Politics of Arda
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Midwinter Forfeit: 1. Midwinter Forfeit
Gondor's great banqueting hall, Merethrond, glittered and sparkled unusually brightly in the light of hundreds of candles. Finduilas, surveying the brightly colored fabric that swathed the pillars and draped the dais, congratulated herself on giving the Midwinter gathering something pleasant to talk about. The hangings looked set with gems, and speculation as to the cost of the display was probably the other main topic of conversation tonight. Though she knew it was just bits of colored glass, the counterfeit passed easily enough in the throng who crowded the great hall. The crowd surged and ebbed as knots of chattering revelers formed and reformed around the perimeter. The center of the huge hall was the domain of the dancers, whose vigorous leaps and turns kept the crowd from encroaching into the cleared space.
Still, Finduilas regretted the impulse that had made her, in the placid, halcyon fall, order the dais draped ceiling to floor in swags of brightly colored fabric. She had expected to be circulating in the crowd, too heavy to dance herself, and having a place to retreat to that was not totally exposed to the room had seemed only a slightly wicked extravagance. But she was not well enough, yet, to dance the exuberant dances of Midwinter, and felt trapped in her chair placed to the side of Ecthelion's. A warm place of honor, but it isolated her from the festivities behind the billowing drapes that cut off her view of half the hall. She could not even indulge in her favorite festival pastime; choosing a person and guessing what advantage they were maneuvering for by watching whom they talked to and danced with. Too often they wandered into the part of the hall that was hidden from her view.
Thorongil came into her view as the line of dancers changed sides, the movements of the patterns bringing him both to the left hand side of the hall and close to the dais. Unexpectedly, he was dancing more than he was talking this evening but, as usual, he had still chosen a different partner every time. She had not always recognized the woman. Which was interesting, if he was … no, she just could not see enough to speculate. She hardly needed to; his current goal of stopping the Corsairs was no secret. It would have been interesting to see how he was forwarding it at this gathering. She allowed herself a smile. He was certainly waiting to hear what her brother, Imrahil, who had arrived unexpectedly only that day, would tell him about Dol Amroth's support.
Denethor, Finduilas remembered fondly, had been amusing to follow, before they were married. Now she knew his plans and strategies and he often needed her eyes on other people. Yet tonight he had not wanted her to come at all. She knew he was only being thoughtful for her welfare, but she was well again, even if she still tired easily. Still, it had been no hardship to tell her husband she would not dance tonight. He had seen her into her place on the dais and spent a dutiful few minutes by her side, his attention clearly on the lords and captains freely circulating and saying things he could not hear. She had taken pity on him and sent him off to politic more than an hour ago.
His place had been taken by a succession of her ladies, but she had shooed them away to enjoy themselves. They still took the time to see that she needed nothing. She smiled at Lorloth as the girl tried to slip unobtrusively around the hangings with a glass of deep red wine for her. Lorloth's soft brown curls were unravelling around her damp, red-cheeked face and her breath still came in puffs. The offering was obviously as much to give herself a chance to rest as to refresh her lady. She presented the glass to Finduilas with a flourish and sank in a billow of pink skirts onto a stool.
The wine was warm and spiced, and Finduilas sipped at it gratefully. After she put the glass on a small table set next to her chair, Lorloth leaned closer to her and confided, "Oh, my lady. I've never seen Merethrond look so beautiful. Are there a thousand candles burning tonight?"
Finduilas shook her head. There was only one reason for that question. "Only four hundred and sixty three." As Lorloth's face fell into dismay, she added, "But they will be replaced as they burn down. I expect they will use at least a thousand candles tonight."
Lorloth's brow creased and she frowned. "That might be enough to claim the forfeit. I should have just insisted it was a thousand and not asked, although he said you would know."
Finduilas grinned at the artless admission. Lorloth had glimpsed her brother leaving the Warden's chambers that afternoon and had vowed to hunt Imrahil down this evening. He had apparently not run away very quickly. "What forfeit were you hoping to claim?"
