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Hands of the King: 15. Fidelity
Minas Tirith, Late August, 2975 T.A.
'Tell them to get another horse.'
'No, Lady Lore, if there are no ponies needed in the upper stables. I will walk.'
Aiavalë glared, then shook her head and sighed at Finduilas. 'You are being very foolish.'
Finduilas shook her head right back. 'No, you are being very stubborn. You cannot walk back up the mountain. Take the messenger pony and I will follow. Beregar will carry the bows, won't you, dear Huan?'
The young man smiled and hefted his burden. 'Of course, my ladies, and I'll guide the Archivist's horse quickly. If you wish, you may rest at the tavern and breakfast there.'
'There's a splendid idea! Will you tell my mother that I will meet her down in the market rather than walk back up the hill?'
'Yes, of course.'
Finduilas gave Aiavalë a boost onto the horse and waved as the Archivist and Beregar set out at a brisk pace towards the Great Gate. She followed more slowly, enjoying the sight of the City against the mountain. Once inside the gate, Finduilas turned from the road to climb steps to the top of the first wall. It was the mightiest of all the walls, of black stone instead of white, and its outer face was sheer. Unlike the other walls, there were no carvings upon its inner face. The vast pier of stone dividing Minas Tirith cast a dark shadow over part of the wall, and she could not help but shiver a little when she walked through it.
Beyond the reach of the shadow, the Pelennor stretched out, its greens tinged with brown and yellow as grain ripened and summer prepared for autumn. If she strained her eyes, Finduilas could just make out the dark smudge of Osgiliath. The Ephel Dúath were a threat more felt than seen upon the hazy horizon, making her shiver again. With one last glance at Osgiliath, Finduilas left the wall and strolled the street up the mountain.
She was in no hurry to return to the heights. When her father had announced he was returning to Dol Amroth, Finduilas had rejoiced, thinking that meant they were all going to return. I want to see the Sea again. Her dreams had changed since the war had ended. Gone were the dreadful floods and destruction. The eagle did not clutch her in his talons, nor was she encased in armor of stone. Sometimes she sat upon the dark spire while thin, cold rain fell upon her, but mostly Finduilas dreamt of the Sea. She would lie on her back in bed and watch the blue-tinted tile ships sail across the ceiling during the hot afternoons, letting sleep wash over her. When she drifted into it, the sound of the Sea would drive away thought, leaving her limp upon the crest of dreams, like the stands of seaweed floating in the bay. The lapping waves caressed her, in the edge between wakefulness and oblivion, and she sometimes thought there were hands within the brush of water. Once within dreams, the hands were real, and there would be a familiar rhythm between her body and the caresses, leaving her to wake sweat-dampened and sticky.
But Adrahil declared that she, Luinil, and Ivriniel were all to remain in the realm of stone and shadow while he took Imrahil and returned to the Sea. Finduilas had begged him, privately, to allow her to go, saying she had been too long away from Dol Amroth and her grandfather. Her father had been as unyielding as the stone ships that sailed the walls of Minas Tirith.
"Your mother wishes you here still, my daughter. The battles with the Enemy have ended, but equally dangerous ones remain to be fought, for they will be within Gondor. Victory is scarce less dire than defeat when so much is unsettled."
He refused to explain himself beyond that, and merely bade her to obey her mother until he should return to fetch them in the winter at year's turning. 'Tis simple enough to understand. The spoils of victory are the grounds for squabble among the fiefs. Luinil had explained that after the disastrous supper with Forlong, Denethor, and Thorongil. Then Finduilas had learned that the Prince would spend almost no time in Dol Amroth, but traveled among the lands in southern Gondor to win (or purchase) greater loyalty. Luinil was to ensure that the promises he made would be supported by the Steward and the Warden.
Finduilas scowled at the thought of Denethor. That was the greatest disaster of the supper. She had thought to snub him a bit and let him know she was still out of sorts with him for his rudeness the month before at Beruthiel's party, but had neglected to anticipate that Ivriniel would seize Thorongil before she could. That left her to make conversation with Forlong, who was staring at Ivriniel, who was staring at Thorongil, who was staring at her, while Denethor ignored them all and had a conversation with Luinil. When she finally did steal a moment in which to convey her displeasure, Denethor showed her how childish she was being. Though he was quite kind afterwards, he also left as quickly as he could. Denethor thinks you a silly goose, and he's right! He has great burdens to bear, and you think of nothing but your own pride. She did not see him again before he set out to Osgiliath about ten days after he returned from Anórien.
Not a moment too soon for her complaining stomach, Finduilas passed through the tunnel of the third circle and saw The Messenger's Rest. Before she could claim a seat at a table in the main room, Beregar's mother appeared and firmly escorted her through the kitchen and into the kitchen court to sit under the arbor. I suppose I shall have messages to deliver, Finduilas thought as she waited for her breakfast to arrive. As she was finishing a slice of bread and cheese and a cup of wine, Beregar trotted into the court from the alley, puffing a little from the exertion of his run back down the City. Finduilas waved him into the seat opposite her and began serving him some food.
'Faithful Huan, you did not need to come back!' she gently scolded while he wolfed down a chunk of bread spread thick with apricot preserves and butter. He shook his head and spoke around a mouthful.
