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Hands of the King: 52. Hope
Minas Tirith, Loëndë, 2978 T.A.
Thorongil's words were sincerely meant and the joy on his face came from his heart, not his cup. Denethor had been drinking himself through most of the feast, for toasts had been offered by all, and the wine coursed through his blood and thoughts, making him giddy. You are happy for us. Thorongil listed slightly, so Denethor placed a hand on the captain's shoulder to steady him, Thorongil grasping Denethor's shoulder in return. The man's grey eyes captured Denethor's, and it was impossible to look away. There was something in them that Denethor had only ever seen in Finduilas's gaze and in his one clear view of the mariner's face. It made him wish to weep and tell this strange man all the sorrows he felt, all the hope that he could not allow to rest in his heart, all the dreams he had ever had and had set aside.
'Congratulations, Warden! And you, Lady Finduilas!' Denethor spun around, putting himself between Finduilas and the intruder. The leader of the éored accompanying Princess Hilda, Éomund, was grinning at him foolishly, smelling of ale. 'Though the Eorlingas have bested you in this.'
'What do you mean,' Denethor curtly replied, disliking the man's familiarity. He had not much cared for him the previous spring when he accompanied Prince Théoden to the Captain's Council.
'Why, Théoden will have a son sometime this fall,' was Éomund's reply, his grin becoming a leer. 'The sons of Eorl are a virile line.'
'My felicitations to Prince Théoden.' Denethor made his voice and expression cold.
Éomund did not notice, turning to the younger men. 'Are you ready for the tourney tomorrow, my lords?' Gethron, Morvorin and Imrahil said yes and began discussing what contests they would enter. Assuming you're not all too hung-over to stand. The younger men staggered off, loudly proclaiming what feats they would perform.
Finduilas squeezed Denethor's arm to get his attention. When he looked on her, his sour mood slipped away. 'Forgive me, Denethor,' she said quietly, 'I should have told you sooner of Prince Théoden's good news. Hilda told me yesterday.'
'You had the feast to distract you,' he answered, 'and the news could keep.'
'What contests will you venture, cousin?' Borondir cheerfully asked Denethor.
'I don't know.'
'The archery, of course,' Marlong said.
Borondir raised a cup 'You'll win that. You should do well in the swords.'
'But not win.' Denethor nodded to Thorongil. It was easy to be agreeable tonight, especially to the captain. 'I know who the best swordsman is. Second is the only...'
'No.' The men looked at Finduilas. She eyed Denethor sternly. 'No swords.'
'You shan't do that.'
'I cannot bear to see anyone strike you.'
'Finduilas, there is no...'
'No swords,' she stubbornly repeated.
'You won't win this contest, either,' Borondir chuckled. Marlong and Thorongil were grinning. 'The Lady has commanded, and you must obey.'
Denethor nodded his head to Finduilas. 'As you wish.'
'And now I wish to go home. I am tired,' she answered, taking his arm. It took many minutes to edge their way through the guests to the door of Merethrond and more to walk past the many well-wishers who waited for them upon the greensward. Faintly, he heard sounds of revelry from lower in the City. When they reached the house, Finduilas tugged his hand. 'Let us go to the roof, friend.'
'I thought you were tired.'
'I am, but I wish to see the City before I go to sleep.' Denethor kept a firm arm around her to make sure Finduilas did not slip or stumble on the worn treads. When they emerged on the roof, the starlight made it glitter. The heavens were thickly dusted, each gem of light distinct. The purple blossoms on the vine over the arbor made the air sweet. Finduilas laughed and held her arms up to the light. 'Look, friend, look how beautiful it is!' She strode to the eastern edge to look down on the City. There was no hesitation in her tonight as there often was when she faced east. Denethor followed slowly, enjoying the starlit sight of her walking, her hair a darker shade of the evening, the soft folds of her dress catching the curves of her form. Below, the City celebrated. Music, song and voices contested with each other, echoing against the stone. Lamps and torches made the lanes bright, and there was a bonfire in almost every fountain square. Beyond the City, more fires burned among the tents. Denethor wondered what Minas Tirith looked like from Osgiliath. He placed a hand on the wall, seeking the ancient voice, swiftly rewarded by a gentle murmur telling a tale of great tenderness, remembering things wrought anew.
Finduilas tucked herself into the crook of his arm. Denethor touched Finduilas's belly with his other hand, fingers curving across it. She nestled more closely against him, slipping her arms around him. 'Are you angry with me, Denethor?'
'What?' He looked at Finduilas in confusion, his mind still dulled by wine. 'Angry? Why would I be angry?'
'I have been ordering you much about today. You have said little to me since this morning.'
'I have questions, but I am not angry. Why are you so opposed to me being in the sword contests? Truly because you fear to see me struck?'
'Yes, at least in part. I know how rough they can be.'
'...can still do harm. But you know you would be bested by Thorongil, so you should not allow that to happen in front of so many.'
'Will I not seem fearful instead, avoiding a contest with a better?'
'Not if you refrain in order to humor your pregnant wife. Wives are temperamental creatures at such times, you know.'
'I would never have guessed.' He did not duck the light slap she gave him, but chuckled and kissed her brow.
'So now you may sit with me and let others come to seek your favor.' Finduilas looked away, fidgeting. 'Though you will have to share the attention with the Steward.' Denethor did not answer. 'He was happy.'
'He does not deserve it. He has done all he can to keep it from ever happening.'
Denethor felt more than heard Finduilas's sigh. 'Do not think I shall ever forget that. I lived in dread last year. But what he deserves is a different matter from how we will make use of him. You will have to share, at least in such settings.'
He sighed himself and let go of her. 'I wish it not, but I may not deny your counsel.' Finduilas took his hand. 'I think I could more easily bear to see rule pass to Thorongil than to see you humble yourself to the Steward. Is that not what you wish?'
'I wish for you to have what you most desire, Denethor.'
He kissed her. 'I have that.' She smiled and returned the kiss, then gazed out at the eastern night for several minutes. He leaned on the wall and watched her.
'On a summer evening years ago, we stood upon this roof, unmindful of what would be, and we spoke of fateful things.'
