LotR fic: Courting the Lady, chapters 13-15 [Denethor/Finduilas, general]
Title: Courting the Lady Chapter 13, "The Courtyard of the White Tree"; chapter 14, "Confrontation"; chapter 15, "Answer" 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?
13. The Courtyard of the White Tree
The weather held warm – for the season – though there were hints of clouds to the northwest, and Finduilas hoped that they might bring a change in the air. Snow fell but seldom in the southern coastlands, and she delighted to see it – occasionally. She suspected that were she to live where snow was a winter constant, she would find it less appealing.
Last evening's dinner with Denethor had been more than pleasant, but she was still uncertain in her own mind about her decision. The better she knew the man, the more inclined she was to accept him, and yet – could she leave her father alone, to dwell in this stony northern city? I had better spend today making up my mind, since I told him that I would speak by mettarë. I know – I will go and walk around in the Citadel. If I wed Denethor, that will be my home.
She flung an old grey woolen cape around her shoulders, and was off.
Emerging from the tunnel into the seventh circle, Finduilas decided first to walk along the top of the walls and enjoy the view. The sun was bright in her eyes as she gazed across the city, seeing the farmlands and fields of the Pelennor in brown and tan patchwork beyond the outer walls. She could make out the sparkling thread of the Anduin in the distance, closest to the south and sweeping away north and east. She moved slowly along the walls, touching the heavy cold stonework here and there as she passed. Safety – yes, they ensure that. So why do I feel oppressed rather than reassured?
At length Finduilas reached one of the guard towers. She decided that she had had enough of walking along the parapets, and made her way down the steps and out into the broad space of the practice-ground. One of the guard units was drilling there, so she edged along the borders until she was safely out of the way. Where now? Her eyes fell on the King's House. Is that not where the archives are kept? The idea of seeing the history of Gondor in its records appealed to her. If they allow me in. At least I might be able to thank Golasgil in person for his excellent work.
The room where she entered was surprisingly warm. A fire blazed in a large hearth on the wall to her right, and she wondered why it was necessary on a day such as today. A young man came up to her.
"May I help you, madam? Are you looking for something?"
"I was hoping that I might find Golasgil here," she replied.
"Golasgil? I believe he is in one of the back rooms today. Shall I fetch him for you?"
"Could you take me to him instead?" Finduilas smiled winningly. "I have never been in the archives before and would enjoy seeing them."
The man hesitated. "It's quite dusty back there, you know. Disorderly. Not the place for a lady."
"That doesn't matter." She flapped the edge of her cloak at him, saying, "I am not garbed for a ball, as you see."
"Well – all right." He picked up a shielded lamp and beckoned Finduilas to follow.
As he led her through the maze of rooms with their towering shelves and stacks, he told her in a chatty fashion that his name was Ulbar and that he had been working in the archives for several years. "The difficult thing is the lack of organization," he confided. "I am hoping to convince the Master Archivist to let me undertake a revision of our entire system, to make it easier to find any given record when needed. Golasgil and I have discussed the possibilities on a number of occasions, in fact. I would like to make a catalogue, a list, of every item – that would be of immeasurable worth." His eyes shone with scholarly fervor.
They passed through a narrow doorway and between a pair of shelves that seemed to lean over them. "Golasgil?" Ulbar called. "Are you back here?"
"I am," came a voice that Finduilas could only think of as dusty. The man who emerged from the dim corner looked a few years older than Ulbar, his hair already beginning to recede. "What is it?"
"This lady wished to see you." Ulbar bowed to Finduilas. "Golasgil can show you the way out again, if you need." He vanished back around the shelves
"Thank you for your help," Finduilas called after him. "Master Golasgil – "
"Oh, I am no master," Golasgil said. "Only an under-archivist."
"Master I said, and master I meant," Finduilas contradicted him. "I have read your History of Gondor, sir, and wished to compliment you on your work."
Golasgil flushed. "Thank you, my lady. May I know whom I have the honor of addressing?"
"My apologies – I am Finduilas of Dol Amroth. Lord Denethor sent a copy of your book to my father, and when he had done reading it, I read it as well, to my very great pleasure. Since I was here in the city, I thought I would indulge myself by speaking to its author."
Bowing, Golasgil said, "I am delighted, my lady. I hope that I may expand on it someday; there is much I was unable to include, owing to the constraints of time. The Lord Denethor was most insistent that I finish quickly, but now that I am working here in the archives I have found a great deal of additional information that I regret not having had access to before. My interpretation of the reign of Ondoher and the events that led to the choice of Eärnil as successor in 1945 would have been quite different."
"Indeed? In what ways?"
"Well, doubtless you know that he was chosen primarily because he was the general who had defeated the Wainriders, though he had also a distant claim of blood through Telumehtar Umbardacil. But Arvedui of Arthedain laid claim to the kingship as well, being not only a descendant of Isildur but also the husband of Fíriel, Ondoher's only living child, and a number of the great lords supported Arvedui. But Gondor had lost the breed of noble bloods – and noble bloods arose anew after Eärnil's coronation, among them the lords of Anórien." (1) Golasgil sighed. "I rather wonder what would have happened if Arvedui had been given the throne and reunited Elendil's kingdom. For now that lineage is gone from Gondor, and the north too from all that I have read. Though the Stewards have ruled well," he added hastily, "the Kings were descendants of Elros himself, in bright Númenor that is lost. ‘Ill fares the land without a king,' so the saying goes. Perhaps we are misinformed and that House survives, but surely if it were so we would have heard it, even here. And yet – there have been prophecies that the royal line would never fail. What man can say is the truth of it?"
