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Hands of the King: 34. Forever
Minas Tirith, Mettarë, 2976 T.A.
'This is wonderful, my lady!' the healer exclaimed as she looked at how little Finduilas had coughed up upon rising. 'Almost all white and very thin. How are you feeling?'
'Rested,' Finduilas lied with a smile. She had woken aching and weary, her thoughts full of confusing patches of dreams.
'Very good,' Luinil answered, also smiling, but her eyes were doubtful. 'Are you well enough to go to the baths, or shall we prepare a basin in the kitchen?'
'The baths,' Finduilas firmly replied, wanting to soak in one of the large hot tubs, 'but only if I am not coughing after breakfast.' The healer agreed with this, and noted that it would be good for her to breathe in steam to help bring up anything that remained in her lungs. This mollified Luinil. Breakfast passed with little more than a cleared throat, and Finduilas was soon on her way to the women's baths. Imrahil set off in the other direction, escorting a few of her guardsmen who pulled handcarts with her trunks to the Stewards House. The hot bath was wonderful; Aerin had all in hand and insisted that her ladies relax while she scrubbed them, washed their hair, and gently toweled each off. After returning to Vinyamar, they sat near the fire in the parlor to let their hair dry. Imrahil called out when he was home, and followed their voices into the parlor. In his arms was a large sack filled with something soft.
'What is that?' Ivriniel asked as he set it on the couch.
'A present!' With a smile, Imrahil bowed to Finduilas. 'I spoke with Lord Denethor this morning. He sends his greetings to all of this house, and asked me to deliver to you, sister, a wedding gift.'
Finduilas hurried over. 'Undo the lacing and let me see!' Imrahil did as she asked. When she reached into the sack, she felt soft, thick cloth. 'Help me get this out, Imrahil.' He tugged on the bag, she tugged on the cloth, and out came a heavy mantle the most beautiful shade of blue Finduilas had ever seen. It was like the deepest twilight or the sea under a certain sky. When she sorted top from bottom, she cried aloud in delight at the stars that bordered the neck and the hem. They were tiny and scattered across wide bands, as though part of the night sky had decided to adorn the cloak. Along the hem, Finduilas spied a single silver swan swimming upon a tiny wave under the stars, just as one swam on her betrothal ring.
'This also, he bade me give you,' Imrahil said with an impish grin, holding out a small, sealed note. Finduilas snatched it away. There was but one line written:
The stars, the sea, and thee.
As she read this, she felt her throat tighten and thought she would start to weep. 'None of that!' Luinil ordered. 'Put it away. You are not going to be wed with red eyes and a runny nose!' This made Finduilas giggle, which made her cough, and Imrahil was sent to fetch the healer. A syrup with a great deal of brandy was administered, along with an order to sit quietly and allow Ivriniel to brush the last dampness from her hair. Luinil and the healer conferred, deciding that the latter would prepare several vials of coughing draughts that the Princess could carry and give to Finduilas through the day if coughing returned.
When their hair was dry, they paused for dinner. Finduilas could not eat, but sipped some broth. The women then retreated upstairs to Finduilas's room and began to get her dressed. It took longer than for the betrothal. Her mother and sister dressed first, donning the blue of Dol Amroth. Finduilas sat on the bed and gave her advice as no one would allow her to do anything in particular. Her own dress fit perfectly. As she wore it, Finduilas realized that it was quite warm even if of silk. The embroidery was in red thread, carefully matched to the silk, save where tiny swans were picked out in silver and where Finduilas herself had added a single black swan's wing upon the bodice. They had to stop part way through dressing her hair to let her take the syrup to calm a low, persistent cough. When they finished, Finduilas's hair was twined with pearls, and a silver clasp shaped like a starfish held it all together.
It was not long before the women heard a knock on the front door downstairs. Imrahil tapped on their door before poking his head in. 'Lord Borondir has come to escort us. Are you ready?' They said yes and followed him out. As she descended the stair, Finduilas caught sight of her father standing in the hallway talking to Borondir and Angelimir. He turned at the sound of them, looking right at her. After several heartbeats, Adrahil dropped his eyes, brow furrowed, then raised his head and smiled, holding out his hands.
'It is time to complete your conquest of Gondor, daughter! The White Tower itself will bow to your will from now on.' He met her at the foot of the stairs with a laugh and a kiss, then touched his forehead to her own. Softly, Adrahil said, 'I am glad, though it be mixed.' Before she could answer, the Prince called for cloaks to be brought. Wrapped in her new mantle, Finduilas followed Luinil and Borondir out the door.
The sky was low, the clouds a soft grey, and there was almost no wind. Mindolluin brooded above the Tower, its head lost in the clouds. In the main street, people watched them walk up the mountain. Most bowed or curtseyed as she passed, a few kneeling, but it was dignified, not like the wild crowds at the Rohirrim's arrival. Some people threw evergreen cuttings, holly, and laurel before her path, while others softly asked for her blessing or offered her their own. She was not sure when she noticed it, but everyone Finduilas saw seemed to be wearing a black feather on a hat, pinned to a breast, or tucked into their hair. Some had been inventive and placed the black feather on top of several white ones, imitating her badge. Finduilas also realized that the walls were lined with more people who came to watch her ascent.
When they emerged from the tunnel and into the court before the Tower, she stopped and almost darted back into the dark arch. All the people of the Citadel were there in the court or upon the walkways above, watching. Seeing her, a cheer went up. It rang against the walls and rolled down the City. Borondir waved to the Tower Guards who stood near the tunnel to clear a way through the people; the men proudly marched ahead of the Swans and the people parted without protest. More greens were thrown before her as she passed. Before the doors of Merethrond, the white banner of the Stewards hung to one side, her black wing to the other.
Inside the Tower, Borondir led them down the long passage towards the Hall of the Kings, and Finduilas wondered if they were simply to walk in to the ceremony. A few yards short of the great metal doors, Borondir turned aside into a narrow, dimly-lit corridor, and then to a small chamber.
