Minas Tirith, Early June, 2986 T.A.
Denethor did not look north again or let his heart follow its desire. Thorongil was welcome to his wilds and wastes. The Stewards would care for Gondor as they always had, with no thought of the lost north. The spies and traders reported little to change Denethor's mind. Once past the Gap of Rohan, there was little to be known. Indeed, he had learned most of it already from questioning Thorongil and Mithrandir. There was a small settlement near the ruins of Tharbad, and a decent sized trading town, Bree, near an old crossroads. West of that were lands occupied by farmers, possibly a tribe of Periannath. There were Dwarves to be found, and obviously some Elves, but nothing that sounded as substantial as the lands east of Mirkwood, where the Dwarves held Erebor and men populated the dales, lake and plains nearby.
Instead of the north, Denethor looked upon Gondor. Every fourth day, he went to the palantír and looked upon this or that corner of the realm. The condition of the roads and the amount of traffic upon them, the bustle of the harbors, the health of herds, the cultivation of fields, the repair of buildings; all the ways in which Gondor shook off winter's slumber was known and tallied.
He spent several hours watching Maiaberiel in Minrimmon, gleaning little save that she was as unfaithful to Brandir as ever. Few were the times he did not see her in the company of one paramour or another. Denethor made note of them and anyone else whom he saw in her company, drawing sketches of their faces when he did not know their names. Haleth gave copies of the drawing to trusted traders who did business in Anórien and Rohan, and they would report back on what they could find out about these unknown characters. A number of them were Dunlendings or half-breeds, and a few had a look to them that Denethor could only describe as Orc-like. Once, he looked for her and found her sitting with Brandir in the library of their house. They sat upon a couch, and she was cradled against Brandir, her head upon his shoulder. They were speaking about something. What Denethor could not understand was the affection between them, the way they exchanged fond looks and tender touches, as though they were newly in love and not almost thirty years into their mockery of a marriage.
Also he looked east. That tested his strength. He could look north and eastward, along Anduin and towards the southern reaches of Mirkwood with relative ease. These lands still lay under Gondor's sway, if only because none else could claim them. There was little to be seen. Turning his eyes more easterly, he could gaze out across the southern reaches of the vast grasslands of Rhovanion that Gondor once claimed. It, too, was mostly empty, though there were small settlements near the eaves of the forest and bands of herdsmen dotting the plain. To keep looking east, however, meant looking across Mordor's territory. When he did, Denethor prepared himself before hand, studying maps to know where he would look and fixing in his mind what he wished to look for - settlements, travelers, armed forces on the march. Several times, he felt something pulling at him and thought he heard a voice bidding him to look directly east, towards the Dark Tower. When that happened, he would touch the lanyard with one hand and hold the drape in the other, ready to cast it over the stone should he weary and be trapped by the Enemy. He had to do this a few times at first, but soon held the stone securely. As his command of the palantír increased, he dared to look more closely at the borders of Mordor, looking for dangers that hid in the dark shadows of the mountains.
The eastern visions were very useful. As he and Finduilas had guessed, Rhûn was sending forces to try to do battle in the summer. He could see them gathering south of the Sea of Rhûn. As they came closer, he would better gauge their strength and then meet with Marlong to plan a defense. When he saw Orcs issuing from the Morannon or Imlad Morgul, he sent messengers to Calmacil in Cair Andros and Anbar in Osgiliath so they could lay traps.
Denethor did not trust to the palantír for all of his observations, however. Perhaps he would go no more into battle or on months-long journeys, but he was not going to be make himself a prisoner in the Citadel. Denethor had decided that he would not be like Ecthelion and trust to the words of counselors to tell him of the world. Already this year he had traveled several times to Osgiliath to inspect the garrison and bridge directly, though he careful never to cross the river. He had gone south to the Erui to speak to his highlands governor, and north to the Anórien garrison to meet with Wren. In late June, just before loëndë, he was to go with Marlong to Pelargir, and in October he would go to Dol Amroth for Imrahil's wedding.
Every day he was in the City, he went to the practice yards of the sixth circle and made sure he knew how to use a sword, demanding to be tested by the best opponents the yardmaster could find that day. It was a good example to set for Boromir. Nor did he neglect the bow, practicing at least once a week with the Númenórean weapon, learning its secrets. He was oft upon the Pelennor, either riding with Boromir and Finduilas or else going to Beregar's farm to dig, hew, plant, carry and keep his sinews strong. In no way would he be less than a wandering, ragged liar. At night, he touched Finduilas, attending to every fold and curve of her form, intent on keeping at bay all of the claims and marks that others tried to place upon her. It was her mark that should be upon Gondor.
Imrahil had gone to Rohan as soon as the weather allowed and had recently returned. The news was mixed. Éomund was reveling in his new station as chief Marshal, but men did not follow him with full hearts, not that Éomund seemed to notice. It was noticed that Éomund was never called the First Marshal, which office Théoden reserved to himself. Finally, they had enjoyed a harvest last year that was as good and well-tended as under Thengel's reign, and any resistance to the young king disappeared. Still, they were near the end of their gold and needed to refill coffers. The trade with Minrimmon was no longer so advantageous and even Master Gríma had pulled Imrahil aside to complain about the poor goods and high prices.
'I know you do not wish to be dependent upon the Rohirrim, Denethor,' Imrahil said, 'but we can make use of them, and I don't just mean in battle.'
'So tell me, Warden, how you would make use of them.' Denethor allowed himself to sound inattentive as he pored over a map of Ithilien.
'Bring back the two éoreds we usually keep, in Anórien and at Poros. Éomund stays in Rohan, obviously. I think Grim would like to return and he's a sharp fellow. Change them out often so the young men get something to brag about and Théoden is seen to be trying to give them a chance for battle.'
'And why is that to my advantage?'
'Théoden's gold comes from Minas Tirith, not Minrimmon. It makes clear who Rohan needs to treat with.' Imrahil's grey eyes sparkled with something other than humor. 'I don't like what I saw when I went through western Anórien, my Lord Steward. Maiaberiel is profiting from your neglect of Rohan.'
Denethor stopped pretending to look at the map. 'Such as?'
'Interfering with traders on the road. Encouraging people to move back into lands you had ordered emptied. Using Rohan to armor her followers.'
'To what end?'
'I think she intends to wrest those lands from you, and reach as far east as she dares.'
'Bringing éoreds back will stop this?'
'No, but it will reduce her influence.' Imrahil's gaze sharpened. 'What are you going to do about her, Denethor?'
'And why should I be doing anything "about her", as you put it?'
She defies you. She openly rejects your authority. Your rule is undermined by her.'
'What should I do?' Denethor sat back in his chair and waited.
Imrahil opened his mouth, then closed it, and thought. His voice was not so certain when he next spoke. 'She should be removed from there.'
'She was taken there by her husband and lives on his lands by right.'
'Then... brought back here. You can command that.'
'And have her bring her mature intrigues into the capital?'
'You could put her on a ship.'
'The cats refuse to go.' That made Imrahil guffaw. 'She brought the realm once before to the brink of civil war. Then she had a captain, a large number of followers, and swift access to Pelargir and those sympathetic to Umbar. Now she has no champion, a few paramours, and the ear of a mistrusted half-breed in a land known best for livestock. If I fight her, I give her legitimacy.'
'But ignoring her emboldens her as well.'
'What do you think I am doing, Warden?'
'No. I wait.'
Pelargir, Late June, 2986 T.A.
