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Hands of the King: 38. Found
Minas Tirith, 13 March, 2977 T.A.
Two days. They had two days to cover almost twenty-two leagues, and then cross the river and fight. The soldiers from Gondor were mostly men of Anórien. The Dol Amroth men, twenty of the fifty, were of good cheer, singing once their walk had warmed them and taken away the dawn's chill. As they marched across the Pelennor, the early rising farmers waved from their crofts and byre doors, all the more so when they saw the soldiers' device. There were no messengers between Osgiliath and the City that morning.
The men did not complain at the pace Denethor set, a league every hour, but they were weary when the call came for the noontide halt a league north on the river road. They wasted no time eating their dinners. He approved of the way they drew straws for the watch when it came time to sleep; this close to Anduin, one could not be too cautious. The screening trees and shrubs along the bank obscured them from sight during the day. Their camp would be cold tonight, for there were no farms that close to the river and they could risk no fire. Drawing his old cloak around him, Denethor slept the rest of the hour. Upon rising, he waited for the soldiers to put their packs in order, then whistled to tell them to form ranks.
'Lieutenant Gethron told you that you were going to be stationed in Anórien.' Heads nodded. 'There is more news. We go to ambush a company of Uruks. Osgiliath sent a report, late, warning of them traveling north. We don't know where they are headed, but we're going to keep them from getting there.' More nods and murmurs of approval. 'We will push hard today so that we arrive that much earlier tomorrow. The road is sound. We march until full dark.'
The men wasted no breath on song that afternoon. News of the Uruks focused them and they marched in swift strides through the afternoon. A messenger from Cair Andros reined up when they were just short of the eighth league out, presenting a note from Anbar.
The Uruks move at night and are well dug in by daylight up against the hills east of the road. They travel slowly, less than three leagues in a day. No good count of them yet, but several hundred. They are almost opposite the island now, on the far side of Ithilien. Axes for cutting trees – rafts? Osgiliath sends word that there is an eyrie to be called on.
Denethor calculated the distances. That meant the Uruks would probably stay east of the road until nightfall tonight, cross the road, and be holed up in some ruined farmstead by morning. That left tomorrow to march while the beasts rested. When they march in the night, we will cross the river. An eyrie could only mean that Thorongil followed from Osgiliath, probably with several hundred men. They would move slowly through woodland on the west side of the road to avoid ambush. Anbar could not speak openly, but Denethor suspected the true mission was to locate Henneth Annûn. Discovery of the redoubt would be disastrous. They cannot be allowed to go north up the stream. At their stop to rest between leagues, Denethor scribbled a hasty note in reply, coded but unsealed. Two hours before sundown, another messenger passed on the way north, collecting the message for Anbar.
They made twelve leagues by nightfall, and camped in an old orchard west of the road. Denethor lay in the dark, turning his wedding band with his thumb. He did not know what to think of the kiss Finduilas had given him that morning before the gates. Was he forgiven? You cannot fool her. She always finds you out. How should she will to be yours if you practice deceit with her? Perhaps that was it, why she remained hidden from his eyes and heart. Denethor sighed. Answer or not, there was battle ahead, and he needed to rest.
Between the hard ground and the cold air, it was not difficult to get the men on their feet and ready to march as soon as it was light enough to see. The leagues passed under their feet. To their left, Anórien rose gently from the river towards Ered Nimrais. The fertile slopes of Anórien were crossed by stone walls and tracks, and dotted with orchards and woods, fields and farmhouses, testimony to centuries of cultivation. The land between the great road and Anduin was well settled, and continued for eight leagues north of the road as the lands turned west towards Rohan. The only part that had no permanent buildings were the mead lands just south of Onodló, where the river often flooded. It was used for herds in the summer rather than planting.
Messengers passed them twice as they marched, one going south, the other heading north. The southbound rider had a reply from Anbar that the Uruks had crossed the road, heading west, and that Rangers were tracking them. The northbound messenger presented a note from Halmir. It was typically terse:
Uruks are 500. That many with him. Eye on Morgul, nothing yet.
Denethor frowned at the news. The numbers were almost double what he expected. All of Henneth Annûn would be needed, and much of Cair Andros. Thorongil had a quarter of the garrison out with him, and probably should have taken more. No, that would leave it too vulnerable. Halmir's guess that Morgul might launch an attack against Osgiliath as a distraction was probably right. An hour before sundown they were at the ferry to Cair Andros. Anbar was waiting for him at the island-side dock.
'What news has been sent to the Steward?' Denethor asked.
'I have sent no word myself, sir, only messages to you and to Osgiliath.'
'That will need to be done at once. Have a messenger readied.'
'We have none.'
'The man who came north?'
'I sent him to Anórien to warn…'
'Tell one of the Rohirrim to be ready. Moving men across?'
'As soon as the sun sets. Ten boats. Guides are already waiting to move the groups out into the forest.'
'Waiting for you near the shore.'
'No word since he headed out on the eleventh. Just word from Halmir…'
'I have his news.' Anbar nodded smartly and led the way to a room where Denethor could write his message to the Steward. By the time Denethor had shed his cloak and pack and pulled up a chair, ink, quills and paper were on the desk. A cup of wine arrived moments later. Denethor took a moment to collect his thoughts. The letter needed careful crafting. He wrote it in a code which Ecthelion knew reasonably well.
14 March, Cair Andros
My Lord Steward,
Dire news awaited us here in Cair Andros. A messenger last night bore word that Uruks were sighted in Ithilien, headed north. Today, the full measure of their strength is reported at 500. That news came to me from Osgiliath, from Lt. Halmir. I presume you already have his report of the same. Thorongil is following the company north with an equal number of soldiers. The Rangers here will provide that many again to catch the Uruks between them. Halmir is ready for an additional sortie out of Morgul. Battle is expected on the morrow – I will return when the outcome is known.
Given the secrecy with which Thorongil first announced the Uruks, Denethor suspected that word would not have gone to the Steward until this morning. If I am wrong… He sealed the note and took it downstairs for a soldier to carry it across Anduin to the Rohirric encampment, and thence in a night-time ride to Minas Tirith. Denethor joined Anbar in the yard to confer on who would be moved over the river. Half of the new guardsmen would be left on the island; only those who had borne arms for more than a year would be allowed. Anbar was pleased, for this freed up more seasoned fighters than he otherwise could have sent. He himself was to remain behind, which also pleased him.
