Son of Ecthelion

Hands of the King

74. Watch

Minas Tirith, 25 September, 2982 T.A.

For the first time since spring, the morning air was chill, giving notice that summer was drawing to a close. It was time to prepare the City for yáviérë and the celebration of the harvest which, once again, was bountiful. Borondir was due late this morning to discuss preparations before trying to teach figures to his energetic young cousin.

Finduilas brought her empty tray downstairs to the kitchen and quickly submerged her dirty dishes into the wash tub, being careful to give the tea mug a swirl and a swipe to remove evidence of what it had held. Denethor had not only been ardent the last several days, he had drained her. She did not wish to say anything to dampen his heart or raise his concern, so she remained silent and waited until he left for the Tower with Boromir before mixing a half a mug of the tea. That would get her through the next week. Beregar and Aeluin also knew taking the draught meant something was not right, so she had to keep it hidden from them as well.

To keep Dúlin distracted from the mug, Finduilas asked the cook to tell her of the meals the woman had planned, what temptations she had located in the market that morning, and other things dear to the cook's heart. Nothing would do but to go into the cellar to see the rounds of cheese, the cured meats, the barrels of meal, the casks of oil and vinegar, the roots and gourds carefully stored for the coming winter, all the while dodging the ropes and hanks of dried herbs and fruits adorning every beam and post. Admiring Dúlin's treasure trove, Finduilas realized how long it had been since she had concerned herself with the ordering of the house. Not just during the sojourn, but for months, no, years before that, she had allowed these tasks to pass to Dúlin and Aeluin. She did not think her mother was so ignorant of the keep even as that was a far larger holding than this simple house.

Coming up the stairs from the cellar, Finduilas and Dúlin were just in time to see Boromir dash headlong from the courtyard door through the kitchen and into the hallway, making Damnir jump to the side or risk being run over. His feet pounded up the stairs to his room on the third floor. He should be attending the Steward. Dúlin commiserated with Damnir over the young master's impetuousness. Finduilas heard voices in the court and went to investigate.

Ecthelion and Hunthor stood near the gate to the lane talking about something, but they stopped and bowed to her when she approached. 'My Lord Steward,' she said pleasantly with a nod of her head in return, 'how good to see you this morning.' Finduilas gave him a swift embrace and kiss on the cheek. 'So you are the cause of the whirlwind that just ran through Mistress Dúlin's kitchen.'

The Steward laughed and bowed again with a flourish, though his motions were stiff. 'I confess to the crime, dear daughter. Boromir has something he wishes me to see and I told him to be quick about fetching it.'

'I thought he would be serving as your page during Tower business at this hour. Is your business already done?'

An odd look came to Ecthelion's face. 'Yes, I am through. If you will excuse us?' The last was said crisply to Hunthor, who bowed deeply and hastened into the kitchen. Ecthelion looked over his shoulder in the direction of the Tower, as though he could see its bulk through the walls of the intervening buildings. 'I am tired of listening to the same reports and arguments I have heard for thirty years. They would just make me doze off, so I am content to leave them for Denethor.' With a shrug, he looked at her again. 'I have come to an understanding with the Warden. Denethor prefers to be in command and I prefer to be with my grandson. It suits us both.'

Any other words were cut off by Boromir bursting through the kitchen door. 'Grandpa, here it is!' He skidded to a halt before them and held up the knife Halmir had given him.

Ecthelion took it and examined it closely, nodding as Boromir pointed out the finer points of the knife. 'And do you wear this, Morcollë?' he asked?

'He is too young to be carrying a weapon,' Finduilas said, knowing her tone was testy.

'He will soon be five. That is old enough,' Ecthelion countered. Finduilas opened her mouth to protest, but the Steward was quicker. 'Morcollë, has your father forbidden you to wear this?'

'No, Grandpa. He took it out and put it on the table near my bed and said I had to take good care of it.'

'You should not leave it lying about. Finduilas, I will be taking Boromir to the leatherworkers alley to get a proper belt and probably a new sheath for his knife,' Ecthelion airily told her.

Finduilas knew when she had been outmaneuvered. Give him this. It is a small enough battle. 'Enjoy your day, and don't get into too much trouble! Take Hunthor with you to carry any bundles you may accumulate upon your way.' She called for the guardsman and asked him to attend the Steward and Boromir.

Boromir took his grandfather's hand with a smile. 'See, Grandpa, we can have adventures here.'

'Indeed we can, Grandson.'

Finduilas watched the two stroll down the lane towards the main court and the tunnel to the lower circles before returning to her study where Moraen was laying out ledgers and reports on the Lady's Grace. How did you arrange this, Denethor? Or did Ecthelion simply make a gift of what he knew you wanted? Given Denethor's pride, she doubted that he would have been pleased if the Steward had been the one to decide this. Either way, it meant she would need to be accommodating tonight.

Not long afterwards, Borondir came in, a pouch full of paper slung across his chest and a mix of scrolls and ledgers under his arm. Finduilas and Moraen scrambled to unburden him. The cheerfulness she had marked in him after her return had not abated. Someone who did not know him well might not call it so, for Borondir remained dignified, almost formal, in his manner, but there was a more gentle cast to his features and more expression in his voice than had been there at least since Boromir's birth. No, since Luinmir and Anna left. Finduilas hoped that his heart was finally healing from that loss.

After a half hour of listening to Moraen and Borondir, Finduilas found herself becoming impatient. As with the keeping of the household, something else that had once occupied her fully was slipping from her grasp. Ecthelion is not the only one who tires of reports. 'I trust the treasury is in good order,' she said, firmly closing the ledger, 'but I know nothing of those who receive my gifts. I have been away from my city for half a year and it is time I saw it again.'

They were soon heading down the mountain to visit the Lady's Houses and see her bounty stored up in the warehouses. Beregar and Mírwen attended them as did a few pups and two guardsmen. The City had recovered its decorum since the raucous welcome of her return and they walked through the streets unmolested, for there was work to be done to prepare first for the coming feast and then for the dark months ahead. Men peered at the seals on windows and climbed up on rooftops to examine tiles. Women had windows open, bedding laid out to air, and scrubbed floors clean of summer's grit. In the air was the smell of smoke and turning leaves. The flanks of Mindolluin were changing their garb from the dusty yellows and greens of late summer to the stronger reds and golds of autumn. The Pelennor's patchwork quilt of fields and farms followed suit. Between the black walls and the turning fields, a vast city of tents and wagons circled Minas Tirith. Every year saw a larger fair. Finduilas wondered if the dwarves would attend this year.

The women and children who relied on the Lady's Grace welcomed her into their small homes with joy, and it gladdened Finduilas to know there were fewer in need of her gifts than in years past. The years of good harvest and peace conspired to make life more commodious for all, even the wretched. The Lady's Houses had helped, too, by providing havens from destitution and ruin for many women. Any girl who could win a place in a guildhall by dint of her talents would have her fees to the guild paid by the Lady, just as the Warden would pay that for a son of a widow. One enterprising widow had set up a small lending bank to help other women buy looms, lathes and other tools with which to establish shops. One of the whorehouses had to close for lack of girls to work and prices had gone up in all of the others. This did not dampen the love of the whores for the Lady; they leaned out windows and doors to cheer Finduilas as she passed their establishments. Moraen turned her face away in disapproval, but Finduilas waved back. You are my women, too.

It was simply fun to walk the streets again and rediscover the City. The carvings upon walls turned to watch her pass, grotesque faces contorted with joy for her attention. Ships rocked on stone waves, eager to reach a harbor and unload their treasures for the coming festival. They stopped at The Messenger's Rest for dinner. As she ate her bread and cheese at a table near the window where she could watch the street, Finduilas smiled to herself. She knew she should return to the Stewards House. There were probably noble callers wishing to see the Lady. I agree with Boromir - it is time for adventures! The meal done, she led them off to the lower circles to visit shops and stalls. Golasgil greeted her joyfully, laying out his most recent finds for her admiration. Primrose taught her how to use a loupe to examine gems. Finduilas bought a slender gold chain for Mírwen which pleased the girl greatly. In the first circle, they went to the warehouses, already filled near to bursting. Borondir led them to one of the oldest ones, tunneled back into the mountain bedrock.

