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Hands of the King: 48. Sleight
Minas Tirith, 20 January, 2978 T.A.
Denethor walked briskly along the wall, lightly slapping a scroll against his leg as he returned to the Stewards House from the day's councils. Finduilas would be pleased at how quickly the Steward acceded to her request on Thorongil's behalf. The captain himself had accepted the increase in pay and the gifts of a house and lands with dignity, but Denethor saw that something about this troubled the man. You have finally received the Lady's Grace. Is that so terrible? Morvorin had to trot every few steps to keep up with Denethor's long strides. There had been no more talk of Dragon Fire, only of roads, and the young lord was eager to begin this task.
They entered by the Wall Door and walked to Finduilas's study. The women were talking so loudly that Denethor had to rap the doorjamb sharply to get their attention. Luinmir was there, as were Moraen, Wren, Aeluin, an older woman he recognized from the archives, and several other noble women of the upper circles. Morvorin immediately made a fuss over Luinmir's little girl, who delighted in the attention. It took him a moment, but Denethor realized Finduilas was not present. He motioned for Wren to speak to him while all the rest were exclaiming over Anna.
Wren's brow creased in a frown and she glanced at the door. 'Finduilas has not felt well since dinner. She hides it, but I can tell.'
'Is she upstairs?'
'I think so.'
He thanked Wren and slipped out of the room. Upstairs, he looked for her before realizing she must be in the privy. He took a seat near the hearth and waited, toying with the scroll. Finduilas emerged a few minutes later. Her face was pale and one hand rested on her belly, as though something disagreed with her. She pulled up short when she saw him, summoning a smile. 'You are back. Is all your business done?'
'What is wrong?'
Her smile vanished and she sighed. 'Nothing, really. My moon flux has come upon me strongly is all. I think it because of the riding.'
'Should you see…'
'…a healer? Not at once. I will see Warden Lhûn this week so she may listen to my breathing.' Finduilas smiled again. 'She will be pleased! The captain's herbcraft has kept all agues at bay.'
'So it has.' Denethor brandished the scroll. 'And the man has his rewards. Here. The Steward granted all your requests and was generous in the doing.'
Finduilas took the scroll and read it eagerly. 'Excellent,' she said. 'Thorongil has the choice of several houses in the City. I think I should help him choose, don't you?'
'Am I to be indifferent or surly that you accompany him?'
'Indifferent.' Finduilas kissed Denethor's cheek, handing back the scroll. 'I must see to my guests.'
'Tell me they are not all staying to supper?' She laughed as she walked out the door, not answering. Denethor went to his study. Morvorin never did make it upstairs, preferring the women's company, though he did stay to supper. Denethor became concerned again when he saw Finduilas. She ate little and grimaced a few times. When it came time for bed, she took his hands.
'Friend, I know you wish me with you, but I shall not rest easily tonight and should keep to my own bed.'
'I do not like to see you unwell, Alquallë. Let me send the Hound for a healer.'
'There is naught one can do,' she firmly replied. 'I have had this happen before.'
'What is happening?'
'My womb cramps from the jostling it received and the blood is heavier than usual. It will keep me from sleeping.'
'I won't sleep if you aren't there, so you might as well…'
She shook her head. 'No. In a few days, friend.' Finduilas kissed his cheek and walked to her room, firmly closing the door behind her. Denethor retreated to his study with a sigh of aggravation. He sat at his desk and rummaged through the papers in the basket. It was going to be several sleepless nights, so he had best do something useful with the time. Two hours later, Denethor had brought order to the work that had piled up in his absence. All that remained was to plan for when he needed to meet which minister and set of counselors, when he would travel to Anórien or to Ethring, and such.
Denethor pulled out the worn and marked sheet with last year's months and a new sheet of paper on which he would create a calendar for the first part of this year. First, rule the paper into three squares of five rows of six days. He did not care for dates straggling above or below the main calendar. Next, write in the numbers just so. Then, place a dot under the regular dates. Blue marked the first day of the week. A rich purple was used to indicate the monthly meeting of the high ministers. Gold was for the meeting every two weeks with Hallas on the purse. Red marked today, the first day of Finduilas's flux…
His hand stopped just before he marked the date. That's wrong. Her flux came every thirty days, give or take a day. Denethor looked closely at the December calendar. The twelfth was marked. He reached for the notes he had kept in Linhir and looked to see what happened that day. An early breakfast. She went with her sister, he inspected the upper docks with Angrist. They had supped late at the Nest. Once home that night, she had padded the bed and worn her grey gown to remind him to be chaste. Checking November, the twelfth was marked in red as well. So, she should have bled when we reached Pelargir, no, the day we stayed at the inn. Mettarë and yestarë took two days between months. He looked at the calendars, then set them aside and wrote a letter.
The next morning, Finduilas was still in some discomfort. Denethor wished to ask her things, but she was quiet and her gaze inward, so he let her be. After she went downstairs to have breakfast with Moraen and Wren, Denethor slipped into her room. The pad she had used last night to protect the bed was more heavily soiled than usual, the blood a brighter red and with a different smell than her usual fluxes. He returned the cloth to the wicker wash basket, collected the letter he had written the night before, and left for the archives. The letter was dispatched with one of Aiavalë's apprentice archivists to a flower seller in the fourth circle. It would pass through a few other hands before it reached Morwen. He brooded in his small room in the archives through the morning, his thoughts returning to hatefully triumphant words written years ago.
I cursed them, all of them! That evil snip of beauty, that ghastly monster, that cold-blooded steward, and most of all that whoremonger. Cursed be him and his line! Woe to me that I gave him another, but damned be that brat, too. A lying thief like his sire even now. I laughed in their faces. "Cursed be all men who betray their daughters and wives, and cursed be the House of Húrin," I said aloud and shall say in my heart until my dying day.
Once, he would have shrugged off such words, the angry cry of a misused wife. But that was before the Powers turned their eyes once more upon the City, before a king was revealed, and before the mariner spoke of hope and doom and laid his hands upon them both. Did my mother's words have such power to ensure the end of this house? Was it a curse, or just anger? Perhaps her pain moved fate against us. Until Finduilas, he had felt no desire for any woman, his loins unstirred save by Beruthiel's mocking trespass.
