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Mask of Virtue
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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2
Don't judge a book by its cover

The characters are the property of the Tolkien Estate

With thanks to Raksha


Don't judge a book by its cover.


~~~

The next morning the citizens of Minas Tirith were still talking about the dangerous criminal who had posed as a Guard in the Court of the Fountain. The people were also discussing the new ruling that the Guards must have their faces uncovered. Opinion was strongly divided whether it was a good idea or not.

Aragorn had slept badly. He felt strangely troubled by the haunted look in the young criminal’s eyes. Whatever had driven the man to take such desperate measures? Ostopher seemed to have such an open an honest face.

During Aragorn’s years of service as Thorongil, he had encountered men who had received letters breaking off a betrothal. Many a maiden had grown weary of waiting for her lover to return from fighting and chosen another, but none of the men had reacted like Ostopher. Aragorn had seen men under his command weep and rage against the perceived fickleness of the gentler sex, but not one had deserted.

Although Aragorn could ill spare the time from his other duties, he decided to try Ostopher’s case himself rather than leave it to the magistrates. Maglor had died during the night without regaining consciousness. Ostopher was now charged with two capital offences:the attack on a Citadel guard and his murder along with the lesser crimes of assaulting prison warders and escaping from his prison cell. Since he would have to sign the warrant for the young man’s execution, Aragorn desired to learn what had made him commit such dreadful crimes.

Aragorn summoned Faramir and asked him about Ostopher’s original crime. The Steward soon returned with a scroll detailing the trial. It seemed that a wealthy jewel merchant in the second level had been attacked and left unconscious. Some precious stones from his shop had been found in Ostopher’s house, thereby proving the man’s guilt.

“What made the attack even more shocking,” Faramir added, “was that rumour had it the criminal was courting his victim’s daughter. He knew the family well and often dined with them. It was a cruel betrayal of the worst kind.”

“Had Ostopher committed any previous crimes?” Aragorn asked.

Faramir shook his head. ”No, at least none that were ever discovered. The young man was said to be a hard working carpenter who was skilled at his trade. One of my Rangers knew him. He had made some furniture for his mother who was highly impressed by the quality of the workmanship. He was making a good living and had no need to steal. Alas, when greed enters a man’s heart, it destroys him!” Faramir said sadly.

“Alas, indeed,” Aragorn replied suspecting Faramir was referring to his brother as well as to Ostopher.” Greed has destroyed far better men than this young fool I am trying today. May his fate be a lesson for others! I would have you accompany me while I judge the trial. You have the Númenorean ability to see into human hearts, and I would value your insights.”

“Certainly, my lord,” Faramir replied.

The Great Hall was packed with interested spectators when Aragorn and Faramir took their places.

When Ostopher was brought in the crowd booed and jeered. Minas Tirith respected her Citadel Guards and the murder of one was seen as an affront to every honest citizen. Ostopher walked stiffly as if in pain, his head bowed. He raised his head and stared at his accuser with a sad grey gaze when Aragorn addressed the crowd telling them what the prisoner was to be tried for. To the King’s horrified astonishment, a spark of what could only be described as joy seemed to glitter in Ostopher’s eyes when he learned he was charged with murder. Aragorn exchanged a glance with Faramir. He nodded. The Steward had seen it too.

The King listened carefully as the first witness, the chief warder at the prison, was called to give his evidence.

“I gave Ostopher a letter the morning he escaped,” said the man, slurring his speech slightly as if drunk “He read it and went berserk, attacking me and the other guards. We were lucky to escape with our lives, we was!”

“What injuries did you and your comrades sustain?” Aragorn enquired.

“ Er, a black eye and a cut lip, I think, my lord,” said the warder.” I can’t quite recall.”

Aragorn raised his eyebrows and curtly dismissed the man.

