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Hands of the King: 72. Due
Dol Amroth, 18 June, 2982 T.A.
'But it is not very far.' Aiavalë was being her most reasonable. 'I need your help with the boat.'
'I have not sailed in several years, sister.'
'I did last summer, and I remember how, but I can't do it myself.'
'I know where she means to go, my lord,' Beregar offered. 'It is the small isle in the bay. The truth is we could row there.'
'This afternoon.' Aiavalë gave him a quick kiss and hurried off to tell Brandir. Denethor gave Beregar a stern look, which made his nephew smile. 'Do you remember how to sail?'
'Well enough, sir.'
'We'd best be prepared to row.'
'We'll sail and all will be well. You'll see! If you will excuse me, I must see to Aeluin.' Denethor grumbled under his breath and dismissed Beregar, who walked off whistling a jaunty tune. The party was not all the Hound had received for his birthday. Adrahil and Luinil had presented him with a pair of fine horses, a strong gelding for himself and a gentle palfrey for Aeluin. Beregar was teaching Aeluin to ride. Denethor had given Beregar lands on the Pelennor and in eastern Anórien not far from the Rammas. Finduilas had tried to give him a house in Minas Tirith, but he stubbornly refused. 'I am the Hound and Aeluin is your Matron. We must stay with you,' he had said, Aeluin vigorously agreeing with him. Aiavalë and Brandir had made promises of gold and silver to build Finiel's dower, while Imrahil provided tack for the horses and Moraen had given several bolts of beautiful cloth from the south. Boromir had presented Beregar with a seashell.
Denethor shook his head over the strange whims that had overtaken Aiavalë and went to his morning council with Adrahil. Substantial reports had come in from Minas Tirith the day before and it was time to plan for the coming autumn. Imrahil served as their scribe, though he had nearly as many good insights to offer as the Prince. The look of pride on Adrahil's face at his son's wisdom was unmistakable.
'Will Théoden send any Rohirrim this fall?' Adrahil asked. 'If you think there will be a late campaign by Khand, then we would do well to have Riders in south Ithilien.'
'Why not, Denethor? Are they not allies?'
Denethor looked to Imrahil. 'Father, our kinsman Théoden is not yet full master of his lands. Until he is, and is seen as dealing with Gondor from a position of strength, ambitious men will seek to weaken him.'
'He is so weak he cannot send an éored?'
'Gondor, too, must secure her position, Prince,' Denethor said. 'This will be the first campaign since our illustrious captain scurried off with his tail between his legs.' Adrahil snorted at the description, though Imrahil's expression was troubled. 'We need to show that we do not need any outsiders to secure our borders, not even the Rohirrim.' The conversation moved to other concerns - trade, harvest, pirates - and Imrahil's strange mood passed. As they left the Prince, Imrahil caught Denethor's arm.
'Brother Denethor, I hear that you are in need of a sailor this afternoon.'
'Where did you hear that?'
'From Sir Hound. I have just the right man for you.'
'Me, of course! The tides around Goat Islet can be tricky and it would not do for you to run aground.' Imrahil clapped him on the shoulder and walked away backwards. 'I must see to a few things, but will meet you in the court after dinner.' With a wave, the young prince dashed off. Finduilas and Moraen were still holding their own council over the news from the City, examining Borondir's reports in great detail, while Boromir was off with Halmir riding Boots in the hills beyond the keep. Denethor went to the garrison to find his midday meal, talking to the guardsmen about their concerns. A few wished to remain in Dol Amroth to care for elderly parents or to wed a sweetheart. Denethor said they would have to find a replacement and seek the permission of the Lady, for they served her. After dinner, Denethor loitered in the court until Imrahil emerged from the keep, Lady Ivorwen on his arm.
'Alas, my lady,' he said charmingly when they drew close, 'I am promised to the Warden for the afternoon to speak of dull matters of rule.'
'That is most unkind of you, High Warden, to keep Prince Imrahil occupied with serious things all the day long,' Ivorwen mock-scolded. 'Have you not already had him all morning?' She leaned against Imrahil and gazed up at him with an enticing expression.
'And tomorrow as well,' Denethor said curtly. Beruthiel would love to have one like you about. 'Prince, if you will?' Without waiting for an answer, Denethor turned on his heel and strode from the keep.
Imrahil caught up with him a few yards past the gate. 'Did you mean that?'
'Tomorrow, too? Say yes!'
'If I have one more girl making eyes at me, I shall jump from the wall into the Sea to escape,' Imrahil growled.
'You did not look like you wished rescue a minute ago.'
'Mother would have my ears if I were less than pleasant to one of her guests.'
'It is such a burden to have the admiring attention of a beautiful girl?'
'Not you, too!' Imrahil groaned. 'Why is everyone so eager to see me wed? I am not even thirty!'
'I said nothing of marriage. Don't you care for Ivorwen's company?'
'She makes my skin crawl. How soon are we going back?'
'That depends on tides...'
'To Minas Tirith!'
'I can send you to Baragund tomorrow, if you wish, though your parents will be unhappy.'
Imrahil sighed. 'No. I will stay.' He glanced at Denethor and chuckled. 'If only I had your talent, brother.'
'For intimidating everyone for ten paces around you with a single haughty glance.' Denethor raised an eyebrow and gave Imrahil a cold stare. 'Exactly! If I could do that, they would stay away. At least the silly ones.' As they walked through the steep streets towards the docks, Denethor watched Imrahil from the corner of his eye, thinking the conversation not quite done. 'How... if I may be inquisitive... when you... Did your mother and sisters try to find you a wife?'
'Lucky,' Imrahil muttered under his breath.
'Though Aiavalë said I was an idiot if I did not marry Finduilas, and I take the Archivist's advice very seriously.'
They were drawing close to the lower gates. 'And how... did you... When did you know that you had found your wife?'
'When your father introduced us.'
Denethor let his brother-in-law think that over while he looked for his other brother-in-law. Brandir waved from the deck of a small, sleek sailboat. Aiavalë was also there, barefoot and wearing the loose shirt and trousers of a sailor. Beregar sat on a barrel nearby, patiently waiting. When he saw Imrahil, he hopped down and began helping the other prepare the boat to sail. Aiavalë joined in. Denethor decided it was best if he find an out of the way spot and let the others do their work. Soon, they were leaving the harbor and heading for a small rocky island a few miles out in the bay. They went to the far side and dropped anchor. The cliffs were rugged here, and there were small caves carved out of rock by the waves. The water was very clear so you could see down to the rocky floor which extended several hundred feet out from the islet before dropping again into the bottomless depths. Silver shoals of small fish swirled about, diving and twisting like swallows before vanishing into the cobalt deeps. All around, there were long strands of kelp waving like tree limbs in a breeze. Seals basked on the sun warmed rocks, lazily picking up their heads to see their new visitors.
