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Hands of the King: 11. Flirtation
Minas Tirith, Mid July, 2975 T.A.
Finduilas slept well and suffered only a little stickiness in her throat and chest upon rising. The day felt drier than it had been over the last few weeks. She dressed in her riding clothes – full trousers, boots, a loose blouse – and headed for the messenger stables after collecting a few carrots in the kitchen for the horses. Even with the young men returning to the City, Finduilas continued to take the horses up and down the mountain in the morning.
The change from bright to dark as she stepped into the stables dimmed her sight for a moment, so Finduilas heard Denethor before she saw him. He was giving a message pouch to a rider and identifying a few items that were to be delivered directly into the hand of his lieutenant, Halmir, in Osgiliath. Her sight was restored in time to see the messenger swing up on a steed and salute Denethor before riding out. The hoofbeats quickened to a trot as soon as he made the main street. Denethor looked at her in puzzlement before nodding.
‘Good morrow to you, Finduilas. What brings you here so early?’
‘I take spent messenger horses down to the main stables every morning and bring fresh steeds back up.’
‘It is not right that you have been pressed into serv…’
‘I have not been pressed into anything. I asked to do this. The stable master permits it as he had no spare hands and I am a very good rider.’ She smiled brightly and walked past him towards the stalls on the left where the arrivals were kept. There was no point arguing with Denethor, for he would not allow himself to lose, so she simply had to do her task. Two horses waited for her, one saddled and another on a lead-line. Both nickered when they saw her; the messenger horses had become familiar with her over the last two months. The chestnut with the white fore-leg immediately nosed her pocket, knowing there would be something there. Finduilas laughed and rapped him lightly on the nose before pulling out a carrot for him. The bay whickered, eager for his share. While the horses crunched their carrots, she began dropping the rope gates across the stalls.
As she more than half expected, Denethor walked over to help. He took the bay’s lead-line while she took the chestnut’s reins, and followed her to the small courtyard before the stables. After he boosted her onto the chestnut, he did not hand her the lead-line to the second horse.
‘If you do not mind the company, I am walking down to the first circle and will lead this one,’ he said. ‘It will be easier to manage the one horse if you need not lead another.’
‘I welcome your company for the long route down, friend, and I do not mind waiting if you wish this one saddled so you may ride as well.’
‘I prefer to walk.’
‘Then let us go before it becomes too warm.’ They had not gone very far, not even to the gate to the fifth circle, when Beregar trotted up. The young man held out a folded paper to Denethor, who took the paper and handed Beregar the lead-line. Beregar took charge of the horse and fell into line behind the other. Denethor slipped the paper into his pocket, then grasped the reins on Finduilas’s mount as though he was going to lead her down the hill. She leaned forward and slapped his hand, making him let go of her horse.
‘Do I look unable to manage my mount?’
‘I only meant to guide the horse through the streets.’ She tapped the horse with her heels, making it step out briskly. Denethor had no problem matching the pace with his long strides.
‘Should you like to lead the horse, we can halt at Vinyamar and I will leave him to you. Should you like to provide me with some company, then walk back by my stirrup and speak.’
‘If you ride so quickly, it will be difficult to speak.’ She reined the horse in. They turned into the gate and clopped down the broad stairs to the fifth circle.
‘Are you more rested today, Denethor? I admit to being worried by your weariness yester eve.’
‘Yes, I am. A quiet supper and a full night’s rest have restored me.’ Liar. There were dark circles under his eyes and his face was drawn, though his carriage was smooth and controlled.
‘I hope you shall not be leaving at once as you did before.’
‘Not at once, Alquallë, but sooner than I would wish. The greatest threats have been defeated, but there will be smaller engagements all through the summer. There will be no long rest for the realm’s defenders until the rains of autumn.’
Finduilas sighed. ‘I feared that would be your answer. The Archivist will not be pleased by this news.’
‘Then do not tell her.’ They looked at each other sideways, and a small smile played across his face. ‘What news may you tell me of the City?’
‘What would you know?’
‘Whatever has occurred and may be spoken of as we walk.’
Finduilas cast about for what would be of interest to him and would be suitable for public airing. An obvious topic came to mind. ‘I can speak of how the market place has been. I usually visit it with Mother in the mornings after I finish with the messenger horses.’
‘Yes! That I very much wish to hear. Please, go on.’ She told him of what she had seen, what condition various goods had been in and how plentiful they were, whether merchants raised their prices on war fears, what people wished to trade for, and so forth. Silently Finduilas thanked her mother for all of the instruction over the last few weeks, for there were questions Denethor asked that she would not have been able to answer otherwise. Before she realized it, the long trip down the City was finished.
Denethor and Beregar went with her to the stables. There were no new horses to take up. It will be a long walk. The day was promising to be hotter than the previous days, as well as drier. The three walked back to the garrison inside the first circle, where Denethor bid her good day. He instructed Beregar to walk her back to Vinyamar.
Once they were back on the main way, Finduilas asked, ‘My faithful Huan, how do you fare? I was very worried for you when you were gone, as were all the ladies in your loyal care.’
Beregar blushed to the tips of his ears. ‘I am well, my lady. More well than my lord, I dare say. I never got into any fighting.’ He sounded rather dejected about that.
‘I dare say your mother is glad you did not! I know we ladies were all hoping that you would be well out of harm’s way. Where were you?’
‘I was put to use as a messenger between Lord Brandir in Anórien and the Osgiliath fort. They would never let me over the river to attend my lord as I wished. I wasn’t even allowed into the garrison! I should have taken my messages directly to him.’
