Hands of the King
Minas Tirith, 10 July, 2984 T.A.
'My lord?' Denethor's eye snapped open. It was an hour past midnight. There was a light tap on the bedroom door. 'My lord, it is Huan. Please wake.' He slipped out of bed carefully so as not to disturb Finduilas and hastened to the door, opening it a crack. Beregar had not brought a light and was but a deeper shadow in the dark room. 'There is a Tower servant downstairs,' the man murmured, 'who says the Steward is very ill and that you are needed.'
Denethor stepped out of Finduilas's bedroom, closing the door quietly behind him. 'I will be downstairs in a moment. Be sure the healers have been summoned.' This was the fourth time since early June that he had been called to the Tower because of the Steward's health. Each time, Warden Lhûn and Master Laanga had tended the Steward and staved off the worst. Ecthelion actually had seemed stronger since loëndë, coming out to greet the children for an hour at the festival, and then attending all of Faramir's first birthday celebration but a week past in his quarters, though he had spent most of it nodding off in his chair and had to be carried to bed once it was done. Denethor hastily pulled on his clothes, not bothering to light a candle, and went downstairs. The servant and Beregar stood in the entry hall. He brushed past them, striding to the Tower. 'You,' he said over his shoulder to the servant, 'how is the Steward?'
'I don't know, sir. Warden Hathol simply bade me to come get you at once and sent another for Warden Lhûn.'
There was a knot of servants clustered at the door of the Steward's quarters, speaking in hushed, anxious tones. Denethor shouldered through them, pushing them aside when they did not move quickly enough. In the bedchamber beyond the front room, Hathol and two more servants knelt next to Ecthelion where he lay sprawled upon the rug. One of the servants had his hands over his face and was weeping. It was difficult to see as there was only a single candle burning on a small table beside the bed.
'Get some light in here!' Denethor snapped, making them jump. He grabbed the servant who was not weeping and dragged him to his feet. 'You, get it!' He laid a hand along Ecthelion's throat, seeking a pulse. The coldness of the skin gave him his answer. Denethor took one of the Steward's arms and tried to move it. It was still flexible, but starting to stiffen. Someone came in with several lamps and set them about, making Denethor wish he had not asked for light. Ecthelion's face was twisted in pain, his eyes and mouth open. There were bruises across one temple where his head must have struck something when he fell. The arm under his body was clutching at his chest, fingers caught in the collar of his nightshirt. The garment itself was hiked up above the man's waist, leaving his legs and loins exposed to their sight. The rug beneath him was in disarray, bearing witness to the man's thrashing about in his final minutes. He had fouled himself and the rug.
After a single horrified moment, Denethor stood and roared 'Out! All of you, out!' Even Hathol fled. Denethor turned away from the pitiful sight on the floor, arms and legs shaking, and stumbled over to the bed. Didn't anyone hear this? Where was an attendant? He pulled back the coverlet, smoothed the sheets and plumped the pillows. How could they let him lie there? Edging back to Ecthelion, Denethor kept his eyes averted so he would not gaze upon the Steward's humiliation. This should not have happened. He rolled the man over and pulled the nightshirt down to provide some dignity before getting the washbasin. There was not enough water in it to clean away the mess, so Denethor used a nearby shirt to wipe away what he could and saved the water for washing his own hands afterwards. I should have been watching. It was more difficult to lift the limp, soiled form than to drag it, but Denethor was determined that no more disgrace would be visited upon the Steward's body. A Steward should not die like this. Once Ecthelion's limbs had been arranged in a dignified pose, his face stroked to remove most signs of anguish, and the coverlet arranged neatly over his form, Denethor sat next to the bed, awaiting the healers.
Lhûn did not even look at the body when she walked in, but came straight to Denethor. 'High Warden, Warden Hathol told me. I am sorry.'
'Thank you. We knew it was coming.'
'But a sorrow, nonetheless, grandson,' Laanga said, leaning heavily on his black staff as he gazed at the Steward. He took one of the pale hands in his own gnarled black grip and held it, shutting his eyes and cocking his head as though listening to something. With a sigh, Laanga returned the hand to its place on the coverlet and stooped to kiss the dead man's brow.
'Denethor, if you can speak, what happened? How was this known?' Lhûn asked.
'I don't know. I have not asked.' Laanga and Lhûn exchanged a look and the apothecary left the room, returning with Hathol. Denethor looked at the grief-stricken man coldly. 'Who found the Steward? And why was he alone?'
'Damrod found him. He had just stepped away to use the privy...'
'That's a lie. The blood is pooling under his skin. I know how long a man must be dead before his limbs seize up. The Steward has been dead for at least three hours.'
Hathol dropped his head and began weeping. 'I do not know, my lord.'
'Has all honor left this tower?' Denethor rose and advanced on the elderly Warden, trembling with rage. 'The Steward rose in the night and none were here to succor him? He fell and none heard? How long was he lying on the floor, in the grip of death, alone at his...'
Laanga stepped in between them, undaunted by Denethor's wrath. 'Peace, grandson. We all grieve.'
'They failed in their duty...'
'So do we all.'
Lhûn laid a hand on Denethor's arm. 'I will question the servants, Warden, and get to the bottom of this. Hathol,' she said over her shoulder, 'please send someone to the embalmers. Speak only to the chief and have him come here to see me first, before he brings any of his people.' The Warden of the Keys stumbled away. 'Denethor, please do not think me callous, but you should get some sleep if you can. You are needed for greater things, now. Please, my Lord Steward, you must rest.'
'My lord, I will stay here and keep watch.' Beregar had come in at some point and was standing near the bed. There was a single tear on his face. 'I will see that all is done with honor.'
'Come, Denethor.' Laanga's grip on his wrist was surprisingly strong. Denethor allowed Laanga to lead him out of the bed chamber. The servants gathered in the outer room bowed and knelt when they saw Denethor, grief and trepidation equal in their faces.
'This news shall be kept secret until the morning,' Denethor said, glaring at the cowering servants. 'It is bad enough that the Lord Steward was abandoned in his last hours. Do not increase your dishonor by spreading tales.'
Laanga tugged on his arm and made them walk away to forestall more words. The herbalist led him back to the Stewards House, the door opening at the old man's touch, and walked him all the way upstairs to the front room. With an embrace and a kiss on the cheek, Laanga left. Denethor stepped towards Finduilas' room, but hesitated. He should go to his own room to sleep so she would not be disturbed, but he could not bear the emptiness of the narrow bed. The door to her room opened before he could move.
'Friend?' She came over to him. 'You are back soon.' He nodded, even though she could not see the motion in the dark room. 'It is bad news, isn't it?' He tried to speak, but his mouth was dry and his throat could make no sound, so he pulled her into his arms and held her tightly.
