Cianda led Críonna down the great hall of the Rangers’ barracks, under the rows of faded and torn banners, their colours glowing in the shafts of morning sunlight. Once outside Cianda strode along the narrow alleys until they reached the last gate of Minas Tirith, the gate of the Citadel. A few people were already about but they hastily made way for the tall stern-faced lieutenant of the Guard in his black uniform and the fair-haired Ranger in his grey Elven cloak. Críonna limped along as best he could, soon falling behind. At last they came to a great arch the cornerstone of which was fashioned in the likeness of a king of Gondor, with tall crown and grim warlike face. Cianda halted and looking back saw Críonna lagging behind. As the Ranger came up to him he said;
‘I am sorry, I forgot you were wounded…’
But Críonna shook his head;
‘Do not worry about me!’ he said with a smile.
‘We Northerners are a tough race!’
Cianda’s stern face relaxed into a smile and the icy look in the blue eyes softened. Then the smile faded and he said;
‘This is the citadel of Minas Tirith, and that is the Tower of Ecthelion….’
Críonna craned to look up. Rising from the grey rocky shoulder of Mindolluin was a great white tower, its surface gleaming, catching the sun and even the play of light reflected by the clouds. From its pinnacle floated a banner.
‘That is the banner of the Stewards of Gondor, and this is the Hall of The Kings..’
Cianda gestured to a great stone building, lofty yet unadorned, more like the hall of a warrior lord than of a leader of a rich and powerful city.
‘Once it was the seat of the Kings of Gondor’ said Cianda. ‘But there is little hope now that kings will ever sit on this throne again….’
His voice trailed off, and he looked towards the East, where a great black cloud, like a raincloud but with red fire in its depths, hung over the distant mountains. Cianda sighed.
‘I will present your request to join the Rangers in Ithilien to the Steward, but he has forbidden any more warriors to leave the City. Do not speak in his presence unless he questions you, for he is haughty and quick to anger.’
They passed from the bright morning sunlight through a wide stone portal into a long dark passageway, lit with sconces. At the end stood two black-clad Tower Guards, their tunics emblazoned with the white tree and stars and their mithril helms gleaming in the faint light. They saluted Cianda and swung open a pair of great wooden doors and let him and the Ranger into a lofty hall of black marble. As they entered, a low dark-clad figure scuttled past them. It was Cág. Críonna stared at him in surprise but he did not meet the Ranger’s gaze, but looked instead at Cianda, his small yellow eyes full of hatred. The tall black-clad Lieutenant of the Guard brushed past him without a glance, but as Cág scurried away down the passageway Cianda murmured to Críonna;
‘Be careful what you say, that little serpent will have told the Steward everything..’
The Hall of the Kings was of black marble, high and broad, with two rows of columns running down its length. Windows were set high up in the massive walls, but allowed in only narrow shafts of pale sunlight. Even in daytime torches flickered in iron brackets on the walls. As Cianda and Críonna walked forward, the Ranger noticed between each column a statue of a king of ancient Gondor, hewn in stone, crowns or helms on their heads, swords or staffs in their cold grip. Críonna looked at the faces and remembered with a start the statue on the crossroads they had passed on their way through Rhovanion, or the stern forbidding faces of the Argonath. This, then, was the very heart of Gondor, the place of her kings. Yet it was bare and grim, without a single woven tapestry or wall hanging and an icy chill rose from the stone pavement. There were no brightly-clad courtiers and the black polished surface of the columns reflecting their faces as they passed was the only movement. At intervals stood guards, black-clad with silver helms, but they were as immobile as the statues.
At the end of the Hall stood a throne of white marble, empty. Over it was a canopy, also of white marble, fashioned like a crown. For a startled moment Críonna thought it was a tomb. Then he noticed at the foot of the steep flight of steps leading up to the throne a chair, of stone and as bare and unadorned as the hall. On this sat an old man clad in a long grey robe. In one hand he held a gold-tipped ivory rod of office but the other rested on a hunting horn laid across his lap. The horn was thrice bound with silver, intricately wrought, but had been cleft in two, as if by a great blow. The old man gazed on the horn, moving his thin white hand along its polished curve, his face lost in dreams. Only when they stopped in front of him did he look up.
Críonna had expected Denethor to be a man of power and presence, but he was not prepared for the piercing black eyes, as black as the polished marble of the hall, that settled on him and seemed to penetrate to his very soul. Denethor’s face was stern as the statues of the kings and just as proud. He was wraith-thin with shadows under his high cheekbones and he tilted his head and looked down his long curved nose at Cianda. Anger gleamed in the jet-black eyes….
