In which a family trait is considered, a monster is revealed, and someone changes his mind.
Minas Tirith, Mid June, 2974 T.A.
For a while the dreams had stopped, but they reappeared with the oppressive heat of the early summer. Muggy air filled her lungs the way the water in the dreams would envelop her body. Finduilas woke, choking, gasping for air, and rolled out of bed to kneel on the floor, bracing herself with her hands as she coughed, and coughed, and coughed, trying to clear the yellow-white phlegm from her throat. Sometimes the dreams would be cleared away as well when she had finished, and sometimes they would cling, like the residue in her throat, a constant irritation she could neither ignore nor be rid of.
Her dreams were always about water. As a child, they were of herself, standing on Tower of Dol Amroth, straining to look beyond the curve of the Sea. Her father teased her that the line of Galador could see along the Straight Way, though they were barred from traveling upon it, and might glimpse the towers of Avallónë. Finduilas spent many hours upon the tower, seeking the towers, but only in her dreams did she espy them, glittering with gems at the edge of her sight. That was the only dream of note she had until the spring of her eighteenth year when the Sea rushed in to her heart and mind, and made her breath like water.
They came quietly at first. Finduilas dreamed of walking to a quay beside her king and placing an evergreen wreath upon the bow of his ship, watching the ship sail down Anduin or out of a great bay. Then came the storm-wrack, and she felt herself standing upon a high place or flying along in a buffeting gale. Ships were tossed and thrown about by the Sea, and over all of them was an eagle, wings outstretched as though to keep the worst of the storm from overwhelming the battered vessels. Her childhood dreams of a glimpse of Avallónë darkened and became her standing upon the tower, watching the waves climb up towards her. She would turn to run higher and the tower would turn into a steep hill, and she gasped as she ran to escape the waves. Sometimes the waves would wash her away, but more often the great eagle would stoop down from the heavens and snatch her up from the encroaching flood. Together they would watch the fragile ships make their way to a haven.
The waves would reach up for her, slapping at her. Sometimes she would be knocked from the eagle's grasp, sometimes her would simply let her go. If not, he would bear her to the top of a great battlement that overlooked a wide plain or would leave her upon the pinnacle of a tower, surrounded by wasteland. In either place the flood would follow her, seeking for her, but turned to black, crawling armies swarming over the earth, crashing and breaking upon fortress walls as the Sea did upon the quay in Dol Amroth.
When the ship bearing herself and her family from Pelargir had docked at the Harlond in mid-April, Finduilas had lost her breath. There, against the side of the mountains, were the battlements where the eagle set her down. Minas Tirith. It was exactly as she had dreamed. She coughed so hard at the sight she coughed up blood. Her dream that first night had been of herself standing upon the highest wall of the city, though no eagle appeared. Instead, she watched the gulls circle near Anduin and greet the storm-tossed ships. There was a weight upon her head like a crown or a helm, a pull upon her girdle like a child or a sword, a heaviness across her shoulders like a heavy cloak or of water, pressing her downwards into its salt-cold embrace.
Then, there had been no more dreams for all the weeks of May and into the growing heat of June. Not of water, nor of high places, nor of an eagle stooping down. When the thick damp of early summer descended, the dreams returned. Almost every night she ran up the steep slope and felt the talons grasp her shoulders. Always she was dropped upon the desolate pinnacle in the middle of a waste awash in armies. But the first dream in the summer dampness, the one that came to her a fortnight before and heralded the return of floods and pinnacles, that dream had been most odd.
Finduilas walked out of the dark towards an irregular circle of light. A man was silhouetted against it. As she approached, the light began to move like water and took upon itself the colors of fire and the sunset. As Finduilas came closer, she thought it was Thorongil with his back to her, gazing at the light. She moved to the side to look at his face, and realized it was not the captain, but Denethor, the jeweled light of the water-fire playing across his face. She backed away, unsettled by her confounding of the two men. The color faded from the curtain of light, leaving only the pale gleam of the moon. Denethor turned away from the waterfall and walked towards her, the silvered light casting a faint nimbus about him, but his features were obscured in the darkness. Just as he was about to pass her, he paused and turned to look at her. One half of his face caught the soft moonlight and looked weary and sad; the rest was in shadow. After a moment, he smiled a little and went on into the darkness. She tried to call to him not to go and had woken herself with coughing.
She gasped for breath as this night's coughing spasms ebbed. Slowly, Finduilas pulled herself over towards the bed and sat back against it, willing herself to calm so she could breathe. The windows let in a good deal of light, warning of the impending sunrise. Finduilas drew one long careful breath after another until the rasping in her chest subsided. Only then did she stand up and walk to the small table where a small flagon of water sat next to a wooden cup. It took several cups of water to wash away the sticky feel in her throat and mouth.
As she stood and swished the tepid water around in her mouth, she pondered her dream. It had been the dream of the dark pinnacle, not of Denethor. She had never dreamed of any specific person before aside from herself and a few fleeting dreams of her family. Finduilas knew she would not be able to return to sleep, so she set about washing and dressing for the day.
Why Denethor? That dream made little sense. When have your dreams ever made sense, girl? she chided herself. You came to Minas Tirith to make sense of them. Father came for counsel, Imrahil came to learn an heir's tasks, Mother and Ivriniel came to make a match for her sister (though Mother ended up spending more time talking politics with Father than anything else), but she came to learn about herself and her dreams.
Finduilas had written to the Master Archivist of Minas Tirith ere they set out, requesting that she be allowed to look into the treasure trove of scrolls and records housed in the library. Until she arrived and met Aiavalë, she had not realized that the Master Archivist was a member of the Steward's family.
