When Denethor was just sixteen, he wanted to ride out and see the world. But he was too young, his father said, for the journey. Denethor stayed within the city or the fields nearby, but in his mind he was riding out, letting his horse run until Minas Tirith faded from the horizon and the world around him changed.
His friends wanted to travel too and they would spend hours, when they could get away from their lessons and duties, planning their great expedition. When they were older, surely the Lord Ecthelion would give them leave to go.
"When you are steward," one boy said, "you won't keep men locked up in the city."
"No," Denethor said, but that time seemed very far off to him.
Their plans were elaborate, calling for many men and horses and tents and provisions. Denethor thought they would only be bringing the city along with them, but he never said so. In his daydreams, he rode alone, befriending strange people and overcoming great dangers, becoming a traveller renowned for his experience and knowledge.
One morning, Denethor went out to ride. As he walked through the city, to the stables, the people smiled at him. He smiled back and pretended this was his leave-taking and all the city had come to see him off.
He entered the first circle and headed towards the gates. A crowd was gathering at the side of the road and Denethor joined them, curious to see what drew such attention. They would gather like this on his return, when the watchmen gave the word that he approached, tall and proud and strong upon his horse.
A rider entered the gates and the people bowed as he passed. The man wore a grey cloak that seemed to shroud him in a mist. He rode without tack or saddle and his seat upon his white horse was the best Denethor had ever seen.
He was hooded but Denethor could see that his face was beautiful, and Denethor almost thought it glowed faintly. He wanted to look more closely, drawn by curiosity. He shaded his eyes and tried to get another look at the man's face. Even at a distance, the rider's eyes were clear and grey, deep with wisdom. And so Denethor knew that this was no man, but an elf, older perhaps than the city itself, and fairer than any man.
It thrilled him. He'd thought he might see an elf on his journeys, but never here at home. What business could have brought him to the city? Something momentous was no doubt about to occur. Denethor moved along with the crowd, wanting to look longer. The elf turned his head and his eyes met Denethor's for a moment.
It sent a shock through Denethor, as if he'd been frightened, and he began to tremble. His knees weakened, his stomach dropped, a strange desire filled him. He felt as though the elf, in that one glance, had learned everything about him. But he knew nothing in return and he longed to learn.
He followed the horse, but the elf never looked back and Denethor fell behind. He stood and watched as the elf entered the gate to the second circle, then leaned against a wall to steady himself. He'd been deserted, left alone. But not for long.
When Denethor arrived at the Citadel, the elf had already left his white horse and gone in to Ecthelion. If the guards knew his name and errand, they wouldn't speak of it.
Denethor loitered in an alcove outside the Great Hall. He was sure Ecthelion and the elf were closeted inside. He waited for an hour, then two, then three. It wasn't tedious, he wasn't tired. He just waited and wondered: why the elf had come, who he was, how long he would stay.
A servant entered the room, carrying a tray of food. Denethor leapt to hover around the door, hoping to catch a glimpse inside. He didn't dare show himself in the doorway, but he saw a shimmer of silver at the end of the long room. Silver hair, falling over the elf's shoulders.
Something caught at him and the longing intensified. He thought of everything he could say to the elf, of what the elf might say to him. Perhaps he would accept Denethor's service, take him for an esquire. They would ride out of the city together and in the evenings, Denethor would sit at his feet and look up at the silver hair and grey eyes and beautiful face. His master would show him the world, would tell him things no other man knew.
And then he wondered at himself, that he would consider such a thing. To place himself in the service of another when he was to be steward over Gondor one day. For a stranger, one not even of his own race. Though the elf was obviously wise and strong; he could teach Denethor much.
But no, this was foolishness. The elf intrigued him, that was all. No more thoughts of joining him, of leaving. But he still wished for one clear look at the elf, so he stayed, just to see.
At last the door began to open. Denethor stood to go forward, but thought better of it. He didn't want his father to know he'd been loitering. Ecthelion would treat him as a child. My boy, he'd say, and the elf would look at Denethor once, then let his gaze slide away.
So he stood in the shadows and held his body still, hardly breathing. Ecthelion and the elf walked out of the hall and stopped in the antechamber. Ecthelion beckoned to a servant and gave him instructions. The elf turned his head and looked straight at Denethor.
