Stewards of Gondor: Genverse Arc
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Love Sweet As Poison : 3. Dulce e Decorum
Ithilien—once the jewel of Gondor's crown, it is now costly indeed, Denethor thought, rubbing the bridge of his nose wearily. It was once again late, and outside the sliver of a moon had risen, yet he had not finished with the day's reports, and his own notes were growing ever more detailed. Thus far, his only pause had been a brief visit to his father, and that had been hours ago. With a sigh, Denethor squeezed burning eyes shut, but his thoughts tumbled ever onward, chasing after details and logistical lines.
Ithilien! Ever since Thorongil's departure, Ecthelion had sought to strengthen the Ithilien guard, to use the relief bought with that naval victory to preserve and expand upon what Túrin had built. Denethor, as his father's eyes and ears, had been in and out of Ithilien more often than he cared to think about, and he knew well the difficulties that that company faced.
It needs one with more than simple swordcraft and bravado to command effectively in that post, and such men are difficult to find, Denethor mused. So difficult, in fact, that until illness had intervened and brought all plans under reconsideration, Ecthelion had thought to give that command to his son. But with Denethor poised to assume his inheritance, another would be needed to fill that position. And now it is my place to find him. Either that or break the company, but I doubt it would be half so useful in smaller units. He shook his head and grimaced. In truth, he decided grudgingly, I could now use Thorongil. For as much as it galled him to admit it, Ithilien would have been ideally suited to the man's talents.
Of its own volition, his mind began to wander down that well-worn trail of speculation as to Thorongil's true identity, and in that long moment of idleness, other thoughts arose, mingling chaotically: All of Anórien is open to pillaging if we cannot find another company to serve as outriders at Cair Andros…. Word from Poros has the land empty beyond it, but I know not whether I trust that judgment…. Rohan's emissary speaks no more of my father, but comes to me now and says "my lord steward"….
Denethor shook himself and put a halt to his rambling thoughts as he gazed about the room. Ecthelion's study it had been, and soon it would be his alone for as long as his reign lasted. In spite of his grief over his father, he could not deny a sense of anticipation born of his own ambition. Nevertheless, caught in this transitory stage, waiting for Ecthelion's death, all events took on a surreal, nightmarish quality. For Denethor loved his father well, though many might have found it odd to speak thus of the heir to the stewardship of the realm. He had not the reputation for harboring intense feeling; but in truth, he simply had not the habit of acknowledging his feelings overmuch, nor of acting upon them when he did choose to recognize them. Always before, that had served him well, enabling him to see straight to the heart of any issue touching upon Gondor while remaining aloof from the impassioned rhetoric of others. Yet hard-edged and pragmatic as he was, Denethor yet struggled to maintain his usual cool demeanor in the face of the sublime cruelty of the situation.
I must look to my father's death to gain what I most want: Gondor. Guilt was an alien sensation, one that he little liked, and he berated himself for being absurd. To suffer guilt over the long hours that he had already invested to learn the art of gonvernance would be foolish indeed, for he owed his father—not to mention Gondor—his best efforts. It was not, therefore, attached to the stewardship itself, for Denethor had trained long years knowing that barring untimely death, the rod and rule of Gondor were of necessity his inheritance.
Nevertheless, there was in his imminent ascendence a sense of shame that was bound up with Ecthelion somehow. Perhaps that guilt owed its origins to the feeling which had grown on him in the last week or so, namely, that in burying himself in the pursuit of his goals, he had drifted away from his father—that after all the long years of work and study, fighting and negotiating, he had fallen out of touch with Ecthelion. So far out of touch that Denethor feared that he knew not how to face the stranger who lay now upon his deathbed. In a son who had always counted himself loyal to his father, that was a painful truth to swallow, and he sought what comfort he could elsewhere.
At least he has Finduilas to watch over him. Indeed, she has been more at his side than I! That woke in him a most unpleasant feeling, one akin, perhaps, to what he had felt for Thorongil. But Denethor quickly quelled such unseemly emotions and told himself sternly that he had his duties, and that Ecthelion would not wish him to waste time languishing at his bedside while Gondor awaited decisions that only the steward's heir could make. And so he remained faithful to his tasks and did not go overmuch to see his father.