'Most of the lords have arrived, and wait in the Hall,' he told them. 'The Warden and the Steward will be here shortly.' Luinil found a flask with water and a drinking cup in the room, and made Finduilas drink a vial of the syrup mixed in a cup of water. Even though she was not coughing, Finduilas was glad for the drink for it calmed her fluttering heart. It took a few minutes, but soon its gentle warmth moved through her blood, leaving her feeling languid.
'Thengel!' Adrahil called out. Finduilas leaned out of the room and saw the king and Queen Morwen approaching. King Thengel's white hair and great beard gleamed in the dark passage, and he laughed, holding out his arms to embrace the Prince.
'Adrahil!' The men thumped each other's backs solidly. 'And so the happy day is upon us!'
'Yes, my friend, it is.' Her father did not sound as pleased as the king.
Thengel chuckled, wagging a finger at the other. 'Be not so somber, Adrahil. I, too, have seen a daughter wed. Do not begrudge this day.' With that, he turned and bowed to Finduilas, taking her hands. 'My daughters have told me so many tales of their kind and gentle cousin from the Sea that I feel you are no stranger, Finduilas. Your father asked of me a boon, and I hope you shall allow me to grant it. Will you honor me and say that I may join your hands to your lord's?'
Finduilas stared foolishly for a moment before understanding what the king had asked. 'Yes, of course! I would be most honored. But, I don't know if…'
Thengel squeezed her hands. 'I have spoken with the Warden, and he leaves the choice to you.'
'Then, I wish it!'
'Whatever you wish shall be, sister,' a detested voice cheerfully announced, making Finduilas jump. Maiaberiel and Brandir stood nearby, having come from the opposite end of the passage. 'You are a queen today, and all your wishes are to be obeyed,' Maiaberiel said, placing a kiss on her cheek. I wish you would go away. Finduilas doubted Beruthiel would honor that wish. 'I have long waited for this day,' the wicked woman smoothly continued, 'and have never had a day pass so slowly!' In Maiaberiel's hair was a great spray of elegant white egret feathers framing a single black feather. Finduilas turned to greet Brandir, fighting off the impulse to tear the feathers out of the woman's hair. You have no right to that, or me, or Denethor. Luckily, Brandir was his usual dear self, and she was able to quell her ire as quickly as the draughts quelled her coughs.
All her anger disappeared when she saw Aiavalë and Wren approach. The Archivist had obviously been practicing, for there was almost no limp to be seen when she walked. Finduilas rushed towards them and kissed them. 'All is well, now that you are here!'
'Perhaps,' Aiavalë replied darkly, glaring at Maiaberiel.
'She has lost, Lady Lore,' Finduilas whispered. 'Pay her no mind.' She tucked the Archivist's arm under her own and led her back to the others.
Luinil smiled and held out her hands. 'Lady Aiavalë, I am pleased to see you. I hope that you are well.'
Aiavalë nodded graciously. 'Yes, I am. Thank you.'
Brandir was next, bestowing a kiss on his sister-in-law's face through her veil. 'I am glad you are here, Aiavalë.' He smiled so kindly Finduilas believed he meant his words. 'Denethor will be pleased that you have come.'
'It is very dear of you to emerge from your cave for this, sister,' Maiaberiel added, though she made no move to touch Aiavalë. Maiaberiel spared one, hateful glance at Wren, who stared back impassively. 'I am sure Borondir can find you a good place to stand.'
Aiavalë's eyes above the fold of veil were amused. She pulled herself upright, crossing her arms over her chest, and chuckled. Standing like that, Aiavalë was taller than Maiaberiel and scarcely shorter than Finduilas herself. 'I know where I stand. With Denethor.' The words were only a little slurred. 'Where do you stand?'
Finduilas saw a meaningful look pass between Thengel and Morwen. Imrahil had a hand over his mouth to hide his smirk, while Borondir was openly grinning. Luinil and Adrahil wore matching polite smiles. Only Brandir appeared dismayed. Beruthiel's own smile was little more than bared teeth. 'I am standing for Denethor today.'
Aiavalë's eyes crinkled and she trembled slightly, suppressing a laugh. 'No. I am, as I always have.'
'What nonsense!' Maiaberiel snapped. 'You are not fit to appear. Do you wish to curse this marriage from its first day?'
'I think Lord Denethor will decide this for himself,' King Thengel calmly interjected, pointing down the corridor. Finduilas followed his gesture and froze.
Out of the darkness, he approached, as he did in her visions. Sea foam and the snows of Mindolluin made up his raiment. There was a roaring in her ears, and Finduilas wondered if there was a waterfall behind her. Upon his brow was a crown of vines and stars and blood, and his hair was a dark fall over his shoulders. She walked towards him, willing herself to remain as she was and not become a swan. As he drew near, she saw that the crown was an ivy wreath into which had been woven mistletoe and holly. His clothes were of cloth, not the scales of sea creatures or mail wrought deep in a Dwarven-hold, and they hung more loosely than they should. Under his shirt, near the base of his neck, something raised the fabric in a thin line, and she shuddered.
'Alquallë?' Denethor murmured.
'Beruthiel,' she whispered back and smiled. Further down the hall, she could see the Steward walking towards them. Denethor did not answer, though his eyes glittered with malicious glee. He offered her his arm, then waited until Ecthelion was close before proceeding to the others. Greetings and bows were exchanged all around. Maiaberiel spoke first.
'Denethor, will you talk some sense into her?' Maiaberiel gestured at Aiavalë with her chin.
'A fruitless task,' he blandly answered, earning an amused snort from the Archivist.
'On one thing, we agree,' Maiaberiel snapped. 'Since sense is wasted upon her, tell her that she is not standing for you. You cannot have such a creature for that. It is ill-omened.'
Finduilas could feel his arm tense under her hand, though his face remained calm. 'You sound as though you are ashamed of your kin, sister. You pay too much mind to the word of gossips who delight in scandal.' With a nod to Finduilas, Denethor took his arm away and moved next to Aiavalë. 'Our mother did not live to this day, so it is right that her eldest daughter should stand in her place.'
