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Hands of the King: 25. Plans
Gondor, Early January, 2976 T.A.
Denethor sat on Gaerhûl, watching Finduilas ride out of sight. He had ridden south on the Pelargir road into Lossarnach with the Swans and their entourage. They had eaten dinner at a tavern an hour ago, and he could journey no further with them. The travelers would be to Forlong's father's keep on the banks of the Erui by nightfall. Denethor, however, had to return to Minas Tirith. With all of his heart, he wished he could continue and stay with Finduilas. Gaerhûl snorted and pawed the dirt, wanting to follow the other horses. Denethor patted the steed's neck to settle him.
'I know, fellow. I know.'
Only when the others were out of sight did he turn the warhorse north. To his right, the land fell away in gentle hills to the river while Mindolluin loomed almost directly ahead of him. The Emyn Arnen blocked most sight of Mordor. After some head tossing and snorting, Gaerhûl settled into an easy walk along the road. For once, Denethor was in no hurry to return to the City. It was time to think.
He had not had a moment's peace since the announcement of the betrothal. The days started at dawn and went far into the night. Lords who had been avoiding him or slighting him before yestarë suddenly discovered that they needed to have his counsel after all. Aiavalë had demanded much of his time at odd hours to go over reports from spies who watched where certain people went and to whom they spoke. Through all of this, he had made sure he was never very far from Finduilas.
Even a week later, Denethor remained astounded at the turn of events. All that he had believed when he had returned from Cair Andros had changed with one simple avowal. "Thou art my love and no other." No matter what he had argued, Finduilas would not be swayed and had wrung from him his own heart's truth. Her honesty compelled him to answer in kind and her fearlessness in setting aside fate shamed him.
Though perhaps I have read the signs wrongly. There was a bond between us before we knew our own hearts. She has seen me in the water, and I was saved by her touch. Finduilas's confession at Beruthiel's party of being made ill by other men's hands had made Denethor wonder at his own reaction to his sister's touches. Upon returning home from the party, he spent several hours reading Silmarien's commentaries on marriage in The Discourses. When two souls wished each for the other, the lust of others would sicken them. This was always so among Elves, and often the case among the Dúnedain. Only a marriage could end the illness. Of course, it need not be their own marriage: let one of them wed anyone and the bond would break.
He had fallen asleep at his desk trying to puzzle out what Finduilas's words could mean. Did she incline to him, or towards Thorongil? Was her illness proof that she bore some love for him, or was it a sign of growing affection for the Captain? She did not appear repulsed by Thorongil's touch, standing close to the man, taking his arm, dancing with him, smiling and laughing while doing so. Denethor had decided that his own reaction to Maiaberiel's hands was no more than proper revulsion at her perverted advances, which meant Alquallë's illness showed a bond with Thorongil. The bond would grow, they would wed, and she would be a great queen.
Then Alquallë's words upon the wall mettarë night unmoored him. All of his plans and promises were undone. Her first words had lulled him even as they saddened him – the Prince had made his choice, and Finduilas would reconcile herself to the match. By the time of the wedding, she would have come to love Thorongil. Denethor had told her to wed for love so that she would look for it in the captain, and she had turned his own words back upon himself. Her gaze had held him captive. He had shut his eyes, trying to elude her, but his heart betrayed him. Only when she was finished and had walked away could he flee, and he had run to the far end of the battlement where he had once dared to kiss her brow. Denethor sat there upon the stone bench until the sun rose, wrestling with his desires. He claimed he would never wed, but he loved her. His oath was to Gondor, but she said she would take no other, and preferred loneliness to any other match. He swore that he would not bring down faction and Kin-strife upon Gondor, even if it meant his own humiliation, meant his own death, but she had denied duty and dared him to do the same.
I chose love.
The thought made him shiver, and Gaerhûl snorted and pranced a few steps in response. He had not chosen until the end of his meeting with Adrahil. Denethor had intended none of it; he had meant to keep his silence, let Finduilas return to Dol Amroth unanswered, and allow time and Adrahil's wishes to wear down her stubbornness. He was on his feet and had turned towards the door of the study, preparing to leave, when his heart spoke its choice. The suit was out of his mouth before he could think better of it. He could not explain, not even to himself, why he had chosen thus, beyond Beren's claim of Lúthien,
and what I sought not I have found
And love it is hath here me bound.
Adrahil was displeased by the suit, and they had exchanged cold words. When Denethor left, he did not believe the Prince would tell Alquallë. He returned to the Stewards House and tried to rest before the feast that night. Telperien had hopped onto the bed and curled up against him, lulling him to sleep with her purring.
All of my calculations are turned about. The roar of approval from the yestarë guests was echoed in the private conversations that followed. Lords who had not believed the lie of the captain's promotion found themselves convinced. The betrothal undid most of the rumors about the true state of affairs. How should I stand betrothed to the daughter of the greatest lord of the realm if I am out of favor? Denethor laughed to himself at this thought. The Steward was caught in his own web of deceit, unable to treat Denethor with disdain lest he slight the Prince. Maiaberiel could say only kind things about the match for much the same reason, though Denethor was not so foolish as to think she was not plotting some mischief.