What a marvelous treasure you have in Lady Lore! The first day after arrived, Finduilas went to the building that fronted the Archives, and presented herself to the Master Archivist. The lady's veiled silence had been disconcerting at first. The sincerity of her own questions had broken through the other's wary regard so that they were soon talking with little restraint. Aiavalë's slurred speech was difficult to understand at first, but the older woman took pains to speak slowly and as clearly as she could and presently Finduilas found herself overlooking the distortions. The Archivist had even agreed to guide her to the Stewards House in the Citadel for the audience with Lady Emeldir.
During their interview in the front building, Lady Lore had explained why Minas Tirith's archives had always been the finest in all of Gondor, even at the height of her glory. Natural dry caves went deep into the mountain at the back wall of the sixth circle directly under the Citadel. King Anárion had them lined with cedar and oak, making them even more secure from dampness, and used them to store all important documents of Gondor. Cats padded silently within the caves, disposing of any rodents or large insects they happened upon. Nothing had been kept for any length of time in Osgiliath due to river dampness, nor in Minas Ithil due to the attacks of the Enemy, so almost all the records of Gondor survived the various calamities that had befallen the realm over the centuries.
That afternoon, she had been allowed to accompany Aiavalë on the Archivist's daily review of the caves. Several cats escorted Lady Lore about on her rounds as dutifully and solemnly as guard mastiffs. They had visited for several hours and Finduilas did not think the archive terribly dusty, though the air was close. The sheer size of the collection dazzled her, and she despaired a bit at finding anything. Aiavalë laughed, a clear, musical sound, assuring her that she would teach the girl the ordering of the scrolls and books.
Mostly Finduilas had been amazed at the Archivist herself. She had heard rumors of an oldest child born to the Steward, deformed and hideous to look upon. It always sounded as though the unfortunate creature had died in childhood, but this was obviously untrue. Aiavalë was older than her father, Adrahil, and did not look to be in danger of dying anytime soon. The older woman eschewed a crutch or cane so as to keep both her hands free and she walked swiftly even with her lurching gait. Her thoughts were as well ordered as the shelves and bins of the archive. Perhaps it was their love of old things and obscure tales, but they became dear to each other within a few short days, and Finduilas spent every moment she could in the company of this new-found elder sister.
Finduilas dressed slowly to avoid setting off another coughing spasm. She would break her fast with Aiavalë in the lady's suite at the Stewards House as they usually did. Afterwards, they would spend the day in the cool, dry archive. Even if the air was sometimes close, it was the most comfortable place in Minas Tirith for Finduilas to be. Late afternoons and evenings were usually given over to attending her family, though she was sure twice a week to make the long trek down the mountain with Aiavalë to the archery yard. The Archivist's aim was no less precise than her knowledge of Gondorian history, though her arms were not strong enough to use a longbow.
This evening would be different, however. Aiavalë had invited Finduilas to sup with herself and the High Warden, Denethor. He had returned the day before from a month's time in the field, overseeing the defenses in Anórien and North Ithilien. Father and Imrahil were both south with Captain Thorongil, surveying the condition of the southern defenses. She, Mother and Ivriniel were due to depart the City within a fortnight, leaving the muggy inland and returning to the gentle air of the falas.
Finduilas frowned at that thought. As much as she longed for the beauty and gentle climate of her home, Finduilas had not yet uncovered the meaning of her dreams and she was loathe to depart. She was also loathe to lose the company of Lady Lore, who did not find it odd that a pretty young girl would prefer to spend her days puzzling out obscure words than flirting and gossiping. Be fair, Finduilas! Mother does not think it odd, either. You allow Ivriniel's teasing to affect you more than it should. And it is odd. You should prefer the company of young men to old scholars! Even so, she wished she did not have to leave.
Casting a light shawl across her shoulders to ward off the morning's chill, Finduilas quit Vinyamar in the fifth circle and made her way up to the seventh. The Tower Guards nodded to her courteously as she bade them good morning, though holding their stern silence. As if sprung from the stone of the Citadel itself, like they say is true of Dwarves. Why should they not greet me in return? She had asked Aiavalë this once, and had silence and a quirked eyebrow as a reply. The City was noisy, bustling about its business, but there were great silences in the converse of the people, like the silence of the Guards. Father had once remarked that silence was often more truthful than speech, and to give as much heed to what was left unsaid as to what was said. After the last few weeks in Minas Tirith, Finduilas finally understood what her father meant.
Finduilas took her time climbing up the steep stair to the top of the wall, as much to avoid a turned ankle or painful fall as to keep her breathing steady. Once upon the wall, she paused, gazing out across the Pelennor. Why did the eagle set me here? That was what she wished to learn. There must be a reason I am placed here. Or there. She let her gaze go east, towards the Ephel Duath, and strained to catch a glimpse of a dark spike rising up from a blasted plain, as though the Straight Way reached eastwards as well and would grant her a vision of the evil spire that she knew lay beyond the shadowed peaks. Even though the sun was well risen, Finduilas shivered a bit and pulled her shawl more tightly around her. I cannot leave until I know the reason.
The scenes were simple enough to place. Who among Dúnedain would not know Akallabêth? A wreath of safe-keeping. An Eagle of Manwë guarding the ships of the Faithful as they made their way through tempest to safety. The doomed last race of Tar-Míriel. Barad-dûr. In truth, the only thing she had not known for certain ere this journey was Minas Tirith itself, and that had been answered upon the dock under the circling gulls.
No, the mystery that remained was why the eagle plucked her up, and where the eagle chose to cast her down. These things she could not puzzle out. Was this a fate? A punishment? Naught but a girl's fancy? The answers were to be found here in Minas Tirith, though not perhaps in the archive. I cannot leave! Not yet. Finduilas drummed the parapet with her fingers, then sighed and continued on her way. She let herself in by the wall door and exchanged a cheerful greeting with the matron as she walked down to Aiavalë's rooms. They were at street level so the Archivist would not need to clamber up stairs.
