Words: c. 11000
Rating: PG (some mentions of violence, but nothing graphic.)
Genre: Mystery. Drama. Character development.
Characters: Aragorn and an original male character, with quite a bit of Faramir and a tiny bit of Arwen.
Summary: Fog has descended on the lower levels of Minas Tirith, and a killer stalks the streets. In the Citadel high above the fog, Aragorn wants the killer found. Down where the fog is thickest, a young man raised on the streets is trying to find him, too. These two men, whose lives are so very different, will end up being brought together by the fog. Because in the fog, everything looks different. Everything is changed.
Note: I had the initial germ of idea for this one back in April, after I'd written and submitted my entry for April's Teitho challenge, on the theme of "Mystery." A few weeks ago, I came across the picture that had been one of the inspirations behind the story idea (points to icon) and suddenly saw the entire story in my mind. As well as this picture - which shows Glastonbury Tor towering above low-lying fog - the other inspiration was all those murder mysteries set in a fog-drenched Victorian London. So here we are: a murder mystery set in a fog-drenched Minas Tirith very early in the Fourth Age.
Aragorn opened the shutters and stepped onto the balcony, resting his hands on the ice-cold stone. Above him, the sky was clear, just beginning to fade from darkness into dawn, and the last stars were dwindling, eclipsed by the light of the coming day. Dew clung to everything. The balustrade was wet beneath his hands, and water fell in droplets from traceries of stone. Roosting in the highest towers, the birds were singing, greeting the sunrise that was still an hour away.
It would be a beautiful day, Aragorn thought: the sort of clear, crisp winter day that would make a wandering hobbit sing with joy at the beauty of the world. The sky would be blue, and the sunlight short-lived, but all the more beautiful for that. It would bring people out of their winter seclusion, and send them into their gardens again.
He turned his face upwards, and watched the darkness slowly leech out of the sky. Then he looked outwards, to the mountains of the east, no longer entirely to be dreaded, but still dark against the spreading light of dawn. And then down, down towards his city, his people, his home.
There was nothing there. Minas Tirith was gone. Fog had swallowed up the White City as if it had never existed, drowning it like a great wave. Only the Citadel rose above that white ocean, standing tall and proud and untouched beneath the open sky.
Aragorn tightened his grip on the balustrade. No sound arose from the whiteness that had claimed Minas Tirith. The fog consumed even that.
It had been another all-nighter. Why do I get involved in such things? Mínir asked himself, not for the first time. It had been a simple request, really: a weeping woman desperate to know where her husband was going when he stayed out all night. Mínir could have told her there and then; could have hazarded a guess, at any rate. Nine times out of ten, it was another woman. That was the better option, really, although it never seemed so to the wife. The alternative was worse: bad company and criminal activity that would very likely end with the husband dead or worse, and the wife dragged down with him, if she chose to stay loyal. They usually did. Love was not something Mínir would ever understand.
Should have said no, really, Mínir thought, as he blundered home through the fog. He knew the lower levels of Minas Tirith like the back of his hand. Born and raised in them, he was. Born and raised by them, more like, more truly than he had been raised by the doting mother who had died when he was five, and the dissolute father who had ignored him, beaten him half-heartedly when he remembered him, and then abandoned him. Even in the darkest night, Mínir never took a wrong turn. But this fog was different. It consumed all landmarks. It hid the lights of the guard towers and the glow of the bakers' ovens and the blacksmiths' furnaces. It turned familiar buildings into strange shadows.
I… I don't know where I am, he thought, and when he brought a hand to his chest, he felt his heart beating faster than it ought to. Because there was movement in the fog: phantom movement that made his head jerk round, only to see that there was nobody there. It brushed against his cheek like fingers. This close to dawn, the city should have been stirring, but if it was, he heard no sound of it. The thickness of the air swallowed up all sound, he thought. It was either that, or…
No. He shook his head sharply. Just fog. And he had been awake all night, most of that spent in fruitless, uncomfortable searching, and he had no answers yet, and he had never been one to like failure, ever since….
He shook his head again. "Should have said no," he muttered to himself. Should have said no, despite the fee she had offered: three of the new king's gold coins, clutched in her trembling hand. But it had been the weeping that had decided him, of course. It always was. And if he had found unpalatable answers for her, very likely he would have found himself returning two of those coins to her, and sending her gruffly on her way.
But he had found nothing. Fog had stolen into the city just after midnight, and first he had lost his quarry, and then he had lost his way. So when he got back to the bare room that was home, he would scour his face clean, sleep for a few hours, and try again. When he got home…
If, whispered the part of him that had lived through the Siege of Minas Tirith, and knew what horror was.
"When I get home…" he began to say out loud.
He did not finish it. Words died on his lips, and he stopped, crouched down, and touched the thing that lay in his path: just one more thing that the fog had tried to hide from him, and the worst.
Faramir looked, Aragorn thought, like the captain of a ship whose prow cut sharply through the white-flecked ocean. He turned around as Aragorn approached him, acknowledging his king with a respectful nod and a smile. Aragorn took the place beside him, and for a while they stood in silence, looking down from the height of the great spur of rock that cut through the concealed city below.
"I remember fogs like this from my childhood," Faramir said at last. "Or maybe not quite like this. I read somewhere that it is due to the damp air from the Anduin meeting the air from the mountains, which causes…" He gave a wry smile. "But doubtless you know this, my lord."
Aragorn smiled, too, acknowledging the truth of the remark, but preferring not to say so. Faramir had grown up alongside Boromir, who had cared little for the wisdom found in books, and could usually be assumed to be ignorant of such things unless Faramir told him. There were times when Faramir forgot that Aragorn, unlike Boromir, was more widely read even than he was, and Aragorn was pleased when he did so. It showed that Faramir had grown comfortable with him, seeing him as a man, not just his long-awaited king. A king could have a hundred thousand subjects, but his friends were rare, and beyond price.
"But I do not remember one quite so dense," Faramir said. "It is as if the whole city has just… gone." He shook his head. "Doubtless the poets would say it better."
