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Hands of the King: 70. Sojourn
Minas Tirith, 28 January, 2982 T.A.
Finduilas sat behind her desk with a secretive smile on her face. The room was almost full. Brandir, Aeluin and Mírwen sat on the floor near the hearth keeping the children distracted. Dúlin and Hunthor were there with their little girl. Moraen and Aldwyn talked around Imrahil, who was half-turned about in his seat asking Beregar something. Borondir stood with Denethor near the back of the room quietly discussing when another shipment of grain should be made to Umbar. Borthand was near the door, watching attentively in case he was needed for an errand. The door opened and in came Aiavalë and Lhûn, escorted by Gethron. After she greeted them, Finduilas clapped her hands for attention.
'Everyone, listen,' she said. 'I have decided that I am going to have an adventure.' The room was absolutely silent. 'I will sojourn in Dol Amroth for a long while this summer, but I wish to ride across Gondor for many weeks and see everything. Who of you will join me?'
The room erupted into babble as everyone tried to answer at once. Denethor waited a moment before letting loose a piercing whistle. Finduilas grinned at his exasperated expression. 'Pray tell, my lady, when are you leaving, what route are you taking, and when do you intend to return?'
'I leave on the first of March, dear lord, and shan't return until summer is near spent. As for my route, I wish to travel on roads I have yet to tread.'
'But you will come to Ethring, will you not?' Moraen begged.
'Yes, of course I will.'
'I am coming with you,' Brandir said.
'Me, too!' Aldwyn quickly added.
Imrahil waved his arm. 'I will attend for at least some of the journey if my dread lord, the High Warden, and his chief taskmaster, the Captain-General, will permit it.' He wore a grin identical to his sister's.
Very quickly it was decided that Aiavalë, Brandir, Moraen, Imrahil, Aldwyn, Mírwen, Beregar, Aeluin, Finiel, Boromir and Denethor would journey with her. Borondir wavered, but said he could not leave the City for so long if the Warden was also to be gone. Lhûn said she could not leave the Houses even for a month. Gethron had wished to go, but Denethor commanded him to stay, saying he must be available for Captain Baragund with himself and Imrahil away to the west. Hunthor and Dúlin sadly agreed that their daughter was too young for such a journey. 'And who else will watch the house, if Matron Aeluin is to go? Someone must be here to mind the pups,' Dúlin had pointed out. Borthand had not really been included, but he smiled and exchanged a wink with Imrahil. The talk soon turned to how many wagons they would need, what guardsmen would go with them, and which route they would take. Imrahil retrieved some maps from his rooms and they were laid out on the floor so the merits of this road or that could be debated.
Denethor felt a light touch on his arm and turned to Gethron. 'When it pleases you, my lord, I would have a private word...'
'Now. Come along.' Denethor took them to his study and shut the door firmly behind him. 'What is it, Captain?'
It took Gethron a few tries to get the words out. 'I know I am presumptuous and ask only for a fair hearing. I am no nobleman, yet I am an honorable man of a good family. My house has served the Princes of Dol Amroth since the time of Imrazôr.' He took a deep breath. 'I come to you as the guardian of Princess Aldwyn to ask for her hand.'
'I am her guardian, not her lord or kinsman. I cannot grant it.'
'I know, but you are my lord and so my plea must go to you first.'
'This is no mere girl you ask for.'
'No, sir. I know.' The man's face was alight with love.
'What have you said to her?'
'Nothing! Not a word that could not be spoken before her lord brother.'
'And you shall say nothing unless he grants his permission.' Denethor frowned. Morwen might wish her daughters to wed within Gondor, but doubted she wanted Aldwyn with a commoner, even if the man was a captain of Gondor. 'Captain, be forewarned that your suit will probably be declined, for her brother and mother will wish a great match for her. There are many men of honor and valor in Gondor.'
Gethron's expression became stern. 'I know, my lord. That is also why I have said naught to any save you. If you cannot plead my suit...'
'You are a Captain of Gondor, and as noble as any man of Rohan. Aldwyn could find no better in her own land. I will present your suit, and strongly.'
The captain bowed. 'Thank you, my lord. But if it is as you say, and my plea is turned aside, I swear as a Captain of Gondor and a man of Dol Amroth to bear my fate with dignity.'
'I expect no less.'
Minas Tirith, 26 February, 2982 T.A.
The house was in turmoil as things were readied for their departure in five days, so Denethor fled with Boromir to the safety of the stables. Boromir was giddy with the idea of the trip though Denethor did not think the child understood what they were going to do. They were to travel very slowly so as not to tax Finiel and Boromir too much. There were four wagons to hold supplies and baggage and to provide places for the women and children to sleep if there was not an inn or accommodating farmer near when they stopped for the night. Denethor wanted to take fifty guardsmen, Finduilas stubbornly insisted on a mere dozen. They compromised on two dozen, all men of Dol Amroth. Plus one.
'Can we run, Papa?' Boromir asked, looking up from his seat on Boots. The boy had taken to riding like a fish to water and had no difficulty keeping his seat. Denethor now took Gaerhûl out to get the stallion into shape for the coming journey. Gull kept pace on the other side of the pony. At a nod from his father, Boromir grinned and urged his steed into a canter. The horses only had to lope to stay with them. It pleased Denethor to see how fearless Boromir was. Even a few tumbles had not daunted him. 'Giddy-up!' Boromir cried, flapping the reins and leaning forward to get more speed from Boots, who did his best to obey his young master's command. They pulled up after a few hundred yards and turned to go back to the stable, for it was becoming blustery. When they got back, Boromir only had to have help with the saddle, as it was too heavy for him to handle, but otherwise cared for his mount himself. He knew how to take off the bridle and put on a halter, how to pull a bucket over to stand on so he could brush the pony's back, even how to pick up a hoof and check it for stones. Gull stood near, keeping a watchful eye on her small charges.
'May Grandpa come, too, Papa?'
Denethor stopped brushing Gaerhûl. 'What?'
'On our trip. May Grandpa come, too?' Boromir dragged the bucket around to the other side of the pony to finish his brushing. 'Mama says we will be gone a long time and it will be fun.' The child examined his handiwork critically and set to work brushing another spot. 'Grandpa should come, too.'
'Because he is Lord Steward.'
'Because the Lord Steward does not leave the City.'
'Because he is the ruler and the ruler must stay in the City.'
'Because, and,' Denethor cut off another round of questions, 'you'd best hurry or we won't have time to stop and get some sweets from Mistress Adanel on our way home.' Adanel insisted that they eat a bite of stew and drink a mug of warm cider while they waited for the basket of sweet bread and cakes to be prepared. Denethor left enough coin to pay for the goods thrice over and was certain to say loudly that no other sweets pleased the Lady more than those of The Messenger's Rest. The tavern was the most prosperous one in the City now. Loyalty to the Lady is rewarded. Let that be a lesson to all.
Almost as soon as they walked out of the tavern, Boromir asked, 'But, can Grandpa come?'
Denethor sighed. 'Still on that, are you?'
