MOON LETTERS : CREATIVE WRITING
Minas Tirith (A Strange Meeting, Chapter Two) - by Windfola
This is chapter two of "a Strange Meeting", which should be read first [ Click here ]
Surpassing fair indeed was the great city of Gondor, that was once named Minas Anor, the Tower of the Setting Sun, in the days when men believed that the shadow in the east was vanquished, and none was left to trouble her strong walls and high citadel. And yet she was but an outpost of the glory that had been Osgiliath, before the ruin of the Citadel of Stars and the Tower of the Moon.
For years without count she had stood invulnerable at Mindolluins knee, since Anarion, son of Elendil the Tall, first raised her seven circles, built so strong that none could tear them asunder. Lofty halls of white stone embraced the sheer walls, and their high windows overlooked courtyards that danced to the music of shimmering fountains. There, in the upper levels, dwelt the noblest families of Gondor, and their proud doorways opened on to the broad, paved way as it swept majestically up to the White Tower.
Truly Minas Tirith recalled the splendour of Westernesse before the fall, and yet there was a sadness about her that all could feel even as they beheld her beauty. For empty, now, were many of her dwellings, and few children could be heard in her courts and gardens. By small degrees the marks of decay could be descried about her features, of little moment maybe in the strength of her substance, but telling of the dearth of hands to tend her daily needs. And for long now she had been the Tower of Guard, standing vigil as the shadow slowly spread, while every passing year brought it creeping nearer to her gates.
The folk who yet dwelt in the upper levels were for the most part still from native houses of long descent and Númenórean blood, though it was less pure now than in former years. But even as they mingled with those of lesser lineage, they became more generous in thought and deed, less self regarding and less proud. City folk they might be, but their thoughts never strayed far from the further reaches of Gondors realm, Lossarnach and Lamedon in the mountains, fair Lebennin on the River, and Belfalas by the sea. And ever they looked across the vale towards Ithilien, the Garden of Gondor, and recalled with sadness the lost glades and falls, for few now dared to venture east beyond Anduins shores.
Aragorn was granted seven days leave before he was to join the company of Captain Turin, which was soon to go to Ithilien to relieve the men under Lord Bergils command. The intervening time was his own, and he used it to his profit in exploring the city. He laid aside the cloak of grey and the star of the northern Rangers, and went forth into the streets, clad in simple green and brown, and none marked him save to note that he appeared as one of the countrymen from the mountains or from the Pelennor. For those who saw him took him for a farmer or herdsman, unless they chanced to catch his gaze.
As he walked through the city he marvelled at the great houses and the workmanship of their carved faces. He stopped often to observe folk about their daily business, or the lords of the city conversing in the public spaces, and he found himself thinking that he was indeed an untutored countryman beside them in their fine clothes, while the golden halls of Meduseld were as thatched barns compared to the palaces of Minas Tirith.
Slowly he made his way down from the citadel, pausing to look around him or at the valley and the river below, until he reached the lower levels. In the first circle of the city were the markets where all manner of things could be bought. Here there was produce the like of which had never been seen in the north, fruit and sweetmeats and wines and exotic goods from the Vale of Anduin, far to the south. Aragorn spent the greater part of the afternoon exploring the stalls and back streets, and delighted in the variety and the life that he found there.
In the fast deepening gloom of dusk he was starting to make his way slowly back up the hill when he came upon an inn in the second circle that was busy with folk tired from the days toil and ready to take refreshment with friends. A tall venerable house it was, one of the oldest in the city, and a splendid board in blue and gold, now somewhat faded with age, proclaimed its title proudly to the world, The Eagle and Sceptre. Entering through a wide oak doorway, Aragorn found himself in a crowded room, lit only by a blazing fire and one or two lanterns, but comfortable and welcoming.
The innkeeper was a sourfaced man in his middle years and appeared not to see the newcomer, but had his hands full with regular custom. A crowd of a dozen or more traders, or their like, was waiting for service, talking noisily, while a young girl, looking flustered, was carrying platters to and from the tables. Aragorn hesitated, and then chose an empty table in the far corner of the room. One or two customers glanced at him with curiosity as he made his way past. Presently the landlords wife noticed him and came over. She was handsome in her way, regarding herself as a woman of fashion, after the manner of the tradesfolk of the lower levels, and she surveyed Aragorn with interest, eyeing his worn clothing with casual disdain.
"Well now, and what can I do for you this evening?" she asked, not unpleasantly.
"A draught of your best ale, madam, and something to eat in due course," he replied with caution.