'Yes, I did. The Archivist said she'd smack me good if I didn't, and your lady mother said to tell you she'd meet you at the green market, not by the oil merchant.' Beregar was trying not to spit crumbs as he spoke and Finduilas was afraid he would choke if he kept eating and talking at the same time.
'Very well, then! I shan't object, and you shall finish before talking again.' He smiled and gladly accepted another hunk of the fresh, dense loaf, this time slathered with soft cheese and topped with slices of cured ham. Watching him reminded her of the last time she had eaten at this table, and Finduilas was embarrassed to remember a promise unfilled.
'My sweet hound, I must confess I have failed you,' she admitted shamefacedly. 'I said I would speak to Lord Denethor and ask him to release you to join the Tower Guards, and I have not done so. But I will, I swear! The next time I speak to him, I shall do so. Please forgive me for not attending to this sooner.'
Beregar did not answer at once. He stared at the ground, obviously thinking, and carefully ate the last of his breakfast. He met her eyes reluctantly.
'It is best you do not, my lady, at least not right away,' Beregar said with a grave face. 'I think…my lord…there is…' The young man stood and began pacing, making some small gestures with his hands and muttering as he argued with himself. Finally, he gave a sharp nod and strode back to the table.
'What I say to you, I say in confidence, Lady Finduilas. I am very worried about Lord Denethor, and I know not to whom else I may speak. I have…spied…no, not spied! I have asked and watched, but not to spy upon my lord, to help him! Please believe me!'
'Of course, I believe you, Huan. I know you try to care well for those you serve. What is it?'
'He has come to harm, though he denies it.'
'What? What harm?' Finduilas exclaimed.
'In Anórien. When Lady Aiavalë sent me to fetch Lord Denethor upon his return, he said something that made me think he was less than well. Then, after he had supped with Lady Maiaberiel that evening, he was ill on the walk back to the Citadel and spewed his supper. The next day, I went to the stables to make sure there was nothing of my lord's left in the garrison and I saw that his horse's saddle was damaged and scraped. When I asked who had so badly cared for the tack, one of the Anórien soldiers told me that he and his horse had been thrown down by a frenzied mount that had been bitten by a serpent. The soldier said Lord Denethor was near death for days, for his head had been hard struck, and that Captain Thorongil healed him!'
Finduilas sat very still, gripping the edge of the table. She had not wished to remember her dream of Denethor, a few weeks after he had set out for Ithilien. It had haunted her when he was so long delayed in his return, but he looked well enough when she had finally seen him at supper. In her dream, she was a swan, a half-fledged cygnet, waddling along after him as he approached a silver cascade of water. His hair was wet and left dark streaks across his shoulders. Denethor opened the book of poetry she had given him and began to pull pages from it, his fingertips leaving small smudges of blood on the pages, and he held them out into the water, which snatched away the past and drowned it but did not wash his fingers clean. The book in his hands changed as the pages vanished, becoming other books and scrolls from the archive, and each was torn away in the torrent. The dampness on his shoulders became blood, the turns of his head making his hair into brushes that painted his shirt. Finduilas hissed at him, trying to make him stop destroying the archive. When he would not listen, she stretched her long neck and snaked her head across the page he was tearing out. He paused, and she pressed her head into his hand. He caressed her feathers, slipped the book into his shirt, and departed, as he always did in these dreams, into the darkness beyond. Though she flapped her wings and tried to hurry, she could not catch up with him.
'My lady? Finduilas? You are pale. I am sorry, I have distressed you with this news!'
'No, no, you were right to tell me, Beregar. Have you said this to anyone else?'
'No! Only you. One of the other soldiers heard his fellow talking to me and cuffed us both and warned us not to go spreading tales.'
'Tell no one else for now.' It would not do for Beruthiel to know Denethor had been injured. Finduilas was inclined to believe the meal, not the injury, had made Denethor ill upon his return. 'Keep your ears open for any other news, and let me know.'
'There is some other news, but I am not sure what to make of it,' Beregar said in a conspiratorial tone. 'Someone stole a summons from the Steward to my lord, causing my lord to fail to appear. Lord Denethor knows of this and wishes for me to keep a watch.'
'Do you know who did this?' The high walls around the court loomed, and the weight of the City bore down on her. Finduilas desperately wished to escape their menace and flee like a bird, like the swan she had been in the dream, and sail back to Dol Amroth.
'No, but I will!' Beregar had never looked more like his uncle than this moment, face grim, narrowed eyes hard and suspicious. 'That is why I ask you to refrain from your generous gift, my lady. I do not wish to go into the Guards while my lord needs guarding. I have set things a certain way in the Stewards house, so I will know if any go where they should not…' Beregar launched into a detailed description of the bits of wax he used to seal drawers, of hairs strung across doorways to tell if any passed through, and of other small tricks to catch intruders. Finduilas nodded at his words, but was not really listening. All she could think of was the blood that was in Denethor's hair as he cast the pages into the water.
They both jumped when someone cleared a throat near them. Beregar hastily stood and began clearing the table while his mother scowled. She gave him a good clip to side of his head as he passed her, taking the dishes back to the kitchen. After he was out of earshot, the woman sighed.
'Please forgive the boy's presumption, my lady.'
'He did not presume, Mistress. I told him to sit and eat a bite before I sent him on an errand.'