‘But that would have put you into the battles.’
‘I want not to be but a messenger!’ The young man’s face turned pink again, but this time in indignation. ‘I do not lack courage! I spend all my free time in the training yards. I know bow and sword at least as well as any soldier, and a good deal better than many.’ The fierceness in his expression made him look so like Denethor it gave Finduilas a shiver. She patted his arm gently to take the edge off his ire. A sheepish look replaced the fierce one. ‘Forgive my outburst, my lady. I am proud to serve my lord and my city however I may.’
‘I should hope you would be proud to serve your ladies as well,’ she gently teased, making him smile and blush once more. ‘I know you are a man of great heart, dear Huan. You are like my brother, Imrahil, who chafed at being told to remain in the City when our lord father went to defend the falas. But both of you were commanded by your lords to take care of the treasures they held most dear. Surely you do not begrudge your service to us?’ He turned more red and stared at the ground before them, shaking his head. ‘If you will permit it, Huan, I shall speak at a proper time to Lord Denethor and urge him to release you so you may join the Tower Guards.’
Beregar stopped and stared at her, his face lighting up with joy. ‘You would do this for me?’
‘Yes, Beregar, I would. You have said it is your heart’s desire, and it would please me to see you attain it.’
‘Thank you, thank you! You are the kindest, noblest lady in all of Gondor, Lady Finduilas!’ The delighted young man seized her hand and kissed it, then dropped it and stepped away, abashed. Finduilas laughed and ruffled his hair as she so often did to Imrahil.
‘Well, thank me not too grandly until the deed is done, my hound. And I know not what your master will think of my plea. Lord Denethor commands things as pleases him, and not for others.’ Finduilas’s stomach growled loudly, making them both giggle. ‘I think we should stop at your parent’s tavern for a bite on our way up. I did not break my fast this morning before going to the stables, believing I would swiftly return by horse.’
‘Yes, anything you wish, my lady.’ Beregar became quite serious again. They quickly walked to The Messenger’s Rest. Instead of entering through the front door, however, Beregar led Finduilas down a narrow alley and into the kitchen court. A rough wooden table with some chairs stood under a vine covered arbor across the court from the kitchen door. He courteously bade her to sit while he fetched her breakfast. Soon, there was water and thin wine, sweet bread and plain, preserves, soft cheese and some sweetmeats. He would not sit with her, saying he was needed to help his parents and siblings with the morning customers.
The food was simple and delicious. Finduilas surprised herself with how much she ate. After she finished, she gathered the plates and leftovers in the basket they had arrived in, and entered the kitchen. It was a hot, bustling room, with girls and women spooning porridge, cutting up bread loaves, setting out cheeses and meats and jams, and whisking in and out the far door with empty or full platters, depending upon the direction of their route. Beregar was running up and down a stair to a cellar, fetching whatever the women called for, and did not notice her. A young woman spied Finduilas standing in the door and hurried over to take the basket. Shortly afterwards, Beregar’s mother came in from the front room and nodded respectfully to Finduilas, who returned the gesture in kind.
‘Welcome to our tavern, Lady Finduilas. Was the breakfast to your satisfaction?’
‘Yes, Mistress, it was.’ Finduilas realized she did not know the woman’s name. ‘What is the charge for this most excellent fare?’
‘For you, my lady, nothing. If you would be so kind as to carry a message...’ Finduilas nodded.
‘I will see the Master Archivist this afternoon.’
‘If you will please wait under the arbor for a few minutes. Beregar will finish his tasks in a moment.’ The women nodded to each other again and Finduilas withdrew to the pleasant courtyard. Soon, Beregar appeared with a letter in one hand and a basket in the other. He handed her the letter.
‘Mother has packed some sweets for you and your family, my lady, if you would care for them.’
‘Is there enough to give to the other ladies?’ He grinned and nodded. ‘Then let us be off before it is too hot to walk.’
They climbed up the main way, back and forth across the face of the mountain, chatting happily. Finduilas asked Beregar to describe some of his messenger journeys which he did with much pride and only slight embellishments. She was relieved when they reached the lane that led to Vinyamar. The heat was getting worse and she was beginning to cough.
They stopped before the door. Beregar shifted from foot to foot for a moment, then shyly said, ‘I wish my lord would have left me in your service, my lady. I do not think I would miss being a Guard so much.’ He risked a glance at her, then blushed again and stared at his feet.
The contents of the basket are not the only sweet things about. The boy is sweet on you, goose! Finduilas was startled. She felt almost as foolish as when she learned Beregar had been set to spy upon her. You should have seen this. Time to put a stop to this nonsense. She made her face very stern.
‘Well, I am glad he has not, Beregar.’ The young man looked up. ‘I have not forgotten how you played spy upon me, and I still do not approve.’ Beregar looked stricken by her words, face losing color. Finduilas tried to soften the harshness of her words. ‘Besides, you are better placed to serve Lady Aiavalë and the other ladies, who have no man in their house to serve and guard them.’
‘I am sorry, my lady,’ he whispered. ‘I would not have spied, save on my lord’s command.’
‘I know, which is why I am not angry with you, Huan. But I think it best that you serve another lady.’ He nodded, dejected. ‘Now, no more of this long face, my hound. Take the sweets for this house around to the kitchen, then hurry with the rest to the archives. They will be glad there for the treat. Good day!’ Finduilas turned and entered Vinyamar, firmly shutting the door in Beregar’s face.
