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Hands of the King: 58. Unsaid
Minas Tirith, 1 September, 2979 T.A.
Denethor stood on the roof of the house, shading his eyes from the strong morning sun. It was already hot just an hour past sunrise. This afternoon, Thorongil was to explain to the Steward what he had been doing all spring. The captain had asked leave of the Steward to put off his account until he had inspected Osgiliath, and had received assent. Sunlight glinted off the harness of horsemen riding along the causeway. Thorongil and probably Imrahil. Denethor doubted Halmir would ride in for this. The Lost had nothing but a contemptuous snort whenever Thorongil's name was mentioned. Your audience with your uncle was probably worse than the one with the Steward shall be. The corner of Denethor's mouth twitched at the thought of Halmir dressing down the captain for trying to get into Umbar. He waited until the horses neared the Great Gate before going back into the house. Ere the afternoon's council, there was other business to attend to.
He tapped on the door to Finduilas's room. 'Come in!' She smiled when she saw him, and within her was a radiance to put the sun to shame. Boromir's eyes focused on his father and one hand waved in a circle, but he did not leave off his nursing. 'The cub is nearly done.'
'May I get you something?'
She shook her head. 'My breakfast will wait.' Denethor neatened the room while the baby fed, muttering to himself over the imprecise way Ivrin and Aeluin kept things. Clothes were not folded properly, toiletries were set haphazardly on a shelf, baskets were not neatly stowed away... Finduilas's giggles broke his concentration. She rocked the chair with one foot and looked at him in amusement. 'You know, High Warden, this is not the barracks.'
'I think I need to make a guardsman your maid so the room will be kept clean.' This made her laugh, just as he hoped it would. With an exaggerated sigh, he turned to make the bed. There were two pillows to be punched up, two indentations in the tick to be smoothed. She giggled more behind him while the rocking chair slowly creaked.
Everything needed to be set aright in this room. Bed clothes and hairbrushes were only the start. Discipline was even more necessary here than in the barracks. He had grown neglectful in his habits, forgetting his own rules - he was but a guest in this room, allowed in at her pleasure. He was here to tend her and their child. No care or concern was to enter. His own desires were nothing once past the threshold. When he forgot these rules, disaster followed.
As soon as Boromir finished, Finduilas ate her breakfast, then headed for the women's baths with Moraen and Aeluin. Denethor carried Boromir downstairs to the kitchen. 'Do you have any room left?' he asked his son. Boromir crowed, knowing what was next. Dúlin smiled when Denethor came in, and set out a plate with some food. Denethor sat at the kitchen table, Boromir in his lap and pulled the plate over. 'So, what are you going to paint your face with this morning?' The baby grabbed the orange cube of melon in his fat fist and tried to cram it all into his mouth. When that was gone - equal parts in his mouth, on the table and down his front - he wanted the soft cheese. It was a messy goo, well mixed with preserves, and Boromir loved it.
'He eats more each week,' Dúlin said, smiling proudly at the baby.
'He needs to be eating most of his meals here to give his mother some peace.'
Dúlin frowned. 'She is eating more. Aeluin told me. I make everything she likes best, and put extra butter in it to fatten her up.'
'You let me know if her appetite flags.'
'I will,' the cook solemnly assured him.
'Yáviérë?' Dúlin's cheeks turned pink and she nodded with a giggle. Hunthor had asked Finduilas permission to wed Dúlin a few days ago, and the women were now all bustling about preparing for the celebration. The wedding itself was to be held in the mess hall of the first circle garrison. There were no suitable rooms in the Stewards House for them to live in, but some had been found in a house nearby.
Boromir soon mouthed everything on the plate, had eaten a substantial amount of that, and was now trying his best to pick up and eat the plate itself. 'I think it time for our baths, Morcollë.' Ivrin was given the baby, and Denethor and Beregar headed for the men's baths. Though they had never exchanged another word on the subject, it appeared that his nephew was no longer so eager to cut his throat. He was relieved the young man now knew how they were of kin. Beregar had presented himself a rainy evening in June, face battered from a street fight, and calmly had asked for the truth, accepting Denethor's word with a nod. He then identified the men who had spoken so crudely of Finduilas. They were sent to Halmir in Osgiliath. There had been no repeat of the taunting.
By the time Denethor and Beregar had returned from their wash, Imrahil had walked up from the gate and was bouncing Boromir on his knee while talking to the women. His face was sun-darkened, making the silver hairs on his head seem brighter. Like his father, Imrahil was as smooth-faced as a woman. Denethor supposed it was the Elf blood. Denethor's plan to send Imrahil to the falas with Thorongil had fallen through after the captain's abrupt departure south, so the young prince had spent late spring and summer in Osgiliath. Halmir's reports rarely mentioned him, but the fact that the man was now leading patrols in Ithilien let Denethor know that Imrahil was performing to the Lost's expectations.
'Denethor, good morrow to you!' Imrahil cheerfully said.
'And to you, brother Imrahil. How fares Osgiliath?'
An odd look came to Imrahil's face and departed as quickly. 'Halmir disapproves of everything, so all is well. The hills are quiet.'
'Good. More can wait for the afternoon's council.'
'And I claim my brother for the rest of the morning,' Finduilas quickly interjected, 'so all business can wait for the afternoon.'
Denethor shook his head. 'No. We need to go.' Finduilas's expression became stubborn. 'It will not be long. Imrahil can get reacquainted with his nephew in our absence.'
'I will be here until the council, so go take care of your business, Finduilas,' Imrahil urged.
Before she could protest, Denethor added, 'The healing warden expects to see you this morning.' Finduilas shot him an angry look.
'Healing warden? You must go, sister,' Imrahil sternly said, Moraen and Aeluin adding their agreement. Without a word, Finduilas rose and walked out the door, going downstairs. Denethor bade the others farewell and strode after her. She was silent until they left the tunnel for the main way of the sixth circle.
'I can see Lhûn this afternoon when Imrahil is in council.'