The smell of Pelargir was awful. There will be less offal soon enough. Last night, Denethor had met with Ragnor and two of his sons. They had a story about a snake. It seemed that there was a certain trader who often brought back adders, asps, and other deadly creatures from the south, packed neatly into clay jars and fed rodents caught along the way. The apothecaries of Pelargir and other towns along the falas needed the beasts for their medicines, though the trader allowed as to how he did not inquire as to the specific uses they made of his cargo. Ragnor had sent a letter through Morwen with all of this information in the early spring. After a little prodding and some threats from Halwen, the snake trader in question had provided the name of the apothecary who had purchased two adders from him the previous fall. That apothecary, in turn, had said he had sold one of the snakes to another person, along with teaching the man how to use smoke to make the serpent docile. The meeting with Ragnor had provided the name of the man, Algund, and of the man's master.
Tonight, there was a meeting at The Honey Mead. Denethor knew he could not risk speaking of this matter at the garrison. He sat in a small parlor with Scratch. The ruffian had been sent ahead to Pelargir to wait to be called on. There was a soft rap on the door and the third of the party came in. Bard gave Scratch a glowering look before bowing to Denethor. 'My lord, what do you wish of me?'
'Sit.' Denethor studied the two carefully. It was a risk, putting Scratch and Bard together, but there would not be two more trustworthy or effective men for the job. 'Both of you know that a serpent was placed in a box of books that passed through the archive here, yes?' They nodded. 'Though it ended up in Minas Tirith, I believe the adder was intended to be set upon Archivist Lark, for it was likely that she would have opened that box.' Bard growled at the news. 'I have uncovered who put the serpent there.'
'Who? Tell me! I will kill him!' Bard snarled.
Denethor smiled. 'That is my intention. But you will have to be careful, both of you. You will need to kill a lord.'
'A lord?' Scratch frowned. 'That's going to be a mite bit of trouble.'
'Which is why it will take two of you. Scratch, you once offered harm to Archivist Lark.' The ruffian hung his head while Bard glared. 'Though you were punished and repented of your deed, never have you made amends to the woman herself. Now is time for you to do so. The man who bought the snake is Algund, and his lord is Hallatan...'
'No one will miss him,' Bard said.
'...and I wish to know if Hallatan did this on his own, or at the behest of someone else who has threatened Lark before.' Denethor pulled a sack of gold coins from his purse and poured them out on the table. 'This is for you two to buy or bribe whomever you need to for answers to my question. There will be that much again for each of you after Hallatan is dead, plus two coins - each - for every servant of his who was directly involved putting the snake into the box.'
Scratch counted out the coins and pushed half to Bard. 'How do you want them to die?' he asked, pocketing his half.
'However will not get you caught. It should be clear that Hallatan was killed and did not die by accident. I do want his ring as proof.'
'Want the finger, too?'
'I leave that up to you. Good evening.' Denethor stood and left.
Minas Tirith, Late July, 2986 T.A.
Denethor had thought upon Imrahil's words about Rohan carefully and decided he had chosen an excellent High Warden for Gondor. It was time to bring Rohan back into accord with Gondor, now that they had been given four years of boredom and empty coffers to consider what they gained from the relationship. It was also time to judge the extent of western Anórien's rebellion. A letter had been sent to Brandir after loëndë requiring his presence in Minas Tirith. He had responded to the summons at a reasonable pace, so no fault could be found there. Denethor had not approached his specific interest directly, but had greeted his brother-in-law warmly and said he was in need of a fool's wisdom. Brandir had attended all of the ministers' meetings for a week and often was present during the general audiences. He also was asked to accompany Denethor for other things, such as sword practice, a visit to Beregar's farm and several walks about the City with Boromir. Aiavalë and Finduilas were delighted at Brandir's company as he was with theirs.
This afternoon, they sat in the council chamber in the Tower. Hallas, Núneth, Borondir and Aiavalë had spent an hour grilling Brandir over the state of taxes and trade in his lands. His uncle, Bregolas, had died the previous winter and had no living son, making Brandir the head of the clan and the senior lord of the region, so he was answerable for business conducted there. Denethor had interrupted only once, to inquire about the condition of the beacon fires, earning a grateful look from Brandir. The truth was that the revenues from his house's lands were woefully low even as there was no greater harvest shortfalls than anywhere else in Anórien and though trade upon the road had increased. None asked as to why. At the conclusion of the meeting, Denethor had dismissed all save Brandir.
'This is not good news, brother,' Denethor said quietly.
Brandir sighed. 'I know.'
'I have begun to receive complaints from Rohan that they no longer receive good treatment in your markets.'
'This is so. Things are priced more dearly.'
Denethor paused, calculating how to position his request. Brandir did not look at honor the way most men did, and what would shame them would only make the Fool more stubborn. 'Why is this, Brandir? You once took me to task for making allies buy dear what they most needed. I do not understand your change of heart.'
'My heart has not changed. It is the heart of your house that is proud and cruel.'
'The policies of your lands are set by Maiaberiel?'
Brandir shrugged. 'They seem in accord with what you wish - harshness to an old ally.'
'No. I did not favor Rohan, but neither did I treat her more meanly than any other ally. The policy I would have wished for was thwarted by you and your counsels to Théoden that he should forego gold rather than fall under my sway.' Denethor held up his hand before Brandir could speak. 'Both Gondor and Rohan have suffered because of the absence of the Riders. Almost was the Poros battle lost for want of a sound éored.'
Brandir did not speak for some time. 'Yes, I am at fault for this. I wish to bring about good, but it only creates mischief.'
'And, yet, the Fool speaks more truthfully than any, even if we do not wish to hear your words.' Denethor sighed and allowed himself to look downcast. 'Too often have I failed to understand your warnings, Brandir. As Steward, I may no longer disregard your counsel, for there is no one left to check...' Denethor gave Brandir a wry look, '...my house's pride.'
'What do you wish, my Lord Steward?'
'I would like for one of my lords to pay his proper taxes,' Denethor said sternly, 'and I trust that he will do so.' Brandir gestured helplessly. 'More important, I need my emissary to Rohan, who has strongly cautioned King Théoden not to send his éoreds beyond his borders, to say that it is time to do so, but for a handsome price.'
'A fifteenth again what was formerly paid to Edoras, plus a tenth again for each Rider.'
'A tenth again for both.'
'Very well. Only two éoreds, one each in Anórien and Poros, and with captains known to Marlong.'
'One éored for Poros by early fall. The Anórien éored sometime next spring.'
'I will need to go to Rohan at once.'
Denethor nodded. 'Be sure you have returned in time to go to Dol Amroth in October. Imrahil will not be happy with you if you miss his wedding.'
Brandir smiled. 'I return in September with an éored at my heels.'
Minas Tirith, Mid August, 2986 T.A.
12 August 2986
My Lord Steward,
I write to inform you that there have been three murders in Pelargir.
Two nights ago, Lord Hallatan vanished from the streets of the city. He had been at a tavern with some traders discussing business. At the conclusion of their meeting, they parted in the street before the tavern, and the traders went back inside and were there for several more hours. This has been confirmed by the tavern owner, who is a trustworthy man. Lord Hallatan went with a servant to collect their horses from a stable nearby. All agreed that Lord Hallatan was somewhat in his cups, but still able to walk.
The horses were still in the stable the next morning. The men were found in an abandoned house in a nearby alley. They had been beaten badly and were covered with shallow cuts. The wounds were foul with pus and ichor because of venom that had either been on the knives used for the slicing or else poured upon the wounds later. The men strangled to death on the heads of serpents that had been thrust down their throats, cutting off their air. The heads also dripped more venom into the men. A third man, another servant of Lord Hallatan's, was found dead late last night. His hands had been chopped off with an ax and a serpent head thrust down his throat. He was hanged from a tree near the lord's villa.
