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Hands of the King: 51. Conquest
Minas Tirith, 17 April, 2978 T.A.
The southern plague arrived in Minas Tirith as Denethor left for Dol Amroth, and Sador was one of the first to die. Word had come the day after tuilérë that the contagion had found its way out of the marshes and into Pelargir. Lord Morvorin had departed at once, needing to return to Ethring before the sickness did, saying he would avoid the main road and ride across the foothills of Lebennin, spreading the word. The Steward, Denethor, and the realm's ministers met from early until late for a week, preparing for the plague. Warden Lhûn and her wisest healers spoke at the fountains of each circle, explaining how to limit the plague's spread, while Brandir rode to Rohan to advise Thengel.
Luckily, the planting season was well begun and the City was relieved of its winter population. All who had houses beyond the City were encouraged to go to them. Word was sent out for people throughout Lossarnach, the Pelennor, and Anórien to keep to their own farms and not allow outside peddlers to attend their markets. Traders who had been in Pelargir were not permitted to pass the wall of the Rammas, keeping them out of the City and barred from northern Gondor. Likewise, no ship that had been docked in Pelargir was allowed to dock at the Harlond, nor to venture further up Anduin. Thorongil left for Osgiliath with a large portion of the City garrison and many more were sent north to Anórien, leaving only a few hundred behind to share the defense of Minas Tirith with the Queen's Men and the Tower Guards. The Hunt spent days carrying around baskets filled with red strips of cloth, giving one to each house and shop in the City. If someone inside took ill, the strip was to be tied to the front door to warn people away from the contagion. No one would be permitted to leave a house that was red flagged.
Seabird had not stopped at Pelargir, so had been allowed to dock at the Harlond. The Steward had insisted that Denethor go to Dol Amroth as he had planned, taking news and counsel to the Prince and the western lords. It was hoped that the plague could be contained east of the hills of Tarnost and the gap to Ethring. If it was already in Pelargir, there was no way to prevent it from afflicting the vales of Lebennin. The counselors also thought it wise that the Steward and the Warden not both be in the City in plague time.
The contagion struck first, as plagues almost always did, among the messenger riders. The day after Denethor left, one arrived at the Great Gate, fevered and faint. He was not permitted in, but was taken to a small building near the stables that had been prepared to receive ill travelers. It took less than two hours for word to spread through the City. The baths, taverns and whorehouses were shuttered by nightfall on order of the Steward. The next day, there was word that several people in the Harlond were ill, along with a few more messengers and two men who worked in a warehouse in the first circle. Criers walked the streets reminding people not to enter red flagged doors and to keep their faces veiled against bad humors in the air. A day passed with none taking ill, and hope rose that perhaps there would be no more. The following day proved unkind.
The first warning Finduilas had was Aeluin saying Sador had not come to doze in the alcove near the front door. Word came just before dinner; Sador blazed with fever and did not know his own kin, and his son-in-law and grandson were also ill. In the afternoon it became known that several people in the Tower kitchens were sick, as were a few errand boys, a Tower Guardsman, and an embalmer. The plague had jumped from the first circle to the Citadel. The next morning, Finduilas had Marlong and Wren move Moraen to Widow Almarian's house. Luinmir had already retreated there with Anna, not trusting that Isilmo's family's house would stay free of contagion, given their dissolute ways. Before he left with the women, Marlong assured Finduilas that he and Gethron had made sure the Hunt was holed up in their lair, an old abandoned house in the shadow of the Hallows, under orders to stay there out of mischief. When they left, Finduilas tried to concentrate on Borondir's latest reports to her. It was less than an hour before Aeluin came into the study, face pale.
'Who is sick?' Finduilas asked, already guessing what had happened.
'Hunthor. And Dúlin.' Aeluin tried to hide her fear, but her voiced quavered. 'He felt poorly last night, but said nothing. He has a full fever now. She says her neck and shoulders ache and that she is getting warm.'
Finduilas spoke briskly. 'We must flag the doors. Lock them as well. Wren will try to come in. Who is still here?' Aeluin named a kitchen maid, an errand boy and two Guardsmen. 'Tell them to stay away from Hunthor and Dúlin, and to veil their faces at once.' With a nod and an encouraging smile, Finduilas rose to find the red cloth.
That was four days ago. Hunthor's fever had passed quickly, though he was still weak, and Dúlin's was lessening. Aeluin had fallen ill the day after Dúlin and remained in distress. To Finduilas's relief, no others of the house had yet contracted the plague. They all looked like Aiavalë with scarves covering their faces save the eyes. In every room was a basin of strong vinegar mixed with clear spirits, with which they laved their hands upon entering and leaving. Baskets with meals from Aiavalë were left in the kitchen court several times a day, and in them Finduilas found letters from Aiavalë, Wren and Moraen, and reports from Lhûn on the advance of the plague through the City.
It was good news today, for the most part. Just over twelve hundred people had fallen ill in the City and the Harlond, but there were no reports of illness in the Pelennor or Osgiliath. There were no cases in the sixth circle, and few outside the Citadel and the third circle. The heavily populated fourth circle had only a few dozen fall ill - most of the sick were in the lowest circles and the Harlond. Best of all, there were no new cases reported since the morning of the previous day. If they could go five more days without another person falling ill, the plague was past. For safety's sake, no one from a red flagged house was permitted to step outside of it until ten days after fevers in the house abated. The sad news was of those who had died. Sador had succumbed to his fever the day Aeluin fell ill, as had a babe in the third circle. Two more children and a handful of elders had died since then, and today brought word of a crone dying in the Houses.
'Do not be dismayed by this news, Finduilas,' Lhûn wrote, 'for it is less than it might be. We are blessed that the scourge did not strike during tuilérë, when the City was full. I know it seems cruel, but do not sit with your ill servants. There is naught you can do save keep yourself sound. Wear your veil always and wash your hands!'
Finduilas read this and the other letters while Nellas, the kitchen maid, warmed the food. Nellas took Dúlin and Hunthor their meals for they were strong enough to feed themselves and did not need tending while they ate. Finduilas waited upon Aeluin. The woman's skin was hot, her face blotched with scarlet, and she could barely sit up enough to eat. Her hands shook, so Finduilas spooned the broth into Aeluin's mouth. 'How do you feel?' Finduilas asked.