'I put most of the goods for the Lady's Grace here, Finduilas,' he said, holding the door open for her. 'It costs a little more because the caverns are secure, dry and safe from fire. It is also..'

'Hello?' A voice called out from the dim depths of the cavern. A moment later a tall, slender figure emerged from the gloom. The woman walked over swiftly. 'Lord Borondir, how can I help...' She stopped when she was close enough to recognize Finduilas. Like most warehouse foremen, she wore trousers, a sturdy leather apron and guards on her arms. Not bothering to neaten her hair or clothes as most would when faced with the Lady of the White Tower, the woman bowed gracefully. 'Welcome to my warehouse, my lady. I am Haleth.'

'Thank you, Mistress Haleth,' Finduilas answered with a gracious nod. 'I have come to inspect my goods Lord Borondir has placed in your care.'

'Please, come with me.' Haleth took them first to see where leather goods were kept, and then cloth, metals (forged and unforged), dyes, rope. They had to go to another cavern complex a few doors away to see barrels of oil and wine, bundles of dried fish, cured hams and aged cheese. It was fascinating to see the system of cords in different combinations of colors, numbers and knots used to track every customer's goods. Haleth was an excellent guide. She explained everything with economy yet never seemed abrupt. If leaving her tasks to show an important guest about dismayed her, it could not be seen. Her voice was deep, almost as deep as a man's, and her face was interesting rather than beautiful. Throughout the caverns, the men and women workers greeted both guests and their mistress with dignity. It reminded Finduilas of Aiavalë's rule in the archives.

The last place she showed them was a stone warehouse built up against the first wall, made of the same black material as the wall itself. It made Finduilas think of the bridge set among the high hills of Lebennin. 'This is our short storage, my lady,' Haleth explained. 'Traders who are here for a short time know they may safely store their goods here. The stone cannot be broken, and there is a small building within that can be used for precious goods.'

'Do you get many regular traders?'

Haleth nodded. 'Yes. They know we can be trusted, so the reputable traders come back.'

An idea occurred to Finduilas. 'Northern traders?'

'All traders,' Haleth firmly replied. 'North, south, west, even from the east.'

'Do you have northern traders now? Here for yáviérë?'

'Why do you ask?'

Finduilas approved of the woman's caution. 'I may have need to send things north. Things that require discretion.'

'Yes.' With that, Haleth showed them around the warehouse. Finduilas thanked her for her time and told Borondir they needed to return home.

'Tell me about her,' Finduilas asked Borondir when they were in the second circle. 'You were going to say something earlier.'

'I was going to say that Mistress Haleth has need of the Lady's Grace as well.'

'Her business looks well founded.'

'It is not hers, but her nephew's, and her hold is precarious.'

'Why?'

'The warehouse has been in her father's family for long. Haleth is the youngest of three children, having an elder sister and brother. Their father died in the retaking of the passage of Anduin in Osgiliath, and their mother went mad from grief. Her elder sister has cared for their mother. She is wed to a knave, a ne'er-do-well who was always willing to do some mischief for the King's Men. He is having a harder time finding people to pay him for mischief. Her brother and Haleth ran the business. He handled actual trade upon the river between the Harlond and Pelargir, running trade barges. She worked the warehouses, for she has a quick mind and a head for numbers, just like Cousin Núneth. Her brother's wife died with their third child, so Haleth has been mother and aunt to the others. When the fleet left for Umbar, her brother was in Pelargir and won a place on one of the ships.' Borondir sighed.

'I can guess what has happened. He did not return, and now she fights off her brother-in-laws attempts to seize the business away from her and her nephew.'

'Yes.' Borondir scowled. 'I found out about this about this time two years ago, when her brother-in-law was threatening to take it from her, saying a man needed to oversee the business. I knew him from... well... from something Denethor had me investigate a year before that, and let him know he would find himself before the Common Court. The other warehouse keepers would not mind removing some competition, but they dare not harm one who has your favor.'

'They had better not. How long until the nephew can attend to his own affairs?'

'Ten years, at the least.'

Finduilas walked up the mountain, pondering how to make use of Haleth's connection to northern traders and paying no mind to Borondir and Moraen's banter. She also decided that she had not paid enough attention to the widows and orphans of Umbar. Her thoughts were cut short by the sight of a glowering Denethor in her study. She dismissed the others, who were only too glad to escape his fierce gaze, and shut the door.

'Where have you been?'

She paused for a moment so as not to respond to his curt tone. 'I have been seeing to the Lady's Grace. This is the last time I may do so before the weather turns and...'Finduilas lightly touched her belly.

'Did you know that...'

'Boromir spent the day with the Steward? Yes. I told them to go about and set Hunthor upon them to watch. Isn't that what you wanted?'

Denethor's brow creased. 'What I wanted?'

'Yes. Ecthelion admitted that you were conducting all of the Tower's business today, so I sent them off to keep him out of the way.'

'Ah.' Denethor turned away and looked out the window. 'Yes, but you should have sent me word.' Finduilas nodded, trying not to be exasperated at helping these two men to save face when caught by their own folly. 'And how fares your Grace?'

'Very well. The good years have lessened many burdens.'

'Good.' Denethor kept looking out the window, his hands clasped behind him. He worried his wedding band with his thumb and his shoulders were taut. 'I need to... speak to Gethron. Of Théoden's decision.' He sighed and walked over the couch, sitting heavily. 'I have kept the man waiting long enough.'

Finduilas poured wine from the ewer on the sideboard and brought the cups over, taking a seat next to Denethor. 'What will you say?'

'What is there to say? The suit is rejected.' He sipped his wine, staring glumly at the hearth.

'Send for him after supper. We will both tell him.'

Boromir was full of stories about the day spent with the Steward and proudly showed off the new belt and sheath his grandfather had purchased in the leather market for his knife. Denethor's admiration of the gift was genuine, though he scolded Boromir for having missed his figures lesson with Borondir. Boromir tried to look contrite, failing utterly. Shortly after the meal ended, Beregar let them know that Gethron had arrived. Finduilas told him to bring the captain to her study.

The expression on Gethron's face changed when he saw them standing before her desk, becoming stern and set. He stopped before them and bowed. 'My lord, my lady, how may I serve you?'

'As you always serve us, Captain, with honor,' Denethor answered. 'Last winter, you asked me to take your suit for Princess Aldwyn's hand to King Théoden. I did, and I argued your case strongly. As I feared, King Théoden did not accept it.' Gethron closed his eyes and dropped his head, jaw clenched . After a few heartbeats, he sighed and met Denethor's eyes once more. 'I am sorry, Gethron.'

'Thank you, sir. I knew it was a slim chance at best.'

'The king was sorrowful to refuse you. He called you a man of perfect honor and dignity.'

'Did he say...' Gethron held up a hand, forestalling an answer. 'Nay, forgive my impertinence. The answer is enough. Thank you for your kindness, my lord.'

'If you have questions, Gethron, they will be answered,' Finduilas said. 'You are dear to us, and we are saddened to give you this news.'

'Only this. Was the princess left behind because of my suit?'

'No. Her sister Hilda bore her first child when we were in Langstrand, and Aldwyn begged to remain and help with the baby. Queen Morwen gave her consent. Aldwyn will be there at least a year, perhaps longer.'

'She knows naught of this, true?' Gethron looked anxiously at Denethor, who shook his head.

