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Hands of the King: 41. Interregnum
Minas Tirith, Early June, 2977 T.A.
Finduilas heard footsteps coming towards her and smiled, but did not turn away from checking the list of books against the actual volumes on the archive shelf. Only when she heard a light tap on the shelf-end did she look. Denethor was there, still dressed for riding, and he smiled at her charmingly. 'I only stink a little,' he offered.
'I will be the judge of that,' she primly replied. Finduilas made a great show of sniffing him. 'Passable,' she pronounced and kissed him. He pulled her tightly against him and returned the kiss intently. 'Welcome home, friend.' Denethor had been in Osgiliath for two nights. Thorongil had requested he come to the garrison and meet with Halmir, Anbar, and himself prior to the captain's journey to Pelargir for a council with the southern commanders before the summer war season began in earnest. She knew that Denethor had been eager to leave the City. His presence now surprised and pleased her – she had not expected him to return until late in the day and not to have time for her until the evening. 'When will you be through with the Steward?'
'Now,' he answered with a quick grin. 'I have already been to the Tower and I am free to do as I please the rest of the day.'
'And what pleases you, my lord?' she teased.
He answered with another kiss. 'You.' Denethor left off his embrace, but held her hand. 'Are you free to come with me? I remembered something when in Osgiliath and need to find it.'
'Yes, I can return to this later.' Finduilas let him lead her to another cavern. 'What did you remember?'
'About loëndë,' he replied. 'I read it years ago, and if I remembered it rightly, it will be useful to call on for your feast.' They were soon among the histories. Denethor began slowly searching shelves on the early centuries of Gondor, occasionally checking a book. It was good to see him like this, alert and cheerful. After she had spoken to him of his weariness, Denethor was less like that and only once had she seen him fall asleep in the middle of the day. With a satisfied grunt, he held up a book. 'The account is in here. Come along.' They went to his small study room at the back of that cavern. To Finduilas's disappointment, Denethor had steadily replaced Silmarien and the other authors with books of war histories, engineering and alchemy since his return from the south.
Denethor set the old book on his desk, smoothly hooking his chair with his foot to bring it close for him to sit. Finduilas paid no mind to the book, preferring to watch him lose himself in his work, and remained standing near the door. 'We were right to pick loëndë for your great feast, Alquallë, ' Denethor said without looking up, 'for that day should be dear to the realm's Lady. Here, let me read this to you - '
Loëndë is like mettarë, a merry event with little ceremony and much food. Just as mettarë is given over for the King to rejoice in the riches brought by the preceding year, so is loëndë the time for the Queen to celebrate the first fruits of the season and also to look back upon what has been given to us. Most of all, it rejoices in all the children born since the previous mid-summer. In Osgiliath, the Queen leads a parade of small carts and wagons pulled by hand or by dray dogs; in the wagons are young children or early harvest vegetables. Minstrels, jugglers and acrobats accompany the parade while older children wave flags, beat drums, and blow horns as they walk along. Country folk from Ithilien and the Pelennor, even Anórien and Lossarnach, join the city dwellers of Minas Anor and Minas Ithil to fill Osgiliath from dawn until the next sunrise, eating, drinking, and delighting in the games of our children.
He looked up at her when he finished. 'Do you see? It fits perfectly.'
'Yes. I am glad you remembered this. In Dol Amroth, it is a festival day, but not specific to children or the Princess. If the Steward assumed the king's role in mettarë, does the Lady traditionally fill the queen's role for loëndë?'
'Not really,' Denethor said with a frown. 'Loëndë stopped being the Queen's feast in the reign of Valacar, when he took the northern woman, Vidumavi, to be his queen. It was the first act of rebellion against the kings by the sons of Calimehtar. They would not countenance Vidumavi conducting the festival, and were hostile to those who attended. During the Kin-strife, it was abandoned entirely.' Some of the cheer left his face as he studied the page. 'That is how I came to read this – learning the history of that time.'
'So none of the Steward's wives have led this celebration?'
'There was usually a feast given in the Citadel on that day, but it was not greatly distinguished from tuilérë or yáviérë. The last time it was observed was by my grandmother, Vanimeldë. Maiaberiel has her party, of course.'
'Then it is time for it to be revived. A great feast day deserves a major celebration for the City. I had only thought to have a feast in Merethrond, but now…'
Denethor nodded agreement, '…but now there is good reason to make it wider.'
Finduilas nodded. Tomorrow was Tuesday, her usual day to meet Borondir and Luinmir. Wren and Aeluin had their hands full with the feast itself, so the other two would be needed to organize any greater celebration. Adanel, as well. She stared at the floor before her, silently going over ideas and the people she would need to bring them about.
A soft chuckle brought her attention back to Denethor. He had his chin propped on a hand and looked amused. 'Does Beruthiel have any idea what is going to happen to her rule?'
Finduilas smiled wickedly and they shared a chuckle, but then she sobered. 'What of your news, friend? Will there be fighting at festival time?'
'There might be,' he admitted. 'Thorongil says that Rohan must be ware because the river can be forded from anytime now until the autumn rains, and he thinks incursions likely. That was the news to the Steward.'
'You said you were free for today.' Denethor avoided her eyes, nodding. 'But not free otherwise?'
'A messenger has been sent to Rohan, asking for Prince Théoden to meet myself and Brandir at the Mering ford to receive this news himself and to arrange our joint defense this summer.'
'When must you leave?'
'In the morning. I will have other business in Anórien as well, and will be gone most of the month. I will return before loëndë.'
She smiled and held out her hands to him. 'Then we should not waste our time with old books. We can make better use of this day.' This made him smile again. When they reached the Stewards House, Finduilas stopped downstairs to let Aeluin know that they were not to be disturbed and would call when they wished for dinner. She found Denethor in his alcove, laying out some clean clothes. His heavy outer shirt was dumped into a basket with other soiled garments. 'What are you doing, friend?' she asked.
'I didn't wash since riding in, just my hands and face,' he replied, 'so I was going to the baths first.'
Finduilas answered with a smile and a long kiss. 'You are quite presentable as you are. Later, you will need a good scrubbing.'
