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Hands of the King: 43. North
Minas Tirith, Yáviérë, 2977 T.A.
There was no need for Denethor to feign startlement at the captain's words. The warning in the courtyard had not prepared him for this gambit. Am I meant to object? Be pleased? You do not mean that you are considering leaving, do you? Thorongil did not look at him, keeping his eyes on the Steward, who stared at his Captain-General in disbelief. Denethor did not like whatever game Thorongil believed himself to be playing. He grasped the other's arm, demanding 'What do you mean, the end of your service? You gave your oath to the Stew…'
'Enough, Warden,' Ecthelion interjected. The Steward sat up very straight in the chair and gestured at Thorongil with the rod. 'Your words dismay me, Captain. You have sworn an oath and taken up a great charge. I require a reason for your thoughts.'
The captain hesitated, glancing quickly at Denethor, then about the hall. 'It is not a reason to be spoken in so public a place,' he demurred.
'No, it is not, but you made it known here, so I shall be told at least enough to satisfy me until we may speak more privately,' Ecthelion answered sternly.
Thorongil weighed his words. 'It has become a sorrow to me, my lord, that I have the trust of neither your own self nor the Warden.'
Ecthelion shook his head, bewildered. 'Not trust you? You wrong me with these words!'
'You sent the Warden to command the north and to oversee the summer's campaign, my lord,' the captain answered quietly, once more looking only to the Steward, 'which made the men wonder to whom they should answer. The Warden took me little into his counsel, silent in Cair Andros, then ordered the final campaign as suited him. You have not asked for me to answer for the battles done, but wished for Lord Denethor's account at once. Upon his return, I am told to return to the City and that the Warden shall order the winter defenses, though you spoke with kindness to respect my pride.' Thorongil dropped his gaze to the floor, his voice also dropping until Denethor had to strain to hear it. 'If I do not please you, my Lord Steward, then you must choose another. A decision made in haste…'
'No more of this shall be spoken here,' Ecthelion said firmly, cutting off the captain's words. 'I understand the shape of your thoughts.' The Steward rang a small gong near the chair to summon a servant and requested chairs and food to be brought for the captains. Denethor saw now the tactic Thorongil intended to use, and knew the Steward would believe it only too well. A scowl seemed the appropriate expression. When all had wine, Ecthelion smiled genially and raised his cup slightly to Thorongil. 'While more serious talk shall wait, be assured in this, Captain – you have my full trust.'
Thorongil's smile in return was uncertain. 'I am assured, then, my lord.'
'As I said, it is most fortuitous that you should return to Minas Tirith upon a feast day,' Ecthelion continued, 'though had you sent word, there could have been a more proper welcome for your return.' All of the Steward's attention was on Thorongil as he spoke.
Denethor decided to be difficult and said, in a sullen tone, 'The celebration is grand enough.'
Ecthelion sighed and gave the captain a wry look before turning to Denethor. 'And why should we not enlarge their happiness, Warden? Would you begrudge the captain his rightful thanks for protecting us that we may prosper?'
Thorongil was once more determinedly examining the floor just beyond the toes of his boots. So, you shall make the Steward prove his trust of you by keeping me away from your army. Even as he disliked the insult to himself, Denethor could not deny its appeal to Ecthelion. He looked narrowly at the Steward, saying, 'If a celebration is what the captain wishes, there is more than enough time in the day to hold one. Let word be sent.'
'An excellent suggestion.' The gong sounded a second time, and soon a lap desk was brought to the Steward. The man wrote two notes, sealing one of them. A servant hurried over to collect them. 'Take this one to the criers,' the Steward said, holding out the open message, 'and let our approval of Captain-General Thorongil be proclaimed throughout the City. The other is to go to Lady Maiaberiel so she may arrange something festive for this evening.' The man bowed to the Steward, then bobbed his head a second time to the captain, smiling broadly, before hurrying off.
'Have all of the harvest reports come in yet?' Denethor asked, 'It would be good to know just how we have prospered under the captain's defenses.'
'Most reports are in. Borondir will have them. I believe all is even better than in the year past. When things are ordered as they should be, good fortune follows.' Ecthelion's eyes were sharp, and his hand grasped the rod tightly. 'In our good fortune, we have proof of our deeds.'
'If the realm is well ordered, then it is not fortune, but foresight that brings about the happy consequences,' Denethor smoothly countered. Oh, no, your own unruly deeds shall not be excused this way. 'Good comes as a result of discipline and a habit of virtuous acts. The good of the realm requires foresight.'
'Foresight? That is scarce to be counted as a virtue,' the Steward replied with scorn, 'for any may exercise it. Even the most low may look about them and lay a plot for mischief.'
'But that is not foresight, my Lord Steward,' Denethor protested mildly, 'that is simply seeking after one's own desires, with no thought to others or the demands of one's house or city or realm. I should think that only the plans of the virtuous will succeed in the end, though beset by the incontinent wants of the wicked, for they will see beyond themselves and do what is needful for all.'
Ecthelion fell silent, eyes narrowed. 'We haggle over a word,' he finally replied, 'and what you name foresight is but mere plotting, meanly meant, full of spite and cruelty. It will always come to naught, even as the great rebellion of the Enemy has always failed. Virtue is not in acts, for any act may be made to seem good. Those who shape their hearts to the designs of the Powers shall triumph in the end. They do not allow their faithful to fail.'
'Only those who are unfaithful shall fail?' Denethor innocently asked, very much enjoying the argument.
There was no missing the angry flush that came over the Steward's face. 'They earn their punishment in measure with their folly. One may lead many into folly in his arrogance, and another may guide them back.'
'But we were speaking of realms and specifically of Gondor, my Lord Steward,' Denethor replied, 'and it seems to me that more than virtuous desires have brought us good fortune. Intending to shelter the livestock, or plant the fields, or guard the bridge does no good if one has not the foresight to build the byre, lay in the seed corn, or use the army.'