"Doubtless they would," Aragorn agreed, but he was no longer smiling. He remembered winter fogs from the years he had served Ecthelion, but they had never been like this. Or maybe, he thought, it was just that he had seen them from a different vantage point. He remembered being stalled on the Anduin by a fog that brought all shipping to a halt for two days. He remembered visiting a woman on the fourth level, the mother of a man who had died under his command, and leaving to find the streets so thick with fog that he had almost lost his way. But then he had been inside the fog, rather than above it. Perhaps on those occasions, Ecthelion had stood where Aragorn stood now, and looked down on an impenetrable ocean of cloud.
"Is it…?" Faramir looked down at his clasped hands. He breathed in, held the breath a while, and then let it out sharply, as if making up his mind to say it, after all. "Is it… natural?"
Aragorn had encountered fog on the Barrow Downs, where evil dwelled, as well as the blameless dead. He had walked through the foul mists of low swamps, and through cloud in high places. He had fought wraiths, and for a while, he had led an army of the dead. Sauron was gone, and had been for three years, but evil still remained in Middle Earth. Mordor was not yet fully cleansed, and perhaps would never be. Enemies still stirred in the south and the east, and one day, perhaps soon, he would need to ride to war again against them.
"I believe so," he said, but if Faramir could become sufficiently comfortable with him to forget, sometimes, that he was not Boromir, Aragorn owed it to Faramir to return the favour. A king might not show doubt, but a friend could. "I believe so," he said, "but I do not know."
Daylight brought no change.
Mínir had found his way home at last, and had spent the morning lying on the bed staring open-eyed at the stained ceiling. He had washed his hands, scouring away the blood, then had washed them again and then again, until the water he had drawn from the pump the day before was quite gone, and he was too tired to get more. Without any more water, he had opened a bottle of cheap ale, but had drunk barely half of it before slamming it down on his bedside table. It had teetered awhile, then fallen over, turning the air foul with the smell of spilled beer.
Better than blood, he thought. Better than death.
The old man had been dead for several hours. That, at least, had been the judgement of the strapping young guard who had responded eventually to Mínir's calls. Killed elsewhere, it seemed, and dumped in the street for anyone to find. On a normal night, he would doubtless have been found earlier, but the fog had kept the usual night-time wanderers inside, and blinded those few who had still ventured abroad.
And so Mínir had found him. And so Mínir had touched him, putting his fingers to his throat to feel for a pulse, and finding only a jagged hole that had stopped bleeding hours before, but had still stained his fingers red.
With a sigh, Mínir sat up. He was at the door before he knew it, following the familiar route to the tavern. The fog seemed worse, somehow, during the day. At night, you were supposed to be blind, although Mínir prided himself on being less blind than most other men, not because he could see better, but because he knew the city so well. But in the day… In daylight, you were supposed to be able to see where you were going. Instead, the far distant sunlight turned the fog into one vast impenetrable blanket of whiteness. People moved in it. They were no more than shadows.
When the tavern door closed behind him, Mínir leant back against it for a moment, blinking at the familiar sight of its interior, warm with firelight and unchanged.
"I hear you reported a dead man today," said Rosson behind the bar, without looking up from the flagon he was filling. "Was it you what killed 'im?"
"Of course not," Mínir said, not feeling in the mood for the usual banter. Rosson had known that, of course. Mínir could be hired to track down errant husbands and find stolen property and sometimes even to steal it back, but everyone knew that he could not be hired to kill a man, not for any price.
"Ah," said Rosson. "Who did, then? And who was he?"
"I don't know," Mínir said, suddenly angry, "and nobody. He was nobody." He scraped the back of his hand across his face. "No, he wasn't. Of course he wasn't nobody. Nobody is nobody." He almost laughed at the ridiculousness of the statement. It was the lack of sleep, of course, and the dead man, and the fog. "He was somebody, whatever the great ones might think, up in the Citadel. You know, I bet they're basking in the sunlight at the moment, and it's only us poor bastards who are languishing in the fog."
Rosson finished his pouring, drinking the last drops himself. "Mebbe so," he said. "I've seen it the other way round: cloud coming down from the mountains and the Citadel lost inside it."
"But even then, the clouds cast their shadow, and it rains down here, more often than not. When there's clouds up on high, we suffer, and when the cloud's down here, guess what? We suffer, too." He reached for the door again, opening it onto a blank wall of fog.
"Where're you going?" he heard Rosson ask behind him.
Where was he going? He walked three steps, four steps, five; tried to cling to his knowledge of where he was, and not give in to the part of his mind that gibbered that lost, he was lost! "To find out who killed him, of course," Mínir said, but by then Rosson was long out of earshot, and the only question he was answering was the one he had posed himself.
The Captain of the City Guard gave a brisk salute, but remained standing. Aragorn had never been able to cure the man's predecessor from his habit of falling to his knees in full obeisance, but old age and a lingering war wound had led to that man's retirement, and his young replacement was more willing to accept that his king preferred loyalty to be demonstrated by deeds rather than by lavish displays of abasement.
Or maybe, Aragorn thought suddenly, he was merely more obedient, more cowed.
"It has been a quiet day, my lord," Captain Celegon said. "The fog has kept everyone inside, for the most part. It is… If I may speak plainly, sire?"
"You can," Aragorn said, remembering his years spent serving Ecthelion, when a man like this might have been his equal, sitting side by side on a tavern bench.
"It scares them, sire. Some of them… My lord, some of them say that there are things moving in the fog. They remember the stories, and the horrors we all lived through, and they wonder if this is some fresh evil out of the Land of Shadow."
"Sauron has fallen," Aragorn said, "and his workings have been undone." Gandalf and Elrond would not have left Middle Earth had they not been certain of that. Arwen had assured him that she felt nothing evil in the fog, and he felt none himself. Except…
"I know, sire," the captain said, "but they are still afraid. You can't see it up here. It's like a different world here, out in the sunshine, but down there, it's different. You can get turned around and lose your bearings, worse than any night."
"I know it," Aragorn said, remembering the Barrow Downs so long ago, and worse horrors and worse dangers, some of them so barely survived.
"But there has been little trouble," the captain said.
Aragorn leant forward. "Little?" he said. "Or none?"
"None, sire," said Celegon. "None worth reporting."
