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Hands of the King: 17. Encroachment
Minas Tirith, Mid October, 2975 T.A.
Denethor did not move at once, just stood, still as stone. His eyes looked through Finduilas as he stood, and she could not read what was in them. Lightly, he stroked her cheek with one gloved thumb before turning to walk a few paces away, head bowed in thought. He returned in the same manner.
‘What think you, friend?’
‘That I was right.’
‘Right about what?’ Finally Denethor looked at Finduilas. He did not answer, but studied her face carefully. She was ready to prompt him again when he spoke.
‘You speak in riddles, Denethor.’ He shrugged. ‘But what of this? Thorongil holds a great heirloom. How did he come by it?’
Denethor did not leave off his disconcerting examination of her face. ‘I suppose that he inherited it.’
‘Inherited? But then, that would mean…’ Finduilas quickly ran through what she was remembering about the ring. He is the king. Thorongil is the heir of Isildur, and king. Denethor watched the comprehension dawn on her face, and nodded grimly. Finduilas found herself shivering again. ‘It means he is the king,’ she whispered.
‘No. It means he is the inheritor of the Ring of Barahir, as reckoned in the North, and he is probably a descendent to some degree of Isildur.’ Denethor’s voice was crisp, matter-of-fact.
‘Could… could it be stolen? Perhaps it is not inherited or granted.’
‘I do not believe so. If Thorongil holds it, it is held by right. The Lost would hunt down and kill any who attempted to thieve such a precious thing.’ Denethor shook his head decisively. ‘No, I cannot think him a thief, not of something like that.’
‘I must agree, friend. I cannot believe something so dishonorable of the captain. But how then is he not the heir?’
Denethor gave her a condescending look. ‘Alquallë, did I not tell you that all male-line descendents of Elendil are accounted for? Eärnur confirmed there were none in the North, and all of the South are known.’
Finduilas found herself bristling at his tone and stood so he would not tower over her so much. ‘Yes, Warden, this prince remembers well your lesson in the royal bloodlines. Even so, I ask how are you so certain that the findings of Eärnur are true? Even if they are so, could the captain not be descended from a daughter of Arvedui? Cannot his line be counted that way, even as Elendil traced himself back to Silmarien?’
In answer, he carefully collected the three books on the table and walked away to reshelve them. Finduilas sighed and followed. Denethor fussed with the volumes, setting them just so in their places, then sauntered off. Over his shoulder, he said, ‘Come with me if you would have answers. Aiavalë is not the only Archivist.’ This was too good a mystery to resist. They were soon in Aiavalë’s office. She looked up from her work as they came in.
‘What are you about today, brother?’
‘I was going to borrow a few books…’
‘Steal them, you mean.’
‘… but have a more interesting task, now. The key? Alquallë, lock the door.’
The Archivist pulled a key from her pocket, tossing it to Denethor as he crossed the room, while Finduilas hurriedly locked the office door. He stopped in front of the bookshelf in the niche in the wall and ran a hand along the top edge, searching for something. A muffled “click” sounded, and he swung the bookshelf forward on hidden hinges. Behind the shelves was a bare rock wall. Denethor laid one hand flat against the rock and murmured a word she could not hear.
Slowly, a silvery line appeared in the rock, spreading slowly down to the floor and up to the ceiling, then across, until a door was outlined in the stone. What had been a simple shadow on the rock face turned into a keyhole.
‘Magic!’ Finduilas exclaimed, ‘It’s magic!’
Denethor flashed her an annoyed look. ‘No. Dwarven.’ He slipped the key into the lock and turned it. The door swung inward without a sound. ‘Behind this door, that is magic.’ He plucked a lantern off of its hook on a near wall and gestured for her to follow.
The room beyond the door was somewhat larger than Aiavalë’s tiny office. Denethor hung the lantern from a hook at the end of a chain that came from the ceiling, then stepped away, allowing the light to spread about. Along the wall to her left were shelves of books, scrolls and folios. Straight ahead she could see trunks and boxes, some of wood, some of leather, others of metal, stacked one upon the other and several rows deep. When she glanced to the right, Finduilas was brought up short in amazement.
There was a table of lebethron. The table top was covered by a drape thickly embroidered with the sun, the moon and stars, but this was no thread work. Silver, gold and gems were worked into the sable cloth. Side by side upon the table sat two crystal domes and under each dome was a crown.
Finduilas approached the table carefully, glancing at Denethor to see if it were permitted. He smiled with only a hint of mockery and gestured for her to go look. One crown was of gold, the other of silver, and each was worked to mimic the roots of trees, with the trees themselves rising up at the front of the crown. The golden crown was adorned with amber and pale green gems, and diamonds were stars among the branches of the tree it bore. The silver crown sported amethysts and moonstones as well as diamonds. The branches of the trees arched back over the crown, creating a dome of stars.
‘What are they?’ she breathed.
‘Can you not guess?’
‘Crowns of a king and a queen?’
Denethor snorted. ‘The queen of Gondor wears no crown.’ He walked over to the table and removed the dome from the golden crown, then picked it up, turning it so that it caught the rays of the lantern and multiplied them a thousand times, sending sparks of cold fire around the secret chamber. ‘They are the crowns of the two kings who ruled Gondor together. Durin, King of Dwarves, gave them to the kings as gifts of welcome. Anárion and Isildur alone wore them, and when their rule together ended, the crowns were brought here.’ He held the crown out to her. ‘Take it.’
Scarcely daring to breathe, Finduilas checked to be sure she was still wearing her gloves, then took the crown from Denethor’s hands. She expected the gold to be extremely heavy, and nearly dropped it when it weighed hardly anything at all. He gave her a wicked grin, knowing what she expected.
