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Hands of the King: 76. Expectations

Minas Tirith, 3 January, 2983 T.A.

Finduilas took her seat at Ecthelion's right hand, as befit the one who would speak for Minas Tirith and the Pelennor. Aiavalë sat to the Steward's other side, taking Brandir's place to speak for Anórien. Maiaberiel would not consent for him to be in the capital over Yule without her, so he had sent his reports to Aiavalë. The most important news from Anórien could not be spoken in the Council. Hareth had reported that traders of ill repute frequented the Minrimmon markets. According to more reputable traders, Maiaberiel collected her own taxes from them, claiming that they were for the kingdom but failing to deliver them to Minas Tirith. Spies and garrison scouts reported that her followers drilled in arms and had formed a fighting force, but would not heed any summons to serve.

Denethor and Baragund sat across from each other, High Warden and Captain-General, at the mid-point of the long table. The Prince was at the foot with the rest of the lords ranged between them according to rank. Moraen sat between Denethor and Forlong, looking composed. Most of the men in the room were looking at her, some with pity, others with calculation.

Finduilas took a swift measure of the men sitting there. Forlong of Lossarnach had kinsmen, but no brother, son or nephew of marriageable age. Hirgon of Pinnath Gelin has kinsmen aplenty, but was too far and too weak to provide a good counter to Morthond. Duinmir himself must now be wishing he had a second son. She had met his close kin at the wedding last summer; quite aside from the fact that a marriage to Morthond was unthinkable, none of the men had enough stature to wed so well. Duinmir was jealous of rivals within his borders, too. Lord Angrist of Linhir had two nephews and a collection of cousins, all of them decent and honorable men according to Ivriniel. Her sister's letter had been unabashed in urging Finduilas to help Moraen to find her husband among them. There could be worse, Finduilas bleakly thought, him for example. Hallatan, the most powerful lord to emerge from the squabbles that followed Amlach's death in Umbar, noticed her gaze and smiled, bowing his head to her. No, not you. Lord Gundor was one of the few whose attentions to Moraen had been without guile, and not simply because he had no man of his house to offer. The modest falas lord was nearly as kind and decent as Brandir. Finduilas' eyes rested last upon her father, who smiled and winked at her. Imrahil? Finduilas sighed to herself and looked down at the report she had prepared for the council. Aside from the fact that he was not of marriageable age nor the slightest bit interested in a wife as of yet, she had seen no greater affection between them than she had between Moraen and Borondir. Finduilas suspected that one of the jewels of Langstrand would be his bride in a few years. They were sweet girls and that would bind both Langstrand and Linhir directly to Dol Amroth. Finduilas looked again at the Prince, who was joking with Baragund. Duinmir is not the only one who seeks to consolidate power by blood.

The Steward stood, having to place both hands on the table to help himself stand. Aiavalë put a hand on his back to steady him. His voice was clear, however, and he still wore the smile Violet had given him. 'Lords, ladies, captain and friends. We thank you for attending us this day. Though this last year was one of plenty, once again danger came to our borders and brought us grief.' He paused and looked at Moraen, bowing his head in honor of her loss. A murmur of condolences arose from the table as the rest bowed their heads to her as well. 'Let us take up our sober converse and determine how we may ward off sorrow in the coming year.' With that, he sat and gestured towards Lord Hirgon with the White Rod.

The western lord's report was short, which was good for it nearly put all to sleep. Hallatan was next. He was interesting to listen to, if only as a study of how to lie, evade and misstate. Finduilas wondered if there was a single honest lord in all of Pelargir. Moraen was next. Finduilas gave her what she hoped was an encouraging smile. 'The Lady of Ethring, Luinmir, bade me to present you this report,' Moraen began. Finduilas found herself having to swallow. The resemblance between Moraen and Morvorin had always been strong, but there was something in the set of her head and the tone of her voice that was eerily like her brother, reminding Finduilas of past Great Councils when Morvorin had spoken with pride about his lands. The Ringló Vale was more prosperous than ever, for Luinmir had brought her keen eye for accounts to Ethring, much improving on her husband's exuberant, but not always sensible, stewardship. Luinmir needs no second on that count. Borondir would be wasted there. The one topic that did not come up was Morvorin's death. After Moraen finished, there was a slight stir around the table and the lords glanced at each other. The Steward thanked her and gestured for Gundor to speak.

The morning passed by slowly but steadily, Finduilas herself the last to speak. She had done so at every Great Council for the last three years. Denethor had insisted upon it. While she enjoyed being privy to the Council and even more speaking of Minas Tirith, she distrusted Denethor's intentions. You are deceived, friend, when you see a queen. I will help you rule, but that is not my fate. This year, however, she put on her most queenly mien and was every inch the monarch. Having Aiavalë presenting for Anórien was also good, for she was commanding, speaking with great authority despite her slurred words. Let them see us and understand that women of the Stewards House are to be reckoned with. When she finished and they went to the dining hall for the midday meal, Ecthelion insisted on escorting Moraen, preventing any of the other lords from making a claim upon her.

The afternoon was for ministers' reports, and they filed in one by one to speak and answer questions. When Borondir was there, he paid no attention to Moraen and she asked him no questions, making Denethor scowl at them both. After the ministers came the captains - Baragund, Anbar, Marlong, Calmacil and Gethron. The news was worrisome, but not dire. Umbar remained prostrate, Harad and Khand squabbled between themselves, and Mordor remained silent. Only Rhûn was unknown and spies had been sent with the traders returning east with the cooler weather.

It was almost the end of Council when Duinmir cleared his throat. 'I think there is one matter left unspoken, my Lord Steward,' he said.