Lorloth, whose color had faded to her normal peach complexion, blushed scarlet again. "What every girl asks for on Midwinter; a kiss on the terrace. You'll not forbid it?" she added anxiously.
Finduilas laughed. The terrace was popular, though wind-whipped at this season, and hardly private. "I think you are likely to get your wish whether the answer is correct or not." She tried to school her features into severity, but Midwinter kisses rarely went too far and what was said and done on Midwinter night was traditionally not remembered the next day. Lorloth's only charms were obvious and were probably not enough to hold Imrahil. "Just one kiss, remember! Go. You have kept my scapegrace brother waiting long enough."
Rising and sketching a hasty reverence, Lorloth breathed, "Thank you, my lady!" before she slid back around the drapery and off the dais at the side.
Finduilas watched her leave and then turned back to what she could see of the hall. A dance had just ended; the dancers dispersed to gulp drinks cooled with ice brought from the peaks of Mindolluin, or grab mugs of mulled wine. She knew how refreshing the drinks were for the overheated dancers, and did not grudge the expense. Her wandering gaze found Denethor deep in conversation with the Lord of Lossarnach. Baranbrith, the richest ship owner in Pelargir, leant close, his hand on Denethor's sleeve. Stifling a bored sigh, she silently cursed the tradition that allowed only the most boisterous dances, with judicious breaks between them for recuperation, in the early part of the evening. Her promise to Denethor that she would leave after the supper meant she would miss the few stately dances scheduled later. She would probably have been too tired by then to want to dance anyway, she consoled herself.
Thorongil approached the dais. Finduilas watched him out of the corner of her eye, carefully not making eye contact. As much like Denethor that they could be cousins, yet he had never stirred her in the way that her husband did. Because Thorongil wore Gondor's livery so constantly, it still surprised her that he managed the deceptive simplicity of court dress so effortlessly when it was called for. He did not look like someone of no ancestry who had acquired a veneer of pretty manners and a recommendation to a good tailor. The rich winter green of his tunic was piped in silver and the folds lay evenly, not hitched askew from inexpert tugging.
She noticed that he was wearing that annoying star that must represent something. When she had first allied herself with Denethor, she had thought to help her husband by trying to weasel personal information out of Thorongil, and it still rankled how easily he had misled her. An excited report to Denethor - "He said he moved to Rohan as a very young child." – was met with tolerant skepticism.
"What did he say, exactly, Finduilas?"
She had had to think hard to remember Thorongil's exact words. "He said, 'Perhaps I moved to Rohan when I was too young to remember living anywhere else.'"
Denethor had laughed, tightened his arms and kissed the top of her head. "Perhaps he did and perhaps he did not. You are usually more critical, my dear."
Though she had had a hard time hiding her chagrin at the time, that was one lesson, at least, well learned over the past years.
Ecthelion waved Thorongil up onto the dais. The younger man leaned close and spoke softly to the Steward. The Steward's loud burst of laughter drew her eyes and she saw him slap his knee and guffaw again. Hardly able to speak for laughing, he flapped his hand at Thorongil.
He snorted out at last. "Go, go. Ask her."
Thorongil turned. He took the two steps that separated them and stopped in front of her chair. Finduilas froze her features into as unwelcoming an expression as she dared with the Steward watching her reactions to his favorite Captain. Thorongil made her a very formal bow.
"Will you honour me with the next dance, Lady Finduilas?" His voice was soft and his expression serious, though she could see humor lurking in his eyes and curving the corners of his lips hidden underneath the neatly trimmed beard. Though she had seen him participating in most of the dances since the festivities began, he still seemed fresh. His hair and clothes were only mildly disheveled from his exertions on the dance floor.
"I am not dancing this evening," she told him coolly. "They are all too energetic for me."
He gave her a small smile, but his eyes danced with mischief. "So I knew. The next dance will be a pavanne, if you will be so gracious as to join me for it."