'Mm-huh,' she answered through another kiss. The light in the alcove was soft and dim, just enough to see each other. Finduilas shivered as he drew his hands over her, undoing the ties and buttons on her clothes, his lips following to greet newly bared flesh. She tried to loosen his clothes, but he took her hands and held them behind her back until she stopped.
When he had her undressed, Denethor sat on the bed and motioned for her to turn around slowly. Facing him again, she could see his cheeks and throat were flushed. Denethor said nothing, but pulled the coverings aside and patted the bed. With a smile, Finduilas took her time lying down, arranging herself to be enticing. As she hoped, he touched her, his beautiful hands following certain paths across her skin, fingertips here, his whole palm there, and then a brush from the back of his fingers, making her gasp. The entire time, Denethor's eyes did not leave hers. Finduilas patted the bed beside her, inviting him to lie down. He pulled off his boots and stockings before standing, beginning to turn away to unfasten his pants.
'Don't turn aside,' she commanded, 'I wish to see you as you saw me.' He hesitated only a moment before turning back and letting his pants drop. She smiled at the sight of the front edge of his shirt held up by his erection, the white cloth draping gracefully to either side. Denethor stepped out of the pants, kicking them away, then took his time undoing the laces at his cuffs and the buttons at his neck. With a single smooth motion, he slipped off the shirt and tossed it after the pants, then stood with a hand on a hip, waiting for her inspection. That was when she saw it.
A dark line marked his neck, heavier at the sides of his neck and getting thinner until it came to a point just below his collarbone, ending in a small, off-white patch. Finduilas sat up, the hair on the back of her neck rising. It was like the scars she sometimes saw in her dreams. 'What is that? What marks your neck?' she demanded, fumbling for a sheet to pull over herself.
'You have seen this before…'
'No, I have not!'
Denethor began to move to the bed, then halted, raising a hand to the scar. It lifted up from his neck, revealing itself to be a necklace of some kind, and the white patch was a pendant. 'Yes, you have,' he said quietly, 'though mayhap you do not recall, for it was a year and more. This is the mariner's lanyard.' When she said nothing, he slipped it over his head and held it in his hand. 'Do you wish to see it again?'
'Yes. Bring it here.' Finduilas felt exposed and tucked the sheet in around her, leaving just her arms and shoulders bare. Denethor sat on the bed, laying the lanyard between them. She remembered it now, a bit of rope clutched in his hand that he showed for a few seconds before stuffing it back in his pocket. His tale of seeing the towers of Avallónë had distracted her from this fateful length of cord. Finduilas touched it lightly with a fingertip. The strands themselves were smooth, but the surface nubbly from the braiding. Gingerly, she picked up the lanyard and brought it nearer her face. The cord itself was light and the pendent weighed little. It was thickest in the portion that lay across the back of Denethor's neck, composed of four separate strands. The fourth strand disappeared soon, leaving three to either side. The lanyard dwindled to two strands and then there was one, this last knotted upon itself for strength. She could see no break anywhere in the rope, no place where the threads had been joined. The pendent was actually two things, wrapped in cloth, with the slender portion of the lanyard strung through them then looped back on itself. With a shiver, she dropped it back to the bed.
'What is strung upon it?'
'Our betrothal rings. I wrapped them in cloth to keep them from being scratched.'
'Why do you wear it?'
Denethor did not reply at once. 'It seems… unwise to discard what came to me from the mariner's hands. When I wear it, I think that I am watched over or protected by it. Last summer, in Rohan, I went to see the wizard Curunír. He is dangerous. Wearing this strengthened me against his wiles. When I leave the City, I wear it.'
'Why is it made so oddly?'
'The old man did not bother to explain his gift, he just left it,' Denethor acerbically replied. Fishing it off the bed, he looked at it and shrugged. 'It is not so odd. It is woven to be strong, but ends thinly to let something be strung on it, or to break easily if it catches.'
No, that is not why it is like that. Naught of it is by chance. Finduilas was certain there was more to the lanyard. It is all of a design. It protects you, but wounds you as well. It is a noose from which you will not escape. She shuddered and hid her face in her hands, remembering her visions of Denethor with coarse stitches at his throat.
'Alquallë? What is it?' he entreated, touching her hair. 'Have you seen something?' She shook her head, unwilling to speak a word and make the visions true. 'Then what?'
'It is a fearsome thing, friend! Gift or not, it frightens me.'
Denethor stood and walked around the screen. Finduilas heard a desk drawer open and close, and looked up to see him return. He sat and drew her into his arms, kissing her gently. 'I put it away. I shan't wear it here.'
'I don't wish to see it ever again.'
'You won't,' he promised. Finduilas stroked his neck where the lanyard had been, then kissed it. Denethor sat still, allowing her to circle him with her touch. Their lovemaking was subdued and they did not linger in bed as was their wont. Denethor left for the baths and was gone longer than usual. In the evening, it was better, and they were content when they drifted off to sleep. Finduilas could not help but hear Denethor open and close a desk drawer the next morning when he prepared to leave for Anórien.
Minas Tirith, Mid June, 2977 T.A.
Brandir returned from the council with Prince Théoden in mid-month, but Denethor remained in Anórien, doing his duty as Warden. Every few days, a messenger would bring her a letter from him, telling where he was and what he had seen. The last had said he would soon be in Cair Andros, so not to expect any news from him for a few days; she wondered if she would see him near the waterfall. To Finduilas's pleasure, Brandir made a habit of stopping by the Stewards House after his meetings with Ecthelion. He never pried and had only pleasant things to say, though she sometimes caught him looking at her intently, as though searching for something. After doing so, he was downcast. Catching him doing this again, Finduilas could not help but ask, 'Brother Brandir, is something wrong?'
He seemed guilty, as though she had spied him doing something he should not, but replied, 'Not that I know of. What makes you ask?'
'You were looking at me intently and whatever you saw made you sad, or so it seemed to me. It is not like you to be downcast. Indeed,' she teased to take any sharpness from her words, 'I think that Denethor has become merry and all the cheerful men have gained his grimness.'
'I do agree that my brother-in-law is happier of late, but that is easy to explain,' Brandir answered earnestly. 'He has you as his wife! But who now is downcast?'