Finduilas was struck by his words. "Perhaps someday the king will return," she said. "I would like, sometime, to speak with you more about Gondor and her history – but now is not the day. I fear I am keeping you from your work. If you will show me the way out?"
She blinked in the sunlight as she came up the steps and into the courtyard once again. An interesting man, this Golasgil. No wonder that Denethor chose him to write that History for the lords. A glance at the sky told her that the morning grew late. And what shall I do now? It is yet too early for luncheon.
Across the grounds she saw the lords emerging from the Tower of Ecthelion, speaking together in knots and moving slowly in their different directions, but most down towards the passageway to the sixth circle. I am not in the mood for that much company. Finduilas eased back around the corner of the King's House, then walked briskly towards the Hall of Feasts where in a few days the mettarë celebrations would again be held. A glance in at the door showed this to be no safe refuge; a near-army of servants was at work cleaning the great hall in preparation. She noved on, circling the north side of the White Tower and coming into the Place of the Fountain.
Strolling the graveled paths, her eyes fixed on the barren Tree that dominated the garden, she startled at the sound of her name.
"Good morning, Finduilas."
Thorongil sat on a bench next to the Tower, below a row of windows with their shutters flung open to catch the warmth of the eastern sunshine. He, too, was gazing at the withered boughs. "What brings you here this morning?"
"Good morning, Thorongil." She gestured at the seat next to him. "May I?"
She settled herself, smoothing her skirts. "I was merely wandering around the Citadel, thinking. And you?"
"Ah, I was required to speak to the Council again this morning. Luckily for me it proved a short meeting. I have much else to do, but I cannot meet with the next man I must see until after the noon meal, so I decided to sit here and think in solitude. It seems that few wish to spend time in this garden."
"If you wish to be alone. . ." Finduilas made as if to rise, but Thorongil stopped her.
"No, please stay. To be interrupted by you is no disturbance." His expression, though, seemed to her to be withdrawn, even sorrowful.
"Do you find this season especially lonesome, so far from your family?" I should get him a gift for mettarë; I wonder what he might want, or need? She noticed his bare hands. Perhaps some fine leather riding gloves would be useful – it is not cold yet, but soon it will be, and he will be back in the wilds. Filing the thought away for later, she added aloud, "I am sure I would. I do."
"I do miss them more at this time of year," Thorongil admitted. "My foster-brothers used to take me out into the woods to gather greens to adorn our dwelling. Holly and bittersweet and boughs of spruce, we would collect, and twine them into garlands and wreaths. On mettarë we would go out just as dusk fell to see the stars appear. . ." his voice trailed off.
"That is not a custom I am familiar with," Finduilas said.
Thorongil looked over at her. "Oh, well, customs differ. That was one that my foster-father's family had long had; I do not know how common it is elsewhere."
"We always exchange a gift or two, on mettarë or yestarë or both." She sighed. "Last year I gave Imrahil a new pair of boots. I miss seeing him. We had not time to speak much of him the other evening at Lady Eilinel's reception, so tell me again how my brother fares in your company. What will your men do, out in Ithilien, to celebrate the season?"
"More or less what they do for loëndë at midsummer, which I am sure Imrahil must have described for you. Games and contests – though there are fewer in winter, since even if there is no snow there is likely to be rain, and muddy ground – those are the most popular, but story-telling and singing competitions as well, and a good deal of drinking." Thorongil chuckled. "And some dancing, too, though there are no beautiful women for partners."
"He should enjoy that, then," said Finduilas. "Im has always liked to dance. I taught him when he was very young, since I wanted someone with whom I could practice."
Thorongil smiled. "You practiced to good effect indeed, as I remember from two years past. I was rather sorry when Lord Denethor claimed you from me, that night." He paused, and continued in a different tone, "You wrote to me that he had asked you to wed him – have you yet answered him?"
"No, not yet. I cannot quite decide. There are many good reasons why I should accept him, of course, but I had never expected to make a decision so young. I only reached five-and-twenty this autumn, you know, and few women among the great families wed as early as that. Though I am not sorry that my father leaves me the choice, it is more difficult than I would have thought. Thorongil, my friend, my brother, what would you advise?"
"You wish for my advice? I hesitate to give any. There is a saying I often heard growing up, that ‘Nobody can give you wiser advice than yourself,' which was attributed in legend to Melian, Thingol's queen in Doriath. (2) And she was known for her wisdom. But I will discuss the situation with you, if you like." Thorongil looked at her gravely. "You say that there are good reasons to accept him, but you must also have reasons to decline, or you would have already made answer."
With that expression – almost stern – he looks so very much like Denethor. "Some of my hesitation is for my family's sake. My father has but just lost his wife – should I deprive him of the only child he still has present to comfort him, now that Imrahil is off in Ithilien? While of course I expect to wed someday, it seems unfitting to leave him so soon in his bereavement."
