Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23) wrote,
Eildon Rhymer
rhymer23

Lord of the Rings fanfic: The Shadow of War (3/26)

Chapter one, summary and notes are here. (Alternatively, you can read it on AO3 here.)



Chapter three: Blood on Stone

From Blood on Stone, by Peregrin Cordwainer of Osgiliath, F.A. 1404

The attack rocked Gondor to its core. It was such a public act, witnessed by thousands of ordinary people. It was no dagger in the dark. It was no great feat of arms, performed on a blood-drenched plain. It was death sudden and shocking, coming in the middle of a festival. Like a play, it had been carefully staged. To those who planned it, the audience was as important as the chief players.

Did they know what they were truly witnessing, these people who had come to witness a ceremony of welcome? Did they know what they were truly seeing, these people who stood ten deep and saw a man fall to his death? Did anyone there truly know? Did even Elessar, renowned for his wisdom, know the true significance of what was happening?

For the world was changing. The world had changed so much in the lifetime of those who stood there that day, and surely some of them must have hoped that all change had come to an end. They considered themselves to be living in a golden age, and they wished that it would never end.

But once the wheels of change start turning, they can never be stopped. A tiny seed was planted that day, but it would grow.

It would grow.

******

At length, and far too late, they were through.

Someone had pushed heavy bales of cloth up against the door, and even when the wood gave way to the repeated blows of the axe, the bales refused to move. Mínir and the guards had to hack at the cloth and tear it away with their hands. People outside were already screaming by the time they managed to squeeze into the weaver's chamber, one at a time. A guard went first. Mínir wanted it to be him, but he had never been a fighter; never been one to know how to defend himself, except in the sort of brawls that you had in the streets, all kicking and teeth.

That guard hissed something - some code word, perhaps, that only meant something to other guards - and a second guard nodded briskly, and followed him in. Mínir went third.

The noise outside was terrific. Sprawled on his back next to the loom, the weaver lay, blood slowly oozing from the side of his head. Mínir wanted to check on him, but there was no time. Dead men didn't bleed, though; he wished, sometimes, that he didn't need to know that. Mínir stepped over him, meaning to rush to the window, but a guard was ahead of him, approaching it cautiously, making sure that any watchers outside saw his empty hand first, pressed against the window in the agreed signal.

"I see the king's banners!" the guard exclaimed, too relieved to remember the need for quiet words. "I see the king. Lord Faramir. The queen. All standing." And then he looked down at the street below, and gasped.

Because there was screaming, of course. Outside they were all screaming.

Mínir wanted to tear the guard away from the window and look out himself. He made himself turn the other way. The ladder to the loft was blocked, hemmed in by bales and crates that hadn't been there an hour before. There was noise behind them: a foot on a creaky floorboard, perhaps, and a sudden sensation of a draught. "He was upstairs," Mínir said, but the guards were already at work, hauling away the makeshift barrier. One went up, his dagger in his hand. Another followed. Mínir heard footsteps on the floorboards above.

Mínir had meant to follow them, but instead he followed the draught. There were two more rooms at the back of the weaver's lodgings. The kitchen was full empty flagons and reeked of stale wine. There was a sadness to the bedroom, reminding Mínir of his own bedroom in the dark years before he had encountered the king. The curtains were closed, but the window behind them was open. He moved towards it, and caught hold of the curtain, creating a tiny gap between the fabric and the edge of the window. Closing one eye, he peered through.

"There's no-one here," a guard said from behind him. Mínir didn't turn round. "Just the unconscious fellow. He'll have questions to answer when he wakes up."

"That's the weaver," Mínir said. "Innocent, I think. Too drunk to know what was going on under his nose."

They were on the fourth floor, too high for anyone to jump down. Across a narrow alleyway, there was another building, a lower one, its tiled roof steeply sloping. The gap was surely too great to jump, and the landing too difficult. But several tiles were loose, and two lay smashed in the yard below. Surely not, he thought, but, still…

"There's nobody upstairs," the guard said. "Not any more, at any rate."

"Not any more?"

"Dead," the guard said. "Shot clean through the glass, he was, and fell out the window. He's lying there on the cobbles out front. We got him. Not quiet-like as we hoped, but we got him. Our lads got him."

Everyone in Minas Tirith was lining the main streets, watching the procession. Was that a flash of movement there at the end of the alley, like a dark cloak swirling as it rounded the corner, and then was gone?

