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Hands of the King: 83. Lost

Minas Tirith, Early December, 2986 T.A.

It was good to have Moraen back in Minas Tirith. She, Imrahil and Aiavalë had returned to the City in early November, not long after Finduilas had been released from the Houses. While the boys rejoiced over their boisterous Auntie Monster and mischievous Uncle Imrahil, Finduilas was grateful for Moraen's quiet, gentle presence. The Lady's Grace had suffered greatly since September and was in dire need of attention. Moraen had looked over the records, visited the Lady's Houses, and set about putting things to right. Finduilas watched her sister-in-law work and tried to let grief go. She could not yet bear to look upon the ledgers, for it reminded her of Wren and how they and Borondir had created the Lady's Grace ten years before.

How did it come to this? Finduilas blew on the steaming mug of tea in her hands, hoping for Moraen to arrive soon and distract her from wandering this grey, barren path. Every time she thought she had found a start to the steps that led to Denethor kneeling before her, begging for punishment and release, another one would appear, leading further into the past. If Brandir had kept Maiaberiel from her intrigues. If Thorongil had refused friendship with the woman. If Ecthelion had not played his children off against each other. If the bastard daughters had been forbidden to her. If a different bastard daughter had been given to her. Too many steps. There were places along the way where the path could have strayed in another direction. So many crimes averted. There were many paths that crossed, each one a possibility. Or this path ended sooner, with less grief. She closed her eyes and cursed herself for letting that thought into her mind. That is what should never have happened, soon or late, and there was no way to speak of it.

It had changed Denethor, just as Thorongil's flight had done, save in a worse way. He was like Huan after Eilenach. Until now, Denethor had been the one wronged and who had acted with forbearance. He had to. She would have killed us all. But it did not need to have been his hand. As with Malantur, he could have... She sipped her tea, knowing he would not have left it to someone else. Malantur was like Elatan and Hallatan, merely a traitor to be executed. This was his own honor, lost either way. Now they were left waiting for the backlash of cruelty that always followed upon the heels of his times of helplessness to make itself known, treating others about him as savagely as he had treated his own soul. It had been held in abeyance because of her illness and then waiting for the cleansing of Anórien to run its course. Something else was hanging over Denethor, but she could not figure out what. She knew he looked often into the palantír and that it left him grim. He had not come to her bed since she returned from the Houses.

The door opened and in came Moraen, red-cheeked from the cold and wearing a enormous smile. 'Finduilas, good morning!'

'And good morrow to you, sister!' Finduilas rose and embraced Moraen.

'I have a secret I must tell someone or else I will burst!' Moraen said.

'Is it a happy secret?' The woman nodded. 'Then I will hear it.'

'I think I have conceived!'

Finduilas squealed and hugged Moraen tightly. 'Oh, I hope it is true! Why do you think this?'

'It has been almost two months since we wed and I have not had a moon flux yet. I should have had at least one by now.'

'You must be very careful,' Finduilas warned, 'until you know you have missed three. Who else have you told?'

'Just you.'

'Not Imrahil?'

Moraen's smile faded. 'I don't want to say anything until...when I know it is true and that all will be well.'

'You should tell him. He will be joyful and then you will have a wonderful secret together.'

'But what if...'

'Then you will need him even more. I know what I'm saying. In fact, you should go tell him right now!'

'He's in council. It won't stay a secret if I tell him there, will it?'

'Hmm. I guess not. Then tonight.' Finduilas grinned wickedly. 'Seduce him, then tell him. He will do anything you ask for weeks after that.' They both laughed. 'But you will come with me this morning when I go to see Lhûn. No one will remark that you are going to the Houses if you go with me.'

To this Moraen happily assented. When she pulled out the ledgers and reports, Finduilas made herself sit at the desk and look at them with her. In the late morning, they paid a call upon Warden Lhûn. Finduilas wrapped herself up, even veiling her face, though the day was not too cold. When the vapors had issued from Imlad Morgul, Sauron had begun casting his eyes west once more, seeking her out. The combination of that and her grief was what had weakened her so much. Scarcely a week went by that she did not feel his eyes upon her. If she was in the house, she could curtain the windows to darken the room and turn her back, making it hard for him to see, but upon the street, she had no such defense.

Moraen looked at her curiously when they walked out. 'Are you not feeling well, Finduilas?'

'I am still a little weak. Everyone tells me that I must not risk a worse cough, so I wrap more warmly than I need to.' It was all true, if not the real reason.

'Oh, of course! Forgive me being a fool.'

Warden Lhûn was pleased to see them. Finduilas received a light scolding for failing to add any more flesh to her frame since she last visited. All food tasted of ash and poison to Finduilas; only Laanga's teas seemed wholesome. Lhûn palpated Moraen's belly carefully, nodding. 'Yes, Moraen, you could be with child. Your womb is very firm and a little enlarged. No lifting heavy things or riding horses, and you must be careful of what you eat.' The healing warden wrote a note. 'Take this to Master Laanga and have him mix a tea for you and give you herbs to keep you and your babe strong.'

They stayed and dined with Lhûn and a few of her healers before going to the garden. Laanga greeted them warmly when they arrived. When he looked at Lhûn's note, he chuckled and kissed Moraen's brow. 'Congratulations, granddaughter!'

Moraen rolled her eyes in mock annoyance. 'Some secret this is turning out to be!'

'Oh, come now, do you think an apothecary doesn't know what his medicines are for?' Finduilas teased.

'Warden Lhûn said there were herbs and such that I should avoid,' Moraen said to Laanga. 'Can you show them to me so I know?'

'Yes! You should know them. Come with me now while I mix your teas, and I will instruct you.' Laanga looked at Finduilas. 'The garden is warm, Finduilas, and I have a guest there. Would you talk to him while I tend to Moraen?'

'Yes, I will.' Finduilas hastened into the garden, pausing only to give Crone Apple a swift hug before going to the bower. It was not who she hoped to see, and she was not certain she wished to speak to this man. Brandir was sitting tailor style at one end of the bench, reading from a small book. 'Brandir? I did not know you had returned.'

'Hello, Finduilas. Yes, we're back. Marlong is meeting with Denethor and Imrahil now.' Brandir shrugged. 'I suppose I should be there, too, but my feet bore me hence and here I am. Marlong knows what needs to be said.'

'If you wish to be alone, Brandir, I can go.'

Brandir closed his book with a sigh. 'If you do not wish to speak to me, sister, you need not. Nor speak falsehoods. You're not sorry Beri is dead. You wanted her dead.'

Finduilas looked at him a long while. Why did you not make her behave? Could I make Denethor behave? 'In a way, yes, I am sorry. I am sorry for all who have suffered because of her wickedness, even her. I did not want her dead. I wanted her to leave us alone and stop her intrigues.'

'I see. I wanted her dead.' His gaze did not waver. 'I told you I was despicable.'

Finduilas sat next to him. 'Yes, Brandir, perhaps you are. If what you truly wished for was her death, then you are more cowardly than despicable. You should have done it yourself and spared the rest of us.'

Brandir slumped down, defiance gone. 'I know.'

'Marlong reports to Denethor. You shall report to me. What have you done in Anórien?'

'Killed people. Burned things. Robbed and thieved. Was a proper lord.'

'Is rebellion at an end?'

'I have no one left to fight.'

'So, what will you do now?'

'I don't know, exactly. I don't like being a lord. I think I'm a better fool than a lord.'

'Probably. Will you go to Rohan?'

'If Denethor requires it, I will. I liked Thengel and the world he made. His son's court is different. Dangerous.' Brandir sighed. 'All the comfort and certainty of my youth has been lost. The village where I was born is emptied and much of it razed to prevent any return. There is only...' He gestured towards the east. 'That alone remains as it has always been.' After a long silence, he quietly said, 'Aiavalë wants me to stay with her. I don't think it wise.'

'No, it is not. Not yet. But you should come back with me now. Denethor know you are back and many will wish to see you.'

It was not long before Moraen and Laanga came into the garden to say they were done. Moraen greeted Brandir warmly, and he was a charming fool, asking about the wedding and her journey back to the City and other pleasant things. At the Stewards House, the children were overjoyed that Uncle Fool was back and kept Brandir busy most of the afternoon telling stories, fixing toys, and being led about to admire this thing or that. Aiavalë was scarce less happy than the children when she saw Brandir upon her return from the Tower. Denethor, Imrahil and Marlong came home close to supper.

'There you are,' Marlong said to Brandir, clapping the man on the shoulder. The captain's hair was noticeably greyer, but there was some life to his face. 'Where did you vanish to? We needed you for going over the Anórien reports.'

'I'm sorry,' Brandir said sheepishly. 'I remembered a book I had to return to Master Laanga, so thought to do it on the way up, then I got to talking with him, then Moraen and Finduilas arrived, and I had to come here, then...'

'Enough!' Imrahil held up a hand, laughing. 'Once captured by these two, you had no hope of escape.' Imrahil embraced Brandir. 'There's time enough for Tower business. I am glad to see you safely returned, friend Brandir.'

Through all of this, Denethor said nothing, watching Brandir with an unreadable expression. Finduilas tried to take his hand, but he would not clasp hers in return, turning aside to give his attention to Boromir and Faramir. Finduilas slipped away from the rest and went downstairs to the kitchen. Dúlin and Violet were chatting, Violet gathering her things to go home. 'Violet, may I ask a favor of you?' Finduilas asked.

'What do you need?'

'Your kindness. Lord Brandir has returned from Anórien. I do not think he wishes to return to his own house and we have not room for him here.'

'I will have rooms prepared for him at once, my lady,' Violet said, briskly pulling on her cloak. 'Will he need supper as well?'

'No. He will eat here.'

'I will be back shortly.' With a bob of her head, Violet hastened off.

