Finduilas POV - 1 of 2
In which the queen chastises three of her faithful stewards and takes up again the contest with Beruthiel.
Minas Tirith, 1 September, 2984 T.A.
'My lady, sit,' Beregar murmured in her ear. 'It will be a long while.' Finduilas nodded but did not turn her head, her attention fixed on Denethor. Beregar positioned the chair behind her and guided her to sit. Boromir scrambled up onto his seat, his feet dangling a foot above the stone floor.
Adrahil and Imrahil were the first to approach and bow to Denethor, swearing their allegiance to him with one voice as their silver pates bobbed in unison. Next was Lord Farlong, fat, grey and stiff, leaning on the arm of his son Forlong. Behind them stood all of their adult kinsmen, who knelt with bowed heads as their lords swore an oath to bind their entire house in obedience to the Lord Steward. There were almost no women in the hall. This is not a place for women. Never has Gondor granted the queen a crown or even a seat. They have never forgiven Míriel for Akallabêth. The lords of Lossarnach stepped aside and another group of men took their place, these from the Pelennor. Knees bent, heads bowed, words echoed against the stone, cloth whispered as that group left and another took its place like the tide. Wave upon wave, breaking upon the walls, each one bearing away a part of what it touches.
Finduilas dug her nails into her palm, trying to keep her dreams at bay. At noontide, just before they came to the Tower, she had drunk two cups of her tea to strengthen her for this ordeal, and it was almost too much, coursing through her blood like brandy. So many eyes were upon her. She felt the Enemy's gaze keenly and longed for the mariner's net to hide her. At least the lanyard guards Denethor. It was difficult to look at him. Perhaps it was the lanyard, perhaps the tea, perhaps something else, but when Denethor had strode back into the hall, his robes gleaming in the shadowed room, it was as when he had come to Dol Amroth, newly touched by the mariner. He was beautiful and fierce, as tall as Tuor, a King from the Sea. I will be queen only if you are king. She marked the voices that had said "Nay" when she called for his acclaim and listened for them. Who of you will swear a false oath? Now Denethor sat upon the Black Chair, his white raiment glimmering in the darkening hall like mithril and fish scales, and the throne behind him shrank and dimmed, as though over-awed by the great man before it. The gems upon the White Tree caught the faint light in the hall and blazed from the shadows, the white flowers bobbing in an unfelt breeze, while the beautiful green leaves rustled against each other…
Stop it, goose! Finduilas wished she could stand and walk about to clear her mind of its fancies. Along the edges of the hall, servants came in bearing stands of candles and lanterns for the sconces. As the groups of men rose and returned to their places, they passed before Finduilas and Boromir and paused to bow to them. Boromir sat up straight despite his weariness and nodded gravely in return. A few lords went so far as to kneel. Those usually looked a long while at the stone bound to her brow, and their faces were filled with awe. She wondered what she looked like. "Mine, mine, my queen, precious," said the watcher, yearning to reach through cold crystal and brush his fingers across warm flesh. I am his, not yours. I have never been yours. Finduilas focused her attention on Denethor, refusing to heed the wishes of those who desired a queen. Save that you desire this more fervently than any. She wished there was some way to convince her stubborn husband that he was wanted and esteemed for his own sake. Gondor loves you even as I do, and we both have chosen you when there could have been another.
Brandir came forward and bowed to Denethor, saying something quietly after the oath and getting a slight nod from Denethor. When Brandir came to her and Boromir, he did not bow, but embraced and kissed Boromir.
'Still awake, nephew?' he teased in a whisper.
'Yes, Uncle,' Boromir answered, then yawned widely.
'Not too much longer, Morcollë. You are being very good,' Finduilas said.
Brandir gave her a kiss on the cheek. 'I took Aiavalë back to the house. Wren and Lark are with her.'
'Thank you,' was all Finduilas had time to say before Brandir had to step aside for the next lord. She watched her Fool go back into the crowd and find Maiaberiel. The woman stood amidst a knot of King's Men, speaking quietly among themselves and looking about for who might listen. None of them came forward. Are you so certain of your power that you can be seen flaunting your disobedience, Beruthiel? Evidently so.
Aside from Maiaberiel and herself, there were only two other women in the hall. Luinmir and Moraen walked up to Denethor, the tiny Lord of the Ringló Vale between them. You will remember neither sire nor grandsire. The thought made Finduilas swallow hard. She gave the little boy a solid kiss when Luinmir and Moraen brought him over, making him giggle.
'May we get you anything?' Moraen murmured.
'No.' Finduilas saw Maiaberiel staring at them. Not all fiends are in Mordor. 'Luinmir, be very careful while Beruthiel is…'
'She has already hissed at me. Borondir has seen to our guards.' Luinmir gave Finduilas a kiss. 'We return to the house now. Does Morcollë need to go home?'
'I'm staying!' Boromir fiercely whispered, crossing his arms over his chest, making Luinmir chuckle and tousle his hair.
Moraen leaned down and kissed Finduilas, then whispered, 'Is something amiss with Denethor? He is acting oddly.'
Before Finduilas could ask more, the women were pushed aside by some loutish lord from Pelargir. Finduilas dismissed him sharply and peered at Denethor. At first, all she could see was the touch of the mariner upon him, revealing his nobility and grandeur. Then she noticed that he was sitting oddly. His left hand held the White Rod across his lap, but the right hung straight down beside him. His gaze was straight ahead and did not see those who bowed and knelt before him, and he looked upon something that was not there. Every so often, his head would shift a fraction, as though cocking his head to hear something. She willed him to look at her. After several minutes, he blinked a few times before looking sharply at her. His expression daunted her and she had to drop her eyes and steel herself to look him fully in the face. When she did, his gaze had softened and he looked concerned, so she gave him her best smile to reassure him.
It was well past supper and Boromir was beginning to kick his heels against the chair in boredom and hunger before the last lord pledged his fealty to Denethor. Finduilas stood at once, determined not to let this drag on. There will be many audiences through the week, gentlemen. The cub needs to eat. Denethor also stood and walked towards the doors until he was opposite from where she and Boromir stood. He stopped and held out his hand to her. As she crossed the floor, the lords inside the hall took up the common chant – "Gon-dor! Gon-dor! Gon-dor!" – and she had to struggle to keep their voices that of men and not the snarling of Orcs. Boromir took his place to Denethor's other side and the three left the Hall of the Kings. Once past the metal doors, Denethor slowed and looked around. Somehow, Beregar was already in the outer hall, waiting for them.
'Morcollë,' Denethor said crisply, 'your mother must come with me to do one more thing. Go with Beregar and make sure that supper is laid and waiting for us when we return to the house.'
Boromir's face lit up at the prospect of going home and getting food. 'Yes, Father! Right away!' He grabbed Beregar's hand and began tugging the man along.
'Very clever, husband,' Finduilas laughed.