Finduilas was glad to hear that her mother was not going to the market this morning – one climb up the mountain was quite enough in this heat. Besides, she needed to think. After shedding her boots, she flopped onto her bed, resting her chin on crossed arms. This had been a most confusing set of days. First Brandir saying the captain was smitten with her, then Denethor being drunk and arguing about poetry, and now this with Beregar. She tried not to feel guilty for having been cruel to the poor fellow, but it would have been more cruel to let him keep thinking such things. And what of the captain? Is it not cruel to let him think such things? What do I think of Thorongil?
It was simple enough to picture the man – tall, lean but not scrawny, a noble face that could be pleasant when he smiled. Keen, piercing eyes. An easy gait and a soft voice. The lines near his eyes said there was laughter as well as care in his life. He is handsome enough. More than most. There could be no doubt why women found him charming. The last party had removed much of her sense of wariness around him, since he had mastered his unsettling stare. Mithrandir is right, and Brandir; he is an honorable man. Perhaps I am being too harsh to him. Perhaps I am letting Lady Lore’s distaste for the captain guide me too much. Still…
Finduilas sighed and rolled onto her back, staring at the tiles set into the ceiling. They were small, adorned with delicate blue ships sailing forever on equally blue waves. Vinyamar sat on the crook of the lane and her window looked straight down the court to the main way. The bed was too low to let her see the street through the window, but there was a sliver of pale blue sky and the edges of rooftops to look at. Finduilas let the warmth of the day and the soft buzz of the street echoing up the lane lull her towards sleep.
A soft tap at the door was followed by Luinil peeking around the edge.
‘Are you well, daughter?’
‘Yes, just worn from the heat. I have almost no cough.’
‘I have brought you some chilled wine.’
‘Thank you!’ Finduilas sat up while Luinil put the tray on the small table next to the bed. Her mother poured her a cup, then held up a second.
‘May I join you?’
‘Please!’ Luinil poured a cup and was soon sitting tailor-style, her back against the headboard. Finduilas snuggled up against Luinil’s shoulder and slipped an arm around her mother’s waist. Luinil sighed contentedly and kissed Finduilas’s brow, then began stroking her hair.
‘I shall be very glad for this party of Maiaberiel’s to be over.’
‘I scarce see Ivriniel, for she is always at the lady’s house helping plan things. What little I have heard makes me shake my head. It will be grand.’
‘Yes, it will. Beruthiel is an expert in such things.’
Luinil choked on her wine and began laughing. ‘Beruthiel? Is that what you call that devious woman?’
‘It is what Denethor and Aiavalë call her, so I do as well.’
‘Well named. The Master Archivist is better informed of the goings on of the City than her secluded life would lead one to expect.’
Finduilas knew that tone. Her mother was fishing for information. ‘All news comes to the archive at some point, Mother, and Lady Lore is very wise, though her speech be awkward. Besides, she knows her sister well.’
‘Hmm.’ Luinil did not pursue the question further. They sat and sipped, enjoying silent company. Finduilas kept pondering the riddle of her feelings for the captain.
‘How did you know you were in love with Father?’ Her mother smiled. ‘Did you see him and just know? Did you learn to love him?’
‘A bit of each, I think. I’ve told you that my cousin’s father was of kin to the Swan House, and we sometimes met there. I thought him a nice enough young man, but we paid each other no mind. We were both very silly and very young. Then, at a celebration, I saw a handsome man who reminded me of someone, and he saw me and smiled most sweetly. It was not until we were closer that we recognized each other. We danced with no other the whole evening, and he asked my father for my hand on his next journey to Lossarnach. But that was barely love. We have learned, are still learning, how to love each other.’ Luinil kissed Finduilas’s cheek. ‘And our children are the loveliest thing of that learning.’
Luinil gathered their cups and set them on the tray, then stood. ‘I must go and attend a few things, daughter. Will you try to nap? I think it best for you to rest in this heat.’ Finduilas said she would, and Luinil left. She peeled off her sweat-dampened riding clothes and hung them on pegs, then crawled under the sheet to sleep.
It was not until the next day when she dressed for the messenger stable that Finduilas remembered her errand for Beregar’s mother. She hurried to the stable, found there were no horses needing to be taken to the lower stable, and set out for the archives. Lark greeted Finduilas with a hug and kiss and confirmed that Aiavalë was in her office already. The Archivist was not pleased to receive the battered letter a day late, glowering at the young woman before sending Finduilas off into the caverns to check books for mildew. It was better than braving the heat of the day or listening to Ivriniel natter on about the party tomorrow, so Finduilas set about her task in good spirits, no matter Aiavalë’s bad humor.
Mairen was already checking books in the fifth cavern and welcomed Finduilas with a bright smile. The two spent a slow morning together examining each volume. They broke for a simple dinner of fruit, cheese and bread, then continued. Much to their pleasure, only a few books showed any damage.
‘I will take these to Hador, Mairen,’ Finduilas said when they had finished the row.
‘He is not here today, Finduilas.’
‘No matter. I shall put them in his workshop and he will attend to them when he returns.’ Finduilas gathered up the five books and set off to Hador’s room. It was full of many interesting and clever items – tools to fix things, leathers, parchments and papers to restore worn covers and pages, threads, wooden and metal stamps, and a number of fascinating workbenches. He could restore a few words on a page, but extensive scrivener and illumination work was sent to one of the shops in the third circle. She liked visiting Hador, for he was a jolly and garrulous fellow (at least when the Master Archivist was not present), and regretted he would not be there today.
When she entered his workshop, though, he was there, behind the screen at his writing desk. Mairen was wrong. Finduilas called out to him and walked around the screen. She jumped when the person sitting at Hador’s desk was Denethor, not Hador.
