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Hands of the King: 47. Enough
Pelargir-Linhir Road, 8 January, 2978 T.A.
For once, Denethor was not in a hurry to return to Minas Tirith. His impatience with Linhir vanished once they left the city walls; it was enough that they were on their way. The afternoon was crisp and clear, the road fast, and the company near perfect. Finduilas rode next to him with Brandir to her off side, the two of them chattering gaily. Morvorin and Moraen were close behind, tossing in their own comments. Beregar and Imrahil were renewing their friendship of the previous year, telling each other outrageous stories, while Thorongil and Gethron were intently discussing something that Denethor could not make out. Wren sulked back near the two guardsmen and the pack horses. The rest of the guardsmen traveled home by ship, taking charge of trunks and other things they did not need on the ride home, like his present.
Something Brandir said amused Finduilas, making her laugh. Her unease of the previous day was gone and she was as light-hearted as he had ever seen her. Denethor tried to be completely glad that there would be two guests in the house and Brandir visiting regularly once more, but he could not help wishing for just a few weeks of solitude with Finduilas. He wanted time to sit near her, to spend the dim days of winter touched by her light and warmth. Even without guests, that would not be so. The duties of the Warden and the Lady would not permit such sloth. And when the days are not so dim and you must leave her in the Citadel while you journey, would you wish her to be without merry companions? Though he did not intend to come and go at the Steward's bidding ever again, still he was Warden and could not remain within the City. There were few places he would travel where it would be safe to have her accompany him. Not even the Pelennor…
Denethor's brow furrowed and he looked intently at her. Still nothing, no shortness of breath, no waking and having to clear bad humors from her chest, no nagging tickle of a cough. It was almost too much to hope that the two sorrows that had darkened their union – Finduilas's illness and the veil that kept them from seeing each other – were gone forever.
Finduilas slowed Gull so that she dropped back to ride next to Moraen. After some teasing from the women, Morvorin moved forward to take Finduilas's place. Denethor was polite but allowed Brandir to do most of the talking with the young lord. It was amusing how much Brandir's demeanor had changed once he knew that Finduilas had willed her heart. The man was his garrulous, thoughtless, ever-cheerful self once again, capable of talking about nothing for hours. Denethor could not find it in his heart to be irritated by this, though he imagined he would locate it ere the journey ended.
A jingle of harness let him know that another horse moved forward and soon Denethor heard Wren's voice joined with that of Finduilas and Moraen. The three talked about the wedding and of how soon more of Moraen's belongings could be sent from Ethring. They also discussed whether she needed a maid to wait upon her (she said no, Finduilas and Wren said yes) and which rooms in the Stewards House would be for Moraen to use. They all decided Lady Emeldir's quarters would be best. Denethor made a mental note to remind Finduilas that the palantír would need to be moved before Moraen took up residence. Even that complication did not dampen his good spirits. Yes, Alquallë, you need gaiety after the cruel year you have lived. Another woman besides Wren to wait upon you and your brother to keep your heart from yearning for Dol Amroth, that will make for less forbidding days. Moraen had pleased him in just the short ride today. She was a woman of good sense and good humor who was noble enough to be a true maid for the Lady. Wren and Luinmir had their uses, he supposed, but they were not proper companions for Finduilas. But why did you choose her in particular, Alquallë? Denethor was not so foolish as to think that this invitation was happenstance. There were any number of Outland maids whom she could have chosen. "He needs means, a house, and probably a wife before he may be his own man." Perhaps that was it. Finduilas would never be so crude in her machinations as Beruthiel, but she was clearly very determined to see that Thorongil had all he needed to rise, and a suitable wife was among the requirements.
Morvorin asked him a question about roads, pointing to the partly broken way they rode upon, and Denethor allowed himself to be drawn into conversation for the rest of the short afternoon. They reached an inn well before sundown and stopped for the night. Though he usually made the Linhir to Pelargir ride in two days, he did not wish the women to ride that far in so short a span of time. There would be two full days on the road, then a third half-day of travel. The women swiftly disappeared to wash away the grime of the road, the matron of the inn insisting on serving the Lady herself. Denethor was satisfied with washing his face and hands and brushing off his clothes before joining the men in the taproom. Imrahil, Morvorin and Beregar were deep in conversation, obviously discussing the quality of the ale, while Brandir and Gethron talked to the innkeeper over the time-polished bar. Thorongil sat in a corner, feet stretched out before him, his head already wreathed in pipe smoke. Denethor signaled for a mug of ale to be brought over and took a seat near the captain.
'How long will we spend in Pelargir?' the captain asked.
'Two days, perhaps three if there is something needing attention, but not more than that.' Thorongil nodded at the answer and did not speak again. A boy brought over Denethor's ale. Denethor studied the Lost as they drank. He did not recall the man being so free with his wizardly habit before, smoking in a public tavern, and asked, 'Do many of the north smoke pipeweed?'
Thorongil smiled around the stem of his pipe, then removed it to blow a smoke ring. 'Yes. Most do.' With a twinkle in his eye, he held out the pipe. 'Care to try?'
Had they been alone, Denethor probably would have, but decided this was not where he wished to attempt to deliberately breathe smoke. 'No, thank you.'
'If you change your mind, ask,' Thorongil answered, still smiling.
