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Hands of the King: 44. Touched
Minas Tirith, Early November, 2977 T.A.
The mist clung closely, dank and foul. No matter which way she turned the horse, there was no end to the fog. She had slipped away, leaving her attendants behind, seeking to escape the reek that had wrapped the City for days, and now she was lost in the broad fields north of the road. She had lost track of how long she had wandered. Coughing racked her thin frame, the acrid fumes burning her throat and eyes, each breath like fire in her chest. The mare came to a halt while the woman choked and gasped. This was foolish for her to do, she knew, but she had to find her friend in the east. Behind, in the City, there were only enemies, spies set upon her; even her own guard, the Queen's Men, were not to be trusted anymore. The dread fog had left a film of wickedness upon men's minds.
How now would it be had she not allowed her heart to be moved by beauty and arrogance, and had wed as her father had counseled? It was the Queen who made a king of a lesser man. You should have chosen a better man to be king. Or at least one who could give you a child. Think it not! There is yet time. She panted as the coughing spasm subsided. Nay, not from that man. Incest haunts our house, and the Powers are denied. She tapped the horse with her heels. Even if there was no knowing the direction, if she just held true to one direction, she would come out from under the fumes.
The hours slipped past and the poisoned air was no less. From the corner of her eyes, she could see strange forms moving in the fields, following her, drawing close. There were voices at the edge of her hearing, whispers and clanking sounds. She almost lost her seat when the mare pulled up abruptly and whinnied. Ahead, another horse answered. The deformed shapes scurried closer, trying to cut off escape. She urged the mare forward.
Two riders emerged from the fog. They had to come very close before she recognized Elendil's sons. The elder, Isildur, was like to his father, and his eyes shone brightly in his pale face. He rode quickly towards her, making the mare skitter to the side. 'Come here, my lady,' he commanded, holding out a hand, 'this is no place for you to wander. Come.' The younger son said nothing, but rode past and turned to guard against the shadows that dogged her path. Míriel tried to calm the snorting mare, uncertain now. Pharazôn would certainly lock her away were she seen in their company, perhaps even have her beaten, but there were none others to guide her out of the reek. 'Please, my lady,' Isildur pleaded, 'do not tarry.'
Anárion brought his horse close beside her, laying a warm hand upon her back. At his touch, her strength left her and she slumped in her saddle. He pulled her off the mare and held her before him on his horse. Isildur, shining as brightly as the moon, took the reins of his brother's horse and led them forward. The stench of the mists subsided, replaced by the smell of fresh growing things, and shadows fled. 'Wake, please, wake,' Anárion spoke into her ear, then kissed her temple. 'Alquallë, speak to me!'
A strong hand, cool and unyielding as stone, took hers, giving her an anchor in the mists. She grasped it in return, as she grasped the stone battlements in her dreams, and tried to draw a deep breath of the good air. The oily smoke clawed at her, unwilling to relinquish its hold so easily, refusing to allow a clean breath into her chest. She retched and gasped. 'Again, Finduilas,' came the commanding voice, 'breathe this in.' The next breath was stronger, a wheezing exhalation, followed by a deeper breath, then the coughing came. She coughed until lines of pain lanced her back, bringing up something thick and evil from deep in her lungs. The lump stuck in her throat, seeking to strangle her, until a hand thumped her back hard enough to force what little air was left out of her chest and dislodge the blockage. She gulped in a breath of the clean air and coughed again, as strongly as she could, forcing the clot into her mouth. The taste was so foul Finduilas feared she would vomit, and spat whatever it was out onto the floor. More coughs followed, but finally she could breathe again.
The frightening dream departed, leaving her in the Houses of Healing. Finduilas did not need to open her eyes to know who held her – Denethor. Another hand touched her face and gently wiped it clean with a damp cloth that smelled of life. Before she had to ask, a cup was at her lips, tasting as the cloth smelled, and she gulped it greedily, as much to be rid of the putrid taste of whatever she had coughed up as to slake her considerable thirst. As soon as the first cup emptied, another followed. Finduilas drank three before shaking her head and trying to sit up. Denethor gently held her against his chest. It was nice, to hear his heart and breathe in his scent, more perfect than whatever steeping herbs she had inhaled. She could hear things being cleaned up, hushed murmurs of healers, the soft tread of feet on the stone floor. Her back began to ache from the force of her earlier coughs. As she became more wakeful, she tried to remember why she was here. She remembered being light-headed and nauseated from the foul air upon the Pelennor, and that it would not leave. The next morning, she could not stop retching and coughing, and had gone to the Houses with Wren and Aeluin. The Warden insisted she remain and had dosed her with something to soothe her stomach. All since then had been dreams, grey and damp like the poisoned fog.
'Tell me, friend. Everything.'
Denethor kissed the top of her head and shifted so Finduilas was sitting more comfortably in his lap, pulling a blanket up around her shoulders. 'You took ill from the Morgul mist. You weren't the only one. Galdor had his hands full in the garrison when we arrived. The stink made men sick and we feared there was to be an attack from the vale. Thorongil had some northern herb lore to help fight the effect of the fumes. I went north the next morning to Cair Andros to have soldiers and Riders sent south in case there was an attack. Two days later came news that you were stricken with Black Breath. I came as quickly as I could. Almost too…' He touched her cheek and Finduilas felt him shiver. 'I paused only to summon the captain with his remedies.'
'His was the other voice I heard when I woke? I knew yours.'
'Yes. He healed you.'
'You both did.' Finduilas tipped her head back so she could see Denethor's face. 'I dreamed that I rode upon an empty field in a choking mist, harried by shadowy beasts. Just as I have dreamed that I was Míriel fleeing the downfall, so now was I her, seeking relief from the sacrilege of the Temple. I think the Tree was burning. Two horsemen appeared, brothers. The one was stern and cold, and I feared him, but the other had the warmth of summer, so I let him take me before him on his horse. The other led us from danger.' Finduilas smiled, touching Denethor's cheek. 'And I wake to find my summer king still here,' she whispered. He smiled slightly in return, then yawned hugely. 'How long have you been awake?'