Denethor did not look up from his work. His hair was loosely braided away from his face and his shirt-sleeves were rolled up to keep them out of the ink. Finduilas put her armload of books down on another table and hurried back. It did not take long to figure out what Denethor was up to. On a writing stand was set the letter from Thengel that Brandir had shown her. On the desk was a very nearly finished copy, done in a fair imitation of Thengel’s hand. From the collection of paper, Denethor had even located a sheet that was almost an exact match in size and in nearly the same state of wear.
‘Don’t hang over my shoulder, Alquallë. Go sit. I am almost finished.’
She retreated to another chair and watched his back while he completed his work. In a quarter hour, it was done. Denethor stood and began rolling down his left sleeve. It was then that Finduilas noticed the gash across the back of his right arm.
‘You lied! You were hurt! I saw it!’
‘Not so loud, Alquallë!’ Denethor admonished.
Finduilas marched over and took his right arm, examining the wound. It was short, just above his wrist, and there were some stitches at one end. The whole was red, though there was no heat in it when she touched it. She glared up at him.
‘Just as you keep saying that you are not bothered by your wretched cough!’ he snapped right back. He pulled his arm from her grasp and began rolling down his sleeve. ‘And what do you mean, you saw it?’
I saw it. Finduilas put her hands over her mouth and started shaking. It was true. I saw him bleeding and it was true. She could not make her legs obey her to walk to a chair and simply sat in a heap on the floor.
‘I don’t want these dreams!’ she cried, covering her face with her hands. ‘I don’t want to see!’
‘Alquallë, shh, shh, you will start coughing.’ Denethor gently helped her up and sat her in a chair, then pulled up one of his own, sitting so close their knees touched. He held her hands until she quit shaking and could open her eyes again. ‘You dreamed again of the light.’
‘Yes. It was terrible!’
‘I can see that in your face. You think this cut was shown in the dream?’ She nodded. ‘Whatever you saw, set your mind at rest. It is a small hurt only, and nearly healed.’ He let go of her and sat back in his chair, steepling his hands. Sitting this close, Finduilas could see many small scratches across the backs of both of them, not merely the one deeper scratch. ‘If you can speak, Alquallë, tell me what you saw.’
‘You stood before the light, reading the book I gave you. All the blood of the tale began to run from the pages, falling to the floor and pouring into the fire-fall. Then, your…’ She had to take a deep breath, ‘your hands began weeping blood, and you thrust book and hands both into the fire to burn them clean. The book was scoured but your hands did not cease their weeping until the fall turned to silver ice and froze the wound.’
Denethor dropped his eyes to the ground, thinking. The tips of his forefingers tapped together as he sat. ‘And did you have other dreams?’
‘None that I can remember clearly. I only remember great waves and water and ships of stone. Do you still think my dreams prophecy something?’
‘I cannot answer, for I am not wise in such things.’
He continued to stare at the floor, but his hands moved and he touched the wound on his arm through the sleeve. ‘Perhaps I can explain your vision of the light. The wound I took in the battle with Harad and it had not finished healing when I went to Ithilien. In a skirmish, it broke open and bled again. The healer who was to put in the stitches bade me thrust it in a bucket of very cold water before he began, to help stanch the wound. The water… was drawn from the fall you see in your dreams. Later, I did read the book while I rested. That is what you saw.’
‘It was still terrible!’
‘I am sorry that you see such things.’
Finduilas was regaining her composure, and something occurred to her. ‘You have not told Aiavalë, have you?’
‘Nor do I intend to. There is naught she can do and I do not care to be scolded.’ Denethor’s usual arch arrogance returned.
‘Your sister cares for you.’
‘Aiavalë meddles. It is the one trait she and Beruthiel share.’
‘Not the only thing. I think all three of you are prideful beyond reason.’
This amused him. ‘I shall not disavow that charge, Alquallë. You have made it before.’
‘And I think you meddle, as well.’
‘What is it you are doing right now with that letter? And how did you get it? Did you steal it?’ She had been so startled by the gash on his arm she had forgotten the letter.
‘I merely borrowed it for a short time,’ was his sly response. ‘It will be returned.’
‘Brandir does not know you have it.’
‘No. And he shall remain in the dark about the letter, just as Aiavalë shall be about this cut, unless you choose to inform them. Are you going to tell them?’
Finduilas glared at him, then sighed and shook her head. ‘I am not a spy upon you, Denethor. But what are you doing? Why do you copy the letter?’
‘Is it not obvious? You said it yourself – it is proof that Thorongil is not of Gondor.’
‘Denethor, what is it you intend to do with this copy?’
‘Then why are you doing it?’ This was becoming confusing.
‘Nothing, unless he should try to make a claim he knows, and Beruthiel and the Steward know, to be untrue.’ All humor had left Denethor’s face, leaving behind a hard, unpleasant look. ‘Then I will not have to wait upon my sister’s husband’s sense of honor. I will have the proof at hand.’
‘I do not think Thorongil would do so.’
‘I do not care to see if you are right.’
‘What if he does not claim rule of Gondor based on a lie? What if he should say the truth, that he is of the Lost, and still presume upon the stewardship? Or the throne?’
Denethor did not answer at once, but stared at her. She refused to look away. ‘I have not decided what I shall do if that should be the case.’
‘Meaning you have not yet considered it.’ He shrugged. ‘Is that not short-sighted, prince?’
‘I am corrected. I will now give it thought since the most likely possibility has been countered.’