'I want Grandpa to come.'
'Does he want to come?'
That made Boromir pause. 'I don't know. It is fun so he will come,' he confidently concluded.
'Hmm. We will ask him.' It will be a long time. There were things that required tending. When they reached the sixth circle, Denethor turned south, away from the tunnel. 'We should go see Master Laanga, Morcollë.' The wind was sharp and blew directly in their faces, making them squint. None too soon, they were facing the door which opened with a gentle push.
Laanga was inside, a thick wool shawl in blue and white stripes draped over his shoulders, tending the plants. He smiled when he saw them and nodded his head. 'Good day, grandsons. There is water warming on the stove for our tea.' They followed him into the old, cavernous kitchen and took seats at a battered table with mismatched chairs. One of them wasn't even a chair, but an old tree stump, its roots looking like they had burrowed into the floor. Laanga teased Boromir over how much honey to add to the tea, and accepted a loaf of sweetbread from the basket, wrapping it in a cloth and setting it on the sideboard. 'What brings you here today? The weather is brisk.'
'I came to ask about a special plant,' Denethor said.
'I think I know the one,' Laanga answered. 'What would you know?'
'When will it show itself?'
'I know not for certain.' Laanga's eyes were dark, with no whites showing, his expression unreadable. 'Where growing things are concerned, there are no guarantees.'
'But, perhaps, this spring? I do not wish to go to it, for that would draw unwanted attention.'
'No, you should not,' was the firm reply. 'There are many eyes. No one pays much attention to an old man gathering herbs. I will keep watch.'
'Thank you, Master Laanga.'
'Master Laanga?' Boromir interrupted. 'I have finished my tea. May I go see Old Crone?'
'Yes, cub, of course.' Boromir dashed from the kitchen towards the back door, Laanga and Denethor trailing with their mugs. They watched Boromir from the doorway as he ran over to the apple and began to pull himself up to the first fork in her trunk which was low, but still above his head. Laanga pulled his shawl more tightly around his shoulders and sighed. 'That is why we old so love the young. We admire their fearlessness. I have heard you will be gone a long while from the City, Warden.'
'Yes. Until August.'
'You and Finduilas. And many other cheerful young folk.' Laanga sighed again. 'It shall be lonely without you.'
'If you ask Boromir, he will invite you. He wishes for the Steward to come with us.'
'That is a good idea,' Laanga said with a smile. 'A journey would be good for him, too long imprisoned in his tower.'
He is the Steward. He may not leave.'
Denethor felt odd having the same conversation with the black elder that he had just had with his child. 'Because this is the capital and he is the ruler. He is needed here.'
'But so are you, perhaps even more than Ecthelion.'
'It is the duty of the Warden to travel the land, and of the Steward to remain...'
'His only bar is he may not leave Gondor,' Laanga imperturbably interrupted. 'To live always on stone is not good, and his roots are weakening. Take him.'
'I told Boromir I would ask,' Denethor said shortly.
Laanga laid a gnarled hand on Denethor's left arm. 'How do you fare, grandson?'
'I have no pain in my arm.' It had ached for weeks after the attack upon Eilenach, but had not burned.
The herbalist's grasp tightened. 'And besides your arm?'
'What I love is safe and well, so I am well.'
'I am glad to hear that. You will need to be strong for the long journey ahead.'
'It will not be too taxing.'
'Good.' The wind whipped down from Mindolluin, making the branches shake and the old man shiver. 'Forgive me, grandson, I cannot stand here.' Laanga walked back towards the kitchen.
'Boromir. Boromir! Come back. It is time to go home now.' The boy reluctantly climbed down. They went to the kitchen to bid Laanga farewell and retrieve the basket. Denethor knelt for the elder's blessing, motioning for Boromir to do the same. The old man chuckled and touched their crowns.
'Be good, grandsons, and return to old Laanga with your tales. Denethor,' the hand moved under his chin, making him look up. 'I will also watch the old tree in the Citadel while you are gone. I doubt its roots will let go their grip.'
'Thank you, Grandfather.' Laanga kissed their brows and bade them hurry home before the weather became worse.
Minas Tirith, 1 March, 2982 T.A.
Clouds loomed ominously over Mindolluin, but so far the day was dry. The house had been awake since before dawn. Guardsmen carried and carted the last of their baggage down to the wagons before the Gate, a dozen ministers and counselors called to discuss last minute things, and all the travelers were trying to get washed and ready for their departure at noon. Finiel and Boromir, agitated by the bustle, raced about underfoot and lost no opportunity in which to be loud. Denethor finally ejected the last of the callers with stern warnings to take their concerns to Borondir and went to find Finduilas. She was in her room dressing, which he thought suitable entertainment, so he took a seat near the hearth to watch. Her riding habit was familiar. 'Have I seen that before?'
'You have seen all of me before, friend,' she replied absently as she belted the full trousers.
'Yes. This is what I wore when I rode into Minas Tirith.' She shrugged into the jacket. 'Aeluin and Moraen had to let this out, for my bosom doesn't fit into it any more.'
'Very good! All the more to...admire,' he replied with a wolfish grin. Finduilas pulled pillow from the bed and threw it at him, but grinned in return.
'Go get yourself ready and tell Aeluin to come help with my hair.'
In less than an hour, everyone was ready and they set out for the Tower. In the Hall of the Kings, the Steward sat upon the Black Chair, Brandir at his side, White Rod in his hand. Denethor walked forward with Finduilas to one side of him and Boromir to the other, and knelt before the Steward. Behind him, he could hear the others kneeling. 'Ecthelion, son of Turgon, Lord Steward of Gondor, we ask for your blessing ere we set out on our long journey.'
Ecthelion stood slowly and came forward, laying a hand on Denethor's head. 'Denethor, son of Ecthelion, High Warden of the White Tower, we bless you and all who travel with you. May the Powers keep you safe and defend you from all darkness.' The Steward bade them rise. 'Come now each of you and let me say farewell.' Everyone, even Mírwen and Borthand, received a kind word and a kiss on the brow from the Steward. Boromir was the last he spoke to. Resting a hand on his grandson's head, he said, 'I am sorry I cannot journey with you, Boromir, but you can see that the Steward is needed here.'
'Yes, Grandp.. my Lord Steward.' Boromir looked ready to cry.
Ecthelion stiffly knelt next to Boromir and put an arm around him. 'Morcollë, you must be my eyes. Watch for the messengers along the way. I will write letters to you, and you must write back and tell me what you see. Will you do that for me?'
'I will help you write,' Finduilas said, ruffling Boromir's hair, 'and Papa will help, too.'
'See? And when you get back, you will sit with me and tell me everything! But first you must go and have adventures so you have something to tell me, yes?'
Boromir hugged Ecthelion. 'Yes, Grandpa, I will!' There were a few tears, and his nose was runny, but it did not look like he was going to wail. Brandir and Denethor helped the Steward to stand. He retook his seat and gestured that they could go. With a deep bow, the party left the hall.
