81. King

Denethor POV - 1 of 2

In which Denethor attends a festival, digs holes, begs forgiveness, confronts a mystery, recieves a gift, discharges a debt, searches for things lost, and learns more than he really wanted to know.


Minas Tirith, Loëndë, 2985 T.A.

Denethor watched the tunnel entrance, making his face calm so that his impatience and worry did not show. The children's parade from the first circle to the Citadel should have arrived by now. Finduilas was leading it up the City and the muggy day was certain to aggravate her cough. Up on the wall, one of the figures turned around and waved to him – it was Squeak, the newest pup, signaling that he could see the procession. Shortly afterwards, the tunnel echoed with the sounds of the revelers and then she was there, emerging from the darkness, clad in white, her loose hair crowned by a garland of flowers. His heart pounded and his throat clenched, and for a moment Denethor thought he would weep for love of her. He mastered his heart and was able to speak with a sure voice when she stopped before him, the children a bright, cheerful mob behind her. 'Good morning, my lady,' he said loudly enough for those in the court to hear. 'Who have you brought to the Citadel?'

'All the children of the City, my Lord Steward.'

'Be welcome, young guests. Make merry here from now until sundown.' The children cheered and dashed away as jugglers, illusionists and singers came out from under the arcades to provide amusement. Denethor held out his hand and drew Finduilas under the pavilion before the Tower doors. 'You took a long time getting here. Did all go well?'

'I am not ill, if that is what you ask,' she answered with a little edge, but then sighed and patted his arm before taking a seat. 'I am tired, friend, so am glad for the chair. No, nothing was wrong. There were just many distractions along the way, so we walked more slowly than usual.'

Before Denethor could signal, Mírwen was there with a tray of cool drinks for Finduilas' refreshment. The girl sat on a short stool nearby, ready to serve her mistress. Aiavalë, Moraen and Aeluin waded through the crowd to take up their stations, and Beregar soon joined them. Finduilas laughed and gave Denethor a small push. 'I have done my walking about, now is your turn. Go find your sons and keep them out of trouble!'

'Yes, brother,' Imrahil added, having appeared from nowhere at Denethor's shoulder, 'let's use the day to play a few games!' As Finduilas was well tended, Denethor allowed Imrahil to lead him away. There were more outland lords than usual this year and all of them were here in the Court of the Fountain, wishing to capture his attention for a few minutes. Denethor was polite, but did not stop his walk around the court to watch the children at play, nor would he allow anything serious to be discussed. Imrahil helped turn aside all business with humor and deft distractions. A glance back at the pavilion showed that the ladies were converging upon Finduilas, though they had to take their turn with all of the other well-wishers.

No matter where he looked, however, Denethor could not find Boromir or Faramir. He knew they had reached the Citadel because he had seen Boromir just behind Finduilas, pulling the wagon holding Faramir and Findis. He had almost given up looking when he heard a cheer go up near the tunnel. When he got there, Denethor could not help his smile. Boromir and a number of similarly aged boys were racing their carts and wagons down the steep slope of the tunnel and into the main street of the sixth circle. Forlong was standing to one side bellowing encouragement to his son, Forweg. Denethor's smile faded when he saw that Boromir had Faramir in the wagon with him. To his credit, Faramir did not seem the slightest bit frightened of careening down the dark tunnel, lurching and crashing into the other carts. Imrahil also saw the danger, and retrieved his small nephew from harm's way, putting him on his shoulders so Faramir could see over the heads of the crowd. Faramir cheered, shouting his brother's name whenever it was Boromir's turn to race. The game ended indecisively, with most of the carts too damaged to roll. Boromir dragged the remains of his over to where Denethor and Imrahil stood.

'Father, did you see? I got all the way to the sixth circle four times!'

'And only broke three wheels off the wagon in doing so. Are you going to help Hunthor repair it?'

'Of course!' was the indignant reply. 'I have to get it fixed so I can do this again.'

'Be sure to tell me when you do, Morcollë,' Imrahil added, grinning widely, 'because that looked like fun.'

'I will, uncle! I have to tell Forweg something. Wait for me.' Boromir trotted off, leaving the hulk of the wagon standing before them. Faramir wiggled and squirmed until Imrahil put him down and dashed away on his brother's heels.

'I don't suppose he will be back?' Imrahil asked, eying the wreck.

'Doubtful,' Denethor said, giving the cart a tap with his toe. He looked around until he saw one of Finduilas' guardsmen, and called the man over to drag the wagon back to the house. It was too late to try to figure out what mischief Boromir was getting the other boys into now, so Denethor returned to the court to sit with Finduilas. At some point, Boromir brought Faramir over to climb into Aiavalë's lap and fall asleep. Boromir quickly disappeared with the pack of children, and Denethor suspected he would not wander home until supper.

By midafternoon, Finduilas was yawning and they retired to the Stewards House so she could nap before the evening feast. Imrahil and Moraen went with a number of young lords and ladies to visit the fair before the walls. Somehow, Lady Ivorwen had managed to travel to Minas Tirith with Lord Gundor and his kin and had made her presence known this afternoon. Denethor had to admit a grudging admiration for the young woman's single-minded pursuit of Imrahil. Lady Míriel of Langstrand was not going to take this challenge lightly, given the looks she was throwing at Ivorwen, and made her own bid for the young prince's favor. The other young noblewomen did their best to compete with these two. As far as Denethor could tell, the only woman who was not pursuing Imrahil was Moraen. Though he had never suffered for lack of female interest in his marital state – what heir of the Steward would? – Denethor could not recall ever being the object of so much fierce competition. At his age, I was always out in battle. We were retaking Osgiliath. And within two years of that, Thorongil alighted here and all eyes turned to him. The other unwed young men fruitlessly tried to attract the girls' attention, but Imrahil was the prize. He'd best choose soon or no one will wed.

Once Finduilas was in bed, Denethor went downstairs to the solar to sit with Aiavalë. She sat on a couch, Faramir sleeping beside her. At her feet was a small wooden crate holding some books and she was reading over a letter, her free hand stroking Faramir's hair. Denethor stooped and placed a kiss on the baby's brow. 'More from Lark?' he asked softly, gesturing at the box.

'Yes. My Harad collection is growing greatly. I don't know who Lark is working with in the south, but he has a good eye for valuable works. Take a look at this one.' She sorted through the stack and handed Denethor a slender tome in a new binding. Inside, the parchment was new, the ink clear and crisp. 'It's a copy, of course, but it is of Harad's southern borders and wars over the last four hundred years.'

'Accurate or done to flatter?'

'Some of each, like all histories, I should guess.'

