Actions

Work Header

Hands of the King

Chapter Text

Can you draw out Leviathan by a fishhook?
Can you press down his tongue by a rope?
Can you put a ring through his nose,
Or pierce his jaw with a barb?
Will he plead at length with you?
Will he speak soft words to you?
Will he make an agreement with you
To be taken as your lifelong slave?…
Lay a hand on him,
And you will never think of battle again.

40:25, Book of Job

***

"And Covenants, without the Sword, are but Words, and of no strength to secure a man at all."

"Of Commonwealth, " Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes

***

"So good-bye to thee – and wrong not Captain Ahab, because he happens to have a wicked name. Besides, my boy, he has a wife – not three voyages wedded – a sweet, resigned girl. Think of that; by that sweet girl that old man has a child: hold ye then there can be any utter, hopeless harm in Ahab? No, no my lad; stricken, blasted, if he be, Ahab has his humanities!"

"The Ship", Moby-Dick, Herman Melville

***

I saw Othello's visage in his mind, And to his honors and his valiant parts Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.

Scene I, Act iii, Othello

*******

Minas Tirith, mid-April, 2974 T.A.

Denethor turned a corner in the hallway and willed himself to keep his pace measured. He wished to hurry back to his study in the Stewards House and consider the events of the morning. The council meeting had bordered on insulting, as was becoming more common in his dealings with the Steward. Another morning spent listening to Ecthelion laud Thorongil for minor accomplishments. Another morning replying to persistent, detailed questions that belittled his own efforts. Another morning having it shown, if not said, that the High Warden of the White Tower, the Steward's own heir, was of less importance than a mercenary. What made this morning different was the audience.

Adrahil, newly made Prince of Dol Amroth, had been witness to their subtle sparring. Why does the Steward reveal this discord before the Prince? Until now, Ecthelion had been careful not to contest with him too openly in front of others, and certainly not before visiting lords of the outlying fiefs. The Steward had read the reports; he knew who had written them, who had done the thinking, who provided the counsel, yet always it was to Thorongil that Ecthelion turned with his questions. And his compliments. His heir, political second, and the Captain-General of his forces was given scant regard.

Denethor noted that his hands had clenched as he thought over the maneuvers of that morning and he made himself relax. The tall man took a deep, slow breath, released it, letting his thoughts move to consideration of the falas lord in order to distract himself.

Dol Amroth followed the oldest traditions of Númenor when it came to inheritance. The ruling prince would surrender his office well before death, allowing the heir to assume that position. Angelimir, the elder prince, had surrendered the princedom to Adrahil the previous fall, on Angelimir's one-hundred and seventh birthday. The new prince had come with the soft warmth of spring to swear his fealty to the Lord Steward and to take council on matters of trade and defense. It was Adrahil's first visit to Minas Tirith in ten years, when he had met with Denethor and other captains to plan the retaking of Osgiliath. The decade had added a few lines to the man's face and had increased the acuity of his questions. This was someone to keep as an ally.

'Lord Denethor!'

Denethor halted at Adrahil's hail, turning to face the prince. The older man strode briskly towards him, the light from the windows glinting off his close-cropped silver hair as the prince moved from sunlight to shadow and back. As long as Denethor had known the prince, which was close to thirty years, the man's hair had always been silver-white. Aside from Thorongil, the prince was the only man Denethor knew of who approached his own height. Also like Thorongil, the prince was difficult to look in the eye. There was a keenness to their gaze that daunted, and a thoughtfulness that made one doubt one's own mind. Always, they observed, weighed, judged.

'Prince,' Denethor politely greeted Adrahil as the other drew close enough for normal conversation.

'May I be so bold, Lord Denethor, as to ask to accompany you to your next appointment?' the prince replied. This is… interesting. Denethor smiled slightly and inclined his head.

'I would be grateful for your company, Prince Adrahil. I go to call upon the Lady Emeldir and pay her my regards for the day.'

'Then we are fated to be companions, sir,' Adrahil replied with a warm smile, 'for I, too, am due to pay my respects to your lady mother, and to collect my own ladies. Luinil and our daughters are attending Lady Emeldir this morning.' Denethor bowed a little more deeply, allowing his shoulders to join head and neck in the movement, and gestured for them to walk. They fell into a slow, easy pace. Denethor waited for the older man to speak his mind, as was both polite and politic. It was not a long wait.

'So, that is Thorongil.'

'Yes. That is Thorongil.' Always Thorongil. Denethor turned his head slightly to hide any sign that the statement irritated him. Adrahil would see what was easily hidden from lesser men. When the prince did not reply, he looked over at the other. Adrahil watched him intently.

'What do you think of him, Warden?'

'I think him the best mercenary we have hired in service to Gondor, Prince,' Denethor replied honestly. What do you really wish to know?

They had left the Tower through a side corridor on the third floor and were now upon the walkway that edged the Court of the Fountain, leading towards the wall of the seventh circle. The walk and the wall intersected at the edge of the great ship's prow that divided the City. From there, one could continue walking east to the point of the promontory, or could turn north or south and follow the circuit of the wall. The Stewards House stood against the wall to the south. Southern breezes brought spring up Anduin, tugging gently on their cloaks. Adrahil remained silent until they had turned the corner towards the house.

'You seem to be in disagreement with the Lord Steward over this captain, Warden.'

Denethor halted. He took a moment to be certain they would not be overheard and to compose his reply. An honest answer did not mean a thoughtless one.

'I am not in any disagreement with the Steward over Captain Thorongil, Prince. The Steward shares my opinion that the captain is eminently suitable to head the garrison at Pelargir and to oversee the southern troops. Do you, perhaps, bring a complaint from the south over this captain's handling of the defense?'

'No, I have no complaint. I have heard naught but good of him. Thus, I was greatly surprised that you and your lord father appeared to be having some contestation over the captain's reporting this morning.'

Denethor allowed his brow to wrinkle in confusion. 'Contestation? On what do you base this? I was not aware that there was any contestation or disagreement in council this morning. Unless you count as contestation my refusal to supply more bowmen? I thought I had explained that well and courteously enough, and that the captain accepted my judgment in like spirit. Do you think otherwise?' Denethor had to concentrate on keeping his voice mild and slightly bemused. How should it be that I would contest my own reports? The fact that Thorongil himself always gave credit for the information and thinking to Denethor where it was due could not help but undermine him, even as it confirmed his work. It was as if Thorongil were praising a subordinate. It would be better if he simply took credit.

Adrahil turned and leaned upon the City wall, gazing out over the Pelennor, considering. The less said to the prince, the better. Denethor joined the prince and looked away south, towards the Harlond below the Rammas Echor. Faintly, he could make out the white dots of a flock of gulls, and idly wondered if the prince's keen eyes could pick them out better than his own.

'It struck me as odd that your captain should be more like to your commander, Lord Denethor.'

'Why do you say such?'

'What have you done to so displease your lord father?' Adrahil's bright, grey eyes met Denethor's own, and he had to remind himself not to look away.

'I do not understand you, Prince.' What have I not done to displease him? Or he to displease me? It was now clear what Adrahil wished to know.

Adrahil said nothing for a full minute, then nodded. 'As you wish, Lord Denethor.' The prince refused to drop Denethor's eyes. 'Let me ask a different question, then, and I think you shall understand. What do you know of this captain?'

I understand all too well. You wonder at Ecthelion playing favorites, do you not? Well, so do I. Affecting nonchalance, Denethor began to reel off the known facts.

'The captain presented himself at Edoras sometime in 2957, offering his sword. Thengel was glad to have him, the Mark having been left in great disarray by his sire, Fengel. According to the king, Thorongil appeared as though by chance when Thengel had none to order East Emnet and the Wold against Orc incursions from the Brown Lands in the years immediately after he took the throne. Thorongil spent eleven years serving Thengel, until spring of 2968, when he presented himself to the Lord Steward with Thengel's letter.'

'I had heard he was out of Rohan.' Adrahil finally looked away, but only for a few moments. What else have you heard, prince? And what do you wonder? 'As if by chance? You think it not so? I hear it is uncertain whether he is of the North.'

No one had ever questioned Thorongil's presence in Minas Tirith so directly before. Most who understood such things accepted the Lost if the Steward did, and those who did not were glad for the northern mercenaries. Thorongil himself was simply the most illustrious of many fine northern soldiers. Of course, there were always a few tall, dark-haired young men who appeared out of Rohan every so often and who would seek service in the army. Young men who often resembled other young men born in the south and who never quite explained the manner of their own birth. They certainly were not Eorlingas. Thengel did not mind such men, and made sure that they learned the speech of Gondor ere they set out for service in that land. Most of these ostensible northerners never departed, and often married reasonably well.

'I think little is by chance, though perhaps much is by misfortune, in these times, Prince. At the same time as he appeared in Gondor, an old wanderer in grey also began to take an interest in Gondor.'

'The wizard? Mithrandir?'

'Mithrandir.'

Adrahil looked away for a longer time, thinking. 'You think there is more to these two appearing at the same time than mere chance, then?' A glance, now, instead of a stare.

'I think that wizards are always meddling in things that are not their proper concern, and that Mithrandir has visited Minas Tirith more than his usual wont since Thorongil appeared.'

'This displeases you?'

'This intrigues me.'

'Ah.' Adrahil scratched idly behind one ear, thinking hard. 'But we were talking of Thorongil. Is it certain he is from the North? What else can you say?'

I can say much, but I think I shall keep my peace. 'There is not much else to tell, in truth. I am as certain as I can be that he is of the Lost. Thorongil says nothing of himself, as is typical. He has the look, and asks the usual payment. None of them ever question his commands, though they are less friendly with him than with each other.'

That Denethor had not been able to puzzle out. The Lost were a tightly knit group, saying little to others. There were no known marriages between them and Gondorian women. They stayed in their garrisons, fought with grim efficiency, and disappeared back into the northern mists when their service was at an end.

Until Thorongil. He was different. The captain's speech was odd compared to that of the other rangers, though all of them sounded peculiar to southern ears. Thorongil also fought in a manner different than any Denethor had seen before, unlike the Lost or the Rohirrim, incorporating elements of both as well as something else. It was the distant, almost cold regard of the Lost towards Thorongil that was the greatest mystery, however. It made Denethor think that the man was perhaps some kind of outcast or had no proper leave to be here. Or has simply assumed their manner, and they dare not protest for fear of having to explain themselves.

'That is all you know?'

Denethor merely shrugged. 'He is an excellent commander, he obeys where obedience is required, and acts when decisions must be made. You have heard him speak, and you obviously know of his deeds. There is not much else of interest.'

'Why is he still here?'

'The Lord Steward has asked him to remain in the City for the week while…'

'No. Why has he not returned north?' Adrahil left off examining the plain below and pinned Denethor with his bright eyes once more.

Why indeed? The northerners served one five-year term of duty in Gondor, then left, usually to be replaced within a few weeks by another dark, taciturn warrior. In the fifth year, when he should have resigned his position, Thorongil easily assented to the Steward's request that he remain, not even asking for promotion. That was wrong; they always leave if they are from the north. Ecthelion had turned to Denethor then and asked him to name what post should belong to Thorongil. It had been a simple decision, and was quite popular in the City. It had also removed Thorongil from the Osgiliath garrison. The Lost have sent us one of their finest in these dire times. I should be glad for his presence, Denethor sternly told himself. The captain is a tool to be used against the Shadow. Do so and pay the rumors no mind. Not for himself the pettiness of jealousy towards the captain. The Steward would not push humiliation so far as to endanger the defenses. As long as that was the case, he must bear the rivalry and do his duty towards the realm.

'I fear you shall have to ask Captain Thorongil for the answer to that question,' Denethor blandly replied.

'I believe I shall,' Adrahil replied, dissatisfaction evident. I wish you luck, prince, in uncovering the captain's, or the Steward's, secrets. Even I cannot puzzle them out with certainty. 'But, however he may have arrived here and whatever he may have to say for himself, the captain's estimation of our situation can be trusted, yes?'

Denethor nodded emphatically. 'Yes, without reservation. He is careful in his statements, and it is rare that his estimations fall short of or overshoot the mark. You need have no worry as to whether he will take close care of the southlands. I would not have assigned him that garrison had I any doubt.'

Adrahil's eyebrows went up a fraction. 'You assigned him that command? Not the Lord Steward?'

'Yes.'

Adrahil waited for more information. Denethor did not offer any. Finally the prince smiled thinly and gave his head a small shake.

'Is Captain Thorongil as forthcoming as yourself, Lord Denethor?'

'Yes.'

At that, Adrahil laughed merrily. 'As masterful in politics as in battle you are, Denethor. Very well, it shall be as you wish. I am in agreement with you that the most skilled bowmen are going to be more effective in Ithilien and Anórien than they will be on the southern deltas, but I concur with Thorongil that more bowmen are needed in the south.'

'I do not disagree, Adrahil. I believe we need more bowmen in all locations, as I made clear, but we have only what we have, and those are best used east and north. Swordsmen and spearmen are the best for open plain battle, particularly as the enemy is short of horsemen. A dozen horsemen with spears will serve us better there than a dozen bowmen, horsed or unhorsed.'

'Is there no way to increase our bowmen, then?'

'All who train in arms in the City must master at least the simplest handling of a bow, by my order. Any who have talent are noted and required to train more, even should they prefer another weapon. I spend a good amount of time in the yards myself, training up the most likely prospects. In fact, some fine ladies are taking up a bow in the practice yards, if only to shame the men into doing better.' The attention had paid off. They now added more archers every month than they lost, and most swordsmen were at least serviceable archers at need. 'How do you train up bowmen in Dol Amroth?'

'Much the same as you, though our ladies are a bit less eager to callous their hands with feathers and bowstrings. Perhaps I may take in a few lessons with you during my stay? Your prowess as an archer is well known, even in the falas.'

Denethor smiled slightly and bowed his head to acknowledge the compliment. 'You flatter me, Adrahil.'

'No, I do not. I have seen you with a bow, in practice and in battle.'

'You shall come to the yards and see if the rumors are true.' Denethor returned Adrahil's glance. 'Will you have any extra bowmen to add to the southern forces this year? You did not answer that question in council.'

Adrahil scowled and shook his head. 'I fear not, sir. The shadow of Umbar is falling on Belfalas.'

'It falls no less heavily upon Pelargir and Ethir Anduin.'

'But you are well-armed and well-led in those regions, while Belfalas offers a more tempting target, being both fat and poorly patrolled.'

'Your forces are second only to those of Minas Tirith itself, Prince, as was evident in council but a half-hour past. I think any in Umbar who think Belfalas poorly led has forgotten the lesson of Langstrand.'

Adrahil waved away the mention of his own command prowess. 'We were forewarned by fishermen, and it was but a matter of waiting for the pirates to disembark before trampling them. We never did get the ships, not even to burn them. That would have marked a true victory. As it was, they have learned only that they need more secrecy, not that they need fear us.' The man scowled again. 'We need some way to meet them at sea.'

'If Gondor is short of bowmen, it is even more short of shipwrights. The sea-knowledge of Gondor left with Castamir. Could we find the hands to man a navy still we would lack the ships. Should we try to build any in the old havens, that will rouse the ire of Umbar, and guarantee attack.'

'There is knowledge enough and ships enough along the falas to put together a raiding fleet, Denethor.'

'Perhaps, but you know more than I whether the men will be willing to leave their coasts unguarded for as long as it will take to mount more than some small harassing raids. Again, I think we can only incite the beast to attack, not give it a good fight.'

'I must admit some dismay as to the Lord Steward's position on the Corsairs.' The quick shift back to the business of the White Tower reminded Denethor that Adrahil was interested in more than the ordering of the falas.

'I appreciate your sentiment, Prince. I trust you intend to discuss this matter with the Lord Steward more thoroughly over the course of your stay in Minas Tirith?' No, you will not get me to contradict Ecthelion. Not this way.

Denethor heard footsteps along the walkway as someone approached from the Tower. He was not sure whether he should be amused or annoyed that it was Thorongil who stepped around the corner. Not by chance, even when chance it is. The captain saw him and the prince standing against the wall, gave a polite nod of acknowledgement, and turned to take the steep stairs down to the alleyway below. Adrahil's back was to the captain and he did not see the man. Perhaps you should have the chance to talk to our secretive eagle sooner rather than later.

'Captain Thorongil, would you join us?' Adrahil whipped around to watch the captain approach. The tall, strongly built man carried himself lightly, yet with a grave air, as though always on the edge of a profound thought. Rather like a wizard.

'My lord, my prince,' Thorongil evenly greeted them.

'Captain,' Denethor replied in kind. 'Prince Adrahil and I were just discussing the problem of Umbar.' As he hoped, a fierce look came to Thorongil's face. There were few topics that could rouse the mysterious captain's spirit, and none affected him as much as the topic of Umbar. Why should that be? These small chinks in Thorongil's calm façade were tantalizing hints of the man in full.

'And how might I be of assistance in this discussion, sirs?' It was not simply imagination. Thorongil's voice was sharper, more eager.

'I fear I am in disagreement with both the Lord Steward and the Captain-General on the threat offered by Umbar, Captain Thorongil,' Adrahil responded.

'Then you shall be in disagreement with myself, my prince,' Thorongil said firmly. 'I hold with my Captain-General that Umbar is a great threat.'

'Does that not, then, put both of you into disagreement with the Lord Steward?' Adrahil asked.

Denethor said nothing. After looking over at him, Thorongil carefully replied, 'I believe it is a disagreement in degree, not in kind, my prince. We all know Umbar to be a threat and a strong one. The only question that remains is how great a threat, and a commander in the field is well advised to presume an enemy is as strong as rumor and report would have it. The Lord Steward is certainly not unaware of the threat of Umbar, if that is what you mean.'

'The prince wishes for more bowmen in the south to counter this threat,' Denethor pleasantly offered, earning a sharp glare from Adrahil. It was now Thorongil's turn to refrain from an answer.

'The prince wishes for a more concerted defense, not merely more bowmen, against this threat, my Lord Denethor,' was Adrahil's slightly waspish reply. Denethor noted a small twitch at the corner of Thorongil's mouth as the man suppressed a smile. The captain gazed south, down Anduin, ignoring the other two men as they sparred.

'Regrettably, such a defense would require a navy of our own, as we have just been discussing,' Denethor offered.

'Then the Belfalas will need to create its own defense and hold off the pirates and raiders of the south.'

'Yes, Prince, but has that not always been the case? Minas Tirith guards the River and southern and eastern land approaches, and Dol Amroth stands firm against the enemies who travel the waves.'

'Then it shall be Dol Amroth who suffers the losses, for Umbar will not attempt the River while the Pelargir garrison stands. Perhaps we should dare to build a few warships of our own upon the coast. If nothing else, we might reduce their threat with a few victories.'

'That's not what is…' Denethor and Thorongil looked at each other, startled, as they spoke the same words at the same moment. Thorongil bowed his head and motioned for Denethor to speak.

'That is not what is reported out of the south, Prince Adrahil,' Denethor repeated. Thorongil nodded his agreement. 'We have had some reliable news that we have not seen the true strength of the Corsairs.' He motioned for Thorongil to take up the report.

'Various sources agree that Umbar is greatly increasing its shipyards. What the raiders send against us now are old and decrepit vessels that can do little more than raid an isolated fishing village. Not since Langstrand have they offered a true fight. They are wearing out their old fleet, not repairing it, and the ships are badly undermanned. More than a few have ended up on the rocks of Tolfalas or stuck in the tidewaters of Ethir Anduin. They are building a new fleet under the direction of an old enemy. What they send out now, they expect to lose.'

Adrahil looked back and forth between the other two, concerned. 'Why was this not said in council?'

'I do not know, my prince. The Steward felt other concerns were more pressing, I presume.'

'Not more pressing to me!' Adrahil growled. 'How reliable are they, these reports?'

'Reliable, but vague, indirect,' Denethor had to admit. 'We can get no spies into Umbar itself, and rely on news of what Umbar trades in and out of the merchant bazaars on their borders.'

'What of the Faithful?'

'They would send news only of the most dire kind. They cannot risk contact for anything less.' Adrahil pondered this news for a moment, then turned to Thorongil.

'Tell me, Captain, what do you think the import of this news?'

Thorongil glanced over at Denethor for permission to speak. Receiving a nod, he said, 'There are no certain answers, Prince Adrahil, but the most likely outcome would be a single large invasion along the entire falas, with particular attacks upon Dol Amroth and Pelargir, possibly in combination with a push on land across the Poros and up into South Ithilien.'

Adrahil said nothing in reply at first, simply watched the two of them with his bright eyes, measuring. 'You describe an invasion of a size not seen since the Steward Beren's reign.'

'Aye.' Again, they spoke with one voice.

'I thought that the forces of Umbar, no matter their long hatred, have dwindled even as those of Gondor have done. How could they provide such an army?'

'Faithful or darkened, the blood of Númenor fails, it is true,' Denethor replied, 'but evil hearts spring up in all types of men, and the Nameless Enemy brings his servants together more effectively than we can rally our allies.' He held those bright eyes sternly, and eventually Adrahil looked away.

'I myself think it even more dire than Thorongil has presented,' Denethor continued. 'If Pelargir can be overrun, and the falas tied down, what is to prevent the Enemy from retaking Ithilien or Osgiliath?'

'What stands in our favor,' Thorongil interjected, 'all that is in our favor, is time. It will take them years to build this fleet, and they dare not attack in any great force until it is ready.'

'And in that time,' Denethor concluded, 'we must demonstrate to the Lord Steward that it is not exaggeration and to win his support in meeting this threat. And to figure out precisely how we can defeat a great navy when we have none of our own. Just a few small matters.' He glanced at Thorongil, and they shared a small, wry smile. He knew Adrahil watched them more intently than ever, looking for some sign of division, of conflict. You will see none.

'Have these reports been confirmed independently?'

'Yes. From fairly reliable sources,' Denethor replied. Adrahil said nothing, but crossed his arms and considered all of the news.

Bells chimed, announcing the fifth hour.

'My Lord Denethor, we are late to our next appointment! The ladies will be most put out at us,' Adrahil joked, though the humor was strained. He was still thinking about the news of Umbar.

'Do not let me keep you, sirs,' Thorongil began, with a small bow, preparing to depart.

'No, you must come with us, captain! We go to pay our regards to the Lady of the White Tower, and I am to collect my own ladies. I know that they would very much like to make your acquaintance.' Denethor watched a small look of alarm enter Thorongil's eyes and decided he wished to be entertained this morning.

'You are quite right, sir, the captain must come with us.' Denethor's face and tone gave no hint to his delight at Thorongil's pleading expression. 'You will be able to pay all of your respects at once, captain, and earn your freedom for the rest of the day.' Denethor began walking, knowing the other two would fall into step beside him. Adrahil was chuckling.

'Ah, yes, say hello, makes one's excuses, and run as quickly as possible back to the barracks! Be glad you are but a soldier, captain. Were you one of the lords of the City, all your spare time would be taken up with these niceties,' Adrahil said with false joviality. Thorongil smiled and made no comment. Denethor contented himself with a thoughtful sound and led the way to the Wall entrance to the Steward's House. The Prince was quite strongly on the scent, but was the scent false? Only the letters between Ecthelion and Thengel could illume the question, and Denethor was not certain they even existed anymore.

They entered the house. Denethor paused momentarily at the door to his mother's solar, the first room along the hall on the second floor, but decided the visit called for a more formal entrance and led the way to the entry hall a floor below. There, he pulled a bell rope to summon the Matron. In less than a minute, she came downstairs, keys jingling at her belt.

'My Lord Denethor?'

'Madam, please inform my lady mother that I, Prince Adrahil and Captain Thorongil wish to pay our respects this morning.'

'Of course, sir. One moment.' Soon, the matron returned and gestured for them to follow. The men were led back upstairs to the solar, a large, sunny room with glazed windows that overlooked the wall. Women sat in three pairs around the room. He went first to his mother and kissed her lightly on the cheek.

'Mother.'

'Denethor. I believe you know Princess Luinil.'

'Indeed I do, though it has been far too long since I was last able to greet her in person. Princess.'

'Lord Denethor.' Adrahil's wife's eyes were a pale, unprepossessing blue, dulling an otherwise lovely face. Her handshake was firm, though her eyes were not on him at all, but looking beyond him to Thorongil. He stepped to the side and gestured for the captain to approach.

'Mother, you of course know Captain Thorongil.'

'Lady Emeldir,' Thorongil courteously addressed her, bowing slightly. Emeldir gave Thorongil a cool stare and a small nod.

'Princess Luinil, my senior captain, Thorongil.'

'Princess Luinil,' Thorongil repeated, bowing exactly as he had to Emeldir.

The princess offered her hand. 'I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Lord Thorongil.' Denethor saw his mother arch an eyebrow at the title bestowed on the captain and wished he could turn around to see Aiavalë's expression. Thorongil looked very uncomfortable, but smiled and shook Luinil's hand. Adrahil stepped forward and gave Emeldir a kiss, murmuring his greetings. When the prince straightened, he took the men by the shoulder and guided them towards the other two pairs of women.

'If I may provide the introductions, gentlemen,' Adrahil said, coming to a halt before the first pair. 'Lady Maiaberiel, you are more lovely than ever, my dear.' Denethor's sister preened under the praise. She was widely accounted the most beautiful woman in Minas Tirith. And one of the most dangerous to cross. Denethor and Aiavalë had not nicknamed her "Beruthiel" for nothing. 'May I present my eldest daughter, Ivriniel. Ivriniel, Lord Denethor, High Warden of the White Tower, and Captain Thorongil.' A young woman almost as beautiful as his detested sister offered her hand.

'Lord Denethor.' Her eyes were the same grey as her father's, though lacking the inner brightness. Her polite smile widened to friendliness as she turned to greet the captain. Denethor watched, caught between exasperation and amusement, as the girl discreetly flirted with Thorongil. He glanced over to the final pair and noted his eldest sister and her guest exchanging amused looks over Lady Ivriniel's flirting. Adrahil soon steered them in that direction.

'My greetings to you, Lady Aiavalë,' Adrahil said in a formal tone, bowing slightly to the Steward's eldest child. What, no exclamations over her loveliness? No endearments? Denethor gave Adrahil a dark glance. His sister inclined her head graciously, but said nothing. Denethor leaned down and kissed her cheek through her veil.

'Sister.'

'Brother.' Her eyebrow quirked up in amusement at the prince. They had long ago learned to tell each other's thoughts just from looking at the eyes. 'Thorongil,' Aiavalë added. She never bothered with "Captain."

'Archivist.' Thorongil never bothered with her name. It suited them both.

'And this is my daughter Finduilas,' Adrahil said in a much less formal tone. 'Finduilas, Lord Denethor and Captain Thorongil.' The girl looked up and Denethor was captured by her eyes. In this, she clearly took after her father. He felt himself examined, measured, weighed and judged as acceptable in just the moment of her glance. Denethor could not really say whether she was beautiful or not as he could not look at anything in her face besides her eyes. She offered her hand matter-of-factly.

'I am pleased to meet you, Lord Denethor.' Her handshake was firm and unhurried.

'The pleasure is mutual, my lady.'

'Finduilas.' A correction, given without hesitation.

'Finduilas.' Denethor bowed over her hand, then stepped out of the way to watch her greet Thorongil. She looked intently at the captain, much as her father had done on the wall when Thorongil walked up. What made Denethor wonder was how intently Thorongil stared in return. A glance at Aiavalë showed she, too, had noticed this unusual reaction from the steadfastly distant captain. It is as though he sees Umbar. His sister looked at him briefly and he nodded a hair. This would need to be discussed later.

'Captain.' The coolness of the girl's tone, almost a perfect match to his sister's greeting brought Denethor's attention back to Finduilas. She was not smiling as her sister, Ivriniel, had done. She was thinking.

'My lady.' Thorongil was still staring. Finduilas removed her hand from his and nodded a dismissal.

'What have you gentlemen been discussing in your council this morning,' Princess Luinil asked, 'or is it too secret to talk about?' A warm look passed between the husband and wife, and the prince went to join her. Denethor quickly sat next to his sister, giving her left hand a squeeze as he did so. Thorongil retreated to a chair across from Beruthiel and Ivriniel and did his best to look only at the floor or the prince.

'We spoke no great secrets, but I am not certain we said anything that bears repeating,' Adrahil began. 'This morning was given over to the reports prepared by Lord Denethor and his captains. I suppose we could tell you how many hundred-weights of corn and how many wagons of hay have been sent to Pelargir, if you really wish to hear of it, my ladies. Is there anything of greater interest to be discussed this afternoon, Lord Denethor?'

'The progress of repairs to the barge at Cair Andros will be, I believe, the most important point of discussion this afternoon, I am sorry to say.' Unless you decide to bring up the question of Umbar. That would make for a very interesting meeting.

'I do not think we need to hear the quartermaster's list for each garrison, but it would be good to know how we fare generally,' Luinil told Adrahil. The prince nodded and began a brief but accurate account of the condition of the major posts, occasionally asking for a detail from Denethor or Thorongil. It was the report of one ruler to another, and the princess listened carefully. Finduilas and Aiavalë also paid close attention, and he could tell from where and how his sister narrowed her eyes what parts of the report Aiavalë would question in greater depth later. Luinil thought for a moment after Adrahil completed his account, then asked for more information about where and how men from Belfalas were being used, never losing track of a location, a name, or a rank. That was not a mistake earlier, was it, Luinil? Whose reaction were you watching when you called a mercenary a lord? He would have to keep a close eye on the entire Swan house, it would seem.

Not long into her mother's questions, Finduilas began coughing. It was a low, nagging cough, barely more than throat clearing, but the fit did not wish to end. Denethor rose and brought some water to the young woman, but this only soothed the cough for a short time.

'If you will pardon me, I need to step out for a breath of air,' Finduilas apologized. Aiavalë was on her feet in a moment, pulling Denethor up with her.

'Come,' his sister ordered. Before he could protest, his sister had one arm, Finduilas the other, and he was escorting the women out of the room. They had to pause in the hallway as Finduilas coughed very strongly, but were soon out on the circle wall, strolling back and forth before the Steward's House.

'Are you well, Finduilas?' Aiavalë asked with much concern. She kept one hand resting on Denethor's arm for support, but did not walk closely so her limp would not cause her to bump into him. The breeze pressed her veil against her face and she had to hold it away from her mouth to talk.

'Oh, yes, Aiavalë, thank you. Sometimes the air becomes too close indoors for me to breathe easily, and a short walk outside sets things to rights,' the younger woman assured her.

'What will you do in the archive, then? The air is much closer there, and the dust can be terrible.'

'I shall need to stop often and walk outside, is all,' Finduilas replied with a sigh. 'Are you certain there will be no objection to me going through papers?'

Aiavalë let out a barking laugh. 'Of course not! I am the Master Archivist, and you will be there with my permission. You will need to handle the documents as I tell you to, lest they be damaged. If you do that, you may look at what you will.'

Denethor was greatly intrigued, and held his tongue, hoping the women would continue. He could not remember Aiavalë ever speaking so freely to someone she had just met. Indeed, aside from himself, her archivists, and a few particular servants, his eldest sister scarce spoke more than a word or two before others. He was also intrigued as to what the girl was going to be looking at and whether it was business for the prince.

'I shall follow your instructions precisely, my dear Lady Lore,' Finduilas teased, 'for I most certainly do not wish to be made to spend all of this spring sitting attendant upon Ivriniel.'

'You will be here all spring?' Denethor asked, surprised by the news. He had thought the Swans would return to Dol Amroth after the Prince was done taking counsel with the Steward.

'Yes. Mother has decided that she wishes to spend the season in Minas Tirith. We shall depart when the summer heat descends,' the girl pleasantly replied.

'Will that be enough time to finish your research?' he pressed, hoping she would let slip what she was looking for. The girl looked at him keenly and did not answer at once.

'I have no clear object of research, but I trust I will find one.' Finduilas paused to cough.

'That sounds as if it is something serious,' Denethor noted with concern. 'Are you always short of breath or is this a passing malady?'

Finduilas stopped and faced him, and once more he was caught in her bright gaze. 'Yes, I am always somewhat short of breath, though more so when I need to sit still for a long period of time. I have had a cough like this as long as I can remember, though it changes with the seasons, sometimes better, sometimes worse.'

'Shall we walk more, then, Finduilas? If motion relieves the malady.'

She smiled. 'The moment has passed, but I think I should prefer a quiet stroll upon the wall to returning to the room. I do not need an escort, Lor…'

'Denethor.' She nodded.

'Denethor. I do not require an escort if you need to return to your business.'

'The other gentlemen shall be out in a few minutes, if I am any judge. Having spent all morning in council, I, too would prefer a quiet stroll, and I believe I speak for my sister, as well.' The three continued south along the wall.

'Finduilas,' Aiavalë asked, 'can nothing be done about this illness?'

'I fear not. I have tried many medicines and cures, but it remains.'

'You need to go to the Houses of Healing in the sixth circle,' Denethor firmly replied. 'The greatest healers of Gondor are there. Perhaps they will know of a cure.'

'Yes, you must!' Aiavalë added crisply. 'I shall hold you to it.'

Finduilas laughed and patted the Archivist's arm. 'Very well, I shall obey!'

They walked along the wall for a hundred yards and by the time they returned, Thorongil, Adrahil and the other women were waiting. The captain excused himself to prepare for the afternoon meeting with the Steward, and the prince took his ladies back to Vinyamar, their residence in the fifth circle. Denethor went to Aiavalë's suite of rooms and they discussed their mornings.

*******

Characters introduced in this chapter, in order of appearance:

  • Denethor – High Warden of the White Tower, Captain-General of Gondor, only son and third child of Emeldir and Ecthelion, 43 years old
  • Adrahil – Twenty-first Prince of Dol Amroth, 57 years old
  • Thorongil – Captain of the Pelargir garrison, 43 years old
  • Emeldir – OC, Lady of the White Tower, wife to Ecthelion, 88 years old
  • Luinil – OC, Wife of Adrahil, Princess of Dol Amroth, 56 years old
  • Maiaberiel – OC, Second daughter of Emeldir and Ecthelion, 51 years old
  • Ivriniel – First daughter of Luinil and Adrahil, 27 years old
  • Aiavalë – OC, First daughter of Emeldir and Ecthelion, 59 years old
  • Finduilas – Second daughter of Luinil and Adrahil, 24 years old

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Mid June, 2974 T.A.

For a while the dreams had stopped, but they reappeared with the oppressive heat of the early summer. Muggy air filled her lungs the way the water in the dreams would envelop her body. Finduilas woke, choking, gasping for air, and rolled out of bed to kneel on the floor, bracing herself with her hands as she coughed, and coughed, and coughed, trying to clear the yellow-white phlegm from her throat. Sometimes the dreams would be cleared away as well when she had finished, and sometimes they would cling, like the residue in her throat, a constant irritation she could neither ignore nor be rid of.

Her dreams were always about water. As a child, they were of herself, standing on Tower of Dol Amroth, straining to look beyond the curve of the Sea. Her father teased her that the line of Galador could see along the Straight Way, though they were barred from traveling upon it, and might glimpse the towers of Avallónë. Finduilas spent many hours upon the tower, seeking the towers, but only in her dreams did she espy them, glittering with gems at the edge of her sight. That was the only dream of note she had until the spring of her eighteenth year when the Sea rushed in to her heart and mind, and made her breath like water.

They came quietly at first. Finduilas dreamed of walking to a quay beside her king and placing an evergreen wreath upon the bow of his ship, watching the ship sail down Anduin or out of a great bay. Then came the storm-wrack, and she felt herself standing upon a high place or flying along in a buffeting gale. Ships were tossed and thrown about by the Sea, and over all of them was an eagle, wings outstretched as though to keep the worst of the storm from overwhelming the battered vessels. Her childhood dreams of a glimpse of Avallónë darkened and became her standing upon the tower, watching the waves climb up towards her. She would turn to run higher and the tower would turn into a steep hill, and she gasped as she ran to escape the waves. Sometimes the waves would wash her away, but more often the great eagle would stoop down from the heavens and snatch her up from the encroaching flood. Together they would watch the fragile ships make their way to a haven.

The waves would reach up for her, slapping at her. Sometimes she would be knocked from the eagle's grasp, sometimes her would simply let her go. If not, he would bear her to the top of a great battlement that overlooked a wide plain or would leave her upon the pinnacle of a tower, surrounded by wasteland. In either place the flood would follow her, seeking for her, but turned to black, crawling armies swarming over the earth, crashing and breaking upon fortress walls as the Sea did upon the quay in Dol Amroth.

When the ship bearing herself and her family from Pelargir had docked at the Harlond in mid-April, Finduilas had lost her breath. There, against the side of the mountains, were the battlements where the eagle set her down. Minas Tirith. It was exactly as she had dreamed. She coughed so hard at the sight she coughed up blood. Her dream that first night had been of herself standing upon the highest wall of the city, though no eagle appeared. Instead, she watched the gulls circle near Anduin and greet the storm-tossed ships. There was a weight upon her head like a crown or a helm, a pull upon her girdle like a child or a sword, a heaviness across her shoulders like a heavy cloak or of water, pressing her downwards into its salt-cold embrace.

Then, there had been no more dreams for all the weeks of May and into the growing heat of June. Not of water, nor of high places, nor of an eagle stooping down. When the thick damp of early summer descended, the dreams returned. Almost every night she ran up the steep slope and felt the talons grasp her shoulders. Always she was dropped upon the desolate pinnacle in the middle of a waste awash in armies. But the first dream in the summer dampness, the one that came to her a fortnight before and heralded the return of floods and pinnacles, that dream had been most odd.

Finduilas walked out of the dark towards an irregular circle of light. A man was silhouetted against it. As she approached, the light began to move like water and took upon itself the colors of fire and the sunset. As Finduilas came closer, she thought it was Thorongil with his back to her, gazing at the light. She moved to the side to look at his face, and realized it was not the captain, but Denethor, the jeweled light of the water-fire playing across his face. She backed away, unsettled by her confounding of the two men. The color faded from the curtain of light, leaving only the pale gleam of the moon. Denethor turned away from the waterfall and walked towards her, the silvered light casting a faint nimbus about him, but his features were obscured in the darkness. Just as he was about to pass her, he paused and turned to look at her. One half of his face caught the soft moonlight and looked weary and sad; the rest was in shadow. After a moment, he smiled a little and went on into the darkness. She tried to call to him not to go and had woken herself with coughing.

She gasped for breath as this night's coughing spasms ebbed. Slowly, Finduilas pulled herself over towards the bed and sat back against it, willing herself to calm so she could breathe. The windows let in a good deal of light, warning of the impending sunrise. Finduilas drew one long careful breath after another until the rasping in her chest subsided. Only then did she stand up and walk to the small table where a small flagon of water sat next to a wooden cup. It took several cups of water to wash away the sticky feel in her throat and mouth.

As she stood and swished the tepid water around in her mouth, she pondered her dream. It had been the dream of the dark pinnacle, not of Denethor. She had never dreamed of any specific person before aside from herself and a few fleeting dreams of her family. Finduilas knew she would not be able to return to sleep, so she set about washing and dressing for the day.

Why Denethor? That dream made little sense. When have your dreams ever made sense, girl? she chided herself. You came to Minas Tirith to make sense of them. Father came for counsel, Imrahil came to learn an heir's tasks, Mother and Ivriniel came to make a match for her sister (though Mother ended up spending more time talking politics with Father than anything else), but she came to learn about herself and her dreams.

Finduilas had written to the Master Archivist of Minas Tirith ere they set out, requesting that she be allowed to look into the treasure trove of scrolls and records housed in the library. Until she arrived and met Aiavalë, she had not realized that the Master Archivist was a member of the Steward's family.

What a marvelous treasure you have in Lady Lore! The first day after arrived, Finduilas went to the building that fronted the Archives, and presented herself to the Master Archivist. The lady's veiled silence had been disconcerting at first. The sincerity of her own questions had broken through the other's wary regard so that they were soon talking with little restraint. Aiavalë's slurred speech was difficult to understand at first, but the older woman took pains to speak slowly and as clearly as she could and presently Finduilas found herself overlooking the distortions. The Archivist had even agreed to guide her to the Stewards House in the Citadel for the audience with Lady Emeldir.

During their interview in the front building, Lady Lore had explained why Minas Tirith's archives had always been the finest in all of Gondor, even at the height of her glory. Natural dry caves went deep into the mountain at the back wall of the sixth circle directly under the Citadel. King Anárion had them lined with cedar and oak, making them even more secure from dampness, and used them to store all important documents of Gondor. Cats padded silently within the caves, disposing of any rodents or large insects they happened upon. Nothing had been kept for any length of time in Osgiliath due to river dampness, nor in Minas Ithil due to the attacks of the Enemy, so almost all the records of Gondor survived the various calamities that had befallen the realm over the centuries.

That afternoon, she had been allowed to accompany Aiavalë on the Archivist's daily review of the caves. Several cats escorted Lady Lore about on her rounds as dutifully and solemnly as guard mastiffs. They had visited for several hours and Finduilas did not think the archive terribly dusty, though the air was close. The sheer size of the collection dazzled her, and she despaired a bit at finding anything. Aiavalë laughed, a clear, musical sound, assuring her that she would teach the girl the ordering of the scrolls and books.

Mostly Finduilas had been amazed at the Archivist herself. She had heard rumors of an oldest child born to the Steward, deformed and hideous to look upon. It always sounded as though the unfortunate creature had died in childhood, but this was obviously untrue. Aiavalë was older than her father, Adrahil, and did not look to be in danger of dying anytime soon. The older woman eschewed a crutch or cane so as to keep both her hands free and she walked swiftly even with her lurching gait. Her thoughts were as well ordered as the shelves and bins of the archive. Perhaps it was their love of old things and obscure tales, but they became dear to each other within a few short days, and Finduilas spent every moment she could in the company of this new-found elder sister.

Finduilas dressed slowly to avoid setting off another coughing spasm. She would break her fast with Aiavalë in the lady's suite at the Stewards House as they usually did. Afterwards, they would spend the day in the cool, dry archive. Even if the air was sometimes close, it was the most comfortable place in Minas Tirith for Finduilas to be. Late afternoons and evenings were usually given over to attending her family, though she was sure twice a week to make the long trek down the mountain with Aiavalë to the archery yard. The Archivist's aim was no less precise than her knowledge of Gondorian history, though her arms were not strong enough to use a longbow.

This evening would be different, however. Aiavalë had invited Finduilas to sup with herself and the High Warden, Denethor. He had returned the day before from a month's time in the field, overseeing the defenses in Anórien and North Ithilien. Father and Imrahil were both south with Captain Thorongil, surveying the condition of the southern defenses. She, Mother and Ivriniel were due to depart the City within a fortnight, leaving the muggy inland and returning to the gentle air of the falas.

Finduilas frowned at that thought. As much as she longed for the beauty and gentle climate of her home, Finduilas had not yet uncovered the meaning of her dreams and she was loathe to depart. She was also loathe to lose the company of Lady Lore, who did not find it odd that a pretty young girl would prefer to spend her days puzzling out obscure words than flirting and gossiping. Be fair, Finduilas! Mother does not think it odd, either. You allow Ivriniel's teasing to affect you more than it should. And it is odd. You should prefer the company of young men to old scholars! Even so, she wished she did not have to leave.

Casting a light shawl across her shoulders to ward off the morning's chill, Finduilas quit Vinyamar in the fifth circle and made her way up to the seventh. The Tower Guards nodded to her courteously as she bade them good morning, though holding their stern silence. As if sprung from the stone of the Citadel itself, like they say is true of Dwarves. Why should they not greet me in return? She had asked Aiavalë this once, and had silence and a quirked eyebrow as a reply. The City was noisy, bustling about its business, but there were great silences in the converse of the people, like the silence of the Guards. Father had once remarked that silence was often more truthful than speech, and to give as much heed to what was left unsaid as to what was said. After the last few weeks in Minas Tirith, Finduilas finally understood what her father meant.

Finduilas took her time climbing up the steep stair to the top of the wall, as much to avoid a turned ankle or painful fall as to keep her breathing steady. Once upon the wall, she paused, gazing out across the Pelennor. Why did the eagle set me here? That was what she wished to learn. There must be a reason I am placed here. Or there. She let her gaze go east, towards the Ephel Duath, and strained to catch a glimpse of a dark spike rising up from a blasted plain, as though the Straight Way reached eastwards as well and would grant her a vision of the evil spire that she knew lay beyond the shadowed peaks. Even though the sun was well risen, Finduilas shivered a bit and pulled her shawl more tightly around her. I cannot leave until I know the reason.

The scenes were simple enough to place. Who among Dúnedain would not know Akallabêth? A wreath of safe-keeping. An Eagle of Manwë guarding the ships of the Faithful as they made their way through tempest to safety. The doomed last race of Tar-Míriel. Barad-dûr. In truth, the only thing she had not known for certain ere this journey was Minas Tirith itself, and that had been answered upon the dock under the circling gulls.

No, the mystery that remained was why the eagle plucked her up, and where the eagle chose to cast her down. These things she could not puzzle out. Was this a fate? A punishment? Naught but a girl's fancy? The answers were to be found here in Minas Tirith, though not perhaps in the archive. I cannot leave! Not yet. Finduilas drummed the parapet with her fingers, then sighed and continued on her way. She let herself in by the wall door and exchanged a cheerful greeting with the matron as she walked down to Aiavalë's rooms. They were at street level so the Archivist would not need to clamber up stairs.

'Finduilas! Hello, my dear girl. You are early.'

'Not too early, I hope, Lady Lore!'

'Never. I fear I have not yet sent for our meal, so you shall need to wait.' Aiavalë embraced Finduilas before limping over to pull a bell rope made of a braid of hair. 'Come now, sit with me and tell me what you learned yesterday.'

'You mean at the dance.'

'What else, girl? I know what we learned yesterday.'

'That Sedge has four new kittens and that you can mix any kind of glue without measuring.'

Aiavalë's face wrinkled up in a tortured grimace that Finduilas knew to be a delighted grin. 'All good and valuable things to know, of course. Now, tell me what Beruthiel is up to.'

'You're the one with the cats, Lady Lore!' Finduilas teased, then settled in to recount the prior evening's gathering at the house of Lady Maiaberiel. The women sat for a quarter hour while Finduilas spoke of who was currying favor with Maiaberiel (everyone) and to whom she gave her attention (few). It had been a relatively decorous gathering. Finduilas had been groped only once during the festivities and not so crudely that she could not ignore it.

She had been shocked at first by the licentiousness and frivolity of the nobles in Minas Tirith, and then had been more shocked to see how thoroughly Ivriniel adopted their manner. Luinil had not been pleased with this state of affairs, engendering a number of arguments with her eldest daughter. It had been difficult to understand at the start, either the decadence of the denizens or her sister's bedazzlement, but the answer had come slowly, a little more each day that Finduilas stood on the wall and looked east at the sunrise.

It was one of the startling silences of the City; one would think the city was shouting all that needed to be known aloud, but the truth was ever so quiet. The nobles and notables, the shop-keepers and the craftsmen, even the orphans and the beggars, all made a great deal of noise to cover what could not be said. All looked inward and nearby to avoid seeing the darkness on the horizon.

A light tap at the door let them know that breakfast had arrived. Aiavalë pulled a light veil over her head, covering her face, while Finduilas answered the door and took the tray from the serving boy. The older woman tossed the veil aside as soon as the door was securely closed. Finduilas set the tray on a low table and began setting out their meal.

'You are the best addition I have made to my spies in a number of years, Alquallë.'

Finduilas smiled and handed Aiavalë a cup of tea with a dollop of honey in it. 'It does not seem so great a thing to watch fools trying to fool each other.'

'Fools they may be, yet their foolishness endangers us all,' was the tart reply. 'They stir up resentments and seek indulgence. Denethor tells me of officers who carry their quarrels out of the walls, and of city men who think it better to hire mercenaries than to risk their own pampered hides. You can tell me who is quibbling with whom, and I can warn my brother.'

'Surely it is not a great matter to learn such things, Aiavalë,' Finduilas answered, 'for this is not done in secret.'

'But none speak to me of it, for fear of me or for fear of my sister, and all are solemn when Denethor is near, for they know he will not permit such things in his presence.'

Finduilas sipped her own tea and ate a slice of toasted bread with some plum preserves, thinking. 'Mother says she does not remember the City being in such a spirit so long ago when she and Father were just wed, and they journeyed to Minas Tirith to pay respects to the Steward, Lord Turgon.'

Aiavalë sighed. 'No, Alquallë, this has not always been the mood of the City. I, too, remember a more continent time. After the Nameless One took up again his dwelling,' here the woman jerked her head eastwards, 'a dread came over the City, and a carelessness. Why labor so that the Enemy may take? Why build what will be despoiled? They acted as though they already lived among ruins and in defeat. Then Maiaberiel grew impatient with the sorrow and demanded that cheer return. Now they revel and say they laugh at the Shadow, living in mirth. They spend themselves grossly and nobility is forgotten. Were we in a time of peace, it would not matter that the customs of Atanatar held sway, but we are not.'

One look at the wrathful, inward-looking expression on Aiavalë's face let Finduilas know that further conversation was not advised. The two sat in silence, finishing their meal. The Archivist quickly veiled herself for work, wrapping her lower face and her hair with a thick scarf, but leaving her eyes uncovered, and the two set out. After they had left the Citadel and were almost to the building in front of the caves, Aiavalë reached out and patted the younger woman's shoulder.

'I am sorry, Finduilas, for being so sharp with thee.' Finduilas took the other's stunted left hand and smiled.

'I take no offence, big sister. Thou art too dear to me to hold any complaint. Forgive me for saying troubling things to thee at daybreak.' Aiavalë squeezed her hand in return and the two walked the last few dozen yards hand in hand.

