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Hands of the King: 67. Used

Minas Tirith, Late September, 2980 T.A.

Denethor stopped and laid the map upon the wall, pinning it to the flat stone with his elbows, and leaned out over the wall to look into the yards below. Each building and court on his map he compared to what he could see over the wall. The map was a tracing he had made of the property survey maps done in 2845 during the reign of Steward Belecthor. Every circle in the City had been measured, every house entered and its foundation examined, every property title evaluated. It had been repeated in all the cities, towns, villages, hamlets, and holdings in the kingdom. Mills and smithies had reported their production, landholders accounted their acres and animals, and shops produced ledgers on their sales. Even Ithilien had been surveyed, though it meant fighting Uruks. The plan for Henneth Annûn had been conceived at that time when the surveyors found a side passage leading down into the tunnel, though it would not be built until Turgon was High Warden.

Another year passed while ministers and clerks made sense of the mountains of measurements. At the end was a new set of taxes to pay for the wars the Steward in his wisdom had foreseen. Houses and holdings that stood empty, with no possible heir, had been made into King's Lands. The farmland could be leased for a tithing of the harvest. Houses and shops were sold, bestowed or kept by the Stewards as seemed wise. More than a few of Maiaberiel's followers had found themselves enriched through grants of title from the King's Lands. Denethor had set Hallas' youngest son, Minastan, the task of reviewing all such grants and finding any error with them. Sadly for the followers, a significant number of the grants appeared to have been tampered with after the Lord Steward had set his seal to them, and were being voided.

All summer, Denethor had investigated the King's Men, uncovering their weaknesses and undermining their strengths. The final purge of Maiaberiel's minions had been both swift and bloodless. After her departure, they had fallen to squabbling amongst themselves and no leader had emerged. With the help of his garrison captains, Denethor rooted out any King's Men who had not proved themselves to be good officers. Those who had been appointed magistrates, tax collectors, port and market masters, and other small roles were spied upon. If they had not performed their duties with honor, they were stripped of their positions or reassigned to remote and worthless posts.

As a result, many of Beruthiel's faction had paid a call upon the Stewards House, the men and their women, trying to flatter their way into the good graces of the Warden and the Lady. A few were allowed to succeed to encourage the rest to redouble their efforts rather than rebel. Some had packed up their households and departed for Pelargir or retreated to family lands in Anórien and western Gondor.

He looked at the map and frowned. A number of the houses on the map stood empty, some recently. The loss of enemies was for the good, but Minas Tirith had lost population beyond those numbers. It is not a bad thing, and many will come in for the winter. The defeat of Mordor and Umbar emboldened people to reclaim holdings along Anduin and in Anórien. At Baragund's recommendation, many garrison soldiers were sent home, though carefully to avoid notice. Khand and Harad had been fighting since the spring rains ended and it did not appear that they would cease until winter. It was best to use the men on the farms and in other trades while the days were long and the weather good. It reminded them of their good fortune and kept them from thinking about a missing captain.

What they could have done with this peace, he and Thorongil. We never thought of afterwards... His own heart turned traitor as Denethor thought this, wishing for Thorongil's return. He leaned on his elbows until the pressure from the stone made them hurt, distracting him from the betrayal. We did not speak because he had his own plans, to be shared with a wizard, not with me. The peace is mine to order as I please.

Denethor scowled and looked again at the buildings below him. With a charcoal stick, he marked the map - an "x" for an occupied house, a check for one that looked unoccupied for a short while, a circle for a derelict building. The empty ones would be checked against the records in the archives and if truly abandoned, converted to King's Lands.

Through the afternoon, he worked his way along the southern curve of the Citadel wall, looking and marking. Under his arms, the stone was warm from the autumn sun. Soon enough the days would cool, the sun would decline and people would bring in the last of the harvest. Denethor reached the practice yards at the back of the circle the same time as they were touched by the shadow of Mindolluin. He rolled up the map and went home, pausing to collect a pot of tea from Nellas in the kitchen before heading upstairs to his study. Telperien was in his lap almost as soon as he sat down.

The map he would send to Minastan on the morrow to check titles. He poured his tea, and leaned back in his chair, feet on his desk. While useful, the map of the houses was not the most important thing he had learned today. It is not there. It cannot be seen. Denethor allowed himself a low sigh of relief. He could not find Laanga's garden, not on the map nor by looking down from the wall.

For the last two weeks, he had experimented with trying to find Finduilas in the garden. Denethor had walked every inch of the sixth circle, from the Citadel tunnel to the practice yards. He had counted the doors and compared them to the map. If he looked directly for the door to the herbalist's home, it did not appear. Denethor had to cast his eyes down and his gaze inward, and trust his feet to bear him. Every time, his heart led him to her. Yesterday, he had walked upon the wall in a similar mind, letting his fingers trail against the stone. The City spoke to him, humming a tune of contentment, though it was also sad. At some point, the sadness disappeared and his own heart beat harder. Somewhere below, on the other side of the stone, was Finduilas. He had peered over the wall. There was no garden, only a jumble of rooftops. She is hidden.

Whatever pleasure he could take from the defeat of his enemies and Thorongil's flight had been destroyed by the news that the Fiend could see Finduilas. "I am here to be seen." He wanted to deny Finduilas' words, but she had plucked the leaves of Nimloth and the mariner's noose circled his own throat. Telperien hissed and wiggled under his hand, for his grasp had tightened at the dire thought. "Shh, your Majesty. I'm sorry." It took some ear rubbing before the cat relaxed and took up her purring once more. Finduilas' dreams brought her to the City so that she would be seen. When did he first see you? Not before I did. I saw you first, before any of them did. Denethor scowled at his own foolishness, but he did not let it go.

That was the only solace he could find, pitiful as it was. They had seen each other and naught would part them. "Remember your heart." The mariner's admonition echoed in his mind. This wisdom he could accept, for it meant Finduilas. For whose support my love was made. He thought he could see his own fate more clearly now. She was the Queen, the steadfast ruler of the Faithful, who stayed under the Fiend's baleful gaze and guarded them against him while the usurper, who would have seized the throne through her even as Pharazôn claimed the scepter after taking Míriel to wife against her wish, had fled. Denethor was her love and defender, even as Beren had been chosen by Lúthien, but it was she who held their fate in her hands. He had to trust her counsel and follow her lead just as Beren had submitted to Lúthien's rule.

That did not mean being a fool, however. There was no Silmaril to reclaim and there was an immortal creature that desired her for himself. 'What do you advise, your Majesty?' he said softly to the cat as he scratched her chin, 'How shall we convince your mistress that she should not remain in this place?' The cat purred louder and flexed her sharp nails into his thigh. Denethor sighed. 'Yes, a painful endeavor, I know.'

