Disclaimer: The characters are the property of the Tolkien Estate. This story is written for pleasure not profit.
With thanks to Raksha and Deandra.
Ecthelion picked up the topmost sheaf on the pile of parchments his secretary had brought him. It was a request for reinforcements for the garrison at Osgiliath. The old Steward tried to force himself to concentrate but the words swam before his eyes. It had been five days now and there was still no word from Thorongil. Maybe Denethor had been right after all?
It was sheer folly to send his best captain, together with a band of Gondor's finest men, against the might of the Corsairs. Thorongil had seemed so confident, though, and in all the years that Ecthelion had known him, his judgement had never proved wrong. Maybe though, this time he had overreached himself and was now slaughtered, or captured and forced to row the galleys himself.
Ecthelion shuddered. Surely, the Valar would not be so cruel as to snatch away the man who had become so dear to him?
A knock on his study door jolted him out of his reverie. "Come in!" the Steward called.
Beleg, his faithful secretary, put his head around the door. "My lord, a messenger from Umbar has just arrived."
"I wish to speak with him directly," said Ecthelion.
"He has ridden hard and needs to take refreshment and bathe and change his clothes first," Beleg protested.
"Are you deaf, man?" Ecthelion snapped impatiently. "Show him in at once. He can refresh himself later."
"Very well, my lord." Beleg closed the door again.
A few moments later, the secretary returned with a travel- stained man, who had obviously been waiting in the kitchen, as he was wiping ale from his mouth with his sleeve.
"What news from Umbar?" asked Ecthelion.
"The corsairs are utterly routed, my lord. Many of their ships and men were destroyed in the battle. Captain Thorongil slew their Captain upon the quayside. We had few losses amongst our men." The man beamed as he recounted these tidings.
"What of Captain Thorongil?"
The messenger's expression grew sombre. "He is gone, my lord."
Ecthelion paled and clutched at the side of his desk until his knuckles turned white. "Gone? What do you mean? Is he slain?"
"No, my lord. He lives, as far as I know, but he is gone. He was seen taking a boat across the Anduin, where he said farewell to his companions and went on alone; when he was last seen he was headed toward the Mountains of Shadow." The messenger reached within his tunic and handed a grubby scrap of parchment to the Steward. On it was written in Thorongil's distinctive hand, "Other tasks now call me, lord, and much time and many perils must pass, ere I come again to Gondor, if that be my fate."
Ecthelion gave a low cry and slumped in his chair.
"The Steward is unwell!" cried Beleg. He immediately called a servant to summon a healer to attend the old man.
Ecthelion found himself in his bedchamber when he came to his senses. Denethor and one of the healers stood on either side of his bed. The healer looked grave, while Denethor looked more cheerful than was his wont. "What happened?" the Steward murmured.
"I believe you have suffered a slight seizure, my lord," said the healer. "Plenty of rest should soon restore you to health. Drink this potion, it will make you feel better, sir." He held a cup to Ecthelion's lips. The Steward drank.
The healer fussed around checking his patient's pulse and asking Ecthelion if he could lift his arms. He appeared satisfied with his findings. "You should stay abed for a few days, my lord," he said. "I will return later to see how you are faring." With that, he took his leave.
For a few moments, the old Steward remained confused, trying to recall what had caused his sudden weakness. Then recollections of the tidings he had received flooded back to him. "Thorongil has gone!" he murmured. "Gone without even a proper word of farewell!"
"I never did trust Thorongil," said Denethor. "You should have listened to my counsel, father. I told you that a sellsword of doubtful lineage could not be trusted. Gondor is better off without the likes of him."
"Never speak thus!" Ecthelion said sharply. "Thorongil was a great man and Gondor owes him much, not least now. The Corsairs have long been a thorn in our side. Thorongil has left us with a mighty parting gift."
"We must hold a great celebration," said Denethor. "This is indeed a glorious day!" Seeing his father's glare, he added hastily. "Resounding victories against the enemy are sadly few, so the defeat of the Corsairs is surely a good reason to rejoice?"
"Indeed, my son," said Ecthelion. "Alas, though, my heart is sore heavy. Go now and spend some time with Finduilas and my grandson. I would rest now. Send for my servant to tend to me."
Denethor made a mild protest then left his father's chambers with a spring in his step and humming a cheerful dance melody.
