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Hands of the King: 63. Abandoned
Minas Tirith, 22 March , 2980 T.A.
Denethor woke with Boromir snuggled in his arms. The morning was well advanced judging by the light in the room. Finduilas was still in bed, but awake, watching him. She smiled when he met her eyes. 'Good morrow, love,' she said quietly.
'Good noontide, I think.'
'It's not that late. You needed to sleep.'
'I need to...'
'Do nothing until you are rested,' she interrupted. 'You have been in battles for weeks and need to regain your strength.'
'...get something to eat, I was going to say.' Denethor kissed Boromir's brow and gave his son a small shake to wake him. 'Morcollë? Do you want breakfast?' The baby woke groggily, a cranky expression on his face. 'Eat? Do you want to eat?'
'No!' Boromir made a face and pushed himself away from Denethor's chest. 'Papa bad!'
Denethor looked at Finduilas in confusion. 'What did I do?'
'Nothing. He has been contrary like this for a few weeks. Let him wake up and he will be more cooperative. Tell Huan we are ready for our breakfast. By the time it arrives, the cub will be in a better mood.'
Denethor did as she bade him. Ivrin took charge of washing and changing Boromir, who objected loudly to her ministrations, but by the time Beregar brought the morning meal, Boromir was reasonably cheerful and ready for breakfast. He insisted on sitting in Denethor's lap to eat, which Denethor did not mind. Boromir's skill with food had increased considerably since December, and almost all ended up in his mouth instead of on his front.
Finduilas sat across from them, watching them with a fond smile, but eating little. There were circles under her eyes and lines at the corners of her mouth that had not been there in January. She noticed him watching her and asked, 'What did you and Brandir tell the Steward?'
'That we won. That Gondor is safer than she has been in a lifetime. That Thorongil was nowhere to be found.' Ecthelion had listened impassively to Brandir's report, asking no questions, his hand clenched around the White Rod. Denethor did not speak. When Brandir had finished, Ecthelion thanked them and let them go. It was difficult to believe that the captain had abandoned them. But he'll be back. He said he would return. No, he's gone for good. Denethor did not know which thought was worse.
Finduilas did not press for more. When Boromir was through eating, she called him over and amused him so Denethor could finish his own breakfast. He was very hungry and ate everything left on the tray. Finduilas took Boromir downstairs to play with Finiel, saying she would have more food sent up. A familiar looking girl brought another tray a few minutes later. Mírwen. She reminded Denethor of Wren at the same age. The girl set down the tray and quickly gathered the empty dishes. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a sealed note, handed it to Denethor, and waited. Denethor opened the note.
I need to speak to you as soon as possible.
Denethor considered sending a note with Mírwen telling Morwen to meet him at their usual location, then decided he was too tired to be climbing over walls and rooftops. 'I have no reply,' he told the girl and signaled she could leave. Once his hunger was sated, he went through the contents of his message basket. Telperien protested being removed from her favorite bed, so he held her in his lap while he read them. There was nothing of importance. Nor will there be until the lords decide who won Umbar. Word of Thorongil's disappearance must have reached all corners of the kingdom by now. There was no word of where he might be, not since the one ranger reported seeing the man walking north near dawn a week past.
Depositing the cat into the message basket, Denethor stood and began searching the room. He emptied all the drawers of the desk and inspected the spaces underneath, went through every pouch and pocket, scoured all of the shelves holding his treasures. No key. He needed to look for Thorongil, follow where the man went. And when you have found him? Denethor was not sure of the answer. With a scowl, he took the tray of breakfast dishes downstairs to the kitchen. Finduilas was already holding court in her study. Denethor paused near the door, listening. He recognized a few of the voices. They were discussing the Enemy's defeat in Ithilien. The ladies will have their own opinion on the victor of Umbar. That is probably Morwen's concern as well. I think I shall pay a call. In a few minutes, he was on his way down the mountain.
Borthand was loitering near the messenger stable, leaning on the paddock rail and talking to some of the messengers. Denethor motioned for the youth to join him. 'You know I am looking for something?'
'What the Hound told us about?'
'Yes. Has it been found?'
'No, sir. The Hunt has searched every inch of ground. We found a lot of things, but not what you seek.'
'Where is what you found?'
'With the Hound.'
'Keep searching.' Borthand nodded. Denethor considered how else he could make use of this pup. 'Can you read? Write?'
'You still wish to be a messenger?'
'Yes!' Borthand's face lit up. 'More than ever!'
'A horse will be found for you, but you'll not be a messenger, not yet.'
'Do you know any weapons?'
'Good. The Hound will see to your other training. Do you know how to serve a lord, as his man?'
'As Beregar serves you? I can do it.'
'You will do that as well.' Denethor dismissed Borthand and continued to Morwen's brothel. There were no customers in the parlor at this hour, only a few girls. They stared for a moment, then greeted him graciously while one hurried to get the Matron to escort him to Morwen's office.
She came around her desk and greeted him with a kiss on the cheek. 'Denethor, you should not have come here. My news is not that urgent. You can send a message with Mírwen.'
'Finduilas prefers the girl not come here now. What is the news? The sooner you speak, the sooner I leave.'
Morwen gestured for him to take a seat and sent for tea. When they both had mugs, she asked, 'Is the captain returning? His last words indicated he would.'
'I think not. If he does, it will be many years, and it will not be as Thorongil.'
'Is it possible to reopen the whorehouse near the garrison?'
Denethor chuckled. 'Is that what your pressing news is? Getting more gold?'
Morwen shrugged, unembarrassed. 'Should I not secure the lost revenues that war and the captain so rudely withheld? I merely wish to get business out of the way before turning to other things.' She smiled and sipped her tea. A minute went by without her speaking.
'No other madam will be granted that location, Morwen. As to whether you get it, you will have to negotiate the price with Borondir. I think he will be glad for an honest provisioner.'
'That is the best you can offer, Denethor?'