Finduilas returned to the gathering in her study. The children were providing a welcome distraction from serious conversation. Mab was delighted to see his father again and was busily trying to tell Marlong everything that he had done in the last two months. Watching the joy in their faces, Finduilas hoped Denethor would not send Marlong out from the City again for a long time. Brandir and Denethor kept to opposite sides of the room, pretending not to notice each other. Several times, Finduilas saw Denethor reach up and feel for the lanyard under his shirt. During supper itself, Finduilas kept all conversation on the upcoming year end feasts and how much she was going to need Moraen and Aiavalë to help her plan them. When the meal was done, she said she needed to rest, and bade them all good night. Kissing Brandir's cheek, she murmured, 'Violet is waiting for you downstairs.'

'Thank you, Finduilas. When you wish to see me again, send for me.'

Once the boys were tucked into bed, Finduilas brought her mending into Denethor's study. He sat in his chair across from her watching the fire in the hearth. Almost an hour passed before he spoke. 'I thought you were tired. You should rest.'

'I will rest later. We need to speak.'

'On what?'

'Brandir.'

'What of him?'

'Aiavalë wants him here, but I do not. I sent him to Violet.'

'Good.'

'Does he know?'

'He said he does not think Elatan killed her.'

'What will you do with him?'

'Nothing. He's a fool.'

'I think he would prefer that.'

Denethor shrugged. 'Then we all have what we want.' He stood. 'You have circles under your eyes. Get some rest.' Finduilas put away her mending and tried to embrace Denethor, garnering only a perfunctory kiss is return. In her bed, she huddled under the blankets, trying to ward off a sense of dread. Her fitful sleep became an all too familiar dream. The dark armies advanced upon the City. Upon the high walls, she read the message once again:

Why do you spurn me? Have I not given you a child? I can give you so much more. Take my gift and join me forever. I will not let you perish.

In her hand lay the golden gift. It was heavy, round, perfect. To take this thing was fraught, but to refuse it equally so. "Lúthien could have ended all strife by assenting to her true lord. She would have tamed his heart. Tame mine." She could ride out, cross the river, and bring an end to the centuries of battle. Above them, eagles circled. No. She held up her arms and an eagle stooped down, snatching her from the proud walls and high towers. I choose the Sea.

Finduilas woke, coughing, her lungs filled with water.

***

Minas Tirith, 6 January, 2987 T.A.

Denethor had tried to dissuade her from sitting in the Great Council, for it was going to be very long this year, but Finduilas insisted. 'You must leave no doubt as to who rules Gondor, or where their loyalty should lie.' She wore the Dwarf-stone on her brow to dazzle the lords even more. It was not only her fatigue and coughs that kept them away from the parties and gatherings in the City in the days prior to mettarë and yestarë; Finduilas wanted the lords to long for their Lord and Lady, to feel anxious that they had perhaps fallen from favor. Just as she had done when she first came to Minas Tirith, Finduilas distributed gifts to the populace, and she had all of her Queen's Men called in from the garrisons to be seen distributing the presents throughout the City. Everyone was eager to fly her banner or wear her favor, particularly those who had once been counted among the King's Men. Many women sent letters, begging for an audience with the Lady before mettarë, no doubt wishing to plead the case of their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons who had been part of that faction. Finduilas refused them all.

Lhûn and Laanga had reluctantly agreed to prepare strong draughts for Finduilas to take during the feast days and again for the Great Council so that she would not cough too much. There would be a price later, but she could not appear to be ill. Enemies and allies alike should think her strong. There was nothing to be done about her weight.

Denethor escorted her into the Hall of the Kings, and all rose at their entrance. The usual council chamber was too small to hold all of the lords who wished to attend this year's Council. Denethor could have chosen to limit the Council to only the highest of the nobles, but he thought it would be good for the lords to sit before the throne and understand who truly spoke and acted in the king's name. The floor of the hall had been cleared and several tables brought in and set together to accommodate the many lords whose rank entitled them a place there, and chairs filled the space between the table and the walls so that lesser nobles could sit and listen. Even Lord Duinhir of Morthond had come. All of the major garrison captains were present, sitting to one side, and the ministers were opposite.

Finduilas took her seat at Denethor's right hand. Across from her was Brandir, not Aiavalë. The Archivist was seated among the ministers this year. After the noise of the lords seating themselves had faded from the hall, Denethor rose and offered the ancient invocation, then gestured for Lord Hirgon to begin his report of Pinnath Gelin. Finduilas watched the faces of the lords at the table and those along the northern side. If they had been expecting contestation, they were not going to get it, at least, not in the morning. The subdued reports should have been reassuring - the wet weather had relented, harvests were once more plentiful, and trade was better than ever. As they had agreed beforehand, Brandir did not speak when it came time for Anórien's report, but asked leave to address the province's affairs when Captain Marlong spoke. Finduilas tried to be amused that the last three to speak in the morning were all Swans. Adrahil spoke for Dol Amroth, Imrahil spoke of Ithilien, and Finduilas spoke of the Pelennor and Minas Tirith itself.

'The numbers in the City have declined,' she said, 'but for good reason. Peace is upon the land and people move freely beyond walls to seek their fortune. Even so, our warehouses in the lower circles are filled and overflowing, the workshops and forges ply their trades from early until late, and our markets show goods from all corners of the world.' Finduilas spoke clearly, though more slowly than was her wont, so as not to trigger any coughing. The potent draughts of the morning also made her thoughts slightly muddled. As others had spoken, she had made notes on her own report, and was able to make connections between the wealth and prosperity of the realm and the engine of their success, Minas Tirith.

The noontide meal was held in Merethrond as the Tower's dining hall was too small to hold everyone. Finduilas went to a small anteroom near the kitchens to rest briefly before the meal and take another draught. Denethor scowled as she made herself cough strongly to bring up whatever had gathered over the morning. 'You have done enough, Alquallë. None will think it strange that you retire to attend to your own business.'

'To the contrary, prince, you will need Gondor sitting at your side even more this afternoon. We can show no weakness when you speak of attacks. And I wish to observe who speaks to whom at dinner.'

'Aiavalë can do that.'

'She does not know the Outland lords the way I do.'

Once the standing silence was done, the hall filled with conversations. Finduilas was not very hungry, so drank her wine and watched. The lords who had ever voiced opposition to Denethor, no matter how slight, were the ones to observe. To her satisfaction, she saw that they avoided each others' company. Not wishing to be tarred with your fellows' treason? Wise. Nobles who had been part of the King's Men faction were most assiduous in seeking out lords who were of kin to the Steward or held the Steward's favor. Borondir, Adrahil, Imrahil and Forlong had the most men paying court to them. Brandir rebuffed such men, preferring to sit with Aiavalë and a few other ministers.

Lord Gundor and his son Golasgil shared a table with Minister Hallas and his son Minastan. Minastan had wed Gundor's daughter Míriel the previous spring, not long after tuilérë, and the couple was expecting a child in early summer. Finduilas smiled at the thought. The two lived in the City and had become dear to her. They were often guests at the Stewards House. No doubt their babe would become one of the pack of children that thundered between the houses all day long, a few of the Hunt loping alongside to make sure they did not come to any harm. Míriel was very happy to have conceived so quickly.

It had been swift, once Pharazôn had departed. Most had assumed she bore her husband's child. Had they known the truth, perhaps they would have chosen another to lead them. Now, she listened to the buzz of their debate as to whether to surrender the girl to her sire and hope to buy some peace. She is not yours to give. They would both perish ere she would hand over...

A sharp pain in her hand brought Finduilas back to herself. It took her a moment to fight through the fog of the medicine and recognize Denethor looking at her. He had one of her hands in his and had dug his nails into her palm. With a smile that did not reach his eyes, he lifted her hand to his lips and kissed her fingers. 'You're dreaming,' he murmured.

She smiled at him in return to cover her alarm and touched his cheek lightly. 'Yes. The wine.' She knew people were watching them. 'I need to eat something.'

'You need rest.'

'Later.' Finduilas made herself eat a slice of meat and some bread to sop up the wine in her stomach. Do not let your mind wander, goose! Even if it led to her coughing, she would take no more draughts today.

Denethor had the ministers speak before the captains when the Council met again after dinner. Only at the end, when dusk was falling and the shadows in the hall grew deep, did the captains report. Angbor of Linhir alone could report peace. Gildor reported that Poros had seen Orcs and Easterlings through the fall, ceasing only with the winter rains. Calmacil of Cair Andros spoke of the nearly constant incursions from the Morannon, growing worse in the fall and continuing even now. Anbar of Osgiliath spoke of the attacks that came with the poisoned mists, and of many more Uruks coming from Minas Morgul.

Marlong stood at Denethor's signal, face grim. 'Would that I had only Orcs or Easterlings to battle. Instead, I had traitors.' The hall was utterly silent. 'As each of my captains has reported, the moment we moved to quell rebellion in Anórien, Mordor struck. I spent a month emptying Anórien of the rebels who thought to divide us when I should have been upon our eastern marches, keeping our greater foe at bay. Of my own loss, you know too well.' Marlong bowed to Denethor and sat.

'Gondor will feel the pain of that rebellion in other ways,' Brandir said quietly. 'Much of the Anórien grain harvest we had counted upon to fill drained granaries from the years of wet weather has been destroyed, either through burning, battle or being left to rot in the fields. Those lands have mostly been emptied and their inhabitants moved. They will become wastelands.'

Denethor looked around the hall. 'I see here, today, faces of that rebellion. This may be the most grievous, but it is far from the first time this faction, the King's Men, have sought to bring civil war to Gondor, acting just as the first to bear that name acted towards the Faithful. I ask you now, my lords, have the Stewards given any man cause to resist our rule? Are our laws unjust? Our purse miserly? Whose fortunes have foundered due to our inattention? If you have complaints, do we refuse to hear you and repair a wrong done? Can any show how we have failed our troth to preserve Gondor, such that rebellion is justified? Speak now, if you can.'

There was a long silence, then Adrahil stood. 'My Lord Steward, there are none who may speak for there is no just complaint. There are only greedy men cozened by the lies and deceptions of outsiders, and...'

