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Hands of the King: 3. Burial
Minas Tirith, Late December, 2974 T.A.
'Aiavalë, do you wish me to cut your hair or cut off your ear?'
Denethor crossed his arms, careful not to jab himself with the shears, and waited for his sister to stop glaring at him. She finally harrumphed and faced forward.
He returned to cropping her hair to a half-finger's length all over. Her temples were only a little more white than a year before, and there was no grey at crown or nape. Her "wings," as they called the streaks on the sides of her head, had begun to come in when she was in her teens, the spring after Denethor was born, and he could not remember her without them. He thought them beautiful, though he was careful never to say so. The rest of her hair was a rich near-black and like velvet to the touch. He supposed his own hair would be as soft were he to keep it sheared so short.
'Maiaberiel is being too good-mannered. She's up to something.'
He made a non-committal sound and gave her a touch on the side of the head to remind her to stay still. Denethor worked for a few more minutes in silence, evening out the hair behind her left ear and across the nape of her neck. They did this four times a year. Aiavalë would not permit any of the servants to see her unveiled and the rest of their kin did not wish to look upon her, let alone touch her, so the task fell to him. He did not mind.
Denethor combed out some loose hair and evaluated his handiwork. Aiavalë might not care what it looked like, but he did. After twenty-nine years of practice, he was rather good at it. He dampened a small cloth and wiped clinging hairs away from her ears and neck, then removed the towel from around her shoulders, shaking the cut hair onto the floor.
'I am certain our dear sister does no more than show proper grieving over the loss of our lady mother,' Denethor finally replied.
'She has been waiting for Mother to die. She's holding a party! Shameless, loathsome, venomous,…'
'Astute and powerful. As she was raised to be,' he interjected, 'so do not allow your ire to distract you. A celebration is what people will want after a somber event.'
'I have no need for lessons from you, little brother.'
'It is the lack of such in your disdain for Beruthiel that I note, big sister. You enjoy your anger at her more than is wise.' Denethor moved to stand in front of Aiavalë, hand on hip, and gave her a stern look. She stared back for a moment, then chuckled.
'It is a foolish pleasure, you are right. But I am outraged at her false mourning over Mother.'
'It is an outrage, I agree, but we must do what is needful, not what pleases us,' was his calm reply. He reached out and ran a slow hand through her hair, then grasped a little with the tips of his fingers and gave a gentle tug. 'I have always found your lessons quite enlightening, sister.' Aiavalë laughed out loud.
'And I should heed my own lessons better, yes?' she teased, face crinkling up. He smiled slightly and nodded. Her hand found his and squeezed it. 'Very well, then, Denethor, clean up this mess and we shall think through Beruthiel's maneuvers.' Denethor found a small horse hair whisk in the corner and swept the hair clippings into a pile.
Her hair was the lesson of sacrifice. When he was young, he would bring Aiavalë her breakfast and sit with her, telling her all of the news and gossip of the Citadel and City. He would stay until she wrapped herself in her scarf and set out to the archive. He made the mistake, when he was fifteen, of saying he thought her hair to be very beautiful. A few days later, when he brought her breakfast, she had her hair in two thick braids. She handed him a pair of shears and told him cut the braids off. When he protested, she said, 'I agree with you, brother. Unlike the rest of me, my hair is beautiful and I treasure it. But if you have a treasure you are not willing to spend, to sacrifice, then it is not a treasure but a chain upon you, for you will always fear its loss. I will not be chained by even this small vanity.' She would not listen to him, and he finally acceded to her demand. Aiavalë kept one braid and fashioned a bell pull out of it, much to Mother and Maiaberiel's disgust. She gave him the other. He kept it in a coil sitting on a bookshelf in his room. Denethor retrieved a piece of parchment from her desk and swept the loose clippings onto it, then emptied them into a small wicker basket with other bits of dust and trash.
'She does mourn Mother's passing, though perhaps not as much as she delights in it,' Aiavalë admitted. 'There is just enough sorrow in her heart to lend truth to her performance.'
Denethor poured them both some wine and took a seat. 'Then we must be sure to have no less sorrow in our own, lest our performances not bear up to scrutiny.' Aiavalë made a face at him.
'You are entirely too cynical, Denethor.'
'Mother had little love for any of us, Aiavalë, and we had little enough for her in return, so there is another reason not to indulge in anger. Lady Emeldir is dead and all that remains is what we shall do about that fact.'
'The funeral plans run smoothly?'
'Yes. I asked Maiaberiel to sing the hymn of passing, as you asked. She seemed surprised. I would almost say she was moved. Are you sure you do not wish to sing it? It is your right as eldest.'
'And bring ridicule upon Mother? Love or not, I know my duty, and I will not bring more shame upon her through my mangled speech. Beruthiel sings beautifully and will do it very well. What else?'
'The city officially shall remain in mourning through all of January. Private gatherings are not affected. Shops may open, but must observe mourning. Ecthelion has agreed to it.'
'And how is his manner?'
Denethor shrugged. 'It is unchanged. In front of all he is grave and short with his words. In private with me, it is as though naught has happened. He asked to be told when the ceremonies shall be and which he shall be required to attend. It is lucky that all occurred at year-end so the lords would not be required to travel twice in such bad weather, or to stay overly long past the year-end celebrations.'
'True. Though it also gives Beruthiel a large audience for her accession as the Lady of the White Tower.'
'Thus we must plan an excellent performance as well, so she does not hold the stage. However she may try, she is not the Lady. That title is for the wife of the Lord Steward alone.'
'The title does not matter to her as long as she has the power of that position.'
'Power, position and title go together.'
Aiavalë sighed and shook her head. 'You are being foolish, Denethor. Beruthiel no longer has to be concerned about Mother's disapproval, and our father will indulge her whims more than ever.'
