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Hands of the King: 77. Suffice
Minas Tirith, 2 July, 2983 T.A.
Finduilas smiled. 'He will do. Perhaps there are enough girls already in your house, and now is the time for boys. In any event, he is whole and strong, and I am tired.'
'Almost done, my lady,' Lhûn said, helping her women gather up their things, 'and then it will be quiet for you.'
Denethor knelt protectively next to the cot while the midwives removed the towels, rags, bags, and basins they had used, and dragged out the wash tub with its bloody contents. Finduilas paid no mind to the clatter, quickly dozing off. In a few minutes, they were alone. Denethor turned his attention to the small bundle in Finduilas' arms. Like his brother before him, the boy had a thick thatch of dark hair, but his face was not the same. Denethor kissed the baby's forehead and touched his nose to his son's. Not an hour old and already a disappointment to your mother. This is not an auspicious beginning, young man. The baby's face wrinkled as though he had heard the scolding. Let's see how like your brother you are. The afternoon was warm and the room was hot from the fire in the hearth, so there was no danger of the baby catching cold. Denethor worked loose the ends of the swaddling blanket, unwrapping his child. The babe was even leaner than Boromir had been, but scarcely less long. Denethor frowned in concern, hoping the leanness did not mean he was ill. No, Lhûn would have said if something was amiss. When he placed a finger into the boy's tiny hand, the child seized the finger powerfully, making Denethor smile. Slender but strong, like a sword. He slowly touched his son, learning about this new, miraculous being. Every finger and toe was counted, every joint bent and admired, every inch of tender skin kissed. You have remade the world, my son.
Done with his inspection, Denethor loosely rewrapped the babe and set him against Finduilas. Pulling the rocking chair near the cot, he sat and watched them, contented, and thought back over the last hour. The speed of this child's birth compared to Boromir's amazed him. It had been shocking and exhilarating to see the baby emerge from her. He knew he would have bruises on his shoulders where Finduilas had grasped him, not that he cared. To be the first to touch his child was worth ten times that discomfort. Now is the time for boys. That made him frown and touch the lanyard through his shirt. Now is the time for fate to unfold. That was not his thought. Denethor reached under the collar of the shirt to touch the cord directly. What do you mean? Silence. There was no need for an answer, as fate was apparent all around them. Sauron returned, the king revealed, the White Tree replanted, the Powers once more reaching out into the affairs of the mortal world. It was the end of an age and it would end as had all the ages before, in destruction. Brother will need brother.
Denethor kissed Finduilas' brow and went into the front room. Lhûn and her midwives were packing their implements and talking to Aeluin, Moraen and Aiavalë. He waved away their looks to say there was nothing wrong, motioning for Aiavalë to come to him. She hugged him strongly, kissing his cheek. 'Congratulations, little brother!'
'Thank you. I need you to run an errand for me. Go to the Tower and tell the Steward that Finduilas has safely delivered another son. Fetch Boromir...' Around his neck, the lanyard's weight increased. Forgive child. Forgive. He shut his eyes and shook his head, trying to be rid of the sound of the Sea in his ears. In his mind, he saw himself helping the Steward undress, bringing water and towels for him to wash, picking the man up and putting him in his bed. Stubborn men, all of you!
'Denethor? What is it?' Aiavalë peered at him anxiously.
'The heat. And I'm tired.' Before he could think better of it, he said, 'Fetch Boromir and the Steward so they may see the babe at once. Put them in the solar and come get me.' With a grin and another kiss, Aiavalë hastened away. Denethor returned to sit next to Finduilas. Lhûn came in briefly to check the child, shaking her head at the undone swaddling, and said she and her midwives were leaving, but that she would return after supper to make sure all was well. Not long after that, there was a tap on the bedroom door and Aiavalë came in.
'Father and Morcollë are waiting downstairs.'
'Good.' Denethor picked up the baby. 'Will you stay here next to Alquallë? I don't want her waking and not know where the baby is.'
'Of course, but only if I can hold him first.' Denethor put the child in her arms. The baby woke up and stared at his aunt with a newborn's dark blue eyes. Aiavalë looked at the child a long while, a single tear running down her cheek. 'He looks just like you did when you were born, Denethor.' A sly look came to her face. 'Just like a surly old man.'
'Give him back. He has guests to attend.' Denethor paused in the front room long enough to let Aeluin and Moraen coo over the baby before heading downstairs. Beregar stood watch on the solar door, opening it for Denethor. The Steward and Boromir stood in the middle of the room, Boromir dashing over when Denethor entered.
'I want to see the baby! I want to see!' he shouted, grabbing at Denethor's arm.
'Morcollë, stop that!' Denethor and Ecthelion admonished at the same moment, the Steward pulling Boromir away. 'Be careful, grandson,' he scolded more gently, 'lest you make your father drop the baby. Come here and sit next to me.' He led Boromir to a couch and made him sit.
Denethor took a seat next to Boromir and held the baby up to be more easily seen. 'Here, this is your new brother, Morcollë. What do you think?'
Boromir looked intently at the infant, then sat back with a snort. 'He's ugly!' Ecthelion doubled over with laughter.
'What do you mean he's ugly?' Denethor asked.
'He's all squished looking and he's blotchy and his eyes are too big,' Boromir said, emphasizing his judgment with a sharp nod and crossed arms. 'He's ugly.'
'You looked just like this when you were born.'
Boromir looked at his father with all the indignation a five year old could summon. 'I. Did. Not!'
Denethor glanced at the baby. 'Perhaps not exactly.' You were even more squished. 'Would you like to hold him?'
'Yes! Let me hold him,' Boromir eagerly answered, reaching out to take the baby.
'Gently, Morcollë!' Ecthelion reached out and drew Boromir back. 'Babies need to be held a certain way, or their heads fall off.' Boromir gave him an alarmed look. 'Put your left arm like this,' Ecthelion arranged the arm, 'and your right arm just so, and now you've made a cradle for your brother to lie in.' He kept his hand on Boromir's arms to make sure the boy did not move. Denethor placed the babe in Boromir's arms and kept a protective hand nearby to make sure no tumbles occurred.