A pavanne! This slowest and most stately of the court dances would not be beyond her endurance, but it was never offered during the Midwinter revels, or at least not until very late in the evening. That he had somehow bribed or coerced the musicians into this breach of custom for a few minutes of very public but uninterrupted conversation with her was intriguing. She thought she knew what he hoped to gain, but he would see that she was not so easily manipulated. She did love to dance. Perhaps the advantage here would not be his.
Ecthelion called an encouragement. "Go on, daughter, dance! It will be no more tiring than a walk around the courtyard." He turned to the men standing next to him and announced in a slightly overloud voice. "Best strategist we have."
Thorongil did not even have the decency to blush at the compliment. He stood respectfully not quite directly in front of her, with a challenging look and eyes that still held a great deal of humor. Finduilas held out her hand. Thorongil took it and drew her to her feet.
"If the Steward commands, I can but obey." She gave Ecthelion a small bow with her head and turned back to Thorongil. "Lead on, Captain."
Still lightly holding her hand in a formal posture, he led her to the edge of the dais. He paused there, and she saw the bandleader catch Thorongil's nod.
The bandleader's stentorian voice filled the hall. "The next dance will be the Flowers Pavanne."
For three heartbeats the great hall stilled, then a questioning murmur ran though the crowd and the attention of the hall turned to focus on them standing at the edge of the dais. She silently applauded Thorongil's sense of theater. The green of his tunic did not clash with the gold and blue of her gown, and he had stopped where the chandelier threw a spot of light onto the edge of the dais. Her hangings sparkled and winked behind them.
"I see that we will be setting a precedent," Finduilas said softly.
"Did you fear we would be dancing alone?"
Thorongil led her smoothly down the three steps to the dance floor and to the favored position to begin the dance. Facing each other, they waited for the floor to fill with other couples.
"You are hoping," Finduilas commented, "that I will give you an indication of Dol Amroth's position on Denethor's proposed action against the Corsairs."
He raised his brows, acknowledging the hit and the opening moves of their game.
Forestalling any comment, she continued, "I could hint around the topic, but, because this is Midwinter, I would prefer to give you the information as a forfeit."
His eyes continued to look amused, though his voice was serious. "It is more than my life is worth, Lady, to be seen on the terrace with you tonight. Lord Denethor is already looking daggers at me for daring to touch your hands in the dance."
She could not see Denethor from where she was standing, but she had no doubt that he would not approve of her plan, though he might well appreciate any information she could glean from it. She tilted up her chin and gave Thorongil a challenging look.
"Would you trade honesty for honesty, Captain?"
"Do I have a reputation for dishonesty?" he riposted lightly, but he could not hide a slight stiffening of his posture.
"You have a talent for evasiveness on some topics, and I believe we both have curiosity we would like satisfied."
The music started. She waited until most of the introductory bars had played and then began the dance with the simplest of four beat bows. She would not give him the satisfaction of a full formal reverence. When it was the men's turn, he gave her the most elaborate of the sixteen beat bows with ease, looking relaxed and controlled though the intricate sweeps and turns. She placed the fingertips of her right hand on top of his left wrist and they started on the first promenade.
"I have already received a summons from Prince Imrahil. My curiosity will be satisfied tomorrow in any case," he told her.
"Then why ask me to dance at all? Surely you can use the knowledge to good advantage tonight?" She knew that he could, and that he desperately wanted it tonight. Until Ecthelion actually gave the orders, the plan could collapse at any time. Denethor was working very hard tonight to counter Thorongil. She knew he knew that she knew. They paced a stately few measures. Her smile broadened.
Thorongil gave a small sigh. "Very well, Lady Finduilas. Tell me and I will answer your questions."
"Oh no, Captain. Answer my questions, and then I will tell you Dol Amroth's decision. You need not fear that I will mislead you at the end. My answers will be as sincere as yours."
His hand under hers faltered momentarily and he had to take an extra-long stride to stay even. Finduilas kept a formal smile plastered on her lips and hoped that Thorongil could see the wicked glee in her eyes as they faced each other again at the end of the promenade. They stepped together and apart, and she began her slow circle around him. When she faced him again, she stepped left and he stepped left, moving them apart. As they came back to the center, he took her hand and bowed. "I agree. Within the limits of my honour and for the duration of the dance, ask what you will."