'You spoke then, friend, of never wishing a child, for fear of what fate you would leave him.' He waited, unsure what she wished to hear. Her voice had a hint of sharpness when she spoke again. 'I have heard nothing from you since I told you of our child, if you are pleased or not.'
'I am pleased.'
'Are you afraid? Of that?' She pointed east. 'Of this?' Finduilas took his hand and placed it on her belly. 'I would know.'
Denethor wished he had not drunk so much wine at the feast. His giddiness had passed and now he just felt stupid. 'I don't know. I want you to have a child.'
'And for yourself?'
'You. Just you.' Denethor kissed her again, pulling her tightly against him. 'Yes. I fear. I see... I see little to give me hope. Save you. I only want to See you.' He knew he was speaking foolishness, but Finduilas laughed. It was low and rich, like the voice in the stone.
'And times before have been dark, yet hope was found,' she said, stroking his face. 'Within our hearts, there it is to be found.' Softly she chanted,
Upon the cusp of summer high,
They stood beneath the star-strewn sky
To pledge their love and swear their souls.
'Turgon's child, I give thee whole
My very life. Our fates entwined,
Our fortunes forged to each in kind,
And doom beyond we shall not fear.'
Denethor placed a finger on her lips, whispering the next words in return,
Idril clasped his hands, 'My dear
And gentle love, my guiding star.
Hope summoned thee. From lands afar
You came and shared an inner-fire
And so illumed my heart. No dire
Thought, no shadow drear, lies within...
And was himself silenced with a kiss. When it ended, he slipped his arm around her waist and walked them to the stair.
Finduilas had no pity for Imrahil the next morning, nor for any of his hung-over companions. Moraen and Wren eagerly joined in the teasing. Denethor considered himself lucky to just be thirsty and sour-breathed. Hilda arrived soon from the guest house to accompany them down to the tourney. Denethor was both surprised and pleased to see Aiavalë waiting for them near the archives, veil in place. Gethron and Beregar made sure there were a dozen Queen's Men to escort their walk. All the men were needed. When word got out that the Lady was passing by, the houses emptied to get a glimpse of her, particularly the whorehouses. There had been some talk after the plague passed to leave them closed, but Finduilas had spoken privately to Warden Lhûn who made sure the red flags were removed from the doors.
The horse contests - races and feats with spears and swords mostly, though there would be some archery - would be conducted north of the City to avoid the tents before the gate. Finduilas would have to stay in the City and watch from the walls as it was too far to walk and she could not risk riding. Gaerhûl would go into one race, a run beside the road for a league north and back.
When they reached the court before the Great Gates, Denethor bade Finduilas goodbye so she could go with the other women atop the north curve of the first wall where a canopy had been strung.
'What do you mean, stay?' Hilda demanded. 'You'll see nothing from up there!'
'I don't wish to ride in my condition,' Finduilas answered.
'Every Rohirric woman does. How else do you get anywhere?'
'Perhaps for horse women,' Denethor began, but Hilda cut him off with a snort.
'Mother rode until she was six months along! You just have to sit sideways and not go fast. Come, I'll show you.' Hilda grabbed Finduilas's hand and pulled her along towards a small knot of riders and their steeds standing not far from the gate, obviously waiting for Hilda. Éomund was among them. A pair of horses stood loose next the others. They whinnied and trotted towards the women. In a second, Denethor recognized Gull and realized the other must be Hilda's steed, another of the mearas. Human greeting were also exchanged, and Denethor could not help but note that Éomund was in little better shape than Imrahil, Gethron and Morvorin.
'Éomund, give me a boost,' Hilda ordered. In a quick motion, she was up on her horse, sitting bareback with one leg tucked under her. 'See? Like this, not forked over. When Gull walks, your babe will be as safe as in your arms.'
Imrahil shook his head. 'No. She could fall.'
Hilda was indignant. 'Fall? Gull would not allow that to happen!' The mare snorted and stamped in agreement, rolling her eyes at thought of allowing her friend to come to harm. Gull nuzzled Finduilas's face, whickering softly.
'It will be all right, Denethor. Hilda and Gull know what they are doing. Help me up.' Reluctantly, Denethor boosted her onto the mare. Finduilas sat very still for a moment, then laughed and patted Gull's shoulder. 'Go get Gaerhûl. We will wait for you here.'
'Horses for the rest of us ladies, too!' Moraen cheerfully commanded. Within the hour, they were all riding north along the wall. Even Aeluin came with them, sitting behind Wren and looking anxious. Denethor doubted she had ever ridden before. Gaerhûl had been fractious when they started, but a sharp nip from Gull made him settle down. Once at the tourney grounds, Finduilas and the women dismounted and found a shady spot under some trees. Not long afterwards, a small cart pulled by a few of the Hunt drew up with camp chairs and refreshments for them. Denethor gave Beregar a nod of approval for arranging it so quickly.
'Lord Denethor, good morning!' Thorongil bowed with a smile, seemingly unaffected by his celebrations of the evening before. Brandir was with him and embraced Denethor strongly.
'Brother! I think I am even happier this morn than I was yester eve.' Brandir was not hung-over, either, not that he ever was. 'You have been saving this news, haven't you?'
Thorongil made no secret that he was listening. 'Yes. Finduilas wished to do so on a day for children.'
Brandir cocked his head to the side, a keen look in his eye. 'I think you have finally taken a fool's advice to stop being a fool.'
I would have stopped ere now, save for... Denethor looked on Thorongil coolly. The captain's cheer faded and he looked away. It may not have been your wish, but it was your doing. 'Yes, brother, I did, though Finduilas wishes I had followed your counsel sooner.'
'So heed your fool!' Brandir chuckled, embracing him again. 'And rethink your other foolishness,' he murmured in Denethor's ear. With a kiss, Brandir went to the women. Denethor walked towards where a knot of men stood deciding how the events would fall, Thorongil falling into step beside him.