Denethor woke just before sunrise and made himself go to the baths first. Lhûn was right that there would be much to attend to, and he needed to present a dignified figure, not something disheveled. His first call afterwards was to the embalmers, taking six guardsmen with him. Beregar was waiting in the outer room, his eyes red-rimmed from weeping and dark-ringed from weariness. The guardsmen took his place so that he could return to the house and sleep. Next was the Tower. For a moment, Denethor wavered. Should he go to the Steward's chambers or to the council chamber, his usual work place? The Lord Steward is dead, and there is, as yet, no one in his place. He went to the council chamber and called for paper, pens, ink and wax to be brought to him.
The first announcement was for the criers, to be called upon the first bell. The City bells would toll through the first hour, then for five minutes at each hour afterwards through the day. The next was for the captains, so that they would be watchful for any assault that might come in these first few days of grief. The summer campaign was underway and the Enemy's forces would be massed and ready to press any advantage. North Ithilien was infested with Orcs creeping down from the Black Gate, while Imlad Morgul vomited forth companies of Uruks every few days, trying to capture the crossroads. News had come from Rohan that Orcs were emerging from their mountain lairs and coming through the hills between Nan Curunír and Fangorn Forest to maraud in West Emnet and the Wold. Marlong had not had a day's rest since the incursions began and had worn out two horses traveling up and down the River Road between Cair Andros and Pelargir. Imrahil was with him most of the time, sending Borthand back and forth to Minas Tirith with messages and reports.
The lords of the realm were the next to be notified. They also received a summons to come to Minas Tirith to pay their last respects and to affirm a new Steward. Denethor very carefully did not write "Lord Steward" in that message. While copies of this were made ready by the Scriveners Hall for his signature, word was sent to the messengers' stable to bring forward every available rider to hasten this news across the land. With them would go the more general announcement of Steward Ecthelion's death to be spread in every town, village and hamlet in Gondor.
Denethor studied a calendar. Two weeks for word to spread. Another two for preparations to be made. At least three more for the lords from the furthest reaches of Gondor to come to the capital. The Lord Steward would lie in state until the last day of August, when his burial would be done. On the first of September, Gondor would have her new ruler. Until then, all would mourn for the passing of the good and wise Lord Ecthelion.
Just before noon, the door to the council chamber flew open and Boromir charged in, followed by Hunthor. Boromir planted himself in front of Denethor. 'Where is Grandpa?' he demanded. 'I want to see Grandpa now!'
Hunthor sighed and tried to take Boromir's hand, who struggled until he wrenched his hand free. 'Forgive me, my lord. I have told him he may not. I have tried to keep him in the house, but he keeps escaping. I found him here in the Tower, searching, and...'
'Where has Grandpa gone to?' Boromir shouted. Hunthor began to pick him up, which made the child go into a frenzy, kicking and shrieking to be let go so he could find his grandfather.
'Stop that!' Hunthor and Boromir froze at the sound of Denethor's battlefield bellow. 'Hunthor, put Boromir down and leave.' The guardsman swiftly complied. Denethor pointed to a spot directly in front of him. Boromir stood there, arms crossed, bristling. 'Your first duty, as a page of the White Tower, is to conduct yourself with dignity. You shame your house with your childishness. Unless you can behave, you deserve nothing but to be locked in a cellar.' That made Boromir look away and shift uneasily from foot to foot. 'Why are you interrupting my work, Boromir?'
'Because Mama is crying and so is everyone else and they say Grandpa is dead, but they don't' tell me anything else. So I went to look for myself.'
'That explains why you are running about like a mad bull, but why have you come in here?'
'Because you know everything, so you know where Grandpa is. I want to see him.'
'You may not. He has died. He is gone.'
'But he must be somewhere,' Boromir insisted. 'Halmir is gone, too, but he went home to the north. Uncle Imrahil was gone a long time in Harad and now he rides all over, and Uncle Fool is at his house.' He looked hopefully at some maps on the table and pointed. 'Is Grandpa somewhere there? He doesn't go far, so I can get Boots and go there, too.'
'No, Morcollë. Where Grandpa has gone, none of us may follow.' Denethor held out his hands for Boromir to take. 'That is what death means. The one who has died goes away and is no longer with us.'
'But he is slow!'
'The journey to death is swift, and we may not follow.'
'Auntie Monster said there...'
'Don't call her that! That is Aunt Aiavalë.'
'...was going to be a big funeral and everyone would come to say goodbye so he has to be here somewhere!'
Denethor tried to remember the first time he had seen death. He had seen far too much of it. It was when his grandmother, Vanimeldë, had died. She had been lying in her bed, in the same alcove where he and Finduilas now slept. He was not supposed to go in there, but had anyway, and Aiavalë had spanked him soundly when she found out what he had done. There are worse ways to see it. But he is only five. He is old enough to ask.
'Yes, he is. The Steward is being prepared for the funeral. You will wait in that chair until I get back, or I will not take you.' Boromir scrambled into the designated seat and grabbed the arms of the chair to anchor himself. Denethor wrote a note and went to find a servant to take it to the chief embalmer. The reply came within the quarter hour - yes. He returned to the council chamber and motioned for Boromir to come with him. They walked through the narrow lanes to the embalmers' workshop along the south wall of the Citadel. The chief was waiting for them in the front room.
'My lords,' he greeted them gravely. Denethor motioned for Boromir to stand with the guardsmen and went to the side with the embalmer. 'There is naught that should unduly frighten the young master,' the man murmured, 'but are you certain you wish him to see this? Even grown men can be shocked by the sight of someone they love...' He let the words trail off.
'I would prefer he not have that shock before others.'
'As you wish. If you will come with me?' Denethor told Boromir to come over and asked the guardsmen to step out into the lane until he called for them. Taking Boromir's hand, Denethor followed the embalmer into the next room. A table draped with a white cloth stood in the middle, Ecthelion lying upon it. Several heavy drapes were laid over him and there was a sharp smell of oils and other things needed for the embalmers' trade, but no hint of blood or meat. Denethor knew those scents. There was nothing to be seen of the Steward save his head and neck. His eyes and mouth were closed, and his face bore no hint of pain, though the flesh was sunken. The embalmer brought over a footstool and placed it near the table before bowing and withdrawing into a corner.
Boromir pulled his hand from Denethor's and approached the table warily, craning his neck to see above its edge. He climbed onto the stool without prompting. For almost a minute, he did nothing but look at what lay before him, taking in his grandfather's face and the folds of cloth draped over the still form. He reached out and lightly touched Ecthelion's cheek, snatching his hand back as though encountering a live coal. After a few deep breaths, he reached out again and ran his fingers over the face, then touched the hair, then the neck. Denethor saw Boromir's shoulders tremble. The boy leaned forward with his face near Ecthelion's. 'Grandpa, can you hear me? It's Morcollë. Wake up.' Boromir put a hand on the body's shoulder and tried to shake it. 'Grandpa! Wake up! Please. Don't go away. I want you here. Grandpa?'
