Stewards of Gondor: Genverse Arc
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Love Sweet As Poison : 1. Family Matters
"Open the window, if you would, my dear." The voice was wan, a mere echo of its former self, and matched well with the wasted, bedridden figure from which it emanated. Finduilas raised a skeptical eyebrow at that, but she rose silently and did his bidding. The sun was setting, and the city below lay under a maze of crossing shadows. "Thank you," Ecthelion sighed, without ever opening his eyes.
"'Tis drafty," Finduilas replied. "Your health is ill enough, Father, without risking the cold air!"
"You have spoken again with the physicians, I see!" the aged steward replied with weary exasperation. "My health, as you call it, shall not improve whether the air be cold or warm, so I see no reason to remain shut up in this room when it is stifling." To which she could say nothing, for all of Gondor knew well that Ecthelion was dying. He had been for several months now, and how long he would linger, none knew. Since an orc blade had pierced his lungs twenty years earlier, he had suffered a number of respiratory ailments, but being a strong man and a stubborn one, he had weathered them well enough.
But age had finally aggravated the condition, and for awhile, when this final illness had begun, he had spat blood enough to fill basins. Of late, though, he could not find the strength for such efforts, and the fluids filled his lungs, slowly suffocating him. 'Tis like to consumption, the healers had said, and gave him 'til the end of the week, perhaps, and that with the blessing of a power far greater than they. None of this was secret, and it would have been worse than useless to pretend otherwise in any case, for her father-in-law took a dim view of those who sought to shield him from the truth, or who minced about him, cringing as they sought to ignore his condition.
But of late, such fine contempt cost him too much strength to raise, and he lay more often in silence, wandering, perhaps, in that twilight realm between life and death. Soon he would cross out of that shadowy place and, freed of his tethers, become a wayfarer into the last unknown. Finduilas herself never spoke of the end which drew nearer with each day, but neither did she seek to steer him from thoughts of death if he voiced them in her presence. It was not her place to do so (much though she would have preferred to avoid the topic altogether) and she sensed that the old man needed to say such things, to relinquish in measures his hold upon Arda. And if her heart bled and trembled within her breast, Ecthelion seemed immune to fear. He was simply exhausted, and waited now for the struggle to end. I only wish that I could face his death with as much equanimity as he displays. To sit here, day after day, and watch his strength fail and know that he is aware of it all the while...! Ah, how I shall miss you Ecthelion, and your courage!
Wordlessly, she reached out and grasped his hand, squeezing gently, and Ecthelion opened glowing grey-green eyes, and turned his head slightly to look at her. "My dear girl!" he murmured, and then fell silent, closing his eyes again, apparently unable to continue. They sat still for some time, when at last, he said softly, "Tell me how fare my grandchildren today."
"They send their love," she replied, striving to maintain a normal tone of voice as she obeyed this request. "Boromir does, at least, but he speaks also for his brother in all things." Her elder son, at five years of age, was quite possessive of his younger brother, and often he said "we" instead of "I," meaning that he took Faramir's silence for like-mindedness. And who knows, but that he may discern something in the other's gaze that I do not, she thought. Faramir was only a few months past his first year, but already he displayed an active curiosity unusual in so young a child. There was something captivating about him, and about the way that he looked at people and reacted to their voices. And unlike adults, who responded with a charmed perplexity, Boromir found nothing odd in his brother's manner, accepting all as perfectly natural. Finduilas had listened to him talk for hours to Faramir, though the other might say only a word or two at long intervals; he simply never seemed to tire of the younger boy's presence.
If only I could say the same of his father, Finduilas thought aggrievedly. For Denethor, though conscientious in his duties as a father, had never showed overmuch interest in either boy. But perhaps that is now changing. Aloud, she continued, "I think Denethor has lately begun to warm to him now that he can speak at some length and ask questions."
"Has he indeed?" Ecthelion replied with a faint smile. "That is good."
"Aye, it is. It gives me hope, at least, that when Faramir begins to talk as well, then Denethor will begin to have a greater interest in him, too."