The light faded from the small windows and tantalizing smells floated out from the kitchen. A few other travelers and some local villagers came to the room and were quickly drawn in to an animated conversation by Brandir and the innkeeper. Denethor slowly drank his ale, wishing Finduilas would hurry and soon join them. He glanced over at Thorongil, who slouched in his chair, eyes half-closed, tendrils of smoke gently curling up from the bowl of the pipe to lose themselves in the dark rafters. You have her because of him. The thought came suddenly. His herbs and talents healed Alquallë. She lives because of him, but you have said naught. Denethor looked at Thorongil until the man felt the stare and turned, expression questioning. 'I am remiss, Thorongil.'
'Two months have passed and I have not thanked you for saving Finduilas's life. Please forgive my thoughtlessness.' Denethor's throat tightened and he had to pause and swallow. Even then, his voice was barely above a whisper. 'Thank you.'
The captain's face reddened and he ducked his head. 'I need no thanks for that. I could not have forgiven myself had I allowed harm to come to the Lady.'
Are you still in love with her? Thorongil settled back into his chair, eyes fixed on the fire at the end of the room. Perhaps a little. It had not surprised Denethor to hear from Brandir that Maiaberiel still wished him dead and Thorongil wed to Finduilas. Would you have acceded to such a plan, wanderer? Not if you knew it was planned, but… perhaps. There was no question of jealousy over Finduilas. Their love was complete now, and not even death could part them. A strange thought came to him. If your mother remarried, Thorongil, then she did not love your father thus. Denethor found himself pitying the captain. I hope you find love.
The women arrived in the taproom, precluding any other thought. Many toasts were offered to the Lady before the matron led their party to a private room where they could dine in peace. All were tired, so they soon finished and parted for the night. Denethor held Finduilas in his arms as she slept, listening to the sound of her breathing, and wanted for nothing else. A smile came to his lips. I am no longer grim, Alquallë. I am happy. You have healed me.
It was not so clear the next day and a strong wind was blowing. Imrahil watched the southern sky intently while the horses were brought out. Shaking his head, he walked over to Denethor. 'I hate to say it, brother, but we should push hard today. There is a bad storm coming.'
'It's sixty miles to Linhir,' Denethor replied with a scowl. 'That is too far in a single day. The pack horses certainly could not make it.' Thorongil was standing near, listening.
Imrahil shook his head. 'No, we won't cover that distance, but we should ride swiftly and get as far as we can. The storm will be here before sundown.'
'If some of the packs are taken from the pack horses and distributed among the riders, they will move more quickly,' Thorongil added. Denethor waved Gethron and Beregar over and explained Imrahil's warning. It took only a quarter hour to get packs secured behind saddles and be on their way. They carried what they would need for lodging that night so they did not need to wait for the pack horses. At a quiet word from Denethor, each of the women was placed between two of the men to watch carefully for signs of weariness. Through the morning they alternated walking with trotting or cantering, and had covered almost twenty-five miles by midday. The wind was very cold by then and clouds could be seen on the horizon. There were no inns or farm houses to be seen, but there was a small shelter, more a wind break than anything, in a hollow just off the road. Thorongil and Beregar got a fire going from a store of wood next to the lean-to, while the rest tended the horses. The meal itself was served cold but there was hot tea to warm them. Finduilas asked Gull to let her know when their steeds had rested enough to continue their journey. Before an hour had passed, the mare nickered and pawed the ground, indicating they were ready.
Denethor wished to cover fifteen more miles before the storm overtook them. There was an inn about that far. When they left the shelter of the hollow, the wind tore at their cloaks and faces. Gull whinnied, getting the other horses to whinny and nicker in return, before turning and striding down the road, the others falling into place behind her. Even Gaerhûl obeyed her command.
'I think we should let Gull set the pace, Denethor,' Finduilas called back. 'She will keep them moving as swiftly as they can.'
'Yes, let her,' he agreed. After a few minutes, the tall mare began trotting, leading them to the inn. Their pace was steady. She walked less than Denethor would have, but trotted when he would have cantered. Several times Denethor tapped Gaerhûl with his heels, wanting to ride even with Finduilas, but the stallion refused to draw closer. The clouds advanced swiftly, purple-black and piled up like boulders, dimming the day. Tree branches cracked against each other and moldered leaves were snatched from the ground and thrown through the air. They were a little over a mile from the inn when the rain hit. It came down like night, turning the silver mare into a half-seen ghost. Gull whinnied again and began to run. Denethor had no choice but to trust Gaerhûl to follow for he could not keep his eyes open to see. He knew they had reached the inn only because the stallion slowed; the lanterns marking the court were extinguished.
Gull stood near the inn's door, sheltering Finduilas with her bulk. Denethor slid off Gaerhûl and hurried to her side. Thorongil was there a few moments later, the others dark shadows just beyond. 'Get the women inside,' the captain shouted over the gale, 'Leave the horses to me and Gethron.' Denethor nodded, gathering Finduilas to him, and went into the inn. While the innkeeper sent her servants scurrying to find dry clothes and warm blankets, Denethor pulled off Finduilas's soaked gloves, taking her cold fingers and chafing them between his hands.
'Where are the others, friend?'
