that engulfed him. She would not see his anguish. He smiled and walked to meet her, forcing his thoughts towards the healing she would receive here in her home, and far away from the terror-filled sights that assailed her.

"Garn nîn! Thou looks most lovely." Her eyes were sunken and terror again filled him. "Art thou warm enough?" he continued, steeling himself to uphold her, to give her comfort and hope. "I thought we might take our lunch here, on the veranda instead of going to thy father's dining hall. I would keep thee to myself, melethril nîn. Then, we could watch the sun set over the bay, after thou hast rested. Would thee not like that?"

She leaned her head against his shoulder. "Wouldst thou hold me?"

How could he hold her without breaking her? She seemed so fragile, like the whitest snowflake. Here for only a moment, then melted away. 'By all the stars of Varda, I must not think like this. I must be strong. I must be... happy.' He took her gently into his arms, cradling her head in his large, battle-weary hands. 'A new battle I fight,' he thought.  'The battle to save my beloved.'

Kissing her hair while whispering tender words, he built his own courage and strength from the love that o'erwhelmed him in that moment. 'She is worth fighting for,' he thought furiously. 'I will fight till my last breath to keep her alive and well and happy. But how?'

~*~

Many days passed before they joined the family for anything. The journey had been too long, Denethor feared, for Finduilas lay abed for almost a fortnight, unable to rise by herself. Arciryas tended her. Each morning, Denethor would carry her to a chair on the veranda and sit and urge her to eat. Arciryas would come twice a day, bringing medicaments and tales of the splendor of the palace and of Dol Amroth itself. He had never been to Belfalas before, and the wonder of the place astounded him. Indis would join them every day for lunch. Her light-hearted laughter echoed through the room. She brought fresh flowers and regaled Finduilas with her findings. She delighted in the variety. She and Finduilas started to plan for a new garden area in the courtyard off of their chambers in Minas Tirith. At last, she was speaking of Minas Tirith again. She strengthened in those days and hope, however fragile, kindled in Denethor's heart.

~*~

She was sleeping now and he had walked out onto the veranda, his attention caught by the sound of a crane calling. His thoughts turned to Boromir. How the little one loved the great cranes that walked the little streams outside Minas Tirith. He missed the lad mightily. Listöwel would be taking good care of him, but, nonetheless, he wanted to hold him in his arms and bounce him on his knee. He would be changed when they came back. Babes grow quickly when they are little. Every day, when he went to the boy's nursery, he would note that he had grown a little taller, his face had lengthened a little, and his hair had darkened a little more. What would he look like when they returned? He stifled the groan, looking quickly towards the bed, but she did not stir. As much as he loved to hold her in his arms, those arms longed to hold his son. 'My son,' he thought. 'Never had I thought to have a son, and such a one as he. Brave and fearless already.' He remembered how the lad had climbed into his crib all by himself. Not afraid in the least over the height that he had to negotiate to complete the task. 'And quick of wit,' he smiled. 'Knows my footfall from any other. Yells my name before I even open the door. I love him so very much. Is it possible to love a child so completely?' He walked towards the wall. 'He would love this place. The gulls, the beaches, the water. Oh, how the child loves the water.' They were hard-pressed to keep him from splashing through every puddle in Gondor, every stream on the Pelennor. Another smile lit his face. 'Never clean. Always into some mischief to tear at his garments and besmirch his face.' He chuckled. And then grew solemn. 'Was I such an abysmal child that my father should hasten to separate us at every opportunity? Nay, 'twas the absence of my mother that caused our estrangement. It must have been very difficult for him.'  Finduilas' illness had opened his eyes to the grief his father must have felt when his mother passed away. He heard her stirring and strode quickly back into the room. She smiled as he flung himself upon the bed.

"Thou art mussing the covers, my Lord," she teased. "What wilt my father think?"

He threw his head back and laughed. "Dost thou think that I care what thy father thinks when thou art at my side."He quickly took her into his arms, where she settled with a sigh.

~*~

She went to bed early. Indis walked with her to their rooms. Adrahil had asked Denethor to stay, after supper, to speak of Gondor's weal. It was now three months since they had arrived in Dol Amroth and Finduilas was well recovered. Denethor planned to leave in the morning. After the women left, Arciryas, Denethor, and Adrahil sat in front of the great stone fireplace in the prince's study.

"I cannot tell you how grateful I am for your kindness to Finduilas," Denethor began. "I had no other recourse but to bring her here. You see I was right in that decision. She needed to see the sea again, feel the salt air on her face, and look upon beloved faces again. I will not let so much time pass before bringing her back to Dol Amroth, if that is agreeable to you."

"Of course it is," the prince said dryly. "I could not refuse my daughter anything. Did I not give her hand to you when she asked it of me?"

Denethor smiled. The animosity between the two families had lessened over time, but a touch of it still lingered.

"I have a favor to ask of you, Denethor." Adrahil spoke firmly.

"Anything, if it be within my power to grant."

"It is. I would have Imrahil return with you to Minas Tirith. He is an asset to me. Well, you have a son. You know he is more than that. But I would have him experience more of the world than what we have to offer here in Belfalas. He will be prince. Heir to my throne. Besides that, it would do Finduilas well to have family at her side."

Denethor bristled, but kept his face from any sign of discomfiture. 'He would send his son to watch over his daughter. Obviously, he has not faith that I can take care of her. Yet, in truth, I have not done well. He must think I abandoned her when I went to Edoras without her, though I thought it wise not to burden her with that tedious trip. It was a mistake, not taking her. But who could have foreseen such a thing.' He held his breath for a moment. When it came to Finduilas, he had no foresight. He had not thought, nor recognized that fact before.

Adrahil was speaking and Denethor had missed some of what he had said. "...if you would not mind?"

"Forgive my, my Lord. I did not hear the first part of your question."

"There is not enough room in the barracks for the sailors that Ecthelion sent from the Pelargir. Would you speak with your father? Ask him to station them at other posts? There must be three thousand, at least."

"More than that, I think, yet, did not Dol Amroth need everyone of them during the battle against Umbar? Would you have had less under Thorongil? Methinks Dol Amroth would have fallen had not Thorongil attacked. Is there no gratitude for the sacrifice made by Gondor?"

Adrahil paused for a moment, color rising in his face. "All of Belfalas rejoiced at the defeat of the Corsairs." He stood for a moment, trying to restrain the anger he felt. He had forgotten that Denethor's tongue could be wicked. "I only ask for the comfort of your people. They are cramped."

"You cannot find them larger quarters?"

Again, Adrahil flinched. "If that is what Gondor needs, then Belfalas will provide. Yet, I do not see the need for such a great contingent of men to be stationed here. With the threat of Umbar gone, their presence would serve Gondor better nearer the eastern borders, do you not think?"

"I will take Imrahil back with me. He will be commissioned as a captain, for I have seen his skill in leading men. I will take your request to my father. But," and he paused for effect, "but Belfalas must send more men to Minas Tirith. There is no excuse, now, to keep your men here. Would you not agree?"

"I will speak with my councilors."

"That is not enough," Denethor said quietly.

'How does my daughter love this man?' the prince wondered, struggling again to keep control of his own tongue.

Denethor could see the struggle on the man's face and relented. He knew what it was to control oneself in front of an unyielding, demanding Steward.

"Belfalas is next to my heart in my love because of your daughter. Gondor is, of course, first. I will remember that, when I go to my father regarding the number of men required. We will not leave Dol Amroth unguarded." He stood and walked to where Adrahil stood. "My father," he began tentatively and in Sindarin. Adrahil looked up in surprise. "Thy daughter is most dear to me. Think not that I will let aught happen to Dol Amroth for her sake, if not for Gondor's. Trust me in this. I will not fail thee, nor thy people. If Gondor falls, and thou knowest this, then Belfalas will be o'errun by the refugees of those battles. And then, eventually, Dol Amroth herself wilt fall. Thou knowest this also, Father. The Unnamed One will prevail if all of Gondor does not unite. Wilt ye send men to Minas Tirith, to train in her armies, to defend her, and Belfalas?"

Adrahil put his hand on Denethor's shoulder. "The Swans have always been faithful to Gondor. We wilt not betray that faith."

Lasto beth nîn - listen to my words
Cuiva! -- wake up!
Garn nîn -- my own
Absenen -- forgive me
Melethril nîn -- my love
Losto, sedho, hodo -- sleep, be still, lie still

Thengel dies, 75 yrs. old; Morwen 58; Théoden, son of Thengel, becomes 17th King of Rohan after the death of his father, age 32.

Ch. 15 - Third Age 2983 - Part One

"Must thee tell him these stories? He is only four years old!"

"He is my only son, Finduilas, and he must know our history." Denethor spoke without reproach, with a firmness touched by warmth. "I have waited longer than was my wont in deference to thee, dear heart. He is going to be five soon," he offered in apology. His thoughts flew back to the time he was five. Bittersweet thoughts, tinged with regret. 'I wonder if I will e'er be able to look back at my childhood without bitterness and longing for better.'

"Ah, but he wilt not be thy only child, garnnîn," she interrupted his thoughts as she lightly stroked her stomach.

Denethor gently removed his left arm from around Boromir's shoulders, quickly stood up, and hastened to Finduilas' side.  "What art thou saying?" he asked, bending down to her. He knew well what she meant, what the small gesture meant, but it seemed too much to hope for. It had been over four years now and, though his love for her grew deeper each day, his hope for another child had slowly faded.

"Thou knowest of what I speak, my Lord. By this time next year, another child wilt giggle as it bounces on thy knees."

Once again, his love had surprised him. He turned his face away from her to hide the tears that sprang into his eyes. He grinned with astonishment as he saw the two great sand cranes striding in the stream before him. As soon as he saw them they started majestically away, but the sight had brought further hope, for the great cranes were harbingers of good news. Now he was glad he had decided earlier this morning to bring his family to the southern edge of Minas Tirith for a picnic. The southern ramparts blocked the view of Mordor, so that all Finduilas could see were the White Mountains to her right and the plains stretched in front of her. He was sorry now that he had started to tell Boromir of Melendil. It had been a peaceful, beautiful afternoon, and though he knew in his heart that his son must learn all he could impart as quickly as possible, he vowed not to teach him ever again in her presence.

As soon as they returned to their rooms, he would summon the Master Healer and have Arciryas assess her to make sure all was well. A messenger would have to be sent to notify Prince Adrahil at Dol Amroth. His heart ached for a moment as he thought of his sister, 'Wen. How he wished she were here to share his joy. She had never seen Boromir; she had been long dead, and now he would be stopped from sharing his second child with her.

"What art thou thinking, my Beloved?" Finduilas asked. "Hast thou already assigned him duties, sent him commanding great battles before thou even knowest if thou art to have another son?"She laughed lightly as she spoke.

Denethor shook his head, took her hand in his and quietly shared his sense of loss. She placed her hands on either side of his face and pulled him gently towards her own. She kissed him lovingly and sighed. "Another of the many reasons I love thee."Tears formed in her eyes."How I wish I had known thy sister, melethril nîn, for from her has come a great man. Would that I could have learnt from her how to raise our children." Denethor put his hands on either side of her face and returned her kiss. "Thou needest no lessons, melethril nîn. Boromir wilt be great among our people because of thee. Neither of my sisters could do better." She shrank into his arms and rejoiced at the warmth of his body next to hers.

Boromir tired of watching them; naught they said interested him. He was oblivious to the fact that another child was joining their family; he just knew that his parents were no longer paying attention to him. A small white heron had appeared on the ridge on the further side of the stream and his little legs quickly took him towards it. The long neck bobbed back and forth as it foraged for food, and therefore, it did not notice Boromir's coming. But the small splash of water as Boromir entered the stream caused it to raise its head and look towards him. Boromir saw he had startled the bird and quickened his pace for a closer look when, suddenly his foot slipped on the moss-covered rocks at the bottom of the stream. He scrambled to regain his balance but did not succeed.

The silence in the air, the warmth of the sun on her face and the strength of Denethor's arms holding her lulled her into a light sleep. But Denethor's shout of "Boromir!" quickly roused her. He jumped to his feet, looking frantically about, and she was standing almost as quickly next to him. She cried Boromir's name too as her heart dropped. There was nowhere to go. Where was he?

They ran to the brook, hand held tightly in hand, and looked with horror at the little body laying face up in the shallow stream. Water ran gently over the open eyes of their son, but no movement came from him. His little mouth was slightly open. Finduilas collapsed sobbing at the top of the ridge as Denethor ran down the slope and scooped his son from the water. He laid the body next to Finduilas and gently pushed on the little stomach, trying to push out whatever water might be in the lungs. Finduilas took Boromir's tiny hand in hers and repeated his name over and over. Finally, the eyes blinked and Boromir started to cough, small rivulets of water running from his mouth. Denethor sobbed and hugged him to his great chest. Boromir tried to squirm away; he did not know why his parents were crying, but he joined his tears with theirs.

His father picked him up and carried him back to their picnic area. Boromir's head was hurting and he was thirsty. He put his hand to the back of his head and it came away bloodied. Finduilas gave a tiny shriek when she saw it. Denethor quickly whipped the blanket from their now spoilt picnic, cups and plates, fruits and cheeses flew in the movement, and wrapped his son in it. Quickly he helped Finduilas to her feet and they both ran towards the Great Gate. Even though in his father's strong arms, Boromir felt every jolt and every step. His head was hurting even more now and the tears were for the pain more than from the fear that had gripped him before. Denethor cursed himself for not bringing a horse - the gate was far north of them. It would take forever to reach it and then up the six levels to the Houses of Healing; time they did not have.

Berelach appeared in the distance, riding one horse and leading another behind. Gratitude filled Denethor's heart at the faithfulness of his aide. He knew he must have been watching them, ever vigilant from the ramparts, seen what had happened, and reacted with his soldier's instincts. He quickly dismounted, took the child from Denethor's hands and, once Denethor was seated, handed the child back to him, turned the horse and slapped it on its flank. "I will bring my Lady. Go! Now!" Denethor gave the horse its head and galloped away with no backwards look, his thoughts solely focused on the Great Gate and getting as much speed as possible from the horse.

Horns blew wildly as he entered the gates: horns of alarm. The horse's hooves quickly ate the distance and they were in front of the Houses of Healing before he knew it. A servant girl was at the door and took the child from his arms as he dismounted. The last he saw of her were her heels as she raced down the corridor. Boromir had ceased crying as they rode the horse through the streets of Minas Tirith, but being held by this stranger now terrified him and he let out a wail. Denethor caught up with them, took the child in his arms, and immediately Boromir ceased his crying.

Denethor kissed his cheek over and over as he ran, saying the boy's name tenderly and telling him all was well. The familiar smell of his father calmed him and the tear-laden kisses made him sad. He touched Denethor's face with his pudgy little hand and said, "Do not cry, Ada. I am all right. Really I am."

The servant girl led him to a room with a small bed in it and Denethor sat down - hard. The healer was next to him in an instant. Denethor pulled the boy's head towards his chest so Arciryas could look at the wound. The blood flow had stopped. The girl brought bandages and hot water. Arciryas tried to have Denethor lay the child on the bed, but a cave troll would not have been able to separate these two. Arciryas gave up and gently washed the wound. He was grateful to see that the cut was not too deep, just ragged. The swelling was on the outside of his scalp, which was always a good sign. If no swelling were apparent, that would mean the swelling was inside the skull. That would have been very dangerous. He wrapped clean bandages around the wound and then around the child's head, tucking the ends in the front.

"Ioreth will care for him now. He will need some rest."

Denethor looked at his friend in surprise. "Ioreth?"

"Firieth's daughter. The girl who took Boromir from your arms when first you arrived. Surely you knew she had a daughter? Have you not met her?"

Denethor had not even noted her presence, but now, shamefacedly, he thanked her. She curtsied and began to speak, but Arciryas interrupted her.

"You should find his mother," said Arciryas, hoping to still the young girl before she got started. She had the most annoying habit of continuous speech.

At that moment, Finduilas appeared at the door of the little room and, at the sight of her, Boromir started crying once again. Finduilas sat at the edge of the bed as Denethor passed their son to her. Boromir clung with both arms wrapped tightly around her throat. The crying had stopped as soon as he was in her arms. He hiccupped and laughed. Her eyes widened. She looked at Denethor who smiled. The hiccups continued and the three of them laughed together, relief washing over them.

~*~

Indis' delight brightened the room. She clasped Finduilas to her, tears filling her eyes. "We have so needed another pair of little feet in the halls of Minas Tirith. Firieth will be so happy. Since her own Ioreth left to work in the Houses, she has been lonely."

"Methinks Boromir is handful enough!" Finduilas laughed.

"Yes, that he is, but a most delightful handful. Have you sent word to your father? Does your brother know? Oh dear!" she blushed, "Now I am starting to sound like Ioreth, never stopping for even a breath!"

"Your questions are welcome and necessary. I had not even thought of Imrahil. A missive was sent home to mother and father as soon as I told Denethor. But my dearest Imrahil. He will be furious!" She laughed at the thought of her younger brother. It had been a joy having him here with her these past years, always a reminder of the love that flowed from Belfalas. She had only gratitude in her heart for Denethor. He had welcomed Imrahil with open arms and the two seemed to get along quite well. The difference in age was like unto Thengel and Denethor, so her husband had befriended the young Swan. She could see the friendship was genuine and it did her heart good. Her one fear, when she had learned of her father's request, was that the enmity between the two families would spread to her brother. But it had not. Imrahil thought highly of Denethor, thought him a fine leader, and looked to him for wisdom.

"If you do not mind, I will send for him now. I cannot let him hear this from others. He is such a comfort to me."

"I understand. I will tell the guard. You sit and rest. Arciryas has told me you are fit. There should be no problem with this child."

"Yes. After having one child, my fears have lessened. I acted like a foolish child with Boromir." She blushed at the remembrance.

"Nay, you did not. You acted like any first time mother. I was most proud of you and how you fought those fears."

Finduilas hugged Indis. "I had much help from a certain man's sister."

Indis blushed. "Also, Listöwel and Firieth. They helped some." Indis laughed.

~*~

Imrahil sat in silence for a long moment. Finduilas wondered. Turning towards her, he hugged her fiercely. "I love you, dearest sister. I am happy for you." He paused and she sensed his hesitation.

"What disturbs you, Imrahil?"

"Denethor must be about the business of Gondor. You have kept him close to the City because of your needs. Will this not make it even more difficult for him to leave you when duty calls?"

She sat still, stunned by the question. Her heart knew what he was saying, but truth did not alleviate the pain she felt. Was her brother trying to make her feel guilty? How would she answer him? "I do not keep him in the City. His father has need of him."