'Some account me wise,' he solemnly teased, eyes full of mischief. 'A walk through the court and upon the promontory, then home, yes?'
'Yes.' It was time to be seen.
A roar went up as they left the hall in the early autumn twilight. The sky above was still faintly blue, but Mindolluin had cast an evening shadow over the City. The court and walls were packed with people, and every bell, drum, and horn in Minas Tirith was in full use. Just as at their wedding, people made way for them to cross the court and ascend the steep stair to the Citadel wall. The sound, the tea and her hunger combined and she could not hold back the visions. She let the king help her stand upon the stone seat and be seen by the watchers. The ship plunged through the waves, thrown forward by the force of thousands of years of deeds and dooms to where it would dock and bring to an end their flight from downfall. Upon her brow was bound the Star of Erendis and its light cut a path through the gathering gloom. Her king, the true king, neither a silver demon nor a golden fool, stood at her side. A collar of thorns circled his neck and blood seeped through his mail. A great horn made from a conch hung upon his hip, fastened to a slender baldric of sea grass. His mantle was a net, rent in some places, and treasures of sunken ships and drowned lands were caught in it. His left arm about her waist was charred bone.
The Sea king touched her cheek, stroking her feathers. 'You're dreaming.' The voice was Denethor's and brought her back to herself.
'A vision, yes.'
Denethor helped her down from the seat and led them swiftly though the crowd along the wall and back home, shutting the Wall Door firmly behind them. Beregar and Aeluin were waiting in hall and took them to their respective rooms to shed their finery and be readied for supper. The table was full, but there was little conversation. Aiavalë's eyes were red and she picked listlessly at her food. The other sisters threw wary glances at Brandir and concentrated on the children. Boromir kept nodding and eventually fell asleep, his cheek pillowed on a slice of bread. Denethor's gaze was inward and he did not speak at all. The food made Finduilas feel somewhat restored, though the visions were close, causing things to appear in the corner of her eye.
The meal done, everyone retired. Denethor carried Boromir upstairs and put him to bed. For a moment, Finduilas wondered where Faramir was, then shrugged. Probably with Aiavalë and Brandir. She went to Denethor's study and waited. He came in before long and poured them wine before taking his seat at her feet.
'What did you see?' he asked.
'What were you hearing?' she countered.
'Voices. In the chair. All the voices of all the stewards. All of the terrible choices they have faced.'
Finduilas leaned down and hugged him. 'Give no thought to my visions, love. They were what they always were, just the sound of the crowd becoming that of an army.'
'Mmm.' They sat in silence. Denethor stirred and leaned his head back so he could look at her. 'You looked every inch a queen. You did!' he insisted when she opened her mouth to protest.
'And you were a lord as kingly as any who have ever borne that title, my love.' This made him blush and look away. 'My king, and I am not sharing!' Denethor laughed and tilted his head again to look at her, so she kissed his nose. 'I was not the only one who looked upon you thus, friend. You awed them and they swore their allegiance to you.'
He harrumphed. 'Some swore.'
'Who not? The King's Men? They are near outlaws. Beruthiel? It was for her husband to swear, not her.'
'Oh, she swore.' Denethor's voice was quiet and he looked away at the bare hearth. 'She swore to see us all dead.'
The hair on the back of Finduilas' neck prickled. 'When?'
'In the tomb. All the daughters were there. Even Morwen. Beruthiel spat upon her father's face and cursed us all.'
'I am not surprised she would do such a thing, given all the wickedness she has tried. I cannot think Queen Beruthiel was half so depraved as Maiaberiel. It is but spreading her malice.'
Denethor leaned forward, resting his chin upon his up drawn knees. 'When I am dead, he will return. That is her hope. Brandir said it, and he does not lie. A fool, but truthful.'
From the corner of her eye, Finduilas saw the mariner nod his head. He was not there if she looked directly at the other chair. She reached forward and embraced Denethor, trying to deflect the mariner's fate. His shoulders were taut, his hands clenched in fists. 'There are two hills that flank Rauros Falls,' she had to strain to hear his words, 'Amon Lhaw and Amon Hen. To sit in them…' He shivered and reached up to grasp her arms. 'What voices do they hold? What visions? I should have gone there. He went there, when he returned north.'
Denethor nodded. 'A seat for hearing, another for seeing. How far? All the way to the north? The palantír cannot. I should have gone there. I could see him, find him…'
Gracefully unfolding his long limbs, Denethor rose and went over to his desk, Finduilas following. He picked up the White Rod from where he had laid it when he changed for supper. 'This. He has made it false. All the oaths of a thousand years, and they echo like ghosts for he will not allow us to fulfill them.' Denethor's eyes were unfocused, as when he had been looking into the palantír, and his voice was intense, though quiet. I see the visions and you hear the voices. 'Only to die and bind another in our stead. Not even burial allowed to us.' He looked at her. 'Nor will you free me from these oaths.'
Finduilas reached up and twined her fingers into his hair, turning her face up to his for a kiss. 'How can I release you? You are mine.' Denethor let the rod drop back upon the desk with a thud and pulled her into a powerful embrace. She pressed against him and opened her mouth to his, hoping this would help bring him out of his enchantment. When they finally broke their kiss, she whispered, 'He is a fool to spurn his steward. I will cherish mine. Tell me, Steward, have you a boon to ask of your queen?'
Finduilas was not ready for the look of pain that came to Denethor's face. 'What you cannot give. To be not Steward, but only husband to you, and make you my only charge.' She let him pull her close again and nuzzle her hair. 'To keep the world and its cares away from you.' His hands caressed her. 'Will you stay? If you are weary, then not…'
'Yes, love, I will stay.' Across the room, the mariner sighed and shifted in his seat. Will you grant us the secret place? A net was hung about, confounding the watchers. About them, a cavern took shape, a waterfall of pearls and adamant drowning out the sounds of the world.
'Go wait. I'll be but a moment.' Finduilas went into the alcove, which became a deeper niche in the back of the cavern. A pallet made of bracken was tucked against the wall. The lamps in the study were extinguished, leaving only the light coming through the waterfall. When he came about the coarse curtain, Denethor's own inner light illuminated the space. Her feathers parted under his touch and fell onto the bracken, making the bed soft. She let him push her back upon the bed. 'They should not touch you. You are mine.' As he knelt between her thighs, his tongue was measured, knowing how to dissolve her resistance and drain her heart. He needs this. Still, she could not help but twist away and try to keep him from emptying her of life. Denethor was not satisfied until he had dragged her down into the pool below the falls, holding her there until she gasped for air and cried to be released.
She lay limply, trying to catch her breath and not cough, while Denethor peeled away the Sea-wrought mail that clung to him, leaving only the collar of thorn. He mounted her and soon found a languorous rhythm, like the soft lap of the tide on the shore of a shallow bay. 'I love you,' the waves whispered. 'Too many gone.' The waves were stronger, the whisper becoming a hiss as the tide pushed forward. 'Lost, leaving. Stay.' His hands gripped her, trying to find some purchase against the force of the rushing falls. 'Mustn't leave me.' She cried out again, feeling more of herself torn away.