Boromir stared at his little brother in fascination, and the infant returned the gaze, eyes wide. 'I'm your brother, Boromir. You're ugly, but I love you anyway.' Boromir confirmed this with a kiss on the baby's cheek. 'What's his name?'
'He does not have one yet.'
'Because he doesn't. Your mother has not picked one out yet.'
'Can I name him?'
Denethor shook his head at Boromir's impertinence. 'No, that is for your mother to do.'
'Can you go ask her what his name is?'
'Your mother is asleep and she doesn't have a name yet.'
'I have a name for him,' Boromir answered. 'Hollë, because his eyes are so big. And it rhymes! Hollë and Morcollë!' Boromir beamed at his father and grandfather. 'Mama doesn't need to think of a name now unless she wants to.'
'Let us hope he will be as wise as an owl,' Ecthelion said. 'I think your mother will want to give him a big name, like you have.'
'Yes, he should have one of those, too,' Boromir agreed, making faces at Hollë. 'Mama will think of one. May I go see Mama now? I can tell her I named my brother.'
'No, Morcollë, I told you Mama is sleeping.'
A worried look came to Boromir's face. 'Is Mama sick?'
'No. Just very tired.'
'Having a baby is hard work, grandson,' Ecthelion added, stroking Boromir's hair, 'so you and me, we have to be very good and very quiet so your mother can get her sleep. In fact, you need to spend the night in the Tower with me so that it is quiet here and your mother can rest.'
Boromir was not placated. 'Is Mama coughing?' he demanded, 'Is she drinking the magic tea?'
'Boromir, I told you she is sleeping,' Denethor sharply answered. 'No more of this from you.'
'She is fine, Morcollë. All women sleep for a day after they have a baby,' the Steward reassured his grandson. 'Now, are you going to let me hold the baby, too?' Not waiting for an answer, Ecthelion deftly scooped the infant from Boromir's grasp, though he did not pull the baby away. 'Hello, little man,' Ecthelion crooned to the child, 'My, but you do have big eyes! How is my little owl?' Ecthelion talked to both of his grandsons in a soothing voice for a few minutes. Boromir touched Hollë's face and pulled a hand out of the blankets, fascinated by how tiny his brother's limb was. With a sigh, the Steward handed the baby back to Denethor. 'That is enough for now, Morcollë. The baby needs to go sleep, too.'
Boromir looked sadly at his brother. 'Are you sure?'
'Yes, I am sure. Besides, now we have a job to do.'
'You and me, we have to go back to the Tower and tell everyone all about your new brother.' Ecthelion stood, holding out a hand to Boromir. Denethor could not look away from the hand. It was veined and knotted, all flesh wasted away from it, and mottled with small brown spots. He could not remember his own hand in it, or feeling it stroke his hair, or a gentle touch of it against his cheek. He drew a breath to deny that hand's claim upon the children. The Steward looked at him questioningly. Forgive.
'Yes, Boromir, you need to go with your grandfather now. Your mother will send for you when she is ready for you to come back.'
'Yes, Papa.' Boromir hopped off the couch and took Ecthelion's hand. Denethor stood and followed them to the door. Ecthelion paused, his hand on the latch.
'Thank you, Denethor.'
In the hall, they stopped so that Beregar could admire his new lord and Boromir could proudly announce what he was calling his little brother. Denethor told the Hound to see the two to the Tower before going back upstairs. Finduilas had not stirred since he left, so he put the baby into Aiavalë's arms and sat on the floor next to the cot.
'Boromir came up with a name for his little brother,' he said softly. 'Hollë.'
Aiavalë chuckled. 'That's what I called you, too.'
Minas Tirith, 4 July, 2983 T.A.
The sun had just set, but the air was still muggy. Finduilas sat in the rocking chair, eyes shut, sipping her tea cold because of the heat. Denethor did not think she was entirely awake. He glanced down at Hollë, who was contentedly dozing in his arms. As stubborn as your brother. The wet nurse was not working out. Hollë refused any milk save his mother's. He did not howl and thrash as Boromir had done when presented with the foreign drink, but merely clamped his mouth shut and could not be induced to suck, not even when he had been left hungry for most of the day yesterday. When Lhûn and the wet nurse had tried to squeeze some down his throat from a rag dipped in milk, Hollë had promptly vomited it all back up. This afternoon, Finduilas had called a halt to their efforts.
'He will die before he will accept what is not his,' she said. 'I will have to do as I did with Boromir.' Aiavalë and Mírwen promised to care for the baby in all other ways so that Finduilas could rest. Boromir had been told that he would spend the week in the Tower, and Moraen and Aeluin mounted a ferocious guard against any disturbance from visitors.
'We had best pick a name.' Finduilas spoke without opening her eyes.
'Whatever you wish to call him, that is his name.'
She smiled and looked down at them where they sat at her feet. 'I think "Hollë" suits him perfectly. He has the biggest eyes I have ever seen on a baby.'
'That would please Boromir, but perhaps would not read so well in the histories.'
That made her chuckle. 'I suppose not.' She drained her cup and set it down. 'Give him to me and let me think upon a name.' For a long time, she said nothing, but gazed at her son as he stared back. Her face changed, becoming solemn and the light within her was so strong Denethor had to squint to make out her features. The Queen sat enthroned before him and when she finally spoke, the words made him tremble, for they were Doom. 'He is Faramir. He is but himself and needs naught else, sufficient for the darkness that lies before him. There is no want. He is the last, and with him shall all our hopes find their fate. Faramir.' Finduilas stroked her son's hair. 'Even were it granted to me, I want no other child than this. He is enough.' She cuddled the child close to her and soon the two fell asleep, their cheeks touching.
