MOON LETTERS : CREATIVE WRITING
In the Hall of the Steward (A Strange Meeting, Chapter Three) - by Windfola
This is Chapter Three of A Strange Meeting, relating the first days of Aragorn at Minas Tirith. I want to thank Maciliel for her generosity in lending me two of her own characters, Alcanore and Lanyare, when I was feeling strapped for inspiration, and for her general words of encouragement.
the Hall of the Stewards
The lower floors of the White Tower housed the rooms of state, the counsel chambers and archives of the Stewards. A broad stair of oak swept up to their doors, from the entrance to the hall of the throne. The upper rooms could be reached only by a winding spiral of steep steps that led from behind the great hall and hugged the outer walls as they climbed, passing deep embrasures that afforded just enough light to see the stone-carved treads. However, the rooms above the third storey were seldom seen and were closed to all except the Stewards and their closest counsellors. When the first Ecthelion rebuilt the high tower, he had used it for his dwelling place; he, and many generations of his line that followed. But in latter days, as the shadow slowly grew, the lords of the line of Húrin raised their own house overlooking the court, for the Tower faced East, and it was rumoured that from the highest window the Barad-dûr could at times be discerned by those with keen sight.
Many forgotten artefacts and books of lore lay still in those dusty chambers, but for years the present Steward had been too infirm to mount the narrow steps, and he had long kept hidden the key that opened the door to the highest chamber. At times though, Denethor would climb the winding stair, for he had ever been drawn to the musty rooms of the upper floors and their mouldering treasures, as priceless to the Stewards son as all the heirlooms in the citadel. He had spent many hours in his youth poring over faded volumes and papers that told the histories of Númenor, and of Gondor and the Kings, and the annals of the line of Húrin, his forefathers. And other parchments there were, more arcane, in flowing scripts and tongues that often Denethor could not read, skilled even as he was in the speech of the peoples of the West.
In such pursuits lay the Wardens chief pleasure, for it seemed to him then that he was far away from the sorrows of his own time, in the days when the Shadow slept and his fair land flowered with the beauty of its cities and the wisdom of the kings. As the years went on, and he took up his fathers sword, untimely, for the defence of Gondors borders, he visited the Tower whenever fortune brought him home. Often he would sit at one of the high windows and gaze out upon the vale of Anduin towards the distant ruins of Osgiliath, and the image of her past glory would come unbidden into his mind. He saw clearly the old capital as she must once have looked, remote, but fair and unblemished, her high citadel glittering on its island amid the waves, while, about the great stone bridges, the wide waters of the river shone silver like starlight. But on that day as Denethor sat, pondering the messages from Ithilien, the ruins stared starkly back at him, and where once the sun had glinted on tall and shapely windows, there gaped empty, grinning mouths in the blackened and blasted walls.
He sighed and made his way back to the stairway, passing the locked door that led to the high chamber, and then with a heavy heart he left the Tower and crossed the court of the fountain. As he reached the house of the Stewards, a man came to meet him, a little younger than himself, raven haired, but slighter in stature than some and darker of face than most. He bowed low before the Warden, greeting him formally.
"Hail, my lord Denethor."
"Hail, Turin, Captain of Ithilien", replied the other, a wide smile breaking the strain on his face.
Turin laughed. "Captain I may be, but I have yet to earn my rank and it sits ill with me til then."
"You earned it at the Ethir, my friend," replied Denethor, "and none could have done more to prove his worth. Now come, let us go inside for there is much to discuss before you ride east."
They walked into the house and entered a small room, comfortably furnished, with a fire already burning on the hearth. A table stood in the centre of the chamber, and Denethor unrolled a sheaf of papers that he had brought from the Tower; figured maps depicting Ithilien and the surrounding lands from Pelargir to Rauros Falls.
"Henneth Annûn you already know," he said, casting his hand over the largest chart. "Here is the old road that runs from Minas Morgul north to the Morannon. A few folk live there still, between the refuge and the Nindalf, though why they linger is beyond my understanding."
Turin replied; "My mother speaks of fair lands north east of Cair Andros, between the woods and the moorland, and they say that some of the best fishing to be had in the Anduin is upstream of the island, by the field of Cormallen." He looked gravely at the Warden. "Had my father lived I doubt not that they too would be there still."