Bells and horns sounded when they left the Tower. A dozen guardsmen were standing at attention in the court and followed as they passed. The main street was lined with people out to bid their Lady farewell and a safe journey. The fifth circle was barely passable, so many people had turned out. Their horses were ready before the Gate, every one of them sporting ribbons in their manes and tails and tassels and bells on their harness. The four wagons were gaily painted and hung with the Lady's banners. The dray horses were large, thick limbed beasts, matched bays with hairy white fetlocks. Beregar helped Aeluin and Finiel into one of the wagons, for Aeluin did not know how to ride and had no wish to learn. She had spent most of the last month trying to convince Finduilas to let her remain behind, so fearful was she of leaving the City. Since the wagons would set a slow pace, the guardsmen all were walking. One wore a harness so he could carry Finduilas's standard. A guardsman stood near each wagon save the last. Standing next to that one, his eyes scanning the surrounding land as though he expected Orcs to appear, was Halmir. At a signal from Denethor, the men swung up onto the wagons and took the reins.
When all were mounted up, Denethor lifted the Great Horn and blew a blast, making the horses prance and neigh. From the City, more horns answered. The guardsmen formed up and began to sing a song to set the pace for their march. Finduilas and Gull led the company to the road and turned south. The Lady's sojourn had begun.
A league past the Rammas, it started to rain. It was dense and dark, heavy enough that the wagons at the end of the line were difficult to make out. Boromir began to shiver and cry, which turned to a shriek when Denethor tried to give him to Aeluin in the front wagon. 'Here, Morcollë, don't cry,' Finduilas crooned, holding out her arms. 'Come sit with Mama.' She set him before her and wrapped him inside her cloak. 'How far to an inn, Denethor?' Her request ended with a ragged cough.
'With the wagons, not quite an hour.' It took half again that long, for the rain fell even more heavily, and it was after dark by the time they came to the village. Both inns were filled because of the foul weather but the taprooms could provide hot food and drink. Finduilas would not hear of other travelers being turned out on their account and said they should just eat their suppers and wait. Soon enough, the village mayor came to them and asked how many there were who required shelter.
'Six women and two young children will need beds,' Denethor answered, 'and there are thirty men who can manage quite well with a dry floor or a hayloft. There are eleven riding horses and eight draft beasts.' The mayor insisted on giving his own bed to Denethor and Finduilas, and sent his son off to find places for the others of the Lady's party. By the time their meal was through, a dry place had been found for all of them.
The rain was no less the following morning, but they decided to press on to old Lord Farlong's keep upon the Erui. It was a bedraggled group that came through the gate just after nightfall. 'Such a grand trip this is,' Finduilas grumbled as she stripped off her wet clothes. Denethor already had Boromir undressed and was rubbing the boy briskly with a towel to warm him up. Boromir leaned against his father and sniffled, too tired and cold to really cry. 'I feel a half-drowned rat.'
'I told you we should wait until April ere...'
'Oh, be quiet!' Denethor decided it was a wise order to obey, and got Boromir into dry clothes, ignoring Finduilas's mutterings but unable to completely ignore her soft coughs. When she was dressed, she picked up Boromir and walked out without a word. Such a grand trip. Denethor changed his own clothes and went in search of company, and soon came to the dining hall. Lord Farlong sat at the head of a long table laden with food and drink, his son Forlong providing ballast at the foot. A number of other men, kinsmen and lieges, were there, as were Imrahil and Brandir. The chair creaked ominously as Farlong rose to greet Denethor.
'Warden Denethor! My lord, be welcome at my hearth.'
'It is my honor and that of my house to receive your hospitality, Lord Farlong.'
The burly lord showed Denethor to a seat and poured him wine himself before retaking his own. 'I hope you will abide with us for some time, Lord Denethor. Certainly until these rains pass. It is unwise to travel in such weather. Why are you upon the road so early in the year?'
Denethor sighed and shook his head. 'It is what the Lady wishes and...' He gave Farlong a weary look, making the man chortle.
'And what our women want, they get!' Denethor allowed himself a wry smile and a nod.
'My wife is overjoyed you have come to call,' Forlong said from the other end. 'Almiel chased me out and is tending to the ladies. I doubt we will see them here tonight.'
And be spared the rough sides of their tongues. 'I am even more in your debt for your lady's tender care of my own,' Denethor said graciously.' Perhaps I will not have to sleep on the floor tonight. The food and wine made him sleepy and soon Denethor was stifling yawns, so he bade his host good night and went back to his room. Finduilas and Boromir were already sound asleep in bed and did not stir when he slipped in beside them.
Finduilas embraced him a long while the next morning in silent apology for her short temper the previous night before going to meet Lady Almiel. Denethor took Boromir to greet Lord Farlong. Farlong's grandson, Forweg, was a year older than Boromir, but the two youngsters took a liking to each other at once and soon vanished to get into trouble. Brandir, Imrahil and Forlong came in, and the men spent the morning discussing the business of the realm while rain drummed on the windows. The boys returned just in time for dinner, wet, muddy, and looking very pleased with themselves. The afternoon brought a messenger from Minas Tirith with a full bag of letters. Denethor called Boromir over and handed him one.
'The Lord Steward has written you a letter, Master Boromir.'
Boromir opened it up, a delighted look on his face. After looking at it, he handed it back. 'Read it to me, Papa?'
'We will read it together.' Denethor sat Boromir in his lap and placed the letter on the table before them. 'Point to the first word.' Boromir pointed. 'That is "Dear"' 'Dear' 'Next word...' he pointed, '"Boromir".' 'Boromir' 'Now you read that to me, Morcollë.' 'Dear Boromir.' By the time they finished, Boromir could point to several words - his own name, Steward, Ecthelion, happy, love, rain and pony - and he had memorized what the Steward had written.
'Now we will write a letter in reply,' Denethor said. He had Boromir point to words in the Steward's letter he wished to use in his own, and wrote them down. It took only took a little prompting, and Boromir drew a picture of himself on Boots at the foot of the paper.
Dear Lord Steward,
I am well. Mama and Papa are well. It is raining now. I got wet and Boots got wet. I have a friend, Forweg. He is a grandson, too. I love you.
Denethor had Boromir recite the letter from Ecthelion and his own reply to Finduilas before sealing the reply and placing it with other messages to be taken to the City.
Lebennin foothills halfway between Tumladen and Erui, 14 March, 2982 T.A.
The rain had let up on the fourth day and they were back on the road. Denethor had spent a few hours talking to Halmir and Beregar on how they would handle sustained downpours in the future, for they could not expect good weather until May, and there was not going to be any sizeable settlement along their route until they reached Ethring at the end of the month. Beregar, Brandir, Imrahil and Halmir took turns riding ahead each morning that they traveled to find a suitable camping spot for that night. The company never started before full light and was always settled before evening shadows fell, earlier if it looked like substantial rain. Sometimes, this meant going as few as five miles in a day. They remained where they had camped at least every third day to rest the animals and interact with the people in the area. The point of the journey was for Finduilas to be seen and admired by the people, after all. So far, there had been a few damp and chilly days, but no repeat of the storm that marked the start of the journey.
