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Hands of the King: 56. Patrimony
Minas Tirith, 5 January, 2979 T.A.
For the first time Denethor could remember, he wished to be somewhere besides the Great Council. It was ironic given that this was the least conflicted Council he had ever attended. There was praise for Morvorin for the roads, agreement on strengthening garrisons, thanks for another year of good harvests, and approval for how Thorongil had handled the defenses. The only subject not discussed directly was Umbar. Denethor had reported briefly on what he knew and provided few details save that the Corsairs had suffered from plague and pestilence, but were trying to rebuild the fleet. He and Thorongil had agreed in their meetings leading up to today that they would not speak directly about their intention to launch an attack upon Umbar. There was still too much time before they were ready and there would be no way to control the gossip of the lords for that long. By the next Council, their plans would be complete and it would be time to speak.
It had not helped that the Steward had been genial, almost jocular, towards him the entire day. It stood in contrast to the distant though polite treatment Ecthelion had given Denethor at the two great feasts. Aside from a single sly dig, the Steward had heaped almost as much praise upon Denethor as he did upon Thorongil. His eyes gave away the man's true feelings - angry, wary, dangerous.
The Council should have been a victory. The Steward offered no opposition, the Captain's threat as rival was whittled to almost nothing, the lords and ministers had no quarrels, all of the wisdom and strategy Denethor had brought to bear upon the governance of the kingdom over the last two decades was coming to fruition. Across the table, Thorongil was speaking intelligently about coastal garrison strength. The captain was welcome to all of it - the wars, the land, the City, the throne, whatever he wanted, for this triumph was worse than defeat. He knew its price.
Denethor made himself sit still, presenting a façade of calm dignity, when he wished to slink from the room. He had been less humiliated after his dishonor at Ecthelion's hands when Thorongil was made Captain-General, less ashamed when hearing the Steward's self-exculpation over his lechery with Wren than he was now. The light was dim outside the chamber windows when the Steward rose, rod in hand, and all stood with him. With a gracious bow, he recited the ancient formula, 'We thank you for attending us this day and helping us to bear the burden of rod and rule, until the king should come again,' and they all bowed their heads in return. All lies. The king has returned, but nothing is as it should be. All order is turned on its head. Ecthelion led them from the room to go to the supper that awaited them.
What awaited Denethor in the hall was Beregar. The man stood to the side, half in shadow, and most did not notice he was there. His eyes met Denethor's, but he did not move to his lord's side as he usually did. The Hound's gaze was harder than the stone floor on which they stood. Denethor's eyes went to Beregar's right cheek. Near where the man's beard curved up, a dark mark could be seen. 'She's here,' was all Beregar said before turning and walking away. It was obvious he did not care whether Denethor followed.
In a room not far from the dining hall where supper was laid, Finduilas and Luinil were waiting. Both were dressed beautifully. Ivrin sat nearby, watching over Boromir in his basket. The baby had been put in an ornate robe, white with intertwined wings and vines embroidered upon it. Finduilas smiled and hastened to Denethor, greeting him with a kiss. 'There you are! I thought that council would never end. Did it go well?'
'Is Imrahil with you?' Luinil asked, her voice flat.
'No, he went ahead to the hall. They are waiting.'
'We should not tarry, then,' Finduilas answered, taking his arm. Luinil retrieved Boromir. Just as at the naming, Denethor escorted Finduilas while Luinil carried her grandson. As they walked, Denethor could just hear the soft tread of Beregar's feet as he walked a pace behind Luinil.
At least the Hound hated him now. When Denethor had gone to the kitchen to fetch a pot of tea for himself, the world had been right. He bade Imrahil good night, and walked away, hearing Imrahil's greeting to Beregar as the young prince passed the door to Beregar's quarters on the way to his own. The kitchen smelled as it should, and Hunthor was flirting with Dúlin while she tried to clean things. Denethor did not pay them any mind, waving away the cook's offer of help as he went to the pantry to fetch the herbs. He had the lid off the jar when he heard the cook say, 'And the Steward was so happy finally to see his grandson!' That was when the world changed. His hands froze and there was no sound save the murmurs of the flirting couple. 'Not right...waiting' 'The lady... saw... so kind.' 'Kindest heart... Steward was patient, not like my...' '...by herself.'
He had resealed the jar and walked out briskly, ignoring Dúlin's questions about filling the teapot. Not by herself. They had all betrayed him. The door to Beregar's rooms were ajar and Denethor did not bother to knock. Beregar began to rise from his chair. 'Where did Finduilas go today?' The question was asked calmly. The furtive look on the Hound's face was all the answer Denethor needed. The blow threw Beregar into the wall. 'You are to leave.' He wanted them all to leave, every one of them who had smiled, and bowed, and said "Yes, my lord," and taken his son and placed him in Ecthelion's hands.
I should have gone. But he was like Beregar, summoned or sent away at her whim and she bade him to stay. Her hand rested in his now and her arm brushed against him as they walked. He wondered how Finduilas could bear to touch him after what he had done to her. Denethor sneaked a look at her face as they walked. As with Beregar, there was a darkened patch along her jaw. Finduilas had brushed some powder on her face that hid the marks, but he knew it was there, and its twin on the other side.
Beregar brushed past to stride ahead and open the door for them. As they entered, the lords fell silent for a second, then cheered, becoming louder when Luinil entered with Boromir. They walked to the front where the Steward stood. Finduilas dug her nails into the palm of Denethor's hand, though she did not look at him, but kept her eyes on Ecthelion, a bright and charming smile on her face. When they reached the Steward, they both bowed. Denethor was certain if he looked at his hand it would be bleeding. He hoped it was. The Steward looked past them towards the child. To take Boromir, he would have to let go of Finduilas, and Denethor could not chose between them. She felt his hesitation and looked up at him, then tipped her head ever so slightly in Ecthelion's direction.
Denethor stepped to the side, pulling on Finduilas to make her follow, and gestured grandly to Luinil to go before them. She went to Ecthelion and bowed her head, then spoke to the babe. 'Boromir, say "Good even" to your grandfather.' With a smile, she held him out to the Steward, who eagerly gathered the small bundle into his arms. 'Will you introduce our grandson to the guests, Ecthelion? I already have made many introductions for this young man, so it is only fair you take up your share of the burden.' Luinil said this in a lighthearted way, making the other chuckle.