'Mother would be horrified.'
Denethor turned to Borondir. 'Is all in readiness?'
'Yes, Warden, the lords are gathered,' Borondir answered. Maiaberiel's face was red with anger. She looked to the Steward and gestured for him to say something. Ecthelion shrugged, though his own cheeks had red spots.
Adrahil cleared his throat. 'Ivriniel, Imrahil, go with your grandfather now and take your places.'
'You'll be next to us,' Brandir cheerfully interjected, taking Maiaberiel's arm. 'Come along! I'll show you where to stand.' Brandir did not wait for an answer, but started walking off with his wife. Angelimir paused to kiss Finduilas's cheek before following. After briefly hugging her, Imrahil and Ivriniel hurried after. Luinil slipped a hand under Finduilas's arm and drew her back. Borondir bowed and also went towards the Hall.
Thengel watched them depart. Turning to Finduilas, he said, 'It is time.' Morwen embraced her before taking Thengel's arm and the two led the way. Finduilas stood aside to allow Ecthelion to pass. For some moments, her parents did not move, looking at each other in dismay. Luinil sighed and held out her arm. After they left the narrow corridor and entered the main passage, Adrahil offered his arm as well, and she walked between them towards the doors. Ahead, she could see Denethor and Aiavalë. She held onto him. The Steward was to Denethor's other side, not touching his son. It made her sad to see this; not even on this day could they show kindness to each other. A bit of holly escaped from Denethor's crown and tumbled until it caught in his hair near his shoulder. The red berries stood out against the white cloth. Far ahead, Thengel and Morwen passed down the center aisle of the Hall. People on the inner rows craned to see the celebrants – but what celebration is there? This is cruel – as they approached. Morwen parted from Thengel when they came to the open area before the throne.
The Hall was warm from so many people crushed inside, and there was a low rumble from the whispers. Finduilas felt slightly dizzy. Behind the throne, the White Tree caught the glow from the lamps and the thin light that managed to creep in through the tall windows. She kept her eyes trained on it as she walked. Halfway down the length of the Hall, she saw the winds rolling down Mindolluin catch the tree's branches, making them tremble, each tiny star caught upon bare limbs glittering brightly.
Thengel waited for them at the foot of the dais. Like the gems of the tree, the diamond on his circlet glinted. He held up his hands for silence, stilling the hall. The king drew breath, then sang. She could not understand the words, but they moved her and she could not stop the few tears that escaped. When she looked at Denethor, he, too, was enraptured, his lips moving slightly as he said the words as Thengel chanted. The hall remained silent even after the last echoes of the king's voice faded away.
'To all who stand here witness, welcome.' Thengel's deep voice rolled across the gathering, waking them from their enchantment. 'Of all things a man may say, "I promise" is the greatest and most noble. In those words are hope. In them are honor. Upon them, a realm may be founded, a battle won, a tale told. Until they are given and kept, one cannot be called a man. We stand here to bear witness to a troth taken and now fulfilled with a pledge yet greater.'
Thengel turned slightly to face Denethor. 'Denethor, son of Ecthelion, you have pledged yourself to wed upon this day. Do you still hold to that?'
Thengel held out his left hand. 'Give me the sign of that pledge.' Denethor removed the silver ring from his forefinger and handed it over. The king now offered his other hand. The Steward took Denethor's right hand and placed it in Thengel's.
'Go now, son of this house, and give thy heart and soul to another. Let thy love open thine eyes to see as keenly as He who watches us.' All the time Ecthelion spoke, Denethor looked into Finduilas's eyes. Luinil had to poke her to pay attention to the king.
'… of Adrahil, you have pledged yourself to wed this man. Do you hold to that pledge?'
'Yes.' Thengel's face crinkled up in a smile. "Louder" he mouthed. 'Yes! Yes, I do!' she cried, causing a ripple of laughter in the front rows. Thengel chuckled as well and held out his hand for the betrothal ring. Hers clinked against Denethor's as she dropped it into Thengel's palm. Luinil took her hand and laid it across Denethor's.
'Go now, dear child, to your lord and love, and bless him with your heart and soul. Let thy love open thy ears to hear keenly and carefully the claims of love upon thee, as does the Kindler when she sits in joy beside her lord.'
Denethor clasped Finduilas's hand tightly in his own. Thengel asked, 'Do you now pledge, each to the other, thy very heart and soul, in love and forever?'
The king held out the silver rings first to Aiavalë, then to Adrahil. Each removed one of the silver bands, replacing it with gold. 'Give now these rings as token of having promised your souls.' Finduilas's hand was shaking so much she was not certain how she managed to pick up the band, let alone place it on Denethor's finger. Task accomplished, she looked up at him. He leaned and touched his forehead to hers.
Gently, his lips touched hers, then pressed more firmly, as the watchers shouted their approval. She wove her fingers into his. Too soon, he stepped away, turning them towards Thengel, who embraced each of them. Denethor gestured that the king should precede them out of the Hall. Thengel nodded, then held out his hand to Morwen so she could walk with him. When she was close enough, he said something to her in Rohirric that made her laugh and give him a kiss, eliciting another cheer from the audience.
The walk out of the Hall was much different than the one in. Finduilas could see the faces of the people; they were merry, laughing and waving and calling out good wishes as she passed. Her thoughts were spinning enough that while she recognized most of the faces, she could not come up with many names. Near the back, she did recognize Adanel, Primrose, Wren and Lily, along with several other young women Finduilas could not name but thought were Primrose's daughters. They did not say anything, but waved. Standing near one of the statues of a king, she spied a tall figure of a woman, dressed in somber grey, hands gloved and face veiled. The figure watched Finduilas and Denethor, though her face could not be seen through the thick veil, then made a small bow. Finduilas heard someone call her name and looked away. The house of Langstrand waved and cheered, each one sporting a spray of white feathers and a single black one. Those were the last she recognized before passing through the huge metal doors and into the long passage that led out of the Tower. At the end of the passage, the doors to the Tower were thrown open, and the pealing of bells could be heard.