Beads of water clung to the captain's breastplate: fog from the lower levels, condensing in the sunlight of the Citadel. Celegon was from the lower levels himself. That in itself meant nothing, because there were great houses even near the Great Gate, but Celegon was not from a great house. That in itself was an innovation. Aragorn had chosen him himself, although he was not sure that Celegon knew it.
Aragorn tried to keep his voice gentle, to smile with his eyes as he spoke words that could, in another tone, be uttered as a stern rebuke. "I prefer to decide for myself what is worthy of my attention, Captain Celegon."
A pleasant fiction, of course. Gondor was vast, and the Reunified Kingdom vaster still, and a thousand and one captains and lieutenants and officials and friends handled things on his behalf, and between them made a thousand and one decisions every single day. It was, perhaps, one of the harder things he would have to grow accustomed to, now that he was king. But he would not take it too far. In Minas Tirith, his own city, he could not.
"It is only…" the captain began, and there was a flash in his eyes that Aragorn was pleased to see, because it showed that was not entirely cowed, after all. "An old man was found in the street this morning on the second level, his throat cut. Probably robbed, although he looked like a poor man, with nothing worth robbing."
"And have your men found out who killed him yet?" Aragorn asked. Again he made it gentle; gentler than it could be.
"No, sire," Celegon said. He opened his mouth as if to say something more, then appeared to snatch it back. Instead, he said, "not yet."
And when he left, he fell to his knees in a deep bow, just as his predecessor had done.
How did you find a killer? Mínir knew how to find straying husbands, who, pitiful fools, were usually hopeless at covering their trail. He knew how to find headstrong youths who had run away from home, because headstrong youths were seldom cautious. He knew how to find stolen property, because he knew who usually stole it. He knew…
He knew nothing. In the fog, he knew nothing. All his usual points of reference were gone. All his usual certainties…
He laughed harshly, because what certainties did he have? He lived alone. He took money from people who needed help; people who could not get help anywhere else. He worked alone, trusting nobody to do a better job than he could. He didn't trust the City Guard. He didn't trust the bigwigs up in the Citadel. Why should he? Nobody had helped him when his father had abandoned him. He had taken care of himself, snatching from he could from the street, helped at times by a transient assortment of poor folk who had briefly taken pity on him.
So now he helped them in return, helping the poor and the hopeless with problems that the guards and the bigwigs couldn't care less about. Not that he did it through any nobility of spirit, of course, but merely for money. Yes, money, he told himself, even as he laughed bitterly at all those memories of returning coins to weeping wives, and the decaying bleakness of his single room.
Why do I do it? he wondered. It was strange how the fog seemed to strip everything away. He could not distract himself by watching the people around him; by searching, always searching, for clues that might mean something one day, when the right question was asked. It was just him and his thoughts, alone in the grey.
Why? he asked. Because he had touched the body: the first dead body he had touched, despite everything he had seen and lived through. Because he had been the one to find it. Because…
"Because nobody else will," he said, "and it needs to be done."
Perhaps there were other reasons, but he turned and started walking, feeling his way with a hand on the wall, and refused to look into the fog and confront them.
Twilight fell, and then darkness. In the blackness up above, the stars were bright and clear. It was cold beside the fountain, but Aragorn had endured far worse cold in the north, when his bed had been the cold, hard ground. It could have made him determined never again to endure the cold now that he no longer had to. Instead, it made him want to stray from the warmth of dry stone halls, and seek the familiar bite of cold fresh air, and even, sometimes, to crave a bed beneath the stars.
"My father…" Faramir began. They had come out after dinner, wine glasses still held in their hands, to look down once again on the sea of fog. Now they rested beside the fountain, draining the last drops and looking up at the sky. "My father would not have asked that of Captain Celegon. My father would not have wanted to be told of such… trivial matters."
"Trivial?" Aragorn echoed. He looked down into his wine glass, and saw the stars reflected there.
"Trivial," Faramir repeated. "My father was, in his way, a good Steward, or he was before the madness took him. His duty, his burden, was to look at the greater things: the affairs of armies, of politics, of kingdoms. He would not have wished to be troubled with reports of killings and robberies in the lower levels, unless the enemy was suspected to have a hand in it."
Darkness hid his face. "You think I am wrong in this?" As he had with Celegon, Aragorn kept his voice gentle, hoping that Faramir, unlike Celegon, would see that no rebuke lay in the words. He had mishandled Celegon, and would apologise for it; although that, too, would probably offend the man, who doubtless thought that kings never needed to apologise.
"I… do not know, my lord," Faramir said. "The burden of a king is very great indeed, and I do not wish…" He let out a breath; raised his glass to his lips, but lowered it without appearing to drink anything. "I am your Steward. If it is to mean anything…"
"It means that some decisions, some affairs, some lives, I must entrust to others," Aragorn said. "This I know. It is how it has to be." And, indeed, it had always been so. He had left his people for nigh on thirty years, leaving them to rule themselves without him. He had served as Captain Thorongil for little while, and then had walked away.
"My father…" Faramir began. "He ruled a far lesser realm than yours, but he paid scant attention to the common folk of Gondor, because he believed that this was the business of lesser lords, while his business lay… higher." Faramir raised his glass again, and this time he did drink, long and deep. Only when he had finished did he speak again. "But my father, had he possessed the gift of healing, would not have stopped to heal one small hobbit on the eve of battle, when great decisions awaited. Me, he would have healed, as the future Steward, and Éowyn, to keep the goodwill of Rohan, but Merry…? He would not have done so. He would not have thought it… needful."
And to that, Aragorn found that he could say nothing at all. The stars looked down above him, and the fog stole the world below him, and between the two of them, there were no answers.
At first, Mínir thought the fog was easing, but then he decided that it was just that he was growing accustomed to it. Growing accustomed to being blind. Growing accustomed to being lost. Growing accustomed to thinking that he was losing everything that he had ever known; every last bit of stability that he had clawed out of the uncertainty that had been his early life.
It was almost dawn, and this was his second night without sleep. He had returned to the place he had found the old man's body, and had tried to find clues that would show where the body had been brought from, but there was nothing there, or nothing that he could see through the fog. He had found out the man's identity, though, although that didn't help with anything. An old widower, no children, scraping out a living by working in a weaver's house. No known enemies. Few friends. Few people to miss him. No clues.