Of course, I can scarcely see straight for want of sleep… mayhap I would be of more use at his side than I am here. He gave a pensive sigh at that and cast a glance once more about the study 'til his eyes fell upon the door that led to the inner hallway, and thence to his chambers. Finduilas would be there now, he knew, and in an instant his tired mind fastened upon her image.
You do wrong to treat her so! 'Tis shameful! Ecthelion had rebuked him yesterday. His pride still flinched at the memory, and in the deep places of his soul, something vital quailed at the sense of steady loss. But in truth, his father's lecture had not told him anything new. He knew well that he did not care for Finduilas as she wished, or indeed, as custom prescribed. But what could be done?
I cannot change my heart to suit another's desire, he thought, mulling over his marriage. Admittedly, I am not certain of what I feel for her. With a wrinkle of his nose, he set down the pen and pushed the chair back from the bureau, uncharacteristically abandoning his proper tasks to the impulse of the moment. Finduilas…. Given how little time they spent together, and how little attention he devoted to his wife, one might expect Denethor's image of her to be vague, as if worn away by long disuse into a blurred recollection. Yet it was not so, though neither was that mental portrait reflective, perhaps, of reality. For although his glance strayed seldom to Finduilas, his imagination, informed by all that he gleaned of her thoughts and heart, composed a vivid picture nonetheless. In his mind's eye, he traced the contours of her face, recalling the shadows beneath her eyes, the taut line of her mouth that fought ever to deny the anxiety that wreathed her. Well-defined cheek bones emphasized her slenderness, bordering on gaunt, and her hair framed her face in a concealing manner.
Nay, not concealing, he corrected himself. It is more a withdrawal, I think–a suppression of self, habitual now, but also intentional. Denethor needed no further prodding to admit that he knew the cause of such withdrawal, that he himself was to blame. He regretted that, he supposed, for he did not wish her ill; indeed, he rarely thought overmuch of her, unless it were night. He could hardly deny that he desired her at times, but sex could be an awkward, embarrassing act, and her mood–often unpredictable–was a determining factor in whether or not either of them enjoyed themselves. Often, there was little more than relief to be gained in bed.
And that has little enough to do with the affection she seeks from me, he sighed. Truthfully, she was simply secondary in all his preoccupations, and her silent, yet obvious, pleas for his attention were a distraction, an inconvenience. Yet if she were to disappear suddenly, I think I would not know what to do, Denethor thought, and surprised himself with such an acknowledgment. Still, to say that he loved her, to admit that, even within the carefully shielded privacy of his thoughts… that was difficult. He knew not what to call the strange emotion that burned low beneath the ice of logic, for it was different from what he felt for his father. That, at least, he knew was love; with Finduilas, there was a sense in which he could not get round her presence, certainly. She was in him, bound up in diverse fashions to all that he was, yet it was… 'subtle,' that binding, and overshadowed by more overt ties.
Such as these odd fits and her lingering malaise. Denethor was not one to gainsay the healers of Minas Tirith who had diligently studied the matter of Finduilas's illness and come away puzzled. But though he was fundamentally incapable of fully comprehending its manifestations, at base he knew well that she sickened because of him. Perhaps such truth ought to inspire shame, but in Denethor there roused only a perplexed, somewhat contemptuous pity that his wife should love him to the point of making herself sick.
Perhaps what I feel for her is not love, but a strange fascination, he reflected, turning the notion over in his mind. For perplexity was certainly intermixed in large part with that other, unidentifiable emotion, and his was a mind attracted to paradox. Finduilas wanted so much to hide her misery from him, to be what and who he wanted her to be! And accustomed as he was to reading what others thought to keep hidden, he was stymied when presented with one who was willing to offer up so much of her self to him in a single instant and forever. In a moment, she confronted him with all that she was and invited him to claim her, if only he would make the same offer…
… and he balked at the very idea. Ecthelion, in his sharp remonstrations, had spared him not at all. "Perhaps you do not feel it yet, but such a marriage as yours will become a burden in time, and soon a torment, if you do not come to some understanding with Finduilas. If you cannot love her, then do not by your silence give her hope that you may. But if you would be her husband in truth, and not only in name, then you must surrender something to her, do you understand me? If you will not reject her outright, then be prepared to sacrifice that silence of yours," his father had warned. "Speak to her, my son!" And Denethor, plagued by that rebuke, haunted by the notion of losing his father's respect, had tried. As he had lain in bed with her last night, he had sought for words that might be appropriate, but in the end, he had given up. For he did not know yet whether he was willing to accept the offer contained in her eyes; and if he decided against it, still, he knew not how to tell her so gracefully.
