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Hands of the King: 9. Waiting
Minas Tirith, Early May, 2975 T.A.
Ivriniel grumbled quietly about being forced to leave Lady Maiaberiel’s party so early. Finduilas sighed and shook her head at her sister’s complaints, while Imrahil snickered at them both. Luinil and Adrahil walked a few paces ahead, saying nothing. They walked briskly from one end of the fifth circle, through the tunnel in the rock, and into the southern half. Vinyamar stood to the east of the main way, equal distance from the rock and the gate to the sixth circle.
When they were inside, Luinil pulled off her shawl and walked into the parlor, thoughtful. Ivriniel excused herself and went upstairs in a huff. Imrahil drifted down the hall towards the kitchen, leaving Finduilas and Adrahil standing in the entryway. They exchanged a glance and followed Luinil. The Princess had already shed her shoes and sat on a couch, feet pulled up under her. The Prince saw to wine for the three of them, then sat in a large chair opposite his wife. Finduilas joined her mother on the couch.
‘That was… disturbing.’
‘I must admit to a certain amazement, wife.’
The party had been loud, gluttonous, and licentious, almost as shocking as the yestarë celebration Finduilas had attended with Denethor. Perhaps more so, as Denethor never arrived at this one to put a damper on the festivities.
‘Daughter, have you been attending such gatherings since last summer?’
‘No, Mother. When Lady Emeldir was still alive, she would not allow me to attend anything except small suppers, properly chaperoned, or parties that she herself put on. After her mother’s passing, Lady Aiavalë was adamant that it would remain thus. The only large celebration I was allowed to attend was a yestarë feast, and Lord Denethor was a stern and sober escort. This evening’s revelry is quite shocking.’
‘I do not recall Maiaberiel’s events being quite so dissolute last year,’ Luinil mused, ‘though they were rather in excess even then.’
‘Denethor and Aiavalë count it a result of their mother’s passing. There is none to set an example and restrain the intemperance of the gatherings.’
‘I should think Maiaberiel would be able to restrain them herself,’ Adrahil dryly noted.
‘I do not like that woman,’ Luinil said to no one in particular, ‘and I trust her even less.’ She gave Adrahil a long look over the top of her cup, and Finduilas knew there was more to this conversation. ‘Finduilas, what is your estimation of her?’
‘Not much and a great deal, both. She commands deference from many as it is well known she is the Steward’s favorite child, and she will get favors for those who are loyal to her. Some lesser houses have risen quickly with her intervention. I think her vain and selfish, but she can cause a great deal of trouble because of her influence on the Steward. Her desire is to keep herself the most powerful woman in the City and she does not care if she does harm to the City in the doing.’
‘Such as?’ Adrahil prompted.
‘Obtaining appointments in the Citadel or the Osgiliath garrison for incompetent fools. I have seen the reports the ministers and counselors present to the Steward, for they are all filed in the archives, and much is nonsensical or unimportant. I have heard Aiavalë and Denethor discuss these reports, and also talk about the foolishness Denethor has to oversee in the garrison. I have attended some suppers at Maiaberiel’s invitation, and I have heard her conduct her business. Denethor’s work as Warden would be much reduced if he were not always having to counter her mischief.’
Her parents exchanged another long look. ‘Are you certain that what she does is harmful, or is it simply not what the Warden would wish done? Is this truly a problem for the City, or is it but rivalry between those two? It is clear your sympathies are with the Warden and the Master Archivist in this matter.’
‘If my sympathies are with them, Father, it is because they have earned it,’ Finduilas replied evenly. ‘I do not hold them faultless, but I am familiar with their work and their reasons. They conduct themselves with great propriety. The more familiar I become with Maiaberiel, the more I see her as pernicious, not merely selfish. If she is in favor of something, be certain it is for her own benefit, and no one else.’
Her mother raised an eyebrow and smiled knowingly at her father, who responded with a shrug. Finduilas very much wished to know what this conversation was about. Luinil swirled her wine absently and hummed, thinking. After a bit, she smiled and finished her cup, then bent to pick up her shoes.
‘Well, if the lady is not grown up enough to order her own parties, I fear we will not be attending any more of them.’
‘That is not wise.’
‘Husband, you should not concern yourself with women’s business,’ was Luinil’s imperturbable reply.
‘This is not women’s business.’
‘Women conduct it. It is our business.’ Finduilas stood when her parents did, hoping they would speak more openly. ‘And the first part of our business shall be to hold our own parties in Vinyamar. I think Maiaberiel has been asked to carry too much of that burden herself since Lady Emeldir’s passing. Tomorrow, daughter, you and I and Ivriniel will need to plan a party. Good night!’ Luinil strolled out of the parlor, chuckling softly to herself. Adrahil gave a groan of mock-annoyance and shook his head.
‘How did I ever marry such a devious woman?’ he lamented, though a smile was tugging at the corners of his mouth.
‘Probably because she gave you no other choice,’ Finduilas suggested. Her father laughed and put an arm over her shoulders as they followed Luinil.
‘Indeed, she did not, much to my eternal gratitude!’ She slipped her arms around his waist and hugged him as they walked towards the stair. Tomorrow would be soon enough to uncover what Mother was up to. Tonight, Finduilas was just glad this was her family.
The following week was filled with list-making, decorating, and other party preparations. Unfortunately, there was no room in Vinyamar large enough for dancing until summer arrived and they could use the courtyard. Adrahil affected indifference to the entire matter, though Finduilas could hear her parents talking into the night in their room next to hers. Something interesting was afoot.
Luinil put Ivriniel in charge of ordering the house itself, saying it was good for her eldest daughter to learn how to properly conduct social events. Finduilas assisted with putting together the guest list. Luinil would ask her what she knew of this family, of that officer, of Lady So-and-so. The list grew, and another began, and yet another, laying out a changing collection of people for parties to be held every three weeks for as long as the Swans were at Vinyamar. Some people were always on the lists, most prominently Denethor, Thorongil, Brandir, and Maiaberiel. Very few of the lesser houses were invited. Most odd to her mind was that the Steward himself was never invited. Even so, Finduilas began to see a certain logic to the guest-list.