Finduilas looked up as the light dimmed for a moment, and saw clouds drifting across the sun. She pulled her cape more closely about her shoulders. "It would also mean leaving my home, and the sea, for the cold stone of these mountains. The coastlines invite those who dwell there to be warm and open like themselves – here in the hills, will men not be harsh and unyielding as the rocks amongst which they live? I dread to be entrapped here.
"Moreover," she continued, "I am uncertain that I would make a good Steward's Lady. Oh, I know how to manage a great household – my mother saw to that – but to be helpmeet to a kingdom is a very different task."
"Surely there is no comparison. Would you prefer, then, to be wife to some lesser man than the ruler of Gondor?" asked Thorongil, his eyes intent on hers.
"I do not know," Finduilas confessed. She fidgeted with the cuff of her sleeve. "It would doubtless make my choice easier, were Denethor not the Steward's Heir, with all that implies. Tell me, Thorongil, have you ever been in any such position? You are unmarried yourself, but have you never wished to wed?"
If Thorongil had looked less than cheerful before, now his expression of melancholy deepened, and his gaze became distant. "I have."
"From my perspective, rather the opposite of your present situation. Her father thought the lady too far above me."
Finduilas said, "But you are a great captain; surely he would not hold your lack of noble birth against you?"
"No, that was not all. He felt also that there was too great a disparity in our ages."
"Foolishness. What should that matter?" He cannot possibly be talking about me, can he? Surely if my father told me of Denethor's wish to court me, he would not have concealed it if Thorongil also sought my hand. He would have told me, if only to warn me of what reasons he had against such a match. "Was there no way you could change his mind?"
"We agreed that I must prove myself worthy before I could even speak to her of such matters; I do not know if the lady even returns my feelings."
"How could any woman not hold you in high esteem?" said Finduilas fondly. "You are worthy of the love of any woman I know." She leaned over to kiss his cheek. As she did so, from the corner of her eye she saw the shutters a few feet above their bench being drawn closed, now that the breeze had quickened and the shifting sun no longer carried its warmth to that side of the Tower. "Have you no hope?"
"At the moment, no." Thorongil nodded towards the White Tree. "That is why I came here to think. Is the Withered Tree a sign of decline, or is it a symbol of hope, that one day the king will come again?"
"I never thought of it in quite that fashion, but I would prefer to take it as a sign of hope," Finduilas replied. "Have you never spoken to the lady in question herself?"
"No, I have not, not of my love for her. I do not know if I will dare to say anything unless. . ." Thorongil broke off, but before Finduilas could speak he took her hand in his own. "You asked for my advice. If you still want it, I will repeat what I said in my last letter to you. Denethor is stern, certainly, at times, and he and I may not always agree, but he is a good man, an honorable one. There is no doubt in my mind that he loves you. That was clear enough at Eilinel's – I saw how his eyes followed you. You have not spoken of your feelings for him, and that is your privilege. But if you return his at all, I urge you to accept him."
(1) "Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods!" William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar. Act i, scene 2.
(2) I attribute this aphorism on advice to Melian, but in fact it originated with Cicero.
He looked down and saw his knuckles white, gripping the quill. Deliberately he laid it down on the blotter, stood, and went to draw the shutters closed before he leapt through and demanded an accounting from Thorongil then and there. Returning to the table where he had been going over the accounts of naval expenditures for the past year, Denethor carefully tamped the cork into the mouth of the ink bottle and began to put everything away. In his present mood, he would accomplish nothing, and it was nearly time for the noon meal in any case. Then he thought better of it. Were he to go to the Steward's Hall, he would very likely encounter Thorongil. Instead, he summoned a servant and asked for bread and cheese, figs, an apple, and some wine.
Pacing, he weighed what he had heard. It seemed indisputable that Thorongil aspired to an alliance with the House of Dol Amroth. I will not endure it, Denethor thought. Who is he, that he seeks to usurp my place in this as elsewhere? He has neither lineage nor fortune to offer – has he? The rumors of his parentage surely cannot be true, or the Steward would have spoken of it. Despite the favor that my father shows to Thorongil, he has never intimated close kinship. At least it would appear that the captain had not before spoken openly to Finduilas. He frowned. She has delayed, she has put me off. Could she have been hoping for Thorongil to speak before she responded to me? Recalling the evening before, he shook his head in rejection of the idea. And yet. . . But what can I do save wait for her reply?
Once his luncheon was brought, he ate almost without tasting it. He could not decide what would be best to do in the circumstances, and was thankful that it was not tonight that Forlong would give his ball. He feared he would have been unable to be civil. No, tonight was a small gathering of the hill-lords from the Ered Nimrais, and he could be certain that neither Thorongil nor Finduilas would be present.
The best thing he could do would be to keep himself busy in the meantime, but he knew that he would be unable to concentrate in this room. Instead, he determined to make a round of inspection; though he had inspected the White Guard only the day before, a surprise return might do them good, keep them from becoming lax. He went out of the Tower, going first along the walls of the Citadel, stopping at each guard post. His sharp eyes missed no detail, no flaw in appearance or laxity in posture. No words were needed. As Denethor passed on, each man was uncomfortably aware of the slightest spot of rust on his breastplate or tear in his surcoat, and resolved to strive harder to meet the necessary standard of perfection implied by his captain's gaze.