They were greeted, as always, by Lark, a young woman who acted as doorward to the archives. She greeted the two women gravely, and Aiavalë responded in kind. There was no frivolity among the archivists – Aiavalë would not permit it. They made their way to the Archivist's small office, a spare, cedar-lined room with a huge rack of scrolls, a heavy bookshelf fitted into a niche in the wall, and a neat desk. And a half-dozen cats impatiently awaiting their mistress's arrival. They first checked on Sedge and her kits in a cozy wicker basket under the desk, then greeted each cat in turn. Properly acknowledged for the day, the animals wandered off to perform their duties.

Finduilas pulled on the thin gloves waiting for her and began placing some of the scrolls in the rack into flat, wide wicker baskets. The baskets' handles were wrapped with colored thread to indicate where in the archives the content of the basket should go. She still had to consult the index for a reminder of where certain documents belonged. Lady Lore had no such need, nor did most of the older archivists. The rack held Aiavalë's own current inquiries as well as the documents requested of the archive the prior day. Each was examined for damage, then placed in a basket to be reshelved. Most of the requests were for recent scrolls – harvests, taxes, births – and were made by counselors to the Steward. A few were for old family records or contracts, for this was the safest place in the City for storing such things. One of the bones of contention between Aiavalë and Maiaberiel, or so Aiavalë said, was that the former would not allow the latter to delve into this information.

The Archivist sat at the desk and began to go through the document requests resting in a small basket near her right hand. None were permitted to touch the books, papers and scrolls without her permission. Those requests she approved earned her signature and were dropped into another basket. The Steward's requests were delivered directly to him, while the others would be collected by archivists and placed in small reading carrels in the building that fronted the caves, or else were copied and delivered to the requestor. Open fire, liquids and ink were not permitted near the originals. Lady Lore had explained on Finduilas' first visit that the archives were modeled on a great Elven library that had once existed in the north, and had been described to Anárion by his sire.

Finduilas jumped and nearly dropped the basket she was taking to the rack outside the door when Aiavalë let out an explosive curse. The Archivist was holding a request in her hand, glaring at it as though it were an enemy. Finduilas could see the broken white seal of the Steward on the edges of the paper.

'Of course, my Lord Steward! Whatever the Captain counsels, so it shall be,' the older woman snarled at the request, then slammed it down on the desk and scrawled her signature upon it. Aiavalë grabbed a small bell off the desk and rang it savagely. Within a minute, an archivist peeked around the corner of the door. Aiavalë thrust the offending paper at the man.

'Take it! See he is given whatever he requests, as the Lord Steward has commanded. But I want an accounting every night of whatever he touches.'

'Yes, Mistress.' The archivist calmly took the proffered item, bowed, and disappeared as silently as he had arrived. But he was back very soon.

'Mistress?'

'Yes?'

'It says that he is to be allowed directly into the caverns themselves.'

'That is correct.'

The man stood for a moment, considering, then nodded. 'A very careful accounting will be made, Mistress.'

'I expect no less.'

He bowed again, and slipped away. Finduilas went back to her tasks, greatly curious. Another silence, another mystery. It is not any of your business, goose! She kept her faced composed and concentrated on her task. As the morning went by, the incident faded from her mind. Requests were approved, documents were whisked away to be reshelved, and soon she and Aiavalë were poring over a few parchments they had put together during the last several weeks about dreams and prophecies that referred to Akallabêth. Sedge purred in her basket below the table while her kits mewed and suckled.

'It appears that dreaming of the Downfall is rather popular,' Aiavalë absently noted, reaching down to rub Sedge's ears.

'Yes, and it always precedes dire things.' Finduilas had told the Archivist about her dreams, though not about the one that involved Denethor.

'Or nothing at all. I fail to see any connection between such dreams and calamities,' the other responded. 'One could just as easily say that dreams of the flood presage good news as bad. And none we have found are as specific as your own, little sister. These are but dreams of drowning, not of salvation.'

'I think not I would call being plucked up by a great eagle salvation, Lady Lore,' Finduilas countered, 'particularly when the bird seems as pleased to leave me in dire places or else drop me into the Sea as to bring me here.'

'Were you brought here by an eagle?' Aiavalë's voice was absent, but Finduilas knew what she was asking.

'Not everyone is enamored of Captain Thorongil, as estimable a fellow as he may be.' She knew her words were a bit waspish, but Finduilas did not care. In truth, Aiavalë had struck too close to the mark. There were few in Dol Amroth who had not heard tales of the great captain and his remarkable victories over Orcs and Southrons in South Ithilien. Part of Adrahil's reason for coming now to Minas Tirith was to meet this notable man and take his measure. Finduilas had wondered if there was a connection between her dreams and this strangely named man. The man's mysterious origin drew attention, and the Steward's great favor encouraged speculation. One rumor had it that Thorongil was the Steward's own bastard son, unacknowledged only out of respect for Lady Emeldir.

When he and Denethor had walked in to Lady Emeldir's sitting room that late morning, Finduilas could well believe the rumor. The two men who followed her father into the room were as like to each other as she was to Ivriniel, perhaps more so. They were dressed almost identically, with hair and beards bound and trimmed in the same manner. They were the two tallest men she had ever seen and their carriage was graceful and dignified. They were both kings to Adrahil's prince. It had been fascinating to watch the two of them greet Luinil and Ivriniel. It was as though Thorongil was a magnet and they bits of metal.

Finduilas had not been prepared for Denethor. No one spoke much of the High Warden – all word was of the Captain. When she took Denethor's hand and looked into his face, she was startled at the weariness and sadness there, veiled by his grim and stern expression just as Aiavalë's face was veiled by her scarf. But, as with his sister, his eyes said what his words did not, and Finduilas felt compassion for one so burdened and offered her hand in friendship.

Greeting Thorongil had been scarcely less startling. The intensity of his gaze had frightened her. She felt pierced by his stare and for a wild moment imagined he could see her dreams. Then she looked back into him and did not much care for what she saw. As with the Warden and the Archivist, there was veiling, but it covered something high and remote, as an eagle hides against the sun. The obscuring of himself was for his own sake, and there was something hinting of deceit within it. She felt not charmed but hunted under his look, and had replied coldly to warn him off. For the week after, whenever they met, she had determinedly ignored how he stared at her and had been very glad when he left the City and returned to his command.

Aiavalë laughed a little. 'I begin to think you a great, hissing goose, not a little swan, Finduilas. You may be the only person in Minas Tirith who is not in love with our grand Captain.'

'Besides yourself and your brother.' And Lady Emeldir, but that would not be kind to say. Finduilas tried to keep her voice light and teasing.

'And so you show how unusual you are, little sister. Perhaps you frighten your eagle, so he leaves you where you cannot do him harm.'

'I do not think there any great connection between the eagle in my dreams and the Captain. It is as coincidental as these dreams of Akallabêth and the good or ill that followed.' Do I really? Is there no connection? Finduilas hoped her doubts did not show on her face. Aiavalë's mocking look said that they did.

'The same spring that Thorongil arrives in Minas Tirith, you start dreaming of eagles. Is that not a connection?' Finduilas threw up her hands in annoyance.

'Very well, then! As you wish, Lady Lore, I am dreaming of the Captain. There! Tell me what it means. Aside from being infatuated with Thorongil, which I assure you is not so!'

Aiavalë sat silent, eyes glittering above her scarf. Finally, she said, 'I think that depends on whether these are dreams of you, of him, or of the City.' She was silent again for some time. 'I do not think them of him. Not directly. I think they speak of a choice.'

Finduilas considered telling Aiavalë of the dream she had of Denethor. No. Not yet. 'I see little choice in the dreams. I do not command the eagle. I simply suffer what it wills.' Floods follow on my heels and I am captured by them, or left to watch their assault. She shivered a little at that.

A soft tap at the doorway brought them out of their thoughts. The doorward, Lark, stood in the entrance, looking worried.

'Mistress, your lady sister is here.'

Aiavalë was on her feet in a trice. 'Where?'

'Second cavern. She demanded to speak to Wren.'

'Did she now? Thank you, Lark. I will attend to the matter.' The Archivist quickly set out, Finduilas at her heels. They went swiftly through the building, and passed through a gate into the second left-most of the long caverns. The racks of paper and parchment absorbed sound, so their approach was masked.

Aiavalë held up a warning hand as she looked around the end of a rack. They slowly walked towards two women standing under a lantern near the far wall. Maiaberiel had her back to them. Facing them was Lark's sister, Wren, and the poor woman looked miserable. She did not look up at their approach. They were soon within earshot.

'…and that is what I expect.'

'But I have no great wish to wed now, my lady.'

'What you wish does not matter. And why do you complain? It is as good a match as you could hope to make.'

'I know not this man, save by rumor, but I think there few worse matches to be had.'

'You will do as you are t…'

'Sister, what wickedness are you about on this day?' Maiaberiel slowly turned to face the Archivist. Her beautiful lip pulled up in a sneer, echoing the twisted face under the scarf.

'The Monster speaks. Well, it makes noise. I suppose one could puzzle speech out of it if one really wished.'

'My speech is less corrupt than your heart, Beruthiel. I asked you a question.'

'I am making a match for this misbegotten wench.'

'It does not sound she wants your matching. Go away.'

'I shan't be ordered about by you, Monster.'

'In these caverns, Beruthiel, the Monster rules. Even the Steward has said you may not countermand or disobey me here.'

'And welcome you are to this impotent realm. Tell me, girl,' Maiaberiel turned back to Wren, 'do you wish to stay in this dank hole for the rest of your days? Fetching and carrying for the Monster?'

'She answers to me, not to you, Beruthiel. Get you gone.'

'She answers to whomever can do her the most good or ill, Monster.'

'I answer to my mistress, the Archivist, not you!' Wren said with a flare of anger. Maiaberiel gave her a sharp slap.

'I am your mistress, bastard. But if you prefer the company of wretches and foul creatures and caves of dust and lies, I grant you leave to stay. Just know that if you turn down this match you turn down any match, forever. And not just for yourself, but for your trollop sister as well. Whores cannot afford to be picky. I expect your answer by sundown on the morrow.' Maiaberiel turned to sweep past Aiavalë and Finduilas. As she strode forward, the Archivist hooked one of her sister's legs with a foot, and sent the other sprawling on the floor. Finduilas retreated to Wren's side as Aiavalë grabbed the downed woman by her hair and wrenched her head back.

'You shall do nothing, you wicked woman!' the older sister snarled. 'This child has been wronged enough by the Steward's house, and you shall not compound that wrong with cruelty. Shall I tell our brother what treachery you are up to now?' Maiaberiel flailed at Aiavalë , ripping away the scarf and fighting free of the other's grip. She scrambled to her feet, hair and clothes askew.

'How dare you! I shall speak to Father about this.'

'Speak to Ecthelion all you wish, Beruthiel. He has washed his hands of all his mistakes, you and I included.'

'And left things such as this for me to handle. You are just jealous that none could be enticed to wed you. An Orc would flee in terror at the sight of you!'

'And would drop dead at the venom in your veins, should he take a bite. It is why you are barren, you know. No life could take root in so poisoned a vessel.'

Maiaberiel was momentarily speechless, then spat, 'Father will hear of this!' and stormed off. Aiavalë retrieved her scarf from the floor, chuckling.

'I have no doubt he will.' The Archivist rewrapped the scarf and limped over to the frightened young women. 'Wren, what did I miss hearing?'

Finduilas let the smaller woman go. They had held each other when the sisters fought, backing away but ready to dash in should Aiavalë lose her advantage. Finduilas was horrified at what she had just watched. She and Ivriniel could argue quite strenuously and had once even exchanged slaps, but this was beyond any sibling jealousy or argument. These women were enemies.

'I think you heard all that mattered, Mistress. Your lady sister proposed that I should accept the suit of a particular gentleman and I did not like the man she named.' Finduilas thought Wren sounded remarkably calm. She was not certain she herself could yet speak.

Aiavalë regarded the other two for a while. A cat crawled out from under the nearest rack and rubbed against her ankle. 'Do you believe she will make good on her threats?'

Wren shrugged. 'Perhaps.'

'Are you going to do as she says?'

Wren shrugged again. 'Perhaps. She threatened Lark as well, so I must speak to my sister before I may choose.'

'This sister says you should ignore Beruthiel's threats.' Wren and Aiavalë locked gazes, then the younger woman dropped her eyes.

'I will need to speak to Lark in any event. May I go, Mistress? I have tasks awaiting me.'

Aiavalë nodded and gestured for the woman to leave. Finduilas' head was spinning at what she thought she had heard. Dumbly, she followed the Archivist back to her office, and sat on the edge of the desk. Aiavalë closed the door, then leaned against it.

'Forgive me, Alquallë, for making you see that. It was wrong of me to have forced that unpleasantness upon a guest.'

'It was not of your making, Aiavalë. You have no need to apologize.'

Aiavalë stood silently then prompted, 'What would you wish to know?'

Finduilas shook her head slightly. 'There is nothing for me to know. It is clear to me that all is a matter of the Steward's house, and it is not my place to ask.'

'You will not last long in Beruthiel's clutches with such meekness, Finduilas.'

'I shall not be here beyond the next week,' she snapped in return, 'and I wish nothing to do with such a cruel woman!'

'You are leaving? When? Why?' Aiavalë sounded more distressed by this news than she had been by the fight with sister.

'Mother intends to return south to Dol Amroth within two weeks, Aiavalë. She always said that we would go when the summer set in. Though I would fain stay longer.' There, it was said, though after the fight, Finduilas was having some doubts about the wisdom of remaining.

'We shall speak to Denethor this evening, little sister, and see about how that may be arranged. But here is the answer to what you are too kind to ask. You know Wren and Lark to be sisters. They are my sisters as well.' Aiavalë sighed. 'Like other men in the City, my father has a number of bastards. Wren and Lark are the youngest, and the eldest is a bit older than Maiaberiel. None of their mothers are noble, or at least none that are known, though most are of pure blood. They are all girls, as far as is known. The older girls were married off respectably and quietly, for the most part, but the younger have become pawns of Beruthiel. I had hoped to keep Wren and Lark below her notice by having them here, and then find respectable men for them when they were of proper age. But the archive is no longer a haven, it would seem.' Aiavalë rubbed her eyes and sighed again, then looked up with a sharp glance. 'What other bastard would you ask of?'

Finduilas met her gaze evenly. There was no point in pretending she did not know what they were discussing. 'None, for you just said that all are girls.'

'All that are known for certain.'

'Then it is impertinent for me to ask of what is but rumor.'

'But the rumor persists, in part due to my sister's tales.'

'Why would she wish to undermine her own brother like that?'

Aiavalë nodded approval. 'You see the larger game. Why? Because Denethor detests her as much as I do, and she is worse than a fool. She wishes to rule untrammeled. She plays childish games with others' lives, and with the City's fate.'

'Is that what you would have me spy out?'

'Where she undermines our brother, yes. But I would also wish for your help in uncovering Thorongil's secrets.' Aiavalë cocked her head to the side and Finduilas knew she was smiling behind her scarf. 'Perhaps you will figure out if he is the eagle of your dreams, or just another of the Lost.'

'Well, first I shall need my mother's leave to remain behind when she departs. My father's, as well. I think Mother is eager to take Ivriniel away from your sister's influence.'

'Your mother has always struck me as a woman of uncommon good sense. It shall be arranged.' Aiavalë stepped forward and embraced the younger woman and Finduilas hugged her tightly. 'Do not let yourself be upset by Maiaberiel. She has no power over you, for you are too honest and kind-hearted to be tricked by her wiles. Now, Alquallë, take yourself back home and rest. Come to the house when it is time to dine. We shall sup on the roof, and have the grandest view in the City!'

The women kissed each other farewell and Finduilas went home. Luinil and Ivriniel were in the third circle, selecting cloth to be sent home and arranging trades with the cloth merchants for fine southern silks that were smuggled into Dol Amroth. War there may be, but there were always intrepid traders willing to risk the wrath of Harad, Umbar and the Dark Enemy to bring their goods north. Tiny ships, so flimsy Finduilas could scarce believe they would withstand the pounding of the Sea, would dock, and out would come the most amazing things from lands that had not known the footfall of Dúnedain since the glory of Númenor. These would be exchanged for wine and spirits, gems and coin, things that could bear the punishing journey south. Dol Amroth would in turn trade these delicacies with Minas Tirith, obtaining stout woolen cloth from Rohan, metal work from the forges of the City, and jewels and precious metals that made their way from Dwarves in the north.

The heat and dampness was enervating, so Finduilas lay down and rested through the muggy mid-day. If she stayed on in Minas Tirith, she would be able to spend all the day in the archives, which was much better than being above ground. Her cough kept her from any sound sleep, but she did manage to doze for a few hours. Ivriniel woke her and she spent the late afternoon chatting with the other two about their finds in the textile stalls. Mother was quite pleased at locating a merchant who dealt in very fine, warm wools from Eastfold weavers, and who could obtain it in large quantities. As the day waned, Finduilas dressed herself for supper and walked back up the mountain to the Steward's house.

Finduilas let herself in by the wall door, then realized that it would have been more proper to call at the front. Before she could go back out, she heard steps coming up from downstairs and saw Denethor enter the hallway. If he was surprised to see her halfway through the private rooms of the house, he did not let it show. Instead, he smiled slightly, and inclined his head.

'My la…, excuse me, Finduilas, welcome.' She was close enough now to see a small glint of amusement in his eyes, though she was not certain of its cause.

'Denethor, it is good to see you once again,' she replied sincerely, offering her hand. He hesitated a moment, then took her hand gently. His smile did not widen, but she thought it became a little more true, and his eyes were more kind than amused.

'Allow me to return the sentiment, Finduilas. I believe Aiavalë is awaiting us upstairs. Shall we go?' She nodded her assent, and he motioned for her to precede him up the stair. She was very pleased that she did not need to slow or halt on the climb, though she did have to pause once they made the roof and cough a little bit. Denethor's face was concerned.

'Are you well?'

'Oh, yes!' she assured him. 'Pay it no mind. It has passed and I am well.'

'Have you been to the healers?'

'Yes, I have. They say there is naught they may do, save give me draughts and potions to quell the coughs if they become too strong.'

'Surely there is more that may be done?' Denethor protested.

'No, I fear not. Pay it no mind, friend! Truly, I have lived with this so long I am no longer bothered by it.'

He gave her a doubtful look, then offered his arm and escorted her to a small arbor where Aiavalë sat. The older woman had a light veil draped around her neck, but her head and face were uncovered, and she smiled with delight at her guests. The white at her temples streaked back into her black, short-cropped hair, making her look as though she wore one of the helms of the Tower Guard. Supper was already laid out upon a low table – cold meats, greens and vegetables fresh picked, dense bread and yellow-green wine that tickled the back of Finduilas' throat when she drank it. They each greeted Aiavalë with an embrace and a kiss on the cheek before taking their seats.

Finduilas wondered at the change that came over Denethor as he greeted his sister. There was warmth instead of sternness in his face, and affection was in his voice. His fingers brushed his sister's cheek in a light caress, then he took her hands while they exchanged a few pleasantries. It was not a great demonstration, and would have been unremarkable in someone besides the aloof Warden. His tenderness made him look younger.

Denethor insisted on serving the women, and they were soon sampling the meal. The mountains behind them threw long shadows over the City, cooling the heat of the day. Far off and below, the Pelennor spread out in a patchwork of greens, browns, golds and greys, little trails of dust rising from behind wagons and teams along the roads. Heat made the horizon shimmer, and the shadowed mountains seemed far off. Long tassels of purple flowers hung down from the vines that twined over the roof-top arbor – the vines themselves grew four stories up from the ground in front of the Steward's house.

'And how went the business of the day, brother?' Denethor's face lost its kindness, and resumed its usual severe cast.

'As it usually goes, sister. There was nothing of note. I spent most of the day speaking to the Lord Steward and the counselors about the state of North Ithilien. It is in the same state that it was three months ago, save it is summer, not spring. And the ferry to Cair Andros is working again.' His voice was cool, precise, with a hint of mockery. Aiavalë let out a small derisive snort. Finduilas knew another conversation was happening besides the one she could hear.

'Business in Minas Tirith is very much as usual, Denethor.'

'So what did Beruthiel do?'

'Tried to order about one of my archivists.' A flicker of anger crossed his face.

'Who?'

'Wren.'

'And?'

Aiavalë shrugged as Wren had done. 'She is still uncertain. Hareth is in her mind.'

'Do I need to pay a call on Beruthiel?'

'It would be advisable.'

Denethor sipped his wine, and nodded. 'Tonight. I have not visited our sister in too long. I think we need to be reacquainted.'

'Indeed.' Aiavalë sighed in exasperation. 'And things are more usual than ever, I fear. The Steward acceded to Thorongil's pleading and has ordered me to give Mithrandir full access to the archives. The wizard may come and go as he pleases, and may look into anything not specifically barred by the Steward.'

So that was what had upset Aiavalë so much this morning! Now Finduilas was more confused than ever. What little she had heard of the grey wizard had been approving. He was accounted wise, if a touch hot-tempered, and had never been known to do harm. Her father had once met him, and thought him trustworthy.

'Why should that be a bad thing?' The siblings looked at her with dark, cold eyes, and she swallowed, suppressing a cough. 'I mean, he is a wizard. Is it not right for someone of that kind to seek knowledge? He might learn something we need to know.'

'And there lies the problem, my lady,' Denethor's voice was patient, but a bit condescending, and Finduilas narrowed her eyes at him, 'for he is the one learning, yet we are the ones who should know. He pursues his own ends, which may not be ours. What is it that he seeks? He will not say, and in his silence does not show himself our friend.'

'Yet I have never heard tell that he is our enemy,' she countered.

'True,' Denethor said slowly, 'but a friend should demonstrate his friendship, not skulk about and seek duplicitous ways into his knowledge. Why does he not present himself to Aiavalë and ask for her assistance?'

'Would she give it?' The siblings stared at her again, then Aiavalë chuckled.

'No, I would not, so the wizard shows his wisdom in not bothering with the Monster who guards the treasure.' Aiavalë shook her head a little, laughing. 'You will need to learn more caution, Alquallë. But I forget! Brother, we need your help.' He raised an eyebrow. 'Princess Luinil is planning to depart for Dol Amroth after this week, and we need you to convince the Steward and the Prince to allow Finduilas to remain here with me.'

'And why should I do that? Should not the girl return with her mother if the visit is complete?'

'Because I wish for her to stay! And she wishes to stay! So you must do this for us.'

Denethor turned and looked Finduilas in the face long enough to make her uncomfortable, then asked, 'For what reason do you wish to stay, girl?'

'I have not yet finished my own studies, Lord Denethor.'

'And what do you study?'

'How to choose my friends.' A small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, and he gave her a small bow.

'I will speak to the Steward tomorrow. I doubt it will be permitted, but I shall make a case. The Prince is not in Minas Tirith anymore, is he?'

'He is in Pelargir with Thorongil, as you well know. You will have to ride there,' Aiavalë imperturbably replied. She sipped some wine and added, 'You will have to ride quickly.'

'I was bound for the south in a few days. I will simply go sooner. Again, I doubt any argument I offer will change their minds.' He turned his attention back to his meal, and the women followed suit.

Dusk was falling by the time they finished. Finduilas walked across the roof to look more directly over the City. The heat shimmer was gone, and the eastern mountains appeared sharp and dark. Why am I now only dropped there? The Ephel Duath seemed to spread a shadow towards her, and for a moment she thought she could see the gleam of armor in their darkness, as though her flood of armies was spilling out of the folds of the hills. She shivered a bit at the thought.

Then jumped when something dropped down across her shoulders. She whirled around, grabbing at whatever was clinging to her arms, and nearly ran into Denethor. She looked down at her arms to see her own shawl, and realized he had draped it over her. Her chest and throat seized up as she began coughing. She had to brace herself on the low wall that encircled the rooftop while she got the coughs under control. Denethor stood next to her, a hand on her shoulder.

'Finduilas! Finduilas, I am so sorry,' Denethor said worriedly. She waved away his apologies, concentrating on steadying her breathing. 'I did not mean to startle you. Aiavalë sent me over with your wrap and I saw you shiver, so I… I am sorry. That was thoughtless.' She was breathing almost normally again, and patted his hand.

'No, no, you did nothing, sir. That cough has been building all the while we sat.' She smiled at him. He did not seem reassured. He carefully sat down on the wall, ignoring the drop behind him, and took her hand.

'Are you certain?'

'Very much! Please think no more on it.'

'As you wish.' He watched her closely, the light faint. 'What shall we think of, then?' he said in a slightly forced tone, as though trying to be humorous.

She looked out at the eastern mountains. 'How do you bear that? The Shadow? You face it from sunrise to sunset, and then it looms in the darkness. I have been here but a short while and it crushes my heart. That is what made my throat close and my breath flee but a moment ago.'

'What is there to be done, my lady, save to bear up under its malice and to resist its evil?' His voice was firm, quiet. 'Though all be doomed, still one must hold to what is right.'

'Then you have no hope?'

'Hope? I know not what that would be. It seems to me that we are left to pick the manner of our ending, perhaps.'

'Is that why you do not marry, have no children?' The light was dim, but she could still see his expression change from serious to mocking. His voice, at first, was the same.

'To what fate would I leave my children?' His voice shifted and it became scornful, superior. 'Truly, girl, is it so difficult to see beyond the charm of dances, flirtation and wedding, and understand that the Enemy has returned? Since he took up again his abode in the Dark Tower, there can be no hope.'

His words stung, and she replied sharply. 'Then you admit defeat, even as the revelers at Beruthiel's party last evening have done! If there is no hope, but only a choice between grimness and gaiety, why not the frivolity of match-making? If the end shall be the same?'

'So why then do you sit in dark caves, girl?' he mocked, 'Why are you not about with Beruthiel's revelers and setting snares for the Captain?'

Denethor's mention of dark caves startled her. How did he know… ? He could not know of her dream of him, of course. He meant the archives. Even so, Finduilas was emboldened to speak of why she wished to remain in Minas Tirith, why she did not care for the loud parties hiding from their own silence. 'I have dreams, and I seek answers to them.'

'Really? Dreams? How interesting, but I do believe that others have dreams as well.'

'These are not ordinary dreams!' Finduilas knew how childish her protests must seem, but he was angering her with his mockery.

'If hope is what I require, can your dreams give them to me?' he said curtly. 'Can you see a way to victory, or even stalemate? Do you prophesy, Finduilas?'

'I saw you in a dream,' she began, but he cut her off.

'Oh, how delightful to hear. That is what every man would wish, to be in a fine young woman's dreams. I do hope I was not too much a rogue.'

Finduilas was silent for a long moment, mastering her anger and making sure she would not begin coughing again. The light of the moon was behind him, outlining his form, but darkening his face. Only his eyes gleamed. She moved to the side so he would have to turn, letting the moonlight catch his face. She could see contempt in the set of his lips and his eyes were hard.

'I walked out of a well of darkness, towards a ragged oval of light. You stood before it with your back to me, gazing at the light, which turned to a river of fire, like the sunset through a waterfall. You watched until the fire lost its colors of purple and scarlet and gold, turning into a silver river. You turned from the light and walked towards me, then past me. You stopped and looked at me for a moment, as you are now, your face caught in moonlight, then you walked on into darkness. I called after you, and you did not turn back.'

Denethor stared at her, all mockery gone from his face, then hoarsely asked, 'When? When did you dream this?'

'A fortnight ago.'

Denethor looked towards Aiavalë, then rose. 'I must speak with…'

Finduilas knew he wanted to speak with Aiavalë, as the Archivist claimed he did of all things important, and found herself very much not wanting this dream to be a topic of discussion between the siblings. Quickly she said, 'Your sister has never spoken of such a place to me, nor of anything like it, nor even has she spoken to me of you, save only in courteous passing.' She waited and he took again his seat on the wall. Why does this dream startle him? Because, somehow, the place, he knows it. It made her shiver. 'I have dreamed true.'

He nodded. Just when Finduilas thought that was the end of the exchange, he softly said, 'A fortnight ago, I was…looking at a light much as you describe. And you were in my thoughts.'

Finduilas laughed a bit. 'I? In your thoughts? Why should that be?'

To her amazement, he looked away. Were it light, she was certain she would see a blush on his cheeks. 'I was looking towards Minas Tirith, and thinking of what I hold dear. You… have been very kind to my sister, and I was thinking… that I was glad for you to be here with her. I have never seen her with such a friend before, never so happy as she has been these last few months.' Denethor looked back and caught her eyes, his face alabaster and jet in the moonlight. 'I am in your debt, Finduilas, for the tenderness you have shown her.' He studied her more, then nodded. 'Yes, I will see that you are allowed to remain here with her. Of course you must stay.'

Denethor rose and offered her his arm. 'We have left Aiavalë sitting alone too long. Let us return.' She took his arm and they walked back to Aiavalë. The woman veiled herself and they returned inside. Denethor insisted on walking Finduilas back to Vinyamar. They walked in silence until they reached the door. He bid her good night, waited for her to step inside her door, then disappeared into the summer darkness.

*******

Characters introduced in this chapter, in order of appearance:

  • Lark – OC, Doorward of the Archives of Minas Tirith, half-sister to Denethor, 30 years old.
  • Wren – OC, junior archivist, younger full-sister of Lark, youngest half-sister to Denethor, 26 years old.
  • Alquallë – "Little Swan" – nickname for Finduilas. My thanks to Nath for her help in researching this name.

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Late December, 2974 T.A.

'Aiavalë, do you wish me to cut your hair or cut off your ear?'

Denethor crossed his arms, careful not to jab himself with the shears, and waited for his sister to stop glaring at him. She finally harrumphed and faced forward.

He returned to cropping her hair to a half-finger's length all over. Her temples were only a little more white than a year before, and there was no grey at crown or nape. Her "wings," as they called the streaks on the sides of her head, had begun to come in when she was in her teens, the spring after Denethor was born, and he could not remember her without them. He thought them beautiful, though he was careful never to say so. The rest of her hair was a rich near-black and like velvet to the touch. He supposed his own hair would be as soft were he to keep it sheared so short.

'Maiaberiel is being too good-mannered. She's up to something.'

He made a non-committal sound and gave her a touch on the side of the head to remind her to stay still. Denethor worked for a few more minutes in silence, evening out the hair behind her left ear and across the nape of her neck. They did this four times a year. Aiavalë would not permit any of the servants to see her unveiled and the rest of their kin did not wish to look upon her, let alone touch her, so the task fell to him. He did not mind.

Denethor combed out some loose hair and evaluated his handiwork. Aiavalë might not care what it looked like, but he did. After twenty-nine years of practice, he was rather good at it. He dampened a small cloth and wiped clinging hairs away from her ears and neck, then removed the towel from around her shoulders, shaking the cut hair onto the floor.

'I am certain our dear sister does no more than show proper grieving over the loss of our lady mother,' Denethor finally replied.

'She has been waiting for Mother to die. She's holding a party! Shameless, loathsome, venomous,…'

'Astute and powerful. As she was raised to be,' he interjected, 'so do not allow your ire to distract you. A celebration is what people will want after a somber event.'

'I have no need for lessons from you, little brother.'

'It is the lack of such in your disdain for Beruthiel that I note, big sister. You enjoy your anger at her more than is wise.' Denethor moved to stand in front of Aiavalë, hand on hip, and gave her a stern look. She stared back for a moment, then chuckled.

'It is a foolish pleasure, you are right. But I am outraged at her false mourning over Mother.'

'It is an outrage, I agree, but we must do what is needful, not what pleases us,' was his calm reply. He reached out and ran a slow hand through her hair, then grasped a little with the tips of his fingers and gave a gentle tug. 'I have always found your lessons quite enlightening, sister.' Aiavalë laughed out loud.

'And I should heed my own lessons better, yes?' she teased, face crinkling up. He smiled slightly and nodded. Her hand found his and squeezed it. 'Very well, then, Denethor, clean up this mess and we shall think through Beruthiel's maneuvers.' Denethor found a small horse hair whisk in the corner and swept the hair clippings into a pile.

Her hair was the lesson of sacrifice. When he was young, he would bring Aiavalë her breakfast and sit with her, telling her all of the news and gossip of the Citadel and City. He would stay until she wrapped herself in her scarf and set out to the archive. He made the mistake, when he was fifteen, of saying he thought her hair to be very beautiful. A few days later, when he brought her breakfast, she had her hair in two thick braids. She handed him a pair of shears and told him cut the braids off. When he protested, she said, 'I agree with you, brother. Unlike the rest of me, my hair is beautiful and I treasure it. But if you have a treasure you are not willing to spend, to sacrifice, then it is not a treasure but a chain upon you, for you will always fear its loss. I will not be chained by even this small vanity.' She would not listen to him, and he finally acceded to her demand. Aiavalë kept one braid and fashioned a bell pull out of it, much to Mother and Maiaberiel's disgust. She gave him the other. He kept it in a coil sitting on a bookshelf in his room. Denethor retrieved a piece of parchment from her desk and swept the loose clippings onto it, then emptied them into a small wicker basket with other bits of dust and trash.

'She does mourn Mother's passing, though perhaps not as much as she delights in it,' Aiavalë admitted. 'There is just enough sorrow in her heart to lend truth to her performance.'

Denethor poured them both some wine and took a seat. 'Then we must be sure to have no less sorrow in our own, lest our performances not bear up to scrutiny.' Aiavalë made a face at him.

'You are entirely too cynical, Denethor.'

'Mother had little love for any of us, Aiavalë, and we had little enough for her in return, so there is another reason not to indulge in anger. Lady Emeldir is dead and all that remains is what we shall do about that fact.'

'The funeral plans run smoothly?'

'Yes. I asked Maiaberiel to sing the hymn of passing, as you asked. She seemed surprised. I would almost say she was moved. Are you sure you do not wish to sing it? It is your right as eldest.'

'And bring ridicule upon Mother? Love or not, I know my duty, and I will not bring more shame upon her through my mangled speech. Beruthiel sings beautifully and will do it very well. What else?'

'The city officially shall remain in mourning through all of January. Private gatherings are not affected. Shops may open, but must observe mourning. Ecthelion has agreed to it.'

'And how is his manner?'

Denethor shrugged. 'It is unchanged. In front of all he is grave and short with his words. In private with me, it is as though naught has happened. He asked to be told when the ceremonies shall be and which he shall be required to attend. It is lucky that all occurred at year-end so the lords would not be required to travel twice in such bad weather, or to stay overly long past the year-end celebrations.'

'True. Though it also gives Beruthiel a large audience for her accession as the Lady of the White Tower.'

'Thus we must plan an excellent performance as well, so she does not hold the stage. However she may try, she is not the Lady. That title is for the wife of the Lord Steward alone.'

'The title does not matter to her as long as she has the power of that position.'

'Power, position and title go together.'

Aiavalë sighed and shook her head. 'You are being foolish, Denethor. Beruthiel no longer has to be concerned about Mother's disapproval, and our father will indulge her whims more than ever.'

'True, but she has no greater wealth with which to lure new followers.' Denethor said this in a matter of fact tone, but watched Aiavalë carefully. Emeldir had shown her displeasure with both of her daughters by leaving all of her property to Denethor, from her lands and rents to her jewelry and clothes. Though pleased that Maiaberiel had been denied any gain, it pained him to see Aiavalë so cruelly snubbed. When he had suggested that she take half of it for her own, Aiavalë ordered him out of her room and had not spoken to him again until today.

'It is access to the Steward's ear that she sells!' was her angry retort. 'You know this.'

'Yes, I do, but that alone is not enough. For lasting power, she must be able to improve her followers' lot even if the Steward does not. Especially in such cases. And you know this. She must offer patronage.'

'The only one she wishes to treat as such is Thorongil.' Aiavalë considered this for a few minutes. 'If only there were some way to separate the man from her.'

'Brandir is his friend. I do not think he actively curries any favor with Beruthiel, though he does nothing to distance himself from her. The Steward favors him even without Maiaberiel's support, but her approval brings him allies in addition to the Steward. I cannot oppose the captain directly; indeed, I have no true reason to do so at all.'

'Well, perhaps it is time to find a reason.'

'To do anything openly acknowledges that he is a threat, and lends strength to the cause of those who would promote him. I treat Thorongil as what he is – a senior captain and a mercenary.'

'It matters little how you treat him, Denethor. What matters is how the Steward treats him, particularly before the other lords. This last fortnight, the captain has been at Ecthelion's side almost as much as you.'

Aiavalë was right. Since the spring, the Steward had become more publicly disdainful towards himself, though never in a way that was merely rude. As Emeldir's health had deteriorated over the fall, the slights and dismissals had increased. Thus far, Denethor had been able to turn aside inquiries about the Steward's odd behavior as grief over his wife's failing health, though none who knew them at all put much stock in the explanation. Thorongil's prominence would only increase with Lady Emeldir's passing.

'What have you and Finduilas uncovered in the formal records?' he asked. Aiavalë shook her head in exasperation.

'Nothing! Not a single mention of the wretched man in anything from Ecthelion's desk until the day he presented himself and was recorded by the secretary. Another of the Lost out of the north, or another bastard out of Rohan, who can say? There is nothing to indicate where he is truly from.'

'I do not think him from the south. The Lost acknowledge him, so he must be from the north.'

'It does not matter what he is or is not. All that matters is proof that he is one thing or the other. Lacking that, any claim that is agreeable would be believed.' Aiavalë sipped her wine, giving Denethor an unreadable look. 'What if he is? Do you think he is? If you were truly certain, you would not ask for proof.'

What do I think? Denethor swirled his glass, pondering. 'I think… that I do not have enough facts to say. You are right; what matters is how Maiaberiel will advance his, or anyone else's claim. She seeks someone through whom to rule. If there were no Thorongil, there would be some counselor, or other young officer, or she would buy one of the Lost. Perhaps she has purchased Thorongil.' As soon as it was said, he rejected the thought. No. Thorongil cannot be bought. Not with gold or ordinary treasures. Denethor was not certain how he knew this, but he knew it to be true. He shrugged. 'I could use a brother, in truth, and a bastard would be no threat, save for our sister. Thorongil has no great ambitions that I can discern. He serves.'

'I would wait to see how he acts now that his chief adversary is dead before passing such judgments, Denethor. The rumor in the lower circles is that Father will begin to acknowledge his second son now that Mother is no longer among us. It is not Thorongil's ambition that worries me.'

'I shall wait.' His next words were cut off by a light rap at the door, followed by the door opening a crack.

'Sister? It is Alquallë.'

'Come in!' Aiavalë called out. Finduilas entered, then stopped short at the sight of Denethor. She was demurely dressed in black and had a thin mourning veil covering her hair. He rose slowly from his seat and gave a small bow.

'Finduilas, good afternoon.' She smiled back and inclined her head.

'Good afternoon to you, Denethor. I had not known you were visiting, else I would not have interrupted. Pray pardon me. I will return later.'

'No, please, do not depart on my account.' He smiled slightly and gestured for her to take the seat nearest Aiavalë, not quite meeting the woman's eyes. He could not do that. The directness of her gaze still disconcerted him, and he had to be ready to look into her eyes or else be lost. Denethor did not think he could meet her eyes and speak anything less than the truth, and the truths he and Aiavalë had been speaking just now were not fit for others to know. She sees truth and knows it. That is why she loves Aiavalë. She knows a true heart behind a cursed face. He busied himself pouring wine and setting a plate of sweetmeats from the sideboard onto a small table between the women, then retreated to the couch. Aiavalë gestured at her head.

'Do you like it, Alquallë? Denethor has neatened me up for the events this week.'

'Denethor did a fine job if the person wearing the hair was a soldier, sister,' Finduilas replied firmly, but with humor. 'which you are not. Will you not don a wig for the ceremonies?'

'Nay, girl, I will be swathed in my veils and none shall know if it is even the Monster who limps along or merely a serving wench. You shall have to bear beauty for us both.'

'As you wish, Aiavalë.'

Denethor made himself still and silent, watching the two women. Finduilas produced a small packet of letters from the archive. She collected the business of the archives during the afternoons while his sister was needed for funeral and year-end matters. The two went over the letters, Finduilas making small notes upon them as Aiavalë provided comments and directions. A cat he had not known was there emerged from under the couch and hopped up into Finduilas's lap. The silver and black tabby wasted no time getting comfortably settled, purring when the young woman rubbed her ears.

He still could not figure out how Finduilas had known of Henneth Annûn. Once done with his late night visit to Maiaberiel to warn her against any more interference in the archives, he had returned and woken Aiavalë, asking her to tell him to whom she had spoken of the hideout. His sister insisted she spoke of it to no one save himself. He did not tell her about Finduilas's dream.

It had not been a simple matter to secure permission from the Steward and from the Prince for the young woman to remain, but neither was it as difficult as he had thought it would be. At his advice, the women agreed that Finduilas would formally be the guest of Lady Emeldir, not Aiavalë. Emeldir had been most gracious in accepting the girl and had seemed very grateful for the company. Princess Luinil did not object at all, much to his surprise. Those two conditions met, first Ecthelion, then Adrahil, had grudgingly consented. Finduilas and an older woman servant moved into a suite of rooms next to Aiavalë the day after Denethor returned from Pelargir with Adrahil's approval.

How had she known? She could not know. She dreamed true. The girl is a seer of some kind. A few weeks later, he had occasion to dine with her and Aiavalë again. They spoke seriously of her dreams – though neither spoke of the waterfall dream before his sister – and he was left wondering. Finduilas had promised to tell the siblings if her dreams changed. They had not.

He sat for another quarter hour, thinking and observing, then excused himself to attend to funeral matters.

***

Mettarë did not so much dawn as drag itself into the sky with a sullen curl to its lip. Denethor rather agreed with its mood. A fitting day for a funeral. Denethor stood on the wall of the Citadel and watched the last of the people filing in from the lower circles. Thorongil stood next to him, surveying the sky.

'The clouds are low, but I do not think anything will fall,' the captain quietly offered. 'They will keep the day from becoming too cold.'

Denethor did not reply or indicate that he had even heard the comment. He knew the captain had been the guest of Maiaberiel and Brandir the evening before. The spy had not been able to provide an account of what had been discussed, noting only that the captain had not spoken much and that supper had not lasted long. You should tell me when you pay a call upon Beruthiel, captain. That is what a loyal officer does. Are you emboldened by the Lady's death? Denethor turned away from the wall and descended the stairs to the street below, Thorongil following.

They made their way to a small stone building in the south side of Citadel, where the embalmers did their work. Guards stood rigidly at attention as the two men passed through. A number of other high-ranking officers stood and bowed when they walked into the front chamber of the building.

'Gentlemen,' Denethor greeted them almost in a whisper and they murmured their salutations in return. They would bear the bier into the Hall of the Kings. He gestured for Thorongil to stay and organize the others. The captain nodded and began speaking quietly to his officers. Denethor continued on to the next room where his mother lay arrayed for burial.

The outer shroud, the one that would wrap her before she was laid in the sarcophagus, draped the bier. It was black and the inside of it embroidered in silver, grey and white. The crest of the House of Húrin and that of her father's house were repeated around the edges. Inside of them were designs of leaves, flowers and a distaff, representing Emeldir's love of the groves and flowers of Lebennin, where her mother was from, and of her skill at spinning flax. The shirt he wore today was woven of thread she had spun, and he knew that Aiavalë also wore a garment of such thread. It seemed to him more respectful and more honest than tears.

Denethor stepped close and checked the drape, neatening a few places, testing the solidity of the rails supporting the bier. Next, he examined the inner shroud that covered her body. The mesh was fine and had tiny pearls sewn here and there upon it. Not too many – his mother disliked ostentation. He could see the shape and a hint of the ivory of her arms crossed upon her chest, less white than the simple shift she had told him to use for her burial. Her pale face was blurred by the shroud, though her hair was dark under it.

Very lightly, Denethor reached out and touched the fabric covering her hair, confirming that a strand of pearls had been twined in it. Emeldir would not have approved of burying the pearls but he wished her to have a crown of some kind. The rest of her jewelry was already stored safely in the Archives where Maiaberiel could not get her hands on them. That had caused a great row when their sister discovered them gone, and it was only when she read their mother's will leaving the disposition of all her belongings to Denethor that Maiaberiel had finally left the house.

His hand moved along the surface of the veil and he pulled the shroud gently until it lay close to her skin, revealing her face. It was in death as it had been in life, stern, set, determined. A serious face. Denethor could not remember if he had ever heard her laugh. She had never smiled on him, though she had sometimes granted him a look of approval. Denethor could not claim to love this woman who had given him life, but she had treated him fairly and had earned his respect.

It was from his mother that he had learned the lessons of duty and of dignity. Aiavalë made a point of juxtaposing the Steward's indulgence with Emeldir's continence. Nothing the Lord Steward did could move her beyond propriety. Emeldir was never less than the Lady of the White Tower, conducting herself with nobility as she fulfilled her obligations. He lifted the veil away from her face, then let it go to settle softly, once more obscuring her features. He heard a light tap on the door behind him followed by the creak of hinges.

'My Lord Denethor, the Lord Steward and your lady sisters are here,' Thorongil's hushed voice said from the doorway. He did not look up from his mother's bier. After a moment, the door closed. Denethor slowly walked around the corpse one more time before returning to the others.

'Captain, it is time,' he said crisply as he entered the anteroom, startling the officers with the volume of his voice. Thorongil bowed and motioned for the rest to follow him. They opened the double doors between the rooms, while Denethor opened those leading to the street.

Ecthelion stood outside, Aiavalë on his arm. Her head was swathed in a heavy veil and Denethor wondered how she could see. He missed not being able to see her eyes so they could silently talk. Next to them, Maiaberiel stood with her husband, Brandir. Her veil was so transparent it almost was not visible. Beyond them was Finduilas, looking pale and chilled. Denethor bowed to the Lord Steward, then took his place next to her. Her hands were very cold and he caught them between his own to warm them. Tower Guards stood at attention in the street, waiting to escort the bier.

Soon, the bearers slowly walked out, one step at a time, four to a side. Some Guards stood aside, allowing them to pass. Ecthelion and Aiavalë took their place directly behind the bier as it went by. The slow pace allowed the Archivist to walk with almost no limp, as Denethor had planned. Maiaberiel and Brandir were next, then himself and Finduilas. It took a quarter-hour to cover the distance from the House of the Embalmers to the Hall of the Kings, and the morning was full. People bowed or knelt as the bier passed them in the Hall. Denethor noted a few tears and handkerchiefs, but most faces were solemn.

Denethor watched his brother-in-law's back during the long procession. This was not the brother he needed. Aiavalë called the man a gentle fool and Denethor could not disagree. Brandir was a handsome, affable, unimaginative, utterly loyal man from a relatively undistinguished Anórien family who farmed part way between the Firien Wood and the mouths of Onodló. He had been Denethor's sparring partner when they were learning arms and they had become friends of a kind. Brandir was two years older than he, but had always acted the younger. He was cheerful, honest, open and terribly simple. Brandir had the great virtue of doing exactly as he was told, and the great fault of the same.

No one was more surprised than himself when Maiaberiel chose Brandir for her husband. She had been entertaining suits from the most prominent nobles of Minas Tirith, as well as from the dashing Duinhir of Morthond, who had been sent by his sire to teach archery and had stayed to woo the most beautiful lady in the realm. Denethor had allowed Brandir to tag after him to some ridiculous party Maiaberiel was throwing to put all of her beaus in a single place and watch them contest with each other for her attention. When he introduced the two of them, he had expected the dumb-struck look on Brandir's face; that was the usual reaction most men had to seeing Maiaberiel. He had not expected the similar look that came over her face. Two hours later, Brandir was still at Beruthiel's side. She danced with no one else that night. A week later, Brandir asked Ecthelion for her hand. It took a year of negotiations before the Steward would agree to the match. Three days after the engagement was announced, Orodruin burst back to life. Denethor was not inclined to think the events unrelated.

The marriage itself did not happen for another four years, when Brandir turned thirty. Oddly enough, the two did appear to be in love. His family was too poorly placed and himself too thoughtlessly honest for her to use in her machinations. Maiaberiel doted on her sweet, silly husband and never entertained her lovers while he was in the City. Denethor was never certain whether Brandir was simply oblivious to her infidelities, or if he did not believe them to be more than vindictive gossip, or if he chose to pretend they did not exist.

Maiaberiel had secured Brandir the position of liaison to Rohan. The man was happy enough to carry private messages between Ecthelion and Thengel, and could be counted on not to concern himself with any gossip in the court at Edoras, which pleased people with secrets to keep. Denethor had put the maintenance of the beacons between the two lands under his brother-in-law's command. Denethor was glad to put someone of great diligence in charge of the beacons. Few reliable officers wanted the tedious responsibility, but Brandir took care of it with good-humor and proper thoroughness. He also did not appear to mind being away from Minas Tirith and his beautiful wife as his duties required, which made Denethor think Brandir was not an entirely blind fool.

The procession reached the front of the Hall and the bearers set the bier down on a stand. Emeldir's inner shroud took on an opalescent sheen under the torches and the wan, winter light that came through the great windows at either side of the Hall. Gems that made up the White Tree behind the throne glittered from their shadow while the Steward's rod was a stark white slash across the seat of the black stone chair at the foot of the dais. The bearers bowed to the bier, then again to the Steward, and took their places at the sides under the statues. Denethor paused just before reaching the front and let go Finduilas's arm so she could take her place among the great lords in the first row of mourners. She caught his eyes and smiled at him, then squeezed his hand before taking her place next to Forlong of Lossarnach. Brandir also parted from Maiaberiel and stood in the third row back with other minor lords. Ecthelion stepped away from his children and Denethor stood between his sisters behind their father at the foot of the bier. They knelt when the Steward did, Aiavalë clutching his arm to keep her balance as she sank. He could hear the rest of the mourners follow suit. After a long moment of silence, Ecthelion rose, then his children, then the rest.

