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.
The Lady Tirathiel belongs to Isabeau of Greenlea and is used with her generous consent.
Rating: teens, I think. Too much politics for young readers. ;)
This is an early prequel to my one-shot Denethor/Tirathiel ficlet. “Cold Comfort”. It takes place in the year 2980, with Ecthelion II still the Steward of Gondor, and tries to reveal the possible circumstances under which Aragorn aka Thorongil was forced to leave Gondor.
This story is based on the Appendices of LOTR, where the tense relationship between Ecthelion, Denethor and Thorongil is briefly described. Personally, I have great respect for Denethor and think that he had reason to feel towards Thorongil like he did. I also believe that he and Finduilas had a marriage based on mutual love and respect, even though nowadays this is almost a sacrilege in fandom to portray him as everything else but a cold and evil man who drove his wife to an early death.
So, if you are one of the Denethor-haters, I respectfully ask you to leave now. You have the right to see him in a different way, fine. Do not deny me the right to look at him with sympathy.
Beta-red by Larian Elensar, whom I ove my most profound thanks.
Dedication: This is a belated birthday story for Altariel.
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Chapter One: Needlework
[Minas Tirith, in the year 2980 of the Third Age]
People tend to believe that the fates of realms and the great choices of kingdoms are decided in the secret council chambers of kings or among mighty lords of great influence. Sometimes – more often than not – this is true enough. But there are times when decisions about life and death, about thrones and crowns and armies and lands, are made in the gentle circle of ladies. Never underestimate the powers those soft hands, engaged in busy needlework, could hold. Many a great lord did so – and it brought them to ruin.
Particularly much power and influence was gathered in the wide, elegant chambers of Finduilas, the Swan Lady of Dol Amroth ad wife to the Steward’s Heir in Minas Tirith, on this sunny afternoon. The ladies were doing needlework – or so it seemed to the naked eye. In truth, they were deciding about Gondor’s fate.
There is naught more frightening than a circle of high-born, well-bred noblewomen doing embroidery. As quick as their fingers are their minds, and woe to those who dare to stand in their way.
The eldest in the noble circle was Lady Faelivrin, firstborn daughter of Ecthelion II and her father’s chatelaine since both her mother and her husband died. Not having any children of her own, she had dedicated her considerable energy and willpower to running the day-to-day life in the Citadel. She had done so for twenty-nine years by now, and was more familiar with things that were going on at court than anyone else, even the Steward himself.
Her strongest ally was her own sister, thirteen years her junior and married to the Lord Barahir of the Keys – the highest-ranking member of court after the Steward and the Prince of Dol Amroth. But the influence of Barahir’s family was greater in the White City itself than that of the Princes, for they lived in Minas Tirith and had done so ever since Osgiliath had been abandoned and the court moved over here. And Lady Eledhwen had already secured the remaining of power in the family, for she had born her lord husband an heir – Húrin he was named, a tall and handsome young man, who had just turned twenty-seven in the spring.
Then there was Tirathiel, the Iron Lady of Dol Amroth, a personal friend and once almost-wife of the Steward’s Heir, a scholarly scribe and lore-master, one of the best Gondor still had. Even though the first lady of Dol Amroth was Olwen, the gentle and wise wife of the new Prince, Tirathiel was much more respected – or feared, as some would say – at court. For unlike the Lady Olwen (who came from a noble family of the old peoples of Dor-en-Ernil), Tirathiel was a pure-blooded Dúnadan – and she was a formidable woman who had earned the respect of people on her own.
‘Twas said that once she had been betrothed to Denethor and only set him free when her brother died and she had to raise her orphaned niece. ‘Twas also said that she was the only person whom even Denethor feared. Yet it was the unquestionable truth that she had been the driving power behind the marriage of Denethor and Finduilas, for she had realised before everyone else how much the two completed each other.
Not that she would have much to do to bring the two together, truth be told. Denethor had fallen hard for the beautiful princess of Dol Amroth, and loved her with the slow-burning fire of a man who had waited to take a wife for too long. Being a man who saw more than the pleasant surface, he appreciated Finduilas’ quick wit, wisdom and ambitions greatly, thankful to have found a woman who could share with him the burden of leadership. Despite the age difference, they understood each other amazingly well from the first chance meeting, and even though they did not always agree, Finduilas never hesitated to use her family’s influence to support her husband.
She even stood up to the much-beloved Captain Thorongil, a man whom she had considered a danger for her husband, ever since she had come to court.
