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23
A Crown in Question

A Crown in Question


The warriors from Arnor did not remain within Gondor, save for one younger Man who admitted he was the son of King Araphant’s sister and desired to remain as envoy from Arnor. The rest filed aboard their ship alongside Mithrandir as soon as the victory against the Wainriders was confirmed, and set sail down the Anduin to take word of the triumph and the loss of the King and his sons to their own capital in the north. Before that ship could clear the Mouths of the Sea, however, Eärnil was once again leading troops southward toward Poros, and Gondor’s navy was barricading the ports of Umbar that neither Umbar nor Harad might seek to take advantage of the loss of King Ondoher and his heirs to assault the land. Meanwhile within Gondor itself debates were taking place as to what must be done about this situation. All agreed that Eärnil was the one remaining lord within Gondor with sufficiently unquestioned Dúnedain blood that might be expected to be accepted by the realm; but as it was needful he continue to direct the defense of the land, there was no way in which he might be prevailed upon immediately to accept the Kingship.

However, his wife’s brother commented quietly to a friend within the White City, who confided to his wife and her father, who passed on the word to others, that Lord Eärnil had expressed concern as to whether or not he should seek to take Crown and throne, as there was one who did have a stronger claim than did he. Hearing that, the Lord Steward Pelendur’s face grew dark with fury. There was no way he might be convinced to promote that claim, should it be tendered.

Some six months after the death of Ondoher word came that Harad and Umbar both faced sufficient problems within their own borders due to the loss of trade eastward into Khand and Rhûn that further threats of assault from those lands were considered unlikely, and Eärnil intended to return to the capital within a few weeks. At the same time three ships entered the Mouths of the Sea and were borne northward by unseasonable southern winds to the quays of the Harlond.

The central ship, with its black standard of flowering White Tree, seven stars, seven stones, and Winged Crown over a silver pennon of seven eight-pointed stars in a circle about a White Rod, hove to at the stone quays, and its sailors and those who worked in the harbor tossed and caught ropes and cables as heavy mats of woven grasses joined great fenders of soft wood wrapped in their own mats to hang between ship and stone. A procession came out of the White City and along the three-mile road to the city’s harbor. At its head riding upon a grey gelding was the Lord Steward Pelendur. Riding at his side on a great black stallion from the northlands was a shining youth with a great sword at his side, Eärnur son of Eärnil, sent with his mother from their home in Dor-en-Ernil to dwell in the relative safety of Minas Tirith until all of the Lords of Gondor could gather to make the decision as to who should serve as the next King of the realm.

When all three ships were at rest in adjacent berths, at last gangplanks were run out and fastened into their places as sections of the rails were removed. Now those who had come from the northern lands began to disembark, and for the second time in the past few years Elrond of Imladris set foot upon the land of Gondor, accompanying Arvedui of Arthedain in Eriador, Prince of Arnor, the Ring of Barahir on his finger, as he returned to set the claim of his wife and himself before the Council of Gondor. But Elrond was not the only Elven lord to come in this deputation; Gildor Inglorion stepped from the second ship, alongside Glorfindel of the House of the Golden Flower, Lindir of Imladris, with Elrohir Elrondilion at the side of the Prince. From the third ship a tall, shining figure in robes of silver and blue disembarked, his white beard long, his eyes far-sighted: Círdan of Mithlond himself had chosen to come to support the claim of Arvedui.

As the procession from the city arrived, the Steward’s pennon on the White Tower was raised and lowered in signal, and those from the fields of the Pelennor who’d come to meet the three ships turned in consternation to see what this foretold. A small yet shining company could be seen riding past Osgiliath, appearing to ride easily and yet traveling at a marvelous speed nonetheless. By the time Pelendur’s company drew near enough for individual faces to be made out, the riding of those who’d come down the River was also approaching the harbor, easily discerned now as being the folk of Laurelindórenan led by their Lord Amroth, who was flanked by Lord Celeborn and the Lady Galadriel, accompanied by a party of the archers of the Galadhrim and a party also from Mirkwood, as Thranduil and his dark-haired son Tharen and their guard of Silvan Elves came also to witness what might be decided.