‘This is not gold!’ Finduilas scolded.
‘No, it is something more rare – gold-washed mithril, the true silver of the Dwarves. Both crowns are made of it. “Your burdens shall be heavy enough, so let these be not a weight upon you.” So wrote the Dwarven king when these were sent.’
She handed the crown back to Denethor, fearful of causing this treasure some harm. He replaced it with reverence, setting the crystal cover so that its edge sat in the grooves it had already made in the drape. Before leaving the table, Denethor bent a knee and bowed his head towards the crowns. He backed two steps away before turning towards the shelves opposite. Denethor moved quickly to a particular shelf, motioning Finduilas to follow. He examined several volumes, handing two to her. When he finished, he led the way out of the chamber. Finduilas set the two leather-bound books upon the table while Aiavalë pulled chairs over to it. Denethor took a seat and began leafing through one of the books. As he did so he spoke.
‘It is interesting that you should ask about the end of the Northern line, Alquallë, in light of what you saw, for the two are connected. These are the letters of Eärnur to King Eärnil when the son was Captain-General of Gondor and sent by the king to succor King Arvedui in the war against Angmar. Arthedain had fallen ere Eärnur made landing in Lindon.’
Finduilas leaned over Denethor’s shoulder and could see that the book was composed of many unmatched notes and pages bound together. He turned the pages more and more slowly, until he came to a particular entry. After a moment, he began to read,
“There is no more to be found here. Arvedui is lost. Arthedain is lost. So, too, are all of our folk and kinsmen, my lord. Their king and his heirs all perished at sea, and the remnants crawl away to hide in caves and woods, and will not answer my call. The Elf lord Cirdan, master of the Havens, says to me that the King and the heirs, two sons, were killed in a shipwreck. He will not say what has become of our kinswoman, the Queen.”
She read the words over his shoulder, barely able to make sense of Eärnur’s scrawl.
‘So, Alquallë, it is upon this witness, Eärnur’s report of the North and the words of a great Elf lord that we know Isildur’s line was ended.’ There was no mockery in Denethor’s voice, only some sadness and firm authority. He turned more pages, until he came upon a particular entry. ‘And this is where I draw another of my conclusions. Eärnur asked after the heirlooms of the kingdom, for they were great, and he received no answer until after the battle of Carn Dûm. Then did he question the Elves closely, though they would say little.’ Denethor read aloud,
“Though it shames me to say it, my king, I exchanged harsh words with the Lord Glorfindel, for he was haughty. I asked that the heirlooms of Elendil be presented to me, Sceptre and Ring, the Star and the Shards, and he spurned my claim upon them.
“ ‘They are not for the likes of a usurper,’ he dared to say, ‘and have been placed in the care of Lord Elrond, for his is the greater claim.’
I said that they belonged to the southern line, now that there were no heirs of the North, and he said that even a daughter had more claim upon them than I, and they would wait for a grandson, if need be. I did not wish to argue further with this lord, for even in his arrogance he is noble beyond measure, so I did not press my claim.”
Denethor allowed her to read that passage over several times before closing the book.
‘Tell me, Alquallë, what is to be known from that? How do you read it?’
‘It appears as you said earlier, Denethor,’ she answered. ‘Though I knew not that Arvedui had perished with his heirs, still I do remember reading that they had held Annúminas together, and the sons’ fates were not spoken. Cirdan and Glorfindel are names of legend – for what would they speak untruths? It sounds as though the Elves gave shelter to the Queen and her daughters. Perhaps a grandson already lived.’
‘If you wish to read the correspondence between the kingdoms, it is all here,’ Denethor gestured to the two books, ‘and there are some letters from Queen Fíriel, in which she speaks of the birth of at least one daughter. Somewhere it is noted that there were two daughters and two sons.’
‘I find this conversation quite interesting, but would either of you care to tell me why you are having it?’ Lady Lore asked with some amusement.
‘The Ring of Barahir has been found, Aiavalë, in the South.’
The Archivist waited for her brother to say more. Denethor sat, face bland. Aiavalë’s eyebrows slowly went up as he refrained from saying more, and Finduilas began to giggle.
‘And it is in the possession of our illustrious Captain. Alquallë saw it on a chain around his neck.’
‘You are certain of its authenticity?’
‘Yes.’ Finduilas felt proud that Denethor took her word with such certainty. Aiavalë and Denethor locked gazes for a moment.
‘How are we to be rid of him?’
‘Denethor! There is a true claim…’
‘There is nothing, as I explained to Alquallë.’ He sounded almost bored, as though lecturing a rather simple student. ‘It changes very little, though it confirms that he is of the Lost, and highly placed among them. Thorongil is, at best, a distaff descendent of the royal line, and possibly at several removes.’
‘You have explained to me why he cannot be a male-line heir, friend,’ Finduilas interrupted, ‘but I am still waiting for an answer as to why the daughters cannot be heirs in the absence of brothers.’
‘Because inheritance is not figured so in the South.’
‘Well, perhaps it should be!’
‘Don’t be foolish, Finduilas!’ Aiavalë snapped. ‘There are more important things at stake.’ The Archivist faced her brother again. ‘He seeks to fulfill the Oath.’
‘Perhaps? When did you lose all sense, Denethor? He comes now in times of turmoil, to profit from fear and will stand upon the Oath.’
‘What Oath?’ Finduilas was becoming confused once more.
‘The Oath of Arvedui.’ She crossed her arms and gave Denethor a meaningful glare. ‘In the other volume are all of the exchanges between the kingdoms after the loss of King Ondoher. Araphant and Arvedui claimed the throne for Arvedui as Isildur’s heir and husband to Fíriel, and refused to acknowledge the claim of the scions of Anárion. Arvedui specifically rejected Eärnur’s claim, saying…’ Denethor broke off and hurriedly leafed through the second volume. It did not take long for him to find the letter he wished.
