In which Finduilas unearths interesting clues about a number of people, but is unsure whether they can be considered proof of anything.
Minas Tirith, Mid June, 2975 T.A.
The sleeping draughts did not end the dreams, but only made them more confused and frightening. Finduilas groggily woke from another bout of nightmares, shift and sheets wet from her sweat. Her mother's gentle hands stroked back her hair where it stuck against her face and Finduilas pressed her cheek against that familiar touch. She wished for a sip of water to ease the dryness in her mouth and throat. Magically, a cup appeared and pressed its lip against her own.
'The young miss wakes?'
Who? Who wakes? Finduilas tried to sort out her thoughts, ignoring the buzzing in her ears. Oh, me. I'm awake. The voice was not her mother's, though it was known. She made herself open her eyes. When she could focus, she saw the Warden of the Houses of Healing standing at the foot of the bed. The woman's grey-streaked hair was braided back from her face and for one fuddled moment Finduilas wondered when Lady Lore had left her caverns and taken up leechcraft.
'Yes, she wakes.' Luinil's voice had the overly-patient note that said she was not pleased with the state of affairs and was restraining herself. 'Now, if you would be so kind as to have dry clothes and some wash water sent, she will soon be able to rise.'
Finduilas gulped down the water and then another cup before trying to make sense of where she was. Obviously not Vinyamar. She leaned against her mother, recollecting. Two days after Denethor came and went, summer arrived in Minas Tirith. The damp air made her feel half-drowned and her breathing became labored. Yesterday, while calling on a friend of Lady Emeldir's, she had begun gasping for breath, then coughed until blood came up. Mother brought her to the Houses of Healing and they had dosed her with many things, some sweet, some vile, until she fell asleep.
The coughs started again, deep, sticky, but at least she could breathe. Soon, she spat clots of phlegm darkened with old blood into a small basin, making herself cough and hack until the sticky lumps were cleared from her throat and lungs. She chewed mint leaves and rinsed her mouth with more water to be rid of the foul taste and smell.
As her mother helped her wash and dress, Finduilas tried to remember any of her dreams. It was all in slivers, as though painted on glass, then shattered. The night fell over the beleaguered City. A moon rose over the Ephel Duath, clouds defacing it into a grimacing skull. The eagle dropped her onto the pinnacle of Barad-dûr and flew away. Rains fell, washing down Mindolluin, and the stone ships of Minas Tirith sailed off upon the tide. Through the curtain of rain between Mordor and Anduin, she watched tall ships set out from the harbor of Dol Amroth and head west, chasing the sunset. She stood on the battlement of the Citadel, encased in stone armor like a statue. The voice next to her told a wonderful tale of flowers and spring, but the stone helm and mail would not allow her to turn her head.
The only clear part of her dreaming had come at sunset, and she knew she did not dream but rather saw. Denethor stood before the fire-fall and read from the book she had given him from the archives. Blood began to run from the pages of the book, then his hands began seeping blood, and he held both out into the fire-fall to wash it away. The pages were cleansed of past and blood alike, but his hands would not stop bleeding until the fire turned to silver ice and froze the wounds. He paused and smiled at her ruefully before heading off into the darkness, for both knew Aiavalë would be greatly angered at the ruin of the book.
Luinil's hands were cool and sure, so Finduilas allowed herself to be washed, dressed, and put to rights as though she were once more a little girl. The vision of Denethor in the secret place, bleeding, was distressing, yet she knew it could not be so anymore than he could see her, or that he had plucked three pearls from a curtain of silver scales. I hope no hurt has come to him. Or the book. She smiled a little at the thought of how Aiavalë would scold him should he allow the book to be damaged. It was The Lay of Leithian. The particular volume was extremely plain and somewhat battered, the words written close and fine upon the page so that it would be small in his pack. She had hesitated before selecting the work, for it was very dark, but it was finally a tale of triumph over the Shadow and it was beautiful.
'Daughter, you have given me a fright.' Luinil spoke lightly, in a teasing way, but there was a worry upon her brow that belied the tone.
'I am sorry for it, Mother. I simply could not keep myself from coughing yesterday. It is the muggy air; I feel choked by it.'
Luinil frowned. 'I know not what to do. We must remain in Minas Tirith until your father returns. Even then, we may not be able to return home.'
'I should do as I did in the winter. I need to stop visiting the ladies and start visiting the archive, at least in the middle of the day. The air in the caverns is dry and cool. I am certain it is why I avoided an ague this winter.'
'If you think it would be best.'
'I am certain of it,' Finduilas firmly replied. She tried not to be too pleased with herself for having figured out how to avoid tedious social calls. She missed not seeing more of Wren and Lark, Mallor and Mairen, and most of all Aiavalë. Luinil slipped an arm around her waist and guided Finduilas out of the room.
'Then we shall go there. The Master Archivist is dear to you, is she not?'
'Very much so. I know many quail before her form, but she is a lady of great wisdom and greater quality. Aiavalë is as dear to me as any save only my closest kin.'
'And the rest of the Steward's house?'
'You know well my thoughts of one person, so I need not repeat it. The others I count as friend, even the Lady Emeldir.'
'Ecthelion is a kindly soul, though he has his faults,' Luinil murmured as they walked the corridor towards the staircase. 'I am surprised you call the Warden a friend. He is rather…forbidding. Though very learned.'
'He is not a man given to good humor, 'tis true,' Finduilas agreed, 'and he can be intimidating when he wishes. Which is often.' She had to laugh a little as she recalled some of her arguments with Denethor. 'His heart is true and he is more kind than one would think, particularly where the Archivist is concerned. Denethor carries great burdens, so I think it no wonder he is solemn. I count him scarce less a friend than his lady sister.'
Whatever Luinil was about to say was lost in the cry of joy Imrahil and Ivriniel let loose at the sight of their sister coming down the stairs. Their mother sternly warned them not to excite Finduilas and make her cough again now that it was under control, and they were apprised of the plan for Finduilas to spend the height of each day in the archives. A few minutes later, the Healing Warden joined them and agreed that the air in the caverns would be best, and Finduilas should spend all day in them for the next three days to allow her lungs to heal.