'The same,' Aeluin answered. After a spoon of broth, she said, 'I have terrible dreams. It is the fever.'
'Yes, probably. What are you dreaming?'
'That the doors of the house are bricked up, and we are in a tomb. That our men ne'er return and I'll not hold a child.' Aeluin began crying, though there was no water in her for tears. 'Oh, I am wretched! My husband loves me not and I'll never bear a child for myself!'
'Aeluin, what nonsense is this?' Finduilas tried to soothe the woman, but felt alarm in her own heart. 'This is a bad dream, naught else. Beregar loves you, and...'
'No, he doesn't!' was the miserable reply. 'He did not wish to wed me, and has never loved me. I love him, and he is but kind to me. The tea has made me barren, so I am alone. I deserve it. I wish for a tomb.'
Finduilas was aghast. 'Say not such things!'
'They are true!'
She began to protest that Beregar must love Aeluin, but stopped. It is so that the match was not his wish. Have you ever seen a look of love upon Huan's face when he gazes at Aeluin? Finduilas asked instead, 'What is this about a tea making you barren?'
'The tea, you know, the one we both drank? Everyone drank it. There was a poison herb in it. Master Laanga, he found it,' Aeluin babbled, seizing Finduilas's arm. 'Beregar was angry with me for not having paid attention, for your babe was lost. Forgive me, my lady? Please? Say you forgive me!'
'Yes, I forgive you, Aeluin, but you must tell me what you know.'
'Beregar said the herbalist mixed the tea wrongly, using a flavorful leaf he should not have. It is gone now, but I still have nothing.'
'You have tried to get a child since then?'
Aeluin let go of Finduilas and sank back onto the bed, drained. 'A few times,' she whispered, 'but he loves me not and stays away.'
'Well, there is the answer. Your husband is being foolish. Husbands are stubborn creatures. I know mine is. But we wives are more stubborn yet, and we shall get what we want.'
Finduilas waited until Aeluin fell asleep before leaving. She placed the dishes in a stone sink where Nellas would pour boiling water over them later. Finduilas dipped her hands into the stinging basin of vinegar and spirits, rubbing the astringent mix into her skin, before sitting down at the kitchen table to eat her own dinner. Poison herb? Finduilas knew that Laanga had come to look for any unwholesome things in the kitchen, but had thought nothing had been found. Denethor talked to Morwen, and became angry. Then Laanga came, and he was even angrier. Finduilas cast her mind back to the rainy day when Denethor disappeared to stalk the City, returning with Borthand. There was the broken hand he had never really explained. And the vision of him snapping bones...
She took another bite of the stew and her stomach abruptly rebelled. Finduilas barely got to the privy in time before she spewed. Returning to the kitchen, she threw away the stew and drank water to remove the sour taste from her mouth. Her shoulders and hips ached and she felt a little warm. She found paper and a charcoal stick and wrote a note to leave in the dinner basket for Lhûn.
I fear the plague is afflicting me. I can feel it creep into my bones. Send Laanga.
Finduilas sealed the letter with a drop of wax, placed it in the basket in the court, and went upstairs to rest.
Not only were there no locks upon Laanga's doors, it did not seem that any door could be barred against him. The old black man was seated at the kitchen table when Finduilas came down the next morning, breakfast in a basket before him, a cup of steaming tea cradled in his bony hands. He smiled and nodded his head to her. 'Good morrow, daughter. Lhûn said you asked for me.'
'Yes, Master Laanga. I worry over the sick in my house, and think the plague has touched me.' She still ached, but there was yet no fever, only a sense of being too warm.
'Let me look at them.' Laanga wrapped a long scarf over his face and followed Finduilas to Hunthor, then Dúlin, and finally Aeluin. The matron's fever had broken in the night, and she slept, her skin damp with sweat. Laanga spent many minutes sitting with her, holding Aeluin's hand, his head cocked as though listening for something. With a sigh, he stroked the woman's hair and motioned for Finduilas to follow him out. 'The plague has left her, but her heart is shadowed,' he sadly said while Finduilas poured tea for them. 'She will be long in healing.'
'She misses her husband.'
'Beregar. He attends Denethor in Dol Amroth.'
'Ah. Are you coughing?' She shook her head. Laanga reached over and took one of Finduilas's hands. He placed his fingers on her wrist and sat as he had with Aeluin, listening. 'You have not the plague,' he crisply pronounced, 'but some lesser affliction. It will pass. Eat bread and broth first, then some plain roasted meat to build your blood. I will send fresh herbs for your stomach.'
That was all the opening Finduilas needed. 'I wish to speak to you of herbs, Master Laanga. Of a specific herb.' His eyebrows went up. 'The one you found in my tea in January.'
'What of it?'
'Was it a poison? More to the point, was it deliberate?'
Laanga said nothing, his eyes narrowed so that no whites showed. Finduilas was not dismayed by the dark stare and settled in to wait him out. It was many heartbeats before he spoke. 'Nettle and Rose did not mix it in.'
'I know not, though perhaps Lord Denethor has uncovered it. I do not taste it in the tea now.'
'It is poison?'
He hesitated. 'Not poison, but a strong medicine.'
'What is it?'
'Widow's Wort. It is a rare herb of the north. It thins the blood and can make a woman cast out a child, though she must take a great amount of it to do that once a child has settled. Mostly it is used to cleanse a womb after a birth, or to keep a child from settling. A little every day would do that. There are other uses, but these are the ones that would matter to you.'
'Did it kill my child?'
'No. The ride did that. It probably helped make the miscarriage clean.'
'Who would know of this herb?'
'The apothecaries of the Houses. Practiced herbalists like Orchaldor of Nettle and Rose. Northern healers, I imagine. Some midwives, particularly those who work in the whorehouses. A few witches who concoct love potions. And hate potions.'
'I see. Thank you, Master Laanga, for your wisdom. Tell the Archivist that the sick are healing and the rest do well.'
He smiled and stiffly rose from the table. Finduilas brought him his cloak and his black walking stick. 'I would have come today even if you had not summoned me, child. Old Crone Apple said there was weeping in this house yesterday.' He kissed her brow lightly. 'When Aeluin is strong enough, bring her to the garden to sit with you.'
Minas Tirith, 23 April, 2978 T.A.
