Nails clicked on the tile behind him. Run , he thought, they are upon you.
Gwindor whirled around. The dog wagged its tail, grinning. It was one of his father’s hounds. “Go away,” he said.
His voice echoed in the corridor, louder than he intended. That would be a fine thing, to be found alone in the hall shouting at a dog. He waved his hand. “Shoo,” he hissed, “I don’t have anything for you.”
Gwindor had more-or-less weaned himself of the habit of hiding food in his pockets, but the dog had a long memory. When he turned to keep walking, something cold and wet snuffled at his hand. He shoved it away and repeated his exhortations as loud as he dared; when that showed no effect he punctuated them with waves of his hand. But the dog, delighted at the attention it was receiving, continued to trot behind him. “Heel,” said Gwindor, accepting defeat.
The corridor opened onto the echoing expanse of the great hall, across which lay the doors separating Lord Guilin’s house from the public paths and throughways of Nargothrond. The walls were still hung with banners from last night’s feast, a celebration of recent victories in the field. “A decisive blow,” his father had said, raising his cup for the toast. Gwindor himself had drunk too much too quickly, excused himself before the meal was over, and spent the rest of the night dozing fitfully between dreams. He had not thought he would be missed, but this morning Agarwaen had come by to inquire after his health.
“Tired,” he had said, which was true enough. Agarwaen had folded Gwindor’s hand between his own and sat in silence long enough for Gwindor to become uneasy. “I was speaking to your father,” Agarwaen had said at last; “the summer offensives have occupied much of his time, which is well, but he fears that he is no longer able to devote as much time to his other administrative duties as they deserve.”
“We agreed that an aide who could liaise with administrators in the city and commanders in the field would help enormously, if someone can be found with the requisite experience and expertise. You were the first person I thought of.”
Gwindor had steeled himself at the first mention of his father, but this was not the blow he had guarded against. Before he could speak, Agarwaen gave his hand a final squeeze and stood. “Think upon it,” he said, “and...rest well. Be well, my friend.”
Gwindor had lingered late in his rooms afterward, and regretted leaving them. At the very least, it was warmer there. The hall was high-ceilinged and drafty, and on an ordinary quiet afternoon there was only a brazier in the corner to chase away the chill. He walked over to it and leaned in to the heat. It was if nothing else something to look at besides the walls of his rooms.
If you want something to do you could go training like you said you were going to , he thought, but the words were in Finduilas’ voice. He pictured her standing before him, pursing her lips the way she did when she was annoyed. But it was wrong, wasn’t it--Finduilas would never be so direct. It would be wouldn’t you rather or perhaps you might . She was not half so subtle as she thought she was.
The dog settled down at his feet and began to lick itself noisily. “Stop it,” he muttered.
It ignored him.
Voices drew near at the other end of the hall. One servant came in with an old tablecloth under his arm, which he unfolded and spread on the high table, and another two followed with crates full of silver dishes. Snippets of conversation, punctuated by clattering silver, drifted over to his spot by the brazier. They did not seem to have noticed him.
The noise grated on his nerves. He thought of telling them to leave, but that seemed unreasonable. He had, after all, an entire suite free of silver-polishers at his disposal. And he was supposed to be down at the training-yard, anyway. The Master-at-Arms would be growing impatient. He would go there and leave them to their chores.
But not quite yet. He had only just got comfortable, and it had taken such an effort--shameful, really--to come out here in the first place. He let the brazier’s heat sink into his bones. He rubbed his knees, his arm, and thought that he could feel the ache retreat a little. A few moments more, that was all he needed.
There was a tremendous crash, followed by the looping ring of plates rolling on a stone floor. Gwindor and the dog jumped to attention. “Oh, well done, Lennil,” he heard, then, louder, “Sorry, sir!”
So they had noticed him after all. The dog ambled over to say hello. It would be peculiar to stay lurking in the corner now that he had been spotted and acknowledged, and they were between him and the door. Gwindor followed the dog.
The servants were affable and happy to be distracted, and on another day he might have spun out the encounter into a friendly chat. Not today, however; he met their polite inquiries about the progress of his exercises with a vague “Very well, thank you” and slipped outside.