"Yes," Mínir said, but he frowned as he said it, and chewed his lip. "Yes, we did."

******

The guards had formed up around him, assuming defensive positions, ready to die rather than allow any harm to come to their king. Faramir, too, had rushed forward, as if his first instinct upon hearing the screaming had been to throw himself towards Aragorn and protect him. He, at least, had stopped himself, and was looking outwards, his hand on the hilt of his sword, and his eyes forever in motion.

Aragorn tried to step forward. The guards stopped him, their swords thrust out towards the heaving crowd. Few of them knew what was happening, that much was plain, but they could hear other people screaming, and they were afraid. A boy was knocked from his feet, and hauled up again by his mother, wailing. Pushed from behind, a knot of people surged forward, barely yards from the guards' swords. "Back!" the guards shouted, raising their swords. "Get back!"

"Look to your duty," Aragorn commanded quietly, his voice almost lost in the clamour.

The guards formed up even closer, shoulder to shoulder, blocking his way. Aragorn felt Arwen's gaze upon him, and turned towards her, but it could only be the briefest of glances. His expression could not alter, but he gave her an inward smile, knowing that she could read it. He had already known that she was unharmed.

"Look to your duty," Aragorn said again, still keeping his voice low, so the crowd would not hear their king rebuking his own guards for protecting him. "The people are in a panic. We are unharmed."

"Back!" Faramir shouted. "Stand back! All is well! The king and queen are unharmed!"

Faramir, at least, they obeyed, although even then it was difficult. A crowd in panic had a momentum of its own. They respected Faramir and were accustomed to obeying him, but they were afraid. Aragorn could have commanded them, using the voice that had sent orcs to flight and the gaze that had cowed the Mouth of Sauron himself, but he would never do that, not to his own people.

The guard consented at last to relax their guard upon him, and moved outwards, quietening the crowd. They were firm, as he had known they would be, but kind, although he feared for a moment that they would not be. Faramir managed to approach Aragorn closely enough to address him quietly. "Is it over?" he asked. "Has the shadow…?"

Aragorn looked inwards. "Shifted," he said. "Not gone, but… changed." And it truly was a shadow that he sensed now. There was no longer the sense of imminent death and violence, just the sense of a shadow cast by the sun.

"What happened?" Faramir asked. "What has happened?"

Ahead of them, very close now, Aragorn saw the banners of Rohan. Had Éomer been the target after all? He sucked in a breath, then let it out gently, knowing beyond doubt that nobody he loved had died this day.

"Mínir was right," Aragorn said quietly, but the rumours were already spreading, racing through the crowd, spoken from person to person, and sometimes repeated in loud exclamations. The assassin had been in a high window of a building on the next street over, just visible through a gap between two tall towers. Somebody had seen him at the window and shouted a warning, and somebody else had been quick on the draw, shooting the assassin before he could do his vile work. He had fallen from the window, and lay dead on the cobbles below.

"Dead?" Aragorn echoed, but Legolas had already heard it, and was racing through the crowd, moving as swiftly as only an elf could do. If the assassin still lived, Legolas would ensure that he was kept alive. If he was dead, and there were answers to be found from the way he had fallen, Legolas would find them.

"What now, my lord?" Faramir asked.

"We carry on," Aragorn said. "Nothing should change."

He saw Mínir trying to elbow his way through the crowd, but he knew that he could not talk to him. He would have to see the assassin, alive or dead, but this was not the time for it. He could not step aside. He could not even as much as glance at the high window where a man had been lying in wait to strike him down. The danger was over. No, the danger was still all too present, because panic could kill, and rumours could spread and plant fresh dangers of their own. He had to show them that he was calm and untroubled. He had to show them that this was only a minor interruption, nothing to disturb the day.

And slowly, slowly, as he walked onwards, the crowd stilled, as they came close to believing him.

He could almost believe it himself.

******

"What's happened?" Pippin wanted to shout, because there was so much noise all around them, and screaming, too; he was sure there was screaming.

He tried to look at Merry, but Merry was on the far side of Éomer, and out of sight. The banners were huge: horses galloping across the sky. They were through the Gate now, but he still felt it looming behind him, even more so now that they were dismounted. It was just one gateway, but it was taller than anything in the entire Shire. He looked back at it over his shoulder, and saw that it was blocked by a crowd of people, who had gathered outside to watch them arrive and were now surging in after them. There was nothing to do but go on. But of course, he thought, because that's what we're here for.