Near noon, there was a tap on the door. Aiavalë peeked around the edge. 'Are you staying for dinner?' Denethor nodded. She disappeared, but returned a few minutes later with a basket of food. As she laid out the meal upon his desk, he realized how long it had been since he last spoke with his sister. He missed her. She sat across from him and let her veil drop so she could eat. 'Alquallë has not had a moment since she returned to visit this old crow,' his sister cheerfully said, putting some cheese and meat on his plate, 'so you shall have to keep me company.'
He shrugged. 'We are both the poorer, then.'
Aiavalë made a face at him, then laughed. 'True! I would prefer my little sister's company to yours.'
Denethor picked at his food. 'I was not able to stop at the Pelargir Archives when we passed through.'
'It is no matter,' she assured him, 'Lark sends me reports all the time, and finally has enough scriveners to make copies of all her acquisitions. She is sending apprentices to the keeps across the south to catalogue the holdings of the Outland lords. It's already dead, so you might as well eat your dinner.'
'Just being sure. Have Lark send someone to Morthond. Duinmir's collection is small but of fine quality.'
His sister hastily swallowed a bite. 'I shall.' She began to draw a breath, then fell silent, considering her words. 'How… safe is the Pelargir road? Or to take a boat down the river?'
'Why do you want to go to the archive down there?'
For a moment, Denethor thought Aiavalë was going to deny that was what she wished, but she shrugged, cheeks coloring slightly. 'Wren brought Lark's letters to me and spoke of the place. It made me wish to see it.' A few bites. 'I have never been beyond the Pelennor.' A few more bites. 'I hardly limp anymore, with the shoe. It would be nice to see Lark again.'
'Violet is there now.'
That made Aiavalë's eyes flash. 'Being honest for once, I hope!'
'Running Morwen's whorehouse in Pelargir. Now that Thorongil is no longer there, the business is flourishing.' Aiavalë growled and attacked the rest of her dinner. Denethor made himself finish what she had given him. 'If you wish to go, the passage should be safe.'
'May Alquallë come with me?'
'That will be for her to say.' Aiavalë would know what was said, would know what kind of curse was spoken. Denethor pushed aside his plate, screwing up his courage to ask. 'Sister, I would know of something that happened while I was a child.'
'What? Be sure I have already told your wife of all your mischief!'
'No, not of me. Something terrible. I came upon an old letter when the house was prepared two summers past. It was by our mother.' Aiavalë's expression grew wary. 'In it, she said she had cursed us all. What was it she said?'
'When was it written? May I see it?'
'I burned it. I think it was from sometime in 2935.'
Aiavalë nodded, toying with the end of her scarf. 'I remember. You were little. I think you may even have been with Aunt Andreth that day. Mother learned of Hareth. The news of another bastard after you had been born…' His sister shrugged. 'Grandfather had passed over Andreth for Master Archivist a few months before. Mother was angry on her behalf, even angrier than Aunt Andreth herself, though she said little. Then the news of the bastard and she raged. She cursed Grandfather and Ecthelion equally. She even cursed you.'
'And you, too?'
Aiavalë laughed sharply. 'Of course. But that wasn't new.'
'What did she say?'
'Many awful things. She did not care who heard. "Bastardy shall consume this line, barren shall this house be, lawless shall be your reign, and the Stewards rule shall fail." ' They both fell silent for a minute. Aiavalë raised her head, eyes flashing. 'But she was wrong.'
There is yet no child. Denethor held out his hand, taking one of hers. 'Forgive me for making you remember that day.'
'It matters not.'
He squeezed her hand, catching her eyes. 'You have lived fearing this curse, haven't you?'
'Not at once. I knew I would not wed. It took no wit to understand that. I wondered when Maiaberiel proved barren. Then you said you would forsake marriage.'
Denethor smiled wryly. 'Alquallë gave me no choice.'
'Mother liked her. Maybe that is why.'
'There is no curse. Just words. Come back.'
'No.' Aiavalë withdrew her hand and looked at him crossly.
'Please. It would make both of us happy.'
'I like it here. I've told you.' With a growl, she rose and roughly put the dinner remains in the basket. 'Why would you risk a curse by having me near?' With a final glare, Aiavalë left.
Morwen sent a reply the next day, telling Denethor to meet her that night. When he came home from the archives for supper, Finduilas left the other women to talk to him as he washed up.
'How do you feel?' he asked.
'Better, but still not well.' Finduilas raised a placating hand before he could speak. 'I go to the healers on the morrow.'
'You should have gone today,' he grumbled before splashing water on his face. She came over and scrubbed behind his ears and the back of his neck. 'I will need to be out this evening,' Denethor said as she poured a little water on his neck to rinse it.
Since Finduilas knew he spoke to Morwen, there was no harm in saying some of the truth. 'I need to speak to Madame Morwen. She will want news of her brothers and her son.'
'Her son?' Finduilas said, startled.
'Yes. The young man, Magor, who you saw in Pelargir, he is her son. She sent him to live with his uncles.'
'Oh.' Finduilas's brow creased and she turned away without handing Denethor a towel to dry his face. Her hand crept to her belly, then dropped. 'Do give Morwen my regards. Say I thought her son a fine young man.'
Morwen greeted him warmly later. She was knotting lace with her bone hook as she had done the last time. At first, they spoke of Magor and her brothers, and Denethor relayed Finduilas's words which made Morwen smile. Talk moved to trade and war, and then to politics. 'The King's Men have returned to my house,' Morwen noted.
'I thought they stayed in the fifth circle.'
'They venture out for necessities,' she replied slyly. 'The Queen's Men cannot be everywhere. But I think it is good that they should spend their time where they can be watched.' Morwen frowned. 'Your long absences have emboldened them. They were insolent over Yule.'
'I will be more often in the City this year. As will the captain.'
That displeased her. 'Why?'
'He has been given property by the Steward, including a house in the City.'
'He had best keep to his own house and leave mine alone,' Morwen warned.
'There is always Pelargir.'
She spared him a cold glance. 'I do not care to leave my house or my city.'
'The captain does not like your trade. Why do you not find an honest one? Then he can do you no harm.'
'Why do you let him continue to challenge you?' she countered.
Denethor ignored that question. Their time was nearly over and he had not yet asked what he needed to know. It was tempting to wait and speak to the Healing Warden tomorrow. No one would know such things better than a whore. 'I need… your counsel.'
