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Hands of the King: 36. Fortress
Minas Tirith, Mid-January, 2977 T.A.
Finduilas sat with Wren in her study. Denethor was meeting with various ministers in the Tower all morning. She and Wren were writing the last replies to congratulations over the wedding and consolations for Angelimir's death. Close to noon, a light tap on the door caught their attention. Aeluin peeked around the door.
'Lady Maiaberiel is here, mistress. Shall I show her up?'
Wren's face went pale. Finduilas remembered all the cruelty Beruthiel had shown Wren and Lark and was tempted to turn the woman away. No. That is foolish. You must keep her close and watch for mischief. 'Wren, you may finish this upstairs,' she briskly directed, before turning to Aeluin, 'When Wren has cleared her work away, please show the lady up. Have tea sent afterwards.'
'Will you be sitting in the solar?'
'No. Here.' Wren placed the last of the notes in a basket, tucked her writing desk under her arm, and strode out of the room. 'Aeluin, if I or Denethor are not at home and Maiaberiel calls, she is not to be allowed in.'
'Of course, my lady.' With a nod, the matron left and soon returned with Maiaberiel. The woman swept into the room, and embraced Finduilas firmly.
'Oh, dear sister, please, please forgive me for not calling sooner! And in the midst of your grief, as well. I have been ill and Brandir would not hear of me leaving the house before I was recovered.' Finduilas searched her sister-in-law's face for any sign of duplicity and found none. Maiaberiel was thinner than at the wedding, with dark circles under her eyes that cosmetics could not hide. 'I was coming to dine with Father and decided I would come a little sooner to see you. Do you mind?'
'No, I do not. I have been worried, for it was not like you to be absent. Please, stay and tell me how you are.' They sat before the fire and Maiaberiel explained that even though she had been taken with a fever on yestarë, she had insisted on holding her usual party, but had been left bedridden as a result.
'Brandir sat at my side for a week and cared for me. I think I have recovered so quickly because of him.'
'You are well now? You still look pale.'
Maiaberiel shrugged. 'Well enough. The healer says I must rest for a full month. I should be home now, but I had to see you and Father. I could not bear to be parted from you another day!'
'You will go and rest, though, after this? You must not undo all of your healing.'
'I will.' The older woman stirred her tea, her brow furrowed. 'I must admit that I worried over you, Finduilas, while I lay abed. I had the most frightful nightmares.' There was something in Maiaberiel's voice that made Finduilas think she was speaking the truth. 'I like not that you are up here with no one for company.'
You would not care for the company I keep. Finduilas doubted Beruthiel would consider Denethor, Wren, and Borondir to be suitable company. 'I have all the company I wish for now, in this grey season. I, too, was somewhat ill after the wedding…'
'Oh, no! That is terrible! What did the healers say?'
'It was but my cough threatening, so I stayed abed and escaped any great harm. Then, with Grandfather's death and the dreary weather, I have done very little save sleep and needlework. The festivity and grief both of the last weeks have left me wishing for quiet, even solitude.'
'As is common with a newly made wife,' Maiaberiel slyly noted. 'I remember being a bride. There is only one person's company you wish.' Finduilas dropped her eyes shyly and made a noncommittal noise, causing the other to laugh cheerfully. 'I would not have this any other way, now that it is done. You being my sister, I mean. Even so, I am truly surprised at your choice.'
Finduilas tried to look confused. 'What choice?'
'I honestly thought Thorongil had your affection. More than that, I do not understand why you agreed to Denethor's suit.'
'Well, I do not understand why people are so surprised that I would not choose the captain,' Finduilas said with a touch of exasperation. 'He is a scruffy wanderer out of the north. What if he had decided to return? The Lost all leave, and I did not care to be following him off into the wild. I have no regret in turning him down. Thorongil was thinking very much on what I could do to improve his fortunes and not much for how he might reduce my own. He is crafty and I think all are well to beware of him.'
Maiaberiel stared into the fire, considering Finduilas's words. 'I had not thought of him in such terms, Finduilas. He is a man of subtlety and will become only more powerful in Gondor. I do not think him eager to return to the rough ways of the north, nor does Brandir. Thorongil himself has said as much.' She turned away from the fire, eyes sharp. 'He would have stayed for you. I wish you had spoken to him of your concerns before it was too late.'
'I am content with the choice I have made.'
'Not happy with it? Just content?'
'Happy, content, satisfied; it is all the same, isn't it?'
Maiaberiel shook her head. 'No, it is not, but you will discover that on your own. I hope Brandir is right.' Finduilas wondered at the serious, even sad, quality to the woman's tone, and even more at the mysterious reference to Brandir. Right about what? 'I hope you do not rue your choice.' Her expression became sharp once more. 'You were not tricked or trapped into this? I want the truth!'
'No! There was nothing but an honest suit and a freely given answer. How can you think otherwise?'
'I know Denethor all too well,' was the dark answer.
Finduilas could not allow such an insult to pass unanswered. 'I think you know him not at all. He has been kind and honorable, if stern, in all his acts toward me.'
'I guess we will see who knows him best,' was the matter-of-fact reply. 'If he falls into his former dark ways, tell me and I will do what I can. Father will help, as well' Finduilas could not summon a polite answer to that. Maiaberiel cocked her head. 'You may not regret declining the captain's suit, but you had best be certain not to decline his friendship. You scorned him once for his low station. There are great things before him. You never know when your fortunes may suddenly reverse.' The door downstairs opened and closed, and Finduilas heard Denethor's steps in the entry hall, then on the stair. Maiaberiel heard them as well, for she rose. 'If you care for your good fortune, you will learn how to temper your husband's pride with respect to Thorongil.' With a nod, the woman walked towards the door.
Denethor appeared in the doorway. 'You are not welcome here,' he said without preamble to his sister.
'I will visit my sister as it pleases me,' Maiaberiel replied. 'You shan't be allowed to lock her away for yourself. Good-bye, Finduilas. I will call again when we both feel better.' She brushed past him and was gone. Denethor stalked over and dropped into the unoccupied chair before the fire. He raised an enquiring eyebrow.