The afternoon sun filtered through the stone latticework on the terrace, casting checkered shadows on benches, fountains, and passers-by. He felt conspicuous and alarmingly exposed, but no one looked at him. He had got this far; it would be folly to turn back now. More urgently, if he failed to turn up the Master-at-Arms was bound to say something to his father, who was bound to say tiresome things about it to him. Think upon it…
Something to do. He must have something to do. All at once he made up his mind: he took one step, then another, and so made his way.
Finduilas had allowed her mind to wander and lost the thread of the conversation, and now Gelgil was looking at her expectantly. “Thank you for bringing this to my attention,” she said, which seemed to satisfy Gelgil. A nephew’s promotion, that was it, long anticipated but mysteriously delayed. Nothing to do with her, of course, but could she put a word in the ears of the right people?
Very probably she could, and ought to: Gelgil had a blunt, officious manner that irritated Finduilas, but she had come over the ice with the Finarfinions and was too staunch an ally to risk snubbing. She would have to look up the nephew and see what could be done for him. Possibly Gwindor remembered him and would have some useful suggestion. It would please him to be asked for advice.
She had been daydreaming about Minas Tirith: afternoons in the tower solar with Úlloth and Bruinith, noodling on the harp and trading worries with a casual trust that seemed unfathomable now. Sometimes in her dreams she found herself back there, having forgotten some crucial item in the haste of evacuation. Sometimes her friends would be there, sitting on the couch absurdly calm while she tried to convey the urgency of the situation: the missing object, the wolves at the door. Sometimes, more recently, it was Gwindor instead. The panicked dread of what was to come always lingered on waking.
The nephew’s situation brought the conversation around to military policy, and Finduilas retreated to her embroidery.Her mother had always managed, with no visible effort, to wrap up political repartee and courtly favor-currying in these convivial social gatherings. It was not a skill that came easily to Finduilas, but she did her best. She listened carefully, smiled when appropriate, and kept her own counsel.
“Guilin is a cautious old bore,” Gelgil was saying, “but he did well to take an interest in Agarwaen. The strategy is sound; this summer has proven that.”
“Yes, that is well, and I mean no slight to Agarwaen’s abilities,” said Arassael, “but you’re too swift to scoff, Gelgil. Cautious foxes find their dens again, remember.”
“Don’t quote proverbs at us, do we look like your students?” said Gelgil.
Finduilas was debating whether to intervene, and what safe topic to steer them toward, when the door opened to admit Gwindor.
It was not unusual for him to visit uninvited, but he usually appeared in the evening, when she was likely to be free, not at midday. Stranger still, he was dressed in a padded doublet, as though he had wandered away from a swordsmanship trial. It gave her a momentary jolt of nostalgia: he used to come see her after practice, reeking of sweat and leather, and she would laugh and tell him to come back when he’d had a bath.
“Why hello, Gwindor,” she said, rising to greet him, “I wasn’t expecting you. Is anything the matter?”
Gwindor frowned in the direction of her companions, still debating the kingdom’s defense policy, and jerked his head toward the door. Private conversation. A little trickle of worry worked its way down her spine.
In the anteroom, Gwindor twined a lock of her hair around his finger. “Can’t you get rid of them?”
“Whatever for?” asked Finduilas.
“I would think you would have had enough of their gossip,” said Gwindor. “It’s a fine day; let’s go sit out on the balcony.”
“That sounds very nice, Gwindor, but I--.”
“”We could bring a picnic,” he continued, as though she had not spoken. “Have you eaten? Some cold chicken, pear-salad, perhaps a bit of cheese…”
“Gwindor,” she said, doing her best to keep the irritation out of her voice, “I invited them here; I’m not going to send them away at a moment’s notice. Unless something is the matter?”
He shook his head and withdrew his hand, looking so disappointed that she almost relented--but no, who did he think he was, with his can’t you get rid of them ? “If you want to see me,” she said, “then come in and sit down.”