And then Aragorn was walking towards them, with the queen at his side, and Faramir was there, too. Gimli was there-- Legolas! Where was…? But Gimli was smiling at them and nodding his head vigorously, so Pippin knew that wherever Legolas was, he was well. So it had come to nothing, then. Whatever the screaming had been about, it had ended happily. Now there was nothing to fear but the ceremony itself, and that would soon be over.

Aragorn pressed his hand to his heart, and then moved it outwards, in what Pippin supposed was some Gondorian gesture of welcome. Éomer walked forward, and there was more solemn gesturing, and then Éomer and Aragorn embraced, but it didn't look like a real embrace, not like the one they had shared the morning before in the camp. Everyone cheered, though, and that was good.

Then it was their turn to come forward. Should I kneel? Pippin wondered. Yesterday, Aragorn had said that they would be meeting King Elessar today. That's why he'd come to meet them: so they could do their informal greetings and leave today for the formalities. Pippin was still a guard of the Citadel, and many in the city would remember that. Perhaps they would be offended on their king's behalf if he didn't kneel. But…

Aragorn shook his head ever so slightly, his eyes flickering sideways for an instant. Pippin looked where Aragorn was indicating, and saw Merry busy with bowing: just a brief bow, no kneeling involved. Pippin copied him, and everyone cheered. Oh so many people, and every one of them was cheering!

But it was Aragorn's smile that Pippin saw most clearly. He had always had such a nice smile, even when they'd first met him as Strider, and hadn't much liked the look of him. He hadn't smiled often, but he'd smiled just enough. He'd probably smiled for their sake, Pippin realised suddenly, because he couldn't have had much to smile about back then, knowing the dangers they were going to face. So even though Sam had been slow to trust him, they'd all of them been subtly comforted by his presence. They followed him, and listened to him, and when they saw him smiling, they knew that it was safe to sleep.

Seeing Aragorn's smile, Pippin finally let himself relax, and felt himself smiling, too. The crowd loved it! At home, ceremonies were informal things, full of food and laughter, and if you tripped over and said the wrong thing, everyone there enjoyed it all the more. Here in Gondor, ceremonies were solemn things, and the words and gestures had to be just right. But perhaps, at the heart of things, they were not that very different, after all.

They were all about people. They always were, the things that mattered most.

******

The man was dead. "The arrow had taken him in the throat," Legolas reported. "He was dead before he landed."

"But who was he?" Faramir asked.

Several hours had passed, and they were gathered in a chamber below the Citadel, lit by many candles. The assassin's body had been brought there under close guard, in case the man had allies who wanted to recover his body. Captain Haedirn had doubled the watches of the Citadel guard, and down in the lower levels, the City guard was out in force. Aragorn's smile might have reassured Pippin and those in the crowd close enough to see it, but the city was a troubled one tonight, full of rumours and fear.

Aragorn ran his fingers across the dead man's brow, as if he could draw truths from his mind with a touch. The guards had stripped him for searching, but Aragorn had made them cover him again, draping him in a plain white sheet. His death wound was covered, and he might have seemed merely sleeping, were it not for the coldness of his skin.

"One of ours?" Faramir asked. A man from Gondor, he meant. A citizen of Minas Tirith who so hated his king that he had been prepared to forfeit his life in an attempt to kill him. Faramir pressed his hands together, shaking his head. "Surely he cannot be one of ours."

"No captain is universally loved," Aragorn said. "Even in the happiest of companies, there are grievances. It is thus in kingdoms, too." It was only to be expected. When Denethor still lived, Aragorn had expected that some in Gondor would bitterly resent his coming. But to be driven by that resentment to attempt an assassination…?

Faramir said nothing, but he started pacing. Candles flickered as he passed them, and shadows fell deeply on his tense face. He was taking it hard. Minas Tirith had been his home from birth, and as steward, he had claimed to speak for the whole of Gondor when he had welcomed Aragorn as king. At times like this, he reacted as a host whose guest had suffered an insult in his house, or a parent whose child had done something unforgiveable.

"But this one…" Aragorn said more gently, brushing his hand against the man's dark hair. "No, he is not one of ours, I believe."