"Lord Bergil is gathering to him any who are willing to leave," answered Denethor, "but there are reports that orcs are moving between the Black Gates and the marshes, and soon nowhere will be safe in the north. We cannot risk men indefinitely for folk who refuse the safety of the Rammas. A time may come soon when none can be spared to protect Ithilien, for the River must be kept open to the south. So do all you can to bring them back, but not at the expense of your company, do you understand?"
Turin nodded, and Denethor went on, "Mablung knows the best paths north from the Refuge, even as far as the marshes. He will not fail you. And most of the company are Ithilien born, even those brought up in the city like yourself. But you should be cautious of riding too close to the Morannon, for it is not yet known what the enemy may be doing and there is little cover between the Nindalf and the mountains. Do not go that way unless you must, or at least send two or three swift riders ahead."
"And the stranger, this Thorongil," said Turin. "What do we know of him? You seem certain that he can be trusted, but with what surety?"
"I know only what I have already told you," said the Warden. "He says little, but what he has revealed rings true, if I am any judge. As to his skills, Eärnur rode out with him yesterday, and has learned that his mount is one of the Mearas, so we may be sure that he is a good horseman. I can vouch for his bowmanship, but we can only wait and see how he fares with a sword. You will meet him soon for he eats at my fathers table tonight."
"An unknown soldier without rank or office?" Turins eyes widened. "The Steward does him high honour. How close were you to death when he killed that bear?"
"Close enough," said Denethor and shuddered at the memory. "But he is a strange fellow, as you will see. He silenced Mablung at the weapon-take, I hear."
"That must have been a sight to behold!" Turin laughed. Mablungs tongue was legendary amongst his men. "Well, if you trust him, then so must I." He hesitated for a moment before asking, "Denethor, are you to dine with the Steward also?"
Denethor nodded grimly and, glancing at Turins face, saw that his friend understood, though he had needed no word.
"But for myself I am glad that you will be there," Turin went on. "The thought of eating with your father and this silent wayfarer chills my heart more than a score of well armed orc!"
"That is as maybe, but we shall not be alone, for tonight my father bids farewell to Eärnur, and many are invited. We shall feast in the Long Hall. I am thankful, for that at least may turn his thought from Adrahils coming."
"What of it?"
"He brings his daughter, Finduilas, to Minas Tirith, and now my father seeks to detain me in the citadel, when I would sooner ride to Ithilien against the host of Mordor, than sit and barter pleasantries with the Prince of Dol Amroth and his whelp." The laughter in the Wardens voice had an edge to it now, like cold rain on glass.
Turin looked long at Denethor, searching his dark eyes, and then said, smiling, "Be wary, my lord! She may even match your desire. What would you do then?"
"Why, marry her, of course!" It was Denethors turn to smile, and then he added gently; "What else would you have me do, old friend?"
Turin caught his eye, but glanced quickly away, before answering stiffly; "For my part, lord, I would but see you content."
He rose, abashed, and left the room. For some time, Denethor sat on at the table, and then abruptly took up the maps, and went to his own chambers.
The Long Hall, as it was called, filled the greater part of the House of the Stewards, and was, first and foremost, a place of feasting and song. Entry was through two great doorways, carved from the same pale stone as the city, with heavy doors of oak, each bearing in relief the emblems of the House of Húrin. Inside, the ceiling was very high with vaulted arches of stone, rising from strong, but graceful pillars on either side. The arches were quite plain, but finely poised above the room, like the outspread wings of great birds, while the space below was large enough to seat many folk in comfort. On the walls hung rich tapestries of gold and azure, and the floor was of white marble. At one end, the hall was lit by a tall window that looked west, its many tiny panes glinting in the light, while at the east end was a great fireplace, the high stone mantel carved with the likeness of the White Tree in deference to the kings, long absent. Stretching the length of the hall, stood a heavy table of dark oak, richly carved and very old. In Ecthelions youth the chamber had been used much, when Alfirin still lived, for she, even more than the Steward, had been a lover of songs and of tales, and during her life the house had been filled with music and verse. But Denethors mother had departed many years before, and now the hall was silent for the most part and its doors closed.
On this occasion, however, the Steward deemed Eärnurs departure on his first term of office sufficient cause to order the opening of the hall and the preparation of a feast, unostentatious, but to which a number of his household were invited and others besides. It fell to Denethor, as Warden of the White Tower, to greet the guests, before the arrival of his father, a task that he rather enjoyed. As he approached the hall from his chambers, he could see the servants tending a blazing fire on the great hearth at the far end, while lamps glowed along the walls and on the table, now richly laid. A warm radiance suffused the room. Denethor found himself sharply reminded of former years and deeper pleasures in that very hall. He heard again his mothers clear voice raised in song to the music of the harpers, and remembered the thrill of travellers tales of the Mark, from Thengels days in Gondor, before he acceded to the throne of his fathers.
