Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23) wrote,
Eildon Rhymer
rhymer23

Lord of the Rings fanfic: The Shadow of War (5/26)

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



Chapter five: A Window on the East

From Tales of the Clans, as told by Bahadir the Singer, in the fourth winter of the Twelveyear of the Silver Horse

This tale was told by Canan of the Clan of the Red Sun, and was passed by her to her daughter and thence to her daughter's daughter, and from her to me, her third son.

When the Eye departed and the towers of Mordor crumbled, times were hard for our people. Many of our menfolk died far away from home, following their lords. The lords had sworn themselves to Sauron, and what could our menfolk do but obey the will of those who commanded them? Far away from home they fell, and there is no mound for them beneath the stars. They died outside the cold walls of the city of stone, and their bodies did not return home to us. In vain did the spirits of their fathers search for them, to show them the way to the realm that lies beyond the grave.

Our world became a young man's world. The men of fighting age had ridden away, and barely half returned. Many of these were broken, their pride shattered by defeat. It was left to the boys to lead us, and the old men, those deemed too old to ride away. And it fell to the women, too, for with our menfolk gone to war on distant plains, it was the women who took up their blades and stood ready to defend the halls of their lords.

When Sauron fell, we returned to our old ways and made war upon ourselves, clan against clan. But some there were who saw more clearly. Some there were who said that if one clan could do much, how much more could all the clans do, if they united under one banner? Gondor had united under their proud northern king, and Gondor had prevailed.

Why were we killing each other, they said, when we could be killing the men of the west? We had lost so many. If we destroyed those who remained, who would stand in the way when the king of Gondor came against us, wishing to become king over all the world?

"Yes!" said the old men, and, "Yes!" said the women, for our brothers and our fathers had fallen far from home, and we had no mounds to anoint with our tears. Their spirits wandered lost before the walls of Minas Tirith, and we wanted them home again.

The young men were proud and fearless. They wanted the clans to unite, but they argued fiercely over who would be the lord of lords who united them. The old men were cautious. They wanted the clans to unite, but they wanted us to stay in our ancestral lands, and wait to see if the king of Gondor came against us.

But the women…? The women were bold. Our brothers and our fathers were lost, and we wanted them home again. We wanted the clans to ride even to Minas Tirith itself, and make corpses and widows of everyone who lived there.

And this time, when the army rode, not all the women were left behind.

******

Crouching by the stream, Kabil cleaned the blood from his blade with a damp cloth, then folded the cloth around until he found a dry part of it, and wiped the blade dry again. The cloth was ruined, stained with the blood of the men of the west. He folded it neatly, and put it in his pouch. Leave no trail. That was what he had always been taught. Leave no sign that could lead enemies to your lord.

Not that there was anyone left alive to follow them. The men of Gondor had been slaughtered, and their women and children with them. Only a few had been spared: survivors on foot who could not follow them; survivors who would bring the tale to those who needed to hear it. Kabil had been unsure about the women and the girl children at first, because in all the old tales of his clan, war was a thing between men. But Hasad, grim-faced and merciless in his chariot, had told them that these women and children of Gondor were the ones who most needed to die. To send a message, he had said. A message that the clans were strong.

"We are strong!" Kabil had shouted, along with all the others.

A message that they were united. A message that they were here, moving into these lands that no clan had ever dared call their own. A message that they were ready to face him, the mighty king of Gondor who claimed dominion over the whole of the west. A message that they had never been his to claim, and never would be.

A message that he should fear them.

"They will fear us!" Kabil had shouted, his blade flashing brightly in his hand.

And fear them, they had. The men of Gondor were doughty fighters, but even the strongest of fighters could not withstand a force of over two hundred, with chariots and mounted archers, and men like Kabil, skilled with the blade. It was a greater fighting force than any clan could have mustered alone, but it was only a fraction of the strength that had stayed behind. Hasad led the strike force. Behind them, beyond the Brown Lands, was Samir, the lord of lords, with an army five thousand strong.

His blade clean, Kabil dared to approach Hasad. Hasad had been wounded, an arrow gouging deeply through the muscle of his upper arm. His charioteer was one of the dozen who had died, and Hasad had refused to accept another. He had driven his own chariot away from the killing fields, and the bandage around his arm was still bright with fresh blood. "Yes, Kabil?" Hasad said.

