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Hands of the King: 39. Change
Minas Tirith, 24 March, 2977 T.A.
Denethor waited on the wall above the Court of the Fountain, turning his ring with his thumb, watching for Brandir to emerge from the tunnel. It was the day for the weekly meeting of the Steward's counselors, and Denethor needed Brandir to provide a specific piece of counsel. He did not have long to wait; Brandir walked out into the court, whistling a jaunty tune. Denethor hailed him and gestured for his brother-in-law to join him.
'I was not sure I would see you today, Denethor,' Brandir said with a grin.
'I thought you would have a difficult time rising.' Brandir's eyes twinkled, then he added, 'from bed.' Feeling his cheeks redden, Denethor glared, which did nothing to dampen Brandir's cheer, though he did not continue the jesting. 'When I saw you the other night, you looked very worn and I wondered if you would need a few days' rest.'
'I have been thinking.'
'You are always thinking, Denethor.'
'I think I need your assistance.'
'You have it,' Brandir promptly replied.
'You don't know what I ask.' Brandir shrugged. 'Thorongil needs to be stationed here, in Minas Tirith, not out at Osgiliath. I need you to argue for this with the Steward.'
'Why? Both, I mean. Why move him and why should I argue?'
'For the first, I need to speak directly to Thorongil more often, and be present for his counsel to the Steward. There are too many chances for misunderstandings when all is conducted by letter. As for the second, the Steward opposes what I propose, so it is best coming from you.'
Brandir smiled. 'Even such a fool as me can see the good sense in this. Consider it done.' They set out upon the upper walk towards the Tower. 'And now you must promise me something in return. You must come to our party on tuilérë.'
'Has not Finduilas spoken to Maiaberiel? She told me we would be there, but at a few others as well. She has received many invitations and did not wish to insult.'
This satisfied Brandir. In the council chamber, while they waited for the Steward, Denethor recounted facts of the recent battles to the assembled counselors. There was as much relief over the news of few injuries as over the victory itself. Ecthelion soon arrived and the business of the realm was conducted. The news was uniformly good. There was sun and rain in proper measure, traders, not pirates, came to the coasts, and markets were busy. The only poor news was of the Enemy. Denethor summed up the recent contest in just a few words, as all here knew what happened, then provided an opening for Brandir to present his argument.
'While we succeeded in this contest, there is some fear it is but the first of several incursions we shall see this summer. The Lord Steward informed me of Captain Thorongil's opinion that we should expect attacks, large ones, from the Enemy. I see nothing to contradict the captain's judgment.'
'You will forgive me, Warden, if I must contradict your judgment, in light of this news,' Brandir said. 'I think it is unwise for the Captain-General to be always in Osgiliath if we are certain of such dangers. He should be here to provide immediate counsel to yourself, the Lord Steward, and the rest of the counselors of the realm.'
'The Captain-General's command is Osgiliath,' Borondir interrupted before Denethor could respond. 'If we face near-certain attacks, is it not unwise to remove him?' There were a few looks and nods around the table.
'If there are attacks, Minas Tirith is close enough for him to return swiftly,' Brandir replied reasonably, 'just as happened in the winter assault upon Osgiliath. Denethor was to Ithilien in two days on foot for this last attack. Indeed, Denethor, you always divided your time between the garrison and the Citadel. We were well counseled and well guarded.'
'Denethor was Warden as well as Captain-General,' Borondir interjected. His voice and manner scarcely changed, but Denethor could tell he was greatly angered at Brandir's argument. 'He had additional duties requiring him here.'
'Osgiliath is the Captain-General's particular command, yes, but its daily operation is overseen by the second. Boromir and Belemir had no Warden duties, but they, too, were as oft in the City as upon the River,' countered Brandir. At the mention of his father and grandfather's names, red came to Borondir's face and there was no hiding his displeasure. 'Thorongil comes seldom to Minas Tirith, which deprives the Steward of his counsel and robs him of any chance to be more to Gondor than a soldier.'
The other counselors shifted in their seats and exchanged surreptitious glances at Brandir's last words. Denethor glanced quickly at the Steward. Ecthelion wore a slight smile and seemed unsurprised by any of this, though he had grasped the white rod upon the table tightly, betraying his interest in Brandir's proposal. Will you take the bait? Denethor put aside any doubts he had as to how easily Brandir was making his argument. He knows this will please Beruthiel. What of it? Even rivals may have the same goal. Borondir drew breath to respond to Brandir. Denethor held up a hand, forestalling a reply. 'Your arguments have been heard, gentlemen. They will be considered.'
'Indeed, they will.' Ecthelion sat forward in his chair and gestured at Denethor with the white rod. 'I find wisdom in both of these counselors' words. What is your judgment, Warden? Where shall the captain make his nest?'
Denethor waited long enough to signal that he disliked the entire conversation. 'I think it premature to make a final decision. It seems unwise to me to bring Thorongil out of Osgiliath if this is to be a year of war. Even so, I agree with Brandir that it would be… helpful to hear the captain's counsel more directly.' Once more Denethor paused, looking sternly at the Steward, who was nodding thoughtfully. 'If such a thing is to be done, then there needs to be greater communication between here and Osgiliath, indeed, between the City and all of the garrisons. My counsel, Lord Steward, is the same as before Brandir led us off on this side path – given the recent incursion and the opinion of Thorongil, we need a council of our captains as soon as they may be gathered. I go to Pelargir in a week's time, and can return with the southern captains. I recommend alerting the Rohirrim and asking if they have an emissary to send. At that time, when the needs of the kingdom are known, a decision can be made.'
'Agreed.' The Steward rose, signaling the end of the council. 'There will be a captains' council on April the seventh. Warden, please arrange for all of our commanders to be present. Brandir, you will see to alerting Thengel. As always, we thank you for attending us and helping us to bear the burden of rod and rule, until the king should come again. Good day.' The counselors bowed and left. Denethor made certain that Ecthelion saw him stare coldly at Brandir, then leave in Borondir's company. His cousin said nothing, nodding when Denethor gestured to follow. They left by the upper walk and went to the Stewards House through the Wall Door. Finduilas's study door was open, so Denethor tapped and peeked around the door at her greeting.