The plague had passed and all that remained was for the ill to become well. It would be five more days before anyone could leave the Stewards House. Hunthor and Dúlin were back on their feet and chafing at their confinement, though both were still weak. Finduilas noted the way Hunthor watched Dúlin and how solicitous he was of the cook's comfort, and thought that a bit more confinement would be good for them. They still had to wear veils and douse their hands in vinegar. Finduilas hated how sour her skin smelled and desperately wished she could go to the baths. Denethor would say I stank too much to be near, she wryly thought, and would suggest that the messenger horse trough would suffice. She chuckled at first, then scowled as she thought about Denethor.
Why do you try to hide things from me, friend? Since Laanga told her of Widow's Wort, Finduilas had thought carefully of what Denethor had been doing while she had been consumed by the sorrow. His behavior made more sense, now. He had spoken to Morwen, who had probably warned him about Widow's Wort, so he asked for an apothecary to search it out. Finduilas thought she uncovered who did the poisoning. A young lord of the City had died in Osgiliath a few days after Denethor came home injured. No one understood why Malantur had gone so suddenly to the garrison. She had sent a note to Wren to find out more about him, and had learned he was a King's Man. How he might have put the herb into her tea, she would have to wait for Denethor to explain. "It is my fault that Maiaberiel's poison took root." There was no doubt in Finduilas's mind as to who was behind the poisoned tea, and she understood why the woman had been so dismissive of Finduilas's threats. You think you have made me as barren as yourself, Beruthiel.
Her stomach clenched and threatened. It might not be the plague, but she did not care for this creeping sickness. It left her uncomfortable and made her cross. It is from being dirty and pent up in the house. After a bath, I shall go see Gull and we will take a gallop across the Pelennor! That thought left Finduilas in better spirits. She turned to the letters and reports that had arrived in the morning basket.
At dinner time, the errand boy scampered up the steps and knocked on her study door. 'My lady,' Damnir said, peeking around the edge of the door, 'there is a message from Lord Denethor for you! It came in the basket.' It was thin and much battered about the edges. Just the sight of Denethor's crisp writing made her eyes tear.
Dol Amroth, 14 April
I know the plague must have reached Minas Tirith by the time you read this. I pray that you will be untouched by it. I will return as soon as I hear that it has finished its mischief in the City and I may be allowed in once more. The plague is worry enough, so I hope other things are no more trying than usual.
We arrived safely yesterday. There is no thought of the fleet now until the extent of the plague is known. No ships are allowed to dock in the harbor that come from the east, and the Prince has patrols along the shores to keep pirates from landing. Upon Adrahil's command, Imrahil is ordering the town and the coast to Edhellond. You would be proud of your brother. I have placed myself in Luinil's hands and do as she asks.
Your parents send you their love and prayers,
She sighed, knowing that it would be at least a full month before Denethor could return. Though I shall have some questions for you then, friend, you can be sure. She re-read the letter, wishing there were more in it. "...no more trying than usual."
Finduilas gripped the edge of the desk, thinking she would swoon. When her heart stopped pounding so much, she walked upstairs to Denethor's study, resisting the urge to race as quickly as Gull. She went to his desk, removing Telperien from her seat atop his papers. There was the calendar. Finduilas found the red mark and sat abruptly in the chair, legs turned to water. Five days. She should have begun bleeding five days past. She covered her mouth with a hand, not knowing if she were going to laugh or sob. The sound that came out was neither. This was not supposed to happen with you gone! Finduilas set down the paper and hunched protectively over her belly.
Minas Tirith, 26 May, 2978 T.A.
Finduilas settled into the warm tub with a sigh of contentment. She had come here every morning since the day when a healer had said the Stewards House was free of plague and removed the red flag from the door. Wren, Aiavalë, Moraen, Luinmir, Marlong and Borondir were right there and had almost knocked the poor man over in their eagerness to come in. Lady Lore pronounced them all invalids and began bossing them about. In truth, Aeluin still had been mostly abed, her sorrowing heart keeping her from healing, and Finduilas was worn from worry about Aeluin, so was glad to cede ordering of the house to another. Wren and Moraen were Aiavalë's willing lieutenants. Borondir had moved into the house, taking Imrahil's rooms, so she would have a kinsman near.
Denethor wrote every few days, though the delivery was erratic. The best news was that the plague did not pass Ethring, leaving Dol Amroth untouched. The fleet was reviewed, Denethor now knew how to sail as well as swim, and the Prince had consented for Imrahil to be stationed in Osgiliath this summer. They would be back any day now, having set sail from Dol Amroth almost a week past.
Though Finduilas had dutifully answered each letter, she had said nothing of her pregnancy. She told herself it was because she could not be certain who would read it or because she wished to tell Denethor to his face, but in truth she was afraid to say what she hoped. It was not so unless she spoke and made it so. If there was sorrow, then it would be her own. Joy would make itself known. Another flux time had come and gone a week ago and she had not bled. Her belly was still flat, though she could feel a hint of rounding.
When the water cooled, she nudged Aeluin's foot. 'Time to go. Are you for the garden today or a walk down the mountain?'
Aeluin pulled herself out of the stone tub, turning to give Finduilas a hand. 'The garden. The others go riding today.' The visits to the garden had cheered Aeluin greatly. Every few days the two of them would take their sewing baskets and sit under the arbor. It was a lush tangle of green leaves and brilliant flowers. Birds gathered, and Laanga would chirp at them and they would answer, making him laugh. After some shyness, Aeluin spoke to the old herbalist. A few times, she had walked around the garden with him, murmuring things. If Aeluin cried once or twice as they talked, she laughed even more, and she was much happier.
When they returned to the house from the baths, Moraen was waiting for them in hall, bouncing with news. 'They are back! Or soon will be! Seabird was seen docking at the Harlond but a half-hour past.'
'We should greet them at the Great Gate!' Aeluin exclaimed.
'No. That would be unseemly.' Moraen and Aeluin stared at her. Finduilas smiled to try to soften her sharp words. 'I do not wish for all of the City to be gawking at me when I welcome my lord after so long an absence. Let us spend the time instead making the house welcoming.' Amid the bustle that followed, Finduilas retreated to her study. She still did not know what to say to Denethor. The longer she sat, the more angry she became. You lied to me. You left me in ignorance of danger. You left and did not return at once, as you said you would. You left me alone with this.