Denethor sat as still as he could, hardly daring to breathe, and his hand sought the lanyard around his neck. Four strands. Four souls. Was it happenstance that the numbers matched? "There is hope beyond thy sight, child, though it is not for you to bring it, nor does Fate hold a rift through which thou mayest pass." With this child, though, hope might be found, a rift in fate. Perhaps not for himself, but... Denethor listened to the wheeze in Finduilas' exhalations. My fate is dire, but mayhap others will be preserved. Their fates should be better than my own. But with the last Faramir had ended the line of Anárion. Denethor shivered despite the heat. The last. Was this also the last of his house? No, it cannot be. The black wing embroidered on his cuff caught his eye. This house is already ended, and a new one founded upon the queen, as should have happened with Fíriel. The tightness in his chest relented, replaced by wonder and joy, and he looked with awe upon Finduilas. A kingdom refounded. The king has fled, the corruption of north and south burned away, and a true queen walks among us once more. Boromir... His attention shifted to the infant. What then your brother's fate? Denethor swallowed, not wanting to accept that another might share his own sad fortune, whatever that might be. He is the last born, the youngest. That is all. He completes what is needed.. Faramir should be last.
Minas Tirith, 5 July, 2983 T.A.
'The guests all are here.'
'Thank you, Huan,' Finduilas said, smiling. 'We will be along at once.' Beregar nodded and left. 'Boromir, are you ready?'
'Yes, Mama!' He was grinning and bouncing on his toes.
'Do you remember what you are supposed to say?' Denethor asked.
'Mm-hmm. I know!' Boromir replied, starting to jump and spin in circles with his pent up excitement.
'Then we should go.' Denethor put Faramir into Finduilas' arms before shooing Boromir out the door before them. As Denethor expected, Boromir ran up and down the stairs twice, urging them to hurry. Beregar stood at the door of Finduilas' study, laughing at the boy's antics. Denethor rapped Boromir's crown and shook a warning finger to remind him to behave. Three minutes, Morcollë. Just three minutes. Beregar opened the door, bowing them in. The room was packed with people invited to the naming.
When Finduilas was seated before her banner holding the baby, Denethor held up a hand for silence, then motioned for Boromir to speak. At first, he could only giggle in excitement. Finally, he loudly said, 'Everyone, this is my baby brother Faramir! But I call him Hollë!' Laughter and applause followed, while Boromir bounced up and down saying 'Faramir, his name is Faramir!'
Ecthelion laughed as he walked up. 'So, your names still match! Boromir and Faramir, Morcollë and Hollë.' Taking Boromir's hand, he bent over the baby and kissed Faramir's brow. 'Welcome, grandson. A lucky boy you are to have two fine names. And you, daughter, how are you?'
'Tired. It is the heat more than anything. Thank you for keeping Morcollë out from underfoot.'
'When can I come home, Mama?' Boromir interrupted.
'Two days more, dearest. Mama needs a little more sleep,' she answered. Boromir frowned, disliking the answer. Before he could protest, the Steward whispered something in his ear and the two stepped to the side to allow the other guests to see the baby. It was a smaller group than last time, for many were gone - Gethron, Luinil, Borthand, Brandir, Luinmir, Thoron... - Denethor pushed that thought aside. Aiavalë approved of the name, though she scolded the two of them for not letting her in on the secret sooner. Next were Borondir and Haleth. The woman's pregnancy was pronounced. Denethor had to admit he had never seen his cousin look happier.
'Congratulations, Cousin,' Borondir said heartily. 'Another boy!'
'Yes. Not so big as Boromir, but very strong.'
Haleth greeted Finduilas with a kiss and the two spoke for a few minutes before the next guest approached. Aiavalë dragged up a chair and sat next to Finduilas, ready to hold Faramir if Finduilas became fatigued. Denethor exchanged pleasantries with everyone as they came forward, but he watched the Steward. To not ask him would have been petty, seeing that he had already been introduced to Faramir. Even so, Denethor did not like having the the man in house. Aside from Warden Lhûn and Moraen, few other guests seemed to know what to make of the Steward in these surroundings. Adanel and Primrose stayed on the other side of the room, watching him warily. Borondir was very formal and Haleth said nothing. The others, high and low alike, simply bowed and had little to say beyond a simple greeting. Denethor was briefly distracted by Lieutenant Erellont of the Tower Guard, who had some questions about bringing on some new men. All of the visits to The Messenger's Rest the lieutenant had made to meet Gethron half way on trips up and down the City had given the man an extra reward in the form of a wife. Lily, Beregar's middle sister, had caught the eye of the handsome officer, and all agreed it was an excellent match. They were to wed sometime later this year.
When Denethor looked around after finishing the conversation, the Steward was nowhere to be seen. You were not given permission to wander about. He slipped out of the room to find the man. Almost at once, he heard the Steward's voice. Denethor could just see the man's feet poking past the edge of the stairs where he sat, a pack of children sitting on the floor in front of him listening to his stories. Boromir and Finiel were there, as was Dúlin's oldest, a niece and a nephew of Beregar's, one of Primrose's grandchildren and a few others Denethor did not recognize. He went back into the study and found the pup, who came for the Hunt. 'You there, the Steward tires of the close company in the room. Please attend him in the hall and fetch him whatever he desires.' The pup bowed and hastened to do as he was bid.
Minas Tirith, 8 September, 2983 T.A.
Denethor and Boromir circled each other in the practice yard, Boromir's face a mask of concentration. They were practicing a new way to block a blow from above. Denethor waited until a sound distracted the boy and made him glance away before striking. Boromir caught the motion from the corner of his eye and had his buckler up, stepping into the blow to deflect it. With a deft sidestep and lunge of his own, the boy made his father jump back to avoid the thrust. The yardmaster and a few soldiers watching the match applauded the move. To Denethor's satisfaction, Boromir did not bask in that approval as he might have a year before, but simply nodded an acknowledgement and waited for the next attack, his eyes never leaving Denethor's sword. Denethor repeated the strike, putting more strength into the blow and changing the direction somewhat, a maneuver he had seen Thorongil perform a few times. This made Boromir stagger and drop his buckler, though he immediately had his sword up and in both hands. Denethor backed away and held up a hand to signal an end to the bout.
'So, Morcollë, what went wrong?'
'I looked away.' Denethor nodded, proud that Boromir did not try to excuse himself. 'But what did you just do? Will you show me?'
'No, not yet. I want you to think on it and figure out how to defend against it.'
