LotR fic: Courting the Lady, chapters 1-3 [Denethor/Finduilas, general]
Title: Courting the Lady Chapter 1, "Mettarë Night"; chapter 2, "A Yestarë Ride"; chapter 3, "On the Streets of Minas Tirith" Author: celandineb Fandom: LotR Characters: Aragorn [Thorongil], Denethor, Finduilas; also Imrahil, Adrahil, Ecthelion Rating: general Summary: How did Denethor ever end up married to Finduilas of Dol Amroth? Note: My first completed novel, which took me 18 months to finish.
1. Mettarë Night
He stood that evening next to his father Ecthelion at the great doors of Merethrond, the Hall of Feasts. As he had done for a score of years and more, saving only those times when duty had kept him in the field, Denethor smiled courteously and greeted each entering guest to the Steward's Feast.
Every mettarë night, the nobles of Gondor gathered here to celebrate the eve of midwinter and the last day of the year. The tradition had begun centuries before, as a way to encourage all the greater and lesser landholders to come to Minas Tirith once in the year. Though the season was chill, snow rarely fell this early save in the Ered Nimrais, and while they might not make the journey every year, many of the distant lords did enjoy the excuse to travel regularly to the capital. Most arrived early in the month of Ringarë and spent the weeks before mettarë meeting with the Steward and their fellow nobles. Their families, meanwhile, explored the city, searched for bargains at the tradesmen's stalls, danced and dined together; Ringarë was traditionally the month when betrothals were made between the sons and daughters of the great houses of Gondor. (1)
Indeed, the Steward had spoken to his son at the beginning of the season, reminding Denethor once again that it was time and past time that he marry.
"The House of Húrin must have an heir," Ecthelion had declared, fixing his son with a firm gaze. He had leaned back in his chair and rested his elbows on the carved arms, steepling his fingers in front of him.
"It has one. I am your heir," Denethor had replied stubbornly.
Ecthelion had dismissed that with a wave. "And after you? Your sisters are long wedded, but they have borne only daughters. You must marry, and soon. I wish to see a grandson before I die."
"Die? You?" Denethor had scoffed. "You are as tough as the hide of a mûmak, Father, and not like to die."
"Life is chancy, my son, and the staff of the Stewards is no lighter weight than the Wingèd Crown must have been – as you will one day learn," Ecthelion had said.
"Long may that day be in coming," Denethor had murmured politely.
"Indeed. But you seek to change the subject. I have given you many years, my son, to find your own bride, and you have not. Now must I command your obedience in this matter. You will marry, and soon. If you do not choose for yourself this winter, I will find a woman for you."
And there it stood. Denethor had no wish to explain to Ecthelion just why he had never sought a wife. As he continued to mouth the pleasantries appropriate to the occasion, bowing to or clasping hands with each guest, his mind drifted back to his twentieth year.
Lotheluin had been his eldest sister Sellas's closest friend, some six years his senior, and he had cherished a passion for her that none other had since inspired. She had the dark hair and fair skin common among those of Dúnadan blood, but remarkably blue eyes rather than the usual gray. Denethor had first noticed her at a riding-party; she chose to ride garbed like a lad, rather than wearing the divided skirts usual for young noblewomen. He had been greatly taken by the freedom with which she moved, so unlike most girls of his acquaintance. But he had not yet summoned the courage to tell her of his feelings when her betrothal to the heir of Ethring was announced and his hopes were dashed.
She was here tonight with Baran, of course. They had been among the first to arrive. He had seen her in passing over the years and she had never ceased to take his breath away, though she showed no sign of realizing her effect on him, being clearly content with her husband and children. Her presence at the earlier dinner-parties and dances of the season had held his attention nonetheless, so that despite Ecthelion's command, he had found himself scarcely able to look at other women.
I wonder, had I but spoken all those years ago, might she not have been mine?
This evening his hand had trembled as he had lifted hers to his lips, but he had passed it off with a laugh and a quip about the chill of the air in the doorway
But to tell Ecthelion of his feelings would have made him weak in his own eyes. Therefore Denethor resigned himself to the inevitable: he would have to wed some woman, and Lotheluin was no longer free. He must take this last opportunity before Ecthelion would choose his bride for him; that would be humiliating indeed.
So although Denethor stood now with his father as he had done many times before, this year was different. Now he forced himself to attend closely to the sisters and daughters of each lord he greeted, evaluating them as suitable partners, rather than simply dismissing them from his thoughts as soon as they had passed.
"Good mettarë to you, Forlong," he greeted the lord of Lossarnach.
"And to you, lord Denethor. How fares the Captain of the White Tower?" came the rumbled reply.
"Well enough; glad to have the holiday to celebrate. And you and your family?" said Denethor courteously.
"We are all well, though not all present in Minas Tirith this year. You recall my wife Caradhwen, I am sure. Our son Derlong is now sailing with the fleet in the Bay of Belfalas, and could not obtain leave. But our daughter Elerrína comes tonight to the feast and will join the dancing for the first time," said Forlong.
Denethor took the girl's hand and bowed politely over it.
"Welcome, my lady," he said.
She giggled, and blushed, and looked back at Denethor as her parents shepherded her into the hall.
Not that one. He shuddered. She is far too young, and I have not the patience to rear a child bride.
He felt Ecthelion's gaze upon him and turned to the next guest.
"Duinhavel of Morthond, greetings. And your son Duinhir. How pleasant to see you both again. How fares it in the Blackroot Vale?"
"All is well there. My lady wife remains at home with our younger children this season. It seemed like to be rough traveling for a woman expecting, so I brought only my eldest lad," answered Duinhavel gravely.
"I am pleased that you felt able to make the journey, then. Good mettarë," said Denethor, and the men of Morthond continued on.
Next in line was one of Denethor's fellow captains. Dark-haired Thorongil was one of the few men the Steward's Heir had ever met who matched him in height; truth be told, the other man was a shade taller. They even resembled each other in appearance, with the set of eye and jaw that usually marked only the greatest kindreds of Númenórean descent, though Thorongil claimed no such connection. He had taken service bearing a recommendation from King Thengel of Rohan, and had quickly risen to lead his own troops in Ithilien across the Anduin River. Gondor still claimed the region. None of her folk had lived there, however, since the Enemy had returned to the fastness of Mordor just to the east nearly twenty years before.
