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Hands of the King: 50. Campaign
Minas Tirith, 1 March, 2978 T.A.
Finduilas knew Denethor had forgotten, but that just made the planning easier. Many quiet errands were run, secret messages were passed, and all involved knew their tasks. The only question was whether she could get Denethor to do what he needed to do without raising his suspicion. It was even more simple than she had hoped it would be, for he had absently said "Yes, of course," to her request as he made a few final notes for the meeting with the Steward and the ministers that afternoon. It was getting close to supper, so all she had to do now was sit in her study near the hearth and wait for Denethor to come home.
There had been letters from Aiavalë and her mother today. Lady Lore was full of news from Pelargir, including how Wren and Marlong's courtship was progressing, which Finduilas gleefully shared with Moraen and Aeluin. There was nothing new from Dol Amroth save that the Prince was recovered and Luinil had decided to allow him to live. Denethor had been pleased by the invitation to journey to Dol Amroth; he and Imrahil were to depart the second full week of April and return shortly after the first of May. Finduilas still had not decided if she would go with them. She had no great desire to journey, but neither did she wish to be parted from Denethor for so long.
There was a light tap on the door, then Beregar poked his head in. 'A pup saw Lord Denethor and the others coming along the upper walk. They should be here shortly.'
'They will be coming in the Wall Door. Tell…'
Beregar held up a hand, grinning. 'I did.' The Wall Door rattled and Beregar hurried to open it. Finduilas heard him greet the men and say she was waiting for them in her study. A few moments later, Denethor tapped on the door and let himself, Imrahil and Thorongil in. Denethor kissed her lightly on the cheek before retrieving the pot of warm wine from the edge of the fire.
Finduilas smiled at the captain. 'Thorongil, it is good to see you. Thank you for coming to supper.'
He smiled in return and gave her a shallow bow. 'Thank you for the invitation.' He had lost the worn look of a few weeks earlier, but there was a question in his eyes and his voice was polite rather than warm. Denethor began filling cups with wine, not noticing the captain's manner.
'Aeluin said Dúlin was almost ready with supper, so we will not need to wait long,' Finduilas cheerfully told them.
'Good! I'm starving,' Imrahil loudly replied with a grin, throwing himself onto the couch opposite her. He gave her a sly wink as the other two took their seats.
Outside in the hall, there were footsteps, more than strictly necessary to be laying the table. Finduilas tried to think of something that would get them all talking in here and drown out suspicious noises. The councils, goose! What else would they talk about? 'So, gentlemen, how fares the kingdom? Are there any great concerns?'
'Only on how we shall pay for the roads,' Denethor replied shortly. He was glaring into his wine cup. When she brushed her fingertips against the back of his hand, he pulled a fraction away from her. 'Hallas will not be convinced.'
'Nor was the Quartermaster, I fear,' Thorongil agreed with a sigh. 'Lord Borondir does not want men being sent west for roadbuilding.'
'The Steward wishes it done, however,' Imrahil added, voice once more a little louder than usual. He also had heard the sounds in the corridor. 'I think not that their objections will stand. A short trip and…'
'They should not need convincing,' Denethor sharply said, cutting Imrahil off. 'What they want is a waste.' Thorongil nodded, a sour look on his face.
A short trip? Finduilas did not like the sound of that, but she also did not want to pursue it since it obviously made Denethor and Thorongil unhappy. A change of subject was in order. 'Imrahil, I got a letter from Mother today. She said…' Finduilas babbled about their mother's news, staying away from any mention of the trip to Dol Amroth, and Imrahil replied heartily. Their efforts appeared lost on Denethor and Thorongil, who glumly regarded their wine. As the minutes stretched on, Finduilas wondered what was keeping Aeluin.
For the third time, there was a tap on the door. 'My lord, my lady, supper is laid,' Aeluin said with a smile, eyes twinkling. Finduilas thanked her and surreptitiously motioned for Imrahil to get Thorongil out of the room first. She delayed Denethor with the simple ruse of stealing a small kiss from him, then tugged on his hand so they followed quickly after the other two. Imrahil opened the door to the dining room and motioned for Thorongil to precede him. The captain did, then jerked up short.
Thorongil stared in astonishment at the people in the room, then whirled around to Finduilas. 'What…?'
Finduilas laughed and gave him a kiss on the cheek. 'Happy birthday, Thorongil.' She turned him around and gave him a small push to get him in the room. Brandir stepped forward to embrace his friend and act as master of ceremonies. Finduilas tried to follow, but Denethor pulled on her arm.
'Alquallë?' Denethor murmured, looking somewhat exasperated. 'You should have told me what you planned.' He did not wait for an answer, but motioned that they should go in.
Thorongil was crouched down on one knee, holding out a coaxing hand to Anna, who held a small bundle of daffodils and paper whites. With a little urging from Luinmir, the toddler reluctantly gave the flowers to the captain. He took the largest, brightest of the daffodils and gave it back to her, making Anna smile.
The guests had been carefully chosen. Brandir had to be here, as he was Thorongil's oldest and closest friend in Gondor. Gethron was here and Marlong would have been were he not in Pelargir. Imrahil and Moraen, of course, but also Beregar and Aeluin. The Hound must trust the captain, and not just because his master demands it. Borondir was there for the same reason. Luinmir had been asked to emphasize that she was a trusted counselor and to make it less awkward to have but one unwed woman at such a gathering. The newest member of the Lady's Council, as Finduilas had begun to think of this group, was Warden Lhûn. Since the fog-wrapped visit with Master Laanga, Finduilas had taken to visiting both the garden and the Houses every few days, and the amiability between herself and the older woman had flowered into friendship. Given how Thorongil had healed within her House, it seemed appropriate to invite the Warden.