When she heard their voices in the hall below, calling out greetings, Finduilas stood in front of her desk and waited. Feet thumped on the stair, then a knock on the door, and Denethor came in. Finduilas dug her nails into the heels of her hand, forbidding herself to throw herself into his arms and weep in relief that he had returned. He was smiling, his eyes bright with joy, as he strode to her and pulled her into a crushing embrace, nuzzling her neck and murmuring endearments. She stood as still as she could. It was only when he kissed her and her mouth did not open to his that Denethor stopped and looked at her face. He let go of her and took a step back.
'Alquallë? What is wrong?'
'Malantur.' It was the only word she could say.
Denethor's face twisted in disgust. 'What of him?'
'Why didn't you tell me?'
'I did not wish to...'
'Worry me? Should I not be worried if someone is trying to poison me?'
'I did not wish to speak of him when you were sorrowed.'
'Why not afterwards?'
He let out an exasperated sigh. 'Please, Alquallë, let us not quarrel now. I am sorry.'
'I am tired of your lies!'
'It wasn't a lie!'
'A deception, then,' she snapped.
'Why must you argue?'
'Why must you deceive?'
Denethor stared at her, then closed his eyes and shook his head. He turned away, heading for the door. 'I go to present myself to the Lord Steward.' The door thudded close, and she heard him call for Imrahil. They did not return until supper. Finduilas made sure there were many guests to welcome them home so she would not need to talk to Denethor. He gave her one sharp look, then played the charming host through the meal.
Upstairs, after supper was through and good-nights offered, Finduilas tried to go immediately to her room, but Denethor caught her arm. He pulled on her gently to try to get her to come over to the hearth, but she refused. 'Why are you being so contrary, Alquallë?'
'You left me with a danger that I did not know of.'
'No, I did not. Malantur is dead.'
'But Beruthiel could have used another. A different man. A different poison.'
'He did not do this on her orders.' Denethor's face was grim. 'He said he despises her. All of my house. He said he did this for Thorongil, to keep you from bearing a child that is not the captain's.' Denethor's fingers tightened on her arm. 'Thorongil let Malantur know how wrong he was.'
And with you gone, who will they think sired this child? It took a few moments for Denethor's last words to make sense. 'Thorongil?' She remembered the bleak look upon his return from Osgiliath in February. 'Did he...?'
Denethor shrugged. 'I do not know. I told Thorongil to decide Malantur's fate.' He touched her face lightly. 'No more on this. Scold me tomorrow. I have done naught but worry over you since I left.' He kissed her gently then watched for her reaction. Finduilas stared at his hand grasping her arm until he let go. She went into her room, closing the door between them.
He did not ask or touch her again. Within two days, Finduilas felt less ill and began to regret her harsh welcome, but did not know how to say what was in her heart. When she tried to form words, they were angry. She wished Denethor would speak or take her hand, but he kept his own stony silence, grim and forbidding. You will have to do something, goose. You denied him and he but obeys. On the last day of May, she gathered her courage and went to his study after supper. Denethor set down his work and stared at her coldly.
'What do you want?' His words were clipped.
'You don't speak.'
'Then I speak no lies, correct?'
Denethor's words were spoken with such venom that Finduilas almost fled before them. You brought this on yourself by being a harridan. She swallowed and meekly said, 'May I stay?'
He kept staring at her, then snorted and returned to his work. 'Get in bed. I will be along.' Finduilas went to the alcove and undressed. She touched her belly, but there was nothing to show, nothing to make him joyful; her fingers alone knew the difference. She lay down and waited.
Denethor snuffed the lamps in the study except one which he brought to the alcove. He undressed while he looked at her. There was nothing affectionate in his gaze. When he was naked, Denethor continued to look at her, though not at her face, and he handled himself until his cock was hard. Only then did he lie down. When he pushed into her, Finduilas grimaced. It was almost as when they first lay together. Denethor did not kiss or caress her, but began thrusting strongly into her, his face averted. She lay still, waiting for him to finish. After he spilled and rolled off, Finduilas thought to leave for her own bed, but Denethor blew out the lamp and pulled her to spoon against him, his arm tucked firmly around her waist, cutting off her escape.
It was all wrong. They should be happy to be back together, and that neither had been struck by plague. They should be celebrating their child. She tried to make herself lie still so he would fall asleep and she could weep. A tremor went through her.
'Alquallë?' His voice was soft. No, be harsh so I can hate you. 'Forgive me.' No. 'What pains you?' You. It. All. His hand came to rest on her belly and she started crying. Denethor kissed her neck and the side of her face. 'Tell me.'
'I'm trying to be brave, but I'm not.'
'Brave about what?'
'This.' She pressed his hand more firmly against her belly.
'Did something happen?'
'I have not bled.'
'You have not bled?'
'Two bloods. The two after tuilérë.'
'Why didn't you say anything? Alquallë!' Denethor sat up. 'I would not have...' He made a sound of exasperation. Finduilas shook her head, not wanting angry things to come out. Denethor sighed and gathered her into his arms, scooting back to lean against the headboard. 'I should have taken you with me.'
'I had to stay. And both you and Beregar had to go.'
He held her tightly. 'You are afraid?'
'Yes. You weren't here and Aeluin was so sick and then I learned of the tea.'
His lips brushed her face, lipped at her neck. 'I didn't lie. I thought the threat was gone, and did not wish to frighten you more. A secret, not a lie.'
'I always learn your secrets. That you loved me. That you saw me. The lanyard. Malantur. How you would have it with Thorongil. I have seen Beruthiel touch you, and told her your are mine now.' Denethor tensed. 'She hates me as much for wedding you as for spurning Thorongil.' Finduilas found one of his hands and placed it on her belly. 'She will hate me all the more for this.' He shuddered and buried his face in her hair. 'How did you break your hand?'
'I struck Malantur. He said it was better that you come to harm than for you to bear my child, so I hit him. I should have killed him.'
'No, friend. This is better. Let others deal in death. I need you to help me be brave and wait.' She kissed him and he answered, his mouth eager, tasting of want. His kisses followed his hands, on her shoulders, her breasts, the inside of each arm. They slid back down to the bed. Finduilas put her legs around him, pulling his hips into hers.