'You promised me you would see Lhûn this morning.'
Finduilas harrumphed and they walked the rest of the way to the Houses in silence. When they entered the courtyard of the Houses, she pulled up short. Thorongil was sitting on a bench on the other side of the greensward, reading from a small book. Finduilas rounded on Denethor. 'Do not pretend you had nothing to do with this!' she hissed at him.
'I pretend nothing.' Thorongil noticed them and stood. 'You are coughing, it is not going away, and the captain's leechcraft is the only healing that has ever made it cease.' Finduilas motioned for Denethor to stay where he was and crossed the green to Thorongil. The captain bowed and the two spoke quietly. Denethor leaned against a column of the arcade, watching their converse as he had done once before in this court. When Finduilas had left him with Thorongil the other day, the man had turned his bright eyes upon Denethor and demanded to know what was wrong. "She is sick, though she denies it. It is not just the child." Denethor could scarcely speak for the shame of Thorongil seeing how poorly he cared for Finduilas. "Her cough returned. None can lift it." Then they had agreed Thorongil would attend Finduilas in the Houses and provide what healing he could.
Finduilas called him over. Crossing her arms on her chest, she gave the men a wry look. 'So, I find a conspiracy between you two. And Lhûn, as well?' Denethor nodded. 'You worry for no reason.'
'Then let us confirm there is no reason, and you may laugh at us as fools,' he quietly answered, offering his arm. With a sigh, she took it and allowed him to lead her to where Lhûn waited, Thorongil trailing a few steps behind.
The healing warden had a younger midwife with her and nodded her head to the captain. 'We have our tools and treatments at hand, Captain Thorongil. Have you any?'
'No, though I may have need of your herbalist afterwards, as I did before. I will wait outside until you have need of me.' With a bow to the healers, Thorongil left. Denethor retreated to a corner of the room and sat on a stool. Finduilas sat at one end of the hard narrow bench the healers used for examining their patients, in profile to him. Lhûn checked Finduilas's flesh, measuring her arms, bosom, waist, buttocks and thighs with a length of ribbon, pleased that the measurements were slightly more than in August. Dúlin is right, you are eating more. Finduilas told Lhûn how often Boromir was nursing and that she had not yet resumed her moon fluxes. The midwife questioned her about her teas and her food, telling Finduilas to eat more meat to strengthen herself for the winter. Lhûn was content with the answers and fetched Thorongil to speak about the coughs.
When he came in, he did not take one of the healer's stools, but sat on the bench next to Finduilas, taking one of hands into his own. Finduilas's cheeks turned pink and she looked away for a moment. Thorongil sat still, waiting until she looked at him again. His voice was soft, yet all could hear it clearly. 'Lady and friend, it saddens my heart that you are weary.'
'It is less now than it was.'
'And also you have been coughing.' She nodded. 'When did it start?'
'The day Boromir was born. That is when I first coughed.' His brow furrowed. 'I think you all make too much of it.'
The captain did not answer. With his free hand, he touched her temple, his head cocked as though listening for something. His hand moved to touch her throat, seeking a pulse. Finally, it came to rest flat across her chest over her heart. Whatever he found did not please him. 'Turn you back to me and lean slightly forward.' Thorongil placed his hands flat on her back, just below her shoulder blades, fingers splayed. 'Breathe deeply. Again.' His hands moved lower. 'Again. Again.'
Finduilas took a very deep breath which triggered a cough. When she got it under control, Thorongil said, 'Remove your shirt.' The midwife began to protest, but Finduilas cut her off with a gesture. She undid the buttons and ties and slipped the shirt over her head, handing it to Lhûn, then modestly crossed her arms over her breasts. Thorongil grimaced at the sight of her spine and ribs showing so clearly under her skin. He once more placed his hands low on her ribs, telling her to breathe. Both hands moved to one side, then just the fingers of one hand feeling a particular spot. He leaned forward and rested his ear over that spot. After a few heartbeats, he straightened, nodding his head.
'Here. The injury to her lung is located here.'
'Show me,' Lhûn said, coming to kneel next to the bench. Thorongil placed the healing warden's hand over the spot, describing a sensation to feel for. Lhûn closed her eyes, concentrating, then nodded. She placed her ear over the spot and listened as Finduilas coughed again. Thorongil rested his hand on Finduilas's back over her heart until the spasms ceased. Sitting back on her heels, Lhûn sighed. 'Yes, Thorongil, I agree that is the place. I can hear it and feel it. But there is naught we can do for something so deep. What did you do two years ago?'
'I am finished, my lady, thank you.' Thorongil stood and walked a few steps away, keeping his back turned while Finduilas dressed. 'I did nothing save steep herbs to clear away the Black Breath.' Liar. There was something in the set of the man's face, the tone of his voice, that spoke to his falsehood. Denethor did not understand why Thorongil was trying to deceive them. Dark thoughts crept forward and it was difficult to push them away.
Lhûn made a sound of annoyance. 'Then you will have to show the herbalist how to create the mix you used, for it worked very well.'
When Thorongil turned to face them, his face was bland. 'Of course. I fear that there was no true healing, just a balm that finally wore off.' His eyes moved to Finduilas, and a light came to them. 'I am concerned at your weariness, my lady, but advise that you try to gain strength before you are treated with the steeping herbs. They are not without their own risk, being powerful medicines to fight a powerful affliction.'
'Well do I remember, Thorongil, and agree with your counsel.' Finduilas smiled and went to him, placing a kiss on his cheek. 'Thank you, dear friend, for your care.' This made the man smile and duck his head. 'And now, if we are all agreed that I need to rest, eat more, wean my son, and then breathe in the captain's herbs, may I go home to visit Imrahil?' The last was aimed at Denethor.
'Oh, I nearly forgot,' Lhûn said as Finduilas led them to the door, 'Master Laanga asked after you. He said you had not been to the garden, and...'
