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1
Cold Comfort

Disclaimer: The characters, the context and the main plot belong to Professor Tolkien, whom I greatly admire. I’m only trying to fill in the gaps he so graciously left for us, fanfic writers, to have some fun.

The Lady Tirathiel belongs to Isabeau of Greenlea and is used with her generous consent.

Series: “Sons of Gondor”

Author’s notes:
This is an addition to my canon Boromir series called “Fall Before Temptation”. It happens after Book 7: Descending to Darkness – basically, during and after the Fellowship crossed the Mines of Moria and shows Denethor during this difficult time.

Now, let me say a word here about Denethor. After Thranduil, he is the most-abused father figure in the LOTR-fandom. Often is he portrayed as a wife-beating, child-abusing madman, whose only purpose is to die and make room for Aragorn.

Well, I happen to disagree. He might not be the most pleasant man in Middle-earth, but he also had great burdens to carry, and carried them well, up ‘til the very last moment. He was a good steward, a respectable leader and a very strong character. And I believe that he loved his family, even though it might not always be obvious.

So, if you are one of the Denethor-haters, I respectfully ask you to leave now. You have the right to see him in a different way, fine. Do not deny me the right to look at him with sympathy.

My heartfelt thanks go to Altariel for beta reading. All remaining mistakes are mine.

Dedication: This story was written for Isabeau’s birthday, a little early in 2003.


~~~

Minas Tirith, on the 16th day of Narwain in the year 3019 of the Third Age](1)

High up in that secret room under the summit of the White Tower of Ecthelion, where no-one had been allowed entrance, not even his own sons, Denethor son of Ecthelion, six and twentieth Ruling Steward of Gondor, leaned back in his high chair, released the Seeing Stone from the iron grip of his unbreakable will and laid it back to its circular holder of mithril wire. As usual after a longer session with the Stone, he felt drained, despite the fact that this time he finally was able to see his firstborn again.

Ever since Boromir had embarked on his journey to find Imladris, there were times Denethor could not see him through the Stone, and this concerned him greatly. Usually, the vision of the Stone was not blinded or occluded by physical obstacles, but only by darkness. So it could look through a mountain as it could look through a patch of dark or shadow, but see naught within that did not receive some light. The Stone could see through walls but see naught within rooms, caves, or vaults, unless some light fell on it; and it could not itself provide or project light.(2)

Denethor had studied the matter of the Stones and the traditions regarding them and their use preserved in the Hidden Archives of the Stewards – available beside the Ruling Steward only to his Heir – since his youth. And he began to use the Stone as soon as he took over Stewardship from his father(3), learning to bend it to his own strong will by long, laborious efforts that without doubt had taken their toll on him. Thus he knew that once it had been possible to guard against the sight of the Stones by an arcane process called shrouding, by which certain things or areas would be seen in a Stone only as a shadow or deep mist – which was exactly what happened when Boromir – presumably – reached Imladris.

How this was done (by those aware of the Stones and the possibility of being watched by them) was one of their lost mysteries, yet Denethor guessed that Elven lore-masters still remaining in Middle-earth must know this process. Elrond himself being one of them. After all, they managed to keep their dwellings hidden from the Enemy’s spies, too.

It saddened him greatly that so much of Gondor’s wisdom had been lost since the time of the Kings had ended. For six and twenty generations the Ruling Stewards had done their best to defend Anárion’s realm, and they succeeded to some extent – but the price paid for it was a high one. Lore and wisdom was vanishing more and more from Men’s memories, and only the struggle for survival remained. His own firstborn son and heir cared little for knowledge, and though Denethor loved him for his devotion towards Gondor, his loyalty and bravery, the fact that Boromir did not share his own interest in the proud tradition of Westernesse filled his heart with sorrow.

If only Faramir had the strength to use his knowledge and foresight accordingly to the needs of Gondor! If he had not become the puppet of that wizard who was always scheming behind the Stewards’ backs, aye, he could have been the supporting wisdom behind his brother’s chair. But alas, Faramir inherited the gentle heart of Finduilas, and what was one of the most endearing qualities of Denethor’s wife, did not bode well for a son from whom strength was expected in these dire times of war.

Denethor dreaded from the thought that something might happen to Boromir and he would have to depend on his younger son to lead the army of Gondor. Faramir did well enough as the Captain of the Ithilien Rangers, but he was not cut from the right cloth to make Captain-General of Gondor.