Maiaberiel moved to the head of the bier, then turned to face the mourners. She looked down on her mother's face and an odd look briefly passed over her own. She swallowed, closed her eyes, and began to sing the hymn of passing. Her voice filled the Hall and Denethor closed his own eyes and let its beauty envelop him. He was grateful to Maiaberiel for this last gift. He heard a small sniff next to him and knew Aiavalë was weeping. All stood still for another long moment after the song ended and the notes' echoes faded from the Hall. The Steward bowed once again towards the bier before taking up the Steward's rod and sitting in the chair. Each of the siblings bowed in turn, first Aiavalë, then Maiaberiel, then Denethor, and walked to stand near their sire.

Finduilas was the first of the mourners to approach, being both the Lady Emeldir's guest and the highest ranking of all the lords and princes. She curtseyed deeply to the corpse, kissed the edge of the outer shroud, then circled the bier, pausing to curtsey again before Ecthelion before returning to her place. The other lords followed in order, bowing and kissing the edge of the black shroud, bowing to the Steward, and returning to their places as Finduilas had done.

Denethor bent his knees a touch and prepared to be bored for several hours. They would have to stand here until all the mourners had paid their respects. He gently nudged Aiavalë to let her know to take his elbow if the standing became difficult for her. She pinched his arm hard to let him know she did not need him playing nursemaid. He glanced at the Steward. This is the most time you have spent with Mother in some years. His parents had worked out very ingenious ways to avoid sitting or standing next to each other for more than a few minutes at public events and ceremonies. Ecthelion had not set foot in the Stewards' House since Denethor turned twenty-one and they had argued over the Steward's infidelities.

The minutes dragged by as the mourners filed past. The Hall warmed with the many people in it, which was not helping Denethor remain awake. He had been sleeping fitfully since the funeral planning began, and had not been able to sleep at all the previous night, finally dozing off in a chair as he went over City matters in the small hours of the morning. Denethor distracted himself by studying the carvings and statues across from him. The status closest to the dais on the northern side was of Isildur, just as the one directly behind himself on the southern side was Anárion. As his eyes moved down the statue, he realized that the person standing at the foot of it was Thorongil. The man was watching something else so Denethor took the opportunity to study the mysterious captain. There was a likeness between the statue and the captain, but no more so than between himself and the carving of Anárion. Denethor searched the other's face and form, but could discern nothing new. A proud and noble man who conducted himself with dignity. Are you my brother? Will you just disappear into the mists and legends of the north? Why do you serve when you could command? Who is it that you serve, in truth? Denethor realized that Thorongil's gaze had not wavered in the time he had conducted his own scrutiny. He followed the direction of the captain's eyes, and saw Finduilas.

She was wearing that particular bland expression that lords and ladies learned to cultivate for public appearances, the one that indicated the wearer was some other location than here. The girl appeared unaware of Thorongil's intent stare, her own eyes trained more or less in the direction of Lady Emeldir. A small smile touched her lips for a fraction of a second, then her face was solemn once more. Denethor found himself wishing she would look at him again as she had earlier. After a few minutes, Finduilas smiled a tiny bit and looked over at him. It was not difficult to meet her eyes at such a distance; she could not look so deeply into him. Her expression changed just slightly, and he knew she was sorrowed on his behalf. Finduilas's compassion startled him, forcing Denethor to look away for a moment. When he looked back, she had dropped her eyes, so he kept watching, hoping his gaze would pull her back to looking at him. She frowned slightly and wrinkled her brow. When she looked up, however, she looked at Thorongil, not at him. He saw the captain nod to her and stare. Her stare back was even. Denethor was not sure how long the two looked at each other. Finduilas nodded back once more, then fixed her eyes on the bier. The two remained like that – Thorongil staring at Finduilas, Finduilas staring at the bier – for rest of the funeral.

When the last mourner passed by, the bearers paid their respects before gathering the bier. Ecthelion took Aiavalë's arm and they lined up again to follow the bearers out. Denethor collected Finduilas as he passed the first row. The slow walk to Rath Dínen took nearly a half-hour. When the bearers and the family turned aside at the Closed Door, the mourners continued down to the City. Another ten minutes and they were at the building that housed the tombs of House of Húrin, save the Stewards themselves. Aiavalë was limping badly by this point. Her short and bent left leg could not bear her weight for long periods of time and she had been standing for nearly four hours.

The bearers set the bier down on a wooden stand near an open sarcophagus and stepped away to allow the family to wrap the corpse in the outer shroud. Aiavalë stumbled as she stepped forward, barely catching herself with her hands when she fell to the floor. The Steward did not move to help her up. Denethor and Finduilas hurried forward to her.

'Alquallë, please, I cannot…' Aiavalë's voice was weary and tearful. Finduilas kissed her through her heavy veil.

'I will do this, sister. Can you stand?' the younger women murmured.

'Not alone. Don't leave me in the dirt in front of her.'

'Of course not,' Denethor quietly assured her. Ecthelion remained where he stood, coldly staring down at his eldest daughter. The bearers stood at attention and pretended to be stone. Denethor gestured for Brandir to come over, then he and Finduilas helped Aiavalë to stand. Brandir had enough sense to know what was needed of him and he allowed Aiavalë to lean on him, looping an arm around her waist.

Finduilas and Denethor moved to either side of the bier and took the edges of the outer shroud. He stepped forward first and laid his half over his mother's form. He neatened it, making sure it lay smooth. Finduilas lifted her part of the shroud and he reached across the corpse and took it from her, pulling it snugly over the first side. The two of them gently tucked the upper layer's edge under her body, then folded each end under as well, making a pillow for head and foot. Denethor placed a final kiss on Emeldir's shrouded forehead before taking Finduilas's arm and returning to Aiavalë. Brandir retreated back to Maiaberiel, who was glaring at him and would not allow him to take her arm.

Four of the bearers, Thorongil among them, carefully lifted the plank on which the body rested, carried it to the sarcophagus, and lowered it into the tomb. It took all eight bearers to wrestle the stone lid into place. As soon as the sarcophagus was closed, Ecthelion turned on his heel and walked off, followed by Beruthiel and Brandir. Aiavalë leaned heavily against Denethor and he wondered how he was going to get her back to the Citadel.

'May I be of assistance, my lord?' Thorongil asked.

Before he could snap at the captain and tell him to go away, Finduilas said, 'Yes. Lady Aiavalë is chilled and weary and overcome with grief. Give her your cloak and go get her some hot tea and bread with honey.' Her tone was crisp and commanding. Thorongil stared at her a moment without moving, so she added, 'Now, Captain.'

The man pulled off his cloak and handed it to Finduilas, then strode swiftly out of the crypt. Denethor motioned for the other officers to leave. They did so with alacrity. There was a tomb nearby with some steps and he guided Aiavalë over there to sit and rest. The three sat in silence until Thorongil returned with Finduilas's serving woman, Aerin, and a kitchen boy carrying a basket. The captain had gathered all of their cloaks and the boy had a pot of broth as well as bread, honey and tea. Denethor dismissed Thorongil with a curt nod. The kitchen boy was sent off once the food was laid out. Aiavalë soon felt strong enough to walk back. Aerin carried the basket while Denethor and Finduilas kept Aiavalë between them. The few people on the street bowed and murmured condolences as they passed.

Denethor waited in the outer room while Finduilas and Aerin helped Aiavalë to bed. The young woman came out and took his hand.

'She is weary, Denethor, but should be well with rest. I will sit with her while she sleeps.'

'But who shall care for you, Finduilas? You, too, are weary and grieved.'

'Aerin will look after me, Denethor. She goes to fetch some tea for me now. You should go now and rest as well.' She patted his hand and smiled up at him, catching him unguarded with her eyes and her compassion.

Denethor took her hand and kissed it. His throat hurt and he had to swallow before he could reply. 'Your kindness to her and to Emeldir shall not be forgotten, my lady.' He turned and left.

***

Yestarë was an uneventful day, which was good as he had once more failed to get any true sleep the previous night. The City remained in mourning for the Lady Emeldir, most shops were shuttered, and only those with pressing business went out into the gloom. Were it up to him, Denethor would stay in his study all evening with a new report, or an old scroll, and sup on strong wine, cheese and bread and, with luck, go to sleep in his own bed. But there was Maiaberiel's party to attend. Aiavalë told him she would not excuse him from the event and said he must escort Finduilas.

Thus it was that he found himself in Aiavalë's sitting room waiting for Finduilas to be ready. His sister appeared to be back to normal and was teasing the tabby with a bit of string.

'Where did you get the cat?'

'Telperien? She is a kit of one of the archive mousers. Alquallë took a liking to her so we brought her home.'

'And a proper ruling queen she is, too!' Finduilas laughed from the doorway. He rose and gave her a small bow. Like himself, she was still dressed in mourning though she had exchanged her veil for a strand of black pearls. Every so often there would be a white pearl on the strand and they shone in her hair like small moons. 'She is quite demanding and very jealous of her prerogatives.'

'As befits a queen. Shall we go?' They each kissed Aiavalë good evening before leaving. Aerin and Beregar, the attendant Denethor had assigned to Finduilas, were waiting for them in the hall. Denethor helped her on with her cloak and they departed.

Aerin and Beregar trailed a discreet distance behind to give them privacy for talking. Beregar was a young, solid fellow whose parents ran a reputable tavern in the third circle. His mother was also the eldest of Ecthelion's bastards known to himself and Aiavalë, and one of their principal spies. Aiavalë had provided the woman a respectable dowry and saw her married off to a good man. The woman knew silence was the real price and gave it.

Some years back, the woman appeared at the archive and had struck a deal with Aiavalë to provide information that came through the tavern. Her price was no different than any spy's and she never pressed for advantage because of blood. Besides her pay, her children were educated by Aiavalë and each worked a short time in the archive. The eldest, Beregar, was not greatly clever, but he was loyal and had some skill with a sword and bow. He accompanied Finduilas and Aerin on any trip out of the seventh circle, carried their packages, did their bidding, kept footpads and cut-purses at a distance, and reported every place they went and every person they spoke with to Denethor.

It was a long walk. Sounds of merry-making could be heard here and there as they walked the near-deserted streets, but there was nothing like the usual revelry that marked the new year. Between the cold and the funeral, it was glum. Denethor thought the imposed decorum not a bad thing. He glanced at Finduilas. Is she in mourning out of respect, or because she thinks I wish it? He might enjoy intimidating some of Beruthiel's sycophants into drabness, but he has no wish to make this gentle girl choose other than she wished.

'I thank you, Finduilas, for continuing your mourning,' he said, 'but I hope you are not doing so on my account. I would hate for you to think I did not wish for you to enjoy yourself at a party.'

'In truth, Denethor, I know not why a party like this is being held during mourning. I understand that the year-end is a time for gathering and well-wishing, and I would not have it otherwise, but I do not sense that there will be much restraint at this celebration.'

'Was it not you who once said to me why not make merry and be frivolous if the alternative is grimness?'

'I do not think that was my argument, sir.' He could not see her face clearly, as it was overcast, blocking stars and moon, but there was a hint of exasperation in her voice. 'I said that if all was hopeless, why is grimness preferable to gaiety?'

'Yes, you are correct, Finduilas, that was your argument. And you have still not given me a solid answer, either to where I shall find hope or to why I should choose gaiety. Your words just now seem to indicate a certain impatience with this same gaiety.'

They walked a while in silence before she answered. 'The Darkness in the east weighs no less upon me, if that is what you mean. I would wish for neither grimness nor this false frivolity. I would wish for respect for both living and dead.'

'A prince knows better than to wish for things, Alquallë. You think of what may be, and you make it thus, as you will, or you acknowledge that it is beyond your grasp and you leave it be.'

'You call me by Aiavalë's name for me. Why?'

'Because you are a young prince of the Swan's house, and I name you so.'

'Ah. Well then, High Warden and fellow prince, how do you know what is beyond your grasp if you do not reach for it? Such as hope?'

'Where is it that I may reach for it, Alquallë?' Can you dream it for me?

She did not answer and they continued in silence to the party. Maiaberiel lived at the north side of the fifth circle, in one of the largest houses in the City, the Steward's dower gift to her. When Denethor had paid his visit last summer, he had climbed up an ancient vine that grew from the narrow side street up to a balcony, and then through a door on the balcony into her room, but it would be impolite not arrive through the front door this evening. The celebration could be heard several houses away. Denethor steeled himself for the carrying-on that marked Beruthiel's large gatherings. After he handed their cloaks to a waiting servant, he tucked Finduilas's arm firmly under his own before heading into the whirl.

It was like walking into a stable of braying jackasses. Though the evening was not far gone, a significant number of revelers were far gone in their cups. Gluttony of various types appeared to be the rule. What of the chatter he could understand was often uncouth in nature. Hands were in indecorous locations. Mastering the urge to turn on his heel and depart, Denethor waded into the thick of things, looking for Beruthiel.

His passage had the desired effect of ending all lasciviousness and quelling most unseemly speech. To his amusement, Finduilas was regally greeting people as they made their way through the crowd. The perfection of her manners accentuated the crudity of the others' behavior. Men straightened shirts, women pulled necklines a little higher and swatted away groping hands. All other women had dressed in holiday finery and were garish next to her simple perfection. A black swan among cackling hens.

'Denethor!' Brandir's cheerfully inebriated shout let him know where to find Beruthiel. She was there, dressed in scarlet and gold. Unlike the other women, she looked ferocious, not garish. Brandir wore dark green and silver and looked quite silly, as always.

'Finduilas! My dear girl, how nice of you to come down all this way for the party,' Maiaberiel greeted her, ignoring Denethor entirely. The two women exchanged kisses. The change that came over Finduilas was amazing. The girl was giggling and blushing and carrying herself in a most undignified manner. 'Well, now that you are here, we can begin the dancing!' In the blink of an eye, the two women were gone and the musicians began striking up a tune. Resisting the urge to see where Beruthiel had taken Finduilas, Denethor decided to observe for a time, snagging a glass of wine from a passing tray. He was relieved to soon see the girl among the dancers. Brandir had a hand on his shoulder and chattered nonsense, unaware that the other was paying him no attention. Denethor made enough noises to keep Brandir talking. There was much to see. Who was speaking to whom, who avoiding whom. Who did his sister talk to, and who not. The rivalries of tonight would play out in other venues.

He watched the revelers for some time and kept an eye on Finduilas, who did not lack for dance partners. He noted Beregar also standing watch from the edge of the room and was content nothing untoward would happen. Maiaberiel danced every so often, but mostly she walked about, observing things as he did.

'My Lord Denethor.' Denethor allowed Thorongil to stand unacknowledged for several heartbeats before he finally looked at the other. The captain was dressed in mourning and Denethor was oddly touched at the gesture. Civility was in order.

'Captain Thorongil, good yestarë to you.'

'And to you, sir. Did you receive the reports for tomorrow?'

'Yes. I was going over them this afternoon. The summary on the wreckage in the tidewaters is going…'

'No you don't!' Brandir wiggled an admonitory finger at them. 'No more of this, brother Denethor! No business tonight, friend Thorongil! It is yestarë, you two kill-joys, and nothing serious is permitted. Darling, do tell your brother and the estimable captain that they are to enjoy themselves tonight and leave business for the morrow!'

'Please, gentlemen, enough or I shall have to ask you both to leave,' Maiaberiel laughingly teased as she glided up, leading Finduilas. The two women giggled together, then Maiaberiel shot a sly look at the captain. 'In fact, Thorongil, you look entirely too staid to be attending one of my parties. I insist that you must dance or else leave. And here is a fine young lady who has no one to dance with. What shall you chose, sir?'

Thorongil could not entirely hide his pleasure at the situation, but he bowed slightly to Finduilas and asked, 'What is your choice, my lady? Shall I remain a guest in good standing, or must I leave?'

'I could not bear to send you out into the cold and dark, Captain,' Finduilas gaily replied, 'so I say "yes" to your suit. Shall we?' Thorongil smiled broadly and took her hand. Denethor handed his wine glass to Brandir.

'Then I shall be not such a churl, either,' he announced, firmly grasping Beruthiel's wrist. 'But as the young lady has chosen,' he nodded genially to Thorongil and Finduilas as they stepped away, 'I am stuck with a loathsome scorpion for this dance.' The last words were whispered into his sister's ear. She laughed as if he had said something amusing, though her eyes were equally angry and wary.

'What do you think you are doing?' she smiled at him.

'Watching what you are up to,' he replied in similar cheer.

'Why don't you go home,' she laughed. She was one of the few women tall enough to partner well with him in dancing and they moved smoothly together. He allowed himself to enjoy the dance, even as he enjoyed the sparring. They danced for a minute before he answered.

'I will leave when I have seen enough. Have you seen enough of me? You appear to have trouble recognizing me. I think I ought to pay you more visits, you were so confused over who I was last time.' Her smile slipped and she glared at him hatefully.

'You were despicable!' she hissed. Denethor smiled warmly at her.

'You were a slattern who did not care who showed up in your bed. Like father, like daughter. Am I at fault that you did not enquire before accepting your suitor?' He laughed and pulled her tightly to him, whispering, 'And you kiss so well!'

'Denethor, I am going to have you thrown out,' she said through clenched teeth that barely made a smile.

Denethor chuckled. 'You would not dare risk such a scene. I can see the advantage of not bothering with names, I must say. It could be embarrassing to poor Brandir if you said the wrong thing at a delicate moment.' The music was winding down – luckily for them both, it was a short dance. He looked about for Thorongil and Finduilas and steered Maiaberiel towards them. When the music ended, they were together.

'Captain, if our ladies agree, may I be so bold as to ask to exchange partners?' His sister glared at him and took the Captain's hand, not waiting for a reply from Thorongil or Finduilas. Denethor watched her stalk off, then looked at Finduilas. 'If it pleases you, may I have this dance?'

'Uh, no, I, I…' she began, then coughed a little. 'I think I need to rest a moment.'

'Of course, Alquallë.' He guided her out of the dancers and towards a window. She began to cough in earnest. He signaled Beregar to come over, as he did not wish to leave her alone, and asked the man to fetch some water. That was soon accomplished. 'Are you well, Finduilas?'

She nodded. 'As well as I ever am. I fear I have tired myself out and stirred up my cough. And all before I gave you a dance! I did not realize, until I saw you with Beruthiel,' he gave her an amused glance at the use of his sister's nickname, 'I mean, Lady Maiaberiel, that you were such an accomplished dancer.'

'Then you shall owe me the first dance at the next party,' he replied. 'Do you wish to stay?' She shook her head.

'No. I have more than enough to report to Aiavalë and I find myself tiring of forward young men.'

'Has any offended you?'

'Not yet, though it is only a matter of time. I believe inebriation has passed the ability of intelligence to moderate.'

'I quite agree. Let us go.' Beregar escorted Finduilas to the hall where Aerin waited with the other serving women while Denethor located Brandir and made their farewells. Beruthiel and Thorongil were sharing a second dance. Denethor joined the others and they departed. They made their way south across the circle and began climbing up to the gate to the sixth. Denethor studied Finduilas out of the corner of his eye, curious about the swift changes of manner he had seen in the girl this evening.

'If I may ask an impertinent question, Alquallë, was that true or false gaiety you showed at the party?'

'False.'

'I see. So, perhaps, you prefer frivolity to grimness?'

'I prefer no falseness at all.' She glanced up at him, her features indistinct. 'Now it is my turn to ask an impertinent question, sir. Is it true or false mourning that you show? Have you no respect for the dead? It all seems but a game, the grief and the gaiety both.'

Denethor halted and stared down at her. He was glad for the lack of moonlight, or even starlight, so he would not have to meet her eyes. 'That is a very impertinent question, Alquallë. You deserve an answer, given your kindness to my family, but not in a public street.' He held out his arm for her to take and they walked the rest of the way to the Stewards House in silence. He dismissed Beregar at the door. Once they reached Finduilas's sitting room, she bade Aerin good night, dismissing her. Denethor helped Finduilas off with her cloak before shedding his own. He took a seat in a chair near the door and thought how he should reply to her. She poured them wine and took a seat in a nearby chair.

'I apologize, Denethor. That was a rude question, not an impertinent one. You owe me no answer.' He risked looking at her directly and was caught. It was impossible to see in this honest, slightly embarrassed face the coquettish girl of an hour before. 'Please forgive me for insulting the hospitality you and your family has shown me these many months.' Her keen eyes held him, required an answer.

'I take no offence, Finduilas. I am the one who has challenged you about truth and falsehood. I do wish to know why you find my mourning false.'

Finduilas considered her words. 'It may be a matter of age, Denethor. I am young and inclined to emotion, as are all young women. I find it difficult to understand… I mean, it seems not right to me that you are… If I were to know my own mother had passed, I…'

'You would weep, and you would grieve deeply, and you wonder that I do not.'

'Yes, Denethor. And it is not my place to question the manner of your mourning. Please, friend, forgive me!' Finduilas entreated him.

'You should wonder. It is not right that a child be so cold at a parent's death. But you are also a prince and should know that love does not always mark the relations of rulers.'

'My parents love.' Her eyes held a challenge.

'As all may see, prince. Indeed, the love of Adrahil and Luinil is stuff for minstrels and poets. But such is not the case with the Steward's house, much though I might wish it otherwise.'

Finduilas shook her head and made a face. 'I do not understand this, Denethor! How did the Lord Steward and Lady Emeldir become so estranged? They are both people of good hearts and of wisdom. The Lady showed me much tenderness in my stay here, and it grieves me that she died! How has there come to be such division in your house?'

Denethor sipped his wine, unsure what to tell the girl. Girl or not, she is a prince, she knows how things are. Say the truth and trust her to know what to make of it. 'It is both simple and sad, prince. The Lord Steward is like most men, greatly enjoying the pleasures of a bed, and like most men, he swore to give up such things when he wed and to be true to his lady wife. It was a marriage of state, though I believe there was affection between them at the start. They hoped love would grow, as can be the case in such unions. But their first child was a twisted horror, and my mother denied her husband their bed for fear of bearing another such creature.'

He stood, unable to remain facing Finduilas, and busied himself with looking over a shelf of curios. It made it easier to speak. 'Ecthelion availed himself of other companionship. When it became known that his infidelities were resulting in offspring, my mother was told she must accept him back and allow him to sire a legitimate heir. She refused, frightened of what might issue from that, and now insulted and angered at her husband's dishonoring of her in the beds of wantons. Finally, she relented, and Maiaberiel was the result. My younger sister received some affection from her dam, I believe, but my mother cared little for any child of her husband.

'A final time was Lady Emeldir importuned to provide an heir, for a number were worried by the increase in bastard get. She consented once more, and thus I am. The lady considered that she had fulfilled her obligations to husband and city, and wished no more to do with the Steward's house, save what duty required. It was Aiavalë who gave me a mother's love in my youth, though Lady Emeldir was never unkind or cruel. Thus it is that I have not a son's heart with respect to my mother.'

Denethor turned to Finduilas directly, making himself look her in the face. 'So, prince, my mourning is true, though perhaps not adequate. I have no tears, no grief. I regret the passing of an honorable and noble lady. That is not false. What others feel, I cannot say.'

Finduilas's face was pained. 'I am sorry to hear this, friend. A loveless marriage may yet be a kind one, but this was not the case for your lady mother. I am sorry for her, and for you.'

'I do not ask for pity.'

'I would not offer it. You are a proud man, too proud, and it would offend.'

Her words stung and her compassion stung more. 'First I am too grim, then I am false, and now I am too prideful,' he snapped. 'You are young and too taken with fancies, girl. Very well, I claim all three – grimness, falseness and pride. It is what is demanded of me.'

'I think you sad, not grim, and close, not false, but I will agree wholeheartedly, Lord Denethor, that you have pride enough for several men!' she angrily shot back. The anger left her face and concern returned. 'Mostly, sir, I think you wrong.'

'About what?'

'You said the Lady Emeldir was not unkind or cruel to you. I say she was. To be without a mother's love is too cruel for any man to suffer.'

'I had Aiavalë. I am not any man. I am scarcely a man at all.'

'What mean you? I see a man of flesh and blood, like any other, standing before me.'

'I am an instrument, an end. It is my duty, my honor, even my fate. All Stewards are ends. We are for the end, when the King shall return or Darkness shall take us.'

'For all your pride, you seem rather timid, Denethor. Are you content to be naught but an end? You said a prince knows what to reach for, and you have not answered my question of how you may know what will be unless you attempt it. Will you not reach beyond an end? Will you just walk into darkness? For the King shall not return.'

'In your dream, I did just that.' The words came out unbidden.

'Even in a dream you would not listen!' she scolded. 'Are you so eager to forswear hope and love in pursuit of your end? Will you, too, rule over a city in despair?'

'You know my answers, prince.' Denethor drained his cup, and set it down. 'I see no hope. And, though it amaze you, I do believe in love. Both our sires have set me fine examples of what should and should not be. You are well advised to study such examples yourself, lest you suffer my mother's fate.' He bowed shallowly in Finduilas's direction and turned to go.

'Will you not take your own advice and avoid her fate as well?'

Denethor did not turn back. He simply said over his shoulder, 'I shall. I will enter no marriage of state as I will enter no marriage at all. Good evening, Alquallë.'

*******

Characters introduced in this chapter, in order of appearance:

  • Ecthelion – Lord Steward of Gondor, Denethor's father, 88 years old.
  • Brandir – OC. Husband to Denethor's younger full-sister, Maiaberiel, 46 years old.
  • Telperien – OC. Finduilas's cat, given to her by Aiavalë.
  • Aerin – OC. Finduilas's serving woman from Dol Amroth, over 65.
  • Beregar – OC. Finduilas's bodyguard, assigned to her by Denethor. Eldest son of Denethor's eldest half-sister, 25 years old.

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, 1 January, 2975 T.A.

A light tap at the door to his front room woke Denethor. He sat up quickly in his chair and rubbed his eyes. The reports he had been looking at late at night were partly in his lap and partly on the floor, having slipped from his grasp as he dozed. Very faint light showed through the window and he could hear the sound of rain. It was probably not yet dawn, but close to that hour. Denethor sighed and gave his head a shake to clear it. This was the third night he had fallen asleep in the chair. The dropped pages were quickly gathered and set on the desk. He made his way through his dim study into the darker main room and yanked open the door.

Thorongil stood in the hallway, wet cloak gently dripping onto the tiles. Denethor said nothing, leaned on the door jamb, and waited for an explanation. Thorongil said nothing, reached under his cloak, and held out a folded and sealed piece of parchment. Denethor took the proffered message, examining it closely. What he saw was most…interesting.

'You had best come in.'

Once back in the study, Denethor tossed the parchment on the desk and took a candle to the fireplace to light it from embers. He handed that to Thorongil to light other candles, and took a seat at the desk, looking at the missive. There was nothing on it to indicate where it was from, or from whom, or who it was intended for, only the thumbprint in the seal.

'Why did you bring this here?'

'The messenger from Pelargir only arrived two hours ago with the message pouches, sir. I went through them and found that, and knew you should see it at once. I did not wish to entrust it to anyone else.'

'That is not what I asked, Captain.' The two locked eyes briefly, then Thorongil looked away.

'I would not presume to wake the Lord Steward at this hour, sir.' The captain refused to meet his eyes.

'Neither would I.' Denethor rubbed his eyes again and wished he was not so tired. This was a difficult position to be in, and he should face it with a clear mind, not a stiff neck. 'Were you woken to receive the message pouches?'

'Yes.'

'No wonder you look a mess. There is no point in you returning to the garrison. The council will be in three hours and we need to talk beforehand. This can wait.' Denethor slipped the anonymous message into a sheaf of papers. He walked past the captain, retrieving his cloak from a hook on the wall. 'Let us start our day. I will worry about waking the Steward later.' They left the rooms and went downstairs to the entry hall. The night doorward rose and bowed, a look of trepidation on his face.

'Good morrow, my lord. The captain said…'

'It is all right. Please have my usual breakfast readied, enough for two as the captain will be joining me.'

'Yes, my lord.'

Denethor pulled up his hood and they stepped out the door into the wet dawn. From the look of the sky, it was going to rain all day. At the back of the circle was the bathhouse. An old attendant, wrinkled and stooped, nodded his greetings to the two men and took their cloaks and boots. Most men preferred to wash in the cold shower first, then soak in one of the warm tubs, but Denethor needed to wake up.

He hung his clothes on the pegs near one of the tubs and stepped in. Thorongil followed suit. Denethor said nothing, concentrating on relaxing and allowing the warm water to ease the crick in his neck and the aches in his back from sleeping in the chair. Why did he bring me the message? All captains were taught to recognize such sendings. They were also taught to take them directly to the Lord Steward. He must know I dare not open it. Was he told to bring this to me? Only the Steward himself, or Maiaberiel, would have done so.

After a quarter hour, they stepped out of the warm soaking tub and walked to the shower room. A few small falls of water ran from pipes in the far wall, and soap and small, rough towels sat in niches behind the water. The frigid water removed any remaining sleep from his mind. He let it chill him, then stepped out of the downfall to soap up. Thorongil gestured with one of the wash rags and Denethor nodded, turning his back so the other could scrub it, then returned the favor. He soaped his hair last and plunged back under the cold stream to rinse off. As much as he needed the cold to wake, Denethor was very glad for the warm towels that awaited them on the bench near where their clothes were hanging. They reclaimed their cloaks and boots from the attendant, and swiftly walked back to the Stewards House.

The study was well-lit and warm on their return. A fresh flagon of wine, a pot of tea, warm bread, butter, and soft cheese were waiting. Both of their stomachs growled.

'Warm some of the wine,' Denethor directed Thorongil, and stepped around a screen into the alcove to change into clean clothes. There was a bed in the alcove as well as a chest of drawers. He never used the sleeping chamber on the other side of the front room. After he changed and tossed his soiled clothes into a basket, he laid out another set on the bed. Why not? We are like enough, and he is not presentable with what he has on. Besides which, it will come in useful later if things do not work out well.

As he came around the end of the screen, Denethor said, 'I laid out clean clothes for you, Thorongil, on the bed.' The captain looked up from where he was tending a pot of warming wine at the hearth, and smiled.

'Thank you, Denethor.' Thorongil poured them both a cup of wine before going to change. Denethor set out the food at the side of the desk where it could be reached without getting in the way. No "my lord." No "sir." The captain was being very peculiar this morning. Tea was poured into large mugs. Denethor spread some cheese on a chunk of bread and ate. It would not be wise to drink wine without some food in his stomach first. Thorongil appeared and sat in the seat opposite to pull on his boots. The clothes fit the captain well.

Denethor studied the man while he sipped his tea. He cannot be more than a year different from me in age. The captain mixed butter and cheese on his bread, took a bite, and set it down. Aiavalë had investigated all the births in the city for the year before and the year after Denethor's birth, and had accounted for all the children that resulted. Thorongil looked at him expectantly, sipping his own tea. Denethor lifted up a stack of papers and handed them to the captain.

'This is what the Steward wishes to address during the council. I have added my own notes. Look them over and tell me what you think.' Thorongil paged through the stack once quickly, then settled in to read, exchanging his mug of tea for the wine. The captain did not look up when Denethor retrieved the message from the morning, but the tension in his form betrayed where his attention lay.

Slowly, Denethor turned the message over in his hands. In the brighter light of lanterns, the seal was unmistakable. There was a carefully shaped scar in the thumbprint embedded in the wax. I should hand this to the Steward, unopened. To what end? The Steward will do nothing with this news. Denethor carefully set the message down and took up his wine. The captain did not look up from the pages he was reading, but started reaching for the quills and ink. Denethor moved them closer to Thorongil, and the captain grunted his thanks. Is this a trick? The other scratched a note in the margin of a page. Denethor picked up the message again and noted how the captain's eyes flicked in his direction. It could be innocent. Thorongil was quite right to bring the message himself as soon as he saw it. But it should not be on my desk. So, why did the captain bring it here? For the sake of the message, or the sake of the Steward? Or the sake of someone else? For Thorongil to hand it to him was acceptable. For himself to open it, treasonous, and thus a trap. But if meant sincerely, then Thorongil brought it to him so that he could know of it, would read it.

Denethor opened a drawer on the desk and pulled out a thin-bladed knife. He rose and took the message to the window and carefully pressed the seal against the cold pane. A little moisture from the window came off on the parchment. Once the seal was cold, he slipped the blade under the wax and gently lifted it, careful not to crack or damage it. He returned to the desk and sat, then looked at Thorongil. The captain stared back, glanced at the message, then deliberately turned a little away and pretended to concentrate on the council notes. It had been meant sincerely.

Careful of the seal, Denethor unfolded the paper and looked at the gibberish written upon it. There were many true words, but much was symbols, dots, squiggles of color, random letters. He leaned back in the chair, put his feet up on the desk, picked up his wine, and concentrated on deciphering the code. It took almost an hour. When he finished, Denethor smiled grimly and handed the note over to the captain.

'Here, take a look.' Thorongil took the paper, then shook his head, handing the note back.

'I know not that cipher. You will have to tell me what it says.'

'It is very good news. The fleet we believed the Corsairs to be building is real. Or, rather, was real. The great storms from last month, the ones that damaged the coasts so much, wreaked even greater harm on Umbar. It appears that their shipyards took a pounding, and that the storm drove ships into the docks, damaging, in some cases destroying, both. Their yard master says it will take a year to repair the damage alone, and no new ships can be built until that is done. There will be many ships to replace. They will not be able to build during the winter in any great amount, so we have nearly a year and long season respite before they can even begin to recover.'

Thorongil let out a laugh. 'Excellent news!'

'Most excellent.'

'How far does that put them back?' Thorongil asked. 'I know you have spoken of years, but how many?'

'Counting from the spring, we had at the least two, at the most four, years before their fleet would be built, manned and ready,' Denethor answered. 'Now, one year simply to rebuild the shipyards, which will mean cannibalizing their worst damaged ships for wood. They have been building for three years, but let us assume they can recover that much in two, so three to be where they were before the storms. Then I think another two for building, plus a winter, so the sixth spring from now.'

'Six. Much can be done in six years.'

'Possibly. Our immediate problem is to determine how we may convey this news to anyone else, as neither of us have business knowing it.' We are both traitor for this, captain.

'Not as of yet, but time can have the news spread north, and we may speak later,' Thorongil said slowly.

The captain's words implied that he expected Denethor would not tell the Steward about the message. How deep does your duplicity run, Captain? Denethor shook his head. 'It will be dismissed as mere rumor if it does not have this message to back it up. The time for this knowledge is now, at this council, when the lords are gathered.'

'The Steward has no plan to discuss Umbar,' the captain replied, leafing through the notes.

'I know. Which is why you are going to bring it up.' Thorongil shot him a sharp glance.

'It is generally not advisable to contradict one's lord in front of other lords.'

'Agreed.' Which is why you will be doing so, and not I. Denethor precisely refolded the message, aligning the wax seal with its stain on the folded edges, then turning it all seal-side down on the desk. He held the tip of the knife in a candle flame, getting it hot, and carefully wiped any soot clinging to it onto a fold of his pants. Gently, he applied the flat of the hot knife to the parchment, allowing the heat to warm and soften the seal through the layers of paper. He pressed firmly until the wax clung and resealed the message. The apparently unopened message went into a sheaf of papers he was taking to the council. He looked up at Thorongil, grimly amused.

'Captain, you really should have woken the Steward, you know.' After a moment of thinking, Thorongil's eyes hardened. 'I will have my own bad news to deliver to the Lord Steward this day, so I fear I shall have to leave certain things to you. I trust you will make a strong case. I will take care of explaining how this message came to be in my hands first, not his. After the council.'

'As you wish, sir.' The captain's words were only slightly clipped, but his face clearly showed his chagrin at being outmaneuvered. Denethor refilled both of their mugs with tea and stared down into his own, watching stray bits of herbs settle to the bottom, before setting it aside. You thought to capture me, did you not? Place a temptation in my way and then gain some power when I failed to resist it? You should know better how to use power. That had been the most valuable lesson learned from Aiavalë, and one of the first. Maiaberiel had set him up for blackmail when he was about eight, tricking him into taking something from Ecthelion's desk. He had gone crying to Aiavalë, afraid of what Maiaberiel would do. When Aiavalë heard his tearful account, she slapped him, hard.

'That is for stealing.' She slapped him again, harder.

'That is for being stupid around an enemy.' She slapped him a third time, knocking him down.

'That is for wasting my time with tears.' She yanked him to his feet and gave him a shake. 'Do you see me cry when Beruthiel goes after me? No, you do not. I do not bother with such things. I plan on how to turn her conniving back on her. Are you done with your sniveling?' He nodded, and Aiavalë grinned her widest, most grotesque grin at him. 'Good. Now, dry your face. It is time to figure out how to get her back. Never allow an adversary to beat you, not even in small things. It is for you to say how things shall be. That will make them think twice before trying such again.' They exacted revenge and he never forgot the lesson of power.

Denethor broke off more bread and spread cheese upon it. He retrieved the pot of wine from the embers, refreshing their cups. 'It should go well with your account about the tidewater wreckage.'

'Yes, I suppose it will,' was the acerbic reply. Denethor ate a few bites of bread before replying.

'What notes have you made? Is there anything else that has been left out?' Thorongil put the pages on the desk and they spent the next hour figuring out what they would say. The window let in more light, a soft grey light that illuminated little and left a feeling of gloom behind. The second hour was rung, and they gathered their reports and papers for the council in a half-hour.

They were almost to the Wall door when they heard steps on the stair to the ground floor. In a moment, Finduilas appeared, dressed in black, with a heavy veil over her hair. In her hands was a soft sheet of leather folded over a sheaf of papers. Her cloak was over her arm.

'Good morrow, gentlemen,' she said. They nodded and returned her greeting. 'I heard the bells. The council will commence shortly, is that not so?'

'Yes, within the half-hour. Am I to understand that you will sit for Dol Amroth, prince?' As she approached, Denethor could see that Finduilas looked tired, as though she, too, had not slept well.

'That is correct, sir. My lord father, the Prince, has granted me authority to speak for Dol Amroth in this meeting. I may not commit funds or troops, but in all else I act in his name.' Her eyes on him were stern, cool. Denethor regretted again his harsh words of the evening before. What had possessed him to lose his temper and speak so bluntly to this girl? Your pride, fool. She told you. Aiavalë would slap you if she knew that you let yourself be goaded so. Denethor gestured at the door.

'Allow me to show you to the council chamber, then, Dol Amroth.' He helped her on with her cloak but did not offer his arm as he did not wish to risk her refusing it where Thorongil could see. The three stepped out upon the wall. The rain was coming down more heavily than earlier in the morning and the wind had picked up. They hurried along the high walkway above the inner court to the Tower door. The wind snatched at the door when it opened and Thorongil had to wrestle it closed. Denethor led them up a flight of stairs and along a few corridors to the council chamber.

It was a high-ceilinged room with windows looking east. A large, oblong table stood in the center, and some of the lords and their heirs were already gathered. Denethor felt a soft touch on his wrist and looked down at Finduilas.

'What seat is mine, Denethor, or does it matter?' she quietly asked. He felt a sense of relief when she said his name. Offering his arm, he guided her to the foot of the table.

'It is traditional, Alquallë, for Dol Amroth to sit at the foot of the table, opposite the Lord Steward,' he murmured. 'It is also traditional for Dol Amroth to speak last of all the lords, being the most senior of the Outland holdings.'

'Whom do I follow, then?'

'Thorongil, who will speak for Pelargir and the Ethir.'

'And when do you speak?'

'After you, prince.'

'Thank you, friend.' Finduilas smiled up at him and patted his hand gently before letting go his arm and taking her seat. He could not help but smile back.

Denethor moved to his chair, half-way up the table and facing west, and stood next to it to indicate that others should take their seats. Thorongil stood opposite him. Brandir beamed and nodded from his place at the Steward's right hand. Knowing how much the man must have drunk the previous night, Denethor wondered how his brother-in-law could keep from looking hung-over, let alone be cheerful. He nodded back gravely. The door opened a final time and Ecthelion entered, somber and noble. All stood and remained standing until the Lord Steward took his seat. Ecthelion placed the ivory rod of his office on the table, then stood again to address the gathering.

'Lords, captains, friends. We thank you for attending us, forsaking your own hearths and halls for strange lodgings in a distant city. We also thank you for your kindness to us in a time of sorrow, and for paying final respects to our lady wife.' There were murmurs of condolence around the table. Denethor wondered how many knew the gesture was wasted on Ecthelion. He glanced at Finduilas and saw her sit with her head bowed. One here, at least, mourned Emeldir's passing with a true heart. 'But even when grief afflicts us, the realm demands to be watched over. Let us tell each other how Gondor fares, and plan how we shall govern our lands in this new year.'

Ecthelion sat, took up the rod, and gestured for the lord of Pinnath Gelin to rise and report. The man shuffled a few pieces of paper, and began to drone on about flocks and fruit harvests. His heir, Hirluin, sat to his sire's right hand, and spent the entire time of the report attempting to catch Finduilas's eye. From the look of the boy, he was somewhere between Finduilas and Imrahil in age. Pinnath Gelin did not produce much, did not trade much, and had very little to say for itself. All asked a few polite questions afterwards, and Finduilas carefully praised the lord for the quality of the fruit that came to Dol Amroth from Pinnath Gelin. The young lord of the Ringló Vale, Morvorin, spoke next, and so went the morning. Each lord reported, all questioned afterwards, and each received some specific bit of praise from Finduilas. She showed the same deft touch with handling the other lords that her father possessed. Her questions, though gently asked, were carefully thought out and not always easy to answer. It was exactly as if Adrahil sat in the chair. Well, aside from the fact that the heirs, and even a few of the lords, would not have looked so avidly at the Prince. Obviously, Adrahil had trained more than his heir in the art of politics and rule. Denethor was pleased that her cough did not appear to be bothering her greatly this morning.

It was approaching the noon hour. Now, only Anórien, Ethir Anduin, Dol Amroth, and Minas Tirith itself required reporting. Denethor glanced at Thorongil, who briefly caught his eye and gave a tiny nod. These were the war locations. Brandir would give his report on the beacon fires, and then Thorongil could begin the explanation of Umbar. Not that the Steward knew Umbar would be on the agenda, of course.

Brandir stood for Anórien, as Denethor would speak for Minas Tirith and Ithilien. 'My Lord Steward, my lords, Anórien does well enough. I shall not bore you with the grain harvests or the herd counts or the bolts of cloth woven – I have had documents on all such things drawn up and copies made for each of you.'

Denethor was impressed at Brandir's foresight, but suspected this was done at Maiaberiel's suggestion. This report would go very swiftly, as there was not much to say about the beacons. He made a small note that, for the next year's council, all such reports should be copied out and distributed to the lords. Denethor made himself pay attention to Brandir's words.

'What is of greatest interest to me and to the province is our relations with Rohan, and with our defense of Anduin. I journey much between our realms, and am quite aware of the two points of crossing that directly affect ourselves and our ally – Cair Andros and the Undeeps. The defenses of Gondor are not properly used to counter the growing threats to the river crossings.'

This was not on the agenda. Denethor schooled his face to calm and risked a look at Thorongil. The captain's face was grave, but showed no surprise at this argument. He expected this. He knew Brandir would talk of this. A small prickle on the back of his neck let him know he was being watched and he did not dare to look at Ecthelion. Denethor began to wonder if the message this morning had indeed been a trap. Is this what you were discussing over supper with Beruthiel and Brandir, captain? He could already see the arc of the argument. The Umbar threat… No, that would not be an immediate enough problem to delay an attempt to move north and have influence in Minas Tirith itself.

'As I was discussing with the Lord Steward,' so Ecthelion is in on this as well, 'there has been an alarming increase in Orc incursions into the Wold and East Emnet over the Undeeps, harassing the herds of our ally. Reports are that Orcs are increasing in north Ithilien as well, and may endanger Cair Andros.' Denethor felt his temper rise at the slight to his own command. Orcs have been increasing east of Anduin for twenty years, since Orodruin came back to life. 'I do not doubt but that our Anórien commander, Marlong, is a solid and competent fellow, trained as he is by Captain Thorongil,' and trained by me for seven years prior to that, 'but he may lack the diplomatic experience necessary to coordinate defenses between Gondor and our ally. I know King Thengel and his marshals would be more willing to take direction from Gondor for how to patrol their own lands if they had more trust in the Anórien garrison commander. That is the pressing news from Anórien. Oh, and the beacons between Gondor and Rohan are well maintained, with oiled wood available for burning even in the great storms we have felt this winter.'

Report completed, Brandir sat and smiled genially around the table. You are too simple to even know how you have been used, I dare say. There was nothing to do at this point but understand Thorongil's role in the Lord Steward's maneuver. A move to Anórien was in preparation for moving him to Osgiliath, that was clear. And what of the Captain-General, my Lord Steward? Or do you think to have another by then? Denethor nodded his thanks to Brandir and motioned for Thorongil to speak, not allowing time for questions. He wanted to get to the bottom of this maneuvering right away. His curiosity was as strong as his anger.

'I fear I am not as well prepared as Lord Brandir, having no reports to give to each of you,' Thorongil began, 'but he has brought up a concern of mine. The storms this winter have been punishing, particularly in the Ethir and up Anduin to Pelargir. The river runs higher than it has in two-hundred years, and will run higher still when spring melts the snows of Hithaeglir. I doubt Rohan or Anórien will have much difficulty with Orcs until mid-summer at the earliest. The river will not be fordable until then.' Denethor finally risked a quick, surreptitious glance at Ecthelion. The Steward's expression was guarded. So, this is not according to your agenda, either. You expected the captain to agree with the threat of Orcs, not prattle on about storm damage. Thorongil evidently had his own plans. Denethor steepled his fingers and assumed his most thoughtful expression, wondering where the secretive captain was going to take things.

'The Ethir and upper delta are greatly harmed. All but one major ship channel to the Bay has been ruined through floods and wrack. The wells in the region are threatened with sea water, and a number on the delta are ruined. The tidewaters are greatly damaged, with most of the population retreating northwards to Pelargir. Luckily, most are fisher folk and boatmen, and their ships were saved. So, while the land is harmed, the people are safe. And, I believe, what is ruin in the short run may be to our advantage soon enough. With all due respect to King Thengel, Lord Brandir, a few Orc raids on poorly minded horse herds are of no threat to Gondor. With your assistance on diplomatic matters, Marlong should be able to arrange for suitable patrols by mid-summer. The true danger to Gondor is an old enemy – Umbar.'

'Umbar has done no more than perform a few raids since Prince Adrahil defeated them at Langstrand,' Forlong, heir of Lossarnach, broke in. 'They are little better than pirates. Dangerous, yes, but few and of limited threat. I hear from fishermen and traders upon Anduin that they are losing old ships on the shores. The Corsairs are failing.'

'No!' Finduilas's voice was sharp. 'Pardon my impertinence for correcting you, Lord Forlong, but you are wrong about this threat. River men do not understand the dangers of the coasts, and the falas is where Corsairs do their great damage.'

'Always is Dol Amroth concerned about the sea,' Forlong responded phlegmatically, 'but what proof is there that Umbar does not fail? Every season sees less of them and their black sails.'

'Because they are busy building up their strength, my lord,' Thorongil interjected. 'For months I have heard news in Pelargir that the ships they lose are the ones they do not care to save. They do not strike important targets on our coasts, but they patrol their own very closely, keeping outside eyes away from their haven. There is good reason to believe that they are husbanding their power and building a great fleet.'

'There is some reason to believe this.' For the first time, Ecthelion spoke. Denethor took the opportunity to study the other's face openly. Ecthelion was smiling as though nothing of great import was being discussed, but his eyes were not amused. The tension in his shoulders gave away the Steward's anger. 'Lord Forlong, I do think that there is still some mischief that the Corsairs may perform upon the falas, and we must all be grateful that Prince Adrahil is vigilant against their threat. But there have been no reliable reports out of Umbar for almost five years. Rumors, of course, but nothing that we can confirm.' Denethor sent Thorongil a darkly amused glance. The captain was obviously gritting his teeth to keep from contradicting the Steward in front of the other lords. Rumors? What of our dead and missing spies? What of the reports that do get through? The captain was probably thinking the same thing. 'They are always a concern, though perhaps not such a one as we must keep all of our best strength located so far south?'

'Perhaps not, my Lord Steward,' Thorongil conceded, 'though I hope we shall not discount them too much.'

Ecthelion chuckled and shook his head a little. 'Always Umbar with you, captain! You should have more faith in your own preparations. We shall discuss this more later, in its place.' He smiled genially at Thorongil, dismissing the other's objections with a look, then gestured to Finduilas. 'My dear girl, do you have some message from your lord father for this council? Though your lovely presence is the finest gift the prince could bestow upon us.' The lords assented to this with laughter and bows towards the woman.

Denethor stared down at the table and seethed. He supposed that he should be pleased that Umbar had more of a hearing this year than it had received in the past, but it was infuriating. Why was the Steward so determined to ignore this threat? It made no sense. Neither he nor Thorongil could get an answer from Ecthelion, and neither could come up with one on their own. And you will turn aside the discussion again, as you always do. When I give you the message, will you bother to inform your lords of what is in it? You will sit here and flirt with a girl younger than your own children, two days after you buried your wife, and you will ignore this. A wild, reckless idea came to him. He liked it. You are preparing to replace me anyway, are you not? Very well, I shall give you a reason to do so. It was time to teach a lesson in power, once it was his turn to present.