'The leader of this rebellion was of your own house, my Lord Steward.' Lord Duinmir stood, though his son, Duinhir, tried to keep him from rising. 'The leader of this faction was Lady Maiaberiel.' Duinmir looked directly at Brandir. 'It should not have taken war to stop her.'

'She was beaten and exiled for her earlier rebellion, Lord Duinmir,' Brandir replied calmly. 'When she refused to countenance the murder of the Steward's governor, she was murdered herself. She led nothing once she left Minas Tirith.' Duinmir and Brandir stared at each other for a long minute. Finally, Duinmir allowed Duinhir to coax him back to his seat.

Denethor stood. 'Once before, after Umbar, clemency was given to those who spoke against the Stewards, and some took that oath falsely. They slunk away and continued their treason. We are not without mercy, even now. Those who came to us by mettarë and begged for mercy have been judged. Punishment and forgiveness has been meted out. There will be no more.

'Any who once claimed to be of the King's Men and who has not subjected himself to our mercy is now outlaw, his life and property forfeit to the crown, his children thralls for any to seize. Any who give them comfort condemn themselves to the same fate. Those who surrender them to the Tower will be rewarded.

'Death is the price for rebellion from this day forward, for faction will bring death to us all. Faction will destroy us and leave us open to Mordor. We can see this in the captains' reports. We know this from history. This is how Arnor was lost. The Stewards shall not allow Gondor to suffer the same fate. None are exempt from this law, not even my own house.'

***

Minas Tirith, 26 January, 2987 T.A.

Denethor's edict spread quickly through the City and across the realm. If any opposed it, they were wise enough to remain silent. The day after the Great Council, Denethor had met for an hour with Lord Duinmir and had won over the suspicious lord's support. Duinmir had not looked kindly upon the King's Men who had retreated to Morthond after the first purge following Umbar, and Denethor had granted their lands to Duinmir in exchange for rooting them out. Denethor also promised to get favorable trading concessions from Dol Amroth for the metals mined in the rugged hills. Lord Duinmir and Lady Handeth had been guests at a small supper that evening. From the calculated way the two of them studied Boromir and Faramir, Finduilas suspected they were already considering their granddaughters' possible matches.

Lord Minastan had been made the governor of Anórien. Even if Brandir had been willing to take up the office, it would have angered many who resented Maiaberiel's arrogant rule and held him responsible for not bringing his wife to heel. Only Brandir's reputation as a simpleton kept him from worse than being scorned and snubbed. Aiavalë insisted that he not go about the City without her and a few guardsmen, at least until the Outland lords departed. Marlong and Gethron both heartily approved of Minastan's appointment, as did Imrahil. Minastan did not remove to Anórien, however, preferring to keep Míriel in Minas Tirith.

The days may have been grey, but the City was less dark to Finduilas. Denethor had finally returned to her bed, though she could tell there was still something bothering him. She thought it probably had to do with Thorongil. Even so, with Denethor's return, she was now spared the worst of her nightmares. Lark had come for year-end, as usual, and was a great comfort to both Violet and Aiavalë. Aldwyn came in from the garrison, and was comparing her belly to Míriel's and Moraen's. All three would bear their first child this year. Best of all, Ivriniel had come with their parents upon Seabird and was staying for a month. Luinil and Adrahil were delighted to have all their children and grandchildren gathered in one place, as well as taking the opportunity to strike trade bargains, discuss military strategy, and learn firsthand of all the intrigues of the capital. When the duties of the Lady fatigued her, or the gaze from the east became too heavy, Finduilas escaped to Vinyamar and let herself be doted on by her kin.

Today, it was just herself and Luinil in the house. Adrahil and Imrahil had ridden with Beregar and Boromir to the farm, while the younger women were all at Míriel's house so Finduilas could rest. The children were with Aeluin and Violet. When Luinil brought a tray of tea into the study, Finduilas recognized a certain thoughtful expression on her mother's face. Her mother poured them mugs and sat on the couch next to her, reaching out to stroke her hair. 'Lamb, are you well?'

'Well enough. Why?'

'I have been terribly worried about you since Imrahil brought the news last fall.'

'You should not. The danger has passed.'

'I heard that from you once before,' Luinil replied. 'You said Maiaberiel had been sent to a farm and was out of power. Now we find that she had been raising an army. I know that woman far too well to believe she was anyone's pawn, no matter what Denethor might say.'

'Anyone who knew her at all knew that.'

'Denethor should have known better than anyone,' Luinil snapped, 'yet he allowed her to get to the brink of rebellion!'

'There was no rebellion. There was no army. Elatan did nothing but send two of his men to kill Wren at Maiaberiel's behest.'

Luinil looked at her is confusion. 'None? But, then, what... was there no rebellion put down in Anórien? What of the plots by the King's Men?'

'True, their threat was growing. They had gained some strength after Ecthelion's death. Had they not been stopped, they would have rebelled. Denethor took advantage of Maiaberiel's mistake to eliminate them as a faction.'

Her mother sat back on the couch and sipped her tea, digesting this bit of news. 'So why did Elatan kill Maiaberiel if he had just done her bidding?'

'No one knows. Brandir killed the man before he could be questioned closely.'

'I know Maiaberiel was as ruthless as she was ambitious, but what did she gain by striking at Denethor's governor?'

'Maiaberiel and Wren have hated each other as long as I have known either of them.' Finduilas did not think Luinil needed to hear about Maiaberiel's threat to kill them all. 'When Denethor raised up Wren, mostly to bring an end to Beruthiel's tax skimming, she saw a chance to be rid of a rival.'

'And Denethor saw a chance to be rid of even more.'

'Yes.'

Luinil fell silent again, considering. 'I am grieved that Wren died, for she was an impressive woman, but I cannot rue Maiaberiel's demise.' She looked up from her contemplation of the cooling tea with a sharp glance. 'Here is something the Lord Steward should know. Along the falas, it is believed that the rebellion was started by Thorongil, and that Rohan was to come to his aid.'

'What?' Finduilas spluttered. 'Who says this?'

'Mostly wishful King's Men, who know better now than to give voice to their hope.'

'They hoped to overthrow the Lord Steward?'

'There are some, and not just King's Men, who wish for an estrangement of Rohan and Gondor.'

'Who? Not Morwen, I hope.'

'No,' Luinil said with a firm shake of her head, 'though Morwen does wish for Thorongil to return and counsel Théoden as he once did for Thengel. She has said this to me, and written again since we parted after Ecthelion's funeral. It is the young counselor...'

'Master Gríma.' Luinil nodded. It made sense that he would turn rumors of Thorongil to his own purposes. His visits to Minrimmon probably made him wary of Beruthiel's designs on Rohan, too. 'Morwen should have written to Denethor of these intrigues.'

'I asked her why she did not. She said she had spoken to Brandir, so not to blame her for the fault of the messenger. Also, she doesn't think Denethor to be sensible about Rohan, and has let his anger over Éomund blind him to Rohan's own concerns.' Luinil smiled wryly. 'When Morwen admits Gríma's concerns to be reasonable, then it would behoove the Lord Steward to pay some mind to our ally. They are threatened by Dunlendings in the west and Orcs from the northern mountains. Maiaberiel said they should both look for allies in the north, perhaps winning the return of someone they both sought, and this was seen as good counsel.'

'I see.' Finduilas thought on this information. 'When was the last time that you heard from Morwen?'

'A letter at midsummer saying she would not be able to travel to Dol Amroth for Imrahil's wedding. She lamented Denethor's stubbornness.'

'I know that Denethor sent Brandir to Rohan in August to negotiate new terms for the éoreds and for trade. There will be a closer relationship between Gondor and Rohan from now on.'

'I hope so. We cannot afford to lose any allies.' Luinil sighed and set aside her tea. 'You are certain that Thorongil will not return?'

'Do you hope he does?'

Her mother was silent for a minute, looking at the floor. 'I rue... the change that came over Denethor when the man departed so suddenly. Is there a chance that... well, with Maiaberiel gone...'

'No. He will not return while Denethor rules.'

'All the worse for Gondor.' Finduilas had no answer to what was probably the truth, so shrugged and finished her tea. Luinil sighed again and took her daughter's hand. 'Forgive me, lamb, for questioning you so closely. It is just that you have been in greater danger than you admit, and I can see how care is wearing you down.'

'Neither are as terrible as you imagine, Mother.'

'Sometimes I wish I had thrown Denethor from the keep when he argued with Adrahil and repealed his suit.'

Is there anyone who does not blame Denethor for all the ills they see? 'It would have been worse if you had. We would be under siege by Umbar and possibly in full civil war between Maiaberiel and Denethor. And I would be very unhappy.'

'You're happy now?' Luinil's tone of voice conveyed her skepticism.

Am I happy? Not really. Happiness seemed too slight a thing, frivolous and inconsequential. 'I am determined. And I find happiness. I have done as I wished and I do not rue my choices.'

'Others rue them for you.'

'I think I need to go home. I tire of hearing my husband scorned for defending Gondor.' Finduilas rose and left. When she got home, she went to her study and looked over the latest reports on the City and the Pelennor from Borondir. It was time for her to stop pining for those who were no longer here and tend the affairs of those who remained. The light was dimming when there was a clatter downstairs, soon followed by Boromir bursting in, Imrahil a few strides behind him.

'Mother, I need to go to Rohan and get a new horse,' Boromir said in a rush, bouncing from foot to foot as though he intended to dash out the door and be on his way in the next moment. Imrahil leaned against the door jamb and grinned. 'Boots is too little and he's not very fast.'

'Can't win a horse race with a pony, you know,' Imrahil helpfully added.

'Well, you have grown a great deal, Morcollë, so a bigger steed is in order, but I don't think you need to go to Rohan to get one. Will you give Boots to Faramir?'

'Yes, I will, but why can't I go to Rohan?'

'The best horse are there...'

'Imrahil!' Finduilas warned. 'Morcollë, you may not go to Rohan without the Steward's permission...'