This made Boromir grin. 'I will, Papa!'
They went to the yardmaster and surrendered their weapons before going to the baths. Boromir stood patiently while Denethor scrubbed away the grime that had accumulated after only one day. It seemed excessive. 'Did you go to the farm yesterday, Morcollë?'
'Yes. Boots was tired of the paddock, so Gull said we needed to go.'
'She did?' Boromir nodded. 'Asking permission of a horse,' Denethor grumbled, motioning for Boromir to rinse off under the cold shower. 'And who went with you? Besides Gull.'
'Grandpa and Laanga. Huan and Hunthor, too. We dug holes.'
'And brought most of the dirt back with you behind your ears.' Denethor ducked under the shower himself. The cold water was refreshing in the late summer heat. It was too warm for the tubs, so they toweled off and donned the fresh clothes waiting for them. Aiavalë was in the front room with their breakfast, Faramir in a sling across her front. She would not countenance anyone else tending her nephew. Denethor did not think the babe was ever in his cradle during the day, but accompanied Aiavalë everywhere. She carried him to the Tower or the archives as business demanded, and she had baskets for him in both places when she had to sit at a table and work and could not hold him.
'How is Mama?' Boromir asked before Denethor could say anything.
'Taking her morning nap after feeding Hollë, so sit and be quiet!' Aiavalë scolded, though she gave him a kiss to soften the words. While she fixed him a plate of food, Denethor peeked into Finduilas' room. As Aiavalë said, she slept soundly. He sat and ate his own meal, looking over reports that had arrived while he and Boromir were out. This year was not as bountiful as the last few, for the weather had been drier than usual, but it was still a plentiful harvest. There was more than enough to see the kingdom through to the next spring, no matter how fierce the winter. The harvest fair at yáviérë would be larger than ever if Borondir and Haleth were right. They usually were on any matter having to do with trade.
Denethor had to admit the woman was a good addition to the family, even if she behaved strangely and would not allow any to call her "Lady". A few days after the marriage had been made known, her brother-in-law had tried to claim that she was no longer of her brother's house and so must surrender the trading business to him. Borondir made use of Scratch and there were no further complaints from the brother-in-law. Ecthelion had signed a decree shortly afterwards naming Borondir as steward of Haleth's deceased brother's estate until her nephew should come into his majority. Haleth's trading connections rivaled Aiavalë's spy network and covered a larger territory. She was chary with her information, protective of the traders who told her news from afar. Denethor was willing to be patient. He was not as close to Ragnor and Marach's sons as he was to the fathers and so needed to replace them as informants for the south. The north needed his attention, too. The trader Denethor had sent north with Langstrand pearls in the spring had returned this fall with tales of the north and a handsome pouch of coin for his effort. The dwarves had been only too eager to buy the sea-spun treasures, and had asked for more the next year. The spy's cover was complete.
The meal done, Denethor checked on Finduilas a last time before going to the Tower with Aiavalë and the boys. The Steward was already late to begin his morning audiences, but took time to fuss over Faramir and ask Boromir how his morning sword practice had gone. Only when that was done did he allow Denethor to help him don his white mantle. A new one had been made this year, along with other formal robes, for none of the Steward's clothes fit him properly anymore, so much had his flesh wasted away. Boromir stopped calling Ecthelion "Grandpa" and became a proper page, bringing the Steward the White Rod and carrying the small box that held the Seal of the Stewards. Aiavalë went off to speak to Núneth while Denethor and Boromir solemnly followed the Lord Steward to the Hall of the Kings where petitioners awaited.
Sitting still and ancient upon the Black Chair, his white robes gleaming in the gloom of the hall, Ecthelion seemed wisdom incarnate. Denethor was careful never to show anything during these audiences through word or motion save the deepest respect for the Lord Steward, wishing for Boromir to understand the gravity of a Steward's duties. The petitioners had already been reviewed and approved by Denethor the previous day so nothing too frivolous, or too taxing, was presented for judgment. More serious matters he handled himself. As each petitioner approached, Denethor would ask their business and then present the case to the Steward. Ecthelion would ask some questions and then give his decision which was always hailed as wise and just. When there was some matter that required Ecthelion's signature, Boromir came forward with the seal and wax, and the petitioner always bowed to him as well as to the Steward when it was done. Denethor thought this also good for Boromir to see.
There were but a handful of petitions this morning and business was concluded before the day became too warm. They bade farewell to the Steward and collected Aiavalë and Faramir. The baby was fussing a little as it was time for him to eat again so they hastened back to the Stewards House. Denethor took the baby to Finduilas while Aiavalë and Boromir went to the solar to begin his writing lessons. Finduilas smiled when he came into her room. 'And how fares Gondor, High Warden?' she asked, holding out her arms for Faramir.
'Well, prince. The winter will not be lean.' He grimaced and touched her cheek. 'Would that were true of you as well.'
'I feel stronger with this son, friend. You know that.' Finduilas soon had the baby nursing. Denethor neatened the room, made her bed and got wash water ready for her. Nothing was left to chance this time. No cross word, no inopportune sigh, no sign of impatience was allowed in her presence. He was not going to listen to her cry at night ever again. Waiting for the baby to be full, Denethor sat and spoke to Finduilas of the business of the realm, for she preferred that to any other converse. He also watched her and Faramir carefully, looking for any sign that she was displeased with the child. There was none, but neither was there the deep affection that Aeluin showed her new daughter, Findis. Finduilas was satisfied with Faramir and that would have to do.
Even at this early stage, Denethor knew his sons were of two different minds. Faramir made almost no sound, but his eyes followed everything. He rarely smiled or laughed in response to anyone, but he always wanted to touch the hands and face of whomever was holding him. When he nursed, he kept his eyes fixed on his mother's face and waved his hand about until Finduilas took it in her own. Aiavalë could get a smile from him and it was clear that she was his favorite person. On the few occasions when he did cry, however, the only touch that soothed him was Finduilas'.
'I have news of the realm that will please you, husband,' Finduilas said with a grin.
'Then say it, for I would fain be pleased.'
