Steward's Sons, The
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Gift at Year's Turning, A: 1. A Gift at Year's Turning
"What is it, love?"
"It's tonight? I get to go to the feast tonight?"
"You do," Finduilas smiled at the excited little boy. "Are you ready to stand with me and your father and grandfather and say hello to all the guests, first?"
Boromir nodded firmly. "And afterwards there'll be spice cake, and roast beef, and chicken, and ginger candy..." his litany of food trailed off and he looked at his mother uncertainly. "What's wrong, Mama?"
Finduilas had one hand pressed against the small of her back, the other against her swollen belly. "Nothing's wrong, love. You may have a little sister or brother tonight, that is all. A present for you, for the year's turning."
A frown puckered the small face looking up at her. "I don't want a little sister or brother as a present. I want a sword!"
She laughed and knelt awkwardly to hug him. "Don't worry, Boromir. You'll get another present as well, even if little sister or brother comes along tonight. Have you had enough breakfast?"
"Yes, I'm not hungry. Mama, when do I get my presents?"
"One tonight and one tomorrow – you know that. A gift at the end of mettarë and one on yestarë, to mark either end of the year. Do you have your gifts ready to give?"
Boromir was giving his father and grandfather paperweights for mettarë – he had found fist-sized rocks, and with his mother's help had cleaned them and decorated them with different seeds glued on in patterns. For yestarë he had gone to the markets with his nurse and found a brightly colored silk handkerchief for each man. Finduilas knew that Denethor would use the bright orange square because his son had chosen it, shudder though he might internally.
"Rhîwen helped me wrap them yesterday."
As if the sound of her name were a signal, Boromir's nurse entered the room.
"Is all well, lady? Shall I take this young rascal out of your hair for a while?"
"That would be well," Finduilas said. "If you are willing to brave the mettarë crowds, perhaps you might like to take Boromir around the city for part of the day? I will give you some coins – you can buy some sausages and cider, and spice cake for a treat, at the stalls. Then Boromir had better take a nap this afternoon so he'll be ready for tonight." She stopped and winced, her hand again going to her belly.
Rhîwen's eyes widened. "My lady? Is it..."
Finduilas nodded. "The first pangs, yes."
"Shall I send for Mistress Líriel?
"Not yet; there will be little to do for some time. You take my rapscallion around the city – that will be a great help. I still have much to see to, today."
Taking Boromir's hand, Rhîwen said, "May it go well. We will see you later. Boromir, shall we go to see all the houses of the city dressed up for the turning of the year?" Chattering gently to the little boy, she led him out the door.
Finduilas paused to reflect. There was indeed much for her yet to arrange and supervise, this day. The food for the Steward's feast that night, most of all, but also the usual chores of the household. Though the child within her was long-desired, the timing of its birth could have been better. Well, she would do what she could. The first thing to do was to warn Denethor of the imminent arrival of his second child. She left the room and went to find her husband in the Hall of Feasts.
Though all the staff knew what needed to be done to prepare the hall, Denethor preferred to watch over everything himself. Finduilas found him earnestly discussing the garlands for the walls.
"No, man," he was saying as she came up. "Alternate the ivy and evergreens with the red silk along the long walls; use the cloth of gold only behind the head table."
"Denethor," Finduilas laid her hand on his arm. "I must speak with you for a moment."
The Steward's Heir excused himself. "What is it, my heart?"
"Our child is nearly ready to be born. I do not know just when, but soon. So I may not be able to greet our guests tonight, though if matters proceed slowly, I will try. Do not be concerned," she looked at him lovingly, "I am sure all will be well. Boromir is off to see the beginnings of the celebrations in the city; Rhîwen will bring him back to rest this afternoon, and he knows he will stand with us for greeting tonight. I think we had better exchange our gifts before that, do you not? Is Ecthelion talking with the council – will they be finished by mid-afternoon?"
