Fairer Than Ivory, Silver, or Pearls
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Courting the Lady: 3. On the Streets of Minas Tirith
A quick search through the clothes-press in Nimíril’s room yielded a soft and warm gown of wine-colored velvet, perfect for a winter walk. Luckily Finduilas was very nearly the same size as her mother, and no last-minute alterations were needed to make the dress fit well enough to wear. The servants who looked after the town house had aired all the garments before the family arrived, not knowing that Nimíril would not be visiting the city this year, so the gown was clean and pressed, smelling faintly of lavender. She added her own favorite collar of white lace to soften its stern lines, and was satisfied with the effect.
As long as I don’t spill anything on myself at lunch! she thought, and decided to wait to change until after the meal.
Her father Adrahil was away this day, up in the Citadel consulting with the Steward, so she and Imrahil dined together.
“Tell me, sister, where is the lordly Denethor taking you today? Not going riding again, are you?” Imrahil asked.
“He suggested showing me around the city, if the weather was fine. And since it is, I expect that is what we will do,” Finduilas answered.
“I suppose you will walk through all the dull neighborhoods, and see the Gate, and so on. You’ve seen all that before; sounds like a tedious afternoon. And he’s old, too. Why did you accept the invitation, Finduilas?”
She had wondered that herself. It was certainly flattering to be asked by the heir to the Steward of Gondor if he might spend time with her, but Denethor was not the sort of man she had ever imagined wanting to keep company with; nor could she think that he would consider her seriously as a possible bride, given the difference in their ages. Adrahil had often commented favorably on his knowledge of lore beyond the usual for a captain or even one of the Stewards, though, and like other members of the house of Dol Amroth she had always placed a high value on learning. Not that Denethor had spoken aught out of the common way on mettarë night. Still, with her father’s commendation, Finduilas was willing to give up an afternoon to him. While in Thorongil’s company the day before she had seen much of Minas Tirith in passing, but Denethor would know the city far better; a few hours spent with him ought at least to prove more interesting than waiting at home to receive any chance visitor.
To Imrahil she simply said, “I do not wish to judge anyone without first knowing him. You are right, though, that what Denethor is likely to plan to show me in the city are all the places I already am familiar with. So – I will ask him to show me something else, and see what that may be.”
Imrahil shrugged. “It is your choice, of course. But I am going to go riding with some friends today, and I doubt not but that my afternoon will be far more pleasant than yours!”
“Perhaps so,” said Finduilas peaceably, and bent to finish her meal.
She was changed and ready well before Denethor arrived, later than he had said he would. His first words were an apology for his tardiness – the Council meeting had lasted longer than he had anticipated, or he would have found a reason to escape it altogether – and both speech and expression were so obviously sincere that Finduilas was touched despite her irritation with the delay. She smiled at him.
“You proposed to show me Minas Tirith, my lord,” she said. “I have spent little time in the city, of course, but I have seen many of its common attractions. I should like to see places other than those.”
Denethor looked slightly bemused by her request. “Are you sure, my lady? There are some parts of the city that are not entirely suitable for a woman of noble birth such as yourself.”
“But I am no sheltered vine, to be protected from every bitter wind. With you as my escort, I am certain I will be safe enough, and I have no fear of seeing disagreeable things,” she told him, putting from her mind her discomfort with some of what Thorongil had told her about Ithilien the previous day.
Although his expression indicated that he still doubted the propriety of Finduilas’s suggestion, Denethor agreed to it. They set out on foot, walking down towards the lowest and largest level of the city. As they passed along the cobbled streets, Denethor explained that in the first and second circles dwelt many of the laborers and minor craftsmen whose toil helped to keep all of Minas Tirith functioning smoothly. At first the Steward’s Heir outdistanced her frequently, his height and long stride causing him to set a swifter pace than she could decorously match. The third time that he had to check himself to allow her to catch up, he gave Finduilas an apologetic look and offered her his arm. It was tense when she took it, and she wondered if perhaps he was unused to walking with a companion to whom he might owe such a courtesy. They continued at a more moderate pace.