A wave of longing washed over Denethor and it was all he could do not to rush out, to kneel at the feet of the elf, to offer himself. But he stood, unmoving, and held his breath until the elf looked away. Ecthelion spoke and Denethor at last learned the elf's name.
Celeborn. Lord Celeborn. My Lord Celeborn. Denethor spoke the words in his mind. Ecthelion inclined his head and left. Celeborn turned to go with the servant. And as soon as Denethor believed his father to be safely away, he stepped into the light and followed.
The servant was leading Celeborn to a guest house, the best they had. Denethor lingered behind, not wanting to be noticed. He watched them at the door, Celeborn speaking words he couldn't hear, holding up a hand, entering alone. The servant bowed low and left. Denethor flattened against a wall until he was gone.
Now...Denethor didn't know what to do. He could wait outside, in hopes that Lord Celeborn would come out to him. He could knock on the door and hope it would be answered. He could stand right there against the wall. It was dusk and the large windows were yellow with lamp light. A silhouette moved across one window and Denethor's breath caught in his throat.
He stepped out into the street and almost collided with the servant, coming back with a tray. "My lord," the servant said, "excuse me."
"No, no," said Denethor. "My fault." He put his hand on the man's shoulder. "Give me the tray. I'll take it in."
"My duty...I cannot..." The servant flushed and drew back a little.
Denethor drew himself up and hardened his voice. "I insist. I will take it."
The servant bit his lip and handed over the tray. It was heavy and Denethor thought for a moment he'd drop it. But he straightened, turned his back on the servant, and walked to the guest house.
He had no idea how he'd manage the door, but it opened in front of him. And there was My Lord Celeborn, dressed in white and looking down at him. Denethor stepped through the door and Celeborn closed it behind him.
Denethor's heart beat wildly. Celeborn turned and walked through the house. Denethor followed him, fearful that he would trip or spill. They passed through a short hallway into a large, airy room. The furnishings were few, but well-made, and a tapestry hung on the wall, depicting a battle long forgotten. A small table was in the middle of the room and a large bed stood against the wall, curtains drawn around it. Celeborn sat at the table, back straight and eyes on Denethor.
Denethor set down the tray and the contents rattled. "My lord," he said, and bowed deeply. Celeborn simply waited. Denethor tried to think of what he should say, what he should do. Introduce himself, pledge fealty, beg for favour.
Then he looked at the tray he had brought in. He would serve his lord. He took up the wine and poured it into a silver cup. His hands shook and a few drops spilled onto the white linen cloth. He set the cup in front of Celeborn.
Celeborn took up the cup and drank and never looked away. Denethor set many plates before him, but Celeborn ate only bread. Denethor had not eaten since early morning and he felt a gnawing emptiness in his belly. But he stood and waited and poured the wine, hands steady now. It felt right to him, to serve. He lowered his eyes, but he knew Celeborn still watched him.
When he had done, Celeborn stood. Denethor reached for the table, to clear away. But Celeborn stepped in front of him and Denethor stopped moving.
"You're a fine boy," Celeborn said, only inches away. Denethor could feel Celeborn's breath against his skin, could smell the wine. Denethor opened his mouth to speak, to give his name, but the words stopped behind his teeth and he was silent. Celeborn lifted his hand and touched Denethor's cheek.
Heat rushed to Denethor's face, then flooded all through him. Celeborn moved his hand behind Denethor's head, cupped the back of his neck, drew him close, and kissed him.
Denethor wondered if he should be surprised. But all he felt was desire. He opened his mouth and Celeborn slid his tongue inside, just behind Denethor's lips. It was so different from the girls Denethor had kissed -- strong and sweet and filled with leashed power. Denethor longed to set it loose. He touched his tongue to Celeborn's, moved it against the corner of Celeborn's mouth. Something twisted inside him and he was fully aroused, hard and straining.
Celeborn moved his hand to Denethor's face, then drew it between them. Denethor followed Celeborn's fingers, trying to catch them in his mouth, but they moved down his neck and under his collar.