'A few days,' he admitted and yawned again. It was then that she noticed he was still in riding clothes and smelled strongly of sweat.
'Tuck me in and summon someone to sit with me, then have Beregar toss you in the horse trough a few times,' she gently teased, stifling her own yawn.
Her teasing made Denethor chuckle and brought a true smile to his face. 'You have had enough stink near you, I dare say.' She was soon settled in bed, warmly wrapped in a blanket. 'Wren is near. I will send her in.' Finduilas fell asleep before Wren appeared.
When she woke, it was dusk. A small lamp hung from a hook near the door, casting just enough light for Finduilas to see Denethor asleep in the chair next to her bed. A blanket was pulled haphazardly over him and one of his hands was loosely clasped in hers. She lay still, waiting for the inevitable chest-clearing cough. Nothing happened. There was no heaviness in her chest, though her ribs and back ached, no constricted feeling in her throat. All that remained was the familiar wheeze at the tail end of each exhalation. Her head was clear, not muddled, as the usual healer's draughts left her. I must learn more of these northern herbs. Perhaps Thorongil will explain them to me. Smiling to herself, she slipped back into a light doze until a healing prentice woke them for supper. While her chest was clear, the rest of her was sore and weak, and she could manage only some clear broth and a few bites of bread with soft cheese. The Warden of the Houses, Lhûn, came to see her after the meal. Denethor stubbornly refused Lhûn's advice to return to the Stewards House to sleep, insisting that he would sleep in the chair. Finduilas soon fell asleep again, Denethor humming something under his breath while he stroked her hair.
Finduilas's spirits were as bright as the morning sun when she woke, and her appetite had returned. Denethor was already awake and scowling at several messages. Digging into her breakfast, Finduilas motioned towards the missives with her chin, asking 'What has you so cross, friend?'
'The Steward wishes to discuss the Great Council this afternoon.'
'Good. That will keep you from sitting here and fretting.'
'I am not leaving you alone…'
'Of course not,' Finduilas agreed, 'I have many here to attend me.'
He shook his head. 'I have left you too much in others' care.'
'My companions are well chosen, for your duties require you to leave the City and go into danger.' She held out a hand to him. 'You have spent a few days in worry, friend, while I spent this whole summer in dread of what news would return.' Finduilas clasped his hand firmly, making Denethor meet her eyes. 'And now we will use our fears to advantage. Who shall say you nay in council today when your wife lies ill?'
Denethor stared at her, then dropped his eyes, thinking. A slow smile came to his face. Chuckling, he kissed her hand. 'Ever the crafty prince. There will be a number of ministers and I think the Steward hopes to overrule my decision with their support. What do you counsel?'
'That the Great Council shall be held in Minas Tirith, and a formally lesser counsel in Linhir afterwards. As you said yourself, the Steward must not concede power to the Outland lords. Set no precedent.'
'Wise words, as always, Alquallë. What else?'
'Return for supper and tell me all that transpires. I shall have Wren as company until you return.'
A healer attended Finduilas at midday and said she could walk in the garden if she wished. Wren bundled her warmly, for the autumn air was brisk, and they strolled until Finduilas tired. She did not wish to return to her bed, however, so they sat on a bench under a tree. 'Tell me, Wren,' Finduilas teased, 'Do you still wish me to send away all of my men, or has their solicitude softened your hard heart?'
Wren shrugged. 'I think not so poorly of them, I suppose, but neither have they earned great esteem, for they only did as they should. Except Marlong.'
'Marlong? What did he do?'
Wren turned to her in astonishment. 'Did no one tell you? It was he who rode through pain and peril to Cair Andros and brought word of you to the Warden.'
'No! None said it was Captain Marlong who did this. Pain and peril? What happened?'
'He is here, in the Houses, recovering from his ride,' Wren said as she stood, 'for it tried him greatly. He dared the poisoned mists that stalked the Pelennor and injured his leg with hard riding. Come!' Wren led Finduilas to a small room not far from her own. Marlong smiled when he saw Finduilas and tried to sit up, but gasped in pain and sank back on the bed, hand going to his right leg.
'Pray, do not move! Not if it pains you,' Finduilas entreated.
'The pain is set at naught, my lady, for seeing you' he gallantly answered, though his face was pale.
'Wren told me you were the one who rode to fetch my lord.' Marlong nodded. 'Thank you. She also said there is a story of valor to be told, and I would hear it from you.'
'Oh, no, it is nothing,' he answered, face reddening. 'I just rode a horse.'
'Still, if you are not too weary, I would have this story from you,' Finduilas said, pulling a chair next to the bed.
'It is not so great a tale,' he muttered. 'I knew you were ill when we returned from the Pelennor, but trusted the Hound to see to your care. One of the Queen's Men brought us news the next day that you were in the Houses, so I walked up to see if I could be of use. Gethron came with me. By another morning, it was clear that you suffered from Black Breath, as did several others who had been upon the fields when the mists came. You called for your lord.
'Beregar could not go, for he could not leave you while the Warden was gone. I knew that Lord Denethor was to go to Cair Andros and possibly across the river. I said I would ride, for he would trust my word that he had to return at once. If need be, I could even find him across the river, for there is no one, not even the Warden himself, who knows those hills and woods better than I.
'I went to the stables and called for the stable master to bring me the swiftest steed. Word of your illness had spread in the City, and he asked if it was for your sake that I rode. "Yes, for the Lady," I said. Upon those words, Mistress Gull whinnied and opened the door to her stall. She strode to me and I explained my need. After hearing me out, Gull went to the tack room door and stamped her foot, letting them know to saddle her.
'Gull covered the distance from the City to the ruins in a single gallop, never slowing or pausing. I shouted to the guards and asked if Lord Denethor was still there, but he had left the previous day. I did not need to say a word to Gull, for she wheeled and raced away north. Only twice did she slow to rest, and we were to the ferry by nightfall.
'I did not say my business to any there, not even Anbar, but only that the Warden was needed in Minas Tirith at once. I think all assumed that something had happened to the Lord Steward. A messenger was dispatched across the river. I rested, for my leg complained greatly. Even Mistress Gull's smooth gait could not help but jar these battered bones. I sent word to have Gaerhûl held in readiness on the west bank.