'Only Prince Théoden, in truth. He was very stern for such a young man when I saw him last. Perhaps he is of a happier heart now?'
Brandir's face was sorrowful. 'Very little, though his grief passes. Just after Thengel and Morwen returned from Minas Tirith in the winter, Lady Elfhild birthed a child too soon. A girl. She lived only a few days. Elfhild herself is still unwell, I fear.'
'How terrible!' Finduilas exclaimed. 'I had no idea.'
'The household is deeply grieved and cannot yet speak.' Brandir paused, considering something. 'Two of Thengel's children have wed and yet there is no living grandchild.' He fidgeted, then said, 'Finduilas, forgive my presumption, but… You and Denethor… It has been months…'
'And you wonder that there is no child?'
'Yes,' he said, relieved at her supplying the words for him.
I have wondered myself. Finduilas was not certain how to answer, for she did not know what reason would do the least harm when known to Maiaberiel. No answer was safe. She decided on a partial lie, and would see where it went. 'I am still very young, Brandir, and Denethor and I agree that I should not bear too soon.'
'So you are not share…' Brandir stopped abruptly, face red. 'It is none of my business. Forgive me.'
Finduilas was startled by his forwardness. 'Forgiven, but I do not understand why you concern yourself with this.' These were questions she would expect of Maiaberiel, not Brandir.
'Because it would be better that a child come soon,' he answered forthrightly. 'It would answer uncertainties.'
'Yes, a child would answer the question of succession,' she irritably replied, 'but I have already said…'
'No, that is not what I mean!' Brandir said emphatically. 'The heart and mind of Gondor are sundered. We long for love as well as wisdom in the Citadel. It has been too long!' He stopped, then continued in a more gentle tone, 'This is a cold house. It is warmer, now, with you here. I have never seen Denethor smile before as he does now. I worry, though.' Brandir halted, abashed.
'What is your worry?' Finduilas asked, thoroughly confused.
'I… I love Maiaberiel, but I know… she is… I love with a fool's heart and a fool's hope. She is as she is, and I cannot but love.' He smiled and laughed sadly. 'It is too late for any other choice, nor would I want it. But you, I would not that your love be thus. That is what I fear. I want you and Denethor to be in love. I know he is.'
'But you do not think I am, is that it? Because I have no child?' Brandir shifted uncomfortably in his chair and shrugged. 'Why do you think this? Answer me!'
'You wed in fondness, but not in love. I do not see love writ upon you as it should be.' Brandir ducked his head, face crimson. 'I fear that your heart may be hardened, denied its rightful due, and you would seek false wisdom.' She stared at him, dumbfounded by his words. He met her eyes, his face sad. 'I have been presumptuous. Forgive this fool, my lady. It seems all I say turns to bad ends.' With that, he rose, bowed to her, and hurried out.
Finduilas sat, bewildered, not understanding what Brandir was trying to say. Does Maiaberiel betray you because she has no child? Do you think I would do such to Denethor? That seemed to be what he meant, but then what about his words that love was not writ upon her? I can scarce show more love for my husband where others may watch and yet keep our dignity! Something teased at the corner of her thought. Someone sows tales of discontent, and I wager I know what tales she plants in the minds of the foolish and mean-hearted. With a harrumph, Finduilas rang a bell for one of the kitchen maids to come claim the tea pot and mugs. Even so, something nagged at her through the rest of the afternoon and into the evening. When it came time to sleep, she tossed and turned in her bed. I do love! Finduilas rose and went to Denethor's room, missing him terribly. Telperien was curled into a ball on the pillow. Finduilas moved her to the side and climbed into the bed. It smelled like them. Finally, she could rest.
Denethor sat before the waterfall in his soldier's garb, writing a letter to the king, the poorly stitched wound showing at the base of his neck where his collar lay open. His pen was a great thorn that he scratched along his arm, though it was ink, not blood, that came from the cuts. His hair was tangled, filled with burrs and vines. They pricked her fingers when she pulled them out. Though she worked quickly, she turned into a swan before she could finish braiding his hair and kiss his neck to close the wound. His hair knotted and tangled again at once. When she arched her long neck to look over his shoulder and read the letter, she could not make out the words. They were in an ancient tongue she did not understand. With a sigh, she tucked her head under her wing and slept.
Minas Tirith, Late June, 2977 T.A.
Loëndë was only a few days away. Word had gone out a week before the feast to those who were invited to Merethrond. In the lower circles, from the fourth down to the first, there was growing anticipation of what the Lady would command done. Adanel and Primrose had made sure word spread that special things were in store, and both smugly admitted that their own business was increasing as people came by to hear what they could tell. Bundles of greens, eggs, and a single black feather were to be given out by her guardsmen in the third circle market to any who asked on loëndë morning. At Luinmir's suggestion, Finduilas hired street singers and illusionists to walk the circles during the holiday, entertaining the city folk. Each one would wear her badge. One enterprising minstrel had even composed a song in her honor. She listened to him at The Messenger's Rest, then gave him an extra coin to keep the song secret until loëndë itself.
Denethor had returned the day before, in time for the feast as he had promised. Thorongil was also due to return from his sojourn south, though the exact day was uncertain. Finduilas sat at her desk, reading Borondir's tallies of the costs for the feast – from flowers and eggs to musicians and roasts – waiting for Maiaberiel to pay her usual Thursday visit. Denethor was with the Steward and his ministers, going over reports from Anórien. A knock at the door downstairs and voices in the entryway announced her guest. With a sigh, Finduilas put away the accounts and rose to greet Maiaberiel.
The woman swooped into the room, arms open for an embrace. 'Sister, you look well rested for one planning a large celebration.'
'It is not so large,' Finduilas lied, 'so it is not terribly taxing.'
'It will be, when the day is here,' Maiaberiel assured her, then smiled conspiratorially. 'I have a surprise for you. Wait here.' The woman darted out of the room and returned with Thorongil, a hand on his arm as though to keep the man from fleeing. He looked very uncomfortable and would not raise his eyes. 'I found him in the street, on his way to the Citadel, and could not bear to part with him once we arrived. Do say you are not upset I brought an unexpected guest?'
