Stewards of Gondor: Genverse Arc
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Love Sweet As Poison : 2. Loneliness
Late that night upon her balcony in the Citadel, Finduilas shivered as the breeze stirred her light robe. Summer had come early to Gondor's chief city, and yet she felt chilled. 'Tis but a trick of my mind, she told herself, for after a long and draining day spent at Ecthelion's side, she almost always felt cold. But she would rather the cold than the horror that nightly choked her: horror of this jewel of a city, with its cold stones piled high. Ecthelion's presence had made this place bearable, but now that he prepared to depart it forever, she looked with fear and disgust upon those towers and gates that opened onto the dread of the east.
The East! The Nameless Land…! As a woman, her heart was filled with loathing for the eastern shadow that tainted Gondor; as a mother, she feared its effects, wondering if her weakness would be passed on to her sons, or whether the shadow would consume them as it had consumed her. And though she knew it was not real, still she swayed and flinched from the walls of the towers of the city, which seemed to expand and lean in towards her, filling the empty spaces of the night with their grim and silent presence.
Why does this happen? What is wrong with me? she asked herself bitterly, gripping the stone railing hard for support as she panted and sweated under the weight of her claustrophobic terror. So many stones, and they have memories that do not fade! So much grief! So much pain borne by the east wind to imbue them with horror… ! She squeezed her eyes shut. I can feel their weight piled high all about me, crushing me into the darkness…! The railing beneath her hands felt chill as a gravestone, and as her eyes flew open once more, she saw it gleaming a pale, milky white that seemed to her sickly.
With a moan, she tore her eyes away, seeking something steady in her shifting, vertiginous world. Out in the darkness blazoned forth the lamps of Minas Tirith, and Finduilas sighed with relief as her eyes fastened on them. On a warm night such as this, the fisher-folk of Dol Amroth would sail small boats out onto the Bay of Belfalas and hang lanterns over the water to attract the fish. I would watch them for hours when I stood in the high tower of my father's city, she remembered, feeling her emotions surge and swell as the storm-tossed sea; and as she looked down upon the city, Finduilas could almost imagine that the beacons that lit the streets of Minas Tirith were lamps hung over the darkened waters.
But the zephyrs that came out of the south smelled of earth and orchards, rather than of the salt-tang of the ocean, and they carried no sound to her ears but the distant voices of the guards as they hailed each other on their rounds. Homesickness assailed her, but she welcomed that familiar and mundane pain, for it seemed to modulate her distress, rather as a single pure note causes all others to resonate with it. Memories of her coastal home welled up uncontainably: the southern breezes, the endless rush of waters upon the shores and the vast, open horizon of the sea.
With a sigh, she retreated into her marriage bower for comfort. When she had come hither from Dol Amroth, she had brought with her many of the things that reminded her of home. The room that she shared with her husband was furnished largely to her tastes, and so showed very little of the stone of which it was built. A large carpet, with an intricate and abstract pattern of swirls in warm, seaside colors, covered the flagstone floor; seascape tapestries hung from the walls; and upon the shelves and bureaus and trunks–all arranged carefully in the room to make the most of its airy space–stood various carvings in wood native to the region round Belfalas. Dol Amroth was justly famous for such art–smooth to the touch yet not cold, imbued with a warmth proper to living wood by their makers.
Now, as she stood in silent thought by the hearth, she ran her hands over one of her favorite statues, a pair of dolphins in a light colored wood, and heavy was her spirit. Denethor neglects you, fool that he is! Ecthelion's words echoed in her mind, and in the privacy of this place, which she had claimed and made as thoroughly her own as possible, she could not deny or explain away the truth of that declaration, nor her own unhappiness.
In her calmer moments, she suspected that all of the warmth that Denethor might have had for those closest to him had been sublimated, invested instead in his love of Gondor itself. A safe love, she thought bitterly, feeling tears well up once more. A safe love, for Gondor cannot weep, and its demands come always from political logic, and never from a human heart. Ashamed, she wiped at her eyes and reminded herself once again that she ought not to blame him for that. She had arrived late in his life, and a new mistress, especially one thrust upon him, could hardly expect to compete for his favor with his first love.
