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Hands of the King: 46. South

Linhir, Yestarë, 2978 T.A.

Denethor guided them away from the crush of dancers, snagging two cups of something from the tray of a passing server. He offered one to Finduilas with a sly grin. 'Here. You should have something to drink.'

Finduilas laughed gaily. 'Yes, friend. I should.' After a sip, she wrinkled her nose and handed it back to him. 'But not that.' A sniff of his own cup made him agree. It was a sweet punch of strange fruit juices and a strong spirit favored by coastal folk near the Ethir Anduin and southwards. It was cloying and left one's breath foul and head pounding the next day. Denethor always thought of it as the taste of Umbar; something on the verge of rotting.

'Come,' he said. They wove through the wedding feast guests to a table holding things to drink. Cups of water in hand, they retreated to a relatively quiet spot near the now-empty dais. The Great Hall of Linhir blazed with light. It was smaller than Merethrond, but was more gaily painted and had large windows of colored glass. It was also packed. In the middle, people had been dancing for several hours. Denethor glimpsed Ivriniel in her red dress but did not recognize the man she danced with. Surrounding the dancers was a mob of guests talking loudly to be heard over the music and stamping feet. He had to put his face very near Finduilas's to be heard, not that he minded the proximity. 'Will you take it amiss if I say I like this wedding more than our own?'

She grinned and gave him a light kiss. 'I like it better, too. I'm neither drunk nor sick.'

Denethor smiled in return and brushed her cheek with a fingertip. 'For which I am very glad.' It was true. Finduilas had not coughed or been ill since Thorongil's northern medicines had cured her of the black breath almost two months past. There was just the tiniest wheeze at the end of her breath as she slept. Perhaps that is why… Denethor thrust away the nagging thought, unwilling to let any doubt into this day of happiness. The sight of Finduilas this afternoon when he came to the Swan's house for the procession to the Great Hall was like the rising of the sun; he was awed by the light within her. Whatever the reason he was now vouchsafed sight of her heart, Denethor was overjoyed by it. The last five days had been frustrating, for she had been needed by her kinswomen and they saw each other only twice over that time. There had been no opportunity for them to be alone together, not even to kiss. He glanced around, then murmured in her ear, 'Do you think anyone would notice if we left?'

'Mother would, so we need to stay longer, at least until Ivriniel and Angbor leave,' she answered with a sigh. Finduilas sipped her water, then said, 'I am very happy for Ivriniel, but I am even more happy that this is over.'

'I do not recall you demanding so much of her help last year.'

'You were gone much of that time,' Finduilas replied, 'so you did not see all that Ivriniel did for me. Do not forget that I also had Wren, Beregar, Aiavalë and Borondir to help me!'

'I suppose,' he said with some doubt.

Denethor saw Morvorin coming towards them, a woman on his arm. Finduilas waved at the two, and greeted each with an embrace and a kiss. 'Moraen, it is wonderful to see you! And you as well, Morvorin,' she cheerily said. Denethor nodded to each amiably, not certain who the woman was. The two women chattered at each other, agreeing that everything was beautiful and perfect. Morvorin looked less than enchanted by the evening. As had been the case at the Captains' Council in the spring, the usually gay young lord wore a solemn face. There was sobriety in his bearing now, most unlike his boyish demeanor of the previous year, when he was more like to Imrahil and Beregar. You finally feel the weight of lordship, do you? Denethor approved of the young man's growing maturity. They had not had time to speak yet in Linhir as Morvorin had arrived but a few days before.

Denethor saw Thorongil not far off and stared at the man until he turned around. The captain hastened over when Denethor caught his eye. 'My lords, my ladies,' the captain greeted them with a polite bow. Denethor had not inquired as to the outcome of the ridiculous argument over Thorongil's clothes, content that the man looked respectable. Finduilas would tell him in time whatever he needed to know. Pleasantries were exchanged and Denethor learned that Moraen was Morvorin's sister.

'If you will forgive me for speaking of serious things on such a festive day, Lord Denethor,' Morvorin said, 'the road between Calembel and Ethring has rarely been in better repair, though I would not have believed it would be done, given the footpads you sent to do the work.'

'Good. And what of the footpads?'

'Most departed when their sentence was done, but some remained and are now honest men,' Morvorin replied. 'A few have a talent for road building. I think they would be good foremen for future work gangs.'

'There is more work to be done on the road?' asked Thorongil.

Morvorin shook his head. 'Not the Calembel road, captain. That was finished this summer. What lies at either end, though, that could use work.'

Thorongil looked at Denethor. 'That will take hands…'

'…but they cannot be neglected, and the work cannot be left to…'

'…criminals, no,' Thorongil agreed, 'So, how to fix these stretches quickly…'

'…without tying down the men we need on the marches?' Denethor finished.

Morvorin stared at them, disconcerted at the swift exchange, then gathered his wits. 'Yes, exactly, my lords. It is more swift to travel by a barge than a horse from Ethring to Edhellond, and the road to Linhir can be impassable if there is heavy rain. Would that the roads in the west were as well-paved as those between Pelargir and Minas Tirith.' He glanced around the hall sourly. 'While I do not begrudge the celebration here, I would fain have trod that road and spent this season in Minas Tirith.'

'Then you must come,' Finduilas interjected, 'both you and Moraen. You denied me your sister's companionship this past summer and I shall not allow it again.' Though Finduilas said the last in a teasing tone, Denethor did not doubt that she meant it.

Moraen smiled and seized her brother's hand. 'Do say we shall, Morvorin! I wish to see the City again.'

'Yes, and soon!' Finduilas encouraged. 'In fact, will you let Moraen return with me this month? She will stay as my guest.' Denethor was intrigued at Finduilas's insistence on this; he suspected there was more to the invitation than he understood. While the two women cajoled Morvorin to make him agree, Thorongil lightly bumped Denethor with his elbow and motioned a fraction with his chin for Denethor to look behind him. Adrahil and Angrist were approaching, arm in arm, laughing over something, looking slightly inebriated and very pleased with themselves.