Beregar would not hear of anything except that he would serve the table, but sat next to Aeluin to eat. Thorongil allowed himself to be sat at the head as the guest of honor, and soon forgot his embarrassment amid the genial conversation. Finduilas had already warned Brandir, Imrahil, Moraen and Aeluin to be sure that only pleasant things were discussed to prevent either the captain or Denethor from falling into dour silence, and they obliged with stories of what they had seen in the City, of signs of the approaching spring, and of plans for the upcoming tuilérë celebration. Anna kept all amused, for she was not content until she had visited everyone at the table. She reclaimed the rest of the flowers from Thorongil and was handing one out to everyone. Even Denethor allowed himself to be charmed.
'I hear you have a house in the City now, Thorongil,' Brandir cheerfully said.
'Yes, in the fifth circle,' the captain replied.
Brandir waited for more, but Thorongil took another bite of food. A faint look of impatience came over Brandir's face, though his words were pleasant. 'And what is it like, and where is it located, and when shall you have guests? Answer now or the ladies will show you no mercy!'
'It is a house,' Thorongil replied with some asperity, 'neither great nor small. The roof does not leak and the doors all work. It is like this one, I think, though I have not spent much time in it. I have been in Osgiliath until two days ago.'
'So you have not had time to put it in order,' Aeluin said.
'Nor will I have much…' Thorongil hesitated, glancing at Denethor, 'since I will often be away from the City.' Finduilas also looked at Denethor, who was very determinedly not looking at her.
'Then you need a housekeeper,' was Aeluin's firm reply.
'My mother can locate a trustworthy keeper for you, sir,' Beregar added.
Thorongil smiled wryly. 'I suppose I shall need such a person.'
Borondir asked, 'Where in the fifth circle, captain?'
'The north side, tending west, against the outer wall.'
'That is a little used portion of the circle, Thorongil,' Lhûn pointed out, 'and one where houses are sometimes robbed, for there are none to see mischief being done.'
'There is nothing in it now, Warden, save a bed and a few belongings, so naught to thieve.'
'Oh yes there is.' Finduilas said. 'When you go home tonight, you will find a present from myself and Denethor waiting for you.' That made Denethor look at her.
'I thought I possessed the only key to the door,' Thorongil slowly said.
'You do,' she brightly answered. Scratch had been a great help this afternoon picking the lock.
'I… see.' When she did not reply, Thorongil turned to Brandir. 'As to when I might have a guest, it will be once there is comfort to offer to a guest.'
'The sooner you hire a housekeeper, the sooner that will be,' was Aeluin's advice. Thorongil allowed as to how that was true, then asked Imrahil how his arms training with the Tower Guards was coming along, ending all conversation of the house. Imrahil and Beregar were both eager to discuss their training, and Gethron jumped in as well. The conversation wandered a few more places before the meal ended and people rose to go home.
Before he left, Thorongil took Finduilas's hands. Whatever doubts that dogged his heels departed, and his face was alight with happiness. 'I know it was you who planned this, Finduilas. Thank you.'
'You are welcome, Thorongil.'
It took a few minutes to sort things out with Aeluin and Moraen and bid the women good night. Denethor was already upstairs in his study, sitting in his usual place on the floor before her chair, and did not look at her when she came in. There was a single lamp burning in the alcove, leaving most of the room in shadow. Finduilas sat in her chair and waited.
'So, what did we give the captain?'
'Something to focus his mind.'
Denethor leaned back until he could look up at her. 'And what would that be?'
'A map of Gondor, showing the furthest reach of her boundaries. Umbar is shown. It hangs on the wall of his room.'
This made Denethor turn to face her, curious. 'Why?'
'You said he must learn to stay. He will always see before him what is, Gondor, and think of her, not the north.'
'Your concern for the captain's thoughts is commendable' Denethor said in a sulky tone.
Finduilas did not care for it. 'Where are you going on this short trip?' she countered.
Denethor sighed. 'Osgiliath. Cair Andros. Henneth Annûn. Borondir wants me to see the outposts and take account of their condition and needs. I told him he can go to Anórien himself.'
'He will not accept Thorongil's reports?'
'Not without argument. Hallas will not allocate coin for roads without knowing what provisions the army will need.' Denethor shrugged. 'I have not seen them since September. An inspection is due.'
'You should go tomorrow. Go at once and return as swiftly as you can.'
He stood and held his hands out to her. 'As you say.' Denethor pulled her into a firm embrace, kissing her deeply. Finduilas relaxed into his arms, giving herself over to his touch. When he broke the kiss, Denethor said, 'While I am certain the captain was grateful for the supper, do not do so again without speaking to me first.'
'What is the matter, friend?'
'I have an anniversary of my own to honor today.' He caught her face between his hands. 'Do you not remember?' He kissed her again, less gently, and reached an arm down to pull her firmly against him. 'I wed you in truth a year ago,' he said huskily into her ear, 'and was changed forever.' Denethor's hands tightened, then released, and he walked away from her into the alcove.
You goose! Worse than a goose, a wretched fool! Finduilas was amazed at her own stupidity. She hurried after him. Denethor paid her no mind, roughly pulling off his clothes and throwing them into a heap in the corner. Finduilas waited for him to finish before undressing herself. She did it slowly, removing her clothes until all she wore was her shift. Turning her back to him, she pulled it over her head and tossed it away, just as she had done a year before, and waited. The bed creaked, then his fingers stroked her back.
Minas Tirith, 3 March, 2978 T.A.
The reeking fog had subsided, though the air was still hazy. A darker spire could be seen in the distance rising above the poisoned mist. She stared at the city just visible across the plain. It smelled of corruption.
'Take a ship.' She turned to Anárion. He had ridden with her so she would not be alone, but dared not approach any closer to Armenelos. He motioned with his head eastward. 'There will be a ship sailing on the evening tide. Go. Forsake this.' He stared angrily at the murk. 'It has forsaken you.'