Imrahil pulled off his shirt and sprawled on the deck, a silver seal soaking up the sun. Denethor had already rid himself of his boots, so followed suit. When he had pulled off his shirt, however, he froze in astonishment. Aiavalë was shrugging out of her shirt. She had a singlet on underneath, but it was very thin and not particularly modest. Then she began slipping out of her trousers.
'Aiavalë! What are you doing?'
'Going swimming.' Under the trousers were some light linen drawers that just covered her upper thighs. Her deformed left leg was completely exposed; her thigh pinched inwards as her lower limb splayed out, her foot flat and broad with the two outer toes fused together, the whole much shorter than her right leg. Her left arm was less exaggerated, but there was no hiding its stunted form. Aiavalë neatly folded her clothes and limped to the side of the boat. It made Denethor wince to truly see how difficult it was for her to walk, the painful twists of bone and muscle that made up her stride. Aiavalë herself paid it no mind. Jumping off the boat with a great splash, she surfaced a few yards away. 'Come in! The water is warm.'
'Just a moment!' Brandir called out. He disrobed entirely and jumped in, unabashed to let Aiavalë see him naked. Imrahil was sitting up now, grinning at Beregar, who had a hand over his eyes but was laughing. 'Denethor, come swim,' Brandir said.
'There's nothing any of us haven't seen about you already,' Aiavalë cheerfully added.
A loud splash announced Imrahil's entry in the water. His clothes were in a pile near the mast. He surfaced, his slick hair making him look more like a seal than ever. 'Sir Hound, you're next!'
'Oh, no! Someone has to be ready to pull you all out of the water,' Beregar called back.
Denethor waited until Aiavalë ducked under the water again before dropping his trousers and diving in. The water was not exactly cold, but did not have the warmth of the northern cove. It was more clear, however. A shadow passed over him and a hand gave his shoulder a shove. Imrahil got away before Denethor could grab him. They both broke the surface, Denethor determined to catch his mischievous brother-in-law. Imrahil might be a more practiced swimmer, but Denethor had greater strength and was used to swimming against river currents, so they were evenly matched. Whenever Denethor tried to grab the imp, Imrahil would dive into the kelp strands, as graceful as an eel in the slippery fronds. After several minutes of hunting, Imrahil began to tire and finally Denethor snagged him by a leg. Since they were already under water, there was no point in ducking the man, so Denethor pulled him by his feet to the surface, not letting Imrahil get his head above water until he thrashed free of Denethor's grip. It was worth a few bruises.
'Quit drowning Imrahil and come swim with me!' Aiavalë commanded. Denethor stayed near her while she paddled around. She was not a very good swimmer though she got where she wished to go. They avoided the kelp so she would not have to fight with it. A half grown seal pup came over to investigate them, curious at the strange beasts that had invaded his waters. He stayed well beyond arm's reach, but did not flee, diving below them when they went under the surface and popping his head out to look at them as they floated. At Aiavalë's direction, Denethor dove to the seafloor three fathoms below to gather things she wished to see, for she could never get herself deeper than a few feet below the surface.
When Denethor surfaced from one of his dives, Beregar was whistling sharply and waving for them to come back. Brandir was already on board the ship. Imrahil swam out to them. 'I saw a large shark not far away,' he said. 'They hunt the seals on the island. They prefer seal to man, but we should get out of the water.' When they got back to the boat and Aiavalë was safely on board, Denethor slipped under the surface, trying to see the shark. A hundred yards off he saw it circling just beyond the kelp. It was a steely blue on top and pale white underneath, with a black tip to its largest fin. No Orc had ever made Denethor as fearful as the shark did now. It was hunger made flesh. With a shiver, he surfaced and swiftly pulled himself aboard.
Swimming might be out of the question, given their dangerous visitor, but none of them wished to return yet. Denethor was glad to have his trousers back on. They lazed on the deck of the ship, watching the waves and the seals on the rocks, occasionally peering into the water to see if the shark was still about. Imrahil found hooks and fishing line in a basket and soon he, Beregar and Brandir were sitting along the port side, lines in the water, intent on catching supper. Aiavalë went to the prow and sat with her feet dangling over the side, looking at the islet and the green line of the northwestern bay shore. Denethor sat behind her, legs to either side, arms loosely around her.
'Isn't this better than some council chamber?' she asked. 'Even with our fishy friend keeping an eye on us.'
'Yes, it is, sister, but if you wished to swim, we should have gone to the cove.'
'I wanted to come here.'
'This was where Îbal asked me to be his wife. I wanted to see it again.'
Denethor embraced her tightly. 'I am happy for that, Aiavalë. And sad, as well, that you don't have him still.'
'It is better this way.'
'How can you say that? Better that your husband is dead?'
'He's not. He is no longer here, but he is not dead. In this world, perhaps, but not really.' Aiavalë squeezed Denethor's hand. 'I am used to sorrow, so all I need is that tiny bit of joy to be content the rest of my years in this wretched place.' She sighed. 'Though I would not have minded just a little more. I was ready to be made wife right here, but he would not hear of it.'
'So my other brother-in-law was also a gentleman...'
'An old hen, just like you!' Aiavalë scowled. 'As if I was not a woman grown and able to decide for myself if I would accept him or not. When I knew he was to be in Pelargir, I was not going to wait.'
'After you told me, I ... hoped that perhaps...'
He laid his hand lightly over her belly. 'Perhaps this. A baby for you. If you could not have your husband...'
Aiavalë pulled his arms more tightly around her. 'It doesn't matter. Who knows what it would have looked like. Besides, I have one.' She leaned back and kissed his cheek. 'You're my baby, little brother. You know that.'
'And if I want squalling voices and dirty diapers, I can always visit you. There are advantages to just being an aunt, you know. Speaking of which, when are you and Alquallë going to have another baby? It is getting to be time for a second.'
'That is for Finduilas to decide.'
'You two have been breeding so much, I thought perhaps it would be soon.' He hid his face against her neck and groaned, making her laugh. 'Well? Has she decided she wants another? It certainly sounds like it, with all your yelping and thumping.'
'Not yet,' he said, still hiding his face.
'Well, someone needs to have a baby soon, because Morcollë and Finiel are half grown already.'
'Why don't you visit Wren?' he mumbled, earning a poke in the ribs.
'I will get to see Lark and her babies on the way through Pelargir. We are stopping for more than a day, aren't we?'
'If you wish.'
'Yes. I need to see the archive and...' They spent an hour discussing the archives, what Aiavalë had found in Morthond, and other business. It was becoming too warm to stay out without being able to get in the water, so they decided to go back. Imrahil and Denethor went to raise the sails while Brandir and Aiavalë stowed away the water skins and fishing lines and Beregar hauled up the anchor.
It happened quickly. Beregar was bent over, pulling the anchor over the side when Aiavalë slipped and fell against the boom before Brandir could grab her. Beregar started up, turning towards the sound, and the boom caught him sharply across the temple, spinning him around and over the side of the boat, pulling the anchor and line after him. After a second of shock, Imrahil dove after Beregar, Denethor right after him, pausing only long enough to grab his knife.