'He knows to come into the kitchen for that, not presume to sit at a lady's table.'
'I shall remember that. Is there anything I may do for you, Mistress?' The woman shook her head.
'I have not time to write a note while the tavern is busy. Thank you.'
'I will pass by later, in an hour or two. Would there be a note then?'
'Then I shall come in.' Beregar slunk out of the door of the kitchen and stood near the alleyway, watching. 'Good morning, Mistress.'
'Good morning.' The women exchanged nods. When Finduilas left, Beregar walked several feet behind her, feet scuffing on the stone.
Luinil already was at the green market, chatting with a goodwife about the quality of the greens and the leeks. She gave Beregar a sharp glance before handing him a large wicker basket. Finduilas tried to give him a smile, but he would not meet her eyes. Sighing at the unreasonableness of men, she paid attention to her mother. The wicker basket slowly filled with fresh vegetables and fruit, but the point of the trip was to talk to the farmers selling their wares. Luinil graciously nibbled on all the offered food, exclaiming over its flavor, asking how this or that should be prepared in the inland style, sadly shaking her head over wonderful things she did not think she could obtain in Dol Amroth, and asking careful, subtle questions about the condition of farms and the mood of the Pelennor and what the farmers had seen and heard over the summer campaign.
Thorongil's name was on everyone's lips. The worst of Beruthiel's lies were not said, but most held that he was the hero of the summer. All knew of his great rides with the Rohirrim, and few seemed aware of the battle against Morgul, only of the rout of the Easterlings.
'The Osgiliath garrison held off the Orc raiders like they always do,' one plump young woman said with cheer, 'and they are a stout lot. But we would have been over-run by the Easterlings without Captain Thorongil! He beat back the Haradrim, then came and trounced the Easterlings. Fortune is blessing us with a great man in dire times.'
'There were more forces than just a few Orc raiders, I assure you,' Luinil replied pleasantly, then turned the conversation to the carrots the woman was selling. A few rounds of haggling later and two bunches were added to Beregar's basket. A few more exchanges, a few more vegetables, and they were ready to return to Vinyamar.
Luinil did not question when Finduilas turned aside at the alley and went behind the tavern. Beregar left the basket on the table, hurrying into the kitchen. He returned soon, trailing his mother. If the woman was surprised by the sight of Luinil, she did not show it. Luinil smiled broadly and nodded.
'Is there ale? It will be a thirsty walk otherwise,' she asked. Beregar trotted back through the kitchen door to fetch it. 'Are you the woman to whom I owe much thanks for your baskets of delicacies, Mistress…?'
'Adanel, my lady. Yes, that is from my kitchen.' Adanel was obviously pleased by the praise, though her expression remained calm, even stern. 'There was a fresh baking this morning, Princess, if you would care to have any more.'
'Oh, my, yes! I will admit to being greedy for such sweets,' was Luinil's merry reply. Beregar came through the door bearing large mugs of ale. Adanel inclined her head and gestured to the table.
'If you will refresh yourselves, ladies, I will see that a basket is made ready.' She gave Beregar a look that sent him scurrying into the tavern. Luinil sat and drank her ale, a thoughtful expression on her face, while Finduilas sipped her own. By the time Luinil was done, Beregar was back, a small flat basket holding several kerchief-wrapped items in hand.
'There is a bundle for your house, my ladies, and another for the Master Archivist,' he explained. Finduilas knew the letter to Aiavalë would be inside her bundle.
'Very good. Please take it and the greens as quickly as you can to Vinyamar, young fellow,' Luinil crisply answered, 'and step lively! The vegetables will wilt in this heat.' He was quickly on his way. Luinil left several coins on the table, much in excess of what the ale and the sweets were worth. Mother and daughter walked in silence back to Vinyamar, Luinil humming under her breath as she always did when she was pondering things. She motioned for Finduilas to follow her into Adrahil's study when they arrived. Sitting at the desk, Luinil steepled her fingers and watched her daughter for several long heartbeats.
'Adanel, she is the mother of that young man, yes?'
'Yes, she is Beregar's mother.'
'What do you know of her?'
Finduilas hesitated – she was not certain what to say. 'I know very little. I did not know her name until you asked for it. She and her husband run the tavern. Beregar serves Lord Denethor as the Warden sees fit. One of her daughters cooks for…'
'She is one of the Steward's bastards, is she not?'
'I do not know for certain, but I believe it so.'
'Hmm. Well, that does seem more likely.'
'More likely than what?'
'Than that the young man is the Warden's bastard. And don't gape. It looks ridiculous.'
Finduilas closed her mouth, but only for a moment. 'How could you think such a thing?'
'Perhaps because the boy looks exactly like the Warden, and attends him at all hours, and does his bidding?' Luinil's voice had a slight edge to it. 'Given Denethor's age, and the lack of a wife, it should not be a surprise that he would have an unsuitable mistress he does not care to give up. Like father, like son, save that Ecthelion had the sense to marry.'
'That is not the kind of man he is.'
'You know him so well?'
'Yes. Well enough to judge his character. He considers his father's example an abomination.'
'It is a common enough vice among men. And what of this young man? What think you of him?'
'What is it you wish to know, Mother?'
'Are you fond of him?'
'Why would you think so?'