'None of us have said a word, and Théoden asked that we leave her ignorance.' Gethron sighed again and nodded. 'Have you any other questions?' He shook his head. 'Good evening, Captain.'

Denethor undressed slowly when it was time for bed, distracted by his thoughts. When they lay down, he held her closely, but did not kiss or caress her. 'Friend? What is it?'

'Is there nothing to be done?'

'About Gethron?'

'He loves her.' Denethor sighed and hugged her too him more tightly. 'He'll not find another. His heart has already been given.'

'No, nothing we may do. It is for Théoden to relent, and that would be for Aldwyn's sake, or Morwen's, not for Gethron.' Finduilas kissed Denethor's cheek. 'Tell me, why did you send the Steward off today?'

Denethor growled and let go of her, sitting up in bed. 'He and Boromir were not paying attention to one of the minister's reports, but were joking between themselves. Upon a short break, I said privately that Boromir was there to learn to act as a man, not to tempt Ecthelion to behave like a child. When we rejoined the ministers, the Steward announced he was too weary to continue and left.'

So not your choice. Finduilas did not find it strange that Boromir would be bored by the meetings and actually thought Ecthelion's ruse to be a clever way to avoid what he obviously no longer cared about. She sat up next to Denethor and slipped her arms around his waist. 'Good!'

'Good? The Steward shirks his duties before all and you call...'

'...that good, yes! He cedes his place to you, as he should have after Umbar. Grant him his wish. Let him go play the child for the rest of his days.' Finduilas twisted around and straddled Denethor. His hands went to her hips and slid around to knead her rump. She kissed him, tickling his lips with her tongue until he opened to her. She felt his cock begin to rise and reached down between them to stroke him. 'Enough of foolish rulers,' she whispered.

Denethor wet two of his fingers and slid them along her furrow, drawing out deeper dampness from its folds. 'Will you take pity on a foolish husband?' Finduilas nuzzled his ears in answer, flicking them with her tongue. He pressed against her rump with his free hand as the other continued to delve between her legs, preparing her. His hand was slick with her when he finally pulled it away. It took only a few wiggles to get him into her, but their odd position kept him from entering too deeply. Denethor wiped his wetted fingers against her nipples and suckled her, making her whimper. 'Alquallë, can you move your legs, this way?' he asked, pulling one forward. It took a moment for her to understand what he wanted, but Finduilas soon had her legs forward, around his waist, her crotch pressed firmly against his own. He took her hands from his shoulders and had her grasp the headboard, bringing her breasts up and forward. 'Now, there is a beautiful sight, ' he whispered. With her legs crooked about him and him leaning back and pinning them to the bed, Finduilas could not move of her own accord. His mouth claimed her breasts and his hands took command of her hips, setting the rhythm of her thrusts against him, until his pants became groans and ended in a sharp cry and a shudder when he spilled. They slid down the bed and lay flat. Denethor kissed her tenderly. 'We should go walk in the fair tomorrow,' he murmured. 'There is not much time left.'

'The fair will run for a week and more, friend.'

Denethor rested a hand on her belly. 'But I intend to have you pregnant very soon.' She drifted off to sleep to the sound of a murmured lullaby,

Songs of the deep,
Too vast to hear,
Run through thy blood,
And fate draws near.

***

Minas Tirith, 29 September, 2982 T.A.

Finduilas sighed in relief as they escaped the heat of the street and entered Laanga's house. The day was unseasonably warm and dry, as it had been all week. Summer was loathe to loose her grip upon this year, and people scanned the horizon for a sign of rain. The nights were cool, though there was not yet a need to light fires for warmth. Denethor and Borondir were both grim faced at the news from Imrahil earlier that week; Harondor's plains were dry, the roads fast, and scouts from Khand had been spotted west of the River Harnen. Word had been sent to all of the lords that a fierce war season was approaching and soldiers were to be moved to the east. Denethor was taking advantage of yáviérë to mask their transit upon the roads, but it would be difficult to move men into place beyond Anduin without notice. Finduilas tried not to be pleased that the Enemy's eye might be upon others and not her. Imrahil remained in Pelargir, but the rest of the captains - Baragund, Gildor, Marlong, Gethron, Calmacil and Anbar - were here in Minas Tirith to coordinate the defense.

Even a war council was not enough to keep Ecthelion from escaping into the City with Boromir. Denethor had conceded that Finduilas was probably right that it was to their advantage that the Steward allow Denethor to conduct the business of the realm, but he imposed his own rules upon the truants. He forbade Boromir to shirk his late morning lessons with Borondir and Aiavalë, which kept him in the Citadel until after dinner. Ecthelion accepted this, holding his audiences in the morning and leaving Denethor to conduct councils in the afternoon. Finduilas insisted that Hunthor and another guardsman accompany Ecthelion and Boromir, preferably with a few pups in tow. None of them minded the company.

Compared to the cool dim rooms of the house, the garden was hot. The herbalist was sitting beneath the Crone, an obsidian statue draped with unbleached linen. He had a cloth on his head, bound at his brow with a dark blue cord, to shade his bald pate and bare neck from the sun. Next to him was a yoke with two water buckets. He greeted his visitors with a slight nod.

Beregar carried the women's baskets back to the bower before going to work. He knelt for Laanga's blessing, collected the water buckets and went to fill them from the cistern near the back of the house. When he returned with the heavy buckets over his shoulders, Laanga stood and led him about the garden, pointing to the plants that needed to be watered. It took several trips to the cistern before thirst was quenched. Laanga sat on one of the overturned buckets while Beregar chiseled a hole out of the packed earth for another of the herbalist's transplants.

The Hound had taken a great interest in dirt since digging the first hole for Laanga. He had gone out to the farm upon the Pelennor that Denethor had given to him, and had come back with a saddle bag full of herbs, leaves, and handfuls of dirt tied up in kerchiefs, all of which he brought to the apothecary. Laanga had told him the name and use of each plant and had touched, smelled and tasted the soil, pronouncing it good for living things. 'When this heat has passed, and with it all the travelers before the walls, I will walk with you to your farm, grandson, and we will look at it together,' Laanga had promised.

Under the bower, Aeluin and Finduilas sewed. Aeluin's pregnancy was just beginning to show, and she was no longer feeling so sick to her stomach. Laanga sent herbs every morning for her to help keep her meals down. Finduilas insisted that Aeluin be under Warden Lhûn's care as she was herself, to ensure all went well with the pregnancy. They had stopped there on the way to the garden. The healer was pleased with how well Aeluin was doing.

'Lhûn thinks the baby will come in April, not May,' Aeluin happily said.

'Good. That will put some time between our babes' arrival.'

'Are you...?'

Finduilas shook her head. 'Not yet. I had a moon flux two weeks ago.' Today was the first day of the first six. Denethor was very good at counting. He had woken her with insistent kisses to make love while the morning was cool and they had lain together again after dinner before he returned to the Tower to speak to the captains. She wondered if even his ardor could withstand three matings a day in this heat.

'Not for lack of trying,' Aeluin smirked, making Finduilas turn red, though she smirked, too.

'Oh dear, have we been too loud?' That earned a guffaw.

'Master Boromir gets his strong lungs from somewhere, my lady, though I am not certain whether from you or Lord Denethor.'

'Sneaking about keyholes, are you?'

'Stopping them up, is more like it! The rest of us do need to sleep, you know' Finduilas let out a mock shriek of outrage and playfully slapped Aeluin with the shirt she was mending. When they stopped giggling, Aeluin said, 'I am praying for you and your lord, Finduilas, that you will get a child soon.'

'It will be soon, Aeluin.' It has to be. 'You inspired me, you know. As soon as you told me your news, I knew I must have another.'

Aeluin's cheer left, leaving the woman sober. 'I was not certain I ever would.'

'What do you mean?'