At night, the four wagons were emptied of their loads and made into snug nests. The very largest was given to Aiavalë, Moraen, Aldwyn and Mírwen to share. Another was for Brandir, Imrahil and Borthand, though they had been giving up their beds to the women so they would not be so cramped. Aeluin, Beregar and Finiel took one of the remaining two wagons, while Denethor, Finduilas and Boromir had the other. The guardsmen slept under the wagons, in tents or under the stars as it pleased them.
Halmir insisted on a watch at night and Denethor did not gainsay the man. Their route was across the vales and folds of the Lebennin uplands, a way not much traveled by outsiders, and the people who lived there were an odd lot. They were no longer pure Dúnedain, having mixed with lesser folk who traveled up the Sirith, the Serni and the Gilrain from places further south. The land was not so giving as that closer to the Sea and River, and the people were similarly rugged. There were always problem with thieves and bandits in the hills.
The hill folk were eager for a glimpse of the Lady, however. One of the other tasks for the morning rider was to inform anyone he met along the way that the Lady of the White Tower and the High Warden would be passing through during the day. All along the road they came across knots of people, some sitting on ancient stone walls, some packed with others in a wagon, most simply standing there with no indication of where they had come from, all patiently waiting to greet Finduilas. While there might be cheering or even some music when they passed through a hamlet or village, for the most part the people greeted her with dignity, doing reverence to her and asking for a blessing or offering their own. Denethor let her and Boromir receive the attention, coming forward only if asked for. It was unusual if a nearby family did not come to the encampment near supper time to offer fresh bread and skins of ale or wine. If they stopped near an inn or tavern, they would go to the public room to hear news and spend some coin. The room was always packed. The locals brought Finduilas plaints and questions, and she did not leave until all had been heard.
The pace was slow enough that they mostly walked, leading the horses. Around them, the hills were waking from the grey grip of winter. Every bare branch was tipped with a bud and the air had a green scent to it. Fields were being prepared for planting, the teams of oxen or horses making their steady ways from stone wall to stone wall, dragging ploughs through the dark earth. Every so often one could spy a burst of color as a bulb proudly displayed its flag of yellow, white, red or blue. The bleats of new lambs were common.
Boromir and Denethor had left the main party to admire a flock where it seemed every ewe had borne twins. The animals came over to the wall to see the visitors, delighting Boromir. He sat on the low stone wall and held out his hands, and the lambs nibbled on his fingers and butted his legs. There had been no repeat of his weeping so far; with better weather, things to see and regular letters from the Steward, the child had no time to be sad. Though you have much time in which to be dirty, Denethor thought as he spat on a kerchief and tried to wipe away the worst of the grime his son had accumulated since that morning. 'Morcollë, how do you manage to find so much dirt just by walking along?'
'Don't know, Papa,' was his cheerful answer. 'Can I have a sheep?'
'You want a...? Why?'
'For Boots to play with and me and Finiel.'
'I don't think that is a good idea, Morcollë. The lamb would miss its brothers and sisters, and its mother would be very sad.'
'Oh.' Boromir looked crestfallen.
'Besides, the sheep belong to the farmer and he wants to keep them while they are so young.' With a sigh, Boromir nodded. 'We should go so we don't fall too far behind and worry Halmir.' Boromir hopped down from his perch and they strolled after the others. Hidden from sight of the road, but viewable from the pasture, was a thick stand of daffodils, yellow crowns brilliant against the deep green stalks. Boromir began to pluck one, then pulled back his hand and looked to Denethor for permission. 'Pick three, Morcollë, the best ones.' After some careful comparison, Boromir had his prizes in hand. 'When we get back to the others, go give them to Mama and tell her you love her.'
'It will make her very happy. You want her to be happy, don't you?'
'Yes!' As soon as they caught up with the train, Boromir dashed forward to find his mother, Denethor trailing a ways behind. He was just in time to see his son offering the flowers to Finduilas who laughed and hugged the child, then called for the other women to come admire Boromir's gift.
This also was going well. Every day, Denethor found things for Boromir to do to please Finduilas - fetching things for her, telling her a story, or giving her small gifts like the flowers. You have demanded much of your mother in your short life. Now you are to be dutiful. It helped that Aeluin was overcoming her fearfulness of the countryside and had taken charge of the two children. The woman never ventured away from the main group, but she had decided that she was the Lady's Matron and as such needed to keep things well ordered. She kept tally of their supplies, oversaw loading and unloading the wagons, and saw to the comfort of the lords and ladies, making Mírwen, Borthand and the guardsmen scurry to start fires, fetch hot water, prepare wagons, hang lanterns and generally make the encampments hospitable.
Beregar did little save stay near Finduilas and wait for her to ask something of him, which she did not do. The last day in Lord Farlong's keep, Halmir had stopped Denethor in a passage and asked to know what had happened to the young man. 'He followed the Lady into shadow and defended her,' was all Denethor said. The Lost had been almost gentle in his treatment of Beregar since then, and Denethor several times had seen Halmir direct a guardsman to tend the Hound.
A gentle rain fell that night. Denethor sat tailor fashion in their wagon, Aiavalë's walking desk across his knees, helping Boromir compose a letter to Ecthelion. Boromir was learning written words at a quick rate, and could read much of the Steward's letters himself now. When they reached Ethring and had a proper desk to work at, Denethor was going to have him try to write some of the reply. Behind him, Denethor could hear Moraen and Aiavalë laughing about something in their wagon. In the other direction, he could faintly hear Beregar signing a lullaby to Finiel to get her to sleep.
Finduilas sat to the side, slowly sipping a mug of her special tea and offering Boromir a few suggestions of what to write. 'Be sure to tell Grandpa about the daffodils. They were very pretty.'
'Papa said I could only pick three. I wanted to bring you a sheep, too, but it would have been lonely.'
Finduilas gave Denethor an amused look. 'I see. Yes, the sheep would have been lonely, and the flowers were enough.'
The letter was soon done, complete with a picture of Finduilas holding her flowers, and a yawning Boromir crawled into his blankets. Denethor could not even finish a lullaby before the child was sound asleep. He sat, a hand gently stroking Boromir's hair, and waited for Finduilas to finish her tea.
'Are you well?'
'Yes. Why do you ask, friend?' Denethor pointed at the mug. She shrugged. 'I felt weighed down today.' They sat for a few minutes. 'I think he dislikes that I go away, so he watches more.' She drained her cup and burrowed under the covers next to Boromir. Denethor blew out the lantern hung from the one of the wagon bows supporting the oiled bonnet and joined them.
Lebennin foothills near east fork of Gilrain, 23 March, 2982 T.A.
Today was the first truly warm day of the year. Every tree sported blooms or tiny leaves or both, and the air was filled with birdsong. They were camped on a rise that offered a vista of the Gilrain valley below. Small curls of smoke rising from chimneys marked farmsteads. The farmland was a patchwork of plowed fields and fallow, their outlines marked by ancient stone walls and dark green hedgerows. Woods dotted the hilltops, their tender green leaves appearing like a mist clinging to the branches. Along the roads, Denethor saw people about their business - a wagon drawn by oxen on the western slope of the valley, some walkers down near the river, a herd of sheep climbing upwards towards their pasture to the east.