'I got a letter from Morwen this morning. It seems that she finds a certain captain from Dol Amroth a suitable man and that Aldwyn agrees.'
'What of Théoden? He forbade it.'
Finduilas chuckled. 'I think him out of sorts with Master Gríma over Éomund, and has granted Morwen the power to decide in this case. Poor Gríma. I fear he has lost himself a wife.'
'Gethron is a better man.'
'On that, there is much agreement. Mother sent me a letter as well. She has convinced Morwen to remain in Dol Amroth through the rest of the year to plan the wedding.'
'I hope they do not plan to keep Gethron there the entire time. He is one of my captains and I need him here in Minas Tirith.'
'He is already on his way back home. The Prince pronounced their betrothal and told him to leave until it was time to wed.' Finduilas' brow furrowed. 'Mother and Father both would like to know when another will return.'
Soon. 'Imrahil will return when he returns.' He had finally told Finduilas that Imrahil was in a southern caravan, unable to deceive her any longer and fearing to weaken her with worry. Finduilas muttered something under her breath, shaking her head. 'What is the matter, Alquallë?'
'Always the south. You. Thorongil. Now Imrahil. I do not understand why you feel a need to go there yourselves.'
'In your brother's case, I believe he was trying to elude Lady Ivorwen.' The dark look Finduilas sent him let Denethor know the jest had fallen flat. 'There are some things that cannot be conveyed in a letter or maps, details that would not catch the eye of a spy. Imrahil will learn how his adversaries see Gondor, and how that may be turned to our advantage. He will respect them all the more for having to be among them.'
'You do not send all of your captains to the south.'
'No, I don't.' Finduilas waited for more. When it was clear Denethor was not going to offer more, she nodded and returned her gaze to the baby, thoughtful. After a few minutes, she spoke about the City and its ordering, but her tone was slightly distracted and he knew she was still puzzling out the mystery of Imrahil's journey.
Moraen and Borondir worked diligently to keep the burdens of the City from giving Finduilas any worry. Moraen had recovered from the shock of Borondir finding another to be his wife and had abandoned her frivolous behavior of the first part of the year. Even if she was not to wed his cousin, Denethor preferred her to behave more soberly as befit a woman of her status. Instead of parading about at parties and dances filled with unseemly flirtation, she met people here at the Stewards House on business for the Lady's Grace or matters pertaining to Ethring and the Ringló Vale. Minastan would not be a bad choice. Hallas' youngest son was a year younger than Moraen, and had recently been made the Lieutenant of the Anórien garrison. There was nothing higher for him in the army, for he lacked the keen sense of men like Dírhavel or Calmacil, but he was an amiable man, destined to be an important minister. When he was in Minas Tirith, he had been one of the young lords who spent much time with Imrahil and Marlong could attest to his even temper and meticulous habits. His own estate was enough that he could be trusted to see to that of Ethring without greed. When the year end came, the man would be reassigned to Gethron here in Minas Tirith so there would be opportunity to place him in Moraen's company.
Finduilas and Faramir finished at about the same time. Mírwen tended the babe as Aiavalë was still teaching Boromir his lesson. When Denethor would have waited on Finduilas, she laughed and kissed him before shooing him away. 'I have women to wait on me, husband, so go be a broody hen elsewhere!' He took a few more kisses before leaving, which made her smile all the more. There was time for a few letters before dinner. The table was full of women - Finduilas, Aeluin, Moraen, Aiavalë, Lhûn, and Núneth were all talking away about distribution of alms. Beregar served the table as always, but did sit to eat. The man was still clean-shaven and would not eat meat, but the shadow of his trial of two years past had lifted. The Hound listened with a smile as Boromir talked about going to the farm in the afternoon. As the meal drew to a close, all spoke of their afternoon plans - Beregar, Boromir and Hunthor heading to the farm with the Steward, Finduilas, Aeluin and Aiavalë taking the babies to Laanga's garden, Núneth and Moraen to meet with Borondir in the study.
And I to the Tower, Denethor thought with a sigh. He and Hallas had taxes and finances to discuss, followed by the monthly reports of the judges of the common courts. It was going to be a long afternoon. Borondir and the Steward were waiting near the tunnel to the sixth circle, waiting for their companions to arrive. In contrast to his dignified splendor this morning, Ecthelion now looked little better than an ordinary farmer, wearing a coarse linen shirt, weathered trousers tucked into old, soft boots, and a large floppy straw hat perched atop his silvered head. He greeted everyone genially, even Denethor, and kissed the babies twice. The mob soon moved into the dark tunnel, their happy voices ringing off stone and bringing hints of smiles to the faces of the stern Tower Guards. After the echoes had died, Denethor turned and made his solitary way to the Tower.
Minas Tirith, 26 November, 2983 T.A.
Denethor spread his work out across the council chamber table. The room was gloomy. A heavy rain pounded against the windows, making the day like evening. The Steward was abed with a cough, unable to hold his usual audience even if petitioners had been willing to brave the wind and wet. To amuse him while he was ill, the women had brought over mending, children and gossip, and so kept his chambers warm and cheerful with their company. When Denethor had joined them for dinner, Ecthelion had been strong enough to join them at the table, though he had needed Denethor's help to return to bed for a nap once it was done. Hathol took Boromir and Finiel on a tour of the Tower to wear them down and get them to nap, as well. Denethor suspected they would wear out the elderly Warden of the Keys first.
Anbar reported an increase in the number of patrols sent out from Minas Morgul and the Black Gate. It had been almost four years since the winter invasion and all the captains agreed that some kind of offensive from Barad-dûr was likely this coming year. Not now. Too wet. It would come in the spring. He scowled at the papers arranged just so before him. The years of plenty and ease were going to end. The winter was going to be wet, cold and long by the signs of the plants and the beasts, which meant late planting and a shorter growing season. Past records indicated that there would be two years of wetter than normal seasons, with summers hotter and winters colder. Fishermen reported that the waters in the Bay of Belfalas were warmer than usual and the fish had fled, seeking the icy deeps of Belegaer. Umbar and Near Harad would share in the heavy rains, while Khand and Rhûn would turn to dust. There would be no great marches from those enemies under those conditions, so the only true danger was Mordor.