'That is all you will get from me today. If you wish to bargain, talk to the Quartermaster.'
'I will.' Morwen's smile turned to a scowl. 'We are rid of one enemy, Denethor, but the more dangerous of the pair remains.'
'What is Maiaberiel doing now?'
'Trying to destroy you.'
'That is hardly news.'
'The newest rumor is the worst yet, for it defames our Lady and places you in danger. The rumors started in Madam Hareth's house. She was shocked enough to bring them to me. The King's Men have taken to frequenting there, as I make no secret of my pleasure over Thorongil's flight. You know what has been said before...'
'That the captain fled for fear of his life? Yes.'
'They expand on it. First, they say you went to Ithilien to ensure he would be killed, but that the soldiers helped their beloved leader elude you. They also say that you made him lead the Umbar attack intending it to be his death, but that the Powers protected him and gave him that victory.'
'Who knows? Perhaps they did. But he went by order of the Steward. What else?'
Morwen's gaze became icy. 'They say that Boromir is not your son, but Thorongil's. Tell me, did you ever find out who poisoned Finduilas?'
'A King's Man, Malantur. He put Widows Wort in our tea.'
'Who ordered it, Thorongil or Maiaberiel?'
'The man claimed to be acting on his own. I had Thorongil execute him as warning to them all. Is this claim of bastardy believed?'
'You were in Dol Amroth during the plague, and they say that is when the child was conceived.' Morwen shook her head. 'People cannot count! A child born before mettarë was conceived before tuilérë! The whores are already pointing out that Thorongil did not enter the City during plague time, either. Hareth herself came to her parlor and cursed the men for speaking obscenely of the Lady.'
Denethor drained his mug and stood. 'We will counter the rumor. Truth for those who listen, fists for those who don't.'
'No, Denethor. There must be more.' Morwen also rose. 'People are angry with the captain now, and will turn aside a rumor that sullies the Lady. They will remember the captain more fondly in time, and they will wish for him back. Perhaps you are the one who should use poison.' She walked him to the door, giving him another kiss. 'You are not to come here again, especially with the kind of rumors floating about. People will want to believe them in time. I'll send the Matron to the Quartermaster for the contract.'
Denethor bade Morwen farewell and pondered her news on the walk back to the Citadel. She was right. This rumor could be crushed, but it would return in another fashion or a new one would rise up in its place. It was too much to hope that Maiaberiel would see Thorongil's departure as an end to her own ambitions, though it was not clear what she hoped to gain when she had no one to raise up as a rival. But it was possible that the captain would come back. Denethor thought about the man's last letter. "Cast away the name Thorongil. No longer is it fit to be spoken by honorable men." No, he will not return.
Finduilas was still meeting with women of the City when he returned, so Denethor went upstairs to see to business until dinner. Walking into the front room, he was met with the sight of Brandir and Boromir playing with a ball. They both greeted him boisterously and nothing would do but that he join their game. It was good not to do anything more taxing than roll a ball for Boromir to bat back to him. All the child's bad temper from earlier in the morning was gone. Brandir did not press him for words, but Denethor could tell his brother-in-law was watching him closely.
Aldwyn and Wren showed up for dinner, wind-blown and laughing, Imrahil in tow. The three had been riding with Gethron upon the Pelennor examining the condition of the causeway and seeing how the spring planting was going.
'Marlong says it is safe for the villagers to return to the river lands in Anórien to begin their planting,' Wren said to Finduilas, 'but some are not certain they wish to return. They don't think it is safe to be so far north and west.' She scowled in annoyance. 'It is more safe than ever! Have we not just won a victory? Several!'
They rue Thorongil's departure. He made them feel safe. 'The furthest outlying farms have always been a problem to guard, though more from ruffians than Orcs,' Denethor said. 'They should be encouraged to take new farms. If the Pelennor is too small, there are lands north of the Rammas that stand empty. Any folk living west of Minrimmon need to move closer in.'
Brandir shook his head. 'It is wise, but they won't like that.'
'You will have to convince them, Brandir. Start with your own kin.'
'This is something for the Lord Steward to decide,' Brandir answered, 'for uprooting that many people is no small act.'
'It is done for their safety and for that of the realm. Our soldiers cannot be spread out so thin. No one should live more than a day's march from the garrison.'
'Some may object, but others have come to like the fastness of the City's walls,' Wren added, 'and may be content to exchange a field of oats for a garden of greens.'
'Yes, I hope they will, but it is still for the Steward to decree. We can only advise,' Brandir replied.
Talk turned to other things for the rest of the meal. The women retreated to Finduilas's study afterwards. Denethor motioned Imrahil aside. 'Brother Imrahil, I have a small task for you. A pleasant one, for once.'
'I won't argue with that. What do you wish?'
'I need a horse purchased, one that an inexperienced rider can use at once, but will not be a poor steed when he learns.'
'Big man? Small man?'
'Young, going to grow more. He'll be Gethron's size soon enough.'
Imrahil grinned. 'Do you need the nag today?'
'By the end of the week will be soon enough.' Imrahil set off at once. Brandir stood nearby, waiting. 'What do you want?'
'What is my task, Denethor?'
Motioning for Brandir to follow, Denethor led them to his study, closing the door behind them. They took seats before the hearth. 'What do you wish as your task?'
'To keep you and Ecthelion from rending Gondor,' Brandir said simply.
'We no longer have the captain to exploit our division.'
'No, Denethor. Thorongil did not do that. He strove always to mend rifts. It wrung his heart to see two whom he loved greatly in fearsome opposition.'
But he did use our contest, to win us over and make us wish to submit to him, if only to thwart the other. He could have ended opposition by saying who he was. Denethor hardened his heart against the man. He loves us? But he said he loved the wrong thing. With a shrug, he answered 'I did not say it was the captain who exploited the division, only that his presence made it possible.'
Brandir sighed and dropped his head into his hands. 'I know. Maiaberiel.'
