Fear beneath the Tower of Guard

Many gathered in the Tower of Ecthelion, where the Steward stood alone upon the dais before the steps that led up to the throne. In his hand he held an ornate, white rod. His shoulders were covered in a great coat lined with fur. Aragorn knelt before him and lords and captains watched from seats between the many columns, or standing behind. His hair was neatly combed and washed, and he wore his original blue cloak, clasped with the star brooch given to him by the elves. His cuirass had been cleaned and his appearance fit with the mighty and proud lords of Gondor. As Ecthelion placed the rod lightly on Aragorn’s shoulder, he looked up and stood, bowing his head as those in attendance voiced their approval.

Thus Aragorn stood as a Captain of Gondor, and his face was bright and proud, for the honor landed softly upon him, and he felt kinship with all those around him. Turning to look upon the council of Gondor, soldiers, Guards of the Citadel, and other captains, some looked at him proudly, and with affection, knowing his deeds at Cair Andros. But others, particularly some who sat upon the council, and counted their heirs among the greatest men of Gondor, looked at him suspiciously, for they saw little more than a man, not of Gondor, who entered their ranks at the Steward’s own reckless policies to welcome all who came to the realm to work against the enemy.

It was that eve when Aragorn and Ecthelion met again within the steward’s chambers. They sat across a table, and the steward drank from a tankard. He had shed his formal attire and wore a simple shirt, his hair down around his shoulders. The long day of business wore on his face, but as he drank, his cheeks reddened, but his mood did not become high. He spoke low, and leaned across the table toward Aragorn, though they seemed to be alone.

“Thorongil, for many weeks, I have suspected a growing cabal in Minas Tirith,” he said. The news shocked Aragorn, but Ecthelion held up his hand before Aragorn could speak. “Many whispers have reached me, and I believe with this recent attack upon Cair Andros, and the intelligence gathered by Alcaron in Pelargir, that it is clear to me the plot extends beyond the city.”

“Do you think Alcaron is involved?” Aragorn asked. “I did not see him today at the ceremony.”

Ecthelion shook his head, “I do not suspect Alcaron, and he was not present as I had sent word to him to travel to Anorien on business.”

“Alcaron is a proud man, but I do not see a traitor in him,” another voice said, suddenly, and Aragorn turned to see a younger man enter the room quietly. He looked remarkably alike to Ecthelion, but closer in age to Aragorn. His hair was dark and his chin wide, for he was tall and broad, and looked like a statue of the kings of old.

“Ah! Denethor!” Ecthelion said. “Thorongil, this is my son, Denethor.” Aragorn stood and bowed his head. “He has been uncovering this plot for some time, and I trust you and he will soon root it out.”

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Denethor sat down at the table and looked at Aragorn closely. His eyes were piercing and Aragorn could sense in him a profound wisdom and strength of will. After a brief moment, the son of the steward spoke again, “I have suspected all lords that sit upon my father’s council at one point or another,” he said. “But, most I have eliminated, and now is the time for Alcaron’s test. He was sent to Anorien, and while away from the city, we shall see what can be learned about the cabal that we believe lies in wait here.”

“What is your strategy?” Aragorn asked Denethor.

“I have a lead, but it requires some searching among Minas Tirith’s more unsavory corners. Though the white city glimmers in the sun, there are still many shadows within its levels. I fear that I cannot move among the lower levels and underworld without raising suspicion, and that is why you, as an outsider, would prove useful.” Denethor seemed to lay the word “outsider” upon the table like an accusation, but Aragorn did not let the remark make offense, and he answered with skill.

“Much experience do I have in the wide world of Eriador and Rhovanion to the North, and there I have been a ranger, for the sons of Elrond count me among their brothers. We have moved in silence, and slain many enemies. Such a task does not feel foreign to me, though the setting has changed,” Aragorn said.

“Ah, ranging and hunting orcs,” Denethor said. “Useful skills, indeed, but we do not need you to waylay some dimwitted servant of the enemy, but watch and listen to men whose lives have been spent in secrecy and deceit. That is why I will stay close to you, as you know not the intricacies of Gondor’s people.”