Shaking his head with an uncanny feeling of inevitable defeat, he descended from the tower and returned to his study, where still much work was waiting for him. But instead of burying himself in reports of troop movements, scouting activity or of Gondor’s many other problems, he went to a small table that stood in a far corner, near the window, and bent over the map of Eriador laid out upon it.

This was a new copy, he had had it made for the sole purpose of following the travels of his son, marking certain spots he recognized with red ink and drawing Boromir’s path as it continued from Minas Tirith to Rohan, through the Gap and along the empty and unfamiliar lands of Enedwaith. For a while, he had lost track upon him, until today, when Boromir’s image finally appeared in the Stone again – apparently on the eastern side of the Misty Mountains, if Denethor was not mistaken.

“Any new insights?” a voice asked, and he turned around sharply – then relaxed, recognizing his visitor.

It had been years since they had last met, but Tirathiel, the Iron Lady of Dol Amroth, changed very little. She still wore her hair in a bun so tight that one’s scalp hurt by the mere sight of it. She still wore black and silver clothes only, save the occasions of supreme importance where she was expected to wear Dol Amroth blue. Her grey eyes were still clear and keen, capable of looking into the very soul of every man or woman and unveiling their best-guarded secrets. Small wonder that people often compared her to the infamous Queen Berúthiel. She did her best to make the resemblance as close as possible – save the small but important fact that she hated cats.

And yet Denethor had a very different memory of her. His inner eye saw, whenever he looked at her, a solemn, scholarly young woman, with the raven hair of the full-blooded Dúnedain, who used to earn her living by copying valuable old scripts in the vast vaults of Minas Tirith’s library. He remembered their long conversations about ancient lore, music and poetry, and the fact that she used to write poetry herself: long historical ballads as well as short, strange, moody sonnets, a collection of which, written in her own fine hand, he still kept in a secret drawer of his working desk. He remembered their growing closeness that resulted in solemn promises given from both sides in the hope of a long, shared life.

Until her brother died, together with his wife, and she accepted the responsibility of raising her orphaned niece without hesitation. Such was her very nature: duty came first, before everything else. Even her own happiness.

That was something Denethor could understand all too well.

Their parting took place unwitnessed and happened in the same solemn and guarded manner as everything else between them. She set Denethor free, for he only son of the Steward needed to marry and have heirs. If not for his own sake, then for the good of Gondor.

Still, Denethor had waited long before taking a wife. Too long, many in Gondor’s noble circles meant, for he had seen forty-six summers already when he finally wedded Finduilas, the Princess of Dol Amroth, who was twenty years his junior. And if it were not for Tirathiel, they might not have come together even then, for Denethor was hard-pressed to imagine any other wife at his side. But Tirathiel had always been a woman of responsibility. She might have parted from the Steward’s son because duty called her elsewhere, yet she never ceased to care for him – and for the good of Gondor. Thus she introduced him to Finduilas and made sure he realized what a rare jewel was offered to him.

People of Minas Tirith – especially those who had not known her personally, or at least not closely – often spoke of Finduilas as if she had been some fragile, exotic flower who withered and died in the Stone City. And though Denethor caught himself making the same mistake time and again – more so as the loss of her got further and further away in time – of all people he certainly knew that this was not true. Well, not entirely.

‘Twas true, Finduilas had missed the Sea. She missed it with a passion nigh to the Sea-longing of Elves – which, considering her heritage, was not that surprising. But her health only began to wane after the birth of Faramir. She had had a difficult pregnancy, and she had nearly died by giving birth already. The years that had been granted her afterwards, were few and waning. Not in the flesh only, but in the spirit, too.

But before her health was damaged, Finduilas had been anything but a fragile flower. She had a gentle heart, true, but she was only passionate, quick-witted and deeply interested in the affairs of state, too. Small wonder – she was the daughter of an independent prince, after all. And she stood at her husband’s side with advice and wisdom, using her father’s connections to help Denethor’s work. They shared everything, not only their passion.

People also liked to say that Denethor blamed his younger son for the untimely death of his wife. Well, that was not entirely true, either. For while the likeness between mother and son never failed to make his heart ache, he understood life too well to give the blame for Finduilas’ death to an innocent child.