'True, but she has no greater wealth with which to lure new followers.' Denethor said this in a matter of fact tone, but watched Aiavalë carefully. Emeldir had shown her displeasure with both of her daughters by leaving all of her property to Denethor, from her lands and rents to her jewelry and clothes. Though pleased that Maiaberiel had been denied any gain, it pained him to see Aiavalë so cruelly snubbed. When he had suggested that she take half of it for her own, Aiavalë ordered him out of her room and had not spoken to him again until today.
'It is access to the Steward's ear that she sells!' was her angry retort. 'You know this.'
'Yes, I do, but that alone is not enough. For lasting power, she must be able to improve her followers' lot even if the Steward does not. Especially in such cases. And you know this. She must offer patronage.'
'The only one she wishes to treat as such is Thorongil.' Aiavalë considered this for a few minutes. 'If only there were some way to separate the man from her.'
'Brandir is his friend. I do not think he actively curries any favor with Beruthiel, though he does nothing to distance himself from her. The Steward favors him even without Maiaberiel's support, but her approval brings him allies in addition to the Steward. I cannot oppose the captain directly; indeed, I have no true reason to do so at all.'
'Well, perhaps it is time to find a reason.'
'To do anything openly acknowledges that he is a threat, and lends strength to the cause of those who would promote him. I treat Thorongil as what he is – a senior captain and a mercenary.'
'It matters little how you treat him, Denethor. What matters is how the Steward treats him, particularly before the other lords. This last fortnight, the captain has been at Ecthelion's side almost as much as you.'
Aiavalë was right. Since the spring, the Steward had become more publicly disdainful towards himself, though never in a way that was merely rude. As Emeldir's health had deteriorated over the fall, the slights and dismissals had increased. Thus far, Denethor had been able to turn aside inquiries about the Steward's odd behavior as grief over his wife's failing health, though none who knew them at all put much stock in the explanation. Thorongil's prominence would only increase with Lady Emeldir's passing.
'What have you and Finduilas uncovered in the formal records?' he asked. Aiavalë shook her head in exasperation.
'Nothing! Not a single mention of the wretched man in anything from Ecthelion's desk until the day he presented himself and was recorded by the secretary. Another of the Lost out of the north, or another bastard out of Rohan, who can say? There is nothing to indicate where he is truly from.'
'I do not think him from the south. The Lost acknowledge him, so he must be from the north.'
'It does not matter what he is or is not. All that matters is proof that he is one thing or the other. Lacking that, any claim that is agreeable would be believed.' Aiavalë sipped her wine, giving Denethor an unreadable look. 'What if he is? Do you think he is? If you were truly certain, you would not ask for proof.'
What do I think? Denethor swirled his glass, pondering. 'I think… that I do not have enough facts to say. You are right; what matters is how Maiaberiel will advance his, or anyone else's claim. She seeks someone through whom to rule. If there were no Thorongil, there would be some counselor, or other young officer, or she would buy one of the Lost. Perhaps she has purchased Thorongil.' As soon as it was said, he rejected the thought. No. Thorongil cannot be bought. Not with gold or ordinary treasures. Denethor was not certain how he knew this, but he knew it to be true. He shrugged. 'I could use a brother, in truth, and a bastard would be no threat, save for our sister. Thorongil has no great ambitions that I can discern. He serves.'
'I would wait to see how he acts now that his chief adversary is dead before passing such judgments, Denethor. The rumor in the lower circles is that Father will begin to acknowledge his second son now that Mother is no longer among us. It is not Thorongil's ambition that worries me.'
'I shall wait.' His next words were cut off by a light rap at the door, followed by the door opening a crack.
'Sister? It is Alquallë.'
'Come in!' Aiavalë called out. Finduilas entered, then stopped short at the sight of Denethor. She was demurely dressed in black and had a thin mourning veil covering her hair. He rose slowly from his seat and gave a small bow.
'Finduilas, good afternoon.' She smiled back and inclined her head.
'Good afternoon to you, Denethor. I had not known you were visiting, else I would not have interrupted. Pray pardon me. I will return later.'
'No, please, do not depart on my account.' He smiled slightly and gestured for her to take the seat nearest Aiavalë, not quite meeting the woman's eyes. He could not do that. The directness of her gaze still disconcerted him, and he had to be ready to look into her eyes or else be lost. Denethor did not think he could meet her eyes and speak anything less than the truth, and the truths he and Aiavalë had been speaking just now were not fit for others to know. She sees truth and knows it. That is why she loves Aiavalë. She knows a true heart behind a cursed face. He busied himself pouring wine and setting a plate of sweetmeats from the sideboard onto a small table between the women, then retreated to the couch. Aiavalë gestured at her head.
'Do you like it, Alquallë? Denethor has neatened me up for the events this week.'
'Denethor did a fine job if the person wearing the hair was a soldier, sister,' Finduilas replied firmly, but with humor. 'which you are not. Will you not don a wig for the ceremonies?'
'Nay, girl, I will be swathed in my veils and none shall know if it is even the Monster who limps along or merely a serving wench. You shall have to bear beauty for us both.'
'As you wish, Aiavalë.'
Denethor made himself still and silent, watching the two women. Finduilas produced a small packet of letters from the archive. She collected the business of the archives during the afternoons while his sister was needed for funeral and year-end matters. The two went over the letters, Finduilas making small notes upon them as Aiavalë provided comments and directions. A cat he had not known was there emerged from under the couch and hopped up into Finduilas's lap. The silver and black tabby wasted no time getting comfortably settled, purring when the young woman rubbed her ears.
He still could not figure out how Finduilas had known of Henneth Annûn. Once done with his late night visit to Maiaberiel to warn her against any more interference in the archives, he had returned and woken Aiavalë, asking her to tell him to whom she had spoken of the hideout. His sister insisted she spoke of it to no one save himself. He did not tell her about Finduilas's dream.
