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Hands of the King: 21. Desiring
Minas Tirith, Early December, 2975 T.A.
‘Where were you?’
Finduilas ignored Ivriniel while she changed into a fresh dress. She had slipped in through the kitchen door, hoping to get back to her room before the household was awake, but had found things in an uproar. Evidently, Denethor and Father had left the house suddenly not long before, amid warnings of more attacks upon Osgiliath. Imrahil and Mother were in the parlor, her younger brother complaining greatly at being left behind yet again.
‘You had best answer or I will tell Mother that you were out of the house!’
‘Tell her whatever you please. I left early to go to the Archivist’s for breakfast, but she did not wish company.’
‘Then why are you changing your dress?’
‘You do not wish me to change?’
‘That is what you wore yesterday.’
‘Yes, and you are wearing what you wore yesterday!’ Finduilas replied irritably. ‘I have decided this is too soiled for another day. Do you wish me to walk about in dirty clothes?’
‘No.’ Ivriniel scowled as she leaned on the door. ‘I do not believe that you ever changed out of it since yesterday.’
‘And I have no way to prove you wrong as you will not believe what I say!’
‘Tell me where you were last night!’
‘Ivriniel, since you will not believe me, if you want to know the truth, then come with me to the archives and ask Lady Aiavalë yourself.’ She fastened the last button on her dress, then turned to face her sister, not much needing to feign sorrow. ‘Why are you so determined to make me out a liar? Is Father going off to battle of so little import to you that you need think up things to make me more wretched? I did not get to say farewell! Oh, how I wish I had not been gone!’
Ivriniel turned bright pink ducking her head. ‘I am sorry. I am being a beast.’
‘Please, then, sister, let us not quarrel over nothing! Mother has her hands full with Imrahil and should not hear us being cross, not while…’
‘…Father is gone. No, you are right.’ Ivriniel held out her arms and the sisters hugged.
Not while either of them are gone. Finduilas made herself be patient with Ivriniel all through the morning, not rushing off for news as she wished to do. Luinil rather curtly bade them both to stay in the house, giving Finduilas a hard look. Even so, there was no more mentioned of her earlier absence.
The fog clung all morning, thinning only in the late afternoon. Inside of Finduilas’s head, all was in a fog as well. Denethor. As she sat with Ivriniel doing some sewing, she paid no mind to her sister’s chatter save to encourage her to more of it. Finduilas was not certain she could have said very much. Her thoughts were torn between worry and wonder.
“When it is time to know, you will. Love will make itself known.”
It was time. I love him. It had hit her with great force last evening. She had not known she was waiting for him until she looked down the lane and saw Denethor pass by in the main street. Nothing could keep her from running to him, joyous at his return, then horrified at his condition. When he left her at the Stewards House, she knew. The desire to follow him and declare her love had been almost overwhelming, despite his order for her to remain in the house. But he was exhausted and needed to report to the Lord Steward, not be distracted before discharging that duty. Finduilas had done the only other thing she could think of, sending word to the Archivist that Denethor needed a healer and Beregar. By the time Denethor had returned, exhausted and grim but washed, she had come to her senses and knew to say nothing. She had not expected he would be gone again so soon.
How did I not know this? It seemed impossible that she could have been so blind, yet there it was. The pleasure she felt simply at the sight of him, the ease of their speech together, how his happiness mattered to her – all this had spoken of love before Finduilas had put a name to it. She found herself daydreaming of his arms about her at Osgiliath, when he had been a king crowned with stars, about their walk upon the walls of the Citadel when he had kissed her. Finduilas tried to imagine what might have happened if she had turned her head when Denethor took her in his arms, had kissed him in return. He would have…
Given you a good shake and probably walked off in disgust. Finduilas fumbled her sewing and jabbed herself with the needle, her joy turning to fear. He does not feel so of you, goose! What did he ever call her? Prince, girl, sister, Alquallë; titles of respect or chastisement or brotherly affection, not of love. Never had he spoken to her or looked at her the way that the young men did, and certainly there was nothing in Denethor’s demeanor comparable to Thorongil’s attempts to woo her. Even Beregar flirts with you more than Denethor ever has! At best, she was a fellow prince with whom he would discuss matters of state, at worst, a frivolous girl who spoke impertinently and rudely to a burdened man.
The rest of the day passed miserably as Finduilas pondered all the ways in which Denethor would reject and mock her were he to know she was in love. There was no softness in his heart for such matters, especially as he had made it clear that he had no want for a wife. At supper, word came around that there had been a great battle, but that Gondor was again victorious. Adrahil sent a brief note saying only that he was well, would remain the night in the garrison, and to look for his return on the morrow. She tossed and turned much of the night, longing to see Denethor and know him to be well. Her dreams were filled with his hands and kisses, though every time she reached for him, there was nothing there.
The next day dragged slowly. The rumors flying about the City were many, as people hurried from one circle up to the next, stopping at the water fountains to tell what they had learned. The stories grew in proportion to their distance up the mountain. More slowly, ox-drawn carts lumbered up the streets to the Houses of Healing, bearing wounded. Luinil would not allow her children to go beyond the end of the lane, so Imrahil sat himself on a low wall where the lane met the street and asked for news. After dinner, he went back to his post, but returned in a rush within minutes. The captains had returned from battle and were climbing to the Citadel.
Imrahil and Finduilas ran up to the roof of Vinyamar to look down the mountain. They could not see the streets, but they could hear the progress of the men as they ascended. Sounds of cheering even floated over the great stone pillar when the party moved from the southern rings to the northern, passing through the tunnels. The siblings ran back downstairs after the soldiers disappeared into the tunnel of the fourth circle and hurried to the end of the lane before the house. Luinil followed in a more decorous manner some minutes later, trailed by Ivriniel.
Everyone was out in the street waiting. Soon, the cheers came closer and the crowd parted to let the men through. It was easy to see the Prince, his close-cropped silver hair making him stand out as much as his height. At first glance, Finduilas thought Denethor was next to her father, but soon realized it was Thorongil. Behind them was another dark head.