'I thought I was giving it to you.' Her tone was teasing. 'Be rid of the captain.'
'How do I give Finduilas a child?'
Morwen returned to her lace, face thoughtful. 'I will counsel you, Denethor, but you must answer my questions honestly. I presume nothing, so some questions may seem foolish or insulting. You know I will be discreet.'
'Have you yet lain with your wife?'
Her eyebrows went up, but she kept her eyes on her work. 'Why did you wait?'
'Finduilas was ill when we wed, then grieving for her grandfather. I let her decide when she was ready.'
'When do you lie together?'
Denethor was not certain what she was asking. 'At night, mostly.'
'No, how much do you lie together?'
'Often. Not when she has her flux, but most nights.'
'Hmm.' Morwen paused, brow wrinkled, reminding him of Aiavalë puzzling out some obscure passage from a book in a half-known tongue. 'You have been away much this year. When have you been in the City? Since you began lying together.'
'Early March. Late March. Not early April, I was in Pelargir. The rest of April. May. The end of June.' He wondered at the length of time he had been absent. 'Gone July, August and September, but here in October. Gone near the end and a few days in November. I was here in November but Finduilas was ill…'
'Well do I remember that!' Morwen looked up, distressed. 'All the City dreaded the news that might come.'
'Since she was sick, we have lain together only a handful of times.'
'Is she still unwell?' Morwen anxiously asked.
Denethor hesitated. 'She seems fine, but I err with caution. Her latest flux is heavy and painful.'
'I see.' This time Morwen did not look down. 'And when you lie with her, how is it for you?'
'I don't understand.'
Her tone was brisk. 'Are you firm enough to breed her? Do you finish properly, spilling seed, or do you soften too soon?'
'I… I… Yes!' He knew his face was scarlet. 'I… finish… properly.'
'Is there anything wrong with your seed?'
'Wrong how? In what way? How would I know?' Denethor snapped.
'Is it discolored, or does it smell bad, or is it completely clear?' There was no humor in her face. 'Produce some and I can see for myself.'
'I. Think. Not.'
She shrugged, taking up the lace. 'You cannot shame me, Denethor. There is naught you can do that I haven't seen before.'
'I prefer not to shame myself. Or my wife. Did you not say I should beware of doing so?'
'True.' There were no more questions. After a few minutes, Morwen said, 'It is unusual but not inexplicable that you have yet to give the Lady a child. By your own word, you have been oft away. She has been ill and then there was much travel at year-end. You said she has bled heavily, with pain. When?'
'Now. The last three days.'
'She says yes, but not that I remember.'
'Is she late?'
He sighed. 'Yes.'
Morwen's brow creased again and her hands stilled. 'How long?'
'Why do you come to me now?'
'I want a true reason for this. Something that can be mended or made right.'
'There is no mending if she is bleeding like…'
'I know! Next time. There's not even been this before. Is it just that I have been gone?' he pleaded, 'that I must be with her more often?'
'You fear something else. What is it?'
'A curse. Emeldir cursed the house for her husband's cruelty and infidelity. She declared barrenness on us all.' Denethor paused, then said what haunted him, 'Finduilas did not lose her babe upon the road, as might be expected, nor immediately after, but when she had been in the house several days.'
'I do not believe in wives' curses,' Morwen sternly replied, 'for they would have done me in long before had they any power. I think it simple to understand – you have been gentle to your new wife in this first year and much away from her. She has been ill. You rode a long way swiftly and the child did not settle. I am sorry for you, Denethor, and even more for the Lady, but you need not a curse to explain it.'
He sighed sadly, but with relief. Yes, this makes sense. Perhaps there was a curse, but Finduilas would have changed it, softened Emeldir's flinty heart. He would not be ordered from the City again for months on end, he would lie with her and love her, and there would be no long trips…
'Except… ' Morwen said slowly. His eyes snapped to her. 'Are there any other breeding women in the house?'
'Only one. Aeluin, the Matron.'
'How many children has she?'
'How long wed?'
'Over a year. She is wife to Beregar, Adanel's oldest.'
Something in Morwen's face made the hair prickle on the back of Denethor's neck. 'One woman without a child is unfortunate. Two may be a coincidence. Two new wives with young husbands is suspicious.' Her tone brooked no disagreement. 'I suggest you replace your cook. Now.'
It was raining gently and the trees were bare, but there was still some green to the grass in the court of the Houses. Finduilas had not wished for him to remain while she saw the healers. Denethor made himself walk slowly along the arcade that fronted the greensward. After he left Morwen, he had spent most of the night prowling the City, wishing for sight of an enemy he could destroy. He had gone to her in hopes of learning how to thwart Emeldir's curse and came away enraged at the thought that someone had dared to do harm to Finduilas. The rain last night had doused the worst of the flames in his heart, leaving him clear-headed. It is not yet proved, so that must be found, but carefully, quietly; a trap must be set. He had no doubt who would be caught in it.
Denethor turned at the sound of footsteps. Warden Lhûn approached, her white temples reminding him of Aiavalë. 'Lord Dene…'
'How is she?'
Lhûn gestured for them to walk. 'Reasonably well. It may take a week for the cramping to stop entirely. You are a blunt man, Denethor, so I shall be blunt as well. The Lady has miscarried.'
'As I feared.'
'Finduilas herself is in no danger. We have medicine for her so the loss is clean and she will suffer no contagion.'
'Why did this happen?'
'A ride of almost two hundred and fifty miles is sufficient.' Lhûn sighed. 'Finduilas is thinner than a breeding woman should be. I told her this when she was last here.'
'She needs to rest and eat.' The woman gave him a look much like Morwen's. 'You should not lie with her again until she has had another flux. Her womb has been wounded and must heal completely.'
'We will be guided by your wisdom, Warden,' Denethor gravely answered, earning a nod of approval. Ask. Your request will not sound so odd, now. 'Think me not disrespectful, Lhûn, but I am not fully assured by your answer. I agree that it was probably the long ride, but I know there are things that could keep a child from settling, innocent in other situations, but harmful at this time.'
'Yes, there are herbs and spirits that can do harm.'
'Some may be the worse for being odd or uncommon. Do you have a knowledgeable herbalist or apothecary who can look in our kitchen and remove any harmful thing?'