Ecthelion thought highly of Thorongil's abilities as a leader of the Rangers in Ithilien, but Denethor was not so easily disposed to trust a man concerning whose history he knew nothing. Thorongil was notoriously tight-lipped about his past, saying only that he had grown up in the northlands before joining Thengel's éored.
A bastard, I make no doubt. But surely there can be no truth in the rumors that he is also my father's son? I know that my father has at times patronized the houses on Nightingale Street, but I did not think he did so before my mother's death – and Thorongil is my own age, near enough.
Denethor clenched fist against thigh, remembering his own single abortive visit to those houses. The lushly decorated rooms, the careful poses of the waiting women – though he knew they were meant to invite, he had instead been repelled, leaving in haste, thankful that he had tried the venture alone. At least there is no chance such rumors will ever attach to me. No. They cannot be true. As Steward to Heir, Father would have told me, warned me. Our resemblance is pure chance, the fellow is just some northerner, perhaps once an outlaw as well. But at least unlike some of the other captains of dubious birth, he has manners fit for these feasts, thought Denethor grudgingly as he gave the man a perfunctory greeting.
Thorongil appeared not to notice his chilly reception by Denethor. He spoke for a few moments to Ecthelion before bowing respectfully to both the Steward and his heir and disappearing into the increasingly crowded hall.
Denethor continued to meet and greet the guests, careful to personalize his remarks to each. Ecthelion had often reminded him that without the support of the lords great and small, the authority of the Stewards could scarce be maintained. Seeing that all felt themselves to be well-known and appreciated by the ruler helped to ensure their continued loyalty.
Half an hour later, the line was nearly at an end, much to Denethor's relief. He had had no time for the noon meal, with all the preparations to oversee, and the smells of roasted meats were beginning to make his stomach clench in anticipation. He glanced at the next family party, preparing to say one of the usual pleasantries, and thought for an instant that Lotheluin again stood before him.
"My lord," said Prince Adrahil of Dol Amroth to Ecthelion. (2) "May I present my son and heir, Imrahil."
The Steward inclined his head as the young man bowed. Denethor shook Imrahil's hand absentmindedly. He had eyes only for the young woman who stood by Adrahil's side.
"And of course I remember your daughter Finduilas," said Ecthelion gallantly. "Could your mother not join the rest of the family this year, my dear girl?"
She shook her head, and answered, "No, my lord, I fear she is unwell this season and was unable to make the journey."
Of course. Adrahil's daughter. How did I not see her before? Because you looked only at Lotheluin, Denethor. Well. She would serve, would she not? The daughter of Dol Amroth would be more than suitable as the bride of the Steward's Heir. His mind played with the ramifications of such an alliance even as Finduilas turned to him and curtsied gracefully.
"Good mettarë to you, lord Denethor," she said.
He recollected himself, speaking a few appropriate words and bowing, before the family moved on and he turned to receive the next person in line.
At last all the guests had entered, and the Steward gave the command to let the banquet begin. Normally Denethor enjoyed the feast, but despite his hunger on this night he ignored a plate of his favorite roasted quail as his eyes roamed along the tables set throughout the hall, searching until he saw Finduilas again.
She sat next to her young brother Imrahil among the other young folk and lesser lords halfway down the great room. Though on mettarë night considerations of rank were set aside, Denethor was surprised to see the Prince of Dol Amroth and his family seated so far from the high table. Finduilas leaned forward to hand a silver saltcellar to her father across the board, and he saw that the man seated on her other side was Captain Thorongil. He was speaking intently to Adrahil, and the latter nodded thoughtfully as he cut a slice of roast pork. Denethor could see him offer it in courtesy first to his daughter, who waved it away, and next to Thorongil, who evidently accepted. Adrahil carved another slice for himself and leaned forward to reply to Thorongil.
Nodding at the Prince's remarks, Thorongil then turned to Finduilas and spoke again; her head turned slightly to show her lovely profile clearly to Denethor as she laughed at Thorongil's remark.
Denethor felt a pang of apprehension, remembering his delay with Lotheluin. So Thorongil amuses her? I hope that is all. The man wins hearts all too easily – the men of his company, the other officers, even the Steward himself. May he not find the heart of Finduilas so quickly swayed. She has the look of a woman who knows her own mind, as Lotheluin did.
The rest of the meal passed in a haze, as he considered how he might follow his father's demand and pay court to the lady. He ate and conversed with the lords and princes seated at the high table, but afterward had no idea of what he might have eaten or said. He looked forward to the dancing that would follow the feast as he had never done before. Dancing had always seemed to him a foolish pastime, something to be mastered for the sake of courtesy to women. Now for the first time he was glad of his skill.
He would have liked to approach the girl during the meal and ask her to give him the first dance, but decorum forbade it. He would simply have to maneuver towards her through the crowd and hope to claim her hand for a dance before the evening was out.
As ill-chance would have it, Denethor was doomed to begin with Elerrína, Forlong's giggling daughter. He replied civilly but absently to her awkwardly flirtatious remarks, apologized for his clumsiness though it was she who trod on his foot, and relinquished her gratefully to young Duinhir of Morthond when the opening dance came to an end. He glanced around, but Finduilas was nowhere in sight. Reluctantly he turned to choose another partner and bowed to Eilinel, the widowed Lady of Tolfalas, leading her into the newly forming line.
As they danced, Eilinel chatted of the fish runs of the past year and other such local matters. The biggest excitement on the island, or so she said, had been her son's wedding at midsummer. He had been but a weakly child when her husband was drowned in a winter storm, and their folk had dreaded lest they lose their ruling family altogether.
"But he lived, and throve, and now is safe wedded and a babe expected already," she said cozily. Then she gave Denethor a wink. "And when can we hope to hear the same of you, my lord?"
Denethor cleared his throat. He had always rather liked Lady Eilinel – she was a third cousin on his mother's side, and he thought of her as an aunt – and so he did not take offense at the question. "Oh, perhaps sooner than you might think," he said, as lightly as he could.
"Ah," she said knowingly. "Some girl here tonight has caught your eye, I suppose. I hope not the one you danced with last. She is pretty enough, but she would never make a good Steward's helpmeet."
Denethor mumbled a negative. He had no wish to insult Forlong – it was not the man's fault that he had a foolish daughter – but he certainly did not want Eilinel that he had such poor taste in women.
"Well, I'll not press you to say who. I'll merely hope to find out at your wedding within the twelvemonth," she said, and swept a beautiful if slightly mocking curtsey as the dance ended.