More thinking was cut short by the sound of women's voices downstairs. Denethor went to Finduilas' study to greet her and the others. The windows overlooking the lane were thrown open, letting in the cool air that bore the faintest scent of autumn, a shift from green to gold as the trees changed their garb. Aeluin and Moraen were there along with the children, so Denethor could only give Finduilas a polite kiss on the cheek. She laughed and kissed him back on the lips, a mischievous look promising more later. Boromir, dirty and rumpled from his adventures in the garden, claimed his father's attention. Soon, the two of them were stretched out on the floor, building castles with Boromir's blocks while the women chattered. These times, when he let his heart be content with his wife and son and thought of no more than balancing a bit of wood upon another, Denethor could fool even himself into believing that he was happy. Something light hit his face, making him look at Finduilas. She was grinning, while Moraen and Aeluin laughed behind their hands.

'I called your name three times!'

'I was in the middle of a delicate construction,' he loftily answered, gesturing at the mound of blocks. Boromir was distracted by the wad of paper Finduilas had thrown and was already trying to flatten it out.

'Did you read Lady Lore's letter?'

'I did not know there was one. Is that what you threw?' Denethor reached for the paper, but Boromir made a face and clutched it more closely to his chest.

'No, her letter is here,' Finduilas plucked a few pages from her desk and scanned them. 'She is in Ethring now, and Imrahil and Baragund have arrived. They will set out together after yáviérë and should be back to the City by mid-October.'

'Ah, that is good news.' Denethor had been pleased by the reports the young prince had sent on his sojourn with Baragund. While the captain had spoken of garrisons and soldier strength, Imrahil had written insightfully of the opinions of the lords and the laborers alike, measuring the sentiment of the kingdom. He had also, at Denethor's command, spoken of the Lady and her love for the land and its people, how joyful she was at the defeat of their enemies and how proud she was of the valor of Gondor. Every garrison was allowed to hang her banner as well as that of the Stewards. Imrahil noted that many flew several of her flags, though all dutifully displayed the banner of the Stewards.

It was not long before Aldwyn and Mírwen clattered in, all giggles and sun-burned noses. The girls regaled the others with their tales of riding on the Pelennor. Finduilas had bought a horse for Mírwen so she could accompany Aldwyn all the time. Talk soon turned to Aiavalë's letter and the latest news about preparations for Hilda's wedding to Lord Golasgil of Langstrand. The young man had asked for her when the Swans had returned to Dol Amroth. The wedding was to be in Dol Amroth in early spring next year. All agreed it was an excellent match, even if the two were young. There had been some murmurs that, given that Hilda was slightly Golasgil's elder and of a shorter-lived line, it was best that they wed sooner rather than later.

After supper, Finduilas dismissed the rest of the women and put Ivrin in charge of a sleepy Boromir. Denethor sat at Finduilas' feet while she sewed, turned slightly so he could watch her. She smiled, but did not raise her eyes from her work. They sat silent for an hour, content to be together.

Finduilas broke the silence. 'Are you glad that Aiavalë will soon be back?'

'Yes,' he answered. 'It is time for the Master Archivist to cease her hoydenish ways and return to her duty.' This earned him a small kick, but Finduilas was smirking.

'Well, I will be very glad to see my big sister again! It is not home without the two of you snapping and snarling at each other over nothing.' Denethor sighed and rolled his eyes, making Finduilas chuckle. He decided to be a little daring.

'At the risk of being misunderstood, will you be attending Hilda's wedding in the spring, Alquallë?' He felt her leg tighten then relax.

'No, friend, I won't.'

'Will Queen Morwen be our guest for any time upon her journey?'

'I think so. She is pleased by this match.'

'When it is done, may we give your mother Aldwyn?' This earned him another kick and a glare instead of a chuckle.

'Why do you want to be rid of Aldwyn?'

'I don't! She is the younger brother I have always wished for.' This kick probably left a bruise. 'I would not mind a bit more quiet around here, and Princess Luinil seems to have a gift for match making.'

'She does at that,' Finduilas agreed. 'In her last letter, she said she thinks that she has encouraged Handiriel to consider a match with Hirluin.'

'Of Pinnath Gelin?'

'Yes, the same.' Finduilas sighed. 'If only I were as talented as Mother.'

Denethor took one of her hands and kissed it. 'There is only one match you needed to make, and it is done.' To his pleasure, she kept hold of his hand.

'I agree, friend. But there is another I would like to bring about. If Lady Lore can find her love, then so can Borondir.'

'Perhaps. I have never seen him show interest in any woman.'

'That is because you have not paid attention.'

'Who has he looked upon?'

'Well, Luinmir, but that could not be. I think he regards Moraen with some fondness.'

'Moraen? Is she not too young for him?'

'He is younger than you and she is older than me,' Finduilas quickly answered, then sighed. 'In truth, I cannot understand why Moraen has not made a good match already. She is beautiful, gentle, and sensible. In any event, they are amiable and that might grow into love.'

Denethor shrugged. 'I could simply tell my cousin to ask for the young woman and put an end to...'

'Don't you dare! The two of them together are almost as stubborn as you are, my dear High Warden of the White Tower, and they will never assent if you try to order them.'

'Probably so.' Denethor leaned his head against her and smiled. 'But I did as you told me and look how that ended up.'

'Yes, with Father nearly tossing you into the harbor and half the kingdom in an uproar,' she agreed.

'Well, after that...' She burst out laughing and leaned to down to kiss him. That lasted a while and when they broke, Finduilas put away her sewing and went to the alcove. Denethor remained at the hearth, finishing his wine, listening to her undress. When the bed creaked, he drained the cup, snuffed the lamps and joined her. He blew out the candle on the small table before he touched her. Some things he did not wish to be seen.

***

In the morning, the scent of the tea in Finduilas' mug filled the room. It was the second time this month she had prepared a draught from the powdered leaves of the White Tree. Denethor watched her savor it. He could see the good that the tea did her. For the first time since the ride to Rohan, she was gaining noticeable weight and her moods were less dark. She paid more attention to Boromir, laughing at his antics and playing some of his games instead of watching silently and letting others keep him amused. He estimated there was a little over a years' worth of draughts in the stoppered bottle, perhaps two if used sparingly. Can it cure, or merely stave off what ails her? Denethor turned his attention to his own mug, not wanting to think on that matter too closely.

Autumn had arrived. Last night, the blankets were not enough to keep them warm and he had to pull the windows closed. The morning air was brisk. It was time to ride the Pelennor and see how the harvest was coming along. He cleared his throat to get Finduilas' attention. 'Alquallë, I will ride upon the Pelennor today.'

'How far?'

'North to south, on the second ring road, I think. It depends on what I see.'

She was silent a few minutes, then nodded her head. 'I will ride with you.'