"But he doesn't look…" Faramir was aged by the candlelight, the shadows deep beneath his eyes. "He is not of the blood of Númenor, that much in plain, but there are many in northern Gondor with colouring such as his. I had some like him with me in Ithilien. He is wiry, and tanned like someone who spends his days outside: a farmer, perhaps, or a hunter…"

"A hunter," Legolas said. "He has calluses on his fingers. I held his hand as its warmth faded, and I felt them there. He is no stranger to the bow."

"Yet his bow was not with him when he fell," Gimli said. "That rough lad of yours - Mínir? - says he found it upstairs…"

"Strung, but discarded," said Faramir, "with a poisoned arrow lying beneath it, as if it had been nocked to the string when he had let the bow fall."

They were only voices now. With the back of his loosely curled fingers, Aragorn touched the dead man's cheek, his brow, his eyelids that were forever closed. Too late now. Secrets could be gleaned from the body of a dead man, but the secrets of his heart would remain forever unspoken. What had driven him? What thoughts, what fears, had clamoured in his mind in the moments before his death? "He was following the will of his lord," Aragorn murmured. "He did not dare step back."

"His lord?" That was Faramir.

Outside on the stairs, there came the sound of heavy footsteps as the watch changed. There was no other sound, except for the faint whispering of candle flames. Before the hour was out, they would have to leave this place and don their finest clothes to welcome their guests with feasting and songs.

Aragorn moved away from the body. Heated by the candles, the air was noticeably warmer than the dead man's skin. "He came from the east, I believe," he said, because it would be discovered soon enough, if it had not been discovered already. "East of Rhovanion but west of Rhûn. They are not so different from the men who lived in Gondor before the coming of Elendil. Over the centuries, they have moved away from us in speech and custom, and we from them, but we look like enough to pass unnoticed through each other's lands. This one lived in Minas Tirith for many months, or so it is being whispered."

"Pass unnoticed?" Gimli echoed. "There is a tale here, my friend, is there not?"

"There is indeed." Despite everything, Aragorn smiled. "I lived among them for a while. They were a fractured people, riven by rivalries and clan wars, and the emissaries of Sauron were winning the allegiance of their lords one by one. My presence went unremarked, until…" He gave a rueful smile, shaking his head. "Until it was not. I escaped with my life, but barely. A boy from one of the tribes helped me: a tribe that had not yet fallen to Sauron."

"And he is from these people?" asked Faramir, who was usually as hungry for stories as a hobbit, but cared nothing for them this day. "These Easterlings have been a growing menace these last few years, but to attempt an act like this…! Are you sure of it?"

"There is a knife mark on his throat." Aragorn gestured towards the bunched-up sheet, but did not touch it. "It is how their lords proclaim their mastery." He walked to the table against the wall, heaped with the scant possessions of a man who had died so far from home. The clothes revealed nothing, clearly bought in the markets of Minas Tirith, but pinned to the inside of the shirt, there was a brooch fashioned in the shape of a red sun with rays of bright gold. "He wore this hidden beneath his clothes," Aragorn said. "It is the sigil of his lord; the badge of his clan. If his lord commanded this, he would not have known how to disobey."

"Then it is an act of war!" cried Gimli.

Yes, Aragorn thought. A declaration of war, made before every man, woman and child in Minas Tirith. For months, he had Faramir had kept the warning signs hidden, hoarding the intelligence that trickled in, and watching the east. It was all in the open now: if not the truth, then wild rumours, and rumours could be even more damaging than the truth.

"Yes," said Faramir. He let out a slow breath, as if he was consciously laying aside the consternation he had felt since the assassination attempt, and looking to the future. His eyes met Aragorn's, and Aragorn knew that he understood. "The question is, what do we do about it?"

There was a brisk knock at the door. It was almost time. Pulling the sheet over the dead man's face, Aragorn gestured to Faramir to open the door. One by one, Gimli snuffed the candles, until the dead man lay in the darkness.

It was still light outside, although low in the east, the first stars were gleaming.

"It is not the only question, of course," Legolas said, coming alongside Aragorn with his silent steps.

"No," Aragorn agreed.

******

The songs were the songs of home.