He took the opportunity of a pause in the music to resume his duties as a host, hoping that he might also be able to find Finduilas in the crowd as he circulated and made certain that all present were having a pleasurable evening. He reached one end of the room and turned back to move along the other wall when he saw her.
She was dancing more gracefully than any other maiden in the room, as if the music of pipe and viol were in her made flesh. Compared with her even Lotheluin was awkward. It will be no hardship to dance with Finduilas, no, nor to pay her court. Denethor felt his own face break into a smile as he stepped forward, intending when the music stopped to ask her if he might have the pleasure of the next dance, but his expression became fixed as he noted the partner in whom she apparently found such delight: Thorongil.
Of course. A rival for command, why should I not expect him as a rival here as well? He dined with her, and now they dance together. But no matter. He can hardly have met her before this evening, and for all his successes on the field, he has no home or lands to offer any woman, as far as I or anyone has ever heard tell. And I am certain he would have too much pride to beg a place at his bride's table.
He shook his head slightly, and bowed.
"My lady Finduilas," he said. "If you have not already promised away the next dance, might I have the honor?"
Finduilas replied, breathless, "Why, certainly, my lord Denethor. I would be delighted."
She turned to her previous partner. "Thank you, Captain Thorongil, for a most enjoyable dance."
"My pleasure, lady. I hope we may repeat it soon." Thorongil bowed to Finduilas, bowed again to Denethor, and departed, making his way through the press towards the tables on which flagons of spiced wine and other refreshments stood waiting to slake the dancers' thirst.
Too bad Thorongil is too conscious of his responsibilities to overindulge in the wine. Denethor dismissed the thought as unworthy. Finduilas's station is far above such a man, and I would imagine she is wise enough to know it. No daughter of Dol Amroth could be unaware of the necessity of making a suitable alliance.
He was resolved not to waste this chance, and after they had exchanged a few commonplaces about the weather and the city, he asked, "May I see you tomorrow, lady?" He realized with mild astonishment that he was waiting anxiously for her reply.
His request surprised her, and a slight flush stained her pale cheek. The steps of the dance drew them apart just then, and when again they were close enough to speak, she answered, "I regret, my lord, that I have already promised to ride tomorrow afternoon with Captain Thorongil."
So he has beaten me twice already. I could wish that tomorrow were not yestarë, for he would not be able to find so many free hours were it not a holiday, thought Denethor a trifle grimly. But third time pays for all, they say.
He pressed, "The following day, perhaps?"
"Why, certainly, if you will. When may I expect to see you?"
Denethor thought quickly. Normally he was busy throughout the daylight hours, but if he worked on First Day instead of taking the holiday. . .
"An hour after noon, if that will suit you. I thought I might show you the city, if you would like and the weather holds fair?"
"That would be very much to my liking, sir," Finduilas said in her sweet voice. "I have visited Minas Tirith before, but I do not know the city well at all. I should enjoy having you show it to me. I thank you for the dance," she added, as the melody and their steps came to a halt.
Imrahil stood close, waiting to step out with his sister. He was younger than most of those present – the children had been taken away by their nursemaids after the meal – and shy about asking strange girls for a dance, it would seem.
Denethor felt himself curiously reluctant to part, taking Finduilas's slender hand and bowing over it. He raised his head to say, "Thank you. I have rarely had such a fine partner. I will come to your father's house two afternoons from now." He turned away, exulting in his success. How foolish I am, to be so happy over such a small thing. But where is the harm in it, after all?
For the rest of the night, Denethor wore a small and unaccustomed smile. Ecthelion noted it at once, and nodded to himself, but held his tongue until his son should speak.
The music and merriment in the Hall of Feasts lasted until the early morning hours, when slowly the celebrants trickled out into the chill night, mingling as they left the Citadel with the lesser folk of the city, who had held their own festivities that evening. High above in the sky, Menelvagor swung to the west, his sword gleaming through thin wisps of cloud. Denethor glanced out of his window as he prepared to retire, and gave the heavenly swordsman a friendly wave.
"Good mettarë to you," he murmured, then looked down, as if through the wall of the seventh circle he might see the town house of the Prince of Dol Amroth. "And to you also." The smile lingered on his lips as he drew the shutters closed and stepped to his bed.
(1) Mettarë was the last day of the year, a day of festival that fell outside the months. Ringarë was the last month of the year, equivalent to December. Yestarë, another festival day, was the first day of the calendar year.
(2) In point of fact, Adrahil was not yet the Prince of Dol Amroth at this time. His father Angelimir was still living, and survived until 2977. (HoMe, vol. 12.) For the purposes of this story, I postulate that Angelimir's health would have been failing, however, and that he had effectively retired so that Adrahil was ruler in fact if not in name. Thus for simplicity's sake I refer to Adrahil as the Prince.
2. A Yestarë Ride
Thorongil sat in the mess hall of the northern tower at noon, finishing a slice of spice cake. He braced himself for the inevitable question as Captain Gethron slid along the bench beside him.
"So, I hear you are going riding with the daughter of the Prince of Dol Amroth this afternoon, Thorongil. However did you manage that?" Gethron asked.
Thorongil sighed inwardly. A natural request to see the girl again, because he had enjoyed her company last night, and every guardhouse in the city was probably abuzz with the news. No way to stop the speculation now.
"I asked her," he said simply.
"But you know the Steward asks us to be present at the mettarë feast so that we can reassure the lords that we work hard to guard Gondor's borders, not to court their daughters. How did you even manage to sit by such a girl as that, much less dare to ask her to go riding? And why did she accept?" persisted Gethron.
"I dared because she seemed a pleasant girl and we were having an interesting conversation. I gave no thought to her rank, I assure you. We sat together by mere chance, because Prince Adrahil wished to speak to me and dining together was the most convenient way to do so. As to why she chose to accept the invitation, for the answer to that you will have to apply to the lady herself," responded Thorongil. He inclined his head dismissively and applied himself to the last of his meal.
I hope I will not be asked by yet another half-dozen officers why and how I have arranged to spend an afternoon with Finduilas of Dol Amroth! I hardly know myself why I did so – I should have known it would spark such undue interest. I suppose it is just that I felt a comfort in her presence such as I have not felt in many years, almost as if I were among my kin.
