"You may leave. Go to the Houses of Healing to have your arm looked after."
The messenger bows and quickly leaves the room – the fabric on his left upper arm is blood-soaked from an Orc arrow, and it was only the speed of his horse and good luck that let him survive the encounter.
Denethor sighs and tiredly rubs his eyes. He has not slept much, the council his father had called the previous evening lasting well into the night and achieving little but argument, and he has risen early to receive messengers from all corners of Gondor. They are all bearing the same unsettling news – though nothing about it is truly new, as he keeps telling himself. They have always lived under the shadow of Mordor, have always had to endure bands of Orcs attacking travellers at the outskirts of the realm. Lately, though, the wretched beasts have grown bolder, attacking more often and even entering villages here and there. For the first time in centuries, smoke has been rising from behind the mountains in the East.
There is knocking at the door of his study, startling him from his thoughts, and Denethor calls for whoever it is to enter with an unwilling frown. The messenger from the far north was supposed to be the last, and he needs peace and quiet to read the reports of the scouting parties that have amassed over the last weeks.
A servant enters with a plate of food and drink, and Denethor is surprised to realise that it must be noon already. He had no time for breakfast, and he feels no true hunger now. When the servant has disappeared, he forgets about the plate on the corner of his desk, hidden behind stacks of reports his father has fallen behind on reading.
Why did Ecthelion have to fall ill now of all times, when it begins to look as if trouble stirring in the East might become more than a ubiquitous but nebulous threat? The Healers assure them that he will recover, but his progress is slow; he was bedridden for over three months and only two weeks ago did he feel strong enough to resume part of his duties. Most of them still lie with Denethor.
It is not that he does not feel ready – he is a grown man of 53 years, and all his life he has been prepared for this task. But the people of Gondor are used to looking to his father for guidance, and in his absence . . .
There is the sound of parchment crackling, and as he looks down on his hand, Denethor sees that the latest report from Ithilien is crumpled in his clenched fist.
He has heard the name whispered more than once in the city during the last few months, ever since his father fell ill, and even the servants in the citadel have been speaking of him, hoping for him to return and bring the Steward counsel. As for himself, he was more than content when the man left Gondor two years ago – never to return, if Denethor has his will. They do not need him here. A stranger, a nobody with no lineage to call his own, and yet, Denethor thinks grimly, his people – and his father – loved him more than–
A hand settles lightly on his shoulder, and he starts at the touch and voice.
"I did not mean to surprise you."
It is his wife, looking down at him earnestly, her black hair hanging like a curtain over her shoulders and down to her waist. Without thinking, he reaches up and brushes his fingers over the smooth strands that feel like silk against his skin. She smiles, then, and for the first time today, the weight of his worries seems to lift the smallest bit. Showing affection has never come easy to him, but it is easier with her, as everything seems to be easier when she is present.
"I was only . . . thinking." He drops the crumpled parchment on his desk and waves at the many others scattered over the polished wood. "They all report the same ill news, and they all ask for help, for the Steward to take action." He shakes his head. "The council is divided; some believe we should send men to the villages along the border, trace the Orcs back to their holes and destroy them. Others fear too much for the safety of the inner realm and Minas Tirith. And even if we sent them out, there are not enough men to guard every village. No matter what I decide, I cannot protect our people as I would like to do." Denethor sighs and she lifts her hand from his shoulder to his face, cool fingers wandering over his cheek and furrowed brow.
"You are doing all that can be done. Nobody can ask more of you, and they all know that you are working day and night to guarantee our safety."
She is right, he knows, but he cannot help thinking that he should be doing more.
"It has been two hours since noon. Have you eaten at all today?" Before he can answer, she has pushed away the reports he last read and put the forgotten plate of bread and meat before him. "You cannot take care of the people of Gondor if you do not take care of yourself." The goblet is pressed into his hand, and he drinks obediently before he begins eating. It is only now that he realises that he is indeed hungry.
Finduilas stays with him, leaning against his side in silence and encircling his shoulders with one arm as she watches him eat. They never make many words – he can make his point in council, convince others of his conclusions and plans, but he cannot find the right words to win the love of his people, and much less speak to her about his own love.