'Our success shows that Gondor is well ordered, with each in his proper place, yes,' the Steward answered softly, 'but the same could have been said of Umbar until but a few seasons past. A deeper order than just that of the household or the barracks is required. The sorrows of our foes show that they have earned the displeasure of the Powers.'
'How so?' Thorongil sat forward in his chair, intent. 'Pray tell me, my lord, how is this shown?'
'The very nature of their misfortunes shows us. The fate of Umbar should stand as a warning to us.' Ecthelion smiled and sipped his wine, then shook his head with a chuckle. 'Ah, I forget I speak with young men. With all due respect for your talents, Thorongil, our chiefest defense has not been your bold army. Even your valiant efforts would have been for naught save that we have been aided at every turn.' The Steward grew pensive, swirling his wine in the cup. 'The Enemy can match us force for force upon the field of battle, and overmatch us yet again. There is no end to the armies he can breed. Might will not avail us if we anger those who watch.'
Thorongil cocked his head, brow furrowed. 'Might alone shall not defeat our enemy, but I do not understand what you mean about angering or displeasing the Powers.'
'Foresight, planning, preparation…plots… whatever name you give to trying to make all in accord with your will, it may be undone in a moment if you have not earned the grace of the Powers. Faithfulness to them,' here Ecthelion shot a hostile look at Denethor, 'to have hope in what shall be, and to understand that your pride is your greatest enemy, these will allow your efforts to bear fruit. Has not Umbar planned well its wickedness? We have remained steadfast, even in our waning, while they have sought strength after strength. What has come of their efforts? A ruin of their fleet three years past. A plague upon their people after that. Now word of pestilence in their corn. They have earned their punish…'
'No.' The captain looked sternly at the Steward. 'Whatever afflicts the people of Umbar, it is not the doing of the Powers.' Thorongil set down his wine cup and rose, walking across the hall, shaking his head. The man paused before one of the tall widows that faced south, the bright midday light turning him into a dark silhouette, like one of the statues come to life. Denethor also stood, unsettled at this sight. The captain turned his head, speaking over his shoulder, and though he did not raise his voice, his words could be heard clearly. 'No, Lord Ecthelion. The Powers do not visit harm on any, not even the wicked. Only from the Enemy does such evil issue. Yes, we are aided at every turn, but such grace would be given to the meanest creature, even to an Orc, should the creature repent of its evil.'
Thorongil slowly paced back to them, stopping before the Steward and gazed at the man until Ecthelion dropped his eyes. After several heartbeats, the Steward's hand flexed, grasping the rod tightly, then relaxing, then grasping it tightly once more. Without looking up, he said, 'You may go. Both of you. Do not come tomorrow. I will summon you when you are needed.' The captains bowed and walked away briskly, heels loud on the marble floor. The metal doors of the hall boomed shut behind them.
Denethor walked halfway down the passage towards the outer doors before rounding on Thorongil, making the other pull up sharply. 'I know not what mischief you are up to, mercenary,' he said clearly, 'but be certain that I will uncover it. You may have the Steward beguiled with your flattering ways, but I am not so easily led astray. I will hold you to your oath.' With a contemptuous look, Denethor continued walking. Thorongil caught up with him and followed him out into the court. They stopped again at the White Tree.
'Are you truly angry, Denethor, or was that for those who watch?' Thorongil murmured.
Denethor crossed his arms, glaring. 'Both.'
The captain hunched his shoulders. 'What do you wish of me?'
'Go enjoy your day of celebration, and be sure to attend the party this evening. Make note of who else attends. I will send you word of where and when to meet me.'
'I will.' The captain shook his head, stepping backwards, then made an exasperated motion with his hands. 'Please give my regards to Lady Finduilas.' With an exaggerated bow, the captain stalked off, throwing Denethor one dark look over his shoulder before entering the tunnel.
Only when he was out of sight did Denethor walk to the stairs and ascend the wall. Sounds of revelry floated up from the lower circles. Beyond, the Pelennor was a patchwork of green, gold and brown, blurred by the haze of the autumn afternoon. A cheer caught his attention. Below in the main street just before the gate to the fifth circle, Thorongil was surrounded by a knot of well-wishers. Thank you, Captain. Enjoy your welcome. Denethor let himself in the Wall Door of the Stewards House. He had not walked a half-dozen steps when Finduilas appeared at the door of her study. She remained there as he approached.
'Huan brought word.'
'I thought he would.'
'Must you leave at once?'
'Not at once. Not for a few days. I know not what will happen, but…'
Finduilas laid a finger over his mouth, then kissed him. 'It will wait.'
Their reunion was long and unhurried. It pleased him to relearn his beloved, skin and breath and hair and giving flesh, and to shed the cruel summer as a serpent leaves behind its skin. It was with great reluctance that he left their bed in late afternoon to eat. Aeluin set out their meal on the sideboard in the front room and swiftly departed. Even the distance between their chairs before the hearth was too great, so Denethor sat at Finduilas's feet, leaning against her leg. Telperien curled under the chair, purring. The food was good, full of interesting spices, and the bread was perfect, dense and chewy, just right for sopping up the stew's gravy. Finduilas finished before he did and stroked his hair as Denethor ate a second, then a third helping of supper. Only when the dishes were set on the tray and each had a cup of wine, the flagon nearby, did they speak.
'Are you full? I can ask Aeluin to bring more.'
Denethor tipped his head back to look up at her. 'No, Alquallë. I am done.'
She smiled and brushed his cheek. 'You are thin, friend. Your face is hollow and I could see your ribs earlier.' Finduilas's face became solemn. 'You said you will not leave for a few days. How do you know?'
'The Steward said he would not meet with us tomorrow and would send notice when he wished to see us. So, three days at the soonest.'
With a sigh, she said, 'I hope longer. Did he order you to return?'