'You are in his company a great deal.'
'If you mean do I fancy him, no. I neither know nor care what his regard of me might be.'
'Who do you fancy?'
Finduilas let out an aggravated sigh. 'No. One. I fancy no one, particularly not Captain Thorongil, whom everyone I speak to seems to think I fancy a great deal!'
Luinil laughed. 'Anyone who thinks that is not minding what is in front of their eyes. So you care not for any of the fellows who ask to dance with you or talk to you?'
'No. None of them. I think them all rather silly boys who have not anything interesting to say. Why are you asking me such things?'
'You spoke to me of how you would know you were in love. So I have wondered if you were.'
'I simply asked about you and Father! I think I asked because…because I am not, and I see others who are, and I…just wanted to know how you knew.'
Luinil rose and came over to embrace Finduilas. 'Ah, lamb, I have no answer, save that I simply knew. I think, sometimes, that I was always in love, but that I did not know it until I could no longer avoid knowing, if that makes any sense.' She stroked her daughter's cheek and gave her a kiss. 'I think…when it is time to know, you will. Love will make itself known.'
Minas Tirith, Late September, 2975 T.A.
Summer became fall. As the fears of war faded, Minas Tirith returned to its usual cacophony. As Finduilas had noticed a year past, all in the City, from the meanest street-sweeper to the grandest lady, seemed agreed to live loudly, though there was a braggart-quality that was not there before. Some people looked east towards the Shadow with a sneer, though they did not look long, and the taverns were filled with claims that Gondor was returning to greatness. Even so, the silence remained, just below the level of the boasts, and most did not cast their eyes beyond Osgiliath, save with a shudder.
The last week of September was upon them. The air was cooler and drier, so Finduilas did not need to spend so many hours in the archive, and she enjoyed sitting with Luinil as her mother attended to Dol Amroth's affairs. She was not permitted to go to any council meetings, but she saw most of the letters from Adrahil and was Luinil's scribe in all things.
'It is delicate work your father and the Steward seek to do,' Luinil had explained. 'We have had mostly peace within the bounds of Gondor since the time of Beren, almost two hundred years, and now war has returned, this time commanded directly by the great Enemy. Your grandfather and the Steward Turgon both knew this time would come. Our foes hoped to overwhelm us with a many-sided war, but they did not count upon the plans laid by the Warden, Captain Thorongil, and many others, including Dol Amroth. A victory was won on the field, but also in the hearts of those who were dreading meeting the Fiend once more.'
'Yes, I remember the fear that was among the lords in the Grand Council at the year's turning,' Finduilas replied.
'Much of that fear has abated, but some do not fear enough. They see only victory and not the battlefields; they see the spoils and not the costs; they dream of triumph unending but give little thought to the outfitting of soldiers and the possibility of defeats. The Warden and the Prince must make them wary again but not frightened, for this is but the start of a very long war.' This was a sobering thought.
Finduilas found herself becoming impatient with Ivriniel, who did not understand why her little sister wished to spend hours poring over reports rather than visiting with the other young nobles of the City. To Finduilas's mind, there were far too many suppers and parties being held at Vinyamar, all distracting her from what truly mattered.
Also, she began to detest the attentions of the young men. Though Luinil would not allow anything like the licentious conduct of Maiaberiel's parties to occur in Vinyamar, the forwardness of the men distressed Finduilas. The politeness and solemnity that had reigned during the war season was replaced with arrogance. Ever since the party where she had danced with Denethor and made him smile, men's touches made her feel ill. They thought nothing of grasping her arms and wrists, resting their hands on the small of her back, putting their faces close to her own, some even presuming to touch her face and neck. As often as she could, Finduilas made up excuses and other engagements to keep her away from these parties. She and Ivriniel became rather short with each other over this state of affairs.
One evening near to sunset, Finduilas stood atop the roof of Aiavalë's house. She and Ivriniel had quarreled at dinner so she fled to the Archivist for supper, not wishing to spend another meal in an argument. Aiavalë had suggested that all the women, including the old widow, Lady Almarian, dine upon the roof, and it had been a cheerful meal. Wren and Lark gossiped about a soldier who had taken to walking Lark to and from the archive, though he never quite explained himself. Lady Lore harrumphed at the news, though all could tell she was amused, and scolded the girls for wool-gathering instead of working. The old widow had news of two new grandchildren born to her in the last week, a boy and a girl, and all toasted the blessing. Soon, a sound of commotion could be heard down in the fourth circle. Wren shouted down for Beregar to run and see what was happening. He returned quickly.
'The Queen is here! Queen Morwen of Rohan is here!' he called up from the narrow lane before the house. 'Lord Brandir and Captain Thorongil are here as well. Finduilas! Your mother wishes you to return home at once.'
Finduilas excused herself and hurried home. She barely got back to Vinyamar before the Rohirrim arrived. Luinil stood at the door, flanked by her daughters, to receive her kinswoman. The Queen's entourage approached, including Brandir and Thorongil.