'Finduilas! Hello, my dear girl. You are early.'
'Not too early, I hope, Lady Lore!'
'Never. I fear I have not yet sent for our meal, so you shall need to wait.' Aiavalë embraced Finduilas before limping over to pull a bell rope made of a braid of hair. 'Come now, sit with me and tell me what you learned yesterday.'
'You mean at the dance.'
'What else, girl? I know what we learned yesterday.'
'That Sedge has four new kittens and that you can mix any kind of glue without measuring.'
Aiavalë's face wrinkled up in a tortured grimace that Finduilas knew to be a delighted grin. 'All good and valuable things to know, of course. Now, tell me what Beruthiel is up to.'
'You're the one with the cats, Lady Lore!' Finduilas teased, then settled in to recount the prior evening's gathering at the house of Lady Maiaberiel. The women sat for a quarter hour while Finduilas spoke of who was currying favor with Maiaberiel (everyone) and to whom she gave her attention (few). It had been a relatively decorous gathering. Finduilas had been groped only once during the festivities and not so crudely that she could not ignore it.
She had been shocked at first by the licentiousness and frivolity of the nobles in Minas Tirith, and then had been more shocked to see how thoroughly Ivriniel adopted their manner. Luinil had not been pleased with this state of affairs, engendering a number of arguments with her eldest daughter. It had been difficult to understand at the start, either the decadence of the denizens or her sister's bedazzlement, but the answer had come slowly, a little more each day that Finduilas stood on the wall and looked east at the sunrise.
It was one of the startling silences of the City; one would think the city was shouting all that needed to be known aloud, but the truth was ever so quiet. The nobles and notables, the shop-keepers and the craftsmen, even the orphans and the beggars, all made a great deal of noise to cover what could not be said. All looked inward and nearby to avoid seeing the darkness on the horizon.
A light tap at the door let them know that breakfast had arrived. Aiavalë pulled a light veil over her head, covering her face, while Finduilas answered the door and took the tray from the serving boy. The older woman tossed the veil aside as soon as the door was securely closed. Finduilas set the tray on a low table and began setting out their meal.
'You are the best addition I have made to my spies in a number of years, Alquallë.'
Finduilas smiled and handed Aiavalë a cup of tea with a dollop of honey in it. 'It does not seem so great a thing to watch fools trying to fool each other.'
'Fools they may be, yet their foolishness endangers us all,' was the tart reply. 'They stir up resentments and seek indulgence. Denethor tells me of officers who carry their quarrels out of the walls, and of city men who think it better to hire mercenaries than to risk their own pampered hides. You can tell me who is quibbling with whom, and I can warn my brother.'
'Surely it is not a great matter to learn such things, Aiavalë,' Finduilas answered, 'for this is not done in secret.'
'But none speak to me of it, for fear of me or for fear of my sister, and all are solemn when Denethor is near, for they know he will not permit such things in his presence.'
Finduilas sipped her own tea and ate a slice of toasted bread with some plum preserves, thinking. 'Mother says she does not remember the City being in such a spirit so long ago when she and Father were just wed, and they journeyed to Minas Tirith to pay respects to the Steward, Lord Turgon.'
Aiavalë sighed. 'No, Alquallë, this has not always been the mood of the City. I, too, remember a more continent time. After the Nameless One took up again his dwelling,' here the woman jerked her head eastwards, 'a dread came over the City, and a carelessness. Why labor so that the Enemy may take? Why build what will be despoiled? They acted as though they already lived among ruins and in defeat. Then Maiaberiel grew impatient with the sorrow and demanded that cheer return. Now they revel and say they laugh at the Shadow, living in mirth. They spend themselves grossly and nobility is forgotten. Were we in a time of peace, it would not matter that the customs of Atanatar held sway, but we are not.'
One look at the wrathful, inward-looking expression on Aiavalë's face let Finduilas know that further conversation was not advised. The two sat in silence, finishing their meal. The Archivist quickly veiled herself for work, wrapping her lower face and her hair with a thick scarf, but leaving her eyes uncovered, and the two set out. After they had left the Citadel and were almost to the building in front of the caves, Aiavalë reached out and patted the younger woman's shoulder.
'I am sorry, Finduilas, for being so sharp with thee.' Finduilas took the other's stunted left hand and smiled.
'I take no offence, big sister. Thou art too dear to me to hold any complaint. Forgive me for saying troubling things to thee at daybreak.' Aiavalë squeezed her hand in return and the two walked the last few dozen yards hand in hand.
They were greeted, as always, by Lark, a young woman who acted as doorward to the archives. She greeted the two women gravely, and Aiavalë responded in kind. There was no frivolity among the archivists – Aiavalë would not permit it. They made their way to the Archivist's small office, a spare, cedar-lined room with a huge rack of scrolls, a heavy bookshelf fitted into a niche in the wall, and a neat desk. And a half-dozen cats impatiently awaiting their mistress's arrival. They first checked on Sedge and her kits in a cozy wicker basket under the desk, then greeted each cat in turn. Properly acknowledged for the day, the animals wandered off to perform their duties.
Finduilas pulled on the thin gloves waiting for her and began placing some of the scrolls in the rack into flat, wide wicker baskets. The baskets' handles were wrapped with colored thread to indicate where in the archives the content of the basket should go. She still had to consult the index for a reminder of where certain documents belonged. Lady Lore had no such need, nor did most of the older archivists. The rack held Aiavalë's own current inquiries as well as the documents requested of the archive the prior day. Each was examined for damage, then placed in a basket to be reshelved. Most of the requests were for recent scrolls – harvests, taxes, births – and were made by counselors to the Steward. A few were for old family records or contracts, for this was the safest place in the City for storing such things. One of the bones of contention between Aiavalë and Maiaberiel, or so Aiavalë said, was that the former would not allow the latter to delve into this information.