The anchor dragged Beregar swiftly to the bottom, the rope wrapped around him. Long strands of kelp reached out and twined around the man and the rope. One end of the anchor became wedged under an outcropping of rock and Imrahil was unable to pull it free. The anchor rope was taut around one of Beregar's arms and his waist, binding him to the sea floor. Denethor sawed at the rope further up, the tough strands reluctantly giving way to the northern blade. The tide was changing, making the kelp snap back and forth, whipping at the rescuers and stirring up sand from the bottom. Not far off, several sharks circled, drawn by the activity. His chest hurt for lack of air, but Denethor knew he could not leave Beregar. The rope snapped in two, releasing the tension, the upper end whipping against Denethor's chest. Imrahil clawed at the rope and kelp, frantically trying to free Beregar, who was limp, limbs waving like the seaweed. Denethor hacked at the kelp, which was reluctant to let go of its victim, inflicting small cuts on Beregar as he did. In his ears, the mariner's flute played a dirge and around his neck, the lanyard tried to tug him away from Beregar. The sharks came closer with every circle.
The last tendril was cut away and Beregar began to float upwards. Denethor grabbed one arm, Imrahil the other, and they clawed their way to the surface under the deadly gaze of the sharks. The boat had drifted away without the anchor to hold it in place. Imrahil turned on his back, and cradled Beregar in his arms. 'Pull us,' he gasped. Denethor let drop his knife and grabbed Imrahil under his arms, kicking strongly. It seemed forever, but they made it to the side of the boat without being seized from below and were hauled onto the deck.
Imrahil checked for a pulse, then turned Beregar on his stomach, straddled him and began pressing on his back. 'He has to bring up the water, or it will stay in his lungs and drown him,' Imrahil said tersely. Beregar's lips and extremities had a blue cast. Denethor put his ear near the man's mouth, but could not hear a breath. 'Come on, Hound, breathe!' Imrahil commanded and thumped Beregar sharply with a fist. That forced a trickle of water out of his mouth and made Beregar gasp. Imrahil thumped him again and got a cough and more water. Now Imrahil placed his hands across Beregar's middle back and threw his weight onto them, bringing up water and a dribble of blood. Beregar coughed and gasped several times before taking a real breath. Then another. Liquid was dribbling from his mouth and nose. Denethor grabbed someone's shirt lying on the deck and mopped it away.
Imrahil motioned for Brandir to come over. 'Keep pressing and rubbing his back to clear his lungs. We have to get back to shore at once.' Denethor went with Imrahil and helped get the sails up. There was a strong breeze that bore them swiftly to the harbor. Dolphins joined them on their race as though to guide them to the haven, keeping pace through the waves and occasionally leaping from the water in graceful arcs. They stayed with the boat all the way to the dock.
'We had a man overboard, get a stretcher!' Imrahil bellowed, throwing lines to the dock hands to secure the ship before leaping down to the pier. It took only a minute for several men to dash up with a canvas sling and two poles. They lifted Beregar from the boat and placed him in the sling. His breath was still ragged and he had not woken, but his lips were no longer blue. Denethor told Brandir to help Aiavalë back to the keep and strode after the stretcher. Word went even more swiftly to the keep and a crowd was gathered just inside the gate. 'Make way! Out of our path!' Imrahil called, waving people off. 'We need to get him to the healers.'
A hand grabbed Denethor's arm. It was Halmir. Aeluin clung to him. 'What happened?'
'An accident. We were getting ready to come in. The boom swung and hit him in the head, knocking him out. He fell in the water. Imrahil and I dove in and pulled him out. We got the water out of his lungs, but he hasn't woken up.' Halmir nodded curtly and walked off with Aeluin towards the keep. Denethor followed them to the infirmary.
A man with a shaved head and a neat beard was peering into Beregar's eyes, first one, then the other. He gave soft instructions to a young woman, who nodded and left. The man continued to examine Beregar's limp form which had been undressed. Abrasions from the rope stood out purple and red from his pale skin, and the cuts from Denethor's knife seeped blood. Aeluin was silently weeping in Halmir's arms. The prentice came back quickly with a bundle of bandages and a pot of herbal paste. With great care, the healer applied the paste to the cuts and abrasions, binding up the wounds with the cloth. Beregar's labored breath could be heard in every corner of the room. When the healer finished, he laved his hands in a basin and came to Aeluin.
'Mistress, this is your man, yes?' She nodded. 'He is gravely hurt.' At those words, Aeluin sobbed loudly, hiding her face against the Lost who held her and murmured something soothing. The healer waited until she had composed herself. ' Do not despair. His breath may sound wretched, but it is strong. We must be careful that he does not take an ague, and that his wounds do not fester. Aside from that, we must wait for him to wake. He is bruised, but none of his wounds are as serious as they look.'
'May I sit with him?'
'Of course, Mistress.' Halmir brought chairs over and took a seat across from Aeluin. The healer motioned for the prentice to wait upon Aeluin, and turned to Denethor and bowed. 'If you will come with me, my lord?' He followed the man to a small, precisely arranged apothecary. 'I am Healing Warden Egalmoth, my lord. How came you by your wound?'
It was only then that Denethor remembered he was half clothed. His chest was bare and a red welt lay across it. The cords of the lanyard were still damp. 'When Beregar was knocked overboard, he tangled in a line that drew taut. I cut it and it snapped and struck me.'
'The paste I applied to your man will dull the pain and keep contagion away.' Egalmoth expertly applied the last of the paste. It stung at first, like salt water, but soon made the abrasion numb. 'Leave the paste on until it falls off of its own, then wash the wound with cold water. Stay away from warm water for three days and come back to see me if it swells or smells bad.'
Finduilas appeared in a rush at the doorway. She started forward to embrace him, but drew up short at the sight of the welt and the lanyard. 'I am all right, my lady,' Denethor swiftly assured her. 'We should not keep the healer from tending Beregar.' They walked away, Finduilas casting worried glances at his chest. 'Where is Boromir?'
'With Father. So is Finiel.' Denethor retuned to their rooms so he could dress decently. Finduilas waited until he was almost finished dressing. 'What happened, friend?'
'Aiavalë slipped when we were preparing to return and knocked the boom into Huan. It struck him hard in the head and threw him over the side. He was hauling up the anchor at the time and got tangled in the line. It pulled him to the bottom. We had to cut him free and it took a long time. Perhaps too long.'
'Where is Lady Lore?'
'With Brandir. They should be back to the keep by now. Where are my...?' Boots. On the boat. He did not think they had fallen overboard. They did not matter. 'We should go see if Beregar has woken.' The stone floors were smooth under his bare feet. Aiavalë and Brandir were sitting with Aeluin and Halmir, Aiavalë weeping. Like Denethor earlier, she was barely decent in her clothes. Finduilas coaxed her to return to her quarters and dress. Brandir went with them. Finduilas returned by herself some time later.