Finduilas smiled brightly. 'How could I be upset that you have brought me such wonderful company? Captain, it is good to see you!' Thorongil finally looked up, a bland expression on his face. Taking his arm, Finduilas kissed him soundly on the cheek before leading him to the couch near the hearth. 'Are you newly arrived in the City, Thorongil?' While her back was to Beruthiel, Finduilas gave him a meaningful look. He bowed shallowly to her, understanding he was to follow her lead.
'Yes, my lady. I only just arrived from the Harlond, and was going to meet the Steward. Do not let me interrupt your visit with Lady Maiaberiel.' The last was said with some hopefulness that he might be excused.
Finduilas laughed and kissed his cheek again before pointing to the seat. 'Oh, no, you shall not escape our chatter so easily! Be glad, else you would be caught in a dull meeting that much sooner.' All this time, Beruthiel watched with a satisfied expression, almost gloating. Finduilas quickly claimed the chair across from the couch so that the woman would have to look back and forth between them. 'Tell me, Thorongil, did you see anything of beauty on your journey back?'
He smiled and only someone who had seen his true joy would know how false it was. 'Yes, I saw many lovely things, though naught to compare with the beauty here at the end of my journey.' With this insipid flattery, he nodded to each of the women. Maiaberiel preened at the compliment while Finduilas tried not to laugh. Finduilas did not press him to tell any tales, instead turning to Maiaberiel and asking for gossip of the City. They spoke for almost a half hour, the older woman doing most of the talking while Finduilas and Thorongil exclaimed and laughed at all the right moments.
When Maiaberiel rose to leave to meet her father for dinner, Finduilas laid a hand on Thorongil's arm. 'I am loathe to lose all of my company so soon, captain. The Steward will not be free, since he dines with Maiaberiel. Will you not stay and dine here, and then go to the Tower?'
'What an excellent idea,' Maiaberiel said firmly. 'Thorongil, you must do as your lady asks. It would be terribly rude for you to leave now.' He said nothing. Finduilas walked the other woman to the stairs. Maiaberiel kissed her farewell, saying in a low voice, 'You seem more happy than I have seen you in some time.'
'I am,' though not for reasons you would understand. Finduilas smiled and squeezed her hand. 'Thank you for bringing me this guest. I do listen to you, you know.' I have to, else I would not know what wickedness you are planning.
Beruthiel smiled. 'Enjoy him… fully.' With that, she left. Finduilas returned to her study, where Thorongil stood in the middle of the room, obviously ready to depart. She pointed to his seat near the hearth, indicating he should sit, and poured wine from the ewer on a sideboard. Handing him his cup, she asked, 'Well?'
'She has earned her name.' His false cheer was gone.
'Yes. Have you met with Denethor yet?'
'No. I do not know where…'
'He will be back for dinner. You may speak to him then.'
Thorongil nodded. He turned the cup in his hands, but did not drink from it. Softly, he said, 'I should not be here, Finduilas.'
'Of course you must. Now that you have entered this house – and be sure that it was remarked by a number of people – you must remain until you may be seen leaving in Denethor's company. Besides,' and here she smiled at him, 'did I not say you must make yourself a guest more often at my table now that you are to live in the City?'
'Yes, you did.' Finally a true smile came to his face. It was slight, but so kind that it made her happier just for seeing it.
'Will you tell me of what you saw on your journey? It will while the time until Denethor gets back.' Thorongil did not need to be told twice. His tale was delightful and engaged him so much he did not notice when Denethor appeared in the doorway. Finduilas was careful not to give away who now listened. Only when Thorongil finished did she address Denethor. 'Look what Beruthiel brought on her visit.' The captain whipped around and was on his feet at once, all pleasure gone from his face. Finduilas ignored him, rose and walked over to Denethor. 'Will you need to return to the Tower this afternoon?'
Denethor took one of her hands and kissed it. 'Yes. Captain, if you do not mind, you can give me your report over dinner.' With a polite nod to Thorongil, Denethor escorted Finduilas to the dining room. As soon as they sat, Denethor began peppering Thorongil with questions about the news from the south and Osgiliath. There was a great deal to learn: the southern grasslands would soon be dry enough for burning, the pirate raids upon the falas had increased slightly, but they seemed more interested in food than in destroying things, and there were more Orcs along the southern ranges of the Ephel Dúath, most coming out of the Morgul Vale. Denethor gave him the news from the north in return – Orcs emerging from the Morannon, more Orcs seen in northern Rohan, and an agreement from Thengel to send an additional éored of Riders to patrol the borders of Anórien. 'With what Anbar reports in North Ithilien, we are going to need every soldier in Anórien close to the river this summer,' he ended somberly.
Thorongil nodded. 'I expect increasing attacks to the north, Ithilien and Rohan both, until it appears we are distracted and committing our forces there, then a significant push from Morgul.'
'Emyn Arnen. They want to cut us off from the highlands overlooking the road south.' Thorongil sipped his wine, thinking. 'We need to be ready, and to be able to launch a surprise in return.'
'Anything we brought up from the south would be spotted long before it got there.'
'I know.' Thorongil looked at Denethor, grey eyes bright. 'We'll bring them from the west.'
'The bridge is watched as well.'
'The river will be our bridge,' the captain replied with a knowing smile. Denethor's eyebrows went up and he motioned for the other to continue. 'When attacks increase in Ithilien, we need to move men secretly to the Harlond. Their gear as well. Have it waiting aboard some shallow draft ships. We'll know when forces come out of Imlad Morgul and can send word. Then the ships go downriver, beach just south of the hills, and these forces march east and north, hugging the hills. We'll let the Orcs go south, and catch them between the garrison forces and the southern company.'
A slow smile came to Denethor's face. 'Yes, a good plan.'
'I only wish there was a better way to silently signal,' Thorongil said with a sigh. 'Even a fast messenger is hours away. That is time we need. A warning fire could work at night, but then it will be known we watch them.'
'The spyglass,' Denethor answered. 'We can use the spyglass in the Tower to watch for signals from the garrison. But for that,' he drained the last of his wine, 'we need the Steward's approval.' He stood and began to leave the room.