When Denethor and Finduilas married four years ago, Thorongil had already served Ecthelion for more than a decade, and he served him well. Under different circumstances, the princess might have liked the lonesome Captain from the North, for Thorongil was a man of wisdom and a born leader – just like Denethor himself. Unfortunately, Ecthelion failed to recognise in his own son the same talents that he admired in his Captain so much, and bitter enmity was born between the two men from the day that Thorongil entered the steward’s service. Denethor has just reached the peak of his abilities and expected rightly to be given the chance to prove himself. Yet for some odd reason Ecthelion kept favouring the stranger from the North, and the bitterness in Denethor’s heart grew.
Things became a little easier after their marriage, as Angelimir, the late Prince of Dol Amroth, and after him Adrahil, his son and successor, often supported Denethor against Thorongil in Council, and so did his brother-in-law, Barahir of the Keys. But the love of the simple folk went to the one who led Gondor’s troops in the fights against Mordor’s forces, more so if these fights were successful, and that man was Thorongil, not Denethor, whom his aging father kept in Minas Tirith to share with him the burdens of ruling the realm.
Denethor did well in his awkward position as Steward-in-all-but-name, as he was a wise man and far-sighted and learned in lore. Many said that he was more kingly than any man that had appeared in Gondor for many lives of men – proud and tall and valiant like the Sea-kings of old. And yet he was ever placed second to the stranger in the hearts of men and the esteem of his father. Not even the birth of his heir changed that.
Caught in the duties he had to take over from his father more and more as Ecthelion’s health weakened, Denethor had to leave his position as Captain of the White Tower for Thorongil. And while the people of Minas Tirith celebrated Thorongil after the successful fights, Denethor was forced to stand on the walls and watch, as he was needed in the city more, and the bitterness in his heart, lifted a little by the birth of his son, began to grow again.
Finduilas was not about to let this go on forever. Nor were the ladies of the court who supported her. The latest Council, held in Minas Tirith only a few days earlier, convinced her that she had to make her move, soon.
“Father says that we are going to attack Umbar,” she mentioned fleetingly – or so it seemed – her fine silver needle dipping into the soft blue velvet cloth, pulling the silver thread through it. “With a small fleet only. It’ll be a hit-and-run attack, I hear, launched from Pelargir under the cover of the night.”
Of course the Prince of Dol Amroth had to be consulted when such a move was planned. The majority of Gondor’s fleet was made up of his own ships, after all.
“The strength of the Corsairs of Umbar is a great peril to Gondor and a threat to the fiefs of the south,” Lady Tirathiel agreed, never raising her sea-grey eyes from her own needlework. “They could prove deadly if Mordor moved to open war. Denethor was wrong to oppose the suggestion. I told him as much.”
“Still, one can understand his reluctance,” said Lady Eledhwen thoughtfully. “His counsel is just as sound as Thorongil’s, most of the time, yet our lord father always asks Thorongil first, not caring how this undermines Denethor’s authority in Council. I wonder what is there in that man that keeps the Steward under his spell.”
“In him or behind him?” asked Lady Failivrin with emphasis. Tirathiel lifted an inquisitive eyebrow.
“Are you speaking of Mithrandir?”
“What if I am?” replied Failivrin with an elegant shrug. “’Tis obvious that the two of hem have a connection, the true nature of which we are still not aware. And the Steward listens to Mithrandir as much as he favours Thorongil to his own son.”
“I doubt that Mithrandir would do aught to actively harm or imperil Gondor,” said Tirathiel.
“We never believed that Curunír would ever cause us trouble, either,” Morwen of Lossarnach, the Queen of Rohan, said quietly. She had come to Gondor less than a moon ago, to visit her relatives and to present her children and grandson to the court. “And yet he never ceased to do so, ever since Thengel returned to Rohan. Who can tell what motivates the deeds of wizards? They look like Men, yet they are not. We know not what they are, or what their ultimate goal is, as they work in secrecy behind our backs. We trusted them, and one of them has already betrayed us. Can we trust the other one?”
“’Tis said that Curunír has always craved power and served his own designs,” said Tirathiel, “yet Mithrandir is different.”
“Said by whom?” asked Failivrin.
“The Elves say so,” replied Tirathiel calmly. Eledhwen rolled her eyes.
“And who says that we can trust the judgement of Gildor Inglorion in this?”