Ecthelion lay back against the pillows after the servant had attended to him and left, but sleep was slow to come to him. Unanswered questions whirled through his brain. Why had Thorongil left? Why? After such a victory, he would have showered honours upon him and given him whatever he desired. Perhaps even – better not even to think upon that now. And why was Thorongil heading towards the Mountains of Shadow? Surely, certain death awaited him there? Tears trickled down the old man's cheeks at the thought of the cruel fate that no doubt awaited the man he had come to love more dearly than his own son. Yes, Denethor was his flesh and blood, but Thorongil had shown him far more warmth and companionship. The Captain had enjoyed listening to his stories about his boyhood, as Denethor never had done. The prospect of life without him was lonely and bleak indeed.
Weeks passed and became months. Denethor held his celebration, which was the talk of Minas Tirith for weeks. It was said that he looked even happier than he had done when he wed the fair Finduilas and he had danced the night away with her. Folk soon grew bored with the topic, though. The departure of Thorongil, however, was still on the lips of all, as almost everyone from the errand boys to the Steward had loved the popular Captain.
Ecthelion recovered from his illness after a fashion, but was no longer his former hale and vigorous self. He took to strolling in the evenings around the Court of the Fountain, leaning heavily on a cane. Then he would sit and gaze at the dead White Tree, lost in thought.
One night, he was sitting on a bench, when he sensed someone brushing past him. He quickly looked around, but the cloaked and hooded man was already melting into the shadows. He realised something had been stuffed in his cloak. Ecthelion pulled it out. It was a letter. It was too dark outside for his ageing eyes to read; also he had a feeling it was something of importance, which was better read in private.
He made his way back to his chambers where he called for candles to be lit and then dismissed his servant. Ecthelion reached into his cloak for the parchment. A tremor seized him when he glimpsed it was written in Thorongil's hand. He tore open the seal and began to read,
"My lord Steward and dear friend,
I realise that you may no longer think of me as such, but in my heart, you will ever remain so.
It deeply saddened my heart that I had to leave in such a fashion, sneaking away like a thief in the night, but I felt I had no other choice if our beloved land were to be spared the horrors of kinstrife. It grieves me that I could not send you a message before now, but there was none I could trust to deliver this message, meant for your eyes alone.
I know you have long since guessed my true lineage, as has your son. While your words and actions have given me cause to believe that you would welcome my claim, should I make one, Lord Denethor would never accept me.
You told me that should I defeat the corsairs, you would shower me with honours. As you have already greatly rewarded me, I can think only of one further honour you might wish to bestow, an honour, which would appal your son and those who support him. Even if this was not your intent, the popularity that this victory has given me, would only increase the enmity of Lord Denethor towards me, an enmity which would set father against son and brother and against brother, thus weakening Gondor and strengthening our Enemy.
I speak from my heart when I say that never did I intend to cause discord between you and your son. I sought only to be a loyal captain of Gondor.
It greatly saddens my heart that I must take my leave of you, my friend. You became almost as a father to me, the mortal father I had never known.
I plan now to travel to distant lands where the stars are strange. I do not know if I will ever see you again, my friend, but my thoughts will ever remain with you.
Please look after your health and long may you continue to guard our beloved land.
For the last time I sign myself,
Your friend and captain,
Tears rolled down Ecthelion's cheeks as he read the message. Thorongil had not betrayed him, but had left because he was so loyal. The Captain had guessed rightly. Had Thorongil been able to produce proofs that he was indeed the rightful king, the old Steward would gladly have surrendered rod and rule into his capable and popular hands. Denethor would never have accepted his decision, though. Ecthelion's son and heir saw himself as born to rule. The birth of young Boromir had only increased his determination that the tenure of the Stewards should continue.
Ecthelion sat for a long time clutching Thorongil's letter. It was not until the candles and the fire had burned low that he stirred from his chair. He knew he should destroy the parchment, but could not bring himself to do so. At last, he rose slowly and painfully from his seat. Taking a key from his pocket, Ecthelion unlocked a compartment in his desk. It was already stuffed with treasured letters, messages from his long dead parents, sent to him while he was serving as a soldier, missives from his lady when they were courting, and messages his children had sent him when they were very young. He stuffed Thorongil's letter amongst them. His trusted secretary, Beleg, had already given his word to destroy all these papers after his death.
Ecthelion locked the drawer. He sat down sadly in front of the fire, gazing into the dying flames. The glowing coals formed a circle that reminded him of the Winged Crown. Then suddenly the foresight of his people came upon him and he knew with certainty, that one day, one born of his line would freely offer the crown to Thorongil.
The old man smiled and called for a servant to bring fresh candles.