"Doubtless," the steward replied, opening his eyes once more to pin her under his arresting gaze for a long, considerate moment, and Finduilas felt her chest constrict with grief. "And you, Finduilas, how fare you?" he asked softly. "Do you feel well?"
With a nervous laugh, she demurred, replying, "Am I well? Should I not be the one to ask you that?"
"Have the physicians at least found something to ease your latest symptoms?" Ecthelion demanded, ignoring her transparent attempt to turn the conversation back onto himself.
"They say that I should rest," Finduilas replied, and the steward snorted in disgust for such useless advice.
"Rest! Will blindness be cured by rest?" For of late, Finduilas' attacks of severe anxiety and fear had been accompanied by brief interludes of blindness, though no one could discern anything wrong with her eyes. Just as no one can discern any reason for the headaches, the fear, the hallucinations…. The list went on, stretching back to the very year that she had married Denethor of Minas Tirith and removed to the Tower of the Guard from Dol Amroth. Seven years' worth of misery! There were times when vertigo struck so suddenly, and the fear was so great, that she felt nauseated to the point of dry heaves. After such spells, the fatigue that habitually plagued her grew to such a terrible lassitude that she could scarcely move, and she felt as though a stone sat upon her breast, crushing her. And none of the physicians could find any cause for these strange and unpredictable symptoms, if symptoms they could properly be called when disease itself seemed absent.
"I am well enough," Finduilas insisted. "One learns to endure all things, is that not so? But is there anything that I can do for you, Father? It grows late, and you must surely be tired," she said, eager to escape attention. What is there to be said of my 'malady' after all?
Ecthelion merely smiled as he gazed at her—a quiet, sorrowing smile, and said softly, "You can tell me of my son. How goes it between the two of you?"
If Finduilas had liked not the prior turn of conversation, she found this one to be worse. Under the best of circumstances, she would have been at a loss as to how to say to Ecthelion's face all that she felt on the subject of his son, her husband. For hers was a political marriage, and both she and Denethor had been quite well aware that expediency and the need to strengthen ties among friendly powers had fostered their union. That was not in itself repugnant to her, for such was the fate of princes and their daughters, and neither she nor Denethor had any illusions in that respect. They had been bred to their duty, and were willing to do what was necessary for the peace of their household, and for the security of the children.
But domestic peace came at the cost of silence, for Denethor was a private man by nature, not given to easy trust or many words, even among those closest to him. And though he saw clearly to the heart of what others left unsaid, his was a manipulative mind that knew not how to respond when there was no profit in such maneuvering. Thus he seemed unable to fathom her wayward moods, especially coupled as they were to illness from which he had never suffered. Indeed, she would say that he were incapable of understanding her at all, but for those brief moments in the heat of lust or love—often she knew not what to call those rare nights when sex was not merely a distraction for one or the other of them—when he looked at her truly. Nothing ever seemed to come of such moments, but in that fleeting time she felt herself utterly exposed in all respects. And under that light that he throws upon me, I am blinded. I could be jealous, that all my days of watching him yield not a fraction of what insight he gains in a second, but it hurts too much!
Realizing that Ecthelion was now watching her with narrowed eyes, she made haste to answer, "It goes. We have both of us been preoccupied of late… there is so much to do…." And she could not make herself finish it. Shaking her dark head, she drew a shaky breath and said huskily, "I am sorry, Father, I should not have reminded…."
The Steward was silent awhile longer, and she knew she had not succeeded in hiding her unhappiness with her clumsy and shameful misdirection. But Ecthelion only sighed, and squeezed her hand tightly ere the sigh became a cough. And when Finduilas leaned forward to help, he waved her away somewhat irritably. "Do not trouble yourself! 'Tis naught," he managed after a moment, leaning back wearily. "Ah, Finduilas, you must forgive Denethor if you can, for though he is an astute politician, I fear he has not a stone's wits in matters of the heart!" When Finduilas flushed darkly, ashamed, he continued as firmly as he could manage, "Nay, do not blush at the truth, dear girl. Think you that I do not know how difficult it can be to love him?"
"He is a good man at heart," Finduilas murmured, habitually defending him.