'Aiavalë is resting. Brandir said he would stay with her,' Finduilas said.
They sat silently as afternoon became evening, listening to Beregar breathe. Warden Egalmoth came by every so often and checked his patient, but never offered any words. After sundown, Borthand came and said that Finiel was asking for Aeluin. Aeluin allowed Halmir to take her away.
Egalmoth came in to check Beregar again. He held a lantern close to the man's face, forcing Beregar's eyelids open, looking intently. With a sigh, he straightened up. 'Lord Denethor,' he said very quietly, just above a whisper, 'I fear your servant will not wake. The blow to the head is more severe than the ducking he took, though that has probably complicated the head wound. His eyes do not respond to light.'
'Have you nothing for such injuries?'
'No, not like this. If his eyes twitched, it would be another matter, but there is scarcely a soul left in his form. Enough to breathe, but even that becomes more shallow. He is leaving.' The healer touched Beregar's forehead gently. 'I am sorry.'
When the healer left, Denethor moved his chair closer so he could take Beregar's hand. It was cool to his touch. No. You must not leave. Under the soles of his feet, Denethor heard a whisper of stone and commanded it to speak to him. It was an ancient voice, older even than the City, and it spoke of struggle. Wind and wave, pirate and plunderers, all sought to snatch something from this stone. Beneath the carved caverns, bedrock went down and out and encountered the Sea. Always, the tides tore at the stone, sometimes breaking off a piece but more often grinding away at its strength, transforming rock into sand. 'Why stand, proud tower?' the waves enticed, 'Why not fall away from your ragged mortality and be eternal with us?' In his mind, Denethor saw again the towers of Avallónë. Can even they endure against that patience? But something undergirds the Sea and sustains it - unvanquished were it hurled/beneath the foundations of the world. Love.
'You will remain, Huan.' Denethor stood and called for Egalmoth. 'Have boiling water brought here. I will return shortly.' He strode back to their quarters, retrieving Finduilas's tea. What would Beren have denied Huan for his defense of Lúthien? Naught. By the time he returned, the prentice and the warden were there with a kettle. Finduilas already had a mug ready, obviously having anticipated what Denethor was fetching. Denethor measured a single spoon of the powder into the mug, before pouring in a small amount of water and mixing them well. Let the surgeon's suspicions be right. Let my hands be as Thorongil's and bring healing. Let the Hound answer his master's call. He added more water and the scent of the leaves filled the room. Finduilas waited by the bed with a sheet. When Denethor sat and brought the mug near to Beregar's face, she cast the sheet over them both, making a tent to capture the mist. The prentice and Egalmoth understood what they attempted and helped arrange the cloth.
Denethor took one of Beregar's hands. 'Beregar, Huan of a later age, heed me. Come back. The Lady has not released you.' For several minutes, there was nothing, then Beregar's brown furrowed for just a moment. Denethor lowered his own head to touch his forehead to Beregar's. You must remain, nephew. You will break our hearts if you go. Come back. Your wife and daughter weep for you. Do not leave them in sorrow. Beregar took a deep breath and his hand gripped Denethor's. Denethor looked into Beregar's heart and Saw that it was riven, though the two parts still lay close together. Beregar, be whole. Breathe in the good you have done. The world is less marred for your brave heart. Do not leave us. The man moved and whimpered like a pup. In the rift that split his heart, there were dark threads, reminding Denethor of the strings of black bile Dragon Fire had embedded in his own arm. He bent his will towards those dark tendrils just as he did towards the mariner's mark on Finduilas, and seized each in turn, exposing it to the steam of the tea to make it wither away. As each strand was pulled away, the parts of Beregar's heart could touch once more. The Sea pounded against the stone under his feet and the mariner's voice echoed. Forgive. 'You are forgiven, Huan.' The Powers made you their instrument and cast you into the mud, an abomination, when they were done using you, but we love you and forgive your trespass. A low cry came from Beregar's mouth, rising to a howl. Denethor awkwardly pulled his nephew to his chest with one arm, trying not to spill the precious tea. We love you. We need you. Beregar, return to us. Beregar's arms rose and he hugged Denethor to him, weeping. His heart remained scarred and bent, but the dark tendrils were gone.
The prentice and Egalmoth lifted the sheet while Finduilas hurried to take the mug of tea. Denethor held Beregar as though he cradled Boromir, rocking his nephew gently while the young man sobbed. When he calmed, Egalmoth briefly examined him, shaking his head in amazement. Denethor asked the healers to leave them alone.
Finduilas brought over the mug and held it out to Beregar. He sipped at first, then eagerly gulped the mixture. She sat on the bed and stroked his hair. 'You were in such distress, Beregar, I thought my heart would break hearing you.'
'I wanted to go,' Beregar whispered.
'I was clean. All the blood, gone.' He buried his face against her, shivering. 'It's... still...' They waited for him to stop shaking. 'But I could not. I heard a beautiful song, and then I heard weeping. The old man, he said I must choose.'
'That was Aeluin weeping, for fear of losing you,' Finduilas said softly, 'and all of us who love thee, dear, brave friend.'
'For love of you, I will live, even with this.'
'You must stay awake for a time, after receiving a blow like that,' Denethor added. He eased Beregar back onto the bed, collected the mug and returned it to the table where he had mixed the tea, slipping the small bottle of powder into his pocket. Was it this, or me? What healed thee, Huan? His fingers found the lanyard under his shirt. You? What was your role in this? 'I will go get Aeluin.' On the way to the room, Denethor hailed Borthand and told the pup to go collect everything from the boat. When Aeluin saw him in the doorway, her faced paled and she hugged Finiel tightly to her. Denethor held up a hand. 'Nay, Mistress, fear not. I bring good news. Beregar woke a short while ago, and...'
Aeluin sped from the room so quickly, Finiel in her arms, Denethor did not have time to finish. Halmir gestured for them to follow her. 'He woke. How is he?' the Lost asked.
'Weak. It was a dire blow.'
'What did the healer do?'
'He woke on his own?'
Denethor shook his head. 'You know that Finduilas has a tea.' Halmir nodded. 'The herbs for it, that is what sent us into danger last year. We stirred a cup of it for him. The scent brought him back, and the tea itself will keep him here.'
Thorongil's favorite herb. Not a secret to the northerners, it would seem. 'No. Something more rare.'
'Not your business.'
That brought a grim shadow of a smile to Halmir's face. 'As you say, sir.' The man's expression softened and he halted. 'But... Beregar, he will be all right?'
'Yes. Thank you for attending Aeluin. You have become close to them.'
Halmir looked down at Denethor's bare feet for several heartbeats. [Like son. Same year. Sword, too.]
Halmir shook his head. [Daughter.]
[Yes. Daughter. Never see.]
[When daughter little?]
[Four.] Halmir's face twisted and he turned away, walking a few steps, hands flexing. His expression was bitter when he looked back. [Follow stupid. Lies.]
