40. The Steward and the Kings
He had not wished to return to the Citadel, but he had felt himself bound to do so. Should we live to see Pelennor clear of our foes, then you will bear a message to him, Denethor had said, and then commended him to the exile of Aragorn's camp. So he had come, following the captains as they had made the long, grieving ascent, and the higher he climbed, the more blind had Sight grown, the Darkness that he had Seen and sensed from the moment he had arrived that first time in the Seventh Circle occluded sight the more insistently the nearer he drew to the heights.
Has every heart of every kingdom of Men its own Shadow? he had wondered, struggling against its intrusions. It was disturbing, enough so that he had not entered the Tower, but stood upon the steps just without, while Prince Imrahil and the others had entered. No one had questioned his withdrawal from the procession, and he had waited for a summons.
But none had come. Eventually, some of the captains had emerged, though not Imrahil, nor Théoden. Háma had, however, which had rather surprised the elf, for the chief Warden was diligent in his duty to the King of Rohan, but Legolas had rather speech with him than with Forlong, who had also emerged and stood some little distance away upon the steps, apparently lost in his own thoughts.
"What goes within?" Legolas had asked the warden, and Háma, recognizing him, had answered straightforwardly, if with an edge to his voice:
"There is some dispute about Lord Aragorn's claim in Gondor, it seems," he had said, and shaken his head. "Some argument over how he left his service as Thorongil—whether there had been some agreement between Ecthelion and him, to have him disappear ere the Haradrim could demand his head or the like. Old grievances, I gather, wrapped up in new grief."
"The steward paints him a deserter?" Legolas had summarized, after a quick consideration of this report.
"Aye. Before my time, all such intrigues. The prince of Dol Amroth argues with him now, and my liege waits upon word of that debate, while he sees to his son."
Weary as he was, distracted by the sickly beat of shadow upon his heart, it had taken Legolas a moment, even knowing as he did the arrangement, to realize Háma meant Éomer. That at least might explain Háma's presence here, rather than with the king; no doubt, Théoden would wish for a little time to himself. Legolas for his part had felt the ache of loss redouble itself. He had seen Faramir fall, had known the wound for mortal ere ever he and Imrahil had reached him. It had been a blow to learn Éomer, too, had fallen.
Felled by the same hand, even! he thought, and wondered how Aragorn had taken the news. And what of the Grey Company? How many remained? How many men had been lost in the thrust from Harlond? He thought of Éowyn, far away in Dunharrow, waiting on word of her brother who had loved her so and for whom she had paid so heavy a price. He thought of Gimli, who had given up his life that Éomer might live and felt a terrible sense of the waste of this war that nevertheless could not not be fought. More than ever, he felt himself held fast to that vengeance that spurred him on beyond the pale of duty, as he had told Faramir. Poor Faramir, pitted against a foe beyond his strength by duty and a cruel turn of fortune...
Legolas shifted, turning his face into the wind that came now off the mountain, seeking at least this comfort from his lofty perch. He had come here to wait away from the others, hoping thus to escape the suffocating atmosphere that lay within the walls. But though darkness lay over the land, still he could not but be aware that he sat directly before the Ephel Dúath, that he faced Mordor across but twenty leagues at best of land. The menace of the East gaped back at him in the night, and he shuddered, as the Song grew once more, twisting and swelling with yet too many Silences so that each Note sounded shrill, disturbing his own song...
The prince of Mirkwood shook his head violently, and drew a deep breath. The sting of ash even helped, for it drew him down to earth once more, to the small concerns of bodies, even political ones. If word came not soon, he resolved, he would leave this place and go to the Citadel to discover what passed there, or whether Denethor remembered, even, his ultimatum. So decided, he composed himself to wait and wonder.
Nor he alone, for in the Citadel, Théoden sat upon the chair that a courteous guard had brought him, and his heart was heavy. So also were his limbs, and he, wincing, wondered how many times he could meet the trial of his strength and win through to another day's aching joints and muscles. Good to know, of course, that they remained and could bear the use he put them to, harsh as it was, but old men must let go their illusions more ruthlessly than the young where war is concerned. For young men may forget, between battles, that they are mortal, but old men see death on the horizon as surely as the sun, and know it must come for them sooner rather than later.
But not soon enough! he thought, mournfully, as he gazed upon the bed of state. Éomer lay there now, to the left of the dais—the shield-man's place. While Imrahil and what remained of the Council of Gondor had disappeared with Denethor to argue the steward's refusal to treat with Aragorn, Théoden had stood silently by, Háma at his side, and watched the solemn esquires erect one bed to each side of the aisle. It had been some time later that a boy—perhaps nine or ten years of age, Théoden had guessed—had come and bowed low before asking whether he would come and tell the women that the Houses of Healing had sent whether he was satisfied with their preparations. Of course he had agreed.
"Should the prince come, ask him to wait, for I should not be long and I would hear the news," he had told Háma, and then followed the boy, who led him out to a small, clean chamber where a pair of women—one very young, the other surely no less old (or at least, no less aged) than Théoden, both dressed in healer white—waited, Éomer lying on a stone table between them. Here, perhaps, kings and princes and stewards had reposed ere they had been brought to the hall for others to make their farewells. It was not difficult to imagine, as he looked upon the women's contrivances.