'Lord Denethor returned midway through the following night. He asked me nothing, but signaled that I should follow him. Upon the ferry where none could hear us, he asked the matter. "The Lady," I said, and thought he would swoon upon those words. "She is in the Houses and calls for you." Gull as well as Gaerhûl waited upon the shore, and again she granted me a seat upon her. We ran through the night. Though she had run this same track but a day before, Gull matched her mate's pace stride for stride and she would have run yet more swiftly had I asked, but I feared to leave my lord to ride alone in his fey mood.
'Near dawn, as we approached Osgiliath, Lord Denethor blew a summons on the Horn. Captain Thorongil came forth to meet us upon the causeway. "Black Breath has touched her," was all Lord Denethor said before turning Gaerhûl for the last race to the City. I saw the captain run back towards the garrison before Gull bore me away west. By the time the sun was up, we were at the City. When I reached the stables, I could go no further. Gethron and his men carried me to the Houses.'
'Almost you were healed, and you are injured once more,' Finduilas said sorrowfully. Another whose fate has changed for my sake. 'Say that you will mend from this!'
'The healers say I will,' he assured her. 'Think no more upon it. I am a soldier. It is my duty to guard land and Lady from all harm. All that matters is that I was in time.'
After promising Marlong that she would come to see him in his convalescence, Finduilas allowed Wren to guide her back to her own bed. She slept until Denethor returned. He would not say much of the council, only that her wisdom had won assent from all the counselors. Warden Lhûn paid a call as she had the preceding night, and said that Finduilas was improving, but needed to remain abed in the Houses for at least a week. 'Though you have expelled the bile and the last of the evil air you breathed, you were afflicted for four days. Two others perished from the fumes.'
A cot was brought in for Denethor for he would not leave at night. During the day, Finduilas lazed in bed, rising only to stroll in the garden and visit with Marlong. A number of visitors came to see her – Aiavalë, Borondir, Aeluin, Gethron, Luinmir – but not Thorongil. Evidently, he had returned to Osgiliath once she woke from her nightmares. She was intrigued by Wren's change of heart towards Marlong. Though there was nothing particularly affectionate in the woman's attention to the injured captain, neither was she hostile as she had been before. Finduilas did not think she was imagining that Marlong spent more time in their visits speaking to Wren than to herself.
When a week had passed, Finduilas was more than ready to return home. In all the time since she woke, she had not coughed once, and she was eager to begin her packing for the trip south. Lhûn came to see her a final time, listening to her chest, feeling her hands and throat to make sure her blood was warm and moving strongly. The healer looked at her with a smile and said, 'You are near healed, my lady. Even so, you should not do too much between now and when you leave for Linhir.'
'I shall mind your words, Warden. I do not wish to miss seeing my family again.'
'Another great wedding,' Lhûn said with a laugh. 'Exactly one year after your own, yes?'
'A year and a day. Ivriniel will wed on yestarë.' It was difficult to believe it had been almost a year since she and Denethor had wed. So much had happened, yet little was as she had dreamed or expected. Nothing to do with Denethor can be predicted, save his stubbornness. Finduilas sat quietly, thinking upon her odd marriage. There was love in it, but other things were not as they should be.
'Finduilas?' The healer's voice brought her from her reverie. Lhûn's humor was replaced with concern. 'Is something the matter?'
'Perhaps. I have been wed a year. Why do I have no child?'
Lhûn thought for a minute before answering. 'I do not know. You wish for a child now?'
'Why would I not?'
'You are young. I thought perhaps you did not wish to bear yet.'
'My husband is not so young.'
Lhûn nodded. 'So you lie with him and do nothing to prevent a child?'
Finduilas felt her face grow warm. 'Yes.'
'When was your first moon flux?'
'In the fall before I first came to Minas Tirith, when I was twenty-two.'
'That is late. When do women of your mother's house usually bear children?'
Finduilas had to think. 'Late also. But not so much older than I am now. I am twenty-seven. That is not so young.'
'But early for your line. Stand up.' Lhûn felt her arms, occasionally pinching a fold of flesh then letting it go. The older woman touched Finduilas's breasts, belly, rump, and thighs, her matter-of-fact touch as far from Denethor's caresses as could be. 'You are thin, too thin. If you want a baby, you will have to eat more.' For several minutes, Lhûn questioned her about what she ate and drank, how much she walked, whether she lifted or carried things. 'And your husband, how is he to you?'
'I don't understand.'
'Is he ardent? Overly so? Not enough?'
'He is properly ardent,' Finduilas answered, very embarrassed.
'Do you share a bed, or does he come to yours?'
'Share!' She knew she had spoken more sharply than she should, but Finduilas disliked these questions. 'My husband loves me and treats me with honor, though some believe it otherwise.'
Lhûn held up a placating hand. 'I am not among them. Once, many years ago, a silly young thing from Calembel came to the City to be a midwife. When she finished her prenticeship, she said she would wed the old surgeon who never smiled and was almost of an age with her father. His smiles were only for me. I miss him terribly.' The warden took Finduilas's hands into her own. 'I have watched Lord Denethor with you for a year. His heart is true. I also know older husbands can be set in their ways and not give a young wife her due.'
'When he is here, we are always together.'
'It will take more time. You are thin, he is oft gone, and both of you are new to each other.' Lhûn looked at Finduilas closely, much as Brandir had done. 'I think that you are not yet ready. Give it no mind until the spring.'
Finduilas was glad to be back in her own house. She was amazed that her cough had not returned, not even the usual morning cough that had been a part of her life as long as she could remember. Weariness would overtake her suddenly, however, and she would have to lie down and sleep. She found that she could not bear to look east or to walk upon the Citadel wall; the few times she ventured from the Stewards House, she left by the front door so she was below the level of the wall, allowing it to shield her from the evil in the east.
