The Rod and the Crown
Thorongil's footsteps echoed loudly as he walked slowly towards the dais in the vast hall. In all his travels, he had never seen the like. The Golden Hall in Edoras seemed small and cosy beside it, as did the Hall of Fire at Rivendell. No hangings or tapestries adorned the walls instead great statues were set between the pillars of carved black marble that supported the roof of this vast place. The statues all wore crowns and with a thrill, Thorongil recognised them as his kinsfolk.
He glanced upwards; the vaulted roof was inlaid with gold, and decorated with brightly coloured designs, which were brightly illuminated by the sunlight streaming through great windows.
His attention was drawn towards the great throne at the far end of the hall. Many steps led up to the great seat, above which was a canopy in the shape of the winged crown. He recalled seeing pictures of in the library at Rivendell. Behind the throne was a carved image of the blossoming White Tree decorated with jewels. Thorongil's heartbeat quickened. This was the throne of Anárion, sire of the line of his own foremother Firiel. This was the very throne that he, Aragorn, son of Arathorn, was born to claim.
He clutched the letter in his hand more tightly as he approached the old man who sat on a plain black chair on the lowest step, holding a white rod. He halted three paces before the man as he had been instructed. Thorongil tried to quiet his pounding heart. He told himself sternly that there was nothing to fear, but at this moment he would much rather have been fighting a whole army of Orcs! He collected his thoughts, all too well aware that the Steward carried a good measure of the blood of Númenor in his veins and might well possess the power to read the hearts of Men as result.
The old man raised the rod and beckoned Thorongil to come closer. Thorongil could see now that it was adorned with a gold knob, and decorated with mithril, crystal, and mother of pearl so that it almost equalled the splendour of the Sceptre of Annúminas. It seemed that the Stewards' heirlooms now equalled those of the Kings!
"So you are Thorongil, the captain that Thengel of Rohan has sent to me?" said the old man.
"I am he, my lord. I bring a letter of introduction from Thengel King." He handed the missive to the Steward, who immediately tore open the seal,
"Thengel speaks very highly of you, Thorongil," Ecthelion remarked after studying the letter for a few moments. "Why do you wish to serve me instead?"
"I have heard that Gondor has great need of fighting men. I would see more of the world outside Rohan's borders and try to win renown by fighting against the darkness that threatens us all. I offer you my sword to aid in that fight."
The old man smiled. "Doubtless there is fair maiden somewhere that you seek to impress too? I see by your blushing that I have hit the mark! Welcome, Thorongil! I Ecthelion, son of Turgon, gladly accept your service. I know Thengel to be a man of sound judgement. He would not send me anyone who would not be an asset to Gondor. You must be weary now from your long journey, but maybe when you are rested, you will tell me how things fare in Rohan?"
"Gladly, my lord." Thorongil smiled back. He had expected to dislike the man who ruled in his stead, yet his first impression of Ecthelion was a favourable one. He had been fond of Thengel and hoped he might grow to like Ecthelion too in time.
Three days after his arrival in Gondor, Thorongil was summoned to appear before Ecthelion again. This time, though, the Steward was in his private chambers where he offered Thorongil cakes and wine and questioned him closely concerning affairs in Rohan.
Thorongil told him of life at King Thengel's court, of the battles the Rohirrim had fought against Orcs and Dunlendings, of the fine herds of horses that roamed the plains surrounding Edoras and of the great feasts in the Golden Hall. At first, he was wary, fearing that Ecthelion might seek to learn the true identity of his new captain. The Steward did indeed ask if Thorongil had any family, to which he answered truthfully that his father had died in battle when he was a young child and that he had a mother in the northlands. Ecthelion nodded sympathetically and asked no further questions.
When the Steward dismissed Thorongil after over an hour of conversation, it was with an invitation to dine the following week.
An unlikely friendship soon developed between the Captain and the Steward. Thorongil sensed that Ecthelion had been lonely since his wife died. His position made close friendships with his peers difficult. It was easier for him to seek the company of an outsider under the thinly disguised excuse of discussing military tactics or life at Thengel's court. Ecthelion and Thengel corresponded regularly and the Steward would tell his captain news of the court he had recently left.
Thorongil too, was somewhat isolated. He enjoyed the company of men he had been assigned, but he tried to avoid over much of the society of his fellow officers, lest his guard slip when the wine flowed too freely at the taverns they frequented. He grew to enjoy the Steward's company. As time passed, Ecthelion would often seek his counsel and sometimes for a few moments, Thorongil felt almost as if he were the King and Ecthelion his Steward. At other times, the old man seemed to him almost like the human father he had never known.