There were also those who put the blame onto him. Who said that his coldness, his heavy hand had broken her beyond healing. Sometimes even the brat prince of Dol Amroth gave him that strange look that made his hands itch to lay Imrahil over his knee and give him a good thrashing. How dare they assume that he would raise his hands against her – or their sons – in anger?

Denethor knew his own cold wrath all too well to deal out punishment when he was irate. Certainly, both his sons had their share of the birch when they deserved it, but never without a careful measuring of the actual mistake against punishment. Never had their father acted on a whim of his ire.

He loved his wife with all his heart, and when Finduilas died, a great part of his heart died with her. He became even sterner than he had been, his whole being turning cold and bitter, the concern for Gondor eating up more and more of his time and strength with every passing year. There was little joy in the House of the Steward, save the few stolen hours with his sons, and those became less and less frequent as they grew. And while Boromir adapted to the situation with relative ease, finding his right place among the soldiers as the born leader he was, giving his father love and obedience, Faramir, in whom Denethor put so much hope and who was so like him in spirit and wisdom, turned his back to his father and became a wizard’s puppet.

Sometimes Denethor asked himself how he could have kept going without Tirathiel’s support.

For the Iron Lady of Dol Amroth never abandoned him fully. Even though her duties demanded her presence in Adrahil’s – and later Imrahil’s – court, she found the time to visit Minas Tirith at least once in every couple of years, and Denethor found great comfort in talking to someone who understood him better than even his own father used to do.

And now, in the darkest hours of a bitter old man’s life, she had come again to offer her that support.

“My Lady Tirathiel,” Denethor greeted her with a tired smile and kissed her hand, “’tis good to see you again. It has been a long time.”

“Too, long, my Lord Steward,” she replied with a solemn nod, touching his brow gently. “You look weary beyond measure. Your burden has grown with the passing of years, I deem.”

“We have come to the end,” said Denethor simply; the mere fact that he needed not to tell her lies was refreshing. “Gondor is falling. I have failed.”

“Nay, you have not,” answered Tirathiel, and from her mouth these were no empty words. “Submit not to despair now, after you have kept it at bay for so long. There is always hope.”

“Hope?” repeated Denethor bitterly. “What hope? Who could hope to hold back the flood of Mordor’s black armies once they set into movement? We shall be wished away like rotten logs.”

“If there were no hope, Mithrandir had not been so desperate searching the Hidden Archives during his last visit,” pointed out Tirathiel calmly. “I know you still hold a grudge against him for supporting Thorongil, and I cannot blame you for that. Ecthelion was a foolish old man, unable to recognize the strength and skills and wisdom of his own son. But Mithrandir is no fool. Whatever it was he looked for, it must have been important.”

“You were here during his last visit,” said Denethor. “Thus you know as well as I do what he was looking for.”

“For tales about the Battle upon Dagorlad and Isildur’s fate,” she answered promptly. “I know not why, however… or what he had found at the end, ere he left Minas Tirith in great hurry.”

“Oh, I know what he found,” said Denethor grimly. “And now I believe I can put the many scattered pieces together and recognize the scheme of the wizard.”

Tirathiel raised an elegant eyebrow. “Pray tell then, my Lord Steward, what did he find? And why would it make you give up hope?”

Denethor stepped away from her side to open a small niche, carved into the wall and hidden behind a heavy curtain. He reached in and pulled out an ancient, somewhat brittle parchment scroll.

“He was looking for this,” the Steward said, handing the scroll to Tirathiel. “And at the end he found it. It took me many moons to trace the steps of his search with the help of the librarians. Had I found it earlier, sending out Boromir on this insane quest might not have been necessary. For not only does this answer the riddle in his and Faramir’s dream – it also shows some events of the past in a different light.”

Tirathiel frowned. There was a suspicion nagging on her mind, just beyond true recognition. She knew it was important but could not quite put her finger on it. “You speak of Thorongil?” she asked, for the mysteries surrounding hat particular person had often been the subject of their conversations. Denethor nodded.

“Whatever his true name might be. Read this scroll, lady, and tell me if I am about to turn mad.”

“What kind of scroll is this?” Tirathiel began to unroll the ancient piece of parchment with the respect and loving care of a scribe.

