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Hands of the King: 33. Between
Minas Tirith, December 19, 2976 T.A.
Finduilas intended to go to the Stewards House to begin setting things to right, but changed her mind when Borondir presented himself at Vinyamar midmorning. Luinil decided it was a good day to pay a call on Lady Rían of Linhir and asked Ivriniel to accompany her, to which Ivriniel readily agreed. Finduilas suspected Luinil wished a chance to see Angbor more closely.
Borondir had brought yet more reports with him and the two commandeered the dining table so they could spread everything out. For several hours, they went over the condition of the City's food stores, where the provisions came from, what coin purchased them, and who could claim it. The quartermaster was pleased to have an apt pupil, and Finduilas enjoyed learning how he ran the warehouses. She also liked simply observing him. As with Aiavalë, Finduilas soon learned to disregard Borondir's disfigurement and see the man himself. He was tantalizingly like Denethor. The unharmed half of his face clearly showed their kinship, as did his height. Even more, the precision of Borondir's thinking and the certainty with which he spoke was like Denethor. His gentle calm was most unlike his elder cousin. There was nothing in him of Denethor's fierce, proud bearing, though she did not doubt Borondir could be just as determined. There was a certain look around the eyes that they shared, and which she had come to think of as the true mark of the House of Húrin.
Looking over a page on the garrison stores, Finduilas asked, 'I do not see where the new soldiers are being provisioned, my three hundred.'
'Their weapons and gear come from your lord father and from the Lord Steward, respectively,' he replied, 'while their board and keep comes from the Warden.'
'I see. Why is that not coming from me? They are my men-at-arms, after all.'
Borondir shrugged, 'They are under Denethor's command, so he must provide.'
'What of the rest of the soldiers of the City? Are they also under his command?'
'No,' Borondir answered, 'they are under the Lord Steward, and so the Captain-General.' There was a subtle change to the man's voice and stance as he said this, indicating some displeasure with the situation.
Finduilas pressed him further. 'So, besides my men, whom does my lord command?'
'None but them directly.' There was no masking Borondir's disapproval, but then he paused to reconsider. 'No, the Tower Guard also is overseen by the Warden for the Steward, my lady.'
'You are to call me Finduilas, for you are to be my kinsman' she teased him.
'You are too kind,' he answered, smiling once more, then looked away. 'Very kind,' Borondir repeated in a soft voice. Finduilas waited, curious. 'I am remiss, Finduilas. I have not thanked you for your condolence last winter for my grandmother's death.'
'I met Lady Andreth once, before Lady Emeldir passed away. She made me feel welcome, and it saddened me to hear the news.' Finduilas gestured for them to take seats near the fire. 'I fear I did not know her well. Will you not tell me of your grandmother?'
'If I may, yes.' She poured them both tea before sitting. 'I do not know if you knew that she was the Lord Steward's elder sister.'
'Denethor told me.'
'Denethor was her favorite, you know,' Borondir's voice was cheerful, 'and if you wish to know what Grandma was like, you need only look at him. Both as stubborn as stone, and very brave.' He paused to sip his tea and gather his thoughts. 'She was once an archivist, which is how she became so wise. She and Aunt Emeldir were fast friends. Grandma was the one who ordered the Lady's Grace, not Aunt Emeldir, if truth be told. My aunt cared much for the City, but little for ledgers.'
'Did your grandmother teach you how to care for the stores?'
'Yes, though mostly so she could be freed for her poetry,' he chuckled. 'She knew, before she died, that you were to wed Denethor, and she approved, if that matters to you.'
'It does. Did she continue to oversee the Lady's Grace after Emeldir's passing?'
'No. Maiaberiel took it. Though almost none has been given in two years.'
That explained why there was no account of it in the records. 'She is ungenerous?'
'She is not the Lady.' Borondir's voice was polite, but flat.
'I am aware of the rancor between Maiaberiel and Denethor. You may speak plainly to me of her.'
'Lady Emeldir left all of her holdings to Denethor, so Maiaberiel cannot use that to purchase adherents. She dispenses some small amount so she may be seen to do so, but it is unfairly and meanly given. Do not worry; I have not let any child want for food, though it does make for interesting accounts. Denethor always gave what I asked for.'
'They wait for their Lady.'
'You said things are not generous.'
'Yes, they are adequate, but not generous.'
'I think that the Lady shall make a Yule gift in honor of her new city.' Finduilas sipped her tea and smiled at Borondir. 'It shall be generous.'
He smiled back and raised his mug. 'As the Lady commands.'
'I trust you to tell me what the gift should be, how much, and to whom it should be distributed.' Borondir nodded. 'Just be certain that my soldiers wearing my badge are the ones who give out the gift.'
Borondir bowed to her and chuckled. 'I think Grandma would approve of you even more.' His face grew more serious and he looked at her for several heartbeats before speaking. 'I begin to see why Denethor chose you.' She raised her eyebrows and his face went red. 'I mean… One of the reasons… It's… I… '
Finduilas laughed, holding up a placating hand. 'I know the reasons my lord asked for me, and why I accepted his suit. This is one of them; to secure the loyalty of the City.'
He was waiting for her after she fell asleep, standing very near the fall of adamant and foam. On his right hand the ring shimmered while he turned it with his thumb. He looked just as he had in Dol Amroth, hair braided and shirt loose upon him. She approached and caught a glimpse of the scar at the base of his neck, but when she looked closely, it turned into a slender rope, then into a necklace of knotted sea-grasses, then back to a barely closed wound, coarse stitches showing here and there. A matted wreath of seaweed crowned him and she thought she smelled salt.
As she drew near, he smiled but did not turn towards her. Instead, he reached out into the fall, sending up a spray of ice and gems. Where they hit her, they turned to water, making her shiver. Across his chest, the ice turned into mail of fish scales and mithril, spreading until he was sheathed in silver, and the gems adorned his hair. The seaweed writhed and became branches and vines, unbraiding his hair as they tangled through it.
