Stewards of Gondor: Genverse Arc
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Love Sweet As Poison : 5. Matters of State
Sunlight streamed through the windows, illuminating by patches the bower of Denethor and Finduilas. As she had every morning for seven years, Finduilas woke alone to its warmth, raising a hand to shield her eyes from the light, and burying her face in her pillow. For a while, she lay thus, and her body felt heavy and inert. And sore, as she traced the line of bruises from throat to thigh; even if she wished to, she would be unable to forget the preceding night for quite some time.
What happened to us last night? she wondered, wincing at the memory. Reviewing all that had passed between them, she found it incredible that the two of them could sink to such appalling depths, for she was certain that alone, neither of them would have managed to fall so very low, no matter what the trial. For seven years have I sought to look upon what lies beneath the stone-faced mask that my husband wears, she thought. But I did not think to find the worst of him ere ever I knew the better. And what must he think of me now? For whatever else might be said of his behavior, it had been she who had been foolish enough to invite him to make love to her. If love we may call it—he must think me utterly depraved!
Finduilas groaned softly and pulled the covers up closer, reluctant to begin the day at all. Some mornings, if the night had been particularly bad, she simply lay abed 'til hunger or other needs drove her to rise. But after a few moments, she sighed and crawled out of bed, making for the wash room that opened off of their sleeping quarters. The water in the pitcher was cool, but she wet the towel and sponged herself off, feeling in need of at least a symbolic purification.
The cloth chafed the bruises, and she gritted her teeth as she washed, gingerly, feeling at the hurts. In a few places, Denethor had actually broken the skin, though no lasting damage had been done. She wondered how he would react to the sight of her, to the literal embodiment of their mutual shame and madness. Not well, that is certain! she decided, and had to suppress a spiteful wish that he had remained here long enough to see the marks that he had left on her.
Ill-feeling breeds more ill-feeling, that we have proven, she sighed. I suppose that I am not surprised that he did not stay: he is the Steward now, and until Ecthelion is laid to rest and he has taken up his duties formally, there will be many distracting tasks that nonetheless must be done. And whatever my feelings, my station requires me to play the part of help-meet and I may not shirk my duty. Nor shall I!
Thus resolved, she began to lay out in her mind all that she would need to attend to, beginning with the children. For Boromir and Faramir must be told that their grandfather had died, and she would have to explain their father's new title. Pulling on a simple shift and skirt, she padded barefoot to the door and stepped into the outer room, where Lielwen, her maid, was accustomed to wait. "Good morning, Lielwen," she said absently, closing the door in her wake.
"Good morning, my lady," replied a solemn voice to her right, and she whirled, eyes widening to behold Denethor seated in the window embrasure. From the stack of parchment and paper at his side, he clearly had not been idle, but it was unusual for him to work away from the bureau that graced one corner of the room. And there was in his eyes that which suggested he had been waiting for her, that there was in his presence here a private purpose. Finduilas felt as though her blood had congealed in an instant, rooting her to her place, and she could not seem to summon a response. Denethor's lips quirked in a humorless smile at her evident discomfiture, and said, "Sit down, Finduilas, ere you fall and give me further reason for shame!"
Numbly, she obeyed, seating herself at the small table upon which stood two cups and a small kettle. Out of habit, she reached for the kettle, striving to regain her composure as he set aside his work and came to join her. Wordlessly, she poured out two cups and offered one to him, which he accepted gravely. Neither spoke, and Finduilas watched him carefully, wondering at him. He looks terrible! she realized, for her husband seemed oddly tense this morning, and even a bit wan, as if from lack of sleep. Never taking her eyes from him, she raised the cup and had it but halfway to her lips ere she paused, frowning. That scent…!
"What is this?" she demanded, feeling her heart beat faster.
"Nothing with which you are unfamiliar," he responded flatly, sipping at his own ere he added, "Although I have heard that rue is more reliable than yarrow." Finduilas felt her jaw go slack as she realized that he knew–that he had known and likely for long–what she did. Quickly, she set the cup down again, fearing to drop it if she did not, and she clasped trembling hands in front of her as she drew a deep breath, seeking vainly for some way to explain herself. But nothing came to her, such was her astonishment over this latest revelation. How could he know? I was so careful! Raising terrified eyes to his unreadable ones, she shook her head in mute disbelief. "Did you think me blind?" he asked softly in response to that look.