Finduilas did not speak or open her eyes as he recovered his breath. Denethor curled up around her, pulling her feathers over them. But I will leave you, love. The tea was gone, the Tree was dead, and the king had not returned.
Minas Tirith, 5 September, 2984 T.A.
Finduilas was glad to set aside the cold pageantry of the Tower for the cheerful chaos of the Stewards House and concentrate on Aldwyn and Gethron's upcoming wedding. They were originally to have been wed on yáviérë but Queen Morwen decided there was no point in delaying as everyone was already in Minas Tirith. It was a much desired distraction from the dire thoughts and visions that had claimed her the last few days. In the few moments when she was not caught up in the wedding, Finduilas received the ladies who had traveled with their lords to pay their last respects to Ecthelion. A rather large number of them had elder daughters or younger sisters in tow, obviously brought along to make Finduilas aware of possible matches for Imrahil. You will have more dance partners at the wedding than you'll know what to do with, little brother. The ladies also brought gifts to smooth the way for small (and not so small) requests for consideration from the Lady. The ladies of the falas – Beriel, Arluin, and Rían – gladly jumped into the wedding work, running errands and playing maid without complaint. Hilda was Aldwyn's companion and chaperone, teasing her sister unmercifully about Gethron, while Ivriniel took command of setting Merethrond to rights, for which all were grateful. Morwen and Luinil spent most of their time in Vinyamar ignoring the hubbub and receiving their own guests. Aiavalë joined them, bringing along Faramir and whatever other stray children were roaming the Stewards House when she left in the morning. Brandir was her dutiful attendant and the children adored their Uncle Fool.
'And, of course, we will be back for mettarë, my Lady,' the bony woman with damp hands assured Finduilas, 'though I do wish I could convince my dear lord to remain through yáviérë!'
'I am sure Lord Hallatan would do so were not he so sorely needed in Pelargir,' Finduilas smoothly replied, leading the woman to the door.
'Oh, yes, he is very important there. Everyone looks up to him for leadership,' was the smug reply.
Everyone knows he can be bribed, you mean. With a smile, Finduilas shooed the woman out of the study. Wren and Moraen were waiting impatiently in the hall, arms full of reports and ledgers. The City might have a new lord, but the Lady's Grace continued as always. The two went over to Finduilas' desk and commandeered it for their work. As they settled in, Borondir came through the Wall Door, calling out a cheerful hello. Marriage had been very good for him. He always wore at least a hint of a smile and laughed for little reason. It was rare that he and Haleth were not bickering over something, but there was no rancor in their exchanges and a kiss usually ended it. Finduilas had feared that there would be hostility between Haleth and Moraen because of Borondir's original intention to wed the latter, and was relieved when the two became good friends. Moraen was often at their house. Wren had known the warehouse master from earlier dealings with the Lady's Grace and was tickled to have the woman as kin.
Borondir gave Finduilas a kiss. 'How are you, Finduilas? I hope you are not too weary.'
'No, cousin. I simply sit and enjoy watching everyone else work. It is delightful!'
'I promise to bore you to sleep with this,' he said with a grin, holding up the stack in his arm.
'The girl's chatter will keep me awake,' Finduilas assured him, motioning for them to enter the study.
'…and I can't get her to leave the archives!' Wren exclaimed, making Moraen laugh.
'She's just trying to avoid your sharp tongue!' Moraen countered with a grin, earning a mock slap from Wren.
'You would think she sees enough of an archive in Pelargir and would join us for some fun,' Wren continued.
'Lark?' Finduilas asked, taking a seat on the couch. She knew better than to get in their way at the desk. When they needed something from her, they would say so.
'And you are having so much fun, poring over figures and writing notes,' Finduilas teased, 'I just cannot understand why Lark might wish to do something else!'
Wren stuck out her tongue, and saucily added, 'I have a great deal of fun in the evening while you are tending your dour lord husband.' With all the visitors gathered in the City, there were a large number of parties and dances being thrown, and the wife of the Captain-General was considered a fine guest, all the more so as she was a favorite of the Lady.
'Well, tell me about them!' Wren did, but interrupted her account with questions and comments about the records they were going over, leading to some very amusing juxtapositions, while Moraen tossed in more delicious gossip of who was flirting with whom and what ridiculous things had been seen at Lady So-and-so's gathering. Finduilas laughed until she coughed, and was promptly scolded by all three to rest. 'Well, then tell me things that are not so amusing and I shall be serious!'
Moraen looked up from a ledger, face stern. 'Beruthiel is holding a party every night, and they well attended.'
'I know. Do you know who attends?'
'Mostly her own pack of mongrels, but Lord Duinmir was there last night. Lady Ivorwen of Pinnath Gelin is always there.' This last was said with disgust. The girl who is after Imrahil. I need to let Mother know. Moraen listed off a few more names of some minor lords, mostly from Pelargir and the uplands of Lebennin. Finduilas motioned for Wren to write them down. They would bear watching, especially the upland lords. She must not be allowed to gain a foothold outside of Anórien. Moraen gave a shake of her head. 'Lord Forlong and Lady Almiel were there, too, but I cannot see why. He is steadfast in his loyalty to the Steward.'
'I will speak to Lady Almiel and get to the truth of the matter.' It was odd to hear someone refer to "the Steward" and realize that it was Denethor, not Ecthelion.
'Oh, and the ugly man of the Rohirrim, he was there last night.'
'Ugly Rohirrim? Do you mean Master Gríma, the King's counselor?'
Denethor had told her what Brandir said of hosting the man in Minrimmon, so it was not completely surprising he would stay with them here in the City. Finduilas did not like the arrangement between Gríma and Maiaberiel any more than Denethor did. Whatever she was going to say in reply was forgotten when Beregar burst into the room, making them all jump. 'Huan, what is it?'
'Corsairs!' he gasped, trying to catch his breath. 'Just got… news from… messengers… Baragund is… marching with the… City garrison to Harlond.'
'Who is telling Denethor?' Finduilas demanded.
'Messenger, my lady.'
Borondir took Beregar's shoulder. 'How many ships?'
'Only one, not big. Full sails and coming fast.' Beregar cast a glance over his shoulder as though expecting armed men in the hallway. 'They are probably already at the docks.'
Finduilas stood. 'Let's go see.' Without waiting for a reply, she walked out onto the wall. The word was spreading quickly, for the City streets below were filled with people scrambling onto the walls for a look. She led the others towards the promontory. Below, in the court, she saw Denethor, so waited near the top of the stair until he joined her. People made way for them as they went to the end of the promontory. In the distance, barely discernable in the afternoon haze, was the Harlond. If she peered intently, Finduilas thought she could just make out a dark blot next to the whiter shimmer of Seabird. On the road to the harbor a troop of soldiers was moving quickly, their helmets and spears glinting in the sun.
