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Hands of the King: 49. Contest
Minas Tirith, Early February, 2978 T.A.
The house was awash in women. They filled Finduilas's study, cluttered the hall, and milled about in the solar. Some even climbed the narrow stair to the top floor to admire the view from Moraen's apartments, though none dared the rain-drenched roof. Finduilas had locked the door to Denethor's study to prevent any snooping. Denethor himself was told to go to the archives and remain there until summoned. Imrahil and Beregar disappeared soon afterwards, claiming they were going to train with the Tower Guard, though Finduilas suspected they were actually headed for The Messenger's Rest. Adanel would make them work harder than the yard master, no doubt.
The gathering was to welcome Moraen to the City and introduce her properly to all the right families. There had been a few visits after their return to Minas Tirith, and then the sorrow had happened. Today was as much to put that grief behind as to present Moraen. Finduilas walked among the guests, smiling and talking, refusing to let herself become melancholy at the sight of another woman's round belly or by the young children who darted about underfoot. Instead, she concentrated on what really mattered today – power.
Finduilas had not realized until drawing up the guest list how little she had been about the City after the disastrous loëndë festival. There had been no parties while Denethor was exiled to Ithilien, and few other visits. She had hidden herself in the archives or else walked with Borondir and Luinmir, seeing to the Lady's Grace. There could be no doubt about her hold upon the lower circles, but she had neglected power and lost influence with noble families. To think that I chastised Thorongil for squandering his favor with the Steward when he might have secured gold and holdings. I have let slip my favor with the great families, and have failed to secure their loyalty to Denethor. Who is the greater fool? Maiaberiel had thrown lavish parties throughout the fall and winter, which Finduilas had not attended. At them, too many rumors had spread uncontested, and now the King's Men were regaining strength. That was not the worst of the news. Finduilas knew that Beruthiel had tried to lure her into a romance with Thorongil, but she had not understood how the tale was whispered in the corner of taverns and privacy of parlors; the Lady repented her choice. With all three of them – Warden, Captain, and Lady – gone over Yule, the whispers had become quiet conversations, spoken as truth rather than gossip.
A glance at the windows in the study told Finduilas that the afternoon was turning towards evening, and that her guests would soon depart. She pulled a bell rope and waited for Aeluin. When the woman appeared, Finduilas bade her to send one of the Hunt to collect Denethor. It was sad to look at Aeluin's cheerful face, for there was no light within it. It had been difficult to See others at first, but she had concentrated upon her parents as Denethor advised, and now Finduilas could See with little effort. It was like light that illuminated but did not shine and it was beautiful. Though gazing upon Denethor's golden warmth, visible to her even in the dark as they lay side by side, filled her with joy, Finduilas felt also much sadness for those who did not possess this love. Why did Adanel not leave Beregar to find his own heart? Do not meddle in this, goose! They are content enough, and may find their way. Did not Brandir say so? Willing herself to find hope in that thought, Finduilas went in search of the guest of honor.
Moraen sat in the solar, speaking happily to a number of women. After a few days of loneliness when Morvorin left, the young woman had returned to her usual good-natured self. Moraen had little liking for the archives, being nervous in the dim and silent caverns, and was intimidated by Aiavalë's stern manner. She much preferred to walk with Luinmir and Anna in the lower circles, and had gone riding upon the Pelennor with Wren twice. Marlong had insisted on riding with them as a guard. Wren had named his concern foolishness, though she did not say he could not come with them. During the sorrow, Wren had kept Moraen distracted, often taking the woman on walks to get her used to the tangled by-ways of the City. Marlong somehow was always their escort on these outings, too, sturdy walking stick in hand. Finduilas smiled to herself. That was going well. Until she saw Wren at the archive door, she had been uncertain that the woman would remain. I think love is o'er taking you, little bird. Marlong's arrows have struck true on this hunt.
Finduilas encouraged Moraen to work with Luinmir and Borondir on the Lady's Grace. It was good training in how to manage coin and goods and would serve her well when she became mistress of her own house. The growing friendship between Luinmir and Moraen pleased Finduilas. Wren and Aeluin accepted Luinmir mostly because Finduilas insisted, but neither entirely trusted her because of her long association with Beruthiel. Moraen had no such reservations. They were a common sight in the lower circles, often accompanied by several women from the Lady's houses. Sometimes Borondir would be with them, Anna sitting on his shoulders or tucked into the crook of his arm.
Finduilas returned her attention to Moraen, who was telling the story of the ride through the storm on the way to Pelargir. She received some teasing at how Captain Thorongil had stayed by her side in the downpour, which brought red to Moraen's cheeks. Finduilas became cross at those who said such things and had to make herself remain silent instead of scolding them for their presumption. Did you not invite her here with just such a match in mind? Always in mind, but not for me to make. Never shall I urge or even hint to anyone that they should incline to this man or that maid. Only their own hearts shall guide them. Moraen was here for more than matching, in any event. Finduilas and Luinil had spoken a great deal in the days just before and after Ivriniel's wedding, and had come up with a plan for the daughters of the Outland lords. When Luinil arrived home at Dol Amroth, she would have Ivorwen of Pinnath Gelin and Handiriel of Morthond as her guests. Wed for love they might be, yet still these girls would wed, and it was best that they count themselves dear friends of the Swans and the Stewards.
A few women noticed the dimming day, and rose, saying they had to leave while there was still sun to light their ways home. Finduilas promised them that there would be more days like this now that she was recovered from her travels.
'My lady.' Denethor stood in the door of the solar, his expression pleasant if not exactly smiling. Finduilas did not hurry over to him, wanting to give all those in the room who could See a chance to look upon her true love. When she took his hands, she gazed into his eyes and smiled until he ducked his head and smiled himself, made shy by her attention.
'Husband, you are back just in time to bid my guests farewell,' she answered lightly, tucking her arm into his. She led them along the hall and into her study where cloaks had been placed. They stood there under her banner and said goodbye to the visitors. There were a few who could See truly, and they smiled and nodded in that certain way that said they understood. Even those who had not that vision would leave after seeing Denethor at his most gracious and attentive.