Queen Morwen may have been a celebrated beauty in her youth, but life in Rohan had turned her wiry and sun-darkened. Her smile was wonderful, however, and she walked with the ease of a young woman. Luinil and Morwen embraced and laughed, complimenting and teasing each other as they did. After the cousins were through, Morwen waved her children forward. First was her son, Théoden, First Marshal of the Riddermark. He had his mother's height and grew his own crown of gold. Théoden bowed deeply to Luinil, but said nothing except courtesies. His two sisters, Hilda and Aldwyn, were dark-haired, like their mother, and Finduilas thought them both rather silly. After introductions were made and greetings exchanged, Brandir clapped his hands for some silence.
'Luinil, please do say you will come to our house this evening and visit with our guests.'
'Of course we shall, Brandir. Morwen, you should have told me that you were to be in the City! I would have been better prepared to care for you, kinswoman.'
'I traveled with the messages, Luinil,' Morwen chuckled as she took Luinil's arm, 'for our horses would go no slower!' The group began to move towards the main road, Brandir leading the way.
'But you shall stay with us!' Luinil insisted. 'My lord is away and there is no one to roll his eyes at all the women's chatter.'
'Save Théoden!' The young man laughed with the women at the jest. 'I would not impose upon you, cousin…'
'Nonsense! It is settled,' Luinil replied, while Brandir looked in dismay from one woman to the other. Beruthiel will not be pleased with this news. Finduilas had to compose her face to keep from smirking at the thought. And then had to skip to the side to avoid tripping on Aldwyn, who had partly halted to look back. From the simpering giggle the girl shared with her sister a moment later, Finduilas had a good idea of what the younger girl was staring at.
'Good evening, Finduilas.' Thorongil.
'Good evening, sir.' She did not quite smile at the captain. He did smile at her briefly, then greeted Ivriniel, who replied with a great deal of charm. Thorongil gave Finduilas a few glances as they walked from one end to the circle to the other, but did not try to speak with her again. They were soon at Maiaberiel and Brandir's house. Finduilas's head spun a little at the noise of the greetings, for a number of other guests had been invited as well. Luinmir and Isilmo were the first she recognized. As she looked the company over, Finduilas realized they were all of the lesser houses, those who were indebted to Maiaberiel for their prominence. Finduilas caught Luinil's eyes over the heads of the other guests and raised an eyebrow. Her mother smiled knowingly and nodded – she also had noticed the composition of those in attendance.
Finduilas slowly drifted to the edge of the parlor near the door, watching the audience. Luinil stayed very close to Beruthiel and the queen, careful to call Morwen "cousin". Brandir, Thorongil and Théoden stood together several yards away. The movement of people in the room was between these two poles. She wondered if Luinil and Morwen had yet told Maiaberiel that the queen would be staying in Vinyamar.
The sound of footsteps in the hall caught her attention. Within a few heartbeats she knew it was Denethor, and Finduilas did not hesitate a second before slipping out the door. He came to a halt when he saw her.
'Denethor! I am so glad you are here!'
'Really?' When she drew near, she could see that he was still a little dusty from his ride from Osgiliath.
'Yes. You know that Queen Morwen is here, of course.' Finduilas began brushing the dust off him to help make him presentable.
'Anyone who walked through the streets knows that,' was his acerbic reply. She just motioned him to turn around so she could make sure his back was not dirty. 'What can you tell me besides that she is here?' he asked over his shoulder.
'That Maiaberiel does not yet know my mother's cousin will be staying at Vinyamar,' she said with a grin. He smiled slyly and chuckled.
'Do you know how long the Queen will be here?'
'Not yet, though I imagine it will be for some time.'
'Why is she here?'
'There has not been time to find out, yet.'
'If you will excuse me, then, Alquallë, I must pay my regards to the queen.' Denethor bowed his head to her before striding off. Finduilas waited a moment so they did not appear in the door together, then followed.
Brandir and Thorongil were greeting Denethor quite genially and introducing him to Théoden. Beruthiel was watching her brother closely as he drew nearer. Finduilas worked her way over to Luinil so she could hear what would be said.
'Queen Morwen, how delightful to find you here in Minas Tirith.'
'Warden, I did not know you were here,' Morwen replied warmly.
'I just arrived from Osgiliath. Sister,' Denethor stepped forward to place a kiss on Maiaberiel's cheek, then murmured something before stepping back with bland smile. Maiaberiel smiled in return, but there were red spots on her cheeks. Denethor's attention returned to Morwen.
'I hope that your stay here shall be long, Queen Morwen.'
'If my dear cousin will bear my company until then, I shall stay until the weather turns cold,' she said, glancing at Luinil. Finduilas could see Beruthiel was not expecting that answer.
'We shall be in Minas Tirith through the end of the year, Morwen, so you are welcome for all that time,' Luinil helpfully added.
'I will need to leave before then,' the queen assured her.
'All of Minas Tirith delights in your presence, Morwen,' Maiaberiel smoothly said, edging partly in between Denethor and Morwen. Finduilas had to scratch her nose to hide her smile at the siblings' contest. 'You and your lovely girls will be the center of attention. And the young ladies of the City will be very glad to make the acquaintance of Prince Théoden.'
'They had best not,' was Morwen's amused reply, 'as he is well betrothed. In any event, Théoden and I are here on the King's business.'
'Ivriniel will see to the girls, then,' Luinil answered brightly.
'They will be well attended if they are with Ivriniel,' Denethor agreed. 'When will you be ready to meet with the Lord Steward?'