"I should hope so, for he is my son. But I know that he neglects you, fool that he is!" Ecthelion shook his head and tears ran from his eyes as another, more severe fit of coughing took him. This time, he did not try to push her away when she grasped his shoulders and snatched up a handkerchief for him. When at last the episode had ceased the cloth came away from his lips stained bloody, and Ecthelion lay panting shallowly, pale and drained of vitality.
"I would I—" he began when he had caught his breath, but just at that moment, a knock sounded, and an esquire looked in.
"My lord, my lady," the young man said by way of greeting. "The lord Denethor is here to see his father." Ecthelion grimaced slightly, but then he gave a slight nod of permission. With an effort of will, Finduilas composed herself, though her shoulders tensed as her husband strode in. The esquire closed the door behind them, and Finduilas rose formally.
"My lord," she murmured.
"Finduilas," Denethor replied in a low voice, eyes flicking briefly to her ere they riveted on his father's face. There was a pause, and then, "Would you excuse us? I would speak in private." So polite a request, so very neutral seeming, and yet she saw the dark flicker in those slate grey eyes. But none of that concern was for her, and she felt a sudden, violent urge to throw herself at him, to slap him or scream at him, just to remind him that she existed, so thoroughly did he ignore her now.
But the daughter of the Prince of Dol Amroth was a lady, and so she said only, "Of course." Beside her, Ecthelion made a disgruntled noise that degenerated quickly into a spate of painful coughing, and she snatched at the glass of water upon the stand. But her hand encountered another on the way, and she froze as Denethor reached past her and picked it up, nodding a dismissal at her. And that was all.
Stumbling back in retreat, she felt her anger rise up sharply, only to die aborning. The wounded, fragile center of herself devoured it, turning it inward, transmuting it to bitterness that lay like glass shards upon her soul. "'Tis past dark and I should go hence to see Boromir and Faramir," she excused herself awkwardly, knowing that neither Denethor nor Ecthelion had ears for such face-saving efforts. Ecthelion, indeed, seemed likely to cough up his lungs or else choke on the bloody sputum, while Denethor's head was bent toward his father as he supported him; thus neither looked up to see her depart.
Once in the outer chamber, however, Finduilas felt her knees give out and she leaned hard back against the tapestried wall, one hand pressed over her mouth as she fought an hysterical desire to weep. Wretched, foolish girl! she berated herself sternly, forcing herself to breathe evenly. Of course he would wish to speak alone with his father! There is so little time left them, and if no one else, Denethor has always loved Ecthelion. So she told herself, and yet felt cheated. Surely she had a right to be present, whatever matters Denethor might wish to discuss. For who has sat at Ecthelion's side day after day? Who has watched him slide into the darkness behind the stars? Not Denethor, but Finduilas!
Be ashamed! That was the other half of her speaking again, the part concerned with such trifling things as sanity within the walls of this city. A father and son may have much to say that cannot be shared. Clinging to that logic, she willed herself to shake off this spell, and felt that trembling hysteria ease somewhat, leaving her exhausted. From within, she heard Ecthelion's muffled voice rise darkly, intelligible at intervals: "… treat her so… my son, but… learn better to please…." And then another fit of coughing, as that tirade had doubtless disrupted his breathing. Finduilas felt her cheeks heat once more and she shoved away from the wall, going quickly out into the hall. She did not wish to stand there and listen to Ecthelion lecture his son over his marital failings. Dear Ecthelion! she thought. I think he is rather mystified by his son's coldness, for he is himself a generous soul. Indeed, the steward had enjoyed a long and loving marriage until his wife's death some years before, and she could well understand his confused disapproval of Denethor's behavior. But she knew that if she let herself listen, it would only embitter her further or incite another fit of weakness.
And so, resolutely, she pulled fast the mental doors upon her misery and focused instead on her excuse, intently working to convince herself of its validity. I should have gone earlier to see the children, but I know not how much longer I shall be needed at Ecthelion's bedside. I have not yet seen him so weak, and I fear he shall not live to the end of this week. I should be remiss not to stay with him for as long as he wishes, for the children and I shall have years together, after all! So she thought, and yet felt a twinge, as of doubt born in that instant. But Finduilas shook her dark head violently, passing over the half-acknowledged premonition. That is no excuse! They are my sons, and I love them, and they shall need me in the days to come. That was something at least, and she felt a measure of composure return to her at the thought. They do need me… and I need them!