'No. I think he intended that I not come back now, but remain in Ithilien. Thorongil planned our return, asking me to accompany him when he came back.' Denethor sipped his wine, reaching up to tangle his fingers into hers with his free hand. 'He sends you his regards, by the way.'
Finduilas laughed and placed a kiss a top Denethor's head. 'I shall have to thank the captain for returning you. A fine exchange for the book I gave him.'
'I forgot your birthday yet again,' Denethor shamefacedly confessed, reminded by the mention of Thorongil's present. 'A fine friend I am.'
As answer, Finduilas twisted a hank of his hair in her fingers and gently tugged his head back so she could kiss him. 'All I wanted for my birthday was my husband safe beside me, and I have it.'
He stretched his face up for another kiss. 'I rued not being here. I have worried at you being here alone with Beruthiel.'
'I have hardly been alone!' she laughed. 'I have had a ferocious pack of wolves protecting my every step, and I suspect yet others I knew not about.' She sighed and held out her cup for more wine. As he poured more for both of them, Finduilas shook her head. 'Beruthiel thinks me a child and a rather simple one at that. She understands that the City loves its Lady, and thinks the battle is to wrest me from your control.'
He kissed Finduilas's fingers. 'She can't have you.'
'The household knew to turn her away, but she did walk up to me in the street a few times. I do not think she knows why the Steward is so angry with you.' Denethor did not reply. Finduilas waited, then squeezed his hand and continued, 'She still thinks to bring about a romance between myself and Thorongil.'
'I fear your husband will disapprove of that.'
'Yes, as he should. Maiaberiel believes I shall repent of marrying such a cold and heartless man, and has advised me to be… approachable where the captain is concerned.'
'You know you have captured the hearts of all the Lost, not just the captain.'
'What?' Finduilas exclaimed, 'What do you mean?'
'I saw an argument between Thorongil and Halmir…'
'Heard an argument.'
'No, saw it. I watched it through the old spyglass. The Lost have a hand code…'
'Which you know?'
He smiled wickedly. 'Of course. Halmir was quite incensed that someone may have been uncivil to you at the loëndë feast.'
Finduilas looked perplexed. 'Why were they discussing me and loëndë?'
'Trying to figure out things none of their business, but that is not what was most interesting in their argument. Here is another mystery for you to look into.' Denethor recounted the conversation, showing Finduilas how they used their hands to speak, and laid out some of the meanings that might be teased from the obscure gestures. 'The north is no longer his home, there is something involving at least one lie, and rule is uncertain.'
She thought a minute, then said, 'He said to me once he wished that he could bring his family to Gondor. It is sad that he should be so long parted from them.'
'He may not be able to. Evidently his mother remarried…'
'How do you know this?'
'I asked him once if he had any sisters. He said he had an elder step-sister, so his mother wed a man who was once wed himself.'
'Hmm.' Finduilas sat back in her chair, thinking. 'He bears the Ring of Barahir, but is a step-son.'
'Perhaps a kinsman of his father's?'
Finduilas shrugged. 'Perhaps. Though I think it more likely that a marriage would be prevented to avoid confusing the line. Or we are looking at it wrongly and it is as I had once suggested, that inheritance devolved upon a distaff line.' She gave Denethor a wry look. 'Perhaps the captain is in contestation with a younger half-brother.'
Denethor choked on his mouthful of wine and had to spit it back into the cup, then burst out laughing. 'Would that not be a fateful jest?'
Finduilas took his cup and set it down with her own. Taking his face between her hands, she kissed him. When they broke, she searched his face, solemn once more. 'In my heart, friend, there are no rivals. You know that.' Denethor did not answer, but stood and held out his hands. He took his time showing her what he knew and they slept soundly afterwards.
Near sundown the next day, just before supper, Denethor wrote and sealed a note, then rang a bell to summon Beregar. The young man appeared a few minutes later. 'Sir?'
'Hound. This must go to Thorongil without notice.'
Beregar took the note. 'One of the guardsmen goes to the barracks. Do you care if Gethron knows of this?'
'No.' Beregar nodded and left. That morning, while Finduilas conducted her business downstairs, Denethor had listened to Beregar's report on the City. Of the three ruffians who had attacked Lark two winters past, two were dead in taproom brawls in the Harlond while the leader, Scratch, had become a reliable spy, reporting to Adanel. The Queen's Men, as all now referred to the guardsmen, were well regarded below the fifth circle, though they were treated coolly in the fifth and sixth. Word in the brothels was that Captain Thorongil would try to close them, now that he had returned, and patrons were divided on whether it should be done. The King's Men had taken to extolling the beauty and kindness of the Lady, and accompanied that adulation with dark whispers that she was unhappy, pent up in the Citadel by a jealous and cold husband. There had been some scuffles between guardsmen and Beruthiel's men, but it never came to more than fisticuffs. The Messenger's Rest was the guardsmen's favored tavern, while The King's Cup in the fifth circle was visited by the King's Men. The Stewards House had been watched closely by servants of the Tower all summer.
The message on its way, Denethor went downstairs for supper. Finduilas had received a letter from her sister that day and was full of news about the wedding. 'The wedding itself is set for yestarë,' she said, 'and they will arrive in Linhir by December.'
'When do you wish to be there?'
Finduilas's face lit up. 'As soon after they arrive as I can.'
'And for a short time afterwards, yes? No doubt your family will wish to visit.'
'May we?' she asked. Her brow furrowed. 'But, no, we will need to return at once. You must be here for the Great Council.'
'Yes,' Denethor conceded, 'I must, but that does not mean you must also return.'
She considered this for a few bites. 'There will be many in a similar state, friend. If what Ivriniel says is true, and I do not doubt, then her wedding will be as large as my own. Perhaps larger, for many lesser falas lords will travel to Linhir. Must the Steward remain in Minas Tirith?'