Finduilas was accustomed to governing any social situation in which she found herself, or at least being at ease in it, but in Denethor’s company she found herself unexpectedly bashful. He suggested this meeting, she scolded herself. You have no cause to be uncomfortable in his presence. Moreover he looks almost like Thorongil, with whom you had no trouble conversing yesterday. Treat him as you did Thorongil, silly girl – smile, and speak. Nevertheless she seemed unable to meet the intense gaze from his grey eyes.
“I am not used to so great a city, and all built in stone. Dol Amroth is more open to the green lands about,” she finally said, as they passed through the gate to the third level. “What is your favorite part of Minas Tirith, my lord?”
“Why, when I have only myself for company, I most like the parapets of the Citadel, from which one can see the whole city below. When I am in better company than mine own, I prefer whichever place in that city where my companions stand.” A slight smile came over his face, and he looked down. “I would favor this spot at the moment, my lady.”
She flushed. “You flatter me, my lord.” But she did not really believe that his words were simple courtliness; he was not a man to speak unmeaning, and that set her to wondering again what his intentions could be.
As they passed into the bustle of the lowest level of the city, Denethor laid his free hand over hers where she held his arm and drew her closer so that they would not become separated by the crowd. Finduilas noted that he seemed less stiff than before, which pleased her, and she began also to feel more relaxed in his company. If I am awkward with the Steward’s Heir, and I of a rank nearly his equal, perhaps he too feels similarly, that his position calls for a formality that he might not wish always to hold? She saw, though, that if he seemed not to mind their increased proximity, he continued to hold himself apart from other passers-by, as if there were some invisible shield that kept him in isolation. Perhaps it was the fineness of his dress that so marked him out, or his lordly bearing, but Denethor seemed accustomed to, even pleased with, this separation from others.
He guided her slowly through the narrow streets of the artisans’ quarter, commenting as they passed some of the establishments with which he was especially familiar.
“Beleg, here, is the best armorer in the city,” Denethor said, nodding to the laboring smith, who was stripped to the waist and sweating in the heat from his forge despite the coolness of the day. “I have often tried to convince him to work for the army, but he says that he prefers the freedom of his own workshop.”
“Would not you, in his position?” asked Finduilas, pausing to look at a display of silver filigree in the next window. The woman inside – no doubt the wife of the craftsman – motioned to Finduilas to step into the shop, but she shook her head and walked on with Denethor. “I think I would choose to work for myself, and be able to say yea or nay as I pleased, rather than toil for another even for the highest of wages.”
“Oh, I can see his reasons, right enough,” admitted Denethor, “but we are chronically short of good smiths in the army, and armorers most among them. Though I cannot order Beleg to do as I should like, and as would benefit many, I may regret his decision, may I not? Now, here we are come to Potters’ Row. I warn you that it can be even warmer here than among the smiths’ forges, if they are firing the great kilns. But since the past two days have been festival, I think they will not be built up to a great heat again yet.”
It was warm, but not uncomfortably so, and Finduilas enjoyed watching the skilled hands of the potters as they drew the clay on their wheels up into graceful shapes. The finished wares were decorated in patterns quite different from those popular in southern Gondor, and she thought that she would like, someday, to buy some of these.
“There are good clay deposits near the river,” Denethor remarked. “I am told that the local earthenware is unusually sturdy.”
Finduilas glanced at him. So practical, all the time it would seem. I wonder, does he ever think about anything, or do anything, simply for the enjoyment of it? She decided it would do no harm to ask. “But is it not more pleasant to look upon beautiful cups or bowls? Of course the more durable they are, the better for everyday use, but would you not be willing to take especial care of a more fragile piece if its lines pleased you greatly?” she inquired.
