15. Epilogue: Partings
She dropped a courtesy. “Second room on the left, your Majesty.”
The room was dark and cool. By the bed, a healer was bent over the patient with a bowl of water. He looked up as the King came in, rose, and came over to the door.
“How is he?” Aragorn asked.
“Bad, sire. We have tried to cool him with water, but he is having trouble breathing. I hope you can do something.”
“Let me look,” Aragorn ordered, and the healer moved aside. The King sat down by the bed, and bent over the sick man. The patient’s breathing was harsh and tortuous, but he opened his eyes and clutched Aragorn’s hand.
“Faramir,” he gasped out.
“Hush, Denethor, do not speak.”
“Is he ... is he coming?” the Steward persisted.
“I have sent a rider post-haste to Ithilien,” Aragorn said, “and he should be here by tomorrow evening. Now rest.”
Denethor lay back, and Aragorn went to speak to the healer.
“Should I send for athelas, my lord?” the healer asked, anxiously.
The King shook his head. “Truly, I do not think it can help the Steward now. Bring water, to drink and to bathe his brow, and I will stay with him.”
The healer bowed, and left the room. Aragorn returned to the bed and sat down again, taking his cloak off and putting it over the back of the chair. He leaned over, resting his elbows on his knees and his chin on his hands, and watched Denethor.
It had been an eventful twenty years. In the first years of the Fourth Age, Gondor had been threatened by Haradric and Umbarian rebels, remnants of Sauron’s forces, and Aragorn had led several attacks against them. But there had been more pleasant tasks too – visits to the North, and to the fiefdoms neighbouring Gondor. At these times, Denethor had ruled the City in the King’s stead.
Eleven years after their marriage, Arwen had announced she was pregnant. A son and heir, Eldarion, was born to the King and Queen of Gondor, and the City rejoiced. But Denethor also had grandchildren – Elboron, and his sister Théodwyn.
Ithilien had prospered, and grown fairer than ever. Faramir’s Rangers patrolled the borders of Mordor together with a band of deadly Silvan archers from Mirkwood. The Elves lived on flets in the forest, the Men close to Emyn Arnen, or at Henneth Annûn. Whenever Faramir visited Minas Tirith, he was anxious to escape again and return to his wife and children in the garden of Gondor.
As the years passed, it seemed to those watching that Denethor was a happier man. He was ever quick to anger, and harsh in recrimination, but at the same time he was more generous, and easier to please. And though the Steward showed constant deference to his King, the two men were often to be found hunched over a game of strategy, or debating a historical point.
In recent months, however, Denethor had withdrawn from court life. He had begun to cough, and his face grew pale and thin. Aragorn had ordered a strict diet and rest, and for a while it had looked as though he would recover. But he had collapsed halfway through dictating a letter to his secretary, and had been rushed to the Houses of Healing.
Now Aragorn sat by his bed, waiting for a change in his Steward’s health.
Evening came, and Denethor’s breathing settled down a little. He was persuaded to swallow some broth, propped up with pillows. Aragorn held the bowl, and watched the slow movement of spoon to mouth in the Steward’s thin fingers. Finally, Denethor let the spoon drop.
“I cannot eat any more,” he said, and Aragorn nodded.
“How are you feeling?”
“Do not hold any hope of my recovery, Aragorn,” Denethor said, his voice hoarse. “I am ready for whatever awaits me.”
“You must not say that!” Aragorn insisted, but the Steward shook his head.
“I am old. Old, and tired. And I have lived long, longer than I once hoped.” He coughed, his body shaking. “In those dark days of despair, when I thought Sauron would take Gondor, I thought I was ready for death, but it was not so. Now – now, I am.” Denethor paused for breath. “My blood is not yours, Aragorn. I have had my time, and I will not linger. When Faramir has come, I shall go.”
Aragorn took the Steward’s hand. “I will grieve, Denethor. And your City will grieve also, for you have served her well.”
Denethor managed a smile, and then his frame was wracked by another cough. Aragorn passed him a glass of water, and the Steward sipped it and lay back.
“Stay with me, my liege.”
“I will. Sleep now.”
Throughout that night, the King kept vigil. Day came, and Denethor slept still, his breaths shallow. He woke briefly towards noon, but would eat nothing, and soon fell asleep again. In the afternoon Arwen came, and she kept her husband company for an hour.
Faramir arrived as night fell. He had ridden from Ithilien as soon as the messenger came, and was still in his riding clothes as he entered his father’s sickroom. He took in the scene in one glance, and looked at Aragorn with stricken eyes.
“He has been waiting for you,” Aragorn said. “I do not believe he is in pain – his fever has settled, and he has slept most of the day.”
“There is nothing you can do, my lord?” Faramir asked, and the King shook his head.
“No; and there is nothing that he wants me to do. It is our Gift, to choose the moment of our passing, and Denethor has chosen. Wake him. I know he would speak to you.” Aragorn rose, and clasped Faramir’s shoulder. “I am just outside the door.”
Aragorn nodded, and slipped silently out. Faramir took his father’s hand.
Denethor’s eyes opened, and focused on his son. “You came.”
“I never doubted you would.” Denethor closed his eyes and took several breaths. “I ... I am proud of you, my son.”
“I know, father,” Faramir said, smiling.
“You will be a good Steward,” Denethor continued, with an effort. “A good ...” He coughed. “I love you, Faramir.”
Faramir turned his face away, for a second, to wipe his eyes with his arm. “And I you, my lord.”
Denethor smiled, and his eyes closed.
“Father?” Faramir squeezed the Steward’s hand. “Father?” A last, rasping breath came from Denethor’s throat, and then silence.
The tears coming freely now, Faramir bent to kiss his father’s brow. Denethor looked old, and weary, but also he looked peaceful. Faramir laid the Steward’s hands across his breast, and went to fetch Aragorn.
They laid Denethor, son of Ecthelion, to rest in Rath Dínen, on the bed that had so nearly been his pyre. King Elessar ordered that the banner of the Stewards be flown at half-mast for thirty days and thirty nights, and the City mourned the passing of the last Ruling Steward of Gondor – a man often troubled, now finally at peace.
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