He entered, and the servants swiftly left the hall, but before long he was joined by Lord Alcanore, a close counsellor to the Steward, with the lady Lanyare, elder sister of Eärnur. Very tall and slender she was, with the deep set, dark eyes of her line, and the same fine, curving cheekbones, so that she resembled more her uncle, the Steward, than her brother. Soon afterwards, Turin entered the hall, but said little to Denethor and stood awkwardly to one side, while the Warden and Lanyare spoke together.
"It is a joy to see the Hall alive again, cousin," remarked Lanyare. "The Steward honours Eärnur by feasting in this chamber at his departure."
"Such is the custom of the House of Húrin," said Denethor, "and my father is a man of tradition. But tell me, my lady," he went on. "you are but lately returned from east of the River. How are you faring in South Ithilien?"
"Our house and lands are still in peace, for we have not been troubled so far south of the Emyn Arnen, and we crossed the River before turning north." Lanyare studied Denethors face. "I know what you would say cousin, but we have much to do there and I would not abandon the gift of the Steward unless we must. Nor are we alone in that land, for there are other folk who dwell there still. And such a pass may still be many years away, if it ever happens."
Denethor turned to Alcanore. "You are silent, lord. Is it indeed so? The news from the north is all of woe, and I fear that soon nowhere will be safe east of the River."
"Do you think, Denethor, that I should risk my greatest treasure for the thought of a few casks of wine, if there was danger pressing?" Alcanore smiled. "I am no warrior, as you know well enough, and I should be the first to flee to the city at the first sign of real danger. And our house may yet be of use to your men if need should require it, and for that reason also I would have it kept in readiness. But I understand your fears, for it is your task to think always to the enemy, and so you ever look to see him where he is not. Is that not so, Turin?"
Turin stirred, and answered, "If Lord Denethor has forebodings then I will not gainsay him. But I admire your fortitude and that is virtue enough to offer my support in your venture, and, though it should fail at the last, none shall hold you to blame in the attempt."
As the guests were arriving, a chill dusk was falling over the city, for the wind had changed and was bringing winter air down from the north. On the first level, the watchmen were preparing to close the Great Gates for the night, without any particular hurry it had to be said, for at that time the practise was more for ceremony than necessity. The two men, clad in the uniform of the Guard, were about to unfasten the heavy iron bolts that held the gates open, talking casually as they did so, when the younger man stopped what he was doing and pointed along the road to the north.
"Now whos that coming to the city at this time of night?" he exclaimed. The other followed his gaze and made out a figure, bent and hooded in grey, walking slowly towards them, leaning on a long staff as he went.
"He looks to be no more than a vagrant," returned his companion. "I suppose we had better wait though." He took up the heavy iron key and fitted it into the lock. "Now as I was saying, Lord Eärnur rode out to the Harlond yesterday with this new fellow, and him dressed little better than a beggar."
"And they say hes only been here three days, and staying up at the Stewards house, as his guest?"
"Thats right, and before that he killed a great bear with his own hands that was just about to maul the Warden. Had him off his horse, it did. Here, hold on." The gatekeeper peered at the figure as it came closer. "I know him. Hes been here before, at all times of the day and night, and he knows the passwords. Good friend of the Steward, they say."
As he spoke, the old man reached the gates and paused before them, his bearded face half hidden by the hood of his tattered cloak.
"Good evening, father," said the older guard. "A little late for wandering in the wild! Another minute and youd have been shut out for the night. Come far have you?"
"Far enough," came the gruff reply.
"And in this cold too. Not good for you at your time of life Ill be bound. They say it plays havoc with the bones."
"Then the sooner you stop your babble and let me pass, Targon, the sooner Ill be warm!" A bright eye glinted under the hood, while the stern voice belied a trace of amusement.
The old man passed through the gates and strode up the winding way at a speed that surprised the guards, and was soon out of sight under the first arch of the Keel.
Targon watched him casually as he disappeared. Presently he remarked; "There goes another mysterious wanderer. It seems Gondor is full of them these days." His companion shrugged and they began to push the great iron gates, so heavy that the strength of two men was needed to set them in motion. Once moving, they slid smoothly together with barely a sound, so skilfully had they been wrought in the furnaces of Anarion. There followed muffled clangs as the long bolts were driven home, and the key rasped as Targon turned it in the lock.