'The Steward may go anywhere within the bounds of Gondor, though once seated, they rarely leave the City. Only…'
'…Cirion ever left Gondor,' she finished for him. 'If the Steward were wise, he would hold the Great Council in Linhir.'
'No, he would not. That concedes too much power to the Outland lords. The Steward sends people or calls them to him. He does not go.'
'But will he appear weaker if none come at his summons?'
'Perhaps.' Supper was soon finished. When they retired upstairs, Denethor kissed Finduilas, then regretfully held her at arm's length. 'I beg your forgiveness, Alquallë, but I must meet Thorongil this evening.'
'Too soon.' With a sigh, she kissed his cheek and took her chair, picking up sewing from her basket. Denethor sat and watched her, waiting for the bells to ring the hour. When it was time, he pulled on his cloak and left by the front door. He walked along the outer lane that ringed the Citadel, ambling slowly until he could hear the person who followed. Quietly, Denethor slipped into a narrow alley, squeezed between two buildings that almost touched, and ascended a narrow, crumbling stair to the wall behind a house. It was a simple matter to follow the wall to a corner, scramble up carvings, and take to the roof tops. Within a few minutes, Denethor was letting himself down the wall at the back of the Citadel into a half-abandoned section of the sixth circle. It took little effort to cross the circle and find handholds down to the fifth circle. A north-facing watchtower upon the fifth wall stood empty. Denethor ascended to the top and sat on a window sill, looking north, waiting for Thorongil to arrive. He heard the man's feet on the stair, then the whisper of cloth as the captain crossed the small chamber and sat on a bench near the window.
'What do you wish to know first?' Thorongil said without preamble.
'Yesterday.' Denethor did not turn away from his study of the moonlit lands beyond the City.
'I went to a few taverns and sipped ale in each. The afternoon I spent in the garrison. Captain Marlong was very eager for news. I attended Lady Maiaberiel's celebration in the evening, and spent most of my time talking to Lord Brandir.' The captain paused. 'He asked me to convey to you his love and good wishes, and prays that you might speak together when you have rested from your travails.' Thorongil was doing something as he talked, taking things from a pouch.
'Who was there?'
'Few I recognize. None I know. The Steward was not there.' There was a sound of flint being struck.
'What are you up to?'
'Following your advice.' Thorongil's last words were mumbled.
Denethor finally looked at the other man. He had a long pipe in his mouth, hands cupped around the bowl. Only the faintest flicker of fire escaped his fingers. In a moment, the flint was stowed away, the bowl of the pipe glowed, and a sweet smoke wafted towards the window. Denethor recognized the smell as the same as what the wizard had used to blow smoke rings to tease the cat. So, the wizard visited you as well as the Steward. 'What advice is that?'
'To make the Steward want what I want.' The man drew on his pipe, then slowly exhaled. Denethor refused to speak. After a minute, the captain said, 'I want you here.'
'You have not asked if that is also what I want.'
Thorongil smiled around his pipe, teeth glinting slightly. 'I don't think there is anywhere else in all Gondor you wish to be.'
No, there is not. 'What else do you want, Thorongil?'
The man wrapped his cloak more snugly around himself and leaned against the wall, long legs stretching out before him. Each time he inhaled, the leaves in the pipe glowed red. 'To serve.'
'You are content to be an instrument?'
'Of a kind, yes,' was Thorongil's soft reply. The smell of the burning herbs was pleasant. Denethor felt no need to speak and simply waited to see what the Lost would do. They passed several minutes in silence before the captain asked, 'Are you still angry?'
'I know nothing that would change my mind. Tell me, Thorongil, what happened to your desire to treat with the Lord Steward honestly and openly?' Denethor put an edge of mockery on his question. 'I heard little but half-truths and deceptions from you yesterday. Unless that was the truth, and then I am disinclined to allow you to serve.'
A sharp look came to the captain's face. 'I am left with little to say when I cannot understand what divides the lords to whom I answer.'
With a snort, Thorongil blew a thin stream of smoke sharply into the air. 'Me? I am an excuse, not a cause.'
'And when else have you thought such a thing?' That sent the captain retreating back into his cloak. 'You ask why I am angered? Very well. When you were but a mercenary, your oath was simple and you could rightly leave after it was fulfilled. I told you, near two years ago, that to take up your current post was to take on a different troth, one that you may not break, and may be lifted only by order of the Steward or by death. How should I trust you, Thorongil, if you dismiss the discord you cause and think to depart when obedience suits you not? Whatever the division between myself and my lord, I face it and would suffer death before flight.'
They sat silent. After a time, Thorongil emptied and refilled his pipe. 'I will not leave.'
'If you threaten something, you had best be prepared to fulfill it.'
'What do you believe, Denethor?' Thorongil looked at him askance. 'Once you said you did not think the Powers real, for you did not see them. The Lord Steward would have them doing evil things.'
Denethor shrugged, looking north. 'Evil? No. I think them capricious. Rather like you. We are told to trust, and the failure to do so is that,' he jerked his thumb eastwards, 'though doing so is no guard against it, either. It is not necessary for them to do anything, but merely to stand aside and misfortune will follow. You are wrong about the Orc. They have already chosen those upon whom they will bestow their grace, and are chary with their gifts. They should be as the Lady of the White Tower and extend their kindness to the prideful and grim, for we are pitiful creatures without it.'
The captain made a thoughtful sound. Again they sat, the smoke drifting about, leaving Denethor feeling muzzy. I should go home. Finduilas will be waiting up. His limbs did not wish to stir. He brushed the window sill with his fingertips and was rewarded with a whisper of the stone's voice. The City hummed to herself, not exactly happy, but there was contentment to leaven the sorrow.