*******


As the party of Elves passed the ruins of Osgiliath a lone rider paused just short of the roadway, having just crossed the great Bridge of the city, newly returned to the lands of the descendants of Elendil from his journeys to the East. Saruman watched the passing of Galadriel Artanis with a distinct shudder. His years within the Mortal lands had done nothing to reduce his distrust of the Elven Lady. Why was it so many of the Firstborn now gathered here in Gondor?

He did not have to follow them to Minas Tirith--he could turn northward into Rhovanion and go through it further north, coming at last to the ranges of the Éothéodif he so desired, and crossing the Misty Mountains there westward into Eriador. But Saruman was still possessed of curiosity, and although he hated to come too near the wife of Celeborn and mother to the Lady of Imladris, he turned southward to learn what was to happen here, within Gondor. So it was that he approached the quays of the Harlond as Gandalf emerged from the ship flying the banner of Elendil, holding the hand of a child. Arvedui had brought with him his older son, Aranarth. He, too, it appeared, would bear witness to the decisions that chose the next ruler of the realm of Anárion and Isildur.

*******


Two days after the arrival of the ships from the north and the deputations of Elves, there arrived in haste a riding from the remnants of the land of Rhovanion, accompanied by three from the horselords of the Éothéod, who came with word of incursions into the northern Anduin Valley by folk from eastern Angmar, people who were attacking the remnants of the wandering tribes of Elves who yet stubbornly remained there and the herds and villages of their own folk closest to the borders of the Witch-king’s lands. They came to request help from whomsoever might be moved to aid them, telling that again dragons had come out of the northern wastes to assault the kingdoms of the Dwarves, this time on the eastern side of the Mountains of Mist. These had been young dragons once again, and one had been slain by an archer of the Galadhrim while the second, one it was said to be of reddish hue, had been driven off northwards once more. But once more the losses known by the Children of Mahal were said to be terrible.

*******


Gandalf and Saruman stood again behind their guesthouse in the Sixth Circle, this time watching a sunrise over the wall of shadowed mountains that rose beyond Ithilien and the heights of Emyn Arnen, a sunrise that this morning seemed especially colorless, even ominous. Word was that Eärnil was due to return to Minas Tirith on the morrow, and it was hoped by some that his return would serve to break the great deadlock into which the debates of those met within the city had fallen.

“Pelendur has set his will, however,” the White Wizard murmured, voicing the thoughts of both, “and he will not be swayed. Not even the wisdom of Círdan or Elrond will move him or those who have allowed their own will to be ruled by his.”

“Yea, so it proves,” Gandalf sighed. “I feared as much when his desire to take Fíriel to wife was dashed, although I admit I hoped that the thought of her possible return here to govern first Gondor and then both lands when that time comes at the side of her husband would thaw his resolve. It appears, however, that even the daughter of Ondoher as co-ruler of Gondor is not enough to lessen his hatred of Arvedui.”

They looked down at the fields before the great Gates, there where a number of pavilions had been raised--one for Arvedui and his son and those closest to them; one for the folk of Imladris; one for those of Laurelindórenan; one for Círdan and those of the wandering tribes, lesser tents for guards. Many of those who’d come with Arvedui remained on the ships, still in their berths at the harbor.

Arvedui sat before his tent, his son with him, Elrohir of Imladris sitting easily on the ground before them, entertaining the child with tales. Glorfindel had said little as yet during the seemingly endless discussions that had filled the last week and a half. Celeborn had sought to impress all with the seriousness of the situation, the need for Gondor and Arnor to work in concert with one another if the ill will originating from Dol Guldur was to be fought effectively. Elrond had spoken of the continued dangers faced by those in Eriador from Angmar to the north and southern Rhudaur and Dunland to the south, as well as orcs and growing packs of wargs breeding in the caverns and woodlands of the Misty Mountains, of growing incursions of trolls once more.