Denethor expected that Aldwyn would come along, but the girl had shrugged at the invitation, saying today she was to hold her archery lessons. Moraen sighed wistfully, but also declined to join them, pointing to the stack of ledgers. 'It is the day for tallying the Lady's Grace,' she explained. Beregar needed no words, simply falling in behind them as they walked down the mountain. He sent one of the pups ahead to The Messenger's Rest so their dinner bundles would be waiting for them as they walked past. Throughout the City, fall's chill had invigorated everything. People walked more quickly and hailed each other heartily. The air was free of haze and every scent was distinct. People greeted their Lady warmly and even spared Denethor an amiable nod on the way to the Great Gate. Aldwyn did walk with them to the archery yards near the stable but left without a farewell when she saw Captain Gethron. He had a slightly pained expression on his face as the shield maiden began questioning him about how long she would have the yards for her women's practice. Denethor refused to rescue the man, merely nodding politely as they continued to the stable.

Gull was delighted to see her friend once more, and the two took their time getting Gull saddled for the outing. Denethor took Gaerhûl outside to wait for them before the stables. His eyes strayed to the silver line of Anduin glimmering through the center of the plain. Osgiliath was a dark lump against the bright river and the dark green hills beyond. A week or so after the attack in Ithilien, Denethor had gone to the garrison to find out why the women had been allowed over the river in the first place. Anbar had no answer save that he had believed it was safe for a short ride under heavy guard, and that the Lady had commanded it. Denethor had taken Halmir out to the northern edge of the ruins to interrogate the man.

'Why?' he had demanded. When Halmir began his hand speech, Denethor had struck his hands down. 'Give voice to your crime. You speak before me and those who watch from afar.'

'Yes, my lord. I led them to the farm because I feared they would try to cross on their own. They would have had no guards, save the Hound and the two young men.'

'They should have been sent back to the City under a guard, and I should have been notified of their intentions.' Halmir said nothing, but bowed his head. 'It was Wren's demand. Why did you not just take her?'

'I thought of that, but...' Halmir looked away west, towards Minas Tirith. 'It was Mistress Wren's wish, but it was the Lady's command. I could not deny it. I tried! I meant to speak and say Wren should return with Captain Marlong and be her husband's charge, as was right. The words that came out...' The Lost paused, jaw clenched. 'They were not my words. I could not gainsay the voice.'

As they spoke through Finduilas to the wizard. Denethor scowled. Someone had wished for Finduilas to be in Ithilien. 'Beregar said there were no tracks, that she just disappeared.'

'None. I watched them cross the road, and then I could not see her, only the Hound.' The man's voice dropped to a whisper. 'She walked out of the world.'

'Did you see what approached?'

'No.' Halmir's shoulders hunched. 'Just felt it. Cold. Evil. The man's hands signed the words as he spoke them.

'How did it cross Ithilien so swiftly?'

'I don't know. There was a charge of Uruks out of the vale. There was no warning of that. It was full sun and hot. As the men battled, a shadow of evil fell on them, like a cloud passing overhead. They fought the Uruks to the last, then sounded an alarm.'

Denethor's curiosity got the better of his anger. 'Did you send out scouts to the farm afterwards to try to find it?'

'Yes. Nothing. Two scouts were killed that night on a line between the farm and the mouth of the vale. They were torn to shreds, as by a great beast.'

'It has returned to its lair?' Halmir shrugged, then nodded. 'Why should I not kill you for allowing the Lady to go into danger?'

Halmir looked him in the eye. 'No reason. Do as you will.' The Lost stood up straight, hands clasped behind him, making no effort to defend himself. Denethor looked at the man, handling the hilt of his knife. Halmir should perish and Anbar should be demoted to a mere soldier for having permitted it. But, both are right that the women would have gone without a guard. It was not accident that Finduilas was drawn across the river. She needed the tree, so she could claim the leaves, and thus were they all made into her servants, unable to resist her commands.

Denethor doubled one fist and struck Halmir across the side of the face as hard as he could, sending the Lost crashing to the ground. 'The Lady has forbidden me to slay any who obeyed her orders to allow her into Ithilien. You owe her your life.' He left the man lying there stunned and returned to Minas Tirith.

The sound of Finduilas and Gull pulled Denethor from his thoughts and they were soon riding towards the Pelennor. Finduilas sat on Gull at the crossroads for several minutes, staring at the dark scrim of the Ephel Dúath before turning north. Beregar rode a few yards behind, saying nothing but watching the surrounding land with suspicion. As usual, word traveled swiftly that the Lady rode the land. Her sign was everywhere. The goodwives hurried to the lane, tying on their best aprons and kerchiefs, and thanked Finduilas for her blessings in the spring. Pantries and cellars were filling, as were the barns, haylofts and sheds. A number of women held up new babes or pointed to their rounding bellies, and said their good fortune was due to her grace. Farmers came to the walls of their fields to doff their straw hats to Finduilas. Almost every one sported a spray of black and white feathers. Their dinner was eaten under the boughs of a fine orchard just north of the causeway, ripe fruit providing a sweet dessert to the meal. The afternoon passed in the same way as the morning, though the day proved warm, and it was nearly sundown before they turned the horses' heads north once more to return to the City.

Mindolluin's shadow stretched east, casting the crossroads into shadow. Once again, Finduilas stopped and looked towards Mordor. Gull, too, was watching, ears pricked as though she heard something. Finduilas nodded to herself, then told Gull it was time to go home. By the time they reached The Messenger's Rest, Adanel had supper laid out for them on a private table at the back of the tavern. Finduilas ate well and spoke cheerfully of the condition of the farms, and even asked for a second ladle of stew. When they rose to leave, Adanel laid a hand on Denethor's arm and pressed a note into his hand. 'A boy is loitering outside the door,' she murmured. Denethor glanced at the note.

Must see you.

He recognized Morwen's handwriting. Leaving the tavern, he saw a boy of perhaps seven standing near the fountain across the way. The child raised an eyebrow a fraction. Denethor turned to Finduilas, and softly said, 'Someone needs to see me. Beregar will take you...'

'...nowhere. I will go with you.'

'I may not be going to a place where you should be seen.'

'I've been in Morwen's brothel before.' Finduilas inclined her head slightly toward the child. 'I know a pup when I see one, even if he hasn't been weaned.'

Denethor knew better than to try to dismiss Beregar, only telling the man to stay back before giving the boy a slight nod. The child sauntered away, ducking into a side lane a few yards down the main road. Denethor kept Finduilas' arm tucked under his own as they strolled through the twilight, following their small guide. He brought them to a narrow door in a cramped back alley, motioning for them to wait as he slipped inside. At the end of the alley, Beregar took up guard. The door opened again, a woman's hand beckoning them to enter. Morwen's matron closed and bolted the door behind them before curtseying deeply to Finduilas.

'My lady, please be welcome in our house. Madam Morwen awaits.'