'What think you, prince?' Denethor murmured.
'Not an attack, certainly. An envoy. Well timed.'
'Agreed. They have not sent one since…' Denethor paused to think, '…Beregond's assumption.'
'The last Steward who routed them.' They exchanged a glance. 'I think they wish not to be subject to your wrath again, my Lord Steward.'
Denethor did not answer at once. 'Perhaps. I am curious what they will ask for.' He looked about him until he saw Warden Hathol and called the man over. Hathol scurried up and bowed elaborately. Finduilas did not care for how the elder abased himself to Denethor, nor for his apprehensive manner. Ever since Ecthelion's death, the Warden of the Keys had trembled at the sight of Denethor. 'Warden, prepare guest quarters for the embassy from Umbar. There will be ten in their party.'
'How do…' Hathol's words trailed off under Denethor's cold gaze and the warden bowed deeply once again. 'Yes, my Lord Steward.' He was nearly running as he hurried away. I think you fear your master more than any Corsair.
Finduilas cleared her throat to get Denethor's attention. 'How do you know it will be ten?'
'One for each year of Castamir's reign.' He looked again upon the distant harbor before turning away and walking back towards the Tower.
Finduilas went with him as far as the steps, but turned aside to the Stewards House. On her command, Beregar went to fetch fifty of her guardsmen and had them march up to the Citadel. The Hunt was sent out to watch for the arrival of the Corsairs. It was near sunset before one of the pups dashed in, saying the embassy was within sight of the walls. Finduilas changed into one of her finer dresses and had Aeluin and Wren fix her hair and bind the dwarf stone upon her brow. They had just finished when Beregar knocked and said the Corsairs had entered the sixth circle. Finduilas went out the Wall Door for a second time. Hunthor had the guardsmen drawn up in ranks upon the wall above the tunnel, looking down into the Court of the White Fountain. She took her place before them. Below in the court, Tower Guards were at attention, Erellont at their head. Beside him stood Warden Hathol. The old warden bore little resemblance to the craven man who fled from his lord's cruel words, holding himself tall and bearing a great black staff capped with silver. Soon she heard the sound of feet in the tunnel.
First came Baragund, limping, but with his head held proudly. Behind him were several rows of soldiers. In their midst were five sets of two men, dressed in soft robes, their heads swathed in turban-topped veils, and bearing large, bejeweled scimitars at their sides. Their hands were encased in black metal gauntlets. They stopped before Hathol and Erellont, and one of them stepped forward.
It was too far away for her to hear what was said, though it was probably no more than a formulaic greeting. The Corsair speaker and Hathol kept exchanging slight bows as they spoke. Finally, Hathol gestured to the north in the direction of the guesthouse. The first Corsair bowed deeply and turned to motion his fellows to follow, allowing Finduilas to see that even his eyes were shielded by a fine mesh mask. There was no flesh to be seen. As she looked at him, he noticed her and froze, then pointed, calling out something she did not understand. The other Corsairs whirled about to see her and all of the Gondorian soldiers moved forward, hands on their swords. The embassy ignored the threat and knelt, bowing their heads to the ground and remained like that. A minute went by, and then another, and Finduilas realized that they would stay bowed over until she released them.
'Welcome, guests, to the Citadel.' She hoped her voice would carry and that she would not cough. 'If in peace you have come, so in peace shall you remain.'
As one, the ten men stood and gave her a more usual bow, then turned to face Hathol once more. He bowed to her deeply and led the embassy away to the guesthouse. When they were out of sight, Finduilas went back to the Stewards House and to her study to wait for Denethor. He was there within minutes.
'I do not recall asking you to receive our guests,' he said as he closed the door behind him.
'No, you did not,' Finduilas agreed, 'but you could not. They have to wait upon your pleasure.'
Denethor came around the desk and sat on the edge, looking down at her. He reached out, lightly tracing along her jaw before catching her firmly under the chin. 'You should not have taken that risk.'
'I had almost two hundred soldiers, guardsmen and Tower Guards to protect me.'
His grasp relaxed, becoming a caress along her throat. 'It was quite a sight.'
Finduilas smiled. 'I thought they should see Gondor in all her beauty.'
Denethor leaned down and kissed her, making her open his mouth to his. His fingers moved into her hair while his other hand found her bosom. Both of them were breathing a little harder when the kiss ended and Denethor's face was flushed. 'They are entranced.'
'When will you be seeing them?'
That made Finduilas blink in surprise. 'What? Why won't you meet with them?'
'They don't want to meet me. They have come to see you.'
The next day, just before noon, Finduilas sat in a tall wooden chair covered in ornate carvings set on the floor before the throne. Denethor sat upon the Black Chair behind her and to one side, while Imrahil stood before her. Once again she was arrayed like a queen, lacking only a rod of office. Guardsmen alternated with Tower Guards along the walls. Half hidden in the shadows of the statues were bowmen.
The huge metal doors at the far end of the hall silently swung open, revealing the embassy. Their robes were more elaborate than the previous day, almost every inch of them covered with embroidery. Their scimitars were missing and their gloves were made of cloth, not metal. Finduilas was reminded of Aiavalë when she saw their veiled faces. Each one bore a tray of brass, upon which was set something precious. Before they reached her, nine of the men spread out into a semi-circle and knelt, each placing his tray upon the ground before him. The tenth continued towards her until his path was blocked by Imrahil.
'Who seeks to address the Lady of the White Tower?' Imrahil asked.
'The Emissary of Calimehtar, Lord of Umbar, King-in-Exile of Gondor, High King of the Dúnedain, presents himself to the White Lady.'
A growl of anger at the man's effrontery could be heard from the soldiers ringing the hall. Imrahil nodded to the emissary and turned to Finduilas. 'My lady, the Emissary of Calimehtar, leader of pirates, scion of usurpers and kin-slayers, begs leave to present himself to you.'
'Let him approach.' After the emissary bowed to her, Finduilas asked, 'Who are you, Emissary, to bear the words of Calimehtar? I do not treat with servants.'
'I am his right hand and steward, my lady. No less would he send to you.'
'And how are you called?'
'Steward Tarostar, why will you not meet with the Lord Steward?'
'Umbar shall not speak to one who wished her murdered. We hold the self-styled Lord Stewards of Gondor to be traitors to our rule, withholding from us our rightful…'
'Umbar butchers her own children. You shall not do the same to Gondor.' Denethor's voice was cold and contemptuous, and Tarostar flinched. 'Your "rule" began and ended with the traitor, Castamir.'