Some red came to the matron's cheeks and she busied her hands with her sewing. 'After he came back last year, Beregar would not touch me. Not even to lie next to me.'

'I had no idea.'

'We didn't want you to.' There was a sharpness to Aeluin's voice and her mouth was drawn into a line. She kept her eyes on her work. 'He said he was tainted, poisoned, even, and did not wish me polluted with it.' With a sigh, Finduilas drew Aeluin into an embrace. 'He washed his face a dozen times a day trying to clean it off. He could not kiss me. Once he regained his strength from the drowning, we went to the shore and knew each other again as husband and wife. He said the stain was still upon him, but less, lighter, and that he had chosen to return. For me. For Finiel.'

'And now you have another child.'

Aeluin pulled away, wiping her eyes, but smiling. 'Yes, and I will have more yet, as will you.'

'Yes. More.' Finduilas returned to her sewing. One more, and then... What? When the tea was gone, when the tree did not grow, when the king did not return, what would be her fate? The same as for any mortal. I will die. Mayhap sooner, for I have always been weak. But that was not so. She had always been prone to coughs, particularly in the winter, but they had not been her constant companions until she was eighteen. Then a great illness had come over her along with Swan dreams of Denethor, Minas Tirith and herself on a pinnacle in the waste. The same spring Thorongil took service with the Steward. Now that she knew of her twin in the north, Finduilas was no longer so inclined to think the two events unconnected. Only his hands have lifted this malady.

More ailed her than the cough, though. She had thought a great deal upon these ills since hearing the clank of Sauron's chain upon the streets of Dol Amroth. They were not the same. The cough was in her lungs, in the spot Thorongil and Lhûn both could feel. Lhûn had said she thought it like an old injury that had scarred. In truth, though it had returned, it was still less troubling than it had been before Thorongil's healing and more like to the affliction of her early youth. If she took care not to contract an ague or pneumonia, it was but an annoyance.

No, the true ailment was laid upon her heart, and that was the mariner's doing. A hole in it. Thorongil had drawn out the Black Breath from her lungs, mending the old wound, and the mariner had touched her but a month later, causing a new one. Afterwards, Denethor could See her. You said it was hope that would endure. Were you giving that hope to me, or wresting it from me? Finduilas could not prevent a shiver at the thought and coughed to mask it.

When shadows lengthened, they gathered their sewing and returned to the Citadel. Boromir was still out with the Steward. Hunthor had sent back word that they were at the fair before the walls. Denethor returned with Marlong and Borondir not long afterwards. The rest of the captains were in Gethron's care and he was taking them out for ale and to see the fair themselves. The men came into her study, arguing.

'...see why not, Denethor.' Borondir's voice had an overly patient tone.

'And I do not see why,' was Denethor's curt answer. He spared Finduilas a kiss before going to pour wine. The other two greeted and kissed Finduilas before claiming their cups.

'What is blinding you, gentlemen?' Finduilas asked as she accepted hers.

'Rohan,' Marlong said with a sigh and a sharp glance at Denethor.

'We do not need an éored. Adrahil is sending a company of his knights.'

Borondir shook his head. 'If the conditions were not so dry, Denethor, I would agree with you, but Khand will move fast and Poros is shallow. That both keeps our own men from traveling easily up it and makes it less of a barrier for the enemy to ford.'

'There is no other ford upon the river. You know that,' Denethor answered coolly. 'A dry road is also a thirsty one. There are no wells sufficient to support an army for two days' march south of the ford. They can only go as fast as their water wagons, and they must husband their beasts' strength for the assault to take the river. The animals will be half mad with thirst as it is.'

'Be it so, we should ignore the advantage of an ally?' Marlong grumbled.

'A messenger has been sent to King Théoden, alerting him to Khand's advance. If he wishes to send men for the battle and to claim any spoils that result, Gondor shall not deny him the honor.'

Finduilas could see that this argument would probably continue all evening. 'Gentlemen, as much as it might please you to argue about war, I am of no mind to listen. I am going to the fair until sundown and you are all welcome to join me, but only if you leave your argument behind.'

'I will join you, Finduilas, for I have had enough of this talk for the day,' Marlong said. Borondir nodded agreement, though Denethor said nothing. Finduilas sent for Moraen and soon the five were walking through the shadowed but still warm streets. Moraen walked between Borondir and Marlong, chatting gaily with them. Finduilas noticed that she had taken Borondir's arm and seemed content to keep hold of it. Marlong had many stories of Wren and their son to recount. 'She has sworn she will be here for Yule, Finduilas,' he said, 'since Mab is now big enough to travel for a few days.'

'That will be great fun! I will be sure to tell Aiavalë. I'll wager we can wheedle Lark into coming up from Pelargir.'

'Already done!' Marlong said with a grin.

Directly before the gates on the far side of the road, the fair had been laid out, with many rows and alleys of traders. Squares had been established, too, and in them acrobats and jugglers, magicians and illusionists, minstrels and bards were performing, most with bowls or hats set before them for coins. Traders shouted and sang, extolling the virtues of their wares. Every so often there would be a booth selling food, some familiar, some exotic, all smelling delicious. From the east, families were coming in from the Pelennor, their daily chores done, while it seemed that half the City had emerged with the cooling air to see what curiosities could be found.

To Finduilas' disappointment, there were no Dwarves this year, but there were a number of northern traders. Most were of the same stock as the Dunlendings, short and sallow, with broad torsos and thick limbs. Others looked more Rohirric and still others had a Dúnedain cast to them, but none looked like the Lost. Denethor sought out each northerner, examining their goods and asking if they had any access to the Dwarf trade. A few claimed they did and were told to call upon the Warden at the lower garrison on the morrow.

The sun disappeared behind Mindolluin and the City took on an opalescent shimmer in the fading light. In the black first wall, light from torches and lanterns in the forecourt before the pier of stone made an amber gem of the open gates, its rich glow in contrast to the obsidian collar in which it was set. And so is the hole in my heart the portal through which we See each other. A breach in a wall meant to keep her safe. That is ridiculous. We are meant to See each other if our love is true. It was Denethor's touch that allowed them to See, not the mariner's. Then why does his touch drain you? It is not just Seeing. He is leeching your very life away. Finduilas suddenly felt sick to her stomach. "Not enough love in the world to satisfy him." She turned away from the gate and walked swiftly into the fair, trying to outpace the thought. Denethor was like a shadow at her heels and she had to fight the urge to flee from him.

A small form broke free from the crowd and flung itself against her legs, knocking her back into Denethor's arms. 'Mama!' Boromir shouted, his face smeared with dirt and bits of whatever he had been eating at the fair. The rest of him was filthy as well.

'Boromir, behave yourself!' Finduilas snapped, giving him a push to make him let go. He staggered back a step just as she had. Ecthelion caught him before he tumbled over.

'Gently, daughter,' he murmured as he steadied the boy. 'Morcollë,' he said a little louder, tousling her grandson's already messy hair, 'you must beware of your strength! You nearly knocked your poor mother over and gave her a fright as well.'

'I'm sorry, Mama,' Boromir said contritely, wiping his nose on his sleeve.

'You are forgiven, cub, but you mustn't startle me like that,' she replied, ashamed at her harsh treatment of him.

Denethor knelt and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket. Wiping the worst of the grime from Boromir's face, he asked, 'What have you been doing all afternoon, Morcollë?'

'Seeing the fair. You should have come sooner.' Ecthelion nodded and winked slyly at Finduilas.

'I had a council to attend. The captains were here to talk to me.'

'You should have brought them, too,' Boromir said firmly. 'There were magicians to watch.'

'But then they would not have been talking to me.'

'They can talk to you later,' was Boromir's reasonable reply. 'I showed Boots to Grandpa.'

'Did you now?' Denethor glanced up at the Steward.

'Yes, he did. Boots is a very fine pony.'