'I am the Queen. I must return.'
'Your are our queen,' he pleaded. 'The Faithful will follow you. Refound the line.' She shook her head. 'It will be your death,' he warned her.
'Everyone dies.' She nudged her mare and began walking west. In the fumes, she saw again the twisted shapes that had haunted her on her flight. Everyone dies.
Minas Tirith, 5 March, 2978 T.A.
The visitors of the day had departed and supper would not be ready for several hours, so Finduilas and Moraen sat at Finduilas's desk and went over letters that had arrived the last few days. Moraen had become her secretary in Wren's absence. She was not as meticulous as Wren in recording and cataloging Finduilas's business, but she was kinder.
There was no telling what someone would write. Most of the letters were from ordinary folk asking for her to extend her grace to them in their need, and she did what she could. A few would bring a complaint against another. These she showed to Denethor to see if there was a matter of law to be decided before answering. The most delicate to handle were those from the fifth and sixth circles, for these needed to be read with a subtle mind to see who contested with whom for her favor. Finduilas liked best the letters from children, for often the young authors would draw pictures or tell amusing stories of some adventure they had had or imagined they had.
'This is an odd one, Finduilas,' Moraen said, handing over a piece of worn paper, 'What is it about?' It had been sealed with ordinary candle wax, and sealed with a thumbprint. Inside was a short note:
Bless You and keep You, my Lady. You love the Wretched, and we are pitiful. Our lost souls find solace in You, and You succor them. Ingold is now yours. His life is forfeit to Your mercy.
There was no signature. Finduilas's brow furrowed as she tried to recall what this could be about, then she remembered a young boy – perhaps twelve, perhaps less – Borthand had presented to her two days before. He was wretched indeed and she had nearly wept to see a child in such straits.
'One more for my pups,' Finduilas answered Moraen with a sigh. She read the note over again, wondering how many more boys like Ingold and Borthand dwelled within the walls.
'It is a scandalous thing, these children,' Moraen replied. 'It will be a good thing when there are no more of them.'
'No more of them?'
'When Captain Thorongil asks the Lord Steward to put an end to the houses,' Moraen said sincerely. 'When you and the captain ask, how can Lord Ec…'
'I am not adding my voice.'
Moraen looked at her, confused. 'Not adding? But, but, how can you not?'
'Very easily, by being silent.'
'You cannot want this to go on, surely?'
'There are no such places in Ethring?'
'None that I know of. Morvorin would not permit them.'
'And there are no bastards there? No fatherless boys or orphans when no man has died?' The woman opened her mouth, then closed it, shrugging. 'As I told Thorongil, I do not wish for such things to happen, for they are wicked, but they may not be fought so long as there are licentious men with coin and foolish girls with none.' Finduilas refolded the letter. 'The Lady's Grace goes only so far, and I chose where my coin and my voice are most wisely spent.'
'I can see wisdom in keeping women from coming to such grief, but is it not also wise to discourage vice?'
'Yes, it is. It is also wise to gather vice in one place where it may be observed and its practitioners known. In the houses, men do many things to excess, including talk of what is better kept hidden. A false heart for one's wife may also incline towards a false heart for one's lord. There are some who fall into folly once or twice and swiftly repent, but those who make a habit of frequenting the houses, they are dangerous.'
Moraen twirled her pen, considering Finduilas's words. 'Is there no other way to know such things?'
'Yes, but it is a certain way to know the hearts of deceitful men. Thorongil is right – it is more than mere vice. These are twisted souls.'
'I see. I still think it best that the houses be closed. Perhaps fewer would have their hearts misled was not temptation placed in their path.'
Finduilas smiled sadly. 'I may be wrong and it may be best that such places are shuttered. Though I will not join the captain, neither will I contest what he says.'
Moraen nodded and returned to her stack of letters. Her face was thoughtful, and she did not seem to pay much mind to the words before her. Finduilas waited. 'Men's deceitful ways,' Moraen began slowly, 'they are known in the whorehouses. Where will women's deceits be known?'
'In their own homes. In the rumors they spread and the people they entertain. That should not be a mystery to you.'
'Just as I do not know of whorehouses in Ethring, I am not used to poisoned parlors,' Moraen evenly replied, 'and those, too, I find here.'
'Yes. I was surprised by them myself when I first came here.' Finduilas knew some of Moraen's visits had been to women connected to Maiaberiel, but had not pressed her for accounts of what she had heard, suspecting restraint would gain her trust more quickly.
'What I find most astonishing is that some people speak of you in ways that seem loving but seem to me rather wicked,' Moraen continued, some red marking her cheeks. 'I have never known what to say to such things, for I do not understand what they attempt with their words.'
'I shall not press you to repeat what you have heard, for I am certain I have heard it myself before. What I would know is what you think.'
Moraen looked at Finduilas forthrightly. 'I think you love your husband greatly, and that he loves you in return. I think that people say cruel things of Lord Denethor because he is a stern man and they are daunted by him.'
'What else?' She waited several minutes for a reply.
'I think… I do not understand your friendship with Thorongil. Morvorin said you were…' Moraen broke off, face quite red, and shrugged.
Finduilas was reminded of Ivriniel's jealousy over Thorongil's affections. 'People see what pleases them, and what is in their own hearts. Your brother thought that I loved the captain, and thought it good because love is good. Others thought to profit from my affection, and are disappointed that I ruined their plans.'
'You did not love the captain? Ever?' There was a challenge in the words.
Must I always protest that I do not love? No more of that! Finduilas had to make her voice calm. 'I love him now, as a dear and true friend. But I never wished him for a husband. Those who claim otherwise are no friend to me.'
'Why is the Warden's sister, Lady Maiaberiel, never a guest in this house?'
'Simple. If you listen carefully, you will find that all rumors start with her.'