'No, I haven't. Other things have required my attention.' The coldness in Finduilas's voice surprised Denethor. With thanks to Lhûn for her time, Finduilas walked briskly from the Houses. Denethor motioned for Thorongil to accompany them. When they walked in the front door of the house, Finduilas said, 'I imagine you two will have much to speak of before you meet the Steward. However, you may not have Imrahil.' Giving Denethor a kiss and a meaningful stare, she hurried up the stair and was quickly out of sight. Denethor followed more slowly. On the second floor, he turned aside and left through the Wall Door, Thorongil following him out, and walked to the end of the promontory. Upon the stone, the heat was intense. The east was lost in the haze, though the City sparkled under the sun's rays. When he touched the stone, the City looked askance at the king.
'For now.' The bluntness of Thorongil's words made Denethor look at the man. The captain's face was hard and his eyes difficult to meet. 'I do not speak my full mind for I have not been told the full truth myself.' The king's voice was sharp and light glinted off the sweat beaded on the man's brow, making them gems, but none were so bright as his eyes. 'Something has happened. Something momentous.'
We were touched by the mariner. It seemed impossible that Thorongil would not be able to see the change in Denethor, that his sharp glance could not discern a heart's light. Something in him balked at revealing this, even as he knew he should - their altered souls, the presence of this power, the lanyard, the palantír, their plans for the hidden king. If he spoke of one he would not stop until all were explained. But she was well until a year later. It is not the mariner's touch that undid your healing. Denethor shook his head.
Thorongil retreated to the seat in the wall, slumping down in it. 'Keep your silence, then.' The air of command did not leave him, but slipped into a hidden place, the way Thorongil himself would disappear behind a cloud of pipe smoke.
Denethor hopped up next to the captain and sat on the wall itself, feet on the stone bench, ignoring the vast drop behind him. 'As you keep yours. What afflicts her? You know, or you at least guess.'
The Lost gazed at the Tower. 'I don't know. It is not the Black Breath. I am used to that from the garrison. In her lungs, there was a knot or scar that was closed when she expelled the evil. It has reopened. That is what I felt. I will try to close it when she is stronger.' He was silent for sometime after that. Denethor waited. 'Something else. Like... a bright spot on her heart. I do not understand it. It is beyond me. Tell me how that happened and perhaps I will know a remedy.'
For a long moment, Denethor's heart wavered. Alquallë would say speak. Under his hands, the City looked sternly on the vagabond king, angered at his careless seat upon her, at his wandering. You trust us not. Denethor wrestled with his own obstinacy. Not yet. When it became clear that Denethor was not going to speak, Thorongil shrugged and began speaking of the falas and what he had seen. They sat until the noontide bells tolled and returned to the Stewards House for dinner.
Imrahil gave Thorongil an odd look as they sat down to the meal, but dinner was otherwise uneventful. When done, they bade the women farewell and went to meet the Steward. They were shown to his private rooms, not one of the council chambers. Though the White Rod lay on his desk, Ecthelion bore no other trappings of his office and was dressed very simply. He joked with them while wiping away ink stains on his hands. Once all had a cup of chilled wine, the Steward looked at Thorongil and said, 'So why did you go haring off like that?' Thorongil opened his mouth and Ecthelion held up a hand. 'Make it a reasonable answer. Better yet, make it the truth.' Denethor exchanged a sidelong glance with Imrahil, then both looked expectantly at the captain.
Thorongil inclined his head to Ecthelion. 'Very well, then, the truth, though it flatters no one. My Lord Steward, you have charged me to free a people from bondage, even as you know we have not the strength or arms to do so. High Warden, you are chary with your spies and knowledge. Though you have been to Umbar, it was thirty years ago; I wished to see for myself, for much may have changed. I also wished to cultivate some of my own watchers on the land, and not hear only what the Warden's people have to say.' Thorongil spoke calmly, without a hint of defiance or insolence. 'Though I wish for the defeat of the Corsairs, I will not lead my men into a slaughter. I had to decide this far enough ahead of time to allow us to plan for a different campaign next spring. If we do not take war to Umbar, then they most assuredly will bring war to us.'
'And your decision, Captain?' Ecthelion said crisply.
'We cannot do this. Not now. It will take several campaigns to...'
'You swore you would.' Ecthelion's voice was as calm as Thorongil's. 'It is what the wizard has counseled. Though it destroy us, still we should strive to strike the Shadow's chains from our sundered kin.'
Denethor looked at Ecthelion in disbelief. Are you mad? Do you say this to drive us to rebellion and refusal, and so have your way? There was nothing in the Steward's manner to indicate he was insincere.
The captain finally found his tongue. 'My Lord Steward, if we are destroyed, then we cannot succor those enslaved.'
'We will only become more weak with time, Captain,' Ecthelion gently admonished. 'I have thought long on this, on your wisdom and Mithrandir's, on the counsel of the Warden and the lords of Gondor.' He sighed, and looked as he had at the council of a year before, old and weary, bowed by sadness. 'With you, Thorongil, hope lived for a while to my heart, a balm sorely needed to drive away the fog of despair. But now a more sober sense has returned. I have said before that darkness is beyond us to defeat by our own hands, for it admits of no limit. Even so, we may not submit to it simply because it may overwhelm us. In that is our purpose, to spend ourselves rightly in resistance to our unceasing enemy. All the work of our hands in tribute to our own greatness - it will perish or else stand in mockery of our pride.'
'It is not pride to spend the lives of our people with care, my lord.'
'True! But a life is always spent, and our hope does not lie within this world.'
Thorongil shook his head. 'I do not understand your meaning, my lord.'
'Do you not? I should think a young man like yourself would leap up at these words and rejoice. It is not for us to determine the fate of all that shall be, only to do what lies before us.'
'Is not what lies before us to preserve Gondor?' Denethor said sharply. 'I think that is hardly trying to determine the fate of all.'