The day went by in a noisy cloud of dust, hooves, and shouts. The Rohirrim won all but one of the contests, as expected, though lesser prizes went to a number of Gondorians. Thorongil was strong in all his contests and Denethor suspected him of allowing Éomund to win at swords. Lord Forlong surprised many with his excellence with a spear, and very nearly won the challenge for spearing straw rings hung at different levels, his impressive bulk not preventing him from reaching far or low for the targets. Beregar and Imrahil did the best of the Dúnedain in a contest involving a pair, though they could not win a prize against the magnificent performance of the Rohirrim. Denethor had decided not to attempt archery from horseback as he had not enough practice, and left Gondor's honor in Marlong's capable hands. The captain did not disappoint, scoring Gondor's only victory of the day. Almost Denethor gave Gondor another, but Gaerhûl was not able to outlast his better conditioned rival in the last three furlongs, particularly since the other steed's rider was smaller than Denethor and less of a burden to carry.
'You, fat nag,' Denethor scolded the stallion as he walked him out after the race, 'you need to run more often. Not that I will be taking you out much this summer. We're both staying near our ladies this season.' Gaerhûl did not object to this prospect. Denethor glanced towards the trees. Not unless the forces of Mordor overrun the Pelennor am I leaving you, Alquallë.
A cheer went up from the horsemen as someone did something clever with a spear. Along the road, people traveled each way, many pausing to watch the tourney for a while before continuing their journey. One horseman in particular caught Denethor's eye. An old man in grey on a small brown horse stared at the crowd, not the contest. His hand raised a fraction and nodded his head. Denethor did not bother to look at who Mithrandir was signaling. The wizard settled his hat back on his head before continuing to the City. Denethor walked swiftly to where the pups were resting at the edge of the trees. He motioned for one to come with him. 'Do you see the old man on the brown horse?' The boy nodded. 'Follow him. Watch where he goes. Report to Borthand.' The lad trotted after the wizard. Denethor finished walking Gaerhûl out, then joined the ladies for the rest of the afternoon.
The return ride to the City was boisterous, the younger men full of brags and the women pelting them with cheerful insults. Aeluin sat behind Beregar for the return, looking happier than on the ride out. In the midst was Gull bearing Finduilas, walking as calmly as through an empty field. Denethor could not take his eyes off them. Nothing bound Gull to Finduilas's will save her love for the woman and Finduilas had only her trust in the mare to guide them both. I must be as Gull, and bear you where you guide me. I must be as brave as you. When they came to the gates, Denethor was certain to thank Gull. The mare nickered and lipped his cheek before trotting away with Hilda's mare. Gaerhûl whinnied, wishing to follow. Denethor pitied the poor stable hand who had to return the stallion to his stall.
Beregar and Aeluin hurried ahead of the rest and a simple but wonderful meal awaited them on the roof top of the Stewards House. The place rang with conversation and toasts until late. Forlong and Almiel were there, Aiavalë stayed and even spoke a few times, and Brandir made everyone laugh. The only one missing was Thorongil, for he had turned aside at his own house with a vague excuse of needing to see to something. Or someone. Denethor put aside thought of the wizard during the meal, allowing himself simply to be a happy man with a pregnant wife.
After Denethor bade farewell to the last guests at the front door, he went to the kitchen court and waited. Borthand showed up within a few minutes.
'What did he do?'
'Took rooms in a house in the sixth circle. Then he looked about for a lad to take a note.' Borthand grinned. 'Ingold earned himself a penny.'
'The Lord Steward. Not Ingold, of course. He gave it to a Tower servant, but waited and got to bring one back. No penny for that from the Tower,' Borthand's voice signaled his disapproval, 'but the old fellow, he gave Ingold a nice piece of cheese for the deed.'
'Went to the Tower, and...'
'When? How long?'
'Upon getting his letter. Still there. We're watching.'
'Watch him until he leaves the City.'
'Yes, my lord.' Borthand bowed and started to leave, then hesitated. 'We, the pups...the Hunt gives the Lady and you our congratulations, my lord. Not meaning to be impertinent.' Borthand's voice trailed off into silence.
The only light in the court came dimly through a small, opaque window near the kitchen door. The boy's face was half-shadowed, but his eyes caught the light, making them shine. Whose son are you? Who could make a life and discard it, like a poorly scribed page or a wrongly-fletched arrow? Inside his chest, something clenched, and Denethor felt anger at whoever sired this child. 'Thank you. I will offer your good wishes to Lady Finduilas. They will please her.' Borthand grinned and bowed again before darting off into the night.
Finduilas was already in bed when he went upstairs. Denethor undressed and sat next to her. He liked to look at her this way, allow his hands to travel over her, trying to find the differences that spoke of the changes within her. The light of her soul, that was different. If he had been paying attention when he had first returned from Dol Amroth, had not allowed anger to rule him, he would have known ere she said a word just from that. Not that he minded the other changes. She was getting fatter and softer all over. Denethor could see it best in her face and neck. The lines and shadows from the winter were gone, and the hollows of the spring were filling. He hoped she would gain more flesh over her ribs and hips. Finduilas smiled and stretched under his caresses. Where once this would have roused him thoroughly, he felt only some warmth spread through his chest and loins. He was glad he knew how to please her with his mouth because it was becoming difficult to mate her. Denethor wondered if he looked different to Finduilas, if she could see a change in his heart; not a diminishment of love, but of want. I have what I want.
Minas Tirith, 2 July, 2978 T.A.
Today, the tourney moved within the walls, into the court behind the Great Gates. Early in the morning, wagons had brought in several loads of dirt, while barrows of shavings from the woodworkers' shops along the north wall of the first circle were wheeled over and dumped nearby. A dozen youngsters were set to work with rakes to find and remove the large stones and mix the shavings and soil. By the time Denethor, Finduilas and their party arrived, a rope was strung around the sparring ground and a pavilion stood immediately before the stone pier, ready for them and other noble watchers. The first circle wall was already filling with women, children and men who would not be part of the fighting. The gates themselves stood open, offering a fine view of the verdant Pelennor. Denethor looked longingly at the ring. 'Alquallë, it really...'
'No. If you do, I will leave.' Finduilas sweetly said.
