On from room to room I stray,
Yet mine Host can ne'er espy,
And I know not to this day,
Whether guest or captive I. -Sir William Watson (1858–1935)
With grateful thanks to Raksha and Virtuella.
The characters are the property of the Tolkien estate. No profit has been, nor will be made from this story.
Denethor now regarded him with what appeared to be genuine bewilderment. He had no idea the man could play-act so well! "The air in this room is not especially stale," Thorongil said lamely. "Why do we need athelas?"
"You have never hesitated to use it for others, so why not for yourself?" said Denethor, holding the bowl in one hand and offering him the leaves with the other.
Thorongil had no choice but to take them and drop them in the bowl in the same fashion he had seen in the elderly serving women when they freshened the rooms.
Denethor 's keen grey eyes looked puzzled. Those eyes troubled Thorongil. They seemed somehow to have changed. He almost had a look of Lady Finduilas about him. It was said that Men grew to resemble their wives, a saying Thorongil had always thought foolish, but maybe it was true after all?
"Does your head still ache?" Denethor enquired.
"Yes," Thorongil replied tersely.
Denethor poured two drops from a vial into a glass of water and held it to Thorongil's lips. "Drink this!" he commanded.
"You are trying to poison me!" Thorongil cried.
Denethor took a small sip from the glass. "It does not taste that bad," he said, "Come on, it will make you feel better!"
Thorongil was compelled to drink, though still fearful the draught was some nefarious potion, designed to weaken him and addle his wits, rather than the simple pain relieving draught he craved.
"Why am I here?" Thorongil asked.
"The ladies suggested we should keep one another company," Denethor explained, as if talking to a child.
Obviously it was some peace-making scheme of the Lady Finduilas that they should share a room while she was away from the City. The gentle lady was ever seeking to make peace between her husband and Captain Thorongil. There were some disputes that even the Steward's wife could not heal, and this, alas, was one of them.
But Denethor had said ladies, not lady! Had Denethor carried him into some den of loose women while he was unconscious, to trump up some lie to be told to Ecthelion? There were pleasant and comely women in several taverns that they had frequented who had certainly made it clear they would welcome more intimate relations than good coin paid for refreshment. Thorongil felt his head pound anew; it was all so confusing!
He rubbed circles into his temples, wishing that he could just make this nightmarish day end forever. Perhaps Finduilas' older sister, who had recently visited her, had suggested that Denethor seek the company of a trusted man when Finduilas was feeling too ill to make intelligent and stimulating conversation? Thorongil had met the Lady Ivriniel, older daughter of Adrahil; and found her to be a good-hearted woman inclined to jesting. Could Denethor have lured Ivriniel into a sinister plot on the pretext of a mere jest?
He did not know! He should know! Thorongil could not hold back a moan of frustration.
"Easy now, rest," Denethor had climbed into bed beside him and had laid a hand upon his shoulder. Thorongil wanted to recoil from such a false and patronising gesture, especially when his unwanted companion started to gently rub his back. Yet the touch seemed genuinely comforting, like that of a comrade or brother, such as Halbarad, or Elladan or Elrohir. Most curious, though, was the difference in Denethor's very hands. When Thorongil had last dined with the Steward and his son, he had idly observed that both father and son shared short, stubby, though strong, fingers. Denethor's hands now seemed long and slender. Stranger still, Denethor was using an Elven technique that Thorongil often recalled Master Elrond using to ease him as a child. However did Denethor know that? With that unsettling thought, he drifted into a dreamless drug- induced sleep.
When Thorongil awoke again, his head still throbbed. He was still in the vast luxurious bed and wanted nothing more than to bury his aching head in the soft pillow. He wondered if Denethor were still there.
Blearily, he opened one eye and stared in amazement. Denethor was getting dressed. He had already donned his breeches, but his lean body, so like in build to Thorongil's own, was bared to the waist. Denethor stood with his left side facing Thorongil as he raised his arms to don a shirt. That was the side, which had been slashed by a Southron blade only a few months ago. The healer had been killed and it had fallen to Thorongil to tend the grievous wound. Despite his best efforts, Thorongil knew only too well that such an injury would leave a deep and painful scar unless the victim had access to treatments unknown outside the Elven Realms. Gondor had had no contact with Elves for generations. Yet Denethor bore no trace of a scar.
Thorongil let out a sharp intake of breath. He must be losing his wits!
Denethor must have heard him, for he hastened to the bedside, tucking in his shirt as he did so. "How do you fare, mellon nîn?" he enquired.
If Thorongil had not known him better, he could have sworn the concern in the man's voice was genuine. "Much better, apart from a slight headache," he lied, not wanting to betray his weakness.
Denethor frowned. "I dressed in here rather than the dressing room, as I expected you to awaken any moment," he said. "Would you like some tea? I have sent for some. The healer will be here to see you soon. I hope he will give you something for the pain. He only left one dose of poppy syrup with me, alas."
Thorongil nodded in pretended compliance. He wished he had not when the dizziness from the day before returned.
Denethor squeezed his shoulder, obviously in pretended sympathy. "Easy now, the healers said it would take a day or two for you to feel yourself again," he said.