They had washed him and cleaned and replaced the armor, though Théoden did not recognize the sable shirt they had dressed him in that showed at throat and wrists. The high, silver-embroidered black collar but made the pallor of bloodless flesh more stark in contrast, and the voice of practicality found time to observe that Faramir would have the worse of it in that regard. His hair they had left free, and one of women had made an artful attempt to let some of it cover the brutal bruising and cuts to one cheek, where the Witch-king's gauntleted fist had struck. His hands they had folded just below his breast, covering the fatal rent in the armor. Helm, sword hilt, and shield lay still to one side.
"We did not know what the custom might be in Rohan, concerning how to array such," one of them, the old woman, had said, curtseying. "What should we tell the esquires when they come, sire?"
Once upon a time, Théoden had been a king well-versed in the art of courtly negotiation; he had held his ground in argument and his temper in the midst of tense debate. War had dashed the rust from the iron will that had seen him gracefully through all such heated matters, tempered it again, and so he replied in a steady voice, "Leave his head bare. There is no shame to cover in such wounds as he bears—let all see who would the marks of our Enemy and know he withstood him. Otherwise, lay his helm at his side, and the shield beneath his head and it will suffice. I will place the sword in his hands myself, as is proper among kinsmen."
They had murmured their understanding, and the old woman had sent the young one off to instruct the esquires who would bear Éomer hence to the great hall again. She, however, had remained a moment, and her eyes had been kind as she asked, "Would you take a little time alone with him, sire?"
He had nodded at that, and thanked her as she had departed, quietly closing the door behind her. In the lantern-lit silence, he had approached and laid hands upon his sister-son, the right upon the crown of his head, the left upon Éomer's hands, and he had squeezed suddenly hard against the anguish that welled up.
"O my son!"
The Rohirrim were a musical people, who set their hearts free in song, and though Gríma had robbed him of heart and voice alike for long, no son of Eorl could ever truly forget the way of such music. It came hard between pain and disuse, but Théoden sang then for the peace of two souls, and he wept as he sang, his voice raw and rough to his ears, but he cared not for that. He sang for Éomer, as swift lost to him as found, and he sang for Théodred, who had gone unsung and unblessed to his end and who, for all he knew, he might never see to his proper rest. For their bright days and the life and laughter that should have been their due, he sang. And he sang for himself, especially for himself, for the great aching emptiness that no memory could fill, and he gathered Éomer into his arms, and held on, and held on...
At long last, the trembling stilled in him; it was all sung out, and he drew a shuddering breath, kissed Éomer's hair, and laid him down gently once more. He brushed the long, golden locks from his sister-son's face, letting his fingers have their fill of caress as he did so, and then he went and retrieved the broken shard. There he paused a moment, for the hilt was plain—well made, but certainly not Gúthwinë. In his grief, he had not noticed the difference—no one had, for it had lain beneath Éomer's hand, and had simply been brought up with him.
Whose is it, then? he wondered, and wondered, too, whether that meant Gúthwinë were on the field still. But such questions could keep; there was no dishonor in burying his son with the blade that had smote the Witch-king, futile blow though it had been, and Théoden would see Éomer well-barrowed.
Custom in Gondor placed a man's hands over his heart, with the sword pointing downwards, but the Mark was more particular. For a man who died in battle it was deemed proper that his sword be unsheathed and "raised," so that the tip rested upon his lips, symbol of his lasting (and last) defiance. There was not nearly enough of the blade left for such, but Théoden wound Éomer's hands about the hilt and laid it so that the shard at least lay over his heart.
Then there was naught left to do but make his farewell. Théoden wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, then stooped and kissed his nephew finally upon the lips. "Good rest in Gondor, son of my heart," he murmured, and left him then, opening the door to find the old woman standing silent guard without, while two esquires waited a little further up the hall, apparently at her order.
"My thanks, lady," he had said, and she gave him another sweet smile, before she beckoned the two young men to join her.
Théoden had left them to their final preparations, returning to the great hall, where Háma looked him up and down, then made him a slight bow. "Nothing yet, sire, I—" he had begun to say, but at that very moment, voices sounded. Both men had looked up to see a stream of grim-faced councilors emerge from the door just to the right of the dais, Forlong in the lead, his broad face florid and angry.
"What news, lord?" Théoden had called to him. The lord of Lossarnach glanced sharply toward him, recognition set in, and he had changed course to join the king of the Mark. "Does it go so ill?"
"It does. We who met on the field speak with one voice: at least Denethor must speak with Lord Aragorn. 'Tis the only way to resolve such questions as we all have. But he will not bend."
"Is he truly so obstinate?"
"You were not much in Gondor when Thorongil was, sire," Forlong had replied, darkly. "I rode in with my father often, and after some years, it was all about the court that there was some grudge or disliking between them. They kept it close, but you could feel it whenever they were together—like lightning had struck. And there were many rumors, in afterdays, that Thorongil had left because he knew ere long, Denethor must take up the rod, for Ecthelion's health was not good even then. And some said it was wise, while others held if he were truly the servant of the steward, he would have stayed, for Gondor's sake. Still others thought he did serve Gondor by leaving, so that Denethor and Ecthelion could tell Umbar with a good conscience that they harbored him no longer."