It had not been a simple matter to secure permission from the Steward and from the Prince for the young woman to remain, but neither was it as difficult as he had thought it would be. At his advice, the women agreed that Finduilas would formally be the guest of Lady Emeldir, not Aiavalë. Emeldir had been most gracious in accepting the girl and had seemed very grateful for the company. Princess Luinil did not object at all, much to his surprise. Those two conditions met, first Ecthelion, then Adrahil, had grudgingly consented. Finduilas and an older woman servant moved into a suite of rooms next to Aiavalë the day after Denethor returned from Pelargir with Adrahil's approval.
How had she known? She could not know. She dreamed true. The girl is a seer of some kind. A few weeks later, he had occasion to dine with her and Aiavalë again. They spoke seriously of her dreams – though neither spoke of the waterfall dream before his sister – and he was left wondering. Finduilas had promised to tell the siblings if her dreams changed. They had not.
He sat for another quarter hour, thinking and observing, then excused himself to attend to funeral matters.
Mettarë did not so much dawn as drag itself into the sky with a sullen curl to its lip. Denethor rather agreed with its mood. A fitting day for a funeral. Denethor stood on the wall of the Citadel and watched the last of the people filing in from the lower circles. Thorongil stood next to him, surveying the sky.
'The clouds are low, but I do not think anything will fall,' the captain quietly offered. 'They will keep the day from becoming too cold.'
Denethor did not reply or indicate that he had even heard the comment. He knew the captain had been the guest of Maiaberiel and Brandir the evening before. The spy had not been able to provide an account of what had been discussed, noting only that the captain had not spoken much and that supper had not lasted long. You should tell me when you pay a call upon Beruthiel, captain. That is what a loyal officer does. Are you emboldened by the Lady's death? Denethor turned away from the wall and descended the stairs to the street below, Thorongil following.
They made their way to a small stone building in the south side of Citadel, where the embalmers did their work. Guards stood rigidly at attention as the two men passed through. A number of other high-ranking officers stood and bowed when they walked into the front chamber of the building.
'Gentlemen,' Denethor greeted them almost in a whisper and they murmured their salutations in return. They would bear the bier into the Hall of the Kings. He gestured for Thorongil to stay and organize the others. The captain nodded and began speaking quietly to his officers. Denethor continued on to the next room where his mother lay arrayed for burial.
The outer shroud, the one that would wrap her before she was laid in the sarcophagus, draped the bier. It was black and the inside of it embroidered in silver, grey and white. The crest of the House of Húrin and that of her father's house were repeated around the edges. Inside of them were designs of leaves, flowers and a distaff, representing Emeldir's love of the groves and flowers of Lebennin, where her mother was from, and of her skill at spinning flax. The shirt he wore today was woven of thread she had spun, and he knew that Aiavalë also wore a garment of such thread. It seemed to him more respectful and more honest than tears.
Denethor stepped close and checked the drape, neatening a few places, testing the solidity of the rails supporting the bier. Next, he examined the inner shroud that covered her body. The mesh was fine and had tiny pearls sewn here and there upon it. Not too many – his mother disliked ostentation. He could see the shape and a hint of the ivory of her arms crossed upon her chest, less white than the simple shift she had told him to use for her burial. Her pale face was blurred by the shroud, though her hair was dark under it.
Very lightly, Denethor reached out and touched the fabric covering her hair, confirming that a strand of pearls had been twined in it. Emeldir would not have approved of burying the pearls but he wished her to have a crown of some kind. The rest of her jewelry was already stored safely in the Archives where Maiaberiel could not get her hands on them. That had caused a great row when their sister discovered them gone, and it was only when she read their mother's will leaving the disposition of all her belongings to Denethor that Maiaberiel had finally left the house.
His hand moved along the surface of the veil and he pulled the shroud gently until it lay close to her skin, revealing her face. It was in death as it had been in life, stern, set, determined. A serious face. Denethor could not remember if he had ever heard her laugh. She had never smiled on him, though she had sometimes granted him a look of approval. Denethor could not claim to love this woman who had given him life, but she had treated him fairly and had earned his respect.
It was from his mother that he had learned the lessons of duty and of dignity. Aiavalë made a point of juxtaposing the Steward's indulgence with Emeldir's continence. Nothing the Lord Steward did could move her beyond propriety. Emeldir was never less than the Lady of the White Tower, conducting herself with nobility as she fulfilled her obligations. He lifted the veil away from her face, then let it go to settle softly, once more obscuring her features. He heard a light tap on the door behind him followed by the creak of hinges.
'My Lord Denethor, the Lord Steward and your lady sisters are here,' Thorongil's hushed voice said from the doorway. He did not look up from his mother's bier. After a moment, the door closed. Denethor slowly walked around the corpse one more time before returning to the others.
'Captain, it is time,' he said crisply as he entered the anteroom, startling the officers with the volume of his voice. Thorongil bowed and motioned for the rest to follow him. They opened the double doors between the rooms, while Denethor opened those leading to the street.
Ecthelion stood outside, Aiavalë on his arm. Her head was swathed in a heavy veil and Denethor wondered how she could see. He missed not being able to see her eyes so they could silently talk. Next to them, Maiaberiel stood with her husband, Brandir. Her veil was so transparent it almost was not visible. Beyond them was Finduilas, looking pale and chilled. Denethor bowed to the Lord Steward, then took his place next to her. Her hands were very cold and he caught them between his own to warm them. Tower Guards stood at attention in the street, waiting to escort the bier.
Soon, the bearers slowly walked out, one step at a time, four to a side. Some Guards stood aside, allowing them to pass. Ecthelion and Aiavalë took their place directly behind the bier as it went by. The slow pace allowed the Archivist to walk with almost no limp, as Denethor had planned. Maiaberiel and Brandir were next, then himself and Finduilas. It took a quarter-hour to cover the distance from the House of the Embalmers to the Hall of the Kings, and the morning was full. People bowed or knelt as the bier passed them in the Hall. Denethor noted a few tears and handkerchiefs, but most faces were solemn.
