He stood that evening next to his father Ecthelion at the great doors of Merethrond, the Hall of Feasts. As he had done for a score of years and more, saving only those times when duty had kept him in the field, Denethor smiled courteously and greeted each entering guest to the Steward's Feast.
Every mettarë night, the nobles of Gondor gathered here to celebrate the eve of midwinter and the last day of the year. The tradition had begun centuries before, as a way to encourage all the greater and lesser landholders to come to Minas Tirith once in the year. Though the season was chill, snow rarely fell this early save in the Ered Nimrais, and while they might not make the journey every year, many of the distant lords did enjoy the excuse to travel regularly to the capital. Most arrived early in the month of Ringarë and spent the weeks before mettarë meeting with the Steward and their fellow nobles. Their families, meanwhile, explored the city, searched for bargains at the tradesmen's stalls, danced and dined together; Ringarë was traditionally the month when betrothals were made between the sons and daughters of the great houses of Gondor. (1)
Indeed, the Steward had spoken to his son at the beginning of the season, reminding Denethor once again that it was time and past time that he marry.
"The House of Húrin must have an heir," Ecthelion had declared, fixing his son with a firm gaze. He had leaned back in his chair and rested his elbows on the carved arms, steepling his fingers in front of him.
"It has one. I am your heir," Denethor had replied stubbornly.
Ecthelion had dismissed that with a wave. "And after you? Your sisters are long wedded, but they have borne only daughters. You must marry, and soon. I wish to see a grandson before I die."
"Die? You?" Denethor had scoffed. "You are as tough as the hide of a mûmak, Father, and not like to die."
"Life is chancy, my son, and the staff of the Stewards is no lighter weight than the Wingèd Crown must have been – as you will one day learn," Ecthelion had said.
"Long may that day be in coming," Denethor had murmured politely.
"Indeed. But you seek to change the subject. I have given you many years, my son, to find your own bride, and you have not. Now must I command your obedience in this matter. You will marry, and soon. If you do not choose for yourself this winter, I will find a woman for you."
And there it stood. Denethor had no wish to explain to Ecthelion just why he had never sought a wife. As he continued to mouth the pleasantries appropriate to the occasion, bowing to or clasping hands with each guest, his mind drifted back to his twentieth year.
Lotheluin had been his eldest sister Sellas's closest friend, some six years his senior, and he had cherished a passion for her that none other had since inspired. She had the dark hair and fair skin common among those of Dúnadan blood, but remarkably blue eyes rather than the usual gray. Denethor had first noticed her at a riding-party; she chose to ride garbed like a lad, rather than wearing the divided skirts usual for young noblewomen. He had been greatly taken by the freedom with which she moved, so unlike most girls of his acquaintance. But he had not yet summoned the courage to tell her of his feelings when her betrothal to the heir of Ethring was announced and his hopes were dashed.
She was here tonight with Baran, of course. They had been among the first to arrive. He had seen her in passing over the years and she had never ceased to take his breath away, though she showed no sign of realizing her effect on him, being clearly content with her husband and children. Her presence at the earlier dinner-parties and dances of the season had held his attention nonetheless, so that despite Ecthelion's command, he had found himself scarcely able to look at other women.
I wonder, had I but spoken all those years ago, might she not have been mine?
This evening his hand had trembled as he had lifted hers to his lips, but he had passed it off with a laugh and a quip about the chill of the air in the doorway
But to tell Ecthelion of his feelings would have made him weak in his own eyes. Therefore Denethor resigned himself to the inevitable: he would have to wed some woman, and Lotheluin was no longer free. He must take this last opportunity before Ecthelion would choose his bride for him; that would be humiliating indeed.
So although Denethor stood now with his father as he had done many times before, this year was different. Now he forced himself to attend closely to the sisters and daughters of each lord he greeted, evaluating them as suitable partners, rather than simply dismissing them from his thoughts as soon as they had passed.
"Good mettarë to you, Forlong," he greeted the lord of Lossarnach.
"And to you, lord Denethor. How fares the Captain of the White Tower?" came the rumbled reply.
"Well enough; glad to have the holiday to celebrate. And you and your family?" said Denethor courteously.