We have no knowledge of who might have done this. No one in the area saw the men snatched from the street, nor did anyone hear any noises from that house during the night. No one noticed the third man's disappearance until he was found dead. The snakes were local vipers, and no apothecary has records of selling a snake recently.
I am sorry to bring such grievous news to your ears, my lord.
Governor of Pelargir
Denethor took a ring from the drawer of the desk. The finger had remained with its owner. Last night he had met with Scratch in the fifth circle watchtower. The ruffian had told him of questioning and killing Hallatan. "I asked the questions, Bard did the killing. It was his right," Scratch had said with a shrug. Lark's foiled murder had only been the first of several the King's Men had intended to commit. Hallatan confessed that he had wished to kill Governor Halwen first for her interference in his business, but that Maiaberiel had said Lark should be the test as too many would immediately suspect Hallatan if Halwen was harmed. Scratch had recited a list of officials, tax collectors and magistrates in Pelargir and Lebennin who had been marked.
He rolled the ring between his fingers. This was more serious than he had suspected. What had begun as Maiaberiel seeking personal revenge had been revealed to be a larger plan to undermine his rule. Is this how it began for Eldacar? Perhaps it was only the ravings of a man mad with terror. The attempt on Lark's life had been almost a year ago, and none of the other people named had been harmed. You don't know what the next strike will be. This was not like the army from Rhûn which had been soundly defeated in North Ithilien in the early part of August. He could see that, there was no question as to its danger, and all were united to defeat it. But where there is a question of legitimacy, unity unravels. As long as Maiaberiel could keep the whispers about Thorongil alive, there always would be a sympathetic hearing for the King's Men. Castamir did not persuade that he should rule, only that Eldacar should not. It was enough to unseat a king.
Denethor knew, having once moved once against this faction, he could not afford to do so again unless it was decisive. Hallatan's confession may have satisfied his own questions, but it would not be taken as proof by anyone else. He still needed a mistake.
Minas Tirith, 3 September, 2986 T.A.
With a sigh, Denethor straightened from the palantír, glancing out the chamber window. It was early evening just before sunset and long shadows reached out across the Pelennor. All was well in Cair Andros that he could see. Calmacil ran his garrison well. Imrahil would be back from his review of Osgiliath and central Ithilien in a day or two, then he was off to Dol Amroth and his wedding by way of Pelargir and Linhir. Marlong was still in Pelargir, trying to get to the bottom of Lord Hallatan's murder. There still were no leads or suspects in that terrible crime. In two weeks' time, he, Finduilas and Boromir would set out themselves to ride to Dol Amroth. Nothing could induce Finduilas to take a ship. They would go by way of Ethring and would escort Moraen and Luinmir to Dol Amroth. He sighed again. At least he would have an opportunity to examine the roads directly. They would return in early November before the worst of the winter weather set in.
Just as Denethor was about to pull the drape over the palantír, a feeling of dread came over him. He cast his thoughts towards Finduilas. No, she was safe. In the stone, colors and images whirled about, trying to dazzle him. Denethor shut his eyes and concentrated on the dark sense, letting it plot a course through the visions until it came to the right one. When the feeling no longer grew, he opened his eyes and focused on the stone. He watched with mounting horror, hands reaching for the orb, trying to stop what he saw. With a cry, he yanked the drape over the palantír and bolted from the chamber, barely remembering to lock the door behind him. Denethor raced down the stairs, forbidding his feet to miss a step, tore through the Tower, across the court and on to the Stewards House. Any one who did not jump out of his way was knocked aside.
A guardsman came to his feet as Denethor careened in the front door. 'You! Run to the stables and have Gaerhûl saddled. Beregar's horse, too! Run!' The man bolted. Beregar, no doubt hearing his name, hurried from his quarters, but Denethor was already in the kitchen. 'Dúlin, pack food for me and the Hound for the road, whatever you can pack quickly.'
'My lord, what is wrong?' Beregar asked.
'No time to explain. Get your gear together and your weapons. We ride to Anórien. Now.' With that, Denethor ran up the stairs to his study, brushing off Finduilas' questions as he passed her study. She followed him.
'Denethor, what is this uproar?' she asked as he dragged his trunk out from under the bed and pulled out his ranging gear. He stripped off his fine clothes and pulled on the tough trousers, the sturdy boots, a shirt with ties, not buttons, and the leather jerkin. For a moment, he considered the mail shirt. No, too heavy. I need speed. 'Denethor.' She drew out his name in warning.
'I go to Anórien with the Hound.' Yes, the horn. He might need to summon help. The leather belt with the heavy knife, his sword, and the steel bow. 'Beruthiel has made her move.'
'What has she done?'
'I can't say. Not yet.' He hurried downstairs. Beregar was in the front hall with his gear and two packs of food. Aiavalë, Aeluin and Hunthor were also there, and Dúlin was listening from the kitchen. 'Listen to me, all of you,' Denethor said. 'Not a word to any, save Imrahil and Borondir, on where I have gone or why. Hunthor, take the Hunt and get the children back here. No one of this house goes out without a guardsman or after dark. No one. Beware of anyone who seeks to come in who is not known and sworn. Examine every object, no matter how slight, for traps. Until I return, you are all in mortal danger.'
'And if you do not return?' Finduilas asked. Her gaze was unflinching.
'Then you all are charged with getting the Lady and my sons safely to Dol Amroth.' With that, he and Beregar left. Some upon the street looked at them curiously as they passed, but few now remarked on their Lord Steward's habit of carrying arms about or his odd penchant for leaving the City. As for Beregar, all knew the Hound attended his Lord.
Gaerhûl and Beregar's gelding were saddled and waiting for them outside the stable. Gull also stood there. She neighed when she saw Denethor and trotted over, giving him a nudge to ask why he was riding. 'I go to Anórien, Mistress Gull,' he whispered to her, 'for danger stalks. Stay here and be ready to bear my lady away to safety should worse things happen.' She snorted and lipped his cheek, promising she would. Denethor and Beregar mounted up and loped north, hidden by the shadows of Mindolluin. When they were far enough from the walls not to be noticed, Denethor urged Gaerhûl to greater speed.
For several hours they alternated galloping and walking. The moon and stars were out, lighting their way. As they drew near Amon Dîn, near midnight, they heard the sound of another horseman approaching quickly. Denethor and Beregar pulled up, waiting for the rider to come near. It was a messenger. He stopped at Denethor's hail.
'My lord, is that you?' the man exclaimed, coming close. His horse was lathered. No doubt he had been ridden hard from the garrison. 'Then you have already heard...'
'Yes, I already know. Is anyone going to Captain Marlong?'
'We don't know where he is now, and...'
'Pelargir. Go at once. Stop for a horse in Minas Tirith, but speak to no one.' The messenger nodded and urged his horse on.
'Denethor, what has happened?' Beregar exclaimed.
'Ride. Then you'll know.' Denethor gave Gaerhûl his head and the stallion charged along the road, making Beregar's horse struggle to keep up. The Druadan Forest was a dark shadow to their left in the early morning, and they swept past the garrison as the light turned from grey to gold, presaging the rising sun. Gethron and Aldwyn came out of the farmhouse to greet them. Gethron began to speak, but Denethor held up a hand.
'I know. Wren is dead.'