"Gondor has need of their captain. He is the greatest swordsman I have ever seen. He should be fighting the enemy, Finduilas. I want to serve under him in the field. I learn only diplomacy here. I have learnt that in Dol Amroth. I do not say this only for myself. Do you not see how you hold him back? Do you have such little faith in him that he will not return? I will protect him with my life. Will you not let him serve Gondor in the way he should?" He looked at her stricken face and blanched. "I am sorry. I have no right to speak thusly. What occurs between a man and his wife is none of my business." He tried to hug her, but she pushed him away.

"I think it is time you leave."

"What! You wish me to leave Minas Tirith?"

"Nay. Just leave me. Now. I am sorry. I cannot think. Please, Imrahil, leave now."

He bowed to her and left the room.

She collapsed on the couch in tears.

~*~

It was a long labor. Denethor paced for hours it seemed and still there was no news. What could be wrong? Why did not Indis come out and tell him what was happening? Finduilas had seemed so tired these past few months, more so than when she carried Boromir. The babe was here too soon; it was not yet time and yet labor had started and Arciryas' medicaments could not stop it.

Boromir had run to Denethor earlier in the day crying that he wanted to see his Naneth. Denethor wanted to see her too. Arciryas was concerned and suggested it would be better if Denethor waited outside their chambers. So, Denethor obeyed. He lifted Boromir in his arms and walked him back to the Seventh Level, to the White Tree. He knew immediately that was a mistake. The tree was dead and a shiver ran down his spine. He did not, would not, let this be a sign of warning. He quickly walked away from there and into the Great Hall. The statues of the kings of old always gave him a sense of security. One day, the king would return and all would be right in the world. Evil would be overcome and the burden of the Stewardship would be lightened for his father. He felt a longing for the return of the king. He recited each name to Boromir, holding him close to each statue and making Boromir repeat the name as they moved towards the Throne. Finally, exhausted in mind and body, he sat at the foot of the Steward's Chair. Arciryas found him there, laying with Boromir sound asleep across his chest. The healer smiled.

"Denethor," he called, gently shaking his friend's shoulder.

Denethor was instantly awake. "What?  Is she well?" he blurted out as soon as he saw it was Arciryas waking him.

"She is well and you have another son. Almost full-grown even though the length of her carrying was shortened. He is doing well. His mother suckles him as we speak. Would you like to see him?"

"Finduilas first. She is well?" he asked again in concern. At the nod from Arciryas, Denethor passed the sleeping Boromir over and ran out the Hall. He took the steps two at a time. He slowed as he entered their chambers, smiled, took in a breath or two and walked through to their bedchamber. She looked beautiful. His heart hurt to see her, so much in love was he. She smiled back at him.

"Hervennnîn, thy son is beautiful. Wouldst thou look upon him?"

He took two steps towards the bed and stopped. Indis smiled at him as Firieth prepared a tea in the corner. He could smell its sharp odor and smiled at the thought of Valerian tea. 'Too oft used,' he thought, though he was grateful to know Finduilas was being so well cared for. He walked slowly towards the bed, fearful of waking the little one. He bent over her and kissed her forehead, then sat gently down next to her. She lifted the covering and he looked at Faramir. They had decided the name a short time ago. Sindarin for sufficient jewel, they felt it encompassed their joy at the fulfillment of their family. He was to be their last; Arciryas had made it clear, Finduilas could not carry again.

"His looks are more like unto thine own than Boromir's," Finduilas smiled.

He cupped her chin in his hand. "Thou, my own jewel, hast given me two wondrous jewels. No man could be happier." He kissed her again.

"Wilt thou hold him?"

He took the bundle in his arms. The babe's eyes opened and Denethor gasped to see the depth of the great gray eyes that looked back at him. Truly, the child bore his visage. He kissed the little one gently on his forehead, touched the cheeks, and laughed as Faramir started trying to suckle his finger. "He is hungry," he laughed and gave him back to Finduilas.

As she took him in her arms and prepared to feed him, Indis came forward. "He is darling, is he not, brother?"

"He takes my breath away."

Finduilas called his name quietly. "Denethor, I would see Boromir. Wouldst thou bring him hither, please?"

"Of course, garn nîn, I wilt return shortly." He kissed her again and left the room.

As he ran down the stairs, he started to hum the tune that Damrod had sung many years ago. The song of Gondor. It suited him, reminded him of Finduilas and the treasure she was. "Ah," he sang aloud:

Gondor sits, mirrored moonbeams
Light her walls in Elvish dreams
All is well; Eärendil shines
'Pon my City, beloved, mine.

~*~

Stirring the fire furiously, he let all his anger flow into the poker. Never would he understand his father. Never. When he had told him the name they had finally chosen, Ecthelion had grunted. "Faramir, what curse'd name is that? Do you not remember what trouble the first Faramir caused? He disobeyed Gondor's rules; he went to battle in disguise, and was killed, along with his father and the heir. Disobedient brat! I am not surprised. 'Twould have been a more appropriate name for my own son."

Denethor had clenched his teeth to keep from speaking words that would have been useless anyhow. He reined in his anger. He should have told him at a Council meeting, where he would have had to check his tongue. Nay, cowardice. He had not expected Ecthelion to react in such a fashion. Perhaps Ecthelion had expected them to name the boy after him? Nay, he would not... But a possibility, nonetheless. He would make certain that Finduilas did not hear of this. He had forgotten the first Faramir. He had been fond of the name when first she had mentioned it to him. He preferred to think upon the meaning, not its ancestry. He cursed quietly. Let his father think what he would, there was naught Denethor could do to change his mind. He had tried for too many years, with only failure as the outcome.

"Denethor?" Startled by the calling of his name, he turned around. She stood before him, beautiful as always. "My Lord, thou art poking the fire as if it wert thine enemy." She upbraided him gently. "Is thy anger against something I might help thee with?"

He gave a short laugh. "Nay, melethril nîn, 'tis naught. A problem with the Treasury that father asks me to solve. I must work with Lord Amandil and thou knowest how much I relish that task." It was not quite a lie; Ecthelion had spoken of such a project. "Come, sit by me. Art thou well? Thy eyes look tired."

"I am tired. Faramir nurses more oft than Boromir didst. Perhaps 'tis because he was born early. I do not know. He does not seem to do well with Firieth either. He only wants me near. But he is so sweet, I canst not deny him." She paused for a moment. "It has been two days now, garn nîn. Thou hast not asked to see Boromir in all that time. He misses thee terribly, asks for thee constantly."

"And I have truly missed him, but father has called two Council meetings a day, as well thou knowest.  He hast assigned me the task of negotiating a new treaty with the Corsairs. Though they have been beaten, they still cause problems. They do not abide by the terms won by Thorongil. I am concerned, though the Council is not. Fools!"He stood up and paced about the room. "These lords do not seem to see the seriousness of the Corsair threat. Nor does my father," he said, brow furrowed. "It is as if Thorongil could do no wrong. Though that is not the issue. He didst well. In fact, he won a stunning victory, but that does not mean we can sit back and rest on his accomplishment. I am sure he didst not mean for us to disassemble the fleet. Nor send the sailors off to different garrisons with no hope of serving together again. He didst have, I must admit, a cohesive group of men under him. They worked well together. If we had kept the lot, put Amdir as their captain, I would not worry so much. But - Ecthelion didst not do any of this."

He walked back towards her. "Another thing that disturbs me. I have seen naught of the wizard since Thorongil deserted Gondor. I wonder what that means. I have never trusted wizards, yet it is best to keep an enemy close to hand. That way, he can be watched."

She pulled him down. "Hush. Speak not of enemies, speak of thy sons, or thy love for me," she giggled. "I wouldst think that I have lost my allure by the way thou speaks."

He pulled her close, stroking her hair and then, finally, kissing her. She blew out the candle on the table beside them.

In the morning when she awoke, she saw he stood by the door to their garden, shoulders slumped. She hurt to see him thus. Had Imrahil been right? Oh, she could not think of that possibility. Yet his fuming over Lord Amandil and the Treasury nudged at her heart. There had been a nervous energy flowing through him last night. He had spoken of Thorongil with respect, and that was most unlike him. She understood the Corsair threat. Had not the ships of Belfalas oft been attacked by those horrid men! She knew her father would agree with him. She remembered their last meeting, of how her father had pleaded with Denethor to return the sailors to Pelargir.

He had even dismissed the thought of Boromir. She knew it was not that he did not love their son, but the demands of Ecthelion... 'Ooh, sometimes I just want to... She reined in those thoughts. Ecthelion had been kind to her these past years. He doted on Boromir. Gave him a pony last spring. But he also gave him his first sword and urged Denethor to begin his training. And Denethor had agreed! "Ooh!" She jumped from the bed, stamping her foot in fury. He heard her and turned.

"Tolo sí, hiril nîn." He said as she walked quickly to him, melting into his arms.

"Le melon!" was all she could say. Tears sprang to her eyes as she realized her brother had indeed spoken the truth. Denethor needed to be out and about. No sitting in a dark treasury, cataloguing jewels, gold and silver for the Steward's Heir. She blushed in shame. 'I am so weak, so silly. How do I not learn from Indis and Listöwel? I have heard them speak, when they knew not that I listened, of their battles, their sword work, their deeds of valor. Yet, I sit in shadows and fear everything. I will not continue this. Indis will help me. I know she will. She will help me become strong. Perhaps, I could learn to fight too. Yes, I could do that, I am sure.'

He looked at her, quizzically. "What art thou thinking? Thy brow is all furrowed. Art thou not well?" He held her arms a little too tightly, anxious at her expression. "Is aught wrong?"

"Nay, melethril nîn. All is well. Please, sit here. I would speak with thee." She pulled him to the outer chamber and sat on the settle. "Please?" she motioned with her hand.

"Thou hast not broken the fast yet and the floor is cold. The fire has not been stoked. Please, garn nîn, come back to bed."

She laughed. "Yes, I wilt come to thy bed if thou wilt come with me?"

His smile tilted slightly sideways. "Of course," he said as he walked her back to their bed. Pulling the cord for the servant, he lifted her off her feet and set her down gently. Within a moment, his manservant entered. "Bring us breakfast and start the bathwater."

The man bowed and left. Denethor joined her. As he started to kiss her, she laid her hand over his mouth. "Melethril nîn, I am serious. I must speak with thee."

He sat back and looked at her. "If thou must, I wilt listen."

"My father wilt be most disturbed when Imrahil returns to Dol Amroth."

Denethor started in surprise. "What...?"

"Wouldst thou interrupt me at my every word! Lasto beth nîn. My brother has been stationed in the City since he arrived. He has done naught but listen to Council meetings and lords airing their disagreements. He could have stayed in Dol Amroth and done the same. I believe father meant for thee to teach him of strategies and tactics and such. Dost thou not think that is what father had planned for him?"

Denethor stared in astonishment.

"Truly, Denethor," she chided him. "Art thou not listening?"

"Of course I am. I... I am just... surprised. Of course thou art right. As always. I have been remiss in his training."

"Where wilt thou take him?"

"I wilt send him to Osgiliath under Amdir. He wilt learn much. Amdir is a fine warrior. I trust him with my life. I trust him with Imrahil's."

"Thou art not listening to me, hervenn nîn. Didst not I ask where wilt 'thou' take him?"

This time his mouth dropped open. He raised his hands to speak, but no words would come. He touched her forehead and she giggled.

"I have not a fever. Nor art my brains addled. My brother is thy responsibility. Thou canst not send him out by himself, no matter the trust thou hast in others. When whilst thou go?"

He shook his head. "I wilt speak with father. In a fortnight, we wilt ride to Osgiliath. And how long am I to stay there?" he inquired mischievously.

She stared at him. "How am I to know such things? Thou art his teacher. Thou must decide. But first, please, garn nîn, spend some time with Boromir. He misses thee mightily."

"Perhaps 'tis time thou shouldst see thy brother? He misses thee mightily."

She frowned.

~*~

Boromir indeed missed his father. Though only two days had gone by, he had become accustomed to an early morning visit, nuncheon and after dinner play. Two whole days had seemed like an age. When Denethor entered the nursery, he screamed shrilly, "Ada, Ada," and ran to Denethor, demanding with every fiber in his little body that he be picked up. Denethor hugged him tightly and walked to the garden door."Hush, little one. Thou wilt wake thy brother. Then Firieth wilt be cross with us and we wilt be banned from sweets for the rest of the day. Thou wouldst not want that, wouldst thou?"

"Nay, Ada. What kind of sweets?"

"I do not know what the cook has planned for the day. Shalt we go to the buttery? I, in truth, am famished."

The boy squealed in delight as Denethor put him up on his shoulders. Ducking out of the room and from the disapproving looks of Firieth, the two went down the stairs.

"Ada, wilt I be a good soldier someday?" the lad called down.

"Of course, Boromir. The very, very best in all the land."

"I have not practiced with my sword for a whole month."

"Nay, thou practiced just three days ago."

"Really?  Seemed so much longer, Ada."

"Why art thou concerned?"

"Adadhron says I do not practice enough."

Denethor bit his lip. "When didst Adadhron say this to thee?"

"Yesterday, I think. I tried to go to see thee. Firieth become very cross when she found me. I almost made it to the Great Hall, but she stopped me and I was very angry. I wanted to find thee, Ada!"

"And?"

"Oh, and Adadhron came out of the White Tower as we were going back in. I was happy to see him. And he hugged me, Ada, real tight. And then he put me down and asked me why I was not practicing? He said I must practice, Ada. He said I would not be a good soldier if I didst not practice. I want to be a good soldier, Ada." Denethor felt Boromir's hand under his chin. "Ada.  Art thou listening?"

Denethor gently removed Boromir from his shoulders and sat on the stair, sitting Boromir on his lap. "Boromir, a soldier does not only use his sword. He uses his mind too. When thou art with Nana and I, we help thee use thy mind. And that is important too. These past days, thou hast been part of a great thing. The birth of thy brother. It is important to see how new life comes into being. And so, at times such as these, a soldier puts aside one part of his training for another. That is being a good soldier. And thou wilt always be a good soldier, ion-nîn."

~*~

He had no opportunity to meet privately with his father, before the next Council meeting. He would have to wait a little longer before he proposed a short trip. He would emphasize short for, whether or no she had bid him leave, he knew Finduilas was not strong enough, yet, to be left alone. And his heart did not want to be gone o'erlong from her side. So, entering the Council chambers, he put his needs aside and sat. There was Lord Amandil, sitting next to Ecthelion. Denethor wondered what hold this lord might have upon his father. He did not seem to possess any great wisdom, nor wit, to sit at his father's right hand. Only wealth. 'Hmmm,' Denethor thought, 'seems 'tis a waste to put wealth before wisdom. But who am I? My father must have his reasons.' Ecthelion motioned and the assembly quieted.

"Three long years have passed since my first choice for Gondor's Captain-General was thought of. The position has lain open too long. I have decided. Denethor." He beckoned and Denethor, striving to keep a closed face, stood and walked towards his father's chair. He saluted and waited, never sure of what his father would do next.

"I bid thee kneel."

Denethor did as he was told.

"Give me your sword and swear to me now!"

Denethor placed the sword on Ecthelion's lap and took the hilt in his hand. The long remembered, long cherished oath flowed from his lips, though his hands trembled on the sword.

"Here do I swear fealty and service to Gondor," He was grateful his voice sounded strong, echoing through the chamber, "and to the Lord and Steward of the realm, to speak and to be silent, to do and to let be, to come and to go, in need or plenty, in peace or war, in living or dying, from this hour henceforth, until my lord release me, or death take me, or the world end. So say I, Denethor, son of Ecthelion, of the Line of Húrin, Steward to the King."

"And this do I hear, Ecthelion son of Turgon, Lord of Gondor, Steward of the High King, and I will not forget it, nor fail to reward that which is given: fealty with love, valor with honor, oath-breaking with vengeance."

Then Denethor received back his sword, put it in its sheath and started to walk back to his seat.

"Stop." Ecthelion said quietly. He turned towards Lord Amandil, whispered to him, and watched as the man left his chair. "Come, Captain-General Denethor, and sit at my right hand."

Denethor near staggered in amaze, but continued to hold his face firm and still. He walked to the proffered seat and sat. The nobles nodded in approval. Then his father continued with the meeting. It was over and done with quickly and the nobles started leaving the chambers.

'A short Council meeting,' Denethor thought. He stood to leave.

"Wait for me," his father requested as he turned and bid each member farewell. Denethor sat, still stunned by his father's actions.

"You might wonder what my reasons are for the suddenness of your appointment." Ecthelion smiled and walked away from his chair. The smile chilled Denethor's heart.  "Since you had caused me to lose my first choice, I was at a loss as to what to do. You know Thorongil was my first choice? He would still be my first choice if he were here. But I live and die for Gondor, as it would behoove you to set your mind to do. And Gondor must have a Captain-General. Since it seems the line is now continued, thanks to Finduilas, you are the next logical choice. I say logical, for it is not in my heart to give this to you. I expected only the best to sit at my right hand. It is not to be." He turned with fury on Denethor. "I expect total obedience from you from now on. Do you hear me?" His shout lifted the hair on Denethor's neck.  "I will not continence any type of disobedience whatsoever. Else you will find yourself in the lower recesses of this Tower, chained to a wall, bereft of everything you hold dear. Do you understand me?" His voice dropped to a whisper as he hissed these last words.

~*~

Once free of the Council chambers, he ran to their rooms. She was asleep. He cursed quietly and walked into the outer chamber. Despair flooded his heart and he dropped to his knees in front of the fire. His eyes lifted to the bright light and warmth that flowed from it. 'Ah, to be an ember burning brightly, no thought nor care, nor worry. 'Twould be a peaceful end,' he thought. He felt the hand on his shoulder and turned.

She gave a small moan as she dropped to her knees, and gathered him into her arms. "Melethril nîn," she repeated over and over again as his tears wet her garment. "Le melon, le melon, hervenn nîn." She stroked his hair lightly and continued to whisper. "Avo 'osto. Gerich veleth nîn."

Slowly, his sobs slowed. He lifted his face to hers and she smiled; the madness had left his eyes. "Denethor?" She wanted to know what happened, but was afraid to ask, afraid it would bring that cold, wild fire back into those beloved gray eyes.

He gasped and pulled her tightly to him. "Finduilas. Thou art all I need, all I want. I must remember that. Thou art my life and my love. Thou art the morning and the evening. Thou art Anor and Ithil. Light and dark. I cannot live without thee."

"Ye shalt not, garnnin. I wilt never leave thee nor forsake thee."

"Hold me," he whispered. "Father has made me Captain-General." He spoke the great news quietly.

She did not understand; he should be happy, rejoicing. She waited.