Before long Eärnur himself came into the hall, looking very fine in ceremonial garb. He went first to Lanyare and they embraced warmly.
"Father would have been proud to see you today!" she exclaimed. "But where is our mother?"
The young mans face fell. "She has not come, sister, for she would not have me go east and she is afraid."
"Did she not know that you were to ride with the rangers of Ithilien?"
"She has long known it, but it does not make our parting easier for her to bear." There was a silence, and then Eärnur continued brightly, "But tell me of Opele Orequanta. Has Alcanore readied the vineyards for planting? And has he yet bought the hounds he promised you?"
"He has not," Lanyare replied. "But there is much to do, and time in plenty."
Lord Alcanore laughed. "I will leave you two to discuss my shortcomings in my absence, for already my ears start to burn!" Denethor was beckoning to him to meet the newest arrival, a tall man richly clad in black and grey, his dark hair arrayed about his shoulders and a star at his breast. It was Thorongil, but little did he resemble the weather-stained traveller from Rohan, who had ridden into the city three days before.
"This is the Lord Alcanore, Thorongil, a counsellor to the Steward," said Denethor, "and here is Captain Turin who leads the company to Ithilien."
"My Lords," replied Thorongil, and bowed. Turin nodded, and surveyed the newcomer with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity. He had never been outside Gondors borders except to the south below the Anduin at Pelargir, and he knew nothing of the lands north of Rohan, for he preferred to spend his time on the field, rather than in books of lore. The man before him could have passed for a nobleman of Gondor, not at all what he was expecting in a stranger from a far country.
They held each others gaze and neither spoke a word, until Alcanore intervened.
"Have you been in Gondor before, Thorongil?" he asked.
"Only into Anorien, my lord, with the riders of the Mark. That was some years ago, now."
"Denethor tells me that you know Thengel. He was a good friend of mine when he lived in the city."
"Yes, indeed," answered Thorongil. "He bad me send you greetings, if we met, and from Morwen also."
"Ah, the fair lady Morwen!" said Alcanore. "Does she miss her home in Lossarnach?"
"Not greatly, for she has much to keep her in Edoras."
Then Turin spoke; "Is it true that you led the Kings guard at Edoras?"
"It is true," replied Thorongil. "But that office is little needed in the field, for Thengel is aged and goes not to war now as he used."
"Come now," said Alcanore. "Surely it has thrice the worth you make out, for were you not close counsellor to the King, in all matters of state?"
Thorongil shook his head and would concede only that Thengel asked his counsel when his own mind was in doubt, which was not often, and that he himself was seldom in Edoras long, for he had spent much of his time in Westfold, directing the forces at the Gap of Rohan.
As the hall filled with folk, a harper started to play a lilting tune, a song of the sea from Belfalas, and the wine began to flow. The fire burned fiercely on the great hearth. The sun was not yet down, and could be clearly seen now in a haze of gold through the great west window, as it began its last descent below a broken band of thick blue cloud that cloaked the upper slopes of the mountain.
The last of the guests had entered the hall. Amongst them Denethor recognised Ælfhere, a man nearing old age, but strong and hale, with eyes of blue, and long silver hair, that ran down his back in braids. He was lately come to Minas Tirith from Lebennin, and before that from Edoras, for he was first cousin to Thengel of Rohan. He had long dwelt in Gondor, even as Thengel had done before him, but had been in the Mark for more than a year, visiting his kin. He came over to Denethor and bowed.
"My Lord Ælfhere," said the Warden. "It has been too long since you were in our city."
"You are mistaken, Lord Denethor," he answered warmly, "for I have been here already above one month, but I pardon your ignorance since you have been abroad these past weeks. And in some small peril I hear?"
Denethor was about to reply when the old mans glance strayed behind him and he noticed Thorongil across the room. Ælfhere stared at him for a moment, and then suddenly smiled broadly and cried out, his deep voice ringing through the hall;
"Wæs _u, Eardstapa, hal!"
The guests fell silent in surprise, but Thorongil turned swiftly and strode across the room towards him.
"Hwæt Ælfhere, min hlaford!" he replied and they embraced. "Glæd eom _e seon!"
"So, my friend," Ælfhere went on, "you have come at last to Mundburg as you intended. Are you looking after my lord Théodens horse, whom you stole from under his nose?"