'We should go riding tomorrow, Papa. You, me and Grandpa.'

'No, Grandson. We cannot, for I am too old to ride. In fact,' the Steward put a hand to his back and straightened with a grimace, 'it is time for me to take my old bones back home and rest. You have worn me out, Morcollë.'

It was a slow walk back to the Citadel, for Ecthelion needed to rest often. Both Hunthor and Denethor offered their arms for him to lean upon, but the Steward refused their help. Finduilas took Boromir home while Denethor and Hunthor accompanied Ecthelion back to his chambers. She tried to make up for her surly greeting at the fair by asking Boromir to tell her all about his adventure that day. It was only because he was yawning and falling asleep on his feet that Mírwen managed to get him acceptably scrubbed. He was already in bed by the time Denethor got back and fell asleep before Denethor finished his bedtime story.

When they went to Denethor's study, he poured himself wine and sat before her chair. Finduilas was already sleepy from the walk and the heat, so she did not pour any wine and simply sat. He leaned his head against her leg. Her eyes strayed to the other chair. Are you here?

Denethor sighed and sat up. 'I think that is the first time the Steward has gone beyond the walls since he took the Black Chair. Almost thirty years.'

'I hope the cub did not tire Ecthelion too much.'

'I doubt the Steward will stir from his chambers tomorrow.' Denethor took a sip. 'I had to put him in his bed.' Finduilas kissed the top of his head and kneaded his shoulders. After he finished his wine, they went to bed. He made love to her gently and quietly, then held her while she drifted off to sleep.

***

Minas Tirith, 30 September, 2982 T.A.

A Tower servant was waiting in the entryway when Denethor and Boromir returned from the baths. The Steward was going to rest today in anticipation of the feast day on the morrow. Would the Warden be so kind as to see to the audiences this morning and the councils this afternoon?

Boromir was not happy at being left behind. 'I was a good boy yesterday,' he insisted to no one in particular as he toyed with his building blocks on the floor of her study.

'Yes, Morcollë, you were good,' Finduilas assured him, wondering at his words.

'You scolded me and Grandpa is sick,' was his gloomy answer.

'I scolded you because you almost knocked me down, Morcollë, but you apologized and I forgave you. That is what a good boy does - apologizes for his mistakes. Your grandfather is not sick. He is tired.' She thought for a second. 'But I know what you can do that will make him happy.'

'What, Mama?'

'Write him a letter with pictures of everything you saw yesterday. In fact, you should write Grandpa Adrahil and Grandma Nil about the fair, too.' This suggestion removed whatever worries had clouded his thoughts. It was fun to set aside serious business and watch Boromir draw pictures and write his notes. He had become used to the walking desk, so sat on the floor with it, his pens, charcoal sticks and paint pots spread around him. The letters wandered over the page and the words were not quite legible, but Finduilas doubted any of the recipients would care. The pictures were bright and amusing. Boromir had Denethor's talent for sketching things well with just a few spare lines, even at his age. He used some dyes mixed well with water to brush color over the charcoal and ink lines. They dried quickly in the warm air.

At mid-morning, there was a tap on the study doorframe. Moraen was standing there, looking sheepish. And a little ill. 'Moraen, what is the matter?'

'Too much fun,' the woman admitted, coming to sit near the desk. 'We were at the fair until late, and then Marlong wished to go to a tavern, and we met a few of my friends and...' The woman shrugged.

'When did you get in last night?'

'I didn't.' Finduilas waited for an answer. 'I was too drunk to walk back, so Borondir saw me safely to your house in the third circle. He brought me back just now.' Moraen grimaced and rubbed her temples.

'You need some of Master Laanga's herbs and more sleep, I daresay,' Finduilas said, trying not to laugh. 'Here, drink some water while I send a pup to fetch the herbs.' When Finduilas returned, Moraen was admiring Boromir's drawings. There were far too many to send in letters, so Finduilas encouraged Boromir to pick out some to give to Moraen, Aeluin and Dúlin. Ingold showed up at the door with a packet of leaves and a note written in the apothecary's precise hand. Finduilas helped Moraen up to her room and set the herbs to steep in a small pitcher of water as Laanga directed. Moraen drank another cup of water before lying down and going to sleep.

Boromir was writing again by the time Finduilas returned. 'More letters, cub?'

'Mm-hm.'

'To who?'

'Anna.' He concentrated on the words, his brow creased with effort. 'Forweg.'

'When you are done, we will put the letters and the pictures together and seal them, yes? And then we can take them to the messengers.' He nodded, not looking up. Just before dinner, Boromir brought a stack of things to Finduilas.

'This is for Grandpa.' He collected another stack. 'This is for Papa.' Another. 'Grandpa Adrahil.' Each little bundle took its place on her desk, nearly covering it. The last one, though, he held and would not hand over.

'What is it, Morcollë?' He silently handed the three sheets over to Finduilas. One was a picture of him and Denethor doing sword practice. The second was him riding Boots. The last was a letter.

Dear Uncle Halmir,

I miss you. I use my sword and bow every day. Papa tells me stories at night.

I saw the fair with grandpa. We saw juglars and singers. I ate a lot. Grandpa is tired. He misses you, to. It is to hot. Please come back.

Boromir

'The messenger can't take it?' Boromir half asked.

'No, Boromir. Uncle Halmir said the messengers can't go to the north.' Finduilas kissed his forehead. 'The other letters we can send.'

'Please?'

'Not the messenger, but I will ask if there is anyone else.' They gathered the letters and walked to the messenger stable. The stable master put the bundles with the regular post, to go out in wagons north and south in the morning. Denethor returned for dinner, praised Boromir for the picture of himself on Gaerhûl and promised to take the letter and pictures directly to the Steward before the afternoon councils. Aiavalë took Boromir to the archives for his history lesson, giving Finduilas and Denethor a short time together before he had to return to the Tower.

She knew that she should stay lying down after their lovemaking, but Finduilas could not put aside the sad look on Boromir's face when he gave her the letter to Halmir. She wrapped the letter and the pictures carefully in a sheet of thick paper and sealed it tightly with string and wax, imprinting the back with her black wing. Beregar fell into place at her heels as she left the house and walked down the mountain. Haleth was not at the main warehouse, but soon arrived. The woman bowed politely. 'What may I do for you, my lady?'

Finduilas held out the packet. 'I need this to go north.'

Haleth took it and examined it carefully, nodding her approval. 'It can go that far. Where up there?'

'A place named Bree, where Dwarves sometimes trade. There is an inn called the Prancing Pony. The letter is to be given to the innkeeper, Butter... Butterman or Butterball or something like that.'

'It is for him?'

'No. He is to give it to Ranger Fox.'

'I will find someone. It will not go before the fair is done.'

'That is soon enough.' Finduilas reached into her purse and pulled out a gold crown. 'Is this enough to pay for the trader and your trouble?'

'A tenth of that would pay for my trouble for a year.'

Finduilas held out the coin. 'It is worth this to me. There will be more.'

Haleth took the coin, slipping it into her purse. 'I am always honored to serve you, my lady. This will be delivered.'

***

Minas Tirith, Yáviérë, 2982 T.A.

Though it did not seem possible, the fair before Minas Tirith was even larger on yáviérë itself than on the days before. The City's population swelled from arrivals from the Pelennor, Anórien and Lebennin, and even the upper circle streets were filled with revelers. Though still warm, the unpleasant heat of the last week had finally abated, which added to the joy of the day. Elders rubbed their joints and said rain was on its way.

Finduilas had arranged for her guardsmen to erect a large pavilion on the greensward before the Tower. She held court there through the day, greeting noble, farmer and beggar alike, giving her blessing to any who asked. Denethor left her to rule over the inner court, taking up his post upon the promontory where he could watch the court, speak privately to lords and merchants who wished for the High Warden's ear, and keep an eye on the City below. Finduilas could not see him because of the pavilion canvas, but her heart let her know where he stood. The covering did not turn aside another set of eyes watching from the east. More than once, she wished for just a sip of her tea.