‘Eagle and Swan! Eagle and Swan!’ The cheers of the crowd were deafening. Adrahil saw them standing near the end of the lane and waded over. When he moved, Finduilas could see that the third man was not Denethor, but Lord Morvorin. Where is he? She carefully scanned the group, trying to locate a certain tall grim figure. Imrahil had to poke her to make her notice their father before them.
‘Wife.’ Adrahil gave Luinil a swift kiss on the cheek, lacing his fingers into hers. ‘Much has happened. We go to report to the Steward,…’
‘The Warden? Where is Denethor?’ Finduilas silently thanked her mother for asking what she did not dare to.
Adrahil smiled brightly. ‘When I return. I do not know when that will be.’ He gave his wife another kiss, then one for each daughter, and sternly told Imrahil to remain at Vinyamar until his own return. Just that quickly, the procession disappeared down the street. Near the back of it, Finduilas saw Beregar. She called his name and beckoned him over.
‘Beregar, what do you know?’ She was very aware that her family was watching this exchange.
‘Not a great deal, my lady. There was an army of Uruks, and they were beaten soundly, and the Rohirrim were there,…’ the young man rattled off.
‘Yes, all that we have heard,’ Luinil interrupted with a smile. ‘We need not hear it again. Why don’t you go to the kitchen and have a bite and a cup of tea before you go about your duties? Surely Lady Aiavalë would not begrudge you that. Finduilas, please take him there.’
Beregar bobbed his head. ‘Thank you, my lady, that is very kind of you.’ Luinil turned away, Ivriniel and Imrahil following along. Finduilas walked with Beregar, turning down the narrow path between houses to go back to the kitchen.
‘Huan, what news of Denethor?’ she asked, taking his arm to make him halt.
‘None, my lady.’ Beregar looked worried. ‘The Archivist sent me to the first circle to await him this morning. The captains arrived and he was not with them. I asked several fellows where my lord was, and they did not know. One said he thought Lord Denethor had ridden off with some Rohirrim, but that makes no sense. Captain Thorongil is the one who guides the Riders. But they also said he was not in Osgiliath when they left. The one to ask would be your lord father.’
‘You can be certain I will! Now, do as Mother told you and eat something.’ Finduilas led the way to the kitchen door. Ivriniel was in the kitchen, collecting a tea pot and cups, and stared hard at Beregar before giving Finduilas a meaningful look. Finduilas stuck out her tongue and brushed past, going to her room where she remained until Adrahil returned just before supper.
The Prince cheerfully but firmly brushed aside all questions about the battles from Imrahil and of the council with the Steward from Luinil, instead asking Ivriniel to tell him of the parties she was planning to attend over the Yule holiday. Finduilas thought that there were deeper lines near her father’s eyes than had been there but two days before and that his cheer had a brittle edge. When the meal ended, Adrahil’s demeanor grew more grave. He first turned to Imrahil.
‘Son and prince, I have no doubt but that you feel yourself slighted for having been left behind when battle was joined.’ Imrahil’s cheeks grew pink. ‘Both lord and heir cannot be risked in the same battle and you have not the experience to command a whole company of knights. Do not be foolish enough to deny this fact.’
‘It cannot be denied, my lord father.’
Adrahil studied his son carefully, then sighed as he stood. The rest rose after him. ‘Would that you never have such experience, for it is only got in war. Be ready at the third bell tomorrow to accompany me on a review of our men. You need to know who has been hurt, and see the bodies of those who have died. In the afternoon, you will be my scribe as I write to the widows and fathers of those who are dead to tell them this grievous news. That is also the duty of a captain.’
Imrahil bowed to his father, his face sad and pale. ‘Yes, sir.’ Adrahil held out his arm, motioning Imrahil to come to him. Placing his arm around his son’s shoulders, Adrahil walked them out of the room, speaking quietly. Luinil asked Finduilas to go to the parlor and make sure there was brandy and wine both ready for whatever her father would wish.
Finduilas was setting out the wine when her parents came into the room. Adrahil sat in his chair with a great sigh and pointed at the wine. She poured a glass for him and turned to leave when Luinil shook her head and told Finduilas to sit. All Finduilas could think was that she was going to get scolded for having been gone the morning before. Adrahil gave Luinil a questioning look.
‘Our lamb knows much of the politics of the City and may shed light on what has happened. I will not ask of the fighting, as battles are much alike. It is enough you are safe. Something else is afoot, however. Where is the Warden?’
Adrahil shrugged. ‘No one knows for certain. He rode north with the Rohirrim this morning. He did not say where he was headed, except “north”.’ The Prince slowly sipped his wine before shrugging again. ‘I am not certain he will return. Ecthelion relieved him of command of the army and made Thorongil Captain-General of Gondor after the first battle. The Steward is wroth that Denethor did not return today, indeed, for having left the City and taken the men into battle once more after having been removed from that position, and intimated that the Warden may lose also that post for his intemperance and defiance.’
‘Even after the successes of this summer, Ecthelion is such a fool,’ Luinil said with disgust. ‘What profit is there is driving this sword into the realm’s heart? Particularly when attacks increase.’
‘Wielding a sword or a scalpel? I am not certain I disagree with the promotion of Thorongil,’ Adrahil calmly replied, ‘and I think Denethor has given enough signs that he is scarce less of a fool than the Steward. Certainly he has done nothing to tame his willfulness despite the counsel of many, not the least myself, that he should do so. I think Ecthelion would have been content this season to make Thorongil commander of the Osgiliath garrison and leave Denethor the formal leadership…’
‘…to displace him in the next?’
‘To displace him in the next, yes, but when the Warden unleashed Dragon Fire, he exceeded the bounds of his authority.’ Adrahil toyed with the glass, thoughtful. ‘Perhaps other bounds, as well.’
‘The fire in the sky?’
‘Yes. A terrible weapon that none save Denethor knew of until it was used. It…’ Adrahil struggled for words, ‘It did things that are… unspeakable. Just the reports of it and the sight of a few whom it touched were enough to convince Thorongil to argue strongly that the Steward should not countenance its use. I do not think he knew the Steward was ignorant of it when he first spoke. This more than anything angered Ecthelion.’