“This,” replied Denethor slowly, “is something that has been forgotten even in Gondor’s lore during the long centuries since her foundation. This is a scroll that Isildur had made himself before he marched to the North to take over his father’s legacy and got killed on his way.”

“What does he write about in it?” Tirathiel took a closer look, for the ink was faded to almost invisibility, and the old-fashioned writing hard to read, even for her trained eye. “Ah, I see. He describes the Battle upon Dagorlad and the events afterwards.”

She held the scroll at arm’s length, as her eyes were not what they used to be anymore, and read in a low voice, so that no-one aside of them could have heard, even had they not been alone in Denethor’s study.

“The Great Ring shall go now to be an heirloom of the North Kingdom; but records of it shall be left in Gondor, where also dwell the heirs of Elendil, lest a time come when the memory of these great matter shall grow dim…”

She paused, understanding dawning in her sharp mind and let out a deep, almost frightened sigh. “Oh, Valar!”

“Read on!” Denethor urged her, and – in a barely audible, shaking voice – she continued.

“It was hot when I first took it, hot as a glede, and my hand was scorched, so that I doubt if ever again I shall be free of the pain of it. Yet even as I write it is cooled, and it seemeth to shrink, though it loseth neither its beauty nor its shape. Already the writing upon it, which at first was as clear as red flame, fadeth and is now only barely to be read. It is fashioned in an elven-script of Eregion, for they have no letters in Mordor for such subtle work; but the language is unknown to me. I deem it to be a tongue of the Black Land, since it is foul and uncouth. What evil it saith I do not know; but I trace here a copy of it, lest it fade beyond recall. The Ring misseth, maybe, the heat of Sauron’s hand, which was black and yet burned like fie, and so Gil-galad was destroyed; and maybe were the gold made hot again, the writing would be refreshed. But for my part I will risk no hurt to this thing: of all the works of Sauron the only fair. It is precious to me, though I buy it with great pain(4).”

She lowered the scroll and let it roll together once again. “This is the answer then,” she said. “Against all hope, the Ruling Ring has not vanished with Isildur forever from Middle-earth. If the riddle speaks the truth, it has been found.”

“And on its way to the South,” added Denethor. “It is on its way to us.”

“To Mordor,” said Tirathiel flatly. Denethor frowned.

“Why would anyone want to take it to the Black Land?”

“To correct Isildur’s mistake, mayhap,” she replied. “To destroy it for good.”

“Nay, I think not,” Denethor shook his head. “Boromir would not allow it. He would understand what a great gift it is, for all enemies of Mordor. He would bring this gift to me – the only means mayhap to save our people.”

“Boromir might not have the choice,” Tirathiel warned, tapping on the scroll with a long, elegant finger. “If we take the whole riddle as a prophecy, the Ring would not be the only one that has not vanished from Middle-earth forever.”

Denethor nodded grimly. “Isildur’s heir,” he agreed. “Now I understand why Thorongil so easily won people’s hearts for himself, despite the long and faithful service of our House. ‘Tis said that the blood of the Kings, if undiluted, calls out to people’s hearts.”

“And yet he left, back then,” said Tirathiel. “Why? I was not in Minas Tirith in those years, and neither you nor Finduilas ever spoke about it.”

“Finduilas asked my father to send him away,” answered Denethor simply. “She told Ecthelion that she would leave Minas Tirith with our son and not return as long as Thorongil was being favoured before her own husband, and the Steward could not afford to antagonize the Prince of Dol Amroth, the strongest asset in his realm. So he gave in.”

“You knew about it?” Tirathiel asked in surprise. She knew that Finduilas could be… dedicated if the need arose, but usually she was told what was going on in Minas Tirith.

“Why, certainly,” replied Denethor with a dark smile. “I would have ordered Thorongil to leave myself, but he had my father’s favour in all things, so I had to be careful. I know not who he was, but I always suspected him to be more than he seemed. True, my suspicions went more towards Umbar than towards Arnor, but still – I wanted him not here.”

“And if he chooses to return?” asked Tirathiel. “He must have been of your age, give or take a few years. He might very well be alive yet. The line of the Kings was notoriously long-living.”

“Oh, he is very much alive,” answered Denethor, his eyes darkening in hatred. “He has changed much, but not enough to fool my eyes. A thousand years would not be enough for me to forget that face. The face of the man who robbed me of the love and trust and respect of my own father.”

