Chapter 2

by Cassia and Siobhan

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“Have you ever seen it, Aragorn? The White Tower of Ecthelion, glimmering like a spike of pearl and silver, its banners caught high in the morning breeze... Have you ever been called home by the clear ringing of silver trumpets?” 

“I have seen the White City.  Long ago.” 

--Boromir and Aragorn, FoTR

The air was crisp and cool as the war-weary battalion crossed the long plain of the Pelennor.  They were some of the last to return and these units had suffered some of the greatest losses.  Yet the moment they sighted Minas Tirith in the distance, rising from the earth like a glittering white gem, every heart seemed to lift a little and weary steps became swifter. 

The Haradrim had finally been beaten back, but the cost had been high.  A traitor in their ranks had very nearly caused the loss of three entire companies when they were ambushed in the little wooded valley of Ravenbrook.  Fortunately for them, Thorongil had judged something amiss when he came upon the enemy’s trail and rode swiftly to the aide of the beleaguered troops. 

Mounting a daring and nearly suicidal rear assault on the carefully airtight attack of the Haradrim, Aragorn and the small company with him had driven a hole in the enemy’s defenses, allowing the trapped legionnaires to break free.  The ambushers became the ambushed and the tide was turned.  It ended up being a rather spectacular victory for Gondor and a deciding moment in the war.  Very soon after, the Haradrim began to retreat and press their attack no further. 

With the situation at last firmly in control, the weary troops were slowly being called home as border outposts were refreshed and re-outfitted with new battalions.  Even with the war over, Gondor could never afford to lax the security of its borders. 

Denethor and Thorongil’s main hosts had been some of the last to be recalled, staying until they knew that all was truly peaceful and under control once more.  Wounds had been tended and rest taken in the weeks they had waited to be called home, so it was a proud, freshly scrubbed host of men who marched towards Gondor and a victor’s welcome.  The nearer they got, the greater the anticipation on their war-weary faces. 

Aragorn, riding at the head of his column, saw the White Tower of Ecthelion gleaming in the early morning sun like a beacon to lead them home.  From their high vantage point, the tower guard had already seen the returning soldiers and the moist air carried the sound of trumpets ringing already within the city to herald their safe return. 

Aragorn glanced at Denethor, riding at the head of his men some distance away.  The future steward smiled slightly when the sounding of the trumpets reached his ears.  Many of the soldiers did.  The horns called to them, welcoming them home, filling them with pride for themselves and their city, despite all the horrors and death they had seen. 

Aragorn could not deny that he felt that pull in his own heart as well. Yet as he entered the massive gates he could not help thinking how very far removed the city seemed from the events happening outside its protective circles of walls. 

Here life went on, babies were born, chores were completed, children played in the streets, running out to see the returning soldiers, smiling and waving and cheering.  And that was as it should be.  It was, after all, what they fought for: to keep these lands safe for children to be children and for the general populace to continue its normal existence unhindered. 

Aragorn let his eyes drift back to the white tower ahead of them as they passed slowly through the different layers of gates that crossed the main road leading towards the palace.  As much as he wanted to go back to the lands of his youth, he knew he could not leave until the threat that was promising to devour these people was gone.  And despite what everyone seemed to think, he knew this was far from over.  Aragorn had that responsibility to them... to his people.  No one else may ever know it, but he knew, and he would see them protected from the threat that even yet waited to fall upon them. 

Many people, gathered by the sound of the trumpets, turned out to cheer the returning troops home and the faces of the men, taut and drawn from long months of fighting, eased and smiles began to appear. 

The word “Ravenbrook” was on a number of tongues and it seemed that news of that particular venture had already reached the general public.  Thorongil looked up, surprised to realize that many of the well-wishers were chanting his name amid their cheers.  

He was complimented, obviously, but in a way he wished they wouldn’t.  He wasn’t the one to be praised; it was the men under his command and their courage that had won the day.  Yes, he had led the way, but they had followed him into that death trap without a moment’s hesitation. 