‘And I have spoken oft with you on how little the Steward can be trusted with any news or knowledge of import, as he seeks to keep it hidden from his own lords, forbidding that sensible acts be done. You were not so chary of Denethor’s closeness in the summer campaigns.’
‘More than you know. Denethor is fearless to the point of recklessness sometimes. He will do things with no regard for common sense if he believes it will work. Baragund told me that during the battle on Harad, the mûmakil were being charged at the Rohirrim, terrifying the horses. Denethor stood his ground before one of the monsters and dropped it with an arrow to the eye, because he had heard that was the only way to kill one. There were three of the brutes in all, and he took down two while another archer slew the last.’
‘Valor is to be disdained?’ Finduilas could not help this question. She was still trying to grasp what the Steward had decreed. ‘Someone had to kill those creatures.’
‘Yes, lamb, but he could have ordered other archers to do so, rather than place himself so directly in harm’s way,’ Luinil answered. Finduilas nodded, though she still thought it terribly brave.
‘It was a reckless and foolhardy thing to do,’ Adrahil sourly added. ‘Denethor’s pride will not allow him to admit another may be as good for the task as he himself, and he believes this as much of rule as of war. I may not agree with Ecthelion’s choices for Gondor, but they are reasonable.’
‘Would they have been sufficient to meet the threats of these last days, or of the past summer?’ Finduilas pressed.
Adrahil shook his head. ‘No, but he is the Steward and commands our allegiance. It was Denethor’s part to persuade, not to defy.’
‘Assuming that Ecthelion does not drive all attempts at persuasion into defiance,’ Luinil retorted.
‘The Steward will hear certain voices of reason, wife. Were Denethor not so jealous of his love, he would know with whom she must partner to dance as she must. He needed to be willing to share Gondor, lest he lose her, and now that is done.’
‘And poorly done.’ Luinil rose to refill her own glass. ‘Whatever the Warden has failed to do, the Steward has done a stupid thing. It strengthens the hand of Maiaberiel.’
‘I know. He does not care.’
‘This is the worst possibility, to try to shame Denethor by promoting Thorongil. It will set them at odds and pushes Thorongil to that woman’s faction. We cannot allow this to happen.’
‘I am not certain it will set them at odds.’
‘Denethor is beaten. He will not contest.’
‘A man of such mettle beaten? I do not see how.’
‘You did not see him in Osgiliath. There is nothing that he honors above Gondor, nothing that he loves as greatly as Minas Tirith, and that was stripped from him. This decree broke him and all of his defiance. He is lost.’
‘You speak of him as though he were dead.’
‘He is. After the battle, he wandered among the wounded, wan and silent, taking orders from the surgeon. The announcement of the change in command was given that evening as simply as announcing the meat at supper. He did not even try to cast it in his own interests. Afterwards, I spoke with him. There was only defeat in his manner. Now he has ridden off with scarce a word of where he goes or what he does.’ Adrahil emptied his glass. ‘Perhaps it would be best if he did not return.’
‘Nonsense!’ Luinil snapped. ‘There will be great harm to us all if there is no balance to that scheming woman and our witless steward! Do not doubt but that the warden will return. When he is back, we must give him our best regard.’
‘Yes, there must be balance, but Denethor cannot provide it. He is a fallen star, not a polestar.’
‘And who else will contest?’
‘Thorongil. His voice will be heeded. He is a man of calmer judgment than the Warden, and is the greater leader. I do not say this lightly! I know of no one more learned than Denethor, and few exceed him in any way, but Thorongil is one of those few. I have seen them both much in these months of war. I follow either gladly, but I know whom I prefer. Thorongil is one who will calm the strife of Gondor when we most need to be united.’
‘The captain has not been tried as sorely as the Warden, nor as long, in Gondor’s struggle against the Enemy.’ Adrahil and Luinil turned to face Finduilas as she spoke. For long minutes she had sat very still, trying not to cry out in her anger at the unfairness turned against her love, trying to hear the wisdom in her father’s arguments. She could not remain silent any more. ‘Thorongil is himself a great source of strife, for would the Steward treat so haughtily with his heir save that he has this rival to raise up? I have myself heard the captain speak falsehoods that made himself seem to have done greater things than he should rightly claim, even as I have heard the Warden defend the honor of that same captain when others would seek to intrigue. And though he be a good captain on the field, what of statecraft?’
‘It can be taught.’
‘There is already one so trained, were others not so quick to spurn him.’
Adrahil shook his head sadly. ‘No, Finduilas. I know you are friends with the Warden and the Archivist, and are sympathetic to their plight, but I must think of Dol Amroth. You should as well. It matters not if Denethor returns, for he no longer has power.’
‘Denethor will return,’ Luinil said firmly. ‘Wherever he has gone, for however long, his feet will lead him back to Minas Tirith. If he can, a man will always return for what he loves.’ She looked at Adrahil with a certain smile, then walked over to his chair. His smile matched hers.
‘A man will always do this?’ He ran a hand along her hip.
‘Always,’ she assured him, leaning down.
‘Smart man,’ he agreed before kissing her.
With a sigh, Finduilas left the two and went to bed. She lay in bed, angry over the Steward’s dishonoring of Denethor and very confused at her father’s swift dismissal. Let Mother be right that Denethor shall return, and let that return be soon! The thought that he might simply ride off frightened her greatly, making her cough. Perhaps I will see him in the secret place. But, is that place north? Perhaps it is south, in Emyn Arnen. Tomorrow I shall find a map of Ithilien and look for a stream that may have a waterfall. When sleep finally came, she did dream of the waterfall and the darkness behind it, but she did not see Denethor. She stretched her long swan’s neck towards the dark, straining for sight of him. When Denethor did not appear out of the gloom, Finduilas settled down near the wet stones, head tucked under her wing.
Neither Lark nor Wren were at the archives the next day. Aiavalë met with spies all day, and glared over the top of her veil with ever greater intensity at whatever news she was hearing. The archivists whispered among themselves, falling silent when their dour mistress passed. Beregar was not there, having been sent to stand sentry at the Great Gate and await his lord’s return.
