A/N: As always, not my characters, not even Thaliwen. This fic makes slight reference to "A Sword of Cloth," but you should be able to read this one without it. There are also references to Tolkien's Akallabeth, part of The Silmarillion. Besides the Balless Plunge of Doom, the thing that bothered me the most about Jackson's interpretation of Denethor is the line that the title comes from. However, if you start studying my favorite section of the Silmarillion and interpret that Denethor's done the same, the bunnies will start biting...

A few further notes: "when the king returns" is the canonical Gondorian variation on "when pigs fly, hell freezes over, and the Bungles win the Superbowl." Pharazon, on Sauron's advice, built a silver-domed temple to Morgoth. You can guess what happened inside.

"Then he ordered the White Tree cut down, and hacked into pieces, and its ashes were the first to stain the sacrificial tables…" Thaliwen, unlike Finduilas, never had the need for any props beyond the book in her hands and the candle at the bedside table. Whenever her younger brother made as if to squirm during her stories, the Steward's granddaughter gestured to the flickering point of flame, warning Denethor that he would knock over the taper if he did not sit still.

In the dim light of the candles, the young boy heard again and again the tale of the kings of old; the rulers who let their people fall to ruin so that they might cling to life a little longer. Sitting stock still, with a wary eye upon the hot wax dripping down the side of the taper, he heard of Ar-Pharazon, who burnt the first White Tree and tortured his own subjects to death in the name of Morgoth, the greatest enemy the Free Peoples had ever known. Trying to be as brave as his sister, Denethor remained stone-faced as he listened to how this king had been seduced by Sauron, Pharazon's defeated captive, and assembled men to sail against the Valar themselves.

"And then Numenor and all its riches, all its knowledge, all its fine courts and finer tombs sank beneath the sea, drowning everyone who had not left with Elendil." Thaliwen snuffed out the candle, plunging the room into darkness.

"Everyone?" Most nights, his voice quavered as he asked the question. "Even Miriel?"

"Even the six-year-old boys who should be asleep now, Denethor." The way his sister would pat his head was meant to be comforting, but it never really was.

"Why did they follow him? Why didn't more people say he was wrong?" he asked as Thaliwen picked up the book and stood from the bed.

"Because he was their king. And if they did go against him, they and their families would find themselves under the blackened silver dome." Thaliwen opened the door, leaving Denethor with a hawk-nosed profile silhouetted against the moonlit corridor. Then, with a single click, he was left alone in the dark.

After a month of Thaliwen's bedtime stories, Denethor began to sleep with a node of flint in a tough leather pouch and his steel dagger hidden beneath his pillow. When Finduilas asked him about this custom, he said it was just in case, for when the king returns.