"Should I send for Gandalf, my lord?" Peregrin asked, choosing his words very carefully.
"The counsel of wizards has brought us to this end," Denethor replied coldly. "I do not look for any help from Mithrandir." But his hands shook as he unfastened Faramir's tunic and pushed aside the mail shirt. Pippin flinched and quickly looked away.
Laying a hand on his son's forehead, Denethor said in a low voice, "He already burns with fever. The wound in his stomach will likely be his death." Now he understood why the soldiers had not carried him to the healers. The steward rose and stared silently at the face of his son. Then he ordered the servants to bring warm coverlets to lay over Faramir, and he left.
Peregrin stood beside the black chair and waited for the steward to return. The tall doors to the courtyard were open; he watched as night fell and the gloom outside became even darker. Most of the torches in the hall had sputtered out, but a few were still burning, and light from the fires in the lower city was reflected on the marble floor. Faramir was restless and shivering; he murmured something about a boat on the river then said, more loudly, that he should go instead. He seemed to be arguing with someone. It didn't make any sense to Pippin.
The servants had never cleared away the remains of lunch; Peregrin found a silver water pitcher on the table and then hunted around for a cup. With some difficulty, he raised Faramir's head enough to give him a drink. The wounded man choked a little as he drank but seemed thirsty. Peregrin bathed his face and neck with water, then soaked a cloth and placed it on his forehead. As Pippin drew the coverlets back over the man's chest, he thought, "Maybe Denethor is right, and he is dying."
He wished that his cousin were there; Merry would know what to do. He desperately wanted Gandalf to walk through the doors at the other end of the hall. Where was Gandalf, he wondered. What was happening on the walls and at the City gate? The sounds of the battle were still distant and indistinct. "What will I do if the Enemy breaks through to the Citadel?"
Pippin tried to imagine himself defending the Lord Denethor, battling frantically, surrounded by a pile of dead Orcs. Even old Denethor would be fighting, laying about him with that great black sword of his. Pippin would stab the Orcs, but more and more would swarm into the hall, until they dragged him down and killed him. "Like poor Boromir," he thought, and then he sighed. "What am I doing here? I am of no use to Denethor or any of them; they need a great warrior or a healer, not a hobbit from Tuckborough."
He sat on the floor, next to Faramir's stretcher. It seemed as if everyone had forgotten them. Distantly, he heard shouting and hurried footsteps as the guards prepared the defense of the Citadel. The empty hall was full of shadows, and the statues of the old kings seemed to watch him and Faramir with disapproval.
Pippin shook his head and stood up. He was beginning to feel light-headed from staring into the dark. "It must be well after midnight," he thought; "maybe when Lord Denethor gets back, I can find a corner to sleep in for a few hours. At least I should have something to eat." Sitting on the bottom step of the white throne, he ate some stale bread and a chicken leg, both leftovers from the steward's lunch. He wasn't very hungry, but he felt better after eating.
As the night wore on, the hall grew colder. Pippin wrapped the elven cloak around himself and paced back and forth, trying to keep warm and stay awake.
In a windowless room near the top of the White Tower, the great heirlooms of the Kings and the House of Hurin were kept. The lamp flickered in the stale air as Denethor lifted a small, ornate chest from a cluttered table. As a child, he was told that it had been saved from the ruin of Numenor, in another age of the world. He doubted that, but the wooden box was very ancient and of beautiful workmanship, carved with a pattern of stars and flowers.
Denethor locked the iron door of the treasury, and then carried the box up a flight of stairs to a small room which ran the width of the tower. Each wall had a narrow window, hardly more than an arrow-slit. He called for a second lamp; once the servant had departed, the steward opened the carved box and removed a round object which was wrapped in a length of gold brocade.
It seemed strangely heavy for its size, and Denethor's eyes glittered as he pushed aside the fabric covering. This was the great treasure of his House, one of the Seeing Stones or palantiri. It appeared to be just a sphere of black glass, until the flickering light appeared in its interior. None knew or guessed of its existence except the ruling steward and his heir. He had shown it to Boromir but had not yet taught him its uses. His own father had counseled him against exploiting its powers--the Seeing Stones were treacherous, tainted by the Enemy long ago.
