For the next three days, we continued with tasks: further cleaning and so far as we could, refurbishment of the beacon, partially restocking the necessary beacon-wood store with deadfall from the wood, exercising the horses, hunting outside the wood, and various other chores. Mistress Alta sewed industriously on the shirts as well as other domestic chores. Tam and Rihan rotated with me on guard duty and in the daytime with Cardin and Dir, beacon duty (although by the third day, Dir allowed Halvador to go up as well, for short periods), we all except Halvador resumed our training, and in addition, our two younglings assiduously studied.
At last, Cardin reported that a group was approaching on horseback, and soon we were hailed by a rider, in the lead of a small force from Amon Dîn, as I could tell from the pennon snapping in the wind one bore: The White Tree on gules quartered with the Sun, gules, the opposite two diagonal quarters argent. The group consisted of Tirandor, Rigil, four Tiromen, a shaven-headed priest in the black robes of a brother of the Holy Men of the Dead, and another Man.
I bowed as they dismounted, but stood back to allow Halvador to come forward. Unable to salute normally, he too bowed. “I am Halvador, First Tiroman, the only one presently on duty here. Welcome to the beacon of Eilenach.”
The commander of Amon Dîn dismounted. “I am Tirandor, Captain of Amon Dîn, and these are Lord Rigil son and steward of Daerloth Lord Amon Dîn and Anórien; Brother Doom of the Order of Námo, Healer Nerumir, and First Tiromen Ser Aledil and Ser Melemerth, Second Tiromen Ser Trinch, and Ser Riedir of the Third Tiroman.”
Halvador replied, “Allow me to present Marpol Thorenhen Lord Tintehlë, the Warden of Roads; his captains Solarion Rihan and Tambaro Maldréd; Mistress Altáriël Nénharma; Cardin son of Forlong; and Dirúvel of Minas Tirith, who have all done much here in my time of need. Please, come within.”
He led the way up—Mistress Alta had already rushed up to ready refreshments, and Dir had disappeared, I hoped to help her. I brought up the rear behind Tirandor, Rigil, Brother Doom, and the Healer, leaving Rihan to attend the beacon once he, Cardin and Tambaro moved our horses out of the stable to give theirs room, and help the Tiromen tend them.
As I had expected, Halvador was beckoning our guests to seats at the table; Tirandor took the head of the table as his right. In a short time, we were served with small fruit pastries and some ale we had discovered.
Tirandor requested Halvador’s report verbally, followed by my own and my captains’ when they and the First Tiromen joined us. Halvador led them on a tour of the beacon and the rest of the complex, and while they questioned the prisoner, Nerumir and Halvador came upstairs. I was sitting by the fire, ostensibly polishing my sword, but in reality simply trying to stay out of the way.
“My lord, where can I examine Halvador?” the Healer asked. He was a pleasant-faced Man, with sandy hair hinting at possible Rohirric ancestry.
“Wherever you wish. I can go elsewhere,” I said civilly.
“No, no, I wish to ask you questions about his diagnosis and care.”
“Then you need to speak with Dirúvel,” I said, perhaps heartlessly, for I was well aware that Dir was skulking behind the screen. However, he emerged before I could call, and came slowly into the light. He was pale, and I realized he was expecting to be denounced. “I believe you will find he has done well by his patient.”
Nerumir felt Halvador’s head, looked into his eyes, unstrapped and examined his shoulder, and asked brisk questions of both of them before restrapping the shoulder and sitting back. Unasked, I brought him a mug of ale.
“Thank you, my lord! Well, I have but one question: why is such a gifted and promising young Healer wandering about the countryside instead of finishing his training at the Houses of Healing at Minas Tirith?”
“Did I do all right?” Dir asked breathlessly.
Nerumir smiled. “All right? You did exactly as I would have myself! Indeed, he is further healed for the time that’s elapsed since the injury, especially considering the initial neglect, than I would have expected him to be. You have the inborn gift, lad! Tell me how you accomplished this, I beg you.”
“It is just as I told you—“
“And those techniques,” Halvador added.
“The Elvish ones,” the Tiroman said, as Dir said hastily, “Not really—I’ve only heard and read about them, but I tried to—to feel my way inside the damage, and imagine it healed normally.”