Denethor remained close to her, rarely leaving the house and returning swiftly when he did. At his insistence, Finduilas left most of her tasks for others. Borondir and Luinmir saw to the Lady's Grace, while Beregar and Wren completed all preparations for the southern trip. She sat before the fire in Denethor's study, sewing or simply gazing at the flames, where he could see to the Warden's business and watch over her at the same time.
This afternoon, three days before the end of November, rain fell steadily outside and Finduilas thought back on the year. Lhûn's advice on her childlessness reassured her, though it was the most simple of her concerns. There was more she wished to ask, though she could not figure out to whom she could speak. How to deal with Denethor? It was more difficult now than when they were first wed. There were times, too few, when he was joyful and tender and she could see the fullness of his heart. To her and to Aiavalë he would show this part of himself and to no other. Too often, he seemed divided between anger and melancholy, moving from one to the other with frightening rapidity. His fury over Ecthelion's trespass against Wren had turned so quickly to resignation in the face of the Steward's order to leave the City and be placed in danger, as though he were the one who had done wrong. You are old, Ecthelion. Will you not die soon so Denethor may remain here in the City and not be sent into needless danger? Finduilas stopped sewing, shocked at her own thoughts. No matter how much Denethor detested his father, he had never given evidence that he wished the man dead. But he wishes it of you, friend, and that is even more wicked than what he did to Wren. Wishes or not, death was the only thing that would relieve Denethor of the Steward's enmity.
Finduilas guiltily glanced at Denethor, hoping he had not noticed her dismay. He was engrossed in his letters, so she looked at him more openly. It pleased her to see that he had regained all of the weight he had lost over the summer, making him lithe instead of gaunt. The first night home from the Houses, she had kept to her own bed. When she saw him the next morning, it was clear Denethor had not slept, and she returned to his. Though they had not made love since she fell ill, simply touching her soothed him and kept his dark moods at bay. It also kept him from trying to listen to the stone.
His revelation about the palantír and being able to hear stone explained a great deal. She had asked Denethor to speak more about the voices of the stone, and was amazed at what he recounted, how the cities had different tales and the way he knew what they were supposed to be. The cities speak to him as my dreams speak to me, but tell him of what was, while I see what might be. This was important, though it was not yet clear to her why. For now, it was enough that he preferred to touch her than the stone.
Denethor looked up from his reading, and caught her gazing at him. Finduilas smiled. 'Are you almost done?'
He looked at the letter and deliberately set it aside. Smiling in return, Denethor rose, poured them wine, and brought her a cup. 'I am done now.' He took his seat at her feet, and stretched out his legs until his feet were almost in the fire.
'You're going burn your boots,' she teased. He shrugged and turned his face up for a kiss before sighing contentedly, watching the fire. On the breast of his tunic she had embroidered her device. Finduilas had stitched it on all of Denethor's clothes, sometimes as a full badge, sometimes just the wing on a cuff or hem. She liked seeing her mark upon him. Finduilas knew it to be folly, but she imagined that just as the mariner's lanyard kept him safe from the Enemy, so did her badge protect him from other threats. And from other claims. You are mine. The mariner lays his auguries upon you, the stones demand your attention, the Steward commands you to duty, the king would have your loyalty, others may beg things of you, but you are mine.
Minas Tirith, 3 December, 2977 T.A.
Denethor kissed Finduilas lightly before rolling out of bed. She lazed for a few more minutes, listening to him dress and go to the front room before reluctantly leaving the warm cocoon of blankets. Near the headboard, Telperien lay in a tight ball, snuggled between pillows. The cold air made Finduilas shiver, so she lost no time dressing and hurrying out to the front. Beregar had been there some time before, for a large fire burned in the hearth and the room was warm. During the day, Beregar allowed the guardsmen serving the house to replenish fires, but once the lord and lady had retired, only he or Wren were permitted on the third floor. Even Aeluin did not presume to enter.
With a yawn and another kiss, Finduilas took a seat near the fire, holding out her hands to warm her fingers. Denethor rang the bell to say they were ready for their breakfast. Any day now, she expected Seabird to arrive to take them to Linhir. Everything she needed was packed and ready to be taken to the Harlond. Three days ago, Gethron and a company of guardsmen had set out on the road, taking horses to be used there and for the ride home. Since Thorongil was to accompany them on the trip, he and Denethor had agreed that Marlong formally would be in command of both the Minas Tirith and Osgiliath garrisons, and Halmir would answer to him. Marlong himself had paid a call but two days past to speak to Denethor on this, and had stopped to give Finduilas his regards. The captain was fully recovered from the pain of his long ride and had assured Finduilas that he had told Gull her mistress was well.
Denethor stood near the windows reading over messages that had arrived that morning. Beregar's feet could be heard on the stairs, bringing their breakfast. Finduilas looked at him when he came in, then stared. This was a stranger, taller than her Huan, with short-cropped grizzled hair and a familiar face and….
Her brother had just enough time to set the tray of food down on a sideboard before Finduilas flung herself into his arms. Imrahil laughed and spun her around while she hugged and kissed him. When they came to a halt, Finduilas demanded 'When did you get here? What are you doing bringing this up? Why weren't you announced?'
'I take it Seabird has arrived?' Denethor's voice was full of amusement. He was standing nearby, a small smile tugging the corner of his mouth.
Imrahil let Finduilas go and bowed elegantly. 'Yes, Lord Denethor, Seabird waits to bear you to Linhir.'
Denethor stepped forward and embraced Imrahil. 'I had wondered if you would accompany her, brother Imrahil. Your journey from Dol Amroth was uneventful, I hope.'
'Completely. The seas were smooth for this time of year, all was safely put ashore in Linhir, and I am here to collect you and Finduilas. Mother says if I take more than a week, she will have my ears.'
'It is unwise to upset the Princess, so we shall make haste,' Denethor solemnly answered, though his eyes glinted with humor. 'If you will excuse me.' With a nod, Denethor walked to the door.
'But I brought your breakfast. Will you not eat first?' Imrahil asked.
'There is food in the kitchen,' Denethor said over his shoulder, 'and Finduilas wishes to talk to you, not me.'