Denethor embraced Finduilas and kissed her cheek. "Do what you are able to, if you wish – I will step into the kitchens as well, I have supervised them before. But rest when you need. I am certain everyone would understand your absence this evening; your well-being is more important than anything else, to me. My father will be delighted at the news, and I do not doubt he will be finished with business by mid-afternoon. The lords with whom he meets will have their own families to attend to before tonight's festivities, after all."
"Yes." Finduilas let herself lean against her husband's chest for a moment, his arms around her, then pulled upright again. "I will go and look in on the preparations for the feast, and after try to rest for a time. We may not know until the moment arrives whether I will be able to attend tonight; but send you to your father to let him know how matters stand."
"I will." Denethor watched as Finduilas slowly made her way out of the hall, and then turned back to his duties.
After a stop in the great kitchens, where all was well underway for the evening's feast, Finduilas returned to the family's quarters and sank down into the most comfortable chair. The pangs she felt were still far apart. She was uncertain whether she hoped that they would stay so and enable her to attend that evening – she had always enjoyed the Steward's Feast, and would be sorry to miss it, though she could not have danced this year in any case – or if she hoped that this labor would go quickly. With Boromir all had gone easily, or so Mistress Líriel had assured her, though it had not seemed so easy to Finduilas. Evidently nine hours was quick for a first-born, however, and the women all agreed that second births were mostly quicker than first.
The pains did begin to come at closer intervals as Finduilas tried to rest, and soon after midday she sent for the midwife.
Mistress Líriel shook her head after examining her. "Not for a goodly time, still, my lady. The pains may be sharp, but the passage is not yet opening for the child. I would guess you will not need me till tonight; so if you may spare me, I have another woman nearing birth to see to this day. I will return in the evening, or you can send to find me at the house of Beleg the smith, in the first circle of the city. His wife will be pleased to hear that her child and yours may share a birthing day."
Finduilas let her go with thanks, and best wishes to Beleg's wife for a safe and speedy delivery.
By now Rhîwen had returned with Boromir, and her son was jumping with impatience to tell her what he had seen before being sent off for his nap.
"You should have seen the lanterns, Mama. Even in daytime! Most of them had colored glass set in front, so everything was red and blue and green. And greens all around the stalls, so it smelled like the hills, not the city. And spice cake, everyone was eating spice cake." He beamed up at his nurse. "Rhîwen let me have three pieces. And oh, Mama, there was a great big wooden horse at the biggest carpenter's, and it moved. I got up on it and it went back and forth just like your rocking chair."
"So you would rather have that horse than the sword you've been asking for?" teased his mother.
"Oh, no," said Boromir seriously. "'Cause a sword, that's real, and the horse is just a toy. It was lots of fun, though."
"Well, you'll get your mettarë gift before tonight, so go along for your nap now so you'll be ready. We'll come and get you when your grandfather is here, if you're not up."
Boromir sulked a little, but allowed Rhîwen to take him off to his room at the reminder that no nap would mean no feast that night.
Her pangs had diminished again, which bothered Finduilas a little, but she decided to put worry aside for the time being and change into the gown she would wear that evening, if she was able. She called her maid to dress her hair.
"I will wear the swan coronet," she instructed, and watched in the mirror as the deft hands braided the dark strands and coiled them high, weaving in and out in a crown that complemented the silver and pearl ornament beautifully.
Her dress was relatively plain; she had not wished to waste time or money on a gown she might wear only once. How often would she be so pregnant at the turn of the year, or indeed at all? So the royal blue silk velvet was cut simply, for future alteration, and embroidered only around the cuffs and neck with silver thread.
She took the gifts she was giving her husband and father-in-law and carried them to the large western room where the family habitually gathered in the evening. For Ecthelion she had a cloak-pin of gold and topaz, fashioned in the shape of a lion. A bit more elaborate than he usually wore, but the work was exquisite and she hoped he would like it. Denethor was to receive a book. Finduilas herself had acted as scribe, copying out the poems that they both most enjoyed, and had had the leaves bound into a slim volume of red leather.