“And did your hands glow?” Nerumir asked.
“They did,” Halvador nodded.
“They did?” Dir asked.
“His eyes were closed, you see,” the young guard explained.
“To see inside better with my hands,” Dir said.
Nerumir was nodding. “Concentration of empathic projection. Did you feel warmth, Halvador?”
“I did, each time he did it, which has been several times a day.”
“He did so the night we were attacked by brigands, too,” I said, and explained how that had led to our detour to the beacon.
“But why are you not at the Houses?” the Healer asked again.
Dir flushed and looked down.
I said calmly, placing my hand on his shoulder, “In the turbulence of the war ending, he lost his family and his place at the Houses, and swore to me. I needed extra help in this journey, so included him. It is a great joy to see him finding his talents. That is why I brought him a Healer’s satchel I found in the marketplace in Amon Dîn, hoping it would be of use to him.”
“May I see this satchel?” asked Nerumir, and Dir fished it out of the chest he had placed it in out of sight and set it before him.
“But I know this! It belonged to Herúfel of Edoras!” he cried even before he lifted the flap.
Dir’s eyes widened. He asked excitedly, “You knew him? I have been reading his case notes, but cannot understand all the words—“
“That is because he wrote in a mixture of Sindarin, Westron and Rohirric,” Nerumir explained. “Ah, so you are the one who made off with this, Lord Tintehlë! I had been at Aldburg, and came just too late to claim it from his idiot daughter. A nice girl, but with a head full of feathers, never thinking of the treasure of the experience in those notes, nor of the possible harm some could do with a few of the herbs within! He was my benefactor, taking me in when I was a young child orphaned by an orc raid, and sent me to the Houses when I was old enough. He always encouraged me to travel and study further. As a father he was to me, and I grieve that I was not with him in his last illness.”
Swallowing, Dir clasped his hands tightly together, and said, “Then you must have it back, Healer.”
“What, and be haunted by his irate ghost for the rest of my life? No! The satchel is rightfully, freely yours, young Dirúvel; see that you do not disgrace it.” Neruvel pushed it towards him, and Dir’s hands closed over it almost tenderly.
“I am oath-bound not to, sir,” was all he said.
“Can you tell me of this oath?”
The young Man—with a start, I realized that I no longer thought of him as a boy—told him, word for word, what he had sworn before me.
“One of my gifts, I am happy to tell you, is that I can see potential, and yours is the greatest I have yet encountered other than the King’s and Lords Elladan and Elrohir, the King’s brothers, whom I met briefly in the Houses as the Siege ended. The Warden and Master Kinfinning are after me to come and teach, but I think not, or at least not for the next few months. I have a few patients I do not wish to go far from where I am. You know how it is—I may be summoned at almost any time.”
Dir looked startled, and Nerumir laughed. “Ah, you are accustomed to the city’s Houses, with their set hours of treatment. Outside of such luxury (and childbirth, and death, which act on no Man’s schedule but their own), we rustic Healers expect interruptions often.”
“Have you taught?” I asked.
“I have, in the past, to the right students.”
Once again, Dir was studying the satchel, his body tense.
“Dirúvel.” My saying his name brought his eyes up.
“Do you wish to be released from your oath in order to study with Master Nerumir? I would not stand in the way of your gift’s developing.”
“I have not discharged my oath to you, my lord, nor has Master Nerumir asked me to become his student.”
“Nor will I,” the Healer said. “Do not glare at me, my lord! Your young oath-son is on an important path, one he will have to forge on his own. I suspect that he has already gone beyond what I can teach, although at any time he wishes, I shall be honoured and happy to learn from and exchange information with him, and he shall ever have a home with me, should he wish to come to it. I will gladly help as I can, as Herúfel helped me, but I shall not be his only teacher. For one thing, I cannot teach him the Elvish techniques, for I do not know them. Yet you feel a strong need to learn those, do you not?”
“Yes, I do,” Dir admitted.
“Then away with you and find the one or ones who can instruct you. Healing is not only a matter of knowing what herbs to grind and remedies to concoct, or what kind of incision to make, despite what they teach at the Houses. For the best of us, it is also a matter of the heart and soul. I sense that you are destined to be one of the best, on a level of Musa Nestha, Galncon son of Niccon, Cosiformen of Ondosto, and Dion son of Dor.”