“For now you sit upon the throne, cousin and usurper, and never shall your claim be acknowledged. We permit you to hold in trust what is not yours, just as Anárion was granted that stewardship. The King is in the North, and shall return in his own time. When we shall come south, or any heir of our body, it shall be to retake what is ours.”
‘The words are bluster, to cover what he could not do,’ Aiavalë argued.
‘No, they are an oath binding upon him and his line,’ Denethor answered thoughtfully, ‘and it was known that Arvedui would have warred as fiercely as Eldacar to take and hold Gondor. But he was weak, more so than he knew.’
‘And now Thorongil comes south to take up this claim?’ Finduilas asked.
‘Yes,’ Aiavalë sourly replied. Denethor did not answer, sitting in thought.
Finduilas was still not ready to give up the argument over a distaff inheritance. ‘Arvedui was not thinking very well. He should not have claimed the throne for himself, but should have sent his wife and children to Gondor, for Fíriel to be the first ruling Queen. Had he been less greedy, the kingdoms could have been rejoined in their children.’
‘That did not happen, so it is moot. And we are left with a captain who may hold an heirloom, but who is not truly an heir,’ was Denethor’s reply.
‘There are those who would consider the relation close enough, given the captain’s qualities.’ Finduilas knew from Aiavalë’s narrowing eyes that she was arguing a dangerous point. Denethor, oddly enough, appeared amused.
‘Well, let us say then that Thorongil’s ancestress of so long past may be considered sufficient to the need for blood,’ he said agreeably. ‘There are thereby that many more claimants in the South who could count their inheritance in a similar manner.’ Denethor paused, then said with more intensity, ‘such as the line of the Stewards. And this house is as close as anything the captain could argue.’
‘How is that?’
‘Pelendur, Ondoher’s steward, was also his brother-in-law, wed to the king’s sister.’ Denethor’s smile was thin, and touched nothing else on his face. ‘I asked before, Alquallë, where is the honor of Gondor if any warlord, no matter his threads of royal blood, may lay claim to her? The Stewards do not rule because they have royal blood, though mayhap that increases their claim. They rule because they have preserved this realm through the centuries, ensured there is something to rule.’
Denethor stood abruptly, collecting the books. He returned them to the secret storeroom, and sealed it up once more. Finduilas wished she could have one more glimpse of the two crowns, proof that once the two lines of Elendil were at peace with each other even as they warred against the Enemy. After he finished securing the chamber, Denethor leaned against the wall and looked at her again with his unnerving gaze.
‘So, prince, tell me what lesson is to be drawn from this knowledge. Is the realm rightly ordered?’ There was mockery in his tone, but Finduilas ignored that.
‘Arvedui’s claim rings false as the law of the eldest child was not followed in Arnor itself. Only Fíriel could have made a claim upon Gondor, or her son. Were Thorongil the male-line heir, then in the absence of other claimants, he could rightly claim the throne. But he is as the line of Húrin is, though perhaps with a greater degree of royal lineage.’ Denethor nodded in agreement. Finduilas gathered her thoughts, then continued, ‘So, if he is who we suspect, and not merely a thief of an heirloom, then Thorongil is properly the steward of the North kingdom.’
‘And what has he done, or failed to do, in that land?’ was Denethor’s soft reply.
‘Arguments about whether he has a right to rule do nothing to address what he is planning to rule,’ the Archivist dryly noted. ‘He has the affection of the Steward and the support of Beruthiel. The only thing to be decided is not what right he has to lay claim, but how he shall be disposed of.’
‘You begin to sound like our sister.’
‘Insult me if you will, Denethor, but I am right. You think too much.’
Finduilas did not like the direction of Aiavalë’s argument. ‘If he has a legitimate claim, Lady Lore, it must be heard, though it does not appear he has one.’
‘What need for legitimacy when there is power?’
‘Power alone cannot prevent poison in a cup or a knife in the ribs,’ Denethor replied, ‘there must be…’
‘…a fortress in the heart of a prince’s people,’ Finduilas interjected.
‘Yes, there is that,’ he calmly agreed, ‘but there is also need for proof that what is claimed will be safe in the claimant’s hands. A poor king may be worse than none at all.’
‘Best not to allow the claim to be made.’ The Archivist eyed them both angrily. ‘If you will pardon me, I have much to finish this day. Take your philosophy elsewhere. But leave my books here!’
Denethor bowed elegantly towards Aiavalë and escorted Finduilas out. He did not ask if she wished to return home, but merely retrieved their cloaks from their place in the Archive anteroom and draped hers over her shoulders. They walked in silence through thin fog to Vinyamar.
As Finduilas was bidding Denethor goodbye in the doorway, Luinil approached.
‘Denethor! How good to see you.’
‘Luinil, I return the sentiment.’ Finduilas found herself becoming resentful that Denethor looked so pleased to see her mother and was ignoring her.
‘Will you please come in and give your greetings to Morwen? Surely you would like something warm to drink before venturing off again in this weather.’ Denethor smiled politely and inclined his head.
‘I cannot refuse such an invitation.’
‘No you cannot.’ Luinil took Denethor’s arm and walked with him towards the parlor. ‘Finduilas, please go to the kitchen and see there is tea brought for five. Don’t dawdle!’
Finduilas stood in the hallway, cloak in hand, and thought she might start crying, though she could not say why. She began to put her cloak back on, intending to return to the archive, then pulled it off and threw it into a heap near the door before stomping to the kitchen. Her temper cooled quickly as she waited for the tray to be prepared. You are being childish and rude! Denethor looks upon you kindly and indulges you in your chatter. Why ever would he wish to talk to you if he had Mother or another ruler who wished his regard? You think far too much of yourself, goose! By the time the tea was ready, Finduilas was in control of her conceit, and could even chuckle at her own arrogance. Like a pompous soldier talking to a great Elf lord!