'Denethor, what are you doing?' Finduilas asked, following him out, Thorongil behind her.
'Getting approval.' He led them out the Wall Door, across the high walk and into the Tower. Directing a servant to ask the Steward to join them, Denethor went to stand before a large, locked door off a passage near the side of the Tower. Ecthelion arrived shortly afterwards, giving Finduilas a smile and a bow before looking pointedly at his son. Denethor gestured to Thorongil. 'The captain has an idea for a rather daring defense, but he needs to see if the tower spyglass will suffice to see what must be seen. May we be let into the upper chambers?'
'May I hear of this plan?' Ecthelion countered.
'I will explain it as we climb, my Lord Steward,' Thorongil assured him. Ecthelion pulled a ring of keys from a pouch and opened the door. Thorongil bowed and gestured for the Steward to precede him. As they climbed, the captain told the Steward of his suspicions as to how the summer battles would go, though he did not specifically mention his plans for the boats at the Harlond. 'What I am looking for to aid us are ways to signal and for those signals to be seen,' he concluded, 'and the Warden reminded me of the spyglass in the Tower.'
The climb left Finduilas short of breath and wheezing slightly. Denethor put his arm around her. 'You do not have to come, Alquallë,' he murmured. 'We shan't be long, so you can wait here, or return.'
'I wish to see from the Tower,' she assured him. 'Let me walk slowly and all will be well.' Even so, when they finally reached the top, Finduilas had to sit on the staircase to the top-most chamber and rest. Thorongil and Ecthelion were already fiddling with the spyglass. She smiled at Denethor and gestured for him to join them.
'Yes, this will do,' Thorongil said, peering into the eyepiece. 'I can make out the walls of the garrison, even at this distance.'
'What good does that do you?' Ecthelion asked.
'It saves a horseman having to ride in with no more message than there is an attack,' the captain replied.
'But why send a horseman with just that?' Ecthelion questioned. 'If there is something so dire, would you not need to provide word of how many, what kind, from where, if reinforcements are required, and so forth?'
Thorongil nodded. 'A messenger would be sent with all that, of course, but this would be used for speed and silence…'
'And what could be known?'
'Many things, using the right signals,' Denethor answered smoothly. 'A code of colored flags for daytime, and a more simple one of fires with various salts thrown into them to create color for the night. You have convinced me, Captain, that this could be used reliably. Do you wish me to devise a signaling code?'
'Yes, Warden, that would be…'
'A waste of your time.' The Steward crossed his arms and stared coldly at the two men. 'You forget there must be people to watch, and there are none to spare. I do not wish the rooms of the Tower left standing open for any to rifle.' Here Ecthelion sent a particularly knowing look at Denethor. 'It is an interesting idea, Captain, but not one we will do. Messengers must suffice.'
'But they will not be sufficient, if Captain Thorongil is right about our enemy's plans,' Finduilas spoke from her seat on the steps. 'If we may gain advantage through so small a thing as watching for flags, then it is worth doing. A horse may cast a shoe, after all, and a few hours may make a great difference.'
'But there must be watchers, and what of the Tower itself?' Ecthelion said gently, as though speaking to a child or an invalid. 'Who watches the watchers?'
'We have watchers aplenty,' Finduilas replied with her loveliest smile. 'The Lady of the White Tower's guards will provide both. I think they are well used here to fulfill Thorongil's wise counsel. Husband, I know you wish for the guardsmen to be used in the garrisons, but the younger and less experienced of them are better used here, don't you agree?'
'Not entirely. I have plans for them already.'
'No, she is quite right,' Ecthelion interjected, smiling broadly. 'They are not needed elsewhere, and some simple tending is not beyond them.'
'I would not wish them here at night, of course. It would be cold and the stairs are dark. A fire may be seen as easily from the promontory,' Finduilas added thoughtfully. 'One should wait at the bottom to let his fellows out, but the door may be kept locked.'
Thorongil looked directly at the Steward. 'The Lady's suggestions are sound. We shall do this. I will need the key to the door downstairs for today and tomorrow so I may consider how this shall be done.'
'Yes, of course.' Ecthelion said seriously, removing the key from his ring, and handing it to Thorongil. 'Have a copy made for yourself. Return the key to me when you are finished. I need to attend to my business. If you will excuse me.' With a nod, he turned and left the chamber.
Denethor walked over to the east-facing window and sat on the sill, looking at the captain with a mix of amusement and amazement. 'So, shall I devise a code?'
'Will I be able to understand it?' Thorongil asked, a smile tugging at his mouth.
'Not all of it.'
For some reason, this answer amused the captain immensely and he laughed. 'Just teach me enough to say "Send help now," and I will be content.'
'I won't,' Denethor answered, turning slightly to look out the window. 'This spyglass has been wasted for almost a year. It is time it was better used.'
The two men began discussing how to create and test the flags. Finduilas ignored them and gazed around the chamber. It was windy this high up, and the windows had no glazing. She looked at the door at the very top of the stairs. 'What is further up?' she asked.
'Another chamber like this, no doubt,' Denethor answered.
'We have tried all the keys the Steward carries as well as the greater number borne by Warden Hathol,' Thorongil offered, 'but none will open that door.'
'Cannot the lock be picked?'
Denethor shook his head. 'No. It is Dwarven. You'll break the door more easily than pick that lock.' He looked thoughtful, and Finduilas knew he was trying to figure out how to open the chamber. He craned his neck out the window, looking up. 'It might be possible to climb up the outside, using some rope…'
'No.' The firmness of Thorongil's words startled both of the others. He was looking directly at Denethor, and his expression was as when he had looked upon Finduilas in the stables and she was daunted. 'You shall not place yourself in such risk, Denethor.'
For a moment, Denethor did not answer. Finduilas had never seen such a look on his face and did not know what to make of it. 'I was not proposing to do so myself.'
'And you shall not. I forbid you to attempt this.' It was the voice of the king that spoke.
Denethor gazed at Thorongil oddly, then ducked his head in acquiescence. 'As you wish.' A familiar edge of insolence returned to his words. 'I have better things to do than crawl up and down walls. Come along. We need to find Borondir to obtain suitable cloth.' Denethor headed out the door and down the stairs, not even waiting for Finduilas. She smiled at Thorongil, who bowed and waved her ahead of him.