Denethor was in the first boat to cross. As soon as he landed, he was taken to Marlong at the edge of the Field of Cormallen. The woods were full of men.
'My Lord,' the captain greeted him in a murmur.
'They're almost due east of here, just west of the road, well barricaded against some cliffs. I expect they're on the move now. Scouts will report in soon.'
'They seek the redoubt.'
'Aye.' Marlong's voice was grim. 'There are none in it. All supplies are moved out and hidden last night. It has been abandoned for a full day.'
'Good. How many?'
'Fifty men guard stores. Another fifty patrol. The remaining two-hundred are here.'
'Anbar has not quite that many to move over. Thorongil comes north with five-hundred. He'll be coming closer now that they are over the road.'
'We need to attack them near dawn, after they close ranks but before they dig in,' Marlong replied. 'Will the captain be in place by then?'
'He'll be close enough to hear.' Marlong excused himself to order his men. In two hours, the remainder of the Cair Andros soldiers were present. Denethor commanded only his Guardsmen, but Marlong and Calmacil, Anbar's lieutenant, waited for him to direct the battle. They would march north for an hour to a ford in the stream. There, Marlong would continue north, towards Henneth Annûn, to cut off that approach and to work eastwards, encircling the Uruks. Denethor and Calmacil would go more directly towards the Uruks, leaving the south open on the presumption that Thorongil was approaching. A Ranger was sent south to try to find the larger Osgiliath company and inform them of the plan.
By midnight, they were across the stream, in position, and had been informed by Rangers where Uruks marched. Denethor whistled, signaling that they should halt, allowing the Uruks to come to them. They rested in the depths of the night, rousing when the sky had a hint of light in it. Now they moved swiftly. Marlong supplied Rangers to guide the less experienced river men through the paths of Ithilien. There was barely enough light to aim when they located the Uruks. The beasts were snarling and grumbling among themselves, eating things best left unknown, and pulling brush and tree branches into place to provide a secure sleeping nest when the sun rose. A few birdcalls let Denethor know everyone was in place. He gave the signal to attack.
The bows of Gondor thrummed and arrows were a shower of iron upon their foes. For a minute, the Uruks did not know what was happening and a fifth of them dropped, but they soon scattered, charging outwards towards the defenders. When they attacked, Denethor blew the Great Horn to tell Thorongil where the battle had been joined. Shouts of Gondor! Gondor! rang through the woods, matched by the howls and roars of the Uruks. Denethor did not lack for targets. It was good to kill these creatures; to know without doubt who was foe and how to treat them, to let steel edge and wooden shaft speak, instead of twisted tongues. A small knot of guardsmen, white badges shining bright against their dark tunics, formed about him and let no fell creature come nigh their Lady's lord.
The Uruks saw better in the dim light than did the men, and they quickly discerned that their attackers were barely more in number than themselves. The beasts swarmed together and threw themselves into the thin line of men, overwhelming the line and battling towards the top of a slope. Denethor blew a note to regroup and shouted for them to reform in larger numbers to the north. Shortly after this came the sounds of horns from the south, announcing Thorongil's arrival. The fresh soldiers made short work of the remaining Uruks.
When it was obvious that the battle would soon end, Denethor dispatched a messenger to bring the surgeons up. His own guardsmen he ordered to stay close to the healers, knowing they would be of little use in the cat-and-mouse woodland hunt for any remaining Orcs, but could fetch and carry as needed. A horn sounded east and south Where are you? He raised the Great Horn. Here. The Warden is here. Less than a quarter-hour later, Denethor saw Thorongil coming through the trees.
'Warden,' Thorongil politely greeted him.
'Captain. I was wondering if you had stopped to take tea.'
'We did, but were interrupted by a loud horn,' the man genially replied, his eyes sparkling at the jest.
'I will ask the Enemy to time his incursions for a more reasonable hour from now on, ' Denethor solemnly answered.
Thorongil bowed, corners of his mouth twitching. 'That is most kind of you, sir.'
The captain shifted swiftly from mirth to sobriety. 'The stragglers are being hunted now by the Rangers, who know this land better than any. I have a number walking the battlefield looking for our dead and wounded. We have no surgeon with us…'
'There are two here.'
'Good. We had scouts tracking closely on the way north. The Uruks did little damage.'
Denethor nodded and walked to where the Orcs had been setting up their nest. The place was littered with the corpses of those killed by the opening rain of arrows. Before searching the bodies, Denethor cut their throats to ensure they were dead. He ripped open packs, investigating what was inside. There was a very small amount of the filth they called food, knives and some small tools for fixing armor and sharpening blades, and not much else. A soldier shouted for Thorongil, who departed as soon as Denethor nodded assent. Denethor walked out from the nest in widening circles, trying to find the body of the troop leader. The creature lay two furlongs north, an arrow in its leg and its head mostly hacked off. In its pack was a crude map of north Ithilien, with markings indicating Cair Andros and a few other spots, none of them corresponding to Henneth Annûn. They know there is a stronghold, but they don't know where. Given the location of the markings and the direction of the troop, they were headed for a spot near the ford. From the lack of food, Denethor doubted that they were intended to return. Send out an attack and try to figure where the defenders are located. There must be spies watching. Wiping blood from his hands, Denethor headed towards the surgeons.
The main healer was the same man who had treated Denethor when he had nearly died of the Dragon Fire. Vardamir greeted Denethor cheerfully, pleased to see him in good health. Denethor immediately went to work next to the healer, touching the wounded, keeping them distracted from what was being done to them, taking note of who was injured and in what way. The news was good. Of the near thousand soldiers brought to battle, very few were badly maimed. Most would recover quickly. The full number of dead would not be known until the very worst wounded recovered or perished, but it looked to be fewer than thirty.
'Make way! Make way!' Rangers carrying someone in a sling shouted at others to step aside. Denethor groaned when they set down the sling, revealing Marlong. The man's face was white and he had swooned. There was blood on his arm and chest, but the worse sight was his right leg. It bent in places where a leg should not.