When he arrived at her family's town house in the sixth circle of the city shortly after the noon hour, Thorongil found Finduilas ready for their excursion. She was plainly dressed in a dark green riding habit, and had sensibly added a wide-brimmed hat to shield her eyes from the sun. The day being cool, she offered Thorongil a cup of warmed wine before they departed.
"I thank you, my lady, but I have just eaten," he refused. "But do not refrain from having a cup yourself on that account."
"Oh, I am warm enough, and am but new come from the day-meal myself," Finduilas smiled. "And you need not call me ‘my lady.' ‘Finduilas' is quite sufficient; we need not stand on any greater formality. Have you had a good yestarë thus far, Captain Thorongil?"
"If I am to call you ‘Finduilas,' you should call me simply ‘Thorongil.' I spent this morning about my duties, so that I could be free for the rest of the festival day. One of the hazards of authority, I fear – with it comes greater responsibility, as I am sure you know."
"Yes, my father can but rarely steal a few hours for himself. Mother, too. I understand perfectly, and am glad that you were able to arrange time to spend with me today," said Finduilas. "I am looking forward to our ride. Where had you thought to go?"
"Do you prefer to ride on the roads, or across the fields?" Thorongil inquired.
Finduilas thought only a moment. "Across the country."
"Good. A mile or two outside the city walls lie the meadows that were once held by the Kings of Gondor. These days it is the army that makes use of them, for pasturing its horses and for growing hay as well. I have ridden there before; there are some copses and a small stream or two to break the monotony of the fields. Would that suit you?" said Thorongil.
"Very well," she replied.
They walked out of the courtyard and along the winding road that led through the city and out the Great Gate.
"I do wish that one did not have to go halfway around the city to descend each level," Finduilas remarked after a time. "I can see that the slope is too steep for any direct roads upward, but surely this is excessive. Do you think that perhaps the merchants bribed the architects, to ensure more traffic past their stalls?"
Thorongil laughed. "I doubt it. Minas Anor was originally built simply for defensive purposes, and one would not wish to let the enemy have a straight path from gate to gate." His face took on a serious expression as they passed through the gate between the fourth and third levels, and he laid a gentle hand on the great pile of masonry. "The white walls of Minas Tirith are beautiful to behold, but she is rightly named the Tower of Guard. No enemy has ever yet entered her to take possession."
"I had never thought of that, though I suppose I should have," Finduilas confessed.
At the stables near the Great Gate, they waited while their horses were brought to them. Finduilas held the reins of her grey gelding as Thorongil's mount was led out. "That is a beautiful mare you have," she commented. "Where did you find her?"
"Baranë? She was a gift from King Thengel of Rohan when I departed to take up service in Gondor." Thorongil stroked the glossy brown neck. "He knew I would appreciate her and treat her well." (1)
They began to thread their way through the crowds around the Gate.
"I did not know you came from Rohan, Thorongil. You have a look of Gondor about you; I would not have guessed you to be one of the Rohirrim," said Finduilas.
"As to that, I was born in neither land, though rumor has placed my origins in both, I hear," he said dryly. I need not tell her that rumor has even called me a bastard son of Ecthelion himself. I look like enough to Denethor, to begin with, and no doubt the Steward's favor confirms the rumor for many. "Nay, my people have long lived in the north, and that is where I spent my youth. But when it came time for me to make my own way in the world, I chose to travel, to see new lands and learn of other peoples and other ways. Someday perhaps I will return to the land of my birth, but for now I am content to serve Gondor."
"Have you no family to miss you? I would surely grieve if my brother Imrahil went off to Rohan for many years and did not return," Finduilas said.
"My father died when I was but a babe. My mother has returned to her family, so she finds comfort there in my absence, I hope. And I have no sister to miss me fondly as your brother does," said Thorongil.
Finduilas reached out an impulsive hand towards her companion.
"Well, as you have no sister of your own, then shall we pretend that I am she?" She blushed. "Not that I mean to intrude myself into your family, but I find you almost as comfortable to talk to as Imrahil, and since you have no one in Gondor whom you can claim as kin, I thought you might wish for such."
Thorongil was taken aback by Finduilas's suggestion. "If you wish, lady," he said slowly.
Finduilas shook her finger at him in mock anger. "I have already said that you should call me by name. And if I am to be your adopted sister, even in play, it is silly for you to address me so formally."
"As you will, Finduilas." How odd, and how completely unexpected. I do not think I have so much charm as all that. Why would a woman like Finduilas judge me so quickly? Then again, did I not find her immediately comfortable to be with, too? So perhaps I should not be so surprised. He glanced at her, puzzled, but appreciative.
By now they had passed beyond the crowded environs of the Gate and mounted their horses. Finduilas looked inquiringly at Thorongil. "Do the fields of which you spoke lie to the north, east, or south? I am entirely in your hands for the direction we must take."
Thorongil gestured to the northeast. "Our path lies that way. On the main road for a mile or so further to the north, and then we will turn off."
"Good. I look forward to leaving this stony road behind, and the wagons that crowd it," Finduilas said.
"You would regret it more if this road had not been paved in stone," Thorongil pointed out. "The wains would be far slower, and the dust – mud in spring – far worse. Minas Tirith requires tens or hundreds of wagonloads of supplies daily to sustain her people, and much comes from the Pelennor itself, rather than from further afield."
"I know, I know." Finduilas waved his words airily away. "We have the same in Dol Amroth – but on a lesser scale, and with our harbor in the city, there is no great road needed for hauling goods brought by ship. I merely want to ride free, that is all."
"We're nearly there," Thorongil promised. "Our turn is just beyond the next rise."
Frost had turned most of the grass to dusty silver, though the occasional blade of green recalled the summer now long past. Likewise the chill of autumn had stripped the leaves from the trees that dotted the pasture. But the sun, though bright, did not beat fiercely enough at this season for either rider to think that shade was needed as they cantered down the lane.
Thorongil cast a judicious eye across the rock walls that marked the boundaries of the ancient fields, now become pasture for the breeding mares and studs of Gondor's army. Not as fine as Rohan's horses, but well enough. He sighed. Once the king's lands would have all been planted to grain to feed the city – now her people are diminished, and the herds graze ever closer to her walls.
He turned in through a gate into an untenanted meadow, and gestured his companion on with a flourish.
Finduilas drew in a deep breath. "This is far better than the city," she exclaimed, "if not so bracing as the winds off the sea. Have you been to the sea, Thorongil?"