'The day after tomorrow, in the morning, will be acceptable,' was the regal reply.
'I will inform the Steward when I meet him tomorrow.'
'Thank you, Warden.' Denethor bowed shallowly and walked off. Once he was gone, Maiaberiel called over several of her favorites and the chatter began again. Finduilas took that as a sign to edge away so she could watch the room. Also, she was beginning to cough a bit. Before she could look for something to drink, Denethor appeared with a cup of wine in each hand.
'This should wash away the bad taste,' Denethor said by way of greeting. 'You should know better than to stand so close to Beruthiel.' Finduilas giggled.
'Did you know the queen was arriving?'
'Not until this afternoon, else I would have been here sooner.'
'Are you back for a long time?' she asked. He shrugged.
'I think not, though I will not go further than Osgiliath until spring. I will probably be here a week, given these events.'
'Will you be able to visit Vinyamar? I do not wish to presume upon your time with Aiavalë, but I do wish to see you. I promise to be only slightly impertinent.'
She had hoped to make him smile with the jest, but he stared at her with an unreadable expression before looking away. When he looked back, his face was in its usual stern cast.
'I can make no promises, Alquallë. I suspect that this visit from Morwen will demand most of my attention while I am here.' Denethor sipped his wine, watching the queen. 'Thengel fails.'
'Why do you think so?'
'Why else would he send both his queen and his heir? She is here to make certain Théoden meets whom he needs to know.' He took a sip, then made a small gesture with one hand. Thorongil was soon standing near them.
'Yes, my lord?'
'I must go. Please remain until the queen retires, then come see me.' Denethor drained his cup and handed it to Thorongil. Nodding to both of them, the Warden walked off.
'May I get you anything else, Finduilas?' Thorongil spoke quietly. She began to tell him to go away, then changed her mind. Do not disdain a hand offered in friendship. She smiled and shook her head.
'No, Thorongil, I need nothing, save pleasant company. And I already have that.' To her amusement, he blushed at the compliment. 'How was your journey?'
'Uneventful, I am glad to say. There was much dust, but the company was fine.'
'Will you be returning to Anórien soon?'
'Sooner than I would like.' Thorongil gave her a warm smile and Finduilas's turn to blush. The captain did have a kind face when he smiled. 'I am here earlier than I should be, to escort Queen Morwen to the City. Brandir wishes for me to stay at least a week, so I plan to be here a ten-day. It will be year-end before I return to Minas Tirith.'
'Will you have time to visit and tell us one of your fine stories before you go? You were scarce about on your last visit in August.'
Thorongil's smile broadened, and he bowed his head to her. 'Merely say when you wish me to attend you, and I shall.'
'You will attend me, and all the ladies of the house, sir,' Finduilas chided. 'I am not the only one who approves of you, you know. As for the summons, that will be for Ivriniel to decide. She orders all the affairs of the house now. Our lady mother must attend to more solemn issues.'
The smile faded from the captain's face, and he sent a worried look towards Luinil and Morwen. 'As does the queen.'
So, you think there is something amiss, too, even as Denethor believes. Finduilas was very glad Morwen would be staying at Vinyamar; it would provide a number of opportunities for finding out what was afoot in Rohan. You begin to sound like Beruthiel. They are your guests, not people to be spied upon! The thought chastened her. Look to their comfort and not to your own curiosity. 'I hope that my sister and I will be able to make the lady and her children welcome here in Minas Tirith. I do look forward to getting to know these long-sundered cousins.'
'Queen Morwen is a very noble lady and there are few men as true-hearted as Théoden,' Thorongil said with much earnestness.
Finduilas began to ask how well he knew them, but was seized with a coughing fit. She could tell it was not going to go away easily and hurried to the hallway where she would not bother the other guests. Thorongil followed. It took more than a minute for the spasms to cease, leaving her wheezing and with a raw throat. She leaned against the wall, eyes closed, concentrating on keeping her breathing even.
'I am going to get your mother.' She nodded at the captain's words, but did not open her eyes. A rustle of skirts let her know Luinil was there.
'Finduilas? Lamb? Are you all right?'
'Too much excitement, I fear.' When she opened her eyes, Finduilas saw that Thorongil and Ivriniel were also there. Ivriniel was glaring at her and did not appear at all sympathetic. She carefully stood up straight and addressed her mother, not wishing to see Ivriniel's nasty expression. 'I shall go home now. If I stay, I fear I will only become more ill.'
Thorongil said, 'If it pleases you, my ladies, I will walk Finduilas back.' As he spoke, he reached out and put a hand on her arm. The touch made her stomach lurch. Finduilas stumbled back against the wall, grabbing for Luinil's arm.
'It does not,' her mother said crisply. 'I think I had best take her home. She must not risk becoming worse. Ivriniel, will you remain and see that our cousins are escorted home safely? Captain, I would count it a great favor were you to assist in that task. Good evening.' Finduilas allowed herself to be led away, as Ivriniel happily appropriated Thorongil's arm. The walk back to Vinyamar was slow. Finduilas had to stop twice and cough. Once there, Luinil insisted she drink a glass of brandy, then sent her to bed. She dreamed of the Sea.