The banquet hall was built of towering stone, with tall white pillars and windows of many-paned glass. It was Gondor through and through, and nothing like the thatched hall of Meduseld, with its carved floor and its ancient tapestries. But once the feasting had finished, licence had been given to the feasters to wander around, and that was not the way of Gondor at all. They gathered now in small knots, and spoke in increasingly loud voices, and sang the songs of home. And if you closed your eyes…

Éowyn half closed her eyes now, and listened to the men of the Mark sing the songs that she had grown up hearing. Inhaling, she could smell woodsmoke and spilled mead and roast meat flavoured with cloves and honey: familiar smells all. Beneath them, if she tried, she found the faint scent of horses and leather and outside. She remembered leaning out of her mother's window, straining to feel the cold wind upon her cheek, straining to catch that smell. Quiet behind her came the sound of her mother's spinning wheel, while the wind brought her the sound of her father's Riders singing songs of fellowship and war.

Movement beside her dragged her away from her remembering. "It is just like home," said Éomer, sitting down in the empty chair beside her.

"Of course it is," Éowyn said, more sharply than she would have liked. "It is done this way to honour you."

"I know that," Éomer said, taking her hand. His hand was larger than Faramir's, and more coarse. "Éowyn--"

"The seneschal wanted a grand banquet in the style of Gondor," Éowyn told him. "It would have gone on for hours, with long speeches. All the nobility of Gondor would have been invited. It was only proper, he said."

Éomer chuckled. "I expect Aragorn made short shrift of him. He is not one to care over much about the cluckings of petty officials."

Éowyn shook her head. "He listens to advice, even when he thinks it is wrong. He grants his seneschal enough victories to keep him content, then over-rides him politely on the other things. He has a strong will, as we all know, but…" She remembered trying to dissuade him from entering the Paths of the Dead. She would never forget it: the darkest moment of her life. The despair was a thing of the past, but she still sometimes woke up silently screaming, remembering what it had felt like to stand in the path of someone with such an iron will, knowing that there was nothing she could do to stop them embarking on a course she considered disastrous. "…but a good king must know when not to exercise it," she simply said.

"And a good steward, too?" Éomer asked. He had brought his wine glass with him, Éowyn saw. She wondered how much he had drunk. Faramir and the king had drunk no more than politeness demanded, she knew, barely touching their lips to the glasses when the toasts were called. "I cannot imagine that Faramir was entirely happy with Aragorn's decision to ride out to greet us in disguise."

"No," Éowyn agreed, "but like the king with his seneschal, Faramir chooses his battles."

"And when he chooses to fight them, does he win?" Éomer raised his glass, but only took a small sip, she noticed.

"Sometimes." Éowyn shifted uncomfortably, suddenly unhappy with the direction the conversation had taken. Faramir was on the far side of the hall, talking to Pippin, while Gimli and Merry sat nearby, engaged in a conversation with more laughter in it than words. Faramir looked up when her eyes found him, but even from across the hall, she could see the shadow that lurked behind his quick smile.

"He looks happy enough now, at any rate," Éomer said. Éowyn had grown accustomed to other people failing to read Faramir's expressions as well as she could, but it still gave her a start to hear it coming from her brother, who had seemed so mighty to her as a child. "There were some in my party who wondered if the feast would be cancelled, because of the…"

"Because of what happened," Éowyn finished for him. She shook her head. "They would never cancel your welcome. The king knows what is important." She did not have to turn her head to know where the king was. Whenever he was in a room, everyone there was subtly centred on him. She often wondered what that felt like, for a man who had spent so many years walking alone and unobserved.

"But there are places he would rather be, I think," said Éomer quietly.

"No." Éowyn shook his head. "But…" She let out a breath. "He wants to be here, but he wants to be elsewhere, too. It is hard for men like him to let things unfold without them. He wants to be down in the city, scouring that loft for clues. He wants to be questioning witnesses."

Éomer smiled. "Are you talking about Aragorn or Faramir?"

"The king, although it is true of Faramir, too." She ran her fingertip around the rim of her glass, and looked at the lights sparkling in the surface of the untouched wine. She had come to understand Faramir, and because she could read him, she was learning how to read the king. "But did you notice? News was brought to him throughout the feasting. When the servers came with food and wine, they often brought notes, and he read them as soon as they were brought to him."

"I didn't see him do that," Éomer said, "and I was sitting next to him."

"No," Éowyn agreed, because she knew that nobody else had seen it, except for her and the queen. Éomer was accustomed to deeds and action, but Éowyn and the queen were women in a world of men, forced to live as watchers in the wings. "But if there have been fresh developments, he knows of them. And yet he is still here."