'She was on her way to dine with the Steward and paid a call.'
'She need not call again.'
'I will permit it.'
Denethor looked at Finduilas with curiosity. 'Because…?'
'She seeks to divide us, you and me. I watch what she does.'
'I do not like her here,' he replied.
'Better that she come here than I go there,' Finduilas countered. 'Beruthiel needs to accommodate me from now on. Wren will have to be protected, however.' He nodded. Finduilas remembered someone who had not been protected. 'Friend, I almost fear to ask, but you and Lady Lore have made mention of a woman who no longer lives.'
'Tell me of her.'
He gazed into the fire collecting his thoughts. 'She was the third born, just after Primrose.'
'Her mother was a farm girl on the Pelennor. Ecthelion commanded Osgiliath at the time. My uncle Belemir was not… amused at his officer's conduct. Hareth's mother was married off to a fisherman in the Harlond. The eldest sisters, Adanel and Primrose, they were married off decently. Aiavalë saw to it, with Steward Turgon's approval. After his death, Maiaberiel asked Ecthelion to leave such matches in her hands, which he did. She sought to marry Hareth off too young to gain loyalty from the man's house. Hareth and her family objected and spurned the match. Not long after, she was found dead in the river.' In all of the telling, he did not look at her.
'Not an accident, though?'
'No. Hareth wasn't drowned. She was beaten and something had struck her head.'
Finduilas considered this horrific news. 'Was it intentional, or an attack that went too far?' He shrugged. 'Like Lark.'
'Like Lark.' Denethor was silent again. 'The next two girls, Miraen and Luinmir, were already under Maiaberiel's sway and their families did not dare object to the matches made for them. Both of them were wed too young. Miraen died in childbed. Aiavalë took charge of Lark and Wren and made them archivists to protect them.'
There was nothing to add. They sat, watching the fire. Beregar came to the door and announced dinner. As they ate, Finduilas asked Denethor about the meetings with the ministers, but paid little attention to his answers. When they finished, Finduilas said, 'I think it a day for visiting sisters, and will go to the archives.'
'I will go with you,' Denethor said, 'and you will stop at the Houses of Healing on the way back.' His tone brooked no disagreement. Finduilas called Wren and announced her plans for the afternoon, saying the woman would come with her. They were soon warmly bundled and their way to the archives. The greeting was boisterous, for all the archivists had missed both Finduilas and Wren mightily. Hador danced a jig as he sang a silly song of welcome and no amount of scolding from Aiavalë could dampen his joy. Finduilas promised that she would come to the archives regularly now that all the hubbub of the wedding and year-end celebrations were over, much to the delight of the archivists. Aiavalë was the most pleased. She took Finduilas's arm and they strolled through the caverns, talking. A few cats trailed behind, though Denethor had vanished. Off to borrow more books, no doubt, Finduilas thought with a smirk.
'Alquallë, you are well? You look weary.'
'Yes, Lady Lore, though I am still tired. After we are through here, I will stop to see the healers. Denethor insists.'
'Good! He had best take very good care of you, or I shall box his ears.'
'Were you there at the feast, Aiavalë? I did not see you, but I was more than a little drunk,' Finduilas shamefacedly confessed.
The Archivist laughed. 'I was there, but in a dark corner where no one would see me. I was a little drunk myself, sister, if truth be told, but I was there to watch you dance. Oh, you were so beautiful! You and Denethor both – you looked like a king and queen out of a song.'
'Thank you for giving me Wren, sister. She is a delightful companion. I still worry over you, though, all alone.'
'I have more than enough company,' was Aiavalë's stubborn reply. Finduilas looked at her sternly. 'It is not as cheerful at the house as it was when the little birds were there, I will not deny that, but they are better for not being with me.' The Archivist hesitated, then asked, 'You will look for a good man for Wren, will you not? She is of a proper age now.'
'I will. I promise not to hoard her to myself. We will come here to see you and, when the weather turns warm, we will commence our archery again, shall we not?'
The look of joy on Aiavalë's face removed the last worry over Maiaberiel from Finduilas's heart. 'Yes! There is nothing I would treasure more!' They walked through the caverns talking of inconsequential things. Eventually they ended up near a small room near the ancient books. Denethor was there, feet on the desk, reading a recent report on coal mining near the mountains in Lebennin, one of the archive mousers sleeping in his lap. When he saw them, he insisted it was time to return home. They stopped at the healers, and took tea with Warden Lhûn. The healer who had tended her before the wedding took Finduilas aside and examined her, listening to her lungs, asking her some questions on what she was eating, how much she was resting, and so forth. They left with a bundle of tea and a few medicines, which pleased Denethor.
On the way home, Finduilas thought again about the visit from Maiaberiel and the story of Hareth. Intended or not, that woman caused the girl's death. It made her shiver to think of. She asked that they walk to the top of the wall and look down on the City. The walls of each circle, save the last outer wall, were bright even under the grey sky. So many people, but Beruthiel cares only for herself. Finduilas thought about the discord the woman spread and how poorly Maiaberiel had served the City. A determination seized her, as it had that morning. You wish power? You wish you were queen of this citadel? Very well, Beruthiel, the poor and the plain I claim as my own, but power, too, will come to me. I will win Minas Tirith just as I will do with Denethor. I build my fortress in their hearts.
Afterwards, Finduilas did little but think as she went about her business. There were callers, mostly women of the older families, and Borondir had his weekly report and tea with her. They continued to discuss the lower circles, and she formed her plans. Gethron was sent a note to ask of her guardsmen what crafts they knew aside from soldiering. When Denethor went to the archives, she would also go, and every evening was spent sewing before the fire in his study. Sometimes he would sit near her, sometimes behind his desk. Often, they did not speak, but their silence was comfortable. Finduilas did not think it her imagination that he watched her in the evenings, even when he seemed to be reading. She knew he was more likely now to sit in the chair opposite her as she sewed, rather than barricading himself behind his desk. She began breaking their few embraces before Denethor did. It seemed that he was disappointed by this, but he did not try to stop her from stepping away.