After a while, she steps away and approaches the high window overseeing the city and surrounding fields. There is no view today, though; fern frost is covering the glass up to the height of a man, and above only the grey sky is to be seen. Winter is coming early this year, adding to the obstacles they face in keeping the borders safe. Absently, he reminds himself to order the servants to start a fire in the study each morning from tomorrow onward.
"It is beautiful, like a work of art."
Her back is turned to him so he cannot see her face, but Denethor hears the smile in her voice, and for the first time, as he looks at the window, he can see something other in the ice than a sign of future hardships.
If an artist were to try and draw such patterns or carve them out of stone or wood, it would take him weeks, maybe months. Some of the swirling lines look like the ferns in the woods, others like delicate flowers or stars, reminding him of the dress Finduilas wore at their wedding.
It is like her, he thinks, to see these things while he overlooks them.
He decides to get up and join her, but it is then that she raises her hand, bringing her fingers close to the window without touching it. "It looks like how I imagine the White Tree in bloom."
Denethor slumps into his chair and drops the leftover bread on the plate, all hunger gone. He knows that she does not mean it this way, but whenever his people speak of the White Tree blooming, it is with longing for better times, for a king to take the place of his father. His place. But a king could not make more men appear out of nothing to strengthen their armies, nor single-handedly vanquish their enemies; bad harvests, storms, and floods do not care who rules a realm.
She turns back to him, still smiling, and he struggles to return it when the heavy door opens slowly.
"Boromir." Finduilas walks over to their son, who seems to be out of breath as if he had been running. "You know you are not to disturb your father while he works."
The five-year-old nods earnestly. "I know, and I did not mean to. I was looking for you, Mother."
"Did you escape Almiel again?"
Now Boromir grins, his nod more enthusiastic, and Finduilas laughs softly. "Let us make sure she does not find you, after all, then," she says and closes the door.
"She will not – she fell asleep in front of the fireplace."
"And you decided to search for more interesting company." Denethor pats his thigh, and with a brilliant smile, Boromir rushes to him and climbs into his lap. It is his own grey eyes looking up at Denethor full of love and admiration, and there is no struggle as he smiles back at his son.
"Even if she does not sleep, she is boring!" Boromir confides. "Can I not go outside and watch the guards' training?"
Denethor shakes his head. "The training is long over. But," he adds when Boromir scrunches up his face and makes to protest, "I believe you are old enough to watch it every morning now, from tomorrow onward. And you will have your own wooden sword to train with. If your mother agrees."
Finduilas nods and runs her fingers through Boromir's black hair. "Your father is right, you are old enough."
Now Boromir is beaming. "Can we go together each morning, Father?"
"Your father has to work," Finduilas says. "As long as Grandfather is not truly healthy, he has to rule Gondor, and you know how big of a country that is."
Boromir nods unwillingly. "I know. All the lands you can see from up here."
"Yes, and much more. He has to take care of everything and everyone in it."
Looking down at Boromir's disappointed face, Denethor wishes it were otherwise. He does try to take time for his son whenever he can – nothing has ever given him such joy as spending time with his wife and child – but these last months, he had barely managed to see Boromir for some minutes before bed each day.
"I believe he could make an exception today, though," Finduilas goes on. "He worked hard all morning and needs a break. We could take the horses and ride out to the woods for a few hours, what do you think?"
"Can we, Father?"
Denethor hesitates; there are still so many reports to read, and he doubts that he would be able to finish them all even if he worked late into the night. He makes to speak, tell Boromir no, not today – and thinks better of it.
"I can spare a few hours. Taking care of everyone in Gondor certainly includes my family." And maybe it will take away his worries, only for a while. He has no doubt that Finduilas suggested it as much for his sake as for Boromir's. As he gets up, he lifts Boromir onto his shoulders. "Will the ride not be too taxing for you? It is only four months until–"
She chuckles and puts her hand on her gently curved belly. "I am pregnant, not sick, you know that. And the Healers still approve of me riding. They said that like with Boromir, nothing speaks against it before the last three months."
He is sure that he Healers know what they are doing, but he cannot help worrying. His own mother died in childbirth, and if he were to lose Finduilas . . . But he should not think of such things, he tells himself. She is young and strong, and with Boromir, there were no complications.