'And that is, my Lord Duinmir?'

The lord motioned towards Moraen with his chin. 'Ethring. The Vale cannot be left lordless.'

'Unless there is some greater sorrow of which I am unaware, Ethring has a lord, Dervorin, son of Morvorin,' Ecthelion answered, smiling but with an edge in his voice. Moraen gave him a grateful look.

'Dervorin is a babe, not a lord,' Duinmir answered sternly, 'and little can the Vale suffer another ungoverned youth playing at ordering its affairs.'

'And what do you mean by that, my lord?' Denethor said.

'Only that Morvorin came to rule himself far too young and with no guide and had only recently begun to take his charge seriously...'

'You will not speak so of my brother!' Moraen and Duinmir exchanged glares while the other lords exchanged worried looks. 'Ethring fares better than Morthond, and my brother had the foresight to oversee rebuilding the roads that play no small part in any good that has come to your benighted...'

'Lady Moraen, please,' Ecthelion gently remonstrated. 'Your brother was dear to us as well, and greatly do we honor his service to Gondor, upon her roads and in her battles. There are few of any age who can claim such greatness as he has earned. But yet he was a young man and had the failings of the young. These cannot be denied. And it is right that we, in our love for him, do not allow his son to want for guidance so that he, too, may grow up a valiant and daring man.'

'Quite so!' Forlong said, patting Moraen's hand. 'Your nephew must be secured in his...'

'He is.' Moraen pulled her hand away. 'Ethring has its lord, and his guardian is Lady Luinmir, my sister. She can order a land better than any here who is not of the Stewards House, and I dare say she could probably command a battle better than you, too.'

'It shall not come to that, I promise, Lady Moraen,' the Steward said with a twinkle in his eye, 'though I share your high estimation of the lady's talents. As should all here.' The humor left Ecthelion's face and voice. 'Lady Luinmir is the right and true guardian of her son in Ethring. We will brook no other argument.'

'Dol Amroth stands behind the Lady of Ethring - both of them - of course,' Adrahil smoothly added, giving Gundor and Angrist sharp looks. They nodded and voiced their agreement. The other lords held their silence.

'Morthond does not contest our Lord Steward's decision, but we are not satisfied.' Duinmir did not look at Moraen as he spoke. 'The young lord is yet small, and a single ague could rob the Vale once again. I do not ill-wish anyone!' his voice rose to a near shout as the others objected to his words, 'but that is the truth.'

Ecthelion rapped his knuckles sharply on the table. 'What satisfaction do you require, Lord Duinmir?'

'She,' he jerked his thumb at Moraen, 'must wed now and produce an heir as soon as possible.'

'I am not a brood mare!'

'Yes, at this moment, my lady, you are.' The coldness in Duinmir's tone shocked the room to silence. 'You have a duty to house and kingdom to continue your line, and you are nearly past marrying age. What I expect to be done, my Lord Steward, is that a suitable husband will be selected in the coming year, to be affirmed by this council when next we meet, and who will renounce all claims of his own house so that his children...'

'... will inherit when an all too convenient accident overtakes Lord Dervorin?' Denethor's voice was as elegant and dangerous as a dagger.

'...will be loyal to the Vale and to no other lord,' Duinmir countered. He looked pointedly at Adrahil, then at Ecthelion, before returning his gaze to Denethor. 'For too long have the uplands been cozened by... the low.'

The double insult took Finduilas' breath away. The slight to Dol Amroth she half expected, but the allusion to Luinmir's bastardy coupled with the implication that the marriage to Morvorin had been plotted by the Steward was brazen. Denethor opened his mouth to speak, but Ecthelion held up his hand for silence. The Steward stood and deliberately laid the White Rod upon the table.

'Low indeed is the man who will sacrifice the hope of love for the certainty of power.' Ecthelion's voice was pure contempt. 'You are a barbarian to demand that a woman in the care of my house be treated thus. Leave my sight, and do not return.' After Duinmir was gone, the Steward once more took up the rod. 'Lord Morvorin left his lady sister in the care of the Lady of the White Tower. It is for her to approve any suit for Lady Moraen's hand. We thank you once more, noble folk, for attending us this day and helping us to bear the burden of rod and rule, until the king should come again.' He held out his hand to Finduilas and left the chamber with her. In the hall, he said, 'Help me to my chambers, daughter. I am weary.' They did not speak again until she had him sitting in a soft chair before a fire, and had given him a cup of warmed wine.

'Shall I send for someone, Ecthelion?'

'In a moment. You need to go to the feast.'

'I will stay here, if you wish.'

'No. You must go command them.' He sighed and shook his head. 'I am low, daughter. A low and wretched man. Even now, I cannot bring myself to claim my own child.' With a sharp laugh, he said, 'Enslaved by the power of a rod. Go. Ring for a servant for me on your way out.'

The Council feast was a somber affair, and the lords escaped as quickly as they could. Once back to the Stewards House, Finduilas let Denethor and Aiavalë know that she wished to speak to Moraen privately. She locked the study door and poured them both wine.

'I knew Duinmir intended to make an issue of this,' Moraen said without prompting, 'but what he said...' She ended with a growl of anger.

'And he has lost. Even those who agreed with him will not risk the Steward's wrath.' Finduilas brushed back a stray lock of Moraen's hair. 'And I will never ask you to wed, save for love, be certain of that.'

'Perhaps a man is low to wed for power, but there are times it must be done.' Moraen sighed and leaned forward to rest her elbows on her knees. 'I do need to wed. Duinmir may have wished to see me mated to one of his idiot kinsmen, but that doesn't mean he was wrong that I have duties.' She glanced at Finduilas. 'Luinmir bade me to wed Borondir.'