When she had thought enough, Finduilas sent a note. Luinmir presented herself at the Stewards House that very afternoon. Wren and Aeluin both regarded the woman dourly, and she returned the look. Finduilas embraced her and led her to a seat near the fire where tea awaited them. Luinmir looked about the room, eyes finally resting on the banner. Finduilas took note of the age of the woman's dress and the signs that it had been worn too often. She was still beautiful, if thin.
'Thank you for coming,' Finduilas began.
Luinmir did not answer. She gazed upon Finduilas with the shrewd glance of a daughter of Ecthelion, then smiled to herself. 'You surprised me by asking me here. Then again, you have a knack for surprising people. Why?'
'Why do you think?'
'You are determined to be a great lady.'
'Yes, that is possible,' Finduilas replied pleasantly, 'and what of yourself?'
'I am no one of importance any longer, if I ever was.'
'You are someone who has been kind to me, and I am glad for your friendship,' was Finduilas's only slightly untrue response. 'I was grieved last year to know of your loss, and would know how you fare now.'
'Almost all I had is gone,' Luinmir said plainly, 'and I think I am best done with it.' Finduilas said nothing, sipping tea, waiting for the story. 'I am still a widow, and shall remain one. There are fewer men who seek a wife, and more women who wish to be made one, so none give much attention to one like me. It suits me, for I do not want such attentions.'
Taking a chance, Finduilas said bluntly, 'Does not Maiaberiel wish you wed to her advantage?'
Luinmir laughed gaily, not at all what Finduilas had expected. 'Oh, yes, she did! My dear husband but a week in the ground, and she was showing me off. But I foiled her. Isilmo did one worthwhile thing with his life; he gave me a daughter.' There was no hiding her pride in this news. 'I have what she will never have, and I would not trade my penury for any of her gold.'
'A baby? When was she born? What is her name?'
'Anna, for she is a perfect gift. She was born in June.' Luinmir drank some tea before chuckling. 'Few girls of modest station and great ambition wed well without Maiaberiel's approval. When she knew I was bearing a child, she let me be. No one wishes a widow with a child.'
'You spoke of penury, Luinmir. That alarms me,' Finduilas prompted, 'particularly when you have a daughter.'
'Isilmo was coarse and wastrel, and the rest of his family is much like him. All of my dower, my gems, and anything else of worth has gone to pay his debts. The booksellers are happy and some of them even give me a fair price.'
With a shock, Finduilas realized from where Denethor's birthday gift of a year past must have come. 'If you have any other books to sell, Luinmir, please bring them to me. I will buy them and you need not worry about a fair price.'
'No.' Luinmir sounded exactly like Denethor when he was obstinate. 'I will go to Master Golasgil, for all he wishes to own are my books. Not me.'
'I only wish to… '
'Make me beholden to you. I am through with that.' Luinmir's voice was firm and her expression determined. 'Maiaberiel would have had me cast out my own child so I would be her pawn. The debtors will forgive me gold if I agree to play the slattern. Isilmo's brother is even worse. Not again. Neither your pity nor your charity will I take.'
'I shall not demean you by offering such, Luinmir.' Her plan was going to be more difficult than she thought, but Finduilas was certain she had found the right person. 'I am glad to hear of your daughter. She sounds a treasure.'
A smile came back to the woman's face. 'She is!'
'I am sorry you did not bring her with you.'
'Anna is too young to be out in this cold.'
Finduilas smiled brightly. 'Then you must bring her when the season turns.'
'Will I be returning?'
'Yes, if you will help me.' Luinmir raised a skeptical eyebrow. 'I offer you a challenge, not charity. You will need to earn your keep. This is who you will serve.' Finduilas rose and collected a packet of children's letters from her desk, handing them to Luinmir. She waited while the other examined them. 'You are not the only widow, nor is Anna the only orphan, in Minas Tirith. I look for someone who will go among them, tend them, look for those who prey upon their sorrow and innocence, and who will bring their plaints to my ears. You will oversee a purse to be used for their benefit, though it will not be enough. You will work with myself and Lord Borondir to succor them so they need not listen to whispers from evil creatures. There is no ease in this duty, but you will stand beholden to no one.'
Luinmir handed the letters back. 'May I think upon this, my lady?'
'Yes, but not too long. If it is acceptable, be here at the third bell on Tuesday next to meet with Borondir and myself.'
Minas Tirith, Early February, 2977 T.A.
The guardsman stood in the doorway of the study, cloak dripping on the stone floor. Finduilas saw Beregar over the man's shoulder, displeasure on his face. Duty was making her Hound age more quickly than his years, and he resembled his uncle more and more. She missed the cheerful, awkward youngster who carried her packages and blushed at her smile.
'What is it?' she asked the guardsman.
'Lieutenant Gethron sent me, my lady,' the man replied. She recognized him as one of the soldiers from Dol Amroth. He pulled a small leather pouch from beneath his cloak. 'There are messages from the Prince, and the lieutenant charged me to place them in your hands.'
That explained why Beregar was looking cross. He would not like being denied the right to deliver such things. Stifling a sigh at the pride of his house, Finduilas smiled and gestured for the guardsman to give her the letters. 'Thank you, Hunthor, is it?'
The man smiled broadly as he handed her the pouch. 'Yes, that's right.'
'How do you and the other guardsmen of Dol Amroth fare in Minas Tirith, Hunthor?'
'We are well, now that we are used to the cold.'
'You are amiable with the northern guardsmen?'
'Yes! We are brothers now, our band, in your service. We are the Queen's Men,' Hunthor proudly said, but stopped smiling at her startled expression.
'What do you call yourselves?'
'Uh, the, uh, well, Queen's Men,' was his sheepish reply.
For a moment, Finduilas was going to speak sharply and forbid him to use that title. It cannot be used openly, but might it not have its uses? Maiaberiel names her faction the King's Men in hope. Time to counter her mischief. 'You are the Guardsmen of the Lady, which is honor enough,' she gently scolded, smiling to take away the sting, 'and I do not wish to hear such presumption voiced about. Be sure the right words are said in public.' Hunthor nodded, cheeks red. Time to soothe some pride. 'Please let Lieutenant Gethron know that messages from Dol Amroth may be given into the keeping of Beregar or Matron Aeluin, but no one else, for I will not always be able to take them.' She nodded a pleasant dismissal to let both men know they could leave.