So why am I here? he thought. He could have returned to the weeping wife, and reported his lack of success, but promised to follow her husband for a second night, and this time not lose him in the fog. He could have spent the night on the sort of work he was accustomed to, with the hope of payment in the morning. So why am I here, he thought, patrolling the streets as if anything I do could make the blindest bit of difference?
Sleep deprived, and on the cusp of morning, he had an answer for that, too. It came whispering out of the fog, with the cold air that made him shiver, with the swirling mists that held hinted always at movement.
Because I don't want there to be a second one.
Minas Tirith had fallen, lost beneath the waves, like Númenor so long ago. Seaweed entwined the bones of her proud warriors, and shells rested in the dead hands of her merchants, spilling out of them like coins. Deep sea fishes, dark and strange, fed on the slime that covered fallen statues. All was gone, gone, "because our king forsook us," whispered those white bones. "Because he did not come. Because he died too soon. Because he lived. Because he was not born. Because he was born, but was not who we needed him to be. Because…"
And then even that faded. The bones dissolved into the ocean floor and were just sand. The pillars and statues were no more than dark shadows in the blackness of the deepest ocean. There was nothing, nothing left. There was just a memory; not even that. Nobody would know that such as place as Minas Tirith had ever existed. Nobody…
He awakened then. He breathed in and out again; closed his eyes and opened them. Beside him, Arwen rolled over, the sheets moving with a soft susurrus. "A dream?" she asked.
Aragorn brushed his fingertips gently across her cheek. "A dream," he said. "It is over now."
But it was not, of course. Because, after that, he got up and walked across the room and opened the shutters just a crack, so as not to disturb her. Outside, it was the same as it had been the morning before. The Citadel slumbered beneath a clear pre-dawn sky, that soon would brighten into a perfect winter's day, but everywhere beneath it was hidden, hidden more thoroughly by the fog than it would be by the ocean's waves.
Even in the fog, whispers travelled. Your business was never entirely secret, even if you thought it was known to nobody but yourself. That was what Mínir counted on, after all. That was what he made his money from, or would do, if he didn't keep on refusing his fee.
"Have you found out who killed him, then?" That shout came from the open door of the tavern. Inside the tavern, Rosson was more blunt. "Didn't do a good job of it, did you?"
Mínir sank down wearily into the nearest chair. His eyes hurt with the effort of seeing things again: colour, a fire, the expressions on people's faces. "What do you mean?" he asked.
"Only that there's been another 'un," Rosson said. "Younger man this time, but throat cut and dumped in the street. Guard found 'im this time."
Mínir half started up, then sank back down again. So I failed, then, he thought. Although that was stupid, because who was he to think that he could stop this? It was nothing to do with him, just because he had found the first body, just because he had touched him. This was not his game. He didn't deal in death and killings, just in smaller things, things that could be solved.
"Reckon it's a good thing," Rosson said. "The Guard'll handle it now. Increased patrols. I saw 'em out last night. Heard 'em, anyway, armour all rattling. The king don't want his folk all a-dying."
"The king doesn't care!" Mínir found himself shouting. He raked his hand through his hair, feeling it damp with the hideous, dreadful, never-ending fog. "Just like Lord Denethor didn't care. And why should he have cared? He was too busy studying the Enemy, planning his campaigns, watching for enemy agents inside the city. Why should he have cared if one small boy had been abandoned by his father and left to starve? Why should he? But…"
"The Guard--" Rosson began, but Mínir barely heard him.
"I thought it might be different when the king came, but of course it isn't. Oh, it might be different outside, outside the borders, but here? What's changed here?" He shook his head, answering his own question, and carried on before Rosson could speak. "He came through here, you know, the night after the battle, healing. I saw him. I…"
Saw him, and had been too afraid to go with him, too afraid to step forward and volunteer to ride to the Black Gate, even though he had no place in any army or any lord's levy. Saw him, and had just watched. Saw him, and had heard the stories afterwards. Why should such a man take any interest in the petty squabbles of little men? Even as the armies of Mordor had neared the city, there had been fights and robberies, and, yes, and looting, too, although the stories would never admit to such a thing. Even a great and shining city had its dark underbelly, and the great ones in their citadels should not care and would not care and did not care.
"They don't care," he said, and for the first time in years, he felt close to weeping. "So I have to, because they cannot."
Late in the morning, Captain Celegon sent a messenger. A second body had been found, killed in the same manner as the first one. The Guards were investigating, but in the light of the king's concern the day before, the Captain thought it best…
"Yes," Aragorn said, and "thank you," dismissing the messenger with a gracious wave.
Arwen said nothing, but just watched him. Aragorn gave a rueful smile. "I will have to apologise to Captain Celegon. I believe I have confused his sense of duty."
But he could not apologise for the concern that had led him to question the captain the way he had. A king had to learn when to step back and entrust decisions to his subordinates, just as Celegon himself doubtless left certain affairs in the hands of his junior officers. That much was true, but…
Aragorn closed his eyes. That much was true, yes. So what was it, then? Was it that he did not yet trust his subordinates to make the right decisions? No, it could not be that. It must not be that. But until three years ago, he had journeyed, for the most part, alone. When he had seen people in need, he had taken up his sword and fought for them. Even after three years, it was difficult to adjust to the fact that his duty now was to trust others to fight those battles, while he fought to create a world in which such battles became less and less necessary.
"It is because of the fog, I think," he said eventually. Arwen was still looking at him, her face soft with understanding. "Here I sit in my ivory tower, while the city below us…"
Lost, said his dream. Lost beneath the waves.
"I cannot let myself become cut off from it," he said.
"You will not," Arwen assured him.
"I cannot," he said. "And now there has been a second death. Celegon had not intended to tell me. Have there been others: a daily ration of crime and hatred and murder, that nobody thought to tell me about, because I am up here, and they are down there?" Arwen had no answer for him, but he knew the answer anyway. Of course there had been others, just as there had been crime in the Minas Tirith of Ecthelion. "Is it the fog?" he asked her, his voice almost desperate, because with Arwen, and only with Arwen, he had no masks. "Is there something evil in the fog?"
