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Hands of the King: 84. Fall
Osgiliath, Early May, 2988 T.A.
Imrahil regarded the garrison courtyard dourly. Denethor watched him carefully while giving only half a mind to Anbar's greetings. Marlong could deal with his fellow captain. Imrahil's nostrils flared and whatever scent he picked up in the air made him scowl all the more. Denethor turned to the captains. 'Send Galdor to talk to me,' he said curtly and walked away, motioning for Imrahil to follow. They climbed the stair to the top of the eastern wall. Every year, Denethor could see more of the ruins had disappeared. What remained resembled fangs upthrust from Anduin, edges honed by the touch of Dragon Fire. The eastern breeze still smelled of dead things, though perhaps the smell was from the Vale. They were soon joined by the surgeon. He was a little more weathered, a little more grey but no less blunt in his opinions.
'It's worse.' Galdor motioned with his chin over the river. 'The stink is stronger and fogs come more often.' He leaned against the wall and glared at the green hills. 'They have different poisons on their blades and spears. Deadlier. When the men are wounded, we have to cut more flesh away to be rid of the polluted parts.'
'Have you sent samples of the poison to Warden Lhûn?'
'Aye. The black apothecary, Master Laanga, he has sent some potions and pastes that work well, but they make new poisons. We lose men before we know what it is.'
Denethor spoke a while longer with the surgeon on more mundane matters before dismissing the man. Anbar and Marlong had withdrawn to the council room to go over ledgers and tactics, knowing that Denethor would join them when it pleased him. He did not think it would please him at all on this visit. Instead, he walked about the garrison, inspecting things. It was in excellent shape. I should have moved you here sooner, Captain. In the eight years of his command in Osgiliath, Anbar had become a bolder and more decisive officer. We will need that. Denethor led Imrahil to the top of the western wall. The Pelennor lay before him, a coverlet composed of every shade of green one could imagine, lying across the lap of the White City. There would be no respite from now until... Until what? There was no "until" as long as the Enemy sat in his Dark Tower and plotted their destruction. It was forever.
Imrahil leaned against the wall, studying the lands closer to the river, often glancing over his shoulder to the east. His fingers drummed the stone. Denethor waited patiently. His brother-in-law's counsels were worth more than men twice his age. After a few minutes, the young prince shook his head and straightened. 'It is not enough.'
'The river. The garrison.' Imrahil crossed his arms and stared glumly at the eastern wall of mountains. 'I know the incursions of the last few years have not been as bad as those thirteen years ago, but we have not won anything greater for ourselves.' He gave Denethor a sideways glance. 'Not even Umbar.'
'No, we have not. At best, some breathing room.' Nothing is enough, for we have not the power to combat him. 'How do you think we should keep breathing?'
'Do not rely on the river so much as a defense. It can be crossed, even if we take down the bridge.'
'And in place of Anduin...?'
'That.' He pointed to the Rammas. 'It was vital when Osgiliath was seized in the Kin-strife. Aldamir held off Castamir with it, and kept Anórien from falling.'
'Castamir was harried from Ithilien as well, remember.' Denethor thrust aside his dreams of a man in green and brown hunting enemies on the flanks of the Emyn Arnen. 'That,' he jerked his head towards the east, 'will not face such resistance. Are you so eager to abandon Osgiliath?'
'No. It gives me bad dreams, but, no, we need to hold it and all of Ithilien as long as we can.'
Denethor studied the Rammas. It was wide and squat, tumbled by time and the seasons. The walls facing east were whole, if not much of a barrier, while the southern and northern reaches had gaps in them. Near the Harlond, it had been deliberately torn down to make it easier to bring goods to the docks. It had been laid long before, in Anárion's time, when first Ithilien came under the shadow of the Enemy and Isildur had fled north to seek help. It had been raised swiftly, and had crumbled by the time of Turambar. Valacar had ordered it rebuilt, perhaps understanding the fickle hearts of his kinsmen to the south, and that foresight was probably the only thing that had prevented Castamir from cementing his rule. The wall was left to its own devices for long until Pelendur persuaded Ondoher to fortify it once more, fearing both the disarray of the north and the growing shadow in the east.
'We will need it, but other tasks must be done first. We must finish rebuilding the roads first. Then the redoubts in the high places must be fortified and prepared, though secretly. Beyond Ethring, we need to find such places, and in the high vales of Lebennin, where few watch.'
Denethor looked at Imrahil, seeing if he would understand. The prince's expression was doubtful at first, then settled into grim lines. 'You expect the worst. How soon?'
'When the Enemy feels strong enough. It only took him one-hundred years to rearm Mordor after Akallabêth. We have that long, at most, and nearly forty have already passed. Perhaps we shall be granted that much more again. No more.' Imrahil's frown deepened, but his gaze did not waver. 'But you are right that Rammas Echor needs to be rebuilt, just as all the defenses must be strengthened. It shall be left to the last, for when we begin, the Enemy will know we expect to do battle on this side of the river.' Denethor spared the crumbling wall one last look before returning to the garrison courtyard. 'Go see what Marlong and Anbar have decided,' he said over his shoulder to Imrahil, not slowing his own steps. He went to the armory and collected a quiver of arrows to go with the steel bow he carried whenever went beyond the walls. While the gate to the bridge was opened for him, he assembled and strung the bow.
The main bridge was sound. He stayed upon the new road laid between the bridges, not wishing to listen to the tales the Fire-scarred ruins would tell. Even so, he could hear whispers as they stones told each other of the vengeance exacted upon those who had defiled Osgiliath so long ago. The lesser spans and the roadway felt uncertain beneath his feet, the piers of the deserted city shaken by Anduin's currents and making all that rested upon them tremble. He wished he could build a new span, like the bridge in the Lebennin highlands, wrought of unbreakable stone. At the far end of the bridges, where the road rested upon solid ground, Denethor stopped and looked for some time at the dark heights to the east. Three days. Four, maybe. If a tree grew, it would be in the ridges to the south of the tower. He wished he had stopped at the mess hall and put some food into a pouch. No, not until you spy it in the stone. Reluctantly, he turned away and walked back towards the garrison.