Théoden was also in the parlor, and Denethor was quietly listening to the young lord’s impression of Minas Tirith. The only seat left was a chair directly across from Denethor. Finduilas served the others tea before seating herself. As Denethor asked careful questions, it became clear that young Théoden was more interested in the garrison at the foot of the mountain and the plans for war next summer than he was with the City herself. A few times, Denethor glanced in Finduilas’s direction with a look of annoyance at the man’s obtuseness.
‘Prince Théoden, perhaps you would like to accompany me tomorrow to the garrison at Osgiliath,’ Denethor asked, cutting the other off in mid-sentence. ‘I fear I must leave now, for I am to sup with the Steward, but I can be by in the morning to collect you.’
‘But, you only just arrived from Pelargir!’ Finduilas protested. ‘You are away again so soon?’
‘Yes.’ Denethor set down his cup and prepared to leave.
‘Yes, Warden, I would very much like to see Osgiliath!’ Théoden said.
‘As would I,’ added Morwen.
That made Denethor pause. He considered, then shook his head. ‘No. I am sorry, it is too dangerous.’
‘I insist.’ Morwen did not raise her voice, but it was clear she would not accept any other outcome. ‘I have heard rumor of new defenses, and I wish to see them.’
‘I wish to see Osgiliath as well.’ Finduilas could not believe her mother’s words. Luinil smiled and rose to escort Denethor out. ‘When will you be by tomorrow, Denethor? We will be ready.’
‘Princess, I must protest. Osgiliath is no place…’
‘… for women. I understand, Warden. I have far greater faith in your protection than you do.’
‘I am not returning tomorrow. My duties will keep me there and in Ithilien for some time…’
‘I am not proposing to take up residence there, Denethor,’ Luinil teased, looping an arm through his, ‘only to ride there and back in the same day. My lord said he wished to know how things were with the garrison there, and I will be able to tell him.’
‘I can have a report drawn up and sent…’
‘I would prefer to tell my lord what I see with my own eyes,’ Luinil firmly replied.
‘In which I concur,’ Morwen cheerfully added, ‘so when shall we see you, Warden?’
‘Shortly after the first bell,’ he sourly replied, ‘it is a long ride.’ Luinil walked out with him, while Théoden tried to argue his mother out of her plan.
After supper, Finduilas pulled Luinil aside to speak with her. ‘Mother, are you determined to go to Osgiliath?’
‘Yes, lamb. I wish to see it. I want to know what is there so reports of it will make sense to me.’
‘I wish to go as well.’
‘Are you up to such a journey?’
‘Yes, I am. I, too, wish to see this place.’
It was not raining the next morning, but it was very foggy. Before she set out, Finduilas made sure to take a large dose of brandy and syrup. It made her a little light-headed, and it would make her thirsty, but better that than be coughing all day. Denethor barely greeted them when they met, but he did not try to argue the women out of the trip. To Finduilas’s surprise, Beregar accompanied him. On the walk down the mountain, Beregar walked beside her, while Denethor and Théoden paired with Luinil and Morwen.
‘Tell, me, Huan, why are you here?’ Finduilas softly asked.
‘My lord said I was needed to help guard you and the other ladies,’ he whispered back. ‘I am glad you are going.’
‘For now I get to go into the garrison!’ he replied with a quick grin.
She grinned back and patted Beregar’s arm. ‘Then stay close, my hound, and do as your master bids.’ He grinned again and nodded.
Their horses were waiting for them at the stable, as well as six Rohirrim, armored and mounted. Denethor consulted briefly with his lieutenants in the City garrison before calling to mount up and set out. The fog was even thicker upon the plain than in Minas Tirith. The horses’ hoofbeats were muffled in the damp air, and the world was painted grey. Denethor set a brisk pace, so she could not speak with Beregar as they rode. Every so often, they would come upon a wagon making its way along the road, and messengers galloped by several times. After an hour, the stone walls and tended fields came to an end, and there was only open pasture to either side, bare and browning from autumn frosts.
The road began to rise. Denethor signaled for the other riders to rein up while he rode forward to warn the sentries that they approached. The mist swallowed him. Faintly, some shouting could be heard, then he appeared again, calling for them to follow single file.
The road sloped up sharply upon earthworks. Dark masses took shape, becoming twin guard towers, and gates swung open with scarce sound to give them passage. The horses clopped across the stone of the yard. A small movement to her right startled Finduilas and her horse snorted and pranced in response to her jump. A dark-clothed man made some soothing sounds to the horse before taking its bridle and bringing it to a halt. Just a stablehand, girl. She thanked him quietly and dismounted.
Denethor waited for the others to collect themselves. He did not seem the slightest bit disconcerted by the gloom and silence. Tiny beads of fog clung to his hair and cloak, like the smallest and most delicate of gems, and she had thought he had never seemed so tall as he did in this courtyard, almost a full head taller than any of the other men. Then her vision was clouded for a moment by the mist, or by something, and the beads of fog upon his head looked to her like the diamonds that peeked through the branches of the ancient crowns, a net of stars caught in his dark hair. As quickly as she saw it, the illusion was gone. Even so, Denethor remained different than he had been in Minas Tirith.
‘Is all well, my lady?’ Beregar asked, though his eyes were not upon her at all. He was gawking at the barely-visible buildings surrounding the yards, at the soldiers working at one end, at the sentries in the towers. Finduilas gave him a poke in the arm to make him pay attention.