The matron took them swiftly to the back stair and up to Morwen's office. It was not possible to ignore the sounds coming through the doors that they passed. Denethor felt his face reddening particularly as it was accompanied by a heaviness in his loins. The matron bowed them into the office, before taking up her seat outside the door.

Morwen rose and greeted Finduilas with an embrace and a kiss on the cheek. They were nearly the same height. 'Lady Finduilas, how kind of you to come see me.'

'I was so pleased to receive your invitation, Madam Morwen. It has been too long since my last visit.' Morwen guided Finduilas to a seat and poured her wine from a flagon on the sideboard. Denethor understood that he was to be ignored until he was needed for information, so sat himself and took the opportunity to study Morwen. She was dressed in a simple robe of delicate fabric and nothing else. The neck opening was narrow, but deep, and the thin soft fabric accentuated her breasts. Her hair was pulled up loosely, exposing her neck, held in place with a single ornate gold clasp. As she walked and sat, the robe parted to expose her legs. Denethor realized, with shock, that Morwen probably still entertained customers. In the background were the sounds of the brothel conducting its business.

'All of the whores of Minas Tirith bless your name, my lady, for your kindness to our children.'

'I wish I did not have to provide it, Morwen.'

An odd look came to Morwen's face. 'Nor do I, Finduilas. But you save us from the worst of our faults.'

'There are fewer pups this year.'

'There were fewer men at that time. The wars have killed many before they got their sons. There will be fewer yet for a while.'

'Mírwen has become dear to me, you know.'

A delighted smile came to Morwen's face, very unlike her usual composed expressions. 'Has she? I commanded her to be your most faithful maid, as dutiful as a daughter.'

'And she is.' Finduilas steepled her fingers and gave Morwen a speculative look. 'You once proposed a business arrangement between us, Morwen. I unfortunately had to decline, for my plans lay elsewhere.' Morwen smiled and bowed her head graciously. 'I have one of my own for you, should you be interested.'

'I am most curious, Finduilas.'

'I have spoken with Borondir about various contracts held by the crown. Your house receives great deal of gold for... services.' The sentence was punctuated by a loud moan not far away. The women both smiled and Denethor wished he could disappear into the floor. 'If I calculate correctly from your taxes, a substantial amount of your house's coin is paid to you by the crown.' Finduilas looked at Morwen expectantly.

Morwen's smile became slightly brittle and her eyes narrowed. 'I fail to see how the source of my purse is your concern, my lady.'

'Because the upkeep for the young men and women in my care must come from somewhere. I think a gift, a generous gift, from your house to the Lady's Grace would be an excellent way to demonstrate gratitude for the Lady's Houses my purse supports. It would be preferable to blessings, however heartfelt.'

An angry look crossed Morwen's face. 'I care for the children of my house! Save only Mírwen, who is my gift to you, no child from here has made use of the Lady's Grace.'

Finduilas was not daunted by the whore's ire. 'Yours is not the only house, though it is the only one that receives gold from the state purse. Mayhap they should also present a gift.'

'And if I assist in collecting this gift?'

'I will not have to request the Steward to give me coin for my houses and he can continue to be generous to others.'

'I will let your wishes be known, my lady,' Morwen replied smoothly, charming once more. Finduilas smiled and sipped her wine. Morwen stood and walked to stand before Denethor. When she stopped, all seductiveness in her manner had vanished. 'I want answers,' she said in Haradic.

'On what?'

'Where is Magor?' Finduilas caught the boy's name and looked questioningly at Denethor.

'Ask Marach. Or Ragnor. Is he not in their care?'

She shook her head. 'Not anymore. He vanished during Umbar.'

Denethor schooled his face carefully. 'I am sorry, Morwen, but there is your answer. It could not be kept secret and many young men of Pelargir joined the fleet.'

'You were teaching him something. Training him for something. He said so!'

'Yes! I wanted him as eyes on the southern caravans now that your brothers are too old and their sons are not of the City. And now that has been lost.'

She raised her hand as though to slap him, then lowered it. 'I don't believe you. You sent him.'

'It is the truth. Young men all dream of war.' For a minute, there was only the sounds from the hallway - a laugh, a moan, a door opening, footsteps going away and drawing near, the snick of a latch pulled shut. Denethor risked a glance towards Finduilas. She was watching, curious. 'What else do you want, Morwen? I would not keep you from your business.' She turned away and held out her hands to Finduilas, who stood. Denethor did likewise.

'Thank you, Finduilas, for coming to see me. I hope you will return soon.'

'I will. I think we have several things to discuss, Morwen.'

'Is there anything else you would ask of me?'

'Only to know where you came by your robe. It is exquisite.'

'You like it?'

'Very much. More to the point, Denethor likes it.'

'Then you must have it.' Morwen slipped out of the robe and handed it to Finduilas. Denethor could not turn his back quickly enough to avoid a glimpse of her. The women both laughed gaily. 'One moment, while I check the hall.' Morwen walked right in front of Denethor to the door and opened it a crack, saying something to the matron. Denethor put a hand over his eyes, mightily wishing to be out of this room.

Finduilas poked him in the ribs. 'Stop being silly. You've seen a naked woman before.' He growled, then sighed and dropped his hand. Morwen smirked as she came to embrace Finduilas.

'The hall is empty so you may go now, my lady.' As he feared she would, Morwen drew close and kissed his cheek. 'You are a foolish man, Denethor, and a lucky one. Few wives love their husbands this much. Now go before a worse fool comes up the stairs.'

Finduilas barely let them get into his study before asking 'What were you talking about with Morwen? I heard Magor's name.'

'That I did not know where he was. He has disappeared. '

She looked at him sadly. 'He went to Umbar?'

'And did not return. She hoped I had sent him elsewhere so he was safe.'

'That is so sad, friend. He was a good boy. His aunts loved him. He reminded me of Beregar.' Finduilas disappeared behind the screen to undress. Denethor poured himself a cup of wine, since Morwen had not seen fit to offer him one. He had only swallowed a few sips when Finduilas emerged, clad in Morwen's robe. I very much like that. She leaned against the edge of the desk, a leg peeking though the loosely belted fabric. He came over to her, close but not touching, admiring the drape of the cloth on her form. 'Denethor?' He looked into her eyes. Finduilas nodded to herself as she had at the crossroads. 'You sent him to Umbar.' Denethor nodded, knowing better than to lie. 'Why?'

'To be the cipherist of the Faithful. Aiavalë trained him for it. That is what I charged Thorongil with doing, to safely deliver Magor to Umbar.'

'Will he ever come back?'

'No. He cannot. He will die there.' The look she gave him made him cringe, and he sank to his knees before her. 'It had to be done, Alquallë.'