Kabil prostrated himself, because Hasad was still his lord, even though Samir had overall command of this enterprise of theirs. It was Hasad's knife, and not Samir's, that had made the scar on Kabil's neck. "What command do you have for me, lord?" he asked.

"To stay with me," Hasad said, "and the men of our clan. The others will depart. They serve other lords, and I don't trust them, so I'll send them away. Hasad's men do not need them! Every one of us is as strong as ten!"

"And then…?" Kabil asked before he could stop himself.

His lord knocked him down again with the back of his hand. "To obey without question," Hasad said coldly, but then his expression softened. Kabil was his brother, after all, and they had once been as close as anyone could afford to be, in the dark times of their growing. All that had changed, of course, when Hasad had been chosen for lordship, after the old lord and most of his generation had been slaughtered outside the great white city of stone.

"We have sent a message with our blades," Hasad said, "and the king of Gondor will answer. His answer will come in the form of men. We will lie in wait for them, and kill them if we can, and hinder them if we cannot kill them."

"And if we can't do that?" Kabil asked, despite the risk of another beating.

"We wait," Hasad said, as despite the bandage, a snaking track of blood began to trickle down his arm. "Samir and his army will be here soon."

******

For ever more, the Anor Stone more would show the dying hands of Denethor, withering in the flame. Aragorn had the strength to wrest it to his will, but even so, when he first raised the cloth from the stone, it was those hands that he saw. Whatever else he saw afterwards, it was those hands that he most clearly remembered.

He could not entrust such a stone to Faramir, although in the days of the old kings, the steward had always had the right to use them. He could not even ask Faramir to try. The Dúnedain in the north, who served as stewards and councillors in Arnor, could not use it, for even they could not fight past the vision of Denethor's dying. The stones of the northern kingdom were lost, but that of Orthanc remained.

At first, Aragorn had intended to set the Orthanc Stone up in Orthanc, and had cleared the tower for that purpose. But in the end, after much thought, he had sent the Orthanc Stone to Arnor, entrusting it to his steward in Annúminas. The Anor Stone he kept. If the stones had been closer, they could have communicated with each other with little effort, but between Minas Tirith and Annúminas, there were too many leagues. Aragorn could reach his steward, but only faintly, and only with a great effort of will.

The Anor Stone was housed once more at the top of the Tower of Ecthelion, and he alone possessed the key to the chamber. It was a bleak room without decoration, because what comfort could there be in a room that housed such a stone? The only furniture was a chair. It had always been exhausting to force a palantír to show you what you wished to see, or so said the books of lore. Fighting past the vision of Denethor made it even more draining. Sometimes Aragorn staggered back from the palantír, slumped into the chair, and did not descend the many stairs until the morning.

He seldom used it. Far away from any other stone, the visions it could give him were limited, even if he fought it with all his strength. But sometimes they were enough.

Reaching out, Aragorn grasped the cloth that covered the stone. In the west, the sun was sinking below the mountains. Its dying light slanted through the window in a great golden beam, painted with motes of dust. He breathed in, and out again. The sun passed below the mountain peak, and the light faded into grey shadow.

It was time. Aragorn pulled the cloth from the stone, and saw once again the dying hands of the last ruling steward of Gondor, crumbling like ashes in the flames.

******

Curled up on the window seat, Pippin looked out across the dark Pelennor, past the distant lights of Osgiliath, to Mordor in the east. It was from the east that the enemy armies would come marching. They would follow the route that Aragorn's army had taken to the Black Gate. Unless they found some way to cross the river, perhaps at Cair Andros, and came surging through the farmland north of Minas Tirith…

"They won't get this far." Merry was cupping a hot drink in his hands, and when he came close to the window, the steam clouded the glass. "They'll be stopped. Aragorn knows about them now. He'll do something."

"Unless they try to kill him again. Because that was them, too; that's what they're saying. One of them was hiding here for weeks. What if he wasn't alone?" Pippin pulled his knees up against his chest. "What if they manage it next time?"

"They won't," said Merry.