He began his slow circuit of her and now that she had liberty to ask, she tried to organize the questions she wanted answered most. She discarded obvious questions such as 'where were you born?' He had often given answers that might have been absolutely truthful and were still too misleading. Denethor had not been able to track down any firm information from the clues Thorongil had let slip. He finished his circuit. She stepped right, mirroring his step to the right. They met again in the center and bowed.
"Very well. For the duration of the dance," she agreed. She put her fingers on top of his wrist again as they started the second promenade.
"Where did you get the star you wear?"
He shot her a surprised look. "My mother gave it to me when I reached manhood. She said it was my father's." He paused and she saw his sardonic smile. "And that he had acquired it honestly."
Did he mean to imply that his father was not usually honest? Or was he aware of some of the more scurrilous rumors regarding his parentage and trying to counter them through her? She was wasting her very limited time in speculation better done later. "What is your mother's name?"
That was prompt enough, and definitely new information. He apparently did intend to keep his end of their bargain.
"Your father's name?"
"My mother never told me." There was no mistaking the amusement in his voice.
Surprised, she turned to look at him and blurted out, "Did you not ask her?"
He met her eyes and twitched a smile. "Of course. Often. She spoke his name to no one." Descended as she was from a long line of illustrious forebears, Finduilas felt an unexpected thread of pity. It was one thing to dismiss this man as a nobody, quite another to hear him confirm it. Her face must have shown him her opinions. His expression turned serious and he said, "Even if we both knew my father's name, Lady, I would not be other than I am. "
She turned her face back to the front to escape his far too knowing eyes. He was known as an honourable man, and a good commander. Turning back to him, she saw again his close resemblance to her husband, whose ancestry was certainly impeccable. Thorongil had the manner and the aura of the highest nobility. He might not know his father, but she would swear he had the blood of Gondor and was not some Dunlending shepherd's get. "Do you have anything else of your father's?"
His face was turned away and he was smiling at a passing couple, but he answered her readily enough. "A sword. A ring."
Even Denethor spoke admiringly of his sword: an ancient, pattern-welded blade. "A fine weapon," her husband had said, adding waspishly, "that deserves a better owner."
"I have never seen you wear a ring." They had reached the end of the promenade and he had taken her hands for the next movement. Finduilas glanced down at his hands for confirmation. Tonight would be the time to indulge in jewelry if he owned any, but his hands were bare.
His gaze followed hers down to his hands and he tightened his grasp slightly. "It interferes with my grip on a blade."
That was likely enough. He was certainly a fighter and a mercenary before he was anything else. Something still bothered her about his name. If he did not have the star until he reached manhood… "Do you wear the star because you are Thorongil, or are you Thorongil because you wear the star?"
There was a definite delay this time, but they had also begun the bows and she could not tell what was the cause of his hesitation in answering. They came together.
"The star was first," he said and she thought she detected reluctance in his answer.
Step left, back to the center. She had time for only a hurried question before the pattern of this variation moved them apart.
"What was your name before it was Thorongil?"
They paced opposite circles around a common center, and came together again. Stepped right.
"As a child, I was called Hope."
They paced circles again but this time in the opposite directions. None of the names he had told her so far were common in Gondor, but Gilraen and Thorongil at least were ancient forms. They were speaking the common tongue, Westron. Was his name "Hope' in Westron? Or was 'hope' the translation of the meaning of his name from another language? And which language? If it had been Sindarin, why translate it? The Westron word "hope" had two shades of meaning in Sindarin, and Amdir as a name was common enough. If he had been "Hope" why did he not say his mother was "Wandering Star"? The Rohirrim did not claim him. What other language was there? Dunland? Unlikely. Umbar? Could he be a Black Númenorean? It would explain a great deal. Denethor was convinced that Thorongil was from the north, but Umbar was another source of Gondorian lineage. She eyed her partner speculatively. If he were a Corsair, was he once, or twice, a traitor?