For a minute, there was silence in the hall. Softly, Tarostar said, 'All of Umbar is grateful for the mercy of the White Lady. Umbar sends these gifts to you in thanks.' He set down his tray before her. On it was a folded length of what looked like fine silk. He motioned for one of the other men to approach. On this man's tray was a cask decorated with inlaid stones and mother-of-pearl. Tarostar opened it to reveal small disks of gold. Another man came up. On his tray were two perfect lengths of ivory. In turn, the remaining seven approached and proffered a gift for Tarostar to hold up for Finduilas to admire before setting the tray at her feet. There was another cask filled with gems, a rope of large pearls, cloth-of-gold, incense and other rare things. When all had been presented, the nine knelt and touched their foreheads to the floor. Tarostar also knelt but did not bow. 'Here are our gifts to you, White Lady. We beg you to accept them.'
Finduilas shook her head and said, 'The gifts are rich, but I will not receive them from one so unknown to me. Show your face to me, Steward Tarostar, so I may judge your heart.' The Corsair nodded and reached under the edge of his turban, unfastening something. When he pulled aside his mask, Finduilas was startled. He looked like Denethor. Not as much as Thorongil did, nor even to the degree as Borondir or Beregar, but she had no doubt but that she was looking upon a son of Elendil's line. Then she looked more closely and had to school her face to stillness, for she could See him. You are of the Faithful. His eyes met hers and she knew herself to be Seen. Tarostar smiled and gave her a wink before covering his face once more. 'Your words before me are arrogant, Steward Tarostar, for you and your lord lay claim to what is not yours. Even so, I shall accept the gifts, for they come from Umbar herself, and she has my pity.'
'Thank you, my lady.' Tarostar rose and backed away until he stood with his fellows once more. Try as she might, Finduilas could not See any of the rest of them, though she could perceive Tarostar's light though his veil. 'Our tasks here are done. We hope that you will be able to speak wisdom to your traitorous husband and make him see that he must surrender Gondor to the rightful king…'
'Which shall be done as soon as a rightful king can be found.' Now Denethor sounded bored.
'The Lord Stewards of Gondor bear the burden of rod and rule until death takes them, the world ends or the king shall come again,' Finduilas sternly said. 'Never shall Gondor or her Steward accede to the false claims of the pirates of Umbar. Rather should your wicked lord, who slays his own people in the square, surrender and return our sundered kin to us. I am just as well as merciful. Take that back to Calimehtar.' With a final low bow, Tarostar and the others turned and left the hall.
When they were gone, Finduilas stood and went to Denethor. He was looking critically at the gifts. 'They will need to be destroyed,' he said. 'There may be poisons upon them or other tricks.'
'Did you see Tarostar's face, friend?' she murmured. Denethor shook his head. 'I could See him. I think the gifts need to be searched carefully.' She turned to Imrahil and asked for the trays to be taken up to the large council chamber. Denethor offered his arm and they walked to the chamber. 'I don't think anything should be touched bare-handed, for there may be something tainting them,' she said as they watched the trays being set on the table.
Imrahil had already asked for gloves to be brought, having the same suspicions. He and Denethor carefully examined the contents of each tray. The gems and metals were sent to be washed and appraised by Primrose for their sale to fund the Lady's Grace. The incense was discarded on Denethor's warning, for its fumes could be dangerously intoxicating. Among the folds of the silk they found the true treasure. Denethor exclaimed when he saw the fat stack of folded paper and took it over to the window to examine the seal before breaking it. Finduilas peered over his shoulder at the mysterious colorful markings covering the paper.
'What is it, Denethor?' Imrahil asked.
'Something for me.' Denethor refolded the paper and tucked it into a pocket inside his shirt.
Imrahil waited for more of an answer. When none was forthcoming, he looked out the window in the direction of the guesthouse. 'Do you think that this Tarostar really is the Steward of Umbar?'
'Yes. I don't think anyone less would have been trusted to speak. Throw away any of this that cannot be washed. Burn the cloth.' Denethor left the chamber and strode down the hall so quickly Finduilas had to run to catch up with him, which made her cough. He slowed to a more reasonable pace. Only when they were back in his study at the Stewards House with the door locked did he speak. 'It is from Magor.'
Finduilas sank into her chair by the hearth. 'He is alive, then?'
'When this was written, yes. It is in his hand. There is so much here, it may take me a few days to figure it all out.'
She looked sadly on the paper. 'We can't tell Morwen, can we?'
'No.' His tone was sharp. 'No one must know. It could kill many people, including him, if his kin tried to contact him.'
Minas Tirith, 15 September, 2984 T.A.
The wedding had been a complete success. Merethrond had never looked more beautiful, Aldwyn and Gethron were clearly in love, and everyone had behaved themselves. Even Maiaberiel had been impeccable in her manners. There was no way to prevent Brandir from bringing her and Finduilas had been dreading what would happen with so many of Ecthelion's other children in such close proximity with her for so long, but not a single cross word had been said. As Finduilas had suspected, Imrahil had been required to dance every tune all evening as one girl after another claimed him. He took it all with good grace and made a game of trading partners off with Minastan, Hallas' youngest son. As Minastan was almost as handsome as Imrahil and equally charming and skilled at dancing, there were not many complaints from the girls. Indeed, aside from Lady Ivorwen, who failed to monopolize Imrahil's attention, the only person who did not seem to be enjoying himself was Master Gríma. The man spent the entire wedding skulking at a table in the back of the hall, glowering at the new couple.
At the end of the celebration, Finduilas was exhausted and found herself longing for even a single sip of her tea. Denethor insisted that she rest the next few days and came to her bed to sleep, forgoing his own pleasure so she would not be taxed. Two days ago, they bade goodbye to the Rohirrim and those from Anórien who were riding home for yáviérë. On the morrow, the falas lords were to leave. Luinil had tried to convince Morwen to remain in Dol Amroth, but the Queen had said she still had a daughter to marry off and a grandson to raise and was needed in Edoras. The only person who did not wish to depart was Ivorwen, who had been begging Finduilas since the wedding to become one of her maids. It would be a relief to be rid of the woman tomorrow.
A sudden movement by Denethor roused Finduilas from sleep. It was very early in the morning, halfway between midnight and dawn and Denethor was sitting upright, listening. 'What is it, friend?' she whispered.
'Don't know. Something is happening downstairs. I'll be back.' Denethor pulled on clothes and left. Finduilas turned over and went back to sleep. When she woke, it was light and Denethor was not back. He probably went to his own bed so he wouldn't wake me. She slipped into a robe and went to check the boys. Boromir and Faramir were curled up in a lump together in Boromir's bed, Faramir sucking his brother's thumb. Aiavalë had given up trying to have Faramir sleep in a cradle next to her bed because Boromir simply stole Faramir as soon as she fell asleep. They made the cubicle next to Boromir's into Faramir's room where his toys and clothes were kept and where he took his daytime naps. With a light kiss on the top of each tousled head, Finduilas went to wake Denethor. His bed was empty.
Finduilas hurried downstairs to the kitchen. Dúlin, pregnant again, was putting together a tray of food and Mírwen, Nellas and Damnir huddled together at the kitchen table, whispering amongst themselves. Finiel was also at the table eating bread and jam, her face streaked with tears, while Mírwen held Findis. Aeluin was nowhere to be seen. 'What has happened?' Finduilas asked.