After a few moments he spoke again, still whispering. "I have waited for this for so long, Finduilas. I had hoped for this for so long. Yet bitter is this time." He held her away, his eyes darting about and fear filled her again. "He thinks me worthless. He thinks I wilt fail him; that Gondor wilt fall because of me. Does he know something? Something he has not told me. Has he seen something?" His voice rose in pitch.

Quickly, she pulled him close, whispering his name. "He knows naught. He is a stupid and foolish old man. He would tear thee down."

He looked at her wildly. "Does he wish me to fail? Is that it, Finduilas? Wilt it serve him if I fail? What am I to do?"

"Thou wilt hold thy head high. He knows naught," she repeated. "Since Thorongil left, he is bereft of guidance. His mind falters. He knows not what he says. Thou wilt serve Gondor well, melethril nîn. Thou art wise and kind and fair. Thou art the best of Númenor. Do not forget that, hervenn nîn. Thou hast the blood of Númenor flowing through thee. Thou canst not fail."

She sat, holding him. Finally, night fell and he slept. She had heard Firieth come in twice and quickly leave. She thanked the Valar for the woman's discretion. Once again, she heard the door open and she called out.

"My Lady," Firieth answered quietly, walking towards the fire. Her eyes grew in alarm, but she kept her mouth still.

"All is well, Firieth, but my Lord needs his rest. Please, ask his manservant to come in and help him to bed."

"Yes, my Lady." And the woman quickly left the room.

Denethor stirred and Finduilas stroked his hair, whispered his name, and wept.

~*~

They rode out with the wind in their hair and the sun on their faces and Denethor exalted in the joy of it all. His heart beat wildly in his chest; he had forgotten the thrill of mounting a new expedition. Imrahil looked over at his Captain-General and smiled. He too felt the excitement coursing in waves off of Denethor. The men behind him had started a song in time to the clinking of their horses' livery.  'Finduilas had been right,' Denethor thought. He needed to be out of the City, much as he loved it. He listened to the song and felt the hope in his men's hearts and he smiled. "Ah, today life is good, little brother," he said to Imrahil. The prince smiled back at him. "So, I am finally a part of this family? It has taken some time, my Captain."

"Nay, no time at all in the grand scheme of things. Life is short, 'tis true, even for those of Westernesse, but it is full of joy too. I must remember that more often." He smiled again and Imrahil, proud to sit horse next to him, smiled back.

The young man had long waited to do battle under Denethor's command. He had oft heard tales of the logic of the man during combat. Imrahil did not doubt for an instant that they would engage the enemy. Orc activity had increased ten fold in the last few years. The Corsairs' defeat seemed to fuel the anger of the Unnamed One and Orcs spilled as water from the lush forests and mountains of Ithilien.

Amdir rode out to greet them. He jumped off his horse as he came near to the company's line and Denethor jumped off his horse at the same moment. The two men strode towards each other and hugged fiercely. They pulled away; then continued to pound each other's shoulders, laughing and speaking at a furious rate.

"Captain-General!" Amdir bellowed out the title. "My Lord, my Captain-General, welcome to the garrison of Osgiliath. Your men wait for you." He whispered in Denethor's ear.  "All Gondor has waited for this moment, my friend. Too long coming, but well worth the wait. Now, I have hope in my heart." He squeezed Denethor's arm and turned him towards the garrison's gate. The battalion stood at ready, white banners flew from the ramparts, musicians played, and the men threw their hats into the air crying, "Denethor! Denethor! Denethor!" The troops that accompanied him from the White City joined their voices with the battalion's. Denethor stood, shivering from the unexpected show of loyalty and love. 'If only Finduilas were here,' he thought, 'this would be perfect.'

~*~

"Show me the map and where the last patrol was slaughtered."

Amdir put the map on the table, opening it wide; he used report books to hold it open. "Here, Denethor," he pointed. "A little south of Henneth-Annûn and west of the Mountains of Shadow."

"Henneth-Annûn was not found?"

"Nay. The Rangers are still there under Captain Dúinhir."

"He has not returned to Blackroot Vale? I thought he had married and left Gondor's service?"

"He had hoped to leave this year, but your father asked him to stay for another year."

"I would think his father would greatly desire his return. He is getting old and Dúinhir will soon inherit the fiefdom. I am surprised he has not had heirs yet."

"You are correct. He married last spring, but she is waiting for him in the Vale. She is not yet with child."

"Hmm, we must think of a replacement for him then. I want someone strong at Henneth-Annûn. It is pivotal to our defense; it always has been, always will be. Have the scouts returned yet?"

"Nay, I expect them before night falls."

"When they return, bring them directly to me. Let them not rest. I must know the whereabouts of the Orc band. I want to take Imrahil on a little hunting expedition."  He smiled.

"Denethor?" Amdir paused for a moment. "Why are you here?"

"My own Finduilas threw me out of the City. Said I was becoming gruff and quarrelsome." He laughed. "Nay. I have been charged with young Imrahil's training. Since the defeat of Umbar, there are no enemies near Belfalas, at present, to learn warfare from. Prince Adrahil asked me to bring him to Minas Tirith and teach him." He pulled on his chin. "Though I believe he sent him to watch over Finduilas. And not without reason. Life in Minas Tirith has been hard for her. I know not what to do to make it easier. She longs for the sea and her people. Yes, her people. She does not consider us as hers. It has been seven years, Amdir, since she came to live in the White City. I was sure she would love it as I do." He shook his head. "I must think of other ways to make her happy. Truly was I surprised when she suggested I leave Minas Tirith for a time. What do you think it means?"

"It means you have become gruff and quarrelsome," Amdir laughed.

Denethor laughed loudly. It felt so good to be back with Amdir, to be back in the fray. "If I may have my old quarters back?"

"So very sorry, my Lord. As Captain-General, you are billeted in the best room in the city. It even has running water!" Amdir showed him to the door. "Will you break fast with me on the morrow?"

"Of course, if the scouts have not returned by then. If they have, I want the captains brought together as soon as possible. We must plan our little sortie. Now, to bed with you, too. It is has been a long day for us both."

~*~

The scouts returned long before morning came. Denethor was roused as soon as they returned. The captains all gathered in the dining hall, excitement in the air. The patrol had found the band of Orcs, close unto five hundred of them, marching on the east side of Emyn Arnen close to the Harad Road. The Orcs were on the move, going northwards towards the Morgulduin. The noise created by this news was close to deafening.

Denethor raised his hand. Quiet settled quickly. He could feel his face prickle with excitement. This is what he had been born for. "My captains. We will only sting a small part of the enemy's forces, but we shall sting him nonetheless. We will break the battalion into three divisions. Amdir will command the northern forces, Imrahil will command the southern forces, and I will command the western attack. I will show each where you will wait for my signal. First, we will create a diversion. We will send a small patrol directly towards the enemy. I will lead this patrol. We will position ourselves as close to the Orc band as possible; our scent will draw them to us, and we will then turn and run. This should cause the Orcs to disobey their own captains and follow our group. As soon as we reach the western group, I will give the signal. Then, we will attack. All three companies must attack at once. It will be a slaughter, if, and only if we are disciplined. No one must loose an arrow before the signal, no matter the reason. No one must leave their position until the signal. Even with our great number, if we do not work as one, we will fail. Orcs have no fear of us; their strength is greater than ours, and they do not care if they die or not. Do you understand? Can you convey this message to the troops under you? Else we will fail, I assure you."

The captains' voices rose in agreement. Denethor was pleased. After ordering the men to take a quick meal, he turned towards Amdir. "Your scowl is deep enough to fall into," he laughed. Amdir just stood staring at him. "I will be quiet and listen to what you have to say, since I will have no rest if I do not."

"How can you put Imrahil in charge of one of our divisions? He is but a young man, not skilled at all in war, yet you put him in command?"

"Sit." He ordered some coffee brought to their table. "Imrahil has been in charge of many of his father's companies; he has worked closely with me the few times I was stationed at the garrison of Dol Amroth, and he is clever and quick. Also," he held up a hand to stop Amdir's interruption, "I put him in charge of the southern flank. The Orcs are moving from the south. If he obeys me, and his men obey him, he should be fairly safe. The Orcs will first notice your group, after the signal to attack. Then they will notice mine. We should be well into the fray before they notice the southern division. Does that satisfy you?"

"Yes. One more thing. Why are you commanding the diversion and the western division? If something goes amiss, if you are injured or worse, there will be no one to signal, no one to lead the western group. I think you must put someone else in charge of the patrol."

Denethor's face burned. Amdir was correct as usual. He put his hand on Amdir's shoulder. "Thank you. As always, you see things I have neglected or forgotten, or wish not to see," he said with a smile. "I wanted to lead the diversion; I admit it, and I must not. I need to be with my men. It is, however, a very dangerous assignment. We will need someone who can think quickly. Do you have a suggestion?"

"Baranor," Amdir spoke without hesitation.

"My old aide? The future Lord of Lossarnach?"

"Yes. He has been stationed here under me for three years. He is astute and quick witted. If aught goes wrong, he will be able to react quickly and save his men."

"Send him to me."

Baranor strode forward, black hair and dark face smiling at Denethor. "My Lord," he said, the grin widening. "I am most grateful to see you again. The last time we met was by the Drúadan Forest, do you remember?"

"Of course, that was a difficult time. You were most helpful to Amdir, if I remember correctly. In fact, every time we have met or perchance been brought together, it has been at a time of crisis. And you have always shone forth as a stalwart and brave warrior. I have a request. I could make it an order, but I will not. We need a diversion, as you heard. I thought to lead the patrol myself, but Amdir, as you well know, has better judgment than I do, at times." Denethor smiled.

"If I may stop you, my Lord. I would like to volunteer for this, if it pleases you."

"Thank you, Baranor. It does. You will have to leave within the hour. The Orcs will set up camp before daylight. This must be done before they camp. I want them spread out, away from their captains, and as helpless as we can make them."'

"Captain-General," Baranor smiled as he honored Denethor with the title. "I have one request."

"Speak it."

 "I would pick the men to accompany me on this patrol?"

"Yes. Go, and may the Valar be with you. Leave in one hour's time. The rest of the battalion will be right behind you. Do you have a copy of the map?"

"Yes, my Lord. We know where to set the trap. I will look forward to hearing your signal." His grin covered his face.

"We will be there for you, Baranor. I promise."

Baranor saluted and left. Amdir walked over. "So, he has volunteered?"

"Yes. I have a sense about this mission. I hope I am wrong. Even though we are well prepared, I am concerned." He turned to Amdir. "Send out five more patrols. We will leave within the hour, but I want to make sure there are no surprises for us."

~*~ 

Denethor and Finduilas speak to each other in Sindarin. I have tried to be consistent and use italics for their speech. Just an FYI.

Ch. 15 - Third Age 2983 - Part Two

"Will he return? Will he return safely?" she begged Indis.

The older woman held Finduilas in her arms. "Of course, he is with Amdir. They will be fine and Imrahil will learn what he needs to learn. You were most brave, sending him out like that."

Finduilas sighed. "Most brave when he held me in his arms, but as soon as those arms let me go, my fears took hold. How can I fight these fears, Indis? How have you fought your fears all these long years?"

"With the help of those I love. And you will do the same. You must not think you can fight alone. Denethor will tell you: no man can fight alone. It is in the strength of his fellow warriors that victory is won."

"You will help me then?"

"Listöwel and I will help you. If Elleth was better, she would also help. The poor thing. My heart goes out to her. In fact, I think it best I see her today. Would you come with me?"

"Of course. Mayhap our visit would help to cheer her."

They found Listöwel in the buttery, planning the month's needs, and dragged her, willingly, along with them. As they sat with Elleth in her kitchen, Indis remembered other times spent here. The making of their wedding gowns, the nights worrying about Amdir and Denethor and if they would recover from their burns, the tea sessions that lasted long into the night as they contemplated how they were going to tell their men of their sword fighting lessons, the preparing of herbs for Finduilas as she carried her babes - so many moments spent together in joy and hope and fear. For a moment, her heart ached. 'Wen was dead and buried; Morwen was in Edoras, widowed too young; Finduilas was heartsick; and Elleth's health was failing. She looked at her friend. So many years now, they had known each other, laughed and cried and loved through trials and tribulations. Her heart ached for Elleth. Arciryas' medicaments did naught to relieve her friend's pain. Yet, Elleth, as always, smiled and served them and enjoyed their company. 'What a dear sister-friend? What can I do to help her? What can I do to assist her?'

"What grave matters cloud your eyes so?" Elleth laughed. "If it is my sweet rolls, then I am most saddened."

Indis laughed. "Your sweet rolls are still delicious. You have not lost the knack of those, my dearest. However, a long time ago, we spoke of breaking into Ingold's wine. I do not think we ever did, did we?"

Finduilas looked shocked. "Wine? This early in the afternoon?"

"Sounds very good to me," Elleth agreed. "Though at the moment, I think I should not. My balance is not as good as it used to be. 'Twould not look good for me to fall on my face this early in the day."

Indis howled. "You are right. I can just hear the ladies of Gondor speaking about us!"

"So how shall we help our Finduilas, Elleth?" Listöwel asked.

"Mayhap a sword in her hand?"

"Nay, I... I cannot take a sword. I must confess; I hate war, I hate fighting, I hate violence. It tears my heart apart." Finduilas bowed her head. "I am a failure as wife to the heir, am I not?"

"Nay. There are other ways to support Denethor. And to keep our fears at bay. First, we must vow to help each other, here and now and for always. Then, we must keep our hopes high. If we look to the future, to the children, to Boromir and Faramir, and know that all that we do is for them; if we keep our hands busy, whether with our weapons, or with our needlework, or with soothing fevered brows. That is it!" Indis jumped up. "We should volunteer in the Houses. Arciryas is always complaining about the help, about how women are needed for keeping the woundeds' spirits lifted. We could do that once a week or so. We can give hope and receive hope from our warriors. What think you of that?"

"'Tis a fine idea," Elleth said. "Even I can work one day a week. If Arciryas does not mind not having a set schedule, for I may only work when the body is able."

"Arciryas will be most grateful for whatever time we give!"  Indis replied.

"What do you think, Finduilas?" The three women turned towards her.

Listöwel put her hand on Finduilas' shoulder. "You seem reluctant? Is there aught wrong?"

"I am weak and useless," Finduilas started to cry. "I am afraid to see sickness and wounds and death. I do not think I could do this."

Indis walked over and took Finduilas' tear-streaked face into her hands. She slipped into Sindarin in her grave concern. "Thou art not weak, nor useless, nor foolish, dearest sister. Thou art but a fair flower that hast been transplanted, whose roots have not yet taken hold. Thou wert sheltered by thy father. Little steps wilt help thee. As wilt thy friends." She knelt before her. She spoke in the Common Tongue again. "Perhaps you can sit in the garden and read to those who are close to recovery, who are far from illness and death. You will find strength in giving, but it will be in a safe place, away from those things that disturb you now. Who knows, mayhap after a short time doing that, you will be ready to come into the Houses and help in other ways. If not, that would be sufficient, I think."

Finduilas' eyes shone. "I could do that. I know I could do that. I love to read. And in the garden, I could feel the fresh air and smell the scent of the flowers and not dwell on illness and... and other things."  She smiled.

"Then it is settled," Indis jumped up and smiled. "I will tell Arciryas that we will all come tomorrow morning, and he can show us where we can help most. And dearest Elleth, if you are unable tomorrow, then next week perhaps."

She hugged each one in turn and laughed. "Now, 'tis time for tea!"

~*~

Shouts echoed off the banked eastern side of the road as dust rose. Denethor could see the patrol coming their way, horses at full sprint, running from the Orc band. He ordered the signal and then the charge. With shouts and banners flying, his division overtook the patrol and continued towards the enemy. Baranor waved to him as the sortie turned and joined his men. They continued onward and soon found themselves in the midst of battle. As Denethor had thought, the Orcs first looked towards Amdir's division; they were caught unawares when Denethor's joined the fray. Already swords were heavily laden with the black blood of Orcs.

He looked to the right and saw that Imrahil's band would converge in a few moments, helping to further confound the enemy. It would be a rout. He drew his sword as the first of the beasts came towards him, lunged and drew the blade across unprotected flesh. The Orc fell, but another replaced it and fury filled its face. It ducked as Denethor lunged, then jumped and grabbed his arm. Denethor kicked it in the face, and the beast fell back, but not before it too was mortally wounded. His men slashed and hacked at the band with a fury inflamed by the audacity of the enemy. Even in the face of the large number that attacked them, as Denethor had thought, the Orc band gave no indication they were the least fearful. Another and another came, but they were slowly being beaten back. Denethor had ordered that none be left alive and the battalion was doing its best to see it done.

A brief respite came and Denethor wiped blood off his sword in anticipation of further attack; then wiped blood off his face and sword arm. As he looked up, he saw Amdir, still battling in a pocket of men who seemed surrounded by Orcs. Denethor spurred his horse forward and hacked his way through the wall of bodies. He reached Amdir's side just as an Orc prepared to swing at his friend. The Orc soon lay dead on the ground. Amdir smiled; then screamed in fury as another attacked him. The brief respite was over; Denethor was full in the battle again. For well into the morning, the battle raged. Men and Orcs lay dead on the road and the nearby forest floor. As the sun rose, the Orcs' faces fell. The sun became Denethor's friend as the Orcs tried to escape it and the Knights of Gondor. But these men would not let them escape. No matter the cost. They would kill every last one of them, every one that would dare to trod the roads of Gondor.

~*~

"Long they dwelt in their first home by the water under stars, and they walked the Earth in wonder; and they began to make speech and to give names to all things that they perceived." Finduilas read and the soldier sat, spellbound. "Themselves they named the Quendi, signifying those that speak with voices; for as yet they had met no other living things that spoke or sang." She stopped. "Do you want me to continue? You look tired."

"Yes, please," Hirgon begged. "I knew naught of Elves before. Is it true, what you read?"

"My father says it is. I found this book in the Great Library. It is one of my favorites. It tells all about the Elves and how they were found. There are parts that are sad, but the beauty of the Elves o'ershadows everything, in my mind's eye. I am glad you like this book. But you do look very tired. I think you should return to your bed. I will come back next week, I promise."

"Will you walk with me to my room?"

Finduilas took a deep breath. "I will walk with you to the door, then the doorwarden will take you inside. I will see you next week, I promise."

As they approached the door, Indis stepped outside. She smiled at the soldier and moved aside. The doorwarden met them and helped the man inside.

"How did you feel, Finduilas? Was it very difficult?"

"Nay," Finduilas gave a small smile. "He asked me to take him to his room, but I could not."

"Better for you to know your limits than to be so uncomfortable that you are unable to return. I am most proud of you. And Denethor will be too. But come, I am finished for the day and would visit Elleth. She was not able to come. Her bones creak louder than the willows at the creek, she says."