“I bow to your superior wisdom, where it indeed may lay,” Aragorn said. “Where shall we begin, and what is our aim?”

Denethor looked at him closely, and then at his father. Then, he spoke, “The Fourth Star, a tavern upon the city’s lower levels, which looks out over the northeastern plain. I have learned it is commonly used as a meeting place for some members of this cabal, who plot against my father.”

“It seems I shall serve Gondor inside taverns rather than the field,” Aragorn said with a low laugh. Ecthelion, however, nearly dropped his tankard and let out a hearty laugh. Denethor remained quiet.

“Such a time will come again, Thorongil,” Ecthelion said. “For now, this is how you serve Gondor best.”

“I shall do my part,” Aragorn said confidently, while Denethor looked upon him with suspicion.

It was late in the evening and Denethor stood silently at a darkened window within a turret overlooking the stone street, and across at The Fourth Star. The soft light of lanterns and the light from the tavern windows lay across the street. He thought of Thorongil, who sat somewhere within the tavern, and whether Ecthelion had chosen wisely. He told Thorongil of his man concealed within the underworld, one of many, who he often met with to learn information. He saw then two men appear below, passing under the stone building that formed an archway over the street. One he knew, but the other was not expected. Denethor rubbed his chin and thought for a moment, of Thorongil and of the unexpected change. Instead of leaving the turret, he stood still, and waited.

Within the Fourth Star, men filled many spaces from tables to the bar, spilling over into places where they could only stand against wooden columns in the middle of the large room. The sounds of laughter, arguments, and shouting, and the smoke from pipes and the fireplace along the left wall filled the room. Aragorn sat at a table alone, smoking his pipe, and he looked every bit the ranger that he was outside Gondor. He no longer wore his fair clothing, and his cuirass was hidden beneath a dirty, worn shirt. His hair was amess and he could not be picked out among any other patrons. His quick ears heard the sound of the bell that rang as people entered, and he looked to the door.

Two men entered there, one wearing a cloak of green, the other, black. The man wearing the green cloak had it brushed back behind his right shoulder, just as Denethor said. But Aragorn did not expect him to come with another. Their faces were hard and worn down by work, as were most in the tavern. They looked about the room, for companions, or something else, then proceeded to the bar. Aragorn’s table sat in a corner where the bar turned and met the wall to the right of the door. Without word, the barman waved two patrons away from seats at the end and the two men sat down. Aragorn watched them, and like seeking out the sound of soft footfalls in a forest, he listened closely.

“Is Denethor here?” The black-cloaked man whispered.

“I do not see him. Nor do I see any of his agents,” the other said.

“You said he meets you here, at this hour. Why would he delay, or not appear?” 

“He is the son of the Steward, I cannot speak to his comings and goings. Perhaps he was called to be elsewhere. He cannot always climb down from that tower to speak with me,” the green-cloaked figure said.

They waited and the barman brought drinks to them, and they drank silently for a time. Aragorn looked at them and waved away the servant boy who came to ask if he would like more to drink. Time passed, and the men spoke once more. “You said he would be here, yet here, he is not. You put us and our cause in danger, you fool. If he knows of you, then a trap could be laid,” the black-cloaked man said.

“Surely it would be sprung by now, if–” but Denethor’s man was cut off by his companion.

“Silence. Let us leave, and speak no more.”

Aragorn watched them as they drank, finishing their ale. He thought the conversation odd, but not unlike what Denethor had said. The black-cloaked figure was undoubtedly a member of whatever cabal the Steward sought out, but Denethor had not spoken of a second man. He wondered if more was at play. Aragorn puzzled why a man concealing his identity would speak so openly about his knowledge of Denethor and their meetings. Could the man be here to betray Denethor, finally succumbing to whatever threats or treasures offered him by those shadowy figures? The second man troubled Aragorn, and that Denethor also did not mention the man to him, gave him pause. The two men then stood and began to leave the tavern.