Luinmir had left nothing to chance. 'Why?'

'Because he is a good man. Is that not what you have tried to bring about?' Moraen's gaze was challenging.

'Yes, I once thought that you two would be a good pair, but not since over a year ago. There is no affection between you.'

'I should just marry him. No one else pays me the slightest mind...'

'They are now.'

'Vultures! I'd rather wed a cripple like Borondir than any man who has tried to woo me since I returned.'

Moraen's callous description of Borondir shocked Finduilas. 'Borondir is hardly a cripple.'

Moraen snorted. 'He's hardly a man. The thought of kissing that face...' The woman shuddered.

'How can you think to marry him if you could not bear touching your husband?'

'I'd manage. Just close my eyes and think of someone else, I suppose. That's how Luinmir said she dealt with Isilmo.'

'I forbid it, then.' Finduilas had to work to keep her tone even. 'I do not wish two people I love to be loveless together.'

'We can be loveless apart, so why not be together? He'll not wed otherwise.'

Oh, yes he will. 'I think it a bad idea. In fact, I think you wedding anyone before the year is out a bad idea. Be patient and do not let others meddle.'

***

Far below, the plain seethed. She stood upon the battlements, weighed down by the burden of time, far heavier than the mithril helm and mail that she wore. I should have known there was no escaping you. The demon besieged Minas Anor, determined to seize his prey.

It had seemed that they had been saved, ten years before, when Elenna had foundered and they rode the storm wrack to Middle-earth. An eagle had swooped down upon her as she ran from the hallows, bearing her over the waves and dropping her on the deck of one of the fleeing ships. All had rejoiced at her rescue, and pledged their loyalty to her. For their service, the lords of Andúnië had been granted princedoms. The sons had accepted their gifts, but the sire had looked at her thickening waist and had returned to the north where he had landed after the Downfall.

Then she had borne her daughter, silver and beautiful beyond measure, and the people were no longer so pleased by their Queen. The girl gazed out at the black armies of her father. Are you another Lúthien? A child of a mortal and a fiend. Are you abomination? He came to reclaim what she had stolen. "Give me my heir, and I will go," he had said. Counselors looked askance at the child. They looked askance at her.

In the stone, she had sought the northern king, begging him to return and succor them against their foe. No army marched from the north.

***

Minas Tirith, 7 February, 2983 T.A.

Winter settled in for good after yestarë, cloaking the City in cold and rain. Finduilas could still feel the gaze of east. She tried to be strong and not drink her tea more than once in a week. It was a relief at night to extinguish all of the lights and nestle in Denethor's arms. He was not able to make love to her anymore, so made up for it with tenderness in other things. Boromir had taken a great interest in her expanding belly, and asked many questions that were difficult to answer. Finiel was likewise fascinated by Aeluin's pregnancy.

Wren had decided to stay in the City until tuilérë, though Lark and Violet had returned to Pelargir when the western lords departed after the Great Council. Finduilas arranged for them to travel on Seabird. With Aiavalë, Wren and Moraen all in the house, it made for lively days. Finduilas let Ecthelion know that Wren was often about and sent Boromir to the Steward rather than have his grandfather come to the house. Winter's gloom did not touch those two, and Ecthelion seemed stronger since his meeting with Violet. It was not uncommon for the two of them to walk to the stables to visit Boots or to be out in the wet all afternoon exploring some back alley tangle in the second circle. Twice, they had accompanied Beregar and Laanga in a wagon out to Beregar's farm.

Borondir was often at the house, either to report to Finduilas on the state of the City or to teach Boromir his figures. To Finduilas' relief, there was no awkwardness between him and Moraen - if anything, the two were more friendly than ever. He did not speak again of Haleth. For her part, Moraen threw herself into rounds of visiting and attending parties. Every day saw her with guests in the solar or visits to this family or that, and a week did not pass that she and Wren did not spend the evening at a dance. What interested Finduilas was that they insisted on having Borondir and Gethron as their escorts when they went out after dark. She suspected that the pairings set more than a few tongues wagging. Denethor was pleased that Borondir and Moraen were always in each other's company, though it was clear he was expecting a certain announcement.

Denethor also grumbled at the uproar in the house, but Finduilas could tell he preferred that she have many attendants as long as she dismissed them all when he was done with his business. Ecthelion gave little mind to the realm now, attending only the morning audiences and the most important ministers' councils, which left much work for Denethor. In the evenings, he sat at her feet while she sewed and they spoke of how Gondor fared. They never spoke of Thorongil, but he was always there in the silence of what they no longer said.

Finduilas went to the front room to have her breakfast. Denethor and Boromir had already left for their sword practice, as usual, and she looked forward to a few minutes of silence before Moraen and Aiavalë clattered down from their eyrie and Wren showed up in the kitchen, Mab on her hip. Beregar was waiting for her. 'Huan? Is something the matter?'

'I do not know. Lord Borondir showed up very early this morning and went to the solar. He said he wished to speak with you, and only with you, after you woke.'

Finduilas hastily dressed and ate a few bites before hurrying downstairs. Borondir was sleeping on a couch in the solar, and had to be shaken awake. She had never seen him so disheveled. 'Cousin, what is wrong?'

'You have to help me! It is all your fault, anyway,' he said, trying to neaten his tangled hair with his fingers.

'My fault? Wait, it is Haleth, yes?'

'Who else?' he growled, sounding exactly like Denethor.

They have had a spat. 'Has she turned you down again? How is that my fault? For what?'