Hiding herself in the map room, Finduilas studied every map of Ithilien she could easily find. To her disappointment, there were dozens of streams that ran through the hills of that contested land, most in the north. When she tired of puzzling them out, she began to look at other maps, ones that showed the dread land to the east, with dark names out of legend marking this place or that. As she traced a finger over the name “Barad-dûr” she could not help but shiver. Why now? Why have you returned now? What means it that I stand on the pinnacle of your foul tower, or upon the embattled walls of his City, while your armies swarm?
The stones of the City seemed full of voices when she trudged back to Vinyamar at sunset. Wind caught on stone as it swept along, telling its secrets in passing. People stood in small groups, bundled against the sharp breezes flowing down from Mindolluin, murmuring to each other. Finduilas fancied it was all about the Warden’s downfall and pulled her hood close to block out the traitorous conversations. Supper was solemn, Adrahil and Imrahil both drained from seeing to the knights and writing unwanted letters. Finduilas made herself chat amiably with Ivriniel about the Yule festivities until it was time to go to bed.
This time she drifted off quickly and found herself once again a solitary swan before the falls. Finduilas tried reaching for the water, but her bill could never quite touch it. Behind her, in the darkness, there was something terrible. She hissed and cowered behind a rock, trying to stay out of sight. It was a long wait, but eventually she sensed a movement in the dark, then a form and lurching movements, and finally saw Denethor.
His breath was a fog in the air before him, and his face was all sharp lines and hollows. He clutched his left arm and barely made it over to the waterfall before slumping to the ground. When his right hand let go the other arm, Finduilas saw the fire, a single point of flame, wicking away his life, burning it as a lamp would oil. Denethor grasped the book through his shirt and hung his head, staring at the flame. Finduilas waddled out from behind her rock and beat at the flame with her wings, trying to smother it, but it would not go out. Could a swan shed tears, she would have cried. She circled him with her wings and rested her head against his cheek. Slowly, his head came up and a hand caressed her. Denethor dragged himself forward, into the waterfall, and it turned into stars and fish scales that clung to him, the stars a netted crown upon his lank hair, the scales cold armor along his limbs and chest. Ink from the book seeped through the scales, across his chest, and down his arm to the flame. The fire spat and sizzled, but consumed the ink as it did his life, gnawing upon the souls set down in the story, greedy for what it found. More stars splashed down upon him, mixing with the ink, and thickened into a dark loam flecked with diamonds. Very slowly, the inky earth overwhelmed the wicked flame and smothered it.
When the flame was gone, Denethor rolled away, leaving a trail of fish scales behind him. He lay upon the floor and did not move again. Finduilas fluffed up her feathers and lay atop him, wings outstretched to try to give him warmth, for now the stars were ice. She could not sense warmth or heartbeat or breath in him. At some point she slept, for she woke and was sitting alone upon the rocky floor.
This jarred her out of all of her dreams and she came awake in her own bed. There was a pale light in the window, hinting that dawn was near. Finduilas grabbed her pillow and cried out into it, unable to hold in her fear at what she had seen. No! No! No, no, no, nononono… Her breath came raggedly in sobs, and then came the coughs. That is not what I saw. He will return! She rolled over and tumbled to the floor where she stayed on hands and knees sobbing and coughing until blood came up.
By the time Ivriniel found her, Finduilas had managed to crawl back into bed and lay curled up, hugging her pillow. She did not pay much attention to the healer Adrahil summoned to tend her, wishing only that she could go back to her dreams and find Denethor once more. The healer had Finduilas drink things that drove away her dreams and left her confused and thirsty. When she coughed, small bits of red-brown blood would come up, mixed with greenish-yellow phlegm.
When it became clear she could not return to the secret place, Finduilas eagerly swallowed the syrups left by the healer, for they kept her from thinking clearly. Even so, she found herself remembering how cold and still he lay, and how Denethor was gone when she awoke. It cannot be. It must not be. My dreams have always been wrong before. She was abed for two days, and sat in the parlor for the next three, wrapped in a blanket and tended by her worried sister. Talking wearied her and made her cough, so it was simple not to speak. In all that time, there was no word. She forbade herself to say what she most feared. Almost against her will, she healed.
The morning of the sixth day was bright, the winter sun making long, sharp shadows in the lanes and streets. Sounds echoed crisply in the stone canyons and flags snapped in the breeze. Finduilas listlessly walked into the kitchen to fetch herself a cup of tea and was greeted by the sight of a red-cheeked, grinning Beregar, just walking in from the cold. In the crook of his arm were two books and he brandished a note.
‘For you, my lady!’ he said cheerfully, presenting the letter with a bow. Finduilas snatched it away and barely got it unsealed without ripping it, her hands shook so badly.
Beregar says you have been ill again these last few days. I took the liberty of selecting a few books for your amusement while you heal. If you would prefer others, tell Beregar to fetch them.
The note was not signed, but Finduilas knew this handwriting as well as she knew her own. A love letter filled with poetry could not have been more welcome than this terse message.
‘He’s back!’ she cried, grinning as broadly as Beregar. He laughed and nodded.
‘Yes, he’s back!’
‘Who is back?’ Adrahil asked as he walked into the room. ‘Finduilas, you should not be walking about. Who?’
‘Denethor!’ the two chorused. Adrahil stopped in his tracks.
‘Last night, my prince. Very late.’
‘And he sent me these!’ Finduilas seized the books from Beregar and waved her note. ‘It was ever so thoughtful…’
‘I wish he had thought to send me a note saying he had returned,’ was her father’s dry answer, ‘and I would not even ask for books.’ Beregar’s face turned a little deeper red.
‘My apologies, my prince. Here is Lord Denethor’s message to you.’ The young man pulled a note out of his pocket and presented it with a small bow.
‘Ah, that is better.’ Adrahil began to open the note when Beregar fished another note out of his other pocket, handing it to the Prince.
‘And this is the Lord Steward’s message.’
‘You have an odd sense of priorities, boy.’ Adrahil’s stare at Beregar was not very friendly.
‘I was told to wait and see if you had any message in return for either, my prince.’
