The vine had died a few years back, but its dead wood remained, still twined so tightly around the trellis that it could not be removed. Daerion’s mother had decorated it with ribbons for a festival one spring, and the ribbons had never been removed, although the ribbons were limp now, speckled with dirt and mildew.
“I wish I could have gone with them,” said a man, a Guard, gazing down into his flask of ale.
“Peace,” said his companion. Daerion remembered the Captain saying that word in just such a tone.
“I wish…” said the first man, and Daerion walked away.
He no longer knew what to wish for.
Then came news of a mighty victory. Captain Thorongil had taken a force down the river, and had utterly destroyed a great fleet that was being raised against Gondor. He himself had fought the enemy captain on the quayside and had struck him down. Never again would Gondor fear attack from the corsairs of Umbar. Why, surely even the dread lord of the Land of Shadow would tremble if Captain Thorongil chose to turn his gaze upon him.
No command came down from the Citadel, but the people of Minas Tirith prepared a triumphal return. The ribbons on the vine were tied afresh, and the best barrels were tapped. Garlands hung from upper windows. When a breathless boy came running from the Harlond to say that the ships had been sighted, crowds began to gather with flowers in their arms.
The warriors walked in slowly. Captain Thorongil was not at their head.
The leaders were grim of face. The men who followed after were walking as if in a daze.
Captain Thorongil was not there.
“Dead,” wailed an old woman, clawing her face with her hand. “He’s dead.”
The leader shook his head, barely moving it. “Gone,” came the news from the Gate, from those who had been close enough and had overheard it. “Gone away and left us.”
In silence, the column passed through the city, and into the Citadel. The wind whispered through the garlands, and no flowers were thrown.
“I warned you that things might change,” Daerion’s father said, when enough days had passed to talk about it. He put his hand on Daerion’s shoulder, just as Captain Thorongil had done before he had gone.
“What do you want to do now?” his father asked gently. “The Sword and Stars is doing well, and there are always jobs to do. Perhaps we could take you on full time…?”
Outside, a dog was barking. The kitchen smelled of stew and bread and safety and home. Daerion touched the knife at his belt, tracing the patterns etched in its sheath.
“You knew, then,” he said. “You knew why I wanted to join.”
“Your face has never been good at keeping secrets, I’m afraid,” said his father, “and your mother and I have known you for quite some time.”
“Oh.” Daerion sat down, his legs suddenly refusing to support him. “I thought…” Thought it was such a secret. Thought that he was the only one in Minas Tirith who felt the way he did, but surely half the boys in the city had dreamed of war, and longed to earn the notice of Gondor’s greatest captain.
“Your ma says you’ve taken well to herb lore.” His father sat down beside him. “Do you want to learn more of that? Perhaps we could see about getting you an apprenticeship.”
Up and down went Daerion’s finger on the sheath; up and down, and round and round. Already the patterns were deeply familiar to him, although on the day when the news had broken, he had wondered if he could ever bear the pain of looking at the knife again.
“You all assume I won’t want to join the Guard any more,” he said, “because the Captain is gone.”
“Do you?” His father looked at him. “Do you, my son?”
The cause, not the captain, said the patterns beneath his fingertip. The cause, not the captain, he had heard in the middle of the night, as he stared up at the moon.
No, his heart said.
I don’t know, he thought.
“Yes,” he said slowly. “Yes, I think I do.”
The City guard accepted Daerion when he was seventeen.
Training was challenging. He knew how to hold a sword, and his sword arm was strong, but he had never sparred with a flesh and blood opponent. He thought it best not to tell anyone about his bouts with his uncle’s scarecrow, but after half a year, he decided to confess, and exaggerate it, and make it a joke at his own expense. They laughed at him, and they laughed with him, and some of them confessed similar things, and soon they were vying with each other to come up with the most ridiculous story of their own childhood stupidities.
They were better friends after that, better than Iorlas had ever been.
He drew his sword in anger for the first time when he was eighteen years old, when training with the Rangers in Ithilien. They stumbled upon a small patrol of orcs, and Daerion drew his sword and prepared to fight, but the orcs were all killed before any could come near him. The Ranger captain praised his steadiness, though, and passed on a good report to Daerion’s own captain back in the city, and even though he was not the Captain that Daerion had longed for, it was good.
When he was nineteen, the Lord Steward died. Daerion had never met him, but he mourned him. It was no secret in the Guard that Lord Denethor had never liked Captain Thorongil.
