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Hands of the King: 59. Exchange
Osgiliath, Late October, 2979 T.A.
The trip to Osgiliath did not occur until almost two months after Thorongil's return from the south. Denethor did not wish to talk to Halmir with the captain present, and Thorongil did not leave the garrison for any length of time until he had to inspect Cair Andros and Anórien. Even then, Denethor found himself reluctant to be parted from Finduilas and Boromir.
To his relief, Finduilas was clearly becoming stronger. She had gained enough weight that her ribs and hips no longer showed so sharply, and she was not so weary. The baby was close to being weaned. Boromir ate solid food first, now, and nursed afterwards, so his hunger was less. Lhûn and Finduilas planned to end his nursing after yestarë, when he was a full year old. Denethor smiled to himself at the thought of his son. Boromir had begun walking by himself a few weeks ago. Not very steadily or very far, but he walked. Now they had to be careful that he did not toddle to the stairs and fall, or find something on the floor he should not be eating. When Denethor was home, nothing could dissuade Boromir from following him, bringing his father things he found, asking to be held, and trying to sample everything Denethor ate or drank. The best thing, however, was that Finduilas was finally happy with the baby. She was more than dutiful towards Boromir now, and seemed pleased when he was near. Denethor hoped her affection would grow as the child became less of a burden. And the next child, that will be the daughter you want.
It was still early; he had left the City even before Boromir waked so he could return before nightfall. Gaerhûl did not mind the swift run across the Pelennor, particularly as Gull had insisted on accompanying them. When Denethor pulled up a mile before the garrison to walk Gaerhûl out, Gull nipped at Denethor's leg, looking at him expectantly. Not entirely sure what the mare wanted, he spoke to her of Finduilas and Boromir. When he paused, she nickered and nudged him, so he told her more.
The sentries on the guard tower saw Denethor approach and called out a welcome. He rode to the gates, but dismounted and unsaddled Gaerhûl on the causeway, leaving him to graze with Gull while he attended to business in the garrison. Halmir was at the gate by the time he finished.
'Lord Denethor,' the Lost said with a crisp bow.
'Lieutenant Halmir, I have not much time today,' Denethor replied, 'so I wish to see the garrison at once. We will review ledgers over dinner. I will not need to go beyond the gate, unless there is something you wish for me to see.' With a shake of the head, Halmir turned and led the way into the fort. Galdor joined them not long after.
'There's fumes,' the surgeon said in disgust. 'They've been crawling out of the Vale for a few days now, and they're getting stronger.'
'Will it be like two years ago?'
'I hope not, my lord. That was bad. The captain, he will return soon, yes?'
'Yes,' was Halmir's curt reply.
Galdor was not put off by the other man's sharpness. 'Good. His herbcraft is the best for bad humors in the air.' Halmir spared the surgeon a sullen glance before leading the way to the armory. Galdor parted from them at dinner, saying he would draw up a list of supplies for Denethor to take to Warden Lhûn. The meal was stew, bread, stewed apples and ale. Denethor knew Boromir would have liked the gravy from the stew and the soft, sweet apples, made rich with a pat of butter. There was nothing of note in the garrison records, not that Denethor expected to find anything.
'What do you think will happen in Ithilien this winter, Halmir?'
'Weakness.' The man's voice was matter-of-fact.
'Depends on how many they have on their side of the mountains.'
The Lost frowned, staring at the scarred tabletop. 'Not in winter. In the spring.' His grey eyes met Denethor's. 'With Umbar.' Halmir paused, then said in a rush, 'It is wrong. We should not attack. It is a trap.'
'It is a temptation he cannot resist. When a fleet goes out after the Corsairs, that' he gestured eastwards with a thumb. 'will open its maw and vomit out its forces upon us. That is what they wait for. I know the Enemy's traps.'
'That will happen, regardless.' Halmir shrugged. 'The wizard has counseled the Steward that it should be done.'
'Then he needs other counsel.'
'What did Mithrandir say to you summer last?' When Halmir began to shrug again, Denethor snapped, 'I cannot counter the wizard's whispers if I do not know what they are, Lieutenant.'
'He said for Thorongil to remain here, that deeds await him in the south, not the north.'
Denethor leaned back in the black chair, thinking over this news. Deeds await, yes, but also rewards and power that cannot be had in the north. "Five hundred. And not all would be men." Even the wizard knows you must give up the desolation of the north for the danger of the south. And they must follow you here. 'This wizard, he is an unnatural creature.' The Lost nodded. 'Such beings, they play games with mortals and use us to their own purpose. Friendship they can show - as long as it suits them.' A more emphatic nod. 'We are many and easily used. When one dies, it is simple enough to raise up another in his place.'
'No. Some cannot be replaced. Him. You. The Lady.' Halmir leaned forward, fingers tapping. [Make him back!]
[Need him.] Denethor replied.
[We more need! Give!]
'The captain has sworn an oath to the Steward, and will not be released until it is fulfilled,' Denethor murmured, not sure how to say that in the hand talk.
'Tell the Lady to be harsh to him!' Halmir hissed. 'You, forbid him Gondor! He heeds me not, but he will obey you.'
[Me weak. Lord not. Lord him love. Wrong.]
Halmir stared at Denethor a long moment. [No kill him. Beg. No ship.]
[No! Both stupid!] The Lost ended with a slap of his hands on the table and a frustrated growl.
[Me. Him. One go yes. Who?]
Burying his head in his hands, Halmir whispered, 'You two will destroy us all. Leave. It. Be.'
'They will not leave us be, Fiend or wizard. They destroy us.' Denethor closed the ledger and finished his dinner. [Me go, him go? Lord choose.] Denethor shrugged. [Him chose home not. Lie still. Yes?]
'All is in order here, Lieutenant. I do not need to see anything else.' Denethor stood and walked out of the garrison, calling for Gaerhûl's tack to be brought to the gate. He hoped Gull would make the stallion return, else it would be a long walk back. The horses trotted up at his whistle, and Gaerhûl was only slightly obnoxious while being saddled. Halmir stood nearby, glaring. 'Halmir, Lady Finduilas asked me to tell you she requires you to come into the City for the mettarë feast so you may see how much Boromir has grown.'
'Wizard or no, Umbar must be dealt with.' Halmir did not answer. Denethor mounted and urged Gaerhûl forward.
Minas Tirith, Early November, 2979 T.A.