'Thank you,' she said to him softly as they tried to catch up to Denethor. 'Living with Denethor is often headlong.'
Thorongil had to stifle a laugh with his hand. 'The Warden can be impetuous, it is true,' he answered with a grin, eyes twinkling. Denethor was waiting impatiently at the next landing. They descended swiftly until Finduilas began to cough. Thorongil excused himself, saying he would locate Borondir. Denethor walked her home and left reluctantly to join the captain.
Minas Tirith, Loëndë, 2977 T.A.
In the Citadel, feast preparations started early in the day. All the kitchens smelled wonderful. Gardeners trimmed the greensward before the White Tree and cleaned the fountain. The windows of Merethrond were thrown open to allow the cool breezes of Mindolluin to sweeten the air within. In the early afternoon, Finduilas and Wren went to the hall with Finduilas's banner and watched it being hung at the western end under a high window made of bits of colored glass. The hall itself was set up as for the mettarë feast, with benches and long tables where many could gather surrounding a space for dancing. There was no high table.
While Finduilas saw to the decoration of the hall, Wren went to see to things in the kitchen. Finduilas walked with the gardener around the hall while the flowers were set out and the wreaths hung up. It was as though the Pelennor had taken over Merethrond.
'Finduilas, this is magnificent.' She turned to see Ecthelion crossing the hall towards her. Ecthelion embraced her warmly and offered her his arm. There was no polite way to refuse. 'The hall is beautiful, and you even more so,' he complimented her, with a charming smile.
'You flatter me, my lord,' she pleasantly answered.
'Of course and you cannot stop me!' he teased in return. Sighing happily, Ecthelion looked around the room. 'Yes, there should be more of this. We dour old men, locked in our councils and our concerns, we forget how to be merry.' He smiled at her again and Finduilas saw that Denethor's smile as well as his eyes were from his father. A sharp sorrow took her heart. Why could there not have been kindness in this house instead of pride and division? What of your own house, goose? Discord grew like a weed with little prompting. 'I see so little of you, daughter Finduilas,' the Steward continued in a sorrowful tone. 'Will you not come to dine with me and Maiaberiel? It is not right that you should be pent up all the time.'
You promised Brandir you would try to help heal the rift in this house. It must start somewhere. 'You are too persuasive for me to say no.'
'Excellent! There is nothing I should like better,' Ecthelion replied, patting her hand on his arm. For once, his touch did not bother her. There was neither guile nor flirtation in his manner. You must be lonely in that proud tower. Perhaps it is just your pride that keeps you lonely. He asked her questions about the feast and they talked of the preparations. When the gardener asked for Finduilas's attention, the Steward excused himself. The business with the gardener took but a minute. After they finished, Finduilas went to the kitchens to find Wren.
Ahead in the hall, she saw Ecthelion's back. He was talking to someone. The person tried to step around him and he moved to block her path; it was Wren. Her cheeks were flaming and she was staring at the ground. He stood very close to her and said something. Wren shook her head. He gestured. She kept her eyes on the ground. Ecthelion brought his face very near hers and spoke again, then nuzzled her ear and ran his hand along her hip. Wren cried out and shoved him away, bolting back towards the kitchens. He laughed and sauntered after her. Finduilas hurried there as well, feeling sick. When she entered the kitchen, the Steward was accepting a bowl of broth from a cook. Wren was nowhere to be seen.
Finduilas withdrew and found the stairway that led to the roof and the walkway above the court. How could he… ? He can't know, if he did that. Across the court, at the east end, she saw Wren appear and hurry to the lane to the Stewards House. Finduilas followed on the upper level, entering through the Wall Door. She was relieved when she went upstairs that Denethor was not yet returned from his business in the first circle. The door to Wren's room was closed and locked and Finduilas could hear her weeping. She tapped on it. 'Wren? It is Finduilas.'
'Wren, please, let me in.'
'Leave me be!'
Finduilas withdrew. She sat in the front room, not knowing what to do or say, but feeling a deep anger at Ecthelion growing in her heart. Lonely? If you are, it is solitude of your own making, you wicked man. She swore to herself that she would never allow him to set foot in her house.
'Mistress?' Aeluin stood in the doorway.
'It is time to prepare for the feast,' the women said uncertainly.
The sun was low. 'Of course. Thank you. Oh, I shall need your help to dress.'
'What of Wren?'
'She is not feeling well. I wish for her to rest,' Finduilas fibbed. As Aeluin helped her with her clothes and hair, Finduilas heard Denethor come in and go to his study. By the time she was ready, he was already in the front room, dressed neatly and teasing the cat with a ruined quill.
'You look beautiful,' he greeted her with a smile too much like his father's. For once, Finduilas did not like the kiss he placed on her cheek and did not return his affection. He looked at her curiously. 'Alquallë? Is something wrong?'
'No. We should go. It would not do to be late.' His expression was doubtful, but he did not argue. Musicians were already playing in the court before the hall and people milled about, waiting for them. They greeted guests at the door of Merethrond. When Brandir and Beruthiel arrived, Finduilas could not make herself so much as pretend to be glad to see the woman.
At first, Beruthiel did not notice. 'Finduilas, this is splendid!' she gushed, gesturing at the hall. 'This is a great deal of work. You should have let me know so I could help.'
'Not at all,' Finduilas answered flatly.
Maiaberiel looked at her closely, uncertain as Denethor had been uncertain earlier. She put her face near Finduilas's and murmured, 'What is the matter, sister? You look displeased.' The woman's eyes flicked towards Denethor. 'Should we speak later?'
The other stepped back, disconcerted at Finduilas's coldness. Denethor observed, saying nothing. Ecthelion was already inside, having come in some other way. Finduilas hoped he would not approach her. The guests were soon in, the standing silence was observed, and the feast began. By agreement, she and Denethor did not sit at a particular table, but walked together and visited each one, as was done at the mettarë feast. She had no appetite and needed the conversations to keep her distracted from her own thoughts. They led off the dancing afterwards to great applause. Denethor relinquished her reluctantly to others for a dance and reclaimed her quickly as soon as it was done.