But the need became desperate as Mordor strengthened its defenses and gathered allies. It became clear that the endgame would play out during his rule as steward. As he sat in the great hall, Denethor's thoughts had turned to the palantir, hidden high in the tower above him. He searched ancient texts for any mention of the Seeing Stones, and then armed with what little he could learn, he tested the strength of his mind against the Enemy. He had barely survived that first encounter, but over time, he turned the Stone to his own will and could recognize which images were deceits of the Enemy.
The White Tower still sent its scouts and spies to watch the movements of Barad Dur, but Denethor relied increasingly on the visions that flickered in the palantir. No one, save Gandalf, knew as much about the strategies and subterfuge of the Enemy. As the stone revealed the cruelty and strength of Mordor, he had to struggle against his own despair.
Denethor stared at the dark surface of the palantir. After a moment, a spark of light appeared in the center; it shimmered and spun, growing until it filled the globe with fire. He drew his breath sharply and leaned closer.
The sun was shining, and the banners on the Citadel streamed out in a gusty wind. His young sons were standing in the courtyard, the bare branches of the White Tree in the background. Boromir looked about thirteen years old; Faramir would have been around eight. They had always been taller than was usual for their ages. Boromir had on a scuffed-up leather tunic; his reddish-blond hair was sweaty and plastered against his forehead from wearing a helmet. "He must have just finished sword practice with old Madril," Denethor thought. His younger son wore a black surcoat embroidered in silver; underneath was a shirt of light-weight chain mail. Denethor had given the guard livery to Faramir for his birthday; the child wore it constantly and would have slept in it if his brother hadn't convinced him that sleeping was considered off-duty.
On this afternoon, Boromir, clearly proud to be the teacher, was carefully explaining something to Faramir. The younger boy looked up at his brother, his expression serious but his gray eyes shining with excitement. Boromir then picked up a wooden practice sword and demonstrated one of the simpler forms of attack and parry. Faramir asked a question. The older brother went through the moves again, then suddenly waved the sword wildly over his head and yelled; both boys started laughing.
Denethor closed his eyes; he felt smothered by the weight over his heart. "Don't think of them, Steward, think of your City."
He looked again into the palantir. At first, nothing could be seen except smoke and trails of sparks rising into the sky, then the image cleared and he saw that the lower level of the City was burning. The great gates of Minas Tirith were shattered in pieces, and soldiers lay piled along base of the wall. He tried not to look at their faces. Armed with spears, a few orcs were making sure that the men were dead. Others were pulling a battering ram toward the second gate. Denethor suddenly felt very cold, and he could hear the blood singing in his ears.
One of the Nazgul landed its winged mount in front of the ruined gates. The orcs dropped their battering ram and fled in terror. A white figure, on a pale horse, rode slowly down from the second level of the City; he shone faintly in the murky gloom. Halting in front of the Lord of the Nazgul, Mithrandir raised his staff and spoke. Then the great beast spread its wings, and horse and rider were hidden by darkness.
The surface of the palantir became blank and dark. After a moment, a swirl of white dust appeared deep in its center. The specks grew larger, and the steward saw that they were seagulls, swooping and diving over the river. The gulls were fishing in the wake of a ship with black sails. A great fleet was slowly moving up the river, sailing against the current. On the shore, he recognized the old watch tower at Pelargir. "The southern cities must have fallen to the Enemy," Denethor thought blankly, "Even the coming of Rohan cannot save us."
He looked away from the Seeing Stone; he did not need to know anything else. Indeed, for the first time in his life, he wished for less knowledge. Absently, he started to wrap the palantir in its brocade covering then stopped.
Unlike the others, this last vision did not convey any definite sense of time, whether in the past or future. The White Tree was already dead and bare, so the date could not be more than two hundred years ago. Two men with torches led a funeral procession across the courtyard; soldiers from the Tower Guard were carrying a man on their shoulders. The dead man was dressed in a black tunic; the glint of chain mail showed under the sleeves. He wore riding boots, so he must have been a cavalryman or a knight. From his vantage point, Denethor couldn't see the man's face. When the procession reached the White Tree, the soldiers halted and lowered the corpse to the ground. Then they stood for a moment, with their heads bowed in silence. Even before he could see the dead man's face, he recognized the reddish-blond hair. Faramir's eyes were closed, and in the torchlight, his expression was perfectly still.
For a long while, Denethor stood at the window, looking down at the White Tree. On the table behind him, the two lamps burned out, one after the other.
When Denethor returned, he seemed weary and a little dazed. Pippin brought a low chair so he could sit next to his son. Faramir still shivered with fever, but he was quiet and no longer tried to speak. The steward buried his face in his hands.