As Thorongil nodded, laughing, Ælfhere discerned the confusion on Denethors face and continued; "I knew Thorongil at Meduseld. In Rohan they call him Eardstapa, that is Wanderer in your tongue. For in time of peace, with the Kings leave, he ever came and went unlooked for, though none knew what errands took him abroad."
"And he remains a mystery in Minas Tirith, also!" said Denethor dryly. "But we shall know him better in time."
"It will be long, I think, ere you know Eardstapa," Ælfhere replied softly. "Now, my friend. What of our borders in the north? Does Eomund prosper?" He took Thorongil into a corner the better to hear his news, but before they had a chance to continue, a loud, clear bell sounded a single note and complete silence fell, for the Steward had entered the hall.
Ecthelion made his way very slowly across the marble floor, leaning heavily on his staff, but when he came to the head of the long table he stood erect and tall, clad in a rich tunic of garnet, picked out in gold. He lifted his hand, and all the company turned then towards the window and stood for a moment in silent thought. At the same time the sun slowly sank into the west behind the shoulder of Mindolluin, whose snow-mantled peak glistening in the last light of the day, before darkening to grey in the gathering gloom.
Then the steward grasped Eärnur by the hand and addressed the gathered company; "We are met to bid farewell and good fortune to Eärnur, our kinsman, who rides east in three days with Turins company. It need not be said that he goes into peril, but I have no doubts that he is fitted for the task, for he is full grown to manhood and his skills are ripe for the testing. So let us be glad and honour him as we may!"
He kissed Eärnurs brow and called for a toast, and then they sat down. That was the sign for the music to begin again. Soon afterwards, great platters of food were brought and set on the table, and the guests sat down. As darkness fell outside, a long hanging was drawn across the west window, azure and gold like the others, but it bore a central panel woven with a design of many stars, above a high-prowed ship.
The company ate and drank, and listened to many songs and tales, some related by the guests themselves and others by musicians with harp and flute. Most of the stories were well known to all, and told of Númenor, or of the days of the Last Alliance, when Elendil the Tall and Gilgalad the Elf-king fought Sauron himself at the Gates of Mordor, after long and bitter battle on the plain; and at the last defeated him, though they perished in the deed. Turin, who had never before been invited to such feasting in the Stewards house, remained silent for the most part, but listened eagerly. He was wholly enchanted by the beauty of the tales and the interwoven blend of music and words that filled the hall with the memory of Gondors past. He looked across the table and saw Thorongil, who likewise had said little, and who now sat quite still, his face expressionless but with a strange light in his eyes.
After a while Denethor glanced casually at Thorongil, wondering what he had made of the gathering.
"What tales can you tell us out of the North, Newcomer?" he asked. "You must have heard strange stories in you wanderings."
Thorongil nodded. "I have learned a few along the way." He paused for a moment as though searching his memory. "Very well then, I will tell you a tale of the northern forests, west of the Misty Mountains, which maybe you have not heard."
He sat back in his chair and, after a moments thought, began to speak.*
"There is a story I once heard of the Old Forest that lies about the Withywindle, which flows into Baranduin near to a land they call the Shire. It is an ancient valley and few folk dare to enter it these days, but once it formed part of the Great Forest of Fangorn, when it covered all the lands west of the Mountains. An age and more ago, before the lords of the West returned to these shores, there lived a king of men, who ruled a little country thereabouts. Small, but important, he thought his realm, and after a time he fancied himself worthy to rule a greater portion of the northern lands than was his due. So he raised an army from his folk and went abroad into the world to find new lands and subdue them to his will.
On a time he came upon the forest, and, fearing nothing, he entered it, for he told himself he might make use of the trees and build great halls from their timber, for they were tall and mighty in girth. Now, in the middle of this forest there was a hill that stood out above the trees, and the king was minded to climb towards the top to see what he might see, leaving his men standing about the slopes below him.
But unbeknown to the king, a spirit of the trees lived in the forest and she was wroth, for the kings men had cut down the ancient elder that was her home, and burned it on their fires. Ellerngast was her name. She overtook his army as it clove through the trees like a host of marching ants, and she waited on the hill, near to the top, rightly believing that he would climb up. Now she knew, or guessed, his mind and determined to punish him for his vanity and pride, and so, as he toiled up the slope, she appeared before him suddenly in the likeness of a young maiden, and spoke beguiling words;
Seven long strides shalt thou take, and
if Withywindle thou canst see ,
King of the Northlands shall ye be!