The Archivist sat at the desk and began to go through the document requests resting in a small basket near her right hand. None were permitted to touch the books, papers and scrolls without her permission. Those requests she approved earned her signature and were dropped into another basket. The Steward's requests were delivered directly to him, while the others would be collected by archivists and placed in small reading carrels in the building that fronted the caves, or else were copied and delivered to the requestor. Open fire, liquids and ink were not permitted near the originals. Lady Lore had explained on Finduilas' first visit that the archives were modeled on a great Elven library that had once existed in the north, and had been described to Anárion by his sire.
Finduilas jumped and nearly dropped the basket she was taking to the rack outside the door when Aiavalë let out an explosive curse. The Archivist was holding a request in her hand, glaring at it as though it were an enemy. Finduilas could see the broken white seal of the Steward on the edges of the paper.
'Of course, my Lord Steward! Whatever the Captain counsels, so it shall be,' the older woman snarled at the request, then slammed it down on the desk and scrawled her signature upon it. Aiavalë grabbed a small bell off the desk and rang it savagely. Within a minute, an archivist peeked around the corner of the door. Aiavalë thrust the offending paper at the man.
'Take it! See he is given whatever he requests, as the Lord Steward has commanded. But I want an accounting every night of whatever he touches.'
'Yes, Mistress.' The archivist calmly took the proffered item, bowed, and disappeared as silently as he had arrived. But he was back very soon.
'It says that he is to be allowed directly into the caverns themselves.'
'That is correct.'
The man stood for a moment, considering, then nodded. 'A very careful accounting will be made, Mistress.'
'I expect no less.'
He bowed again, and slipped away. Finduilas went back to her tasks, greatly curious. Another silence, another mystery. It is not any of your business, goose! She kept her faced composed and concentrated on her task. As the morning went by, the incident faded from her mind. Requests were approved, documents were whisked away to be reshelved, and soon she and Aiavalë were poring over a few parchments they had put together during the last several weeks about dreams and prophecies that referred to Akallabêth. Sedge purred in her basket below the table while her kits mewed and suckled.
'It appears that dreaming of the Downfall is rather popular,' Aiavalë absently noted, reaching down to rub Sedge's ears.
'Yes, and it always precedes dire things.' Finduilas had told the Archivist about her dreams, though not about the one that involved Denethor.
'Or nothing at all. I fail to see any connection between such dreams and calamities,' the other responded. 'One could just as easily say that dreams of the flood presage good news as bad. And none we have found are as specific as your own, little sister. These are but dreams of drowning, not of salvation.'
'I think not I would call being plucked up by a great eagle salvation, Lady Lore,' Finduilas countered, 'particularly when the bird seems as pleased to leave me in dire places or else drop me into the Sea as to bring me here.'
'Were you brought here by an eagle?' Aiavalë's voice was absent, but Finduilas knew what she was asking.
'Not everyone is enamored of Captain Thorongil, as estimable a fellow as he may be.' She knew her words were a bit waspish, but Finduilas did not care. In truth, Aiavalë had struck too close to the mark. There were few in Dol Amroth who had not heard tales of the great captain and his remarkable victories over Orcs and Southrons in South Ithilien. Part of Adrahil's reason for coming now to Minas Tirith was to meet this notable man and take his measure. Finduilas had wondered if there was a connection between her dreams and this strangely named man. The man's mysterious origin drew attention, and the Steward's great favor encouraged speculation. One rumor had it that Thorongil was the Steward's own bastard son, unacknowledged only out of respect for Lady Emeldir.
When he and Denethor had walked in to Lady Emeldir's sitting room that late morning, Finduilas could well believe the rumor. The two men who followed her father into the room were as like to each other as she was to Ivriniel, perhaps more so. They were dressed almost identically, with hair and beards bound and trimmed in the same manner. They were the two tallest men she had ever seen and their carriage was graceful and dignified. They were both kings to Adrahil's prince. It had been fascinating to watch the two of them greet Luinil and Ivriniel. It was as though Thorongil was a magnet and they bits of metal.
Finduilas had not been prepared for Denethor. No one spoke much of the High Warden – all word was of the Captain. When she took Denethor's hand and looked into his face, she was startled at the weariness and sadness there, veiled by his grim and stern expression just as Aiavalë's face was veiled by her scarf. But, as with his sister, his eyes said what his words did not, and Finduilas felt compassion for one so burdened and offered her hand in friendship.
Greeting Thorongil had been scarcely less startling. The intensity of his gaze had frightened her. She felt pierced by his stare and for a wild moment imagined he could see her dreams. Then she looked back into him and did not much care for what she saw. As with the Warden and the Archivist, there was veiling, but it covered something high and remote, as an eagle hides against the sun. The obscuring of himself was for his own sake, and there was something hinting of deceit within it. She felt not charmed but hunted under his look, and had replied coldly to warn him off. For the week after, whenever they met, she had determinedly ignored how he stared at her and had been very glad when he left the City and returned to his command.
Aiavalë laughed a little. 'I begin to think you a great, hissing goose, not a little swan, Finduilas. You may be the only person in Minas Tirith who is not in love with our grand Captain.'
'Besides yourself and your brother.' And Lady Emeldir, but that would not be kind to say. Finduilas tried to keep her voice light and teasing.
'And so you show how unusual you are, little sister. Perhaps you frighten your eagle, so he leaves you where you cannot do him harm.'
'I do not think there any great connection between the eagle in my dreams and the Captain. It is as coincidental as these dreams of Akallabêth and the good or ill that followed.' Do I really? Is there no connection? Finduilas hoped her doubts did not show on her face. Aiavalë's mocking look said that they did.