Dir was blushing furiously. “I know of the first two, but who are Dion and Cosiformen?”
“Cosiformern of Ondosto was a renowned Healer, philosopher, judge and teacher in that city on the Lost Isle. Fortunately for us, many of his works, or those of his nineteen students and followers, survived. I’m sure you have heard of such things as The Complicated Body—“
“Oh! My father frightened me as a child with the illustrations!”
“To a layperson or small child, they can be frightening,” Nerumir agreed. “Dion was from Annúminas; I once had a vociferous exchange with the shining light of our generation in the Houses, who refused to admit that Medicinal Material in Middle-Earth could have been written by him because he was from the North, of all narrow-minded, prejudiced notions!” A caustic note had crept into his voice, and I knew that Dir suspected, as I did, the identity of that opponent. Nerumir went on, “Dion was an army surgeon who traveled widely and paid attention to what he saw, and a talented artist, making accurate drawings so others could find the plants without his being there to show them. He also was smart enough to include names for the plant used in different places, and cross-indexed them for convenience for those who were not from the same country. Brilliant!If you can find The Hands of the Healer, as well, peruse that also. Oh, before I forget: I brought this for you, in case you did not have it.” He handed a small book to Dir, who read the title aloud.
“Healing Herbs of the North, by Dior Son of Dor, copied by Herúfel of Edoras—but surely you cannot wish to give this away, Master!”
“Oh, but I do. I have already made a copy for myself; I forgot to return it to him. Just make sure that every good book or scroll you have has at least one copy made of it, and promise me that you will pass on what you have learned to at least one other.”
“I shall do so, I swear it!”
“Then I am content. You know, it used to be the rule, long ago, that all Healers swore to Estë and to Yavanna, and we prayed to Eru and the Valar for healing through our hands and hearts and minds. It has been a sorrow to both Herúfel and me that so many Healers no longer do either.”
Dir looked startled, and so was I; I said, “But even I know of the Healer’s Oath.”
Nerumir sighed. “Sorry I am to say it, my lord, but not all swear it. Different ones are used in different lands, but in Gondor I would estimate that fewer than one in three Healers swear it now, and I feel it has coincided with the stupid notion that women must only assist, not be Healers in their own right.”
“But aren’t they too frail….” Dir trailed off uncertainly as Nerumir and I laughed.
“I wouldn’t say so in front of Mistress Alta!” I advised him.
“If you spent any time at the Houses, you must have known Dame Ioreth, and a sturdier, more sensible woman I have never met,” the Healer said. “You should see women during an epidemic, and anyone who attends one in childbed cannot help but realize that they are far stronger in endurance than we, the weaker sex!. If Men truly were the stronger, we would be the ones giving birth, not they! No, no, my friend, disabuse yourself of that silly notion! The ignorant and insecure will mock their greater sensibilities, for they are naturally more empathetic than we, but they are also perforce realists. Have you ever seen the female of any species defending her young?”
“But—but Dame Ioreth chatters so!”
“Aye, as a defense and a means of diffusing her rage at the stupidity of her so-called superiors. Yet her nursing is of the best, and anyone under her tutelage is equally competent by the time they leave her training, if she can make them so and they have the wit to see past the surface. I suspect she treated you with less than the deference you expected, not so?”
Abashed, Dir nodded.
“You are not alone in that! But before I forget, let me tell you that I have seen the King use these Elvish techniques, as well as his brothers. They seem to feel that invocations and prayer aid them, before and during; one of the Pheriannath told me that when the Ringbearer lay wounded from a Morgul-knife in Rivendell, Lord Elrond had several of his folk and Mithrandir himself singing over Lord Iorhael, as well as his tending the wound. And if, once you settle, you can find a gifted gardener the likes of Lord Panhael, your success will be doubled. Always use the purest materials you can find, exactly and cleanly compounded—“
We were interrupted by a hail from below, from one of the Tiromen. Another party of riders had arrived.