The garrison was like the Pelennor, a hodgepodge pieced together to make a whole. Some of its stones were from the fallen city, others taken from abandoned farms and cots on either side of the river, yet more collected from quarries in the folds of Ered Nimrais. Denethor ran his fingers over the silken surface of the Númenórean bow. It was whole, form and function fused in a single perfect arc. Once, we were like that. Once, we brought into being things that withstood time and so created our own immortality. But Gondor was no longer the place of steel bows and black bridges, of tall men and proud towers. It was the garrison and the road that cut through it. Southwards was Kin-strife and rotted hearts, while the north was derelict, carried away by the unending wear of seasons. What lies between them will succumb. The bridge will be brought down. All that survived were the bits and pieces salvaged from the past - tiles chipped from a broken floor, a bow snatched from a muddy road, a fruit plucked from a dying tree.
It was a mongrel, the garrison, its mismatched stones held together as much by the determination of the defenders as by mortar. The hearts of men are our fortress. But Silmarien was wrong; a prince could not simply trust to men's hearts, for they loved too many things. It was not quite two years since the purging of the King's Men. If any remained, they were too weak and isolated to do damage. Denethor's grip on the bow tightened as he thought of how foolishly he had allowed faction to take root. Eärendur had let it hollow out Arnor and Valacar had brought Gondor perilously close to the same fate. I will not allow it. He knew what foolishness had led him too close to their mistake - he had trusted too much to love. Men had to be given the right things to love, just as he had told Thorongil, but they must also be given something to... not fear, precisely, for that encouraged rebellion, but uncertainty. Not knowing if they were in favor. Not knowing if they had done enough to win his good regard. They must never doubt his power or his willingness to use it to quell faction, and so must examine always the loyalty of their own hearts. He would not trust to the love of anyone whose heart he could not See.
As Denethor drew close to the garrison, he saw Imrahil and Borthand leaning over the side of the main bridge, looking at the water and gesturing. 'Is there something wrong with the bridge?' he asked when he was close enough to speak.
'No, brother,' Imrahil replied with a grin. 'The mutt here and me, we were wondering if there was good fishing to be had on the bridge. Perhaps hang a few nets in the narrow arch there and add to the larder.'
'I am sure there is something down there. Are you done with business?'
Denethor nodded and continued through the gate. They were soon on their way back to the City, Denethor listening to Marlong's report as they rode. About a mile away from the Great Gate, Gaerhûl's ears pricked up and he whinnied loudly. To the north, Denethor heard Gull whinny in return. Gaerhûl would not go forward without her, so the riders waited. Denethor was not pleased to see Boromir on Rochallor and Faramir on Boots trailing behind Gull. Mab was sitting behind Boromir.
Faramir waved and urged Boots into a canter. 'Papa! Papa, you're back,' he said happily as he drew up, 'and Uncle Imrahil, too! Mab's with us, Uncle Marlong.'
'Yes, I see.' From the tone of Marlong's voice, Denethor doubted the captain was any more pleased with Mab than he was with his sons. Boromir's guilty expression said he knew he was probably in some trouble, while Mab was doing his best to make himself very small behind his cousin.
'Boromir, what are you boys doing out so far?' Denethor asked.
'We went to the farm.'
'Is Beregar still there?'
Boromir toyed with his reins. 'Beregar is not there, Father.'
'So you came alone?'
'Not alone! All three of us and Mistress Gull. She kept an eyes on us!'
'You know you are not supposed to ride this far beyond the walls without a grown-up.'
'They were all busy, Papa,' Faramir said earnestly. 'Auntie Monster is in the Tower, and Beregar was busy, and Mama was coughing, so they couldn't come.'
'Then you should have stayed.' Denethor eyed all three boys sternly. Faramir and Mab were abashed, but Boromir frowned. 'You have something to say, Boromir?'
'Hollë's right. We don't have anyone to ride with, or much of anything else. All Aunt Aiavalë wants to do is teach us lessons.'
'Still, you were told not to venture out this far.' Denethor turned Gaerhûl and led the way back. Gull snorted at them both, preferring to stay next to Boots. Imrahil teased the truants and asked them about what they had seen at the farm.
Boromir's words gave Denethor pause. The news of Finduilas coughing explained why Beregar was not available. The Hound would not leave her if she was ill. It was true that there were not many others who were free to go with the boys. Denethor felt his own twinge of guilt for he knew that he no longer kept up their morning sword practice. The demands of the Tower consumed almost all of his time, and he saw far less of his sons than he liked.
As they drew near The Messenger's Rest in the third circle, Faramir seized Denethor's hand and tugged on it to make him go into the tavern. 'We must stop and get sweets for Mama,' he explained.
Denethor smiled, giving Faramir a tug on the ear. 'And maybe some for Hollë, too?'
'Yes! Mama likes to share.'
Adanel insisted that they sit in the kitchen court and have a mug of ale and a few bites of cheese and bread while she prepared a basket for them to take. Imrahil bade them farewell at Vinyamar. Marlong decided that he and Mab would have supper with Violet in the fifth circle. Mab lived with Violet when Marlong was out at the garrisons and spent his days running back and forth between there and the Stewards House. Haleth's nephew, Handir, had become fast friends with Boromir and Mab and the three were often together. Denethor declined Violet's gracious invitation for them all to stay for supper, wishing to see Finduilas at once.
If Finduilas had been ill earlier, it did not show. She was in her study, surrounded by many people. Aeluin and Beregar were present, of course, as was Aiavalë. Borondir, Haleth, Minastan and Míriel were there as well. Warden Lhûn sat near Finduilas, and they admired Lily's new baby boy. The last two guests were Hallas and Brandir. Finduilas let out a cry when she saw Boromir and Faramir. 'There you are! Where have you two been all day? Squeak has been looking for you everywhere.'
'Disobeying,' Denethor said, sternly eyeing his sons.
'Getting you sweets, Mama,' Faramir hastily added, holding up the basket.
'Thank you, Hollë. Be a good boy and share them with our guests,' Finduilas said. She motioned for Boromir to come near. 'Morcollë, what have you been doing?'
'We just went riding, that's all.'
'Did you have a nice ride?'
'Yes, Mother, we did.'