'She is one of their gifts.' Denethor nodded absently at Thorongil's words. She is a gift. The stone agreed, glad for the Lady, and he listened to the song, wishing he could sing it himself. There was a sound of something tapping on stone, then a rustle of cloth. A hand came to rest on his shoulder. 'Denethor?' He looked up into Thorongil's face, now bone white, as much like one of the carved faces on the marble walls as he had been a graven king the day before. 'I will not leave.' Denethor nodded again, trusting the king's word, and returned his attention to the stone. Some time later, the cold air cleared his head of its cobwebs, and he made his way home.
Minas Tirith, Mid October, 2977 T.A.
Two weeks had passed and there was yet no word from the Steward on his fate. Denethor had attended a number of meetings in the Tower, but none addressed whether he was to remain in the City or be returned to the marches. Thorongil was in a similar state. Denethor sat near the hearth, juggling a cup of wine, the cat, and some reports from Morthond on their harvest, waiting for Finduilas to finish her needlework so they could retire. He looked up expectantly when she packed her basket.
Finduilas smiled wryly and shook her head. 'I am sorry, friend. I must keep to my own bed for a few days.' When he heard the door to her room close, Denethor sighed and returned the reports to his desk, glaring at the calendar. The red mark was on tomorrow's date; he had expected one more night with her. There was no point in going to bed, for he would just toss and turn until exhaustion forced sleep upon him. He poured more wine and sat staring at the fire.
Once again, he had failed to give Finduilas a child. It left him uncomfortable, for he was both disappointed and relieved at this state. If he thought only of the love between himself and Finduilas, how joyful she made his life, it seemed wrong that there was no child. And where have you been these long months? In a land abandoned to death, sent there by the ruler of the city in the hopes you would perish. The wrong would be to the child born to such things. No child meant one less bond, one less thing to hurt or lose. That is wrong. To be husband, to sire children and love them, that is duty and joy at once. But you must also care for what you have brought about. Do not elves refrain from begetting when war and privation loom? He sipped his wine, wishing he could convince Finduilas to stay with him even if it meant staining the bed. At least he would be able to sleep and elude his dark thoughts.
It did not help that he still could not See her. Once his joy at their reunion had abated, Denethor realized that Finduilas remained opaque. It was not possible that she did not wish to love him or that there was some fault in her kind heart, so there had to be something in him that kept her at bay. She does See you, in the waterfall, so there is something that blinds you to her or that hides her from your eyes. Denethor finished the cup and poured more, thinking. He did not return to the chair, but wandered around the study, examining things, the cat trailing behind. Perhaps it was he who was barren, just like Maiaberiel. Silmarien had not said that the barren could not will their hearts; she had not spoken of them at all. Was not barrenness a kind of corruption, the inverse of lust and bastardy? Denethor found it ironic that the children of someone with so many bastards would have no get of their own. Love and no children instead of children and no love.
Curiosity tugged at him and Denethor went to his desk. In a bottom drawer, under several layers of other things, lay the papers and the bound book he had pulled from Emeldir's wardrobe more than a year before. He returned with his mother's writings to the chair at the hearth, collecting the ewer of wine on the way. The book was the oldest of the writings, the first entry dated in 2915, a few months before Aiavalë's birth. Even then, Emeldir had harsh words for her husband, but spoke lovingly of the child she carried. That ended soon enough. 'If they force this misbegotten thing on me, I shall smother it,' she said of her firstborn, the ink on the pages smeared, the paper scored by the harshness of the pen strokes. After reading the first year and her horror at Aiavalë, he skipped forward, looking for evidence of outrage or examining significant dates. He did not find another kind word, only anger and resentment. When he reached the end, Denethor fed the papers and the book to the fire and poured himself the last of the wine. Thus is duty.
He had not ever been foolish enough to think that his mother loved him – Emeldir did not care for any child of Ecthelion's, not even her own – but he was numbed at how deeply his mother regretted having given the Steward an heir. Emeldir had hoped for her son's death long before Ecthelion had cast his thoughts that way, wanting the line to perish. Both of them hoped that he would go to battle and never return. They wish that our house should end. Is there aught but death that can relieve one of such duty, to bear an heir, to bind a house to a doomed task? You have dreamed of flight, to gather what is dear and go, leaving behind the battles great and small, and you know it is barred to you. That is what had angered him so in Thorongil's words to the Steward. They had made clear that little more than whim kept the man here. But he promised he would stay. At least, Denethor thought he had; it was difficult to remember their conversation. Is Gondor your north, captain? The place to flee when you cannot fulfill your duty? Telperien mewed near his feet and Denethor patted his leg to let her know she was welcome to jump in his lap. Even as he knew he must abandon this temptation, he could not help wishing to ride north, if only to see what was there.
The sound of Finduilas's morning cough brought Denethor awake. The cat was still in his lap. In the fireplace, the spine of the book was visible, though charred. The rest of the papers were reduced to ash. Denethor looked at himself with distaste, feeling very grubby after sleeping in his clothes. The inside of his mouth was sour from too much wine. He quickly set the wine cup and ewer aside, gathered some clean clothes, and headed off to the baths before Finduilas saw him. The water restored him, and Denethor was determined that he would not allow himself to indulge in the dark thoughts of the previous night. A dead woman's bile and too much wine could not be allowed to distract him. Finduilas greeted him cheerfully upon his return, fussing over him and insisting on toweling and combing his hair while talking of all she had planned for the day.
'Will you come with me to the archives, friend?'
'Alas, no. I fear I shall spend the morning in the Tower. Borondir wishes to go over taxes with the Minister of the Purse.'
She chuckled, busy braiding his hair. 'I see enough of Cousin Borondir and his ledgers. I do not envy you your meeting.' Tying off the braid, Finduilas asked, 'Will Thorongil be present?'
'He has not been privy to these meetings before, has he?' Denethor shook his head. Finduilas poured herself some tea and took her seat. 'It is more than time for him see Borondir and his ledgers,' she replied. 'Kingdoms need coin, and coin does not spring from a field.'
