Most of the next day was spent in official inquiries as to what we had found and our actions there. Shortly after the noon morsel, Tirandor was brought out to face the King, his lord and his lord’s steward. He stood before them, visibly shaken and pale, although he had been permitted an opportunity to freshen himself.
Master Dréagan had been speaking with him, and now addressed the King. “My lord King, Captain Tirandor wishes to make a statement.”
“This is an informal Court of inquiry, Captain Tirandor. Do you understand that we are attempting to discern a clear picture of what has gone amiss here?”
“I do, my lord.”
“Therefore, we need your testimony as to what took place from the moment you arrived here.”
Tirandor was silent for a moment, obviously organizing his thoughts. “I arrived with our party shortly before yours, my lord King. I admit that I was feeling defensive before ever I had set foot here, from the moment Lord Tintehlë told Lord Rigil and me at Lord Daerloth’s manor of matters here and his mission . It seemed unfair that one unknown to me, not even one of the Tiromen, should be so critical. What did he know of the struggle we have had, to keep the beacons staffed and operating? We are supposed to have three separate ranks of Tiromen on duty at each one,as well as night-sentries and the local land-watchers,yet those of the Third were decimated both here and at Amon Dîn, as Minas Tirith kept leaching them away to the army, or summoning those of the others, and sending us less and less of the supplies we needed, while still ordering us to do as much as or more than we had before. I have been a Tiroman of all three ranks all my adult life. Will they be decommissioned in favour of these new way-stations of which he spoke? Will you turn out Men such as myself who have served so long?
“But that is not answering you. As we came up the path, I felt wearier than I would expect to after such a journey. It seemed as if weight rested upon my heart and spirit and was growing heavier the longer I stayed. When I went into the place with the skull—” he shuddered “—it drove me to my knees. I could not see clearly, except for the skull, which glowed with an evil light. Meseemed I heard a high-pitched whispering on the edge of my hearing; I kept seeing pictures in my mind of being turned out, wandering aimlessly, unable to earn my bread in a pitiless world. As we came out atop the tower, I felt more and more convinced that if I could only use my sword against the one who threatened the tower, all would be safe.”
He turned his head to look at me. “Lord Tintehlë, it shames me that I spoke to you as I did. You have ever been courteous and fair, and no Man can control his parentage. I ask your pardon for my behaviour, as well as my lords Daerloth and Rigil. After I was confined, I felt that despairing heaviness even more keenly, until it suddenly—left me. I know not why or how, but I came to myself. I can scarcely believe my own actions and words!
“Clearly, one so easily tainted as I am should not be allowed to function in any position of trust. What might I do? I submit myself for your judgement and punishment.”
“My lord King, may I speak?” I asked.
“Pray do so.”
“Captain, you did not harm me, nor say any word others have not said, or probably will say. I ask that you judge a Man by his actions, although I assure you I mean no harm to the beacons we have both served. You have my pardon, and if you leave the Tiromen, and with the King and Lord Steward Halladan’s approval, I would ask you to consider joining my service.”
“Not so fast, my lord!” said Daerloth. “I have not yet had an opportunity to speak. Tirandor, you have ever been an excellent soldier and commander, and I have no wish for my domain to lose your services, pending the King’s decision. You have my pardon as well.”
Rigil said, “As for me, I have had worse bruises from stumbling over my own feet! ‘Tis my belief that you pulled your arm, for our long friendship. I have the greatest respect for you, Captain, and grant you my pardon unreservedly. But I wonder—forgive me!—if you are tainted. Is there some way to ascertain that?”
“There is,” said King Elessar, rising. “Captain, these speak well of you, as do your Men. May I examine you?”
“As you will, my lord King.”
Elessar went to stand behind him, and laid one hand alongside his head, the other over his heart. He stood so for a time, then stepped back. “You can rest easy, Captain Tirandor; I find no taint in you. I am sorry for the loss of your family during the war, and that you have had so little time to grieve for them. I promise you that no hasty decisions shall be made concerning the Tiromen and the beacons, for they are an important link in our defenses. However, We am not going to overlook any methods which might improve Our ability to communicate quickly over distances.
“That you have a legitimate grievance concerning the lack of personnel and materials is all too true, but unfortunately, it is one shared by many others. It will be some time before yours can be addressed, but they are not being ignored, I promise you. Do you think, if I send some troops from Minas Tirith, that with one or two of your Men, Halvador can staff Eilenach until better can be devised?”
“I had thought, my lord King, that Aledil could command temporarily, with Tiroman Halvador as his Second until deemed ready for command as Captain.”
“I would certainly bow to Captain Tirandor’s opinion,” Lord Daerloth said, “particularly after reading Captain Falsted’s letter and report of Halvador.”
“Agreed,” said Elessar. “Captain Tirandor, I suggest that you follow the recommendations of Healer Nerumir. Do not scant on caring for yourself.”
Tirandor bowed. “As you say, my lord King.”
One of the Rangers came across the bailey. “My lords, there are Drúadain at the gate asking for one they call the Waygiver.”
We all rose; the others followed me to the gate. Ghân-buri-Ghân stood with six of his Men just without. I greeted them in their language, and introduced those with me. Our visitors all knelt and pressed their brows to the earth in respect, then sat on the ground.
Elessar bowed and sat himself down on the ground just within the gate; the rest of us copied him, some awkwardly. “Lord Tintehlë, will you serve as our translator?” he asked formally.