He kissed the inside of her leg where it was exposed to his touch. When she did not move, he kissed again, a little higher. 'I am sorry.' Her breath was faster. Denethor nudged aside a fold of cloth, and worked his way upwards with light kisses and flicks of his tongue. Finduilas leaned back against the desk and allowed him to slip his hands up her legs, parting them like the fabric to reveal more delicate things. 'I had to.' The cloth brushed the sides of his face and his shoulders, a silken tent around them. His tongue delved into her folds, finding new ways to touch at this odd angle. Finduilas slipped her hands behind his head and lifted a leg over his shoulder. When she was very wet, he slipped his fingers into her. The sounds she made were lower, deeper than those he had heard earlier, and she twisted hanks of his hair sharply. Denethor did not cease until she shuddered and cried out.

The stayed there, panting, for a while, Denethor's cheek against the skin of her inner thigh. She touched his cheek, making him look up. 'She will never see her son again. Would you send your own son off, never to see him again?' Finduilas stood, pulled the robe closed about her and left for her room. He did not dare follow and retreated to the alcove. Her clothes from the day's ride were strewn on the floor. Denethor placed her shirt across his pillow before he lay down.

***

Minas Tirith, Late February, 2981 T.A.

Four years had taught Gríma, son of Gálmód, how to observe what astounded him without gaping like an idiot. Denethor stood with the young counselor on the promontory, looking down upon Minas Tirith and the Pelennor in the wan light of a chill winter afternoon. The winds from Mindolluin whipped their cloaks and whistled across the stone, making ordinary speech difficult. Queen Morwen's party had arrived the day before to rest on their journey to Dol Amroth and take counsel with the Lord Steward while they waited for Seabird to fetch them. Finduilas was entertaining the Queen today, while Denethor led the counselors on a tour of Minas Tirith before meeting with the Steward for a late strategy council. The eldest of Théoden's counselors, Walda, had declined the walk, preferring to stay with Morwen. 'I have seen this city before, Warden Denethor,' the elderly man had said, 'and I know how much climbing there is. I will join you this afternoon.'

The second counselor, Gram, had never been beyond Rohan until this trip, and several times he nearly walked into walls or over people, so much did he gawk at the heights and majesty of Minas Tirith. Denethor remembered him as one of the men at Théoden's wedding who had spoken ill of Morwen and Gondor (though also of wizards), and he wondered at how the man had ended up a counselor of the young king.

His short stature and unlovely features marked Gríma as an outsider, but his bearing was dignified. He was careful to speak only in Sindarin, while Gram knew only a few words of it and needed to speak Westron. Gríma's face was composed and his manner collected, but his eyes gave him away. He could not help staring at things that attracted him, examining them sideways from under lowered lids. While Gram gawked, it was clear that Gríma learned. Denethor thought it time to find out what lessons the man had mastered.

'Gríma, I would show you more, but we are soon due to see the Steward,' Denethor said.

The man nodded slowly, eyes still taking in the sights. 'Thank you, High Warden, for your time. I am honored.' Gríma turned, fixing his dark gaze on Denethor. His eyes were hooded like a serpent's. Mongrel. Is Eorling mixed with Dunlending that different than Man mixed with snake? The Dunlending half had not been ennobled by the Rohirric blood, at least not in form or face. 'How old is Minas Tirith?'

'That depends on when you count it as founded. It was a fort in 2000 Second Age. It did not get a stone wall until 2400, which is when most count its founding.'

Gríma stared silently a few seconds before saying, 'And how long ago was that, pray tell, my lord? I... know not the years of the past ages.' The red on his cheeks put there by the wind was replaced by a stronger red from his embarrassment.

'Just over four thousand years.'

The counselor inclined his head. 'Thank you.'

'And what do you think of this old city?' Denethor pressed.

'I find it... large, yet also cramped upon this outcropping.'

'The land is left for tilling. Should we not set stone upon unlovely ground?'

'Yes. That is wise,' Gríma replied. He returned his attention to the drop below. 'How can a people get to the point where they may build such things?'

'Many years of toil.'

Gríma shook his head. 'That does not suffice. There is also wealth and trade. And might.'

'Earned through toil.'

'All toil. Some rob.' This was said very softly, under his breath in Rohirric. 'Forgive me my poor manners, High Warden,' Gríma swiftly added in Sindarin, 'I said "Such toil for so long." '

'And now it is our turn to toil, Councilor Gríma, for we must attend the Lord Steward.' Denethor did not wait for an answer, but gestured for the Rohirrim to follow him. A few yards away Imrahil and Baragund were waiting. There, too, was Brandir. He had come with Morwen. Brandir had said nothing when they met that morning, and his face betrayed no feeling. Denethor did not know what to do, so had simply nodded to his brother-in-law. Brandir did not return even that.

A guardsman was hailed on the walk to the Tower and told to bring Lord Walda to join them. When they entered the Tower, a servant led them to the council chamber. The Steward joined them a few minutes later. He greeted the visitors warmly in Westron, and bade them sit and drink warmed wine while they waited for Lord Walda. The man soon arrived and happily accepted his cup. For a time, Ecthelion wished only to hear the travelers' tales of their journey and of Rohan. Gram and Walda eagerly spoke of what they knew, while Gríma was silent, deferring to the older men. Denethor listened closely, gleaning the health of Rohan from the unguarded words. Though the year had been kind, their harvest had not been as good as it should have been. Wolves and wild men had killed sheep, goats, even some young colts. There was grain that was left in the field and roots that did not get to the cellars. Cloth and leather had been spoilt when the winter was too wet and made things mold. Fire had destroyed two small settlements in the Westfold. At this news, Walda had looked askance at Gríma. Denethor sifted through their disjointed stories and found the thread that bound it together. A young king is too distracted by the contests within his court to give much guidance to his people. Gálmód is not minding the land as he did for Thengel, so there is waste. Ecthelion glanced at Denethor, who nodded fractionally in return. It was time to start the true council.

'It is good to hear that Rohan flourishes,' Denethor began genially, 'for in your good fortune, ours is increased.'

'I do not think that the Mark is flourishing, High Warden,' Gríma countered. 'We have not suffered misfortune since the invasion a year ago, but our fortune is not equal to our toil.'

'But surely only by a small amount,' Ecthelion interjected in his most reasonable voice. Ah, you see it, too. 'Some ill chance will always dog our steps, and if some fortune is missed, it may be provided in another way.'

The lids on Gríma's eyes dropped a fraction. 'What way would that be, Lord Steward?'

'By Gondor, who has had a year of plenty and who looks upon Rohan with the love of a brother.'

Walda began to say something, but Gríma silenced him with a motion. 'And this love, Lord Steward, what price is set upon it?'

'Friendship is beyond price, Master Gríma,' Ecthelion gently answered, though his eyes narrowed.

'But friendship we already have, and in plenty, for which we rejoice,' was the smooth answer, 'so what is the price for what we lack?'