'You and your advice of a well timed kiss.'

Finduilas looked at him, confused, and then gasped. She Saw him. 'Borondir, what has happened? Do not give me riddles.'

'I went to visit. It was her nephew Handir's birthday and I had a gift for the lad. Afterwards, I... we had an argument.'

'About?'

A slightly smug look came to his face. 'Me. And Moraen. Haleth does not like that I am so much in her company.'

'And just what do you let her believe?'

'Whatever she wishes. I tell her nothing and do not contradict any rumors.' Finduilas sighed and shook her head, motioning for him to continue. 'So, we argued, and I tired of being scolded so... I... kissed her.'

'And she preferred that to arguing as well?'

'Mmm-hmm.' The smug look left his face and he looked away. 'I was... a knave. I took more than a kiss, and she threw me out.'

'A knave?' He sighed and bowed his head, covering his face with his hand. 'Are you telling me that you forced yourself on her?'

'No! I am a knave, not an animal. It was she who led me to her bed.'

'So, you are wed.'

'I am not wed and she is dishonored and why did I ever listen to you?'

'When did she throw you out?'

'This morning, early.'

'Why?'

'We woke and...' he made a waving gesture with his hand, 'and after that I said now she had no choice but to marry me. She kicked me out of bed - I have bruises! - and scarce let me pull on clothes before chasing me out of the house and saying I should never come back.'

Finduilas sighed. 'Men are such fools.'

'If we are it is because of you women!'

'At such a time, you should speak of nothing but how beautiful your love is, if you speak at all. Best not to say anything.'

'Not that I'll have another chance,' was his morose answer. 'I'm going to have to wed Moraen after all.'

'No, cousin. I can See you. You will sicken if you touch another now.' She motioned away his curious look. 'There will be time to explain that later. Here is what you do now. You wait a day, and then go to her with a gift, but not a ring! Nothing even like a ring. If you have something that belonged to your grandmother, I think that her tastes would suit Haleth.' Borondir nodded. 'Say only that you are sorry you angered her. Ask for nothing else. She will probably send you away. If she does, wait a day or two, and return again, and ask her to forgive your foolishness. Do this until she does and it will probably be a fortnight. After that, you do as she says, and never, not once, so much as breathe a hint of the word "marriage".'

'I don't understand. I thought all women wished to wed.'

'Most do, but she is a proud woman who has ordered her own affairs for years, like Aiavalë, not a girl waiting for her father to approve her suitor. She will love like a man, as it pleases her.' Finduilas smiled and tugged a lock of Borondir's hair. 'And you obviously please her very much.' He flushed to the roots of his hair. 'Once she accepts you back, you do your best to get her pregnant.'

'Pregnant?'

'Yes, pregnant. She may toy with you, but she will not shame her child. Let her be the one to say when it is time to wed.'

Borondir gave her a sour look. 'What if she won't, even then?'

'You two are already wed, Borondir. You simply skipped over the first few weeks and jumped right into arguing. If she did not mean to keep you, she would not have given herself to you. Simply be a husband to her and it will work out.'

***

Minas Tirith, 22 March, 2983 T.A.

Morwen sat on the couch and took the cup of wine gratefully. 'Thank you, Denethor.'

'Beregar says the guesthouse will be ready for you inside the hour.'

'You are patient with this sudden guest, Warden,' the woman answered, patting the seat next to her so that he would sit. The queen was nearly unchanged from the last time Finduilas had seen her. The greatest difference was in her eyes. Her gaze was no longer so bleak, and curiosity sparkled in them once more. 'I am sorry the Lord Steward was not able to meet me this afternoon. I trust that he is well?'

The edges of Denethor's mouth turned down in disapproval, though his voice remained pleasant and assured. 'Very well, Morwen. He is simply unable to set aside Tower business on such short notice, and will see you on the morrow.' Finduilas tried not to giggle. He is off playing truant with Boromir and you have no idea where he is. The pups had been sent out to scour the City and find the Steward. Even Scratch had been called upon. Finduilas suspected that Ecthelion and Boromir had hitched Boots to a cart and were out on Beregar's farm. Aiavalë was also missing and was probably with them.

'And yet he could spare you at once. I must thank him for his generosity,' the queen graciously replied, though her expression gave evidence of her disbelief. Morwen and an éored of Riders had appeared unannounced before the gates in the early afternoon, bound for the Langstrand. She intended to spend the summer there with her daughters and grandchild.

'I do not rue the current company,' Brandir said, taking Finduilas' hand. He had quickly claimed the seat next her when they came to her study. 'Where is my nephew?'

That made Denethor scowl. Finduilas laughed gaily and gave Brandir a kiss. 'I send him out when it is light so he can run up and down. He is with Hunthor and will be back when he is tired. But not too tired to visit.'

'I wish I could have brought Théodred with me,' Morwen said, her face brightening at the thought of her grandson, 'especially after hearing about your sojourn with Boromir last year. Indeed, it is what inspired me to do this! But Théoden...' She grimaced and drank some wine. 'He did not want the boy gone for so long.' Morwen gave Denethor a long look. 'And not here.'

'Is that so?'

'It is so.' The queen sighed, shaking her head. 'That letter was poorly done, Denethor.'

'Not as poorly done as Éomund's abandonment of his post.'

'But he is a fool, and you cannot afford to be one, Warden,' she coolly replied.

Brandir's grip tightened sharply on Finduilas' hand, warning her to be silent. 'You have made a threat, brother,' he said mildly, 'and one that may not be set aside, by you or Théoden. You should not threaten death to someone unless you mean it.'