Forlong had sighed. "'Tis all old gossip now," he had said, waving a hand dismissively. "If ever anyone knew the truth of it, it would be the councilors of those days, but of them, there remains only Denethor, for we have all succeeded our fathers. And our fathers told us nothing of this matter."
"What of Imrahil? Can he not persuade him?" Théoden had asked.
"Who knows? He tries still—'twas he that asked us to leave, though what good he thinks to accomplish, I know not." Forlong had shaken his head. "Finduilas lies still between them, though she is long gone from us."
"A man must love his sister," Théoden had murmured, and Forlong had cleared his throat, shifting his not inconsiderable weight at that.
"And his wife, also," the lord of Lossarnach had rumbled. "There is no peace to be found between brother and husband, in this or any matter, I think."
Théoden had considered this briefly, then said, "Then especially in this matter, we must not leave it to husband and brother." He had tilted his head toward the doors at the far end of the hall. "You should go to your rest, Lord Forlong. I will wait on the prince's report."
"There shall be little rest while all remains unsettled," Forlong had replied. But he had given Théoden a courteous nod and bid him good night. After which, the king of the Mark had turned to his chief warden and, laying hand upon his shoulder, said:
"You should go with Lord Forlong, Háma, and take some air. I shall wait here, and see that indeed all is done rightly for Éomer. When I am done, I shall come find you," he had instructed in a low voice. Háma had frowned at this, plainly wishing to remain, but he had acquiesced, wordlessly, and departed.
So Théoden had come to his present seat and double vigil, and he wearied of the day, wishing for a few hours release to sleep and lay down for a time the ache of body and soul. But the matter with Denethor must be attended to, and as he sat pondering Forlong's words anew, suddenly the door off the far side of the dais opened, and after a few moments, the prince of Dol Amroth strode swiftly into view. His was not the face of a man whose news was good, though Imrahil had too great a dignity to let it show overmuch, beyond the tight set of his jaw and the unwonted (even for one of Gondor's great lords) somberness of face. He paused before the biers, gazing at his sister-son, but though Théoden had said nothing, nor made any move to disturb him yet, Imrahil caught sight of him. Straightening, he left Faramir, and the king of the Mark rose slowly to greet him.
"Sire," Imrahil said.
"Prince Imrahil," Théoden replied. "What said he?"
Imrahil sighed, folding his arms across his chest. "He will not send for him. I have pressed him as hard as I dare, but any more from me and I fear he shall refuse to hear such arguments as a matter of principle."
"Will he not even send Legolas to say he will meet Aragorn at the gates?" Théoden asked.
"We did not discuss that," Imrahil replied, and at Théoden's surprised look, said tautly, "I thought it best, given the tale Forlong told when we met on the field, to let any mention of Legolas lie. Denethor will be a long time forgiving that ruse, if ever he does."
Théoden sighed inaudibly, but he nodded, for that decided his course. "Then, as I helped craft that ruse, let me speak with him. He may choose not to hear an erring councilor," he said, and smiled apologetically at the prince for the description, "but he will hear the king of the Mark, his ally, whether he will or no."
"I am grateful for your aid, sire, but it may be wiser to leave him the night to reflect—" Imrahil began, but Théoden shook his head.
"We do not have the night. We must speak tomorrow of the next step; we must settle our ranks. We must address the fact that Elendil's banner has been raised, and that Gondor has no heir and no Captain-General anymore, unless it is you, sir. But if it be you, who have already bent your knee to Aragorn, then the steward must meet with him and end all confusion," he replied. Imrahil grimaced.
"I know, and yet hard as ever he is to sway, Denethor may well be intractable for the present."
"Perhaps," Théoden conceded. Imrahil gave him a searching look, but then inclined his head respectfully.
"Then I will hope that you see what I cannot, sire, and find a way to move him." With that, the prince of Dol Amroth turned and strode for the doors. In his wake, Théoden stood and stared down at the smooth floor, listening to Imrahil's retreating footsteps 'til he heard the door creak and close behind him. Then he turned to the guards who had taken up their places about the bier, and said to them:
"Will you leave us for a time? I shall send for you again in due course."
The escort of Riders bowed at once and obeyed, but the Gondorian honor guard hesitated.
"Sire, our lord commands—"
"It is so that I may speak with your lord that I ask you to depart for awhile," Théoden told him. "Be not concerned: I shall intercede with him for you. Beyond that, 'tis my son, too, who lies here. I shall take care of his honor, and so also of Faramir's."
That had convinced them, apparently, and so they had left, and Théoden had walked a slow circuit about the beds, 'til he stood at last in the shadow of the stairs that led to the empty throne, and he unsheathed Herugrim, setting the point upon the floor and resting his hands upon the cross-hilts.
And then he waited, for although it had been long indeed since he had dealt face to face with Denethor, or even his messengers, he thought he knew enough of the man to be certain of one thing: that there was no need to go in search of him, for grief would bring him here eventually.
And then we shall speak, and perhaps two terrified old men may yet serve their purpose.