The fumes from Imlad Morgul had increased, carried by the mists that rose from Morgulduin as it oozed its way across Ithilien and emptied into Anduin. Thorongil returned from Cair Andros with packs of herbs slung over his saddlebow, and worked with Galdor to treat the men struck ill by the evil fog. While the garrison was manned, soldiers did not sleep there nor did they enter the ruins. Halmir ordered small boats stationed upstream of the ruins, using them to ferry men and supplies over Anduin to camps set up north of the road and beyond the reach of the stink. Patrols were doubled in anticipation of attack, but nothing more substantial than the fumes issued from the vale.
When Denethor stood upon the Citadel wall and looked out, he could see the poisoned air. It was a murky brown stream amidst the grey-white strands that dappled Ithilien's flanks, thinning and breaking into deadly strings as it spread out over the river. The brown mists clung to the riverbanks, some reaching as far south as the Harlond. People from the southeastern Pelennor retreated into the City, and the docks were abandoned. So far, there had been no deaths as there had been two years before. Denethor forbade Finduilas to leave the clean, crisp air of the heights.
Ten days after he returned to Osgiliath, Thorongil rode to the City. He gave a brief report to the Steward about the fumes, looking very tired. Ecthelion told him to remain in Minas Tirith for a few days to rest from the poisons. The captain did not protest. Denethor insisted that Thorongil return to the Stewards House for the midday meal. They were greeted warmly by Finduilas, Moraen and Luinmir. Borondir was there, as well, which made for a lively table at dinner. Afterwards, Denethor retreated with the captain to his study and they discussed the mists and what other dangers might show themselves between now and the end of the year. Before too long, there was a light tap at the door. Finduilas peeked around the edge. 'Someone wishes to see Papa,' she said with a smile and pushed the door a little wider so Boromir could come in.
For a moment, the child stared at the two men, looking back and forth between them, before making a wide circle around Thorongil and darting into Denethor's arms. There were a few minutes of tickling and screeching as father and son became reacquainted. Thorongil laughed at Boromir's antics, but his expression was odd. Denethor found some pity in his heart for the man. A king, but without even what the meanest shepherd might claim as his own. Lords seek your wisdom, but your bed is empty and your hearth is cold. Finduilas had ale brought up from the kitchen, and drew a chair near to Denethor.
'Will you return to the garrison tonight, Thorongil?' she asked.
'No. I will be here a few days.'
'Do you think I am strong enough for your herbs? I do not wish to fall ill this winter and I fear my cough will worsen as it gets cold.'
Thorongil did not speak, but held out a hand to her. She laid her own in it. He said nothing, moving his fingers to feel her pulse, then examining the flesh near her wrist. 'Yes. It may be done.'
'How soon? Today?' Finduilas pressed.
'This evening. In the Houses, not here. Warden Lhûn will wish to be present and the herbs are too potent for children to breathe. It should be done late so you sleep immediately after.' Thorongil sipped from his cup before rising. 'I must rest. When I am prepared, I will send for you.' With a nod to each of them, he left.
'That was quick.'
'What mean you, friend?'
'You usually protest that you are not ill and we are all silly to worry over you.'
'I am not and you are, but I am not stupid,' she answered with a smirk. 'If I keep coughing, I will get sick.'
Denethor could not concentrate to work, so he played with Boromir the rest of the afternoon. Time passed too slowly for his liking. Supper came and went, and still there was no word from Thorongil. Two hours past sundown, a healing prentice came to the door and said all was ready. They followed her to a small, cozy room in the Houses with a large kettle of water steaming over a cheerful fire. A bed had been drawn close to the hearth and there were bright metal pans stacked nearby. Thorongil stood to one side at a high table with Master Laanga, going over a collection of herbs, the apothecary's dark form blending into the shadows. Lhûn soon arrived.
'Warden Denethor, Lady Finduilas,' she greeted them, formal and kind at the same time, 'We are almost ready. Finduilas, Thorongil says you will sleep at once afterwards and should stay here through the night. Let me help you to bed.' The prentice held up a blanket for privacy while Finduilas undressed until she wore only her shift and lay down on the bed.
Laanga walked over and sat on a stool near the bed. Finduilas kept her eyes averted from him. 'Daughter, I have missed thee this summer.'
'You were cross with me.'
He sighed. 'Will you not forgive an old man's poor temper? Sometimes the ache of my bones speak louder than is wise.'
'As you wish.' Her voice was barely a whisper and she still would not look at Laanga.
'I hear the little bear is walking. It would gladden my heart to see him.' When she did not answer, the herbalist nodded to himself and stood, retreating to sit in a dark corner of the room. Only his eyes gave evidence that he was not a shadow himself.
Lhûn brought a cup of something over from the table and added hot water from the kettle. She swirled the cup to mix the contents before handing it to Finduilas. 'Drink this. It is a sleeping draught, but weak. It will make you sleepy and help you to breathe in the herbs better.' Finduilas drained the cup, making a face at the taste.
Soon, Thorongil came to the fire and retrieved one of the pans. When he returned, there was a layer of broken and bruised herbs covering the bottom of it. Even without water, their scent was refreshing. The captain set aside the pan and knelt next to the bed, taking one of Finduilas's hands. 'Are you sleepy, yet?'
'Lie on your side, facing the fire. Denethor, sit behind her and brace her.' Denethor obeyed, glad for something to do. As he had before, Thorongil placed his hand low upon her ribs, just above the small of her back. His eyes closed as he concentrated. 'No worse. Perhaps better.' Finduilas yawned and nodded. Thorongil stood and took the pan of herbs to the kettle and poured hot water over them, casting a cloth over the top to catch the steam. Some escaped and spring returned to Minas Tirith, if only in this small room. Thorongil brought the pan to the bedside. 'Finduilas, you will need to lean over the side of the bed, so the steam rises to your face. I will tent the cloth over your head. Denethor, keep an arm around her so she doesn't slip. She may fall asleep.' When the cloth was arranged, the captain sat on the ground and held Finduilas's hand. Some steam slipped out and wafted through the room.
Under Denethor's hands, she was radiant and his heart reached for her. A strange feeling came over him, like the moment before one wakes fully, yet is not still asleep. A voice chanted something slow and gentle. Denethor knew it was a tongue he himself spoke, yet the words were strangely formed and he could not make them out. He did not know how long he listened to the beautiful sounds. A cloud of steam rose again before him and the scent was strong. In the mists, he could discern the harbor with its high cliffs, and Calmindon burned brightly above the calm waters. So few ships, now. They slipped away as the storm built in the west. The beautiful words came again, this time sung to a tune on a flute. The Queen stirred under his hands, her veil falling away. The blood of Lúthien was strong in her, and she showed not her age.