'Sir,' a bearer said, bobbing to Denethor, 'The captain was attacked by one of the brutes and they fell down a bank onto rocks. The Uruk was broken apart in the fall, but cushioned it for Marlong. Not enough, though.' The man looked sadly on his captain.
Vardamir came over and asked questions about how they had found Marlong, gently feeling the man's limbs and ribs, searching for more injuries. With a sigh, he shook his head. 'There's some harm to his ribs, Captain, and he's gashed on his chest from the fight itself. The leg…' The surgeon sat back on his heels and shrugged. 'We can splint it, but it won't heal right, and that's only if he lives to get to the Houses in the City.' Vardamir pulled a knife and cut away Marlong's leggings. Denethor flinched but would not allow himself to look away. One of the guardsmen walked off a few paces and spewed. The healer probed the mangled leg. 'We can't amputate, not here. No blood pooling. No arteries severed. If it can be immobilized…' Vardamir shouted for poles and rope.
By noon, the battle had been sorted out. Uruk carcasses were being dragged to pyres. Rangers were on patrol, seeking for any spies or stragglers. The lightly wounded from Cair Andros and among the Rangers were already on their way to the river, while the surgeons planned how to move those with more dire injuries. The bodies of the dead were laid in a row. Each was wrapped in his cloak or one of his fellows' if his own was too damaged to serve. Their arms were crossed over their breasts, and anguish had been stroked from the faces, leaving them at peace. Most of the dead were north Ithilien Rangers. There were enough men uninjured, and sufficient safety in the land, that the dead could be transported back across Anduin for burial.
Denethor and Thorongil walked the line of the dead, stopping at each one. Next to each body was another soldier. He would tell Denethor who the dead man was, from what place and family, and how he had died. After that, Denethor would kneel next to the body and do reverence to the one dead. At the last, he would pull the cloak over the man's face. Always, Denethor placed a small stone from the battleground under the fallen soldier's collar. When he rose, soldiers would come forward with poles and a sling and take up the body of their comrade to carry it to the river.
The last body in the line had no one standing next to him. He was Lost. At his throat was a silver star, his sword rested on his chest, his bow lying alongside him. Thorongil knelt next to this one, head bowed. He stayed like this for some time. At last, the captain raised his head, face wet. Thorongil murmured something low before removing the star from the man's cloak and collecting his weapons.
'Who was he?' Denethor asked.
'Barach.' Denethor waited, but Thorongil said no more of the man. With a sigh, Denethor called over some soldiers to bear the man away. Thorongil blocked them. 'No. He will be buried here.' Thorongil told the soldiers to follow him so he could say where to dig the grave, leaving Denethor behind with Barach. Now was his turn to kneel. The young man's face was just like that of any other who had died here – pale, with dark brows and a strong nose. His eyes would be sea-grey. You served the Steward. You served your lord. What will Thorongil write to your kin? Perhaps you two are of kin, and so he weeps. Have you wife or sweetheart? A child? Are you your father's only son? Why did you come so far to die here? For gold? For him? You should not lie unmarked.
Denethor scooped up a pebble and slipped it inside the man's collar. 'This stone marks where a battle was fought against the despoilers of Ithilien. A thousand men marched swift and grim through the forsaken land and took their enemy unawares. They fought, fierce-faced and fell-handed, and brought low their foes. Barach, son of the North, soldier of the House of Isildur, King of Ithilien, brought bow and sword to bear upon the despoilers. No longer is he Lost. Here he shall abide from now on, in the green woods of his forefathers, once more a man of Gondor.' Denethor kissed the young man's brow, then pulled his hood over his face. He waited until Thorongil returned so Barach would not be left abandoned.
Marlong's second, Gildor, spoke with Denethor privately just before the noon meal and they decided the ordering of the hideaway. By sundown tomorrow, Henneth Annûn would be restored. Denethor called for a walking desk so he could set down the tales of the dead before taking his own rest. Barach No-longer Lost was on the list. As he finished the account, Thorongil approached with food for them both. Calmacil and Gildor joined them. Vardamir wandered over shortly thereafter, blood-stained and tired. No one spoke while they ate. Afterwards, Denethor was secretary as each gave his account. The surgeon spoke first, reporting on the injuries. It was decided that all the wounded would be sent over the river so that Thorongil's men could move unencumbered back to the garrison, sweeping the forest for watchers. It bothered Denethor that they had found none. The Osgiliath company would rest here tonight, then take a week to return to the garrison. Calmacil sent orders for supplies to be brought over from the island for their march on the morrow. The seconds and the surgeon left, leaving the captains alone.
Denethor handed the walking desk to Thorongil. 'If you have a message for the Steward, I will take it back.'
'I do. Thank you.' Denethor listened to the sounds of the battle being cleared away while he watched the captain slowly pen a note.
'Did you ever tell him?'
'Who? Of what?' Thorongil absently replied.
'Who do you think?'
'Mmm,' was the captain's response. Denethor found his water bag and drank, waiting. 'I left the night of the eleventh. Halmir would have sent word to the Steward the morning of the thirteenth, I believe, urging soldiers to be sent north as quickly as possible.' Thorongil looked up, face polite and unreadable. 'It appears you had already left.'
'Halmir's notice came to me upon the road the fourteenth, though I received nothing from the Steward.'
'Mmm.' Thorongil considered his letter, crumpled it, and began another. This one also took some time to write. The captain sealed it carelessly and placed it and the crumpled note in the desk. He rose and bowed to Denethor, handing over the desk. 'If you will excuse me, Warden.'
'Of course. We will speak again after you are back to Osgiliath.' The captain nodded and strode off briskly, calling for one of his lieutenants. As Denethor passed a pyre of Orc carcasses, he fished the crumpled note out of the desk and tossed it into the flames. It was best their stories not be too much in accord. The remainder of the day was taken up returning to the banks of Anduin across from the island. There was no point in secrecy, given the battle, and probably some advantage to be gained by drawing eyes west and south of the true target. The crossing was uneventful, though one of the badly wounded men died before reaching the garrison.