'The same spring that Thorongil arrives in Minas Tirith, you start dreaming of eagles. Is that not a connection?' Finduilas threw up her hands in annoyance.
'Very well, then! As you wish, Lady Lore, I am dreaming of the Captain. There! Tell me what it means. Aside from being infatuated with Thorongil, which I assure you is not so!'
Aiavalë sat silent, eyes glittering above her scarf. Finally, she said, 'I think that depends on whether these are dreams of you, of him, or of the City.' She was silent again for some time. 'I do not think them of him. Not directly. I think they speak of a choice.'
Finduilas considered telling Aiavalë of the dream she had of Denethor. No. Not yet. 'I see little choice in the dreams. I do not command the eagle. I simply suffer what it wills.' Floods follow on my heels and I am captured by them, or left to watch their assault. She shivered a little at that.
A soft tap at the doorway brought them out of their thoughts. The doorward, Lark, stood in the entrance, looking worried.
'Mistress, your lady sister is here.'
Aiavalë was on her feet in a trice. 'Where?'
'Second cavern. She demanded to speak to Wren.'
'Did she now? Thank you, Lark. I will attend to the matter.' The Archivist quickly set out, Finduilas at her heels. They went swiftly through the building, and passed through a gate into the second left-most of the long caverns. The racks of paper and parchment absorbed sound, so their approach was masked.
Aiavalë held up a warning hand as she looked around the end of a rack. They slowly walked towards two women standing under a lantern near the far wall. Maiaberiel had her back to them. Facing them was Lark's sister, Wren, and the poor woman looked miserable. She did not look up at their approach. They were soon within earshot.
'…and that is what I expect.'
'But I have no great wish to wed now, my lady.'
'What you wish does not matter. And why do you complain? It is as good a match as you could hope to make.'
'I know not this man, save by rumor, but I think there few worse matches to be had.'
'You will do as you are t…'
'Sister, what wickedness are you about on this day?' Maiaberiel slowly turned to face the Archivist. Her beautiful lip pulled up in a sneer, echoing the twisted face under the scarf.
'The Monster speaks. Well, it makes noise. I suppose one could puzzle speech out of it if one really wished.'
'My speech is less corrupt than your heart, Beruthiel. I asked you a question.'
'I am making a match for this misbegotten wench.'
'It does not sound she wants your matching. Go away.'
'I shan't be ordered about by you, Monster.'
'In these caverns, Beruthiel, the Monster rules. Even the Steward has said you may not countermand or disobey me here.'
'And welcome you are to this impotent realm. Tell me, girl,' Maiaberiel turned back to Wren, 'do you wish to stay in this dank hole for the rest of your days? Fetching and carrying for the Monster?'
'She answers to me, not to you, Beruthiel. Get you gone.'
'She answers to whomever can do her the most good or ill, Monster.'
'I answer to my mistress, the Archivist, not you!' Wren said with a flare of anger. Maiaberiel gave her a sharp slap.
'I am your mistress, bastard. But if you prefer the company of wretches and foul creatures and caves of dust and lies, I grant you leave to stay. Just know that if you turn down this match you turn down any match, forever. And not just for yourself, but for your trollop sister as well. Whores cannot afford to be picky. I expect your answer by sundown on the morrow.' Maiaberiel turned to sweep past Aiavalë and Finduilas. As she strode forward, the Archivist hooked one of her sister's legs with a foot, and sent the other sprawling on the floor. Finduilas retreated to Wren's side as Aiavalë grabbed the downed woman by her hair and wrenched her head back.
'You shall do nothing, you wicked woman!' the older sister snarled. 'This child has been wronged enough by the Steward's house, and you shall not compound that wrong with cruelty. Shall I tell our brother what treachery you are up to now?' Maiaberiel flailed at Aiavalë , ripping away the scarf and fighting free of the other's grip. She scrambled to her feet, hair and clothes askew.
'How dare you! I shall speak to Father about this.'
'Speak to Ecthelion all you wish, Beruthiel. He has washed his hands of all his mistakes, you and I included.'
'And left things such as this for me to handle. You are just jealous that none could be enticed to wed you. An Orc would flee in terror at the sight of you!'
'And would drop dead at the venom in your veins, should he take a bite. It is why you are barren, you know. No life could take root in so poisoned a vessel.'
Maiaberiel was momentarily speechless, then spat, 'Father will hear of this!' and stormed off. Aiavalë retrieved her scarf from the floor, chuckling.
'I have no doubt he will.' The Archivist rewrapped the scarf and limped over to the frightened young women. 'Wren, what did I miss hearing?'
Finduilas let the smaller woman go. They had held each other when the sisters fought, backing away but ready to dash in should Aiavalë lose her advantage. Finduilas was horrified at what she had just watched. She and Ivriniel could argue quite strenuously and had once even exchanged slaps, but this was beyond any sibling jealousy or argument. These women were enemies.
'I think you heard all that mattered, Mistress. Your lady sister proposed that I should accept the suit of a particular gentleman and I did not like the man she named.' Finduilas thought Wren sounded remarkably calm. She was not certain she herself could yet speak.
Aiavalë regarded the other two for a while. A cat crawled out from under the nearest rack and rubbed against her ankle. 'Do you believe she will make good on her threats?'
Wren shrugged. 'Perhaps.'
'Are you going to do as she says?'
Wren shrugged again. 'Perhaps. She threatened Lark as well, so I must speak to my sister before I may choose.'
'This sister says you should ignore Beruthiel's threats.' Wren and Aiavalë locked gazes, then the younger woman dropped her eyes.
'I will need to speak to Lark in any event. May I go, Mistress? I have tasks awaiting me.'
Aiavalë nodded and gestured for the woman to leave. Finduilas' head was spinning at what she thought she had heard. Dumbly, she followed the Archivist back to her office, and sat on the edge of the desk. Aiavalë closed the door, then leaned against it.