Down in the courtyard, Kings Elessar and Éomer, Mithrandir, Lords Halladan and Daerloth of Amon Dîn, another Man who looked vaguely familiar in a brown cloak, three in blue ones, four Riders of Rohan, four of the Guard, and four of the Grey Company in their grey cloaks and star brooches, along with several pack-horses, were reining in. I noticed Tambaro and two of the Tiromen entering the stable behind us, no doubt to move out some of Rigil and Tirandor’s mounts, and stifled a grin. I joined Tirandor and Rigil in greeting the newcomers.
The King nodded at our bows. “Gentlemen. Lord Daerloth, please present me.”
He did so, although I had to give him the names of my party. Once again, Dir had disappeared. The Man in brown was a Healer, one Master Kinfinning, who was holding a nosegay of herbs to his nose, and the trio in blue who bore the badges of Lawyers’ Guild members, were Masters Drégan, Artegil, and Rennig. That last also wore the insignia of a quill superimposed upon his badge, so I realized that he must be a legal scribe.
My attention was suddenly caught by an angry mutter behind me from Captain Tirandor to Halvador: “How they expect us to find room for all of these, I do not know!” Unfortunately, it was said into a pause in the conversations, so was clearly heard.
The King turned his head. “Captain—I believe you are the Captain of Amon Dîn?”
“I am, my lord,” he said stiffly.
“We have come with tents and pavilions to erect here in the baileys, knowing that Eilenach tower is not as large as some of the other beacons. Certainly I feel that those who occupied it first have precedence now, so Lord Tintehlë’s party has the living-quarters there, although we should like to see the beacon itself.”
“Of course, my lord King,” said Daerloth, who was scowling at Tirandor.
In the end, I accompanied both Kings, Daerloth, Rigil, Halladan, Tirandor, Mithrandir, and the legal contingent, up through the tower. On the middle level, Mistress Alta was busy over the fire, but paused to curtsey deeply.
“You are Mistress Nénharma, are you not?” asked Elessar, pausing.
“I am, my lord King,” she said softly.
“I did not get the opportunity before to tell you that I was sorry to hear that you had left my service; Lord Tintehlë’s gain is my loss.”
“It was no despite of attending you, my lord, but family duties, and then—well, things changed,” she replied, blushing.
“Are you happy with those changes?”
I almost held my breath. What if she wished to go back to the Citadel?
“Oh, yes! Lord Marpol has been most kind!”
“Halladan has brought you a letter from your mother, and if you wish to send one back with us for her, we will gladly carry it.”
“That would be wonderful!”
“And do not worry about feeding all of us; we brought supplies. You are all our guests while we are here.”
That was a relief, although I thought the responsibility for feeding those at the beacon should rest with those who served them—or so I had been taught when I had so served.
We proceeded up onto the roof, and Elessar turned to me. “Tell us how you found it when you came, please.”
I said, “My lords, I knew that things were amiss before ever we came up through the tower—“
“That’s just your opinion! What do you really know about it?” challenged Tirandor. His jaw jutted, and he stood aggressively, one hand gripping his sword-hilt.
“My past experience—“
He sneered, “Playing about with docks and bridges while in the army, and brawling with civilians, instead of honest fighting? I know how you came to leave the guard in disgrace! Do they?”
“Tirandor!” cried Daerloth.
“’Tis true, my lord! He’s just a jumped-up, baseborn lout! Pulling the wool over their eyes, and climbing over better Men by any means he can!”
I felt myself redden, but answered quietly, “Captain, I know you for a valiant soldier and officer; why do you suddenly think me an enemy?”
“Because you are! Can’t any of you see it?”
Éomer asked, frowning, “Do you question your King’s judging him fit for his appointment?”
“He is deluded! This bastard seeks to rule the tower!” He half-drew his sword before Rigil grabbed his arm, and was flung off.
The very picture of a harmless old man, Mithrandir had been leaning on his staff, but suddenly reversed it, driving it into Tirandor’s gut so that he doubled over. Halladan and Master Rennig gripped his arms, even after he was disarmed.
“What madness is this?” gasped Daerloth. “Rigil, are you hurt?”
“Just bruises, Father,” his son replied a bit breathlessly. “I can’t believe this!”