'My lords, my Lord Steward, I must beg your indulgence for my youth and my ignorance of high councils. The Prince has provided me with certain communications on the state of Dol Amroth and the falas under his command, which I shall attempt to do justice to. He sends his regrets and apologies for not having made the journey himself, and hopes you will forgive him.' Finduilas paused to cough quietly into her hand, then launched into a detailed and crisp account of Dol Amroth. Denethor was reminded of the exchange between Adrahil and Luinil he had witnessed the previous spring. The girl acquitted herself better than most of the lords, though her coughing grew more pronounced as she spoke. What impressed Denethor most was the way in which she wove the reports from earlier in the morning into her own, supporting (and sometimes disagreeing with) the information from the other lords. You are a prince to be reckoned with, Alquallë. Adrahil can be pleased with his pupil. Though I wonder if anyone here has heard a word you have said. None of the young heirs, to be certain.

'As you have heard, Dol Amroth and Belfalas do well, despite the storms, though some low-lying areas have suffered greatly from the high tides, just as in the Ethir. Something that must needs be said, however, is that the Prince agrees with Captain Thorongil – Umbar is a greater threat than we believe. The coast knows.' Denethor and Thorongil exchanged looks at her words. Another ally, though it would have been better for the Prince himself to be making this argument. A young woman would too easily be discounted.

'Lord Forlong has already pointed out that Dol Amroth is ever concerned about the sea,' Ecthelion said in a mild, distant tone, the one Denethor knew meant the Steward was becoming angry, 'so I do not think we need to take up more time with restating this.'

'I must report what my lord father has charged me to say, I fear, so I beg again your indulgence, my Lord Steward,' Finduilas firmly replied.

'Please, prince, give us your father's words as succinctly as you can,' Denethor added, sending her a warning look that Aiavalë would have understood. He did not want Ecthelion to declare an end to the discussion yet, and the Steward would do just that if Finduilas pushed this issue too much.

'As you request, Warden. Briefly put, ocean-going smugglers who do some trade with Umbar have brought news that the Corsairs are building a fleet with which to attack Gondor.'

'And the word of these fellows is to be trusted?' Forlong said derisively. 'This is naught but more of the same rumors that we always hear, the same as those that the captain said but a few minutes ago.'

'They claim to have glimpsed a fleet being built,' Finduilas stubbornly replied.

"Umbar is always building ships! What news is that?' Forlong snapped.

'These are not just rumors!' A spasm of coughing seized her, and one of the young men sitting near lost no time in fetching her some water.

'My dear, be calm, I beg you,' Ecthelion soothingly entreated, 'lest you make yourself ill. There is no point in becoming upset over some rumors reported by scurrilous fellows.'

'It is not rumor. It is fact.'

Denethor enjoyed the moment of silence and the confused looks that followed his pronouncement. Thorongil raised an eyebrow, then looked down at the table, hiding a smile. Denethor put on his most serious expression and pulled the message from the morning out of his stack of papers. As he did so, he slipped a finger under the seal and broke it. He shook it open and held it up so all could see. A few of the older lords recognized what he held, and sent nervous glances towards the Steward.

'This was delivered by a messenger to me before dawn this morning. He did not wish to disturb your rest in this time of mourning, my Lord Steward, and so it came to me. It is a most rare and most reliable missive – a ciphered message from the leader of the Faithful in Umbar.' All craned forward to see better. Denethor held it aloft for a few moments, then laid it face down on the table. The Steward's voice rang out crisply.

'I believe a break is in order. We shall pause for dinner, my lords, my lady, and meet back in one hour. Good morning and thank you.' Denethor did not look up from the message. Chairs scraped and creaked as the lords stood. Soon, the room was empty save for himself and Ecthelion. Only then did Denethor look up and face the Steward.

They matched cold stares. The Steward held out his hand for the message. Denethor rose and brought it over, sitting at the other's gesture. Ecthelion perused the document, checking for signs that it was authentic and not written under duress. He handed it back after a few minutes.

'And what does it say?'

'It says that the shipyards of Umbar were thoroughly ruined in the two storms of early December. They lost the bulk of their usual fighting ships, at least thirty, and those that still float are in dire condition. Most will need to be scrapped. They suffered loss and heavy damage to the majority of the smaller raiding vessels, the ones they use up the rivers…'

'I know how their ships are used.'

'Of course. Forgive my presumption. Forty smaller vessels are accounted total losses, and most of the rest are partly damaged. Most costly to them were the fifteen great ships, all that they had.' Ecthelion's face paled at the news they were building great ships. 'They also lost many workmen who lived in barracks along the docks, and so will need to retrain as well as rebuild. All told, their work of the last two to three years has been lost, and they will need another year besides that to repair their haven to where shipbuilding may begin again. So, instead of being attacked in three years, we have been given that much of a reprieve. They will rebuild.'

Ecthelion nodded, thoughtful. The two sat silently as the Steward considered the news. The old man stood and walked over to a window and looked down upon the city. Denethor followed and stood to the other side of the window.

'So we have been spared.' Ecthelion's voice was far away, almost dreamy.

'What do you mean?'

Ecthelion leaned a shoulder on the wall and crossed his arms. 'Good fortune has come to us unlooked for and has destroyed our enemies. We should be grateful.'

'Grateful? Well, yes, I suppose, but would it not be better to be prepared? What if fortune had not smiled upon us, if the season were mild and dry, and we looked at two years instead of three before an invasion?'

'But fortune has blessed us, and we should be grateful. We have not much but fortune.'

'We have arms and wisdom! Fortune is a fine thing, but if we do not take care of the former we are in no position to make use of the latter, such as now.'

'And what would we do? What have we to be able to take advantage of this fortune?'

'Why, my Lord Steward? I want to know why.'

'Why what?'

'Why are you so determined to ignore Umbar, to disregard this threat that I and Thorongil, and indeed Prince Adrahil, all perceive?'

'Answer my question and you shall answer your own, Denethor.'

'You see no way to counter the threat, so you choose to ignore it.'

'No, I choose to wait.' The Steward traced an invisible design on the window with his finger. 'You are… impetuous. You have not learned how to be patient.'

'I fail to see how it is impatient to understand fully what we face and to think on it and to lay plans, to consider options, to…'

'You are as much of a scold as your mother. You speak to me as though I have done none of those things, as though I choose a foolish, even cowardly, path.' Quick as a snake, Ecthelion seized Denethor's collar and yanked him forward and down, so they were almost nose to nose. There was no hint of rheum or age in his father's eyes; only cold contempt. 'You have greatly overstepped, Warden. I shall not forgive this presumption. Ever.' The Steward let go Denethor's collar and swept back to his chair. 'I wait, Denethor, for the simple reason that we cannot take war to Umbar. We can do naught but wait until they should see fit to bring it to us, to come within our reach upon coast and rivers. I wait, and do not seek to frighten or alarm the sea-fiefs so that they will be honest about their harvests and their strengths, and so that we may build up our own reserves from them. I wait, and I watch my own heir turn to treachery.'

'I have asked you your reasons before and you have refused to take me into your counsels.'

'Then you should have been content with my silence. Or made yourself worthy of my trust. You have done nothing to change my mind.' Ecthelion studied Denethor, then shook his head. 'You need to learn humility. Not all things are to be mastered, and then one must trust to fortune. Though your irresponsible act has destroyed that trust.'

'Trust? If I have acted rashly then it is because you have not trusted me with your reasons. You have left me blind, and demanded that I act in ignorance of your true intent. Yes, shall we speak of trust when you connive with one child to displace another? It is your desire to move Thorongil to Anórien, is it not?' Denethor demanded.

The Steward shrugged. 'He is the obvious choice to oversee that region, given his long youth in Rohan. I am surprised you did not put him there to begin with.'

'I put him where he is best used. And if we now speak truth, my Lord Steward, will you speak truly as to whether you intend him to remain in Anórien?'

Ecthelion chuckled. 'I will put him where I think him best used.'

'If it is your wish, my lord, that he should command Osgiliath, then say so and it shall be done,' Denethor coolly countered.

'No. You are sufficient for that command.' Meaning what? That I shall sit upon the river and the northern eagle shall alight upon the city, as Alquallë dreamed. Ecthelion's plan, with Beruthiel's support and Brandir's witless assistance was becoming clear. You will be rid of this heir for another. 'For now, I will defer to Thorongil's judgment that Marlong will handle Anórien well enough. After your stupidity in council, the southern lords will demand the reassurance of Thorongil at Pelargir. You shall speak of this message when the council assembles and shall emphasize the destruction of Umbar's shipyards. You will not speak of the great ships, but say whatever you wish of the smaller ones. River raids will frighten them to the right degree. You shall apologize for having spoken out of turn on this matter, before taking counsel with me. How shall that be explained, hmm.' Ecthelion paused, then nodded, 'You were expecting to speak with me at this time, knowing I would wish it said, and could not help your outburst. Your respect for my age and your concern for my…grief kept you from disturbing my poor rest in the early hours. Yes, that will do.'

'Have you no grief, or even mere decency?' Denethor stalked from his place by the window and glared down at Ecthelion. 'Was the Lady Emeldir just another bit of fortune you happened upon? Did you ever care for her, ever love her?'

'No and no. It was my bad fortune to wed her, and I am relieved it is done.'

Denethor closed his eyes and gripped the edge of the table for a moment. This should not be a surprise, should not make his chest hurt and his knees weaken. He had seen his parents' contempt for each other, but had thought, as Finduilas had said, that it was estrangement. That it was always thus… 'You are more appalling than I had imagined.'

'When you have been wed for sixty years, and have sat in the black chair for twenty, then you will understand. Though I doubt you will be any less appalled.' The Steward's voice was soft, almost kind. Denethor's lack of sleep gnawed on him as the tide of his heart ebbed away, and he wished he could find a dark corner in which to rest and to plan how Ecthelion could be made to pay for his affronts to Emeldir, to himself, and to the City. Denethor willed weariness to leave him be, and let ice take its place. He refused the pity in Ecthelion's eyes as he looked upon his sire again.

'I do not doubt it. Is it true what I hear in the street?'

'What?'

'That you prefer your second son to your first?'

Ecthelion smiled, quite amused. 'And why should I not prefer the one who is more dutiful and grants me more respect?'

'Then you name him your bastard?'

'I am naming you rebellious and treacherous.' But you are wrong. Both your sons are traitors. You have not asked who played messenger. Perhaps I do have the brother I need.

'Unlike your servant, my good opinion cannot be bought.'

'That works both ways, Denethor. The captain has earned my trust by knowing when to be silent and how to be patient. You have squandered both a father's love and a lord's regard. You have ever failed in your duty to me.'

'Better that than to fail in my duty to the City. If you will pardon me.' Denethor wheeled and left. He made his way to the dining hall where the lords were taking their noon meal. Before he sat, he directed one of the servers to provide the Lord Steward his dinner in the meeting chamber. A quick glance showed Finduilas to be sitting between Brandir and Thorongil near the head of the table. Thorongil was waiting to catch his eye and gestured for him to join them. He knew all eyes were on him, so Denethor took his time to get there, politely greeting the lords and conveying a calm he did not feel.

'Is all well, Lord Denethor?' Thorongil murmured as he took his seat at the head of the table.

'Of course, all is quite well. Better than we could have hoped. I fear I surprised the Lord Steward, but he has been apprised and his approval has been granted,' Denethor replied with a slight smile. 'Lady Finduilas, how do you fare? The damp cannot be good for you.'

'Well enough, sir. I sat for too long. Lord Brandir and the captain escorted me for a short walk, and then have kindly kept me company. Will the afternoon be as long?'

'Yes, I fear it will be.' Denethor avoided further conversation by pretending to eat his dinner. Brandir chattered away and prevented the need for any of the other three to speak. Too soon for Denethor's liking, it was time to reconvene the council. The Steward smiled broadly at all, and gestured for Denethor to stand and speak.

'My Lord Steward, my lords, I must humbly beg apology for my outburst this morning. Lord Ecthelion has forgiven my failure to speak privately with him first, and I shall now present his counsel. Until this very morning, we have had but rumors to work upon, and guesses to guide our thoughts, with unreliable witnesses. Now, we have the word of the Faithful. They took advantage of the disarray of the winter storms to smuggle out this most valuable message. The word is both alarming and reassuring…'

Denethor presented the information as Ecthelion requested, holding perfectly to the Steward's directions. Thorongil listened intently, as he expected. The southern lords did not doubt and voiced approval of the Steward's change of mind over moving Thorongil north. The captain was questioned closely about ship strength, river defenses, and ways to warn of attacks. Another council was planned for Pelargir in the late spring, to ensure Prince Adrahil's presence. The condition of the quays at the Harlond and the bridge at Osgiliath were discussed, and Brandir enthusiastically detailed the state of the fort on Cair Andros. No one appeared to care that the report for Minas Tirith and Ithilien was not presented. It was just as well – Denethor had other things to think on.

The light in the windows went from dull grey to full dark far too quickly. Soon, it was time for supper. Only the lords were allowed to attend it, leaving Thorongil to his own devices for the evening. Denethor saw to it that Brandir played escort to Finduilas, as Hirluin looked ready to presume upon her company, and tried to catch Thorongil's eye. It was not possible to do so until Alquallë left the room. Repressing a sigh of exasperation, he motioned slightly with his head, indicating for the captain to wait for him in the hall. The captain lingered at the end of the group and they allowed the others to leave them behind.

'Yes, my lord?' Thorongil's tone was even. As if you were not playing several games in council this day. Who are you serving, besides yourself, with these feints? The Steward? Maiaberiel?

'You depart tomorrow.'

'Yes.' Denethor closely studied the other's face.

'I think you wasted in Anórien.'

'I agree, sir. Marlong does well.'

'So why did you allow Ecthelion to believe that you would serve there?'

'The Steward may order the realm as he pleases, with all due respect, my lord.'

'Then, if you truly believe that, I suggest you cease to wake me. Or else learn ciphers for yourself.' Thorongil's face remained still. 'Good evening, captain.' Denethor took a step, then said, 'Do give my best to Maiaberiel. That is where you sup tonight, is it not?' Thorongil looked a bit cross, but nodded.

'It is.'

'Don't.' After a long moment, Thorongil bowed shallowly.

'As you command, my lord.'

'It is not a command, Thorongil. It is a bit of advice. Do as you please.'

Denethor left the captain. When he arrived in the dining hall, he went to his seat at the foot. He welcomed the West-facing silence, needing the moment to collect himself. His mind was getting clouded with weariness. The funeral, the year-end duties, the Council, and now the contestation with Ecthelion were exhausting him when he needed to think clearly. Near the head of the table, he saw Finduilas at the Steward's right hand. She saw him and smiled, then raised an enquiring eyebrow. He nodded to say he was well. Brandir leaned across the table and asked her something. Soon the two were chatting animatedly. Ecthelion would interject and joke, teasing his son-in-law and flirting with Finduilas.

The sight made Denethor feel ill, with a clenched stomach and a tight chest. He picked at his plate, then gave up and drank. The wine did nothing to soothe his stomach but it did relax and warm him. The final piece of Beruthiel's planning had fallen into place and it was more than he really wished to consider. Emeldir was no longer alive to rein in her younger daughter's more shameless meddling. Maiaberiel and Ecthelion were in agreement about supplanting him with Thorongil. Brandir would be a witless and reliable pawn. And Thorongil, it appeared, could probably be tempted, if given his head on Umbar. Is he the Steward's bastard? Was that a confession? The Steward would probably never directly claim the man, but he would allow rumors to do the work for him. The uncertainty would work to Thorongil's favor, in truth. But there was one last part to be performed, the keystone to the arch.

Denethor made himself stop after the third cup of wine, and choked down a bit of bread. He did not need to be drunk or sick in this company. The meal was not lavish and the lords were tired from the Council, so it did not last long. His head spun slightly when he stood and he had a sense of floating. Too much wine, not enough sleep. At the far end, he saw a few servants bringing the cloaks from the meeting chamber to the dining hall so the lords would not have to climb back up the Tower to get them. Denethor collected his own and Finduilas's, then sought her out to escort her back to the Stewards House. Ecthelion bid her a fond farewell, but only gave him a cold stare. Brandir walked the Steward out. Denethor stared after them.

'Denethor?' Finduilas put a hand on his arm, looking up at him curiously.

'Yes?'

'May we go now? I am quite worn out from the day.'

'Of course, forgive my rudeness.' They left the dining hall and made their way towards the door to the upper walkway. When they were well away from the others, Denethor asked, 'Will you need to make plans to return to Dol Amroth? Since you can no longer be Lady Emeldir's guest, I presume your parents will wish for you to return as soon as possible.' Finduilas shook her head.

'No, actually, my parents do not wish for me to travel in this season. I sent word to Father of the lady's passing, and asked if I should return. He replied that he would prefer I remain in the city. I spoke with the Lord Steward at the meal, as it happens, and have received his permission to remain safely as his guest until my parents journey here in the spring. Indeed, he was most gracious, saying that I was always welcome as guest in his house.'

'I agree with that sentiment, Alquallë. I can scarce think of you as a guest, so dear have you become to my family. Your own kin must miss you sorely.' They arrived at the door out of the Tower and wrapped their cloaks more closely. The weather was foul, with pouring rain and strong winds, and Denethor took Finduilas's arm firmly to keep her from slipping or becoming disoriented in the dark. They ducked their heads against the wet as they splashed and slipped through the puddles on the walkway. Once at the house, he saw her to her door and bade her good evening.

His stomach was sour and his head was pounding. Denethor knew he should sleep, but walked back out upon the wall. He hoped the cold and rain would sober him up. The wind tore back his hood and he did not bother to pull it up, turning his face into the rain. The cold seeped in with the wind. It was good. It made his flesh, his bones, as cold as his heart. Denethor stared out into the featureless night, sensing rather than seeing the city dropping down the mountain below him, trying to perceive the deeper Darkness of the east through the curtain of rain.

When he returned to the house, his fingers were stiff and he could scarcely open the door. Aiavalë was waiting for him in his study. She looked at his sopping condition and sighed.

'Little brother, I despair of teaching you anything when you have not enough sense to come in from a storm.'

'Big sister, you have taught me that we are always in a storm. I think I prefer rain to the other weather.'

'Get out of those wet things and warm up. I want to know what happened at the Council.'

'May I tell you tomorrow? I fear I shall not make much sense right now.'

'No. Off with the wet clothes. I am not leaving until you stop shivering.' She limped over and began divesting him of sodden garments. Knowing she had no qualms about stripping him bare, Denethor batted her hands away and retreated behind the screen to change. Soon, he was sitting in front of the fire, wrapped in a warm robe, sipping tea while Aiavalë used her shawl to dry his hair. It took several minutes and two mugs of tea before he stopped shaking.

'It went well for Gondor, but badly for me.' Aiavalë rose and disappeared behind the screen, returning with a comb in hand. She pulled her chair near his and began combing out his hair. 'Ecthelion finally addressed Umbar, though I had to force his hand and present a communication from the Faithful to the Council against his wishes.'

'What did he do?'

'Called a break. Sent the others out to get dinner. Named me traitor. But he agreed to allow me to speak. Thorongil and I informed the lords of how things stand.' He studied the dregs in the mug. 'I asked him if he preferred his second son to his first.' Her hands stopped.

'And?'

'He refused to name Thorongil his, but let me know he would allow the belief to stand. He and Brandir tried to move the captain out of Pelargir and up to Anórien. The Umbar news caused the lords to protest, so the captain remains south.'

'So, Beruthiel would move her paramour closer.'

'He's not that. While I do not think she would flinch from bedding her half-brother, she would care what others think. She wants him in power more than she wants him in bed.'

'You think he is our brother, then.'

'I have no idea. No, no, I cannot believe it. He is of the Lost. But I want to believe it.' Denethor rubbed his eyes with one hand and held out the mug for more tea. She poured more for him and resumed taking the tangles out of his hair. The mug warmed his fingers.

'Why do you want that, Denethor?'

'Thorongil…he is not just the Steward's or Beruthiel's creature, though I am not certain the Lost would claim him anymore. He has his own mind. But I think him loyal, to the City. To Gondor. He has…' Hope. Thorongil has hope in the face of the Shadow. How? Denethor's mind balked, refusing to think more clearly. 'He has ideas about…things. He is useful, and more honest than not. I think he intends to stay. And I think he may have ambitions.'

'Ah, you are finally listening to me! A good officer always looks to advance, even if he is trustworthy.'

'What does he lack to contest for true leadership? That is what I had to ask. And what Thorongil lacks is an anchor.' Denethor laughed, amused at the thought of the Umbar-obsessed captain walking about dragging a chain with no anchor to moor himself. 'Even were he Ecthelion's bastard, he has no lands, no fortune, no station. He can be a great captain, but no more than that. So where shall he obtain such things, if he is of a mind to be Steward? Or King?'

'He would not presume to that, would he?'

Denethor shrugged. 'Maiaberiel would presume to be a queen, if she could. But he must secure his power, and not merely his popularity, if he would be ambitious.'

'He must marry into a great family.' Denethor sipped and nodded. 'Beruthiel must be regretting Brandir rather greatly.'

'Probably.'

'He must marry one of the daughters of the Prince of Dol Amroth.'

'Yes.'

'Well, you must marry one of them first, then.'

'You know my mind on this matter.'

'I know you are stubborn on this matter. Denethor, look at me.' He did as she asked. The right half of her face, the one closest to him, made even Maiaberiel look plain. The cruelest part of her deformity was how exquisite the other half of her was. 'You must marry.'

'No.'

'It is your duty, even as it was Mother's. You must marry and you must get an heir, the sooner the better. If you have set yourself against the Steward, as you say, then you must do this or you might as well hand the realm over to this northern brigand!'

'At this very moment, Aiavalë, it is not an entirely unappealing thought.'

'Crawling off into a corner? Letting Beruthiel rule? Why does that appeal more than marrying Alquallë?'

'Marrying…? I am not marrying anyone, Aiavalë, least of all someone scarce more than a child.'

'He would have no such scruples. I have seen how he stares at her.'

'Shall I conduct myself by a brigand's morals?'

'Shall you leave her to him, then?'

'I think it not my concern whom Finduilas accepts. I rather doubt she would agree to be married off as breeding stock, nor do I think the Prince would permit it.' He drained the last of his tea.

'It is your duty.'

'Yes, it is my duty, and I am through with duty for this day. Please go and allow me sleep, sister. I promise you may scold me on the morrow.'

Aiavalë sighed, then smiled a little and patted his cheek. 'Very well, you troublesome boy. I will leave you be, but do not think this argument at an end. You need…'

'I need to sleep.'

'You need to sleep, and then you need to consider the truth of what I say.'

'I will. Tomorrow.'

'Tomorrow.' Aiavalë kissed him good night, and left. He banked the fire, snuffed the candles, and went to bed. This night, sleep came quickly.

*******

Characters introduced in this chapter, in order of appearance:

  • Hirluin – heir of Pinnath Gelin, 24 years old
  • Morvorin – OC. Lord of the Ringló Vale, 30 years old
  • Forlong – heir of Lossarnach, 37 years old

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Early March, 2975 T.A.

Finduilas nodded her thanks to the boys who stepped out of the way of the horses. They grinned and waved, careful to keep a hand on the large baskets of bread they balanced on top of their heads. The boys continued their way up the mountain, delivering fresh bread from the second circle bakeries to houses in the fifth and sixth circles. She and Aiavalë guided the messenger steeds down the street. These horses had arrived the day or night before, and the women rode them to the stable at the foot of the mountain to be exchanged for fresh mounts. The archery yard was beyond the City walls, Aiavalë could not bear the long tramp down and back up, and the horses needed to be changed out; so it happened that they became hostlers twice a week when Aiavalë wished to practice with her bow.

Beregar followed along as he always did. At least the dear boy is not merely carting baskets and packages this time! Today, Beregar would be doing some archery practice of his own, not just dancing attendance upon her. He never complained, but Finduilas knew he must not be pleased at having to play porter and bodyguard to two ladies all the day long, not when he wanted to be a Tower Guard. He had blushingly admitted as much one day when she caught him looking longingly at the Guards walking down the street past the Stewards House. Beregar was between herself and Ivriniel in age. It had surprised her at first that he showed no alarm or disgust around Aiavalë, as even some of the House servants showed, and then had been more surprised when she learned that Aiavalë had taught him his letters and figures when he was small. Her surprise turned to curiosity when she saw him standing with Denethor, receiving directions. Some careful observation of Beregar's face, particularly his eyes, gave her ideas. Then she met his mother at the archives in late January and could see the relation written in the woman's face and form.

They passed through the gate to the second circle, the horses treading carefully on the broad stone stairs that led down from the higher circle to the lower. Even this early in the morning, the circles bustled, people moving quickly in and out of the narrow streets that opened onto the main way of each. The pillar of stone that dominated the City cast a shadow upon the northern part, chilling the air and blocking light. The horses' hooves rang loudly as they clopped through the tunnel in the pillar. Inside the tunnel, people became quiet, though they burst into noise as soon as they emerged. Finduilas squinted as the sun hit her eyes and brought up a hand to shade them. A movement caught her attention. She turned slightly and was rewarded with a glimpse of a ragged-robed old man wearing a pointed blue hat and carrying a gnarled staff just before he disappeared into the shadow of the tunnel. Something pricked at her thoughts, but the notion disappeared as quickly as it came, and she had to attend to guiding the horse through the busy street.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna -Ch. 5, Confidence

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Mid-March, 2975 T.A.

Finduilas woke slowly, mind slightly fuddled. A dry sensation to her mouth and throat let her know that she had taken a draught for her cough, which she hated to do for the medicine left her sleepy. She rolled over onto her stomach, head hanging over the side of her bed, and waited for the coughing to start again. It was racking when it came, but she did bring up a few good-sized gobs of yellowy phlegm. That would make her breathing easier for several days to come. It also alerted Aerin that her mistress was awake.

At least there had been no dreams in the night. For the first time in more than a week, she felt rested. Finduilas was not greatly surprised to hear that the morning was half-gone, and decided that she would not go to the archives this day. Today, I shall walk about. I need to not see Aiavalë or Denethor, or any of the Steward's children. She decided she would walk down to Vinyamar, her family's house in the fifth circle, and take inventory of it in anticipation of their arrival. Finduilas paused to pen a note to the Archivist, as she did not want the woman to worry. She did not bother to inform Denethor. He has his own messenger for such things. With a sigh, Finduilas knew she would need to speak to Beregar.

'Aerin, please send Beregar in. I need to speak with him privately for a moment.' Soon, the quiet young man was there, looking at her questioningly. Finduilas wondered if Denethor had looked like this when he was young, or if he had always had sad eyes and a grim face.

'Beregar, I had a talk with your master, Lord Denethor, yesterday. He told me that he had set you to spy upon me.' The man's face went red as an apple and he stared at the ground, hands held rigidly beside him. 'Do you contest his word?' He shook his head, biting his lip. 'You must know I would not approve.' A small, quick nod. 'Have you anything to say?'

'I am sorry my lady. I must do as my lord commands.' Beregar's voice was almost too soft to hear, and he would not look up.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna -Ch. 6, Promise

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Late March, 2975 T.A.

The shadow of Mindolluin stretched across the Pelennor. As the sun left the sky, the mountain's shadow swiftly blended with the dusk. Denethor and Thorongil stood upon the seventh wall, looking east. This day marked the end of the meetings with the Steward and various officials and officers necessary to transfer Thorongil from Pelargir to Anórien. After the Southern Council, the captain would come north and take over the garrison at the eastern edge of the Drúadan Forest, south of the great road. Captain Baragund, currently Denethor's second in command at Osgiliath, would go south to replace Thorongil. Just as I sent Thorongil south to Pelargir from Osgiliath three years ago. It was the usual path; the second at Osgiliath would be promoted to the captaincy of Pelargir.

Denethor glanced at Thorongil from the corner of his eye. The other was lost in contemplation. The transfer had been presented to Denethor as a decree upon his return from Cair Andros a week past. The Lord Steward and Mithrandir had decided upon this when Denethor was out of the City reviewing north Ithilien. In truth, Denethor could not argue against the decision. Anórien would be endangered sooner than the Ethir, and Thorongil's connection to Rohan made him the best suited to the northern marches.

What grated was how the decision had been made. You have none but yourself to blame this time. Did you not make yourself traitor to your lord? In the months since the Council on yestarë, he had considered his actions and knew he had allowed the desire for an immediate victory to compromise his larger concerns. You should have drawn the same conclusions about Umbar as the Steward and the wizard. You should have ensured that Thorongil would be implicated in the interception of the message. The outcome today is the same as what the Steward wished then, but you have lost almost all of your power. It meant little that Thorongil himself still believed he should remain in Pelargir. Worst, the southern lords were now alarmed and it would be difficult to win back their trust. In this, Ecthelion was right. That admission grated most. The Southern Council was a formality for announcing what would be. The true diplomacy would be conducted privately, with Adrahil. The sea-fiefs would follow Dol Amroth's lead. Denethor's own position was quite precarious.

'How long will it take you to prepare the garrison for transfer?'

Thorongil turned to face his Captain-General. 'I anticipate it will take three weeks once I return. Perhaps four, depending upon when Baragund arrives.' After a long pause, he added, 'I would that the Steward would wait until this fall.'

'Why?'

'There is more to the Ethir and the lands of the Poros than defense against Umbar. Only now are the waters subsiding enough to take full stock of the winter storm damage and to begin repairs. Lebennin and Lossarnach do not tend to anything beyond the west bank of Anduin, so it falls to Pelargir. There is much to be done in the summer lest people suffer when winter comes again.'

He truly cares for the kingdom, all of it. Fools like Isilmo looked for ease and advantage in command, but Thorongil gave thought even to the fisher-folk of Ethir. He builds loyalty. It is best to take him away before he is the Prince of Pelargir. 'You do not believe Baragund to be competent to care for such things? Or do you think only yourself able to mind this business?'

Thorongil shook his head. 'No, my lord. I meant no disrespect to Captain Baragund. I am simply attached to the tasks drawn up this spring for the Ethir and would wish to see them through. I fear I am not yet convinced of the urgency for me to be reassigned to Anórien.'

Below them, lamplighters walked the different circles, pouring in oil, trimming wicks, lighting the lanterns, and hanging them again from their poles. The City was dark, though the lands east were still in soft twilight.

'I am convinced of the urgency,' said Denethor.

'Then I am satisfied,' Thorongil replied.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 7, Descent

Chapter Text

Pelargir, Late April, 2975 T.A.

Denethor trailed a few yards after Baragund and Thorongil, hands clasped behind his back, conducting an observation of the docks. He listened to what Baragund asked, what Thorongil answered, but his eyes came to their own judgment. The port was defended by the width of Anduin and little else. A few ocean-going ships, a number from Dol Amroth and a few from the far south, were docked at the deep quays, leaving most of those ancient stone harbors empty. Once, there was a forest of masts at Pelargir, rank upon rank of war ships, adventurers, traders, crowded so thickly you could cross the river by stepping from ship to ship. Small craft plied the current now, some with oars, some with sails, none with majesty. The officers stopped as Thorongil discussed the finer points of monitoring the Southrons who came to trade. It became an exchange on balancing the need for trade with the dangers of spies. Baragund did not approve of Thorongil's policy of allowing the traders to move freely in the city. Denethor listened closely to Thorongil's answers – it was interesting to hear how the other approached spying. So you prefer to observe things for yourself. It did not surprise him.

While he stood, Denethor squinted slightly against the glare coming off Anduin, looking at the broad, open plain to the south. Green clung to the banks of the river and for a fair measure inland. As the land rose, moisture fled, and the distance was a uniform dun color. When the summer came, they would cross the Poros and set fire to the desiccated grasslands of South Gondor, destroying grazing and discouraging attack from Harad. North of Poros was Ithilien, and Denethor would not allow it to burn.

A plume of dust marked the approach of a messenger from the garrison at Poros. The barge men began poling their vessel over the water. They were across by the time the rider was waved through the ring of fortifications on the far shore and had arrived at the ferry dock. The rider reined up just before reaching the bank, slowing the horse from a canter to a fast walk. The steed was familiar with the route, for he did not hesitate to walk onto the wooden deck, but quickly positioned himself squarely in the center of the ferry. The rider hopped off lightly, waved to the far shore, then started talking to the barge men. Thorongil and Baragund stopped their conversation and came to stand near him, watching the barge draw closer.

'What messages are coming?' Baragund asked.

'Poros, the scouts along the Harad Road and across South Gondor. Possibly from some traders. We have had no news from below the Harnen since January,' Thorongil said.

Ah, but we have. You just do not know the right routes, Captain. 'The Corsairs are preventing any from traveling into Umbar by land or sea. Or out. I do not expect news from the south for some time.' Denethor looked blandly at Thorongil as he delivered this intelligence. The captain's eyebrows went up sharply before he could assume a similarly bland expression. After a moment, Thorongil turned and called out to the barge, waving. The messenger signaled in return. After the rider disembarked, he led his horse towards the three officers. Denethor scowled when the man left the message pouches on the horse as he made his way through the crowd.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 8, Ruins

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Early May, 2975 T.A.

Ivriniel grumbled quietly about being forced to leave Lady Maiaberiel's party so early. Finduilas sighed and shook her head at her sister's complaints, while Imrahil snickered at them both. Luinil and Adrahil walked a few paces ahead, saying nothing. They walked briskly from one end of the fifth circle, through the tunnel in the rock, and into the southern half. Vinyamar stood to the east of the main way, equal distance from the rock and the gate to the sixth circle.

When they were inside, Luinil pulled off her shawl and walked into the parlor, thoughtful. Ivriniel excused herself and went upstairs in a huff. Imrahil drifted down the hall towards the kitchen, leaving Finduilas and Adrahil standing in the entryway. They exchanged a glance and followed Luinil. The Princess had already shed her shoes and sat on a couch, feet pulled up under her. The Prince saw to wine for the three of them, then sat in a large chair opposite his wife. Finduilas joined her mother on the couch.

'That was… disturbing.'

'I must admit to a certain amazement, wife.'

The party had been loud, gluttonous, and licentious, almost as shocking as the yestarë celebration Finduilas had attended with Denethor. Perhaps more so, as Denethor never arrived at this one to put a damper on the festivities.

'Daughter, have you been attending such gatherings since last summer?'

'No, Mother. When Lady Emeldir was still alive, she would not allow me to attend anything except small suppers, properly chaperoned, or parties that she herself put on. After her mother's passing, Lady Aiavalë was adamant that it would remain thus. The only large celebration I was allowed to attend was a yestarë feast, and Lord Denethor was a stern and sober escort. This evening's revelry is quite shocking.'

'I do not recall Maiaberiel's events being quite so dissolute last year,' Luinil mused, 'though they were rather in excess even then.'

'Denethor and Aiavalë count it a result of their mother's passing. There is none to set an example and restrain the intemperance of the gatherings.'

'I should think Maiaberiel would be able to restrain them herself,' Adrahil dryly noted.

'I do not like that woman,' Luinil said to no one in particular, 'and I trust her even less.' She gave Adrahil a long look over the top of her cup, and Finduilas knew there was more to this conversation. 'Finduilas, what is your estimation of her?'

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 9, Waiting

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Mid June, 2975 T.A.

The sleeping draughts did not end the dreams, but only made them more confused and frightening. Finduilas groggily woke from another bout of nightmares, shift and sheets wet from her sweat. Her mother's gentle hands stroked back her hair where it stuck against her face and Finduilas pressed her cheek against that familiar touch. She wished for a sip of water to ease the dryness in her mouth and throat. Magically, a cup appeared and pressed its lip against her own.

'The young miss wakes?'

Who? Who wakes? Finduilas tried to sort out her thoughts, ignoring the buzzing in her ears. Oh, me. I'm awake. The voice was not her mother's, though it was known. She made herself open her eyes. When she could focus, she saw the Warden of the Houses of Healing standing at the foot of the bed. The woman's grey-streaked hair was braided back from her face and for one fuddled moment Finduilas wondered when Lady Lore had left her caverns and taken up leechcraft.

'Yes, she wakes.' Luinil's voice had the overly-patient note that said she was not pleased with the state of affairs and was restraining herself. 'Now, if you would be so kind as to have dry clothes and some wash water sent, she will soon be able to rise.'

Finduilas gulped down the water and then another cup before trying to make sense of where she was. Obviously not Vinyamar. She leaned against her mother, recollecting. Two days after Denethor came and went, summer arrived in Minas Tirith. The damp air made her feel half-drowned and her breathing became labored. Yesterday, while calling on a friend of Lady Emeldir's, she had begun gasping for breath, then coughed until blood came up. Mother brought her to the Houses of Healing and they had dosed her with many things, some sweet, some vile, until she fell asleep.

The coughs started again, deep, sticky, but at least she could breathe. Soon, she spat clots of phlegm darkened with old blood into a small basin, making herself cough and hack until the sticky lumps were cleared from her throat and lungs. She chewed mint leaves and rinsed her mouth with more water to be rid of the foul taste and smell.

As her mother helped her wash and dress, Finduilas tried to remember any of her dreams. It was all in slivers, as though painted on glass, then shattered. The night fell over the beleaguered City. A moon rose over the Ephel Duath, clouds defacing it into a grimacing skull. The eagle dropped her onto the pinnacle of Barad-dûr and flew away. Rains fell, washing down Mindolluin, and the stone ships of Minas Tirith sailed off upon the tide. Through the curtain of rain between Mordor and Anduin, she watched tall ships set out from the harbor of Dol Amroth and head west, chasing the sunset. She stood on the battlement of the Citadel, encased in stone armor like a statue. The voice next to her told a wonderful tale of flowers and spring, but the stone helm and mail would not allow her to turn her head.

The only clear part of her dreaming had come at sunset, and she knew she did not dream but rather saw. Denethor stood before the fire-fall and read from the book she had given him from the archives. Blood began to run from the pages of the book, then his hands began seeping blood, and he held both out into the fire-fall to wash it away. The pages were cleansed of past and blood alike, but his hands would not stop bleeding until the fire turned to silver ice and froze the wounds. He paused and smiled at her ruefully before heading off into the darkness, for both knew Aiavalë would be greatly angered at the ruin of the book.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 10, Proof

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Mid July, 2975 T.A.

Finduilas slept well and suffered only a little stickiness in her throat and chest upon rising. The day felt drier than it had been over the last few weeks. She dressed in her riding clothes – full trousers, boots, a loose blouse – and headed for the messenger stables after collecting a few carrots in the kitchen for the horses. Even with the young men returning to the City, Finduilas continued to take the horses up and down the mountain in the morning.

The change from bright to dark as she stepped into the stables dimmed her sight for a moment, so Finduilas heard Denethor before she saw him. He was giving a message pouch to a rider and identifying a few items that were to be delivered directly into the hand of his lieutenant, Halmir, in Osgiliath. Her sight was restored in time to see the messenger swing up on a steed and salute Denethor before riding out. The hoofbeats quickened to a trot as soon as he made the main street. Denethor looked at her in puzzlement before nodding.

'Good morrow to you, Finduilas. What brings you here so early?'

'I take spent messenger horses down to the main stables every morning and bring fresh steeds back up.'

'It is not right that you have been pressed into serv…'

'I have not been pressed into anything. I asked to do this. The stable master permits it as he had no spare hands and I am a very good rider.' She smiled brightly and walked past him towards the stalls on the left where the arrivals were kept. There was no point arguing with Denethor, for he would not allow himself to lose, so she simply had to do her task. Two horses waited for her, one saddled and another on a lead-line. Both nickered when they saw her; the messenger horses had become familiar with her over the last two months. The chestnut with the white fore-leg immediately nosed her pocket, knowing there would be something there. Finduilas laughed and rapped him lightly on the nose before pulling out a carrot for him. The bay whickered, eager for his share. While the horses crunched their carrots, she began dropping the rope gates across the stalls.

As she more than half expected, Denethor walked over to help. He took the bay's lead-line while she took the chestnut's reins, and followed her to the small courtyard before the stables. After he boosted her onto the chestnut, he did not hand her the lead-line to the second horse.

'If you do not mind the company, I am walking down to the first circle and will lead this one,' he said. 'It will be easier to manage the one horse if you need not lead another.'

'I welcome your company for the long route down, friend, and I do not mind waiting if you wish this one saddled so you may ride as well.'

'I prefer to walk.'

'Then let us go before it becomes too warm.' They had not gone very far, not even to the gate to the fifth circle, when Beregar trotted up. The young man held out a folded paper to Denethor, who took the paper and handed Beregar the lead-line. Beregar took charge of the horse and fell into line behind the other. Denethor slipped the paper into his pocket, then grasped the reins on Finduilas's mount as though he was going to lead her down the hill. She leaned forward and slapped his hand, making him let go of her horse.

'Alquallë?'

'Do I look unable to manage my mount?'

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 11, Flirtation

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Late July, 2975 T.A.

'Don't watch. Look at me. Here, use this.'

The pale young man opened his mouth and allowed Denethor to place a roll of soft leather between his teeth, then bit down. One of the man's hands gripped Denethor's hand. The other was in the firm grasp of the surgeon's assistant, who had the wounded bowman's arm pinned against a plank. The surgeon was threading fine silk into his needle. The soldier had taken a gash in his upper arm in that day's battle with Orc raiders along the north-south road. Both Mordor and Gondor were plundering the corpses of Easterlings left from the battle of early July and engagements were common. This was the last man to be treated from today's skirmish.

'You fought well.' The man, nay boy, he cannot be more than twenty summers, flinched when the surgeon touched him. Denethor touched the boy's cheek, making him look away from what was being done. 'I saw you take down a quiver full of Orcs.' Grey eyes bored into his own, pupils wide. 'Captain Marlong said you were among his best.' The boy tried to smile, but grimaced and bit the leather as the needle went in. His eyes did not leave Denethor's. 'I am glad to know my captains do not exaggerate.' Sweat beaded on the other's face and tears leaked from his eyes, but the soldier did not cry out. Denethor met the other man's grip and kept his hand flat against the youngster's face.

The surgeon worked swiftly and soon had the wound sutured, Denethor murmuring words of praise and reassurance the entire time. When it was done, he waited with the soldier a few minutes, then relinquished the spot to one of the young man's friends. Before leaving, Denethor took a quick look at the wound. It was long, but had missed arteries and tendons. There was no poison on the blade, the wound showed no infection, and the stitches were well placed. They would not lose this bowman permanently.

Denethor walked among the pallets holding other wounded men. There were too many for his liking, but fewer than might be expected, given the frequency of skirmishes with Orcs. As he moved among the men, those who were awake would reach out to him, and he would take their hands, meet their eyes, touch their faces, exchange a few quiet words. The surgeon swore that it made them heal faster, though it seemed nonsense to Denethor. It pleased the men that he do this and gave them heart to heal, just as men fought better when they had faith in their leaders. He had begun this when he became captain of the Rangers here in Henneth Annûn, helping the then-surgeon. Somehow, it had become a practice; after every battle Denethor was in, he laid hands on the wounded. It did no harm and it made him aware of every injured man so he knew where and how badly the defense was depleted.

Tending the wounded today also kept him at the back of the refuge, away from the waterfall as the sun set. Henneth Annûn, you are too much a window for me. He heard the soft speech of the men die down and knew they watched water turned to fire, thinking of all dear to them that lay to the west. When the speech commenced once more, Denethor said a last word of encouragement to the man he attended, then sought out water for washing before supper.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 12, Mortality

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Early August, 2975 T.A.

Thorongil's face clearly showed disapproval at Denethor's announcement at breakfast that they would ride from the garrison to Minas Tirith in a single day, but the man nodded agreement. Denethor did not argue with the captain's announcement that they would have an escort of several men, though he had hoped it would just be the two of them riding swiftly. Brandir voiced his approval for the escort, sending Denethor a significant look.

'If you are riding back today, brother, may I entrust a letter to Maiaberiel to your care? I will be off to Rohan for several weeks, and the messenger will not pass through on the return journey to Minas Tirith for three more days.'

'Of course, but it must be ready to go when I am.'

'It is ready now.'

Ordinarily Denethor would not tolerate anyone else preparing his packs for a journey, but his ribs still ached and his head would pound if he leaned over, so he allowed Brandir to do the packing. The other man knew well enough to wait to be told what to put where. Through the window, he could hear the horses being brought out. Denethor surreptitiously patted the breast of his tunic to make sure the book was in its proper place, then motioned for Brandir to follow him downstairs. He insisted on carrying the smaller of the two packs, though his side disapproved as much as Thorongil had done earlier.

In the yard before the stable, Thorongil was giving quiet orders to his lieutenant. Denethor casually handed his pack to one of the soldiers to tie to Gaerhûl's saddle. Brandir followed suit. As Denethor took the reins from the stablehand and turned to mount, Brandir laid a hand on his arm.

'Brother,' Brandir said in a quiet voice, 'thou art dear to me. I am simple and say foolish things, but I beg thee think close on what I said. Hear not the clumsy words, but the loving wish within them.'

'I have done little else these last days, Brandir. See, I am taking an escort!'

'Give my love to Maiaberiel.'

As so many others do. Denethor smiled briefly and nodded, then steeled himself to swing up on Gaerhûl. The horse behaved himself much better than usual. Has the captain enchanted you once more? Whatever the reason, he was grateful. He rode over to Thorongil. In a minute, two riders moved out before them, four remained a respectful distance behind, and they were headed east. They walked for a half-hour to allow the animals to warm up, then began an easy trot. After a half hour they walked again, then cantered. They alternated this pattern of walking, trotting, walking, cantering, through the morning, riding along the eaves of the Drúadan Forest.

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 13, Relations

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Early August, 2975 T.A.

'My lord.'

'Beregar.'

Denethor greeted him quietly without looking up. He had sent a message to Beregar the previous afternoon, directing the young man to attend him after the mid-day meal today. As expected, a summons from Ecthelion had arrived this morning, barely courteous, requiring Denethor's presence at the afternoon meeting. Calmly, he rolled the reports he would need for the council with the Steward and slipped them into a leather tube for carrying. Denethor did not motion to Beregar when he left the study, knowing the other would follow. They were soon out of the house and on the way to the Tower.

'What do you require of me, my lord?'

Denethor raised an eyebrow and slowed his pace, half-turning to look into the other's face. He had not known Beregar to be either so curious or so forward.

'I require you to watch. Carefully.'

'For what, sir?'

'Mistakes.'

'By whom?'

'I leave that to you to judge.'

'Yes, sir.'

If this cryptic answer dismayed the young man, he did not show it. Once in the Tower, Denethor led the way to the usual meeting chamber on the third floor of the Tower. Ecthelion was already there, reading over the business of the realm. In this room, his father was an honorable man. No one of reasonable mind, save perhaps Denethor himself, was ever turned away. Most would probably agree with the Steward's cautious defense, husbanding strength and stores, resisting the temptation to move boldly and risk too much. In a time of ordinary dangers, he would have been an excellent Steward. But the Enemy has returned.

Ecthelion spared his son a cold stare before returning attention to the page in front of him. Denethor approached and bowed, then clasped his hands before him, awaiting the Lord Steward's pleasure. Beregar assumed a similar stance near the door.

'Where were you yesterday?' Ecthelion did not look up from his report.

'I was in my study, preparing for today's meeting, my Lord Steward.'

'Why did you ignore my summons?'

'Sir? Your summons this morning said to be here at this hour. Am I in error?'

'Yesterday's summons.'

Denethor had to reconsider. A summons must have been sent, for Ecthelion would not make such a claim with no one to hear were it not true. Without an audience, there was no reason to lie. 'Again, I am in ignorance, my lord. I received no summons yesterday.'

'I sent you a summons to attend me at the fourth bell.'

'It did not come to me.'

Ecthelion gave him a disbelieving glance, then shrugged, holding out his hand for the roll of papers Denethor carried, which Denethor handed over.

'It is of no matter now.' The Steward removed the papers from the case and leafed through them, leaving Denethor standing. It was an old game between them. Denethor kept just enough attention on the Steward to know if the other changed his stance, and let his own mind review the business for the day. After a quarter hour, there was a knock at the chamber door, indicating the other council members had arrived. Beregar opened the door to let them in.

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 14, Salvage

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Late August, 2975 T.A.

'Tell them to get another horse.'

'No, Lady Lore, if there are no ponies needed in the upper stables. I will walk.'

Aiavalë glared, then shook her head and sighed at Finduilas. 'You are being very foolish.'

Finduilas shook her head right back. 'No, you are being very stubborn. You cannot walk back up the mountain. Take the messenger pony and I will follow. Beregar will carry the bows, won't you, dear Huan?'

The young man smiled and hefted his burden. 'Of course, my ladies, and I'll guide the Archivist's horse quickly. If you wish, you may rest at the tavern and breakfast there.'

'There's a splendid idea! Will you tell my mother that I will meet her down in the market rather than walk back up the hill?'

'Yes, of course.'

Finduilas gave Aiavalë a boost onto the horse and waved as the Archivist and Beregar set out at a brisk pace towards the Great Gate. She followed more slowly, enjoying the sight of the City against the mountain. Once inside the gate, Finduilas turned from the road to climb steps to the top of the first wall. It was the mightiest of all the walls, of black stone instead of white, and its outer face was sheer. Unlike the other walls, there were no carvings upon its inner face. The vast pier of stone dividing Minas Tirith cast a dark shadow over part of the wall, and she could not help but shiver a little when she walked through it.

Beyond the reach of the shadow, the Pelennor stretched out, its greens tinged with brown and yellow as grain ripened and summer prepared for autumn. If she strained her eyes, Finduilas could just make out the dark smudge of Osgiliath. The Ephel Dúath were a threat more felt than seen upon the hazy horizon, making her shiver again. With one last glance at Osgiliath, Finduilas left the wall and strolled the street up the mountain.