Aiavalë waited until Finduilas' mother and siblings had left before scolding her roundly about the foolishness of going out in the heat of the day, then set the young woman to cataloguing reports. With a laugh and a kiss on Lady Lore's cheek, Finduilas set to work. The reports were mostly the usual dull accounts of grain, cloth and livestock, though she had a greater appreciation for them after her instruction with Luinil. What most amazed her were the annotated reports from Denethor. Even on a campaign, he had received, read, and commented on a number of significant concerns, such as the iron trade. That will only become more important as the need for weapons grows. Also interesting were the war reports. A great many of them were waiting for cataloguing, as they had been kept secret while the Harad campaign was being fought. She soon learned to recognize the writing of each major officer – Baragund's cramped scrawl, Brandir's large, looping lines, Thorongil's precise letters and odd spellings, Ecthelion's spidery words, Denethor's hand as sharply drawn as his comments. Finduilas stopped and read each report from Adrahil, no matter how minor, just to see the familiar writing. When is Father coming back? Oh, I do hope he is still safe!
The more she read, however, the more annoyed she became. The reports laid out in great detail the events of the campaign. The precision of the defense was impressive. At any point, had any one of the commanders failed to arrive at an appointed place at the specific time, ready to fulfill his tasks, much grief would have resulted. While Thorongil led some Rohirrim south, Brandir had taken the remainder, plus more Gondorian soldiers from the Anórien garrison, north and west to guard the river. They had repulsed a company of Orcs that had been sent as a distraction. The Rohirrim had arrived at the Poros in time to allow Baragund to march south and meet Denethor's infantry on the same day to attack the Haradrim. A half-day later, and there would have been a terrible battle with many lives lost. There were losses, to be certain, but far less than had been expected.
Aiavalë limped up to check on Finduilas' progress. After perusing the catalogue and reviewing a few reports, the Master Archivist nodded her approval.
'How fare you, Alquallë?'
'Well, sister, I do well.'
'Your face looks stormy.' Aiavalë took a chair next to the copyist's desk.
Finduilas sighed in exasperation. 'What nonsense! Not the reports, I mean, but the gossip. That is what was making me angry yesterday, and set me to coughing.'
'Please, then, be calm and do not start again! What is it that you think nonsense?'
'I can see Beruthiel at work, Lady Lore, I swear! In all the parlors of fine ladies, and I know it will pass to street and tavern soon enough, the talk is of how this battle was won by Thorongil! These reports show what he actually did, and what also my father and your brother and several others did to bring about the Haradrim's defeat. I do not deny the man's brilliance, but really!' Finduilas felt her face flush with indignation. Aiavalë's eyes were hard above her veil.
'Are you surprised? This is what Beruthiel has done for years. How great are the exaggerations?'
'Most have him as having planned all of the campaign and as directing it. Some say he brought the Rohirrim south against Denethor's wishes – I see your sister's hand in that rumor! – to save the war from ruin. What sent me into such a fit yesterday was someone saying Thorongil had been in South Gondor, leading the battle itself! He was here in Minas Tirith on that day, for goodness' sake! Has no one any sense?'
'Shh, shh! Your lady mother will have my ears if I let you fall ill.' Aiavalë stroked the younger woman's hair to calm her. After a moment, Finduilas took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
'It is such nonsense, though.'
'There is nothing nonsensical in it, Alquallë. It is all very carefully said to make a great deal of sense. By the time the summer is over, the tales will have been winnowed, and the Captain will be the very plausible champion of Minas Tirith.'
Finduilas and Aiavalë stared at each other for a moment before Finduilas went back to her tasks. Well, this may be what Beruthiel wishes people to think, but I do not care to play along with this game. This evening she would explain the situation to Mother, who would figure out a deft way to bring the truth back to the parlors of the City.
As it turned out, however, the gossip over the defeat of Harad was forgotten by the next morning. As Denethor had warned, the Easterlings had arrived. They were gathering upon Dagorlad, building their forces up for a concerted assault upon Ithilien. Orcs infested the slopes of Ephel Duath, harassing Gondorian forces along the North-South Road. Rumor had it that a great army was gathering in Minas Morgul as well. All men who knew how to use a weapon were mustered to the first circle and kept garrisoned there, or else sent out east and north upon the Pelennor towards Rammas Echor. Even Beregar was taken from Aiavalë. Minas Tirith became a city of women.
With Beregar gone, Finduilas took over looking after the cat. She had thought, at first, that she would bring Telperien to Vinyamar and care for her there, but after hearing from Wren and Aiavalë how terribly the attempt to move her to the rooms in the sixth circle had gone, she allowed herself to be convinced to leave the animal in the Stewards House.
'Besides,' Aiavalë had added, 'someone should keep an eye on the house.'
'I do not see why you left it, Lady Lore.'
The older woman did not answer at once, but gave her a very odd, almost hostile look. 'Why should I stay in a tomb? You are gone, Denethor is on the summer campaigns and will be gone more than he is there, and none are left save the doorward.' Aiavalë would say no more and brooded the rest of the afternoon. The other archivists and Finduilas knew to leave her be.
Every day or two, Finduilas would stroll up to the Citadel to set out water for Telperien. The cat did not appear to lack for food and there were no signs of rodents in the empty house, so it appeared that the cat had become as good a mouser as her dam, Sedge. There were no servants left at the house save the old doorward, Sador, and a girl who cleaned things once every week. The old fellow was glad for the visitor and Finduilas would happily spend an hour sitting in a chair in the warm entry way, Telperien contentedly settled in her lap. They would drink lemonade one of the cooks of the circle would send around and leave the door open to the small street. Guards would nod and return their greetings as they walked their rounds, maids would stop to gossip, and few there were passing by who did not offer their best wishes to the house of Dol Amroth. Finduilas enjoyed listening to stories about the old fellow's grandchildren, the gossip of the servants in the Citadel (though there was never a word of the war councils), and his memories of when the Stewards House actually housed the Steward.
'Ah, my lady,' he concluded one day after returning from the past, 'would that there was again a Lady of the White Tower, and children in this house. But I see it not. The ladies of this house have been afflicted and will bring forth nothing, and Lord Denethor is too cold and grim to win any lady's heart. I sometimes wonder if the Lady Emeldir's curse is coming true.'
The doorward jerked up, as though aware that he had spoken something he should not. 'Um, ah, well… 'tis nothing, just an old man's ramblings. Pay me no mind, child, pay no mind.'