'Forgive me, Alquallë, for making you see that. It was wrong of me to have forced that unpleasantness upon a guest.'
'It was not of your making, Aiavalë. You have no need to apologize.'
Aiavalë stood silently then prompted, 'What would you wish to know?'
Finduilas shook her head slightly. 'There is nothing for me to know. It is clear to me that all is a matter of the Steward's house, and it is not my place to ask.'
'You will not last long in Beruthiel's clutches with such meekness, Finduilas.'
'I shall not be here beyond the next week,' she snapped in return, 'and I wish nothing to do with such a cruel woman!'
'You are leaving? When? Why?' Aiavalë sounded more distressed by this news than she had been by the fight with sister.
'Mother intends to return south to Dol Amroth within two weeks, Aiavalë. She always said that we would go when the summer set in. Though I would fain stay longer.' There, it was said, though after the fight, Finduilas was having some doubts about the wisdom of remaining.
'We shall speak to Denethor this evening, little sister, and see about how that may be arranged. But here is the answer to what you are too kind to ask. You know Wren and Lark to be sisters. They are my sisters as well.' Aiavalë sighed. 'Like other men in the City, my father has a number of bastards. Wren and Lark are the youngest, and the eldest is a bit older than Maiaberiel. None of their mothers are noble, or at least none that are known, though most are of pure blood. They are all girls, as far as is known. The older girls were married off respectably and quietly, for the most part, but the younger have become pawns of Beruthiel. I had hoped to keep Wren and Lark below her notice by having them here, and then find respectable men for them when they were of proper age. But the archive is no longer a haven, it would seem.' Aiavalë rubbed her eyes and sighed again, then looked up with a sharp glance. 'What other bastard would you ask of?'
Finduilas met her gaze evenly. There was no point in pretending she did not know what they were discussing. 'None, for you just said that all are girls.'
'All that are known for certain.'
'Then it is impertinent for me to ask of what is but rumor.'
'But the rumor persists, in part due to my sister's tales.'
'Why would she wish to undermine her own brother like that?'
Aiavalë nodded approval. 'You see the larger game. Why? Because Denethor detests her as much as I do, and she is worse than a fool. She wishes to rule untrammeled. She plays childish games with others' lives, and with the City's fate.'
'Is that what you would have me spy out?'
'Where she undermines our brother, yes. But I would also wish for your help in uncovering Thorongil's secrets.' Aiavalë cocked her head to the side and Finduilas knew she was smiling behind her scarf. 'Perhaps you will figure out if he is the eagle of your dreams, or just another of the Lost.'
'Well, first I shall need my mother's leave to remain behind when she departs. My father's, as well. I think Mother is eager to take Ivriniel away from your sister's influence.'
'Your mother has always struck me as a woman of uncommon good sense. It shall be arranged.' Aiavalë stepped forward and embraced the younger woman and Finduilas hugged her tightly. 'Do not let yourself be upset by Maiaberiel. She has no power over you, for you are too honest and kind-hearted to be tricked by her wiles. Now, Alquallë, take yourself back home and rest. Come to the house when it is time to dine. We shall sup on the roof, and have the grandest view in the City!'
The women kissed each other farewell and Finduilas went home. Luinil and Ivriniel were in the third circle, selecting cloth to be sent home and arranging trades with the cloth merchants for fine southern silks that were smuggled into Dol Amroth. War there may be, but there were always intrepid traders willing to risk the wrath of Harad, Umbar and the Dark Enemy to bring their goods north. Tiny ships, so flimsy Finduilas could scarce believe they would withstand the pounding of the Sea, would dock, and out would come the most amazing things from lands that had not known the footfall of Dúnedain since the glory of Númenor. These would be exchanged for wine and spirits, gems and coin, things that could bear the punishing journey south. Dol Amroth would in turn trade these delicacies with Minas Tirith, obtaining stout woolen cloth from Rohan, metal work from the forges of the City, and jewels and precious metals that made their way from Dwarves in the north.
The heat and dampness was enervating, so Finduilas lay down and rested through the muggy mid-day. If she stayed on in Minas Tirith, she would be able to spend all the day in the archives, which was much better than being above ground. Her cough kept her from any sound sleep, but she did manage to doze for a few hours. Ivriniel woke her and she spent the late afternoon chatting with the other two about their finds in the textile stalls. Mother was quite pleased at locating a merchant who dealt in very fine, warm wools from Eastfold weavers, and who could obtain it in large quantities. As the day waned, Finduilas dressed herself for supper and walked back up the mountain to the Steward's house.
Finduilas let herself in by the wall door, then realized that it would have been more proper to call at the front. Before she could go back out, she heard steps coming up from downstairs and saw Denethor enter the hallway. If he was surprised to see her halfway through the private rooms of the house, he did not let it show. Instead, he smiled slightly, and inclined his head.
'My la…, excuse me, Finduilas, welcome.' She was close enough now to see a small glint of amusement in his eyes, though she was not certain of its cause.
'Denethor, it is good to see you once again,' she replied sincerely, offering her hand. He hesitated a moment, then took her hand gently. His smile did not widen, but she thought it became a little more true, and his eyes were more kind than amused.
'Allow me to return the sentiment, Finduilas. I believe Aiavalë is awaiting us upstairs. Shall we go?' She nodded her assent, and he motioned for her to precede him up the stair. She was very pleased that she did not need to slow or halt on the climb, though she did have to pause once they made the roof and cough a little bit. Denethor's face was concerned.
'Are you well?'
'Oh, yes!' she assured him. 'Pay it no mind. It has passed and I am well.'
'Have you been to the healers?'
'Yes, I have. They say there is naught they may do, save give me draughts and potions to quell the coughs if they become too strong.'
'Surely there is more that may be done?' Denethor protested.