Around them, chairs were being set out in the pavilion. The center seat was for the Steward, of course. Finduilas directed guardsmen and pups to place her own and Denethor's seats to one side where they would get afternoon shade from the pier. Imrahil excused himself to join Beregar outside the gate where the swordsmen were gathering. With a last look and a sigh, Denethor turned his attention to getting the women settled. Aiavalë again was there, veiled but not still and hidden as she usually was at such gatherings. He wondered how she and Maiaberiel were going to share close space for the better part of a day and decided it could be amusing. They might have their own bout. I should find them swords. Wren departed for the gates as soon as she learned the Steward was to be there, Marlong and one of the pups acting as her escort. Denethor watched them go and did not think it his imagination that Marlong was being very attentive to Wren of late. He made a mental note to ask Finduilas what she knew once the tourney had finished. Moraen, Hilda and Almiel chattered happily. When Aeluin would have left for a more modest seat, Finduilas took her hand and bade her to remain.
'Lord Denethor, good morning.' Denethor turned to see Halmir and Thorongil nearby. The Lost bowed crisply, silvered head and dark moving in unison.
'Captain, Lieutenant, good morrow. Halmir, I did not expect to see you here.'
'I came to pay my regards, sir,' he replied stiffly. 'It is only for the day, and there is no sign of aught stirring...'
Denethor held up a hand to forestall him. 'I did not think you would leave the garrison unguarded, Lieutenant. I hope you will honor the Lady by enjoying today's celebration.' Halmir glanced towards Finduilas and his stony gaze took on a softer cast. 'Come, give your good wishes to her directly.' Denethor led them to Finduilas. 'My lady, Halmir the Lost wishes to pay you his regards.'
Finduilas smiled and held out her hands to Halmir. 'I am pleased you have come to the City, Halmir. Are you here for the tourney?'
For a moment the man did nothing but stare at her, face filled with wonder, then he tentatively took her hands. 'Yes, if you wish it. I only came to...' His voice tapered off.
'See me?' Finduilas finished for him. Halmir nodded. She gave him a light kiss on the cheek. 'I remember your concern for my safety when I went to Osgiliath. I know not how you live in such danger all the time, but I thank you for your service and sacrifice.'
Halmir stepped back and bowed deeply. 'May I continue to be worthy of your kind regard, my lady.' He nodded to Denethor, turned on his heel, and strode towards the gates. Denethor saw him signal to Thorongil, who bowed quickly to Finduilas and himself before hurrying after the elder Lost.
Finduilas watched them go, a curious expression on her face. Denethor touched her hand to get her attention and raised an eyebrow. She shook her head. 'He stares as strangely as Thorongil,' she said softly, 'as though he sees something he both dreads and desires.' Her eyes strayed back to the two men. 'He does not wish to be found.' A cheer behind them made them both turn. The Steward approached, accompanied by Maiaberiel and Brandir, Amlach of Pelargir trailing behind. 'Alas, friend, we have been found out.'
They greeted the Steward without incident and gladly stepped aside for others to pay their respects. Aiavalë merely stared coldly at her kin and turned back to the ring. Unfortunately, Brandir intended to participate in the contests and was quickly gone beyond the gates.
When the contests began, there was no time to worry about who was sitting near, for there was too much to watch. The morning was filled with bouts in the ring before the pavilion and in the regular practice yards beyond the gates. The fights went quickly, the winners advancing to the next match after only a few minutes rest while the defeated joined the crowd shouting encouragement to their fellows. Imrahil acquitted himself well, but suffered defeat near noontide and joined them in the pavilion, soon followed by Morvorin.
The lieutenants and yardmasters juggled the pairings well, giving all who wished to contest a chance, but keeping the best swordsmen apart so that they would not defeat each other too soon. By afternoon, the hundreds of the morning had been whittled down to thirty-two men and all the bouts moved inside the gate. As Denethor expected, both Thorongil and Halmir were among the finalists - he knew full well their swordsmanship. They would probably contest for the crown. Forlong was also there. What the man lacked in agility he made up for in power. Gethron and several of the Queen's Men were there, and a large number of the Tower Guard. Some voiced surprise that Brandir had earned a spot; Denethor just smiled to himself, remembering the regular drubbings his brother-in-law had given him when they learned arms. Only fools underestimate the Fool. At first, Denethor thought Beregar was attending Brandir, then realized that the young man had won a place, too.
Haldan, the lieutenant of the first circle garrison, Marlong, Borondir and the yardmasters gathered with Denethor to decide who would be matched for the last rounds. As each pair came out, they would bow to the Steward before taking their places. Finduilas's guardsmen also bowed to her. Haldan and Marlong exchanged refereeing the bouts. When the match ended, the fighters were escorted from the ring by their wife or beloved, or a kinswoman if they had neither. Thorongil and Halmir did not wait after their victories, but bowed and swiftly walked to the side.
Last up in the first round was Beregar and a seasoned Tower Guard. It was expected that the guard would win, but Denethor was certain that the Hound would do well, even in defeat. Beregar's face was stern and his bearing proud as he bowed deeply to both the Steward and the Lady. Denethor heard murmurs in the crowd as people looked at the young man intently. Beregar had grown a beard in the last year, and Denethor knew it made the resemblance to himself all the stronger. None stared more keenly than Ecthelion. Do you know your kinship to the Hound, or can you only wonder? When the fight was joined, Beregar prevailed. Off to the side, the Hunt yipped and howled in celebration while the women of the Stewards House all cheered.
'Go on! Go!' Finduilas told Aeluin, giving the woman a small shove to make her join Beregar in the ring. Aeluin stopped halfway across the dirt, intimidated by the sound and all the watchers, but Beregar came to her and took her hand, saying something that made her smile. 'Good,' Finduilas said softly under her breath, 'now kiss him, you idiot!' Aeluin stood on tiptoe and placed a small kiss on Beregar's cheek, eliciting a cheer all around, but Finduilas sighed. 'It will have to do, I guess' she grumbled.
Denethor did not have time to inquire about these interesting comments, for Erellont, lieutenant of the Tower Guards, was pulling on his arm. 'That's your man, right?'