‘Yes, all is well,’ she cheerfully replied, ‘though I need some water if there is any to be found.’ The syrup had done its work – she had not coughed more than one or twice since leaving Vinyamar – but now she was thirsty.
‘The water barrel is over there, around the corner,’ Denethor said, pointing.
‘Thank you.’ Finduilas gave Beregar’s sleeve a tug so he would remember to follow while Denethor watched. The barrel was simple to find, and there were several dippers. There was also an armory across the way, which Beregar gazed at longingly.
‘Go on, Huan! Take a quick look while I drink,’ she urged. He was gone as soon as the words were out of her mouth. The water was not that pleasing. There was a metallic quality to it, and it was stale. Even so, it was water.
Footsteps sounded behind her, too heavy for Beregar.
‘My lady?’ The words were delivered with an odd accent. ‘What are you doing here, if I…’ Finduilas turned to face the speaker.
A tall, lean man with grizzled hair and a neatly trimmed beard stepped away from her hastily and held up a warding hand.
‘What do you do here?’ he demanded. ‘How did you get in here?’
‘Please, sir, calm yourself, I mean no harm!’ she begged, fearful of the alarm and anger in this stranger’s face. He is of the Lost. Aside from Thorongil, she had only seen these men from a distance. They looked like Dúnedain, but were much more dour and drab than any man of Gondor, and carried themselves warily. She had never heard of one offering harm, and hoped he would recover from his startlement.
‘Why have you come down here?’
‘I come as the guest of the Warden, Lord Denethor.’
The man came closer, staring intently at her face. He let out his breath and dropped his hand. ‘Forgive me, miss. I was confused by the fog.’
Finduilas smiled, trying to set him at ease. ‘I cannot suppose a woman is a common sight in this place. I am sorry to have startled you.’ Something in his words made her curious. ‘Pray tell, sir, with whom or what did you confuse me? ’
‘An Elf.’ He peered at her closely. ‘Nay, you are not...’
‘No, I am not, though there is legend that I have an Elf as an ancestress. I am Finduilas of Dol Amroth.’ Where have you been that you would know an Elf? The man kept staring at her. ‘And you are…?’
‘Halmir.’ The Lost ended his examination of her. ‘The Captain is here?’
‘Thorongil? No, he…’
‘Not him, the Captain. Lord Denethor.’ The man’s words were harsh.
‘Yes, the Warden is here. Nor am I the only guest. There is…’
‘You’d best get back before you trip on something. Follow me.’ The man brushed past her and headed towards the court, then paused and gestured for her to follow. ‘Now.’
Finduilas gave him the look her mother used on impertinent merchants, then turned away from him and walked towards the armory, calling Beregar. He emerged at once, and she took his arm. His smile disappeared when he saw the grim man.
‘It is time to rejoin the others,’ she told Beregar.
‘Yes, my lady.’
Halmir turned and walked away. She motioned that they should follow. The Lost swiftly guided them back to the rest, walking right up to Denethor.
‘All is ready for you.’
‘We will speak tonight.’
‘Yes, sir.’ With a curt nod, Halmir, departed. Beregar stared after him, a wondering expression on his own face. Denethor turned back to his conversation with Luinil and Morwen.
‘That is Halmir!’
‘And he is?’
Beregar looked at her in amazement. ‘My lord’s second here in Osgiliath, and a great leader! You have not heard of him?’
‘Perhaps, though I do not remember.’
‘He is near as great a captain as Thorongil or Lord Denethor,’ he eagerly told her, keeping his voice low, ‘and is accounted responsible for holding off the Morgul forces in their summer assault.’ Beregar peered after the fog-shrouded soldier.
At the mention of Morgul, Finduilas felt a shiver run down her spine. The fog closed in, and she tugged on Beregar’s arm. ‘We mustn’t get left behind.’ They hurried after the others.
The rest of the morning was spent inspecting each building of the garrison. The fog began to lift, though the air was no warmer. Finduilas felt tired from the ride and fuddled from the syrup, paying little attention to what was said. Beregar was soon gone from her arm, too interested in the sights to pay her much mind. He did not wander far, however, mindful of Denethor’s orders.
Finduilas herself simply watched Denethor. The words he spoke made little sense, but she did not care what was said. The man himself was more interesting. The suspicion and mockery of the City did not travel with him to Osgiliath. He was no less abrupt, but here the words seemed crisp, defined, not rude, in keeping with the spare needs of the garrison. She had never watched him move before, not this way, and she wondered at the blend of grace and strength.
Finally, they were to go up upon the outer garrison wall and look upon the ruined city itself. There were catapults or something to be shown off. Denethor would not permit them outside the gate into the ruins. Before they ascended the stone stair to the top of the wall, they each had to put on a helm. The weight upon her head was great, the opposite of the impossibly light crown she had held – was it only the day before? She could not see to the sides once it was on, and it was large enough that it kept dipping down over her eyes. I must look an utter fool in this. Beregar looked all too much a warrior for her taste.
The top of the wall was broad, the stone worn in the center from centuries of feet. At some point they stopped and she walked up to the wall, peering over it. She could not see to the far bank of the river through the tatters of fog drifting in the ruins. Finduilas looked up, trying to see above the fog, while a dread took hold of her heart. She gripped the stone of the wall and stared into the mists.
Her vision clouded, then cleared, and she saw Osgiliath. Not as a ruin, but as it was in its glory, with spires and streets and the masts of ships to the south. There were no people. Stars were set into the stone and all glistened through the fog. Anduin rushed below the stone, murmuring a deep song she could not understand. Slowly, the city crumbled away under the weight of the malice on the eastern shore. Streets were cast down into the river. Towers cracked and dropped noiselessly. Anduin snarled, reaching up to pull walls down into her depths, filling the ways of the city with water.