She had not actually expected him to do it, and now, watching him pick his way through the ring of tuffets to the couch where she sat, she felt a little guilty. The conversation died away to nothing and the sound of clicking needles ceased. What are they gawping at, she thought irritably as Gwindor settled at her side. He looked up at the ring of curious faces. “Good afternoon,” he said. “Do carry on.”
He sat close enough that their shoulders touched and jiggled his leg in a way that Finduilas found maddening, and which suggested that he was probably in pain. To distract him, Finduilas sorted through her thread and laid out a few shades of yellow on her knee. “Which of these looks like a flag-iris to you?”
He poked a diffident finger at one skein. “That was my thought, too,” she told him.
She picked out two more skeins in darker shades, and returned the rest to her basket. “These will be the shadows. I thought perhaps I would put this on a little pillow for your chair. Would you like that?”
“Finduilas is so sweet,” said Merenel.
Gwindor ignored her. “Do what you want with it,” he said, and resumed jiggling.
Had they been alone she would have told him suit yourself and risked an argument, but here in company she only smiled and turned to ask Arassael how her lacemaking was progressing. Gwindor was silent all through the ensuing conversation about bobbins and thread and why Gelgil had not brought a project (“Because I would rather pick fleas from my hunting dogs than fuss with needlework,” she told them); through its drift through the subjects of dogs, horses, riding, travels on horseback, road conditions past and present...
“You misrepresent my argument completely,” said Gwindor, sitting up suddenly. “I never said that there should be no changes to the existing policy; only that the proposed change was strategically unsound.”
“ Your , argument, my lord?” said Merenel.
The defense policy debate had resumed, and now Gwindor wanted a word in. “Yes, mine,” he said, “who else did you think it was?”
“Young Guilinion, there are many people in this city who give counsel to the king,” said Gelgil. “Including, I might point out, myself, Merenel, and Arassael.”
“Oh come off it, Gelgil,” said Gwindor. “What do you have to do with military matters, anyhow?”
Finduilas set aside her sewing. “Gwindor,” she said, “surely you’ll concede that one need not be a warrior oneself to consider a policy of war and form an opinion on it?”
“Well put, Princess,” said Gelgil.
Gwindor turned to her. “What do you think, then?”
She should have known better than to set herself up in this way. They were all looking at her. She had grown accustomed since her father’s coronation to speaking at council and presiding over banquets. Yet here she froze as though she was at her first harp recital. “I think,” she said, struggling to order her thoughts, “that the arguments for and against are wise and well-crafted, and perhaps, as in other matters, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.”
It was a coward’s answer. Gwindor’s silence told her that he agreed.
“But consider, Princess,” said Arassael, “that those who stand midstream will find themselves with wet feet.”
Gwindor stood up abruptly and crossed the room to check the sun through the balcony doors. “I stayed here too long,” he said, "Finduilas, ladies--.”
He sketched a bow, and left.
Finduilas felt her face burning. “I’m sorry,” she said.
Merenel came and sat where Gwindor had been and put her hand on Finduilas’ shoulder. “We all admire your fortitude,” she said.
The solar was long gone, and the tower with it, so much rubble on a grassy island. The friends who had sat there with her were gone, too: Bruinith had been visiting her Northern relations when the leaguer broke, and doubtless her bones lay somewhere on that vast, blasted plain. Úlloth lived still, as far as she knew: her mother was a lady in waiting to Finduilas’ mother, and had followed them both to the havens. Finduilas could have done the same, but had chosen to stay.
Fortitude, as though her betrothal was another siege to be waited out. And when it broke, what then?
Lord Guilin’s private study was lush with potted plants and between the hours of dawn and noon was suffused with light from the east-facing windows. But the sun had already passed over the Narog when Gwindor arrived, and the ferns in every corner took on the louring aspect of a forest’s edge at dusk. Guilin rose to lead his son to a seat by the fire. Gwindor, flushed and breathless, waved away the proffered decanter and launched into a vague apology for his tardiness.
“No, no,” said Guilin, pouring him a glass of water, “I understand completely. If I had the time I would be down at the yards every chance I had. Nothing like a good sparring match to clear the head. How goes it?”
“Oh, er, well enough,” said Gwindor.
