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Hands of the King: 66. Speculation
Minas Tirith, 4 July, 2980 T.A.
Denethor's embrace made the muggy summer evening even warmer, but Finduilas did not care. She wanted his body between herself and what watched. He felt her stirring and pushed himself up, though their legs remained tangled together. 'Alquallë?' There was just enough light left in the day for her to make out his concerned expression.
Finduilas kissed him lightly. 'I am well, friend.' Beyond the study, she heard Boromir crying and Ivrin and Aeluin trying to shush him. That was what had woken them. 'The cub is unhappy. He's probably hungry.'
Denethor nodded. 'Yes.' He rolled off her and got up, hunting for their clothes. Finduilas pulled a sheet around her, unwilling to leave the safety of the bed. Nowhere is safe. He can see you even now. This made her shudder. Denethor noticed and sat on the edge of the bed, hugging her tightly to him. When he broke the embrace, he would not meet her eyes. 'Your clothes are here.' Boromir's wails became louder. 'I'd best go...'
'Yes. He'll be quiet when he sees you.' With another hug and kiss, Denethor left. You can't protect me. Not from poison. Not from this. For a moment, a fierce anger at her husband gripped her heart, swiftly replaced by guilt. No one can. She pulled the sheet over her head, knowing it did no good. Stop this! You both are marked, and Denethor does not hide like a child. Be a prince. No, be a queen. Finduilas took a deep breath and stood, forcing herself to move deliberately and not scurry or cower. As she reached for her shirt, she felt a strand of Denethor's seed ooze down the inside of her thigh. The sensation made her want to dive back under the sheet. We didn't use... With a growl of frustration, she dug through a drawer of Denethor's chest to find a handkerchief to wipe herself. Finduilas shrugged into her clothes and went to find her men.
'Mama!' Boromir wriggled from his father's grasp and flung himself at her when she walked into the front room. His face was tear-stained and his nose still running from his earlier tantrum.
'Morcollë, be careful! Don't trip me.' She knew she should not snap at the baby, but anger felt better than fear. Boromir did not listen, not that he ever listened to her, and clung to her legs all the more tightly. She sighed and picked him up. 'Have you been a bad boy?' He shook his head. 'Are you hungry?'
'Hungry,' he agreed.
'Aeluin is having the table laid for us now,' Denethor said. 'The girls are at Vinyamar. Luinil sent word.' Finduilas nodded, not wishing to say angry things. Soon, Mírwen tapped on the door to let them know their meal awaited.
Finduilas had no appetite, but made herself eat something so Denethor would not scold. Boromir helped by making a mess of her plate so it was not obvious how little she was eating, though she doubted Denethor was fooled. He ate little himself, watching her and Boromir. When Ivrin came at the end of supper to take Boromir, Denethor told her that they would take care of him and dismissed her for the evening.
The house was very quiet. The usual cheerful sounds from downstairs - singing, conversation, pots rattling, things being moved - were all muted. Finduilas wondered if Beregar had come home yet and what he had said of the day. They went to Finduilas's room and gave their attention to Boromir until he became sleepy. He did not protest being washed and was soon asleep in Denethor's lap while Denethor sat in the rocking chair. Finduilas discarded her soiled clothes and wiped away all the things of the day that still clung to her and could be removed with a dampened cloth. She pulled on a robe and sat heavily in a chair across from Denethor, more tired than afraid.
'Alquallë?' She looked at Denethor. 'I have questions.'
'You said you felt something cold approach.'
'Yes, though I never saw it. I was trying to return to the tree and the cold threw me down. Gull screamed, for she felt it, too, and that brought Halmir and Beregar.'
'I have felt that creature as well,' he said quietly, 'when Osgiliath was attacked and I used Fire. On both days of fighting, it drew near. I would have pursued it, but Thorongil held me back.'
'There was an alarm sounded before I realized I had been drawn apart. It woke me to my danger. When we got back to the garrison, Halmir said something had come from the Vale. He said it was drawn by me.' She swallowed. 'It was like the vision I had the last time I went to Osgiliath, where ancient sights appeared before me and I knew myself to be hunted.'
Denethor did not answer at once. The only sound was their breathing and the soft creak of the rocking chair. 'You say you walked on Númenor. How are you so certain?'
'I have always dreamt of Míriel, you know that.' He nodded. 'Since I was afflicted with the Black Breath, my dreams of her have grown. Of her rebellion against the Enemy. That she was urged to flee with the Faithful. I think I have glimpsed the mariner in them as well.' Denethor scowled and made a harsh sound at that news. 'I think the Enemy seized her as his own once Pharazôn sailed.'
'But this was not just a dream.'
'A Swan dream, as I had before. As when I held you in the cave. I walked and had Míriel's thoughts. She had gone to a scion of Nimloth to pluck a fruit, and then it was me. Those leaves are real.'
'You should take some to Laanga. He would know what tree bore them.'
'I know what they are!' Finduilas said sharply, and he raised a placating hand. 'I have my own questions. Am I right that he can look upon me in his palantír?'
'With what you have told me, how can he not? You use your stone to gaze upon Umbar and other far places. Why should he not do the same?'
It was difficult to understand the expression on Denethor's face. He rocked the chair more swiftly, holding Boromir close to his chest. 'That stone is weak. It shouldn't look far. But, maybe, to here...' Denethor' face twisted in a grimace. 'Yes, I fear that he may see you.'
