The characters are the property of the Tolkien estate. No profit has been, nor will be made from this story.
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain – Hamlet – Shakespeare.
With grateful thanks to Raksha and Virtuella.
There was pain everywhere. Thorongil had no idea where he was. Hands were prodding him and removing his clothing. He tried vainly to struggle, only to encounter strong hands that restrained him. He felt violently sick and started to retch. The hands supported him while someone held a basin. Then the darkness swallowed him again.
Thorongil had no idea how much time had elapsed we woke again. His head was swathed in bandages and throbbed painfully, as did his side. He tried to take stock of his surroundings. He realised he was lying on a strange bed, larger and softer than his own. Home in Imladris? No, he heard no familiar Elven voices, nor smelled the long-missed fragrances of herbs and flowers scattered throughout the Last Homely House. How had he come to be here? The last thing he remembered was setting out to dine with Steward Ecthelion.
The Captain slowly opened his eyes. To his surprise, he beheld the last person he would have expected to see standing at his bedside: Denethor, Ecthelion's heir. "What happened?" Thorongil whispered through parched lips. It was a struggle to speak. The words came out slurred, as if he were drunk.
"You had an accident and were injured. The child was unharmed," said Denethor. "Would you like a drink?"
Denethor supported his head and held the glass to his lips. "Easy, Aragorn, sip it slowly," he advised.
Thorongil nearly choked on the water. He was so shocked that his control lapsed, surprise and horror showing on his face.
"I know you dislike being helped, but you will soon be well again, easy now," the Steward's heir soothed.
Thorongil groaned, sighed and settled back against the pillows. Denethor had discovered his true name! What else did Ecthelion's son know? And how had he fallen into Denethor's power so helplessly? To what child did he refer?
"Sleep now," said Denethor, kissing him lightly on the brow. Before Thorongil could do more than wonder at such an action, he fell back asleep.
Some hours later Thorongil opened his eyes again. He gingerly sat upright, trying to ignore his aching, spinning head. Denethor lay asleep on the far side of the bed, nearest the door. Thorongil tried to make sense of what had happened.
He must have been attacked. It took no great leap of reasoning to ascertain the most likely culprit. Denethor had distrusted and disliked him from the start. Denethor never ceased to question Thorongil's origins: sometimes casually, sometimes directly, and sometimes subtly, trying to catch Thorongil in an untruth. Now it appeared that the Steward's heir had finally ferreted out his true name. How? Could he have blurted it out when reduced to semi-consciousness by his injuries? Yet, it would be most strange for Denethor to attack him. The heir to the Stewardship was a cold and proud man, but he was also neither a brute nor a traitor. Thorongil could scarcely believe that Denethor would have resorted to such measures to learn his rival's identity.
Could Denethor's jealousy and suspicion have driven him mad: mad enough to have arranged the attack that had left Thorongil with a head injury, and, he painfully realized, a cracked rib or two together with a great many bruises. That too was unlikely. Denethor was a particularly strong-minded man, master of himself as well as of others.
The hostility of the Steward's heir had always saddened Thorongil. They were so well matched that almost could they have been brothers. Denethor was unusual for a lord of Gondor in these latter days, for in Ecthelion's tall son, as in Thorongil, the blood of Númenor ran true. The Steward's heir was gifted with foresight and shrewd intelligence and he thirsted for lore even more than did Thorongil, who loved the old tales and histories.
The heir of Isildur could surmise that Denethor's love for Gondor had made him determined to cling to the right to rule it - at all costs. Not that Thorongil would be such a fool as to try to claim the throne.
Aragorn had dreamed often of reclaiming the throne of his fathers and reuniting the long sundered realms of Arnor and Gondor. He had often wondered whether Elrond's fair daughter would look upon him more favourably if he wore Gondor's winged crown. But he would not make such a claim at the price of harming the land that he loved. Even the revelation of Thorongil's true name and lineage could provoke another kin-strife! It would break the old Steward's heart to choose between the son of his heart and the son of his blood.
But why was Denethor now showering him with kindness, hovering at his bedside and bestowing a fraternal kiss? He could sooner have imagined the son of Ecthelion turning cartwheels in the Court of the Fountain stark naked, than caring for his hated rival! So how had he come to be here, in the bedchamber of Ecthelion's son's room? It was the custom to share with a friend or relative, especially in winter, to stave off the cold, but Thorongil was the last man on earth that Denethor would choose for a companion. And where was Finduilas, Denethor's beloved lady? He could only surmise that she had to visit her kindred at Dol Amroth.
The room was odd too. Thorongil could have sworn that this vast chamber with the enormous bed, which could easily accommodate five Elves, belonged to the Steward rather than to his heir. Maybe he was mistaken? He had only been in Ecthelion's bedchamber once before, when the Steward, confined to his chambers with a fever, had summoned his favourite Captain for the discussion of a forthcoming campaign. The tapestries looked familiar. The light was too dim to clearly discern the images woven into the cloth, yet they seemed very like the tapestries that had covered the walls of his bedchamber in Imladris!