Moraen made a face. 'Why? What does it profit her to speak meanly of you? Should she not make herself agreeable to you?'
Finduilas spoke bluntly. 'She may not rule directly, so she must have pawns. The Steward is partly under her sway. No one can help but see how she has attached herself to Thorongil, seeking to make him beholden to her. Maiaberiel believed me to be her pet, a ninny she could order as she pleased, so that she could be the true Lady of the City. She has learned this is not so, so seeks now to dishonor me.'
'I shall have no more to do with such women,' Moraen quickly said. 'If they are wicked…'
'But how else will I know what they say?' Finduilas smiled, adding, 'I told Maiaberiel that I am not a toy for her amusement, so I no longer hear the lies. Those I know are old.'
'They would turn me against you, Finduilas! They have hinted that…' Moraen cast about before making a sound of disgust. 'Oh, I cannot bear to repeat their words!'
'Let me guess. That I am spurned by my whoring husband and turn to the captain for comfort. That I repent my marriage and hope to be widowed soon so I may claim the captain. That I will not suffer the captain to gaze upon a lovely girl like yourself.' Moraen stared at her, shocked. Did I catch you with crudeness, or with words that whisper in your heart? More gently, Finduilas said, 'If you know the truth, the lies are simple to see.'
'I do not think I can bear to listen to them, now that I know their words are false and not merely foolish.' Moraen would not meet Finduilas's eyes when she spoke.
I think they have spoken your own thoughts too closely, and now you are shamed. 'Then do not believe, but observe. You would not wish to be an Orc, but still you must study the creatures' habits if you are to defeat them. The same applies to deceitful men and spiteful women.'
Minas Tirith, 6 March, 2978 T.A.
The secret place was cold and rain added its voice to the waterfall as full night descended. She huddled in her mantle, her shivers making the stars click against each other, while the little swan tucked its head under its wing to stay warm. He walked over not long afterwards, legs and boots muddy from the day's patrols, his steps swift and sharp, like hammer taps on an anvil. In his hands was a leather pouch. As soon as he sat, he upended the contents onto the stone. Bones clattered out, slender ivory bars. He plucked one up, examined it closely, then snapped it in two, then another, and a third. Something hateful was in his face, and she edged away.
Minas Tirith, 7 March, 2978 T.A.
'Laanga? Are you here?' The light reflected by the high white wall of the garden dazzled her and Finduilas held up a hand to shade her eyes. The rain last night had washed the City clean and the sun herself was brighter.
'Here, daughter!' She pushed her way through the tangle of green to find him squatting near some new flowers in the corner of the garden. The old man's feet were bare, as usual, and mud squelched up between his toes. 'Look at these treasures, Finduilas.'
'They are beautiful. All of it is.' Crone Apple wore a snowy mane of blossoms and bits of green peeked out from the tips of her fingers. The bulbs were in their glory, yellow, white and red, and the tiny cherry was a confection of pink. A lilac bush stood near the back wall, as fragrant as it was beautiful. Inside the house, delicate plants from southern climes added their perfumes and their startling colors to the burst of spring.
'I am putting some of the herbs into bigger pots today,' Laanga said after he slowly straightened up and gave her a welcoming kiss. 'Will you help?'
'Of course.' They were soon up to their elbows in pots of dirt at a ramshackle wooden bench near the door. Each herb had to be sniffed, tasted, explained, and then placed lovingly in its new home. Laanga took great care in placing the newcomers in just the right garden spot so it would get sun, shade and rain in proper measure. When they were done, Finduilas retreated to the bower seat and watched the apothecary amble through the garden, tending his plants. A gentle breeze stirred the branches of Crone Apple, making it look as though she caressed the old man when he passed under her limbs. He ended his perambulation by leaning against the bole and speaking softly to the ancient tree. Only then did he come to sit with Finduilas.
Laanga sat with a sigh, and rubbed his back. 'These bones are like old roots, dense and difficult to bend.'
'If you wish for one of my guardsmen to lift things for you, say so and I will send one.'
'You are kind, child,' he said, and took her hand in his own. His long fingers sought her pulse. 'Your heart beats well, slow and even.'
'I am well. Lhûn is pleased, for I am finally putting some fat on my bones.' It had been difficult after the sorrow to make herself be interested in food, but Finduilas had persisted. She had asked Dúlin to cook the dishes of Dol Amroth as best she could, and Laanga had found the right herbs to give them the flavors she remembered. Every day, one of the pups brought a basket of enticing dainties from Adanel's kitchen.
'Very good!' Laanga let go her hand, but his gaze held her eyes. 'What more may you say of your heart?'
'I am still afraid, but not so much.'
'Are you afraid today?'
Finduilas shook her head. 'Impatient.' He cocked his head, quizzical. 'Denethor should begin his return home tomorrow, but will not be back until the day after. I dislike waiting.'
'You wish to be wife, then?'
She had to think on her answer. 'I miss him. It worries me when he goes over the river, for there lies danger.' There was a whisper of something breaking, making her shiver. 'But, I still fear. In making is unmaking. I wish to know and be past my fear, and it is tiring to be patient.'
'To let be, that takes a brave heart,' Laanga mused. 'Some may call it sloth, or weakness, or even cowardice, turning aside from the crafting of fate.'
'Denethor thinks so. He thinks it weak.'
'Do you agree?'
'And sometimes, it is so,' the old man chuckled, 'for there is such a thing as timidity. But not in you, daughter. So you must do in not doing, and unmake what has been made.'
She laughed with him. 'Master Laanga, you speak in riddles!'
'Do I? Then I will speak plainly. What you think you cannot do, you have found what you must attempt.'
'I thought you said to let things be?'
'I dreamed of Míriel upon Númenor. She saw the White Tree burned and saw the ships of the Faithful leave for Middle-earth. She returned to the pyres. Was that doing or not doing?'