As soon as they were gone, Finduilas opened the pouch and fished out letters. One was in her father's hand and was addressed to Denethor. The rest were all for her. She opened her mother's letter first.
We are safely arrived in Dol Amroth, though the journey was wearing. The horses were left with the knights in Ethring and we took a tow barge down Ringló to Edhellond and then a ship across the bay. I miss you terribly, dear daughter. The keep is empty without you or Angelimir. Please thank Denethor for sending Imrahil home.
You will be pleased to know that Ivriniel has made a match; Angbor of Linhir. She told me in Pelargir that is who she wished and Lady Rían and I had all arranged by the time we reached Linhir. The wedding will be there next winter, probably on or after yestarë. I was glad this was your sister's choice, though until she spoke I was certain she would choose Lord Morvorin.
The rest of the letter was full of news of the keep. So, it shall be Angbor. Finduilas was pleased. She next read Adrahil's letter, just a single page long.
We did not speak as I had hoped we could do before it was time to return. Perhaps that is best. I envy Denethor that you are there and not here with me and your mother, but do not think I am in opposition. Would that this could have been done with less strife – long shall I rue that. Your father is but a greedy man who would keep you near him always. Will you forgive me that weakness? I shall treat your sister with more charity, though I shall grumble, as is a father's right. She has chosen the heir of Linhir for her husband, pleasing your mother greatly. Too soon shall another of my children fly away.
You grandfather lies in his place next to his father, Aglahad, in the crypt. Îbal said the seabirds accompanied the ship from Ethir Anduin to the harbor, silent. Others said they saw a shade sitting upon the forward deck, a man wrapped in fog, mending rope, just as Father did when he was upon the Sea, but I believe they were allowing their grief to govern their sight. Angelimir died in peace. The keep and the city have mourned for him. He was a great Prince and a greater man.
This made Finduilas shudder. She did not doubt what the sailors saw, though she agreed it was not Angelimir. Why were you there? Did you hold off storms? Why do you haunt us? There was no more to her father's letter save his love, so she turned to Ivriniel's letter. It was very long.
Perhaps you have already heard from Mother, though she promised she would not write until I had the chance to tell you. I am betrothed! And you will never guess to whom - Angbor of Linhir. I know you and Lord Denethor thought more highly of Lord Morvorin, since he is already a lord and has led in battle, and of course Mother and Father wished for me to wed closer to Dol Amroth, but I had to follow my heart. I fear Father is not happy with the choice, but Mother says it is only because it follows so quickly upon your marriage and Grandfather's death.
The rest of the letter nattered on, describing how Ivriniel had felt upon first seeing Angbor, of when they had spoken, how much they had danced, how fearful she had been he did not return her feelings, that he had said something to her at the wedding feast that made her wonder. Finduilas laughed aloud, delighted at Ivriniel's joy, and even more pleased that Angbor had wooed her sister so assiduously. Even allowing for Ivriniel's exaggerations, it appeared there was a great deal of love between the two. Finduilas did have to wonder at how little of the flirtation she herself had noticed. It was a good match, one that would solidify the falas and bring them more firmly into accord with Minas Tirith. Satisfied, Finduilas opened Imrahil's slim note. Like their father, he had written but one page.
We are back safely. Ivriniel and Mother talk of nothing but weddings, and I do as my lord commanded and fulfill my duties in Dol Amroth. I do not wish to be in Minas Tirith right now. Father is deeply sorrowed, more than he will say. Every day he goes to the crypt and sits in silence for a time. Sometimes Mother has to go fetch him.
I dreamed. Grandfather used to listen to them. Will you, now? If you do not wish it, tell me and I will send no more. I was upon Seabird and Grandfather was there, too. We watched south and saw many small ships flying north before a strong wind. Upon their heels was a storm cloud and from it issued lightning. The lightning struck near Seabird and the Sea caught fire, ringing us. Grandfather called to me to turn the ship north. The wind threw us forward towards flames. Grandfather snatched up a great net of silver from the deck and cast it before us, tangling the flames within its strands and drowning them. We broke through the circle and followed the other ships.
When it is time, I will come north. It looks like I soon shall gain another brother-in-law. Angbor is a good enough fellow, but I like Morvorin better.
Finduilas rang for tea and spent the rest of the afternoon rereading the letters. Imrahil's words left her unsettled, particularly as her parents said nothing, so she gave her attention to Ivriniel's more cheerful words. Dark was falling when she heard the Wall Door open and Denethor's footsteps in the hall. As swift as a serpent's strike, jealousy seized her heart. Will Angbor make Ivriniel wait so long to be made wife? As swiftly as the thought came, she was shamed by its pettiness. Do you forget so easily the great charge laid upon you both? Or that Denethor is doubly sworn and must tread carefully? Finduilas silently scolded herself as she neatened her hair and dress. He tapped lightly on her study door and came in, hanging his cloak on a peg near the door. His hair was damp from the rain.
'Friend.' She embraced him and did not break away soon. Leading him to the fire, she made him sit, then fetched wine, handing over the Prince's letter at the same time. 'The Swans are back in Dol Amroth, and Father sent you a note.' Finduilas waited patiently while Denethor read it. He handed it to her when he was done. It was longer than the note Adrahil had written to her, but spoke of nothing except the journey back and a few comments referring to affairs of the Great Council. Only at the end was there something other than a polite report:
Forgive my grief that struck me dumb in the last few days in Minas Tirith. The kindness and honor you showed my house shall be returned tenfold. In humility, I bend my knee to you, my lord; name what thou will of me, it is thine.
She read this passage several times before refolding the note and placing it atop the others. He gestured towards the stack.
Finduilas was loathe to show him the letters, particularly the one from Imrahil. 'You may read them if you wish. The only news in them not in Father's letter to you is that Ivriniel is betrothed.'
Denethor's eyebrows went up. 'Really? Who…? No, let me guess.' His brows knit as he thought. 'Morvorin.'
'No, Angbor of Linhir. Why did you guess Morvorin?'