Finally, he turned towards her. She laughed at the joy in his face, stepping closer, arms raised so they could dance. He did not take her hands, instead touching her face with a wet hand, then trailing it down her throat and her chest until it rested over the black stone between her breasts. When she tried to close the space between them and embrace him, she could not. She was a black swan, awkward and waddling on the stone ledge. His forehead wrinkled in confusion as he looked for her, then he stared at his hands. With a swift turn, he thrust his hands into the waterfall until they became ice. He walked into the darkness beyond and did not return.
Minas Tirith, December 20, 2976 T.A.
For the first time in several days, the cold abated. Angelimir was able to leave his bed and sit in the parlor with Adrahil, discussing the councils. Finduilas would have preferred to stay with them, but knew that she needed to go to the Stewards House. Imrahil cheerfully volunteered to go with her and Ivriniel, and they were accompanied by four of her guardsmen. They stopped at the archives and collected Wren. More people were out on the street than on their previous walk to the Citadel, and most wished to greet her and ask for her blessing. Finduilas was glad when they passed into the tunnel and left the City behind.
Sador ushered them in the door of the Stewards House and took their cloaks, asking after their health and saying he would see their dinner was prepared so they need not return to Vinyamar. While she asked after the old man's grandchildren, Finduilas saw Beregar come down the stair. He glanced at her briefly, bowed, then began speaking with Imrahil. She decided not to press him. They checked the kitchen to see that the provisions from the warehouse Borondir had recommended keeping had been moved , pausing to talk to the cook. The woman was kind enough, but great with child, and Finduilas knew there would soon be a need for a new cook. Behind the kitchen was a tangle of small rooms for the servants. Only one had anything in it – a low pallet, a longbow and a sword leaning against the wall, and a plain cloak on a peg. When asked, the cook said she lived in another house down the lane with her man, who was one of the Citadel embalmers. Sador lived with his youngest daughter against the north wall, and Finduilas did not expect he would change.
On the second floor, Finduilas trailed after Ivriniel to the solar. Two of the guardsmen had accompanied them, and the men were soon moving things around under Ivriniel's watchful eye. Finduilas ignored them all, walking over to the large windows. She could just see over the edge of the wall, and could not see the City itself. There was only the long vista across the Pelennor east. The longer she looked, the greater her sense of foreboding. With a shake of her head, Finduilas walked out of the solar and to the room at the front of the house. She stood with her forehead against the glass, staring down into the street, trying to calm her heart. A light tap at the door made her turn.
Beregar stood there, looking diffident. 'Is something amiss, my lady?'
'I do not like looking east.' He nodded, not quite meeting her eyes. 'Dear Huan, I have missed you greatly. How are you?'
The shy smile lasted only a moment, but it relieved some of the sternness of his face. 'I do well, my lady. We all do, now that you have returned.'
'Imrahil told me that you are to be congratulated, Beregar,' she said. He dropped his eyes and nodded. 'Who is your wife?'
'And how is she called?'
'You have been wed since late September, yes?' Another nod. Finduilas stifled an exasperated sigh. 'You did not tell me you had a sweetheart, Huan.'
'I didn't.' His answer was curt. Seeing something in her face, he added, 'It was time for me to wed. My mother and sisters picked her for me as I was much about serving my lord. She is of a good family, and is a good woman.'
'I do not doubt but that she is. Is Aeluin here? I would meet her.'
'No. She lives in the third circle.'
'But you do not.'
'I serve my lord and lady, and you are here,' Beregar stubbornly answered.
'Then so should your wife, should she not?'
'I did not presume to move her into your house without your leave.'
'You have not my leave; you have my command,' Finduilas replied firmly, 'Before mettarë, you are to have your household in order here. What is her situation?'
'She lives still with her parents,' he admitted.
'Aeluin is a woman wed, and should be with her husband, Beregar. There is room and plenty here.'
'Yes, I will, when I have time.'
'Before your lord returns and you must give your time to him.'
'What before his lord returns? And you must come back – I have questions for you,' Ivriniel crossly said, glaring at Beregar as she came into the room. Wren followed.
'He must make the downstairs presentable before Denethor returns. I do not care to return to the solar. I don't like it.'
'You will when I am done with it. It is very bright, good for sewing, and for gatherings. It…'
'Does not please me. It is good for sewing, but I prefer to conduct my business in here.' Finduilas looked around the large, high-ceilinged room and nodded. 'Yes, this will do. Wren, I wish that the red Haradic rug be used in here.'
'I am putting that upstairs in your sitting room,' Ivriniel protested.
'But none will see it there,' Finduilas countered. 'It is too large for that room and will look better in here. There is also a new desk – Wren, you know the one I'm speaking of? Good – and also… ' Finduilas saw a place on the wall that was just the right size for her banner, and smiled. This would be the study of a prince, not a lady. A prince to reckon with. Those who were pleased by the banner will draw strength from this, while those who were not shall be daunted. She did not doubt but that Borondir would prefer meeting to talk of City matters here to a sewing room.
Finduilas did not protest any other of Ivriniel's decisions, and allowed as to how the solar was much better. I simply shan't be using it. The two downstairs guardsmen were sent with Wren to the warehouse to begin bringing things back. Their first cartload held tapestries and hangings. Finduilas tried to help with putting them up, but was soon coughing from the dust stirred up by moving things around and unfolding the heavy lengths of fabric. She retreated with Telperien into Denethor's study.
To be in his room made her miss him all the more. It smelled of him. She walked around it, touching things, thinking of him. Peeking around the screen, she saw that the bed was made and everything in the alcove put away neatly. With a sigh, she sat down at his desk. Telperien did not waste a moment before jumping in her lap. How many days? It was now six since Denethor left. He said ten, so three days from tomorrow. It seemed forever.
Not long after she sat, there was a tap at the door and Beregar entered with wine and water. 'I thought you might wish something to drink to ease your cough,' he said.
'Yes, Beregar, some water, please.' He handed her a cup with icy cold water in it, reminding her of the cold waterfall in her vision. Please, friend, let all be well with thee! To her surprise, Beregar did not leave, but looked like he wished to say more. 'What is it, Huan?' Finduilas prompted.