'I release you now, Halmir. Your service is done.'
[Never. Always stupid.] 'If you permit it, Lord Denethor, I will remain until we return to Minas Tirith. Let it not be said that all of the Lost are without honor.'
Pelargir, 12 August, 2982 T.A.
They made their way through the sprawl of Pelargir. Denethor did not wish to be beholden to any of the Pelargir lords, so had let a house in the city proper for them to stay in. Imrahil, Halmir and Borthand were for the garrison, while Moraen and Aiavalë had already declared that they would stay in Moraen's house with Mírwen and a few guardsmen. Aldwyn had not rejoined them. Two days after Beregar woke, word came from Langstrand that Hilda was safely delivered of a boy and that Aldwyn had received permission from Queen Morwen to remain with her sister until the following spring to help with the baby.
The trip from Dol Amroth to Linhir had been long and merry. Adrahil and Luinil had decided that they would journey with them along the coast road to survey the princedom and to visit with all of their children and grandchildren together in Linhir. Lord Angrist and Lady Rían had been delighted when they heard of the plan, and had met them several days out from the city so they could all journey together for a while. Unfortunately for Imrahil, this meant that he had another month of Lady Ivorwen's tenacious company. Denethor took pity on him and often commanded his brother-in-law's presence to inspect something or meet with local officials.
The pace was even slower from Dol Amroth to Linhir than it had been from Erui to Ethring. The summer heat made for long stops at midday and they rarely traveled for more than three days in a row. Though all turned out to see the Lady and her company, there were not that many people in Belfalas as compared to the shores around Cobas Haven, and they were of a more dignified mien. In the evenings, the encampments were filled with stories and singing, and it seemed that the stars stooped down to listen, almost close enough to touch. They abandoned sleeping in the wagons in exchange for pallets under the stars. It was cooler outside of the canvas covers and they did not have to worry about creaking.
The road ran close to the headland along the western coast of the peninsula, moving inland once past the southern reach of the Hills of Tarnost and making straight to Linhir. When they were in sight of the Sea, Beregar would watch the glitter of the waves, sometimes reaching up to touch his mouth and chin. The man had not spoken again of his meeting with the mariner, and had fallen back into his silence of the spring, though his manner was thoughtful rather than withdrawn nor did he cling to Finduilas. He kept Aeluin at his side, using the slow pace to continue her riding lessons on the palfrey, Blossom. Aeluin either did not notice or did not care about her husband's quiet, and was gay the whole trip. The addition of the Prince's household to the caravan did not daunt her in the least, and Adrahil joked that he was going to claim her as his next quartermaster, so expertly did she order about his Swan Knights.
Beregar's accident had also sobered Aiavalë. She had fussed over Beregar until he was back on his feet and then had thrown herself into archival business with Brandir and Moraen's help. She had introduced Denethor to Îbal's family. Though not noble, they were an old clan of great honor. It turned out Gethron was of some kin to Îbal on his mother's side. Îbal's elder brother, Ulbar, was the harbor master of Dol Amroth, and insisted on presenting Denethor with a dower for Aiavalë on his brother's behalf. After making certain what Aiavalë had said before to the family, both Denethor and Brandir said they had witnessed Îbal and Aiavalë's vows in Pelargir.
Pelargir gave the least exuberant welcome to Finduilas they had yet seen on the sojourn. It was one of the worst kinds of days in the river city - hot, damp, dirty, the stench of dead fish tainting the air - and all were listless. Even so, the denizens came out of the shade of their houses and shops to watch her pass, and some called out blessings for her mercy and benevolence. Her gifts to Umbar were known and many in this port city had ties to the south.
Finduilas herself did not respond much to waves or cries. Ever since they left Linhir, she had become more quiet, like Beregar. Boromir had noticed and stayed close to her, keeping Boots next to Gull, bringing her small treasures and treats he found, refusing to sleep apart from her. Denethor did not have to ask for the reason; the growing height of the Ephel Dúath on the horizon was explanation enough.
The house Finduilas had let was only a street away from Moraen's home, so the women came to help get the Warden and the Lady settled into their lodgings. The sun was setting when they finished. Finduilas and Aeluin insisted on returning the favor and soon left to air out the other house. Denethor said he was going to the garrison for the evening and left Beregar to order the guardsmen. The garrison was cooler than the house, though closer to the smell from the river. Captain Gildor hurried over to greet Denethor, then looked expectantly past him.
'The Lady rests this evening, but said she will pay a call on the garrison tomorrow.'
'Of course, my lord. All the men wish to raise a toast in her honor.' Gildor led Denethor on a quick inspection of the garrison. It was as neatly kept as Henneth Annûn. Denethor was pleased to see that Bard had risen to be one of Gildor's lieutenants. 'Captain-General Baragund has sent word that he will arrive the day after tomorrow, and has sent reports ahead for you to review.'
'Thank you, Captain. I will read those until supper. You and your lieutenants will join me.' There was nothing unusual in Baragund's report except that there was nothing unusual. No scouting, let alone raiding, parties from Mordor. No sign of trouble along any border. No danger. It felt wrong.
At supper, Denethor said nothing of the possibility of war with Khand that fall, wanting to hear the opinions of the men. Bard and the other lieutenant, a local man of the marshes, said nothing of great insight, content to let their captain do the thinking. Gildor himself asked many questions about the condition of the falas, earning him a grim nod from Halmir. As they sipped wine afterwards, Gildor said, 'What of the Rohirrim, my lord? They have been gone a full year now. When will they return?'
'Do you need them?'
'Not in Pelargir, but in Poros.'
'Plains fighting favors horses.'
'You're not getting any.'
Gildor studied the contents of his cup, thinking. 'Ever?'
'Perhaps not. We must trust to our own for our defense.' Halmir nodded once. When the meal ended, Denethor told Imrahil to accompany him back to the house. They did not go there, however. Denethor needed better news of the south. He led Imrahil down alleys and over rooftops until they came to a shuttered building in the Merchants Quarter. One of the grandchildren let them in almost as soon as Denethor had tapped the code, took them to the small room near the front of the house and left them there. They waited long before slow steps sounded in the hall.
Ragnor entered, his face weary and lined. Denethor knelt before him, Imrahil doing so as well. 'Yusil, I did not think you would come.'
'Of course I have come, uncle. I bring my kinsman for your blessing.'
Ragnor reached under Imrahil's chin and made the young prince look up. 'I have seen you before, nephew. You were on the fleet to Umbar.'
'Yes, uncle. I led the falas.'
'Then be blessed.' Ragnor lay his weathered hands on Imrahil's head, then on Denethor's. 'You, new nephew, I shall call you Hafed, for you are filled with the waves.'
'As you wish, uncle.'
With a sigh, Ragnor held his hands out to Denethor. 'I fear I have poor news for you, Yusil. Ahnkoral died a month past.'