He shrugged. 'A dashing fellow, already a lord, and no mother-in-law.'
'Are you saying a man should avoid a mother-in-law?' she teased.
'So, Angbor,' he mused, ignoring her jibe, then nodded. 'A good choice. Better than Morvorin. Hers or Luinil's?'
'Ivriniel's, though it is who Mother wished as well. I also thought him the best choice.'
'And the Prince?'
'He is sad. He wants not for his children to leave so soon.' Aeluin tapped on the door, saying supper was ready. They spoke no more on the letters and Denethor never asked to read them.
Minas Tirith, Mid-February, 2977 T.A.
Winter clung tenaciously to the City. Most days were wet or threatening. Denethor and Borondir were pleased, for it meant water would be plentiful in the summer, but Finduilas missed the brighter skies and milder winds of the south. When there was a dry day, she would walk down the City to the stables and visit Gull, remembering her promise to the king. The mare had a stall next to Gaerhûl and the two horses always seemed glad to see Finduilas. Wren usually went with her on these trips to visit her own horse. Finduilas had given the woman the gelding she had ridden from Dol Amroth, and Wren fussed greatly over the gentle steed. She had never ridden a horse before, so Finduilas taught her how.
The trip back up the mountain required a few stops. First was the barracks to speak to Gethron to see how her guardsmen fared. The next would be The Messenger's Rest. She and Wren would sit while Beregar waited upon them. Adanel did not allow him to help in the kitchens anymore. Finduilas met Baranor, Beregar's brother-in-law, who had wed his eldest sister, Rose, sometime the previous summer. He was a quiet, gentle man with a kind smile. He and Rose shared affectionate looks across the tavern as they worked and he never missed an opportunity to touch her, even it was just brushing a shoulder against her as they passed between tables. The final stop was the archives and always meant a few hours talking to Aiavalë, visiting with Hador, helping Mairen shelve scrolls, and so forth.
Finduilas held a small supper for guests every week. She invited those who had chafed under Maiaberiel's reign since Emeldir's death. Most of these were the older houses, but there were some newer and lesser families as well, particularly those with sons in command of troops. Those who played any part in the King's Men were never invited.
It never failed but after those suppers, Finduilas would dream of herself and Denethor in the secret place. They would sit near the waterfall and she would be a swan nestled next to him. Her mantle was cast about them both. He would read to her, though she could not make out the words, while she tucked her head under her wing and ignored the darkness behind them.
Finduilas had other dreams of Denethor, as well. There was often the sound of water in them. He touched her in these dreams. She felt the scratch of his beard against her cheek and neck and his lips would taste her skin. His hands traveled slowly over her, warm and strong. Usually they lay next to each other but sometimes he lay on top of her, his weight pressing her down into the feathers, their legs tangled together.
There was one very strong dream that brought her to wakefulness one morning, shivering in delight at invisible touches. Finduilas did not wish to wake. When she greeted Denethor that morning, he muttered something and fussed with messages. A moment later, he glanced at her furtively, then blushed and attended to the notes. Perhaps I am not the only one who dreams. Finduilas wondered if they had dreamed the same thing, but said nothing. Let the dreams do their work.
One morning Finduilas sat in the front room between her bedroom and Denethor's study, nibbling on a slice of bread and plum preserves while she waited for Denethor to return from the men's baths. Though they ate supper in the dining room, breakfast was now brought to them here. It was simpler to eat the small meal here. Denethor was also inclined to spend time and speak more easily to her when sitting before a fire with his wine and morning messages than at the table.
No matter how much she told Wren that it was alright, the woman would not sit to a meal with them. With Denethor, Finduilas corrected herself. Wren did not care to spend any more time in Denethor's company than in Maiaberiel's, even though he was always perfectly polite to her. He appeared to have taken to heart Finduilas's warning about treating his bastard kin more kindly, though there was still no overt acknowledgement of their relation, not the way Aiavalë would sometimes call Wren sister. It is another shield he raises against those who would lay claim to his heart. She was not so foolish as to think there could be any public recognition of his sisters, but it pained Finduilas that he held his silence where it would do no harm.
Denethor walked in, talking to Beregar over his shoulder. '…do well, Hound?'
'Yes. They are settled in – Good morning, my lady – and have their trainings scheduled with the yard master.' Ah, the new guardsmen. 'May I fetch anything for you?' Finduilas smiled and shook her head. 'Will you be going to the archives today, my lord?'
'No.' Denethor poured himself wine from the pitcher keeping warm at the edge of the hearth. 'I see Galdor today… '
'Galdor? Who is… ?' Finduilas began.
'The surgeon from Osgiliath. He is meeting with me and Warden Lhûn to talk about – You should come with me and see a healer yourself. You've been coughing in the morning – which garrisons will need new or more healers.' Beregar bowed himself out of the room. Denethor fixed himself cheese and bread, shooed the cat out his chair, and sat near the fire. His hair was wet from the baths, making the shoulders of his shirt damp.
'I cough no more than usual.'
'You should not cough at all.'
Finduilas smiled and shook her head at his stubbornness. 'I shall always cough, friend, as you well know.' Telperien, dissatisfied with being ousted from her warm spot, had jumped up on the sideboard to investigate the butter. 'But I shall pay a call upon the healers, if only to make you be quiet.' He snorted at her gentle taunt and wolfed down his bread. She rose and stopped the cat's raid upon the butter crock, fixing Denethor more bread and cheese while she was there. 'Why do you need more surgeons? Or is it simply to spell those who wish to come back?'
'The latter, somewhat, but there are more men to go to the garrisons with spring, so they will need more healers.'
'Do you expect fighting this summer?' Finduilas was still somewhat behind his chair, looking at the dampness of his shirt from his hair. And his locks were small brushes, painting his shoulders with blood… The memory of her vision from the last summer of war filled her eyes. Her legs trembled and her stomach threatened, and she backed away from the chair.
Denethor sighed. 'I always expect something when the weather is better.' She wanted to get rid of the blood. 'Not Harad. Not Umbar. Yet.' His voice was bitter. Finduilas hastened into her room and returned with a small towel. 'Morgul, more than likely.' She began rubbing his hair, squeezing out the blood in it. 'What are you doing, Alquallë?'