'My lady?' His brother tried to wake her. The poisoned air had afflicted her greatly. She started to cough. He could feel her ribs shake, could feel her breath become labored. Steam clung to his brother's face and hair, each bead a gem. 'Good, cough out all the bad humors.'
When she could draw a steady breath, Finduilas tried to lever herself up, but her arms were too weak. Denethor cradled her against his chest. She grasped Thorongil's hand tightly. 'Go. Now!' she whispered.
'Go?' Thorongil repeated, puzzled.
'He will kill you for your opposition. You must flee!'
'Shh. You must heal, my lady.'
'No,' she shook her head. 'No, Isildur. It is too late, and you must go.'
The captain looked to Denethor, wary. Oh, yes, she sees you. 'It is the draught, Captain. She has had this dream before.' It is too late. A trickle of sweat ran down Denethor's back, making him shiver.
Finduilas succumbed to sleep, becoming limp in his arms. Lhûn came over and pulled blankets up around Finduilas so she would not become chilled, then quietly cleaned up with the prentice's help, taking cloths and pans out of the room. The captain prepared another pan of herbs, different ones from the scent, and set it to steep near the hearth before taking a seat next to the bed. He watched Finduilas's face as she slept, his own expression too odd to make sense of.
'Did it work?' Denethor asked.
'I think so. Not like last time, though. The mark upon her heart, it ...remains.' The captain turned away and stared at the hearth. 'I have decided, Denethor. I will use the Fire.'
'Dangerous times.' The man glanced at Denethor. 'You will stay.' The king's voice brooked no rebellion. Thorongil rose and left. Denethor eased Finduilas flat upon the bed, pulled off his boots, and lay next to her.
Minas Tirith, Late November, 2979 T.A.
With Thorongil's decision made, other things needed to be done. First was to order more Dragon Fire to be prepared. Every few days, Denethor and Borondir rode to the abandoned quarry to see that it was being made correctly. Denethor experimented with the formula slightly, mostly adjusting the mixture of salts, but could wrest no greater control over the substance. Thorongil accompanied them once and watched as they burned some half submerged wood in the pool near the back of the quarry. He had been fascinated by the way the water roiled at the touch of the Fire. Borondir was unequivocally pleased at the result, and offered some friendship to the captain, eagerly discussing how it might be used to defend towns and fortresses along the rivers.
Imrahil sent letters almost daily recounting what he found in the ports and harbors, offering his opinion on how to organize so many into a single force, and demonstrating a knack for battle strategy nearly the equal of Finduilas's for political matters. Denethor suspected Imrahil would cultivate the latter in good time. The young prince promised to be back to Minas Tirith no later than mettarë.
Denethor spent many afternoons looking south in the palantír. He had a list in his head of what he needed to look upon from now until it was time to attack. Timing was everything. They had to make their assault after the winter storms had passed, but before Umbar moved, and they had to do so quietly so as not to rouse the suspicion of the Enemy. If it became known that they intended to strike south, there was almost guaranteed to be an assault from the east. Denethor finished all of his maps, including a detailed one of Umbar itself, then he studied the habits of their coming and going, the patrols around the firth both on the water and along the headlands, and even the condition of their livestock and markets.
In council, he spoke of a small amount of what he knew, making it seem as though he had scattered reports from traders and fishermen. Thorongil was more interested in Imrahil's missives and how their motley fleet would be collected and forged into an effective fighting force. Halmir was sometimes brought in from the ruins to listen and advise. He never spoke directly of his opposition to the plan, but dourly warned against stripping the garrison of soldiers.
Brandir was always there. Since their confrontation in April, Brandir had not spoken a word to Denethor or to Finduilas. He looked a different man, thin and stern, with lines creasing his once ever-young face, and took no drink anymore, or at least so Hathol said. Brandir had been in Rohan from just before loëndë to several weeks past yáviérë, and said that Thengel was clearly placing control of the Mark in Théoden's hands, ensuring there would be no break in rule, and no opportunity for mischief by the Dunlendings, upon the king's death. Brandir estimated that Thengel might live another three years, but no longer. Thengel and Théoden had agreed to provide two éoreds to Gondor's defense.
Today's council ran late. Ecthelion stood with a sigh, bringing it to an end. 'My apologies, counselors and friends, for trying your patience and backsides so sorely today. We thank you for helping us bear the burden of rod and rule, until the king should come again.' As people filed out of the council chamber, Denethor heard a familiar squeal and hurried out himself. Finduilas stood in the center of a knot of admirers, Boromir in her arms. It was the day for the visit. The baby had seen Borondir and was holding his arms out to be picked up. As soon as he saw his father, however, he let out an earsplitting shout - 'Papa! Papa up!' Denethor obeyed, giving the baby a small toss in the air before hugging him tightly.
'You took so long, I wondered if you were ever coming out,' Finduilas said with her most charming smile.
'Had we known you were here, we would have come at once, my dear,' Ecthelion said with a laugh as he approached. He smiled at Finduilas, but did not presume to touch her or kiss her cheek as he once would have. Denethor kept his expression mild. Ecthelion turned to Boromir. 'And who have we here?'
'Gappa,' Boromir answered, leaning out of Denethor's arms toward the Steward. Trying not to let his reluctance show, Denethor held Boromir out to Ecthelion. The old man eagerly gathered his grandson into his arms, kissing and teasing Boromir until the baby dissolved into giggles. Finduilas and her attendants came forward and the large, happy party slowly walked off to Ecthelion's quarters. When Denethor turned to leave, he nearly ran into Brandir who stood squarely in his way.
'We need to talk,' was all Brandir said.
Denethor gestured for them to walk out together. 'What do you wish to speak of?' he asked when they were on the upper walk.
'What do you think? Half a year has passed.'
'I have not changed my mind.'
'You are the most spiteful man I have ever met.' When they reached the wall, Brandir leaned against it, looking over the City. 'You may command my obedience, but you no more have my love.'
'Maiaberiel threatened me and mine, and I gave her a warning she would not forget.'
'You turned a knife on my wife, and I shall never forget that,' Brandir softly replied.