He said it too quickly, too urgently. He was playing the older and wiser one, reassuring his young cousin. Mustn't let the little ones worry. Must hide the truth from them. "I'm not--!" Pippin began, but then he saw how tightly Merry was gripping his cup. Could it be that Merry, too, was afraid? Could it be that he had spoken so fervently, not merely to reassure Pippin, but because he refused to believe anything else himself?

Merry was eight years older than Pippin, and he was Master of Buckland now, while Pippin was just his father's heir. But what did such things matter? Even Gandalf, at times, had seemed to feel fear.

"Are you afraid?" Pippin asked. "I am."

"Yes." Merry sank down on the window seat next to him. "Do you think they'll send us home? If there's war…"

His voice trailed off. "There wasn't supposed to be war ever again," Pippin said sadly. That was what Pippin had always told himself, anyway. That was why it had been such a horrible shock to arrive home and see what damage had been done to the Shire in their absence. Pippin had raised an army of Tooks, and he and Merry had been commanders in the Battle of Bywater, but that was supposed to be the end of it. Oh, they had ridden around the Shire in their mail shirts and their helmets, but only because it hadn't meant anything. These were pretty costumes, given to them by friends, and they had impressed the younger hobbits. It was safe to wear the accoutrements of war, because they had known all along that they would never have to wear them in earnest again.

"But if there is," Merry said, "do you want to go home? Part of me does. But…"

Pippin had a wife and a little boy. He had a father who was fading, not likely to last many more years. He had a home, and despite all his travelling, it was a home that suited him.

But at home, in the quiet of the Shire, there were such dreams! This was the place he dreamed of, and he had friends here, too: good friends, who had shared things with him that nobody at home could ever understand.

"I do, as well," Pippin said, "but at the same time, I don't. I don't want to go away and leave them. I don't…" But then there was a knock at the door, and he knew that one of their friends was coming. Their friends had far more important things to worry about than the anxieties of two small hobbits.

And so Pippin uncurled himself, rose to his feet, and went to the door, smiling. Without any prompting or collusion, Merry was doing exactly the same.

******

The last candle had almost burnt down. When Arwen entered, she brought with her the light from the hallway outside. But then, Aragorn thought, she had always been his light.

"No," she said, "stay where you are," when he made to stand up from the low settle, draped with worn velvet. She took a taper to the guttering candle, and used it to light fresh candles in a branching metal stand.

Flame. Dying hands withering in flame. Aragorn passed his hand across his eyes.

Arwen lit the last candle, and as each flame grew, the light became warmer. She stood between him and the flames, her body slender, her hair shining, and her hands soft and white, and utterly alive. Then she sat down beside him, placed her hand on his, and waited.

Long minutes passed. He could have lost himself in such a simple, gentle touch, but this was not the time for it. "The stone showed me little that I had not already guessed," he said. "It confirmed Mablung's tale, but I never doubted it. It showed me more, things that Mablung and his fellow scouts, for all their skill, have been unable to discover. The army is real, and it is coming."

"You feared it would happen one day," said Arwen, who knew everything that he knew.

"Yes," Aragorn agreed, watching the shadows that coiled at the heart of each candle flame. "I knew they were uniting," he said, because the scouts had played their parts well, and this was not the first time he had used to stone to look into the east. "I judged that they were doing so because they feared that I would come against them in force, and they wished to be ready. I judged that they would stay in their ancestral lands, and raise no sword against us unless we rode against them first, and since I had no intention of doing that…" He let the words trail, closing his eyes.

Arwen said nothing, merely sat beside him, touching him. It was enough.

He opened his eyes again. "But the stone showed me some good news, at least. The refugees that Mablung spoke of have been brought to the garrison near the Morannon, and are safe there, for now. Mablung must be told. He will be pleased."

"As am I," Arwen said.

"And I," Aragorn said, as the candle flames flickered and the air turned warm with their heat. "I should not have sent them into the Brown Lands. I thought it was safe. The clans have never claimed those lands, or anywhere near them. I thought it was safe, but there were signs. These last few months, there have been signs. I should have heeded them. I should have called them back."

Most people would have said, You were not to know. His chancellor would have said that, and all his councillors in the south. Arwen just held his hand, and sat beside him, quiet in the candlelight.