'I saw the banner. When you rode up, I was on the first wall, watching.'
'I wondered where you were.'
His face became a little pink. 'I was watching. And cheering! Everyone was. As soon as we figured out who had the strange device, everyone started shouting.'
'Really?' Finduilas cocked her head, studying Beregar. 'So, do you wish to be a swan instead of a hound?'
The young man shook his head. 'No. My lord gave me my freedom, and I have chosen.' The look on his face was proud and determined, his eyes like the Steward's. 'I am the Lady's Hound, your Hound, and I wish no other fate.'
'And have you done as I commanded? Not of this morning, but of long ago?'
'Yes, I have guarded our lord and kept him from harm,' Beregar assured her, 'and I have also kept a sharp eye on your lord brother. I have given him no chance for mischief.'
'So Imrahil says,' Finduilas said with a grin. 'Mother is very grateful, even if he is not. My brother says also that you have been a friend to him.'
'Your brother is almost as kind as yourself, my lady. It is no task to befriend him.' The shyness of the morning had left Beregar. 'We both train with the Tower Guard, you know. It is almost as good as being a part of them. Better, for I may train and be your Hound!'
'And how has my lord been this long year? His letters reveal little.'
'He has missed you. My lord looks always south, though no longer.' Beregar scowled. 'He should not have been sent out now.'
'But it is for the best so that this house may be set aright without him in the middle of it. Has any hurt or illness touched him?'
'No, though he is still thin from all of his travels. After the ride in the south, he went to Rohan, and has made other trips to Anórien, Osgiliath, and Pelargir. He needs to rest.'
'Then we are agreed,' Finduilas said.
'Yes, my lady, we are agreed.'
This time, she waited, sitting on a flat rock near the water. He walked out of the darkness. There was nothing unusual about him this time; his clothes were what he had worn when she last saw him with Aiavalë, his hair in a rough braid, his face grim. He sat next to her with a sigh. She leaned into him, taking his hand in hers so that their rings clicked together, circling his waist with her other arm. He smelled strongly of sweat and dirt. Black feathers covered her, but she was not a swan.
They sat like this for a long time, watching the water, while he turned her ring on his finger. With another sigh, he rose, but she was careful not to let go of his arm. When he walked into the darkness, she stayed next to him. He led them to a space like the alcove in his study, but there was only a pallet on the floor. It was just wide enough for the two of them. Her feathers disappeared, leaving her bare, and she shuddered at the cold. He wrapped his cloak around them both.
Now, he just smelled of himself, so she buried her face into the side of his neck, brushing the ridge of scar with her lips. He nuzzled the side of her face, kissed her temple lightly, then her cheek, then the curve of her jaw, then her neck. His hands pulled her closer under the cloak before stroking her back, caressing her thigh. She turned her face towards him, eager for him, placing her lips on his, only to feel him pull away. He rolled over, pulling the cloak with him, and turned his back to her. She lost hold of his arm, and was back before the falls. The cave smelled rank, like an animal's lair.
Finduilas felt tired upon rising. Her cough nagged at her, a sensation in her throat she could not clear away, making Luinil order her to remain indoors and not return to the Citadel. Finduilas did not argue. She wrote a note to Beregar and summoned one of her guardsmen to take it and the furled banner to the Stewards House. The note told Beregar to put the banner in her study and included a sketch of where it should be hung. Angelimir and Luinil soon joined her in the parlor to spend a quiet morning writing notes and talking of nothing. It pleased her to see that her grandfather needed only a shawl to keep him warm. The dressmaker arrived in the afternoon to finish work on gowns for Luinil and Ivriniel. So the day passed with small things. She did not dream that night.
Borondir called the next morning to tell her that her Yule gifts were to be distributed beginning that day, and asked her to give a note to Gethron so he could make use of the soldiers. She wrote it, then studied the page outlining what would be given.
'We start today at the Harlond,' Borondir explained, 'with two carts of food.'
'Are there many children in the port?'
Borondir made a small face. 'Too many for decency's sake.'
'Be sure that there are sweets enough for all of them.'
'I will. On the twenty-fourth, we gift the first circle. Then the second the next day, and so on. We skip one day so that the Citadel folk will receive theirs on mettarë day itself. The usual feast will not be held this year, because of the wedding, but your gift will be a feast for them, so that they may celebrate the good news.'
Finduilas laughed gaily and placed a kiss on Borondir's cheek, 'Well done, cousin!' He smiled Beregar's smile and gathered his papers, saying he needed to get the carts to carry the gifts to the Harlond. The day passed peacefully, with a few ladies calling to present bits of needlework or some dainty from their kitchens as Yule gifts.
The next morning was a flurry of activity as the Prince and Imrahil readied themselves for a trip to Osgiliath. Finduilas went to the roof of the house after they left and looked across the winter-brown plain. The air was clear enough that she could make out the line of ruins upon the river. Denethor should be in Anórien by now, and return late tomorrow. She wished she dared take a horse and ride to meet him. The Ephel Dúath were sharp against the sky, like black fangs. She stayed out in the thin sunlight until she saw a group of horsemen leave the City and head towards Osgiliath. Borondir's account of the previous day's gift waited for her when she went inside. In late afternoon, when the City lay in Mindolluin's shadow, a messenger knocked on Vinyamar's door, bearing a letter from Denethor.
I fear I must break my promise to return in ten days, but hope you will forgive me. I have word that King Thengel and Queen Morwen approach, and I need to wait and ride with them. We should be to the City by midday on the twenty-sixth. I have sent word to Beregar to make sure a guest house in the Citadel is ready to receive Thengel and his household.
She frowned at the note and sighed. Two more days. Tucking the note into her pocket, Finduilas went to the parlor to visit with Angelimir. When Adrahil and Imrahil returned from Osgiliath, they came to the parlor to warm themselves from their cold ride.
'How is the city?' Angelimir asked.
'Falling apart,' Adrahil replied, holding his hands out to the fire. 'A fort, a bridge, and stones waiting their turn to drown.'
'There was no bridge when I fought there last,' the old Prince observed.