Merethrond had been opened and turned into a market of the finest merchants and vendors from the fair. Delicate fabrics and threads, exquisite metal work, exotic foods, curiosities and treasures from the four corners of Middle-earth were there. The traders had paid Borondir a hefty fee to win this place.

Throughout the City, talk was of war. There had not been a major battle since Umbar, and the young men were spoiling for a fight. The soldiers swaggered about in their uniforms, loudly proclaiming that they would have a great victory over the Khandians come November, assuming the cowardly barbarians dared to poke their noses past the River Harnen. Traders listened carefully, then made their own plans. Some intended to go straight to Pelargir and cross the river to collect battlefield spoils as quickly as carrion crows, gorging on gear the way the birds did on corpses. Others said they were for western Gondor, wishing no part of the turmoil but wanting to take advantage of the further markets before the scavengers returned to Pelargir and set sail for falas ports with their booty. A few who remained shrugged and said they went north, regardless of the battles.

Just past dinner, the Steward emerged from the Tower. Finduilas jumped up to embrace him and would hear of nothing but that he take her chair, calling for another to be brought for herself. 'Dear father, how do you fare?'

'Well, daughter, well. I have recovered from my weariness.' Ecthelion's face belied his jovial words. There were dark circles under his eyes and more lines than she remembered. But his smile was true and his eyes sparkled more brightly than they had in many months. Age had made Ecthelion's features assume the same lean, angular lines as Denethor.

'That is good. Boromir was worried about you yesterday.'

'Where is he?'

'Getting dirty somewhere, no doubt!' They both laughed. 'He set out with his friends to play. He will be back when he is hungry.'

The Steward looked out at the throng of people milling about the court. 'I think this year has provided the finest harvest I have ever seen.' He took her hand. 'Thank you, Finduilas.'

'You are welcome.' Any further conversation was stopped by a couple approaching with their baby, wishing for the Lady's blessing on their family. Ecthelion dandled the child and was charming to the young parents. He remained by Finduilas for almost two hours, then withdrew, saying he had business to attend to. Boromir returned not long afterwards and climbed up into the vacated chair, joined by Finiel and a boy whose mother was one of the Tower cooks. A few other children plopped down near the chairs, grubby from their games.

Denethor collected them in the late afternoon just as a cool breeze joined the shadow of Mindolluin to make the courtyard chilly. Around Mindolluin's shoulders lay a collar of grey clouds stretching west, bearing water from the Sea. Autumn had arrived. At nightfall, their guests arrived for supper - old families and new who had shown loyalty to the Warden since Umbar. War was on everyone's mind. Though not as brash as the braggarts in the street, Finduilas could tell that Denethor was displeased by the presumption that the impending conflict with Khand would be an easy victory for Gondor. He did not encourage the guests to linger after the meal. Boromir surprised Finduilas and earned Denethor's praise when he insisted on getting himself washed up for bed. He was more clean than not when he finished. They tucked their son into bed and sat with him until he fell asleep. In Denethor's study, Finduilas accepted a cup of wine from Denethor. He seemed preoccupied, walking along the shelves and looking at different things, unwilling to sit. It was not difficult to guess the cause.

'Do you expect the Khand attack to be great?'

'Yes.' He sipped his wine. 'It will be a ferocious battle.'

'Will we win?'

'Not easily.' He finished his wine and came over to her, kneeling before her. 'I would place myself under the Queen's Law, if it pleases you.'

Finduilas smiled. 'I will grant it. When I return, you are not to be wearing a stitch.' She went to her room and put on Morwen's robe, pulling up her hair and securing it firmly. When she returned, Denethor was bare, kneeling in the same place she left him. She took her time circling him, admiring his beauty. This inspection roused him greatly, though he did not raise his eyes from the floor. 'And what is your desire?'

'Like last time, but less... base.'

That was intriguing. Finduilas sat on the edge of the desk. 'I remember you promising to get a child on me. Is that what you intend tonight?'

He raised his head to look at her. 'Yes.' The expression on his face made her shiver. She gestured for him to come forward, growling in pleasure as he touched her. The watcher closed in, eager to witness their mating. Against the sound of the waterfall, the mariner cast his silver net about them to create their secret place, secured from prying eyes. When the mariner would have sat in the chair to mind the net, Finduilas growled again, but in threat. No. I don't want you touching us tonight. For a moment, she thought she saw him turn his head, a shadowy profile with tangled hair and a gleaming eye, and then there was nothing between them and the east. In the first moment when the foul gaze slid over them, she regretted sending the mariner away. And how would a child gotten beneath that net ever escape it? She abandoned herself to Denethor's touch, and he soon had her crying out.

Denethor did not reduce her completely, nor even leave her shuddering, before he backed away. When she stood and would have turned her back to him, Denethor caught her shoulders. 'You said you preferred to see my face.' He kissed her deeply, his beard wet from her furrow. 'As you command.' He pushed her back to the desk, pulling up the back of the robe so it barely covered her rump, and positioned her to sit on the edge of the desk. Denethor took her shoulders again and pressed her down until she rested on her elbows. 'You can watch me watch you.' His hands on her trembled slightly as he positioned her just so, with the robe draped a certain way on her shoulders, the sash crossing over her waist, her thighs spread and her heels resting along the top curve of his buttocks.

As the last time, he touched her first with his fingers. They caressed her furrow in light, smooth strokes, running along the folds of her flesh, doing something different. A flush rose from his chest, up his neck and patterned his cheeks like petals fallen from a bloom. His mouth opened, lips moving slightly as though following the motion of his hands, and his breath came more swiftly. She watched his face in fascination, wondering what it was he thought as he looked upon her like this. He never lifted his eyes from what lay between her legs. Sometimes he would bring a hand to his mouth to wet his fingers, but he never placed them within her. Over her shoulder, she could tell the watcher was angry that he could not see what so drew Denethor's stare nor exactly what Denethor was doing to her. The thought of lying before the two of them, one touching her, one frantic to do so, excited her immensely.

It seemed a long while, but was probably a few minutes at most before Denethor edged closer. Finduilas tried to pull him towards her with her feet, earning a sharp slap to the inside of her thigh. Carefully, without touching himself, he laid the length of his cock along her furrow, whimpering as he did. His trembling became shaking and he had to grasp the edge of the desk to steady himself. She saw his hips hitch, felt the rub of his cock along the groove in her flesh. The head of his cock bumped her nub, and she joined him in his whimpers. He stroked her with this thick finger until both of them were panting.

'Breed me,' she whispered. The angle of his hips changed. 'Slowly.' He nodded once. As he pressed the fat head of his cock into her, shaking and moaning, she brought a hand up to caress her own breast and increase her pleasure. Her touch was a shock, so powerful was the thrill from the brush of her fingers over her nipple, making her jump and writhe.

Denethor slapped her again, harder. 'Hold still!' he hissed. Even then, his eyes never left the sight of his cock disappearing into her. Since he had not roused her fully when he prepared her, she was still tight. Finduilas toyed again with her nipple, steeling herself to be still. It helped to clench down on him, so she did, making him work harder to penetrate her womb. His breath was rough in his throat, like the hiss of the tide through the rocks below the tower of Dol Amroth. Finally, he was sheathed in her. She pinched the nipple to add strength to her inner grasp and tried to keep him from withdrawing. Denethor nodded and said "yes" through gritted teeth. His chest was slick with sweat, more drops beading across his brow.