Thus is true duty. Denethor raised his mug in salute to Finduilas. 'And it is more than time for me to see to the captain's education. He will be summoned.' Two hours later, Denethor sat with Borondir, Thorongil, the Minister of the Purse, Hallas, and several other officials in the large council chamber in the Tower. The others had looked surprised at Thorongil's presence, but no one questioned his being there. Denethor ignored the captain for the most part and threw himself into the council. Hallas was the grandson of Herion, the same age as King Thengel, and had been Minister of the Purse for thirty years. He had been Boromir's closest friend and Denethor and Borondir's tutor in figures and sums. Hallas was also blind, his sight stolen by fever when he was a youth. His youngest daughter, Núneth, was his scribe and a counselor of the realm in her own right, overseeing tax collection. It was always a challenge to try to keep up with their swift, precise calculations.
After three months away, there was much to know. Denethor peppered Núneth and Borondir with questions about trade and commerce. As with harvests, traffic was strong, despite Harad's weakness after the wars – sea traders and pirates were increased, emboldened by Umbar's woes, and they bought and sold greatly along the southern shore. Coin and gems were coming in from the east, usually bound for the markets at Pelargir, allowing the river merchants in turn to exchange it further west. Núneth argued that it was time to bring in coin, as even small villages had some, while Borondir countered that it was best to leave it out to increase exchange, but to raise in-kind levies and build up stores, particularly grain, given the pestilence to the south. Hallas contradicted both, saying they needed to increase the treasury, but to do so by taxing the markets in the ports and demanding part of the tariffs levied by the port lords. This led to a discussion of the loans outstanding, both those made by the purse and those made to it, and how much would need to be borrowed, and from whom, to cover the costs to rearm the troops after the summer campaign and to build a new dock in the Harlond.
Thorongil sat quietly through most of the meeting, paying close attention, offering some information on the condition of the garrisons when asked by Hallas. They broke just before dinner, Núneth promising to have reports for all by the following day. She led her father out, the two of them still arguing about the advisability of taxing heavily in ports versus a lighter but more wide-spread collection from villages. Denethor invited both Borondir and Thorongil to dine with him at the Stewards House. Finduilas had returned from the archives and they sat to a very pleasant meal followed by wine in Finduilas's study.
'Captain,' Borondir asked, 'which plan do you think best? You did not say in council.'
'I did not say, for I cannot,' Thorongil replied, chagrined. 'I do not understand these things as well as you.'
'But these are not difficult to figure out. It is not like planning the spring levies when you never know who is being honest about what they have left from winter,' said Borondir.
'That is what Grandfather always said,' Finduilas chimed in. 'That is why the spring collections allow a choice of in-kind or coin, and the coin is worth more than the former.' She and Borondir chatted about Dol Amroth taxation for a few minutes, while Thorongil sat silent. When they ended, the captain rose and politely asked leave to go. Finduilas walked him out.
Borondir looked at Denethor and rolled his one eye. 'The man is an idiot. He could not follow a simple debate on taxes!'
'Thorongil is ignorant, not an idiot. Besides, there are not many who could follow your arguments. They are too subtle and complex for most.' It amused Denethor to see Borondir preen at the flattery. 'In any event, it is your task to teach him how to understand such things. He needs to know what it takes to outfit his army.' When Finduilas returned, she said she had to go to the archives. Borondir asked to walk with her, for he had questions about the Lady's Grace. Denethor declined to go, saying he had correspondence to complete. Finduilas gave him a searching look, but said only that she would return by supper.
Denethor mounted the steps to his study slowly, puzzling out what he had observed about Thorongil. The man had no idea how taxation was supposed to work, aside from rudimentary notions of collecting money. Denethor could tell from the captain's expression that he did not understand the different types of taxes, why the realm loaned coin even as it borrowed, or the advantage of having others collect taxes for you. He can learn, yes, but why so much? Do they not tax in the north? Just how ignorant is our would-be king? When he reached the landing, Denethor did not turn aside but continued up to the top floor and the palantír.
He had no idea if he could see that far, but Denethor was determined to try to get a glimpse of the north. In the months away, he had thought carefully about what he could and could not see with the stone, and believed that he should be able to see anything that was within the bounds of Gondor, and possibly any land that had ever been under Gondor's rule. It was worth trying to see if he could also see what had been Arnor. He took the metal stand he had cobbled together from a discarded bowl out of its drawer, and placed it on a small table. The stone itself was next, set carefully in the indented bottom of the overturned bowl. Denethor positioned himself facing north and west, closed his eyes, and imagined himself looking at a map of the kingdoms. In his mind, he followed the North-South road, out from Minas Tirith, turning west to cross Anórien, but heading always northwards, as he had when he traveled to Angrenost. Over the Fords of Isen, and then he opened his eyes and looked into the palantír.
The darkness swirled before forming into a torrent of images. Denethor cast his gaze downwards, imagining the road, and the images sharpened, becoming fewer and moving less swiftly. It would not do to concentrate too much, for that led to great strain, but it had to be enough to control the changing scenes. It was too easy to be dazzled and lost in those. Soon, he was a bird flying high above the land, watching the track wend its way across desolate hills turned brown with the frosts of autumn. Ahead was a wide river and ruins, like a small version of Osgiliath, and beyond was fog. No matter how he peered into the mist, it would not yield. Denethor felt as though he were still traveling forward, and he bent his will upon the grey vapors, demanding that they part and show him the north. Who are you? What have you left behind?