"I am tired myself. If you do not mind, I would like to go home and rest. I have not seen the children since morning and I miss them."  She blushed.

"That is a very good reason to go home!" Indis laughed. She hugged Finduilas, waved farewell, and walked towards the Great Hall.

Finduilas turned towards the Citadel, but a loud crash drew her attention back to the Sixth Gate. An errand-rider had jumped from his horse, overturned a flower urn in his haste, and was rushing towards her. She put up her hands in alarm, but he ran past her and into the Hall. She hurried after him, fear closing her throat. The man strode to the Steward's Chair and halted. She could not go forward. Ecthelion would be most upset if she dared to enter the Hall without his permission, but she needed to hear what was being said. Slowly, she skirted behind the statues lining the Hall until she stood almost parallel to the Chair. She still could not hear. But the look on Ecthelion's face was grim. She crept back towards the entrance. She would stop the soldier as soon as he passed through the door. Perhaps, as Denethor's own, he would answer her questions. She stood waiting, impatiently tapping her toe as her heart beat faster and faster.

The soldier stood and spoke for such a long time that Finduilas thought she would scream. At last, Ecthelion dismissed him and he turned. She stepped outside into the sunlight and waited. The soldier started when she called to him, but came over, bowed and asked what she needed.

"Is all well with the garrison at Osgiliath?" She would not mince words; she needed to know immediately.

"Mayhap you would ask the Steward, my Lady. I have no authority to give out information. I am sure Ecthelion will speak with you, if you ask."

"Nay, I need to know now. There is something wrong, is there not?" Her voice rose and the soldier looked about him in concern.

"Please, my Lady, sit here and I will go and ask Ecthelion if I might speak with you."

"Nay, stop now." She almost screamed and willed herself to a measure of calm. "Please, I must know."

"My Lady, my orders were to report to the Steward. I cannot divulge anything without his consent. You would ask me to disobey my Lord and that I cannot do."

Finduilas broke into tears. "Something has happened to Denethor! I know it. Please tell me, please!"

The man sat on one of the benches outside the door and gently pulled Finduilas down next to him. "My Lady. You are asking me to commit treason; for disobeying my liege lord is treason. Punishable by death. Please, my Lady, do not ask this of me."

Indis came hurrying out from the foyer. "Finduilas! What has happened?" she cried.

"I know not, but this man will not tell me. Make him tell me, Indis, make him tell me."

Turning towards the errand-rider, Indis asked, "Have you made your report to the Steward?"

"Yes, my Lady."

"Then I will go speak with him. Stay here with the Lady Finduilas until I return. You have no orders that you need to obey at the moment?"

"Nay, Lady Indis. I will stay here."

"Thank you." She hushed Finduilas, turned and ran up the stairs and into the Hall.

"Father," she bowed as she stood before him. "An errand-rider has come from Osgiliath. Is there aught wrong?"

Ecthelion looked perplexed. He was to meet with his Council and had just been about to leave the Hall. "Why do you ask?"

"Finduilas spotted the man and is concerned."

"You mean she grows hysterical. I have seen this before. Is there naught you can do about it? I do not like these fits of hers. Unnerving. Mayhap she should return to Dol Amroth. The nurse can take care of my grandsons. It would be best for all if she left."

Indis stepped back, horror written on her face. "Father! You could not ask that!"

"I could and I will if she cannot compose herself. The entire Citadel is up in arms every time some small thing happens to disturb her. 'Twould be better for the whole City if she left."

Drawing in a deep breath, Indis stood tall and straight. "She is the mother of the heir. She is needed here. For the sake of Gondor, she must stay. I bid you reconsider, Father."

"Indis," her father took hold of her arms. "You have always been most sensible. Do you not see the chaos that forms around her? Do you not think it would be better for her to leave? Yet, I see you do not," he said with a sigh. "Well, I will bow to your wisdom in this. I tell you, I like the woman, but I am deeply concerned about her fits. I place her in your care."

"Thank you, Father. And now, about the missive from the errand-rider?"

"Ah. A band of Orcs was spotted and Denethor has decided to attack. It is a little thing, something he has been trained for. I expect another missive ere the end of day. Come back at the sixth bell, and I will tell you more." He waved her off and walked towards the Council Chambers.

Indis quickly walked outside, thanked the soldier and waved him away. She sat next to Finduilas. "All is well, for the moment. There is an attack planned by Denethor. We will know later today how successful it was. Finduilas," Indis took her in her arms, "This is why Denethor went. This is why you allowed him to leave Minas Tirith, and this is why you are trying to learn courage. You must trust that he knows what he is about. He is a great warrior. He has many battle skills. And Amdir is with him. Try to put aside your fears and trust him."

"When I saw the rider, and the haste at which he ran to give his report... my heart stopped. Forgive me. You are right." She took a huge, shuddering breath. "I will go to my chamber and rest. I cannot see the children now. I am too distraught. They would notice. Poor little lambs. I dare not put my fear on them. But, I thought you were going to see Elleth?"

"I was. I was on the balcony with her when I saw the rider come in. I left her as soon as I was able. And just in time, I think."

"Yes.  'Twas just in time. I was going to make a fool of myself."

"Ah, sweet sister. You will learn in time. Do not be harsh with yourself. May I walk you to your rooms? Mayhap we can share a cup of tea?"

"Oh, Indis. I would most like that," she sighed.  "Thank you!"

~*~

Soon, Denethor had to search for a beast to kill. Their numbers were greatly reduced and the battle won. As Denethor sat back in his saddle, he searched the remaining men for a glimpse of Imrahil. The lad was still fighting a small group of Orcs, though others had joined his division to help. Denethor rode towards the pocket of combat, sword still drawn. As he approached, an Orc swung at Imrahil. Denethor knew it was a killing strike and he quickly maneuvered his horse between the beast and the man. The blade struck Denethor's back, fire igniting every part of it. He fell to the ground, but Imrahil dispatched the Orc and knelt next to him. "My Lord Denethor," the lad cried out, but Denethor was past hearing.

When he came to, he found himself in his own room in Osgiliath. Siriondil was leaning over him, forcing tea down his throat. Denethor started coughing violently, and the healer pulled back.

"You must drink this, my Lord."

He drew in a ragged breath. "Where is Imrahil?"

"He is unharmed. I am re-bandaging your wound and then we will move you to Minas Tirith. You need to be in the Houses."

"Nay," he whispered, for the breath seemed to leave him, "Bring Amdir to me."

"My Lord Denethor, you must stay still. Amdir will accompany us to the City."

"Now! I must see Amdir now." The coughing started again; Siriondil helped him sit up. Pain coursed through his entire body, and he stiffened and gasped. Siriondil held him close. "Hold on to me, my Lord. It will pass. The tea will take affect soon. Hold on just a little longer."

His head swam. "Amdir," he choked out the name. He fought to stay awake.

Knowing Denethor's stubbornness, Siriondil shouted orders to a guard stationed nearby and the man ran out of the room. Within moments, Amdir was at his side.

"Denethor. You must not speak. You must stay still and let Siriondil care for you. It will not be long. We have a cart ready to take you home.

"Listen to me, Amdir. You must not take me to the City."

Amdir looked stunned. "Denethor..."

Trying to grasp his arm, Denethor grimaced in pain. Tears filled his eyes. His breath came in short gasps as throbbing filled him. "Promise me."

"Yes. I promise. You will not be moved."

Denethor gave in to the pain and lost consciousness.

Siriondil turned to his captain. "He must not stay here. The wound is deep and will easily become infected."

"He will not be moved. Prepare a note for Arciryas as to the supplies you will need and a description of Denethor's wound. I will send an errand-rider immediately. If he does not want to go home, he has his reasons. He is not a raw recruit, Siriondil. He knows the extent of his injury. There must a reason strong enough to cause this decision. We will obey him, do you understand?"

Siriondil took in a breath himself. "Yes, Captain. I will do what I can. Arciryas should be here by morning. I will try to keep him alive until then."

"You will keep him alive." And Amdir left the room.

A moment later, the errand-rider stood in front of the healer. Quickly, Siriondil wrote, folded the missive and handed it to him. "Ride fast. Our Captain-General's life depends upon your speed. Stop for naught. Speak to no one. Take this to the Master Healer, to Arciryas, and no one else. Now, go!"

Amdir walked back into the room. The rider saluted; Amdir gave him another note, whispered orders to him, and the man ran. Moving quickly towards the bed, Amdir knelt down taking Denethor's hand into his own. "Hold on, Denethor, my friend, hold on."

Imrahil looked in. "Captain, may I come in?"

Amdir looked up. "Not yet. I need Baranor."

"Yes, Captain. I will find him and send him in."

~*~

 "Ada, Nana? When wilt Ada return?"

"Soon, my love, my own. Very soon. Hast thou eaten all thy carrots? Thou needest carrots to see. Bunnies see very well. And dost thou know why?"

Boromir's eyes opened wide. "Nay, Nana, I dost not."

"It is because they eat carrots. Thou wants to see well, dost thou not, Boromir? So that thou canst stand at the top of the cliff near Dol Amroth and see the whales?"

"Oh, Nana, that would be wonderful!" The boy breathed a sigh of joy and ate all his carrots. How often his Naneth had told him tales of the whales that swam in the sea. He wanted to see them with all his heart. "When wilt we go to the sea, Nana, when?"

She sighed. "Soon, my love. Soon. Thy father promised me we would go in the spring. Uncle Imrahil wilt come with us too. We shalt run on the beach and feed the seagulls and watch the waves crash." A tear slid down her cheek. She wiped it away, but the lad was quick and saw.

"Nana, may we go now? Ask Ada. He wilt take us now."

She hugged him to her. "Soon. We wilt go soon." She took in a deep breath. "It is time for thy nap. Wouldst thou like a story?"

He clapped his hands and giggled, and the laughter was infectious. "Ah, Boromir. You are my light."

"Faramir too, Nana. Forget not Faramir."

She hugged him even tighter. "I wilt not forget Faramir. He wilt come with us too. Is that agreeable to thee?"

"Oh, yes, Nana. Faramir must come. Though I think he wilt probably cry. It is a long way to the sea. He wilt want to eat." Boromir clicked his tongue. "All he does is eat." He suddenly looked up at her. "When wilt he be able to play with me, Nana?"

She laughed again. "Oh, soon, Boromir, soon."

"But Nana. Everything is soon and soon never comes!"

Picking him up, she kissed him over and over again, on his eyes, his nose, his ears, his chin. The child laughed in joy and Finduilas joined him. Reaching the rocker, she sat and hugged him tight. "What tale wouldst thou hear?"

"The big dog, Nana; the one who talks. Tell me that one, please."

She settled in the rocker and started the tale of Huan. "He wast a hound, Boromir, the biggest that ever lived..."

~*~

The sixth bell had not finished ringing when Indis entered the Great Hall. Ecthelion sat in his Chair. An errand-rider was just leaving. He bowed to her as they passed each other. She stood still, waiting for her father to bid her come forward.

"Indis. You are a timely little thing, are you not! Come to me. I have received word of Denethor. He has been injured. It is not serious, I imagine; else they would have brought him to the Houses. Mayhap you would want to journey to Osgiliath yourself, to see him. I believe Arciryas is going in the morning. You could accompany him."

"Thank you, Father. I will do that." She kissed him lightly on the cheek and he blushed. "Thank you!" She turned and forced herself to walk towards the door. As soon as she was outside, she ran to the Sixth Level and into the Houses. Arciryas was not in his office. She walked the halls, hoping she would see him. She turned a corner and almost ran into him. He spilled what he was carrying and she laughed. "Let me help you." The look in his eyes stopped her. "What is it, Arciryas? What has happened? Denethor! Finduilas was not mistaken. What has happened to Denethor?"

"He has been injured. He does not want to return here, but Siriondil says the injury is serious. I am going to him now. I believe he did not want Finduilas to know."

"I am coming with you." She turned on her heels and ran out the door, his voice followed her, calling her name.

~*~

She went first to Finduilas. She hated lying. What could she say? "Father has bid me visit the farms on the Pelennor. There has been some dissension about the harvest and he wants me to act as peacemaker. I will only be gone a short time. Would you please remember to visit Hirgon in the morning? He will not expect you until next week, but Arciryas has told me he needs his mind taken from thoughts of his last battle. Would you do that for him?"

Finduilas mouth dropped open. "Well, of course, if you think I can help. But Indis, how came this sudden order?"

"Finduilas. You know I must obey father. As I said, there was some altercation and a member of the Steward's family must go to iron out the difficulty. He would send Denethor, but he is on patrol. I will return," she said quickly, noting the concern in her friend's eyes.  "I promise."

"I will miss you. Is there aught I can do to help?"

"Nay, I must pack tonight so that I will be ready in the morning. I will leave at first light." She hugged Finduilas, threw a kiss to Boromir and ran out of the room. As soon as she was packed, she ran to the Houses. Arciryas was waiting for her. Two horses were saddled. "I have left a message that I am tending Lord Forlong in Lossarnach. It is a day's ride away and will cover my absence. That should dissuade Finduilas from trying to discover where I am. Have you told her something that will keep her from fretting?"

"Yes, and I hated doing it."

"It is necessary." He helped her mount and then turned to his own horse. Pulling himself up, he smiled at her. "Denethor is strong. He will not succumb. Now, let us hurry," and the tone of his voice belied the words of comfort said.

~*~

Siriondil had done everything in his power to keep Denethor alive. Arciryas, bending over his friend, congratulated the healer on his excellent stitches, his assessment of the wound, and his quick thinking. Siriondil smiled at the praise. However, he was more grateful that the Master Healer had arrived when he did. Fever and infection had been his main fear, but Arciryas knew how to prevent those things even better than he did. He stood back, took a deep breath and walked away. He had others he must tend to.

Denethor's back healed quickly. Though the wound was deep and long, the medicaments and attention of the Master Healer of Gondor prevailed. Indis returned to the City after a fortnight. Within a month, he was up and about, able to at least hold his sword, though it would be at least another two months before he would be able to wield it with any strength. The men, especially Amdir, who had sat by his bedside for the first week, hailed the Master Healer one night in the main dining hall. Ale was set for all. Songs and laughter filled the room. No Orcs had been spotted since the battle, and the garrison stood in peace, for the moment. Tomorrow, Denethor would return to Minas Tirith; tonight the men would bid him farewell with a soldier's night of feasting. Long into the night the festivities continued, but Denethor left early, still plagued by fatigue. Amdir followed him to his room.

"I would have you come with me, Amdir, back to Minas Tirith. Too long have you been gone from Listöwel's side. I will ask father, upon my return, to station you in the City."

"I will come back to Minas Tirith, Denethor, but only for a short visit. What we do here is most important and I have grown to love this forsaken piece of land. I ask your generosity in letting me stay here."

"Friend I call you and have much need for you at home. Yet I cannot put my own needs over those of Gondor. You speak rightly, as you always have. Come with me tomorrow. Stay in the City for a few months, and then return. I will leave Baranor here. He will lead the men while you are gone."

"Then I will come with you." He smiled broadly. "It has been almost six months since last I saw my bride. 'Twill be good to hold her again."

"It is settled, then. We leave on the morrow. Finish your revelry with your men and leave me to my bed." He clenched Amdir's arm tightly. "And thank you, my friend."

~*~

He lay on their bed, a light sheet covering him, waiting for her to join him. He could walk, and sit, and breathe without a twinge, yet the scar was deep and not yet completely healed. He would keep his back from her.

As she lay down next to him, he held her close, keeping her arms at her side. The night passed and he fell into a deep sleep. She woke before morning, turned towards him and ran her hands lovingly down his arms. She kissed his shoulder; then slipped her arms about his waist. He did not stir. Affectionately, she stroked his back, then stiffened in alarm. Slowly, she moved her hand again and found the wound she knew she had just felt. It was new! He had been injured! She pulled her hands back and moved off the bed. Walking to the other side, she pulled down the sheet, and looked in horror at the long, deep red welt that went from his lower left shoulder to his right waist. The wound was still ugly, stitch marks quite visible, and it wept slightly. She put her hand over her mouth and fled the room.

He woke sometime later and felt for her. The bed was cold. He sat up and looked around. She was not in their bedchamber. He stood, put his robe on, and walked into the outer chamber. She stood, cold and stiff, by the garden doors. He walked to her and took her in his arms; she pulled away.

"Melethril nîn! What ails thee? Why dost thou withdraw from me?"

"You lied to me. Everyone lied to me," she spat out the words, anger overtaking her.  "When did it happen? When were you going to tell me?" She looked at him in revulsion. "You were not going to tell me, were you? You were going to treat me as a fool, hide things that should be known between husband and wife! How could you?"

"Lasto beth nîn, tolo si," he tried to assuage her anger, tried to touch her, but she moved away.

"Speak not to me in terms of love. I will not hear Sindarin again from your lips for you have turned it into a language of deceit."

"U-chenion. I tried to protect thee." He understood at last. "The wound hast healed. I am well. Goheno nîn. I thought only of thee."

"I am leaving here. I am taking the children and returning to my father."

"Manpennich? Thou wouldst leave me for this?"

"Daro han!" she yelled, forgetting herself. "I wilt not stay here to be lied to, to be deceived."

"Mar bedithach?" He resigned himself to her decision.

"On the morrow. I canst not stay here another day."

He turned and left her. Putting her hands to her face, she bent over and wept. He heard her sobs. Running back into the room, he knelt at her feet and cried, "Hiril nîn, garn nîn, absenen. I canst not live without thee. 'Twas wrong of me to deceive thee, but fear took my heart, fear that thou wouldst fall into despair. Canst thou not understand my fears?"

She looked at him in astonishment. "Thou canst not fear. Thou art Denethor, Captain-General of Gondor, mighty warrior, Knight of the Tower of Guard. How canst thou fear?"

"I am a man, Finduilas. I am only a man who loves thee passionately. And would die if thou shouldst leave me. Doest thou think I cannot be afraid? I am afraid always, that thou, fairest flower of Belfalas, Princess of Dol Amroth, wilt grow to hate me and leave me. I couldst not bear that."

She knelt beside him. "I couldst not bear it either. Im naer." She kissed him.

"U-moe edaved. I should have trusted thee. I should have told thee immediately. I will ne'er keep secrets from thee again. I promise." Taking her into his arms, they knelt together. The wind stirred and he rose. Taking her hand and helping her up, they walked into the garden. Winter would soon be here and the flowers would fall. They walked to the great pool and sat beside each other. He held her close; she felt the scar under his robe and she wept. The mountain rumbled, but she did not notice.