'It is me and Borondir. Have you time for us?'
'Of course I do,' Finduilas answered, coming to greet them each with a kiss on the cheek. Wren was already gathering her work, excusing herself. She and Borondir had a brief exchange at the door about a few reports he was preparing for her before she left, closing the door behind. They were soon sitting before the unlit hearth with wine. 'What happened to leave the two of you looking stormy?' asked Finduilas.
'Brandir played the fool in counsel, as usual,' Denethor said, looking at her intently. 'Someone very much wishes for a certain captain to be here in Minas Tirith, not in Osgiliath, and Brandir proposed it after my report about the battle in Ithilien.'
'Maiaberiel or Ecthelion?' Finduilas replied without hesitation.
'I think the former, though planned by both.'
'Has he really so little sense that he will say anything he is asked?' Borondir demanded. 'Even worse is that he either doesn't understand or cares nothing for the insult he offers!'
'What did he say?' Finduilas asked Denethor.
'He made an argument to bring Thorongil into the City…'
'…and had the effrontery to compare that unsworn mercenary to Denethor, and even alluded to advancing Thorongil beyond his current station!' Borondir angrily interrupted. Finduilas was startled by the man's vehemence. 'Did I not warn you a year ago, Denethor, that Thorongil would not be content to remain a soldier?'
Denethor held up a placating hand. 'Yes, you did. And I told you that I have plans for him, just as much as the Steward does. At the Captains' Council, I was going to ask for exactly this, for Thorongil to be stationed in the first circle garrison.' Finduilas smiled and nodded her head a fraction.
Borondir looked at him, incredulous. 'Why?'
'Because I cannot travel to Osgiliath without it being known, whereas I can meet with him in the City both openly and not. You as well.'
'Meet with him?'
With a sigh, Denethor answered, 'Yes. You will meet with him, as will I, and Finduilas, and whomever else I deem necessary.'
'He will have only that many more opportunities to speak to others unfriendly to you, cousin,' Borondir warned. 'If he may meet with you, he may meet with them as well, and have the Steward's approval for doing so.'
'I warned the captain not to cast his lot with Maiaberiel,' Finduilas calmly said, 'and I doubt he wishes to risk my ire.'
That silenced Borondir. He stared at her, then dropped his eyes to his cup, thinking. After a long minute, he nodded to himself before looking at her, a wry smile on his face. 'He would be worse than a fool to disregard your wishes, my lady.'
'He knows he has other choices than to be Maiaberiel's favorite,' she replied. 'He has been kept out of the City while I was not here to help secure my lord's position. Now that I am here, he may be permitted in, but only to prove where his loyalties lie. He knows to ally himself with Denethor as well as to avoid entanglements with Maiaberiel. Now he must be given the opportunity to do so. You will help Denethor with this as you have helped me win over the City.'
'You needed no help from me on that,' Borondir sheepishly answered.
'Of course I did, dear cousin! Without your instruction, I would not know how things are in the lower circles, who to speak to, how best to use the Lady's Grace. Speaking of which, since you are here, I have questions for you if you are not due elsewhere.'
'No, there is nothing else that needs my attention today. Denethor, I do not think there is much else to speak of for now concerning the captain…'
'There is not.' Denethor drained his cup and stood. 'I need to prepare a summons for the council.' Nodding, he went to his own study. It both amused and irritated him that Borondir would quibble with him over the captain, but not with Finduilas. Your word is his law, Alquallë. Is it not so that the queen needs no crown? Denethor had to remove the cat several times from the desk before Telperien would allow him to write his messages. The summons were the same for all, save for the name. Even Thorongil was provided no greater word than what the garrison head in Poros was told. A guardsman was dispatched with them to the messenger stable. Next was to attack the rather large stack of correspondence that had accumulated over his absence. It really should have been attended to yesterday, but… Denethor permitted himself a small daydream remembering the previous afternoon and evening, when they had returned from the Pelennor. It had been difficult to leave the bed. He worked through the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon on the messages, not pausing for dinner.
When he finished and walked into the front room, Finduilas was waiting for him. She smiled and held out her hand. 'I wondered when you would return, friend.'
'Return?' Denethor kissed her.
'I looked in earlier before dinner, but you were so intent you did not notice.'
'It is done now.'
'So, who did ask Brandir?'
With another kiss, Denethor said, 'I did.'
'That is what I thought. Borondir knows nothing of your larger plans, does he?'
'Then I shan't say anything. I know he cares little for Maiaberiel or the Steward, but his ire was surprising.'
'Brandir made mention of both Boromir and Belemir in arguing for Thorongil to be allowed in. I think that, more than any insult to me, angered Borondir.'
Finduilas considered that for a moment. 'I will remember that. What of your dinner? Huan has been chafing for I would not permit him to interrupt your work.'
'Yes, I need to eat something.' Denethor smiled and teased, 'I imagine you will have some tasks for me this afternoon, and I must keep up my strength. ' Finduilas did not smirk or flirt at his words, but looked embarrassed, shaking her head. 'Alquallë?'
'No, no tasks.'
'What is wrong?'
'Nothing… wrong, precisely.' Her cheeks were becoming increasingly red.
'Say what concerns you. Have I done something?'
'Oh, no, Denethor! Nothing like that,' she hastily assured him. 'It is just that I am, well, I'm bleeding…'
'Bleeding? Then there is something wrong.'
'No! I said that poorly. My moon flux has come, and so I am bleeding.'
Denethor did not think he had ever seen Finduilas's face this red and she would not look at him. He rose and placed a kiss on her brow. 'I understand.' He did not entirely understand, but would soon enough.
Following his late dinner, they went to the archives. Denethor composed another message there, one that could not be sent from the Stewards House. Afterwards, he consulted first the midwives' book, then Ciryon. Both advised that a woman leave her marriage bed during her flux. Ciryon sternly warned husbands not to be ill-tempered or impatient over this. "Her womb sheds the blood intended for a child, now spoilt for lack of virile seed. It is your own failing to not place such there." Both said mating at such time could bring on contagion, which would sicken the woman and could leave her barren, or worse. With that last sobering thought, Denethor turned to his reports.