"If so, I cannot sense it." She had said as much before, for this was far from the first time he had asked it. "I believe this is no more than a natural fog, and the killings nothing more than they seem: the work of Men."
The work of Men, he thought. My people.
Still no clues. Still no hope. Still no answers.
Mínir had snatched a few hours sleep, then applied himself to questing. He had discovered the identity of the second victim: a chandler's assistant who kept himself to himself, and wouldn't say boo to a goose, or so the chandler's wife said. But this time, the victim had family. Mínir had approached the mother with trepidation, and had found himself chased away with a torrent of accusations. Was he after money? She'd heard all about him, oh yes she had. He was the kind who made money out of other people's misery. He took coins to return to them what was rightfully theirs in the first place. He stirred up mischief by bringing back tales about philandering husbands, when everyone knew that men liked to stray, and no harm was meant by it, as long as nobody talked about it.
"It wasn't like that," he had protested. The fog stole her words, but he could still hear them. Hours later, he could still hear them. "It wasn't," he whispered. "It isn't."
Sometimes he heard the guards passing, lost in the grey. He heard them talking, sometimes, just scant snatched words.
He stayed up all night, but in the morning, there was not just one new body, but two, each one as grey and bleak as the fog that enshrouded them.
Once more the Citadel was bathed in sunshine. Once more the city below it was lost in the fog.
Aragorn wrapped his winter cloak around his shoulders, fastening it with a plain brooch. He would have gone without an escort, but both Faramir and Arwen had watched him preparing to leave, so he consented to an escort of two veteran guards. "I intend to visit the Houses of Healing," he told his Steward and his wife. "Fog is never healthy, especially when combined with the smoke of cooking fires, and this is the third day of it."
Even as the gate was opened, the fog was visible. It appeared at first as a slight blurring of the air, but as he walked downhill, it thickened, and before he was halfway to the Houses of Healing, he could see nothing above him; not even the faintest shadow of the high towers of the level above. The fog wove around him, the varying patterns of moisture feeling almost like a phantom hand on his cheek. It was cold, colder than he had expected, but there was no wind.
He walked slowly, but surely. There were no stars to navigate by, but his eyes had always been keen, and he knew the way. But how different it looked today! It was different from the day, but also different from the night, too. Illusionary shapes moved in the mist, and even the familiar seemed strange.
Just a natural fog. That was what Arwen had said. But four men were dead in it, their throats cut, and there was nothing natural in that, even if it was nothing more than the work of Men.
He reached the Houses of Healing, and entered it by way of the garden, as he usually did. Someone shouted a challenge, and Aragorn kept walking, not realising that the challenge was meant for him. The shout was repeated, and a slim guardsman moved to intercept him. Aragorn saw his face from half a dozen paces away, but the guard took three more before he stopped in sudden consternation. "Oh. My lord. I'm sorry, sire. I did not recognise you. Everyone looks the same in this fog."
Aragorn smiled his reassurance; no harm done.
Everyone looks the same, he thought. Indeed we do.
Perhaps there was a pattern to be found in the places the bodies had been dumped. Even in fog, a killer would not wish to carry a dead body very far through streets that never truly slept. He would not have carried them far, and surely would not have ventured through one of the gates. One body was not enough to reveal a pattern, and two were little better, but now there was a third and a fourth…
As a child of the street, Mínir had briefly been taken in by a map-maker, and he still owned the city map the man had given him. It had worn away to little more than fragments now, but he no longer needed to look at it. The whole map still lived vividly in his mind, with every line of it supplemented by a lifetime of practical experience and memories. He brought it to mind now, drawing comfort from its clarity. The real city was still shrouded in fog, with its landmarks jumbled and its certainties gone, but the map was unchanging, clear.
There, he thought. There. There, and there. It could not be solved by such a simple thing as finding a point equally distant from the four of them and going to it, but that would be a start, and he had nothing else. He had nothing else.
He had no secrets from Arwen, of course, and much as he might crave the freedom to come and go as he pleased, he knew that the King of Gondor should not head out alone into the night without at least one person knowing where he planned to go.
"Faramir will not like it," Arwen said quietly, as Aragorn put on the old, worn boots that had borne him for so many leagues.
"No," Aragorn agreed. "And you, my love? Do you like it?"
He thought he knew the answer, or he would not be doing what he was doing. She answered him, even so. "I know that you have to do this."
He reached for his cloak, old and dark. He had worn it for many years in the north, when he had wandered wherever he willed, without anyone to tell him that he could not.
"Because I know what kind of man you are," Arwen said. "I have always known. And knowing that, I have always loved you."
And, kissing him softly and just once, she let him go.
It could not be so simple a thing… He had thought that hours ago, at the start of it, and of course it was not. He had spent the afternoon asking discreet questions. Had anyone seen anything suspicious? Heard anything? Blood stains? A missing knife? Someone shambling through the fog, moving slowly with a heavy burden in their arms?
They didn't want to talk to him. It was the fog, of course. Three days of it had sucked away all light, all joy, all trust. It turned neighbours into strangers, and the familiar into something strange. They were afraid. Four deaths now, and figures, things, moving in the fog.
Mínir was seeing them, too. Sometimes they were real: guards patrolling in twos and threes. He thought there were more patrols than usual, but he could not be sure. Their armour was dull, and their faces just a blank. He remembered seeing wounded warriors staggering through the smoke and dust of the siege. They had been grey, then, too. He had watched, and hidden, and watched, and…
And nothing. He shook his head sharply; pressed his hand against the reassuring solidity of the stone building that sheltered him. It could not be so simple a thing, no, but it was a start, and here he was, at the place where those four lines met, watching, listening… waiting. Waiting.
Another patrol passed. Perhaps the guards, too, had noticed the pattern. But… No. They wouldn't. They couldn't. They were warriors, not wily like him. Not bred in the gutter. They had died in their dozens in the siege, and he had just… Why would they…? Why should they…?
His throat was sore. His chest felt tight. The fog, he thought. It was the fog. It was well after midnight now. Not that there was much difference between night and day, except that at night you could see the faint smeared orange glow of lanterns, and in the daytime, the far-off, impossible sunlight made the entire world turn into never-ending white.