‘This may be a foolish question, Denethor, but, are there any royal claimants? We keep saying “Until the King shall return,” but is there anyone who could make such a claim?’
Denethor’s eyebrows went up and some of the sternness disappeared from his expression. ‘That depends on whom you would count as a descendent of the royal line. There are some male-line descendents of minor sons. All are noted in the birth annals, so it is no great task to look them up. Most are of distant lineage, or else have mixed with lesser blood to a great degree, and have forsaken their claims.’
‘And in the North, among the Lost?’
He shook his head decisively. ‘No, there are none. This was confirmed by Eärnur in 1975, after the death of Arvedui, when he went to succor the northern realms. Any male-line descendents are from Anárion, and they are accounted for.’
Finduilas took a deep breath. ‘Then why should it matter if Thorongil were to claim the throne? Perhaps that is what my dreams mean, that it is time for a new line of kings. Would not a king bring hope?’
Denethor could have been carved from stone, he sat so still. He did not even blink. She counted sixteen heartbeats before he moved. Then he simply stood and returned to Hador’s worktable and very deliberately began neatening it. Finduilas rose and followed. His face remained still when his words came, clipped, sharp.
‘This is Gondor. Not some heathen land. Our king is of Elendil, of Númenor, of Lúthien. That is the blood that binds us to our duty. The Stewards shall not fail it.’
The blood that binds us. Finduilas watched his hands move across the table, red line standing out against sun-darkened skin. Through the fabric of the shirt sleeve, she could make out the wound on his arm. He could have lost his hand, as Beren did. He is bound to that bloody tale. It is for him to do what has come after. That is what I saw. She laid a hand on his arm, careful of the wound, stilling his motion. He would not look at her.
‘Friend, I am a fool, and spoke poorly. Pray, be not angry with me. I did not understand.’
‘I am not angry with thee, Alquallë. You have only said what others say, and I must answer it. Where is the honor of Gondor if any warlord may lay claim to her? Are we to be governed by whomever strews the most carnage over the land?’ Finally, Denethor turned and looked at her.
‘You know well that winning battles is not the whole of rule, though it may be the greater part in this time of Darkness. Let us say that Thorongil should claim the rule of Gondor. Let us say what is true, that he has nobility and courage aplenty, and is not some untutored savage. Will that suffice to be a king of Gondor? Mayhap. And when the next warlord appears at the gates, and the one after that?’
Finduilas shook her head. ‘As I said, friend, I am a fool. I am a prince and should know better. Dol Amroth would not yield to a pirate, no matter how great a foe of the Corsairs.’ She let her hand rest very gently on the shirt sleeve above the wound. ‘And forgive me more for treating lightly this bond and sacrifice that you have made already, no less than any other who defends Gondor. If Thorongil may garner acclaim in battle, his deeds rest upon yours that preceded his own, and upon the care you give that is not the clash of armies. I read the reports that you write. I am as bad as Beruthiel to set at naught your labors.’
The harshness in his face subsided, though it remained stern. ‘You have a great deal more wickedness to learn, prince, before you rival my sister. Either of them.’ At that, a sly, humorous gleam came to Denethor’s eye and Finduilas shook a finger at him.
‘I think all three of you also share in wickedness, along with pride and meddling! I have a good mind to tell on you to Aiavalë.’ That made him smile a little as he turned to finish setting the table to rights.
‘If you wish to remain in my confidences, you will not say a word to the Archivist.’
‘And what confidences have you to share?’
Denethor gathered Thengel’s letter and the copy, which was now dry, and carefully rolled them up together. From his pocket he pulled a small, hard leather tube into which he slipped the letters to keep them neat. Putting the case back in his pocket, he offered her his arm.
‘Shall we go?’
‘I have an appointment with the Prince. Are you ready to go home, or have you more to attend to in the archives?’
‘No. My last task was to deliver the damaged books here.’ She took his arm and they left. The heat was terrible once they were upon the stone street.
And so it passed,
the mighty field, and turned to dust,
to drifting sand and yellow rust,
to thirsty dunes where many bones
lay broken among barren stones.
The lines of the poem Denethor had recited but two days before returned to her mind. His right arm was crooked for her to grasp, and the shadow of the wound showed dark where his shirtsleeve pulled tight.
‘Does it hurt?’
‘Please do not tell me what I should do. I have heard that more than I care for the last few days.’
‘I am sorry, friend. I seem only to make you cross today.’
Denethor did not answer. When they reached Vinyamar, he nodded politely to her and walked to Adrahil’s study. Her father greeted him, then shut the door firmly behind them. She wondered what they were meeting to discuss and fancied it had to do with who was telling Denethor what he should do.
There was no opportunity to go to the archives the next day. The morning was taken up with market-going with Luinil, while the afternoon was spent preparing for the party at Maiaberiel’s that evening. Finduilas gladly spent several hours with Ivriniel primping and fussing over their hair and clothes, gossiping about who would be there and what would happen. The party itself did not start until close to sundown because of the summer heat, and would continue far into the night.
As the Swans walked up the court to the main street, Denethor walked past. Adrahil hailed him and he paused.
‘Good evening, Denethor. Are you on your way to the celebration?’
‘Would you walk with us?’
‘I would be honored, Adrahil,’ he replied with a small bow, and gestured for the couple to precede him. Denethor moved as though to offer Ivriniel his arm, as was proper. Finduilas was privately pleased to see Ivriniel grab Imrahil’s arm so as to avoid Denethor, though it was a terribly rude thing for her sister to do. One of Denethor’s eyebrows rose to a great height and he stared coldly at Ivriniel as she walked past him. Finduilas slipped her hand into the crook of his arm. The two fell into step behind her siblings.