It was late, and Imrahil long since departed when at last, Denethor left the private office in which they had quarreled. But rather than make his way up into the high chamber, as was his habit, he found his steps turning thoughtlessly, inevitably, down the corridor that led to the great hall. But if his destination were clear, little else was, and thought shied away from that 'little else' even as feet drew him inexorably toward it. And as he went, the hateful words of the message still tucked in his pocket whispered to him:
I have a message... from your son. Denethor had shuttered that line from his thoughts for days and nights now, as the news from the lower circles had worsened. He had grasped the import of that dreadful line immediately: the entire message reeked of contrivance, and to Denethor, who could read between the lines easily enough, Boromir's absence spoke for itself. He is dead. No sooner had the traitor voice of grief spoken than Denethor had thrust it ruthlessly aside, insistently grinding grief under a mental and sharply logical heel. There was, after all, only Thorongil's word—hardly disinterested!—for it, and without proof, he would not admit it.
And so he had sought him, night after night, when he could bear no more the reports from the field, in the palantír's thick glass. But since the turn of summer last, the world had grown dark, Gondor especially so: visions heaved and swelled in a chaos of obscure images, fading and returning with no rhyme or reason and despite all his efforts to steady them. Once, he thought he saw him, saw Boromir, and hope had flared briefly, only to drain painfully away with the darkened image that could not satisfy his doubts. The Seeing Stone might not lie, but it, too, could be blinded, and Denethor feared the power that could put out that eye. 'Twas not the Dark Lord's contrivance, he thought; the Enemy might veil himself even as Denethor could—so all the ancient texts said—but could even he veil all Middle-earth when Gondor stood still?
Thus had the sleepless nights of the siege worn away, gnawed ever by the voice of doubt that asked whether he thought to see his son returning or else his final fate in the flickering glass. And in the blank darkness that stared often back at him in the Seeing Stone, he was haunted by the image, gleaned he knew not whence, of Boromir lying still and silent in a grey boat upon a river, and a chill settled into his bones. What nightmare vision is this? he demanded, and more and more suspicion crept in: if it were true foresight, what did Thorongil, who now signed himself 'Aragorn,' know of it? What, he wondered, and felt the cold within harden, had he to do with my son?
He had thought, if by some stroke of fortune Minas Tirith outlasted her foes, to fetch him hence—to use the elf, who might indeed be unwitting, but it hardly mattered, so long as Thorongil came—and have the truth of the matter out of him in private. Or at least get him away from his followers, where Denethor might be assured that Ecthelion's most favored erstwhile captain should not depart without notice and unquestioned a second time.
That had been before the arrival of the lords of Gondor and Rohan, before Imrahil had laid his second-born at his feet, and the great horn of Gondor, too—a 'token' from Thorongil, and for just a moment, as the speechless steward had stared down at the broken body of the son he had sent to the walls, faces and features had blurred. Was it Faramir, or was it Boromir who lay before him? And it could not be—thought and heart rebelled alike—could not be both of them. Not both of them...
No! "Enough!" he had cut Imrahil off, as the prince had come at last to deliver Thorongil's—or Aragorn's—request for an audience.
"My lord?" Imrahil had asked, and Denethor had drawn himself up, signaling to the guards to come and do their duty by the dead.
"I will not receive a deserter who would be also a usurper," he had declared, his voice flat. "I will not dishonor the dead by allowing such a one to pass our gates."
The arguments had begun almost at once, and since retiring to the council room beyond the great hall, had continued without cease, 'til at last even Imrahil had given up and departed. For a time, Denethor had stood staring down at the council table, at his hands white upon its dark wood—white, and thin, the skin taught over the bones. Not wrinkled. Not yet, but a tremor had shaken them that he remembered from days long past—amid the ruins of battlefields, when he had had a moment to himself to wash up, he would hold his hands before him and watch them shake, then clench his fists 'til the ache of that tension burned in all the muscles from elbows to fingertips and he could not bear it anymore. Still, it had taken hours, sometimes, before the trembling had subsided.
It might take as long tonight, and as he emerged into the great hall, hands clasped behind him, he could feel the spasms, still, of rage and grief and still more unwelcome feeling that cut deeper than either. Denethor stared at the bier, at the still, sable-shrouded figure atop it. Guilt was a cruel mistress, and her eyes pierced deep into the burdened heart, particularly the heart that had sought so long to deny her. He is dead. I sent him to this. I sent them both...
The pain of that truth, borne home immediately by the sight of his son laid out before him, had come like the bite of cold water on a winter's morn that breaks uneasy sleep. The ugliness of their parting, thrust aside since the siege, had overwhelmed him then and brought with it how many countless other grievances never resolved over the long years of strife between them.
But it was not enough Faramir should be taken from him, without hope of amends—the horn that Imrahil had brought had persuaded him as Thorongil's message had not. Though he knew well Boromir had preceded his brother to the grave, the unreasoning heart insisted that his fate was linked to Faramir's, that his death was blood money, demanded by the fortune that had ever marked him as the favored son. If the younger must die as he had lived, without a father's blessing, then the elder must perish with him, who had ever enjoyed it. The horn laid upon Faramir's breast was the seal of fate's sentence, and the pain of it had nearly unmanned him.
And it might yet undo him. Faramir's face was pale and still, yet a great weariness—of war and world—was evident even in its final repose, suffering graven somehow into his face though age would never line it now, and Denethor could avoid the truth no longer: I put this upon him... "Faramir," he whispered, and could speak no further, nor move...
"I am told he fought very bravely, and held the gate against the very face of terror." Denethor stiffened, broken free of his reflections by the habitual and instant reassertion of public face and posture, and his eyes darted toward the figure the shadows disgorged. Théoden of Rohan made him a salute with his blade, then sheathed it as he moved forward to stand by Éomer's bier. The king of the Mark reached to touch gently his nephew's face, stroked his cheek tenderly.