'The messenger got to you, then, but...' Gethron's brow wrinkled. 'You can't be here yet. Only Mistress Gull is that fast.'
'I am here. Show me.' Gethron led Denethor to a bedroom at the back of the house. A form lay upon it, covered with a sheet. Gethron turned away as Denethor pulled back the sheet. A white cloth had been wrapped around her throat to hide the wound and her face was still, as in sleep. He tried not to remember the expression on it he had seen in the palantír, as she had lain on the ground, knowing that she would die. He had seen the killers in the palantír, though he had been spared seeing the murder itself. They were faces he had seen before in the stone, one a man from Minas Tirith, another a Dunlending half-breed from Rohan. They were servants of one of Maiaberiel's paramours. 'Who found her?'
'Aldwyn. She came to the house to visit and was concerned that Wren had not returned from a walk in the apple orchard.' Gethron shuffled his feet. 'I sent the boy away. He wanted to see his mother, and, well...'
'Yes. That was right.' Denethor walked out of the house, trying to get air into his tight chest. Beregar was sitting on the steps, an arm around Aldwyn who was weeping. A farmhand was walking out the horses.
The mistake had been his own. "Will it take one of us dead before you will act?" He had always known Beruthiel was capable of killing. It was only a matter of time before she succeeded. He even knew she had been plotting the deaths of more than the bastard sisters. I will have to charge her with this. There was a full garrison. There were the sheriffs. There are more of them than us, and kinsmen beyond the Mering Stream who will come to their aid. And there was Brandir in Rohan who would be honor bound to defend Maiaberiel, and both a King's counselor and a wayward Marshall who had reason to enter a border fight. Plains fighting against Rohirrim. Even the Enemy was not that stupid. And my proof is a vision in a rock at the top of a tower a hundred miles away. Eldacar may have kinsmen to call upon, but he did not. There was no time to find reinforcements.
Denethor took Gaerhûl from the farmhand and mounted. Beregar hurried over, followed by Gethron. The Hound did not ask, but mounted his own horse. Gethron put a hand on Denethor's leg. 'My lord, where do you go? And what should I do here?'
'I go to keep a promise. Marlong will be here as soon as he can. He will need you. Spread the word to look for a King's Man of Minas Tirith in the company of a Dunlending. I suspect they are back in Minrimmon already, but they may be too bloody to travel openly. Search all the roads and empty buildings near here. Do not approach Minrimmon itself until I return.'
Denethor set a slower pace to let the horses rest, but kept them trotting as much as he dared. Behind them, in the cool morning air, he heard the sounds of horns. They watched for other riders and pulled off the road to avoid being seen. When they were halfway between Erelas and Minrimmon, Denethor left the road and took a path through the foothills. Near sundown, they reached the woods overlooking the trading town below the beacon hill. 'Wake me when it is a full hour past dark, Huan.' Denethor laid down to rest. He would need his wits about him.
When he woke and got ready, Beregar protested at being left behind. 'There should be two of us for trouble!'
'This is a matter of honor, Huan. Also, if I fail, you must return to Minas Tirith and get Finduilas to safety.'
'If I return without you, she'll kill me herself.' Finally, Beregar relented. 'I will have the horses saddled and ready to go,' he promised.
'We will probably have to leave in a hurry.' Denethor took only his knife and the extra one Beregar pressed on him. He slipped into the town and made his way along dirty streets to a particular house. It would have been easy enough to find, even if he had not seen it in the palantír, for it was hung with Maiaberiel's banners. Brandir's badger was nowhere to be seen. Denethor was not sure what he was going to do yet and needed to find out all he could about who was in the house and where. The kitchen door was open and the work mostly being done in the courtyard where it was cooler. Wash basins were out, indicating an end to meals. There was light in a room at the front of the house downstairs and the rest were dark. He loitered near the shutters, but did not hear anyone in the room. Upstairs, there was also only one light, and shadows were being thrown. Denethor slipped down a nearby alley and took to the rooftops to try to get a glimpse inside the room, then wished he had not. A man lay atop Maiaberiel, his buttocks bulging and clenching as he thrust into her. It was the master of the men who had slain Wren. Your victory celebration? The man was going to be a problem. Denethor felt for his knife and settled in to wait.
When they were finished rutting, they lay still for a few minutes before the man stood and left the room. Privy. When he returned, however, he did not get into the bed, but dressed and departed. Better. Maiaberiel left the room herself for a few minutes, then came back and snuffed the candle. Denethor climbed down from his perch and found a way onto the roof of her house. Stealthily, he hung from the roof and hooked a foot in the open window.
Beregar had his sword out at the sound of the someone approaching. 'Huan, it's me.' They led the horses down to the main road, then mounted and cantered east, stopping at a stream along the way to water the horses and let Denethor wash his hands. They were back to the farm in the grey hours of the morning. Gethron came out with one of the servants. 'We need to sleep undisturbed. Is Marlong here?'
'Not yet. Follow me.' He led them to a room with a large bed.
Denethor pulled off his jerkin and peeled off the shirt. Its once white cuffs were stained reddish brown and streaks of red had wicked through the cloth to the elbows. 'Burn this. Find me another. As far as anyone here is concerned, we arrived here from Minas Tirith this morning. Do you understand?'
Gethron took the proffered shirt, folding the reddened sleeves inside the rest. 'Yes, my lord. This morning.'
They were woken at noon when Marlong arrived. He staggered in the door, grey from exhaustion and grief, and went to Wren's side. Denethor knelt next to him as he wailed his misery, swearing vengeance upon those who murdered her. At sundown, they buried her near the cherry orchard. Hundreds of people from the surrounding countryside came to pay their respects to their governor. A few had noticed a pair of men fitting the description Denethor had given in the area the day before her death, and there was much muttering about the outlaws in Minrimmon. None spoke too loudly, no doubt unsure how the Lord Steward would take words against his lady sister. Gethron and Denethor made sure Marlong was made drunk very quickly, so that he passed out and could not do anything foolish.
The next morning just after dawn, Denethor and Beregar prepared to return to Minas Tirith. Before he left, Denethor went to Marlong at Wren's graveside.
'I must return.'
'You know who did this.'
'Yes, and the men who served her as well.'
'And you're just going to leave.'
'This vengeance is yours. Mine will come later.'
'Elatan. It was his men who were near here. I've had them described to me before by traders. Do as you like with them. Get them to confess their lord's involvement, and then bring him to me.'
'If he will betray her and name her, yes.'
They returned slowly to Minas Tirith, for even Gaerhûl was weary, arriving after sunset. Denethor called Imrahil, Finduilas and Aiavalë into Finduilas' study and locked the door. He say heavily on the couch, head in his hands.
Finduilas sat next to him. 'Denethor, please, tell us. What has happened?'
'Maiaberiel murdered Wren.'
It took a moment for them to understand what he had said, then all three cried out. 'No! No! Friend tell me you lie!' Finduilas begged. Aiavalë simply sank to the floor, sobbing.
'Beruthiel sent men to the farm. They lay in wait and killed Wren when she walked alone.'
'Marlong, he is in Pelargir,' Imrahil said, heading for the door. 'I will fetch...'
'He is already in Anórien. He knew when she died and rode straight through.'
Finduilas seized Denethor's arm. 'And will you do something now?' she demanded. 'Beruthiel must be punished, she has to be...'
'I will do nothing more than I have already done.'
With a howl, Aiavalë scrambled from the floor and threw herself at Denethor, flailing at him with her fists. 'You let this happen! You let her hunt us!' she screamed. Imrahil threw his arms around her and dragged her away.
