Yes, at last, another chapter—contrary to appearances, this thing hasn't been abandoned. A million thanks to everyone who took the time to leave reviews either here or on the MEFA website over the past few months. It was wonderful to read them, and very encouraging. Thank you!
Also, on something of a tangent: I'm presently putting together a new website, The Last Ruling Steward, where I've collected links to Denethor fanfic, fanart, essays, and other media from around the web. If you're a Denethor fan, you're welcome check it out (or contribute something!). The address is in my profile.
Mirrors of Númenor
The sun had not yet risen when Denethor returned to the Tower the following morning, but in the predawn lamplight of the Hall of Ecthelion he found his father already in conference with Aragorn and Gandalf. A seat awaited him at the table, and yet it seemed that although he had been expected, his arrival was not altogether welcome. Ecthelion shot him a glance of premonitory sternness as he sat down, and Gandalf watched him silently. Even Aragorn's manner seemed subdued by a mild apprehension. It was clear that they had been talking together for some time already.
"We were about to discuss the matter of Cair Andros," said Ecthelion, pushing a scroll of parchment to his son across the table. It was a message from the island: a report of losses, and an urgent plea for reinforcements. It had come to the Tower the day before, and although Denethor had not read it himself, he had been appraised of its contents.
"It is only a matter of making arrangements," he said, returning the scroll. "Our men are ready. I will speak with the captains today."
"There is no need."
Denethor waited, and the Steward turned his eyes to Gandalf. "I have been many days in counsel with Mithrandir," he said, "and we have made our own arrangements. They are being carried out as we speak."
"You have sent reinforcements, sire?"
"I am sending them. A small fleet will sail out on the morrow; they are being loaded now, twenty light ships. I send Thorongil with them. He will deliver the soldiers to our captains already stationed there, and he will sail back with the last of the civilians. Any man not a soldier has been ordered to withdraw until Anduin's eastern shore can be secured again."
In the silence after the Steward had finished, Aragorn rubbed uncomfortably at his beard.
Denethor said quietly, "I see."
He was aware, of course, of the Steward's right to execute whatever commands he pleased without consulting his son; but as Captain-General of the Steward's army, Denethor felt he was owed some say as to whither his soldiers went, and who brought them there. In the old days Ecthelion had always shown him at least the courtesy, however nominal, of requesting his view on military matters before making a final decision. It was no greater courtesy than a commander of Denethor's rank deserved, or had the right to expect. To be denied it was almost an open affront.
And yet, looking at Aragorn, in whose shifting glance he seemed to read a silent apology, he found himself strangely dispassionate. He could not summon the bitterness he intended when he said, "So be it, then."
Ecthelion studied him cautiously. "Indeed. So it shall be."
There was much to be done on Cair Andros, and the meeting drew on for the greater part of an hour as Ecthelion reviewed the details, addressing Aragorn so exclusively as to put Denethor in a somewhat awkward position of superfluousness. Still he raised no objections. He was taciturn as ever, but he was passive, and neither the steely obduracy of his father's voice, nor the chill of his father's glance, bright and penetrating as a blade, ever quite struck home. At length, the dawn crept in at the windows. Pale bars of sun stretched out across the table, over the creased and oil-stained maps, flooding out the firelight until the single lantern stood like an island in its little flickering circle of gold. Ecthelion went on, instructing Aragorn with confidence, and Aragorn listened patiently, and nodded, and promised to serve the City to the best of his ability. Denethor watched him, with the whole realm of Gondor sprawling between them.
Now and then, the Steward turned a wary eye on his son, as if suspicious of some veiled mockery in his silence. But none was there; and this surprised Denethor most of all. It was not the first time his counsel had been passed over as if it were a mere matter of ceremony; on the contrary, his opinion seemed to count for less and less with each passing year, and Ecthelion must have known how this infuriated him. Some days it had almost seemed to Denethor that his father was deliberately provoking him—that he actually took some perverse pleasure in ruffling his son's stiff feathers, in watching his pride bristle. But if so, he was denied this pleasure today. Denethor did not bristle.
It was Gandalf who finally asked, when the meeting was drawing to a close: "Well, Lord Denethor, is there aught that you wished to add?"
"It would appear that you have seen to everything," Denethor answered. "But if it is not too late for such counsel, I believe we would be well advised to retain our archers for the present. If Umbar should attack from the South, we will have greater need of bowmen there than on Cair Andros."
"We have been well advised already," said Ecthelion. "The Lord Thorongil advanced similar considerations, and they have been addressed. Should Umbar strike, we will have archers enough to spare."
Denethor compressed his lips in a dry smile.