The king was exultant and in his delight he cried out in a loud voice;
Stick, stock, stone
As King of the North I shall be known!
He strode eagerly forward, but on his seventh stride the ground rose up suddenly before him and he could not see the river below, and Ellerngast laughed long and cried;
As Withywindle thou canst not see,
King of the North thou shalt not be.
Rise up stick, and stand still, stone,
For King of the North thou shalt be none;
Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be,
and I myself an eldern tree!
And then and there the king was turned to a pillar of hard stone and all his men about the hill became standing stones also. And where Ellerngast had been, there was a graceful, young elder, just as she had said, but she wept silently at her fate, for no more could she wander the woods, and from her branches sprang sprays of many dark tears like jewels.
But a little later there passed by Orald, who was the true Guardian of the Forest, had the king but known it. He was glad of mind, and as he walked he sang to the daughter of the river, whom he greatly loved, though he had not yet won her heart. But when he saw the tears of the elder tree, and the host of standing stones, he felt pity at the kings foolishness and his pride, and he spoke words of comfort to them. And then the soldiers were turned into trees, every one, and the King himself became a mighty willow. They soon found that they could move through the woods at will thereafter, but most often they stood close to Withywindle, and guarded the forest from all comers who dared to enter its deepest coombs or seek the river. Indeed it is said that unwary travellers who stray in those parts may still be ensnared by the king and his men, and only the Guardian of the Forest can release them from his traps. Old Man Willow, the king is called. His heart is black and he rules the trees, and calls none lord but Orald."
As Thorongil spoke the whole chamber fell silent and everyone listened, for his voice was deep and there was a rich music in his words.
"What became of Ellerngast?" asked Lanyare, entranced. "Did she never escape from her own spell?"
"She did not," replied Thorongil, "for a tree spirit cannot live without her home, and it was her doom to go back to the essence from which she came. It is perilous to cut even a small branch from the eldern tree, for their leaves are woven about with spells to punish those who lay an axe to their timber."
"We have no such trees in the south," remarked the Steward. "But it is rumoured that in Fangorn Forest there are trees that walk and speak with voices."
"I know of those tales," said Ælfhere, "and I walked on its borders in my youth but I saw no such trees myself."
"I too have entered Fangorn," continued Thorongil, "and it was very strange. I should not choose to enter it a second time."
"Who is Orald?" asked Denethor, eyeing him sceptically.
"He is the forest, you might say," said Thorongil. "He is older than the eldest trees, and none know when he came there, or from what land. But he dwells there to this day, and with him Goldberry, River Daughter, who at last returned his love. They have walked the woods together this last age of the world."
Just then a sound was heard at the south door, which had opened wide, and there entered an old man in a long cloak that had seen much wear. His hood was cast back and long silvering locks fell about his shoulders, while his grey beard reached almost to his waist. He glanced quickly about him and then strode into the hall and across to where Ecthelion sat, to the astonishment of some of those present, and the amusement of others.
The Steward had been deep in conversation with Lanyare, and when he saw the newcomer he started, and then looked perplexed.
"Mithrandir! Do you never announce your coming? Or must a man be forever on his guard against your arrival even when he is entertaining guests?"
The old man bowed low before Lanyare. "Greetings my Lady, and your pardon, my lord Steward. Am I not then welcome at your feasting? I have walked far to see you and I am cold and very weary."
Ecthelion raised his hands in a gesture of resignation, and then poured wine and offered it to Mithrandir. "As to your welcome, as you put it, you must ask Lord Eärnur, for on his account do we feast tonight. But what brings you in such haste when we have seen no sign of you nor had any message these past five months?"
"Some news reached me which I wished to confirm with my own eyes," said Mithrandir. "But come now, Lord, may I not pay a visit to your house with no more purpose than to wish you well?"
"I might say so," answered the Steward raising an eyebrow, "if you had ever done such a thing in all the years I have known you, Greybeard. But I know better than to question you over much, and tonight I have no interest in news. I believe you are known to most of the company. Lord Ælfhere you have met before. This is Turin, newly appointed captain of Ithilien. Eärnur is to ride with his company. And this is Thorongil, who is lately come from Rohan."
The two surveyed one another impassively, and then the old man frowned.
"From Rohan you say," he pondered. "Were you at Edoras?"
"I led the Kings guard these last seven years," replied Thorongil.
"Then I must have seen you there, for I know your face, I think." He eyed the man curiously. "Yes, I do know you. And what brings you to Gondor?"