'I'll go ask now.' With that, Boromir turned and trotted out the door. A few seconds later, she heard the Wall Door open and then bang shut.

Finduilas sighed and hid her face in her hands. Imrahil came over to the desk. 'At least Denethor will come home for supper promptly tonight,' he offered, earning a kick in the shin. He placed a kiss on the top of her head. 'What have you and Mother been quarrelling about? She was in a foul mood when we returned, and dragged father off to the study to scold him. I heard your name and thought to get the story from you.'

'We did not argue,' Finduilas testily replied, making Imrahil grin more widely.

'Of course not. You very courteously disagreed and now she's chewing Father's ear off.'

She scowled at him. 'I suspect you will be making a trip to Rohan sooner rather than later.'

Imrahil fetched himself some wine and flopped onto a couch near the fire, patting the seat next to him to get her to join him. 'Why?'

'To secure King Théoden's good regard. I don't think Brandir has been the most honest voice there.'

'He is not the only one.' Imrahil gave her an odd look. 'You spoke to me once of your dreams.'

'Yes.'

'What are they like now?'

'Much the same. I am watched.' Imrahil put an arm around her and hugged her to him. 'What of your own?'

'For a while, I dreamed of Grandfather hanging nets upon the shores and river banks, trying the keep fell things away from us. Always were his efforts in vain, for the burning king comes from the south and the nets fall before him. He burns down the City for her rebellion, then marches east amidst shadows to do battle with Mordor.' With a shake of his silver head, Imrahil said, 'I have never been certain who that king truly was, and for what rebellion we were punished, but my dreams ceased in the late fall after Denethor became Steward. I half expected them to return after Anórien, but they have not.'

He returned and foreswore both faction and borrowing. Finduilas shivered, knowing that it could have been otherwise. You could have returned and taken all, punishing and rewarding as it suited you, and none would have gainsaid your actions, anymore than they dared to oppose Denethor. You still could. Even Mother doubts Denethor now.

'So what made you and Mother argue?'

'It wasn't an argument. She thinks that I am tired and thin and that times have been dangerous.'

'Well, you are tired and thin, and you have been in great danger more than you should. I tell you what,' he said, putting an arm around her, 'when I am back from Rohan, and you are less worn, we shall go to Dol Amroth.'

Despite the argument with her mother, she wanted to see Dol Amroth again. 'Yes. I would like that.' He cannot see that far.

***

Pelennor, May, 2987 T.A.

Boromir spent much of the late winter and early spring sulking because Denethor would not allow him to accompany Imrahil to Rohan, but his bad mood vanished when Imrahil returned with a horse for him, a long-limbed dark bay gelding with a large star on his forehead. The horse was a little large for Boromir, but not by much. There was also a pleasant letter from Théoden, telling Boromir about the horse's lineage and how he had picked the animal himself. "Next summer, when you are ten, you must come to Edoras and dwell a while with us. My son, Théodred, would fain greet his cousin from Mundburg." Boromir had named the horse Rochallor and spent every spare hour at the stable. He had wheedled Denethor into riding with him several times, which Finduilas thought a good thing. The burdens of the Tower weighed heavily on Denethor.

Today, Finduilas was determined that all their burdens would be banished, if only for a while. She, Aeluin and Aiavalë had decided that this perfect spring day must not be wasted within the walls of the City, and had planned an outing to Beregar's farm. They were going to ride their horses there, and Boots would pull a cart with Laanga, Moraen, Faramir, and Findis. Imrahil declared it a grand idea, though Denethor had been silent. He kept his silence in the walk down the mountain this morning. Finduilas did not like that he brought the steel bow and collected a quiver of arrows from the garrison. Borthand rounded out the troop.

Though she had worried about the eastern watcher, she did not feel the cold weight of his stare as they rode out. The day was beautiful - warm and bright, with flowers springing forth and a clean, sweet scent in the air. Boromir, Imrahil and Borthand had a race to see who could get to the farm first, cantering back the others so that Boromir could proudly announce his victory. Finduilas looked carefully at her eldest son. He had grown greatly in the last two years, and was almost five feet tall, a half head taller than other boys his age. He was going to be a heavier man than his father, more like Borondir, but he had all of Denethor's grace. He saw her glance and urged Rochallor over.

'Did you see, Mother?'

'I saw the start, then you two were out of sight.'

'You should come race, too,' he said with a grin, 'then you will see the finish!'

At this, Gull snorted and pranced a few steps. She wore no bridle, for Finduilas could not bear to restrain the mare in any way. 'What say you, Mistress Gull?' Finduilas asked, patting her neck. 'Shall we show these young fellows what a race really looks like?' Gull nickered, striding to the front of the party, Boromir, Imrahil and Borthand bringing their own steeds up beside her. Finduilas took hold of Gull's mane and leaned down along the mare's neck. Aiavalë gave a count and shouted "Go!" and off they went. It was no contest as Gull left the other two horses in her wake. It felt good to fly along the narrow lane, though Finduilas knew she would be sore later. Gull pulled up at the gate to a track leading to a neatly kept cottage and waited for the others to catch up. 'I win!' Finduilas crowed.

It was not long before the rest of the party arrived. Boromir dismounted and opened the gate for everyone else. Finduilas also dismounted and walked with Boromir behind the others. 'That should teach you to dare a steed of the mearas to a race,' she teased.

Boromir grinned and shrugged. 'I know. I just wanted to see you and Gull run. Was it fun?'

Finduilas gave Boromir a hug. 'Yes, Morcollë. It was great fun!'

'You should come ride with me when Father can't. Or even when he can.'

'Perhaps I will.' In the midst of the Pelennor, under a glorious blue spring sky, the line of the Ephel Dúath obscured by trees and no burden of a dark gaze, she could think of few things more enticing.

That made Boromir smile happily. At the paddock, however, he was not pleased when she went to unsaddle Gull. 'Leave that to me, Mother,' he ordered.

'I can take care of my own horse.'

'You should not tire yourself,' he insisted. Boromir commanded Rochallor to stay, and reached between her and Gull, making her step back.

'Boromir!' Finduilas softly scolded. 'You are being rude. I said I can...'

'You're going to make yourself sick again!' he said sharply, glaring at her. Finduilas stared at him a moment, not sure what to do. 'I can do this.' She stepped back, out of his way. Boromir briskly unfastened the girth and pulled the saddle from Gull's back, placing it on the paddock rail.

'Unsaddling a horse will not hurt me.'

He turned to his own steed. 'You've been sick all winter. No, longer, since Aunt Wren died.' She saw him clench his jaw and blink his eyes rapidly. The second saddle joined the first. Finduilas touched his cheek and he laid a hand over hers. 'Please, Mama, let me do this. For you.'

'As you wish, Morcollë.' She kissed his brow. 'I think we two should ride a little bit every nice day so I can breathe this good air.' He nodded. With another kiss, she left him to his work. Aeluin called her to the cottage to show it to her. Next was the kitchen garden, where Laanga was already busily at work checking some herbs and vegetables he had planted, his bare feet and shanks speckled with the garden's rich loam. Finduilas went to sit with Moraen in the arbor. In the almond orchard nearby, Boromir and Faramir were up a tree, looking for bird nests. She saw a man walk down the lane and go to Beregar. They spoke a few minutes, then all the men went off to a field beyond the orchard to see something. It was not long before Aeluin, Finiel and Aiavalë were bringing dinner to the wooden table. Boromir was sent to fetch the others for the meal. Afterwards, Moraen went to the cottage to lie down and rest.

'Let's go to the creek,' Aeluin suggested, 'and give Moraen some quiet for her nap. It is warm enough that the children can splash in the water and not catch cold.' Beregar and Denethor stayed behind to look over another field, as did Laanga, who had already returned to his beloved garden. The rest followed a path behind the cottage that led down a small slope to a willow-bordered brook. There was a footpath to either side of the stream. Across the way, two women were washing clothes. Upstream, a few youths were casting lines into the water to catch supper. An old man dozed nearby, propped against a willow, his feet dangling over the shallow bank into the water. Voices from people hidden by the upper and lower bends and the overhanging trees carried along the water.

'There is a shallow pool not far further down,' Imrahil said. 'Perfect for water fights!' The children were soon shrieking in delight, splashing and ducking each other. Finduilas retreated from the battle, feeling a little weary from the morning's exertions. Boromir was right. I should let him take care of the horses. The cottage was too far to walk to, but there was a low wooden bench in some dappled shade, just perfect for a lazy spring afternoon. Finduilas rolled her trousers up and put her feet in the cool creek. The women on the other side finished their work and waved as they left.

There was a snort and a splash just over her shoulder. The old man was grumbling to himself as he tried to fish a basket out of the stream. 'Clumsy old... drown yourself if you're not... Hi, there, get back!' The last was said to the reed basket that eluded his grasp and floated down to Finduilas. She plucked it from the current. 'Hold that, daughter,' the man said, wading down the creek, 'I'll lose my ears if I lose that basket!' As he took the basket from her, he looked into her face and his eyes widened in surprise. 'Oh. Oh! Oh, my lady, pardon me.' Only a quick snatch saved the basket from tumbling back into the water as the old fellow bowed low enough to wet his beard and the tips of his hair.

'No pardon needed, grandfather,' Finduilas cheerfully replied, trying not to laugh at the sight. She held out the basket again and he took one side, but did not pull it away. His eyes were... Finduilas shook her head to clear it and gestured at the bench. 'Pray sit and rest.'

'Thank you, daughter.' He sat with a grateful sigh. 'I've not seen you here before. What brings you here today?'

'I came to see the farm.'

'And to this bench?'

She waved downstream. 'The children are playing in the water.'

'Ah, of course! I heard them.' He smiled and chuckled, giving the water a kick with one foot. 'It is the greatest delight, to watch the children delight in this.' Tiny streams of water trickled from his beard and his hair, wetting his smock. 'The stars, they are constant, things unchanging, but this...' he dipped a hand into the creek, 'in it is boundless change. The motion of waves, each unique, each one there for but a moment. It echoes in the waters, all the possibilities, all the fates and follies. It is the proper playground of the Children. A fellow I know described both well - what need never have been, yet somehow is.'