'At this rate, we will have more works on Harad than on Gondor in the archives.'

'If there are more works to be had…' Aiavalë shrugged. 'Haleth is helping me find someone who will go north and salvage what can be found from up there.'

'Like the work Golasgil got from that grave robber?'

'Yes, but perhaps some better works as well. Would Dwarves trade more than metal?'

'I don't know if they write anything themselves, but you can pay them to look for things,' Denethor suggested. 'Ask the pearl trader. Also ask Golasgil if the grave robber has come back to any of the fairs.' So far, the Dwarves had not returned to Gondor.

'I will. Luinil has sent me a letter asking if I would come to Dol Amroth again for a time. If you can spare me, I think I will travel with Lord Golasgil to the falas after loëndë.'

'As long as Borondir remains, I can spare you.'

'I will tell Lady Beriel tonight at the feast.' Aiavalë set aside the letter and touched Faramir's cheek. 'Do you think he is old enough to travel with me?'


'I don't want to leave him. He knows how to use the privy and only wets himself now and again, but I suppose he is too young yet for such a journey. My little owl.' The look of love on Aiavalë's face as she gazed at Faramir made her beautiful. Why can't your mother look at you like this, Hollë? 'Everything about him is just like you, Denethor – his eyes, his face.' Aiavalë smirked. 'Just like you, except needing far fewer spankings.'

'Because he doesn't need them or because your heart is softer?'

'I think he is more clever at avoiding them,' she teased.

A thought came to Denethor. 'Would you take Alquallë and Faramir to Dol Amroth? Moraen might wish to go as well, for it would put her closer to Ethring.'

'Why? Not that I would object to the company.'

'I wish for her to leave behind the cares and sorrows of the City and see her parents again.' He cannot see so far.

Aiavalë shrugged. 'I will do my best to convince, but she is loath to leave you.'

'See what you can do.'

When the sun declined and Mindolluin cast a cooling shadow over the City, Denethor woke Finduilas so they could prepare for the feast. She hummed happily to herself and only laughed when he asked what made her so joyful. Boromir showed up at sundown with a gaggle of dirty, tired children in his wake. Aeluin and Mírwen sorted them out and sent pups off to tell their parents where they were. Dúlin handed out sweets while Damnir and Nellas washed away the worst of the dirt. Denethor and Finduilas left this all in Aeluin's able hands and went to the feast. After the standing silence and offering a toast in memory of Steward Ecthelion, they walked among their guests. It was a pleasant celebration, made better by Finduilas' cheerful demeanor and lack of a serious cough. Only when the evening was far gone and people yawning into their hands, did they bring the feast to an end.

The night was cool and the stars made the white stone glimmer. When they came to the lane to the Stewards House, Denethor paused, not wanting to go inside just yet. 'Alquallë, would you sit with me a while out here?'

'Yes, friend.' He led them up the stair and along the promontory to the very end. Below them lay the City, shimmering like an opal. The torches and fires of the fair lit up the ground along the outer wall, and the farms and cots of the Pelennor were like small stars against the dark folds of the land. Finduilas shrank away from the sight, shivering. 'Let us sit where it is not so exposed,' she asked. He led her to one of the stone seats and sat them facing west towards the Tower. She burrowed under his arm. They sat silently for some time.

'Almost a year.'

'What was that, Alquallë?'

'It has been almost a year since Ecthelion died and you became Steward.' She poked him when he began to object. 'You may not have been affirmed until September, but you and no other was the Steward. What have you learned, prince, in that year?'

Denethor laid a hand upon the wall. Under his fingers, the City sighed and mourned for her abandonment, singing a song to try to entice her lord to return. But I am here. It angered him that the feckless kings should inspire such longing. Even upon the Black Chair, the voices of the Stewards who had been before him spoke this wish, but theirs was not a longing to be reunited. It was a wish to be parted from their long burden. He had learned how to ignore those voices, to reduce them to a dull drone at the back of his thoughts, though he had to beware when he was tired.

The Tower stood out starkly against the black bulk of Mindolluin. He let his eyes rest upon its pinnacle. He had not learned how to enter that chamber. The key was lost and there was no getting around the Dwarven lock. He had hoped the Dwarves would return so he could show them the door and perhaps have them reveal a secret about it. If they did not come, or could not open the door, it would have to be torn from the very stone. That would attract more attention to the chamber than he wanted, and might possibly expose the palantír itself to prying eyes.

His gaze dropped until he looked upon the front doors of the Tower. In the lower chambers, he had not learned anything of worth, but had been confirmed in his long dread. The Enemy had returned to plan his great assault upon Gondor, and it would come soon. Not this year, not in a dozen, but it would come and the defense of Gondor was in his hands. The foresight and the failures alike of those who had sat in the Black Chair were for naught. There was no mortal power that could defeat Sauron, and immortals had little better luck. So stalemate is the best that we can hope for, unless wizards deign to join their powers to ours.

Finduilas stirred next him. That was his greatest ignorance – how to heal her. The Tree was nowhere to be found, at least by him. 'Friend? Have you an answer?'

'I have learned nothing.'

Near the wall, he saw another couple walking along. They turned and strolled upon the promontory, taking a meandering path. Starlight glinted on a silver head, revealing Imrahil. Finduilas tugged on Denethor's arm to get him to slide down in the seat. The pair drew closer. The woman laughed, and Denethor recognized Moraen's voice. Finduilas had her face buried in his chest, stifling giggles. The two were close enough now that Denethor could hear the sound of their feet against the stone. The pair stopped. Very faintly, he heard murmurs, while Finduilas shook against him, trying not to make any noise. A sudden squeal brought Denethor upright.

Moraen and Imrahil were locked in a passionate embrace, oblivious to anything around them. Finduilas laughed and drummed her feet on the stone. 'Now you've learned something, husband!'


Pelennor, Late September, 2985 T.A.

The young lords of Gondor greeted the news of Imrahil's betrothal with relief. Indeed, Minastan took the opportunity of Imrahil's pledge to offer one of his own to Lady Míriel, which was promptly accepted. It was decided that Moraen and Aiavalë would journey to Dol Amroth at once, with Moraen to continue on to Ethring to prepare for the formal betrothal in October the day after Imrahil turned thirty. Despite the entreaties of Aiavalë, Moraen and Imrahil, Finduilas refused to go. 'Not over water,' was all she said to Denethor. The marriage itself would take place the following autumn, though already some lords and ministers were urging that it be done sooner, perhaps as early as the coming winter. Denethor sent Imrahil north to review the garrisons and keep him out from under foot until it was time for him to go to Ethring.