"My lady," the nurse, Gwinareth, curtsied as she entered the room, shifting Faramir in her arms for balance. Her younger son peered drowsily at her from beneath a tangle of jet black curls and he seemed to smile slightly as she spoke in return.
"Gwinareth. Hello Faramir," Finduilas responded, and then paused as a small form came hurtling out of the other room at the sound of her voice. Boromir had his father's restless energy, but as of yet, none of his control, and he was a high-spirited child. Finduilas smiled, staggering somewhat as he threw his arms about her as high as he could reach in a good-natured embrace. "Boromir, carefully love!" she admonished gently, blinking as she tried to steady herself.
"Mother!" the boy replied gladly, eyes bright. "You came!"
"Of course I did, dear one," she reassured him, bending to hug him close, grateful for her son's innocent and unrestrained affection.
"Faramir said my name today!" Boromir replied, excited, and Finduilas raised a brow at that as she took the sleepy Faramir from the other woman's arms.
"Did he now?" She looked from him to the nurse, and Gwinareth nodded proud confirmation. "Well, he does grow quickly, does he not? But he says nothing now, does he?" she paused a moment, making a show of looking out of the window. "Ah, I see! He is tired, and well he should be, for it is now past time that you slept, love."
"Is not!" came the instant reply.
"Aye, it is," Finduilas said persuasively. "See? 'Tis past dark, and the stars wheel high overhead now. Come, love, to bed with you and your brother!" Boromir made a disgruntled noise, but then seemed to forget his displeasure in an instant. He clung to her hand as she walked into the other room, trailed by Gwinareth. And as she gently laid Faramir in his bed and tucked him in, her elder son chattered about all that he had done that day. Much of his attention seemed to be dedicated to tormenting his nurse, but Gwinareth was a steady soul who had borne eight children already and knew well how to withstand the trials of young boys. 'Tis more than I could manage, Finduilas sighed inwardly. Though she adored her sons, and cherished the time she spent with them, she knew well that given her unpredictable condition, it was not safe for her to be alone with them all the time. What would it do to them, if they saw their mother collapse screaming on the floor? It was a bitter thought, yet she knew they were better off under Gwinareth's watchful eyes than in her hands.
When she had tucked Boromir into his bed, she smiled at him as he gazed up at her, and she ruffled his dark hair fondly. "When will Papa come to see us?" he asked then, face clouded with anxiety.
"Perhaps tomorrow, dear," Finduilas replied, striving for a light tone even as she flinched inwardly at the reminder of her husband. "Your father has much to do right now, but he thinks of you."
"Is it because of Grandfather?" Boromir asked in a small voice, eyes worried. "Will he… die?"
Finduilas bit her tongue, unwilling to say yea or nay, and uncertain whether she hesitated for her son's sake or for her own fragile hold on composure. In her mind, she saw clearly the image of Ecthelion's gaunt, worn face and heard once more his raucous cough. "Well," she said at last, "your grandfather is very ill. So Papa must make certain that everything in the city and in the kingdom is well."
"Oh. But he will come soon?"
"Soon enough, dear one," Finduilas responded, and hoped that Boromir did not see how much pain she bore. Whatever his failings, I do not want my sons to hate their father. But neither do I wish for them to be disappointed by him! Should I have said so much, even knowing how little time means to a child? The bells rang loud just then, and Finduilas tensed, listening anxiously. But they did not deviate from their habitual pattern, faithfully tolling out the hour and nothing more. The Steward yet lives, but for how long? She drew a deep breath, trying to calm her racing heart. Soon, soon this city shall mourn, and who knows but that stones can cry? Finduilas forced a smile, hiding her pain and fear as she turned once more to Boromir and tousled his hair once again. "Good night, my sweet!" she murmured, stooping to kiss her elder son's brow. Boromir threw his arms about her neck and hugged her tightly ere he snuggled down under the light coverlet, and the nurse curtsied again as Finduilas swept out of the room, already steeling herself for the trials that came inevitably at day's end.
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