Daerion was now serving alongside men who had fought under Captain Thorongil. “Fought beside him, rather,” said one of them, as he and Daerion sat on the stone bench outside the guardhouse, relaxing with a flagon of ale between them. His name was Eradan, and he was almost thirty. “Because when you’re off in wild places, just you and twenty men, you don’t stand on ceremony. I saw him crouched in a ditch, covered in mud, looking like a wild man himself, except that we were just as wild. We would have followed him anywhere.”
“I met him,” Daerion found himself saying. “Twice, really. The first time he was messy like that. He said he’d been scouting. The next time…” He gazed down into the flagon, where his own face looked back at him, distorted in the dark liquid. Nineteen years old and a warrior, but still he found himself blushing. “I begged to serve him. I was just a boy, and he sent me on my way, but he gave me this.”
Eradan took the knife almost reverently, and whistled through his teeth. “I saw him killing an orc chieftain with that. Why would he give it away?”
“He said he had lots more. He said he didn’t need it.”
“That’s true.” Eradan nodded. “People were always offering him gifts – even the great lords, because they knew he had the ear of the Lord Steward. Even the envoys and embassies honoured him, especially those from Rohan, who always sought him out.”
“He said he didn’t need it,” Daerion said again. Perhaps it was the ale, and perhaps it was just because he was finally growing up, but he decided to say it out loud, the thing that he had never spoken of before. “He said he had more than he could take with him. I think… I think he already knew that he was going to leave us, that he was leaving all his possessions behind. Sometimes I wonder if that was when he decided to leave us.”
Eradan prodded him “I can see why talking to a squirt like you would drive a man to leave.”
“Ha-ha.” Daerion elbowed him in the ribs, and they laughed together, because sometimes you had to.
Eradan snatched the flagon, and took a long drink. “Seriously, though, why would he give you his dagger?”
“It came with a lesson,” Daerion said, “because I was just a stupid boy who needed one.” He took the knife back, and ran his finger across the deeply familiar patterns. “He told me to follow a cause, and not a captain. He told me to pledge my sword to Gondor and the free people of the world, and not a mortal man.”
Eradan snorted. “Easy for him to say.”
Daerion’s hand froze in its pattern. “You think he was wrong?”
Eradan let out a slow breath, and raked his hand through his hair. “Not wrong as such, no, but it was different for him. He was a commander, a great leader of men. He knew how to lead, but did he really understand what it feels like to follow?”
“But he followed the Lord Ecthelion,” Daerion protested.
“Did he?” Eradan asked. “Oh yes, he was loyal, scrupulously loyal, but was it the man he served, or the cause? He left us all, remember, without his liege lord’s leave.” Eradan sighed again, shaking his head. “I mean no criticism of him, but he didn’t see it all. A captain needs a cause, but a cause needs a captain. Yes, we fight for our wives and our children, and for Gondor and for the future, and because we know that the power of the Enemy is growing, and needs to be opposed. We know all this. But out there in the wilds, when death stares you in the face, you fight because your Captain tells you to.”
“Because of your oaths,” Daerion said.
“No.” Eradan shook his head. “Oh, yes, because of our oaths, too, but…” He closed his eyes, and pressed his hands against his mouth for a long moment, before lowering them again. “We would have followed him into the very Land of Shadow itself. We would have carved out our hearts and given them to him on a platter, had he but asked us to. And we would have done it not because Gondor needed it, but just because he asked.”
“Because you loved him,” Daerion said. “And you think he was wrong.”
Eradan smashed his fist into the stone bench beside him, but when he spoke, his voice was quiet, even sad. “Not wrong, lad. I just think perhaps he didn’t fully understand quite what he was to us.”
Daerion looked at the knife, and remembered the one who had given it away, and the words that he had spoken, both quietly and out loud. “Perhaps he realised at last,” he murmured, “and that was why he left.”
Years passed, and some of them went quickly, and some of them were slow. Daerion’s father died, and his brothers took over The Sword and Stars between them, although their mother stayed on and ruled the kitchen as before. Every spring, she tied new ribbons to the vine, but every year, she left the old ones where they were. Soon it was far more thick with ribbons than it had ever been with flowers.
It was beneath those ribbons that Eradan broke the news that he had asked to be released from his oath. “I haven’t got the heart for it any more,” he confessed, “now that the Captain is gone.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “And Lord Denethor bore him no love.” He was still ‘Lord Denethor’ then, out of long habit. When people said “the Lord Steward,” they meant Ecthelion, and it remained that way until children grew up who had never known another Steward.
Daerion still wore his dagger through all his waking hours. He touched it now, his thumb rubbing the worn patterns. The cause, and not the captain. “The Captain wouldn’t want you to do this,” he said.
“I know.” Eradan passed his hand across his face. “But I am only a man.”