Denethor was pleased with the guardsmen; they had acquitted themselves well, and had only some minor injuries to show for their labors. The Dol Amroth men who had remained at the garrison had put their boating skills to good use, ferrying troops across Anduin. Before releasing them to find their beds in the fort, he gathered them all, including those left behind, and praised their endurance and valor. He told them to have letters for their friends back in Minas Tirith ready to go with the wounded. 'Make sure they know how the Lady's Guard is expected to perform.' The men laughed and preened, saying they would. Later, just before he retired, he heard men laughing and boasting around a bonfire in the main yard. There were several toasts to the swift feet of the Queen's Men and it took him only a moment to realize they meant Finduilas's guards.
March decided to be mild as they began the slow journey back. They rested for a full day, then set out at dawn on the seventeenth. The swift two-day march out took nearly a week's time to return. Vardamir accompanied the procession, dispensing poppy in careful amounts to dull pain but not enslave the wounded man. Some lesser wounded were able to walk, but most required carts. They could not travel far in a day, for the jarring of the wagons increased the pain of those borne in them and they needed respite from it. Marlong was carried in a litter, the jerking of the carts too rough for him to bear. Vardamir kept the man near insensible most of the time. The country folk of Anórien heard of their passage and came to the road to watch. Most brought food and water, and many men offered use of their wagons, or their own strong shoulders, to ease the wounded's journey back to the City. There were no farms or villages close to the road, but each night's stop saw fires illuminating welcoming camps, dignified farmwomen in kerchiefs and aprons ladling supper from their cook pots while children fetched water and men lifted the injured down from wagons to soft pallets. After supper, Denethor would sit with the local headmen and listen to their concerns. No messages were delivered from the Steward. Each night, Denethor tried to write a letter to Finduilas before he slept. He never found the right words and the letters fed the fire.
The evening of the twenty-second, just past sundown, they came to the Great Gate. Beregar awaited him, holding a message from the Steward. It was a perfunctory request for Denethor to attend him as soon as he had returned to the City and was presentable. There was nothing from the tone to know if Ecthelion was pleased or displeased. There was no resisting Beregar's determined divestment of his pack and arms, though the Hound knew better than to try to remove the Horn. They entered the Stewards House through the Wall Door. At the end of the hallway, Denethor saw the door to Finduilas's study standing ajar, light escaping into the corridor. For a long minute, he stood, unable to make his feet go forward. With a sigh, he went to the door and tapped on the door frame.
'Come in.' The sound of her voice made his heart pound. He edged around the door, then stopped, unsure.
'I am back.'
Finduilas smiled, her cheeks very pink. She rose from her seat and came around the front of her desk, but approached no further. 'Less than a fortnight.' Her voice was pleasant but there was no kindness in it.
Denethor came closer, needing to be near her. 'Yes. Less than that.'
'I heard we were victorious.'
'Yes. Decisively.' He fumbled for words that would please her. 'The guardsmen, they did well.'
'I was worried when I heard nothing of them.' Finduilas's expression became stern and she crossed her arms. 'I thought I would know their fates sooner than this.'
'None killed, and small injuries only. A few cuts, nothing broken. None had to return.' Denethor risked edging closer until he was within arm's reach. 'I am summoned by the Steward and must present myself. When I return, I can tell you more.' He leaned forward to kiss her cheek farewell and was brought up short by her finger poking him sharply in the chest.
'You stink,' Finduilas told him matter-of-factly. 'You will need a good washing before your meeting. Hound?' This last was said loudly towards the entry. Beregar's head poked around the door. 'Please attend your lord and help him bathe so he may go quickly to the Steward.'
'Wait here, sir,' Beregar answered. 'I will get clean clothes for you.' His face disappeared and Denethor heard Beregar hurry up the stairs. Finduilas did not say anything while they waited. When he heard Beregar's footsteps coming down, Denethor walked out. He could not see her and she evidently did not much care to see him. It made his chest hurt that she had not addressed him by name or as friend. Denethor scrubbed himself fiercely in the shower and declined the comfort of the warm tub. He wanted the unpleasantness of the evening done with soon so he could go to bed and sleep.
Dismissing Beregar to take the battle-grimed clothes home to be washed, Denethor strode to the Tower. A servant was waiting for him in the hall to show him in to the Steward. Brandir also was there, and rose to embrace him.
'Denethor, how good it is that you are home!' Brandir said cheerfully. 'Please say you have taken no hurt in this battle.'
'No, none.' Denethor bowed to Ecthelion. 'My Lord Steward.'
'Warden, good evening.' Ecthelion said genially. Denethor straightened, eying the Steward carefully, searching for signs of displeasure. He found none. The Steward pointed to a nearby chair. 'I have read your reports and those of Captain Thorongil.'
'Are they to your satisfaction?'
'Yes.' Ecthelion sighed and looked pensively at the ground. 'Thorongil had said on his last trip in that he thought there would be attacks this summer. It looks like they have started already. There was a small sortie from Morgul, as Halmir had predicted.'
'Denethor, have you supped?' Brandir interjected. 'You cannot have arrived very long ago.'
'No, I came here as soon as I could.'
'Then we should eat,' was Brandir's firm reply. 'I will see to it.' Soon, food was brought, a table laid, wine poured, and he ate a civil meal with Ecthelion and Brandir. Denethor wondered if he were actually dreaming somewhere along the river road, and would soon wake to find another dirty day's march ahead of him. The Steward had several letters laid out near him, some in Denethor's hand, some in Thorongil's, and one from Halmir. Brandir would occasionally pick one up to read a certain passage and ask questions. Denethor became certain he was dreaming.
'What is the greatest damage from this?' Ecthelion asked near the close of the meal.
'The loss of Marlong as captain of Henneth Annûn.'
'I did not think him killed.'
'No, he was not killed. He is here in the Houses, and he should live, but he is injured too badly ever again to lead the Rangers. We will be hard pressed to replace him.'
'What of his second?'
'Gildor? A good fighter, a good planner, too. He will do. Calmacil should be made his second. He's wasted on Cair Andros.'
'Who does Thorongil think should command? Does he know of Henneth Annûn?' Ecthelion's gaze was sharp.
'Not from me. He knows there is a redoubt in the north, and that Rangers operate from it, but naught else.'
'He should know of it.'