'My lady, something terrible!' Dúlin exclaimed, setting down her pot of porridge. 'In the wee hours, someone came to the door and called for Master Beregar. There has been a fire at his parents' tavern and…'
Finduilas did not wait for the rest. She dashed upstairs, calling for Aiavalë to get up. When the Archivist appeared at the door to the bedroom, Finduilas did not pause her dressing. 'Hurry, Lady Lore. A fire has struck The Messenger's Rest. Denethor is there already.' Aiavalë was dressed almost as quickly as Finduilas. Moraen had stumbled downstairs, rubbing sleep from her eyes, and was left in charge of the house while Finduilas and Aiavalë went to the third circle, Hunthor on their heels. A pup was dispatched to get Wren from her house in the second circle.
When they came around the corner and saw the tavern, Finduilas' chest clenched and she had to stop and cough. The tavern stood, for its walls were of stone, but the windows were blackened with soot and tendrils of smoke were still rising. A knot of bystanders stood in the street talking, while others moved in and out of the tavern, salvaging what they could. Denethor stood to one side with Beregar's father, both of them filthy and bedraggled. Finduilas went over to them, holding a handkerchief to her face to ward off the worst of the lingering smoke.
'Alquallë, you should not be here,' Denethor admonished.
'I could not stay away when I heard…'
'He is right,' Aiavalë interrupted. 'You two, get out of the smoke. Denethor, tell her what happened. I'll see if I can bring some order to this.' Aiavalë limped towards the tavern, calling for Beregar.
Finduilas let Denethor lead her a few dozen yards away. 'It was Beruthiel, wasn't it?' she said before Denethor could say anything. He shrugged.
'I say yes, but it could have been an accident. I've already set Scratch to finding out what he can.' He sighed and wiped his forehead, which left it streaked with soot. 'In the cellar, it looks like a lamp or a candle was left unattended and set a shelf on fire. It burned much of the night. The cellar, the kitchen and the taproom are lost. Luckily, they had windows open last night so the smoke did not suffocate them before they woke. The bottom floors were in flames. They fled to the roof and the neighbors lowered ropes and pulled them to safety. It took until sunrise to put the flames out. The cellar still smolders.'
Minas Tirith, Late November, 2984 T.A.
Winter was upon them and with it came a steady cough. It was worst in the morning, when the phlegm and humors that pooled in the night came up in thin white strands, but it persisted during the day, making itself known after she climbed a flight of stairs or walked briskly across the Citadel. It was not as bad as before Thorongil's healing, but Finduilas knew it would only become worse. Denethor said nothing, but she often caught him looking east towards Ithilien. She herself could not bear to turn her face into the Enemy's gaze.
Denethor was rarely at home during the day, not even returning for dinner at midday. The Steward's wisdom was much in demand, leaving him at the mercy of ministers, meetings and petitioners. When he did return, concern followed him, and he was often up late at his desk reading a report, drafting a letter, or studying information from soldiers and spies. Finduilas brought her mending and sat near the hearth so she could be near him.
In just the four months since Ecthelion's death, she could see the burden of rule affect Denethor. He had been performing Ecthelion's duties for almost a year before and had not been so worn. The voices in the Chair. That was new. Finduilas tried not to shiver. There were more lines near the corners of his mouth and eyes, and strands of silver showed in his beard and at his temples. His expression was more stern and he rarely smiled. It as when we first met, when I was ill and you were grim.
But he was still beautiful. Finduilas paused in her stitches and looked at him sitting at the desk, his long legs propped up and his chair tipped back at a dangerous angle, a report in one hand, his wine cup in the other, and Telperien ensconced on his chest. Finduilas envied the cat her warm perch. Denethor sensed her gaze and gave her an enquiring look.
'What has your attention, friend?'
'Imrahil's report from Pelargir.' The new High Warden had not had a solid week in which to enjoy the assiduous attention of the maids of Minas Tirith since the Corsair envoy had left. Denethor had sent Imrahil out all along the Anduin and as far west as Linhir to observe and report. He was to return for the Great Council. 'There are a number of caravans still traveling north from Harad. More ships than usual from the far south.'
'Is that good or bad?'
A glint came to Denethor's eye and his face lost some of its grim cast. In one smooth motion, he brought the chair upright and stood, keeping hold of report, wine and cat, and sat in the chair opposite hers. For a moment, Finduilas fancied she heard someone grumble about having to find another seat. 'You tell me, prince,' Denethor said, stretching his stockinged feet out towards the warm embers in the hearth. 'What does this presage?'
'A weak Umbar, of course. No good to trade with and not able to prevent them from skirting her and finding markets here. Are the Haradrim going beyond Pelargir?'
'Some. They come to Minas Tirith and a few head to Linhir. The pirates sail to all falas ports.'
'They know of spring war preparations and seek to trade while they can, even if it means returning home on muddy roads and stormy seas.'
'You agree with Imrahil, then,' Denethor said, raising his cup to her.
'I hope we are both wrong.'
'Yes, but you won't be. Rhûn this time, given Khand's defeat and Harad's relative strength. I had hoped that famine might quell the east for another year.'
You had hoped to search Ithilien this summer. Denethor knew the tea was gone. A few days after Denethor had discovered the empty bottle, Master Laanga had come to the house with a few pouches of tea. They were pleasant enough to drink, and one did help soothe the morning cough, so Finduilas did not protest. As with the other great absence, they did not speak of what no longer was there to give hope. 'Does my brother have anything else to say?'
Denethor glanced at the report. 'Only that the women in Pelargir are far more forward than those in Minas Tirith. I think he hopes I will return him to Harad with one of the caravans.' This made her laugh, which turned into a cough. Denethor drained his cup, shooed the cat from his lap and stood, holding out a hand to her. 'You should not stay up so late. It tires you.'
Two can play this game, husband. 'Are you coming to bed as well? I cannot sleep soundly unless you are there.'
She tried not to smirk at the flicker of annoyance crossing his face. 'Yes.' They looked in on the boys first, Denethor giving each a tender kiss and tucking their blankets more closely around them. Seeing them was one of the few things that could make Denethor smile. Faramir was still too small to care greatly who held him or applauded his efforts, but Boromir had lost both Ecthelion's and Denethor's attention since July and felt their absence keenly.
After she pulled on her nightdress, Denethor sat behind her on the bed and brushed out her hair with long gentle strokes. It was time for her moon flux. Finduilas was glad that her regular courses had returned. They had not made love since the day Denethor became Steward, and she hoped that he would not be so reticent if they could return to their usual pattern.