The drips of water from his hair were no less and the pattern of the woven basket did not stay still. The hair on the back of her neck stood up and she had to look away from his face. 'Who are you?'

'I... am.' He chuckled and in his hands were a small knife and a bit of wood, though she had not seen him take anything from his pockets. 'It is difficult to see you, daughter, closed up in your high tower.'

'I don't like being watched. There are so many eyes on me.'

'Yes. There are. I am sorry you fear me.'

'You do not frighten me!' This earned her a snort. 'Not any more. I simply tire of being a pawn of fate.'

The mariner sighed. 'I am sorry for that as well, daughter.' Around his legs, seaweed waved and tangled, and there was no bottom to the creek. When Finduilas tried to look to the far bank, there was naught but an endless Sea. She found that she could not look upon the mariner directly, not even from the corner of her eye, as in Denethor's study. She kept her eyes upon the water and looked at his reflection. It changed as she watched. Sometimes he was a thin old man, like Laanga, and then a thing woven from waves, seaweed and fog. Every so often, she glimpsed something too beautiful to describe, with sorrowful eyes and hands like Denethor's, slender and scarred.

'How do you fare, child?'

'Do you not know?'

'I would hear it from you.'

'I fail. My life drains. What did you do to me upon the Sea when last we met? Do you intend my death?'

'No.' Waves whispered gently upon a shore. 'Had I my way, never would I be parted from any of the Children.'

'Then what was that? You spoke of hope that would endure, but I see it not.'

'Yes, you have. You spoke to hope. You buried it deep. By your hand, it will persist.'

'When you touched me, I was changed. I could feel something drain away from me.' Finduilas waited until their gazes met in the water. 'Did you undo Thorongil's healing?'

'Not directly, no.'

'He cured a wound in my lungs. You opened a hole in my heart. What is it?'

'It was always there. I just set it ajar.'

'To what end?'

'As a temptation.'

Finduilas leaned forward and dipped a hand into the Sea. 'Temptation. It is our nature to seek after what beckons. Like towers on a horizon.'

'Yes.'

'Why did you place that temptation before Denethor?'

The mariner did not answer for some time. 'He longed to See you. It gave him joy.'

'You gave him what he should not have had.'

'There was a fate set before him that was undone by the Tree. Both fates.'

Finduilas thought back to her waking vision on Seabird, of a dead white tree where Thorongil stood and Denethor beside him, a King from the Sea. For her to be healed and strong might mean Estel's end. But what of Denethor? 'You threw him back into a dire fate?'

'No. I gave him... an uncertain one.' The mariner concentrated on his whittling. 'Certain fates are always brief, yet in the armor of Fate there is ever a rift, and in the walls of Doom a breach.'

Finduilas carefully considered those words. 'I know there is a fate or doom for us, Denethor and I, each and together, one that reaches back to a dire time and looks ahead to another.'

'There must be something to be rent and breached.'

'Could I have chosen other than I did?'

'No choice is certain until it is made.' The mariner paused and examined his handiwork. The flute was long and slender. He blew notes on it that sounded like seabirds. 'Yes, you could have chosen another path, and fate would have been altered beyond imagination.'

'For good or ill?'

His beautiful face was reflected in the water, rippled by the waves, and she had to look away. 'Yes.'

'What of yourself, render and breaker?' she challenged the apparition in the water. 'Can you choose other than you have done?'

The mariner was the one to look away. 'It is best not to choose.' He sighed again and picked up the reed basket. 'Too long have I tarried, daughter. I must go.'

'But, having chosen, what is my fate?'

'What awaits all Men; a short voyage and then... ' He shrugged and stood. Around his legs, the water ran more swiftly, and stones could be glimpsed at his feet. 'It is beyond imagination. I have no part in that song.' The old man walked away up the creek until hidden by the willows.

***

Minas Tirith, Early August, 2987 T.A.

They scrambled back through the bramble, the thorns tearing at them, the downpour turning the ground to mud. When they won free, they bolted towards the path, barely able to keep their feet as the ground shuddered and crevices opened, spewing ash and fire. Just as they neared the edge and the path down Meneltarma, the Hallow split from east to west, swallowing up the last White Tree.

The eagles rose from their high perch and swooped down upon them, snatching them up from the ruined earth. Beneath them, they watched a wave consume the Land of the Gift. On the brunt of a storm, they were carried east over the Sea until at last they caught up with a small cluster of ships much battered by the tempest. The eagle that carried Anárion dove towards a ship, dropping to the deck to deposit his burden. The other veered slightly away, and she knew that he intended to take her to a tall spire in the midst of a waste. No, let me go. The cold water enveloped her and she breathed water.

***

'Here's some water.' Finduilas reached out blindly for the wooden cup. Denethor placed it into her hand. She coughed again, bringing up a gob of something sticky, and spat into the kerchief he held near her face. The water was tepid, but it helped rinse away the bad taste and gummy film in her mouth. A cough, a sip, a cough, a sip. When she could breathe easily again, she sat up. Denethor slipped a pillow behind her and used another kerchief to wipe sweat away from her face. 'More water?'

'No.' Finduilas concentrated on breathing evenly. This is how all their mornings began, now. When the muggy heat of summer descended upon Minas Tirith, her cough had taken hold of her, leaving her weak and listless.

There had been no time to escape to Dol Amroth. Imrahil's duties kept him busy in Anórien, Ithilien and Lossarnach through the spring, and then Moraen's growing pregnancy would not allow him to accompany Finduilas. They had not spoken their plan to anyone else. While she was less fearful of the mariner, Finduilas still did not wish to venture upon the Sea, and so she was caught in summer's grip in Minas Tirith.

When it was clear her cough was under control, Denethor laid her robe within reach and left to get dressed. Finduilas took her time rising, moving slowly and stopping often for a few sips of water. Denethor returned to see how she was doing. 'I am well enough, friend,' she assured him.

'Then I will go with Boromir to the practice yard before it gets too hot.'

She kissed his cheek. 'Yes, go.' It was better for Denethor to take Boromir away at once so she could ready herself and not worry the boy. Finduilas waited until she heard them go downstairs before coming out to the front room. Aeluin was there with a tray of breakfast and waited on her. Not long afterwards, Faramir came out of his room, hair poking up in odd spikes, rubbing sleep from his eyes as he yawned a "Good morning" to them both. When she had drunk two mugs of Laanga's tea and eaten something, it was time for the baths. Even though it was not very comfortable, Finduilas sat in the steam of a warm tub for a time every morning to loosen whatever remained in her chest from the previous night. The cold shower afterwards both shocked her into coughing up the loosened gunk and washed away the day's stickiness. Once this was all done, she felt strong enough to see to her business.

Finduilas was determined that the Lady's Grace would not suffer while Moraen recovered from bearing her son, Elphir. The child had been born in July, large and strong, and was the center of his parent's attention. They named him for the son Angelimir and Lindórië had lost in the winter of 2911. Luinil had come to help tend her newest grandchild and intended to stay through yáviérë. The Prince was to come for a council at that time and take Luinil home afterwards. Perhaps I will return to Dol Amroth with them. If she did, Finduilas knew she would not return before the following spring. Finduilas and Luinil never spoke of their argument of the previous winter, and Luinil was always pleasant to Denethor. That was enough for Finduilas.

Faramir looked up from his toys when she came into the study, smiling. 'Hello, Mama.'

Finduilas came over and he stretched his face up for a kiss. 'Good morning, Hollë. Didn't you go to the baths?'

'I will go later,' he said, returning his attention to his blocks. On the ground next to him was a piece of paper with a dark drawing on it. Finduilas moved to so she was not looking at it upside-down. It was a sketch of the black bridge in the Lebennin uplands that Denethor had made years before. Looking at the blocks, Finduilas realized that Faramir was trying to recreate the bridge in the sketch.

'Does Papa know you have one of his drawings?'

'Mmm.' Faramir did not look up from his work.

She tapped him on his head to make him look up at her, and pointed to the sketch. 'Hollë, where did you get that drawing?'

'Papa's desk. Telperien was sleeping on it.'

'When were you in Papa's study?'

'With him and Boromir yesterday.'

'Did Papa give you that drawing?'

'Yes. I asked and he gave it to me.'

Finduilas doubted Faramir would lie, so she smiled and kissed him again. 'Then you had best take good care of it so it is not ruined.'

'I will,' he answered, quickly turning his attention back to the blocks. She went to her desk to set out the things she would need for her morning work. When Borondir arrived, they would have much to cover before he left for his meetings with Denethor in the Tower. As she set out her materials, she looked fondly on Faramir engrossed in his own task. If Aiavalë was not about, he would always find where Finduilas was and stay near her. It was not like Boromir's anxious hovering, though she did not think she was imagining that Faramir stayed closer when she felt weak. The last three months, when she knew herself to be watched and retreated to a dimmed room to elude the gaze, he always appeared soon after her retreat and would sit with her until the gaze went away. She had given him the flute the mariner left behind at the creek. It did not have a fearsome feel to it, like the lanyard, so she thought is was safe to give. He had quickly mastered it and would play her a tune if she asked.

Downstairs, she heard the door open and Boromir say something to Denethor. She coughed into a kerchief to keep one from happening unexpectedly. They came into the room, hair damp from the baths. 'There are the rest of my men!' she said brightly, standing and holding her arms out to Boromir.

'Good morning, Papa,' Faramir said from his blocks, though he did not stand, fully engrossed in his building.

Boromir bounded over to her desk into her embrace. 'Good morning, Mother. How are you?'

'I am very well, Morcollë. How did your train...'

'Faramir!' Denethor's voice cut through the chatter. He stared sternly at his younger son, who had sat upright in alarm at his father's tone. 'Is that how you greet your father and lord? Like a Dunlending?'