“That’s just it!” I realized. “Was he in that outbuilding, the one we’ve been avoiding?”
Rigil nodded. “I think so, just before the King’s party arrived. I went to the stable, to help with the horses.”
The Wizard said, “There is evil here. I sensed it as we came. You were wise to avoid that place and warn us, Marpol.”
“It needs to be cleansed,” I agreed. It felt as if I had been reiterating that forever. I added, “Captain Tirandor has been under strain for a long time—not enough Men, not enough weapons, the weight of command and the lives of so many depending on his decisions and leadership, losing so many in so many battles—my lords, we have all experienced this! Surely that explains his being vulnerable to being preyed upon by the hideous malaise in that place!”
“It was explainable during the War, aye,” Daerloth said, “but now?”
Master Kinfinning had come up as well. “Ah, but why not? Has anything changed for him? The war is over, the King come again, but has this Man had time to rest or mourn? Has he had any time away from his duties? Has he had any hope of the aid he wishes, other than the assertion that no more orc raids will come in such force? You can push a Man so far and so long, but in time he will break.”
I said softly, “And there I came, to speak of a shameful situation at another beacon, mentioning the possibility of mayhap it and others no longer being needed.”
“We will always need the beacons!” Rigil protested.
“But I spoke of messages being sent in other ways as well, and sometimes change is as threatening as a sword.”
A weeping Tirandor had collapsed to his knees. The King stooped over him and took his head between his hands. “Tirandor, look at me!” he commanded. “We are going to bind you, for safety’s sake—yours as well as ours. Do you understand?”
“My lord King, I—I don’t know what’s happening to me!”
“Lord King, allow me to give him a sleeping draught,” said Kinfinning. “This agitation cannot be good.”
“Aye, do so,” and after a brief exchange as to what infusion it would be, Tirandor submitted to being led downstairs by two of the Rangers summoned to guard him in an outbuilding at the opposite end of the complex from the one in which the skull was, accompanied by the Healer, and separate from our other prisoner.
Éomer drew a deep breath as they disappeared, and Halladan said, “”Tis a relief to have that Man away! It is unsettling to see someone so transformed by an influence, if he actually was.”
“Oh, it is possible,” said the King of Rohan, “as anyone who has seen the effects of evil that some of us have. Nay, my relief is at Kinfinning’s going with him. Likely it is foolish of me, but to be around a member of my people who cannot abide horses makes me shudder!”
“A Rohir who cannot abide horses?” asked Rigil in amazement.
“His body is unduly sensitive to being around horses,” Elessar said seriously. “The medicaments he is taking, as well as inhaling the herbs he carries as he rides, are all that enables him to ride in any comfort other than in the back of a wagon or coach. This has been a severe problem for him. Others have similar sensitivities to other substances, for example pollens and dust, as well as certain foods.”
“You do not remember your grandsire, my son,” said Lord Daerloth. “He could not eat strawberries without breaking out in a horrible rash and having difficulty in breathing.”
“Shellfish can cause such a thing in some people,” Master Drégan remarked. “I once had a client who was accused of poisoning someone. A careful investigation showed that the Man had been in fact been poisoned by accident—a new kitchen maid did not know of this sensitivity, and had mixed a small amount, less than would cover a spoon, into a dish he ate at dinner. Only a forkful did he eat before internal swelling began within his throat and mouth, and within a half-mark, he was dead. The poor girl was ignorant of his condition, and both horrified and grieved by the outcome.”
Mithrandir looked at me. “The blame does not rest on your shoulders, Marpol. You were but the unwitting impetus.”
“But you were about to tell us what you found. How did you know things were amiss?” Elessar asked.
“I knew it the moment I saw the outward defenses were open and unguarded. I had looked through my lookfar glass before I was visible to anyone on the walls, and saw when we drew closer that something was wrong with the tower’s pulley system. You can see, looking this way at the gate—no doubt it was breached by orcs with that horrible war-fire and battering rams. No wall could withstand that kind of assault. They breached the other walls the same way. But I believe that that was only part of what befell here. In a lucid moment later, Gronden said that he was the only one here, and that the others were either were transferred, killed by orcs, or had left when their enlistments were up. Proceeding to the tower’s entrance, I found it locked. Hailing the tower, we identified ourselves as from Minas Tirith, and he dropped down the key so that we could unlock the door and come in.”