'They are right behind us.' Even as he spoke, the door banged open and Brandir helped Morvorin and Moraen into the warm room. The girl looked drained and pale, but smiled when she saw Finduilas. Wren was on their heels. A servant appeared with hot brandy mixed with honey to warm them, assuring them that fires were being laid in guestrooms, and took their wet cloaks to hang near a fire to dry. It was not long before Thorongil, Beregar, Gethron and Imrahil appeared, loaded with their saddle bags. Luckily, there had not been time for the rain to soak through the leather so most of the contents were dry.
Finduilas did not wish to go with the other women, but asked someone to bring hot water to their room. Denethor got her out of her wet clothes and sat Finduilas before the fire wrapped her in a blanket, before changing his own clothes. She patted the floor next to her. 'Sit, friend.' He did as she bade him, taking her into his arms.
'Are you warm enough, Alquallë?'
'I will be.' She snuggled against him. They stayed in their room the rest of the evening, asking for supper to be brought to them. Finduilas slept soon afterwards. Denethor could not sleep until late and lay watching her, trying not to remember how she had disappeared behind a curtain of rain. Though the storm blew over by morning, they decided to tarry a day at the inn and wait for the pack horses to catch up. Gethron and Beregar rode west to find them, and were back by midday. The guardsmen had found an obliging farmer who put them and the horses up before the storm hit.
The common room was lively the second night for word had traveled around that the Lady was a guest and many came to see her. Denethor made certain that he, Beregar, Gethron and the guardsmen wore her badge prominently. To his relief, she had taken no chill from the hard ride or the drenching from the day before, and held court without a sign of weariness or cough. Denethor found himself a dark corner where he could watch and intercede if he saw her flag. The captain soon joined him. This night, the man did not have his pipe.
Parents brought their children to see her and to receive her blessing, while others brought her small gifts. Many sported a spray of black and white feathers. Several times, she was asked to listen to a complaint or question, and to offer her wisdom on it. Finduilas dispensed her judgments with humor and gentleness. Thorongil paid close attention to what Finduilas said, sometimes nodding in agreement, sometimes cocking his head quizzically.
'Do you approve?' Thorongil started at Denethor's words. Denethor motioned towards Finduilas with his chin. 'You have been attentive. Do you approve?'
'Yes, where I understand. Her reasons are subtle, and she is wise in her choices.' There was no disguising the man's admiration.
'I've always thought so,' Denethor replied with a slight smirk.
The captain glared for a moment, then chuckled and shrugged. 'I must defer to the Lady's wisdom, for it is greater than my own,' he good-naturedly replied.
Denethor decided to push the captain on this point. 'I expect no less from a daughter of Dol Amroth. She has always been a great prince, with wisdom beyond her years. If dangerous times call for dangerous acts, they also raise up unlikely leaders.'
Thorongil's face became bland. 'This is true, Warden.'
'The simple folk,' Denethor gestured around the room, 'they could not care less about wardens and captains-general. They look to the Lady.'
'In this, they show wisdom,' the captain noted politely, though his eyes were suspicious.
'Do you think they should look to her?' Denethor countered.
'For some things, yes,' was the cautious reply.
'I think you right.' Denethor waited for a response. None came. 'I think if the people could choose their ruler, they would choose her and ignore the Stewards.' Thorongil nodded. 'Gondor has never had a ruling queen. There was a time when one would have been accepted. Perhaps that time has come again.' The Lost shrugged amiably and returned his attention to the Lady.
Pelargir, 13 January 2978 T.A.
Finduilas had a worried look on her face as they walked to the archive doors, escorting Wren to meet Lark and, Denethor supposed, Violet. Wren herself did not look terribly pleased at the prospect of the visit, glowering fiercely at everyone. Beregar and Thorongil also attended them, though Denethor had tried to get them to remain behind at the villa. They were lodging with Amlach, a noble well known to Brandir and Maiaberiel. The man was unctuous and untrustworthy, but he was of some distant kinship to Morvorin and Brandir pronounced him a dear friend, so there was little to be done. They had come in from the distant villa by a cart, accompanied by a few of the lord's men who had the same unsavory manner as their master. It was all complicating Denethor's plans.
Lark was waiting at the archive with Bard and they quickly took Wren into their care. As soon as the three disappeared, Denethor turned to the others and said he wished to walk about the center of the old city while there was still light. As he expected, the servants followed, "to be of use, m'lord," as one slyly said. A useful spy, you mean. Denethor nodded agreeably. Finduilas slipped her arm in his, giving Denethor a questioning look. He had warned her to dress so that she would be warm and able to move swiftly. They strolled through the streets, Denethor pointing out curious bits of architecture, telling small tales of Pelargir's past, and keeping an eye on the spies. He motioned Thorongil closer on the pretext of showing the captain an unusual lintel carving.
'I shall need a distraction,' he murmured, gesturing at the stone work.
'From our observers?' Thorongil muttered back, leaning in to admire the detail.
'Yes. When I give you a signal, you are to stop and talk to the Hound. Don't let them follow. When you can't see us, return to the archives and wait.' The captain smiled and nodded, though he threw a concerned glance at Finduilas. At the next pause, Denethor repeated the instructions to Beregar. Denethor led them further into the tangle of streets near the market, Finduilas's hand clasped tightly in his own. As they approached a corner, he motioned, pointing to the ground. Thorongil and Beregar halted, half-turned towards the lord's men and began talking to each other. Denethor continued briskly around the corner with Finduilas, then ducked into a small shop and walked through it to a back alley, tossing the amazed shopkeeper a silver penny as apology for the intrusion. 'Are you ready for our adventure, Alquallë?' he asked with a grin.