Suddenly, Boromir gave the corpse a violent shove and whirled around on the stool. Denethor barely jumped forward in time to catch him before he fell. 'That's not Grandpa!' Boromir screamed. When Denethor tried to soothe him, Boromir lashed out, striking away his father's hands. 'That's not him! It's not!' He struggled away and ran into the front chamber, Denethor following. Boromir stood in the middle of the empty room, arms wrapped around himself, crying. Denethor squatted down on his heels in front of his son and waited.
'That's not him!'
'It is and it isn't, Morcollë.'
'It looks like him. Kind of.'
Denethor pulled out a handkerchief and mopped Boromir's face. 'Kind of. But his spirit is gone.'
He was not going to get a second chance to answer this question. 'Because he was old and in pain and wished to see his own grandfather again.'
Boromir looked up with curiosity. 'See his grandfather?'
'Yes. And his father and all of his ancient kin.'
'That's where he went?' Boromir wiped his nose with the back of his hand. Denethor sighed and cleaned off the snot with the handkerchief before leading them to a bench at the side of the room. 'Where is that?'
How much cosmology could a six year old understand? 'Outside the circles of the world, which is why we can't go there. He had to leave his body behind to do that.'
'I don't know. It is not written down in any book in the archive and no wizard has ever told me. All I know is that when a person's body is too old or has been too badly hurt, their spirit goes to the Halls of Mandos, beyond the circles of the world.'
'Is it like the Hall of the Kings? And is Grandpa's grandpa there?'
'It is very, very big, or so the lore masters say. The spirit waits there and rests and is healed of any hurt. After that happens, they leave and go to meet their kin who died before them.'
Boromir thought about this a long while. 'And where is that?'
'The lore masters do not say exactly, but it is somewhere on the other side of the halls.'
'Is it like Dol Amroth? Grandpa said he wanted to go pick up shells with me in the cove.'
'I think so, yes, at least part of it. Probably other parts have hills and trees. Rivers and mountains, too.'
'It is in another world?'
'Is your grandpa there?'
'Yes. Lord Steward Turgon is there.'
'Why did Grandpa die? I have been good!' Boromir said this emphatically, reminding Denethor of another conversation.
'I know you have been good. Your grandfather always told me how good he thought you were. But,' Denethor cast around for something that would stop this line of thought, 'even though you were very good, he was old. You know how much pain he has been in, how tired the Lord Steward has been?' Boromir nodded and began to sniffle. 'I think he stayed so long because he loved you very much and because you were his best grandson. Finally, he got too tired and went to sleep, and now he will get to see his grandfather again.'
'Will he tell his grandpa about me?'
'Well, of course! And about Hollë and Mama and everyone else, too.'
'He isn't sick anymore, right?'
'No, not at all. He is healed.'
'Hmm.' Boromir began to wipe his nose with his hand again, so Denethor gave him the handkerchief. 'Are you and Mama going to die, too?'
Denethor knew Boromir already knew the answer. Do not lie. 'Yes, someday, when we are very old, like your grandfather.'
Boromir nodded and played with the handkerchief for several minutes, thinking. He nodded again decisively and hopped off the bench, making a beeline to the back room. He was inside before Denethor could catch him. I hope they have not resumed their work. The body remained well covered and Boromir was already up on the footstool.
'Grandpa? Can you hear me? Papa told me you are seeing your grandpa now. I love you. Boots loves you, too, and we miss you.' Boromir wiped at his face with the handkerchief. He pulled himself up onto the table and embraced and kissed Ecthelion. 'I'll be good. Mostly. Tell your grandpa I love him, too. When I'm old, then I'll see you again. Bye-bye.' With a final kiss, Boromir wiggled down and took Denethor's hand.
'Are you ready to go, Morcollë?'
'Yes, Papa. It's time for dinner. May I go ride Boots later? I have to tell him about Grandpa.'
'Yes, Morcollë. We will go to the stable and tell Boots, Gaerhûl and Gull.'
Minas Tirith, 17 July, 2984 T.A.
It was a week before the embalmers finished their task. Between the heat of summer and the long time the Steward would lie in state, they had to be thorough. Each day, Boromir had gone with Denethor to the workshop, bearing with them something to be placed upon the bier or for the Steward to wear. After they had paid their respects and Boromir had told the Steward what he had done since they last were there, they would sit in the outer room and Boromir would question his father about death. He wanted to know about the man he was named for, if Denethor missed his grandfather, and whether Boots would go to the Halls of Mandos. Denethor answered as honestly as he could. The first two nights, Boromir had cried when he was put to bed, and Denethor slept with him so he would not be alone with his fears. He tried to keep Boromir's day as normal as he could, with sword practice in the morning, then washing and paying their respects to the Steward, then going to the Tower upon business. Boromir sat across from him at the long council table and drew pictures or wrote letters while Denethor reviewed reports and wrote letters of his own.
On the third day, Denethor asked for Boromir to bring him the box with the Seal of the Stewards. Boromir hastened away to retrieve it and returned shortly, solemnly holding out the open box as he had always done for Ecthelion. Denethor pressed the seal into the melted wax and returned it to the box with a grave nod. 'Thank you, Boromir.'
'You are welcome, Pap...Father.'
Denethor looked at his son curiously. 'Not "Papa"?'
'No. Not anymore'
'I see. As you wish. May I ask why?'
'That's what little babies say, what Hollë calls you.' Boromir lifted his chin, looking Denethor in the eye. 'It isn't dignified to talk like a baby, especially not here.'
With a smile, Denethor placed a kiss on Boromir's brow. 'No, it is not, and you are a wise boy to know this before being told.' Even so, it left him a little sad.
Wren arrived that night with Mab, having ridden from Anórien the day before when news arrived of the Steward's death. Lark came with her brood only two days later, taking a barge up Anduin. They swiftly took charge of the house, for Aiavalë was too grieved and Finduilas too tired to handle all of the callers and letters of condolence. Imrahil and Marlong showed up late the night before the Steward was to begin laying in state. They brought the latest news of Ithilien - the raids from Morgul had ceased and bands of Orcs in the north had retreated the day of the Steward's death and had not emerged. The three of them sat up late in Denethor's study deciding how to rotate the soldiers and officers in from the marches to pay their respects but not leave anything unguarded.
The procession began in the early evening when the heat of the day began to recede. Denethor and Finduilas led the way, Aiavalë and Boromir directly behind them. Imrahil followed escorting Moraen, then Borondir and Haleth, Marlong and Wren, and the rest of the household coming after. Faramir had been sent to Lark's house with the rest of the small children. Denethor had considered sending Boromir as well, for the ceremony would be long, but the boy begged to attend.