After Seeing Finduilas, the greatest pleasure of this journey had been Adrahil's genial company. Denethor doubted that the Prince had completely returned to the trust they had shared before his humiliation over Osgiliath and the ill-fortuned betrothal, but it was more than Denethor had expected. He sometimes caught Adrahil staring at him closely, as the man did now. What desire do you see, Prince? It is love. It may not be denied. He knew it was petty, but Denethor enjoyed that Adrahil had no choice but to accept that Finduilas loved him. The lords cheerfully greeted the others, except for Thorongil. While Angrist was amiable, Adrahil nodded coolly to the Lost. It appeared that his ire at Denethor was now to be heaped upon the captain's head. Finduilas watched her father's cold greeting to Thorongil closely, a thoughtful look on her face.

'Now, Warden,' Angrist mock scolded, 'no holding a council without the rest of us!'

'Please join in, my lords, for our talk concerns you,' Denethor answered. 'It will be a matter for the Southern Council.'

'When does the Steward convene the Great Council?' Adrahil asked.

'Tomorrow. The Steward's guidance will be sent the next day. We can expect it by the fifth, and shall hold our council on the sixth.' Following Finduilas's wisdom, Denethor had conceded the formal supremacy of the Great Council and had required all of the southern lords to deliver their reports to him in time to be sent to the Steward for tomorrow's gathering in Minas Tirith.

'And what concerns us now?' Angrist pressed.

Denethor nodded at Thorongil, indicating the captain should answer. 'Repairing roads. Lord Morvorin told us of the success of the work between Ethring and Calembel, and noted that other roads need mending.'

'But the roads are always mended,' protested Angrist, with a smile. 'Next you will be telling us that cows need feeding and corn needs reaping!'

'The roads should not need mending, at least not so much' Morvorin argued. 'Once, all the main roads were paved, as now only the road from Minas Tirith to Pelargir is maintained. Now there are broken places and leagues where the stone has been removed, making a mire.'

'Are you proposing that we repave all the old ways?' questioned Adrahil, his face showing he thought it a questionable proposal.

'Yes,' was Morvorin's stout reply. 'The bridge of Osgiliath was rebuilt. Why not the roads of Gondor?'

'The labor it would take…' Angrist began, shaking his head.

'…is well worth the reward,' Denethor said. 'Instead of rebuilding dirt tracks every spring, we can relay the roads that will last for centuries.'

'To do any less is to admit defeat.' Thorongil's quiet assertion pulled all eyes to him. There was a light in his own, and his expression was proud and commanding. 'We must not fear or rue what may be on the morrow, nor turn from great tasks because our immediate will is thwarted.' Something in Denethor's heart rejoiced in these words and he wished to lay his hands upon stone, any stone, to hear its poetry of the past and sing to it the glory that yet awaited. 'As the Warden says, we should build these roads for the years ahead. Upon them we will march in haste to the realm's defense, but also will we walk in peace and plenty, as will our children and theirs after them.'

'Is this your way of telling us, Thorongil, that we shall have war on our doorstep this coming year?' Adrahil said, looking at the man with suspicion.

'No, for we all know that there will be no more years without war,' was the captain's even reply. 'It is what we need to do to protect us on land. If the western reaches of Gondor are not to be cut off from the eastern lands, then there must be ways to move swiftly across the realm, regardless of the time of year.'

Out of the corner of his eye, Denethor saw Duinmir walking towards them. The choice of Duinmir to officiate at the wedding mystified Denethor; he had not thought Dol Amroth and Morthond to be so close, for Finduilas had never said that there was any great affection or trust between the Prince and the Lord of Morthond. The man joined them, nodding to each but not speaking.

'The swiftest route from east to west is the Sea,' Adrahil countered.

'Only if key ports are free and we command Anduin,' answered Thorongil, making the Prince scowl.

'It is not a choice between them! A swift ship may outrun a horse, but not all men live upon a river or a coast,' Morvorin protested. He turned to Angrist, 'Do you not think it for the best that the road between Linhir and Ethring be as sound and strong as that between Pelargir and Minas Tirith? Ox carts and peddlers' wagons will move more swiftly on a stone road, too, not just soldiers.'

'I am not objecting to good roads, my lords,' Angrist said with a laugh, 'and I think all know that I wish for safe port as well.'

'What wise man would argue against good roads?' Duinmir sounded puzzled. His eyes came to rest on Thorongil. 'But a wise lord will always ask why his people are being called away to war, and wonder why the roads are allowed to languish until then.'

'Because we do not think of trying times until they arrive, Duinmir,' Angrist replied, eyeing the other sharply.

The Morthond lord did not cease looking at Thorongil. 'Of course. But I am confused. Three years ago, I heard speak of the great threat from the south. Is that threat now gone so that we should be eager to send our men away east and north?' To Denethor's concern, Adrahil nodded agreement with Duinmir and turned a sharp eye on Denethor. 'My men are for the defense of Morthond,' Duinmir concluded.

'And for Gondor, as all of us are!' Morvorin insisted. 'We are men of Gondor!'

'Some of us.' Duinmir's eyes glinted and an unkind smile came to his lips. 'Not all.' Thorongil did not look away nor did his calm expression change, but some red began to appear on his cheeks. 'And a wise lord thinks of his own people first.'

'For there lies the greatest fortress, beside which stone is mere sand,' Finduilas answered, 'and the people will always look to the wisest lord, the one who can lead and unite them in dire times. There is no wisdom in division.' Duinmir finally looked away from the captain. He could not meet Finduilas's eyes for more than a moment and dropped his gaze to the ground.

'Nor is there wisdom in ignoring a threat. Umbar remains the same threat that it was three years ago.' Denethor allowed some contempt to creep into his voice. 'If you have arrived at a solution for defeating them, Duinmir, we all wish to hear it. Until then, the waters can protect us or become highways for our foes. There is no safety in Gondor save by securing our shores, whether they be beach or river bank. Upon the Sea, ships are our salvation. Inland, it is our roads and bridges that form the defense. We may not choose between them. As the Lady said, division is our greatest foe. The coast and the capital are united.'

Finduilas smiled at Denethor at these words and placed her hand on his arm. 'And so they shall remain.' Adrahil's expression remained doubtful.

'There are more lands than those, my lady,' Duinmir said, though he would not look upon Finduilas fully, 'and the mountains are also in search of a fortress that will last. Our stone hills are more than sand.'