Even so, Denethor could not escape the sense that he had interfered in what he ought to have let be. What mischief have I done with this claim? No troth may be broken without penalty. He looked eastward, towards enemy lands. That was the fate that ruled them all – the return of the Shadow. Alquallë believes that we have found each other for a purpose, that deeds lie before us to do. Denethor wished he could be as certain as she, but it was difficult to see what those deeds might be. With a sigh, he nudged Gaerhûl into a trot. Answers to his questions would not be found on the road. Mindolluin's shadow stretched across the Pelennor by the time he returned to Minas Tirith.
Early the next morning, Denethor met with the Steward, Borondir, and Brandir to discuss the Great Council and how Gondor would be ordered through the rest of the winter. It was the first meeting between himself and the Steward since his dismissal from the post of Captain-General where there would be only their own kin in attendance. They met in the Steward's private chambers, not the council room, and sat in chairs arranged before a cheerful fire. There were wine and white cakes for their breakfast.
Borondir looked as though he had not slept well for several days, and Denethor remembered that Aunt Andreth was dying. In all his welcoming chatter to Borondir, Ecthelion did not ask after his sister. Denethor supposed it possible that Ecthelion did not know she was ill. Borondir himself made no mention of his grandmother.
Denethor allowed the Steward and Brandir to do most of the talking. There were only two things of interest to him, so he was content to listen. Borondir was almost as silent as himself, providing calm answers to questions about the City's storehouses when asked but offering nothing. Denethor sipped his wine and waited while harvests, taxes, roads, livestock, wells, healers, and so forth were discussed. Ecthelion and Brandir were careful never to mention the recent battles or Thorongil, which made it difficult to speak of the two matters that most concerned himself, but Denethor was determined to have them addressed.
As it happened, Borondir saved him the effort of introducing them. Ecthelion was indicating that the meeting was over, when the Quartermaster-General politely cleared his throat.
'My Lord Steward, there remains something to be decided,' Borondir stated plainly. 'Before the recent attacks, you had wished for the Osgiliath bridge to be dismantled. I have heard no final decision. I need to know if I will have to procure boats and ferrymen, have docks built, if we may reuse the bridge materials for the docks, if only the main bridge is coming down or all of it, and so forth. The bridges are solid. It will take a great deal of effort, and we will need to plan for the defense of the workmen, provisions for them during the….'
Ecthelion waved Borondir to silence, obviously vexed by the question. 'Well, not now, certainly!' Denethor and the Steward exchanged a long stare, long enough that Brandir shifted in his chair and even Borondir looked uneasy. 'After taking counsel with the lords of the realm, and speaking to the wizard Mithrandir…' That was news, but Denethor was not surprised that the wizard had found time in the chaos to meddle. '… and upon the considered advice of my Captain-General, I am willing to let it stand for now. I still believe it a grave danger to Gondor.' While he spoke, Ecthelion did not look away from Denethor. 'Do you concur, Warden? Indeed, do you have anything to say this morning?'
'Yes, I do.' Denethor paused a few heartbeats, and enjoyed watching the Steward's face redden at the insolence. 'I do concur that the bridge should remain standing for as long as we have the might and the will to defend it.'
'It was hard won, but worth it.' Borondir's voice was as even as ever, but the look on his face was sharp. 'Grandfather would have been proud to walk upon it.' Casually, Borondir flicked a non-existent bit of lint off his empty sleeve before looking at his great-uncle again. 'It will be much easier to provision for the spring if we are not attempting a large engineering project,' the man imperturbably concluded. Denethor had never known Borondir to speak to the Steward with anything but straightforward courtesy before now. All our well-laid plans have turned aside from their intended courses, it would appear.
'The bridge will stand for a time, ' Denethor smoothly replied, 'and I am certain Captain Thorongil will do an admirable job defending it. And that brings me to my concern this morning, which is the captain or, more precisely, what to do about the captain.'
'What do you mean?' Brandir quickly asked. Ecthelion sat back in his chair, eyes narrow and wary.
'Thorongil is not merely a soldier or even an officer anymore. He is Captain-General, which would ordinarily make him a lord of the realm, privy to many counsels and secrets. However, unless this has changed without my knowledge, and I do admit to having other concerns the last few days,' here Denethor smiled genially. Only Borondir smiled in return, 'he is a mercenary, not a man of Gondor.'
'He is as loyal as any of my officers,' Ecthelion curtly said. Denethor let his own smile slide from genial to mocking. And how loyal have any of them been to you in this last year?
'But he has not forsworn his wandering ways. This has become a matter of some concern to your other officers. The man's honor is not in question, but his permanence is. To offer only one example, as long as he is not so sworn, should he know of Henneth Annûn?'
'No, he should not.' Once again, Brandir spoke quickly. 'You are quite right, Denethor. He must be made to swear before such things are revealed to him.'
'And if he will not?' Borondir asked, genuinely curious.
'He is Captain-General,' was the Steward's clipped reply. 'He must know such things.'
'I think you risk dissension on that point among your officers, my Lord Steward,' Denethor countered, 'unless he will swear. You have heard their discontent. They seek reassurance in a time of great change. The Lost… leave.'
'He will swear!' Brandir insisted. 'You'll see! My lord, I agree with Denethor. Put the question to the captain. He will stay, if given a reason.'
'I should think being made Captain-General would be reason enough,' Borondir offered with a good natured smile as he stood. 'Forgive me, Lord Steward, for being impertinent and excusing myself before you give leave.'
