The sound of the chill wind whistling past the window made Finduilas's skin rise in gooseflesh, even though the room was warm and she sitting in the place closest to the fire. Looking down at her hand, she thought detachedly that had she not known it was her own, she would have thought it the hand of an old woman - bones showing through loose skin. She lifted it to tuck the blanket more closely around her knees.
Faramir was curled up next to her; they were reading the battered picture-book of legends that had once belonged to Boromir and had now passed to his younger brother. She smiled at the dark intent head and continued with the story of Beren and Lúthien, thinking to herself, Despite all the troubles and perils they endured, at least they were able to leave this life together. I would have hoped for that, too. I do not fear what lies beyond death - I only regret that I must leave this world so soon, and alone.
She had been pleased to confound the predictions of the healers, though. They had warned her that she might not survive the summer, but now another year's turning had come and gone. It cannot be much longer, though. Only the poppy has let me sleep these past weeks, and now I need it in the day as well, lest each movement, be it so little as a breath, be an agony to me.
Denethor still hoped, she knew, that somehow she might become well again. He had - with great reluctance - allowed her to tell their sons of her condition, and that she was unlikely to recover.
But he left them with false hope, she thought with a bitterness so dulled by repetition that it was hardly more than an acid memory of itself. He wishes to think it only unlikely, because he cannot bear to believe it impossible. The boys had accepted the news more quietly even than she had hoped. Boromir remembered his grandfather Ecthelion's death well, and her explanations then of how Men's spirits left the bonds of Arda to join with Ilúvatar. She had repeated this to them, and although both had wept and clung to her, she thought that later the two must have talked together to reach their peace with the knowledge. The greatest change she saw was that Faramir scarcely left her side between morning and night, as if storing up time, whereas Boromir seemed eager to be out of her presence most of the day. They still had their nightly lesson in Sindarin, but otherwise she saw little of her elder son.
The light in the room was rosy with sunset when Denethor arrived for the evening meal. He was in a rare cheerful mood, having had good news out of Ithilien. Aldadil's command had encountered a large force of Orcs - most unusual in the winter season - but had destroyed the whole band with only minor losses of their own. Finduilas knew that this captain had been one of Denethor's protégées for some years; she was happy to hear of his success, for Denethor's sake as much as for Gondor's.
"How was your day, Boromir?" the Steward then inquired.
"I was working awfully hard today," said Boromir through a mouthful of beef. He swallowed and continued. "Master Hallas had me run ten times around the field, for conditioning, and then I practiced falls for an hour, and did some archery."
"What about your lessons with Master Golasgil? Do not neglect those - a Steward must know more than just how to fight. He must be able to command in peace as well as war, and make the country prosper."
Boromir scowled at his plate. "Lessons are all right, I guess. I like the history about our wars - I like learning about the Wainriders. But I don't see why I need all that arithmetic."
"Many reasons. For one, to know how you'll pay for all your soldiers," Denethor admonished him. Turning to his younger son, the Steward added, " And you, Faramir? Did you learn anything today?"
"Mama read to me about Beren and Lúthien. I liked when she sang to Morgoth best."
"You did, eh?" Denethor eyed Faramir. "I think soon you will be joining Boromir for lessons. Time for you to begin learning more than old tales and songs."
Finduilas spoke then. "When spring comes, Denethor. Leave it till spring, when many things will change." I do not want to lose my second son before I must.
She could see the flash of fear and denial in his eyes, quickly muted. "You would not want to tie Faramir to you overlong, Finduilas. The boy has five years now."
"It will not be overlong, I assure you." She looked down at her hardly-touched plate. " I will not hold Faramir back from lessons past this spring."
The boys looked from one parent to the other, aware of undercurrents beyond the bare words spoken. They know the truth, but they do not understand it fully as yet.
"If that is your wish, I will honor it," said Denethor at last. "Faramir, in three months you will begin your lessons with masters Golasgil and Hallas. I hope you will make me proud as your brother has."
Faramir nodded, although Finduilas suspected that he only half-understood his father's promise and command.
Putting her younger son to bed that night, she was not surprised when he asked, "What did you mean about changes, Mama?"