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From his window outside, Denethor saw the two men leave, but walk down the street, away from him, in the opposite direction than that from which they came. And, as if a shadow passed by the tavern window, he thought he saw another man leave the tavern, following them. He watched for a moment as the two men walked further away, into darkness broken at times by small pools of lights from the lanterns. Denethor did not see Thorongil behind them, and the man did not come up to the turret to meet him. He wondered if this man of the North could move so skillfully, that he could not see him?

And so it was true, for Aragorn moved so deftly and silently among the shadows, following the two men like a hunter in the woods, though surrounded by stone. The street curved and the carved buildings rose up on his right, while to the left, the street ended in a wall, and then the sheer face of the stone that led down to the level below. The moon was high and bright, and Aragorn moved carefully, as the men did not speak, and no others were on the street.

The men suddenly turned into an alleyway and Aragorn found that it led between many buildings and at last emptied into a small market square. Aragorn stopped and stood in the shadow of a towered building, his shoulder to the stone, looking out upon the square. All was silent, and the wooden stands lay empty of goods. The moon broke through a cloud and shone down into the open space, and Aragorn heard footsteps approaching. He looked back down the alley and noticed a figure moving rather clumsily down the alley, though trying to remain hidden. Another sound caught his ear, a dull thud and then quicker footsteps.

Quickly, he turned back to the square and ran out into the moonlight where he found the green-cloaked man lying, his eyes staring up at the night sky. Aragorn knelt beside him and saw a knife lying beneath his body. Then, the figure who had been coming down the alley revealed himself to be Denethor, and he walked quickly into the square, but stopped short of Aragorn.

“What have you done?” Denethor asked sharply.

“I have done nothing, but it appears your man lost his cover, and his life,” Aragorn said.

“Stand away from him!” Denethor commanded. Aragorn stood and looked at him, but he did not fear him. “I find you here alone, and my man lies dead. What did you learn in the tavern?”

“Very little, but I hoped by following them I could learn more,” Aragorn said.

“Yet I did not see you following them, nor did I see you leave the tavern,” Denethor protested.

“Your eyes are not accustomed to the movements of elves, nor the men of the North,” said Aragorn.

“Yes, you who have come here under a strange fate, who just happened to intercept Alcaron in Pelargir, and earn the favor of my father,” Denethor said. “Just what is your purpose here?”

Aragorn saw that Denethor held one hand on the hilt of an ornate blade at his waste, a small knife concealed beneath his robes. “If you delay me further, this lead will be lost,” Aragorn said. “With my skill, I can follow your man’s killer, still, but I must go quickly.”

“And I am to let you take your leave to freely rendezvous with your companion? I think not.” Denethor said. “If the trail has gone cold, then it is by your hand, whether you slew this man or not.”

“My lord, there were many times for me to lay Gondor at the enemy’s feet, if I so wished. But no servant of the enemy am I, and no enemy of Gondor,” Aragorn pleaded.

“And such an agent of the enemy would surely be skilled enough to lead his hunter off the scent. If only for now, you shall have your leave, but I will be swiftly behind,” Denethor begrudgingly said.

“Do not delay me, then, and do not tread upon the trail that I now seek!” Aragorn said, returning to the ground and looking about the body. He stopped and looked away in a direction toward another alley off the square, one that led into the dark, toward the mountain itself, and the great back wall of the level on which they stood. “This way,” he said.

The two of them headed into the alley, with Aragorn ahead. He stooped low to the ground at times and stepped left and right as if avoiding things Denethor could never see. At last they came to the end of the alley, between two high buildings carved directly from the mountain. The wall rose high above them, and they looked up and then down again. Aragorn felt the cold stone and ran his hands along the wall.

“This is a dead end,” Denethor said, his voice suddenly sounding alarmed.

“No, there is more here than meets the eye. He came this way, but somehow, his trail is now unclear,” Aragorn said quietly.

Denethor looked around and up at the darkened windows of the buildings on either side. An archway led through one to the right and a small passageway followed the wall, connecting to many other alleys and streets. “Well, either he, or you have led us astray.”