Ecthelion spoke proudly of Gondor's long history and the great deeds of her Kings as well as those of the long line of Stewards. He would clasp the white rod and tell tales of the other hands that had held it. Thorongil would have felt uncomfortable during these tales save that Ecthelion always concluded them with the words, "Every Ruling Steward of Gondor has hoped that he will be the last and the one to whom the honour falls of offering the rod to the King returned."
As time passed Thorongil had beheld the white rod so often that he felt he could have drawn an accurate picture of it in his sleep! One night he had a dream that the Steward of Gondor knelt before him, offering him the white rod and the rule of Gondor that it symbolised. The Steward was not Ecthelion, though, but a young man that he had never met. At first, Thorongil wondered if this were a vision of Ecthelion's son and heir, but as soon as he met Denethor he realised that it was not. Denethor took an instant dislike to his father's new captain. Thorongil was saddened by this, for the blood of Númenor ran true in Ecthelion's son and he had a more kingly demeanour than even Thengel of Rohan. Denethor was a master of lore and a seasoned warrior with the ability to read the hearts of Men.
Thorongil could no more imagine Ecthelion's disdainful son kneeling before him than the dead White Tree sprouting blossom overnight. He veiled his thoughts in Denethor's presence and kept his distance.
Thorongil's military duties often called him away from the City. He was successful in battle and won great renown, which raised him even higher in Ecthelion's favour. Thorongil was always pleased to see the Steward whenever he returned to Minas Tirith, but whenever he was in the City, everywhere he beheld the royal emblems of the Winged Crown and the White Tree, emblems of the crown of Elendil and his heirs, the crown he could not yet claim.
Had Ecthelion been a younger man, how different matters might have been. The Steward would have at least given his claim to the throne a fair hearing, but his son was a different matter entirely. If Thorongil pressed his claim, it would lead to kinstrife and most likely bloodshed that could fatally weaken Gondor against her ever more powerful enemies.
Thorongil knew he dared not claim the crown, but how he longed to see it and not just a carved representation! He had learned that the winged crown lay in the tomb of King Eärnil in the Silent Street, where his son, the last of the Kings had left it before going off to do battle with the Witch King never to be seen again.
He wondered how he might gain admission to the tomb and made discreet enquiries, only to learn that no one was permitted to enter save on the Steward's authority. To purloin the key to the House of Kings from the porter who guarded it would have been an easy enough matter for him, but he felt loth to do so. He felt he would be betraying Ecthelion's trust in him. Moreover, Elendil's heir should not have to sneak into a tomb to look upon his crown like a thief in the night!
One evening he was invited to dine with the Steward. After the meal they lingered in Ecthelion's quarters sipping wine. Suddenly, the old man said, "Tomorrow is a memorable day in the history of Gondor, for it is the date on which King Eärnur left Gondor in the hands of my longfather, Mardil and departed never to be seen again. As no man knows where his bones might lie, I pay my respects at the tomb of Eärnil, his sire. I was wondering if you would like to come with me, Thorongil. My son is away on campaign and the Silent Street is a grim place for an old man alone. It is better that Denethor should not learn that I sought a companion, though, lest he think me in my dotage!"
"Of course, my lord, I would be glad to accompany you." Thorongil tried to disguise the eagerness he felt. And how did Ecthelion know that he so badly wished to visit the tomb? Had his affection for one he had come to love caused him to drop his guard? He knew all too well that people who were close friends could sometimes know what each other was thinking even if they were not of high Númenorean lineage. Ecthelion's expression betrayed nothing though, but Thorongil knew and trusted him well enough to know he would not seek to lay traps for him, unlike Denethor.
Early the next morning, when very few folk were yet abroad, Thorongil and Ecthelion made their way to the Silent Street. To denote the solemnity of the occasion, the Steward bore the white rod in his hand. The porter greeted them at the doorway and unlocked the door for them, then preceded them within bearing a lighted torch. He placed the torch in a sconce and then withdrew to allow them to pay their respects privately.
The dead kings were laid out on tables to resemble beds. They had been so skilfully mummified that many of them looked to be simply sleeping. Thorongil had been in the presence of death many times before, but this felt different. He felt a mixture of reverence and awe, combined with a vague unease that the mortal remains of these distant kin of his still remained long after their spirits had departed beyond the circles of the world. He preferred the custom of the North, where the dead were returned to the earth. A sudden thought struck him; were he ever to be king, this would be his final resting place too.