'But what is the wherefore of Gondor?' Ecthelion cocked his head, eyes sharp. 'It is to renounce the Shadow. To this end is all our will bent. We cannot defeat it, though we may earn the grace that will defend us from its fury. If we but go and trust that it is right what we do, then we shall be aided. To shrink behind walls and believe ourselves simply in some contest with another power, there is our destruction, for this enemy is beyond us. Not merely what is prudent, but also what is right, that is our charge. That is your charge, Captain.'
Slowly, Thorongil rose from his chair and bowed. 'As you command and as I have sworn, it shall be done.' He sat.
There was a long silence. 'I have set you no simple task, Captain,' the Steward quietly said. 'I do not ask you to go foolishly into battle. Your own captains will advise you. The princes of Dol Amroth will give you command of the Sea. The Warden has unearthed fearsome weapons that will be obedient to your will. Before, too much was uncertain. Now, it is time.'
Thorongil sat upright and still in his chair, gazing at Ecthelion. 'Yes, my lord. It is time.'
The Steward chuckled, eyes twinkling. 'Well, in a manner of speaking. Now it is time to hear of the falas. I have read your reports...'
Denethor barely listened to the words exchanged, still trying to untangle the Steward's argument. That it was a plot by Mithrandir, he had no doubt. The wizard had turned Ecthelion towards the attack in the first place. Denethor found himself hoping that perhaps Mithrandir would lend his power to this task. Your hand is upon the tiller of this voyage, conjuror. I think you will not allow your favorite to fail. This battle, it was intended to secure Thorongil's claim upon the throne. "Your valor will earn you equal honors." It probably made it easier for Ecthelion to treat him with respect, as the Steward knew he would not relinquish rule to Denethor. But we are in agreement, for already have I willed this end. It is my choice.
At the end of the hour, the Steward rose. 'Thank you, gentlemen, for your counsel. Captain, Prince Imrahil, you two will remain a few days in Minas Tirith. I wish to speak more with each of you, and not only of state affairs!' Chatting amiably, he walked them to the door. When Denethor nodded and would have left, the Steward signaled for him to remain. Ecthelion slowly walked back to his desk. 'Is he telling the truth?'
'His travel. His findings.'
'I certainly do not lend him my spies. He is right about that.'
Ecthelion chuckled. 'No, I don't imagine you would. Will it take several campaigns?'
'I expect we will be some time rooting out the Corsair fleet.' Denethor paused, then added, 'You are correct that waiting without action will not strengthen our position.'
'That is not precisely what I said, but you may think so if you wish. I need your attention turned to something else. I am going to have a visitor in a few minutes.'
Denethor's curiosity was piqued. 'Who?'
'You will find out. Stand to the side and watch.' Denethor stationed himself near the hearth, closer to the door than to the Steward. Ecthelion arranged papers on his desk, set out two clean wine cups, and returned two of the three chairs before his desk back in their places on the other side of the room. After taking his seat, he reached into his desk and pulled out a sheaf of papers, loosely tied with a red ribbon. The Steward poured himself wine and watched the door. At the quarter-hour bell, there was a knock on the door. 'Come in.'
The door ward bowed. 'Lord Anardil is here to see you, my Lord Steward.'
'Send him in.' Denethor did not remember the name, but could not mistake the face. Isilmo had looked much like his father. Ecthelion stood and gestured for Anardil to approach the desk. 'Lord Anardil, how kind of you to attend me this afternoon.'
'My time is yours, my lord. Though,' he glanced briefly over his shoulder at Denethor, 'I do not wish to intrude upon other business.'
'The Warden will wait, will you not?' The last words were aimed at Denethor and delivered in a testy tone. Denethor bowed deeply to the Steward. This was interesting. Anardil was soon seated and had wine in hand. They exchanged a few pleasantries. Denethor made himself be very still and small so Anardil would forget he was there.
'My lord,' Anardil finally said, 'your summons said you had an important matter to discuss. I would fain know your mind.'
'Ah, yes, well,' Ecthelion's brow wrinkled, and he gestured at a letter sitting on the desk, 'there is a matter which I am not certain the truth of. I received a letter from Lord Morvorin of Ethring. He says that he has asked for the hand of your daughter-in-law, Lady Luinmir, but that you have refused it. This did not sound right, so can you explain to me how the young lord is mistaken? He is given to grand statements.'
Denethor nearly gaped in astonishment at this news. Morvorin? Luinmir? He cast his mind back to the lord's behavior in the last year when he came to the City. Yes. That could be. Anardil shook his head, holding up his hands. 'No! Morvorin is mistaken. He did ask for Luinmir's hand, but it is for her to say yea or nay. She said no.'
'She spurned him?'
Anardil shifted in his seat. 'Not... exactly. I think she would have accepted the match, but her love for her daughter is greater, and she declined for the sake of her child.'
Denethor recognized the false confusion on Ecthelion's face. It was one of the Steward's favorite tactics, to feign ignorance. 'For love of her child? Oh, of course, Isilmo's daughter. Morvorin did not wish another man's child in his house.' He shook his head sadly. 'A foolish man.'
'Noooo...' Anardil was obviously uncomfortable. 'I fear I am at fault, for I could not bear to be parted from my son's only child, the only reminder I have of him.' Ecthelion continued to look at the man in confusion. 'I cannot give away the blood of my house.'
'Of course not! So, little,' Ecthelion picked up the letter, looking for a name. Denethor peered intently. Even across the room, he could tell what hand had addressed that missive, and it was not Morvorin. '...little, Ithilwen!' The Steward smiled at Anardil. 'Named for her father?'
'Yes, and so all the more dear to me.'
Ecthelion sighed softly. 'Anardil, you ask Luinmir to make a cruel choice. A young woman like that should remarry. Can you not be kind to her and allow her child to go with her?'
'No, my lord, I cannot. The child is of my house. My wife's heart would break to lose her granddaughter, and I should be sorrowed. Yes, yes, it is cruel! I deny it not! But will Luinmir not have other children, and we have only this granddaughter?'
'You have other sons.'
'And this is all that remains of Isilmo.' Quite an improvement. I would want to keep her, too.