Finduilas felt her hands grip the stone wall, felt herself encased in armor of stone as she had once dreamed, the weight of the helm crushing her. A voice sounded near her ear, out of sight, and she could not turn her head to see who spoke. The city was plunging into the river, becoming ships of stone, fleeing from the evil that tried to walk upon the streets and find a way to the fortress walls, a creeping threat seeking for her. She melted into the stone.
‘Finduilas? Finduilas!’ Strong, warm hands held her, helped her sit up against the cold rock wall. When she tried to open her eyes, she saw the King with stars in his hair. His hands, like fire, touched her face, then pulled the stone crown from her head. Dwarves must have made this. They are born of stone. A crown of stone for an Elf queen.
‘Finduilas? Daughter? Denethor, what is wrong?’
‘I do not know. I heard her gasp and thought she would faint. Beregar!’ The last was shouted. ‘Get Galdor up here!’
Finduilas shut her eyes and tried to think. Her visions melted one into the other, leaving her feeling limp. You are dreaming. The syrup is giving you bad dreams. She began to float on the floods. Footsteps, babble, cold fingers on her wrist, at her throat, forcing one of her eyes open. She twisted away and grabbed for warmth. The King’s hand took hers, and she held on to its fire for dear life. The fire wrapped her while the floods tore away all else. Something sour was forced into her mouth, making her cough.
‘Finduilas, lamb, can you open your eyes?’ She did as she was told. Luinil knelt in front of her. A strange man was next to her mother, holding a vial with something in it. There were arms around her and she was sitting on someone, not on stone. A glance down at the arms told her it was Denethor. She could tell others were hovering.
‘You swooned, girl.’ Denethor did not sound pleased.
The strange man turned to her mother. ‘It is not an uncommon reaction to being so close to,’ he jerked a thumb eastwards, ‘particularly when fumes are coming out of Imlad Morgul.’ The man – the healer – turned back to her with a smile. ‘Can you stand, miss? We need to get you off the wall.’
‘Yes, I think so.’ Finduilas felt extremely foolish under all these gazes. With Denethor and Luinil’s help, she struggled to her feet, but immediately had to clutch her mother to keep from swooning again.
‘Here, hold on to me while we go down the stairs.’ Denethor kept a solid arm around her waist and half carried her to the courtyard. As soon as she was below the level of the wall, she felt much stronger. Many were gawking at her and she wanted to yell at them to go away.
‘None of that!’ Halmir’s sharp voice rang out across the stone. ‘Get back to work.’ The audience melted away. Finduilas looked for the Lost. He stood on the far side of the yard. When she met his eyes, he made a motion with his hand as though to turn aside her gaze, then swiftly vanished through the doorway behind him.
‘I am fine, now. Let me stand.’
Denethor let her go, turning to her mother and the queen. ‘Luinil, Morwen, I think Finduilas had best return to Minas Tirith at once.’
‘Of course. She is still too weak from her illness to have made this journey. I apologize for my poor judgment in allowing her to come,’ Luinil answered, pulling Finduilas into her arms.
Orders were given to ready a wagon for the return trip, for Morwen said Finduilas should not be riding a horse. While that was done, the guests ate dinner in the garrison mess, Finduilas growing increasingly embarrassed at having caused such a fuss. Denethor walked with them down the causeway from the garrison to the main road to bid them goodbye. He eyed her sternly as she sat on the wagon seat.
‘Do not be foolish, girl. Go home and rest. Stay away from the archives, for Aiavalë will not be pleasant company.’
‘When will you return?’
‘Sometime. I do not know when.’ He stepped away, motioning for the wagon driver to go. The trip back was slow and it was near dark before they were safely inside the walls. Beregar insisted they stop at The Messenger’s Rest for supper rather than climb up the mountain while hungry.
Finduilas slept poorly that night and for several nights following, for she was kept well dosed with the syrup. Finally, deciding she would prefer to cough than suffer through more exhausting nights, she refused the medicine. She did not have visions of Osgiliath anymore, but returned to the nightmares of Minas Tirith washing away down the mountain. In her dreams, however, the king’s hands upon her were cold, like the icy water that bore away the stone ships. The harvest moon hanging above Ephel Duath leered down upon the ruins, face twisted into a skull.
Luinil kept her confined for two days, then allowed her to go where she willed. Finduilas thought Denethor’s advice to avoid Aiavalë to be sound, but was not certain where else she could go. She definitely was not going to go about with Ivriniel, no matter how much her elder sister kept trying to put their fight behind them. With the year drawing to a close, the provisioning of Dol Amroth was almost at an end, so there was little business to attend to. Luinil and Morwen had taken to closeting themselves in the parlor in the afternoons, speaking of things they did not wish overheard.
So it was that Finduilas found herself going to the Citadel most afternoons. Beregar would wait for her to pass the archives on her way to the seventh circle, then would fall into silent step behind her. They would go to the Stewards House where she would spend her time sitting in Denethor’s study, reading books from his library or just sitting, Telperien on her lap, looking at nothing. Denethor said I could use anything in the library, she argued with herself. I doubt he meant you should treat it as your own house, her conscience scolded in return. Beregar would sit downstairs with Sador, waiting to escort her home.
When she could no longer distract herself with books or the cat, Finduilas walked upon the walls, gazing down at the City or out towards the eastern darkness. All the time she wrestled with the meaning of her dreams. A little over a week after they returned from Osgiliath, she had the half-waking dream she wished for, of Denethor in the secret place.