It made Denethor shiver. Celeborn's fingers were soft but not gentle, pressing against the pulse in Denethor's throat. Denethor had half his buttons undone before he realised he was undressing. He let his shirt slip away. Celeborn touched Denethor's chest, stroked his sides and back. His hair fell over Denethor's shoulder.
They were so close. Denethor had never thought of this, with a man, would not have expected this. But then, Celeborn was no man. Denethor shuddered under Celeborn's hands and longed to touch him in return. To stroke his face, tangle his hands in Celeborn's hair. But he couldn't, not unless Celeborn gave him a sign.
Celeborn stepped away and Denethor looked up at him, wondering why. Celeborn looked back and Denethor knew. He fumbled his boots off, then his trousers, then stood there, naked. The room was cool but he was burning from inside, giving off heat. He supposed he should feel ashamed, but he was not.
Celeborn drew back the curtain around the bed. Denethor lay down and Celeborn took him in his arms and kissed him, the white robe falling over Denethor's thighs and chest. Celeborn's hands ranged over Denethor's body, down the line of his back, over his buttocks, across his belly and chest. Denethor's skin was alive with the touch. It seemed to stretch tightly over his bones, like it couldn't contain him.
Denethor rested his hands on Celeborn's shoulders and then, when that was allowed, around Celeborn's neck and under his hair. It was smooth and soft between his fingers, but also seemed strong, like a silk rope, and Denethor knew he wouldn't be able to pluck it out, even if he dared to try. Celeborn's kiss was deep and demanding. Denethor opened to it and wished Celeborn could swallow him completely.
He moved one hand over Celeborn's cheek. The skin was soft, almost slick, no shadow of a beard to catch his fingers on. Then up to trace the strange, beautiful shape of Celeborn's ear. But Celeborn drew back and Denethor's hands fell back against the bed.
An unfamiliar odour filled the air, like flowers, sweet and heavy. Celeborn spread an ointment over Denethor's chest, worked it in with slow, long strokes. It was cool and slippery and Denethor arched his back under Celeborn's hands. The scent of the ointment was strong and made Denethor's head spin. Celeborn turned him over and did the same to his back, hands moving down to Denethor's hips.
Denethor's head was turned to the side, resting on a pillow. He could see the tapestry and his eyes picked out faded colours but there seemed to be no pattern, no form. Celeborn's fingers pushed inside him and Denethor gasped. He moved against the bed, spread his thighs apart. He felt Celeborn's robe drape over his ankle. And then Celeborn entered him.
It hurt. It hurt with a dull stab that made Denethor twist his fingers in the bedclothes and bite his lip so he wouldn't cry out. Celeborn gripped Denethor's hips, fingers hard against the bone, then began to move, long strokes that rocked the bed and seemed to split Denethor open.
The pain did not recede but Denethor felt pleasure nonetheless. Pleasure in the touch of Celeborn's hands, in the friction of the bed against his member, pleasure in opening to his lord. He wished Celeborn would lie down, cover him completely, weigh him down.
The colours in the tapestry grew brighter, swirling around a point of silver. Something was being drawn out of Denethor, slowly, like a wire wound deep within him, a strand of silver hair. It pulled taut and strained and finally broke. Denethor bucked his hips against the bed and spent, closing his eyes and thrusting the breath out of his body.
Blood pounded in his head, but began to slow. Celeborn still moved behind him, inside him. When Denethor opened his eyes, he saw the winged helmet of Gondor, worked in silver thread, the captain of the armies, raising his sword in victory.
Celeborn's hands tightened. Denethor heard him breathe in sharply, once, felt him release. Celeborn grew still, then pulled away. Denethor lay on the bed and waited for the touch on his shoulder that meant he could get up.
When it came, he didn't stand, but knelt on the floor before Celeborn and bowed his head. Celeborn reached down and caressed Denethor's cheek. Denethor looked up into the deep grey eyes and didn't breathe. Celeborn smiled faintly, then took a ring off his finger and gave it to Denethor.
The ring was a slender band with a single leaf worked in silver, delicately shaped and veined. Pride and happiness swelled in Denethor; his lord had accepted him. He slipped the ring onto his own finger. "My lord," he whispered, then spoke more loudly. "My lord."
Celeborn looked at him for a moment, then turned his eyes to a pitcher and basin that stood nearby. Denethor was confused for a moment, then went to it, poured out water for Celeborn, offered a towel. "Dress," said Celeborn and turned away.