She grinned back. 'Yes!'
'Follow me.' He led them down the alley and through an arch into an old court with another alley on the far side. They stayed on the streets, slipping from one hidden byway to another, until dusk fell and they could take to the rooftops. Finduilas was as surefooted as a cat, though Denethor was careful to take only easy ways that did not require her to do more than hop across narrow gaps or have him boost her from one level to another. By full dark they were at the door of the old storefront in the Merchants Quarter. He pulled Finduilas into an embrace in the doorway, nuzzling her neck while he reached behind her and tapped a code on the door.
'What are you doing?' she whispered with a giggle.
'Who would bother a man kissing his woman?' he murmured back. It was all too soon that he heard footsteps in the hall beyond the door and reluctantly left off a most interesting kiss. Zarih opened the door to let them in, swiftly closing it behind them. Magor stood a few paces down the hall, taller and lankier than ever.
Zarih planted herself in front of Denethor, hands on her hips. 'Yusil, I am wroth with you!'
'Why, Auntie? What have I done?'
'Were it not for this imp's warning,' she gestured at Magor, 'I would not have known you were coming at all. We have not prepared a feast for your lady. You shame me, nephew!'
Denethor saw no humor in Zarih's face, and then saw Keniha striding around the corner at the end of the hall, a similarly wrathful expression on her own, and decided against a flippant answer. 'I am sorry, Auntie,' he said repentantly, hanging his head, 'but we were watched and could not send you a message. We leave on the morrow, and you said you wished to meet my wife, so we had to come now or not at all.'
Zarih stared at him for a second before throwing up her hands in exasperation. 'Men! You are all fools!' Keniha swatted Magor as she passed him in the hall, echoing her sister-in-law's judgment. Turning to Finduilas, Zarih bowed, saying 'Welcome to our unworthy house, my queen. We serve you in honor and joy.'
Finduilas took Zarih's hands in her own and kissed her on the cheek. 'You humble me with your generosity, gentle goodwife. What may I call you?'
'I am Zarih, wife of Ahnkoral, and this is Keniha, wife of Ahnknor.' Keniha bowed.
'Then you shall call me Alquallë, wife of Yusil,' Finduilas answered, stepping forward to kiss Keniha. 'I am a poor guest. Forgive my thoughtless husband, who brought me here empty handed.'
'They are all thoughtless,' Keniha snorted, 'it is the very meaning of "husband"!' The women walked off, commiserating about their menfolk.
Magor grinned after the women turned the corner at the end of the hall. 'Our uncles await, Yusil.' Marach and Ragnor greeted Denethor warmly, though with some scolding for having caused such dismay among the women. Denethor knelt for their blessing while Magor left to get supper. He returned with an enormous tray of food. 'Auntie Zarih says you are all louts, so they will not join you for supper,' he cheerfully informed them as he set the tray on a low table and began preparing plates of food for his elders.
'But they will come afterwards for tea, won't they?' Ragnor anxiously asked. 'We wish to meet the Lady, too!' Marach nodded in agreement.
'If they do not bring her, I will ask her to come and greet you, uncles,' Denethor reassured them.
After only a bite of food, Marach asked, 'What are the decisions of the Southern Council? What are the war plans for the summer? Will it be safe for trade?'
'Unless Khand or Rhûn marches, I do not see any. Constant skirmishes in Ithilien, yes, but nothing as large as last summer,' Denethor answered. 'Come through Pelargir and you will be safe.'
'There are too many pirates along the coast,' Ragnor grumbled. 'They are bringing things from the south faster than our caravans and hurting our trade. Can you not encourage a little marauding by Umbar to scatter them?'
'And frighten all of the people out of the markets where you sell as they go inland to avoid the threat? I think not. Besides, Gondor needs those pirates for taxes on the goods they are bringing.'
'We are also paying those taxes, nephew,' Marach said wryly, 'and it is more difficult for our slow oxen to elude your officials than it is for the pirates in their swift boats.'
'I will speak to Hallas about the way the tariffs are collected, Ahnkoral. Perhaps pirates should pay more for the honor of coming first to market.'
The old man smiled and bowed his head to Denethor. 'If the Warden would be so kind as to see to this, many honest merchants would be grateful.'
'And even we dishonest ones would be happy,' Ragnor volunteered. Denethor chuckled, then asked about their trade. Neither of them journeyed out anymore, but their sons and sons-in-law sent back word often. With their account of goods and costs, Denethor constructed a picture of far-off lands, who was at war, who at peace, where there was plenty and where want.
'Ragnor,' Denethor asked, 'you said last spring that the pox afflicting the south appeared to have run its course. Is that so?'
'Yes, it is through. Only Umbar was ever affected, and no new carcasses have been found.' The man's face curled in disgust. 'But they haven't stopped. Two of my sons have been approached to provide coal from Far Harad for their accursed fires.'
'There is a new plague moving north swiftly, though,' Marach interrupted, 'A kind of ague. It is not worrisome except to babes, the old and the weak. It is rife in the caravans. It will reach Gondor soon, no later than spring, for it moves nigh as fast as the messengers.'