Faramir scrambled to his feet and came over. He bowed properly to Denethor. 'Good morning, Father.' He looked up, contrite. 'I'm sorry.'

Denethor's face softened slightly. 'Very well, Hollë, but you are not a little baby anymore. You're a man of this house and must act like one. It is dishonorable to ignore an elder or a guest who enters a room.'

'Yes, Papa. I'll remember. I won't do it again.'

That made Denethor smile and hold out his arms. 'You can do more than say "Good morning" you know.'

Faramir hugged him. 'I love you, Papa. And come look!' He led Denethor over to the blocks. 'See? I'm building your bridge!'

'So you are, Hollë.' Any disapproval disappeared as Denethor knelt to admire Faramir's handiwork.

Boromir tugged on Finduilas' arm. 'Mother? Mother?'

'Yes?' Finduilas had to school her voice to keep annoyance out of it.

'I won a match today!' Boromir launched into a description of how he won, complete with arm waving and lunging to show her the finer points of his victory. When he finished his account, she applauded and gave him a kiss.

'It sounds like you have trained a worthy opponent, my Lord Steward,' Finduilas teased.

Denethor looked proudly at both his sons. 'Indeed, I think I have. Come, Morcollë, we must prepare for the Tower.'

The morning passed uneventfully. Borondir arrived soon after Denethor and Boromir left. It turned out there was little to report or work on, so they spent a lazy hour admiring Faramir's bridge and talking about the warehouses and summer trade. Haleth was having to rent space from other warehouse masters to hold all of her surplus, and had purchased two large buildings in Pelargir, one near the docks, one in the old Merchants' Quarter, for the southern goods. Ragnor was her first customer. Aiavalë walked up from the archives near the end of Borondir's visit and the two went to the Tower for their meetings with Denethor. It was becoming very hot and muggy in the house, so Finduilas had Dúlin pack a basket with dinner for herself and Faramir and headed for the dryer and somewhat cooler air of the archives. Beregar, Aeluin and their daughters walked them to the archive's door before bidding them farewell and continuing on to Laanga's garden.

After they finished their dinner in Aiavalë's office, Faramir quickly vanished into Hador's workshop. The plump bookbinder delighted in teaching his young master all of the crafts for repairing and restoring the archive's treasures. Finduilas set to returning scrolls to their proper racks in the caverns, enjoying the simple task. She took her time walking slowly along the rows and racks, pausing to scratch the ears of the cats who appeared from their secret places to demand her attention, pausing to examine a book or scroll that caught her attention as she passed. Later in the afternoon, when Aiavalë came back, they would review the reports of the realm presented in the Tower meetings. It was a pleasant way to while the time.

'Yes, that's Papa's room.' Finduilas stopped at the sound of Faramir's voice.

'I see. Is he in?' She knew that voice. There was the sound of a door being rapped. She set down the scrolls in her arms and stealthily made her way down the row one over from the wall, letting the rack hide her approach. Near the door to the room Denethor used in the archives, stood the wizard, Mithrandir. She could just see the top of Faramir's head. He was looking at the wizard suspiciously, arms folded over his chest.

'I said that Papa's in the Tower.'

The wizard smiled down at him. 'Well, yes, you did! But perhaps he came here when we were not looking, so I should knock and see.' Mithrandir reached out and tried the handle, finding the door locked. 'You are right, though. He is not here.' The wizard fished in his purse and pulled out a small bundle. The paper crackled as he unwrapped it, making Faramir peer curiously at the wizard's hand. 'Would you like a sweet? Nuts and honey. I have to eat them for they will not last long in the heat.'

'Where did you get them?' Faramir asked. Finduilas nodded once. Both boys had been taught to question anything given to them by someone not of the household.

'Oh, from a shop near the market. Here,' Mithrandir held the paper out, 'have some.'

'No, thank you. I'm not hungry.'

The wizard gave the boy a measuring glance and put away the treat. 'Suit yourself. What are you doing here in the archives?'

'Fixing books. Hador is teaching me.'

'Oh, now that is something I wish I knew how to do.' That appealed to Faramir's vanity and he smiled and bounced on his toes a little. 'What books have you fixed today?'

'Two. One got water on it and another had a ripped page.'

Mithrandir squatted down so he was at the same level as Faramir, and Finduilas could no longer see the man's face. She did not dare move closer lest her movement betray she was there. 'So, how did you fix them?'

'Hador fixed them, but I helped!' Faramir launched into a spirited explanation of what he had been doing, the wizard encouraging him to say more. Finduilas did not like the way Mithrandir was ingratiating himself with the child, but did not interrupt in case the wizard let slip some important information.

'Hollë! Hollë, where are you?' Aiavalë's voice echoed in the cavern. 'It is time for your lesson.'

Faramir sighed. 'I must go. That's my Auntie Monster.. I mean, Aiavalë,' he stammered.

Mithrandir chuckled and stood, ruffling Faramir's hair. 'Right the first time. Run along, Hollë. Don't keep your auntie waiting.' Faramir dashed off, calling out that he was coming. Mithrandir chuckled again, then stopped. His eyes met Finduilas' in the shadows of the racks. 'My lady.'

Finduilas walked back along the row until she could enter the aisle along the wall. The wizard waited for her to approach. 'It is wrong for you to call her such.'

'Call who?'

'The Master Archivist. You named her monster.'

He shrugged. 'She is a fierce and formidable guardian of her lair. Does she not call herself such?'

'It is for her to say who may address her so. You think of her as a beast, then, for doing her duty?' The wizard looked abashed and dropped his eyes, 'She had no part of her marring, for it was done before she was born, and she has not allowed her form to twist her heart. Others do worse with less excuse.'

'You have a gentle heart, Finduilas, and always find the best in those about you.'

'Flattery does not work on me, wizard. Why have you returned? I said that we have had enough of your meddling.'

His gaze met hers again and his eyes flashed. 'I'm not here to see you or meddle, as you call it. I have my own business...'

'Tricking a child to show you a door whose lock you intend to pick, perhaps?' His lips tightened into a straight line, and he nodded curtly to her before turning to leave. 'Why do you treat my husband as an adversary, closing him from your counsels even as you spy on his actions?' She knew she should summon one of the archivists, and perhaps a guard, but something kept her rooted before the wizard.

'My counsels are not to his taste. When I have offered them to him, they have been spurned. Lord Denethor thinks himself beyond counsel, mine or anyone else's.'

Finduilas felt slightly light-headed and hoped she was not going to start coughing. 'My husband accepts all good counsel, but he is wise and does not need ordinary advice. Perhaps it is the quality of your counsel that is lacking.'

Mithrandir snorted, his eyebrows bristling. 'I am well acquainted with such men of power and station. Denethor is a prideful man and what he most needs is to humble himself. That is the counsel he will not accept, though it will serve him better than any other. Ecthelion knew this wisdom.'

Finduilas snorted in return, crossing her arms and giving the wizard a disbelieving look. 'Really? You demonstrate nothing save your ignorance of both men. Ecthelion may have flattered your pride by pretending to take your counsel, but he used you for his own purposes, as any wise ruler should. The fault, wizard, is as much your own too-good opinion of yourself as any flaw in Denethor.'

'He fails to understand...'

'No! You are failing him, Mithrandir, just as you failed Thorongil. You expect others to do as you say for no greater reason than your say so, and fault them for doubting your words. These are the seeds of your own fall if you are not wary.'

The wizard said nothing, watching her closely. His scrutiny made Finduilas shiver and hug herself. No, I will not be used for your voices. Eventually, the man dropped his gaze, examining his own gnarled hands. 'If I am ignored, then how am I doing harm?' His question was soft.

'Be not so eager to spurn the prideful, for that is the heart of your own pride. Take less pleasure in your distaste for those who wield power.'

'I am chastened, my lady.'

'Wizard, I have watched prideful men - and women - all my life. You are making yourself blind to a man who is no one's pupil, but could be a strong partner. Just as he would have been Thorongil's had you not interfered and sought their division.'

'I did not do that!' he snapped. 'They were sufficient to their own division!'

'There is much you have done here,' she retorted, 'most of which you abandoned when Umbar did not turn out as you wished.'

'I seem to recall you ordering me away, and saying I should not meddle. Indeed, our present conversation started with that, did it not?'

'Do you care that Ecthelion died in grief, wondering why you had forsaken him and your long years of friendship?' Guilt showed in the wizard's face and he ducked his head. 'He followed your counsel for years, yet you could not spare a day to comfort him in his decline.'

'He had Denethor,' Mithrandir countered. 'Should not a son be the one to offer comfort and support to his sire? But then, was that not why Ecthelion turned to others in the first place?'

Finduilas dropped her hands and dug her fingers into her skirt to keep from slapping this insolent creature. 'Once you, Thorongil and Maiaberiel ceased sowing discord between them, Denethor could be a son to Ecthelion. You judge him wrongly, just as you judged Aiavalë. I watched my husband tend his father with great tenderness, the same as he shows his own sons. He took up Ecthelion's burdens so as to give the Lord Steward indolent days with his grandson. He waited upon his father, carrying him in the last days when Ecthelion was too frail to walk. He would not even take up the office until Ecthelion was laid to rest in his tomb.'

'And has imposed a harsh rule ever since.'

Finduilas cried out in frustration at the wizard's obstinacy. 'And who could have spared Denethor that burden? It was you who stole from us our king and our hope, forbidding him to speak to his steward!' She drew a sharp breath to upbraid the wizard more and triggered a cough. It seized her chest and would not relent, leaving her wracked with coughing.

'Peace! Peace, Finduilas!' Mithrandir begged, taking her hand and rubbing her back to soothe the coughs. 'Do not be so upset by stubborn men's arguments. You need to sit and rest. You are ill.'

After minute or so, the coughing subsided. Finduilas did not try to pull away. Mithrandir's touch was warm, but not like the sticky summer day. This warmth augmented her strength instead of draining it away. 'No, wizard. I am not ill. I am dying.'