'Not until he swears,' Brandir said imperturbably, earning a glare from Ecthelion. 'That is little enough for him to do.'
'Whatever you command, my lord, it shall be done,' said Denethor
'I should like to be informed when you tell the Captain-General things and of what he discloses to you, Warden,' Ecthelion replied crossly.
The Steward had counted days and knew things to be too convenient. This was more what Denethor had expected. There was something reassuring in people behaving as they should. 'As you wish, though I would liked to have been informed that he anticipates war this summer. I would have moved the extra guardsmen out sooner,' Denethor coolly replied.
'If you are finished with your meal and your reports, Warden, you may go.'
Denethor bowed and departed. Beregar was waiting for him in the hallway. 'What are you doing here, Hound?'
'Waiting for you, my lord,' he replied. 'Lady Finduilas retired for the evening and sent me to wait upon you. She was concerned you might not have got supper.'
'I supped with the Steward.' Denethor at first felt pleased that Finduilas worried over him, but swiftly became annoyed that she was not waiting up for him. It is not that late, but a few hours past sundown! Concerned about my supper? It sounds as if I am a horse off his feed. It was just as well. He had no wish to spend an evening being snubbed or scolded. Denethor was tempted to dismiss Beregar and listen to the stone, but decided he needed sleep more. The house was dark and silent. Denethor spared a glance at Finduilas's bedroom door as he went to his study. Lighting a candle, he examined the stack of messages waiting for him.
A soft mew announced Telperien. She trotted out from behind the alcove screen and wrapped herself around and through his ankles, purring. He chuckled, squatting down to scratch her ears. 'Hello, your Majesty.' She purred more loudly and bunted her head against his hand. 'Well, it is good to know someone is pleased I've returned.' He stood and began sorting the notes. The cat was not easily dissuaded and leapt to the desktop to keep his attention, landing squarely atop the messages. 'You will allow me no work tonight, will you?' She meowed. Denethor saw his pack lying near the desk and retrieved it. He pulled a few pebbles from a pouch at the bottom. 'This one, this was from the first camp in the orchard along the river road,' he said, pointing at the smallest stone. Telperien sniffed the rocks in his palm. 'The grey one, that was when we waited for dawn in Ithilien. We couldn't sleep because we were listening for the Uruks' approach.' The next stone was the loveliest, pale and translucent, with pink cracks. 'This lay next to Barach No-longer Lost.' Denethor had picked it up while he waited for Thorongil to return. Telperien delicately patted at the stones with a forepaw. 'The last came from the Rammas as we passed through to return to the City.' The tales told, Denethor crossed the room, placing the new pebbles into the dish with the others. The cat watched from her perch on the messages. 'Read those over tonight, your Majesty – you see better in the dark than I do – and tell me in the morning if there is anything important.' With a last scratch of her ears, Denethor collected the candlestick and walked around the screen.
Finduilas was waiting for him in his bed. She was not asleep and he wondered how much of his prattling she had heard. Denethor set the candle on the small table and sat on the edge of the bed, not touching her. He was not sure he wanted her here. He tired of guessing.
Her own smile was uncertain. She turned part-way onto her belly, baring a shoulder. 'I think the marks are gone,' she said.
'I see nothing.'
She looked at him hopefully over her shoulder. Denethor remained still, though his fingers yearned to trace the line of her shoulder; perhaps his hands could sense what his eyes failed to discern. Finduilas hid her face in the pillow, mumbling something into it.
'What? I can't hear you.'
'I am glad you are returned,' she said more clearly. When he made no reply, Finduilas sat up, holding the blankets to her. 'Forgive my presumption. If you prefer to rest, I will leave.'
'No. Stay.' He turned his back for a moment, leaning to remove his boots. When he looked at her again, Finduilas had let the blankets drop. Tentatively, Denethor ran his fingers along her collarbone, across a shoulder. It was different, touching a woman. Men's bodies offered no mystery; what there was to know presented itself forthrightly. His hands knew the plains and valleys of the male form, the knobby joints, muscled arms, coarse hair, skin that served to keep blood, bone and bowels where they belonged, or failed when steel met flesh and made meat of men. He had curled up with other soldiers, keeping warm on a winter patrol; scrubbed naked, dirty forms in showers and streams from one end of Gondor to the other; touched the faces of the wounded, their tears on his fingers, their hands digging into his own flesh; sunk sword into them, through armor and leather; wrapped stone-cold corpses into tattered cloaks. But this was new. The weight of her breast in his palm entranced him, how it could be heavy yet soft at once, fitting itself to his fingers no matter how he shifted them. There was nothing abrupt to be found on her, as each line curved into another. Denethor wondered at the delicacy of her arms, the hair on them more like down than akin to his own coarse strands. It was as though he had found another land.
Desire was slow to build, at first just a heaviness across his lap. It grew when Finduilas touched him in return. Her fingers caressed the backs of his hands lightly, tickling him. She tugged at his outer tunic until he pulled it off, then set to work on his shirt buttons and the ties at the wrists. Finduilas did not wait for him to free himself of it before placing her hands on his chest. Her face was serious as she touched him, fingertips tracing the lines of old scars, probing recent bruises. She took his left arm in her hands, looking intently at the scar above his wrist and the twisted burn that snaked across his forearm.
'I know you said not to,' she whispered, 'but I looked for you anyway.'
'I was not there.'
'Sometimes, I can see you. In other dreams. But not this time.'
'Why do you watch? You don't like what you see.'
'It is worse not seeing. After this,' she touched the burn, 'I could see nothing for so long and it left me despairing. And you write nothing.'
To say he had nothing to write would be a wretched excuse, so Denethor kissed her instead. Finduilas moaned and cupped his face between her hands, returning his kiss with her own, more powerful and insistent. All his careful study fled. Somehow, Denethor's fingers remembered how to undo his trousers, though he had not time to shed them completely, for Finduilas pulled him down on top of her, one hand in his hair, the other at his waist. There was still cloth between them. Denethor broke their kiss and yanked the offending blankets aside. As soon as she was free of them, Finduilas had her legs wrapped around his waist. He had just enough wits left to take his cock in hand and guide it to her furrow, crying out when the tip of his shaft slipped between wet folds. Denethor moved until he found the deeper fold that led into her, then pressed. Her womb seized him tightly and he said things in a tongue he did not know. He was doubly circled by her, within her body and again by her legs, crushing him into submission. He fought back, but only to ensure his own defeat. His shaft was withdrawn and thrown again, and harder, and swifter, and again, and again, and then, too soon, his life spilled and he cried out.