Denethor watched his brother-in-law's back during the long procession. This was not the brother he needed. Aiavalë called the man a gentle fool and Denethor could not disagree. Brandir was a handsome, affable, unimaginative, utterly loyal man from a relatively undistinguished Anórien family who farmed part way between the Firien Wood and the mouths of Onodló. He had been Denethor's sparring partner when they were learning arms and they had become friends of a kind. Brandir was two years older than he, but had always acted the younger. He was cheerful, honest, open and terribly simple. Brandir had the great virtue of doing exactly as he was told, and the great fault of the same.
No one was more surprised than himself when Maiaberiel chose Brandir for her husband. She had been entertaining suits from the most prominent nobles of Minas Tirith, as well as from the dashing Duinhir of Morthond, who had been sent by his sire to teach archery and had stayed to woo the most beautiful lady in the realm. Denethor had allowed Brandir to tag after him to some ridiculous party Maiaberiel was throwing to put all of her beaus in a single place and watch them contest with each other for her attention. When he introduced the two of them, he had expected the dumb-struck look on Brandir's face; that was the usual reaction most men had to seeing Maiaberiel. He had not expected the similar look that came over her face. Two hours later, Brandir was still at Beruthiel's side. She danced with no one else that night. A week later, Brandir asked Ecthelion for her hand. It took a year of negotiations before the Steward would agree to the match. Three days after the engagement was announced, Orodruin burst back to life. Denethor was not inclined to think the events unrelated.
The marriage itself did not happen for another four years, when Brandir turned thirty. Oddly enough, the two did appear to be in love. His family was too poorly placed and himself too thoughtlessly honest for her to use in her machinations. Maiaberiel doted on her sweet, silly husband and never entertained her lovers while he was in the City. Denethor was never certain whether Brandir was simply oblivious to her infidelities, or if he did not believe them to be more than vindictive gossip, or if he chose to pretend they did not exist.
Maiaberiel had secured Brandir the position of liaison to Rohan. The man was happy enough to carry private messages between Ecthelion and Thengel, and could be counted on not to concern himself with any gossip in the court at Edoras, which pleased people with secrets to keep. Denethor had put the maintenance of the beacons between the two lands under his brother-in-law's command. Denethor was glad to put someone of great diligence in charge of the beacons. Few reliable officers wanted the tedious responsibility, but Brandir took care of it with good-humor and proper thoroughness. He also did not appear to mind being away from Minas Tirith and his beautiful wife as his duties required, which made Denethor think Brandir was not an entirely blind fool.
The procession reached the front of the Hall and the bearers set the bier down on a stand. Emeldir's inner shroud took on an opalescent sheen under the torches and the wan, winter light that came through the great windows at either side of the Hall. Gems that made up the White Tree behind the throne glittered from their shadow while the Steward's rod was a stark white slash across the seat of the black stone chair at the foot of the dais. The bearers bowed to the bier, then again to the Steward, and took their places at the sides under the statues. Denethor paused just before reaching the front and let go Finduilas's arm so she could take her place among the great lords in the first row of mourners. She caught his eyes and smiled at him, then squeezed his hand before taking her place next to Forlong. Brandir also parted from Maiaberiel and stood in the third row back with other minor lords. Ecthelion stepped away from his children and Denethor stood between his sisters behind their father at the foot of the bier. They knelt when the Steward did, Aiavalë clutching his arm to keep her balance as she sank. He could hear the rest of the mourners follow suit. After a long moment of silence, Ecthelion rose, then his children, then the rest.
Maiaberiel moved to the head of the bier, then turned to face the mourners. She looked down on her mother's face and an odd look briefly passed over her own. She swallowed, closed her eyes, and began to sing the hymn of passing. Her voice filled the Hall and Denethor closed his own eyes and let its beauty envelop him. He was grateful to Maiaberiel for this last gift. He heard a small sniff next to him and knew Aiavalë was weeping. All stood still for another long moment after the song ended and the notes' echoes faded from the Hall. The Steward bowed once again towards the bier before taking up the Steward's rod and sitting in the chair. Each of the siblings bowed in turn, first Aiavalë, then Maiaberiel, then Denethor, and walked to stand near their sire.
Finduilas was the first of the mourners to approach, being both the Lady Emeldir's guest and the highest ranking of all the lords and princes. She curtseyed deeply to the corpse, kissed the edge of the outer shroud, then circled the bier, pausing to curtsey again before Ecthelion before returning to her place. The other lords followed in order, bowing and kissing the edge of the black shroud, bowing to the Steward, and returning to their places as Finduilas had done.
Denethor bent his knees a touch and prepared to be bored for several hours. They would have to stand here until all the mourners had paid their respects. He gently nudged Aiavalë to let her know to take his elbow if the standing became difficult for her. She pinched his arm hard to let him know she did not need him playing nursemaid. He glanced at the Steward. This is the most time you have spent with Mother in some years. His parents had worked out very ingenious ways to avoid sitting or standing next to each other for more than a few minutes at public events and ceremonies. Ecthelion had not set foot in the Stewards' House since Denethor turned twenty-one and they had argued over the Steward's infidelities.
The minutes dragged by as the mourners filed past. The Hall warmed with the many people in it, which was not helping Denethor remain awake. He had been sleeping fitfully since the funeral planning began, and had not been able to sleep at all the previous night, finally dozing off in a chair as he went over City matters in the small hours of the morning. Denethor distracted himself by studying the carvings and statues across from him. The status closest to the dais on the northern side was of Isildur, just as the one directly behind himself on the southern side was Anárion. As his eyes moved down the statue, he realized that the person standing at the foot of it was Thorongil. The man was watching something else so Denethor took the opportunity to study the mysterious captain. There was a likeness between the statue and the captain, but no more so than between himself and the carving of Anárion. Denethor searched the other's face and form, but could discern nothing new. A proud and noble man who conducted himself with dignity. Are you my brother? Will you just disappear into the mists and legends of the north? Why do you serve when you could command? Who is it that you serve, in truth? Denethor realized that Thorongil's gaze had not wavered in the time he had conducted his own scrutiny. He followed the direction of the captain's eyes, and saw Finduilas.