“He dropped it down to you? Did he know you?”
“He did not.” I realized that the scribe was scribbling on a special sort of paperboard, and spoke a bit more slowly. “Certainly, neither those with me had ever been here nor met him elsewhere before. We found one horse in the stable, almost hock-deep in manure, although he had not been there long enough to be harmed. Proceeding up to the living-quarters, they were as filthy, so we came up here. Gronden was half-lying against the wall where you are standing, Lord Halladan, partially shaded by a poorly-rigged awning which had been scavenged from the windscreen for the beacon. Most of the spars of the pulley system were gone or broken. The beacon-fire itself had last been fired, I would estimate, about the time that the message was sent to Rohan, and neither cleaned nor rebuilt since, but left to burn out. The brazier also was ash-choked and cold. The stocks of fuel were greatly depleted, and we could find no firestarter, but only one broken flint.” I tried to speak factually, but some of my anger and disgust coloured my voice.
“My lords, I was assigned to two beacon towers early in my career, so I am familiar with their operation and the regulations governing them. I can tell you, from having read Notes on Building & Maintaining Magickal Beacons by Herrodel, that this entire tower had been greatly neglected for some years before its recent disfunction. From what Tiroman Halvador tells me, it seems that that book is unknown in the Beacons of the North, for I encountered that book at Gaeros, and I believe that there was a copy also at Barad Ferin.”
“What do you mean, neglected?” demanded Daerloth angrily. “Who is this so-called authority?”
“Herrodel of Amon Sûl was one of the greatest architects and engineers of the Second Age,” I replied. “He designed the adaptation of the beacons from only being used for the palantírí to sending messages via the beacon-fires. Have you never wondered why the roof of a beacon is made of wood, in these overlapping panels, or inlaid with these metal arcs for the screens? I was stunned to learn that supplies are being brought up by means of hauling, instead of via the pulleys or through the floors. Most inefficient!”
“How else would they be brought up?” asked Rennig, baffled.
I sighed. “May I borrow a sheet of your paper and a pen? Thank you!” and rapidly sketched out the mechanisms whereby the pulley, floor, and the screen worked, as they gathered to look over my shoulders. “Brilliant applications of useful principles, of great benefit.”
“These are common in the south?” Master Artegil asked.
“I have not been in a beacon tower is some years, but the ones in which I served had them, and you can see that they exist here as well, or I could not have repaired them. I do not understand why they fell into disuse, for most of the problems with the panels came from simple neglect.”
“I am glad that your sense of duty caused you to detour to the beacon, Lord Marpol,” the King said, “and gladder still that I was able to enlist your talents for the Realm. Please continue with your report of what you found here.”
I did so, telling them of Gronden’s vacillating moods, finding Halvador, my summoning the rest of my party and my meeting with the Drúadan chief, and our further explorations of the outbuildings.
“Do you want my conclusions regarding the body parts we found?” I asked.
“Parts?” blurted Master Dréagan, paling.
“Not at this time, my lord,” the King decided. “Then what did you do?”
“We sent messages to you by pigeon,” I resumed. “And with Cardin Forlong accompanying me, I went to Amon Dîn to report these matters to Lord Daerloth. In his absence, I told Captain Tirandor and Lord Rigil.” The younger Man nodded in confirmation. “After obtaining more supplies, we returned here and continued doing what we could.”
“How do we know that things were in the state you say they were?” demanded Daerloth.
“Because I made, and sealed sketches of how they appeared before we changed anything,” I replied, “other than how the Tiroman appeared, deeming it more important to tend him as quickly as possible. Here are those sketches, signed and dated.”
“Anyone can write a date on a folded parchment,”observed Master Artegil.
“True,” I agreed, “but surely Master Rennig has the means of judging how old the ink I used was; I have noticed before that it undergoes a progression of changes in hue as it dries, initially black, but over a period of days, fading to brown.”
“Quite so,” Rennig nodded. “Many a forger has been caught by carelessness in such details. One of my brother scribes is an expert on various ink recipes, and has often been called as an expert witness in cases of false accounts or wills.”