Daerion never saw him again.
When he was twenty-six, Daerion saved his captain’s life, but not through a feat of arms, but through knowing enough herb lore to stop the rot from setting in, when they were injured and far from home.
Most of the time, though, he stayed in Minas Tirith, and took postings on the City wall. There was less glory in it, perhaps, but Minas Tirith was the Tower of Guard, and when war came, it would need its walls defended.
Two years after he had saved his captain, and quite out of the blue, or so it seemed to him, he became a captain himself, although his command was only the lowliest company on the quietest stretch of wall. Captains were required to make their oaths to the Steward in person, and so it was that Daerion met Lord Denethor for the first time, and thought him as hard and distant as a statue of stone, and very like Captain Thorongil, but yet somehow not like him at all. His son, Boromir, stood at his right hand, glowing with all the pride of a sixteen year old with his first command. Daerion wondered if Captain Thorongil would have dared to tell the Steward’s son that he was too young to fight in Gondor’s defence. He thought he probably would.
In time, Daerion came to command the Fourth Gate, and a few years after that, they moved him to the Third, and then to the Second. Some years after that, they gave him the choice between staying where he was, or moving to the Great Gate itself, not as its captain, but as his second.
He chose the Great Gate without a moment’s thought.
Men followed him, and he thought they followed him gladly. Boys joined the Guard, and he watched them become men, men who had never known Captain Thorongil, and never known any Steward other than Denethor. The cause, not the captain, he thought, as he taught those men to serve Gondor, the bastion of all the free people of the world. But he also remembered Eradan, and he strove always to be fair, and to earn their trust, and to consider well the impact of a commander’s words upon the young men who served beneath them.
When Daerion was forty-five, Lord Boromir asked for him by name, and offered him a high command in a great sortie he was leading out from Osgiliath.
“Are you asking me if I want it,” Daerion asked, “or is it a command?”
Boromir laughed. He was as free with his laughter as his father was sparing. “You are bold, Daerion, but, no, it is not a command. I want men who follow me freely.”
And they did, of course. Daerion had watched the young men who flocked to Boromir’s banner, and knew that they were Boromir’s men first and foremost. It was the same with his brother. Faramir was younger and quieter, and less obviously a leader of men, but he had his own command in Ithilien, and the Rangers who followed him loved him dearly.
“Then I will stay here, my lord,” Daerion said. “Gondor needs your armies and its Rangers and its ships, but it also needs its walls and a strong Gate. This is my posting, and this is my place.”
He thought that Boromir would be angry. Almost he was; Daerion could see that in his eyes. But then Boromir smiled, and laughed again. “Bold indeed! Gondor needs more like you.”
Daerion wondered if his refusal would be held against him, but two years later, he was given command of the Great Gate.
Darkness grew in the East. The Nazgul took Osgiliath, and Daerion strengthened the Guard on the Great Gate, and stood in readiness, lest the Rammas Echor fall. But Boromir rallied the armies of Gondor, and the western shores of Osgiliath were retaken, but few now believed that it would be held for long.
Then Boromir rode away, heading north alone. “What will we do without him?” wailed the young men, men who had never served another captain. It seemed to them that he had left them in the hour of victory, but a fragile, partial victory that could be lost at every turn.
“Fight,” said Daerion. “Be vigilant. Do our duty.” And of course he remembered Captain Thorongil, but he did not speak of him. Few remained who had known him, although his name was far from forgotten.
Then came the dark months, the dark weeks, the days yet darker. The Pelennor was evacuated, just at the start of seed time. No longer could a boy from the lower levels wander outside at will, because passwords were required at every Gate. Women and children were sent away, and Minas Tirith stood alone and half empty, a city of warriors waiting for the blow to fall.
Daerion readied his men and readied his defences, but against the force that came out of Mordor, not even the Great Gate could withstand.
I have failed, he thought, as the Nazgul rode towards him. I have failed!
Terror filled him, and the Nazgul’s regard fell upon him, and he knew no more.
In dreams he wandered through dark places. He was a little boy, lost and weeping. He was a child, seeking something, seeking something so desperately, but he had forgotten what it was.
“You know what it is,” said Captain Thorongil, grave but gentle in the shadows. “You have always known.”
“What?” Daerion asked him. “Tell me what it is.”
But Captain Thorongil just smiled at him, and told him to awaken.
“Captain,” Daerion murmured. “Captain Thorongil. Wait.”
“You’re dreaming, Captain,” a voice said. Daerion moved his head. His neck was very stiff, and he felt weary, more weary than he had ever felt, and cold. His aide was sitting at his bedside, and there was no-one else in the room.