The feast was a grand success. Her name was on everyone's lips. Her generous deeds were repeated over and over. Men joked about joining her guardsmen and women asked when they could call upon her. Men and women both congratulated Denethor on his great fortune to have won her heart, and Thorongil's name was not spoken. Only a few people gathered near Maiaberiel. The woman herself spent most of the dancing watching Denethor and Finduilas, her face more sour as the bells marked time.
When it was getting late, Brandir presented himself. 'Please say you are not too tired,' he entreated, holding out his hands. It was a simple dance, very short, and they ended up on the opposite side of the dancers from where they started. Brandir held her arm and would not let her return to Denethor. 'You are angry with me, aren't you?' he asked.
'I think yes, for you are most unfriendly,' he answered sadly. 'I am sorry for my words when I came to visit. They were unkind.'
'It is not you that has upset me, Brandir,' she sighed. 'It is someone else. Take me back.' No sooner had she returned to Denethor's side than Ecthelion approached. She grasped Denethor's hand tightly.
The Steward smiled winningly at her. 'May I claim one dance, Finduilas?'
'No. She's tired,' Denethor curtly answered.
'I would have the lady answer for herself, Warden,' was the frosty reply.
'Denethor is right. I am tired.'
For a moment Ecthelion's expression was displeased before he could pull his mask into place. 'Then I shall not importune you, dear daughter.' Before she could stop him, he kissed her cheek, making her ill. It looked for a moment as though he would remain standing there, but Denethor stared darkly at the Steward until the man nodded to them again and stalked away.
'I think it time for the feast to end, friend.' They made their way to the entrance, signaling the close of the celebration. The musicians played a farewell as the guests filed out, thanking them for their hospitality. The Steward left by some inner door, for which Finduilas was grateful.
Maiaberiel paid no attention to Denethor as she and Brandir left, looking at Finduilas intently. I think you begin to understand that your position is no longer secure, Beruthiel. The older woman gave Finduilas a light kiss on the cheek and said something about visiting soon. Finduilas smiled wanly and nodded, not trusting herself to reply.
The court was nearly empty and they walked home under the stars, the white stone walls reflecting the brilliant heavens. When they reached the front room, Denethor sat in a chair near the hearth, for which Finduilas was glad; she did not think she could bear another touch. She took the seat opposite him. 'Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I would not have believed it,' he said when she held her silence.
'Beruthiel's power of twenty years, broken.'
Finduilas tried to feel some pleasure in that. 'It is but a single battle, Denethor. She will not give up that easily.'
'Of course not, but she now has a true rival.'
'You have been acting oddly all evening, Alquallë. What is amiss?'
'As you said, I am tired from matching wits with Beruthiel. I need to sleep.' He sat waiting for more, then rose abruptly and went into his study, closing the door with a solid thump behind him. Sighing, Finduilas went to Wren's room and tapped on the door. 'Wren?'
'Go away.' The woman's voice sounded like she had been weeping for hours. Finduilas closed the door on the tiny sewing room between their rooms and went to bed. It would all be more clear in the morning.
A loud knock on her door woke her. 'Get up!' came Denethor's voice through the door. Finduilas hastily pulled on a robe and came out. He was standing near the windows overlooking the lane, reading something. When he saw her, he held it out to her. 'What does this mean?' It was a brief note in an elegant hand.
Wren came here last night and would not explain herself. She left this morning, saying she is going to Pelargir to be with Lark and Violet.
Leaving? Finduilas looked up in dismay. 'Well?' Denethor demanded, 'Is this what has upset you? You and Wren have quarreled?'
For a moment, Finduilas considered agreeing, and saying she wished the woman gone. If she is there, she is beyond their reach. No, that is wrong. You fight Beruthiel so that innocents are not driven from their homes. 'There is no quarrel between us. It is much worse. Yesterday, I saw the Steward speaking to her in a hallway in Merethrond. He did not see me. He said something to her I did not hear and placed an untoward hand upon her. She fled.'
Denethor looked at her uncomprehending for a second, then the meaning of her words sunk in. 'Beregar!' he bellowed. The Hound's feet pounded on the stairs and the man skidded to a halt just inside the door. 'Wren is going to Pelargir without my leave. Bring her back. I have a question for her.'
'Hurry, Huan!' Finduilas urged, 'She has a horse and may try to ride there.' Beregar departed as quickly as he came.
'Why did you not tell me this yesterday?'
'I did not know how to speak of something so foul. I wished to speak to Wren first.'
'If he is involved, you will speak to me first.' Denethor went into his study, saying over his shoulder, 'Tell me when she is back.'
Finduilas waited for Wren's return in her own study. It was mid-afternoon before she heard Beregar's voice below. When Wren appeared at the door, Finduilas thought she would weep at the sight. The woman was wretched, clothes rumpled and dirty, hair askew, face drawn and tear-stained. Finduilas held out her arms. 'Please, Wren, come here.' She told Beregar to fetch some wash water, then drew the other into the study. They sat in silence on the couch, Wren in Finduilas's arms, until Beregar brought the water and left it with them.
'You know my shame.'
Finduilas dampened a cloth and wiped Wren's face. 'It is his shame, not yours.'
'I hate them all,' Wren whispered, 'every one of them.'
They both heard Denethor coming downstairs. He entered without knocking, and his expression was wrathful. 'I have a question for you.'
'I don't care for your questions,' Wren spitefully replied.
'You owe me an…'
'I owe you nothing!' she snarled, coming to her feet and facing him. 'I want nothing from you. I have had my fill of the depravities of your house!'
Denethor was drawing a breath for a retort, but Finduilas cut him off. 'That is enough. Wren is weary. You may save your question for another time.' She stared him down. With a curt nod, Denethor turned and left. Finduilas told Wren to use the water while she fetched fresh clothes, hoping the woman would not try to flee again before she returned. Wren had not moved from how Finduilas had left her and docilely allowed her mistress to clean her and change her clothes. She curled up in Finduilas's arms afterwards and they sat for some time, Finduilas humming and stroking Wren's hair.