He started to move again; where, he did not know. There was someone out there, watching him! No, it was just a trick of the eyes; just that horrible, awful fog. There always seemed to be movement in it, and he could hear nothing. There was no-one there.
Another step. Another. Once again, his head snapped round. There was someone, he was sure of it. And he was sure, too, that the other person had seen him, and was watching him, moving only when Mínir did, and melting into the shadows when he turned around.
I've found him! Mínir thought. I've found the killer, after all! His heart was racing, cold fear pounding through his veins. He wanted to run. He wanted to scream. Instead, he forced himself to walk carefully across the street, although by doing so, he left the safety of the building and the wall's reassuring touch. There was a lantern there, and faint light issuing from behind shutters. He would be safer near the light, and perhaps there were people nearby, who would come if he called.
The man was upon him before Mínir was even half way there. "No," a voice said. "Do not."
Mínir turned round far more slowly than he wanted to. All he saw was a dark cloak and hood. On a normal night, the lantern would have been enough to show a hint of the man's features, but the fog hid even that. "Why not?" he managed to say. He could not see a knife, but then the fog would hide that, too.
"You have been watching," the man said, "for a very long time. Why?" It was softly said, but it felt almost like a threat. No, a command.
"To stop it happening." Mínir clenched his hands, feeling how damp his palms were, and flexed them again. To stop you, he almost said, but something felt wrong there. "To stop it happening again," he said, instead.
"And when you became aware of me," the man said quietly, "you did not hide, but moved towards the light."
"Of course I did." Mínir almost laughed aloud, then. How ridiculous this whole thing was! Here he stood alone, lost in the fog, and perhaps this man was going to kill him, and perhaps not. He should have died three years ago. Better, perhaps, if he had.
"Yes," said the man, and then, in a sharper voice, "I think you should stay back, now."
But Mínir did not. He stayed where he was, frozen in the street, as not far away, people started shouting. He heard a door slamming, and a sudden spreading glow of light as another door opened. The man ran forward, disappearing into the fog. Someone screamed, and before that scream had ended, another voice started sobbing, sobbing as if it would never stop.
Mínir's feet felt like lead. He edged backwards an inch; another inch. He thought he stopped there, but then there was the wall at his back, and he realised that he had carried on retreating all the way back across the street. He pressed his hands against the wall, palms scraping against the stone. The remembered the Nazgûl; people dying; screams of terror in the wreckage of the Gate. He remembered…
And he walked forward. He placed one foot in front of the other, and walked forward, all the way across the street, through that open door, and into the ruined courtyard at the back. "You're safe," someone was saying, but not to him. There were half a dozen guards there, just shapes in the fog. A man was down, held down by three guards, and Mínir found himself crouching down beside him. There was just enough light to see his face, and more than enough to see the blood-encrusted knife that was still gripped in his struggling hand.
"Oh," Mínir said. Such stupid, inadequate words! "So it was bad company, after all, and not another woman." He looked up, although who he was appealing to, he did not know. "If I hadn't lost him that first night…"
Because it was the weeping woman's husband. The man Mínir had been hired to find. The man he had lost.
The man who had gone on to kill.
It was time to leave. The killer had been captured and brought to justice, and in truth, there was little that Aragorn had done to bring it about. He had studied the places where the bodies had been found, bringing to bear all his skill at tracking, but it was harder to read signs on a stone street than it was in the wilds. Even so, he had come up with certain theories, and some careful questioning in late-night taverns had brought yet more clarity. His first instinct had been to pursue his suspicions alone, but reason and three years' experience had shown him the unwisdom of that. Instead, he had ensured that they reached the ears of the local guard post, and here, now, was the end of it.
"If I hadn't lost him…" said the young man again, now on his knees.
I should go, Aragorn thought, but instead he walked over to the young man, touched him on the shoulder, and said, "We should leave."
The young man looked up. The fog made his face a thing of smears and shadows, redolent of guilt.
Aragorn had not intended to be this close to the end of things, but reason could only take him so far. He had rushed forward, even as three years' of experience had urged him to stand back. But the guards had already captured the killer before he arrived. He had explained away his presence by claiming to be a concerned citizen who had heard the shouting. He had kept his face averted. He had done what he needed to do, but he had no desire to embarrass the City Guard or their captain by revealing his identity.
Perhaps they would have found the killer without him, he thought. Or perhaps they would not have found him, and another person would have died, and another, and another. He would never know, but at least he had tried, and he could not regret that, no matter what scolding doubtless lay ahead from Faramir in the morning.
He tightened his grip on the young man's shoulder. "Come."
"Mínir," the young man said, taking the short pause after the command as a request for his name.
Mínir. The young man who had found the first body. That explained his interest. It was something Aragorn could sympathise with. In the many years of his wanderings, he had stumbled upon so many private tragedies, and so many dead.
"Come away, Mínir," Aragorn said, firmly but gently, and Mínir did.
They walked side by side, Aragorn leading, and Mínir following. Mínir did not ask where they were going, and had he done so, Aragorn could not have answered him. Mínir appeared to have accepted that their paths, at least for a while, appeared to lie together. Both of them were faceless in the fog, just man-shaped figures walking through a sea of grey.
At length Aragorn brought them to a public garden, where crisp new statues were blurred by the darkness, and trees with three years of growth lay dormant, waiting for spring. "I was following him," Mínir said, as if barely seconds had passed since they had left the courtyard. "His wife hired me, you know? She was crying. She thought he might have another woman, and I lost him. The fog came down, and I lost him. If it hadn't… If I hadn't, could I have stopped this?"
"Perhaps," Aragorn had to say, because he sensed that this was a man who required honesty. "Or maybe he would have killed you, too."
"Better than--!" The words sounded as if they had been torn from Mínir's throat. But then he snatched back what he had been going to say, and looked down at his clenched hands. "Finding him was what I was hired to do," he said, "but I stopped trying after that first night. I tried to find the killer, and I did no good there, either. If I'd given up on that and tried to find the husband…" It was almost a sob. "She asked me to."
Perhaps it was the fog, but Aragorn felt himself at a loss for words. He had spent his life preparing for the great battle of the Third Age, but this was the Fourth Age now, and battles would only be between men. Men, not monsters, would do all the killing. And men would pay the price, sitting in the darkness consumed with pain, because of the actions of other men.