Denethor mulled over her question for a moment. “Yes, I would, I imagine. But I have rarely seen any artifact which would command my heart in that way.”
Finduilas shrugged to herself, thinking, At least he admits to the possibility. Perhaps he is not quite as stern and reserved as he would wish to appear.
They moved on. One lane Denethor would not take, and when she queried him, he demurred that no well-bred woman would wish to know what occurred in the establishments on Nightingale Street. She realized that the women she saw lounging about the street must be those who had been forced to sell their own bodies to earn their keep. A sad state of affairs, but she was as glad not to travel that road. She wondered for an instant if Denethor himself had ever been there as a patron, and flushed at the impertinence of the thought.
It surprised her to learn that the scriveners occupied an entire block. Most of them took any commission that fell their way, but some specialized in a particular type of writing. Denethor led her into one of the shops, saying that since they were here, he hoped she would not mind if he spoke for a moment with the owner.
“Not at all,” Finduilas said, and began to look at one of the several volumes that were on display. The lettering, she noted, was fine and even, and the illuminations carefully done. Clearly this scribe had great skill. She turned the leaves carefully and was delighted to see that one of the poems included was the lay of Nimrodel.
“Thank you for your patience,” said Denethor, returning. “I have commissioned a history of Gondor to be written, you see, and was inquiring to see if Golasgil had yet completed the work so that Angrim could begin copying it. I am hoping to ensure that each of the great lords has his own copy, once all is complete. But it seems that the scholar is still at work, and as yet uncertain when he will be finished.”
“That sounds a wise idea, my lord,” said Finduilas. “My father certainly has some volumes that treat of the history of our own lands, but none, I think, that includes the complete history of the whole kingdom. He would be most grateful for such a gift, I know.” She laid the book she had been examining aside with some reluctance. “Just a moment, if you will. I wish to inquire the price of this.” The sum that Angrim named was more than Finduilas could manage on this visit to Minas Tirith, but she determined to save and see if she could purchase it next year.
“Was there something particular in that book that you liked?” asked Denethor as they left the shop. “Angrim is usually willing to accept commissions for smaller volumes, with fewer poems or tales included. There is no need to buy what you have no use for.”
“Nearly everything in the volume I would like, but in particular one poem, which is my favorite.” Finduilas laughed. “It is quite a coincidence, really. I recited it to Captain Thorongil yesterday; how odd that I should see it again today.”
“Indeed,” said Denethor in a remote tone. “A strange chance to be sure.” She saw that his expression had become closed, but he drew her arm once again within his own, and looking intently at her, added, “Would you like to rest for a little, my lady Finduilas? There is a tavern not far, the Black Swan, that is respectable enough for you to sit and be refreshed there.”
“That sounds a fine idea,” Finduilas agreed.
The crowds had become thicker now, folk carrying out their errands while the sun was still well up. As Denethor led the way towards the tavern even the space that he seemed able to maintain around him was diminished, and Finduilas was jostled so that she nearly fell into him.
“I beg your pardon, my lord,” she said.
“No matt. . .” he began to reply, then said sharply, “Did you not have on a collar?”
She reached up to her neck to find that the piece of lace had disappeared. She gazed at him, too shocked to speak. Someone put his hands on me, and I did not even notice.
“Stolen. I am sorry, my lady. I should not have brought you here.”
“No, I asked you to,” she managed to say.
“You have gone white. Here, here is the Black Swan; please sit down and let me get you something to drink.” He waved a serving-girl over and ordered two cups of hot wine. When it was brought, steaming in its green-glazed cups, Denethor folded Finduilas’s fingers around one and urged her to sip.
If she could have imagined apprehension on the face of the next Steward of Gondor, she would have thought she saw it then, but he only laid a gentle hand upon her other arm. “I fear there will be no way to find the thief,” he said in quiet tones, so quiet she shivered. “Not in such a crowd.”