"Let us go, then."
~ * ~ * ~
There are no great woods close to Minas Tirith, but a few miles away, there is a small forest where they come sometimes to take walks and spend time away from the city and their responsibilities. It does not take them long to reach it in a light trot, with Boromir sitting in the saddle in front of his father.
Most leaves have already fallen, and once they arrive, they tie the horses to a tree while Boromir dives into a heap of brown leaves almost head-first. For a while, he amuses himself with finding bigger and bigger ones, while Denethor and Finduilas follow him arm in arm, listening to his cries of excitement.
Finally, he comes running towards them, leaves sticking to his cloak and his tousled hair. He is carrying two long sticks and holds one out to Denethor.
"Can you give me my first fighting lesson now, Father?"
The eagerness in his voice and eyes leave no room for denying his wish, and Denethor accepts the stick with a nod.
"Very well. The first thing you have to know as a warrior . . ."
It must be half an hour later that he disarms Boromir once again, his son falling backwards into a layer of pine needles.
"One more time!" Boromir begs as he looks up at his father, who is still surprised – and more than a little proud – at how wildly he dived into fighting, barely caring about falling and bruising. Any attempts at slowing him down have been futile.
"It is enough for now. You have done very well. Cenhelm will be impressed tomorrow when he sees what you already know. Now get up; it is too cold to lie on the ground for long."
"I am not cold," Boromir protests, but he complies willingly, grabbing his 'sword' and running off to behead thistles and practice what Denethor taught him by fighting against tree trunks and shrubbery. He almost looks like a ranger trying to disguise himself, Denethor thinks fondly, covered in dirt, leaves, and who knows what else.
"He will always remember this first training session, that it was his father who gave it to him." Like before in the study, Finduilas cups Denethor's cheek with her slender hand, and he wraps his arms around her, pulling her closer. "He missed you these last months, even though he tried to understand why you had little time for him." No accusation is in her voice or eyes, but Denethor knows he would deserve it. His father had always made time for him, even if it was only an hour a day between his duties. He should be able to do the same.
"I should have listened to you sooner and made sure to take the time."
"Now you did." With a small smile, she raises herself on the tips of her toes and presses her lips on his in a gentle kiss. Denethor returns it, tightening his embrace, and when they break the kiss, she lays her head against his chest and closes her eyes.
Looking down at her, he sees that a gentle flush has risen into her cheeks – she looks like she did seven years ago, when she had first come to visit Minas Tirith after their engagement. The first time he had seen her had been in Dol Amroth a year earlier, when she and her maids had been dancing in her father's gardens. She had not noticed the visitor and had kept laughing and twirling in the rhythm of the music, her eyes closed, the wide skirt of her dress and a cloud of black hair billowing around her. This, he had thought, must have been how Beren had felt when he had first met Lúthien and fallen under her spell.
These days, she is paler than she used to be, and more than once, he has found her awake at night, sitting at the window and looking out over the land, towards the South, the direction of the sea and her home. It is almost as if the touch of early frost that has fallen on the land had reached for her as well. Whenever he asks, she tells him that there is no need to worry, but he is not blind, even though he has to admit to himself that he should have questioned her words sooner. She has always loved the sea and the woods more than cities, he knows, and she must miss her home and family, especially when he has so little time for her and Boromir.
From now on he will make more room for them, no matter how busy he may be, he vows to himself. For her, for their children – and for himself. Gondor needs him, but so does his family, and he needs them, needs hours like these to be able to fulfil his duties.
"Let us visit your father in the spring," he says. "Once the baby is a few months old and my father is well again. He and the council can do without me for a couple of weeks."
"I would like that." She arches closer, and he wraps his heavy, fur-lined cloak around her and kisses her forehead.
For a few minutes, they stay like this – Boromir is still busy vanquishing imaginary foes, and Denethor savours the undisturbed closeness. Soon, they will have to ride home. It has got colder since they arrived; the days are short and the winter moon is rising already between the naked branches, its light making the frost on the few remaining leaves shimmer. There is work waiting for him, and his worries have not vanished.
For now, though, he is content to hold his wife, to warm her and be warmed by her presence.