The siblings looked at each other and laughed, once more embracing. 'I see Denethor is as abrupt as ever,' Imrahil teased as he collected the tray and brought it to the fire.
'And you are as much a rascal as ever,' Finduilas scolded. 'I want my answers! How are Mother and Father? And what happened to your hair?' Now that she was over her immediate joy, she was full of questions. She waved him to a chair and began fixing them both food and tea. 'Well? Answer!'
'Seabird docked early this morning, and I brought the news myself. I arrived here an hour past and have been waiting for you two slug-a-beds to wake. As for breakfast, it was Sir Hound's idea.'
'And the hair?'
'This? I was about so much this summer, I had no time to keep it neat, so I cut it off.'
'It is greying.'
Imrahil shrugged, his mouth full of bread and preserves. Swallowing, he replied, 'It was already turning last year.' A more serious look came to his face. 'Though it has silvered more swiftly this year.' He ate the rest of his bread before saying more. 'I am sorry that my letters have been so scant. Thank you for not being so stinting with your own. I have been away from the keep much on the Prince's business.' A twinkle came to his eye. 'I had to escape Ivriniel's wedding prattle somehow.'
There had been no letters from Imrahil since the one in early May that had told her of the burning ship. Ivriniel had written every week, and Luinil only a little less often, but their news was only of the keep and Ivriniel's wedding. 'And Father? How does he fare?'
'Much better! You will see. You sent the wizard, didn't you?'
'Yes. Well, I asked him to go and he agreed.'
'It was good that you did. Mithrandir was a guest of the keep for several weeks, and went about with Father. I do not know what they spoke of, but it took away the shadows on the Prince's heart and he is himself again. He taught Mithrandir how to sail out in the bay, and they were oft out at night in one tavern or another, listening to tales. Probably telling more than few.' Imrahil grinned. 'Father tried to come along with me, to escape the wedding, but Mother made him stay. I think his happiness will be complete when he sees you.'
'I know mine shall be increased when I see him and Mother and Ivriniel, even if our sister is driving you mad,' Finduilas grinned in return.
'In fact,' Imrahil said slowly, 'Father said that once Ivriniel is wed, he wishes for all of us to be gone so he may have some peace.'
'All of us to be gone?'
'The Prince approves of me returning to Minas Tirith to do my duty to the Steward. Mother thinks it would be best if we are all gone. Do you think Denethor will allow me to stay?'
'Do you wish to be here?'
Imrahil did not answer at once, but stared into the hearth. 'Yes and no. Not as much as I did before. Dol Amroth is different now. I will be Prince.' He smiled ruefully. 'I know that is stupid for me to say, but I did not understand what that meant until this year. Not even Denethor's tutelage could get through my addled thoughts last summer. I know he did not wish me here, though he was patient enough with me. I need to be here now, for the Stewards and for Gondor, but also for Dol Amroth.' He met her eyes, and there was a seriousness there she had never seen before. 'I must learn how to be the Prince.'
Finduilas studied her little brother, taking the measure of this new man before her. There was nothing boyish left. His shoulders had broadened in the year since she had last seen him, and there was no softness to his face. The short hair made him look several more than his twenty-two years. 'I think you have already begun. Once Denethor knows that the Prince has approved this, he will agree to it. Indeed, I think it well timed. The Warden has need of allies.'
'And I shall be foremost among them,' he firmly replied, 'but you must promise me one thing, sister.'
His serious mien dissolved into mischief. 'That you will not find me a wife!'
'I think you can manage that for yourself, little brother!' They dissolved into laughter again. 'Is Ivriniel really being so terrible?'
'No, she is not, but it is wearing. What makes me wary is the way Mother has been looking at the young women who have come to call. When Lord Gundor and his house visited…' Imrahil launched into a amusing tale of the Langstrand lord's visit. This was followed by another tale, and another, and the two whiled away the morning with stories of Dol Amroth.
Harlond, 4 December, 2977 T.A.
With a shout and a shove, the sailors pushed Seabird away from the Harlond pier. The sun was barely up. It was good to stand on Seabird's deck once more. Beregar and Denethor had seen to everything yesterday, leaving Imrahil with her for almost the entire day. He had left briefly during the afternoon to present himself to the Lord Steward, but returned for supper. Finduilas had counseled him to say nothing to Denethor of returning to Minas Tirith after the wedding yet, but to wait until the Prince could present it to Denethor himself.
Finduilas kept Wren beside her as the sailors got the ship underway. Wren was fascinated at the sights on the river banks. She had never gone further from Minas Tirith than her ill-fated flight, and she was full of questions about what she was seeing. Finduilas soon found herself at a loss to answer her, and called Denethor over. She was pleased that Wren took no umbrage at his company and began peppering him with the questions Finduilas could not answer. For his part, Denethor was mild and polite in his manner. Finduilas edged away, leaving them to their conversation.
On the port side, Thorongil stood by himself, watching the river bank. Word had been sent to Osgiliath the previous day for Thorongil to meet them at the dock. When Finduilas saw the small bundles he had with him, she was glad she had packed extra clothes for Denethor. Thorongil would need to dress in something besides soldier's garb for the wedding itself and probably for the Great Council. Finduilas walked over. He bowed when he saw her. 'Good morrow, my lady.'
'And good morning to you, Thorongil.'
'You must be glad to journey to see your family again,' he said with a warm smile. She found herself wishing that both he and Denethor had more occasions to smile, for it suited them.
'Yes, I am! The journey itself pleases me as well. I am remiss, though. I owe you a great thanks, my friend, for your healing. Without your herb lore, I shudder to think what would have been my fate.'
'Say not such ill words, Finduilas, please!' Thorongil entreated. 'It grieves me that you were stricken.' His clear grey eyes met hers, as warm as his smile.
'Your healing has done much good. The evil humors are banished and I do not cough anymore. That is greater healing than any other has brought about.'
'I would do anything for you, Finduilas,' he softly replied. 'But ask, and it is done.'