“I thought…” Daerion managed. “I remember…” No, no, he would not remember. “Hador, the City…?”
“The City still stands,” Hador said. “The enemy was driven away. The Gate…” He lowered his head. “The Gate was broken.”
Daerion turned his face towards the wall. “I remember. I failed.”
“No. Oh no, Captain.” A warrior fully grown, Hador sounded close to tears. “You didn’t fail. The enemy was just too strong. Nobody could have done it better. He said that. He said I had to tell you. You did everything you could have done, and more. Nobody could have saved the Gate, and some would have lost it earlier. He said that, but of course it’s true. We wouldn’t believe anything else, Captain, because it’s you.”
His voice faded, as dreams rose up again to take him. In his dreams, this time, his young self spoke with the voice of Hador, and the man he chased after bore Daerion’s own face.
He woke again to shuttered daylight.
“What happened?” he asked. “I remember the Nazgul.”
“You fell,” Hador said. “Everyone else ran away, but you wouldn’t have run. Of course you wouldn’t have run. Then the Nazgul did something to you. It was the Black Breath, I think; that’s what he called it. I tried to get you back as soon as I could, but I couldn’t, not for a long time. I thought you were dead.”
“Who’s ‘he’?” Daerion asked, because he did not think he could bear to remember the Nazgul any more, although he knew that he could never forget.
“The healer who saved you,” Hador said. “He was going through the streets, and one of the lads, he came and told me, so I sent him to beg him to come here.”
The dark places of his dreams were still so very close. Now that he was awake, if anything he saw them more clearly. “Captain Thorongil,” he murmured. “I saw him. He called me back.”
“He called you back, yes,” Hador said, “but he wasn’t Captain Thorongil. Thorongil was around when my father was a little boy. This healer was younger than you. He came from the north. Mithrandir was with him, and elves. Elves.”
The dream swirled around him. The Captain had looked older than he was in Daerion’s memories, although how good was a boy at judging a grown man’s age? But the grey cloak had been similar, but not the same, and he had worn not a star but “a green stone,” he said out loud, just as Hador said those exact same words: “He wore a green stone on his breast.”
Time stopped. “Thorongil…” Daerion breathed. “But how…?”
No. No. He shook his head. Perhaps his son…? He pressed his hand to his chest. His heart was beating faster than he remembered it beating since he was a little boy, caught up with wild hopes.
The next time he awakened, he found himself alone and desperately thirsty.
Rolling over, he found that Hador had left a glass of water by the bedside. Beside it was his knife.
He reached out and almost touched it, then drew his hand back. His sword was stowed in its normal place. His armour was on its stand, and his clothes were neatly stashed away. Of course they were; Hador would be tidy even at the very brink of doom. But the knife was there, not at his right side, where he sometimes kept it, but on the table to his left.
It was almost like a signal, but a signal for what?
Hador burst in breathlessly. “You’re awake. I’m sorry. I didn’t want to leave you. I tried to get back as quickly as I could.” He passed Daerion the water, and took the glass away again when it was empty. “They’re saying the strangest thing in the City.”
Daerion looked at the knife. Underneath the sheets, his fingers traced the shape of its patterns. “What are they saying?”
“That the healer, the one with the green stone… That he’s the King.”
Daerion stopped breathing. He had to remind himself to start again. “Why is my knife there?” he asked.
“He put it there,” Hador said. “I couldn’t get all your armour off, not all by myself, you see. He helped me. He saw the knife and looked at it for a while, and asked your name. Then he put it there. He told me to leave it, so you would see it when you woke up.”
The King, Daerion thought. The Captain. He’s come back to us. He’s the King.
Of course he is, he realised, and he said it out loud. “Of course.” And then he laughed, or maybe he cried, and maybe he did both of them, both at once.
The dagger was a message and a lesson. It always had been.
When the Host of the West was assembled and rode out through the shattered Gate, Daerion did not beg to ride with them. He did not beg to follow his Captain and his King. He did not even beg an audience of him. He saw him just once, and only from a distance. Then he slept until he was strong enough to perform his duties without failing those who depended on him, and returned to work.
The Gate was gone, but the men of Gondor remained strong, and Daerion worked to ensure that any enemy who strove to take the City would still face a fierce fight. In this, he recruited the aid not just of his own men – those that remained, for some had gone with the King, and many more were dead – but of the Rohirrim who remained in the City, and men from the riverlands to the south.
And all the while, day by terrible day, they waited.
Then light failed, and time halted. Daerion gripped his sword hilt, and stood at his post. The world around him trembled, and lightning flared in the East. Daerion nodded reassurance at a young man who fell to his knees in silent terror.