'That is not so, I...'
Aiavalë spat on him. 'Shut up! I don't want your pathetic excuses anymore!' She twisted out of Imrahil's grasp. 'I'll go kill her myself.' With that, the Archivist strode out of the room. Finduilas spared Denethor a look of disgust and followed. Imrahil sighed and sat next to Denethor. Upstairs, there was the sound of doors slamming and things being dumped on the floor.
'And what is it that you have done?' Imrahil's voice was mild.
'Prevented a civil war in Anórien. I hope.'
'Hmm.' Imrahil was silent for a while. The sounds upstairs were less violent. Packing things now. 'Marlong, should I go to him?'
'Yes. Someone has to go with Aiavalë and I doubt she wants me along.'
'Was anyone else harmed?'
'No one else on the farm was hurt.'
Imrahil embraced Denethor tightly. 'I am sorry.' He stood and walked to the door. 'I'd best get ready. The Archivist is not going to wait for a laggard.' Soon afterwards, Aiavalë clattered downstairs and out the door. Denethor went upstairs. The door to Finduilas' room was shut and he could hear her weeping. He doubted the truth would assuage her grief.
Denethor went to his study, poured himself wine and turned his chair so he could stare at the tattered map of the north. Wren's death is on your head, Thorongil. More of your lies. The man's silence on his origins kept alive the Steward's fancy he had found his lost son. If not for the captain, Maiaberiel's faction would not have had such focus. The King's Men knew what they saw, and you would neither deny the rumor nor stop their treason. The man fled only after bringing the realm to the brink of another Kin-strife. You left us to kill each other. His own authority had been dealt blow after blow, encouraging people to think that the Stewards could be set aside at the whim of the mob, giving purchase to rebellion. And thus does Gurthang return to the House of Húrin, a blade made flesh. No lord do I acknowledge and no blood will I spare.
Minas Tirith, 12 September, 2986 T.A.
Squeak had run all the way up the mountain with the news, so Denethor was prepared. He stood as the council chamber door opened and Marlong, Brandir and Imrahil entered. They came to the table and bowed to him. 'My Lord Steward,' Imrahil said, 'we are returned from our sad journey.'
'What of the Archivist?'
'She is at the house with the Lady.'
Denethor gestured for them to sit. Marlong looked in the worst shape, gaunt and grief-wracked, but Brandir was little better. He stared vacantly out the window across from where he sat. Imrahil merely looked exhausted. Denethor gave him an inquiring look.
'I have nothing good to recount, my lord.'
'The truth is sufficient.' At those words, Brandir gave Denethor a long look.
'I rode with the Archivist to the Anórien garrison. We arrived on the evening of the seventh, and found that Captain Marlong and Captain Gethron had left with most of the garrison for Minrimmon the day before. The next day, I left Aiavalë with Aldwyn at the garrison and set out for Minrimmon. I was a few leagues past Nardol when I met the troops coming back, accompanied by Lord Brandir and a score of Rohirrim.'
'When I got to Minrimmon just before nightfall on the sixth,' Marlong said, 'Lord Brandir was already there, having set out from Edoras the night of the fourth. But even before either of us had arrived, Elatan had been seized.'
Denethor cocked his head. 'His men had been seen and people asked questions?'
Imrahil shook his head, face twisted in disgust. 'No. For his own crime.'
'He killed Beri.' Brandir was looking at him again. Denethor let his expression be confused at first, then shocked. 'I knew, just as Marlong knew.' The captain shut his eyes, laying a consoling hand on Brandir's arm. 'That's why I rode. Théoden sent his household men with me, and an éored is mustering.'
'All three were held, locked in a storeroom, when Brandir and Marlong arrived,' Imrahil continued when it became clear that neither Brandir nor Marlong were going to say more. 'Elatan had been taken the day before, when Lady Maiaberiel was found dead and none had been near her since he had left her house. As word spread, the two servants were named, and blood-stained clothes they had tried to hide were found. They named their master as the author of their crimes, saying he bade them to slay your governor. He denied all.'
'Where is he?'
'I killed him.' Brandir said this a plainly as speaking of the weather. 'He had left Maiaberiel's room and no one else entered until her maid went to wake her the next morning. The shutters were latched from the inside.'
'And I slew the men after.' Marlong's face was ugly to look at.
'Did he say why he ordered these murders?'
Brandir shook his head. 'He denied them both. His men said that he wished Wren dead because you and governor Halwen had his kinsman, Hallatan, killed and because Wren was interfering in their business.'
Denethor sat back in his chair and pondered this news. He had not known Hallatan and Elatan were of kin, but it also made all the killings more explicable. 'Lord Brandir, Captain Marlong, has your honor been satisfied?' They nodded. 'Mine has not. Too long now have the King's Men been inciting people to rebellion against the Stewards. They have tried to kill me in battle to make it seem an accident. It is clear to me that they thought to use my lady sister to legitimize their treachery, and took advantage of Lord Brandir's absences to spread their lawlessness. Now they have slain two of my kin to try to foment war. You two are to return to Anórien and uproot these vipers.'
Marlong leaned forward, eyes alight. 'I'll need the Anórien garrison.'
'And I must use the éored meant for Poros,' said Brandir.
Denethor nodded. 'They are yours for this. Western Anórien must be cleared. Those who held lands before the edict are to be provided with as good in eastern Anórien. Those who settled afterwards forfeit their lands. All who have counted themselves King's Men - Warden Imrahil, this will stand for those in the south, as well - must present themselves to me before mettarë and forswear their treason. Captain Marlong, be sure that Captain Gildor has the southern ports and crossings closed so traitors may not easily flee to Umbar.'
'It shall be done, my Lord,' Marlong assured him.
Denethor bowed his head, resting his forehead on his hands for a few moments. 'Yet naught will bring them back. Marlong,' he looked up at the captain, 'what of Mab?'
'Aiavalë took him to the house to play with the other children.' All belligerence left the captain and he slumped in his chair. 'I don't know, now. He will stay with my sister-in-law, Rían, I guess.'
'He will be as one of my own sons and always welcome in my house.' Denethor stood and came to embrace each of them. 'You are weary with travel and grief. Do not tarry here, but go to the house and rest. I will follow soon.' The men left, but Brandir paused at the door, turning back to Denethor. 'Yes, Brandir?'
'I believe Elatan. He didn't kill her. Oh, he deserved to die, for ordering Wren's death, but he didn't kill Beri. Her door was locked from the inside.' Brandir met Denethor's eyes. 'I will slay whomever killed her, if I find out. I have to.'
'Yes. You have to.' Brandir embraced Denethor again and kissed his cheek before hastening after the others.
Denethor waited in the chamber, paging through reports but not really reading them, until a quarter hour had passed before going home. They were all gathered in Finduilas' study, speaking quietly. Mablung stayed close to Marlong, rarely going more than an arm's length or two away from his father. The other children brought their blocks and dolls to him and sat, their usual high spirits dampened by the sadness in the room. Finduilas had wept for several days after hearing the news and was nearly as worn as Brandir and Marlong. Aiavalë simply looked tired, though Denethor suspected she was pleased at the news of Maiaberiel's death. They spoke of little save the children. Marlong soon left, Mab in his arms, saying he had to get to his sister-in-law's house for supper. Imrahil went with him.