The next day, the cough was still there, ragged and wet, in her chest. Luinil dosed her with more brandy, then sent for a healer. The plump woman listened to her wheezes, had her drink something vile, and then made Finduilas lie on her stomach while the woman thumped her firmly and methodically all across her back. Soon, sticky clots of yellow-green phlegm came up along with some small flecks of blood. Once she could cough up nothing more, Finduilas was given a syrup made with mint and thinned with brandy.
The cough was persistent, keeping Finduilas abed for several days. She began to loathe the taste of mint and brandy, for that is what she had to drink to keep her coughing under control. It left her sleepy, but there was no more bleeding from her lungs.
The second day, Ivriniel brought her a basket holding sweets, herbs, a sealed note, and a few books. As Finduilas expected, her name on the note was in Aiavalë's perfect hand, though the seal was lumpy. The largest book was one of The Discourses of Silmarien, on the right ordering of a realm, while the other two were collections of poetry, one Elvish, one early-Gondorian. She broke open the seal, revealing a second note inside of the first. The outer one read,
Dearest Little Sister,
Beregar reports that you have taken ill with a wretched cough. Do take care! Here are sweets and teas to help you while the time until you are well again. If you wish a cat for amusement, let me know and I shall have one of Sedge's new kits sent to you. Wren says she would be glad to come sit with you if you wish for company. I miss you and worry over you, my dearest.
The second note was in Denethor's crisp writing,
I selected some books for you. If they are not to your taste, let me know and I will find others more suitable.
Finduilas examined the books over more carefully and realized they were from the collection she had seen in his study. She looked back at the basket and notes and started laughing. Which was a bad idea, because it made her cough. Once it was back under control, she contented herself with a smile and a chuckle. Obviously, Aiavalë had told Beregar to bring this basket to her, but that Denethor had told him to come with it to the Steward's house first, and had added his own items. Including a tampered note! The seal was lumpy from having been peeled up and pressed down again. She selected some poetry, put the other two on the table within reach, and rang the small bell. When Aerin appeared, Finduilas asked that a tea be made from the Archivist's herbs, then settled in to read.
After four days of lazing in bed, Finduilas wished to walk about, but the healer and Luinil were firm that she should not leave the house. Beregar appeared at the kitchen door at least twice a day to see if she had errands for him and to give her the news of the City. A few times Wren was with him, the young woman full of gossip from the archive. The three would sit at the old table in the corner of the kitchen under the watchful eye of the cook and chatter until Finduilas's cough returned. Aiavalë sent a note every day, though no further messages came from Denethor.
Luinil and Morwen were rarely about during the day. If they were not meeting with the Steward and his ministers, they were visiting the noble houses, usually with Théoden in tow. Ivriniel, Hilda, and Aldwyn came and went in cheerful gusts, looking in on Finduilas briefly and recounting their adventures before departing for their next appointment. Nestled into a chair in the parlour, one of Denethor's books in hand, Aiavalë's tea steaming in a mug on the table, Finduilas did not mind being by herself.
One day, Morwen came into the room.
'Good afternoon, Finduilas.'
'Good afternoon, Morwen.'
'Would it tire you terribly to converse, my dear?'
'No, but you will have to do most of the speaking.'
'Of course! Please, I do not wish to risk the wrath of Luinil by making you ill again now that you are near recovered.' Morwen paused long enough to pour some wine from the sideboard, then took a seat on the nearby couch. 'You wrote me a letter last spring, little cousin, that never received an answer.'
Finduilas nodded. After her encounter with the wizard, and her fight with Denethor over what she should tell of such encounters, she had written to Morwen, asking about Thorongil.
Morwen waited for Finduilas to say something. When nothing was offered, the older woman said, 'I was rather dismayed by that letter.'
'For it was yet another bit of prying about Captain Thorongil.' Finduilas could not deny it, for she had been prying, but simply shrugged in reply. Morwen sighed and shook her head. 'I fear I will say nothing, not even to you, Finduilas.'
'What did I ask that you would not answer?'
'Ælric, as Thorongil is better known to me, is a man of honor and of dignity. I do not think it right that his service to my king should be repaid by common gossip. What he wishes you to know, he will tell you himself.' Morwen's tone was sharp.
'Then I shall not ask any more from you, cousin. Pray forgive my prying.'
'Why? Why are you asking?' Morwen demanded.
'Probably for much the same reason as others ask. He is a prominent man shrouded in mystery. I have been urged by some to befriend him, and I wished to know more before I did so!' Finduilas retorted with some heat.
'Who has told you to do this?'
'To befriend him? Who has not? Lord Brandir, Lady Maiaberiel, a wandering wizard, most of the meddlesome women of the City, even the Captain himself, though he has not been as forward in the notion as the others.' As her indignation rose, her chest tightened, forcing her to pause and cough. Finduilas continued, more quietly, 'I am sorry to have pried, particularly as you say others have done so. What I know is enough for me to call the captain a friend. I see that you also call him such. He must be missed sorely in Rohan.'
At that, Morwen's fierceness melted away. 'Ah, yes, we are sorrowed that Ælric has forsaken us.'
'Forsaken you? That is too grand a claim, cousin.' Luinil's voice from the doorway made the other women start. She came over, stooping to kiss Finduilas's brow as she passed, and sat on the couch next to Morwen. 'Thorongil's heart is always with the Rohirrim, though he serves a different master. So says Adrahil.'