When they reached the embalmers' workshop, Erellont was there with two dozen Tower Guards, standing in solemn attention. Denethor signaled for the others to wait and went inside. In the inner chamber, the Steward lay upon his bier. He was not shrouded for it was not yet time for such things. His raiment was white, without sign or charge. The drape upon the bier was black. The edge that fell below the Steward's head had the White Tree embroidered upon it, blooming upon the rich cloth as it had not done in the Court of the Fountain for over a hundred years. There is no scion. It is ended. Beneath the roots of the tree was embroidered three stars and "R • ND • R" That, also, is ended. From his sleeve, Denethor drew the White Rod and placed it under the wasted hands crossed upon the Steward's breast. He walked out, leaving the double doors open behind him and softly told Erellont to have his men take up the bier.
They walked slowly to the Tower. The way from the embalmers' to the Tower was lined with rows of Tower Guards. The court and upper walks were filled with people craning for a view of their departed lord. Many wept and threw greens and flowers before the pallbearers' path and all knelt when the bier passed them. It was not just Boromir who held Steward Ecthelion dear. The Hall was lit with torches for Mindolluin's shadow blocked out the last light of the setting sun. The household knelt in reverence after the pallbearers placed the bier upon the white draped stand, then went to the side so the mourners could pay their respects.
Denethor had seen that chairs had been provided for Finduilas and Aiavalë, though he intended to stand. Boromir took his place between his parents, carefully copying his father's stance. The entire City had turned out to see the Steward. Lark had said people were lined up from the sixth circle tunnel all the way to the Great Gates. Some had stood since mid-afternoon. The line moved slowly as people bowed and placed flowers near the bier. A number brought flowers to them as well, laying their gifts before Finduilas' feet, while others placed notes of condolence at the foot of the Black Chair.
Minutes became hours and evening passed to full night and still the mourners came. Boromir yawned and leaned against Denethor, but shook his head when asked if he wanted to go back home. Finduilas put her arms around him and pulled him into her lap where he soon fell asleep. It was past midnight before the last group of mourners walked out of the hall. Denethor gathered Boromir into his arms and carried him out while Imrahil and Beregar escorted the women. In the court, the moon turned the limbs of the White Tree to mithril. Denethor was lulled to sleep by the sound of Boromir's soft, even breaths.
Minas Tirith, 1 August, 2984 T.A.
The birthday party had been merry. So many had come that it spread through the entire house and up onto the roof. All had been glad to shed the mourning of the past month to celebrate Finduilas' birthday. The only one who had not attended was Violet. Finduilas had sternly told him that she wished the woman to be there and that he would be gracious to her. Violet herself declined, preferring to sit in the Hall of the Kings with her mending and her memories as she had done every day since Ecthelion was brought there. The other women were the official attendants, sitting to the side and speaking to those who came to do reverence to the Lord Steward, and Violet sat behind them and was their servant, as unnoticed as widow as she had been as mistress. After Violet, Aiavalë sat there most, with Faramir at her feet. Boromir came every so often to collect his little brother and take him to play on the greensward or to toddle along the dim halls of the Tower. They usually ended up in the council chamber to disrupt some meeting or make a mess with Boromir's paint. Denethor could not bring himself to scold them much. Finduilas, Moraen, Wren and Lark kept Aiavalë and Violet company. Other noble women would come to help them bear the burden of the watch and to curry favor with the Lady. A few times, Denethor glimpsed Adanel and Primrose there. Girls and women of the Lady's Houses also took their turns.
But today was a day to celebrate birth, not death, and a time for hope, not despair. Minstrels sat in every square of the City and sang songs in praise of her - her beauty, her mercy, her wisdom. Her black wing banner flew from every flagpole and the taverns all gave each patron one free mug of ale with which to toast their Lady. They did so with enthusiasm, going from tavern to tavern to proclaim their adoration of her. Nobles gave out food and alms in honor of her charity and her Guardsmen walked the City performing acts of kindness in her name. Across the kingdom, soldiers were given a day of respite and extra rations, criminals in the dock were shown mercy, and no taxes were collected.
Finduilas herself had been joyful the entire day, looking like a creature from a dream, beautiful no matter what she was doing. Though Denethor listened carefully, he heard nary a cough. Both boys had been on their best behavior with not a whimper or a pout in evidence from sunup to sundown, though they were perfectly filthy by bedtime. Finduilas had said she did not wish any gifts save the company of her friends, and that she had in plenty. They had ended the day dancing upon the roof under a perfect sky embroidered with stars. The musicians played near the eastern edge of the roof so that their music would spill down for more guests dancing upon the Citadel wall.
Denethor had asked for one gift to be given to the two of them, and that was a quiet house for the night. Only Aeluin and Beregar remained behind. Even Boromir and Faramir were sent away to stay with Aiavalë in Lark's house. Now he sat at her feet before the cold hearth in his study, sipping wine and enjoying the silence. Finduilas stroked his hair, tangling her fingers in it, touching him along the nape of his neck and behind his ears in a most distracting way. They had begun to lie together again, now that Faramir was weaned and Boromir no longer wept at night, reacquainting themselves with each other's folds and fancies.
'It has been almost a month, and you have said naught.'
'Your father's death.'
'What is there to say? He was near to one hundred and had been ill.'
She sighed. 'Perhaps I am wrong, then. I thought your heart had softened towards him.'
'Some. I will speak no ill of him and will see he is remembered with honor.'
'In all the time I have known you, Denethor, I have never heard you call Ecthelion "Father". Only his name. Only his title. I don't believe I have ever heard you even speak of him as your father. A sire, at most.'
'What of it?'
Finduilas pulled on him to make him lean back into her lap and kissed him tenderly. 'I grieve for you, friend, that your heart is so hard.'
'It is hard towards those who have earned coldness.'
'And what of those who have not earned it?'
'Who? No, do not answer, for these are pointless things. It is your birthday and that is all that matters to me. I have a present for you.'
'Something from Morwen, I hope,' she answered with a lascivious grin.
'Perhaps that as well, but something else. Wait a moment.' Denethor stood and went to the chest in the alcove. He retrieved a small pouch holding a long-planned gift. When his trader had gone to meet the Dwarves last year, he borne more than pearls. He had carried a letter with a request and a small, ancient amulet made of mithril. It had come from the treasure store in the archives. This was what he had received in return for the bargain, brought by one of Haleth's trusted traders but two weeks past. Returning to Finduilas, he knelt before her, proffering the pouch with both hands. 'For you.'
Finduilas took the pouch, worked loose its lacings and poured its contents into her hand. She gasped and dropped the object into her lap. 'Denethor, what have you done?'