They met in the center and bowed. "Just Hope?" she asked him. "Amdir or Estel?"
"Estel." He shrugged slightly and looked innocent.
Pursing her lips, she placed her fingers lightly on his wrist and they began the third promenade.
She began, "So you have a sword, a silver star and a gold ring…"
"Silver," he interrupted her. "The ring is also silver."
"Little more than a trinket, then. If you do not wear it, why do you keep it?" He was certainly keeping the exact letter of their agreement. She did not care what metal the ring was made of.
"Both Rohan and Gondor have been generous. There has been no need for me to pawn or sell it, but my life has not always been so settled. I well remember hungry times in the wild. Do you grudge me this trinket, as you called it?"
"You ought to be wealthy enough now." Gondor was generous, and a man so highly placed in the Steward's favor certainly had many opportunities to enrich his purse.
He looked affronted. "I would be rich only if I took bribes, sold my influence with the Steward, or stole the funds from contracts at my disposal. I have never done so. I seek only what is best for Gondor, and my own needs are simple."
She knew that was true. Denethor had tried very hard to find evidence of malfeasance against him and there was none. Annoyed with herself for letting him distract her from the question she had started to ask, she began again, "You have a sword, a star and a ring. Denethor has a long line of illustrious ancestors, noble since before the beginning of this age. He is rich, in land, in jewels, in other things. He is the Steward's Heir and will hold the Rod and rule in Gondor. As Captain-General of Gondor's forces, if he wanted the Havens of Umbar raided, he would simply order it done. He has much and you have little."
The music changed signaling the end of the promenade, catching her off guard. She had planned to put the question and demand an answer as they reached this point, getting his first unguarded reaction. Now she feared he would have too much time to think.
"What of his do you envy most, Captain?" she asked as they came together for the bow. At least she had asked the question. His answer, whether he chose power or money or influence, would be revealing.
They stepped left and back to the center. Thorongil looked stunned, his eyes blank, his jaw nearly slack. She smiled at his discomfiture, pleased that she had been able to shake his composure. She paced the four steps away from him that the variation called for, and turned back. She bowed and paced back to the center, meeting him as he mirrored her movements. Hands raised to shoulder height and barely touching, they began to slowly rotate around each other's common center.
"You truly wish to know what I envy most?" His face had regained his normal expression but his brows were raised in question.
"Yes. Very much. Are you finding it difficult to narrow down your ambitions?" Evade this question, Thorongil, and I will see you wait for any more information. She smiled sweetly at him.
"Not at all," he said as they stopped facing in the opposite direction and the music signaled the next move.
Step right and back to the center. She paced out the four steps again, turned and bowed. Four steps back. He held up his hands and she met them with hers. They started rotating back into their original positions. He looked down into her eyes, took a deep breath and let it out with a sigh.
"The woman Denethor loves looks back at him with love. She consented to marry him, and he has already a fair, strong son." Dropping his arms, he completed the variation with a bow and held out his hand for the last promenade.
Only habit enabled her to complete her bow. She knew she must look as stunned as he had moments ago. She pressed her lips together and swallowed heavily, only long training enabling her to assume a pleasant expression. She had never anticipated this. She put her fingers on his wrist.
"You could have any woman you wanted," she breathed out, puzzled, as they started to walk. With Ecthelion's backing, his lack of ancestry was surely no barrier except at the very highest levels of Gondorian society. As far as she knew, Thorongil had never tried to marry, and had, in fact, adroitly turned away several very advantageous offers.
"Would that were true." He kept his face turned straight in the direction of their advance. His arm trembled for a moment under her hand.
It was impossible not to ask, and Finduilas did not resist the impulse. "Who is she?"
He still did not turn his head to meet her eyes, but she saw a slight flush creep up his cheeks. "The daughter of the lord in whose household I fostered." He turned his head and caught her eyes at last. She caught her breath. There was no doubting the intensity of his feelings. "And do not ask her name, for I was never given leave to be free with it. She is a royal lady, and far above me."