Behind him, their own camp stirred. A few men were taking advantage of the fine day to wash clothes, while others cleaned cook pots, polished boots, checked weapons and joked with each other. Aeluin was singing a song to the children to teach them their letters. Aiavalë and Aldwyn were cheerfully squabbling while Moraen told them to be quiet. Halmir and Beregar were near the horses, methodically going over the tack to check for any signs of wear. A clatter of wood and some cheers from the guardsmen announced where Imrahil was doing arms training with Borthand.
Denethor let his feet carry him to where Finduilas sat near the remains of the cook fire talking to Brandir about nothing. He sat down near her feet and rested his head on her knee, content to enjoy the peaceful morning. Finduilas rested her hand on his shoulder.
'When we will be in Ethring, Denethor?' Brandir asked.
'Five days or so. Before tuilérë, certainly.'
'I have not been there in years,' Brandir replied. 'It will be good to see Morvorin and Luinmir again. We will lose Moraen's dear company there, won't we, Finduilas?'
'For a time. She has said she will stay, but will meet us again in Dol Amroth in June.'
Over near the horses there was the sound of activity. The women were saddling their steeds. Given that the women all carried bows, Denethor suspected they were off for some archery practice. Beregar and Halmir watched dourly, then Halmir whistled sharply and waved to someone out of sight. In a moment, Borthand rushed up and began saddling his sorrel gelding, Imrahil ambling up afterwards to follow suit with his own steed. Halmir was speaking intently to Beregar, who stared stonily at the ground. The Lost went to the Hound's horse and got it ready. When the women mounted up, Imrahil and Borthand were ready to join them. Halmir began to mount Beregar's horse but the young man strode forward and caught the older man's arm. There was a brief conversation, Halmir handed the reins to Beregar, and Beregar joined the others. They were soon trotting up a small lane that led further up into the hills.
'What are you going to do today, friend?' Finduilas asked, giving an affectionate tug to a lock of his hair.
'I am going to take a good look at the bridge over the Gilrain. I want to be sure it is sound for our crossing tomorrow.' He was eager to see it. It was older than Gondor and the only place he knew of outside the great cities and fortresses where the strange black stone of the Númenóreans was used.
'Do you want company?'
He smiled and brought her hand to his lips. 'Yours? Always.' After a last cup of tea, they set out with Brandir and Boromir. Halmir and a guardsman walked behind.
The bridge was a mile beyond their camp and crossed a deep ravine. The river rumbled far below, sending up spray as it tumbled its way through its narrow rocky bed. They left the horses in Gull's care and walked south along the canyon's lip until Denethor found a vantage point from which he could look back at the span. It was glossy black like obsidian and smooth as though poured like glass. The bed of the road itself was a straight beam from one side to the other and it rested upon a shallow arch. The ends of the arch were buried in the rock walls of the ravine. From one end to the other, the bridge was a furlong and half in length. Denethor led them back to the span itself and walked out onto it. There was no bounce or sway to it, no creaking of stone. It was wide enough for three wagons to go side by side. The floor of the bridge was covered with some kind of poured stone that Denethor had tried making a few times. It was a mix of powdered and crushed stone and sand mixed with ash, lime, gypsum, and water, as well as a few rare salts and minerals. The Númenóreans had made great use of it and he had often thought it could be used in roads. The samples he had made were not durable like this, though. This roughened surface had lasted over three thousand years.
Retrieving a rope from Gaerhûl's saddle, Denethor secured one end to a tree near the cliff edge and the other around his waist. Over Halmir and Brandir's protests, he let himself down the steep ravine so he could examine the underside of the bridge. It was as beautiful as it was ingenious. What looked like a single bow from the side was actually a pair of arches that widened and joined in the middle, their tips splaying out to distribute the weight of the bridge. The middle of the arches was almost as wide as the bridge itself, while the points boring into the canyon sides were perhaps the same size as a draft horse's torso. There were two pillars at either end anchoring the road bed into the ground. The whole was harmonious.
They ate dinner and then Denethor took Aiavalë's walking desk and set to making sketches of the bridge, some from a distance, some very close up, adding detailed notes to his drawings. When he finished with the sketches, he stood on the bridge and laid his bare hand upon the polished stone, listening. In a moment, he knew the story of this work, the proud and tall men who came to these high uplands and tamed the land as one would a fine steed, placing bridge and road upon her flanks, raising walls and training vines, the restraints upon her becoming finery, like a perfectly crafted harness. The bridge was built so well because no less noble a span would suit. It was breathtaking, the craft given over to this small structure in a hidden corner of a vast empire, the profligacy of such a work, yet also its perfection. Once there were men as would think nothing of doing such deeds, to provide a king's bridge to let sheep and milkmaids pass. He wandered across the span, touching the stone and letting himself be lost in its stories.
A rough hand shook him from his enchantment. 'My lord?' Denethor shook his head, allowing the veils of time to fall back into place, and blinked until his vision returned to normal. Halmir was looking at him closely. 'My lord, you'd best be careful. You nearly wandered off the edge.'
'Have you ever seen a bridge like this before, Halmir?'
'Along the Dwarf road.' The man gave his head a jerk. 'Up north.'
'Dwarves didn't build it.' Denethor touched the stone again, loving the whisper of ancient tales. 'We did.'
Halmir's hand crushed down on Denethor's wrist, making him hiss. 'Pay attention!' the Lost said sharply. 'We didn't build anything. This is past. It won't come back.'
'It was done once. It can be done again.'
[Stupid!] Halmir stepped away and gestured for Denethor to precede him. When he turned to walk back, Denethor saw Finduilas standing at the far end of the bridge, as tall and fair as the queens of Númenor. What once was can be again. He walked quickly to her and took her face in his hands, kissing her. 'Thou art more beautiful yet,' he whispered.
'Friend, what has come over thee?'
'The stone speaks.'
Finduilas stepped away and tugged his arm, glancing suspiciously at the bridge. 'Let us leave it. It is time to return.' When they returned to the camp, the archery party had already come back and a messenger had arrived. Boromir quickly claimed his letter from the Steward and did his best to read it for himself while Denethor perused reports from Hallas and Borondir. Finduilas was off talking to Imrahil about something. Aiavalë came over to help her nephew puzzle out his letter and write a reply.
'There you go, cub!' she said, giving him a kiss and a chuck under the chin. 'Now go show Mama what Auntie Monster helped you do.'
'I wish you would not use that name,' Denethor grumbled after Boromir dashed off.
Aiavalë made a face at him. 'I am happy to use it, so pay it no mind!'
'You should call yourself Auntie Hoyden, given all your running about and making work for Beregar.'
'Would you prefer me moping about the camp? I have such fun with the girls. You should see how good I am with a bow on horseback!'