'If a shepherd allows a rogue sheep dog to maraud his neighbor's flocks, he must expect the animal to be killed. Thrice upon our soil has Éomund shown himself to be untrustworthy.'

'I do not argue that he is a danger, Denethor,' Morwen said, 'but you have ended up strengthening him. And Gríma.'

'How are they strengthened by word of Éomund's failure and flight?' Finduilas demanded, pulling her hand from Brandir's grasp. 'I should think a lord would be shamed by such a man.'

'And he is, but Gríma is now the greatest champion of Éomund, and says that Rohan's honor is slighted by the arrogance of Gondor. He has told Théoden to honor Éomund as a rebuke to our proud neighbor.'

'What tales does Éomund and his men tell?' Finduilas asked Morwen.

'Boasts. Lies, I think. Some men say nothing and have left that éored. Few question when there is a chance to be scornful of Gondor.'

Denethor cocked his head, thoughtful. 'And what honors have been given?'

'Great. Éomund has been made chief Marshal of the Mark.'

'At Gríma's insistence?'

'Yes.'

Denethor's smile was a thin line. 'You have given me much to think on, Morwen. Alas, I am required for Tower business and may not stay.' He rose and bowed to her and Finduilas. 'My ladies, if you will excuse me. Brandir, you are needed.' He strode from the room. With a quick kiss for each woman, Brandir hurried after him.

After the door closed, Morwen growled and set her wine down. 'Men! They are fools.'

'It is the truth, Morwen.'

'Oh, I have no doubt. Nor does Théoden, but his hands are tied. Had Denethor said that the fate of a Gondorian for such a betrayal would be death and simply refused him passage, that would have been enough to send the man out to herd sheep the rest of his life, but now it is a challenge.'

'So how does the Mark intend to make amends for Éomund's folly?'

'Aldwyn is for Denethor to give away as it pleases him.' Morwen's voice became hard. 'I am to give the Warden a letter explaining this. What of the man who asked for Aldwyn before, the captain?'

'Gethron? He is still unwed and I think he is truly fond of her. He is a good man of Dol Amroth.'

'I remember him somewhat. What has he said to her?'

'Nothing. I know she was once cheerful in his company, but that was a year ago and her heart may have changed.'

Morwen made a face. 'I do not want her being married off by Denethor, and would deny his choice simply because of his pride, but if this is a man she would want...'

'He is here in the City. You may take his measure.'

'I leave the day after tomorrow. That is not enough time.'

'Then take him with you. I will arrange for Gethron and some of my guardsmen to accompany you. If you disapprove, send them back. If you approve, take him to Dol Amroth and let him do some business while you speak to Aldwyn. And do not show that letter to Denethor until Aldwyn has settled on a man and I know of it!'

'What we truly need is Ælric's wise council. He could unbend the stiffest, proudest neck. Even Gálmód would give him his due.' Morwen smiled ruefully. 'I am a poor guest, cousin. We should speak of more pleasant matters,' she pointed at Finduilas' belly, 'like that!' The women spoke of less contentious things until Beregar came to say the guesthouse was ready for the queen. They parted, Morwen promising to return for supper.

Denethor returned an hour later. Casting himself on the couch, he said, 'We found them.'

'We?'

'Me and Brandir. He's with them now.' Denethor glanced at Finduilas. 'What think you, prince, of the news from Rohan?'

It is all in a fall of golden hair. 'I think Gríma intends to send Éomund back here to his death.'

***

Minas Tirith, 2 May, 2983 T.A.

After Morwen departed for the coast, a dozen guardsmen and Captain Gethron joining her éored upon command of the Steward to honor her passage, Brandir had remained. He stayed in Imrahil's rooms, though he was most often to be found in Aiavalë's. The two spent much time together. He was her patient shadow, fetching, carrying, scribing, reading, and otherwise serving her as she oversaw both Archive and Tower. Though he did what Denethor bade him, Brandir mostly ignored his brother-in-law. He had finally returned to Anórien in mid-April, saying it was time to weed out poisonous things before they took root in the warmth of spring.

'Look for me near yáviérë, sisters,' he said as he kissed them farewell, 'when I return to see the new harvest.'

Wren had gone with him and not a moment too soon. She had stayed through the birth of Aeluin's daughter Findis, but it was increasingly difficult to have her and Aiavalë together. The time Aiavalë spent with the Steward angered Wren, leading to several quarrels. The younger sister had stopped going to the archives entirely, choosing to spend her time as Moraen's companion as the other continued her quest for a husband. There was certainly no lack for suitors, and Moraen reveled in the attention. Since Borondir had confessed his mating to Finduilas, she had forbidden him to accompany Moraen to parties and dinners, lest others draw the wrong conclusion about the object of his affections. Instead, she and Denethor went with the two, leaving Boromir and Mab with Auntie Monster and Uncle Fool.

Borondir had said no more about his wooing of the proud Haleth, and outwardly, he gave no sign of thinking of anything besides numbers and stores. The light of his heart was like banked embers, an occasional beautiful blaze of fire gleaming out through dusky ashes, hinting at the warmth within. Denethor had not noticed this change in his cousin, but Finduilas was certain Aiavalë and Brandir had, given the looks they exchanged when the Quartermaster was near.

Since Wren had left, the Steward was able to come to the house to collect Boromir. A few times, Finduilas had gone down to the kitchen to wash out her tea mug and had found the two of them sitting at the kitchen table while Dúlin fussed and fed them. Ecthelion had started the first time it had happened, and had stood to leave, but Finduilas waved him back to his seat as she brushed by to the sink. She told the pups to keep an eye on the lane and let it be known if Denethor approached. Last week, she had come upon Beregar showing Findis to the Steward. He had shown up every day since then to see his great-granddaughter and join Boromir for an adventure.