For a moment, she stared at him, wondering if he had fallen back into his foolish affection, but saw nothing but sincerity in his face. I could speak to him. I could tell him of the darkness that dogs Denethor's steps, and he would understand. She started to say something, then hesitated. It was not something that should be spoken of here. Instead, she said, 'I did not ask, but you did my bidding anyway. I wished my husband back with me, and you returned him safely on yáviérë.'
His eyes changed, turning fierce and bright, as Isildur's had been in her vision. In a voice barely loud enough to be heard over the sound of the water against the hull, he said, 'I will always do that. I would never do him harm, my lady, any more than I could offer it to you.' Thorongil paused. 'You are both dear to me.'
Finduilas laid a hand on his arm. 'It would be easier were we not so sharp with you, I dare say.'
He smiled wryly. 'Ah, yes. But if I err, then I earn my corrections.' He edged a step away so her hand fell from his arm and gazed out at the river. 'I am trying to follow your advice, both of yourself and of Lord Denethor.'
'The Warden advised that the Steward requires honesty. You said that I should require no less of myself.' Thorongil turned his sharp gaze on her again. 'How does one know if one is deceiving oneself?'
'What is your name?' She waited a full minute for the answer.
'Thorongil.' With a nod, the captain left for the stern of the ship.
A strong breeze hastened their journey downriver and they arrived in Pelargir just before sundown, even on a day so short of light. Denethor, Thorongil and Imrahil went ashore for a short time to speak to Captain Baragund in the garrison. Finduilas asked Wren if she wished to see Lark. The woman shook her head. 'There is not time for a true visit. I will wait until we return.' Finduilas looked at Wren from the corner of her eye. Will you choose to return? For most of the summer, Finduilas believed that Wren would choose Pelargir, escaping the cruelty of her kin, and there were times that she found herself envious of Wren's escape. In the fall, there had been a softening to the women's hard heart. Perhaps her own loneliness had affected her. Now, Finduilas had to wonder about Marlong. Even that may not be enough.
As soon as the men returned, Îbal ordered Seabird into the river once more. They traveled south until three hours past sundown, when the sails were furled and the captain began looking for moorage. 'There's a spring tide,' Îbal explained. 'We need to rest until the tide is out, then travel so we come to the bay at high tide.' They would set out again past midnight and reach the outflow of Anduin after sunrise.
The full moon illuminated the empty lands to either side of Anduin. Ahead, on the west bank, Finduilas could see the ruins of a great building. Seabird made for a crumbling pier that reached out from the tumbled stone. As soon as the ship was secured, the sailors set about making supper and readying for some sleep. Denethor stood near the bow of the ship, gazing at the building. Finduilas came over to him and wormed her way under his cloak so that they both looked at the shore, her back against him. He embraced her tightly.
'What is that, friend?'
'What is left of the king's house.'
'Castamir? You said he tried to move the kingdom south.'
'No. Tarannon Falastur, though Castamir did think to make it his. It was ruined in the flight of the rebels.' Denethor's voice was musing. 'He built it upon pillars set in the river. It was the most beautiful house ever built in Gondor.' Denethor let Finduilas go and walked a few steps closer to the ruin. He wants to walk in it, touch the stone. Finduilas shivered, seizing his hand so he could not leave.
'Come, it is time for supper and then bed. I am weary from this long day.' Obediently, Denethor followed. They woke briefly when the ship left the ancient quay, then were lulled back to sleep as it sped down the river. They were awake and on deck for the passage into the bay. Fishermen coming back from their night labors shouted and waved as they passed, riding the high tide in to the river. Îbal and Imrahil were near the wheel and called the others over.
'Warden,' Imrahil said in a serious voice but with a mischievous glint in his eye, 'a decision must be made.' Denethor raised an eyebrow. 'We have two paths to Linhir. One is along the coast, where the winds are against us. It will take much rowing, but will get us there by nightfall. The other is to head out to deep water, then swing back and let the winds carry us in. There is always the threat of black sails, but we should arrive late today. Perhaps not until early morn.'
'Have you used your seven days?'
'Tomorrow is the seventh,' Imrahil replied, no longer able to suppress his grin.
'Since your ears are safe, we sail,' Denethor answered. Îbal called for the sails to be set. The sea became rougher further out, but the toss of waves and rush of wind was exhilarating. Tolfalas was an emerald shot with granite upon their starboard side, a gem floating upon the Sea as Falastur's palace had once floated upon the river. They left the isle behind, flying ever south. Only past dinner did Îbal call for the ship to turn west, swinging far out upon the Bay of Belfalas to catch the winds that would drive them north.
Near the prow of the ship, Denethor and Thorongil stood, hair and cloaks flapping in the wind, speaking about something. They motioned at the Sea and in different directions, talking of what Finduilas could not hear, and they had forgotten the rest of the ship. They laughed, pleased at their journey and their speech. Their cares and wariness had been cast aside or whipped away by the sea breeze, and she thought again of the princely brothers in her vision.
The wind was strong and she did not wish to risk becoming ill, so Finduilas retreated to her cabin. Close to sundown, when they should have been turning north, Finduilas felt the ship slowing. Soon, the sound of the wind faded and the ship rocked gently in the water, becalmed. When she came on deck, a fog was gathering. Denethor was speaking to Îbal. The captain was shaking his head and did not seem perturbed. Finduilas approached. '… time of year.'
'You don't think there will be trouble from Corsairs?'
'Nay. They are in the same state we are.' Denethor thanked the captain and walked off, not seeing her. Îbal did see her and smiled, motioning her to come closer. 'You know these fogs, my lady.'
'Yes, though I've not been caught in one before.' As they stood there, Finduilas could see the mist growing heavier.
'It will clear in the night,' he assured her, 'and we will be on our way.'