From his circuit of the walls he headed to the armories. By the time he reached the practice field, word had obviously spread of his coming, for the company was practicing with exceptional diligence and Denethor found almost nothing about which he could have made complaint. He watched for some time, and indulged in a bout with the lieutenant himself, pressing the man hard.
It was, as yet, only midafternoon, with several hours still of light. He wiped his brow, straightened his garments, and went down into the city to inspect the Watch and the guards at the gates. A comment or two, accompanied by the stern glance of the Steward's Heir, and Denethor could be certain that the sloppiness he saw would return no time soon.
When he was back in his own rooms changing his clothes for the evening, a knock sounded on his door.
Ecthelion entered, saying, "I hear that you performed some surprise inspections today, my son."
"I did," replied Denethor stiffly.
The Steward gestured at a chair. "May I sit?"
"I hear further that the outcome of your inspections was. . . not good, in most cases." Ecthelion tilted his head against the back of the chair, his gaze bright and intent.
"I simply require that they uphold a certain standard. One which will reflect appropriately the dignity of Gondor."
"A worthy goal," agreed Ecthelion, "and I am pleased that you were able to make that clear without resorting to discipline or threats. One must not be too harsh in such matters, or it will have the opposite effect to that intended. Is there some reason, though, that you felt the need to do this without consultation?"
Denethor looked in the mirror, adjusting his tunic, keeping his back to Ecthelion. "No reason," he said. "It had been long since they had had an inspection, that is all."
"I see. And what is your engagement this evening? Dining with Dol Amroth and his daughter?"
"No, sir, that was yesterday evening." Denethor frowned slightly. "Tonight I dine with the lords from the White Mountains."
"Ah, good. Remind them that though the Corsairs raid the south, their help and support too will be needed against our enemies. The center is secure only so long as the borders hold." Ecthelion braced his hands against the arms of the chair to stand up. "Enjoy your evening, Denethor."
"Thank you, Father."
In the event Denethor did enjoy it more than he would have expected. He knew most of the men well, and was able to turn the conversation to serious matters without offense – though the freely-flowing wine doubtless helped to smooth the way for him. At the end of the night he felt a grim glow of triumph that he had accomplished something for the good of Gondor that day.
Sleep came more readily than he had feared, and in the morning the heat of anger had cooled to sullen embers. He broke fast and went to the White Tower for the inevitable meeting of the Council. About half of the lords, including Thorongil, were already present when he arrived, and he chose a seat that would enable him to avoid looking at the captain. He hoped that today's discussions would again last only through the morning. The work he had left unfinished yesterday required attention; before Ecthelion decided how much could be spent on the coastal defenses next year, he would need to know this year's costs.
Scarcely had Ecthelion arrived and the Council begun to deliberate when a servant entered and spoke low to the Steward. It must be something of great import, to warrant an interruption of the Council.
"The lord Denethor will see to it," Ecthelion said, gesturing to his son.
Denethor pushed his chair back and followed the man out of the room. Waiting in an anteroom was a messenger come from Belfalas, bringing the hoped-for news of the Corsairs.
"Speak, man," said Denethor. "What word have you?"
"I bring a message from Vardil, steward to Prince Adrahil," the man said. "I was charged to give it to the Lord Steward Ecthelion."
"The Steward is in council. You may speak to me instead, and I will bring word to him," Denethor said.
"Vardil desired me to say that in his judgment, the Corsairs are at present only feeling out our defenses. The raids have not yet been extensive, but every coastal town has seen their fleet. He believes that they are preparing to attack in force, most probably in the late spring when they will not run the risk of the winter storms. Here," a sheaf of parchment was thrust into Denethor's hands. "All of the details – number of ships seen, when and where – he has written here, for the Steward and the Prince's use."
"Thank you. I will tell them immediately. Go down to the refectory and refresh yourself; I am sure that the Prince will wish to speak with you later." Denethor turned on his heel and left, unrolling the scroll and rapidly scanning its contents. It looks as if they are sending five-ship squads all along the coast. Doubtless when we get word from Anfalas it will be the same. This makes no sense; for years the Enemy has concentrated on Ithilien. He has outmaneuvered us, may his name be cursed.
The information, though expected, touched off a minor uproar in the Council when Denethor returned. Half of the lords – the inland half, thought Denethor with a touch of asperity, despite their words to me last night – were convinced that Vardil must be overestimating the threat; the rest wanted troops sent immediately to the south. The Council scribe, Galdor, now recovered although still wheezing occasionally, could scarcely keep up with their words as his quill flew over the parchment.
Denethor paid close and admiring attention as Ecthelion deftly calmed the room, eliciting more constructive comments and suggestions, assuring the lords that he would listen to the advice of all with due consideration before taking any decisions.
In the past, when the Corsairs threatened it could take decades to resolve the situation and drive them off for good. Or at least for generations, since now they return again. Whoever is chosen to command our defense is likely to remain in the south for years, far from Minas Tirith. For an instant Denethor considered the possibility of leading the army himself, but he doubted that Ecthelion would spare him. In any case, he had less experience in command of actual battles than many of the captains in Ithilien, though he had served stints on the frontier before. Even if it were certain that the conflict would result in an easy triumph for Gondor, he would not be the best choice for a leader, and he knew it, although part of him wished that he could be at hand for a victory.
