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The Eagle's Gift
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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1
The Eagle's Gift

Denethor sat stiffly on the cushioned chair, his spine and muscles taut as a war-drum, and fidgeted with the sleeves of his garment. He had just wedded the fairest, kindest lady in the entire world, whom he had waited all his adult life to find and cherish. His groomsmen had escorted him to the bridal chambers, singing solemn songs reserved for this occasion since their longfathers sailed from Númenor in nine storm-tossed ships. They had disrobed him, wrapped him in this rich blue bed-gown edged with heavy brocade, and left him in this antechamber alone, surrounded by wedding gifts, comfits, and bottles of brandy and wine.

He was now expected, having wedded Finduilas, to bed her. The prospect terrified him. His palms had not sweated like this since the last time he had faced a band of marauding orcs.

In a few minutes, the maids and ladies of the wedding party would come forth, to take him to her bridal bower. They would probably giggle. There had already been much giggling and joking between dances, at the celebration, and his beloved had alternately paled and blushed, yet managed to smile all the while. Finduilas was as brave as she was gentle.

I do not deserve her, Denethor thought. At least, neither Adrahil nor even young Imrahil had thought so. His own father was pleased, of course. Ecthelion never saw beyond Finduilas’ undeniable beauty and unquestionable dowry to note the quick wit that lay beneath her graceful demeanor.

But he had persisted, and won her; and now he was expected to march into her bower and claim her like some randy stallion put into the paddock with a filly.

Denethor took a judicious draught of Lossarnach wine. The problem came not from any lack of inclination on his part, oh no. He had often suffered the most painfully delightful imaginings when he walked with Finduilas. And this night, seeing her come towards him in her wedding gown that sheathed her slender form like silvery clouds…Well, he was thoroughly aquiver now. The problem came from his fear that he would outrage her in his haste, to hurt her in what must ultimately be an act of bodily conquest. The thought of causing pain to Finduilas, of her thinking him coarse or brutal, tormented him.

He took another draught. This time, Denethor did not bother to measure how much wine he drank.

The outer door opened. What?

It was Thorongil.

“Pardon, sir,” his father’s favorite said with dubious grace. “Your lord father sent me here with a message and a gift for you.”

Did Ecthelion’s Eagle have to stick his beak into even this aspect of Denethor’s life? Could his father not have sent another messenger? At least Thorongil looked no happier to be here than Denethor was to see him.

“My father could not come himself?”

“The Lord Steward grew tired, sir; and only just remembered that he wished you to have that which I bear,” Thorongil answered carefully.

The Lord Steward must have finally succumbed to the Dorwinion, mused Denethor sourly. His father was truly too old to be trying to out-drink and out-toast Adrahil, who was not called Iron-Gullet without good reason.

“Very well, Captain. What word and gift do you bear?”

“He commanded that I tell you in these words: My son, thou shalt go forth to thy bride in honor, carrying the hope of the House of the Stewards, and this shield from all evil influence.” Thorongil produced a small pouch, and extended it to Denethor.

Denethor seized the pouch and impatiently tore open the drawstring. He extricated a small, gleaming pendant on a fine chain of linked silver. For a moment, he did not know whether to howl in rage or laugh hysterically. “It is a horn-charm!” he exclaimed, and cursed himself for the blush that warmed his cheeks. Carry the hope of the House of the Stewards indeed! Though the pendant, a piece of white gold curved in the shape of a horn half the length of his forefinger, was well-made, it was still the same device used by superstitious men all over Gondor, to guard their manhood from the Enemy’s Eye. Did his father think he was some lowly peddler or drover, to need such aid this night?

“Well, then,” Denethor said curtly. “You have delivered the Steward’s message. Leave the charm, and go." He sounded churlish. A quick glance revealed that Thorongil, he of the warrior’s swagger and gliding step, appeared suddenly awkward. Denethor had no love for the outlander, but he would not allow Thorongil, or anyone, to goad him into an unplanned display of rudeness.

“Here, take this as a wedding-favor.” Denethor grabbed the unopened box of candied figs left in the antechamber with other refreshments, and pushed it rather hastily into Thorongil’s hand. The Eagle closed long fingers about the box in a quick, grasping reflex.

“Well?” The Eagle had not flown.

“My lord, the Steward bade me attend you and make certain that you wear the charm.” Thorongil said with a diffident air.

“He bade you what?” Did his voice crack? Was there no end to this humiliation?

Thorongil looked him straight in the eye with the guileless stare of unassailable right that he often used to assert Ecthelion’s will and favor. “The Steward told me that if, and these be his words as well, sir, that if his only son acted the surly brat and failed to don his father’s gift, then I was to set the charm upon him with my own hands.”

“Did he indeed,” Denethor looked away, lest the other see the fury in his eyes. He wanted more wine, but would not show such weakness to his father’s favorite. How could his father chide him thus, through the use of his rival in so private a matter?

“Aye.” The Eagle of the Star shifted uneasily, his boots making a scuffing sound on the polished marble floor. “Lord, if you will forgive me, your father meant both the gift and his words kindly.”