When the last guest departed, Moraen excused herself to rest before supper. Denethor firmly closed the study door and pulled Finduilas into his arms for a tender kiss. He smiled and brushed her cheek with his fingers, and asked, 'What was all that nonsense for?'
'You are not very observant, husband,' Finduilas teased, leading him to a seat on the couch near the hearth. 'Why do you think I had you brought back?'
'So I would not return too soon and be chattered to death?' he asked in mock innocence, earning himself a glare and a swat.
'No. Think, prince.'
Denethor's face became serious at her admonishment. 'To know the women you invite to the Stewards House. To be seen with you. To…' He broke off, looking away, and Finduilas felt him become tense. 'To be Seen.'
'Yes, friend, to be Seen. The both of us. The truth is now known and may not be denied. Any who can See us are of true heart themselves, so we know that they will not seek to deceive.' She tugged gently on his sleeve to get him to look at her, but he kept his eyes on the ground. 'Beruthiel's whispers cannot stand in the face of this, and another part of her foundation crumbles.' Still Denethor kept his face averted. 'Denethor? What are you thinking, love?'
'That I have loved you poorly.'
'Poorly? I think not!' Finduilas touched his face, making him look at her. There was sadness there, a hint of defeat. He was angry but a week past. Trepidation touched her heart, and Finduilas hoped that Denethor was not slipping into melancholy. 'You are being ridiculous, friend.'
'No, I am to blame. It is my fault that Maiaberiel's poison took root. All poisonous tales. I…' Denethor stood and began pacing. 'I was a fool. I thought to protect you from her hate by… pretending I did not care for you, letting people believe that I asked for you to spite Thorongil. The Prince was right to doubt me. My obstinacy… I think your heart saw it and stood apart from me, until I should be naught but a shamed and humbled beggar.' He laughed sharply, humorlessly. 'A whore took me to task for my idiocy, saying it would not save us from harm, and Morwen was right. It was she who saw the harm.'
'What do you mean? When you went to speak to her, what did she see?'
An odd look passed over Denethor's face before he turned away and resumed pacing. 'She told me of the boasts and falsehoods the King's Men speak in the brothels. She wondered how I could allow Thorongil to challenge me, even within my own house.'
You're lying. She said more than that. Finduilas was willing to wager that whatever Morwen had said to Denethor caused his anger, which now threatened to turn dark. She wished that she dared to put her hands on him and rouse him so that he could find solace that way. If you cannot entice him, confront him. Finduilas moved to stand in front of Denethor and make him stop pacing. 'Well, if even a whore knows you are a fool, then it is time to cease playing the fool,' she said briskly, 'which is why you will need to be near me where others can watch.'
Denethor smiled wryly. 'That does not sound like any great penalty.'
'You do risk being chattered to death by the ladies, more tenacious than Orcs in the discussion of their business,' Finduilas solemnly warned.
'A danger I shall face with courage and honor,' he replied with a deep bow, making her laugh. He was smiling now, so Finduilas took his hands.
'Let us not blame anyone, friend. Have we not enough sorrow without heaping more upon it? It is all now past, and cannot be altered. Only what lies ahead is in our hands to shape. We shall take harm and turn it to joy and that shall be enough.' Before his thoughts could turn inward again, Finduilas kissed him lightly and returned to the couch. 'So, tell me, what of Lady Lore's adventure? Will she do it?'
Denethor shrugged and fetched them wine. 'Perhaps. When she first heard that you would not travel, she did not wish to, but Wren has been filling her ears with tales of the Archive.'
'She should go.'
'Are you certain you do not wish to accompany her?' he asked. 'Traveling by boat would not be that taxing.'
'It would be for me, now,' Finduilas replied quickly. The idea of venturing upon water, into the mariner's realm, made her uneasy. 'Besides, I have neglected my duties as Lady for nearly three months, and Moraen is here, and I do not care much for Pelar…'
Denethor held up a hand. 'As you wish. I merely asked.' He seemed disappointed by her choice. Why do you wish me to travel again so soon, especially when you know what the last journey brought about? 'Have you said anything of… your sorrow… to Aiavalë?'
'Do you intend to?'
'I don't know.'
'I have said nothing, though she has caught wind that you felt unwell.'
'I will speak to Wren.' "Your sorrow" Are you so untouched? It pained her that Denethor did not seem to care for what was lost. What could it be to him but some blood? He worried over you, as a husband should. Dúlin had told her of the old apothecary who had come to look at every herb in the house and remove any that could do harm. He acts as man does in such matters, to remove dangers. It is for women to weep, and even you do not want that. After her one night of weakness, Finduilas had forbidden herself any tears, not wishing to alarm Denethor or alert the household. It shamed her to have failed in this, the central duty of a wife. Lhûn knew and Wren, for there was no keeping anything away from the woman's sharp eyes. Aeluin and Beregar knew, Finduilas believed, for Aeluin had been red-eyed one day and both fussed over her greatly. Four days after Lhûn told her what she did not wish to know, a small package had arrived at the house. Inside was a beautiful shawl of Haradic make, red and black and white, with tiny gold beads scattered across it. There was no note, but one of the pups delivered it and Finduilas was certain it was from Morwen. Each day, a healing prentice delivered a tiny bundle of fresh herbs from Master Laanga, some with flecks of dirt still clinging to the roots, to eat with her morning bread and cheese.
These thoughts left Finduilas irritable, so she changed the subject. 'Have you uncovered what the contraption is? What do the archives say?'
'Oh, I have not yet looked,' Denethor replied quickly, perhaps a bit too eagerly, as though he, too, wished for other thoughts. 'I am trying to figure the machine out before I go to the scrolls.' He smiled and kissed her hand. 'It is a perfect present, Alquallë. Thank you.' Finduilas scooted closer and curled up against his side. They sat quietly until supper. Imrahil was back from his jaunt with Beregar by then and had several amusing tales from the tavern to entertain them while they ate. After the meal, she sat with the other women in the front room and sewed until it was time for bed.