Tirathiel gave him a sharp look. Of all people in Gondor, she was one of those three who knew of that secret chamber, high up in the Citadel of the White Tower – aside of Finduilas and Lord Húrin of the Keys.

“You have used the Stone,” she said in an accusing tone. “Again.”

Denethor shrugged. He had been using the Stone ever since he took over the Stewardship from his father, and this had been an ongoing argument between the two of them for just as long.

“’Tis my right. And it is in my power to do so.”

“True,” nodded Tirathiel, “but is it safe, too? You know that the Stones of Ithil and Anor were turned to each other more than all the other five. Who knows where the stone of Ithil is now?”

“I do,” replied Denethor calmly. Tirathiel looked at him with unfathomable eyes.

“Then you are a fool. No tidings can be worth the risk you are taking.”

“You underestimate me,” said Denethor, his eyes burning. Tirathiel shook her head, suddenly looking weary and old – for the first time since they had known each other.

“I think not. You are strong-willed, but at the end you are only a Man, too. You cannot hope to resist that power indefinitely.”

“I only need to resist a little more,” Denethor sighed. “Things are coming to an end, Tirathiel. What way ever, they are coming to an end. The Ring would be our only chance against the vastness of Mordor’s armies.”

“Mayhap,” she said thoughtfully, “though you cannot be certain, not even against such impossible odds. The return of the King may change the balance of power in a way you never imagined.”

“The return of the King?” Denethor gave an undignified snort. “What King, pray tell? Gondor has no King. Gondor needs no King. Pelendur’s Law is still in effect, and as long as it is, I am the one who has to carry the burden of leadership for my people, just as I always did. As my longfathers always did.”

“So you are not willing to accept his claim?” asked Tirathiel. “Not even if it is justified?”

“His claim?” Denethor’s eyes turned icy cold. “I am Steward to the House of Anárion. I will not step down to be the dotard chamberlain of some upstart from the North. Even were his claim proved to me, he still comes but of the line of Isildur. I will not bow to such a one, last of a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity. He might have fooled my father, he and his wizard friend – but he will not make me his tool. A step to a power he does not deserve.”

Tirathiel shook her head in sorrow. “I can understand your feelings. You know I have always supported you – and I always will. But I fear that the way you intend to choose will bring you naught but grief.”

“So be it,” replied Denethor grimly. “’Tis my choice to make.”

Tirathiel shrugged. “It surely is. I cannot make it for you, and even if I could, I would not do so. As Gildor Inglorion keeps telling us, we are all entitled to our choices – and our mistakes. The only peril with your choices is that when they are wrong, all Gondor will pay the price.”

“Then all I have to do is to make the right choices,” said Denethor, his lined face a mask of grim determination. Tirathiel shook her head again.

“No-one is infallible. Not even you.”

“And yet you have been standing by me all those years,” murmured Denethor. “Even though it was not always easy, for you owe your loyalty to the Swan Princes.”

“I know you in a way few others ever have,” she answered with uncommon softness. “I not only know Denethor II, twenty and sixth Ruling Steward of Gondor, but also Denethor the man, with all his weaknesses. Since Finduilas left us, no-one knows you as I do.”
Denethor took her hand and kissed the inner side of her wrist, right on the spot where her palm ended. ‘Twas a deeply intimate gesture between the two of them, never exchanged in the presence of others. And even though it failed to heat up their blood after all those years, it symbolised a closeness the Steward had with nobody else. Not anymore.

“’Tis true,” he murmured. “Even though you remained a sealed well and a closed garden for me all our lives, we have been closer to each other than I ever was to anyone else – save my wife, no matter what people may think.”

“You do not have to assure me in this matter,” answered Tirathiel gently. “I know how much you loved her… how much you still love her. ‘Tis a different kind of love than that which we have shared, but just as strong. And if comforted my heart to know that you were happy together… as long as it lasted.”

“’Tis cold comfort in exchange for all your sacrifices,” said Denethor.

“’Tis all that duty and honour would allow,” she replied. “I was needed in Dol Amroth as much as I would have been needed in your house. But Nimrien was my flesh and blood, and her claim more important than my own wishes… or yours.”

Denethor gave her a sad little smile. “We always accepted what honour and duty demanded from us, did we? No matter what it cost.”