'It won't reach Umbar,' snorted Ragnor, 'for they kill all messengers. Oh, there is news you will wish, Yusil! They will build no more ships.'
Denethor almost choked on his supper. 'What? What do you mean?'
'None will bring them wood, so they cannot build more ships than for which they already possess the logs.'
'What of the Raft Folk?'
'They do not come north any longer, at least not on their great rafts but only in canoes and rarely. They do not sell logs to the Corsairs anymore. That was the last source of ship wood Umbar could get. If they want more, they will have to establish a colony in the southern forests to harvest it themselves and I think they do not have the men to do this.'
'Why won't the Raft Folk come north?'
Ragnor shook his head, scowling, and pushed food around on his plate. Marach patted his brother's shoulder. 'Little brother, your heart is too tender. You know that evil is in all places.'
'They wallow in it.'
'And what have we to do with it?'
'We wear their blood if we mix with those beasts.'
'Whose blood?' Denethor prompted, though he feared he knew the answer.
'Of all the innocents they have killed. It sickens me, but I am an old weak man, with just my sons. And you, Warden, you do nothing!' With a glare, Ragnor rose and left the room, slamming the door behind him.
Marach looked sadly after Ragnor, then shook his head. 'Forgive him, Denethor. The crimes of the south weigh heavily on him. There is naught any can do.'
'But what has now occurred? I know well the depravities of Umbar.'
'The Raft Folk. There was word from some pirates, and then more from traders who travel further south than we may dare. Last fall, Umbar tired of buying its lumber, or perhaps it needed more than the folk would provide. They sent ships south and overtook a great raft, not one of just logs, but of people. You can imagine what they did.' Marach's voice grew very soft. 'A massacre upon the sea where the waters turned red and monstrous creatures gorged.'
'There will be something done, uncle.'
Marach looked at Denethor, dark eyes doubtful. 'How? It has been over a thousand years, since Telumehtar Umbardacil, that Gondor has taken defeat to the Corsairs on their own shores.'
'We will take defeat to them. I swear.'
'Take not such an oath, Yusil, for you will be bound to it!' Marach warned. 'The Powers hear always our prideful boasts and grant us the bitter path we pledge to walk.'
'This is no boast. You will see.'
The old man gazed at Denethor sternly, then shook his head. 'Ill will come of your words, nephew.' Marach sighed and placed their plates on the tray. 'You still wish rock oil?'
'Yes. And more of the salts.'
'They will be sent to Borondir.'
Magor neatened the tray to take it to the kitchen. 'Your lessons progress well,' Denethor said to him. He had been teaching the boy how to read ciphers, sending the lessons through the archive.
'I like them. They are not like lessons at all,' Magor replied, smiling.
'Will you go on a trading trip soon?'
The youth glanced at Marach, who nodded. 'Yes. This spring.'
'There will be time for one more lesson, then, before you go.'
'Go get tea, Magor, and ask if the ladies will join us. If they will, tell my pig-headed brother to come back and greet the Lady.' Ragnor soon rejoined them, looking stormy and refusing to talk to either of them. The women came in within a few minutes, followed by Magor bearing a tray laden with tea for them all. The men scrambled to their feet. When Finduilas stopped before them, Marach and Ragnor both bowed deeply to her. 'My lady,' Marach said, 'you bless us with your company.'
'It is I who am blessed to meet those who cared for my lord, sheltered him from danger, and taught him to be an honorable man,' she answered.
Marach straightened, face alight, and held out his hands to her. 'And how may I call you, my lady?'
'Your niece, Alquallë, as my new-found aunties do.'
Marach kissed her cheek. 'You are too kind to this old man, Alquallë.' Ragnor was introduced and all sat to sip black tea. Finduilas had never tasted it before and asked many questions on its origins which led to a spirited debate between the brothers as to where and how black tea was made, with Keniha and Zarih explaining to Finduilas where and how their husbands were wrong on this subject. Too soon, Denethor knew they had to leave to rejoin Thorongil and Beregar. Marach walked them to the door. 'Yusil,' he said, 'think on what I said. Do not let Ahnknor's rash words move you to more rash action.'
'They won't. There were plans laid at the Council. You will see. I have made no oath I cannot keep.'
Marach shook his head and sighed, then brightened when he turned to Finduilas. 'Ah, I see your plan! You will show our queen to them and they will bow down.' He kissed Finduilas's cheek. 'It is your turn now to care for our stubborn nephew.'
'I will,' she answered, returning his kiss. Denethor led them on a circuitous path to the archives. Wren was waiting there with Beregar and Thorongil. With a cry, Finduilas darted forward and hugged Wren, the two falling into a whispered conversation. Thorongil went to locate the cart and the spies, and they were soon on their way back to the villa.
When they were in bed, Finduilas asked, 'Who was that we saw?'
'The head of my southern spy net.'
'How did you find them?'
Denethor hesitated. It was one thing to say that women like Wren or Adanel were of kin to him, but quite another to speak of Morwen. 'Marach and Ragnor, they are half-brothers to one of the Steward's bastards.'
He rolled over on top of Finduilas and looked down at her. She was smirking. 'Are there any secrets you cannot root out, Alquallë?'
'Not many. So they are older brothers?'
'Yes. Half Gondorian, half Haradrim. I traveled with them when I was young. And how do you know of Morwen?'