Finduilas undressed swiftly and slipped on her grey nightdress before Denethor had finished snuffing the lamps in the study, then sat so he could brush out her hair. She did allow him to touch her otherwise, for she did not wish to leave him in want when they could not make love. Denethor never showed impatience with this state of affairs, had spoken no word of rebuke for her thoughtlessness, which only increased her shame. He fell asleep, almost spooned against her, face against her shoulder, hand a heavy weight on her hip. Finduilas touched her fingers to her betraying belly. There should never have been doubt; you should have produced proof.
It was Thursday, and Maiaberiel would soon arrive. Finduilas had sent Wren and Moraen off with Marlong to ride on the Pelennor so they would not encounter the woman. Denethor had been banished after a long argument to the archives, though he had told one of the pups to fetch him when Maiaberiel departed. Finduilas sipped tea as she waited, watching the fire and thinking. It is time. There was little to be gained by pretending innocence any longer, though it would serve for today. There shall be a war this year, and it will be fought here. Neither Thorongil nor Denethor could battle Maiaberiel's intrigues directly; the captain was still too beholden to the Steward to risk angering his favorite child and Denethor could not risk it for fear that the battle itself would legitimize what Maiaberiel attempted and divide the City between the Warden and the King's Men. It should have come sooner, for she has done much mischief. No, it was right to wait. Before now, it would have been but words, and I have had a year in which to gain the City's affection. She let a hand rest on her belly. That would be the final argument.
Aeluin tapped at the door, face stony. 'She is here.'
'Show her up.' Finduilas amazed was at her own calm. When Maiaberiel swept in, she stood, all smiles and good cheer, to greet her. 'Maiaberiel, I am glad you could come. How are you?'
'I am well, little sister! And yourself?' Maiaberiel gaily answered, though her gaze was searching.
'Finally recovered from all of my sojourning,' was Finduilas's light reply, motioning for them to sit.
'I wish to hear all about Ivriniel's wedding,' the older woman said, pouring herself a mug of tea. 'I wish I could have attended, but it was too far to travel.' Finduilas launched into an account of the wedding. For almost an hour, she spoke of clothes and guests and food and gossip, with very few interruptions. When she ended, Maiaberiel sighed happily. 'Oh, I do wish I could have been there! But we had great fun over Yule, even with you gone.' A thoughtful expression came over her face. 'You have been so much gone this last year, sister. It is almost as though you left for Linhir just after loëndë.'
'Yes, it has been a long time,' Finduilas earnestly agreed.
'What happened? At loëndë?' Maiaberiel's look became sharp. 'You behaved oddly all through the feast, and then you refused to see or speak to anyone until now.'
'What do you think happened?' Finduilas calmly countered.
'I know you quarreled with Brandir and that Denethor argued with our father.' Finduilas nodded. When she said nothing, Maiaberiel irritably asked, 'So, what were the quarrels about? I like not that we have been kept apart by men's disagreements.'
'I would not say that Brandir and I quarreled,' Finduilas replied, 'but that he spoke with presumption and I scolded him for it.'
'It did not make much sense, but I think he was upbraiding me for being a poor wife and not bearing a child at once. I told him that he overstepped courtesy, and he left.'
'I see,' Maiaberiel answered, false sympathy on her face, 'and I am sorry for his forwardness. He should have known better than to press you. Denethor once said he thought you too young yet for a child. Is that still so?'
Denethor said? Finduilas found it difficult to believe Denethor would discuss children with Beruthiel. But he said he was trying to convince her that he did not care so much for me. 'Denethor does, and I follow his wisdom.'
'You should follow your own heart in such things. What of the argument with the Steward? Father will not hint at what it was about, though he said Denethor was uncivil. What could have caused that?'
'I do not know what was said.' That was true – Denethor had never disclosed the words that had passed between himself and Ecthelion that evening. 'I assume it had to do with Captain Thorongil.'
A smug look crossed Maiaberiel's face, quickly replaced by a look of concern. 'Oh, no, my dear. I had a horrible thought. I had brought the captain to visit you a few days before the feast. Denethor was not angry that you… entertained the captain?'
'I think he was displeased to know you left Thorongil with me, yes.'
Maiaberiel leaned forward, taking Finduilas's hand. In a whisper, she said, 'I did not… He wasn't… Please say I did not make Denethor angry with you for that.' Finduilas shrugged, revolted at the woman's words but wishing her to condemn herself with them. 'Oh, sweet sister, he was not cruel to you for this, was he?'
'It matters not.'
'That is why he forbade you any company, isn't it?' Maiaberiel pressed, and her concern did not appear entirely feigned. 'I knew it! I knew I should have ignored that wretched boy and have come in to see you. And now Denethor is back.'
'You need not concern yourself with this,' Finduilas said quietly.
'But if you are in harm's way or even just subject to his foul moods, that is terrible!' Maiaberiel shook her head. 'Is it wise for you to champion the captain's cause? Father was happy to grant your wishes, of course. You must think much of Thorongil to risk…'
'I risk nothing. I am not a fool, even if you take me for one.' Finduilas pulled away from the woman's loathsome grasp and walked over to her desk. She sat in the chair and steepled her fingers. 'I will no longer be your pawn.'
The way Maiaberiel walked over to the desk reminded Finduilas of a cat stalking a bird. 'What are these harsh words, sister? Pawn? Who has spoken dark words to drive us apart?'
'You yourself. And do not presume to call me "sister" – I have not given you leave.' Finduilas spoke softly and clearly, 'I do not care for your attempts to bring division between myself and my husband. I do not like that you encourage the captain's hopes. You will cease your intrigues against me.'
'Intrigues? You wrong me! I only wish to see you happy…'
'You only wish to see yourself in power, Beruthiel. Your mischief is at an end.'
All pretense left Maiaberiel's face, leaving it twisted in contempt. 'At an end? You flatter yourself, girl, to think that you can contest with me. It takes more than a flag to rule and more than a threat to impress me.'
'True on both counts. You face not a flag, but a prince, and I do not make threats.'
'A prince? You are nothing!' Maiaberiel spat. 'You were a witless fool from the Outlands and I made you into something of worth. Without me, you would be an unknown little rat in the archives, like all of the Monster's servants, a sickly stick of a girl who no one would look at twice. Defy me and I shall unmake you.'