'So said the hill-lords of Rhudaur before they fell to Angmar,' Thorongil said quietly, eyes downcast, as though speaking to himself. His gaze snapped upwards, eyes fierce, catching Duinmir so suddenly the other man stepped back a pace. 'Their towers, aye, those remain. Naught else.'

'I say we argue over shadows,' Morvorin interrupted. 'Arnor was laid low by its divisions. That must not happen here. What we need are good roads to unite us, from Erech to Linhir and on to Minas Tirith.' For a moment, Denethor had a vision of stone, a ribbon running across Gondor like a river across a plain, and those who walked the road would stride through tales and visions of the past, even as he had seen Elendil and Gil-galad move through the ghostly ranks of their warriors.

Duinmir found his tongue once more. 'But will the Anduin fiefs come to our defense? For three years, now, we send our men away east for others to command.'

Denethor tired of this querulous lord. 'Yes, they will, even as Steward Beren sent Beregond to drive back the invaders from Umbar and Harad who overran the falas but two-hundred and twenty years past. Had the roads been better, it probably would not have taken all the winter to do. Morvorin is right. When there is a need to move from one end of the realm to the other in haste, the way must be open.'

'Please, gentlemen, enough!' Finduilas dug her nails into Denethor's wrist, warning him to be quiet. 'This is a wedding, and you will have your war council in but a few days.' She shook a finger at them all, but smiled to take away the sting. 'The new Lady of Linhir would be most upset to know you are arguing and not celebrating. Lord Duinmir, your punishment for being contentious is you must now dance.' Finduilas smoothly slipped her arm into his and started leading him away. Over her shoulder, she said, 'Captain Thorongil, since you are also being thoughtless, you must now dance with Lady Moraen. Come along!' Denethor gestured for Thorongil to do as he was told. With a sheepish smile, the captain bowed to Moraen and offered his arm. They were soon lost in the whirl of dancers at the center of the hall.

Adrahil gave Denethor a stern look. 'Warden, though the capital and the coast have struck a certain bargain, there is more than some truth to the mountain's contention that not much has been done about Umbar in three years. The thoughts of the Steward have not changed in that time, and Gondor's strength has been lent to the Anduin crossings.'

'Our strength has gone to where we have been attacked, Prince. The coast has been spared.'

'That is due to accident, not plan, Denethor, at least no plan of ours.'

'And I repeat what I said to you three years ago: How shall we take the battle to their coast? In the absence of that, we can have no plan save to sit and wait. We can meet their ships in ones and twos as we always have, but a fleet? Could Seabird contest with an ocean of black sails? If we have no way to meet them upon the waves, then we must battle them upon the land as Beregond did.'

The prince scrubbed at his close-sheared hair and sighed, shaking his head. 'I know. I know this better than you, Denethor. Did you not charge me to consider how we would have more than a simple raiding fleet?'

'I still need you to do that, Adrahil.'

'Yes.' Adrahil sighed again, then grinned, eyes twinkling. 'But not now. It is a wedding, and I shall have three ladies very upset with me if I do not celebrate.'

Angrist laughed and clapped Adrahil on the shoulder. 'Nay, five, for you now have my two to scold you. Farewell, Warden! More will wait for the Council.'

Denethor watched the two lords walk off, once more arm in arm, before turning his attention to Morvorin. 'Roads, you think?'

'Yes, Warden. Roads.'

'You will need to return to Minas Tirith with me after the council.'

Morvorin smiled. 'Gladly. The time for contest between the fiefs is over.'

'And you are not daunted by this task?'

'No.'

'You will spend little time among your own people.'

The young lord shrugged. 'Ethring and the Ringló are my particular charges, but I am Gondorian.'

'We ride the second morning after the Southern Council. Be sure you and Lady Moraen are ready.' Denethor nodded a dismissal to Morvorin and went in search of Finduilas. She had rid herself of Duinmir and was dancing with Thorongil. The two were smiling and talking, obviously enjoying each other's company. Denethor stood and watched. Thorongil had been angered by Duinmir's words. They are but the truth; you have not sworn, so why should he send his men to you? You said to me you would not leave. Others may wish greater proof. The dance ended and the two parted. Someone else claimed Finduilas. For a while, Denethor was content to watch her, enjoying being able to See her, but eventually he needed to touch her. He would not let anyone else take her for a dance the rest of the evening, nor did he allow himself to be drawn into any more serious conversations. It was very late before Imrahil and Andreth called for attention and offered a final toast in honor of the newlyweds and the last dance was held.

Denethor joined in the loud cheers to send the two off for the night, then turned to Finduilas. 'Now, may we go?' All of the other guests were also departing, but Beregar was quickly present with their cloaks and a lantern to light their way home. Finduilas was yawning widely by the time they reached the house and leaned on Denethor as they climbed the stair to their rooms.

***

Linhir, 2 January, 2978 T.A.

Denethor cast a surreptitious glance at the wooden box holding his birthday present, then sighed and returned his attention to a report Marlong had sent just before mettarë. He would have preferred to fiddle with the contraption. It was a perfect present, the mystery of what it was no less marvelous than what it might be able to do. Denethor suspected he would find mention of something like it in the scrolls about light and lenses. Another week in Linhir and then they returned to Minas Tirith where he would have the archive for his research and Finduilas for himself. The journey would take a week itself – three days to Pelargir, two days there to speak to the nobles and meet with Marach and Ragnor, then three days to the City. Denethor sighed again. Even taking a ship would shorten the journey by only one day. He reached for the pouch at his waist, closing his hand around it and rolling it in his palm. Among the other odds and ends in the small sack he found the cord, following it until he felt the unyielding metal bands of the silver rings. He let the pouch drop.

You should put that into a trunk and leave it there. Finduilas would be angry if she came across it or knew he had it upon him while they were in a civilized place. She is the one who bade me keep it when I would fain have returned it to its maker, so she should not be cross if I have it near! Even as the rebellious thought crossed his mind, Denethor knew he should put the thing from him. It was powerful, like the palantír, to be taken up only in great need. As soon as he cast his mind towards it, he desired to look into the seeing stone and explore the roads. Morvorin and Thorongil's words at the wedding two days past had sparked his imagination. Denethor already knew which roads he wished to see. Again his hand crept to the pouch and his fingers sought the lanyard through the supple leather.