Minas Tirith, 26 March, 2977 T.A.
The reply arrived at the archives, directing him to a house in the fourth circle. That night, Denethor crossed the rooftops and let himself down from the roof of the fourth circle house to a small balcony, little more than a ledge, on the top floor. The latch offered no resistance to his knife, allowing him to enter the empty building. He opened a disguised door on the third floor, exposing a similar locked door opening into the neighboring house. Denethor tapped a code and waited. No one came, so he tapped it again. This time, he heard footsteps, the lock turned, and the door opened a crack. He stood where he could be seen. A young woman opened the door the rest of the way, allowing him in, then locked the door behind him.
'How did you get in? I have been watching all evening,' she said crossly. When he gave no answer, she sighed in irritation and motioned for him to follow. In an inner room with no windows, Morwen sat, looping thread into lace with a bone hook. It was disconcerting to see her doing something besides business. She smiled and set aside her handiwork when she saw him, but did not rise from her chair.
'Morwen.' Kissing her cheek, he said in Haradic, 'I miss our meetings,' before sitting in the chair opposite.
'As do I,' she replied in kind. 'Your accent is poor.'
'Then let us practice. I have much news. I leave for Pelargir on the first. If you have anything you wish sent to Magor, leave it at The Messenger's Rest for Beregar to put on the boat. Magor may collect it from the archives down there.'
'Oh, yes, I will have things to send!' Morwen assured him, face alight at the mention of her son. 'Will you meet with my brothers when you are there?'
'I will, but I do not need to be carting baggage through the street.'
'May I also entrust a message for Violet to you?'
'Not even to give it to Lark?'
Morwen gave him an exasperated look. 'Denethor, you need not see the woman herself…'
'I do not care to have anything to do with her. Send those messages the usual way.'
'Do you really think your use of me is that distant from his use of Violet?' Morwen coldly asked. 'You think yourself better than him because of what you buy.'
'I buy information from you, as I would buy a book from a bookseller.'
Morwen laughed humorlessly, and said 'You buy but information? Very well; I buy but a courier. How much to carry a bundle of clothes and coin? And how much more for me to send a message to someone? If I give you gold, you will pay no mind to what is sent, or to whom, yes?'
'You have made your point, Morwen.'
'But have you learned anything? You scarce veil your contempt for me and mine, even as you use us. You presume upon kinship, then treat us as less than strangers. You bought the services of my house for the garrison. How is your providing whores to soldiers different than my providing one to the Steward? Are we not both whoremongers?' Denethor held his tongue. Morwen slowly smiled. 'What other news do you have?'
At first, Denethor was tempted to tell her it had a price. 'Something we have anticipated. It looks that Thorongil will be brought to Minas Tirith in mid-April to stay.' He cocked his head to the side. 'Shall I be as consistent in thought as the captain, demanding that the Steward shut down what offends me? Your service to the Steward would count for naught in that decision.' Now it was Morwen's turn to be silent. 'I think we make use of each other as it serves our interests. I do not stop your business, Morwen, no matter how little I think of it. I wish you would practice an honorable trade and it revolts me that you will keep your daughter a whore. I do not wish my sisters and kin to be whores. Do you fault me for that wish? Why should I not detest a woman who lived openly with my sire, bringing shame to my house?'
Morwen retrieved her needlework and began looping and knotting the thread. Denethor waited. 'You should not hate Violet,' she said after several minutes and without looking up from her work. 'She did as he asked, and he was thoughtless. Selfish. I think her punished enough for her foolishness.' Her nimble fingers created intricate lace. 'How much will the captain interfere with our business?'
'Considerably. Maiaberiel had Brandir put the case to the Steward a few days ago. It will be decided in early April, after I return from Pelargir.'
'Will he try to have the houses closed?'
'Probably. You may have to move to Pelargir.' Morwen made a face at that thought. 'I will try to keep him close to me when he is in the City, and send him oft to travel about the realm.'
'You hinted at a problem with the captain a year ago, but I have heard naught.'
'Though he commands the army, he is still but a mercenary and his loyalty remains in question.'
Morwen's brow creased as she considered the news. 'That will matter more this year than last.'
She smiled and gave him a sly look. 'Because the City has already given its heart, and will not be so forgiving of such lapses. They love her more than they love him.' Morwen's smile became more open. 'Our Lady is much loved. Those who oppose her will not be in favor in the lower circles. There are fewer women to work at my house because of the Lady's generosity.'
'Does this put you in opposition to her?'
'No. I told you before, most whores wish to be wives. More than that, they wish to be respectable. Within my house, my women are respected, though others speak poorly of them.' She glanced sharply at him. 'The Lady defends the respectability of young widows and other pretty girls so they need not seek my protection. There are worse things than to work in my house, Denethor. Yours is not the only cruel kin in Minas Tirith.' Morwen's hands moved back and forth, dip, loop, turn, pull, the motions regular and steady. 'Perhaps my daughter would like to meet her.' Minutes passed and the lace grew. 'You may go, Denethor.'
The climb back to the roof was more difficult than the drop down, but he managed. Denethor did not wish to be seen entering or leaving this house. He did not hurry on his return to the Citadel, but walked along the walls, listening to the stone. His feet wandered a circuitous path – over this roof, down that lane, up the steps to the next circle – until they brought him to the stone bench upon the promontory. Denethor sat on the wall itself, back braced against a merlon, and looked at the ghost that was Osgiliath. A hidden king among haunted ruins. Moving him to the City brought Thorongil's assumption that much closer as well, putting flesh on the bones of what Denethor had always believed long dead. He wondered if the stone's song would change when the captain arrived.
Minas Tirith, Tuilérë, 2977 T.A.
The days might be warmer, but the night air still carried the edge of winter's chill this high up on the mountain. Finduilas pulled the blue mantle more closely about her as they walked from the sedate tuilérë celebration given by Hathol and his wife to what was undoubtedly a more animated observance at Maiaberiel's. There had been two parties prior to the last, and undoubtedly more after this one.