'Since I came to Minas Tirith, I have felt a weight upon me. When I spoke to Mithrandir so long ago about my dreams, he thought it not mere happenstance that I was called here. Then, I thought it was to be wooed by the captain, but that is not so.' I was never for him, nor was he for me. 'To put it most plainly - I am here to be seen. By Thorongil. By you. By many, but most of all,' she pointed east, 'by that.'
The rocking chair jerked to a stop, making the baby stir fitfully. Denethor's look was fierce. 'He cannot see so far as Dol Amroth. You will go there. You will return with your parents when they leave. Boromir will go with you, as well, and...'
'You must, Alquallë!' he cried. Boromir came awake at the sound of his father's voice, adding his own cry to Denethor's plea. Finduilas came over to the chair and embraced both of them, kissing and stroking their faces until they calmed. She took Boromir into her arms and he clung to her as if he understood the terrible fate that claimed her.
'Friend, cast your mind back to a day in Dol Amroth, when you spoke to me of a vision, and showed me the gift the mariner left to make your burden easier to bear.' She kissed him again. 'I said that I chose love, no matter what fate doled out.'
'It is you, not some cursed cord, that makes my burdens bearable,' was his husky reply as he stood, eyes bright. 'I beg you, please, do not remain under this evil watch. Cursed be me for...'
She placed a hand over his mouth. 'Say no oath, friend! Your words bind you, so speak not things that may be used for our torment.' He shook his head, a single tear escaping to trail down his cheek and touch her fingers. 'Would you break my heart, love? To send me away so that I pine for thee? Nay, though you command all of my guard and Huan, too, to bear me away, still I will break free and rejoin thee,'
Beloved fool! Escape to seek
from such pursuit; in might so weak
to trust not, thinking it well to save
from love thy loved, who welcomes grave
and torment sooner than in guard
of kind intent to languish, barred
wingless and helpless him to aid
for whose support her love was made!
Denethor made no sound, but wept and pulled her and his child close to him. Finduilas waited until he had mastered himself. 'I will not leave thee alone for fear of what fate might bring.' Míriel did not flee. She guarded her Faithful, though it was her death. Finduilas motioned towards the bed with her chin. 'Make up our nest, for I am weary, love.' They were soon curled up in her bed, Boromir between them. His gentle breathing lulled Finduilas to sleep.
The storms nearly sank the ships. In the sky, the clouds took the shape of eagles, and sometimes they stooped down upon the bedraggled fleet, tearing away sails and masts. Somehow, they made it to the mainland safely. Most of the oars were broken, so it was slow to push against Anduin's current and force their way upriver. Ahead, upon a knee of the Ered Nimrais, a white tower stood. A black wall ringed the foot of the citadel's high hill, and other walls, white as the tower, marched up the slope. She smiled at the sight of her new capital.
The morning was bright and hot, the air was close, and all was made worse by Denethor's hovering. Finduilas could not go a pace without him following. Her skin itched, particularly in the folds of her thighs, and she decided the best way to be rid of both distractions was to go to the women's baths. Aeluin and Mírwen accompanied her and they met Dúlin there. The cook was to have her baby in the fall, though her belly was already so large she looked only a month from delivering. Finduilas frowned as she scrubbed herself under the cold shower. It is too soon. You may have no choice. There was a note from Luinil awaiting her when she returned to the house.
I very much wish to see you this morning. I will be there shortly.
Finduilas knew an order when she saw one. The girls have been talking, no doubt. With a sigh, she went upstairs to tell Ivrin to ready the baby for a visitor. Oddly, Denethor was not waiting for her in the front room. The door to his study was shut. Cocking her head, Finduilas listened. Beregar. Glancing about to see if anyone was watching, she edged over to the study door to see if she could hear the conversation.
'...bit me. Nothing I said...,' his voice dropped to a murmur, '... words didn't help.'
'Halmir?' Denethor's voice was sharp.
'Yes. Anbar gave in, so...' low mutters '...asked soldiers and they said...beside or behind... left scouting to...'
'But you let her walk off.' Denethor's words were as cold as the creature.
There was a long silence. 'I was less than a horse length away.'
Footsteps on the stair made Finduilas whirl. She did not need to be caught eavesdropping in her own house. She slipped away from the door and went into her own room. Ivrin was there, trying to coax Boromir into some clothes. Aeluin came in a moment later to say that Princess Luinil had arrived. 'Show her to my study, and say I will be down soon, hopefully with Boromir.' It took several tries, but the baby finally accepted a diaper and a shirt; Finduilas doubted either would stay on for very long.
Luinil rose to kiss her. 'Daughter, I have been worried all night.'
Finduilas knew better than to dissemble, not when she was going to lie outright. 'Then you have worried over nothing, Mother.'
'Grandma!' Boromir interrupted, demanding Luinil's attention. It took several minutes before he settled down to play with his toys. Finduilas took the time to figure out the story she would tell Luinil. Before her mother could say anything, she asked, 'What did the girls tell you?'
'That you wandered away, no one could find you, and then something attacked.'
'They forgot to add that I got lost less than a furlong from the rest and didn't know how to find my way back,' Finduilas answered with a scowl. 'I was so stupid! Denethor is angry and he has every right to be.'
'What happened? Did something attack you?'