Denethor tried to scowl but could not in the face of Aiavalë's delight. 'You are incorrigible, big sister. Why don't you act your age?'
'I've acted an old maid most of my life. I'm living my life backwards, don't you see? A stumbling old cripple as a child, then a stern widow during my youth, being wed as I have become young, and now I am well on my way to being a giddy girl.'
'You'll be needing diapers soon, then, yes?' Denethor grinned, then yelped as she gave him a few solid slaps and kick in the shin.
'Brat!' she grinned. With a kiss and a chuck under the chin just as she gave Boromir, Aiavalë limped off.
Supper was served just as the last light left the sky. They ate a rich lentil stew with fresh bread and soft cheese a goodwife had brought by that afternoon. Aeluin had prepared two pots of the lentils, one large one for everyone and then a small pot for Beregar that did not have a ham hock in it. For the first time in a very long while, Denethor saw Beregar smile. He was coaxing Finiel to eat her stew and smiled when she showed him her empty bowl.
After the meal, Imrahil came over and wrestled with Boromir. 'Morcollë,' he said, 'do you want to stay with me and Uncle Brandir tonight and be like a soldier? Oh, but maybe you're too little for that...'
'I'm a big boy, Uncle Imrahil!' Boromir said with great indignation. 'May I, Papa, Mama, please, may I? I'm not too little!'
'Very well, Morcollë, you may, but if you cry or fuss, Uncle Imrahil will bring you right back,' Finduilas said. Imrahil gave her a wink, smirking like a cat. It took a few minutes to sort everything out and to ensure that Brandir and Imrahil were in a sheltered spot under one of the wagons. The day might have been mild, but the night would be chilly. Finduilas bundled Boromir warmly and fussed over him until even he was telling her to leave.
'That was a nice thing for Imrahil to do, Alquallë,' Denethor said as he readied their own bed. 'Boromir will enjoy being treated like a "big boy" if only for a night. I hope your brother doesn't rue his generosity.'
'There was nothing generous about it. I told him to do it,' Finduilas answered.
In answer, she kissed him and slid her hand down to cup him. 'Haven't you been counting days, love?' she murmured.
'Here? In the middle of...?' In answer, she kissed him again and pushed him back onto the pallet, her thigh pressing into his crotch while her hands loosened his shirt. He slipped his own hands under her shirt to caress her breasts, thumbs rubbing her nipples to hard nubs.
'You're going to have to be quiet, you know,' she teased as she pulled his shirt off. 'None of your usual yelling and thrashing.'
His hands went to waist of her trousers, tugging them down until he could run his hands over her bare bottom. 'Imrahil knows that you, we...? The entire camp...'
'Will know I adore my husband,' she breathed, nuzzling his neck. Finduilas rolled to the side and rid herself of the rest of her clothes. Denethor slid out of his trousers and tried to roll on top of her, but she was too quick and was astride him, pushing him flat. 'The men will wish they were you, and the women who have not yet got husbands will be encouraged to find one.' In the faint light of the wagon, Denethor could just make out the gleam of her eyes. She pressed her hips into his, making him gasp then clench his teeth to suppress a groan. They kissed deeply. He tried again to roll them over, but she shoved his shoulders back. 'My idea. I will do as I please. Be more inventive yourself, next time.'
Finduilas reached between them and took his cock in a firm grasp. She squeezed him tightly as she kissed and nipped her way down his neck and onto his chest, pausing to flick his nipples with her tongue. He writhed and tried to keep from crying out, finally grabbing one of the small pillows and biting into it to muffle his sounds of pleasure. Denethor felt her move, heard an odd sound, then shuddered when her fingers, wet from her furrow, rubbed the crown of his cock. She went back to kissing him, covering his belly with them, one hand on his cock, the other cradling his balls, her fingers finding a certain spot at their base that set him trembling. He reached for her hips, trying to get her to mount him, but she wiggled away.
'A special treat for you, husband,' she whispered. She ran her tongue up the length of his cock and then closed her mouth over the crown. For a moment, Denethor could not think, could not move, could not breathe, so intense was the sensation in his shaft. Her tongue began to move against him.
Desire and disgust warred in his breast, disgust winning out. Denethor wrapped his fingers in her hair and twisted her head back. He grabbed her arm, pulling her up against him, and flipped over on top of her. 'Stop that!'
'What is wrong?'
'That! What you're doing.'
'It's what you do to me.'
'No. What I do is different.'
Denethor could not find the words to explain. 'It's just wrong.' He pushed her legs further apart and entered her. She put her legs around his waist so he could push more deeply in. After two thrusts, he stopped, shamed by the sound of the wagon creaking. Carefully, he bore down into her, pressing against her as hard as he could, and hitched his hips just a tiny bit. Finduilas clenched inside, her womb gripping him like a hand. They kissed, letting their tongues move freely as their hips could not. His excitement built slowly and powerfully, shame adding a keen edge to his passion. The end was a tide coming in, washing over him in steady waves for longer than he had felt before. The wagon shuddered with him.
Ethring, 30 March, 2982 T.A.
Boromir concentrated intently on the slate in front of him, trying to make the unruly chalk move smoothly and not catch or break on the stone. Luinmir had kindly lent Anna's old slate to Denethor so he could teach Boromir how to write his letters. Anna herself was now a big girl of six and gave every sign of being as beautiful as her mother. Morvorin doted on the girl and she adored him. She was even calling him "Father" now and Denethor doubted anyone would presume to bring up the truth, particularly as Luinmir had presented Morvorin with a large healthy son, a chubby cheeked fellow named Dervorin.
'There!' Boromir triumphantly turned the slate towards Denethor. There, scrawled unevenly on the slate was "Grandpa."
'Very good, Morcollë. Can you write Mama's name?'
'Uh-huh.' The chalk squeaked on the slate. 'Findilos.'
'No, that is not right. Fin-doo-I-laaas.'
Boromir scowled at the slate, then rubbed it clean with his sleeve. It took two more tries, but he spelled it correctly. If only it was legible, Denethor thought wryly. That will come with practice. Denethor set out two pieces of paper and handed a charcoal stick to Boromir. 'Now, you tell me what you wish to say. I will write it here,' he pointed to the page before him, 'and then you will copy it there,' he pointed to the sheet before Boromir.
'Dear Lord Steward,' Boromir immediately said, making Denethor hurry to write, 'I am in Ethring and Anna is my friend. We rode our ponies and...'
'Slower, Morcollë!' It took an hour, but the missive was composed and transcribed. Boromir excused himself to go find Anna while Denethor cleaned up the table and wrote letters of his own. The messenger from Minas Tirith was due this afternoon.
They had arrived in Ethring in a light rain on the twenty-seventh and had been the pampered guests of Morvorin and Luinmir since then. The last day of their journey had been swift, for they walked upon the new road laid between Ethring and Linhir. It could not compare with the ancient bridge in artistry, but it was solidly made and would last until their grandson's grandsons were old men. They were going to stay a week, through April eighth, and then there would be a large caravan up the road to Tarlang's Neck and Duinmir's keep. On the fifteenth of April, there was to be the formal betrothal of Hirluin, heir of Pinnath Gelin, to Duinhir's daughter Handiriel. Luinmir intended to travel to there as the road was good all the way to Duinhir's doorstep, indeed, all the way to the Stone of Erech, and she would have all the women along to help her care for her babe.