“I shall attest that these are sealed at this time,” Lord Halladan spoke up. He was frowning. “Why the Warden of Roads must defend his actions, when he himself alerted us to the state of things here, I do not comprehend. Will you allow the disordered ramblings of a possibly tainted Man to sway your evaluation of these matters? Lord Marpol is a valued member of my staff!”
“And a Crown asset,” Elessar agreed. “Peace, Cousin!”
“My Lord Kinsman,” Halladan said with a bow, but came over to stand beside me.
“And why did you change anything, my lord, other than tending the Tiroman?” asked Master Dréagan.
“How could we not? For one thing, I had no idea how long it would be before others would come and we could go on about our business. For another, these conditions were not healthy; I’d sooner bed down in a troll’s cave! For yet another, I and my folk are not accustomed to lolling about when there is work to be done.”
“Yet you have said yourself that it is many years since you were assigned to a beacon tower.”
“It has been. Yet would you yourself have an office filled with journeymen and apprentices sit idle, surrounded by haphazard piles of clutter, damaged goods and filth, simply because it is not your assigned office?”
Mithrandir stirred. “Aragorn, the sooner we see to this skull, the better. I do have one question for Marpol: how is it your folk have not been as affected as some others?”
I flushed. “I slipped protections onto their clothing.”
“Protections? What kind?” Elessar’s brows shot up.
“Small sigils I learned as a child. I limned them in salt-water upon the lintels and windows of the living-quarters, stable and opening to the roof, and on each of their boots. I have also been petitioning the Valar to keep us safe.” I knew I had not succeeded in preventing my tone from sounding defiant.
Daerloth made a smothered sound of derision. “You sound like a superstitious peasant!”
I faced him squarely. “I am a child of my homeland, as you are of yours, my lord! Folklore is still lore, with oft a kernel of sense behind it, even if not enshrined in scroll or book!
“Only the ignorant rely on such authority,” said Master Artegil.
Éomer said tightly, “Then you dismiss most of my people, for we rely little on books, so easily damaged or lost, unlike knowledge shared among many.” His hand was on his sword hilt.
I added, “After the perilous times through which we have lived, how can we lightly dismiss any possible aid? Did not many herbmasters in Minas Tirith dismiss kingsfoil, a sovereign remedy for the Black Breath, as a weed? And I can tell you, I suspect that the malign influence of that skull has resulted in murder and other foulness here. Should I have merely left so soon as I gave Gronden my report, ignoring the evidence around me?”
“Enough,” said King Elessar, with enough force that we all looked at him. “Let us go down to the living-quarters.”
I drew a deep breath once we had done so, and saw that others did so as well; faces grew less strained.
“Gandalf, I think that you, Marpol, Daerloth, Masters Kinfinning, Dréagan, Artegil, and Rennig, and I shall go look at that skull now, taking with us torches.”
“I would have the Doomsman come as well, if it please you, my lord,” said Daerloth as we descended to the stable.
“And I shall accompany you as well,” said Halladan in a tone that brooked no denial.
Not so Rigil, who said more tentatively, “I too should come.”
His father looked troubled. “I do not require it of you, my son.”
“I don’t want to, but feel I should.”
Elessar nodded. “It speaks well that you do, Lord Rigil. Come, then.”
The Doomsman was sitting on a block of stone near the entrance to that outbuilding, and stirred as we strode towards him. Lord Daerloth gestured at him. “And what have you learned?”
“That this was a wasted journey,” he said in a nasal voice that grated on my ear, so close was it to a whine. “I see no reason to be drawn from my work to be here!”
Rigil grabbed him by the collar of his robe and pulled him to his feet. “At least make your duty to your king!”
“I do not recognize him. I would bow to the Steward, but not to him!”
“Prince Steward Faramir keeps the city in his absence,” said Halladan, “and Lord Denethor is dead.”
“Aye, and that Wizard’s meddling prevented him from having the proper rites!” spat the Man.
“Denethor was mad; should he have burned his living son unimpeded?” Mithrandir retorted.
“He was Steward. Now his spirit will never find its way to Namó’s halls!”
“He refused those rites in favour of his delusion. All there heard!”