Laanga shrugged. 'I do not know.' With a grunt, he rose from the bench, looking frail. 'You will have to ask her.' Nodding to Finduilas, he disappeared into the house.
Minas Tirith, 20 March, 2978 T.A.
The Wall Door opened and closed, and she heard Denethor's footsteps in the hall. It was early for him to be back from the archives. Finduilas had worried at his return from Ithilien ten days before that he would be in a dark mood, remembering the unsettling vision of him near the waterfall, but he had been calm. Each night he had been tender and attentive. She heard him pause near the study door, listen for visitors, then go upstairs. It was tempting to excuse herself from the somewhat tedious story Lady Mírwen was telling Moraen about a nephew of hers, but knew she could not leave Moraen alone with the woman. Though not as predatory as Beruthiel's pack, Lady Mírwen had decided that nothing would do save that Moraen should wed her nephew, who sounded a dull if respectable fellow. She was not the only lady in the City who had an unwed kinsman she thought a perfect match for the Lady of Ethring. Those without such kinsmen were in agreement that Captain Thorongil would do nicely. Finduilas was pleased to see how deft Moraen had become at deflecting such talk. Within the half-hour, Lady Mírwen had to leave, Moraen excused herself to rest, and Finduilas hurried upstairs.
It was a bright day, rare in March, and Denethor had set a small desk near the window at the end of his study in a patch of light. On it stood the brass contraption, glinting in the reflected sun. Denethor himself sat behind his desk, Telperien nestled in a basket of reports near him, identical smug expressions on their faces. He gestured to the contraption. 'I have solved the riddle.'
'I knew you would! Tell me what it is!' Finduilas begged.
Denethor gave her a wicked smile. 'I could just leave you to figure it out for yourself.'
'Take pity on me, friend, I am not so wise as you.'
He rose and strode down the room, eager to show what he had learned. When they came close, Finduilas saw that the eyepiece of the thing pointed down at a sliver of glass held by the two arms and a tiny mirror lay face up below the glass. 'The first mistake I made,' Denethor said to her, though his eyes did not leave the instrument, 'was thinking that it was but a spyglass, made to be mounted on the edge of a window, or perhaps upon a ship. I could not figure out how one was supposed to see anything with it, for it did not show much. I thought perhaps there was something missing from between the arms, another lens that would move or shift, and make the images larger. It is far more subtle than that.' He turned and kissed Finduilas, allowing his fingers to move into her hair and remove the clasp and pins so that her mane tumbled down. Finduilas did not think the kiss had anything to do with the instrument, but enjoyed the distraction.
Then she jumped when Denethor plucked a hair from her head. He took the strand and laid it across the glass. Putting his eye to the eyepiece, Denethor delicately turned the small wheel, moving the eyepiece up. He stepped back, proudly saying, 'Look!' Finduilas put her eye to it, Denethor gathering her hair and holding it back. It took a moment to make her eye focus, then she gasped at what she saw. A thick brown thread lay across the glass, almost a twig, and there were marks on it like the bark on a tree.
'It make little things big!' Finduilas exclaimed.
'Yes, it is a pityatír,' Denethor said eagerly. 'It is like a spyglass, but meant to peer at tiny things right before you. It makes new what we see all the time. Look at this.' He exchanged the hair for a sliver of grass, then two threads to view side by side, next a fingernail paring, a drop of water, and finally a tiny drop of blood from his fingertip. Finduilas was amazed at all of it. Things that she thought smooth revealed their secret valleys and crags, while things swam in the water like fish in the sea.
With a shake of her head, she relinquished the pityatír to Denethor. 'How did you figure it out? Did you find a scroll on them?'
'Eventually I did,' he replied, intent on the sights in the eyepiece, 'but I knew what it was before then. I was using the spyglass at Osgiliath and looked at the ground near my feet. That is when I realized what the instrument was.' Straightening up, he continued, 'But I could not see anything in it properly. I did not know the use of the arms. A few days ago, I was talking to the captain about Curunír and remembered that I had seen one of these before, two summers past, in the wizard's laboratory. I remembered something glinting and knew it was either metal or glass. The only thing I did not figure out, but was in the scroll I found today, was how to use a mirror to shine light upwards under the glass.' Denethor frowned. 'I should have been able to figure that out.'
Finduilas laughed and embraced him. 'Well, I think you brilliant beyond measure, far more than a mirror's reflection. Never would I have imagined any of it.'
His smile was shy. 'It just took some thinking.' Pulling her closer, he nuzzled her neck, lipping her skin, while his hands caressed her. 'I See more marvelous things with my eyes closed,' he murmured.
She sighed and backed out of Denethor's embrace. 'I fear not today friend.'
'Trying times, friend. My moon flux began today.'
'Is it ordinary?' he asked anxiously, 'Is there pain?'
'It is ordinary.'
Denethor searched her face before folding her into his arms and kissing her gently. 'I am sorry, Alquallë.'
'Lhûn said not to be disappointed, it may be several months. I think it is good that I learn patience.' They walked over to her chair, Denethor fetching them some wine before sitting at her feet. Finduilas was sorry to see Denethor's excitement over his discovery disappear. His mention of Curunír and Thorongil made her think of wizardly plots. It is near time for Mithrandir to appear. He is oft here in the spring. She sipped her wine and pondered what the wizard wanted. She had no doubt but that Mithrandir knew Thorongil's secret. The wizard knows. We know. Many guess or hope, but who else knows? Not Maiaberiel. She sees only a tool. Finduilas smiled wryly, stroking Denethor's hair. If only she knew that we, too, want Thorongil on the throne. An odd thought came to her. I battle Beruthiel to supplant her, while Denethor schools himself and prepares the City so that he may be supplanted. That was what he said. No one who looked upon the two men now would believe it. Other thoughts came to her, and Finduilas did not like them.