Denethor made a small motion with his hand to let Ecthelion know he was taking the conversation. 'The price of wool and grain is set by the traders, as you know.'

'And if we have not coin for them, then it matters not their price. We have not the deep purses of the southern lands. And there are things too dear for gold.'

'Promises from Rohan are as certain as gold. Payments may come later, when...'

'It is what you purchase from us, High Warden, that I speak of.' Gríma did not blink as he spoke. 'Toil and want, these the sons of Eorl know well. No danger can daunt our hearts, no hardship silence our songs.'

'The valor of Rohan is well known, Gríma.'

'Perhaps too well known.' Denethor was silent, wanting to see what Gríma was up to. 'Our king has thought deeply about the needs of his people, and thinks that too long we have defended borders that are not ours.'

'Our borders defend you as well!' Baragund snapped, not liking the cross-breed's words. 'Enemies have to come over Gondor first, to get to you.'

'Not last time. They came from Rohan into Gondor. We have borders to the north and west as well as the east. Whatever threatens from those directions will come over us first.'

Denethor made his voice disdainful. 'And we were attacked at the same moment last winter, so I see not the point of your argument, Gríma.'

'There is no argument, High Warden. Edoras has no argument with Mundburg. The king has decided that he needs to attend to arguments others would offer, and will be withdrawing all éoreds back to the Mark. There, they will guard our borders, as well as tend our fields and herds and see to the wealth of our own lands.'

'All the éoreds?' Baragund said, shocked. 'You can't mean that!'

'Yes, I can, or rather, King Théoden can. And he has. The Riders will return to the Mark when Queen Morwen returns.'

'As I counseled him to do.' All eyes turned to Brandir. He looked only at Denethor, his expression both stubborn and guilty.

Baragund found his tongue first. 'What were you doing offering such counsel? That is not for you to do.' Denethor winced at the captain's clumsy and impolitic words, and motioned for him to be silent. Thorongil would have known to wait until afterwards to question Brandir.

'Lord Brandir is Gondor's voice to Rohan upon my command, Captain Baragund,' the Steward said sternly, 'and offers such counsel as seems best. We have always trusted to his judgment.'

Baragund's face colored at the rebuke. He stood and bowed to Brandir. 'My apologies, my lord, for my impertinence.'

'Accepted, Captain,' Brandir replied with a nod, indicating the man should sit.

Gríma was looking at Brandir with resentment. You did not care for his counsel. Is it the counsel or the closeness to the king that you dislike? Should I ask him to explain himself? Denethor wished to know why Brandir offered such counsel, but had a feeling that his brother-in-law was seeking an occasion for an argument. Not here. Instead, he said, 'If King Théoden deems there is greater need for the Riders at home than upon Gondor's borders, we may not gainsay him. Though we shall sorely miss their presence, we look to be in a time of peace for several years, and shall manage without them.'

'That is what our king thinks best for the Mark,' Walda said, leaning forward to look at Ecthelion. Though the Steward had to be at least forty years older than the Rider, he did not look so ancient. The beads on the ends of Walda's snowy braids clicked on the table. 'This is my counsel as well. We need our young men home, Steward Ecthelion.'

Ecthelion smiled and nodded. 'Lord Walda, I have known you since you served in Gondor yourself, and Brandir has told me of your wisdom for many years. As the High Warden just said, it would be ill for us to gainsay your king, especially when his two dearest counselors,' here the Steward gestured at Walda and Brandir, 'agree with his rule. It is decided. How else may we aid you, our chiefest ally?'

Gríma's sour expression increased with the Steward's words to Walda, and Denethor doubted that Ecthelion missed it. The snub to Gríma was deliberate, yet done in a way that could not be answered directly without losing more face. The man soon mastered his displeasure and composed himself. Walda spoke at length to the Steward of the state of Rohan, repeating much of what had been said before and offering nothing that was of any advantage to Gondor. The light faded in the room as dusk approached.

When Walda finally finished his meandering account, the Steward thanked him and stood, bringing them to their feet and the council to an end. 'Lords and noble guests, we thank you for your company this afternoon. I understand that Lady Finduilas expects you and do not wish to keep you here when you could be in her presence. I wish you good evening.'

'You will not join us there, Lord Steward?' Gríma asked.

'No. I have affairs of state to attend to,' Ecthelion politely replied. 'Lord Brandir, if you will please remain?' The Steward nodded dismissal to the rest. Denethor bowed and led them from the chamber. Gríma was tight lipped, his eyes so narrow they were almost slits. The last insult by the Steward was great, but Gríma had none but himself to blame for allowing Walda to sidetrack the discussion. Baragund looked almost as discontented as Gríma. Walda did not appear to have noticed the insult and Gram was too busy gaping at the Tower to do anything else. Imrahil was thoughtful, throwing looks at the young half-blood counselor. Denethor decided to bait Gríma a little more.

'May I show you the Hall of the Kings? It is only a small sidetrack on our way to the ladies,' he said over his shoulder as they descended. Not waiting for an answer, Denethor led them to the tall metal doors that led to the hall. Two paces away, he said 'Open!' in a strong voice, and the doors swung back, revealing the dim and shadowed space. The hall echoed with the sound of their steps. Denethor walked slowly so the Rohirrim would have time to be awed by the majesty of the chamber. He halted before the throne and bowed to it, Baragund and Imrahil following suit. Gríma came forward, peering at the great stone seat and gem studded tree behind. Finally, he looked at Denethor. 'Greatness, Master Gríma,' Denethor said softly, 'Greatness and might.'

He led them out of the Tower. The sun had set and the Court of the Fountain was dark save for lamps under the arcade and the bare limbs of the White Tree, silver against the velvet night. Denethor paused to bow. 'And barren.' Gríma gave Denethor a sideways look and smiled.

The Stewards House was warm, full of light and women. Denethor greeted Morwen first. The woman was gaunt and dressed in black, her face set in hard lines. There was nothing frail or weak about her, however; to the contrary, it was as though every dram of softness had been drained from her form, leaving only a ferocious will behind. Aldwyn and Moraen were present, of course, as was Aiavalë. There was a girl with the flaxen head of an Eorling who he faintly remembered from Edoras. Morwen introduced her as her youngest daughter, Théodwyn. Aeluin and Mírwen were also there to wait upon the other women. Introductions were soon finished.

Finduilas drew Denethor to the side. 'Do you want discussion or distraction?' she murmured, smiling brightly and pretending to neaten his collar.

'Distraction.'

She kissed his cheek and called on Imrahil to entertain them with tales of his recent journey in the south. He did, often asking Baragund to add his observations or to assure the women that some tall tale really did happen. Aiavalë added her own corrections as she had ridden with them from Ethring to Minas Tirith. Walda and Gram were pulled into the stories, but Gríma stayed to the side, observing. It did not take Denethor long to notice that the young man paid close attention to Théodwyn. Beregar soon announced supper. It was a crowded dining table so Moraen, Aldwyn and Théodwyn bade the rest farewell and went to eat in the kitchen. Denethor suspected their motive was less courtesy than the desire to gossip, but did not object to more space at the table.