‘How fare you, friend?’ she quietly asked, gently patting the back of his wrist with her other hand.
‘I pulled the last of the stitches out. They were itching abominably.’ Finduilas made a face at that news. ‘I spent all day reading and preparing reports and trying to keep your cat from sleeping on them.’
‘She is a wise cat. You should have followed her advice and napped. Have you returned that item you borrowed?’
‘I thought to do so tonight. There is little other reason to attend.’
‘I am curious as to how you borrowed it in the first place.’
Finduilas glanced up and saw a mischievous expression on his face, reminding her of the drawings of the little boy in the book of poetry. Other people were drawing near as people converged on the grand house at the other end of the fifth circle, so she could not press him for more details. There was a crush of guests at the door to the house, making Denethor let go her arm so she could squeeze between some people blocking the way. When she turned to reclaim his arm, he was gone. Brandir called out to them from further up the entry hall so there was no opportunity to see where her escort had disappeared to.
The party was as loud and lascivious as it had promised to be. Some of the dresses were cut so low and clung so tightly that Finduilas was not sure why breasts were not popping out of their cloth bindings. Wine flowed as freely as hands wandered, and few seemed to mind a pat any more than they minded their glass being refilled. Her parents exchanged a long, disapproving stare before following Brandir into the courtyard.
The party was slightly less indecorous here. On the far side, near the fountain, stood Maiaberiel, flanked by Denethor and the Steward. Thorongil was to the far side of Ecthelion. All four watched Adrahil and Luinil approach. For a moment, Finduilas wondered how Denethor had moved so quickly through the crowd as to be in the courtyard before them, but then she noticed something more interesting to ponder.
Ecthelion and Denethor, at first glance, looked nothing alike. Denethor was all angles and long limbs, made more so by the privations of war. Thorongil and her father were much the same as the Warden, though less worn. Ecthelion was a broad-shouldered, powerfully built man, bordering on burliness, with little grace. But when father and son stood together, particularly with Maiaberiel as a perfect female copy of her brother, the resemblance could be seen. The three of the Steward’s house held themselves in the same way – upright, alert, challenging – and the look around their eyes matched exactly. In this company, Thorongil’s resemblance to Denethor was not so great. He lacked a quality of hardness in his face, particularly near his eyes, that marked this line of Húrin. Every child of Ecthelion she had seen bore this mark.
Finduilas slowed, then stopped, not wishing to approach. Grimness has taken abode in their very bones. So much ruthlessness in one spot. She pitied Thorongil having to stand there.
A tap on her shoulder made her turn, and she saw it was one of the young men in Ivriniel’s circle of friends. Within a few minutes, she, Imrahil, and Ivriniel were chattering happily with other young nobles. They clustered near a table with food and wine and paid their elders no mind as the sun set and the air cooled. Ivriniel looked like a queen with a crown of tiny white roses and a dress the color of the sky, and the young men assiduously paid her court.
When it was full dark, Maiaberiel called for the center of the courtyard to be cleared for dancing. Lanterns looped from one side of the court to the other, casting just enough light that all the women were beautiful. The musicians were on a balcony above the fountain, and revelers stood in the arcade to watch and wait their turns. Neither Finduilas nor Ivriniel had to wait, for every dance brought each a new partner. Finally, Finduilas could feel herself becoming short of breath and had to beg off another round.
‘My dear girl, you look exquisite tonight!’
She whirled around, startled by the loud voice, and found herself almost in Ecthelion’s arms. Maiaberiel was next to him. Finduilas tried to edge back a step, but the crowd was too dense to permit retreat. She smiled as cheerfully as she could.
‘Good evening, my Lord Steward. It is a lovely party, is it not?’
‘Not half so lovely as yourself, Finduilas,’ he replied. The Steward looked her over appreciatively, his gaze making her skin itch. ‘You are what he prefers. I have procured for the Steward before, so I am well aware of his likes and dislikes.’ Morwen’s words echoed in her head. It is not so! There is nothing untoward. Do not let that corrupt woman’s words unsettle you. The crowd behind her moved and she was shoved forward. Ecthelion helped her keep her feet, then kept his hand on her arm. It was just firm enough that she could not slip out from under the grasp.
‘You are too, kind, my lord.’
‘It is impossible to show too much kindness to you, my dear.’
Maiaberiel laughed and reached out to pat Finduilas’s shoulder. ‘Finduilas, I have so missed you these last few weeks. Ivriniel is wonderful company, but I must admit to having a preference for you. You are as dear as a sister to me, you know.’ Beruthiel’s hand caressed her other arm, then took her by the wrist, preventing flight. ‘Your sister said you have to spend much of your time in the archives for your health. I do worry over you, always in the company of that woman.’
‘There is no need to worry over me, I assure you.’ There was no more she could say in reply to Beruthiel’s insult to Aiavalë and remain civil.
‘Where have you been hiding all this night, Finduilas? Captain Thorongil has asked after you twice, you know.’ Maiaberiel smiled and squeezed the girl’s wrist.
‘Really? Oh, dear, I would not wish to disappoint him. Where is he?’ she replied quickly. Anything to get away from these two. The older woman and the Steward shared a look, then Beruthiel smiled broadly as she scanned the crowd.
‘Over here. I see him.’ Finduilas had no choice but to follow where the other led, not that she minded leaving Ecthelion. It took a small amount of shoving but they were soon at Thorongil’s side. ‘Look who I found, captain!’