She was in no hurry to return to the heights. When her father had announced he was returning to Dol Amroth, Finduilas had rejoiced, thinking that meant they were all going to return. I want to see the Sea again. Her dreams had changed since the war had ended. Gone were the dreadful floods and destruction. The eagle did not clutch her in his talons, nor was she encased in armor of stone. Sometimes she sat upon the dark spire while thin, cold rain fell upon her, but mostly Finduilas dreamt of the Sea. She would lie on her back in bed and watch the blue-tinted tile ships sail across the ceiling during the hot afternoons, letting sleep wash over her. When she drifted into it, the sound of the Sea would drive away thought, leaving her limp upon the crest of dreams, like the stands of seaweed floating in the bay. The lapping waves caressed her, in the edge between wakefulness and oblivion, and she sometimes thought there were hands within the brush of water. Once within dreams, the hands were real, and there would be a familiar rhythm between her body and the caresses, leaving her to wake sweat-dampened and sticky.

But Adrahil declared that she, Luinil, and Ivriniel were all to remain in the realm of stone and shadow while he took Imrahil and returned to the Sea. Finduilas had begged him, privately, to allow her to go, saying she had been too long away from Dol Amroth and her grandfather. Her father had been as unyielding as the stone ships that sailed the walls of Minas Tirith.

"Your mother wishes you here still, my daughter. The battles with the Enemy have ended, but equally dangerous ones remain to be fought, for they will be within Gondor. Victory is scarce less dire than defeat when so much is unsettled."

He refused to explain himself beyond that, and merely bade her to obey her mother until he should return to fetch them in the winter at year's turning. 'Tis simple enough to understand. The spoils of victory are the grounds for squabble among the fiefs. Luinil had explained that after the disastrous supper with Forlong, Denethor, and Thorongil. Then Finduilas had learned that the Prince would spend almost no time in Dol Amroth, but traveled among the lands in southern Gondor to win (or purchase) greater loyalty. Luinil was to ensure that the promises he made would be supported by the Steward and the Warden.

Finduilas scowled at the thought of Denethor. That was the greatest disaster of the supper. She had thought to snub him a bit and let him know she was still out of sorts with him for his rudeness the month before at Beruthiel's party, but had neglected to anticipate that Ivriniel would seize Thorongil before she could. That left her to make conversation with Forlong, who was staring at Ivriniel, who was staring at Thorongil, who was staring at her, while Denethor ignored them all and had a conversation with Luinil. When she finally did steal a moment in which to convey her displeasure, Denethor showed her how childish she was being. Though he was quite kind afterwards, he also left as quickly as he could. Denethor thinks you a silly goose, and he's right! He has great burdens to bear, and you think of nothing but your own pride. She did not see him again before he set out to Osgiliath about ten days after he returned from Anórien.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 15, Fidelity

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Early October, 2975 T.A.

Much to Finduilas's irritation, the healer bade her remain in the house for two more days after the cough went away. It was now almost a week since she had fallen ill, and she grew bored pent up within the walls of Vinyamar. Finduilas could not even wheedle a visit to the archives.

So, she had much more interest in Ivriniel's party than she ordinarily would, if only to relieve her boredom. It was going to be a large affair in honor of Queen Morwen and her children; even the Steward had been invited. As a thank you for the hospitality they had received, Hilda and Aldwyn insisted on being Ivriniel and Finduilas's maids to dress and ready them for the party.

Finduilas sat patiently while Aldwyn fussed over her hair and clucked disapprovingly at her plain dress. The dress had been a very deliberate choice – the fabric was rich and the dress well-made, but the color was somber and the dress itself modest and unadorned. It was what she had worn to Emeldir's funeral the previous winter. The only ornament she allowed was a strand of black and white pearls in her hair.

Aldwyn sighed at the severity. 'Cousin Finduilas, why do you go about like an old widow? You have much more beautiful dresses than this!'

'And you are welcome to any of them, Aldwyn, if it pleases you,' Finduilas replied with a smile. The Rohirric princesses had traveled with little finery and were nearly of a size with Ivriniel and Finduilas, so the elder cousins had cheerfully shared with the travelers. Aldwyn glanced at the open clothes press where the brighter gowns hung, began to speak, then bit her lip and blushed. 'What is it?' Finduilas prompted.

'Are you certain you wish to be so grave in your dress, cousin?'

'I am certain that I wish to wear this dress, Aldwyn.'

'Then, you would not mind my wearing the wine dress with the gold flowers?' Aldwyn's voice was hesitant, knowing she had asked for the finest dress in the press.

Finduilas laughed and embraced the girl. 'I insist you wear it! You will dazzle all the young fellows, and not a few of the older ones, I dare say,' she said conspiratorially. Aldwyn's face lit up with a grin. 'Well? Go get it and put it on! We'll have some basting to do on the hem to make it short enough for you.'

Leaning out the door, Finduilas called for Aerin to come help as her cousin began changing clothes. The dress was soon hemmed, a shout up the stair said that guests would arrive shortly, so please to hurry, and Finduilas fixed Aldwyn's hair. It was a pleasure to make the youngster look pretty – not that it took much effort, for Aldwyn was near a twin to Morwen at the same age, or so Luinil said – and it took Finduilas's mind off of why she had decided to be so plain herself. It was not long before the two went downstairs.

Ivriniel gave her sister a long look when she entered the parlor, then smiled one of Beruthiel's smiles. Finduilas shivered at the sight.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 16, Claims

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Mid October, 2975 T.A.

Denethor did not move at once, just stood, still as stone. His eyes looked through Finduilas as he stood, and she could not read what was in them. Lightly, he stroked her cheek with one gloved thumb before turning to walk a few paces away, head bowed in thought. He returned in the same manner.

'Denethor?'

'Hmm?'

'What think you, friend?'

'That I was right.'

'Right about what?' Finally Denethor looked at Finduilas. He did not answer, but studied her face carefully. She was ready to prompt him again when he spoke.

'About snakes.'

'You speak in riddles, Denethor.' He shrugged. 'But what of this? Thorongil holds a great heirloom. How did he come by it?'

Denethor did not leave off his disconcerting examination of her face. 'I suppose that he inherited it.'

'Inherited? But then, that would mean…' Finduilas quickly ran through what she was remembering about the ring. He is the king. Thorongil is the heir of Isildur, and king. Denethor watched the comprehension dawn on her face, and nodded grimly. Finduilas found herself shivering again. 'It means he is the king,' she whispered.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 17, Encroachment

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Mid November, 2975 T.A.

'Stop that.'

Telperien ignored her master's admonishment. Her eyes held steady on the twitching quill, waiting for it to come within range of her paws. Denethor moved the feather away just as she batted at it. A casual swipe - she was not intent upon her hunt. They often played this game until one or the other bored of it.

He dipped the quill once more into green ink. A few more dots, two words, a small symbol in the margin, and the message would be ready for Thorongil. While it had become rapidly apparent that the captain would never grasp the full complexity of the cipher (even had Denethor been willing to teach it), Thorongil understood it far better than did the Steward, and at a level to allow fairly detailed messages to be passed. The first few missives had been lessons, but now they were true reports of sensitive news. The captain replied in kind. Or tried to – some of his cipher markings were as odd as his ordinary messages; strangely expressed, archaically written, and interesting to puzzle out. Halmir's reports would sometimes echo the language, but the dour lieutenant rarely wrote as much as the captain. The two men certainly sounded nothing alike.

The message was done. Denethor set it aside to dry, tapping the cat on the nose with the quill. A small struggle between feather and feline ensued, with Telperien triumphantly bearing off the defeated party to her lair under the chair near the study door. Denethor poured himself some wine and propped his feet up on his desk, to read over the message and think over the news from Anórien.

The harvesters from Lossarnach had arrived just in time. The garrison soldiers had begun the harvest, but there were too few for all of the lands. Forlong's men spread out across Anórien, going first to the farms where there were no husbands and sons, and then lending strength to where wounded men had despaired of collecting grain, fruit and roots. More was lost than made him happy, but the harvest was respectable. And, as he had hoped, Denethor noted more than a few Lossarnach lads stayed on in Anórien, drawn by the farms that needed new masters and the widows who wished for new loves. It was too soon for weddings, of course, but a few betrothals had been announced, and a flowering of yet more expected with the warmth of spring.

And what other betrothals shall the Spring see? Denethor scowled at the thought. Not so soon. She is too young. No, she is old enough to make a match, if not to wed. There was no hiding Thorongil's obvious interest in Finduilas when he was last in the City, nor her pleasure in seeing the captain, even as she was careful to behave decorously. She laughed at his own barbs aimed at Thorongil, but she no longer offered any of her own. She has a tender heart, and does not speak meanly of anyone. It is not true affection. Denethor snorted at his own wishful thinking. What of Beregar's report, that she and Ivriniel had a fight over Thorongil? She contests for his attention. When the Prince returned, he had no doubt but that a more formal understanding would arise.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 18, Threat

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Early December, 2975 T.A.

As Denethor had expected, the streets were rapidly filling with people who left their homes to see why the alarm bells and horns were sounding. The fourth circle in particular would be near impassable if they used the street. The messengers in the upper stables would be useless. The fastest way down was by the King's Stair.

Even in the dark, Thorongil had no difficulty keeping up. They bolted across the main way of the sixth circle and quickly scaled the sixth wall. Up, over, drop to a rooftop, run over the tops, jumping gaps in between the houses, and there was the drainpipe and a hard landing in the fifth circle.

As they scrambled up the fifth wall, Denethor called out, 'How many?'

'Three thousand at least,' Thorongil said back. 'Too many torches.'

'And more to follow.'

'Yes!'

At the top of the wall they could look out across the Pelennor and see the torches of Morgul in the bare lands just east of Osgiliath. They raced along the wall towards the stone pier, coming to the climb along the rock above the fourth circle. Denethor yelled, 'Watch!' as he lunged upwards towards the hidden handholds, scrambling as quickly as he could to clear the way for Thorongil. He spared a single glance back – the captain was following. Once at the top of the arch, they edged along the narrow lip of stone above the circle.

'They'll charge the bridge. The garrison is low.'

'More there than you think.' Denethor said a word of thanks that he had moved a number of the North Ithilien rangers down to the garrison for the year-end feasts and to visit their families. It tripled the number of archers Halmir could call upon. But they needed more. 'Morvorin!'

'Yes!' They said no more until after they slid down the watercourse and landed on the rooftop. 'His archers. Brought a hundred. In the first circle.'

Over the fourth wall. The City was in an uproar. Men were running downwards towards the garrison at the foot of the mountain while others took to the walls. Some cheered as Denethor and Thorongil tore past them, but most were concentrating on their own tasks. The climb down the face of the fourth wall left his hands scraped. Denethor was thankful for the overhanging buildings and the narrow lane that allowed them to leap from one side of the third circle to the other, avoiding more climbing up and down.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 19, Fire

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Early December, 2975 T.A.

Denethor was woken very early in the morning, before dawn, by the pain of his empty stomach. He could not remember when he had last eaten. Pushing the protesting cat out of the way so he could get up, Denethor tried to recall all that had happened, and then wished he had not. All my threats have been shown hollow, and all my hopes have gone awry. I have sullied even ruins. He thought for a moment of slipping out of the City and going to Osgiliath. No, that is his, now, and I must give it to him. Denethor knew that his own resistance must end. Not for the Stewards the madness of Kin-strife. The Lord Steward's will would be done, and nobly.

It took but a few minutes to dress and collect his gear. Something to eat, then to the lower garrison to escort the new Captain-General to Osgiliath. Halmir will not be pleased, Denethor thought as he braided his hair, but that is for Thorongil to decide. It would be interesting to see what the Lost made of the captain's elevation.

As he was walking out, he noticed the door ajar to the bedroom, reminding him that Aiavalë said she and Alquallë would stay. Carefully, Denethor peeked around the edge of the door. The light was dim, but he could just make out two forms in the bed in the alcove on the far side of the room. They slept soundly. Aiavalë's wings of silver stood out from the darkness. Finduilas's hair was a dark river across the pillow and pale sheet, obscuring her face. You, too, are his. All he loved was going to go to Thorongil, save only Aiavalë.

Sador was not sleeping in the alcove by the door. Instead, Beregar waited for him there.

'Good morning, my lord. Shall I fetch your breakfast?'

'No. There is work to do. Come along.' Denethor paused long enough to belt on his sword and loop the horn on his chest before walking towards the Tower. The fog had risen, blanketing the entire mountain; the White Tree was a ghost across the court.

'I must return to Osgiliath, and need you to run several errands for me ere I go. Be sure there is warm breakfast ready for the ladies when they wake, and a maid to tend them. You will go to the lower stable and tell them to saddle Gaerhûl. Please also tell Captain Thorongil to be ready to accompany me.' The words came out evenly, matter-of-fact. 'Come back at once and be sure to escort the ladies where they need to go. Has anything happened I should know of?'

'No, my lord. The ladies, all of them, even Miss Lark, have been terribly worried the last day. The Archivist sent me a half-dozen times down the mountain to get any news. When the sky burned in the night…'

'So nothing happened. Good.' They were at the door to the kitchens at the side of the Tower. His stomach growled and cramped at the scents coming through the door. The cooks greeted him, and one quickly laid out a plate of food. Beregar gave orders for the ladies' care, then trotted off to see to the horse. Denethor wolfed down the bread and stew, then ate more bread with cheese and honey. One of the old cooks, who had seen battles even in Turgon's day, wrapped him food to carry on the road, putting it into a small pouch he slung over his back.

Denethor left the kitchen and entered the Tower, intending to play the dutiful Warden and ask the Steward's directions before setting out. When he reached the second floor, where the Steward's apartments lay, however, he continued climbing the stair. Round and round he went, until he reached the locked door at the top of the steps. The key was on a chain around his neck. The unglazed windows of the upper chamber allowed the fog to fill the room. Standing facing east, he pulled the drape from the stone.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 20, Pride

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Early December, 2975 T.A.

'Where were you?'

Finduilas ignored Ivriniel while she changed into a fresh dress. She had slipped in through the kitchen door, hoping to get back to her room before the household was awake, but had found things in an uproar. Evidently, Denethor and Father had left the house suddenly not long before, amid warnings of more attacks upon Osgiliath. Imrahil and Mother were in the parlor, her younger brother complaining greatly at being left behind yet again.

'You had best answer or I will tell Mother that you were out of the house!'

'Tell her whatever you please. I left early to go to the Archivist's for breakfast, but she did not wish company.'

'Then why are you changing your dress?'

'You do not wish me to change?'

'That is what you wore yesterday.'

'Yes, and you are wearing what you wore yesterday!' Finduilas replied irritably. 'I have decided this is too soiled for another day. Do you wish me to walk about in dirty clothes?'

'No.' Ivriniel scowled as she leaned on the door. 'I do not believe that you ever changed out of it since yesterday.'

'And I have no way to prove you wrong as you will not believe what I say!'

'Tell me where you were last night!'

'Ivriniel, since you will not believe me, if you want to know the truth, then come with me to the archives and ask Lady Aiavalë yourself.' She fastened the last button on her dress, then turned to face her sister, not much needing to feign sorrow. 'Why are you so determined to make me out a liar? Is Father going off to battle of so little import to you that you need think up things to make me more wretched? I did not get to say farewell! Oh, how I wish I had not been gone!'

Ivriniel turned bright pink ducking her head. 'I am sorry. I am being a beast.'

'Please, then, sister, let us not quarrel over nothing! Mother has her hands full with Imrahil and should not hear us being cross, not while…'

'…Father is gone. No, you are right.' Ivriniel held out her arms and the sisters hugged.

Not while either of them are gone. Finduilas made herself be patient with Ivriniel all through the morning, not rushing off for news as she wished to do. Luinil rather curtly bade them both to stay in the house, giving Finduilas a hard look. Even so, there was no more mentioned of her earlier absence.

The fog clung all morning, thinning only in the late afternoon. Inside of Finduilas's head, all was in a fog as well. Denethor. As she sat with Ivriniel doing some sewing, she paid no mind to her sister's chatter save to encourage her to more of it. Finduilas was not certain she could have said very much. Her thoughts were torn between worry and wonder.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 21, Desiring

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Mid December, 2975 T.A.

The fuss over Lark's wedding occupied most of Finduilas's waking hours for the next four days. Even Ivriniel jumped into the planning, volunteering to get Widow Almarian's house prepared for the ceremony and the feast afterwards. Finduilas had to admit that all would have been less grand and beautiful had not Ivriniel taken command. Her elder sister saw that the house was cleaned, the great dining hall freed from its drapes and darkness, another cook brought in to help Lily with the food, silver and plate scoured, even somehow finding flowers for the table and for Lark's hair.

Finduilas took care of the guests. All of the archivists would be in attendance, of course, as well as Aiavalë and Denethor. Lady Lore said that Beregar's mother, Adanel, and any of her children who could be spared from tending the tavern should be invited, as well as Mistress Primrose. Bard himself had his parents and two younger siblings, several uncles, aunts and cousins, six of his friends from the garrison, and the garrison lieutenant. Lark herself only wished for the seamstress who was making her dress to be invited, saying all others she could think of were already on the list. To Finduilas's surprise, her own parents asked to attend, as well. The Widow Almarian completed the list.

Through all the bustle, Finduilas's thoughts were of Denethor. She saw him briefly most days for he always had dinner with Aiavalë. He would greet her politely and ask how the preparations progressed, making clear that all costs for the celebration were to be given to him to pay. Denethor even had some recommendations of provisioners for wine and meat, which greatly improved his standing in Ivriniel's eyes. What are you thinking, friend, when you see this being done? Do you regret that you have forsworn this for yourself? Finduilas still could not reconcile Denethor's cruel words about Lark with the care he was giving to her wedding. Is this just making sure there are no more scandals in your house? Mostly, she tried to think of how she could speak her heart to him, with little luck.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 22, Tales

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Late December, 2975 T.A.

The last week of the year was upon them. Finduilas sat at breakfast with Ivriniel and their father, trying to be interested in her food. Luinil soon joined them.

'Remember, sister, you are not going anywhere today,' Ivriniel warned.

'I was not planning on being anywhere else…'

'For once.' Adrahil gave her a stern glance over the top of a letter he was reading. 'You should not be going about so much in the cold. We will depart for home within a fortnight. You should be helping your lady mother get the household ready for the trip. In fact, you shall be staying in the house from now until we leave.'

'Yes, sir,' was her meek reply. Not that she wished to go about. The argument with Denethor last night had left her frightened and the nightmares that followed left her exhausted.

'But she may go to the parties, Father? She will be with me,' Ivriniel asked.

Adrahil bestowed an unsympathetic look upon his elder daughter. 'I am beginning to doubt the wisdom of allowing either of you to attend any of them.'

'Father!'

Finduilas said nothing, secretly hoping Adrahil would forbid all of it. Let us leave. Now.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 23, Betwixt

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Yestarë, 2976 T.A.

Her dreams were horrible.

The eagle let her drown, or else threw her down from a great height into the seething mass of armies on the plain before the City. Before cruel hands ripped her asunder, she could see the walls crumble and fall. There was a new dream as well. She stood upon the battlements in Osgiliath, encased in stone armor, forced to face east by the unyielding helm. She could hear the echo of horse hooves in the court behind her and knew it to be Denethor setting out for the north. Finally, she found herself a half-grown swan once more, huddled among the stones near the secret waterfall. She tucked her head under her wing and stayed there, sent into deep sleep by the sound of the water.

Finduilas woke just before the second bells rang, tired and confused. The euphoria of the previous night was gone. She coughed a good deal, though nothing came up. Once she had ceased coughing, Finduilas drank water and tried to think.

I have chosen. This thought calmed her. Whatever else might come, the choice was made. Joy hummed contentedly to itself in her heart. This is right. Perhaps it was so that fate had wished for her to be Thorongil's wife and queen, but her heart had decided on a different course. I think it well enough that he should rise, even to be king, but I am not for him. The captain may want me, but it is Denethor who needs me. Though he may never lay aside his oaths to Gondor, still he will know there is one who will never hold him second to the captain. Finduilas sighed and grew troubled as she remembered Denethor's words about himself in their argument. Friend, why must thou be so cruel to thyself? Thou art, too, a good man. There would be her great task – to show him this truth about himself.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 24, Troth

Chapter Text

Gondor, Early January, 2976 T.A.

Denethor sat on Gaerhûl, watching Finduilas ride out of sight. He had ridden south on the Pelargir road into Lossarnach with the Swans and their entourage. They had eaten dinner at a tavern an hour ago, and he could journey no further with them. The travelers would be to Forlong's father's keep on the banks of the Erui by nightfall. Denethor, however, had to return to Minas Tirith. With all of his heart, he wished he could continue and stay with Finduilas. Gaerhûl snorted and pawed the dirt, wanting to follow the other horses. Denethor patted the steed's neck to settle him.

'I know, fellow. I know.'

Only when the others were out of sight did he turn the warhorse north. To his right, the land fell away in gentle hills to the river while Mindolluin loomed almost directly ahead of him. The Emyn Arnen blocked most sight of Mordor. After some head tossing and snorting, Gaerhûl settled into an easy walk along the road. For once, Denethor was in no hurry to return to the City. It was time to think.

He had not had a moment's peace since the announcement of the betrothal. The days started at dawn and went far into the night. Lords who had been avoiding him or slighting him before yestarë suddenly discovered that they needed to have his counsel after all. Aiavalë had demanded much of his time at odd hours to go over reports from spies who watched where certain people went and to whom they spoke. Through all of this, he had made sure he was never very far from Finduilas.

Even a week later, Denethor remained astounded at the turn of events. All that he had believed when he had returned from Cair Andros had changed with one simple avowal. "Thou art my love and no other." No matter what he had argued, Finduilas would not be swayed and had wrung from him his own heart's truth. Her honesty compelled him to answer in kind and her fearlessness in setting aside fate shamed him.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 25, Plans

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Early March, 2976 T.A.

Borondir was a regular guest in the Stewards House for the rest of winter and into the mild spring. Denethor would meet with the quartermaster at least once a week, usually twice, and they would attend to the condition of Gondor. Often, their meetings would last through supper and into the night, and Borondir would sleep there rather than return to the sixth circle. They never spoke again of Thorongil and the Steward's plans for the Captain-General. As the days became warmer, Borondir's grief lifted.

Denethor's own melancholy clung to him like a cloak pressed close by the wind. For five days after he first saw Finduilas in the stone, he would slip into the Tower in the late afternoon and steal up to the top chamber. There, he would gather the palantír to himself and watch her while there was still light. The two days of journey from Linhir to Ethring he treasured, for he could see almost all of her face, but when the Swans turned south, Denethor could watch only her back and a few glimpses of her cheek when she turned to speak to her sister. The day they drew close to Edhellond it must have been cold, for Finduilas had her hood drawn up, keeping him from seeing even her hair. The day after the Swans returned to Dol Amroth, he went to the Tower again, but there was a servant sitting in a chair at the foot of the stair and Denethor withdrew, knowing his actions had drawn notice. Since then, he had managed only a handful of secret trips to the palantír, and only once did he see her.

Even so, he could not help but feel his spirits rise with the spring. For one thing, he spent most of his days in the archives. It was a merry place. Aiavalë smiled and laughed and hummed to herself as she ordered her realm, content that all of her plans had come to fruition. The archivists delighted in their mistress' cheer and in the thought that their dear friend would soon be their Lady, and Denethor often heard laughter and song echo through the staid caverns. He did not think Beregar had stopped smiling since yestarë. The only sign of disappointment he had seen in Beregar was when he insisted that the youth would remain Aiavalë's servant. The young man ran errands for him during the day while Denethor worked in the snug room Aiavalë had given him for his own, near the Númenórean books so he could conduct his research. 'And to dissuade you from borrowing things that never manage to be returned,' she had wryly noted when he thanked her for the space.

For another thing, he would soon journey to Dol Amroth himself. The betrothal announcement had been so sudden that there had been no time to prepare rings. Neither Adrahil nor Luinil would discuss Finduilas's dower, let alone wedding dates, in the short days between the announcement and their departure. Letters exchanged between the Steward and the Prince had struck an agreement that the actual betrothal and exchange of rings would occur in Dol Amroth in the first week of April. Denethor would travel to Pelargir in late March to confer with Baragund, then sail from that port to Dol Amroth. The only wretched news had been that Maiaberiel and Brandir would accompany him on the journey to represent the Steward's house and to negotiate the dower. He had no doubt but that Maiaberiel would try to disrupt things.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 26, Kinship

Chapter Text

Bay of Balar , Early April, 2976 T.A.

If Denethor's demand to be shown everything about the ship disconcerted Îbal, the man did not give sign of it. He shrugged and motioned for Denethor to follow him. They went first to the stern where Îbal talked about the rudder. Next was a lesson about waves and how Seabird moved upon them. Then the wheel, what her hull was like and why, the different kinds of sails, details on the rigging, and so on through the day. Denethor drank it in. The more he asked, the more expansive Îbal became and the two men walked, climbed, and crawled over every inch of the ship as the captain remembered more things the Warden might find interesting. Denethor most enjoyed being shown how to use compass, quadrant, and sextant to figure out where they were on the ocean, instruments he had only read of before. Beregar quickly gave up trying to stay with them, and whiled away the day dicing with one or another of the sailors.

Tolfalas fell away to their right and they set out into the wide Bay of Belfalas. Land became a rumor on the horizon, and large, strange fish could be seen in the waters. When sunset neared, Îbal motioned for them to climb up the great main mast and find a perch on a high yardarm, one standing to either side of the mast. Below, at the stern, Denethor saw sailors casting lines to catch supper.

Îbal leaned around the mast and gestured to the west. 'This will be a grand sunset, the like of which you'll never see on land, not even on a shore.'

'I don't doubt it.' Denethor firmly grasped a brass handhold on the mast, shading his eyes from the sun's last rays, shifting his weight to balance for the sway of the ship. Just as the ways of Osgiliath and Pelargir were always already familiar, Seabird's motions were known to his limbs. His feet and hands knew where to go, his trunk did not have to be told how to flex, bend, or be still. It felt as though he were remembering things learned long ago.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 27, Belegaer

Chapter Text

Dol Amroth, Early April, 2976 T.A.

'Pear Hollow - where is that?' Adrahil asked as he looked at the dower scroll, reading off the list of farmlands that would belong to Finduilas upon her marriage.

'Anórien. North of Calenhad, just south of the Entwash,' Denethor answered. 'Half orchards, half oats, with a walnut grove. Pasturage as well.' Pear Hollow was a farm he had inherited from Emeldir. Cherries and apples grew there along with the pears. One of Brandir's cousins held the land near it and tended both farms, so Denethor was not surprised to see it among the properties. This and another farm in Anórien, a few fine crofts on the Pelennor, and vineyards near the Sirith in Lebennin would be hers. You have an odd sense of double, Brandir. In truth, the Steward's dower gifted to Finduilas was at least three times what the Prince was providing, and Adrahil had not stinted his daughter. All would be her own property, to do with as she pleased, so that she would not stand beholden to her husband's kin. Finduilas would be given coin, metals, fabric, livestock, fishing boats, lands, buildings, and rents. There were two weaving halls, a smithy, and a potter, though Denethor hazarded a guess she would count the paper-making shop most dear. It would be interesting to see where he would obtain the two-hundred men-at-arms Brandir had promised in match for the one-hundred offered by Adrahil. It was by far the richest dower Denethor knew of since the wedding of Míriel and Pelendur.

Adrahil continued to read, occasionally asking for a clarification or details on Denethor's gifts, sometimes offering explanations of his own, until all was named. Adrahil sat, giving the scroll a sour look, before sighing and meeting Denethor's eyes. 'All is in order,' he said in a grudging tone.

'Yes, all is in order. I have no complaint or objection, though I have one emendation.' Denethor glanced at the parchment. Time to be yet more generous. 'I would like this to say that one-half of the Steward's gifts shall be granted to Lady Finduilas at once, so that she may use them as she pleases in preparing for the wedding.'

Adrahil stared, then shrugged, holding out his hand for Denethor's copy. 'That is most generous.'

'It is no more than is due her.' Adrahil did not answer, but quickly wrote the additional stipulation at the foot of each scroll. Denethor rose and came to the desk to sign and seal the agreement. As Adrahil did not look inclined to offer his hand, Denethor contented himself with a respectful bow.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 28, Vows

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Late May, 2976 T.A.

Denethor sat on the bench at the end of the battlement while the sun set, but for once he did not stare east across the plain. He sat and watched the Tower, and wondered how he could get past the locked door to the upper chambers. The Steward held the key to the lower door just as he himself held the key to the topmost chamber, now strung on the mariner's lanyard around his neck. One day, while walking with Ecthelion and discussing water rights on the upper Cirith, Hathol, the Warden of the Keys, approached and requested something from one of the storerooms in the Tower. The Steward very grandly led them to the arch and unlocked the new door. Denethor offered to assist Hathol with his burden, and was able to ask about the new door, once out the Steward's earshot. The key warden grumbled greatly at new locks and no key for himself and how was he to do the Tower's business if he had always to go bothering the Lord Steward? After he rejoined Ecthelion, Denethor was careful to make no mention of the new door, which only amused the Steward more.

A half-dozen plans for obtaining the key had been considered and abandoned, and now there was no time. He would soon need to leave to travel to Edoras for the marriage of Prince Théoden, and before that he had to go to Osgiliath for an inspection. Anórien, Cair Andros, and Henneth Annûn would receive their inspections after he returned from Rohan. It would be mid-July at the soonest before he would be back in the City. With a sigh, Denethor stood and returned to the Stewards House. It was in disarray, with Aiavalë's work crew busily poking into every corner and mussing every room. To take advantage of his absence, they were to work first on his apartments. Denethor had taken Aiavalë's old rooms on the ground floor, refusing her invitation to stay with her at the widow's house. Only his desk, bed, and chest of drawers had been moved – all else he locked away in a small warehouse at the back of the Citadel.

Imrahil and Beregar greeted him cheerfully when he came into the sitting room. Supper was laid out for the three of them on his desk. As long as there were no guests, Denethor insisted that Beregar would eat with himself and Imrahil, though Beregar insisted just as stubbornly that he would serve them and clean up afterwards. It seemed a small enough bit of dignity to leave the young man, so Denethor assented. As they ate, Denethor decided it would be best to go to Osgiliath at once and also to depart for Rohan as soon as could be arranged.

'Hound?'

'Yes, my lord?'

'I will go to Osgiliath tomorrow, and will remain at least one night. On the second day after I return, we will set out for Rohan. I will have letters to give to Lord Brandir so he will know to be ready.' As soon as Denethor had learned that Maiaberiel was not going to make the trip, he had decided that he would take both Imrahil and Beregar along.

'Yes, sir.' The youths exchanged pleased looks. They were almost inseparable now. Aside from the afternoons when Denethor made Imrahil attend councils or be his clerk, the two did everything together – arms training, running errands, getting into small mischief. Denethor dismissed them for the evening, and retreated to his bed chamber to read Finduilas' latest letter.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 29, Foundation

Chapter Text

Rohan, Late June, 2976 T.A.

It was three more days to Isengard. They set out early, not long past dawn, so they could travel while the day was cool. At midday, they rested themselves and the horses, then journeyed almost until sundown before setting up camp. After the meal was through, Thengel asked Denethor to walk with him. The men strolled under the stars, two of Denethor's soldiers following at a respectful distance.

'You have been quiet on this ride, Warden.'

'Have I?'

Thengel laughed softly. 'Steward Turgon would also answer with questions.' They walked a few more yards. 'I miss his counsel.'

'As do I.'

'I fear this wizard.'

'Why?'

'Why? Because he was once friend, and I know no reason why he should have become foe.' The king's voice was grave.

'Are you certain he is foe, and not merely jealous of his borders?'

'Why are you going to see him?'

'Angrenost belongs to Gondor, not Curunír.' Thengel watched him, eyes glinting in starlight. 'Gondor is sworn to defend Rohan, so if you have complaint, I must see to it.'

'Can you remove him?'

'If I need to, yes. Should he prove to be foe.'

'Ælric said not to trust him. I miss Ælric's counsel as well. At least you have him, if not Turgon.' Denethor made a thoughtful sound, but did not answer. 'Turgon would do that, too.'

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 30, Cunning

Chapter Text

Dol Amroth, November 1, 2976 T.A.

Finduilas rose and helped her grandfather inside. As they passed into the dark room, a shiver came over her, and she pulled her cloak more tightly around herself.

'What is wrong, child? Are you cold?'

'No, well, perhaps,' she hedged. It was like a chill, but inside of her, not on her skin, and left her with a lonely feeling in her heart. Smiling brightly, Finduilas said, 'Whatever it was, it is now gone.' The answer satisfied Angelimir. They walked across his room and went downstairs to the main hall, where all was in a condition of controlled chaos. Luinil was giving orders for where to take this box or that chest while simultaneously talking to Adrahil on one matter and Ivriniel on another. Finduilas and Angelimir paused and exchanged a grin at the performance.

'I have always maintained that your mother is the greatest battle commander in Gondor,' the old Prince chuckled.

Luinil saw them at the edge of the hall and waved them over. 'Father, are you…'

'Packed, ready, and on my way out the door, Captain,' Angelimir replied with a salute. 'My foot soldier stands by to march with me.'

Luinil laughed and kissed them both. 'Then I shall see you on the docks.' Finduilas looped an arm through her grandfather's and set out for the harbor. The autumn afternoon sky was grey, the light dim and diffuse. Luinil and Angelimir were to set sail on Seabird with the evening tide, bound for Minas Tirith. The ship would go slowly, hugging the coast, but would still arrive weeks before the rest of the Swan House. Luinil and Angelimir would prepare Vinyamar for Finduilas' arrival in mid-December with Adrahil and Ivriniel.

And most of the lords of southern Gondor. Finduilas suppressed a sigh at that thought. What should have been an easy three-week journey was now going to take almost six weeks. It appeared that every lord, major and minor, had decided that he and a good portion of his household needed to be in Minas Tirith for Yule, the wedding, and the Great Council. Denethor had sent a spare, and bitingly funny, letter about the sober assurances from the Outland lords that they would be in the City this season. Ah, friend, would that I could be there now. Finduilas felt a small pang of guilt at that thought, glancing about at the town. I should be sadder at leaving my birthplace, but I am not. Though she had wept for joy upon seeing Dol Amroth last winter, she had soon found herself impatient with its slow pace and bored by the lack of change. The dull reports of the Lord Steward's counselors became fascinating when compared to the even more dull reports of her father's counselors. The only exciting event of the entire year was Denethor's betrothal visit in the spring.

Finduilas shivered at that memory. When she saw him coming through the harbor gate that day, taller than tales, she saw the crown of stars shimmer on his head like the glint of light on the waves, and he was not Denethor but the King from her dreams, beautiful and terrible in equal measure. For a moment, she had been daunted by this vision and had wished to flee. He drew close enough that she could see into his eyes and recognized her love within the legend, turning her awe into joy. Mayhap it is fate that binds us, but it is love that guides us. She wished again that he had not departed so abruptly.

Ahead, the gateway arch was in shadow, the harbor a sullen grey beyond. Seabird was the center of activity, Captain Îbal calling out directions to prepare her to set sail. When he saw Finduilas and Angelimir come through the gate, Îbal waved and hurried to meet them. 'My Prince, your cabin is almost ready,' the captain said with a shallow bow.

'Good, good! I look forward to this, my last voyage,' Angelimir answered. 'I have not sailed in twenty-three years, since the death of Steward Turgon. I would feel the Sea once more.' The captain excused himself to attend to the ship. Angelimir tugged on Finduilas arm. 'Come, granddaughter. Let us walk upon the quay. It is too cold to stand still.'

Finduilas obeyed reluctantly. Since Denethor had told her of his meeting with the mariner, she had been loath to come too close to the Sea, even the harbor or the tame coves north of town. Her dreams in the spring and part of the summer were of Akallabêth; the eagle never came to rescue her. When her parents had discussed how they would travel to Minas Tirith, Finduilas was relieved that she would ride overland with her father. The portents of Denethor's arrival had slipped away as quickly as did the man himself, leaving doubt and discord behind, and Finduilas feared what might come to her out of the waters.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 31, Fate

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, 13 December, 2976 T.A.

'Time to rise, lamb.' A hand gave Finduilas' shoulder a firm shake. She opened her eyes to see her mother smiling down on her. Finduilas began to stretch, smiling back, when she noticed how late in the day it was and sat up with a start.

'When is it?'

'Just after the sixth bell.'

'Why didn't you wake me?' Finduilas ignored the coughs trying to force their way out of her throat and scrambled out of bed. 'The day is half-gone!'

Luinil laughed and held out her arms. 'Well, is that not a grand "good morning!"' Finduilas had to laugh at herself, which allowed the coughs to escape. Her mother drew her into an embrace. 'There is time aplenty today and every day after,' Luinil gently scolded. 'You and Ivriniel both are worn from travel and need your rest. There is but one errand to run. That is enough for today.' With an extra squeeze, Luinil stepped away and left, adding, 'Don't dawdle. Lord Borondir will be here soon,' as she exited the room.

Lord Borondir? Finduilas was puzzled. The Quartermaster? With a shrug, she pulled on a robe and went to Ivriniel's room. The sisters were soon on their way to the women's baths at the back of the circle. Míriel, Dúnmir, and Ivorwen were there, and the young women visited and helped each other get well scrubbed. All agreed they were too tired to do anything that day, but planned to dine together on the morrow. Ivorwen promised to bring Handiriel, while Ivriniel said she would get Andreth and Moraen.

'We should have one meal together while we still smell like a horse!' Míriel teased. Dinner was ready by the time Finduilas and Ivriniel returned. While they ate, Luinil and Angelimir talked about the voyage, the river passage, and the days spent in Minas Tirith waiting for the rest of the household to arrive.

'Denethor has supped with us several times, as his duties allow,' Angelimir said. 'The Warden has been most generous with his time.' Finduilas could not help the blush that came over her face at the mention of Denethor. Her grandfather noticed and winked. 'Somehow, he always knew exactly where you were on the journey.'

She turned a deeper shade of pink. 'That is probably because of the messengers. They always took word of us wherever they went. They would have reported to the Warden.'

'I have no doubt what of their news interested him most,' was Angelimir's knowing answer. 'He was disappointed not to see you this morning.'

'What do you mean? Denethor was here?'

'Yes, early. He came to collect your father and brother for a meeting with the Lord Steward,' her mother said.

'Why did you not wake me?'

'So he could see you all rumpled and half-awake?' her grandfather teased, then laid a gnarled hand on her own. 'Don't begrudge us keeping you hidden for these last few days, child.'

'Of course not. You are right,' Finduilas replied, ashamed at her thoughtlessness. They were finished with dinner and drinking tea when Lord Borondir was announced. When they met him in the parlor, Finduilas let out a cry of delight – Wren was with him. The young woman was so genuinely glad to see them again that even Ivriniel could not help but be kind in return. When the greetings were done, Borondir asked if they were ready to go.

'Where are we going?' Finduilas asked, unable to rein in her curiosity.

'To the warehouse in the Citadel first, my lady, then to the Stewards House,' he replied. It was disconcerting to look at him with his one eye. 'New gifts have arrived. They need to be catalogued and you must say what shall be done with them...'

'I am here to help with that!' Wren interjected, holding up her walking desk.

'…and then the Warden has instructed me to show you the Stewards House,' Borondir continued as though he had not been interrupted, 'so you may say what shall be done with that as well.'

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 32, Cold

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, December 19, 2976 T.A.

Finduilas intended to go to the Stewards House to begin setting things to right, but changed her mind when Borondir presented himself at Vinyamar midmorning. Luinil decided it was a good day to pay a call on Lady Rían of Linhir and asked Ivriniel to accompany her, to which Ivriniel readily agreed. Finduilas suspected Luinil wished a chance to see Angbor more closely.

Borondir had brought yet more reports with him and the two commandeered the dining table so they could spread everything out. For several hours, they went over the condition of the City's food stores, where the provisions came from, what coin purchased them, and who could claim it. The quartermaster was pleased to have an apt pupil, and Finduilas enjoyed learning how he ran the warehouses. She also liked simply observing him. As with Aiavalë, Finduilas soon learned to disregard Borondir's disfigurement and see the man himself. He was tantalizingly like Denethor. The unharmed half of his face clearly showed their kinship, as did his height. Even more, the precision of Borondir's thinking and the certainty with which he spoke was like Denethor. His gentle calm was most unlike his elder cousin. There was nothing in him of Denethor's fierce, proud bearing, though she did not doubt Borondir could be just as determined. There was a certain look around the eyes that they shared, and which she had come to think of as the true mark of the House of Húrin.

Looking over a page on the garrison stores, Finduilas asked, 'I do not see where the new soldiers are being provisioned, my three hundred.'

'Their weapons and gear come from your lord father and from the Lord Steward, respectively,' he replied, 'while their board and keep comes from the Warden.'

'I see. Why is that not coming from me? They are my men-at-arms, after all.'

Borondir shrugged, 'They are under Denethor's command, so he must provide.'

'What of the rest of the soldiers of the City? Are they also under his command?'

'No,' Borondir answered, 'they are under the Lord Steward, and so the Captain-General.' There was a subtle change to the man's voice and stance as he said this, indicating some displeasure with the situation.

Finduilas pressed him further. 'So, besides my men, whom does my lord command?'

'None but them directly.' There was no masking Borondir's disapproval, but then he paused to reconsider. 'No, the Tower Guard also is overseen by the Warden for the Steward, my lady.'

'You are to call me Finduilas, for you are to be my kinsman' she teased him.

'You are too kind,' he answered, smiling once more, then looked away. 'Very kind,' Borondir repeated in a soft voice. Finduilas waited, curious. 'I am remiss, Finduilas. I have not thanked you for your condolence last winter for my grandmother's death.'

'I met Lady Andreth once, before Lady Emeldir passed away. She made me feel welcome, and it saddened me to hear the news.' Finduilas gestured for them to take seats near the fire. 'I fear I did not know her well. Will you not tell me of your grandmother?'

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 33, Between

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Mettarë, 2976 T.A.

'This is wonderful, my lady!' the healer exclaimed as she looked at how little Finduilas had coughed up upon rising. 'Almost all white and very thin. How are you feeling?'

'Rested,' Finduilas lied with a smile. She had woken aching and weary, her thoughts full of confusing patches of dreams.

'Very good,' Luinil answered, also smiling, but her eyes were doubtful. 'Are you well enough to go to the baths, or shall we prepare a basin in the kitchen?'

'The baths,' Finduilas firmly replied, wanting to soak in one of the large hot tubs, 'but only if I am not coughing after breakfast.' The healer agreed with this, and noted that it would be good for her to breathe in steam to help bring up anything that remained in her lungs. This mollified Luinil. Breakfast passed with little more than a cleared throat, and Finduilas was soon on her way to the women's baths. Imrahil set off in the other direction, escorting a few of her guardsmen who pulled handcarts with her trunks to the Stewards House. The hot bath was wonderful; Aerin had all in hand and insisted that her ladies relax while she scrubbed them, washed their hair, and gently toweled each off. After returning to Vinyamar, they sat near the fire in the parlor to let their hair dry. Imrahil called out when he was home, and followed their voices into the parlor. In his arms was a large sack filled with something soft.

'What is that?' Ivriniel asked as he set it on the couch.

'A present!' With a smile, Imrahil bowed to Finduilas. 'I spoke with Lord Denethor this morning. He sends his greetings to all of this house, and asked me to deliver to you, sister, a wedding gift.'

Finduilas hurried over. 'Undo the lacing and let me see!' Imrahil did as she asked. When she reached into the sack, she felt soft, thick cloth. 'Help me get this out, Imrahil.' He tugged on the bag, she tugged on the cloth, and out came a heavy mantle the most beautiful shade of blue Finduilas had ever seen. It was like the deepest twilight or the sea under a certain sky. When she sorted top from bottom, she cried aloud in delight at the stars that bordered the neck and the hem. They were tiny and scattered across wide bands, as though part of the night sky had decided to adorn the cloak. Along the hem, Finduilas spied a single silver swan swimming upon a tiny wave under the stars, just as one swam on her betrothal ring.

'This also, he bade me give you,' Imrahil said with an impish grin, holding out a small, sealed note. Finduilas snatched it away. There was but one line written:

The stars, the sea, and thee.

As she read this, she felt her throat tighten and thought she would start to weep. 'None of that!' Luinil ordered. 'Put it away. You are not going to be wed with red eyes and a runny nose!' This made Finduilas giggle, which made her cough, and Imrahil was sent to fetch the healer. A syrup with a great deal of brandy was administered, along with an order to sit quietly and allow Ivriniel to brush the last dampness from her hair. Luinil and the healer conferred, deciding that the latter would prepare several vials of coughing draughts that the Princess could carry and give to Finduilas through the day if coughing returned.

When their hair was dry, they paused for dinner. Finduilas could not eat, but sipped some broth. The women then retreated upstairs to Finduilas' room and began to get her dressed. It took longer than for the betrothal. Her mother and sister dressed first, donning the blue of Dol Amroth. Finduilas sat on the bed and gave her advice as no one would allow her to do anything in particular. Her own dress fit perfectly. As she wore it, Finduilas realized that it was quite warm even if of silk. The embroidery was in red thread, carefully matched to the silk, save where tiny swans were picked out in silver and where Finduilas herself had added a single black swan's wing upon the bodice. They had to stop part way through dressing her hair to let her take the syrup to calm a low, persistent cough. When they finished, Finduilas' hair was twined with pearls, and a silver clasp shaped like a starfish held it all together.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 34, Forever

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Early January, 2977 T.A.

'You must read this one yourself, Finduilas. There is a picture for you.'

Wren handed over letter. It was a note in a child's hand, thanking her for the Yule sweets and the gift of food. The girl had drawn a smiling figure in a bright red dress underneath the words. There was no end to the letters; each day brought a greater number. The nobles of Minas Tirith sent notes of congratulation, as was only prudent to do upon the marriage of their lord, but even more were from the ordinary folk of the lower circles and the Pelennor, and these were as often thanks for her gifts as well-wishes for her wedding.

'This is delightful, Wren,' Finduilas answered, touched by the child's return gift.

'Here, let me find more like that.' Wren quickly sorted through the stack, picking out a dozen or so. After handing them to Finduilas, she poured them both some tea. It was the fourth day since the wedding, her cough was almost gone, and she could feel the lassitude of her illness slipping away. By the Grand Council in two days, she was certain she would be well.

All day there had been a constant stream of callers at the house, there to see Denethor over Council matters. In the morning, Finduilas had been slightly jealous that she was not part of these conversations, but she found herself becoming concerned for Denethor as the day passed. He did not break for dinner at midday. Beregar told her and Wren that Forlong of Lossarnach and Angrist of Linhir had joined some lesser nobles of Pelargir and Ethir Anduin and were intent on discussing southern defenses. Finduilas was curious as to why they did not solicit her father's help in presenting their case.

A soft tap at the door caught the women's attention. Wren answered it, letting in Borondir. Finduilas rose and held out her hands to the Quartermaster. 'Cousin, how kind you are to look in on me.'

'I hope I am not disturbing your rest, Finduilas,' he replied, leaning down so she could kiss his cheek. 'Your matron warned that you were still tired from the festivities. Send me away if you would prefer quiet to reports.'

'Reports? Then you are not here to speak to Denethor?'

'No. I met with him and Brandir yesterday. I came here to tell you how your city fares.'

Finduilas was pleased that Borondir had come to the house specifically to see her. She cleared the desk so he could lay out all his documents and ledgers. Wren tried to learn, but soon laughed and said such figures were beyond her, retreating with her walking desk and a basket of letters to a chair near the fire.

Borondir's reports were meticulous, as was to be expected, and clearly showed that there was a significant number of people in and around the City who needed to ask for food and other things. Finduilas tapped the report, saying, 'Why is there so much want? I have asked you before where there were shortfalls, but I also know that harvests and trade were good this year. It is odd to me that there should be both bounty and need in great amounts.'

'Too many widows,' he sighed. 'The wars of last summer made most of them, but the winter battles created more. There were goodwives who lost husband and son both, and too many children born without their father to see them.'

'I see.' Finduilas looked sorrowfully on the pages. 'But what of their families? Surely they care for their daughters and grandchildren?'

Borondir shrugged. 'Too many do not. There are some who will not care for their daughter-in-law, particularly if there is no child, and it is not always possible for them to return to their father's house. Others take advantage of a widow's ignorance of her husband's trade and rob her of her property. It shames me to admit that there are such greedy hearts and wicked minds.' He took a sip of tea, staring sourly into the mug. 'Those kind increase, as well.'

She nodded as she studied the pages. 'I do not imagine that Maiaberiel's stinting has helped.'

'No, it has not.'

'Does she know about the Lady's Yule gifts?'

'I doubt it. She pays little attention to the affairs of the lower circles. Those who have known grief, they know what you have done. Already those who wear your badge are looked upon with kindness.'

Finduilas again fell silent, pondering this news. Breaking Beruthiel's hold on the City would have to be done carefully. The Yule gifts were well done and in keeping with the year-end festivals, but that degree of liberality needed to be used sparingly. It will not do to be a spendthrift, nor to try too crudely to gain people's loyalty. These widows have their pride. 'There is much work to be done, cousin. My Grace, and my provisions, will only go so far.'

'Both will be used wisely,' he promised. They spent another half hour reviewing his reports until the light dimmed. They arranged that he would report to her every week on matters large and small. When she asked him to stay to supper, Borondir refused.

'I think Denethor will have had quite enough of officials today, and wish only to see his beautiful new wife,' he cheerfully replied.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 35, State

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Mid-January, 2977 T.A.