The entire situation seemed wrong, out of sorts. Either Denethor was a would-be assassin or had taken advantage of some unknown calamity. He could not make the pieces fit together no matter how he tried! Thorongil rammed his fist into the pillow and succeeded only in aggravating the pain in his ribs.
After a while, he realised he needed to use the privy. He could only hope that the oddly over-attentive Denethor would not awaken and insist on taking him there! Strange, the man even looked different. Denethor's eyes had held more warmth than usual, and in repose, the stern carven features seemed gentler.
Somehow, Thorongil managed to get out of bed without disturbing his unwanted sleeping companion. He had to hold on to the edge of the bed to keep his balance He made his way round to its foot, where two robes lay folded. He sat down for a moment and pulled one on over his nightshirt.
Once he had closed the chamber door behind him, Thorongil saw with surprise that the corridor was far more brightly lit than usual. Unremembered carpets covered the stone floor. At least the servant's privy and bathing chamber was where he remembered it, a few doors away from the main bedroom. He recalled trying to wash the grime from his hands and face ere a meeting with the old Steward, but then there had only been a simple pitcher of cold water and a bowl, not the fine soap and thick towels that lay there now. He splashed water on his face, wishing fervently that his head did not hurt so much. Thankfully the room was no longer spinning.
Thorongil reached a decision. It was not safe for him to remain in Gondor any longer. He must seek out Ecthelion and ask for his help to return to Rohan. He knew not how long Denethor's benevolence would last, but if he made it clear he was planning to leave, he would probably be safe. Given this strange mood of Denethor's, the Steward's Heir would probably send him off in a well-appointed wain with his favourite cloak wrapped around Thorongil's shoulders!
But where was Ecthelion? He must be sleeping in the second main bedchamber. Thorongil was more familiar with the sitting room between them as well as the Steward's private dining room, where his patron had often invited him for a meal. To disturb the Steward at this time of night would be unwise. Yet he was confident of Ecthelion's affection and support. Surely the old man would understand his plight and help him?
He knocked loudly on the bedchamber door. There was no reply.
"May I be of assistance, sire?" A guard appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. To Thorongil's bewilderment, the fellow dipped his head as if in obeisance. Even stranger, the guard's uniform looked different.
"I would speak with the Steward. Where is he?" Thorongil enquired. To his relief, he no longer sounded as if he were drunk.
"He sleeps sleeping yonder tonight, sire," the man replied, gesturing towards the chamber that Thorongil had recently vacated.
Just then, Denethor appeared. An anxious frown furrowed his brow, which relaxed when Denethor espied his captive. He gripped Thorongil's arm firmly, yet surprisingly gently, and shepherded him back to his room. "You alarmed me by wandering off like that," Denethor chided gently. "Please tell me if you want to go out again. Come now, let us return to bed."
His escape attempt foiled, Thorongil slumped dejectedly on the bed. His best strategy was to appear meek and say as little as possible until he regained his strength. Denethor helped him remove his robe and pulled the covers over him, tucking them under his chin. Thorongil began to wonder if they had both fallen under a spell. What else could suddenly cause Denethor to cosset him like a devoted nursemaid or even a mother? He prayed that Denethor would not bring him warm milk and sing him a lullaby; things were strange enough already.
"Why did I not think of it before?" Denethor said suddenly and went to the door where he ordered the guard to summon a servant to fetch hot water.
Thorongil had no idea what he was talking about until the Steward's son started rummaging in a bag, which appeared to contain healing supplies. To Thorongil's consternation, Denethor selected two dried athelas leaves from amongst the herbs.
"This eases your heart when you inhale it," said Denethor smiling. Just then, the servant tapped on the door. Denethor went to take the bowl of water from her. "You will need to crumble the leaves in the water, as you alone have the power," he told his captive.
"What?" said Thorongil horrified at the discovery of this unquestionable proof that he was the heir of Elendil. Denethor must not have been as senseless as Thorongil had believed him to be when he had treated Denethor for a nasty slash from an Orc blade after their usual Healer had been killed. He had hazarded the use of the herb when the life of the Steward's heir had hung in the balance. It seemed, though, that his decision had cost him dear.
A/n. This story has a long and chequered history. I drafted it about 4 years ago in a different form, then worked some of the draft into a story for the June 2008 "Teitho" contest, "Dark Places" where it was placed first. I still wasn't completely happy with it, though, and apart from being published at Teitho and N&N, it has languished on my hard drive ever since.
Recently writing "Kingdom of Ashes" and a discussion in LJ have inspired me to look at it again.
The plot was inspired by a discarded round robin story at "Creative Juices" and a discarded plot idea of Raksha's.