When she woke, Finduilas found Denethor propped up on one elbow, watching her. Somewhere near the head of the bed, buried in the pillows, she heard Telperien purring. This is right. She rolled towards him. After a long kiss, he said, 'Who else knows?'
This made him smile and he brushed her with his fingertips. 'When did you know?'
'When I read your first letter. I had been so worried over Aeluin I had not noticed that my blood had not arrived. You said you hoped things were not trying, and I knew what you asked. I must have conceived close to tuilérë.'
Denethor thought for a moment. 'A babe in late December, then. Perhaps early January.' He smiled and kissed her again. 'I like this birthday present better than the pityatír. But first,' he gave her a light slap on the rump, 'you are seeing Lhûn.'
'I will go see her...'
'...this morning,' he finished for her as he got out of bed. Finduilas watched him wash and dress, enjoying the sight of him. Everything about Denethor was beautiful - his lithe motions, the grace of his limbs, the lines of muscle on his belly, the way his plump, soft cock curved over his dark, figlike balls, the soft shadows formed by ribs and spine as he bent and reached. When he looked at her, she stretched sensuously, smirking at the sight of his trousers tenting slightly. She patted the bed next to her.
'Oh, no, wife,' Denethor chuckled, though a flush had come to his throat and cheeks, 'you may have seduced me last night, but I have already done my duty.' His expression became more sober. 'I would not do you or the babe any harm.'
Finduilas sat up. 'I suppose, though I don't see how it would.' That would be a question for Lhûn. Breakfast was manageable after eating Laanga's herbs. Finduilas frowned as she pulled on her cloak. 'Friend, I think we should be careful of who knows.'
'To be safe. Malantur may be the only one who has acted, but others will share his opinion.' Denethor scowled and nodded. 'I think only a few should know, those who cannot be kept in ignorance and who are trustworthy.' With a sigh, she said, 'I fear this means Brandir most of all, even as I would fain share this joy with him. She cannot know until we wish it known. Nor the Steward.'
'I agree.' Denethor retrieved a leather case holding a roll of papers from his desk. 'We go to Warden Lhûn so I may give her the latest plague reports from Gondor. And you go nowhere without myself, Beregar, Imrahil or Borondir beside you. Not even a guardsman will suffice.'
Lhûn greeted them warmly in her own rooms on the second floor of the main house. She was very glad to see the reports, for they dealt with the south. Pelargir had been worst hit, since there were few ways to prevent people from entering and leaving the sprawling city. Three times the number of people had fallen ill as had succumbed in Minas Tirith, even though the population was a fifth smaller. Linhir had kept the illness confined to the eastern bank by closing the bridges and the docks as soon as it was known to arrive in Pelargir, which kept it from crossing the Gilrain and entering Dor-en-Ernil. It turns out that Morvorin had done similar things on the upper reaches of the river, working with Lord Angrist, and had barred passage west. There were only a few reports of plague between the Gilrain and the great road, probably from fools who had crossed the river by boat, bringing harm to their own farmsteads. The southern farmlands of Lebennin had suffered greatly, almost as much as Pelargir, for people had not known of the plague until too late, and had allowed traders to travel among them. Morvorin's ride across the northern slopes had saved many, for they knew to turn away travelers. Within the Rammas, there had been a few dozen cots close to the Harlond where farmers contracted the plague, but the rest of the Pelennor was spared. Nothing had gone north.
'We have been blessed, Warden,' Lhûn said as she finished reading. 'The plague itself was weak and we kept it from spreading. We should have been better prepared in Pelargir, however.'
'Yes, I am disappointed by that as well. Pelargir is a promiscuous place.' He glanced at Finduilas, who nodded.
'Lhûn, we do not come here to speak only of plague,' she said.
The Warden smiled. 'Let me guess. Now that Lord Denethor has returned, you wish to conceive a child.'
'Not exactly. I already have.'
'Already?' Lhûn said, startled. 'How are you certain?'
'I am not certain, but I have not bled since before tuilérë.'
Lhûn's face grew grave. 'You were bearing when the plague struck. If it did not cause a fever...' She stood and held out a hand to Finduilas. 'Come with me.' Lhûn led Finduilas to the sleeping chamber and had her undress. The healer gently palpated Finduilas's belly, examined the size and shape of her breasts, listened to her breathing, and asked many questions about when she had last bled, if she ached, and other things. When they returned to Denethor, Lhûn was still grave. 'I am certain Finduilas carries a child. I can feel a knot in her womb. It is troubling that she was carrying during the plague.'
'But I did not become sick,' Finduilas protested.
'No, and that is good, but it is still troubling.' Lhûn's brow knit. 'A month has passed, and with it most of the danger. I wish you had been fatter beforehand. You must come to see me often.' Lhûn hesitated. 'I would not speak of this yet, or only to a few. Another month, by loëndë, and all will be well.'
Pharazôn had beaten her, then bred her. The pain in her ribs was less, but the nausea meant she was always throwing up. After all these years... The irony was exquisite.
'Your majesty.' She kept her eyes fixed out the window, watching an old man carrying a yoke of water buckets around the garden, pouring a little on different plants. The foot steps behind her were soft. He was more beautiful than an Elf, or so it was claimed. She had never seen an Elf. A graceful hand placed a glass pitcher on the table before her. It was filled with liquid tinged a delicate gold, like the sunlight that came through the deadly mists wreathing the City. 'This will... eliminate... the problem.'
'Are you trying to kill me?'
The hand caressed her face. 'No. I prefer you alive. Drink it all. There is more.' Outside, the old man finished with the roses and moved to the next bed. 'He has treated you coarsely. A usurper, that is all he is.' She shrugged. 'He will be gone soon.' The beautiful one leaned down, obscuring the sight of the garden with his curtain of silver hair. His skin was as delicate and soft as a maid's. 'Then, you will be Queen once more.' His lips touched hers gently, parted, and she felt the brush of his tongue. His breath was sweet, like meat on the edge of rotting. As quietly as he had entered, he left.
In the garden, the old man crossed the lawn to a darkened circle with a hacked stump at the center. He poured the last of the water on it, then overturned the bucket as a seat. Pulling a flute from a pocket, he began to play.
She took the sour draught each day, drowning what swam within her.
Minas Tirith, 7 June, 2978 T.A.