It parted. Below, Denethor saw a stone road running from east to west. Upon it was an army. The fog still clung, obscuring the sight. He plunged downwards, a falcon stooping upon its prey. The closer he approached, however, the more faint the vision became. The soldiers and horses became ghosts, colorful banners fading to unadorned gray. There were shadows of walls and buildings beyond, hints of something else. Then, ahead, there was a flash of color. Denethor threw himself towards it. Thorongil sat astride a horse, riding east. He was armored and the banner of the king flew above him. But he is here! Only this rider could be seen clearly, and all else turned indistinct a pace to either side of him. Denethor focused sharply on the captain, and began to notice differences. No, not him. A kinsman, one like him, older. But that made no sense, for Thorongil bore the ring and only the king could fly the banner. Another horse came near to the rider, a man impossibly beautiful, with a banner of stars… Is it? Can it be? It is! Denethor leaned toward the palantír and lost himself in the vision.
Denethor made his way down the stair, awestruck at what had been shown to him. There was nothing in the north. Of that he was now certain. The palantír had showed him not what was there, but what had been. He had watched the Last Alliance march forth, Elendil the Tall and Gil-galad riding side by side, on their way to fight Sauron. It was all silver misted ghosts save for Elendil and those near him. When the king passed, what was near came alive with shining armor and many-hued banners. Once, an age ago, someone had looked into the Anor-stone and had seen this and knew that their salvation was coming. Nothing he had read, no history, no poetry, no song, had captured what was within the stone, the grandeur and greatness of the march against the Enemy. What else is in this? Once, it was on Númenor. Can even that be seen?
Finduilas was sitting in a chair in the front room, waiting. Denethor kissed her on the top of the head as he passed by her on his way to his study. He bumped into the doorframe and nearly fell over. Finduilas's hands grabbed him and helped him steady himself.
'Denethor, what is wrong?'
'You are dazed. Are you drunk?'
'No.' His feet did not wish to obey him and he had to lean on Finduilas. 'I need to sit.' Denethor tried to go to his chair, but Finduilas steered him towards the screen.
'I think you need to sleep for a while. Until supper.'
'I can't sleep without you there.'
'I will stay.' By this time, they were near his bed. Finduilas gave him a push to make him sit, then wrestled his boots off before lying beside him. Sleep came swiftly. When he woke later, the room was dark. His head lay in Finduilas's lap and she stroked his hair, humming something. Her hand halted when she realized he was awake. He lay still, unsure of what to do. She would want an explanation.
'It is past time for supper. I think we should eat now.' Reluctantly, he pulled himself upright, glad for the darkness so he did not have to look Finduilas in the face. She slipped out of bed and left. In a moment, a lamp was lit in his study, though Finduilas did not return. Denethor found her downstairs, talking to Aeluin and helping lay the table. While they ate, Finduilas read a letter from Ivriniel, sharing parts of it with him. There was nothing in her manner that indicated anything was amiss. After they returned to his study and she took up her sewing, Denethor kept expecting Finduilas to ask what he had been doing, but she made no mention of it. Finally, he no longer could bear the anticipation.
'Why do you not ask?'
Finduilas did not look up from her work. 'If you have a secret, I will not pry, though you frightened me greatly, friend.'
'I am sorry. I know not where to start. Ask.'
'Were you upstairs all afternoon?'
'In Emeldir's rooms.'
'What is there?'
This made Finduilas look up. 'A what?'
'A palantír. A seeing stone.' She shook her head. 'A treasure of the past. Those who look into it see things that are far away.'
'You received this from your mother?'
'No. I stole it from the Tower.' Finduilas looked at him a long moment, then began sewing once more. 'I use it to see what happens beyond the City. The Steward built the door on the stair to keep me away from it.'
'It belongs in the top chamber.' This was not a question. He nodded. 'You should put it back.'
'I need to see.'
'Does not the Steward notice that it is missing?'
'He knows nothing of it. Steward Turgon did not tell him, but gave it into my care.'
'It is like the lanyard. A powerful thing.' Finduilas's voice was steady, but Denethor could see that her hand trembled as she sewed. 'You were overcome by it, friend. I thought you drunk. You drank a great deal last night. The jug was nearly full when I went to bed and it was empty this morning.'
'I missed you last night and could not sleep, so I drank more than I should.'
'What were you looking for in this thing? For attacks from the Enemy?'
'I have looked for such before. Today, I was looking north. To see what is left.'
'What did you see?'
'What was lost. The stone speaks to me, all of it, not just the palantír, and it tells me what has been.' Finduilas looked at him, confused. 'I am not mad, Alquallë! I swear, I can hear stone!'
'But you said you looked into it. Does it let you hear things, too?'
He shook his head and rose to pace back and forth across the room, trying to think of how to say things so she would not think he had lost his mind. 'No. That's the palantír. I can see with that. It is clear, like a window, and I can see into it.' Denethor realized something. 'But I looked into it first, before I could hear. I used the palantír for the first time before the attack on Osgiliath. Later, when I journeyed to Dol Amroth, the stone of Pelargir spoke to me. In my head. I touched the stone and I could hear stories, songs, all the tales of the past. I did not hear Dol Amroth, but Osgiliath spoke when I returned. Then Aglarond and Angrenost.' He stopped his pacing and looked at her. Finduilas's expression was worried, but there was no disbelief. 'This spring, finally, I heard Minas Tirith herself. I think… I think I would not hear them save for having looked in the palantír.'
Finduilas put away her sewing and came to him, putting her hands on his shoulders. 'I do not think you mad, Denethor, though I fear these things could make you so.'
'I won't allow it. It is like wine, and I shan't be made drunkard.' Denethor touched her hair, then kissed her brow and smiled. 'I am sorry to have worried you, Alquallë. You should sleep.'
She nodded, giving him a kiss on the cheek before leaving. With a sigh, Denethor went to the alcove and undressed. He was still weary from the vision, and the euphoria of seeing what had been was being replaced by the grim knowledge of what was, or rather, what was not. The north is a dream. There shall be no salvation from our fate from there, not again. It is no redoubt to which we may retreat. I am fool to have ever thought that. Even their own lord prefers to remain under certain doom than to return.. He heard Finduilas's door open and listened to her footsteps come near. She tapped on the screen before peeking around the edge.