For once, he was not standing. He sat upon a large stone, watching the water lose its fire and turn to ice. In his hands was a book with all the letters of all the kings, and more ragged volumes sat near his feet. His hair was neatly braided, dry, and there was no sign of blood. She waddled up to him in her swan-form, arching her neck over his shoulder so she could see the letters. He turned the pages, and she read of all the past there ever was, while the waterfall turned into adamant and moonstones and pearls. The pages crumbled away, just like the towers of Osgiliath, as they were read. Denethor did not try to leave, for once, and stroked her feathers with his free hand, until she fell deeply into a dreamless sleep.
In the first week of November, as she walked to the Citadel, Beregar told her that Denethor had returned the previous night, very late.
‘I shall not disturb his rest, Huan, and shall walk upon the walls today,’ she told Beregar.
‘Do not stay out too long, my lady,’ he warned her sternly, ‘for the wind is strong.’
Finduilas laughed. ‘But I am a swan, and I like the wind!’ She bade him wait at the house in case his lord needed him, and climbed the steep stair to the wall. At the furthest reach of the wall, where it surmounted the edge of the stone pier, there was a seat carved into it where one could sit and look east. She wrapped herself well in her cloak and sat, gazing out at past and future.
She heard him approach and knew he made more noise than he had to so she would not be startled. Finduilas stretched a hand back towards Denethor without leaving off her study of the plain. He took it between his own and chafed it a little.
‘You are going to freeze, Alquallë, sitting in the cold like this.’
‘The wall blocks the wind.’ Denethor sat next to her and took her other hand as well, warming them.
‘Why are you out in the cold?’
‘Probably the same reason you are. It is a clear day and I may see far,’ she replied, though she did not quite look him full in face. She felt very shy near Denethor for some reason. And well you should, girl, considering what a fool you have made of yourself before him! And the poor news you have handed this man, and your arguments and insults to his rule. The wonder is that he gives you any mind. ‘I am glad you are returned safely, friend, and shall not ask how long you will remain.’
‘I am back for some time, Alquallë. That was the last long journey before winter. Barring something unforeseen, I will not be away more than a few days every so often to Osgiliath.’
‘Lady Lore will be very pleased with that news.’
‘Yes, I suppose she will,’ he replied absently. To her disappointment, he dropped her hands. ‘Have you seen enough of Osgiliath, prince?’
‘More than I wish, but less than I probably should.’ Denethor looked at her keenly, curiosity making his face come alive. He motioned for her to go on. ‘It was like my first glimpse of Minas Tirith, something that I felt I already knew.’
‘So did I think when first I walked in it.’ Denethor’s words were soft, distant, and he looked away towards the ruins upon the river. The winds caught his hair, blowing strands of it about.
‘Beregar seems to think that I know not enough,’ she teased, not liking the mood coming over him. ‘He was quite astounded that I did not know who the great Halmir was.’
‘He is one of the Lost. There is not much else to be known.’
‘Well, that and he is easily confused by strange women.’
‘I begin to think it a general failing of the Lost.’
‘When he first saw me, near the water barrel, he was rather rude, demanding to know who I was. Then he confessed he thought I was an Elf!’
Denethor chuckled. ‘And why should he not?’
‘An Elf? Elves are beautiful, magical creatures, fair beyond measure!’ she laughed in return.
‘Well?’ One of his rare smiles appeared, and it made her smile and blush. ‘A simple mistake, one any could fall into.’
‘Oh, now you jest! Stop teasing me!’
‘I do not jest,’ he primly informed her. His smile faded, but pleasure remained, keeping his face soft. ‘I merely exercise a brother’s prerogative of giving a compliment.’
‘And do you exercise the other brotherly habits of teasing, tweaking pigtails, and dropping frogs down the back of a shirt?’
‘Of course not!’ he replied with mock indignation. ‘Aiavalë would never permit such things.’
‘Beruthiel? What did you drop down her shirt?’ Denethor looked up over his eyebrows at her, then snorted at the absurdity of the thought. ‘Well?’
With a mischievous grin, he replied, ‘Spiders. As big as I could find. She’s terrified of them!’ They both broke out laughing, then he stood and gestured for her to rise. ‘You may be warm near the wall, but I am not. Will you walk?’ She put an arm through his and the strolled north.
‘You ask when I will leave,’ Denethor began, ‘and I must ask you the same. Does the Prince intend for his family to winter here?’
‘No. He will arrive for the year-end and for the Great Council, and then we all return.’ She sighed. ‘Though I have been here near two years, I know no more of my dreams than when I came.’
Denethor dropped her arm and clasped his hands behind his back. ‘What did you see in Osgiliath, Alquallë? It was no simple fainting spell. I saw your face. You looked upon something.’
‘I look upon many things, friend, and what I see is terrible.’
‘So you have said.’ He stopped and looked down at her, all of the humor from before vanished. ‘I want to know. I need to know what it is you see, prince.’
‘And I need to know what you are hiding from me!’ Her anger blazed up so suddenly, Finduilas startled herself. ‘You, and the Lost, and that wretched wizard, and, and, all of you!’ She glared up at Denethor. ‘Do you know what it is like to dream of the downfall of where I walk? To know how these solid walls may crumble like sand? To feel the darkness from there crawling closer? To see you, hurt…’ Her throat closed on those words. She could not make herself speak more and began walking back along the wall. Denethor strode after her. When she came back to the promontory, Finduilas stopped.
‘Alquallë, you know that I… I took only a small hurt,’ he began soothingly, ‘so lay your mind at rest…’
‘I saw you another time! In late July, I saw you in that place. Your head was bloodied and you were throwing away the book I had given you. I saw this before you were kicked by the horse!’
Denethor’s face became pale and he shook his head slightly. ‘How did you know that is what happened?’ He turned away and began to walk off, then wheeled back. ‘How do you know… about the horse?’