Better, far better, if the fog had been the work of Mordor! Better, far better, if the killer had been a wraith!
No, he thought, not better, for those evils were gone, and would never again be allowed to appear on the earth. It was better thus; of course it was. But he could mourn, a little, that from now on, all evil would come from the hearts and the minds of the men who were his.
"You tried," Aragorn said now. "Nobody else did. You devoted yourself to what you thought was the greater need."
"I did," Mínir said, as if he found little comfort in it, and, "I did," he said again, as if he was beginning to find just a shred of it.
Why was he saying this, Aragorn wondered. Why were they here together, faceless in the fog, having this conversation? It was because they were faceless, he thought. Everyone looks the same in this fog.
"Why?" he asked softly. "Why did you do it?"
"Because I found the old man," Mínir said, "and that made it my responsibility. Because nobody else would. Because the Guard… But they were there at the end, so maybe they did, after all, but…" He raked his hand through his hair. "Because I didn't," he whispered. "Three years ago, in the siege. I could have left the city with the others, but I didn't want to, because where else could I go, and this is my home, and I love it. So I stayed. But I didn't fight. I hid. I was scared. I didn't fight. I wasn't the only one. So what right do we have to be protected? They don't care: the king and the great ones. They shouldn't care. What right do we have to be saved when we start killing each other? I always thought I hated them all - the guards, the nobles, the king - but I don't. Of course I don't. I hate…"
His words trailed off. The missing word rang in the silence, as clear as a bell.
Aragorn looked up. The statues seemed clearer now, and the lights across the street were crisper. "You should not," he said, touching Mínir on the shoulder. "You must not. There are many ways for a man to show his worth, and many do not lie in courage in battle or skill at arms. You have done what thousands did not, these last few days, and when the ending came, you walked forward, not away."
"I… did?" Mínir said in desperate question.
"You did," Aragorn assured him. "And look," he said, a sudden smile breaking across his face, "the fog is lifting at last."
"Yes," Mínir said, nodding. "Yes, it is." And there was just enough light for Aragorn to see his smile.
So it was over, then. Back to normal. The fog was gone, and everything carried on just as it always had. Some days were overcast, and some were wet. Occasionally there was sunshine, but the fog didn't come back.
Mínir never saw the weeping woman again. Two days after the end of the fog, he had plucked up his courage and gone to find her, ready to say… what? An apology? But Mínir had not made a killer of her husband. The man must have been flirting with crime for a long time now, for his all-night absences had started months before, or so his wife had reported. Was it the anonymity offered by the fog that had prompted him to turn to murder? It had changed things, that killing fog. It had changed everything.
But the woman had already gone. Gone to stay with her sister on the third level, or so her neighbour reported. Led away pale and weeping. "And good riddance, too," the neighbour had spat.
"Why?" Mínir had asked. "She wasn't the one who did the killing."
"Then she must have driven him to it," the neighbour had said. Mínir had almost struck him, then, but instead he turned and walked away.
Nothing had changed. But perhaps… perhaps things had changed, after all. At times, those final hours of the fog felt as unreal as a dream, but sometimes, and mostly at night, they felt like the most vivid memories of all. He had poured out so many things! He had realised so many things! He would never had done so on any other night, in any other weather. The man had had spoken to had been nameless and faceless. It had been like speaking to a mirror: a mirror that had spoken back to him, and told him that he had done well.
He was not sure if he could believe that, at least not yet, but perhaps one day, soon…?
He did not know.
Because since the end of fog, although more people than ever had tried to hire him to find the things they had lost, he had not taken on a single case.
"Say it, then," Aragorn said, because they were alone now, and there was no longer any need to be formal or stand on his dignity. "You have wanted to say it for days, even since you found out."
"I cannot," Faramir said stiffly. "'You should not have done it,' is not a thing that can be said to a king."
"It is," Aragorn said, with a chuckle. "It is, after all, the role of an advisor. And sometimes it seems as if everybody is eager to tell me all those things that a King of Gondor cannot do. My chamberlain. My dresser. My bodyguard. My loremasters. Why not add my Steward, too?"
Faramir gave a faint smile. They were side by side on the parapet once again, this time gazing down on a peaceful city wrapped in its usual winter gloom. "But I cannot bring myself to say it," Faramir said, "because I cannot bring myself to mean it."
Aragorn watched his people moving around far below, just dark dots against the pale stone of the streets. "I should have trusted Celegon's guards to deal with it. I was arrogant to think that I needed to be there myself. I might have helped them bring it to an end, but I think they were almost there themselves."
"You could have been killed," Faramir added helpfully.
"I am no longer free to go where I will," Aragorn said, acknowledging Faramir's interruption with a smile. "I have responsibilities now, and some of those responsibilities are to stand back."
But he had always had responsibilities, of course, and no-one on Middle Earth was entirely free. Men were restricted by their circumstances, by their income, by the laws, by the judgement of their neighbours. Even as a Ranger in the north, Aragorn could not have gone wherever he willed, because the good folk of Breeland would have been quick to hurry him on his way, and always, always, he had been aware of the legacy of expectation that he been bestowed upon him, and the great test that lay ahead.
"To stand back," he said. He looked at the palm of his right hand, still rough with calluses from his sword, although it was a long time since he had wielded it in earnest. "I will have officers and captains the length and breadth of the kingdom, and I will trust them… I do trust them," he corrected himself. "They will uphold the law. When Men kill other Men, they will see that they are brought to justice." He raised his face to the sky, where the smallest patch of blue showed between the grey clouds. "My task is different. I must create a world where justice can flourish. Men will kill other Men, because that will be the way of things, but I must build a kingdom where such crimes are rare, and reviled."
I will build a new world, he thought, but for the most part, I will not see it. Murderers would be brought to justice in far-off places, but he would play no part in it. Crimes would be committed and solved in Minas Tirith, and he would only hear about them afterwards. Wars would be fought, and sometimes he would lead them, but other times, perhaps, his place would be to stay behind, and let others lead in his name.
I wish… he thought, but although he was comfortable in Faramir's presence - more comfortable than he had ever hoped to be in the presence of his Steward - there were some things that he could not say.