'It is amazing, grandfather,' Imrahil said eagerly. 'It is a number of bridges, all connected, and they are wide and strong.'
Imrahil shrugged, 'We didn't go beyond the ruins. The lieutenant, Halmir, did not permit it.'
'I'm surprised you went beyond the garrison itself,' Finduilas added. 'Denethor says the ruins themselves are dangerous and never mind what might lurk in them.'
'We stayed on the bridge,' her father said flatly, turning his back to the fire.
'I wish I was not so old, so I could have seen Osgiliath again,' Angelimir sighed. 'Who went with you?'
'Morvorin. He wished to see the place of his victory from last year.' Adrahil gave Finduilas a sly look. 'I found him quite sensible. He knew better than to venture into the ruins.'
Finduilas grinned and shook a finger at her father. 'Talk to Mother about that!'
'I shall,' Adrahil assured her.
Angelimir took a sip of tea from his mug, then prompted, 'Who else?'
'A few city lords. Angrist of Linhir. I need to sup with him. Lord Brandir. Thorongil.'
'He was there or here?' Finduilas interrupted.
Adrahil smiled thinly. 'Here. Rode out with us, and rode back.'
'The man from the party?'
'Yes, Father, that one,' Adrahil confirmed. Angelimir nodded and looked into the fire.
Finduilas caught her father's eye. 'Where is he staying in the City?'
'The first circle barracks, I think, as Brandir was trying to convince him to be a guest.' Adrahil did not look away from her. 'I find it odd that a garrison commander should leave his post for so long.'
'True, but there are many outland lords here and the Captain-General needs to speak to them,' she countered.
'What is a Captain-General doing sitting out in a garrison?' Angelimir said to no one in particular.
'He is not sitting out there now. What is the Warden doing with these inspections?' Adrahil asked Finduilas directly. 'Why has he decided he must ride out now?'
'It was not his decision.'
'You know or you guess?'
'Denethor told me himself that the Steward ordered it the morning after our first full day in Minas Tirith. The Lord Steward seems not to want the both of you speaking to the lords, and he can't order you to leave,' Finduilas exaggerated slightly.
'And when were you meeting with Denethor?' Adrahil's gaze was sharp.
'I dined with the Archivist on the fifteenth, and he stopped to speak to her on his way out of the City,' she answered. 'His word was that the Steward was displeased at events of the council of the previous day, so he sent Denethor out.'
'And brought the Captain in?'
'So it appears.' Adrahil nodded, thinking. A servant tapped on the door, announcing that supper was ready. Angelimir took Finduilas's arm to help himself rise and did not let go. When they would have followed the Prince and Imrahil out of the room, her grandfather tugged on her arm. She waited for him to speak.
'You love Denethor? Truly?'
'You wonder at the resemblance.' Angelimir nodded. 'What is it that you wonder?'
'If I spoke too soon. If my sight has failed me. Perhaps Adrahil was right.'
Finduilas shook her head. 'No. I know not what you have seen, but I have chosen. I have my own dreams, and they guide me.'
Her grandfather looked at her doubtfully for a moment, then smiled. 'Then I shall trust to your sight. He is not what he seems.'
'Neither of them are.'
On the twenty-sixth, the City was abuzz at the approach of the Rohirrim. A messenger had arrived early, accompanied by a Rider bearing a pennant of the white horse on a green field, planting it firmly before the City. Evidently, the horsemen had camped not far beyond the Rammas so as to make a proud entrance into Minas Tirith in the full light of day.
All Finduilas cared about was that Denethor would be back. She decided she was going to the first wall to watch the approach for she could not bear to wait any longer. When she went to tell her parents what she wished to do, they surprised her by saying all of the Swans, save Angelimir, would walk down the mountain. Imrahil would ride out to greet King Thengel with the rest of the City lords, leaving Finduilas jealous.
They set out with four each of Swan Knights and Finduilas's guardsmen as escort and a standard bearer with the banner of Dol Amroth. As they passed along the street of the fifth circle, people made way for them, bowing and waving. In the fourth circle, the crowds were more boisterous, lining the main street and calling her name. More than a few waved small white flags with the black wing on it. The third circle was nigh impassable. Many people were heading to the first wall to watch the Rohirrim, but she also could see some carts in the larger side alleys where men wearing the wing were giving out bundles to those who approached. When it became known that Finduilas herself was walking through, they were mobbed.
'Bless you, my Lady!' 'Thanks be to the Swan!' 'By your grace, our Lady, by your grace!' The cries went up, and people crowded close, trying to touch her or kneel as she passed. Some waved their bundles in the air, others held out their children, pleading with her to bless them. The guards could scarce hold them back, and called for a few fellows at the carts to come help. As they passed The Messenger's Rest, Finduilas heard a familiar voice.
'Make way for the Lady!' Beregar called out sharply, 'Let the Swans pass. Show your respect!' His voice held a tone of authority, and the crowd fell back, some apologizing for their excess.
'Thank goodness you came along, young man,' Luinil cheerfully greeted Beregar. 'Please stay so you may keep the peace.'
'As you command, Princess,' was his grave reply. Imrahil gave Beregar a friendly punch in the arm and motioned for the Hound to walk next to him.
'Daughter,' Adrahil asked, 'What is this uproar?'
'At Lord Borondir's advice, I've made a Yule gift to the City of much of the wedding stores. It was that or see a great deal of it spoil,' she answered.
The Prince thought for a minute, then smiled. 'Very good.'
The second and first circles were crowded, but fewer people paid attention to them. Everyone was intent on getting to the first wall. By the time they reached the court behind the Great Gate, there was no choice but to shove and push to gain a place on the wall. So, even the Lady's Grace has its limits! Imrahil called out farewell and left the City for the stable, the standard bearer following him. Beregar stayed close to Finduilas and made certain she was not jostled excessively. By the time the remaining Swans reached the top of the wall to the north of the gate, Imrahil was already mounted among the other city lords. He sat near Brandir, though Finduilas only knew that because of Brandir's own banner, a badger on a golden field.