Finduilas sat on the couch in her study reading letters. She truly had tried to conduct business that morning, but the growing size of her belly conspired with the heat of the day to make her lazy. Beregar tapped on the door jamb to get her attention.

'My lady? One of the pups begs a word with you.'

'Show him here.' In a few minutes, Beregar returned, followed by Ingold. He was the oldest of the pups, perhaps seventeen, still too young for a beard, but beginning to lose the gangling limbs of youth. Around his neck hung this badge of office, a dog's tooth on a chain. Beregar motioned for Ingold to approach. The wretched urchin who had landed on the doorstep more than five years before had turned into an impish young man, always a bit ragged but never lacking a smile. Today, his smile was subdued.

Finduilas smiled at him to try to win a more wholehearted smile from the youth. It worked. 'Ingold, dear pup, what do you wish to speak to me about?'

'I... I... It is time for me to leave, my lady.'

'Leave? I do not understand.'

'The Hound, he gives us rules. Good rules! He makes us honest men,' Ingold said, bowing his head to Beregar. 'We keep the Lair clean, we don't brawl or steal, we serve you and no one else.'

'I know how well I am served by my Hunt' Finduilas glanced at Beregar, who was looking at Ingold sternly. A worry crossed her mind. 'Are you saying you have broken the Hound's rules and must leave?'

'No!' Now Ingold was indignant. 'There is no one who has been a better pup than me, not even Borthand!'

'Then I do not understand why you leave.'

'He's an honorable man now,' Beregar said, and Finduilas realized underneath the stern demeanor was pride, 'so it is time he take his place as one.'

'I have been prenticed, my lady. I've come to say farewell and... um... and... to ask for your blessing.' Ingold knelt before her and bowed his head.

Finduilas began to cry. 'I am sorry you are no longer mine, but we must do as Beregar says.' She placed her hand on the crown of Ingold's head. 'Bless you for your loyal heart. May naught but good ever come from your hands.' Ingold rose, also weeping. He drew from around his neck the Hunt's token and handed it to Beregar. Finduilas embraced the youth, kissing his cheek. 'Farewell, Ingold.'

Beregar took Ingold away, returning soon with a damp cloth for her face. 'Forgive my foolishness, Huan,' Finduilas said, wiping away her tears.

He smiled. 'There is nothing to forgive, my lady. You have a tender heart.'

'I feel such a goose for never having thought about this before. Is this what happens to all of my pups?'

'Most of them. Borthand was placed with your brother, of course, and another became a soldier. The rest have been prenticed as seems best. Mother and Mistress Primrose help me with that.'

'So where has Ingold been placed?'

'There's a bricklayer that needs a good boy.'

'Bricklayer?' Finduilas thought upon the scamp. 'He hardly seems strong enough.'

'A little lifting will build him up. Ingold's clever, but he can't read or write, else I would put him in a more learned craft.'

Finduilas thanked Beregar and asked him to get her some tea, then pondered the boys in her care. They cannot remain pups. They are men, or soon to be, and must have a way in the world. Is it not better for Ingold to lay bricks than to learn ciphers or swords, like Magor and Borthand? Her cheer disappeared as she thought of these two. Of Magor, there was no word. Nothing escaped Umbar. Even birds were brought down by hunting falcons. As for Borthand... Borthand and Imrahil both had disappeared. Gethron had sent word back when he reached Pelargir that Imrahil had vanished without a trace sometime in March. Denethor said nothing, no matter how she entreated. I know how Morwen feels, at least a little. In silent agreement, neither had spoken to anyone in the house of her brother's absence.

Beregar brought her the tray of tea fixings but had not put the herbs to steep in the pot. He knew what she meant to drink. Finduilas had become very good at mixing only a few grains of the powder with a small bit of hot water, just enough to chase away shadows and soothe the fussing child within her. The jar was almost half gone now. She no longer dreamed of Númenor. It is gone. I claimed from it what was needed, and thus it finally perished. Now her dreams were of another downfall - Minas Tirith besieged and crumbling. From the battlefield, a creature with Imrahil's face looked for her.

A tap on the door roused her from her dark thoughts. 'Yes?'

'Finduilas? I must talk to you.' It was Borondir's voice. She struggled to her feet and waddled to the door. Borondir did not allow her to speak. 'You have to come with me. Now. Haleth agreed and you must witness it.'

I should have drunk more tea. 'I cannot walk all the way to first...'

'She is at my house, waiting.'

Finduilas made him sit in the front room and wait while she called for Mírwen to help her change and fix her hair. She dressed plainly, remembering Haleth's disdain for becoming a lady. As they left the house, they ran into Aiavalë coming down the lane. She took one look at Borondir and Finduilas and broke into wide grin. 'You two wait but a few minutes! I will join you,' she said and hurried into the house. As good as her word, she was back very quickly, and they walked to Borondir's house. An old woman opened the door and bowed them in.

'Maireth, where is my lady?'

'In the parlor, my lord,' she answered, gesturing down the hall.

'You wait here,' Finduilas ordered him when he began to move. 'I must speak to Haleth first.' She motioned for Aiavalë to come with her. Haleth was not sitting when they came in, though she showed no other sign of tension. She greeted them with a slight bow but said nothing. It was odd to see her in a dress rather than trousers and her leather work apron; the long skirt made her seem even taller. Finduilas took her time studying her, looking for love. 'Mistress Haleth, good afternoon.'