"Denethor… I do not know what to say!" she murmured hoarsely.
"Then say nothing, and drink your tea."
"But… are you not then…?" she stammered, feeling her anxiety unclench only slightly.
"Angry?" he suggested, arching a dark brow at her, and she nodded. "I suppose that I am. But whatever my thoughts on this matter, in this we ought to be in agreement: no child should be born of last night's pain. Whether we have more in the future is a matter for later debate." A pause. "Unless you feel differently…?"
It was probably the first time he had ever sought her opinion, but his words cut deep, and Finduilas felt her anger rouse at the somewhat patronizing tone. Indeed, a part of her was tempted to refuse solely for the sake of disobedience, but that impulse died swiftly before the onslaught of the haunting memories of the night before. So, rather than speak, she carefully picked the cup up once more and took a deliberate swallow of the aromatic liquid, watching him the while. The tea seemed to burn going down, and lay like acid in her stomach. Indeed, poison might have tasted sweeter on her tongue than this bitter tribute to failed love, but she held the awful thought of another pregnancy firmly in mind and ignored the discomfort.
For awhile, they sat together in silence, and the tension spun itself out between them for neither seemed willing to look away first. Finally, Finduilas asked, "Why did you not send for me last night?"
"Could you have given him the draught that would kill him? Or watched another do so?" Denethor demanded, and she blanched. Her husband gave a soft grunt, as if to say Well, then!, and Finduilas gritted her teeth.
"I did not say I could not have! I would have liked to have been there to say farewell; you had no right to deny me that! And do not pretend that you thought only of me when you so decided, for I know you better than that," she continued on. "Will you deny that you wanted only to be alone? That if I had been there, you would not have been able to grieve as you needed to in that moment? Deny it if you can, Denethor, but a lie will tell, for though my mind wanders sometimes in madness and takes my body with it, still, there is clarity in the space between storms." A few moments longer, Denethor endured her sharp-eyed gaze, and then of a sudden, he looked away. It was her turn to grunt now, and she shook her head in disgust. "So I thought indeed! Have you a wife or a chattel, oh husband mine, that you will not deign to confide in her?" she asked bitterly.
Minutes passed without a response, and Finduilas felt her anger dwindling, transmuting to an aching disappointment and sorrow for the icy barrier that remained between them even (or perhaps especially) now, when Ecthelion was not a day in the tomb. She could feel his pained humiliation and uncertainty and wondered why it was that they seemed condemned to share only the bitter. Once, only just once, I would like to see him laugh–truly laugh! Or I would that he could have known me as I was in Dol Amroth, ere I came to this cold place. Perhaps naught would change, but just once I would know what it is to be bound to this man rather than held always at a distance. She sighed softly, thinking of the many times that Ecthelion had advised her before and given her the strength to return to her husband's cool embrace. Where now shall I find such strength? Whence comes courage if it be not born into a heart when the body is first made and the soul conceived?
"He said I must ask your forgiveness for him."
Finduilas blinked, confused by this soft-spoken declaration which seemed to come apropos of nothing. Denethor stared down at the tea leaves strewn in the bottom of his cup; his voice had been taut, laden with chagrin, and Finduilas needed several moments to work through what she had been told.
"Ecthelion asked you… to ask my forgiveness… on his behalf?" She frowned, uncomprehending as her husband nodded mutely. "But I never held aught against him! Wherefore then needs–needed he my pardon?"
"He needed it for the past seven years," Denethor replied. "'Twas the Steward of Gondor who arranged our marriage, and so he asked your forgiveness for all that you have endured at my hands." Her husband managed to speak his part in a relatively even tone of voice, but at the end, he gave an odd cough and hastily drank the last of his tea in a transparent effort to cover the fact that his voice broke. Finduilas stared at him, and though she did not doubt Ecthelion's sincerity, she felt dazed by how ruthlessly he had used even his regret to teach his son an object lesson.