It frightened Pippin to see the stern old man so broken by grief. "Do not weep, my lord, perhaps he will get well." His high voice echoed in the vast darkness of the hall.
Denethor did not seem to hear him; he leaned over his son and lightly stroked his hair. "Always he bowed to my will, and then did as he thought best. Why did he obey me when I was blinded by grief? He tried to tell me that the outer defenses could not be retaken. Why did he knowingly ride to his death?"
Pippin looked at Faramir then thought sadly, "Because you are his lord and father, and you ordered it. And he was heartbroken and angry and too exhausted to think." The hobbit bowed his head to hide his own tears.
A messenger hurried into the hall from the courtyard. When he saw Denethor sitting next to his injured son, the soldier hesitated, but then he came forward and knelt on one knee. Tall and dark-haired like the men of Minas Tirith, he wore the blue and silver livery of Dol Amroth.
"Lord Denethor, I am sent by the lords of the Outlands of Gondor. Your allies ask you to remember old friendship and the bonds of fealty. The first circle of the City is on fire, and men abandon the defense of the walls. Your counsel is desperately needed. My lord Imrahil would have come himself, but he cannot leave the fight at the City Gate. He asks you to remember his sister, your lady wife, and the ties of kinship between you. What does the Lord of the City command?"
Without looking up, Denethor answered in a low voice, "I cannot leave my son; he may still speak before the end. Follow whomever you will; I do not care." After a moment, he added, "Tell Imrahil, he should be grateful that she did not live to see this day."
Stunned, the messenger bowed to the steward's back and left.
"When was the last time he slept?" Peregrin thought, "At least two days ago."
The hobbit knelt beside Denethor; without thinking, he reached up to lay his hand on the old man's sleeve, then caught himself and drew back. "My lord, you should rest. I can stay with Lord Faramir, and I will fetch you if he awakes." Denethor stared at him distractedly. "I beg you, my lord, get some sleep."
"We will rest soon enough, Master Peregrin, but I fear there will be no waking from that sleep. We are trapped in this city of stone, and it will be our tomb." The steward rose and paced restlessly in front of the black chair.
"The Riders will come, my lord; has Rohan ever failed to answer your summons?"
"They will find the City a blackened ruin!"
"My lord, you don't know that. There is still hope," Pippin insisted, alarmed by his strange mood.
The steward gave him a dark, knowing glance. Peregrin was startled; for no reason, he suddenly thought of the vision he had seen in the palantir of Orthanc.
"The Enemy knows me, Master Peregrin, and from afar he has watched my sons. For years, I have struggled with him, setting my will against his, while my sons held his armies back from the borders of Gondor. Into this very hall, he has sent assassins against us."
He looked down at Faramir then said more quietly, "I would not have him carried to the Dark Tower to die in torment."
Pippin heard men arguing in the courtyard, then quick footsteps echoing on the marble floor. A captain, followed by two other officers, crossed the hall and knelt before the steward. The man looked exhausted; his face was streaked with soot and his voice was hoarse.
"My lord, some do not wish to follow Mithrandir; we look to our sworn lord for orders. We have pledged our lives to the Lord of the City, not to the gray wizard." He paused for a moment; when there was no response, he spoke more directly, "None know the defenses of this city as well as you, my lord." He lowered his voice, "Or the mind of our Enemy. Your presence could turn the tide of battle. But haste is needed, his army batters at the gates, and the city burns."
The hall was silent except for the distant sounds of war. Finally, Denethor replied, "The city burns? Let it! The West has failed, and nothing will be left but smoke and ashes. We shall burn, burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed from the West! I tell you to go back and burn!"
The officers turned and fled from their lord.
Moving carefully so as not to disturb him, Denethor straightened Faramir's clothing and rearranged the coverlets. He spoke quietly as he smoothed his son's hair back from his face, then kissed his forehead. His voice was too faint for Peregrin to hear what he said.
The hobbit watched, uneasiness turning to fear, as Denethor gathered the pieces of the shattered horn and laid them by Faramir's shoulder. Dreaming in his fever, the man murmured and turned his face away. The steward told Pippin to send for the household guards.
"What does he mean to do? It is too much for him to bear; he is going mad." When he reached the door, Peregrin glanced back. In front of the black chair, the steward waited, tall and unwavering; the burning city lit the hall like the red light of dawn.