Faramir was disconsolate for several days after Aiavalë left, greatly missing his Auntie Monster, and even now would throw ear-splitting tantrums if anyone tried to part him from Finduilas. This meant he slept in her bed each night. He was willing to let Denethor sleep there as well, but had to sleep between them. Going to Denethor's bed in the evening was out of the question, though they had managed a few afternoon liaisons while Faramir napped. The child's stubborn affection pleased Finduilas for some reason, and she indulged his whims.

It continued to amaze Denethor how different his sons were from each other, though most people remarked on the boys' similarities. Aside from the tantrums, Faramir was a quiet child, much less boisterous than Boromir had been at the same age. There was nothing timid about him, so in that he was like his brother, and more than once he had had to be extracted from some predicament he had got himself into. If Denethor tried to hold the child in his lap, Faramir would soon become restless and wiggle away, while Boromir's favorite seat still remained as close to Denethor as he could get. The only thing that could keep Faramir's interest at those times was a book with bright colors. He certainly knew many more words than any two-year old child Denethor had encountered, though it was to be expected, given Aiavalë's proclivity for teaching him to say whatever she was reading at the time, be it a poem, a history, or a harvest report.

Denethor glanced over at Boromir, who sat on Boots on other side of the wagon. They were accompanying Beregar and Laanga out to Beregar's farm. The last week, he had been dreaming of farmlands and orchards. In those dreams, everywhere he walked in the glades and fields of Ithilien, he found bones poking up through the grass. Sometimes they were clad in rotted leather and rusted mail and often there would be several together, remnants of an ambush in the hills. Once, he stood at the foot of Imlad Ithil and gazed up the vale at the tower. There was a rumor that a sapling was growing in the inner court. When Denethor heard this morning that Boromir was going to go to the farm, he had decided he needed to go as well. 'The Steward should see the harvest being done,' he said to no one in particular.

Boromir was going to be too big for Boots reasonably soon. You will be too big for most horses when you're grown. Denethor studied his son critically and frowned. There was no denying that the person Boromir most resembled was Ecthelion. He already was broad and powerful, with a jaw and forehead identical to his grandfather. No, like Boromir, too. His own cousin had been like this, and Borondir bore hints of it as well, mostly in the size of his chest and the thickness of his legs. After another inspection, Denethor nodded. You will be the man Ecthelion should have been. Faramir was not going to favor that line of the family. He had been weaned quickly to relieve Finduilas of nursing, and had never been a chubby baby. There was a delicacy to him that was too like his mother's frailty for Denethor's tastes, and he had told Dúlin to try to fatten them both up.

The air smelled of autumn, a mix of dry grass, falling leaves and smoke. Denethor liked having the sky wide above him and not to be hemmed about with walls, though other things were not so easily left behind. A Steward's lot was to be constrained, even as there was no one left for him to answer to save himself. And the king. That thought made him scowl.

As they approached the farm, Gull whinnied and trotted ahead to stand at the gate. Boromir urged Boots forward, jumping off to open the gate for the cart. At the end of the track was a long, low stone cottage, recently thatched in anticipation of the coming winter. As holdings went, it was a relatively recent one, given to the House of Húrin in thanks for their loyalty after the Kin-strife, no doubt seized from one of Castamir's supporters. It had an orchard of plums and another of almonds, with barley growing in the large field beyond. A neat and abundant kitchen garden lay to the south side of the house. The property backed on one of the larger streams crossing the Pelennor. Denethor put Gaerhûl and Boots into the paddock, not trusting them to stay out of the grain.

Laanga was busy in the garden, examining herbs and roots he could not grow in the City. He had several baskets and a number of sacks, each one of which soon had something in it. The apothecary hummed to himself, ignoring them all as he went about his business. Beregar unloaded a large empty barrel that had been cut in half near a small scraggly tree. From the barn he fetched a mattock and a shovel and began digging around the tree to uproot it. Denethor came over and silently began to help dig. It soon left his hands blistered and his back and shoulders aching, adding to the ache in his legs from the ride. You're getting soft. The sapling was put into the large barrel along with dirt to hold it in place. Beregar brought the wagon over and the two men wrestled the heavy tub into the wagon bed. Laanga called them and indicated a few smaller bushes he also wished to take back to the garden in the City.

It was time for dinner when they finished. They washed with cold well water and spread their meal out upon a wooden table under an arbor near the almonds. After the meal, Beregar left to speak to the farmer next door who tended the farm for him. Denethor found a perch on a rock wall and looked about. To the west was Minas Tirith, proud and fair, like a Dwarf-stone bound to the brow of Gondor. In the east were the green folds of Ithilien, here and there touched with gold and red as she donned her harvest finery. The glimmering spires of the City drew him, looking like delicate limbs to be caressed and cherished, yet he also wished to turn Gaerhûl's head to Osgiliath and cross the river, ranging through the silent glades to keep doom at bay. The mountains to either side seemed to press the two together, forcing them into fateful proximity.

Denethor's eyes traveled from one side to other, from the foot of Mindolluin to the high crags of Ephel Dúath, taking in the long slopes of land that met under Anduin's silver course. Such an ancient battleground. Almost three thousand years of contest just for Gondor, and how many thousands more as passage for armies heading north and south? It was deceptively peaceful given the blood that had soaked the soil. And will again. Denethor bowed his head to his knees. Again. Repeating. Returning. An eternal contest over this same ground. Save it is us, the Children, who make up the ground as well as the soldiers of this contestation between powers, in which we always fail, never strong enough in arms or true enough of heart to win us a final peace.

The sound of pebbles and leaves crunching underfoot made him lift his head. Laanga stood nearby, leaning on his black walking stick. 'Grandson? Are you well?'

'I am sore from digging, grandfather.'

'Ah. I have a balm back at my worktable that will ease your aches.' The herbalist cocked his head. 'But you are sore in other ways, yes?'

'In the usual way, Master Laanga. You know what I seek.'

Laanga sighed, his face downcast. 'Yes, Denethor, I know. Every month I go to the high place and look, but there is nothing.'

'I went to Ithilien last year. I know, I know,' he said raising a hand to forestall the herbalist's words, 'it was not there, just as you said. But I had to look.' Denethor sought the break in the eastern mountains that marked the Accursed Vale. 'There is only one place in Ithilien where it has ever grown.' A wild thought came to him. Perhaps it yet grows. But, no, they would have destroyed it. Yet, perhaps a scion clings to a high place, hidden from the Enemy's gaze… He wanted to climb. 'She found it here, and in Anórien.'

'It was for her to find. Not for you.'