'Friend?' Denethor tipped his head back to look at her. 'I am glad you are back.'
'From the archive?'
He took her hand and kissed it. 'So am I. Only one more absence this spring, and then I am back for good.' A scowl crossed his face. 'I do not like to leave you alone.'
'I know. Just as you must face your dangers, I must face mine.'
Denethor's expression grew more sour. 'You must be careful when I am gone. Beregar will stay here with you.'
'No, Huan will go with you to Dol Amroth.'
'It might embolden…'
'Yes, I dare say it will, and that will only make Beruthiel act more foolishly. It will also test the captain's resolve.'
'You intend Moraen for him?'
'I intend nothing where either are involved, but hope that two kinds hearts might turn towards each other. I doubt it, though. She is too young for him.'
'She is older than you. And don't think to distract me. The Hound will stay, and Aiavalë and Wren will be back soon.'
'Beregar is mine and will do as I tell him,' Finduilas calmly replied.
He chuckled mirthlessly. 'We are all yours and helpless before you. What has my sister been attempting since you showed her the door?'
'Nothing directly, though Moraen is being courted most assiduously by Beruthiel's followers. I think they seek to inflame the girl to jealousy. She knows their tricks and is not misled.' The memories of Maiaberiel's hands on Denethor would not go away. The way she fit so well in his arms when they danced. How she stood against him and smiled. The way he had been sick after Maiaberiel touched him at tuilérë, yet also how he taunted and handled her in return on other occasions. 'How like your sister are you?' The words were out before Finduilas realized she had said them.
Denethor froze. 'Not at all. We are nothing alike.' He turned away from her and leaned his arms on his knees so he would not touch her.
What Finduilas wanted to ask stuck in her throat. If it remained unsaid, then it was not so, could not be so. This tale should not be told. Anger at herself for allowing wicked thoughts made her speak sharply, 'I remember you once agreeing with me that you shared with your sisters both pride and meddling.' Denethor shrugged, still refusing to look at her. 'You are in an almost identical situation with Maiaberiel right now.'
'Shall we compare you two?'
'Do not spurn clear council, though it be hard to hear. A newcomer dear to the people rises suddenly, threatening an established hold on power. What can one do? Woo the newcomer to your side. Alas, despite your offer of friendship, you see the newcomer become close to your most dire enemy in the City. Is there no way to defeat this upstart?' Denethor stood, keeping his back to her. 'Do you wish to have Thorongil answering to you, regardless of the station he holds, even as Maiaberiel would wish for the Lady to be her handmaid?'
'Yes.' Denethor took his own chair, face hard. 'Yes, if I could command him as I please I would, just as Maiaberiel would do with both of you. I have considered that allowing him to lead a fleet to Umbar might be a very good way to be rid of him. I have heard counsel from several that I should simply have him killed, and have weighed that possibility, too. Even as I have sworn to do fulfill my duty, so have I thought these traitorous things. Is this what you wished to hear? Why do you ask me such things?'
'Yes, friend, I wish to hear your doubts, just as you hear mine, though mine are small and simple. I ask so you know there is one to whom you may speak your most terrible thoughts plainly, one who will speak suspicion directly to you that you may answer it. Tell me your tales that they may be borne.'
It was some time before Denethor spoke. 'Is it only you who can see so into my heart and see what battles are fought?' he asked in a soft voice.
'No others consider that there may be such battles, for you have said naught save to me. To them, you are the same as Beruthiel, contesting with the captain. Some approve, for they see but an ambitious mercenary challenging a rightful lord. The only one who may guess your true intent is Thorongil himself, for only he knows his secret in full. He must wonder what you are about.'
'You wish me to tell him what we plan.'
'Someday it will have to be said, but I agree that it is for him to reveal himself first. You are his steward and are bound to his wishes.'
Denethor stared down at his hands. 'No. I do not serve him. I serve Gondor until I die or the king shall come again, but never did I swear that I shall serve that king, nor even that I will relinquish Gondor, only that I may not forsake her for anything less.'
Finduilas shook her head in confusion. 'Then you do not wish what you have planned?'
'I do not wish it, but I will be reconciled to it.' She had to strain to hear him. 'I will give him a fair exchange, and care not if he be what we suspect. Thorongil saved you from the Black Breath. He healed you. For that, he may have Gondor and I shall not begrudge it.'
'I wish you to have both, friend.'
Denethor looked up, his face and heart bare. 'Aiavalë was wrong. She said that what you loved was a chain upon you, and you must be willing to cast it all aside. We are always chained, and may only exchange one for another. Should I not love you more than I love stone?' Finduilas rose and embraced him, and Denethor pulled her into his lap. 'My heart is fickle when it comes to rule, even so. I do not wish to obey anyone but myself. Or you.' He kissed her, then smiled. 'That could be an answer, of course.'
'What could be an answer?'
'That I should obey you, and he should as well.'
'I need only one husband to order about,' she teased.
'A queen needs many subjects.'
'Denethor, do not even hint at such a thing!' Finduilas warned. 'Thorongil is the true king. Do not try to thwart fate that way, friend.'
'You have not always been so pliant to her wishes,' he answered, tugging a lock of Finduilas's hair. 'I think you care even less than I for obedience, particularly to fate.'
'I have no wish to be a queen, only to be your wife, so Thorongil shall have to be king.'
'Then I shall be content to be your husband.' Denethor hugged her to him tightly. 'And I will be a proper husband, and you will have your child.'
'There is time and plenty for that, friend. After you return from Dol Amroth, we shall have all the summer.'
'I want Beregar to stay.'
'No, he must go with you.'
'Why? I know how to dress myself and I doubt your lady mother will allow me to starve. You shall have to forgo your favorite spy keeping an eye on me.'