They clutched each other until their breathing slowed. Denethor shed his clothes, tossing them into a heap on the floor, and pulled the blankets up around them. Finduilas snuggled closely, making a great sigh of contentment. 'Welcome home, friend,' she said softly, 'I have so missed thee.'
'Alquallë,' he murmured, kissing her. When they stopped, mischief came over him. 'I stank that bad, did I?' Finduilas giggled, nodding her head. 'Next time, I'll have the Hound douse me in the watering trough at the messenger stables on the way up. It will save some time.' She laughed out loud so hard it made her cough. When she finished, he asked, 'Am I forgiven, wife?' 'Yes, husband.' Content with that, Denethor wrapped himself around her and slept.
Denethor woke to the feel of Finduilas kissing him, lips traveling across his cheek and down his neck. He felt heavy and languid through his entire frame, so he did not try to return her caresses, though he smiled at her when she noticed he was awake. She returned his smile but did not leave off her exploration. This suited him. Denethor watched her as she gave close attention to each part of him. Last night had not been as wrenching as when they first lay together; was this good or bad? Good, he thought. He still looked in vain for some sign in her. Patience. Did she not counsel this when you would have turned back? There was little sign then, but you trusted in her and you were welcomed. Besides, Ciryon said a new bride should be curious about her husband's form, and become as familiar with it as with her own. It would not do to interrupt her education.
Finduilas folded back the blanket, baring them both to the chill room. The air raised goosebumps on her arms and the dark rings on her breasts, while the passage of her hands on his belly roused him from his lethargy. Now he had to school himself to stillness, with more success in some places than others. Trust her. Denethor could not help his gasp when Finduilas touched his groin, fingers working through the thick mat of hair to brush the base of his cock. She paused, looking to him for permission. When he nodded, she touched him again, further up the length, looking at his rigid flesh with great curiosity. Her touches were too light and sudden, irritating instead of pleasant. Denethor took her hand and closed it around the shaft.
'As you would pet the cat. A steady stroke.'
'This?' She smiled at the sound he made. A thoughtful look came to her face and she squeezed firmly. 'That, too,' she wisely noted. Denethor nodded agreement, breathing heavily, then groaned as she experimented. When she had finished, Finduilas sat up and said, with a wicked smile, 'You look chill, friend.'
'Goosebumps all over.'
'I think that you, not the chill.'
'Both. What about this blanket?' Finduilas stretched out on top of him, kissing him as she did. She grinned and leaned her arms on his chest. 'I see why you like this perspective.'
'This one is not bad, either,' he admitted, wondering what she was planning. Her impish manner cleared away the last gloom that had been clinging to him, and Denethor allowed himself to be delighted at her forwardness.
'Mmm,' she kissed him, 'but this blanket can be improved. You still feel chilled.' She wiggled further down on him before fishing between them. 'I think, friend, you did this,' grasping him firmly, 'and then this,' her hand maneuvered him between hot, damp folds, 'but it should also work like this,' she raised herself up on her knees and shifted her hips until she found the giving spot, and pressed herself down onto him. As she did so, he felt something within her fail to give and she grimaced. Denethor grabbed her hips to keep her still.
'Wait,' he panted, trying to remember the midwives' drawings. 'Slowly.' He drew her down again, giving her a push or a pull to ease pressure, get a different angle. Finduilas's concentration changed, from trying to get things to work to enjoying how well they did so. This perspective was nearly perfect – though he could not kiss her, Denethor could see her and touch her. Her face became fierce as she sought her pleasure, her hair a dark and flowing storm, white skin mottled with pink like the stone he had gathered in Ithilien. She loomed over him and he gazed up as at the City, approached after a long absence. The Lady is returned. In his ears his blood pounded and sang, and the stone exulted in being mated again. Here, I am here, I am thine. I swear I am true. He willed her to let him see her, as she saw him always in the secret place but where he felt only the ghost of her touch.
Denethor felt himself being called and this time he was not afraid. He flung himself towards that voice, leaping from a wall instead of clambering carefully down its face. His body heeded a different call, no less consuming. Stone became flesh once more and the song turned into hoarse cries and panting breath. Finduilas drooped into his arms, allowing Denethor to cradle her against his chest. Coughs came within a minute, but passed quickly. He rubbed her back in slow circles, listening to the wheeze in her breath. It was strongest when Finduilas exhaled. It felt very good to lie still with her draped over him. Too soon, she stirred and propped herself up on his chest.
'May we stay here all day, friend?'
'If you wish.'
'I suppose you will want to eat something, though. You must keep up your strength.'
Denethor gave her a light swat on the rump for her impertinence, but also a kiss. 'Yes, I must.' He smoothed back her tousled hair, smiling. 'Are you satisfied now, wife?'
'Not entirely. With this,' she gestured at the tangle of limbs and bedclothes, 'yes, very much so. But you spoke of things that troubled you, and I do not think them past. Not yet.' Finduilas kissed him lightly. 'I shall not press you on this, Denethor. You will tell me in your own time.' With another kiss, she rose and picked up a robe from the floor. 'I will tell the kitchen to send breakfast.' By the time he was finished washing and dressing, breakfast was waiting in the front room. Finduilas stood at an open window, looking down on the lane. The breeze coming in the window was almost warm, and the scent was of spring. It was the first time he had smelled it this year.
She turned to him with a smile. 'It is a fine day, friend, and I will not be lying abed. I wish to breathe in this wonderful air!'
'What shall you do?'
'Not go to the archives, that's for certain. Nor should you.'
'I thought to walk to the first circle today, to speak with Gethron. Why don't we walk together?'
'Have you much business?'
'Not a great deal.'
'Then I have a better idea,' Finduilas firmly said, bestowing a light kiss as she passed to prepare their meal. 'We should take the horses out and ride.'