A month had passed and he still did not know what to make of the mariner's touch. He was torn between anger at the creature's trespass upon Finduilas and elation that the mariner had pulled aside the veil that kept them from seeing each other. Or perhaps it was our Sight that allowed him to approach? Then I have left her exposed to… Denethor dropped the pouch, wiping his fingers on the fabric of his trousers to be rid of the feel of the cord. No, we have always willed each other, from the moment we met, but there was a mist between us and he removed it. Perhaps something set by another. There was always the wizard's meddling to consider. Mithrandir had made no secret that he wanted Finduilas to be for Thorongil. Denethor did not doubt but that the wizard knew enough to shroud things from sight. He had yet to be able to glimpse Mithrandir in the palantír. Once upon the waves, away from whatever influence the conjuror had, the spell could be disrupted. The mariner protected me from Curunír; why would he not release Finduilas from an enchantment? Even so, Denethor disliked that any of these beings had approached her.

Something caught his attention. Denethor cocked his head, listening, but could discern nothing unusual. It was more like a gladdening of his heart. A small smile came to his lips and he sat very quietly, waiting. It was not long before he heard the front door open and close. The sound of women's voices preceded them through the house as Finduilas, Wren and Aerin returned from their morning trip to the market. More than Sight had been granted to him. Now, Denethor always knew when Finduilas was near and could find her if she were far. He was certain that he could set out in a storm in the dead of night and his feet would unerringly bear him to her side.

There was a tap at the study door, then Finduilas opened it and peeked around the edge. 'Am I disturbing you, friend?'

'No.' He gladly set aside the report and rose to greet her. 'It is pleasant to have my wife back.'

'I was not gone that long!'

'Today, no, but before, a great deal.'

'I fear I will be gone again tomorrow. Mother wishes for me.'

'Then I shall pine for you until you return,' he said with an exaggerated sigh which made her giggle. Denethor leaned down and nuzzled her neck. 'I miss you already.'

'Oh no, you don't!' Finduilas gave him a small slap on the shoulder and stepped out of his embrace, but she was laughing. 'You may save your honeyed words for later, husband! I shan't be distracted by you. I am tired of being pent up in this watery town, however hospitable its people. The day is nice and I intend to visit Mistress Gull and ride. If you may be spared from your council preparations, I would like your company.'

This sounded much more interesting than reports. In less than a half-hour, they walked to the stables near the Pelargir road. Beregar led the way and a pair of Queen's Men followed, warding people off with a look. Nothing could keep the children away. Whenever they passed a knot of them in the street, the urchins would tag along for a stretch, asking to hold Finduilas's hand, brandishing toys for her to exclaim over, and begging her to stop and play.

While the main squares and streets were hung with the banners of the of the city's ruling house – a black bridge on a blue field – the lesser lanes showed the flag of the Lady. Denethor pondered this. It had always been the policy of the Stewards that their banner flew nowhere save above Minas Tirith. The army always marched under the flag of the White Tree, their allegiance formally to Gondor, not to the Stewards. Until Thorongil appeared, it had been a prudent choice, but there was nothing to contest it once people had begun to think of the banner and the captain as a good fit. Perhaps there was another flag that could be raised, one which no lord would contest.

Gull and Gaerhûl greeted them loudly. Finduilas insisted on saddling the mare herself, offering apologies to Gull for having ignored her for so long. The mare accepted them with good grace. Gaerhûl, on the other hand, was his usual bad-tempered self. Denethor suggested that they ride west across the northernmost bridge and then go north along the Ethring road. He wished to observe both the townspeople seeing Finduilas riding through Linhir and also the condition of the road beyond the city walls. People stopped to watch their Lady ride past, sparing Denethor scarcely a look. There were as many of her flags on the west side of the town as on the east. He made a mental note to have it reported how long the flags remained in place after their departure for Minas Tirith.

Once out of Linhir, Denethor had to give up his serious thoughts for a time. Finduilas and Gull delighted in the open land and wished to run. Several times he and Gaerhûl had to admit defeat as their beauties effortlessly sprinted away. Eventually they had their fill, and Denethor could turn his attention to the road. This close to Linhir, it was in reasonably good shape, with few deep ruts or spots of mire. Let it rain steadily for several days, however, then try to march an army over it, and it would turn into a mudhole. Here and there, Denethor found paved or cobbled stretches. For the paving, he would dismount and examine it closely, trying to figure out how it had lasted so long. No new roads had been done since the time of the last builder-king, Calimehtar, and only the roads out of Minas Tirith had been maintained. Most of the loss of the top stone was probably due to scavenging as people took the rock to build and repair other things.

Through all of this, Finduilas patiently rode beside him, leaving Denethor to his thoughts. They stopped for dinner in a comfortable, ancient inn three leagues north of Linhir. The innkeeper, an old slender woman with dignified bearing, placed them in a warm nook in the taproom where the other patrons could see them and understand the honor done to her establishment, but keep them away from any intrusion or eavesdropping. She herself brought them ale and food along with a small bell to let her know they wished for something, then left them alone.

'Can it be done?' Finduilas asked after taking a few bites of dinner.

'Restoring the roads? Certainly, but not without cost and effort. It is a shame upon the Stewards that they were allowed to deteriorate.'

'A shame to be shared. Few lords have cared to keep them in repair.' He nodded, mouth full of food. Finduilas's expression became thoughtful. 'You intend for Morvorin to oversee putting them together?'

'Mm-huh.' Denethor hastily washed down his food with a swig of ale. 'He wishes it done, and he will not mind all the riding. Morvorin likes traveling.'

'You will have him often in Minas Tirith, though, yes?'

'Yes.'

'And your real reason for this?'

'I have spent too much time on the shores. It is time to attend to the mountains.'

'And?' Her gaze was keen.

'I think he will not seek to divide for his own purposes, so he should become known to Thorongil.'

'Will the captain also be often in the City?'

Denethor sighed. 'That will depend upon our foes. And the whim of the Steward.'

'This year,' she quietly replied, 'we must bring him fully to agreement with you.'

'He said he would stay.'

'When?' Finduilas asked. 'How did this come about?'

'After yáviérë. He had told the Steward that he might leave at the end of his service come spring.'

Finduilas was incredulous. 'He would simply walk away from his sworn duty?'