His father's provocation was indeed deliberate, and he perceived the reason for it now. In Ecthelion's estimation, it was not he, but Aragorn who had returned triumphant from the Poros; not he, but Aragorn who had borne back news from the war and delivered his soldiers' thanks. Some word of Aragorn's services as a healer had undoubtedly reached the Tower as well by now, and perhaps the Steward even believed that his son in some measure owed his life or his health to Aragorn's ministrations. The Eagle had swept up the glory of Gondor's victory—and upon Denethor were thrust only the losses.
Ecthelion had never had any patience for affliction, and it was not surprising that he should have held Denethor's injuries against him. Yet Denethor knew he had not been careless. His wounds had been worth their price. After all, it was not Aragorn, but he who had slain the Haradrim captain, who had taken the enemy flagship, who had ordered the course of the battle. Moreover, if anyone apart from Denethor deserved credit for Gondor's success, it still was not Aragorn, but Belegel; not Aragorn, but six thousand fresh soldiers and a fleet of well-manned ships. Ecthelion's regard was altogether misplaced.
Somehow, even this thought did not avail to anger Denethor. He was not jealous of Aragorn.
On the contrary, as he rose from the table and took up his staff to leave, he felt quietly smug, almost as if he had achieved some subtle triumph of which Ecthelion was unaware. He hardly felt that he had deferred at all.
And then, why should he not defer? Out of sheer stubborn contrariety, or a need for recognition? These would only have justified his father's distrust. He had no fair objection. The mission was in Aragorn's hands now, and although Denethor had not personally proposed the arrangement, he was satisfied with it. He trusted Aragorn.
He, who had trusted nothing in thirty-two years.
When Denethor departed from the Hall, Gandalf went with him. It was clear that the wizard had missed nothing of what had passed between father and son, and like Ecthelion, he seemed to regard Denethor's calm submission with some misgiving. Yet he said nothing at first. They went out through the great door and into the long, silent passageway beyond, and for a time, the slow clicking of their two staffs against the hard white stones was the only sound between them.
It was Denethor's belief that Gandalf had never trusted him. As a young man, in the days when Saruman had made his residence in the City, Denethor had sometimes overheard his name whispered in the furtive conversations of the wizards, and rarely had they spoken of him well. They spoke of his determination, of a will that could not be swayed. They spoke of the danger of his pride.
"I have known such Men before," Saruman had said once. "They may be great or terrible, for neither good nor evil counselors can bend them, when their minds are set."
Gandalf had replied, "Then we must hope for the best. I too have known them, for good and ill. Too often it is the folly of the wise to disdain the counsels of humbler men."
Those words had stayed with Denethor, until at length he had come to wonder whether he had been meant to overhear them. But they had not changed him. He had never seen any reason why a man should bend.
Now, as their steps drew nearer to the outer door, Gandalf slowed his pace. At last, he spoke. His words were not sharp or probing as Denethor had expected, however, but easy and courteous, as those of friend speaking to friend.
"You may have heard that I am leaving the City soon, Lord Denethor," he said. "Sooner, indeed, than I had intended. On the morrow I will ride out with Thorongil, but my way is far into the North. I have spoken with your father. I cannot tell how long it may be before my travels will bring me back to Minas Tirith."
"So it has ever been with you, Mithrandir," observed Denethor, echoing the wizard's courtesy with an effort. "The Gray Pilgrim coming and going, but abiding never. Your return will be welcome, whenever it may chance."
"And yet there is little hope that even then I shall have leisure to speak with you of other things than war."
Denethor allowed Gandalf to bring their steps to a halt at some distance from the end of the corridor. He eyed the wizard carefully. "I infer that there is something else of which you would speak."
"There are many things, Lord Denethor. But my time is pressing, and yours no less, and some things are better left unsaid than said in haste. Others, I must make the time to say. Will you suffer me to leave you with a word of counsel?"
Denethor did not answer, but waited, leaning with sober patience against his staff. This was more the sort of conversation he had expected.
"Your father is a wise man," began Gandalf. Denethor interrupted sharply:
"I know it."
"I have no doubt that you do. But you must know also that all wisdom has its limits."
Gandalf glanced back toward the Hall, as if to be certain that the inner door was still closed, before going on. "I need not tell you, Denethor, that these days are dark, and growing darker. In the short time of his reign, Ecthelion has already far surpassed Turgon as a Steward. The war has pressed and driven him. In the years to come, I fear, it will drive harder yet, and it may be that you will find yourself one day the heir to a city upon the brink of its doom. Ecthelion knows this. It is his hope to prepare you for that day."
The wizard fixed Denethor with his gaze again, far-seeing but gentle. "Know, Denethor, that if your father is cold in the wake of your successes, and spurs your ambition with his disregard, it is with a mind to harden you against even colder and more thankless victories. Have faith in him. His is not the method I should have advised, but I feel you would profit from understanding him."
Denethor said coolly, "I have always understood him."
It was a reply that would bear no objection, and in answer Gandalf merely sighed, as one who perceives that his effort has been in vain. Denethor went on in a lowered voice.