The week was up, the evening of the party had arrived, and Vinyamar was beautiful. Even Imrahil was properly impressed by how marvelous all appeared – flowers in wild profusion, lanterns and tapers like stars, rooms arranged just so. There was a balance between ornament and plainness that drew one in, made dear friends of strangers, and made all feel honored. Finduilas was not the slightest bit jealous that Ivriniel herself was the most beautiful thing in Vinyamar, and exclaimed over her elder sister’s elegance. Finduilas and Luinil minded the door to welcome guests into the house as they walked up the court, while the rest of the Swans attended to the serious task of keeping conversation going inside.
Thorongil arrived an hour into the evening, one of the last guests. Luinil smiled and greeted him with a kiss on the cheek.
‘Captain, I am so glad you could attend.’
‘How could I refuse so gracious an invitation?’ The captain turned and bowed shallowly to Finduilas, who nodded in return. ‘Good evening, my lady.’
‘Good evening, Captain.’ Finduilas summoned a warm smile and received one in return. Befriend him, Mithrandir said. She was slightly uncomfortable at the notion that she would do this in order to spy upon the man. Then do not. Denethor said it would not be right to betray a confidence, and I shan’t do that. ‘Do not let us keep you in the doorway, Captain! There is company, drink, and food inside.’
‘But that will leave you ladies alone in the draft,’ he countered. His eyes had not left her face. Luinil laughed and patted his arm.
‘Your concern is flattering, Captain, but we have only a few more guests to greet and then we shall also join the festivities. Adrahil and Brandir are waiting for you inside. Why don’t you take care of business while we attend to our own, then we shall all be free to visit later on?’ Deftly, Luinil took the captain’s arm and impelled him towards the rooms deeper in the house. ‘Go!’ He smiled, nodded, and began to walk away, but turned back after a stride.
‘I have just come from a meeting with the Lord Steward. Lord Denethor stayed afterwards to discuss some matters, but should be along soon.’ With another nod, Thorongil departed.
Finduilas breathed a sigh of relief. Ever since the large celebration in Merethrond, Denethor and Aiavalë had been in foul moods, particularly with each other. She still could not figure out why Lady Lore was now staying in rooms next to Wren and Lark in Widow Almarian’s house near the archives. Denethor had not replied to the invitation until early that very day, and then it was to say that he was not certain he would be able to attend. Only a scant quarter-hour after Thorongil’s message, Denethor walked down the court, the last guest to arrive.
‘Luinil, please accept my apologies for being late,’ Denethor offered. ‘I fear this has been a week for serious business.’
‘Then you should speak at once to Adrahil,’ Luinil replied, offering him her arm. ‘Brandir and Thorongil are already here.’
‘There is not much that may be said at such a gathering,’ was his quiet response as he took her arm.
Luinil shrugged. ‘Then only say when you will next meet.’ The two walked away, leaving Finduilas standing, unacknowledged, by the door. For a moment, she just stood there, gaping slightly after the other two. Denethor had not even looked at her when he came in. At least the captain said “Hello”! With an annoyed snort, she closed the front door somewhat more energetically than was required, and followed.
It was difficult to stay out of sorts, however, amid the happy chatter. Adrahil and the other three men were having a small meeting near a window, carefully watching to make sure they were not overheard. Finduilas wished there were some reasonable way she could join that circle. Aside from them, the party was gay. Ivriniel had an entourage of young folk and looked quite content to be the focus of their attention. Maiaberiel had seized Mother’s arm and the two were now in animated conversation about something. Finduilas accepted a cup of cider from a tray and was soon talking with two older women and a younger man – the son of one of the women, she believed – about the flowers of the Pelennor. From that conversation she drifted into a number of others, more or less engaging, until she discovered her glass was empty. Before she could fetch herself some more, a hand holding a full glass appeared before her. When she turned to find its owner, Finduilas was not entirely surprised to find the captain attached. Time to be a friend.
‘Thank you, Captain.’ Finduilas said sincerely.
‘You are quite welcome, my lady,’ he shyly replied. ‘Is there anything else I may fetch for you?’
‘No, but thank you.’ He smiled but did not say anything in return. Finduilas tried to think of something to say. ‘It is good to have you in Minas Tirith again, Captain.’
‘Truly?’ Thorongil’s eyes widened a bit, and his smile grew.
‘Truly!’ Finduilas laughed a little at him. ‘Really, Captain, is it such a surprise that people might wish to see you again?’ The smile left his face and he ducked his head a bit.
‘People? Then, you are not pleased?’
‘I am pleased and so are others. Why would you think me not pleased when I just said so?’
Thorongil’s face reddened a little and he swirled his wine before answering. ‘It is just… when we have met before… I mean no offence, but… you have not always seemed…’ He looked up suddenly, gaze very intent, and she was reminded again of a hunting hawk. ‘Have I done something to offend you or have I offered insult to you or your house in some way, my lady? I sometimes feel you do not approve of me.’
‘I know of no insult, and I have only heard honorable things about you, Captain,’ she firmly replied, ‘but I fear I have taken some small offence at your staring. It is quite rude.’
The captain’s face became quite red. ‘I offer my most humble apologies then, my lady. I did not realize that I was doing so. I would never seek to offend you. I fear I have lost my manners – a hazard of being a soldier.’
Father is a soldier and would not do so, nor would Denethor. Finduilas did not speak her thoughts, but smiled again and laid a hand on Thorongil’s arm. ‘Well, I am at fault for not speaking plainly to you before now, Captain. So, now that we understand each other, shall we stop being foolish and simply be friends?’ Thorongil smiled again, and his eyes softened, losing their fierceness.
‘I shall try not to stare,’ he promised. There was silence as the two of them looked at each other. Finduilas waited for the man to say anything. When it became clear Thorongil was not going to speak, she repressed a sigh and tried to keep her annoyance out of her voice.