Finduilas did not press him, but knew there was another mystery to unearth. Is this a City or a puzzle? There are but questions to be had in Minas Tirith. She asked about the man's newest granddaughter and soon the awkwardness of the moment before was forgotten.
After she finished her visit with the doorward, she would take a pitcher of water upstairs and refill Telperien's water bowl in Denethor's study. The bowl was a battered tin plate with a high rim, exactly like what a soldier would carry in his pack. She remembered it as one of the objects from the bookshelves, and wondered if Denethor or Beregar had put it into service. Denethor, she decided, as Beregar would not presume to touch his master's possessions.
The temptation to snoop was impossible to resist. Finduilas carefully examined all of the shelves. There were many books, of course, and the range of topics was fascinating. Histories made up a slim majority, but there were also works on engineering and metallurgy, a very large volume on plants found in Gondor, a collection of philosophical tracts – including a complete set of The Discourses of Silmarien – bound sheaves of reports (both current and several centuries old), and several books of stories and poetry, some beautifully illustrated. Tucked among the poetry was a slender chapbook with a few poems written in a familiar hand, a gift from Aiavalë to her little brother on his tenth birthday. Each poem was accompanied by drawings in the margins, usually of a small boy doing mischievous things. Two of the poems were in some kind of code. Finduilas quickly put it back on the shelf, a little guilty for having intruded upon this token of the siblings' affection. On his desk were stacked a number of books on alchemy as well as some on warfare and catapults, and Finduilas was sorry that this, and not the poetry, was what Denethor had to read. Finduilas sternly forbade herself to look through the desk. Glancing at things upon a bookshelf is simply seeing what someone wishes to display, but you will not descend to rifling someone's papers!
There were various items on the shelves that she had glimpsed on her one previous visit to his study. They were as interesting and varied as the books. There were some beautiful things – cups, bowls, small carvings – most of which looked very old. Some had the crest of the House of Húrin on them and were probably family heirlooms. Along one shelf was laid a collection of knives. Then there were things broken, burned, or marred in some way, and most of these things seemed very old. There was a long, coiled braid of hair, the other half to Aiavalë's unusual bell-pull. In a twin to the dish holding Telperien's water was a collection of rocks, just like a jar of them Imrahil kept on a shelf in his room in Dol Amroth.
The bed and chest of drawers in the alcove explained the smell of the room. It is his redoubt. Even though he had been gone for weeks, Denethor's scent remained strong. The pillow had an indentation in it and was well covered with cat hair, evidence of Telperien's favored location for sleeping.
There was nothing of note in the other rooms on this floor. The bedroom was unused and smelled a little musty, while the front room held a small table with a few chairs and a long, battered couch. A chest stood in front of an unused door just inside the entrance to the front room. A bit of snooping in the bedroom showed a door at the rear to a small bright room that overlooked the wall, which led to an even smaller room that also faced the wall. From that room, she could walk towards the front of the house through three tiny joined rooms, obviously intended as sleeping spaces for children. The door at the end of the rooms showed the back of the chest in the front room. All these smaller rooms were empty and filled with dust.
Finduilas liked to end her visits to the Citadel with a walk upon the wall. Through the summer haze over the Pelennor, it was barely possible to make out the river, let alone what lay beyond. Sometimes she could glimpse the edges of the ruins of Osgiliath. Behind her, the Citadel would be near-silent. Two empty cities, both ruined. The unbidden thought made her shiver despite the heat, remembering the dream-flood that had washed away the City, bearing Minas Tirith's graven ships upon its crest. The Stewards House lives in the past. I am glad Aiavalë has left it. It is a tomb. It was difficult to walk back through the empty halls to the front door to bid farewell to Sador.
Two weeks had passed since Denethor and Brandir brought news of the south, and almost a full week since Finduilas had been taken to the Houses of Healing. A smell of smoke hung in the air some nights when sea winds would blow from the south, bringing notice of the burning of South Gondor to keep Harad and Umbar on their side of Harnen. As evening fell, women gathered on the rooftops for supper, both to catch the coolness of the shadow of Mindolluin thrown by the setting sun and also to look out across the Pelennor. Anduin snaked around the plain, all glittering serpent scales, while Osgiliath brooded at the edge of sight. Though no clouds touched the sky, there was the same feeling as though a thunderstorm was close to breaking upon them.
Finduilas fanned herself and drank fruit wine, uninterested in the supper before her. Imrahil sulked at the edge of the roof, disliking that the Steward, as well as his mother, had told him to remain in the City. Why are men so eager to throw themselves at death when they need not do so? Would the Enemy wreak such havoc without this impetuous stupidity? She stared determinedly south, refusing to gaze upon the eastern shadows. The war reports were being held secret again and she chafed at not knowing the news of the battles. Far off, she could just discern the pall of smoke hovering over the burned lands, while Anduin quickly dissolved into a haze a few leagues past the Harlond. Stupid little boys killing each other for the sake of a fiend. We would leave them in peace would they do so much for us. A burst of laughter rang out from a rooftop a few lanes away. Among the voices Finduilas could discern Maiaberiel's. Finduilas' eyes narrowed and she stared hatefully at the figures moving about the other rooftop. And stupid little girls care nothing for death and loss as long as they may order things as they please. With an indignant snort, she returned to studying the south. What she saw made her leap up and run to the parapet. Even as she did, others across the City began to shout and point towards the river.
White and grey sails took shape at the edges of the southern haze. No specific insignias could be seen at this distance, but she did not need to see one to know the shape of Seabird. That ship led a group of perhaps a dozen other good-sized vessels towards the quays of the Harlond. Finduilas grabbed Imrahil's arm and pointed.
'Look! Look! Father's returned!' she cried. All around, cheers were going up. Horns in the lower circles began to blow, announcing the arrival of the Prince. Luinil and Ivriniel came to join the other two. They watched the ships become more solid as they approached. Just before Seabird docked, Luinil clapped her hands softly to get her children's attention.
'Your father will probably have to attend the Steward before he may rest. We should prepare the house for his arrival.' Luinil did not wait for replies, but turned and walked briskly to the door downstairs. Ivriniel hurried after.
'I will see to the house, Mother. You see to yourself. I have no doubt which will matter most to Father.' Luinil gave her eldest daughter a long look, then laughed and hugged her.