Aragorn did not pay attention to Denethor’s remark, but kept searching the stone wall and the ground and the buildings around them. At last he came upon a strange sight on their left, where many baskets and sacks lay atop one another. But he saw that some were disturbed, and indeed he knelt low to the ground and saw that the stone was scratched and his fingers followed the light marks in the stone. He felt behind the bundles and rapped lightly on a wooden door, for it echoed within the tunnel behind.

“We have picked up the trail again,” he said with a smile. He felt more between the baskets and at last on the left side, found a metal ring and pulled upon it. With a heavy grating he pulled back the stone on which the bags and baskets sat. The wooden door came with them as the whole facade moved as one and slid across the stone floor. “Follow behind,” Aragorn said to Denethor.

He stood sideways and passed into the dark tunnel with his right hand feeling the other side of the wooden door. Another ring hung there, and with Denethor inside, Aragorn pulled on the ring and the door shut behind them, leaving them in utter darkness. Denethor must have turned, searching out with his hand, for he reached and found Aragorn next to him.

“Do not move. I have some sight in the dark, as soon as my eyes become accustomed,” Aragorn said in a faint whisper. And indeed after a few moments, Aragorn could at least see the wall on his right and he felt along with one hand, as Denethor did the same behind him. But after a few paces, Aragorn stopped abruptly, and Denethor clattered into him, for he could not see, even directly in front of his face. “A torch lies here,” Aragorn whispered.

He knelt down and found a torch of iron on the floor and he picked it up so softly that it made no sound in the tunnel. But to use the torch would eliminate all chance of secrecy, and Aragorn knew it to be too late for such hope. They had found a secret passage used by their quarry, and all that mattered now was to catch up to him. Aragorn produced a flint from his belt and he could feel the torch had not lay there for too long, for there was a little fuel left. He struck his flint and ignited the torch, and quickly the tunnel was filled with dancing orange light.

Denethor shielded his eyes from the sudden sparks of the flint and the glow of the torch. “This is a strange tunnel,” he said. “I know of many passageways at all levels of Minas Tirith, but never have I seen such a roughly hewn path as this. It was either made hastily, or with little skill.”

“Indeed, or made long ago, when the city was first raised. I have seen tunnels of this kind, deep in Khazad-dum. Though this one contains little evil compared to that place, it chills my heart, as the resemblance is too great.”

They continued on as the tunnel came to roughly carved stairs and passed down into the mountain where the air became cool. The stairs were wet and narrow and Aragorn held himself carefully with one hand on the wall. As they descended further, the passage opened and the stairs at last ended into not another tunnel or chamber carved by Men, but a natural cave. Candles sat about on the rocks that rose from the floor and above their heads the stone was white and jutted down from the ceiling like many jagged teeth. Water dripped into small pools around their feet and they felt a wind blowing through the cavern. Passageways split off from the chamber in three directions.

“We have descended down to the roots of Mindolluin,” Denethor said. “I could not guess how far such caverns go, we could be lost if we are not careful.”

“Aye, and it seems the trail has gone cold, but I will look around and see what secrets the mountain can reveal to me.”

Aragorn walked around the chamber as Denethor stood against the wall near the stairs. Bent low to the ground, he held the torch over his head and felt the cold stone with his hands. He could see where feet recently disturbed the wet, slick surface of the stone and soon he began to follow them, for they seemed to pace, before turning toward one passage, the one away to their left.

“This way,” he said, leading Denethor down the passage.

Their torch burned low, but many small candles lined the passage, sitting among mounds of wax that dripped down the stone, a sign that someone had been using the cavern for many months or years. The passage was wide and the roof arched overhead, and Denethor walked beside Aragorn, but cautiously. Aragorn could sense the unease within the steward’s son.

The passage came to a bend and a new cavern opened up high above them, and their footsteps echoed. Aragorn held the torch aloft and saw carvings upon the wall and markings painted in white. There were carvings of ships, and elvish letters, and in red, he saw circles with a mark down the center. “What do you make of these, Denethor? Are they markings of Gondor’s past?”