'She continues to use his name to raise anger against me. I have just heard this morning of new rumors.'
'I will speak to her, and...'
'No, Brandir. You will go to Anórien and convince people to abandon the western lands. The time for talking to Maiaberiel is over.'
This made Brandir sit up. 'I am not leaving you alone with each other. None of the three of you. Too oft have I been away while you drove each other mad.'
'I thought you said you were through with love?'
'Yes. I am. But I am not yet through with her. I never can be.'
'Then why your words in Pelargir?'
'So I would have her with me, and just with me, finally.' Brandir's expression was strange, managing to be bitter and wistful at the same time. 'I know less than any what happens after our souls leave this world, but it seems to me that the Gift must mean what mars our hearts is mended. So I hope hers will be made whole by that passage, and turn aside her trespasses upon my own for now. It is all a fool can do.'
'You are a lord, and not much of a fool, Brandir. What my sister does now is nothing less than inciting civil war.'
'And you will give her one!'
'To leave her unanswered is to embolden her. Brandir, you said yourself that she has tried to have me murdered. One of her King's Men put poison in Finduilas's tea, making her lose our first child. So eager was Maiaberiel to press Thorongil's advantage that she let the secret of the Umbar invasion be known. A spy could have carried the news south and you would have sailed into a trap.'
With a sigh, Brandir closed his eyes and slumped in the chair. 'We did. We sprang it upon ourselves.'
'I told her before that if she interfered with the conduct of battle, she would pay. It matters not that she had no effect. You may choose as you wish for your heart, but Maiaberiel must be punished for her trespass upon Gondor's survival.'
'I'll not go away.' They sat silently for some minutes. After the bells rang the hour, Brandir opened his eyes. 'What do you intend to do to her?'
'Whatever it takes to make her stop her striving for rule.'
'You'll have to kill her. She will cede rule when her heart stops. She's of your house, after all.'
I would have ceded rule short of that. 'She will be punished.'
'Where do I bring her?' Seeing Denethor's surprised expression, Brandir shook his head. 'If I do not allow it, you will do worse. Let it be done immediately. Today.'
'The abandoned watchtower on the north face of the fifth circle, you know it?' Brandir nodded. 'The door will be open tonight. Lock her in the guardroom. I will be at the top of the tower.' Brandir nodded and stood stiffly, as though he had grown old in his time sitting there, and left without a word.
When the door closed, Denethor tried to think of what he intended. You deserve this, Beruthiel. You deserved this before now, but I have been merciful. Denethor made himself remember what she had inflicted upon him. Upon Gondor. He had been merciful. Threats, a few blows, the cut; it was far less than he could have done, certainly less than she had ordered done to others. He lived only by accident, yet had allowed her to live. She was like Castamir, not caring if it were rain or blood that washed the streets. Just as the Usurper had done to Eldacar, spreading dissent and planting seeds for rebellion, so had she been doing. But your king ran away, and all that remains is ruin. Denethor had little doubt but that she would gladly destroy what she could not possess.
Will it be enough? Denethor knew where this punishment should lead, but his thoughts resisted traveling that path. If she was but chastened tonight, it would not keep her from future mischief. "You'll have to kill her." Brandir knows this house. Perhaps her husband's acquiescence to the punishment would make her more cautious. More likely just more devious. She will retaliate.
As soon as Boromir woke from his midday nap, Denethor claimed him from Ivrin and they played games the rest of the afternoon. It kept him from dwelling on what would be done that night. Outside, the sky clouded and rain fell, light at first but soon becoming a steady shower. It continued into the evening. Supper was pleasant, with Imrahil and Aldwyn good-naturedly arguing over whether he needed her help to buy the horse. Finduilas had received letters from Ivriniel and Luinmir, which she shared.
Ivriniel had just returned from staying with Luinmir in Ethring, now that the winter campaign was finished, so much of their news was the same. Eärwen was starting to talk and could pull herself upright. Ivriniel was planning to come visit during the summer, now that the seas were safe and she could sail from Linhir to the Harlond. Angbor's sister, Andreth, was now betrothed to Duinhir, the heir of Morthond. The man had come to Ethring to confer with Morvorin during the battles, and had asked for Andreth's hand at that time. Luinmir gave her version of the romance between Duinhir and Andreth, and said that Angrist had objected strongly to Andreth wedding so far away, but that Luinmir and Lady Rían had persuaded him to permit it. Luinmir also said she was going to send Moraen back to Minas Tirith with Ivriniel in the summer as there were no suitable young men in Ethring or Calembel, and it was time for Moraen to find a husband.
Imrahil escorted Aldwyn back to Wren's house after supper despite Finduilas's begging them to stay and not brave the wet. Denethor did not know what to say to Finduilas about his plans that night. Less was probably better. When she was sewing, he gathered his cloak. 'I must go. I don't know how long I will be.'
She gave him a keen look. 'Is this about Thorongil?'
'Yes.' Finduilas did not say anything else, so Denethor pulled on his cloak and left. The rain was heavier than ever. Good. It will drown out sound. His thoughts shied away from what sounds would be made. There was no one else at the watchtower when he arrived, so he prepared the guardroom and gathered things he would need before going to the top chamber. He did not have to wait long before he heard noises downstairs, a solid thump, and a woman yelling. A few minutes later Brandir came into the chamber. He sat without talking, so Denethor waited.
'I can't make you do anything you don't already wish to do, Denethor, so I beg.' Another long silence. 'I ask you not to kill her. If you do, you will need to slay me as well, for I will avenge her.'
'I will remember that.'
'Don't cripple her. Don't ... disfigure her. Please. I ask not for love of her, but for whatever love you bear me. Anything else, she has brought on herself. I wait here.'