'I met her once. The resemblance is striking.'
'You met her?'
'Yes. She wanted to hire me.' Denethor had no answer to that and could only gape. Finduilas started to laugh. 'I told her I had to decline as there was only one man for me.' She slid her fingers into his hair and pulled his face down for a kiss.
Minas Tirith, 18 January, 2978 T.A.
The council was not terribly interesting. Denethor sat in his usual spot halfway down the long table from the Steward and across from Thorongil. Imrahil sat at the foot, much to Forlong's disgruntlement. This morning, in the Hall of the Kings, Imrahil had knelt before the Steward and had formally pledged his service. Many had been there to witness the oath – Finduilas, Moraen, Morvorin, Thorongil, Forlong and his wife, Almiel, Brandir, even Maiaberiel. They had all dined with the Steward afterwards. At the end of the meal, Finduilas had spoken to Ecthelion privately for a few minutes. Though they had agreed she would do so, Denethor had waited anxiously outside the chamber door for her to emerge.
Last night, she had crafted a letter to the Steward pleading Thorongil's case to be given means to befit his station. Denethor had wished for Brandir to argue this, knowing that he would do so eagerly for his friend, but Finduilas had disagreed. 'It is not yet time to show my hand, friend,' she said, 'particularly with what Brandir told you. If they think me unhappy and pining for another's affection, then they will more quickly accede to my wishes, thinking only of their own desires.' Thinking of Finduilas in proximity to the Steward's desires did little for Denethor's temper. When they emerged from the chamber, Ecthelion very deliberately kissed Finduilas's cheek in farewell, then gave Denethor a half-defiant, half-mocking stare.
Denethor had refused to be baited by this though he was not content until he had walked Finduilas back to the Stewards House. It was tempting to remain with her. The afternoon council was intended as a report on the Southern Council to the Steward and key ministers Hallas and Borondir. Forlong had accompanied them to Minas Tirith to attend this council, no doubt curious to hear what had been decided in Linhir. He was an enthusiastic supporter of roads.
'Morvorin,' Forlong rumbled in his barrel chest, 'what you propose is a more than worthy task. It has always seemed odd to me that a great road was not built across northern Lebennin for a direct route to Ethring.'
'Too many taxes,' Hallas cheerfully interjected. 'Stone roads are expensive to build.'
'But only to create them! They last longer than dirt tracks or cobbles,' answered Morvorin.
Forlong eagerly leaned forward on the table, making it creak. 'Not to mention bringing more trade to the uplands, which will increase your taxes, Minister Hallas.'
'And they will take taxes now just to get started,' the blind minister calmly replied.
'Taxes? Yes, those, but also stone and men.' Borondir remained unconvinced of the need to repair the older ways. 'Perhaps portions of the existing roads should be paved, but only where they are taking great effort to keep open.'
Denethor paid only half a mind to the debate, preferring to use the time to read over Marlong's report on the new crop of archers. He had already decided they would start with the way between Linhir and Ethring, and would arrange for money and hands at another time. If the roads were championed by Forlong and Morvorin, the Steward was less likely to object. Denethor swiftly worked through some figures in the margin of Marlong's report. 'The cost per ranga will be two tharni. Assuming stone does not become dear,' he tossed into the argument. This set off another round of wrangling between the ministers and the lords on the merits of roadbuilding.
Eventually the Steward tired of the argument and rapped the table to bring it to an end. 'Enough, gentlemen. We are suitably informed on the problems and advantages of paving the roads. Warden, your advice?'
Denethor looked up. 'The road from Calembel and Ethring was done in one summer. Measure another similar length and repair it. No new roads.' With that, he went back to the archers.
'Agreed.' Ecthelion looked to Thorongil. 'Captain, you have been silent most of this council. Have you aught to say?'
'Yes, my Lord Steward. I agree with the lords and with the Warden that we need to rebuild the great roads, though I am concerned at dedicating men to building them, for it will need to be done during the summer when we also need soldiers for the marches.'
'Are you expecting war, then, captain?' Ecthelion questioned.
Thorongil shook his head. 'No. I expect skirmishes as we experienced last year, probably fewer, and no significant battles.' Denethor had told Thorongil of the southern trade news on the ride from Pelargir. He had also spoken of pyres, wood, and a bloody sea as they sat near the hearth at an inn, the captain's eyes sharp and bright in a cloud of pipe smoke as he listened to the tale. 'We will need to patrol, of course.'
'Why not?' Denethor glanced at Ecthelion. The Steward was looking at Thorongil intently. 'Why do you think we shall see less war? Why won't we see greater attacks than last year?'
'Because the Enemy builds,' Thorongil firmly replied. 'We had a significant invasion two summers past, and a final great assault in the winter. This was the first major incursion since the retaking of Osgiliath ten years before. It took that long to build up the forces and arrange for the alliances to make that assault. Two years after Gondor retook Osgiliath, Umbar sent a fleet against Langstrand, trying to gain a foothold there, but was turned back. Save for the great storm three years ago, this year we would face an invasion from the Corsairs. Have no doubt but that the Enemy is rearming as quickly as he can, but even he cannot conjure armies out of dust.'
'Did you share this wisdom with the southern lords, Captain?'