‘I will find my own messenger.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Beregar bowed deeply to Adrahil, ignoring Finduilas. ‘Good morning, my prince.’ It was not until Beregar had left that Finduilas noticed a basket of baked morsels sitting near the door where he must have set them down. Adrahil grumbled something under his breath about impertinence and arrogance while walking back to the study. A moment later he shouted for some tea to be brought to him. Finduilas collected her mug and hummed as she went to the parlor to fluff her feathers and settle in with the books.
They were very interesting. The larger was a history of Pelargir from its founding in Númenórean times until it was ravaged by the Corsairs in 1634. The other was a fragment of the Narsilion, each set of pages holding the stanzas in Quenya, Sindarin, the common tongue and a fourth language she did not know. The book was somewhat tattered, with odd markings in the margins. The whole was written in Denethor’s hand. She wondered how long she could manage to keep it.
‘Lamb? Are you feeling better?’
Finduilas smiled up at her mother. ‘Yes, I am. I did not cough up anything this morning and my breathing is easier. I still feel a bit weak.’
Luinil smiled back and kissed her brow. ‘Well, you shall rest some more, then. What are these?’
‘Oh, Denethor sent them with Beregar when he sent Father a message.’
‘Did he now?’ An odd expression came over Luinil’s face, and her eyes were intent. ‘How very… interesting.’
‘I thought it kind of him.’
‘Hmm.’ After another kiss and a warning not to exert herself, Luinil left. What does she know? Does she approve? Disapprove? Finduilas hugged the books to her chest and wondered. But he’s back! Any other thoughts vanished. Her horrible dream was just that, a dream. Just like all the others, goose! He probably took some small hurt and just put his arm in the water to stanch it, as he did before. Finduilas willed it to be so, sternly telling herself to forget the evil lurking in the darkness behind the fall, or how he lay like death after the flame was snuffed.
It was just before dinner when she heard Adrahil and Imrahil leave Vinyamar. They were not back when it was time to sit at table. While she left the books in the parlor, Finduilas kept Denethor’s note tucked in her pocket where she could touch it every so often. He is back. Not even a visit from Beruthiel could have dampened her joy at the news.
‘Where are Father and Imrahil?’ Ivriniel asked.
‘Dining with the Steward in the Citadel,’ Luinil replied before taking a sip of her soup. ‘Now that the Warden has returned, there will be a council this afternoon.’
‘Will Captain Thorongil be there?’
‘I do not know, Ivriniel, though I imagine so. From the tone of the message sent to your father, I believe it will be a meeting of all the lords and captains who can get to the City.’
‘This is not in place of the Grand Council, is it?’ Finduilas added. ‘The major lords will not begin to arrive until the week after this, for year-end.’
‘I cannot believe you are so concerned about such a boring thing, sister, particularly when you are ill!’ Ivriniel teased.
‘You would be more concerned about which lords are arriving when, sister, had you seen the heir of Pinnath Gelin last year!’ Finduilas teased right back.
‘That is what parties are for, not councils!’ Ivriniel protested with a grin.
‘Yes, but you will need to know whom to invite to such parties, thus, you need to know what lords have arrived for council,’ Finduilas argued reasonably. She knew how she was going to spend her time at the season’s parties – talking to the man no other girl cared about. The captain is all for you, sister. And all the rest of them, for that matter. She touched the note in her pocket once more before turning to her dinner.
Finduilas lost all track of time as she read the history through the afternoon. It was only when her father came in and sat next to her with a sigh that she realized the day had passed. Luinil came in a few moments later, bearing tea for Finduilas and wine for Adrahil.
‘You look better, daughter.’
‘I am. I have scarcely coughed all day!’
Adrahil smiled and ruffled her hair as though she were a little girl. ‘You do not know how glad that makes me, Finduilas.’ To her surprise, he embraced her strongly, putting several kisses on the top of her head. ‘I have been so worried about you.’
‘Well you need not,’ she assured him, hugging him back, ‘for the healer’s craft has done its work and I mend.’
‘But I worry. Any proper father should worry over his child.’
‘So, husband, what of this council? I was sorely tempted to go with you.’
‘You should have been there, if only to laugh,’ Adrahil replied with a roll of his eyes. ‘Rarely have I seen such decorum from the raucous lords of the West.’
‘In truth or in jest?’
‘In truth, though there was some humor to be found. Ecthelion had to explain why he has reordered the command of his victorious armies.’ Finduilas sipped her tea, all ears. Now that she knew her love was well and safely returned, she looked forward to hearing how he mastered the council. Adrahil chuckled and shook his head. ‘You will be glad to know that Gondor is forever in the debt of Dol Amroth for the loan of our knights.’
‘I will be more glad when the debt is paid. Corn and copper will serve as good exchange.’
‘Always the practical one, wife.’ The Prince paused to sip his wine and collect his thoughts. His face grew more serious. ‘One could not tell anything was amiss by looking at the Warden. He was as calm as always, though much worn from the fighting and travel. The Steward thanked him for completing his duty to the north and ensuring Lord Brandir returned quickly to the City before turning to his greater tasks. Ecthelion then made a claim much at odds with his own words to me not a week past. He said that Denethor had requested to be relieved of his burdens as Captain-General so that he could turn his hands and mind to greater work.’
‘Denethor asked for this?’ Luinil asked, astonished, then shook her head. ‘I do not believe it.’
‘It is not to be believed. Ecthelion was quite clear the other day that he was the author of this change. To the extent that I could get Thorongil to say anything, he confirmed this, yet all three agreed in council today that this was Denethor’s request. The Steward was quite expansive on this point, which makes me think that he has reconsidered the wisdom of his act.’
‘Or simply how he wishes for others to understand it,’ Luinil observed. ‘Given what I have seen of the discord within that house, I doubt the Steward regrets dishonoring the Warden. What may give him qualms is how others disapprove, so he recasts it as something other than it is.’
‘What is it that Denethor is supposed to be doing, if no longer upon the field,’ Finduilas prompted, ‘since that is the reason given?’