'No, but something dangerous was near. I could tell from the way Gull acted.' She sighed. 'I saw something flowering across the lane and rode over to it without waiting to see if Beregar followed, then saw something else and went to that, and got myself lost. At first I was too embarrassed to call for help and tried to get back myself, which got me more lost, then...' Finduilas cast her eyes down, knowing she could not meet her mother's gaze and lie. The shiver was real. 'We heard an alarm and Gull froze. I didn't dare make a sound for fear of drawing danger to us. We stood still until we could hear the soldiers, and then both of us squealed. They ran over and whatever menaced retreated.'
'Oh, lamb!' Luinil exclaimed, hugging her. 'What was it?'
'I don't know,' I don't want to know, 'but Halmir said there were wild boars in the area. That was probably it, but all I could think of were Orcs. The alarm was for something in the hills to the east.' Finduilas shuddered, leaning into her mother's arms. 'In Anórien, in the winter, I had to run from Orcs. Denethor and me, we saw them first. He killed some that chased us. That's all I could think of...'
'But you're safe now,' Luinil crooned, rocking her. It felt good to be a daughter again, with a parent's arms to keep evil at bay.
'I am never doing something so stupid ever again!' Finduilas swore.
Luinil chuckled and patted her cheek. 'I know you better than that, Finduilas. I have every faith that you will exceed that foolishness, though perhaps not in that way.' Finduilas tried to scowl, but could not keep her giggles under control. They both laughed until they had tears to wipe away. Luinil gave Finduilas another firm hug before letting her go. 'Well, now, daughter, since you have come to no grief, I will cease my worry. Unfortunately, I must also soon cease my stay in Minas Tirith. Your father wishes to return to Dol Amroth as soon as I can pack up Vinyamar.'
'Four days. The Archivist is coming with us, you know.'
'Yes! She told me yesterday. How long will she stay with you?'
'As long as it pleases her. I like Aiavalë's company. Your father says she frightens him.'
'Frightens him?' Finduilas said, astonished.
'Yes, and always has. He met her when he served Steward Turgon and knew she thought him an idiot from the way she looked at him. He said he lived in terror of saying something stupid in front of her.' Luinil sighed, shaking her head. 'She spent all of her last visit merry as a maid and still he was tongue-tied.' Luinil gave Finduilas a conspiratorial look. 'I think he fell in love with her eyes, but never had the nerve to follow his heart. Lucky me!'
'Mother!' Finduilas shook her head. 'I think you are being ridiculous.'
'Perhaps, but look at Aiavalë the right way and she puts even your sister's beauty to shame.'
'Love will do that. I am sorry she and Îbal did not have more time.' Luinil nodded, expression sad. 'But, tell me, am I mistaken or is another romance taking place in Dol Amroth.'
'Perhaps,' Luinil smirked.
'Is Hilda looking upon Lord Golasgil with some fondness?'
The smirk turned into a grin. 'Oh, yes! And the young lord is always finding reason to ride to Dol Amroth on some business. We pretend not to notice. Morwen, Gundor and Beriel have already agreed that the match is acceptable. If Golasgil does not declare by mettarë, your father says he will dunk him in the bay until he gets some sense. I think he will ask when we are back home.'
'Yes,' Luinil said with great satisfaction. Boromir brought some treasure he had discovered under the couch, adorned with dirt, hair and his slobber, and proudly presented it to his grandmother. 'I just wish I had one of these about the keep,' she said wistfully, ruffling her grandson's hair. 'I miss my babies.'
'With the seas now safe, perhaps I could come visit, though not yet,' Finduilas hastily amended. Denethor would say yes at once, and bid me remain. 'I need to stay until Denethor's rule is certain.'
'But then Morcollë won't be such a baby, ' Luinil teased, tickling Boromir. 'Speaking of which, daughter, I never got a chance to answer your letter from last fall.'
'Oh, that one.' Finduilas felt her cheeks turn red.
'It is best not to have another babe right away, and then there are the years after, when you don't want a babe at all. What are you and Denethor doing?'
'Not much. We had almost no time together from when I wrote until after the last Ithilien battles were won. Since then,' Finduilas shrugged, knowing her face now resembled a beet, 'when we... lie together... he wears a sheath.' Except last night.
'Ah, good,' was Luinil's bright reply, though her own cheeks sported spots of color. 'But you cannot always rely on them. We did, and then we had you when we did not expect it.'
'A happier accident has never happened,' her mother assured her. 'But your grandmother taught me how to count days after that, and that works.'
'Your moon fluxes come every thirty days, yes?'
'Within a day or two, yes.'
'So you count six and nine, six and nine.' Finduilas shook her head, not understanding. 'The first six days are your flux, then nine days for your husband, then six days when you must be chaste, then another nine days until your flux. Be sure you use a sheath during the last three days of the first nine and the first three days of the second nine, and you are not likely to conceive.' Luinil pinched Boromir's nose. 'And when you want another of these, you be certain to lie with Denethor those middle six days.'
This was interesting. 'But, would you not get a child just before your blood?'
'That is what I thought, but since we got you during the middle six...' Luinil shrugged, then smiled wickedly. 'Your father got very good at counting.'
The morning passed pleasantly while they talked of everything that was not serious. Finduilas was glad for the distraction. Her mother stayed through dinner. Denethor had been summoned to the Tower, according to Aeluin, so did not join them. After the meal, Finduilas gave Boromir to Ivrin for a nap and summoned Beregar to her study. He looked wretched, with dark shadows under his eyes and a hangdog demeanor. Finduilas spared him no pity.
'I know you spoke to Denethor this morning. What did he say?'
'That I live by your grace.'