'I challenged him on this point later. He said he would not leave.' Denethor pushed his food around on his plate. 'I think he has given up on the North.'

'No. He may leave it be for a time, but he has not abandoned it. Given what he said about roads I think it likely that he will wish to do his own rebuilding.'

Denethor did not answer, concentrating on his meal. He spoke of ruins and empty towers. Denethor wondered if the road he saw in the palantír still stood. Who would not wish to rebuild that way? Only when he had finished his food did he answer. 'The captain's word is not lightly to be discounted, but you have a point. He will have to give his word more directly, and dispel the doubts of others. He has to swear.'

Finduilas shook her head. 'I do not think you will ever extract that oath from him. He is proud of the North, just as you are of Gondor.'

'There is nothing there for him…'

'His kin are there. His pride. Do not think to shame him by pointing out the emptiness of his pockets, for what drives him cannot be purchased. Would you trust him, otherwise, no matter what portents you had seen?'

'No, I would not.' Finduilas nodded and attended to her meal. Denethor sipped his ale, waiting for her to finish. 'Your rebuilding has gone well, Alquallë. The captain is presentable.'

'New clothes are simple enough, but they are only the start.'

'What next?'

'You wish for Morvorin to respect Thorongil, yes?'

'Yes,' Denethor replied warily, uncertain at Finduilas's questions and her fierce gaze. The light within her grew, dazzling him.

'He cannot be a beggar if he is to be respected. The captain must be beholden to no one. It is not enough, prince, to free him of his current patron. He must be free of any. Even you.'

For a moment, Denethor could do nothing but stare stupidly at Finduilas. 'Free of me?'

'How can he keep his promises if they are always hedged about with gold?' With a smile, Finduilas rang the bell to summon the innkeeper. After she paid the woman, Finduilas asked to be shown about the inn, which the innkeeper did with much pride. Finduilas admired the four neat rooms for travelers, the well-stocked linen chests, the savory-scented kitchen, and other things dear to women's hearts. When Gaerhûl and Gull were brought to them, Finduilas said she wished to walk for a while to allow her meal to settle. They walked for several furlongs before she spoke. 'How can Thorongil be a man of Gondor if he is kept like a mistress?'

'Then he should not lend himself to Beruthiel.'

'He said to me that he is paid no more than any other of the Lost receive. Is this so?'

'Yes.'

'That is a disgraceful thing. He should have gold to give to his mother and enough for himself as well.'

'So he must be paid more? That is easily enough done.'

'Not enough. He must be dowered, so that he may speak and do as he pleases.'

'He is a bride?'

'Yes,' she answered simply, 'and one with several ardent suitors. He needs means, a house, and probably a wife before he may be his own man. Else, he will always need to chose a patron over Gondor. That is, prince, if you still intend what we have discussed.'

'I do.'

Finduilas nodded. They walked another furlong before she stopped and said she wished to ride. Denethor boosted her onto Gull and mounted Gaerhûl. Finduilas did not urge the mare forward but sat, looking around her. 'Denethor?'

'What?'

'Should we speak to Thorongil of what we know and plan? It would be simpler to do what we intend if he knows we do not mean him harm.'

'No. At least, not yet. If he keeps his silence and secrecy, then it is for a reason. He does not wish himself known and we must abide by it. It is not for us to speak first. Also, when he speaks, we will know that he trusts us. He should trust us. He is… to this my house has sworn its life and honor – to serve until the king should come again.' Denethor stared south towards Linhir. 'Neither are the Stewards kept or bought. Our only coin is loyalty, and that is what he shall pay.' The veil will be removed, and we shall See each other.

***

Linhir, 5 January, 2978 T.A.

Thorongil stood quietly, head bowed, and did not seem to mind the long minutes that Denethor took for the standing silence. He did not intend to take so long, but this night his turn to the west left him troubled, not peaceful. Finduilas was not with him. A year ago yesterday, Angelimir had died; Alquallë was with her parents to ease their sorrow. She had stayed last night at the Nest and Denethor did not expect her back before the morrow. Beregar and Wren were there with her.

He had fallen asleep in his chair in the study in the small hours of the morning. Dreams consumed him. Always, Denethor was aboard a swift ship. Ahead lay different things, changing and shifting like light upon the water – a terrible storm of fire and thunder, an emerald isle rising from a golden sea, the City appearing out of the mists of Anduin, ancient towers gleaming with gems wrought by the Elves, a forbidding wall of stone casting black shadows far out across a too-still bay. The weight of his vows dragged him down, clinking together upon the lanyard, and he had to grasp the ship's wheel to keep himself upright. No matter where he looked, he could not see Finduilas, though his heart led him to her, cleaving a path through all that loomed ahead. Behind him, a deep voice spoke in a language he did not know, filling him with awe, and strong hands grasped his shoulders, steadying him so he could pilot the ship.

Thorongil had discovered him this morning slumped over the desk, council papers crumpled under his arms and littering the floor at his feet. Though Denethor did not ask it of him, the captain stayed with him through the day. They spoke little. Thorongil smoked his herbs, filling the study with a sweet-smelling blue haze. Denethor read over the captain's report to be presented tomorrow at the council and made notes on it in the cipher, which made Thorongil chuckle when he read them. After dinner, they went to the stables accompanied by a few of the guardsmen. Sometime in the afternoon or evening a messenger from Minas Tirith bearing the Steward's guidance from the Great Council would arrive and Denethor wished to be certain that the message pouch came to him alone. The guardsmen were instructed to bring the messenger to the house as soon as he arrived. There was still no sign of the man by supper, which only added to Denethor's unease.

With a sigh, Denethor indicated they should sit and eat. As at the noontide meal, he picked at it, having no real appetite. He did not much care for the southern dishes the cook here prepared, missing the interesting and unusual flavors their own cook concocted. The wine was passable, so he concentrated on that.

'If you eat something, it will help you sleep.' Denethor shot a sour look at Thorongil who was making solid inroads on his own plate. The captain smiled and gestured at the roast. 'The meat can stand some salt, but it is good.'

'I'm not hungry.'

'You are not sleeping at your desk tonight,' Thorongil went on, ignoring Denethor's glower. 'A few hours of dozing and a crick in your neck are not sufficient for the council.' The fact that the captain was right did not improve Denethor's mood, and he regarded the food with greater distaste than before. Ignoring the meat, he refilled his cup. 'Wine alone will just make your head ache.'