Tolo sí – come here
Hiril nîn –  my lady
Le melon –  I love you
Lasto beth nîn – listen to my words
Hervenn nîn – my husband
Ion nîn – my son
Adadhron – grandfather (paternal)
Hervenn nîn – my husband
Melethril nîn – my love
Garn nîn- my own
Avo 'osto – fear not
Gerich veleth nîn – You have my love.

Melethril nîn – my love
Lasto beth nîn – listen to my words
Tolo sí –  come here
U-chenion –  I do not understand
Goheno nín – forgive me
Man pennich –  what did you say?
Daro han – stop this
Mar bedithach –  when will you leave?
Hiril nîn –  my lady
Garn nîn – my own
Absenen –  forgive me
Im naer – I am sorry
U-moe edaved – it is not necessary to forgive

Ch. 16 - Third Age 2984

"I would like to come with you," she said, hesitantly.

Indis stared at her. "But, Finduilas, we are going to Osgiliath, towards the... Are you sure you want to come?"

"If you do not mind. I thought I should see more of Gondor than just Minas Tirith."

"Well, of course. That is a splendid idea, but why not Lossarnach or Lebennin or some more pastoral place?"

"Because you are not going to those places now, and I want to be out of here, out in the open, with fresh air, and space, and new people, and trees, and..." she rambled on.

Indis laughed. "If you would like to accompany us, then I am sure Listöwel will not mind. Have you asked Denethor?"

"Oh, no. I ... I wanted to ask you first."

"We will be staying the night, you know?"

"I can do that, too. Please?"

"Of course. If Denethor approves, you may join us. It takes a few hours to reach the garrison. We will be traveling with the supply wagons. They leave at first light; will you be ready?"

"Yes," Finduilas smiled, "and thank you."

"Then I will come for you first thing in the morning. This is a pleasant surprise, Finduilas. This will be most enjoyable."

~*~

Denethor was as amazed as Indis. "I dost not understand thy sudden need, but, if thou wishest it, then thou hast my permission."

She hugged him. "Anything to be away from this city for a time."

It hurt to hear her say this. He loved his City. Yet, he had to admit, there were times when he found it refreshing to leave. What was he saying! If he did not take a sortie out every now and again, he would lose his mind! He laughed. "When wilt thou return?"

"The day after tomorrow. Indis said something about the peace that has settled and some things she has to do at thy uncle's house. So we wilt not even be staying in the barracks."

"Uncle's house? What could she... Well, thou wilt be missed. Ecthelion is sending a full company with you?"

"I know naught of the arrangements, just that we will be leaving at first light. I best be off to bed."

"I have work still to do. I will join thee presently."He smiled. "Wouldst thou save a spot in our bed for me?"

She smiled back, kissed him lightly and went into their bedchamber.

~*~

Before the sun rose, she was dressed and ready. The evening before, she had given instructions to Firieth for the children. Her heart tugged. To leave them. Only once before had she been parted from Boromir; never from Faramir. 'I must, though,' she thought. 'I cannot stay here with only the small tasks allowed me and everything so tedious and hemmed in.' She stood before Indis' door.

"Oh my. You are in a hurry, are you not?" Indis laughed. "Well, come along then. We have a cart ready and waiting."

"Oh! I had wanted to ride."

"When was the last time you went riding, Finduilas? It is a four-hour trip to Osgiliath. It will take even longer with the supply train."

"Yes," she sighed. "I had not thought of that. I used to ride - at home. But it has been a long time. Well, if that is what must be."

~*~

"We will return shortly after nuncheon, Firieth," Denethor said. "If any come for me, tell them I will return in time for the afternoon's meeting."

She handed him a food-filled basket, gave a quick hug to Boromir, and turned towards her darning.

He quickly stooped and kissed Faramir, asleep in his cot, took Boromir upon his shoulders, and walked out the door.

He hummed as he walked and Boromir beat the time on his father's head. Every now and again, he hit a little too hard, and Denethor had to gently scold. But after the scolding would come a quick tug to the lad's foot, and Boromir would giggle, knowing that was his only punishment.

The long walk to the Great Gate produced laughter, nods, and smiles from the people of Gondor. Seeing the Steward's son in such high spirits lifted the entire City. Guards on the parapets started into song as Denethor and son passed. Denethor greeted each with a wave of his hand, and, unbeknownst to him, Boromir mimicked him, waving furiously, much to the delight of the knights. Denethor's smile broadened. 'Good men and true,' he thought. The sun shone brightly upon the sight before him.

Once they reached the First Level, he stopped at Ranger's Headquarters, picked up the bundle he had left there the day before, walked out the Gate, and turned southward. Boromir was prattling on about some event that had happened in the nursery the day before, but Denethor paid no heed to it until he heard something that chilled his heart.

"Boromir, why wast thy Nana crying?" Denethor asked.

"I know not, Ada. She wast telling me a story about her Ada and the sea. I felt wet on my head. She wast crying. Why wast she crying, Ada?"

Denethor stopped, lowered the lad onto the road, and sat next to him. "Dost thou remember when I went away for some time?"

The lad nodded his head.

"Ye cried when I came back. Remember?"

"Oh," the boy cried out loudly. "I missed thee, Ada!" and jumped up, hugging his father furiously. He said it so fervently and his actions were so earnest that Denethor had all he could do to not cry himself.

"Well, sometimes, even when we grow very big, we miss those we love. So even Ada and Nana can miss someone enough to cry over. Nana misses her Ada. Dost thou understand?"

"Yes."

"Good. Then let us be off to our adventure."

The child squealed with delight when Denethor picked him up again and placed him on his shoulders.

Denethor's mind, however, did not join in Boromir's delight. 'I must take her home again. I promised I would this spring. I have let the things of Gondor o'ercome my resolve. I must take her home."

By this time, they had reached the little river that ran from Mt. Mindolluin into the Anduin. Denethor laid a blanket down, pulled out poles, and handed one to Boromir.

"Today, I am going to teach thee how to fish."

~*~

"This was a magnificent house once, was it not?"

"Yes. As was all of Osgiliath. Denethor has sworn that one day we will again walk her streets and attend plays and visit the planetarium. Oh, that that day would come soon."

"There has been peace for almost a year. Perhaps things will be better now?" Finduilas hoped aloud.

"Perhaps." But Indis knew that Denethor hid much from Finduilas. "Well, I have papers I must find and some heirlooms that I had hoped to bring back with me. Make yourself at home, Finduilas. Tonight we will sup with Amdir. After that, you and I will come back here. I have had two rooms cleaned and readied for us. I hope Listöwel is enjoying her visit with him. I do not know how she endures it, being separated from him for such long periods. I could not do that."

"Neither could I. I will explore the rooms, if I may?"

"Of course. But do not get lost," Indis laughed. She turned her back and entered the study.

Finduilas moved about the house. So many rooms and all showed signs of having been well appointed with large pieces of furniture about. Though paper hung off walls, floors were covered in dust and litter, and an occasional mouse scurried by, it was apparent the house had once been quite lovely. She found a number of bedrooms, furniture covered in cloth to protect each piece. She would peek, now and again, at a piece. Each one was beautiful, well appointed and perfect for the room it was in. She came at last to what she discerned was Cranthir's own chambers. It was a simple, but large room, with a beautiful cedar chest and oak wardrobe. She opened the chest and found some old clothes, bits of paper, and... 'What is this?' she thought in surprise. A very large and ancient looking box, etched with leaves and vines, was hidden 'neath all the other paraphernalia in the chest. She struggled, but finally was able to pull it out. She wanted to sit on a chair and open it, but it was unwieldy and heavy. She contented herself with sitting on the floor. Holding her breath, she undid the latch and the box opened on its own. Before her was a handsome piece of marble, about two inches thick. Black pieces abutted by white were laid in a checked pattern. Under that was another box, just as beautifully carved. She opened that. Before her was a stunning oak 'Kings and Stewards' game set. She picked up the King and studied it. The carving was exquisite. She ran her hand over the features on the piece. 'Beautiful,' she thought, 'just beautiful.' She picked up the Steward and laughed. There was the rod of office in the Steward's hand.  'Oh my," she inhaled quickly, 'Denethor would love this.' She giggled in delight.

"Indis!" she called loudly and ran from the room. "I have found something Indis. Please come and look. May I have it? Oh please, may I have it?" She ran into the study, giggling. Indis turned in surprise.

~*~

"Did not Cranthir have children?" Finduilas asked during supper that night.

"Nay," Indis said. "Though his heart longed for children, it was not to be. He would have been a splendid father. The affection he showered upon Denethor was so touching. You know that game you found today? Well, Denethor and he used to play it once a month when Denethor was quite young. Are you planning on giving the set to him? Or were you thinking of someone else?"

Finduilas laughed. "Who do I ever think of besides Denethor? Yes, I was hoping to clean it and give it to him. But now, knowing the history has made it even more precious to me. Boromir and Faramir will be able to play it with their father, and tradition will be handed down. That very much appeals to me."

Indis bit her lip. 'Ecthelion never played one game with Denethor,' she thought, 'not in their whole lives.' She turned her heart towards the Valar for one request - that Denethor would never be the father to his sons that Ecthelion had been to him.

The talk turned towards Dol Amroth. Finduilas' friends encouraged her to speak of her home, hoping to help her ward off the homesickness that plagued her. She spent the rest of the evening describing the good things of Belfalas. Listöwel and Amdir spoke of their meeting, laughing at the difficulty of trying to meet secretly with the whole household in chaos because of the festivities around Ivríniel's birth. Indis recalled the wonderful parties held there. The evening ended none too soon for Amdir. Listöwel would leave in the morning and he wanted to spend time alone with her. Their guests had the sense not to linger too long and soon, Indis and Finduilas were on their way to Cranthir's, with a suitable escort, and instructions to meet at first light for the trip back to Minas Tirith.

~*~

"Where didst thou find this?" he asked incredulously. "I have been there, to his rooms, and never did I find it. He had promised it would be mine someday." Tears filled his eyes. Many memories of Saturday after Saturday spent in joy and love and fullness of friendship swam before his eyes. The pain of loss still stung deep.

"'Twas in his chest, in his bedchamber. 'Twas under many mementos. I fell in love with it as soon as I saw it, but I did not know, until Indis told me, that it had special meaning for thee. Doest thou like it?"

"I was not there when he died. I had not seen him for many years." He tried to contain the sobs. "Life can be difficult here, Finduilas. Though thou art aware of this. But it was by his death that father and I were reconciled. To a degree," he said ruefully. "Never to the degree that I had hoped. But in some way, there was reconciliation."

"I do not understand thy father, Denethor."

"Turgon was not an easy man to live with, Finduilas. He stuck his head in the sand, as the large birds of Harad do, the ostrich I think they are called. His councilors spoke of peace. They counseled against anything that would disturb that peace. Yet, there is no peace without vigilance. He would not let father protect Gondor. Many men died because of this. Ithilien was near wiped out. Father could not persuade adadhron to change. The burden was very great. He blamed many deaths on Turgon, even my sister, 'Wen's. My father is a mighty man, but much has turned him to bitterness. His bitterness turned towards me, especially when mother died birthing me. I know this; yet I find it difficult myself, at times, to forgive him. But I do forgive him, Finduilas. Now that my heart is so taken by thee. I never understood his loss, the pain he has lived with these many years, the darkness that engulfs him." He pulled her to him fiercely. "Do not leave me, Finduilas. I could not bear it. I will do everything in my power, I will die, to protect thee."

~*~

Preparations had all been made. The carts were packed to overflowing. Finduilas could not sleep. Tomorrow they would depart for Dol Amroth. A month it had taken to organize all that was needed. Both Boromir and Faramir would need so much. It boggled her mind. She laughed ruefully as Firieth wondered at all that they were packing.

"They must have their own toys. They must have enough clothes. Denethor said we might stay for the entire summer! That will mean clothes for the beach, for swimming, for parties... So many clothes needed. And their toys. They will not be satisfied if we do not bring at least some of their toys. Besides, they will need them to keep them occupied on the journey. I am worn just thinking of it." Her laughter belied the grievance of her words.

Firieth smiled. "I am glad the Lady Indis and Listöwel are coming with us. I have never before been in Belfalas. I am almost afraid."

Finduilas dismissed her worries with a wave of her hand. "There is naught to be afraid of, Firieth. If you have lived in Minas Tirith and all the awfulness of what occurs here and out on that mountain without being afraid, then you will be pleasantly surprised at the peace and beauty of Belfalas. Dol Amroth sits on the sea; every part of her looks out upon it in joy. Oh, Firieth," Finduilas breathed a sigh, "it is most beautiful." Tears came to her eyes. "I cannot believe I am going home." She sat on the settle and hugged herself.

Boromir ran into the room jumped onto her lap. "Nana, may I have a dog?"

"What!" Finduilas was stunned. 'Where did that come from?'

"Imrahil says that there are many dogs in Dol Amroth and that I can bring one home with me. I want a big dog, Nana."

'I think I will kill my brother,' she thought quickly.

"We will not bring a dog home with us, Boromir, but thou mayest play with any dog thou wishest whilst we are in my father's house. What sayest thou to that?"

The lad pursed his lips. "I want a dog."

'I am definitely going to kill Imrahil!'

"I am sorry, ion nîn, but thou wilt not have a dog. And we wilt discuss this no further."

~*~

Denethor's heart raced as he ran along the Citadel halls, trying to breath through the painful catch in his throat. How surprised he was to feel the hot tears burning his cheeks! They had feared this day for the last month. They had postponed their trip to Dol Amroth, much to Finduilas chagrin. He promised her, once his father had recovered, that they would leave. He had ordered the carts remained packed. She had been strong and understood he was needed here in the City. However, it became quite apparent this would not happen soon. Ecthelion was dying.

He stopped in the doorway to his father's chambers. Swiping the tears from his face with the sleeve of his tunic as he had done as a child, he paused to compose himself. Never, since he was nigh unto twenty, had he allowed his father to see any emotion. He could not let Ecthelion see the despair in his eyes. He could still hope. His mind flew back to the night Thorongil had told him about hope. They had been fishing on the way back from Dol Amroth. It would be their last trip together. He had been distressed by his father's estrangement from Prince Adrahil, and wondered aloud if there would ever be anything but animosity between the two houses. Thorongil had spoken of his own love and the barriers that stood between his beloved and himself. He had said there were two disparate families involved also. But he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that they would be together and that their binding would bring the families together. He had urged Denethor to continue to hope, to continue to do all in his power to breech the gap between the Swans and the Stewards. Denethor had been unsuccessful in bringing Adrahil and Ecthelion together, but he and Imrahil's friendship had grown strong. And for that, he was most grateful.

The thought of Thorongil brought a sharp pain to his heart. He suddenly missed the man terribly. He shook his head, wondering where the former captain was. 'I must stop these thoughts.' He drew in his breath and walked to Ecthelion's bed. Finduilas was already there, holding Boromir's shoulder as they waited for his arrival. Indis was bent over the bed, whispering to their father. The tears would come, but he blinked them away.

How had his father grown so old so quickly? The fever had ravaged his body, leaving only a gaunt man lying before him. Indis pulled back, tears streaming down her face. Denethor realized with a start that Ecthelion's death would be hardest on her. He squeezed her shoulder as he moved past her. Kneeling by the bed, he took his father's hand in his own. Surprised by the heat that still engulfed the dying body, he looked towards Arciryas. The Master Healer shook his head sadly. Denethor turned back towards his father. Startled to see the eyes opened, he leaned in.

"Father," he whispered, "It is I, Denethor."

"I know it is you," his father snapped weakly. "I have not lost my wits yet."

Denethor knelt a little taller, keeping his face firm and straight.

"I go now to the Halls of Mandos and to wherever my final resting place will be. I have tried to give you my wisdom, instill in you the pride of Númenor, but you have ever been willful and followed your own heart." He paused for a moment, his eyes softening. "Perhaps, if your mother had lived, things would have been different. I have spoken with her, on occasion, you know." His eyes dimmed and became tear-filled. "I have tried to do right by you, boy. I have not succeeded and I fear for you and for Gondor." He sighed. "Would that things had been different." He looked up again into Denethor's face.  "Bring Boromir to me."

Denethor stood and led his son forward, not letting go of the boy's shoulder. Though Ecthelion loved the boy, Denethor was afraid of what his father might say to the lad. Yet, he stood proud as Boromir walked forward, straight and tall, and waited for Ecthelion to speak.

"Boromir, you are the hope of Gondor. I have seen your determination and strength, your pride in our City. I know you will protect all I have worked for. Come, sit by my side." The lad did as he was bid and Denethor stood back. "Your mother is sweet and kind, Boromir, but she is weak. Do not follow her example. Be strong in everything you do. Gondor needs you strong. Continue your studies of warfare, no matter what your mother thinks. Never let your guard down. Trust no one. I had trusted someone a long time ago, and he deserted me. Trust only yourself." Ecthelion started coughing. Arciryas stepped forward. "My Lord, you must rest."

Ecthelion feebly batted his arm aside. "Rest! For what? I shall be dead soon and will have all the rest I will ever need. Boromir," his voice turned harsh as he clasped the lad's shoulder, but Denethor stepped in and moved Boromir back to Finduilas' side. His father scowled up at him. "You will fail me. You will fail Gondor. Let me speak to the boy. He will obey me."

"Father, I have always tried to obey you, to be what you wanted me to be. I promise you, I will strengthen our defenses. I will work to make Gondor strong. I will not fail you."

But the words fell on deaf ears. Ecthelion had passed away. Denethor stared for a long moment, then turned and shepherded his family out the door. Arciryas would tend to the final details. Boromir started crying and Denethor picked him up.

"Wilt I not see Adadhron any more?"

"We wilt take Adadhron to the Steward's House. Then we wilt say our farewells. He loved thee very much, Boromir. I hope he did not frighten thee."

"Nay, Ada. He did not frighten me. I know my duty."

Denethor smiled. "Duty. Yes, Boromir, thou knowest thy duty."

But a frown creased Finduilas' brow as they walked back to their own chambers. Indis stayed behind to help Arciryas prepare the body. The embalmers had already been called and would arrive soon. There was naught for Denethor to do at the moment. He would first see to Finduilas, then go to his father's study and look to the needs of Gondor.

As they entered their chambers, the nanny came and, after both his parents hugged and kissed him, took Boromir to the nursery. As soon as he closed the door, Finduilas turned towards him, storm clouds in her eyes.

"Why didst thou let him speak thus to our son?"

He sighed, tried gently to pull her to his arms, but she would have none of it.

"War! That is all he speaks of. That is all any speak of here in this City. Am I to give my sons to pain and death? Wouldst thou see them bloodied upon the battlefield?" She was in tears, her voice rising. "I didst not bear sons to see them dead. I wilt leave here first. I will leave thee first! I wilt take them to my father. I will not let them die!" Hysteria tinged her voice and Denethor's eyes widened in alarm.