Denethor looked at them closely, “These ships, it looks as if there is an image upon the sails. Ah! Here, this one is clearer. A swan, indeed. Ships of Dol Amroth, at the Bay of Belfalas. They sail with swans upon their ships. But, strange to find their markings here. It could simply be from ages past, and mean little.”

“That would be my hope,” said Aragorn. “But I do not think we can arrive at that, yet. These others puzzle me, too. I can read these elvish letters, though some are aged and chipped away. This word here appears to be ‘jewel’, but I cannot make out more.”

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“Hm. And I see these red markings. Much newer they are, and painted on the wall. Strange, they appear as an eye, perhaps, of some creature. I have never seen such before. A serpent eye?”

“That is a good guess, or the eye of orcs, which resemble that of serpents, or other creatures,” Aragorn said. “A sign of them in league with orcs, or other servants of the Enemy?”

“A possibility. Here is another elvish word, what do you make of it?”

Aragorn looked at the wall where Denethor stood and then stood in thought, “I believe, ‘helm’ perhaps, though I cannot be sure. The tongue and letters are old, and some words have not passed down through the ages to us.”

“These are strange clues, and only point to signs of men being here. I fear we are making little headway,” Denethor said, his shoulders dropping.

“We may be approaching the lair of these dissidents! I feel we are closer now, than we were before, and though the night has not gone our way, this is a fair sign,” Aragorn said.

“Has not gone our way, you say? You mean the man who lies dead in the market? Do not think I have forgotten him, for his name was Dolloron.”

“I did not intend to diminish his sacrifice. Do you still think me a part of this conspiracy? For I could not prove it to you more that only the good of Gondor is in my heart,” Aragorn said.

Denethor faced him, “My father welcomes all who would serve Gondor. And that calls many to our borders, and many who would do us harm may take it as an opportunity to deceive us! I would see us be vigilant against those who come claiming friendship, when little do we know of their true nature.”

“Such suspicion may be wise, but I do not think it fair to judge men thusly.”

“A luxury for you, perhaps, but we in Gondor can only depend upon our own valor, and our own wisdom, for we face the enemy’s lands and safeguard those behind and abroad.”

“I do not doubt the valor of Gondor, for I have seen it firsthand in the forests of Ithilien, and upon the walls of Cair Andros,” Aragorn said. “But that many would seek to come here, and aid you, is a cause to celebrate, for the Free Peoples stand together, still. And suspicion amongst them would only strengthen the enemy.”

“You would have us welcome all, and not ask questions of them?”

“I think your father shows wisdom, and trust, which is repaid in kind. And such doubts you cast upon him make me wonder about your own wisdom,” Aragorn said.

“You think so little of me, do you? Could you betray your own father?” Denethor’s eyes flamed, and in the light of the torch, Aragorn could see his temper.

“My father has passed, and I did not know him. But ever his memory and that of his fathers weighs upon me. I think daily whether by action or inaction, have I betrayed him and his, for I think back to those who ruled Arnor, and how they fell into ruin. Those are my memories, and they are my fathers, and though I am but a ranger in the North, I cannot rebuild that kingdom, and here I wish to at least prevent the fall of another.”

Aragorn despaired, and his face was full of doubt and worry. He regretted his decision to meet Denethor’s doubt and suspicion with his own. He had fallen into the trap of strife among his kindred, and he began to doubt his own wisdom. Elrond told him that he had much still to learn about the hearts of men, and though he found strength, valor, and kindness in the men of Ithilien and Cair Andros, here, in Minas Tirith, he was plunged into a web of deceit and suspicion. Though, he knew that such things were to be found elsewhere in the world. He despaired that his errand had taken him directly into such dark places beneath a bright veneer.