A tap at the door forestalled Denethor's withering reply. 'Come in.'

Aerin opened the door. 'Lord Denethor, the northern messenger is here, and…'

'Show him in at once. And bring a plate so he may eat.' She nodded and left. 'At last! What has kept him?'

'He probably forgot to eat at the last inn and lost his strength,' the captain replied, eyes twinkling. Thorongil's mirth and Denethor's ire both disappeared when the messenger entered.

It was Brandir. Denethor had never seen his brother-in-law look so haggard, even after a season of war. Brandir's face and clothes were grimed from his journey, his shoulders drooped in weariness, and his eyes were dull. The dirt of the road had settled into lines in his face and he looked much older than his forty-nine years. Brandir gestured at a leather pouch slung over his shoulder. 'Warden, Captain, I bring the Steward's guidance.'

'Who cares about that? Sit down!' Thorongil said, relieving Brandir of his burden. Denethor set a chair near the fire and ushered the man to it. Thorongil left the room, but quickly returned, telling them that hot water and a warm blanket were on their way. Brandir nodded, not resisting Denethor's efforts to remove his cold and dirty outer clothes.

'Brandir, what are you doing here?' Denethor asked in exasperation as he wrestled off one of Brandir's boots.

His brother-in-law flinched and ducked his head. 'As the Steward ordered,' he muttered, 'I brought this as soon as I could. I need not stay.' Brandir tried to rise from the chair. Denethor and Thorongil each grabbed a shoulder and pushed him back into his seat.

'Don't be…' Denethor began.

'..a fool, Brandir!' Brandir bitterly ended. He glared at Denethor for a moment, then sighed and let his eyes drop to the floor. 'But that's what I am, brother. A fool.'

'You're weary, that's all.' Denethor pulled off the other boot, then took Brandir's cold hands between his own, chafing them to warm them. Thorongil answered another tap at the door, returning with a basin, a ewer of warm water, and some clean cloths. Brandir sat docilely while Denethor scrubbed his hands clean and washed the grime from his face. 'Did you ride all this way by yourself, Brandir?' Denethor asked.

'No. With the messengers.'

Thorongil brought over food and wine. 'Friend Brandir,' he gently scolded, 'though we are joyful at your company, you should not have ridden so far and fast. Messengers should bring messages!'

Brandir gave Denethor an odd look, before shrugging. 'There is much I carried that could not be entrusted to a simple messenger. There are letters for the Lady.'

Thorongil went to the table and returned with Denethor's unfinished supper. Handing the plate to Denethor, he said, 'You keep Brandir company. I'll sort the bag.' Before Denethor could protest, the captain brought a second chair to the fire, then sat on the floor between them, upending the contents of the message pouch before them. Aerin bustled in a moment later with a warmed blanket to put around Brandir's shoulders and a hearth-heated stone wrapped in cloth for his feet. Thorongil began to put the messages into piles and, without looking up, said 'Both of you, eat.' Denethor tried to ignore the order, but could not.

After he ate a few bites, Brandir asked, 'Where is the Lady?' Two spots of crimson bloomed on his pale cheeks as he said this, and he did not look up.

'Finduilas is with her parents tonight. She will return tomorrow.'

Brandir nodded. 'It did not feel like the Great Council this year without the two of you.'

'Are the beacons well tended?' Denethor prompted, earning a slight smile in return.

'Yes, Warden, they are. There was a guest of note, however. Prince Théoden came to our council. He was disappointed that you and Thorongil were not there. I think he wished most to speak to you.' There was more spirit in Brandir's words now, and his pallor faded. Denethor asked after the doings of the City and soon his brother-in-law was talking in a more cheerful manner. Denethor did not trust it; it seemed forced. No doubt the man's mood was connected to turmoil of the Steward's house. He wished to get to the bottom of it, but not with an audience.

'Thorongil,' Denethor said, 'take the council notes to the study and read them over. I will be in later.' The captain set the sorted messages on the table, keeping the council notes, and left. Denethor poured more wine for himself and Brandir, then sat, waiting for the other to explain his odd manner.

When Denethor did not talk, Brandir's face began to redden again, and he picked at the edge of the blanket. 'It was not just the Grand Council. All has been odd this Yule with you gone. The City is colder than I've ever known it. The celebrations were diminished. We all looked south. For warmth.' Brandir sighed and set down his plate. 'You have much to do. I should not keep you.'

'Nonsense. Unless you wish to rest now. Let me call Aerin to make your bed up.'

'No, no need. I'll go to the garrison,' Brandir answered, standing and looking for his boots.

Denethor bit back telling Brandir to quit being foolish. 'No, you will not. Finduilas will be angry with the both of us if you do.'

'She will be angry if I stay! She has banished me from her presence for my presumption! But I was only trying to warn her, and I said it all wrong, and, I swear, I am not part of it!'

'What are you talking about?' Denethor asked, completely confused. This sounded dire, yet Finduilas had not spoken to him of anything involving Brandir. 'I know of no banishment.'

'Yes! Since I… I insulted her near mid-summer, and ever since she has looked upon me coldly and I have not dared to approach. But I shall bear it. Maiaberiel and Ecthelion both say that I have caused great discord and we are all spurned because of my insult.'

Denethor tried to puzzle this out. 'You said an insult to Finduilas?'

'Yes,' Brandir replied miserably.

'But you did this to prevent greater harm, to warn her?' Brandir nodded. 'What harm is this?'

Brandir paced the room, the blanket pulled haphazardly around him. 'You said once to clean out my own midden. I left you to danger before, and shan't do so again. But I know not how to protect you, Denethor, for you always go headlong into folly!'

'What has this to do with offering insult to my wife?'

'My own and the Steward would make a widow of the Lady to achieve what they first sought.'

'I am well aware that I have been sent into danger, but no more so than before.'

'But if she loves, they cannot succeed, even…' Brandir broke off, staring at Denethor in dismay, then pulled the blanket over his head and sank to the ground. 'Oh, by all the powers, I am such a fool!' he wailed, huddling under the blanket.

Denethor sat near Brandir and tried to remove the blanket. Brandir clutched at it, refusing to let go. 'Brandir, please cease your foolishness for a few minutes.' Brandir shook his head. 'At least unstop your ears then! When did they say you were at fault?'