Aiavalë examined her freshly shorn hair critically in the looking glass before nodding her approval. 'I am ready for the summer heat.'
'It would be just as easy to let your hair grow, then pin it up, sister,' Finduilas scolded.
'But I cannot keep it pinned at night,' the Archivist absently replied, angling the mirror to see the sides of her head. Denethor found a brush and ran it briskly through Aiavalë's hair to remove any loose bits. 'It is better like this. Thank you, Denethor.'
Kissing the top of his sister's head, he replied, 'You are welcome. And you look ridiculous.' This set off a round of bickering between the siblings. Finduilas ignored them, knowing it was no true argument. She no longer felt so sick. Her stomach churned only a little, and the aches had left her bones. Strange dreams kept waking her in the early mornings, leaving her tired and unsettled. Lhûn had palpated her again today and was pleased, saying the lump was growing. The warden also said Denethor could lie with Finduilas until the child quickened, but then they would have to be chaste. In celebration of this news, Finduilas had pulled him into bed as soon as they had returned to the house. The intensity of her desire for Denethor surprised even her.
They had agreed that Aiavalë should know first. Supper tonight here in her rooms was to tell her the news. Finduilas found herself reluctant to say anything. You must. She of all people deserves this news. When Denethor and Aiavalë paused their volleys, Finduilas held up her hands. 'Enough! Turn your talons onto better prey.'
'Beruthiel?' Aiavalë replied with a twisted grin. She kicked her feet up. 'I have a new boot and am ready to attack!'
'I cannot promise you will get to kick her, Lady Lore,' Finduilas warned.
'The rumors spread nicely, like a plague,' was Aiavalë's smug reply. 'I heard her tuilérë feast was poorly attended.'
'Her favorites are still rewarded by the Steward.' Denethor poured them all some wine. 'Amlach...'
'The worm of Pelargir?' Aiavalë said in disgust. Finduilas made a face at the thought of their host of last winter.
'The same,' Denethor said with a scowl. 'She is trying to get Ecthelion to give him lordship over Pelargir. Including command of the garrison.'
Finduilas gaped. 'That's ridiculous! I cannot see the other lords or Linhir allowing it.'
'Baragund and Thorongil will both object, as will Borondir. The man sells poor goods to the garrison. Núneth has a few things to say about his tax collection.' Denethor sipped his wine. 'This will cause great havoc. His venality is bad enough, but he is suspected of having southern ties.'
'We must find an alternative lord whom Thorongil may promote in the stead of Amlach,' said Finduilas.
'Or perhaps a council,' Denethor mused.
'Better yet. Warn of powers rising...'
'And having the foxes watch each other, not the henhouse.' He nodded. 'Very good, prince. Perhaps Adrahil...'
'...will object? Of course he will. As will Angrist. I will write.' It is time, goose. Finduilas turned to Aiavalë. 'Sister, I have news that will pain Beruthiel greatly, though it will gladden other hearts. If all continues to go well, I will bear a child by year-end.'
Aiavalë sat stone still for two breaths, then let out a shriek of joy and sprang to her feet. She grabbed Denethor, spilling his wine on the both of them, and danced him around in a circle, crying 'Yes! Yes! Yes!' He was laughing at her even as he tried to disentangle himself. Before he could manage that, Aiavalë darted to the couch were Finduilas sat and hugged her.
'This is wonderful! By year-end?' Finduilas nodded. The smile on Aiavalë's face faded as she did some calculations. 'You were pregnant during the plague! Why didn't you say anything?'
'What could be said? I simply had to wait for Denethor to return. Lhûn says all will be well by loëndë. That is when I intend to announce this to the City. But I could not make you wait that long to hear.'
Aiavalë hugged her again. 'Very well. You are forgiven. All will be well, you'll see, and you will hold your daughter by year-end.'
'My daughter?' Finduilas laughed. 'Why not say I shall hold my son?'
'Because the firstborn of our house is always a girl,' was Aiavalë's earnest reply. Denethor nodded.
'Always?' Finduilas was doubtful.
'Always,' Denethor said firmly. 'You can look in the birth records.' He sat to the other side of her, smelling of wine and himself. Finduilas leaned into his arms, wishing they were already home, for she wanted him. 'Look at your own birth. The second of two daughters and then a son. Of course it will be a daughter.' His fingers caressed her cheek. 'A beautiful girl, just like her mother.'
Minas Tirith, 16 June, 2978 T.A.
Plans for the loëndë festival were coming along very well. After the scare of the plague, people were in the mood for a celebration. This year, Finduilas decided that there would be a children's parade, as had once been done in Osgiliath, and criers had been telling people of it for two days. All the women of her Lady's Council, including Aiavalë, were gathered today to meet in her study and decide the last few details of loëndë. Anna sat on the floor at Luinmir's feet, playing with a doll and some blocks. The little girl would be two years old on the twentieth. A little girl like Anna, Finduilas thought, that would be nice. She was going to tell the younger women about her own babe today.
'Every black chicken in Gondor will be plucked bald by the end of the month,' Wren cheerfully announced, 'so that all may wear your favor.'
'There will be flags for every fountain square in each circle,' Aeluin said. 'Beregar will use the Hunt's older boys as well as a few of the guardsmen to hang them the night before.'
'And the feast itself?' Finduilas asked.
'In hand,' Moraen assured her. 'Luinmir and Borondir have all of the provisions arranged, Aeluin and I have the cooks ready, Aiavalë and Wren are preparing invitations, and Lhûn will see to flowers.'
'Master Laanga will see to flowers,' the healer said with a smile, 'and I will see they are delivered.'
'Oh, and Morvorin says he will try to be here,' Moraen happily concluded.
Finduilas nodded approval at the reports. 'The parade must start early so the climb will not be too hot. The Steward will preside over the children's revel in the Citadel.'
Aiavalë shook her head and grumbled, 'I still do not see why that should be.'