She patted the seat next to her. 'Tell me about it.' Boromir recounted their ride to the farm, Faramir chiming in every now and then as he took the basket of treats around the room for all the guests to sample. When Faramir got to Brandir, Brandir knelt and spoke quietly to his nephew as he selected a delicacy. Faramir gave Brandir a hug before going to Borondir. As he watched them, Denethor realized he missed this brother-in-law's gentle company. Before he could think better of the impulse, Denethor touched Brandir's shoulder to get his attention and motioned for the man to follow him. He took them upstairs to his own study and sat in his chair before the hearth. Brandir took Finduilas' seat opposite.
They had not exchanged many words since Brandir returned from Anórien. In truth, Denethor was not certain how Brandir spent his days. He did not attend any councils or go to any gatherings. Violet had taken him in; the house he had shared with Maiaberiel was derelict, its windows and doors standing open, the belongings long since stolen. Aiavalë had claimed all the books. She made use of Brandir, having him act as her scribe and servant when he was about. Denethor supposed Brandir visited with Finduilas, though she did not speak of him.
For a few minutes, Denethor tried to start a conversation, but found he did not know what to say, now that it was just the two of them. Brandir smiled and asked, 'What mischief have my nephews been up to? Morcollë looked contrite.'
'Nothing great. They and Mab went riding beyond the walls without telling anyone. They went to Beregar's farm. Gull was with them.'
Brandir chuckled. 'Then no harm done. From the stormy look on your face, I thought they had done something quite naughty.'
'I don't want them leaving the City by themselves. Morcollë knows this, and he should have found someone to accompany them or else stayed put.' A pat on his leg let him know that Telperien had emerged from whatever basket she had been sleeping in and wished to be picked up. She was fourteen now and no longer so agile, so he scooped her into his lap. With a contented purr, she set to work kneading his chest into just the right degree of softness.
'Somehow, I doubt that you allowed the need for permission to keep you from your jaunts when you were ten, Denethor,' Brandir teased.
Between the cat's purring and Brandir's cheer, something tight in Denethor's chest loosened its grip just a bit. 'I suppose not,' he admitted, earning a laugh, 'but I was not leaving the City. Not too often.' Brandir's eyebrows went up. 'It did not seem that often, besides, I was mostly about in the City.'
'Crawling over rooftops and threatening to fall from towers, as Aiavalë tells it.'
Denethor shrugged. 'I like high places.' Brandir smiled, but there was an edge of discomfort to it, so Denethor hastened to add, 'It is not Boromir going out that had me concerned, but that he took the two youngsters with him. Gull cannot prevent someone falling off in a race and breaking a bone.'
'Nor could you.'
'But I know how to take care of one until a healer can be summoned.'
'I have too little time for my sons.'
'Perhaps it is time for another sojourn. Put aside care for a time.'
'I do not think I shall see such time again.'
'Then it is good that we went when we did. I think of that journey often. You were so happy. Well, until Beregar was hurt, but that was no fault of anyone's.'
'Yes. It was good.' Denethor sighed and scratched the cat's ears to make her purr some more. Brandir waited patiently. You are the one who taught me how to recognize a true heart. It was strange to look at Brandir and know that the man still loved his wife. If anything, the light of his heart was stronger. I will trust those I can See. 'I know you have your own business to attend to, Brandir, but I would ask a favor of you. For Boromir.'
'What is it?'
'I can no longer go with Morcollë to his sword practice in the mornings. The yard master does as he can, but he has soldiers to train. I know you would teach him well.'
Brandir frowned. 'I have little liking for such things any more. But,' he sighed, 'we do not choose the times in which we live. Yes, I will do this. I will teach him how to kill.' With another sigh, Brandir stood and walked to the door. He paused there, hand on the latch. 'Denethor, are you sorry?'
For what? Does it matter? 'Yes. For all of it.'
Denethor waited upstairs until he heard the guests departing before returning to Finduilas' study. Supper was somewhat subdued for there was little that all four of them could talk about. Finduilas had a low persistent cough through the meal. By the time supper was done, Faramir was nodding off. Denethor carried him upstairs and left him with Finduilas and Mírwen to be washed before bed. 'Boromir, come with me,' he said to his elder son.
Denethor took a seat behind his desk, leaving Boromir standing before it. He let Boromir fidget for a minute before saying, 'You disappoint me.' Boromir's face went scarlet and he hung his head. 'I had been planning to grant you greater freedom this coming summer, but now I am not sure. Your disobedience shamed me before my High Warden and my Captain-General. How should others obey me if my own son sets aside my wishes and then argues with me when he is corrected?' Boromir mumbled something. 'Speak clearly.'
'I'm sorry. I won't do it again, I promise.'
'I accept your apology. What do you propose as your punishment for your disobedience?'
Boromir looked up, startled. 'What do I propose?'
'Yes. What is the proper punishment for having disobeyed your lord and father, and needlessly having taken others dependent upon you into danger?'
Denethor sat back and watched Boromir think this challenge through. To judge others, you must judge yourself, without mercy. 'I... should not be allowed to take Rochallor out to ride for a week. And I should have to clean stalls for that week.'
'That is suitable, but the penalty shall be for two weeks. You will clean stalls for the messenger stables first and then the lower stables. You have also been neglecting your sword practice. Your Uncle Brandir will be taking over your training from now on.' Boromir's eyes lit up at the mention of sword practice and he had to struggle to keep his face solemn. 'You may go to bed now.'
'Yes, Father.' Boromir gave Denethor a kiss on the cheek and left. Before he could snuff the lamps, Finduilas came in. He took her into his arms and held her close.
'Why are you so cross with Morcollë, friend?'
'He knows not to go riding without a grown-up, and he took his brother and Mab without asking. He'll be mucking out the stables for two weeks as punishment.'
'That's what Father always made us do when we did something stupid with the horses,' Finduilas said with a chuckle that turned into a cough.
'And what of this?' Denethor asked, tapping her chest. 'Boromir said you were coughing all day.'
'It is nothing. Just a dry cough.'
'I think you should go to Dol Amroth this summer and escape the heat and damp. Faramir has not been there yet and I know Adrahil would be delighted to teach another grandson how to swim.'
'Perhaps. I am thinking upon it. What did you speak to Brandir about?'
'Naughty boys. We have made our peace. He is welcome here as much as he likes.' Finduilas hugged Denethor tightly. 'Go to bed. I will be there in a moment.' Denethor set a few things to order on his desk, collected the cat from a basket of dirty clothes in the alcove, snuffed the lamps, and joined Finduilas.
Harlond, Early June, 2988 T.A.