Discussion of the situation continued through the rest of the morning, and Denethor privately felt some suggestions showed a lack of common sense, such as the notion that all of the coastal villages should raise walls for their protection. We have neither time nor funds for that, and the walls that a fishing village could build would scarcely hold off attacking Corsairs, unless those manning the walls had much better training in war than seems probable!
"If I might interject, my lords," he said, "I would recommend a gradual repositioning of our forces. The reports from Ithilien are excellent, and I believe that we could reduce the number of troops there by a quarter, perhaps even a third, if we are careful as to which companies they are drawn from. How much do you trust Vardil's judgment, Lord Adrahil?"
"He's not a man to panic, and overstate the situation," the prince responded. "I trust him implicitly."
"Then his assessment that the Corsairs will probably not raid in force until spring is likely to be accurate. If we move men slowly to the south over the next several months, our defenses will be strong than their present scouting would suggest to them, and we will have the advantage of surprise as well as numbers. Their strategy has traditionally been to bring the largest forces they can, and ravage our lands like locusts. We will need someone experienced in command on land, more than at sea," Denethor concluded.
"Good points, all," Ecthelion complimented him. "I am inclined to follow your suggestions. Had you anyone in particular in mind? Or do any of the rest of you have an idea for who might be best-suited to command our coastal defense?"
"Not at this time," said Denethor, and others around the table also shook their heads. The discussion continued, considering how Denethor's ideas might be implemented, and what alternatives should be considered.
In early afternoon Ecthelion looked around the room. Every man present had given his opinions, several more than once, and he dismissed the Council until the next day. Forlong, in particular, had looked anxious to leave – he took the threat more seriously than most of the inland lords, but he also wished to return home in preparation for the entertainment he was giving that evening.
Among those who lingered to say a few last words of advice was Thorongil. Denethor clenched his teeth and rose to intercept him before he could leave.
"Yes, my lord?" The dark head so like his own turned courteously.
"Would you have time to remain and speak with me for a few moments? I believe you know where my office is, on the first floor?"
"Certainly. I will meet you there shortly – I wished to speak to the Prince of Dol Amroth, but then I will be free to attend you."
Dol Amroth? But he cannot mean to speak of anything except the Corsairs, not here, not now.
Denethor's office was so arranged that he sat with his back to the eastern windows, thus facing across the dark wood of the table anyone who entered and crossed the wide stone floor. It was especially effective in the morning, when the sun made him a silhouette against the light, but served even at other times of day, as now. He leaned back in the heavy leather chair and waited.
When Thorongil entered, closing the door behind him, Denethor did not rise until the man was nearly to the table. He moved over to the hearth and added wood to the blaze.
"The weather has finally changed," he remarked.
"Yes," agreed Thorongil. "I would guess that a storm is on its way."
"I believe so, too." Denethor paused, clasping his hands behind his back and deliberately looking the man up and down. "You strike me as a man of ambition, Captain Thorongil – would you say that is so?"
"Only as ambitious as suits my station," said Thorongil, meeting Denethor's eyes squarely. "For my own honor and respect I cannot do less than I am capable of doing, however."
"I see. Given that station, would you be content to remain in Ithilien, captaining the rangers there, all your life? Would that suit your ideas of honor and respect, and achieve your hopes?"
"No, it would not." How can his eyes be so clear, yet I cannot read him?
"How then can you hope to become greater than you are? I see only two roads to success for a man such as yourself – through prowess in war, or a noble alliance with a woman of good family."
"Those are the traditional methods of advancement," agreed Thorongil.
"And which is to be yours?"
"I do not intend to raise myself through marriage; marriage for me would be a reward, rather than a means to an end. The merit in serving one's country and people is far greater, and more apt to bring esteem from those whose good opinion is worth having. If one yearned only for a soft living, a good marriage might be the preferable course, but it is not like to satisfy any man of true honor," Thorongil said.
"I'm afraid I cannot believe you, sir. Do you not love a lady of high family?" Thorongil's calmness was provoking, and Denethor bit off the words as he spoke.
"I do love such a one, yes."
He admits it freely! I knew he was capable of insolence, but this? "You love her," he repeated. "And are you not planning to woo her and wed her, if indeed you have not already begun to do so?"
"I should indeed wish to court that lady," said Thorongil, with a glint in his eye that Denethor found inscrutable, "but at this time it is not possible, I fear." He cocked his head, a mannerism that gave him an almost uncanny resemblance to Ecthelion, and added, "Finduilas's father is a great prince, and my lineage unknown. How could I pin my expectations on so improbable a match? My position in Gondor is not such as would allow me to reasonably seek her hand. Yours, however, is, my lord. Indeed I envy your luck, that you could ask the lady you desire to wed."
"Do you indeed?" said Denethor. I sense nothing insincere in his voice, but how then is what I heard yesterday to be explained?
As if he could hear Denethor's thoughts, Thorongil said, "I do. She told me of it herself, and asked my advice, as befitting the brother she thinks me." His face remained smooth, his voice calm. Denethor had to admire the man's control when he continued, "Of course I cannot speak for Finduilas, but I will tell you that I urged her to accept your offer. Believe me or not, as you choose, but I have realized that destiny must lead me down a different road than the one that leads to Belfalas."