'Good afternoon, my Lady, Archivist.'

'Borondir says that you have consented to his suit.' Haleth nodded curtly. 'Why?'

'I carry his child.'

'Then I forbid it.'

That brought emotion to the woman's face. 'Forbid? You cannot!'

'I most certainly can. Or the Warden can.'

'Why would you?' Haleth demanded, hands on her hips. Good, fight for him. 'You have no reason to stop...'

'I have every reason to stop this. You have treated him meanly for months, you prevent a much more advantageous marriage to Lady Moraen...'

'She cares nothing for him!'

'...you spurned his honorable requests, and now you behave a slattern and bring shame upon him and his kin.' Aiavalë nodded emphatically and crossed her arms over her chest, giving Haleth a stern look. 'Given your treatment of my dear cousin, how can I be certain that is his child?'

Haleth's cheeks were flaming red, but she did not drop Finduilas' gaze. 'He is mine, and this child is ours, and you may rule Gondor, but you will not forbid this!'

'Why not? You have yet to give me a good reason to let you claim him.'

'Because I love him.'

Finduilas crossed her arms, pleased, but wanting more. 'Words. I think you entrap him.'

'I gave him myself, and asked for naught else, so that he would know I wanted nothing from him. I am not like the other women who wish his station, but not the man himself. Were it not for the shame that vile people would heap upon him and his child, I would not wed at all!' The light in Haleth's heart would put the sun to shame. 'Forbid us if you like. I will not obey.'

Finduilas looked at Aiavalë. 'What think you?'

Aiavalë studied Haleth intently. She reached in her pocket and drew out a small pouch from which she pulled a necklace and fastened it around Haleth's neck. Upon it was strung a dark ruby shaped like a tear. 'I think I cannot rue having another fierce woman about to keep our ridiculous men in order.' Aiavalë kissed Haleth's cheek. 'This was given to me by my Aunt Andreth, Borondir's grandmother. She would approve of you, for she brooked no man or woman gainsaying her.'

Finduilas held out a hand to the woman, who took it warily. 'I also approve, but I ask you to marry Borondir not to save him shame, but to give him greater joy.'

That made Haleth drop her head with a sigh. 'I am no lady, Finduilas. I have told him I cannot be that kind of wife...'

'And who would want such a silly creature?' Aiavalë snorted. 'Not meaning any insult to you, Alquallë, but a lady is a useless thing, at least in this family. We'll have a use for you...'

'...which is to marry Borondir soon lest he die of despair in his own hallway,' Finduilas ended. 'Are you ready, Mistress Haleth?'

'Yes.'

Finduilas went to the door and called for the others to come in. People were quickly sorted out and the lovers stood before her. She took Borondir's hand palm up in her own. Haleth placed her own across his. 'Do you now pledge, each to the other, thy very heart and soul, in love and forever?' she asked.

Haleth and Borondir did not speak, but looked at each other, their smiles growing. He leaned over their hands and kissed his wife tenderly. 'Forever,' he said.

'Forever,' Haleth agreed, and kissed him back.

***

Minas Tirith, 2 July, 2983 T.A.

The heat was unbearable. Finduilas grimaced as Denethor helped her get out of bed, her distended belly making her feel grotesque. For several days, she had thought the labor was going to start, but the contractions always stopped and went away. He drew a light, loose shift over her and settled it into place. His hands were the only ones she could bear to have upon her now. The loëndë festival this year had been a trial because the crowds pressed close to get a glimpse of her and to touch her for good luck. More than once, the strong sunlight had left her dazed, and she thought she was surrounded by Orcs lunging to seize her. Denethor had insisted she retire after only a few hours. Boromir had drawn her pictures of the fair before the City since she could not go there herself.

The watchers knew her time drew near. She felt their eyes upon her, from both east and west. In her dreams, a burning king marched from the south, while another watched from a tower in the north, cold and heartless as ice. She held an orb of crystal in her hands as she stood upon the promontory and in it she watched the never-ending downfall of Men, and the White Tree remained barren, sending forth not leaf nor flower nor fruit.

'What may I get you, Alquallë?'

'Some fruit, if Dúlin has any, and water.'

Denethor swiftly returned with both. He cut the melon slices into bite sized chunks while she mixed a cold mug of her tea. Laanga had sadly said last week that he saw no signs of a new shoot in the high hallow above the City. The herbalist had come to see her and give her other herbs to help with her impending labor. Denethor watched her finish her tea, face grim. He had heard the news, too.

'How long, do you think?'

'How long what, friend?'

'Before the baby comes? Another day? Two?'

'I hope not! Soon. Why?'

His eyes strayed to the mug. 'I need to go to the garrisons...'

'It is not there, Denethor.' He shrugged. 'You think to go to Ithilien and search near Wren's farm. There is no Tree there.'

'No harm in looking.'

Finduilas shook her head at his stubbornness and stood to go to the privy. As she did, a strong grip seized her middle and squeezed, making her grab the chair back for support. Denethor was at her side in a heartbeat. 'Besides,' she said when she could breathe again, 'I think the child will come today.'

Finduilas breathed a sigh of relief. Finally! She was more than ready for this child to come. This time, she hoped for a son. Her dreams made her fear for a daughter. She also was not going to be a helpless goose as she was when Boromir was born. 'It will be hours yet, of course, so there is plenty of time to prepare,' Finduilas said briskly. 'See that Boromir is readied and send him to Ecthelion with a note to let the Steward know he must keep him the entire day. Tell Aeluin to come up.' Denethor hastened to do her bidding. Very quickly, things were set in order. Hunthor and Beregar moved some furniture from her room and rolled up the Haradic carpet, replacing it with some straw and cotton mats. Aeluin directed Mírwen and Nellas on straightening the room, getting cloths and sheets folded just so and set in handy places, laying a fire in the hearth, and hauling a wash basin, kettle and water up from the kitchen. As soon as Denethor returned from the Tower, he took a seat next to her and began brushing her hair to put it into a neat, loose braid.