He picked up the slender silver band, the braided metal as supple as cloth. It was more perfect than he had hoped. Upon one end was an ingenious hook that would slip into the weave of the other and fit the wearer's head perfectly. In the center was a perfect diamond, flanked by wings of silver. Denethor held it out to her. 'It is your crown, my queen.'
'I have told you before - no.'
'It is what you are.' He held out the gem. 'It is time for a new ruler.'
'Gondor has a ruler, the Lord Steward, and that is you!'
Denethor took one of her hands and placed the fillet across it, clasping it closed around the gift so she could not cast it aside. 'Alquallë, why do you deny the signs that have been shown us? You were the one who first said to me plainly that if the line of the kings was at an end, perhaps it was time for a new line.'
'Thorongil lives and is the king...'
'He has forsaken us!'
'Please, Denethor, do not do this,' she pleaded. 'The Powers said only that it was not time for him...'
'Thorongil's time is past. His house has failed, dwindled to a ragged lord of a minor line.'
Finduilas sighed, then gave him a quick shove, tumbling him over on his back and scrambling out of her chair. Still holding the gem, she began to pace. 'I think you have gone mad, husband. He bears the tokens of the high kingship and he is our lord. You have acknowledged this yourself to me, so do not deny it!'
'I do not.' He pulled himself to his feet. 'I said this before he turned away from us and fled from his duty. In his last letter, he bade me to cast away his name, saying he was without honor and that he would not contest for Gondor. He said he loved the wrong thing.'
That made Finduilas stop. 'But does that unbind us from our oaths, prince? As long as he lives, he is the king.' The silver band hung down from either side of her hand, glimmering.
'Were it not for you, I would hold to that oath to the moment of my death. Look at what you have done! The people turn to you, for their hearts know and they are faithful to you. Umbar will never be won through fire and sword, but mayhap by your mercy.' Denethor pointed behind him. 'In the court stands a dead tree, its line destroyed. Into your hands the Powers placed a fruit to refound hope. Did not Mithrandir say it was not happenstance that you and Thorongil should come here together? I say it was to see whether an ancient line could be renewed, or if a new line should be founded, and you have won that contest.'
'There was no contest! Denethor, what of my dreams?' Finduilas resumed her pacing. 'They are of downfall and destruction. If I am queen in them, it is only to see the end of my rule. Besides, there is no sign that my tree will grow, either! It has been three years and nary a shoot has emerged!' She snorted. 'Some fine portent!'
'And what of your argument, so many years ago, prince? That you would not relinquish Gondor simply because of battles won or acclaim in the streets? That your blood bound you to the line of Elendil and through him to Lúthien? Would you hand Gondor to someone who is no such thing? How many oaths do you break in that?'
'You are as much of that line as I am. The house of Dol Amroth is descended from the line of Elros and wed several times back into Anárion's house.'
'A poor connection.'
Denethor stepped in front of her and took her arms to make her be still. 'Who else is there? The mariner said it was not for me to bring hope, but for another.'
'Yes, friend, and his name is Estel and he will return.'
'He has already said he will not,' Denethor impatiently insisted. 'And what of him? He is the rightful lord of Arnor. Let him rebuild his own kingdom first and show he can sustain it!'
Finduilas' gaze hardened and she drew herself up to her considerable height. In a voice thick with scorn, she said, 'Arrogant, prideful, devious, and cruel; all these I have known you to be, Denethor, son of Ecthelion, but not until now have I known you to be coward.'
'Coward? For what do you call me this?'
'Too fearful to take up rule. Thorongil is not the only one who is running away. You know the doom that lies before us, and you would hide behind my skirts.'
He wanted to shake her until she got some sense in her head and could see what was before them. 'Gondor once could have been refounded upon a queen's rule had not her Steward been so greedy. Call me coward if you will, but I shall not repeat my forefather's mistake. Pelendur chose a warlord over a queen, and so were both realms imperiled. It may not be time for Thorongil, but it is for you.'
'If it is time for a monarch, then take it, prince.' Finduilas reached up and tried to bind the gem to Denethor's brow. 'Make it clear that you think the line of the north has ended and the king shall not come again!'
It took effort to wrench her hands away from his head. 'Alquallë, stop!' She kept struggling and they ended up in a heap before his desk, his arms wrapped around her to keep her still. 'Will you deny what happened on Eilenach? We walked upon Númenor. You were chosen by the Powers to rescue the last fruit of the White Tree, and I was your shield. That is who we are. Míriel is born again in you. You bear her form and face...'
Finduilas cried out at those words and covered her face with her hands. 'Can you not see that I fear that? I do not wish this! Please, friend, do not consign me to her cursed fate. I am wretched enough always being under his gaze.' Denethor hugged her to him and rocked her as he had Boromir. They clung to each other for a long while. 'I will not do this, Denethor,' Finduilas said softly, 'for you do not see all. I have done my great deed and perhaps it was all for naught if no tree ever grows. The rest is for others to do. I need you more than ever to be my shield, for all I see ahead is darkness. On one thing I shall agree with you - none of this is by accident. I am meant to be the Lady of the White Tower and you to be the Lord Steward in a time of peril. Not rulers, but stewards, hoping for a green shoot in the waste. And perhaps, love, that is your great task. To persist.' She gave him a wry smile and kissed him tenderly. 'I can vouch for your persistence. No more pig-headed man than you has ever lived.'
'I need every shred of it, for my pig-headedness is exceeded only by your own, wife.' That earned him a slap and another kiss. 'But this is my gift to you, whether you wear it as crown or merely as gem.'
'It is beautiful, friend.'
Denethor nuzzled her neck. 'To me, you are a queen, always.'
'Did Primrose make this?'
'No. I had it made by the dwarves of Erebor. One of the traders brought it back.' He ran his fingers through her hair and kissed her deeply. 'Will you not wear it for me and let me be the most devoted of the Faithful?'
'Wait.' Finduilas rose and went behind the screen into the alcove. Denethor stood and returned to the hearth to finish what was left of his abandoned wine. He heard cloth rustle, then the sound of a brush running through hair. When she is stronger, and the people clamor for her, then... Whatever else he may have been thinking fled like the captain when Finduilas came out from the alcove. She wore nothing but the diadem, her long dark hair her mantle. So Lúthien must have appeared to Beren, and like him Denethor did not resist the enchantment.
He knelt before her and embraced her, laying his head upon her belly. 'Command me that I may serve you.' She lifted his face up so she could gaze upon it and to his concern, she was weeping. 'What is it, Alquallë?'
'Would that we could leave behind our fates and wander freely for just a season.' She took his hands and led him to the alcove where they made a season of a single night.
Minas Tirith, 24 August, 2984 T.A.