The next morning was grey, the light dimmed by low clouds heavy with rain. Denethor sternly told Finduilas to remain indoors and not risk catching a cold before he and Boromir left for their morning sword practice. It irked her to be ordered so, even as she really had no wish to leave her warm study and almost she went with Moraen and Wren to meet Haleth and walk to the first circle warehouses. Don't be a goose! You do not need to be sick. You could do with some peace and quiet. Finduilas quickly emptied the house of everyone save Dúlin and Damnir and a few guardsmen dicing back in their sleeping quarters. Boromir went with Hunthor to see Boots, Aiavalë took Faramir with her to the archives, and Aeluin and Mírwen, after many protests, were shooed out the door to visit Adanel and help with the last work to restore The Messenger's Rest. Beregar had been there every day since the fire, helping his father and his brother-in-law, Baranor, cart away the destruction and rebuild the cellar and the taproom. Scratch had not been able to unearth the slightest whisper of something other than an accident as the cause of the fire.
With only the cat, a crackling fire, and the scent of stew wafting up from the kitchen as her companions, Finduilas set to writing letters. She had many missives to answer and soon forgot her ire at Denethor's imperious commands. Noontide came, bringing a bowl of the stew and a pot of Laanga's tea. Not long afterwards, there was a tentative knock at the door, and one of the pups poked his head into the room. 'Come in,' Finduilas said, gesturing for the boy to come near. 'Squeak, isn't it?'
'Yes, m'lady,' he mumbled, blushing but obviously pleased she remembered him. Ingold had brought him in just after yáviérë and she suspected they were of kin. He was all elbows and eyes, with a chipped front tooth and a bottomless stomach. Squeak held out a folded bit of paper. 'I don't mean to intrude, m'lady, but the fellow who gave this to me said I had to put it in your hand, and….' His voice tailed off, perhaps finally realizing the arrogance of the demand.
'Well, it is delivered,' she said gently. 'Wait a moment while I read it.' The handwriting made her heart pound even before she could make out the words.
I must see you.
'Where did you see this man?' she asked sharply.
'First circle. Tavern there. Near it.'
'What did he look like?'
Squeak hunched his shoulders. 'Dunno. Big. A Southron, I think, with a caravan. His eyes…' After casting about for a word, the boy shrugged again. 'I didn't dare say him no.'
'I have a note in return.' Finduilas took a scrap of paper and quickly penned,
Go to sixth circle. Walk south. Watch your toes and think of me. Go in the door.
'Here, take this back to where you saw him. Walk around and let a bit of this peek from your fingers. He'll find you.' As soon as Squeak scampered away, Finduilas hurried upstairs, bundled herself warmly and slipped out the Wall Door, hood pulled down to hide her face. It took all her will not to race to the garden. Laanga was not there, but Crone Apple greeted her warmly, bare branches clacking against each other as she stooped to stoke Finduilas' hair with her twigs. Finduilas paced back and forth, willing this to be true and not some strange dream.
The back door creaked, and a tall man in trader's garb entered the garden. She did not need to see his face. There were only two men in the world who moved like that, and one was in the Tower. Finduilas bounded across the garden and threw herself into his arms.
He laughed and swept her up in a powerful embrace, spinning both of them around until she begged him to be still. Finduilas caught his face between her hands, too happy to speak, and just looked at him. Like Denethor, there were some strands of silver in his hair and deeper lines on his face, but his eyes shone brightly and his smile had never been so joyous. Thorongil caught one of her hands in his own and kissed it, tears gathering in the corners of his eyes. 'How I have missed you, dear sweet friend!'
'And I, you, Estel. And now you…' Finduilas looked more keenly at his face and Saw him. 'She said yes, didn't she?'
He blushed just as Squeak had done, but his smile was even more beautiful. 'Yes. My beloved accepted my suit.'
'When did you wed?'
At those words, the joy left his face. 'Not yet. Perhaps not ever.'
But I See you. Mayhap it is different with an Elf? Finduilas did not wish to say he spoke a falsehood. 'Joy and sorrow so swift together. You must have a tale to tell, friend.' She led them to the bower at the back of the garden. 'It has been near five years. Where have you been?'
'Many places.' He sat for several minutes, looking at his hands while he gathered his thoughts. 'When I left,' he said softly, 'I was wretched. All of my pride, all of my folly, all of the danger I had brought down upon those I loved writ plain upon the harrowing of Umbar. I walked north, not really minding my path, and so I came upon the Golden Wood. Its guardians saw fit to grant me shelter. After a time, my great grief left me.'
'What grief was that, Estel?'
Thorongil touched her cheek. 'To have left you and Denethor in such straits, for they were of my doing, if not of my will.'
'I think that there were few choices left for any of us to make.'
'Perhaps.' He was silent again for a time. 'And so with a sober and chastened heart, I cast away the last of my raiment from this time, and begged another suit of clothes, for it is my fate to be always a borrower. As I walked among the golden trees, I looked up and for a moment, I thought I saw you. When I came closer, I saw it was not you, but the one who had set my feet on their long sojourn.'
'I thought your love dwelt in the far north?'
'Her mother was of the Golden Wood and so she came to see her kin.' Thorongil pulled up one leg so he could rest his chin on his knee. 'She greeted me kindly and we walked together for a time. She told me of my mother and my other kin in the north. A few days later, we chanced to meet again, and now it was for me to tell a tale. She asked for me to speak of the most wondrous thing I had seen in my twenty years of wandering. I told her about you.'
Thorongil's eyes crinkled with mischief. 'Yes, you!'
'And why would you tell your lady love of another woman?'
'Because you are the most wondrous person I have ever met.' Thorongil took her hands between his own and chafed them to warm them. 'And because she would love you, too.' His bright eyes met hers. 'I looked upon her and loved her still, but it was a love without claim or presumption, content merely to love. As I love you. And… somehow she… looked upon me… and…. loved in return.'
Finduilas leaned against him, hugging him tightly. 'I could not be happier, dear friend. But still you are not wed?'
'She wished to return to her father and speak to him of her choice, for it is the choice of Tinúviel.'
'And what did he say?'
'I don't know. I did not go with her. I will not constrain her choice. If she has thought better of it…' He shrugged.
'She will not.' Finduilas gave him a kiss to make him smile again. 'So, where have you been?'
'Everywhere. I left the Golden Wood at midsummer and walked east to Rhûn. The next year led me south to Khand, and since then back west and south to Far Harad. Further yet I might have wandered save for…' Thorongil sighed and hid his face in her hair. 'Save for Ecthelion's passing. Word of it came as I prepared to walk yet further, and my feet bore me hence as swift as they could.'
'If you like, I can take you to the Hallows.'
Thorongil let go of her and propped his chin upon his knee once more. 'You need not. I prefer to remember him as I last saw him.'
'I wish you had come back sooner, so he could have bade you farewell. It would have gladdened his heart in his final days. Both you and the wizard abandoned him.' Thorongil gave her a guilty look. 'Abandoned us.'
The look of guilt deepened. 'I had to go.'
'I know. It was not time. It is not yet time, is it?'