Perhaps there is no graceful way, however I choose. He sighed, and stared at the desk and at all of the chores that needed to be done. And though he felt no desire to return to his duty, feeling himself too weary and distracted to manage the task, neither did he wish to retire. For then he would have to face his wife once more, and he did not look forward to that encounter. In the end, I know not what to make of her, Denethor grimaced, shaking his dark head slightly as he gazed out the window at the moon riding high above thin summer clouds.
Minas Tirith, lit by that soft light, glowed with a muted, nocturnal radiance as the wind, like sighs, chased itself through the arterial streets. In moments such as this, when the city seemed almost as a living entity to him (albeit one that slept), he felt an odd stillness descend upon him, touching his thoughts with a sharp-edged clarity.
She will give herself away… snuff herself out like a candle's flame drowning in its own wax! And for what? For a husband? Why? The question was in some sense unanswerable, for though Denethor could justify spending himself in the service of his homeland, it seemed incredible to think that Finduilas could love him so well. What am I, that she will not hold onto herself? What man is worth such a sacrifice? Or indeed, what woman? And yet, I do care for her and would not lose her entirely. But there lies so much pain between us, and there is so much to do…!
Denethor had almost resolved to return to work when the door to his study burst open, and he looked up with a frown for such discourtesy. But his wrath died instantly, replaced by sudden dread, for the young lad who stood breathlessly now in his study was aid to one of the physicians, and his face was dead white as he gazed at Denethor. Wordlessly, Ecthelion's son rose to his feet, waiting for the news.
"My lord," the lad gasped. "Come quickly! My master sent me to fetch you and the lady Finduilas!"
Upon hearing that, Denethor hesitated, then made a swift decision. "Do not disturb the lady, but let us go now." The apprentice obeyed, and Denethor followed him up to Ecthelion's sickroom. And however dispassionately he had considered his father's death hitherto, now that the moment was upon him, he felt fear twist in his gut. Of one thing, though, he was certain: Finduilas should not be present to see this. It was, perhaps, an instinctive reaction, a defense against his own weakness where his affection for his father was concerned; but if there was that selfish element in it, he felt strongly also that his wife should not be made to watch one whom she loved well die–that that might prove too much for her precarious grasp on sanity.
When he arrived, the physician rose and bowed, stepping into Denethor's path to halt him. "There is a draught upon the stand there," the man said gravely, in a low voice that commanded his lord's attention. "We can do nothing more, my lord, and the end is near, yet not near enough perhaps. But there is no need for him to suffer, if you will." Denethor's jaw clenched, understanding all too well the other's meaning.
"It must be his choice," he muttered, and the physician simply nodded, then beckoned his assistant to follow him out. The door shut behind father and son, and Denethor glided silently to the bedside, lowering himself to sit in Finduilas's accustomed chair.
Ecthelion lay very still, his breathing shallow and congested. Very pale and drawn he looked, and he seemed unconscious. But after a moment, the dying man's eyes opened enough to take in Denethor's presence, and the steward wet his lips to speak. "Where is Finduilas?"
"I did not bring her," Denethor responded tautly. Ecthelion was silent awhile, but then he nodded slightly.
"Good, I think. I would not cause her more pain," he whispered. "But you I would speak with, ere I end!"
"Speak then, Father," Denethor urged.
"Mark me, I say! For you will swear...." Ecthelion paused, gasping for air. "You will swear to do as I bid… and then," he sighed and turned his head to look fully into his son's eyes, and a painful smile curved his lips, "then… I will take that cup from you." At that, Denethor bit his tongue and settled for a sharp nod. Born to a tradition that valued both the sword and the pen, he was not an 'unblooded virgin' as the saying went among the common soldiery; he had administered the coup de grâce all too often. This is no different, he reminded himself.
"I promise it shall be as you command!" Denethor replied softly.
"Then hear me, my son," Ecthelion whispered, "and then release me!"
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