The lords had almost all arrived. Seabird was docked at the Harlond, having borne Adrahil and Luinil, Queen Morwen and Aldwyn, Luinmir and her children, and the lords of Langstrand and Pinnath Gelin to Minas Tirith. Denethor had looked at the almost four year old Dervorin and thought it unlikely any ill would befall the sturdy child. Boromir and Anna had renewed their friendship at once. The two of them became the leaders of the sizeable pack of youngsters belonging to the various lords and visitors. The children thundered about the Tower, the Citadel and the upper circles of the City under the watchful eyes of the Hunt and a few Guardsmen. Luinil and Morwen had immediately taken charge of managing the ladies who came to call upon Finduilas as no lady would protest being commanded by these two in a way they might object to Wren or Moraen.
Well, one lady might. Maiaberiel had arrived a week before with Brandir and a large entourage of King's Men. Denethor and Aiavalë had called upon all of their spies within Minas Tirith to keep watch upon this band. Instead of some version of the White Tree, their previous insignia, her followers had a new symbol. It was the stylized silver wing of the Tower Guard set with the three stars of the Stewards' seal. What do you think to claim, Beruthiel? That she was the true steward of the king, no doubt. For a moment, Denethor wondered if he had been right to refuse to take up the position of Lord Steward at once. When anyone attempted to address him as such, Denethor simply replied "The Lord Steward rests in the Hall of the Kings." He continued to sit in his usual place at the council table, leaving the head empty. As he had hoped, it raised a question as to whether he was going to claim the Black Chair, and there was a strong rumor (helped along by a judicious use of coin) that there might be neither Steward or King ruling in the Citadel, but a much more beloved person. Somehow, after her birthday, Finduilas' banners had not been taken down and the songs in praise of her became more popular by the day. She will not. Not yet. Even so, he had allowed the thought to enter people's heads that there might be another choice for ruler, and the King's Men were quick to seize upon it.
The very interesting news that came with Maiaberiel, however, was her traveling companion. King Théoden had not come to pay his respects, but that was not surprising. Ecthelion had not gone to Thengel's funeral. Queen Morwen was more than sufficient to bear the honor of Rohan. Théoden had sent an éored bearing many rich gifts. He had also sent Master Gríma. The same two counselors as had traveled with Gríma on the last visit, Gram and Walda, completed the party. They had joined Maiaberiel upon the road and their companies had ridden together to Minas Tirith. That Théoden would send his three greatest counselors to represent him at the funeral was not to be wondered at, but how the men arranged themselves once in the City was. Morwen and Aldwyn stayed with the Swans in Vinyamar, Gram and Walda were in the guest house of the Citadel, but Gríma was Maiaberiel's guest. Morwen may have been relieved not to have the half-breed anywhere near herself or Aldwyn, but it intrigued Denethor. He questioned Brandir on it when his brother-in-law came to see him the day after arriving.
'Gríma rides often to Minrimmon,' Brandir had answered, 'every few months save in winter.'
'On what business?'
'Trade, mostly. You may be unwilling to be bargained down in your price for corn, but others are not. Gríma is always our guest when he comes to the town. I think it best that he be under our noses.'
Denethor could not argue with Brandir's logic but he also could not wheedle any more information from the man on what Maiaberiel was doing. Afterwards, they went to the hall to view Ecthelion. Brandir knelt beside the bier and wept, prompting Faramir to toddle over from Aiavalë and embrace his grieving uncle. Aiavalë also came over and led Brandir back to the attending women. After that, Brandir did not attend Denethor, but was almost always in Aiavalë's company and even slept in her rooms. There was no way to prevent Boromir and the other children from calling them Auntie Monster and Uncle Fool, so Denethor did his best to ignore it.
Time to thwart whatever Beruthiel is plotting. Denethor returned his attention to the others at the table. It was a carefully chosen group. Borondir had just finished presenting an estimate on the harvest. Adrahil and Imrahil slouched in their chairs, perfectly mirroring each other. Marlong was there, as were Aiavalë and Finduilas. Hallas completed the meeting.
Adrahil frowned at the news. 'The reduced wheat is not good.'
'It will have to be distributed carefully,' Aiavalë said, 'and people will need to learn not to waste their bread or they will do without. Oats did well in the wet. Farmers will need to sow oats for another season, perhaps two. And rye in Anórien!'
'And there is still plenty of wheat in silos and warehouses,' Borondir reminded everyone.
'But we still have to be sure it is moved to where it is needed,' Hallas added, 'not to mention that coin is not charged above what the corn is worth. Unless the coin is taxes for our purse.'
Marlong sighed. 'We have to send men home to harvest, Denethor. Every bit has to be brought in, so every hand will be needed.'
'And we'll be attacked when that happens,' Imrahil cheerfully offered.
'This has always been the case, Imrahil,' Denethor said. 'Harvest is when campaigns get... interesting.' The young prince rolled his eyes, acknowledging the truth.
Marlong grinned. 'I guess that will mean more riding for you, my prince.'
Finduilas and Denethor exchanged a glance. She sat at the head of the table, in the Steward's seat. They were the only ones who knew the true reason for the meeting. Finduilas cleared her throat. 'Grain is not the only needed thing in short supply this year,' she said, 'and that shortfall leaves us vulnerable, perhaps even more than reduced corn. We have now no Steward and to gain another, we leave Gondor with no High Warden. Boromir is many years away from this duty.'
There was a moment of silence while the others digested the news. Denethor kept his gaze upon Finduilas, who gave him a stern look in return. Even making her Queen would not relieve them of the need to select a High Warden.
'Well, Borondir is Denethor's eldest kinsman and knows everything a High Warden should know,' Marlong said with a small bow in Borondir's direction. 'I think the choice obvious.'
'I do not agree,' Borondir quickly answered. 'Then there would be a need for a Quartermaster-General. Besides, the Warden needs to travel often and widely, and I am in no shape to do that.'
Adrahil laughed and sat up straight. 'You are better suited than many, Borondir, though you are right that we will be hard-pressed to replace you as Quartermaster.'
'What of Baragund, then?' Marlong asked. 'He is wise and not infirm and...' He stopped when he saw Denethor shaking his head.
'He is weaker than you know and not suitable for a Warden's duties.'
'And who is, compared to you, Denethor?' Adrahil said.
Finduilas sighed and sat back in her chair. 'Nevertheless, one must be found, lest others seek an opportunity for mischief, Father.'
'Must there be a Warden?' Hallas asked. 'I know we have usually had one, but if the Steward's heir is not old enough to take up the burden, perhaps we can do without until Boromir is of age to perform the task.'
'There must be one. The Warden must be able to step into the Steward's place, and must do for the realm what the Steward cannot do himself,' Finduilas replied.
'Steward Dior had no children,' Aiavalë offered, 'so named his nephew, Denethor, as Warden. The first Steward Ecthelion also had no children, and had a grand-nephew as his Warden.'