When Denethor was certain Brandir was finished, he went downstairs to the guardroom. Before he entered the room, he lit a lantern, set it on the floor near the door, and made sure the length of cord he found earlier was still tucked under his belt. He unlocked the door and moved quickly, grabbing Maiaberiel as she tried to dart out. She screeched and cursed when she realized it was him. Denethor had to wrestle her to the floor and pin her with his weight while he tied her hands behind her back. Maiaberiel got in a bite and some strong kicks before she was secured, screaming for Brandir the whole time. Denethor retrieved the lantern and brought it into the room, shutting the door behind him. Maiaberiel got to her feet and tried to work her bonds loose. He leaned against the door, smiling lazily.
'How nice of you to join me, sister.'
'Let me go!'
'I think not. We have some business to attend to.'
'I have nothing to say to you!' When she tried to shoulder him away from the door, Denethor backhanded her to the floor. He let her pull herself up, then struck her again. Yanking her up from the floor, he hit her a third time. When he came near, she flinched and tried to wriggle away.
'Perhaps you have nothing to say to me, but you have said much about me.' Denethor caressed Maiaberiel's cheek, then slapped it sharply. 'I don't like what you're saying.'
'Beating me will not make me quiet.'
'Who said I was going to beat you? I have other things in mind.' Denethor stood and kicked her in the ribs hard enough to bruise, but not so much as to break them.
'Scream all you like. He left. It is just you and me, dear sister, and only one of us cares about you.' Denethor retrieved a chair from the side of the room, set it near Maiaberiel, and took a seat. Dragging her upright by her hair, he slapped her again, and then began caressing her face and neck. 'Do you remember a little conversation we had several years ago, Beruthiel, where I said if you ever again meddled in the conduct of battle, you would die.' He smiled. 'You meddled.'
'What do you mean? I have not!' she protested. There was blood at the corner of her mouth and her face was swelling and darkening from the blows. 'You've gone mad!'
Denethor pulled his knife, making her cry out and try to pull away. 'If I have, it is because of what you have driven me to do. You learned from the Steward of the secret attack on Umbar. You spread word of it through your King's Men.' He bent her head back so the cloth on her bodice pulled tight and used the tip of the knife to cut upwards through the cloth. When the tear was large enough, he put away the knife and ripped the front of the dress apart. 'The attack was no longer a surprise. I don't think the Corsairs believed we were a true threat,' he cupped one breast and brushed a thumb against a nipple until it hardened and she made a sound, 'but they were awake, with fires burning, watching the harbor when the fleet arrived.' Her eyes widened. He took the nipple between his thumb and forefinger and twisted it, crushing it as he did. This time, she screamed. 'That was your doing, Beruthiel.'
'No!, No, I swear...'
Denethor shoved her as he stood. He slapped and kicked her, while she screamed and tried to crawl away, and ripped away most of the rest of her dress top. When she reached the far side of the room, he hauled her to her feet and pinned her against the wall, his thigh pressing hard into her crotch. 'But before I kill you, I think I shall have some ... fun ... with you.'
With his words, the extreme fear left her, and she summoned a smile. 'Yes, I think so.' She pressed against him, stretching her face up to nuzzle his neck. He fought back his nausea and let his hands wander over her chest and arms. Her tongue flicked his throat. 'I can please you a great deal. This is what you have always wanted, Denethor.'
'Yes.' Her voice was amused, throaty. 'You don't need to tie me up for this.'
'Is this what you have always wanted, as well?'
'Of course. What woman would not want the most powerful man in Gondor?' She laughed again. 'Pleasure and power go well together.'
Denethor dropped his head and ran his tongue hard over one nipple, then the other, trying not to gag. Maiaberiel moaned and writhed against him. He could smell her arousal. 'I can see how this could be amusing, but it isn't the fun I was talking about.' Denethor drew his knife again and deliberately cut her along the top of her breast, stopping just short of the dark ring. Maiaberiel screamed and thrashed again. 'Hold still,' he warned her in a sweet voice, 'or I might cut off more than I mean to. For the time being.'
He let her drop to the floor and kicked her again. As she tried to escape him, Denethor made tiny cuts across her shoulders and back, sometimes flipping her over to slice her breasts and torso, throwing her down whenever she got to her feet so she had to crawl across the filthy floor. The drips of blood smeared, painting her red. When Maiaberiel made it to the door, screaming and crying for Brandir, Denethor pulled off his belt, doubled it, and whipped her, placing most of the lashes on her rump and legs, though he raised several welts across her back. The thrashing done, he grabbed her by an ankle and dragged her to the center of the room near the chair. He gave her a very hard kick in the ribs before sitting down, then yanked her hair to make her sit up. Her face was streaked with tears and dirt from the floor. Denethor cut her a few times just above her hairline so blood would trickle down across her face.
'Thorongil left me a note,' Denethor said conversationally, looking her over for where he could place another incision. 'In it, he said he knew you planned my murder, and left for he would not be a part of it. So, in that way also you have interfered with battle.' He leaned down and nuzzled her ear, then bit her earlobe. 'He didn't want to bed you, either. We agreed you were a whore and probably carried several poxes.'
'Brandir will kill you,' she choked out.
'No, he won't. He brought you here, remember? He knows exactly what I'm doing. He made me promise that if he died, by war or by chance, that I would kill you so you wouldn't keep whoring after he was gone.'
'No, he didn't. He...'
'...loves you? Not any more. So, do you want me to slice up your face and put out your eyes before I cut off your breasts, or afterwards? Your choice. Your throat is last.'
She wailed and shook her head, doing her best to hunch down. Denethor let her drop. He should kill her. It would mean killing Brandir as well, for the man was honor bound to avenge his wife, but Denethor knew it should be done for Gondor's sake. Now that he faced it, his heart and hands were reluctant to kill this way, and not just because of Brandir's threat. Denethor cast his mind back. Though he had killed in battle or when attacked, he could not remember executing anyone. Only the woman of the Faithful in the square at Umbar, and that had been for mercy, not punishment.