Aragorn stole a sideways glance at Denethor, now riding abreast with him and withheld a silent sigh.  The future Steward’s dark hair fell in clipped waves about his face, pulled back from his forehead by the thin circlet resting on his brow.  In all honesty he looked a little older than Aragorn, although in reality he was a year his junior.  

At the moment Denethor’s face betrayed little, but a distinct rigidness in the corners of his mouth told that he was not pleased to ride in the shadow of the people’s admiration for another.  Aragorn knew that this conflict, and especially the treachery surrounding the attack at Ravenbrook, had taken a strong toll on the other captain and he warranted that Denethor was not looking forward to having to make the report that they both knew lay ahead of them. 

The crowd’s adulation was doing nothing to ease the growing tension between the two captains, although there was unfortunately little that Aragorn could do about that.  He had tried his best to be a friend to the other man, but Denethor would have none of it.  

When they reached the innermost set of gates, horses were left behind as was the law, and the soldiers were lined up and then dismissed.  Denethor and Aragorn alone entered the last sets of doors and made their way into the great hall where the Steward of Gondor waited for them. 

The two captains strode up the length of the long hall together, their plumed helmets tucked neatly under one arm. With their armor cleaned of battle stains and their uniforms fresh, they did not look as ones who had been fighting a long and wearying set of campaigns, save for the grim lines of their faces.  They stopped before the Steward’s seat.  

Both of them bowed respectfully, saluting in the manner of the city, and then stood at attention. 

Ecthelion II was no longer a young man, although his stature was undiminished, and he held his snowy-white head with the dignity and bearing of his long and powerful bloodline.  The Steward rose to greet his returning captains.  His eyes lit up and he smiled.  He went first to Denethor, resting his hand on the young man’s shoulder and giving him a gentle squeeze.  “Welcome home, my son. It is good to see that you are well.” 

The Steward then crossed to Aragorn and touched his shoulder.  “And you as well, Thorongil. Stories of your actions proceed you.  That was a brave thing you did.” 

Thorongil nodded respectfully.  “Thank you, Sire, but I did only what was necessary. The men are the true heroes, especially those who did not return.” 

Ecthelion smiled, Thorongil’s selfless answer only raising his opinion of the younger man.  That, however, was hardly necessary, for he already openly favored the captain as something close to a second son. 

Denethor’s hand tightened on the helmet clasped under his arm, but he said nothing. 

Aragorn glanced furtively towards the younger man.  He wanted no strife between them.  “We were fortunate that Lord Denethor had fortified the northern hills so well already. If the enemy had been able to come down on us from that side as well, many more lives would have been lost.” 

Ecthelion nodded, looking back towards Denethor.  “Then my son at least did not totally disgrace himself.  However, I would hear how he allowed the men to be taken in such a trap in the first place before I judge that.” 

Aragorn flinched inwardly for Denethor’s sake.  Denethor had not been present at the battle of Ravenbrook, but it was he that had ordered the men to go thither.  Aragorn knew that question was the one that the other captain had been dreading. 

Denethor’s gaze did not waver but his knuckles whitened slightly.  “We were betrayed.  My senior officer, Mardil, broke trust with us and gave away our position to the Haradrim.” 

“Mardil...” Ecthelion shook his head.  That was grave news, but unfortunately not entirely unexpected.  “Did I not tell you that he had changed, Denethor?” the Steward’s voice was sharp.  “He was with you on this mission against my better judgment.” 

“I know that, Father, and I... I am sorry,” Denethor ducked his head quickly before bringing it up again.  “Mardil has paid for his crimes.  I will not make such a mistake again.”  Denethor and Mardil had been friends as children; the shock of the betrayal was still an open wound inside him although he let no one close enough to see it. 

Ecthelion touched the side of his son’s face gently, directing the younger man’s eyes towards him.  “Denethor, your people are counting on you. I expect more from you than this.” 

The younger man nodded once, his features taut. 

Ecthelion sighed slightly and turned away.  “Now then, the borders are secure once more for the time being.  What say you both?  Do you think the Haradrim have taken significant losses to make them think twice before trying such tactics against us again?” 