'I see you will not be swayed,' the Steward sadly said. Anardil shook his head. With another sigh, Ecthelion rose, the other man also standing. 'I beg of you to let your heart be softened by this mother's love, Anardil. It would please us greatly were that to happen.' Anardil bowed his head and left, giving Denethor a wary glance on the way out. After the door shut behind him, Ecthelion said, 'Her name, you fool, is Anna.' With a snort of disgust, he sat, motioning for Denethor to approach. The Steward's hand rested on the top of the ribbon-bound papers, Thorongil's letter face-down on the desk directly before him. 'Tell me, Denethor, how old is the child?'
'She was three on June twentieth.'
'Hmm.' The Steward looked at the papers. 'There is nothing I may do, for Anardil is within his rights.' He picked up the papers and handed them to Denethor. 'Make use of this. Good day, Warden.'
Denethor bowed and returned to the Stewards House, going directly to his study. Removing the cat from the desk, he set down the papers, untying the ribbon. Carefully he paged through them, a slow smile spreading across his face. You do not lend your spies either, my Lord Steward. Debts, dubious contracts, lists of goods that had not paid tariff, extortive rents, usury - this was a very interesting collection of documents. Denethor scooped up the papers and placed them in a drawer, then teased the cat with the red ribbon. 'I think Lord Anardil will be glad to give Luinmir a little gift, don't you, your Majesty?' Someone tapped on the study door. 'Come.'
Beregar entered and held out a note. 'Captain Thorongil charged me to place this in your hand, sir. And Lady Finduilas expects you to come be sociable.'
Denethor opened the note. It was one word long - Tonight. 'I will be down directly.' He looked quickly through the messages in his basket, setting aside the few that looked important - Borondir, Baragund, Marlong - before joining the others downstairs. To his pleasure, Aiavalë was there. Since returning from her southern travels, she had visited the Stewards House regularly to see Finduilas and Boromir. She sat on the couch next to Finduilas, face uncovered. He was struck by how beautiful his eldest sister looked, the unmarred side of her face turned to the room, her cropped hair grown shaggy and soft on her head. The constant veiling of her face over the years had protected her skin from the elements, and it was as smooth and delicate as a young maid's. It occurred to him that any number of men might find her more than worth wooing were they to see her like this. He was not sure he liked that thought.
An ear-splitting screech stopped any further reflection. Boromir had caught sight of him and was trying simultaneously to crawl to Denethor and to hold up his arms so Denethor could pick him up. The result was comical. Denethor scooped the baby off the floor and tossed him up in the air, eliciting more shrieks of delight. Denethor paused to kiss both his wife and his sister before taking a seat at Finduilas's feet, dandling the baby in front of him. Aeluin and Moraen sat opposite, Aeluin holding Finiel. The infant was miniscule compared to Boromir. Denethor sat with his knees up so Boromir could stand between them, holding onto Denethor's legs to steady himself.
'Ba! Ba!' Boromir shouted. 'Baba! Baba!'
'There! What did I say!' Finduilas said triumphantly.
'I think you're right, sister,' Aiavalë answered, leaning over Denethor's shoulder. 'What did you say, Morcollë? Tell Auntie Monster what you said!' Boromir laughed and grabbed for her hands, uncaring that he nearly fell on his face. 'Say it. Say "Papa."'
'Baba,' Boromir obediently answered. Denethor became a mountain to climb to reach Aiavalë. 'Ba. Ba. Baba!' The last was said happily and directly to Denethor, when Boromir decided his father's face was more interesting than his aunt's hand.
'He is calling you "Papa!"' Finduilas said. 'He's been saying that all day.'
Denethor gave Boromir a playful shake. 'Is that what you said?' 'Ba!' 'Pa!' 'Ba!' 'Say Papa. Paa. Paa.' 'Babaaaa!' The women were all laughing. Denethor did not care. 'He is just babbling.'
'Oh, no he is not! He sat in the front room and pointed at your study door and said "Baba" several times. He's been asking for you all day.'
It felt good to sit here with his son in his arms and the dearest loves of his life so near they touched him. Denethor's heart was full and content, and he wanted nothing else. The door to the study creaked open, and Beregar and Imrahil entered, bearing wine and juices chilled from ice harvested from the snow fields of Mindolluin. Well, perhaps some drink to slake my thirst... The young men served everyone before flopping on the floor themselves, Beregar at Aeluin's feet in imitation of Denethor, Finiel in his arms, Imrahil sprawled on his back at the hearth end of the rug.
The women took up again their conversation. Denethor listened with half an ear as he and Boromir played games like touch each other's nose, count Papa's fingers, and pinch Morcollë's toes. The women's talk was mostly of Dúlin's wedding and the yáviérë feast. Boromir tired of his games and slid to the floor to crawl over to Imrahil. A wrestling match ensued. Finduilas said she was going to have a harvest fair before the City, with prizes for the finest fruits and vegetables and many stalls for selling wares. Beregar and Imrahil begged for there to be some kind of tourney.
'The garrisons can send in some men and it would be grand, wouldn't it, Denethor?' Imrahil asked, still pinned by his nephew sitting squarely on his chest.
'If we do, I want another archery contest for the women,' Moraen said. 'I will do better this time. No Wren or Hilda!'
'If we invite the garrisons, Marlong will come and so will Wren,' Denethor said absently, trying to get the baby's attention. Moraen sighed in resignation. Finduilas gave him a light kick in the ribs for being thoughtless.
'Will Morvorin attend us on yáviérë?' Imrahil asked Moraen.
'No, I fear not. I asked him if was going to come, and he was short with me in his reply, saying he had his own fief's harvest to attend to.'
Imrahil sat up at Moraen's sad words, gently depositing his nephew on the rug. 'I will scold him for you, if you wish,' he said earnestly. 'He should not speak crossly to you! Were he in my house, his sisters would cuff him soundly for his churlishness.'
'This house as well,' Aiavalë cheerfully added, giving Denethor a light rap on the top of his head.