He took a hank of Maiaberiel's hair and cut it off, then another. 'I would gladly end your life, as you have so often tried to end mine, but you have been given a reprieve.' He was not very careful as he hacked off her hair, leaving a number of cuts on her scalp. 'You see, Brandir wished you punished, too, for he tires of your whoring, but he asked me if I would refrain from killing you this time. He did not forbid me to kill you, but asked it as a boon. I have decided to grant it. Now, if you ever oppose me again, here is how I will kill you, so you know what your fate will be.
'I know a sarcophagus in a tomb that is mostly empty. I will cut you like I did just now, but more deeply, so that you bleed a great deal, and eventually you will bleed to death. While you bleed, I will put you into that coffin. Before I close the lid, I will pour a bucket of spiders over you. It will be interesting to see what happens first. Will you bleed to death? Will you be stung and die of venom? Or perhaps you will suffocate first, with little beasts crawling over you and lapping up your blood.'
As Denethor finished his threat, he also finished chopping off the last of her hair. It pleased him to see her shorn in mocking imitation of Aiavalë. Maiaberiel lay face down on the floor, sobbing and limp. Denethor smelled urine. 'Lest you think to do me or mine harm, if something should happen to me or any dear to me, and you yet live, I have several men who know my wishes, and they will see you dead just as I described. It need not even be your doing. If an Orc arrow finds me, the spiders will find you. Good night, sister. Brandir will be along eventually. I think.'
Denethor left, taking the lantern so the room was in total darkness, and returned to the top chamber. Brandir was sitting where Denethor had left him, his face streaked with tears. 'What did you do?' he whispered.
'She lives. I beat her soundly. She will be bruised for some time. She has many small cuts, none on her face. I cut her hair off. I told her she lives because of your pleading.'
Outside the watchtower, the heavens still poured, water rushing along gutters and into drains. The deluge made the steps to the street treacherous. Denethor slipped and caught himself against the wall. Under his hands, he heard Minas Tirith; she wept, bereft of her mate, the one who would redeem and renew her. Now she was left to face the darkness across the plain alone. The king had abandoned her to her fate as surely as Brandir had left Maiaberiel in the guardroom. Denethor leaned against the cold stone, letting its dampness wet his face while the chill sank into his bones. Blood from his hands stained the wall. The City bowed her head in grief, remembering the slaughter of Osgiliath.
Denethor pulled himself from the wall and forced his numb feet to move. They bore him to a doorway not far from the watchtower. It was Thorongil's house. The door was not locked and a lantern and flint sat in a niche near the door. Once he lit the lamp, Denethor wandered through the house. It was nearly identical to the Stewards House, save it was empty. The rooms echoed. There was naught to fill the emptiness, not a rug or a chair. A shiver seized Denethor. It's just the cold and the rain. I should go home. The stairs beckoned and he followed.
Thorongil's bed was in the alcove in the third floor study, like his own, but no screen separated it from the rest of the room. A simple desk and chair stood nearby, and a small clothes press had been placed against the wall. Denethor went through a basket of papers sitting on the desk. They were all reports dating from January. No letters, no notes. Denethor put them in the hearth and set them on fire. In the press were the fine clothes Finduilas had made the captain buy in Linhir and a few plain shirts. His fingers left red marks on the linen.
Denethor sat on the bed. On the opposite wall of the alcove hung the framed map Finduilas had given Thorongil on the man's birthday two years before. Where are you? "It is not time." You said it was time, in defiance of the wizard, and now you say it is not. Why have you left me? Why isn't it time? The room dimmed just as the world had dimmed when he glimpsed the towers of Avallónë. A loss of the world that dims what is and leaves it prey to those who would destroy it. Denethor dashed the back of his hand across his eyes, wiping away the wet that dripped from them. From his hair. It was rain. The wet was rain. The map's lines blurred as though it, too, was being washed away. His eyes moved to the expanse of white at the western edge and his hand strayed to his neck. You made me love again. You brought him back and wove him into me like a thread of hope, but now the cord is raveled. Have I loved the wrong thing? But there was never a choice not to love. He could no more deny Thorongil than he could Finduilas.
At the thought of Finduilas, Denethor knew he needed to return home. He snuffed the lantern and left the discarded house. By the time he reached the Stewards House, he was shaking so badly he could barely let himself in the door. One of the pups was rubbing sleep out of his eyes in the alcove, trying to find his boots, but Denethor bade the lad to go back to sleep. In his own room, Denethor shed his dripping cloak, lit a candle, and looked at his shirt in dismay. The arms and front of it were spattered with blood. There was a sour smell which he realized was his own stink, the one he got in battle. Stripping off the shirt, he slopped water into the wash basin and tried to scrub the taint away. When he had touched her, it felt like the time in Dol Amroth when Maiaberiel had touched him. Except, opposite. It had felt good. Her lust sickened him, as it always did, but her fear... When she had screamed and struggled, it pleased him, made him feel sated and wanting at the same time, like a slow evening of lovemaking.
Denethor quickly stripped off the rest of his clothes, wrapping them in a tight bundle with the shirt. Tomorrow, he would have them burned so they would not touch his skin again. Taking a wash cloth, he scrubbed himself, particularly his hands, face and crotch. At the sound of Finduilas's bedroom door opening, Denethor quickly pulled on his robe and left the alcove. She tapped on the study door. 'Come in.'
Finduilas was beautiful in the dim light. 'I heard you come in, friend. Did your meeting go well?'
'Who did you meet?'
'Maiaberiel.' Finduilas looked at him intently, noting the hastily thrown-on robe, then brushed past him into the alcove. In a trice, she found the bundle of clothes and pulled it open, exposing the bloodied shirt. She sat on the floor, her hands over her mouth, her eyes closed. Denethor knelt nearby, wanting to touch her, but knowing he had best not. 'Stop that! I didn't kill her. Brandir was there, too.'
'What did you do?'