'And so I shall! Finduilas, Imrahil, do as Ivriniel bids you.' Luinil retired to her rooms with one of the maids. The siblings hurried about, getting things neatened, making sure the Prince's favorite wine and food was ready, and generally giggling and bumping into each other. Messenger ponies clattered by on the street, the riders calling out that the ships were full of soldiers from Pelargir. Women shouted the news across the rooftops to their neighbors and simple meals turned into celebrations. Sunset shadows deepened to twilight and those soon melted into night. Imrahil stationed himself on the roof to watch for their father's ascent of Minas Tirith. Almost three hours after they first saw the sails, he ran down the stairs, shouting that Father was about to enter the fifth circle.
Soon, they heard someone coming down the lane. Imrahil threw open the front door, and bowed Adrahil into Vinyamar. The Prince was wind-burned and a little thin, but otherwise looked hale. He grinned and held out his arms to his daughters. Finduilas noticed that, after his initial embrace, Adrahil did not really return their hugs. She looked up at his face. He was not looking at them.
'Welcome home, my lord.' Luinil stood at the foot of the stair. Her eyes did not waver from her husband's face. Adrahil gently extricated himself from the girls and slowly walked down the hall towards his wife. Finduilas could only see part of her mother's face above her father' shoulder. Luinil wore a rather stern expression and Finduilas remembered the fight the morning her father had left.
Adrahil came to a stop in front of Luinil and clasped his hands behind his back. The two said nothing, just looked at each other. A slow smile crept across Luinil's face. Adrahil leaned down and placed a kiss on her cheek.
'Am I forgiven, wife?'
'Not if that is the best you can do, husb...'
Another kiss brought an end to the conversation. It went on for some time. When it ended, Adrahil put his arm around Luinil's waist and they went upstairs. The forgotten children exchanged glances.
'I do not believe Father will be going to report to the Steward,' Finduilas mused, 'at least, not tonight.' The three broke out into laughter, then headed off to the main street to find out more news.
Adrahil did attend Ecthelion early the next morning, and nearly every morning after that, spending the balance of the days in the Citadel. Finduilas could not help but be jealous that Imrahil accompanied their father on most of his rounds.
The third day after the ships arrived, the Easterners attacked, as did the forces of Morgul. Rohirric messengers galloped from the north, bearing news of assaults in East Emnet, north and south of Emyn Muil. At night, fires could be seen east of Osgiliath, where Morgul Orcs fought the Osgiliath defenders. From north Ithilien there was no word. Adrahil would say nothing in the evenings, only stand at the edge of the roof and stare out at the fires. Imrahil admitted that he himself knew not the truth of how the fighting went, for he was not invited in to the privy councils. The city of women grew silent once more.
Wagons bearing supplies and surgeons from the Houses of Healing set out on the second day of fighting. The evening of the third saw some of the wagons returning, laden with wounded. Adrahil met the wagons a half-mile out from the walls with men from the first circle garrison. They encircled the wounded and kept the curious away, not permitting any gossip.
The first word that got out was from the whores in the third circle. Some had returned from the whorehouse at the Osgiliath garrison and their news was as good as any. It was women who now paid visits to the house run by the exotic and mysterious Madam Morwen, hoping to hear of a husband, son, or kinsman. Finduilas took Lily, Wren, and Lark to the house, seeking news of Beregar. Aiavalë gave her a small, heavy leather pouch and a sealed letter.
'Alquallë, please run a small errand for me. When you get to the brothel, locate the Matron. She is an old, plump woman with light brown hair. Any of the whores can tell you who she is. Give her, and only her, this letter. Follow whatever directions she gives you.'
'As you wish, sister.' Finduilas was intrigued. The letter was addressed "To the Mistress" and had an odd design drawn across the folded pages next to the seal. There were coins in the pouch, though they did not clink. Each is wrapped. Ah, the mistress of the house is a spy. No doubt the coins are payment that Beregar would deliver were he here. Satisfied she had solved the mystery, Finduilas tucked the pouch inside her pocket. The four women bade the Master Archivist farewell before setting out.
A large man stood guard at the door of the brothel, turning away any men and allowing only the women to enter. Once night fell, the situation would be reversed. In the front parlor, several pretty young women sat on couches with groups of other women who were asking questions. An older woman sat at a small table with a box containing letters men had written and sent back with the whores. Lily went there first, waiting her place in line. Beregar was on the northern Rammas Echor defense, but he ran messages to Osgiliath, so Lily hoped he might have left a letter at the whorehouse on one of his trips. Wren and Lark recognized one of the whores and went to chat with her, leaving Finduilas to find the Matron. This was quickly done. The older woman looked over the letter carefully, then asked Finduilas to sit and wait for just a minute. Soon, the Matron was back, and gestured for Finduilas to follow. The woman led her to a room two levels up, overlooking the street.
The woman seated at the desk reading the letter was so unusual and so commanding, Finduilas knew she was seeing Madam Morwen. When the woman looked up and showed her distinctive grey eyes, Finduilas knew a few other things as well. The mistress rose to greet her.
'Lady Finduilas, it is an honor to meet you.' Morwen offered a slender brown hand.
What does one say to such a woman? Finduilas smiled to cover her uncertainty and took the other's hand. Morwen's grip was firm. 'Likewise, Madam Morwen.' The woman's grey eyes glittered the same way Denethor's did when he was amused at another's expense. Morwen gestured for Finduilas to sit in the chair in front of the desk, retaking her own seat. The two sat in silence for several heartbeats, the dark woman taking an unhurried look at the other. Morwen smiled.
'I do not suppose I can convince you to come work for me? It could be a very profitable arrangement.' The madam's voice was casual.
'I do not think I could secure my father's permission, but thank you for asking,' Finduilas replied in the same manner. Morwen chuckled.
'I am sincere in my offer, young lady. You would be quite popular. But on to more certain business.' The madam paused and glanced at Aiavalë's letter. 'You have something for me.' Finduilas fished the leather pouch out of her pocket and placed it on the desk. Morwen picked it up for a moment, weighing it in her hand, then put it back down on the desk. She returned to studying Finduilas.
'I have heard several rumors about you, Finduilas.'
'Have you, now? They must be terribly boring.'
'Rumors about a young noblewoman are always noteworthy. I have heard you are being courted by Captain Thorongil.'
'As I said, terribly boring.' Finduilas was not at all surprised by this rumor.