'I want him for the Guard.' Beregar and Aeluin were standing near the corner of the pavilion now. Erellont motioned him closer. 'One as good as you should be with the Guard.'
'I guard the Lady,' Beregar calmly replied. He looked at Aeluin and said, smiling, 'And I guard my lady.' This made Aeluin giggle and blush.
'You would guard the Citadel, and all ladies within...'
'The Lady chose him as her guard. So he will remain until released,' Denethor said. 'Good day, Lieutenant.' The man looked like he wished to argue, but nodded stiffly and left.
The next round was set up quickly, with sixteen still undefeated. Thorongil and Halmir had advanced, as had Gethron, Brandir, Beregar and Forlong. The heat was beginning to tell on the stout lord, and he was defeated by a Queen's Man, Hunthor, in the second round. Gethron and Brandir were also beaten, having been matched against Thorongil and Halmir respectively, but Beregar beat a garrison soldier to advance. For the third round, there were the Lost, the Hound, Hunthor, two Tower Guards and two garrison men. Thorongil and Beregar were paired to the Tower Guards and won, while Halmir and Hunthor defeated their garrison opponents. Thorongil made short work of Hunthor on the fourth round.
Denethor felt a great deal of pride when Beregar walked out to face Halmir. Imrahil was leading the Hunt in a raucous cheer in support of their leader, and the crowd was clearly behind the young man. When Marlong dropped his hand, indicating the bout could begin, neither moved for several heartbeat. Slowly, they began to circle, their motions calculated rather than cautious. Halmir lunged first, was parried, whirled, and got in a sharp rap on Beregar's shoulder. The younger man attacked, scoring his own touch. They exchanged blows and parries, evenly matched, the crowd shouting encouragement to both. It was the longest fight of the tourney. In the end, Halmir reached, Beregar ducked, then shifted, striking low and up, and the Lost's sword fell to the dirt. The two stared at each other, panting. Halmir drew himself up and bowed, acknowledging Beregar's victory. When the Lost would have left the ring alone, Finduilas stood and walked across the dirt to him. He knelt to her before taking her hand and allowing himself to be led away.
Thorongil's final victory was an embarrassment, for Beregar was too spent to give a full fight, and the captain had only words of praise for him afterwards. Many toasts were offered to Beregar as he slowly walked back to the Citadel, Aeluin on his arm. Denethor watched Ecthelion watch his grandson the entire way.
'Denethor!' Thorongil waved from the far side of the archery yard. Denethor came over. 'Your turn, today,' the captain said with a quick smile and a nod at the bow in Denethor's hand.
'We'll see. I'm not in full practice.'
'Halmir returned to Osgiliath this morning.'
'I know.' Denethor also knew that the wizard had paid a call upon the two Lost at Thorongil's house the evening before, after having spent the day in the archives. Aiavalë had told him about the archival visit on the walk down. Mairen had reported to her that Mithrandir had asked to be shown histories of the fifteenth century, particularly about the Great Plague, the ascension of King Tarondor, and the removal of the King's House to Minas Anor. So, you look back at the destruction of a ruling house by a plague, and the substitution of another. But my house has multiplied in this plague. 'You are not going back any time soon. There are things to discuss with the Steward.'
Thorongil's gaze became intent. 'News from Dol Amroth?'
'Among other things, yes.' Denethor made his voice cool, slightly mocking. 'You have made no haste to hear that news, though I have been a month and more returned.'
'I have been at the northern garrisons in the last month, Warden, and did not know your news would not wait,' the captain replied in a mild tone, though his expression had hardened.
'You have been in the City for four days and have not asked to see me.'
'I will send someone when I wish to talk to you.' With a nod, Denethor sauntered away. The captain would not be able to stray far if he had to wait for a summons. It took only a moment to find Finduilas and the others. Guardsmen were erecting a canopy to the side of the yard so there would be shade. First would be the women's contests, testing them for aim and distance. Only a dozen had entered so it should go swiftly. Then the men would shoot, also for aim and distance, but with an added contest with a moving target.
'Friend,' Finduilas greeted him with a light kiss on the cheek. She looked beautiful, with a brush of red across her nose and cheeks from the sun and her hair pulled back in a loose braid. 'I shall be glad for the morrow, no, the day after.'
'Because everyone will be gone.'
'If you are tired, you should rest, not sit in the sun and dust.'
'And miss watching you win?' Finduilas laughed. 'Never!'
'Given the Hound's prowess, to say nothing of Marlong's, I will count myself lucky to make it to the final round.'
Finduilas touched his cheek fondly. 'My faith in you is unshakeable, my love,' she said softly, 'even when you are being an unreasonable ass.'
A horn blew, announcing the start of the tourney. The women archers gathered near the end of the yard to draw lots and see who would shoot first. They started with aim. Each had five arrows to put into her target twenty paces away and earned points depending on where the arrow hit in the target. There would be only two rounds with all of the women, since there were so few, and the high score won.
Moraen was first. Like most of the women competing, she wore loose trousers instead of a skirt to keep her legs free and a snug leather vest over her shirt to hold her bosom still. There may have been some ogling by a few men when she first stepped forward, but by the end of her round, all eyes were on the target, which she had hit with each shot.
The next few women were not as good, though all hit the target at least twice, then came Hilda. The Rohirrim cheered their princess loudly and sang a song about the deadly beauty of the shield maiden. She did not disappoint, landing all of her shots and getting a higher score than Moraen. Wren soon followed and equaled Hilda's effort.
Last was Aiavalë. She wore her riding veil today, the tiny coins jingling against each other as she walked to her place, and a skirt to hide her twisted leg. Denethor could not remember a time when Aiavalë did not use a bow. Turgon had taught her, she said, to strengthen her weak arm and shoulder. When Maiaberiel had been particularly savage in her taunts, Aiavalë would tell Denethor to come with her and they would practice until her rage had calmed and she hit the target perfectly. As befit her, Aiavalë wasted no time now. One, two, three, four, five, her arrows dug into the target with a solid thud, only a few seconds between each shot. They were all in the inner half of the target, giving her a score half again as high as any other.