"I have seen it," he said, "but have never spent long by its shores."
"Whereas I have never been long away," Finduilas laughed. "A fine thing for a sister and brother, no? I have heard it said that the grass of a meadow can recall the sea, rippling like the waves as the wind blows, but I confess I do not see it so. Do you? Perhaps it takes a landsman to see it."
"Not now, not at this time of the year. The grasses now are sere and dry, too sparse to give that effect. But in high summer when the seed is ripe – ah, then indeed can a meadow be an image of the sea, as the wind rustles along the grain. And the white umbels of wild carrot bring to mind the foam of the waves as they sway among the rippling green," said Thorongil. He nodded towards the north. "On the broad plains of Calenardhon, where Thengel rules, yes, I think even a shore-bird such as yourself might agree that the plains can look like broad waters, bright in the sunlight and tossing with the breeze."
"Why, Thorongil, I would not have expected you to have such a poetic turn. Do all Gondor's warriors look about them as if with the eyes of the Elves?" teased Finduilas.
Thorongil smiled. "Hardly, Finduilas. For many, for most, the fighting we must do limits our vision. We look at the land around us and think only of how it may be used, for a camp, or an ambush, or a skirmish. But I learned to see the lands about me – forest, hill, and plain – before ever I came to fight. And so I see them still."
"I hope that Imrahil may do the same," said Finduilas quietly. "He is to join one of the companies soon – I do not know which, nor where he may go, nor indeed just when. But I will miss him very greatly. I only hope that he will be able to write to me on occasion, so that I can imagine him walking and talking with me again. That will be a comfort."
Yes, the ties between siblings can be strong. That too have I seen – when my foster-brothers would return from errantry, and their sister greet them. No matter how often it happened, their delight in such reunion never lessened. Can such a bond ever be truly diminished or broken? Does it not become stronger the longer it endures? If so, that might bode me ill.
He replied to her, "Wherever Imrahil may be, he could write, certainly – the question would be how often he might be able to have his letters conveyed back to some town whence they could be sent to Dol Amroth. So I fear that how often you get news will depend entirely on where Imrahil happens to be stationed. You and he must be good friends as well as brother and sister, for you to worry so."
"We are; and with our mother unwell we rely on each other to keep our spirits up. But tell me somewhat of your duties, if you will," Finduilas requested. "I should like very much to know what sorts of things Imrahil might encounter."
So Thorongil described for her the lands of Ithilien east of the Anduin, where he had spent much of his service to Gondor. He told her of the camps the men made, often on forlorn homesteads where until only a score or two of years before people had still lived and hoped to keep their fields safe from the Enemy. "But when the Dark Lord returned to his ancient strongholds, he sent out more and more Orcs to harry the land, and finally all had to retreat west across the river. Now only we who serve as Rangers dwell in Ithilien, and those who farmed there for centuries have been forced to seek new places to earn their livings," he finished.
And the Stewards have let it happen. Not of their own will, I am sure, but still bit by bit the lands they have sworn to serve and protect diminish, and the people retreat.
Finduilas frowned. "Yes, I know of many families throughout Belfalas who came there from the east. But you have said little of the fighting that your company does. Tell me – I am not afraid to hear the truth."
Thorongil demurred at first, and when Finduilas insisted, he told about the raids and skirmishes in terms as general as he felt she would be willing to accept. He refrained from describing the miseries of wounds untreated, of cold and hunger, and of the despair that could come to even the strongest-hearted at times. Instead he spoke of how the Dark Lord's servants infested the lands between Anduin and Mordor.
"Orcs do not willingly plow or plant," he explained. "Since the last inhabitants fled, the hills and fields there have served only as a place for them to hunt and despoil. Though they have some woodcraft, and are wary, their love of destruction at times waxes the greater, and then they are easy for us to find and hunt – but at a cost. League by league, slowly, the Orcs ravage the land and push us back. We can only guess at the Enemy's motives – I would have expected greater numbers of the Men who are his allies to have appeared by now, to wrest the lands to more productive purposes. It is as well for Gondor that that has not yet happened, since the number of Rangers is few."
Finduilas shuddered slightly. "I know I asked you to tell me all this," she apologized, "but I find it more distressing than I had anticipated, to know something of what Imrahil will see. So. Let us now turn to some other subject. You spoke of the fields of Rohan with the tongue of a poet; you must have been acquainted with much verse in your younger days, in the north?"
Thorongil cocked his head at her. "From war to poetry in a single leap. Well, they are not so far apart, are they? Many of the great epics and lays describe ancient battles, after all. You guess aright, Finduilas, in my childhood I was taught by one who knew many verses of balladry as well as lore, and from whom I learned a great respect for the art. Was it the same for you?"
"I would not say that my teachers were so fond of poetry, but my parents were, especially my mother. It was at her knee that I first heard nearly every verse I now know," said Finduilas. "If you would like I could recite something for you."
"Certainly, it would be a pleasure," said Thorongil. "But we have been riding for long, and a-horseback is not the best way to enjoy speaking or hearing verse. Shall we sit by one of these trees and let the horses graze for a little while, or would you prefer to return to your father's house to recount your favorites?"
"Here is well enough," Finduilas replied.
They dismounted and found a spot where the grass was short and the ground dry. Thorongil leaned back against a convenient tree trunk, stretching his legs out before him. Finduilas preferred to sit cross-legged, choosing a patch of sunshine for her seat.
"What verses do you like best, Finduilas? Say me one, and then I will recite one for you," Thorongil requested.
"You speak the Elvish tongue, I hope? For my favorite is in that language, and though it has been rendered into Westron, I do not think that form conveys its full beauty," Finduilas said.
"Sindarin, or the High-Elven?" asked Thorongil cautiously. I would prefer not to admit knowing Quenya – even the loremasters among Men rarely read it. But I have heard that the folk of Dol Amroth speak the Grey-Elven often, and perhaps the high tongue is preserved there as well.
"Oh, Sindarin, of course."
Good, that is safe enough. Most of Gondor's nobles speak it – and if I am not one of them, exactly, still I serve as one of her captains and it will not seem to Finduilas remarkable that I should know that language. "I do know it, yes, though I have not had much occasion to speak it of late. What verses will you say?" Thorongil said.
"The lay of Nimrodel."
Finduilas composed herself, clasping her hands before her, and began the tale of the Elf-woman lost in the White Mountains, and of her lover Amroth who sprang from his ship to seek her and was also nevermore seen.