"Finduilas." He took her wrists in his hands, appalled to find them shaking. His thoughts flew to the time the earth had quaked after Thengel's death. Gently pulling her close, not letting her resist, he held her, whispered her name over and over again. He could not tell her their sons would be spared. There were no guarantees. The Unnamed One was growing stronger. As if to confirm this, the floor began to shift. Finduilas screamed and tried to run towards the nursery. He held her tightly. "The mountain cannot topple Minas Tirith, Finduilas. I promise thee. Our sons are protected. Stay thou here, by my side." He pulled her down onto the bed, lifting her feet off the floor so she would not feel the lurching under them. She shuddered and clung closely to him.

"Wilt thou not come with me and thy sons? Wilt thou not take us away from this hateful City, this evil, this horrid mountain? Please, Denethor," she begged. Looking into his eyes, she knew he would never leave Minas Tirith. Suddenly she began to wail and he pulled her more tightly to him.

"Finduilas," he whispered. "I canst not leave Gondor, not now. Her people need me. Need us. They believe they are leaderless and wilt lose all hope. I canst not allow that. But, in the fall, we wilt all go to Belfalas for as long as thou wouldst. The children wilt play in the sand and the sea. And thou wilt know that Gondor is worth fighting for. Thou knowest the beauty of Lamedon and Lossarnach, the worth of the Rohirrim, and the wonder of Dol Amroth. All of these wilt fall if I do not do my duty."

"Duty!" she spat the word as though it were a curse. "Thy duty would see me dead and thy sons with me."

"Nay, Finduilas," he tried to hush her. "My duty wilt save all that we love. I promise thee. Stand by me; I beg thee. Tell me thou believest that I can save Gondor and all that we love. Please, Finduilas. I must know that I have thy trust. I must."

She collapsed into his arms, sobs racking her body. "I want to, Denethor, truly I do, but I only see death before me. I have lost all hope."

"Nay, melethril nîn, lasto beth nin, estellio nin. I will do everything in my power to save thee, to save our sons." His tears mixed with hers. Slowly her breathing steadied.

"I will trust thee, hervenn nîn." He laid her head against the pillow and kissed her, speaking soft words till she fell asleep. He sighed. He could not go to his father's study tonight.

~*~

The body lay in state five days. Lords from all corners of the land came to pay their final respects. The City lay hushed. The mountain had only stirred twice more. Thankfully, he had been with her both times and allayed her fears.

Friends and warriors from his early years returned to the City. Most nights, after he was sure Finduilas slept, he would join them at 'The Three Fishermen' reminiscing about battles long ago won. Théoden brought Morwen and his son, Théodred. The lad was turning into quite a warrior. He reminded Denethor of Thengel. Éofor, Walda's son, also came with the delegation from Rohan. Dúinhir, now Lord of Blackroot Vale traveled to offer his respects. Denethor's heart was lightened by the strength and courage of the men gathered about him. One day soon, he would have to meet with the Council and decide who would stay and who would go. How he wished he could persuade his friends to return to Minas Tirith for good and become part of the Council, but he knew he could not ask it of them. They had their own fiefdoms to govern and he needed strong men stationed all over Gondor and Rohan if he was going to succeed in protecting Gondor.

During this time of mourning, he met with each of the Lords and the members of Council, testing their loyalty, firming their resolve to answer Gondor's call, and discovering their weaknesses and strengths. He would have need of every tool at his disposal to overturn any decisions that ran counter to his own. He would not let the Council rule Gondor as they had under Turgon. If they did not agree with him, he would use other means to obtain their 'yea' vote.  Gondor's might had been reduced to almost nothing because of this weak Council. He would not allow them to further erode what strength remained.

On the fifth day, the procession left the Great Hall and found its way to the gate before Rath Dínen. The call was made, the guard came forth, and opened the door. It seemed all of Gondor followed the bier down the street and into the Steward's House. After the proscribed words were said, and the last of the incense burners doused, the mourners slowly turned, heading back into the City itself. Denethor spoke quietly to Indis, who nodded, then led Finduilas and Boromir to the gate. Boromir at first refused to leave. He clasped his arms around Denethor's leg, not saying a word. Denethor bent down, gently loosened the lad's hold, and pulled him into his arms.

"Go with thy mother, Boromir, she hast need of thee. I wilt come along presently. I have a duty to perform before I may leave this place. Wilt thou do that for me? Wilt thou care for thy mother a few more moments?" He wiped the tears from Boromir's eyes and set him down. Boromir looked unsure for a moment, then took his mother's hand and walked away.

Imrahil stood beside him. Denethor looked at his friend. "'Tis time for you to return to Dol Amroth. Tell your father his rival has passed."

"Denethor," Imrahil said gently. "My father was not your father's rival.  'Tis true he challenged him on many things, but there was respect there. And honor given. Do not let bitterness grow in your heart towards my kin."

"Of course not," Denethor whispered. "You will hold your oath to Gondor, will you not, Imrahil. If Gondor calls for aid, you will answer?"

"You do not have to ask. I have been a shrewd student of yours. I have learnt well the things you have taught me. I will never fail you. Never."

Denethor clasped his shoulder. "Then go. I have promised Finduilas a visit to your home, but I cannot see that happening now. Our people have need of me. Mayhap we will journey next spring."

"Do not wait o'erlong, my brother. She needs the sea." 

Ion nîn - my son
Adadhron - grandfather (paternal)  
Melethril nîn - my love
Llasto beth nîn - listen to my words
Estellio nin - trust me
Hervenn nîn - my husband

Ch. 17 - Third Age 2988

An illness swept through the Houses. The source was unknown; a cure was unknown. More and more of those already deathly ill or battle wounded fell to its unchecked rampage. Arciryas worked night and day, not with healing, for naught seemed to heal, but with herbs and incantations to ease suffering, then spending hours pouring over ancient books trying to find anything that even remotely displayed the same symptoms, but to no avail. He would have to evacuate the Houses. The malady could not be stopped. Yet, as suddenly as it had started, as suddenly as the filth of it sped through the Houses of Healing, it ceased. No new patients were touched by it for over a week. Those in the last throws of its hold lingered. Some lived. Some did not.

Ioreth was one of the last to be infected by it, but her youth seemed to lessen its hold on her. Firieth came to the Houses to care for her daughter, and instead, succumbed herself. One of the last to die, she clung to life for hours. Finduilas screamed to be allowed to care for her, but Denethor could not, would not let her near. Indis went instead, much to Denethor's horror. He was trying to save his wife, why would his sister tempt fate? At last, Firieth surrendered. Ioreth held her in her arms; her lips silenced for once. Indis sat by her side.

Finduilas was nigh unto inconsolable. Firieth had come to her the day she had arrived in Minas Tirith, welcoming her with a lavender nosegay and a warm smile. They had become friends almost immediately, even before Arciryas asked Firieth to become Finduilas' handmaiden. Denethor remembered Firieth's discomfiture at such a request. She had spoken of her humble lineage, saying she was not worthy. Then, when Boromir was born, the bond between the women firmed, solidified into deep friendship. 'Ah,' Denethor remembered, 'they called each other sister-friend.'

She would not let him hold her. She stayed in her bed, pulling her arms around her, moaning quietly. He called for Arciryas who brought teas to ease her heart and potions to help her sleep. After a time, it seemed she improved. Indis was able to convince her to walk in the gardens. At last, Denethor sent for his sister.

"Indis," Denethor sat opposite her on the settle, twirling the flagon in his left hand. She smiled. He always did that when he had something unpleasant to ask. She loved him dearly, but he would have to speak; she did not know what he wanted.

He heaved a sigh. "I know Arciryas loves working in the Houses."

Indis started. She had not expected this to be about her husband.

"I also know he loves to study the old books and formulas and such to find new cures for what ails the men of Gondor."

She waited, not knowing what he wanted to say, what he wanted from her or Arciryas.

"Finduilas is... not well. No matter what I do for her, she fades. Father's death has been hard for it has changed my life completely. I cannot spend the time I used to with her nor with the children. Sometimes, I work from dawn to dawn. There is naught else I can do. You know full well that the defenses of Gondor must be reinforced. I have met with the Council every day, trying to convey to them the desperate needs of our land before the needs of their own fiefdoms, but it is trying work. Besides the meetings, I spend much time reading father's logs, trying to find what was done and what has not been done. On top of that, troop movements... I do not know why I am saying all this. You know, better than anyone else in all of Gondor, what the duties of the Steward entail." He paused and took a long swallow, put down the flagon, and turned to her, brow furrowed. "She also has not fully recovered from the loss of Firieth. I cannot be with Finduilas as I would wish, nor as she would wish. I hope to ask Arciryas to become my family's personal healer. Do you think he would agree? Would you agree?"

Indis sat back. "Yes, he will, if you command it. But I do not know if he will be happy with the decision."

"Would you be? I would do naught to harm you. He is most valued as Master Healer. I do not want to do this, but I see no other way. I cannot send her to Dol Amroth. I could not live with her gone. Yet, she needs constant care, more than I can give. I have given much thought to this. I have tried to discover another solution, some way to help her live here in ease and contentment."

"I know you have, dearest brother. I too, have tried to help her."

"Yes. Her reading to the soldiers has been told to me. Their gratitude is profound. But she does not seem to think it worthwhile, or helpful. She has not been back to the Houses since Firieth's death. Nor do I want her there, at least for a time."

"What did she do in Dol Amroth, Denethor?"

He laughed ruefully. "I do not know. She is not a child. I do not know. All I know, Indis, is that I love her and I must do everything I can for her, short of shirking my duty to Gondor."

She put her hand on his knee. "There may come a time, Denethor, when you will have to chose between Gondor and Finduilas."

He shuddered. "I hope not, Indis. I hope not."

~*~

He knew she was suffering. It had now been almost a year since Firieth passed. Was it Boromir and Faramir? Him? Did they require too much care? It seemed a deep melancholy lay over her. She sounded well when he asked after her, but the Elvish sparkle, the one that had caught his heart when first he saw her in Dol Amroth - that sparkle had left her eyes. She walked as an old woman, barely picking up her feet, where once she had run gaily, lighter than the wind. Her skin was sallow, dry, and hung off her body like lifeless bark on the river birch. Her hands, the precious hands that soothed his brow - so kissable and dainty - could hardly pick themselves up from her lap. Dead members hung from them, pretending they were fingers. He shuddered violently as he watched her from the window overlooking her private garden. She had not seen, or, having seen, had not the energy to greet him. Tears fell in heavy torrents from his eyes. Arciryas stood beside him.

"What ails her?" he asked his healer, overwhelmed with the change that had come upon her this last year.

"I do not know, Denethor. There seems to be no malady of body to explain her state. I have tested her, using every tool at my disposal, but I have learned naught from them."

"Is she dying?"

"I cannot say," the healer stared, helplessly.

Denethor turned to him, shoulders sagging in defeat. "I cannot lose her," he whispered.

Arciryas took his friend into his arms and held him. "We will not lose her. Mayhap, if she went to the sea for a time..."

"She is too ill! What if aught were to happen on the road? I cannot lose her."

"Denethor. You would do anything to save her, would you not?"

"You know I would. How can you even ask?"

"Then you must consider this. I believe she longs for the sea and all it stands for. She hates the mountain. Do you not see her, even now, staring at it? She must have peace around her. And the only place, in all of Gondor where she will find peace, is Dol Amroth."

"I know," Denethor choked on the words. "I will send her away with the children. Listöwel will accompany her."

"Yes, but as you said, she is too weak, at the moment, to travel. If you but tell her the news, that will surely lighten her mood. She will have something to look forward to."

He straightened himself. "I know you speak wisely, my friend. Always, you have counseled me well. How long before she is well enough to travel?"

"It is hard to say. When the times comes, I will tell you."

'The sea,' Denethor thought, walking along the escarpment after Arciryas left him. 'She needs the sea.' Suddenly, his eyes lit up and he ran to the Great Hall.

~*~

He carried her down the hall from their chambers, kissing her brow and chattering about Faramir and Boromir and what they had been doing this morning - their lessons and such. His heart broke as he noted how she tried to listen, but fatigue overwhelmed her and he saw the dull glaze of her eyes. He quietly set her on her feet at a closed doorway. "My love, thy needs are mine. I have created a place for thee. I wouldst that I could give thee all that thou needest, but please, accept this as a token of my love for thee."

With that, he opened the door and she gasped and would have fallen had he not been behind her and quickly held her close to him. He picked her up again, walked into the room, and closed the door behind them. Gently, he placed her upon the beach chair. He sat next to her, letting her drink in his creation, and then, with the softest pride, he began pointing out the features of the room.

"The sky. I hope 'tis the right shade? See - it fills the entire ceiling. And dost thou see the clouds and the little gulls, painted there and there? The plants along the walls, are they not like the plants that grow in the rocks at Dol Amroth? And here and here," he pointed again, "dost thou see the creatures, crabs and starfish? And in the little rock pool painted over there - there are the seahorses thou lovest so. Look over here, my love. See the waves crashing against the rocks; over there is the shore, which leadeth into the room. The sand on the floor wast brought from our little beach in Belfalas. Thou must remember it, my love?" He could not read her face, so he continued, desperately pointing out more and more. "There are the chairs and table where we used to sit and drink honeyed wine." He started to sob. He had commissioned the finest artists in the land to create the room, to make it look exactly like the seascape looking out her window at the palace of Dol Amroth; yet, she gave no reaction. He left his chair and knelt in the sand at her feet, laying his head upon her lap. "Melethril nîn?"

She was silent. He could speak no longer. He had poured out all his love upon this room, hoping it would fill her and bring her back to him, from whatever place she had gone to.

His body trembled when he felt her hand touch his head, slip through his hair, and gently caress his cheek.

"Thou didst all this for me?" Her voice, unused these last months, cracked as she questioned him.

"Tancavë, melethril nîn, solely for thee. We mayest sit here," hope flared in his heart and the words stumbled over each other, "listen to the water and drink wine..."

"The water?" she asked.

 "Tancavë, melethril nîn, lasto."

She could hear it, water gently falling over rocks, and she turned and saw that a small waterfall played its music almost directly behind her. She sighed. "It is most lovely." Then she closed her eyes and slept.

He knelt back upon his heels and watched her. Her sleep was deep. Long had it been since she had slept so deeply. He covered her with a shawl and then sat again in the chair next to hers. Soon, his head fell forward.

~*~

"She has been there for hours. The boys are with her. I believe your ploy has worked, Denethor. She walked without help this morning. I cannot believe the change in her!"

Denethor's eyes sparkled with unshed tears. "Yes, it was worth every coin and every hour of work. Speak truly, Arciryas. She does seem to be getting better?"

"Yes, Denethor. I am most pleased by her progress."

~*~

"If thou leavest me and returneth to Dol Amroth," he choked on the words, "thou wilt not return."

The mountain had spent the entire month foaming and spewing noxious fumes into the air, shaking the halls of Minas Tirith. She had cowered more and more. Not even her hideaway helped keep the fear from her. At last, he knew he must send her away.

"What art thou saying, my love?  Thou art my life, my very breath.  To thee I wilt ever return," she promised.

He took her in his arms and held her very close.  The thinness of her body once again startled him.  He had to be so very gentle.  Almost - he was afraid she would break in his arms.  When had he first noticed this gauntness?  He felt her lean against his embrace, the warmth of her body next to his, the bones of her shoulders jutting out into the palms of his hands.  Hope seemed to flee from him, but he dragged it back and clung to it.  He turned his face away from hers, as the tears, unbidden, fell.  He moved his arm so his tunic would catch the tears and she would not feel them.  She could not see him weep.  She could not know the despair that flitted at the corners of his mind as he held her.  She must think him strong, think that she could rely upon him in all things, that he would survive while she was gone, think that he would be able to care for their sons. Faster the tears came at the thought of his dependence upon her.  How was he to bear this time apart?  And yet, Arciryas thought the sea air would revive her, would help her to heal.  Arciryas had always been right before.  The forced separation must be the cure for her malaise.  It must be!

She gave a small groan and he realized his vehemence of thought had transferred to his arms.  "Melethril nîn, absenen," he cried.

"Nay, 'tis I who shouldst ask for forgiveness.  To be forced to leave thee.  My heart shouldst be stronger. My will falters.  Thou deservest more, better..."

"Shush," he said as he put two fingers to her lips.  "Say naught foul about my love, my own.  Thou art the fairest, strongest, bravest woman in all of Gondor."

She smiled up at him and saw the tracks of his tears.  "Melethril nîn!"' she cried.

"Shush," he bid her again.  "Think only of thy return to me.  Thou knowest I wilt be here waiting."

He kissed her gently and then carried her to the carriage.  The children were waiting beside it, their nanny crying.  He wanted to flail her.  How dare she cry openly in front of the children?

Listöwel came forward and touched his arm.  "We will return shortly, my Lord.  I will do everything in my power to make her well again and to bring her home soon."

He kissed her on the forehead and spoke words of praise and strength to his old friend's wife.

"I am deeply grateful that you are accompanying her.  I would be hard-pressed to let her go with anyone else."

Listöwel opened the carriage door and he gently placed his love inside.  He lifted their eldest to the seat next to her.  The lad's eyes were large and tear-filled, but the tears did not fall.

"Thou must care for thy Ada, Boromir.  He wilt need thy strength until I return.  Wilt thou do this for me?"

"Of course, Naneth."  Tears threatened the little face, but blinking stopped them.

"And thy brother?  Wilt thou comfort him in the night, wilt thou promise not to fight with him, and wilt thou love him until I return?"

"Oh Nana!"  This time the tears fell and Boromir angrily batted them away with his sleeve. "Thou knowest I wilt love him as thou dost.  I wilt never leave him, not let him cry out in the night, nor suffer any harm to come to him, whilst thou art away." His chin shook and she took it gently in her hands and kissed his sweet lips. 

"Thou art a true son of Gondor, my Boromir.  I knowest that thou wilt keep thy word.  Knowest thou that I love thee."

He took the child from her, stood him on the ground, and passed their youngest to her. Faramir tried to climb onto her lap; she had not the strength to lift him, and so Denethor picked him up and placed him there.

She held him close to her chest, rocking him ever so gently, and then kissed his forehead, his cheeks, his lips.  "Thou art my sweet and precious son, Faramir.  Obey thy Ada, love thy brother, and wait for me. I love thee."

The child clung to her and wept bitterly.  His little heart knew not what was wrong, only that somehow his whole world was being torn apart.  Then he felt his father's hands pulling him away and he howled in surprise and pain, "Nana!"

She turned her face away and the mountain looked back at her.  She shivered.

He stepped quietly into the carriage, took her tiny hands into his large warrior ones, covered them with kisses, then kissed her forehead, her eyes, her ears, her nose, her cheeks, her chin, her neck, and finally, with tender passion, her lips.