Ecthelion set down his wine, indicating they should all stand. 'No, not at all, nephew.' Nephew? You've not claimed kinship to Borondir before. 'We thank you for your time and counsel this morning. All of you! I shall think over this last point most carefully. Good morning, gentlemen.'
The three men bowed and murmured their farewells. They walked out of the Tower in silence. Denethor pondered both Ecthelion's familiar address to his cousin and Brandir's insistence that Thorongil would swear. Before he could ask his brother-in-law any questions, Brandir excused himself and strode off, obviously not wishing for company. As Borondir began to make his farewells, Denethor laid a hand on the man's shoulder.
'I have been much distracted of late, and ask your forgiveness for my inattention. What of Aunt Andreth?'
Borondir said nothing for a moment, then shrugged and gestured for them to walk. 'She lives still, but not for much longer. If you wish to see her, I go to attend her now.'
'I would.' They set off to Borondir's house in the sixth circle, not far from where Wren and Aiavalë lived. 'Does the Steward know?'
'I have said nothing to him, so I do not see why he would.'
'Ah.' Soon the two came to a large house to the north side of the stone pier. A boy was sitting on the stoop, watching for his master, and hopped up to open the door. Borondir led the way to the third floor, then paused.
'If you will wait for a moment, Denethor, I will see if Grandma may be seen.' Denethor nodded obedience. Borondir went to the end of the corridor and entered a room to the left. In a few minutes, he reappeared and motioned for Denethor to come. They passed through a dim sitting room and into a brighter bedroom. The first thing Denethor noticed was the smell, sour and acrid. A low table at the foot of the bed was littered with vials, glasses, packets of powders, sprigs of herbs both dried and wilted, and other paraphernalia of drug mixing. Some incense burned in a stone bowl at one end of the table, though it did little to cut through the smell. The linens on the bed were fresh enough and he could see some more stacked neatly on a chair in a corner.
Andreth herself lay near one edge of the bed, curled up on her side, wearing a plain shift that left her arms bare. The sheet covered most of her legs. There was little left of his tall, proud aunt. Her hair was grizzled, her bones jutted out at hip, elbow, shoulder, and cheek. The smell was definitely her, and probably the mattress as well. Borondir moved to her side and sat in a large chair near the head of the bed.
'Grandma? Denethor's here.' Denethor walked to the bedside and knelt so she would not have to move to see him. Andreth's face was more skull than anything. It took a few heartbeats for her to focus on his face. Denethor took one of her claw-like hands into his own. Andreth looked at him quizzically, then smiled and mumbled something he could not understand before dozing off.
'How long has she been like this?'
'Only a few days. Since two days after yestarë. The pain became very bad and the healer has been dosing her heavily to keep it at bay.' Borondir reached out and smoothed away a stray lock of Andreth's hair that had pulled free of the hair clasp. 'She sleeps, mostly. She has not wanted to eat since sundown, and the healer says… soon.' There was sadness in Borondir's voice, but also a note of relief. Denethor could tell from the blanket over the back of the chair and the pillow on the seat that Borondir was sleeping there.
'She knows about your betrothal.' Borondir's voice was happier. 'I told her about it. We heard the bells ringing, and one of the girls came running in with the news.' Denethor shifted around so he was sitting on the floor, but kept hold of his aunt's hand. 'You have ever been dear to her.'
'I always thought her rather exasperated with me.'
Borondir chuckled and nodded in agreement. 'Well, yes, that too, and deservedly so! But she was very glad to hear the news.' His cousin looked at Denethor directly, his one eye intent. 'As was I. It was time and more than time for this, Denethor. You're the only one left.'
'The only one? What do you mean?'
'You're the last of the house. Your sisters have no children, and I am the end of my line.'
'You are younger than I am. If it is time for me, then your time…'
'I won't marry, not maimed like this.' Borondir was matter-of-fact. 'I have enough pride left that I want to be wed for more than my inheritance. Should something happen to you, I would be a poor choice for heir.'
'Do not be so certain. On either point.'
Borondir shrugged. 'It doesn't matter now. You'll soon be wed and… When is the wedding?'
It was Denethor's turn to shrug. 'When the women decide it will be. Probably not for a year at the soonest. The girl's too young, really.'
'Don't wait. Make it soon. Wait long enough for propriety' sake, of course, but not too long.'
'Why the hurry?'
Borondir gave him an incredulous look. 'After this morning, do you need to ask?'
'Nevertheless, I am asking.' Denethor was very curious to know his cousin's thoughts.
Before Borondir could answer, Aunt Andreth stirred and mumbled. Borondir motioned for them both to stand and leave the room. He called for one of the maids to come sit with her mistress, then led the way downstairs and into the kitchen. A fat old cook set out ale, cheese, and bread for them at the rough-hewn table to one side without being told, then went about her business. Borondir motioned for Denethor to cut the bread and cheese while he poured the ale. The two sat for a few minutes, sipping their ale, before Borondir spoke.
'That man's arrogance knows no bounds. It is bad enough that he has shamed his kin and dishonored his house, but that he would presume to put his bastard ahead of you is intolerably wicked. Do not try to convince me that you asked for the captain's promotion! I do not miss much though I have but one eye.'
'I would not try.'
'So, wed soon and secure your claims. The City hungers for something besides war.'