'For what would he condemn you?'
'For letting you vanish.' Beregar looked at her mournfully. 'You should not have made him promise.'
Finduilas came around the desk and faced Beregar, hands on hips. 'You are not his to punish, as I have told him before.' Gritting her teeth, she swung her hand and struck Beregar on the cheek as hard as she dared, making him stagger. He recovered his balance and braced himself, awaiting another slap. It would be more punishment to leave you unharmed, wouldn't it? She crossed her arms and scowled at him. 'That was for your arrogance to oppose my wishes.'
'Yes, my lady.' Beregar sounded almost pleased.
'You said there were no prints when I vanished.'
'No, there was nothing.' Worry returned to his face. 'There was Gull's hoof print in the dirt and nothing else. Even Halmir could not find a track.' The last was said with some spite.
'I was imperiled, and saved, by watchers beyond our ken. Had you hold of my arm when they wished me to step into their realm, still I would have eluded your guard.' Finduilas took his hands. 'You bear no fault in this, Beregar.'
Beregar raised her hands up and touched his forehead to them. 'Your kindness would excuse all of our faults, Finduilas, but still my charge is to guard you and keep all foes at bay. All of them, not just those I may defeat.' When he looked at her, it was with the grim look that Denethor habitually wore. Gone was any trace of the tender youth who had carried her bundles and blushed at her smile. 'Do not deny me my honor, even out of kindness. I am the Hound. Let Carcharoth approach, and I will do battle.' With a nod, he left.
Finduilas sat at her desk with a sigh. Perhaps I should tell them to go beat each other with practice swords until they pound out their guilt, like dirt from a rug. If it were not for the fact that some blood and a tooth or two might also go flying, it might be worth a try. With another sigh, she looked through the stack of messages in her basket. A request for an audience on this day, an invitation for a dance on that one, a report from Borondir asking for her company to visit the Lady's Houses later in the week. Storming Angband will have to wait. My calendar is full. Her mouth quirked at the thought of declining that fateful encounter. "With deepest apologies, my darkest of Dark Lords, I shall have to cancel our council." She pulled out her calendar to note down when Borondir wished her company. One date had a red spot. Six and nine. Finduilas retrieved the page from June. From the red spot forward six, then another nine... Yesterday was two beyond that.
Minas Tirith, 12 July, 2980 T.A.
The last few days had been a flurry of farewells. First to depart were the Swans. Denethor and Finduilas had ridden to the Harlond with the party - horde, if truth be told - and watched until Seabird disappeared into the summer haze. It had been a full ship. Angbor joined Ivriniel and Eärwen for the voyage home to Linhir. Imrahil and Captain Baragund journeyed as far as Pelargir, where they would begin their inspections with a ride to the Poros. Aiavalë and Hilda would go all the way to Dol Amroth, of course, and Aiavalë did not intend to return until the fall. She would ride back through Ethring so she could visit Luinmir and Anna.
As she had hoped, Luinil had taken Finduilas's slightly altered version of her disappearance in Ithilien back to Vinyamar and those who heard were satisfied with the tale. Aldwyn had added her own account of the Orc attack at Pear Hollow, so none wondered that Finduilas had failed to call for help if she feared there was an Orc nearby.
The day after the Swans set sail, Wren and Marlong departed for Anórien. Wren came to the Stewards House early to say farewell. She even gave Denethor an embrace and kiss on the cheek, though her most tender attention was given to the children. Finiel and Boromir had become attached to Wren in the months she had been in the City, and it was obvious that Wren did not like to part from them.
'You will have to return after harvest, before the weather turns, or perhaps at mettarë,' Finduilas said. 'They will have grown much by then.'
'Too much,' Wren said with a frown. That turned to a shy smile. 'Though perhaps I will have grown by then, too.'
'Wren, do you have news?' Finduilas whispered.
Wren shook her head. 'No, nothing yet. But I intend to have some by year end, you can be sure.' She glanced around if anyone was listening, but Denethor and Marlong were deeply engaged in some garrison matter and Moraen was giggling with Aldwyn over Boromir's attempt to help Finiel to walk. 'Marlong did not wish for a child until after Umbar was decided. Well, now it is, and so am I!'
Finduilas drew her a little further apart from the others. 'My mother gave me some advice on that count, Wren. Starting from the first day of your next moon flux...' She quickly taught Wren how to count days. Wren listened intently, then grinned.
'I will be sure to tell you how successful it is, Finduilas.' The grin turned sweet, and Wren looked with fondness at Marlong. 'There is a cradle at the farmhouse that has not held a babe since Marlong himself. It is time it was filled.'
'Then I shall have to pay you a visit, dear sister. I will be ready for a journey by then, and I know Anórien is safe.'
'As long as you don't go too far west. I can't say I care much for my new neighbors,' was Wren's acerbic reply.
'Please say you will be kind to Brandir.'
'As long as he doesn't bring her, he is welcome.'
Aldwyn was sad for several days after the others left, scarcely less downcast over Wren and Aiavalë's departures than over Hilda's. Finduilas and Moraen did not leave her in sorrow, however, and the young woman's gay spirit soon returned. Finduilas was very glad for Moraen's company. She immediately assumed her old post of Finduilas's secretary as well as taking care of the Lady's Grace. In truth, that had been somewhat neglected because of the battles earlier in the year, and there was more need for it than ever, for battle makes widows and orphans.