"Yes." Éomer took another sip of wine. As he did so, Pippin's laughter rang out, joyous and uninhibited. "And there are two who will always be content no matter what dangers threaten them, as long as the food is plenteous and the fellowship good," Éomer said with a chuckle, nodding towards the two hobbits.

"You do them a disservice." Éowyn's voice was sharp again. "They are not children, and neither are they fools."

"I know that," said Éomer. "I have spent many weeks with them, and I have exchanged many letters with our new Master of Buckland. I know their worth. But they have the gift of taking pleasure in the moment, even in the darkest of times. They value friendship and fellowship and good hospitality, and there is little in this world more important than those."

"Yes," Éowyn agreed with a sigh.

"Éowyn…" Éomer took her hand again. Her fingers were slender, and could not escape. "What is wrong?"

"I am with child," she told him. She had not meant to do so, not like this.

"Éowyn!" He laughed with delight. "Another one!" His laughter faded. "Are you…?"

"Happy," she said. "Of course." Her smile was real. She pressed her free hand to her still-flat belly, lean and muscled from long hours in the saddle. "In Gondor, or so the very solicitous old ladies tell me, a noble lady keeps herself to her own home when she is expecting a child and is seldom seen by those outside her household."

"They always were too keen on their rules and their etiquette in Mundburg," Éomer said, lapsing into the tongue of their shared home.

"Yes," Éowyn agreed. "How is Lothíriel? She stayed at home in Edoras, I believe."

"Of course," Éomer said. "Because she is…"

"Yes," Éowyn said, as the songs from her homeland came to an end, and a minstrel from Gondor stood up and sang of the great deeds of long-dead men.

******

"There are few answers," Aragorn said, "and those that there are only raise more questions."

The feasting was over, but some solicitous servitor had brought a tray of leftover morsels and a flagon of wine to Aragorn's private chamber. Éomer had poured himself a glass, but it remained undrunk. The others left the food untouched

"After Mínir passed on his warning, there were over a dozen archers with arrows ready nocked, watching that window for any movement," Aragorn said. "The first thing they saw was the glass breaking and the assassin falling. None of them loosed the arrow that killed him."

"Yet he was killed by an arrow," said Legolas. "It was in his throat when I saw him."

"Yes," Aragorn agreed.

Éomer was sitting with his wine glass resting on his lap, holding it in both hands. Faramir's hands were clasped together, pale with tension. Legolas was the only one of them standing. There was nobody else there. Gimli was with the hobbits, and Arwen and Éowyn were presiding over the end of the night's festivities.

"When I had learnt what I could from him," Legolas continued, "I went up to the place from whence he had fallen. There was much blood on the floor inside the window. He died there, I think."

"But we cannot find the man who killed him," Aragorn said. "If he was one of ours, he has not come forward."

"Someone in the crowd?" Éomer suggested. "Someone who happened to catch sight of the danger and shot an arrow just in time?"

"When those who were specifically tasked to watch for that danger failed to see it?" said Faramir. "Someone who shot an arrow without anyone seeing him do it? Someone who has failed to come forward and take the credit for saving his king? There is no man alive in the city who would not acclaim him."

The smell of cold meat drifted towards him, seasoned with cloves and honey. Aragorn pushed the tray further away from him. Even after fourteen years in Gondor, he preferred the scant, simple food of his travels to the rich portions that everyone so delighted in offering him. "And then there is the matter of the shouted warning," he said. "The warning that drew the attention of everyone present and told them exactly what they were witnessing. Our archers report that the warning came a moment before they saw the assassin at the window."

"Just after a single bell sounded," said Faramir. "We heard a lone bell earlier, just before we left the Citadel." He looked pale and tired, a lock of hair falling across his face. "You remarked upon it, did you not?"

Aragorn nodded. "We will have to discover which tower housed that bell, and who rang it. It might have been innocent…"

"Or it might have been a signal." Éomer raised the glass to his lips, but lowered it without drinking.

"And then there is the matter of weaver's lodgings," Aragorn said, "and the hints that can be gleaned from it. Mínir reports that when he entered, the loft ladder and the rear rooms had been concealed behind bales and crates, but he thought he heard movement there. He is far from sure, but he believes that there might have been somebody else there, somebody who escaped through the window."

"What does the weaver say?" Éomer asked. "He has been taken into custody?"