A loud cheer went up when the last arrow struck. Until his breath came out in a gasp, Denethor did not realize he had been holding his breath. He joined in the cheering, while Finduilas hopped up and down beside him, squealing in delight. Aiavalë regally nodded her head to the crowd and returning to the other archers.
'And so is told our fate for the rest of the day. Thus shall we be humbled by the Steward's House!' Morvorin cheerfully proclaimed. The second round was a repeat of the first, save that Wren improved her score over Hilda.
The butts were moved out to twenty-five paces for the second contest. This time, scores were not kept, as the challenge was to see who could hit the target at the greatest distance. Each archer had three arrows for each distance, and the butts would be put back five paces with each round. All landed at least one arrow at the first distance. By the third round, half were eliminated for not being able to hit the target. At forty paces, only Hilda, Wren and Aiavalë were left. Hilda could fire forty-five paces, but could not hit the target. The butts were moved another five paces out. Denethor knew there were men who could not fire so far as that. Wren and Aiavalë alternated shots to allow their shoulders to rest. On Aiavalë's second attempt, Denethor saw her arms trembling from the strain, but she made the shot. The third told. Aiavalë's arrow fell short while Wren's thumped into the butt. Aiavalë shook her head and declined to try a further distance, bowing to Wren.
The rest of the morning was for the men's aim contest. The targets were set at forty paces, and anyone who did not land at least three of his five arrows was eliminated. Marlong and Morvorin tied with two Ithilien Rangers on the first round, though they were only a point ahead of the next group. Denethor did not try terribly hard this round, content to keep his arrows within the inner half of the target rings, and was content with third. The next round, anyone who failed to hit the target with all arrows was dropped, cutting the field from several score to just over a dozen. Beregar made the cut, tied at second with Denethor and a Ranger, though Imrahil missed an arrow and was out. Thorongil barely landed his last shot to stay in the contest. There were two more rounds, with an instant loss for missing the target, which cost Thorongil and, surprisingly, Morvorin, who was still tied for first with Marlong. In the last round, Denethor applied all of his concentration, thinking of nothing but the feel of the bow in his hands, picturing the perfect arc of the arrow to fly directly into the heart of a charging Orc, a dark spot forty paces away. Each of his arrows hit the center of the target, though none hit directly on top of another, and it was enough to earn a tie with Marlong. Beregar tied for third.
Denethor knew he would win the distance shooting as long as he kept his aim true. He could draw a bow more strongly than anyone else and that was what mattered on distance. Morvorin redeemed himself with a second place in this, landing two arrows to Marlong's one at seventy-five paces. Denethor knew he risked making a fool of himself, but said to move the target to eighty paces for his winning shot. He was not stupid enough to try a second arrow.
All rested and let the worst of the afternoon heat pass while pulleys and lines were set up for the moving targets. In this contest, a weight was dropped from a height which pulled a target along a rope set forty paces out from the archer. You had three arrows and had to hit the target while it still moved. Denethor liked this contest best, even though it was not as certain a win for him as at distance. This was true archery, as on a hunt or in a battle, where what you aimed at did not do you the courtesy of standing still. Only a few dozen even entered, which made Denethor snort in derision. Do you think that hiding your weakness makes you any better in battle? It came down to himself, Marlong and the Ranger again, and Marlong was ahead. The strain of the day was telling on the captain, however, and he grimaced in pain.
'Marlong?' Denethor murmured as they watched the Ranger take his shots.
'It can be over now.'
Marlong gave him a dirty look. 'Throw the match and I'll put an arrow through your leg. I'm beating you this way or not at all.'
Denethor smiled thinly. 'As you wish. Earn it.'
The Ranger had missed a shot, dropping him to third. Denethor was up for his last try and landed all three shots, though the third struck obliquely and almost dropped off. Marlong could not hide his limp as he walked to take his place. He nodded to the target master, who let go the weight and sent the target flying. The first shot was perfect, catching just as it came out from behind the blind. The second caught it squarely. Marlong's fingers slipped on his last arrow, delaying his shot, forcing him to twist sharply to follow the movement of the target. The arrow hit the target the same time that Marlong hit the ground, grabbing at his leg.
Wren let out a screech and dashed over, shoving people out of the way to get to Marlong's side. She and Denethor helped the captain to stand and hobble over to a chair under the canopy. A healer was sent for and Thorongil was soon there to work the pain out of muscle. All the while, Wren sat near Marlong, holding his hand. Denethor watched this, then caught Finduilas's eye. He flicked his glance to Wren clasping Marlong's hand, and raised an eyebrow. Finduilas grinned and rolled her eyes.
When the pain faded, Marlong was declared the winner of that contest and Denethor the overall champion. The sun was almost behind the mountains, and the land was covered with long, soft shadows. Crutches were brought from the garrison for Marlong to use to go back to the City, for he refused to be carried or carted. Wren walked beside him, alternating between scolding him for his stubbornness and worrying over any sign of discomfort.
Finduilas tugged on Denethor's arm. 'Marlong is not the only weakling. I cannot walk all the way to the Citadel. We need to stop for supper.'
'Can you make it to The Messenger's Rest? '
'Yes, but no further.'
Denethor sent Beregar ahead to the tavern with word they were coming, for there were many. The tavern was packed, but no one seemed to mind making room for the Lady and her guests. Many congratulations and blessings were offered to Finduilas and Denethor. Marlong's tale of determination was told and retold, making a number of mugs of ale magically appear before the captain. He drank several and shared the rest with Imrahil, Morvorin and Gethron who sat at his table. Wren had retreated to a corner table with Aiavalë and Aeluin. Food arrived soon after the ale. Finduilas greedily dug into her meal, eating as heartily as a man, which pleased Denethor. When she finished her food, he pushed his own plate over to her and let her eat what she wished of his. He was more thirsty than hungry, in any event, and stuck to the ale.