'I gave her a beating for her latest rumors. Morwen told me of them this morning. Now Beruthiel is claiming Boromir was sired by Thorongil, for I was in Dol Amroth during the plague, while the captain was nearby. I also put a few cuts on her and cut off her hair so it is short like Aiavalë's. She's sore, but suffered nothing that will not heal.'
'Brandir allowed it?'
Finduilas sighed and bowed her head for a moment before standing. 'The rest will wait until morning. Come to bed.'
Denethor shook his head. 'You go.'
'You need to sleep, and you rest most...'
'No. You said some things must never enter that room. I can't. Not yet.'
'Then I will stay.' She stepped close and reached up to put her arms around his neck. He batted her hands away.
'No! I have nothing to protect you.'
With an exasperated sigh, Finduilas turned away. 'I think I need to go speak to Morwen!' she said as she left the study, closing the door loudly behind her. Denethor returned to his washing. Only when his skin was red and chafed did he go to bed. He would not touch Finduilas again until danger was past.
He crept through the glades of Ithilien, his men green and brown shadows to either side. Castamir's men left the fastness of Osgiliath less often than before, but sometimes they ventured into the hills. Minas Ithil and the Ithil Vale they did not attempt, nor the high hills of Emyn Arnen, even as Castamir ordered them slain them for cowardice. Cair Andros had been won back from the Usurper last winter and now Anórien was in rebellion. Years had passed since the King fled, with no word coming from the north, and each day saw more bloodshed as Dúnedain did their enemies' work for them. The Queen was left in Minas Anor with Aldamir, and it was said she wept for her wayward king.
Minas Tirith, 26 March , 2980 T.A.
Denethor moved against the King's Men the day after he beat Maiaberiel. Gethron and Beregar directed groups of Queen's Men to beat anyone heard speaking in favor of Thorongil or against Denethor, and they did this to the nobles themselves as well as to the servants of King's Men. Morwen turned King's Men away from her house and bade other madams to do so as well, out of respect for the Lady. They obliged. Borondir and Núneth went over tax records, contracts, and rents, and Maiaberiel's faction was served with many notices of coin due the realm. Imrahil stirred up the young nobles, getting them to swear loyalty to the Lady and sport her favor on their hats and cloaks. Aiavalë never emerged from her lair under the Citadel, but reports from spies arrived regularly, confirming that Gondor was angered by Thorongil's desertion, particularly in the sea-fiefs. The loss of two senior captains, Îbal and Minohtar, was a cause for grief in the falas. Dark whispers were sent out that the Dragon Fire had been doctored by the wizard, Mithrandir, which is why it had become unruly and had killed their own sailors. By sunrise of the third day, none could be found in the City who would admit to supporting the captain. Even The King's Cup was quiet.
The spies brought other news, as did the messengers. Umbar and Harad were locked in battle and would probably remain at war until autumn. There was no sign of the Easterlings, and Khand was content to harry Harad's eastern flanks. The gates of Mordor remain tightly shut.
Denethor remained in the Stewards House most of this time. He emerged to walk slowly along the upper walk between the Tower and the wall, or else along the arcade below, eyes downcast as though lost in thought, but actually searching the ground for a glimpse of metal. One night, he slipped from the house and entered the Tower as he had years before though the narrow window. He examined every inch of the stair and the spyglass chamber. Nothing.
Finduilas had not pressed him again to share a bed, but she did insist on reading all of the reports and hearing what their lieutenants said of events in the City. In her own meetings with women of the City, she heard rumors that Maiaberiel had taken ill, or perhaps had been struck down with grief at the news that Thorongil was not returning, or perhaps just struck down. Finduilas did not offer them any answers to their oblique inquiries, only saying she hoped her sister-in-law would recover soon.
This morning, Denethor was reading messenger reports when he heard someone coming across the front room. Brandir stopped in the study doorway, Boromir on his hip. The man's face was drawn, and the circles under his eyes were so dark they looked as if he had been struck. Brandir gave Denethor an unreadable look, then turned his attention to Boromir, drawing a finger across the toddler's cheek, touching noses with his nephew, and engaging in other small games. The hair on the back of Denethor's neck prickled, and he rose, heart pounding. You would not... He came closer to Brandir, moving slowly and making himself appear relaxed, ready to snatch Boromir away.
Brandir smiled, hugging the child close to his chest. 'I know what you are thinking, Denethor,' he said calmly, 'and you wrong me with it. I do not avenge myself on innocents. I rarely do so on the guilty.' With a tender kiss on Boromir's crown, he set the child down. Boromir immediately rushed to his father, demanding a hug. Denethor hid his face against his son, shamed. 'That does not mean I am here to be kind. The Steward has asked for us to present ourselves shortly. He wishes to know what we are doing with his city.'
They took Boromir to Finduilas. She gave Brandir a long, wordless embrace which made Denethor feel shamed again, though he was not sure why. It was raining outside, but Brandir did not hurry to escape the weather. He stood a full minute before the White Tree, studying its barren form.
The Steward waited for them in the council chamber, a stack of reports before him, the White Rod lying on top of them. Waving them to seats near his own, he said, 'Well? What is to be done?'
'About what?' Denethor countered.
'About Thorongil, of course!' Ecthelion snapped. He looked little more rested than Brandir.
So, you finally understand that you are alone. 'He has fled Gondor. You should have sent me to Umbar. I would have come back, and you would still have Thorongil.'
With a sigh, the Steward let his head drop into his hands. 'Well I can see the torments you will put me through, making me drink up a wine once sweet, but now spoilt and sour. So be it. Give me also a draught of plain water. What now for Gondor, High Warden?'
'We must take advantage of our victories and the falling out of Harad and Umbar. The destruction of the fleet is more complete and dire than the damage wrought by storms six years past.'
'We need another to be named Captain-General at once,' Brandir added, 'for the loss of their leader has sorely struck the hearts of our soldiers.'