At supper, Brandir encouraged Boromir and Faramir to tell him of their adventures, but they knew something was wrong and said little, picking at their food. When the meal ended, Brandir kissed Finduilas and allowed Aiavalë to lead him upstairs. Boromir and Faramir got themselves ready for bed without much prompting, curling up together in Boromir's bed. Denethor sat next to them, humming softly, until they fell asleep.
Finduilas sat in her chair before the hearth in his study, watching the fire. Denethor took his seat at her feet, hunched forward so he did not touch her. Her fingers stroked his hair.
'What did you do, Denethor?'
'Only what was left to do.'
'I counted days.'
'Huan would tell me.'
'Leave him be.'
'Why will you not speak to me, friend?'
Finduilas leaned forward to embrace him. 'I should have known. Do not bear this alone.'
'What may be said? I have... my own...' He shivered and tried to rock forward out of her grasp. It was not just a killing. Abomination.
'You defended your house and the kingdom against one determined to destroy both.'
Denethor wrapped his arms tightly around his knees, keeping his face hidden. 'All between us was unspeakable. Only abomination could come of it.'
'As I have seen. She wanted you for her own, and set out to destroy you when you refused. Say how you ended this.'
For long minutes there was only the crackling of fire in the hearth and soft whisper of cloth as Denethor rocked, trying to find words, trying to forget sensations. 'I can't.'
Finduilas took his shoulders and made him cease moving. She kissed his temple and worked her way down his cheek, turning his face to her to kiss his lips. 'No words, then.' He let her take his hands and pull him to his feet. She went to the alcove and undressed, the candle on the small table near the bed casting a shadow of her upon the screen, like the shadows on the curtain. When he heard the bed creak, Denethor extinguished the lamps and went to the alcove. As he undressed, he tried to remember what the count of days was and found he had lost track. Just wear a sheath. But there was not one on the table. He sat on the edge of the bed, feeling stupid, soiled and tired.
Finduilas sat up and slipped her arms around him. 'What is it, friend?'
'We should go to your bed. I don't know what day it is and I have nothing from Morwen.'
She was silent a moment. 'It is the second nine-day.' Finduilas tugged on him to make him lie next to her. 'We can stay.' Denethor knew she might by lying, but wished her words to be true. As they kissed, he felt himself hardening, the length of his cock pressed against her thigh. The feel of her skin under his hands made him shiver in memory of the last bare flesh he had touched. Slipping a hand between her legs, his fingers discovered that her furrow was already wet. He stroked her nub with his thumb, making her moan and writhe, rubbing against his hard cock, just as Maiaberiel had bucked under him and he had pressed back...
Denethor rolled away and sat up, hiding his face in his hands. Perhaps he had to kill to prevent more death, but it was tainted. He had touched what he should not, debased his own flesh. Denethor whispered, 'I place myself under the Queen's Law. In truth. I have taken the life of another and I would be judged for that.'
Finduilas stood, motioning for him to stay where he was, and left the room. She returned after several minutes, taking a seat by the hearth. 'Come here,' she commanded. The only light in the room was the faint flicker of the candle in the alcove. Finduilas was dressed in Morwen's robe, the Dwarf-stone upon her brow. Denethor knelt before her, hands held behind him as though bound, powerfully aroused by submitting to her even as he was shamed by his acts. 'You will lay bare your crimes - all your crimes - to me and I will judge you for them.'
'I went to Minrimmon to slay Maiaberiel. I left Beregar with the horses in the woods above the town, so he knows naught save that I did as I planned. When I came to her house, she was bedding Elatan, and I thought I would have to slay them both, but he left her room when he had finished breeding her. After she fell asleep, I slipped in the window and seized her. I gagged her with a kerchief so she would not cry out and bound her hands behind her.'
The little he could make out of Finduilas's expression was harsh. 'Did you torture her, as you did before?'
'No. I said "I told you what would happen if you raised your hand against me or mine again." I cut her throat as she had ordered done to Wren. It was a small cut so that it would bleed slowly and she would feel herself dying for a long time. I put her face down on the bed and lay on her to pin her and keep her from making too much noise. ' Denethor swallowed. 'As I lay on her, she... thrashed. It left me... like...'
'As you are now?'
'Did you spill?'
'Did she feel this before she died?'
'Maybe. I don't know.'
'Did it please you?'
'In a way. Yes.'
Finduilas stood and slapped him very hard several times. 'That is for allowing an enemy to main and kill as she pleased.' She untied the belt of the robe and knelt behind him, binding his hands in truth. The knots were tight and hurt. 'Go lie down on the bed.' She did not offer a hand to help him stand, leaving him to stagger to his feet. It was awkward to lie down, his bound wrists an uncomfortable lump under his back. Finduilas followed him into the alcove and now stood beside the bed, looking down at him with disgust. The robe hung loosely on her, offering tantalizing views of her body that made him want her. She found a kerchief and gagged him.
'And this is to punish your perverse and obscene lust.' She ran a hand up his thigh to cup his balls, making him moan, then squeezed them firmly, leaving him gasping from pain. Without a word, she touched him, first exciting him, then pinching, twisting or biting to turn pleasure into pain. Denethor was glad for the gag for he could not hold back all of his cries.
He did not know how long this perfect torment went on, but his hands were numb and his erection painful from lack of release. Finduilas took his hank of his hair and twisted it sharply. 'If I were to treat you as you deserve, I would leave you here like this the rest of the night, but I will take pity on you, Steward, for you did not kill needlessly.' Denethor watched eagerly as she straddled him and guided his cock into her. 'In fact, I think you deserve some small reward.' Her hips moved, making him cry out again. He wanted to grab her, roll her over, and mate her forcefully, and having his will thwarted made the pleasure all the greater.
Finduilas leaned down and dug her hands into his hair, pulling his head back. Some of her kisses along his throat and jaw were bite than kiss, and he knew he would be bruised. 'I'm glad she's dead!' she hissed, punctuating her words with thrusts of her hips. 'You are mine, and she was not to touch you.' Yours. 'You are to forget her. I forbid you to think of her again.' Only you.
The sensations overwhelmed him and he spilled. As her breathing slowed, Finduilas began to cough. She slipped off him and sat on the bed, wracked by her coughs. When they lessened, she stood and left. Minutes went by and Denethor wondered if she was going to leave him like this, bound and helpless in his sullied bed, not that he did not deserve whatever punishment she saw fit to impose. He was trying to find the least painful position for sleeping when the door to the study creaked and Finduilas came in, bearing a lantern. She was wearing a regular robe and her hair was in a messy braid. Her eyes were red. It took her a while to work loose the knots binding his wrists. Even if his hands would have obeyed him, Denethor did not attempt to remove the gag. It was for the Queen to decide the time of his release. Finduilas took away the kerchief. Pouring water into the wash basin, she wet the cloth and used it to wipe away the last evidence of his shame. When she finished, she held out her hand to him and helped him up. They went to her bed. Denethor held her until she cried herself to sleep.
He stood upon a ragged tower and looked west across the fields. The horses were fewer now. The Northmen went before the king to receive his thanks and their reward. Lands in Anórien, mostly. This spring, Ithilien had buried bones, planting the gleanings of a grievous harvest. The arguments had been bitter, but all were laid to rest. As we reaped, so now we sow. The Northmen were not allowed across the river.
Minas Tirith, 15 September, 2986 T.A.
In the end, Aiavalë alone had gone with Imrahil to Dol Amroth, and only because Finduilas begged her to do so. Finduilas was wan and weak from grieving, too frail for even a ship voyage, let alone riding so far. Denethor had tried to wheedle Boromir into accompanying his aunt, but the boy refused to leave. 'I have to look after Mab and Hollë,' he stubbornly insisted, 'and you have to look after Mother.'