Círdan had limited himself to sharing with all the words of Malbeth the Seer: Shadow again rises in the east until all together face the beast. A single bearer of Rod and Crown, or under waves of enemies all may drown. Then too long shall be the wait until all join before the Gate to see at last the Shadow laid low; Big and Small, all grief shall know. Two paths ’neath darkness lead toward Light, one through Fire, one worse than Night. Dead and undead shall contend; vows fulfilled ere the battle end. One receives and one bestows; one remains while his brother goes. Grief and joy then shall join hands ere peace is known by all the lands. Ithil watches as Stars and Sun send champions to fight till all is won. But long that day shall all await if envy of Isildur does not abate. Then three Hopes given unto the west through daughter of stars. Which is best? Valorous lord, half-knowing, wisdom earned. Sweet hope promised, hope held, hope lost but not spurned. Elessar by Gondor shall be accepted; but grievous and blessed the sacrifice expected. By Eagles borne, by Eagle guarded, endurance beyond hope shall be rewarded; but great and terrible shall be the cost, for life is granted only when all is deemed lost.

It was a strange prophecy, and one that tugged at the imagination of Gandalf the Grey. “If Pelendur will not give way, then in time the Shadow may yet be successfully opposed, apparently, but that is all I can yet appreciate of Malbeth’s warning. But better yet, undoubtedly, to see the two kingdoms rejoined now, and all working as one again.”

At the second hour Arvedui was joined by the Elven lords and lady and those who served as advisors and guards, and taking his son in his arms the Man who would be King of Gondor entered into the White City once again, passing one more time under the image of Elendil, who had served as High King of the West. Those who had presented the bridegroom of their beloved Princess Fíriel with flowers and sprays of greenery now watched her husband and son in quiet, still uncertain what role he might play in the future of their land. As they reached the Sixth Circle the two Wizards joined the party ascending to the level of the Citadel, and one more time they entered into the Hall of Kings, where Pelendur sat in the black chair of the Steward on the wide bottom-most step of the dais to the throne of Gondor, young Eärnur standing nearby in unrelieved black, his sword at his side.

“No more formidable a dog ever guarded the approach to a chair,” growled one of the northern Dúnedain, but none laughed, for the jest was too close to the mark.

Arvedui stopped short of the Steward’s seat, holding his son in his arms. Pelendur looked coldly at father and son. “You would bring a child with you this day?” he asked.

“This is Aranarth, the grandson of Ondoher, nephew to Artamir and Faramir, kinsman to Eärnil and his son Eärnur there. Heir he is to my father and myself, descended from Elendil through both his sons. He and his brother both exhibit all the gifts known to be common to the line of Kings--foresight, healing, the ability to read the hearts of Men, swift to understand the patterns laid out before them, an aptitude to strategy. He has remained in our tents until today, although I know that you saw him by my side when we arrived.

“You know it was Ondoher’s intent that his grandsons should rule both of the lands of the Dúnedain, hopefully bringing north and south once again back under joint rule within a generation. Certainly it is my intention to rule Arnor jointly with my wife Fíriel, who as Ondoher’s daughter has proved apt to administration. Already she is one of my father’s most trusted counselors as well as my beloved helpmeet. She may not wield a weapon, but she understands ruling and how it is best done.

“You have heard the arguments of the masters of the law; you have heard the plans Fíriel and I have for joint rule of Gondor until the death of my father, at which time I will succeed to the Kingship of Arnor, but she will rule jointly with me there as I would rule jointly with her here. You have heard the warnings of the Wise, that the Shadow again grows and would bring down the rule of both lands if it could so that it might more easily assert its rule and influence everywhere. It has been made clear to you how the wife of Artamir and her newborn son were purposely assassinated on direction of Dol Guldur----”

“And how do we know that Dol Guldur is to blame, and not the North seeking to gain control of the Winged Crown and throne of Gondor?” demanded one of the younger but more vocal lords on the Council of Gondor. His strident objections to all having to do with the northern realm had been a constant theme in the debates over the past few weeks, and all could see Arvedui grit his teeth at this further interruption.