Ecthelion sighed again as he straightened up. 'Yes. That all must be done, and the latter is necessary for the former.' Looking at Denethor, he said, 'Warden, once before you served...'
'No?' Ecthelion was bewildered. 'But this is your charge. None will do so well...'
'None did so well, yet still you stripped me of that post. I will not again take it up.' I will not take his leavings, the gnawed bones of a meal that was mine. 'You will call a Captains Council for the first week of May. Another will be chosen at that time. It will not be one of the Lost.' Denethor stared coolly at the Steward until the other dropped his eyes and nodded acquiescence.
'As you say, Denethor.' They sat silently a while. Ecthelion rose and walked to the slender windows overlooking the court before the Tower. 'I hear rumors of conflict in the streets. Tell me of this.'
'It is almost done, my Lord Steward,' Denethor replied. 'The last of Thorongil's supporters are being taught the error of their ways.'
'You teach them to be loyal to you?'
'No, my lord. They learn to be Queen's Men.' As Thorongil himself was. "I have loved the wrong thing. It is not time. I will not divide Gondor against herself." But you did not need to, for you were not opposed to her, and she would have guided us. We could have ruled together until it was time. I kept your secret, even when... The memory of the contest in the palantír made Denethor shiver. 'They learn to be loyal to Gondor, not a mercenary.'
'I see.' Ecthelion gazed out the window, thinking. 'I have also heard a rumor that Maiaberiel has been injured. What may you tell me of this, Denethor?'
'You should ask me, not Denethor.' The Steward turned to face Brandir. 'I beat her.'
'You what?' Ecthelion asked, incredulous. Denethor made his face stony, trying to figure out what Brandir was up to.
'I beat her,' Brandir repeated. 'Thorongil said to me that he could not countenance her interference any longer, nor could he put you at odds with another of your children. I also had come to the end of my patience with her lies and infidelities. I summoned Denethor so he could see that I gave no more punishment than was just. I also sheared off her hair to make her ridiculous in the eyes of her paramours.' Through all of this, Brandir's voice was gentle, almost apologetic.
The Steward's face grew increasingly red as Brandir spoke. When Brandir paused, he roared, 'How dare you beat my daughter! She is not some tavern wench to be treated crudely!'
'She is my wife, and is of my house now.' The shift from gentle to icy was abrupt. 'I am in my rights to do far more than beat her. If she behaves like a tavern wench, then she earns such treatment.' Brandir stood, motioning for Denethor to rise as well. 'To keep her from straying again, we will leave Minas Tirith when she is fit to travel and live upon my family's holdings in Anórien. It should keep you from straying, as well. Good day, my Lord Steward.' With a bow, Brandir left, Denethor following. They did not halt until they were back in Denethor's study.
'Brandir, why did you say that?'
'To keep the Steward from having you killed for harming her. Sometimes, Denethor, you are very stupid. Now that he has Boromir, he has no reason not to be rid of you. If he had been thinking, he would have sent you to Umbar. Now, no one will believe her if she says you hurt her.'
'I don't know what to say. Thank...'
'Don't!' Brandir barked. 'Don't thank me. I should curse you. I leave so I do not have to kill one of you.'
Denethor ducked his head and looked away, unable to face Brandir's anger. 'As you wish. But what of leave...' The rest of his words were cut off by the force of the blow, sending Denethor staggering. A second one hit just above the first, squarely on his temple, and knocked him to the floor. Something slammed into his ribs, forcing the air out of his lungs and then there was another blow right on top of the second and he went limp. He could hear Brandir kneel next to him, felt the fingers check for a pulse, and he wondered if perhaps Brandir would kill him. The pain in his ribs grew.
The hand at his throat moved to stroke his hair. 'You should have gone, brother,' Brandir's voice was a whisper, 'gone with your hell fire and not returned. Gone in his stead. Thorongil would have had no choice but to stay, then, you see? He would have stayed for Finduilas and Boromir, to defend them. For the love he bore you.' The man was weeping. Denethor felt the press of lips on his brow. 'The Fire is you, Denethor, ravaging everyone who loves you. Don't you see? We who love you have to flee or be consumed. I do love you, brother. I do.' With a second kiss, Brandir stood and walked away. As his footsteps faded, so did the rest of the world.
His ribs hurt more than his head. Each breath in was a sharp pain, each one out a great ache. Denethor started to push himself up from the floor before he realized that he was no longer there. Someone had put him in his bed. Finduilas sat nearby, sewing. She glanced at him but did not set aside her handiwork, like Morwen with her lace and bone hook. He could not remember moving to his bed, and decided that was the best place to start. 'How did I get here?'
'Imrahil and Beregar picked you up and carried you here. Brandir told me he had struck you, for you had angered him greatly.' Her look was cool, appraising. Denethor did not like the judgment behind the gaze.
'Then he should not do things that anger me!' he growled, sitting up despite the protestation of his head and ribs. 'If he dislikes what I have done, he should have done more to prevent them from occurring.' The unfairness of it all rankled. 'I have done naught but my duty my life long, while others made mischief and spoke calumny of my deeds. Thorongil runs away when I would have given him all honor, and this is held to be my doing! I am struck, mocked, scorned, my very life threatened, for not having the courtesy to die when they find it convenient, and...'
'Shh, shh, friend!' Finduilas finally put down her sewing and moved to sit on the bed, embracing him. Denethor leaned into her arms, burying his face in her neck. 'Please, Denethor, do not rage so.'
'Brandir, after he struck me, he said he wished I had gone to Umbar and died. Not for what I did to Maiaberiel, but for Thorongil's sake, so he would have stayed.' Thorongil did not leave because of me.
Finduilas's held him more tightly, rocking slightly. 'That was a foul thing for him to say, love. Thorongil left for his own reasons, and nothing would have kept him. He said to me that he hoped to return north after Umbar...'
Denethor straightened, taking Finduilas by the shoulders. 'When? When did he say this?'