'No, I fear not. Pay it no mind, friend! Truly, I have lived with this so long I am no longer bothered by it.'
He gave her a doubtful look, then offered his arm and escorted her to a small arbor where Aiavalë sat. The older woman had a light veil draped around her neck, but her head and face were uncovered, and she smiled with delight at her guests. The white at her temples streaked back into her black, short-cropped hair, making her look as though she wore one of the helms of the Tower Guard. Supper was already laid out upon a low table – cold meats, greens and vegetables fresh picked, dense bread and yellow-green wine that tickled the back of Finduilas' throat when she drank it. They each greeted Aiavalë with an embrace and a kiss on the cheek before taking their seats.
Finduilas wondered at the change that came over Denethor as he greeted his sister. There was warmth instead of sternness in his face, and affection was in his voice. His fingers brushed his sister's cheek in a light caress, then he took her hands while they exchanged a few pleasantries. It was not a great demonstration, and would have been unremarkable in someone besides the aloof Warden. His tenderness made him look younger.
Denethor insisted on serving the women, and they were soon sampling the meal. The mountains behind them threw long shadows over the City, cooling the heat of the day. Far off and below, the Pelennor spread out in a patchwork of greens, browns, golds and greys, little trails of dust rising from behind wagons and teams along the roads. Heat made the horizon shimmer, and the shadowed mountains seemed far off. Long tassels of purple flowers hung down from the vines that twined over the roof-top arbor – the vines themselves grew four stories up from the ground in front of the Steward's house.
'And how went the business of the day, brother?' Denethor's face lost its kindness, and resumed its usual severe cast.
'As it usually goes, sister. There was nothing of note. I spent most of the day speaking to the Lord Steward and the counselors about the state of North Ithilien. It is in the same state that it was three months ago, save it is summer, not spring. And the ferry to Cair Andros is working again.' His voice was cool, precise, with a hint of mockery. Aiavalë let out a small derisive snort. Finduilas knew another conversation was happening besides the one she could hear.
'Business in Minas Tirith is very much as usual, Denethor.'
'So what did Beruthiel do?'
'Tried to order about one of my archivists.' A flicker of anger crossed his face.
Aiavalë shrugged as Wren had done. 'She is still uncertain. Hareth is in her mind.'
'Do I need to pay a call on Beruthiel?'
'It would be advisable.'
Denethor sipped his wine, and nodded. 'Tonight. I have not visited our sister in too long. I think we need to be reacquainted.'
'Indeed.' Aiavalë sighed in exasperation. 'And things are more usual than ever, I fear. The Steward acceded to Thorongil's pleading and has ordered me to give Mithrandir full access to the archives. The wizard may come and go as he pleases, and may look into anything not specifically barred by the Steward.'
So that was what had upset Aiavalë so much this morning! Now Finduilas was more confused than ever. What little she had heard of the grey wizard had been approving. He was accounted wise, if a touch hot-tempered, and had never been known to do harm. Her father had once met him, and thought him trustworthy.
'Why should that be a bad thing?' The siblings looked at her with dark, cold eyes, and she swallowed, suppressing a cough. 'I mean, he is a wizard. Is it not right for someone of that kind to seek knowledge? He might learn something we need to know.'
'And there lies the problem, my lady,' Denethor's voice was patient, but a bit condescending, and Finduilas narrowed her eyes at him, 'for he is the one learning, yet we are the ones who should know. He pursues his own ends, which may not be ours. What is it that he seeks? He will not say, and in his silence does not show himself our friend.'
'Yet I have never heard tell that he is our enemy,' she countered.
'True,' Denethor said slowly, 'but a friend should demonstrate his friendship, not skulk about and seek duplicitous ways into his knowledge. Why does he not present himself to Aiavalë and ask for her assistance?'
'Would she give it?' The siblings stared at her again, then Aiavalë chuckled.
'No, I would not, so the wizard shows his wisdom in not bothering with the Monster who guards the treasure.' Aiavalë shook her head a little, laughing. 'You will need to learn more caution, Alquallë. But I forget! Brother, we need your help.' He raised an eyebrow. 'Princess Luinil is planning to depart for Dol Amroth after this week, and we need you to convince the Steward and the Prince to allow Finduilas to remain here with me.'
'And why should I do that? Should not the girl return with her mother if the visit is complete?'
'Because I wish for her to stay! And she wishes to stay! So you must do this for us.'
Denethor turned and looked Finduilas in the face long enough to make her uncomfortable, then asked, 'For what reason do you wish to stay, girl?'
'I have not yet finished my own studies, Lord Denethor.'
'And what do you study?'
'How to choose my friends.' A small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, and he gave her a small bow.
'I will speak to the Steward tomorrow. I doubt it will be permitted, but I shall make a case. The Prince is not in Minas Tirith anymore, is he?'
'He is in Pelargir with Thorongil, as you well know. You will have to ride there,' Aiavalë imperturbably replied. She sipped some wine and added, 'You will have to ride quickly.'
'I was bound for the south in a few days. I will simply go sooner. Again, I doubt any argument I offer will change their minds.' He turned his attention back to his meal, and the women followed suit.
Dusk was falling by the time they finished. Finduilas walked across the roof to look more directly over the City. The heat shimmer was gone, and the eastern mountains appeared sharp and dark. Why am I now only dropped there? The Ephel Duath seemed to spread a shadow towards her, and for a moment she thought she could see the gleam of armor in their darkness, as though her flood of armies was spilling out of the folds of the hills. She shivered a bit at the thought.
Then jumped when something dropped down across her shoulders. She whirled around, grabbing at whatever was clinging to her arms, and nearly ran into Denethor. She looked down at her arms to see her own shawl, and realized he had draped it over her. Her chest and throat seized up as she began coughing. She had to brace herself on the low wall that encircled the rooftop while she got the coughs under control. Denethor stood next to her, a hand on her shoulder.