Denethor's two sisters and their families were in Minas Tirith this year, but would not come until the feast. Tradition dictated that mettarë gifts be exchanged only between parent (or grandparent) and child, husband and wife, or sibling and sibling. Finduilas had directed that each of her sisters-in-law be sent – in Denethor's name – a lavish flask of perfume brought from south Harad. Everyone concerned knew that Finduilas had chosen the gifts, but the fiction preserved propriety.
The lowering sun gleamed redly through the windows to warm the room. No one else was yet there. She called for mulled wine and hot cider to be brought, along with the ginger candy and oranges that decked every table in Gondor that could afford them this day. When the lands to the south had been under Gondor's rule, such exotic treats had been nearly commonplace, but now they were reserved for times of special celebration only.
Boromir came in, scrubbed and shining, already in the wine-colored outfit she had chosen for him to wear this night. He set his parcels carefully on a low table and climbed up onto the long seat next to his mother.
"Isn't my little sister or brother here yet?" he demanded. "I thought you said I would have one as a present today."
"Not today, it seems," Finduilas shifted uncomfortably to ease her belly, "so perhaps tomorrow. The baby will arrive when it wills, not when we wish it!"
Heavy footsteps sounded along the stone corridor, and Ecthelion entered with Denethor close behind him.
The years had been kind to the old Steward, in appearance at least. His dark hair was but lightly silvered yet; and though he moved with greater and greater difficulty, his mind was still keen. He waved Finduilas down as she started to rise.
"No, no, my dear, do not trouble yourself. Would you like a cup of wine?"
"Cider for me today, please, Ecthelion, and for Boromir too of course." Finduilas smiled at Denethor as he sat beside her, and murmured to him, "The child delays. I shall come to greet our guests, at least, though I may need to leave early."
Denethor pressed her hand with his own. "As you will, my heart."
Boromir wriggled on the cushions and asked, "Isn't it time yet?"
His father leaned forward to look at him sternly. "Be patient, Boromir. You must wait until the sun slips below the horizon."
The little boy put out his lower lip, but remained silent, drinking from the hot cup with his legs sticking straight out in front of him.
The three adults spoke for a time about the feast that night. All was ready; Denethor had checked and double-checked everything, since Finduilas had not been able to manage as usual. Talk turned to previous years' feasts.
"I first remember seeing you at a mettarë feast, nine years ago now," Denethor reminded his wife. "I could hardly take my eyes off you."
"And at the one two years later, I agreed to wed you," she said.
A shadow passed over his face. "Yes. I had begun to think you would refuse, since you delayed in replying." He held back from mentioning his jealous suspicions of Captain Thorongil, of whom Finduilas had been so fond; the man was no longer in Gondor, and as long as he never returned Denethor would hold no grudge. Besides, it was bad luck to speak ill of someone at the year's turning.
"Ah, love, remember how young I was. We had courted only by letter – can you blame me for wanting to spend a little time with you in person before I said yes?"
He picked up her hand and stroked it. "No, I suppose I cannot – though at the time I was nearly frantic with excitement and trepidation."
Finduilas and Ecthelion both smiled a little at the idea of the reserved Denethor rushing around in an agony of hope and fear. He might have felt so, but it had not been evident in his actions or demeanor at the time.
A loud sigh from Boromir turned their attention. He was looking at the windows, where the sky outside was quickly darkening.
"All right, Boromir, it is time. Denethor, you have his gift?" Finduilas asked.
Denethor rose to bring the parcel. Kneeling on the floor with his son, he cautioned the boy to be careful as he unwrapped it from the colorful cloth.
Boromir's face lit up as the wrapping fell away and he saw the sword he had so longed for. Sized for a child, and blunted, in Boromir's eyes it was yet a weapon worthy of Túrin Turambar himself.