When it became clear that no further elaboration was forthcoming, Guilin settled down to the business at hand. “I assume Agarwaen told you about the reason I called you here?”
“Good, you’ve had time to think on it. So--what do you think?”
Gwindor examined the pattern on the carpet between them. “I think...it sounds very much like this position was made up to suit me.”
Guilin, who had been leaning forward and smiling faintly in anticipation, pulled back. “You misunderstand me, son, and you insult me in doing so. I am not offering you make-work. This is a significant responsibility, and a signal honor.”
“So you would hand it off to a disgraced knight who has not held a command in twenty years?”
Guilin made a frustrated noise. “Disgraced? You’re no such thing. Self-pity does not become you, Gwindor. I’m asking you because,”--here he leaned forward again-- “between the two of us, I want someone I can trust, and someone I can depend on to do things right without constant oversight.”
Gwindor sipped his water, regretting turning down the offer of something stronger. “Let me think about it,” he said.
“What is there to think about?” said Guilin. “There’s no question of you being suited for the work, and you have no other obligations at present.”
Gwindor had felt off-balance from the moment he walked in, and now the interview was slipping entirely out of his control. “I’m sorry,” he said desperately, “please don’t think me ungrateful. I only need--only give me some time to think. Please.”
Guilin gave him a knowing look. He cleared his throat. “When we first came to this land,” he said, “We rejoiced in the light of the sun and moon after the long darkness, and in the unfrozen earth under our feet. The lands seemed boundless in those days, fertile with possibility. But I felt as though the ice was still in my bones, and the future seemed to me like a narrowing tunnel.”
Gwindor’s grip tightened on his glass. He did not look up. Guilin continued:
“Your mother helped me a great deal, though she didn’t know it at the time. But what helped me the most was my duty to the King. What you want, Gwindor, is some responsibility to occupy you.”
Gwindor felt very far away. “Yes, father,” he managed to say.
Guilin reached over and gave his son a cautious pat on the shoulder. “Go get some rest,” he said. “And do think about it. I expect your answer tomorrow.”
Gwindor considered whether there was an inoffensive way to tell Finduilas that he didn’t want to talk to her, but would she please stay anyway? Not very likely. Better to let her go.
“I need to speak to my father,” he told her.
“Never mind, then,” said Finduilas, shifting the basket on her arm, “I'll come back when you’re free.”
Gwindor shook his head, disgusted with himself. “Later, I mean. Not now. Please, come in.”
Gwindor’s mind was obviously elsewhere; Finduilas wondered if she ought to leave. But since she was here anyway she set her basket down and unwrapped its contents. “My girls did their baking this morning. I saved you some honey-cakes.”
Gwindor accepted a cake with a polite nod, and nibbled at it with uncharacteristic disinterest. He frowned thoughtfully when she explained about the nephew. “Yes, I remember him,” he said. “We had a disagreement around the time I took up my first Northern command. He called me a jumped-up puppy; more words were exchanged; one thing led to another and I challenged him to single combat. Not the best way to prove him wrong, in retrospect.”
His tone was light and brittle. Finduilas had not heard the story before, but it did not surprise her. Between the battles he had been energetic, ambitious, taut as a bowstring, and just as liable to snap. She could imagine the scene: a raucous celebration gone abruptly sour; a rival as stubborn and impulsive as Gwindor himself.
“What happened next?” she asked him, “Did he accept?”
“Yes,” said Gwindor. “But Father got wind of it somehow, and I woke the next day to him telling me that if I dared go through with such arrant foolery he would personally see that I never received another command, since I would clearly be unfit for the responsibility.”
“Do you think there’s anything behind the delayed promotion, then?”
He shook his head. “Maybe. I don’t remember anything else to his discredit, but I doubt I was the first or last person of rank that he insulted. But I don’t know what you’re asking me for, I can’t tell you anything useful.”
Rediscovering the cake in his hand, he took another halfhearted bite and cast about for somewhere to set it down. Finduilas got up to fetch a plate from the sideboard. “Here. You don’t have to eat it if you don’t want to.”