"Wyrd bith ful arœd," he murmured sadly. "Swa thes middangeard ealra dogra gehwam, dreoseth ond fealleth."
"Where are the guards?" Denethor demanded, abrupt in his startlement and suddenly, resentfully aware of their absence.
"I sent them away," the king of Rohan replied. At that, Denethor was silent a moment, then his expression cooled, hardened, and he said, in a clipped tone:
"There is nothing to discuss, Théoden. You should to bed."
"Éomer sleeps for us both. And I would keep my son's company a little longer," Théoden replied, without ire.
Son? Something flinched within him at the very word, and the desperate need for solitude was as a weight. Nevertheless:
"I did not know. Rohan's loss is greater than the tale made it," Denethor managed, gracefully enough, and turned his face away, staring at the torchlight that reflected dully from the floors.
"As is Gondor's," Théoden replied, and seemed sincere, even, but nonetheless would not leave him in peace. After but a short pauses "This is a house of shadows. How many know that Boromir is dead?"
"Word spreads quickly when there is advantage in it, I doubt not," Denethor replied, voice hardening once more.
"If that is so, then this dispute," the king observed, "must rouse much bitterness among many, and confusion in those who understand it not, Denethor."
"I should not have counted you among the latter. Or is Ælric forgotten in the Mark?"
"Oh, he is well remembered. Very well remembered—and much beloved, for he has been of great help to us, then and now," Théoden replied, and Denethor's jaw clenched at this news, so very reminiscent of times past when what most he desired was their utter obliteration.
"I see," he replied, coldly.
"If you do, then you must explain it to me, steward of Gondor, for I do not see the harm of calling for him."
"You know my mind on this matter already, Théoden," Denethor replied, turning to face the old man.
"Aye, I heard you name Aragorn usurper and deserter," the king of Rohan acknowledged, as he left Éomer's side at last and slowly approached, hands clasped behind him. The torchlight gleamed upon his white braids, paler even than the face of his nephew, of Faramir, white like the horse and tree upon tabards. We shall all bleed so clean one day soon, he thought, and moved to gaze upon his son once more, and felt Théoden's regard haunt him still. Will he not leave? "I do not know what happened in Gondor forty years ago; I do not know the minds of the men who sat in council when Ælric, 'Thorongil' as you called him then, raided Harad and then disappeared from Pelargir. Nor can I say I know he is the Heir of Isildur, save that he seems not mad enough to me to be deluded, nor to be lying. But I know he has given my house succor in time of trial, captained my people once more in battle, and healed them of their wounds, so that some at least may return home who might not have."
"And so he binds you to him—" Denethor began, heatedly, and Théoden answered, just as quickly, ere he could finish:
"Yes, he does. And a far more wholesome traitor he seems to me than the one who whispered in my ear and dripped poison in my veins these last years. So wholesome, I should hold him dear, who befriended my more clear-eyed son and ever-loyal Háma. If he left Gondor without leave forty years ago, does it speak to any need today to bar him from the City he has helped to save?" Théoden paused, then: "Will you not at least speak with him?"
"To what end?" Denethor demanded, sharply. "If I speak with him, but one answer will satisfy others—I know this! But there is no question to be settled: he deserted his post, and now seeks a title that may not be sullied by such crimes."
"If you must stand upon desertion to deny Thorongil, surely I have the prior and better claim, for was he not of the Rohirrim then, bound to serve in terms and not for life? If he left Gondor, is he not beholden to me? If I have found him free of fault, has Gondor any claim upon him?"
"Let Rohan forgive him, then, but Gondor still is owed!"
"I doubt it not, but what is owed? Good service he has rendered: he has delivered Pelargir, he has helped to free Minas Tirith, and he has helped also to bring your allies to you—even the Dead. The lords of this land and their men are willing to follow him whithersoever fate leads. There are kings who hang their crowns upon no more than that, even in Gondor if I recall. If you will not treat with him, therefore, it will sow confusion and dismay. Surely Gondor is owed better than that!"
"You speak as is the wont of men in late times, when present need rules all thoughts. But if the deeds of forty years ago matter to no others, they matter to me," Denethor ground out, and he felt the twist of agony within as he gestured helplessly to Faramir. "Shall I open Minas Tirith to one who would not stay and serve her needs in smaller matters than this, yet who would claim a throne? My sons deserve better than to have all they fought for given over to such careless hands!"
"Aye, your sons deserve better than their lot. All our sons deserve the days that we have had—that would be justice." Théoden paused, raw grief plain upon his face. "Can we give it to them?" Then more softly: "Can you give it to them, if you pursue the course you are upon now?" A long moment, they stood staring at each other, and in the charged air, something flickered: a common pain that Imrahil could not share in and that bound steward to king where the prince of Dol Amroth could but breed resistance. Breath came harsh, and the blood pounded in Denethor's ears as he and Théoden faced each other, and he watched the fire drain from the other's eyes, grief undermining its own strength.
Théoden's shoulders slumped and he swayed; Denethor made an abortive reach, stopped just short, between fire and ice uncertain what to do. The king of Rohan shook his head and shivered slightly, then looked up exhausted at Denethor. "Go then," he said dully, in a low voice. "Do as you will, but for Béma's sake, man, grieve your sons and make it count! It may be all that is left to you... and to us."