Especially considering my state! What am I but a nuisance and an embarrassment to him much of the time? Finduilas swallowed hard, feeling her misery coil tight in her chest. No mystery to me that he prefers parchment to people when I am his wife. Perhaps that is why I hate this city, so well-beloved of my husband and my rival for his affections. If I did not care for him, then perhaps I, like Berúthiel or Erendis, could find contentment elsewhere, in other tasks or even… even in other arms! But she was not a Berúthiel, unassailable in her coldness; nor was she an Erendis who felt her blood run hot at her husband's faults and who could let that wrath spill over. Nay, that would be an easier fate. Instead, I am condemned to love a stranger who is mine in name only!
Indeed, it was a torment knowing how very much lay hidden behind a veil of silence, for much though she might wish it otherwise, she had been fascinated by Denethor from the first day that she had met him. There were depths to him, and she wanted nothing more than to uncover them; indeed, she would have done anything he asked if only he would trust her with himself. But he seems to want nothing of me, she thought, frustrated. Or rather, he does not want what I would give. He wants my silence, and sometimes my body, but what is that? He is a man like any other, and such desire alone doth not a husband make!
A part of her knew that she ought not to continue to submit to his demands, that she should use what appeal she had to force him to speak to her. But I shall not. I cannot, for I fear that he may simply cease to ask. And that I could not endure, for this bed is often the only thing that we share! And yet she still cared for him, though he felt naught for her. Nay, that is not fair, she thought, staring down at a blue swirl in the carpet. He does care for me, even love me, in his way, but…! She closed her eyes, feeling tears sting hot once more as a sob burst past her lips ere she covered her mouth, smothering others. But… he does not love me as I wish to be loved. There it is, the simple truth! I cannot love him half so well, nor feel half so well loved when he keeps so much from me that a husband ought to share!
And so she could not have answered Ecthelion's question that afternoon, for in truth there was very little that passed between them on any level. Many are the wives who complain that they are misunderstood, but how many have borne children to a stranger? she wondered bitterly. How often had she heard that children were a woman's joy, the pride of her heart and the glory of her sex? How painful was it, then, to regret having had them? To feel that her love for them was tainted by the need to be needed by them? To know that in the end, their unconditional love notwithstanding, they could not provide her with what she wanted most: an understanding of her husband?
For though they might eventually come to share some of their father's traits, in the end they were not Denethor. Out of hope and duty, she had borne heirs to the stewardship of Gondor. But now that her duty was fulfilled and hope had largely withered, she could not endure the thought of more children. For what are they to him but burnt flesh, offerings upon the altar of Gondor's survival… nay, I could not! I love Boromir and Faramir, but I cannot have another of his children. I cannot! And so she drank guiltily every morning yarrow tea and kept her silence. It was her one secret, the one thing that she would never tell Denethor should he chance to ask, for she doubted he would understand. An unnatural woman, he would think me, she thought miserably, hearing the echo of self-condemnation in that judgment. And perhaps I am, for the Valar know that something evil works in me that I suffer this malaise.
For a time, she stood slouched, leaning upon the mantelpiece while her eyes stared sightlessly at the floor and her mind wandered once again in the happier memories of her beloved Dol Amroth. Once, when I was young, I ran along the shore, pretending I was a gull that would fly over the ocean to the ends of the earth. What happened to that girl, who could outrace her brother Imrahil? she wondered. What is this frailty that assails me ever, which poisons not only my body but my will? And especially now, as she struggled with Ecthelion's impending death and the upheaval that that would cause in the lives of all of Gondor's citizens, she railed at her weakness. The wife of the lord of the city must never be found wanting, in any way! Finduilas thought bitterly.
Yet already, she found it hard to stand straight, feeling the duties of a Steward's wife chafing her shoulders, bowing her back under their weight. And she felt so very inadequate to such tasks! Indeed, she felt herself fragile, and hated the broken, pathetic creature she had become–hated the thin face that stared out of mirrors, hated the dark hair that only emphasized her pallor, hated the haunted look of her eyes and the nervous tension she radiated. Ecthelion is dying, and soon others will look to me as Gondor's first lady… will look at me!