The Northerner turned to look at the young Man. “My Lord Mordion,” he said to the young lord of the Morthond Vale, “this has been made clear over the past weeks. Daeron son of Berenthor, servant to Lord Palandor of Lebennin, has been shown to have been an agent of Dol Guldur and Umbar by several signs, including correspondence in Umbar’s form of Adûnaic found in his abandoned goods, along with gold from eastern lands to which we of the North have no access. It is Gondor’s own spymasters who have established this, before we could arrive here. The herbs used in the concocting of the tainted ointment grow only within Umbar and Khand--this has been shown. It was the information given to Palandor that led to your commanders realizing that at least one of the spies giving intelligence on movements of scouts was within his household.”

“And you learned this through your own communications with Dol Guldur!” shrilled young Lord Mordion.

Elrond of Imladris had heard enough, and stepped forward, his face and voice grim. “This has been learned through the reports given to your Council with us present,” he said, and the tone of voice of the Peredhel lord was enough to quiet even the young Man. “Dol Guldur has been assaulting our lands as well as the lands east and south of the Misty Mountains, as you have been told.

“This is what must be faced--that all are equally under attack, Elves, Dwarves, and Men. We must stand together against the Enemy, or we will all fall singly.”

Galadriel of Laurelindórenan, who had largely remained quiet when facing the Council of Gondor so far, now raised her own voice. “The Dwarves of Khazad-dûm have been assaulted once more by combined forces of orcs and cave trolls working in concert. The borders of the Golden Wood have been assaulted by orcs assisted by Men we have never seen before in the valley of the upper Anduin. Dragons are again sent against the Dwarf communities of the northern Misty Mountains. Lord Gildor has spoken of assaults against northern Lindon and the Dwarf settlements in the Iron Hills and Blue Mountains. Wargs and great companies of orcs terrorize the villages and farmsteads of the Angle in what was upper Rhudaur and lower Arthedain, and have assaulted the fortresses in the Weather Hills. Lord Círdan’s people have told you of ships sailing south from the coasts of Angmar and north once again from Umbar and Harad harrying the ships of Elves and Arnor and seeking the havens and the mouths of the Baranduin and other greater rivers. Mithrandir and Arvedui have both told you of renewed attempts to send those infected with disease and plague over the northern and now southern borders of Arnor, and three Men so infected were found by Lord Elrond’s patrols attempting to cross into Eriador from the passes above his lands, and six have our folk and the Dwarves found on the Dimrill Stair.

“All the lands of the Free Peoples are under assault, not just Gondor, Lord Mordion.”

Arvedui turned back toward Pelendur. “We of Arnor alone cannot hold off assaults from both north and south forever, any more than you within Gondor could expect to protect all your borders should the folk of southern Rhudaur and the Dunlands turn on you rather than to assault us at the same time you are assaulted by Khand, Umbar, Harad, and Rhûn. If we combine our forces and resources we are doubly strong; if we continue as we do now, both Gondor and Arnor will most likely suffer major defeats within the next hundred years. Angmar stirs once more--Fíriel remained in the North only because while I am here and my father leads our armies in defense of our realm she sees to the administration of our lands and peoples with the aid of my mother.

“You of Gondor had no time to send word of the renewed assaults on your lands by the Wainriders--only my own gift of foresight and the word of Malbeth gave us to know that your people needed aid so we could send it in accordance to the treaty we signed when Fíriel accepted me as her husband, not that we could send anywhere as much aid as you required, considering the increased assaults our own borders know. But it is the treachery within our realms that disturbs me most--we have also found traitors seeking to turn our lesser lords from their commitments to send levies to the aid of Arnor as a whole, and when my younger son was born an unknown midwife tried to force herself on my wife’s maidens. Only my unlooked for return sent her packing, and she, too, left tainted medicaments behind her. I, too, was intended to be widowed suddenly, you must realize, and to similar purpose, I am certain, to weaken my judgment with grief at a time I must be expected to lead troops to the defense of our lands.”