With that, Théoden turned away, going once more to Éomer, his fingers trailing along the edge of the bier. They strayed at length to touch the hands closed about the hilt of the sword, and the ran lightly up an arm to linger there upon the young man's shoulder. Just for a moment, then Théoden departed, his footfalls loud in the silence, heavy with grief. The door shut at length behind him, and there stood Denethor, unmoving, 'til at last, he dragged his eyes to look upon Faramir. Slowly, almost reluctantly, he approached him, reached out a hand to touch, drew it back.
I cannot! Denethor bowed his head, stared at his hands, at the one wringing the other, and he clasped them hard, but the trembling seemed worse than ever. He could feel it in him, too, a quivering about the heart, and he sucked in a breath sharply. But nothing came of it; no release and no relief, just a grey anguish that knew no outside...
It was sometime later he heard the creak of a door and the click of boot heels and ring of mail announced his solitude short-lived. "My lord?" a quiet voice asked at length.
"Yes?" he replied, tersely, turning to see the captain of the honor guard standing there. The man made him a bow, then said:
"The Rohirrim wish to return, since King Théoden has left. What should we tell them, my lord?"
Denethor considered this question a moment, then answered finally: "Tell them they may enter. Bring your men as well. And captain." The man paused. "Send someone to the elf and tell him I would have speech with his master—alone. I shall await him in the high chamber."
"Aye, my lord," the other replied, saluted, and went swiftly to carry out his orders. A little longer, Denethor stood staring after him, then he turned and gazed once and briefly upon his son, then lifted his chin and without another look, made for the door and the stairs hidden in a little alcove, and began the long ascent. The weariness of five sleepless days made each flight a trial, and Denethor felt his own body as unbearably heavy—guilt was a millstone that left nothing untouched, yet he could not find it in him to resent the struggle with the stairs. Pain was penance, and peace also—thought grew numb and silent before it.
It even remained so when, at last, he came to the final landing, and the door to his private retreat. He went to the eastern window, as was his wont, and sat within the deep embrasure, staring mindlessly out into the darkness, aware of the red glow far below, yet he heeded it not. The emptiness of night was bleak, yet it roused in him a wordless longing—to sink into its indifference that neither knew nor cared for aught of feeling or the small griefs of man but placidly engulfed them all. Vision swam, and for a moment, he saw again Boromir in the boat. Or was it Faramir? They seemed to have grown together, his sons, or was it the night that worked upon them, erasing difference, making a mongrel monstrosity of them?
Boromir... Faramir...? All the world wavered as under the blur of rain, yet in the end he remained. Aye, he remained, and still there was no release, and no relief, and alone with thoughts-not-quite-thoughts, could not escape himself at last, and a horror gripped him, shook him 'til he thought he should suffocate. And all the while, in the dim reflection of the window, his face remained, a pale blur, unmoved and unmoving, a living effigy...
The knock upon the door came as a shock, then, shattering the silence, and also the sense of timeless abandon, for surely much time must have passed since he had sent the guard captain away, but the night did not show it. Again the knock sounded, and this time Denethor rose and turned toward the door. "Come," he called, and responding to that command, in slipped a grey-cloaked figure. Thorongil's gaze fixed instantly upon Denethor, even as he quietly shut the door behind him, and for a time, the two men simply stood and stared at each other.
He has not changed, was Denethor's first thought. Thorongil—Aragorn, apparently—might have a few silver threads scattered through his hair now, but otherwise, he was the very image of himself nigh forty years ago. Yet image was not all. Where once there had been a wariness in that grey gaze that bespoke a certain self-doubt and a corresponding weakness, there was now only readiness—the shiftless wanderer had apparently found his ground in the years since he had left Gondor, and found it somewhere beyond Gondor. Denethor felt envy run like fever through him, and anger, too. Gondor fails, and now he stands firm! There was an obscenity there, and contempt colored his tone as he spoke, saying:
"Late the hour and long the absence for one who would be king, Captain Thorongil."
"And the hour shall be later still ere we are done, so let us not bandy barbed words, Steward of Gondor," came the prompt reply. "If there is to be aught left of this land, we cannot afford them. Nor can we afford to let old rivalries divide the ranks."
Which came straight to the point in far fewer words than Denethor might have expected. "No, indeed," he replied and moved to lay his hands upon the intricately carved, cleverly hinged box that sat atop the small, round table set in the middle of the room, beckoning Thorongil forward. "I expect," he said after a moment, when the other stood at the table's edge opposite of him, "that you have some proposal to make, some scheme to put the lords at ease, while remaining free of my authority. You left Gondor for more reason than some other, nameless tasks, did you not?"
Thorongil gave him a hard look, but then nodded. "I would not be bound to you in any way that would give you pretext to make a claim upon me, as lord to liegeman. Nor will I now."
"I thought not. You always bore the yoke too lightly for one who claimed to serve," Denethor replied, bitterly. "But if you will not accept such a bond, then you must prove your claim to me, for I will not treat as ally a deserter who sought to manipulate me. Nor with one who had aught to do with my son's death."