As Finduilas recited, Thorongil closed his eyes to concentrate on her words. Vagrant memory took him to a firelit hall, and another dark-haired maiden speaking the same lines. Evenstar. . . He wrenched his mind back to the present.
"A beautiful tale, is it not? But sad," said Finduilas, concluding. "One of Nimrodel's own attendants wed my many-times-great-grandfather, and their son was the first lord to rule Dol Amroth, soon after the Downfall."
Of course. I heard once that the Prince had Elvish blood, but I had forgotten. I should have realized it is of my past that Finduilas reminds me. My past – and where does my future lie?
"It is a tragic story, and your recitation beautifully done," Thorongil said. "Shall I tell you a poem now, in payment?"
Finduilas glanced at the sun, sinking in crimson splendor toward the western horizon. "We have not time, I fear, for you to do any verses justice," she said regretfully. "But I know," she added, brightening. "In place of a tale you can promise to write to me now and again. Even if Imrahil is not assigned to your company, hearing some news of the lands where my brother also fights would comfort me. And I would then have twice as many letters to look forward to. Come now, you cannot claim to be unable to wield pen as well as sword. A man who can speak in Elvish, and who must keep track of five score men or more at times, not to mention all their supplies, must have the ability to write the occasional missive."
Thorongil held up a hand to stop the rush of persuasive words. "If you desire this so much, Finduilas, I will write to you when I can. But do not expect to hear too often from either of your brothers, blood kin or newly adopted. I know I have little time to spare and I am sure Imrahil will find the same."
"I will endeavor to moderate my hopes, then. But I thank you for agreeing to write to me – it will set my mind more at ease." Finduilas rose and brushed a few stray leaves from her habit. "If you will help me back onto my horse, we had better ride back to Minas Tirith before the sun sets, or my father and brother – my other brother," she smiled, "will worry for me."
"And I have duties I must see to this evening, since I stole the afternoon to spend with you. I return across the river in a day or so," said Thorongil. "But it was time well spent."
After they had returned their horses to the stables and he had seen Finduilas to her father's door, begging excuse from dining with Adrahil and his family, Thorongil walked slowly back towards his quarters, thinking.
So, we are to be brother and sister? I do not know if that will prove good or ill, in the end. There is something very appealing about Finduilas – she has not the wisdom of long life, yet she may come to that in time. And friendship is not to be despised. Perhaps – someday – it may warm to something more. He exhaled deeply. What is the chance that I shall ever again see Undómiel? I cannot live alone to the end of my days – I have not the right to make that choice.
He passed out from the tunnel and walked through the Garden of the White Tree, pausing to gaze upon its withered branches. If there is no hope of new life there, should I not look elsewhere for it? Where does duty lead? How long can a love endure without sign of hope?
Setting his jaw, he moved on.
I do not wish to face the inquiries I am sure to get in the mess this evening; morning will be soon enough. I will just send the lad Rodnor for some bread and cheese to eat as I sort through the remainder of today's work.
As he passed the White Tower, Denethor emerged from the doorway. The Steward's Heir brushed past as if he could not even see the other man, though Thorongil spoke in greeting.
Now what could I have done to give offense? Thorongil watched Denethor walk away towards the armories. I have not even seen him today, and all seemed well yestereve. He shrugged and walked on, supposing all would be made clear soon enough.
Thorongil turned into his rooms, lighted a candle, and settled to his evening tasks. Determinedly he put from his mind both the sweet voice of Finduilas, and the yet lovelier voice that had dwelt so long in his memory.
3. On the Streets of Minas Tirith
None of her gowns seemed quite right to wear on the occasion of a walk around Minas Tirith. She had several dresses suitable for dances, suppers, and other such indoor events, but they were all of thin delicate material, and she would be chilly and uncomfortable on the stony streets, even with a cloak. Her riding habits, while warm, and sufficient for a private ride with a reputable captain, were not fine enough for a walk through the city in the company of the Steward's Heir. What to do? Finduilas bit her lip, momentarily stymied. Then she remembered that her mother had left some clothes in the city the last time the family had come to spend the holiday season there.
A quick search through the clothes-press in Nimíril's room yielded a soft and warm gown of wine-colored velvet, perfect for a winter walk. Luckily Finduilas was very nearly the same size as her mother, and no last-minute alterations were needed to make the dress fit well enough to wear. The servants who looked after the town house had aired all the garments before the family arrived, not knowing that Nimíril would not be visiting the city this year, so the gown was clean and pressed, smelling faintly of lavender. She added her own favorite collar of white lace to soften its stern lines, and was satisfied with the effect.
As long as I don't spill anything on myself at lunch! she thought, and decided to wait to change until after the meal.
Her father Adrahil was away this day, up in the Citadel consulting with the Steward, so she and Imrahil dined together.
"Tell me, sister, where is the lordly Denethor taking you today? Not going riding again, are you?" Imrahil asked.
"He suggested showing me around the city, if the weather was fine. And since it is, I expect that is what we will do," Finduilas answered.
"I suppose you will walk through all the dull neighborhoods, and see the Gate, and so on. You've seen all that before; sounds like a tedious afternoon. And he's old, too. Why did you accept the invitation, Finduilas?"
She had wondered that herself. It was certainly flattering to be asked by the heir to the Steward of Gondor if he might spend time with her, but Denethor was not the sort of man she had ever imagined wanting to keep company with; nor could she think that he would consider her seriously as a possible bride, given the difference in their ages. Adrahil had often commented favorably on his knowledge of lore beyond the usual for a captain or even one of the Stewards, though, and like other members of the house of Dol Amroth she had always placed a high value on learning. Not that Denethor had spoken aught out of the common way on mettarë night. Still, with her father's commendation, Finduilas was willing to give up an afternoon to him. While in Thorongil's company the day before she had seen much of Minas Tirith in passing, but Denethor would know the city far better; a few hours spent with him ought at least to prove more interesting than waiting at home to receive any chance visitor.
To Imrahil she simply said, "I do not wish to judge anyone without first knowing him. You are right, though, that what Denethor is likely to plan to show me in the city are all the places I already am familiar with. So – I will ask him to show me something else, and see what that may be."
Imrahil shrugged. "It is your choice, of course. But I am going to go riding with some friends today, and I doubt not but that my afternoon will be far more pleasant than yours!"
"Perhaps so," said Finduilas peaceably, and bent to finish her meal.