Thorongil’s smile was genuine. He bowed his head to Finduilas, but did not look away from her eyes. ‘Finduilas, I am glad to see you.’
‘The feeling is mutual, Thorongil.’ Though my reason may be more complicated than your own. She finally extricated her wrist from Maiaberiel’s grasp. ‘I was looking for you for a dance, good sir. Forgive me if I presume.’
‘It is no presumption. Will this dance suit you, or shall we wait for another?’
‘This one!’ she cheerfully replied. Get me away from this woman! Maiaberiel took Thorongil’s wine glass and shooed them towards the other dancers. As soon as they began dancing, Finduilas remembered why she did not like Thorongil as a partner. He could never quite get the steps right. It was almost correct, but at certain moments he would step in the wrong way, as though his feet had their own mind. Finduilas bore up with the small stumbles and pinched toes, grateful the dance was short. She made herself cough a little when it ended to avoid having to dance again.
‘Please, may we stand quietly? I need to rest.’
‘There is little I would like better.’
Thorongil guided her to the edge. She removed her arm from his on the excuse of getting something to drink. All the touching was making her flinch. When it became clear that the captain was not going to leave her be and find another dance partner, Finduilas cast about for something to say.
‘I fear all the talk is of serious things these days, Captain.’
‘You promised to call me Thorongil,’ he chided, but he smiled as he did so. It was a wonderful smile, free of calculation. He was happy for her to be standing there, and that was all. ‘You said we would not speak of serious things, so our talk need not be so.’
‘I promised that in our last converse, Thorongil, not this one. Be assured that I have no wish to hear of battles and ruin! But I do have a complaint.’
‘You told me and my guests a wonderful tale several weeks ago, but it was a falsehood. You made no such ride to Edoras and did not see what you claimed.’
Thorongil’s smile was replaced by exasperation. ‘ ‘Twas no falsehood! I have seen spring in the Eastfold many times. It is as I described.’
‘But you rode not to Edoras this spring. That was the falsehood.’
Thorongil stared at her, then shrugged. Leaning close, he said in a very soft voice, ‘The Warden required secrecy to prevent Gondor from losing its advantage of surprise. Until we returned, not even the Steward knew.’
‘Ecthelion thought you had gone to Rohan?’ she whispered back. He straightened up and nodded his head. Did Father know this? Was he privy to the secrets? I wonder if Brandir told Beruthiel? He could not have, if the Steward was left in ignorance. She sought out Ecthelion across the crowd, but could not find him. ‘How could you not tell the Steward?’
He shook his head slightly and tapped his lips with a finger, warning her to speak softly. ‘There was a change of plan, and we could not risk sending messages that could be captured and read, but he knew when we returned. Please forgive my falsehood. Until victory was assured, neither I nor Lord Brandir could risk saying anything.’
Finduilas blushed. ‘Forgive my impertinence, Thorongil. I should have thought better of your reasons.’
‘To one unused to the deceits of state, it would seem unreasonable for me to say one thing when the truth is another. There is nothing to forgive.’
But I am practiced at such things, though perhaps not so well as you. Let us see how truthful you can be when war is not at hand. ‘Then perhaps you may instruct me, Thorongil, on another matter. It is widely said that you are the one who planned all of the great strategies of the war, both south and north, but some say it is untrue. Our victory is secure, so the truth may be spoken. What is so?’ She fixed an innocent gaze on him.
He smiled and shook his head. ‘It is not so. It took the wisdom of all the captains to bring about our victories.’
‘You have heard these rumors, though?’ Impatience flashed briefly over the captain’s face.
‘I have heard much foolishness. It is not worth discussing. Certainly not here.’
‘Not here, of course not! Forgive me for pursuing such serious things. But you will correct others on this count, as you just did me? It does a great disservice to the wisdom of the other captains to have them slighted so.’
The captain watched her carefully, then gestured towards the dancers. ‘Would you care for another dance, Finduilas?’
That did not answer my question. ‘No, I would like to rest a while longer. I am sure there are other partners should you wish to dance.’
He smiled shyly, reminding her of Beregar. ‘I fear I do not care for another partner, so I will keep you company, if you do not mind.’
‘Of course not.’
Finduilas soon tired of the whirl and began watching the people who moved through the arcades. Her parents were never still. Luinil would invite lords to join her for a dance and chat with them. Adrahil moved from group to group, sometimes talking, sometimes just listening. Every so often, the two would meet up, exchange a few words, then go about their business. Ecthelion and Maiaberiel did much the same. Denethor stood with Brandir, nodding absently while his brother-in-law chattered at him. After some time, Luinmir strolled up and tried to talk to them. Denethor stared at her with undisguised disdain, then said something to Brandir, taking the other’s glass. Brandir grinned and bowed grandly to Luinmir before leading her off to dance. A moment later, Denethor melted into the crowd. Beruthiel is not going to be happy with you, Brandir. You were set to keep an eye on her brother. The thought came unbidden, making Finduilas wonder at her own grimness.
Finduilas and Thorongil stood together quietly for more than a half-hour. She was not quite sure when, but Denethor showed up among the dancers, Luinil as his partner. From their expressions, they were having an interesting conversation. After they parted, she watched Denethor do much as her mother was doing – selecting certain women for a dance, talking to them briefly, then finding another partner. The women made much of dancing with him, flirting all the while. Finduilas wondered if they knew of his oath and that their attentions were futile. At one point, Denethor danced with Beruthiel. Others stepped back and applauded the two, for they danced masterfully. Finduilas was not sure how they could bear to be in such proximity each to the other.