Denethor looked at Laanga and felt a tight sensation around his chest. It was so obvious now that he thought it, he wondered at his own blindness before. 'Laanga, are you… You are one of them, like a wizard. A Power.'

A wry expression crossed the apothecary's face. 'Once, long ago, I think that was so. Now, not so much.'

'You're immortal.'

'That may be. I have not tried my luck.' Laanga looked around him, a ghost of a smile on his lips. 'I think I am not yet wearied of this world. Then I will go.'

'I have asked this before; why are you so cruel to us?'

'I have not heard that question from you, grandson.'

'No, I asked it of the mariner. He did not answer.'

Laanga was silent a long while, eyes narrowed so no whites showed. 'He had no answer.'

'Why do you hold out a hope, then snatch it away? Twice you have given her the tree, but only enough to torment, to let it be known that there could be salvation.' Denethor jumped down from his seat and took Laanga by the shoulders. 'What have we done deserve this? To be given a glimpse of grace and have it torn from us? Thorongil, he said that you would extend your grace to an Orc, should it repent.'

'Even to an Orc, yes.'

Denethor dropped to his knees, clasping the herbalist's hands between his own. 'Then I beg you to tell me for what we must repent. What must we do to earn the grace that you would give an Orc?'

'I have not such powers, grandson. I only have my garden.'

'Then, why? It is too cruel!'

'Finduilas did what was set before her to do. I think…' Laanga sighed and pulled his hands away. 'You may not wish to hear this, Denethor, but perhaps grace has been granted.'

'It is not enough.'

'It is what is given, and is sufficient to the moment.' Laanga stooped and placed a kiss on Denethor's brow. 'I have no more wisdom than that, Denethor. What I might have been is gone, and I am what you see, an old man tending his garden. It is not barred to you, though you think otherwise.'


Pelennor, Late October, 2985 T.A.

The morning audiences were done and Denethor had cancelled the council meetings for the afternoon. Aiavalë was back from Ethring with stories and observations. Faramir had been irrepressible since Aiavalë walked in the door yesterday. He had left their bed last night to be with his aunt, for which Denethor was grateful, though Finduilas had been cross.

Imrahil had returned on the same ship, sporting a ring as silver as his own hair. He had held up his hand to Denethor with a grin last night. 'Perhaps now the girls will leave me alone long enough to let me be of help to you!'

'Yes, but that only gives me a year until your wife commands your attention.'

They sat in Finduilas' study this afternoon with the children and the cat underfoot and Aiavalë and Imrahil telling Denethor and Finduilas of the events of the betrothal. Throughout, various servants and guardsmen were popping in the door with armloads of baggage from the ship, asking where to put it.

'No, Morthond is not at all pleased,' Aiavalë said. 'I think Duinmir was hoping for a match with his kinsman, Angbor. The last thing he wanted was stronger ties between Ethring and Dol Amroth.'

'Duinhir doesn't mind,' Imrahil offered from his position on the rug. Boromir had demanded a wrestling match, which Imrahil was only too happy to provide. He had Boromir pinned, but now had to contend with Faramir, who had come to his brother's aid. 'He would prefer to see Angbor wed back to the vale, in any event.'

'He'll not see that.' Aiavalë said with a smirk. 'Angbor only has eyes for the younger daughter of Lord Gundor, Dúnmir. The older sister, Míriel, told Moraen that Angbor had asked Gundor's permission to pay court to Dúnmir, and it is expected that they will stand betrothed by year-end.'

'Agh!' was Imrahil's answer to that proposition. Boromir had wiggled out from under Imrahil and now he and Faramir had the upper hand. Finduilas reached down and began tickling her brother's ribs.

'Speaking of year end, Lark will be coming,' Aiavalë informed them, holding her mug of tea higher to avoid the thrashing on the rug in front of her.

'And so will Wren,' Finduilas added happily. Denethor sighed. It was going to be a very busy Yule.

A guardsman came to the door holding a wooden box. 'Archivist, this just came up from the docks for you.'

'Lark found me more books!' Aiavalë pointed to Finduilas' desk. 'Set it there. Is there a letter with it?'

'No, my lady, or none given to me. I didn't pick up the message pouch. I'll go ask.' The man bowed and left briskly, almost running into Beregar who was coming in the door with more hot water, tea and wine.

'As if she did not send enough with me when we stopped in Pelargir.' Aiavalë drained her tea. 'She must have forgotten something.' The Archivist limped over to the desk. Telperien was already there investigating the new box. The cat's ears went back and her fur bristled. She began to snarl and hiss at the box.

Denethor jumped to his feet and pulled Aiavalë away from the desk. 'Everyone, leave! Beregar, get me my sword and gauntlets.' Telperien's snarl rose to a blood-curdling squall. Denethor stood near the study door and watched the cat claw at the box. 'Imrahil, get the children out. Get them out of the house.'

Beregar hurried through the door, holding out the sword and gloves. 'Wait for me,' he said. He was back within a minute with his own weapon. Denethor belted on his sword and pulled on the heavy gloves before warily approaching the box. There was a hasp with a twist of wire through it holding the thing shut. It has come this far with none the wiser. Denethor picked it up and set it on the floor. He knelt next to it, keeping a hand pressing down on the lid.

Beregar came in and stood to the other side, sword drawn, ready to strike. 'Break it open?'

'No. I don't want to scatter whatever is inside. I'll remove the wire so we can lift the lid.' Denethor worked the twist of wire open, freeing the hasp, and scrambled away. The cat was under the desk, every hair on end, yowling. Drawing his sword, Denethor slipped the blade under the edge of the lid and lifted it. The hinges on the back were stiff and held the lid upright. Inside, the box was lined with dark cloth and there were a number of books in a messy pile. A strong smell rose from the box. Air-borne poison? It was musty and acrid at the same time, not like the smell of old books. He edged closer and used the sword to flip one of the books out onto the floor. 'Can you see anything from you side, Huan?'

'No… yes! There's a rope in there.' Beregar edged forward and poked his sword tip at what he saw. There was a movement among the books, and the rope turned into a snake, striking at Beregar's sword. It rose up from the pile of books, hissing loudly, its fat triangular head drawn back on its coils for another strike.

'Puff adder,' Denethor said tersely. 'It can strike forwards or to the side.' The cat's yowl was almost a scream. The snake's head twisted back and forth, not sure which target to face. 'I will taunt it to make it strike, then you hit.' Denethor edged forward, sword out, edge up to the serpent. It bared its fangs. He flicked it with the tip of the sword and it lunged, seizing the bright blade in its jaws. Just as fast, Beregar slashed downwards, severing its head. Its body thrashed amongst the books while its jaws remained clamped around Denethor's sword. It had bitten so hard that it had partially severed its jaw on the blade edge. Denethor used Beregar's sword to scrape it off his own.