"He has it, of course," she murmured, feeling torn between pity and a cold sense of vindication. But by the Valar, I would not have thought Ecthelion had that in him! Mayhap now I can begin to guess whence comes the son's hard judgment! "Denethor—"
"You were more in his thoughts than I at the end, so…." he grated, cutting her off, clearly eager to finish this painful duty, and he leaned his elbows on the table, unable to meet her eyes. "So, if you could not say farewell, think not that he did not regret it. He paid more heed to your absence than my presence!" An uncomfortable pause followed, each trying to regain his or her balance, to achieve some measure of calm. Finduilas found herself wondering at her husband, feeling that she had somehow overlooked something vital in her time here. He seemed so very forsaken in this moment, and although she had expected him to grieve over his father's death, she had not dreamt in her worst nightmares of this level of anguish. It is as if he feels he has lost something ere ever he tasted it truly… I wonder, how much was left unsaid between him and Ecthelion? Could this coldness of his have poisoned that love as well? she wondered. For what else could inspire in him regret?
Without conscious intention, she reached across the table and touched his hand. Denethor at first seemed not to notice, or else was bent upon ignoring the overture for a time. But in the end, just as Finduilas, with a sigh, began to withdraw, he quickly, almost convulsively, grasped her hand tightly in his, though he did not meet her eyes. 'Tis almost… jealousy, she decided. Could it be that he is jealous of me, for the time that I spent with his father, and for my place in Ecthelion's last thoughts? I think it may be! She wondered that she had never seen that before, though given how little Denethor disclosed (unless it were very obliquely stated!) she supposed she ought not to be. "You have waited all this time here to tell me this? For your father's sake alone?" she asked softly.
"For his sake… because he asked it of me, that is why!" he replied harshly. "Think you that I would put myself through this for another?"
"Will you cast me off then, since clearly I am but little to you?" Finduilas asked quietly, and wondered if she would survive the answer. For after such a wrenching night, she doubted he would ever learn to be easy about her. In many ways it would be far more… convenient… if he released me, she thought, forcing herself admit to that truth, trying in vain to prepare for it, feeling certain that that was her fate. Gondor needs stability, and I am ill-equipped to provide such an illusion!
"Ours is a political marriage, and so would our divorce be," he sighed, shaking his head. "I cannot let you go, Finduilas." A pause. Then again, but more softly as he risked looking at her again, "I cannot let you go. Strange to say it, but that is the truth, and would be even were Gondor not at issue." Denethor shook his dark head, gazing at her now with bemused puzzlement, while grief shone still bright in his intense gaze and Finduilas caught her breath.
"What do you mean?"
"I cannot say I love you," he told her bluntly, and his fingers about hers tightened slightly to the point of discomfort. "For I do not know whether that is true. And I cannot love you thus, if you seek ever to martyr yourself for affection that I may not have for you," Denethor sighed. "Do you understand what I say?"
"I do," she managed, quelling the pain as best she could. This I knew already, or at least suspected. It may have come too late, but 'tis better that he say it than that it remain ever unspoken between us. "And for my part, you must know, Denethor, that it takes but a word from you to make me doubt myself. To doubt everything, in fact," she replied. "But nevertheless, it will be some time ere I trust you again. Ecthelion I can forgive more easily than I can you."
Denethor nodded slowly, and after a moment he released her hand, just as the bells rang out, marking the hour and also reminding the citizens of the passing of Ecthelion. "We shall speak further on this when there is more time," he said when they had fallen silent once more. "There are others with whom I promised to speak ere noon, and that is but an hour removed. I trust you shall find some way to occupy yourself?"
"The children must be told of their grandfather's death," Finduilas sighed, steeling herself as she rose. "Boromir at least must be made to understand what has happened. Mayhap he shall have better luck explaining it to Faramir."
"Faramir is too young to understand," Denethor frowned, and Finduilas quirked a brow at him.
"You have scarcely glanced at him all this year. He will understand, if we can but learn to speak to him, and Boromir already knows how to do that. If this is to work, Denethor, you must begin to take more of an interest in your sons," she admonished. "To birth them was pain enough, and I would not see my efforts in that endeavor ignored!"
"As I said, we shall talk more later," Denethor replied after a beat, and Finduilas sighed, knowing that she could ask no more of him than that. But at least now I know that there shall be a later!
It was little enough, but it was a beginning.
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