Finduilas sat with Wren in her study. Denethor was meeting with various ministers in the Tower all morning. She and Wren were writing the last replies to congratulations over the wedding and consolations for Angelimir's death. Close to noon, a light tap on the door caught their attention. Aeluin peeked around the door.

'Lady Maiaberiel is here, mistress. Shall I show her up?'

Wren's face went pale. Finduilas remembered all the cruelty Beruthiel had shown Wren and Lark and was tempted to turn the woman away. No. That is foolish. You must keep her close and watch for mischief. 'Wren, you may finish this upstairs,' she briskly directed, before turning to Aeluin, 'When Wren has cleared her work away, please show the lady up. Have tea sent afterwards.'

'Will you be sitting in the solar?'

'No. Here.' Wren placed the last of the notes in a basket, tucked her writing desk under her arm, and strode out of the room. 'Aeluin, if I or Denethor are not at home and Maiaberiel calls, she is not to be allowed in.'

'Of course, my lady.' With a nod, the matron left and soon returned with Maiaberiel. The woman swept into the room, and embraced Finduilas firmly.

'Oh, dear sister, please, please forgive me for not calling sooner! And in the midst of your grief, as well. I have been ill and Brandir would not hear of me leaving the house before I was recovered.' Finduilas searched her sister-in-law's face for any sign of duplicity and found none. Maiaberiel was thinner than at the wedding, with dark circles under her eyes that cosmetics could not hide. 'I was coming to dine with Father and decided I would come a little sooner to see you. Do you mind?'

'No, I do not. I have been worried, for it was not like you to be absent. Please, stay and tell me how you are.' They sat before the fire and Maiaberiel explained that even though she had been taken with a fever on yestarë, she had insisted on holding her usual party, but had been left bedridden as a result.

'Brandir sat at my side for a week and cared for me. I think I have recovered so quickly because of him.'

'You are well now? You still look pale.'

Maiaberiel shrugged. 'Well enough. The healer says I must rest for a full month. I should be home now, but I had to see you and Father. I could not bear to be parted from you another day!'

'You will go and rest, though, after this? You must not undo all of your healing.'

'I will.' The older woman stirred her tea, her brow furrowed. 'I must admit that I worried over you, Finduilas, while I lay abed. I had the most frightful nightmares.' There was something in Maiaberiel's voice that made Finduilas think she was speaking the truth. 'I like not that you are up here with no one for company.'

You would not care for the company I keep. Finduilas doubted Beruthiel would consider Denethor, Wren, and Borondir to be suitable company. 'I have all the company I wish for now, in this grey season. I, too, was somewhat ill after the wedding…'

'Oh, no! That is terrible! What did the healers say?'

'It was but my cough threatening, so I stayed abed and escaped any great harm. Then, with Grandfather's death and the dreary weather, I have done very little save sleep and needlework. The festivity and grief both of the last weeks have left me wishing for quiet, even solitude.'

'As is common with a newly made wife,' Maiaberiel slyly noted. 'I remember being a bride. There is only one person's company you wish.' Finduilas dropped her eyes shyly and made a noncommittal noise, causing the other to laugh cheerfully. 'I would not have this any other way, now that it is done. You being my sister, I mean. Even so, I am truly surprised at your choice.'

Finduilas tried to look confused. 'What choice?'

'I honestly thought Thorongil had your affection. More than that, I do not understand why you agreed to Denethor's suit.'

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 36, Fortress

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, 2 March, 2977 T.A.

This time, it was not a dream.

Denethor lay as still as he could, fearing to wake Finduilas. Here. You're here. After forever wishing for her, she lay next to him, hair strewn across her shoulders and face, breath soft until a final, tiny wheeze when she exhaled, her body spooned against his own in his meager bed. A purring sound somewhere near the headboard let him know that the cat had joined them. It was early still, but past dawn, for the room was light.

He knew himself possessed. I am thine. All his flight had been in vain. It always had been. From the moment she had declared him to be her love, this had to be. There was no choice. You spoke my fate and so it is. I am thy love. No other wouldst thou have, none other could I be. Denethor shivered at the memory of how she claimed him, how she had allowed him his height of pride thinking himself the master of their mating. Then she called and his soul obeyed; he was bare before her. She left no part of him unseen or untouched and she did not return what he surrendered.

Finduilas stirred, disturbed by his trembling. Denethor willed himself to be still, but was confounded by his cock, which chose to rouse itself and cheerfully salute its queen. She began to wake, then froze as she realized where she was. He edged away to give her more room. Finduilas turned to look at him. Denethor held his breath, thrilled at the sight of her face, dreading what she would think of him. At last she smiled and touched his face.

'Friend, love,' she whispered before kissing him. For a moment, he thought he would weep again for the sheer joy of being allowed to touch her so. They kissed, bodies fitted to each other like the stone of the City walls, hands delicately exploring the textures and planes of their private citadel. His doubts he left outside. Finduilas pulled on him, rolling back to lie flat on the bed, inviting him to rest on top of her. As Denethor tried to position himself over her, Finduilas began to cough. He rolled away while she hung over the edge of the bed, hacking and gasping, working something up from deep in her chest.

Denethor started to rub her back to ease the coughing, but stopped at the sight of what his hands had done to her. After too long, Finduilas could draw a full breath again. She rolled back on the bed, eyes closed, taking careful breaths. Her face was blotchy from the force of the coughing and she wheezed with each breath in and out. Denethor looked her over while she had her eyes shut, increasingly alarmed at what he saw. There were several bruises on her upper arms. Along her shoulders were more dark imprints, left by his grip on her in the wildest moments of their mating. Along with his hands' dark marks on her shoulders and arms, there were similar blemishes left by his mouth and teeth on her neck, chest, even the top curves of her breasts. The bedding had slipped off during the kissing and coughing, exposing all besides their calves, allowing a sharp scent to escape the sheets. A red-brown film clung to her inner thighs, darker streaks of it in the folds of her legs and the curls of hair above her furrow. The sheet beneath them bore a dark stain.

You think only of yourself, when you have done her harm. Denethor stroked Finduilas' face. She opened her eyes, smiling, and took his hand.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 37, Mated

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, 13 March, 2977 T.A.

Two days. They had two days to cover almost twenty-two leagues, and then cross the river and fight. The soldiers from Gondor were mostly men of Anórien. The Dol Amroth men, twenty of the fifty, were of good cheer, singing once their walk had warmed them and taken away the dawn's chill. As they marched across the Pelennor, the early rising farmers waved from their crofts and byre doors, all the more so when they saw the soldiers' device. There were no messengers between Osgiliath and the City that morning.

The men did not complain at the pace Denethor set, a league every hour, but they were weary when the call came for the noontide halt a league north on the river road. They wasted no time eating their dinners. He approved of the way they drew straws for the watch when it came time to sleep; this close to Anduin, one could not be too cautious. The screening trees and shrubs along the bank obscured them from sight during the day. Their camp would be cold tonight, for there were no farms that close to the river and they could risk no fire. Drawing his old cloak around him, Denethor slept the rest of the hour. Upon rising, he waited for the soldiers to put their packs in order, then whistled to tell them to form ranks.

'Lieutenant Gethron told you that you were going to be stationed in Anórien.' Heads nodded. 'There is more news. We go to ambush a company of Uruks. Osgiliath sent a report, late, warning of them traveling north. We don't know where they are headed, but we're going to keep them from getting there.' More nods and murmurs of approval. 'We will push hard today so that we arrive that much earlier tomorrow. The road is sound. We march until full dark.'

The men wasted no breath on song that afternoon. News of the Uruks focused them and they marched in swift strides through the afternoon. A messenger from Cair Andros reined up when they were just short of the eighth league out, presenting a note from Anbar.

Lord Denethor,

The Uruks move at night and are well dug in by daylight up against the hills east of the road. They travel slowly, less than three leagues in a day. No good count of them yet, but several hundred. They are almost opposite the island now, on the far side of Ithilien. Axes for cutting trees – rafts? Osgiliath sends word that there is an eyrie to be called on.

Anbar

Denethor calculated the distances. That meant the Uruks would probably stay east of the road until nightfall tonight, cross the road, and be holed up in some ruined farmstead by morning. That left tomorrow to march while the beasts rested. When they march in the night, we will cross the river. An eyrie could only mean that Thorongil followed from Osgiliath, probably with several hundred men. They would move slowly through woodland on the west side of the road to avoid ambush. Anbar could not speak openly, but Denethor suspected the true mission was to locate Henneth Annûn. Discovery of the redoubt would be disastrous. They cannot be allowed to go north up the stream. At their stop to rest between leagues, Denethor scribbled a hasty note in reply, coded but unsealed. Two hours before sundown, another messenger passed on the way north, collecting the message for Anbar.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 38, Found

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, 24 March, 2977 T.A.

Denethor waited on the wall above the Court of the Fountain, turning his ring with his thumb, watching for Brandir to emerge from the tunnel. It was the day for the weekly meeting of the Steward's counselors, and Denethor needed Brandir to provide a specific piece of counsel. He did not have long to wait; Brandir walked out into the court, whistling a jaunty tune. Denethor hailed him and gestured for his brother-in-law to join him.

'I was not sure I would see you today, Denethor,' Brandir said with a grin.

'Why not?'

'I thought you would have a difficult time rising.' Brandir's eyes twinkled, then he added, 'from bed.' Feeling his cheeks redden, Denethor glared, which did nothing to dampen Brandir's cheer, though he did not continue the jesting. 'When I saw you the other night, you looked very worn and I wondered if you would need a few days' rest.'

'I have been thinking.'

'You are always thinking, Denethor.'

'I think I need your assistance.'

'You have it,' Brandir promptly replied.

'You don't know what I ask.' Brandir shrugged. 'Thorongil needs to be stationed here, in Minas Tirith, not out at Osgiliath. I need you to argue for this with the Steward.'

'Why? Both, I mean. Why move him and why should I argue?'

'For the first, I need to speak directly to Thorongil more often, and be present for his counsel to the Steward. There are too many chances for misunderstandings when all is conducted by letter. As for the second, the Steward opposes what I propose, so it is best coming from you.'

Brandir smiled. 'Even such a fool as me can see the good sense in this. Consider it done.' They set out upon the upper walk towards the Tower. 'And now you must promise me something in return. You must come to our party on tuilérë.'

'Has not Finduilas spoken to Maiaberiel? She told me we would be there, but at a few others as well. She has received many invitations and did not wish to insult.'

This satisfied Brandir. In the council chamber, while they waited for the Steward, Denethor recounted facts of the recent battles to the assembled counselors. There was as much relief over the news of few injuries as over the victory itself. Ecthelion soon arrived and the business of the realm was conducted. The news was uniformly good. There was sun and rain in proper measure, traders, not pirates, came to the coasts, and markets were busy. The only poor news was of the Enemy. Denethor summed up the recent contest in just a few words, as all here knew what happened, then provided an opening for Brandir to present his argument.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 39, Change

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, 8 April, 2977 T.A.

Finduilas wondered if Denethor was going to return. She had no doubt but that if he and Thorongil needed to speak, Denethor would give no thought to their guests. The men milled about her study, speaking pleasantly to her and to each other, but not about Council business. After greeting each, she went to Angbor and embraced him warmly. 'I am so glad you came,' she said sincerely, 'so I may speak to my brother-to-be.'

'That is why I insisted upon the journey, though Minohtar was the one who was needed for the Council,' he answered plainly. She liked that he was neither braggart nor falsely modest. Ivriniel chose well. 'I bear my mother's and sister's greetings to you, Lady Finduilas.'

'I am sorry they could not accompany you, Angbor, though this is not a visit for frivolity. Lady Rían and Andreth made themselves dear to me at Yule, and I was nearly as glad that they are to become my kinswomen as I was that my sister found such an honorable man to be her husband. Perhaps they may travel to the City later this summer?'

'I fear not, at least, not Andreth,' he replied. 'When I return home, we go at once to Dol Amroth for the betrothal and to set a date for the wedding. Andreth will remain with my lady to help her and your lady mother to prepare for the wedding itself.'

'Is that so? Then I cannot feel slighted at the loss of their company,' Finduilas said with a laugh. Lord Morvorin came closer, listening to their conversation, and Finduilas gestured for him to join them. 'What of your sister, Morvorin? How is Moraen?'

'Moraen is lonely for your kind company, Finduilas. I had thought to bring her here in the summer, but I fear the Captain's dire news makes me reconsider,' Morvorin said gravely. Finduilas wondered at the usually merry lord's solemn manner. It was not just him; Théoden was also downcast in his demeanor. Is the threat of war that bad? Denethor had not said anything. Indeed, his mood had been much improved since returning from Pelargir. They had little time for words the last two days, but there was no grimness to be seen in him, not as there had been at tuilérë.

Gethron had sent a guardsman hurrying up the mountain to inform her as soon as it was known that Denethor and the captains were on their way from the Harlond. She walked to the battlement, to the place of her dreams, and had watched their approach from the south. From that height, Finduilas could follow their progress through the white streets to the Citadel. The setting sun had painted Anduin red near the bend south, turning the water to fire and blood, making her shudder and retreat away from the prow back towards the Citadel. Almost she had fled to the house, but wished to at least glimpse Denethor before seeking shelter. When he strode up the stone way, she lost her heart again. Not even Thorongil seemed as tall and lordly as Denethor. She was reminded of his coming to Dol Amroth and thought for a moment that she glimpsed a band of stars across his brow, though it may have been no more than some light reflecting from a window. It took all her will not to race to him and throw her arms about him in joy at his return.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 40, Wounds

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Early June, 2977 T.A.

Finduilas heard footsteps coming towards her and smiled, but did not turn away from checking the list of books against the actual volumes on the archive shelf. Only when she heard a light tap on the shelf-end did she look. Denethor was there, still dressed for riding, and he smiled at her charmingly. 'I only stink a little,' he offered.

'I will be the judge of that,' she primly replied. Finduilas made a great show of sniffing him. 'Passable,' she pronounced and kissed him. He pulled her tightly against him and returned the kiss intently. 'Welcome home, friend.' Denethor had been in Osgiliath for two nights. Thorongil had requested he come to the garrison and meet with Halmir, Anbar, and himself prior to the captain's journey to Pelargir for a council with the southern commanders before the summer war season began in earnest. She knew that Denethor had been eager to leave the City. His presence now surprised and pleased her – she had not expected him to return until late in the day and not to have time for her until the evening. 'When will you be through with the Steward?'

'Now,' he answered with a quick grin. 'I have already been to the Tower and I am free to do as I please the rest of the day.'

'And what pleases you, my lord?' she teased.

He answered with another kiss. 'You.' Denethor left off his embrace, but held her hand. 'Are you free to come with me? I remembered something when in Osgiliath and need to find it.'

'Yes, I can return to this later.' Finduilas let him lead her to another cavern. 'What did you remember?'

'About loëndë,' he replied. 'I read it years ago, and if I remembered it rightly, it will be useful to call on for your feast.' They were soon among the histories. Denethor began slowly searching shelves on the early centuries of Gondor, occasionally checking a book. It was good to see him like this, alert and cheerful. After she had spoken to him of his weariness, Denethor was less like that and only once had she seen him fall asleep in the middle of the day. With a satisfied grunt, he held up a book. 'The account is in here. Come along.' They went to his small study room at the back of that cavern. To Finduilas' disappointment, Denethor had steadily replaced Silmarien and the other authors with books of war histories, engineering and alchemy since his return from the south.

Denethor set the old book on his desk, smoothly hooking his chair with his foot to bring it close for him to sit. Finduilas paid no mind to the book, preferring to watch him lose himself in his work, and remained standing near the door. 'We were right to pick loëndë for your great feast, Alquallë,' Denethor said without looking up, 'for that day should be dear to the realm's Lady. Here, let me read this to you - '

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 41, Interregnum

Chapter Text

Osgiliath, Mid July, 2977 T.A.

A puff of dust caught Denethor's attention and he raised the old spyglass and looked west. A messenger cantered from Minas Tirith towards Osgiliath. Tucking the spyglass under his arm, Denethor left the guard tower above the western gate and descended to the courtyard. The court's paving stones reflected the day's heat. He found Thorongil in the meeting room, looking over a collection of papers spread haphazardly on the table. The black chair sat empty. As far as Denethor could tell, the captain never made use of it. Thorongil looked up as he entered.

'We'll have the answer in a few minutes.'

'A messenger?' the captain asked, rising from his seat. He began gathering his work into a messy stack, offending Denethor's sense of order.

'He will be here within the quarter hour.' The captain smiled and collected the paper under an arm, indicating that Denethor should lead them out. They paused in the hall long enough to allow Thorongil to deposit his burden in his room; he did not bother to secure the papers in the trunk in the corner. The captain was in the same room he had used when he was Denethor's second years ago. Like the chair, Denethor's room did not appear to have been occupied since his departure a year and a half earlier.

They left the fort and descended the long causeway to the fields between the Rammas and the river. To the north of the road, near the wall of the garrison, six tall flagpoles had been sunk into the ground, each outfitted with a horizontal bar that could be raised or lowered even in strong winds or bad weather by a single man. The southernmost pole was the only one that held a flag now and it was white. For two days, they had been raising and lowering different combinations of flags, always ending with a single white flag to indicate the message was complete. Up in the Tower there were watchers who made notes of what they believed the signal code to say. The messenger was bringing the results of the observations.

The messenger drew up before them and dismounted, bowing as he held out the message pouch. Denethor took it and motioned that the man was dismissed. Thorongil followed him to the shade cast by the white banner where they sat to read the report. In the pouch were usual communications for the garrison, which Denethor handed over to the captain, as well as the results of the signal tests. His heart beat harder when he saw the handwriting on the outside; it belonged to Finduilas. The observations will have been well run. Inside, there was a small note folded into the larger report. A brief glance said it was for him, so Denethor tucked it into a pouch at his waist for later reading. The main report he read before handing to the captain.

Gentlemen,

We observed seven sets of signals. The messages were:

Attack, Morgul, mixed forces, three thousand
Attack, Southrons, human, five hundred
Execute third plan immediately
Execute first plan two hours
Rohirrim one éored
R
esupply, flour, dried meat
Healers, one surgeon, medicines

There was some debate on what supplies were requested in the sixth test. The second item was guessed.

Finduilas

Thorongil nodded and smiled. 'Every message correct.'

'They should not guess at a meaning,' Denethor replied with a frown. Thorongil did not answer, handing the report back to Denethor before stretching out on the ground, hands behind his head, to look at the back of the banner. Denethor paid no attention to him, going over the flag color combinations and positions in his mind, trying to understand why "dried meat" would not have been obvious. Gold for resupply, then white for meal, black for flour. Ah, red next, which could have meant…

'It is a ship.' Denethor looked at Thorongil. The man was watching the banner, his expression distant, almost sleepy, which was not surprising given the mid-summer heat, but there was a glint in his eye that belied the lazy demeanor. 'Looking up, I see a ship's sail.' Thorongil turned his head, and Denethor felt trapped in the man's bright gaze. 'Why did you build it like this?'

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 42, Misrule

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Yáviérë, 2977 T.A.

There was no need for Denethor to feign startlement at the captain's words. The warning in the courtyard had not prepared him for this gambit. Am I meant to object? Be pleased? You do not mean that you are considering leaving, do you? Thorongil did not look at him, keeping his eyes on the Steward, who stared at his Captain-General in disbelief. Denethor did not like whatever game Thorongil believed himself to be playing. He grasped the other's arm, demanding 'What do you mean, the end of your service? You gave your oath to the Stew…'

'Enough, Warden,' Ecthelion interjected. The Steward sat up very straight in the chair and gestured at Thorongil with the rod. 'Your words dismay me, Captain. You have sworn an oath and taken up a great charge. I require a reason for your thoughts.'

The captain hesitated, glancing quickly at Denethor, then about the hall. 'It is not a reason to be spoken in so public a place,' he demurred.

'No, it is not, but you made it known here, so I shall be told at least enough to satisfy me until we may speak more privately,' Ecthelion answered sternly.

Thorongil weighed his words. 'It has become a sorrow to me, my lord, that I have the trust of neither your own self nor the Warden.'

Ecthelion shook his head, bewildered. 'Not trust you? You wrong me with these words!'

'You sent the Warden to command the north and to oversee the summer's campaign, my lord,' the captain answered quietly, once more looking only to the Steward, 'which made the men wonder to whom they should answer. The Warden took me little into his counsel, silent in Cair Andros, then ordered the final campaign as suited him. You have not asked for me to answer for the battles done, but wished for Lord Denethor's account at once. Upon his return, I am told to return to the City and that the Warden shall order the winter defenses, though you spoke with kindness to respect my pride.' Thorongil dropped his gaze to the floor, his voice also dropping until Denethor had to strain to hear it. 'If I do not please you, my Lord Steward, then you must choose another. A decision made in haste…'

'No more of this shall be spoken here,' Ecthelion said firmly, cutting off the captain's words. 'I understand the shape of your thoughts.' The Steward rang a small gong near the chair to summon a servant and requested chairs and food to be brought for the captains. Denethor saw now the tactic Thorongil intended to use, and knew the Steward would believe it only too well. A scowl seemed the appropriate expression. When all had wine, Ecthelion smiled genially and raised his cup slightly to Thorongil. 'While more serious talk shall wait, be assured in this, Captain – you have my full trust.'

Thorongil's smile in return was uncertain. 'I am assured, then, my lord.'

'As I said, it is most fortuitous that you should return to Minas Tirith upon a feast day,' Ecthelion continued, 'though had you sent word, there could have been a more proper welcome for your return.' All of the Steward's attention was on Thorongil as he spoke.

Denethor decided to be difficult and said, in a sullen tone, 'The celebration is grand enough.'

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 43, North

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Early November, 2977 T.A.

The mist clung closely, dank and foul. No matter which way she turned the horse, there was no end to the fog. She had slipped away, leaving her attendants behind, seeking to escape the reek that had wrapped the City for days, and now she was lost in the broad fields north of the road. She had lost track of how long she had wandered. Coughing racked her thin frame, the acrid fumes burning her throat and eyes, each breath like fire in her chest. The mare came to a halt while the woman choked and gasped. This was foolish for her to do, she knew, but she had to find her friend in the east. Behind, in the City, there were only enemies, spies set upon her; even her own guard, the Queen's Men, were not to be trusted anymore. The dread fog had left a film of wickedness upon men's minds.

How now would it be had she not allowed her heart to be moved by beauty and arrogance, and had wed as her father had counseled? It was the Queen who made a king of a lesser man. You should have chosen a better man to be king. Or at least one who could give you a child. Think it not! There is yet time. She panted as the coughing spasm subsided. Nay, not from that man. Incest haunts our house, and the Powers are denied. She tapped the horse with her heels. Even if there was no knowing the direction, if she just held true to one direction, she would come out from under the fumes.

The hours slipped past and the poisoned air was no less. From the corner of her eyes, she could see strange forms moving in the fields, following her, drawing close. There were voices at the edge of her hearing, whispers and clanking sounds. She almost lost her seat when the mare pulled up abruptly and whinnied. Ahead, another horse answered. The deformed shapes scurried closer, trying to cut off escape. She urged the mare forward.

Two riders emerged from the fog. They had to come very close before she recognized Elendil's sons. The elder, Isildur, rode quickly towards her, making the mare skitter to the side. 'Come here, my lady,' he commanded, holding out a hand, 'this is no place for you to wander. Come.' His eyes shone brightly in his pale face, daunting her. The younger son said nothing, but rode past and turned to guard against the shadows that dogged her path. Míriel tried to calm the snorting mare, uncertain now. Pharazôn would certainly lock her away were she seen in their company, perhaps even have her beaten, but there were none others to guide her out of the reek. 'Please, my lady,' Isildur pleaded, 'do not tarry.'

Anárion brought his horse close beside her, laying a warm hand upon her back. At his touch, her strength left her and she slumped in her saddle. He pulled her off the mare and held her before him on his horse. Isildur, shining as brightly as the moon, took the reins of his brother's horse and led them forward. The stench of the mists subsided, replaced by the smell of fresh growing things, and shadows fled. 'Wake, please, wake,' Anárion spoke into her ear, then kissed her temple. 'Alquallë, speak to me!'

A strong hand, cool and unyielding as stone, took hers, giving her an anchor in the mists. She grasped it in return, as she grasped the stone battlements in her dreams, and tried to draw a deep breath of the good air. The oily smoke clawed at her, unwilling to relinquish its hold so easily, refusing to allow a clean breath into her chest. She retched and gasped. 'Again, Finduilas,' came the commanding voice, 'breathe this in.' The next breath was stronger, a wheezing exhalation, followed by a deeper breath, then the coughing came. She coughed until lines of pain lanced her back, bringing up something thick and evil from deep in her lungs. The lump stuck in her throat, seeking to strangle her, until a hand thumped her back hard enough to force what little air was left out of her chest and dislodge the blockage. She gulped in a breath of the clean air and coughed again, as strongly as she could, forcing the clot into her mouth. The taste was so foul Finduilas feared she would vomit, and spat whatever it was out onto the floor. More coughs followed, but finally she could breathe again.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 44, Touched

Chapter Text

Linhir, 6 December, 2977 T.A.

Seabird made short work of the leagues between the wide waters of Belfalas and the narrow firth of Linhir, and by late morning the docks of the port were in sight. The waves of the bay were touched by the low winter sun and they gleamed a delicate gold. Smaller boats upon the estuary drew near and their crews called out greetings. They were soon moored at a great pier and the gangplank lowered so they could go ashore. Lord Angbor was waiting for them and greeted them with cheer and courtesy.

'Lord Denethor, Lady Finduilas, welcome to Linhir,' he said, bowing deeply. 'I hope your journey was smooth.'

'It was,' Finduilas answered, earning a smile from Angbor.

'My lord father sends his apologies for not being here to greet you himself, Warden. This is his day for hearing grievances.'

'I would not wish him to set aside such duties,' was Denethor's grave reply. His face, however, was not stern. Since that morning, when he had declared he could see Finduilas, Denethor's mood had been joyful. A slight smile graced his lips and his eyes were full of mirth. Standing here on the dock, Finduilas saw again the King from the Sea as Denethor had appeared to her in Dol Amroth. He was, as then, tall and fair, but there was only beauty in him now, nothing terrible to fill her with awe. Mayhap the mariner has frightened me, but he has touched you more gently this time. Did I not wish that you should smile? He glanced at her and his smile grew. Finduilas set aside the warnings in her heart and let herself be glad for his gaiety. 'We shall pay a call when we are rested,' Denethor continued, returning his attention to the young lord.

'But not tonight!' Imrahil cheerfully interjected. 'You, brother Denethor, are under orders from my mother to sup with us and no other.'

'You may not ignore this summons, my lord,' Angbor soberly agreed, eyes twinkling. 'Lord Angrist will excuse your absence.' He turned to Imrahil, embracing the younger man. 'I have missed your company, Imrahil, and am glad you are safely returned.'

'I told you to come with me,' was Imrahil's rascally reply, 'It was your last chance for peace and quiet!' The two laughed and jested over this as Denethor listened with amusement. Imrahil put his hands on the others' shoulders. 'Here I am, an only-born son. Soon, I shall have the two finest brothers in all of Gondor!' Denethor and Angbor protested, Imrahil insisted, and the three spoke happily and loudly together.

Finduilas smiled to herself and looked for Wren and Beregar. She saw them several yards away, watching the first of the baggage be unloaded from Seabird. Gethron was there talking to Beregar, and a dozen guardsmen were standing about, waiting for things to be lowered to the pier. Thorongil was also nearby, though he did not watch the cargo. His eyes were on the three lords and his expression was wistful. With a sigh, Thorongil turned towards the net of baggage from Seabird's hold being lowered onto the dock. Finduilas ached at the sadness in his stance. Do you have a brother, or one to call such? Indignation came to her heart. It is wrong that you who has cared for my happiness should be sorrowed. You are dear to me, too. She strolled over to the captain's side, not certain of what to do, but determined that she would make him smile.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 45, Station

Chapter Text

Linhir, Yestarë, 2978 T.A.

Denethor guided them away from the crush of dancers, snagging two cups of something from the tray of a passing server. He offered one to Finduilas with a sly grin. 'Here. You should have something to drink.'

Finduilas laughed gaily. 'Yes, friend. I should.' After a sip, she wrinkled her nose and handed it back to him. 'But not that.' A sniff of his own cup made him agree. It was a sweet punch of strange fruit juices and a strong spirit favored by coastal folk near the Ethir Anduin and southwards. It was cloying and left one's breath foul and head pounding the next day. Denethor always thought of it as the taste of Umbar; something on the verge of rotting.

'Come,' he said. They wove through the wedding feast guests to a table holding things to drink. Cups of water in hand, they retreated to a relatively quiet spot near the now-empty dais. The Great Hall of Linhir blazed with light. It was smaller than Merethrond, but was more gaily painted and had large windows of colored glass. It was also packed. In the middle, people had been dancing for several hours. Denethor glimpsed Ivriniel in her red dress but did not recognize the man she danced with. Surrounding the dancers was a mob of guests talking loudly to be heard over the music and stamping feet. He had to put his face very near Finduilas to be heard, not that he minded the proximity. 'Will you take it amiss if I say I like this wedding more than our own?'

She grinned and gave him a light kiss. 'I like it better, too. I'm neither drunk nor sick.'

Denethor smiled in return and brushed her cheek with a fingertip. 'For which I am very glad.' It was true. Finduilas had not coughed or been ill since Thorongil's northern medicines had cured her of the Black Breath almost two months past. There was just the tiniest wheeze at the end of her breath as she slept. Perhaps that is why… Denethor thrust away the nagging thought, unwilling to let any doubt into this day of happiness. The sight of Finduilas this afternoon when he came to the Swan's house for the procession to the Great Hall was like the rising of the sun; he was awed by the light within her. Whatever the reason he was now vouchsafed sight of her heart, Denethor was overjoyed by it. The last five days had been frustrating, for she had been needed by her kinswomen and they saw each other only twice over that time. There had been no opportunity for them to be alone together, not even to kiss. He glanced around, then murmured in her ear, 'Do you think anyone would notice if we left?'

'Mother would, so we need to stay longer, at least until Ivriniel and Angbor leave,' she answered with a sigh. Finduilas sipped her water, then said, 'I am very happy for Ivriniel, but I am even more happy that this is over.'

'I do not recall you demanding so much of her help last year.'

'You were gone much of that time,' Finduilas replied, 'so you did not see all that Ivriniel did for me. Do not forget that I also had Wren, Beregar, Aiavalë and Borondir to help me!'

'I suppose,' he said with some doubt.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 46, South

Chapter Text

Pelargir-Linhir Road , 8 January, 2978 T.A.

For once, Denethor was not in a hurry to return to Minas Tirith. His impatience with Linhir vanished once they left the city walls; it was enough that they were on their way. The afternoon was crisp and clear, the road fast, and the company near perfect. Finduilas rode next to him with Brandir to her off side, the two of them chattering gaily. Morvorin and Moraen were close behind, tossing in their own comments. Beregar and Imrahil were renewing their friendship of the previous year, telling each other outrageous stories, while Thorongil and Gethron were intently discussing something that Denethor could not make out. Wren sulked back near the two guardsmen and the pack horses. The rest of the guardsmen traveled home by ship, taking charge of trunks and other things they did not need on the ride home, like his present.

Something Brandir said amused Finduilas, making her laugh. Her unease of the previous day was gone and she was as light-hearted as he had ever seen her. Denethor tried to be completely glad that there would be two guests in the house and Brandir visiting regularly once more, but he could not help wishing for just a few weeks of solitude with Finduilas. He wanted time to sit near her, to spend the dim days of winter touched by her light and warmth. Even without guests, that would not be so. The duties of the Warden and the Lady would not permit such sloth. And when the days are not so dim and you must leave her in the Citadel while you journey, would you wish her to be without merry companions? Though he did not intend to come and go at the Steward's bidding ever again, still he was High Warden and could not remain within the City. There were few places he would travel where it would be safe to have her accompany him. Not even the Pelennor…

Denethor's brow furrowed and he looked intently at her. Still nothing, no shortness of breath, no waking and having to clear bad humors from her chest, no nagging tickle of a cough. It was almost too much to hope that the two sorrows that had darkened their union – Finduilas' illness and the veil that kept them from seeing each other – were gone forever.

Finduilas slowed Gull so that she dropped back to ride next to Moraen. After some teasing from the women, Morvorin moved forward to take Finduilas' place. Denethor was polite but allowed Brandir to do most of the talking with the young lord. It was amusing how much Brandir's demeanor had changed once he knew that Finduilas had willed her heart. The man was his garrulous, thoughtless, ever-cheerful self once again, capable of talking about nothing for hours. Denethor could not find it in his heart to be irritated by this, though he imagined he would locate it ere the journey ended.

A jingle of harness let him know that another horse moved forward and soon Denethor heard Wren's voice joined with that of Finduilas and Moraen. The three talked about the wedding and of how soon more of Moraen's belongings could be sent from Ethring. They also discussed whether she needed a maid to wait upon her (she said no, Finduilas and Wren said yes) and which rooms in the Stewards House would be for Moraen to use. They all decided Lady Emeldir's quarters would be best. Denethor made a mental note to remind Finduilas that the palantír would need to be moved before Moraen took up residence. Even that complication did not dampen his good spirits. Yes, Alquallë, you need gaiety after the cruel year you have lived. Another woman besides Wren to wait upon you and your brother to keep your heart from yearning for Dol Amroth, that will make for less forbidding days. Moraen had pleased him in just the short ride today. She was a woman of good sense and good humor who was noble enough to be a true maid for the Lady. Wren and Luinmir had their uses, he supposed, but they were not proper companions for Finduilas. But why did you choose her in particular, Alquallë? Denethor was not so foolish as to think that this invitation was happenstance. There were any number of Outland maids whom she could have chosen. "He needs means, a house, and probably a wife before he may be his own man." Perhaps that was it. Finduilas would never be so crude in her machinations as Beruthiel, but she was clearly very determined to see that Thorongil had all he needed to rise, and a suitable wife was among the requirements.

Morvorin asked him a question about roads, pointing to the partly broken way they rode upon, and Denethor allowed himself to be drawn into conversation for the rest of the short afternoon. They reached an inn well before sundown and stopped for the night. Though he usually made the Linhir to Pelargir ride in two days, he did not wish the women to ride that far in so short a span of time. There would be two full days on the road, then a third half-day of travel. The women swiftly disappeared to wash away the grime of the road, the matron of the inn insisting on serving the Lady herself. Denethor was satisfied with washing his face and hands and brushing off his clothes before joining the men in the taproom. Imrahil, Morvorin and Beregar were deep in conversation, obviously discussing the quality of the ale, while Brandir and Gethron talked to the innkeeper over the time-polished bar. Thorongil sat in a corner, a mug of ale in hand, feet stretched out before him, his head already wreathed in pipe smoke. Denethor signaled for a mug of ale to be brought over and took a seat near the captain.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 47, Enough

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, 20 January, 2978 T.A.

Denethor walked briskly along the wall, lightly slapping a scroll against his leg as he returned to the Stewards House from the day's councils. Finduilas would be pleased at how quickly the Steward acceded to her request on Thorongil's behalf. The captain himself had accepted the increase in pay and the gifts of a house and lands with dignity, but Denethor saw that something about this troubled the man. You have finally received the Lady's Grace. Is that so terrible? Morvorin had to trot every few steps to keep up with Denethor's long strides. There had been no more talk of Dragon Fire, only of roads, and the young lord was eager to begin this task.

They entered by the Wall Door and walked to Finduilas' study. The women were talking so loudly that Denethor had to rap the doorjamb sharply to get their attention. Luinmir was there, as were Moraen, Wren, Aeluin, an older woman he recognized from the archives, and several other noble women of the upper circles. Morvorin immediately made a fuss over Luinmir's little girl, who delighted in the attention. It took him a moment, but Denethor realized Finduilas was not present. He motioned for Wren to speak to him while all the rest were exclaiming over Anna.

'Your mistress?'

Wren's brow creased in a frown and she glanced at the door. 'Finduilas has not felt well since dinner. She hides it, but I can tell.'

'Is she upstairs?'

'I think so.'

He thanked Wren and slipped out of the room. Upstairs, he looked for her before realizing she must be in the privy. He took a seat near the hearth and waited, toying with the scroll. Finduilas emerged a few minutes later. Her face was pale and one hand rested on her belly, as though something disagreed with her. She pulled up short when she saw him, summoning a smile. 'You are back. Is all your business done?'

'What is wrong?'

Her smile vanished and she sighed. 'Nothing, really. My moon flux has come upon me strongly is all. I think it because of the riding.'

'Should you see…'

'…a healer? Not at once. I will see Warden Lhûn this week so she may listen to my breathing.' Finduilas smiled again. 'She will be pleased! The captain's herbcraft has kept all agues at bay.'

'So it has.' Denethor brandished the scroll. 'And the man has his rewards. Here. The Steward granted all your requests and was generous in the doing.'

Finduilas took the scroll and read it eagerly. 'Excellent,' she said. 'Thorongil has the choice of several houses in the City. I think I should help him choose, don't you?'

'Am I to be indifferent or surly that you accompany him?'

'Indifferent.' Finduilas kissed Denethor's cheek, handing back the scroll. 'I must see to my guests.'

'Tell me they are not all staying to supper?' She laughed as she walked out the door, not answering. Denethor went to his study. Morvorin never did make it upstairs, preferring the women's company, though he did stay to supper. Denethor became concerned again when he saw Finduilas. She ate little and grimaced a few times. When it came time for bed, she took his hands.

'Friend, I know you wish me with you, but I shall not rest easily tonight and should keep to my own bed.'

'I do not like to see you unwell, Alquallë. Let me send the Hound for a healer.'

'There is naught one can do,' she calmly replied. 'I have had this happen before.'

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 48, Sleight

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Early February, 2978 T.A.

The house was awash in women. They filled Finduilas' study, cluttered the hall, and milled about in the solar. Some even climbed the narrow stair to the top floor to admire the view from Moraen's apartments, though none dared the rain-drenched roof. Finduilas had locked the door to Denethor's study to prevent any snooping. Denethor himself was told to go to the archives and remain there until summoned. Imrahil and Beregar disappeared soon afterwards, claiming they were going to train with the Tower Guard, though Finduilas suspected they were actually headed for The Messenger's Rest. Adanel would make them work harder than the yard master, no doubt.

The gathering was to welcome Moraen to the City and introduce her properly to all the right families. There had been a few visits after their return to Minas Tirith, and then the sorrow had happened. Today was as much to put that grief behind as to present Moraen. Finduilas walked among the guests, smiling and talking, refusing to let herself become melancholy at the sight of another woman's round belly or by the young children who darted about underfoot. Instead, she concentrated on what really mattered today – power.

Finduilas had not realized until drawing up the guest list how little she had been about the City after the disastrous loëndë festival. There had been no parties while Denethor was exiled to Ithilien, and few other visits. She had hidden herself in the archives or else walked with Borondir and Luinmir, seeing to the Lady's Grace. There could be no doubt about her hold upon the lower circles, but she had neglected power and lost influence with noble families. To think that I chastised Thorongil for squandering his favor with the Steward when he might have secured gold and holdings. I have let slip my favor with the great families, and have failed to secure their loyalty to Denethor. Who is the greater fool? Maiaberiel had thrown lavish parties throughout the fall and winter, which Finduilas had not attended. At them, too many rumors had spread uncontested, and now the King's Men were regaining strength. That was not the worst of the news. Finduilas knew that Beruthiel had tried to lure her into a romance with Thorongil, but she had not understood how the tale was whispered in the corner of taverns and privacy of parlors; the Lady repented her choice. With all three of them – Warden, Captain, and Lady – gone over Yule, the whispers had become quiet conversations, spoken as truth rather than gossip.

A glance at the windows in the study told Finduilas that the afternoon was turning towards evening, and that her guests would soon depart. She pulled a bell rope and waited for Aeluin. When the woman appeared, Finduilas bade her to send one of the Hunt to collect Denethor. It was sad to look at Aeluin's cheerful face, for there was no light within it. It had been difficult to See others at first, but she had concentrated upon her parents as Denethor advised, and now Finduilas could See with little effort. It was like light that illuminated but did not shine and it was beautiful. Though gazing upon Denethor's golden warmth, visible to her even in the dark as they lay side by side, filled her with joy, Finduilas felt also much sadness for those who did not possess this love. Why did Adanel not leave Beregar to find his own heart? Do not meddle in this, goose! They are content enough, and may find their way. Did not Brandir say so? Willing herself to find hope in that thought, Finduilas went in search of the guest of honor.

Moraen sat in the solar, speaking happily to a number of women. After a few days of loneliness when Morvorin left, the young woman had returned to her usual good-natured self. Moraen had little liking for the archives, being nervous in the dim and silent caverns, and was intimidated by Aiavalë's stern manner. She much preferred to walk with Luinmir and Anna in the lower circles, and had gone riding upon the Pelennor with Wren twice. Marlong had insisted on riding with them as a guard. Wren had named his concern foolishness, though she did not say he could not come with them. During the sorrow, Wren had kept Moraen distracted, often taking the woman on walks to get her used to the tangled by-ways of the City. Marlong somehow was always their escort on these outings, too, sturdy walking stick in hand. Finduilas smiled to herself. That was going well. Until she saw Wren at the archive door in Pelargir, she had been uncertain that the woman would return to Minas Tirith. I think love is o'er taking you, little bird. Marlong's arrows have struck true on this hunt.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 49, Contest

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, 1 March, 2978 T.A.

Finduilas knew Denethor had forgotten, but that just made the planning easier. Many quiet errands were run, secret messages were passed, and all involved knew their tasks. The only question was whether she could get Denethor to do what he needed to do without raising his suspicion. It was even more simple than she had hoped it would be, for he had absently said "Yes, of course," to her request as he made a few final notes for the meeting with the Steward and the ministers that afternoon. It was getting close to supper, so all she had to do now was sit in her study near the hearth and wait for Denethor to come home.

There had been letters from Aiavalë and her mother today. Lady Lore was full of news from Pelargir, including how Wren and Marlong's courtship was progressing, which Finduilas gleefully shared with Moraen and Aeluin. There was nothing new from Dol Amroth save that the Prince was recovered and Luinil had decided to allow him to live. Denethor had been pleased by the invitation to journey to Dol Amroth; he and Imrahil were to depart the second full week of April and return shortly after the first of May. Finduilas still had not decided if she would go with them. She had no great desire to journey, but neither did she wish to be parted from Denethor for so long.

There was a light tap on the door, then Beregar poked his head in. 'A pup saw Lord Denethor and the others coming along the upper walk. They should be here shortly.'

'They will be coming in the Wall Door. Tell…'

Beregar held up a hand, grinning. 'I did.' The Wall Door rattled and Beregar hurried to open it. Finduilas heard him greet the men and say she was waiting for them in her study. A few moments later, Denethor tapped on the door and let himself, Imrahil and Thorongil in. Denethor kissed her lightly on the cheek before retrieving the pot of warm wine from the edge of the fire.

Finduilas smiled at the captain. 'Thorongil, it is good to see you. Thank you for coming to supper.'

He smiled in return and gave her a shallow bow. 'Thank you for the invitation.' He had lost the worn look of a few weeks earlier, but there was a question in his eyes and his voice was polite rather than warm. Denethor began filling cups with wine, not noticing the captain's manner.

'Aeluin said Dúlin was almost ready with supper, so we will not need to wait long,' Finduilas cheerfully told them.

'Good! I'm starving,' Imrahil loudly replied with a grin, throwing himself onto the couch opposite her. He gave her a sly wink as the other two took their seats.

Outside in the hall, there were footsteps, more than strictly necessary to be laying the table. Finduilas tried to think of something that would get them all talking in here and drown out suspicious noises. The councils, goose! What else would they talk about? 'So, gentlemen, how fares the kingdom? Are there any great concerns?'

'Only on how we shall pay for the roads,' Denethor replied shortly. He was glaring into his wine cup. When she brushed her fingertips against the back of his hand, he pulled a fraction away from her. 'Hallas will not be convinced.'

'Nor was the Quartermaster, I fear,' Thorongil agreed with a sigh. 'Lord Borondir does not want men being sent west for roadbuilding.'

'The Steward wishes it done, however,' Imrahil added, voice once more a little louder than usual. He also had heard the sounds in the corridor. 'I think not that their objections will stand. A short trip and…'

'They should not need convincing,' Denethor sharply said, cutting Imrahil off. 'What they want is a waste.' Thorongil nodded, a sour look on his face.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 50, Campaign

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, 17 April, 2978 T.A.

The southern plague arrived in Minas Tirith as Denethor left for Dol Amroth, and Sador was one of the first to die. Word had come the day after tuilérë that the contagion had found its way out of the marshes and into Pelargir. Lord Morvorin had departed at once, needing to return to Ethring before the sickness did, saying he would avoid the main road and ride across the foothills of Lebennin, spreading the word. The Steward, Denethor, and the realm's ministers met from early until late for a week, preparing for the plague. Warden Lhûn and her wisest healers spoke at the fountains of each circle, explaining how to limit the plague's spread, while Brandir rode to Rohan to advise Thengel.

Luckily, the planting season was well begun and the City was relieved of its winter population. All who had houses beyond the City were encouraged to go to them. Word was sent out for people throughout Lossarnach, the Pelennor, and Anórien to keep to their own farms and not allow outside peddlers to attend their markets. Traders who had been in Pelargir were not permitted to pass the wall of the Rammas, keeping them out of the City and barred from northern Gondor. Likewise, no ship that had been docked in Pelargir was allowed to dock at the Harlond, nor to venture further up Anduin. Thorongil left for Osgiliath with a large portion of the City garrison and many more were sent north to Anórien, leaving only a few hundred behind to share the defense of Minas Tirith with the Queen's Men and the Tower Guards. The Hunt spent days carrying around baskets filled with red strips of cloth, giving one to each house and shop in the City. If someone inside took ill, the strip was to be tied to the front door to warn people away from the contagion. No one would be permitted to leave a house that was red flagged.

Seabird had not stopped at Pelargir, so had been allowed to dock at the Harlond. The Steward had insisted that Denethor go to Dol Amroth as he had planned, taking news and counsel to the Prince and the western lords. It was hoped that the plague could be contained east of the hills of Tarnost and the gap to Ethring. If it was already in Pelargir, there was no way to prevent it from afflicting the vales of Lebennin. The counselors also thought it wise that the Steward and the Warden not both be in the City in plague time.

The contagion struck first, as plagues almost always did, among the messenger riders. The day after Denethor left, one arrived at the Great Gate, fevered and faint. He was not permitted in, but was taken to a small building near the stables that had been prepared to receive ill travelers. It took less than two hours for word to spread through the City. The baths, taverns and whorehouses were shuttered by nightfall on order of the Steward. The next day, there was word that several people in the Harlond were ill, along with a few more messengers and two men who worked in a warehouse in the first circle. Criers walked the streets reminding people not to enter red flagged doors and to keep their faces veiled against bad humors in the air. A day passed with none taking ill, and hope rose that perhaps there would be no more. The following day proved unkind.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 51, Conquest

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Loëndë, 2978 T.A.

Thorongil's words were sincerely meant and the joy on his face came from his heart, not his cup. Denethor had been drinking himself through most of the feast, for toasts had been offered by all, and the wine coursed through his blood and thoughts, making him giddy. You are happy for us. Thorongil listed slightly, so Denethor placed a hand on the captain's shoulder to steady him, Thorongil grasping Denethor's shoulder in return. The man's grey eyes captured Denethor's, and it was impossible to look away. There was something in them that Denethor had only ever seen in Finduilas' gaze and in his one clear view of the mariner's face. It made him wish to weep and tell this strange man all the sorrows he felt, all the hope that he could not allow to rest in his heart, all the dreams he had ever had and had set aside.

'Congratulations, Warden! And you, Lady Finduilas!' Denethor spun around, putting himself between Finduilas and the intruder. The leader of the éored accompanying Princess Hilda, Éomund, was grinning at him foolishly, smelling of ale. 'Though the Eorlingas have bested you in this.'

'What do you mean,' Denethor curtly replied, disliking the man's familiarity. He had not much cared for him the previous spring when he accompanied Prince Théoden to the Captain's Council.

'Why, Théoden will have a son sometime this fall,' was Éomund's reply, his grin becoming a leer. 'The sons of Eorl are a virile line.'

'My felicitations to Prince Théoden.' Denethor made his voice and expression cold.

Éomund did not notice, turning to the younger men. 'Are you ready for the tourney tomorrow, my lords?' Gethron, Morvorin and Imrahil said yes and began discussing what contests they would enter. Assuming you're not all too hung-over to stand. The younger men staggered off, loudly proclaiming what feats they would perform.

Finduilas squeezed Denethor's arm to get his attention. When he looked on her, his sour mood slipped away. 'Forgive me, Denethor,' she said quietly, 'I should have told you sooner of Prince Théoden's good news. Hilda told me yesterday.'

'You had the feast to distract you,' he answered, 'and the news could keep.'

'What contests will you venture, cousin?' Borondir cheerfully asked Denethor.

'I don't know.'

'The archery, of course,' Marlong said.

'Yes.'

Borondir raised a cup 'You'll win that. You should do well in the swords.'

'But not win.' Denethor nodded to Thorongil. It was easy to be agreeable tonight, especially to the captain. 'I know who the best swordsman is. Second is the only…'

'No.' The men looked at Finduilas. She eyed Denethor sternly. 'No swords.'

'What?'

'You shan't do that.'

'Why not?'

'I cannot bear to see anyone strike you.'

'Finduilas, there is no…'

'No swords,' she stubbornly repeated.

'But…'

'No.'

'You won't win this contest, either, cousin' Borondir chuckled. Marlong and Thorongil were grinning. 'The Lady has commanded, and you must obey.'

