Author's Note: This is a tentative AU piece, exploring what Denethor's fate might have been if he had not died on the pyre. If you don't like Denethor, I urge you not to continue, as I am rather sympathetic, and this view might come out in my writing.
I've taken liberties with canon, but this is book-verse - NO movie events will be found here.
You stand at the crossroads; go back, go forwards,
Or to either side – hist! Be quick and choose!
Don't delay, come away, dark things are creeping,
Choose now, before you can choose no more.
It was fortunate that the pyre had not yet been lit.
Indeed, all else seemed to have gone ill; blood had been spilled in the Hallows, Denethor was fey and almost driven to madness, and Faramir – Faramir was alive yet, but would not be so for much longer.
"Come, Denethor!" Gandalf called. "Faramir must find healing now. Nothing here will help him. Come!"
Denethor raised his eyes to Gandalf's, and he looked truly old – tired, and drained, and spent.
"This is not your place," Gandalf said, softer. "Your place is on the field, leading your army out to a last stand."
Denethor laughed, a ringing, mirthless laugh.
"And what then, Grey Pilgrim?" he asked. "What good is battle? We cannot win, not against the armies that await us in Mordor."
His voice grew louder, echoing oddly through the chamber.
"Fool!" he cried. "Did you think the eyes of the White Tower were blind? Nay, Grey Fool, I have seen more than you, for all your wisdom. There will be no return if we go to war now. Gondor, Rohan, Middle-Earth will fall under his black hand, and the darkness will come from which there is no escape."
Gandalf's eyebrow quirked oddly – he stared as Denethor almost as if he had seen a ghost.
With this, Denethor arose, and taking a pillow which his head had rested on, he uncovered it – and lo! A Palantír he had in his hand, gleaming black and unharmed by any crack or pass of time.
"Fly now, Grey Fool!" he barked, eyes flashing, straight, tall, proud. "Hie you to your ships, bearer of wisdom, and flee while you can! Even now, the wind that you hoped for brings new evil – ships with black sails, black ships come unto Minas Tirith to aid in her destruction." If we would not be slaves, we must fly."
"Such counsel will bring your destruction even closer," Gandalf answered, looking at Denethor with pity and sorrow on his face.
"Hope on then!" Denethor replied, face glinting like carven ivory. "I know you, Mithrandir, and I know your mind – you would be behind all thrones, no matter where, to guide and coerce for your own purposes. But this I say – I will not be your tool! I am the last of the Hurinionnath, the last of the line of Anarion's stewards, and I will not bow down to a ragged wanderer from the North, who even if he could prove his ancestry is but the last of a house long bereft of any claim to royalty. While I have worked to keep the enemy at bay, he has done nothing from Gondor. By what right does he claim the throne?"
Denethor turned towards the door.
"Come!" he called. "Come if you are not all recreant!"
One man made a move forwards – hesitant, he paused for a moment, and in that pause Beregond acted, pressing his steel against the man's neck.
"Move no further and you may live," he hissed.
Denethor turned to Gandalf.
"This, then, is your plan," he said. "You have turned the heart of my son from me, and now my guards too. Is there naught that you will not meddle in, Mithrandir?"
"Meddling has long been my duty," Gandalf responded gravely. "Ere you were born I meddled in what you would consider the affairs of others. But I do not think I will continue for long."
His expression changed.
"Now come, Denethor! You will not find rest and healing here, nor will you find victory; and you should seek naught but these things."
Denethor stood in thought, a proud image of the glory of Gondor, and almost he wavered.
"I will come," he answered at last. "But I will come only that I may see whether Faramir lives. I have no need to live for myself."
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To be continued.