Proud, he is, a nobody to speak of destiny in such terms! "And what do you imagine this destiny of yours to be?" Denethor asked, curiosity and disdain warring in his voice.
"I do not know, yet, though I hope it will be in Gondor," said Thorongil, "where the Enemy presses hardest against the realms of Men. I have seen his hand in Ithilien, and now his allies threaten the southern coasts. There is much to be done, to preserve this land from harm."
With a pang Denethor realized that the sincerity in Thorongil's voice was genuine. He loves Gondor more than he loves Finduilas. Do I? He cleared his throat. "I see. Thank you, Captain Thorongil, for explaining your feelings on this matter. But I believe your future may not fall out as you suppose. As you have said, a man of such ambition as yourself, with such laudable goals, will not be content to stand still. You came to Gondor from Rohan – have you not thought of returning? A man of your abilities would doubtless be welcomed back to Thengel's court."
"I have no plans to return to Rohan," said Thorongil. "For the moment my ambitions are better satisfied by remaining here, in Ecthelion's service, and Gondor's."
Denethor looked askance at him for that. Ecthelion's service, not the Steward's service. That, I will remember. I do not think I have ever met a man so contradictory, so hard to pin down, as Thorongil. With one breath he says that he has encouraged Finduilas to accept me – and why should he have done so? – and yet he says he loves her, and behind all is this will to success, to power. But that may be turned to our use, may it not? If he wishes to serve Gondor, perhaps his destiny will take him southward after all. Aloud, he said, "Your service has much to recommend it. But I should keep you from your duties no longer – I am certain you have matters to attend to yet today, as do I."
"So I have," said Thorongil, and bowed. "Until tonight, at Forlong's."
The hum of the crowd overlaid the sounds of the music coming from the far corner of the hall. Through the archway and the press of dancing figures beyond Finduilas caught glimpses of cittern, tambour, and pipes, and her foot tapped to the rhythm as she waited to greet Forlong and his family. Will Denethor be here yet? she wondered, having spent much of the past two days considering Thorongil's advice. I must see his face once more, to be certain.
Despite the cheerful music and the nearness of the midwinter celebrations, the mood in the room was somber. Finduilas knew why. Her father had told her of the news sent by Vardil about the Corsair-raids on the coast. There had evidently been some wrangling among the Council as to the best way in which to meet the threat, to judge by the coolness she noted between various persons here tonight.
She had scarcely stepped into the room before a slender, greying man was bowing over her hand and inquiring if she would care to dance. She could not immediately place him, but as the figure brought them close enough to converse he introduced himself as Baran of Ethring. Finduilas recalled the town, at a bridge on the River Ringló, on the road between Erech and Linhir. Not one of the larger lordships, but respectable.
"Have you been in Minas Tirith for long?" he asked.
"About a week," Finduilas replied. "And you, sir?"
"My family and I arrived only two days ago," Baran said. He glanced at her from the corner of his eye, the dance requiring them to face in the same direction. "My son Gelmir would be delighted to make your acquaintance."
Finduilas understood what remained unspoken: Baran was hinting at the possibility of a match between her and his son. I can scarcely tell him that I have already received a proposal from a greater man. She said politely, "I would be pleased to meet him, if you wish."
When the dance ended, Baran led her to the edge of the room and introduced his wife, Lotheluin, and their son Gelmir to her. Finduilas was startled by the woman's appearance. I could almost be looking into a mirror, save that her eyes are blue as the sky over the sea on a sunny day – and that she must be twenty or thirty years older than I am, perhaps a little more than Denethor's age. Gelmir seemed a personable young man of about Imrahil's age, or perhaps a year or two more. She mentioned Imrahil's present position in the Ithilien troops, and inquired if Gelmir had similar plans.
"I would be of little use there," he said ruefully.
Finduilas looked puzzled, and Gelmir gestured at his left leg.
"When I was just a boy, I took a fall from a tree and broke it very badly." He walked a few steps to show her, and she saw that he limped. "I can still walk, but not ride well and certainly not march all day or move silently in enemy territory. So I cannot join in defending Gondor, much to my dismay." His voice was resigned, accepting of what must be.
Lotheluin joined the conversation. "Do you ride, my dear?"
"Sometimes," Finduilas said. "I am fond of it, though I am not the most skilled of horsewomen."
Baran said proudly, "My wife was a great rider when she was your age. None of the men could keep up with her. She even outrode the lord Denethor once, when he was traveling through her father's holding."
"Was a great rider?" Lotheluin looked at her husband with a mixture of affection and exasperation. "I can still outride you any day, my dear."
"True enough," Baran admitted. "Is a great rider, then."
"I would be pleased if you would like to join me some morning," Lotheluin told Finduilas. "I often ride for an hour or two in the Pelennor."
"If I have the opportunity, I would enjoy that," Finduilas responded. I would like to know the circumstances of this race with Denethor, which sounds an interesting story. Perhaps I will find an occasion to ask about it sometime.
They continued chatting for several moments more before Finduilas was claimed by another partner and whirled off again into the patterns of the dance. An hour later, breathless and trying not to pant after a lively dance, she found Adrahil and stood by him for a chance of refuge.
"Have you seen the lord Denethor?" her father asked.
"No, I haven't. Why?"
"He was looking for you a little while ago. I believe he was hoping that you would dance with him tonight, my dear."