'That can be done, my lord,' she assured him, 'I will send someone. We should return to the Lady.'
Finduilas was once more dressed when they returned to the room, her face pale and downcast. Denethor said nothing but embraced her tightly. He kept an arm around her on their silent walk back to the Stewards House. She kissed him fiercely when they entered the entry hall, then turned and hurried up the stair. Denethor slowly followed. He peeked in the door of her study as he passed. Finduilas was at her desk, talking gaily to Moraen, Wren and Luinmir, while Aeluin and Morvorin sat on the floor playing some game with Anna. He knew it wrong and petty, but he resented that Isilmo's child lived when Finduilas's did not.
In his own study, he pulled the bell rope and sat behind his desk. Beregar arrived a few minutes later. Denethor steepled his hands before him and stared at the young man, looking into Beregar. He Saw nothing. There was no light of love within the man, not even the faint glimmer present in those of ordinary wills. Where is your faith, Hound? Does your eager manner cover a devious mind? Men do foul things for thwarted love. As soon as this was thought, Denethor had to reject it. Beregar would not offer harm to Finduilas, no matter how pained his heart. Even so, he could not help but feel an edge of contempt for this man who did not love his wife. Beregar himself stood patiently under his master's cold gaze.
'Do you lie with your wife?'
Beregar stepped back, astounded at the question. When he realized Denethor expected an answer, Beregar drew himself up very straight, hands clasped behind his back. 'I see not that it is your concern, my lord.'
'I have made it my concern.'
The younger man's jaw clenched and unclenched. 'What is your reason for wishing to know?'
'I wish to know if you are inattentive to my wife or your own. Perhaps to both.'
Red flared on Beregar's cheeks and he demanded, 'What have I done to earn words so coarse?'
'I don't know what you have done. You will not answer.'
'Lord or no, you will hear no answer to that question.'
'Let me ask a different one. Is it not curious that neither married woman in this house has a child? What can explain it?' Beregar dropped his eyes to the ground, considering the question, then suddenly looked up, aghast. 'So, you do lie with your wife. Perhaps you will answer more quickly now – what of the cook?'
'Dúlin is true!' Beregar exclaimed. 'I thought of that danger and planned. She is of kin on my father's side and worked in an inn on the Pelargir road. I brought her here to work in the tavern until the old cook left to bear her child.' He crossed his arms over his chest. 'Every servant is true. I chose them. None would harm our Lady. If any be proved false, I shall cut out my own heart as penance.'
'Something keeps our wives barren, Huan. I have heard tell of a curse on this house, but I think we should rule out poison first. I have asked the Healing Warden to send an herbalist to inspect our stores. Let me know when this person arrives. Also, keep this silent. I do not wish the women to be alarmed, nor do I wish for our enemies to know we have found them out.'
'Yes, sir.' Beregar bowed and left briskly. Towards noon, he returned. 'My lord, I encouraged the women to go to the Master Archivist's house and raise her spirits on this wet day. The apothecary has arrived.' Denethor strode downstairs to the kitchen, Beregar in his wake. Dúlin stood near her stove, stirring something that smelled delicious and casting curious glances at the doorway to a pantry. Denethor walked to the doorway, then pulled up.
A man as black and chiseled as obsidian was examining a jar of herbs. Age bowed his shoulders slightly and a close-cropped band of white hair ringed the back of his head. A dark, twisted walking stick leaned against the wall. Even in the winter cold, he had sandals, not boots, on his feet and his shanks were bare. The man noticed Denethor and nodded regally. 'High Warden Denethor, I have been sent by Warden Lhûn. I am Laanga.' The man's speech was as noble as his bearing.
Denethor nodded in return, trying to maintain his own dignity in the face of this legend. Years ago, when Belemir was Captain-General, an invasion from Harad had been repulsed and prisoners taken. This man had been one of the captives, and had told a wondrous tale of the far south. He had been a captive of the Haradrim himself, pressed into serving as their surgeon, and had asked to become one of the City's healers. Laanga had greatly expanded the knowledge of southern herbs, potions and spices. Denethor was surprised the man was still alive, for he had not been young when liberated from the Haradrim.
'Welcome, Master Laanga. The Warden has apprised you of your task?'
'Yes. To remove any unwholesome herbs from this house.' The man gestured at the shelves of jars. 'It should not take long. I will also need to see all meal and corn, all spiced wines and vinegars, and any dyes and inks used here.' With a gracious nod, the man turned back to the herbs. Denethor backed out and told Beregar to have ready what the apothecary required. He took a seat at the table in the kitchen where he could watch Laanga at his task. The man worked methodically through every shelf, no motion wasted. Each container was opened, sniffed, the contents examined, sometimes tasted, and then closed and put back in place. When he finished, there were two small sacks made of fine muslin and a slender glass jar left on a sideboard. The meal and wines were dealt with in a similar manner, though Laanga did not keep any of it aside. He came to the table to examine the inks. They were soon sent back to their cupboard.
Laanga looked at the muslin bags a long moment, then gestured to Dúlin. 'Might I beg a cup of water from you, child?' he asked. She quickly brought one. He smiled and sipped, then opened one of the bags and spilled a little of it upon the table. 'What is this?' he asked her.
Dúlin looked at Denethor, who motioned for her to speak. 'It is tea, sir. So is the other bag.'
'Ah, of course, and in this jar?'
'That? Oh, just herbs for meat.'
'They smell savory,' Laanga agreed with a smile, 'and the teas are sweet.' He took a good pinch of the herbs and dropped them into the cup of water. 'Do you mix them yourself?'
'No, sir. They are mixed at Nettle and Rose.'
'A very fine herbalist,' the apothecary said. He swirled the herbs in the cup, sniffed carefully, then took a sip.
'If you wish tea, master, I can steep some for you. It is better warm, with a bit of honey.'
'Nay, daughter, this old man is content.' Laanga's dark eyes had a warmth to them, like rich earth. 'I simply test my tongue to see if I can puzzle out the mix. A bad habit of herbalists. But I will have a bowl of that stew, if you don't mind.'
The woman giggled and quickly had a bowl before each man accompanied by fresh bread, some cheese and tankards of ale. Laanga produced a few folds of paper into which he measured some of the three mixes of herbs he had set aside, slipping the envelopes into a pouch at his waist. When the meal was through, he thanked Dúlin for the food and looked expectantly at Denethor. Denethor led them to his study.