Brandir and Marlong had left for Anórien very early in the morning. Mab had been frantic when he woke and found his father gone, so Rían had brought the boy to the Stewards House. The other children calmed him somewhat, but the child was miserable. Near noon, Denethor went with Imrahil and Aiavalë as far as the Great Gates. They continued on to the Harlond where they would take a river boat to Pelargir. Aiavalë had a chest of Wren's belongings with her to give to Lark.
On the walk back up the mountain, Denethor passed by a house in the fifth circle, then stopped and came back. There were tales in the street, but had she heard? He could have a message sent, explaining the circumstances... It is her daughter. Denethor went to the front door of the house and knocked. A young girl answered, eyes going large when she saw who stood at the door. She scuttled back, bowing, so Denethor came in. 'Please tell your mistress that I am here and would like to speak to her.'
The girl dashed up the stair and returned swiftly. 'If you will come with me, my lord.'
He was led to the solar on the second floor. Violet stood in the center of the room, her face was haggard, but she was neatly dressed. She summoned a smile and curtseyed deeply to Denethor. 'My Lord Steward, you honor us with your presence. What may I do for you?'
'I came to see you and...' He looked down, unable to think of adequate words. Violet touched him lightly on the arm.
'I know. I heard. Thank you for coming.'
'Who told you?'
'I heard it spoken in the market a day ago.'
'Forgive me for not coming sooner. You should not have heard it that way. Is there anything you would know?'
'Tell me how my daughter died. I wish to know truth from rumor.'
'Two ruffians seized her when she walked alone. They cut her throat.'
Violet covered her face and cried once in anguish. Denethor stood, unsure what to do. After a while, she dropped her hands. Her eyes were dry. 'That is all I wish to know. Thank you, Denethor. No, one more thing. Where is Mab?'
'At the Stewards House with the other children. Would you like to see him?' She nodded. 'I go there now. Come with me.'
Minas Tirith, Early October, 2986 T.A.
Violet was a constant presence in the house, coming first thing every morning and leaving just before supper. She watched the children, helped Dúlin in the kitchen, and freed Aeluin to sit with Finduilas. Mab had recognized his Auntie Violet at once and stuck to her like a burr. Faramir also took to the gentle woman. He cried for Aiavalë, but allowed his new Auntie to coax him away from Finduilas and amuse him with songs, sweets and stories. At night, the boys slept in a tangle in Boromir's bed.
Marlong and Brandir were still ordering Anórien. All that remained in the western half of the land was the village at the Mering ford. The small garrison building there was being expanded and Théoden had sent a company of Riders to occupy a new fort upon the other bank of the stream. The two bands of soldiers patrolled the main road and the banks of the Entwash to keep out Orcs, ruffians and squatters.
There had been little resistance to the command to leave. The two slayings had shaken people and none wished to be associated with the reviled King's Men. A good number left Anórien entirely and went to Lebennin, which still was lacking people after the plague of 2978. As for the King's Men themselves, they were nowhere safe in Gondor, and a number had been killed. Already, Denethor had a steady stream of them in the Tower, forswearing all rebellion and pleading for his mercy and protection. Those newly cozened he forgave with heavy fines. Those whose treachery had deeper roots were reduced and scattered, sometimes imprisoned.
After a few days of thinking, Denethor had sent out spies to taverns, inns and crossroads to tell a certain tale. Elatan, leader of the King's Men, had been stopped at the brink of rebellion. He had ordered the death of his own cousin, Lord Hallatan, in Pelargir, for Hallatan had turned against his cousin and confessed their plans. Knowing his plans had been exposed, Elatan had ordered Mistress Wren slain. As the Steward's governor and wife to the Captain-General, it was an act of war against the Stewards and intended to cripple Captain Marlong with grief. Lady Maiaberiel had been deceived and used by their faction, possibly with the help of drugs and strange herbs from the north. The deluded woman thought she was protecting the claims of some northern pretender. When he had no more use for her, Elatan killed her and was plotting to kill Lord Brandir as well, thinking himself powerful enough to seize Anórien as his own kingdom. Many of the repenting King's Men, upon hearing the tale, swore to the truth of it and were quick to name other of their former companions as conspirators in the plot.
As soon as the cleansing of Anórien had begun, Orcs began issuing from Mordor in large numbers, seeking to take advantage of the turmoil. Denethor watched them closely and knew himself to be watched in return. When the Orcs were successfully beaten back, vapors issued from Imlad Morgul, sending deadly mists down the black stream and across Anduin. The Osgiliath defenders had to withdraw behind the Rammas and well north of the road to escape the poison fog. The City filled with people from the Pelennor and the Harlond fleeing the bad air. Some did not flee in time and now lay in the Houses of Healing.
This morning, Finduilas had joined them. She had never ceased mourning the crimes in Anórien, and the grief had taken its toll. There was no extra flesh upon her and her cough had worsened this week. This morning, she had coughed up blood and thick greenish phlegm. Denethor waited until Violet arrived to watch the children before dressing Finduilas warmly and walking her to the Houses. That she did not protest worried him all the more. Lhûn listened briefly to Finduilas' breathing and ordered her to bed in a room far away from those who suffered from the Black Breath. Denethor took up his station next to her bed, moving only when a healer needed to give her some draught or listen to her breathing.
The day passed, night approached, and Finduilas' breathing was worse. Denethor sent word to the house asking Violet to stay and mind the children. He dozed in a chair next to Finduilas' bed, waking every time she coughed or her breath became more ragged. Morning brought no respite and more blood. The healers' draughts left Finduilas in a stupor, unable to speak or move, though they did suppress the coughs. Twice a woman came in and thumped Finduilas on the chest and back to loosen the bad humors and help her cough up the accumulated phlegm and blood. It was as dark and foul smelling as the poison brought up by those who had inhaled Mogul vapors. In the late afternoon, Denethor left the Houses and hurried home to collect the mariner's lanyard. He was not certain what he intended to do with it, but he wished it near to combat whatever evil might be reaching out from the east. On the way back, he went past the Houses, watching his feet until they brought him to an old wooden door.
Denethor searched the rooms of the house for the apothecary to no avail. He looked out the back door, but did not see Laanga in the garden, either. Perhaps he is beyond the tree. 'Master Laanga? Are you there?' Denethor edged into the garden, peering through the branches of Crone Apple for a glimpse of a bare dark pate. 'Grandfather? It is Denethor. Finduilas needs you!' The was no sign of the creature. The apple rested a branch on his shoulder. 'Old Crone, please tell Master Laanga that I am seeking him, and can be found in the Houses.' Her crown bowed slightly in acknowledgement of his request.
Wasting no more time, Denethor hastened to Finduilas. She had not changed since he left, certainly not for the better. He took her hands and willed her his strength. If you care for us at all, mariner, do what you can for her. A ghostly hand rested on his shoulder and Denethor fancied he heard the sound of a net being cast. Finduilas' sleep deepened. Was her breath less labored? Perhaps. Near supper time, the door creaked open and Warden Lhûn entered, followed by Laanga.
'Denethor, Crone Apple said you had come looking for me.'
'Yes, Master Laanga. I remembered you had been here when Captain Thorongil had made a mix of herbs for Finduilas to breathe. It eased her breathing. Do you remember what he used?'
'I had the same thought, Lord Steward,' Lhûn said.