Cold and wet. Grain would become dear, though other crops would do well and the orchards would flourish. Wool trade would increase. It seems that Rohan will have something besides Riders that Gondor will want. Trade would decrease as roads became difficult, but many would come to Gondor with her highways of stone. The great purse built up from the profligate trade and harvests of the last four years would be needed to buy stores and prevent hoarding, particularly next autumn.
There was a light tap on the door and a servant edged in. 'There is a man who wishes to speak to you, my lord.'
'An uncouth Southron,' the man answered, nose wrinkling in distaste. 'I said you were not to be bothered, but he would not leave a message, and insist...'
Denethor cut off the man's complaint with sharp motion. 'Bring him to me.'
'I'll have a guard...'
'And no one else.'
Denethor turned his back on the servant to put an end to his tiresome protests. The weather records were very interesting especially as they went back to the founding of Minas Tirith, though they were not complete until King Anárion had built the first tower so he could better study the stars, in echo of Tar-Meneldur. "Should not one son of Elendil love the stars?" he was supposed to have said to his brother when asked why he raised the tower. The paths of the stars and the vagaries of the winds had been tracked faithfully ever since, even in times of war and plague. It may not be as regular as the tides or the moon, but the seasons had a greater pattern upon them, one that brought flood and drought, heat and cold, plentiful years and penurious ones, in a steady rhythm. Just as the ages ebb and flow, founded upon hope, foundering upon fate.
Behind him, the door opened and closed. Denethor did not look up from his work. 'I expected you after yáviérë, Hafed,' he said in Haradic.
'It is after yáviérë,' the man answered in kind. His accent would not fool a native, but it was acceptable. The man walked to the table and stood next to Denethor. His clothes were of a foreign style, well worn but clean. A bright scarf was wrapped neatly around his head. Long slender braids of black hair escaped the scarf, the ends jingling slightly as the gold beads that secured the ends struck each other. A deeper brown than the sun touched his skin. Only the man's bright grey eyes gave hint of his true origins.
'Cygnet no more,' Denethor said softly.
Imrahil searched Denethor's face intently, the gaze almost too bright to bear. 'No more.' The young man threw back his head and laughed and embraced Denethor. 'It is good to see you again, brother!'
Denethor hugged his brother-in-law tightly in return. 'And you, as well. What did keep you?' Releasing Imrahil, Denethor motioned for him to take a seat and went to the sideboard to get them wine. 'Even I was beginning to worry what dire fate might have befallen.'
'Rain and bandits,' Imrahil cheerfully replied, taking the wine. 'The rains came early and we were late leaving Harad, so we got to walk through everyone else's muck. The bandits were a sorry lot, except for those out of Umbar, who were ferocious.' He flexed an arm. 'I'm in good practice. Borthand, too.'
'Where is he?'
'In a first circle tavern getting drunk, no doubt. I told him to stay out of the way while I came to see you.'
'So what of your journey?'
Imrahil's cheer went away. 'I am glad I went. The south will be no threat to us for many years, though they will nibble at the borders if we allow it. Umbar was their capital and captor in equal measure, and her destruction has left them aimless and weak, fighting amongst themselves for scraps.'
One of Imrahil's eyebrows went up a fraction. 'I suppose.'
'Is it not good that our enemies are defanged?'
'They fear Gondor. No, they loathe her.'
'As they should.'
'Fear? Yes, for that is to our advantage. But to detest this...' he gestured around the room, taking in the dim view from the windows, 'no. They should not think of us and Mordor in the same way.'
'They suffer the shame of a great defeat.'
'I think it deeper than that. They despair.' Imrahil sighed. 'If even our hands can be turned to such works as the harrowing of Umbar, then where is hope?'
Denethor's forearm ached. In his mind he saw the demon of fire looming over the doomed city. From my hands... 'There is nothing of Gondor they admire?'
'One thing alone - Finduilas. The grain and other gifts she sent are cherished and even in Harad is her kindness known. Some of the songs of her are sang in those lands. The White Lady of Gondor is revered. More than once I saw her banner.'
Denethor considered this and smiled to himself. Even our enemies know what they see. 'What else did you see?' Imrahil spoke for an hour of camels and mules, caravans and markets, and the vast, arid plains of Harad. Denethor studied the young man as he spoke, liking what he saw. All immaturity was gone. He had lost none of his great cheer and reminded Denethor greatly of Prince Adrahil, but the thoughtlessness of youth was behind Imrahil now. There was nothing left of the inattentive boy who had been sent as hostage to his family's honor eight years before. This last year, Imrahil had become his own man, and would think, speak and act as he thought best, not as his lord or father might wish. The journey to Harad had completed this man. All that remained was to decide how best to use him for Gondor.
'My dreams have changed, Denethor.' Imrahil said quietly, looking at the rain on the windows. 'They began again as we walked north and camped east of Umbar. A pillar of smoke still hangs over the harbor. Silver nets hang upon the shores of Gondor and along the banks of Anduin. Everywhere I looked, Grandfather is mending them, for they are heavy with driftwood and rotting things. A burning king comes up Anduin, melting the nets in his passage and the water roils like it did in the harbor. He sets the City aflame for its rebellion and goes to Mordor.' He glanced at Denethor briefly, then shrugged. 'I do not think we have seen the last of Thorongil.'
'Perhaps.' It does not matter. His throne is forfeit. 'Tell me of your disguise. It is ingenious.'
'Isn't it?' Imrahil was clearly happier to speak of his costume than his dreams. 'The locks are a wig, of course, and I have little hair on my head left. My skin was stained with walnut.'
'When will it wear off?'
'It is almost gone now, in truth. I have not put anymore on since last month. It needs to be scrubbed off completely, though, before I appear openly.' Imrahil grinned impishly. 'I may have need to go south again and would not want my secret known. And it will let my hair grow out.'
'Where will you go?'
'I was hoping you might have an idea,' was the sheepish reply.