Ecthelion halted beside one of the marble tables, which differed from the others in that a great casket of black lebethron bound with silver lay beside its occupant. Ecthelion stood in silence for a few moments before Eärnil's body. Then he turned to Thorongil, "Would you like to see the crown, friend?" he asked. "I look at it every now and then. It is the Steward's duty to keep all in readiness lest the King return!"
Thorongil nodded, not trusting himself to speak. Ecthelion fumbled at his belt, where he kept many keys and selected one with which he unlocked the casket. He lifted out the crown, which gleamed softly in the torchlight. It was shaped like the helms of the Guards of the Citadel, save that it was loftier, and it was all white, and the wings at either side were wrought of pearl and silver in the likeness of the wings of a sea-bird. Seven gems of adamant were set in the circlet, and upon its summit was set a single jewel the light of which went up like a flame.
Thorongil gazed upon it in awe.
"It is a fair thing, indeed is it not?" asked Ecthelion.
"Most fair." Thorongil realised he had been holding his breath.
Ecthelion looked at him for a long moment then replaced the crown it its casket and locked it again. "And there it must rest unseen until the rightful King should come to claim it," he said.
"When the time is right he will come, if it be the will of the Valar," said Thorongil.
"I am an old man and would gladly lay down my burdens to the King returned," said Ecthelion. "My son, though, would have all remain unchanged as in the days of his longfathers. Now let us leave this place. All too soon, I will join my fathers in the House of Stewards."
"The crown is an ancient heirloom indeed, dating back to the reign of King Atanatar II, who considered that Isildur's battle helmet no longer made a fitting crown," said Thorongil. "I hope you still have many years left yet as Steward, my lord."
"This rod is not the original one either." Ecthelion fingered the staff in his hand. "Do you know the story of how the white rod came to be, Thorongil?"
Thorongil shook his head. "I assumed it had similar origins to the Sceptre of Annúminas that was fashioned after the rod borne by Elendil."
"The story passed down the House of Húrin tells otherwise," said Ecthelion. "It is said that before King Eärnur rode off to do the battle with the Witch King that there was a great storm. Fierce winds tore a branch from the White Tree. The King and his Steward, Mardil went to inspect the damage, which many took to be an ill omen. Eärnur made light of it. He praised Mardil for his work in supervising repairs after the great storm. Then he said he planned to make Gondor more secure and put an end to the Witch King's evil once and for all. He picked up the fallen branch from the White Tree and handed it to Mardil. He told him he would have it fashioned into a rod with which Mardil could rule Gondor until he returned. Mardil promised to faithfully hold Gondor in his stead and vowed that he would return the rod to him when he came back."
"That would be a fitting start to the rule of the Stewards," said Thorongil. "It sounds like a true tale."
"Sometimes I wish that we Stewards had kept Mardil's rod," said Ecthelion. "It was a simple, beautiful thing and a constant reminder of how the Stewards come to hold office."
"Was the original rod lost then?" asked Thorongil.
"It is locked away in the archives since one of my less illustrious forebears decided that it was not grand enough for him. A pity, I believe a plainer rod would be better suited for one who is after all, but Arandur, the servant of the King. Maybe one day I will show it to you when my duties permit." Ecthelion sighed deeply. "I hope only that I have carried out my duties as faithfully as Mardil did. I have ever been the King's loyal Steward. It saddens my heart to see this tree withered and bare. Would that it could blossom anew!"
"What man knows what the future might bring?" said Thorongil.
"I grow weary and this staff weights heavy in my hand," said Ecthelion. "Carry it for me, Thorongil, back to my chamber." He held out the white rod to the younger man.
Thorongil hesitated for a moment then looked Ecthelion in the eye. Ecthelion might be aged, but he was still vigorous and hardly likely to be wearied by carrying the white rod to the Hallows. The old man looked on him with affection mingled with sorrow.
"I will bear it for a little while," he said. Though neither of them would voice it aloud, he knew what this gesture signified. Sudden foresight came upon him and he beheld another in Ecthelion's place with the same love shining in his eyes giving a white rod to him. Cheering crowds surrounded them in contrast to the near deserted Court of the Fountain. "The House of Húrin has ruled faithfully and well," he said as he took the rod from Ecthelion.
We are proud to be the King's Servants," said Ecthelion. "Now come, breakfast awaits us in my chambers."
Side by side, the two men walked away from the withered tree.