'Is that so?' Denethor asked, hoping to keep his usually diplomatic cousin talking.
'Of course! Walk about and listen to what is said in the street. There is nothing save word of the beautiful princess who is to be our Lady. Already the chatter in the taverns is whether the first babe will be a boy or a girl. There is joy!'
You have brought hope, Alquallë. Denethor drank quickly out of his mug to cover up a shiver. He had not thought beyond the councils and the private conversations. The subjects will have their queen, though she be called a Lady. Giving himself a mental shake, he set down his ale.
'I am not so certain that Thorongil is more than what he appears; a mercenary of the Lost.'
'Denethor! He looks more like you than I do, and I'm your double cousin! The only surprise is that there aren't more like him wandering the alleys in the lower circles.'
'You have said nothing before now.'
'He has not presumed so far before now.'
'Short of seeing him dead, we will have to work with him.'
'I can see that far.'
'Do you have an understanding with him?'
'I understand that we cannot afford to throw away officers of that quality because they offer a challenge.'
'We cannot afford to be defeated by our own officers, either. He is indebted to Ecthelion. Why should he treat with us?'
'Because I am Warden and heir, and you are Quartermaster. He's looking for a marriage. Barring that, he has nothing besides the Steward's favor, unless he wishes to ally himself with us.'
'He won't. That man will not be content to be a soldier.'
Borondir is right about that. And I said I would see it through. 'His wishes are not my concern. Gondor is. The captain will learn to content himself with what is best for the realm, or he will be dismissed.'
'You have not that authority.'
'No, but I may have the power. In any event, I would prefer to win him over rather than have to see something… unfortunate occur. There is value in him.'
'You play with fire.'
'I do at that.' Denethor made his voice mild, and Borondir laughed.
'I have learned to trust your wisdom, Denethor, and I will defer again on this. You have oft led me into danger, but you have never led me wrong. Even so, I counsel you to wed as soon as may be. You cannot be too strong against this usurper.'
'Spoken like a true quartermaster. Well-stocked is never enough.'
'You never know what the morrow will bring, so best to be ready for all possibilities,' Borondir calmly replied. He drained his mug and stood. 'I must go back and tend Grandma.' He reached out and took Denethor's hand in a firm grip. 'Thank you for coming to see her.'
'Do you wish the Steward to know?'
'No. Not until it is over.'
'Send me word, if you can.'
'I will.' The cousins embraced, then Borondir walked Denethor to the door. Denethor returned to the Stewards House slowly, thinking over what he had learned. When he arrived, Sador was awake and handed him a note in a familiar hand. Denethor let it sit while he put his feet up on his desk and looked over some reports about the waterworks. Telperien was settled comfortably on a stack of paper on his desk, purring to herself. Finally, he opened the note.
You will come to tea this afternoon. We have some things to discuss.
Denethor read the note over a few times, then tapped the cat gently with the tip of his boot. Telperien opened one eye. 'What think you, your majesty? Shall we see what Beruthiel wishes?' The other eye opened. 'I think she is displeased with us.' The cat yawned and rolled over onto her side, curling into a tight ball. 'Excellent advice. I agree; I need to rest after all of my labors. Tomorrow would be better.' With a chuckle, Denethor turned his attention back to City matters.
The following afternoon, he set off to meet Maiaberiel. He brushed past the doorward without asking if the lady was in, and walked through the house, peering into each room until he found his sister in her small study near the rear. The doorward trailed him and began to complain to Maiaberiel about Denethor's behavior. She waved the man to silence.
'It is no matter. Return to your post.' Papers were neatly laid out on her desk, along with ledgers and an abacus. She looked at Denethor briefly as he stood in the doorway, then set back to work on her accounts. 'You should have come yesterday.'
'I was busy.'
'And I am busy now. You'll have to wait.'
'I will wait.'
'Go fetch some tea for us from the kitchen.'
Denethor did as he was told. In a few minutes, he returned with their tea on a tray. He made up a mug for Maiaberiel with only a little honey, as she preferred, poured some for himself, selected a book from the shelves, and settled in a large comfortable chair to read until it was time for battle. It was a history he had not read before, and he made a mental note to have Golasgil try to obtain a copy. Denethor found he could not concentrate on the book, so he idly paged through it while glancing about the room.
Maiaberiel's study was an interesting room. It reminded Denethor of his own study in some ways. In contrast to the rest of her house, there was nothing feminine or ornamental about it. The furniture was old, worn, and perfectly suited to its task. Two of the walls were covered with shelves of books. A love of lore was something all three siblings shared, inherited from Turgon, though Aiavalë was much better read than himself or Maiaberiel. The floor was covered with a faded green rug. A path was worn into it from the door to Maiaberiel's seat behind the desk. Even the abacus looked old, black wood and white ivory beads clicking softly as she worked. The mistress herself was dressed plainly, the demure cut of her dress giving her dignity without detracting from her beauty. Sitting at the desk, concentrating on the figures, Maiaberiel looked very much like Aiavalë at her own desk in the archives, or like Morwen with her accounts at the brothel. He imagined Adanel would also look like this as she tallied the day's coin from the tavern. After a half-hour, Maiaberiel gathered her papers, locked them in a small chest behind the desk, and held out her mug for more tea. Denethor obliged. The two sat in silence, waiting for the other to begin.