She was changed and ready well before Denethor arrived, later than he had said he would. His first words were an apology for his tardiness – the Council meeting had lasted longer than he had anticipated, or he would have found a reason to escape it altogether – and both speech and expression were so obviously sincere that Finduilas was touched despite her irritation with the delay. She smiled at him.
"You proposed to show me Minas Tirith, my lord," she said. "I have spent little time in the city, of course, but I have seen many of its common attractions. I should like to see places other than those."
Denethor looked slightly bemused by her request. "Are you sure, my lady? There are some parts of the city that are not entirely suitable for a woman of noble birth such as yourself."
"But I am no sheltered vine, to be protected from every bitter wind. With you as my escort, I am certain I will be safe enough, and I have no fear of seeing disagreeable things," she told him, putting from her mind her discomfort with some of what Thorongil had told her about Ithilien the previous day.
Although his expression indicated that he still doubted the propriety of Finduilas's suggestion, Denethor agreed to it. They set out on foot, walking down towards the lowest and largest level of the city. As they passed along the cobbled streets, Denethor explained that in the first and second circles dwelt many of the laborers and minor craftsmen whose toil helped to keep all of Minas Tirith functioning smoothly. At first the Steward's Heir outdistanced her frequently, his height and long stride causing him to set a swifter pace than she could decorously match. The third time that he had to check himself to allow her to catch up, he gave Finduilas an apologetic look and offered her his arm. It was tense when she took it, and she wondered if perhaps he was unused to walking with a companion to whom he might owe such a courtesy. They continued at a more moderate pace.
Finduilas was accustomed to governing any social situation in which she found herself, or at least being at ease in it, but in Denethor's company she found herself unexpectedly bashful. He suggested this meeting, she scolded herself. You have no cause to be uncomfortable in his presence. Moreover he looks almost like Thorongil, with whom you had no trouble conversing yesterday. Treat him as you did Thorongil, silly girl – smile, and speak. Nevertheless she seemed unable to meet the intense gaze from his grey eyes.
"I am not used to so great a city, and all built in stone. Dol Amroth is more open to the green lands about," she finally said, as they passed through the gate to the third level. "What is your favorite part of Minas Tirith, my lord?"
"Why, when I have only myself for company, I most like the parapets of the Citadel, from which one can see the whole city below. When I am in better company than mine own, I prefer whichever place in that city where my companions stand." A slight smile came over his face, and he looked down. "I would favor this spot at the moment, my lady."
She flushed. "You flatter me, my lord." But she did not really believe that his words were simple courtliness; he was not a man to speak unmeaning, and that set her to wondering again what his intentions could be.
As they passed into the bustle of the lowest level of the city, Denethor laid his free hand over hers where she held his arm and drew her closer so that they would not become separated by the crowd. Finduilas noted that he seemed less stiff than before, which pleased her, and she began also to feel more relaxed in his company. If I am awkward with the Steward's Heir, and I of a rank nearly his equal, perhaps he too feels similarly, that his position calls for a formality that he might not wish always to hold? She saw, though, that if he seemed not to mind their increased proximity, he continued to hold himself apart from other passers-by, as if there were some invisible shield that kept him in isolation. Perhaps it was the fineness of his dress that so marked him out, or his lordly bearing, but Denethor seemed accustomed to, even pleased with, this separation from others.
He guided her slowly through the narrow streets of the artisans' quarter, commenting as they passed some of the establishments with which he was especially familiar.
"Beleg, here, is the best armorer in the city," Denethor said, nodding to the laboring smith, who was stripped to the waist and sweating in the heat from his forge despite the coolness of the day. "I have often tried to convince him to work for the army, but he says that he prefers the freedom of his own workshop."
"Would not you, in his position?" asked Finduilas, pausing to look at a display of silver filigree in the next window. The woman inside – no doubt the wife of the craftsman – motioned to Finduilas to step into the shop, but she shook her head and walked on with Denethor. "I think I would choose to work for myself, and be able to say yea or nay as I pleased, rather than toil for another even for the highest of wages."
"Oh, I can see his reasons, right enough," admitted Denethor, "but we are chronically short of good smiths in the army, and armorers most among them. Though I cannot order Beleg to do as I should like, and as would benefit many, I may regret his decision, may I not? Now, here we are come to Potters' Row. I warn you that it can be even warmer here than among the smiths' forges, if they are firing the great kilns. But since the past two days have been festival, I think they will not be built up to a great heat again yet."
It was warm, but not uncomfortably so, and Finduilas enjoyed watching the skilled hands of the potters as they drew the clay on their wheels up into graceful shapes. The finished wares were decorated in patterns quite different from those popular in southern Gondor, and she thought that she would like, someday, to buy some of these.
"There are good clay deposits near the river," Denethor remarked. "I am told that the local earthenware is unusually sturdy."
Finduilas glanced at him. So practical, all the time it would seem. I wonder, does he ever think about anything, or do anything, simply for the enjoyment of it? She decided it would do no harm to ask. "But is it not more pleasant to look upon beautiful cups or bowls? Of course the more durable they are, the better for everyday use, but would you not be willing to take especial care of a more fragile piece if its lines pleased you greatly?" she inquired.
Denethor mulled over her question for a moment. "Yes, I would, I imagine. But I have rarely seen any artifact which would command my heart in that way."
Finduilas shrugged to herself, thinking, At least he admits to the possibility. Perhaps he is not quite as stern and reserved as he would wish to appear.
They moved on. One lane Denethor would not take, and when she queried him, he demurred that no well-bred woman would wish to know what occurred in the establishments on Nightingale Street. She realized that the women she saw lounging about the street must be those who had been forced to sell their own bodies to earn their keep. A sad state of affairs, but she was as glad not to travel that road. She wondered for an instant if Denethor himself had ever been there as a patron, and flushed at the impertinence of the thought.
It surprised her to learn that the scriveners occupied an entire block. Most of them took any commission that fell their way, but some specialized in a particular type of writing. Denethor led her into one of the shops, saying that since they were here, he hoped she would not mind if he spoke for a moment with the owner.
"Not at all," Finduilas said, and began to look at one of the several volumes that were on display. The lettering, she noted, was fine and even, and the illuminations carefully done. Clearly this scribe had great skill. She turned the leaves carefully and was delighted to see that one of the poems included was the lay of Nimrodel.