"And now they are dead," Aragorn said, "and an army rides towards us. The assassination attempt was a shadow." He felt a shiver run through him. It was a shadow that still fell upon his heart. "Questions need to be asked, and questions need to answered. I would not ride to war because of that, no matter how the people call for it."

"They call loudly," Arwen said.

"Yes," Aragorn agreed. He had asked the people of Minas Tirith to acclaim him as their king, and he had refused to enter the city until they had done so. He had given them their voice, and they were beginning to learn how to use it. "But this… This is a cause that demands that we take up arms. We must ride out to face it."

"Must you lead them?" Arwen asked, after a moment of silence.

"Yes," Aragorn said. "Yes, I think I must."

Arwen understood so much, but she also loved him, and so she pulled him into an embrace. "Do not blame yourself…"

"I do not," Aragorn said. It was not entirely true, of course. It was his decision that had sent the scouts and the pioneers into the Brown Lands, but he was king of a vast kingdom, and there was still much evil in the world. People would die as a result of his commands. It was the burden that all captains bore, and kings bore most of all. He had begun to learn that lesson many decades ago in the north. He had travelled as Thorongil to learn it more deeply. People would die because of his commands. If they did, all he could do was go forward. He would learn from his mistakes, and make sure that the next command saved more people than died because it.

"But if we ride to war," he said, "I must lead them. This much I have seen."

******

Beortrod's coat was bright and gleaming, and although he took the food that Éomer had brought for him, it was obvious that he was well fed. Of course he was. The stable master of Minas Tirith knew his job well, and he had a team of able stable hands beneath him. But no Rider of the Riddermark could entirely abandon his horse to the care of another, no matter how skilled that person was. Whenever he stayed in Minas Tirith, Éomer visited the stable daily. His men did the same, he knew.

"Perhaps we will go for a ride later today," Éomer told Beortrod. Shaking the last crumbs from his palm, he patted the horse's proud neck. "But you have borne me well on a long journey. Rest now, and enjoy the care of these brave lads."

Outside, fine rain was falling, although it was still warm. The Citadel guards opened the gate as he approached it, and he passed through the tunnel, and out into the courtyard above. As he did so, he passed two of his Riders going the other way, with treats for their horses in their hands. They were men from his old éored, and he smiled at them, playing their captain, rather than their king. "I am returning from the same errand," he told them.

They would need their horses soon enough, if the things that Aragorn and Faramir told him were true.

Despite the rain, Éomer made once again for the battlements, but this time he looked down not at the city, but at the fields outside its walls. He saw the place where Théoden had fallen, marked now by a simple stone memorial. He saw the hillock where he had set his banner and resolved to make a last stand worthy of song, as doom approached along the river. Then the standard of Gondor had unfurled on the foremost ship, and hope had been reborn in his heart. Later, he and Aragorn had met on the battlefield, but Éomer had no memory of where on the field that had been.

"Should I send to Edoras for more men?" he asked. This time, he knew without turning round that Aragorn had seen him on the battlements and approached him.

By the dampness of his hair, Aragorn had been outside for some time. He had spent most of his life in the wilds, and even now, Éomer knew, he did much of his thinking outside. How many decisions about the future of Gondor had been taken out here on the battlements, or in a garden beneath the trees?

Let this be another, then.

"I cannot raise a full muster," Éomer said. "I cannot neglect the safety of my own realm, with Elfwine still so young. I could raise several thousand, given time, under Erkenbrand in the west. If speed is needed, Elfhelm can bring four companies from the Eastfold, almost a thousand men. If they ride fast and the messenger rides faster, they will be here within two weeks. They--" He broke off. Although Aragorn had not spoken, Éomer knew the answer he would have given. "It is too long."

Aragorn nodded. "If we leave at all, we need to leave soon." He looked tired, as if he had not slept the night before. For his part, Éomer had slept deeply, and dreamed of fierce battle at the head of his éored. He was not a king in his dreams. "You came with thirty men?"

"Thirty men, good warriors all," Éomer confirmed, although they had come with him as his honour guard on a mission of friendship. In some lands, Éomer suspected, an honour guard would consist of courtiers in fair array, but to a king of the Riddermark, no honour was greater than to be escorted by the best warriors in his realm. "So it is war, then," he said, when Aragorn said nothing.