'No. Not yet.' He sighed. 'I need to go north. Home.' The last word was whispered with a rise or catch to his voice, making it into a question.
'Your mother will rejoice to hold you once more. Your beloved as well.'
His ears turned red and a flush crept up his cheeks. 'I hope. Yes.'
'Halmir stayed here for you until his service was done, and then thought to look for you in the south. I sent him home.'
The man fell silent, staring at the ground before them. A few drops of rain sprinkled down, then more until it was steady. The tightly woven vines of the bower kept them dry, but she could feel the damp and cold seep into her chest. Finduilas put a hand on his arm. 'Come with me, Estel. Come back to the house where we can be warm and you can tell me tales of the south. You need to rest before you go home, and Denethor needs to speak…'
'No. I came here to see you. I can't face… No.'
'You must. You broke his heart. He rode to Ithilien when he read your last letter, to find you and bring you back. You said you were grieved to leave. Denethor has grieved no less that you left.'
'Then he should have loved more wisely!' Finduilas sat back, shocked at the venom in Thorongil's voice. 'Did he not say himself that I was but beggar and mercenary? Cruel he may be, but Denethor is honest and sees more truly than any man. Nay,' Thorongil stood, pulling his cloak about him, 'I have tarried too long as it is. I must go.'
'And run away again? Do not add coward to your list of faults, Estel!' she snapped. 'You owe him a final word, if only to dismiss you as you deserve.'
'I owe him nothing.' He nodded sharply and turned away.
'He is your Steward!'
Thorongil called over his shoulder, 'I am no man of Gondor and I do not answer to the Lord Steward.'
'He is your Steward and serves you faithfully!' Her words brought him up short. Thorongil turned around to face her. 'You are his king and he answers to you.'
Thorongil returned to the bower. 'Why do you say this?'
'Because it is true. I have always known who you were. I dreamed it. The ring only confirmed what I knew. I am not such a babbling goose as I appear, you know.'
'He knew from the first day he saw you that you were the lord of the Lost. The way they behaved gave it away. He, too, glimpsed the ring, and was confirmed.' It was a small fib, but one that could have been true. Finduilas took Thorongil's hand. 'Please. Come with me.'
'I can't go to him…'
'Then let me bring him to you here. He will come without question.'
Thorongil returned to the bower and sat heavily, water dripping from his cloak. 'Denethor was right. As always.'
'He likes to think so, so I indulge him.'
That made Thorongil chuckle. 'You are kind to your troupe of jesters, Finduilas.' His face sobered. 'He said, many times, that my line had not cared for Arnor. That we were… poor stewards… of what had been entrusted to us.' He snorted and shook his head. 'King? Hardly.'
'Yes, king. Denethor and I both hold you as the rightful lord.'
'A beggar. I have nothing to give him.'
'Yourself. That is all he wants.'
Thorongil shook his head. 'His service must be repaid in full, with something… greater. I cannot take from him again. I swore to you I would not.'
'And how is your love and trust not enough? He is angry with you, yes, but his pride will bow to love. Return and release him from his burdens! Let him fulfill his oath to return Gondor to her king. There is nothing he wishes for more than this!'
'I have not even valor to offer him now. Finduilas, listen to me,' Thorongil begged, taking her hands. 'I will bring only destruction if I stay. That is the lesson of Umbar. There is no escaping it. I will not take you into darkness with me. Denethor can do what I cannot. He knows how to preserve and defend. He can reach back into time and bring forth the secrets of Númenor. He sees things others do not and understands how to turn weakness to advantage. He stands as bulwark against the powers that will rend Gondor when… if… I return.'
'You have returned! You are here, now.'
'Like a thief, which is what I was when first I came here. When I may speak my name to any, then I have returned.'
'Denethor needs you, Estel! He needs hope of your return, even if you must be hidden for now. It will add to his strength. Please, let me get him.'
For a moment he wavered, but shook his head. 'I will not bring false hope. If I return, it will be to free Gondor from that.' Thorongil motioned eastwards with his chin. 'That is what I will present to him – true salvation for Gondor. And, if that is not enough, then will I renounce this claim and be but lord of Arnor, no matter what that may cost me.'
Thorongil embraced Finduilas tightly. 'Forgive me, Finduilas. Name me coward if you wish, but it is not time and I must be hidden even to you. I should not have come.' With a kiss, he stood and strode away. Finduilas sat until she knew that he was gone before pulling up the hood of her cloak and dashing through the rain to the house.
Laanga sat at the kitchen table eating a bowl of soup. He smiled when he saw her. 'It is good to see you, daughter. I asked the captain if he wished for a bowl of soup, but he was in a hurry. Will you have one?'
'Yes, I will.' Laanga gave her a wooden bowl of the bean soup and several slices of dense dark bread spread with honey and poured a large mug of tea. Finduilas did not have much of an appetite, so she nibbled at the meal as she thought. Denethor must not know. It would grieve him even more than it would anger him if she said that Thorongil refused to speak to him. What trials you inflict upon us, Estel. I hope that your mother scolds you for a week when you finally drag your sorry self home! His beloved would be glad for his return, though, if his blushes were any measure. Finduilas tried to remember their converse so many years ago when he had confessed his heart's desires to her. Her father said you would rise to a great height, or vanish into darkness. You have finally seen how great the height you must scale.
As she ate, Laanga puttered about the kitchen, putting things to right, setting out bowls and scales, and arranging sacks and bottle of herbs. He chopped and ground and crushed and mixed many aromatic herbs, occasionally stopping to taste a pinch of this or that concoction. He soon was setting small pouches of herbs before her on the table, each tied shut with a different colored string. When he finished with his mixing and had put away his tools, Laanga placed the small pouches into a larger sack and began writing a note on what each pouch was for and how to mix it – this one with water, that with wine, another sprinkled upon her meat, and so on.
A sound behind her made Finduilas turn around. Denethor was there with Boromir. Both looked worried. Boromir ran over and threw his arms around her. 'Why did you leave the house in this weather?' Denethor said curtly.
'Because it was not raining when I left and I wished to see Master Laanga and sit in the garden. Certain things were weighing heavily on me.'
'I have listened to her breathing, Denethor, and have prepared a few new medicines to keep agues at bay,' Laanga said.
'Is it magic tea?' Boromir asked. 'Mother needs more magic tea.'
'I am sorry, Morcollë. I have none of that.'
'The plant that gave the leaves has died, Boromir, and there isn't any more.' Finduilas sighed and stood. 'Is it still raining? I was waiting until it stopped, but I should go home.'
'Just a little drizzle,' Denethor assured her, looking around for her cloak. At a signal from his father, Boromir took the sack of herb mixes. They kept her between them as they walked swiftly to the Citadel through the dimming light.
Characters introduced in this chapter, in order of appearance:
- Tarostar – Steward of Umbar, secretly of the Faithful, 54 years old
- Squeak – Whoreson of Minas Tirith, related to Ingold, 14 years old