Sounds of revelry from Maiaberiel's house could be heard as far as the main street. Inside, the noise was overwhelming. Denethor was tempted to turn around and head for the next party, and handed their cloaks to the doorward with reluctance. Finduilas squeezed his hand and smiled. 'Two dances. Then we go.' She wore the same sea-blue dress as she had worn in Dol Amroth at their betrothal, and once more there were flowers in her hair. The only difference was that her hair was gathered up, exposing the nape of her neck instead of falling loose like a maid's. And the gold ring on her right hand. Denethor smiled slightly in return and kissed her hand before tucking her arm under his own and joining the crowd.
The composition of the guests was interesting. There were a few faces he recognized from the small suppers Finduilas gave, but most were Maiaberiel's faction. While he expected this at smaller parties, she usually had a more varied guest list for major feast days, if only to preen before more people. There were fewer people than usual, and a larger portion of them were from very minor families. They behaved differently as well. Aside from the occasional fawning girl, Denethor was used to being ignored by Beruthiel's hangers-on or else treated scornfully; at best, they would grudgingly behave themselves if he were watching. Now, all wished to pay their respects and curry favor. No, they still ignore me. They wish for Alquallë's regard. Finduilas greeted all with politeness, but saved her affection for the few who had been her guests as well. Denethor saw Brandir waving on the far side of the room and steered them towards him. Maiaberiel was not there. Probably upstairs.
'You are finally here!' Brandir exclaimed, embracing each in turn, 'I thought I was going to have send the watch out to find you!' The man was completely inebriated, and his cheer seemed forced. Yes, upstairs. Denethor tried not to look at Brandir too closely, not wishing to see the chain love had cruelly placed upon him.
'Of course we are, brother,' Finduilas assured Brandir, kissing his cheek, 'but so many require our attention. You must share us now, I fear. As soon as I rest from our walk here, you must give me a dance!'
'I would be honored.' Brandir answered, a real smile on his face. Finduilas motioned to a servant, asking for water to be brought to all three of them. She chatted with Brandir, waving away any drink brought over unless water, helping the man sober up a little. Those two did not appear to need him for their conversation, so Denethor continued his study of the other guests. One thing that did not surprise him was how few were changed.
Denethor had read more on marriage and the changes it wrought, and understood better the different conditions. Once, it seemed, all but a handful of Dúnedain were changed and knew themselves to be so; their love was seen and they could see that of others. That ceased when Númenor fell under Shadow. It was one of the ways the Faithful knew each other, for their hearts were true to their spouse and to the West alike; no one whose heart belonged to the Shadow could be changed. After Akallabêth, in the slow waning of the Dúnedain, the fidelity of the Faithful diminished, too, until they were little different from ordinary men. Only a very few could will as he and Brandir had done, and only they were fully changed and could see truly. Others loved, were true to their vows and could be seen, but they themselves did not see others; their change was not complete. For either, if they were touched lustfully by one besides their spouse, they would be sickened, even as Elves, though perhaps not to the point of death.
When he walked in the City, Denethor looked at people to see if they were changed. It heartened him to be able see most Dúnedain, even if it was dim. Their hearts were true. Perhaps more important, they were free of the Shadow. The knowledge of that connection was gone, as far as Denethor knew. He could recall stories of old crones who could see love, finally understanding what was true in the myth, but never had he heard of being able to see into a man's heart and know his opposition to the Enemy. Is but a truth revealed, or is a soul actually changed by love? He could not tell. In his own heart, he felt not so much changed as exposed, no longer able to dissemble or pretend where Finduilas was concerned.
Brandir had regained a sufficient level of sobriety for Finduilas to lead him out for a dance. There was still nothing to see in her. Patience. We have lain together only three nights. In his dreams, Denethor could hear her. When he looked about in the dreams, he saw something out of the corner of his eye, but could never gaze upon it directly. Only when he used the spyglass in the Tower did he see Finduilas. She was at the far end of the ship's keel, her back to him, gazing east. Denethor could see every strand of hair, every stitch in the stars on the mantle, even the tiny scratches on the surface of her ring where her hand lay upon the stone, but he could not see her face. Through the glass, however, he could see her heart. Patience.
A hand touched his back, forcing Denethor to swallow hard to keep his supper where it belonged. He glanced down at Maiaberiel and made himself smile genially. A flush was fading from her throat and face. He wondered how she kept her hair so neatly arranged during her exertions, then decided he would rather not know. 'Good evening. Through rutting?'
The jibe made her smile more broadly. 'Since you two have arrived, yes.' Maiaberiel looked him over very deliberately, then raised an eyebrow.
Denethor gestured towards the dancers with his chin. 'The song is short. I think my absence, at least, would be noticed.'
His sister laughed gaily, slipping an arm around his waist and standing on tip-toe to kiss his cheek. 'A jealous wife, hmm?' Denethor shrugged, forbidding himself to recoil. There was more afoot than Beruthiel trying to shame him. 'It matters not. You'll have greater things to worry about soon enough.'
He chuckled and it was not feigned. So, that is why you are so cheerful. It was not difficult to smell the wine on her breath, though Maiaberiel was not drunk like Brandir. Denethor decided to see whether that and her lust would make her incautious. 'I think not.'
Her eyes were full of malice and her smile slipped a fraction. Dropping her voice to a murmur, she said, 'You ruined some of my plans with this marriage, Denethor, but not all, and now there are new ones.'
'Thorongil coming to Minas Tirith? I know all about that. It is hardly a plan.'
'You have no child yet.'
'She is too young for that.'
As soon as Denethor said it, he realized that was probably a mistake. Maiaberiel grinned at him, clearly pleased. 'Of course she is.' Her eyes sought out Finduilas and Brandir as they danced. He was doing better, but still clumsy enough to stumble every few steps. The two were laughing. 'You do not fool me, brother,' Maiaberiel said softly. 'You think yourself so clever. I see now why you forbid her any parties or visitors save when you may watch.'
'No, I only forbid her your company.'
'She disobeys and sees me anyway. You and the Monster, your hold on her is not so strong as you believe. I think she has reconsidered her choice. Perhaps you aren't what she wants.'