'Promise me you will be good, Hollë?'
Faramir nodded vigorously. 'I will be very good, Mama.'
Finduilas smiled, ignoring the bustle of the dock. Denethor stood protectively between them and the dock hands going about their tasks. Aiavalë and Brandir waited patiently nearby. They had ridden to the Harlond to see Faramir, Aiavalë and Brandir off to Dol Amroth for the summer. Last week, Boromir and Imrahil had ridden the other direction, north to Rohan, where they would be until late July, when they would return for a brief time to Minas Tirith ere accompanying Moraen and Elphir to Dol Amroth for the remainder of the summer. They would all return shortly after yáviérë.
Denethor tapped Faramir on the top of his head to get his attention. 'You will obey your aunt and your grandparents, Hollë, and write your mother every other day.'
'Of course he will,' Brandir said. 'Uncle Fool will see to it, especially writing Mama.'
'Grandpa Adrahil will teach you how to swim,' Finduilas said, giving Faramir a hug and kiss.
The captain of the river barge called over the side that the boat was ready for passengers. Denethor took Faramir aboard and introduced him to the captain before finding a safe spot for the boy to stand while the rest of the travelers boarded. Brandir helped Aiavalë to board. Now that he was on the deck, Denethor was reluctant to let go of Faramir. For a moment, he considered shouting down to Beregar to bring Finduilas on board and simply make her go to Dol Amroth. And what a confrontation that would be. It would entertain the onlookers, but would not do much to cement his rule. With a sigh, he knelt next to Faramir and embraced his son tightly. 'Don't forget your promise to Mama, Hollë. She will be very sad if she doesn't hear from you.'
Denethor gave Aiavalë and Brandir each an embrace and returned to the dock. Beregar stood guard next to Finduilas, warning people away with a dark glare. She paid the Hound no mind, waving at the departing travelers. When Denethor came up, she broke into a gale of laughter, pointing at the barge. 'Hollë has started his adventure at once!' she said. He looked for Faramir, who was no longer standing where Denethor had left him. Only by looking for Brandir, who strolled after his energetic nephew, did Denethor find Faramir. The boy was at the front of the barge, hanging over the railing to look at the garbage floating by in the river. Finduilas laughed again at Denethor's sigh of exasperation.
They waited until they could no longer make out the individuals on the barge before walking back to the horses. Their ride back to the City was slow so as not to tax Finduilas too much, though in truth she was stronger than she had been in several years. Her cough was mild, just a soft sound every so often, more like to clearing her throat than coughing. Even the morning coughs were less and she had gained some weight. In the morning sun of a beautiful spring day, riding with his queen at his side along the greenway, it was almost impossible not to be happy. People they passed upon the road called out merry greetings when they recognized the Lady, which Finduilas returned with a smile and a laugh. It made Denethor hopeful. The east was very far away.
That is where Thorongil was. The captain had ignored Denethor's pleas through the palantír, walking about the north for months on end. After the winter passed with no discernable effect upon Thorongil's wandering, Denethor had ceased to beg and had simply watched the man. Every so often, Thorongil would speak to another of the Lost. Denethor recognized a few of them from their service in Gondor. They were even more grim in their homeland than they had been here. Once, he thought he saw Halmir, but the vision was too indistinct to be certain. A few times, Thorongil went to the Elven haven and became the king once more. Though it was clear that the man was speaking to others, Denethor never saw another being in the blue mists. He did not know whether he was pleased or disappointed that he could not see the Elf maid.
Last spring, Thorongil had headed east, taking Denethor on a journey into the unknown. There were high mountain passes where strange carvings adorned the stone and a vast forest of twilight where Thorongil kept his bow in hand and slept up in the clefts of trees. Most fascinating were the industrious lands beyond where Dwarves and men mingled together and there was plenty. It made Denethor wish to ride north, cross the Undeeps and go to see this place for himself. The people reminded him of those he had seen in the Westfold, a mix of Rohirrim and Dunlending.
Thorongil did not turn back to the west nor south towards Gondor, as Denethor had expected. Instead, he kept going east and a little south, part of a caravan of men and Dwarves heading to Rhûn. When the caravan turned back for home in the autumn, heading for home, Thorongil kept going. He was almost to Khand. It was dangerous to watch him now, for Denethor had to gaze across the dark veil of Mordor. More than once, he had felt something within the accursed land try to pull his vision towards itself, but Denethor kept his eyes fixed on the king and resisted the claim.
At the stable, Finduilas allowed Beregar to unsaddle Gull but insisted on brushing the mare afterwards. The two exchanged their confidences, the mare nuzzling Finduilas' cheek with her velvet nose and nickering in response to Finduilas' whispers. When Finduilas finished, Gull let Boots out of his stall and the two trotted off to graze the short grass before the walls. Finduilas sighed, leaning her head on Denethor's shoulder. 'I'm going to miss them.'
'I take it you're not talking about the horses.' That earned him a sharp poke in the ribs.
'The boys, Lady Lore and my Fool, of course!'
'It is not too late to join them. They don't leave Pelargir for a few days.'
Finduilas looked south, then shook her head. 'No. Maybe with Morcollë and Imrahil.'
'My lady, my Lord Steward, the morning is well past and it is a long walk up the mountain. Will you have dinner at the tavern?' Beregar asked.
'Yes! That would be delightful!' Beregar smiled and walked off to find a pup to send ahead with the news they were coming. Finduilas tucked an arm into Denethor's. 'A fine spring day and just the two of us walking about the City. It makes me feel a young bride once more.'
Denethor smiled, brushing her cheek. 'And you are just as beautiful - nay, more! - as in that first spring.'
They walked through the Great Gate and strolled up the main street winding its way back and forth across the face of the mountain, passing through gates and tunnels, nodding greetings to people as they passed by. When Denethor brushed his fingertips across the stone walls, the City hummed contentedly to herself, pleased by the cheer of her children. Beregar led them to the arbor in the kitchen court which was already laid with their meal. Denethor knew he should return to the Tower soon, for there was much business to attend to. There is always business to attend to, and few days like this. When Finduilas asked what made him chuckle, his answer was a kiss.