Denethor no longer dogged her steps, but he was never very far away. Business usually done in the Tower was conducted in his study. When he had to go to a council, he often found a way for her to accompany him, and for once he did not chafe at her taking Boromir to see the Steward as long as she arrived and left the Tower with him. Each night, they slept in her bed. Neither wished for more than gentle kisses and the comfort of each other's form while they slept. He had been gone from the City for one day, and Finduilas assumed he had gone to Osgiliath. They did not speak of the attack again, save that Denethor said she was not to leave the Citadel without Beregar at her side, and not to leave the City except in his own company. To both she agreed.
The heat this morning was already strong, and Aldwyn grumbled at the way the stone made it greater. 'We should ride today,' she suggested.
'No,' Finduilas and Moraen answered together at once. Aldwyn rolled her eyes and muttered something about the Pelennor being free of Orcs. 'I have something else I would like to do,' Finduilas said, giving Aldwyn a sharp look, 'though if you wish to ride, you may.'
'I will go with you,' Aldwyn said, looking abashed. 'I just wish not to be pent up in the house when it is so hot!'
'You'll see,' was all Finduilas would say. She went upstairs to tell Denethor her plans and to have Ivrin ready Boromir for a walk. She also slipped a small packet into her pocket. Aeluin happily gathered Finiel and soon they were all walking under Beregar's watchful gaze to the sixth circle. The door stood ajar for them, and Laanga greeted them with pleasure. Like Denethor, Beregar would not come into the garden itself, standing guard just inside the door. Crone Apple whispered welcome in the sound of her leaves brushing against each other. Laanga gave his attention to the children, admiring their discoveries and joining their games. The women spoke and sewed or strolled as suited them. They had brought dinner with them in baskets so they need not leave the garden. When the afternoon sun made even this haven warm, they napped in Crone Apple's shade.
Finduilas sat to the side, while the others slept. As she hoped, Laanga came over and sat next to her. He took her hand in his own and they sat silently for a time.
'I tried to coax your shepherd to sit with us in the shade, but he is obstinate.'
'It runs in his line.'
'Not all of that house need to be as stern as stone. Most could do with a will of flesh and blood.'
Finduilas sighed. 'The women no less than the men.'
'There were rumors in the earth a few days past, daughter. The Crone was worried.'
'I was hunted. Or, rather, I am hunted, and finally know who stalks my dreams.' She pulled the packet of leaves from her pocket and gave them to the herbalist. 'Do you know what tree these are from?'
Laanga took the small bundle and unwrapped them. His eyes widened, a look of stunned amazement on his face, as when Denethor first looked on Boromir. Even a week after being plucked, they were still glossy and pliant. The ancient raised the leaves to his face, inhaling their beautiful scent, and a smile came to his face.
'So long,' he murmured, breathing in the scent, 'it has been so long since I last knew this smell. Ah, child, you make me feel young again!'
'You know what these are, don't you?'
'But this tree no longer lives on this side of the Sea. I have wandered through the lands trying to find a scion. How did these come to you?'
'In a dream.' He gave her a sharp look. 'I walked from Ithilien into a dream, and before me was the White Tree. I did not know it at first, but took a few leaves for the scent. There was fruit hanging from the braches, too. I tried to take one, but evil approached and I had to flee.'
'What will you do with these?' Laanga asked, gesturing at the leaves.
'I have given it no thought.'
'You once asked me for a tea, and I refused. Let me make you another with this.' Laanga folded the leaves into the cloth and went into the house. Finduilas lay down and slept. When she woke, Laanga was sitting nearby. He drew a small, tightly stopped earthen jar and a slender horn spoon with a tiny bowl from a fold in his robes and handed them too her.
'Daughter, when you feel the hole in your heart, mix a tea with this. It is very powerful, so use it sparingly - just a single level spoon in a mug of hot water.'
'I have considered your words about hunting. Perhaps...perhaps you are hunting, too, and seek the same thing.'
'Seeker and prey at the same time?'
'Yes. If you see the Tree again, take a fruit from it if you can. The leaves are a great balm, but the fruit, that can heal.'
'They are safe to eat, then?'
'Not entirely. They are powerful, meant to nurture a mighty shoot.'
Finduilas wrapped her arms around her knees, thinking. 'What if I planted it?'
Laanga made an approving sound. 'That would be for the good, daughter. If the tree grows again, then there will be leaves and fruit for many.'
The hole in my heart and the hole in the world would both be healed.
Minas Tirith, 18 July, 2980 T.A.
Boromir was getting better at going down the stairs and today he was in a great hurry. He scooted down to the ground floor so quickly he must have put bruises on his bottom from bumping the stone steps. Finduilas followed, curious at his hurry this morning. He trotted along the hall, a hand rubbing his rump to take away the sting, and went to the kitchen. Ah, Dúlin must have a treat for him. When she reached the doorway, however, he was not there. The door to the kitchen yard was open, letting in sounds of Boromir greeting the pups who lounged there during the day, waiting for messages and errands. They will keep an eye on him. Dúlin cleared a spot at the kitchen table, motioning for Finduilas to sit. Nellas had chilled wine, fruit fresh from the orchards of the Pelennor, tangy cheese and delicious bread set before her almost the moment she sat down. Finduilas laughed and shook a finger at Dúlin.
'You are fattening me up for a harvest feast, I know it!'