Beregar stepped away from the wall, holding their cloaks. Denethor took her blue mantle and cast it about her before pulling on his own. Beregar did not say anything; he just grinned. Denethor said, 'Beregar, please escort the Archivist to where she may rest. These crowds will tire her.'
It was not clear who was more pleased to let go the other's arm, the Steward or Aiavalë. The Archivist pulled Finduilas into a tight hug. 'I must go, but I will return to see you dance.'
Thengel and Morwen stood aside to allow Denethor and Finduilas to be the first to leave the Tower. The noise was deafening. Bells, horns, cheers, drums – everything that could make a sound was doing so. Denethor tucked her arm firmly under his. 'Are you ready to be seen by the City, prince?'
'What do you mean?'
'Come with me.' With that, he led her into the throng. People parted, shouting for other to make way and they were soon to the steep steps against the wall near the tunnel. It was packed with people, but they cleared a path when Denethor motioned that he wished to get on top of the wall. Finduilas held tightly to his arm, feeling light-headed and not wishing to risk a fall. The day was almost done. The low clouds diffused the last minutes of light. They walked through the people on the wall towards the furthest embrasure upon the stone keel where they had once sat and he had first kissed her. Denethor lightly jumped onto the stone seat, and she copied him. Again she clutched at his arm for now they stood almost upon the lip of the highest wall itself. Below, the City lay in dusk, street lamps shining, fires in braziers and kettles burning red and gold. The white walls shone like pearl. Calls rose from the lower levels as they were spotted upon the height.
The prow of the ship stood above the waves, cutting through the white crests as it rode on its journey east. Under dark clouds they sailed, and the sun was gone. Finduilas looked at Denethor; the wreath upon his head was the greens of the sea and pearls and his blood, and the fish scales of his armor peeked out from beneath a cloak woven of fog. Diamond stars dropped from the sky to adorn him. A snarl of sound beneath the prow drew her attention. A flood of armies washed over the walls, turning them black, and they howled and raged, beating drums and winding their horns of war. With a cry, she pulled back and nearly fell from the seat.
'Finduilas!' Denethor jumped down and helped her back to the wall. 'What is wrong?'
The vision cleared. The armies' noise became the shouting of the City - 'Gon-dor! Gon-dor! Gon-dor!' – as the people greeted their new Lady. Peering over the wall, she saw that the lower walls were teeming with people who simply wished for a better look at her. The instruments of war returned to being the bells and horns of Minas Tirith. There was no ship, Denethor was not bleeding, and the stars falling from the sky were simply flakes of snow.
Almost she lied and said that she was merely dizzy. No, tell him the truth. 'A vision, friend, as in Osgiliath.' He pulled her close, and she gladly clung to his warmth. 'A ship, armies, you crowned with blood, and…'
'No more,' Denethor replied softly but firmly, kissing her temple. 'Let us go in.' They walked along the northern walk above the court, entering Merethrond through the stairway they had used a year before. He paused partway down the stair and drew her close once more. 'Are you all right? Do you need to rest?'
'I am better. I became giddy from the height.' She smiled up at him. 'Let us not keep guests waiting for the feast. The sooner that is over, the sooner we may go.'
'Yes, you're right,' he agreed. Reluctantly, they continued to the hall. It was decorated magnificently. The Steward gestured impatiently from the near the entry for them to take their place next to himself, Luinil, and Adrahil.
'Denethor, you are making people stand out in the cold,' was Ecthelion's cross greeting. The Steward signaled the doorward to allow guests in. Brandir and Maiaberiel were among the first in. Brandir hugged both of them and had to brush away a happy tear from his face. Maiaberiel clung to Finduilas's hands so long, talking on about how beautiful she was, how they were now truly sisters, how the wedding would be remembered for years, that Finduilas was afraid the woman was going to try to stay next to them as she had at the betrothal feast. Brandir rescued her by gently pulling his wife away. Maiaberiel said nothing to Denethor as she passed, only nodding to him. Quick as a snake, he grabbed her under the chin and gave her a solid kiss on the cheek. She jerked out of his grasp and walked off, trailing Brandir behind her. This all seemed to amuse Denethor greatly.
The remaining guests were greeted without incident. After the standing silence, Luinil gave Finduilas a cup of the syrup mixed with extra brandy. The feast itself went by in a blur. She shared a plate and a cup with Denethor, though neither of them ate very much. Before the dancing began, the Steward said something to the guests about love and joy, but Finduilas paid no attention, as he knew nothing of such things. The dancing seemed a dream. She danced first with Denethor, and did not care that they were sometimes in Merethrond, sometimes in the secret place, and sometimes upon a ship at sea. It was always his arms around her. After him was Ecthelion, whose touch made her ill, then King Thengel. Finduilas wept a few tears when she danced with her father. After that, she could not remember with whom she danced, for all their faces seemed the same. They said the same things – congratulations, you look so beautiful, the Warden is a lucky man, we are all blessed by this – and all she needed to do was smile and nod. They were her swan-soldiers, circling around her. Soon, they would leap into the air and fly away.
'Finduilas? Are you well?'
'Hmm?' Finduilas tried to concentrate on her current dance partner. The soldier's face changed and she recognized Brandir. 'Brandir! How good to see you! Wait, you are my brother, now, aren't you?' She tried to make sense of the relations. If he is the husband of the sister of my husband… With a shake of her head, she dismissed the problem, saying firmly, 'I shall call you brother.'
'Yes, please do!' he smiled in return, 'Though I think you need some water to clear your head.' Brandir led her away from the dancers to a table where there were things to drink. When the water touched her tongue, Finduilas realized how parched she was, eagerly gulping it down and asking for more. She did feel less dazed afterwards. 'Feeling better?' Brandir asked.
'Yes, thank you, Brandir.'
'I think you should stand for a while,' he continued in his cheerful, persistent way, walking them away from the dancing. They walked among the tables where people sat and picked at the last of the feast, drinking and chatting. Stopping here and there to exchange greetings, she allowed Brandir to guide her. At some point, Finduilas stopped and looked around, confused.