Thought of the pending ordeal of leeched her of what color she had, and she felt suddenly sick, considering all that would be required of her in the days following Ecthelion's inevitable death. I need to lie down! Finduilas crawled onto the bed, curling up in the very center of it amidst the pillows and she pulled the blankets up to her chin, warding herself from the vicissitudes of her living nightmares, hoping that those that came tonight would be less frightening than reality. In truth, it was not the increase in her station, nor even the loss of a well-loved father-in-law that filled her with dread, but the thought of watching Denethor work through his private grief.
For though feeling came hard to him, Denethor did love his father, however restrained his displays of affection. And because he was so reticent, that grief would harden, would crystallize–like frozen hemlock, like mercury in his veins–poisoning him with darkness. It will harden him, and already he is so grim and cold! Hard as the stone for which this realm is famous, and perhaps I ought not to be surprised. He was born among them, and they have shaped him to be like them: unyielding! Finduilas shivered again. But however strong, a fortress of stone will sink and founder if built upon quicksand. Ecthelion's death will rock his foundations; indeed, it has already undermined him, I think. Have I strength enough for us both? For though I doubt that Denethor would know how to comfort another, he will need what consolation I can give when Ecthelion is no more!
Finduilas squeezed her eyes shut against the sting of salty tears, biting her lip so as not to let the sobs escape. It seemed utterly unfair to ask more of her when to face the day was challenge enough; indeed, it seemed cruel to demand of her such selfless love when her husband spared her so little and that a gift! But I must try! For Ecthelion, and for myself. This place may fill me with a horror of its ways, cold and hard, made to endure against the evil of the East, but for better or for worse, this is now my home. And Denethor is my husband, though it hurts to love him. Why is it thus? Why should he be so hard to love? "I am so lonely here!" she whispered to the fire-lit silence.
Just then, she heard the door to the outer set of rooms open and shut, and her heart skipped an apprehensive beat. Listening carefully, she could just make out the scrape of boots on flagstone floors as someone–Denethor undoubtedly–moved about the study. Lying there, feigning sleep, she traced his path in her mind: he went first to the bureau to tidy the many papers strewn upon it, and probably also to deposit more for him to read in the morning; thence to the hearth to poke at the low fire as he thought over the events of the day, ordering them in his mind. And then he moved on to the table where Finduilas had earlier set a goblet of wine for him, as he was accustomed to drink one ere he retired. The familiar pattern of his routine unrolled in her mind without noticeable deviation, and at last, she heard his footsteps approach the bedroom door.
The handle turned, and she heard the door shut quietly with a snick! Into the following silence, Denethor sighed softly as he draped his cloak on a peg, which audible complaint was uncharacteristic of him. Cloth rustled softly as he undressed, and then the bed creaked softly, and the mattress dipped as he climbed beneath the sheets. Finduilas felt the warmth of his body at her back as a balm against the chill that lived beneath her skin, and she held her breath, waiting to learn his intentions tonight. Should I move? Should I touch him? Ah, I dare not! Denethor, will you not turn to me tonight? Say something at least, I beg!
Denethor laid a hand upon her shoulder, and Finduilas caught her breath hopefully. He slid his hand down her arm, but then paused. For a long while she waited, sensing that some struggle took place within him where she could not quite see it. But then, with a soft sigh, he released her and turned away. The gap between them opened as he settled to one side, leaving her plenty of space, and she knew they would not speak ere the morning. After some time, she heard his breathing slow, and knew that he had fallen asleep. For a long while, Finduilas lay unmoving in the darkness, feeling much aggrieved and fairly sick with frustration. A daughter of Amroth am I indeed! Ever waiting, and ever left wanting!
It was still dark when Denethor rose some hours later to begin a new day. And then, when at last the outer chamber was silent, and the door had closed behind him firmly–when she was alone in fact in her bed–then only did she sleep.
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