Her father worked his way through the crowd closer and closer until he arrived next to them. Adrahil greeted her with a kiss and the captain with a handshake. ‘How are you, daughter? Not tiring yourself out, I trust?’ he jovially inquired.
‘No, not at all, Father. I danced for a while and have had Thorongil to keep me company while I rested.’
Her father smiled broadly at the other man. ‘Would you mind, Finduilas, if I borrowed the captain for a few minutes? I promise not to keep him long.’
I would prefer that you take us both aside so I may hear what you and Mother have been up to all evening. Finduilas shook her head. ‘No, I mind not at all, Father. Be sure to return him when you are through!’
‘I shall do so.’ With that, the two men slipped away towards the front of the house. She had no doubt but that they were going out to the street to have a private conversation. Sighing, Finduilas turned back to the party. It was not long before she felt a prickling sensation on the back of her neck. Denethor. A look over her shoulder confirmed the thought. She motioned for him to come to her side.
‘That was a lovely dance.’ She spoke in a murmur.
He replied in kind, ‘I have known puff adders less venomous than my sister.’
‘Borrowing appears to be in the air.’ He raised an eyebrow. ‘Father borrowed Thorongil from me a few minutes ago, promising to return him. I think they are out in the street.’
‘I am impressed that the Prince could convince the captain to be parted from you. Your father is most persuasive.’ There was something unpleasant in his tone that seemed aimed at both the captain and her father. Finduilas decided to change the subject.
‘And have you returned all that you have borrowed?’
Denethor shrugged nonchalantly. ‘Yes, in as good condition as when it came to me. I always take care with written things. Aiavalë taught me such habits early.’
‘You seem to make a habit of borrowing books and such without asking leave.’
‘I would not wish to concern anyone unduly.’
‘Like a Steward who knew not that his son-in-law and one of his captains never went to Rohan?’
At that, both eyebrows went up. ‘And where did that confidence come from?’
‘It should have come from you.’
‘Ah, Thorongil. I will need to have a word with him.’
‘Why is that, Alquallë?’
‘Because then he may hesitate to confide in me, if he knows I would speak to you.’
‘Perhaps you are a closer rival to Beruthiel than I had imagined.’ They looked sideways at each other and Finduilas could not help her giggles. Denethor’s face did not really become less stern, but his eyes were pure mischief. She grabbed his hand and tugged him towards the dancers, who were starting a new song.
‘Come now! You must have a dance in honor of your victory!’
‘Over our enemies?’
‘Of course, but also for successfully returning what you have borrowed!’
Denethor allowed himself to be led out. The song was sprightly, but not too fast, so she could enjoy the dance without worrying about missing a step. It was also a long tune. As at her parent’s anniversary celebration, Denethor was a smooth and accomplished partner, expertly guiding her among the others, never missing a step. As they danced, grimness left him and he pulled her closer. To her delight, a smile grew on his face, a true smile, not one of his usual sly smirks or half-hearted grimaces. For a moment Finduilas was certain he would laugh.
‘Is this not better?’
‘Is what better than what, Alquallë?’
‘Our gaiety! Is this not better than grimness?’ she teased him. In the next second, she wished she had bitten her tongue. His smile vanished and his body stiffened. The handsome, happy man she had been dancing with disappeared, and she was left with the High Warden of the White Tower staring down at her most disapprovingly. They completed their dance in silence.
When the music ended, Denethor tucked her arm firmly under his and walked them away from the dancers. With his free hand he snagged a glass of something off the tray of a passing server and handed it to her.
‘Here. You should have something to drink.’
‘I care for being told what I should do no more than you. If I wish for something, I will say so.’ He set the drink on the tray of a passing server. ‘Why are you so wed to being grim?’ Finduilas demanded.
Denethor looked startled at her words and a pained expression crossed his face, quickly replaced by his cold, mocking mask. ‘Because it suits me.’
‘I think you pursue it for no more reason than your pride.’
‘Think whatever you like, girl,’ was his acerbic reply. Denethor looked about, then set off through the crowd, pulling her along much as Maiaberiel had earlier in the evening. Another quality they share. They stopped when they reached Luinil. The other Swans were nowhere to be seen. Denethor bowed shallowly to her mother.
‘Luinil, I did not wish to leave your daughter unattended in this crowd. It is a bit boisterous for such a young girl.’
‘Thank you for bringing her to me. Now if I could only find my other two, I would be content.’
‘I fear I must attend to other business. Good evening.’
‘Good evening, Denethor.’ He bowed again and strode away quickly. Finduilas glared after his retreating back.
‘Such a face!’ Her mother gave one of her ears a tug. ‘Did you argue with the Warden?’
‘I begin to think it impossible to do anything save argue with that man. He is most aggravating! Sometimes, I swear, he is contrary simply to be so.’
Any further words about Denethor were interrupted by the arrival of Adrahil and Thorongil, back from their talk outside. Thorongil greeted Luinil courteously, then smiled and nodded to Finduilas. Why should I not enjoy the company of someone who wishes to be agreeable? Father approves of him, if Denethor does not. Thorongil is not afraid to take joy in things that are simply joyful. She smiled in return and wagged a finger at the two men.
‘That was much more than a few minutes! I was wondering if you would ever return.’
‘We are returned now and shall stay,’ Adrahil replied. Finduilas held out a hand to Thorongil.
‘I am quite rested. Would you care for another dance?’ Finduilas determinedly paid no attention to the dour man who leaned against a pillar of the arcade, watching.
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