Ecthelion's gift to his grandson and next heir was a book with stories of the great heroes of history and legend: Túrin, of course; Beren One-Hand; Elros, first king of Númenor lost; Elendil, who fell fighting the Enemy; Ciryaher Hyarmendacil who conquered Harad; Steward Cirion who made alliance with the Rohirrim; and many more. The stories themselves would be beyond Boromir's skill for some time – he was only just beginning to learn the Tengwar with his mother – but he could look at the lavish illustrations as Finduilas or Rhîwen read to him.
"Thank your grandfather," Denethor reminded his son.
Boromir jumped onto Ecthelion's lap and gave him a smacking kiss on the cheek. "Thank you," he said, and snuggled down in the Steward's lap to watch as everyone else opened their gifts. The paperweights he had made were exclaimed over and pronounced ideal to the need; and the embroidered lace collar his father had helped him choose for his mother was declared a perfect fit.
Denethor and Ecthelion had conspired together to choose their presents for Finduilas: a necklace and pair of eardrops in pearl and silver that complemented her swan coronet beautifully. Ecthelion seemed pleased with his pin, and Denethor with his book. Steward and Heir had acted with their usual restraint toward each other and exchanged nearly identical lebethron walking-sticks.
Gift-giving over, the adults chatted a bit longer while Boromir took his new sword off into a corner and swung it, killing at least a dozen trolls and dragons before his father called him back.
"Come, Boromir, you will be able to practice with it more later. I will speak to Swordmaster Hallas and he will begin training you next week. But now let your mother tidy you up so you look as befits an heir to the House of Húrin."
Reluctantly Boromir submitted to the comb, then swung from his grandfather's hand as they walked across the stony court to Merethrond, the Hall of Feasts.
Shortly the many guests began to arrive, and the hall filled with laughing and chattering nobles of Gondor. Having heard that Boromir would be present this year, several families had brought their own small sons and daughters. A special table had been prepared for the children, and Rhîwen and several other nursemaids were present to ensure that their young charges behaved suitably.
At the high table, Finduilas merely toyed with a slice of roast mutton, watching Boromir take a chicken leg and thrust with it in the air, clearly telling his companions about the mettarë gift that had so excited him. After the long cessation of her pains, a new pang struck her like the teeth of a dragon set into her flesh. She whispered to Denethor and slipped quietly from the hall.
The merriment continued, but as Denethor circulated among the guests during the dancing, he grew tired of explaining his wife's absence and accepting congratulations and good wishes for mother and child. He would never have considered entering the birthing chamber where Finduilas lay, but his whole being yearned to be outside it, pacing, waiting for news, rather than trapped here by duty.
Boromir had been carried off asleep in Rhîwen's arms hours before, and it was far into the night when the last stragglers left the Citadel for their own homes. Ecthelion nodded wearily to his son and betook himself to bed.
Denethor stood outside the room in which his wife labored, hesitated, then tapped on the door.
After a moment it opened a fraction and a woman's head looked out. "My lord. No news yet; go you to your rest, and we will send to wake you when the child has been born. No sense sitting up." She withdrew again.
He shrugged and did as he was told. There was nothing else for a husband and father to do, at such times.
The bright light of midmorning awakened him, and he lay in bed wondering why he slept so late, and where Finduilas was. Then memory returned. He called for his man to shave him, and hurriedly washed and dressed before going to see how matters progressed with his wife.
Mistress Líriel herself emerged from the chamber this time. "I fear this is no such easy birth as young master Boromir's, my lord." She looked him in the eye. "Sometimes these things happen. I will not yet say your lady's life is in danger, but..." she lifted her shoulders and let them drop wearily.
Denethor took her by the elbows and spoke with quiet intensity. "Should it come to pass that death is near, you will send for me immediately. And if it is a question of mother or child, save the life of my wife, first."
She gave him an indignant look, but nodded agreement. "As you command. Now please you to leave, my lord; there is naught you can do here now."
Yestarë dragged slowly on. Rhîwen kept Boromir out of everyone's way chiefly by taking him to the armory and letting him explore its fascinating contents, but by mid-afternoon he was asking where his mother and new little sister or brother were.