Finduilas stepped around the end of the screen. She wore a grey nightdress with bright embroidery, and carried a length of thick cloth. 'You said you could not sleep last night.'
'No. I missed you.'
'This will keep any stain off the bed,' she said quietly, holding out the cloth. He pulled back the covers on the bed so she could arrange the padding as she pleased. When they were both lying down, she turned onto her stomach, the front of her nightdress hiked up so she would bleed on the padding, not the garment. Denethor curled around her, careful to keep his touches chaste. Finduilas kissed him. 'I won't leave again.'
Nor will I.
Minas Tirith, Late October, 2977 T.A.
Denethor frowned as Finduilas led Gull out of the stable. Fog clung to everything. A dozen guardsmen and three times that many garrison soldiers stood in loose ranks nearby, waiting for the orders to march out. To one side, Thorongil talked to Marlong. With a sigh, Denethor went over to Finduilas, Gaerhûl right behind him.
'Why will you not be sensible?' he growled at her. 'You should not be out in this.'
Finduilas laughed. 'Because I wish to ride a last time before the weather becomes too cold, and because I do not care to be parted from you before I must, friend.' His scowl only made her smile more. 'Now help me up.' Grumbling again, Denethor boosted her onto Gull. The soldiers came to attention, knowing they would soon march. As he mounted Gaerhûl, Denethor could see Thorongil helping Marlong onto his horse. Beregar and Gethron were already astride. As soon as the captain was on his horse, Denethor signaled for the company to move out. Thorongil rode forward to his off side and they rode east.
Denethor had kept his promise to Finduilas and had not looked again into the palantír. He also had left the wine alone. While there might be a time for using the stone, there was no excuse for him to become a sot. Denethor glanced at Finduilas. Even in plain riding clothes, she looked regal. The Steward had lost his honor and was not worthy of more than formal deference, while Thorongil, whatever his secrets, was still but a mercenary until he revealed himself as more. One lord wants me to perish in the woods. The other wants to entomb me in the archives. Both choices are north. Neither are for me. I need no north, for I have found the polestar. Only the Lady held true to her duty and did so with honor. Emeldir's pretense was redeemed by this Lady. He had been right in Ithilien to place himself under her badge.
Two days after looking in the palantír and seeing the past, Denethor had been summoned by the Steward to give mind to the future. Thorongil and Brandir were also present. Ecthelion had asked for Thorongil to outline what he planned for the fall and winter defense. The captain did not think anything extraordinary was needed, given the lateness of the last attack. "The Enemy will need the winter to rebuild his forces. I do not look for major threats until spring." Denethor and Brandir concurred with this judgment. Thorongil's plan was simply to exchange soldiers to rest those now out in the garrisons. Brandir said he was going to ride to Rohan a last time before winter set in. Denethor did not wait to be asked.
'I will visit Osgiliath once more this fall to check the signal flags, and also Cair Andros to satisfy some questions I have. After that, I will be in the City until late November when Finduilas and I journey to Linhir for the remainder of the year. I doubt many will travel here for Yule this year. The Great Council will have to be held in Linhir or it will not be held at all.'
There would be no more asking or obeying as far as Denethor was concerned. He would not seek contest with the Steward, but never again would he wait in the hallway to be sent away to die. He was not going to leave the Lady alone for months on end. He would never ride north.
As they rode, Finduilas spoke of the preparations she was making for Ivriniel's wedding. The previous day had brought another packet of letters from Dol Amroth, all of which filled Finduilas with great joy. Her happiness was infectious; even Wren had spoken cheerfully to him. Evidently, Seabird would be sent to fetch them to Linhir, though their horses would need to be sent ahead for the ride home.
'You will be coming, of course, Thorongil,' she said, peering around Denethor at the captain.
'I will?' was Thorongil's surprised reply.
'You are invited to the wedding and you will be needed afterwards for the Great Council. I imagine you will want to talk to your southern commanders as well, to begin spring preparations,' Finduilas answered.
'I was not aware that the Steward had decided the Great Council would be held in Linhir.' There was a question in the captain's reply and he looked keenly at Denethor.
'It will be held there.' Denethor did not elaborate.
'So you had best be done with your travels by when we leave, captain,' Finduilas concluded, 'for you would not wish to miss a chance to sail on Seabird.'
'No, I would not. I will be ready.'
The fog did not lift with the day, but became thicker the further east they rode. It was now not possible to see to the end of the line of soldiers. When they passed the last of the tilled fields and began to cross the wide grazing lands, there was a strange scent in the air, acrid and unpleasant. It was not long before Denethor recognized it. It was the smell of Osgiliath and the remains of the Dragon Fire. He told Finduilas she should return to Minas Tirith.
'No, not yet,' she stubbornly insisted. 'I will ride to the Rammas and then return. I do not care about some smell.'
The scent increased as they approached the ancient wall. In the fog, there was something that made Finduilas cough and everyone's eyes sting. Two furlongs before the Rammas, Denethor called a halt. He and Finduilas rode a few yards away from the others.
'No further, Alquallë. The air is bad and it would not do for you to fall ill. Your mother will have my hide if you are not able to travel to Linhir.'
'You are right,' she sighed, then had to cough. 'Do not tarry, friend. I doubt the Steward will simply allow the Council to be held in the south.' Again she coughed. This bout left her panting for breath.
Denethor whistled and waved Beregar over. 'You are to return at once.' As Beregar rode up, Denethor moved Gaerhûl close to Gull and took Finduilas's hand. 'I shall not be away an hour longer than I must.'
Finduilas leaned forward and kissed his cheek and let go his hand reluctantly. Gull also did not wish to leave and had to be asked twice. Beregar swung in beside her and Marlong and Gethron fell in behind. The Queen's Men saluted her as she passed. Just like the vision of Elendil, the fog took away the color, then the forms, and then she was gone.
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