You were going to say something else. But the only other thing she had spoken of was the book, and that she knew he still had, for she could see its outline on his chest. ‘Beregar heard from one of the Anórien soldiers, and he told me, for he was concerned. I told him not to speak of it to anyone else.’
‘He is to spy for me, not on me,’ Denethor irritably replied.
‘He is a good servant who is worried that his pig-headed master may do himself injury!’ she retorted. Her anger cooled and fear followed. ‘Please, friend, help me! I think I shall go mad if I do not understand them. I know they mean more to you, to others wiser than myself, than they mean to me.’ Finduilas thought she would start weeping. I do not want this! Pulling her cloak more closely, she stared east. A few tears came and she forbade others to fall, forbade herself to scrub at her cheeks. Denethor stood very close at her side, placing an arm about her. She leaned into his warmth. A gentle kiss on her temple, then his head against hers, their hair tangling in the wind.
‘Come out of the cold, Alquallë. Let us be somewhere warm to speak of fearsome things.’ She allowed him to lead her back to the Stewards House. Beregar was sent to fetch tea while Denethor built up the fire in the study. They did not speak at once, but drank their tea while the cat made herself comfortable in Denethor’s lap. Finally, Finduilas sighed and looked Denethor in the eye.
‘Pray, friend, be the best of brothers and speak honestly to me of what you think my dreams are showing.’
‘I think you see the return of many things, the end of most, and of the doom of us all, Finduilas. You see the work of the powers of the world, and how they are once more making playthings of us.’ Denethor spoke evenly. ‘What came upon you in Osgiliath?’
‘I saw the city. I saw Osgiliath as it was, fair and proud, when the sun and the moon sat in accord beneath her starry dome, when there were kings, not legends, to rule us. And then I watched evil crawl over her streets and turn them to dust, casting them down into the river. When I swooned, I felt the darkness reaching after me, as it does in my other dreams. Save this was not a dream.’
‘No, the malice is real. It creeps out from the Morgul Vale and seizes all whom it can.’
‘You said we are playthings. That would be too cruel. Why do you say such?’
‘I had a visit from your friend, the wizard.’
‘The same. He had spoken with Thorongil and had learned of… my accident… and came to see whether I was still sound.’
‘How thoughtful of him.’
‘Not really. I questioned him closely, as I had not done before, and learned things. He had a role, though he would not explain, in the return of the Enemy. He said that he would make of me a pupil, biddable by him as he has made the Lord Steward. I have been thinking of your own discovery concerning the captain, and I begin to suspect that Mithrandir is very much responsible for the sudden appearance of Thorongil. A few years after the Enemy returns, so does…’ Denethor paused, then smiled coldly, ‘…one who wishes to be King. Oft seen keeping company with this wizard.’
‘Queen Morwen has spoken of another wizard who is causing trouble.’
‘Curunír. He holds Isengard on Rohan’s flank. I had opportunity to speak with the queen on this matter. It is… troubling.’
‘But what have wizards to do with my dreams? Perhaps they can puzzle them out, but Mithrandir would not tell me what he found.’
‘They are creatures of a kind with the Enemy. They act upon mortals as Men command animals, perhaps not with any intention of harm, but with regard to naught but their own aims.’
‘But they are not like the Enemy. They do not seek our destruction.’
‘Enslavement comes in many guises.’ Denethor paused and sipped his tea, absently scratching the cat’s ears as he thought. ‘Do you ever see these wizards in your dreams?’
‘No. I scarcely see anyone at all. Armies from a distance. I hear a voice next to me sometimes, but you are the only person I have ever seen clearly.’ And my dreams of you are not dreams. They are different. They are of you, not of doom. ‘None of this gives me much solace, friend.’
‘There is not much solace to be had.’ All kindness was gone from him, all teasing and mischief; even his sharp wit had been tucked away. The High Warden looked at her with calculation. ‘I still cannot tell you, prince, what your dreams portend.’
‘Then simply tell me what you can of them. What is it that you will not say? Or am I but an animal to use for your own aims?’
‘No, not that. Never that.’ Finduilas was pleased that she had shamed him. ‘I can say no more than I have said before, except that I am more certain than ever – you will have a choice of some kind, not one that would be expected, and this choice will be far greater than yourself. You are given true visions so you will know to trust the less certain ones.’
‘I do not much care for true visions that show you have been harmed, friend. They are the worst, for I feel that I am dreaming them to be so!’
‘Do not think that. Though it would be better if your true visions were of something less upsetting and more useful. Such as what that dratted wizard is up to now. No spy seems able to follow him.’
‘Would you not prefer such things, prince?’
‘I would prefer no dreams whatsoever.’
‘So would I.’ Denethor met her eyes and she had to look away from the concern she found in them. Finduilas set down her cup and rose.
‘I must go. Mother will worry that I am tiring myself.’
‘A proper worry. Let your big brother echo your mother.’ He deposited a complaining cat on the floor. ‘Before you go, do you wish any other books?’
Finduilas shook her head. ‘No, but thank you.’ They walked down to the entry way where Beregar waited to take her back to Vinyamar. The afternoon was almost gone, and the air was very cold and dry. She retired as soon as supper was done.
He is still lying. Why will he not say what he believes? He speaks of a choice. Why does he not just say it? Finduilas turned and coughed, turned and coughed, unable to sleep. Is there any choice I can make that will not do him harm? All I see of him is harm and loss. She made herself lie still, hoping sleep would come. Her thoughts began to run more slowly, releasing their hold upon her, and heaviness crept over her limbs. The Sea moved beneath her, rocking her in its gentle rhythm. The stone armor weighed her down, pressing her into the bed, the Sea King’s arms wrapped her. Warmth spread deliciously through her while he nuzzled her hair and his hands caressed her into deeper dreams.
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