"Theres hot beef stew and as much bread as you want. Pardon me for asking, but have you the means to pay, young man? This is the city, and youre not from these parts unless Im mistaken!" she added with amusement.
"I have," nodded Aragorn impassively.
A few minutes later she returned with a brimming tankard and set it on the table. As Aragorn stretched out his hand to take it, the ring on his forefinger glinted in the light of the fire. Ancient it looked, and very bright, and the lady stared at it with interest.
"Now where would a fellow like you be coming by that ring? Find it in a field did you?" She laughed and took his hand, turning it over the better to see the fine detail chased on the polished silver. "Its a pretty thing and no mistake. How much would you be wanting for a trinket like that then?"
Aragorn was taken aback and glanced sharply at the woman, but answered quietly: "It is merely a small heirloom of my house, madam, but it never leaves my hand."
"An heirloom is it?" she echoed and looked closely at his face as if for the first time. The disdain left her gaze and she smiled. "Well I never did. Hey, Ioreth," she called to the serving girl. "See this young man? Bring him our best fare and no skimping, mind." Then she pulled up a chair and sat down. "I do beg your pardon, sir, but I mistook you for a farm hand or some such. I see my mistake now, but it was your gear that put me off."
Aragorn smiled. "Should not then a farmer carry such a trinket?" He drew a sip from his tankard and, stretching out his long legs, settled back comfortably in his chair. It was the landladys turn to feel disquieted.
"Well, now I come to think of it, why not? But I should have guessed when I saw your hands that you dont work on the land."
Just then the girl brought a wooden platter bearing a great bowl of stew and set it down on the table. She gazed at the stranger shyly but said nothing. Aragorn thanked her and began to eat, and it soon became apparent that he had no intention of satisfying the landladys curiosity. After a few minutes she rose and followed Ioreth into the kitchens, just behind his table. From inside the open door he could hear their voices clearly above the general talk;
"Thats a strange fellow, Ioreth, and no mistake, but very soft spoken, very polite. But if hes a farmer then Im the kings daughter!"
"He didnt say so, did he?"
"No, but thats my meaning. Coming in here dressed like that, I nearly sent him on his way. But when he spoke and I saw that ring, I thought to myself this mans not what he seems."
Ioreth lowered her voice. "Ill tell you what I thought maam, he has an Elvish look to me," she remarked conspiratorially.
"What are you talking about girl? How would you know an Elf if you saw one?"
"My aunt told me about them. She saw some once! Very fair she said they are, and sort of other worldly. He has that look about him, Id swear to it. Well thats what I think anyway," she ended stubbornly.
"What ridiculous nonsense you Lossarnach girls speak! Elves indeed. Youll be saying hes a lord or a prince next. What you saw was the pretty face of a courteous young man, and there are few enough of those to be had these days, Ill grant you. Ill wager hed scrub up a real treat, with a decent coat on his back. Now hurry up and see to those dishes, before I send you back to your mother to knock some sense back into you."
I must look to my clothes!, thought Aragorn and suppressed a laugh, but he averted his eyes when the landlady came out of the kitchen again, for he had no desire to draw further attention to himself that evening. However the women continued to attend to him with extravagant care until he could bear it no longer and escaped into the evening rain.
Now it was the practise in the city from long years of informal custom for a single horn to be blown from the Keel every morning at sunrise, and for the citadel guards to face towards the East as the long note rang out across the city walls, to greet the sun, and in gesture of defiance at the watchful Eye of Mordor. Thus daily did the guards flaunt the livery of Elendil in the face of the Dark Lord, should he chance to cast his gaze across the vale.
The horn roused Aragorn and he went early to the citadel stables to visit Windfola. His old friend, a gift from Thengel some years before, was being well tended, but disliked being indoors for the horses of the Mark were unaccustomed to stables. He was restive and thrust his fine head under Aragorns arm, nearly pushing him off his feet. His master murmured to him in the language of the Mark, and gently caressed his ears.
"We will ride out today my friend, for I too feel the need for open space. This city is too much all at once for us rustic folk! But soon we shall have work to do, and more maybe than you would wish."
As he was harnessing the beast, Eärnur walked by and stopped to talk to him.
"Good morning, Thorongil. That is a fine horse. Is he of Rohan stock?"
"One of their best," replied Aragorn. "I am fortunate to have him, for he was picked for the kings son, but he took a liking to me and will suffer no other to ride him."
"He chose a good horseman!" Eärnur had noticed that the bridle bore no metalwork, after the fashion of the riders of the Mark.
Aragorn laughed, saying: "Théoden rides as well as I, but is it not said that the Mearas choose their own masters and will not be ruled by boot or steel?"