'Where is Denethor?' she asked Brandir.
'Being Warden.' There was an edge to the man's voice that was most unlike him. Brandir gestured towards the head table. Denethor stood to one side of the dais, talking intently with the Prince, King Thengel, and a few other lords. 'He should leave that for another day.'
'And why should he not attend to things while you have claimed my company?' she replied with a smile.
Brandir's cheer returned. 'Ah, I should not disparage my good luck!' His expression turned rueful, however, and he sighed. 'Finduilas, sister, I am sorry for the discord you saw this afternoon. I do not know why they could not set aside their pride for a single day.'
'I am used to the arguments between those three,' she reassured him.
'Between them, and with the Steward,' he said, shaking his head. 'It is the greatest sorrow of my life, to see them so at odds. But know this; all of them love you!'
'I know they do. I hope that perhaps I may help mend the rift in this house.'
Brandir set down his cup and seized her hand in both of his own. 'Yes! I have tried for long to no avail. I have spoken to Denethor, Maiaberiel, and the Steward, to make them see sense, but they think me a fool.' He shrugged, sheepish. 'They are not wrong, for that is what I am, but even a fool may see truly.'
'I think you kind, not a fool,' Finduilas protested. 'More the fools they for discounting your counsel.'
'Perhaps. I am used to being ignored. They will listen to you!'
'I will do what I can.'
'And I will help you,' he assured her. Brandir smiled at her, then his eyes darted to someone behind her. 'Imrahil!'
'Lord Brandir, good evening. Will you forgive me for stealing Finduilas? Mother wishes to see her.' Brandir relinquished her with a bow. Instead of going to the dais where Luinil sat with Queen Morwen and Lady Rían, Imrahil headed to the edge of the hall.
'I thought Mother wished to see me.'
'Mother always wishes to see you,' he said with a quick grin, 'but I need to see you, too.' His smile slipped a bit, saying quietly, 'I need your help.'
'Imrahil, what have you done?'
'Nothing!' he protested. 'I… I don't wish to return to Dol Amroth, that's all.'
'That's all?' she said, astounded. 'What are you thinking?'
'I want to remain here in Minas Tirith,' he stubbornly replied.
'You need to ask Father, not me.'
'I have. He does not approve, but Grandfather does. I have spoken with them several times. Father is very reluctant to allow it.'
'And for good reason!' Finduilas retorted, trying to keep her voice low. 'Have you no understanding of why you are here in the first place?'
Imrahil's cheeks became red. 'Yes, sister, I do. I was here to prove my house's honor. That is done today. Now I would stay of my own choice, not as hostage, however gentle my prison.'
'The Prince will not see it that way.'
'He has heard me out, and has not forbidden it.'
'But neither has he agreed to it, yes?'
'Grandfather and I have both argued that you should not be left alone and that it is important for Dol Amroth to have a strong presence here in the Steward's councils. I have seen how little thought is given to the falas now that Umbar is no longer an imminent threat.' There was a sternness to Imrahil's tone she had never heard from him before. 'Dol Amroth supports the rule of the Stewards, but we are not commanded by them. They must hear our counsel. Gondor is more than Minas Tirith and the Anduin fiefs.'
Finduilas considered this carefully. 'What is it you need from me?'
'Will you speak to your husband and ensure that he will permit me to stay?'
'Denethor will not ask,' she warned. 'He will do nothing to interfere with the Prince's rule.'
'Nor should he! But, if Father will allow it, he would be insulted should the Warden decline.'
'I think you should return home until you are of proper age to serve the Steward,' she grumbled.
'Please? For me? Please say you will at least ask!'
'First I want to talk to Grandfather.' Imrahil grinned again and led the way to Angelimir. Their grandfather looked tired and frail, but he smiled when he saw her and held out his arms for an embrace.
'I am a happy man,' he said in a voice stronger than he looked. 'Now I shall be a greedy one, and hope for a great-grandchild. Soon!' Angelimir smiled and winked broadly. 'Tonight would not be too soon.' Imrahil snickered.
Finduilas knew her face was turning as red as her dress. She ordered her brother to get them something warm to drink, then turned to her grandfather. 'What is this about Imrahil remaining? He says you are arguing for it.'
'Did he say why?' She repeated what Imrahil had told her. Angelimir nodded. 'Yes, for all those reasons.'
'What are the others?'
'In dreams,' was his matter-of-fact reply.
'Imrahil has been dreaming?'
'Not like you or like me, but he has dreamed.' Angelimir's eyes were bright and he touched his hand to hers, twisted fingers unable to grasp. 'Men of dreams walk among us. Adrahil, he has not the eyes to see. You do. Imrahil might.' Her grandfather shrugged, 'And your brother likes Denethor. I think the Warden regards the youngster with some affection. It is good that the Prince and the Steward should be amiable.'
Imrahil returned with tea and brandy for them. Guests came and went. Finduilas chatted, keeping an eye on Denethor on the other side of the hall. Every so often, he would meet her eyes and they would share a smile. He asked with a raised eyebrow and a small motion of his chin if he should come over. She looked pointedly at the lords talking to him, and shook her head a fraction to let him know he should give them his attention for now. At some point, Luinil and Morwen came over. Noticing that Finduilas was beginning to cough, Luinil mixed up the final vial of syrup in a cup of tea and brandy. A sleepy warmth overtook her. Denethor was closer, now, and she decided she did wish to see him. He smiled at her and she nestled beside him. She could not understand what he said any more than she understood Thengel's chant, but was content to listen. The waterfall was behind them, roaring in her ears.
The bells tolled a late hour. Maiaberiel and Brandir stood on the dais and shouted for everyone's attention. When the hall was almost quiet, Brandir raised a cup towards Denethor and Finduilas. 'Friends, for all are friends here, let me offer one more toast to my beloved brother and sister. To Denethor and Finduilas – for love and forever!' The hall repeated the toast and cheered.