'I am remiss as host and grandsire, Luinil. Let me make amends.' Ecthelion stepped forward holding the baby up. 'My lords and friends, I introduce you to a sturdy young fellow of recent acquaintance. This is Boromir!' The guests laughed and clapped again, some calling out cheerful welcomes to the babe. Boromir himself stared at them intently, entranced by the noise and color before him.
Finduilas pulled her hand out of Denethor's, but only to slide her arm around his waist and lean into him. He glanced at her and was rewarded with a smile and a nod. Trust her. She is the ruler here. Finduilas cleared her throat and said, 'Is he not growing before your eyes, Father? I swear he is larger from morning to night. He is heavier each time you hold him, is he not?' Her laughing voice, sweet as honey, could be heard in every corner of the room, and Ecthelion and Luinil both turned sharply at the sound.
There was no helping the smile that came to Denethor's face when he saw Ecthelion's sour expression. Luinil was giving Finduilas a questioning look. The Steward quickly regained his cheer. 'Larger? If I did not know the face, I could swear it was a new child each time, so quick is his gain. Come,' this was said to the lords, 'take a closer look.' The men crowded around, exclaiming over the child's robust form and congratulating the Steward on being blessed with such a fine grandson. Finduilas hugged Denethor, looking up in a way that would have been adoring were it not for the mischief in her eyes.
'Well done,' Denethor murmured.
'I thought so,' she replied with a smirk. Finduilas allowed the fuss to continue over Boromir for a few minutes before giving Denethor a swift kiss on the cheek and wading into the throng to reclaim their son. 'Mama bear is going to bite you all if you do not return her cub,' she scolded, 'but if you are nice, I might let you say good night later.' This last was addressed to all, but her eyes were on Ecthelion as she spoke. Denethor could see tension come into the man's shoulders at the oblique threat, though he jested and teased with the rest of the men.
Denethor slipped his arm around Finduilas and guided her to a seat at the table, then escorted Luinil to sit at Ecthelion's right hand in the seat of honor. Imrahil took the chair next to his mother, though he should really have sat at the foot, the traditional seat for Dol Amroth. Forlong saw his opportunity and claimed it in the young prince's stead. The rest quickly distributed themselves among the remaining seats. Brandir politely but firmly told Amlach of Pelargir to move so he could sit next to Finduilas. The man started to protest but there was something in Brandir's look that made Amlach go silent and scuttle off. The moment the standing silence ended, Brandir had his arms out.
'You cannot eat if your arms are full, Finduilas,' he said in his most gentle voice, even as he was already removing Boromir from her grasp, 'so you let Uncle Fool amuse the cub while you eat.'
'And what of your own meal, brother Brandir?' Finduilas protested.
'I only need a hand for my cup,' he absently replied, already making faces at the baby. Denethor silently agreed with Brandir, and made sure Finduilas's plate was filled with a little bit of everything. Whatever she seemed to like, Denethor was ready with more. True to his word, Brandir drank through the meal. It really was astounding how his brother-in-law could drink on an empty stomach and show so little effect. 'I hoped you would visit us,' Brandir said to Finduilas when he could finally tear his attention away from Boromir.
'Almost I did not,' she confessed. Brandir looked at her in alarm. 'I have been meeting the ladies all day, and am tired from company. But we both took a short nap and decided we could venture a last visit.'
'Well, your fool is capering about in joy that you are here,' he assured her, 'or I would be if my nephew were a better dancer. He is so big for someone so small.' For a few minutes, the man was lost in nonsense talk with the baby. 'I enjoy watching things grow, you know. It is a big job for a small person.'
Finduilas kissed Brandir's cheek and hugged him. 'It is the small who do the greatest things.' He shrugged and smiled, and Denethor suspected there was more to this conversation.
Supper did not last long, as most were weary from the day's converse. Finduilas was yawning unabashedly and indicated that Denethor should take Boromir. 'I will drop him, I am so tired.' Farewells took longer than Denethor liked. When the Steward approached, Finduilas again dug her nails into Denethor. He stood very still, his arms cradling Boromir tightly to him. Ecthelion ignored Denethor, planting a kiss on the exposed crown of the baby's head and telling Finduilas she looked weary and should rest.
'Let me know when you will pay your next call,' he pointedly said to her.
'I certainly will,' she smoothly replied and nodded dismissal.
Imrahil bade them good night, saying he was walking Luinil back to Vinyamar and would stay to visit with her. No doubt Luinil will interrogate you over the Council so she may report to Adrahil. Brandir said he would walk down the mountain with them. Thorongil paused a long moment, looking at Boromir with an odd expression. Suddenly, his eyes snapped up, catching Denethor unawares.
'I need to speak to you. Soon.' The words were barely above a whisper.
'Tomorrow?' The captain nodded. 'Come find me.' With a shallow bow, the man was gone.
They returned to the room where Finduilas and Luinil had waited to bundle Boromir and put him in his basket for the walk home, all under Beregar's accusing gaze. Once home, Finduilas dismissed Ivrin for the evening. Denethor sat on the floor next to Boromir's basket while Finduilas changed from her finery into a simple robe, unsure what he should do. Aside from Finduilas telling him that she intended to be at the supper, they had exchanged no words that morning. Finduilas collected Boromir after she had changed and got him ready for nursing. The babe was hungry. Denethor watched his son feed for a few minutes, then left, retreating to his own room. He did not bother with light.
"You did not protect me from poison. I seek my own safety."
What else needed to be said? With those few words, she had unmanned him. No, made you see how weak you are. She showed you the truth. He could not protect her or his son. All his efforts were nothing, for he could not prevent harm from worming its way into this house in a packet of herbs. It could be a barrel of wine or a pot of ink next. He flexed his hand, feeling the sore spots. Poison? What of your own hands? When he could not daunt her, ... Denethor closed his eyes and shuddered at what more he had tried to do to make her obedient to his wishes. "Your hands now are no less foul to me than his would be." His touch offended and he was less desirable a guard than Beregar. It was he who required her shelter. What he most wanted to do was fill his pack, pull on his gear, and go to Ithilien to kill something. Perhaps something would return the favor, exacting the price for visiting harm upon the Lady. Was that not the law for Malantur?