'Because Maiaberiel attempted to steal the festival for herself, and this was the price for the Steward turning her down,' Finduilas answered. Denethor had brought her news that Maiaberiel had cozened Ecthelion, trying to get him to grant her use of Merethrond on loëndë and present the feast herself. Finduilas had paid a call upon the Steward the next day when Denethor had left the City to see to something north of the Pelennor, had told Ecthelion it would break her heart if he did not allow her to hold the feast, and had asked him to oversee the celebration of the children in the Court of the Fountain. He had immediately consented. Denethor was angry when she told him what she had done, refusing to be mollified that Borondir had accompanied her. That was two days ago and he still had not forgiven her. 'But pay it no mind. It is a small enough price. I have better news! I received letters from both Queen Morwen and Brandir yesterday. Hilda will be here by loëndë, on her way to foster with my mother in Dol Amroth for two years. She shall be our special guest. An éored will escort her, and there does not appear to be any danger in Ithilien, so a goodly portion of the Osgiliath garrison will come in for loëndë. I say we should hold a tourney to allow the young men to show off for the girls.' This was met with great approval, and Wren and Luinmir immediately began to plan how it would be done.
Finduilas smiled to herself. With each day that passed, her fear retreated. Her stomach was nearly free of its butterflies and the terrible dreams had also left. Denethor noticed that her belly was taking on a hint of fullness and she could feel for herself the knot in her womb that Lhûn had found. It was time to tell others of this joy. She clapped her hands for attention.
'Wren, close the door.' Curious looks were exchanged as Wren hurried to obey. 'You are the dearest friends to me. I fear I shall burden you all greatly between now and the feast, for I intend to laze about, but I hope you will forgive me my indolence.' Lhûn and Aiavalë exchanged a knowing glance. 'I tell you first what the City shall only learn upon loëndë: I am with child.' The cries of joy were deafening and Anna began to screech at the sound. It took several tearful minutes for the hubbub to calm. 'Now, you must all swear to be utterly silent on this! I will not have the surprise spoilt.' They swore, and scolded her mightily for not speaking before. It felt good to be happy. When she was done with him tonight, Denethor would be happy too.
The golden fool had sailed, leaving her with a silver demon. When he pressed her down, she did not struggle. He whispered that they would claim all of Middle-earth as theirs, that he would give her a divine child, another Lúthien, and she would reclaim the birthright of Elros and be immortal. She was allowed neither food nor drink save in his presence.
She ran now from his soft voice and softer touch, from the brush of lips and hands. The mournful tune of the old man was in the roar of the waves that pursued her in her dash to the hallow. Almost she was there when one of the eagles stooped from the sky and snatched her up. Over wrack and ruin he soared, and she watched the ships seek haven from the Sea's wrath. He dropped her upon a tall spire in the waste. She huddled upon the barren platform, scoured by the storms rolling in from the Sea. Within, her daughter tossed and turned upon the waters.
Minas Tirith, Loëndë, 2978 T.A.
The women gathered in Finduilas's room to begin their preparations for the festival. As soon as Hilda had arrived two days earlier, she had been told of the news and sworn to secrecy like the others. In the last week, Finduilas's belly had begun to bulge and it was becoming difficult to hide. My daughter may announce herself today, she thought as she washed, admiring the small swell of her tummy. The other women kept close, shielding her from prying eyes. Back at the Stewards House, they donned loose white dresses and braided garlands into each other's hair. Even Finduilas and Aeluin wore their hair like maids today. The men were waiting for them in the solar.
Before they walked down the City, Denethor insisted that they go to the promontory and look out. Finduilas tucked herself into the fold of his arm, for once not chafing against his attentive watch, for the sight to the east dismayed her. For several nights, she had dreamed of being left on the pinnacle of the Dark Tower and every time she glanced eastward, Finduilas fancied she saw a black pillar on the horizon.
Looking out across the Pelennor today, however, she was glad. The morning sun washed the lands below and the mountains were lost in haze. Across the Pelennor, she could see small dust clouds rising, kicked up by the horses and oxen pulling wagons filled with families on their way to the celebration. Directly before the City, there rose another city made of tents. The sounds of people stirring rose through the cool morning air, and there was a faint tang of wood smoke. Thousands had come from all over Gondor. The Rohirrim had led a huge train of farmers from Anórien, bringing samples of their first harvest to display in the markets. Even more had come from as far south as Pelargir and as far west as Ethring. They packed the inns, took many rooms in long-empty houses, and still there were more to camp before the walls. Minas Tirith itself flew flags of many colors, though the most common flag was her black wing. Beregar had returned to the house last night from hanging her banners near the fountains and wryly said he should not have bothered, for everyone else had already done so.
Finduilas turned to Denethor with a smile. 'It shall be a magnificent day.'
He returned her smile, making her heart pound, for there was nothing in it but joy. One of her hands rested on the wall, and he covered it with his own. For a moment, Finduilas thought she heard a woman's voice, old and knowing, and it sang of hope returned. Her eyes played tricks upon her, dazzled by the rising sun, so that Denethor was clothed in sable and gold, a lord stepped out of a tale from bygone days. He took her other hand and kissed it, then said softly, 'It is time to meet your subjects, my queen.'
They walked through the City, followed by Éomund and Hilda, Morvorin and Moraen, Imrahil and Wren, and Beregar and Aeluin. Luinmir and Borondir would meet them below. As they passed, people bowed to Finduilas and Denethor, and many took their place behind, forming a great procession to the lower court. It was filled with the children born in the previous year and their families. The youngest was only a few days old, born to a young cobbler and his wife in the second circle, and the eldest a girl who turned one year that very day. Finduilas looked upon every child there and offered her congratulations and blessing to them and their parents. She did not stint the older children, either.
When every child had been praised, the parade started. The procession snaked its way up the mountain, moving slowly and loudly through each circle, and stopping often to listen to the minstrels or watch the jugglers and illusionists who gathered at the fountains. The sun was near her height when the spectacle emerged from the tunnel and entered the Citadel. A pavilion had been erected on the greensward at the western end nearest the Tower. Under its canopy sat the Steward and at his right hand was Maiaberiel. Brandir stood behind her chair. There were no other seats set out.
Denethor muttered something obscene under his breath, but Finduilas laughed quietly. 'She is every inch a prince of your house, Denethor. I expect nothing less of her. Let her have her moment. This will pain her more than you know.'
'This is your festival.'
'Of course. And she will now have to sit there with no one to speak to, surrounded by what she will never have.' Finduilas regally led them to the pavilion, and stood, smiling her warmest smile, waiting for a suitably large pack of children to gather behind her. Only then did she speak. 'Good noontide, my Lord Steward and dear father. The children of the City have come to ask for your blessing.'