'You're all wet,' she stammered. 'You'll catch a cold if your head is damp.' The smell of the dream faded, blood and dirt and exhaustion, leaving only his scent behind. 'You should change your shirt as well.'
'It is a clean shirt,' he protested.
'It is now a wet shirt… '
'….damp shirt, and a shirt should be dry.' This was better. Her heart was not pounding so much, and she was touching him. Denethor sighed in annoyance, but did not protest. Finduilas took her time, working his hair in the towel, enjoying standing so near him.
'I had a thought… '
'Your guardsmen. They could be put to better use.'
'Would you object to them being sent out of the City?'
'Where would you put them?'
'I thought of sending groups of them to the garrisons, rotating them the way we do those who serve us here.'
'Hmm.' Finduilas patted his shoulder to make Denethor stay in his seat. She retrieved a comb from her room and rummaged through her sewing basket for a length of stout thread. 'The City soldiers, are they also sent out to the garrisons?' Finduilas asked as she began untangling Denethor's hair.
His shoulders tensed at her touch. 'Yes, they are moved among the garrisons, but in larger numbers and not so often.' As her fingers worked through the strands, Denethor relaxed his shoulders, but she could tell he was paying close attention.
'The guardsmen would prefer to keep busy, I am sure,' she agreed. When her fingers found a clump of hair that was still too wet, she would use the towel again. 'The City soldiers are not yours to command.'
'No.' Again, bitterness.
'Then I think it wise to use our guardsmen to keep an eye on the garrisons.'
'Yes. A good use for them.'
'But you may not have all of them. I do have things for them to do in the City.'
Finduilas began to braid his hair. It was only a little damp now, just enough to aid her work. 'They distribute the Lady's Grace, they perform acts of kindness for widows and the old who have no one to help mend a broken chair or move things up from a cellar, they wear my badge everywhere and remind all of the beneficence of the Stewards House.'
'You have been busy,' Denethor said, admiration in his voice.
'I build my fortress.'
'Ah.' Silence. 'Borondir?'
'My chief conspirator.'
'Counselor. It sounds more grand.'
'True.' The braid was leaving his neck exposed. It was difficult to keep to her task and not run a finger down his nape.
'How many guardsmen do you need in the City?'
Denethor tapped his fingers slowly, counting out something, then nodded. 'That will do. Fifty each…'
'… to Anórien, Osgiliath, and Pelargir.'
'Though I will split the Anórien group between there and Cair Andros.'
The braid was done. Finduilas bound it off with thread. Quickly, she leaned down and kissed the back of Denethor's neck and just as quickly turned and headed for her room. 'I will be ready to go in a few minutes, friend.'
Minas Tirith, March 1, 2977 T.A.
Finduilas sat up, restless. There was no water left in the pitcher on her bedside table. With a sigh, she clambered from her bed and padded into the front room, carrying her cup. A lamp still burned in Denethor's study, casting a line of light through the doorway and across the floor. She moved carefully, not wanting to disturb him at his work, and silently poured a cup of water from the ewer on the sideboard. From the study came the sound of paper rustling, rousing Finduilas's curiosity. She edged across the room until she could peer in the doorway.
Denethor sat at his desk, bare feet up on it, hair pulled back from his face and loosely secured by a cord. His shirt was open at the neck and she could see the skin at the base of his throat. Sitting there, unmindful of who might be watching, he was beautiful. Her desire for him gripped her heart in its fist, and Finduilas did not resist. No more waiting. Now. She walked into the study, closing the door behind her.
When he saw her, Denethor stood, entrancing her even more with the grace of his motions. 'Alquallë? Is something wrong?'
She realized she was still holding the cup. 'I was thirsty.'
'Is there no water? I have some…'
'No, I got a drink.' She walked slowly towards him, not looking away from his face.
Denethor half smiled, confused. 'What is it, then? What do you want?'
'You.' Finduilas set the cup on the desk as she walked around the end of it. She stopped in front of him. She reached out, sliding her hand up his chest to touch the skin of his throat. 'Just you.' Her other hand found its way around his waist. Denethor began to embrace her as he usually did, arms around her shoulders, head averted, but she was too quick. She turned her head and caught his lips with her own, kissing him firmly. He become very still. Finduilas broke the kiss and looked into his eyes. 'I want my husband.'
Denethor's face was unreadable. 'You are certain?'
Finduilas's heart sank at the reluctance in his voice. 'Yes, I am certain,' she answered, doubt edging its way in like mold creeping over bread. Having ventured so far, it was impossible to leave, even though she now felt more shame than desire.
To cover her dismay, she kissed him again. A heartbeat, two, three, and Denethor leaned into the kiss. That heartened her a little. Finduilas let one hand slide up his neck and into his hair, working the cord loose, while the other pulled him more firmly against her. His own hands tentatively reciprocated while his lips moved against hers. Denethor's scent filled her nose, making her head swim. Finduilas parted her lips and lightly touched his with the tip of her tongue. He made a sound she had never heard before and pressed his mouth more firmly on hers. She touched him again with her tongue, lips open, and slid a hand inside his shirt.
Denethor groaned and there was a word in it she could not make out. He moved abruptly into her, catching her against the desk, hips pressing into hers, hands gripping her tightly. She braced herself and pressed back into his grasp, earning another groan that sent her heart racing. His mouth opened, tangling his tongue with hers, teeth bruising her lips. Finduilas did not care – she was too busy trying to unbutton his shirt. Denethor cupped her cheek, making her look at him. He kissed her very deliberately, taking his time to explore her mouth. His free hand wandered over her until it found a breast. He kneaded it, brushing a thumb over her nipple, making her arch into his touch. Their loins pressed together and she could feel his cock hard between them. Dropping his head, Denethor suckled her, his teeth lightly pinching her breast while his ran his tongue hard across her nipple, the touch rough through the fabric of her shift. Finduilas cried out sharply, startled and thrilled at the jolt he sent through her with his touch.
