He runs a thumbnail under the index fingernail dislodging the grime beneath it before turning the palms upwards, studying them in the half-light. They are dusted in soot and the burn near the wrist, caused by an errant spark, throbs. There is no time, no place for cleanliness in a world at war.
He should not linger here, not when so much hangs on hope's frayed knot. He belongs on the battlefield, rallying the troops until the true king can take his rightful place, not secluded here within the Houses, a mere antechamber away from a fever-ridden man. The Marshall of Rohan seeks his council, Prince Imrahil would speak of strategy, and the people of Gondor wish for simple assurance. So many look to him for hope; he has been told that even a glimpse of his white robes as he moves tireless throughout the city gives the beholder strength to stand renewed against the endless dark.
Smoke rises from Mordor, thick and unrelenting. Sauron would cover all of Middle Earth in arrogance and darkness. The Steward gazed into the palantir and saw every fear he ever had come true. He saw the White Tower crumble, the people of Gondor feasted on by carrion beasts. Denethor watched his sons die over and over again until he found it better to burn than live a moment longer. The man could not live with everything he ever knew lost, with everyone he ever loved destroyed.
Although the Steward was always grave, the wizard can remember a time when Denethor showed himself through word and deed as a loving father and husband. In the past, he had beheld the man traversing the White City with his sons, imbuing Boromir and Faramir with their own pride of country through his example. The wizard can recall distant dinners of state where Denethor had proved a generous host in both repast and in knowledge, for the man cherished the lore of Gondor almost as much as he had his wife.
A great weariness comes over the White Wizard. The fumes from the pyre hang heavy on his clothes and hair. The smell of burned flesh clings to him, serving as reminder that today Sauron proved victorious. Denethor's madness had blossomed into strange and dangerous fruit under the Dark Lord's attentive care.
When had it started? He had not been too late to save Theoden King; what of the Ruling Steward? Gazing out into the growing gloom, the wizard cannot reject such bitter thoughts.
Peregrin Took stands in the doorway, the lines of worry upon his brow now permanent. The hobbit has seen too much; they all have. Balrog and fire, water and darkness; the wizard has beheld these things and others more terrible to behold, yet today's events seem somehow worst of all.
Who else will you fail? His conscience pricks at him like nettles. What will dwell within Frodo's eyes should he return? What horrors will keep residence in his soul?
A shudder, perceptible only to himself, passes through the Head of the Istari. Somewhere under the eastern pall, the fate of the world swings upon on a golden chain.
I would have spared you, Frodo. If it were at all possible, I would have seen you spared.
A frown settles upon the corners of the wizard's mouth for the thought rings false and he can no longer salve his conscience with such platitudes. Given the ability to choose another to walk into doom, in the end Frodo would have been deemed once more acceptable sacrifice. The hobbit was the best choice among all free peoples for the task.
I sent Frodo to his death. He went willing enough, yet I put him on the path and kept him there.
Time and again throughout the age, the wizard has pushed the ones he held dearest towards danger without qualm. Yet, there have been people, places along the way that have crept into his heart; things he has held dearer than he should. The green of the Shire, quiet and calm, appears before his closed eyes; the simple life and people that dwell there. Of all of Middle Earth, this is the place Gandalf would call home, if such a thing were possible. Of all the beings in the world, Frodo and Bilbo Baggins would be his family.
One sweet life in exchange for the entire world.
A denizen of that far-away land awaits his answer, as all who surround the wizard do. They all want answers from him, they demand he offer hope.
He tries to offer a smile and fails. "What is it, Peregrin Took?" he asks, hoping his tone remains kind.
"It's Merry." The lines on the hobbit's face grow deeper at the mention of the name. "He's fading."
Although this is the hour when the sun should be at its pinnacle, the world is dim outside the window. "We shall all pass through shadow in the days to come," the wizard murmurs, gazing into the past to see Denethor watch his sons spar with each other, love and pride mixed in his face. "We must all traverse darkness ere the end."
Pippin steps forwards into the room. "Please, Gandalf--"
"Denethor was not always like that, you know," the wizard interrupts, his voice darker than the eastern sky. "It was later things changed, after he was shown what would destroy him. The Dark Lord saw to it that he hated me, which is understandable. I represented all he would lose. Still, he was not always as we saw him upon the pyre. His madness was seeded long ago. Today, it grew to its fruition."
A small hand is laid upon the wizard's sleeve. "Gandalf, are you all right?"
The wizard swims back through time and recollection to find the hobbit looking up at him, concern in his face. He sighs and shuts his eyes. There is no time for looking back. He must keep his gaze forward, upon what must still be done.
"Yes, of course, young Took," the wizard says with gentleness he does not feel capable of. "I will come to him ere long. In the meantime, go to him. Take him by the hand and call to him. Do not let him go further into the dark."
The change in Pippin's demeanor is palpable. "Well, then," he says, hope flooding his face, "I'll tell him you're on the way as well. That ought to do the trick!"
The hobbit turns and hurries away, restored through one simple reassurance. They would all have as much, all the soldiers and women and children, all the free people of the world. One utterance, one platitude would be enough for them to fight until they fell if it came from the lips of the White Wizard.
Gandalf rises to his feet, standing motionless as he faces the rising power of the East. He should be on his way, yet there is one more thing he would do before he goes. He does not know if time will allow this later.
Slowly, he withdraws the globe from its keeping place within his robes. He had returned to the Silent Street before coming here for the sole purpose that that this might be retrieved; walking over charred boards, withstanding the heat that still radiated from the pyre to view the horror that was once a noble man.
Gandalf cups the palantir within his hands and sees a matching pair appear within the stone's circumference. The differences are subtle; the bones are finer, the fingers longer than his own. In the fading day, the wizard stares down, watching the hands as they crack and burn, are restored then destroyed once more.
Not just one life deemed sacrifice. Not just one.
Many things the palantir will show: bone and blood, flame and ash. Yet nowhere can Gandalf the White find the point where he could have acted to keep the hands from the ravages of fire. Nowhere can he see the moment where Lord Denethor could have been saved.
Thanks to S.E Parsons, Cofax, Kirbyfest and DragonLady7 for the quick and always insightful beta, not to mention support. I thank you; all of you are brilliant and adored.
And of course, to Erewyn, not only for beta, but for fostering this monster. Love. Always.
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.