She was wearing that particular bland expression that lords and ladies learned to cultivate for public appearances, the one that indicated the wearer was some other location than here. The girl appeared unaware of Thorongil's intent stare, her own eyes trained more or less in the direction of Lady Emeldir. A small smile touched her lips for a fraction of a second, then her face was solemn once more. Denethor found himself wishing she would look at him again as she had earlier. After a few minutes, Finduilas smiled a tiny bit and looked over at him. It was not difficult to meet her eyes at such a distance; she could not look so deeply into him. Her expression changed just slightly, and he knew she was sorrowed on his behalf. Finduilas's compassion startled him, forcing Denethor to look away for a moment. When he looked back, she had dropped her eyes, so he kept watching, hoping his gaze would pull her back to looking at him. She frowned slightly and wrinkled her brow. When she looked up, however, she looked at Thorongil, not at him. He saw the captain nod to her and stare. Her stare back was even. Denethor was not sure how long the two looked at each other. Finduilas nodded back once more, then fixed her eyes on the bier. The two remained like that – Thorongil staring at Finduilas, Finduilas staring at the bier – for rest of the funeral.
When the last mourner passed by, the bearers paid their respects before gathering the bier. Ecthelion took Aiavalë's arm and they lined up again to follow the bearers out. Denethor collected Finduilas as he passed the first row. The slow walk to Rath Dínen took nearly a half-hour. When the bearers and the family turned aside at the Closed Door, the mourners continued down to the City. Another ten minutes and they were at the building that housed the tombs of House of Húrin, save the Stewards themselves. Aiavalë was limping badly by this point. Her short and bent left leg could not bear her weight for long periods of time and she had been standing for nearly four hours.
The bearers set the bier down on a wooden stand near an open sarcophagus and stepped away to allow the family to wrap the corpse in the outer shroud. Aiavalë stumbled as she stepped forward, barely catching herself with her hands when she fell to the floor. The Steward did not move to help her up. Denethor and Finduilas hurried forward to her.
'Alquallë, please, I cannot…' Aiavalë's voice was weary and tearful. Finduilas kissed her through her heavy veil.
'I will do this, sister. Can you stand?' the younger women murmured.
'Not alone. Don't leave me in the dirt in front of her.'
'Of course not,' Denethor quietly assured her. Ecthelion remained where he stood, coldly staring down at his eldest daughter. The bearers stood at attention and pretended to be stone. Denethor gestured for Brandir to come over, then he and Finduilas helped Aiavalë to stand. Brandir had enough sense to know what was needed of him and he allowed Aiavalë to lean on him, looping an arm around her waist.
Finduilas and Denethor moved to either side of the bier and took the edges of the outer shroud. He stepped forward first and laid his half over his mother's form. He neatened it, making sure it lay smooth. Finduilas lifted her part of the shroud and he reached across the corpse and took it from her, pulling it snugly over the first side. The two of them gently tucked the upper layer's edge under her body, then folded each end under as well, making a pillow for head and foot. Denethor placed a final kiss on Emeldir's shrouded forehead before taking Finduilas's arm and returning to Aiavalë. Brandir retreated back to Maiaberiel, who was glaring at him and would not allow him to take her arm.
Four of the bearers, Thorongil among them, carefully lifted the plank on which the body rested, carried it to the sarcophagus, and lowered it into the tomb. It took all eight bearers to wrestle the stone lid into place. As soon as the sarcophagus was closed, Ecthelion turned on his heel and walked off, followed by Beruthiel and Brandir. Aiavalë leaned heavily against Denethor and he wondered how he was going to get her back to the Citadel.
'May I be of assistance, my lord?' Thorongil asked.
Before he could snap at the captain and tell him to go away, Finduilas said, 'Yes. Lady Aiavalë is chilled and weary and overcome with grief. Give her your cloak and go get her some hot tea and bread with honey.' Her tone was crisp and commanding. Thorongil stared at her a moment without moving, so she added, 'Now, Captain.'
The man pulled off his cloak and handed it to Finduilas, then strode swiftly out of the crypt. Denethor motioned for the other officers to leave. They did so with alacrity. There was a tomb nearby with some steps and he guided Aiavalë over there to sit and rest. The three sat in silence until Thorongil returned with Finduilas's serving woman, Aerin, and a kitchen boy carrying a basket. The captain had gathered all of their cloaks and the boy had a pot of broth as well as bread, honey and tea. Denethor dismissed Thorongil with a curt nod. The kitchen boy was sent off once the food was laid out. Aiavalë soon felt strong enough to walk back. Aerin carried the basket while Denethor and Finduilas kept Aiavalë between them. The few people on the street bowed and murmured condolences as they passed.
Denethor waited in the outer room while Finduilas and Aerin helped Aiavalë to bed. The young woman came out and took his hand.
'She is weary, Denethor, but should be well with rest. I will sit with her while she sleeps.'
'But who shall care for you, Finduilas? You, too, are weary and grieved.'
'Aerin will look after me, Denethor. She goes to fetch some tea for me now. You should go now and rest as well.' She patted his hand and smiled up at him, catching him unguarded with her eyes and her compassion.
Denethor took her hand and kissed it. His throat hurt and he had to swallow before he could reply. 'Your kindness to her and to Emeldir shall not be forgotten, my lady.' He turned and left.
Yestarë was an uneventful day, which was good as he had once more failed to get any true sleep the previous night. The City remained in mourning for the Lady Emeldir, most shops were shuttered, and only those with pressing business went out into the gloom. Were it up to him, Denethor would stay in his study all evening with a new report, or an old scroll, and sup on strong wine, cheese and bread and, with luck, go to sleep in his own bed. But there was Maiaberiel's party to attend. Aiavalë told him she would not excuse him from the event and said he must escort Finduilas.
Thus it was that he found himself in Aiavalë's sitting room waiting for Finduilas to be ready. His sister appeared to be back to normal and was teasing the tabby with a bit of string.