Careful! Denethor’s ire was rising; and it was growing harder to conceal. He yearned to grab Thorongil by the collar and bang his unkempt head against the wall to change the interloper’s earnest, helpful mien. Or better yet, toss his father’s pet bird off the Tower's height to see if the Eagle could truly fly!

I am heir to the Stewardship of Gondor; and I do not do murder, Denethor cautioned himself, not for the first time. This is just some device of Father’s, to make me prove my mettle yet again.

“Tell me more of my father‘s will, Captain,” he said, smoothing his voice to mildness as he locked eyes on the man presuming to present the Steward’s wishes to the Steward’s own son.

“The Steward did not wish the charm to be seen by others, not even your honor guard, and so he entrusted it to me," Thorongil explained. No evasion, not even a hint of confusion there, the Eagle believed he told truth. “He did not come up himself because he was weary. He had danced long and merrily in honor of your nuptials, and said the stairs were too high, and he would not be seen to stumble.”

That was true enough. Ecthelion had danced with Finduilas, her mother, her sister, and his own daughter. Then he had danced every measure of the Rider’s Reel, with far more spirit than Denethor himself. His father had always out-danced him and nearly every other Lord in Gondor; with almost indecent amusement, the old rascal. And the stairs to the Wedding Chamber in the White Tower were high as well as long, Denethor’s still aching feet reminded him; and he was only forty-six years of age, not ninety.

Thorongil paused, waiting on Denethor’s response. “Continue,” urged Denethor.

“The Steward bade me tell you that this charm protected his own wedding night, and later--” Was Captain Thorongil blushing? “-- ensured your birth”.

Did it indeed! Denethor fingered the horn-charm, wondering how often his father, always so strong and confident and often overbearing, had felt in need of this sort of protection.

“Against the Eye of Sauron,” Thorongil said softly, “plowmen and princes alike feel the need for all manner of armor.”

“Do you think these charms will fend off the Enemy’s Eye if He can truly see behind our walls?” Denethor asked sharply.

“I am not sure,” Thorongil replied. Uncertainty flared briefly in his eyes. “But the little horns do no harm; and might-ahem-strengthen the bearers.”

Might? The Eagle’s face contained, in that instant, none of the complacence that his reputation implied he should have, the complacence of the well-married, or the frequently bedded, in their own proven virility. Before he could calculate the implications of this knowledge, Denethor took the opening. “And does such a horn-charm strengthen you, Thorongil?” he asked, holding the other man’s gaze. “Women sigh for you from Edoras to Pelargir, so say the songs and even your own men.”

Shock, rather than amusement, brightened his rival’s eyes and cheeks. Ah. My father’s favorite is not so virile after all! Denethor thought back to all the times he had observed the outlander in the company of women. He had watched sourly as Thorongil danced at Merethrond, drawing the admiration of maidens and matrons alike. He had seen Thorongil smile at flirtatious serving wenches in roadside taverns. But Denethor had never detected, in the eyes of any woman who had danced with, talked with, or admired the Eagle from afar, the smugly possessive look that a woman gives a man who has shared her bed.

It was supposed that Thorongil had sweethearts all over Gondor. Though if one looks behind the supposition, the rumors...Denethor's own agents had reported that the Eagle was unsnared by obligations such as mistresses or betrothals. Thorongil's men were as much under the Captain's spell as the Steward himself. The soldiers could have taken the regretful glances of their captain's female admirers as proof of a lover's prowess, and spun their tall tales accordingly. Thorongil himself had never spoken up to confirm or deny the boasts and songs.

And all along, there was nothing to confirm, my fine feathered friend.

Denethor looked away, then put on his most kindly face and added a smile. “Just how often have you found it necessary to bear a horn-charm to a willing woman's bed? Could it be that you have never actually had occasion to carry one?”

“Lord, that is a private matter!” Thorongil said evenly, but with a certain tightness that was most gratifying. And look, he was clenching his fists. A deep, true thrust indeed.

“Come now, Captain,” Denethor pressed. “We are both grown men, in our prime, past the first flush of youthful pride. You were sent to meddle in my private affairs, and did not shrink from that intrusion. I charge you, tell me of your vast experience. I await your instruction.”

Thorongil bristled, his body taut with anger. Denethor sensed the tension, the rage, rising in the Eagle’s heart. He focused again on the man’s proud face. Would his rival dare to flee, or lie?

Finally Thorongil lifted his chin, a slight but prideful motion. Anger left his face, and his eyes shone with that fey light Denethor had seen once or twice before. The Steward had noticed his favorite’s occasional revelation of sudden, hidden power too, and called it “the air of Númenor." Captain Thorongil looked more like a challenged king than a landless warrior.

“I do not pursue such experience, son of Ecthelion,” Thorongil declared. “There is room in my heart for only one love, and she is far away.”

Thorongil stood proud and still, with open hands. The Eagle had evidently decided to choose his battles wisely.