'Shut up! I don't wish to hear your excuses. You did her harm and I cannot leave it unanswered.' His gentle face was twisted, and he laughed bitterly. 'I cannot be unmanned by you both now, can I?' Brandir set off down the stairs to the court, calling over his shoulder, 'I am done with waiting, Denethor. Come along.'
Denethor was not surprised when Brandir led them to the upper practice yards. The months in Rohan showed in Brandir's frame; he was in excellent fighting shape. When they were young men, they had learned swords together, and they knew each other as perfectly as lovers. No flaw, no fault, no weakness was unplumbed between them, and Brandir had always been the better. Not by a great deal, and Denethor had won many rounds, but more often he was the one in the dirt accepting a hand up from an apologetic Brandir, who always considered it a mistake that he should be the victor. There were no apologies this time. Twice the yard master tried to intervene, but Denethor signaled him to stay away. Brandir stood there while Denethor pulled himself up from the muddy practice ground, but did not offer a hand. At the gate from the yard to the street, they paused. Denethor wiped a little blood and dirt from where he had bitten his own lip. 'Is honor served, Brandir?'
'Almost. I will be coming to see my nephew and I will be bringing my wife.' Brandir looked Denethor over critically. 'We attack Umbar in March, yes?'
'Uh, um, yes,' Denethor stammered, unbalanced by the change of topic, 'that is the plan.'
'I will be going there,' Brandir said firmly. 'Good day, Denethor.'
'Tomorrow?' Brandir turned back. Denethor gestured at himself. 'I am woefully out of practice. On many things.'
'If you wish. There is little to learn from a fool.'
'Finduilas disagrees.' Brandir opened his mouth, then smiled and shrugged before walking off. Denethor followed slowly, forbidding himself to wince. Hunthor's expression was worried when he brought up a ewer of hot water to the study for washing. Finduilas wore a similar look when she returned from the Tower and saw him. After Boromir nursed and was put down for a nap, she came to Denethor's study with her sewing. He fetched wine and took his usual seat at her feet.
'Huan was with me, so who did you tangle with, friend?'
'What did you do to Maiaberiel?'
'In the spring, you were in Laanga's garden and I had Boromir with me in the archives. She found me and demanded to see Boromir. I said she could not come near unless she was faithful to Brandir. She ...put her hands on me. I threw her down and gave her a cut behind the ear. Not a great one!' Denethor looked up at Finduilas, whose face was grim. 'No longer than the joint of my forefinger and slight, though it bled a great deal. I shook her and told her to do as I said, or she'd get worse, then ordered her off.'
'I told her to keep her hands to herself,' Finduilas growled. 'You are mine, and so is Boromir. The next time I see her, she'll get more than a cut behind the ear!'
'That will be soon.' Finduilas's eyebrows went up. 'After he drubbed me, Brandir said he was coming to see Boromir and he was bringing Maiaberiel.'
She snorted and returned to her sewing. He left her to think. Telperien woke in the basket on the desk and came over to claim a softer and warmer bed in his lap. It was nearly a quarter hour before Finduilas spoke. 'Brandir has no choice, the sweet fool. You both torment him greatly. As long as she comes with him, I will permit it. You will behave yourselves.'
'I will also be taking up sword practice with Brandir. He is no fool as a swordsman.'
'Blood for blood.' Denethor nodded. 'I bleed, as well.'
He barely managed to swallow his mouthful of wine. 'Bleeding? What harm ...no, it is your flux, it has returned, yes?'
'Yes, today. Thorongil's healing has worked and I am well once more.' Though her tone was light, there were spots of red on her cheeks and she would not look up from her sewing. Whatever Thorongil had seen on her heart, it had naught to do with them, for slowly she was forgiving him. Denethor knew this because his ardor was nearly restored. Every week or so, when Boromir napped, they went to Denethor's bed and touched. In a way, he liked that his cock was abashed, for it left them free of his selfish wants; every kiss, every stroke, every brush of flesh was for her sake. Even so, as he pleased her, she forgave, and he was roused. Two days before, he had hardened and had pressed against her thigh in perfect torment, softening before he could spill. Denethor had welcomed the ache.
'I know not what to do, friend.'
'I am not ready for another child, but I cannot bear to be apart from you. I am fair to look upon again, and the threat of harm passes. Our hearts know.' She looked at him slyly. 'Other parts know, too.'
'Other parts will have to be patient until it is time for a child.'
'I am not patient. That is my argument with Laanga. I went to him to know if his herbcraft could keep me from conceiving, and he upbraided me for wishing to be wife and yet not mother.' She scowled. 'I do not think all marriage beds so barren between children. I should ask my mother.'
'Yes. Luinil will give you the best advice,' he agreed, but felt shamed. You fail again as husband and leave all burden to her. Tomorrow, he had some investigating to do.
Minas Tirith, 17 December, 2979 T.A.
'Sir.' Beregar stood at the study door. 'Lord Anardil wishes to speak to you.'
'Make him wait ten minutes, then show him up.' Beregar grinned and bowed crisply. The time had come. For weeks, Denethor had drawn tight the noose. Scratch and Borondir had been equally useful. People who owed Anardil coin they could not pay mysteriously found their obligations discharged. Minor officials canceled unjust rents and set new amounts, or offered better lands. A warehouse had burned, and another was robbed. Lawyers began to challenge contracts. Now, when his fortunes ebbed, debts were suddenly being called in. When Beregar showed Anardil in, Denethor was writing a letter. He pointed to a spot before his desk, but did not look up, leaving Anardil fidgeting for another long minute. After he sealed the letter, Denethor stared at the other man, letting the discomfort increase.
'Why are you assailing me?' Anardil demanded.
'Assailing you?' Denethor made his voice bored.
'You are ruining me! Don't deny it!'
'I have no idea what you are talking about.'
'You are in league with that whore. She has whispered falsehoods to you, and you do me harm.'
'Luinmir!' Anardil snarled, his face flushed. 'If she is panting for a man, let her remarry here! Lady Maiaberiel can find...'
'You are mistaken. I care nothing for marriages. I watched you deny the Lord Steward a simple request. It is not wise to deny the Steward.'
Anardil pondered this. 'What do you want?'
'Forswear your claim upon the child, as you were asked to do.'
'For how much?'
'Unlike yourself, I am not in the habit of purchasing little girls.'