A light tap on the door an hour later interrupted his work. Beregar entered with the messenger pouch. 'The man is in the kitchens getting something to eat if you wish to speak to him, sir.'
'No. He may rest tonight and leave tomorrow with news.'
'Boromir and Anna want to ride their ponies. Unless you need me, I should go with them and keep them out of trouble. Too much trouble.'
Beregar shook his head. 'He's good enough to send off with the girls, but the children need better minding.'
Denethor nodded and motioned for the man to go. The messenger pouch was fat with reports and letters. He sorted quickly through the stack. There were no fewer than three for Boromir from the Steward, though none for Denethor. Boromir could read almost every word himself now. The monthly reports from Borondir, Hallas, and the other ministers he set to one side. There was a small bundle tied with a string for Finduilas, the archive reports for Aiavalë, and...
There were two letters, their outer wraps battered and dirty, sealed with the White Horse of Rohan. One was addressed to Denethor, the other to Aldwyn. It was the answer to Gethron's suit, no doubt. Denethor had sent his own plea to Théoden in early February, hoping for an answer before they left, but nothing had come. He broke the seal and unfolded the single page, smoothing it carefully before beginning to read.
March 4, 2982
Denethor, son of Ecthelion
High Warden of Gondor
I ask you to forgive the lateness of my answer, Lord Denethor, for you have presented a weighty matter to me that required much thought. Though it pains me greatly, I must reject Captain Gethron's suit for my sister's hand.
This decision was not made lightly, nor is any sleight meant to the man. I have met him twice and have heard both Lord Brandir and Prince Imrahil speak well of him. The captain is a man of perfect honor and dignity. Had his suit been made a year ago, my answer might have been different.
Unfortunately, my sister's hand has already been promised to another. It is my intention that she shall wed my chief counselor, Gríma, son of Gálmód, upon her return to Rohan. When you have returned from your travels this summer, please inform me so I may send a proper escort to fetch her.
I have sent Aldwyn a letter informing her of my decision. As you said Captain Gethron had not spoken a word to her, I made no mention of this suit and trust you will remain silent on it as well.
Théoden, son of Thengel
King of the Mark
Denethor read the letter over several times, before putting it and the letter to Aldwyn under the stack and turning to the reports. He did not have to wait too long before Finduilas came in. 'I heard the messenger arrived, friend,' she said, kissing him on the cheek, 'and came to see what he brought.' Denethor wordlessly handed her the bundle and waited for her to sort through it. 'Is this all?'
'Letters for Boromir and Aiavalë.' He pulled Théoden's letter out. 'And... this.'
Finduilas began reading it, then gasped. 'No, you didn't! Denethor, why did you not leave this to me?'
'Gethron came to me and asked me to...'
'This is women's business!' Finduilas sighed, then coughed. 'Morwen is going to be furious with us. You should have...'
'Well, I didn't, so what is to be done now?'
'He mentioned a letter to Aldwyn.' Denethor fished it out and handed it to her. Finduilas stared at a long time before sighing and beginning to pace. 'I have to give it to her. Perhaps... it will work out. She had some fondness for Gríma, if I understood rightly, and might be content.'
'He only has eyes for the blonde one.'
Finduilas shook her head. 'You saw it too, then. Let me think.' After a few trips back and forth across the room, she halted and nodded to herself. 'That's it. I will keep the letter until we are in Morthond. I will have a letter for Morwen to go back with the messenger. We'll let Morwen deal with Théoden.' She wagged a finger at him. 'No more match making for you! You are as bad at it as Father.'
'Harsh words,' Denethor said ruefully.
She shrugged. 'Perhaps Aldwyn will be pleased, but I think she has taken a liking to Gethron, and is no longer so smitten by Gríma.'
Denethor crossed his arms and glowered at the desk. Bad enough that he had mishandled Gethron's suit, but that he might have consigned the girl to an unwanted match... 'At least the Prince couldn't stop us.'
The touch of her lips on his brought him out of his dark thoughts. 'So we shall hope for Gethron and Aldwyn, yes?'
'Yes.' He kissed her in return, letting his hand caress her hip. Finduilas leaned into his touch. 'You know, wife...'
'Yes, husband?' Her tone was teasing.
'There is an absence of son, wagons and soldiers at the moment.' Denethor put on his most innocent look and cupped one of her breasts with his other hand. 'What do you think we should do with this time?'
Finduilas pulled out of his grasp, but only to lock the door. She sauntered to the bed, shedding her clothes as she went. He took his time undressing, liking the sight of her wanting him.
'Something else is absent, too,' she said.
'What?' he answered, wondering what he had forgot. He knew there was another day they could safely lie together, so they did not need a sheath.
She stared east very deliberately, then smiled. 'Him.'
Denethor sat on the bed. Mine. He touched and kissed, savoring her. All mine. When he would have put his mouth on her furrow, however, she turned away. 'What?'
'You may do to me as you let me do to you.'
Tarlang's Neck, 15 April, 2982 T.A.
'Then do I declare before all gathered here, and before those who watch from afar, that Hirluin and Handiriel are handfasted.'
Finduilas pronounced the ancient formula, the young pair exchanged betrothal rings, and all cheered as they kissed to seal their pledge. Almost the minute they had arrived at the keep two nights before, Lady Handeth had asked Finduilas if she would conduct the handfasting, to which Finduilas had graciously assented. Denethor applauded politely, looking about the hall at the other guests. It was a noble gathering for so isolated a place. Most people there were of the area; kinsmen of Lord Duinmir, minor houses of Morthond Vale, the more prosperous farmers and merchants. Lord Hirgon had brought all of his household, of course, given that it was his son's betrothal. Hirluin's sister, Ivorwen, had come from Dol Amroth where she now fostered with Luinil. They had met upon the road at Calembel, the young woman accompanied by a dozen Swan Knights. Denethor tallied the others in attendance. The Lord and Lady of Ethring. A princess of Rohan. The heir of Dol Amroth. The Steward's son-in-law. The Master Archivist of Gondor. The High Warden and the Lady of the White Tower. No wonder Duinmir looks pleased with himself. Our own betrothal could not claim better.
Denethor strolled forward to offer his best wishes to the young pair. Hirluin was as handsome as Brandir had been at the same age, far more pleasant to look upon than his mousy beloved. The affection between the two appeared sincere. Denethor saw Finduilas talking to Lady Handeth and Moraen, and leaned down to Boromir. 'There's Mama, Morcollë,' he said, pointing, 'in the blue dress.' Boromir needed no other encouragement, darting between people to throw himself at his mother's legs. Denethor waited a moment before joining them. 'Ah, there's the rascal. He dashed off to find you. It was all I could do to keep him from running up during the vows.'