'I think we have found our temporary Warden, then,' Adrahil said and pointed at Aiavalë. 'The Master Archivist...'
'...has an archive to run, just as Borondir is already needed to be Quartermaster,' was her tart reply, though Denethor rather liked the idea himself. 'Besides, I am even less suited for riding around than my cousin.'
Finduilas glanced again at Denethor and nodded just a fraction. Drawing a breath, she said, 'Imrahil.'
'I have no opinion on who Denethor should pick.'
'He should pick you, brother.'
'Imrahil is the heir of Dol Amroth.' Adrahil's voice was sharp. 'He has duties already.'
'All of us do, Prince,' Imrahil said softly. His bright eyes met Denethor's and a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. 'But sometimes more is demanded. If it is your wish, Denethor, then I will do so.'
Adrahil's look became even more sour, but Imrahil chuckled. 'I should have seen this, Denethor, but I swear I did not.'
'Then you need to improve your vision,' Denethor dryly said.
There was little else to discuss, though Denethor suspected that Adrahil would have a great deal to talk over with Imrahil as soon as they returned to Vinyamar, and all but Hallas soon departed. There were revenues to review, tariffs to tally, and debts to debate, and Hallas delighted in making Denethor strain to keep up with his own quick thoughts. Imrahil may not be chuckling after a few meetings with you. When the minister left, Denethor rang for a servant and asked for food to be sent up. Denethor glanced up as the kitchen maid entered, then froze.
Maiaberiel stood in the doorway. Denethor straightened and watched her approach, studying her closely. She was less perfectly beautiful than before, her face marked with lines and her figure losing its curves, though she looked more like Aiavalë. Her walk was the same.
'What do you want?' he said.
'From you? Nothing.' Her voice had regained its old arrogance.
'Then why are you here?'
'To look at you.' Her gaze on him was as insolent as her voice. 'To thank you.'
'For freeing me from here. I can now do as I please while you are consumed with war. And soon, you will be locked away in this sepulcher as surely as Father was, worrying about war and wizards.'
'While you are queen of a distant pig-sty. I can finish the job I began if you like.'
For a moment, her jaw clenched and a look of trepidation came to her face before she could master her fears. 'Big words, little brother, but empty ones. You could not kill Thorongil when it was to your advantage to do so and you would not dare to kill me.'
'As I said, what do you want, Beruthiel?'
'You offered me "mercy" once. I'll give you the same. I heard you have chosen Imrahil as your Warden.'
'What of it?'
'I recommend you chose Brandir instead.'
'Because it would please me and you will need my support.'
'I don't see what you have to offer.'
'When the wars increase and you need allies from Rohan, you will see.' Maiaberiel smiled cruelly. 'You have until the morning of the burial to change your mind.'
Maiaberiel laughed. 'You are the one who makes threats, Denethor. I act.' With that, she sauntered off.
Minas Tirith, 1 September, 2984 T.A.
'All are in place.' Beregar stood at the door to the Tower chamber where they waited for Ecthelion's funeral to begin. The Steward's funeral was a time for politics, not mourning. Those who sorrowed for the man's passing had paid their respects during the month he lay in state. Today, attention was upon the living.
Denethor turned to Boromir. 'You know what to do?'
'Yes, Father,' the child solemnly replied. He had been warned very sternly that he must conduct himself as a prince for all the time of the ceremony with no foolishness or complaint. Boromir offered his hand to Aiavalë, who bowed to him before taking it. Denethor held out his arm to Finduilas. Upon her brow was the dwarf stone and she was arrayed in raiment of silver and black. While she would not agree to be queen, she was not opposed to manipulating the wishes and hopes of the lords, particularly with Maiaberiel up to no good. Denethor himself was dressed simply in white, with no device or gem showing, his wedding band his only adornment. Under his shirt, he wore the lanyard.
Beregar escorted them to the outer hall before the great metal doors where Brandir and Maiaberiel waited. When Maiaberiel saw Finduilas' dress and the star upon her brow, her cheeks turned red in anger. We are not without our own surprises, Beruthiel. Finduilas nodded regally to the pair. Maiaberiel turned her attention to Denethor. 'You did not take my advice.'
'I was not aware you had offered any.'
Maiaberiel smiled and slowly took in all standing there before looking again at Denethor. 'You will rue turning down my...'
Brandir took her by the chin, making her meet his eyes. 'No more. Not here.' For a moment their wills contested before Maiaberiel dropped her gaze and bowed her head to him.
At a signal from Denethor, Beregar withdrew to the side. A moment later, the great doors opened. Denethor and Finduilas walked first, followed by Aiavalë and Boromir, then Brandir and Maiaberiel. All standing in the hall turned to watch them. Packed into the hall was every lord, noble, and captain of Gondor who had made the journey to Minas Tirith to say farewell to the old Lord Steward and offer their obedience to the next. The hall was already warm from the autumn day and the mass of men packed into the space made the air close. A murmur went through the crowd as they caught sight of Finduilas and a number knelt as she passed.
They reached the bier and knelt, bowing their heads before the Lord Steward in his final audience. Behind him, Denethor heard the rest of the hall follow suit. When enough time had elapsed that the mourners' knees would ache, Denethor stood and walked to the head of the bier, turning to face the assembly and the Steward. He realized he had not looked directly upon Ecthelion in all the time the man laid in state. The Steward was laid with his body on a slight incline so that he looked to the throne and beyond to the West. Denethor stared at the man's face, entranced at the lines that had settled there, the strength that death had revealed. A Lord Steward had died. Denethor bowed to his lord a final time, allowing his heart to be humbled in the face of Ecthelion's rule. As he straightened, Denethor looked past the Steward's head and saw Boromir. He took a breath and sang the hymn of passing to Boromir, putting into each word all the certainty he possessed, willing his son to put aside sorrow and fear. The lanyard was heavy around his neck. For a moment, Denethor's vision clouded. In the fog, he descried a grey ship with sails of mist. At the stern sat the mariner, hand upon the rudder. In the bow, a figure leaned forward with his hands upon the gunwales, eagerly peering at the grey curtains before him. Denethor also tried to pierce the clouds, wishing for a glimpse of gleaming towers and sailboats upon an enchanted bay. As he did, hands touched his shoulders, their grip gentle but inescapable. Not yet, child. Not yet. Denethor blinked away his tears and finished the hymn.
Denethor bowed to Ecthelion and stood to the side. Each of the others made their individual obeisance and took their place next to Denethor. Boromir reached behind his mother to take Denethor's hand and squeeze it briefly, as though he were offering reassurance. There was a short pause before Adrahil and Imrahil came forward to bow to the Steward. Denethor paid little attention to the stream of mourners after that, but looked upon Ecthelion intently. Are you beyond your despair? Denethor found himself hoping it was true. What did you think when you saw Turgon thus? He could not recall if Ecthelion wept, though he did not think so. Were you pleased? Daunted? What will you say to him now? What would it be like to have no thought or care for a one's duties any longer? Denethor could not imagine a life without that.