At that, Thorongil's face darkened, but after a moment, he sighed, and said, "Desertion I have no fear of arguing, and deception in the matter of the letter I admit. But your son's death—I fought at Boromir's side, I was there when he passed, and I have carried both his horn and his farewell ever since. I have said as much already and without prompting; if you will not believe that, but inquire after murder, I see not what proof you might accept, for Legolas alone stands as my witness if my word is not enough."
"There are other ways of discerning a man's truthfulness. And if you are in fact of Elendil's line, then that, too, will show—if you have the heart for it," Denethor replied, watching the other closely. Thorongil's eyes narrowed, as he sought some guidance in these words or some sign in Denethor's face or posture that would make sense of this speech.
"What way do you propose?" he asked at last, and Denethor reached into a pocket and withdrew a key, which he inserted carefully into the lock of the box and gave a twist. He raised the lid, withdrew a black silken cloth, then carefully withdrew the pins set into the box's joints, all the while watching Thorongil.
"Come and look. Do you know this?" he asked. Since the box held still, Denethor having not yet removed the last pin, Thorongil came around the table, eyeing him curiously, and he glanced into the box. Even as he did so, Denethor removed that last pin, and let the sides unfold to reveal a dark globe upon a stand, which, as the two men gazed at it, flashed suddenly to life, drawing them in to—
Darkness. Masses of it, save for a dim light at the edges of vision. Denethor felt the other's disorientation and he seized upon it, compelling him to remain, to face him.
Open to me—tell me of my son!
The light at the rim of the world grew, filled the mind's eye, and in the midst of it, a brighter light, in vague shape of man, confronted him, blazed momentarily brighter, becoming nearly blinding as Thorongil's will clashed with his. But Denethor had fought harder contests in the Seeing Stone, and for longer, and he stood firm in his demand: Open! Speak of my son!
A moment longer, the other resisted, and the struggle grew bitter, to the point of pain, and then—
—ceased. The light dimmed, and the world within the glass greyed, then greened as tree and greensward shimmered to life. Parth Galen, came the words, unbidden from across the bounds of will, as the tale unfolded...
Fear floods in, and then the determined focus of a warrior as the battle is joined, the swirling of chaos. Arrows. Arrows! Collision, chaos—"Merry! Pippin!"
Orcs break away, two small, struggling figures in hand, and then—
"We cannot win against even this many if the archers remain!" Boromir growls, and Denethor feels a shock keen as pain to find himself suddenly confronted with his son in memory, Boromir's face contorted with rage and shame, ere he smiles, fierce and fey. "Take care of them!"
With a bellowed cry, Boromir cuts past the thinned ring of orcs, bludgeoning those in his path with his shield, leaving Aragorn behind to fill the hole in their knotted defense. And then he turns straight into the hail of arrows and charges the line of archers—
The trees shimmer. The land shifts. In a little clearing, there he sits, face grey with pain, and everywhere, everywhere, blood...
Pained grey eyes open, and grief strikes so hard it leaves him breathless—leaves them breathless. 'Twas madness... 'm sorry, Aragorn. My… brother…father… they wait for… me. You must… tell them. Go! Save our people!"
Save our people. O, my Boromir!
Memory wavered, faded, and for a brief moment, Thorongil appeared before him, just as he was, save that there flickered in his face a strange light—the eagle-star indeed, ere he reached and touched him, and Denethor gasped as everything went to white—
—and then he was leaning against the table, feeling as though every muscle had gone to water as a familiar weakness washed through him and throbbed dully behind his eyes. Every contest in the Stone had its price, and the greater when he had to struggle with another's will.
The veil was drawn back over the palantír, and Denethor became aware that in fact, someone was gripping his arm. With an effort of will, he straightened, raised his head to find Thorongil regarding him. There was flint in those eyes, for all he kept his mask in place, and he asked, "I trust you are satisfied?"
"The Seeing Stones show only what is—a lie will show," Denethor managed, then jerked free of the other's grip, retreating to sit heavily back in the window embrasure. He was reeling, whether from shock or the struggle with Thorongil, or both, he knew not.
After a time, the dizziness ceased, though the headache remained, sharper than before, even, yet at least he was accustomed to such pain, and he lifted his eyes once more to stare at Thorongil, only to find himself the object of the other's regard, which hovered openly between anger and pity, and perhaps a little horror. Or was it shock? Revulsion?
"What have you done to yourself, Denethor?" Thorongil asked quietly.
"What duty demanded," he answered flatly, and felt his lip curl a bit. "Fear not—the glass has grown dark of late, and I can see nothing. You need not try yourself."
Somewhat to his surprise, this elicited no anger, but a look of troubled speculation only. "How long has it been since you saw aught of note?"
"Nine months, perhaps a little longer. Why?"
"If you would know, then call for a council tomorrow morning, and you shall learn the answer," Thorongil replied, a little challengingly. Denethor shook his head.
"Ever you stood on the cusp of insolence in your 'advice.' Call a meeting, you say, if I would be answered? And in whose name should I call this council? Mine? Yours?" he demanded. Thorongil raised a brow.
"Call it for Gondor's sake, in both our names, if you will," he replied. "I care not, so long as I have your judgment tonight whether you will acknowledge me trustworthy as an ally in this venture tomorrow, so that we may set strife aside among ourselves while this war lasts."
"You would be called to take oath as an ally only?" Denethor said, skeptically.