Finduilas beamed and gave the boy another hug and kiss. 'Do you love Mama?'
'Yes! And Papa and Grandpa and Boots, too!'
'I am honored to be in such exalted company,' she laughed, tousling his hair. Denethor smiled to himself. He rarely had to do more than hint something to Boromir and the child would lavish affection on Finduilas, making her happy. She was even starting to seek the boy out, talking to him about what he saw and did, telling him stories, helping him write his letters to the Steward and other small acts of kindness she had not bothered herself with before.
The betrothal feast offered the right mix of food, drink and good company, though Anna and Boromir soon bored of sitting and disappeared with a pack of other children to go play. Denethor was also pleased at how quickly Boromir established himself as a leader despite being one of the younger children. When the tables were cleared aside and music played for dancing, he took Finduilas in his arms. 'You know,' he smiled, 'people should never go to their own weddings, only to those of others. They are much more pleasant.'
Finduilas giggled. 'I have to agree, friend.' They danced until Finduilas began to cough a little and said she had to stop to catch her breath. Lady Arluin waved at them and called Finduilas to come sit with her. 'I'll be over there, Denethor. Go fetch me something to drink.'
Lord Duinmir was standing near the wine, surveying the crowd. Denethor had not yet had time to speak to the Morthond lord, and Duinmir had made no great effort to seek him out. Denethor bowed politely to the man. 'Good evening, Lord Duinmir, and congratulations on your daughter's betrothal.'
'Thank you, Lord Denethor. I am glad that Handiriel has chosen a good man. It was kind of Princess Luinil to arrange the match.'
'She does have a talent for such things,' Denethor conceded with a slight smile, looking fondly in Finduilas's direction. When he looked back at Duinmir, the man's expression had soured. You had not meant that as a compliment. 'My congratulations, also, on your grandson.' Andreth and Duinhir had an infant son, Duilin, born but two months past.
Duinmir inclined his head, but his expression did not soften. 'I think it is you who deserves the greatest congratulations, Warden. Your victories of the last year and some have been most... thorough.'
'You speak oddly, Duinmir. Thorough?'
'Decisive, as well. Beating back Mordor. Destroying Umbar. Restoring roads. Increasing trade. Returning mercenaries to their own lands.' A tight smile came to Duinmir's lips. 'I could almost believe you have brought about our mild weather and excellent harvests as well.'
'Those are by the grace of the Lady, for whose sake the Powers bestow their blessings.' Denethor said this with every bit of conviction he could summon, holding Duinmir's eyes until the man's arrogance retreated and he looked away, raising his glass in Finduilas's direction.
'To our Lady.'
'As for the rest, I always do what is best for Gondor, even if others do not.'
'Mmm.' Duinmir swirled his wine, face thoughtful. 'Best for Gondor. Best for yourself, as well?' Denethor shrugged. 'I am glad for our time of peace and plenty, Lord Denethor, but there have been... thoughts... that what happened to Umbar was, perhaps... excessive.'
'Excessive? To be rid of the Corsairs? They have been defeated so soundly that your grandson will be a man grown before they can offer us any threat again.'
'And other pirates will command the coasts,' Duinmir said slyly. Ah, so the rising fortunes of Dol Amroth have pricked your pride, have they? 'Perhaps you can resolve another rumor for me, my lord. Did you have Thorongil killed?'
For a moment, Denethor could only stare. Sooner would I lift my hand against myself than against the king. He made his tone scornful. 'Think you that I would waste my time pursuing so feckless a sell sword? He was last seen fleeing north over the Limlight a month after breaking his oath to the Steward.'
'Why do you still treat with them, the northerners? You have one with you now.'
'Until Thorongil, they have been reliable. These last are being allowed to fulfill their sworn service. They try to salvage the honor he has destroyed just as he destroyed Umbar.' Denethor paused, expression disdainful. 'There is no salvage and there will be no more.'
Duinmir studied him a long second, then bowed deeply to Denethor. 'You have my obedience and support, my lord. You have done what is best for Gondor.'
'I shall remember these words, Lord Duinmir. But, now, I must hasten away, for I was to bring wine to my lady, and to her is given my obedience and support.'
It took a few minutes to negotiate his way back to Finduilas without spilling the contents of the cups. By the time he arrived, she already had another cup of wine in hand. 'Forgive me, my lady, for neglecting you. I was waylaid...'
'...by Lord Duinmir.' Finduilas finished for him. 'I saw and knew you needed to speak to our host. Did you remember to congratulate him on his grandson?'
'Yes, I did, and we spoke of peace and how well our children will fare in these times.'
'It is indeed a wonderful time, Lord Denethor,' Lady Arluin interjected, 'and we are all grateful to you for it.'
Though Denethor would much have preferred discuss Duinmir with Finduilas, he knew it would have to wait, and spoke amiably with Lady Arluin for a few minutes. Others came by to present themselves and Finduilas had not a spare moment to speak to him. He was content to sit near her and observe. Aiavalë and Lady Handeth were talking about something intently across the way; Denethor wagered it was about the library. Boromir and his pack were back in the hall, looking for food and pats. Out among the dancers, Moraen and Aldwyn laughed and whirled, while Andreth and Luinmir sat with their sons and talked, their proud husbands looking on. Imrahil never sat, dancing with one girl after another and charming them all. That was the son-in-law you wished, wasn't it? Duinmir's disgruntlement at Luinil came into focus. At least one of the three cygnets should have been matched in Morthond, or so Duinmir's pride would have it. Imrahil was now dancing with Ivorwen, who was at least as striking a woman as her brother was a man. Aldwyn passed behind the other couple in Brandir's arms. And what good have you done either of them? Leave these things to the women, lest you do more harm. It did seem that Imrahil was content to leave his matching in Luinil's hands, for Denethor had never seen him do other than flirt and tease.
Eventually Boromir wore himself out and climbed into Denethor's lap to sleep. Finduilas and Denethor took advantage of this to bid Duinmir and Handeth good evening and retire to their chamber. Boromir barely opened an eye when Denethor undressed him and tucked him into the trundle bed. Finduilas pulled her old grey shift and put a pad on the bed. Denethor undressed and motioned for her to sit on the bed so he could brush out her hair.
'What were you and Duinmir talking about? It looked serious.'
'He compared your father to a pirate.'
Finduilas giggled. 'There are days when Father would take that as a compliment, especially coming from Morthond.'
He drew the brush in long, slow strokes through her hair. 'He thinks your mother matched Handiriel to Hirluin to keep her away from Imrahil.'
'That is precisely what she did. Duinmir's no fool.'
'He approves of me getting rid of Thorongil. Sending the Rohirrim home, too, if I am not mistaken. Upon my promise to be rid of the Lost, he pledged obedience and support.'
'Morthond has never cared for allies.'
Hair brushed, Denethor kneaded her shoulders and back, making Finduilas purr like Telperien. 'Have you given Aldwyn her letter?'
'Not yet. I wanted her to enjoy the betrothal.'
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