"I fear it could be, yes."

His dreams had been good ones: fellowship and great deeds and glory. But Aragorn had said, 'I fear,' and Éomer had seen enough of the grief and misery of war to understand his disquiet. But, "My men are yours," he said. "They ride where I ride, and I…? I ride with you."

The rain was falling harder now, and water was dripping from Aragorn's hair. "I do not invoke the Oath of Cirion," he said. "This is a threat, yes, but it is not yet one that strikes at the heart of us. You rode from Edoras expecting a peaceful summer in Gondor, leaving a peaceful realm behind you. Should you--"

"I ride with you," Éomer said firmly. It was not what he had expected when he had renewed the Oath of Eorl. He had hoped for a long peace to rebuild his realm, but when he had thought of war, he had imagined riding to the aid of Gondor at the head of a thundering army. He had never thought that it would be with just thirty men. "And it does strike at the heart of us. They tried to kill you."

"There are questions about that," Aragorn said. "It may be that it will fall to Faramir to search for the answers to those, while we are away."

"Then most surely will I ride with you," Éomer said, trying for a laugh, and managing it. "I am not one for this game of spies and deceit; of answers unearthed in taverns and the dark. Let us ride to war, as we did before the Black Gate itself, on the eve of doom."

Clouds parted, and sunlight came through, although it was still raining. Éomer turned away from the sun, looking for the rainbow. "Send for Elfhelm and his men, if you wish it," Aragorn said. "Send them to the riverbank by Cair Andros. I will send provisions to the garrison there, enough to feed them. If we have need of them, they can cross the river there and come up behind us. Either that, or…"

The rainbow was there suddenly, vivid in the northern sky. Away to the north, the rain was even heavier, a grey haze covering the river. "Or?" Éomer prompted.

"There are things I must tell you, Éomer," Aragorn said, "ere we ride out to war."

******

Mínir knew that they had come for him. There were two of them, and they had shrouded themselves in cloaks, but not well enough to hide their swords. And who else in the crowded tavern was wearing a cloak? It was warm night, and the earlier rain only made it feel warmer. One of them stood just outside the open door, ready to block it if he needed to. The other headed into the tavern, clearly searching for someone.

Searching for him.

Mínir sighed. He had nursed his pint for over an hour, drinking just enough to cover the fact that he was only here to eavesdrop. All his work gone to waste. He took one last mouthful, and pushed the rest to the stranger beside him. "It's yours," he said, "if you want it."

He was better than the cloaked man at slithering through a crowd of drinkers. He made his way to the back door and left without either of the men seeing him. Then he squeezed into the narrow passage between the tavern and the house next door, made his way past the piles of empty barrels, skirted the terrace with its outdoor drinkers, and walked up to the front door.

"I believe you're looking for me?" he said.

The cloaked man whirled round, mail glinting at the join of his cloak. His hand went to his sword, and for a brief but dreadful moment, Mínir feared that he had been wrong. These men were enemies. Or they were guards, yes, but they weren't looking for him, but for someone dangerous, someone they wanted to kill on sight. But the cloaked man let his hand fall from his sword, and gave a crisp nod. "You are Mínir the Bloodhound?"

"Quiet!" Mínir urged him. "We don't want everyone to know. That is, after all, the whole point. "

They waited outside until the second cloaked man emerged, and then the two men started walking towards the second gate. Mínir guessed that he was supposed to follow. Despite the warmth of the night, they were not the only people outside wearing cloaks and hoods. It seemed that Minas Tirith was a place of secrets tonight, full of people scurrying around in desperate stealth. Either that, Mínir thought, or a lot of people felt the cold.

He suppressed the urge to laugh. It was lack of the sleep, of course. Lack of sleep, and a pint and a half of strong ale, taken after a day with no food. Lack of sleep, and the dreams that came when he did manage to sleep a little: dreams in which he was stuck outside a locked door, as a man on the other side was killing the king.