"I certainly intend to," said Finduilas quietly. "I would regret it if I did not." Her hand touched the lace at her neck. Tonight there are too many people here. . . but I can leave him encouraged. "Should you see him again, Father, please ask him to wait for me, if you would, and I will return here between dances."
She had no more than finished speaking when her friend Elerrína, Forlong's daughter, whirled up to them and claimed her attention, pulling her away from Adrahil with a laugh.
"You will never guess what has happened," Elerrína confided as soon as they were a discreet distance away.
"Doubtless not. What?"
"Duinhir asked me to dance, twice! You know, Duinhavel's son, from Morthond. Do you not think he is handsome?"
"Oh, certainly," said Finduilas absently. Which young man is he, now? Oh – that one, yes. "Very handsome." She knew from long experience that Elerrína could chatter for hours about this lad or that, whomever caught her fancy at a particular moment. What would she think if she knew I had a proposal from a man old enough to be my father? Laugh, I am sure. She would never value a man like Denethor – which is as well, since I cannot imagine her appealing to him, either.
"And," Elerrína added importantly, "Mother said that I was to consider carefully anyone who seemed to be paying attention to me. They are hoping to arrange a betrothal for me this season." She smoothed a hand over the blue embroidery that adorned her skirts.
"A betrothal?" Now Finduilas looked at her friend in surprise. "But you are only twenty-two, not yet of age."
Elerrína shrugged. "What does that matter, if I wish to marry?"
She would make an ill wife, yet – she is still a child in many ways. But I suppose there is no way to persuade her to wait, not if her parents think she should wed and are allowing, even encouraging, such a thing.
"But would you marry so young? I could see being betrothed, but I would not have wanted to wed at your age. There is no reason to hurry; you would be depriving yourself of several seasons of fun and flirtation," said Finduilas shrewdly.
"Well, that is so," Elerrína agreed. "And perhaps I will not. I thought you would be interested, however. Are you not beginning to think of marriage yourself? You are of age, there is nothing to hold you back. Is there not some young man who intrigues you? I saw you conversing with the family from Ethring – Gelmir is quite good-looking too. A shame he limps."
Goodness. She knows the name of every man here, I daresay. And has an opinion on each – based wholly on appearance, I do believe. Well, what else can one expect? With a slight chill in her voice, Finduilas said, "He does limp, but that does not detract from his character."
Elerrína ignored Finduilas's tone, and said, "Too bad that Tarondor of Tolfalas is already married. Though I think that Lady Eilinel would be a most fearsome mother-in-law, so perhaps it is just as well." She chattered on about several other scions of the great families, and it was with some relief that Finduilas saw Elerrína's brother Derlong approaching to ask for a dance. Elerrína had been a more interesting companion in their younger days; lately her single-minded interest in the lads had become rather tedious.
Derlong was no bad dancer, for a man who spent most of his time on board a ship. He told Finduilas that he had unexpectedly received leave this winter season, but that with the recent news, he was sure to be recalled soon to the southern fleet.
"Rumor has it that the Corsairs are most like to attack in the spring, but best to be prepared," he said heartily.
With that Finduilas could not but agree. Derlong made a few more remarks about the political situation – more interesting to Finduilas than his sister's conversation tonight, but nothing that showed any great insight or understanding of matters. Not surprising. He is still young, too, and being with the fleet will teach him much of ropes and sails, stars and tides, but little of men and their political maneuverings. When their dance came to an end, she made a polite curtsey and sought out her father again. Approaching him, she thought at first that he was speaking with Denethor, but as she drew nearer she realized that it was Thorongil who stood with him.
"My lady," Thorongil bowed formally over her hand. "Will you grant me the pleasure of a dance?"
She smiled at his manner. "I will, Captain Thorongil."
She had forgotten how well he danced, albeit with a slight – she could only think of it as an archaic feel to his movements, a hint of greater formality and antiquity than she was used to. Not that he ever misstepped; it was simply the way he held himself as he moved through the figures of the dance.
"Are you enjoying yourself?" she asked him.
"As much as I would expect," he said. "Forlong has not stinted in his hospitality tonight, and the music is excellent – when one can hear it. And you?"
He looked at her with a serious expression. "Have you spoken with the lord Denethor yet?"
"No, I have not. I have not yet seen him here tonight," Finduilas answered.
"Have you decided what you will say?" Thorongil spoke softly, not to be overheard, though he had chosen his words to be discreet.
"I have. But this is too public an occasion, would you not agree?"
"Perhaps. Then when?"
"On mettarë, I think." She paused as the dance took them apart. "I will ask if he will come see me then."
"Good," and in his voice was a wealth of relief that she did not understand.
They finished the dance in a silence that brought comfort, not care, and Thorongil fetched Finduilas a cup of wine when they had finished and again returned to where Adrahil stood. She thought of inquiring why he was so concerned that she give a reply to Denethor. But a crowded ballroom is no place for such a question, and I suppose he would not answer in any case. He would have said, had he wished me to know. Nor did he ask what my decision would be. . .
"You should dance, Father," Finduilas urged Adrahil, as the lady Eilinel passed near them. "Do not stay on the sidelines on my account, nor on Mother's – she would have preferred to have you enjoy yourself, you know."