'It is you who defies me. Whatever I was before, now I am the Lady of the White Tower. You have some prominence now while your father lives, but will be the disliked wife of a minor lord afterwards.'
'You show your ignorance, girl, repeating what my brother has told you to say. How do you think to curb me?'
Finduilas smiled sweetly. 'I do not wish to spoil the surprise.'
'Cleverness will bring you to ruin. Your fortunes do not lie with Denethor. You will rue being cold to the captain. And to me.'
Knowing it was a crude jibe, Finduilas archly answered, 'You so eagerly push Thorongil at me and warn me away from Denethor, I begin to think you want the Warden for yourself. The only one who lies with Denethor now is me.' To Finduilas's surprise, Maiaberiel took a few steps back, and the two small spots of anger on her cheeks bloomed to cover all of her face. What dismays you more, that I have taken your power or that I have taken your brother? Finduilas made her voice as cold as she could. 'Take your lust… for power elsewhere. You may go.' The woman glared at her for a long second before turning and sauntering out of the room.
The first true sally had been made. There would be no peace now that Maiaberiel knew that Finduilas was not a plaything but an enemy. The last few words nagged at her. She had simply meant to be insulting. There was something in Beruthiel's reaction, though, which hinted at an ugly possibility. She thought of how the woman behaved around Denethor. Were it any other man, I would name it seduction. Finduilas dropped her face in her hands and willed herself to stop thinking such things. Too soon, she heard his footsteps on the stair.
'Alquallë?' Finduilas looked up. Denethor stood in the doorway, anxious.
'I told her that I knew what she attempted and that she was to stop her conniving,' Finduilas said flatly.
He came over to her side of the desk and took her hands. 'What did she threaten?'
'She said that if I defied her, she would unmake me.'
He touched her cheek, eyes full of worry. 'I will kill her if she tries anything. Naught will stay my wrath if she so much as speaks against you.'
'Shh, friend, no! Do not make such an oath. Let her speak, for it will only turn hearts against her.' Finduilas wanted to ask of her suspicions, that Maiaberiel had trespassed upon him even as Ecthelion had done to Wren. But it could not have been done in ignorance. She could not make her mouth give voice to such wickedness. There was so much she could not say or ask – this indecency, her sorrow, his half-healed hand, his lies to others about their love, his creeping melancholy. Words fled and all that remained was her impotence to have things as she wished.
With a cry of frustration, Finduilas stood and took Denethor's face in her hands, kissing him. He returned the kiss, bracing against the desk and pulling her hips against his own. Finduilas undid the top of his shirt, pulling the cloth aside so she could nip and suckle the base of his throat, leaving dark marks behind. She knew she was rougher with him than she should be, her nips becoming sharp bites as her anger over the silences grew, but he did not push her away or tell her to stop. With a growl, Finduilas broke away from Denethor and went upstairs. He followed her to the alcove where she started pulling off her clothes.
'Finduilas, what are you doing?' he asked.
'Going to bed. You can join me if you wish,' she curtly replied. When she was naked, she lay down, arranging herself as provocatively as she could. Denethor started to undo his shirt, then stopped and sat on the bed next to her, stroking her hip gently. She took his hands and tried to tug him down on top of her, but he shook his head. 'Alquallë, no. We should not yet lie together.'
'I don't care. I want you.' He shook his head and she thought she would cry. 'Please, friend, please.' Denethor slipped off his shirt and tossed it away, then lay on top of her. They kissed again. When Finduilas tried to undo his trousers, Denethor caught her hand and pinned it above her head until she stopped resisting. As he had in Linhir, he covered her in kisses and delicate touches, working his way down her body until he was between her legs. He swiftly made her shudder and left her panting. Finduilas met his eyes and held out her hand, inviting him to crawl up the bed and lie beside her, but again he shook his head.
'When you are satisfied, say so and I will stop,' he said. Not dropping her eyes, Denethor touched her with his tongue slowly and deliberately, caressing the sensitive nub. He did not relent until he had reduced her to a quivering heap. As she gasped for breath and tried to make her head cease swimming, his head dipped and he touched her with tongue and fingers until she left the bedclothes drenched with sweat and other things. This time, after the waves within her sent her crashing down, Finduilas wept.
When his fingers moved within her once more, she kicked him and cried out, 'Enough!' Denethor nodded and sat up, fumbling with his belt. He undressed the rest of the way, then lay beside her, murmuring things that made no sense but which comforted nevertheless. She reached between them and took him into her hand, stroking and squeezing until the murmurs became mere sounds. Soon, Denethor pulled her hand away and pressed himself against her thigh, hitching his hips against her until he spilled. They swiftly fell asleep in their damp bed.
Minas Tirith, Mid February, 2978 T.A.
Things were not so silent afterwards, though they did not speak of what Finduilas would have liked. The threatened melancholy did not appear, which she attributed to their lying together once more. When a day was dry, she and Denethor would walk the height of the City, from the top to the first circle and back, allowing themselves to be Seen. Denethor was sure to wear her badge prominently on their outings.
When Denethor was conducting Tower business, Moraen, Wren and Aeluin kept her distracted from any sad thoughts. Moraen in particular made certain days were full, for she was always being invited to visit this house or that or else having ladies over. Every other week they would hold a large gathering at the Stewards House. Finduilas missed the peace that she used to enjoy, but scolded herself for being so short-sighted. If you wish to capture the fifth and sixth circles as you have the lower circles, you must conquer their hearts. The ladies were eager to surrender for the most part. There were a few oblique questions about Finduilas's absence from their company after loëndë. She answered that she had been made ill from worry over Denethor during the summer campaign, to which they nodded sympathetically and said it was touching how much she loved the Warden. Most were sincere.
It was Beregar who most worried Finduilas. The Hound had become downcast after the sorrow, and she guessed that he, like Denethor, held himself responsible in some way. A quiet word to Imrahil that his friend was behaving entirely too old for his years soon brought a smile back to Beregar's face, for Imrahil would not allow the other to remain dour. Aside from supper, Finduilas saw little of her brother. Between attending Denethor on Tower business, arms practice with Beregar, and frequenting taverns with other young lords, he was little about the Stewards House. He had not noticed her sorrow, which was just as well.
