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Until the King Returns
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Until the King Returns

Rebellion must be managed with many swords; treason to his prince's person may be with one knife. (Thomas Fuller, The Holy and Profane States -- The Traitor)


If I were in Harad, or Rhûn, I would know how to atone for my sins. Mardil looked out through the pounding early-morning rain to the Seven Circles below. They were only beginning to awake but soon the bells would ring, and the merchants would open their doors. The smell of fresh bread would float from the bakers' shops, and the children would chase each other in the squares. They most deserved his care. He had bought them peace for their lifetimes.

He would not let himself look down into the courtyard below, where the White Tree grew. He would not think of the kings, and the ancient past, and Númenor, where Sauron the Deceiver had burned Nimloth herself.

If I served one of the King's Men, if the Isle of Gift had not foundered, I would know where to make my sacrifice, to wash away this blood...


He sucked in his breath, disquieted he could think such things. Sauron had served none but himself, even as he had acted the part of counsellor to the king. Sauron had played upon Pharazôn's greed and pride and fear of death, until mortal man sought nothing less than the overthrow of the Lords of the West. Mardil might also be counsellor to a king, but he did not seek the downfall of his kingdom, and Eärnur was no Pharazôn, falling into evil!

But was he, Mardil, so much better? Where Sauron had spoken, whispering sweet-sounding lies into his king's ear, Mardil had sat silent through many council meetings. Where was the restraining influence he had exerted in the past? His caution had always balanced the king's passion, and it was often said that they were well matched, king and steward. And yet, at the end, he had said little and done less. The king's arrogance was not so great that Mardil could not have checked it, if he had desired to do so, yet he had not.

He remembered well the day the first challenge arrived, years ago. The three olive-skinned men in their flowing silk caftans of deep red with the black serpent upon their shoulders. They rode on the speckled grey horses of Harad, a breed that had not been seen in Gondor for generations save on tapestries, and a silver flag of parley, marked with the Red Eye, blew in the wind above their heads. So Mordor uses the Haradrim as heralds now? Mardil thought. They certainly made more trustworthy servants than orcs.

Then, Mardil counselled the king to ignore the message. It bothered him that Eärnur would even consider accepting, but he reminded himself that his lord was young and newly come into his inheritance; time would temper those wilder impulses.

Now, however...

Again three men of the South rode across the Pelennor and through the Seven Circles to the Citadel. Again the king held council, as soon as the lords of Gondor could be summoned, to discuss the message. "Will the Lord of the White City not ride forth?" the Witch-king taunted. "Or has the weakness of age compounded the faint heart of youth?" Again those same questions were asked: Should they answer it at all? If so, what response would be wisest? Dol Amroth's prince had his say, as did the lords of the Morthond Vale and of Lebennin -- all of the noblemen, from the most important to the least. Mardil, however, had remained strangely quiet, offering his counsel only when asked directly.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; anarchy is loosed upon the world.

A few whispered "traitor", but would things have turned out so much better had he restrained the king? Some of the less experienced lords, or those who simply had little talent for the intricacies of politics, had questioned him about his hesitation; they were soon hushed by their elders. The king had no son, and he constantly put his life at risk. Gondor teetered on one leg, and the wisest of the king's councillors feared she would soon fall. Those who envied Mardil's position of power at least saw that now was not the time to challenge how things were. None wished to spark a civil war

Yet Mardil had indeed betrayed the crown. He had knowingly let the king ride to his death. What greater injury could any counsellor do to his lord? He would have listened to me, if I had spoken my mind. Other enemies, those whom the king had at least a hope of defeating, pressed against Gondor's borders. He would have ridden out to battle those foes if I had sent him, with banners unfurled and trumpets sounding and women and children cheering, and when he returned mayhap that need of his for battle and glory would have been slaked, for a while at least.

But Mardil had not tried. Instead he had let the king ride to the Morgul-vale. Not to battle against others of like power, orcs or evil men. No, Eärnur rode to his doom, to a confrontation with one of the greatest beings that still dwelt in Middle-earth. To the Tower of Sorcery, where the Shadow-king presides over a city of shadows. The mountains that hedged it, and the evil cloud belched by Orodruin, crowded out the fair moonlight that once welled through its walls. Only evil things crept there now: cursed orcs that hated the light, and worse creatures, all servants of the lord of that valley and of the Dark Lord himself. Nay; no longer does a Tower of the Moon raise her shapely crown to match a Tower of the Sun.

He had served Gondor faithfully since he was a boy, as had his father before him, back and back, until time erased memory of their fealty. Had he not earned the right to question the king, when his lord's actions threatened all of Gondor?

Whatever I did, 'twas not for my own gain alone, that much I know! Had he not seen the statues in the Citadel: of Elendil and Anárion and Isildur and the other glorious kings of old? Their proud countenances and demanding stares bore down on him all day long. And he had studied Eärnur, too, for countless hours. Mardil knew he saw more of Númenor in the looking glass, and in the eyes of his sons, than he did on the king's face. Who better to judge than I, who have sat so many hours by his side?

Did Eärnur's foolish mission not prove that his steward had chosen rightly? Would one of the great kings of old have needlessly risked his life to salve a wounded ego? And yet, if that was true, why did Mardil's conscience berate him still?