Maiaberiel lost the contest, speaking first. 'Why?'
Denethor smiled. 'You should have better manners.'
'What do you mean?'
He sighed in mock-sadness, shaking his head. 'You were given a chance, Beruthiel. You were warned what would happen should you not rein in your meddlesome behavior.'
'I fail to see the connection.'
'Such a small thing,' Denethor continued, brow wrinkling in sorrow, 'so very small a thing you could have done, and all this would have been averted.'
'What was it I should have done?' Maiaberiel affected a bored tone, but the sharpness of her gaze belied her voice.
Denethor dropped his mockery. 'I told you to make amends to Lark for having set your ruffians upon her. You did not do so. I waited through mettarë as promised, and then I did as I said.' He caught her eyes and held them. 'I ruined all of your plans.'
His sister gaped, incredulous, then slammed her mug down on the desk. 'What! Because of that, you… Make amends? You… You cannot mean this!'
'I very much mean this,' he replied calmly. 'You tried to force Wren to wed so you could further your own ambitions, though you knew she was not for you. When she refused, you attacked Lark and tried to deny her a proper marriage. I gave you a chance to correct that wrong, and you would not do it. So, I showed you how a properly arranged betrothal works.'
His sister stared back at him a time before speaking. 'You have no idea what mischief you have done.'
No, I probably don't. 'To the contrary, I have prevented much mischief. Your grand plans for raising up Thorongil have been dashed, and the Swan House is bound to defend my claims. The Steward's plots have lost their force, and… '
'Do you love her?' Maiaberiel's question held no guile, only fierceness. She leaned forward, gaze intent. 'Do you?'
'That's Thorongil, not me. Besides, you are hardly one to talk. You were going to force Wren… '
'What does she matter? Finduilas does not deserve you. Thorongil loves her!'
Denethor shrugged. 'That is his misfortune. I turned it to my advantage. In any event, the girl does not love him, or not so much that she would disobey her father's wishes.'
'She would have, had you let her be! You and the Monster! I should have taken her away from you two,' his sister spat. 'Do not pretend that you did this because of the whore's daughter. You have been planning this all along!'
'I had considered it, though I became determined to do this after what you and Ecthelion did in this last month. Between your attack on Lark and his stupidity in promoting Thorongil, you each have earned this.'
'What did you say to the Prince that he would allow it?' she demanded.
Denethor smiled lazily and ran his eyes over her bosom. 'I did not need to say anything. I applied a few of your talents, and the women of the Swan House made it clear to their lord that a wedding was… necessary.'
'You debauched her?'
'I did only what I needed to secure a betrothal.'
'She would have loved him!'
'That no longer matters. You should have warned Thorongil to be more circumspect in his attentions to the girl. It was a simple matter to see his infatuation, and scarce more difficult to make use of it. He loves and so he is chained by it, unable to choose differently. He will simply sit in mournful silence, gazing sadly on what he most wants, and will not accept another in her stead. Perhaps he will wander away rather than see her wed to another. You staked all on him making this match, and there is not another to put in its place. All that you have planned has come undone.' Denethor smiled sweetly at his sister. 'It seems you shall have to make yourself agreeable to me.'
'Do not think that you have won, Denethor.'
'Of course not. But I have shown which of us blusters and which offers a true threat.'
Maiaberiel looked at him angrily. 'If she is not despoiled, then the match is not yet made. Finduilas may yet come to her senses!'
'She'll do as she's told.'
'Why do you want to force yourself on that sweet girl?' she exclaimed. Beruthiel sounded truly distressed. 'She's not even the eldest daughter! Ivriniel would be a better match. Why will you not do that?'
'I admit the elder girl is much the prettier, and stronger as well. Finduilas is too often sick. But the point is not who shall be wife, but who shall not be husband. Your false pity for the girl does not suffice to cloak your designs.'
'It is not false! I pity any woman who is made to marry you!' Maiaberiel pointed at the door. 'Leave.'
'Gladly.' Denethor gave her a mocking bow and sauntered out of the room.
Leaning up against the wall just past the door was Brandir, face pale and pained. Without a word, Brandir turned and walked down the hall, gesturing for Denethor to follow. The men walked through the house towards the front door. When they arrived there, Brandir dismissed the doorward. 'I think I shall be ill with what I heard.' Brandir had his arms crossed tightly across his chest and would not look up. 'What did you do to that girl?'
Denethor looked around carefully, making sure they were not overheard. 'Nothing.'
'That's not what you said.'
'Your mind is as soiled as your wife's.'
'When I am presented with filth, I call it such. The things you said…'
'Were not for you to hear. Why are you so shocked? You know Maiaberiel manipulated the girl to try to betroth her to Thorongil. You know she intended that marriage as much to do me harm as to do any good for the captain or the girl. You were more than happy to play match-maker for that. How now are you dismayed when I have done naught but turn her own acts against her? Are you not the one who bid me wed?'
'Yes, but not this!' Brandir hissed, glancing nervously down the hall. 'Never did I think you would stoop…'
'To your own level?'
'No! I have done nothing but try to bring friends together in happiness!' the man insisted. 'There was true affection between them.'
'Really. Such true affection that the girl accepted my suit upon hearing it.'
