The Exercise of Vital Powers
Disclaimer: The characters, the context and the main plot belong to Professor Tolkien, whom I greatly admire. I'm only trying to fill in the gaps he so graciously left for us, fanfic writers, to have some fun.
Andrahar belongs to Isabeau of Greenlea and is used with her generous consent.
Rating: PG, I think. Too much politics for young readers. ;)
The detail of Finduilas' dark eyes is my invention. I've given her (and Imrahil) a mother, who – though of noble descent – was not a Dúnadan. At least one of her children had to inherit some of her looks, and Imrahil's Dúnadan exterior is firmly established in canon, so it has to be Finduilas. Besides, I find dark eyes beautiful. ;)
I might have gone a bit too far with my interpretation of Númenórean law, especially in wartime. But I found the idea of a Ruling Princess of Dol Amroth intriguing.
The opening sequence has been borrowed from "The Return of the King", where it describes Minas Tirith. I changed a few expressions and edited the description a little, but it is basically the same as in The Book.
My sincerest thanks go to Larian Elensar for beta-reading. All remaining mistakes are mine (sometimes I am just not reasonable enough).
Chapter Two: Eagle and Gull
The fashion of the White City, the Watchtower of Anárion, was such that it was built on seven levels, each delved onto the hill, and about each was set a wall, and in each wall was a gate. Those gates, however, were not set in line. The Great Gate in the City Wall was at the east point of the circuit, but the next faced half south, and the third half north, and so to and fro upwards. Thus the paced way that climbed towards the Citadel turned first this way and then that across the face of the hill, until it reached the Citadel itself; a towering bastion of stone, its edge sharp as a ship-keel, facing east.
Up it rose, even to the level of the topmost circle, and there was crowned by a battlement, so that those in the Citadel might – like mariners in a mountainous ship – look from its peak sheer down upon the Gate seven hundred feet below. Upon this battlement stood Thorongil, Captain of Gondor's armies for nigh fifteen years. He leaned against the sun-warmed stone of the breastwork and looking down into the valley below, where – five leagues or so from the City – Anduin, the Great River, was glittering in the red light of the setting Sun like mithril in a furnace. The river came out of the north-west and bent in a mighty sweep south and west again, till it was lost to view in a haze and shimmer, far beyond which lay the Sea fifty leagues away.
The Captain was a tall, wiry man, with the usual raven hair and grey eyes of the Dúnedain, his hawkish face that of Denethor not entirely unlike, though he lacked the elegantly sculpted cheekbones and high forehead of Húrin's House. Still, he could have been considered quite handsome if not for the grim expression that always seemed to hover upon his face.
His thoughts were occupied by the upcoming attack, mentally counting the ships, sailors and soldiers he would need to hit Umbar hard enough for a lasting effort, without having overly heavy losses on his side. They had argued long and bitterly about this with Denethor in Council, for the Steward's son wanted a greater force to lessen the risk on their side and heighten the effect of their strike. Adrahil of Dol Amroth had supported Denethor, of course – not only because the Heir was his son-in-law, but also out of concern for his ships. But finally Thorongil had been able to assure the councillors that their only hope for success lay in speed and secrecy, and that for this very reason they could not ask the Elves of Edhellond for help, even though they could count on Gildor Inglorion in such matters – assuming he was in Edhellond at all. For without his leave no Elven ship would leave the quays of the Elf-haven.
Denethor had been unhappy about Ecthelion's decision, and so had Adrahil, even though he had given in at the end and promised the ships and sailors that were needed. But Thorongil knew that he had only won the first battle in this matter, and that neither Denethor nor Adrahil would forgive him easily for their defeat. They will strike back, of that he was certain, and they would do so soon.
However, he had not expected the blow to come from the direction it finally did. When he detected the slender form of the Swan Lady approaching across the courtyard, he was admittedly a little surprised, since Finduilas disliked him for weakening her husband's position. This had always been known to him.
It saddened him, for he admired the Lady Finduilas. He truly did. As she now approached him, tall and slender and of great beauty, wearing a dark blue cloak embroidered with small silvers stars, her raven hair flowing down her back in lush waves, and adorned with a beautifully-woven silver circlet alone, she could have stepped out of any of the old lays of Beleriand. Like an Elven princess she looked – her namesake from Nargothrond of old could not have been more lovely, or Meril-i-Turinqi, the Queen of Elvenhome. Only her large, dark eyes, inherited from her mother, revealed her as a mortal woman.