It was warm when they left the tavern and walked slowly to the Citadel. He ignored the Tower, turning down the lane to the Stewards House. They were soon sitting on a couch in her study, a ewer of chilled wine nearby and strict orders to Aeluin and Beregar that they were not to be disturbed. The house was more silent than Denethor could recall. Aeluin must have sent her girls off to Violet because there was not a child's voice or footsteps to be heard. No one was walking about upstairs. No tramp of feet up and down the stairs as people paid their respects to the Lady. Not even the cat intruded upon their solitude. Just the two of them, Finduilas reclined in his arms.
'Perhaps we can convince Mother and Father to keep them permanently,' Finduilas mused.
Denethor nearly snorted a mouthful of wine out his nose. 'How did you know what I was thinking?'
'You have always preferred solitude.'
He kissed her temple, letting his lips nuzzle their way down to her ear. 'Only until I met you.'
'That's why I have stayed.' Finduilas turned to look at him. 'I know you want me to go to Dol Amroth, and almost I did, until I realized that we would be leaving you here alone.'
'As long as you are well, I don't care about th...'
She laid a finger on his lips. 'I do.' Their kiss was as slow and warm as the morning. 'I am not the only one worn with care.' Finduilas began to loosen his shirt, kissing the skin she exposed. 'This summer is for you.'
Minas Tirith, Late July, 2988 T.A.
For four perfect weeks, their life was as it should be. The soft days of June lingered past loëndë, allowing hope to hollow out a place in Denethor's heart like the cat making herself a nest in the bedclothes. No shadows grew in the east, the realm flourished, their sons wrote cheerful (if not always legible) letters of their adventures, and Finduilas was merry. Denethor found that perhaps the kingdom would not fall to ruin should he linger over breakfast with her in the morning or return to the house in the afternoons. All he had to do was come to her study and she would set aside her work, shoo away Borondir and Moraen, and be his alone. When the count of the days allowed, they went to his bed as they had not done for more than a year. It was like their first year together, save more carefree. No enemies lurked within the walls, no rivals sat upon the marches, no Lord Steward brooded in the tall Tower wishing them ill. She was his beautiful, loving wife, once more full of gaiety. He tried not to think of a more perfect twin hidden in blue mist, and of a promise of true healing.
Ever since the wizard's cruel choice of the summer before, Finduilas had been beset by odd moods. Through the fall, she had been impatient, looking away north or south. As winter gripped the land, she ceased her inspection of the horizons and gave her attention to the boys. That had pleased Denethor. In truth, her estrangement from their sons puzzled him greatly. They were good boys, less troublesome than most, and they adored her, so it made no sense to him that she could be so indifferent to them. Faramir was least affected by his mother's inattention, simply attaching himself like a burr to Aiavalë just as Denethor himself had done at the same age. It was harder on Boromir. Denethor sometimes wondered if Finduilas noticed the small things Boromir did for her or how much he worried about her. Over the winter, she had finally given Boromir her full regard and he had delighted in it. She had come to see him at his sword practice a few times and had once ridden a messenger horse down the mountain to watch him and Aiavalë with their bows. At her command, Beregar and Hunthor had pushed all the furniture in her study to the side so that she could teach Boromir how to dance so that he would not be left minding the little children at the year-end feasts.
Denethor listened to Finduilas coughing in the next room. There was a long spasm of deep hacks, then a moment of silence as she forced herself to take a few slow breaths, and another round of coughs. Summer had finally arrived in full measure just after Faramir's fifth birthday, and she had been gripped by this wet, draining cough. When Denethor looked at her, it took no effort to See her. He could also see the mariner's mark. It angered him to see it, like a scar upon her heart, but he did not dare try to make it flee for fear that he would weaken her. Since the cough had returned, they had rarely lain together. This had displeased Finduilas, but better her displeasure than a worsened cough.
Boromir watched the door to her bedroom intently, a frown putting lines into his young face. The coughing ceased and Finduilas said something to Aeluin. It was not long before the women emerged from the room, Finduilas dressed beautifully. The dark circles under her eyes belied her bright smile.
'You should have said you were waiting!' she scolded, giving each of them a kiss. 'I would have made haste.'
'You shouldn't hurry,' Boromir sternly replied. He had grown noticeably in the two months he had been away, his face tan from days spent on horseback in the sun. He and Imrahil had returned from Rohan a few days past and they were going to supper at Vinyamar tonight to celebrate Elphir's first birthday.
Denethor gave Boromir a light rap on the top of his head. 'That was discourteous.'
Red showed through the tan. 'I apologize, Mother.'
'Forgiven.' Finduilas kissed his cheek again and turned away. 'But we shall not be forgiven if we are late, so if we are to walk sedately, we must leave now.' Her reply was a little short, showing her dislike of any mention of her illness. When they left the house, however, she took Boromir's hand and asked him to tell her an amusing story as they walked, which cheered them both.
Imrahil greeted them at the door to Vinyamar with Elphir in his arms, every inch the proud father. 'Look how big he is! Another month and he'll be too big to pick up.' Finduilas cooed over her nephew and teased her brother. Denethor thought Elphir to be no more or less appealing than any other year-old baby, certainly not as big or handsome as either Boromir or Faramir had been at that age. As the warm, sticky evening went by, Denethor noticed that Finduilas did not cough, aside from a few gentle throat-clearings, and knew she had taken a draught. She would be weakened by it on the morrow when the humors worked their way out. After the meal, they sat in the study and spoke about the things Boromir and Imrahil had seen in Rohan. Most of those tales were from Boromir, who regaled them with stories of racing horses, handling weapons, and eating strange food. He and Théodred had become good friends, which Denethor had hoped would happen. Perhaps Théoden will allow his son to come to Minas Tirith next year. That the next king should look upon the next steward with affection was best for both states.
Moraen held up her hand before Boromir launched into another adventure, this one involving learning how to shoe a horse. 'Did anything else happen in Rohan while you two were there?'
'Yes, I almost forgot,' Imrahil said. 'Théoden's youngest sister, Théodwyn, was betrothed to Éomund. They are to wed at the end of the year or perhaps early next year.'
Moraen's cheeks grew red at the mention Éomund. 'I cannot believe anyone would marry a man so dishonorable.'
'I can,' Finduilas said. 'Those two have been flirting for years, enough that even a visitor would notice. There is no scandal attached, is there?'
Imrahil shrugged and wiggled a hand. 'There were a few people muttering that Éomund was forward, but nothing different than other men wooing their sweethearts that I've seen in Edoras. It is all a bit coarse.'