Gwindor surrendered the cake. “I know something is the matter,” she said.
He gave her a wary look. “Is there?”
This was too much. “How else would you like me to interpret your performance this afternoon? I’m not your little cloth doll; you can’t just drag me off to a picnic when you feel like it and then set me on the shelf when you’re bored.”
Gwindor got up and crossed the room, shaking his head. “It’s nothing that concerns you.”
“So you keep telling me,” she said, spreading her arms. “Do you wish me to go, then?”
“You needn’t stay if you find me such tedious company,” he said.
“That isn’t what I asked.”
There was a silver water-pitcher on the table left over from breakfast; Gwindor picked it up and hefted it idly, then, finding it empty, set it back down. On its surface she could see the room reflected in miniature and herself attenuated and distorted at its center. The thought came to her of the two of them in that room forever, circling back over the same argument while the world outside grew smaller and darker and finally disappeared altogether.
“I have been offered a position,” he said, “as a highly-placed aide. I would report to my father and act as a liaison to commanders in the field--including, chiefly, Agarwaen.”
“That is good news then,” said Finduilas, “isn’t it?”
“I do not intend to accept,” said Gwindor. “It’s perfectly obvious to me what their purpose is: I am being shuffled off out of everyone’s way, but not so far that the king can’t keep his thumb on me.”
“I’m sure that’s not so,” said Finduilas, thinking of her father and weighing the probability that there was a kernel of truth in Gwindor’s assessment. “Don’t you want to do it?”
It was the wrong thing to say. Gwindor turned and walked into his bedroom without a word. Through the doorway she could see him reach under his mattress and pull out something wrapped in cloth. He came back and thrust it at her. It was heavier than she expected, and she almost dropped it before she could get the wrappings off. It was a plain iron blade about the length of her forearm.
“That came from the mines,” said Gwindor. “I cut a guard’s throat with it. If they had caught me with it they would have done far worse. And after I escaped there were orcs who would have dragged me back there, but I took that blade and I entered their camp, because it was required of me.”
It was like stepping into a stream, having braced yourself for the cold water, and then immediately losing your footing on the rocks. It was always deeper than it looked. “Gwindor, no one doubts your courage,” she said. “Please, put this away.”
He shook his head. “You misunderstand,” he said. “I will fight . I will do what is asked of me, as best I am able. But I won’t call wisdom what I know to be folly.”
He took the blade back and wrapped it up again. Finduilas allowed herself to breathe.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I need to think. Alone.”
The sun would be up soon. Gwindor rose from his chair by the cold hearth, washed his face, dressed himself in plain brown wool, and combed his hair. He put in his false teeth. He picked up his rings one at a time from a little dish next to the basin and used his lips to fit them on his hand: the plain gold betrothal ring on the first finger and his signet on the last. He had no need of light or mirror; memory sufficed.
The gray-muzzled dog at Guilin’s feet gave a single perfunctory bark and beat its tail on the floor. On the far side of the room, the high dark windows reflected Guilin looking up and beckoning his son into the lamplight.
Gwindor watched his reflection enter the room. He watched its mouth open and form the words regretfully, I must decline . Guilin said, “Son, come sit down, we will talk it over,” but he would not be caught so easily this time.
Dinner at the king’s table was excellent, but only Orodreth ate with any relish. “Try the baked apples,” he said, pushing the dish toward Finduilas.
She took a baked apple. So did Guilin and Agarwaen; for a while the table was filled with murmurs of “yes, very good.”
The apples were sticky and stuffed with sweetmeats--difficult to eat with dignity. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Guilin start up and bite back an exclamation. Some of the filling had landed on his lap, soiling his coat.
“As to this administrative position you’ve invented,” said Orodreth, “since your first candidate has declined, who do you propose ought to fill it?”
Guilin looked up from dabbing his coat with a napkin. “There’s no need to be so hasty, your majesty. He needs a few days to come around, that’s all.”
“Is that so?” said Orodreth.
He looked pointedly at the empty place setting next to Finduilas. “I am glad to hear it. However, we are here tonight to discuss the situation as it presently stands; since Lord Gwindor has chosen not to join us, we cannot ask him whether he intends to change his mind.”