“Forgive me, Thorongil,” Denethor at last said. “ My trust comes at a high price and I hold those at length who do not come from Gondor. Though, there is wickedness even among my own people. That is why I must remain vigilant, and protect my father at all costs, for even here there are those who would offer poisoned counsels if they could hold his ear, and would work to see him fall. And there are many who would come to aid us claiming to be that which they are not.”

“I understand,” Aragorn said softly. “I cannot assure you beyond my word, which does not carry as much weight here, as it would in Imladris. Though, I will continue to serve with honor, and hope to pay the price to earn your trust.”

“We shall see! Let us go, Thorongil. We are still upon the trail, and I do not wish to delay further.”

“Indeed.” Aragorn stood and collected himself, taking one last look at the symbols upon the wall. Then, he turned and followed the cavern further.

The walls closed in slowly as the cavern became more cramped until it ended at last at more stairs, this time, branching into multiple paths. Denethor paused as Aragorn stopped, and Denethor allowed him to search the ground as he had done before. The stairs began in roughly cut holes in the walls, barely large enough for a man of Aragorn’s height. He examined the wet ground and held the torch aloft inside the openings to the stairs, examining the first few steps of each one. He looked back to Denethor and motioned for him to come closer.

“This way,” Aragorn said. “I can still see fresh mud from the cave, it was upon his boots, and he left it here upon the stairs. Otherwise, they are clean and wet. This is his trail, make no mistake. These stairs climb up, so we may be returning to another part of the city.”

“Then let us continue. Though, I cannot guess where we may emerge,” said Denethor.

Aragorn squeezed into the opening first, his head and shoulders stooped to avoid the ceiling. Denethor followed. As they climbed the air became thick and foul, and they were soon struggling to breathe, and Denethor covered his face. Aragorn pressed on until he came to an opening in the rock, and with a careful leap, he emerged from the stairwell and splashed into a puddle of water and muck. He was still within a tunnel of stone, but this one more carefully carved into a large circle. Holding the torch up and looking in both directions, he determined where they were as Denethor came out of the hole behind him.

“This stench,” Denethor said. “This must be a sewer. They have carved through the tunnel to create these secret passages to the roots of the mountain.”

“Indeed, but I am afraid with this tunnel, and the water at our ankles, the trail is lost, for I cannot track his footprints or signs upon the ground now,” Aragorn lamented.

“Ah, I think you have done the best you could to this point, Thorongil,” Denethor said, rather cheerfully, surprising Aragorn. “Let us pick a direction and simply find a way out. I do not wish to stay in such a foul place for long.”

“Daylight we might find,” Aragorn said. “Though I cannot tell how long we followed the trail beneath the city.”

Their journey continued and picking a direction, they walked off to the right of the stairwell, and proceeded at a comfortable pace. They both seemed to accept that the trail had gone cold, though Aragorn showed little sign of his grief at losing the traitor. Denethor did not seem displeased, either, and his mood improved. Aragorn thought it a strange turn for until now Denethor was willing to follow his lead, but hostile to the idea of Aragorn’s presence, and knowledge. If Denethor was somehow in league with the underworlders, then losing the dissident’s trail would please him. But Aragorn still could not let himself commit fully to such a line of thought. For though Denethor was stern and doubtful, his loyalty to his father and Gondor did not outwardly waver. Though, he did disapprove of his father’s call for those beyond Gondor’s borders to come to their aid.

“So, Thorongil, you grew up in Imladris, yes?” Denethor asked.

“I did, since I was a small child. After my father was slain by orcs, my mother and I fled to Imladris, for Elrond welcomes those men who are descended from the Dunedain of Arnor.”

“I am well-versed in the lore of Gondor; I study it daily, but I know less of the realm of Arnor, or at least, what remains of those realms that fell amid kinstrife,” Denethor said.

“It is a wild place now, and we are little but rangers in the wild, wandering about, with little to call our own. I have spent only a small time with my people, and many still dwell in the ruins of Annuminas. But for my time, I grew up among the sons of Elrond, and I view Elrond as close as I have to a father.”

“You are quite skilled in the hunt, and such a change of scenery seems to have barely lessened your skill.”