About ten days after the confrontation with Maiaberiel, Finduilas was reading letters at her desk. Moraen and Wren sat near the fire, planning for Wren and Aiavalë's trip to Pelargir in a few days. Finduilas had spoken to Denethor and ensured that Captain Marlong would accompany them as a suitably important escort for the Master Archivist.
'The house is near the archive,' Moraen told Wren. 'It is small, but well kept.'
'We will not need much, just a room for the two of us and another for the guards.' Wren's face turned a little pink on her last words, and she did not look up from what she was writing on her walking desk. 'It is very kind of you and your brother to give us your house.'
Moraen laughed. 'It is no burden at all, since there is no one there! Morvorin says he shan't be in Pelargir during most of the month, but will be there in time to bring you home for tuilérë.'
'It was still generous, Moraen, and I am grateful that Aiavalë will not have to walk far to get to the archive,' Finduilas said. Looking at Wren, she asked, 'Has Lady Lore stopped grumbling about the trip yet?'
Wren rolled her eyes, but was grinning. 'No, and I dare say she will grumble every day of it.'
Finduilas heard some footsteps on the stair and smiled. Denethor had been meeting with counselors this morning, but probably it was now over. 'Who minds the archives here while you two are away?' she asked.
'Lord Denethor,' Wren answered shortly. Finduilas sighed. Wren's hostility to Denethor had increased since the sorrow.
There was a tap on the door, and Denethor poked his head around the edge. 'May we come in?' Wren scowled. Finduilas sighed again and motioned for him to enter. Thorongil was with him. She had not seen the captain since the day Imrahil made his oath to the Steward, almost a month before, and was startled by his appearance now. He wore some clothes that had been made in Linhir, very clean and neat, though his boots were worn. His face was gaunt, with dark circles under his eyes, and his stance was tired.
Finduilas rose to greet Denethor with a light kiss on the cheek. 'How good to see you, husband! And you as well, Thorongil.' The captain smiled and inclined his head as acknowledgement, but did not meet her eyes. 'Are you done with your business and now have time for us?'
'Alas, no. The Steward commands my presence the rest of the day. We are to debate port tariffs with Hallas. I fear I shall have to ask you to conduct business for me this afternoon.' Denethor handed her a folded note with the broken seal of the Steward on the back. 'These are the houses the Steward has said Captain Thorongil may choose from. Take the captain to look at them and select the most appropriate one.'
She smiled and gave Denethor another kiss. 'Give the Lord Steward and Minister Hallas my regards.' With a nod, he was gone. Finduilas looked over the list quickly before turning her smile upon Thorongil. 'We should start at once. There is a house in each circle. We can stop at The Messenger's Rest for dinner. All of us.'
'You wish me to go?' Moraen asked, looking eager to the prospect of an outing.
'Yes, both of you, and…'
'I cannot,' Wren brusquely interrupted. 'The Archivist expects me.'
'I see.' Finduilas let her gaze become stern to let Wren know her disapproval. The woman dropped her eyes. 'Then Moraen and myself. We can walk you to the archives. You will not need your walking desk there, so may I have it?' It did not take long to set out, with a few guardsmen and Borthand in tow. Wren sullenly relinquished the desk at the doors of the archives.
The house in the sixth circle was near the Houses of Healing and large, but it was dark inside. The next house was on the north side of the fifth circle, along a lane with several empty houses. It was small and poorly kept, similar to the Stewards House in organization, but Thorongil looked interested by it. He liked that it let out onto the fifth wall. Moraen thought the fourth circle house the best, for it was grand, with many windows, beautiful stonework, and a central court. The third circle house Thorongil would not even enter, shaking his head and leading them to the tavern.
Moraen was mystified. 'Captain, forgive my prying, but why do you reject that house without even looking at it?'
A spot of red came to his cheeks and he shook his head, refusing to answer. Finduilas sighed at the Steward's foolishness for putting it on the list. 'It is poorly placed, Moraen,' she said gently.
'It is on a quiet lane and looks well kept,' the woman responded. 'What is poor?'
'Its neighbor.' Moraen looked at her questioningly. 'It is a whorehouse.' The young woman's mouth made a silent "Oh" and her own face turned red. Moraen suddenly found her stew to be very interesting.
'They should not be.' Finduilas turned to Thorongil. Finally, he was looking at her, and wearing what she had come to think of as his king face, a proud and noble mien. 'Such houses have no place among honorable people.'
'No, but not all people are honorable,' Finduilas calmly answered. 'If they were, these houses would not be.'
'There would be fewer dishonorable folk were dishonorable places not at hand to encourage them in their wickedness.'
'If all the taverns were closed, would there be an end to drunkenness?' Finduilas countered.
'They are not the same!' Though the man's voice did not rise, the ferocity of his words made Finduilas pull away. 'A drunkard is a fool to be pitied, and ale itself is good. It is a vice of excess. But that, that is evil.'
'Licentiousness is a vice of excess, like any other. You cannot force a man to moderation if he wills it not, no matter the vice.'
'No, evil.' Thorongil's eyes were ablaze and there was a tremor to his voice. 'To betray love is to betray your very soul, for love is the ground of the steadfast heart. All wrong that has come into Arda has come through a heart that lusts for what is not its own. Evil has no purchase save where there is a fickle heart. All that may be purchased in such places is evil.'
Finduilas had to swallow some ale before her throat would open to answer. It was difficult to dissent from Thorongil's claim. 'And whose heart is ever aught but steadfast? Is there no room for fools who err, but may repent?'
'In this? No. A soul is made for only one other; thus are they joined and thus are they ruined.'
'A poor choice is…'
'…forever,' he grimly replied. 'Wickedness alone will come of trying to deny that choice.'
'And yet there are foolish girls and foolish boys who fall for a time into this evil, as you call it, yet somehow they find each other and for the sake of each other, repent and turn from it. Husbandmen and goodwives with children. Are these evil people? Is there no forgiveness? No redemption?'