Gandalf, however, had seen the closing of Pelendur’s expression when Arvedui first named his wife. Nay, there was no way in which the Steward of Gondor intended to agree to allow Arvedui anywhere near the throne of Gondor. And the vote that evening by the Council was overwhelmingly against the rejoining of the two realms.

Arvedui, called an hour after sunset to the Hall of Kings to hear the Council’s final words, looked with disbelief at Pelendur. “You would not wait but one day more for the return of Eärnil?” he asked.

“Why should we?” returned Pelendur, his tone icy. “Those who oppose your claim to the Winged Crown are clearly in the majority--his coming would change nothing.”

“Then,” Arvedui responded finally, his own voice stiff with more emotions than he could fully name at the moment, “there is no point in our remaining. Our own lands are once more under assault, as the message birds received today show. Rhudaur and Dunland are again stirring in the south, and my father needs my return.”

He remained, however, searching Pelendur’s face for some moments, one apparently carved from stone. At last he said, “I know that once you and your father hoped you yourself would marry Fíriel, and I know that the fact that she did not see you as one she could possibly love disappointed her father as well. But you have a lady wife who is your equal and who loves you dearly. She has given you a son to be proud of, and has wit and beauty to please any Man. That you yet begrudge Fíriel and me our happiness is a matter unworthy of you, and I fear it weakens Gondor unduly.

“I cannot say how much longer I have--had the Council accepted our claim on the Crown and throne then Fíriel and I should have ruled both lands for many, many years, perhaps another century yet, and with you as our primary adviser. Instead, you have doomed both lands to diminishment you have not foreseen. I fear that within a hundred years neither Gondor nor Arnor will know the proper rule of a beneficent King, even should your Council choose one from among the descendants of Telumehtar to wear the Winged Crown.

“I leave now--tonight. The longer I delay at this point, the sooner my own land shall fail, and the more grief I know by not being by the side of the woman I love.”

So saying, Arvedui turned and left the Hall of Kings. The three ships had been refitting themselves over the past week; within an hour of his return to the encampment outside the walls the pavilions were struck, and all who’d come with him, save for Gandalf and the one adviser who’d stayed after the defeat of the Wainriders, had entered into their ships, and lines were cast loose. Each ship nosed out into the current, and by dawn all were far down the river. And at the dawning the envoys from Mirkwood, the Golden Wood, Rhovanion, and the upper Anduin valley were also gone.

*******


Eärnil arrived to find circles of flattened grass where the encampment had been. He heard Pelendur’s report, then sought out Gandalf. “Let you tell me, Mithrandir, what has been wrought by the Steward while I was on my way here to meet with Arvedui. I would have gladly accepted him as King of Gondor, and served as one of his generals.”

Gandalf told him.

“And you think it goes back to the fact my young cousin Fíriel did not favor him?”

“Every time her name was mentioned, Pelendur’s face closed the further.”

Eärnil’s expression hardened. “What he has wrought he cannot appreciate, I deem. Envy is so beneath him, but I fear he has never been one to accept being bested easily. He allowed Ondoher and his sons to gainsay him only because he has known them as the King and his heirs all his adult years. If I put forth a claim he would accept it, and he would accept my martial leadership of the realm for again this has been my primary role for the entirety of his life. But he would grant me little enough responsibility for the administration of the land.”

He looked more intently at the Wizard. “I will say this--I strongly suspect that had the Council overruled him, Pelendur would have found assisting Arvedui and Fíriel as co-rulers of the realm more than he could bear. The thought of allowing a woman--any woman--to give orders to the running of the realm would have been more than he could have borne. No matter what he has convinced himself of how he would have honored and cherished her, the fact remains that Pelendur of the House of Húrin believes firmly that the husband is the head of the house, and his wife and children must remain submissive to him. The very fact that Arvedui admits his wife assists in the administration of Arnor’s rule would be repugnant to him.”

Gandalf nodded his understanding. Eärnil, he realized, was far more perceptive than he’d imagined.

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