One of Thengel's daughters? Surely not. He had not fostered in Rohan, but had come there already a man. Did any from the royal line survive in Umbar? She would remember to ask her husband.
"Why not choose a woman of Gondor and raise your own sons?"
"My heart is inconveniently constant," he said and his voice was again both assured and flippant.
Thinking about it, it did not preclude any ambitions he had towards Gondor. Finduilas could not help smiling. The hard, mercenary captain was a romantic. Did he see himself as one of the great heroes, winning a kingdom and laying it at his lady love's feet? He had best resign himself to carving one out of the wilderness. Thorongil could not have Gondor. Denethor would see to that.
There was time for one last question. "Why are you in Gondor?"
They reached the end of the promenade, and bowed. Stepped left. Came together and linked arms. They started the final variation, walking together around a circle.
"I have seen the Shadow and I must oppose it. Gondor is the last and greatest bastion for the Light and the will of the Valar. I wish to fight against the Dark Lord. There is no better place than here for me to be."
Again, he surprised her. This was no personal ambition of greed or power. Finduilas studied his face, so near and yet at this moment looking remote, drawn. She believed that he had looked on Shadow and rejected it at some cost to himself.
"Umbar is far from Mordor," she ventured Denethor's argument, "the Corsairs should be kept from the coast not attacked where they are strongest. The new ships will be deterrent enough."
Thorongil made an impatient sound. "Foolishness. Denethor's new ships will use resources Gondor can ill afford, and the Corsairs will still be free to build their fleet. They must be prevented from being able to raid, not just stopped from raiding."
She had heard all the arguments many times: Thorongil agitating to take the fight to Umbar; Denethor determined to build three, gigantic ships of war to patrol the coasts. But this time she felt Thorongil's sincerity. They reached the center of the circle, separated, stepped right and back together. They linked arms again and walked in the opposite direction.
"Who …" she began.
He interrupted, "The dance is over, Lady." His voice was almost apologetic.
She examined his face and noted his hopeful expression. She kept him in suspense for another few steps.
"Yes," she said bluntly. He gave her a puzzled look and she realized how ambiguous she must have sounded. Yes, the dance was nearly over. "Yes, you have lost. Dol Amroth supports Denethor. The great ships will be built in our shipyards, and there will be no war against Umbar. Imrahil is empowered to negotiate the details."
He stared bleakly into her eyes and his lips tightened into a frown. ""Even Denethor admits it will take a year or more to build those ships and many thousands of men to crew and maintain them."
Finduilas patted his hand. "It would take more, much more, to bring war to Umbar. Denethor's new ships will be bigger and fiercer and faster than anything the Corsair's use. They will not dare to come to our coasts, and if they do we will crush them."
He smoothed his face into blandness and turned his smile on her again. "Thank you, Lady," he said lightly. "I will endeavour to be surprised at the council tomorrow."
She suffered a qualm, though she did not know how he could turn the information to his advantage in the few hours left of the revelry. He had lost this skirmish, but she knew that what she saw in his face was not defeat but calculation.
"And you?" he asked her. "Will you keep my secrets?"
Denethor was her husband, but she was a daughter of Dol Amroth and had her own honor. "I will say nothing of your lost love, Captain. Things said at Midwinter are not repeated on the morrow."
They finished their circle, and bowed. The music died to silence. He held her hands for a moment longer, and then released them.
Denethor strode over and insinuated himself between them, a black storm cloud in his ebon gown. Thorongil took a step backwards.
"Thank you for the dance, Lady Finduilas," Thorongil said, bowing again to her and Denethor.
"You are very welcome, Captain Thorongil. It was thoughtful of you to arrange it."
"You must take care not to tire yourself, my dear. Come, let me take you back to your seat." Denethor took her arm and led her off. As soon as they were out of earshot of the Captain, he said, "Had I thought it wise for you to dance, I would have arranged it myself. Your conversation seemed very animated. What did you talk about?"
She patted her husband's arm and gave him a soft smile. "Just commonplaces."
The Pavanne is a real dance. I made up the choreography of this one to suit the purposes of the story.
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