The sound of the door to her room opening brought him out of his thoughts. A block of light spilled into the front room and faintly illuminated his study. Finduilas was a silhouette in the doorway. 'Denethor? I am done.' She slowly approached the desk, feeling her way from light into dark, and found him. Her fingers twined in his. 'Did he keep his bargain?'
'The Lord Steward was gracious and wise to all in the Council.'
Finduilas was silent for a time, but she kept hold of his hand. 'I know you are angry with me, husband, and you have cause, but we cannot continue to live at that man's whim. I feared...'
When she did not continue, Denethor prompted, 'What did you fear?'
'A dream. Of a widow and an unborn child and enemies circling.' She shivered and reached for him with her other hand and soon Finduilas was sitting in his lap, nestled against him as Boromir had been. 'In the dream, it was a girl. I am glad we have a son.' Then she kissed him. Denethor returned the kiss hesitantly, and did not let his hands roam. Finduilas used her own effectively and soon had him panting. 'Ecthelion has to fear, friend, and know that turning against you in any way will lose him Morcollë.'
It was difficult to think in his current state, and Denethor wished Finduilas would be quiet and touch him again. 'Why should he answer your threats? If I am not, then he needs no bargain.'
Finduilas put a hand over his mouth to silence him. 'Even fiends must bargain with a mother.' This was said in a whisper. 'Should harm come to you, husband,' she said in a stronger voice, 'whether by plan or by fate, I will take Boromir to Dol Amroth before any think to secure us in this house.' Lips replaced the hand and soon he was moaning in want. 'Say not dire things, love. It will be well.' Finduilas slipped from his lap and took his hands, pulling him into the alcove after her. 'He won't sleep long.' She had them undressed and in bed quickly, but refused to allow him to pleasure her with his mouth. 'I still bleed.' Denethor lay on his back and let her take him, unwilling to constrain her in any way.
They dozed afterwards until the sounds of the baby fussing in the next room made them stir. Denethor helped her clean the babe's soiled diaper and held Boromir while she washed herself and readied for bed. The darkest corners of his thoughts were less, but still he was melancholy. Finduilas sat near him on the floor, shaking her head when he offered her Boromir. 'So, tell me, prince, what is my role in your plan?' Denethor asked.
'I do not know. You have not chosen.'
'What must I choose?'
She watched the fire. 'My jaw still hurts. And my scalp, where you pulled my hair. I thought you might strike me, or take me unwilling.' Denethor felt his limbs begin to tremble and he shook his head, though her words struck close to his wretched desires of the previous night. 'You must choose whether your son will honor you or despise you. No one has ever made you do what you did not choose to do. Not even me.'
'Forgive me, Alquallë.'
Finduilas looked at him and her expression was cool. It was as when they first met and she had taken his measure in a glance. 'No.'
'No?' Now he was lost. 'Then, what...? Why?' Denethor held Boromir more tightly to him, not understanding what Finduilas was about.
'I love you friend, and you are my husband. I will not punish you that way. But also you should know better than to turn on an ally. That is why what you did was stupid.' There was no anger in her face, but neither was there sympathy. 'No, Denethor, I will not simply forgive your cruelty last night. You will have to earn it.' She sighed and rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands. 'If you do not wish to be deceived, then you must trust what I do. You may argue with me, as you would with any counselor, but I will not be threatened. And never will you bring those arguments into this room.'
Denethor could not disagree with her reasoning, though it made him cringe, and he bowed his head in submission to her. Finduilas scooted closer, laying her head on his shoulder. 'Is it so terrible that I want both of you to be safe?' she said softly, touching the baby's cheek. A kiss on her temple was his only answer. They sat until Finduilas started to fall asleep again. She clambered to her feet and got ready for bed. He handed her Boromir after she lay down, and plucked the blanket from the birthing cot to cover him as he lay on the floor. Finduilas seized his wrist.
'No, friend.' She pulled back the covers and patted the bed next to her. 'Here.'
The bed was wide and soft, large enough even for his own long frame. It made Denethor wonder why Finduilas had settled for his own; a narrow, hard place, little apart from the harsh business of rule. Until she had shared it, he had not understood how lonely it was. Until he shared her bed, he had not noticed its privation. The tips of his fingers brushed her hair. Yet you joined me there, and never protested. This was better. It was enveloping, safer, a secret place that one did not have to dream to enter. At the door, Denethor heard a soft mew. He slipped from the bed and opened the door just enough for Telperien to enter, then hurried back to their warm nest.
Minas Tirith, 6 January, 2979 T.A.
There was company for breakfast. Moraen and Hilda were already there. Luinil arrived without notice and with Imrahil and Morvorin in tow. Her greeting to Denethor was distinctly cool, though the youngsters were boisterous. He doubted Finduilas had spoken to her mother about their argument, but also doubted that Luinil had missed the marks on her daughter's face. He held Boromir and tried to look innocent.
Beregar entered the room at the end of the meal, bringing a basket of messages for Finduilas. She and Moraen quickly had them out on the table, and began talking about who would be leaving the City that day, who would visit, and so forth. Before he could leave, Imrahil took Beregar by the shoulder.
'Master Hound, I am sadly out of sword practice. Please say you will come with Morvorin and myself to the upper yards so the two of you may trounce me soundly.'
'I fear that I may not, my prince, for...'
'Yes, you should go. You have neglected your own practice these last weeks,' Denethor smoothly interrupted. Beregar froze, eyes averted. 'The ladies are busy the rest of the morning,' Finduilas and Hilda loudly agreed, 'so we men are all well to be out from underfoot. Except for you.' The last was addressed to Boromir. At the news that he intended to go as well, Finduilas looked up sharply. 'Imrahil, you and Morvorin go on ahead to the yards. We two will be along shortly.' Beregar also gave him a look, then escorted the other men out of the room.
Denethor left and returned the baby to the nurse, then put on his ranging gear. The sword and the horn he left behind. Beregar was waiting near the front door, grim-faced. They walked from the Citadel down to the sixth circle, turning south to follow the main road to the practice yards. There were few about in the streets due to the cold and strong wind. When they were almost to the yards, Beregar stopped and faced Denethor. Their waiting game lasted several minutes.