“Yes, sir,” Denethor nodded quickly.  “All together their casualties number in the thousands.  Their warlords are power-hungry, but they are not united and internal fighting continues to keep them much occupied.  We should not have to worry about them for a long time.” 

Aragorn’s face became troubled.  He feared that he could not concur with his fellow officer’s assessment. 

“You don’t agree, Thorongil?” Ecthelion turned his keen gaze upon the other captain, sensing the man’s hesitancy. 

“Respectfully, I’m afraid I do not,” Aragorn shook his head slowly.  “My Lord, if the Haradrim warlords were all that were behind these attacks, I would most certainly concur with Lord Denethor’s conclusions.  However I believe that the battles we have fought thus far have been tests only.  Distractions to measure our strengths and weaknesses, to see our tactics in action.” 

“I see,” Ecthelion nodded thoughtfully, pacing slightly in front of his great seat as he considered the other man’s words.  “But if the Haradrim have some overriding goal as you say, it shows a level of unity that we have yet to see from any of them.” 

Aragorn shook his head once more.  “Lord Ecthelion, I do not purpose that the Haradrim are behind these attacks at all.  It is my belief that they are being used.  Either directly with their paid consent, or indirectly as unwitting decoys.  The real enemy we have to fear is the ones who have stirred them up for this purpose.  Sire, the Corsairs of Umbar have been our enemies time out of mind.  I see their fingerprints in the doings on the borders.  Weapons forged in Umbar have been found on many of the Haradrim dead and I believe that the Corsairs stirred up the old blood feuds between Gondor and Harad for their own purposes.  Umbar has always maintained that Gondor should be theirs and I believe that they are massing their power to strike, and strike hard.” 

It was too much for Denethor, who shook his head in disbelief.  “You believe?  They hate us, yes, it has always been thus, but do you honestly think they would be so foolish?  They are nothing but pirates!  Rabble!  You overestimate them I think, Captain Thorongil.” 

“Do I?  I think not,” Aragorn refuted quietly.  “For twelve years now they have been building their massive fleet to new proportions, stockpiling weapons as a farmer stockpiles wheat against a long winter.  These attacks we have weathered are only the first wave.  If we allow them to continue with their plans and strike first, the losses will be high.” 

“And if we start a needless war with Umbar, the losses will be higher!” Denethor’s tone rose slightly.  “We have just returned from a war, Thorongil!  The people are weary of strife; it is draining our resources and our country.  And you would have us now assail a power of that level and start another bloody conflict, and for what?” 

Ecthelion was still deep in thought, his brow creasing, but he raised his hand to halt the debate between the captains.  “If the Corsairs were prepared to strike as you say Thorongil, what would your council be?” 

“Strike first,” Aragorn answered calmly.  “It does not have to be long or bloody.  They are not yet ready.  All their arms are designed for attack, not for defense.  A swift blow now would cripple them.  Catch their ships in the harbor where they are useless and cannot maneuver, do not wait until they have sailed down the Anduin and are pummeling our cities with death!  Already their ships have been sighted on the Anduin as far down as Lithiant. What could they be doing there other than gathering recognizance?” 

“What proof have you of all this?” Denethor questioned.  “What proof that we would truly be avoiding a conflict and not merely be starting one?  You speak of ships and sightings, but have you seen them?  You speak of weapons, but where are they?  We have seen naught but the swords of the Haradrim and the reports of a few soldiers and some peasants who may or may not have known what they saw.  This country needs peace, not more war.”  

Inside, Denethor’s heart seethed.  He fancied that he could see through to Thorongil’s true motives in this matter.  Surely, the other captain would like nothing better than another chance to further his name on the battlefield.  To march into Umbar unannounced and unprovoked to ‘subdue’ the supposedly hostile area and become a hero as the savior of Gondor, no matter how many needless lives were cost in the process. 