"Heal quickly, my love.  I wilt wait for thee."

And then he left her side, stepped down from the carriage and helped Listöwel into it.  With a signal to the driver, the carriage started to move away.  Faramir tried to run after it, but he picked him up and showed him how to wave farewell.  Boromir stood close, his hand clutching his father's tunic.  Listöwel's heart broke as she saw the little trio standing in the Court of the Fountain with the dead White Tree behind them.

~*~

The errand-rider arrived before the sun set.  He heard the hooves on the marble of the courtyard and his heart turned cold.  He sat on the Steward's Chair, his hands clutching the black marble.  His mind screamed, 'Nay! This cannot be. It is news of someone else. It is not of her. It cannot be of her.'

Baranor stood behind him, tears streaming down his face.

"My Lord," the errand-rider said, "we have lost the Lady Finduilas."

The Steward did not blink an eye; he stared forward and the rider, thinking he had perhaps not heard, repeated the message.  "My Lord, we have lost the Lady Finduilas."

Baranor motioned him to silence.  An hour passed. The three men had not moved.

He sighed.  "Where is she now?"

The errand-rider jumped at the suddenness of the question, the breaking of the silence.  "The company has turned round and should be here by morning."  Silence.

He motioned for the rider to leave.  "Baranor?"

"My Lord?"

"Do not bring her here. She does not belong here. She belongs by the sea. Send a rider to the Company and tell them to turn around and go to Dol Amroth. Have another rider prepared. I will give him a missive to take to Imrahil."

Baranor turned and walked out as Denethor stood and turned towards his study.

He sat at the desk, Thengel's oaken desk, and pulled out parchment and pen.  The sun was lowering in the sky before he began to write.

'To my Friend and erstwhile Brother,

She is gone, taken from us, the fairest flower of all Middle-earth, indeed of even Westernesse itself.  I would tell you all that is in my heart, but you, dearest Brother to my Beloved, know it all, for oft have we spoken of the quality of that fair Lady.

I try to think, but find my mind is empty.  There is naught left.  Her departure has swept every vestige of sanity or thought from it.  It aches with the violence of her life's removal.  My heart has been stabbed as if by a Morgul-knife. The pain is beyond words or thought or comprehension.  I can hardly swallow for the constriction that unshed tears have forced upon my throat.  I can say these things to you and no other, for I know as you read this, that you are now my Brother in sorrow.

I will survive this, for my mind, what little is left of it, tells me I must go on, for our sons, for Gondor, but I tell you, my heart recoils at the thought of living without her sweet presence... The days stretch before me and I quake at the thought of the loneliness that lies there, the desolation of the time to come.

My lips tingle with the remembrance of our last kiss, gentle lips pressed to mine, and I would shut my eyes, and put out everything but that remembrance.  Imrahil!  May the Valar be with me.  I cannot do this alone!'

He lay his pen down and leaned back, resting in the great oak chair that Thengel had helped him build.  Dead these past eight years, but not forgotten.  Another face drifted before him.  Amdir, his friend, his right hand, his brother-in-arms. He must call Amdir home from Osgiliath.  Tears finally stung his eyes.  He did not sob nor shake; they just fell in torrents unbidden, uncontrolled, unhealing... Never had he felt such tears.  They reminded him of the falls of Henneth Annûn, flowing constantly, great torrents of water, eating away at the cliff.  He could feel the tears now eating away at his face, carving great gullies where they ran.  In the back of his mind, he wondered, 'Where do all these tears come from?  Is my body being squeezed like the sea sponges?  Will I look like one after, if there is an after, the tears have stopped?  Shriveled up and full of holes and hard to the touch?  How will I hold my sons if I am hard and shriveled and scratchy?'  At the thought of his sons, the tears, impossible to think it, fell even harder.

Baranor stepped into the room.  "My Lord," he said gently.  "The errand-rider is ready."

"Give me another moment," he said. 

He wrote again:

'I cannot come to you, to Belfalas, to Dol Amroth.  I cannot.  I would have you place her in the Houses of her Fathers in the Númenórean way.  Princess of Dol Amroth, as she deserves - not Steward's wife.  Nay, she was much more than Steward's wife, though she deigned to be that for a time.

I know not when I will come.  Give Listöwel my leave to stay in Belfalas for a time, if that is her wish.  If she deigns to stay, please give her all my love and tell her I will never forget her or her kindness to her Princess.  Tell her I will station Amdir at the garrison of Dol Amroth.

I bid you farewell for now.  With my deepest sympathy to you and your family, I remain

Denethor'

~*~

Ithilien - always it had been a place of sunshine, sweet smells and refuge. It had also been a place of pain and death. However, he needed to be alone; he could not bear to stay within the confines of Minas Tirith. He left the City in the care of the Council and prepared to ride out with Baranor.

As he started to mount, he heard a child's voice calling, "Ada!"  It was Boromir - how had he escaped the nanny? When he returned, he would get rid of that woman. Twice in the past twenty-four hours she had failed him. He took the child in his arms.  "I must leave thee for a time, my son, but I promise thee, I wilt return."

Boromir placed his chubby hands upon his father's cheeks.  "May I not come with thee, Ada? I am almost of age."

Denethor lifted his eyes away from the boy's intent gaze. If it had been Faramir, the child would have known immediately that something was wrong, like to himself be that boy. Boromir only wanted to be with his father and away on some adventure.  How...?  When was he to tell them? He bit his lip. He would not let the boy see him cry.  "I have important duties to perform. Thou canst not come with me. I wilt return shortly," he apologized.  The word 'duty' silenced Boromir, as Denethor knew it would. The child understood duty - not like Faramir.  'Ah, but Faramir is so much younger,' he thought. 'He will learn in time.' He put Boromir down, ruffled his hair as he always did, mounted and waved as he turned the horse into the tunnel by the Sixth Gate.

~*~

He rode hard and fast across the Pelennor, hoping the speed, the wind in his face, would flush all thought from his mind. The wind only slid the tears faster across his face, turning his hair sodden. They would not stop, these tears. He did not even need to be thinking of her. All these tears needed was a moment - a time when he was thinking of naught, and they would fall in torrents. Large tears. He had not known there were different sized tears, as there were raindrops. It made sense. He thought them all the same, but since yesterday, when the sky had fallen and the rain had entered his mind, he knew sizes. He disliked these great drops. He preferred his childhood tears - small, quickly fallen and then stopped as quickly as they started. But these - these were quick to fall and would not stop.  'No sobs either,' he thought. He was surprised by that. The tears would fall and, not till they were almost spent, did the sobs come. But the sobs were so great they racked his entire body, and he had to hold on tightly with his thighs to his mount else he fall.

This ride was useless. He only hoped when he reached the garrison at Osgiliath he would find some distraction. She only came here once - he never allowed it again. Soldiers hailed him as he rode through the ruins. He could smell the morning fires. The men would soon be breaking their fast. He would not stop here though. This was not his destination. Emyn Arnen. His ancestral home - the burial place for Cranthir and Morwen. He started to cross the bridge when he heard his name called. All these distractions - were they not what he wanted? But he had discovered, as soon as he passed the Rammas Echor, that distraction did naught to ease the pain in his chest, the burning in his eyes. Single-minded he was today. He had no wish to converse with anyone.

"My Lord," the voice called out and Denethor recognized Ciramir's voice.

"I am in a hurry.  What is it you need?" he snapped. A hand on his horse held him up.

"My Lord, is it true?"  Ciramir saw the look in his Steward's eyes and stopped.  "My Lord, I am so sorry.  She...  Where are you off to my Lord?"

"Just a short ride to Emyn Arnen. I will return before night falls."

"My Lord, you know the law. The Steward must not be about without an escort. Who is stationed at the Great Gate that let you leave with only one attendant?"

Denethor wanted to scream. Long years at the command of Ecthelion, however, had taught him control.  "I do not wish, nor will I countenance, an escort further than I have. Leave me be," he almost begged.

"Yes, my Lord," Ciramir said, "but wait just a moment, please."  He did not wait for a reply, but ran off. In the space of Denethor's fuming, he was back, mounted on a horse with a small sack, his bow and quiver, and a sword hitched to the side of his horse.

"What are you doing?" Denethor cried.

"I am going to Ithilien myself. Mayhap you would like to accompany me?"  Tears were in his eyes. "Amdir has taken a patrol out. I would meet with them."

Denethor sat back in his saddle, not having realized he had been standing in his stirrups. As much as he wanted to, he could not order the man back.  "Ride behind me, if you must," he growled, hit the reins to his horse's neck and plunged over the bridge, followed quickly by two friends.

The landscape started to change as the forest of Emyn Arnen came into view. They rode into the middle of it and then past to the land of the House of Húrin, and up to the tombs. Baranor and Ciramir stopped their horses a little way back, dismounted and walked to a clearing far enough from the tombs to give privacy, but near enough to guard their Captain-General. Denethor rode to Cranthir's tomb, dismounted and sat heavily on the stone. Next to Cranthir's was Morwen's. The whole area was in disarray. 'Who had been commissioned to care for these,' he wondered and again wished their remains had been placed in the Steward's House.

~*~

He returned to Osgiliath the next morning and, as the sun finally fell in the West, walked to Anduin, then headed north. He could not be among his men. Their looks of concern and pity drove him mad. The waters of the Great River were cool and pleasant. They washed tears away with ease. But they did naught to ease the heart. He had yet to return to Minas Tirith. It had been two days. He had bedded in the garrison, using Amdir's rooms. He could not go back to the City, to their room... He could not. He ducked his head into the water again. When he came up, a hand was on his shoulder.

"Your children wait for you," a voice said quietly, with no hint of condemnation.

Denethor turned. His breath caught and he stood still. The tears had not stopped. He tried mightily, but to no avail. "I cannot..."  'What! What can I not do?' he thought. "I can do naught. I cannot even breathe. I cannot even think. I cannot go on..." He realized he had been screaming the words, his thoughts betraying him aloud.

Amdir moved closer and took his friend, his Captain-General, in his arms. "I am so very sorry, Denethor. I would that I had been there and not on patrol. What can I do? What can I say? I am so sorry." He buried his head in Denethor's shoulder, his own grief spilling out in hot tears.

Both men sank to the damp bank of the river, the river that brought life, peace, joy, death; all things unto itself. Clinging to each other, they knelt and wept.

Baranor watched from a discreet distance, as he had watched his Steward try to assuage his grief in the rushing waters of the river. A sound to the north took his eyes from the scene. He screamed, "Orcs!" and pulled his sword. Denethor ran to retrieve his own as Amdir rushed towards Baranor.

'There are only three,' Denethor thought ruefully, wishing there were more; battle always cleared his head. He dove for his own sword. Amdir killed the first, but an Orc ran past Baranor and rushed him, its weapon aimed at Denethor's head. Vaguely he wondered why the Orc did not shoot. Mayhap, he smiled wickedly, it did not know how to fire the weapon. He quickly ducked and slid in the mud of the riverbank. The Orc slipped and fell also, but never lost hold on the crossbow in its hands. The Orc lay on its back. Denethor jumped up, straddled it, his dirk pressed into the creatures throat. At that moment, the arrow released and shot out. Amdir stopped it with his chest. His eyes opened wide, a grunt escaped his lips, and he fell to his knees.

"Amdir!" the moaned name dragged out for an age, the only sound that Denethor's grief-torn ears could hear. He sliced the creature's throat and in the same motion caught Amdir as he fell forward. Cradling him in his arms, he looked in horror at the wound, gushing blood onto Amdir's tunic and Denethor's hand. He looked from the wound to his friend's face. The eyes were already glazed, blood spewed from his lips, and breath rasped from a mortally wounded lung. "Amdir!" he sobbed, but life departed. Denethor fell forward, clutching as much of his friend's body as he could and bringing it as close to his own as possible. He knelt, keening softly, his whole body trying to be one with Amdir's, trying to give some of his own life to his friend. But no transfer of spirit could be realized. He pushed back the black hair that had fallen over Amdir's face and kissed the white forehead.

Baranor reached them after he had killed the remaining Orcs, despair filling his heart and his mind. "Nay!" he screamed. "No more!  No more!"  He stood guarding his friend. Yet, the failure he felt assailed his whole being. 'What good have I been? What guard have I been for him?' Sobs tore through him and tears fell. "Amdir," he quietly sobbed, "Amdir, my friend."

At last Denethor let go Amdir's body. He stood up, his face livid with rage. "Kill the guards who let them through," he screamed and when Baranor did naught, confusion rampant on his face, he grabbed him by his mailed sleeve and brought his face nose to nose with Baranor's.  "Kill them, I said! Do you not understand me?" he continued to shriek. "Or you will be next! Do as I command."

Baranor knelt before him in the mud. "My Lord. That will not bring Amdir back."

Denethor struck him full in the face, the force of his anger and the motion of the strike sending both men into the mud. He tried to pick himself up, Baranor reached a hand to help, but as their legs straightened, they both slipped and fell again. Denethor's screams tore the air. "Nay!" he wailed.  "I cannot... I cannot!" He crumpled into the mud, held his head in his hands, and sobbed. Every fiber of his body grieved. "I cannot..." he whispered. "I cannot..." Baranor held him close, sobbing as they knelt on the muddy bank.

Ciramir ran from the high grass along the river's edge where he had watched the ambush in horror and shock. "Oh no," he gasped, thinking all three were mortally wounded. "Nay, this cannot be." He ran towards the bodies and stopped. He recoiled from the grief he saw in Denethor's eyes.

'Alive, yes, but mayhap 'twould be better if he were dead,' the harsh thought flitted through his mind. He realized that it was Amdir who lay dead. The blood on Denethor's body was that of his friend. "My Steward," he said quietly, reaching out to help him to his feet. But Denethor's body was heavy as if in death, and he could not raise him. Guards from the garrison at Osgiliath heard the commotion and sent reinforcements. Ciramir motioned for two of them to come forward. They put arms under each of their Steward's and lifted him to his feet. Ciramir helped Baranor stand. Another four soldiers went to Amdir's body, gently lifting it up and carrying it towards the barracks. They walked in a silence that was broken every now and again by a sob from one or another of the men. 'Fate is beyond cruel,' Ciramir thought. 'To lose Finduilas and Amdir in the space of days...' He shook his head.

~*~

He woke to screams and flailed his arms, trying to defend himself; from what, he did not know. The screams turned to moans and he realized the voice he heard was his own. A torrent of tears fell and he found himself overcome with grief. Sobs racked his body. Why was he sobbing like some grief-stricken child? He kept his eyes tight shut. He had no idea where he was; he did not want to know. He wanted to solve this mystery, to find why grief assailed him so. 'My mind must be playing tricks on me. Surely I am home in my own chambers, safe and secure.' He slowly forced his eyes open. He was in Osgiliath, in the infirmary. He recognized it immediately. Thorongil was at his side. Nay, it could not be Thorongil. He had betrayed him many years ago. Amdir! It was Amdir; he knew it. It must be. He tried to choke out the name, but no word would come.

"My Lord," Baranor leaned over as he saw the eyes open. He brushed back the black hair that had fallen into his friend's eyes during his thrashing about.

Denethor looked wildly about the room, eyes straining from side to side. "Where has Amdir gone? He was right here beside me. Amdir!" he screamed, "Amdir!" Baranor knelt, trying to hold him down. The garrison's healer came into the room and knelt on the other side of Denethor's cot, helping.

"My Lord," Baranor said over and over, hoping with every fiber in his body that his Lord would finally be comforted by the sound.

"Amdir!" he screamed the name over and over until finally, he fell back, taking in huge ragged breaths. The tears continued to fall and he knew Amdir was dead. His face fell. "Amdir," he whispered once more, "my friend." Sobs began to shake his body. The healer attempted to pour a liquid past his lips, but he spat it back into the man's face.

He tried to sink deeper and deeper into the cot, trying to lose himself as if in a tomb. Baranor ordered the healer away. When Denethor heard the man's retreating footsteps, he opened his eyes. He stared into Baranor's face. 'Oh!  Such pain,' Baranor cringed.

Denethor took his arm and clenched it tightly. He took three deep breaths. "If Amdir is dead," he sobbed, his voice breaking, "then... then she is dead? It was not a dream?"

Baranor sucked in his breath and sobbed aloud. He put his hand on Denethor's and held it tight.

"Nay!" The piercing wail split the night air. "Oh nay, nay, please, nay..." He kept murmuring again and again until his body, overcome by exhaustion, took him into sleep.

Baranor bowed his head, the sobs continuing into the night. The garrison lay still, shock and horror filling every heart.

Ciramir finally came into the room. Helping Baranor into the cot next to his captain's, he pulled his boots off and covered him. "Sleep now. I will stand watch."

~*~

His eyes were swollen and they burned when he tried to open them. His mouth was parched; he tasted blood as he ran his tongue over cracked lips. His tongue felt swollen, too. His throat ached as if he had screamed for a thousand years. But naught felt like his chest. The pain was still there, like a knife embedded to the hilt; so great he could scarce breathe. He turned his head sideways and saw Ciramir sitting on a chair next to his cot. His feet were up and the man was deeply asleep. So too was Baranor, he saw when he looked further left, asleep in the cot next to him.

'I should feel happy to have such friends by my side,' he thought lugubriously. "I do not want friends," he mumbled.  "Never again do I want friends." His throat started to constrict, but he willed it not to. "I will have no friends." His eyes felt hard. He took a deep, ragged breath, swung his legs off the cot, and stood up. He put on his boots, picked up his sword, along with the Horn of Gondor, and quietly walked out of the room. Guards saluted him and quickly moved out of his way as he crossed the courtyard to the stables. Picking up his saddle and blanket, he put them on his horse and pulled himself up. Turning west, he headed towards the City, not noticing that the sun, just coming over the mountains, blazed like a spike of pearl on the White Tower.

~*~

Boromir had been fidgeting all morning. The tutor finally gave up and sent him out to play. He ran to Faramir's room, caught his hand in a grip that made the little boy cry out, startled, and said, "Ada may be coming home ere long, Faramir. Please, wilt thou come with me to the point? We may see him coming." Faramir, who had been miserable these past three days since both mother and father had left them, clapped his hands in joy. If Boromir was going to the point, he would not be left behind. He quickly pulled on a woolen tunic and ran to catch up with Boromir who was already out the door and bounding down the stairs. The two boys ran past the White Tree and out onto the parapet. At last they reached the point. Boromir laughed. "I beat thee again, Faramir. Thou must learn to run faster," and he hugged his little brother in the joy of the day, in the hope of his father's home coming.

As the sun rose higher and higher, Boromir's enthusiasm started to wane. He pulled finger tops from his pocket and gave one to Faramir, then started to twirl his own, counting how long he could keep it spinning.