Beregar broke the silence. 'I have not gone.'
'I will not. She alone may order me so.'
'So I have heard.'
Beregar backed a few steps away and half-turned to continue to walk, then whirled back. 'You wrong me!' he snarled. 'I would not leave her unguarded!'
Denethor leaned against the wall, arms crossed, and studied Beregar. 'Yet I am your lord and hers, too. You did something you both knew I would not countenance.'
'I do as she commands. You gave me to her, yet you think to order me still. I am not yours!' The last words were nearly shouted. Beregar glared, then said softly, 'Not anymore.'
'She named you well,' Denethor said just as softly, then chanted,
'Curse thee, thou baseborn dog, to dare
against thy master teeth to bare!'
But dog nor horse nor rider bold
would venture near the anger cold
of mighty Huan fierce at bay.
Red were his jaws. They shrank away,
and fearful eyed him from afar:
nor sword nor knife, nor scimitar,
no dart of bow, nor cast of spear,
master nor man did Huan fear.
Beregar listened carefully, pride and wariness contesting in his face. Denethor snorted. 'Bare your teeth to me, will you?'
'Yes. Even as Huan defied Celegorm.'
'So I am Celegorm, not Beren?'
'Huan disobeyed him as well.'
'Of course. I see there is no ordering of you.' Beregar shook his head. 'Then I shall have to settle for conspiracy.'
'I do not understand.'
'Though you watch, you do not know all, and when I am not there, neither do I.'
Beregar's eyes narrowed. 'What do you want?'
'To know what happens.'
'I tell no tales.'
'And details may be deadly. I wish only to know of the Steward and Maiaberiel.' The other looked away, but there was doubt. 'No secrets of hers, but what they say and do,' Denethor pressed, 'for theirs is a dangerous game. Others flatter and wheedle. They will do harm.'
Beregar touched the bruise under his beard, and gave Denethor a hard look. 'Almost as dangerous as yourself, yes. Very well, what those two do.' He thought for a moment. 'Finduilas told me to stay outside the chamber where they met. I took in some wine and cakes that came later and kept the door open a crack when I left so I could see in. It was too far to hear anything. She sat near the fire and he was holding Boromir a few feet away. For an hour, all was well.'
'She rose to leave. The old man put the baby in the basket and gave it to her. She said something and he became angry and tried to grab the basket away. I was in there already when she called for me and made him back off and sit.'
Denethor felt anger rising at the account. 'And you two left?'
'No. I urged her to go, and she said to wait outside for she had something else to say. I went out, but I watched.' Beregar fell silent and red flared on his cheeks, making Denethor's stomach clench. 'She said... that he was to treat you as the Warden and offer you no harm or he would never see his grandson again and she would make sure the boy hated him. Then she left.'
Not so bad. It could have been worse. From Beregar's hesitation, Denethor had expected something terrible, but it had happened exactly as Finduilas said. 'He keeps his bargain, so she will go there again.' Beregar nodded. 'One guardsman for each of you, and you stay in the room.'
'I will do as seems best.' Beregar looked at him in a way that made Denethor come onto his toes. 'One more thing. When the old man tried to grab them, I drew a knife on him. I would have killed him if he had hurt either of them.' The young man looked Denethor up and down. 'Same goes for you.' Beregar nodded and strode away.
Denethor followed slowly, considering Beregar's threat. He had no doubt of Beregar's sincerity. You told him to become this. And should you turn harsh hand to her again, would you not deserve it? When he reached the yard, Imrahil and Beregar were sparring. Soldiering had improved the young prince's skill considerably since last summer. There was no defeating the Hound, though. Denethor thought Thorongil himself would have difficulty. Your own talents are dulled with your year and more of inaction. You should be no less fierce than Huan. He spent the next hour at practice, losing no bout, but he faced no superior opponent. Denethor was not foolish enough to take on Beregar. A familiar voice behind him made him smile.
'You're getting lazy.'
'Halmir would have you shoveling the stables to build up your arms.' Denethor looked over his shoulder. Thorongil was leaning on the yard fence, grinning.
'Well? Get over here and make me work.' In a few minutes they were circling. It was like dancing. Thorongil did not press the advantage of his freshness, but there was nothing lax about his blows and parries. Every so often, he would throw in one of the strange moves that seemed to belong to neither north nor south, but were unique to the captain. The other swordsmen left off to watch the two and called out approval when one or the other got in a hit or blocked well. Denethor was careful not to allow himself to be defeated, but halted the fight after he got in a final blow on Thorongil's arm. 'You may count yourself victor, Captain,' he said with a shallow bow, 'for I have run out of time to end this bout.'
The captain bowed more deeply. 'You had the last touch and so win.' After returning their weapons and collecting their cloaks, Denethor motioned for Thorongil to walk with him. They returned to the Citadel and mounted the stair to the wall, but when Denethor would have turned towards the house Thorongil shook his head and motioned towards the promontory. The captain walked to the furthest reach and leaned on the wall, looking south. 'I need to go there.'
'You go to the falas this year, do you not?'
'No, Denethor. South.' Thorongil gazed at the distant horizon. 'I want to see what's there.'
'You'll not get into Umbar.'
'Then as close as I can.' Gray eyes met his own. 'You have people there.'
'They don't know you.'
'Get me there.'
It was an order. Denethor tried to resist, to no avail. 'I will think of something.'
'Good.' Thorongil turned back to the vista. Denethor watched the man a moment, then joined him, leaning on the wall and staring south. Under his hands, the stone felt slightly warm despite the cold wind, and she hummed contentedly to herself. A child is born and the world is remade. Perhaps it was not so outlandish to hope. 'Folly.' Thorongil's voice brought him out of the stone song. 'I have thought of a hundred ways to do this, and each ends in defeat.' He glanced at Denethor. 'Maybe the Steward is right,' he said wryly.
'Maybe so. But to wait and do nothing is folly, too.' East, the Ephel Dúath were sharp and close. Though Umbar fall, still that remains. Even Dragon Fire would not defeat Mordor. The voice under his hand grew fearful and tried to protect her young.