Denethor ate little and slowly, not wishing to dull his mind with a full stomach. Théoden was pulling his men back. Why? It was time for questions. First was to find out when they would leave.

'Morwen,' he said, 'when are you to depart for Dol Amroth?'

'I believe the ship should be here within the next few days.'

'I see. You will, of course, tarry here a few days on your return, will you not?'

Morwen nodded. 'Yes, though that will be long from now. I will spend spring and much of summer as Lady Luinil's guest.'

Denethor's brow furrowed. Waiting until the summer was half-gone before reclaiming the éoreds did not make sense. If they needed hands to plant and build, why not recall them now, instead of waiting for Morwen's return? Bargaining. Théoden wanted time for striking bargains. The question, then, was with whom was Théoden bargaining, Gondor or internal factions within Rohan? Given the composition of his counselors, the latter seemed most likely.

'When do you expect to return, cousin?' Finduilas asked Morwen. 'You said in the summer, but when?'

'August, probably.'

'When you do, I will ride with you at least part of the way to Rohan. As far as the Mering Stream, certainly.' Denethor stared at Finduilas, dumbfounded. She had resisted every suggestion he had made for her to leave the City, and now proposed to ride half way to Edoras. She caught his eye and smirked.

The idea obviously pleased the queen, for she smiled truly for the first time all evening. 'Yes, I would like that! Will you not come all the way to Edoras?'

'I will think upon it when the time draws nearer,' Finduilas promised. This gave Denethor an idea. It would depend on how peaceful the marches were at that time, but it would not raise too much suspicion. He tucked the plan away to focus on the immediate situation.

'Are the éoreds to wait for your return or will they depart for Rohan sooner?' Morwen looked at him, confused. The three Rohirric counselors exchanged alarmed glances. Ah, who neglected to inform the queen? 'Master Gríma told the Lord Steward that all éoreds in service to Gondor would accompany you to Rohan when you returned from Princess Hilda's wedding. I did not realize it would be so late in the year.'

Morwen gave each of the three counselors a searching look. Only Gríma would meet her eyes. 'I was not aware that any of the éoreds were returning, Denethor. Would you care to explain this to me, Gríma?'

'No.' He paused, waiting until the queen drew a sharp breath for a retort, then said, 'The King bade me to speak of this matter only with the Lord Steward and the High Warden and those of their counselors they saw fit to include in our conversation.'

'I would like for you to include Queen Morwen in this conversation, Master Gríma,' Denethor said quietly.

'As my king commanded me, so I obey,' the man silkily replied. 'My queen, King Théoden listened to several counselors say the men of the Mark who serve now in Gondor are needed more in the Mark than answering to Mundburg. He saw the wisdom in this, and commanded that they return when you did.'

Morwen sat very still, matching stares with Gríma until the man looked away. Only then did she give Denethor her attention. 'Unless the king sends you different word, Denethor, the éoreds will remain in Gondor until August.'

'When will they return?' Baragund asked.

'They're not,' was Gram's sharp reply. He had been applying himself to the wine all evening. Denethor had hoped for a loosened tongue, but had not really intended it for the supper table.

'What do you mean they're not?' the captain demanded.

Walda was trying to shush Gram, but the man waved away the elder's warning. 'Why should they return? They will simply be thrown into your border wars for no cause, as my own son is! Why can you not raise an army sufficient to guard your own borders? Breed more sons of your own and leave ours to us. Your wars drain us.'

'Our wars are yours, too. Do you think that our enemies do not also desire your defeat?' Imrahil reasonably offered. 'When your borders have been threatened, Gondor has come to your aid.'

Gram, face red from anger and drink, opened his mouth to answer. 'Enough.' Gram flinched at the sharpness in Gríma's voice. After a few heartbeats, the man muttered some apology and slouched in his chair. It fascinated Denethor that the older man allowed himself to be ruled by the younger, when he would not be ordered by Walda. Gram spoke your father's argument, Gríma. Do you not agree with it? Perhaps you think it the wrong time to say it. Something told him that the son's desires were other than the father's.

A warning glance from Denethor sealed Baragund's lips for further debate. The meal ended soon after. Denethor escorted the Rohirrim back to the guesthouse to the north of the Tower. Gríma hung back from the others as they entered the building, so Denethor waited. The young man studied Denethor, then cast his gaze upwards at the Tower, which glistened in the cold starlight.

'It is great,' the man said. 'Might I go up in it on the morrow, High Warden?'

'I will find someone to take you, Master Gríma. I have other business all day.'

'Is it four thousand years old?'

'No. It was rebuilt two hundred and ninety years ago, by the first Steward Ecthelion.'

'Why?'

'It had taken damage from a lightning strike some five hundred years before that, and the walls had weakened to the point that they feared it might fall down.'

'Things upon heights can be brought down.'

'And swiftly replaced, for their foundations are strong, sunk into the bones of the earth.'

'Bones need blood and sinew to stay upright.'

'What does Rohan require to stay upright?'

'Gold.' Gríma turned away from the Tower. His eyes were dark pits in his pale face, catching no starlight. 'A great deal of gold. Gold is the color of Rohan. The sheaves of our grain. The tresses of our women. The contents of our coffers.'

Denethor now saw the scheme. 'And the greater the gold of Rohan, the sooner Riders may return to Gondor?'

'That may be,' Gríma mused. 'Mayhap they need not depart at all. Good evening, High Warden.' With a dignified bow, Gríma went into the guesthouse.

Denethor strolled back to the Stewards House, paying no mind to the sharp, cold wind. No, the son most definitely had different desires than the sire. Gríma had ambition. He could look upon something fair and noble and aspire to it, perhaps all the more strongly because he was neither of those things. Thengel, your dreaming was not in vain. Gram may prefer the twilight, but Gríma wishes for greater things, and he has the king's ear. Denethor would need to meet with Hallas, Borondir and Baragund on the morrow to talk about gold. It might even be good to allow the Riders to depart late in the summer and let them spend a long, dull winter in Rohan. They would be chafing to return and Théoden would appear wise and strong for having made Gondor give more gold. Any small drain on the purse would be counterbalanced by securing Théoden in his rule. But there is a price for driving a bargain, young man, and you will find that Gondor does not need Riders as much as you believe.

The hairs on the back of his neck pricked as he crossed the court. Denethor swiftly scanned the arcades and the walks. To the east, above the tunnel, a figure stood upon the wall. Denethor strode to the stairs and climbed to the top of the wall. Brandir did not wait for him, but walked towards the end of the promontory and leaned on the wall, looking south. Denethor wrapped his cloak more tightly around himself and settled into one of the seats to try to stay out of the wind. It was a while before Brandir spoke.