‘So, since we are not to stare or glare, and are to be friends, what should we speak of? How are things in Anórien? Is there any trouble anticipated this summer?’
‘Not Anórien! Speak of things that are not serious.’ His change from cheerful to intent startled her.
‘How do you mean that? Things that are not serious?’ A stern look came to his face, increasing his resemblance to Denethor.
‘I would hear of happy things, or even of ordinary things. I wish to hear about beauty, like poems or this room, that which we defend. I would that never a grave thing be spoken at such gatherings by a woman like yourself. The men’s converse is bad enough.’
Finduilas did not know quite how to reply. She sipped her cider quickly, trying to think. With a small laugh, she smiled and said lightly, ‘Then you would wish for me to be a frivolous friend?’
‘Yes! Or, rather, not frivolous, but joyful,’ Thorongil earnestly responded. ‘The world beyond these walls is grim, and there should be a place to be free of such. To speak of things that are gay, not bleak.’
Then you are in the wrong City. She immediately chided herself for her ungenerous thought. What do you know, goose, about what such a man sees? Would you make him speak of dark things always? You asked what he would speak of, and you have your answer. Do not blame him for answering honestly! ‘As you wish. I know not if what I say will please you, but you did ask!’ Finduilas began to speak of the decoration of the room, how Ivriniel had planned it, how the two of them and Aerin had put all of it in place themselves, and then spoke of the flowers, weaving in the conversation she had been in earlier, where they came from, which were her favorites, which Ivriniel’s, and so forth.
Thorongil said little, but listened attentively. After some time, Finduilas began to feel her throat dry up, and a familiar tightness came over her upper chest. The coughs came slowly, like clearing her throat, but soon interrupted her speech.
‘I am sorry, Captain!’ she exclaimed after a fairly strong cough, ‘I fear I cannot speak any more.’
‘Then we shall stand quietly. Do not exhaust yourself on my behalf.’
Finduilas shook her head. ‘If you will excuse me, I must go and take something,’ she lied. ‘Please, do not wait upon me. It makes me quite uncomfortable.’
‘I beg your pardon, my lady, I do not wish to do that.’ Thorongil bowed his head. ‘We will speak again another time, then?’
She smiled and nodded, then had to cover her mouth to muffle another cough. Quickly, she walked away and left the room. The last thing she wanted was a coughing draught. A stroll around the courtyard, that will get me breathing easily again. When she walked out, she noticed her father and Denethor on the far side of the yard in close conversation. Finduilas was about to return to the hall, not wishing to interrupt, when Adrahil looked up. The two men stopped speaking, and the Prince waved her over.
‘Does your mother wish for something? Did she send you?’
‘No, Father. I started coughing, and had to get some air and walk about. I did not mean to interrupt, and I can lea…’
‘We were through,’ Denethor interjected, ‘were we not, Adrahil?’
‘Quite. I should go see to my guests.’ Adrahil gave her a kiss on the cheek as he passed. ‘Do not stay out too long, Finduilas. It is chill.’ Before she could reply, he was gone.
‘Would you like a companion while you walk?’ Denethor politely asked.
‘Would you like to say “Hello” to me first?’ She knew she was being cross, but was not terribly pleased with any of these men this evening. Denethor’s eyebrows went up. He stepped back and gave her an elaborate bow.
‘My dear Lady of Dol Amroth, I have been terribly negligent in my manners. Hello, greetings, and salutations.’ She knew he was mocking her as much as he was being humorous, but she could not help laughing. ‘Pray, forgive me, most high and noble lady, for being a churl, unworthy of your fair company.’ Her laughter sent her into a coughing fit and she had to lean against the wall while she caught her breath. Denethor stopped his mockery, waiting for her to recover. When she finished, he wordlessly offered his arm and they strolled around the courtyard. They circled twice before Denethor spoke.
‘Who decided on the guests for this party?’
Here was a conversation worth having. ‘Mother did, with some help from me.’
‘Hmm.’ They made another half-circuit. ‘Will there be more parties?’
Denethor gave her an amused look. ‘Do you really need me to tell you that, Alquallë?’
‘Of course not, but I would know your reasons. I know Mother’s.’
‘Maiaberiel should not always have things her way.’
‘Then you and Mother agree.’
‘It is a good thing to be in agreement with Luinil.’
‘What were you and father discussing?’
‘You will know tomorrow.’
‘Then I shall be patient. Why are you and Lady Lore quarreling?’ Finduilas felt Denethor’s arm tense under her hand, then slowly relax.
‘It is nothing.’
‘Nothing? Aiavalë leaves the Citadel and can hardly speak your name with spitting, and you say it is nothing?’
‘Nothing. It is… just one of our arguments. Siblings have them.’ Finduilas snorted to show her disbelief at his answer. ‘Anyway, she has moved from the Citadel to be closer to you. I will not be much there…’ Denethor abruptly stopped speaking.
‘And where will you be?’
‘You will know tomorrow. Are you feeling better? It is getting chill and we should return.’ Without waiting for an answer, he walked them to the door and back into the hall. Finduilas crossed her arms and looked at him expectantly. He stood for a moment, then turned and walked away. Over his shoulder, he said, ‘I fear I need to leave now, Alquallë. You will offer my apologies to your lady mother, please.’ It was an order, not a request. She hurried after him and caught him at the front door.
‘Will I know tomorrow why you are being so rude?’
‘Yes. If you would be sure to pay a call on Aiavalë every few days, I would count it a great kindness.’
‘Denethor, what is…’ He caught her hand and looked her in the eye for the first time.
‘Of course, you need not ask.’
‘She misses you more than she will admit, Finduilas.’ She put her other hand over his.
‘I will, friend, for I miss her, too. I miss you as well, you know.’