Her cry startled Denethor in turn and he straightened up, panting. His face and neck were mottled with red. As gentle now as he had been fierce but a few heartbeats before, he took her face in his hands and covered it with delicate kisses before looking away, abashed.
'Alquallë, I didn't mean to…' he whispered.
She stopped him with a quick kiss. 'Shh, friend. Yes.' A hopeful look came to his face, endearing and arousing at the same time. Finduilas glanced around, faced with a conundrum. Where to go? Her bed was largest, but it was also two rooms away, and she worried that he might rethink his decision between here and there. Denethor's bed was just on the other side of the screen, but was narrow. Best to be certain. Stay here.
Finduilas kissed him again, letting her hands wander over his chest and across his rump, eliciting more wonderful sounds from him. She broke the kiss and smiled, fending off his attempt to pull her into an embrace, then turned away and walked behind the screen. He followed her immediately.
There was no light in the alcove, only what came through the fabric of the screen and around the edges of its frame. Finduilas turned down the covers, uncertain what to do next. She did not know if she should take off her shift or leave it on, lie down, let Denethor lie down first, how she should lie down, or anything. Denethor stood behind her, not speaking, not touching her. Finduilas looked at her rumpled shift. He's your husband. There is no shame in him seeing you bare. Not letting herself reconsider, she slipped the nightdress over her head and tossed it to the side.
There was a sharp intake of breath from Denethor. Husband or not, Finduilas's face burned that she was naked before him. Cloth whispered behind her and his fingers touched her shoulder, making her shiver. His hands gathered her hair, pulling it away from her neck and back, then his lips nuzzled her behind her ear and traveled down her neck, making her shiver again and whimper. Not stopping his kisses, Denethor tucked her hair over her shoulder, leaving her back exposed. His hands caressed her back and haunches while he kissed her, and she was glad he knew what to do. As he touched her, he breathed things too low and growling for her to make sense of, yet they made her own breath come more quickly. He closed the space between them, chest pressing against her back and loins against her rump, while his hands continued their exploration, stroking her belly, cupping first this breast, then that one, slipping along the front of her thigh. Nuzzling her hair, his hands stilled, and his face was near her ear.
'Yes?' he whispered, letting her know he wished for more.
'Yes.' Finduilas slipped into the bed. He remained standing, looming over her, face mottled, trousers tented out, eyes brighter and more intense than she had ever seen them, and she felt intimidated, even a little afraid. She would be changed by this, by their mating, and it could not be undone. She found she had more sympathy for Denethor's own reluctance. Dropping her eyes, Finduilas arranged herself more modestly, letting a thigh hide her furrow, covering her breasts with her arm. She tried to not think of her mother's discouraging description of what it was like to first lie with a man.
A sound made her look at Denethor. He knelt beside the bed, no longer so imposing, and his expression was more tender. With a smile, he undid the few still-fastened buttons on his shirt, his hands trembling. Now it was her turn to watch greedily, unable to keep her fingers from reaching out to stroke his chest. His skin there was pale, with a thin line of dark hair in the center. His face and neck and his arms below the elbows were sun-darkened. To her consternation, she could see white marks on his trunk and limbs; scars from past battles.
Denethor lay his head on his arm, placing his face at the same level as her own. Finduilas rolled closer until their foreheads touched and they could kiss. The ferocity near the desk was nowhere to be found. His fingers lightly brushed her arm but did not try to uncover her breasts. Together they watched his hand caress her arm, follow the curve of her ribs down to her waist, and then rise up a little to stroke her hip and thigh.
'You are so beautiful,' he breathed, 'How are you here?' Finduilas kissed him, then rolled away, letting her arm drop so that her breasts could be seen. First his fingers, then entire hand, lay on them. He sat upright and leaned across the bed, brushing them with his lips before running the underside of his tongue over a nipple, making her jump and squeal. Denethor pulled back, watchful.
Finduilas laughed and arched her back. 'Again?' she half-teased, half-begged. He smiled and bent to do her bidding. While his mouth was sometimes on her breasts, sometimes on her mouth, sometimes nuzzling and nibbling its way from one place to the other, Denethor continued to caress her with his free hand, stroking her belly, tracing the curve of her hip. Cautiously, he slipped his hand between her legs low on her thigh and left it there for a while, then ever-so-slowly slid it up the inside of her thigh until he touched her furrow.
They stopped kissing. He did not move his hand again, but looked questioningly at her. Finduilas nodded and parted her legs. Denethor stood, turning slightly away from the bed before removing his trousers, then sat on the edge of the bed. In a smooth motion, he was lying next to her, partly on top of her with a leg between hers. There were a few moments of awkwardness as they moved so she was in the center of the bed and he on top of her between her legs.
Denethor touched his forehead to hers, eyes closed. 'I don't want to hurt you,' he murmured.
Finduilas kissed him. 'I know. It can't be helped.' He pulled himself further up, until she could feel his cock against her upper thigh and she had to spread her legs wider. His hips hitched sharply and his cock jabbed hard into the flesh between her legs, making her gasp. He shifted and thrust again with no better results, and muttered something under his breath. Finduilas had to make herself stay still and not pull her legs together. After a third fruitless thrust, Denethor sat back, kneeling between her legs, refusing to meet her eyes. She could just see his cock jutting from the dark thatch of hair in his crotch. Finduilas had seen men relieving themselves often enough that she thought she knew what to expect, but his was longer and thicker than she had imagined it would be. It was also darker, with a purple-red crown. His balls were like a pair of figs hanging between his legs.
She jumped at an unexpected touch of his fingers in her furrow as Denethor fumbled with her. He took his cock in one hand and lowered himself back on top of her. She could feel two fingers again pressing her flesh apart, then something broad between them, rubbing up and down. It felt odd, but not bad. He was breathing raggedly, braced on one arm while he guided his cock to where it belonged. The fingers disappeared and all that was left was the feel of his cock pressing against her. With a grunt, he jerked his hips. Finduilas gasped at the sense of something being forced into her while Denethor let out a low moan. He shoved again and she could feel her muscles clamp down to repel the intruder. Were his moans pleasure or pain? If it caused her this much discomfort, perhaps it was also unpleasant for Denethor. He wriggled his hips, then reached down and pushed on her thigh to make her open her legs further.