“Yes, they need peace, but sometimes peace comes at a cost, and cannot be obtained by waiting until it is too late,” Aragorn replied quietly, but with conviction.  He was as weary of war as the others were, perhaps even more so.  He wanted nothing more than to go back north and see his family again.  But he could not leave knowing what he knew.  Ecthelion had to be made to see the threat hanging over them all or the cost would be very high indeed.  “And there is an even graver reason.  The shadow on our eastern borders rests not.  If the Corsairs attack and our defense seems at all uncertain, rest assured that Mordor will not squander an opportunity to empty its wrath on us and unloose total obliteration on our heads.  We live in an uncertain world, my Lord, surrounded by enemies. We cannot take that chance.” 

“And what if by inviting war with Umbar we bring down that very shadow that you claim to fear, Thorongil?” Denethor questioned tersely.  “I say again that I do not see the need for this.” 

Ecthelion looked between the two captains.  He could tell that they both held stoutly opposing views on this subject and he sighed slightly.  “Your words fill me with unease, Thorongil, for the Corsairs have been heavily on my mind of late... and yet Denethor is right.  We have no solid proof, and I would not walk into a war that could be avoided.” 

“But your highness...” Aragorn started to protest, Ecthelion however raised his hand for silence.  

“Hear me out.  I would not start a needless war, but neither would I discount your concerns, for your council has always been wise in these matters.  Therefore, it is my decision that we need to look into this matter further before any decision is reached.” 

Denethor did not look pleased.  

“Captain Denethor, you and Captain Thorongil will lead a force of men to Lithiant together to check on the rumors of activity coming from there.  Report to me what you find and we will discuss this more at that time.”  He hoped that working together more closely would resolve whatever conflict was slowly growing between the two men.  As the heads of the Gondorian army, the two captains had conducted campaigns together, but they had never shared command of a single force.  “I expect you to aid one another in order to get to the bottom of this.  Captain Denethor will be in charge, but Denethor I want you to listen to Thorongil, because he has wisdom in many matters that it would do you well to learn.” 

Aragorn cringed inwardly.  That remark was not going to help his and Denethor’s relationship at all, although the Steward did not realize it. 

Denethor bristled slightly, but only bowed his head.  “As you command, my lord.” 

Ecthelion nodded somewhat wearily.  He was tiring more and more easily of late.  “Then you are dismissed, my son. I will see you later. I wish to speak to Captain Thorongil now.” 

Denethor nodded stiffly and bowed once before turning on his heel and exiting the room darkly.  

Aragorn sighed as he watched him go.  This was not going to be an easy task. 

“You do not think I handled that well?” Ecthelion surprised Aragorn with the question. 

The younger man shook his head quickly.  “It is not my place to judge your actions m’Lord.  If I gave such an impression it was not my intent. I would never offer you such disrespect.” 

Ecthelion smiled.  “And yet you do not approve. Why?  I expect you to speak the truth to me, Thorongil. You always have in the past and that is something I count on.  I know you must understand that I cannot rush heedlessly into conflict with the Corsairs on your word alone, however trusted it may be.  And on top of that my son does not support your cause.  If we are to war, it must be with common purpose. Gondor is too weak to support disunity.  Is it that you do not like being under my son’s authority?”  the older man chuckled.  “If I thought I could reverse the positions I would, but I would not wish on you the problems that would cause, Thorongil.” 

“No sire, I have no reservations about serving under Captain Denethor and I understand your reasons in all these matters.  I hope that our trip to Lithiant may uncover something useful.  If you sense hesitancy in me, my lord...” he paused.  “Permission to speak to you freely, sir?” 

“You know you always have it,” Ecthelion nodded. 

“I... I fear that your son thinks your opinion of him is ill,” Aragorn admitted.  “Mardil’s betrayal hurt him deeply.  When the treachery was discovered, Denethor was forced to take Mardil’s life with his own hand,” the Captain spoke softly.  “He feels shamed.” 

“As he should for not listening to my council in the matter,” Ecthelion looked saddened despite his words.  “Or yours.  We both warned him.  His folly almost lost us the war.” 

“He wants only to prove himself in your eyes, my lord,” Aragorn said quietly. 

“And you think I treat him too harshly,” the Steward nodded, understanding now. 

“That is not my place to presume,” Aragorn shook his head.  “I speak only what I see.” 