'He will come at year-end for the Great Council, of course,' Finduilas said briskly.
Moraen shrugged. 'I know not what irks him so, but he has hinted that he may not do that, either. If he will not, then I think I will need to return to Ethring.' Boromir crawled to Denethor and began scaling him again.
'No, you won't. Beregar and I will go fetch him,' Imrahil assured her.
'I do not intend to be in the City at year-end,' Aiavalë announced. 'I am going to be with Wren in Anórien.'
'No you're not. You will both be here, because Marlong will be here.' Denethor glared at Aiavalë over his shoulder.
'You will have to convince Wren of that.'
'You are not riding to Anórien in the middle of winter.' Boromir was almost to his shoulder.
'That is between me and my horse.' Across the rug, Beregar was smirking at the argument, while Moraen stifled a giggle. Before Denethor could summon his next arguments, Boromir started to tumble over his shoulder. He did not want Denethor to hold him, however.
'Mama!' The baby leaned towards Finduilas with every ounce of his will. 'Mama!'
Finduilas laughed and took him. 'So, now you want your mama, do you? I think he is hungry. You gentlemen may go.' She kissed Denethor's temple. 'I am sure you have business to attend to before supper. Your message basket filled this afternoon.'
He stood and kissed her and Aiavalë farewell. 'Yes. Telperien thought it an excellent bed.' As they left the room, Imrahil touched his arm and gave him a questioning look. Denethor gestured for him to follow and went to his study. The cat had dragged the red ribbon into the reports basket with her and was asleep, the ribbon a bright sash across her body. He took a seat and waited for Imrahil to speak.
'I know not what to make of the Steward's words, Denethor.'
Nor do I. Denethor shrugged. 'He speaks of odd things at times. What do you think of Thorongil's words?'
The young man shrugged. 'It is not Father's counsel. The Corsairs do not become less for being left uncontested. I think the captain right that it will take more than one attack.'
'Do you know how Thorongil was received by Halmir?'
Imrahil made a face. 'Badly. Lieutenant Halmir did not greet the captain when Thorongil arrived. Thorongil went to the meeting chamber and they did not come out for over two hours, but no one could hear a word being exchanged. Halmir left the barracks, gathered a patrol, and was gone for two days when the meeting ended. I was told to clean the room afterwards. There were ashes in the grate, so something, some papers, perhaps, were burned. After he returned, the lieutenant was so correct in his address to the captain it obviously was an insult.'
When will you drive them away, Thorongil? They want you back, and plead for you to return. How long before they seek another leader? But, they should follow you and come south, for the north is naught but loss. Perhaps there is nowhere to lead them to. Denethor knew he needed to speak with Halmir and see what other secrets could be pried from the man while he was angry with his nephew. He glanced at Imrahil, who waited patiently for Denethor's next words. The road south goes over the Sea. 'You have been three seasons now in Osgiliath, Imrahil, and two in Anórien. Where now do you think you should be placed?'
'No more in Osgiliath.' The words were swift and strong, and Imrahil's eyes were bright.
'The smell. The... sight.' The prince's gaze dropped to the desk. 'I always wish to be on patrol to be away from it. Anórien is preferable. Perhaps Pelargir. I have not served Captain Baragund yet.' Denethor did not reply, waiting for more. 'I was on night watch in the ruins. I was not asleep and it was no dream. Not like that. T'was true sight. Osgiliath remade itself around me and no sound did I hear. All that remained of what is now was your bridge. On either shore, fires sprang up, as when the Orcs attacked, and men ran to defend the walls. It was other men, not Orcs, who attacked. Ships, small and silver, stole down Anduin from the north. They came under the city and the gray-cloaked soldiers in them swarmed up from hidden passages, like a fog rising from the river. The gates burst and horsemen thundered over your bridge, forcing people over the sides and into the river. Then the torches entered. I could not hear, but I could smell.' Pause. 'Thorongil led the attack. Or you.'
'I do not intend for you to remain in the ruins.'
'As the Steward said, he expects Dol Amroth to command the Sea for Gondor. You will need to ensure that, come spring, you do.'
Imrahil's face brightened. 'What am I to do, Warden?'
'You will not return to Osgiliath. You will ride the falas from now until the winter storms come. Start in Pelargir. You will confer with Baragund, then you will go to the Prince to plan how our fleet will approach Umbar undetected. Secrecy is our greatest weapon, yet we will be hard pressed to keep it, given the number of ships that must be used.' Denethor picked up Baragund's report. 'You will inform me of everything you discuss with the Steward or Thorongil while you are in the City, no matter how trivial. And you are to give your time to Finduilas, for she misses all of the Swans greatly.'
'That takes no order,' Imrahil said, his familiar smile back in place. 'I will do all you ask, Denethor.'
'Good. You may go.' After Imrahil left, Denethor pondered the young prince's waking dream. There was no mistaking Eldacar's return to Osgiliath, but what of the bridge, and of Thorongil's face, or perhaps his own, at the head of the invaders? He looked at the messages he had set aside earlier, finding nothing of import in them. And fire once again entered the city, and its denizens were cast into the waters below... He lunged to his feet and went downstairs. The women still talked in Finduilas's study, and on the first floor he could hear Imrahil and Beregar laughing about something. Denethor went out the Wall Door and gazed east. Shadows were creeping across the City from the westering sun and the far reaches of the Pelennor were cloaked in a golden haze. Heat radiated up from the stone. Denethor strode along the wall and down the tunnel. It was only when he stood before Fen Hollen that he knew where he was bound.