At last, Faramir started to cry. "I am thirsty, Boromir, when mayest we leave here?"

Boromir's face fell; he bit his lip in the same way his father did. "I have promised Naneth that I would care for thee. We wilt go to the kitchen for a snack." His face brightened again. "We may return here once thou art refreshed!"

Faramir stuck his hand in Boromir's as they walked away. Neither noticed the dust on the road from Osgiliath.

~*~

The sun shone brightly. The wind blew gently. His horse rode silently towards the Rammas Echor. Turning his stead to the left, he passed through the guarded gate and rode south. His mind was numb. He must find Listöwel. It became a rune that ran through his mind, the only thing that he heard or felt. He must find Listöwel. She would know what to do. She would... 'Nay,' he thought.  'I must find Indis.' His brow furrowed, his mind trying to clutch at some anchor that he could hold onto in the midst of the pain. He pulled up and looked about him.

'Where am I?' he wondered. 'How came I to be here?' He dropped the reins and clutched his hair, pulling it back. 'I am going mad,' he thought. He shuddered and jumped off his horse. Kneeling on the ground, he bent over, holding his stomach and retched. Finally, the sickness passed. He sat back on his heels and looked up. The sun caught the Citadel, shining on the White Tower. Sobbing, he held out his hands, trying to touch her, his City. Then clouds sped over the sun, and the sight was gone. He lowered his head again, sobs tearing from his throat. At last, he fell over, exhausted. Sleep came.

His soldiers found him that way. Lifting him gently onto his saddle, Ciramir joined him on the horse, and the Knights of Gondor moved towards Minas Tirith. He did not wake. The trumpet, as the group approached the City, sounded and Denethor stirred. Ciramir hushed him, hoping that his Steward would not wake till they reached the Houses. But the long sleep had revived him. He pulled up with a start.

"My Lord," Ciramir said, "please stay still, else we will both end up on the road."

"What has happened?" Denethor asked, blinking in the sunlight.

"We found you on the Pelennor, my Lord. You succumbed to fatigue. We could not leave you there. I deemed it proper to bring you home. Indis will be waiting for you. She has been distraught since you left."

'Indis!' He remembered; he had wanted to see Indis. "Yes," he said with fervor, "I must see Indis. You will take me to her?"

"Yes, my Lord. As quickly as your mount is able."

"He would make better time if he only carried one," Denethor said pragmatically.

Ciramir was relieved to hear the tone of voice. "I will dismount, my Lord." He wanted to ask if Denethor would be all right, but he dared not.

Denethor clicked after Ciramir alighted and his horse went forward. By the time he reached the Citadel, his head was hurting. A soldier took his mount when he reached the Sixth Gate.

Ciramir took another horse and followed Denethor to the Citadel. He quickly dismounted, caught up to, and followed behind his Steward.

Indis ran from the White Tower. "Denethor," she whispered as she held him tightly. "I have been near to distraction waiting upon you. Please, come to your chambers. I will have a bath drawn and send your servants to help."

He sat down heavily upon the steps. She looked about wildly and fixed her eyes upon Ciramir. He put his finger to his lips and looked sadly at Denethor.

"Amdir is dead, Indis." Denethor whispered forlornly.

She would have fallen down next to him, eyes wide in horror, if Ciramir had not caught her.

"What say you, my brother?" Tears glistened in her eyes.

Ciramir sat down beside them. "It is true, my Lady. Orcs attacked at the riverbank. Amdir was mortally wounded. A company is bringing his body back, e'en as we speak."

Denethor looked up at that. "Are they now?" he said hopefully. "Thank you, Ciramir. Loyal and trustworthy have you always been. I thought you would have gone with Thengel, when he was called back to Rohan to become king. I am grateful you did not."

Ciramir sighed at the sound of Denethor's voice. Hoarse still, but strong and sound. He was relieved to hear it.

Arms flung themselves around Denethor's throat and he jumped in surprise. "Ada!  Ada!" the little voice cried. "How happy I am to see thee. I thought thou wouldst not return. Boromir and I waited and waited and waited..." Squealing again, the arms tightened. Denethor sat in silence. He did not know what to say.

Indis grabbed the little one away and walked him towards the door. "Faramir. Ada is tired from his ride. He will come to you after you have your nap. Now go to your chambers and wait for me. I will tuck you in."

"But Ada... I want to see Ada," the little one wailed. His nanny had come to the foot of the stairs and waited for Indis to give him to her. They walked up the stairs, the child's wails echoing off the walls.

She came back and helped Denethor to his feet. "You will find the words, Denethor. Go to your chambers now and refresh yourself. I will send up food. Then, I will make arrangements for Amdir's body."

"He must be embalmed, Indis. Please, see to that. And reserve a place for him... I would have him in the Steward's House, but that is not possible. Find a house nearby and have a place prepared for him." He turned and slowly walked up the Tower stairs.

~*~

Boromir could not understand why their father would not see them. Faramir had come running into his chambers announcing that their father was home and would not play with him. 'Something has happened,' the lad thought. 'I must know what it is. I will find Indis; she will tell me.' He hugged Faramir and took him to the nursery. "Faramir is hungry. It is past nuncheon. See that he is fed," he told the nanny. He heard Faramir crying in the background, but he could not wait. Some sense told him that he could not bring Faramir with him.

Once outside, he made his way to the Great Hall. If anyone were about, they would be there. But the Hall was empty. His father must be in his own chambers. Where should he look next? He could go to Indis' chambers, but he did not think she would be there. Perhaps she would be with his father. He started to walk back to the Citadel when he noticed activity by the Sixth Gate. Soldiers milled around. As he walked up, they immediately stopped talking. No one hailed him, and he began to be frightened. No small thing had occurred if the men were so quiet. He smiled anyhow and asked for Indis. One of the men pointed through the Gate and said she was in the Houses. Boromir thanked him and walked down the path. Silence lay at his back. The hairs on the back of his neck started to stand up. 'What has happened?' his little mind asked.

An assistant at the door stopped him. "You are too young to enter the Houses without an adult, my Lord Boromir. You know that."

"I must see my amma, the Lady Indis. Would you please tell her I am out here waiting?"

"I will. Sit on the bench and I will bring her if I can." He turned and went into the building.

Boromir sat, his legs still too short to touch the ground, so he swung them back and forth, clutching and unclutching his little horn as his father did with his sword.

Indis came and sat next to him. She remained silent so he said naught. After what seemed an age to him, he started to fidget. She turned towards him, picked him up, and placed him upon her lap. Now he was really frightened. He had not sat on anyone's lap since he was seven. He started to cry.

"Oh," Indis cried, "I am so sorry. Your father has told you the news," she assumed from his tears. "Your mother was a great lady, dearest Boromir, and I loved her as much as you did. We will all miss her greatly." Indis tears joined with Boromir, who sat, stricken.

What was his amma saying? Why would Indis miss his mother? He sat bolt upright, taking her hands from around his waist. "What are you saying? What has happened to my mother? She will not return? Why? Why? Is she angry with me? Have I done something wrong?" His voice rose. He tried to jump out of her lap, but she realized her mistake and held him close.

"Oh, dearest Boromir. I am so sorry. I thought you cried because your father had told you. Oh, Boromir, Boromir." She could not speak but the child was furious.

"What has happened to my mother?" he screamed. "What has not my father told me? Tell me!" he screamed even louder, "Tell me!"

"Thy mother is dead, Boromir. She was most ill. Thou knewest that. She died on the way to Dol Amroth. She wilt be buried in the tombs of her fathers."

The lad sat in silence, his mouth moving, but no words came forth. The tears had stopped. His mind could not fathom what she was telling him. "My mother is not dead," he said quietly. "Father sent her to the sea to heal her. She will return soon. She promised," he said pragmatically. "Nana always keeps her promises."

"She would if she could, Boromir, but she cannot keep this one. The sickness o'ertook her and she will not return. I am so sorry, little one."

Boromir looked down at his hands. "I do not believe you. I will ask my father."

"Yes," Indis sighed. "We will both go to your father." She placed him on the walk, took his hand, and started towards the gate.

~*~

Denethor sat at his desk, fingering the leaves etched into it, remembering Thengel.

He had returned from Edoras for a visit; it was the year that Finduilas had come to Minas Tirith for the state party. They sat in this very study, and Thengel had laughed at Denethor's desk.

"You cannot use that desk as Steward's Heir. Let us go to the Drúadan Forest. We will harvest a great oak and make you a desk and chair befitting a Steward. What say you to that?"

And so they had gone, found a tree that Thengel thought worthy and brought it back to Minas Tirith with them. For weeks they labored on it. It was an excuse for Thengel to stay a little longer in the City he loved. Morwen, too, had been happy for the extension of their visit. It gave her the opportunity to rekindle the friendship of the four sisters. It had been a glorious time. The desk and chair were more magnificent than he had thought possible. At last, the time to part came. It seemed harder than ever to say farewell to his friend. But Thengel was gone now.

He heard a commotion at the door. Sighing he stood and walked forward. He did not want to be disturbed.

"Ada!" he heard the young voice scream. Fearful as to what might have happened to occasion such a scream, he reached the door and flung it open. In front of him stood Boromir and Indis. Indis had tears streaming down her face, but Boromir's was red with fury. "Ada!" Boromir screamed again. "Indis has lied to me. Tell her she is wrong. Tell her, Ada!" Denethor knelt down and Boromir beat his chest with his little hands. Denethor took them into his own, held them tight, and looked into Boromir's eyes.

Indis eyes beseeched him for forgiveness. Denethor immediately knew what had happened. 'By all the stars, I had not wanted this moment to come so soon,' he thought. He knelt in front of his son. "Boromir. Indis has never lied to you. Apologize to her."

"Nay!" Indis cried.  "Do not make him, Denethor!"

Boromir's eyes widened.  "She tells the truth, Ada?"

"Yes, my son. She tells the truth. Thy mother is dead. She hast joined thy adadhron. She wilt not return." He held his tears at bay. "We must be strong, now, Boromir, strong for Gondor. Our duty bids us to set aside mourning. Wilt thou be strong, my son? Wilt thou help me for Gondor?"

Boromir's tears fell. Struggling, he said, "Ada. I want to be strong." Sobs racked his little body. "I wilt be strong. I promise, but not now, Ada, please not now." He wrapped his arms around his father's throat and clung to him.

Denethor sat on the cold marble floor, holding tight to the lad. "All right, Boromir. We wilt wait a bit before we are strong."

Melethril nîn - my love
Tancavë - yes

Lasto - listen
Absenen - forgive
me
Adadhron - grandfather (paternal)

NOTES: *My apologies for the language used... see Tolkien's notes below... regarding the familiar form I use for Denethor, Finduilas and their children.... Forgive me if I am wrong, but it brings warmth to my heart to hear them speak thus. Also, I have researched the terms, leavest, thinkest, lovest, wilt, etc. These are all used as I have used them by Shakespeare in his works. I figured they might have spoken as those in Shakespeare's time.

Appendix F - I The languages and Peoples of the Third Age

So that at the time of the War of the Ring, the Elven-tongue was known to only a small part of the peoples of Gondor, and spoken daily by fewer. These dwelt mostly in Minas Tirith and the townlands adjacent, and in the land of the tributary princes of Dol Amroth.

(The Rohirrim) They still spoke their ancestral tongue .... But the lords of that people used the Common Speech freely, and spoke it nobly after the manner of their allies in Gondor; for in Gondor whence it came the Westron kept still a more gracious and antique style

The Westron tongue made in the pronouns of the second person (and often also in those of the third) a distinction, independent of number, between 'familiar' and 'deferential' forms.... This was one of the things referred to when people of Gondor spoke of the strangeness of Hobbit-speech. Peregrin Took, for instance  in his first few days in Minas Tirith used the familiar forms to people of all ranks, including the Lord Denethor himself. This may have amused the aged Steward, but it must have astonished his servants. No doubt this free use of the familiar forms helped to spread the popular rumor that Peregrin was a person of very high rank in his own country

A/N: This chapter was written from a deep-seated belief that I am unable to change or help a person who has chosen to die. I can do everything in my power to try to help them, from prayer to forcing them to seek counsel, to personally attacking them, to whining, to tears, to separation, to loving them. I can do everything - but they must chose to live. Someone near and dear to me chose not to live.  I have lived through the description of the tears and the odd questions that surface in the midst of despair and heartache and death.

I ran from writing this part of 2988 because of this. But standing upon the rocks of New Zealand, with my dear friends Indis and Elentari above a seashore that could have been Dol Amroth, Denethor cried out to me - write of her death, tell of my sorrow, speak my pain. And so, after three days of tears in the midst of the beauty of that island, I wrote of Finduilas' death. May Eru be praised that I was able to write it.  Amdir's death just happened.  One morning, I woke up and knew he had to die.  Sometimes, I hate my muse.

Morgul-knife is what Tolkien calls the weapon, not Morgul-blade as PJ uses in the movie.

Ch. 18 - Third Age 2989 - Part One

'Who betrayed whom?' he thought. His heart ached more fiercely now than it had done then, though the sharp pain, the pain as of a dagger in his heart, had left him. Now, it was an ever-shuddering, constant flailing in his body. 'Did I betray her? Was I not the man she needed?' Tears fell again. As always. When away from prying eyes, when a moment came when he should have peace, he had pain and tears. 'So I am the cause of everything? He shook his head. He would not indulge in self-recriminations. These were the times when Amdir would come and make him smile. Another pain. Another loss.

'Did she betray me? She came into my heart, forced her way in even when a child, and then she left it.' He ran his hand over the oaken desk, the cool feel of the wood assuaging some of the pain. Too many times, of late, he would find himself looking at nothing, his mind a blank. And he would have to force himself to think again. To look to Gondor's defenses... His heart recoiled at the thought. 'Gondor's defenses,' he wanted to scream. 'What about my defenses? How am I to guard myself from these thoughts, these feelings? How am I to go on?'

They had failed each other. In some way, unknown to him, they had failed. His father had been right. Yet it was Gondor that Ecthelion had feared for, not his own son. The pain would not go away.

Berelach knocked twice, entering when he had no reply. "The Council stands ready for you, my Lord." He bowed and left.

Denethor rose. The Council could wait for just a moment longer.

He found the lad on the steps by Finduilas' garden looking out into the sunshine. "Faramir," he called softly. The boy turned. No expression crossed his face and Denethor sobbed inside. He sat down next to him. "What art thou doing?"

"I am waiting for Nana," the boy said softly.

He sat with his huge hands folded on his lap. Looking down at them, he wondered if they would ever again hold anything as precious as Finduilas? This son was precious to her. Precious to him. He had tried, this whole last year, to decide what he would do with the lad. Boromir would be in training soon, but Faramir? What was he to do with Faramir? He could no longer tolerate the blank, pinched face that looked out upon the garden. The child seemed to have withered and died inside. Firieth would have known how to help him. He could not treat him as his own father had done. He could not force him to grow up. He was only six. Bending forward, he took the boy in his arms and placed him on his lap. "Shall I wait with thee, ion nîn?"

Faramir looked up in surprise. His chin quivered. Huge tears filled his eyes. "Ada," the boy wailed and flung his arms about his neck.

Denethor's sobs shook his own body. Great gulping sobs held back for so long. 'Oh by the Valar, I cannot do this alone,' he thought. "Ion nîn, ion nîn," he whispered.

He felt a hand on his shoulder. Boromir stood behind him. He made room on his lap and Boromir sat. He did not cry. Stroking his brother's cheek, he leaned heavily against Denethor.

They sat there until the sun set, and warmth left them. Someone had come into her chambers and lit the sconces on the walls. A fire had been started and the crackle of the kindling sounded. He stood Boromir up and then stood himself, still holding Faramir in his arms. He led Boromir to the fireplace and sat on the settle in front of it. Faramir fell asleep.

"Wilt he be well, Ada?" the boy whispered.

"Yes, Boromir, as long as we love him, he wilt be fine."

"I wilt always love him, Ada."

"I know thou wilt, Boromir, I know thou wilt."

"We wilt not lose him as we did Nana?"

"Nay, Boromir. Do not dwell there. Nana was sick. Faramir is not. He wilt heal from this heart wound. Someday." He looked long at his eldest. "As wilt thee and me."

~*~

"My Lord," Indis said, "I dismissed the Council, though they were not pleased. Are you well?"

"Yes. But Faramir is not, Indis. Is it right that a boy should grieve so for his mother?" His brow furrowed as he questioned her.

"'Twould be wrong if he did not."

"Yet, she was ill his whole life," he wondered.

"And he sat with her. And when she became too ill and tired to read to him, he read to her, and sang her songs, and nuzzled next to her, giving her comfort."

"Are you saying I did none of these things?" he asked, his cheeks hot with shame.

"Nay. I am saying he spent long hours with Finduilas. He did not need childish games, nor constant prattling, nor trips to the market to love his mother. He needed her presence and she gave it to him fully. He spent too much time with her, for his sake, but for her sake it was a blessing."

"I see what you mean." He groaned, "I cannot give him that time. I could not give it to her, else I relinquish my title and give it to someone else; let them govern Gondor while I care for my son. Is that what I am to do?"

He sat for another moment, the fire fading quickly. "He is so thin. He still does not talk. Rarely. I remember being concerned and Finduilas laughing at my concern." He saw them sitting on this very settle, speaking of their youngest.

Boromir sat on the floor in front of the fireplace. The boy had a great book laid out upon his knees. Faramir sat close beside him, peering at the illustrations as Boromir pointed to and named each of the Stewards, sometimes turning the pages too quickly for Faramir. Now and again, Faramir would make a sound that only he and Boromir could understand; then Boromir would slow the turning of the pages.

"Why does he not speak? Why does he make those dreadful noises?"

"Methinks it is because Boromir speaks too much. There is not time for him to find an opening," Finduilas laughed.

"Then separate them. I find it grating."

She looked at him in horror. "I canst not separate them. They are as twins, joined at the hip."

"Mayhap my father had been right in strengthening me as a child, separating me from my sisters so that I might rely upon myself. And what will happen when Boromir must leave to defend Gondor? Who will speak for Faramir then?"

"They are but children, Denethor. The foundation of their love and respect must be laid now."

Indis' hand on his arm brought him back to the present. "She had great wisdom, Indis. I have none."

"Do not say that, Denethor. The City, your people, consider you wise. With your sons, you will have to learn wisdom the way you learned wisdom for your people. You will not fail your sons, my dearest brother. They know you love them, and that is more important than anything. Do not forget that."

He held her close. "Without you, gentle sister, I would be dead now. I would have walked into the Anduin and never come out of it." He shrugged. "You will not leave me, will you?"

How could she answer such a question? Her heart spoke for her. <