'Ah! That is grievous news, indeed, uncle.' Denethor rose and embraced Ragnor. 'You should have sent me word that he was not well. I would have come.'
There was a knock at the door and the grandson brought in a tray of sweets and cold black tea. Ragnor gestured for them to sit around the low table. 'He did not wish it, Yusil. We knew you journeyed with the Lady and would come here eventually.'
'What brought him low?'
'Grief. He mourned the desecration of Umbar and he missed Magor. I told the boy he was not to go!' Ragnor sighed again, head bowed. 'Feydín it was who took him. Of that I am certain. Magor knew him from before and would have wheedled his way onto a ship.'
'What did he look like?' Imrahil asked.
'Like Yusil, here, but young. Just twenty.'
Imrahil shook his head. 'There were many of that description in the fleet.'
'And many uncles and mothers who still mourn,' Ragnor sadly concluded. 'But you come here to speak of trade, do you not, Yusil?' They spoke for an hour on the condition of the south. Ragnor's younger sons now traded on the water, for it was easier to dodge pirates than caravan robbers. Umbar had nothing and slew any who approached too near, Harad had naught to spare, and Khand pillaged as it pleased. The only peaceful lands were far to the south, where people had black skins and spoke in odd tongues. 'And there will be war in the fall, I fear,' the old man said. Imrahil shot Denethor a knowing look. 'Khand will march until it is stopped.'
'It will be. Do you go south in the spring?'
'There will be two caravans, one for a year-long trip, another until fall.'
'Hafed will go on the shorter trip, if it pleases you, uncle.'
Ragnor sized up Imrahil. 'Yes, it does, but he will need different hair. Umbar knows a Swan.'
'We must go, uncle, for my lady waits.'
'How long will you be here?'
'You must bring your little one here for Sarih and Keniha to see.'
'The Lady will wish to see her aunties again.'
Ragnor blessed them again and walked them to the door. Imrahil waited until they were several streets away before asking, 'And why am I to journey in a caravan to Harad?'
'You said you wanted respite form the girls. I doubt even Lady Ivorwen will follow you there.'
Imrahil doubled over with laughter. 'Truly, Denethor, you are the dearest of brothers!'
Pelargir, 16 August, 2982 T.A.
The days passed slowly in Pelargir in the height of the summer heat. The damp air made it difficult to draw a full breath, and Denethor longed for the crisp air of the mountains or the Sea. It was even worse for Finduilas and she retreated to the archive for some respite. She refused to consider taking a boat up the river to the cooler and dryer air of Minas Tirith. 'What rumors will start if I return without you, friend?' Boromir became cranky in the close and smelly ways, so Denethor took him as often as he could on the barge across the river to ride. Nothing could induce Finduilas to venture Anduin's currents, though she sent Gull along to mind them.
They lay in the shade of a solitary tree, resting after their midday meal, and watched the horses crop the sun-browned grass. The steeds were all lean from the long journey. Denethor expected Boromir to nap, given the heat, but the boy lay with his eyes open, head pillowed on Denethor's shoulder, looking up at the underside of the branches, a frown on his lips.
'Why is Mama sick?' Boromir did not stop frowning at the leaves.
'Why do you say she is sick?'
'Because she is. She coughs and she doesn't laugh anymore.' Boromir sat up and began picking at the grass and dead leaves. 'I... I've been good, Papa.'
'Yes, Morcollë. You have been good.'
'I haven't cried in, in, forever! And I remember to wash my hands. I have been very good!' Boromir said emphatically, 'but Mama is sick.'
Denethor sat up himself, confused by Boromir's train of thought. 'What does being good have to be with Mama being sick?'
'Dúlin said that when I was little and a bad boy, Mama was sick, but got well when I was good.'
'That is not so,' Denethor quickly said.
'Dúlin did not explain it well. Mama wasn't sick, she was tired.' From the look on his son's face, Denethor could tell he was not reassured. 'Wasn't Dúlin tired after her baby was born? She always yawned and had circles under her eyes? Well?' Boromir nodded. 'So, you see, a mother is tired when her baby is little. That's all.'
'But Dúlin said I was a bad boy, too. And Mama's tired.'
'We are all tired from the trip.'
'And she is coughing.' Denethor held out his arms and Boromir climbed into his lap. 'She should drink her magic tea until she is better.' Boromir began to sniffle. 'I'm being good!'
'Yes, Morcollë, you are being good.' The sniffles turned into sobs and Denethor rocked his son until he cried himself to sleep. The haze hid the eastern mountains from view. It is just the wear of the journey. We will be home soon, she can rest, and the coughs will subside. He was going to have some sharp words for their impertinent cook when they returned, that was for certain. He could not believe Dúlin had said something so cruel to the child. An offhand remark, meant to shame him out of some mischief, no doubt. Denethor pulled out a handkerchief and wiped away the tears and snot that clung to Boromir's face. You should not have fears like that. You are too little for such things. 'Mama and Papa love you, Morcollë,' he whispered in his baby's ear, 'and you are a very good boy.' When Boromir woke, they returned to Pelargir. Denethor did not want to let him go, and sat Boromir before him on Gaerhûl for the ride back. Boots and Gull followed.
The women were still at the archive, so Denethor took Boromir with him to the garrison. This cheered the child up considerably, for the soldiers doted on him and played mock sword fights to amuse him. Beregar collected them for supper and Imrahil and Borthand came as well. To Denethor's relief, Finduilas was almost her usual self that evening, and helped Boromir write a letter to the Steward. Boromir loved composing these missives, could write down a few sentences without much prompting, and always drew pictures to illustrate his adventures.
'"...and then we came back. The river still smells. I did swords with Bard and I won. I love you, Grandpa."' Boromir looked up expectantly. 'Is that right, Papa?'
'Yes. You beat Bard at swords. The Lord Steward will be pleased to know you are such a good swordsman already.'
Boromir beamed. 'I'm going to be the best. Ever!'
'Yes, you will!' Finduilas agreed, giving him a hug and kiss. 'You'll be my soldier?'
'Yes, Mama,' he said, with all the seriousness he could summon. 'I'll protect you, just like in Uncle Halmir's stories.'
She pinched his nose. 'I feel safer already! We need to seal your letter and put it in the messenger pouch.'
That night, Denethor lay awake watching his loves sleep. Boromir was limp in the careless, akimbo sleep of children, while Finduilas curled around him, every breath ending in a wheeze. He knew he would sooner suffer the torments of Dragon Fire than see harm come to them, yet fears assailed them and illness dogged them no matter his determination. Who could bear to see sorrow touch those he loves and not hang his head in shame? Who would not scorn such a man? There was one.
Pelargir, 17 August, 2982 T.A.