Anardil did not flinch at the insult, greed and craftiness equally present in his face. 'But you have hurt me greatly. I need something in return.'
'The Lord Steward would have given you a handsome gift had you been generous. I have it in my power to keep you from ruin.' Denethor leaned back in his chair, voice as mild as his eyes were fierce. Anardil edged away from the desk. 'You have doubly insulted my house. You think that you may order about my blood, then you spurn the Steward's wish. He is a merciful man. I am not. You will choose, now. If you choose wrongly, naught will save you.' Denethor smiled thinly. 'Isilmo chose wrongly. It was his last choice.'
Most color had fled Anardil's face, leaving only two small spots burning on his cheeks. 'Draw up an agreement,' he flatly replied. Denethor leisurely pulled out a sheet of paper and placed it before Anardil. On it was a statement releasing Anna to her mother's rule and renouncing all claim to the child. It denied any responsibility for dower or upkeep, and made Anna barely more than a bastard, with no father or house to call upon. Though it had grated to write these things, Denethor wished to be certain there were no grounds on which Anardil could try to nullify the contract. The man did not even read it, signing it and shoving it back across the desk. 'There, the brat is yours. Stop your attack.'
'I will have copies made and sent to you for signing,' was all Denethor said. When Anardil was gone, Denethor placed the contract in a case and took it to the scriveners' hall himself. The original was for the archives. Copies would be needed for Anardil, Luinmir, Anna herself, the Steward, another for himself, and a final copy for Morvorin. Denethor returned to the Stewards House, copies in hand, and sent for Borthand.
'I have a messenger job for you. Take these to Lord Anardil's house. Say you are delivering the new contract. Leave one of the six with him after they are signed.' The boy was back within the hour. Denethor took one and folded it neatly, tucking it inside a letter to Morvorin. 'Take this to the messenger stables. It must go to Ethring at once.' He would speak to Finduilas tonight after supper. Easing Anardil's woes would wait until after yestarë. You will be more careful in the future when the Steward asks a boon. Smiling to himself, Denethor returned to his business, waiting for the women to return from their own affairs in the City.
'Denethor!' Finduilas's call was angry and urgent. Denethor hurried downstairs where she stood with Luinmir and Moraen in the hall before her study. Anna was with them, face stained with tears. Finduilas's cheeks were pink from the cold and she still wore her cloak. 'Denethor, what has happened? We walked Luinmir home after visiting my houses, and she was barred from entering. A servant shoved Anna out the door without even a coat and bade us all begone! I demanded an explanation for his churlishness and he said it was your doing.'
'Yes. It is. Go in the study and warm yourselves. I will return with the explanation in a moment.' He retrieved one of the contracts and brought it to them. 'Luinmir, I had a meeting with Anardil early this afternoon. He was persuaded to sign this.' Denethor handed the paper over to her. 'I did not think that he would act so cruelly towards Anna.'
Luinmir read the contract quickly, then again, her lips moving slightly as she looked at each word. Her eyes met Denethor's, sharp and suspicious. 'This is binding?'
'Why would he sign it?'
'To keep from having to answer for his debts in the Common Court.'
'You bought his debt in exchange for Anna?'
'No. Purchasing souls is a Southron abomination. I promised nothing, save his destruction should he withhold your child from you for another day. This was to ensure he would not play you falsely.'
A slow smile spread across Luinmir's face. She read over the contract once more, threw back her head and let loose a whoop of delight. 'Finduilas, Anna is mine! All mine!' she crowed.
'But you are turned out,' Moraen said. 'Where will you go?'
'Here, for now,' Finduilas said quickly. 'There is room and enough upstairs for you and Anna.' Denethor gave her a meaningful look. Finduilas could only mean Emeldir's rooms, and the palantír was there. 'I will send some of the guardsmen to fetch your things.'
'I don't trust that house to give them back. Keep Anna here and I will go with the soldiers to collect our belongings. There isn't much.' A pup was sent down the mountain to summon Gethron and two dozen Guardsmen to meet Luinmir, Hunthor and Borondir at the house. Fewer soldiers and Anardil might be tempted to summon King's Men for a fight. While they went off and Finduilas and Moraen distracted Anna, Denethor slipped upstairs and collected the palantír. For now, it would have to live in his pack under the bed. The stone safely stowed, he gave the key to the room to Aeluin so she could get it ready for their guests.
Finduilas did not question him until they were lying in her bed. 'What made you do this, Denethor?'
'The Steward asked Anardil to relinquish Anna. I was there when they met. Is it true that Morvorin asked for Luinmir's hand?'
'Yes. This is Ecthelion's doing, then?'
'He had me listen. Once done, he said to me that the law supported Anardil's claim and he could not gainsay it. I knew he wished me to find another way, so I did.'
Finduilas was quiet for a time. 'And how did the Steward learn of Morvorin's suit?'
'I do not know.'
'Ah.' Again, silence. 'I have known all along. Morvorin came to me first to see if Luinmir would allow herself to be wooed. All was well until Anardil heard what they intended and visited Beruthiel. She counseled him to claim Anna.' Finduilas sighed. 'This news may have come too late. Moraen said that Morvorin was not planning to come to Minas Tirith for Yule or the Great Council. He is to go to Morthond. Mother wrote me and said Handeth insists Handiriel return for Yule. I fear a match is being made, for he himself said he could not remain unwed another year. Luinmir knows all of this. I doubt she will write. Moraen knows nothing, so mind your tongue around her.'
Minas Tirith, 19 December, 2979 T.A.
As usual, Morwen did not rise to greet him, though she did offer her cheek for a kiss. 'Denethor, it has been too long since we have spoken.'
'Yes, it has been, though you have made it difficult to meet.'
'I should think you have enough to keep you busy.' She looked up with a worried expression, though her fingers continued to ply her bone hook. 'How fares our Lady?'
'Very well. Boromir is almost weaned, and she gains weight and strength with each week.'
'We have heard rumors in the houses, that she took some grave hurt in the birth and cannot heal from it.' Morwen snorted, dropping her eyes to the lace. 'And you can be certain of who spreads these tales.'
'I know who.'
'Our Lady is beloved of the whores, for she takes pity on us. Any word that she is unwell is cause for concern. Who else will care for our sons?'
'Her own son demanded much of her, and left her worn, but she recovers now. Let that be known.'
'I will. What business do we need to attend to, Denethor? You said you needed my wisdom.'