‘My apologies for leaving so soon. I must attend the Steward.’ With a bow over her hand, he was gone. Finduilas rejoined the party and sat with a few old ladies, listening politely to their complaints. She watched Thorongil, Brandir and her father meet, exchange a few words, then part, over and over. Whatever was happening tomorrow, it would be significant. The party broke up about two hours after Denethor left. Ivriniel was exhausted and happy, chattering into Finduilas’s ear about how the captain had spoken with her not once but twice over the course of the party.
Finduilas fell asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. Very early in the morning, she heard voices arguing just outside her door. She came fully awake when she realized it was her parents. The voices were low, but intense.
‘Seabird is the fastest ship docked.’
‘Adrahil!’ Her mother’s voice was angry, full of warning. ‘What else?’
‘I can’t speak.’
‘That is not an answer!’
The voices moved away from the door, towards the stairway. Finduilas scrambled out of bed. Quietly, she opened the door and peeked out. Her father was already out of sight, part way down the stair. Luinil stood at the top, hair a dark shadow across her shoulders, wearing only her night shift.
‘Adrahil, I want an answer!’
‘I have to go.’ His boots sounded on the stair, then on the floor below. ‘Keep a close watch on Imrahil. I don’t want him following.’
‘Imrahil? You’d best worry over me, for I have a good mind to follow and get to the bottom of this!’
‘Luinil, just wait. You will know soon enough.’ His footsteps grew faint, then the front door opened and closed. Finduilas closed the door before her mother saw her. A few minutes later, the door to her parent’s bedroom slammed shut.
When they all sat to breakfast the next morning, there was no answer. Luinil was silent, angry, and the three siblings did their best to stay out of her way. It was near noon before the word spread like wildfire through Minas Tirith – Harad was marching an army towards the Poros. There was still no explanation for the Prince’s absence.
Soon after they sat for dinner, a message arrived for Luinil from the Lord Steward. She left the table to read it and did not return for some time. When she came back, she was composed, though scarcely less angry.
‘Children, it appears that the Prince has agreed to take on a duty for the Lord Steward. Your father and Lord Denethor left on Seabird for Pelargir, where Lord Denethor is to command the defense against Harad. The Prince is then to warn the falas and to gather sea defenses in case Umbar attempts to strike while Gondor is distracted by Harad. The Lord Steward commands all of us to remain in the City in the Prince’s absence.’
Luinil sat and began to eat her dinner. Not knowing what else to do, her children followed suit.
The rest of the day and into the night the streets were filled with men, some armored, some not, walking down the City to gather at the first circle garrison, and with slow ox-carts of supplies, heading south, east and west once they passed the Great Gate. Messenger riders moved swiftly up and down the stone ways, bells ringing at the gates and the tunnels to warn people of their approach. By the next morning, Minas Tirith was silent and all gazed anxiously south.
There was little news from Pelargir or Poros. In the first week of June, three weeks after the City had prepared itself for war, Thorongil and Brandir returned from Rohan where they had traveled to inform King Thengel of the invasion and to coordinate northern defenses. They were in the City for only two full days, as Thorongil was to return north to Anórien, while Brandir was to journey first to Osgiliath, then to Pelargir.
Much to Finduilas’s surprise, her mother insisted on holding a party as had been planned before the war. Even Ivriniel was taken aback.
‘But, mother, is it proper to be celebrating when things are grim?’ her elder sister protested.
‘There is no better time for such an event,’ Luinil firmly replied, ‘for we all need to have our spirits raised.’ The guest list was revised slightly to include all of the officers who had come in from (or were soon to go out to) Osgiliath. ‘They, more than any, should have an evening free of care,’ was Luinil’s opinion. Finduilas felt somewhat foolish over her thoughts about Thorongil at the earlier party, and resolved to be quite agreeable to him and to all of the guests, even the ones she did not much care for.
Finduilas and Imrahil greeted the guests at the door this time, while Luinil took up Adrahil’s duties as host. Ivriniel had not waited to be asked to order the house; as soon as she knew the party would go on, she saw to all the details. Where the first party had been beautiful, this one was comforting. The food was simple and plenty, there was ale as well as wine, and some musicians had been hired to play and sing so that people could simply listen and not worry of what to say. Luinil had been very pleased with Ivriniel for that decision.
Brandir and Maiaberiel were the first to arrive, Maiaberiel dressed brightly but demurely. Isilmo and Luinmir attended them.
‘My dears!’ Maiaberiel exclaimed before embracing first Finduilas and then Imrahil, ‘How I have worried over you!’ The older woman drew Finduilas aside as Brandir introduced Isilmo and Luinmir to Imrahil. ‘Your mother, my sweet girl, how is she?’ Maiaberiel murmured. ‘I would be half mad with worry were Brandir gone so suddenly into danger.’
Finduilas thought there was at least a sliver of sincerity in Beruthiel’s words. ‘Mother does quite well, but I thank you for your concern. You will see when you go in. You yourself must be terribly anxious over your brother. Even more than Father, he is in the teeth of danger.’ As soon as she said it, Finduilas wished she could take the words back. Maiaberiel could not quite compose her face quickly enough to hide her disdain for Denethor, and the thought of the dangers he was facing made Finduilas herself shiver.
‘I know I need not worry, for Denethor is an experienced leader. Though it is unfortunate that the best captain is not there,’ was the smooth reply.
‘Indeed!’ Isilmo agreed. ‘Terrible bad luck! But there is only one of the Captain to go around, and too many ways to be attacked.’
‘Now, that is enough,’ chided Brandir. ‘Ecthelion confirmed he wished Thorongil in the north even after we received the news. We should not be second-guessing his wisdom.’
‘Yes, Father is very wise in such matters. He knows who is expendable on a border skirmish and who not.’ Beruthiel nearly purred this observation, and Finduilas wished she dared to kick her in the shins. You are all but wishing for your own brother’s death, you wicked woman! Isilmo and Luinmir laughed greatly at the thought. Imrahil glanced at his sister nervously, not quite sure what to do over the tasteless remark. Finduilas turned a bright smile on the four guests.