‘Once again you defy me, Lieutenant!’ the voice was high and shrill but full of authority and Críonna involuntarily tensed as if to ward off a blow.
‘Disobeying my direct orders and humiliating my councillors! What do you mean by this?‘
The Steward paused as if waiting for an answer. Críonna heard Cianda take a breath then seemed to think better of speaking and remained silent. But this only made the Steward more angry.
‘Even your silence defies me. Answer!’
Cianda bowed then straightened up and spoke calmly;
‘It is true, my Lord Denethor, that I disobeyed your order to keep all troops in the city. But Rangers are not part of the city garrison….’
‘That is not an excuse!’ barked Denethor. ‘I ordered that all soldiers, of whatever order, stay in the city. Do not bandy words with me…’
Now it was Cianda’s turn to become angry. Críonna could feel him grow tense beside him. But he replied in a level voice;
‘If the city should fall for lack of a scout and a woman, then punish me as you see fit. If not, blame your lying councillors.’
Denethor gazed at Cianda, his eyes now full of fire. But there was a hint of sarcasm in his voice as he said;
Perhaps, Cianda, you think that because you were the friend and lieutenant of my son …..’
Suddenly Denethor paused. The black eyes flickered and the hand holding the staff trembled. A spasm seemed to run through his thin frame and the hand holding the horn on his lap suddenly clutched it till the knuckles grew white. After an endless few moments he went on in a low voice;
‘….my son Boromir…that you can presume upon my patience endlessly.’
Then he pointed at Cianda with his thin hand;
‘You are a traitor’ he cried ’You are all traitors! Only one was true, and he is gone, Boromir my son!’
The last words rose in a wail to the faint gold tracery of the marble ceiling then died away. Cianda’s blue eyes blazed with fury.
‘Yes, Boromir is gone!’ he said in a ringing voice. ‘By your command! Gone on an errand which was not his, but his brother’s, Faramir’s. Only Boromir wanted it and whatever Boromir wanted he took, or you gave to him. And so you fed his pride, and his pride killed him.’
Denethor had fallen silent, even Críonna was rooted to the spot in horror. But Cianda had not finished.
‘I would have given my life for your son. I was his shield-bearer, never did he fail to come home from the battle when I was with him. But not this time! He would suffer no-one to come with him. He said to me ‘This quest is mine, mine alone, none else will have it’. But it belonged to his brother, not to him!’
‘Alas!’cried Denethor. ‘Why did I not allow Faramir to go? That wizard’s pupil, ever going his own way in spite of my council, gentle when he should be strong, generous when he should be stern, not a true lord like Boromir. I could have spared him better than my Boromir….Boromir would have brought me home whatever I desired, whatever was the prize of this dark quest, he would have obeyed his father….’
‘He would have obeyed his own proud will!’ shouted Cianda. ‘and gone his own way, as he always did, even to his death….’
A sudden silence fell on the hall. One of the terrified guards let slip his spear from his shaking hand and it fell on the hard stone flags with a loud crack. Denethor, his pale face like a mask, got slowly to his feet. The broken pieces of the horn slid off his lap and fell to the ground with a dry clatter, but he seemed not to notice. He stretched out his arm and pointed to Cianda with a shaking hand.
‘Upstart! Traitor….take him out of my sight!’
The last words were shouted at the guards, and seemed to release them from some spell for they leaped forward to seize Cianda. Críonna instinctively put his hand on his sword hilt but Cianda took his arm and shook his head. The guards however mistook the gesture and drew their swords and rushed on the two men and there was a scuffle and Cianda was wounded, one of the guards' swords running into his side. He slid to the stone floor but the soldiers hauled him to his feet. His face pale he said to Denethor in a breathless voice;
‘Is it treason to speak the truth?’
Then the guards dragged him away. As he was taken past Críonna he said to him.
‘The Enemy has turned our swords on ourselves…’ Then he was gone, and Críonna was alone in the hall with Denethor.
The Steward stood for some time without moving. Then a black-clad servant ran in and picked up the shards of Boromir’s horn and handed them reverently to Denethor, who took them without looking at them and sat down heavily, still staring ahead. A bright shaft of sunlight fell through the high window onto the stone flags and picked out a bright spot of blood. At length Denethor got to his feet and looked around, as if he had only just awoken. He remembered Críonna and looked at him.
‘Whatever your petition is, it is granted.’ He said in a toneless voice. ‘Now leave me….’
And the Steward, leaning on his gold and ivory staff, turned and shuffled out of the Hall of The Kings.