'I visited with Boromir while you were at supper.'

'He must have been happy to see you.'

'I think so. I told Finduilas I would visit with her tomorrow.'

'She misses you.' Denethor swallowed. 'So do I.'

'Mmm.'

'You said you counseled King Théoden to recall his éoreds. I did not know you were in Rohan.'

'I am there often. Maiaberiel does not much care for my company right now.' Brandir sighed. 'But she is safe from you and Ecthelion and can order the town there as she wishes, so it is enough.'

'Who is counseling the king?'

'Wormtongue, mostly.'

'Who?'

'Gríma. Wormtongue. So his father named him when Gálmód lost the king's favor. It is not an inaccurate name. Morwen thinks it apt, and uses it on occasion.'

'Does Théoden listen to his mother's counsel?'

'He always listens, but he rarely takes it. There are a number who are strongly opposed to her, so he is wary of appearing but a child obeying his mother.'

'Who else?'

'Few, actually, but it matters not. There is little to decide in Rohan.'

'Save sending their Riders to Gondor. Gríma wishes to get more gold from Gondor in exchange for them.'

Brandir sighed. 'Yes. He has...strange...thoughts.'

'Looking towards the kingdom's wealth does not strike me as strange. A burden for Gondor, perhaps, but a position we can work with.' Denethor hesitated, then asked, 'And why did you counsel Théoden to withdraw his men? Are their hands needed that much?'

'They are not needed at all, and will probably be a problem unless they can content themselves with tilling instead of killing.'

'Then why your counsel?'

'To thwart you.'

Denethor considered that it might be best to stop and return to the house, leaving the rest unsaid. 'Do you seek to deprive Gondor of allies?'

'No! Not at all. I want to keep Théoden out from under your sway.'

'Why?'

'So you will be more careful of the people you use.' It was not difficult to make out Brandir's face. The white walls reflected the starlight, rendering his face in bone and shadow, with gems for his eyes. 'There will be no end of that until there is an end to you.'

'If I am so terrible, Brandir, then why do you not seek to put an end to me now?'

His brother-in-law winced. 'Say not such cruel things, Denethor! I have loved you from the day we met. Do you love me so little that you would wish me be a murderer?'

'No, Brandir, but if you account me wicked...'

'Yes, and so are we all. I even more than you. I simply wish you to be less wicked. Less cruel. Place not such trials on those who would fain love and serve you.' Brandir started laughing. 'Shall I cut a caper or two, say a merry jest? Such is a fool's counsel.'

'Has Thorongil returned to Rohan?'

That cut off the laughter. 'No.'

'Would you tell me if he did?'

'No.'

'Where are you staying?'

'In the Tower.'

'You should stay with us. It would make Finduilas happy.' Brandir sighed and shook his head. Denethor stood and embraced his brother-in-law before returning to the Stewards House. He went downstairs first and knocked on the door of Imrahil's room, hoping his other brother-in-law had not gone out drinking with Baragund.

'A moment.' Some noises of paper and cloth came from behind the door, then Imrahil opened it. 'Good, I hoped you would come by.' He motioned for Denethor to come in. Borthand was sitting against the far wall of the outer chamber, polishing Imrahil's boots. Denethor motioned for the pup to stay seated. 'Well, that was a surprise,' Imrahil said, pouring them each a small cup of peach brandy.

Denethor took a few sips before answering. 'Not really. I have been waiting for Théoden to do something to show his independence,' he lied.

Imrahil sighed. 'Yes, I can see that he would. But taking back the Riders? We'll have to do something about that.'

'To the contrary, we will do nothing about it. We will acknowledge that the éoreds are Théoden's to order as he pleases. We will insist that they leave, to show our respect for the king's authority. And then we will refuse to take them back for at least a year. Preferably two.'

Imrahil gave him a calculating glance, looking so like Adrahil it gave Denethor a small shiver. 'And we do this because...?'

'That is what you will have to tell me. Consider it a lesson in rule.'

The young prince grinned. 'No doubt a profitable lesson.'

'And therein lies a clue for you. But I also have a task for you. When Queen Morwen returns to Rohan, you will go with her and you will spend some time securing your friendship with Théoden. Offer no counsel, do nothing to sway him, but observe everyone else who does.'

'That sounds mysterious.'

Denethor shrugged and finished his brandy. 'It is what I ask of you.' With an embrace, he left Imrahil and went upstairs. Boromir was already asleep in his bed, so Denethor gave him a tender kiss and tucked him in more firmly against the chill air. Finduilas waited near the hearth in his study, Telperien in her lap. Before she could ask, he said, 'I spoke to Brandir. We did not argue. He said he was coming to see you tomorrow.'

'He was here with Boromir when I came upstairs and would not wait for you.'

'Would you like to tell me why you are going to Anórien? And am I invited to attend?' he mock growled, sitting at her feet.

'To see Wren, of course! She will have had her baby by then and be ready for some visitors. Aiavalë will be coming along, too, and probably all the girls, so you might as well join us.'

'I will be sending Imrahil all the way to Rohan after that to speak to Théoden. Do you wish to go to Edoras?'

Finduilas made a face. 'No. I cannot see how Morwen has borne it all these years. It is mean and dull. I agree with her it is best if her remaining girls find husbands here in Gondor.'

'Send them to Luinil, and they will soon be paired off.'

Finduilas touched his face lightly to make him look at her. Her expression was serious. 'There is another reason to go to Anórien, though it may be futile.'

'And that is?'

'I do not wish to go again to Ithilien.'

He tried not to understand. 'Of course you are not going to Ithilien again!'

'I must find it. I know my dreams will lead me to the Tree in Ithilien, but...'

'No. You're not going there. You're not going to Anórien, for that matter, if you intend to...'

'I will go where I need to, prince.' They glared at each other and the cat quickly left to hide in the alcove. 'I must find it, Denethor,' she entreated softly. 'My tea will not last forever.'

She was shivering and limp when he finished with her. It was harder each time to remove the mariner's mark, but he did.



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Last Update: 10 Mar 12
Stories: 8
Type: Reader List
Created By: Aiwendiel


Of course there are thousands of stories out there, and I have only read a fraction of them. NOT intended to be a scientific survey! My picks of stories that I feel are particularly well written, stylistically interesting, lyrical... Regardless of era, topic or character.

Why This Story?

Truly exceptional writing by the very talented Anglachel, marvelously nuanced and mature, enriches understanding of the main characters as well as enhancing grasp of Gondor's recent history. Utterly believable backstory of Denethor II as portrayed by JRRT.

 

Story Information

Author: Anglachel

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - The Stewards

Genre: Drama

Rating: Adult

Last Updated: 07/01/09

Original Post: 02/23/04

Go to Hands of the King overview