Denethor pulled a silver piece from his pocket and laid it on the table next to Morwen. 'For your time. Finduilas strengthens, as I said, and her moon fluxes have returned. She does not wish to bear another child so soon. I wish your advice on how to keep that from happening.'
'You stay out of her bed and she cannot conceive.'
'True, but what if she will not stay out of mine?'
Morwen stopped her work and gave Denethor an approving look. 'You were such a cold man before you wed I had wondered if you could properly service a young woman. I guess you can.'
Denethor was not sure if he should be insulted or flattered. 'She does not wish for a lonely bed, nor do I. I have read what I can, but you would know better than any scroll what works. Almost all warn against using medicines or herbs.'
'That is right!' Morwen agreed. 'They are but poisons. She should not take such until she is done with childbearing forever. When she is ready, you tell me and I will prepare a tea which will take care of that.' Denethor nodded, not certain he ever wanted Finduilas to knowingly drink a poison. 'I do not seek to shame you, Denethor, but I need to know how you please her if I am to advise you. Do you do things besides mount her?'
'Yes.' She looked at him expectantly. 'I place my fingers inside her. I use my mouth on her...'
'Just on her breasts, or between her legs as well?'
'Both. She likes that.'
'She takes you in her mouth in re...'
'No!' The thought left him disgusted. 'I would never ask her to do that!'
Morwen gave him a wry look. 'You are... odd, Denethor. Very well. Do you allow her to touch your organs?'
'Can you bear coupling with her infrequently? A few times a month at most?' He nodded. 'You have read about casings?'
'Yes. They work?'
'They have to be made right and you will need an ointment to go with them. It catches the seed in it. You must be certain that you never use a casing made by anyone not proved loyal to you. It is simple enough to damage one in a way that will not show, or to put something harmful in the ointment.' Morwen smiled. 'I can sell you very good quality ones and the ointment.'
'Two tharni each, and I can only promise you four in a month. They are not difficult to make, unless you want them to work. That takes skill.'
'A few days. One of the boys will deliver them. They must be used within a day or two of when they are made, or they will dry out and split.'
'I'll remember that.'
'I will write things down so you need not remember.' Morwen gave him a stern look. 'You are not to risk her.'
'That is why I talk to you.' Denethor rose to leave. Morwen also stood. She picked up the silver piece and handed it back to him. 'Morwen? It is yours. I pay you as I would pay the healers for their counsel.'
'As you should. That is not how I wish to be paid.'
'My youngest daughter will be fourteen next month, and a choice must be made. You said once that you did not wish your kin to be whores. Surely Lady Finduilas is in need of a maid? Mírwen reveres the Lady.'
'I will ask.'
Minas Tirith, 23 December, 2979 T.A.
There were now so many people in the Stewards House that they had to use Finduilas's study in the evening to hold everyone. Finduilas made no distinction between stations in this time after supper, and all knew they were welcome. Tonight was no exception. No serious talk could happen amidst so much chatter, and Denethor thought that was probably part of Finduilas's plan. She sat with Aiavalë, Lhûn and Aeluin, admiring Finiel's attempts at walking. Borthand fetched and served, as he should, but he also spoke to Gethron about being a messenger. It seemed the lieutenant had been one for Dol Amroth before becoming a soldier. Thorongil was there, speaking to Borondir about the warehouses, and Denethor was half in their conversation and half in the one Luinmir was having with Moraen and Lady Almiel about the mettarë feast. Anna and Boromir wandered around amusing each other and helping themselves to affection from all of the adults. Boromir had finally overcome his shyness around Thorongil and kept bringing the man treasures he found lying about - an old quill, an empty cup, a stick from the wood near the fireplace. Best of all, Brandir was there. There had been no more drubbings, though Brandir proved a demanding sparring partner. It was a rare day that he did not come to the house to see Boromir and Finduilas. Somehow, Maiaberiel was never free and did not come with him. Denethor hoped it would stay that way. Brandir was chatting with Lord Forlong, who was already in the City for the year-end feasts and councils. Hunthor, Dúlin, Hador and Mairen from the archives, and Beregar's sister Lily rounded out the company.
There was a commotion downstairs, and Beregar slipped out to see what was the matter. More guests, no doubt. Denethor looked around, wondering where they would stand. A cheer went up when Imrahil appeared in the doorway, a grin on his face. 'I am back from my sojourns, and am ready for Yule in the City,' he said heartily, 'and I bring with me a chance traveler from the road.' Stepping aside, he bowed the next person in.
A weary, disheveled Morvorin walked into the room, his clothes covered with the grime of the road. He strode directly over to Luinmir and pulled her into his arms, kissing her. She returned it while everyone else stood and gaped, struck dumb by the sight. When the kiss ended, Morvorin sank to his knees, her hands clasped in his. 'Before all here, and before those who watch from afar, I swear my heart and soul to you, in love and for...'
'Oh no you don't!' Finduilas cried. She bounded over and pulled Luinmir's hands out of Morvorin's grasp. 'You are going to have a proper wedding, my Lord Pigsty!'
Finduilas's words broke the spell and pandemonium ensued. The women were shouting, Morvorin was pleading for someone to listen to him, the children were screeching, Luinmir and Moraen both were weeping. Denethor sat on the edge of the desk, enjoying the chaos. Imrahil edged over to the desk and Thorongil and Brandir soon joined them. The young prince grinned at them. 'I knew I liked Morvorin! That's how to get married!'
'The pledge is not sealed, yet, Imrahil,' Brandir scolded, though he also was grinning, 'and I doubt your sister will allow him to escape so easily.'
'There is a tale here that needs telling,' Thorongil said.
'Quite so, Captain,' Denethor agreed. He drew a deep breath and bellowed in his loudest battlefield voice, 'Silence!' Everyone froze. In a conversational tone, Denethor continued, 'Good even, Lord Morvorin. To what do we owe the honor of your company?'
Morvorin stared stupidly for a moment before dragging himself to his feet and making an unsteady bow first to Denethor, then to Finduilas. 'My lord, my lady, forgive my rudeness. I came as soon as I received your summons, Lord Denethor.'
'I thought you were going to Morthond this season.'
'Yes, I was on my way, a few hours upon the road, when the messenger delivered your letter. I would have been here sooner, but the horse could not run any faster.'
'How long have you been on the road, brother?' Moraen asked.