"My Lord Mithrandir, you see much to which other men are blind, but you do not see all; nor have I lived these thirty years with closed eyes. I know the reasons for my father's ways. Some are well meant, others less so, I deem; but his motives are of little consequence to me, so long as what is done is to Gondor's greater advantage. I have no need of his lessons in humility and forbearance. I am in the service of the City. I will always do what is right in the name of my people, at whatever price, and neither love of praise nor fear of blame will ever turn me."
"Such a promise may be nobly made," Gandalf said, "and earnestly pursued. But not all paths are straight or clear, and even the surest guide may go astray when night falls. You will walk many days in darkness, I foresee. Can you know that you will never lose your way?"
"No more than you. But I know that he who distrusts his own wisdom can achieve nothing. And I have never strayed yet."
Gandalf's gray eyes flickered with somber doubt.
"Then I will say no more."
As they resumed their steps toward the outer door, Denethor glanced sideways at the wizard, feeling that a shadow seemed to have fallen between them. He smiled a thin, wry smile.
"Your trust in me is less than mine in you, I fear," he observed. "Yet we are much the same, you and I, careful and immovable in our intuition. It is only because my father trusts you that you desire my faith in him. Had he opposed your counsel, would you not have turned to me in his stead? Would you not have tried whether some seed of your wisdom might take root in the heart of one whose influence would be felt? I know your ways also, Mithrandir. The meddling of the Gray Pilgrim is well known, if perhaps it, too, is well meant."
It was Gandalf this time who said nothing. Denethor paused at the door.
"Be content, then," he said, "for your will has prevailed. Tomorrow a host of my men sail north. You know as well as I that Gondor cannot afford to falter on Cair Andros, and I would not have stood by to see the isle's recovery charged to the hands of any captain unequal to the commission. But you need fear no dissent from me. I send Thorongil gladly."
This, at least, seemed to afford Gandalf some appeasement.
"Thorongil will be pleased to know it," he said.
The doors to the courtyard swung slowly open at the touch of Denethor's staff, and the two men stepped out into the sunlight.
"I would be much surprised, Mithrandir, if he did not know it already."
In the morning, Aragorn departed, and the Steward watched him go from the wall of the Citadel. Denethor watched as well, looking down to the fields and the distant specks of soldiers in formation, seven hundred feet below. The wind was high and fought to free his hair from its binding, and his tunic fluttered against his bandages. He breathed deeply, pulling the chill into his lungs, taking in the open sky.
Standing there between the wind and stone, he felt that he saw clearly for the first time. Something in him had changed.
He had come down from the Tower at first light, and in the courtyard, Aragorn had bowed to him before descending. That pang had struck him again, drawing taut in his breast; an indefinable ache, like a memory whose form has been forgotten. He should have bowed too, in his turn, or nodded, or done nothing; but he could not. He had chafed at that formality, and had offered his hand: and Aragorn had clasped it—clasped it with such a smile, a smile of sudden trust where doubt had lingered, that Denethor had nearly forgotten to let go.
At that moment, he had come to understand what he had so often heard told, but never quite believed. There was also power in submission.
He was a proud man by nature, yet he saw now, as he had never done before, that there was no disparity in pride and deference, no contradiction in dignity and humility. He had accepted his father's judgment without a word of protest; and that was dignity. He had accepted Aragorn, with all his secrets. On the Pelennor far below, this mysterious captain rode out: a Ranger in an overmended cloak and boots no polish could shine, trailing a host of Gondor's sturdy warriors behind him like a banner. And that was dignity too.
It was not a dignity of stoic resignation, nor of stifled impotent fury. It was the calm, honest dignity of a man realizing, perhaps indeed for the first time in his life, that the burden of his people did not rest on his own shoulders alone. That it was arrogance to try to bear it alone.
He felt lighter somehow. The shadow still loomed in the East, still crept outward, little by little, like some terrible shroud being drawn over all the world; but its weight seemed less. It would have been too much to say that he felt at ease; the most that was admissible for him was a wary and ephemeral sort of comfort, a timid little fire sparked in the heart of winter. But he welcomed it, such as it was, and he looked out from the Citadel wall with a pride that, for once, was not only for himself.
The Steward must have noticed his expression, because after a while he broke the silence to say to his son, "You seem to admire him."
Denethor's eyes still followed the departing soldiers. Admire was, to his mind, a strong word for the feeling; but he let that pass. He replied, "I might have said the same of you, my lord."
Ecthelion looked at him, not quite warmly, but not coldly, either. "We have at least this one thing in common, then," he said: a joke that rang a little too sincere.
"Yes. The best interests of Gondor."
At that, Ecthelion emitted a short sound that might have been a laugh. He turned from the wall to go back to the Tower, and as he went, he cuffed Denethor fondly on the shoulder. It was as close as he had ever come to an apology.
Denethor made no response, but remained where he was, looking down through the wind.