The names, places, and characters in this story belong to J.R.R. Tolkien. I'm just borrowing them.


Mirrors of Númenor

1

Up the windowless stair toward the high vaulted summit of the White Tower Denethor climbed, his sword clicking sharply against his armor with each step, the heavy fall of his black boots ringing. His lantern swung wildly on its chain, and in its flashing glow the stairs seemed to leap up before him and fall back in sudden lurches. But he was not looking at the stairs. In his mind, Denethor's gaze was still fixed upon the limp body of Faramir which had been brought to him, ashen and haggard in the arms of Prince Imrahil, with drops of dark blood falling from his cloak onto the white stones.

Your son has returned, Imrahil had said. Your son has returned, lord, after great deeds.

And now over and over in his mind Denethor looked down at Faramir's pale face, and brushed his hair from his eyes, and felt the feverish heat of his skin; and over and over Faramir moaned through his livid, wind-burned lips, and Denethor's knuckles went white around his staff as he turned away.

Your son has returned.

At the head of the stairs, Denethor slowed. He unhooked his keys from the chain at his belt, and they jingled against his mail and dimly glittered. His hands were shaking. He glanced back down the shadowed stairway, unlocked the door, and passed inside. Behind him, the door swung closed.

Warily he stepped into the circle of the chamber. It was cold, and at that great height the wind beat fiercely upon the tower, shrieking through the narrow windows so that the very stone seemed to shudder. The lantern tossed its pale illumination out against the walls and sputtered as Denethor set it on the floor. He walked to the center of the room. On a marble pedestal there, a dark mantle was draped, which he pulled away. The palantír of Anárion sat black and empty, sunk heavily upon its cushion: it flickered only dimly with the suggestion of a flame at its core. Denethor stared at it, then turned and looked out to the fields far below and away, already black with armies from Mordor. Rohan had not come. The Arrow had failed. Osgiliath and the Pelennor were taken.

After great deeds.

My lord, your son has returned.

Shuddering, Denethor clamped his hands around the palantír, and the sound of the wind died in his ears. The chamber walls seemed to close about him in shadow, and the cold fled, and for a moment there was nothing in the world to him but a faint flickering light in the darkness. The reflection of starlight upon the Anduin.

At length, he heard the rush of deep water, and saw the silhouettes of strange ships cutting through the waves; and he saw emblazoned on their black sails the Red Eye of Sauron. But when his thought turned to the bow of the foremost ship, his breath caught, and he stared: for the figure who rode there was no captain of any host from Mordor, nor of Umbar or Harad. He was a man of fair and handsome mien, tall and pale, with a stern glance and sharp eyes. A child of Númenor. Denethor remembered him, though he had not seen his face in more than thirty years.

And Imrahil in Denethor's mind, still holding Faramir, moved his lips:

The King has returned.

My lord...

His white hands trembling upon the palantír, Denethor struggled, quivering, and wrenched his thought back into focus so that the ships returned. He stared at them for a long while in mingled fury and amaze, and at their captain, and at the Star of Elendil bound about his brow. Then suddenly, softly, he laughed.

"Is this then the hope I am proffered?" he asked, and the walls of the chamber flickered in his view. "The heir of Elendil come forth at last? In no little irony do you sail to me upon the ships of my enemies, Thorongil, for long have I counted you among them. But you have come too late. There will be no crown for you in Gondor."

The dark ships moved steadily, and Aragorn at their head gazed forward to the horizon. There were several figures behind him, Rangers and Elves for the most, and yet he had the look of one who knows he is alone. A silent doubt was in his eyes. Although the long years had worn but few marks of age into his sharp, proud features, a change had nevertheless been wrought in him, and Denethor saw it: the days of his rash youth were past, and he seemed more patient now, but wearier; less fiery, though perhaps slower to burn. He seemed tired. Perhaps it should have been a satisfaction to Denethor, to see that a part of Aragorn, too, had grown old; and he told himself that it was. But his smile when he traced the strands of silver in Aragorn's rough beard bespoke more desperation than triumph, and silently he lamented that the flame of ambition, which for so long he had hated and feared in Aragorn, seemed on the point of going out. But perhaps that was only a trick of the palantír.

Your son, lord. Your son.

For a long while Denethor stared, and beneath the dust and bloodsmears of battle, beneath the hollow-eyed pallor of long sleepless nights clinging to a hopeless determination against fatality, he found that Aragorn looked much as he always had—and indeed much like Faramir, and Boromir, and even Denethor himself in his day. Pale mirrors of Númenor, they were all.

Yes; he remembered him perfectly. The high arch of his brow, the fall of his dark hair, his gray bright eyes. He had been young, and beautiful, and full of fire. And Ecthelion had loved him like a son.

After great deeds, my lord.

The King has returned.

The image of the dark ships dimmed and faded, and the sound of the water ran out into silence. Beyond the silence there came the low sliding ring of a sword being drawn from its sheath. Then there was sunlight at the windows of the hall of Ecthelion, and before the Steward's seat there knelt Aragorn with his blade in his hands. Gandalf was beside him. At Ecthelion's left stood Denethor, proud and cold, and barely past his thirty-first year. He was looking at Aragorn.

Denethor watched the memory in silence, and after a moment he began to believe he was looking through his own eyes, and not the eyes of the palantír—and he forgot about Faramir, and about all the sixty years that stood between this vision and the high windy chamber in the dark, under the shadow of Sauron. For the moment, there was neither jealousy nor rivalry about him, nor hate, nor war, but only his father and Gandalf and the guards, and Aragorn with his smooth skin and his black beard, and the oblivious statues of Isildur and Anárion between the pillars, looking down on them all with indifference.

"Hail Ecthelion, son of Turgon," Aragorn was saying, "Lord and Steward of Gondor. I am come to offer you aid and counsel, and to serve you as I may. Thorongil is my name."

And Denethor fell into the vision, believed it.