Eldacar's tomb was both quiet and cool. The lock on the door had yielded to Denethor's knife easily enough. He walked over to the sarcophagus in the center of the tomb. Upon its lid was a likeness of Eldacar. The small amount of light that came through the door made odd shadows across the carved face. Mongrel king. He looked a man of Gondor. Northman. He had brought a vast cavalry of golden warriors down both sides of Anduin, the sworn men of his maternal cousins. Vinitharya. Gingerly, Denethor reached out and laid his fingers on the stone visage. Under his fingers, the stone murmured of bitterness and blood, of a murdered son and of vengeance. Kin-slayer. Denethor touched his own face, fingertips made cold by the king. Kinsman. He retreated from the grave and sat with his back against a pillar. His own dreams of the Kin-strife returned. You fled, and returned to slay your own people for their rebellion. You trusted to the strength of strangers to help you reclaim your throne, and cast aside the Usurper. But Imrahil thought it might be me.
When the light grew too dim to make out Eldacar's face, Denethor returned home. The Pelennor lazed under last light of a late summer sunset, but Minas Tirith was already in dusk. Lanes and alleys echoed with the sounds of people preparing to sit down to supper. The clatter of dishes, the chatter of voices, even a smatter of song filled the air, mixing with the smell of food ready for the table. Within the Stewards House, servants bustled in and out of the dining room. Upstairs, he found Finduilas sitting in the front room, talking to Moraen. She smiled when he came in, then looked at him intently. 'What is on your face, Denethor?'
'There is something on my face?'
'Yes. It looks like Morcollë has painted part of a meal on your cheek.'
'I will wash.' The small mirror in the alcove revealed dirt on his face from the tomb.
Supper was pleasant and leisurely. Imrahil evidently had decided that it was his task to distract Finduilas and Moraen from any worries they might harbor, and there was no end to his amusing tales. He made life in a garrison sound much cleaner and less boring than it was. After the meal, Moraen excused herself to write letters and Imrahil left to meet some other young lords at The Messenger's Rest and drink. Before Denethor could speak, Finduilas said, 'I imagine you will need to meet Thorongil this evening.'
'Yes. We have spoken much already. It will be brief.'
'And the meeting with the Steward? How did that go?'
'Oddly. Thorongil wavers while the Steward insists that we must attack. I intend to find out why the captain is reconsidering.' For a moment, he thought to ask her of Morvorin and Luinmir, then decided he would see what he could find out on his own first. Finduilas gave him a long look, but did not ask any other questions, and fetched Boromir from Ivrin. Denethor was disappointed that his son did not wish to say any words, but played gently with Boromir until the baby fell asleep. Only then did he go to the watchtower to meet the captain. He let Borthand follow and left the pup to watch the tower door.
Thorongil was already there. 'Denethor, thank you for meeting me.'
'Here.' Denethor dug in his pocket and pulled out a pouch. 'There should be plenty for us both. I have had few occasions for a pipe since you left.'
'Ah, you are a friend!' the captain happily exclaimed. Thorongil would not speak further until both of them were settled with lit pipes. 'Thank you for the pipeweed. And for the introduction to the caravan masters.'
'You pleased them. I received word that they would gladly hire you again for a season. Evidently, you have a way with mules.'
The captain's teeth caught the faint light as he grinned . 'I have experience persuading stubborn creatures.'
'Mules must have been a welcome respite,' Denethor dryly answered, eliciting a snort from Thorongil. 'What did you see that makes you doubt?'
'Mmm.' Denethor made himself comfortable in his usual perch on the window sill. 'It was an interesting trip. I should have done this sooner. Your maps are very accurate, more so than the traders' maps.' There was a long pause. 'The goods that are traded at the bazaar at the edge of Umbar are many, beyond anything I have every seen. They could use pipeweed, though.'
'Arrange a regular shipment of it, and I am sure Ahnkoral would carry it south. If you like, the Steward can give you sole trading rights upon the northern kind in Gondor. It could make some coin for the north.'
'That is worth considering,' Thorongil mused. There was another wait. 'I watched the guards until I knew their watches, then I slipped through their lines. It was another day to the city.' He sighed. 'Flies upon a mûmak, indeed. It is an even larger city than Minas Tirith, as large as Pelargir, and the ships...'
'A forest upon the water.'
'Aye. I crept as close as I dared...'
'Did you enter the city?'
'No. It was too well guarded.' The captain drew deeply on his pipe, letting the smoke out in a long breath. 'I thought...they would look different. Like Haradrim. Foolish.'
'In the streets, you will see more southerners. They are used in the workshops and the shipyards.'
'It is beautiful, just like you said. It should not be, yet it is.'
'You do not think we should attack?'
'If you wish spies placed, then we must. Whatever ships we send, whatever men, they will perish. And I am sworn.' The captain's voice was soft, musing, in argument with himself. 'Is even this test enough?'
'Test enough for what?' The man's silence dragged on so long Denethor thought the question would not be answered.
'That our trust is properly placed. That we will gain an answer for our trials.' The captain tapped ashes from his pipe and prepared a fresh one for himself. 'And what of your trials, Denethor? What has your careful study uncovered?'
You. Were it not for a mouthful of smoke, Denethor might have said the word aloud. He allowed himself time to consider his answer. So much could be said. No one else would hear. It was just the two of them, two captains of Gondor, trying to secure her survival. I know the treasure you carry around your neck, fortune and burden, claim and trap. It is like the cord handed to me. That would not be speaking Thorongil's name or saying who he was, yet he would not escape the noose. Denethor exhaled slowly and drew a breath to speak.
'Have you tamed it?' The king's voice, calm and commanding, required an answer other than what Denethor wished to say. 'Can it be used?'
'I have not found a way to tame it, yet allow it to burn under the water. Oil will serve you better.'
Thorongil sighed. 'Oil will not serve at all. Their ships would need to soak on it for days for it to have any effect. Their sails, perhaps, could be destroyed. That would slow them another season. Maybe.'
'Then we will need to meet them on our shores.'
The captain stood and began pacing. 'The Steward said you had made weapons. Is that so?'
'No. Only the Fire.'
'Is there enough?'
'Enough can be made by next spring,' Denethor cautiously answered.
'And it would work?'
'Help me, Denethor. We must do this. It is time. Yet, all that we have to hand is Dragon Fire. Is it for this purpose?'