'What I just said? Yes, my Lord Steward, I did.' Thorongil paused. Denethor kept his own eyes on the archers' scroll, but he was no longer reading. 'What I did not speak of was how Umbar has also been rebuilding.'
Ecthelion chuckled. 'Umbar may rebuild as it wishes. Their hands are turned to wickedness and they will not prevail. We have discussed this before, Captain.'
Thorongil sat quietly for several heartbeats, then said in a soft voice that nonetheless reached every corner of the room, 'And it is not right that we should leave them to that wickedness, for still are they men of Gondor. They practice their cruelty upon those who are faithful to us, and twist the hearts of those who would fain live honorably.'
'There is naught we can do to dissuade them, Thorongil. Though you say nay, yet I believe that they are punished for their crimes,' the Steward countered, his voice taking on an edge of sharpness. 'We live under grace and are spared so long as we are true.' Denethor allowed a mocking smile to cross his own face, but did not raise his eyes. 'It is not for us in our arrogance to determine another's fate,' Ecthelion ended harshly.
'It is unwise of us to say our fates are divided,' the captain persisted. 'It is for us to deny their wickedness a place in the world, to pity those enslaved to evil, and to wish to lift that yoke. It is a noble thing to do.'
'Yes, Thorongil, it is noble, but I believe we have our task before us already; to keep the evil to the east from crossing an ill-advised bridge and enslaving us right here!' was Ecthelion's exasperated reply.
'In three years' time, in the summer of 2980, the Enemy will attack by land and water in such force as will make the wars of two summers past look like nothing.' The captain's voice was stern. 'Before then, we must take action and destroy the Corsair's fleet. Only by doing that will we be able to hold off the attacks that will come from the east and south through Ithilien.'
'How?' Denethor spoke without looking up, tone bored. 'We have gone over this argument a hundred times, captain, and it always comes back to how shall we take battle to them? The Steward is right. We have our hands full on the eastern borders. We profit more by rebuilding the roads so that we may meet Umbar when it chooses to invade. After all, if they wish to conquer, they must come ashore.'
'Yes, we can attack!' Imrahil had been silent until now. He sat, straight and proud, at the foot of the table, looking like his father. 'Gondor has ships, swift and sound, and may go even to the great firth. We can raid as well as any pirate.'
'You have never seen those docks, prince, and know not how vast they are.' Denethor finally raised his eyes from his scroll, gazing coolly upon Imrahil. The young man raised his chin higher in defiance. 'Every ship in Gondor could find a berth and yet leave more than that open. We talk not of fishing boats, but galleys and ships of war. Do you propose to attack each one? Flies upon a mûmak. We may sink a few, but that is all.'
'It is folly,' Ecthelion added hastily, 'though bravely said. The Warden has finally acknowledged the impossibility of this desire, and you should heed his counsel. There is no way to meet the massed fleet, no way to destroy it all at one…'
Silence fell on the counsel and all eyes turned to Morvorin. 'We have a way to destroy the ships. We could use…'
'No.' Denethor and Thorongil spoke with one voice.
'Why not?' challenged Forlong. 'The Fire worked in Osgiliath. It would burn a ship to the water, would it not?'
'Below it,' Borondir offered. 'Water cannot douse it. It would consume every ship it touched.'
'It is too dangerous to use,' Denethor insisted, 'unruly and unpredictable.' It is the Enemy's own hand drawn down upon us.
'It is a fearsome thing,' Thorongil agreed.
'But that is what we need if we are to meet a greater foe, yes?' Forlong pressed.
The Steward rapped the table and stood, eyes flashing. 'Enough. We will mount no attack, so this discussion is pointless.' After a moment, he picked up the white rod. 'We thank you once more, noble folk, for attending us this day and helping us to bear the burden of rod and rule, until the king should come again. Good day.' With the ancient formula, Ecthelion ended the council. The counselors rose and bowed before leaving. It looked like Morvorin and Forlong were going to try to reopen the argument about Dragon Fire once they were out in the corridor, so Denethor forestalled them.
'Gentlemen, let us not quibble over or even treat on matters of state now. We should repair to the Stewards House and the company of our ladies, and set aside grim speech.' All agreed this was an excellent plan, Hallas alone declining to attend. Denethor sent one of the Tower servants hurrying ahead with word of their arrival.
The house was not as disturbed by the new occupants as Denethor had feared it would be. Imrahil was quickly settled into his old rooms and appeared to be more interested in getting reacquainted with the young lords of Minas Tirith than spending time in Denethor or Finduilas's company. Moraen had not yet moved in, and was staying with Morvorin in the guest house near the Tower. As it turned out, she preferred Ecthelion's old rooms on the fourth floor with their grand views of the City and the Pelennor to Emeldir's dark rooms overlooking the lane, so the palantír could remain where it was. Finduilas had pointedly said it was best off returned to the Tower, or else hidden in the Dwarf hold in the archives, but Denethor ignored that advice. He knew he would have need of the stone.
Beregar awaited them at the front door and led them to Finduilas's study. Moraen, Almiel, Wren and Aeluin were with her, as was Luinmir. Maiaberiel, thankfully, was not. Cheerful greetings were exchanged, then Morvorin squatted down on his heels.