"Hush, Boromir," Rhîwen's face was troubled. "The new baby is taking a long time to arrive, that is all. You will see your mother as soon as she is able."
"But I want to see her now," said Boromir crossly. "I have another present for her."
"You can give it to her late," she told him. "Your mother won't mind that a bit."
"Oh, all right," he sulked. "How about Papa and Grandfather?"
"I'm sure you'll see them at supper, and you can give them your gifts then. Be patient. I know, would you like me to read you a story out of your new book?"
Boromir cheered up immediately and ran to get it, returning to ask for the story of Túrin.
When Rhîwen brought him in to dinner, both Denethor and Ecthelion were already there, the younger man pacing restlessly around the room while his father spoke words of reassurance.
"It will be well, Denethor. They have not called you in to say your farewells, have they? Well, then, there is still hope for good news. ‘Tis only a day so far; your cousin Eilinel was nearly three days in the delivery of her son, so I heard."
Denethor's jaw was set, his face strained. "I care not how any other woman fared; I worry only about Finduilas." He broke off as he realized his son was now present.
"Is Mama sick?" asked Boromir. "Is Mama going to die?" His eyes filled with tears and his lip trembled.
"No, son, she will not die," Denethor said. "Don't cry. A Steward must not weep like a woman." He cast about for something to distract the boy. "Are you ready for your yestarë gifts now?"
The threatened tears dried up and Boromir nodded, saying, "Here is yours, and Grandfather's."
A peculiar expression crossed Denethor's face as he unwrapped the bright orange square of silk, but he thanked Boromir gamely. Ecthelion's purple handkerchief seemed positively restrained by contrast.
Today's gift to Boromir from his grandfather was a rocking horse very like the one that had so delighted him the previous day. From his parents he received a belt and scabbard to hold his new sword.
Ecthelion gave his son a new knife, and in return was given a finely made pair of soft shoes ornamented with gold embroidery. Finduilas's gift to each man was a vest she had embroidered herself in silken and gold threads, incorporating the symbols of every great house in Gondor. Their presents to her were set aside, unopened.
Supper was a silent meal. Even Boromir did not chatter as was his wont, and afterward he went without protest to bed.
Denethor found himself unable to sit still, wandering restlessly around the room, picking up books and ornaments at random from the shelves and gazing at them unseeingly, then setting them down again. Ecthelion tried to read for a time, but eventually gave up the attempt and simply sat, hoping that his presence would calm his son's fears.
The moments passed slowly. It was nearly middle night when a knock sounded at the door. Denethor swung to face it, his face grey, as Ecthelion called, "Enter."
Mistress Líriel stepped across the threshold, a grave but – Denethor saw with thanks – not sorrowful expression on her features. Ecthelion rose to stand at his son's elbow as she spoke.
"My lord, your lady was delivered of a son. Safely, though with great difficulty. She will live, unless I am much mistaken, but her healing will be long. So come now if you wish to speak to her before she sleeps after her long travail."
Denethor took a step forward, then looked at his father. "Would you like to see your new grandson?"
The older man took his arm. "Of course. You see Finduilas, and I will hold the babe for a few moments."
Ecthelion's heart went out to the infant, still flushed with the effort of birth, dark fuzz crowning his head. He whispered into the tiny ear, "Be glad, little one, that your mother yet lives – for I fear your father would have never forgiven you her death in your bearing." He watched the rise and fall of his grandson's chest and pressed his leathery old cheek to the soft new one.
Shortly Denethor emerged from the room in which Finduilas rested, relief painted across his tired face.
"She is well?"
"Yes," and there was a deep gladness in Denethor's voice. Ecthelion realized anew, with a pang in his own heart, how much his son loved Finduilas, and gave private thanks that she had come through childbirth successfully once again.
"Come, then, and see the yestarë gift she has given to our house," Ecthelion held out the swaddled infant.