The next witness, a soldier’s widow, described how she had discovered Maglor lying in the alleyway. “ I was very shocked, my lord,” she said. “To see him lying by his doorway wearing only his drawers! It wasn’t proper at all! I’ve never seen such a thing in the City before. Lord Denethor would never have allowed it! Folks were always dressed proper in his day! It was such a shock what with Sergeant Maglor being a respectable Citadel Guard and all!”

Aragorn, who had been struggling to keep his attention during this rambling account, suddenly pricked up his ears.

“Did you recognise the man as Sergeant Maglor, Mistress?” he enquired. “The soldiers who reported the matter to me had no idea who the victim was.”

“Well, they never asked me or I could have told them!” said the woman. “Maglor was my neighbour for well nigh on twenty years. He was a quiet enough neighbour but too given to fancies if you get my meaning, my lord.”

“Perhaps you could explain?” Aragorn asked her.

“Well, he was always the bravest in his troop, according to him that was, my lord,” said the woman. “But we know all soldiers are brave, don’t we? My husband, may he rest in peace, most certainly was. Then the past year or two he has been telling me he was getting married, but I never seen any young lady with him!”

Seeing she would ramble on all day in this wise, if not stopped, Aragorn thanked her and politely but firmly dismissed her.

The crowd muttered amongst themselves agreeing the Lord Denethor would never have allowed such goings on. Men attacked in the street wearing only their drawers! Whatever was the world coming to?

Ostopher was then brought forward, his hands and feet secured by heavy manacles.

The crowd murmured angrily and shook their fists at the young man.

Aragorn studied the prisoner closely. He was a tall, obviously of Númenorean descent with the carven features and dark hair typical of his people. He faced Aragorn calmly, a resigned expression on his face, in stark contrast to his agitation of the day before.

“Ostopher son of Cirondil, “ Aragorn began sternly. “You are charged with escaping from prison and the murder of Maglor, a Citadel Guard. You are further charged with the theft of his clothing, then of impersonating him and resisting arrest. You stand before me facing death. What do you have to say for yourself?”

“I was sent to prison for a crime I did not commit,” Ostopher said firmly, looking Aragorn in the eye and not flinching when the King returned his gaze. “ I admit that I fled the prison for reasons I prefer not to disclose. I struck Maglor twice, one in anger, the second time in self-defence when he set upon me. I did not intend to kill him, though I regret his death not at all! “

“Explain yourself!” ordered Aragorn.

“I would rather hang than have the honour of someone I hold dear besmirched,” said Ostopher.

“I have ordered you to explain your actions,” Aragorn said sharply. “I am offering you a fair trial and the opportunity to speak in your defence. Do you not understand?”

“I can say nothing more,” Ostopher replied. “I willingly accept whatever fate you decree for me.”

“That scoundrel ruined both me and my daughter!” cried an irate voice from the back.

“Let the man come foreword to speak!” Aragorn demanded. ”What is your name?”

An old man came forward. He pointed an accusing finger at Ostopher. “I am Findegil, son of Caranthir,” said the greybeard in reply to Aragorn’s question. “That scoundrel there wormed his way into my household, saying he wanted to marry my daughter. My wife, may she rest in peace, left me with six daughters to provide for. The eldest is of marriageable age and I am eager to see her settled with a man of her choosing. She told me last year that she wanted to marry that good for nothing, who now stands before you, my lord. He seemed a decent enough fellow and earned a good living as a carpenter. Never was I more deceived in a man than I was in him! One day, when I was alone in my shop, Ostopher crept up behind me and hit me over the head and stole some of my most valuable jewels. I was certain the thief was someone who knew that I was working late that night. I usually leave well before the evening meal and take my most valuable merchandise home with me. The Guards searched the houses of my acquaintances and found the jewels in Ostopher’s home, so there was no doubt he was guilty. Not that my foolish daughter would believe it! She even refused to break off her betrothal until a few days ago. I was delighted when she suddenly announced she would marry Maglor, who was an old family friend. Now this villain here has gone and murdered him and I have to find another husband for the girl! May you only be blessed with sons, my lord! The sooner you hang that Ostopher, the better!”

“I never harmed you, sir,” Ostopher interrupted.