'I can guess Morwen's reaction. What does Théoden think?' Finduilas pressed.
'I don't think it entirely pleases him, but neither is he opposed. It is what Théodwyn wishes and he cannot say no to her.'
Denethor leaned forward. 'Éomund had lost favor with Théoden, the last I heard. Has he regained it?'
'Not really. There is a coolness between them. I think Éomund has finally understood his lord's displeasure and has wooed Théodwyn despite Théoden's wishes. Most hope that the wedding will lessen the divide between the King and his Marshall.'
'So Morwen and Gríma finally have something on which they can whole-heartedly agree?' Finduilas slyly asked, making Imrahil snort.
'Yes, so it appears. It was amusing watching them put their heads together and...'
'I don't care to discuss anything to do with that man,' Moraen sharply interjected. 'I hope the girl comes to her senses before it's too late.'
Finduilas quickly turned the conversation to preparations for the southern voyage. In a week, Seabird would arrive to bear them to Dol Amroth for the rest of the summer. Moraen was very happy, for Luinmir had written that she also was to come to Dol Amroth and stay several weeks. It turned out that Ivriniel was already at the keep with Eärwen and Ivrineth, making for a very large pack of grandchildren. Finduilas refused her sister-in-law's entreaties to come with them.
'And miss all the peace and quiet I have enjoyed this summer?' she joked, taking Denethor's hand. 'No, I will stay with the Steward and laze away the rest of the season.' The look she gave Denethor was mischievous enough to make Imrahil and Moraen laugh.
Later, when they lay in Finduilas' bed, Denethor kissed her temple and said, 'It would please the Steward if the Lady went to a milder place for the summer, where she could see her kin and escape all burdens.'
Finduilas sighed, nestling more closely against him. 'Were it not for the wretched cough, friend, I would, but only if you also came.'
'On board the ship, it would not be so wearing. Unless you are concerned about the mariner?'
She was silent for almost a minute. 'No. Not anymore. None of them frighten me anymore. The problem is I will have the cough when I get there, and it does not sound like the keep will be a very restful place.'
'If the weather is better...'
'And I wish to be here with you.' She kissed him on the lips and pressed against him. It was difficult to hold to his own law for this bed. 'I said this summer was for you, love, and I will not relinquish it.'
Minas Tirith, 1 August, 2988 T.A.
Her cough was no less, but Finduilas was determined to celebrate her birthday. The City obliged with decorations and revelry. A pavilion was erected in the Court of the Fountain for her comfort while performers entertained her, Denethor and their guests. Denethor made sure one of the guests sitting near was Warden Lhûn. A steady stream of townsfolk came to the Citadel to look upon the Lady and offer their good wishes. As always, gifts were distributed and her Guardsmen performed good deeds throughout the day. That morning, Finduilas had decreed that every child born and every maid wed in the month of August would get a gold coin from her.
It was too hot to eat until after sundown, and they supped with Borondir and Haleth on the roof of the Stewards House under the stars. They celebrated the news that Haleth had conceived again and would bear another child shortly after the turn of the year.
When it came time to go to bed, Denethor tried to lead Finduilas to her room, but she insisted that they go to his. 'I have not collected my present from you, yet, friend,' she teased, tugging his hands to make him follow her. At his hesitation, she dropped his hands and snapped, 'If you do not wish me, then you may sleep by yourself!'
Denethor caught her arm to keep her from storming off. 'Alquallë, you wrong me! You know my heart as no other does. Stop trying to turn my concern into distaste. Why do you want me to do things to you that would do you harm?' Anger left her face and she shook her head. She slipped from his grasp and sat heavily on the floor, her face in her hands. He knelt next to her. 'Finduilas? What is it? What is wrong?'
'Everything.' Denethor gathered her in his arms, kissing her brow. 'It's all wrong, friend. There is nothing that won't harm me anymore.' She dropped her hands and looked at him, weariness etched in deep lines near her eyes and mouth. 'I will live no more in fear of death, doing without so that I may live a longer time bereft of what brings me joy.'
'Don't say such things, Alqua...'
'Say not truth? There is no healing for what ails me.' Finduilas' expression was defiant
'Is it wrong that I should not wish to hasten that day?'
'No, love. No. Still, there are dangers I will choose for myself.' She touched his cheek. 'And you, you stubborn man, I choose before all else.'
It was some time before Denethor could answer. 'I have tried to bring you healing, but it is not in my hands to do.'
'Do not blame yourself. Not even Laanga can do this.'
'But Thorongil did. At least for a time. In this I am less than him.'
'Stop! It was not true healing, for again I am ill. Blame fate, not yourself, Denethor. Better yet, blame nothing. It just is. Everyone dies of something.'
'But I can See that something. It is there,' he touched her chest, laying a finger upon the mark, 'upon your heart. Like a wound.'
Finduilas became very still, and her face grew pale. 'Tell me of this, friend.'
'After I could See you, I began to See the mariner's mark upon you. I think it is where he touched you. When we lie together, if I turn my thoughts upon it, it battles me, refusing to relinquish you. I can make it go away, but it leaves you weak. It always returns.'
Finduilas covered her face again. 'Oh, you are so cruel!'
'What? What have I done?' Denethor entreated. 'How am I cruel?'
Her head snapped up and seized his hands. 'Not, you, Denethor, him. The mariner. He is cruel. He said...' She stopped abruptly and red returned to her cheeks.
'He said what? When did he say something?'
'In the spring of last year. Do you remember when I went to the farm? In the brook, he was there, an old man wading in the water. He is less fearsome when parted from the Sea. I know he did something to me and asked him if he wished me harm. He said he had set a door ajar in my heart, so that you could See me, and swore it did not undo Thorongil's healing. He spoke of it as a temptation to you, but also as a way past Doom. I did not know he had set such a flag for you to see. He did not just tempt you. He taunted you.' Finduilas looked down. 'I have thought long on his words. I think my fate was never to be Seen, not even by you.' She shivered. 'Mayhap he has always watched me in the palantír, but the Enemy did not enter my dreams until after I could be Seen.'
Denethor pulled her to him, feeling like he could not breathe. I should not See you. What he most wanted was what he must not have, because it left her exposed. I brought this on you. The sound of her voice interrupted his thoughts.