'What did you find?'
Laanga's dark eyes narrowed. 'What should not be in a tea.' He laid a sheet of paper upon the desk and emptied the contents of one envelope upon it. His long, bony fingers sorted through the bits of herbs, pushing some to one side. Laanga straightened up, pointing to the small pile.
'That is Widow's Wort. It is a powerful medicine. It is given to elders who have pains in the arms or chest, for it loosens the blood and keeps it flowing. It is also given to women after birth to cleanse the womb of blood. It can be used as a paste on a poisoned wound to draw out the ichors and force fresh blood into the cut.'
'If misused?' Denethor pressed.
'It will keep a child from settling. It can wither a man's stones and geld him. It can make a warrior bleed to death from a simple wound.' Laanga swept the herbs back into the envelope. 'It tastes slightly sour, but not unpleasant.'
'Where does it come from?'
'From the north. Few know of it, for little is brought here, but it can be obtained. It is not something that would be mixed by Nettle and Rose. Their herbalist, Orchaldor, would never put that plant in the Lady's tea.'
'Would they know this plant if they saw it?'
'I believe so, but if they did not know what it was, they would never sell it. This was mixed in later.'
'Can there be an innocent reason for it being here?'
Laanga shook his head. 'No.' Tucking the envelope into his pouch, he walked towards the door. 'I will prepare some tea without Widow's Wort. This may be used until the source of the adulteration is found.' Denethor accompanied the elderly man downstairs where Laanga collected his walking stick and his blue-edged cloak and departed into the drizzle. Closing the door quietly so as not to wake Sador napping in the alcove, Denethor pondered Laanga's words. A rare herb from the north, one that can harm man and woman both by thinning the blood. We both drank this tea. His stomach clenched, not wanting to believe what seemed obvious. Proof. I must know who poisons the tea. He walked back to the kitchen and sat at the table, indicating Dúlin should join him.
'My lord, is something wrong?' she anxiously asked before Denethor could ask his own questions. 'The Lady goes to the healers this morning and then Master Laanga comes to our kitchen.'
'Something made her ill, and I wish to find it. Master Laanga thinks it may be in the teas or in the meat herbs. You said they are from the Nettle and Rose. Are they all we get from there?'
'No, but they are the only mixes. The maids bring around baskets of ordinary fresh and dry herbs every few days, and I pick what I need – marjoram, thyme, sage. These others they mix.'
'And you go get them, or send a boy?'
Dúlin shook her head. 'They know how much we use and send more before we run out. One of their boys delivers it.'
'When? How often?'
'The teas, once a week. I do not serve the Lady stale leaves,' she said, 'but if they make her ill, I need to tell the herbalist no more.'
'Let it be for now. What day?'
'Tomorrow. Every Wednesday. The Lady is not harmed, is she?'
'No. And it is not clear the herbs did this, only that they might. That is why Warden Lhûn sent such a wise herbalist, to sort true threat from false. Accept whatever the Nettle and Rose sends, but set it aside. Master Laanga will provide our teas until we know for certain.' Denethor rose. 'Be silent on this. I do not wish the Lady or her guests to be upset. Not even Aeluin should know.'
With a nod, Denethor returned to his study. Working was impossible, so he sat before the fire, making himself remain still and not storm down the City to the first circle to demand answers. Telperien appeared, damp from her explorations, and appropriated his lap. The afternoon dimmed into evening. Beregar came upstairs to light lamps and give Denethor a note from Finduilas saying she and the others were staying to supper with Lady Lore. He told Beregar what Dúlin had said of the deliveries and they spoke quietly of watching the Nettle and Rose tomorrow. It was late before Finduilas came home. She stood near the door, looking anywhere save at him.
'You did not come to supper. Aiavalë was disappointed.'
'She had me to dinner the last two days.' Denethor stood and came closer. 'Alquallë.'
Finduilas smiled sadly, looking down. 'Friend.' He waited. 'Lhûn told you.'
'I am so stupid. I did not notice. We should have gone by…'
'Hush. What's done is done.' He touched her hair. 'You took no harm. That is all that matters to me.' She nodded, silent, then turned towards her bedroom door. Denethor seized her by the arm. 'No. You stay with me.'
'Friend, I cannot,' she protested, trying to twist out of his grasp. 'We mustn't…'
'We won't.' He held her until she stopped resisting. 'Come to bed.' Finduilas allowed him to lead her to his bed, though she would not sit upon it and made no move to undress. Denethor went to her room to collect her nightdress and a pad for her to lie on. It alarmed him how docilely she accepted being undressed. Denethor sat her on the bed and found a comb, then sat next to her to comb out her hair. When he finished, she sighed and lay down. As quickly as he could, he slipped out of his clothes and nestled beside her, pulling her into an embrace that she did not return.
'Forgive me, friend.' The words were so soft Denethor was not certain at first that she had spoken.
'For this. A poor wife I am!' Finduilas's bitter laugh ended in a sob.
'No, no, Alquallë. No such thing,' he crooned. Her sobs were deep, making her shake. Denethor wrapped himself around her, half covering her, trying to keep the world away. Finally, she wore herself out and slept.
It was like waiting for Orcs; hours of boredom and false alarms. Denethor stood on the roof of a house across the street from the herbalist shop, protected from the light, steady rain by the overhang of the abutting building. Down below, to the right, Beregar slouched against a wall. He could not see the shop, but he could see Denethor. Whenever a delivery boy from the shop set out, Denethor signaled. Beregar in turn signaled a guardsman yet further down the street who would follow the boy on his rounds, see where he stopped and to whom he spoke, trying to see which one delivered tea to the Stewards House. The men dressed plainly so as to pass unnoticed. The rain was helpful for it limited the number who needed tracking. As each guardsman returned, he reported to Beregar, who signaled to Denethor. Each time, it had been a shake of the head – not to the Stewards House.