A cheerful hail interrupted their dour thoughts. Brandir was swiftly approaching. He embraced each of them when he arrived. 'Fortune smiles on me today - two dear friends do I meet at once!'
'And now there are three,' Thorongil answered with a matching smile. 'What brings you out, friend Brandir?'
'I met with the Lord Steward over Anórien matters this morning. I was going to pay a call upon Finduilas when I saw you here. If you are going to stand in this wind and discuss secrets, though, I shall bid you farewell and go see her.'
'We are done,' Denethor answered. 'Come to the house.' They began walking.
'Alas, I promised Marlong and Gethron to meet them in the first circle garrison,' said Thorongil, 'so I ask you to make my apologies to the Lady.' He left when they reached the stair. Denethor strolled slowly along the wall, looking over the edge to watch Thorongil emerge from the tunnel and continue down the mountain. He had a suspicion that today was a day for confidences in the cold. Brandir did not disappoint.
'Denethor, you had me worried.' He gave Brandir a questioning look. 'When Ecthelion was not at the naming, I had thought you were going to be a greater fool than me. Then every other visitor to my house wished to know why the Steward was barred from seeing his grandson.'
'And how were these visitors so certain that was so?'
'Maiaberiel has dined with...'
'And has been spreading hateful gossip afterwards,' Denethor curtly said.
'Why should he have been kept away at all?' Brandir countered. 'I told you myself that a grandchild would bring peace between you, before you even asked for Finduilas's hand!'
'He should not be permitted near Boromir at all, lest his wickedness influence the child.'
'That is long past, Denethor!'
'Really? Wren would disagree.'
Brandir looked at Denethor quizzically, then his face drained of color and he shook his head. 'No. No, Denethor, that... He is a flawed man, but not that.'
'He was kept from total abomination. What he managed was bad enough.' Brandir hid his face in his hands, still shaking his head. 'This is the shame of my house of which I spoke a year ago.'
Brandir looked up. 'I did not know. Maiaberiel... no, she doesn't know. She couldn't.'
'I know. Wren and Ecthelion know. And now you know. Of these four only am I certain.'
'She does not know,' was Brandir's dogged reply.
'You understand now my reluctance?'
'Yes. Finduilas, she does not...?'
'Wren may have spoken to her. I don't know.' That should cover any discrepancies.
'She wants you to be reconciled.'
'I leave it in her hands.'
For long Brandir was silent, staring sadly at the ground. Finally, he sighed. 'Finduilas and I promised each other that we would try to heal the divisions in this house. I did not know how determined it was to remain riven.' With another sigh, he raised his face and smiled crookedly. 'You are very cruel to us who love you.' Brandir kissed Denethor's cheek. 'But love you I do, and Maiaberiel and Ecthelion, too. Even now.' A wide smile broke across the man's face and he slipped his arm into Denethor's. 'It is too cold here. Take me to see my nephew.'
Minas Tirith, Mid February, 2979 T.A.
As Finduilas persisted in doing what he willed not, Denethor was determined to do the same in return. Each week she questioned him on the Steward's behavior and each week Denethor had to admit that there was nothing on which to quibble. No honor was withheld, no praise less than full, no words said with aught but dignified respect where Denethor was concerned. Every counselor had noted the Lord Steward's newfound esteem for the High Warden, and all understood it sprang from Ecthelion's joy over his grandson. They approved. After her interrogation, Finduilas would write a note to the Steward, asking if she and her ladies might pay a call upon him the next day. His gracious assent would arrive within the hour.
She never went alone. Ivrin and Moraen were always with her, as was Beregar. Borondir and Brandir, singly or together, were also a constant presence. Each week, a few different ladies would accompany her, and Denethor knew they vied for these invitations. To be in the company of the Lady and the Steward was a great honor. The only time the visit had not occurred was when Maiaberiel had been waiting with the Steward. There was no repeat.
When the door downstairs closed behind Finduilas, Denethor went upstairs and looked into the palantír. In truth, he had turned to it at first to try to spy upon the meetings. The stone confounded him, however, refusing to give him a clear view of anything within the Tower. Some experimentation showed him that anything within the City walls was too close to see.
His desire thwarted, Denethor turned his eyes south. He had sent letters to Marach and Ragnor, explaining that he had someone he wished to send on a short journey of a few months along the Harad Road. They said there was place for a strong back, particularly if he was good with animals, but they would have to take his measure first. Denethor had made a few other inquiries and all would be ready for Thorongil. Now he prepared maps and notes for the captain to take. Steady practice had greatly expanded his own skill with the stone. Denethor now knew how to find something, then look away to write or sketch upon paper, and look back to the same scene, like keeping a finger in place on a book page or length of scroll. He could also see things at slightly different points of time, such as a harbor and the ships in it one week and then the next.
Denethor knew better than to pretend to Finduilas that he was not using the palantír. At first she had scolded, but he said he would use his time as he wished when she was with the Steward. Though this displeased her, it did not keep her from going to the Tower, nor was he asked to leave her bed.
'And Luinil said that I should come to Dol Amroth,' Aiavalë said happily, 'for there is a large library there. She said she found a storeroom last year packed with books and scrolls and many were old, so she wishes a skilled archivist to go through it. Lark thinks it is too far for me to go.'
'It is a long ride,' Denethor absently replied. They were in the map room of the archives and he was comparing something he had drawn up from the palantír to an old trade map showing wells along the Harad Road. He was to meet with Thorongil that night and give the captain what he needed for his trip. Aiavalë had come in, bursting with news of her travel plans for the spring. Denethor looked up at her when what she proposed to do sank in. 'Wait, Dol Amroth? I thought you were going to Pelargir?'
'Yes! That, too. That first, in fact. I will spend from the end of this month until early April in Pelargir, then I ride to Dol Amroth. I will be back in July. Certainly by August.'
He was surprised by the casualness with which Aiavalë had announced this long absence. 'Who is tending the archives here while you are gone?'
'Mallor and Mairen. If they need something special, they will talk to you. You mostly meet the spies yourself now, anyway.'
Denethor straightened up, stretching and twisting to relieve the ache in his back from stooping over the table for too long. 'It strikes me that you are almost more out of the archives than in. Should not the Master Archivist be in the master archives?'