"He is one of the Mearas?" The young mans eyes widened. "I have heard that they can be headstrong indeed. What said Théoden to his choice?"
"He kept his own counsel, but he knows the kings horses better than to gainsay it. And he has his own mount now, the brother of Windfola, who is called Snowmane. They are as twins."
"May I ride with you today? I am not needed until Turin goes to Ithilien."
"I am to join his company also. Are you then to ride with Turin, and not lord Denethor?"
"Denethor is my cousin and I rode with him for sport not toil. He is the Warden of the White Tower and is needed in the city. But I have only just come of age and this is my first posting."
"You may ride with me if you will. But how fast is your horse? This fellow is chafing for a run and I need to feel the wind on my face."
"Slower than Windfola, I dont doubt. But I can show you the best paths to ride, and more besides."
"Then we shall go together," said Aragorn, warming to the others enthusiasm.
They rode down from the citadel and an odd pair they looked; Eärnur, not much more than a boy, but dressed according to his station as one of the lords of the city, and his companion a little older, clad still in rusty green and brown, but astride the finest horse that had been seen in Minas Tirith for many years, while Aragorns face spoke of wisdom and cares seemingly beyond his years.
At the city gates they paused and Eärnur said; "Northwards you have seen, and soon we ride east. Today let us go south and I will show you the river at Harlond, for it is only a few miles."
They left the paved road below the gates and, guided by Eärnur, took to the rutted byways of the Pelennor, passing through rolling farmlands, dotted with fine old farms of honey coloured stone, the summer homes of the landed folk of Gondor, where were grown the greater part of the commons that fed the city. Late autumn sunshine tinted the red brown tilth a soft, golden hue, while long rows of tall, slender poplar softly whispered in the breeze, their bronzed leaves lingering still in the mild November air.
In time the farmhouses and the trees grew fewer, and the fields began to widen, giving way to open pastures where sheep were grazing. Gently the land sloped down, and suddenly the River appeared below them, a rippling swathe of gleaming silver nearly half a mile across, rolling slowly south and west.
"Here we may give the horses their heads," cried Eärnur, "for there is no wall or dyke for half a league, until we reach the Harlond and the River. See, the harbour lies away yonder to our right." He pointed down the slope towards a cluster of low buildings that filled a wide gap in the great wall of the southern Rammas Echor.
"Then I will await you there!" answered Aragorn, but Windfola needed no word. He lifted his head and sprang away, his rider bending low along his neck, and in a moment he was a grey speck on the great sea of green ahead. Eärnur followed but, swiftly as he rode, he soon trailed far behind the steed of Rohan.
As he approached the Harlond, Aragorn saw the high wall skirting the steep river banks ahead and concealing the waters behind it. Windfola wheeled round to the right to follow its course up to the landings by the vast river basin, where the tall ships of Gondor lay at anchor, when they were not bearing folk or goods downstream to the Ethir, or onwards to Dol Amroth up the coast. In winter it was quiet for the most part, for the waters of Anduin were treacherous at times of storm, and fierce tidal currents could sweep unwary sailors aground or out to sea. The ancient landings were built for bigger vessels than were now employed, when the Sea-Kings rule stretched far south and north, from Umbar to beyond the Grey Havens; and the massive harbour walls of hewn stone matched those of the city in their strength and workmanship. Four ships lay at anchor in the deep waters of the basin, while a fifth was laid up in dry dock for repairs, but no shipwrights or sailors were in view, and all was quiet as Aragorn slowed to a walk and surveyed the scene before him. The ships were strange, for vessels such as these he had never seen before, large enough to bear many men, with wide, white sails and long banks of oars. From each rose a graceful prow curving high above the deck, and bearing the outspread wings of Gondor, silver on black. Like great grey swans they basked in the harbour, and very fair he thought them.
Presently Eärnur caught up, and they halted on the harbours edge, gazing downstream. The river continued west, skirting the foothills of Mindolluin like a broad, silver road, and then rolled away to the south across the great plain of Lebennin, and on for fifty leagues, towards Pelargir and the sea.
"Often I stand here and think of Númenor, the ancient home of my people," said Eärnur quietly and sighed. "At times I can almost see it in my mind, so that I could step ashore from one of those ships and reach out to it. Would that it had not been lost!" He was silent for a moment, and then asked; "Have you seen the Sea, Thorongil?"
"Once, long ago, far to the north," he replied. "I would give much to see it again, and one day, perhaps, I shall."
They stood in silence, for to each it seemed that the river was murmuring his own hopes and desires, and they listened long to its rippling song before they turned and slowly rode back up to the Pelennor, beside the straight road that linked the Harlond to the city.