Within a quarter hour, there came a sound of horns, and the crowd to the north shouted – the Rohirrim had been seen. It was not long before a rumble was heard, and then, around the curve of the wall, they appeared.
Hundreds of horses charged, more steeds than Finduilas had ever seen in one place, a river of riders, brandishing spears, rising in their stirrups to blow their horns, all under a sky of green pennants. They thundered past the Great Gate, then the river parted and turned to waves, moving, flowing, braiding back and forth into each other, all chaos and order as they shouted and wheeled, charged and retreated, now a circle, now a star, now an ocean crashing down. The watching city shouted its approval, voice and horn and hoof echoing over and over against the stone. Finally, the horsemen parted in two and halted, lining the road to either side. In one voice, they cried,
Between the ranks of riders, a tall man on a white horse rode by himself, proud and upright, a gold circlet on his head. A few paces behind was his standard bearer, and further yet his household and éored. As King Thengel rode past, the riders began singing, and all on the walls fell silent to listen. Finduilas was so entranced by the king's approach that Denethor was almost to the Gate before she saw him, riding next to Queen Morwen. She had no time for more than a glance because Luinil tugged her arm. 'We need to get down so we may greet them.' With Beregar's help, and more than a few shoves, Finduilas followed Adrahil down the stair to the main court between the Gate and the prow of stone. Soon, Thengel and Morwen walked though the arch, Denethor next to Thengel and Imrahil next to Morwen. Adrahil shouted to get their attention. The king called a hail in return, swiftly striding over. Though she knew her father and Thengel were near to the same age, it shocked Finduilas to see how old the Rohirric king appeared next to the Prince. Then she looked at Denethor, and had thought for nothing else.
He was looking right at her, intent. A slight lift of an eyebrow to ask how she was. She smiled and nodded. A hint of a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth and his eyes softened. A quick glance to see who was greeting whom, then he was looking at her again, edging closer. She raised her right hand to her mouth, brushing the ring with her lips. There was no hiding the small smile crossing his face, though it departed swiftly, as he stepped forward to greet her parents. Soon it was a flurry of handshakes, hugs, and kissed cheeks, particularly as Aldwyn and Hilda were there, but she always managed to watch him. She noticed that he kept worrying his ring with his thumb. When it came time to escort Thengel and Morwen up the mountain, however, Denethor took his place next to them and did not spare Finduilas another glance. As much as she wished to walk forward and take his arm, she controlled her impatience and walked with her sister and the other girls. Ivriniel did all the talking for the both of them, promising to introduce the girls to the other young women, asking how their journey was, promising the loan of dresses and other finery.
Upon reaching Vinyamar, Adrahil asked Thengel and Morwen to pause and rest. When they accepted, Denethor simply nodded and joined the group walking to the house. Beregar did as well. In the entry hall, there was some confusion with so many coming in at once.
'Alquallë.' Denethor put his hands on her shoulders to take her cloak, but let them rest a moment before removing the garment, the touch of his fingers as soft as his voice.
'Friend,' she murmured in return, glancing to see where her father was. He was escorting Thengel down the hall, followed by their wives. 'Thou?'
'Well.' He handed her cloak, then his own, to Beregar. He also glanced at the retreating lords, a small smile on his face. 'So the King pays his first call to the Prince, not the Steward.' Ahead of them, Luinil looked over her shoulder with a meaningful stare. Finduilas took Denethor's arm and hurried to follow. His hand brushed hers lightly where it touched his arm, then was gone. Denethor dropped her arm with a slight bow as they entered the parlor and took his place near Thengel. Adrahil watched this, met Finduilas's eyes, then made himself smile at Denethor.
'It is good to return once more to Minas Tirith,' Thengel said, 'and particularly when there is such fine company.'
'It has been too long since we have spoken, my friend,' Adrahil replied, motioning all to take seats. Servants were bringing in trays with wine and small cakes. When all were settled, Thengel raised his glass in a toast, looking at Finduilas.
'To love, that is and that is yet to be.' Finduilas blushed. 'It has been too long, friend Adrahil. Not since another wedding have I seen you!' To Finduilas's surprise, both of her parents blushed and looked shyly at each other. Ivriniel and Imrahil saw it as well, and the siblings grinned.
'Mother, Father,' Ivriniel coaxed, 'What tale is there to be told?'
'Nothing!' Luinil laughed, but her cheeks became more pink.
'Oh, yes, there is something!' Morwen chimed in with a wicked grin. 'There is a grand tale of romance.'
'Then I want to hear it!' Finduilas demanded, seconded by everyone.
'Well, you see, once upon a time, there was a gallant Eorling, in service to the Lord Steward of Gondor,' Morwen began with relish, 'and he had always by him his friend, a silver-haired, silver-tongued ne'er do well from some port in south Gondor.' Ivriniel, Finduilas and Imrahil all whooped at this description of their father. Adrahil grinned and bowed graciously to the queen. 'The rascal did do his friend a kind turn when he introduced the friend to a distant kinsman who had a fair young daughter, and the noble Eorling's heart was ensnared.' Thengel picked up Morwen's hand and kissed it. 'In all the time that the fair knight was paying court to the lady he wished to win, this young scalawag could be found getting into some rather… interesting trouble.' Luinil looked at Adrahil in mock horror, who shrugged and sipped his wine. 'But when the fair knight had won his suit, and there was a great gathering to bless their wedding, the impertinent rogue from the south had chance to dance with a cousin of the bride, and his carefree days were at an end.'
'And two years later, I had the joy to see my friend and my wife's kinswoman wed themselves,' Thengel concluded with a warm smile. He raised his glass once more 'To my friends, as dear as kin. May you see another thirty years of joy.' All joined the toast, then cheered as Adrahil and Luinil exchanged a small kiss. Finduilas glanced at Denethor. He was watching her over the rim of his glass as he had at Lark's wedding. She mouthed "rogue" at him, which made him smirk. Within the hour, Thengel and Morwen departed to greet the Steward before retiring to rest from their journey. Finduilas managed to clasp Denethor's hand for just a moment before he left.