‘You are the first to arrive! Please, Maiaberiel, will you go in and help Mother and Ivriniel makes sure all is set to right? I am certain they will appreciate your help.’ Assuming Mother does not set you to scrubbing pots in the scullery for your vile tongue. Aiavalë would take a good piece of your hide without a second thought.
Guests arrived early this evening, and almost all had arrived within a half-hour of Beruthiel. Thorongil was the last to show up.
‘Lady Finduilas, Lord Imrahil, good evening to you both.’
‘Good evening to you, Captain. Thank you for honoring our home with your company.’
‘The honor is mine. How do you fare?’ Finduilas smiled and took his arm, leading Thorongil down the hall. Imrahil closed the door and trotted after them.
‘We do as well as can be expected, sir. Our sorrow over Father’s absence is increased by our worry for him in times of trouble. But I must insist that we do as you yourself asked not so long ago, and turn our thoughts and words away from dire things.’ Thorongil smiled and patted her hand on his arm.
‘As you command, my lady. I must say that I am weary over talk of war, though it must be done if we are to prevail. I have hoped this evening would be as much a pleasure as my last visit.’ His words were so gentle and his tone so earnest, Finduilas could not doubt Thorongil’s sincerity. She could feel her cheeks color at the implied compliment to herself.
When they reached the main room, the captain did not seem inclined to relinquish her arm as he should. Finduilas gently extricated herself from his firm grasp, motioning for them to join a group of younger folk who stood with Ivriniel. Her sister gave her an odd look as she approached with Thorongil.
‘Did you see anything of beauty on your travels, Captain? I have already described the Pelennor to you, and now I wish to hear of places I have not seen. Will you not tell us?’ Finduilas cheerfully asked. Being agreeable did not mean bringing another coughing fit upon herself with too much chatter.
‘Yes, Captain, please do say what you have seen!’ one young woman gushed, and the others nodded and voiced approval of this state of affairs. Ivriniel signaled a server to bring a tray of drinks and food. Thorongil bowed politely to his new audience.
‘Along the slopes of Ered Nimrais, between the Great West Road and the folding hills, wildflowers grace the meadows.’ So the captain began a description of his ride with Brandir to Edoras. For someone whose reputation was of a warrior, he spoke with the delicacy of a poet, sketching the land in words so perfectly that Finduilas thought she could smell the flowers and feel the breeze that bent the grasses. To her relief, no one asked for word of what he had gone to discuss; all were content to be entranced by his account of spring in Eastfold.
As Thorongil spoke, his voice took on a cadence that was strange, but delightful. Some of his words sounded slightly off, yet the way he spoke them fit. Then he said something that sounded… familiar.
‘And the warmth of the sun has released the sudden spring, like a rising lark-song, and the falling rain and melting water, bubbling in small streams down from waking glaciers upon the mountains…’
Finduilas cast about, trying to figure out where she had heard this before. It was more than the words; it was the words, the cadence, the sounds all together. There it was, teasing at the edge of her thoughts, almost ready to be spoken just a slight bit differently. Each time she tried to grasp it, however, it melted away like the snows in his tale.
She edged around the admiring group until she could see his face fully, not just from the side. Usually, his expression was composed, almost practiced, a polite disguise over close-kept thoughts. Watching him tonight, Finduilas felt she was seeing the man truly for the first time. Thorongil’s keen grey eyes were alight and his face had lost its mask-like quality, just as his voice had come alive. It was like the times that Denethor would speak of Minas Tirith and his sorrows would slip away in the eagerness of his telling, removing grim lines and bringing youth to his stern visage.
When the captain ended his account of the journey, his audience applauded and merrily thanked him for the story. The mask slid back into place and the hawk once again took up his hunting. Finduilas tried to walk away and leave him with Ivriniel, but Thorongil was quickly at her elbow. She stifled a sigh and resigned herself to being his chosen company for the evening.
‘That was a lovely tale, Captain. I have never been north of Minas Tirith, but now I feel I have journeyed all the way to Edoras.’ It was no exaggeration – the story had been marvelous.
‘Then I have done as I hoped. May I get you anything, my lady?’
‘Some water, if you will, Captain. I will be over there.’ Finduilas motioned towards the musicians. The return to formality and secrecy displeased her. And what else should there be? Is he a friend, or simply a soldier who flirts with a pretty girl? For what reason should he trust you with more than pleasantries? When Thorongil returned with a cup of water and a few sweetmeats, she smiled whole-heartedly.
‘Thank you, sir. Will you stay here and listen to the music? Ivriniel has told me these are excellent minstrels.’
‘I can think of nothing more I should like, my lady.’
‘Finduilas. Please, call me Finduilas.’ There was no mistaking the warmth that came to his eyes at her invitation.
‘As you ask, Finduilas. And you must call me Thorongil.’
‘Gladly, but we mustn’t call each other anything now!’ she teased, for one of the lutists had started to play. Ivriniel was right; the musicians were outstanding. It was no burden at all to stand quietly with Thorongil through the evening, though she did find herself wishing for Denethor’s sly, biting observations. Even so, the party was more enjoyable than she would have believed, given the circumstances. Maiaberiel and Brandir collected the captain at the end of the night, for Brandir wished to discuss something with him ere the two set out on their respective journeys.
The next few weeks were unusually wearying. With the coming of June, the weather was taking on the first hints of summer, not precisely hot, but warm and sticky. Like Aiavalë, Luinil became severe and silent. She attended every dinner gathering she was invited to, but would not leave the house in the evenings. Instead, she would sit upon the roof of Vinyamar under a cloth-covered arbor, gazing south, until night fell and the stars came out.
Messengers clattered up and down the steep streets every day, but no word from the south was reported outside the Steward’s councils. The entire City was on edge, though there was nothing to see and little to speak of. The few messengers who could be convinced to talk, usually after a few ales at The Messenger’s Rest, the tavern run by Beregar’s parents, had little to say. None but the soldiers were permitted across the river at Pelargir or within ten leagues of the Poros when traveling the Ithilien road. There were no rumors from Osgiliath – Denethor’s second, one of the Lost, permitted no news to escape.