Gethron let loose an appreciative whistle. 'Three days to ride from Ethring to Minas Tirith? Now, there's love!'
'Not to mention some interesting saddle sores,' Thorongil murmured.
'He'll be in no state to wed,' Brandir blandly agreed.
Denethor motioned for them to be quiet. 'Lady Luinmir, is this suit acceptable to you?' She nodded and took Morvorin's hand, unable to speak. 'Then do you two stand betrothed before this company, and shall wed on the day appointed by the Lady of the White Tower.' The two kissed again amid cheers and toasts. Almiel and Moraen started talking very animatedly to the lovers about the wedding. Finduilas came over to Denethor and slipped an arm around his waist.
'Your summons?' she quietly asked.
'I told him I expected him to be here for the Great Council,' Denethor said with all the innocence he could muster. 'Oh, and sent him a copy of a certain contract.'
Finduilas rewarded him with a kiss on the cheek and a poke in the ribs. 'You should not keep me in the dark about such plans.'
'I like surprising you. I so rarely manage it.'
Morvorin had a house in the fifth circle, not far from Vinyamar, and it was decided that the wedding would be held there on the twenty-sixth. Denethor, Brandir and Imrahil were charged with keeping Morvorin distracted and out from underfoot while the women got things ready. It was a simple enough task; Denethor took him to every council meeting, no matter how tedious, Brandir kept him busy in the practice yards, and Imrahil took up the rest of the hours with visits to The Messenger's Rest.
The night before the wedding, Finduilas sat in the rocking chair, nursing Boromir before he was put to bed. He took very little from her now, and drank more for comfort than for food. Upstairs, they could hear Moraen and Luinmir chatting and walking back and forth between their rooms. Denethor glanced at the ceiling and sighed. 'I will be glad to have some quiet.'
'It will be very quiet, friend,' Finduilas assured him, 'for Moraen will stay in the fifth circle after tonight, and will return to Ethring with Morvorin and Luinmir.'
'Will she come back?'
'Possibly, or I will invite another girl.'
'Or no one?'
'Handiriel, I think. Morthond has been greatly slighted.'
'Hmm.' Boromir soon finished and fell asleep. Denethor put him in his cradle. 'You still plan to wean him completely next week? He certainly eats well enough on his own.'
'Yes, with the new year, and... Oh, no!' Finduilas exclaimed, looking at Denethor with dismay. 'Oh, I am so thoughtless. I've done it again.'
'It is your birthday today! And Boromir's, too, and I have forgotten in all the fuss over the wedding.'
He stood and embraced her. 'No matter. Morcollë doesn't care, and I do not need another event to attend.' He kissed her gently. 'This is celebration enough.'
Finduilas returned his kiss more strongly. 'There could be a bit more. He's asleep and no one else needs us tonight.' Denethor allowed her to lead him to the alcove. 'Name your present, husband.'
'This,' he kissed her neck, 'and this,' his fingers parted her shirt, baring her bosom to his touch, 'perhaps some of that,' he pulled her hips into his, getting a pleasing growl from her, 'oh, and... a surprise.'
'It's a surprise. Wait a moment.' Denethor made sure the door to his study was locked and set lamps and candles just so. The items from Morwen sat on a lower self on the table near the head of the bed. She had sent a prepared casing last week, with instructions to practice, and a new one yesterday. With all the wedding bustle, he had not thought it would get used. Well, it is my birthday... He pulled off his clothes and reclined on the bed. 'The present I want is for you to rouse me as much as you can.' She smiled and did his bidding. All of his senses feasted on her. Denethor took his time exploring her in turn, teasing out her desires. He loved making her thrash and moan, commanding her and serving her in the same moment. I will touch you everywhere tonight. You will be mine again. Every part of you will be alight. The shadow on her heart, he would drive that away, too.
When Finduilas lay shivering and drenched in her own sweat, he sat up. She reached out and stroked his cock, making him growl. 'And what now are you going to do with this fine tool, friend?'
'That's the surprise.' He began to reach for the tiny glass pot of ointment, feeling a small stab of doubt. 'You have to promise you won't laugh.'
'When you say that, I promise that I will laugh.' She ran a finger up the inside of his thigh. 'You're very good at making me laugh. And other things.'
'Well, one laugh, then.' Denethor dipped a finger in the ointment and rubbed it over the head of his cock. It tingled slightly. Finduilas sat up, curious. He took the casing from the envelope of oiled paper, standing to slip it on, and reached for more ointment.
'A sheath!' Finduilas was peering closely at his crotch. 'I've heard of those! You talked to Morwen, didn't you?'
'What does it feel like? May I touch it?'
'Here. Take a small bit of this and smooth it on.' The sensation of her fingers gliding over him left him weak-kneed. He sank to the bed, pushing her onto her back. Finduilas had her legs around him before he had to say anything. When he entered her, she bucked up against him, making him cry out and shove her hips down. 'No! Be still or I'll end too soon.' She relaxed under him and he lay heavily on her, waiting to regain control of his loins. The shock of heat and wet subsided, allowing him to move. It had been so long. Denethor moved slowly for as long as he could bear it, savoring each stroke. As he built, he whispered to her, saying she could move now. Their hips met with force, and he felt something brush his heart, so he seized it, pulling it within, claiming it. It fought against his grasp for a moment, then surrendered, and he was filled. For a moment, he saw the mark. It angered him. He turned his own will upon it and drove it away, making it flee from his Sight, and all dissolved as he spilled.
Minas Tirith, 5 January, 2980 T.A.
Denethor caught Thorongil's eye and they exchanged a slight nod. Imrahil was speaking of the fleet, expertly handling the questions from around the table. Even Lord Duinmir was being drawn in despite his attempts to remain suspicious. He and his son, Duinhir, had arrived only two days past, the last of the more important Outland lords to arrive in Minas Tirith. None of the other lords offered resistance to the plans for Umbar. Once they heard that Thorongil would lead the invasion, and that he would wield Dragon Fire, they had enthusiastically supported the campaign. In midafternoon, when they had broken to stretch and relieve themselves, Denethor overheard Amlach of Pelargir assuring Lord Angrist that the Fire would be safe this time because it was under Thorongil's command. 'A true warrior and leader,' the crafty lord had said, 'one who can tame all to his will. The weapon was ill-placed in other hands.'