Finduilas had just finished reading Borondir's morning report on the gifting when there was a commotion in the hall. A moment later, Queen Morwen appeared in the doorway, smiling and dressed for riding.
'There you are!' Morwen exclaimed, crossing the room to embrace and kiss her. 'Is your mother here?'
'Yes, I think she is upstairs.'
'How are you this morning? You're not coughing or anything, are you?'
Finduilas shook her head, 'No, I am fine.'
'Good! Are you up to an adventure?' the queen replied with a grin.
'Yes! Whatever you wish, I am ready!'
'Get some riding clothes on, and we're off, then. Let's see if Luinil wishes to join us.' Finduilas led the way upstairs to find her mother. Luinil made Morwen promise the adventure would not be too exciting and came along to be sure the queen kept her word. In less than an hour they had walked to the Rohirric encampment. It spread out over the open land east and north of the City. In the distance, Finduilas could see herds of horses grazing under the watchful eye of riders, while other steeds stood patiently in long picket lines, sleeping, scratching against each other, or nibbling on hay. Everywhere, there were riders going about their business. As the women passed, they would look up from their work and offer a hearty welcome, more often than not accompanied by a song. She did not understand most of what was said, for it was in their own tongue, but the meaning was unmistakable. At last they came to the far side of the camp where several horses stood loose.
Morwen stopped and put a hand on Finduilas's shoulder. 'Cousin, I do not offer you a gift, for it is not mine to give.' She motioned to the horses, who had noticed the visitors and were approaching, ears pricked in curiosity. 'These are the steeds of the king's household, of the mearas. They take no rider save whom they choose, and the chief of them suffers only the king of the Eorlingas to ride him, even as Felaróf would bear only Eorl. I asked one of the mares if she would look upon you.' One mare nickered at Morwen, who nickered back, allowing the tall mare to snuff her face, then rub a grey forehead on her shoulder. 'So, she may not agree to it. Once chosen, you will never be rid of her, as you can tell from this pest!' Morwen laughed and scratched the bridge of her mare's nose.
'I understand, and shall not be offended if she would rather remain among her kind,' Finduilas answered.
Morwen whistled softly, then called 'Gull, Gull, come here!' A dapple-grey mare, tall like the others, stepped closer. Morwen motioned for Finduilas to go forward. 'Gull, this is Finduilas. I spoke to you of her.' The mare fixed her large brown eyes on Finduilas, then made an odd sound, as though offering a greeting.
A polite reply was in order. 'Hello, Gull. I hope the hospitality is to your liking.' Finduilas swore the mare chuckled in reply. Gull nosed her arm, then snuffed her face, and walked around her, sniffing and nudging as she went. Gull ended by rubbing her head on Finduilas's shoulder, almost knocking her over.
Morwen clapped. 'She likes you! Now, for a ride. Up you go.' Morwen boosted Finduilas onto Gull, then scrambled onto her own mare. 'We'll be back, Luinil!' With a chirrup, she urged her mare forward, Gull following. Soon they were cantering next to a stone wall that marked the start of the farms. It took a few minutes to get over her startlement, but Finduilas quickly decided she had never ridden a finer horse. Gull's gait was so smooth she did not miss a saddle. They went less than a quarter mile before Morwen signaled to return. 'I think she will wish to stay, Finduilas, though we will not know until it is time to leave.'
'I am honored if this is all Mistress Gull deigns to give me, cousin,' Finduilas replied honestly, stroking the mare's neck.
'Let her see Gaerhûl, and that would make up her mind,' Morwen teased, then cocked her head, 'as you have decided about the rider, yes?'
'What do you mean?'
'I could have sworn last year that you would choose a different rider.'
'Many made that mistake.'
'Including the rider?'
'Possibly. I know not what he has said to you, and you have chastised me before for prying.' Finduilas looked pointedly at Morwen. 'I find I agree with you about prying. I grow weary of common gossip.'
'The Warden is a grim man. I did not think he could capture a high heart like your own.'
Finduilas smiled as an answer and they returned to Luinil in silence. After bidding the horses goodbye, the women returned to the City. As they walked up the streets, Morwen's face became sad. Luinil insisted that she come in to Vinyamar and the two cousins remained together the rest of the day.
Minas Tirith, December 28, 2976 T.A.
'Finduilas, are you awake?' Luinil stood at the door of her room.
'Yes. I am just resting now.'
'Beregar is downstairs. He asks if you will come see the Archivist on something important, though he cannot say what it is.'
Finduilas yawned and rolled out of bed. The morning had been filled with notes, a brief meeting with Borondir, a final dress fitting, and capped by a lively dinner with Lady Beriel of Langstrand, Queen Morwen, and their four daughters. Luinil did not have to insist very much to get her to take a nap. 'Cannot or will not?'
'Cannot. Though I believe the Warden has also been summoned.'
'Oh!' That news brought her fully awake. 'I will be ready in a moment.' Finduilas dressed plainly and veiled her face so she would not be stopped on the way. Beregar waited for her just outside the front door. 'Huan, what does the archivist wish?' she asked as they walked up the lane and towards the main road.
'She did not say, my lady, only that you and our lord must attend her at once.' The standing. That was the only thing left undecided. Maiaberiel had sent Finduilas a note saying she would be doing so, but that was before Denethor returned from the garrison inspection. Finduilas sighed to herself. Aiavalë had refused to answer any of her questions about seeing the cobbler, insisting she would not blight the wedding. It shall be no one. But that would be scandalous, and possibly disastrous in front of so many noble guests. She sighed again and steeled herself for a long argument with the siblings. Denethor waited for her in the entryway of the house, looking displeased. Finduilas greeted him with a kiss on the cheek, easing his scowl. 'Shall we go to the parlor?'
'She is in another room. I had to go look for her and she ordered me out until you arrived.' Denethor gestured for them to follow. They walked past the parlor and to the door to the dining hall where Lark's wedding had been held.