'Of course, my lady,' the cook answered with a grin, 'but not so fat as me!' She laid a hand on her large belly. Dúlin would not hear of allowing anyone else to cook for the Warden and the Lady, even as her time drew near. She frowned at the plate, waddled to the pantry, and came back with a bit of butter and jam. 'In case you'd like something sweet.'
'Thank you, Dúlin.' It was too warm for sweets, but the cheese spread on the bread, washed down with a sip of wine, refreshed her mouth and made the day feel less sticky. The full heat of summer was upon them, and even Laanga's garden was too warm at the height of the day. That time was spent in the archives.
'And when you've put on enough fat, you can be fat like this again,' Dúlin added, with another pat on her own middle. With a smile and a nod, Dúlin turned to her own tasks.
Finduilas quickly took a bite of bread to forestall snapping at the cook to mind her own business. She should have begun bleeding today, but there was no sign of it. The thought took away her appetite. Only a day. Be patient. There were some voices in the kitchen court and the sound of Boromir shouting. Dúlin went to the doorway and waved.
'Yes, my lady?'
'What was that?'
'Oh, just the Lord Steward,' the cook said. 'He walks by every morning. The little master knows and hides near the gate.' She chuckled. 'He jumps out and Lord Ecthelion pretends to be surprised, then they take a walk. They will be back soon.'
Finduilas went out the door, through the court, and looked down the lane. The Steward walked slowly, Boromir's hand in his own, listening to his grandson's babbles. The sight made her glad. That is a love that will not fail. Finduilas went back in to finish her meal. By the time she was ready to go to the archives, Boromir had returned from his walk. Moraen and Aldwyn met her in her study, speaking of their plans for the day. The women collected Beregar, Hunthor and Mírwen downstairs and left.
It was proving difficult for Aldwyn to be without Wren, who was a better match for her bold spirit than Moraen, though there was affection between the shield maiden and the lady. Aldwyn rebelled against the dark caverns under the Citadel, even if they provided relief from the heat. Finduilas did not press her to be obedient, but gave her the freedom of the City as long as Hunthor and Mírwen were with her. Hunthor reported that the girl enjoyed putting many of the garrison soldiers to shame with her archery skills, and Moraen had asked for money from the Lady's Grace for bows to be made for use by women in the Lady's Houses who wished to learn archery from Princess Aldwyn. When Aldwyn went riding upon the Pelennor, Gull ran with her and Stormwind. Finduilas did not think there was a better guard than two steeds of the mearas.
Aldwyn walked Finduilas and Moraen to the archives before waving and heading down the mountain, off to try to convince Captain Gethron that it would not hurt to have some of the women try their hands with swords. Moraen rolled her eyes and laughed. 'I swear, she is going to turn every girl in Minas Tirith into a shield maiden!'
'And if she does?' Finduilas countered with a grin. 'It does no harm and lets them flirt that much more easily with the young men. The men can stand having their wit and charm tested as sorely as their strength.'
'I suppose,' Moraen answered with a little less cheer. Finduilas did not press her on this. Sadly, the vivacious young woman from Rohan was getting more attention from the unwed lords of Minas Tirith than the sober mature woman from Ethring. She needs to marry or at least be betrothed within a year. It was too soon to tell if the friendship between Moraen and Borondir would flower into something more. Give that time.
Finduilas went to Aiavalë's office to continue her research, Beregar taking up his usual station in the hall outside the door. The Archivist's desk held a small stack of books while the more delicate scrolls sat in the rack behind the desk where the cats would not sleep on them. She had gone through the archives, locating every account of Míriel she could find. There were few. It was difficult to reconcile the spare words on parchment with the powerful scenes of her dreams. Her latest dream, that Míriel did flee Númenor with Anárion, was obviously untrue, but what of the others? I could not have touched the tree unless she had as well, could I? Finduilas had tried to find some likeness of the queen to see if there was a resemblance between them. There were two engravings. One was from a book of relatively recent time, set down in the time of Minalcar and probably meant as a book for children. The pictures throughout were not distinguished. The other, however, was in an ancient book, written in Quenya. She suspected it was one of the tomes rescued from the library of Rómenna. The portraits of the kings were precise though no two were in the same style. Ar-Pharazôn was not included, and there was no account of Míriel herself, just her face. Finduilas had also looked for pictures of Isildur and Anárion. Though they looked alike, neither reminded her that much of either Denethor or Thorongil. They looked like the engravings of Elendil.
Finduilas opened the old book this morning and stared at the other woman, unable to decide if she looked like the queen. And if I do, what of it? Then there are three. "You are more like to her than to your own sister. Almost a twin." Thorongil did not deceive in that. But what did it all mean? Her thoughts darted around like swallows in the evening diving after insects. One of the swallows snatched its prey from the air. It is not an accident.
Her heart pounded as she pondered her words. Not an accident. Not her resemblance to a northern Elf, not her coming to Minas Tirith or her visions or the voice that spoke through her or the dreams of a doomed queen. Not the gaze of the Fiend. All that happened to her was intended to occur. But there is so much that has happened.
She frowned. Much may have happened, but little was as other people had insisted must be. Even if all of this was no accident, most of it came as a great surprise. She had certainly surprised everyone with her choices. Even so, it could not be accident. Always I was for Denethor, not for Thorongil. The Elf proved this. I was never for him. Whether or not Thorongil won the maiden's heart, that was his fate. It would have been wrong for him to turn aside his heart's command and put something else in its place, just as it would have been wrong for Denethor to deny the claim of his own.