"If it prevented division, yes—the matter of succession can wait."
Denethor grunted, and then grimaced as he rose once more, and felt it in every joint it seemed. He shook his head, replied: "If you believe that, then you but show once more your ignorance of duty! There is no delaying the question—any disagreement among us would but raise the spectre of schism. Moreover, our blood runs thin, royal and otherwise, for the young perish, and the old linger, while the might of the Enemy grows daily."
Bitter the taste of those words upon his tongue, and Denethor fell silent a moment, ere at last he waved a hand. "Take command, then, for all the good it will do us, but if you have your conditions, I have mine, as well."
"Speak them," the other commanded, quietly.
"No doubt there are others you would name Steward, but so long as I breathe, I stand and fall with Minas Tirith, and I will not bow to you. Do as you please, Aragorn—I will call you lord of this realm and leave you and the council to whatever follies you decide, but here I stay, to salvage what I can," Denethor replied.
Aragorn, once Thorongil, stared at him a long moment, and Denethor could feel the keenness of that gaze, once so familiar, but now grown strange to him after so long away from it. But at length, the other nodded. "Very well," he said. "Come tomorrow morning by the second bell to my tent and we shall speak again, Steward of Gondor." A pause, and Aragorn's eyes flicked over him once more. What he saw, Denethor did not know, and frankly, he was glad not to be told. Aragorn inclined his head politely. "Rest well," he said, tellingly—perhaps warningly?—and then departed, leaving Denethor at last to his own thoughts, which crowded his mind now, strung out on the spasms of feeling, and he shut his eyes.
Valar, I am weary! Indeed, he was likely nigh drunk on exhaustion, perhaps a little delirious with it, for he laughed when he thought of the bargain just made. A king who will not claim his crown, and a steward who insists upon his rod—the world is mad! Mad, and terrible, and of a sudden he sobered.
"The world is mad," he murmured, grief and grievance twining tight in his breast.
And yet still, release did not come.
Aragorn had taken Roheryn up to the Seventh Circle, desiring at least a swift coming and departure, however long the interview. Now he called his guard to him—he had not come wholly alone—and the pair of Rangers mounted their horses and followed him back down through the City, passing carefully amid the rubble and then out onto the field. There, a cluster of encampments had sprung up: the Lord of Pelargir and his men had camped perhaps half a mile from the gates of Minas Tirith, while Théoden's Riders had settled north of them. Campfires burned, and beyond them, the funeral flames where still men and women of the City labored to bring the dead. Aragorn had gone to see the first of the great bonfires lit, and had stood with many others, head bowed, as the first of the fallen were given to it, ere he had gone to join the healers in an effort to prevent the flames consuming more than they must.
Not until Legolas had come with word that Denethor had at last decided he would meet with him had he had the time to think of aught else. Now, after the trial of that confrontation, it seemed as if all the hours of the day—indeed, of the past week—had fallen upon him all at once.
It was a relief, therefore, to reach his tent and dismiss his escort, and he was looking no further ahead than his bedroll and oblivion, but the elf who glanced up at his entrance had not the look of one prepared to leave him be. Indeed, no sooner had Aragorn let fall the tent flap than Legolas was upon him, speaking low and urgently:
"A Captain Éothain has come seeking you, Aragorn," he announced, without prelude. "I asked him to wait by the campfire."
Aragorn frowned, rubbed at his eyes as he sought briefly in memory ere he asked, "Has Théoden some message?"
"No. He said he was here on his own behalf and that his message concerned a friend left in his care," Legolas replied, and green eyes narrowed. "What does he mean by that, Aragorn? There were no Rangers who rode with the Rohirrim."
For a moment, Aragorn was equally confused, but then he thought of Pippin, of whom he had had no chance to inquire, and of their words in Dunharrow...
"Ai, Elbereth," he muttered. "Merry!"
"Merry? What—?" But Aragorn was already on his way out, though Legolas was hard upon his heels, apparently having decided the swiftest way to enlightenment lay simply in following him.
The Rangers had built a fire for themselves some little ways away from Aragorn's tent, and as he and Legolas approached, one of the men standing before it glanced up, saw them, and limped stiffly to meet them. The firelight illumined the white horse upon his stained tabard, and he pushed his hood back to reveal tousled, pale hair.
"Lord Ælric, I am Éothain of Aldburg—the Third Marshal's captain," he introduced himself.
"Captain," Aragorn greeted him sparely, then said: "I am told this concerns a friend."
"Aye, lord," Éothain replied, then hesitated a moment. Which was enough to confirm the worst fear, and into the silence, Aragorn said grimly:
"Bring us to him."
Poor Faramir, pitted against a foe beyond his strength by duty and a cruel turn of fortune...—Cf. "The Houses of Healing," RoTK, 156.
"Wyrd bith ful arœd ... Swa thes middangeard ealra dogra gehwam, dreoseth ond fealleth."—lines borrowed from The Wanderer, lines 6 and 63-64. Most readable translation I could find, despite disclaimers at top: Michael J. Alexander's, which would make this something like "Weird is set fast... so this middle-earth each of all days aeth and falleth." 'Aeth' is clearly a slight typo; other translations have "crumbles" and "declines." The Old English Dictionary has "fails" and "weakens."
[T]he young perish, and the old linger—"The King of the Golden Hall," TTT, 154.