Denethor nodded agreement. 'Yes, that is a good idea. Where to?'
'Do I not have some holdings on the Pelennor?' He nodded again. 'I would like to see them.' They were soon on their way, a bundle of food in a pack slung over Denethor's shoulder. Finduilas took his hand as they walked, and he had no wish to touch the stone. They talked of the City and she pointed to buildings, asking about them. He explained the secrets of the waterworks, how the weight of the used water flowing down the mountain powered the pumps that moved the fresh water to the top from the aqueduct that brought glacial melt-water from the reservoir high up on Mindolluin and across the saddle ridge where the Hallows sat. Even though he knew more about the system than anyone else, Denethor still marveled at how ingenious it was.
Gethron was pleased to see them. He had received a full report on the guardsmen, sent while Denethor was on the road, so he had no questions there. Denethor was just as glad; he did not wish to speak of the battle in front of Finduilas. Instead, they spoke of the next journey, to Pelargir. The criminals had not been sent while there was battle joined in Ithilien, and it did them no harm to spend a few more days in gaol. Finduilas listened intently when Denethor spoke of going with the guardsmen to Pelargir on the first of April. She waited until they were on the way to the stables before asking questions.
'Must you be the one to go with them?'
'Another could go, but it gives me a good reason to visit Pelargir.'
'That is where you get most of your news of Umbar.'
'Yes. I have not been to Pelargir since September. I need to go.'
'So you will know what the summer may bring from the south.'
'Yes, prince. Exactly so.'
Finduilas sighed and took his arm more tightly. 'I don't like you going away. I know you must.'
'I will spend no more time than I need to.'
Soon they were riding north on the great road. Denethor enjoyed watching Finduilas on Gull. The horse and rider matched each other – tall and graceful, regal in bearing. The mare's bridle had no bit, only a low-placed noseband where the reins attached, as suited a steed of the mearas. Naught but her own will made her obey her rider. His eyes strayed back to Finduilas. Not even a king could impel you to do what you willed not.
When they had gone almost two miles, Denethor turned aside on a lane leading east. Around them, green returned to the land. Trees bore tiny bright green leaves, and the first flowers could be seen. A number of fields showed black earth as they were prepared for spring planting. The slopes were crisscrossed with low stone walls, rock gathered from the fields themselves over centuries of tilling. Finduilas gestured at the fields and farms around them. 'How long have these lands been settled, Denethor?'
'It is not the oldest settled land of Gondor. Those lie in Lebennin, between the Serni and the Sirith, and belonged to the lords of Pelargir when it was the first and greatest fortress of the Faithful. The Pelennor was next, however, and has provisioned Minas Tirith since it was a simple fortress in the Second Age. Osgiliath also drew most of her stores from these fields.'
'What of Dol Amroth? I thought that was the oldest settlement on these coasts.'
'Not of Men. The Elves settled Edhellond and welcomed the Faithful, but Men did not stay there until after Pelargir and this fortress were built. Lond Daer is older than either, of course, but Pelargir was the first great haven of Gondor.'
Denethor scowled. 'Only seventy years older, and it was much longer before it became a true city. The Pelennor had farms before they did.' He looked across the fields that sloped gently from the mountains to the river. You have never been lost. The Enemy had not seized these lands during the Second Age, not before Akallabêth nor afterwards. Castamir had not conquered Minas Anor, for the Pelennor had stood firm behind the Rammas, rebelling against his cruelty.
'Why would they ever choose here to live?' Denethor's head snapped around at these strange words. Finduilas looked not at the fields, but at the mountains in the east. Her face was full of dismay. 'It makes no sense to me, friend, that of all the lands of Middle-earth, here was where the Faithful sank their roots and built their capital. Why live under that shadow?'
'The better to oppose it, prince. To watch and be ware of the Enemy's designs. It is in the face of that they named themselves Faithful.'
Finduilas did not answer, urging Gull into a canter. Gaerhûl followed without Denethor's command. They reined up a mile further on. Finduilas was lost in thought, eyes moving from the land around them to the dark fence on the horizon.
Word spread before them that the Lady was riding the land. People stood near the gates to their farms, waiting for a glimpse of her, just as people had gathered by the road when she had traveled to Minas Tirith in the late fall; Denethor had watched her journey in the palantír. Aside from polite bows and greetings, the farmers ignored him. Parents would ask for her blessing on their children and many wore the four feathers as decoration. A few even had it embroidered on a shirt. It is not just the guards who are Queen's Men. Speaking to the people distracted her from her grim study of the east, which pleased Denethor.
They stopped at two crofts that morning. The families who tended them were sober, hard-working people, proud of their charge to care for the Lady's fields. One farm grew barley and had a large garden, while the other was at the north-eastern edge of the Pelennor, with ancient apple and plum trees and a fine flock of wool sheep. Finduilas asked the names of the tenants, the ages of the children, and when the crops would be ready. She was not content to remain at the cots, but walked to the byres and into gardens and orchards, speaking easily to farmer and goodwife alike. Denethor trailed at the rear of each procession, admiring how Finduilas could enchant even the most taciturn.
By midday, they were close to the Rammas where the road to Osgiliath passed through. They turned the horses loose to graze in an abandoned field while they themselves scrambled up the ruined wall to find a spot where they could eat. Beyond and below, they could see the ruins of Osgiliath, three miles distant, and the brown line of Anduin. They ate in silence, Finduilas once more studying the green foothills of Ithilien and the dark mountains behind. Denethor looked at Osgiliath, just able to make out forms moving on the walls of the garrison. Queen's Men and King's Men. He glanced at Finduilas. Her face was like the song of the City, proud and sad at once. How is it you have chosen me? It was all wrong. There was no mystery why he should will to be hers; there was no other way to love her save with all his soul. If she did not love so in return, then the fault could only be in him, for there was none in her. But you chose me. I would not have presumed, save for the claim you laid on me. What cruel fate bound you to a lesser one? You are queen, but there can be no king for you now.
He scowled and stared at the garrison once more. There was the other mystery. The king who was not. 'So, what are we to do about him?' Denethor said absently, only realizing that he spoke aloud when Finduilas left off staring at the Ephel Dúath and gave him her attention.