“I did not know what to expect when I set out from the Fourth Star to trail the men, for I have never been in such a place. But it appears men leave many signs, even upon stone, that those with the skill to see them may detect.”

“Look! A light ahead,” Denethor called. Indeed, the tunnel grew brighter, and Aragorn tossed the torch to the ground, for it had nearly burned its fuel. They quickened their pace and came to the end of the tunnel, where a large metal disc was sitting upon the ground, leaned against the opening.

Aragorn could see that it had not merely rusted and fell from its place, but had been aided by tools to break it free, and it now covered but a small part of the opening. The water ran out into a bsin in the stone below the opening, and it flowed away, down further through the city’s sewer system. Aragorn leapt over the metal cover and landed in the alley as Denethor climbed down. The morning sun was just rising in the east, the alley was still bathed in a pale, blue light, which grew brighter at its end.

“Dawn is upon us. Come, I will get our bearings out on that street,” Denethor said, and this time he took the lead. He emerged into a street and looked up and around, then looked out to the south, his hand covering his eyes.

But, with his back turned to the alley, Aragorn saw a shadow appear upon the ground. He quickened his pace and shouted, “Denethor!” At that moment, the man they had trailed sprang from a doorway, knife in hand. But Aragorn reached him first, and as he did, he tackled the dissident, the knife clattering to the cobbled street. Denethor spun on his heel, and saw Aragorn struggling upon the ground with the man.

Aragorn struck the man, and grasped him, rolling onto his back and holding the man around the neck and pinning an arm. But as the man writhed and struggled, Denethor reached for the fallen knife and strode quickly toward them. “No, Denethor, wait!” Aragorn cried. But Denethor drove the knife into the dissident’s chest. The man struggled no more, and Aragorn released his hold upon the body.

“What? He would have killed us, surely,” Denethor said, breathing heavily.

Aragorn stood and looked down at the body. “He was beaten. Now, we will learn little from him. He came from this doorway. I would like to have a look inside.” He stepped over the man and went to the door where the man had been lying in wait. The wooden door hung partially open and Aragorn looked within cautiously before entering. It was a storehouse, but largely empty. The ceiling was high and lanterns were lit upon stone columns that separated the room into chambers. He paced around the room while Denethor stood in the opening, leaning upon the doorframe.

Aragorn disappeared into the chambers and Denethor at last decided to follow. He walked through two chambers and the storehouse seemed to continue on, but when he rounded a corner, he entered into a lit room full of sacks, chests, and baskets. Shelves lined the walls and men stood around a table. Staring at them stood Aragorn, and all held blades in their hands.

“What is this?” Denethor asked.

“Ah, Denethor, son of Ecthelion, at last,” said an aged man, who stood behind the table. Though the room was lit by many lanterns and candles, it seemed as if his face remained somehow shadowed. “We’ve led you here, to your doom.”

“And should I know you?” Denethor growled.

The aged man spoke sweetly, with a grandfatherly voice, but beneath it, Aragorn could sense his true venom. He stood on edge and Narsil felt restless in his hand. “I fear this is the man we seek, for he appears to be no brigand, but that who commands their leashes,” Aragorn said.

The old man laughed, “What do you know, stranger? But days past you were little more than an errand boy.”

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“Enough of this. Name yourself, so that we may record your deaths and that of your plot in our records. Little more will become of you than such scribbles upon paper!” Denethor cried.

“Fool! I am but a servant. The Hand of Castamir, if you will. For long have I strove within Minas Tirith, and our victory is nigh. A scribble upon your records, you say? Such shall you be but a tear in your father’s eye, as he grieves your death. Our counsel will be a soothing melody to him in his hour of need. Though, you shall not live to see his ruin!”

The men who stood with the aged man strode forward menacingly. Aragorn stood ready, and he spoke to Denethor without turning. “Arm yourself. For they, or we will leave here alive, no more.” And Denethor drew his knife from his belt and it was then that he saw the lanterns’ light glisten on the broken blade in Aragorn’s hand. He looked upon it strangely, and wondered how such a man could fight with a blade of that sort.