He had not expected Violet to answer the door herself, so stood tonguetied in the doorway. She smiled and held the door open for him. 'Please come in Lord Denethor. It is cooler in here.' He had sent a note that morning asking to meet her, and she had sent a silent servant to guide him to this small house on a little traveled lane. He recognized it as the place where Lark had taken Aiavalë to wed Îbal. It was a place for discretion. Violet led him to a small courtyard shaded by ancient trees that blocked the view from any surrounding building. A small fountain babbled merrily, protecting their speech from eavesdroppers. Without him really certain how it happened, Violet had him sitting in a chair perfectly sized for his frame, with cushions placed just so, a glass of wine and a small plate of cheese and fruit on the table next to him, and herself sitting on a cushioned stool before him, clad in a simple, demure gown, all of her attention upon him. 'I am honored, Warden. What may I do for you?'
'I came to talk to you.'
If her pleasure at these words was false, he could not discern it. 'Of what shall we speak?'
'Of a mistake.' She cocked her head, brow slightly furrowed. 'When Wren wed, she said that she believed I had asked Steward Turgon to have you and...' Denethor swallowed, 'my sisters driven from your house. That I wished you all to perish.' A certain stillness came to Violet's expression. 'I would know if you believe this, too.'
'I was told that you defended your mother's honor, as a good son should.'
'And that to defend her I ordered you and your children thrown into the street?'
Violet did not look away. 'I was told that you asked Steward Turgon not to leave an insult unanswered. I do not fault you for protecting your mother, my lord, if that is what you ask. I bear you no ill will.'
'Who told you that I had asked this of Turgon?'
A coward to the last. 'I swear, upon my honor and that of my mother, that I never asked this of anyone. Neither I nor the Archivist asked. I may not have approved, but I would not do you or my sisters harm. All I asked was that he cease dishonoring his wife.'
Violet took one of his hands between her own and kissed it lightly. 'I believe you, Lord Denethor. You have been generous to my children. I can ask no more of you, or of the Archivist.'
'Why do you love him?' Denethor demanded. 'He lied to you, dishonored you, cast you...'
'Because I do.' Her tone was imperturbable.
'He doesn't love you in return.'
'That is what the girls say, too.' Violet smiled. 'I care not. He loved me enough to give me my daughters.'
'He is wed to another. You weren't the only one he betrayed her for.'
Violet sat back, a curious look on her face, folding her hands in her lap. 'What are you asking, Denethor? I do not know how to answer you.'
'I don't understand why... I don't understand... him. How can you love him with what he did to you?'
Violet stood and walked once around the small court, thinking. She did not sit when she returned. 'I have no answer, Denethor, but I have a story. I have little else to offer you who has shown me such mercy. I was given to Morwen to pay off debts. She kept me for a special client, one who would pay much for an untouched pretty girl. He could have left me there, as is the fate of most girls kept for such things, but he didn't. He did nothing to me save make me happy for a time. My only regret is that I could not keep my daughters with me afterwards. It was enough.'
'I would make amends for the cruelty you were shown.'
'There is no need. I am content. I knew how it would end.'
'For the lie, then.'
For a moment, there was a hint of stronger feelings in Violet's face, a touch of pride, a shadow of anger. 'That is for Ecthelion to answer to. That lie, and all others.' Calm returned to her. 'I want nothing more, my lord. I embrace my life, the joy and the sorrow both.'
'The house that you once had, the Lord Steward gave to Captain Thorongil. He has fled and all his property is forfeit for his betrayal. If you would like it, it is yours.'
'Yes, I would. Lark has no house in the City and needs one.'
Denethor stood and bowed to Violet. 'I will have it cleaned, repairs made, and the key...'
'Send it to me. I will give it to Lark.'
With another bow, he left, more confounded than ever. The story of how Ecthelion purchased Violet made his stomach turn. What other maids did you debauch like that? It was a foul act, purchasing another's flesh. But Violet said she was content with the arrangement, and there was no gainsaying her love. He could See her just as he could See Finduilas, Aiavalë or Brandir. Who is truly the wife? The one who wears a gold band as a chain or the one who loves with an unfettered heart? Mayhap it is not Wren and Lark who are bastard. This was not like Brandir and Maiaberiel, where the love was within the marriage, even as both were defiled. He doesn't love her. Violet deludes herself to think otherwise. Denethor went to the practice yard at the garrison to work out his dissatisfaction with the entire situation. Only when he had soundly trounced a number of soldiers and upbraided both the yard master and Captain Gildor for allowing the men to become so lax did he return home.
The house was in disarray, as they were to leave for Minas Tirith on the morrow. He walked through the house until he found Finduilas overseeing Mírwen doing some packing. When she saw him, Finduilas motioned for him to follow her to their room. 'Friend, we will not be able to leave tomorrow.'
'We must wait until there is a boat to Minas Tirith. Beregar already checked, and there is one the day after tomorrow.'
'You wish to go by boat?'
She shook her head. 'No. Beregar and Aeluin told me this morning that she is with child, so I am sending her home by boat.'
'It would be an easier journey on you, too.'
'Alquallë, the ride is wearing you out. Even Boromir can tell you are tired and weak.'
'We are almost home. It is but a week of gentle riding.'
Minas Tirith, 30 August, 2982 T.A.
It was eleven full days ere they saw the spire of the City as they came around the headland. No amount of entreaty could sway Finduilas from her plan to ride, not even Boromir begging to go on the boat. She had told him he could travel with Beregar and Aeluin if he wished and see his grandfather that much sooner, but he would not go without her, and so they rode. Brandir and Aiavalë went with Beregar, Aeluin and Finiel, and Finduilas sent half the guardsmen home as well. Aeluin promised to have the house ready for their return. Beregar said little, but kept an arm around his wife.
The journey was slow, but steady. The crowds were dense most of the way, for this was the most thickly populated area of Gondor save Minas Tirith and the Pelennor. Every morning, Mírwen and Moraen would help Finduilas dress so she looked every inch a queen. Imrahil and Borthand did the same for Denethor. Halmir ensured that horses and guardsmen were properly groomed. The mood was less festive than when they had walked through the west of the land. There was awe instead of joy as Finduilas passed, tall and regal upon her proud steed, the greatest of all the princes of Gondor. Gull wore no headstall, obeying Finduilas' command with a touch on her neck or a gentle word. In the evenings, she would hold court in the nearest tavern, dispensing wisdom and justice in equal measure. The people accepted her decisions without a murmur.
The sun was declining and the road was in shadow as they traveled the last league to Minas Tirith. Their arrival was known well ahead of time, so the walls were lined with people ready to welcome the Lady home. The banner of the Stewards may have flown from the top of the Tower, but nowhere else was it to be seen. Every flagpole held the black wing of the Lady. Throngs spilled out of the Great Gate, lining the approach and roared when she rode past, and the court before the pillar was packed. All of the Queen's Men were present in perfect order, Gethron at their head, holding open a space for Lady to pass. The shout that went up as they came through the arch was so loud that Boromir covered his ears.