'One more dance,' Maiaberiel called out, 'and then you two may go!' This elicited more cheers and few raucous words. Denethor scowled at the last, but bowed and took Finduilas's hand. To her relief, the musicians struck up a sedate tune; Finduilas knew she could not have attempted a sprightly dance. When it was done, they bowed to their guests, who cheered once more, and left.
No one was left in the court or on the walls save the Tower Guard. Snow was falling, but it melted as soon as it hit the ground, leaving the stone slick. The banners hung limp on their standards, wet through, and each had a pile of evergreen boughs and holly branches below them. They walked slowly over the treacherous surface. The main room on the third floor of the Stewards House was warm; a fire had been set in the hearth not long before. Finduilas drew off her cloak while Denethor lit lamps and a few candles. When he finished, he stood near the center of the room, looking down.
Finduilas glanced at the doorway to their bedroom and suddenly felt exhausted. Their bedroom. They were now to lie together. Then she would no more be Finduilas of Dol Amroth, but the Lady of the White Tower, no more of her father's house, but of this one. She closed her eyes, trying to make the waterfall cease its pounding. 'Alquallë?' Denethor was close. She leaned forward and his chest was there, his arms around her. The tears would not stop.
'Finduilas? What is it? What is wrong?' Denethor slipped a hand under her chin, making her look up at him.
She dashed tears from her eyes. 'Nothing. Nothing is wrong.'
'You do not weep for no reason.' He wiped her cheeks with the cuff of his sleeve. 'Is it the vision you had earlier?'
'No. Perhaps. I don't know!' she fumed, feeling very foolish. 'I… I am tired, that is all.' Finduilas stepped back and neatened her dress, then made herself smile. 'Shall we retire, husband?'
Denethor did not respond at once, turning his ring with his thumb. 'No.' This made her cry again. He did not touch her, instead going to the couch and sitting down. He patted the seat next to him. Reluctantly she joined him. Denethor turned towards her and took her hand. 'I am also very tired.' She nodded. 'Do you like the ring? Primrose made it for you.'
Finduilas realized she had not looked at it. Slipping it off, she saw it was a swan among stars instead of upon waves. There was something engraved inside the band – "Friend". Wiping away more tears, she said, 'It is beautiful.'
He lightly touched her hair. 'You are very beautiful. When I saw you in the corridor, I could not speak. I felt in a poem, seeing you. But when I drew near, I was concerned, for you shivered and looked unwell.'
'I am not entirely well, friend,' Finduilas confessed. 'I coughed a great deal the last two days. Today, I took draughts through the day to keep it at bay. I fear they have left me light-headed.'
'And here I thought it was just brandy Luinil was giving you,' Denethor wryly said. 'What of the vision?'
'It was as though I was dreaming wide awake. I have told you of seeing armies attack the City while I watched from a great height. Today, I thought the people below were the armies crawling upon the walls. I thought we stood on the prow of a ship racing away from destruction. All through the day, things have become something other than what they are. Several times I thought us standing in the secret place. It was true and untrue at the same time.'
Denethor thought for a moment before kissing her hand. 'Will my counselor be counseled?'
'I counsel you to rest until cough and visions have departed. For now, that means going to bed and sleeping. By yourself.'
'That is your bed as well, friend. I will not turn you out…'
Denethor rose suddenly, motioning her to remain seated. Taking a candle, he went into the bedroom and lit other candles. She heard him at the fireplace poking it back to life. He returned to her and held out his hands to help her stand. They stopped at the door of the room.
'This, Finduilas, is yours. It is for you to say who shall be welcome and when.'
'But, where will you…'
'In my room, as always.'
'I am your wife. I should…'
'You should do no such thing!' His eyes were fierce. 'I am not a beast, unable to control myself. It is for a wife to grant and a husband to accept in such things.' His face softened and he touched her cheek. 'Do you think I can bear to see you so weary? Think only of myself when you weep? I will wait. It is no burden to me.'
'Denethor, you will make me cry again with your kindness.'
'Now, none of that,' he gently scolded. She stepped into his embrace, holding him tightly.
'Thank you, friend.' Finduilas smiled, wanting him to see that and not tears. 'Thank you for the mantle, as well. Though now I am shamed that I have given you nothing – not a gift for your birthday nor anything for today.'
'You are here. I want nothing else.' Denethor kissed her brow before stepping away. 'Sleep. I will see you tomorrow.'
The coughs woke her as she knew they would. Finduilas coughed and choked, hanging over the side of the bed, trying to work the thick, gummy phlegm out of her throat. There was no cup within reach, so she spit it all into a kerchief. It came up in yellow-brown clots speckled with bright red blood, leaving her chest feeling raw inside. It was impossible to draw a full breath.
'Finduilas!' Denethor entered the room, clothes hastily pulled on and hair still mussed from sleep, and knelt beside the bed. He stroked her back while she coughed again into the kerchief, then grabbed her wrist, staring in dismay at the blood on the cloth. 'I'll send Beregar for a healer.'
'No!' she gasped. 'Water, now.' He left and swiftly returned, bearing a flagon of water and a cup. First a sip to moisten her mouth, then a small swallow to rinse her throat, then a few more sips. There were a few more coughs, wet and thin, letting her know that the worst was over. Denethor helped Finduilas sit up against the headboard where she sat with her eyes closed, concentrating on breathing slowly until all she could hear was a familiar soft whistling noise at the end of each exhalation.
'I am all right, friend. I do not need a healer.'
'You can scarce breathe! Of course you need a healer.'
Finduilas opened her eyes. Denethor stood next to the bed, looking upset and rumpled in equal measure. She held out the cup for more water. 'It is done. This always happens after I have been taking these draughts. I wake and cough a great deal, all of the bad humors are coughed out, and then I need to rest.'
'You were coughing blood.'
'Only a little, and it was bright. It is only a problem if there is a great deal and it is dark. In an hour, it will be gone.' He did not look convinced. 'Denethor, I am used to this and know the healers' wisdom. What I need is to stay warm and rest, just as you bade me to do yesterday!' Now that she was more awake and could breathe, Finduilas realized that she was very hungry. 'I also need tea and breakfast.'