'May I ask you questions?' Wren nodded. 'What did he say, if it is repeatable.'
'It was just flirting. He said I was pretty and wanted me to give him a kiss.' Wren's voice was so low Finduilas could scarce hear it. 'I don't think he wanted more than that.'
'He did not recognize you?'
'Why would he?' Wren sneered. 'He cast us aside. Mother is still fool enough to think he loved her. Beware of them! They love only themselves.'
'That is harsh.'
'It is true. They make you think they love, but they don't. We lived in a nice house in the fifth circle. I didn't know who he was. He was just "Papa" and Mother said he was a soldier so that is why he was not there all the time. When he was there, he loved us and told us stories and tucked us into bed, like a father should. Then we were turned out of our house with only what we wore and Mother was sent back to the whorehouse, for he no longer loved her or us. He let Denethor order that.' She paused. 'I cannot stay, Finduilas. I will not stand beholden to them any longer.'
'I do not like them driving you away. You are here for me, not for them.' Wren did not say anything. Finduilas neatened a strand of Wren's hair. 'Will you not stay for me?'
'Denethor is your lord.'
Finduilas took Wren's hands. 'He will do as I ask in this. I ask you only to wait until year-end. I go then to Linhir to my sister's wedding. If you are still unwilling to stay, you will go with me to Pelargir to be with Lark.'
Wren nodded. 'If they keep their distance, I will wait until then.'
'I think you should sleep now.' They went upstairs. Finduilas sat next to Wren's bed until the woman fell asleep, then she went to find Denethor. He was at his desk, waiting. Finduilas took her seat by the hearth, ignoring him, and rummaged through her sewing basket. She did not have to wait long before he came to sit near her. 'Wren hates you,' Finduilas said conversationally, mending a seam.
He looked at his hands. 'I am not surprised.'
'You are not to bother her. I gave her my word you would not.'
'I am responsible…'
'No, Ecthelion is responsible for his children and he has failed. You have disavowed her as your sister. Aiavalë gave her to me. She is in my care now.' He did not answer. 'What is your question to her?'
'Did he know her?'
'I asked her the same thing. She does not think so.'
Denethor made a non-committal sound and sat, thinking. A quarter-hour passed. He sighed and stood. 'Wren is yours, but the honor of the house is mine. I may be late. Do not wait on me for supper.'
Finduilas stayed in his study, sewing. It is all wrong. Kin should care for kin. Fathers should know their children. Subjects should know their king. Kings and stewards and fathers – they should all know their duties. Our desires are confused. Bastardy is all about us, and we are seduced by deceit into greater crimes. If Denethor's refusal to call Lark his sister or Beregar his nephew angered her, it was nothing next to the horror of what Ecthelion blindly attempted. At least Denethor can be shamed. What can be done of a man who discards a child? How can there be trust if men will not be what they are?
Beregar brought her supper and lit lamps when the light failed. It was another hour before Denethor returned. He was surprised to see her. 'You should not have waited up.'
'I could not sleep.'
He poured wine and sat in his chair, bringing the wine flask with him from the sideboard. Only when he came into the full lamplight did she see the bruise and scrape on his left cheek. Denethor saw her staring at it and ran a finger over the darkening spot. 'I was insolent.' He drank the cup of wine slowly, then another, and a third. 'It will never happen again.' Finduilas was not certain what was contained in that promise.
When he finished a fourth cup of wine, she put away her sewing. He stood when she did. She touched the bruise lightly, then made as to kiss his other cheek. He flinched from her touch. They stood awkwardly, Denethor's face averted. He slowly backed away, shaking his head slightly, then retreated behind his desk. She did not follow and slept in her own bed that night.
Minas Tirith, Early July, 2977 T.A.
Denethor had not touched her nor allowed himself to be touched since he returned from the Tower. He would not say what words had been exchanged between himself and the Steward. A note had arrived the following day saying the Warden's presence was not required in the Tower, and that he was to confine himself to the Citadel until further notice. Denethor spent most of his time at his desk, devising the signaling code for Thorongil and making sketches of how the flags would work.
Almost a week later, there was a note that Denethor was to attend a war council with the Steward and Thorongil that afternoon. He returned an hour after he left and came to her study, closing the door behind him and taking a seat on the couch. Finduilas joined him. His hand lay on the seat, gold glinting on a slender finger. Cautiously, she touched his hand. When he did not withdraw, Finduilas laced her fingers into his. After a while, he sighed and raised her hand to his lips for a small kiss. 'Plans are set in motion, Alquallë.'
'The signals will be tested this month to make sure the guardsmen read them correctly. The new éored arrives within the ten-day. Osgiliath is to receive reinforcements. The North Ithilien Rangers have a new captain to replace Marlong.'
'Me.' He stared off into nothing.
'Gildor is not seasoned enough for the attacks that will happen. Thorongil wishes a solid commander to hold off incursions from the Morannon. I have captained that outpost before.'
'I thought you were to be Warden, not a warrior.'
'The Steward orders the realm as he sees fit.'
'For how long? Until Marlong recovers?'
'He'll not command Rangers again, and there will be no command for him until next year at the earliest. I command until the rains come or I'm killed, whichever is first.'
Finduilas sat up and grabbed his shoulders, making Denethor face her. 'No! Say not such evil things!' Anger rose in her. 'He does this to punish you, for having caught him out in his unlawful dalliance.'
'He is within his right to command this, so I may not object.'
'He does not want it, but he must obey, even as I do.'
'When do you go?'
'On the morrow.'
Finduilas kissed him. At first, he raised up his hands as though to fend her off, then he embraced her and returned the kiss. Anger and desire merged and she straddled his lap, kissing and nipping at him. Denethor pulled her against him and she could feel him harden. Finduilas reached between them and stroked him through the cloth, then began undoing his pants.
'Alquallë, what are you doing?' he hissed, grabbing her wrist. She just changed hands. 'Someone will come in!'
'So?' she spat. 'They can leave.' After a few whispered protests, he stopped fighting her and helped free his hips from the clothes. Her skirts hid their loins, but they knew now how to join themselves, and he burrowed deeply and greedily into her. They wasted no breath on cries of pleasure, feeling only urgency.
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