'Would that the rest of him would follow suit and return to the Riddermark,' was Morwen's teasing reply.
Luinil's smile faded and a calculating look came over her face. 'Are things so bad in Rohan that you need him to return? How goes the Riddermark?' Morwen looked pointedly at Finduilas, then back at Luinil, who waved a hand in irritation. 'Speak freely. She knows discretion. You have been close with your words, cousin, these past days. I would know the meaning of your journey. What is amiss in your land?'
'Things are not so bad, not the way they were at Fengel's passing and the years just following. But I like not the smell of the wind from east or west, nor do I care much for wizards,' was the queen's dark reply. 'No doubt but the threats to Rohan seem slight in the face of the summer wars, but they are growing.'
'And how does the King?' Luinil's voice was gentle.
'He is old.' Sadness filled Morwen's voice. 'He is not decrepit; such does not suit a son of Eorl. He will seek an end rather than pass in the manner of his father, witless and shaming his house. But he is old, Luinil! The Steward does not look as aged as my lord, yet Ecthelion is near twenty years Thengel's senior.'
Luinil held out an arm and Morwen nestled next to her. They stayed like this for a while, Luinil stroking her cousin's hair.
'Grandmother warned me of this, but I did not understand,' Morwen sighed.
'We rarely listen to our elders until we are old ourselves.'
'That is the matter, Luinil. I am not old, but my husband is, and soon…'
'Shh, Morwen, say not things of ill omen.'
'It is but the truth. Grandmother said it was dire enough to wed a man so much the elder, and I should not add grief to folly by wedding one of a lesser kind.'
'As I recall, Grandmother was all too fond of handing out dire fortunes to any who would sit still to hear them,' Luinil responded with some acerbity. Morwen shook her head.
'Spiteful or not, the old cow was right. I was making myself a widow when I wed so much senior a man, but I did not know until this last winter how long I would be bereft.'
'And all your years of joy are to be set at naught?'
'Never! I do not rue my choice, though I see now that there will be grief. There would not be so much of the latter save for the former, would there?'
'Nay, there would not,' Luinil agreed.
'Even so I cannot help but envy thee the joy thou shalt have with thy love, in years after mine own loss, though thou art my elder. The Prince is of the pure blood of Númenor and shall not fail for many more years.'
'Even that noble line wanes, dear cousin.'
'But less swiftly than the Eorlingas.' Morwen sighed and sat up. 'It is difficult to see Ælric, or even Denethor, and see how little they have changed. The Warden is not the youth I last saw when I left the City for Edoras, but he is still a reasonably young man if one can see past his scowls. Ælric is unchanged. Théoden was a child when the Wanderer presented himself and now my son is a man grown and handfasted, yet Ælric is as when I first saw him.'
'Would it not be better,' Luinil said thoughtfully, 'that Thorongil not return to Rohan if Théoden is close to kingship? Not that I wish that day to come,' she hastily added, 'but it might be better if your son did not have to contest with this captain for the affection of his marshals.'
Finduilas sipped her tea, all ears. Is this not what Denethor is having to do even now? Fight for the loyalty that should be his, while his own kin scorn his worth. She found herself wishing the captain would go back to Rohan. And what then of Gondor? Dol Amroth? Denethor himself says he needs Thorongil to defend the realm.
'I do not think Ælric would allow such to happen,' Morwen assured Luinil. Would he not? Finduilas thought back to Thorongil's lack of concern over rumors and of the man's association with Beruthiel. Perhaps Rohan is not a large enough prize. 'I wish that Théoden could have as counselor one who knows the ways of wizards, for there is one upon our borders whom I do not like. Ælric is also close to Gondor and her lords, and would help keep the ties between the lands close.'
'You do not think Lord Brandir sufficient to this task?'
'Lord Brandir is a good soul, but he is not a leader. Dark times require strong leaders to guide us to safety. Would you wish for Brandir in lieu of Ælric?'
Luinil shrugged. 'That would depend on what I wanted done.'
Morwen's eyes moved over to Finduilas. The girl sat still as the queen examined her closely, as though judging a horse. The woman chuckled softly when she finished.
'Ah, well, I can see you have reasons for not wishing Thorongil to soar off,' Morwen slyly said.
'Of course I do, though I am equally certain you do not understand them,' Luinil replied. With that, she rose and nodded graciously to Morwen. 'If you will excuse us, cousin, I can see that Finduilas is tiring, and I wish her to rest before she begins to cough. Come, daughter, a draught and then bed until supper.'
Characters introduced in this chapter, in order of appearance:
Adanel – OC, Mistress of The Messengers Rest tavern, Beregar's mother, half-sister to Denethor, 56 years old.
Almarian – OC, widowed Gondorian who owns the house where Aiavalë, Wren and Lark have rooms, 82 years old.
Queen Morwen/Morwen of Lossarnach – Wife of King Thengel, Queen of Rohan, mother of Théoden, first cousin to Luinil and distant cousin of Adrahil, 53 years old.
Théoden – Son of Thengel, First marshal of the Mark, heir of Rohan, 27 years old
Hilda – OC. Daughter of Thengel and Morwen, sister to Théoden, 23 years old.
Aldwyn – OC. Daughter of Thengel and Morwen, sister to Théoden, 18 years old.
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