He shook his head, trying to brush aside his guilt; he could not afford it now. For he remembered his father's stories, about the death of the king's great-uncle, Ondoher the Heirless. Enemies surrounded us then, and so our swords remained pointed out, and were not turned in towards the throats of our brothers. But he also remembered tales of the Kinstrife. If Eärnur was victorious and won peace for Gondor, and yet still had no heir, what then? If there was no enemy beyond the borders, would the lords find an enemy within them? He knew what might happen, and he feared it.

Gondor would not survive another Eldacar. The laughter of Mordor would be their only reward.

So Mardil had no choice. Eärnur had no sons, and no interest in taking a wife. By the White Tree, Mardil had tried! He had introduced the king to every suitable lady north of Belfalas and west of the Anduin, but none could hold the king's heart. Even after he became king, he preferred the company of the barracks to that of ladies' sitting-rooms or even courtesans' chambers. Always he lived by his sword, delighting in the clash of arms and the strategies of war. For a time fate spares him, but a soldier's days are few. And still there will be no sons before death claims him.

Mardil turned the white rod of his office in his hand, running his thumb over the well-polished marble. He remembered the Oath of Elendil that he had sworn when the old king, Eärnur's father, first laid that rod in his hand. "Here do I swear fealty..." He could almost taste the words, like stomach-acid, in his mouth. "Here do I swear fealty and service to Gondor, and to her King, to hold rod and rule by his side and in his stead, to speak and to listen, to do and to let be, to come and to go. From this hour henceforth, until my King release me, or death take me, or the world ends."

By his side and in his stead . If the king rode away, and never returned -- not known to be dead, merely missing -- would not Mardil be oath-bound to "hold rod and rule in his stead"? If the king did not die, he would need no heir. No civil war. And Mardil had three sons, all of them worthy to sit on his stool after him. The oldest, Eradan, was already courting several ladies; he would be married before too many more turns of the seasons.

If this be treason...

It was such a simple thing. The Witch-king's challenge came again. Eärnur, hot-headed as always, lusted once more to accept it. The last time his councillors had forestalled him, but not now. For Mardil did not fight his king's desire, as he had seven years earlier, and the others followed Mardil's lead.

And the king and a score of his finest knights rode through the Great Gate, and down to the River and across, toward the land of Mordor where the shadows lie. I knew they would not return, as did the others. Yes, I heard their whisperings in the courtyards, questioning the soundness of my counsel. Or the lack of it. But they are no more innocent in this matter than am I.

Mardil opened his hand and examined his palm. Others would notice the sword-calluses and the ink stains, perhaps, but they would not see the blood that refused to wash away. The moon, new the night before they departed, will be full in three days' time? Do they yet live? He knew they would not return, that he would never see the king again, as sure of it as he was of the strength of Minas Tirith's stone walls. Mayhap he had saved thousands of others, but the blood of the king's escort would not wash away. The blood of his king.

All the innocents consecrated on Númenor's altar would not be sacrifice enough to absolve me in this matter. But he had a better penance: he would hold rod and rule, and his sons after him. They would protect Gondor.

Until the king returns.


This piece is based on the following quote from the appendices of The Lord of the Ring:

Eärnur had held the crown only seven years when the Lord of Morgul [the Witch-king] repeated his challenge, taunting the king that to the faint heart of his youth he had now added the weakness of age. Then Mardil could no longer restrain him, and he rode with a small escort of knights to the gate of Minas Morgul. None of that riding were ever heard of again. It was believed in Gondor that the faithless enemy had trapped the king, and that he had died in torment at Minas Morgul; but since there were no witnesses of his death, Mardil the Good Steward ruled Gondor in his name for many years.

My characterisation of Eärnur as brash and hot-headed is based primarily on the following two quotes, also from the appendices:

Eärnur was a man like his father in valour, but not in wisdom. He was a man of strong body and hot mood; but he would take no wife, for his only pleasure was in fighting, or in the exercise of arms. His prowess was such that none in Gondor could stand against him in those weapon-sports in which he delighted, seeming rather a champion than a captain or king.


Boromir, five years the elder, beloved by his father, was like him in face and pride, but in little else. Rather he was a man after the sort of King Eärnur of old, taking no wife and delighting chiefly in arms; fearless and strong, but caring little for lore, save the tales of old battles.

Mardil's motives and character are entirely my own extrapolation. I have tried to imagine the sort of person whom I think would complement someone like Eärnur, and Faramir and Denethor were the first people who came to mind. I blame the parallel that Tolkien himself created between Eärnur and Boromir. :-) Tolkien might have disagreed, but to my knowledge he never told us much about Mardil beyond the passage I quoted above.

Mardil's thought "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; anarchy is loosed onto the world" is adapted from W. B. Yeats' poem "The Second Coming". To give a bit of context:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

This poem seems eerily appropriate to the story of Mardil and Eärnur.

The line "If this be treason" is a reference to Patrick Henry's comment in the Virginia House of Burgesses. The full quote is: "Tarquin and Caesar had each his Brutus -- Charles the First, his Cromwell -- and George the Third -- ("Treason!" shouted the Speaker) may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it." (Source:

This piece will probably make more sense if you are familiar with at least some of Tolkien's works beyond the main text of The Lord of the Rings, especially "Gondor and the Heirs of Anárion" in Appendix A and "The Akallabêth" in The Silmarillion. However, if you think I could be clearer about what exactly is going on or have any other kind of constructive comments (positive or negative), I'd love to hear them.


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