So they played their game of desire, driving each other mad with want, ever so slowly joining and parting their flesh. Beyond, in the east, the gaze vanished, then returned, then raced away again before coming back to stay. If she listened, she could hear his panting. Did you spy upon her in her bath, wishing your hand was the one between her legs, washing away the remains of a past night's passion? Denethor began to move more quickly, the muscles in his arms bulging from the power of his grip on the desk. Did you watch her this way, eye to some peep hole, as Pharazôn pumped his worthless seed into her? The Dragon Fire scar along Denethor's arm was red and black, with tongues of flame rising from it. "Hate him, hate him, hate him," panted the watcher in the east. The lamp light caught Denethor's sweat and turned it into gems and scales, clothing him against the Fiend's savage gaze. Finduilas glanced at the chair to see the faint halo of the mariner's hair and a sharp gleam from the corner of his eye. Yes, I will permit that. Guard him. The old fisherman nodded and retreated behind the chair. Seaweed wrapped the burning arm, damping down the Fire. The mariner's own scar was a slender baldric across Denethor's chest, adorned with pearls and seashells. His sea-grass crown wove itself anew, braiding in a fourth strand.

Denethor had stopped pulling all of the way out of her and was leaning back to better watch the motion of his cock into her. 'Touch yourself,' he said. 'I want.. you.. screaming...when...I sire...' The rest of his words were lost in a harsh cry as he shuddered as he pressed forward. 'Do it!' The last words were punctuated by a violent jerk of his hips. Finduilas reached down and pulled back the top curve of her furrow with her outer fingers so Denethor could better see. Her middle fingers found her nub and she could not help but buck. The slap rang out loudly, hard enough to hurt. 'None of that!' She knew there would be more before they finished. Denethor's thrusts slowed again as he leaned closer to watch her handle herself. The watcher craned, tying to get a glimpse. Where are your hands? Do you grasp yourself in your lair, hunched over a stone, hoping your beasts do not see your pitiful, powerless want? Finduilas rubbed herself harder until she squealed and twisted, welcoming the sting of his hand against her thigh for her disobedience. Watch me, both of you. Watch me reduce you both to spent heaps, your seed spilled and your loins unmanned.

The sound of the waterfall was greater and Finduilas wondered if it was her own blood and water rushing from her womb to pour out over the edge of the desk. 'Well,' she panted, 'are you a stud or a gelding? Must I satisfy myself?' That earned her another slap, though she had not moved. She clenched down hard on his cock. 'Mayhap I should find myself another?' Denethor snarled and pulled out of her, finally lifting his eyes to hers. They were dilated and unfocused, his mouth open and tongue out as he panted. Tiny beads of pearl and adamant tickled down his face. His hips pulled back, ready for a ferocious thrust. 'Stop!' she commanded. The tip of his cock brushed the against her, and he shook with the effort to obey. 'There is another who wants to be the one.' Finduilas smiled and arched. Denethor and the watcher cried out, wanting. She reached for the nub and rubbed it, his eyes going to her hand. 'It's time.'

He entered her slowly again and stayed inside, pressing hard, watching her excite herself until she thrashed, driving her heels into his back. The final slap was hard enough to make her cry out. Denethor put his hands on the insides of her thighs, forcing them apart as wide as they could go and digging his fingers deeply into her flesh. 'Scream,' he said. His hips drove him hard into her, his gaze once again fixed on their joined flesh. Finduilas rubbed and squealed, but he made no sound, only grunts when he reached the depth of a thrust, until he spilled.

Denethor fell forward onto her, panting. The watcher raged, his fury making her want to hide. Near the hearth, the mariner's hand rested on the arm of the chair, an old net caught in his fingers. Please. The gnarled hand moved, casting the strands over them to hide them from the Enemy. So shielded, they lay until their shudders passed and their breath slowed. Outside the window at the end of the room, Finduilas heard rain. Denethor pushed himself up. She let him slip the robe off her, too weak to resist anything. He touched her face. 'Can you stand?' Even with his help, her legs shook and would not bear her weight. Denethor picked her up and carried her to bed.

***

The next day, Denethor looked wordlessly at the marks and bruises he had left on her. When she tried to kiss him to assure him she was not offended, he pulled away and fled the alcove. By the time she pulled on some clothes and came out, he had already left the house with Boromir. Her hips ached from being spread apart for so long, and her back was protesting its time on the hard desktop. She and Aeluin went to the baths for a long soak. Aeluin stared intently at Finduilas' flanks adorned with angry red patches from Denethor's slaps. When Finduilas glanced about, she noticed a few other women staring, too, though they looked away when they noticed her attention. The hot water felt good and the tub hid her from prying eyes, those in the room and beyond it. When she got home, she drank a half a mug of tea to speed her healing.

The day was uneventful as the City slept off the revelry of yáviérë. The Steward was still not recovered from his journey to the fair, but he asked Boromir to sit with him in the afternoon. In the evening, after Boromir was tucked in, Finduilas led Denethor to her own bed. It would not be good to leave him alone with grim thoughts.

The rain did not last, though the weather remained cool. There was a steady stream of messengers from the south, bringing reports of Khand's approach. The army was further north than expected, harried fiercely by both Harad and Umbar. They knew that Khand's goal was to claim Harondor and all lands along the Ephel Dúath east to Khand's own borders. They might serve the same dark master, but they had no love for each other. This meant that Khan would not follow the entire length of the Harad Road from its ford with the River Harnen, but would try to cross the swift river further north and cut across Harondor's eastern plains to reach the road only a few days' march south of Poros. It was riskier for them, for there was no water sufficient for their army, and no roads to speed their water wagons, once they left Harnen, but it allowed them to avoid battle and cut many leagues from their route.

Denethor spent most of each day in his study reading reports and marking maps. Anbar had come in from Osgiliath and was usually with Denethor, Borondir and Gethron as they charted Khand's advance. Patrols in Ithilien were tripled in anticipation of some supporting assault from Mordor. The docks in the Harlond at night were dark to prevent spying on how many men were being sent south by boat to Pelargir.

On the sixth day after yáviérë, shouts rose from the northern walls of the City. A great cloud of dust had been spied near the Rammas. It soon resolved itself into an éored of Riders, their green banners snapping above them. People raced to the walls to watch their approach. Finduilas hurried to keep up with Denethor as he strode with his captains to the end of the promontory. There was much cheering when the Riders drew within earshot of the walls and they blew their horns in answer of the welcome. A small group of horsemen broke away as the host pulled up before the Great Gate and clattered into the City. Denethor and Gethron exchanged a look. 'Let us hope it is Grim in command,' Denethor said, and turned away. He gave orders to the Tower Guard to have whomever headed the éored brought to the Stewards House when they reached the Citadel.

Finduilas did not ask, but simply included herself with the captains in Denethor's study, moving her chair slightly so she had a clear view of Denethor's desk. It was not long before Éomund was shown in. The man's face was sweaty and dirty from the dust of the road, and he carried his helmet under his arm. He did not notice Finduilas sitting near the fireplace and turned immediately to the desk, giving Denethor a short bow. 'Warden, I have come to tell Steward Ecthelion that Rohan rides to war.'

Denethor straightened up from the map on his desk and looked scornfully down his nose at the Eorling, who no longer seemed so tall. 'You will speak to me. The Steward does not have time to talk to soldiers filthy from the road. Have you a letter from the King?'

Éomund's shoulders were tense. 'No.'

'Really?' Denethor gracefully sat in his chair, leaving Éomund standing before the desk. 'You were sent so quickly that there was not time for even a short note?'

The young man shifted from one foot to the other. 'I... was not...sent.'

'You just left,' Gethron said.

'Without your lord's leave,' Borondir added.

'And brought all your men,' Anbar concluded. Denethor cocked his head and looked at the now very uncomfortable Rider. Éomund nodded sharply once.

'I think you should return to Rohan,' Denethor said softly. 'We have not asked for you and your lord did not give you his blessing.'

'I command my own household and may do with them as I see fit.'

'Should you not be guarding Aldburg?'