'Quiet down, everyone. I have something important to say.' Marlong was standing up, holding up his hands for silence. The taproom noise subsided to a loud buzz. 'First, my thanks to my lord and lady, whose happiness and generosity gladden us all.' Mugs and voices were raised in assent. 'Next, I have come to a decision. Long did I walk alone in this world, not caring that my heart was half. When I was thrown down in battle a year past, I almost lost what half I held, thinking I would fight no more and love not ever. My lord has told me that I will command once more, in Anórien. Before, I would have rejoiced at this news, but now I cannot, for I have found the other half of my heart, and am loathe to leave it behind.' Marlong looked at Wren and held out his hand. 'Wren, your aim has ever been true with me, though your tongue be sharper than any arrow. Will you make my heart whole and be my wife?'
The room went silent and all looked to Wren. She stood, a haughty expression on her face and slowly walked towards Marlong. 'Is that what you wish, Captain Marlong?'
'It is indeed, Miss Wren.'
'And you think I am inclined towards you?'
'I think you are so inclined, or I be no judge of men.'
'Women are a different matter.'
'I think you have found my company pleasing. I know I wish only for yours.'
'Mayhap you think I will not say nay to your claim rather than be shamed before so many?'
'No. I know you better than that. You would spit in the Great Enemy's eye and cannot be daunted by a mere man like myself. The shame is mine for speaking so, should you spurn me. But yet I wish it, and yet I ask it, and I'll risk shame before all here, for my heart is yours and no other's.'
Wren reached Marlong as he spoke. She took his face between her hands and kissed him firmly to the whooping approval of all there. Stepping away, she said, 'I'll consider it,' and turned to walk off.
'Oh, no you don't!' he exclaimed, grinning, and grabbed her, pulling her close. Wren struggled with him until he finally got her completely wrapped in his arms. 'I beg your pardon, my lord,' Marlong said apologetically to Denethor while Wren wriggled and kicked him in the shin. She was giggling. 'I do not mean to disturb your supper. Do you mind if I go to Anórien a married man?'
Denethor kept his voice dry. 'Had I known you had this much tolerance for pain, Captain, I would have returned you to Ithilien.' Finduilas kicked him in the shin under the table so kicked her back.
Marlong ducked his face to Wren and she whispered in his ear. 'She says yes!' he shouted, 'Wren said she will marry me!' More whooping and pounding of tables ensued while the two kissed. Denethor let it go on for a bit before standing.
'Captain Marlong.' He spoke formally and the room quieted. 'Do you now pledge yourself to wed this woman, Wren of Minas Tirith, ere the year ends?'
Marlong let go of Wren and quickly straightened his clothes. Taking her hand, he answered, 'Yes, Lord Denethor. Before you and all assembled, I pledge upon my honor as a captain of Gondor to wed this woman before year end.'
Finduilas stood. 'Wren, do you accept his pledge and also so swear to wed this man, Marlong of Gondor?'
'Yes, my lady, upon my honor as a maid of the White Tower, I swear to you and all here that I shall wed this man,' Wren proudly replied.
'Then do I declare before all, and before those who watch from afar, that Marlong and Wren are handfasted.' Denethor allowed the whoops to die down. 'A round of ale for all here, on me.' As the chatter increased and attention moved to Wren and Marlong, Denethor gave Finduilas a questioning look, earning a giggle. 'I thought there was some attraction there,' he murmured to her, 'but did not realize it had progressed so far.'
'You have never been a good judge of women, friend,' Finduilas teased. 'Lady Lore and me have been waiting all year for one of them to say something to the other.' It was not long after that Finduilas began to yawn and said she wished to go home. The walk through the warm summer night was pleasant. There were a few lanterns out, but starlight made the stone gleam. People sat on stoops and walls or leaned out windows, talking of the day, offering soft greetings to passers-by. Here and there would be a singer, and they would pause their walk to listen. The City drowsed, content, and waited for her children to drop off to sleep.
Denethor insisted on brushing out Finduilas's hair before they lay down. He sat behind her on the bed, tailor fashion, and worked loose the braid. 'So, you have known all along of this romance?'
'You would have known it, too, had you paid attention. It was there to see.' Finduilas sighed happily. 'I am glad for Wren. Marlong, too, mind you, but most of all for Wren.'
'It has been a difficult year.'
'Yes.' Her head bowed and she rested it on her drawn up knees. 'For many. From loëndë last until this one, so much sorrow.'
Denethor kissed the nape of he neck. 'Too oft were you the one afflicted, Alquallë.'
'This year, it will be different. We shall not fear to hope.'
'Is it wise that you should be without Wren now?'
'She's a woman grown and should be wed! What are you thinking?'
'Just that you will be more burdened as the year goes on,' Denethor slid a hand around her to rest on her belly, 'and you should not be without your favorite companion. At least until the baby comes.'
'I have many to care for me and Wren is sworn to wed before the year ends. You said yourself Marlong will go to Anórien this fall, for you will send Imrahil to him.'
'No.' Finduilas turned to half face him. 'It is time for her to leave. She must make her own way and not be subject to me or Aiavalë any longer. And she is not the only one. Perhaps Beregar should go to the Tower Guard.'
'He stays here. Finduilas, I don't understand. Why would you be rid of those who love you most?'
'Because I cannot keep them captive, Denethor, no matter how docile or willing.' There was a look on her face he had not seen before, ferocious and fearful at once. 'They are like Thorongil, like Halmir. They are lost, and deceive themselves on what they do. Marlong spoke truly this evening. Their hearts are halved and yearn for a mate, and that cannot be me, for my heart is thine. I do not mean simply as wife.' His confusion must have been written on his face, for Finduilas took the brush and laid it aside, then patted the bed so he would lie down. 'Wren has found her love, and Beregar will find his soon. Who knows? Perhaps there is someone for Lady Lore as well.'
'I wish there were. I think I will have to share you with her.'
'Perhaps. I pity Halmir most. He is the most lost of them all.'
Minas Tirith, 4 July, 2978 T.A.
Everyone was departing today. Hilda and her éored set out first thing, Morvorin and Forlong traveling with her. The last of the tent city was being packed up and travelers left for home or the next stop on their route. Denethor spent most of the day in the company of the Steward as the departing lords paid a final visit to before leaving. Ecthelion was very happy to receive congratulations on his prospective grandchild. Aside from a few sly digs, he was genial to Denethor the entire time. There were a few short reports from ministers in the afternoon and then Denethor was free to return to Finduilas.
