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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.
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