'It does not matter what she wants.'
'If you say so, Denethor.' The music stopped, ending the dance, and all applauded the dancers. Maiaberiel allowed her hand to slide down Denethor's back and caress his rump before joining the applause. Something in that touch sickened him greatly, more than the others. Nodding to Beruthiel, he walked off. He made it to the privy without having to hurry, but it was a close thing. The next stop was the kitchen where Denethor claimed a cup of wine and went to the courtyard to wash the sour taste out of his mouth. He returned to the great room as quickly as he could, though being sure to saunter once there. Finduilas and Maiaberiel were animatedly chattering while Brandir stood nearby, looking almost sober. As soon as she saw him, Finduilas smiled and hurried over.
'There you are,' she said. 'Do not think you will escape a dance.' She kissed him on the cheek, then sniffed sharply and looked at him with concern. 'Denethor?' she whispered.
'Later.' He offered her his arm, not smiling, returning to their hosts. 'Brandir, I fear we must go.'
'No, Denethor, you must stay a while more,' Brandir entreated. 'We have not seen you and Finduilas dance yet. You must give us at least that.'
'Denethor, you promised me two dances here,' Finduilas began. He shook his head, cutting her off.
'I wish to go. We can dance at the next house.'
Finduilas smiled uncertainly and nodded, though Maiaberiel could not hide her satisfaction at his words. Brandir walked them to the door and helped find their cloaks. He kissed and embraced Finduilas. 'Thank you for coming, even if for a short time. You have gladdened my evening greatly. Denethor,' Brandir turned to him, taking his arm, 'you leave on the morrow for Pelargir, yes?'
'Early, as soon as it is light enough to march to the Harlond.'
'I have sent word to Thengel.' Brandir searched his face. 'This is what you want, brother?'
'Yes, it is.' The man said nothing. Denethor nodded a farewell and took Finduilas's arm. They walked as far as the lane leading to Vinyamar in silence. He stopped and asked, 'What is the next place?'
'What made you sick?' He could neither lie nor tell the truth. Denethor turned away and continued walking towards the sixth circle gate. Finduilas tried to tug on his arm and make him stop, but he refused. 'Did you eat something bad?'
'Then what?' He shook his head. After a few dozen yards, she sighed. 'Very well. Can you bear one more stop? It is in the sixth circle and can be as short as you like.'
Finduilas dropped his arm and hastened her step. He followed her to Widow Almarian's door. She did not knock, but stood with her arms crossed, staring at the ground. 'This is the tuilérë feast for our own house, friend. There is no room large enough in the Stewards House for it. The archivists are here as well. If you are going to be grim, go home.'
'I will be good.'
She looked at him sternly before sighing and knocking on the door. One of her guardsmen opened it. 'Hunthor, good evening!' she gaily greeted the man, who bowed them in with a flourish. There were sounds of merriment from the dining hall beyond the parlor. Denethor asked Finduilas to wait, and looked in the parlor for water. There was no wash basin, but there was a pitcher and some cloth, allowing him to clean his face and rinse his mouth once more. When they entered the hall, a cheer went up. Everyone from the Stewards House was there, even old Sador, and most of the archivists were also present. Widow Almarian and Lieutenant Gethron rounded out the company. For a moment, Denethor thought he was going to weep, though he could not understand why, then Aiavalë embraced him, Beregar gave him wine and took his cloak in the same moment, and Finduilas slipped her arm around him, making the melancholy flee. He raised his cup to the room, saying 'A good tuilérë to you all!'
His toast was returned and others offered, then Aiavalë dragged him over to greet Almarian. When he stood before the widow, she looked at him keenly, then laughed. 'I see you have no need of my blessing, Warden, but I shall give it anyway! As life leaps up in the warmth of spring, may love so grow in the warmth of your house.' Almarian kissed him on each cheek. Looking at her, Denethor saw how she still loved, even as a widow. It was strong and bright, though mixed with sorrow, and he knew she could see him in return. Almarian held out her hands to Finduilas and gave her a similar blessing and kiss, then shooed them away. Finduilas looped her arm through his and did not leave his side as they visited with the guests. He did not drink any wine after the first cup, and ate some bread and a few sweets to be rid of the last queasiness in his stomach.
Not long after they arrived, four of the guardsmen pulled out instruments and began to play sprightly tunes for dancing. As at Lark's wedding, only a few could dance at one time, but no one minded waiting. Denethor claimed Finduilas for the first dance and then accepted whomever crossed his path. Even Wren said yes. The last woman he had to convince. Aiavalë stood near Almarian and Mallor, talking of something. Denethor strolled up and hooked his arm into his sister's, walking her off to one side. Not giving her a chance to object, he began to dance with her in a small circle.
'Denethor, stop!' she snapped.
'No.' He had to hold on to Aiavalë firmly to prevent her from wriggling away. 'I have danced with everyone but you.'
'You would make me a fool?'
'No one is paying the slightest attention to you,' he airily replied. 'They all watch Alquallë, so take advantage of this. If you shout, they will look.' She let herself be guided, though her eyes were angry over her veil. 'I don't think one dance in a lifetime is enough. Won't you let me give you two?'
'Very well, if it will please you,' she grumbled. He kissed her forehead, and they danced, slowly, at the edge of the room until the tune came to an end. Aiavalë hugged him before punching his arm. 'Go find your wife so I may see the two of you dance once more before I retire.' With a bow, he gladly obeyed. Aiavalë was not the only one who was weary by then, for the hour was late, and all set out for their homes. Denethor and Finduilas walked back to the Citadel, arms around each other's waists, followed by the household. In the front room, Finduilas gave him a brief kiss good night on the cheek before retiring. Denethor eyed the closed door to her room before sighing and going to his own to shed his finery. He was half-undressed when he heard Finduilas's door open and close. She tapped on the edge of the screen.
'Friend?' She peeked around the edge.
Finduilas took a few steps forward. 'Would you like company tonight?'
He made love to her as tenderly as he knew how. Finduilas went to sleep immediately afterwards. Denethor watched her sleep, the melancholy of earlier creeping back. He wanted her to love him as he loved her, and could not help his tears, turning his face into the pillow so he would not wake her.