Guilin nodded, conceding the point. Orodreth fixed his gaze on Agarwaen. “You are the freshest from the field. What names can you give us for consideration?”
“What about Gelgil’s nephew?” asked Finduilas, some time later.
They all turned to look at her. “That is,” she said, “he has been a minor commander for many years now, and I hear from Gelgil that he finds his present situation unsatisfactory. Were the position to be presented to him as a promotion, a recognition of his value and talents, he and his family would be most appreciative.”
Orodreth raised his eyebrows. “A political appointment! Finduilas, your vision is admirably clear. I suppose we do owe Gelgil a favor or two. Well, let us consider him with the rest.”
The others retreated to the king’s study to debate into the dawn, but Finduilas had nothing further to contribute and Agarwaen, being mortal, must sleep. As the servants came in to clear the dishes his face contorted into a yawn. “I hope my father hasn’t kept you too late,” said Finduilas. “I know he can be stern, but he will not be offended if you make your needs known.”
He looked at her in surprise. “It is kind of you to think of me, princess, but a few hours of missed sleep will do me no harm.”
He made as though to rise from his chair, then stopped. “May I ask you a question?”
She nodded. “Have I done ill to involve him in this…?”
He waved his arm, encompassing the table, the room, the discussion continuing over a wine-carafe in the king’s chambers. “If I have, I would make amends, if I can. I had hoped that the work would please him, and that it would give me cause to see him more often.”
There was something childlike about his sadness. There was no guile at all beneath the veneer of secrecy. She could not say the same for herself.
You mustn’t feel that this is your fault,” she told him. “It was a kind thought. We would all be fortunate to have such a friend.”
He winced, very slightly, but Finduilas was accustomed to reading her words reflected in others’ faces.
One candle was still burning. She took it up and gave it to him. “To light you home.”
He accepted it, sheltered it with his hand so that the gaps between his fingers glowed orange. “Thank you, Princess,” he said, “shall I walk with you, then?”
There was no need, she could see well enough. But she thanked him for the thought.
She watched Agarwaen’s light bobbing down the corridor until it was out of sight, then withdrew: down the hall, up the stairs, through the sitting-room with tuffets strewn about like a grotesquely oversized toadstool-ring. Her maids were waiting in the bedroom; she let them undress her and unpin her hair and wrap her in a green silk robe, then told them, “Draw me a bath, I’ll be back in a bit.”
She went back out to the sitting room. A wave of cold air came rushing in as she opened the balcony doors and shut them behind her. There had not been a hard frost yet this season, but she expected there would be one tonight. In the morning the windows would be brilliant and opaque, each pane a forest in miniature. She leaned against the balcony and pulled her robe tight.
Once, a long time ago, Finduilas had asked her great-uncle how one knew if a dream was premonitory. “A wise question, little one,” he said. “It’s a little like describing red to one who’s never seen it. But on waking you see it there, berry-bright before you. That clarity, that absolute certainty--that’s often what you’ll know it by.”
“But,” said little Finduilas, on consideration, “one can be certain and still be wrong.”
Her uncle looked at her very seriously. “Yes,” he said, “that is the danger.”
And then she had run back to Bruinith to tell her officiously that her dream about toads in the butter-firkin could not possibly be a premonition of any kind; she had it on her uncle’s authority, he being an expert in these matters and the king besides.
She told that story to Gwindor once, at a time when it seemed both vital and irresistible to offer him pieces of herself, past and present, in anticipation of a certain future. He pulled her so close she could feel the laughter in his chest vibrate against her spine. “I can just hear the tone of voice,” he said.
Through the glass in the door she could see her maids moving about. One, passing by with an armful of towels, made some observation to the other, and they both laughed.
How dare they , she thought.
Finduilas breathed deeply, let the cold fill her lungs. She almost dried her eyes with her sleeve, but remembered just in time that it would spoil the silk. She used her hair instead. It would still be obvious that she had been crying. She hated the thought of it, the weight of assumptions and misunderstandings settling on her shoulders, but there was nothing for it. She went inside.