'What nonsense!' retorted Aiavalë. 'I am the archivist of Gondor and will go wherever there is history to be found.'
'You were not searching for history when you went to Anórien last fall. You were setting up Wren's house.'
Aiavalë shrugged. 'I rode all over and saw many things. It was...' As she tried to find the words she wanted, Denethor looked at his eldest sister's face. She seldom now wore her veil within the archives, keeping it draped over her shoulders instead. Her face was more alive than he could remember, and he rarely heard her speak with bitterness anymore. 'It was...big. So many miles and hardly a wall to be seen.'
He knew what she meant. All the work he had been doing on the maps made him remember his own sojourns into Harad. Miles and miles, and never a fence. His longing and her chatter made him peevish. 'You should not be so oft away, and certainly not for so long.'
'I'll go as I please!' she snapped.
'What of Alquallë? You will disappear while Morcollë is small and she...'
Aiavalë scowled and crossed her arms. '...has the entire City waiting on her hand and foot. It is she who encourages me to go!'
'You don't sound like you need much encouragement,' he growled, returning to his maps.
'You sound like you're jealous I am traveling and you are not!'
'Are you sure you are going to Dol Amroth to see the library?' Denethor knew it was a cruel jibe and expected Aiavalë would hit him.
She grabbed his arm, yanked him away from the table and gave him a solid slap, then started poking him hard in the chest, making him back up. 'Denethor, you are the same smart-mouthed, miserable little brat I used to turn over my knee when you were six, and you deserved every spanking I ever gave you.' When he reached the wall and could no longer back up, he grabbed her hands to make her stop poking him. 'I am going to Dol Amroth to be the guest of Luinil, to look over the library, and to dance with Adrahil,' Aiavalë declared. His expression must have been amusing for she smirked and kissed Denethor on the cheek. 'Thank you, brat.'
His sister sauntered away, leaving him bewildered. And bruised. Denethor was sure he now had small dark spots all over his chest. He knew he should be glad at Aiavalë's boldness, but it was done wrongly. She should not be gone. She should be here. Too many things were changing. With a growl, Denethor rolled up all of his maps and went back to the house.
Finduilas sat at her desk in her study, reading something. Ivrin was near the fire, Boromir sleeping in a low cradle before her where she could rock him with her foot while she knitted. At a signal from Finduilas, the nurse gathered up the baby and left the room. Denethor was disappointed, for he had wished to hold Boromir. He gave Finduilas a kiss. 'Alquallë.'
'Friend. I did not expect you back from the archives so soon.'
'Are you telling Aiavalë to spend half the year away?'
'Yes. She is lonely without Wren and Lark...'
'She could come here and speak to us.'
'...and it harms nothing that she should journey. With luck, she will find unusual works for the archive,' Finduilas imperturbably concluded.
'I have no ally in you on this?'
'No, love. When Lady Lore is finished with her journeys, she will stay home. She has no husband or child to tend, so why should she not?' Denethor scowled, so Finduilas kissed him again. 'Mother and Ivriniel both sent me letters. Ivriniel is well, and due in July.'
'Due in July? Have I somehow missed that your sister is pregnant?' Finduilas giggled and nodded. 'Forget spies, I need better messengers,' he grumbled.
'It was women's chatter, not news,' she assured him, though she was not entirely able to control her giggles.
Denethor tried to remain cross with not knowing what the women were up to, but it was not possible when Finduilas laughed. He kissed her brow. 'Perhaps I should send Lady Lore with the captain. Would that not be a great adventure for them both?' To his delight, Finduilas laughed again.
Denethor wondered where he would be able to get more pipeweed, for the small pouch was almost finished. When he and Thorongil met privately, it only seemed polite to join the Lost in smoking a pipe. He lit the herbs and made himself comfortable in the watchtower window. It was a long time before Thorongil appeared, so long Denethor had finished the pipe, refilled, and almost finished again.
'What kept you?'
'Brandir.' The captain's voice was clipped, and he put together his pipe with more vigor than was necessary.
'You should have told him to leave.'
'He needed company.' As soon as the herbs were burning, Thorongil came to the window. 'Did you hear from your people?'
'Yes. They don't want a stranger in their caravan.'
'How can I not be a stranger to them?'
'At the end of the week, there is a barge going from here to Pelargir. As far as anyone here will know, the Captain-General is in Osgiliath.'
'Halmir will take care of that.'
'There will be a fair number on the barge, including the Master Archivist. If you can travel in those close quarters without her noticing you, your disguise is sufficient. If she recognizes you, you will return.'
'Once there and unobserved, I have arranged for a room for you. Go to The Honey Mead on Old Washers Row. Ask for Violet. Tell her you are Feydín. She will give you the room. I have already paid for it.'
'What is this inn? I do not remember it.'
'It is not an inn. It is a whorehouse.'
For several heartbeats, there was not even the sound of breathing from Thorongil. 'No.'
'This is not funny, Denethor.'
'To the contrary, it is highly amusing. More to the point, it is absolutely necessary. Where is the one place that no one would ever think to look for you?' Thorongil made a rude sound. 'You are not to make use of their services. I have not paid for that much.'
'You know what the going rate is?' Thorongil shot back.
Denethor ignored him. 'Each day, eat your dinner near the fountain in the square just north of the archives. Wear a reverse of the Lady's badge on your chest - three black feathers and a white one. Each evening, at dusk, walk in the old quarter. They will be watching you.'
'How do I know who they are?'
'You don't. If they approve, a young man will tell you to follow him. Do so.'
'There are many young men in Pelargir.'
'Follow him. You will not be led a straight route. If you cannot keep up, you won't get a second chance. When you are taken to the traders, you are to call them "Uncle" and ask no questions. If you are acceptable, you will be put in one of their caravans.'
'We will lose another of the Lost.' Denethor let that sink in. 'This is not a game. If they distrust you in the slightest, you are dead.'
'Here is a set of maps. They are the most recent I have and are not from the people you are going to travel with. They may or may not be of use.'
'I will find a use for them.'
Denethor's pipe went out. He knocked out the ashes and put it away. 'Questions?'
'I need to get back. Tell me, does this pipeweed have a real name?'