She was said to be a lady of great wisdom and a kind heart, but Thorongil knew there was steel behind that gentle beauty of hers. No weak woman could have put up with Denethor, and Lady Finduilas apparently had no difficulties keeping her husband firmly in his place.
It would have been a grave mistake to underestimate her.
Thorongil straightened and inclined his hand in her direction politely. "Lady Finduilas. Is there anything I could do for you?"
"All I require is a moment of your time," she replied signalling to her maidens to fall back and remain out of earshot. Thorongil raised an eyebrow.
"About what, my Lady?"
"About the planned attack on Umbar… and its possible consequences." Seeing his face tighten, she raised a pale hand. "Worry not. I shall not carry any tidings out of the Citadel."
"You should not even know of this, my Lady," he answered. She rolled her eyes.
"Ai, Captain, I beg you! Not only am I the wife of the Steward's Heir, I am also a princess of Dol Amroth. I have taken part of my father's counsels ever since I came of age. You do not truly believe that I have ceased caring about the affairs of Gondor, just because I married the Steward's son, do you?"
Thorongil remained silent, feeling that the true confrontation was l about to come.
"I see," he finally answered. "And what do you want to know, my Lady, that your father, the Prince, has not told you already?"
"The Prince of Dol Amroth is foresighted, like all his forefathers… or his progeny, for that matter," she said. "Yet not even he can read all that is in men's hearts. Nor can I, despite the gifts I have inherited from him. Therefore I decided to ask you face-to-face, Captain; what are your designs, concerning Gondor?"
Thorongil stiffened. As much as he could understand her concerns, Finduilas' question made him uncomfortable. He knew not if he was more worried or more offended, for as much as he had no immediate agendas in Gondor, he worked for a future goal that would have a severe effect on the South-kingdom indeed. One thing was certain, though; he could not allow Finduilas to see into this.
"I have served the Steward of Gondor for nigh fifteen years by now," he replied indignantly, "and I served him well."
"You have, indeed," the Lady nodded. "Too well, in fact. For as dire our need is for a captain who can lead the troops of Gondor in their struggle against the Shadow, as harmful the same captain is when he takes the rightful place of Gondor's heir in the hearts of her people – or in the esteem of her Steward."
"You accuse me of trying to take over Lord Denethor's position?" asked Thorongil incredulously. "When have I vied myself with him, or held myself higher than his father's servant? I never tried to usurp his position."
"Yet you are already doing so," pointed out Finduilas. "You have divided the hearts of our people, Captain, therefore you are a danger for this realm, regardless of your faithful service. No realm that is divided in itself could prevail."
"So what would you have me do, Lady?" he asked, shaken a little by her accusations and her cold wrath.
"I want you gone," she said simply. "You can do it on your own accord – or you can try to fight me in this. But in that case be prepared to lose. My position cannot be weakened due to the Steward's favouritism towards you. As long as Imrahil is unmarried and childless, my son is not only the future Steward of Gondor, but also the future Prince of Dol Amroth. Our realm my be small, but Númenórean law is still valid between its borders. I am more powerful than you can imagine. Confront me not, for you cannot win against me."
"Thus you want me to abandon my duties and send a less experienced captain to Umbar in my stead?" asked Thorongil. "You would put the success of this most important campaign at risk, just to make the way free for your husband?"
"I cannot ask you to risk your life and leave afterwards, when, in case of success, great honour would wait you in the White City," she said. "That would be wrong. Yet I do not wish you to return victoriously, as much as we need to remove the danger that Umbar represents, and drive Denethor even farther from his rightful place. He is not lesser than you in anything – 'tis not his fault that his duties are less… glamorous. Therefore a new leader will be needed for the campaign of Umbar. My father can take over for you."
"Nay, he cannot. He knows Umbar not as well as I do."
"That matters little. He has Andrahar who knows that city like the back of his hand."
"The Steward shall never agree. He chose me for this task, and he did so for a reason. I cannot abandon him, not after all these years, not now when the need is so great."
"Let the Steward be my concern. I have the means to persuade him."
