The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 53: The Last Steward Of Gondor

The minutes became hours and still Denethor sat, staring into space, with Pippin lonely and forgotten beside him in the darkening hall.

From outside came the sound of a city preparing for attack, then another sound, low at first then growing louder and louder; a grating thunder from the plains before the city; the sound of the hosts of Mordor approaching Minas Tirith….

But Denethor did not move, or give any sign that he had heard the enemy. Nor did any more messengers dare to come near him. He could have been one of the stone statues of the dead Kings for all the life he showed….

Suddenly a guard burst in, and Denethor raised his head with an angry gleam in his eye. But before he could speak the man blurted out;

‘Faramir has returned! Your son has come back, my Lord….’

Denethor rose slowly to his feet. His face was white as death. But before he could speak the man said breathlessly;
‘He is wounded, Lord Denethor. The guards of the Citadel are bringing him hither….’

Then the man turned and fled, leaving the doors open. No-one thought to close them, for turmoil had broken out in the Tower. Even from the kitchens servants ran to see if it were true. Faramir wounded!

Soon the grim truth was revealed. Four guards of the Citadel, clad in black armour emblazoned with the device of the silver tree and stars, bore a litter up the narrow streets and into the courtyard of the King, past the dead dripping tree, and set it down on the little greensward before the White Tower. A crowd had followed the men as they carried the prince and was now held back beyond the steps up to the inner circle. But they could still see the Steward’s son lying unconscious and unmoving on the litter, and the cry went up.

‘Faramir is dying!’

Inside the Hall Pippin ached to run out and see what was happening, and to learn if Faramir was alive or not. He remembered his first glimpse of Faramir in the courtyard only that morning, how much he looked like Boromir, and how his face lit up at seeing a hobbit....but Pippin thought of his duty, and stayed at his post.

Then Denethor, his face still pale and stricken, straightened up, placed a long thin hand on the hilt of his black sword, and walked with stiff steps across the white marble pavement, through the high arched door and out into the ghostly light that was all the fumes of Mordor had left of day. Looking straight ahead, his shoulders unbowed, he walked to the litter where his son lay.

The guards retreated hastily with a bow but Denethor ignored them. Pippin, however, freed from the hall at last, ran after the Steward and hung at his heels, looking fearfully to see if Faramir was indeed dying.

Only Faramir’s armour marked him now as the captain who had led the charge of mounted knights out of the gate of Minas Tirith a bare hour before. Even that was so covered in dust and mud and besmirched with blood that it was hardly recognisable as the cuirass always worn by the Steward’s son in battle. The helmet engraved with the Raven of Gondor was lost, and Faramir’s bright hair was dark with grime and blood. A black orc arrow, its shaft snapped off, was sunk deep in his side, and another in his shoulder and his face was bruised and pale. But Pippin’s keen eyes caught the shallow breath under his battered cuirass.

‘He’s alive, my Lord!’ said the hobbit, running forward to kneel beside the litter. He laid a hand on Faramir’s brow and it was burning. He touched Faramir’s hand and felt a slight movement. He looked up at Denethor and pleaded;
‘He’s alive, my Lord, he’s alive….’

But the Steward’s face silenced Pippin. He was gazing at Faramir with despair in his eyes, ignoring everything around him. He said in a hoarse voice;
‘I have spent even my sons in the defence of Gondor, yet I have failed. My line has ended, and I have failed….’

Then, as if he could not endure the sight of Faramir any more, Denethor turned and walked blindly to the outer wall of the Tower. There his eyes fell upon the plain before Minas Tirith, all overspread as it was with the dark squares and columns of the enemy. This was the first time Denethor had seen the battle array of Mordor. He stopped, and his grip on his sword hilt tightened. He leaned his other hand on the wall as if for support. From below came the steady thump of orc drums, and the thin wail of trumpets blown by Easterling heralds. Denethor gave a bitter laugh. The sound made the guards and the crowd start. Denethor laughed again and looking towards the East he said;
‘Your victory is almost complete. But you will never triumph over me; I will rob you of that at least….’

Then he shouted at the men of the Citadel guard;
‘The line of the Stewards is ended. See, see where the enemy approaches at last! The future of Gondor is darkness and her history only silence. The end has come, save yourselves as best you can, and look no more to me for leadership….’

And turning his back on the army of Mordor closing in on his city, and on his people standing aghast at his words, Denethor walked back towards the White Tower. He stopped beside his son’s litter and said to the bearers;
‘Take him up and bring him inside; place him on his bed in the Tower then you are free to go…..’

‘But my lord!’ said Beregond the Captain of the Citadel guard ‘What are your orders for the defence of the city. Who…who is in charge?’

And Denethor replied wearily;
‘My sons are dead and my hope is gone. I can no longer protect you. I have failed. Fly or stay, it is all one, you will all die. Follow whoever you wish, even that grey fool Gandalf Mithrandir. Whether in the first circle of the city or the last, we will all burn....’

And to the dismay of the guards and the people, Denethor turned and led the bearers who carried Faramir’s litter in through the doors of the Hall, saying as if to himself;
‘The Stewards no longer rule Gondor……’

Pippin jumped to his feet and ran after the bearers and the Steward, muttering to himself;
‘Medicine and not talk such as this is what Faramir needs now….’
And he ducked into the Hall just before the guards slammed the doors.

Outside for a moment there was a shocked silence, then panic broke out. Denethor had ruled Minas Tirith with an iron hand; what were they to do without him? Even the Citadel guards lost their impassive calm and ran to the wall to cast desperate glances at the enemy army. As if at a signal, just at that moment the first missiles began to sail over the walls and fall into the city. A cry of fear went up. It was cut off by a loud, stern voice. It was Gandalf;

‘Do not give in to fear! The defence of the city is in your own hands now. Do what I say and return to your posts, all of you! Throw these foul beasts back into the abyss!’

In that moment Gandalf was no longer a bent old man leaning on a staff; he stood up straight as a spear and his white cloak and long silver-white hair flew out behind him in the hot sulphurous breeze from the East. A light of battle shone in his eyes and his face was fell and stern. He drew the great sword Glamdring and held it up and its Elven blade flashed in the smoky light. The soldiers of Gondor felt a spark of hope kindled in their hearts despite the gloom around them....

‘To your posts!’ shouted Gandalf in a ringing voice.’ Fight for your city, people of Minas Tirith, fight for your lives!’