There was the old house up near the abandoned quarry where they had made the Dragon Fire. Denethor's forearm throbbed again. No, not near Fire. 'I know. Wait here.' He went out to the hall and asked a passing servant to tell Beregar his lord needed him. The Hound was there shortly. He looked at Imrahil curiously for a moment, then his face lit up and the two men exchanged a hearty embrace.
'I am relieved at your return, my prince,' Beregar said. 'We have all been worried! What of the pup?'
'As sneaky as ever! You trained him well.'
'Huan, Imrahil and Borthand have need of your farm for a few weeks.'
'To get rid of the rest of the stain,' Imrahil explained, pointing at his face.
'Are there tenants?' Denethor asked.
'No. The family to the east does some work and keeps an eye out, but the house is empty.'
'Good. You will need to take Imrahil and Borthand there tonight with a few provisions and probably stay there yourself to speak to the farmer in the morning.'
'Yes, sir. We had best go now, Imrahil. It will be night by the time we get there.'
'It is almost night now with these clouds. Do say we can get provisions from The Messenger's Rest, Sir Hound. I have been longing for a good bowl of your mother's stew for months!' The two bade Denethor farewell and left.
It was difficult not to tell Finduilas at once that Imrahil had returned, but Denethor waited until Faramir had finished his last meal and they were getting ready for bed. 'Alquallë, I have a secret for you, but you may not speak of it to anyone else until it is time.'
'What is it?'
'I heard from Imrahil today.'
Finduilas let out a whoop and hugged him. 'Is he well? Where is he? When he be home? Will it be soon?' Denethor chuckled and put a hand over her mouth to silence her.
'He is very well, though worn from the travel. The caravan had been delayed by the early storms. He is home now.'
'Now? But, where is he?'
'Hiding for a few weeks to let his hair...'
'He's at the farm! That's why Beregar left, isn't it?'
'Yes, but you cannot say anything, not even to Aiavalë.'
'I must go see him.'
'No, Alquallë. He must avoid all attention until he looks himself again. Borthand as well.'
With a sigh, Finduilas went over the bed and began undressing. 'Very well, but may I at least send him a letter? Huan can take it since he knows.'
'Yes.' Denethor took her clothes as she shed them, folding them neatly or shaking them out to hang on their pegs as needed. He watched as she pulled on a warm soft night dress, pleased that she was not losing any more flesh. Faramir might refuse milk from any other woman, but he was not as greedy as Boromir had been, leaving Finduilas less thin and exhausted. The tea helped, as well. A few swallows every week kept her strong. Denethor tucked her into bed and gave her Faramir.
'He needs to come see his new nephew,' she said with a yawn. 'Morcollë will be glad to see his uncle again. He needs people to stay.' Denethor undressed, blew out the lantern and slipped into bed beside her. They fell asleep to the sound of rain on the window.
He wandered through the empty streets of Osgiliath. The stone was being washed clean of the autumn slaughter by the winter storms and soon would be time to inhabit it once more. He stooped and touched the wet stone. Under his fingers, the rain turned red, and the blood of the kingly house no less than the other houses of the Dúnedain mingled with that of lesser men. Beyond, across lands stripped bare by war, horse herds and winter's grip, rose the redoubt of Minas Anor where the king waited impatiently for the season to turn. Her white walls seemed unstained. He looked at his hand, stained a darker shade by the lives it had touched and spent in defense of the land. The king was eager to return and sit once more on the throne in Osgiliath, but the search for the doubled seat was fruitless. Only bones had been retrieved from Anduin's deeps. Blood was the foundation of rule.
Minas Tirith, 16 May, 2984 T.A.
Imrahil shed the last of his disguise in time for the Yule celebrations. Lark, Wren and Brandir also came to the City, filling the days with joy. And the house with children. More than once Denethor had fled to the Tower for some peace. They stayed through the birth of Borondir and Haleth's daughter, Azraphel, just after the Great Council. When Imrahil sat for Dol Amroth at the Great Council even the elder lords deferred to him, for he seemed much older than his twenty-nine years. To Finduilas' dismay, as soon as the Council was done he moved into Vinyamar, relinquishing his rooms in the Stewards House. He also began his travels again, riding to all of the garrisons and speaking to the captains of the coming summer campaign.
Much of the Great Council had been spent debating the threat and how to meet it. The lords had pledged soldiers and those men were beginning to arrive in Minas Tirith, giving Gethron something to think about besides his wedding to Aldwyn. Denethor did not think the man had stopped smiling since he returned from Dol Amroth the previous fall. Gethron was excellent at sizing up the new recruits and knowing how they would best be used. The first arrivals would be moved out to Osgiliath and Cair Andros in the next two weeks, making room for more.
Denethor looked down at the maps, each with a different scenario drawn upon it. A series of sudden, large attacks. A steady stream of small incursions all summer. Heavy infiltration of northern Ithilien. Persistent raids out of the Morgul Vale. All of them in combination. Many Orcs out of the Black Gate. The Uruks will come from the Vale. Poros could not be neglected even if the danger was minimal. And no good Captain-General.
That was the true problem. Baragund was no longer fit to serve as Captain-General. The wounds of Poros, left untended for too long, had robbed the man of his strength. If it were only that he had been maimed like Marlong, something could be done for him - a horse, a crutch, a man to move in his stead - but the damage was to his spirit. The near defeat, the first in more than twenty years, had left the man tentative in his command. Too many things had gone wrong, and all were due to the decisions Baragund had made. Denethor sighed and sat, glowering at the maps. He should have replaced Baragund at the Great Council, when it was clear to him that the captain had no certain plans for the summer campaign. It will shame him no matter when it is done. You bore it. So will he. It had to be done and before the fighting began.
Which led to the next problem, and why he had procrastinated for so long. Who? There was no clear candidate to replace the stolid, dependable Baragund. Imrahil had the respect and love of the soldiers, particularly those who were from the western fiefs, but he simply did not have the seasoning, even as he had better judgment than most. No, you are needed for other things, Swan Prince. That left Anbar and Marlong as the most senior commanders. Anbar had grown into his command at Osgiliath, no longer able to rely on the river to be his primary defense. He understood how to fight in the leafy hills of Ithilien and none was better out outwitting the Uruks of Mordor. He was the best choice for Osgiliath, but when it came to fighting things other than Orcs, there was a question. Marlong had a keener sense, better able to see larger patterns and to think several moves ahead of their enemies. The leg would always be a problem, but less so than a maimed heart. Still, the men might have more confidence in Anbar, if only because he was whole.