Denethor took out the Great Horn and blew a fierce blast upon it, then held up a hand for silence. 'I return to you, good people, the Lady of the White Tower, who has journeyed the length of Gondor to give her blessings to all who dwell here.' Another shout shook the walls, and the City erupted in a cacophony of cheers, bells, drums, horns and every other sound that men could make to welcome their queen.
Finduilas turned to Denethor, motioning for him to lean down so she could speak in his ear. 'And I return to the City their lord, the High Warden of the White Tower, who stands guard upon the realm and keeps her from harm.' She took his face in her hands and kissed him deeply and he returned it, uncaring that thousands watched. He was hers and she could do with him as she pleased. The cheering became a chant "Gon-dor! Gon-dor! Gon-dor!" as they kissed. A polite cough right near them brought the kiss to an end.
Brandir bowed, eyes twinkling. 'My Lord and Lady, let me the first to welcome you home. The Lord Steward has sent me to ask that you present yourselves and sup with him if you are not too weary from your journey.'
'I want to see Grandpa now!' Boromir said, seizing Denethor's hand. 'Hurry, Papa!' Finduilas laughed and took Denethor's other hand and helped Boromir tug him along. There were circles under her eyes and her face was lean, but still she was so beautiful Denethor did not know whether to weep or laugh for joy. A few yards further on, Beregar waited for them and he bowed to them with a flourish. There was only joy in the Hound's face. As they passed, he fell in behind them. Gethron called out orders and a score of the guardsmen stepped up to be their escort.
They ascended the mountain slowly in the warm summer evening, the sounds and smells of home delighting them at every turn of the road. The City had missed her Lady sorely the last half year. When they reached the upper levels, Denethor noted that every noble family was standing on the road waiting to offer the Lady their welcome. Finduilas greeted them gaily, promising to see them all after she had rested from the trip.
The sounds of the City were muted when they entered the tunnel to the Citadel. Emerging into the court, they saw the household of the Stewards House standing near the lane waiting for them. Mindolluin's shadow covered the ground, leaving only the tip of the spire lit by the setting sun. In the twilit court, the branches of the White Tree were luminous, as though it was wrought from mithril, no longer the twisted remains of a broken promise. Tower Guards lined the path from the tunnel entrance to the Tower, standing in solemn attention. The door to the Tower stood open and an old man stood there waiting for them.
Boromir yanked his hand from Denethor's and raced across the courtyard towards the Steward. His footsteps were the only sound to be heard. Ecthelion knelt and held his arms out. Boromir flung himself into his grandfather's embrace.
Denethor turned to Beregar. 'Huan,' he said softly, 'we will sup with the Steward. The Lady will wish to retire as soon as we return.' They went across the court with Borondir, Brandir, Imrahil and Moraen. Brandir hurried ahead to help Ecthelion stand, though the Steward did not let go of Boromir's hand. Denethor knelt and bowed his head. 'Ecthelion, son of Turgon, Lord Steward of Gondor, we return from our sojourn, kept safe by your blessing.' He felt a hand touch his crown.
'Then blessed are we all for your safe return and that of your companions. Rise and be welcome.' Denethor stood and embraced the Steward. Each of the others came forward for a similar embrace. Ecthelion gave another one to Boromir. 'If you are not too weary, there is supper waiting for you all inside.'
Finduilas took the Steward's hands and placed a kiss on his cheek. 'Yes, we will sup with you, though you must excuse us if we yawn or nod off part way through, dear Father!'
'Of course, dear Daughter. Come.' With Finduilas on his arm and Boromir holding his hand, Ecthelion led them to the dining hall. The meal was simple and perfect. Boromir did most of the talking as the adults were too tired to make much conversation. The Steward told them of light-hearted things that had happened while they were gone, and assured Denethor that there was no serious business that would not wait until he had rested a few days. At the end, he bade them good night and walked to door of the Tower with them. Finduilas signaled for the others to go ahead. Ecthelion was leaning over to Boromir, exchanging a few final words. He straightened with a sigh.
'I am so glad that you are all safely returned. You have all been sorely missed.' Ecthelion ruffled Boromir's hair. 'And this cub, he's almost a big bear! He has grown so much since last spring. I missed my little boy.'
'We will not leave again like this for many years, Father,' Finduilas said, 'so you may watch Boromir grow without interruption.'
'That is good, though I fear there will be an interruption sooner rather than later.' Ecthelion glanced at them, then away towards the Tree. 'I have spoken much with Master Laanga about old things these last months.'
'Then we must hasten all the more. You will hear this news first. If all goes as we wish, you will be a grandfather again in the coming year.'
Denethor was glad for the Steward's whoop and embrace, for he could not hide his own startlement. 'Oh, daughter, you will kill me with joy! Now, go, go! Rest and come to see me on the morrow, young man, for you have many adventures to tell.'
Boromir made no protest at being tucked into bed and fell asleep within minutes. In the front room, Denethor pulled Finduilas into his arms and gave her a bemused look. 'When did "we" wish for another child?'
'When I heard Aeluin's news.' Finduilas smiled and kissed him. 'It is time, friend. I am done with my adventures.'
'When do you wish this child?'
She kissed him again and slid a hand up the inside of his thigh. 'Now.'
With the most recent chapter, Due, I'm done with public posting of Hands of the King.
I've completed my writing, which is a good feeling. I have put in five years of work on this novel; researching Tolkien, interrogating conventions of fanon, trying to think with and against Tolkien's own meta-narrative of politics, religion, and society, developing plot and characterization, and going over and over the work to catch inconsistencies and errors. I think I've managed to do this and write an engaging tale. What I wanted to get from that endeavor, I have received.
I know I have readers on this story. I get between 600 and 800 page views a week on average. However, aside from my two friends Agape and Fergus, HotK readers have basically stopped providing any substantive responses. Only four people besides Agape and Fergus have posted a comment or sent an author email since January this year, and many of those have been private "You have a typo" in nature. The lack of substantive response aggravates me after having done all of that work. It may not be a reasonable reaction, but it is how I feel.
Maybe the story just isn't as good or engaging as it used to be. Whatever the reason, readers don't want to comment, I can't make readers comment, and I have deal with my frustration over that situation. My way to deal with it is to stop creating the situation in the first place. I have said myself in times past that the author's satisfaction with the work has to be with the work itself, and not done for the sake of squees. I'm happy with the story I have written and I'm not going to blackmail for comments.
What has been published will remain published, but no more of the remaining chapters will be added.
Edit: I'm afraid my explanation above doesn't give enough information about why now I can't finish the story. I have had a series of very bad things happen to my family over the last year which has made the lack of rewards from the fandom unsustainable. It also is a bigger issue than just HotK. Site support in general is a problem. It takes too much of my time and emotional energy compared to what I get in return. The lack of comments isn't personal and isn't unusual, so this is a problem of my own making. At this point, I can either drive myself (and others) crazy because I want things from the fandom that it can't provide me, or I can acknowledge that what I need right now is not going to be found here and change my behavior accordingly.
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