His escort led him through the second gate, and then the third. The fourth followed, and the fifth. There they handed him over to a pair of shining fellows who made no attempt to hide what they were: a pair of upstanding officers of the city watch. The sixth gate, like all the others, stood open, no attempt to bar it against honest travellers, although guards with lanterns stood in the opening, peering closely at the faces of everyone who passed. If war did indeed break out, Mínir wondered, would all the gates be closed and barred?

The sixth level was quiet, without the buzz of conversation that filled the other levels. Before today, Mínir had been here only three times, twice openly, and once in secret. For a moment, he wondered if they were going to lead him to the Citadel itself. That gate, at least, was closed. But instead they led him to the Houses of Healing, and into a small empty room. There were no beds in it, only chairs. A place for anxious relatives to wait, perhaps, or maybe a guard room?

They left him there. A few minutes later, the king entered, with Lord Faramir beside him. Mínir went down on his knees, and as the king bade him to rise again, he heard the Steward issuing quiet orders to someone outside in the hallway. That person closed the door, and Mínir was alone with the two most important men in the whole of Gondor.

Me! he thought. Me! I'm here! This is real! But this was not the time for such thoughts. He had a job to do. This was only the third time he had reported directly to the king. Normally he sent his reports in through his contacts in the city watch, and answers and orders came down the same way.

"The people of Minas Tirith talk of war," the king said.

"It is all they talk about, sire." Mínir's mouth was dry. He swallowed; moistened his lips. "Oh, no, it's not all. Young men still talk about girls. Housewives still haggle over prices and gossip about their neighbours. Life goes on. It's not like the darkest days of the siege, when…"

"When life went on," the king said, "even at the worst of times. Even then there were moments of laughter, and moments of great fellowship. Men still broke bread with each other and found time to sleep…"

"And some there were who found love," said the Steward with a smile, "even as all hope appeared to fail." He sat down on a hard-backed chair, and leant forward, his smile fading. "Within hours of the attempt, everyone in the city knew that the assassin came from the east. They knew of the tokens he was wearing. You were asked to discover the source of that tale."

"And I've tried, my lord," Mínir said. "As is the way of these things, few people can remember where they first heard it. But I've traced it as well as I can. It appears to have started in three different places, almost at the same time. The two on the second level, I've tracked down to no more than a general area, but the one on the first level seems to have started in a tavern called The Sword and Stars. I was there tonight when your men pulled me out. I haven't yet tracked it to a single source."

"Try," said the king, with a quick glance at Mínir and a longer one at Lord Faramir. "It is of the utmost importance."

Why? Mínir would have asked, had this been anyone else but the king. Surely there were more important things? Did the assassin have allies? Had there indeed been another man in the weaver's lodging: a man who had jumped from the window just moments before Mínir reached his hiding place?

"Yes," said the king, although Mínir hadn't spoken. "Such things are important, too, and you are not the only one searching." He exchanged another look with Lord Faramir. "If you find anything, anything at all that you consider important, then come to the sixth gate and ask for Captain Celagon, who commands the city watch. Report it to him alone, and if he judges it necessary, he will send for Lord Faramir, and you will report directly to him."

"To him, my lord?" Mínir blurted out. Not to you? He had the sense to stop himself from saying that, at least.

"To the Lord Steward of Gondor," said the king, who must surely have known what Mínir had been about to say. "If you are challenged, show this token." He held out a small metal token, a black coin marked with the white tree of Gondor. Mínir took it, his fingertips brushing those of his king. "And there is another matter," said the king. "An exhausted traveller came through Ithilien yesterday, and fell from his horse within sight of Osgiliath. Do they talk in the taverns of that?"

"They've heard about it," Mínir replied. "Lord Faramir was there, and the two periain. " He turned to the Steward. "You came out with the gate guards who came to carry him in. They wondered if it was bad news from Emyn Arnen, but since you didn't rush out there, they decided it was just a chance traveller who had ridden too far beneath the hot sun. It's already forgotten."

The king and his steward looked at each other again, and some communication was clearly passing between them. Mínir looked discreetly down at his feet, fighting long habit. In his job, if silent communication was taking place, he made it his business to watch it avidly to glean all the secrets that he could.