Finduilas sighed. 'I do not think either my marriage or his will keep Beruthiel from spreading rumors on just how Beregar serves his lady when the lord is away.' Denethor stared, then made a sound of disgust. 'I am sure it was only that she wished people to believe me in love with Thorongil that kept her from saying such things last summer. You must take him.'
'How about I leave Beregar and take you, instead? Your parents would be very happy.'
'We should not both be from the City again so soon.' Finduilas did not voice her fear of the journey, but Denethor touched her cheek and kissed her gently, knowing what was left unsaid. 'Father will be content to see Imrahil.'
Denethor nodded. 'He will have to be. I need you counsel, prince, on how to speak to the Prince.'
'Of what, Denethor?'
'Is Imrahil disappointing you?'
'No! To the contrary, he has matured much in the last year, and is distinguishing himself in a number of ways.'
'I think it is time that he learn how to command men in battle.'
Finduilas shook her head. 'He is too young.'
'He is of an age with other young lieutenants. Thorongil agrees.' Finduilas sighed irritably and crossed her arms. 'He will go to Osgiliath and serve Thorongil and Halmir. I do not wish to do this before informing Adrahil.'
'Imrahil will like the idea far too much.'
Now was Denethor's turn to sigh. 'Most likely. I am sending him as I do not think there will be much fighting this summer. There is no true safety in Ithilien, but I doubt we'll see a quieter year for some time. It is a good time for him to learn a ranger's habits.'
'Will he go to the secret place?'
'No. Nor to Cair Andros. Near the end of the year, I think Marlong shall take over Anórien, and Imrahil will go there.'
'Marlong?' She sat back so she could look Denethor in the face. 'I though you said he would not command again?'
'Not to the east of Anduin, no, but he is strong enough that he can take Anórien. I cannot put one of my best captains in that garrison, for they are needed over the river, but I do need someone who can be counted on to run things well. After a summer of tramping about the hills of Ithilien, it will do Imrahil good to sit with Marlong for the winter.'
'I doubt he will like that.'
'I also wish him to be near Rohan, and travel there with Brandir to strengthen his friendship with Prince Théoden.'
'Mother said that Morwen is sending Hilda to Dol Amroth this summer, probably to be matched.'
'Hmm. So, how best to speak to the Prince on this matter?'
'Speak to Mother first. Let her know that you do this because the summer looks quiet. Then let Father dump you into the bay at least twice.' Denethor chuckled. 'Does Imrahil know this is your plan?'
'Not yet. I wished to speak first to Adrahil.'
'Say it first in front of Father and Imrahil together, then let Imrahil do the arguing.'
'I shall conduct this battle as you command, prince.'
Minas Tirith, 28 March, 2978 T.A.
Gull whinnied when she saw Finduilas, and opened the stall door to come greet her friend. Finduilas whickered in return, producing a few treats for the mare. Aiavalë and Wren returned from Pelargir today and they were to ride to the Harlond to meet them. Gull walked to the tack room where Finduilas insisted on saddling the mare herself. She had not ridden Gull since their return from Linhir. It had been tempting to simply wait in the City for the travelers to approach, but Moraen had wished to ride to the dock to greet Morvorin. No, goose, you are going to be a prince and be brave. Gull nuzzled her while they waited for the others to be ready.
They rode slowly to the Harlond, Denethor, Imrahil and Beregar trailing the two women. Finduilas listened to Moraen's chatter without really hearing it, trying to make herself relax. Gull stepped softly, sensing her rider's hesitation. When Moraen said she wanted to let her mare run, Finduilas took a deep breath and urged Gull forward. They sailed along the greensward and Finduilas let herself be delighted in the sheer power of running. I will not be afraid! She did not pull up until they were almost to the Harlond, Gull snorting and tossing her head, begging to be allowed to race further. 'No, mistress, we are to meet guests and cannot play the hoyden!' Finduilas laughingly scolded the mare.
'Are we in time?' Moraen asked, standing in her stirrups to look down the river.
'I don't see anyone, so I think we are,' Finduilas assured her. A wagon for baggage and extra horses, including Aiavalë and Wren's mounts, waited in the paddock just outside the port wall, a few of the guardsmen tending them. They waved and bowed when they recognized Finduilas. By the time they reached the dock, the boat was pulling up and soon there were hugs and cries of greeting all around. Finduilas could hardly believe the change in Aiavalë. Gone was the heavy veil she always wore and in its place was a gossamer scarf that did little to hide her lower face. She jumped from the boat's deck to the dock with surprising agility and did not stumble when she landed. Her stride was lurching, but Aiavalë did not appear to care.
'Alquallë!' the Archivist cried, hurrying forward to hug Finduilas. 'We're back, and only because you ask. And to keep him from thieving the archives,' Aiavalë took a playful swat at Denethor, 'but we should all return again soon!'
Denethor took Aiavalë's shoulders, making her look at him. 'Do I get no greeting?' he said with mock sternness.
'After I have seen what damage you have done to my books, I will consider it,' she haughtily sniffed, eyes crinkling in mirth. Denethor's expression became tender and he touched her cheek through the scarf. Finduilas saw Aiavalë's smile though the fabric and watched a small smile take over Denethor's face in return. 'You will be happy, little brother. I have worn out my shoe with walking.'
'And worn out the city with your scolding, no doubt,' he sweetly replied, easily ducking Aiavalë's slap. Finduilas allowed the siblings to walk together and gave her attention to Wren, who was full of stories about Pelargir. Marlong followed, the metal tip of his walking stick tapping the stone. The ride back to Minas Tirith was slow, for there was too much visiting to be done to hurry. Morvorin managed to hold three conversations at once with Moraen, Imrahil and Denethor, while Aiavalë and Wren cheerful contradicted each other every six words as they recounted their adventures in the southern archive to Finduilas. Marlong and Beregar hung back, speaking quietly. Finduilas glanced back once and thought their faces entirely too grim, and wondered what they discussed.