‘Fulfilling the duties of the Warden, which are many and will only grow as the threat of the Enemy increases. As the Steward would have it, most important shall be discovering and building weapons to use against the Enemy.’
‘Like this Dragon Fire?’
‘No. Well, perhaps. Something that will not be so difficult to handle as that. Denethor explained what it was, and how it was to have been tested in the coming week had not the attacks occurred. He said that it could not be used again because it was unstable and uncontrollable.’ The Prince ran a hand through his hair, staring at the floor. ‘I hope he means that. In any event, the lords have been apprised that Thorongil now commands the armies, and that Denethor oversees all else. Most sense there is more to the tale, but are willing to accept it as told.’
Luinil tapped her fingers on the arm of her chair as she thought. With a shrug, she said, ‘It is not a poor division of their talents, in truth. Open strife has been averted. For now.’
Adrahil nodded. ‘Yes, I think you right. But here is another puzzle. Denethor said he was honored that the Steward saw fit to approve his own choice for the post, as though he had selected Thorongil. This is not what the Warden said to me in Osgiliath, nor what the Steward claimed in our last meeting. If I read the Steward aright, he was surprised at the Warden’s words, though he did not contradict what was said.’
‘Thus making the promotion of Thorongil his decision, not the Steward’s,’ Finduilas noted.
‘Even if it is not, yes. I wonder if in fact Denethor and Thorongil did not meet secretly in the last few days. The more I think upon it, the more I am inclined to believe that the Steward may not have known all that Denethor would say, nor how staunchly Thorongil would agree to the Warden’s version of things. It would appear that the sons have come to an understanding that the sire did not anticipate.’
Finduilas stared at her father. But they are not! She began to understand the wisdom of Denethor copying Brandir’s letter. See how it is believed! If even Father believes it, Denethor will need such proof.
‘Adrahil, what do you know that you would say this?’ Luinil asked.
‘We have speculated on this before, like everyone else who has ever seen the two together. It seems likely. Denethor said some things in Osgiliath that make me think it so. He said it is known for the captaincy to be given to a younger brother or other kinsman. This was his reply to my protest that a mercenary could not hold that rank.’ Now Finduilas was completely confused. Why would Denethor expand on a lie he does not wish spread?
‘Did the Warden say to you that this man is his brother?’ Luinil pressed, her expression showing her doubt of Adrahil’s words.
‘No, not directly. But the meaning was clear enough.’
‘Just as the meaning today was clear.’
Adrahil sighed. ‘It was clear. The two shall not contest. Rank is relinquished and honor is salvaged.’
‘The Warden will share Gondor to a reasonable extent, it turns out.’
‘Well, let us hope he will also share the captain. I have some plans where that man is concerned.’
‘What are they, Father?’
Adrahil laughed though he would not look Finduilas in the eye. ‘You will see.’
‘Lamb, you should go to bed. You look very tired.’ Finduilas knew a dismissal when she heard one. ‘Yes, Mother.’ She hoped to dream of Denethor, but her dreams would not cooperate. All she felt on her shoulders were the icy hands of the king who stood upon the battlements, and she watched fire consume the ships of the Faithful when they tried to find harbor at the Harlond.
In the morning, Finduilas woke, washed, and slipped out the door to go have breakfast with Aiavalë. She had to have the company of someone who would be as happy as herself that Denethor has returned. It was only when she was outside that she realized how very early it was. The Archivist may not wish for a visitor so soon. Ah, then do not disturb her rest! Sit in the parlor until she awakes. Finduilas quietly let herself into Aiavalë’s house. Beregar was curled up in the alcove near the door, boots and cloak neatly set nearby in case he was called. Hoping she did not cough and wake him, she crept down the hall to the parlor.
What she saw brought her up short. Near the fireplace, Denethor slept in the large chair, feet upon a footstool, his cloak pulled haphazardly over him. His face was gaunt with a pale cast, his hair disheveled. She did not realize until she saw the cloak rise and fall that she had been holding her own breath and had to let it out suddenly with a cough. Instantly Denethor was awake and on his feet, hand on a knife hilt at his belt. When he recognized her, he sighed and dropped back into the chair.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘I have come to breakfast with Aia…’
‘Of course.’ Denethor reached under the chair for his boots.
‘What are you doing here, friend?’
‘Please, don’t! Not on my account. Lady Lore would wish for you to stay and eat with us.’
‘I must return to the Citadel.’ He had his boots on and stood, pulling on his cloak.
‘No, you should…’
‘I have told you not to tell me what I should do.’ With that, he was gone, letting the door bang shut loudly behind him. Not long afterwards, Beregar poked his head in the door.
‘My lady? Forgive me for missing you coming in. Shall I build up the fire for you?’
‘I do not suppose you would go back to sleep if I asked you, Huan?’ He smiled shyly and shook his head. ‘Yes, if you would take care of the fire.’ Aiavalë woke within the half-hour. Finduilas said nothing about seeing Denethor when she realized that Aiavalë did not know he had slept the night in the parlor chair. He just slipped in and slipped out without a word to her. The joy Finduilas felt at his return faded, replaced by worry. And disappointment that he was not pleased to see her.
Before accompanying Aiavalë to the archives, Finduilas sent a note to Vinyamar telling her mother where she was. Lark was not at the door of the archive in her usual post, making Finduilas wonder if there had been more trouble with Beruthiel. This was the second time in a row the woman was not there. Aiavalë was cheerful but kept an eye on the door all morning, obviously waiting for Denethor. Shortly before dinner, he arrived. He looked a little better than he had in the morning.
The Archivist rose from her desk and limped over to him. She gathered his hands into hers and held them folded within her own. His eyes closed and his head bent until their foreheads touched.
‘They have not won.’
‘Yes, they have, sister. Yes, they have.’
‘Say it not!’
‘It is only a question of when.’
Aiavalë lurched away. ‘Denethor, this cannot be.’
‘And what may I do?’ he replied calmly. ‘A few have objected to Thorongil’s new rank, but only to demand that he forswear his mercenary ways. On what grounds shall I contest the Steward’s will? If I consent or if I contest, it will have no effect. All I may do is wait.’