Why then had Thorongil courted her so persistently? It made no sense. The man was no fool, though perhaps able to fool himself for a time. If he wooed her despite his infatuation with the Elf, it could not have been simple calculation on how best to win the support of a great lord like the Prince in order to further Thorongil's ambitions. Finduilas thought of the hand-sign conversation between Halmir and Thorongil that Denethor had recounted. Did you leave because you despaired of winning her, or because you feared to do so? What fate did you think to escape when you pursued me?
Thorongil must have known or guessed, especially given how much she looked like his love, and he like hers. He knew. From the day he saw me, he knew. She found herself becoming angry with the captain. His silence could not easily be dismissed, as though he had simply been seeking a less daunting mate. He had to have known there was a greater doom before them all. Yet, you said nothing, even when you confessed your love. Then you should have spoken to me of who you truly are. Their fates were intertwined.
We are a pair of pairs. Finduilas knew she had thought this before. It was not merely that hearts sought out a true mate with whom to share a doom, but that the pairings themselves were mated. That there should be two pairs, Steward and Lady, King and Queen, was intended, not accidental. And if we are not accident?
For some time Finduilas sat, letting the swallows flit about, waiting for them to seize something. The conversations and reflections of six years, from the fateful spring day when two tall men took her hand until now, came back to her. There is a pair to be seen and a pair to be hidden. It is our fate to stand in their stead and to bear up under the Enemy's assault until it is time.
In their stead. When the pledge to rule until the king shall return was hollow, when there was no belief that such a person lived, then it was no pledge but a clever game to keep division at bay. Ecthelion's rule presumed such a state, even as he plotted to create a king. But truth remade the oath. The fate to which she and Denethor were bound was to be seen so that other things remained unseen. It was not yet time for the king. Until that time, their own rule must suffice, like a force sent forward to delay an enemy's advance and blunt an attack. When it was time...
We are at an end. The mariner's words to Denethor, that hope was not for him, turned bitter in her thoughts. But have we not always said that we prepare a way for the return of the king? Why now does your heart rebel? It was the other woman. She had always been there, as both the wizard and the captain knew. She was the sign that a greater plan unfolded, against which they were but wraiths, like a puppet show where a light behind the true things cast their shadows against a length of cloth. What need is there for a shadow when that which casts the shadow is present? The Powers prepared their own way, and did not concern themselves with the wishes of those they used to craft their story. All of her and Denethor's attempts to guide Thorongil and prepare him were wasted. Their support or opposition did not matter. He would return when it was time and would take what he wished.
Finduilas sighed and rested her head in her hands. Fate will always find her instruments. She felt foolish, now, having labored and worried so long over Thorongil while he deceived and misled them. You had all your answers a year ago, but you let yourself be blinded by a tale of love. What mattered now was what faced her and Denethor.
There was a light tap on the door. The pinch of her stomach told Finduilas it was dinner time. 'Come in, Nellas' she called, expecting to see the kitchen maid with her meal as usual. Instead, it was Denethor who slipped in. He held up the basket.
'Do you mind company?'
'No, not at all!' Finduilas said, hastening to clear away the work on the desk. 'Have you brought Moraen's dinner, too?'
'Nellas did, and for Huan. I told him he could leave his post to go eat while I am here.'
'I think he need not...'
'He is your Hound.' Denethor's tone was brusque and his look sharp. Finduilas knew better than to argue. Once they were eating their fruit and bread, Denethor said, 'I am through with business for the Tower for the day. I was going to ask if you were through here, but I think this is the coolest place in the City.'
He nodded, not quite looking at her. 'The heat is not good for you.'
'Denethor, what are you up to?'
'Nothing!' he protested, all false innocence. 'Just that Aiavalë is in Dol Amroth, and it is cooler in summer there, and...'
'I'm not leaving you,' she cut him off. He opened his mouth to object, then growled and picked his food. Finduilas let him stew for a few minutes while she ate enough to quell her hunger. 'I will go to Dol Amroth when it pleases me, not out of fear.'
'Aiavalë told you, didn't she?' he asked. Finduilas raised her eyebrows. 'About... about Îbal.'
'Yes, she told me just before she left. Are you pleased for her?'
'I suppose.' Finduilas glared at him. 'Yes! Though she should not have been so secretive.'
'Unlike yourself,' she dryly replied. Denethor tried to keep a straight face, but a smirk tugged the corner of his mouth up. Finduilas held out a hand for him to take. 'Truly, friend, you should be glad.'
'I am,' he said with a sigh, 'I just wish that she would let others know.'
'I want them to know she is loved. Too many have called her monster, and she's not.'
'That you know and approve matters most to her, Denethor.'
'I have been a brat to her,' he said, staring at the table. The grip of his fingers increased. 'After I heard, I hoped... It was foolish.'
'That, maybe, it was enough and... there might be a child.'
'Did you tell her this?' He shook his head. 'Write her and tell her. It will please her that you wished for that joy.'
'It has not always been a joy for you, has it?'
'No, love, it hasn't, but it is better as I get stronger. Our son is demanding.' A thought came to her unbidden. If naught is by chance, then is my love true? Is it even love? A false thought given to me by another? She looked at Denethor in dismay. It would explain the disinterest in her own child, the sense of something wrong when they lay together.
Denethor looked at her with concern. 'Alquallë? What is it.'
She stood and wiped her hands then pulled on her reading gloves before picking up the ancient annals of the kings. She found Míriel's image and held it so Denethor could see. 'Who does she resemble?'