'I will see to that.' Denethor left, closing the door behind him. After a few more gulps of water, Finduilas rose and dressed, moving slowly to avoid coughs. Denethor was waiting for her. Some of the worry left his face when he saw her. They went downstairs to the dining room where a soberly dressed woman a little older than herself was setting food on the table. She bowed to them.
Beregar's wife. Finduilas smiled and said 'You must be Aeluin.'
The woman smiled in return. 'Yes, my lady, I am Aeluin.' She is pretty. Finduilas was pleased that Adanel had found Beregar a pretty wife. Aeluin gestured at the table. 'Your breakfast is ready, my lady, my lord.'
'Thank you. You may go.' Denethor answered. Aeluin's smile dimmed slightly, and she bowed and left. Finduilas drank several cups of tea before turning to the food. It was odd to see a gold rather than silver ring on her finger. I am wed. It seemed strange that this should have happened, yet things be so ordinary. Even Beren and Lúthien had to eat. They could not always be storming Angband. She smiled at the thought.
'You are amused?' Denethor asked.
'I am happy,' she answered simply. Yes, happy. He did not quite smile in return, but most of the grimness left his face. There was a tap at the door. Beregar stood there holding a small basket.
'Many notes have arrived this morning,' he said, holding out the basket which was filled with letters. 'I think there will be more.'
'Undoubtedly, Huan. Leave these here,' Finduilas directed. She upended the basket and began sorting through the pile. A few were reports – most for Denethor, one from Borondir for her – and the rest were well-wishers' notes. 'I can see what I shall be doing today,' she said to herself.
'You are resting today,' Denethor said without looking up from his report. 'Leave that.'
'I cannot let these sit for too long, for many of the senders will leave the City soon.' He frowned and shrugged. 'Wren shall help me.'
'Yes. I brought no maid from Dol Amroth, so she is to leave Aiavalë's service and be my maid.' Finduilas had not actually given much thought to the matter until now, but it pleased her. 'I will send Beregar to fetch her.'
'He should fetch a healer as well.'
'If the cough returns, he shall,' Finduilas countered, then turned to Borondir's report on the distribution of her gifts and his estimates on city food stores for the next month. Finishing the last bites of her meal, Finduilas was not certain what to do. It is time to be the Lady. But who is she? Finduilas tried to think of what her mother would do. She would see to the ordering of the keep. And she would tell you to rest!
Finduilas gathered the notes into the basket and went to her study at the front of the house. It was cold and the shutters were closed. She pulled the bell rope and waited. Beregar was soon there.
'Beregar, please set a fire and open this room. I will be using it today. I will use it most days.' While he took care of this, Finduilas poked around in the desk, setting out ink and pens. She noted her banner was missing and imagined it was still standing in the court. Not too long afterwards, Denethor walked in. He said nothing, crossing his arms and leaning against the wall. She smiled in his direction, then ignored him, concentrating on drawing up a list of things that needed to be set aright in her house before she could turn her attention to greater matters. Outside the windows, a steady rain fell. Once the fire was burning, Beregar set off to fetch Wren. Denethor moved from the wall to a chair, still not saying anything. Finduilas wrote a letter to Gethron with directions about guardsmen, then set out tasks for Beregar. Finally, Denethor spoke.
'You are not resting.'
'I will soon.'
'Why not now?'
'Because there are things that must be done before I may rest,' she imperturbably answered.
'…see to them, yes. But he must know what it is that I wish done.'
They sat in silence until Beregar arrived with Wren, whereupon Denethor stood and left. Finduilas heard his footsteps going up to his own room. She gave Beregar the list of things she wished done along with Gethron's letter. He looked dismayed at the length of the list, but said he would see to it. When he left, Finduilas rose and embraced Wren.
'Dear Wren! Do you know why you are here?'
'I hope it is to serve you, my lady.'
'"My lady"?' Finduilas teased. 'When it is just us, you shall call me Finduilas.'
'I shall. But, say I am to serve you!'
'Yes. Aiavalë and I both agree you should be here.'
'All I have is packed,' Wren confessed. 'I am ready.' She held up her walking desk. 'See? Beregar said you had much correspondence, so I brought this.'
'Indeed, there is.' Wren pulled up a chair. Finduilas dumped the letters out of the basket. 'I want a list of who has sent a note, who they are, where they are from, whether they ask for something… ' The two women talked about setting up a ledger for tracking such notes. Wren came up with an excellent scheme, which did not surprise Finduilas; the woman was the best cataloger in the archives after Aiavalë herself. In midmorning, Sador brought up another basket of messages. Beregar appeared at noon to say dinner was ready and six guardsmen had arrived. They were told to settle in downstairs in the rooms behind the kitchen, then go collect the banner. Finduilas sat to dinner with a sigh. Only a few more things to attend to, then she could rest. Denethor asked nothing, said nothing, and did not linger at the table. She could tell he did not approve.
After dinner, Finduilas asked Wren to accompany her upstairs. They walked the outer corridor to the last door which led to a small room at the end of the line of rooms intended for children. They were more like alcoves off a narrow inner hall – you walked through one to get to the next. There were three in all. The one on the end had a door between it and the others.
'This room will be for you, Wren,' Finduilas told her. 'Unless you would rather be on the top floor.'
'No, Finduilas, I should be near you.'
'When the guardsmen are back, send a few to collect your things, and have the others go to the warehouse and find you what furnishings you need.'
'Just a bed. That's all I need.'
Finduilas led them back to the central room. 'I leave you to order things for the afternoon. I am weary.'
Wren flashed a mischievous grin. 'No doubt you were up quite late.'
Finduilas smiled knowingly. Not yet. When I am well. 'If I am not already, wake me an hour before supper.' She fell asleep to the drumming of rain on the window. Wren did have to wake her for supper and stayed to help her dress. A young woman whom Finduilas did not know served their supper under Beregar's watchful eye. Denethor said nothing until the two had excused themselves.
'What have you been doing, Alquallë?'