“Know then, Thorongil, that that is more than my son would do for you.  He would like only too much for you to fall out of my favor, don’t think I haven’t seen that.” Ecthelion shook his head.  “Denethor is a good man, but he is proud and too often lets his emotions lead him, as this Mardil case is an example.  He will be a fine Steward of our people... but understand this, Thorongil,” Ecthelion paused, his gaze suddenly very serious.  “I do not have much longer to live. I can feel my years failing me.  If I seem to push Denethor, it is because I know that his time is coming all too soon and I would have him ready for it.” 

Aragorn nodded.  “I understand, sire, but... I wish you would tell him that.” 

Ecthelion let his breath out slowly, wearily.  “My son and I... we have almost become strangers, Thorongil.  I cannot talk to him like I talk to you... I wish he were more like you.” 

Aragorn looked away.  

“There is something else weighing on your mind, Thorongil. I can feel it.” 

“Yes,” Aragorn looked back.  “When... when this task is completed and whatever end can be reached is reached... I would humbly request your permission to leave your service.” 

Ecthelion nodded slowly and held the other man’s eyes.  “I would not keep you unwilling, Thorongil, but I would grieve to lose you.  Tell me one thing, and I will be content with what you decide should that time come.  Is it because you do not wish to serve my son when he replaces me?” 

Aragorn shook his head.  “If I thought he would accept my service he would have it, but it is not that, my lord... my heart yearns for the lands of my youth and I feel that my time here is drawing to a close.” 

Ecthelion released the younger man’s gaze.  “Then you have my blessing, Thorongil.  You will be sorely missed when that day comes.” 

“Thank you, sir,” Aragorn nodded and bowed.  “One request if I may?” 

The Steward nodded.  

“Say nothing of this to anyone if it please you.  I would not have the men think that I sought to abandon them at the same time that I wish to lead them into war, for that is in no way my intention.”  Aragorn knew that Ecthelion himself would hold no such notions, but he did not wish for others to become confused. 

“I will do as you wish on that matter, Thorongil.  May your mission be successful in leading us to a course of action, whatever that course may be.” 

Aragorn bowed once more and then left.  Walking back out into the sunlight he turned his face towards the warm rays as the brilliant light glinted off the silver and blue of his uniform.  He had a feeling that this mission was going to prove very... problematic. 


The lights of the soldier’s fires danced cheerily in the dark night.  At first Legolas had sat apart from the Gondorian troops, but the week’s travel had worn the edges off their unfamiliarity and he now regularly joined Alcarin and his men around the fire circles at night. 

“If the spiders are that big, I would hate to see the flies!” Elan, a young man of perhaps seventeen shook his head in wonder at the information Legolas had shared about his home.  The young soldier had a pretty obvious case of admiration for the elf after having been treated, at request, to a sample of the prince’s marksmanship and other abilities.  Legolas found the young one’s attention both endearing and humorous. 

“You need more than a flyswatter to handle them I’d guess!” another soldier laughed heartily. 

Legolas smiled at their mirth.  He knew they had finally begun to trust him because there was no longer a guard posted carefully out of sight of his sleeping area.  They thought he didn’t know, but of course he had known all along.  He did not grudge them their wariness; a stranger in his father’s realm in such a situation would have been treated just as carefully until his intent was known.  As a prince, Legolas could appreciate their position, but he could also appreciate that they were at last beginning to trust him. 

The men liked hearing stories about elves and the lands to the north where they had never been, and for the most part the prince had been warmly welcomed into their little group.  There were a few, like Castamir, Alcarin’s second-in-command, who still kept his distance from the stranger and preferred to have little to do with him, but it was the exception rather than the rule and Legolas was pleasantly surprised by how easily these men had accepted him.  In Gondor at least, the elven race was not feared, even if the common folk still knew little enough about them. 

Dalthad was only a day or two’s march distant now, and Legolas fully intended to part ways with them there.  The slow pace of their travel, further hampered by over-burdened wagons, had begun to chafe at him.  Still, his time with the troops had been a good experience. 

Little did he realize as he lay down to rest that night just how quickly everything would change. 

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