Thorongil did not answer for a while. Her demand had come unexpectedly. He had known of Denethor's jealousy, no matter how well the Steward's Heir concealed it, but he never thought the Swan Lady to be this ruthless. Like most people, he had let himself be blinded by her beauty and wisdom and forgotten that she could have become the Ruling Princess of Dol Amroth, had she not chosen to wed Denethor.
She had given up a lot for Denethor – including the chance to live close to the Sea, which had to be hard for someone with Elven blood. 'Twas understandable that she wanted to protect her husband's position – and by that her own as well – in exchange. Thorongil was not about to question her motivations or her actions. He would not fight her, as he had no hope to win. But he was not about to abandon his duties, either.
"Let us find an agreement, Lady," he said. "Leading this attack against Umbar is something I have to do. This is my plan, I have worked out all the details, therefore I have to go. But I give you my word that – should I come back unharmed – I shall part from my troops at Pelargir and leave Gondor for good. Would that suffice?"
Finduilas nodded slowly.
"I regret that this has to end so," she said honestly, "for as you say yourself, you have served Gondor well, and I am not treating you the way you would deserve. Still, I have my doubts about your hidden agendas. Whenever I look in your eyes, all I can see are locked doors and closed windows in your mind, and dark rooms behind them, with who knows what kind of secrets hidden in that darkness."
"I never intended to harm Gondor… or your family," said Thorongil quietly. Finduilas made an apologetic gesture.
"That I doubt not. Yet you have not been honest to us, either, and your secrets fill my heart with dark foreboding. My feeling tells me that you will have some part in the deaths of both my husband and my son, if not now, then in the future. Your are a danger for my family, and I want that danger removed."
Thorongil looked at her and saw that she was determined to fight him with any means she could. There was no hope to smooth things out between them – or between him and Denethor, for that matter. Mayhap in his eagerness to be of use for Gondor and her Steward he had used the ability of his kin to win over men's hearts too carelessly. He should have been more subtle, should have befriended Denethor first, ere he had become the Steward's trusted counsellor.
Not doing so had been a mistake – one that could throw his plans back severely. He had made an enemy of Denethor, thus all who were loyal to the Steward's son would be against him, including the ladies of the court. He thought of the venerable matron, Lady Failivrin; of Eledhwen, whose husband was second after the Steward in Minas Tirith; of the Iron Lady of Dol Amroth, and, before all, of Finduilas, the beautiful and dedicated. Nay, this was a fight he could never win. 'Twas better to admit defeat and retreat for a while. For a long while, most likely.
"I shall do as you wish, my Lady," he said quietly, bowed and left the battlement.
Finduilas leaned against the breastwork and took a deep breath of relief. She felt drained – battling Thorongil's iron will had not been easy, not even for her. But up there at least breathing seemed easier than in the stone cage that was Minas Tirith – the ever-present pressure on her chest eased a little. Fresh air came up from the vale of the Great River, and even though it was not salty as it had been at home, she took a few more deep, liberating breaths, far above the dust and stale air of the City.
Then she began to cough violently again. The coughing fit cracked her whole body, pressing her chest together like a too-tight bodice once more. She bent forward in pain, her maids rushing to her side to support her. When the wracking cough finally wore out itself, she saw with dismay that her handkerchief was tainted red. Again.
"Princess, this is not good," one of her older handmaids, a woman named Brín, who had come from Fortir with her mother, said with a frown. "Too many times has this happened since you gave birth. You need to go home to Dol Amroth for a while. You need the Sea to recover."
Finduilas dabbed her lips with the handkerchief again. "I cannot. Not now." Not ere the problem of Umbar is solved and Thorongil is gone. "I might try to persuade my husband to go to Pelargir for a while, though." When we hit Umbar hard enough, that would be safe – and closer to Minas Tirith.
Brín shook her head in concern. "I know not if that would be enough, Princess." She was a skilled healer, well-versed in herbal lore, and had seen the 'Dry sickness', as this particular illness was called in Fortir, make strong young people wither and die often enough. "But at least it would help a little. Ask the Lord Denethor to let you move as soon as you can, I beg you – or else it might be too late."
"I will," Finduilas promised with a tired smile. "Let us return home now."
Brín offered her a supportive arm, and – followed by the other handmaids – they walked slowly across the Place of the Fountain, around the White Tower of Ecthelion, to the Steward's House.