'So, you are not?'
'It depends on where you heard the rumor.'
'Whom should I believe?'
'All official records are kept in the archives.'
'Of course.' Morwen steepled her fingers, looking over them in a thoughtful, calculating way. 'Are you Ecthelion's newest mistress?'
Finduilas just stared. When she thought she had her voice under control, she replied, 'You know how perfectly scurrilous such a rumor is, so why do you ask it?'
'You are what he prefers. I have procured for the Steward before, so I am well aware of his likes and dislikes.'
'As I said before, my lord father would not countenance such an arrangement.'
'Men will countenance the most despicable things when power is at stake,' was Morwen's calm reply. Finduilas rose and nodded to the madam, then left. Wren, Lark, and Lily were waiting for her near the parlor door. There was no news of Beregar. The four walked back to the Archivist's house. Finduilas confirmed to Aiavalë that the pouch was delivered, but did not provide any other details. The sooner she could forget the visit to Madam Morwen, the better.
The days crept by slowly. The fires moved further east and became fewer in number. Wagons arrived every few days, bearing back wounded. Rumor spread from the whorehouse and from the Houses of Healing that fighting was fierce, but that Gondor prevailed. Adrahil would neither confirm nor deny the rumor and was rarely at Vinyamar during daytime. Finduilas could hear her parents talking late, when he would come in from his duties, but could never make out the words. One night, nine days after the ships arrived, the fires beyond Osgiliath went out.
The next morning, a messenger galloped across the Pelennor from Osgiliath. When he reached the City, he pulled a bloody, tattered banner out of his messenger pouch and held it up as he rode to the Citadel. It was the banner of the Easterlings and sign of their defeat. Adrahil and Brandir departed for Osgiliath shortly after noon, to collect the full news directly from Denethor and Thorongil. They returned late the next morning, pausing long enough at Vinyamar to say they would be closeted with Ecthelion far into the night.
Finduilas headed off to the archives to see if Aiavalë had any better news. The Master Archivist shook her head when asked, but was very happy. Wren and Mallor were loitering nearby, trying to overhear anything the two women might say, and Aiavalë waved them over.
'I received a short note from Denethor that he would return near sundown the day after tomorrow, and would tell me everything the next day,' Aiavalë said cheerfully, handing Finduilas a stack of ordinary reports. 'After he and Thorongil report to the Lord Steward, we will get all of the war reports, and can know for ourselves exactly what has happened!'
'I and all the rest of my house will be dining with Lady Maiaberiel and Lord Brandir tomorrow,' Finduilas informed Aiavalë, careful to speak neutrally about Beruthiel in front of the other archivists.
'So I suppose you shall hear how Thorongil single-handedly defeated all of the Easterners, all but a few of the Orcs, and cast down the Lord of Morgul himself armed with nothing more than an icy stare,' Aiavalë chortled, and the rest all laughed with her at the absurdity. Though it will be interesting to hear how things get distorted. The day was muggy, so Finduilas remained in the archives until nightfall, though most of her time was spent teasing some archive mousers with a feather tied to a string and wishing Denethor was already back so she would know the real tale of the war.
Dinner the next day was served in the beautiful courtyard of Beruthiel's house. An arcade circled most of the stone court, and a fountain splashed against the far wall. Flowers, vines, and a few small trees grew in planters. The dining table had been moved into the shade along the south wall and the meal was made up of chilled things – greens, melons, sliced meats, ices. It lasted for several hours as there was much to discuss.
As with the southern victory, timing was everything. The Easterlings had not attacked as quickly as it had been feared, but had waited for all of their forces to arrive from the east, probably due to the poor news from the south. The day after the last party, Brandir and Thorongil had gone to Anórien to drill new Rohirric cavalry and to figure out how to move the new cavalry unremarked over the river. Forces in Ithilien had only to contest with Orcs, as the Easterners were still gathering. The Rohirrim who had ridden to South Gondor rode north to Osgiliath very openly after the Haradrim's defeat, along with a few ranks of Gondorian infantry, seeking to fool the Enemy's spies into thinking that there were no greater forces to spare. Adrahil had brought the true southern forces up in the ships after they had rested and restocked and these men were moved at night into Osgiliath. Denethor and his second at Osgiliath, Halmir, kept up scanty patrols and allowed some farmstead burnings in Ithilien to go unanswered.
When the Easterlings finally moved, so did an army from Minas Morgul. The fresh southern forces and the original Rohirrim met the Morgul army and kept it penned up against the Ephel Duath, though the elevation was against the defenders. In the north, the Easterlings were allowed to march into North Ithilien with little resistance, making it appear as if the bulk of the Gondorian army was tied down fending off Morgul. The invaders moved slowly, conserving their strength and keeping to the road. Thorongil used the ferry from Cair Andros to move the new cavalry across the river at night over the space of a few days until they were all gathered in a desolate place hard between the banks of Anduin, the fens of the Wetwang, and the inhospitable slopes of the last hills of North Ithilien. Rangers guided the horsemen over a hidden route at the edges of the great swamp, losing two horses and a Rider in the doing, but brought all in secrecy to a position on the North-South road behind the Easterlings, who were now caught between the mountains and the eastern flank of the Ithilien hills. The Rohirrim charged the Easterner army from behind, and the hidden forces of north Ithilien attacked from the slopes above them. What of the army was not destroyed was driven south in disarray.
There, they ran into rested irregulars from Minas Tirith who had slipped across at Cair Andros and the Osgiliath bridge, and now harried the Easterlings towards the retreating Morgul forces. The northern Rohirrim followed closely, preventing any from escaping north. The remnants of the Easterners merged into the Morgul army and both retreated into the poisoned vale, less than a quarter their original strength. Much booty was being collected from the dead soldiers and abandoned supply wagons. By all reckoning, the few days' delay by the Easterling army was the key to the victory – this enabled Adrahil to bring troops from the south before fighting began in earnest.
'And special thanks to the Rohirrim,' Adrahil added, raising his wine glass. 'They are a wild lot, but they know battle. The Easterlings were wrack upon the crest of their storm wave as they charged along the Road. Thanks to you and to Thorongil as well, Brandir, for placing the horsemen where they needed to be. I would not have believed that a path could be found along that swamp had it not been done!'