Brandir sighed. 'Yes, the attraction was stronger for Thorongil, that I admit. But what of yourself?' he demanded, voice full of indignation. 'What excuse have you? If you knew that he was trying to win her heart, why did you interfere?'
'Would you have me sit quietly while others scheme to force me aside?'
'That was not Thorongil's wish! He simply loved and you took that from him.'
'As he would take from me what I love – Gondor. Mayhap he will wrest her from me in the end, but I have no intention of simply handing it to him. If I may teach him a lesson while fulfilling my own duty, so much the better. It is a politic match, and I have no objection to Finduilas as a wife, nor she to myself as a husband.'
'I have always known you to be a harsh man, Denethor. But until now I have never known you to be a dishonorable one!'
Denethor walked into Brandir, forcing the other back against the wall. 'Dishonorable?'
Brandir swallowed, but did not look away. 'Yes. Dishonorable.'
'You presume to call me dishonorable? You gladly make a match for one who would supplant me. You sit and listen to others speak foully of me, your kinsman and lord. You knew your wife was planning my murder by one of her paramours and said nothing of it to me. Clean out the midden that is your own house ere you find fault with me.'
Without waiting for an answer, Denethor strode out of the house. He did not return to his own, but went to the bench upon the battlement. In the distance he could just make out the ruins of Osgiliath and he wondered what Thorongil was thinking. Do you think me dishonorable? Denethor remained there brooding through the rest of the afternoon, leaving only when light failed and cold wind rolled off Mindolluin and across the Citadel. The unsettled mood clung to him through the evening and kept him from sleeping. He lay on his bed, scratching Telperien's ears, unable to convince himself that he did not care what Maiaberiel and Brandir thought of him. He finally dozed off in the early morning, but woke with the sunrise. Halfway through dressing, he heard voices downstairs in the entry way. He had only his boots to pull on when there was a knock at his study door.
'M'lord, I don't wish to disturb you…'
'What is it, Sador?'
'There's a boy sent by Lord Borondir, and…'
'Tell him to hurry back and tell Borondir I will arrive shortly.'
'Yes, m'lord.' The old doorward shuffled off. Denethor finished getting ready and set out only a few minutes later. The boy was waiting for him at the door to Borondir's house and escorted him up to the third floor where an old serving woman took charge of him, shooing the boy back to his post. In Andreth's room, the smell was stronger than before. Borondir's eye was ringed with a dark circle, testament to his weariness, though he did summon a smile when he saw Denethor.
'You came in time.'
Andreth lay in much the same position as when he last saw her. Her breath was labored. Borondir had abandoned the chair to sit tailor-style on the bed near her head, rubbing her back to ease her breathing. The serving woman who had escorted Denethor in sat in a chair to the far side of the bed, hands already busy with knitting needles. Borondir gestured for Denethor to take a seat in the large chair near him, but Denethor shook his head and sat on the floor as he had the last time. It seemed right to take Andreth's hand, so he did, and waited for the end. The minutes passed and morning edged towards noon.
As he sat, Denethor studied the drawn face before him and remembered as much about her as he could. Aunt Andreth was eleven years Ecthelion's elder and had not spoken to her brother since the first news of his infidelities came to light. She had been an archivist most of her life and was supposed to have become Master Archivist upon the death of Herion, eldest son of Turgon's eldest aunt, in 2945. Turgon appointed Aiavalë to that post ahead of Andreth, so Andreth added her father and her niece to the list of kin with whom she did not speak. She never again set foot in the archives. None of our house relinquish what is rightfully ours with good grace, do we?
Andreth cared nothing for histories or science, but could speak any language she came upon. Denethor's first lessons in Quenya had been at the table in her kitchen and she had bequeathed him her love of tongues. She had helped him work out the grammar of his ciphers, though she preferred the hidden knowledge of poems to that of codes. Until Turgon had moved him into the study behind the screen, Denethor preferred to sleep in this house, and found many excuses as to why he should not have to walk back up to the Citadel once darkness fell. Turgon once said he wished he could have made her Steward after him.
Denethor feared Andreth would add him to her list when he returned her son to her dead and her grandson maimed after the battle to retake Osgiliath. She did not. His aunt stood for long in the hallway downstairs, staring at him after he told her, then left, but soon came back with a cloak over her arm.
"I will see to Borondir. You see to Boromir."
Denethor buried his cousin; Emeldir attended, though the Steward did not. Andreth sat next to Borondir in the Houses of Healing, much as he now sat with her, and willed her only grandchild to heal.
A rasping noise pulled Denethor out of his reverie. Borondir leaned down over his grandmother, trying to gather her to him with his single arm. Andreth choked and her frame trembled slightly, then there was no more sound. With a soft sigh, Denethor brushed his cheek against Andreth's fingers for the last time, kissed her hand, and rose, signaling the old serving woman to follow him out of the room. He asked her to call the other servants together. When they gathered, he softly told them that their mistress had died. Several wept, though all maintained their dignity. Denethor wondered how long he should wait before going back into the room, but Borondir soon appeared. The servants gave their master their condolences and he asked that they prepare the house for mourning. After they left, he turned to Denethor.
'If you would inform the Steward…'
'Of course. What else may I do?'
'If you… There should be… The embalmers need to…'
'I will take care of it all. Think no more on it.'