“He was the Steward. No one had the right to object.”
“Yet he didn’t want the usual rites!”
“He was the Steward—“
“And I am your lord,” Daerloth interrupted. “Come with us now!”
Rihan and Tambaro unbarred the door, and we went within. Despite the light of the torches they had lit and given us, the windowless interior seemed dark. I trod as lightly as I could, breathing through my mouth in the fetid air. Although it was a dry room, still it seemed dank and cold. At the other end of the room, the skull with its bedizened, writhing symboled horns and tusks seemed to glower at us from empty sockets. Were there red points glowing deep within them? Methought I heard a grating voice just too low to be clearly heard, as if seeing something slither at the edge of my sight. Sweat broke out on my body, my muscles seemed weighted, and dread filled me.
“A Elbereth Gilthoniel!” cried Mithrandir, thrusting his staff towards it; brilliant white light burst from its end, too intense to look at directly. His voice filled the room, driving back the shadows, invoking each of the Valar, as Elessar drew Anduríl and stepped up beside him; the Flame of the West glittered almost as strongly, as he joined his voice to the Wizard’s.
How shall I describe the feeling of pressure building in the room? There was a soundless explosion that drove the rest of us to our knees, but when I blinked my streaming eyes and stood, the skull was gone, that altar completely empty and clean, and I was able to draw a full breath despite the reek—only a fading reek, now.
“Faugh!” someone said.
“And where are you going?” demanded Daerloth behind me.
Doom was edging toward the door. “This has naught to do with me!”
“You are of the Order of Námo! It is your duty to properly cleanse and ready these poor remnants for decent burial!”
“These are but parts! How am I to know who they were? I cannot chant the prayers! You cannot expect me to subvert the rites for such as these!” He flapped his hands at the rotting heaps on either side of us. “Set a fire—wall it up—I care not! “Tis none of mine!”
“Then get you gone!”
“I may go back to Amon Dîn?”
“Nay, I am done with you! You are banned from my realm from this day!”
“But who shall perform the rites for you and your family? Your lady mother—“
“Will have to find someone else who isn’t a posturing fool! Rigil, assist him in departing.”
“Gladly!” said his son, and hauled him, protesting and bleating, outside.
“My lord King, how are we to proceed? This is appalling!”
Mithrandir said grimly, “I will take care of it, once we know who these were. The rest of you, leave.”
I was glad to go outside, coughing the stink from my lungs; the air seemed as wine, the light golden in the late afternoon. With relief, sitting on a block of stone to one side, I accepted the cup of clear cold water Cardin brought me. Dirúvel was counting my pulse, and I looked up into Mistress Alta’s worried eyes, and smiled at her. “I am quite well.”
“You are pale, and your hand is cold,” she said anxiously, holding out another mug.
This one had brandy in it, and I felt much warmer once I had sipped it. The others were similarly sipping, or in a few instances, gulping.
Mithrandir and Elessar came out of the outbuilding, and let the door swing open behind them.
“My advice, Lord Daerloth, is to have this torn down and the ground blessed before anything is planted or erected here. It is clean now, but best not to take any chances,” the King told him.
“It shall be done, my lord King.” Daerloth turned to me. “My lord, I owe you an apology for speaking so slightingly. I have already asked King Éomer’s pardon; will you grant me yours?”
“Of course.” We clasped arms, and I also accepted the apologies of Master Dréagan and Artegal.
The latter shook his head. “Given that you had used those sigils, why were we affected?”
“You were not using them,” I pointed out. “I think too that the miasma of the skull’s influence was rising within Eilenach’s walls, as heat will rise from a fire. I could ward an enclosed space, but not an open one such as the top of the tower.”
Master Kinfinning said grimly, “Nerumir and I examined those poor Men. Some of them, we think, fell or were pushed from the tower. Others may have fought each other, or been murdered in divers ways by their fellows or Gronden.”
“Speaking of that filth,” Rihan said, “we heard a great cry from him just before you came out.”
The door of his prison opened, he was found lying dead; he had gouged out his own eyes and torn off one ear with a bloodstained stone shard, and driven it into his own heart.
So passed Gronden, once guard of Eilenach.