'Where did you get the cat?'
'Telperien? She is a kit of one of the archive mousers. Alquallë took a liking to her so we brought her home.'
'And a proper ruling queen she is, too!' Finduilas laughed from the doorway. He rose and gave her a small bow. Like himself, she was still dressed in mourning though she had exchanged her veil for a strand of black pearls. Every so often there would be a white pearl on the strand and they shone in her hair like small moons. 'She is quite demanding and very jealous of her prerogatives.'
'As befits a queen. Shall we go?' They each kissed Aiavalë good evening before leaving. Aerin and Beregar, the attendant Denethor had assigned to Finduilas, were waiting for them in the hall. Denethor helped her on with her cloak and they departed.
Aerin and Beregar trailed a discreet distance behind to give them privacy for talking. Beregar was a young, solid fellow whose parents ran a reputable tavern in the third circle. His mother was also the eldest of Ecthelion's bastards known to himself and Aiavalë, and one of theirprincipal spies. Aiavalë had provided the woman a reasonable dowry and saw her married off to a good man. The woman knew silence was the real price and gave it.
Some years back, the woman appeared at the archive and had struck a deal with Aiavalë to provide information that came through the tavern. Her price was no different than any spy's and she never pressed for advantage because of blood. Besides her pay, her children were educated by Aiavalë and each worked a short time in the archive. The eldest, Beregar, was not greatly clever, but he was loyal and had some skill with a sword and bow. He accompanied Finduilas and Aerin on any trip out of the seventh circle, carried their packages, did their bidding, kept footpads and cut-purses at a distance, and reported every place they went and every person they spoke with to Denethor.
It was a long walk. Sounds of merry-making could be heard here and there as they walked the near-deserted streets, but there was nothing like the usual revelry that marked the new year. Between the cold and the funeral, it was glum. Denethor thought the imposed decorum not a bad thing. He glanced at Finduilas. Is she in mourning out of respect, or because she thinks I wish it? He might enjoy intimidating some of Beruthiel's sycophants into drabness, but he has no wish to make this gentle girl choose other than she wished.
'I thank you, Finduilas, for continuing your mourning,' he said, 'but I hope you are not doing so on my account. I would hate for you to think I did not wish for you to enjoy yourself at a party.'
'In truth, Denethor, I know not why a party like this is being held during mourning. I understand that the year-end is a time for gathering and well-wishing, and I would not have it otherwise, but I do not sense that there will be much restraint at this celebration.'
'Was it not you who once said to me why not make merry and be frivolous if the alternative is grimness?'
'I do not think that was my argument, sir.' He could not see her face clearly, as it was overcast, blocking stars and moon, but there was a hint of exasperation in her voice. 'I said that if all was hopeless, why is grimness preferable to gaiety?'
'Yes, you are correct, Finduilas, that was your argument. And you have still not given me a solid answer, either to where I shall find hope or to why I should choose gaiety. Your words just now seem to indicate a certain impatience with this same gaiety.'
They walked a while in silence before she answered. 'The Darkness in the east weighs no less upon me, if that is what you mean. I would wish for neither grimness nor this false frivolity. I would wish for respect for both living and dead.'
'A prince knows better than to wish for things, Alquallë. You think of what may be, and you make it thus, as you will, or you acknowledge that it is beyond your grasp and you leave it be.'
'You call me by Aiavalë's name for me. Why?'
'Because you are a young prince of the Swan's house, and I name you so.'
'Ah. Well then, High Warden and fellow prince, how do you know what is beyond your grasp if you do not reach for it? Such as hope?'
'Where is it that I may reach for it, Alquallë?' Can you dream it for me?
She did not answer and they continued in silence to the party. Maiaberiel lived at the north side of the fifth circle, in one of the largest houses in the City, the Steward's dower gift to her. When Denethor had paid his visit last summer, he had climbed up an ancient vine that grew from the narrow side street up to a balcony, and then through a door on the balcony into her room, but it would be impolite not arrive through the front door this evening. The celebration could be heard several houses away. Denethor steeled himself for the carrying-on that marked Beruthiel's large gatherings. After he handed their cloaks to a waiting servant, he tucked Finduilas's arm firmly under his own before heading into the whirl.
It was like walking into a stable of braying jackasses. Though the evening was not far gone, a significant number of revelers were far gone in their cups. Gluttony of various types appeared to be the rule. What of the chatter he could understand was often uncouth in nature. Hands were in indecorous locations. Mastering the urge to turn on his heel and depart, Denethor waded into the thick of things, looking for Beruthiel.
His passage had the desired effect of ending all lasciviousness and quelling most unseemly speech. To his amusement, Finduilas was regally greeting people as they made their way through the crowd. The perfection of her manners accentuated the crudity of the others' behavior. Men straightened shirts, women pulled necklines a little higher and swatted away groping hands. All other women had dressed in holiday finery and were garish next to her simple perfection. A black swan among cackling hens.
'Denethor!' Brandir's cheerfully inebriated shout let him know where to find Beruthiel. She was there, dressed in scarlet and gold. Unlike the other women, she looked ferocious, not garish. Brandir wore dark green and silver and looked quite silly, as always.
'Finduilas! My dear girl, how nice of you to come down all this way for the party,' Maiaberiel greeted her, ignoring Denethor entirely. The two women exchanged kisses. The change that came over Finduilas was amazing. The girl was giggling and blushing and carrying herself in a most undignified manner. 'Well, now that you are here, we can begin the dancing!' In the blink of an eye, the two women were gone and the musicians began striking up a tune. Resisting the urge to see where Beruthiel had taken Finduilas, Denethor decided to observe for a time, snagging a glass of wine from a passing tray. He was relieved to soon see the girl among the dancers. Brandir had a hand on his shoulder and chattered nonsense, unaware that the other was paying him no attention. Denethor made enough noises to keep Brandir talking. There was much to see. Who was speaking to whom, who avoiding whom. Who did his sister talk to, and who not. The rivalries of tonight would play out in other venues.
