Finduilas is dying. Denethor, second of his name, Steward of Gondor, knows this. All know this, now.

There was a time when it was a secret between them, half-believed, whispered into his ear on nights when the Shadow seemed longest and darkest, sooty, more like a stain upon the earth than a sky smothered. In the mornings she smiled, then, and nearly laughed, and was beautiful, and still was warm to the touch. And the pain was made diminished for another moment, hour, often day.

Now her skin is cool and grey even in sunlight, and sunlight rarely brightens that skin in any case. She sits by the window, curtains drawn, her profile dark as a silhouette despite the lack of framing brilliance. Erect and slender and proud: but every day she is lesser, shrunken, and every day the memory of almost-laughs and warmth in fingers chastely brushing is lesser too in its due turn.

Denethor loves her still. More so, in truth: fiercely, desperately, with the passion of a drowning man, tense and grim, determination written in stone upon his austere features. Men flee before him now. His sons flee before him, now. Finduilas does not, of course – her love is near as great as his – but it devours her, and there is no escape, when the walls of this cold white city close about her and the sea, the sea, the revered sea of her maidenhood is far.

And none are taken by surprise when she slips away as the year fades, freedom, of a sort, achieved at last in passing, but all are grieved.

Denethor himself knows naught but that he has failed.

For seven days and seven nights after Finduilas is laid on her last bed of stone he speaks not a word, and locks himself away that he may stare unseeing at the window. Silence reigns in Gondor, a bitter king that clears no dust from the seat of an abandoned throne.

On the eighth day, he comes forth again into the world. Those few who speak to him in the hours following his emergence say later that he was like one fresh-roused from some deep and heavy stupor, sleep-foolish and slow. They are not deceived, these men. Denethor is at sea without his wife's wrist to grip and is utterly, utterly lost. But they are also misled.

Denethor understands what he can do, for all that the oceans of the mind are swallowing him without relief, for all that he is drowned, now, not drowning.

He leaves the guardsman who saw him first, and Boromir, and Faramir; though the last follows him silence. He does not protest. He does not really care.

In his own room on the highest level of the White Tower are relics of Numenor, of his past, of all High Men's past. This Denethor knows. Among them is a stone. One of seven.

The long flight of steps curls up and up and up. They were not this long before, he thinks.

He climbs. Faramir, who is six years old, follows.

He has no knowledge of turning keys and the heavy thud of oaken doors slamming against pillars unbreakable. He has no knowledge of clicking heels on stone, or the way that Faramir is panting, nearly sobbing, far behind.

The palantir awaits him, and there is nothing else to know.

He has never wished to control this, eye of lords long-dead. He must.

If men were metal, Denethor is black iron, true and unbending and brittle. He has a mind and a will, and this glass vision-painter is his to behold.

Thus it is that eight days after his wife fell prey to nameless death, sluggish and painful, Denethor son of Ecthelion holds an orb from days gone by and commands it with everything he knows to show him Finduilas.

Who shall blame him, curse him for this day? Who shall dare?

It matters not. What matters is this: Finduilas' white face does not appear in the red depths of this dark and perfect globe.

A crooked tower, outlined in flame, does.

And the Shadow-Caster, an eye in blaze, and a mind, and a will, and strength immeasurable, demands:

Would you then dance a dance with me, O Mighty Lord of Gondor?

Who shall blame him, curse him for this day?

Who shall dare?

A/N: Er.