There were fewer today than when Ecthelion was first brought to lie in state, yet it still took several hours. Through it all, Boromir behaved himself admirably, though boredom and weariness were taking their toll. The shadows in the hall were lengthening by the time the last of the mourners passed by and retook their place in the assembly. Finduilas and Denethor exchanged a sidelong glance and she nodded very slightly. This was going to break with tradition, but it was a time for breaking things. Before the Tower Guard pallbearers could step forward, Finduilas walked out to the bier. All soft conversations in the audience stopped. She bowed deeply then removed the White Rod from Ecthelion's hands, causing a buzz to rise from the watchers. Maiaberiel looked between Denethor and Finduilas with alarm. Finduilas walked away from the bier and towards the dais with the Rod, making the whispers rise in volume. Men in the back craned to see what she was doing, and Denethor heard "queen" spoken by more than one. When she mounted the first step, people came forward, not believing what they were seeing. Keep going, Alquallë. All the way. But she turned to the side and went to the Black Chair, laying the rod upon the seat. She held out her hand to Boromir and Denethor gave him a gentle push, murmuring, 'Go to your mother.' When he did so, Finduilas bowed her head to Denethor. 'We await your return from your final task as High Warden and son, my lord.'
Denethor motioned for the bearers to take up their burden. Aiavalë took his arm and they followed the bier from the hall, Maiaberiel and Brandir behind them, out of the Tower and to its final destination. The Court of the Fountain and the upper walk were packed with the mayors and headmen who had made the journey to Minas Tirith but lacked the rank to be included in the hall itself. More mourners of the City thronged the street, kneeling as the Steward passed. Bells tolled in every circle. Beyond the Closed Door, however, the sounds were muted. They trod the winding way, first down, then up once more, to the House of the Stewards. The doors stood open and arrayed before them were the rest of Ecthelion's children - Adanel and Primrose, Lark and Wren, Luinmir and Morwen. They knelt with bowed heads as the bearers bore the bier into the dim and musty room.
No sarcophagus awaited a Lord Steward. There were twenty-five marble tables, five rows of five, beneath the tomb's vault. Upon all but one lay a desiccated form, withered like the tree in the court. Nearly a thousand years of stewardship. The embalmers' craft was far too clever to allow rot to occur, but nothing could stop the wicking away of substance until they became naught but leather and bone wrapped in fine cloth. Their vestments were changed every ten years. Just as Ecthelion had been placed before the throne he served, ready to answer the questions of the king when he should come again, so did they remain exposed even in death, facing West, all their deeds laid bare.
A small wooden stand had been laid near the empty table and the bearers set the bier upon it. Denethor motioned for them to leave. The daughters came in, Wren and Lark going to Aiavalë's side. Denethor stood next to the bier. One last time. He slipped his arms under Ecthelion and lifted the body up. The Steward, though light, was limp and difficult to hold. Aiavalë, Lark and Wren removed the draperies from the bier and placed them upon the table, the other sisters coming forward to help put them in order, save Maiaberiel. At a signal from Aiavalë, Denethor placed Ecthelion on the table. As he stepped away, hands shoved him strongly to the side, nearly throwing him down.
It was Maiaberiel. She bent down and spat upon the Steward's face. Like a snake, she uncoiled, drawing herself up to her full height, glaring at her siblings. 'You have cast your lot with a monster and a madman, and scorned the gifts I have given you. With me, you would have seen a true king once more and the Enemy defeated. Against me, you have nothing. I curse you! I will see all of you dead.' She pointed at Denethor. 'You, last of all. When you have lost all you love, only then you will die.'
No one moved until the sound of Maiaberiel's footsteps faded away. Denethor wiped away her spittle and kissed the Steward's brow. The sisters arranged him upon his bed, placing his limbs just so and neatening the burial cloths. Brandir waited for them outside the door of the tomb, ready to secure it when they left. Denethor left Aiavalë in her sisters's care and strode back up to the Citadel. As he entered the court, the watchers took up the chant of "Gon-dor! Gon-dor! Gon-dor!" He walked into the Tower, straight towards where Finduilas stood upon the step before the throne. He knelt in the spot where the bier had stood. Finduilas raised her hands for silence.
'Denethor, son of Ecthelion,' she said, 'do you accept this charge, to bear the burden of Rod and rule, until death take you, the world end, or the King shall come again?'
'Yes, I will bear this burden, until death takes me, the world ends, or the King shall come again.'
Finduilas addressed the assembly. 'Men of Gondor, hear me, the Lady of the White Tower. Here is Denethor, son of Ecthelion, High Warden of the White Tower. You have heard his oath. Shall he be Lord Steward of Gondor, your lord and ruler?' The hall reverberated with the shout of "Yea!" though more than once voice said "Nay," and again came the whispers of "queen." Denethor sighed and glanced wryly up at Finduilas. He had hoped that they would acclaim her. He rose and came forward. Finduilas lifted a white mantle that had been neatly folded upon the seat of the Black Chair and helped Denethor to don it. Boromir was there and also added his efforts, but the child was clearly at the end of his strength for the day. She then took the White Rod and placed it in his hands. With a bow, she led Boromir away to the side where Beregar stood watch over two chairs for them.
Denethor held up a hand. 'We thank you, good folk, for attending us this day and helping us to bear the burden of rod and rule. Our first decree is this - Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth shall serve as our High Warden until such time as our son and heir, Boromir, is of age and experience to perform those tasks.' This was greeted with another loud cheer.
There was no more avoiding it. Denethor sat upon the Black Chair. It was made of the same substance as the Othram, the Haven wall of Pelargir, and the tower of Angrenost. It was unyielding, unlike the chair of lebethron in the Osgiliath garrison, and it was cold. No comfort or solace would be offered its occupant. For the second time that day, the lords filed forward to bow to their ruler. Denethor nodded to each. In his ears, a sound arose, like the steady lap of waves upon stone. At first it was just a soft sound, blending into the murmurs in the hall. As the minutes dragged on, Denethor began to make out voices. With a shock, he realized he knew some of them - he heard Turgon and Ecthelion. He dropped one hand and brushed his bare finger tips against the edge of the stone seat. A welter of voices surged, threatening to make him swoon. They are all here, in the stone. Denethor tried to remember if he had ever touched the Chair before and could not. Certainly not after he had laid hands upon the palantír and awakened the memories locked within cold depths. Words of Ecthelion echoed in his head. "When you have sat in the black chair for twenty years, then you will understand." Denethor gave himself over to the voices in the stone.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.