“I do,” said Finduilas sternly. “I have known Lord Gildor since my birth, and so has my father and his father and all their forefathers before. Lord Gildor has been a friend of my family since the days of Imrazôr the Númenórean, and I trust his judgement. Which does not mean that I would trust Thorongil.”
“He has served Thengel faithfully,” Morwen pointed out, “and what I have heard proves that he has done so in Gondor, too.”
“I do not believe that he would betray us,” said Finduilas, “but I am suspicious about his designs concerning Gondor. And I do not like how he usurps the place in the hearts of men – and in the heart of his the Steward – which would justly belong to my husband. Denethor is able and willing to do all the tasks that Thorongil is doing right now. ‘Tis his birthright to be the leader of our people – and he has the strength and the skills, too. Keeping him from growing into his future power is wrong.”
“And if Thorongil returns from Umbar victoriously, which we should all hope for our people’s sake, Denethor will be forced into the background even more,” added Failivrin grimly. “’Tis hard to fight a valiant Captain who lives and fights with his soldiers from the lost post of the burdensome but much less spectacular duties of city leadership. The sword always glitters more than the sceptre. Yet ‘tis the sceptre that holds a realm together.”
“Our father has always been a leader of great strength and wisdom,” said Eledhwen in sorrow,” yet I ask myself whether his high age has begun to blend his weakening eyes with false glamour.”
“I doubt that the Steward would be blended so easily,” Faelivrin shook her head. “What I believe to be his true reason is despair. Our realm needs strong captains who can bring victory, however small it is, if we want to prevail.”
“That might be,” said Finduilas, “but this still does not explain why he refuses to allow his son to prove himself. I shall not have my husband live in the shadow of a stranger who is not better than he is. Lady Morwen says that Thorongil has served faithfully? So has Denethor. His whole life, all his studies and struggles and labours have always been in the service of Gondor and her Steward. You know this as well as I do,” she added, looking at Tirathiel.
The Iron Lady nodded. “’Tis true. But what do you intend to do?”
Finduilas shrugged, her gentle face hardening. “I intend to remove the hindrance from my husband’s way.”
“And what makes you think you can achieve that?” asked Failivrin. “Denethor has already tried – and failed.”
“My husband is bound by the duties of a son and Heir,” replied Finduilas calmly. “I am not. I am a princess of Dol Amroth, the daughter of Gondor’s strongest vassal – and the mother of the next heir to stewardship in the line.”
“Still, the Steward might find necessary to refuse your request,” Morwen warned. “For the good of Gondor Ecthelion would not fear to risk a family quarrel.”
“Tis more than a family quarrel he is about to risk, should he refuse my request,” said Finduilas. “And I am not gong to ask. I have the right to make demands… and the means to make him listen.”
Tirathiel shook her head worriedly. “’Tis thin ice you are walking on, Princess. Ecthelion might be a man of wisdom but he is also proud. He does not react well to threats.”
“Walking on thin ice is something I do very well,” answered Finduilas, “though I dearly hope there will be no need to make threats. But I shall have this problem solved ere Yuletide comes. This has gone on long enough.”
“In that, we agree completely,” said Failivrin with a sigh. “But be careful, Princess. You cannot afford any mistakes in this. Too much is at stake.”
“I know that, and I shall handle it with care,” promised Finduilas. “But this has to be done, if we want peace in the White City. Denethor cannot be distracted from his duties by the contest for Ecthelion’s love… or that of our people. His position is not to be questioned. Gondor needs to be united to prevail, and right now there is a twist in the Steward’s House that has to end.”
“At any cost?” asked Tirathiel quietly. Finduilas shrugged.
“I would rather end this amiably, which is why I intend to speak with Thorongil first. But if there could be no reasoning with him, I am prepared to fight – and to win.”
Tirathiel looked at Failivrin in askance. “Are you certain that this is the only possible way, Lady?”
The grey-haired matron of the Steward’s family nodded thoughtfully.
“I fear that it is. I regret that we must lose a valiant captain who served our realm well. But the sceptre has to be held in a firm hand, and the men of Gondor must support the one who holds it… all of them. The people cannot be divided. Denethor’s position cannot be weakened. This much we have learned from the unfortunate consequences of the Kinstrife.”
Tirathiel remained quiet for a while – then she nodded, too.
“If this is so, you have my support,” she said. “And I also speak for the Lady Olwen in this matter.”
Failivrin looked around the lovely circle of the ladies, all doing their needlework. “Is anyone of different mind?”
There were no objections. Failivrin turned to Finduilas.
“You should make your move, then.”