"I wish to serve Lord Ecthelion, as best I may," said Thorongil, "and to see more of the world before I grow old."
"Indeed?" returned Mithrandir, and smiled a little. "Both worthy causes, no doubt." He sat down at the table and took a long sip of wine. "That is much better. I have been on the road for many days, and winter begins to close in. There will be snowfall in the city before long I think, for Mindolluin is heavy with cloud."
"What have you been doing since we last met, Mithrandir?" asked Alcanore. "There is much I would discuss with you. Have you been at Orthanc?"
"I have, and elsewhere besides," said Mithrandir. But I will not speak of that this evening. There will be time in plenty for travellers tales."
It was growing late, and once the Steward had departed the guests began to disperse. Aragorn slipped away back to his room as soon as he was able to leave the hall unnoticed. Leaving the door ajar, he swiftly drew the hangings across the window and lit the fire. Then he drew a deep breath and waited. Within a few minutes he heard soft even footsteps and the rhythmic thud of a heavy staff on the stone flags outside in the passage. There was a pause and then a hand grasped the door and drew it open. In the doorway stood the one he had been waiting for, his beard longer, and his cloak a little more ragged than Aragorn remembered, but otherwise unchanged.
"So, you have come to the city at last!" said the wizard, shutting the door quietly behind him. "I began to wonder if you would ever leave Rohan."
"Gandalf!" exclaimed Aragorn. "Of all joys the least expected. Did you know that I was here? Surely you have not walked from Edoras within these last twelve days? "
Gandalf crossed the chamber and sat down by the fire. "If truth be told I was already on my way to the city from the north, when I heard news that you had been sighted, crossing Anorien with Denethor. I was anxious to see you for myself."
"Of course," said Aragorn, "the eagle! I should have guessed." He quickly bolted the door and sat down. "It was high time I journeyed south, but things go ill in Westfold even as we speak. I trust that you were not seen coming in here," he added.
Gandalf laughed. "What do you take me for?" He looked at his friend closely, and went on; "If I did not know you better, I should say that at the last you were putting off your coming to Minas Tirith. Am I far off the mark?"
"Not far!" he replied. "You could ever read me like a book, as you know full well. But in any case, I was loath to leave Thengel when war threatens his borders with Dunland yet again."
"I doubt very much that Thengel would ride to battle in person, with or without you at his side. Besides, Dunland is not so great a threat to Rohan, close as it is to Isengard."
Aragorn looked at him gravely. "When were you last at Orthanc, Gandalf?"
"Not more than three months ago, perhaps a little less," said the old man slowly, his eyes narrowing. "Why do you ask?"
"Did Saruman speak of the Mark?"
"Amongst other things more pressing. He told me that all was well with Rohans western defences, but that the threat was from the east, and that orcs were moving on the Emyn Muil."
"The latter is certainly true. Did he say aught of his dealings with Meduseld?"
"Not a great deal, but the alliance stands firm, does it not?"
Aragorn fell silent, and Gandalf noticed his fingers tighten very slightly across the arms of his chair.
"Well, are you going to tell me what is in your mind?"
The young man hesitated. "It may be of no concern," he said, "but Saruman has been very close of late, and even more so since the trouble started on the borders. Thengel sent Dunhere to seek his counsel, but he was not permitted to enter the gates, and Saruman has sent scant word to Edoras these last two years."
"He and Thengel were never of the same mind about the best way to secure the Gap of Rohan, but your words surprise me, I cannot deny it. What do you make of it?"
"I do not know," said Aragorn, "but it is a strange ally who will not respond to a direct request. I have a feeling that all is not what Saruman would have us believe."
"Thengel will be resolute with or without Sarumans counsel. But often there is more to your hunches than meets the eye. I wonder..." Gandalf gazed thoughtfully into the fire and concern flickered across his face. But then he turned again towards Aragorn and continued; "Now tell me how you have fared in Minas Tirith. What do you make of the Steward and his son?"
"Ecthelion is a stern lord and has a subtle mind," said Aragorn. "And his people love him, that is plain. He must have been a mighty warrior in his youth, and even now he leads with a will of iron from the citadel which he cannot leave. Now Denethor, he is different to my mind. Not less stern, nor less wise. Indeed I think he will be a great leader of men, for he sees much that others miss. But there is something that drives him from the Steward which I cannot describe. It is like a rope that is stretched with too heavy a load and is near to breaking. I did not think to see this between a father and son, but it governs his every turn, and I wonder very much where it will lead him."