'You said that you wished him to be closer at hand. Why is Osgiliath not close enough? It is but a few hours' ride.'
Denethor glanced at the ruins, then turned to look at Minas Tirith herself. 'The Captain needs to leave lonely places behind.' He looked at the ancient wall beneath them and started picking at the stones. 'Thorongil said himself that there is nothing left in the north, no cities, only small settlements. Probably nothing as great as Edoras, let alone a city like Dol Amroth, Pelargir, or Minas Tirith. He is not used to great places, not as he should be.'
'He seems well read, and has good manners, so he is not a barbarian, but I do not think he understands how to give order to things,' Finduilas added thoughtfully. 'What he wants, he will pursue, and with good judgment, but I've never seen any sign in his reports that he grasps how things come to be and, thus, how to shape them. There is only doing.'
Denethor mulled her words. 'It is not for lack of concern…'
'I think his heart generous…'
'But all is battle and great struggles,' Denethor concluded, 'and his concern is not for this.' He held out a pebble. She took it and examined it, then looked quizzically at Denethor. 'He does not think about Gondor as a piece of rock, a length of dirt, a stand of trees, a village of simple folk. Last year at this time, Thorongil was asked directly by the Steward to swear an oath to forsake his wandering ways and make himself a man of Gondor. He refused.' Her eyes widened at that news. Denethor laughed mirthlessly. 'It is all that allows me to have any say in the ordering of Gondor's defense, for there are things he may not know or do if he is but a mercenary. Even Brandir will not excuse him on that point. Thorongil understands this, yet he will not swear.'
Finduilas considered this. 'But, if he is as we believe, it would be wrong for him to swear loyalty to the Steward as liege; the higher cannot be made subject to the lower.'
But you have wed yourself to me, so that is not so. 'He already has! He is sworn to serve the Steward as completely as the Prince is sworn,' Denethor rejoined. ' "Here do I swear fealty and service, and to the Lord and Steward of the realm." What he refused was to place loyalty to Gondor before any other.'
'If he already has an oath to Arnor…'
'… which does not exist. By his own admission, there is naught left there. He is chieftain of nothing, if he is even that.'
'We have not considered that he may be but heir, even as you are. If so, he is bound to obey that lord.'
'Who has sent his heir out as he sends any other mercenary. Or else the heir defies the lord and wanders without leave.' Denethor held out his hand for the stone. 'This is what I do not understand, prince. I see why he would mask himself, for there are dangers and enemies. That is mere prudence on his part, particularly if he has nothing in the north to draw upon.' He turned the stone about in his hand, as though an answer could be seen in it, like a vision in a palantír. 'But why does he deny his own, reject a pledge of alliance, spurn an offer to be received with honor, prefer to live upon the patronage of the corrupt than make cause with the honorable?' Denethor caught her eyes once more. 'Why does he put his trust in a wizard and deny the truth to those who would serve him?'
'I have no answer, Denethor. Do you think to win his trust by keeping him closer?'
Denethor shrugged, playing with the rock. 'He has had more than enough proof of trust. There are more practical concerns. He knows how to command soldiers. I have yet to see that he knows how to rule subjects, and he is not going to learn that sitting on the river.'
'What of Beruthiel?'
'She will work to capture him for her own ends, of course, and he has some reasons to bend himself to her aims.' Denethor looked at Finduilas and wondered again what would be if she had given her heart to another man.
Something must have shown in his face, for she leaned forward and kissed him lightly. 'Have more faith in both of us, friend. Thou art mine and my fate. Besides, Thorongil has been warned not to look to her to further his ambitions.' With another light kiss, Finduilas gazed west at the City, a keen look on her face. 'I think the problem to be not Thorongil, who lacks a certain political sense, but Beruthiel herself. The captain is not alone in lending himself to her designs, and we must think of more than just him where she is concerned.' Finduilas returned Denethor's sharp look. 'The time approaches to show her that her seductions are not so enticing. She has considered herself above threat or harm from anyone save you. She is blind enough to think she can suborn me to her schemes. We will have less to worry about over Thorongil, and most others, once it is clear to all that another challenges her reign.'
'Would that possibly be yourself, prince?' Denethor asked in amusement.
'It would be a shame not to make use of that banner,' she answered with a smile.
'What do you propose?'
'A very great feast in Merethrond, where she will see that the City answers to another lady now.'
'It should be a significant day. I would say tuilérë, save that she already has something planned. Also, it serves well to have a comparison.'
'Then it should be loëndë.'
'Yes, that gives me time to plan. You will be here?'
'I should. I usually ride at that time through Anórien and see how planting goes, meet with village heads, and visit the close-in garrisons – Osgiliath, Cair Andros, Anórien – but I will make certain I am here for that.'
'Where is the fourth?'
'You told me last December that there are four close-in garrisons.' Before Denethor could reply, she said, 'Oh, I understand. The fourth is the secret place. Forgive me, friend, I will not pry.'
He nodded, toying with the pebble from the Rammas. 'Do you still have it?'
Finduilas pulled out the black stone hanging on its chain around her neck. 'Always.'
Denethor put the other stone into a pocket and took the black stone in his hand. 'This, he may not know of unless he swears. It is Henneth Annûn. There is a cave in north Ithilien, carved out by a river. The river was dammed and the cave sealed, so now the river flows over the cliff top and falls across the front of the cave. A hidden passage in the rock leads to the cave. It is a cheerless place. No fire may be lit, only a few dark lanterns at night. All the food is cold. If you stand on the lip of stone, you look west, through the waterfall. It is a window. On me. I don't see you, though I know you are there. You see me. I know not how.'
He let drop the stone and began putting the remains of lunch into the pack. 'I will need to enlist Brandir's help to gain the Steward's approval to bring Thorongil into the City.' Denethor shouldered the pack and clambered down, going to the horses. Finduilas soon joined him. She did not ask any more questions, but called Gull over, telling the mare it was time to continue. When he would have saddled the mare, Finduilas refused, teasing that she knew full well how to saddle a horse, though she did allow him to check the girth to ensure it was tight enough. Before he stepped away, she kissed him deeply. 'I see you much better when you're near,' she whispered. They returned directly to the City, having seen enough of the Pelennor for that day.
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