At the far end of the cavern, there was the sound of feet. Finduilas straightened up and neatened her dress. Mithrandir took a step away, reaching into a shadow along the wall for his staff. Aiavalë and Erellont came around a row. The Archivist glared at the wizard. 'You failed to announce yourself to any of my archivists, Lord Mithrandir. Save for Faramir, I would not know you were here.'

'No one was minding the door when I...'

'That is a lie. The Lord Steward wishes to speak to you. Now.' Mithrandir bowed his head to Aiavalë and walked away. Finduilas went with him, Erellont following. At the door to the archives, a company of Tower Guards stood, waiting to escort them to the Tower. Finduilas waved the Guards away when they reached the Tower and took Mithrandir to the council chamber.

Denethor sat at the head of the table. Mithrandir approached and bowed. 'Hail, Lord and Steward, Denethor son of Ecthelion.'

There was a long minute of silence. 'You had not my permission to go into the archives, wizard.'

'My apologies, Lord Denethor. May I have your permission?'

The wizard's cheek made Finduilas gape. Denethor, on the other hand, seemed amused. 'Perhaps. What do you offer in return? There is much in the archives that you have found of use, yet not for Gondor's benefit.'

'What I find is to benefit all, not just Gondor.'

'And Gondor's wisdom should be scattered about, with no thought to her advantage? No, Mithrandir. There will be a price for that wisdom.'

'That is reasonable,' Mithrandir agreeably replied. 'I shall offer a payment more precious than gold.' The wizard turned and looked at Finduilas where she stood near the door. 'I know of one who can heal the lady.'

Denethor's face became as still as stone. 'Who?'

'An Elf, ancient and wise, a healer without match. He is in the north.'

'You will bring him here.' It was a command, not a question.

'Nay, that I cannot do. He is concerned only with his own folk and would not come here. I can guide Finduilas there.'

'Where? How far? Who is this?' Denethor's gaze was on her, not the wizard.

'In the Last Homely House just beyond the edge of the wild. His name may not be spoken, for the Enemy knows not that he remains on this side of the Sea. As for how far, a hardy message rider with fresh mounts could be there from here in three weeks. For the Lady to ride...' The wizard gave her a speculative look. 'Twelve weeks at an easy pace.'

'How would you get there?'

'Just as traders would. The roads are old, but they remain and are passable. Here to Edoras, then through the Gap of Rohan to Tharbad. North to Bree, then east into the wild...'

'Along the ancient Dwarf road?' Finduilas could see eagerness come to Denethor's face.

'Yes, the same,' Mithrandir answered. 'We would have to leave soon to arrive before winter comes to the north and closes the roads. Else, it will be next spring, and I may not...'

'We leave on the morrow.' The wizard and Finduilas both gawked at Denethor. He nodded. 'At first light.'

Mithrandir got his tongue back. 'Excuse me? We?'

'Yes, we. You do not think I am sending my wife upon such a journey alone?'

'Lord Denethor, a large entourage will travel too slowly, attract too much attention. We must be swift...'

'There will be myself, my lady and three companions. And you.'

'But.. but... No, you are the Lord Steward. You cannot leave. You are duty bound...'

Finduilas could tell from a certain twitch at the corner of Denethor's mouth that he was enjoying the wizard's confusion. 'Duty can end. The kingdom will not be left untended. I do have a High Warden.'

The wizard turned away, brow creased, muttering something to himself, letting Finduilas see his face. 'Who?'

'Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth. He will tend the realm and safeguard my sons, who are his own kin.'

As Denethor spoke, the wizard's expression changed. Finduilas saw him look surprised, then thoughtful, calculating, pleased, ending with stern in quick succession, before he turned back towards Denethor. 'Lord Steward,' he said in a commanding tone, 'I cannot counsel you to abandon your post in dire times.'

'I do not care for your counsel, wizard. It is not your decision to make.'

The two exchanged haughty stares for several heartbeats, ending with the wizard shrugging. 'No, you do not listen to wisdom. Very well, Denethor, if you are determined on this course, I shall not gainsay you. On the morrow...'

'You may go, Lord Mithrandir.' Finduilas opened the door and gestured for the wizard to leave. 'Please go to your usual quarters on Holly Court and wait there.' He bowed to each of them and departed swiftly. She shut the door and came over to Denethor. 'We must not do this friend.'

Denethor stood and took her hands. 'Why not?' The light within him was powerful. 'I believe he speaks the truth. This Homely House, it must be Imladris, or near it. It is real, for the Dwarves spoke of it.'

'Perhaps it is. I agree that there is such a place and such a healer, but I do not trust him.'

'You think him false, then?'

'Not exactly. My counsel is simply yours of many years ago. Mithrandir does not wish us harm, but neither does he wish us well. We simply are not his concern. He was facing me when you spoke of Imrahil, and I did not like what I saw upon his face. Calculation. He was pondering what Gondor would be like with a different Lord Steward. While I do not think he would do you harm, neither would he be much concerned if harm befell you. He meant for you to go to Umbar, after all.'

'If there is this healer, then you must go. We need the wizard to show us the road.'

'I will not take you into harm, Denethor. And this much of his counsel is right; Gondor should not be without you.'

'Gondor is less to me than you are, Alquallë.' Denethor dropped her hands and began to pace. 'But, if you are right that the wizard has his own designs, and you are...' She watched him argue with himself, lips moving, hands gesturing, until he nodded his head sharply, stopping before her. 'Then this. You will go with Beregar, Aiavalë, Brandir and Gethron. Haleth can get accurate maps from her traders. I will watch in the palantír.'

For a minute, Finduilas was delighted at having outfoxed the wizard, then the truth crashed down like the wave that consumed Númenor, and she understood how utterly they had been defeated by him. Once again, you strip us of our hope. She laid a hand over Denethor's mouth to make him stop.

'No, friend. I cannot. I can't even walk down the mountain and back unwearied. A gentle journey within Gondor wore me out, and I was stronger then. I had the tea. A few hours' ride on the Pelennor is beyond me now.' Denethor shook his head, trying not to hear her. 'Denethor, I would not survive. I would die upon the road.' The more terrible truth, she would not say aloud. I will die whether I stay or I go.

The look on Denethor's face told her that she did not need to. He pulled her into a tight embrace. 'No. No.'

***

Mithrandir found her in the archives the following afternoon. She glanced at him but did not leave off shelving her scrolls.

'The Lord Steward has changed his mind, my lady.'

'Yes. He told me this morning.'

'He claimed that I was trying to deceive him, and that he would not countenance your leaving the City.'

'He thought better of sending me into the wild.'

'Denethor has ordered me to bring the healer here. That is not possible. I want you to know that.'

'I understand, just as you understood before you spoke that I am not strong enough for that journey. It was cruel of you to hold it before us.'

Mithrandir was silent a while. 'It is all that I can offer. You say I do not help you...'

'No, wizard, it was a spiteful thing to do. Hope is within your grasp, and you teased us with it as someone would tease a starving dog with a bone.' She gave him a cold look. 'You have humbled Denethor utterly, showing him how little his will is worth. Are you pleased to have reduced a great man to despair?'

The look the wizard gave her in return was no less frigid. 'His pride was greater today than yesterday and he spurned hope. He still is not humbled. When that happens, hope will return.'

'How does humiliating my husband bring me one step closer to your mysterious Elf? Were Denethor as meek as a lamb, still I would perish on that journey. Nay, you were but cruel.'

The wizard sighed sadly. 'You are so certain of your end, and, being certain, you make it so. If doom is so certain, then you already despair and no one can cure you of that save yourself!'

'I do not wish this cough, wizard. Others have died of less.'

'And you take no hope from that? You will be succored if you deny despair and allow yourself to be guided by hope.'

The wizard's tone was reasonable and she wanted to believe him. 'I know where my hope resides.' Finduilas set down the basket of scrolls and fished in her pocket. 'I have never done you ill, wizard, nor advised you to do anything that would result in your harm, have I?' He shook his head. 'Since I may not travel north, you must do so.' She held out a sealed letter. 'I ask you, if you bear me any love at all, to take this letter and place it in Thorongil's hands.'

'Finduilas, I do not know where he is, or...'

'And if you cannot find him easily, you are to entrust it to his beloved.' The wizard's eyebrows shot up so high they were almost atop his head. Finduilas laughed softly. 'Yes, I know of her. The Elf. Promise me you will do this.'

The wizard held out his hand. 'I will do this.'

***

Minas Tirith, Late November, 2987 T.A.

The day was grey, with rain threatening, just as it had been three years before. Laanga's garden looked the same. Finduilas pulled her mantle more closely around her to keep out the cold drafts that managed to enter the garden. In here, the Enemy could not see her, though she knew he stalked about like a wolf at a cottage door, waiting for her to set foot beyond this haven. The densely woven vines of the bower kept the weather at bay and Crone Apple stood guard against all else.

There had been blood in the phlegm this morning. Not upon first rising, but after her bath, she had coughed very hard and brought up slender strings of blood, like strands of southern silk or rubies melted into threads. She had come here afterwards, saying she wished to see Laanga about tea. The herbalist was not about so she went to the bower.

He won't return. He said so. There was time for the wizard to have ridden north and given her letter to Thorongil. "I am dying. Only your hand may save me now." Perhaps the letter had not been delivered, or was only now reaching his hand. What if he knows, but refuses? She sighed and rested her head on her knees. It was best not to know. Best to think that the wizard had played her false and discarded her letter, no doubt guessing what was in it. He swore to give it to the beloved, if he could not find Estel. That brought a bitter smile to her lips - the wizard unable to find hope among the Lost.

I am among them now. It was only a matter of time before her life would be lost. Was this different than the lot of any other mortal? Not really. In truth, she had outlived many who should now be alive. Wren. Morvorin. Morwen's daughters. Everyone dies. Children, young maids, sailors at sea, comfortable matrons in childbed, warriors in battle, many were taken from this world before times, struck down long before age had left them bent and wrinkled. But that is not my lot. She had been wooed by king and steward, had spoken to and been touched by the mariner, had walked a vanished land and held the promise of hope in her hands.