Ecthelion stood, beaming, and came down to the children. There was happiness in his face when looking at them, very like to the joy she had seen in Denethor earlier, leaving Finduilas feeling melancholy. There is good in you. You truly love the little ones. Did you love your own when they were like this? The Steward held out his hand to Finduilas and she took it. 'I can think of nothing more pleasing than to see you here, daughter Finduilas, unless it be in this company.' He kissed her hand, giving Denethor a mocking look as he did, then turned to the children. 'You have come to see me?'
'Yes!' they shouted.
'Be welcome, then, in the Citadel! There is food and games for you from now until sundown.' With a collective shriek, the children began darting about. Denethor's hand closed tightly around her arm, making Finduilas accompany him away from the pavilion. She allowed him to lead her to the arcade at the edge of the court.
Finduilas felt very tired. 'Have some seats brought here for us and our guests under the arcade. It is cooler here than out there. I need food and drink as well.' Guardsmen were dispatched to see to the Lady's comfort. Once her hunger was sated, Finduilas enjoyed the day. Maiaberiel looked bored and hot, though Brandir and Ecthelion seemed content. The children were entertaining, inventing their own amusements on the spot if there were not a nearby singer or acrobat. Nobles presented themselves to Finduilas and Denethor sooner than to the Steward and lingered longer in the shaded arcade. Lord Forlong, his wife Almiel and their two children had come from Lossarnach and intended to stay a week in the City to confer with the Steward. Unfortunately, the odious Amlach had traveled from Pelargir, no doubt to try to secure his overlordship of the port.
In mid-afternoon, Denethor insisted that Finduilas return to the house to rest for the feast itself. She offered no protest. As sunset drew near and cool breezes rolled down Mindolluin, she and Denethor got ready.
'When do you wish to make the announcement, Alquallë?' he asked, buttoning his shirt.
'I am not.'
He stopped, eyebrows up. 'No? You do not wish to say this?'
'It will be said, but not me, nor by you.'
Denethor stared, then went back to the buttons. 'No.'
'I will not give him that pleasure,' Denethor said firmly. 'I will announce it myself.'
'He must do this while there are many lords at the feast and many more people in the City. It is important that he claims his grandchild before Maiaberiel gets to him. She will make him doubt. I will not have rumors of bastardy gain any foothold. The news will leave him too happy to calculate advantage.'
It was a silent walk to Merethrond. Finduilas sent Beregar to fetch Ecthelion, and they waited for him in a small room off the kitchen corridor. The Steward shortly swept in, wearing a scowl identical to Denethor's. 'What do you want?' he brusquely asked his son.
'To tell you something and ask a boon, my lord,' Finduilas hastily interjected. She stepped in between the men, taking Ecthelion's hands. 'I have news that I hope will please you. I have not spoken before now because there was fear that the plague could have done harm, but Warden Lhûn says danger has passed. I am with child.'
Ecthelion whooped and grabbed her, spinning them both around in a circle. 'A baby? A baby? I will have a grandchild?' he exclaimed.
'Yes, you will!' Finduilas pulled out of the man's embrace, hoping Denethor would not explode at his father's familiarity. His hands were fists. 'I am due near year-end.'
'Oh, Finduilas, you could not say a thing that would make me happier!'
'Then I claim a favor. Will you tell the guests at the feast of this news? We have not suitable words, and...'
'Of course I will,' Ecthelion assured her. 'Let us greet guests now so the news will be said all the sooner!' The sun was low in the sky, the hall was packed, and the mood was merry. At the end of the standing silence, the Steward raised his hands for attention.
'Friends and guests, I know you are hungry and thirsty, but, please, I beseech you to indulge me for but a minute and hear what I have to say.' People laughed and teased him to be quick. 'As you wish! I speak to you not as the Steward, nor as a lord, but only as an old man. I am near to dying for joy today, you see, for I have been told a wonderful thing. By year-end,' Ecthelion paused, 'by year-end, I shall be a grandfather.'
The walls of Merethrond shook from the force of the cheers. Several people dashed out the door, calling the news. When the guests within had finally shouted themselves hoarse, the celebration of the rest of the City could be heard. Finduilas turned to Denethor, and held out her hand. We have conquered. As they had last year, they walked among the tables, visiting. After the first few toasts, Finduilas allowed Denethor to do the drinking for both of them, lest it make her sick.
Finduilas saw Brandir and Maiaberiel and walked over. Brandir jumped to his feet, face streaked by tears, and embraced her tenderly. 'I am so... happy...' he barely choked out before beginning to weep again.
'Shh, Brandir, no tears,' Finduilas soothed him. Maiaberiel looked at her with an expression Finduilas could not fathom. Pushing Brandir towards Denethor, she slipped into the seat next to the woman. Embracing Maiaberiel, Finduilas whispered, 'Surprise.' Maiaberiel's gaze turned hateful. Finduilas laughed low and murmured, 'And do not think to intrigue. The City knows who lies. And with whom.' With a kiss, Finduilas sauntered off, Denethor close behind.
The rest of the evening passed in a blur of embraces, kisses, blessings, and gossip. Eventually, they found themselves at the back. Imrahil was there with Morvorin, Thorongil, Marlong, Gethron and Borondir. None of them was sober, their table littered with many used cups, but they all stood to offer their congratulations.
'Sister!' Imrahil said, grinning and weaving, 'I am most angry with you. Why didn't you tell me? Am I that wretched a brother?'
'And have my surprise spoilt? I know you are the worst gossip in Minas Tirith,' she teased.
'You must tell Mother and Father!' he insisted.
'I already sent them a letter, and another to Ivriniel day before yesterday.'
'Thorongil,' Denethor said with amusement, 'I have never seen you inebriated before.'
'I am not!' the captain objected, but he was no steadier on his feet than Imrahil. The other men snickered and poked him, making him lurch.
'I think yes,' Denethor answered.
'I am not inebriated,' Thorongil sternly said, pulling himself up to his full height. 'I am drunk.' He began to bow and only Marlong and Gethron's grab kept him from falling flat. Finduilas could not keep from laughing and Denethor had to struggle to keep a straight face. Thorongil smiled and said with a little more collection, 'I am also very, very happy for you both.'
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