'Keep everyone away. These things can bite even after their heads are cut off,' he ordered. 'There may be another one.' He and Beregar stabbed and lifted the other books from the box and slashed the cloth lining searching for any other serpent, but there was just the one. They speared the pieces of the snake that had fallen outside the box and put them back in along with the books and rewired the box shut. Beregar carried it out to the kitchen yard and burned it. A guardsman scrubbed away the blood and venom from the study floor.

Finduilas and Aiavalë were waiting for Denethor in his study. 'Beruthiel,' Finduilas said flatly.

Aiavalë nodded. 'Probably. That snake is from Harad, but it would have been found in the archives when they looked at the books before sending the box on.'

'I didn't look to see what the books were,' Denethor admitted.

'It doesn't matter.' Finduilas shivered and hugged herself. 'Aiavalë, a message must go to Lark at once, for she may also have a deadly box.' The Archivist nodded and went to Denethor's desk to write the note. 'Friend, what are we going to do?'

'For now, nothing. Warn all the sisters. We need to find out where this box came from and trace it back to her.'

'Why nothing?' Finduilas asked.

'Because there must be proof and of the kind that may be shown.'

'We know she is behind this…'

'We think she is behind this, and we're probably right, but…'

'Will it take one of us dead before you will act?' she challenged.

'I need something solid, irrefutable, to be able to strike back without having all of west Anórien rise up in rebellion in her defense, which will swiftly be followed by an invasion from Mordor, seeking to take advantage of our division. We know not which side Rohan will take.' Finduilas stared back, unconvinced. When Aiavalë finished her letter, the two left to find a messenger.


The letters from the north asked for patience His own son hung from a gibbet and eaten by carrion crows, yet he does nothing! The words in the tower were said more loudly with each year that passed. He watched the gibbet from a high hill in Emyn Arnen, the spyglass showing him the fate of those who gained the Usurper's displeasure. So it would be for those who earned the King's displeasure.


Pelennor, Mid-November, 2985 T.A.

'I still say she was behind it.' Aiavalë sat across the desk with a sour look on her face.

'It is likely, but we must be certain it did not come from Umbar. They are known for their inventive use of poisons.'

Aiavalë grimaced and read over the letter from Lark once more. The box with the snake had not been opened in Pelargir after all, and had been sent directly to Minas Tirith from the archive there. Lark was aghast at the news and had all the boxes from Harad opened and examined for unanticipated cargo. No snakes, but a number of spiders and scorpions had tumbled out.

'Someone put that snake in that box,' the Archivist said. 'It could not have wiggled in like a bug. It was too big.'

'Agreed, but there are any number of enemies who could have done this. We also don't know if this was intended for Lark or for you.'

'It came here.'

'It could have just as easily stayed in Pelargir and been opened by some unsuspecting archivist.' Denethor was taking no chances, however. No unexpected gifts were allowed into either the Stewards House or the Tower, and every box, bag, barrel, and bottle was closely examined, regardless of its origin. He also was not away from the house unless he had to conduct business in the Tower. Even if Maiaberiel had not set that particular trap, she would be tempted to use it herself if she heard how successful it had been. He suspected the culprit probably was Hallatan, who had more than enough reason to want harm to come to those loyal to Denethor. But is it your association with Umbar or with Beruthiel that emboldened you? 'Ask Lark how the boxes were sealed, and get samples of the wire if you can. If the box here was closed the same way, then the snake was introduced before the boxes left Harad. If not, we need to see who has access to wherever the boxes were stored.'

'It could have been put in along the way.'

'No. Ragnor's son is the trader Lark uses. He would not allow any to tamper with his goods. Harad, which says Umbar, or Pelargir, which leaves the question open.'

The door to Denethor's study opened and Boromir came in. 'Father, Mother sent me to remind you that it is almost time for dinner.' There were a few small leaves stuck in his hair and dirt on his knees and shirtsleeves.

'And do not think to escape afterwards, Master Morcollë!' Aiavalë warned. 'You have been remiss in your lessons lately.'

'Master Laanga needs me to help in his garden. Oh, and Mother said she needs your help with something, Auntie.'

Aiavalë chuckled. 'Changing the conversation again, are you?' Boromir shrugged, trying, and failing, to look innocent. 'You shan't be rid of me so easily after dinner!' She kissed her nephew and left.

Denethor gave his son a stern look. 'You have been missing your lessons?'

Boromir's expression became guilty. 'Not that many.'

'You should not miss any. Are you going to the garden?'


'You will finish your lessons first from now on, and ask permission to go to the garden.' Denethor did not like Boromir spending so much time in the herbalist's company now that he knew the truth about the creature's nature. You may not mean harm, but that is not the same as meaning well. 'What are you doing there?'

'Lots of things. I climb the tree and pick herbs and fill sacks and dig holes and…'

'Time better spent on your lessons.'

'And I find things.' Boromir dug into his pocket. 'Like this.'

In his dirty hand was the key to the Tower chamber. There was no mistaking it. It took Denethor a moment to speak, for his mouth had gone dry. 'Where did you find that?'

'In the garden. We were digging up some ground to plant bulbs and I found it.'

'Give it to me.'

'Why? I found it. It's mine!' Boromir protested, sticking the key back into his pocket.

Denethor opened his mouth to order Boromir to hand over the key, then thought better of it. Take it, and he will try to get it back, and he will always ask about it. A conversation he had once had with Steward Turgon when he was about Boromir's age came to mind. 'Why? Very well, you shall have an answer, but you must act like a prince, not a baby.' Denethor pointed to the chair Aiavalë had vacated. Boromir sat. 'Please put the key on the desk before us, so we may study it together.' Denethor leaned back in his own chair and steepled his fingers, composing his argument.

'There are four reasons why you should give me something if I ask for it, Boromir. First, I am your father, and you owe me your very life. A key is worth less than that. Second, I am your lord and to me you owe your fealty and obedience. Did you not swear that to me before all the assembled lords of Gondor?' Boromir nodded. 'So, to deny my command is to break an oath and be disloyal.' Boromir was abashed and picked up the key, holding it out. Denethor shook his head, motioning for his son to put the key down. 'There are more reasons, and you must hear them all. Third, you must think always of how you may gain advantage in an honorable way. To give a gift to someone is to put them in your debt. An honorable man will seek to discharge that debt to you with greater generosity and so maintain his own honor. A dishonorable man will not, and so you know he is not to be trusted. If someone admires a bauble or a small trinket, give it to him and use it to judge the man. Finally, you should be generous with your possessions so they do not possess you. It shows you are a noble man who bestows gifts upon others, and men will know that you will prize them for their worth and not their gold.' Denethor folded his hands in his lap. 'Those are the reasons why you should give something to your lord when it is asked. What do you say to that, prince?'