Thorongil's fierce look withdrew, though it seemed more masked than gone. He shrugged and ate his meal. When they were through and slowly walking towards the second circle gate, he spoke softly. 'My lady, forgive my outburst earlier.'
'I took no offense, Thorongil.'
'Thank you for your patience with this rough soldier, my lady.' He did not speak again until after they viewed the second circle house. It was like the one in the sixth circle, large but dark and undistinguished, and it stood nearly at the back of the hill. Thorongil cleared his throat to get Finduilas's attention. 'I have a boon to ask of you. Already you have shown me such kindness that I am ashamed to ask for more, yet I think only your wise words will turn stubborn hearts.'
'What is it?'
His voice grew commanding again. 'Add your voice to mine to the Steward. Help me convince him that houses of wickedness should be closed. Is it not best that the young not be provided ways to foolishly betray themselves?'
'Finduilas, this is a good idea!' Moraen added. 'They are terrible places. Why are they even allowed? You should do this. Should not the Lady's Grace extend to these women?'
'I do not think we should discuss this in the street,' Finduilas answered, to which the others agreed.
The last house, in the one in the first circle, was far around the northern curve, tucked up against the second wall. Thorongil spent a long time exploring it. It was slightly larger than the fifth circle house and shared a court that would be green and pleasant in the summer.
Finduilas insisted that Thorongil return to the Stewards House with them to see if Denethor was through and wished to speak to him once more. They had been there only a few minutes when some ladies came to call. Finduilas asked Moraen to see them in the solar while she finished the business of the house with Thorongil. Finduilas sat at her desk, indicating Thorongil should take a seat opposite, and took out her notes from the walking desk.
'I think the only houses you liked were the fifth circle and first circle ones.'
'Which do you prefer?'
'I cannot decide,' he admitted. 'The first circle is closer to the garrison, though still a far distance, and the fifth circle is closer to the Citadel.' He shrugged. 'The others are all too large for just me.'
'Someday, there may be more than just you, Thorongil,' Finduilas said gently with a smile.
The captain's expression was tired and he slumped in his chair. 'No, Finduilas. I do not think so.'
'Never will one of your family come here?' He did not answer, but sighed and shook his head a fraction. 'Either of the ones you like are large enough to house the occasional guest. Or several. I say take the one in the fifth circle.'
'And be close to the Warden?'
'All is not duty, my friend. So you may close to Denethor, myself, Brandir, the Steward, and others who think well of you.'
A small smile came to Thorongil's face. 'Do you ever cease thinking of ways to be kind, Finduilas?'
'Not if I can help it.' Now was her turn to sigh. 'I fear I shall not be kind now, though. I will not support you in trying to close the whorehouses.'
Thorongil's head snapped up and he fixed her with his sharpest stare. 'Why. Not?'
'Because it will not do what you believe it will, and because they are useful.'
'I cannot believe a woman of your virtue would wish these places to remain open!'
'You do not know very much about women, virtuous or otherwise, Thorongil.'
'Finduilas, it is evil what happens there,' he pleaded. 'Would you keep them open because it provides cover for something else?'
'Yes.' This time, when his ferocity receded, it was replaced with confusion. 'Thorongil, I wish that such places did not exist, but they do. More to the point, infidelity does not happen in a whorehouse; it happens inside a heart. Though a man keep his hands to himself, or a maid keep her skirts in place, still they may betray love.' She was not prepared for the stricken look that came to the man's face. What love have you betrayed? 'And yet I think that a soul is not utterly lost unless one is determined to be a villain, forsaking forgiveness out of lust, or greed, or pride. There are women in the Lady's houses who have done this evil, yet I think them not so. There are men who have strayed who may yet repent.'
'There is no need to encourage it!'
'Not all bastards are born to whores, Thorongil.' The captain's face turned red. 'Have you ever been in a whorehouse?'
'You should. It was quite illuminating when I went to one. I found the girls as charming and kind as Denethor said they were.' The look on the man's face was a mix of horror and fascination, and Finduilas had to compose herself lest she laugh at him. 'Not all men go to such places for debauchery. Did you see the young man who attended us today?'
'He is a whoreson. Is he a wicked thing, the child of evil acts?' Thorongil dropped his eyes, thinking, then nodded once. 'You do not pity my Borthand? His father will not give him a name and his mother may not keep him. Get rid of whorehouses and still you will have children like my pup.'
'It is enough that such places are evil.'
'When you know how to make a man have a steadfast heart, then they will close of their own accord. Until then, the City will dower any woman who turns away from such trade. The Lady's houses will take in any girl who wishes to avoid that fate. The Warden will pay the prentice fee or see to the arms of any young man born of those unions, and they will be my Hunt. If you wish to argue with the Steward over this, I shall not oppose you, but neither shall I support you. I only warn that you may not wish to lose such a public battle.'
Finduilas rose, motioning for him to stay seated. 'I must to see my guests. Please stay here until Denethor returns. You may tell him which house you have chosen.' With a nod, she joined the other women in the solar.
Minas Tirith, 21 February, 2978 T.A.
She was bleeding. Finduilas looked distastefully at the stained length of cloth padding the bed. The color was bright, cheerful even, a scarlet smear with darker beads where the thick strands clotted together. More red filmed the insides of her thighs. The blood itself she did not mind so much, but the clumps reminded her of more painful things. With an aggravated sigh, she pulled on a simple dress, wrapped herself in a cloak, and braved the soft winter drizzle to go to the women's baths. Bleeding as she was, she could not soak in the warm tubs, but could only stand in the cold shower and then sluice herself with warm water in bucket drawn from a tub. This did not improve her temper. Having to wear an awkward pad of cloth between her legs made it worse. She was cross with Denethor at breakfast, which made him short with her in return, and they parted with glares.
Aeluin and Moraen did not need to sense her mood, for it was written on her face. Finduilas curtly told them she did not care for company today and they would have to see to any guests. They meekly assented and withdrew to the solar. When the door shut behind them, Finduilas sighed and leaned her face into her hands. Stop it, goose! It is no fault of theirs that you are a harridan. She sat for several minutes, trying to sort out her thoughts, then gave up. She went to the solar, asked Aeluin to bring her tea, and returned to the study to look over the reports from Borondir. That took all of the morning, and concentrating on the figures helped clear her mind. Then her womb cramped, forcing out the thick blood, and Finduilas had to sit very still lest she begin weeping. This is what should happen. There is nothing wrong. She wished there was some way to wash all of the blood out at once.