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 52, Hope

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, 4 July, 2978 T.A.

'Friend?' It was difficult to open his eyes. His lids wished to remain shut, and he did not want to stir and disturb the baby's rest. There was a faint smell of smoke. The voice was closer. 'Denethor? Are you well?' Something warm and furry stirred in his arms. He raised a hand to rub the sleep from his eyes. 'Please, wake.' At the touch on his arm, Denethor forced himself to look and had to squint as the bright lantern light blinded him. Finduilas pulled it away from his face. 'Forgive me. Can you see now?'

In a moment his eyes adjusted to the dim room and the lantern. The window stood open at the end, a warm breeze making the curtains flutter and bearing the smell of smoke from braziers and kitchen fires as evening meals were prepared. Telperien was resting on his chest in a deep sleep, purring contentedly. Denethor carefully dropped his feet to the floor so as not to disturb her slumber. He tried to recall how he came to be sleeping in the chair. Tower business had finished, he had come home, Finduilas was with visitors, so he had come upstairs to work on something… There was something else, but his thoughts drifted back towards sleep. Denethor shook his head to clear the cobwebs. 'I am fine. I just dozed off.'

Finduilas looked at him with a mixture of concern and exasperation. 'Were you looking in the…' She cast her glance upwards at the ceiling, then back to him with a raised eyebrow.

'No. The heat, the events of the day and the cat all conspired to lull me to sleep.'

'Are you too tired to come to supper? I can have Aeluin bring a tray.'

'Only if you join me. I have seen naught of you all day.'

She smiled, leaning down to kiss him. 'I will.' When she left the room, Denethor gently lifted the cat from his chest and set her on the desk. Telperien roused enough to protest with a sleepy mew, but quickly curled into a ball and returned to her nap. He placed his hands on the desk to help himself rise, an odd lethargy still claiming him, and started out of the chair when one hand came to rest on the pouch holding the lanyard. How did this get here? Denethor glanced at the door, grabbing the pouch and yanking open the desk drawer to dispose of it before Finduilas returned. Something was not right. He could not recall taking the pouch from its usual place. A quick examination showed paper, a few quills and an ink pot had also found their way to the desk top. In the other room, he heard Finduilas speaking to Aeluin. Denethor stooped over the sleeping cat. 'What do you know, your Majesty?' he murmured, scratching her behind her ears. Telperien purred, rolling on her side so he could rub her belly, never opening her eyes. He straightened when he heard Finduilas' footsteps coming near.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 53, Smoke

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, 25 July, 2978 T.A.

Marlong's dower gift to Wren was great, but empty. "All of the lands of my house that lie on Anduin's hither shore. There are two farms and a mill. The first farm is north of Osgiliath…" Denethor read the list slowly, giving the gift the dignity it deserved. Marlong sat opposite, watching intently. There was no question but that the dower would be accepted, so this reading was for Marlong's pride. In addition to the abandoned lands, there was a modest house in Minas Tirith, an impressive amount of furnishings and linens that had probably once belonged to Marlong's mother, silver and plate, some livestock, and a promise of 5 gold pieces every year. There would have been more had the farms been on this side of the river, but Denethor understood the captain's obstinacy. Many Ithilieners would not take lands in Anórien, refusing to let go their promise to retake the fief. Not only did these folk become the soldiers of Henneth Annûn, they also provided many of the merchants and crafters of the City. They did not stray far south for the most part, not wishing to leave sight of their beloved Ithilien. Even when their houses dwindled they did not seek easier lands or less dangerous fortunes. They are our Lost.

Denethor nodded and looked at Marlong. 'Is there aught of your holdings you did not give to Wren?'

'Yes, my lord. I have two nieces left orphaned when my brother died, and I will provide for them when they are of an age to wed,' Marlong replied.

'How old are they now?'

'Eight and fourteen.'

'Ah.' Denethor put the dower scroll down and handed another to Marlong. 'Finduilas prepared this and would not let any see it, not even me. This is her dower to Wren.'

Marlong bowed before taking the sealed paper. His eyes grew large as he read it. When he finished, he looked at Denethor in astonishment. 'This is… beyond generous, my lord.'

'As I guessed it would be. Wren has been Finduilas' companion since she first came to Minas Tirith, and they are as close as sisters.' Denethor held out his hand for the document. 'If it is acceptable, I will send both to the scriveners to be copied.'

'Yes, it is.' The captain rose, giving Denethor the paper. Denethor walked with Marlong as far as the tunnel and they spoke of the man's assignment to Anórien. It was obvious that Marlong was eager to be back in the field and spoke enthusiastically of how he would turn the sleepy western outpost into the training ground for the best archers in Gondor. He even had plans for the northern éored to teach his men some horse skills, having been much taken with what he saw at the tourney.

A look at the sun said it was too late in the day to risk using the palantír. Denethor had been careful after that first look, not venturing so far again but keeping his eyes firmly fixed to the coast just south of the Ethir. This would be a slow task, to scout the south. Denethor already knew that he would prepare maps of the shores and particularly of the great firth, and that he would know to the last sail how many ships would need to be destroyed. But, for now, he had to be careful and not exhaust himself or worry Finduilas. What he had to do was discipline his own vision until he could no longer be led astray by the sights and dreams that lurked deep in the dark crystal.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 54, Union

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, 25 December, 2978 T.A.

'That's a good baby,' Ivrin, the nurse, crooned to the newborn as he finally let go of Finduilas' breast. 'And you eat so well!' The woman picked the baby up and held him against her, rubbing his back. Finduilas sighed, then grimaced as Luinil patted her breast dry.

'Sore?' her mother asked sympathetically.

'A little.'

'It goes away in a few days, lamb.' Luinil reassured her while Finduilas pulled her robe to cover her chest. Across the room, Ivrin was busy tending to the baby. Finduilas sighed again, closing her eyes. If only she did not feel so tired. It was midafternoon and everything was perfect, or so people kept telling her. Lhûn swore that the birth had gone quickly for such a large first-born, and that she could not see, feel, or smell anything amiss. Her mother had said the babe was bigger and stronger than any of her own children had been. The midwives and the nurse exclaimed over his size, his thatch of dark hair, how well he sucked, and how much he moved. Herself, she ached and oozed, and wished she could go back several months in time and not have this mewling thing near. You were much nicer when you were inside.

Luinil helped her get settled on the birthing cot. It was a miserable thing – a thin pad of cloth and straw held by an unyielding frame, on which she could not get comfortable. Stop it, goose! Would you bleed on your bed and ruin it? Finduilas spared one longing glance at the large feather bed in the alcove. Just a few days. Why do you complain? Denethor sleeps on dirt and rocks when he goes across the river. In a moment, her eyes brimmed with tears and she grasped her mother's hand. 'Denethor! Get him for me.'

With a quick kiss on Finduilas' brow, Luinil hurried out of the room. Denethor was at her side in just a few heartbeats, taking her hand. 'I am here.' He leaned close and rested his cheek against her own, pulling her into an embrace.

'I ache.' She hated how weak and weepy she sounded. Denethor began rubbing her back, getting tight muscles to relax. He paused only to pull a kerchief from his pocket and wipe her face, then continued massaging her shoulders, arms, even her hands, humming something at the edge of hearing. The urge to cry subsided as she relaxed into his warm touch. Too many people had been touching her, handling her with kindness and care, but it felt wrong. When Denethor touched her, it gave her strength and drove away shadowy thoughts. Looking into his face, Finduilas thought she had never seen the light within him illuminate him more completely. There was no hint of sorrow or grimness in him, and he was the most beautiful man she had ever seen, more beautiful even than a silver-crowned face she had seen in her dreams…

'Finduilas? You're shivering!'

'Just a chill. Is there a blanket?' Denethor hastily pulled one over her. 'It's because I am tired, friend.'

'All you need to do now is rest,' he said softly.

'I am. Bring the rocking chair closer so you do not sit on the floor.'

Ivrin approached. 'My lady? The little prince here is burped and ready to sleep. Do you wish to hold him or shall I put him in the cradle?'

Finduilas did not really want to hold it, but knew Denethor would not like his son set down. 'My arms are tired. Leave him here next to me.' The woman did so and excused herself, saying she would be right outside the door. They all already knew that when Denethor was present, he did not like anyone else in the room. Luinil and Lhûn were the only ones he tolerated for more than a few minutes.

'Do you want me to be quiet so you may sleep, or some conversation?'

'Talk, but not of the baby.' Denethor looked at her curiously. 'I have him right here,' Finduilas quickly added, patting the bundle, 'so I can watch him and listen to other things. Speak of dull things so you bore me and put me to sleep,' she teased.

'I could speak of taxation in Tumladen Vale…'

'I said bore me to sleep, not to death.'

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 55, Compromised

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, 5 January, 2979 T.A.

For the first time Denethor could remember, he wished to be somewhere besides the Great Council. It was ironic given that this was the least conflicted Council he had ever attended. There was praise for Morvorin for the roads, agreement on strengthening garrisons, thanks for another year of good harvests, and approval for how Thorongil had handled the defenses. The only subject not discussed directly was Umbar. Denethor had reported briefly on what he knew and provided few details save that the Corsairs had suffered from plague and pestilence, but were trying to rebuild the fleet. He and Thorongil had agreed in their meetings leading up to today that they would not speak directly about their intention to launch an attack upon Umbar. There was still too much time before they were ready and there would be no way to control the gossip of the lords for that long. By the next Council, their plans would be complete and it would be time to speak.

It had not helped that the Steward had been genial, almost jocular, towards him the entire day. It stood in contrast to the distant though polite treatment Ecthelion had given Denethor at the two great feasts. Aside from a single sly dig, the Steward had heaped almost as much praise upon Denethor as he did upon Thorongil. His eyes gave away the man's true feelings – angry, wary, dangerous.

The Council should have been a victory. The Steward offered no opposition, the Captain's threat as rival was whittled to almost nothing, the lords and ministers had no quarrels, all of the wisdom and strategy Denethor had brought to bear upon the governance of the kingdom over the last two decades was coming to fruition. Across the table, Thorongil was speaking intelligently about coastal garrison strength. The captain was welcome to all of it – the wars, the land, the City, the throne, whatever he wanted, for this triumph was worse than defeat. He knew its price.

Denethor made himself sit still, presenting a façade of calm dignity, when he wished to slink from the room. He had been less humiliated after his dishonor at Ecthelion's hands when Thorongil was made Captain-General, less ashamed when hearing the Steward's self-exculpation over his lechery with Wren than he was now. The light was dim outside the chamber windows when the Steward rose, rod in hand, and all stood with him. With a gracious bow, he recited the ancient formula, 'We thank you for attending us this day and helping us to bear the burden of rod and rule, until the king should come again,' and they all bowed their heads in return. All lies. The king has returned, but nothing is as it should be. All order is turned on its head. Ecthelion led them from the room to go to the supper that awaited them.

What awaited Denethor in the hall was Beregar. The man stood to the side, half in shadow, and most did not notice he was there. His eyes met Denethor's, but he did not move to his lord's side as he usually did. The Hound's gaze was harder than the stone floor on which they stood. Denethor's eyes went to Beregar's right cheek. Near where the man's beard curved up, a dark mark could be seen. 'She's here,' was all Beregar said before turning and walking away. It was obvious he did not care whether Denethor followed.

In a room not far from the dining hall where supper was laid, Finduilas and Luinil were waiting. Both were dressed beautifully. Ivrin sat nearby, watching over Boromir in his basket. The baby had been put in an ornate robe, white with intertwined wings and vines embroidered upon it. Finduilas smiled and hastened to Denethor, greeting him with a kiss. 'There you are! I thought that council would never end. Did it go well?'

'Yes.'

'Is Imrahil with you?' Luinil asked, her voice flat.

'No, he went ahead to the hall. They are waiting.'

'We should not tarry, then,' Finduilas answered, taking his arm. Luinil retrieved Boromir. Just as at the naming, Denethor escorted Finduilas while Luinil carried her grandson. As they walked, Denethor could just hear the soft tread of Beregar's feet as he walked a pace behind Luinil.

At least the Hound hated him now. When Denethor had gone to the kitchen to fetch a pot of tea for himself, the world had been right. He bade Imrahil good night, and walked away, hearing Imrahil's greeting to Beregar as the young prince passed the door to Beregar's quarters on the way to his own. The kitchen smelled as it should, and Hunthor was flirting with Dúlin while she tried to clean things. Denethor did not pay them any mind, waving away the cook's offer of help as he went to the pantry to fetch the herbs. He had the lid off the jar when he heard the cook say, 'And the Steward was so happy finally to see his grandson!' That was when the world changed. His hands froze and there was no sound save the murmurs of the flirting couple. 'Not right…waiting' 'The lady… saw… so kind.' 'Kindest heart… Steward was patient, not like my…' '…by herself.'

He had resealed the jar and walked out briskly, ignoring Dúlin's questions about filling the teapot. Not by herself. They had all betrayed him. The door to Beregar's rooms were ajar and Denethor did not bother to knock. Beregar began to rise from his chair. 'Where did Finduilas go today?' The question was asked calmly. The furtive look on the Hound's face was all the answer Denethor needed. The blow threw Beregar into the wall. 'You are to leave.' He wanted them all to leave, every one of them who had smiled, and bowed, and said "Yes, my lord," and taken his son and placed him in Ecthelion's hands.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 56, Patrimony

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Late May, 2979 T.A.

Denethor put Boromir in his cradle before turning to Finduilas. He kissed her cheek. 'I must leave the City and will be gone…'

'…all day,' she finished for him, making herself smile. He and Borondir were going to test the Dragon Fire. She could no more stop him from crafting this weapon than she could keep him away from the palantír. Her dreams were always terrible when he readied a new batch to be tested.

She crouched upon the spire in the waste, trying to keep from being torn from it by the storm winds. Next to her, the silver demon stood, shouting defiance at the Lords of the West. The armies gathered below. From ships tied to the quays upon the river, smoke rose, shadow towers. Eagles took shape in the tempest, formed when the dark columns reached the steel-grey sky, and stooped down upon the teeming hordes before the spire. Once, the eagles had cast bolts of lightning upon the King's Men of Númenor. Now, their talons grabbed ribbons of smoke from the ship-borne fires, and the dark streamers would ignite, filling their claws with fire. They dropped the white-hot fires upon the demon's minions, and they were consumed.

'I will return today,' Denethor assured her and bent to kiss her cheek once more. Finduilas turned her head and kissed his mouth. For a second, Denethor tensed and began to pull away. Will you deny me even this? A kiss? Finduilas slipped a hand behind his head so he could not escape and deepened her kiss. He gave a low growl and opened his mouth to hers, pulling her against him. When they parted, Denethor's face was flushed and his breath came more heavily. He shook a warning finger at her. 'Vixen.'

Finduilas replied with a smirk and a light kiss on his cheek. A few more embraces like that, along with other touches and strategic timing, and she would overcome his resolve. 'I will give you what pleasures I may, husband,' she airily said as she walked to the front room, 'and encourage you not to dawdle on your return home.' And make you think of greater pleasures. Denethor's glance as he put on his cloak was hungry. 'Give my regards to Borondir.'

'Of course.' He turned to leave.

A shiver of fear, not desire, went up Finduilas' spine and she seized his hand. Embracing him again, she whispered, 'Please, friend, beware of what you touch.'

'I will, Alquallë. I will be careful,' he promised. Their parting kiss was tender. Finduilas remained where she stood for several minutes after Denethor left. She sighed and returned to her room where Boromir lay in his cradle.

He looked at her curiously, then looked away and waved a fat paw, gurgling to himself. You never look away from Denethor. If Denethor was near and Boromir awake, the baby was not content until his father picked him up. He recognized Denethor's voice and smell and would make a racket until he was in Denethor's arms. Not that you are ever quiet, Finduilas crossly thought. Boromir might not cry very much, but he did not seem capable of being awake without making some kind of noise. Burbling, gurgling, shrieking, laughing, repeating sounds over and over – only sleep or nursing interrupted the perpetual clamor. When he did wail, she was certain it could be heard all the way in the first circle. When I no longer feed you, will you pay me any mind at all? She knew it was petty and wrong to think such things about her own child, but she could not help it.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 57, Confessions

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, 1 September, 2979 T.A.

Denethor stood on the roof of the house, shading his eyes from the strong morning sun. It was already hot just an hour past sunrise. This afternoon, Thorongil was to explain to the Steward what he had been doing all spring. The captain had asked leave of the Steward to put off his account until he had inspected Osgiliath, and had received assent. Sunlight glinted off the harness of horsemen riding along the causeway. Thorongil and probably Imrahil. Denethor doubted Halmir would ride in for this. The Lost had nothing but a contemptuous snort whenever Thorongil's name was mentioned. Your audience with your uncle was probably worse than the one with the Steward shall be. The corner of Denethor's mouth twitched at the thought of Halmir dressing down the captain for trying to get into Umbar. He waited until the horses neared the Great Gate before going back into the house. Ere the afternoon's council, there was other business to attend to.

He tapped on the door to Finduilas' room. 'Come in!' She smiled when she saw him, and within her was a radiance to put the sun to shame. Boromir's eyes focused on his father and one hand waved in a circle, but he did not leave off his nursing. 'The cub is nearly done.'

'May I get you something?'

She shook her head. 'My breakfast will wait.' Denethor neatened the room while the baby fed, muttering to himself over the imprecise way Ivrin and Aeluin kept things. Clothes were not folded properly, toiletries were set haphazardly on a shelf, baskets were not neatly stowed away… Finduilas' giggles broke his concentration. She rocked the chair with one foot and looked at him in amusement. 'You know, High Warden, this is not the barracks.'

'I think I need to make a guardsman your maid so the room will be kept clean.' This made her laugh, just as he hoped it would. With an exaggerated sigh, he turned to make the bed. There were two pillows to be punched up, two indentations in the tick to be smoothed. She giggled more behind him while the rocking chair slowly creaked.

Everything needed to be set aright in this room. Bed clothes and hairbrushes were only the start. Discipline was even more necessary here than in the barracks. He had grown neglectful in his habits, forgetting his own rules – he was but a guest in this room, allowed in at her pleasure. He was here to tend her and their child. No care or concern was to enter. His own desires were nothing once past the threshold. When he forgot these rules, disaster followed.

As soon as Boromir finished, Finduilas ate her breakfast, then headed for the women's baths with Moraen and Aeluin. Denethor carried Boromir downstairs to the kitchen. 'Do you have any room left?' he asked his son. Boromir crowed, knowing what was next. Dúlin smiled when Denethor came in, and set out a plate with some food. Denethor sat at the kitchen table, Boromir in his lap and pulled the plate over. 'So, what are you going to paint your face with this morning?' The baby grabbed the orange cube of melon in his fat fist and tried to cram it all into his mouth. When that was gone – equal parts in his mouth, on the table and down his front – he wanted the soft cheese. It was a messy goo, well mixed with preserves, and Boromir loved it.

'He eats more each week,' Dúlin said, smiling proudly at the baby.

'He needs to be eating most of his meals here to give his mother some peace.'

Dúlin frowned. 'She is eating more. Aeluin told me. I make everything she likes best, and put extra butter in it to fatten her up.'

'You let me know if her appetite flags.'

'I will,' the cook solemnly assured him.

'Yáviérë?' Dúlin's cheeks turned pink and she nodded with a giggle. Hunthor had asked Finduilas permission to wed Dúlin a few days ago, and the women were now all bustling about preparing for the celebration. The wedding itself was to be held in the mess hall of the first circle garrison. There were no suitable rooms in the Stewards House for them to live in, but some had been found in a house nearby.

Boromir soon mouthed everything on the plate, had eaten a substantial amount of that, and was now trying his best to pick up and eat the plate itself. 'I think it time for our baths, Morcollë.' Ivrin was given the baby, and Denethor and Beregar headed for the men's baths. Though they had never exchanged another word on the subject, it appeared that his nephew was no longer so eager to cut his throat. He was relieved the young man now knew how they were of kin. Beregar had presented himself a rainy evening in June, face battered from a street fight, and calmly had asked for the truth, accepting Denethor's word with a nod. He then identified the men who had spoken so crudely of Finduilas. They were sent to Halmir in Osgiliath. There had been no repeat of the taunting.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 58, Unsaid

Chapter Text

Osgiliath, Late October, 2979 T.A.

The trip to Osgiliath did not occur until almost two months after Thorongil's return from the south. Denethor did not wish to talk to Halmir with the captain present, and Thorongil did not leave the garrison for any length of time until he had to inspect Cair Andros and Anórien. Even then, Denethor found himself reluctant to be parted from Finduilas and Boromir.

To his relief, Finduilas was clearly becoming stronger. She had gained enough weight that her ribs and hips no longer showed so sharply, and she was not so weary. The baby was close to being weaned. Boromir ate solid food first, now, and nursed afterwards, so his hunger was less. Lhûn and Finduilas planned to end his nursing after yestarë, when he was a full year old. Denethor smiled to himself at the thought of his son. Boromir had begun walking by himself a few weeks ago. Not very steadily or very far, but he walked. Now they had to be careful that he did not toddle to the stairs and fall, or find something on the floor he should not be eating. When Denethor was home, nothing could dissuade Boromir from following him, bringing his father things he found, asking to be held, and trying to sample everything Denethor ate or drank. The best thing, however, was that Finduilas was finally happy with the baby. She was more than dutiful towards Boromir now, and seemed pleased when he was near. Denethor hoped her affection would grow as the child became less of a burden. And the next child, that will be the daughter you want.

It was still early; he had left the City even before Boromir waked so he could return before nightfall. Gaerhûl did not mind the swift run across the Pelennor, particularly as Gull had insisted on accompanying them. When Denethor pulled up a mile before the garrison to walk Gaerhûl out, Gull nipped at Denethor's leg, looking at him expectantly. Not entirely sure what the mare wanted, he spoke to her of Finduilas and Boromir. When he paused, she nickered and nudged him, so he told her more.

The sentries on the guard tower saw Denethor approach and called out a welcome. He rode to the gates, but dismounted and unsaddled Gaerhûl on the causeway, leaving him to graze with Gull while he attended to business in the garrison. Halmir was at the gate by the time he finished.

'Lord Denethor,' the Lost said with a crisp bow.

'Lieutenant Halmir, I have not much time today,' Denethor replied, 'so I wish to see the garrison at once. We will review ledgers over dinner. I will not need to go beyond the gate, unless there is something you wish for me to see.' With a shake of the head, Halmir turned and led the way into the fort. Galdor joined them not long after.

'There's fumes,' the surgeon said in disgust. 'They've been crawling out of the Vale for a few days now, and they're getting stronger.'

'Will it be like two years ago?'

'I hope not, my lord. That was bad. The captain, he will return soon, yes?'

'Yes,' was Halmir's curt reply.

Galdor was not put off by the other man's sharpness. 'Good. His herbcraft is the best for bad humors in the air.' Halmir spared the surgeon a sullen glance before leading the way to the armory. Galdor parted from them at dinner, saying he would draw up a list of supplies for Denethor to take to Warden Lhûn. The meal was stew, bread, stewed apples and ale. Denethor knew Boromir would have liked the gravy from the stew and the soft, sweet apples, made rich with a pat of butter. There was nothing of note in the garrison records, not that Denethor expected to find anything.

'What do you think will happen in Ithilien this winter, Halmir?'

'They're waiting.'

'For what?'

'Weakness.' The man's voice was matter-of-fact.

'Are we?'

'Depends on how many they have on their side of the mountains.'

'Major assault?'

The Lost frowned, staring at the scarred tabletop. 'Not in winter. In the spring.' His grey eyes met Denethor's. 'With Umbar.' Halmir paused, then said in a rush, 'It is wrong. We should not attack. It is a trap.'

'Why?'

'It is a temptation he cannot resist. When a fleet goes out after the Corsairs, that' he gestured eastwards with a thumb, 'will open its maw and vomit out its forces upon us. That is what they wait for. I know the Enemy's traps.'

'That will happen, regardless.' Halmir shrugged. 'The wizard has counseled the Steward that it should be done.'

'Then he needs other counsel.'

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 59, Exchange

Chapter Text

The Great West Road, below Calenhad, 10 January, 2980 T.A.

The dryness made the cold more bitter, even as it made the road fast. Denethor said it would be but four more days to Edoras as long as the weather held. Brandir, familiar with the winters of west Anórien, had smelled the air and said the cold spell would hold for several weeks. 'It is dry here at the edge of the grasslands,' he had explained to Finduilas, 'for the western storms rarely get past the Gap of Rohan and Ered Nimrais blocks southern rain.'

Denethor allowed Finduilas and Gull to set the pace for the journey. The mare kept them moving briskly, rarely slowing to a walk, alternating behind a ground-eating trot and a gentle canter. When they stopped to water their steeds and rest, Finduilas felt a little tired, but never weary, and knew Gull was mindful of her rider. Denethor and Gaerhûl stayed at her stirrup on her left, and Brandir kept to her off side. Immediately behind came Thorongil, Aiavalë and Imrahil. Beregar, Wren and Gethron completed their small vanguard. A few horse lengths back rode thirty Guardsmen, the largest number who could be mounted on such short notice.

When Imrahil returned from the Great Council with news of Thengel's death, Finduilas said she needed to go to Rohan to be with Queen Morwen. Aiavalë and Wren had been with her and said they, too, would ride. 'I will go north anyway, to spend the rest of the winter with Wren,' the Archivist had argued, 'so we will go with you and be your maids.' Finduilas had expected a terrible argument with Denethor over her wish, but he simply heard her out and nodded.

In two days, all was ready, and they departed at first light on the seventh. As he had during the plague, Borondir moved into the Stewards House, this time to watch over Boromir. While most were happy with the marriage between Morvorin and Luinmir, Borondir was downcast and Finduilas hoped that tending his small cousin would ease the man's sorrow at losing Luinmir and Anna.

Gull dropped from a trot to a walk, letting the horses cool before the midday stop. A shout from the rear made them look east. Beyond, a troop of horsemen was galloping towards them. They could just make out the white horse of Rohan on the banners, and soon the éored drew up next to them. The mounts were steaming and looked spent. At the head, the leader pulled off his helmet and Finduilas recognized Éomund.

Thorongil urged his horse forward. 'Éomund, your men have ridden hard.'

'Need drives me.' The young man's face was grim.

'When did you leave Poros?'

'Four days ago.'

Denethor gestured for Éomund's attention. 'What route did you take?'

'Up Ithilien and over the bridge, then along the river until we could cut straight to the road.' He donned his helmet, his eyes flicking towards the beckoning road. 'I must not tarry…'

'Have you any messages for us from Osgiliath or Anórien?' Thorongil quickly said, but Éomund was already urging his horse forward.

'No. We didn't stop.' He offered no parting, but called to the éored to follow him. They soon disappeared from view. Thorongil gave Denethor a long look before shaking his head and returning to his position. Gull snorted in a way that sounded disapproving.

Dinner was cold, as it had been the day before, but there was hot tea. Finduilas sat close to Denethor, letting him be a windbreak for her. As she hoped, Thorongil came over at once and took a seat facing Denethor. 'I don't like it,' the captain said without preamble.

'The entire éored,' Denethor answered.

'I cannot blame the men for returning…'

'…but their captain is another matter. Did he…'

'…warn Baragund? Not likely. He would have gathered the men as soon…'

'…as he heard and set off. Right through south Ithilien…'

'….where his absence is now known to all,' Thorongil sourly concluded. Finduilas was amazed at their conversation. No one looking on them now would think anything save that he watched two close brothers. 'Halmir will have warned Baragund and the Steward.'

'It's too dry,' was Denethor's answer. The two men looked at each other and exchanged a grim nod. Thorongil left, but soon returned with dinner for them all. Wren and Aiavalë joined them. 'He will be to Edoras day after tomorrow at that pace.'

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 60, Time

Chapter Text

Ithilien, 5 February, 2980 T.A.

South, a horn blew, calling for the men to regroup. Denethor raised his own horn and gave the command for the Rangers to advance. In between was the remnant of the host that had marched from the Morannon two weeks before. Shouts of "Gondor! Gondor!" echoed in the leafless woods as green and brown clad men charged the remaining Uruks. Soon, the call to advance was heard to the south as well. The slaughter was done before nightfall.

It had taken five days to destroy the Orcs that invaded Anórien. Until Marlong brought his men up at the end of the second day, there was little Denethor's band could do except run ahead of the Orc army and tell people to flee. Many farms were burned, but most of the people survived. Men who stayed to fight were told to rally at the gathering point with Marlong. There they were first heartened by how many they had to defend the land, then dismayed by the messenger's news that Ithilien was assailed. There was no way to ride to the eastern defense until the raiding band was destroyed. When that was done, the men had not a day for rest, but had to march at once to Cair Andros and passage over the river. They were in Ithilien by the first day of February.

Denethor sent Thorongil over the river at once to succor Anbar, but stayed behind himself to read messages and plan what needed to be done. Brandir and Imrahil were sent south along the river road to Osgiliath where Brandir would wait for the éored promised by Théoden. The Riders would cross the bridge and run south to guard Poros if the way was clear, else they would do battle on the roads. Imrahil was to go to Minas Tirith and tell Borondir to begin moving all available Fire casks south. They would go by barge to Pelargir, then by ship along the coast until it was stowed on each ship marked to carry it. There was no word yet on whether Umbar had sailed. All of south Gondor was on the move – soldiers and sailors to the coasts, ordinary folk to the uplands.

When he had crossed the river a few hours after Thorongil, Denethor went north with the Guardsmen and a large portion of the Anórien soldiers. They passed north of Henneth Annûn, and fell upon the rear of the Uruk army. Gildor and Dírhavel had used the Rangers wisely, but they were weary and wounded by the time Denethor arrived. The Uruks had ceased to put up much of a rear guard by then, preferring to rush south and try to secure the road against Thorongil's fresh troops, and were not prepared for the attacks Denethor led.

Denethor surveyed the carnage as he walked south to find Thorongil. They were counting on the Anórien troops being tied up by the attack over Onodló. Save that the funeral party was there when Pear Hollow had been attacked, it might still be so. Marlong would have marched halfway to Cair Andros, then would have turned back to meet the western attack. Anbar had left only a score of defenders at Cair Andros itself, taking the rest into Ithilien to try and protect the road. Even so, the attacks themselves felt incomplete. There should have been more allies, as there had been in the summer wars five years ago. You don't know what has been thrown out of Morgul, yet. Ahead, in the gloom, he saw a figure so tall it could only be Thorongil. The other saw him at the same time and waved.

Thorongil's face was filthy, the blood and dirt settled into the lines drawn by exhaustion. 'A few hundred escaped south.'

'We'll hunt them tomorrow.' The captain nodded. 'Where's Vardamir?' Thorongil motioned with his head, turning to lead the way to the surgeon. Denethor began moving among the wounded as he usually did. Thorongil followed suit. Whatever reports there were would find them here. The stars were out before the healers finished their work. A leather sack holding frigid water was all they had to wash with, but it sufficed to take the worst of the filth from their hands and faces. They filled their food pans with Ithilien stew – dried meat boiled with carrots and turnips dug up from a nearby abandoned farm, seasoned with salt and wild rosemary. A lump of hard cheese and a skin of water completed the meal. Thorongil followed Denethor to a seat near a fire.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 61, Umbar

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, 28 February, 2980 T.A.

The sound of the door to the front room opening woke Finduilas from her dream-haunted doze a few hours after midnight. She pulled a robe over her nightdress and came out of her room. Beregar was there, a lantern in hand and an arm around Denethor, holding him up. She hurried to support Denethor from the other side. Between the two of them, they helped him stumble to his bed. Beregar wrestled off his boots while Finduilas removed his outer clothes. Through it all, Denethor did not speak. His face was haggard and his usually warm flesh was cold. Only the Fire scar on his forearm gave off any warmth and it felt fevered. They wrapped him in blankets, then Beregar left to fetch a warm stone from the kitchen hearth to put at his feet.

Finduilas knelt near the bed. 'Denethor, speak to me! What happened?'

He took her hand in an icy clasp. 'All gone.' His voice was more croak than speech.

'What is all gone? The fleet? What did you see?'

'Umbar. Gone.' Whatever else he may have wished to say was lost in the chatter of his teeth as he began to shudder. There was no satisfaction in his face at this news.

Umbar is destroyed. But that did not mean the fleet had not come to grief as well, particularly the way Denethor was acting. Finduilas leaned close and kissed his cheek. 'You must rest, friend.' Denethor shut his eyes, nodding. In a minute, Beregar returned with a cloth-wrapped stone, tucking it under the blankets at the foot of the bed. Finduilas motioned for Beregar to follow to the front room. 'How did you find him, Huan?' she whispered.

'The pups watched the Tower, as you bade them,' he murmured. 'As soon as they saw him emerge, Borthand went to him and another came to fetch me. I brought him back.' Beregar cast a worried look at the study. 'What is wrong?'

Finduilas did not wish to lie, but she also had no wish to speak of the palantír. Denethor was not carrying it, so it must have remained in the Tower. 'He went up in the Tower and cast his mind upon Umbar, for tonight was the assault.'

Beregar nodded. 'Our lord is far-sighted, like the Númenóreans. Things afar are in his ken.' The man's brow furrowed. 'It is poor news, isn't it? He is grim.'

Once again she hedged the truth. 'I do not know. I think much is simple weariness. After he rests, he will speak. I will sit with him. Be certain none disturb us.' Beregar bowed and withdrew. Finduilas returned to the study. Denethor was asleep, but his form under the covers was still taut. She slipped out of her nightclothes and got into bed beside him. He roused from sleep long enough to clasp her to him. She chafed his hands and arms through his shirt, trying to warm them.

***

The summer king stood before the falls, naked, fire clinging to one forearm like a sleeve. He plunged his burning arm into the falls, but the flames were not quenched. Amidst the water hung a silver net and his limbs became tangled in it. Finduilas hissed at the trap, placing herself between the king and the water, and undid the knots with her beak. The king huddled against her, shivering, trying to find warmth in her feathers. As warmth returned, he was roused, and he pressed her down, parting her cloak to bare her to him. The waterfall dropped diamonds across his hair and seaweed crown. Around his neck was a collar of thorn. As he moved against her, the points caught her skin, making her bleed. The flames lapped eagerly at the red drops.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 62, Steal

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, 22 March, 2980 T.A.

Denethor woke with Boromir snuggled in his arms. The morning was well advanced judging by the light in the room. Finduilas was still in bed, but awake, watching him. She smiled when he met her eyes. 'Good morrow, love,' she said quietly.

'Good noontide, I think.'

'It's not that late. You needed to sleep.'

'I need to…'

'Do nothing until you are rested,' she interrupted. 'You have been in battles for weeks and need to regain your strength.'

'…get something to eat, I was going to say.' Denethor kissed Boromir's brow and gave his son a small shake to wake him. 'Morcollë? Do you want breakfast?' The baby woke groggily, a cranky expression on his face. 'Eat? Do you want to eat?'

'No!' Boromir made a face and pushed himself away from Denethor's chest. 'Papa bad!'

Denethor looked at Finduilas in confusion. 'What did I do?'

'Nothing. He has been contrary like this for a few weeks. Let him wake up and he will be more cooperative. Tell Huan we are ready for our breakfast. By the time it arrives, the cub will be in a better mood.'

Denethor did as she bade him. Ivrin took charge of washing and changing Boromir, who objected loudly to her ministrations, but by the time Beregar brought the morning meal, Boromir was reasonably cheerful and ready for breakfast. He insisted on sitting in Denethor's lap to eat, which Denethor did not mind. Boromir's skill with food had increased considerably since December, and almost all ended up in his mouth instead of on his front.

Finduilas sat across from them, watching them with a fond smile, but eating little. There were circles under her eyes and lines at the corners of her mouth that had not been there in January. She noticed him watching her and asked, 'What did you and Brandir tell the Steward?'

'That we won. That Gondor is safer than she has been in a lifetime. That Thorongil was nowhere to be found.' Ecthelion had listened impassively to Brandir's report, asking no questions, his hand clenched around the White Rod. Denethor did not speak. When Brandir had finished, Ecthelion thanked them and let them go. It was difficult to believe that the captain had abandoned them. But he'll be back. He said he would return. No, he's gone for good. Denethor did not know which thought was worse.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 63, Abandoned

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, 27 March, 2980 T.A.

His head pounded if he leaned down or moved suddenly, and his ribs hurt enough that Denethor had to clench his teeth when he picked up Boromir. There was no sharp pain this morning, so he did not think them cracked, but the bruise was going to take time to heal. During breakfast he had considered going to the baths and soaking to relieve the pain. I cannot show injury or weakness, not until resistance is gone. Luckily, the bruise on the side of his head was mostly hidden by hair. Finduilas had fussed over him, fixing his food, filling his cup, and bestowing many small kisses each time she passed by his chair just as she had done when they were newly wed. Her affection made him feel guilty, as though he were a child pretending illness to get sweets from his nurse. After she left to tend to the Lady's business with Aldwyn and Wren, Denethor rang the bell to summon Beregar.

'My lord?'

'What is your measure of Borthand?'

'A bit of a hothead. Getting too old to be an errand boy.'

'Can he handle a sword?'

'No. He is a street brat. All he knows is his fists, and mostly he ducks a fight.'

'Can he be taught?'

Beregar shrugged. 'Perhaps. That pup is a sly one.'

'You don't trust him?'

'He'll die for the Lady. Anyone else…' Beregar wagged his hand in the air. 'He's not got a bad heart, but he spends too much time with Scratch.'

'He can spend more time with you, then.'

The Hound's eyebrow went up. 'What do you want me to do?'

'Train him well enough with a sword so he won't hurt himself by accident. Give him a pallet behind the kitchen – no more running loose on the streets. You have until loëndë to put some sense between his ears.'

The man sighed and gave Denethor a wry look. 'For what is he being trained?'

'I'll know when I see what you have made of him.'

That earned a quick grin from Beregar, reminding Denethor of when his nephew was a youth like Borthand, all lanky limbs and promise. 'I'd best start at once, then, my lord. I'll take him to the yards this morning.'

'I will walk with you. I need to speak to the yardmaster.' Borthand was nowhere to be found, but the runt of the pack, Ingold, was loitering in the kitchen yard trying to wheedle cheese from Nellas and was dispatched to find the older boy and bring him to the yards. They did not have long to wait before Borthand appeared, red-faced from his dash up the mountain. Beregar took command and marched Borthand to the armory. Denethor spoke of a few inconsequential things with the yardmaster, who did not mind being seen in discussion with the High Warden, before leaning on the fence to watch the men sparring. Every so often, Denethor glanced at the lane, watching for a certain person to come into view. Brandir did not appear. A melancholic feeling came over him. After a half hour, Denethor left. He walked slowly along the sixth circle, hands clasped behind him, trying to understand his own mood. Why should Brandir's absence grieve him so? He had never cared that much for his brother-in-law's company until these last few months.

Though he had not intended it, Denethor was not surprised when he found himself facing an old wooden door that stood ajar. He slipped inside, leaving it open for whomever else was called. The flowers and plants soothed him, so he took his time passing through them towards the back, pausing to admire the trickle of water in the ingenious troughs, sniff a bright bloom, touch a delicate leaf. Laanga was sitting tailor fashion on a woven mat a few feet inside the back door, a mug of tea in his gnarled hands. Another mat faced him, and a steaming mug sat in between. Denethor knelt on the mat before the apothecary and bowed his head. 'Grandfather, you summoned me?'

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 64, Forgive

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Mid June, 2980 T.A.

'He is so big and strong,' Lhûn said approvingly as she stood with Finduilas in the arcade of the Houses, watching Boromir play tag on the greensward with several other children. It was true; Boromir was bulkier and a hand taller than other boys his age. His steps were very sure and he rarely lost his balance anymore. The stairs at home were no longer a barrier to him. He could scramble up them quickly on all fours, and had recently learned how to scoot down them on his bottom. Denethor was very proud of the child's inventiveness even as Ivrin was driven to distraction by Boromir charging off on his own. Finduilas was just glad that he no longer nursed. As though reading Finduilas's thoughts, Lhûn slipped an arm around her waist and hugged her. 'And now is time to get you big and strong, too, Finduilas.'

She smiled and hugged the healer in return. 'Yes, it is! I think I am fatter since the spring.'

Lhûn felt Finduilas's ribs, shaking her head. 'Not much. You need to eat a great deal more and worry a great deal less.'

With a laugh, Finduilas hugged Lhûn again, feigning amusement. 'Now you sound like Denethor!' She kissed the healer on the cheek. 'I must take the cub back home so we may both have a nap.'

It took several minutes to capture her rambunctious son, who was not quite ready to end his game. When they got out into the main street of the sixth circle, Boromir suddenly darted away. 'Catch me!' he cried as he dashed along, disappearing around the curve of the street. Finduilas followed more slowly, knowing he would not get very far nor would anyone seeing him allow him to come to harm. The City loved its little prince, more so now than ever. He filled an emptiness.

It was that hollowed out place that kept her thin and tired. She slept more than she should and ate everything Denethor put on her plate at dinner and supper, but still she felt empty, and her dreams were filled with thoughts of drowning. Finduilas suspected a similar feeling afflicted Denethor, for he was restless, often spending hours walking around the City listening to the stone, particularly at night. At least the palantír was out of his reach, though she had caught him gazing at the Tower and knew he was trying to figure a way past the Dwarven lock on the chamber door.

Boromir was still out of sight. No doubt a proffered sweet would eventually halt his headlong rush. All along the road, people were readying their homes for the loëndë festival. Stoops were scrubbed, windows washed, and flags flown. There were far more of her black swan wings than the white tree. Even the empty houses were being opened and cleaned. Many of them had owners arriving from the Outland fiefs and most of the rest were being let out to the numerous visitors. There would be a children's parade on loëndë itself, and a tournament in the days after. And many, many political councils.

A sharp squeal up ahead made Finduilas hurry. Coming around the curve, she slowed again, not sure if she should approach. Brandir knelt in the street, Boromir in his arms. She had not seen Brandir save at formal councils with the Steward since he had struck Denethor. It was difficult to make sense of Denethor's claim that Brandir had wished him dead; Finduilas could not believe her gentle Fool would say something so spiteful. Denethor said he had already been struck when Brandir spoke, making her think that he had not heard correctly. Yet they fought, and that you would not have believed, either, had not Brandir confessed. The only certain thing to come from those days was the breaking of Maiaberiel's power. The King's Men were in disarray and Aiavalë's spies said no one besides Brandir, Ecthelion and the servants had entered Maiaberiel's house since the night Denethor beat her. Finduilas shivered at the memory of blood on his garments and the rank smell that permeated the cloth. There was more done than a beating. Had someone touched me so, naught would keep you from killing him. You have tried our Fool's heart too much.

Boromir saw her and waved, making Brandir turn about. Joy left his face, replaced by bland politeness. 'Mama, look!' Boromir gleefully said, gesturing at his uncle.

Finduilas smiled warmly. 'Yes, Morcollë, I see you have found Uncle Brandir. You are a clever boy.'

Brandir stood and nodded to her. 'My lady, how good to see you.'

She shook her head. 'No, Brandir. Not with me.' Finduilas embraced him tightly, laying a kiss on his cheek. 'It is good to see you, sweet friend.'

'Yes. I've missed you.' Brandir ruffled Boromir's hair. 'And I shall miss you all the more soon.'

Finduilas slipped her arm into his. 'Walk with me a while, Brandir. The cub needs to run more before he is ready to nap.'

A smile came to Brandir's face. 'I would like that.'

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 65, Recovery

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, 4 July, 2980 T.A.

Denethor's embrace made the muggy summer evening even warmer, but Finduilas did not care. She wanted his body between herself and what watched. He felt her stirring and pushed himself up, though their legs remained tangled together. 'Alquallë?' There was just enough light left in the day for her to make out his concerned expression.

Finduilas kissed him lightly. 'I am well, friend.' Beyond the study, she heard Boromir crying and Ivrin and Aeluin trying to shush him. That was what had woken them. 'The cub is unhappy. He's probably hungry.'

Denethor nodded. 'Yes.' He rolled off her and got up, hunting for their clothes. Finduilas pulled a sheet around her, unwilling to leave the safety of the bed. Nowhere is safe. He can see you even now. This made her shudder. Denethor noticed and sat on the edge of the bed, hugging her tightly to him. When he broke the embrace, he would not meet her eyes. 'Your clothes are here.' Boromir's wails became louder. 'I'd best go…'

'Yes. He'll be quiet when he sees you.' With another hug and kiss, Denethor left. You can't protect me. Not from poison. Not from this. For a moment, a fierce anger at her husband gripped her heart, swiftly replaced by guilt. No one can. She pulled the sheet over her head, knowing it did no good. Stop this! You both are marked, and Denethor does not hide like a child. Be a prince. No, be a queen. Finduilas took a deep breath and stood, forcing herself to move deliberately and not scurry or cower. As she reached for her shirt, she felt a strand of Denethor's seed ooze down the inside of her thigh. The sensation made her want to dive back under the sheet. We didn't use… With a growl of frustration, she dug through a drawer of Denethor's chest to find a handkerchief to wipe herself. Finduilas shrugged into her clothes and went to find her men.

'Mama!' Boromir wriggled from his father's grasp and flung himself at her when she walked into the front room. His face was tear-stained and his nose still running from his earlier tantrum.

'Morcollë, be careful! Don't trip me.' She knew she should not snap at the baby, but anger felt better than fear. Boromir did not listen, not that he ever listened to her, and clung to her legs all the more tightly. She sighed and picked him up. 'Have you been a bad boy?' He shook his head. 'Are you hungry?'

'Hungry,' he agreed.

'Aeluin is having the table laid for us now,' Denethor said. 'The girls are at Vinyamar. Luinil sent word.' Finduilas nodded, not wishing to say angry things. Soon, Mírwen tapped on the door to let them know their meal awaited.

Finduilas had no appetite, but made herself eat something so Denethor would not scold. Boromir helped by making a mess of her plate so it was not obvious how little she was eating, though she doubted Denethor was fooled. He ate little himself, watching her and Boromir. When Ivrin came at the end of supper to take Boromir, Denethor told her that they would take care of him and dismissed her for the evening.

The house was very quiet. The usual cheerful sounds from downstairs – singing, conversation, pots rattling, things being moved – were all muted. Finduilas wondered if Beregar had come home yet and what he had said of the day. They went to Finduilas's room and gave their attention to Boromir until he became sleepy. He did not protest being washed and was soon asleep in Denethor's lap while Denethor sat in the rocking chair. Finduilas discarded her soiled clothes and wiped away all the things of the day that still clung to her and could be removed with a dampened cloth. She pulled on a robe and sat heavily in a chair across from Denethor, more tired than afraid.

'Alquallë?' She looked at Denethor. 'I have questions.'

'Ask.'

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 66, Speculation

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Late September, 2980 T.A.

Denethor stopped and laid the map upon the wall, pinning it to the flat stone with his elbows, and leaned out over the wall to look into the yards below. Each building and court on his map he compared to what he could see over the wall. The map was a tracing he had made of the property survey maps done in 2845 during the reign of Steward Belecthor. Every circle in the City had been measured, every house entered and its foundation examined, every property title evaluated. It had been repeated in all the cities, towns, villages, hamlets, and holdings in the kingdom. Mills and smithies had reported their production, landholders accounted their acres and animals, and shops produced ledgers on their sales. Even Ithilien had been surveyed, though it meant fighting Uruks. The plan for Henneth Annûn had been conceived at that time when the surveyors found a side passage leading down into the tunnel, though it would not be built until Turgon was High Warden.

Another year passed while ministers and clerks made sense of the mountains of measurements. At the end was a new set of taxes to pay for the wars the Steward in his wisdom had foreseen. Houses and holdings that stood empty, with no possible heir, had been made into King's Lands. The farmland could be leased for a tithing of the harvest. Houses and shops were sold, bestowed or kept by the Stewards as seemed wise. More than a few of Maiaberiel's followers had found themselves enriched through grants of title from the King's Lands. Denethor had set Hallas' youngest son, Minastan, the task of reviewing all such grants and finding any error with them. Sadly for the followers, a significant number of the grants appeared to have been tampered with after the Lord Steward had set his seal to them, and were being voided.

All summer, Denethor had investigated the King's Men, uncovering their weaknesses and undermining their strengths. The final purge of Maiaberiel's minions had been both swift and bloodless. After her departure, they had fallen to squabbling amongst themselves and no leader had emerged. With the help of his garrison captains, Denethor rooted out any King's Men who had not proved themselves to be good officers. Those who had been appointed magistrates, tax collectors, port and market masters, and other small roles were spied upon. If they had not performed their duties with honor, they were stripped of their positions or reassigned to remote and worthless posts.

As a result, many of Beruthiel's faction had paid a call upon the Stewards House, the men and their women, trying to flatter their way into the good graces of the Warden and the Lady. A few were allowed to succeed to encourage the rest to redouble their efforts rather than rebel. Some had packed up their households and departed for Pelargir or retreated to family lands in Anórien and western Gondor.

He looked at the map and frowned. A number of the houses on the map stood empty, some recently. The loss of enemies was for the good, but Minas Tirith had lost population beyond those numbers. It is not a bad thing, and many will come in for the winter. The defeat of Mordor and Umbar emboldened people to reclaim holdings along Anduin and in Anórien. At Baragund's recommendation, many garrison soldiers were sent home, though carefully to avoid notice. Khand and Harad had been fighting since the spring rains ended and it did not appear that they would cease until winter. It was best to use the men on the farms and in other trades while the days were long and the weather good. It reminded them of their good fortune and kept them from thinking about a missing captain.