'...lifting this veil has allowed me to See in dreams more clearly, just as using the palantír lets you speak to stone.'
'Why have you not told me these things before?' Denethor demanded. 'I would not have...'
'For the same reason you never spoke to me of this mark, I dare say!' They glared at each other until Finduilas sighed and rested her forehead on his shoulder. 'Please, friend, no more argument. What is done, is done. There is little time now. Let us not waste it this way.'
He helped her stand. She took his hand and led them to her room. Very deliberately she undressed and stood naked before him. 'Thirty-eight years I have lived, as of this day. I rue none of them, nor any of my choices. Will you join me for what remains, be it long or short?' Denethor shed his own clothes before he touched her. His hands felt her skin, no longer so smooth and soft, and examined her frame, bony in some places, slack and bumpy in others. She stood patiently for his scrutiny, with an occasional cough. To see her mortality this way grieved him, yet also made his love sharper; this was what they had. He kissed her and did not pull away when she put her hands upon him. They made love in her bed and made it theirs at last.
Minas Tirith, Mid-October, 2988 T.A.
The days passed too quickly. They agreed that no word of Finduilas' illness should be sent to Dol Amroth so that the boys could enjoy the rest of the summer with unburdened hearts. Beregar and Aeluin guarded the Stewards House like dragons, keeping all but invited visitors out and enforcing silence about the Lady's health among the servants, the guardsmen and the Hunt. Outside of the household, only Lhûn and Laanga knew the extent of Finduilas' illness. Denethor ordered the Tower aggressively so that he needed to spend as little time there as possible. He also had his old bed in the alcove taken apart and his belongings brought to her room.
During the days, Finduilas stayed in the archives or else in Laanga's garden to escape the heat of summer and early autumn, and Denethor would join her when his duties allowed. In the garden, they sat beneath Crone Apple and spoke quietly of many things. He learned all he could of the hole in her heart. She did not think it the same as what made her cough, for that was an old malady. In the archives, they read ancient texts and tried to learn what the mark might be. There was little to be known, all unsettling.
Silmarien's Eighth Discourse, On Souls, noted that there were times when a marriage between Dúnedain was unbalanced and one partner wearied of life long before the other, but she offered only conjecture as to why this was so. "Mayhap the weaker fëa is overwhelmed by the other, and flees, or else the more powerful seeks to encompass the weaker, but out of love. It is thought that this is what Fëanor did to Míriel." To relinquish a part of one's fëa was needful if a child was to be conceived, "for it is from the mix of the fëar of mother and father that a new life is crafted, partaking of the nature of both parents." Most interesting was Silmarien's assertion that some healers possessed the ability to give over a part of their soul to mend the violence done to another. Denethor re-read that passage several times and searched also other ancient works on healing, but could find no account of how a healer might do this, whether it was a talent to be learned or a power innate to the man. He even spoke to Laanga of Silmarien's claim. The herbalist was skeptical.
'Each fëa is itself, complete and what it is supposed to be, grandson,' he had said with a frown as he sorted some herbs. Finduilas lay under the Crone's boughs, dozing. 'At best, you may support another until his fëa heals of its own accord.'
'But if you may give part of yourself to make a child, is that not the same?'
'No.' Laanga shook his head emphatically. 'Even if I believe that is how a soul comes into being - and I do not; the fëa comes from the One and only from Him - you have given a part to create a whole, not a part to something that is already whole. You may sustain a life, not alter it.' The apothecary looked at Denethor slyly. 'You cannot even give someone a new opinion, only wheedle him into changing it himself.'
An Elvish text, tattered and singed, spoke of the vampires of Morgoth and how they could drain away the fëar of their victims, preventing the severed souls from rejoining their hröa, if Elf, or departing the world, if Man. The fëar so seized could not be destroyed, but could be imprisoned for as long as the vampire kept physical form. The rest of the manuscript was too damaged and partial to glean any useful information.
In the first week, Denethor thought about how to reach Thorongil in the east. He looked in the palantír and could find him, but it was too far away to see where exactly the man was. There was only silver mist surrounding the captain. As there was no location, Denethor could not send spies. Even if he could guess approximately where Thorongil was now, the man would have moved by the time even a swift rider got there and the spy would have no way to know which way he went. For a day, Denethor contemplated riding himself, taking the palantír as his guide, but abandoned the idea when he lay next to Finduilas. He could not leave her.
When the travelers returned two weeks ago, they had been upset to learn that Finduilas was worse. Imrahil watched her closely for one evening, noting every cough and wheeze. He spent the next day meeting with Beregar, Borondir and Marlong at Vinyamar, having curtly told Denethor he was not to intrude. Moraen scolded for a time, but immediately saw to the Lady's Grace, arriving at the Stewards House every morning with Elphir on her hip.
The moment he landed on the dock at the Harlond, Boromir had known something was wrong. His grin faded when he saw Denethor and realized Finduilas was not there. 'Where is Mother?' he demanded, not even offering a greeting first.
'She waits at home.' Denethor knew better than to try to deceive Boromir with false assurances. 'She wished to greet you here, but it is better that she rests.' Faramir bounded up at that moment and threw himself at his father, oblivious to Boromir's anger and ecstatic to be home.
Boromir's ire was nothing compared to Aiavalë's wrath when she discovered the truth. She upbraided them all, particularly Beregar, for not telling her at once. 'I should have been back a month ago!' she fumed. Even Warden Lhûn received a harangue from the Archivist. Only Brandir kept his peace, greeting them lovingly and giving them amusing stories, not lectures, that evening. The next morning, he brought Violet and Mab to the house when he came to collect Boromir for practice. They came every morning afterwards. Violet's gentle demeanor softened even Aiavalë's foul temper.
Partly to recognize his age and maturity, partly to blunt his son's sharp disapproval, Denethor gave Boromir permission to take his horse out anywhere upon the Pelennor without an attendant, though he reminded Boromir that it was wise to ride with someone else. Brandir usually went with his nephew and Imrahil simply ordered Borthand to wait upon them. Most mornings after sword practice, the three would ride out, returning before dinner, sometimes taking Faramir with them. In the afternoons, Denethor had Boromir sit with him in his study and learn of Tower business, even as he himself had sat with Turgon, reading reports and scribing messages. Finduilas sat in her chair near the hearth while they worked, leaving her own study to Moraen and Aiavalë. Violet was in the front room, ready to attend them.