'I had my own doubts, Adrahil,' Brandir cheerfully replied. 'Crossing the river north of Cair Andros is not an easy task at the best of times. To take horses across at night, well, that was not my doing. Thorongil, not I, is the author of that miracle. He accompanied every crossing, calming the riders as much as the steeds.'
'Then we must raise a glass to Father, too, for the foresight of bringing the Captain north,' Beruthiel sweetly interjected. 'North and south, we would have been in dire straights without Thorongil.'
'I do not think it would have made a great difference had Thorongil been in Anórien or in Pelargir when the news arrived.' Finduilas looked quickly at her father. She recognized the smile he wore. It was for when he dealt with lying traders. 'Lord Denethor and I were discussing strategy for both the southern and northern campaigns several months ago. Though I do think it was a great spot of luck the captain was available to lead the Rohirrim south.'
'Even so, Adrahil, you will allow that Ecthelion was right to move Thorongil north.' Brandir was cheerful, but insistent. Beruthiel had dropped her eyes to her glass, thinking. Finduilas noticed that her mother had not stopped watching the other woman the entire conversation. 'It was not luck that brought him to Anórien.'
'No, it was not!' Finduilas put on her most pleasantly thoughtless smile. 'Father, you must agree with Brandir! He and Lord Denethor were quite in agreement to bring the captain to Anórien. I remember you saying so, Brandir, the same supper I told you Mother and Father were coming to visit.'
Adrahil laughed lightly, though his eyes were sharp. It was difficult not to look away. 'Very well, then, I shall not argue. The Steward, the Warden and you yourself, Brandir, are all far more clever than I, for I would have left the fellow in Pelargir through the summer.'
'Well, whomever was the most clever, thanks to him.' Maiaberiel's happy tone did not quite carry through to her expression. 'I for one am tired of discussing these ugly things. It is time for a celebration! Luinil, do say you will lend me your dear Ivriniel to help me plan a party here? We need a great dance, the sooner, the better!'
Ivriniel was very pleased by the attention Maiaberiel was paying to her. Finduilas felt a cough tickle the back of her throat. She sipped her wine, trying to wash away the sensation. Father foiled your attempt to praise the Captain, Beruthiel. You are not used to men thwarting you. Aside from your brother, of course. She began to cough, soft, steady, unable to clear away what irritated. The coughs began to come more strongly. The others began to look at her with concern. Finally, Finduilas stood, feeling very foolish.
'I fear I must walk a little, then sit quietly, until this fit passes. Please, do not bother yourselves on my account!'
'Nonsense.' Brandir stood and offered his arm. 'If you will allow me to stroll with you, my dear? Otherwise I will be terribly offended!' It was difficult to imagine this sweet man being offended by anything, but Finduilas inclined her head and took his arm. They began to stroll the arcade while the others discussed party plans.
After they had walked a few minutes, and Finduilas' coughs began to subside, Brandir said quietly, 'You surprise me, Finduilas.'
'How is that, Brandir?'
'You spoke in support of Thorongil.' He looked at her sideways. She tried to look innocent.
'Why does that surprise you?'
Brandir shrugged. 'I had not thought you very pleased with him. You spend so much time with the Archivist, and she quite detests the man, so I have come to expect that you share her opinion.'
'Aiavalë has strong opinions on everyone, Brandir. I assure you, I make up my own mind, particularly where Thorongil is concerned.'
He looked a bit crestfallen at this news. 'Then it is your own heart that is turned against him?'
'Whatever do you mean, Brandir? I am not turned against Thorongil! That is harsh of you to say.'
'You do not seem so pleased when he is about or when others mention him,' was Brandir's reasonable, and accurate, reply, 'so I believe you care not much for him.'
'I am not certain why this should matter to you greatly. What care you for the fancies of a young girl?'
'Thorongil is a friend of mine and has been for many years. He is close, but has never shown himself false to me, and it saddens me that you do not think well of him. He is a fine fellow!'
'It is not that I think poorly of him…'
Finduilas did not have to exaggerate or dissemble in any way. 'It is that so many have decided that I should have a lover's heart towards him, not merely that of a friend, and I scarce know the man! It is quite improper.'
'What would you know?' Brandir's response was so firm, Finduilas stopped to look at him. There was a determined expression on his face. 'Ask. I know as much or more of him than any in Gondor.'
She looked around quickly. The others were still chatting, but there were things she wished to ask that she did not wish to risk others overhearing. 'May we speak more privately?' Brandir guided her into the house to his study.
'What I would first know, Brandir, is your heart in this matter. I count you a friend of myself and my family. Speak plainly to me of what you attempt.'
He smiled sheepishly. 'I speak for one friend to another. Thorongil was smitten by you some months ago. I asked him of this and he admitted as much. If your heart were to incline towards him, I would be happy for you both. But if it does not, I can tell him to cease his attentions!'
'I know not my heart in this matter, Brandir. I have never considered any gentleman and I do not believe my parents would approve of such thinking at my age.' She hesitated a second, then added, 'And I do know that the more others insist that I must have affection for the captain, the more my heart rebels against those words.'
'I shall never urge such upon you, then. But, still, if you would know of the man, to be certain that he is an honorable fellow, please ask.'
Finduilas thought of the different things she could ask, how she could slowly work her way from innocuous questions to more daring. At the edge of her hearing, a shout of laughter went up from the courtyard. You don't have time. They will be asking after you soon. 'There is a rumor about the captain I have heard. That his origins are much closer to Minas Tirith than is polite to speak of.' Brandir nodded once. 'I cannot possibly entertain the thought of a suitor with such an origin, neither I nor Ivriniel. What may you say on this?'
Brandir turned and opened the top left drawer of his desk, withdrew a key, and walked over to a steel banded trunk near the wall opposite the door. Finduilas followed. He unlocked the trunk, and carefully went through a stack of papers at the right-hand end. After removing a few bundles of documents, he pulled out a stack tied with a dark green ribbon. They returned to the desk.
'These are letters I have received from King Thengel. Not official messages, mind you, but letters between the two of us.' Brandir paged through the bundle, looking at dates. 'Here. Read this and tell me what you think.' She took the letter and stepped to the window to read it.
It was dated from the spring of 2958. Thengel's hand was easy to read, though his statements were terse. It began with salutations, greetings to Brandir's parents, congratulations for his impending marriage to Maiaberiel, and then some comments about the spring foals. Near the end were these words.