Pelargir, 3 April, 2977 T.A.
Denethor left the garrison and walked towards the market. The guardsmen were settled in, the thieves had been sent on, and the captains would be gathered by mid-day on the morrow. They would set sail tomorrow evening and travel a few leagues upriver. The commander of the Poros crossing was already here, as was Angbor of Linhir and Lord Morvorin. Angbor was accompanied by the garrison commander, Minohtar, from Linhir. The lords of Pelargir agreed that Baragund could speak for them. The far western lords, Duinmir, Gundor, Hirgon, and a handful of lesser nobles, did not wish to make the long journey. Adrahil, too, had declined, and had not offered to send Imrahil in his place, saying that he trusted in the Warden's judgment. That left the small garrison commanders in Tarnost, Belfalas, and one each along the Serni and the Sirith to fill out the company. Forlong was probably already in Minas Tirith.
The lamps threw interesting shadows on the streets. Denethor had spent the first two nights in Pelargir listening to the stone, but tonight he was to see Ragnor and Marach. He strolled, in no great hurry. He had not walked for a quarter hour before he knew he was followed. Denethor smiled to himself and wandered a long path, finally ducking into the shadow of a doorway. He waited several minutes before Magor paused before the door. The boy had grown at least a hand since the previous spring and was all arms and legs.
'I know a new way,' the youth said softly, not turning his head. Denethor fell into step next to him. After a few twists and turns, Magor led them into a stairwell half filled with debris. They went over the rooftops, up and down walls and stairs, and finally came to an odd little door in a narrow alley. Magor pulled out a knife and expertly picked the latch, letting them into a back corridor of the house. 'Auntie, we're home!' he called after the door was closed and locked behind them.
Keniha popped her head out a door further down the hall. 'I was wondering when you two would appear.' She bustled up, bestowing a kiss on Denethor's cheek. 'Yusil, Ahnknor waits for you.'
'No. He is off in Linhir talking to some traders,' she said, motioning for them to follow. She paused at the doorway where she had just been and delivered directions to the women to have supper brought for the guest and the master. 'Zarih is with him. Since he cannot go on the long trade trips anymore, he is always off for a few days to this market or that dock.'
'I am sorry to have missed him.' Ragnor greeted Denethor warmly and they spent supper discussing trade. Keniha excused herself from the meal, promising to return with tea. Magor sat nearby to serve as needed.
'Accept no grain or flour from the south, Yusil,' Ragnor warned, 'for there is some kind of pernicious weevil destroying the grain crops. Wheat, barley, sorghum, and millet; they are all affected. So says my oldest boy. He was in Far Harad all winter, and will return by early summer.'
'I will alert the harbormaster and have word sent out to the ports.'
'Good. Also, the pigs in Rhûn, the black ones, are said to suffer from some kind of contagion.' Ragnor delineated every major good from the south and east, talking about the quality, the quantity, and the price for it all. There was a small barrel of salts and packets of powders for Denethor to take with him back to Minas Tirith. 'Though what use you find for them, Yusil, it worries me,' Ragnor said in half-jest.
Keniha knocked and entered with a tray of black southern tea, which Magor took from her. The youth set to preparing sweet, lemon-scented cups of it for all. As soon as she had her tea in hand, Keniha asked, 'Is your wife carrying a child yet?'
Denethor shrugged. 'Not yet. By the end of the year.'
'I wish to see her, Yusil. We all waited last fall to watch her ride by and got only a glimpse. She is beautiful! Perhaps I shall come to Minas Tirith to see the markets and the Lady.'
'We will come south at year-end for her sister's wedding to the heir of Linhir.'
'Then you will bring her here,' Keniha said in a tone that brooked no disagreement, so Denethor nodded. He sipped his tea and gave Ragnor a meaningful look. The old man set down his tea with a sigh.
'Umbar is allowing in a few traders, but not yet to the port itself.'
'What of the pox?'
'Gone, as far as I know.' Ragnor's face was worried. 'There is still smoke from the central square, and it burns at all times. They want coal to feed it. And…' The man fell silent, fingers picking at the rug beneath him.
'They build. They kill. All southern routes are dangerous.'
Denethor nodded, sipping his tea. Magor listened to the conversation closely. Denethor motioned at the youth with his chin. 'How does this young weed come along, Uncle?'
Ragnor smiled, giving Magor an affectionate cuff. 'He's quick with his speech and quicker with his knife.'
'Do you read and write as well as you talk?' Denethor asked the boy.
'I will have some things for you, then. I will send them through the archive.' Denethor had dutifully delivered Morwen's note to Lark along with others from Wren and Finduilas. The archives were in much better shape than the year before, and he had surprised Lark by asking to be shown around. All dust was gone and the great lanterns were lit once more. The old archivists were there, but so too were a few young women. He asked whether the archives were being used for storing deeds and wills, and advised her to begin collecting them here. Lark had been rightfully proud of the new works she had obtained – a few ancient books from old local houses as well as a marvelous collection of Haradic poetry. Denethor left after requesting that she have the poetry copied and sent to Minas Tirith.
There was not much else to say. Keniha and Ragnor both wished for accounts of the wedding, there was a little more trade-talk, and then Denethor regretfully said he needed to return to the garrison. He walked all the way back and shared a late cup of wine with Baragund, idly paging through garrison records while Baragund offered a few laconic observations about the prospects for war. Sleep eluded him as he thought over Ragnor's words about Umbar. When he slipped over the wall, the stone was silent, as though it, too, had heard about pyres and dark deeds. Denethor went to the southern tower of the Haven Wall, and sat on a window sill, looking south. I know some of what you do. There had been no word from the Faithful since the report of the storm over two years ago. All spies he had tried to send disappeared. Are your souls changed, now that the Enemy has returned, or have you been but biding your time until you could reveal with impunity what was already there? He stared south, wishing he could see the dark spire of smoke for himself. I need to see them, to know with my own eyes what they have wrought. But there was no way. Or was there? Denethor laid his hands on the stone, and once more he could hear its voice. The lanyard around his neck tingled, and for a moment Denethor imagined that an ancient hand rested on his shoulder. The Faithful can see.