'Fall last year. I asked him again if he would not bring his family south. He wavered, hinting there was a reason he could not return. I said that he needed to be rid of any ghosts behind him if he was to be his own man. He considered this, then said he would ask your leave after Umbar to do so.' She leaned forward and kissed him lightly. 'Think no more on Thorongil. He has left.'
'Brandir is leaving, too. Did he not tell you?'
'No. Is he going to Rohan?'
'Eventually, I suspect, but he is going to leave Minas Tirith and go to his family's lands in Anórien. And he is taking Maiaberiel with him.' He kissed her back. 'We are finally rid of her.' Finduilas hugged him, returning his kiss. Brandir's words sank in. Not just chastened, but removed from the City. Both of them, Thorongil and Beruthiel, gone. The two whose presence had caused him so much grief would soon be far away, unable to do him mischief. The thought did not please him as it should. "We have to flee." He pulled Finduilas to him tightly, his kiss insistent, while a tightness came over his chest. The light in the room made his head hurt.
It was a long minute before they parted, each breathing heavily. Finduilas stretched and lay back on the bed. 'One of the pups brought a package from Morwen while you were out. It is on the table there. I think we should celebrate our good news.'
'You've never forgiven me.' Finduilas looked at him in confusion. 'For, for being cruel to you after Boromir was born. You have never forgiven me.'
'Denethor, what do you mean? Of course I have forgiven you!'
His chest still ached, though whether from the kick in his ribs or the misgivings of his heart, he was not certain. Denethor stood to look at the small bundle on the small table. A new pot of ointment was in it and two oiled envelopes holding the rolled casings. 'You never said it.'
Finduilas sighed in exasperation and sat up. 'I forgive you! There, it is said. Now will you stop being contrary and...'
'Those are words, only. Trust me. Not just in there.' She stood and kissed him, a bare brush of her lips on his, and nodded. He began undressing her, hands moving quickly. The separation of her flesh from his was intolerable. If a tie or a button did not yield, he simply tore it away. When he had her undressed, he circled her, running his hands over her form. He had not been caring for Finduilas properly. She was too thin and her skin too dry. Boromir's nursing had softened her breasts, making them droop, and there were discolored lines on her middle where her belly had stretched.
Denethor pushed aside the covers on the bed and guided her to it before removing his own clothes. He lay on her and kissed her. When she tried to touch him, he pinned her hands over her head. 'No. I am pleasing you. As you did me. Let me love you.' She whispered that she would obey, so he let her go. He would please her so that she would not leave. There was no other love he needed, and he would be all she could desire. You never wanted Thorongil, not like the others. They still want him. Denethor moved his mouth to her breasts, tonguing the nipples until they hardened and Finduilas arched up into his touch. He pinched them with his teeth just enough to make her gasp, then continued down her body. A hand between her legs found her damp. He would please her. She would be wet and open, and his entry would meet no resistance, would cause no pain.
Finduilas cried out when he stroked the inner folds of her furrow with his tongue. He feasted on her, hands and mouth laying her open to him, finding every hidden place where his touch could move her. When she tried to take his head, Denethor seized her wrists tightly, pressing his arms against her thighs to keep them spread wide. His cock was very hard by now, demanding satisfaction, but he let the thing suffer, adding this pain to his ribs and head. She was not yet ready, and he would wait on her. Each touch was carefully measured to excite her, as precise as a master scrivener's pen stroke or the strike of one of his own arrows. The scent of her, salt and musk, filled the air.
In her, he could See her heart, and gathered that to himself as well. Now, she was willful, pulling from him just as her wrists twisted within his grasp, and it angered him. Love me. He turned over her heart, seeking a better hold, and the mariner's mark was there, like the stain a finger leaves in the frost upon a window, dark against light. It was wrong, the claims others laid upon them that kept them apart. Denethor redoubled his efforts on flesh and soul, battling what repelled his love.
'Please, friend, no more. I beg you!' Finduilas entreated.
Denethor crawled up the bed, lying against her, one hand between her legs, the other twined in her hair, baring her throat to him. He used his teeth to nip tender flesh, while his lower hand delved and rubbed. When he made her shudder and pant, he whispered, 'Don't argue. Stop fighting and let me love you. Don't you love me?'
'Yes. I forgive you. Yes.' He lowered his face to her breasts and suckled her, worrying her nipples with a hard tongue until she cried out his name. When Denethor looked into her again, he no longer saw the mark. He rose from the bed and readied his cock, smoothing on the ointment, slipping on the casing, rubbing more of the ointment along the length. He could not suppress a sob when he entered her. There was no resistance, only heat. Finduilas took his face in her hands and kissed him. 'I love you, Denethor. Can you feel? You're forgiven, love.'
The light hurt too much, so he closed his eyes. Denethor tried to thrust and found his hips would not obey him. His arms quivered until he could not hold himself up. Finduilas pulled on him, making him lie down on her. It all hurt. Her hands stroked his back. I love you, not him. She shifted under him, bringing her legs up around him, and rocked them. 'I don't understand. Why now? Why did he go?'
'Hush, friend, no more.' Her hips moved them both. Heat and wet, like the waters of the desecrated harbor, like tears he should not waste on a wayward king but could not hold back, Denethor did not resist the feel of Finduilas around him and let her possess him. He was the Queen's man.
The battle had gone on for hours, and the Erui was more blood than water. He scanned the fight, looking for one certain face. With the Northmen at his back, he had swept away the cruel rebels, and only the Usurper's life stood between him and a restored kingdom. There. He advanced on the Usurper, his men beating back the guards, but knowing the false king was for him to deal with. Almost, his strength was not enough, for they were perfectly matched, as alike as nearest kin, but he prevailed and the other cast down. He pulled the helm off his rival, exposing his own face. The Usurper begged for mercy. He raised his sword and struck. And again. And again. There were not enough blows in the world to make it less dim.
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