Dúlin said the tea usually arrived before dinner, so they had watched from before the shop's opening in the morning until now, just after the last bell before dinner. Denethor watched a man in a plain but well-made cloak appear around the bend of the street and scuttle into the shop to escape the wet. As he opened the door, another boy slipped out and trotted south towards the stone pier. Denethor motioned, Beregar nodded and turned, motioning in turn. That one. It was the last boy who could leave and still be to the Citadel before noon. Denethor was almost ready to swing down and follow when the man he had seen enter the shop emerged and turned north. Just before he settled his cloak into place, Denethor glimpsed something white flash on his chest. That looked like… Not hesitating, he went to the back of the house, clambered down stone carvings, hopped over a wall into an alley, and trotted along, paralleling the main street. At the next lane, he peered out, looking for the man. The fellow walked swiftly, his hood pulled low to protect him from the weather. There was something familiar about the man, but Denethor could not place him.
It was a long walk, down to the second circle, then back through the pillar and almost to the westernmost reach of the southern half. There, the man looked around carefully before approaching a decrepit house, more like an afterthought than a true building. Denethor could not risk getting close enough to hear the code tapped out. The door opened at once and the man entered. In a quarter hour, he came out, walking purposefully. When they passed through the third circle, Beregar noticed the pursuit and joined it, hanging far back. The man did not slow until he reached the fifth circle. There, at a fountain on the north side, he stood and watched a pack of raggedly dressed boys roughhousing with each other. Denethor drew back into the shadow of an alley. Beregar did the same on the other side of the road. Eventually one of the boys noticed the strange man and came over. The man pulled a sack out from under his cloak, handing it to the youth, then reached into his purse and produced a few coins. With a grin, the boy trotted away south toward the pier. Beregar caught Denethor's eye and nodded. When the other was safely past, Beregar sauntered out of the alley and followed, looking like an ordinary fellow about his business.
The first man watched the boy disappear behind a curve before turning and walking away north. Denethor followed. The man fumbled under his cloak at his breast, stuffing whatever was there into his purse. It did not surprise Denethor when he entered The King's Cup tavern. A loud shout could be heard from the inside as he did. Denethor slipped down a lane, over a low wall, and then up until he was on a roof, making his way back towards the main road. The perch was wet and cold, but he had endured worse for less reason. In less than an hour, he spied Beregar below and tossed a pebble to get his attention. Beregar soon joined him.
'Yes. The boy?'
'Innocent. A whoreson wanting to earn a penny and impress his mates by taking a bundle to the Lady.'
'He said this?'
Beregar shook his head. 'No. I could tell from looking at him. You can leave this to me, sir.'
'The Lady asked…'
'No. And tell her nothing.' Beregar nodded, settling in to share the watch. Given that Aeluin was also harmed, Denethor allowed him to stay. The man stayed in the tavern most of the afternoon, walking out with his fellows just before night. Unlike them, he was not drunk. Now Denethor recognized him, though it took a minute to place a name to the face. Malantur. A younger son of an old house, he was always among the King's Men in Osgiliath, but had never been as crude or brash as the rest. Isilmo had not liked him, probably because he was not one to be bullied. Denethor had never turned his back to Malantur on a patrol, and now he understood that intuitive caution. When the King's Men were out of sight, Denethor and Beregar crossed the rooftops to the fifth wall and took the stairs down.
Denethor was lost in thought. This complicated things, but made better sense. Northern herbs would seem to indicate the captain was involved, using a subtle way to keep Finduilas barren while placing Denethor at risk from bleeding from a battlefield wound. However, a King's Man made Maiaberiel the likely culprit. Given what Brandir had said in Linhir, she would definitely try to keep them from having a child. That the herb would do him harm would only sweeten the plot. But why would anyone, even a King's Man, agree to put a poison in the Lady's tea?
Near the fountain, a few of the ragged boys still lingered, among them the one who had accepted the bundle from Malantur. They were a rumpled lot, the abandoned proof of their sires' wantonness. Denethor let his hood drop back so that they would recognize him. They did and ceased their boastful tales, watching him warily. When he caught the eye of the delivery boy, Denethor motioned for him to follow. The lad did, Beregar dropping back to walk behind the two and keep the boy from fleeing. Denethor said nothing until they were in the tunnel to the Citadel.
'What is your name?'
'How old are you?'
'Dunno.' Denethor waited. 'Fourteen?' Near the collar of the boys shirt, Denethor saw a bedraggled lump of black and white feathers.
'You bring bundles sometimes to the Stewards House, yes?' Borthand nodded. 'What do you bring?'
'Always from the same man?' Another nod. 'And what does he pay you?'
'Are you the only one who delivers his bundles?'
'Only one I know of.'
An idea took shape in Denethor's mind. He liked it. 'You wear the Lady's favor.' Borthand's hand rose to touch the sad spray. 'Are you a Queen's Man?'
'Yes!' The boy's sullen air lifted and he lifted his chin proudly, looking like any lord's son. 'All of me and my mates are.'
'Come along.' Denethor led them to his study, closing the door behind them. Borthand stared around in wonder. Denethor handed his wet cloak to Beregar and sat on the edge of his desk. 'I don't think you yet a Queen's Man, Borthand. Those who wear the badge have earned it. That man, he wears one, yes?'
'He's not one.' The boy froze. 'Anyone may pin a badge or a bunch of chicken feathers to his shirt.'
'I am. I'm true.'
'But you served one who wasn't. He presumed.' Denethor paused. 'You presume.' Borthand hung his head, shoulders hunched. 'Would you earn your badge?'
'Yes, my lord. Please!'
Denethor pointed to Beregar. 'Do you know who this is?'
'I have only one of him to sniff out the false and fickle-hearted. He needs a pack.' Borthand's face brightened at once, though Beregar looked at his master askance. 'I want men with no kin, no clan, no oaths, save to the Lady.'
'You have them.'
'Your mates will report to you and you will report to the Hound.'
Before Borthand could answer, there was a tap on the study door. 'Denethor?' Finduilas asked.
'Come in.' She entered, looking less wan than the day before. Finduilas halted at the sight of the disheveled boy in the middle of the room. She smiled and offered her hand. 'Good evening, young man. Who are you?'
Borthand stood gaping at her, unable to speak. Denethor sighed, and said, 'He's your new pup. Borthand, greet the Lady properly.'
The lad took a step towards Finduilas, then knelt, head bowed almost to the ground. 'My Lady,' he stammered, but could not say another word.
Finduilas laughed, gladdening Denethor's heart. 'Borthand, is it?' She reached down to tousle the boy's hair, making him look up. 'It is near time for supper. Huan, take this pup to the kitchen and be sure he is fed. Are you really mine?'