Borondir nodded and walked off without another word. Denethor set out to arrange yet another burial. The embalmers at the back of the sixth circle, not far from the Houses of Healing, needed nothing more than to be told who had died. Andreth had left instructions with the woman in charge of the embalming hall. Denethor read them over to make sure nothing had been left out. He stopped also to speak to the healer who had tended his aunt. The man grimaced at the news and said he would pay a call upon the house in the afternoon. Next was to inform the porter at Fen Hollen that Lady Andreth had died and the tomb of her house would need to be opened for her on the morrow. That done, Denethor returned to the Stewards House.
Notes would suffice for Aiavalë and Maiaberiel. Denethor wrote them as soon as he had some dinner. Telperien sensed his mood and did her best to cheer him, jumping in his lap and bunting her head against him, even standing up on her hind legs, paws on his chest, so she could nuzzle his beard and mew at him. When he could not ignore duty any longer, Denethor set the cat on the floor and went to see the Steward. For once, Ecthelion did not leave him standing silent before the desk.
'Yes, Warden? What do you need to speak to me about?'
'My Lord Steward, I fear I come with sad news. Your sister, Lady Andreth, died this morning. I did not wish you to hear it from a messenger or read such news in a note.'
The Steward closed his eyes at the news and bowed his head. Unlike when the news of Emeldir's death was delivered, he appeared truly grieved. It was an expression Denethor had never seen on his father's face before, and it made him think that Ecthelion and Andreth might once have loved each other, as he and Aiavalë did now.
'Were you there?'
'Yes, sir. It was very early and I was summoned.'
'How did she… seem?'
Denethor was at a loss for how to answer the question. 'She seemed as herself.'
'Did she say anything?'
'No. She did not open her eyes or speak while I was there.'
'I see.' Ecthelion stared off into the distance. Denethor patiently waited to be dismissed. 'And the funeral?'
'Tomorrow afternoon, after the ninth bell.'
'I will be there.' Again the Steward lapsed into silence, leaving Denethor waiting. It was nearly a minute before the Steward looked up, noticing that the other was still there. 'Thank you, Warden. That will be all.' Denethor bowed and left.
Denethor spent the next morning tending to minor City matters before going to Borondir's house in the afternoon. Sadness pervaded the rooms, but there were no great shows of grief. His cousin was in a parlor on the first floor speaking to the chief embalmer. Borondir did not look to have slept for some time, though he was dressed neatly enough. Denethor joined them, listening to the woman confirm all that had been done. Andreth lay on a table in the center of the room, wrapped in her inner shroud. There was a board beneath her so that the bearers could carry her out to the bier in the street before the house. As the ninth hour approached, mourners gathered outside.
Shortly after the bells rang, a few of the bearers came to the parlor and waited for their mistress to signal it was time. At a nod from Borondir, she did. They lifted the board carefully, keeping it even, perfectly coordinated in their actions. Borondir and Denethor followed them out to the street. There were more than thirty people gathered, among them Ecthelion, Maiaberiel, and Brandir. Aiavalë was not there, not that Denethor expected her to be, but the stout bookbinder, Hador, represented the archives. When Denethor began to walk over to the Steward, Borondir laid his hand on Denethor's arm, staying him.
Once the body was on the bier, they began the slow walk to the tomb. The cousins walked directly behind, then the Steward, then the household, and finally the other mourners. People on the street stopped and bowed or knelt as the procession passed. The porter at Fen Hollen waited with several men to guide the party down the hill to the street that ran below Rath Dínen, where lesser lords built their tombs. There they found the doors of one of the larger houses standing open. Within, a sarcophagus lay uncovered. It held Belemir's remains, and Andreth's wish was that she be laid beside her husband. When it came time to wrap the outer shroud, Denethor simply pointed to Maiaberiel to let her know to come help; he did not wish to risk Ecthelion approaching Andreth in front of Borondir. When the shrouding was through, Borondir laid a final kiss on his grandmother's brow. The bearers lifted, lowered, looking down into the tomb. If what they saw in the tomb dismayed them, it did not show on their faces. The stone lid ground into place for the second time and it was done.
The mourners filed past Borondir, offering quiet condolences before leaving. When Denethor would have left, Borondir once more laid a hand on him to make him stay. Borondir knelt in reverence before the tomb, the household following suit. Denethor helped his cousin to stand afterwards.
'Go,' Borondir said quietly to his servants. 'Dwell this day in grief for your mistress' death, then set it aside with the next sunrise. She would have it so.' They, too, left, leaving only the cousins within the house. A tomb-tender stood beyond the doors, waiting to close it up again.
'Thank you, Denethor.'
'Of course.' Denethor studied the other's face in the dim light of the tomb. 'Come back with me. You should…'
'Thank you, Denethor. If you would please leave. Now.'
Denethor inclined his head to Borondir. He knelt briefly before his aunt and uncle's tomb, then left and walked to the Citadel. The City was in the shadow cast by Mindolluin. He climbed to the top of the wall and looked east for a time, watching the shadow walk across the Pelennor towards Osgiliath. When he turned to follow the wall to the Stewards House, Denethor found his feet unwilling to bear him to that lonely place. For a minute he thought of going down to the sixth circle and sitting before the fire in Aiavalë's parlor, but that did not appeal. He had no wish to be with someone who would not care about Andreth's passing. Not knowing where to go, Denethor wandered along the upper walk above the Court of the Fountain until he came to the Tower. He let himself in and climbed to the top to the open chamber holding the palantír.