"I know, Finduilas, but my heart would not be in it tonight. Perhaps on mettarë I will muster an inclination to do so." Adrahil glanced at Thorongil. "But if you would excuse us, I would like to speak with Captain Thorongil for a few moments."
"Of course," she said. They bowed and Adrahil led Thorongil out into the less densely crowded antechamber. Finduilas stood alone against the wall; it was the middle of a dance, and she was thankful for the chance to pause and rest. She closed her eyes to hear the music more clearly.
As the melody drew to an end, a man's voice intruded on her thoughts.
Denethor stood before her. She found it hard to read his expression.
"My lord Denethor, how pleasant to see you." The words were formal, but her mouth stretched wider than the socially appropriate half-smile.
"The pleasure is mine, my lady. Would you care to dance?"
"Very much." She set her goblet down on a tray carried by a passing servant, and took Denethor's arm.
The music should have warned them that this would be no sedate promenade. Excellent dancer though she was, Finduilas came near to stumbling from dizziness more than once as they twisted and turned, leapt and stepped – but somehow they came through triumphant, one of only four couples to remain standing at the end. Even Thorongil, she saw, had come to grief while dancing with the lady Lotheluin. Finduilas nearly threw her arms around Denethor in celebration, but dignity restrained her.
He looked as exhilarated as she felt herself, flushed and breathing hard. "Shall we see if there is more air in the other room?"
"Yes, please," she accepted. Cool air would be refreshing; she noted his thoughtfulness in suggesting it, as none of her previous partners had done.
In a corner, with few people close by, he began, "My lady. . ."
Finduilas was certain she knew what he intended to say, and spoke to forestall him. "Not now, lord Denethor."
"I did not mean to press you tonight," he said. "I only wished to ask if you would do me the very great honor of opening the dancing on mettarë. I believe I can promise that it will not be such a challenging one as that we just had. Would you?"
Controlled though his expression was, Finduilas could see hope in it, and a touch of wariness that she might refuse. "Of course I will. The honor is mine, sir."
"Thank you." Denethor smiled, looking more than ever like Thorongil as he relaxed. "I will see that you are seated at the high table that night – I hope you do not mind? Your father will be there, of course, and since your brother is not here. . ."
With a hint of flirtation, she said, "As long as I am near you, my lord, I should have no difficulty in accustoming myself to such exalted company."
He looked bemused for an instant, then realized that she was not speaking seriously, and his smile widened. "I would hope not," he agreed. "I will be sure that you are placed not far away, then." His eyes held hers, again filled with hope mingled with uncertainty.
No one stood near. She was so close that she could see the beads of perspiration along his hairline from the exertion of the dance, hear the sound of his breathing, smell the scent of new cloth from his tunic. Before she stopped to consider her words, Finduilas heard herself say, "Denethor."
It was the first time she had ever addressed him by his name alone, and the look he gave her shook her to the core. I did not realize. . . She drew in a breath, and continued, "I believe I owe you an answer to a question you asked me quite some time ago. My answer is yes."
Denethor put a hand against the wall. "Finduilas. . . are you certain? Do you mean this?"
"I do," she said.
He reached for her hand and bowed to kiss it, his eyes never leaving her face. "My lady," he said, straightening. "I cannot say. . ."
"You need not," she told him. "Let us not speak of it to anyone for a little?" I do not think Forlong's dance is the place for such an announcement.
Denethor nodded, understanding. "At my father's feast, on mettarë?"
"Yes. Only to our fathers, till then."
"On mettarë I will be repeating your name until the walls of my rooms give it back to me, until it echoes from the furthest streets of the city, until the White Mountains resound with it," said Denethor, still holding her hand.
Finduilas felt a flutter in her chest at the intensity of his expression. She tightened her grip and allowed her gaze to match the longing of his for a moment, then dropped her eyes. For all the disparity in our ages, he seems not like to treat me as a child, she thought, her lips curving in a smile. Which is as I would choose.
"Only so far?" she teased gently. "Why, I might think you cared little for me."
This time he understood her manner, and replied, "I thought rather to show an appropriate decorum. If you wish, Finduilas," his voice lingered on her name, "be assured your name will be heard to the shores of the Great Sea in the west, and even into Mordor, and beyond to the lands of the Easterlings."
"Say not so, even in jest," she said hastily. "I would not wish to be known to the Enemy."
"My apologies, my lady." The look he turned on her was grave and sweet. "I meant only to amuse."
"You did, Denethor," she responded, softening at once, "and I am sorry to have taken it more seriously than you intended. I am a little overcome just now."
Denethor smiled, dazzling like the rising sun. "So am I, Finduilas." So he is, it is clear. This was the right choice.
They spoke for a little longer, but courtesy dictated and prudence that neither of them should appear to monopolize the other's company, and so Denethor escorted her back to Adrahil, who had long finished his conversation with Thorongil.
Finduilas danced several more dances, once or twice briefly encountering Denethor in the set and exchanging private smiles, until it was well past the middle of the night. She could have continued, but caught her father suppressing a yawn. He is not as young as he used to be, and no longer has Mother to speak to, to pass the time, she thought with a certain guilt. "Are you ready to leave, Father?" she asked.
"Have you made enough conquests this evening, then? Danced until you can dance no more?"
She leaned against him for an instant. "For tonight, certainly."