'I'm not leaving you,' he said quietly as his fingers wove her tresses together.

'I want you to stay. And I want you to wear the lanyard.'

His hands stopped for a moment. 'Why?'

'I think... it will turn aside a gaze.' Denethor rose and went to his study. She heard a drawer open, some rustling, and then he was back, returning to his work. A chair in the study creaked. For all that you have and will require of us, I ask that you defend us now.

Yes, child. That is fair. A soft breeze came through the windows, bearing a hint of salt. The malevolence in the east receded.

'Have you sent for Lhûn, yet?' Denethor asked as he tied off the braid.

'No. When my water breaks, that will be time enough.'

Through the morning, they sat or walked slowly around the house, waiting for their child to come. Moraen and Aiavalë attended them, sitting quietly to the side. The contractions were different than she remembered from Boromir's birth, fewer, but more purposeful, and she could sense the child moving inside her. She hoped this would be like Aeluin's delivery in April which was done within a few hours.

Just before noon-tide, her water broke. Mírwen was sent to the healers to notify Lhûn. Denethor helped Finduilas out of her shift and into an old robe that could be more easily removed when it was time. The child was definitely moving lower and pressing between her hips. 'I think this will be soon, Denethor,' she began when a powerful contraction seized her so tightly she thought she would be broken in two. 'Very soon.' Another contraction hit her, and another swiftly followed. 'No. Now.' Denethor called for Aeluin as Finduilas discarded the robe and seized his hands again, crying out in pain as the child began pushing its way out.

Aeluin came in. 'I sent Mírwen back and told them to hurry.'

'Bring cloths over. I don't think they'll be in time. Friend, come over here,' Finduilas led him to one of the mats. 'Kneel here and be ready to catch the baby when it comes out. Use the rags, for there will be blood and the babe will be slippery.' She placed her hands on his shoulders and leaned on him, squatting slightly as though relieving herself. Aeluin pulled the chamber pot from under the bed, knowing that not just babies were brought forth in a birth, and took her place behind Finduilas, ready to support her.

All that mattered was breathing and bearing down. She felt the large lump of the child butt a passage inch by painful inch, wiggling free of its placid pond to join the torrents of the wider world. It was like passing a melon. 'I see her! I see her head!' Denethor called out, leaning forward to catch the babe. Aeluin's arms circled Finduilas, keeping her from falling. It took several more agonizing pushes before the child slithered out into Denethor's waiting hands.

'Wipe its face!' Aeluin ordered. 'It has to breathe. Mírwen! Where are the midwives?' The matron helped Finduilas sink to the floor, shaking and panting, before crawling forward to help with the child. Finduilas lay still, letting them do their work. Even in the heat, she felt chilled as her sweat dried. Shortly, the baby began to fuss and cry.

There was a thunder of feet on the stair, the door opened and the midwives flooded in, Lhûn barking orders like a sea captain. 'Ioreth, help me with the cord. You two, get the water hot. Here, take the boy. Denethor, get out of the way!' Denethor moved to kneel behind Finduilas, hunching over her protectively. Finduilas did not open her eyes, but held up a hand, which he seized. Lhûn touched her belly, palpating for something. 'You're not quite done, daughter. The blood knot is still in.' Finduilas felt something tugging inside and her womb cramped again hard enough to make her writhe. A tearing sensation, as when the mariner first touched her and left her wounded, and something wet and bloody emerged. She shook, trembling too hard for her wings to obey her and allow her to escape, her white feathers blackened by her blood. Denethor cradled her against his chest, the collar of thorns clawing at them both.

The next few minutes passed in a blur. She knew Denethor picked her up, that she was washed off and dried, and finally tucked under a sheet on the wretchedly uncomfortable birthing bed. She just wanted to sleep. Denethor hummed to her, his hands rubbing away the pain. Too soon, a bundle was set down next to her.

'You have another son, Finduilas,' Lhûn said softly. 'Not as big as the last one...'

'Oh, I know that.' The healers all laughed. Finduilas did not resist as Lhûn got the baby to nurse. Denethor had already arranged for a wetnurse so that she would not be drained by this baby as she had been with Boromir. This little bit would not matter. The child was as tired as she was and fell asleep after a few desultory sucks.

'Alquallë?' Denethor brushed her cheek with a finger. Finduilas struggled to open her eyes. He sighed and placed a kiss on the top of the baby's head. 'I'm sorry. Not a daughter.'

Finduilas smiled. 'He will do.'



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Last Update: 10 Mar 12
Stories: 8
Type: Reader List
Created By: Aiwendiel


Of course there are thousands of stories out there, and I have only read a fraction of them. NOT intended to be a scientific survey! My picks of stories that I feel are particularly well written, stylistically interesting, lyrical... Regardless of era, topic or character.

Why This Story?

Truly exceptional writing by the very talented Anglachel, marvelously nuanced and mature, enriches understanding of the main characters as well as enhancing grasp of Gondor's recent history. Utterly believable backstory of Denethor II as portrayed by JRRT.

 

Story Information

Author: Anglachel

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - The Stewards

Genre: Drama

Rating: Adult

Last Updated: 07/01/09

Original Post: 02/23/04

Go to Hands of the King overview