The little that Denethor could see of Thorongil's face in the starlight that came through the window made him look like the effigy of Eldacar, all shadows and stark lines. He wondered, were he to touch the man's face, if he would hear the voices of the stone. 'I do not know.'
'You are wiser than I, Denethor. You know the Fire. Should I use it?'
'If you do not?'
'We go to slaughter. Or they shall bear it hence.'
'I know what I think.'
'You must decide for yourself. I shall not counsel you in this.'
'You wish command. You wish rule. This is it. As Eldacar chose to unleash the Northmen upon Gondor to secure her from Castamir, so must you now choose. As you chose Malantur's fate. Great and small, but the same - it is rule.'
'I obey the Steward's...'
'This is rule, and is for you to decide. You must decide by mettarë. It takes time to produce that much Fire. If you cannot choose, then return north and allow another to do so.'
Thorongil tapped the ashes from his pipe and stuffed it and the pipeweed pouch into a pocket. 'You will have a decision. Good night.'
Denethor finished the last herbs in his pipe before returning home, Borthand on his heels. He paused at a fountain to rinse the taste of the pipeweed from his mouth and drink a dipper of water - the smoke made him thirsty. As he did, Denethor studied the pup. Borthand was a lean stick of a boy, but with a set to his shoulders that gave promise of breadth as he matured. He was Dúnedain, that was certain, not a half-breed. Denethor was reasonably certain that Anardil had frequented whorehouses as much as Isilmo. Either could have sired Borthand. Some man of the City did. The pups quietly increased in their den in the fifth circle. When the boys had to leave houses, they came to the Lady. Finduilas would not allow any to be turned away. Around the neck of each hung a slender silver chain and upon that was strung a dog's tooth.
'Do you need something, my lord?' Borthand asked. Denethor shook his head. 'Have I displeased you, then? You stare at me.'
'You are near fifteen, yes?'
'You will not be a pup much longer.'
'I am of the Hunt,' Borthand answered defensively.
'When pups grow, they leave the den. They hunt new things.' Borthand nodded. 'Where do you think to hunt?'
'You would be a messenger?'
'Dunno. To see things. To go fast.'
Denethor nodded, but said no more. Placing the dipper in its niche, he continued home. Finduilas sat in the front room sewing, the cat under the chair. He poured wine and sat at her feet. Telperien was soon in his lap, purring contentedly.
'And?' Finduilas said when he did not volunteer any information.
'He went all the way to Umbar.'
'You two are alike - more curious than the cat. It will be your undoing, you know.'
'Most likely. He confirmed what all other spies have said, that the fleet is vast and powerful. It daunted him as nothing has before. To attack directly is folly, but we will be hard pressed to withstand their assault upon our shores.'
'And what you two have wished for so long, it is finally given to you, and you find you do not want it after all.'
'No. I want it. I know not how to get it. It is out of reach.'
'So alike.' He nodded and sipped his wine, scratching the cat's ears. 'It means Fire.'
'I do not know, yet. That is for Thorongil to decide.'
'You are making him choose.'
'Yes.' Finduilas sighed. 'I will not return Imrahil to Osgiliath. After he is through here, he goes to the falas. Pelargir first, but eventually to Dol Amroth.'
'Linhir? Will he get to see Ivriniel? She would dearly love that!'
Denethor tipped his head back so he could see Finduilas's face. 'As Linhir figures greatly in the defense of the coasts, yes, he will be in Linhir.'
She was smiling at this news, then her face fell and she sighed again. 'Would that I was not so tired, friend. I would go to Linhir myself.'
'Perhaps you would be less tired if you got away from your many duties and spent carefree days with Ivriniel.' He snorted. 'Given that Aiavalë appears to be turning herself into one of the Lost with her wandering ways, she would gladly go with you.'
'Not this year. I cannot travel so far by horse until after the cub is weaned.'
'Then go by ship...'
'No.' Her voice was sharp. 'Never again. I will not go upon the Sea.'
'Then after Boromir is weaned.'
'How much did he eat this morning?' Denethor amused Finduilas with the tale of Boromir's breakfast. It was good to see her smile. Soon she yawned and put away her sewing. 'I am for bed, friend. Are you coming, or have you work to do?'
'All will wait for the morrow,' Denethor assured her as he helped her rise. In her room, Ivrin sat near the cradle, rocking it with her foot while she knitted. Finduilas dismissed her for the night. Denethor helped Finduilas undress and hung her clothes neatly in the press while she climbed into bed. His own garments he folded and placed on a chair not far from the door. A mew at the door reminded him to let the cat in. Telperien wasted no time finding her nest among the pillows. He snuffed the lights before coming to bed.
Finduilas made a noise of contentment much like the cat's purr and nestled against him. Denethor allowed himself a single kiss on her temple. In his own room he could presume to offer a husband's duties; here, he must be chaste. That was how trouble had entered; he had laid cruel and lustful hands upon her when she was still fragile from bearing. He had frightened and grieved her greatly, weakening her. Carefully, his hands caressed her form, all soothing strokes and gentle kneading, encouraging her to relax and sleep. Forgive me. Even if she kissed him, as she had done a month past, he would not allow himself that trespass here. Did I not say, the day we wed, that this room was her haven? How oft have I been tempted to break my own oath and enter without leave? When in by her consent, I behave as crudely as a man in a whorehouse. For this affront, I am gelded. Even wooing her to his bed had not lifted the ban upon him. Until she had forgiven him, he was certain he would remain like that, for his soul would touch hers and know that there was penance yet to do. Her breathing slowed and Finduilas fell into sleep. Denethor soon followed.
He walked through Osgiliath, his feet leaving tracks of blood on the street. The bridges had not been brought down, though some spans were damaged. His quiver was almost empty. The Rangers of Emyn Arnen had shown themselves to be as adept at hunting enemies in stone passages as in the wooded hills. Crossing the final span, he looked down into the River. Whatever had been cast into her in the night of battle had been carried south. The herds of the Northmen covered the eastern Pelennor. The King had returned.
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