"You perceive much in a short space, for I have seen this between them for many years," replied Gandalf grimly. "The Steward loves his son, but Denethor cannot see it, for he feels only the sadness and hurts of Alfirin, whom they have both lost. I fear that will never heal. But what of the city?"
"It is very fair," said Aragorn, "but seems a shadow of what it must once have been. Many great houses lie forsaken, and the Tower feels like an empty tomb. And there are no trees within the walls, but the one tree that lives no longer. I never felt so deeply their lack as I do here. There is nowhere green. I fear I am not made for city life, Gandalf."
"Trees may be found and planted anew, yes, even the White Tree, Lord Aragorn!" said Gandalf. "Do not forget that, even as you toil in this stony city."
"I will not, but nevertheless I long for the north," said Aragorn, and sighed.
Gandalf paused, and then reaching under his cloak he drew out his pipe, and a soft leather pouch, which he opened and passed to Aragorn.
"Meanwhile, here is something you may have missed since we met last! A gift from the north to remind you of home."
Aragorn sniffed the contents and a wide smile lit up his face. "Longbottom leaf! It smells quite fresh. Have you been to the Shire?"
"No, but I was in Bree not very long ago and I saved this for you. It has not been opened, though I have been tempted, I can tell you!"
"There is no leaf in Rohan to match it. Thank-you for restraining yourself. I shall keep it safe for times of great need, and then savour it!"
"Aragorn!" cried the wizard, his eyebrows bristling. "Would you deprive me of a taste when I have brought it all these leagues and resisted temptation, just to see you squirrel it away under my nose? I havent smoked Longbottom leaf in nearly a year!"
Aragorn laughed. "I find that hard to believe, knowing you, my friend. Very well. Let us share a little now."
The two lit up their pipes and sat back comfortably. They were silent for some time, relaxed in each others company without need for talk, as old friends can when much has been shared between them and they know each other well. Aragorn sat staring into the fire, his thoughts drifting, and after a while he spoke softly, without lifting his gaze.
"Have you been in Rivendell since we met last?" His face betrayed a quiet yearning but at the same time almost a reluctance to say the words.
Gandalf smiled at him and answered; "Yes indeed. I was there last year, for several months. I had business with Elrond, and with your kin, for Halbarad was there. He sends you his greetings. But as ever you are uppermost in the thoughts of all, and your name is spoken often, by Elrond not the least."
Aragorn hesitated; "And the lady Arwen?"
"She was there also."
"Did she send no word to me?" His voice was thick.
Gandalf shook his head. "I am sorry, my friend," he replied gently. "But she asked many questions about your activities in the Mark, and I told her what I was able, that you were well and prospering in Thengels service."
"How then did she look?" Aragorn almost pleaded. "I must know!"
"You ask the wrong person for such details." said Gandalf. But he thought for a moment as though trying to picture her in his minds eye, and then continued; "She wore grey. Her dark hair was loose and shone like the moon, and she looked very fair, but in her eyes there was a sadness. She had had words with her father I think, and she spoke much of Celebrian."
"Your words are but little comfort to me," the young man answered and looked away. "But there. I do not know what more I should expect." He fell silent, and Gandalf watched his face but said nothing. Presently the wizard took his leave and after checking that no one was near, he stole out into the courtyard, where a guard watched him curiously as he crossed to the Keel in the darkness and looked out over the starlit vale towards the east.
* I confess this tale is way off-canon, but hope that JRRT may not have been completely dismayed by it. The rhymes and story of the king and his soldiers being turned to stone, due to the kings over-enthusiasm and pride, are part of the folklore of a circle of standing stones at Great Rollright in North Oxfordshire, and I have adapted them a very little for placenames. Tolkien would certainly have known the story Im sure, and he alludes to the same stones in Farmer Giles of Ham. Thanks to G. Lambricks "The Rollright Stones" (1983, Oxford Archaeological Unit), for the printed version of the originals. The Middle Earth additions/alterations are self-explanatory. My other source of inspiration was Ovids Metamorphoses, but the overall shape of the tale is all mine, a sort of imagined aetiology for the malevolent trees of the Old Forest.
I would love to hear your comments or suggestions. You can contact me at CatherineEstel@aol.com
One last thing; if anyone out there with more knowledge of Anglo-Saxon than me would like to correct my first attempts above I should be very grateful for any help forthcoming!