And then the sunlight burst free from the shadows, and joy flared in every heart, and the people sang or wept, according to their nature. Then the Eagle came, and sang its song of victory and hope unlooked for, and the bells rang in broken towers, but Daerion just nodded once, for there was work to be done.
The banner of Elendil flew once more from the Tower of Ecthelion, and the time had come for the captains of Gondor to pledge their oaths in person to the King. Few remained who had sworn their oaths to Denethor, for many had died. Daerion looked at the new captains waiting outside the throne room, and thought he saw a difference between these men and the old. More of them came from humble backgrounds than had been common in the days of Denethor, and more, too, came from the outer lands, not from the City herself.
The oath was sworn upon a naked sword. Daerion remembered how he had swept his grandfather’s sword from his scabbard, thrusting it almost in his Captain’s face. Not for the first time, he wondered how close he had come to being slain in that moment, killed by someone who thought only to protect their captain from some mad fool who struck him in the night.
His turn came, because he was one of the first, although not the greatest. He was strangely free of fear. “My King.” He bowed low. “Sire.” It was not the scripted opening. He heard people shifting, their clothing rustling, but his King remained unruffled. “I beg your leave to swear my oath on my knife and not my sword.”
“You have it,” his King said calmly, but his eyes were sparkling.
Daerion drew the blade from its sheath, and pressed his hand to the blade. He said the proper words, swearing to serve Gondor and his King until death took him or the world ended. Then his King took the knife and said the right reply, but he did not pass it back when he was finished.
There were whispers at the back of the throne room. The King ignored them. “You kept it, then.”
“I kept it, Captain.” Daerion dared to say it. The whispers grew louder. “I remembered what you said. I tried to act upon it.”
“I can see that you have,” his Captain said. He sheathed the blade, and then he, too, traced the patterns with his fingertip, just as Daerion had so often done. “But I was not entirely right that night. You opened my eyes to things I should have seen more clearly. I thank you for that, Daerion.”
“But you left,” he said, sounding like a boy again.
The King smiled gravely. “It was time. It was well past time.” He handed back the knife, pressing it into Daerion’s hand. “Take it. Wield it. Remember.”
The cause, not the captain, he thought. But Eradan had said it was the other way round. It was a dangerous and terrible thing to know that men would follow you to their deaths, just because you asked them to. Daerion had spent the last forty years devoting himself to the cause, but he had never forgotten the power that a captain could wield. Which should have a stronger claim on a man’s heart: the cause, or the captain? It depended on the man, he thought, and it depended, too, on the captain.
Or maybe, sometimes, there was no tension at all, because the cause and the captain were one.
“I will, my King.” Daerion bowed, then gave a salute, as a man-at-arms to his captain. “Captain,” he said, and almost he thought that his King and his Captain laughed.
Outsider viewpoint is one of my Favourite Things in fanfic, and hidden identities are just about my Best Thing Ever in fiction, especially when they lead to the Big Revelation Scene, so it was inevitable that my first story in this fandom would be something like this. The challenge now will be to move on to new things, and not just spend my entire time writing outsider viewpoints of the future king, because I could quite happily spend many happy months doing just that.
I could find very little firm information about the military organisation of Gondor. Through Beregond, we learn something about the Citadel guard, but when Pippin and Bergil watch the armies arrive, it seems very much a case of feudal levies, with men wearing the liveries of their own lords. However, it seemed to me that if there are at least three companies guarding the Citadel, there must be at least as many guarding the rest of the City. Therefore I’ve gone with a City guard as well as the Citadel guard. (In my mind, the Citadel guard recruits mostly from the upper classes, while the City guard is open to all classes.) But I’ve made it quite a flexible system, in which even gate guards might find themselves out on campaign, if their skills suit the needs of the mission, and if the captain of the venture asks for him.
The source material is a bit confusing when it comes to the chronology of Aragorn’s time in Gondor. In The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen, it strongly implies that after leaving Gondor, Aragorn went on to have considerable adventures in the East and the South, before coming to Lorien in 2980 and meeting Arwen. However, in the appendix dealing with Gondor, we hear that Denethor became Steward four years after “Thorongil” left Gondor. Denethor became Steward in 2984, so that suggests that Aragorn was in Gondor until 2980. This is the dating I’ve gone with.
And while I’m rambling… Tolkien also states that Aragorn was called Thorongil in both Rohan and Gondor. However, he also states that Thorongil was a name bestowed on him by others. Why would people in Rohan give him a Sindarin name? Therefore in my mind the people of Rohan called him by some other name in their own language, and he is only Thorongil in Gondor.