'There is naught to guard against there save a few Orcs. We come to do battle and win honor with worthy foes. Word came to us of your need and...'

'Gondor has no need of you,' Denethor said softly.

Éomund stood silent for many heartbeats. 'Yet still do I bring my men to fight.'

Denethor pinned him with a cold, grey stare until the Rider ducked his head and fidgeted. 'And how should I welcome you when you are uncaring of your own lord's wishes?'

'Aldburg is mine,' Éomund stubbornly insisted, though he would not raise his head.

'How many did you bring, horse boy?' Finduilas winced at the contempt in Denethor's voice.

'Four hundred.' Denethor's eyebrows went up. 'My lord,' Éomund grudgingly added.

'Do you want him?' Denethor asked Anbar in a bored tone.

'Don't have much use for horses in the woods, Warden.'

'Do you think you can find your way to Poros?' Éomund did not answer, but his hands were clenched into fists. 'Tell your men they can camp before the walls tonight. Tomorrow, you'll go with Captain Anbar to the bridge...'

'I know where Osgiliath is, too, and can ride there at once,' Éomund snapped.

'Without my permission, you are not allowed to cross Anduin. Not in Osgiliath, not in Pelargir. Without King Théoden's permission, you are but a mercenary and not due any of the honors or obligations granted to our ancient ally, Rohan. Do you understand, horse boy?' After another wait, Éomund bowed his head and nodded. 'You ride on the morrow with the captain. You will bear a letter from me and you will report to Captain Baragund once you reach Poros. You will obey him, for you are not in Aldburg, and he commands Poros.' Again the Rider nodded. 'Dismissed.' Éomund turned without a salute or bow and strode from the room. Finduilas caught only a glimpse of his face. It was flaming red.

'So, the Rohirrim have shown up,' Borondir said.

'Nothing of the kind,' Denethor sharply replied. 'We have a fool followed by more fools and risk Théoden's wrath for allowing him beyond the river.'

Gethron's brow furrowed. 'Then why allow it, my lord?'

'They will be useful to harry Khand, but not so many that they can win any victory. And if they all get themselves killed,' Denethor shrugged. 'Théoden will have one less fool commander to worry about.' With a snort, he stood and began gathering maps. 'Try to see that he doesn't lead his troop into the river by mistake tomorrow.' The men laughed. 'I will have reports ready to go with you in the morning, Anbar.' Telperien scooted out from behind the alcove screen, around Borondir's boot and across the floor to Finduilas, who picked her up. Denethor looked at them, distracted for a moment by the cat's movement. As he glanced at Finduilas, his look changed, from annoyance to wonder. 'Out,' he murmured, not looking away.

'My lord?' 'Sir?' 'Denethor?'

'Out!' he commanded, turning to glare at the men. They scurried as quickly as the cat. He locked the door behind them when they left and came over to the chair. He took Finduilas' face in his hands and kissed her. His sudden affection surprised her, as he had not touched her with desire since yáviérë. When the kiss ended, he was grinning.

'Denethor? What is it?'

'I kept my promise.'

She shook her head. 'Promise?'

The grin went away and a more fierce expression came to his face. 'I promised you a child for what you granted me.'

'How do you know? It is not yet time for my moon flux.'

Denethor sat at her feet and laid his head on her thigh. 'I can See it. You look different today.' He placed a hand across her belly, his long, slender, scarred fingers spread to reach across it. 'There. Our child. We don't need to wait for the flux. I can See.'

***

Minas Tirith, 20 October, 2982 T.A.

Only the immediate news of war could pull Denethor from her side, and he often insisted that she come walk with him upon the walls so that he could watch the southern horizon and touch her at the same time. Finduilas tried to hide how much she hated being upon the heights. But the deeps are no greater haven. The watchers are everywhere. Denethor liked to sit on the furthest seat of the promontory, Finduilas wrapped in his arms, and gaze south where battle would soon be joined. She could tell he wanted to be there. It was the first great confrontation since Umbar and Thorongil's departure, and Denethor longed for a victory untainted by the captain's shadow. It was better when she could coax him indoors to sit at her feet in his study, the floor about them strewn with maps and reports.

The week of her flux coincided with that of the battle. The days dragged by with nothing to see or show, only waiting for news of blood. Neither appeared on time. From Ithilien came reports of scattered raids, but no army issued from any gate. When the time had come and gone, Finduilas went to see Lhûn. The Warden palpated Finduilas' belly gently, sniffed her urine and asked many questions about how much she had lain with Denethor since her moon flux.

'It is likely that you have conceived, Finduilas,' Lhûn said with a great smile, 'but you should wait for another flux time to come and go before speaking to others. And you need to eat...'

'...more and rest more! I know,' Finduilas answered. 'I am glad the wretched heat has broken, for now I may sleep.'

'And be sure your husband knows his duty is done and does not keep you up,' Lhûn slyly added. A sound of horns and drums in the lower circles startled them both. Lhûn sent one of the prentices running out to discover the cause, and he came back at a run.

'A messenger! A messenger from Poros!' he shouted in the courtyard. 'He bears the banner of Khand. We have won!'

Finduilas hurried out in time to see the messenger gallop past and skid to a halt before the messenger stable, the filthy, blood stained battle flag held above his head. He leapt from his lathered steed and ran into the tunnel to the Citadel. She hurried after him, imperiously telling people to make way. By the time she reached the court, the man was already running through the doors of the Tower and Denethor was halfway across the yard. As he passed the White Tree, her vision betrayed her and she saw Anárion walking towards the Tower to look in the palantír for sign that his father and brother were coming to succor him from the north, his crown of amber, green and gold glinting in the autumn sun. She turned and retreated to her study, shaken by her vision, and forbade anyone to give her news save for Denethor upon his return.

It was almost an hour before Denethor tapped upon the study door and let himself in. His face was grim. He came to her and embraced her tightly and she feared the worst. 'Imrahil? Friend, tell me Imrahil is safe!'

'Yes. He is safe. It was he who wrote the reports that came with the messenger.'

Finduilas sank into her chair, knees weak from relief. 'Then what is the news?'

'It was a victory. Indeed, it was two, for a smaller force from Harad had followed on Khand's heels, thinking to strike after their foes had bled each other dry, but Baragund had men in reserve and Harad, too, was brought low. That extra battle delayed the news.' Denethor began to pace. 'I should have gone. A contest this important, I should have been there.'

'What of Captain Baragund?'

'He was wounded, but will recover.'

'Then what is the cost?'

'Great. Baragund underestimated the size of the army, held too many back, did not bring Imrahil and the boats up the Poros soon enough. The western men were nearly trapped between Khand and Harad, instead of blindsiding the former.' Denethor's words were sharp and clipped, like the strike of his heels on the floor as he paced. 'They broke through the ford. Not since the time of Túrin has this happened!'

'But they are not there now.'

'And cursed be the sons of Eorl!' Denethor whirled about, furious. 'I should have sent that disloyal cur back to his hovel and his Orcs. He was told to hold a line and defend the archers upon the slope east of the ford. That was not enough glory for the insolent brat. He saw a company of camel riders further away and took his wretched band after them. Khand split and surged past the Riders, who were too few to hold them back. The archers were left to defend themselves rather than the approach, and could not fire with impunity for fear of striking the Rohirrim. We lost most of them and the ford, too, for several hours, until the garrison behind could push Khand back.'

'And the Riders?'

'They ran. Oh, pardon me, they regrouped a quarter mile away and returned only when Gondor had retaken the field.' Denethor's eyes were stone. 'If I see Éomund again, I shall kill him myself. He ran off in search of his own glory. Morvorin led his archers and stood his ground as he was commanded. He was slain.'


This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

In Challenges

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Author: Anglachel

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Rating: Adult

Last Updated: 07/01/09

Original Post: 02/23/04

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