Minas Tirith, 6 April, 2977 T.A.
It was late afternoon by the time the boat docked at the Harlond. The captains and lords were eager to stretch their legs after two long days on Anduin. There had been a small breeze to aid the rowers' labors, but not enough to substantially shorten the trip. Denethor had spoken with all of the men and knew how things were in the southeast part of the realm. There was enough of the day left to walk from the dock to the Great Gate before sundown. Brandir and Thorongil awaited them there.
'Welcome Warden, my lords, captains, to Minas Tirith!' Brandir called out when they were close enough to hear. 'I hope your journey was uneventful.'
'Entirely, but enjoyable nevertheless,' Denethor replied. He stood aside while greetings were exchanged. 'Brandir, does the Steward expect us tonight?'
'Yes, he does. He knows you will all be weary from your travels, but asks for the pleasure of your company at supper as soon as all may gather in the Tower.'
'Shall we, gentlemen?' Denethor set off without waiting for an answer. The summons meant he would have no opportunity to return home first and see Finduilas. He set a brisk pace to discourage any stops or idle chatter. It had rained recently, for the stone smelled of water, even though all looked dry. In the pots and flower boxes, spring came to the City; vines showed green leaves and blooms adorned windows and stoops. The flags on the battlements had been replaced, now that the threat of winter's storms was past, and crisp white banners gleamed as brightly as the rain-scrubbed walls. Around them was the last bustle of the day as people prepared for nightfall; chatter and enticing scents spilled out through half-open tavern windows, water jugs were being filled, people exchanged last words about the business of their day before heading to their suppers. The city-folk nodded or bowed their heads as the entourage passed, but did not turn aside from their own business. All was decorous, neat, and prosperous, as long as one ignored the closed gates and empty courts. As they passed through the gate from the fifth circle to the sixth, Denethor looked proudly at the Citadel wall. No dark pyre would ever mount to the sky from Minas Tirith.
Something caught his eye and his feet slowed. Above them, where the battlement of the stone pier met the Citadel wall, Finduilas stood, watching their approach. She was wrapped in her mantle and her hair was her banner, strands of it caught by the winds of Mindolluin. Brandir saw her as well and waved, then Morvorin, then the rest. Morvorin led a great cheer. 'To our Lady!', which made her laugh and wave in return. Denethor did not wish to enter the tunnel and lose sight of her. Had the lords not been there, he would have gone right to the wall and scaled it to be with her. It was difficult not to break into a run in the tunnel, but Denethor made himself remain walking (though swiftly) to the seventh circle. As they came into the Court of the Fountain, Finduilas descended the steep stair from the wall, and it seemed to Denethor that never had he seen the court more beautiful than it now was, in the last light of a spring eve, with his love standing before the White Tree, more perfect than the Tower behind her or the stone beneath her feet. He did not care that he could not see into her heart – in her face was all the proof of love he could ever wish. She smiled and held her hands out to him. Denethor crossed the few yards between them and took her hands, bowing over them and laying a light kiss on her fingers.
'Friend.' Her smile did not change, but her eyes twinkled. 'Huan brought news that you were summoned by the Steward. I did not wish to wait to see you, even if you stank.'
A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, making Denethor glad that he had his back to the others. 'Not so much today.'
'Indeed, almost presentable,' she agreed. 'May I greet our guests before you depart for supper?' He offered her his arm and they returned to the men, who bowed deeply to their Lady. 'Gentlemen, I shall not keep you, for I know the Steward waits. Welcome to the City. When the stern business of your council is through, I look forward to your company.' She dropped Denethor's arm and bowed her head slightly to him. 'Glad is my heart for your safe return, my lord. I leave you to your supper.' Finduilas stood on tip-toe and kissed Denethor's cheek, then left, walking swiftly to the lane leading to the Stewards House. Denethor saw Beregar waiting for her. Only when she was out of sight did he look at the others. They were all, to a man, still watching where Finduilas had disappeared. He cleared his throat to get their attention.
'Let us go to the Tower. There we may wash the day's travel from our hands and faces, then greet the Steward.' This was soon done. Ecthelion was not the only one who waited. Lord Forlong, Hathol, and Borondir were there. Anbar, the Anórien captain, and the captain of the messengers were also present. Thengel had sent Prince Théoden and another young man, Éomund, to represent Rohan. Supper was something of a council itself, with each telling the most pertinent news from his location. Denethor had heard all of it before and wished only for the meal to end. Too late for his tastes, the soldiers departed for their garrison, the lords went to the guesthouse near the Tower, and Denethor was free to return home.
Finduilas sat near the hearth in his study, sewing something, the cat curled up in the basket at her feet. Denethor closed the door behind him and sat in the chair across from her, content to watch her at her work. She smiled, but said nothing. They sat in silence until she completed whatever she was mending, fished a complaining cat out of the sewing basket, and put her work away. They stood before the cold hearth. Denethor touched her face, her hair, her throat, before drawing Finduilas into a long kiss. After, Finduilas snuffed the lamp behind her chair and led him to bed.
Minas Tirith, 8 April, 2977 T.A.
The wind off Mindolluin was cold and damp, his head lost in clouds, presaging rain that night. Denethor bumped Thorongil with his elbow to get his attention, then signaled for the captain to stay near him as they left the Tower. Thorongil nodded fractionally to indicate he understood. The second day of the Captains' Council had concluded in the afternoon following a late dinner with the Steward.
Yesterday morning, Thorongil had outlined a sobering picture of the coming summer. He believed there would be a steady stream of attacks, begun with the Uruks' incursion from Morgul, that would last until heavy rains arrived in autumn. 'The Enemy seeks to weaken us with a thousand tiny battles instead of a great victory. We can bring many to bear on a single spot more quickly and effectively than he, and our defense is swiftly done. There will be attacks upon the Wold and East Emnet, with Mordor Orcs, possibly augmented by dark things out of Mirkwood. Morannan and Morgul will spew forth band after band, scattering quickly throughout Ithilien to divide our forces and keep us from rest. Harad itself may not attack, but there will be war bands aplenty in the south, hugging close to the mountains until they see a chance to strike. The coasts will see pirates, of that you may be certain.' The captain had paused, looking each man in the face. 'This will be a test of our planning and of our cooperation. Troops will need to be raised in a few days, to move swiftly, and to serve under any captain at need.'