A servant tapped on the door and Denethor went to open it. Thorongil seized the opportunity and tried to get out of bed, but failed dismally. As soon as he attempted to put his feet on the floor, he started to feel decidedly queasy and he found himself suffering the indignity of being escorted to the privy by Denethor.
He felt much better, though, when he returned, and felt able to sample one of the steaming mugs of tea. Denethor pulled the covers around him again and held the cup to his lips. Suddenly fearing it might be drugged, he tried to think of some excuse. "I am not thirsty after all," he said lamely.
"Come, you need to drink," said Denethor. "See, it is not drugged." He took a swig from the mug, before offering it again to Thorongil.
However could the man read him so clearly? Denethor was noted for his perception, but this was uncanny! Thorongil drank. He was in truth, very thirsty, and the tea was reviving.
No sooner had he finished it than another knock came at the door. This time, Denethor opened it to admit a stocky, fair-haired man clad in healer's robes. Denethor regaled the man in great detail about his captive's symptoms.
"Tell me how you feel, my lord and spare no detail!" the healer said. He had a strong Rohirric accent, which surprised Thorongil. He thought he knew all the healers in the Houses, at least by sight, and they were all Gondorians. And why did the man call him 'my lord' rather than 'Captain'? He was a lord only amongst his own people in the North.
"My head aches and I have experienced nausea and dizziness," Thorongil replied in perfect Rohirric, hoping to maybe establish a rapport with the man. Denethor had little time for healers, so this man was most likely what he appeared to be.
"That is usual after a head injury," said the healer, while he unwrapped the bandages and examined the wound on his head in a very professional fashion. "Hmm, you are doing well; the wound is clean and should soon heal, and you seem perfectly lucid. I think you could get up later, if you do not over exert yourself. I will give you something for your headache."
"I should like to consult Master Beren about my injuries," said Thorongil. Beren was a good friend, an elderly Healer who was interested to learn whatever Northern herb lore Captain Thorongil was willing to impart. If he could but get a message to him, maybe his friend could help him flee.
"You will not escape my attentions so easily, by asking for a healer who does not exist!" the healer said, and laughed ruefully. "Little wonder that the Warden preferred to set a broken leg this morning and left me to attend upon you!"
"But Master Beren is real; you must know him!" Thorongil protested.
"I have never heard of him either," added Denethor in perfect Rohirric. Thorongil's spirits sank further as his bewilderment increased. Wherever had the Steward's son learned to speak the language of the Mark so well? He had obviously understood every word of Thorongil's conversation with the healer.
"It is not unusual to be a little confused after suffering a head injury, my lord," said the Healer. "Maybe you mean Beleg?"
"Yes," said Thorongil quickly.
"Everyone confuses similar names at times, my lord," the healer said cheerfully, as he wound a clean bandage around Thorongil's head. "You are fortunate your thick skull has saved you from serious injury this time, but you need to rest."
"I will see that he does," said Denethor. "I have cancelled all my engagements today, so that I can remain at his side. I am greatly relieved the cut is healing well."
Thorongil suppressed the urge to glare. Had this arrogant man not even the decency to allow him to have his wounds treated in private? At least his head had stopped spinning now.
"Do your ribs still pain you?" enquired the healer. "Shall I apply more comfrey ointment?"
"No," Thorongil replied tersely, determined not to allow this healer to examine him further in Denethor's presence.
"I ought to examine them just in case. You were severely bruised in the accident," the healer persisted.
"No!" Thorongil snapped in a tone that allowed no argument. "Later, I am tired now."
"He was very sick just now and passed a restless night," said Denethor. "I have the salve here for when he needs it."
"Very well, I will wait until tonight before examining them again, "said the healer, as if humouring him. " It is best you do not exert yourself. I will mix you some willow bark tea to ease the pain without making you sleepy. I will leave a draught of poppy juice for later. You know the correct dosage." He mixed up the herb and handed the cup to Thorongil.
"It tastes vile!" Thorongil spluttered.
"You always say that!" the healer commented placidly. "Healers make the most complaining patients!"
Thorongil could have sworn he had never seen the man before today, but all the healers would by now know he was one himself. After he had treated Denethor's severe injury successfully, Ecthelion had made his gratitude widely known. One of his colleagues must have told him more about his patient. Or was the man truly a healer from the Houses at all, given that he did not know Beren?
The healer placed a vial of poppy juice and a packet of herbs on the table. "I will call again later. Farewell for now, my lord."
"My wife was wondering if you had any ginger root to spare in the Houses," Denethor said as he showed the healer to the door. "It always helps settle our little one's stomach."
Thorongil realised this was his chance. Denethor adored his infant son, Boromir, and missed no opportunity to boast of him. Taking up the vial of poppy syrup, he slipped two drops in his jailor's half finished tea. The potion would not hurt him, but he should sleep deeply for hours.
A few moments later, when the healer finally left, Denethor picked up his mug and took a swig of tea. He grimaced and put the mug down; its contents still unfinished, much to Thorongil's dismay. Still, maybe he had consumed enough to make him sleepy and allow his escape.