‘There must be some way…’
‘To fight? Yes. And the loss shall be to Gondor if we tear ourselves apart while the Enemy watches with glee. The time for opposition is over. We cannot face our perils if we are divided against ourselves.’
‘I cannot believe you surrender so easily.’
He did not answer. His face was still, but around the corners of his mouth, in his eyes, Finduilas could see hurt at the Archivist’s waspish words. Deeper than that hurt was the sadness. “There is nothing that he honors above Gondor, nothing that he loves save Minas Tirith, and that was stripped from him. This decree broke him and all of his defiance. He is lost.” Finduilas finally understood her father’s words, and wished she was not witness to their truth.
Denethor reached inside of his tunic and pulled out the book from an inner pocket. ‘Here is my greater failing, Archivist. I fear the book is ruined.’
Aiavalë took it from his hand and began to examine it. The more she looked, the more angry she became. ‘How did you manage this?’
‘I fell in the River.’ No you did not. You sat under a waterfall to wash away what was killing you. Finduilas came closer to look at the book. The cover was bowed and stained, and the pages were wrinkled.
‘This survived Akallabêth, but you have destroyed it!’ Aiavalë snarled, shaking the book in his face.
He snatched it back from her, cheeks showing red spots like a fever. ‘I will take it to Hador.’
‘Little good that will do. Perhaps you know not how properly to care for the belongings of Elendil. It seems to have become a habit with you.’ Aiavalë limped back to her desk and sat with a thump. ‘Go away. I have work.’
Denethor bowed and left. Finduilas hurried after him. ‘What did she mean about this book?’
‘That it once belonged to Elendil the Tall,’ Denethor replied brusquely.
Finduilas came to a halt. ‘Then it is my fault! I chose it and gave it to you. I took it because it was small and plain. I did not know its value. I did not know!’ she exclaimed.
‘Do not believe all that you are told, Alquallë. That much is said of any old book, even if it is not old enough to be so.’
‘But is this one?’
Denethor looked at the battered, wrinkled mess in his hand, and sighed. ‘Yes, it is old enough. Perhaps even older. I know there was one such copy in the archives, and I fear this is it.’
‘I am such a fool, friend,’ she answered. ‘I should have shown it to Aiavalë and asked and…’
‘As I recall, the Archivist knew very well what I carried and did not request it returned, so do not scold yourself,’ was his almost kind reply. ‘Let us visit Hador and see if the book may be salvaged.’ They walked to the far side of the archives, where Hador’s workshop sat.
Hador’s look of dismay when he saw the book did not inspire confidence. The stout book binder took the book from Denethor’s hands as tenderly as a mother would her child and carried it to a workbench. Very carefully, the man examined all of the cover and edges before attempting to open it. Whatever he found inside pleased him.
‘You kept it damp.’
‘Yes. Was that right? The previous binder told me…’
‘Oh, yes! Once a parchment has been wetted thoroughly, it should not be allowed to dry out completely unless it can be stretched,’ Hador assured him. After a few more minutes of examination, the binder sat back with a contented grunt.
‘It would have been best not to have been harmed, but I am certain we can fix most of the damage. This book was made for carrying in rough places. The damp has not reached the ink, though the binding must be replaced…’
Hador jumped up and began collecting things from his tables. He examined the book, pulled out some strange implements from a chest of drawers, went back to the book, scurried over to a rack of wooden and glass plates, back to the book, retrieved several scissors and knives from a chest, dashed over to a basket holding sheets of leather, back to the book, all the while humming and muttering to himself. Finduilas tugged gently on Denethor’s sleeve, indicating they should go and leave the binder to his work. Hador was oblivious to their departure.
In the hall, before he could escape, Finduilas looped her arm in Denethor’s. ‘I am sorry for not having been more careful in choosing the book.’
‘Give it no more thought, Alquallë.’
‘No more!’ he gently scolded. ‘Twas my own carelessness, but even so, the archive is filled with things more ancient and valuable than that.’ He began walking, though did not seem inclined to take his arm from hers. ‘Minas Tirith held records before there was Gondor.’
‘Before there was Gondor? How can that be?’ Finduilas prompted. She knew something of the City’s history, but talking about the City was something he liked to do.
‘Oh yes! The first fortress on this mountain was built by the Faithful almost a thousand years before the Downfall, and in these caverns they stored many things, most of all their treasures and books.’
‘The secret chamber, was that built then?’
‘The Dwarf-hold? No, I think that dates to the building of Minas Anor by Anárion. Until his reign, these were still unfinished caverns. He was not a prince of war, but a man of lore, and he gladly took up the building of this library.’ Denethor reached out a hand and touched one of the racks gently, a look of pride on his face. ‘Isildur brought the White Tree, but it was Anárion who saved the library of Rómenna and as much of Armenelos as could be smuggled out.’
‘You are as knowledgeable as Aiavalë on what is in this archive, friend.’
To her delight, the compliment brought a ghost of a smile to his face, though he shook his head. ‘I think not. I have much yet to learn.’
‘Would you be happier were you the Master Archivist?’
As quickly as that, the pleasure vanished from his face, replaced by a haughty, mocking expression. ‘So much do you think of me as Warden. Are you certain you would entrust this to me? I might douse it or burn it or let it fall to brigands.’
Finduilas yanked on Denethor’s arm to make him stop. As much as she loved him, this was too ridiculous to let stand. ‘You may cease with the self-pity whenever it pleases you, prince,’ she sternly told him. ‘It makes you quite a boor to speak with, almost as much of one as that skulking eagle.’
Denethor stared at her stupidly for several heartbeats. Then he began to laugh. ‘So, Alquallë, I am not even as excellent a boor as Captain Skulking Eagle, am I?’
‘Alas, no. He stands above all others in that regard.’ Hesitantly, Finduilas took one of his hands. ‘Please, friend, do not turn my words into what they are not. You are joyful when you speak of this place, and I am not certain even Aiavalë cares for it as fully as you do. Would you scorn me for wishing you happiness?’
‘No. Forgive my harsh words, Alquallë.’ He pulled his hand away, clasped his hands behind him. ‘I have repaid your kindness poorly.’