Early every morning, soon after rising, Finduilas walked up to the messenger stable in the sixth circle and helped take the spent horses down to the stables outside the first wall, returning again with fresh mounts. There were few young men to spare for the task, so she gladly volunteered. Wren would often help, and Aiavalë joined them a few times a week when she needed to descend the mountain and do her archery.
The remainder of morning was for business. Most days Finduilas would accompany her mother down to the lower circles to examine the crafts. Ceramics, metal-work, cloth, leather (both hides and finished goods), wood-work, livestock, seed-corn, rope, oil, vinegar, dried meat and fish – all the goods of Minas Tirith were examined, weighed, judged, and priced. For some things, Imrahil would attend and for others, Ivriniel, but always Luinil had Finduilas follow, making note of things said and agreed to, arranging for merchants and crafters to come to Vinyamar and discuss terms, negotiating shipment and transport for when peace should come again, and so forth. The running of Vinyamar itself Luinil left in Ivriniel’s hands.
The mornings that did not pass in the stalls and shops were spent around the table in the dining room, meeting with merchants, writing things up, and balancing accounts. Slowly, Finduilas came to know the ordering of a great keep. As she sat and copied out the day’s affairs, she wondered at all her mother knew to ask and to do.
‘How did you learn such things, Mother?’ she asked after a particularly trying morning. The oil merchant was not inclined to be generous in her dealings with Dol Amroth. She wanted to secure importation of cod and whale oil from the falas in exchange for walnut oil from groves in Anórien. Luinil had handled the dealing firmly and had won a fair trade of olive and whale oil for walnut oil and bay berries.
Luinil shrugged, not looking up from the agreement she was reading. ‘From your grandmother. When she saw what a impractical fool her son had wed, she took it upon herself to teach me how to run a keep.’
‘And now you teach this fool?’ Finduilas joked, hoping to put her mother into a less somber mood.
‘You are no fool, Lamb,’ Luinil replied with a smile, though her eyes did not leave the contract.
‘But what of Imrahil and Ivriniel? Shall they not learn?’ Finduilas asked in return. Luinil did not answer, concentrating on the contract. Finduilas rose and poured them both some fruit wine, placing a cup into her mother’s outstretched hand.
‘They learn as they should and as they can.’ Luinil’s voice made Finduilas start. She had not really expected a reply, given Luinil’s attention to business. Her mother laid the paper down on the table and sipped her wine, watching over the rim of her cup. She finished her wine before going on. ‘Imrahil learns how to perform a lord’s duty for Dol Amroth and for Gondor. It is more your father’s task than mine, but I do try to show him what he should pay attention to.’ Luinil smiled to herself and chuckled. ‘He’s such a little boy still, though don’t you dare tell him I said so! ’
‘I shan’t, though I shall kiss him and make a fuss over him when he wishes to impress people!’ They both laughed at the thought, and some of the worry left Luinil’s face.
‘I train you for what you will need to know,’ her mother went on in a matter-of-fact tone, ‘for someday you will be the lady of a great manor or perhaps a keep. It is your duty to order it well. Many will rely on your forethought, and it is in your hands to make things a pleasure or a misery. Your sister does not think so broadly as you, and most of this she will never learn. A mistress of a single house she can manage, and will do well, but nothing more grand.’
Finduilas did not know if there was an answer to this. To agree would be disrespectful to Ivriniel, but to disagree would be to deny her own ability. Part of her was secretly pleased that her mother thought her capable of such duties. After a moment, she smiled and shook her head.
‘I do admit to liking such duties, even when they confound me, Mother. Perhaps you are right that I will take on such a role, but I think that time will be long in coming. And I have more faith than you in Ivriniel! She learns differently than I, that is all.’
‘Perhaps. But, you are right. What is to be will come in its own time.’ There was more in her mother’s words than she could fully understand, but Finduilas was content to let it rest.
Afternoons were usually spent visiting with the other noblewomen of the City, though Finduilas managed to squeeze in a visit to the Archives for a short time almost every day, and for a longer visit at least twice per week. With Wren and Lark looking after her, and with Beregar waiting upon all three women, Finduilas suspected Aiavalë was better tended than she would have been alone in the Stewards House. Beregar’s second sister, Lily, had been hired as cook for the three archivists and the Widow Almarian. After Denethor left, Finduilas brought Telperien to Aiavalë so there would be someone to care for her. The cat, however, would not be content in the new rooms and fought with the other cats, so she had to be returned to the Citadel. Beregar promised to make sure she had food, water, and a good scratch behind the ears every day. It was clear to Finduilas that he used the cat as an excuse to keep an eye on his master’s house while Denethor was gone, and to watch the Tower Guards. She wished Denethor would release the boy and let him join the Guards.
It was mid-June. Two full weeks had passed since the last party, five since the City had emptied of men, and the heat of summer was making itself known. The morning’s chill was already lifting by the time Finduilas and the other two women rode messenger ponies down the hillside. Beregar trailed behind, carrying her and Aiavalë’s bows. Wren had taken to arching as well and shared Finduilas’s bow. Finduilas had to admit the other woman was much the better archer than herself, even though Wren had only a few weeks of practice. The mood in the archery yard was grim and determined as women of the City honed their skills.
After only a half-hour in the yard, the three women had to stop. The muggy air was enervating. They and Beregar stood in the shade of a tree part way between the stables and the yard, waiting for the four fresh messenger mounts to be saddled and brought to them. Aiavalë was idly watching the south road, then came to attention, staring at a cloud of dust.
The Archivist spoke with such certainty it did not occur to Finduilas to doubt her, even though it was impossible to make out the horseman kicking up the dust. There will be news now! Stablemen and off-duty soldiers gathered, watching the dust cloud approach. The dust resolved itself into two horsemen, and soon the stablemen recognized the riders at a distance and began calling out that Lord Denethor and Lord Brandir had returned. Aiavalë pushed her way through the crowd towards the front, snapping at anyone who did not move out of her way quickly enough, the other two close on her heels. Denethor and Brandir pulled up, the dust on the horses turning to muddy rivulets in their sweat. Without a word, they dismounted and pulled their packs off of the saddles before handing reins to waiting stableboys.