"Tell me of your time with Thengel. He left Gondor before my birth," said Eärnur, eager to hear about life in the Mark. "What sort of man is he?"
"He is a good king and the best of men," replied Aragorn. "All who know him come to love him in time, though he is proud and sudden to anger, as many will tell you. But I count him my friend and he is true, like all his people."
"And Théoden, his son?"
"Théoden I do not know well, but he seems likely to take after his father. Perhaps less proud, and more subtle like his mother, Morwen, but not less stern when need drives him."
"And what of Orthanc at Isengard? They say it is a mighty fortress."
"I wonder that you need to ask, since it was built by your own people," answered Aragorn. "It was made in the manner of your city, though its purpose was function, not ornament, and more so now than ever, I deem. The Ring of Isengard is very strong and needs no work by men or wizards to keep it so, for it was riven from the mountains in the shaping of the world. But Saruman has strengthened the gates to keep out his foes and none may enter without his leave. I have never done so, though I have seen the high tower from the gates. It is like a vast bolt of iron driven into the ground, and is very tall and sheer, but it is not a thing of beauty to my mind, or has not been so for many years."
As they rode back towards the city, Eärnur wanted to ask Thorongil about his home, and why he had travelled so far south, but he was deep in thought, and the young man perceived that the stranger did not wish to be questioned, for in his face was the look of one whose mind walks in a far country beyond the sight of other men.
In an upper chamber of the White Tower, the Steward and his son took counsel regarding the messages and news from Rohan, and from east of the river. Ecthelion was studying a report brought in that day by messenger, his face grey with concern.
"Lord Bergil reports three more farms raided west of Henneth Annûn and their families taken or destroyed. He hopes against hope to bring more within the Walls, but he is hard pressed, and some refused to leave their homes at the last attempt. He fears to lose his men in a hopeless cause, but he would not see more families lost."
"My lord, I would not abandon the folk of Ithilien to torture and death, but how many men must we lose for the few who are reckless of the evil they face and will not come willingly within the Rammas? The enemy grows ever more active at the Black Gates and nowhere east of Anduin is a haven now. These folk are foolish to remain, when we offer them safe passage."
"Would we not do likewise were the city so beleaguered, Denethor?" The face of Ecthelion hardened. "Do not be swift to chastise anothers loyalty to his home, until you have faced the same evil."
Denethors fists tightened, but he replied; "Turin shall help Lord Bergil to bring those he can to the city. But, my lord, should we not consider withdrawing the horses from northern Ithilien? They cannot be brought within the safety of Henneth Annûn and any that glimpse them will find the entrance sooner or later, for they are as beacons in the dark to the enemy."
Ecthelion thought for a moment. "We cannot yet afford to give up speed for secrecy," he answered slowly. "I deem they should remain until we have no other choice. Now Turin may be able to persuade the Ithilien folk to return, since his people are well known in that land. But he has not Bergils years and does not himself know Ithilien well."
"Mablung will make up any lack there, Lord. He is an old campaigner and knows the land around the refuge as well as any in Gondor. But Turin has the sharper mind and will not suffer his heart to rule his thought. That I saw at the Ethir. He can be shrewd and determined when the need calls."
"I have heard it called ruthlessness. But hell likely need to be both, for Ithilien slips further from our grasp as we speak, my son. Heavily do I rue it! But if I press the Dark Lord there, he will merely strike harder in the South and before long take Pelargir behind our backs. We must not be cut off from the Ethir. Bitter are all our choices in these times!" Ecthelion sighed and then went on, "You have given him Eärnur, I hear. My heart is against his going, but his time is ripe and no paths are safe now. And the stranger too? His service to Gondor may be shorter than he would wish! Well, we shall soon find out from what mould he is cast and whether he has the craft he claims. I doubt he has been so tested under Thengel. Will Turin take to him I wonder?"
"I have instructed Turin, my lord, and he is content."
"Very well. In five days they shall go." Ecthelion paused and then smiled, as though to himself. "Denethor, have Turin invited to my table for tomorrows eve, and Thorongil too. He intrigues me. You will be there also?" The remark was spoken as a question, but Denethor knew better than to refuse. "And see that he is given something more fitting to wear than the gear he arrived in."
At the smithies on the sixth level the company of Turin was gathered the next day to prepare for the journey to come. Eärnur joined them, and with him was the newcomer. The company regarded Thorongil curiously as he moved among them, exploring the weaponry and armour, casting skilled hands over mail and blade, but saying little as he chose a light shirt of the fine linked mail of the soldiers of Gondor, and taking nothing else except a short knife. Presently a tall, grizzled man entered the room and came over. A long curving scar crossed his cheek and parted his greying beard. He looked Aragorn up and down with a quizzical eye.