But Denethor soon knew. For Aragorn moved within the group and crossed with many of them, and was light on his feet. Denethor could not penetrate their dance, and he stood dumbfounded on the periphery. Aragorn kicked one of the men who stumbled back, and Denethor lunged, plunging his knife into the man’s back. The brigand fell to the floor and Aragorn slew two at once, leaving just three. Aragorn backed away and stepped over one of the fallen underworlders. He stood shoulder to shoulder with Denethor, and he picked up a curved knife from the floor, wielding it in his left hand with Narsil in his right.

“Kill them!” The aged man hissed, and he backed away from the table, a bundle in his hands.

“Do not let him escape, Denethor!” Aragorn cried. “These three are mine.” Denethor paused for a moment before moving toward the table. The three brigands looked his way but Aragorn cried out and rushed toward them. He caught them flat-footed and with Narsil and the knife in his other hand, they had little to parry his blows or slow his movement. Like his brother, Elrohir, he moved like the wind, and fell the three quickly. Leaving the knife within one of them, and Narsil was wet and dark with their blood.

“Thorongil!” Denethor shouted. “Come quick.”

Aragorn ran to the back of the chamber and there he found Denethor standing with his own blade in hand, but it was still shining. The aged man sat against the wall, his breathing labored, but a cackle still under his breath. Aragorn saw a knife in his chest. “What happened?” Aragorn asked Denethor.

“He took his own life, for I moved on him, and he backed away, and said we should not take him alive,” Denethor said.

The aged man laughed, and Aragorn could see that he was old, indeed, his nose pointed and crooked, and small wisps of white hair clinging to his bare head. “‘Tis better to die by my own hand than to bring failure to my masters’ feet.”

“And who would that be?” Denethor asked. The old man did little but laugh and let out his last breath.

“The Hand of Castamir,” Aragorn said, thinking out loud. “What did he mean by that?”

Denethor looked up, putting his knife away. “Castamir, ah, that is the meaning of those markings upon the wall! The name is old, and it refers to Castamir the Usurper, who, more than one thousand years ago, overtook the throne.”

“So it would make sense that these men harkened back to him, for they sought to depose your father,” Aragorn said.

“Perhaps. Castamir was of noble birth, and Captain of Ships in Pelargir. He led an open rebellion against Eldacar, whose mother was of lesser stock; from Rhovanion, and the lords of Gondor saw her son as not fit for the throne. He lay siege to the city of Osgiliath, and slaughtered many. It was a dark day for our people.”

Aragorn rubbed his chin. “Hmm. This is a dire warning. Surely this is no coincidence. Could rebellion be on the horizon?”

Denethor looked at him and scoffed, “Nonsense! Some do not favor my father, sure, but he is deemed a wise and loving Steward by the people. It would go ill for any who openly marched against him. Only a secretive cabal such as this could pose a threat. And it seems we have snuffed them out.”

“I hope it to be true,” Aragorn said, kneeling before the old man, whose skin was white and he saw the fragility of his frame. He looked within the bundle that lay next to him, and found scraps of paper, scrolls, and other trinkets. “Look here, this appears to be a seal, but a strange symbol is upon it, like those we saw on the wall in the caves.”

The gilded metal seal was old, and Denethor turned it over in his hands. The symbol indeed looked like the eye of a serpent, but flames seemed to be around it. Aragorn drew yet another piece from the satchel, but this time it was a scroll, and he opened it, looking upon a skillfully drawn map.

“This is Minas Tirith, and the outerlands,” Denethor said.

“But it looks to show their secretive passages,” Aragorn noted. “These lines here travel in odd places, and do not follow many of the streets.”

“A great clue this is,” Denethor rejoiced. “We should use this in the coming days to seek out any pockets remaining of their kind! I will gather soldiers, and we shall sweep these tunnels and drive them out.”

“A wise course of action. With their leader dead, they may scatter.”

“Let us hope this man was at their head, for he spoke of other masters, and that troubles me, still.”