She sat down on the green-and-white quilt beside her son and gathered him into a hug. "You remember what we told you, that I will soon have to leave you and Boromir and your father, and go beyond the world. Well, that will almost certainly be before spring arrives; and then much will change, for all of us."
"I don't want you to leave," came a muffled small voice, and his tears wetted her sleeve.
"I don't want to leave all of you, either." She rocked with him. "But I must."
"You're not leaving because we were bad?"
"Of course not. I love you all, very much, and I would never leave you on purpose, whatever you did. I am ill, love, and it makes me very tired. One day soon I will sleep and to you it will seem that I do not wake; but I will wake, outside Arda, wake to healing and to song, and wait in peace and joy for you and your brother and father, to join me when your times come. Do you understand that?"
His face was screwed up in concentration. "I think so - but I want you to wake up well here."
"I know, love, I know." She smoothed a lock of dark hair back from his forehead and kissed him. "But I promise, Faramir, that I will not leave you without saying goodbye."
A scant month later, she lay in the bed she had shared with Denethor for many years, and knew she would never again leave it.
"Bring the boys," she told her husband.
"Surely you do not want them to see you like this," he protested.
"I promised that I would bid them farewell. I am dying, my heart. I must redeem that promise now, or die an oathbreaker."
Even now, he winced at her blunt use of the word. I know, my love, you would still deny it if you could, but you cannot do so any longer.
He sent a servant to bring them, unwilling himself to leave her side. Even the duties of the Steward he ignored, the only time she could remember that he had ever done so.
Boromir and Faramir stood close together by her head, fear and the beginnings of grief in their young faces. Boromir was trying to be strong, she could see that, and she respected his efforts, saying simply, "I love you, Boromir. Grow into a good man, and always remember that your mother's love is with you."
He nodded, brushing at his eyes angrily, then bent to kiss her and ran from the room, leaving Faramir behind. The little boy climbed onto the bed to hug her. He said nothing, but the tears ran down his cheeks as she kissed him and whispered, "Farewell, Faramir my son. I love you forever." He clung to her until a nod from Denethor brought the nurse Rhîwen to carry him away.
Now they were alone again, she and Denethor. The healers had all withdrawn from the room, leaving a last draught of syrup of poppy to ease her passing when she should be ready. They had come near to a quarrel on that, as near as either dared. Denethor had not wished to let her leave a moment sooner than he must, and it had taken much effort on Finduilas's part to convince him that waiting would simply prolong her pain unendurably, overwhelming all else. Now only one task remained to her.
"I must persuade you of one thing yet, dearest," she said through lips as dry and cold as the expression on her husband's face.
"What is that?"
"To let me go willingly, and in love."
Denethor shook his head. "How can I? Without you, all will be darkness. You are my joy, my light - there is nothing else, save duty to my land."
"There are our sons," she reminded him. "If you love me, you must notignore them in their grief - you must show your love to them as well."
"How can I bring happiness or even ease to them, when I shall have none myself?"
Finduilas could tell that he was asking this not idly, but truly could see no way to do as she wished. She cast about desperately for some answer, and could think of none.
"I do not know," she said at last. But you must promise me to try - or my life will end in torment, to think that our sons will be abandoned to grief, when I am no longer here to bring comfort, and indeed am the cause of it. You are grown, you have lost your mother and father already, and have endured it, but they are young. If ever you have loved me, promise me this now."
Denethor met her eyes for only an instant, then looking away, he gave a single sharp nod. "For your sake, I will try; but I do not know if I can succeed."
Relief washed through her and she pressed her face to his shoulder. "That is all I ask, love."
Outside the winter sun dropped to the horizon, red light brightening the southerly windows, as Denethor reluctantly gave his wife the cup that would end her pain. Wasted as she was, he still saw the lovely girl who had caught his heart. With her passing the mesh of that soft cage did not disappear, but rather turned to bonds of iron.
She drank, then set the cup aside and nestled to him, her eyes fixed on the window and darkness approaching there. Denethor held her frail body and felt her breathing become more and more shallow. Just as the evening star appeared, she turned to give him a final kiss.
"Farewell, my heart. I will look for you beyond the borders of the world," she murmured.
Outside the door, the healers waiting heard their lord give a great cry.
(1) Narvinyë is the equivalent of January in the calendar of Gondor.
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