“Be silent!” Aragorn admonished sternly. He sighed inwardly. It seemed the reason for Ostopher’s misdeeds was all too clear now. ”I have one question for you, Master Findegil,” he said. “Did you clearly see Ostopher’s face when he attacked you.

“No, my lord,” Findegil replied. “I was bending over my workbench engrossed in fashioning a necklace for a merchant’s wife. He wanted their family crest set in diamonds to mark forty years of marriage to his lady. I awoke in the Houses of Healing. A curse on the young villain!”

Aragorn dismissed the man. A grim picture was gradually starting to form in his mind. It seemed that Ostopher was indeed as wicked as the evidence suggested. And yet…He sensed no evil in Ostopher’s presence despite the overwhelming evidence.

Just then the noon bells rang. Aragorn ordered the court to adjourn for the midday meal, after which he would sentence the young man to death. The thought repelled him. Why should this be? He was King and it was his duty to rid his lands of evildoers such as Ostopher. Justice in the North had been a very different matter As Chieftain Aragorn was responsible for judging wrongdoers, but serious crime was very rare amongst the Northern Dúnedain. They were too preoccupied eking out a meagre living and keeping Orcs at bay to turn upon one another.

Aragorn felt he needed air. Instead of joining Arwen as he usually did, he took a walk in the gardens.

He came across his Steward seated upon a bench. Faramir leapt to his feet.

“My lord, I am sorry, I did not see you approaching,” said Faramir.

“There is nothing to apologise for,” said Aragorn. ”Come sit beside me, I would hear how you perceive Ostopher?”

“My heart does not sense that he is as an evil man, nor a liar,” said Faramir. “Yet it seems clear enough that he murdered Maglor because he planned to marry Master Findegil’s daughter. Or is there more to this matter than meets the eye? Do we see the entire picture since Ostopher will offer no explanation.”

“ I would rather face death than have my lady’s honour besmirched,” said Faramir.

“As indeed would I,” Aragorn replied gravely. “ However, since we know nothing of any threat to a lady’s virtue, I must pronounce the death sentence within the hour. Maybe I was deceived by Ostopher’s appearance? A king cannot be influenced by an innocent seeming face, or let an evildoer escape because he has an air of Númenor about him.”

The two men sat lost in thought for a few moments.

“Sire,” said Faramir, struck by a sudden flash of inspiration. ”If Ostopher was indeed set upon by Maglor, would he not bear some marks of violence upon his body to prove it? Could you not ask a healer to examine him? The law states that all possible methods may be used to uncover evidence when a capital crime has been committed.”

Aragorn smiled and clapped his Steward on the shoulder. ”Well spoken, Faramir! I will examine Ostopher myself for any injuries sustained in a fight. I can perhaps, also persuade him to reveal what secrets he is hiding. I know many Elven calming arts that can make a man reveal the secrets of his heart.”

Faramir flushed with shame, remembering how he had wept and revealed his pain and grief during Aragorn’s treatments. How weak the King must think him! He was determined it would never happen again.

King and Steward rose from the bench together and returned indoors. Aragorn despatched a messenger to order the Guards to bring Ostopher to his study. He was determined to learn the whole truth if only for his own peace of mind. As Gandalf had been fond of telling him, death should not be dealt out lightly.

About half an hour later, Aragorn, having collected his healing supplies, was awaiting Ostopher’s arrival in his study. Faramir was with him, sitting unobtrusively in a corner, pretending to be engrossed in a scroll. “Enter!” he called when the expected knock came on the door.

Four burly Guards escorted the still shacked prisoner into the room.

“Remove the wrist manacles, then wait outside,” the King ordered.

“But, my lord!” one of the men protested. “He is dangerous and violent. We cannot leave you with such a man!!”

“I can and I will!” Aragorn replied sternly. “How can I examine him if his wrists are bound? I assume he has been searched for weapons? I wish you to wait outside the door until I summon you.”

“I would not harm my lord king!” Ostopher said indignantly. “You have my word upon it.”

The Guards reluctantly obeyed the King’s command. Aragorn and Faramir were left alone with Ostopher.




~~~

This is an expanded version of my ficlet for the prompt “Picture” posted on the AA List.

A very grateful thank you to everyone who has reviewed


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