'After loëndë,' was the muffled reply. Denethor sighed and grabbed the blanket, pulling it away. Brandir looked at him reproachfully. 'The Steward was wroth and Maiaberiel was barred from your house. She did not know why, and asked what I knew, so I spoke of my warning to Finduilas.'

'Which was?'

'To not repent her choice. To not be turned to wickedness. To love you.' He stared at the floor, dejected. 'I could see Finduilas's anger at my words, and never has she asked me to return. Why would she? I warned her not to cuckold you, as though she would ever stoop to such dishonor.'

Things started to make sense. Brandir had warned Finduilas, then confessed to Maiaberiel he had done so. When Finduilas barred all from the house, the Steward seized on Brandir's insult to hide the true reason. The only question was whether Ecthelion had told Maiaberiel about Wren. Denethor doubted it. In any event, it made his own death that much more appealing to them. Denethor sighed. 'Does it occur to you Brandir, that there are things you should not say to your wife?'

'Can you speak an untruth to Finduilas?' Brandir challenged. Denethor shook his head. 'So upbraid me not!' As soon as this was said, Brandir slumped, dejected. 'Yes, I spoke unwisely, not having your cleverness, and Maiaberiel saw that her plans had been disclosed to you, and the Lady hedged away from danger. So now I am cast from her good graces and from the Lady's. But at least I have my honor. And the Lady hers.'

Denethor wondered if it was possible to undo the bonds of love once made so deeply, as Brandir was afflicted, and wished for his brother-in-law's sake that they could. To be bound forever to Maiaberiel was a torment this gentle soul did not deserve. 'Brandir, hear me. You have done no wrong to me or to Finduilas. She will forgive your insult if she knows the truth. I know what it is Maiaberiel wishes. Finduilas also knows, and she will not fall for such wiles. As for the Steward, he lies.'

'He lies?'

'My discord with him has naught to do with your words. Maiaberiel is barred for trying to bring about wickedness between my wife and another man. Ecthelion is barred for another reason, and it is his own doing.'

'What?'

'I will not say, for it is obscene to speak, but almost did I take my wife and leave Gondor for the shame he has brought down upon our house.' Brandir's eyes grew large. 'I know his crime and for that he wishes me dead.'

'I swear, brother, I am no part of this!' Brandir whispered.

'A fool you may be, but an honest one.' Denethor took Brandir's hands in his own. 'You are welcome in my house, but you may not speak to others of what you see or hear. Let that be your cloak against intrigue. You will stay here tonight and on the morrow you shall ask Finduilas's forgiveness for your trespass. She will give it, for she loves you dearly and knows there is no guile in your heart.' Denethor looked Brandir in the eye. 'Let your heart be at peace. Tomorrow, brother, you will See her.'

For a moment, Brandir stared at him stupidly. Then he understood what Denethor had said and he whooped and lunged forward to embrace him, knocking them both flat. 'Yes! Yes! Oh, wonderful day! Oh, yes!' Brandir cried out as he kissed and hugged Denethor.

'Stop being a fool!' Denethor growled, but he could not help grinning. He pulled out of Brandir's embrace and stood, helping Brandir to his feet. 'You will stay without argument?' The other nodded, grinning from ear to ear. 'Wait here.' In a few minutes, Aerin had a maid prepare one of the sleeping chambers and Denethor helped the weary man to bed. He stayed with Brandir until he fell asleep, then went to the study. Thorongil was making notes on a piece of paper. 'What have you found?'

'Nothing new, Denethor. There are no surprises. What we prepared for tomorrow is unchanged.' The captain offered the page he was writing. 'Here are the important…'

'I'll look them over tomorrow. Get some rest.'

'How is Brandir?'

'Tired and cold, but better for supper. He's asleep now.'

'You should be, too.'

'Are you going to sing me a lullaby?' Denethor dryly asked, making the captain snort.

'If you wish,' was the impish reply.

'Good night, Thorongil.'

***

Linhir, 7 January, 2978 T.A.

Adrahil frowned and shook his head. 'But Angrist made a great deal of sense, Denethor. Why should we not send small fleets of marauders along the coast to draw the Corsairs out a few at a time?'

'And thereby risk the few ships we have, as well as make Umbar more defensive,' he replied, 'though I do agree that should they come north of the False Firth, we should meet them strongly. That will not raise suspicion.' They sat in the parlor of the Nest, having a last meeting before the Swans returned to Dol Amroth and he to Minas Tirith. Finduilas sat next to him, her arm just touching his.

'I think it would be better if we made them wary of attack,' Adrahil persisted.

'Then guard the shores more closely. They will fear to approach without a strong force.'

'And when they have that strong force?'

'As I explained in the Council, the falas garrisons are going to be increased, Prince. The Corsairs will not attack in full strength until their fleet is completed, so expanding the garrisons will be sufficient,' Denethor replied calmly. There was no true contest here. Adrahil knew the plan presented at the Council was reasonable, and his objections here were to preserve the standing of Dol Amroth.

'We cannot take the battle to them,' Luinil quietly noted, 'and so we wait upon their patience. What certainty is there, Denethor, that they will not send smaller fleets upon us, not enough to overwhelm, but enough to give us no rest, harrying us as the Enemy harries in Ithilien?'

'No certainty, only their habit. They raid haphazardly or they seek to conquer the kingdom. There is little in between.'

'Are you certain that you will be able to increase the garrisons? There was little in the Steward's guidance that indicated he thought there was any threat.' Adrahil's eyes were keen. 'He spoke so much of peace that I fear we shall be at war all summer.'

'The increase will be from your own men, Adrahil, and from the southern vales. They will be a strong as you wish.'

'To spend most of their time building roads,' the Prince added.

'The pirates will not always be attacking,' Finduilas pointed out, 'so the men might as well be put to useful work. Better than sitting about dicing as they usually do.'

Adrahil looked at her askance, then laughed. 'As you say, daughter. But, Denethor, I still do not understand the Steward's inattention.'

'He attends to more than you think. Besides, some neglect on the part of the City is grounds for action upon the coast.'

The Prince's expression grew crafty. 'I recall that the City does not care for the coast to be too wayward.'