"We are all well, though not all present in Minas Tirith this year. You recall my wife Caradhwen, I am sure. Our son Derlong is now sailing with the fleet in the Bay of Belfalas, and could not obtain leave. But our daughter Elerrína comes tonight to the feast and will join the dancing for the first time," said Forlong.
Denethor took the girl's hand and bowed politely over it.
"Welcome, my lady," he said.
She giggled, and blushed, and looked back at Denethor as her parents shepherded her into the hall.
Not that one. He shuddered. She is far too young, and I have not the patience to rear a child bride.
He felt Ecthelion's gaze upon him and turned to the next guest.
"Duinhavel of Morthond, greetings. And your son Duinhir. How pleasant to see you both again. How fares it in the Blackroot Vale?"
"All is well there. My lady wife remains at home with our younger children this season. It seemed like to be rough traveling for a woman expecting, so I brought only my eldest lad," answered Duinhavel gravely.
"I am pleased that you felt able to make the journey, then. Good mettarë," said Denethor, and the men of Morthond continued on.
Next in line was one of Denethor's fellow captains. Dark-haired Thorongil was one of the few men the Steward's Heir had ever met who matched him in height; truth be told, the other man was a shade taller. They even resembled each other in appearance, with the set of eye and jaw that usually marked only the greatest kindreds of Númenórean descent, though Thorongil claimed no such connection. He had taken service bearing a recommendation from King Thengel of Rohan, and had quickly risen to lead his own troops in Ithilien across the Anduin River. Gondor still claimed the region. None of her folk had lived there, however, since the Enemy had returned to the fastness of Mordor just to the east nearly twenty years before.
Ecthelion thought highly of Thorongil's abilities as a leader of the Rangers in Ithilien, but Denethor was not so easily disposed to trust a man concerning whose history he knew nothing. Thorongil was notoriously tight-lipped about his past, saying only that he had grown up in the northlands before joining Thengel's éored.
A bastard, I make no doubt. But surely there can be no truth in the rumors that he is also my father's son? I know that my father has at times patronized the houses on Nightingale Street, but I did not think he did so before my mother's death – and Thorongil is my own age, near enough.
Denethor clenched fist against thigh, remembering his own single abortive visit to those houses. The lushly decorated rooms, the careful poses of the waiting women – though he knew they were meant to invite, he had instead been repelled, leaving in haste, thankful that he had tried the venture alone. At least there is no chance such rumors will ever attach to me. No. They cannot be true. As Steward to Heir, Father would have told me, warned me. Our resemblance is pure chance, the fellow is just some northerner, perhaps once an outlaw as well. But at least unlike some of the other captains of dubious birth, he has manners fit for these feasts, thought Denethor grudgingly as he gave the man a perfunctory greeting.
Thorongil appeared not to notice his chilly reception by Denethor. He spoke for a few moments to Ecthelion before bowing respectfully to both the Steward and his heir and disappearing into the increasingly crowded hall.
Denethor continued to meet and greet the guests, careful to personalize his remarks to each. Ecthelion had often reminded him that without the support of the lords great and small, the authority of the Stewards could scarce be maintained. Seeing that all felt themselves to be well-known and appreciated by the ruler helped to ensure their continued loyalty.
Half an hour later, the line was nearly at an end, much to Denethor's relief. He had had no time for the noon meal, with all the preparations to oversee, and the smells of roasted meats were beginning to make his stomach clench in anticipation. He glanced at the next family party, preparing to say one of the usual pleasantries, and thought for an instant that Lotheluin again stood before him.
"My lord," said Prince Adrahil of Dol Amroth to Ecthelion. (2) "May I present my son and heir, Imrahil."
The Steward inclined his head as the young man bowed. Denethor shook Imrahil's hand absentmindedly. He had eyes only for the young woman who stood by Adrahil's side.
"And of course I remember your daughter Finduilas," said Ecthelion gallantly. "Could your mother not join the rest of the family this year, my dear girl?"
She shook her head, and answered, "No, my lord, I fear she is unwell this season and was unable to make the journey."
Of course. Adrahil's daughter. How did I not see her before? Because you looked only at Lotheluin, Denethor. Well. She would serve, would she not? The daughter of Dol Amroth would be more than suitable as the bride of the Steward's Heir. His mind played with the ramifications of such an alliance even as Finduilas turned to him and curtsied gracefully.
"Good mettarë to you, lord Denethor," she said.