Boromir picked up the key, studying it intently, then he smiled and hopped out of the chair, coming around the desk. He held out the key to Denethor, who nodded graciously and took it, resisting the urge to cram it deeply into his own pocket. 'And for what reason have you given this to me?'

'Another reason.' Boromir smiled. 'Because it makes you happy, like when I give you my pictures.'

Denethor pulled Boromir into a tight embrace. 'Yes, Morcollë, it does. I now know that I have an obedient and honorable son, the finest son I could wish for.' Boromir beamed at the praise. Denethor held up the key. 'I shall keep this cast-off key forever, more precious than gold, for it will always remind me of you. But now, I must ask you to go without dinner.'

Boromir's face fell. 'Because I didn't give it to you right away?'

'No, because you and I must go to the second circle at once.'


'You have put me in your debt, you see, and now I must be even more generous in return, lest my own honor be diminished. Even a Steward must answer a gift.'

'What do I get?'

'I think it is time for you to have a true sword.' The look of delight on Boromir's face assured Denethor that the key would soon be forgotten. 'But we must be swift and silent, for your Auntie will have both our ears if she knows you're going to miss your lessons again.'

The two pulled on their cloaks and crept down the stair to see if the hallway to the wall Door was clear. They scooted out the door, ran along the wall to the stair near the tunnel, walked briskly to the second circle where the swordsmiths plied their trade and went up and down the row, inspecting their wares. There was a small blade, slightly longer than Boromir's wooden practice sword, done by a smith Denethor knew forged good swords. The man fitted the grip and sharpened the blade. They left the sword with another craftsman to make its scabbard and went to The Messenger's Rest for their dinner. Aiavalë was very incensed when they returned, giving Denethor a swat and taking Boromir by the ear into the solar for his over-due lessons.

Denethor stood in the hallway, his hand in his pocket, and turned the key over in his hand. While on their jaunt, he had thought carefully about how the key had come to be in Laanga's garden. No more an accident than the snake. The herbalist might have picked it up from the ground in the court, but then would he not have taken it to the Tower to find its owner? Nor was it likely that Laanga had taken it during his visit to tend the reopened Dragon Fire wound. Even a wizard would not know what door went with this key, so there would be no reason to take it. Only two people knew what this key went to.

He walked into Finduilas' study and shut the door behind him. She looked up with fondness and exasperation. 'Lady Lore is wroth with you, friend.'

'I know.' Denethor came over to her desk.

'Where did you take the cub?'

'It was time for him to have a sword, so we went to the second circle.' Denethor came around the desk and sat on the edge of it, looking down at her. The news of the sword did not please her. 'I have a question, prince.' He pulled the key out of his pocket and held it up where Finduilas could see it. It was obvious she recognized it at once. 'Why did you give this to Laanga?'

'To keep you from the stone.'

'I see.' Denethor slapped her cheek once, very hard. Finduilas did not protest or raise a hand in defense, but her eyes smoldered. 'You had no right to do that.'

'You face enough danger without it. If you are wise, you will cast it away.'

'With the stone, I could have been watching Maiaberiel or other threats. I could see who she speaks to, who she sends out…'

'You can't watch everything!'

'But I can see much more.' Denethor stood. 'If I am to guard you and Gondor, I must have the stone.'


Denethor did not visit the palantír chamber for several days after recovering the key, but went to the archives and studied again all there was written about speaking through the stones. He could not risk being taken unawares by Sauron through the orb and forced to speak what should remain hidden. It had been almost a full five years since he had last used the palantír, so he must also be careful not to exhaust himself while regaining the skills that had dulled over time. During all of this, Finduilas spoke to him very little and refused him her bed, not that he expected anything else. His slap had left her face marked and he was shamed by his lack of control.

On a clear, cold day a week after reclaiming the key, Denethor climbed to the top of the Tower and opened the chamber door. The Dwarven lock turned easily. Wind blew through the open windows, making some stray leaves rustle upon the floor. The original drape for the stone was crumpled under one window, damp and smelling of mold. On the stone table, in the center of the compass rose, the palantír sat, laced into its leather sack. Denethor touched the lanyard through his shirt. Protect me from that dire gaze. For a moment, he felt the weight of an invisible hand upon his shoulder. He had taken no chances – he carried Finduilas' book in an inner pocket of his tunic. It seemed wise to carry a poem that spoke of the Fiend's besting by a valiant pair. Perhaps it was not wise to taunt such a creature, but Denethor could not help but speak of his humbling,

'O demon dark, O phantom vile
of foulness wrought, of lies and guile,
here thou shalt die, thy spirit roam
quaking back to thy master's home
his scorn and fury to endure;
thee he will in the bowels immure
of groaning earth, and in a hole
everlastingly thy naked soul
shall wail and gibber – this shall be
unless the keys thou render me
of thy black fortress, and the spell
that bindeth stone to stone thou tell,

The hand that had rested on his shoulder gave Denethor a rap on the back of the head. 'Very well, no boasting,' he muttered to himself. Yet, is that not what I seek? Some way to undo your grip upon us and dismantle your Dark Tower forever? Even the combined might of Elves and Men could not perform that deed. He never had understood why the foundations of Barad-dûr could not be torn asunder if Sauron had been driven away and his armies scattered. But it is power alone that will undo a Power.

He positioned himself facing west and north, his back to any watcher, and undid the lacings on the sack before upending it over the depression in the center of the table. The palantír rolled into place with a solid thunk. At once it caught the light in the room, and began to sparkle, with whorls of color spinning within the dark depths. Denethor shut his eyes and ordered his thoughts to he would not be dazzled. He thought very clearly of the garrison in Anórien, the lay of its yard, the stables behind, the curve of the road before it. When it was fixed in his mind, he opened his eyes and looked into the crystal. At first it resisted his gaze, delighted at being set free from its close prison, but like a spirited horse, the palantír allowed itself to be curbed, though it was restive and shied away at sudden motions. Shortly, the garrison took shape. Denethor saw Gethron leaning on the wall of the training yard, talking to a man who was familiar. Gundor. The men in the yard were red-cheeked from the cold, but moved easily, one side with swords, the other side with spears.