He watched the revelers for some time and kept an eye on Finduilas, who did not lack for dance partners. He noted Beregar also standing watch from the edge of the room and was content nothing untoward would happen. Maiaberiel danced every so often, but mostly she walked about, observing things as he did.
'My Lord Denethor.' Denethor allowed Thorongil to stand unacknowledged for several heartbeats before he finally looked at the other. The captain was dressed in mourning and Denethor was oddly touched at the gesture. Civility was in order.
'Captain Thorongil, good yestarë to you.'
'And to you, sir. Did you receive the reports for tomorrow?'
'Yes. I was going over them this afternoon. The summary on the wreckage in the tidewaters is going…'
'No you don't!' Brandir wiggled an admonitory finger at them. 'No more of this, brother Denethor! No business tonight, friend Thorongil! It is yestarë, you two kill-joys, and nothing serious is permitted. Darling, do tell your brother and the estimable captain that they are to enjoy themselves tonight and leave business for the morrow!'
'Please, gentlemen, enough or I shall have to ask you both to leave,' Maiaberiel laughingly teased as she glided up, leading Finduilas. The two women giggled together, then Maiaberiel shot a sly look at the captain. 'In fact, Thorongil, you look entirely too staid to be attending one of my parties. I insist that you must dance or else leave. And here is a fine young lady who has no one to dance with. What shall you chose, sir?'
Thorongil could not entirely hide his pleasure at the situation, but he bowed slightly to Finduilas and asked, 'What is your choice, my lady? Shall I remain a guest in good standing, or must I leave?'
'I could not bear to send you out into the cold and dark, Captain,' Finduilas gaily replied, 'so I say "yes" to your suit. Shall we?' Thorongil smiled broadly and took her hand. Denethor handed his wine glass to Brandir.
'Then I shall be not such a churl, either,' he announced, firmly grasping Beruthiel's wrist. 'But as the young lady has chosen,' he nodded genially to Thorongil and Finduilas as they stepped away, 'I am stuck with a loathsome scorpion for this dance.' The last words were whispered into his sister's ear. She laughed as if he had said something amusing, though her eyes were equally angry and wary.
'What do you think you are doing?' she smiled at him.
'Watching what you are up to,' he replied in similar cheer.
'Why don't you go home,' she laughed. She was one of the few women tall enough to partner well with him in dancing and they moved smoothly together. He allowed himself to enjoy the dance, even as he enjoyed the sparring. They danced for a minute before he answered.
'I will leave when I have seen enough. Have you seen enough of me? You appear to have trouble recognizing me. I think I ought to pay you more visits, you were so confused over who I was last time.' Her smile slipped and she glared at him hatefully.
'You were despicable!' she hissed. Denethor smiled warmly at her.
'You were a slattern who did not care who showed up in your bed. Like father, like daughter. Am I at fault that you did not enquire before accepting your suitor?' He laughed and pulled her tightly to him, whispering, 'And you kiss so well!'
'Denethor, I am going to have you thrown out,' she said through clenched teeth that barely made a smile.
Denethor chuckled. 'You would not dare risk such a scene. I can see the advantage of not bothering with names, I must say. It could be embarrassing to poor Brandir if you said the wrong thing at a delicate moment.' The music was winding down – luckily for them both, it was a short dance. He looked about for Thorongil and Finduilas and steered Maiaberiel towards them. When the music ended, they were together.
'Captain, if our ladies agree, may I be so bold as to ask to exchange partners?' His sister glared at him and took the Captain's hand, not waiting for a reply from Thorongil or Finduilas. Denethor watched her stalk off, then looked at Finduilas. 'If it pleases you, may I have this dance?'
'Uh, no, I, I…' she began, then coughed a little. 'I think I need to rest a moment.'
'Of course, Alquallë.' He guided her out of the dancers and towards a window. She began to cough in earnest. He signaled Beregar to come over, as he did not wish to leave her alone, and asked the man to fetch some water. That was soon accomplished. 'Are you well, Finduilas?'
She nodded. 'As well as I ever am. I fear I have tired myself out and stirred up my cough. And all before I gave you a dance! I did not realize, until I saw you with Beruthiel,' he gave her an amused glance at the use of his sister's nickname, 'I mean, Lady Maiaberiel, that you were such an accomplished dancer.'
'Then you shall owe me the first dance at the next party,' he replied. 'Do you wish to stay?' She shook her head.
'No. I have more than enough to report to Aiavalë and I find myself tiring of forward young men.'
'Has any offended you?'
'Not yet, though it is only a matter of time. I believe inebriation has passed the ability of intelligence to moderate.'
'I quite agree. Let us go.' Beregar escorted Finduilas to the hall where Aerin waited with the other serving women while Denethor located Brandir and made their farewells. Beruthiel and Thorongil were sharing a second dance. Denethor joined the others and they departed. They made their way south across the circle and began climbing up to the gate to the sixth. Denethor studied Finduilas out of the corner of his eye, curious about the swift changes of manner he had seen in the girl this evening.
'If I may ask an impertinent question, Alquallë, was that true or false gaiety you showed at the party?'
'I see. So, perhaps, you prefer frivolity to grimness?'
'I prefer no falseness at all.' She glanced up at him, her features indistinct. 'Now it is my turn to ask an impertinent question, sir. Is it true or false mourning that you show? Have you no respect for the dead? It all seems but a game, the grief and the gaiety both.'
Denethor halted and stared down at her. He was glad for the lack of moonlight, or even starlight, so he would not have to meet her eyes. 'That is a very impertinent question, Alquallë. You deserve an answer, given your kindness to my family, but not in a public street.' He held out his arm for her to take and they walked the rest of the way to the Stewards House in silence. He dismissed Beregar at the door. Once they reached Finduilas's sitting room, she bade Aerin good night, dismissing her. Denethor helped Finduilas off with her cloak before shedding his own. He took a seat in a chair near the door and thought how he should reply to her. She poured them wine and took a seat in a nearby chair.