Not all was gossip, however. Aiavalë moved her horse next to Denethor's. 'There is news you will want to hear. The plague is coming north.'
'How swiftly? Where is it?' he demanded.
'It afflicts the pirates coming up from the south. Two ships filled with dead and sick men were sighted near Tolfalas. There is rumor that the fisher folk of Ethir Anduin suffer from it now, though there is no certain word. People are wary of the fishermen, but the fish mongers must do their business.' Aiavalë looked around grimly. 'It will come here, too. The only question is when.'
At the City, Aiavalë refused to take the horse up the mountain. 'I am much stronger than I was before, sister,' the Archivist assured her. 'If Marlong can walk up and down with naught but a cane, so can I.' Even so, Aiavalë wrapped the thin scarf an extra time about her head, and she did not speak once they passed the Great Gate. Denethor kept a protective arm around her on the climb up. They parted at the door to Widow Almarian's house, Finduilas promising to visit her that evening after supper.
Beregar walked her to the widow's house and for a moment Finduilas felt as though she were a maid once again, off to visit Lady Lore and gossip about Beruthiel. Widow Almarian was there, sitting with Aiavalë, and the three visited for some time. Almarian listened eagerly to Aiavalë's account of Pelargir, and told of her own stay in the port when she was young and her husband a lieutenant under Warden Turgon. Aiavalë showed off her worn shoes, saying there was not a street she had not walked. She looked thinner than a month before, but she did not seem tired or weak. Instead, there was pink life in her pale face and her eyes, usually narrowed in disbelief, shone as she spoke of her adventure. Besides walking, she had sailed in several boats, ridden horses to beyond the walls, and had even gone on a ferry to the eastern shore. Finduilas wondered if Aiavalë had spent any time in the archive itself.
After Almarian left, Finduilas asked, 'Are you weary, big sister? I will stay and talk as long as you wish.'
'I am weary, but not of your company,' Aiavalë answered. 'I wish you could have come with us. You were sad after you returned from Linhir. A cheerful jaunt with just us would have cheered you.'
'I had been away too long, Lady Lore. I was alarmed by how successful Beruthiel had been in darkening Denethor's name, and had to stay and regroup against her.'
Aiavalë's eyes returned to their usual state. 'What did you do?'
'I summoned her to my study, told her I was through with her conniving, and warned her that it would be worse for her if she defied me.' Finduilas thought. 'I also said she was not to presume to name herself my sister.'
'And what did she say?'
'As I expected, she behaved like a cornered snake, hissing and baring her fangs. From now on, no more pretending that I am a simpleton or have any liking for her.'
Aiavalë smiled, lip curling high to expose her gums on one side. 'What part may I play in this, Alquallë?'
'It is time to use her debauchery against her. None before would protest the licentiousness of her reign for there were favors to be gained and pleasure to be had.'
'It cannot be exposed, for it is in the open for all to see. How may you use it if she is too brazen to care?'
'First, she is not the only one who can confer favor. The Warden and the Captain-General both can reward those who I find pleasing. I also have the ear of the Quartermaster-General, and he decides who may conduct much of the Citadel's business.'
'The Steward can and will overrule all three if she asks.'
'I suspect she will try, which is why the other part of my summer campaign shall be to render her lusts absolutely ridiculous.' Aiavalë's eyebrows went up. 'She is no longer so young and her conduct shall be compared to my own. You know, she is envious of the Lady, who all the men of the City adore. That's why she says such spiteful things about the Lady. Is it not pathetic that a woman of her age and standing should be lusting after young men?' Finduilas asked in a conspiratorial whisper. The Archivist grinned again. 'Do you know that she has interfered with Captain Thorongil's attentions to other women because she is jealous the man does not prefer her? He is so often with the Warden now because her attentions embarrass him.' Aiavalë began chuckling. Finduilas allowed her voice to become disdainful, 'It is because she is barren, you know. It cannot be her husband's fault on that count. She has had more than enough chances.'
Aiavalë grew sober. 'So what shall I do?'
'Make sure your spies spread these words around so that people laugh when she walks past them,' Finduilas said spitefully. 'I want her to be humiliated.'
'Adanel and Primrose will help.' The older woman stared at her stockinged feet a moment, then caught Finduilas in a sharp stare. 'Wren told me.'
'What did she tell you?'
'Of last summer. She confessed that she tried to run away, but was shamed into staying because of the grief you and Denethor suffered for her, risking the Steward's wrath and being parted for so long because of it.' Finduilas nodded. 'And she told me you lost your child.'
'That was not for her to speak of.'
'How could you not tell me, Alquallë?' Aiavalë scolded. 'Denethor spoke to me as well of the curse our mother put upon our house, fearing it was to blame.'
Finduilas wrinkled her brow, trying to remember where she had heard of this curse before. Ah, Sador! 'And what did she curse?'
'It does not matter. It only affects me and Beruthiel. Besides, she loved you. Anyone could see that. Mother would not have wished barrenness upon you. I told Denethor that.'
'It is no curse. Warden Lhûn has said so. I spoke to her last fall of this and she said I was too thin and Denethor away too much. Well, that last is solved, for he will be here save for the journey to Dol Amroth. Lhûn and I both blame the long ride from Linhir for the sorrow of our homecoming.'
Aiavalë rose and embraced Finduilas. 'Little sister, I do not care why. I wept to hear it.'
'It will not happen again. And when there is a child, then will Beruthiel be broken, not by lies, but by truth; I am the Lady, I do love Denethor, and he will have a legitimate heir.' Finduilas looked sharply at Aiavalë. 'They shall not win, Lady Lore, not Beruthiel nor Ecthelion. They shall be brought low by their own treachery.'
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