'Forever,' the boy solemnly pledged.
She laughed again and walked to Denethor. Beregar motioned for the boy to stand and follow him out. Denethor embraced Finduilas, holding her tightly and she relaxed into his arms. 'You're all damp, friend.'
'I have had business up and down the City.'
'What was that last piece of business?'
'The pup? Just an idea.'
Finduilas pulled away until she could look him in the eye. She was no longer laughing. 'Who is he? What are you planning?'
'He's a whoreson, one of several who haunt the fountains and get into mischief. Borthand wore your feathers. No one wants him, or his fellows, and he'll just turn to worse things. Beregar could use some eyes that are not so well known as your soldiers.'
Denethor wished he had not spoken, for all happiness left Finduilas's face. 'No one wants him? But he's just a child! Where does he live?'
'I don't know, but it will not be here.' Denethor kissed her lightly. 'The Hound will see to him, Alquallë, and I will see to you. You need supper as well.'
She did not resist going to Denethor's bed this night. Telperien curled into a ball near the head, purring contentedly. The long day took its toll and Denethor felt himself drifting into sleep almost the moment he lay down. Just at the edge of wakefulness, he heard Finduilas say, 'Someone may have let him stray, but he has a home now.'
Minas Tirith, 30 January, 2978 T.A.
'Got him.' Beregar's voice was soft, his expression fierce. 'He's in the guardroom of the old watchtower.'
Denethor made himself sit still, though he wished to bound from his chair and race to their captive. 'Who guards?'
'Scratch and Marlong. They're in the room. Gethron and Hunthor. One of the Hunt is ready for messages.' The whoresons had gladly joined Borthand when he brought back word of Denethor's proposal. The sorry lot of them had presented themselves in the kitchen court the next day, and Finduilas insisted on greeting each one. She named them the Hunt and made sure they each had a meal before leaving. It turned out that they did not have a place to sleep, only doorways and corners in alleys, so Denethor located an empty house at the back of the fifth circle and made that their lair.
Beregar put them to use at once trailing Malantur and alerting him when they saw the man alone where he might be abducted without notice. It took five days of waiting, but it was done. Only he and Beregar knew the full reason for capturing the man. Mayhap there will be another to trap.
A glance at the window showed that nightfall was close. 'After supper. Make sure he is kept silent, but unharmed.' Beregar nodded and left. Denethor set aside his work, leaned back in his chair, and watched the light fade. This had to be handled carefully. Malantur was no hired ruffian to be disposed of off the end of the docks in the Harlond. His family was one of the oldest in the City, diminished in stature but still respected. His grandfather had served as one of Turgon's ministers. They claimed ancient descent from the northern royal house (the Rhudaur line), though they had renounced any claims to rule, and they proudly wore a silver star in honor of that lineage. His elder brother had served well as a soldier, had no noticeable ambition, kept away from faction, and concerned himself with their holdings in east Anórien. So, why this treachery? Denethor did not remember the man as one of Maiaberiel's creatures, which made his involvement with the King's Men that much stranger.
In the stairway, there were sounds of things bumping. Moraen was moving in the last of her belongings from the guesthouse near the Tower where she and Morvorin had been staying and upstairs to Ecthelion's old rooms. She and Finduilas had kept Imrahil, Morvorin, and a troop of guardsmen busy all afternoon with the moving. Morvorin left for Ethring tomorrow. Denethor waited patiently for the summons to supper and made himself be mild and friendly during it. The young people were so cheerful that his silence went unremarked. Mostly he watched Finduilas at the foot of the table. Color had returned to her face and she was eating well – quite heartily, in fact. She had not wept again. After the meal, Denethor motioned her to the side in the hall.
'Alquallë, I do not wish to leave you alone, but I must speak to Marlong and…'
Finduilas smiled and kissed him. 'Take care of your business. I have company for the evening. Our chatter would bore you anyhow, as it did at supper.'
'I will return as quickly as I may,' he earnestly assured her.
With a laugh and another kiss, Finduilas turned him around and gave him a small push. 'Go! The sooner you leave, the sooner you return.'
Denethor did not bother with rooftops this night, though he was careful not to be followed. Borthand and Hunthor were just inside the door to the watchtower, the others were in the guardroom downstairs. It was tunneled back under the wall and barred with a thick wooden door. Inside, Gethron and Scratch, the ruffian, were dicing while Marlong sat on a chair and looked at Malantur. He lay on the floor, a sack over his head and his hands bound behind him. Beregar leaned against the wall.
Scratch rose and bobbed his head to Denethor. 'M'lord.' Motioning at Malantur with his thumb, he said, 'He's not said anything. Me and the lads gave him a few lumps, but he's not hurt. Yet.'
Denethor motioned for Beregar to follow him out of the room. 'Send one of the Hunt to Thorongil. Have the boy say to him that the Warden wishes a word with him tonight. Do not say aloud where we are – the captain knows to come here. When he arrives, take him up to the tower and leave him.' Returning to the room, Denethor motioned for the others to step out.
'But, sir,' Marlong protested, 'you shouldn't be alone with the likes of him. A King's Man?'
'I'll risk it.' Scratch checked the ropes binding the man before dragging him to sit up against the wall. When the door closed, Denethor walked over and pulled off the hood, ready if Malantur tried to kick or lunge at him when close. The man did not move, but stared insolently at Denethor, a twisted smile on his lips. Denethor pulled Marlong's chair closer and sat. 'Lord Malantur, good evening.'
'Lord Denethor,' he replied bowing his head a fraction. There was no sign of apprehension in the man.
'Why are you here?' Denethor asked softly.
'I had hoped you could explain that to me.'
'I think you know.' Malantur's brow wrinkled in mock confusion. 'Your deliveries were noticed.'
'Ah.' The man seemed amused, not alarmed, that he had been found out.
'Maiaberiel put you up to this, didn't she?'
Malantur's face twisted in disgust. 'I have naught to do with that whore.'
'Really? You are a King's Man. That is her faction. She has sent her paramours to try to kill me before.'
'You are all whores,' Malantur snarled. 'You pollute everything you touch.'
Denethor leaned forward, curious. 'But you are a King's Man and serve her.'
'I serve the King.' The man's voice was fervent.
'There is no king.'
'There would be, save for you!'