The drape was askew, though the stone was covered, reminding him of the last time he had been here. Denethor pulled the drape aside and folded it neatly before studying the table. A compass rose had been etched into the marble so the seer could more easily orient himself, the palantír in the center. The lore on the stones was scattered and had been difficult to collect, and much he had noted down was conjecture on his part, deduced from the reports of those who may have made use of the palantír.
Denethor placed himself northeast of the table, and looked at the smooth black surface. Within moments, the interior of the stone took on colors and began to flicker with images of things to the southwest. He concentrated upon the road to Pelargir, recalling all the details of it – where it rose and fell, bent towards Anduin or mounted the small hills, where it was well-tended and where pocked and rutted. Soon, Denethor was an eagle soaring above the road, watching the travelers upon it. He followed its path all the way to Pelargir, then paused, fascinated by the arcs of that City's walls, the tangle of its streets, perceiving an ancient order to its ways that more recent lanes and alleys obscured. He promised himself that he would return, and looked more westward, tracing now the way to Linhir, the port at the confluence of Serni and Gilrain. As he saw the shadows of the afternoon lengthen into evening, he searched more intently, swooping down low like a swallow, skimming quickly along the ancient road.
A bare two leagues short of Linhir, he found what he sought. A large company of horsemen trotted along, bearing the banners of Dol Amroth. Now, Denethor was as a sparrow, darting from horse to horse, peering at the riders until he saw her. Finduilas's hood was tossed back, and strands of hair escaped her braids. Her cheeks were pink from the cold and she spoke to someone to her right – probably Ivriniel. Whomever it was, Denethor did not care, but was glad that it kept his love turning her head so he could see the profile of her face. Try as he might, he could not see any other angle on her.
He stooped closer to the stone, trying to see more, and her face filled the crystal. Without thinking, Denethor reached out a hand to touch her and jammed his fingers against the cold stone, making him lose his concentration and sight of Finduilas. Cursing himself roundly, he focused his mind once more on the stone and soon returned to the road. It was easier to do this each time he tried. Even so, Denethor disliked the distance between himself and the image of Finduilas.
Carefully, without looking away from the stone, he reached over and snagged the folded drape, pulling it closer. Then he leaned over the table and placed his hands to either side of the palantír. Gripping it carefully, Denethor lifted it up out of the marble cradle. The image of Finduilas jittered within the crystal, but did not vanish. He set the stone down on the folded drape, then picked both up together, the drape becoming a pillow for the stone. He backed away from the table until he touched the wall, and slid down to sit on the floor with his knees drawn up and the palantír resting upon them. The Tower chamber was dark, the sun having set behind the Ered Nimrais, but she still shone over the flat delta to the south. As long as the light lasted, Denethor gazed on Finduilas's face, content to watch her smile and chatter.
The company rode into Linhir just as the light failed. The palantír dimmed and soon he could no longer make out Finduilas. At best, Denethor could see shapes moving in the streets, illuminated every so often as they rode past lanterns or torches. He bowed his head until it touched the stone, wishing he could still see her.
You say I am your love. You don't love him, will never love him, no matter what. I did not take anything from him. I swore myself to you because I could do no other; I do not want this strife, I did not mean to lose my heart. Let it be me who is torn asunder by my folly, not you. Not Gondor.
Denethor sat hugging the palantír until the seeing stone chilled his hands and face. His legs were stiff from cold and sitting still so long, and he had to set the palantír on the floor so he could struggle to his feet. It was restored to its place on the compass table and properly draped. When he arrived back at the Stewards House, Sador snored in the entry way alcove and Borondir did the same on the couch in the front room. Denethor did not wake either of them, but walked to the Tower kitchens and retrieved a warm supper. He had to shake Borondir awake. It took the man a moment to remember where he was.
'Denethor, I am sorry. I did not mean to doze off. I came to see you and you weren't here, so…'
'You sat to wait, and finally got some rest.' Denethor gestured to the table. 'Now you need to eat something.'
'I should go back.'
'I have already laid the table for us both. Stay and eat. Don't have me have raided the kitchen in vain.'
That brought a wan smile to his cousin's face. 'You were always the best of all of us at pinching things. Grandma always said if you looked innocent, it was a certain sign you needed to be cuffed.'
'Aunt Andreth was the wisest woman in Gondor,' Denethor politely noted, making Borondir smile more widely and chuckle. The two ate in silence. Borondir had little appetite, but ate a few bites of everything. When they rose, Borondir again tried to leave.
'I must return. Maireth will be worried.'
'Maireth, the matron.'
Denethor guessed that was the old woman who had sat with them when Aunt Andreth died. 'A message can be sent.'
'I should go,' Borondir stubbornly repeated.
'Do you want to be there? Tonight?'
His cousin did not answer at once. 'No.'
'There's a bed in there,' Denethor pointed to the bedroom, 'and you need to sleep.' Borondir looked like he might object, then sighed, and went to bed. After making sure a messenger was sent to the matron, Denethor retired to his study and read Alquallë's gift until a late hour. When he finally slept, he dreamed of her. He walked around and around Finduilas, but she always turned away, looking at someone else. Even when he laid his hands to either side of her face, he could not make her look at him.
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