It was but promises. "Of all things a man may say, "I promise" is the greatest and most noble. In those words are hope." Thengel's invocation came back to her. But what of the promise unfulfilled? When did hope become deception, the lie you told yourself to stave off despair? Such was the appeal of Sauron. Annatar, Lord of Gifts and Deceptions. Finduilas wondered who it was that he deceived when he spoke to Míriel - or was it to her? - of life everlasting, whose despair it was that he staved off. It did not seem possible that he could undo Elros' choice, for the Gift of Men was irrevocable. There was taint and perversion in what he held out, like the moment when sweet turns to rot. Yet, she thought that, in the moment of his pleading, he believed the lie he told,

Was Mithrandir's promise any less deceptive or false than Sauron's bargain? Finduilas wavered. She could not place them together, no matter the wizard's arrogance and secretive ways. The Enemy wished them harm, finding his joy in destroying theirs. The wizard claimed it was their own pride and rebellion that kept them from hope. If we will but be humbled... For long she pondered this. If we are faithful to those who have placed us in such straits, mayhap we will be granted grace, preserved when we least look for it. To trust that all is done for the Children's joy. The Lady's Grace is given to those who are in need, not to those who praise me the most or who bear me any good will, rendered to the orphans of Umbar and Minas Tirith alike. It is given because that is the true nature of grace. This was what she distrusted about Mithrandir. He did not care for those who disagreed with him, and thought it his task to humble those until they acceded to his will. Someday, your willfulness will be your downfall.

Oddly enough, having spent so long trying to elude him, Finduilas found she trusted the mariner the most. At least he was sorrowful for what he had wrought! His words held out only a thread of a promise, like the strands of blood upon her kerchief that morning, torn from a deep place and evidence of damage that was not to be undone. There is fate, it goes forward whether we will or nill; it may be forced into a different course, but it may not be stopped and it always flows to an end. Hope was merely the chance that perhaps not all would be destroyed in the passage. Bleak, yes, but honest, and comforting in its own way. And he had allowed them to See each other. But what cost that kindness? He called it temptation, but also a rift in Fate. It made no sense to her.

The Crone's branches rattled together excitedly, bringing Finduilas out of her thoughts. A minute or so later, Laanga came into the garden. Even in this weather, his shanks were bare, though his torso was well wrapped in his blue-edged cloak. He greeted Crone Apple and spoke to her briefly, fingers twined in the twigs of her outstretched limb, before coming to the bower. 'Good afternoon, daughter. Will you come out of the cold? I have a stew and some hot cider for us.'

'Thank you, Laanga, but I wish to sit here a while yet. I will be in before dark.'

The ancient gave her a long look, then sighed and sat next to her on the bench, pulling his legs under him so he was covered by the robe. 'It is already dark.' She nodded. Laanga gazed out across the garden, humming something at the edge of hearing. Eventually, the tune petered out. 'Do you rue my counsel, Finduilas?'

'To relinquish the fruit? Sometimes, but not really. If it had grown, then many could have been healed, not just myself.'

'That is where I was,' Laanga confessed. 'Whenever I gather herbs and roots upon Mindolluin's flanks, I look. Perhaps... in the spring.'

'No. Were it to grow for my sake, it would have done so by now. It may yet grow for others. Promise me you will not tell Denethor of that choice. It would torment him.'

'As you wish.'

Finduilas began to laugh. What strange creatures I speak to! I wonder who would believe such a fanciful tale were I to set it down.

Laanga's expression was bemused. 'Does a promise amuse you?'

'Pay no mind. I had an amusing thought and it made me laugh.' She looked at Laanga speculatively. 'And I shall be impertinent, as well. Do you speak to Mithrandir when he comes here to Minas Tirith?'

'To who?'

'Mithrandir. The grey wizard. Do you wizards sit down and share a bowl of stew? Do you wonder at the strangeness of the mortals about you?'

A sly smile came to the apothecary's lips. 'Now, daughter, I need not wait for another wizard to discuss such things. The Crone is company enough!' This made them both laugh. Laanga shook his head. 'No, I do not speak to him. He moves too quickly. I like things that stay put.'

'Why are you here?' He looked at her quizzically, so Finduilas gestured around them. 'Here, in Minas Tirith. In Middle-earth.'

Laanga's brow wrinkled and he rested his chin on his knees, thinking. 'I... I am not certain. Not anymore. To tend things, I think.'

'Do you wish to go home?'

'Home? I am home, and with a pot of lentil stew on the fire.'

'Your true home, over the Sea. Do you not miss it?'

'No. I like it here. And yourself, do you miss your home?'

Finduilas had to think on this question. 'You do not mean Dol Amroth, do you?'

'No, daughter.'

'The Elves call us guests. Do you call us that, too?'

'I do not. We are all guests at one time or another.' Laanga chuckled. 'Always in a hurry. Perhaps that is why the pilgrim likes Men so much, for you both bustle about, never content with where you find yourselves.'

'I think that Mithrandir wishes for us to hasten our steps, read quickly our lines in the drama of Arda, and depart. He dislikes our mortality.'

'That is an odd thing to say. Harsh as well. Why would he wish you to depart if your departure is what he dislikes?'

'No. He wishes us to turn away from our mortality. He loves us, but not our love of the world.'

'He loves you, even as I do, and will grieve when you leave us.' Laanga shook his head. 'I do not understand this argument, Finduilas.'

'It is about promises.' The herbalist's eyebrows went up. 'I do not fear death, though I do dread dying. I think I shall hate what is beyond. This,' she patted the bench, 'is life enough. When Ecthelion died, I listened to Denethor explain death to Boromir. It was... a lie. Consoling, yes, but a lie.'

'Consolation is wrong?'

'No, it is not, and perhaps that is what must be said to children, for each grief for them is so great.'

'But, you do not believe that there is aught beyond death? You hate that your life will end when other Children are immortal?'

She shook her head emphatically. 'I do believe there is something afterwards.'

'Then I am confused, Finduilas.' Laanga did truly look perplexed. 'Where is there a lie? I know what Denethor said to the cub, for Morcollë has told me what his father said.'

'The lie, or perhaps the promise, is that we are the same once we become like you. Immortals. What I am now is because I will end, just as you are yourself because you will not. Why is a mortal life, with a final end, why is it not enough? Is it so terrible that there should be an end?'

'Is it so terrible that there should be more?'

'Why must I be as you are?' she countered. 'Does it frighten you that someone would not want your life?'

'This is all you wish for? There is more. I, too, believe that. It is a redemption, a restoration, so that grief may be assuaged and loss repaired. Daughter, do you want your life to be naught save this?'

'So, why are you here, Laanga, if this is a place of grief, full of wayward souls in need of redemption?'

'I am bound to Arda, and one part of it is as good as another. Dirt,' he leaned down and dug up a few fingers of soil. 'is dirt. Finduilas, you once said you wished for the child you lost, your daughter.'

'Yes.'

'You have her still. You have only been parted for a time. A short time.'

'No. She will not be my daughter, for she is not of this.' Finduilas took a pinch of dirt from Laanga's hand. 'What ever she is now, she is not human. I want no part of immortality. Arda is different for you, a moment of time amidst your own endlessness. A mortal is time. We have been made part of a story whose tellers cannot comprehend what has been created within it. We suffer at the hands of immortals and are admonished to believe that this is done for our sake. I say it is not. To confer immortality upon us afterwards makes mockery of our lives. The redemption is yours, for having thrown us into what you yourself have not the courage to face.'

Laanga huddled under his cloak, head bowed, eyes closed. 'Not all are as brave as thee, daughter.'

'I am not brave. I am very much afraid of what I will lose.'

'You wish for naught but bliss? I do not understand what you want of me.'

'Nothing. I want nothing of you. I wish for a mortal world and an utterly mortal life. No Sauron, no Downfall, no temptation or longing for what we cannot possess and yet remain what we are.'

'You would still be sick,' he growled. 'Not all ill that befalls you is by an immortal hand! Children would drown, men would slay each other, people would fall from heights, and you would be left with naught but that.'

Finduilas nodded. 'Yes, I would still be sick, mayhap even dead. It would all be the same, save that I would not wonder if this was some punishment for what I or one that I love failed to do, or if I am simply a pawn to draw out another player. It insults that my life is a trial of my faith.'

They sat silently for a long while. Laanga sighed and stiffly stood. 'I am not the one to whom you should speak such things. And there is no consolation you will let me offer you. You wish for a world without solace.'

Finduilas stood and embraced the herbalist. 'I wish for a world where solace is to be found within it, sufficient unto itself.'

The air was chill, so they went into the house. Denethor sat at the kitchen table, a bowl of soup before him. Laanga quickly shed his cloak and began bustling about the kitchen. 'Ah, grandson, I see one of us has sense to eat when the food is ready. Sit! Sit!' he scolded Finduilas, and in no time there was a wide wooden bowl of lentil stew before her. She was hungry and finished it all. Denethor said nothing, but placed a hand over hers and waited for her to eat her fill. Dusk was falling as they bade Laanga farewell and returned to the Citadel.

'I am sorry you had to come looking for me, friend.'

'It is of no matter. I came home sooner than usual and you were not there so I simply walked until my feet found you. Besides, the house was full of children and it was too loud to think.'

Denethor was speaking the truth. Somehow, Boromir had collected all of his cousins and brought them home to play. Even Haleth's niece and nephew were included, as well as a few others Finduilas had seen dashing about the Citadel. Finduilas grinned at Denethor's exasperated expression and waded into the mob. The children greeted her raucously and kept her entertained with their antics until they had to go home to bed. Faramir had already succumbed and Denethor carried him upstairs to his bed. Tonight, Finduilas sat with Denethor as he told Boromir a bedtime story, holding her son's hand as he drifted off to sleep. No more would she flee or hide. It is enough.



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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