Faramir nodded, clenching his fists even tighter, but it was Legolas who answered. "I was with him when he awakened. He was drunk, and he has little memory of anything that has happened this day. Somebody knocked on his door, he said. Just once, I asked, or was there a second knock later? He cannot remember, but he remembers opening his door, and he remembers waking up with a bleeding skull. There is nothing in between."

"Mínir believes him innocent," Aragorn said. "He believes him to be a man driven by despair to seek forgetfulness in a flagon of wine. He believes that he was unaware…"

"His blindness could have killed his king!" Faramir's head snapped up, and his eyes were suddenly blazing. "His weakness. Of that he is guilty beyond doubt."

"He was consumed by despair," Legolas said, "that much was clear to me."

"Despair is no excuse," said Faramir, but his voice was quieter now. Was he remembering his father? Was this sudden uncharacteristic anger directed at the father he could no longer confront? Perhaps. Or perhaps he just spoke as a Steward of Gondor, ashamed of the failings of someone he felt responsible for, although he had never met him.

"No," Aragorn agreed, "but it can explain, and we should remember that despair, and temper justice with understanding." He reached for the flagon and poured himself a glass of wine, but barely touched it to his lips. In the candlelight, it was almost black, swirling with shadows. "So that is how we stand," he said. "We have an assassin from the east; that much is certain, although I do not wish it spoken abroad. But who shouted the warning? Who killed him? If there was another man in the house when Mínir entered, who was he, and where did he go?"

"And why was he there?" Éomer asked.

"To aid him?" Faramir said, but his face was clouded with doubt.

"Or to hinder him?" said Legolas. "To kill him by jabbing an arrow into his throat, and then pushing him out of the window? There was blood inside the window, and there were certain… signs. But I am not sure of it," he said, when Faramir looked sharply at him. "But if such a man was there, then he left from the window. Mínir thought the jump was too far, but it is not. I did it. An agile Man could have done it, too, I believe."

"But why?" asked Éomer, draining his glass at last. "Why would be do it like this?"

A shadow, Aragorn thought. The whole thing was a shadow, to distract them from the truth. "But what is the truth?" he murmured. And what should I do about it?

******

So that was that, Mínir thought to himself. It was all over. Job done. He had found the assassin just in time, and although it hadn't gone to plan after that, at least the assassin had been stopped before he could carry out his hideous plan. Because of me, he thought, unashamedly taking pleasure in it. It was often a thankless task, the one he had been given. Sometimes he knew that he was making a positive difference to Minas Tirith, but other times he was less sure. He had to live in the shadows. Sometimes, just sometimes, he had to win the trust of men with villainy in their hearts, and then betray that trust. It was all for the greater good, he told himself, but it never felt good, not when they looked at him afterwards; not when he made his solitary way back home, and sat there alone, looking at his fractured face in the broken mirror.

But today… Today had been good. It had been good, he told himself, for what could be better than saving the life of his king? Because of his skills and his contacts, a killer had been brought to bay. It was over. End of story.

But it wasn't, of course.

He felt aimless, walking alone through streets that teemed with noise and anger. He wanted to go back to the weaver's loft, to see if there were signs that he had overlooked, but he knew that anyone showing a light in that window would be torn to pieces by the crowd. He wanted to find the weaver himself, and talk to him. Mínir well knew what it was to hate yourself and sink into destructive misery. Did the weaver even know that his drunkenness had almost led to the death of the king? Had they told him?

I want to be the one to tell him, Mínir thought, and tell him gently. He found himself walking uphill, heading towards the gate that would take him to a higher level. But what was the point? The weaver would be securely imprisoned in the Citadel itself, and nobody as humble as Mínir would be allowed to see him.

Back down, then; down through the streets he knew so well. They should have been alive with partying and celebration. Instead every tavern and every street corner was packed with people who seethed. Someone had dared to attack the king! Blood had been shed almost at his very feet! "What will those Horse Lords think of us," he heard, "if this is the sort of welcome Minas Tirith gives to its guests?" It was one of those murdering Easterlings, was everywhere reported. The assassin had a brooch that labelled him as such, and before he had died, he had gasped something in their barbaric tongue.

They should not be allowed to get away with it; that much everybody was agreed upon. "If I had a sword, I would offer it to the king," one man declared, and another laughed, and said, "You would not be allowed to," but nobody who heard it liked that laughter. There were more promises of swords and axes. Furious and afraid, the men of Minas Tirith wanted war.

No, Mínir thought. It isn't over at all. It has only just begun.

On to chapter four
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