Aiavalë sat at the far end of the room, before the hearth. There were two small lanterns hung on hooks on either wall, leaving the room dim. She waved them in impatiently, saying, 'Beregar as well. Come in here!' Before they could cross the room, the Archivist held up her hand. 'Wait.' Aiavalë stood and walked towards them. She still limped. Finduilas could hear how one foot struck the floor more heavily than the other. But Aiavalë did not lurch or weave, and the limp was slight. She stopped before them and said, 'Well?'
Denethor turned to Beregar. 'Get more lights. It is too dark.' He turned and stared down at his sister, arms crossed. Aiavalë crossed her arms in return and glared back. They did not move or speak until after Beregar came in with a few candles and two lamps. Finduilas helped him get all lit and set out. Denethor reached out and flipped Aiavalë's veil off her head, letting it drop to her shoulders. 'Walk, now that I can see.'
Aiavalë returned to the hearth, then came back, eyes on Denethor. He behaved as though he were buying a horse, motioning her to walk forward, or go back, even dropping to the floor to see her gait at the level of the ground. Finally, he motioned her to come back to him. 'Let me see the shoe.' Aiavalë held on to his shoulder for balance while he knelt and examined the shoe. 'Does it cause you pain? The others did.'
'The first one he made did, and I nearly had him thrown out. The second was better, but wobbled. This one… it works.'
Denethor stood and gestured for her to walk some more. 'How quickly?' Aiavalë strode briskly across the room and back. Her lurch became more apparent the faster she moved, but it was still slight.
When she was standing in front of him once more, Aiavalë touched his arm, and quietly said, 'It is enough, is it not?'
'No. It may suffice, but there is another test.' In one smooth motion, he took her into his arms, one around her waist, another holding her hand. 'With me.' Denethor began to sing a simple tune, one to a dance that all children learn, and led off the dance. Aiavalë made a cry of protest and tried to wriggle away. Denethor halted. 'Trust me.' He began to hum the song again, then moved. She stepped backwards, then to the side, tentative. Denethor murmured something and hummed again. Finduilas took up the tune and sang, Beregar joining her. The dance itself was simple and Aiavalë quickly learned where to move her feet. A smile came across her face. Finduilas tapped Beregar on the shoulder and held out her hands. Never stopping the song, he bowed, then danced. They sang the tune twice before stopping. Aiavalë leaned her head against Denethor's chest and wept. He embraced her and spoke softly in her ear, motioning for the others to leave.
'Come, Huan.' Finduilas led them out and into the parlor down the hall. 'I will wait here until they are done.' Beregar built up the fire and left. Finduilas sat in the chair facing Denethor's, waiting. After a quarter-hour, there was a tap on the door and Denethor let himself in. He stayed near the door, looking awkward.
'Lady Lore? How is she?'
'Well. Well enough. She has retired. You need not wait for her.'
'She said nothing to me of the shoe; in fact, she denied anything was being done.'
'I expect she did. She will stand for me.' Something changed in his face, and he stared into a corner of the room, eyes bright. 'She promised. She will.'
'Shall I send the bad news to Beruthiel or shall you?'
Denethor's head snapped around, eyes hard. 'What has she done?'
'She sent a note to me on how pleased she is to stand at the wedding.'
'I will answer her.' For several heartbeats, he simply looked at her, before glancing away. 'So. That is settled. I should go.'
'I thought you said you did not care for being told what you should do?'
Denethor paused, hand outstretched towards the door handle. 'Yes, well, I must always listen to one who speaks to me thus and he is a surly and merciless fellow.'
'Once you said that I was your chiefest counselor. Do you still think so?'
A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. 'Yes, prince, I do.'
'Then hear my advice. Tell this ill-tempered fellow to go about his business and leave you here in peace. It would not do to shirk your duties, but a brief respite may be allowed. I do not think the City in danger of collapse should you rest for an hour.'
The smile spread. 'I think your counsel sound, prince, and I will take it.'
'Good. Come sit and talk to me.' He came to the fire, pausing only to pour them wine. After handing Finduilas her cup, Denethor looked at her, an odd expression on his face as though he had found something curious to examine. 'What is it, friend? Why do you stare?'
'Nothing. It is just that you are so very beautiful.' He reached out and touched her cheek with his forefinger, wonder on his face. 'And you are here.' Denethor cleared his throat, looking embarrassed, and snatched his hand back before retreating to his chair. Finduilas waited until he would meet her eyes once more.
'As are you.' He glanced at the fire, smiling again. 'I think this has been the longest year of my life, so far from you. I wish to be nowhere else, save with thee.'
Denethor met her eyes once more. It was frightening to see his face like this; gone were the masks, fierce or stern or proud or mocking, that usually hid his thoughts, and gone, too, was the shyness of a moment before, so like to Beregar's awkward affection. What remained was bare, helpless, leaving his heart exposed. 'Truly?'
'Of course, Denethor! For almost two years, I had you about all the time, then I see you but once since I left the City. I have been miserable all this year.'
'You did not seem so to me!' he replied. 'I mean, in your letters. They said nothing of this.'
His hasty emendation made her curious, but she could not say why. 'I did not wish you to worry, nor to have such word be read by other eyes.'
'Ah, of course.' He looked like himself once more. With a shrug and a slight smile, 'I have missed you as well, Alquallë. The City has been empty without you.' Another change to his face and Denethor was being a prince. 'Beregar says you and your sister put the house in order. Is it now as you want it?'
'For the most part. It is good enough. Whatever is not pleasing may be changed in time.' Finduilas did not care for how Denethor had distanced himself. 'I want to know about Beregar.'
'What of him?'
'His own marriage? Did you order it?'
'No!' Denethor snapped. 'I ordered nothing.'
'But you know what happened, don't you?'
'He got married,' was Denethor's stubborn reply, but he stared into his wine. Finduilas waited for him to sneak a look, fixing him with a disbelieving gaze. 'Adanel insisted,' Denethor finally muttered.
'Because he is to serve me?'
With a sigh, Denethor agreed, 'Yes, because he is your Hound.'
Now it was Finduilas's turn to look away. Oh, Beregar! I would not this had been done. More lives had been turned on new paths because of her and her dreams. Think sensibly. You know what mischief Beruthiel will do with this, even if Huan is wed. Imrahil said he seemed not unhappy with his wife. Even so, he left the woman in the lower City and did not act like a new husband.