'You. A little like Ivriniel in the eyes and forehead. Is that Mithrellas?'
'No.' I am not a plaything. I love you. Did the Fiend love her? She shut the book. 'Where is Boromir?'
Disconcerted by the swift shifts in conversation, he answered, 'With Aeluin. She took him and Finiel to play with the other children.'
Finduilas gathered the books and placed them on a shelf where they would be safe. The scrolls were still in the rack. She went to Denethor and kissed him until he moaned. I love you. Saying nothing, Finduilas walked out of the room, Denethor right behind her, pausing only to lock the office door before leaving. The dinner leftovers could be cleaned up on the morrow. When they reached the alcove, Denethor waited obediently to be shown her desire. She undressed him quickly, then touched him, letting her hands slide over his frame. This flesh, it was for her to caress and stroke, and no one else. She didn't love him, no matter his touches. Love, it could not be commanded; it was or it was not. I love you. Finduilas used only her fingers, enjoying seeing her hands on her lover, watching a flush grow on his throat and chest and spread down his belly. A similar warmth spread through her, making her breasts tender and her furrow damp. They both smelled strongly of musk. Denethor said nothing, did not try to move or touch her in return, but soft sounds escaped his throat and he trembled. His cock thickened and rose, so she grasped it, liking its weight across her palm and how it just slipped through her circled fingers. This made him cry out and take her shoulders, needing to hold her to steady himself. 'Please,' he whispered, 'please, Alquallë.' Yes, I am pleased. His hips hitched when she rubbed him.
A quick glance at the table showed her there was a bundle from Morwen, though she was not sure how old it was. Finduilas pushed Denethor towards the bed and he lay on it. She reached for the packet and held it up, eyebrow raised. 'Yesterday,' he answered, patting the bed. 'It's new. Let me.'
She shook her head, undoing her shirt. The last button undone, Finduilas began to slip it off and realized she was facing east. He can see. He would be looking right at her. "If light touches something, you can see it in the stone." That is what Denethor had explained to her when he told her about the palantír. Let them look. Let them all see. Powers and Fiend alike, let them See love, if they can. She strode out from behind the alcove, ignoring Denethor's questions and went to the end of the room where curtains blocked out light and heat coming in from the windows overlooking the lane. She pulled them aside and came back, pulling off her shirt as she walked and tossing it across the desk as she passed.
'Alquallë, what are you doing?' Denethor asked, bemused. He was propped on an elbow, stroking himself with his other hand.
'I thought you would like to see what you're getting,' she grinned. She kicked off her sandals before loosening and slowly sliding her skirt over her hips. Did she ever undress for you like this? Denethor smiled and made a soft rumble of pleasure at the sight. He looked so beautiful lying there. You're mine. Not some dream, not a shadow of something else. This was her summer king, her lord, her love, skin and face marked by years and trials, but filled with a perfect light that the Trees themselves could not rival. They are in imitation of you. She came to the edge of the bed and pushed his shoulder with a finger to make him roll onto his back. Reaching over, she picked up the oiled packet and the small pot of ointment, handing the packet to Denethor. Finduilas smoothed ointment on the broad head of his cock in slow, drawn out strokes, then put more along his length after he slipped on the sheath.
Her womb was tighter than usual when she lowered herself onto him. She liked it; it made her feel less vulnerable, even though she sat up, exposed to any who watched. 'It is so hot, my love,' Finduilas said to Denethor, 'I fear I cannot move quickly. It may take a long time.' With a smile, she clenched her muscles, making him cry out.
It took him several pants before Denethor could speak. 'I would not have you overtax yourself, Alquallë. Pray you, take your time.' The look of joy well mixed with desire he gave her made her shiver and giggle. No, I'm not leaving you to grimness and despair. I love you.
For long, their motions were slight - hips lifted and shifted, fingers brushed, lips met - and the hot room made their bodies gleam with sweat. Between her legs, it was molten. There was no cave, no waterfall, no sound of the Sea, no adornments of sea-grass or pearls. All that was in the room was them, their desire and the gaze of those who witnessed. Are you watching? Do you remember what this felt like? Does it torment you to see another's hands on your queen and know that she desires him beyond all else? This thought made her own pleasure that much greater. Finduilas took Denethor's hands and guided them to her hips. He needed no greater encouragement, eagerly seizing her and pulling her forcefully down onto him. Tension built as their bodies met and parted, but nothing drained from her heart. Their tempo increased until Denethor froze for an instant, then bucked rapidly, head thrown back in a loud cry.
When he caught his breath, Denethor pulled on her to make Finduilas lie flat on top of him. She felt his cock's swelling subside and its slow slide out of her womb. They kissed languidly, limp from heat and pleasure.
'I love you, husband.'
'And I love you, wife.' Denethor smiled, toying with her hair. 'Thank you.'
'It was my pleasure,' she murmured seductively before nipping his lower lip.
'You did not let me pleasure you.'
'True. I fear you shall have to make up for that lack another time.'
Denethor smiled, running his hand over her hip. 'A man of honor always pays his debts.'
Finduilas stretched and shifted to lie next to him, allowing Denethor to reach down to remove the sheath.
'You're bleeding,' he said. His hand and crotch were smeared with red, as were her thighs. Finduilas wiped them both off and padded the bed so they could nap together the rest of the afternoon. Sticky with their waters, she felt cleansed. I will bear this man's daughter when it is time.
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