You could resolve it at once. He had done it before. Even Thorongil could scare boast of greater success in battle. It would set up other things very well. Denethor rose and looked out the window, taking in the towers of the City, the green sweep of the Pelennor and the far off glimmer of Anduin. The haze of the afternoon hid the dark wall of the Ephel Dúath.
A motion in the Court of the Fountain caught his eye. On the greensward, women sat and children played. He recognized Finduilas at once, more from the pull on his heart than any feature he could make out. Faramir was among the infants crawling about. The child was beginning to be weaned, which pleased Denethor because it meant that Finduilas would soon be relieved of that burden. Even as Faramir had done her less harm than Boromir, it still drained her to feed him. She had very little of her tea left, and still there was no sign of a sapling in the high hallows. His fingers found the lanyard through his shirt. Would you help me find what I seek? He knew where the farm lay. She says it is not there. But mayhap it was. It was a tree like any other. It bore fruit and had grown in Ithilien before. Perhaps one had survived, hidden until a time of need.
His eyes moved to the skeleton of the tree at the edge of the grass. Beneath it sat the Steward and Master Laanga, watching the children. That is why not. The Steward was not strong enough to hear petitions more than once a week. He no longer attempted to attend even the most important of councils, leaving it all to Denethor. After the business of the day was done, Denethor would go to Ecthelion's chambers and tell him what had transpired in the day and obtain any signatures that were needed. This spring had also seen an end to the Steward's journeys with Boromir anywhere beyond the Citadel. It will not be long... Denethor turned away from the window and returned his attention to the maps, unwilling to continue the thought.
Very well, Marlong. That would mean moving others around. Baragund would be given Minas Tirith, if he wished it, for it was an honorable position, one that could be explained by his need to see the healers. Gethron could move to Anórien, which would bore the man but would probably please his wife. It would also put him in position to support Calmacil and Dírhavel in north Ithilien, where youth and mobility were much needed. Anbar and Gildor would remain in Osgiliath and Pelargir respectively.
There was a knock at the council chamber door. 'Come in,' Denethor said, straightening up. A tall, stern man in a grey cloak entered an bowed. He was of the Lost. 'Yes?'
'My lord, I am Imlach.'
'I remember you. What is your business?'
'The end of my business, sir. My years of service are done.'
The last. Imlach was the only one left of the Lost. No more had come to fill the places left empty by their fellows. 'Do you know Halmir?'
'I know who he is.'
Denethor hesitated, not knowing what he wished. There was no message that could be entrusted that would be of any worth. He needed the man himself to speak to. 'If you should see him, tell him that Beregar and Aeluin have been blessed with another fine daughter. Her name is Findis. He will wish for this news.'
The man nodded. 'I will tell him.'
'I release you from your oath and bond to the Lord Steward, Imlach. Is aught due to you ere you leave?'
'No, High Warden. All accounts are settled.'
'I wish you a safe journey home.' The man bowed again and left. Denethor went back to the window and watched until the man emerged from the Tower. He walked to the White Tree and did reverence to it, then bowed deeply to the Lord Steward. Imlach and Ecthelion exchanged a few words and then the man departed, his grey cloak soon lost in the shadow of the tunnel. It left Denethor feeling hollow and then angry. Begone, then, like your fickle lord. Gondor would gladly embrace her lost kin, but you stand apart in pride and secrecy. You are but shadows to us. He returned to the table and drafted instructions for reorganizing the garrisons, then turned his attention to other business of the realm. It was late and the shadows lengthening before he finished his work and left the Tower.
Ecthelion and Laanga still sat on the bench beneath the White Tree, alone in the court. Denethor went to them. 'My Lord Steward, Master Laanga, good afternoon.'
'Good evening, in truth, Denethor, ' Laanga answered.
'Is it really?' the Steward said, looking about. 'I fear I have lost track of time, so pleasant has been our converse, Laanga.'
'On what have you been speaking?'
'Many things, grandson. Mostly about planting. The time for sowing is done, and now we wait through the crucible of the summer to see what harvest shall bring.'
Ecthelion sighed and put his hands on the bench to push himself up. 'It is time for me to retire, dear friend.' When he tried to stand, however, he could not, his arms not strong enough to support himself. He sat, head bowed, eyes shut, for several heartbeats before sighing again and looking up at Denethor. Denethor wordlessly held out his hands and took the Steward's forearms, allowing Ecthelion to grasp his sleeves. As gently as he could, he pulled the Steward to his feet. The old man's legs were stiff from so many hours of sitting on the bench and he leaned on Denethor. Their walk back to the Tower was slow, Ecthelion clinging to Denethor's arm. A servant went ahead and opened doors while another brought warm water and a soft robe. When Denethor would have stayed to tend him, Ecthelion patted his hand and waved him away. 'You should go to Finduilas and Hollë, for they miss you greatly. Pay no mind to me, Denethor. My time is done. I shall not see another harvest.'
Laanga had not yet left when Denethor left the Tower, though he rose and began to walk as Denethor approached. 'It is time for me to go as well, grandson.'
'Will you come to sup with us, Master Laanga? Finduilas would enjoy your company.'
'I have already spoken to her and the little owl today, and have tales to tell Crone Apple, so I must refuse your kind offer.'
'Her tea is almost gone.'
'I know. We spoke of that.'
'Once, she saw the White Tree in Ithilien.'
'So she told me. She said it was a dream.'
'But might it be true?' Denethor caught Laanga's arm, making him stop. 'Could she have seen a tree actually growing in Ithilien?'
'I will not lie to raise your hopes, Denethor. You will not find it in Ithilien. This tree only grows upon heights and among stone.' The herbalist glanced back at the silver branches. 'It lives where other trees would perish and it stands even when it no longer lives."
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