He recollected himself, speaking a few appropriate words and bowing, before the family moved on and he turned to receive the next person in line.
At last all the guests had entered, and the Steward gave the command to let the banquet begin. Normally Denethor enjoyed the feast, but despite his hunger on this night he ignored a plate of his favorite roasted quail as his eyes roamed along the tables set throughout the hall, searching until he saw Finduilas again.
She sat next to her young brother Imrahil among the other young folk and lesser lords halfway down the great room. Though on mettarë night considerations of rank were set aside, Denethor was surprised to see the Prince of Dol Amroth and his family seated so far from the high table. Finduilas leaned forward to hand a silver saltcellar to her father across the board, and he saw that the man seated on her other side was Captain Thorongil. He was speaking intently to Adrahil, and the latter nodded thoughtfully as he cut a slice of roast pork. Denethor could see him offer it in courtesy first to his daughter, who waved it away, and next to Thorongil, who evidently accepted. Adrahil carved another slice for himself and leaned forward to reply to Thorongil.
Nodding at the Prince's remarks, Thorongil then turned to Finduilas and spoke again; her head turned slightly to show her lovely profile clearly to Denethor as she laughed at Thorongil's remark.
Denethor felt a pang of apprehension, remembering his delay with Lotheluin. So Thorongil amuses her? I hope that is all. The man wins hearts all too easily – the men of his company, the other officers, even the Steward himself. May he not find the heart of Finduilas so quickly swayed. She has the look of a woman who knows her own mind, as Lotheluin did.
The rest of the meal passed in a haze, as he considered how he might follow his father's demand and pay court to the lady. He ate and conversed with the lords and princes seated at the high table, but afterward had no idea of what he might have eaten or said. He looked forward to the dancing that would follow the feast as he had never done before. Dancing had always seemed to him a foolish pastime, something to be mastered for the sake of courtesy to women. Now for the first time he was glad of his skill.
He would have liked to approach the girl during the meal and ask her to give him the first dance, but decorum forbade it. He would simply have to maneuver towards her through the crowd and hope to claim her hand for a dance before the evening was out.
As ill-chance would have it, Denethor was doomed to begin with Elerrína, Forlong's giggling daughter. He replied civilly but absently to her awkwardly flirtatious remarks, apologized for his clumsiness though it was she who trod on his foot, and relinquished her gratefully to young Duinhir of Morthond when the opening dance came to an end. He glanced around, but Finduilas was nowhere in sight. Reluctantly he turned to choose another partner and bowed to Eilinel, the widowed Lady of Tolfalas, leading her into the newly forming line.
As they danced, Eilinel chatted of the fish runs of the past year and other such local matters. The biggest excitement on the island, or so she said, had been her son's wedding at midsummer. He had been but a weakly child when her husband was drowned in a winter storm, and their folk had dreaded lest they lose their ruling family altogether.
"But he lived, and throve, and now is safe wedded and a babe expected already," she said cozily. Then she gave Denethor a wink. "And when can we hope to hear the same of you, my lord?"
Denethor cleared his throat. He had always rather liked Lady Eilinel – she was a third cousin on his mother's side, and he thought of her as an aunt – and so he did not take offense at the question. "Oh, perhaps sooner than you might think," he said, as lightly as he could.
"Ah," she said knowingly. "Some girl here tonight has caught your eye, I suppose. I hope not the one you danced with last. She is pretty enough, but she would never make a good Steward's helpmeet."
Denethor mumbled a negative. He had no wish to insult Forlong – it was not the man's fault that he had a foolish daughter – but he certainly did not want Eilinel that he had such poor taste in women.
"Well, I'll not press you to say who. I'll merely hope to find out at your wedding within the twelvemonth," she said, and swept a beautiful if slightly mocking curtsey as the dance ended.
He took the opportunity of a pause in the music to resume his duties as a host, hoping that he might also be able to find Finduilas in the crowd as he circulated and made certain that all present were having a pleasurable evening. He reached one end of the room and turned back to move along the other wall when he saw her.
She was dancing more gracefully than any other maiden in the room, as if the music of pipe and viol were in her made flesh. Compared with her even Lotheluin was awkward. It will be no hardship to dance with Finduilas, no, nor to pay her court. Denethor felt his own face break into a smile as he stepped forward, intending when the music stopped to ask her if he might have the pleasure of the next dance, but his expression became fixed as he noted the partner in whom she apparently found such delight: Thorongil.