"You hold him – he seems content enough in your arms," said Denethor, but came to stand by his father and son.
"What shall he be called?" asked Ecthelion, concealing his dismay at his son's cold response to his new child.
"Finduilas and I agreed that if this child were a daughter, she would be named Nimíril, in memory of her mother's mother. We had not settled on a name for a son." Denethor looked at his father. "Have you any suggestions?"
Ecthelion looked at the sleeping small face, ignoring the bustle of the women coming and going around him.
"How about Faramir?"
Denethor rolled the name over his tongue several times, testing it. "Faramir. Faramir. Yes, that will do as a name, if his mother agrees. I will ask her tomorrow, after she has slept." He yawned. "We should sleep, too."
Catching one of the women by the arm, he said, "You may take the child back to his mother now. We will return in the morning."
Ecthelion relinquished his grandson and let his son lead him from the room. "Good night, Denethor. Rest you well. I am happy for you and Finduilas."
Denethor inclined his head and replied, "Thank you. Rest you well, too, Father."
In the morning Denethor once again woke reaching for his absent wife, but this time he remembered with relief that Finduilas was safe and – if not yet well, at least expected to recover. He would look in and see if she was awake before he had to return to his responsibilities. After the holiday there would be much to see to in Minas Tirith.
As he passed Boromir's room the door opened and his elder son came running out, small face anxious and intent.
"Where's Mama?" he demanded. "Can't I see her yet?"
"Your mama is fine," Denethor told him. "Come with me and we will go to her."
Boromir put his hand into his father's and walked with him, trying hard to match the long stride but having to skip to keep up.
The woman healer seeing to Finduilas's comfort greeted them and told Denethor that his lady was awake, if tired, and had been nursing her new son. "You can go in and see her," she said, smiling at Boromir, who was hopping from one foot to the other with impatience.
"But speak quietly," Denethor cautioned his son. "The baby might be asleep."
Boromir looked at his father with affronted dignity. "'Course I'll be quiet."
They went in. Finduilas looked up, her weary face joyful at the sight of her husband and son.
"Your father has already been and gone," she told Denethor. "He spoke to me of the name he suggested to you last night for his new grandson, and I liked it well. Boromir, come greet your little brother. He is too small now, but soon he will be big enough to play with you. Come, say hello to Faramir."
"Hello, Faramir," said Boromir obediently, putting out a finger to stroke the dark head. "He's really awful small, Mama. Are you sure he'll be bigger soon?"
Finduilas laughed, holding her husband's hand to her cheek. "Yes, love, I'm sure."
Boromir leaned in close, then looked up in amazement. "Look, Mama. Look, Papa. He knows I'm his brother. Faramir smiled at me!"
"A better present than your sword?"
The little boy frowned uncertainly. "Well... maybe. Can I teach him to use the sword, when he's big enough?"
"Yes," interjected his father. "It will be your duty to train your brother, and his to help you, when you are Steward."
"Then yes, he's a better present," Boromir decided. "It'll be fun to show him what to do." He jumped off the bed and pretended to be fighting. "Take that! And that! Faramir, you get him from behind!"
Finduilas laughed weakly, and Denethor smiled. "All right, son," he said. "We should let your mother and Faramir rest now. You can come with me and visit again this evening."
He turned to Finduilas and kissed her forehead. "Heal quickly, my heart," he murmured. "When you are with me, sunshine prevails, but without you all is in shadow."
"Your wish is my command, love. We will be back with you soon."
Denethor shepherded Boromir out of the room. Glancing back, he saw Finduilas's eyes already drooping closed again. The sunlight on her face threw the bones into sharp relief, and for an instant he saw a whitened skull against the pillow. Then she sighed and shifted, and the vision was lost.
"Come, Boromir," he told his son. "Year's turning is over, and it is time for us to go back to life as usual."
"But we have good new presents to be thankful for, don't we? My sword, and book, and horse, and most of all Faramir."
"Yes, Faramir, and your mother safe," his father said. "That is my best gift."
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