What they could have done with this peace, he and Thorongil. We never thought of afterwards… His own heart turned traitor as Denethor thought this, wishing for Thorongil's return. He leaned on his elbows until the pressure from the stone made them hurt, distracting him from the betrayal. We did not speak because he had his own plans, to be shared with a wizard, not with me. The peace is mine to order as I please.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 67, Used

Chapter Text

The Great West Road, near the Firienwood, 10 August, 2981 T.A.

It could not have been more different. Only the dryness was the same.

A year and a half before to the day, she had been upon this road in the middle of winter, on a hurried ride to Thengel's funeral. To the north, frost-browned fields, rough and barren, had been replaced by a sea of gold, its whispering expanse interrupted only by the occasional rock wall or narrow lane that marked the end of one holding and the start of another. All the corn from all the fields of western Gondor could not equal the vast yield of the farms they had passed just today in Anórien. Finduilas had wondered at how so many granaries could still be full from the last summer's harvest, but now she understood. Denethor and Borondir had gone over the harvest estimates in late July, the Quartermaster ruefully saying that there were not enough places to store this superfluity of grain, and suggested that much should be sold or given to Rohan to make up for any shortfall they might have. Denethor had shaken his head.

'Let them ask for it,' he said, 'and exchange gold for gold.' A few days later, Denethor had several barges of grain loaded in Pelargir. They were sent without price or explanation to Umbar, where rumor said famine stalked the gutted city, and they went under Finduilas' banner. Imrahil had approved, if no one else.

To the south of the road, green trees dotted tawny hills where livestock grazed, the short grass a velvet drape on slopes that rose steeply towards the peaks of Ered Nimrais. Streams ran down the folds like wine spilled on cloth, the green of the folds adorning the hills with ropes of emerald.

Their winter march had been lonely, for it had been too cold and they had ridden too swiftly for people to come to see the Lady pass by. This time, they rode slowly, as much because of the size of their party as the wearing heat, and all of the country-folk came to cheer Finduilas as she passed. More than a few shouted "Huzzah for the Queen!" and they did not mean Morwen who rode at Finduilas's side. Almost every group before Minrimmon had some version of her banner proudly displayed.

After that town, the people were much fewer and the banner different. The Steward's edict of the previous year, that all who could should move east of Minrimmon, had been obeyed by many, but the folk of the far lands were stubborn and the population much mixed with the Rohirrim of Eastfold, so they were not so eager to part from their long-held farms. Also, a number of King's Men had removed to the western edge of the province to escape Denethor's harsh retribution for their opposition after Umbar, and they were not so pleased with the visitors. The banners were now more likely to be the badger on the golden field of Brandir's house than Finduilas's black wing. There were no white flags of the Stewards to be seen.

Of course, it could be fear, Finduilas thought, looking sideways at the rider to the far side of Morwen. Maiaberiel looked as beautiful as ever, and she spoke to Morwen as one ruler to another, belying her true status as a banished rebel. The town at the crossroads below Minrimmon had grown considerably, swelled by both Beruthiel's adherents and the existing residents who wanted the greater safety of a wall since the winter invasion. It was now larger than Edoras and almost as great as the cluster of villages that surrounded the garrison at the edge of the Drúadan Forest. Maiaberiel had made Minrimmon her court. They would not dare to show support for Denethor while she is watching.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 68, Hallowed

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Late September, 2981 T.A.

Denethor could not help but smile as he walked down the mountain, Boromir on his shoulders and Finduilas at his side. Aldwyn and Mírwen were chattering away just behind them, while Hunthor and Beregar brought up the rear. The City was about its business all around them, though none was so busy that he or she could not stop to bow or wave to the Lady as she passed. Her black wing was present even more than usual, just as Denethor intended. And soon, there will be no corner of Gondor that does not sport your favor, Alquallë. In Anórien, it took no effort at all. Aside from Maiaberiel's stronghold in Minrimmon, every village and farm already gave her their loyalty, remembering her perilous ride to raise the alarm and even more how she shared their danger in the retreat from the invading Orcs. The Pelennor was likewise eager to show its devotion, its inhabitants calling it the Queen's Garden.

The garrisons throughout the southern fiefs had been given instructions to show her flag prominently, and every soldier was given a coin on his payday to purchase ale for toasting the Lady. In taverns, spies would buy drink for strangers, saying they were moved to generosity for love of the Lady, and others would often follow suit. Village headmen were encouraged to rename their alms the Lady's Grace, and those who did found themselves rewarded with gold. Minstrels were sent out to sing Finduilas's praises. With another year of peace and plenty to celebrate, the kingdom was willing to let fade its memory of a certain mysterious captain and ascribe their good fortune to the blessings of their kind and beautiful Lady.

And how is that untrue? Denethor mused. Has she not brought joy to the hearts of all who know her? When have we lost a battle since she came to Minas Tirith? Have any harvests failed? Are there not more children born? Only the enemies of Gondor had reason to rue the last seven years. And even they will learn of your benevolence. Another shipment of grain had been sent to Umbar a few days after they had returned from Rohan. Cloth and olive oil had been sent as well. The barges had flown her banner and there had been a single message for the lords of Umbar – "The Lady's Grace is for all children." Marach was right. They will bow down to you, too.

But that was in the future and for now, Denethor was content to enjoy a splendid autumn day with his wife and son. They were on their way to the stables outside the Great Gate so Boromir could ride the pony Théoden had given him. It was a sweet-tempered and patient beast, calmly enduring Boromir's loud attentions without so much as a toss of his head or a stamp of his hoof. Finduilas had named the piebald gelding Boots for his black fetlocks and lower legs. Boromir had loved the pony the moment he laid eyes on him and insisted on visiting Boots every day.

Finduilas had insisted just as strongly that she would accompany Boromir on these trips. At first, Denethor had objected, disliking the idea of her going beyond the walls of the City, but changed his mind when he watched her. There was nothing weary or weak about her on these outings; she was as gay as her maids and only coughed a little. She seemed to like teaching Boromir how to ride the pony, talking to him and holding him more than she did in the Stewards House. Denethor did his best not to interrupt the two of them, wanting Finduilas's affection for her son to grow.

'Put me down, Papa!' Boromir commanded as soon as they passed through the Gate. Denethor swung Boromir around a few times before setting him down. With a quick kiss, Boromir turned and trotted over to Finduilas. They walked the rest of the way to the stables, hand in hand. Guardsmen and regular soldiers who were along the way, some training, some idling, called out and waved to the two as they passed. They bowed more formally to Denethor when he walked by. Aldwyn and Mírwen stopped at the archery yard, saying they would follow shortly, Hunthor following them. As had become routine on these mornings, Gethron just happened to be near the yard and had time to speak to Aldwyn about nothing in particular. Denethor frowned as he watched the two talking. He had no doubt that Gethron was a completely honorable man, but he was not noble, let alone a lord, and Aldwyn was the sister of a king.

Finduilas and Boromir had already taken Boots from his stall by the time Denethor caught up with them. Gull had let herself out of her stall and was waiting for them in the tack area. Finduilas did not ride when Boromir was on Boots, but Gull always accompanied them, enjoying the walk. Finduilas held Boromir up so he could brush the pony's back. Denethor groomed Gull while they finished with Boots. Boromir was a quick learner and already knew how to hold the pony's bridle so that Boots could slip his head into the headstall and also how to tighten the buckles just so. He proudly led his mount out the stable door, careful not to let the reins drag and walked to Beregar, who boosted Boromir onto the pony.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 69, Seeking

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, 28 January, 2982 T.A.

Finduilas sat behind her desk with a secretive smile on her face. The room was almost full. Brandir, Aeluin and Mírwen sat on the floor near the hearth keeping the children distracted. Dúlin and Hunthor were there with their little girl. Moraen and Aldwyn  talked around Imrahil, who was half-turned about in his seat asking Beregar something. Borondir stood with Denethor near the back of the room quietly discussing when another shipment of grain should be made to Umbar. Borthand was near the door, watching attentively in case he was needed for an errand. The door opened and in came Aiavalë and Lhûn, escorted by Gethron. After she greeted them, Finduilas clapped her hands for attention.

'Everyone, listen,' she said. 'I have decided that I am going to have an adventure.' The room was absolutely silent. 'I will sojourn in Dol Amroth for a long while this summer, but I wish to ride across Gondor for many weeks and see everything. Who of you will join me?'

The room erupted into babble as everyone tried to answer at once. Denethor waited a moment before letting loose a piercing whistle. Finduilas grinned at his exasperated expression. 'Pray tell, my lady, when are you leaving, what route are you taking, and when do you intend to return?'

'I leave on the first of March, dear lord, and shan't return until summer is near spent. As for my route, I wish to travel on roads I have yet to tread.'

'But you will come to Ethring, will you not?' Moraen begged.

'Yes, of course I will.'

'I am coming with you,' Brandir said.

'Me, too!' Aldwyn quickly added.

Imrahil waved his arm. 'I will attend for at least some of the journey if my dread lord, the High Warden, and his chief taskmaster, the Captain-General, will permit it.' He wore a grin identical to his sister's.

Very quickly it was decided that Aiavalë, Brandir, Moraen, Imrahil, Aldwyn, Mírwen, Beregar, Aeluin, Finiel, Boromir and Denethor would journey with her. Borondir wavered, but said he could not leave the City for so long if the Warden was also to be gone. Lhûn said she could not leave the Houses even for a month. Gethron had wished to go, but Denethor commanded him to stay, saying he must be available for Captain Baragund with himself and Imrahil away to the west. Hunthor and Dúlin sadly agreed that their daughter was too young for such a journey. 'And who else will watch the house, if Matron Aeluin is to go? Someone must be here to mind the pups,' Dúlin had pointed out. Borthand had not really been included, but he smiled and exchanged a wink with Imrahil. The talk soon turned to how many wagons they would need, what guardsmen would go with them, and which route they would take. Imrahil retrieved some maps from his room and they were laid out on the floor so the merits of this road or that could be debated.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 70, Sojourn

Chapter Text

Western Gondor north of the Green Hills, 2 May, 2982 T.A.

Their original plan had been to travel to Tarlang's Neck, then follow the Morthond south to its confluence with the Ringló and from there go to Edhellond. Lady Arluin and Lord Hirgon had pleaded with Denethor and Finduilas to return with them to Pinnath Gelin, and take the coastal road to Dol Amroth. 'Please, my lady,' Arluin entreated, 'the people of the western valleys so wish to see you and have you bless their farms and families. They will grieve if you do not look upon them!' So it was that they forded the Morthond just south of Erech and set out across the gentle rolling hills of western Gondor. Denethor said he thought it had as much to do with keeping Ivorwen in Imrahil's company as for love of their own, and Finduilas allowed as to how that might be true, but it made the other reasons no less valid.

Their pace was very slow, for Arluin did not exaggerate the desire of the country folk to see the Lady. Families from leagues north set up camps along the road, waiting for Finduilas to pass. They stopped at every one to grant the people their wish of speaking to her. When they came upon a village, there would be a celebration with music and minstrels and the best dishes the goodwives could prepare. Boromir made new friends every day and was almost as popular with the crowds as his mother. Denethor contented himself with the occasional serious conversation with a mayor or headman about bandits or taxes or the prospects of war. Just as they did in Minas Tirith, the guardsmen lent their strength and cheer to doing good deeds. At one stop, they helped raise a barn, at another, they rebuilt a stone wall for a widow, and so forth. Finduilas would not allow them to accept more than a mug of ale for their labor, telling the farmer or goodwife to do something kind to another less fortunate than themselves in the name of the Lady.

Finduilas had given Aldwyn King Théoden's letter the day after the betrothal. Afterwards, the girl had taken her horse out and had not returned until just after sundown. The set of her chin and shoulders made Denethor think of Queen Morwen, though her expression was more like to her father's thoughtful mien than to her mother's proud air.

'I do not know, friend,' Finduilas had answered when he questioned her, 'for Aldwyn will say nothing save that she is thinking upon her brother's letter. I let her know that you had received a letter, too, asking for her return.'

Some rain had fallen the first few days of their travel, but it had been fair for almost two weeks. As the pace was slow, they mostly walked. Finduilas never put saddle or bridle on Gull anymore, not wanting the mare to be burdened. If she wished to ride, all she had to do was call Gull and the mare would trot over and kneel down to allow Finduilas to mount. The sight of the Lady riding the glorious mare without strap or spur awed the country folk. Boromir taught Finiel to ride by having her sit behind him on Boots, Aeluin and Beregar walking to either side to make sure neither fell off. Halmir often walked next to Beregar. The two rarely spoke, but it seemed to Denethor that they took comfort in each other's company. It was not unusual in the evenings to see the two men, silent and stern, sitting together, each whittling something that would turn into a whistle or a small toy for one of the children. The only thing that made either smile was the children. Boromir had learned that Halmir knew many stories perfectly suited for a small boy to hear, of trolls and goblins and brave men, and could be coaxed to tell one while a small wooden figure took shape between calloused fingers and sharp blade. For Finiel, the Lost wove tales of beautiful and clever princesses who outwitted dragons and witches.

Ivorwen had been claimed by Moraen and Aldwyn for their forays into the surrounding countryside, for they found the pace to be too slow. Hirluin and Imrahil were their defenders, while Brandir and Aiavalë chaperoned. It pleased Denethor to see Brandir and Aiavalë so carefree, though he was somewhat mystified as to why they so enjoyed each other's company.

'That is easy to see,' Finduilas had said with a smirk. 'Lady Lore can speak of everything for hours on end, while my dear Fool can do the same with nothing, so they never run out of something to discuss.' Her smile faded. 'And they are alike. Both in love beyond the circles of the world, but without their loves until that time comes.'

The only drawback to the long journey was that Lord Hirgon was as dull as tarnished silver and had decided that only Denethor was noble enough for him to speak to. Being the chosen conversation partner of someone who had little to say and a great deal of time in which to say it encouraged Denethor to find reasons to always be riding off on Gaerhûl to inspect this or find out the truth of that. Hirgon was an indifferent horseman at best and was not comfortable around Gaerhûl, particularly after Denethor had Aldwyn repeat the story of the stallion's bloody youth, so he rarely accompanied Denethor.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 71, Havens

Chapter Text

Dol Amroth, 18 June, 2982 T.A.

'But it is not very far.' Aiavalë was being her most reasonable. 'I need your help with the boat.'

'I have not sailed in several years, sister.'

'I did last summer, and I remember how, but I can't do it myself.'

'I know where she means to go, my lord,' Beregar offered. 'It is the small isle in the bay. The truth is we could row there.'

'Please, Denethor?'

'This afternoon.' Aiavalë gave him a quick kiss and hurried off to tell Brandir. Denethor gave Beregar a stern look, which made his nephew smile. 'Do you remember how to sail?'

'Well enough, sir.'

'We'd best be prepared to row.'

'We'll sail and all will be well. You'll see! If you will excuse me, I must see to Aeluin.' Denethor grumbled under his breath and dismissed Beregar, who walked off whistling a jaunty tune. The party was not all the Hound had received for his birthday. Adrahil and Luinil had presented him with a pair of fine horses, a strong gelding for himself and a gentle palfrey for Aeluin. Beregar was teaching Aeluin to ride. Denethor had given Beregar lands on the Pelennor and in eastern Anórien not far from the Rammas. Finduilas had tried to give him a house in Minas Tirith, but he stubbornly refused. 'I am the Hound and Aeluin is your Matron. We must stay with you,' he had said, Aeluin vigorously agreeing with him. Aiavalë and Brandir had made promises of gold and silver to build Finiel's dower, while Imrahil provided tack for the horses and Moraen had given several bolts of beautiful cloth from the south. Boromir had presented Beregar with a seashell.

Denethor shook his head over the strange whims that had overtaken Aiavalë and went to his morning council with Adrahil. Substantial reports had come in from Minas Tirith the day before and it was time to plan for the coming autumn. Imrahil served as their scribe, though he had nearly as many good insights to offer as the Prince. The look of pride on Adrahil's face at his son's wisdom was unmistakable.

'Will Théoden send any Rohirrim this fall?' Adrahil asked. 'If you think there will be a late campaign by Khand, then we would do well to have Riders in south Ithilien.'

'No.'

'Why not, Denethor? Are they not allies?'

Denethor looked to Imrahil. 'Father, our kinsman Théoden is not yet full master of his lands. Until he is, and is seen as dealing with Gondor from a position of strength, ambitious men will seek to weaken him.'

'He is so weak he cannot send an éored?'

'Gondor, too, must secure her position, Prince,' Denethor said. 'This will be the first campaign since our illustrious captain scurried off with his tail between his legs.' Adrahil snorted at the description, though Imrahil's expression was troubled. 'We need to show that we do not need any outsiders to secure our borders, not even the Rohirrim.' The conversation moved to other concerns – trade, harvest, pirates – and Imrahil's strange mood passed. As they left the Prince, Imrahil caught Denethor's arm.

'Brother Denethor, I hear that you are in need of a sailor this afternoon.'

'Where did you hear that?'

'From Sir Hound. I have just the right man for you.'

'Who?'

'Me, of course! The tides around Goat Islet can be tricky and it would not do for you to run aground.' Imrahil clapped him on the shoulder and walked away backwards. 'I must see to a few things, but will meet you in the court after dinner.' With a wave, the young prince dashed off. Finduilas and Moraen were still holding their own council over the news from the City, examining Borondir's reports in great detail, while Boromir was off with Halmir riding Boots in the hills beyond the keep. Denethor went to the garrison to find his midday meal, talking to the guardsmen about their concerns. A few wished to remain in Dol Amroth to care for elderly parents or to wed a sweetheart. Denethor said they would have to find a replacement and seek the permission of the Lady, for they served her. After dinner, Denethor loitered in the court until Imrahil emerged from the keep, Lady Ivorwen on his arm.

'Alas, my lady,' he said charmingly when they drew close, 'I am promised to the Warden for the afternoon to speak of dull matters of rule.'

'That is most unkind of you, High Warden, to keep Prince Imrahil occupied with serious things all the day long,' Ivorwen mock-scolded. 'Have you not already had him all morning?' She leaned against Imrahil and gazed up at him with an enticing expression.

'And tomorrow as well,' Denethor said curtly. Beruthiel would love to have one like you about. 'Prince, if you will?' Without waiting for an answer, Denethor turned on his heel and strode from the keep.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 72, Due

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, 1 September, 2982 T.A.

The house was very quiet, the air warm and still in the early autumn afternoon. Moraen was upstairs napping. Boromir had gone to the Tower with Brandir to see his grandfather several hours ago and would return soon. Denethor and Imrahil had left not long afterwards, most likely to check on the garrison. Beregar had gone with them and Finduilas hoped they were all three sitting in the kitchen court of The Messengers Rest, sipping ale. She lazed on the couch in her study, considering whether to continue the pretense that she was tending to the Lady's business or surrender to the weariness of her long journey and retire to her bed. If only she did not have to climb a flight of stairs to get there, the bed easily would have won out. Last night, she had dropped off to sleep almost as quickly as Denethor after they made love.

She put a hand on her belly. It was the third day of the first six, when it was most likely she would conceive. Wren had said it worked at once for herself and Marlong. But perhaps it is not good, right after so much travel. Her hand strayed to her hip and then her ribs. I'm not fat enough. That's what Lhûn would say. In truth, she had not made up her mind on this matter until they had arrived and she had seen Ecthelion and Boromir together. All the babies. There had been so many children on their travels, and so many questions as to when she would bear her next child. Mother and Father both had hinted that they would not mind being grandparents again, Ivriniel had said that the minute Eärwen turned five, she and Angbor were having another, and then there was Aeluin's ecstatic news in Pelargir. All had made Finduilas wistful, particularly seeing the little girls, but the decision was made by the sight of the Steward. He was so old and looked as tired as she felt. Another child will secure his heart at the last and ensure his good will towards Denethor. It made her uncomfortable to think this way, but Maiaberiel was building up her strength, the coming season of war would make people remember Thorongil with fondness, and there must be no question when the Steward died who he intended to rule after him.

The thought of a second child was more appealing to her after the sojourn, too. For the first time, Boromir had been pleasant to be near and not merely bearable. She knew Denethor had been directing him for the first part of the trip, but the child's acts had seemed his own by the time they reached Dol Amroth. Boromir's refusal to be parted from her in Pelargir, even when tempted with the prospect of seeing his grandfather that much sooner, had pleased her greatly. Though you do need to learn to stay in your own bed, Morcollë.

Footsteps on the stair caught her attention. There was a light tap at the door and Mírwen poked her head in. 'My lady? Halmir brought Master Boromir back from the Tower and asks if he may have a word with you.'

Finduilas sat up, touching her hair to see how bedraggled it was. Not too bad. 'Yes, send them up.'

A few minutes later Boromir bounded into the room followed by the solemn Lost. Finduilas rose, holding out her hands. 'Halmir, thank you for bringing the cub back from his visit.'

A hint of a smile came and went from the Lost's face as he took her hands and bowed over them. 'I had concluded my business with the Lord Steward and he asked if I would bring Boromir back to you while he rested before his afternoon audience.'

'Denethor is not here and I am not certain when he will return.'

'I did not come here to speak to the High Warden, my lady.'

Finduilas motioned for him to sit across from her before the bare hearth. Boromir dragged his box of blocks from the corner and upended it before the seats. 'You came to speak to me, then.' Halmir nodded. 'On what?'

'To say farewell.'

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 73, Law

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, 25 September, 2982 T.A.

For the first time since spring, the morning air was chill, giving notice that summer was drawing to a close. It was time to prepare the City for yáviérë and the celebration of the harvest which, once again, was bountiful. Borondir was due late this morning to discuss preparations before trying to teach figures to his energetic young cousin.

Finduilas brought her empty tray downstairs to the kitchen and quickly submerged her dirty dishes into the wash tub, being careful to give the tea mug a swirl and a swipe to remove evidence of what it had held. Denethor had not only been ardent the last several days, he had drained her. She did not wish to say anything to dampen his heart or raise his concern, so she remained silent and waited until he left for the Tower with Boromir before mixing a half a mug of the tea. That would get her through the next week. Beregar and Aeluin also knew taking the draught meant something was not right, so she had to keep it hidden from them as well.

To keep Dúlin distracted from the mug, Finduilas asked the cook to tell her of the meals the woman had planned, what temptations she had located in the market that morning, and other things dear to the cook's heart. Nothing would do but to go into the cellar to see the rounds of cheese, the cured meats, the barrels of meal, the casks of oil and vinegar, the roots and gourds carefully stored for the coming winter, all the while dodging the ropes and hanks of dried herbs and fruits adorning every beam and post. Admiring Dúlin's treasure trove, Finduilas realized how long it had been since she had concerned herself with the ordering of the house. Not just during the sojourn, but for months, no, years before that, she had allowed these tasks to pass to Dúlin and Aeluin. She did not think her mother was so ignorant of the keep even as that was a far larger holding than this simple house.

Coming up the stairs from the cellar, Finduilas and Dúlin were just in time to see Boromir dash headlong from the courtyard door through the kitchen and into the hallway, making Damnir jump to the side or risk being run over. His feet pounded up the stairs to his room on the third floor. He should be attending the Steward. Dúlin commiserated with Damnir over the young master's impetuousness. Finduilas heard voices in the court and went to investigate.

Ecthelion and Hunthor stood near the gate to the lane talking about something, but they stopped and bowed to her when she approached. 'My Lord Steward,' she said pleasantly with a nod of her head in return, 'how good to see you this morning.' Finduilas gave him a swift embrace and kiss on the cheek. 'So you are the cause of the whirlwind that just ran through Mistress Dúlin's kitchen.'

The Steward laughed and bowed again with a flourish, though his motions were stiff. 'I confess to the crime, dear daughter. Boromir has something he wishes me to see and I told him to be quick about fetching it.'

'I thought he would be serving as your page during Tower business at this hour. Is your business already done?'

An odd look came to Ecthelion's face. 'Yes, I am through. If you will excuse us?' The last was said crisply to Hunthor, who bowed deeply and hastened into the kitchen. Ecthelion looked over his shoulder in the direction of the Tower, as though he could see its bulk through the walls of the intervening buildings. 'I am tired of listening to the same reports and arguments I have heard for thirty years. They would just make me doze off, so I am content to leave them for Denethor.' With a shrug, he looked at her again. 'I have come to an understanding with the Warden. Denethor prefers to be in command and I prefer to be with my grandson. It suits us both.'

Any other words were cut off by Boromir bursting through the kitchen door. 'Grandpa, here it is!' He skidded to a halt before them and held up the knife Halmir had given him.

Ecthelion took it and examined it closely, nodding as Boromir pointed out the finer points of the knife. 'And do you wear this, Morcollë?' he asked?

'He is too young to be carrying a weapon,' Finduilas said, knowing her tone was testy.

'He will soon be five. That is old enough,' Ecthelion countered. Finduilas opened her mouth to protest, but the Steward was quicker. 'Morcollë, has your father forbidden you to wear this?'

'No, Grandpa. He took it out and put it on the table near my bed and said I had to take good care of it.'

'You should not leave it lying about. Finduilas, I will be taking Boromir to the leatherworkers' alley to get a proper belt and probably a new sheath for his knife,' Ecthelion airily told her.

Finduilas knew when she had been outmaneuvered. Give him this. It is a small enough battle. 'Enjoy your day, and don't get into too much trouble! Take Hunthor with you to carry any bundles you may accumulate upon your way.' She called for the guardsman and asked him to attend the Steward and Boromir.

Boromir took his grandfather's hand with a smile. 'See, Grandpa, we can have adventures here.'

'Indeed we can, Grandson.'

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 74, Watch

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, 25 October, 2982 T.A.

The news of Lord Morvorin's death was a cause for much sorrow, for the exuberant lord had endeared himself to all who met him. Many came to the Stewards House to offer their condolences to Moraen until Finduilas forbade any more visitors. Moraen herself had been given the news by Denethor a few minutes after he had told Finduilas. The woman asked no questions and did not weep, but had spoken scarcely a dozen words since then. This morning, they stood on a dock in the Harlond waiting for the horses to be lowered to a barge bound for Pelargir. A boat was due to leave shortly thereafter to take mourners to the port city where they would form a funeral procession for Morvorin. They would travel to Linhir and then up to Ethring upon the roads the young lord had championed.

Finduilas stood on the dock with her arms around Moraen. She wished that she could go with her to Ethring, but could not risk traveling now. Borondir stood to Moraen's other side, his hand resting on the small of her back, fingers gently trying to rub the extreme tension from her frame. As soon as he had heard the news, he said he would go to Ethring. Ecthelion and Denethor both agreed that Borondir was a good choice to represent the Steward. Finduilas knew he would be a comfort to all three women so suddenly bereft – Moraen, Luinmir and Anna.

The animals were soon loaded and secured, and their barge was poled out into Anduin's current. A passenger boat was brought up to the docks, the dock hands efficiently tying it up and moving at once to store the travelers' packs. Also bound for Linhir was a small heavy chest holding coins, gems and ingots of gold and silver, wergild for Morvorin to Luinmir. Denethor finished speaking to the boat's captain and came over to Moraen, taking her hands. 'The vessel will leave soon and the captain has assured me the journey will be swift. The horses will be to Pelargir by morning.' Moraen nodded, not raising her eyes from the dark waters. 'Moraen, you are as dear as a daughter of my own house. Is there anything else you would have of me?'

'No. Thank you.'

Denethor kissed her brow and stepped out of the way. When it came time for passengers to board, the other nobles waited respectfully for Moraen to go first. Borondir went ahead and helped her down the ladder to the deck. Not long afterwards, the captain called out for the lines to be cast and the rowers to take their places. Finduilas waited until it went out of sight before sighing and turning away. Denethor kept an arm about her as they returned to the horses. It was a sedate walk back to the City, Gull placing her feet gently to avoid jostling her rider. Finduilas had told the mare that she was with child before they set out, and Gull had nuzzled her to assure her that no harm would come to her or the babe.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 75, Get

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, 3 January, 2983 T.A.

Finduilas took her seat at Ecthelion's right hand, as befit the one who would speak for Minas Tirith and the Pelennor. Aiavalë sat to the Steward's other side, taking Brandir's place to speak for Anórien. Maiaberiel would not consent for him to be in the capital over Yule without her, so he had sent his reports to Aiavalë. The most important news from Anórien could not be spoken in the Council. Hareth had reported that traders of ill repute frequented the Minrimmon markets. According to more reputable traders, Maiaberiel collected her own taxes from them, claiming that they were for the kingdom but failing to deliver them to Minas Tirith. Spies and garrison scouts reported that her followers drilled in arms and had formed a fighting force, but would not heed any summons to serve.

Denethor and Baragund sat across from each other, High Warden and Captain-General, at the mid-point of the long table. The Prince was at the foot with the rest of the lords ranged between them according to rank. Moraen sat between Denethor and Forlong, looking composed. Most of the men in the room were looking at her, some with pity, others with calculation.

Finduilas took a swift measure of the men sitting there. Forlong of Lossarnach had kinsmen, but no brother, son or nephew of marriageable age. Hirgon of Pinnath Gelin had kinsmen aplenty, but was too far and too weak to provide a good counter to Morthond. Duinmir himself must now be wishing he had a second son. She had met his close kin at the wedding last summer; quite aside from the fact that a marriage to Morthond was unthinkable, none of the men had enough stature to wed so well. Duinmir was jealous of rivals within his borders, too. Lord Angrist of Linhir had two nephews and a collection of cousins, all of them decent and honorable men according to Ivriniel. Her sister's letter had been unabashed in urging Finduilas to help Moraen to find her husband among them. There could be worse, Finduilas bleakly thought, him for example. Hallatan, the most powerful lord to emerge from the squabbles that followed Amlach's death in Umbar, noticed her gaze and smiled, bowing his head to her. No, not you, even were you not already wed. Lord Gundor was one of the few whose attentions to Moraen had been without guile, and not simply because he had no man of his house to offer. The modest falas lord was nearly as kind and decent as Brandir. Finduilas' eyes rested last upon her father, who smiled and winked at her. Imrahil? Finduilas sighed to herself and looked down at the report she had prepared for the council. Aside from the fact that he was not of marriageable age nor the slightest bit interested in a wife as of yet, she had seen no greater affection between them than she had between Moraen and Borondir. Finduilas suspected that one of the jewels of Langstrand would be his bride in a few years. They were sweet girls and that would bind both Langstrand and Linhir directly to Dol Amroth. Finduilas looked again at the Prince, who was joking with Baragund. Duinmir is not the only one who seeks to consolidate power by blood.

The Steward stood, having to place both hands on the table to help himself stand. Aiavalë put a hand on his back to steady him. His voice was clear, however, and he still wore the smile Violet had given him. 'Lords, ladies, captain and friends. We thank you for attending us this day. Though this last year was one of plenty, once again danger came to our borders and brought us grief.' He paused and looked at Moraen, bowing his head in honor of her loss. A murmur of condolences arose from the table as the rest bowed their heads to her as well. 'Let us take up our sober converse and determine how we may ward off sorrow in the coming year.' With that, he sat and gestured towards Lord Hirgon with the White Rod.

The western lord's report was short, which was good for it nearly put all to sleep. Hallatan was next. He was interesting to listen to, if only as a study of how to lie, evade and misstate. Finduilas wondered if there was a single honest lord in all of Pelargir. Moraen was next. Finduilas gave her what she hoped was an encouraging smile. 'The Lady of Ethring, Luinmir, bade me to present you this report,' Moraen began. Finduilas found herself having to swallow. The resemblance between Moraen and Morvorin had always been strong, but there was something in the set of her head and the tone of her voice that was eerily like her brother, reminding Finduilas of past Great Councils when Morvorin had spoken with pride about his lands. The Ringló Vale was more prosperous than ever, for Luinmir had brought her keen eye for accounts to Ethring, much improving on her husband's exuberant, but not always sensible, stewardship. Luinmir needs no second on that count. Borondir would be wasted there. The one topic that did not come up was Morvorin's death. After Moraen finished, there was a slight stir around the table and the lords glanced at each other. The Steward thanked her and gestured for Gundor to speak.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 76, Expectations

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, 2 July, 2983 T.A.

Finduilas smiled. 'He will do. Perhaps there are enough girls already in your house, and now is the time for boys. In any event, he is whole and strong, and I am tired.'

'Almost done, my lady,' Lhûn said, helping her women gather up their things, 'and then it will be quiet for you.'

Denethor knelt protectively next to the cot while the midwives removed the towels, rags, bags, and basins they had used, and dragged out the wash tub with its bloody contents. Finduilas paid no mind to the clatter, quickly dozing off. In a few minutes, they were alone. Denethor turned his attention to the small bundle in Finduilas' arms. Like his brother before him, the boy had a thick thatch of dark hair, but his face was not the same. Denethor kissed the baby's forehead and touched his nose to his son's. Not an hour old and already a disappointment to your mother. This is not an auspicious beginning, young man. The baby's face wrinkled as though he had heard the scolding. Let's see how like your brother you are. The afternoon was warm and the room was hot from the fire in the hearth, so there was no danger of the baby catching cold. Denethor worked loose the ends of the swaddling blanket, unwrapping his child. The babe was even leaner than Boromir had been, but scarcely less long. Denethor frowned in concern, hoping the leanness did not mean he was ill. No, Lhûn would have said if something was amiss. When he placed a finger into the boy's tiny hand, the child seized the finger powerfully, making Denethor smile. Slender but strong, like a sword. He slowly touched his son, learning about this new, miraculous being. Every finger and toe was counted, every joint bent and admired, every inch of tender skin kissed. You have remade the world, my son.

Done with his inspection, Denethor loosely rewrapped the babe and set him against Finduilas. Pulling the rocking chair near the cot, he sat and watched them, contented, and thought back over the last hour. The speed of this child's birth compared to Boromir's amazed him. It had been shocking and exhilarating to see the baby emerge from her. He knew he would have bruises on his shoulders where Finduilas had grasped him, not that he cared. To be the first to touch his child was worth ten times that discomfort. Now is the time for boys. That made him frown and touch the lanyard through his shirt. Now is the time for fate to unfold. That was not his thought. Denethor reached under the collar of the shirt to touch the cord directly. What do you mean? Silence. There was no need for an answer, as fate was apparent all around them. Sauron returned, the king revealed, the White Tree replanted, the Powers once more reaching out into the affairs of the mortal world. It was the end of an age and it would end as had all the ages before, in destruction. Brother will need brother.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 77, Suffice

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, 10 July, 2984 T.A.

'My lord?' Denethor's eye snapped open. It was an hour past midnight. There was a light tap on the bedroom door. 'My lord, it is Huan. Please wake.' He slipped out of bed carefully so as not to disturb Finduilas and hastened to the door, opening it a crack. Beregar had not brought a light and was but a deeper shadow in the dark room. 'There is a Tower servant downstairs,' the man murmured, 'who says the Steward is very ill and that you are needed.'

Denethor stepped out of Finduilas's bedroom, closing the door quietly behind him. 'I will be downstairs in a moment. Be sure the healers have been summoned.' This was the fourth time since early June that he had been called to the Tower because of the Steward's health. Each time, Warden Lhûn and Master Laanga had tended the Steward and staved off the worst. Ecthelion actually had seemed stronger since loëndë, coming out to greet the children for an hour at the festival, and then attending all of Faramir's first birthday celebration but a week past in his quarters, though he had spent most of it nodding off in his chair and had to be carried to bed once it was done. Denethor hastily pulled on his clothes, not bothering to light a candle, and went downstairs. The servant and Beregar stood in the entry hall. He brushed past them, striding to the Tower. 'You,' he said over his shoulder to the servant, 'how is the Steward?'

'I don't know, sir. Warden Hathol simply bade me to come get you at once and sent another for Warden Lhûn.'

There was a knot of servants clustered at the door of the Steward's quarters, speaking in hushed, anxious tones. Denethor shouldered through them, pushing them aside when they did not move quickly enough. In the bedchamber beyond the front room, Hathol and two more servants knelt next to Ecthelion where he lay sprawled upon the rug. One of the servants had his hands over his face and was weeping. It was difficult to see as there was only a single candle burning on a small table beside the bed.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 78, Steward

Chapter Text

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…

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 79, Queen

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Late December, 2984 T.A.

The cough grew neither better nor worse as winter gripped the City. Finduilas did her best to keep from coughing when Denethor or Boromir were near, for it made them scowl and fuss over her. Two weeks ago, Denethor had left the City with Captain Marlong and Beregar and had ridden to Osgiliath, returning the next day. The City buzzed with the news that the Lord Steward had left not just Minas Tirith, but the Pelennor, which no Steward had done since Cirion. Denethor was grim when he returned and even Boromir avoided his company. She was glad when her moon flux came and he had to be chaste, for his lovemaking had been fierce and left her exhausted.

Finduilas stood in Denethor's study, waiting for Aeluin and Aiavalë to get the children bundled up for the walk to Lark's house, and looked at the old map of the north hung upon the wall. Are you home yet? It was a long way, but he was a hardy and determined man. She had asked Haleth if any Southron traders had continued north instead of returning south, and was told that two caravans had gone to Rohan. You are among them. Who would pay any mind to a scruffy adventurer who decided to keep going when his companions turned back? More than once, she had been roused from sleep by a dream of the burning king coming up Anduin. Usually, the ships docked at the Harlond or among the ruins of Osgiliath, and he led a spectral army towards Mordor. Once, though, the ships did not halt, but continued north. Below her, the plain was covered with armies. If I had coughed, you would have paused, and I could have captured you. Upon such chance hangs fate. That thought made her shiver. She now knew how she could command his return. A letter to Ranger Fox would get to him, and in it would be a choice – without your healing, I shall perish.

'Alquallë, we have the children wrapped up, but they won't stay like this for long. We'd best go!' Aiavalë cheerfully called out from the front room.

'I'm coming! Get them moving along and I will follow.' Finduilas caught up with them before the tunnel and they had a loud and merry walk to the fifth circle. Violet greeted them at the door. When Lark went back to Pelargir after Ecthelion's interment to oversee the archives, Violet had stayed behind. Though he never spoke of Violet, asked after her, or tried to see her, Finduilas knew this pleased Denethor. In the weeks between the Steward's death and the burial, Denethor had presented Finduilas with a ledger of Ecthelion's wealth – all his lands, purses, rents, businesses and holdings – and had instructed her to create and distribute proper dowers to the bastard daughters. "All of them," he had commanded. With Aiavalë's help, Finduilas had even tracked down the families of the two daughters, Hareth and Miraen, who had died, and had given them their share. Wren had flatly rejected the dower from her father's estate, giving it all to the Lady's Grace instead. Finduilas set aside a comparable portion for Violet so that she need not work for Morwen any longer. Violet had accepted it with great reluctance and only after Finduilas had lied and said that Ecthelion had asked her to give this final gift to Violet so that she would not be kept from their grandchildren because of her association with Morwen.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 80, Exiles

Chapter Text

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.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 81, King

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Early June, 2986 T.A.

Denethor did not look north again or let his heart follow its desire. Thorongil was welcome to his wilds and wastes. The Stewards would care for Gondor as they always had, with no thought of the lost north. The spies and traders reported little to change Denethor's mind. Once past the Gap of Rohan, there was little to be known. Indeed, he had learned most of it already from questioning Thorongil and Mithrandir. There was a small settlement near the ruins of Tharbad, and a decent sized trading town, Bree, near an old crossroads. West of that were lands occupied by farmers, possibly a tribe of periannath. There were Dwarves to be found, and obviously some Elves, but nothing that sounded as substantial as the lands east of Mirkwood, where the dwarves held Erebor and men populated the dales, lake and plains nearby.

Instead of the north, Denethor looked upon Gondor. Every fourth day, he went to the palantír and looked upon this or that corner of the realm. The condition of the roads and the amount of traffic upon them, the bustle of the harbors, the health of herds, the cultivation of fields, the repair of buildings; all the ways in which Gondor shook off winter's slumber was known and tallied.

He spent several hours watching Maiaberiel in Minrimmon, gleaning little save that she was as unfaithful to Brandir as ever. Few were the times he did not see her in the company of one paramour or another. Denethor made note of them and anyone else whom he saw in her company, drawing sketches of their faces when he did not know their names. Haleth gave copies of the drawings to trusted traders who did business in Anórien and Rohan, and they would report back on what they could find out about these unknown characters. A number of them were Dunlendings or half-breeds, and a few had a look to them that Denethor could only describe as Orc-like. Once, he looked for her and found her sitting with Brandir in the library of their house. They sat upon a couch, and she was cradled against Brandir, her head upon his shoulder. They were speaking about something. What Denethor could not understand was the affection between them, the way they exchanged fond looks and tender touches, as though they were newly in love and not almost thirty years into their mockery of a marriage.

Also he looked east. That tested his strength. He could look north and eastward, along Anduin and towards the southern reaches of Mirkwood with relative ease. These lands still lay under Gondor's sway, if only because none else could claim them. There was little to be seen. Turning his eyes more easterly, he could gaze out across the southern reaches of the vast grasslands of Rhovanion that Gondor once claimed. It, too, was mostly empty, though there were small settlements near the eaves of the forest and bands of herdsmen dotting the plain. To keep looking east, however, meant looking across Mordor's territory. When he did, Denethor prepared himself before hand, studying maps to know where he would look and fixing in his mind what he wished to look for – settlements, travelers, armed forces on the march. Several times, he felt something pulling at him and thought he heard a voice bidding him to look directly east, towards the Dark Tower. When that happened, he would touch the lanyard with one hand and hold the drape in the other, ready to cast it over the stone should he weary and be trapped by the Enemy. He had to do this a few times at first, but soon held the stone securely. As his command of the palantír increased, he dared to look more closely at the borders of Mordor, looking for dangers that hid in the dark shadows of the mountains.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 82, Vinitharya

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, Early December, 2986 T.A.

It was good to have Moraen back in Minas Tirith. She, Imrahil and Aiavalë had returned to the City in early November, not long after Finduilas had been released from the Houses. While the boys rejoiced over their boisterous Auntie Monster and mischievous Uncle Imrahil, Finduilas was grateful for Moraen's quiet, gentle presence. The Lady's Grace had suffered greatly since September and was in dire need of attention. Moraen had looked over the records, visited the Lady's Houses, and set about putting things to right. Finduilas watched her sister-in-law work and tried to let grief go. She could not yet bear to look upon the ledgers, for it reminded her of Wren and how they and Borondir had crafted the Lady's Grace ten years before.

How did it come to this? Finduilas blew on the steaming mug of tea in her hands, hoping for Moraen to arrive soon and distract her from wandering this grey, barren path. Every time she thought she had found a start to the steps that led to Denethor kneeling before her, begging for punishment and release, another one would appear, leading further into the past. If Brandir had kept Maiaberiel from her intrigues. If Thorongil had refused friendship with the woman. If Ecthelion had not played his children off against each other. If the bastard daughters had been forbidden to her. If a different bastard daughter had been given to her. Too many steps. There were places along the way where the path could have strayed in another direction. So many crimes averted. There were many paths that crossed, each one a possibility. Or this path ended sooner, with less grief. She closed her eyes and cursed herself for letting that thought into her mind. That is what should never have happened, soon or late, and there was no way to speak of it.

It had changed Denethor, just as Thorongil's flight had done, save in a worse way. He was like Huan after Eilenach. Until now, Denethor had been the one wronged and who had acted with forbearance. He had to. She would have killed us all. But it did not need to have been his hand. As with Malantur, he could have… She sipped her tea, knowing he would not have left it to someone else. Malantur was like Elatan and Hallatan, merely a traitor to be executed. This was his own honor, lost either way. Now they were left waiting for the backlash of cruelty that always followed upon the heels of his times of helplessness to make itself known, treating others about him as savagely as he had treated his own soul. It had been held in abeyance because of her illness and then waiting for the cleansing of Anórien to run its course. Something else was hanging over Denethor, but she could not figure out what. She knew he looked often into the palantír and that it left him grim. He had not come to her bed since she returned from the Houses.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 83, Lost

Chapter Text

Osgiliath, Early May, 2988 T.A.

Imrahil regarded the garrison courtyard dourly. Denethor watched him carefully while giving only half a mind to Anbar's greetings. Marlong could deal with his fellow captain. Imrahil's nostrils flared and whatever scent he picked up in the air made him scowl all the more. Denethor turned to the captains. 'Send Galdor to talk to me,' he said curtly and walked away, motioning for Imrahil to follow. They climbed the stair to the top of the eastern wall. Every year, Denethor could see more of the ruins had disappeared. What remained resembled fangs upthrust from Anduin, edges honed by the touch of Dragon Fire. The eastern breeze still smelled of dead things, though perhaps the smell was from the Vale. They were soon joined by the surgeon. He was a little more weathered, a little more grey but no less blunt in his opinions.

'It's worse.' Galdor motioned with his chin over the river. 'The stink is stronger and fogs come more often.' He leaned against the wall and glared at the green hills. 'They have different poisons on their blades and spears. Deadlier. When the men are wounded, we have to cut more flesh away to be rid of the polluted parts.'

'Have you sent samples of the poison to Warden Lhûn?'

'Aye. The black apothecary, Master Laanga, he has sent some potions and pastes that work well, but they make new poisons. We lose men before we know what it is.'

Denethor spoke a while longer with the surgeon on more mundane matters before dismissing the man. Anbar and Marlong had withdrawn to the council room to go over ledgers and tactics, knowing that Denethor would join them when it pleased him. He did not think it would please him at all on this visit. Instead, he walked about the garrison, inspecting things. It was in excellent shape. I should have moved you here sooner, Captain. In the eight years of his command in Osgiliath, Anbar had become a bolder and more decisive officer. We will need that. Denethor led Imrahil to the top of the western wall. The Pelennor lay before him, a coverlet composed of every shade of green one could imagine, lying across the lap of the White City. There would be no respite from now until… Until what? There was no "until" as long as the Enemy sat in his Dark Tower and plotted their destruction. It was forever.

Imrahil leaned against the wall, studying the lands closer to the river, often glancing over his shoulder to the east. His fingers drummed the stone. Denethor waited patiently. His brother-in-law's counsels were worth more than men twice his age. After a few minutes, the young prince shook his head and straightened. 'It is not enough.'

'What?'

'The river. The garrison.' Imrahil crossed his arms and stared glumly at the eastern wall of mountains. 'I know the incursions of the last few years have not been as bad as those thirteen years ago, but we have not won anything greater for ourselves.' He gave Denethor a sideways glance. 'Not even Umbar.'

'No, we have not. At best, some breathing room.' Nothing is enough, for we have not the power to combat him. 'How do you think we should keep breathing?'

'Do not rely on the river so much as a defense. It can be crossed, even if we take down the bridge.'

'And in place of Anduin…?'

'That.' He pointed to the Rammas. 'It was vital when Osgiliath was seized in the Kin-strife. Aldamir held off Castamir with it, and kept Anórien from falling.'

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 84, Fall

Chapter Text

Minas Tirith, 12 November, 2988

'I will not go to the Houses again. This is my house. I will not leave you here.' That was what Finduilas had said after she had returned home last month. She had been made to stay a week in the Houses after she had coughed up blood, and had disliked all of it. Her ire had even extended to Warden Lhûn. Only Master Laanga and his bags of steeping herbs were welcome in her room.

When she returned to the Stewards House, Finduilas became more cheerful, though she did not leave the third floor, not even to go to her study. Her days were spent resting and being amused by the children. She had them tell her stories, build and destroy towers with their blocks, put on plays with their dolls, and report every one of their adventures. Denethor was reluctant to leave her while she was still weak, but did not wish to disturb her rest with people tramping in and out on Tower business, so compromised by starting his work early, while she was still sleeping, and returning to the house at midday. Finduilas always wished to know how the realm fared. Just like the children, Denethor provided her with reports. At night, he held her in their bed and tried to will her his strength.

He was speaking to Imrahil and Marlong in the council chamber about Pelargir when one of the guardsmen came in. 'My Lord Steward, Osgiliath has sent a signal flag message. Fumes are coming from Imlad Morgul.'

'Thank you. Report all new messages at once.' The man bowed and left. Imrahil and Marlong were already gathering their papers, preparing to go to the garrison. 'Warden, please see warnings are spread across the Pelennor and the Harlond so people may escape the poison. Captain, I think this may mean an attack.'

Marlong nodded. 'Yes, but north. I'll have Gethron reinforce Cair Andros. The éoreds should be put on alert, too. We may need them quickly along the road. The South won't stir now.'

'As you see fit.' Denethor dismissed them to attend to their tasks. Not long afterwards, Boromir came in, looking worried. Denethor immediately began gathering his work. 'Yes, Morcollë?'

'Mother forbade me to disturb you. She is not feeling well and is sitting in her room in the dark. Hollë is with her.'

Denethor found her in her rocking chair in the dim bedroom, Faramir sitting at her feet. Finduilas smiled when Denethor came in. 'Hollë has been singing me songs,' she said, 'all the ones he learned from Grandpa Prince when he was in Dol Amroth.' Denethor came to her side and took her hand. It felt cool. 'Hollë,' she said, 'would you and Morcollë go get me and Papa some tea? He will sit with me until you come back.'

As soon as the boys left, Denethor said, 'Vapors are coming from the Vale.'

'And he is watching,' she sighed. With a squeeze of his hand, she added, 'But he is less when you are with me. After the tea, we should sit in your study. Wear the lanyard.'

Denethor did not leave her after that, sitting at her feet for the rest of the day. Brandir and Violet came to the house in the late afternoon and stayed. Borondir brought Denethor the reports from the Pelennor and Osgiliath as they came in. The vapors were spreading quickly and Orc scouts had been seen near the mouth of the Vale. That night, Finduilas insisted that Denethor continue to wear the lanyard, even if it touched her.

*****

Read the rest of the chapter on Rómenna - Ch. 85, Demon