Have a new soldier here. He came with Gandalf over Isen, but Greyhame came not to Edoras and turned north on other business. Ælric Eardstapa he has been dubbed, for he says he is homeless. Another of the Lost. I have sent him to the Wold. Perhaps he will wander again.
Proof. Here is proof. Thorongil is of the Lost! He is not… Finduilas looked over at Brandir, who waited expectantly. 'I think he is not from Gondor. I fear I cannot tell more.' She handed the letter back to him. 'It clears up one mystery but leave another. He may still be… base-born.' Brandir smiled and shook his head.
'I cannot answer that question, Finduilas, but would you believe so, having met him?'
'No, I cannot, but I fear my lord father may require greater proof.'
'But is this enough that you would speak kindly to Thorongil?'
'I would speak kindly to him regardless of his birth, Brandir. Whether my thoughts be more than polite shall depend upon the captain himself. We should return to the others.'
Finduilas hurried to Aiavalë's rooms where she was meeting Denethor and the Archivist for supper. She did not dare risk writing down what she had learned from Brandir, and thought she was going to burst from holding the secret in for two days. To her delight, Beregar was back at his post in the front hall of the house. He blushed deeply when she placed a kiss on his cheek before striding down the hall to Aiavalë's rooms.
'Alquallë!' Aiavalë greeted Finduilas cheerfully, kissing the girl through her veil. Beregar's sister, Lily, smiled and bobbed her head, but did not pause in her task of laying the table. The smell of the cooking filled the house, reminding Finduilas that she had not supped at The Messenger's Rest in several months. I shall have to remedy that and soon! Perhaps I should take Mother there after one of our adventures in the market. It sounded as though there would be many such jaunts in the months to come. Now that the major war campaign was over, Father had spoken of the condition of the keep, or rather, its disrepair. The battles of the summer had prevented much in the way of repairs to it, and he said he was loathe to have them return while it was unmended. Finduilas secretly thought her father did not wish them to return while there was still a possibility of raids by Corsairs. Lily finished her tasks, nodded, and bustled out of the room to see to the meal itself.
Aiavalë lifted her veil after Lily left and gave Finduilas another kiss. 'It is good to see you, little sister, and Denethor will be glad to see you too.'
'And are you glad to see him, big sister? I seem to recall that the two of you have quite been at odds.'
'No, we have not been at odds. No more than usual.' Aiavalë busied herself fussing with the table settings, refusing to look at the other woman. 'He is a very difficult man at times.' Finduilas burst out laughing at the absurdity of Aiavalë calling someone else difficult. 'No, no! He can be!' But she was chuckling, too.
A light tap on the door announced the difficult man himself. 'It is Denethor. May I come in?'
'Only if you wish for supper,' Finduilas called out, still laughing. The two women exchanged smirks and tried to get their giggling under control when he came in. As with the last time he showed up, he had a book in hand and held it out to the Archivist.
'It has come to no harm.' Aiavalë took it and paged through it briefly before setting it on a table.
'How are you, friend?'
'Well enough, Alquallë. I am still rather tired and fear I shall need to leave soon after supper is done so that I may rest.' Denethor did look tired and thin. Finduilas took his arm and guided him to the table.
'Then we should sup sooner rather than later and not weary you with chatter, Denethor.'
'Though do not think you will escape without giving us some news of what is being discussed in the Citadel!' Aiavalë warned. Denethor waved away his sister's scolding, and sat more heavily in the chair than was his wont. His lack of grace said far more about how tired he was than any words would have told. Finduilas pulled the bell rope to let Lily know she should bring supper at once.
'You are but tired?' Finduilas pressed. She had not dreamed again of his bloodied hands holding the old book, but neither could she forget it. 'Did you take any hurt?'
'No. I have a few bumps and scratches,' he lifted up a hand, showing off a red line running across it, 'but I am whole.'
They paused for a moment when Lily and Beregar arrived bearing supper. The two insisted the others stay seated while they set out the meal and filled plates. Watching these two sets of siblings, Finduilas could not help but think again of the ruin of the Stewards House. Do they even know it is their own aunt and uncle they serve? The bastard shoots bear fruit, while the legitimate children are barren in heart and body. The two young siblings bowed and left. Denethor did not rise for the standing silence, but bowed his head, eyes closed, and remained like that for a long minute. Finally, he nodded, as though hearing a voice, and began to eat. The two women exchanged a glance and a nod between themselves and did not ask him anything during the meal. Aiavalë kept his plate and cup full. Denethor ate a great deal and drank more than Finduilas had seen him do before. Some time after the women had eaten their fill, he set down his knife and fork and pushed his chair back from the table. Finduilas rose and collected dishes, stacking them on a tray on a sideboard.
'What is the news from the Citadel, brother?'
Denethor shrugged. 'Go there and ask for yourself. Aren't your spies good enough to get you your answers?' His face had a flush under the tan. It could be the wine talking, but he is just rude enough to try to aggravate Aiavalë. His sister did not answer and the two had a staring match. Denethor dropped his eyes first. 'You would know more if you had stayed at home.'
'I am home.' Finduilas wondered if she should excuse herself so these two could fight without an audience.
'As you wish.'
'So you have nothing to tell us?'
'Nothing that will not keep. Forgive me for being such poor entertainment.'
'I do not want entertainment, Denethor. I want news.'
Denethor pulled himself up out of his chair and retrieved the book from the table. He thumbed through it for a moment, then let it fall shut. Clasping it in his hands behind his back, he softly said:
And so it passed,
the mighty field, and turned to dust,
to drifting sand and yellow rust,
to thirsty dunes where many bones
lay broken among barren stones.
Dor-na-Fauglith, Land of Thirst,
they after named it, waste accurst,
the raven-haunted roofless grave
of many fair and many brave.
The words ended. This time it was Aiavalë who dropped her eyes first. Denethor's voice remained soft, but it was not kind.
'What else might I say? Thus was the dry plain of our battle with Harad. The roads in Ithilien are paths through blood and stench and waste from a league past Osgiliath to the edge of the Morgul Vale, and north to the desolation of the last contest with this foe. Again is battle joined with dark creatures out of legend, but we have no heroes to match. We have only the petulant and self-indulgent quibblers of the Citadel, who bid us sit and do nothing while armies march upon us.'