Finduilas did not eat dinner with the others, not wishing to inflict her foul temper upon them. The afternoon brought letters. Very carefully, Finduilas put them in order so she would read the best ones last. Aiavalë had sent a bundle, with inks, paper, and exotic threads as well as the letter itself.
What an adventure I am having! It would be better were you here, of course. We must return in the fall when you are ready once more for travel. Please give Moraen my thanks for the house. It is perfect. Lark took us to the central market to see the inks and cloth that come from Far Harad. I have included a few samples of the best. Let me know what you want more of. The archive is magnificent! I had not thought there would be so many scrolls…
…So, as you see, I shall have to find coin for extra scriveners. I know you love Wren dearly, and she feels the same about you, but Lark was always my favorite of these two and I am grateful to see her again. Not a word of that to Wren, of course! Speaking of whom, she is in love with Captain Marlong, though she will not admit it. Stubborn girl. We pretend not to notice. Tell Denethor to tell Marlong to ask for her hand as soon as we return. When we are back, I shall need a new shoe.
Finduilas could not help but smirk over the news about Wren and Marlong, though she did not think she would ask Denethor to do anything. Leave them to their own pace. The captain is not through with his wooing. It would be amusing to see how long it took Marlong to work up the nerve to ask. Feeling much more cheerful, Finduilas opened a letter from her mother.
Your father is the greatest fool in all of Gondor, and I am trying to remember why I thought it a good idea to marry him. He went sailing upon the bay in high waves and fell in, returned sopping wet and altogether too pleased with himself, and now he has an ague. When he is well, I shall kill him for scaring me so badly.
I miss all of you terribly, but have not a moment to be lonely. Ivorwen and Handiriel are lovely companions and have become best friends. I wrote Morwen of Ivriniel's wedding, and she replied. She is sending Hilda to me this summer. There are not enough suitable boys in Rohan, I gather. As for the keep…
… I trust Denethor is keeping Imrahil busy, but scold your brother for not writing. Your father would be pleased by a letter. He is happy, though he misses his children.
The news over her father's dunking made Finduilas chortle, since it did not appear he had taken any harm. If Hilda was to go to Dol Amroth, Finduilas hoped Morwen would accompany Hilda to Dol Amroth and halt her journey in Minas Tirith for a while. Finduilas wondered if the Rohirrim loved as the Dúnedain did, for she could not imagine Morwen and Thengel not being fully in love, and if she would See the light within Morwen. She turned last to her father's short letter, eager to see how he would explain his swim in the bay.
I fell in the bay and now your mother is convinced I am to die of an ague at any moment. I do not think I shall oblige her. Sadly, I was carrying your book with me at the time and it has been ruined. I am more grieved by that than by my chills.
Seeing you in Linhir was the happiest moment of my life. You know what I mean. I bow before you and say that you picked your husband wisely. I think Ivriniel has also chosen well.
Tell my son-in-law that he is to come to Dol Amroth after tuilérë to see some boats. I will teach him to sail (I hope he knows how to swim) so he will appreciate them better. If I can teach a wizard, I can teach a Warden. Tell him to bring Imrahil. You are not to come though. Make your old sire a grandfather this year.
Finduilas took all three letters and threw them in the fire, tossing Aiavalë's bundle after them for good measure. At supper, she sat silent while the others spoke awkwardly around her, retreating to her room afterwards. Denethor knocked on her door.
'Alquallë?' Finduilas scowled and stared at the fire, refusing to answer. 'Please, may I come in?' She shook her head even though she knew he could not see. 'Finduilas, you are being childish.' After a minute she heard his footsteps, swift and sharp, then the thud of his own door closing.
The next morning, she left her room early for the baths and could not scrub herself enough to feel clean. The rain was so fine it was almost mist, filling the narrow lanes with pale grey gloom. Part way back to the Stewards House, Finduilas stopped. She did not wish to face Denethor. He is right. I am being childish. When she set out again, she took the next cross-lane and entered the main court, uncertain of where to go. The White Tree stood out in the fog, white branches gleaming. A strip of cloth had hung on one limb, just as it had in her vision upon Seabird. A sob caught in her throat and Finduilas fled, needing to escape this fate-trammeled place where all was sorrow and ending. She paid no mind to where her feet carried her, only wishing to get away. She had some thought of finding Gull and letting the mare outrun what threatened to engulf her. When she would have turned to enter the gate to the fifth circle, however, Finduilas felt the eastern malice press towards her and feared that an army awaited her on the plain below, so she cast her hood over her hair and made her way south along the curve of the sixth circle. Only when the road curved west did she stop and huddle in a doorway.
The ancient wood door creaked open behind her as she leaned against it. Inside, there was an inviting smell, of green things and blooms, and she could not help being drawn in. 'Hello?' she called, then again a little louder, but there was no answer. As her eyes adjusted to the dim interior, she saw plants and flowers in profusion, pots covering every surface. Water trickled somewhere near. It may have been winter in the road, but here it was early spring.
Finduilas walked through the house, looking for its owner but finding only more growing things. Eventually she came to a door that let out into a triangular court. The back wall was the wall of the Citadel, which the house met at the western edge at an angle. The eastern wall was blank. In between wall and house, there was a dirt-floored yard filled with trees, bushes and tangled vines. The largest tree stood in the center, an ancient, wild apple, and its roots could be seen poking up through the dirt. A brazier burned, warming the air. At a wooden bench not far from the door stood a black man with a ring of white hair. He wore cloth wrapped oddly at his waist and on his legs, ending at his knees, and his feet were bare. His limbs were thin, bone and sinew and joints knotted like Angelimir's had been. He turned at the sound of the door, studying her with dark eyes, then smiled and held out his hand.
'Welcome, child. You have come to see old Laanga, have you?'