‘What news, my lords?’ a voice called from the back of the crowd, and the whole murmured agreement. ‘How have we fared?’ another voice called and soon there was a chorus of questions and pleas. Denethor held up a hand for silence.
‘The news must go first to the Steward.’ A groan and muttering came from the crowd. Denethor’s eyebrows went up and he stared at the complainers. They quieted again. ‘Truly, soldiers, do you count yourself higher than your lord, so that you must hear first?’ Men shifted uncomfortably under his icy stare. ‘But this much you may know, for the Steward would not begrudge you this word. We have prevailed, and mightily, against Harad.’
Now the crowd roared its approval and the men pounded each other and shouted for joy. Women and other men came from the archery yard and soon a cacophonous mob was swirling about. Like a wind, the news sailed to the first circle and exulting cries floated back. Horns began to blow and the silent city roused.
Denethor clapped Brandir on the shoulder, motioning to a messenger pony. ‘Take a horse up the hill, as quickly as you can, and begin apprising the Steward. I will follow.’
‘Wait, Wren must go with you,’ Aiavalë interjected, ‘for we have several horses to take up there.’ Brandir boosted Wren up onto one of the four waiting steeds, and they trotted off, Brandir shouting for the crowd to make way. Denethor glared at the soldiers milling about and gestured for them to get back to their own business. Only then did he turn to his sister and Finduilas. He stepped close and took both of Finduilas’s hands.
‘Alquallë, I have not seen your father, the Prince, since we parted in Pelargir, but I have had constant messages from him. As of his last message, but two days past, he is well, the falas are unscathed, and none upon his ships have taken great harm, though there has been some fighting.’
He is well. Father is safe. It was not until she started crying in relief that Finduilas knew how much she had feared what Denethor would say. She grasped his hands tightly and tried to get her sobs under control. Denethor and Aiavalë both made soothing noises and urged her to be calm. The coughs followed on the heels of the tears, making her gasp. For a moment, she thought she was going to faint because she could not draw a full breath. Denethor gathered her in his arms and allowed her to lean on his chest, while Aiavalë rubbed her shoulders and back to try to ease her breathing. Beregar soon appeared with a dipper of water from the water barrel. When she could breathe again, Finduilas gratefully sipped the water. Aiavalë dipped the tip of a handkerchief in the water and wiped her face. She was glad for Denethor’s arm to lean upon.
‘So, you’re back.’ Aiavalë’s words drew her attention. The two siblings eyed each other sternly for a moment, then a small smile tugged at the corner of Denethor’s mouth, and Aiavalë’s eyes twinkled above her veil. His sister reached up and tenderly stroked his cheek, and Finduilas knew that their fight was at an end. The Archivist crossed her arms and glared in mock-annoyance. ‘Just how many of my books did you steal to keep you amused on this escapade?’
‘Only one. I will need another soon,’ was his casual reply. Aiavalë punched him quite solidly in the arm.
‘Rotten little brother! Someday I will catch you taking the books.’ Denethor stooped and gave Aiavalë a quick kiss on the brow.
‘That, I doubt. We must go. I need to talk to Ecthelion.’ Not “Father.” As she allowed herself to be walked over to the remaining two messenger horses, Finduilas could not help but feel sorry for the estrangement of the Steward’s family. Beruthiel would delight in her brother’s death. What would the Steward think? What would Denethor think to hear of his own sire’s end? She rather doubted he would mourn much, given how cold he had been over Emeldir’s death.
Denethor helped them mount, boosting first Aiavalë and then herself onto the backs of their horses. The messenger pouch he slung over the pommel of Aiavalë’s saddle, and his own pack he tied to the back of Finduilas’s saddle. He took the reins of the horses and set off in long strides towards the Great Gate. Beregar followed without being told, bows slung over his shoulder.
‘You should ride,’ Aiavalë said to Denethor. ‘You are worn out and you would get to the Citadel sooner.’
‘And what makes you think I am in any great hurry to arrive there? In any event, I will be questioned less if I am between these horses.’
The crowd that had gathered near the stables was now at the Great Gate, augmented by the denizens of the first circle. As Denethor entered the City, a deafening cheer went up. It looked like every person in Minas Tirith had thrown down whatever was in their hands and had rushed into the streets. Congratulations and blessings were shouted out as they passed, and some threw flowers at their victorious captain. Everyone was celebrating. Woodworkers, smiths, whores, tavern keepers, jewelers, weavers, cut-purses, soldiers, flower girls, beggars, potters, washer-women, fish-mongers, scriveners, and every other person who could sing out was in the street carousing.
Denethor himself did not smile and scarce acknowledged the merry-making that surrounded him. Finduilas studied him carefully as they ascended the circles. His face was sun-darkened, with streaks of red showing where burn had yet to turn to tan. He had probably bathed in Pelargir, but his clothes were grimy, and there were stains on his sleeves and boots that could only be from blood. His cheeks and neck were gaunt. Finduilas wanted to stop at The Messenger’s Rest and have him eat and drink. Revelers toasted Denethor with their mugs as they passed the tavern.
The celebrating was slightly more genteel in the fifth and sixth circles, but no less joyful. Noble ladies in their finery applauded and some offered a cup of wine, which Denethor would graciously decline. As they passed through the tunnel of the fifth circle, Finduilas saw Luinil and her siblings standing at the end of the court before Vinyamar. Here Denethor did stop, and bowed deeply to Luinil. He reached into a pocket and pulled out a battered letter.
‘Princess, greetings. I see you have heard the news.’
‘I have heard word that Gondor is victorious, but that is not much news at all.’ Unlike the other women, Luinil’s face was stern.