In truth, not much had been told to the lords. The timing of the invasion was not fully explained, nor was a full tally of ships, soldiers and sailors offered. There was a danger in the announcement, for it would be difficult to make the lords be silent on the matter, but they could not be kept in ignorance any longer. When the call came to move, they had to be prepared and willing to answer it.
One of the Tower servants slipped in the door and went to the Steward, whispering something in his ear. The Steward nodded. The man hurried out while Ecthelion stood, holding up a hand for silence. 'One moment, Prince Imrahil.' Before the Steward could leave, a Rider marched into the room, the servant close behind and obviously exasperated at the man's rudeness. The golden Rider knelt before Ecthelion, holding out a battered message which the Steward took and read. He addressed the room, 'It is with heavy heart that I say these words; Gondor has lost her dearest friend. King Thengel has died.' Cries of sorrow rose from the table, greatest from Thorongil and Brandir. Ecthelion raised his hands again. 'My heart holds only sorrow now, and I do not wish to discuss war. It is time to pause and remember a friend. Our council today is done. Warden, will you remain, please?' When the lords had filed out, Ecthelion turned to Denethor. Sorrow vanished from the Steward's face. 'Sooner than expected. Will this change any of the plans for this spring?' Ecthelion's brisk dismissal of Thengel's death angered Denethor, so he merely shook his head, not trusting himself to speak. A great man has died, and you think only of your own advantage. He had no doubt but that the Steward would use feigned sorrow over the news in the same way he had made a tool of Emeldir's death six years before. The world would be better were your fates reversed. 'You will have to go to Rohan for the funeral - Morwen asks for you in the letter, you may read it - but that may be swiftly done. Ensure that Théoden will make no changes to the promise of Riders for the spring. Thorongil and Imrahil will be able to keep the Umbar preparations moving while you and Brandir are gone.'
'They all will go with me.'
'There is no need...'
'Thorongil served Thengel for as long as he has served you, and he will wish to pay his respects. Imrahil is a kinsman to Morwen and best represents the falas. Not to bring them risks insult and a show of independence by Théoden. There are several counselors who wish to distance the Mark and Gondor.'
The Steward looked at Denethor with coldness he had not shown in months. 'Do you defy me, Warden?'
'If you wish to call it such. I make clear to my lord that we must secure this ally lest our other plans go astray.'
'I will consider your counsel. You may go.'
Denethor bowed and left, disgusted. As he walked, his feet slowed, and sorrow took his heart. Another of Turgon's men, gone. Too soon, I will be the last. A desire came over him to see the Hall of the Kings where Thengel had wed him to Finduilas, when a song of the plains echoed upon the stone of the heights. The hall was dim, with only wan afternoon light coming through the windows. As faint as the winter sun, a voice sang and it was the song Thengel had chanted. The words drew him along, increasing and soothing his sadness in the same moment. At the foot of the dais, upon the bottom step, he found the singer.
Thorongil looked up and nodded to Denethor, but did not halt his song. Denethor sat next to him, resting his forehead on his arms, listening. He let the last echoes die completely before speaking. 'How soon will you be ready to go?'
'I can ride tonight, if need be, Denethor.'
'Too swift for others. We must do honor to the king. Two days.'
'I will be ready. Brandir?'
'Yes. And Imrahil. The Steward does not wish the Umbar plans disrupted.'
'They won't be.'
In the shadows, it was difficult to make out Thorongil's face. Turgon would have known what to make of you, how to use you. He would have welcomed you. 'There will be new rulers soon. Not just in Rohan. Those who soon will rule have spent all the years of their manhood knowing that Sauron has returned. And they seek hope.' Thorongil's shoulders hunched and a hand went to his pouch. You want your pipe. 'You are woefully ignorant of history, Thorongil. It lives in what we do. It becomes in the telling. But there must be someone to tell it, and we shall no more be if the Enemy has his way. There is not enough time to tell what we know, and thus our history ends.'
'I have not your wisdom, Denethor, but I would learn from you. Be guided by you.'
'That time is also at an end. I have but a handful of lessons left for you.'
'What are they?'
'Tales.' Denethor held up one finger. 'Do you remember me telling you of the double seat of the kings?' The captain nodded. 'Their stewards sat near, one to either side, facing each other. The steward of Anárion always faced east, towards what would be. We still do.'
Thorongil twisted to look at the Black Chair. 'Is that from the ruins?'
'Yes.' Denethor had no idea, but it was possible. Holding up a second finger, he said 'The people fear the final assault of the Enemy, for they know it will come soon. They yearn for rescue. We have been rescued at the end of each age by a ship and a hope.'
'I thought you said we were rescued by armies.'
'You need to listen more carefully. I said the Enemy has been defeated only by armies and the power of the West. Our rescue has come from the Sea.'
'I am corrected.'
'Third, I dream of kings who filled the streets of Osgiliath with blood while Dúnedain hunted each other in the glades of Ithilien. I have seen murder done in the great square of Umbar. I can See the hearts of the Faithful and know them to be true. I cannot See yours. You remain Lost.'
'Yes. But a way is opening. I do not love the wrong thing.'
'Fourth, Mardil Voronwë was the grandson of Míriel.'
Thorongil waited for more. Denethor stayed silent. With a sigh, the other asked, 'And Míriel was...?'
'The elder sister of King Ondoher.' Is Alquallë right, and you claim your own rule from a woman? On such did Arvedui claim the throne.
The captain's face was interesting to watch. 'I... did not know that.'
'Yes, I was aware of your ignorance. Mardil, on the other hand, understood history and knew how to craft it. He chose to look east, at what would be, and he obeyed the king so that we would not hunt each other.'
'Who taught you, Denethor?'
'You said you had a handful of lessons. What is the last?'
'There are those who think it is time for Gondor to once more have a king. They are wrong.'
Thorongil turned and took Denethor's hands in his own. A light was in his eyes, nay, in his face, like to what Denethor could See in Finduilas. The king's eyes glinted though there was no light left in the hall. 'It is truth you speak. This lesson I must have from you, Denethor. Why are they wrong?'
'It is time for Gondor to survive, for an enemy to be defeated, for hope to return. I would welcome whomever did this. But I will never stop facing east. It is my house's fate to do so.'
Thorongil stood, still clasping Denethor's hands, and stooped to kiss his brow. 'Forgive your poor student. He loves his teacher dearly. I will learn. I promise.' The captain turned and walked away, and soon his footsteps were lost like the echoes of the song.
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