'And who have we here?' he said in a cajoling tone, looking at something behind Luinmir. 'Do I see a princess?' A second later, a small grinning face appeared around Luinmir's skirt, then ducked away with a giggle. 'Oh, perhaps a little Elf princess, prettier than words.' There were more giggles. 'Won't the little Elf come out and say hello?' The child peeked around the edge of the cloth. Morvorin held out a hand, coaxing her and soon the girl sidled out, though she did not let go of Luinimir's skirt. 'Who are you?'
The little girl giggled again and shook her head, sidling back towards Luinmir. 'You know your name,' her mother said. The child shook her head again. 'Yes, you do! Can you say your name?'
'Anna! Anna!' The little girl shouted the word.
Morvorin dropped to one knee and bowed. 'I am pleased to meet you, Princess Anna. I am Morvorin, your humble servant.' This made the girl giggle and hide her face for a moment. 'How old are you Anna?'
Luinmir caressed her daughter's hair. 'She is a year and a half.'
'Anna!' the child said again proudly, then turned and held her arms up to Luinmir who picked her up. 'Mama and Anna!' There was much fuss made over the girl for several minutes, which made her shy, hiding her face in her mother's neck. Luinmir soon excused herself, saying she had to return home before dark. Brandir and Borondir accompanied her. It was clear from the way the child matter-of-factly accepted being picked up by Borondir that she was used to him carrying her. Finduilas looked at Anna tenderly and gave her a kiss before Borondir and Luinmir departed. Supper was pleasant, with no mention of roads, ships, or Fire, and ended soon. As he escorted their guests to the door, Denethor nudged Thorongil surreptitiously to get the Lost's attention. 'Same tower,' he murmured. The captain nodded fractionally.
Denethor returned upstairs to Finduilas's study. She embraced him and gave him a long kiss before asking, 'The council?'
'Not quite done. I need to speak to the captain tonight.'
Finduilas sighed, sitting on the edge of her desk. 'Will you be long?'
'I will wait up.'
'I will wait up and you had best be brief so you do not keep me awake,' she sharply replied.
'I will return soon,' he promised. It did not take him long to scramble down the walls and reach the abandoned fifth circle watchtower. Thorongil arrived shortly afterwards, sat on the bench near the window, and wasted no time preparing his pipe. Denethor settled into his usual perch on the window sill. 'That was a bold challenge in council.'
The captain shrugged, concentrating on getting the herbs burning to his satisfaction. 'Dangerous times.'
'I did not expect you to be so direct.'
'Is that why you opposed so sharply?'
'No, though you may expect my continued opposition. I only say what is true – we do not have the strength to attack Umbar directly.'
'What about your boats?'
'We will have them, but they won't be enough.'
Thorongil drew on his pipe for a while, then sighed and shook his head. 'Flies and a mûmak, as you said. And we go blindly.'
'Not entirely. I will see to that. I don't expect a victory. It may even be a terrible defeat, but we must go there.'
'You said you had cargo. What?' the captain asked.
'People. Spies. Saboteurs. I need them taken into the city under cover of an invasion so they may find the Faithful. We will whittle away at Umbar's strength from the inside.' Denethor looked down on the City, white walls gleaming under the moon. 'For those who man the ships, they will probably perish. Think of that before you seek to lead them.'
The two sat for a few minutes while Thorongil finished his pipe. Rising, he knocked the ashes out in a cold hearth. 'If all we take are swords and bows, aye, there will be no return and no harm will befall Umbar. The ships will need to be burned. We need something greater than pitch or oil.' With a humorless chuckle, Thorongil added, 'You are wise to oppose this plan, Warden. It is folly.' With a nod, the man left, feet making almost no sound upon the stone steps.
Denethor pulled off a glove and touched the stone sill beneath him. The City quietly sang a mournful tale. Folly. It grated to admit the Steward was right. No matter how he tried, it was difficult to see how any true harm could be inflicted with just a small raiding fleet. If Thorongil goes, all faction could be ended. Under Denethor's fingers, the City's voice faltered. It was only when his chest began to hurt that Denethor realized he had stopped breathing. Had Maiaberiel's own murderous wishes against him started so plainly as this? Denethor rose and hurried from the watchtower, fleeing his thoughts, but they dogged his steps. If the captain were to prevail, that would be a different matter. Then he would return as ruler of the waves and could order things as he saw fit. What then of the Stewards? Denethor walked swiftly through empty streets, not wishing to climb walls while so distracted.
Would that not be right? You said to Alquallë that you intend to make him king. Would you be false? To think anything else was to create faction. Only two years. Was that enough time to prepare Thorongil? If the Steward accedes, then it is done. What if the time comes and the Steward is not Ecthelion? Could you give this up? Denethor halted upon the wall of the Citadel, touching the stone. There will be no faction unless you lead it, Warden. His hands caressed the carvings on the wall. Yours by right. This city belongs to you – have I not sworn that oath? And yet she would not be save for our labors, while your ragged line wandered in a waste of your own making. Denethor stood still, fingertips resting on the cold rock, until he could hear the City once more. Just a murmur, then a simple song, a wish that a love would return. A love there is that will endure. The mariner's words wove their way into the song of stone and sorrow. And your hands healed her. Finduilas would not be, and all my life would be abomination. One love for another. Denethor looked at the stone glinting softly, then stooped to place a kiss upon it. For that, I will gladly give you Gondor. Had I a Silmaril, it would be yours as well. I would be the richer still.
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