“We did,” she agreed. “And for us, there is no other way.”

“You could have married, too.”

“Nay, I could not. Nimrien needed me. I was all she had. ‘Twould have been cruel towards her.”

“She grew up. While you were still young for a Lady of the Dúnedain.”

“In that matter I am very much like Dwarven women,” she said with a tight little smile; of course, devoted scholar as she was, she would know such things. “If I cannot have the one I desire, I choose not a lesser one. And I could not have you. Not after Finduilas. No-one could.”

“I deeply regret it,” said Denethor, and he meant it. As much as he loved Tirathiel as a dear friend of his youth, his more… gentle feelings belonged to Finduilas, even after three decades of widowed life. Though he had her in his life for a terribly short time only, he knew he could not share his heart with anyone else the same way. Not even with the woman who would have been his first choice.

Tirathiel have him another one of those guarded little smiles.

“I do not. I could never regret what we have had all these years. It gave my life a warmth naught else could. I am not unhappy, my friend; I have never been. And most of the time I am too busy to feel lonely.”

“Most of the time,” Denethor repeated. That earned him a tight little smile again.

“Everyone is lonely at times. With or without a family of their own. I am content with my life. I am needed and respected and even loved by my family of choice.” She turned serious all of a sudden. “You should be more concerned with your family.”

“Which part of it?” he asked, expecting the same old argument on Faramir’s behalf. This was one of the few things they disagreed about.

But she surprised him once again.

“Boromir,” she said, stepping to the desk and tracing the red lines that marked the map. “You have been following his path through the Stone, have you not?”

Denethor nodded. “As well as I was able. Some places were shrouded from the sight of the Stone.”

“Elven realms, I deem”, she said; at his questioning look, she shrugged. “You forget that I have frequent dealings with Gildor Inglorion. A six-thousand-year-old Elf remembers many things.”

“True. Unfortunately, they are not willing to share their insights with many people,” said Denethor sourly.

“They are cautious and wary,” she agreed. “But you have to understand their caution. Their numbers have diminished considerably in these lesser days, and their strength is waning.”

“Just like ours,” commented Denethor glumly. “I wish I had Boromir here, at my side. He is the only strength I still have.”

“I wish you did,” agreed Tirathiel. “If he truly travels in the company of the One Ring, which we still cannot know for certain, not as long as we do not see it with our own eyes, he is in danger. His wish to help Gondor by any means necessary would make him vulnerable to the evil that has been forged into that Ring by its very creation.”

“Boromir is strong,” replied Denethor dismissively. “He will not be enthralled, not by the Ring, nor by the charms of that northern upstart. He is a true son to me, and he will do what is best for Gondor. Of that I am certain.”

“He would do aught you ask him to do, and he will do everything he believes is best for Gondor,” corrected Tirathiel. “But he could be wrong. And so could you.”

“You keep saying that,” murmured Denethor, “Do you not trust my judgement any longer?”

“Your wisdom and your strength have served you well,” she answered, “but you seem to be closing your mind more and more lately. This is a dangerous path. If you give in to your likes or dislikes, they could mislead you terribly.”

“I am an old man, Tirathiel,” he sighed. “I have not not the longevity of Anárion’s line of old. There are times when I yearn to be allowed a little weakness…”

“But you cannot afford to be weak,” she said in understanding. He nodded.

“Nay, I cannot. But at least I can be honest with you.”

“’Tis cold comfort I can offer you, my Lord,” she said gently, for her heart bled seeing his loneliness and the dwindling of his hope.

“’Tis all I have,” he replied. “My dreams show me a dread time to come, and what I can see in the Stone is of little comfort. But as long as you stand by me, even if only from afar, I can keep going just a little longer.”

“I always stand by you,” she said simply. “I always have, and I always will.”

At that he had no response – at least none that would properly show his gratitude towards her. He kissed her hand again, and they sat in the darkening room in silence.

~ Finish ~

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
End notes:

(1) January 16. The Fellowship left Moria a day earlier and is now on their way to Lothlórien.

(2) All details about the use of the palantíri are taken from “The Unfinished Tales”, pp. 428-429.

(3) In 2984. Third Age

(4) “The Fellowship of the Ring: The Council of Elrond”, p. 331 – at least in my 1981 Unwin Paperbacks edition.

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