The ointment had grown tacky on Denethor's skin and his clothes clung to it as he pulled them on. He was careful to keep his back to Celeborn. What next? he wondered. Would he sleep here, gather his things in the morning, ride out with Celeborn? Or were they to stay inside the Citadel for a while? He thought of the envy in his friends' eyes and smiled, then of the anger in his father's. But no matter. So long as he was with his lord.
"You may go," Celeborn said.
Denethor turned. Celeborn stood in perfect order, robes straight and regal, not a hair out of place. Denethor knew he was ruffled, dishevelled. He blushed. "May I--"
"You may go." Celeborn wasn't smiling, wasn't frowning. Denethor would go and sleep and return in the morning, to wait upon him.
Denethor bowed. Then, slowly, he left. Each step was harder than the last. In the morning.
He went into the street, back the way he'd come. When he passed the wall where he'd waited, he turned and looked back.
And then the glamour faded.
It was sudden, like water poured out over sand. The longing drained away from him, the devotion and the love. He felt his swollen lips and the stiffness in his thighs and the lingering ache deep inside of him. And he knew just what service he'd given to his lord.
Denethor was angry, blinding fury pulsing through him with every heartbeat. He turned and ran toward his rooms. He had a sword. He'd been trained to use it.
His chest was aching when he got there, and he stopped to breathe. He pulled the ring off his finger and flung it across the room. He was buckling on his sword and framing his challenge when he realised that it was no use.
A rush of shame and horror came over him and he let the belt slide from his hands. The sword thudded on the floor. No use at all. If he went back, the elf had only to look at him and Denethor would yield. If he went to his father, he would have to explain himself. His gut heaved and he only just made it to the basin before he was sick. His stomach was empty but he retched and gagged and almost -- almost -- wept.
He was weak, he was foolish. How could he let this happen? He wiped his mouth. He couldn't let anyone find out. They would only despise him for being so easily swayed. For being so stupid.
The sickly smell of the ointment was in the air. Denethor called for a servant to prepare him a bath. In the hot water, he scrubbed until his skin was red and sore. But even when he was out and dressed in different clothes, the scent lingered.
It was late. He lay on his bed, curled up into himself, wished that the dark would swallow him. He was awake all night. Never again, he told himself. He would never allow himself to be overruled, even by an elf. He would never believe anyone was what they seemed to be.
In the morning, he saw a glint of silver on the floor. He picked up the ring. It was light in his palm -- a trinket, but beautifully made. He put it on his middle finger and turned the leaf inward to his palm. He would wear it and remember. Never again.
He drank water, but didn't eat. He liked the empty feeling in his belly. It seemed to sharpen his mind, give him strength. A servant came to summon him. Ecthelion wanted him.
Denethor kept his back straight and his head high as he walked to meet his father. He entered the room and there, beside Ecthelion, was the elf, tall and slender in his grey cloak.
"My son, Denethor," Ecthelion said. Celeborn raised his eyebrows slightly. He didn't know, Denethor realised. And then, when Celeborn gave him a faint smile: he doesn't care.
"This is our guest," Ecthelion continued. "Celeborn of Lothlorien. He has come to give me advice on some matters that may soon affect us all."
"My lord," said Denethor and met Celeborn's eyes. Never again. His face felt like stone. He bowed. "I am sure you have much to teach us."
Celeborn turned to Ecthelion. "A fine boy," he said, and his eyes slid once over Denethor and then away. "You must be very proud."
"Is there anything my lord requires?" Denethor said.
"I ride out at once," Celeborn said, "but I thank you for your courtesy." He inclined his head to Denethor. "The men of Minas Tirith are just as I remember."
Denethor ached from tension and he feared he'd lose control if he remained. "Father, may I have your leave?"
Ecthelion smiled at him. "You may go. Your friends are waiting for you, no doubt."
Denethor left, but didn't go to his friends. Instead, he went up upon the battlements and waited. After a long time, he saw the gates open and a grey-clad rider leave the city. He clenched his hand around the ring and felt the leaf bite into his palm. When the elf faded into the horizon, Denethor turned away and went down to Minas Tirith.