'I apologize, Denethor. That was a rude question, not an impertinent one. You owe me no answer.' He risked looking at her directly and was caught. It was impossible to see in this honest, slightly embarrassed face the coquettish girl of an hour before. 'Please forgive me for insulting the hospitality you and your family has shown me these many months.' Her keen eyes held him, required an answer.
'I take no offence, Finduilas. I am the one who has challenged you about truth and falsehood. I do wish to know why you find my mourning false.'
Finduilas considered her words. 'It may be a matter of age, Denethor. I am young and inclined to emotion, as are all young women. I find it difficult to understand… I mean, it seems not right to me that you are… If I were to know my own mother had passed, I…'
'You would weep, and you would grieve deeply, and you wonder that I do not.'
'Yes, Denethor. And it is not my place to question the manner of your mourning. Please, friend, forgive me!' Finduilas entreated him.
'You should wonder. It is not right that a child be so cold at a parent's death. But you are also a prince and should know that love does not always mark the relations of rulers.'
'My parents love.' Her eyes held a challenge.
'As all may see, prince. Indeed, the love of Adrahil and Luinil is stuff for minstrels and poets. But such is not the case with the Steward's house, much though I might wish it otherwise.'
Finduilas shook her head and made a face. 'I do not understand this, Denethor! How did the Lord Steward and Lady Emeldir become so estranged? They are both people of good hearts and of wisdom. The Lady showed me much tenderness in my stay here, and it grieves me that she died! How has there come to be such division in your house?'
Denethor sipped his wine, unsure what to tell the girl. Girl or not, she is a prince, she knows how things are. Say the truth and trust her to know what to make of it. 'It is both simple and sad, prince. The Lord Steward is like most men, greatly enjoying the pleasures of a bed, and like most men, he swore to give up such things when he wed and to be true to his lady wife. It was a marriage of state, though I believe there was affection between them at the start. They hoped love would grow, as can be the case in such unions. But their first child was a twisted horror, and my mother denied her husband their bed for fear of bearing another such creature.'
He stood, unable to remain facing Finduilas, and busied himself with looking over a shelf of curios. It made it easier to speak. 'Ecthelion availed himself of other companionship. When it became known that his infidelities were resulting in offspring, my mother was told she must accept him back and allow him to sire a legitimate heir. She refused, frightened of what might issue from that, and now insulted and angered at her husband's dishonoring of her in the beds of wantons. Finally, she relented, and Maiaberiel was the result. My younger sister received some affection from her dam, I believe, but my mother cared little for any child of her husband.
'A final time was Lady Emeldir importuned to provide an heir, for a number were worried by the increase in bastard get. She consented once more, and thus I am. The lady considered that she had fulfilled her obligations to husband and city, and wished no more to do with the Steward's house, save what duty required. It was Aiavalë who gave me a mother's love in my youth, though Lady Emeldir was never unkind or cruel. Thus it is that I have not a son's heart with respect to my mother.'
Denethor turned to Finduilas directly, making himself look her in the face. 'So, prince, my mourning is true, though perhaps not adequate. I have no tears, no grief. I regret the passing of an honorable and noble lady. That is not false. What others feel, I cannot say.'
Finduilas's face was pained. 'I am sorry to hear this, friend. A loveless marriage may yet be a kind one, but this was not the case for your lady mother. I am sorry for her, and for you.'
'I do not ask for pity.'
'I would not offer it. You are a proud man, too proud, and it would offend.'
Her words stung and her compassion stung more. 'First I am too grim, then I am false, and now I am too prideful,' he snapped. 'You are young and too taken with fancies, girl. Very well, I claim all three – grimness, falseness and pride. It is what is demanded of me.'
'I think you sad, not grim, and close, not false, but I will agree wholeheartedly, Lord Denethor, that you have pride enough for several men!' she angrily shot back. The anger left her face and concern returned. 'Mostly, sir, I think you wrong.'
'You said the Lady Emeldir was not unkind or cruel to you. I say she was. To be without a mother's love is too cruel for any man to suffer.'
'I had Aiavalë. I am not any man. I am scarcely a man at all.'
'What mean you? I see a man of flesh and blood, like any other, standing before me.'
'I am an instrument, an end. It is my duty, my honor, even my fate. All Stewards are ends. We are for the end, when the King shall return or Darkness shall take us.'
'For all your pride, you seem rather timid, Denethor. Are you content to be naught but an end? You said a prince knows what to reach for, and you have not answered my question of how you may know what will be unless you attempt it. Will you not reach beyond an end? Will you just walk into darkness? For the King shall not return.'
'In your dream, I did just that.' The words came out unbidden.
'Even in a dream you would not listen!' she scolded. 'Are you so eager to forswear hope and love in pursuit of your end? Will you, too, rule over a city in despair?'
'You know my answers, prince.' Denethor drained his cup, and set it down. 'I see no hope. And, though it amaze you, I do believe in love. Both our sires have set me fine examples of what should and should not be. You are well advised to study such examples yourself, lest you suffer my mother's fate.' He bowed shallowly in Finduilas's direction and turned to go.
'Will you not take your own advice and avoid her fate as well?'
Denethor did not turn back. He simply said over his shoulder, 'I shall. I will enter no marriage of state as I will enter no marriage at all. Good evening, Alquallë.'
Characters introduced in this chapter, in order of appearance:
Ecthelion – Lord Steward of Gondor, Denethor's father, 88 years old.
Brandir – OC. Husband to Denethor's younger full-sister, Maiaberiel, 46 years old.
Telperien – OC. Finduilas's cat, given to her by Aiavalë.
Aerin – OC. Finduilas's serving woman from Dol Amroth, over 65.
Beregar – OC. Finduilas's bodyguard, assigned to her by Denethor. Eldest son of Denethor's eldest half-sister, 25 years old.
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