It had only been a few minutes, but already Denethor could feel the strain of the stone. The mariner took his shoulder and gave him a small tug, warning him to return to shore. Not yet. One more thing. Just a hope. Denethor let his gaze swoop over the green expanse of the Drúadan Forest. Rising from its midst was Eilenach. It grows upon heights. He searched the crown of the hill, but found only the watch fire and its tenders. With a sigh, Denethor dropped his eyes and sat upon the floor of the chamber until his limbs ceased their trembling and he could pull the cover over the stone.


Minas Tirith, Mid-December, 2985 T.A.

It seemed wrong to keep something as beautiful as the palantír trussed up in a sack, so Denethor took a heavy drape from the Dwarf Hold in the archives and used it to cover the orb. Among the stars and crowns and trees embroidered across the cloth, Denethor found large pearls cunningly captured in nooses of thread and suspected these were oblique references to the palantíri. They were not moons, for the moon and the sun were already present in the pattern, their circles overlapping.

He was careful to measure himself and never lose command of the stone, even as he was tempted to abandon himself to the whirl of visions. Every day he surveyed the stone was balanced by several days of rest. It pleased him how quickly his mastery returned. With each use, he could look further and for a longer period of time than before. The stone seemed pleased to have its master return, eager to swoop over the land and bring things to his notice. Denethor was careful never to look directly east, not yet. In time, when I have practiced. Once he thought he felt an icy gaze upon his back, and the lanyard tugged insistently, warning him to shroud the palantír. He wondered if that was what Finduilas felt when the Enemy looked at her.

He could now see to Pinnath Gelin due west and all the way to Isengard in the north. Today, however, Denethor wished to see just how far he could see, and he knew what would anchor his search. He concentrated on the Anórien garrison to get his bearings as he always did when looking north. It took shape at once, so sharp he could see the steam rising from the soldier's breath as they went about their duties. Denethor closed his eyes again and this time thought not upon a place, but upon a person. Where are you? For a moment, nothing, then felt an all too familiar tug on his heart, a touch he had not known for five years. For a second, he rebelled, not wanting to acknowledge the claim, but curiosity got the better of him, and Denethor allowed himself to be reeled in. When the presence was so close he thought he could reach out and touch a solid form, Denethor opened his eyes and looked into the stone.

In the stone, it was grey. It had been like this, too, when Denethor had watched Thorongil in the southern caravan. All he could see was the man himself, just as he had seen only Elendil clearly in the vision from the past. Today, however, the grey was as much the weather as the mists of the palantír. Water dripped from the boughs of the fir tree under which the captain had taken shelter. Thorongil was wrapped in a heavy dark green cloak, stained and soiled from use, and he was smoking a pipe. His boots were muddy and his beard somewhat unkempt, as during a weeks-long campaign. The man sat still, only the blink of his eyes and the exhalation of pipe smoke bearing witness to him being alive and not a painted statue. Some things have not changed. Denethor watched for a while, wondering if Thorongil waited for someone, but no one arrived. Finally, the pipe was finished and Thorongil tapped out the ashes. You were to have returned and shared a pipe with me. I have some left. As quickly as that, Thorongil's head snapped around and Denethor was looking into the man's eyes. You heard that. Thorongil's eyes searched for something. When he did not find what he was looking for, he scowled, put away his pipe and cast his hood forward, hiding his face.


Minas Tirith, Late December, 2985 T.A.

With the year-end festivities and the approaching Great Council, what little time Denethor had apart from his duties as Steward was promised days beforehand. Finduilas insisted on a full schedule of parties, suppers and dances for them to attend, leaving him few opportunities to use the palantír. He did not think it an accident. Finduilas continued to refuse him her bed, though she would allow him to sit at her feet in the evenings while she sewed. Denethor accepted that exile and was content to be patient.

The mystery of the serpent was slowly being solved. The box turned out to have been clamped shut with different wire than the other boxes, so the hunt had narrowed its pursuit to Pelargir. The snake itself had to have been brought from the south, for Gondor winters were too cold for these serpents and it was a mature adder. Denethor had sent a letter to Ragnor asking for him and his sons to find out who might have brought such a deadly cargo to the port. If I find it was you, Hallatan, you will wish you had naught but a puff adder to battle. Lark had confirmed that the box had been on the list of those delivered from the caravan, and scolded Denethor for burning the books with the snake, for they had been valuable.

Tonight, Marlong, Wren and Lark were their guests for supper. Marlong had been in Pelargir seeing to the southern garrisons before the winter storm season began in earnest and had accompanied Lark on a boat upriver. Wren rode from Anórien with only two servants and Mab for company, which irked Marlong. Wren was unrepentant.

'Shall I cower before her?' Wren had asked when Marlong grumbled again about her not traveling with a strong enough guard.

'There are dangers enough upon the road, wife, as you well know!' Marlong retorted. 'Remember the ruffians who set upon our lord and lady in the forest. We never found where they came from.' Denethor exchanged a glance with Finduilas. You would not believe me if I told you, Captain. In the shadows near the door of the study, Beregar stirred uneasily, rubbing his mouth and chin with the back of his hand.

'And our roads are safer than most, thanks to me,' was Wren's tart reply. 'Our taxes are no longer being drawn off by Minrimmon and so we can pay both to fix the roads and for honorable men to ride them.' Wren had discovered that a number of village headmen in Anórien claimed to have been deceived about paying their taxes to the crown in Minrimmon rather than directly to Minas Tirith, though she suspected it was more because they paid less to Beruthiel or perhaps because they feared not paying to her. Wren had made it clear that all taxes were to be paid at the garrison, and had won concessions from Hallas and Núneth to keep much of the coin in Anórien, allowing her to win back those swayed by Maiaberiel's largesse and power. Older men who had once been soldiers had been recruited as sheriffs to patrol roads. Men who had idle hands because of bad weather and poor harvests were paid well to mend fences, roads, bridges and walls. There were far fewer of Maiaberiel's banners being hung than before, even in the lands close to Minrimmon.

Denethor raised his cup to Wren. 'Anórien has not been so lawful in years, Governor. We thank you.' She preened under the praise. 'But it would be prudent to travel with a larger group at this time of the year, if only because weather can make your route treacherous.'

'And even I agree with that counsel, sister,' Aiavalë said before Wren could protest. 'A horse can throw a shoe no matter the road. Or the ruffians.'

Imrahil leaned forward. He had returned only that day from reviewing Cair Andros, Henneth Annûn and Osgiliath, and was lean and shaggy. 'What of Rohan? I hear little news from there anymore.'