‘Soon, all will be told. As I said to your daughter, I have had recent word from your lord husband. He is unharmed, and the falas are safe.’ Ivriniel and Imrahil both cheered at this news, while Luinil sighed and bowed her head. ‘I was charged by Prince Adrahil to place this letter in your hands. I fear I can do no more, for I have other duties. However, there is to be a council upon my arrival in the Tower, and one of the Swan House should be there to represent Dol Amroth.’
‘Imrahil will join you, Warden.’ Grinning, Imrahil stepped forward. Finduilas tried not to be disappointed that Luinil had not chosen her to sit at the council, but knew that all would expect Imrahil. She dismounted and walked around the horse to Aiavalë.
‘Aiavalë, please, will you not stay here with me until the council is done? You know you will not get any work done in the archives.’ Aiavalë shook her head, as Finduilas expected. What she did not expect was Denethor lifting his sister off her horse.
‘Stay here, sister. I will be resting after the council, but will come to fetch you later.’ Before either woman could say a word, he collected the message pouch and was walking off at a brisk pace, Imrahil hurrying after him. Beregar took the reins of the horses.
‘Do not worry, my ladies,’ the young man assured them, ‘I will tend my lord. And the cat!’ With a grin, he saluted them, then left.
Aiavalë stood like a statue, staring after Denethor. Finduilas could tell from the set of the other’s shoulders that Lady Lore was furious at her brother. Well, one argument resolved, another started. Both turned when Luinil cleared her throat.
‘Lady Aiavalë, would you be kind enough to grace our house with your company today while you wait for your lord brother to consult with the Steward?’
Aiavalë did not answer, but bowed her acceptance. Luinil gestured for them to follow her to Vinyamar. Ivriniel hung well back, not wishing to be near the Monster. Luinil led them into the parlor.
‘My lady, I beg your indulgence for being a poor host. I must leave you in Finduilas’s care while I read this letter and compose a reply.’
‘Of course. Please do.’ Aiavalë’s speech was slow as she tried to speak clearly. Luinil bowed and left. After requested food and drink was brought, Finduilas firmly closed the parlor door and locked it. Even then, Aiavalë would not remove her veil, nor would she speak. Finduilas read poetry aloud to amuse them both and was glad to see the other settle comfortably in a chair. Shortly after the dinner bell rang, Imrahil came home. He was overflowing with news. They all gathered in the parlor to hear what he had to say.
The victory had been decisive. Word had come from unknown sources in the south very early, before the Haradrim had left their own realm. They had mûmakil, which made their journey slow. Denethor and Captain Baragund, the commander of Pelargir, decided on a daring strategy of attacking the enemy far in South Gondor, well away from the Poros. Rohirrim in the service of Gondor traveled by night from their base in Anórien, led by Captain Thorongil, and had passed secretly over the bridge at Osgiliath. He took them south through Ithilien, until they met up with Captain Baragund and soldiers from Pelargir five leagues above Poros, where Thorongil turned over the command and returned north. Denethor took most of the rest of the Pelargir garrison down Anduin and into the tidewaters of the Ethir where they found landing, then marched quickly south and east across the arid plain of South Gondor. Captain Baragund crossed the Poros, then hugged the Ephel Dúath , striking due south, turning to come at the Harad Road from the east. They met twenty leagues north of the fords of Harnen and crushed the unsuspecting Haradrim between them. Even the mûmakil were destroyed. All the while, Prince Adrahil had held off a serious raid by the Corsairs upon Belfalas and Dor-en-Ernil, which had been intended to distract Pelargir while Harad marched through South Gondor.
‘Lord Denethor asked me to say to his lady sister that he would call in mid-afternoon to fetch you,’ Imrahil concluded. Aiavalë harrumphed at that news. Finduilas was too busy thinking to pay much attention. The others left the parlour to have dinner, leaving Finduilas with Aiavalë.
‘Come fetch me, will he?’ the Archivist grumbled, ‘I think not! I am no invalid and have enough wits to find my own way home. Alquallë, please give Princess Luinil my regards. I am returning to the archives.’
‘I will come with you, Lady Lore,’ Finduilas answered, ‘Let me tell Mother that we are leaving.’ Luinil did not object.
‘What makes you think so hard, Alquallë?’ Aiavalë asked when they were safely in the caverns and had asked for some dinner to be sent to them.
‘I think of a story I heard but two weeks past, sister. Thorongil told us a tale of his journey through Anórien to Rohan. Yet, it could not be true! It would have taken him the better part of three weeks, from the time all the men left until the party two weeks ago, to have collected the Rohirrim, delivered them to Baragund, and returned.’
Aiavalë shrugged. ‘I would not think much of it, sister. Such things are often kept secret.’
‘But the story sounded so true!’
Aiavalë shrugged again. ‘He is a practiced liar.’
In the late afternoon, there was a knock at the office door. Denethor was standing there, dressed for travel. He held a book in one hand and held it out to Aiavalë.
‘The purloined book. May I have another?’
‘What are you doing?’
‘Returning a book. You found your own way home.’
‘Where are you going?’
‘Osgiliath. I have to be there by nightfall.’
‘So soon?’ Aiavalë’s voice was outraged. Denethor dropped his eyes and shrugged.
‘Perhaps not soon enough. Harad is not all that has been threatening.’
‘That is why Thorongil was kept north, is it not?’ Finduilas asked, ‘because of another threat.’ Denethor nodded once. ‘What is it?’
‘Easterlings. Orcs. I am surprised we are not already under attack.’ He looked sharply at the women. ‘Say nothing of this for now. It will be common knowledge soon enough.’
‘What book do you want?’ Aiavalë irritably said.
‘I am not sure.’
‘I know what you will want.’ Finduilas brushed past him and disappeared into one of the caverns. She soon returned. ‘This is poetry that Aiavalë and I read this morning.’ Denethor took the proffered book with a bemused smile, kissed each woman on the cheek, and walked out.
Characters introduced in this chapter, in order of appearance:
Imrahil – Youngest child and only son of Adrahil and Luinil, heir to the Prince of Dol Amroth, 20 years old.
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