Of course. A rival for command, why should I not expect him as a rival here as well? He dined with her, and now they dance together. But no matter. He can hardly have met her before this evening, and for all his successes on the field, he has no home or lands to offer any woman, as far as I or anyone has ever heard tell. And I am certain he would have too much pride to beg a place at his bride's table.
He shook his head slightly, and bowed.
"My lady Finduilas," he said. "If you have not already promised away the next dance, might I have the honor?"
Finduilas replied, breathless, "Why, certainly, my lord Denethor. I would be delighted."
She turned to her previous partner. "Thank you, Captain Thorongil, for a most enjoyable dance."
"My pleasure, lady. I hope we may repeat it soon." Thorongil bowed to Finduilas, bowed again to Denethor, and departed, making his way through the press towards the tables on which flagons of spiced wine and other refreshments stood waiting to slake the dancers' thirst.
Too bad Thorongil is too conscious of his responsibilities to overindulge in the wine. Denethor dismissed the thought as unworthy. Finduilas's station is far above such a man, and I would imagine she is wise enough to know it. No daughter of Dol Amroth could be unaware of the necessity of making a suitable alliance.
He was resolved not to waste this chance, and after they had exchanged a few commonplaces about the weather and the city, he asked, "May I see you tomorrow, lady?" He realized with mild astonishment that he was waiting anxiously for her reply.
His request surprised her, and a slight flush stained her pale cheek. The steps of the dance drew them apart just then, and when again they were close enough to speak, she answered, "I regret, my lord, that I have already promised to ride tomorrow afternoon with Captain Thorongil."
So he has beaten me twice already. I could wish that tomorrow were not yestarë, for he would not be able to find so many free hours were it not a holiday, thought Denethor a trifle grimly. But third time pays for all, they say.
He pressed, "The following day, perhaps?"
"Why, certainly, if you will. When may I expect to see you?"
Denethor thought quickly. Normally he was busy throughout the daylight hours, but if he worked on First Day instead of taking the holiday. . .
"An hour after noon, if that will suit you. I thought I might show you the city, if you would like and the weather holds fair?"
"That would be very much to my liking, sir," Finduilas said in her sweet voice. "I have visited Minas Tirith before, but I do not know the city well at all. I should enjoy having you show it to me. I thank you for the dance," she added, as the melody and their steps came to a halt.
Imrahil stood close, waiting to step out with his sister. He was younger than most of those present – the children had been taken away by their nursemaids after the meal – and shy about asking strange girls for a dance, it would seem.
Denethor felt himself curiously reluctant to part, taking Finduilas's slender hand and bowing over it. He raised his head to say, "Thank you. I have rarely had such a fine partner. I will come to your father's house two afternoons from now." He turned away, exulting in his success. How foolish I am, to be so happy over such a small thing. But where is the harm in it, after all?
For the rest of the night, Denethor wore a small and unaccustomed smile. Ecthelion noted it at once, and nodded to himself, but held his tongue until his son should speak.
The music and merriment in the Hall of Feasts lasted until the early morning hours, when slowly the celebrants trickled out into the chill night, mingling as they left the Citadel with the lesser folk of the city, who had held their own festivities that evening. High above in the sky, Menelvagor swung to the west, his sword gleaming through thin wisps of cloud. Denethor glanced out of his window as he prepared to retire, and gave the heavenly swordsman a friendly wave.
"Good mettarë to you," he murmured, then looked down, as if through the wall of the seventh circle he might see the town house of the Prince of Dol Amroth. "And to you also." The smile lingered on his lips as he drew the shutters closed and stepped to his bed.
(1) Mettarë was the last day of the year, a day of festival that fell outside the months. Ringarë was the last month of the year, equivalent to December. Yestarë, another festival day, was the first day of the calendar year.
(2) In point of fact, Adrahil was not yet the Prince of Dol Amroth at this time. His father Angelimir was still living, and survived until 2977. (HoMe, vol. 12.) For the purposes of this story, I postulate that Angelimir's health would have been failing, however, and that he had effectively retired so that Adrahil was ruler in fact if not in name. Thus for simplicity's sake I refer to Adrahil as the Prince.