'To say that the trials faced by the City are of no concern to the coast, that is not acceptable, no,' Denethor said, making his voice stern and holding Adrahil's gaze. 'The City has borne the brunt of the harm, as is almost always the case. But now, the south is at risk. Gondor is a single rock upon which our fortunes together stand.'

Adrahil would not relent. 'What of the Steward?'

'The Steward cannot stop the Corsairs with a wish.' Only the Powers may wish it so. Denethor resisted touching the pouch holding the lanyard. 'But I do not wait upon the Steward's wishes. Four springs ago, you and I stood on the walls of Minas Tirith and took counsel with each other on this matter, Adrahil. We remain in the same position – we have not strength to attack directly, we dare not risk attacking if we cannot undo them completely, and we cannot build our own fleet without being noticed and bring down an attack that much sooner. Tell me, prince,' here Denethor turned to Imrahil, who had sat silent the entire time, 'what are our choices?'

The young man cast his eyes down, thinking. 'One only, Warden. We shall have to wait for Umbar to come to its full strength and allow it to attack us. We shall draw them from their ships to the land, where we must defeat them. With ships, they may even threaten Rohan. Harad and Khand may join them, and even the Enemy, as they joined each other two summers past. It would be better if we could attack them before they are ready and when they are pent up in their narrow firth, but we have not a fleet and cannot ride whales. Yet…'

'Yet?' Finduilas prompted.

'Yet… I… dreamed…' Imrahil would not raise his eyes. Denethor sat up at these words, his heart beating faster. Finduilas hid her face in his shoulder and shivered.

Adrahil scrambled to his feet and knelt before his son, taking Imrahil's hands in his own. 'Of what? And when?'

Imrahil spoke reluctantly. 'Of ships. Small ships flying north before fire. Fishing ships. Trading ships. It was upon the voyage to bring grandfather home. Grandfather held back the fire with silver nets.' He was silent for several heartbeats, then, 'I do not wish the fire.' There was something distant about his last words and the young man raised his face and stared south, eyes perceiving something that none of them could see.

Adrahil sat back on his heels, still clasping Imrahil's hands. He raised a hand to his son's face and stroked Imrahil's cheek until the youth returned to himself. The Prince's brow creased in sorrow. 'It is time, child.' Adrahil did not look away from Imrahil as he spoke. 'Denethor, last year was too soon for Imrahil to serve Gondor. Dol Amroth had lessons for him. No longer. He will go with you and give you the voice of the Sea. Your wisdom is greater than mine to unlock such portents. ' The Prince stood and turned to face Denethor, hands on his hips. 'As for me, the wayward coast shall conjure up a fleet for you.' His mouth quirked. 'And build roads.'

They parted soon after. Imrahil said he would meet them the next morning to ride to Minas Tirith and joked about the good luck to have Morvorin for company, though his eyes kept wandering to distant shores. Luinil and Adrahil both embraced Denethor warmly and clung to Finduilas tightly before allowing them to leave. The walk back to the house was silent, for Finduilas would not speak. It was obvious to see that the news of Imrahil's dreams had dismayed her. At once upon their return, she called for Brandir and made a great fuss over him, ignoring Denethor. He left her to her humor, retreating to the study, where he found Thorongil wreathed in smoke. The captain smiled and would have stood but Denethor waved for him to remain in his chair. He poured them both wine and sat, waiting for the Lost to speak.

'You are thinking, Denethor.'

'Pelargir is an interesting port.'

Thorongil nodded thoughtfully, drawing on the pipe. 'We set out for there tomorrow.'

'You will remain in Minas Tirith.'

'Yes.' The captain's eyes were bright. 'I stay.'

'But you will journey.'

'It is a soldier's lot,' Thorongil agreed.

'I will have boats.'

The Lost's face lit up. 'Enough?'

'If used properly.'

'Like a storm from the Sea.'

'There will be cargo.'

Thorongil cocked his head. 'Cargo?'

'Yes. More precious than victory. There will not be enough boats for that.'

'Yes there will.'

Denethor sipped his wine, meeting Thorongil's fierce gaze. The captain slouched down in his chair, pipe smoke and shining eyes making him look like a dragon ready to pounce. They sat as the bells rang the hour, then the quarter, then the half. The captain broke the silence.

'In the fall?'

'No.'

'The spring?'

'When I say.'

'And when is that?'

'When will they attack?'

'Two springs from now, in 2980.'

'So shall we.'

'Then I will sail.'

'Perhaps. Only if the Steward thinks you will use them properly. Otherwise, I shall have to find another captain.'

'No.'

'You serve the Steward, and will do as he commands.'

A troubled look passed over Thorongil's face. 'And you defy.'

'I serve Gondor.'

Finally the captain looked away. He tried drawing on the pipe, but it had gone out. Rising, Thorongil tapped the ashes out into the fireplace and put the pipe away. 'No. He will command it. I will see to it.'

'As I expect you to. I shall not wait upon you, though. Dangerous times call for dangerous acts.'

The captain stared at Denethor a moment before walking to the door. He grasped the handle, then paused, looking at the door. 'She will not thank either of us if you are lost.'

'Who?'

A longer pause. 'Gondor.'

'The time has come, Thorongil. You are Lost. Mayhap you shall be found. Until then, your eyes will look only south. Beware what you seek, lest you find it.'

Thorongil turned to Denethor and regarded him evenly for a minute, then moved a hand. It was a small gesture, perhaps something, perhaps nothing, perhaps by accident.

[Found.]

With a respectful nod, the captain left.



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Last Update: 10 Mar 12
Stories: 8
Type: Reader List
Created By: Aiwendiel


Of course there are thousands of stories out there, and I have only read a fraction of them. NOT intended to be a scientific survey! My picks of stories that I feel are particularly well written, stylistically interesting, lyrical... Regardless of era, topic or character.

Why This Story?

Truly exceptional writing by the very talented Anglachel, marvelously nuanced and mature, enriches understanding of the main characters as well as enhancing grasp of Gondor's recent history. Utterly believable backstory of Denethor II as portrayed by JRRT.

 

Story Information

Author: Anglachel

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - The Stewards

Genre: Drama

Rating: Adult

Last Updated: 07/01/09

Original Post: 02/23/04

Go to Hands of the King overview