'Sleeping for half the day,' she pleasantly replied, 'and I intend to do so tomorrow as well.'
'And when you were awake?'
'Beginning my duties as Lady.'
'It can all wait until you are well.'
'Yes, most of it can, friend, I agree. Truly, I have done little but set tasks for others.'
Denethor ate a few bites before curiosity got the better of him. 'What tasks have you set?'
'Most are for Beregar. Poor Huan! I shall keep him running for some time. I have set him to finding trustworthy people to serve this house.'
'But he has already done so,' Denethor protested.
'Perhaps if the house holds only yourself and a cat. I need others.'
'Oh. Who do you need?'
'Wren, obviously. She is my maid, companion, and secretary.'
He nodded. 'She is taking care of all the letters, yes?'
'Yes. I know I may trust her discretion. I also do not care to have Beregar running ordinary messages, lighting fires, or watching the door.'
'Ah, the guardsmen.'
'Yes. I thought they would be more reliable and more useful than someone's grandson.'
'Mmm.' Denethor mulled this over. 'How many have you brought?'
'Six. Two of Dol Amroth, four of the north.'
'Good. Rotate them every other week, but each group of three serving two weeks at a time. None will feel slighted, and they may train in the sixth circle with the Guard.' He nodded approvingly. 'It reserves the Hound for more important things.'
'That is what I intend. Beregar, Aeluin, and Wren are not to be treated as ordinary servants.' Finduilas left the rest unspoken. They ate in silence for a few minutes before she talked about the remaining posts she told Beregar to fill. 'That is all I need to do for now,' she concluded. 'What have you spent the day doing?'
'Preparing for the Great Council in four days. I fear I have more to do after supper.'
'Heed your own counsel and be sure to rest!' she teased. This did get a small smile from him. When they finished and returned to their rooms, Finduilas hesitated. 'Denethor?'
'I am not sleepy, friend, since I napped this afternoon. Would it bother you if I sat and sewed in your study while you work?'
'If you like.' She fetched her sewing basket and the shirt she was mending, and returned to the study. Denethor was already seated at his desk, shuffling through paper. Finduilas pulled one of the chairs over to the fireplace and set to work. The chair was not comfortable and the lamp by the fire did not throw very good light. He put his feet up on his desk and began reading. Telperien emerged from behind the screen and came to investigate the sewing basket, trying to scoop the thimbles out until Finduilas closed the lid. Her playthings gone, the cat settled on the hearth near her mistress' feet, purring. After an hour, Finduilas started to yawn, so she packed up her work. Denethor immediately stood.
'You are retiring?'
'Yes, friend.' She walked over to him. 'I am sleepy and the chair is not very inviting, so it is time for bed.'
'Good night.' After a moment's pause, he leaned down and kissed her cheek. Finduilas kissed his in return and touched his hand, then left swiftly to hide her disappointment.
Her sleep was dreamless and she coughed only a little when she woke. She hid her face in her pillow so she would not alarm Denethor. More letters awaited her after breakfast. She and Wren read them over, and Finduilas dictated replies. They soon worked out a formula which Wren began using. Leaving Wren to her task, Finduilas went downstairs. Imrahil's rooms were still full of his things, though the others were empty. In the kitchen, she praised the cook for her meals and asked where Aeluin was. The cook directed her to one of the storerooms. Aeluin bowed when she saw Finduilas and would not look up.
'Aeluin, I would like to talk to you.'
'Yes, my lady?' The woman seemed downcast.
'I wish to speak of your service here.'
The woman's face turned red. 'I am sorry. I have displeased you.'
'Displeased me?' Finduilas's could not hide her astonishment. 'No! Not at all. Why do you think this?'
'Because you brought in new girls. Another maid to care for you. What you found displeased you.'
Finduilas held up a hand. 'No, Aeluin, you misunderstand. Wren has cared for me before and was released by the Archivist for this. As for the rest, I have better things for you to do than serve meals.'
Aeluin finally looked up, hopeful. 'What is it you wish me to do?'
'I know Mistress Adanel well enough to know she would not allow her son to wed a fool. I need a married woman to be the Matron of the Stewards House. It makes sense, given your husband's duties, that you should be Matron.'
'My lady, I am but a weaver. I know nothing of ordering such a house!'
Finduilas laughed. 'Then we are two of a kind, for I know not how to be the Lady, but I shall learn. Will you learn to be Matron?'
'Good! I know the cook lives elsewhere with her husband. Where are you and Beregar?'
'Oh, we are here.' Aeluin led Finduilas to the same room Beregar has occupied alone. There were more things in it, but it was in little better shape.
'This will not do. You and Beregar need better quarters. The rest of the household must look up to you. The empty rooms off the entry hall are to be yours. Wren has a list of some furnishings you may use.'
'I have some things my mother gave to me. There was no room for them here.' The two talked for a few more minutes, then Finduilas returned to her study.
Denethor was not there for dinner, so she ate with Wren and Aeluin, then napped through the afternoon. He had returned from meeting with some Anórien lords and Brandir by the time she woke, and told her about it over supper. Denethor seemed secretly pleased about something. Finduilas did not have to wait long to find out what it was. Waiting for her in his study near the fire was a large chair, very much like the one Aiavalë kept for him in her house. Finduilas suspected they were a pair. There was also a better lamp. What did not please her was seeing that Denethor was less rested than the day before. She asked him and he explained that with so many lords in the City, the council was going to be larger than usual.
'There is more to prepare and more to discuss,' he said with a sigh, looking over a scroll, 'but at least there is no bad news or wars. Yet.' When they exchanged a kiss on the cheek good night, she tried not to feel disappointed. Think of all that he must do between now and the Council, goose. When that is over, then he will have time for you. In truth, she was not certain she was yet ready to seal their marriage. She kept remembering what her mother said. When we are rested, and the lords have gone home. Then it will be time. Even so, Finduilas could not help but wish for Denethor's embrace as the sound of rain lulled her to sleep. When she dreamed that night, she heard the waterfall and lay beside him, her mantle covering them both.
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