Aiavalë patted the seat of his chair. 'Come and sit, Denethor. I shan't argue any more with thee.' He did as he was asked, still holding the book.
Given Denethor's words over the politics of the Steward, Finduilas wondered if she should keep silent on her own news, and even more so if she should leave and give these two some peace. When she began to rise to, intending to make her farewells and return home, Denethor gave her a stern look and shook his head slightly. She sat back down.
'Please wait a little, Alquallë, and I will walk you back.'
'You need not, friend. You are very tired. It is not a great distance…'
'No.' Denethor was definitely being a difficult man. Finduilas swallowed her annoyance at being ordered and cast about for something to say that would lighten the mood.
'I take it you liked the book?'
'I have always liked this poetry.' His hands cradled the book against his chest. It looked even more tiny in his long-fingered hands. The red mark stood out against the brown skin on the back of his hand, and for a moment Finduilas thought the scratch was going to start bleeding as his hands had in her vision.
'You are certain you are but weary?' She could not look away from the red line.
'Yes. Did I not say so?'
The book with his hands clasped over it rose and fell with his breathing. A haunted tower, a dire fortress, carnage strewn across the land. The Enemy returns again. Her dreams of floods of armies and stone ships taunted her.
'Would that we could foil our foe so easily as they did.'
'Lúthien and Beren. And Huan. It was just these few against the greatest Enemy, and they brought him low.'
Denethor's brow knit and he shook his head. 'But what is it that they did? They took from him a bauble, a bit of treasure, and they stirred up his wrath beyond measure. The treasure returned brought kin-strife and destruction down upon their peoples. It was a great and glorious deed to reclaim a Silmaril, but did it in truth cost them and their peoples more than it cost the Enemy? '
'What did they do? They hoped and they dared! And forget not that the gem they retrieved did not merely divide. It lit the way for a plea to the Powers, and brought about the salvation of those who remained.'
'You will forgive me if I think not much of a salvation that left free the Enemy we now face,' Denethor acerbically replied.
'Their deed was not done in knowledge of what would come after,' Finduilas countered, 'but in hope of what might be. And most important of what should be was their own love. Do you set at naught the joy they had in each other?'
'No, no. But, you see, they did not…'
'… destroy the Enemy, no, but they did bring him low, and they did what none would believed could be done, and they were rewarded with a life renewed both for their deed and for their love. What matter that the Enemy persisted? That was not their part of the tale. It was for others to do.'
Denethor subsided into thought, fingers drumming absently on the book. 'So scant a measure of time, even so.' He spoke as though to himself. 'Not even two score years.'
'And forever after. They did as they could, and they gained not a gem, but each other.'
Denethor did not even open the book when he spoke this time. His hands closed tightly around the small volume and he gazed off into an unseen distance.
A night there was when winter died;
then all alone she sang and cried
and danced until the dawn of spring,
and chanted some wild magic thing
that stirred him, till it sudden broke
the bonds that held him, and he woke
to madness sweet and brave despair.
Finduilas wondered if Denethor had meant to speak aloud. He did not seem aware that she and Aiavalë were present. The silence stretched on. She cleared her throat and said, 'I must apologize for sending you off with a work you already knew by heart. I had hoped to give you something new to learn.'
He gave her a distracted look, still caught in his own thoughts. 'But I like this poem.'
'Even so, there is much that is dark about it.'
'It suits,' he stubbornly replied. Then yawned widely.
'There is room here, if you wish to retire now,' Aiavalë offered. Denethor shook his head, and stood, slipping the book into a pocket.
'I have to walk Alquallë back and then I must return home.' He shot a resentful glance at the Archivist.
'Really, friend, you need not walk down another circle! If you insist I not walk by myself, then Beregar will suffice.' Denethor shook his head. He leaned down and gave Aiavalë a kiss on the cheek, then motioned for Finduilas to stand. The two women looked at each other and began laughing.
'Courtesy amuses you?'
'You amuse us, little brother, because you are a foolish man with less sense than a donkey.'
'Good night, Aiavalë.'
Finduilas took his arm. Denethor paused near Beregar as they walked out and told the young man to see him after the first bell the next day. Night had fallen though the air was still hot. A few times, Finduilas thought Denethor was swaying a little as he walked. She hoped it was wine, not weariness, because walking would help clear his head of the former.
As they neared the gate to fifth circle, Denethor asked, 'How go your plans to befriend the great captain?' His tone was mocking.
'It is not much of a plan, friend. I simply cease glaring at him and speak civilly to him. I did tell him he had to stop staring at me if he wished any conversation.'
Denethor snorted. 'And how did he take that?'
'I do believe he was embarrassed that he had shown such bad manners. He has stopped staring.'
'And you converse?'
'Not really. There is not much he wishes to discuss.'
'The poor fellow is dazzled by your charms, no doubt.' This was said with a certain edge.
'I had a talk with Brandir.'
'He wished to know why I was not dazzled by the captain's charms.'
'So I said I did not know enough about the man to like or dislike Thorongil. Brandir said he would tell me whatever I wished to know.'
Denethor stopped and faced her. His face was all lines and hollows in the moonlight, and his eyes glittered. 'What did you ask?'
'I asked for proof that he was not one of the Steward's bastards.'
'Is there proof?'
'Brandir showed me a letter to himself from King Thengel. This was before anyone would have known anything of Thorongil. According to Thengel, he came across the Isen in the company of someone named Gandalf.'
'That is Mithrandir.' She nodded, unsurprised.
'Thengel names him one of the Lost.'
'Where is this letter? Why do you think it is real?'
'It was in a locked trunk in Brandir's study.'
'He has the key on him?'
'No, in a desk drawer…'
'But why do you think it is a real letter?'
'It was tied in a bundle with a number of other similar letters, with a dark green ribbon. The paper felt old, and the ink was faded. It mentioned Thorongil only in passing, and by an odd name. I think it an actual letter.' Denethor took her arm once more and they resumed walking. When they arrived at Vinyamar, Denethor bid her good evening and left at once.
Characters introduced in this chapter, in order of appearance:
- Sador – OC. Old doorward for the Stewards House, 85 years old.
- Lily – OC. Beregar's second eldest sister, 21 years old.
- Ælric Wanderer – Aragorn's Rohirric name borrowed with permission from Dwimordene's Lie Down in Darkness.