'Yes, I mean, no, I mean, I am here.' Finduilas bit her lip to the stop the babble.
Master Laanga smiled more widely. 'Yes, you are.' He reached for a walking stick made of an uncarved length of wood, polished over the years by the touch of a hand, and came closer until he could offer his arm. 'Come, let me show you the garden.' He walked with the slow dignified pace Finduilas recognized from strolls with her grandfather, that of an old man who has accepted pain as his constant companion. 'The Old Crone, she found me, too.'
'Old Crone Apple,' he gestured with the stick to the central tree. 'I missed the green of my home in the midst of these cruel stones and one day I heard a voice. She had turned over the rock with her mighty roots, and crumpled the paving. It looked a worthy task, so I found a mattock and helped the Crone pry up the rest. The earth was lonely, as was she, and I found them company.'
Finduilas looked about in delight. 'It is beautiful, Master Laanga.'
'Look at this,' he said and led her to a small bush. He told her its name and how a healer would use it and how he came upon the seeds for it. Then there was another, and a third, and soon there was nothing except the herbalist's gentle, deep voice and the whisper of the Crone's branches upon each other. The brazier kept the court just warm enough for more delicate plants to survive the winter, and kept the rain's chill away. Above them, the Citadel wall dissolved into the mist. Beyond the apple tree there was an arbor tightly roofed with vines and the seat inside was dry. 'Thank you for listening to the prattle of an old man,' Laanga said after they sat.
'It was not prattle,' Finduilas assured him, then realized that she had simply walked into his home. 'Forgive me, Master Laanga, for intruding…'
'There are no intruders here,' he imperturbably replied, 'only guests. No one comes here who is not welcome.' Finduilas found his gaze unsettling and reassuring at the same time. She had never seen someone with such dark eyes. 'What brought you here?'
'I am afraid.' Finduilas started to tremble and a tear slipped out.
'Whatever has frightened you is not welcome. It is not here.' His voice was certain. 'But I see more than fear.'
'And sorrow. What I dream of ends in sorrow.'
'Warden Lhûn spoke to me of one great sorrow, daughter.' Laanga's hand wiped some of the tears from her face. 'But surely not all of your dreams have ended so?'
Finduilas shook her head. 'I am a goose. Others bear greater burdens. I know joy has come from my dreams as well, but I see only sorrow, like a mist. I am shamed to be so weak and childish.'
'I think not this grief came from any weakness of yours,' he quietly answered.
'But from my foolishness, yes. I am a wife and did not attend to a wife's duties, and…' Finduilas swallowed, '…and my child was lost.' Laanga took her hands in his and said soft things in a tongue she did not know. When she could speak without a sob, she said, 'It is time again to be a wife, but I would it were not so. I am too weak for this simple thing.'
'Tending a new life is no simple thing, daughter,' the old man gently scolded, gesturing at the garden, 'though joy relieves the burden. When joy flees, even the strong may stumble and weep, but that is not weakness. It is right to mourn what is lost.'
'I fear what will be.'
Laanga made a thoughtful sound and stood. Slowly he began working his garden, plucking dead leaves, pinching off stalks, tying things back with bits of twine he took from a pouch at his waist. Finduilas tucked her feet under her and watched, not yet ready to leave. Eventually, the herbalist came back to the bower. 'Daughter, if you are afraid, come here. At any time, for any reason. There are no locks upon these doors. I do not think there are many who carry the equal of the burden laid upon you.'
His dark eyes held hers and she wanted to look away, there was such pity in them. 'Aye. Denethor.'
'I must be stronger, Master Laanga! I would not burden him more with my sorrow.'
'Burdens can make you stronger. Even the greatest sorrow may be borne if you make of it a tale and tell it to another. We hunger for stories, for that is the earth in which we take root. Trust in your strength, but in your lover's as well; he is part of your tale. Do not shut this book or cast it aside, even if the tale be sad. It still needs to be told.'
'Do you have children, Laanga?'
'Yes. All of the Children are mine.' He cocked his head to one side, listening, but all Finduilas could hear was the hiss of the rain. With a sigh, he stood once more. 'I must leave the garden and venture out upon stone. Stay as long as you wish, child.' Laanga stiffly walked across the yard and disappeared into the house. Finduilas stayed in the garden the rest of the day. She did not feel hungry or cold, though she did sleep. When the day dimmed, she returned to the Citadel. Someone had removed the cloth clinging to the branches of the White Tree. Now it just reminded Finduilas of Crone Apple, bare and bowed with age. Sador slept in the alcove and no one saw her come in. She went upstairs to Denethor's study. He had not returned from the archives. Beregar had been there not long before, for the fire in the hearth was building. She sat before it, on the ground like Denethor would do, and waited. Telperien found her first, wiggling into Finduilas's lap and bunting at her mistress's hand until she got her ears scratched.
It was full-dark when Denethor came in. He stopped when he saw her sitting before the fire. Denethor took his time shedding his cloak, setting down his papers, pouring some wine, before taking a seat beside her. She accepted a cup from him.
'I was worried this morning when you did not return.'
'I am sorry.'
'A Tower Guard said you had hurried away.' She nodded. 'I searched the City. Huan and the Hunt, as well.' Finduilas sighed and bowed her head. 'Laanga found me, and said you needed healing. I did not expect you back so soon.'
'I am sorry.'
'What is wrong, Alquallë? I do not understand.'
'I am afraid, friend.'
Denethor edged closer and tentatively placed an arm around her. When Finduilas leaned into him, he touched his head to hers. 'Of what?'
'Of many things. I am not very brave.'
'I think you the bravest person I have ever met.' Finduilas looked at him in astonishment, trying to find any jest. Denethor's face was serious. 'Nothing daunts you.' He touched her cheek lightly. 'Though, sometimes, you daunt me.'
'I fear great and dire things, Denethor. Visions and fate and evil, wicked women, but now I am most afraid of a very simple thing.'
'That it will happen again. And until it does not, it might, and I live in fear of it, and there is naught that I may do save try. That frightens me. But, husband, I shall try.'
Denethor took their cups and set them aside, pulling Finduilas into his lap. She let herself be held and did not try to keep from weeping.
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