'Galenas. Sweet galenas. Why?'
'My pouch is near empty, and I will need more.'
Thorongil dug in his pocket and pulled out a pouch. 'Here. Take mine.'
'Then you have none.'
'I'll not use it in the south. It would attract attention. Take it. Give me the pouch when I return.'
Minas Tirith, 26 April, 2979 T.A.
Denethor frowned at the formula he had written. It was intended to create a more tame version of the Dragon Fire, but he doubted it would work. All the other formulas he had created had failed in the tests last week up in the abandoned quarry. One had been even more wild than the original formula, burning a small tree into the ground and making rock shatter. The others had been no better than strong pitch. Borondir thought that they could probably be used in place of pitch, but they both knew that the amount of work needed to extract wood oil, mix it with rock oil, prepare multiple caskets of oils, sulfur and pitch, not to mention the expense of the rock oil, made it less viable than plain pitch. It also did not do what they most needed it to do - burn underwater.
At his feet, Boromir shifted around in his basket. Denethor immediately put away the paper and ink and picked up his son. As soon as their eyes met, Boromir began grinning and reaching towards Denethor. It was hard to believe he had turned four months old yesterday. With a chuckle, Denethor cuddled the baby to his chest. Boromir gurgled happily and tried to eat the strings holding Denethor's shirt collar closed. 'Are you hungry, Morcollë? Mama will be back soon.' Boromir was too busy slobbering on the strings to answer. Finduilas was in Laanga's garden now, having fed Boromir here in the archives earlier in the day. Denethor sighed and kissed the top of Boromir's head. 'Why must you be so contrary, son? Milk is milk.'
Boromir would not nurse from any woman save Finduilas. By the end of February, it was clear that his nursing was exhausting her. Finduilas was losing weight and always tired. The baby would have nothing to do with a wetnurse. Every attempt to get him to suck a strange breast resulted in an amazingly loud and long tantrum. Boromir could not be induced to suck on a cloth soaked in another woman's milk, even if Finduilas held him. He knew who his mother was. There was little she could do, then, save feed him and rest.
Denethor was worried at Finduilas's frailty, frustrated that there was nothing he could do to relieve it. More troubling was that she coughed every now and then, though nothing to compare to her earlier troubles. Denethor found himself wishing for Thorongil's return; perhaps there was some northern healer's lore the man knew that would restore her strength, the way his knowledge had lifted the black breath.
They had not made love since Finduilas's seduction of him after the Great Council. He said to himself it was for her well being, for Lhûn had made it very clear to him that under no circumstances could Finduilas risk conceiving another child too soon. In truth, he had not been able to harden enough to mate her. It was as during her pregnancy, when his soul had forbidden his form to trespass.
If he was not required elsewhere, Denethor looked after the babe between his feedings. It made him feel guilty that his time with their son should be so pleasant while Finduilas was left drained. He would sit, Boromir sprawled on his chest, and read letters and reports, talking to the baby if he were awake or humming if Boromir slept.
'What of this Fire?' Boromir looked up, expression intent as though he understood the seriousness of the conversation. 'It is a dangerous, even wicked, thing. The wizard has warned us from it. Then again, he warns us from all action.' Boromir munched the string, all ears. 'It will do what we need, but perhaps too well. The ships would burn. Just as they burn those...' A few times, he had looked again at the great square. Abomination. They cannot be left to do that. Those who burn must be punished, those who are burned must be saved. 'They would do this to you.' Denethor hugged the baby's fat body to him. The idea of his son put to such torment shook him and he had to squeeze his eyes tightly shut to keep them from tearing.
One life should not make such a difference in his thought. He loved his child no more or less than any decent man loved his get. Beregar's astounded and adoring expression when he looked into the face of his baby girl, born a month past, was proof of that. But all the fears and dangers of life struck Denethor's heart more keenly when he imagined them happening to his son. 'This Fire, it would destroy them, but would it not save you?' Boromir smiled and waved his arms, trying to move his face closer to Denethor's. 'When a wrong is done to secure what is right, what then, Morcollë? Did they not once burn their kith and kin in the streets of Osgiliath? Do they not do so now?' They do not use the Fiend's own weapons. But only like can defeat like, only power can defeat power. 'If the wizards will not succor us, then we must make our own wizardry. Or seize it.'
Denethor stared dourly at the formula. Perhaps a different salt would tame it, one of the new ones. Marach had sent a pouch with several new packets of minerals, along with a note thanking Denethor for Feydín, saying the man had a good way with pack mules, and would be sent on a short trade journey to see how he worked out. The man would be back by late June. Tomorrow, Boromir would go to visit Ecthelion and Denethor would look for Thorongil in the palantír. That was another interesting thing he had discovered about the stone - he could always see Thorongil. If he looked into it with no clear place in mind, but only a strong wish to see the king, his eyes would soon rest upon the captain. This fact was nowhere hinted at in any of the writings about the palantíri, as looking away or fixing different views in time had been. Denethor suspected it was simply known by those who had a right to use the stone as a way to protect the kings.
The captain's absence had been noticed, though it had taken a while. In the latter part of March, Ecthelion had summoned Denethor to the Tower. Denethor had not been allowed to complete his greeting before the Steward sharply said, 'Where is Thorongil?'
Denethor had straightened suddenly, as though surprised, and stared at the Steward. 'His last message to me, four days ago, was a regular report from Osgiliath, though...'
'It was written by Halmir, but that is how they are done. The Lieutenant writes them, the Captain reads and signs them.' Ecthelion plucked a paper from his desk and held it out to Denethor.
My Lord Steward,
I beg your forgiveness, but I have had to go suddenly to determine the truth of a rumor. I will explain all when I return.
'Who brought this to you?' Denethor curtly asked.
'It came in the messengers pouch from Pelargir.'
Denethor let loose an explosive oath, crumpling the letter in his fist. 'That fool has gone to Umbar! I forbade him to try this!' he snarled.
As he hoped, Ecthelion smiled in return, holding up a placating hand. 'Peace, Warden! You do not know where he is headed, though I agree it is south. You should have more faith in the wisdom of those around you. Thorongil has wished for nothing but Umbar's defeat since he arrived. He will not risk that campaign now. I suspect he wishes to secure his own intelligence upon the events of the south.'