Wren quickly swallowed her mouthful of wine. 'Aldwyn says that Morwen says that they need gold. Gríma wishes for more trade with Beruthiel, but they have little to offer for sale. Théoden is going to lose favor with the young men who are eager for battles if he does not send them out, though there are more Orcs along the northern borders and this gives them something to fight. Also, that is the fastest way to get gold quickly.'

'And what is Brandir counseling?' Denethor asked. Brandir had not sent any news of Rohan in over a year. Or he has sent news and it did not get through.

'Patience, and to keep his people near. Morwen is beginning to distrust his advice as it is much to the benefit of Minrimmon.'

Finduilas shook her head. 'A fool sees more clearly than the wise, at times. I trust that Brandir counsels Théoden truly, without thought for Beruthiel's advantage. Even so, that may not be to our advantage.'

'Perhaps I should go to Rohan in the spring, Denethor?' Imrahil said.

'Perhaps you should.'


Denethor hastened up the Tower stairs, taking them two and sometimes three at a time. Finduilas was visiting Violet and Lark, giving him a scant space of time before dark to look into the palantír. He had been watching Thorongil for a few minutes here and there ever since the first time he glimpsed the man. The captain had continued his solitary journey through the wilderness. It was raining most times Denethor looked, though Thorongil seemed to care little what the weather was like. Most times the man was walking east.

After securing the chamber door behind him, Denethor twitched back the drape and stood looking north and west. It took no effort now to find the king – his heart always knew where to look. When Denethor opened his eyes, however, he was startled by the vision in the globe. It was filled with a blue-grey mist and there was only a vague dark form of the captain to be seen. Is he in smoke? Denethor concentrated intently, willing the mist to part.

When it did, he could but gape. The ragged ranger was transformed into a great king. He was clad in rich robes and girt with silver. A gem flashed upon his chest, catching the light of a lamp or torch Denethor could not see. Under his boots was a floor cunningly fashioned of shimmering tiles laid in a beautiful pattern that dazzled the eyes. The king walked away down a hall, looking for something. Stone and woodwork came out of the mist as Thorongil passed, more perfect than any Denethor had ever seen. What place is this? Words from a thousand years past came to him – "The Elves gave shelter to the Queen and her daughters..." – and another piece of the mystery of Thorongil fell in to place. And the Elves shelter you still. It explained a great deal of the man's odd qualities. Now Denethor wished to go back over some of the captain's reports and look more carefully at the archaic phrasings and odd linguistic constructions.

The strain of the concentration he needed to see Thorongil through the blue mist began to tell, forcing Denethor to lean on the table to stay standing. Around his neck, the lanyard began to tug, warning him not to exhaust his strength. Go away! I need to see while I can. Denethor leaned away from the strong pull. Let me see! Thorongil whirled around at that thought, a wonderful smile on his face, and held out his hand. Denethor tried to take it. Only the appearance of another hand in the palantír kept him from jamming his fingers into the stone. With a laugh, Thorongil pulled Finduilas into his arms.

Denethor's legs gave out and he hit the floor with a thump. No. No. Not this. Not real. For a moment, Denethor wondered if a palantír could hold visions of things that had never happened, or that might have happened, had fate been different. Perhaps the blue mist indicated a dream, not a… He pulled himself onto his knees and tried to look into the stone again, but the lanyard pulled him off balance. Denethor yanked the noose from his neck, cramming it into a pocket. I must see! He threw his heart at the palantír, demanding that his lord show himself.

The mists parted reluctantly, showing two figures in a close embrace, arms about each other, foreheads touching. They had turned slightly so he looked at them in profile. What should have been. No. As he examined the woman's face, Denethor could see differences between her and Finduilas. There were no lines on her face. No strand of grey could be found in her hair. The skin on her hands was unblemished. She was more perfect. No, not more perfect! Denethor cast about, refusing the spell of this woman. Not so. Not… human. It was an Elf. There was no other explanation. An Elf that looked like Finduilas. He looked again closely and saw a ring of serpents on her right hand. Their green eyes and the golden flowers were exactly as Finduilas had drawn them.

Denethor felt for the drape and pulled it over the palantír. He sat back against the cold stone table, feeling like he was going to vomit. All a lie. It was all just a lie. In one glance, all had come undone. Denethor's head began to pound. He pulled himself to his feet and descended the Tower, leaning heavily on the wall to keep himself upright.

Finduilas had not yet returned from her visit when Denethor got back to the house. He put away the lanyard and sat near her chair. Beregar soon tapped on the door and said the lady had sent word she was staying with Lark for supper. Denethor nodded and Beregar withdrew.

[Lie! Still!] Halmir knew. He had warned that Thorongil lied about everything. Denethor better understood the Lost's anger with his lord. You knew how he played us for fools. You begged for me to make him leave. But there was the captain's final letter, his confession of failure and profession of love, and the man's flight from faction. No. Thorongil wrote that with the wizard's help, and they conspired to hide their true intentions, as they always had. I gave you everything you asked for and stayed my hand when others counseled me to be rid of you. Denethor wrapped his arms tightly around himself, trying to keep his heart in one piece. What more did you want of me? Caution, even secrecy, these he could understand. A king has enemies even more surely than a steward; silence on grave matters was warranted. This was a lie. That he and Thorongil should resemble each other, well, they were of kin, if distantly, both counting descent from Calimehtar. But that these two women should be so alike… Thorongil and Mithrandir both knew of the Elf when they first looked upon Finduilas, given their reactions. How you have toyed with us, Thorongil, you and Mithrandir both. Every beat of his heart brought a new horror. Beautiful, protected, perfect, immortal, the chosen. The Powers have already extended their grace, and we have it not. We cannot repent, for we, too, are chosen. For two such pairs to be at the same time was not mere happenstance. The Elf wore the Ring of Barahir, either as wedding band or betrothal pledge. But, why then did you court Finduilas? Was it just to taunt us? Finduilas must not know this. She still thought Thorongil to be true of heart and it would crush her to know how false he had been.

The fire was almost burned out before Finduilas retuned. 'Denethor?'


She came into his study. 'Are you well, friend?'

'Of course. Why do you ask?'

'Because Huan said you have not stirred from this spot and did not eat supper.'

'I love you.' He could not stop the tremors. 'You are perfect, and I love no other.'

Finduilas came over and knelt next to him. 'Friend? What is wrong?'

'Nothing. I… miss you.'

Her kiss was tender. 'Is that it? You repent of your cruelty?'

All is cruelty. 'It does no good.' He felt her wipe his face. 'I can't…' His weakness overwhelmed him. 'I can't keep them away.'

Finduilas touched her forehead to his. 'Then I will stay.'

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