There was little debate, only discussion over how this would be done. At dinner, Denethor and Ecthelion remained in council while the others ate. It took only a few sentences to agree to bring Thorongil to Minas Tirith – Denethor did not even try to feign disapproval of the plan. 'He must be here to advise, but also to go swiftly wherever needed, north, south or east,' Denethor had stated. The Steward asked a few questions, then nodded, telling Denethor to announce this when the council rejoined. A few of the captains looked doubtful when the decision was announced, though the southern lords were very pleased to learn that they might have the captain to lead their defense. Thorongil himself said nothing, looking thoughtful. The rest of the day and this morning had been given over to accounting of troops and supplies, and crafting a few battle plans for meeting the most likely threats. The young Rohirric lord looked pleased by the idea of war, much to Denethor's disgust. When Thorongil had tried to speak with him last night, Denethor had ignored him.
The men milled about the court before the Tower, talking among themselves and glancing at the Warden and the Captain-General. Denethor had dressed carefully that morning, wearing clothes that echoed the soldier's garb Thorongil wore. There is cooperation here, and it shall extend down through the realm. What the Captain knows, I know, and what I know is also for the Steward. But I shall know it first. The games of two summers ago would not be repeated, for there was great danger in rousing the Steward's ire. He might just order something foolish, like tearing down the bridge, if he felt slighted. Denethor cleared his throat, and discussion ceased.
'Gentlemen, thank you for your counsel. This will be a dangerous summer, but less so now that we have met and know what we are to do. Captains, please gather at the lower garrison for orders this afternoon. You will return to your commands on the morrow.' The soldiers bowed and left, heading towards the tunnel. 'Brandir, may I ask you to fill my duty and take the lords to greet the Lady. I must have a few words with the Captain before he, too, goes to the garrison, and I do not wish to keep her waiting for her guests.'
Brandir smiled and bowed grandly. 'As you command, Warden, though I think I have the better company. No insult to you intended, friend Thorongil!'
'None taken, my lord,' Thorongil answered with a chuckle. 'I think all here agree they would rather speak to Lady Finduilas than to me.'
'Quite,' Denethor dryly concluded, 'so the sooner we speak, the sooner I may go.' All shared a guffaw at the captain's expense. Denethor walked with the lords to the lane, then ascended the stairs to the Wall. Thorongil followed him to the end of the promontory. Denethor leaned against the wall, waiting.
'I am surprised,' Thorongil said almost at once. 'I thought you would wish me in Osgiliath.'
'I would have, had you told me of your concerns when we last spoke in Ithilien.'
'There was not time.'
'You know how to write. In truth, I intended to have you brought in sometime this year.'
Thorongil's eyes grew keen. 'You learned something in Pelargir?'
'Little, save that they continue to rebuild and they recover from the pestilence of last year.' Denethor looked Thorongil in the eyes. 'We have but two years to determine how to meet their threat somewhere besides here, when they sail upriver uncontested. There can be no planning if you are hunting Orcs in the woods.'
'I do a bit more than that.'
Thorongil laughed at the jest. 'I will not pretend that I don't prefer this city to that one. And it is more than time to address Umbar.' The captain looked away south, before meeting Denethor's gaze. 'But not without the Steward's knowledge.'
'He will oppose if he thinks himself slighted.'
'That is also why you are here. You will need to bring him to understand why we must act. I will figure out how it is to be done. You will make it possible. And for that, you need to be here.'
'So I am to be your second again, Denethor?'
'No. I have no second.' Denethor peeled himself from the wall and the two walked towards the stair. 'You will need to return to Osgiliath tomorrow to inform Halmir. There are guardsmen to go out there as well. Get the garrison set, then return.' When they reached the foot of the stair, Denethor turned towards the tunnel, not the lane. 'There will be rain, a lot of it, if the wind speaks truly. Will this put off an attack? One is due.' Thorongil thought it would and the two spoke as they walked until they stood before the Houses of Healing, where Denethor bade the man farewell.
There was another captain to speak to.
Marlong lay on a bed in a room that had a window on the courtyard. His leg was wrapped and splinted, and his foot rested on a pillowed block of wood. It took a minute for him to notice Denethor was there. He stared dully at Denethor, saying nothing.
'Marlong.' The man made a motion with his head that might have been a nod. 'I bring you news of a counsel just held.'
'The battles this summer.'
For a moment, there was a spark of interest in the man's eyes, then he shrugged. 'Thank you, sir, but you need not bother.'
'You need the news.'
'I am of no use to your battles.' Marlong gestured at his leg. 'I will live and I may walk, but I will ne'er be a soldier again.' Sorrow came to his face. 'A bowman needs his legs. You know that.'
'Less than a captain needs his wits, or a warden his counselors,' Denethor sharply answered. 'If you think to be excused because you are injured, you may cease. Given what Thorongil reported today, I can no more spare you than I can spare any captain.'
'Of what use can I be to you, my lord?' Marlong protested. 'I cannot even rise from my bed to attend a council!'
'You will next time. I don't care if you need to be brought in in a barrow, I need someone who can advise the Steward on North Ithilien.' Denethor crossed his arms and gave Marlong a stern look. 'I found a use for Borondir. Rest assured, I shall find one for you. How soon will you be walking?'
'I, I… I don't know. Several weeks…'
'No. I need you sooner. Two weeks.' Denethor found a chair and pulled it up to the bed, and began to reel off all that had been discussed in the council. He knew Marlong would not remember half of it, given his pain, but that was not the point. Even so, he tried to make it brief. When Marlong could no longer pay attention, Denethor rose. 'I will return in a few days. I expect some ideas for how Gildor will deal with a summer of attacks like this last one.' With a curt nod, Denethor left to attend to his guests in the Stewards House.
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