'Finduilas! Finduilas, I am so sorry,' Denethor said worriedly. She waved away his apologies, concentrating on steadying her breathing. 'I did not mean to startle you. Aiavalë sent me over with your wrap and I saw you shiver, so I… I am sorry. That was thoughtless.' She was breathing almost normally again, and patted his hand.
'No, no, you did nothing, sir. That cough has been building all the while we sat.' She smiled at him. He did not seem reassured. He carefully sat down on the wall, ignoring the drop behind him, and took her hand.
'Are you certain?'
'Very much! Please think no more on it.'
'As you wish.' He watched her closely, the light faint. 'What shall we think of, then?' he said in a slightly forced tone, as though trying to be humorous.
She looked out at the eastern mountains. 'How do you bear that? The Shadow? You face it from sunrise to sunset, and then it looms in the darkness. I have been here but a short while and it crushes my heart. That is what made my throat close and my breath flee but a moment ago.'
'What is there to be done, my lady, save to bear up under its malice and to resist its evil?' His voice was firm, quiet. 'Though all be doomed, still one must hold to what is right.'
'Then you have no hope?'
'Hope? I know not what that would be. It seems to me that we are left to pick the manner of our ending, perhaps.'
'Is that why you do not marry, have no children?' The light was dim, but she could still see his expression change from serious to mocking. His voice, at first, was the same.
'To what fate would I leave my children?' His voice shifted and it became scornful, superior. 'Truly, girl, is it so difficult to see beyond the charm of dances, flirtation and wedding, and understand that the Enemy has returned? Since he took up again his abode in the Dark Tower, there can be no hope.'
His words stung, and she replied sharply. 'Then you admit defeat, even as the revelers at Beruthiel's party last evening have done! If there is no hope, but only a choice between grimness and gaiety, why not the frivolity of match-making? If the end shall be the same?'
'So why then do you sit in dark caves, girl?' he mocked, 'Why are you not about with Beruthiel's revelers and setting snares for the Captain?'
Denethor's mention of dark caves startled her. How did he know… ? He could not know of her dream of him, of course. He meant the archives. Even so, Finduilas was emboldened to speak of why she wished to remain in Minas Tirith, why she did not care for the loud parties hiding from their own silence. 'I have dreams, and I seek answers to them.'
'Really? Dreams? How interesting, but I do believe that others have dreams as well.'
'These are not ordinary dreams!' Finduilas knew how childish her protests must seem, but he was angering her with his mockery.
'If hope is what I require, can your dreams give them to me?' he said curtly. 'Can you see a way to victory, or even stalemate? Do you prophesy, Finduilas?'
'I saw you in a dream,' she began, but he cut her off.
'Oh, how delightful to hear. That is what every man would wish, to be in a fine young woman's dreams. I do hope I was not too much a rogue.'
Finduilas was silent for a long moment, mastering her anger and making sure she would not begin coughing again. The light of the moon was behind him, outlining his form, but darkening his face. Only his eyes gleamed. She moved to the side so he would have to turn, letting the moonlight catch his face. She could see contempt in the set of his lips and his eyes were hard.
'I walked out of a well of darkness, towards a ragged oval of light. You stood before it with your back to me, gazing at the light, which turned to a river of fire, like the sunset through a waterfall. You watched until the fire lost its colors of purple and scarlet and gold, turning into a silver river. You turned from the light and walked towards me, then past me. You stopped and looked at me for a moment, as you are now, your face caught in moonlight, then you walked on into darkness. I called after you, and you did not turn back.'
Denethor stared at her, all mockery gone from his face, then hoarsely asked, 'When? When did you dream this?'
'A fortnight ago.'
Denethor looked towards Aiavalë, then rose. 'I must speak with…'
Finduilas knew he wanted to speak with Aiavalë, as the Archivist claimed he did of all things important, and found herself very much not wanting this dream to be a topic of discussion between the siblings. Quickly she said, 'Your sister has never spoken of such a place to me, nor of anything like it, nor even has she spoken to me of you, save only in courteous passing.' She waited and he took again his seat on the wall. Why does this dream startle him? Because, somehow, the place, he knows it. It made her shiver. 'I have dreamed true.'
He nodded. Just when Finduilas thought that was the end of the exchange, he softly said, 'A fortnight ago, I was…looking at a light much as you describe. And you were in my thoughts.'
Finduilas laughed a bit. 'I? In your thoughts? Why should that be?'
To her amazement, he looked away. Were it light, she was certain she would see a blush on his cheeks. 'I was looking towards Minas Tirith, and thinking of what I hold dear. You… have been very kind to my sister, and I was thinking… that I was glad for you to be here with her. I have never seen her with such a friend before, never so happy as she has been these last few months.' Denethor looked back and caught her eyes, his face alabaster and jet in the moonlight. 'I am in your debt, Finduilas, for the tenderness you have shown her.' He studied her more, then nodded. 'Yes, I will see that you are allowed to remain here with her. Of course you must stay.'
Denethor rose and offered her his arm. 'We have left Aiavalë sitting alone too long. Let us return.' She took his arm and they walked back to Aiavalë. The woman veiled herself and they returned inside. Denethor insisted on walking Finduilas back to Vinyamar. They walked in silence until they reached the door. He bid her good night, waited for her to step inside her door, then disappeared into the summer darkness.
Characters introduced in this chapter, in order of appearance:
- Lark – OC, Doorward of the Archives of Minas Tirith, half-sister to Denethor, 30 years old.
- Wren – OC, junior archivist, younger full-sister of Lark, youngest half-sister to Denethor, 26 years old.
- Alquallë – "Little Swan" – nickname for Finduilas. My thanks to Nath for her help in researching this name.