'I trust to your wisdom, captain,' Finduilas said as lightly as she could, though her heart was unsettled. 'Do not let me keep you.' Îbal bowed politely and set off towards the rear of the ship. She could barely see to the bow, where she made out two forms. Hoping they were Denethor and Thorongil, Finduilas approached. Her lungs labored for a breath in the damp air. The figures became less distinct as she drew close, not more, and she stopped, afraid to be caught in a waking dream. The fog thinned, and she saw a man, Denethor yet not him, standing near the rail, peering at the fog. His hair was covered in dew, with pearls strewn here and there. The tangle of seaweed that crowned him was rusty brown in color, and looked edged in blood. He spoke to another whose face was pale, with a band of stars on his brow, but whose body was the ruin of the White Tree. Tattered cloth hung from its limbs, and a carrion crow perched on one branch. The fog closed over her vision. Finduilas staggered back, then fled to the safe confines of the cabin.
When Denethor came in after sundown, she looked for any sign of the sea-crown, but there was naught to see but beads of mist. Imrahil and Thorongil joined them for a simple supper, then went to the cabin they shared to sleep. Denethor blew out all but one lantern and turned down the covers on their bed. It was longer but more narrow than what they shared at home and really meant for only one person, but they had managed the night before. Finduilas looked at the bed and shivered.
'It is cold.' The light thrown by the lantern held no warmth. She shivered again.
Denethor embraced her, nuzzling her hair. 'Come to bed. It will be warmer under the covers.'
Her answer was to kiss him. He hesitated, then returned the kiss. Finduilas slipped her arms around him, pulling his hips against her. When the kiss ended, Denethor's face had reddened and his breath was faster. He caught her face between his hands. 'This? You have been too weary…'
'I am cold.' Finduilas sat on the bed and pulled off her low boots and stockings, and her heavier outer clothes, but kept on her blouse and underskirt. She wanted him, but did not wish to bare herself to the cold, or to other things. Denethor sat next to her and kissed her again. He touched her breasts through the shirt, then unbuttoned it, but left it tucked into her skirt, slipping his hand inside the cloth to cup and knead her. He paused to remove his own boots before returning to kiss her, this time pushing her gently to lie down. Denethor made a blanket of himself, letting his weight rest on her while they kissed. His loins pressed against hers and she could feel him harden.
Denethor sat up and scooted down the bed, having to duck his head to keep from rapping it on the bottom of the upper bunk. His hands slid under her skirt, along her legs, until they came to her furrow. A finger touched her, delicately probing, but she was dry. Denethor wetted two fingers and tried again with no luck. For a moment he sat, brow furrowed, then ran a hand along the inside of her thigh. He leaned down and ducked under her skirt and kisses replaced the hand. He kissed his way up the inside of her leg, then nuzzled the hair covering her furrow. Finduilas gasped as she felt his tongue slip between the folds of skin, shockingly hot and wet. He stopped, then ran his tongue against her again, making her moan. His hands pushed her skirt up to her hips, slipped under her rump, raising her up, and he pressed his face into her.
Nothing Denethor had ever done before could compare to this. His tongue teased her, then pressed firmly, delving into all of the folds and crannies of her furrow. Some of the strokes of his tongue were long and languid, others flicked quickly, tickling her. Then he licked upwards and she cried out, unable to stop her hips from jerking against his mouth. After a moment, Denethor did that again, and it was even more affecting. His hands slipped up, pressing her legs further apart and holding them still, then he began a thorough investigation of this spot. Finduilas thrashed and cried out as his tongue rubbed her, wanting him to stop and continue both, for it was so intense it was at the edge of pain. Denethor's own moans joined hers, his passion building as he touched her. He let go of her with one hand, and slipped first one, then two fingers into her and she clenched around them, which made the other sensation more bearable. He groaned as though it were his member within her. Denethor reached up with his other hand, finding one of her breasts, and began squeezing and rolling her nipple between his fingers.
Her head started to spin, threatening to swoon, and she tried to fight off this feeling. The dream mists were too close, the Sea too great, and Finduilas became afraid. It was like the first time they had lain together, but this time he was the master and she was helpless in his hands, and he became a spring tide pulling her upwards so as to let her fall. She flapped her wings and tried to fly, but he pulled her out of her feathered cloak, yanking aside her shirt, baring her breasts. Denethor replaced his tongue with his thumb, fingers still deep within her, and moved forward to suckle her breasts, teeth pinching her nipples. He returned to her furrow, leaving her breasts wet in the cold air, making her cry out again. When his tongue pressed on her between her legs, hard and wet, something in her broke. Finduilas cried tears as she shook, not knowing where she was.
Denethor crawled up the bed and held her, pinning her down and keeping her from being borne away on the Sea. His beard smelled of her crotch and it was wet through. He kissed her and murmured things into her ears, sounding like the waves against the ship. His hand slipped between them and his fingers found that spot, pressing, making her cry out and buck. 'Almost, almost,' he panted. When she looked in Denethor's eyes, Finduilas whimpered. There was something wild in them, fierce and hungry. He raised his hips off hers just enough to get his trousers undone and free his cock, entering her easily. Bracing his feet against the end of the bed, Denethor began thrusting into her powerfully. She tried arching up into him, twisting and clenching, to make him end quickly, but she could get no purchase on the bed and his weight kept her pinned. With one hand, he gripped her shoulder so she would not slide up the bed, and the other slipped between them again, rubbing and pressing. 'Come to me!' he begged, 'I love you!' His free hand dug into her and he bit at her shoulders and neck, his words dissolving into cries of want.
She moaned and twisted to escape his ferocity, yet was drawn into it, as by an undertow, and wanted him just as fiercely in return. Again her desire built and she veered into her dreams. They lay before the waterfall, mating upon the hard stone, his arm marked by fire. The voice of the Sea spoke, deep with longing, grieving that she was not joined to him, and she looked up into the eyes of the summer king with his sea-grass crown, and he wept pearls and amber, and begged her to love him. Then the mariner reached into her heart, saying 'Here is hope that will endure,' and he wrenched something from her, leaving an open wound. The pain was great, making her cry out, convulsed with passion and fear. Above her, Denethor panted, eyes unseeing, both hands now tangled in her hair. Thrust, and more, and again, and he spilled, his ending cry low and long.