Another thrust and Finduilas pulled away, not able to entirely suppress a sound of protest. This time, along with the pressure, she felt some pain, not horrible but sharp, and knew her maidenhead had been pierced. Her hands pushed against him, warding him off.
Denethor froze at her cry, though he trembled at the effort. 'Alquallë, forgive me,' he panted into her ear. 'I can stop.'
'Go on.' She gritted her teeth and made herself lie still again, hooking her heels over the sides of the bed so she would not close her legs against him. Just this once. Just this once. Never like this again. Just this once. Denethor would not look at her, averting his face, trying to stifle his groans as he pushed into her. Her womb protested, refusing him passage, and each thrust made her feel raw inside, like a skinned knee.
After a few more thrusts, Denethor was still, his head bowed and his eyes shut. 'Enough. This is enough. I'm just hurting you. No more.' She knew he had not finished and spilled his seed. It's not done, is it? Finduilas realized she did not know if this sealed their marriage; was it enough simply to break her maidenhead, or did he need to leave seed in her womb? When he began to lever himself up, Finduilas grabbed Denethor's hips and kept him from withdrawing.
'No, don't stop.'
'I'm not going to force this,' he angrily said. 'I can't bear to hurt you!'
She knew what she feared more than pain; if he stopped, it would be more months of solitude. 'Then don't force anything. Lie still, if you can. Let me get used to this.' After a moment, he let himself down. 'Kiss me? I like that. It feels good.'
Denethor did as she asked, kissing her face, her lips, her neck. He could not use his hands very well because he was resting his weight on his elbows, but he could touch her face and stroke her hair. It was better once he stopped moving, and the sense of rawness faded. She could feel things were wet and sticky along her furrow and between her buttocks, and forbade herself to think what caused it. Finduilas ran her hands over Denethor, finding the scars, learning his muscles. As they lay, they shifted a little this way, an inch that way, figuring out where and how to arrange themselves. He dipped his head to nuzzle her breasts, and she could feel something change inside in the way his cock pressed upon her. He growled, also noting the change, then began teasing her nipples with his tongue and lips, making her growl and moan in return.
They both felt it. Denethor's head snapped up and he met her eyes in wonder. Her jealous fortress that had barred his way dissolved into a warm sea, heavy and molten, wrapping itself around this strange thing it found in its midst. Cautiously, Denethor shifted his weight about, moving inside her a little bit. The sea still welcomed him.
Finduilas laughed and kissed him. 'See? Patience. That's all.'
Denethor swallowed and nodded, not trusting to his good fortune. 'Slow?'
At first, he barely moved, pressing firmly into her and rocking his loins against hers. Finduilas arched her back and met him, making him groan and shudder. She liked that and moved again under him, and was rewarded with another cry and a firm thrust. 'Yes, more,' she begged. Denethor grasped her shoulders and began to thrust, not quickly, but firm. Heat coursed through her, and her cries matched his own, sometimes sharp, sometimes growling, sometimes just his name. He dropped his head to kiss her, tongue deep in her mouth like his cock in her furrow. She clenched herself tightly around him. With a great cry, Denethor broke their kiss and threw his hips forcefully into her.
Finduilas pulled his head down to hers and kissed him roughly. He twisted his fingers in her hair and pulled her head back, baring her throat and breasts to his mouth. There was no gentleness in his touch now, only want, and he used his teeth as much as his tongue on her. Some pain returned, a burning sensation, but Finduilas ignored it. It was nothing compared to finally feeling his touch.
She was determined that he would withhold nothing from her now, and reveled in his desire for her, how he was losing himself in her, his pride and beauty and arrogance and power all surrendered to her. It was all wet, a tang of sea and sweat, a taste of salt when her mouth touched him, his fingers digging into her flesh as though into the sand of the shore, holding himself in place as he rose and fell upon her. Finduilas writhed and thrust her hips into his as hard as she could, finding the rhythm between them, knowing Denethor could no more stop himself than he could the tide.
Denethor moved so hard and fast that he began pushing her up the bed and had to grab her shoulders again to keep her still. A wave of dizziness came over her and she knew that they was moving between here and their secret place. He needed no armor this time, for she guarded him, and the candlelight turned the beads of sweat on his brow to gems. She could smell blood and his hair was wet through with it and it dripped from his hair and it seeped through his scars and pooled under her on the narrow pallet. He was afraid and wanted to turn away and retreat to the darkness behind them, but she called him and this time he listened and stayed. Her feathers fell away and made their bed. A deep voice came welling up from the Sea below them and within her, and there was hope in it, and Denethor grasped for it, reaching far into the waterfall, reaching for her, and he called her name over and over as his eyes bored into hers and he was so afraid. 'Yes, love, yes. I'm here, yes.' Something clutched at her heart, desiring only to be with her, so she embraced it and welcomed it.
Denethor's eyes closed and he cried out while his hips jerked rapidly. He sank to the bed, his full weight on her, gasping in great sobbing breaths and shaking. Finduilas was still reeling from the sensations, trying to sort out her fancy from what was real. It took her a moment to realize that Denethor was crying. 'Denethor? Friend, what is wrong? Why dost thou weep?' she begged, almost ready to cry herself at the sight of tears on his face. It was as at their betrothal, when he faced her in fear and dread and laid his heart bare.
He took her face in his hands, covering it with kisses, and tried to talk through his tears. 'You… no one… never… there has been no one… only you… can only be you, forever, just you. I love you. I am yours, utterly.'
Finduilas kissed his tears away, the bitterness of the Sea, the curse of the mariner. 'You chose love and chose me. You are now mine, forever.'
'Yes.' His voice was soft and his face more calm. 'Yours.' Denethor moved so he was not lying on her. Finduilas lay against him, allowing him to wrap himself around her, burying his face in her neck. His fingers caressed her, then stilled, and his breath slowed as he drifted into sleep. Her own limbs became heavy. Mine, you are mine. I have won you from your oaths and your fears. Here I will stay, be certain of that. I will touch you here, not just in my dreams.
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