'It will be all right.' Denethor's voice drew her out of her thoughts. 'The girl seems sensible and good natured.'
'You have met her?'
'Not exactly,' he hedged. 'I was at the wedding and saw her then. A pretty girl!'
'Do you know her name?'
Denethor shifted in his chair. 'Ah, I… don't remember exactly… '
'You should.' Finduilas made her voice sharp.
'Why?' Denethor growled in return.
'Because she is wed to your most loyal man, because she is living under our roof, and because this marriage was done as much for your honor as for my own. You may not call him nephew, but Beregar is of kin to you. I expect you to give his wife the courtesy a kinswoman deserves.' She matched Denethor's stare until he looked away. They sat in silence while he finished his wine and fetched himself another cup.
'I will.' Denethor gave her a wry look. 'So, tell me, when did Thorongil appear in Minas Tirith?'
'Two days after you left, on the seventeenth.'
'Where have you seen him?'
'At Beruthiel's party. Father has seen him in councils.'
'And what is the Prince's opinion?'
'I think he cares less for the Captain than he does for you.'
Denethor sipped his wine, thoughtful. 'And how little does he care for me?'
'Step carefully around him, and it will grow.'
'The Prince has sworn to me that he will see honor in you, for he will not doubt my word. Also, now, he begins to see how division was sown between you. Thus, his distaste for the Captain and the Steward. I asked from my father his word that he would believe in your honor as regards myself. I want now from you your word that you will not seek to humble his pride.'
Denethor nodded. 'I give my word, Alquallë. I wish no quarrel with Adrahil.'
'What of Thorongil? Has he returned to Osgiliath now that you are back?'
'No,' was the sour reply, 'He was waiting with the Steward to greet Thengel and Morwen.'
'He served Thengel. It is courtesy that he should offer his greetings.'
'He should have greeted them at the Gate and departed at once.'
Finduilas shrugged 'And the greeting is over. He may now depart.'
'You have not heard? He will remain through the Great Council.'
'Really?' She thought a minute, then smiled. 'Good.'
'Yes. None will pay him any mind now that you have returned. People will watch the wedding and will know the true victor. He will know his place.'
Outside, Finduilas heard bells toll the hours. Denethor sighed and stood. 'My taskmaster has returned, prince, and I may not gainsay him.' She rose as well.
'Then I give you back to him, friend.'
'I have time to walk you home,' Denethor shyly added, 'if you promise not to tell.'
'Not even Lady Lore will know,' she solemnly replied. This won a smile. Beregar was told to remain at the house until Wren and Targon returned from the archives for the evening. As they walked, Finduilas squeezed Denethor's arm. 'Only two more days.' He did not answer. 'We missed your birthday.'
'It is no matter.'
'It matters to me and to Aiavalë.'
'That is enough.' At the door of Vinyamar, Denethor paused and seemed ready to say something, then kissed her hand and backed away. Again, his face was bare. 'Two days. I shall see you then.'
Minas Tirith, December 29, 2976 T.A.
Huddled under thick quilts with a warming pan at her feet, Finduilas resentfully watched the healer mix a coughing draught. This is not fair. Finduilas had been woken by her own coughs, wet and clinging, while the skies outside threatened snow. Her chest felt filled with water, and she coughed until her throat was raw and her back ached. Luinil sent someone to the healers at once, and Warden Lhûn had answered the summons herself. For the past two hours, Finduilas had been poked, thumped, listened to, dosed, rubbed, told to stand, told to lie down, and dosed yet again. She hoped there would be enough brandy in this last medicine to put her sleep. Finduilas obediently drank the cup of green syrup, grimacing at the taste. Not enough brandy.
Lhûn stood with Luinil at the foot of the bed. 'It is too bad the cough has come on so late, Princess,' the elder women agreed, 'but the young miss recovers quickly, as I recall, if allowed to rest.'
'She will rest today and tomorrow,' Luinil replied. 'That's all the time we have.'
'Can the wedding be put off one more day?'
'No.' Finduilas and Luinil answered together. Her mother motioned at her to be quiet and lie down. 'No, Warden, I am sorry. It cannot unless she is too ill to walk.'
The healer's brow knitted. Throwing a worried glance at Finduilas, she took Luinil's arm and led her out of the room. Finduilas tried to listen to what they said in the hallway. 'Needs rest… ' 'I know, but there…' '…Lord Denethor? I can speak to him…' 'No, the alarm…' '…night will tax her… ' '…know more by tonight…' The syrup took effect, making her ears buzz. Finduilas slipped into a doze. When she woke in midafternoon, her chest did not feel so heavy. The phlegm she coughed up was mostly yellow without any green and there was no sign of blood, fresh or old. The attending healer was pleased enough by this good turn that she allowed Finduilas to sit up. After she drank tea and broth, Finduilas looked at the notes that had come for her over the day. The only one she read was from Aiavalë.
Dearest Little Sister,
The shoe still fits, so I shall stand for Denethor on the morrow. Wren is helping me with my dress. She has been very lonely since Lark flew away to Pelargir, and this old crow is poor company for her. If you have not brought a maid from Dol Amroth to tend you, you should take Wren. Almarian's granddaughter looks after both of us, so do not worry on my account.
How happy you have made me! I am singing, Alquallë, and laughing like a girl. I know not if my heart may bear more joy. All I wish to see is you and Denethor dance at your wedding feast and I may die in peace.
Finduilas smiled at the Archivist's excitement. No, there will be no delay. She asked the healer for more broth and to take away the notes so she could rest more. By supper she felt well enough to eat with the rest of house. It was an awkward meal, with no one willing to say much. Ivriniel and Luinil came back to her room with her afterwards and began sorting out what would need to be sent to the Stewards House and what needed to remain behind to prepare for the wedding, sternly telling her to stay in bed while they did the work. After Finduilas drank her medicine for the night, Luinil sat next to her, stroking her hair and humming a lullaby until she drifted off to sleep.
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