'Between my herbs and the store here in the Houses, I think I have enough to make the mix.' Laanga came to the bedside. He felt Finduilas' pulse and listened to her breathing. 'I will return soon. Warden, please have water and pans brought.' It was almost an hour before the ancient returned. He took his time at the work bench near the hearth, sorting and weighing the different herbs, bruising some, grinding others, and mixing them in small low pans. Lhûn and two of her assistants got Finduilas ready, bringing out a tenting sheet and setting water to boil. As he had when Thorongil healed her, Denethor sat behind Finduilas, holding her so she could lean over the edge of the bed and breathe in the healing vapors. He ducked under the edge of the sheet so he stay close to her.
The scent stole over them like spring. Soon, Finduilas was drawing deeper breaths. Denethor touched his cheeks to hers and closed his eyes so he could See her more clearly. The light in her was stronger than he had ever known it. The sheet above them disappeared, replaced by a tracery of stars strung along faint silver threads. The creatures hunted them, twisted evil things driven by their dark master. Their pursuit had worn her out. He had tried to get her to return to the harbor and board the ship and escape that way, but she had refused. "There is but ruin and oaths. To hold to the latter, I must endure the former." So he followed her, forsaking his kin and people. There would be no return from this path, and it would fall to his sons to lead their house, but he did not rue his choice. He looked with awe and love upon the Queen, then frowned.
There, against her heart, was a stain, an occluded portion that resisted his gaze, refusing to yield to his wish to have her for himself. Denethor pulled Finduilas to him more firmly, placing a hand upon her chest over her heart and bending his will towards this thing that kept them apart. As when he had sought another glimpse of Thorongil in the palantír, the lanyard tugged on him and the unseen hand tried to part him from his desire. That mark is your doing. The vapor of athelas and other wholesome herbs surrounded him, so he gathered them and tried to wash away the stain. Finduilas began to thrash.
'Let her rise, Grandson! She has to cough it out,' Laanga admonished, pulling back the tented cloth. Denethor released his tight grip. For several minutes, Finduilas retched and gasped, finally bringing up a knot of dark matter followed by spatters of red blood. She sank flat on the bed, hanging over the edge, and gasped for air.
Lhûn knelt and retrieved whatever it was Finduilas had spat out, looking at it closely. Laanga joined her. 'Remember the knot in her lung Thorongil spoke of?' The apothecary nodded. 'I think this a scar from it.' The Warden pushed Denethor away and placed an ear against Finduilas' chest. 'Yes, I think the wound has opened.'
'And what does that mean?' Denethor demanded.
'I'm sick, friend. I've always had this.' Finduilas' voice was raspy, but stronger. She coughed again before turning over to lie flat. 'The worst is out and now I must rest.' With a smile, she held out a hand to the herbalist. 'Thank you, Laanga, for your herbs. They have done as they should.' Soon, her breathing slowed and she slept. Laanga set another pan of herbs to steep beside the hearth, their refreshing scent perfuming the room. When Denethor finally dozed off in the chair, he dreamed of climbing upwards, following the Queen to the Hallows while storm clouds gathered.
Lhûn declared that Finduilas must remain in the Houses until she no longer bled from her lungs. Denethor thought this wise. Borondir, Núneth and Hallas assured him that there was nothing they could not attend to in the Tower, so to remain with the Lady. Denethor would not allow business to be conducted near her there for fear that it would disturb her rest, but he went every day to his study and gathered the papers that had collected so he could read them as he sat next to her. If she were awake, he would talk to her about what he read, though never of the reports from Anórien. Only Boromir and Faramir were unhappy with the arrangement, for they were not allowed to visit her. 'When she is stronger, Morcollë,' he promised Boromir, 'then you may come and cheer her for a short while.' Beregar kept the boys busy and away from temptation by taking them to the farm. Boromir taught Mab and Faramir how to ride Boots.
Today, Denethor kissed the boys farewell at the gate of the Houses and watched them walk out of sight with Beregar. Along with his papers, there had been a small gift for Finduilas. Morwen had sent a beautiful shawl just the right size to wrap around one's shoulders when sitting in bed. He paused near the door to the linen room, needing a better grip on the tall stack of papers that slid across the smooth fabric of the shawl.
'It is so sad about the Lady.' Denethor froze. There was the sound of cloth being folded behind the partly closed door. 'Such a young thing, too.'
'Hush!' another voice admonished the first. 'Do not ill wish someone!'
'Tis not ill-wishing to say the truth!' There was a long sigh. 'If only it were older days.'
'Were there a king, she could be healed. You learned the lore just as well as I, Urwen: The hands of the king are the hands of a healer. That is the sign of the rightful king.' Another sigh. 'Or just Thorongil returned. He healed the Lady before.'
'But not a king, or she would be well now, no?' Urwen challenged.
Denethor did not wait for the rest of the conversation, but hurried to Finduilas' room, fearing the worst. She was sitting up in bed, speaking to Warden Lhûn. 'Denethor,' she said, smiling, 'Lhûn says I may return home two days hence. Is that not good news?'
'Yes. Someone sent you a gift.' The women admired the shawl and Finduilas was quickly tucked into it. Denethor pretended to read his papers until Finduilas fell asleep in the afternoon, then sought out Lhûn.
'Warden, what is the truth of my lady's illness?'
Lhûn gestured for him to sit. 'It is uncertain, my Lord Steward. She has a wound deep within one lung. How she got it, I cannot say, but it was there when she first was a guest of the Master Archivist. It heals, but then breaks open again. When it does, she is at risk for pneumonia and other lung ailments. Her grieving and the bad air have conspired this time to make her ill, I think.'
'And nothing can be done?'
'Nothing save helping her regain her strength.'
'Thank you.' He returned to Finduilas' room where she still slept and sent a summons to the house. Aeluin arrived promptly. 'Aeluin, will you sit with the Lady until I return? There is a Tower matter I must see to. I will return as soon as I can.'
The palantír chamber was cold. Denethor wasted no time. He pulled aside the drape and cast his heart into it, not even bothering to close his eyes and concentrate. His heart was like Huan and led him unerringly to what he sought. The road was a mix of dirt and stones, the remnant of a more ancient way. Beyond the edges of the road, there was only grey mist. Thorongil walked south, well wrapped in his green cloak, though his hood was cast back. He was singing something to himself. Heed me, king. Thorongil's brow wrinkled and his eyes cast back and forth, though he kept singing. You must come back. You must heal her. The man's steps slowed and he turned around, looking for something. I humble myself before you. I will be your most abject servant, will take on the most dire deeds, if only you will return and heal her. Thorongil had stopped singing now, and walked with eyes downcast, frowning. Denethor knelt and placed his hands upon the stone. I beg you. Only when his vision blurred and he was near to swooning did Denethor look away.
Finduilas had company when he returned. The boys were all there, Faramir sitting on the bed snuggled in her arms, while Boromir and Mab told her of their adventures on the farm. She laughed at their story of trying to round up some chickens that had escaped their coop, a sound Denethor had not heard in more than a month, and pink had come to her cheeks. 'Look what the Hound brought me, husband. Some fine visitors!'
'So I see.' Denethor allowed the children to remain until Finduilas began to cough. She ordered them all to return home and have a proper supper. It took longer than usual after the evening meal to get the boys to settle down and go to bed, though it was good to see their spirits higher for having seen Finduilas. She was asleep when he returned to the Houses.
He was no king. He had not the power to heal. What have my hands brought forth? Dragon Fire. Kin-slaying. Endings. Death lay in his touch. He sat and watched her breathe, afraid to take her hand.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.