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Old 09-06-2003, 11:30 AM   #192
Child of the 7th Age
Spirit of the Lonely Star
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Eckthelion's breakfast tray lay untouched on the small table where the guard had placed it earlier that morning. The Steward had been at his desk for only an hour but already his day was clouded with confusion. A hundred competing problems vied in his mind, each demanding an immediate answer if the security of Gondor was to be safeguarded and maintained.

Despite his earlier assurance to Diorwyn that nothing she could say would shock him, he found himself wondering just how accurate that statement was. The events of last night's party had shaken him to the core. Diorwyn's foreboding words suggested that something sinister was afoot, some danger to his beloved city that he had totally failed to detect and forestall. He cursed himself for having been so preoccupied with managing the defense of the frontiers and the details of Denethor's wedding that he had totally neglected to search for the vipers within his own court.

And now, this morning, came the equally disturbing news of the death of Rhircyn Isindil, the young man he'd seen twirling about the dancefloor very alive and vibrant in the company of one of the younger court women. A stubborn bell sounded in Eckthelion's head that in some form or fashion these events were all connected. But exactly how that could be or who was manipulating the strings, the Steward had no idea.

Eckthelion's reflections were abruptly interrupted by the sentry standing guard who knocked and came inside with an announcement.

"Sir, there's a gentleman here to see you. He says he's just arrived back in Minas Tirith after many months away."

Eckthelion shook his head, "I've no time for visitors today, not unless it's that young girl I promised my daughter I'd speak to.

The door in back of the guard suddenly pushed opened a few inches as a tall figure clad in grey robes slipped his head inside and peered around the room. The old man stepped in, straightened up to his full height, and chuckled broadly, "What kind of welcome is this? No time for visitors? But at least time for a friend, I hope. But then you knew I was coming. Thorongil sent the dispatch through several days ago."

Eckthelion stared, his face full of pleasant surprise, and immediately darted forward to greet his tall guest, "Gandalf, I've heard nothing about your arrival, but I am pleased beyond all measure. We've strange doings at court, things that suggest the enemy has dared to put his foot inside my beloved city, and I could surely use your judgment, to say nothing of the fact that I wish to hear everything as to how Thorongil and his men have fared."

For the next hour, the two men exchanged confidences. After listening to Gandalf's news about the troops, the Steward outlined all the happenings from last night's party and his fears that worse was yet to come. At the end, he leaned back in his chair and turned towards Gandalf, "I have always valued your counsel. Can you give me no words of advice? No hints as to how we may best proceed to deal with this mysterious viper?"

"Words of advice? How can I give you words of advice when you have failed to listen to the words that come from those who love you the most? Why do you believe what Diorwyn says yet immediately suggest that your own daughter was merely vying for attention? Do you have so little faith in your own family?"

Gandalf scowled and shook his head staring down at Eckthelion. The Steward took in the old man's words and then averted his face, refusing to look Gandalf directly in the eyes. Then he walked over to the window and started idly outside. When Eckthelion spoke again, it was with a tone both thoughtful and humbled, "Perhaps, you're right. I'm hard on Siriel. It's always been that way. She's a stubborn one, and I thought this was just another ploy to win my approval."

"I do not think so, Steward," Gandalf replied in a soft voice. "I have seen the girl. She loves you greatly and would not see harm come to her family or her people."

"Even aside from that, there is the matter of this dispatch that was sent to you announcing my arrival. You should have gotten that three days ago. That is disturbing."

Eckthelion walked over to a side shelf and began rummaging through a pile of dispatches that had just come in this morning. Then he pulled something out of the pile and waved the packet in Gandalf's face, "Three days ago, you say? Think again, here it is just this morning...."

The men's eyes met with the unspoken realization that someone within Eckthelion's entourage was indeed tampering with the deliveries. Yet a close scrutiny of the document failed to turned up anything unusual. It seemed to be sealed and closed in the customary way.

"I must go now," Gandalf indicated. "I will be in Minas Tirith for at least a week. You may reach me at the usual place. But what will you do about this?" Gandalf queried, pointing towards the late dispatch.

"I will do what I should have done last night when my daughter first brought this news to me. I'll begin a quiet investigation to try and find out what's gone wrong, enlisting others I can trust."

Gandalf nodded his agreement and then left the room. It was only a moment or two later when there was another knock on the door, this one small and timid. Eckthelion looked up and smiled, sensing it was the friend of Tiriel's whom she'd mentioned to him last night. This at least should be an easy problem to deal with, he reassued himself.
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