"Knowing when to stand back," Faramir said quietly, "is not the same as not caring. And, much as it might exasperate me and everyone else who wishes him a long and prosperous life, I would rather serve a king who sometimes forgot to stand back, than a king who did not care."
Side by side, they stood in silence for a while. The patch of blue sky broadened, and a beam of slanting sunlight struck the city far below, making the white stone shine.
And that might have been the end of it, except that one evening, three weeks after the fog had ended, a stranger appeared at Mínir's door. "Who is it?" Mínir asked harshly, shambling to the door, but not unlocking it, not yet.
"Will you let me in?" came the reply, and he knew that voice, he knew it. It was the faceless man from the fog - that vivid memory that still, sometimes, seemed like a dream. And he was still faceless when Mínir opened the door, for his hood was down, and the dark room was lit only by a guttering candle.
"How did you find me?" Mínir asked, stumbling back to his bed and sitting down.
"You ask me that?" the stranger said. "You, you used to boast of being able to find anything?"
"I can," Mínir said. "I could," he corrected himself. "And I don't boast." He gave a wry smile. "Maybe I should have. I could have charged more then."
"Not that you kept even half of what you asked for," the stranger said.
Mínir was too weary to feel alarm. "How do you know that?"
"I know many things," the stranger said. "I know that you blamed yourself to failing in a test that you had never been trained for. You were no warrior, and even hardened warriors fled in the face of the evil that came against us then. You had done nothing to be ashamed about, but even so, you have spent the last three years trying to atone. You have helped people who needed help, for little reward. You know these levels of the city better than any one alive. You have helped her people when they needed it. Given the right chances, you could help so many more."
Mínir shook his head mutely, not really understanding.
"Gondor is no longer at war," the stranger said. "It is not just warriors alone who will build the world to come. We need men like you."
"We?" Mínir echoed. His hand closed on the rumbled blanket of his bed, fingers curling into the fabric.
The stranger was still faceless, just a shadow beneath his hood. "I had not planned to do this," he said. "Perhaps I should not do this. If it is the wrong thing, I am sorry for it, but I feel that it is not." He pushed his hood back, and let the light of the guttering candle play on his face.
Mínir was slow to recognise him, at first. Of course he was. He had seen his king before, of course, but for him to be here…! It was too vast. It was too impossible. It could not… It could not…
"Sire," he rasped. He was too far gone even to fall to his knees. The world was spinning around him, as if he was lost in the fog again, and would never find his way out. "But I said… I said that you didn't care. Forgive me. Forgive me, sire. Forgive me."
"There is nothing to forgive." His king's voice was gentle, as mild as it had been in the fog, and as impossible to disbelieve. "And you did not say that I did not care, merely that I should not care."
"I know why you said it," his king said, "and others, perhaps, would agree with you, but for different reasons. I cannot get involved in every situation, just as a captain of armies cannot minister to every one of his dead. I should not, perhaps, have come down that night, although I will doubtless do it again."
They were faceless in the fog once more, Mínir realised. The king was not speaking as a king should speak, and a moment before, Mínir had interrupted him, without calling him 'sire.' It was as unreal as a dream. The world was grey, and all certainties had gone.
"Standing back is not the same as not caring, Mínir," his king said. "My duties lie elsewhere, but I need men, trusted men, to do those tasks that I cannot do myself."
"What…?" Mínir swallowed. "My lord, I do not understand…" He swallowed again. "…why you are telling me this," and not casting me into prison or dragging me away in chains as the impertinent traitor that I am.
"I am offering you a job, of course," said his king. "To use those skills that you have used for years, in the service of the city you know so well. To find things that are lost. To listen for reports and rumours. To help people. To track down law-breakers. To expose the guilty. There will be others too, of course, working beneath you, and you will have gold to do it with."
"Why?" It barely sounded like his own voice. "Why me? I'm nobody."
"Nobody is nobody," his king said, just as Mínir himself had said during the fog. It no longer sounded ridiculous, not the way the king said it. "And you are exactly who you need to be: a man I can trust to do the job, and do it well."
Mínir stood up and walked to the window. Outside were high stone walls, and a tiny patch of sky where there shone a single star. He blinked, his vision blurring with the threat of tears, so that everything was grey again, all his certainties lost in the fog.
"But he accepted, in the end," Aragorn said, when the story was done. "I believe he will do very well."
But he could not help feeling a shade of regret. This was the world they lived in now. Once, the enemy had been Sauron and his minions, and Gondor had been protected by its fighting men. In the world of the Fourth Age, she needed men like Mínir, as well as warriors. She needed men who could dig out the plots and petty evils of ordinary men. She needed men who could track down thieves, not just men who could face down monsters.
But perhaps Gondor had always needed such men, but her stewards and kings had ruled from their ivory towers, and failed to see it. Mínir's nature had been shaped by his harsh upbringing on the streets, years before the War of the Ring. Even as the Siege of Gondor had raged, some men had sunk so low as to loot the abandoned houses, or so Mínir claimed. There had always been men who killed and robbed their fellow men. Now that the great evil that was Sauron had fallen, the lesser evils were more visible, but they had always been there.
And Aragorn would fight them. It would not be a fight that he would often wage with his own hands, but he would fight them nonetheless. With the help of good advisors, he would create just laws, and uphold those laws that already bound him. He would appoint good men, and trust them to appoint good men in their turn, and trust them all to do their jobs well.
He would stand back when he had to. He would not stop caring, for he could not do that, and still remain himself.
He thought of the Citadel shining in the sunshine, while the city below lay buried beneath a sea of fog. His place was here in the heights, now, because this was the task that destiny had given him. In this new Fourth Age, the kingdom needed someone to rule it and guide it, someone who could see further than the others, and more clearly. But the world that had been lost in the fog was his true kingdom, and that was what mattered. He would walk into the fog when he needed to, and trust others to do so, when he must not.
He remembered his dream of Minas Tirith lost beneath the waves. It was a just a faint memory, now. Today both city and Citadel were sparkling in the same sunlight, and birds sang overhead, speaking of the coming spring.
"They will do well," Aragorn murmured, as a warm breeze stirred his hair, and far below, the bells were ringing.
"Yes, my lord," Faramir said, with a warm smile. "Yes, you will."