Today, the air was crisp and there was a smell of decay in the air. Denethor stood upon the wall, looking out over the Pelennor. Most of the green was gone from its tapestry, replaced with the bright golds, reds and russets of autumn. In the clear air, the Ephel Dúath stood black and sharp on the horizon. Denethor turned away and walked along the wall, heading for the upper walk and the Tower. There were no audiences today, only a council with the guildmasters, for which he was glad. Finduilas' cough had been somewhat worse this morning and she had promised him she would go see Lhûn as soon as she finished her bath. He would dispense with the day's business quickly and return to her as soon as he could.
As he turned the corner and headed for the Tower, a motion in the court below caught his eye. He looked, and saw it was Faramir walking swiftly towards the tunnel. Denethor whistled sharply to get his son's attention and descended the steep stair to the court. 'Hollë, where are you going at this hour?' he asked.
'To the garden to see Master Laanga. I haven't seen him yet.'
Denethor smiled and stooped to give Faramir a kiss on his brow. 'Yes, you may go see Master Laanga. Please give him my regards.' Waving farewell, they parted. Imrahil, Borondir and Hathol were already in the council chamber, speaking to the guildmasters that had arrived. Denethor joined them while they waited for the rest, who soon showed up. The negotiations over taxes took their usual form, with perhaps slightly more artful misrepresentations from the masters to disguise the strength of their trades, for business had been exceptionally good this year.
There was a discreet tap at the door. Hathol went to it to see who knocked, then opened the door slightly wider. Beregar was there. Denethor excused himself, telling Imrahil to continue the council. In the hall, Denethor did not wait for Beregar to speak, but immediately began walking to the house. 'What has happened, Huan?'
'The Lady coughed up blood after her bath. Aeluin and Aiavalë are with her at the Houses right now. I came at once to fetch you.' When they reached the Houses, Brandir and Boromir were waiting in the courtyard. Finduilas was in one of the rooms, looking pale. Lhûn was there with another healer and Aeluin and Aiavalë were there as well.
'My Lord Steward, good morning,' Lhûn said briskly. 'The Lady has been given a draught for her coughs and Master Laanga has been summoned to create a mix of herbs for her to breathe.'
Denethor sat next to Finduilas and embraced her. Laanga soon was there and wasted no time preparing a mix of fresh and dried herbs for pans. Finduilas was soon breathing in the soothing vapors. When that was done, Aeluin and Aiavalë, helped lie down to rest. Denethor went out of the room with Lhûn and Laanga. 'What has happened to her?'
'Much like two years ago. She said she was short of breath after her bath, then had a coughing fit that gave her a sharp pain in her side. I think the coughing has opened a small wound, which is what bled,' Lhûn answered. 'The draught will keep her from coughing until it can heal and the herb vapors will keep any contagion away from the wound until it does. She should stay in the Houses until it is healed.'
Denethor bowed his head. 'As you advise, Warden.' He saw Brandir and Boromir coming across the grass towards them, no doubt eager for news. Denethor looked at Laanga and said, 'Would you bring Faramir here from the garden? He said he was going to see you.'
'The little owl is not there, else I would have brought him. I can ask the Old Crone if she has seen him.'
'Perhaps he returned to the house. Morcollë,' Denethor said to Boromir, 'please go to the house and get Hollë.'
'He wasn't there when we left. We came from practice and got to the house when Mother returned. We came here together.'
Denethor frowned. 'I spoke to him as he left the Citadel. He asked to go see Master Laanga.'
Boromir let out an exasperated sigh. 'Now I know where he is. I'll get him.' With a growl, he hastened away. At the door to the Houses, Denethor saw Borthand stand up and trot after Boromir. Denethor gave some messages to Brandir to deliver and returned to Finduilas' room. The draught had done its work and she was sleeping. Denethor dragged a chair to her bedside so he could hold her hand.
Not long afterwards, Laanga came back. He felt Finduilas' forehead for fever before setting another pan of herbs to steep. In a soft voice, he said, 'Crone Apple saw the little owl very early when I was getting bread. They spoke and then he left. I will be in the garden if you need me' Throughout the morning, others came and went - a healer, Aiavalë, Imrahil, Lhûn - but Boromir did not returned. It was nearly dinner before he appeared in the doorway. Denethor went outside to speak to him.
'He's over there,' Boromir pointed to a bench across the courtyard. Faramir sat on it, kicking his feet. 'He was riding Boots out near the farm. Gull was there, too.'
'Thank you for getting him. Go wash, then you may sit with your mother. She's sleeping.' Denethor went across the greensward to deal with the truant. 'Hollë, you told me you were going to see Master Laanga.'
'I did, but he wasn't there.'
'Then you should have come home.' Faramir squirmed and shrugged. 'Boromir says you were riding Boots. You know you are not supposed to do that by yourself. And,' Denethor held up a hand to forestall a protest, 'Gull is not a person. You must go with your Uncle Brandir or with Beregar.'
Faramir bit his lip and looked ready to cry. 'I'm sorry.'
Denethor waited for him to say he would not do it again, but the promise did not come. 'Hollë, you know what I have said. If I give you a rule or a command, you are to obey it. Do you understand?'
'But what if you're wrong?'
The question was asked with sincerity and innocence, and Denethor did not know how to answer. How often have you been wrong? Wrong about the mark. Wrong to hold his silence to Thorongil. Wrong to leave Maiaberiel free to seek revenge. Always wrong, for there is no right... Faramir looked at him curiously. 'And how would you know if I am wrong?'
'Don't know. But you might be.'
'That is not a reason to disobey. I give you rules because I am wiser than you, and in following them, you will become wiser yourself.' Faramir's brow wrinkled slightly. He is only five. Give him a clear rule and let him learn. Denethor put a finger under his son's chin. 'No riding Boots without an adult. You know that. Mama is sick and we do not have time to go searching for you if you get lost or fall off.' Faramir nodded and a few tears trickled down his cheeks. 'As punishment, you can't ride him again for a week. Promise me you will not do this again.'
'I'm sorry,' Faramir choked out. 'I want to see Mama.'
Denethor sighed and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, mopping away the tears. 'Not all dirty like this. Let's get you washed and then we'll go see her.'
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