“Naturally not,” she said, the color returning to her face as she drank a little. “I am so sorry, my lord, I do not know what came over me. I should not have been so surprised that this could happen.”
“As you said, you are not used to a large city, that is all. Though Dol Amroth is the largest in Belfalas, since it is your home it is not the same.” He gave a crooked smile and continued, “But this is why I was astonished that you would wish to see these parts of town, you know. I did not doubt your fearlessness, only your caution.”
Finduilas blushed and looked down, tracing her finger through a puddle on the table. “I know, my lord, my mother has often chided me for my lack of prudence. Though this event was rather less damaging to either mind or body than the time when I was trapped on a cliff for several hours while hunting birds’ eggs because my brother had dared me to! There was a sudden rain squall, and I could not see to climb either up or down. Both Imrahil and I were in trouble after that escapade.” She shook her head at the memory.
“Still, since you were in my company when it happened, I wish to make such amends as I can. May I buy you a replacement? The lacemakers’ stalls are in the second level of the city, and we shall have to pass them by on our return,” Denethor said.
To that Finduilas agreed. She spent some little time looking over what was available before choosing several collars that she found particularly attractive to try on. “You will have to help me, my lord,” she told Denethor. “All three of these I like, so you choose which you think suits me the best.”
He watched carefully as she held up first one, and then the others. The first had a floral motif, another was patterned with crescent moons and stars, and the third incorporated a complex geometric pattern. How he looks at the lace, as if a wrong decision would cause the walls of the city to come to ruin.
“If I must choose, lady, then I would choose the second,” he said. “But to tell you true, I like the simplicity of your gown without any addition. Your beauty outshines them all, and a plain setting enhances the gem more than an ornate one.”
A second compliment, one that sounds less rehearsed than the first he gave, she thought. And this is the dour Steward’s Heir, against whom Imrahil warned me? She laughed lightly in response, and said, “Well, I will take the one with the stars, then, my lord. But to please you I will not wear it now.”
Denethor’s response to her very mild flirtation was as practical and straightforward as she might have expected, for he said, “Please, do not call me ‘my lord’ any longer. I would have you speak my name.”
“As you wish, my lord Denethor,” Finduilas said playfully. She was not yet quite comfortable with the idea of calling him by simply his name with no title, nor was she ready to respond by asking him to reciprocate and use her name alone. He is too old to think of me as a woman to court, but I am too old to pretend to be a child with him. Taking the wrapped package that the woman handed to her, she said, “Shall we return, then?”
He nodded, reverting to his usual grave expression, and set a slower pace back through the gathering shadows. Once again he took her arm, a gesture that reassured her in the dusk after her misadventure and began to seem quite pleasant. Finduilas felt half-sorry that the evening had come on so soon, though the chill of the air made her glad to be returning to the light and warmth of her home. Upon reaching the house, Denethor inquired if the Prince were yet returned. It appeared he had not.
Denethor said to Finduilas, “I am sorry not to be able to speak to your father. Perhaps I will see him in the Citadel, but could you give him a message for me as well? Tell him that I would like to speak with him tomorrow, if that is convenient, or certainly before your family returns to the south.”
“I will do so,” promised Finduilas. She curtsied deeply. “Thank you, my lord Denethor, for a most enjoyable afternoon. That – mishap – was none of your fault, so please, do not hold yourself responsible. And your assistance in choosing a replacement collar was invaluable.”
“You are most welcome, my lady. I look forward to our next meeting,” and he bowed and departed.
Finduilas walked up to her room. She had had a rather better time than she had anticipated, and although she was sorry to have lost her favorite piece of lace, still, it was not that important a matter. Denethor had been companionable beyond her expectations, if nowhere near as comfortable as Imrahil or Thorongil. And she was pleased to have seen more of the city than she would have ever thought likely. But I think I will not walk the streets of Minas Tirith alone! was her reflection, as she began to change for dinner.
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