"Thank you for your patience," said Denethor, returning. "I have commissioned a history of Gondor to be written, you see, and was inquiring to see if Golasgil had yet completed the work so that Angrim could begin copying it. I am hoping to ensure that each of the great lords has his own copy, once all is complete. But it seems that the scholar is still at work, and as yet uncertain when he will be finished."
"That sounds a wise idea, my lord," said Finduilas. "My father certainly has some volumes that treat of the history of our own lands, but none, I think, that includes the complete history of the whole kingdom. He would be most grateful for such a gift, I know." She laid the book she had been examining aside with some reluctance. "Just a moment, if you will. I wish to inquire the price of this." The sum that Angrim named was more than Finduilas could manage on this visit to Minas Tirith, but she determined to save and see if she could purchase it next year.
"Was there something particular in that book that you liked?" asked Denethor as they left the shop. "Angrim is usually willing to accept commissions for smaller volumes, with fewer poems or tales included. There is no need to buy what you have no use for."
"Nearly everything in the volume I would like, but in particular one poem, which is my favorite." Finduilas laughed. "It is quite a coincidence, really. I recited it to Captain Thorongil yesterday; how odd that I should see it again today."
"Indeed," said Denethor in a remote tone. "A strange chance to be sure." She saw that his expression had become closed, but he drew her arm once again within his own, and looking intently at her, added, "Would you like to rest for a little, my lady Finduilas? There is a tavern not far, the Black Swan, that is respectable enough for you to sit and be refreshed there."
"That sounds a fine idea," Finduilas agreed.
The crowds had become thicker now, folk carrying out their errands while the sun was still well up. As Denethor led the way towards the tavern even the space that he seemed able to maintain around him was diminished, and Finduilas was jostled so that she nearly fell into him.
"I beg your pardon, my lord," she said.
"No matt. . ." he began to reply, then said sharply, "Did you not have on a collar?"
She reached up to her neck to find that the piece of lace had disappeared. She gazed at him, too shocked to speak. Someone put his hands on me, and I did not even notice.
"Stolen. I am sorry, my lady. I should not have brought you here."
"No, I asked you to," she managed to say.
"You have gone white. Here, here is the Black Swan; please sit down and let me get you something to drink." He waved a serving-girl over and ordered two cups of hot wine. When it was brought, steaming in its green-glazed cups, Denethor folded Finduilas's fingers around one and urged her to sip.
If she could have imagined apprehension on the face of the next Steward of Gondor, she would have thought she saw it then, but he only laid a gentle hand upon her other arm. "I fear there will be no way to find the thief," he said in quiet tones, so quiet she shivered. "Not in such a crowd."
"Naturally not," she said, the color returning to her face as she drank a little. "I am so sorry, my lord, I do not know what came over me. I should not have been so surprised that this could happen."
"As you said, you are not used to a large city, that is all. Though Dol Amroth is the largest in Belfalas, since it is your home it is not the same." He gave a crooked smile and continued, "But this is why I was astonished that you would wish to see these parts of town, you know. I did not doubt your fearlessness, only your caution."
Finduilas blushed and looked down, tracing her finger through a puddle on the table. "I know, my lord, my mother has often chided me for my lack of prudence. Though this event was rather less damaging to either mind or body than the time when I was trapped on a cliff for several hours while hunting birds' eggs because my brother had dared me to! There was a sudden rain squall, and I could not see to climb either up or down. Both Imrahil and I were in trouble after that escapade." She shook her head at the memory.
"Still, since you were in my company when it happened, I wish to make such amends as I can. May I buy you a replacement? The lacemakers' stalls are in the second level of the city, and we shall have to pass them by on our return," Denethor said.
To that Finduilas agreed. She spent some little time looking over what was available before choosing several collars that she found particularly attractive to try on. "You will have to help me, my lord," she told Denethor. "All three of these I like, so you choose which you think suits me the best."
He watched carefully as she held up first one, and then the others. The first had a floral motif, another was patterned with crescent moons and stars, and the third incorporated a complex geometric pattern. How he looks at the lace, as if a wrong decision would cause the walls of the city to come to ruin.
"If I must choose, lady, then I would choose the second," he said. "But to tell you true, I like the simplicity of your gown without any addition. Your beauty outshines them all, and a plain setting enhances the gem more than an ornate one."
A second compliment, one that sounds less rehearsed than the first he gave, she thought. And this is the dour Steward's Heir, against whom Imrahil warned me? She laughed lightly in response, and said, "Well, I will take the one with the stars, then, my lord. But to please you I will not wear it now."
Denethor's response to her very mild flirtation was as practical and straightforward as she might have expected, for he said, "Please, do not call me ‘my lord' any longer. I would have you speak my name."
"As you wish, my lord Denethor," Finduilas said playfully. She was not yet quite comfortable with the idea of calling him by simply his name with no title, nor was she ready to respond by asking him to reciprocate and use her name alone. He is too old to think of me as a woman to court, but I am too old to pretend to be a child with him. Taking the wrapped package that the woman handed to her, she said, "Shall we return, then?"
He nodded, reverting to his usual grave expression, and set a slower pace back through the gathering shadows. Once again he took her arm, a gesture that reassured her in the dusk after her misadventure and began to seem quite pleasant. Finduilas felt half-sorry that the evening had come on so soon, though the chill of the air made her glad to be returning to the light and warmth of her home. Upon reaching the house, Denethor inquired if the Prince were yet returned. It appeared he had not.
Denethor said to Finduilas, "I am sorry not to be able to speak to your father. Perhaps I will see him in the Citadel, but could you give him a message for me as well? Tell him that I would like to speak with him tomorrow, if that is convenient, or certainly before your family returns to the south."
"I will do so," promised Finduilas. She curtsied deeply. "Thank you, my lord Denethor, for a most enjoyable afternoon. That – mishap – was none of your fault, so please, do not hold yourself responsible. And your assistance in choosing a replacement collar was invaluable."
"You are most welcome, my lady. I look forward to our next meeting," and he bowed and departed.
Finduilas walked up to her room. She had had a rather better time than she had anticipated, and although she was sorry to have lost her favorite piece of lace, still, it was not that important a matter. Denethor had been companionable beyond her expectations, if nowhere near as comfortable as Imrahil or Thorongil. And she was pleased to have seen more of the city than she would have ever thought likely. But I think I will not walk the streets of Minas Tirith alone! was her reflection, as she began to change for dinner.