'You mean Thorongil?' Denethor answered in a bored tone. 'You are deluded. He is a mercenary of the Lost, no more.'
Malantur's expression became crafty. 'He is more than just that. Anyone who sees him knows it. He is a great leader and a man of true heart. Not like your defiled house.'
'Just what do you claim?'
'That where despair once was, hope returns.'
'You say he is the king returned?'
The man shook his head. 'I know nothing of that. I know I have taken heart from the day I first saw him. I know your line leads us to ruin.'
'Very well, you detest me and think to create a king of a mercenary. Why then do you seek to poison my entire household? The herbalist looking at the teas says there is an unknown herb in them. You are not brave enough to kill me yourself?'
'It is no poison.'
'To keep her pure.'
'Keeping who pure?'
'The Queen.' Denethor stared. 'You stole her. Just like your whore sister tries to ensnare the King.'
Denethor lunged from the chair and grabbed Malantur by the shoulders, hauling the man up from the ground. 'She spurned him,' he hissed. 'I stole nothing. Make that brigand king if you dare, but she is my wife. That cannot be undone.'
'It is not yet done. She doesn't love you.'
'You know the Lady's heart so well? Better than I? What proof have you of this?'
'That even though she is wed, the Lady hears words of love spoken by another.' Malantur's expression was gloating. 'She repents. She would be rid of you. Even the Whore says so.'
'I have heard this before. You are a greater slave to Maiaberiel than you think, for you simply voice her lies.' Denethor shoved Malantur sharply against the wall and stepped away. 'You might wish to ask the captain his thoughts on the matter. In fact, I sent for him.'
For the first time, uncertainty crossed Malantur's face. 'Why?'
'You'll find out. What is it you put into the mix?' Malantur shrugged. 'You put something into the tea and you did not even know what it was?'
'The witch chose it. I said I wanted something that would keep a mistress from bearing, but not do her harm. I gave her the tea, she mixed in the herbs.' Malantur's eyes narrowed in hate. 'Even if it did harm, better that than bearing…'
Denethor's fist crashed across the man's face, throwing Malantur hard against the stone wall. The man dropped to the ground. Denethor kicked him in the ribs and grabbed his cloak, pulling him up to strike again. Malantur's head lolled, blood dripping from his nose and side of his mouth. Denethor let go and waited, not knowing if he wanted to see Malantur draw breath. The blood at the edge of a nostril bubbled, then again, and again. Denethor backed away until he reached the door, and rapped on it.
Scratch and Marlong hurried in. Gethron stayed in the doorway, hand on his knife. The ruffian looked Malantur over, nodding approvingly. 'Good work, m'lord. Are you done with this garbage?'
'Yes.' Scratch grinned and pulled out a long knife. 'What are you doing?'
'Finishing him for you, sir,' was Scratch's earnest reply.
'Think,' Denethor snapped. His left hand was beginning to throb from the blow to Malantur's face. 'If you kill a lord inside of City walls, you will be on the gibbet by sundown the next day.' Scratch looked longingly at the prone man, then returned his knife to its sheath with a sigh.
'So, what are you going to do with him?' Marlong asked. 'What has he done?'
'Something he should not have. He is going to Osgiliath. What happens there depends on what else I uncover. That's all I can do with him for now.'
'There's a few other things,' Scratch offered, but bit his tongue at a glare from Denethor.
'We need to get moving, then, if he's going to be there before sunrise,' Gethron said.
'Wait here for a while longer. I have someone to talk to first. Then he'll go.' Denethor left the room and ascended to the tower room, telling Beregar to guard the stair. He spent the time waiting for Thorongil palpating his hand and trying to figure out if any bones were broken. Less than a half hour had passed when he heard Thorongil's soft tread on the stair.
'Why all the company?' the captain asked as he entered the chamber.
'I think I may have broken my hand.'
Thorongil stopped, then sighed and came to the window. 'Let me see. You should have called a real healer. I am not much for setting bones.' Denethor allowed him to take his hand. The pain was less at the captain's cool touch. 'How did you break it?'
'Striking one of your men.'
'A Ranger?' Thorongil asked, shocked.
'No. A King's Man.'
The captain let go Denethor's hand and stepped away. 'They are not mine.'
'But the rangers are? You have denied that before. Perhaps you are false now, too.' Denethor massaged his hand, liking the pain. He deserved it for being so blind and letting harm draw near. 'So, you cannot set bones. No matter. Tell me, with your herbcraft, what is this weed? It thins the blood and rids old men of pain in their chest. It makes a warrior bleed overly much from a wound. It can make a woman barren. It is rare, and from the north. How is it called?'
'A King's Man was caught putting this herb into the teas used in the Stewards House.' Denethor walked towards Thorongil, who backed until he came up against the wall. 'He says he did so for your sake, because you love the Lady.' It was too dark to make out the captain's expression, but Denethor saw the motion of the man shaking his head. 'And woo her, even now.'
'He poisoned her and all others in the house. She lost her child but a few days past to this poison.' Denethor seized Thorongil's collar with his wounded hand and drew his knife with the other, putting it near the man's throat. Thorongil tensed, then relaxed, offering no resistance. In a whisper, 'The truth, Thorongil.'
'Never will I harm you or yours, Denethor. Finduilas loves only you. If you wish my life in forfeit for the harm done to her, take it.' The man spoke gently, and something in his voice soothed an ache in Denethor's heart just as his touch had dulled the pain of the battered hand a few minutes before. 'Never.' Denethor lowered the knife. Thorongil's hand came to rest over the broken hand, not trying to take it away, pressing it closer until it relaxed flat against the captain's collar. Denethor bowed his head, resting it on Thorongil's shoulder. It was only his word, yet Denethor was certain Thorongil spoke the truth. A hand touched his back and the knife dropped to the floor. 'I am sorry, Denethor.'
It was only when he heard the bells chime that Denethor stirred. Finduilas would worry if he were away too long, and the hand was going to be difficult to explain. His heart was calmer. Retrieving his knife, Denethor said, 'The man is in the guardroom below. I watched him deliver the poison myself, and he had confessed what he did without being harmed. He claims he has done these things for your sake. You are to take him to Osgiliath tonight. Marlong, Gethron and Hunthor will accompany you.'
'And when we are there, what happens to him?'
'I don't know, Thorongil. It is for you to decide his fate.'
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