'He will learn nothing new,' was Denethor's frosty reply. 'I have spent years cultivating watchers and...'
'I know quite well how well you spy. Please tell Halmir that he is not to mislead any longer, as Thorongil has informed us of the true state of affairs.' From then on, if any asked of the captain's whereabouts, the Steward would smile sagely and say that all would be clear in time. Denethor made certain to scowl at these pronouncements.
Boromir lost interest in the string and began to try to eat one of Denethor's fingers. 'No, son. That will not fill your stomach, either.' He wondered where Finduilas was. 'Perhaps we should go see her, yes?' He began bundling the baby into the basket. Outside in the cavern, he heard light footsteps headed in the direction of the room. 'There she is. Now you'll get your dinner.' The steps came into the room. Denethor straightened up from behind the desk, and saw Maiaberiel. After a long stare, he turned back to Boromir, setting the basket near the wall before standing to face his sister.
'Why are you here?'
'I came to see my nephew.' She shut the door behind her and turned the lock. 'I am not leaving until I see him.'
Her mouth drew into a straight line. 'You are being ridiculous. Let me see Boromir.'
'Why should I? What have you done that I should trust you anywhere near him?'
'You are making a fool of yourself with this, Denethor.'
'You have advised my wife to bed another man.' He came to the front of the desk and languidly leaned against it in a way that always brought a certain appreciative look to Finduilas's face. 'By your own admission, you have tried to have me killed. Several times.' He smiled and let his eyes run over her. 'You have tried to seduce me, with rather less success than you have had with...' She did not look away nor did her face color. 'I am right about that, aren't I?'
'Believe whatever you like.'
'I do not like what I believe.'
She shrugged. 'I am not here to see you.'
'I have to admit, I did not know how much this marriage would defang you, Beruthiel. Lark and Wren are beyond your grasp, Luinmir serves Finduilas, and no one pays you much mind any more.'
'You will find out how wrong you are, Denethor. The Steward's ear is the only one that matters.' She came to stand very close to him. 'And Brandir has informed me of how things stand between yourself and Finduilas. Very interesting.' Her fingers trailed up the inside of his thigh. Denethor's efforts to fight his revulsion and not recoil made her laugh. 'Caught in your own trap. Let me see him.'
'Under one condition.'
'Another simple thing, at which you will fail. You be faithful to Brandir, as he is to you.'
'No. You can order my bed only if you are in it.' She turned to walk around the desk.
Denethor grabbed her and threw her face-down on the desk, an arm twisted up behind her, half lying on her to keep her pinned. Touching her was torment, but his anger kept the worst of the nausea at bay. He pulled his knife from his belt and held it where she could see. 'I could cut your throat,' he hissed, 'and none would dare ask what happened to you. Not even the Steward.'
Maiaberiel held very still. 'Let me go.'
Very deliberately, Denethor cut her behind her ear, making her gasp and flinch. The cut bled freely as he knew it would, and blood dripped along her neck and onto the desk. 'The next cut is your face. The third, your bosom. The last your throat. Shall I continue?' He could feel her shaking. 'Perhaps I should slice your face, make you look like Aiavalë, and then you would be faithful because no one besides Brandir would want to touch you.' He moved the knife closer to her cheek, which made her scream and thrash. 'Well?'
He yanked her upright by her hair and hustled her over to the door, slamming her into the wall next to it, twisting her head back to bare her throat. Denethor laid the flat of the knife against it. 'I am through with your threats. Do your worst, but do not darken my door again. If I so much as suspect you behind some harm to me or mine, I will finish the work I began. That is no threat.' He wiped off the bloodied knife on the bodice of her dress and sheathed it, then kissed her. It was like carrion in his mouth. She struggled and struck at him, finally shoving him away, though he kept hold of her hair. 'Brandir doesn't know everything,' Denethor mocked. 'You would have had better success with me had you completed your seductions when I was young. You will get no such chance with my son.' He unlocked the door and opened it. 'Now go home and be nice to your husband.'
After she fled, Denethor relocked the door and sank to the floor, wanting to vomit, but he had nothing in his stomach to come up. There was no telling what Maiaberiel thought to do with the bond between himself and Finduilas, so he had to make her uncertain as to how much it limited him. She might read Silmarien, but she could not See. Could he do as he threatened? Disfigure her? Kill her? Not coldly, as she would do to him, but in a rage, perhaps. Yes. Stay away.
Boromir was fussing in his basket. Denethor's legs trembled too much to stand, so he crawled over. When he touched Boromir's face, the baby rooted at his hand, trying to suck his fingers. 'Wait. When I can stand, we will go.' The archive did not feel safe anymore. The moment his legs would bear them, Denethor pulled on his cloak and hurried out with the basket. He walked the length of the sixth circle, trying to find the door to Laanga's house, but it was not there. No door was right and a tight feeling gripped Denethor's chest.
He stopped near a fountain, fighting down the rising panic in his heart. Boromir cried constantly now, a thin, fearful whimper. Denethor set down the basket and picked up Boromir to his chest, trying to comfort the infant. 'Shh, Morcollë, shh,' he crooned, closing his eyes. In his mind, he saw the tree in the garden and thought he heard Finduilas's voice. Keeping his eyes downcast, Denethor began to walk. It was like trying to find Thorongil in the palantír. He could not look, but could only will that his feet bear him on the right path, just as the stone would lead him to the king.
Finally, there was an old door before him, standing ajar. Denethor eagerly pushed his way in. The tangle of plants parted like curtains of past time, and he wound his way to the garden door. Laanga looked up from his potting bench, black arms coated with brown soil. His dark eyes held all the secrets of the palantíri. 'Welcome, grandson. Who do you bring?'
'Boromir.' Denethor could not make his feet cross the threshold. He held out the baby. 'He is new. And hungry.'
Laanga came closer to look at Boromir, touching his face tenderly and leaving streaks of dirt behind. 'A new shoot, yes. He is welcome here as well.' Laanga kissed the baby's brow and gathered him in his arms. 'He should eat.' Denethor watched the herbalist walk deeper into the garden. When the old man disappeared from view, Denethor sat near the doorway to wait.
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