But even though he didn't watch them, his mind was racing. The king had given him many answers tonight, both in the things he had chosen to ask him, and in the things he hadn't said. The king must have known it, of course. He trusts me, Mínir thought. He trusts me that much. And it was good that he wasn't being called upon to answer, because for a moment, he didn't think he could trust his voice.

They turned back to him soon enough, and by then, he was composed again. They asked more questions: every detail of the things he had seen and heard in the weaver's lodgings, and any stray hint that he had heard about afterwards. "Sire!" Mínir vowed, when the questions fell once more to silence. "I won't rest until--"

"Rest," said the king gently. "Things are not yet so dark that you should rob yourself of sleep."

And then it seemed that the interview was over. Lord Faramir stood up and went towards the door. Mínir chewed his lip, and wondered whether to say it. "Sire." And there he was, saying it, after all. "The weaver," he said. "What happened to him. Is he…?"

"Dead?" said the king. "Imprisoned?" He shook his head. "He is under close guard, that is true, but he is here, in the Houses of Healing. His wound took a turn for the worse, as sometimes happens with injuries to the head. He is still insensible, and he came close to dying, but the healers now hope that he will live."

To be questioned, no doubt. "I don't…" Mínir said. "My lord, I only spoke to him that once, but I don't think he was involved. I think the assassin was in his loft without his knowledge. I believe he is guilty of nothing more than…"

"Weakness," said Lord Faramir. "Inattention."

"Yes," Mínir agreed, because he had already said too much, so there was no point in stopping now. "And that weakness could have killed his king. He will have to live with that. What punishment could be greater?"

Lord Faramir opened his mouth to speak, but the king spoke first. "He is insensible, but the mind is never truly asleep. I have seen some of the secrets that he keeps, and I saw what drives him. For my part, I am inclined to believe that you are right, Mínir. But he must remain guarded."

"Can I visit him?" Mínir tried to soften the abruptness of the question. "Sire, could I---?"

"The doors of the Houses of Healing are always open," said the king. "Show your token, and you will be taken to the room that houses him. But he still sleeps now. He will sleep for several days yet."

And then the interview was over, no farewells, no proper ending. After they had left him, Mínir sank into a chair, and stayed there for a very long time. He had no escort to show him the way back down, and he walked it all alone.

******

"And this is how it has to be?" Faramir said, just before they parted for the night.

Aragorn nodded. "I ride out with the army, and you stay behind. The Steward rules in the absence of the king or an adult heir. That is how it has always been. And it may be that of the two of us, you will have the harder battle. There are secrets in the city, and quite probably enemies already here within the walls."

"I know that," Faramir said. "I will find them if I can. I will stop them."

The hallway was empty, just the faint sound of footsteps as a servant walked away. The shadow of the Anor Stone lurked between them, branded with the image of Denethor's dying hands. It was one of the few things that they never spoke of, although Faramir must surely know that Aragorn used it.

He placed a hand on Faramir's arm. "I know you will."

There was a moment of silence. Faramir broke it first. "When do you ride?"

"As soon as we can muster," Aragorn said. "The messengers went out this afternoon, although it is not yet common knowledge in the city. We have some secrets still."

"It will be known by the morning," said Faramir.

"Yes," Aragorn agreed, "and three days after that, I hope, we ride."

"To war," Faramir said quietly, as the light of torches danced upon his face.

"Yes," said Aragorn. "Perhaps."

******

end of chapter five

******

Note: I have used a little dramatic licence with the palantír. Tolkien tells us that Aragorn planned to use the Orthanc Stone, which he intended to set up in Orthanc. All he says about the Anor Stone is that only people with great strength of will could see anything in it but Denethor's burning hands. Given that we are told again and again that Aragorn has great strength of will, I reasoned that he is probably strong enough to fight past this and use the Anor Stone for its proper purpose. The stones work best when there's more than one of them in use, and the set-up I've gone with at least allows both surviving stones to be used. It makes sense to me, although it's not supported by canon.

Note 2: I've decided not to post any more updates of this story on this LJ. I'm posting it in 3 other places, so there are several other options for people who want to read it, without me cluttering up the Friends page of everyone's LJs with 26 separate posts.

The story can be found in the following places:
AO3
Fanfiction.net
Many Paths to Tread
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