‘You have been sorely tried over the last fortnight, Denethor. I do not wonder that you speak sharply.’
‘I have been tried and found wanting, I fear.’ His words were very soft. In his face, in the set of his shoulders, there was only sadness and defeat. ‘I have failed, prince.’
‘How can you think so?’ Finduilas demanded. ‘Gondor is defended.’ Denethor shook his head.
‘Some battles have been won, Alquallë, but I have not defended Gondor.’
‘I see no Orcs wandering the streets of Minas Tirith.’
‘Come now, prince, remember Silmarien’s teachings. You know our greatest enemies, save one, are already here, and they have won.’
‘I think you judge yourself too harshly, friend.’
‘There cannot be harsh enough judgment on the one who fails his troth.’
‘Fails, or has been betrayed?’ she indignantly replied. ‘I may not be as wise as you, Denethor, or as other princes, but I know when power has trumped common sense. That also Silmarien warns against!’
‘I have tried. For Gondor. It is not just pride.’ His voice was still soft, but there was a plea in it. With whom do you argue, friend? ‘But still, I have failed.’
‘Tell me the truth, Denethor. My lord father tells two accounts. In one, the Steward in his anger has cast you down, in the other, you have given some of your burdens to another, so that you may take on yet others. What is so?’
‘The first is true.’
‘So, how have you failed? I see the fault to lie with the Steward for acting intemperately.’
‘It should not have come to that pass.’
Finduilas sighed in frustration. You would sooner talk a stone into water than argue Denethor out of his opinions. ‘Very well, then, forbid others their faults if you will! I scarce believe they will listen to you any more than you pay heed to me.’
A faint smile came back to his face. ‘You are more wise than you think, prince.’
She stepped closer, putting her hands lightly on his shoulders. ‘Please, friend, be not so cruel to thyself. Perhaps there have been defeats as well as victories in your battles, but you live and Gondor stands. That seems not failure to me.’
Very carefully, Denethor took one of her hands in his own and laid a kiss upon it. ‘And Gondor stands. You are very wise, Alquallë, for you see what is true. I shall not scorn thy wishes.’ To her disappointment, he let go her hand and began walking away. She fell into step beside him.
‘And what is it you plan with the second account, Denethor?’
‘I am not certain.’
‘Father said that you were commanded to find new ways to fight the Enemy.’
‘The Steward did ask it. Perhaps I shall become an archivist after all.’
‘You would not have to thieve so many books, then,’ she said innocently.
‘This is true,’ Denethor replied in an equally innocent tone.
Finduilas decided to risk one more question. ‘My father said something that left me wondering, for I know not how you would tell him such a thing. He said you let him know that the captain is your half-brother.’
That brought Denethor up short. ‘When was I to have said such?’
‘He said you spoke in Osgiliath.’
Denethor pondered, then shrugged. ‘No. I said he should ask Thorongil if he would know the truth.’
‘Why not simply say what you know?’
‘And how would I explain what it is I know? Besides, what matters is if the captain makes such a claim, or refuses to deny it.’ Denethor set out again. ‘Though it says much what the Prince took away from our conversation. He wishes to believe it is so.’
Finduilas wished to ask more, but they left the caverns and were in the front corridors where others could overhear too easily. She realized that Denethor was leading them to the entrance. ‘Are you leaving?’
‘Yes. I meet Borondir this afternoon. Should you not go home? You have been ill.’
‘I suppose I should.’
To Finduilas’s relief, she saw Lark at her regular station near the door. She called out Lark’s name to get her attention. The woman jumped up from her chair and ran over to them, throwing her arms around Denethor. ‘Thank you! Thank you!’ Lark exclaimed. Finduilas started to laugh at the scene of Denethor trying to extricate himself from Lark’s embrace as the woman kissed him.
‘Stop this!’ he snapped, finally getting a hold of Lark and making her let go. ‘What is this all about?’
‘You know very well what this is all about!’ Lark snapped right back, but then grinned. ‘Thank you, my lord.’
‘It is nothing,’ he grumbled, letting go her arms.
‘Will someone tell me what this nothing is?’ Finduilas asked.
‘Bard has asked for my hand!’
‘Bard? Wait, your soldier? He has asked?’
‘Yes!’ The women both cried out in delight and hugged. Beruthiel has not won this battle!
‘This is wonderful, Lark,’ Finduilas said, ‘but why do you thank Denethor?’ He sighed impatiently.
‘Because he gave his permission for it and has given the means for us to wed now.’
‘That is a generous gift, friend!’
‘My lord,…’ Lark began, then looked at the ground, face red.
‘I…nothing. You have been generous beyond need. Forgive me.’
‘What? Finish what you have started.’
‘Lady Aiavalë will stand for me at the wedding, and…well…’
‘Of course I am standing as well.’
‘It is my duty. Why would you think I would not?’
Lark turned more red and wrung her hands. ‘What I said. I was…It was…’
‘Rude. And childish. Your rudeness has nothing to do with my duty. I hope you have made amends to the Archivist.’
‘Yes, sir. I have.’ Finduilas could barely hear the answer.
‘So, when is this wedding?’
‘In four days.’
‘The Archivist’s house.’ Denethor nodded and brushed past the women to collect cloaks. Finduilas embraced Lark again and told her that she would come by in the evening to help with plans.
She walked with Denethor back to Vinyamar in silence, thinking on Lark’s joy and her own love. Denethor said nothing to her the entire way. All is duty and honor to you. Is there any room in your heart for a love besides Gondor, friend? She fancied she could still feel the press of his lips on her fingers from earlier, wished she could slip her hand into his as they walked. But he does not even offer you his arm, girl. If you take it, he permits it, but he has no wish for you. She wanted to laugh at the absurdity of the situation. You wish to give but friendship to the captain, and he looks for love. You would give love to Denethor, and he desires only a friend. When they reached Vinyamar, Denethor barely bade her good bye before swiftly turning away. She watched him walk off down the lane, and a certain determination came over her.
You have not failed Gondor, friend. You are not lost, for I am with you. Friend or love, I am thine.
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