For some time, they did not move, but clung to each other. It was hard not to think that something had happened that should not have, yet Finduilas already wanted to feel this thrill again, to be consumed by Denethor's touch. Denethor moved first, rolling to the side so his weight was not on her. Cold air touched her chest and thighs, making her shiver. He pulled a blanket partly over her. The lantern guttered out, leaving them in darkness. Finduilas started stroking Denethor's arm and realized he was still wearing his shirt. She reached up to undo the buttons at the collar. As she did, her fingers brushed a cord at his neck. Finduilas recoiled from it as from a snake.
'You're wearing that!' she snarled, pulling blankets around her to defend against the lanyard.
Denethor cursed under his breath. 'Yes, I'm sorry, I forgot to take it off,' he apologized.
'That is what did it! You said you wouldn't wear it!'
'Alquallë, what are you talking about?' Denethor protested, trying to sit up. 'I forgot. It was under my shirt and didn't touch…'
'I felt it! You promised!' Rage rose in her swifter than desire, and she kicked him. 'Get out!'
'Finduilas, stop this,' he half ordered, half begged, trying to get hold of her arms. She wriggled away and slapped him, then kicked him again before putting her feet firmly against him and shoving him out of bed. He fell with a thud to the floor, and did not bother to mutter his next curses. He stood, demanding 'What are you doing?'
'You can sleep in your own bed. Maybe that will make you remember!'
Denethor stood there in silence, then climbed into the bunk above her.
Finduilas was woken the next morning by the sound of Denethor getting dressed. From the creak and motions of the ship, she knew that Seabird was no longer becalmed. The confusion of the previous night returned, making her huddle under the covers. Denethor finished dressing and stood near the bed. 'I know you're awake. Get up,' he said. Finduilas lay still, not yet ready to face him. With a growl, he turned and left the cabin. When she no longer heard his tread, Finduilas sat up. He is right to be angry. I was a harridan. She shivered at the memory of the mariner's touch, placing a hand on her chest as though she could find the wound he made. Perhaps I may stay here until we reach Linhir. That would be cowardly. With a sigh, she rose and began dressing. Man and mariner both must be faced.
The sharp wind on deck almost changed her mind. It was strong and cold, but it drove away all sign of fog or cloud and moved the ship swiftly north. A quick glance showed Denethor standing near the bow. Finduilas walked to the stern, not yet ready to face him. Îbal hailed her cheerfully as she approached.
'I said we'd have no trouble, and there was none,' he said with a smile after she greeted him. 'We were watched over.'
'Watched? By whom?'
'The old prince. Your grandfather,' Îbal answered.
Finduilas remembered the tale her father had told her of the specter on the ship, and shook her head. 'That is nonsense.'
'It is true,' the captain insisted. 'I saw him myself. After you and the lords retired, I was called. He sat upon the foredeck and he kept harm away.' Finduilas shook her head again. You saw, but it was not Grandfather. Îbal continued in a gentle voice, 'Be not dismayed, my lady. He did this last year, for your brother was aboard, and now he guards you as well. There are tales of past princes guarding Seabird. It is good, not bad.'
'It is nonsense,' she repeated, nodded curtly, and retreated to a sheltered seat almost at the stern. Her shaking was as much from the news of the mariner as from the chill wind. He was here. It was not just fancy.
It was almost a half hour before Denethor appeared. He glared down at her. 'Are you going to behave yourself, or are you still of a mind to kick me?' Finduilas sank down in her cloak, ashamed, and shook her head. 'I did not deserve your ire.'
'No. I am sorry.'
'What possessed you to do that?' he demanded.
'Did you speak to Îbal?'
Denethor sat next to her. 'Why?' he asked in a low voice, 'What has happened?'
'In the fog. The gift-giver was here.' She could not give the mariner more name than that. 'Îbal said he saw that one on the deck. Before then, when the fog first came, I saw things, but not him. I heard him. When we lay together, I heard his voice.'
'What did he say?'
' "Here is hope that will endure." I felt a touch that was not yours.' Denethor was still, then reached into the pouch at his waist and pulled out the cord. He cocked his arm back to throw the lanyard into the Sea, but Finduilas grabbed his wrist, careful not to touch the thing itself. 'No!'
'I will not keep it!' Denethor's eyes blazed as he tried to wrest his arm from her grasp.
'It is his gift. It protects you!'
'I wish not for what does you harm! It is naught but curse.'
'I took no harm. Fright, yes, but no harm! I deem it worse that you should spurn this gift. Thus it is with things so powerful. An herb in a healer's hand may save, yet it will do harm when eaten thoughtlessly.' Denethor's arm relaxed somewhat under her touch. 'Let it not touch another, for it was given to you. And we must beware when in his realm.'
He stared at the rope in his hand, then sighed and put it back in the pouch. 'Would that I had not taken it up.'
'It is done, and so must be borne.'
Denethor stared at his hands, turning his ring with his thumb. 'That was what upset you?'
'Yes. Will you forgive me for being a goose?'
'You are not angered at my forwardness?'
He shrugged, some red coming to his face. 'What I did. I feared I had offended you. Do you approve?' Denethor glanced at her, not quite meeting her eyes.
'I don't know. You startled me, and then I was dismayed by… him.'
Finduilas laid a hand on his. 'You may try again when there are not so many distractions, and I will tell you if I approve. I promise not to kick you, even if I disapprove.'
Denethor smiled and finally looked at her fully. He started to say something, then stopped, an expression of amazement, then joy spreading across his face. 'I see you,' he whispered, taking her face in his hands, 'You love me.' Before she could answer his ridiculous words, he kissed her. As he did, something Brandir said came back to her: "I do not see love writ upon you as it should be." Suddenly, she became aware of how often some people had stared at her in a certain way. Finduilas made herself stay still, fighting back a desire to thrust Denethor away and flee to the cabin. This was the mariner's doing, and she did not trust it. When he broke the kiss, Denethor looked at her with such joy she knew she was right to hold her tongue. 'Love that will endure,' he whispered. 'Fearsome, yes, but a gift, not a curse.'
Not love, hope. Finduilas did not correct him aloud. She laid a finger on his lips. 'Shh, love. Let us speak no more on this until we have our feet on solid ground again.' To this, Denethor happily assented. Finduilas kept her misgivings to herself.
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