Situated in the seventh circle of the White City, opposite of the Hall of Feasts, the House of the Stewards was almost as old as the King's House. Built during the time of Mardil Voronwë himself, it bore the grave, monumental style of Númenórean architecture: high walls, slender pillars, tall, arched windows with stained glass, featuring scenes of old legends. It bore a venerable look, an air of history – but it lacked the warmth of a home, at least at first sight, unless one was allowed to enter the house.
For from the inside, the vast halls were flooded with sunlight, and beautifully-woven tapestries showing the marvellous landscapes, trees and birds of long-gone Númenórë covered the walls, lessening the coldness of the stone. There were lamps of crystal and wrought iron, and thick rugs on the marble-paved floor, and seats and benches of lebethron or (in the ladies' wing) of lighter woods, with soft leather seat-pillows, and masterfully-carved chests and cabinets and tables and cupboards. The beds had gold-embroidered velvet curtains, and many items of great beauty adorned the shelves and niches.
Finduilas' chambers were particularly lovely, as she had brought many of her personal items from Dol Amroth and gave those once sober rooms a more light-hearted and playful air. Still, at times like this, she felt caged between those high walls. Sometimes her own home felt like a prison. And she knew that Brín was right; she will have to speak with her husband, soon, to get away from Minas Tirith ere it would be too late.
Brín hurried straight to the beautifully-carved little cupboard in the farthest corner and opening its uppermost door with a small key that she wore around her neck on a silver chain – so that neither little Boromir, nor her own ten-year-old son, Mánion, could get it into their fingers – brought forth a crystal phial with some green liquid in it. Counting carefully, she let twelve drops from it fall into a glass of water, then sealed the phial again. She stirred up the water 'til it mixed with the medicine and handed the glass to her lady.
"Drink this, Princess; it should help for a while."
"Is this that new medicine Lord Gildor has brought from some Elven healer in the North?" asked Finduilas, grimacing, for even diluted with water, the thing had a vile taste. Brín nodded.
"'Tis very powerful, but it cannot heal the dry sickness on its own. You need to get out of Minas Tirith. Soon."
"I know," sighed Finduilas, fighting another coughing fit; unfortunately, getting upset did not help her condition. "I shall try to do so."
Brín was about to answer, but in that moment someone knocked on the door and Finduilas shook her head warningly. Brín rushed back to the cupboard, putting the phial to its place and closing the door in a great hurry. No-one was allowed to know about the Princess' illness, not even her sisters-in-law, though Brín had her doubts about how long they would be able to hide it from Lord Denethor. The Steward's son was not a man who could be easily mislead.
Nimhain, the oldest of the maids (in fact, she had been Finduilas' nursemaid once) opened the door and bowed before the very man who had just occupied their thoughts.
"My lord, welcome… Lady Finduilas is in here…"
Finduilas straightened hastily and pressed the blood-stained handkerchief into Brín's hand. She knew she would have to tell her husband the truth one day, and she was willing to do so. But at the moment Denethor needed to focus on the matters of Gondor. As long as Thorongil was there, his attention could not be divided.
There he came, entering her rooms with slow, measured steps as always when others could see them, tall and proud and kingly like no other man she had ever seen, even in Dol Amroth where Elven blood was more common than in any other part of Gondor. Denethor wore the black and silver of Húrin's House that all Stewards had worn since the days of Mardil Voronwë, though he did not wear the title yet. His narrow, fine-boned face was pale, and there were dark rings under his eyes – the results of too many nights spent sleepless, pondering over the fate of Gondor. His raven-black hair was combed back tightly and held together by an unadorned silver clasp on the nape of his neck, revealing that he had come directly from the archives where it would have bothered him during work. Even his short beard was neatly combed, completing the utterly presentable view he offered to outsiders all the time.
"My lady," he said simply, embracing his wife and placing a light but lingering kiss on her lips. In the eyes of a beholder, both the greeting and the gesture would seem cold; but Finduilas knew her husband better than anyone, even his own father. Denethor was subtle in his manners, but his passions ran deep. He was just very good at concealing them.
"My lord," she answered with a smile, revelling in his closeness for a moment; then she stepped away from him. "'Tis good that you have come to see me right now. There is something I wish to discuss with you."
Denethor nodded. "Then discuss we will, my lady. But let us go over to the nursery first, if you do not mind. I have not found the time to see my son yet today."