“The Headman speaks the Common Tongue far better than I speak his,” I said cautiously.
“It is our will also,” said Ghân. “Two tongues may make for more understanding.”
“Will you not come within as our guests?” Elessar asked.
“Wild Men do not stay within Stone-men’s walls. It is good Stone-headman use power to remove evil in tower.”
“I did not do so alone, but we will seek to prevent such evil from returning.”
Ghân looked at Éomer. “Old father of horses not with you.”
“He fell in the battle before the city,” the King of Rohan replied sadly but proudly. “I am now King in his stead. And aye, Ghân-buri-Ghân, for the service you rendered in guiding us there safely, I and my people shall abide by his word: never again will we hunt your folk, and I apologize for our doing so in the past.”
“May your land and herds prosper, Chief of the horse-lords,” Ghân said. His deep-set eyes, small beneath his broad flat brow, gazed at Elessar. “Ghân didn’t meet you with them.”
“No,” he agreed. “I traveled from Rohan by the Paths of the Dead, and the Oathbreakers came with me. We sailed up the Great River, and fought before the city as well before I released them from their curse. But if you had not aided the Rohirrim, the battle might have gone differently, so I hold my folk in your debt as well. I too will agree to what Theóden King promised you: none shall stray through your wood. It is yours.”
“We make treaty?”
“We make treaty,” he confirmed. “But you must understand my duty to my realm, and our debt to Rohan as well; they are among our oldest and closest allies. My advisors are concerned about this beacon, an essential part of our defenses.”
By the time the sun set, they had reached an agreement: Taur Drúadain would be theirs forever; outsiders were permitted to come along the road through it without straying. Any violators would be brought to the gates of Eilenach, which would continue its role as part of Gondor’s defenses. Its Tiromen would be strictly bound to agreed-upon rules: they could not pollute the waters, cut down live wood, over-hunt or over–forage the area, and would not remove nor damage any pûkel items. They would cooperate in getting rid of any orcs or other threats. Master Rennig made copies of the agreement—one for the King’s archives in Minas Tirith; one in a sealed leather case for the Drúadain; and one each for Lord Daerloth and Tirandor. Amon Dîn’s captain promised to send word of this to the other beacons.
Our supplies were augmented by the venison, fish, nut-bread, berries, and mushrooms brought by Ghân’s folk, and we feasted together, some of them cautiously, briefly, venturing inside the outer bailey.
He presented thong necklaces to Éomer, Elessar, Halvador, Daerloth and Tirandor similar to the one I had, as well as adding a third stone to mine, before his folk vanished into the wood.
I went up to the beacon for a last look at the stars, and found King Elessar and Halladan smoking their pipes as they gazed northward. “Marpol, please join us!” the Steward said cordially.
“I do not mean to intrude—“
“Even if you were, we wouldn’t mind,” Elessar said. “You’ve done Us more than one signal service.”
“Not really, my lord. You would have known about these things in time.”
“But would there have been strife between the beacon and the Drûadain? And how much more would the evil here have festered? I am grateful to you, Marpol.”
I didn’t know what to say.
Halladan came to my rescue by changing the subject. “I was greatly cheered by Éomer and Ghân-buri-Ghân today.”
“How so?” I asked.
“The Rohirrim have hunted the Drúadain for sport for centuries, yet now they will stop. Theóden voluntarily pledged this, but few of their folk would have faulted Éomer if he had refused to honour it.”
“He would not have done so,” I said.
“Nay, he would not,” Elessar agreed. “You do not smoke, Marpol?”
“I have wondered if it harms the lungs, my lord King.”
“No, it doesn’t, if what one smokes is leaf from the Shire. Tonight I am a Ranger among kinsmen.”
“I know that you and Lord Halladan are cousins—“
“Did you not know that you are related to us as well?”
I stared at him, astonished. “I?”
“Although the Hobbits wouldn’t think so,” Halladan interrupted with a chuckle.
“I reckon it as fifth cousins once removed through our mothers,” the King said. “That means, Marpol, that in private I am Aragorn or Strider, and at the moment, we are envying you!”
“Because you’re going North,” Halladan said with longing in his voice. “I wish I could see your face when you first meet the Northern branch of the Tintehlë family.”
“If they are of that family, will they not resent my using that name?” I asked.
“Nay, they will rejoice that a Man of such honour has been added to their ranks. Fret not about that! They have titles and homes of their own, and will welcome you,” Aragorn assured me. “Before you leave tomorrow, I will have some additional letters for you to take, if you will.”
“Gladly. Then we can leave?” My heart lifted at the thought.
“You’ve been both dutiful and patient, but I know that you are eager to go about Our business, and I need you back in Minas Tirith shortly. Mayhap later you can explore water routes, but not this time.”
“I too will have a few letters for you,” Halladan said. “As well as a small gift,” and handed me a pouch.
I opened it, angling it near the brazier to see that it contained a smaller pouch and firestarter. A hand reached over my shoulder, and Aragorn deposited a pipe in the pouch as well.
“This comes with a lesson, if you wish it,” he added.
The pipe had my sigil carved on the bowl. I thanked them, and for the first time, under their tutelage, packed the fragrant weed – Old Toby — into the bowl, lit it, and cautiously drew in the smoke, releasing it with a fit of coughing. By the time we retired, I was closer to mastering this new skill. It has been a source of great comfort to me over the years, and not least for the memory of receiving it!