"I am Mablung. Are you Thorongil?" Without waiting for a reply he went on in a surly tone; "You have been in Rohan I hear. May I assume that you can at least ride a horse?"
Aragorn nodded, silently surveying Mablung through narrowed eyes. Eärnur smiled.
"The children of Eorl amuse themselves with bow and spear," continued Mablung, laughing sardonically, "but such toys are little use where we are bound, for the trees of Ithilien grow thick. Have you ever used a sword?"
"I have a little skill at need." Aragorn smiled as his hand strayed to his side, but the grey eyes hardened. There was a silence and then he asked quietly; "Have you ever been among the Rohirrim, sir?"
Mablung looked surprised. "I have not," he conceded.
"Then do not presume their worth, or enter the Mark without their leave lest you be felled from your horse ere you can draw your sword. They are the best bowmen west of Mirkwood, and you may live to be glad of their toys!"
Mablung hesitated, and then replied stiffly. "That is as maybe, Stranger, but if the Shadow drives us west to Edoras, the Rohirrim shall know what it means to have foes baying at their doors like crazed dogs."
"They know already what it means, sir." Something in the gravity of the newcomers tone and his steady gaze caught Mablung off guard and he realised that this was not the barrack room bragging that he had invited. He paused, while Aragorn discerned a softening of his features, and quite suddenly the two men relaxed as they understood one another.
"Come," said Mablung. "Show me your sword." Aragorn presented his long blade, still sheathed, and Mablung drew it gently forth. It was beautifully balanced as he held it aloft, and unadorned except for a single rayed star of silver on the dark polished hilt, smoothed and glistening through years of use. Mablung ran a callused finger along the razor edge and smiled broadly.
"That is a fine blade, Thorongil. Its maker must have put years of skill into its design. How did it come to you?"
"It was my fathers, and his fathers before him."
"Then there is hope that you will measure up if your weapon is any guide." replied Mablung and went amongst his men to oversee the weapon-take.
"Take no heed of Mablung," laughed Eärnur as they left the smithies and crossed the court back to the citadel. He speaks ever as though he is chewing a lemon, even when he is off duty! When I was a child he would come to my fathers house and I used to hide from him. But he likes you, I think."
Aragorn grimaced. "I pity his enemies. Where did he come by that scar?"
"I heard it was when he was taken by a Southron raiding party, years ago as a young man. He was riding alone by the river Poros in the south and only barely escaped with his life. Tis said that the Southrons burn their captives alive, but Mablung broke free. He lost his horse and had to walk fifty miles across the plain to Pelargir, without water or food. They say he was nearly dead when he got there."
"Then he has my respect," replied Aragorn.
That night Aragorn lay on his back in the guest chamber at the house of the Stewards, and stared up at the fine carved work on the ceiling, framed by long hangings of delicate woven stuff. The room, simply but elegantly furnished, was more like to his old home than any he had seen since he went abroad into the world, and keenly again he felt his solitude, as though it pierced his heart anew. His thought strayed back to the last days at Imladris, long before, and his old life, suddenly upturned, first by Elrond and then
Arwen, anvanima, tye méla! Her face shone in his minds eye, clear as at their last parting, as though even now she was leaning over him, and he had only to reach out his hand to give her substance. But Elronds words came to him then, laden with the sadness Aragorn had seen in his eyes as he spoke; There will be no choice before Arwen, unless you come between us, and bring one of us, you or me, to a bitter parting beyond the end of the world. Barahirs ring felt heavy on his finger, and his thought turned to Luthien, and to Beren Erchamion, and he wondered how he would ever find the path that he must take. Truly, my father, I would not see you parted. But if my own Tinuviel cleaves not to me, what hope have I on this endless road? It is a heavy burden, and I cannot see the way.
You will find the road Estel, for I shall help you! Aragorn started, for the voice was not a memory but came to him like a clear shaft of moonlight in a darkling sky. He shivered. It was a voice he knew, not of the north, but nearer, and stronger than any he had yet heard, rich and melodious. He caught his own voice then, distant and faint; "I would speak with you, my Lady, of the pain in my heart and hear your counsel!"
Then come when you may. My land will be as a haven from your labour in times to come.
Would that I might come now! But gladly do I hear your words.
He closed his eyes, and for the first night in many, he slept long and deep, until the grey November dawn crept late over the vale.