Denethor would be generous in victory. “Fear not, good Captain;” he said, pouring the wine into two goblets and extending one to his rival. “Your secret is safe with me.”

“It is not a secret,” the other said with some heat. “I have never made idle boasts, nor treated falsely with any lady.” He took the goblet from Denethor’s hand with a certain truculence.

“Of course not, Thorongil,” Denethor answered. “We all know how scrupulous you are.” Which has not prevented you from allowing your men to boast of your prowess to begin with, and seeming to enjoy it when they do. “Come, let us drink to the ladies who are worth waiting for,” he said aloud. “I have found my Lady, and someday, it is to be hoped, you will return to yours.” Valar speed that day, Denethor prayed silently.

To his surprise, some of the tension fled the face that was so like Denethor‘s own, smoothing its sharp angles. The Eagle raised his goblet, and replied: “To ladies worth the wait: your fair bride, and the lady I will see again.”

They clicked their goblets together, and quickly drained the hearty vintage in a silence that was almost companionable. Thorongil’s eyes softened. Perhaps he remembered his distant lady. Denethor wondered where, and who, that lady was. Well, he would not learn such things tonight. And, Denethor realized, he was growing less interested in unveiling Thorongil’s secrets and more desirous of uncovering Finduilas.

Something flickered in the Eagle’s grey eyes as they both set the goblets down at the same time. Amusement, or an idea? While Denethor had studied him, Thorongil had been looking him over, Denethor noticed. He could not suppress a shiver. At times, Thorongil seemed altogether too much of a mirror-image for Denethor’s own comfort. And Denethor's own father had sent him here, entrusted him with the charm for Denethor's own marriage-bed, as if Thorongil were Denethor's close kin.

“My lord, let me do you a service, and then take my leave,” came Thorongil’s familiar voice.

Withdraw? Denethor would surely favor Thorongil‘s retreat! “What service would you give me?”

“Allow me to fasten the charm upon you, to fulfill your father‘s wish; as his servant and the servant of Gondor,” Thorongil proposed.

The man’s voice was too honest, too heartfelt for idle flattery. To give the Eagle his due, he was no sycophant. Thorongil was more dangerous than that, for his skill and courage were undeniable, all the better to advance his power.

But for this moment, for this purpose, Denethor would be the gracious lord and accept Thorongil’s service. Such acceptance would speed the Eagle on his way, and gladden Denethor‘s father.

“Very well, Thorongil,” he said, trying to speak kindly despite his rising impatience. “You may fasten the charm round my neck. I think you may be tall enough not to need a footstool.” He knew very well that Thorongil was one of the few men in Gondor taller than himself; but preferred to make light of it.

Denethor gave the charm to the captain, the small horn cool against his fingers as it slid into Thorongil’s hand.

“The stars shine upon you this wedding night,” Thorongil said quietly, in Quenya. His accent was peculiar, less sonorous than the proper mode of that ancient tongue. The captain’s hands moved lightly over Denethor’s head, pulling the chain’s two ends around behind his neck and clicking one into the other.

“May you have joy, and many sons,” Thorongil finished the blessing as he stepped out from behind Denethor. He had that remote look in his eyes once more, and some sorrow.

“Take heart, Eagle;” Denethor answered in the old language. “One day, thou wilt claim the lady of thy heart, and be also blest.”

Thorongil smiled in that knowing way of his, and finally left the room. Denethor decided not to be annoyed by the captain’s behaving as if he were equal in station to the son of Gondor’s Steward. After all, no man held higher station or fortune than Denethor, especially now. He would soon be welcomed by the silken white arms of the most beautiful maiden in Gondor, here in the Tower that soared above his own great City. The lonely Eagle had no kin or comfort here, and would alight in a cold bed.

Denethor could not help grinning as he fingered the horn-charm that lay below his throat. For all Ecthelion’s favor and the people’s love, Thorongil could not match him tonight. All Thorongil had was the chaste memory of some maid who may or may not await him still. What Thorongil did not have, and might never have, was an occasion to don a charm like Denethor now bore. Did Thorongil countenance his men's boasts to bolster his reputation and veil the Eagle's empty nest? Denethor spared a moment of pity, but only a moment; for this was his night and his hour!

And I have everything, and best of all, my fair young bride, my Finduilas.

He could hear soft laughter, rustlings of cloth, and the clatter of quick steps behind the door of the Bridal Chamber. It would not be long now. Denethor drew himself up, heart and body rising in eagerness. All hesitation receded from his mind. He would be masterful, but tender and patient. He would use Finduilas well this night! He would make her the happiest woman in Middle-earth!

The memory of Thorongil’s blessing lingered pleasantly in Denethor’s memory, and his hands lingered on the charm that Thorongil had set upon him, as the door began to open.




~~~

Author's Note:

Thank you, Branwyn, Gwynnyd, and Lindahoyland, for excellent advice and beta.
See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornicello for an article on the modern descendant of the Gondorian horn-charm, with photos.


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