Denethor only paused a moment at her study door, for he could hear there were people visiting, and headed to his own study. He smelled the pipeweed before he reached the top of the stair. In his study, Mithrandir sat in Finduilas's chair before the cold hearth, head wreathed in blue smoke, Telperien contentedly settled in his lap getting her ears scratched. The wizard nodded genially. 'Good afternoon, Denethor.'
'Who let you in?' Denethor wished to lift the conjuror by his scruffy neck and give him a good shake for presuming to take her chair.
'Oh, no one. A door was open, but all were busy about their tasks, so I did not wish to bother them.' He smiled and scratched the cat's chin. 'But I have had a good companion to keep me company while I waited.'
'You should have let Beregar know. I would have come sooner.'
'My congratulations on your good news, Denethor.' The smile on the old man's face was guileless.
'Thank you.' Denethor retreated to behind his desk. He wished the wizard was not watching him so closely so he could take out the mariner's lanyard and slip it around his neck. The mariner had helped him with one wizard before and would no doubt protect him from another. Denethor compromised by taking its pouch from the desk drawer and laying it on his desk, along with some writing materials, setting it between himself and Mithrandir. 'What have you seen on your travels that I should know?'
'That would take several days to tell, I fear,' the wizard answered, 'but I have some shorter tales. The crop of foals in Rohan this year was large. Winter was mild in the north. The northern paths of Taur-nu-Fuin are open to bold travelers, though most still skirt the northern edge.' Denethor paid close attention, trying to discern where the wizard had wandered. 'Bain, son of Bard, is the new King of Dale.'
Dale, Dale, where had he heard this before? "Erebor, Esgaroth and Dale. Together they are larger." Thorongil's account of the north. Denethor wondered if the captain had told the wizard of that conversation. 'Dale, where is that?'
'North of Rhovanion, east of the forest, near Erebor. Dale itself is on no map I know of, for it is a small place. I think you would call Bain a village headman, but he has the heart of a king.'
'What of King Bard?' Denethor was amused that Lark's husband would have the same name as a king.
'My friend, the burglar, thought him a stout fellow. Bard was a very good singer and guided his people wisely. He is the only man I know who has slain a dragon, though that is not a talent greatly in demand these days,' Mithrandir replied absently, though his eyes twinkled in amusement.
Denethor could not tell if the wizard was joking or not. 'Interesting. King or headman, I trust the folk of Dale are pleased with Bain?'
'Yes, they are.'
'Have you come to see the effects of the plague?'
'I did. Word of it came to me upon the road. I am glad that it did not do greater damage.'
'Where on the road? Where did you hear it?'
The wizard's eyebrows bristled, casting his eyes into shadow. 'Near Tharbad.'
'Someone whose word I trust.'
Now Mithrandir's eyebrows shot up in surprise. 'Advise you? On what?'
'On things you know. On things I do not know, and should. Just as you advise the Steward.'
'Would you become a pupil?'
'If I find the lessons to be of value, yes.'
'If I walked west from Bree, where would I next find a good mug of ale?'
The look of confusion on the old man's face was well worth the conversation. 'West from...?' Mithrandir smoked his pipe, searching for hidden meanings. 'The first good ale would be in Whitfurrows, at The Fat Badger. Willem Brockhouse, Old Will, he makes every traveler with coin welcome.'
'What did you advise the Steward?'
'About taverns on the old Dwarf road?'
'If you spoke of that, yes.'
'I said he should pay heed to his counselors.'
'Should we strike Umbar?'
The wizard sat silent for a long while, and the smoke from his pipe made the room hazy. Denethor laid a hand on the pouch holding the lanyard. When Mithrandir spoke, it was as soft as the summer twilight. 'I wish that men would not heed dark whispers and wicked thoughts. The children of Umbar have no need of plagues.'
'We have considered such things before, Mithrandir.'
'Aye, we have, Denethor.'
'You still carry your staff.'
'Do you still handle fire?' The voice was still soft, but there was no gentleness to it now.
'I lay my hands upon the stone and it mourns.' Mithrandir's eyes glinted under his great brows. 'I go upon the Sea and it pulls on my blood as a tide. I saw towers and the world was dimmed, yet still I love it. An old man the color of fog bade me to have hope even as he said I am doomed.'
'Upon the Sea.'
'Upon the Sea.' The wizard shivered and turned his face away. Denethor realized he was clutching the lanyard's pouch tightly in his hand. 'Why won't you help us? You speak of destruction and downfall, but you withhold your hand and leave us in confusion.'
'What would you have me do, Denethor?' Mithrandir would not look at him.
'In this very room you said that you once drove the Enemy from a tower.'
'And you would have me do so again?' The wizard laughed bitterly. 'Sauron allowed himself to be moved. I am not fool enough to think it was a defeat.'
'No, not that. A lesser task. I would have Angrenost in the hands of the Lost, not Curunír, but Thorongil says it would take a wizard to dislodge him.'
'I do not command Curunír.'
'I care not who commands him. I want him out of the tower.' The wizard shook his head. 'You wish us to have hope against what you yourself fear.'
'Yes, Denethor. I do.'
'When will death find you?'
'When it is time.'
Denethor felt light headed from the smoke. Telperien hopped down from the wizard, trotted across the study, and jumped into his lap. He tried to pick her up and put her on the floor, but somehow ended up cradling her in his arms while she nuzzled his beard. Denethor tipped his chair back against the wall and put his feet up on the corner of his desk to wait out the wizard. Telperien snuggled against him, her purr more a sensation than a sound. We must hope where even the Powers fear. The soft weight on his chest mewed and wiggled. Denethor's head fell forward, lips brushing delicate flesh. The baby twitched in his arms, then went limp, its sleep careless and complete. It knew nothing of fear and did not need hope. They had not found him yet. Denethor pulled his child more closely to him before falling asleep himself, the child's breath like a soft breeze of summer on his cheek, warm and sweet.
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