The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 58: Peregine Son Of Paladin

‘Bring wood and oil!’ ordered Denethor, and two servants ran off at once, glad to be out of the dimly lit hall of tombs. The Steward wondered grimly if they would return at all. It was no matter; there would always be some who would obey the Steward, even against whatever upstart Gandalf and all his Elvish friends might try to foist upon Gondor….

He was called back to the present by Faramir moaning on the stone table where they had placed him. Denethor turned towards his youngest son and gazed at his face for some time in silence.

While the leeches had probed his wounds Faramir had tossed and cried out, but now he was deep in a deathlike sleep, turning his head from time to time and murmuring words without meaning. He was deathly pale but burned with fever and his face was covered with an icy sweat. His tawny hair also was dark with sweat, gleaming gold only where the torchlight fell on it….the same colour hair as his mother Finduilas had….Denethor started as he realised how much Faramir resembled her, even as Denethor had seen her on her deathbed….

‘My Lord Denethor…!’

The chamberlain burst into the Great Hall and interrupted the audience Denethor was accustomed to hold every morning to dispense justice and regulate the defence of Minas Tirith. He looked up in irritation, and the crowd of petitioners glanced round in alarm.

‘The Lady Finduilas, my Lord….’

And then the man stopped and a great silence fell. Denethor rose to his feet. Finduilas had been ill for many weeks now, and three days before had fallen into a deep sleep from which none could awaken her, not even the healers. But Denethor, even though he realised that his wife was near to death, went on with his duties as usual. For Denethor put allegiance to his city before his family, or even himself. Now as the chamberlain struggled to speak the words he had feared to hear for so long, Denethor suddenly was weary of this task; the ivory staff of office felt heavy and slippery in his hand, the silver chain of the Steward like a slave’s halter round his neck.

‘Lady Finduilas is dead, is that what you have come to tell me?’

‘Yes, my Lord…’ stammered the man.

Denethor got up from the Steward’s chair and bowed to the burghers before him.
‘I beg you attend me tomorrow…’ was all he said, then turned and walked from the Hall.

The townspeople hastened to bow in their turn and retreat talking to each other in low voices. But one man, a stonemason who wore a badge upon his arm to denote his trade and his guild, looked at the retreating Steward with pity and contempt.
‘If the wife I loved were lying close to death, nothing on this earth would draw me away from her side. You are not so great after all…..’ he thought, then turned and left the Great Hall.

Denethor entered his wife’s chamber with slow steps. The waiting-women were standing along the far wall, their eyes red with weeping, their heads covered. They bowed when he came in.
‘Leave me…’ he said abruptly, then remembering his place, he added;
‘I thank you for your duties and your kindness to my Lady… attend me tomorrow.’

The women curtsied and hurried out, and Denethor approached the bed.

Finduilas was as beautiful in death as she had been in life. Her face was pale with a translucence like that of pearl, and her eyes were ringed with blue shadows. Her cheeks were sunken and her lips bloodless. The maids had composed her fine white hands on the deep red coverlet, and Denethor noticed the blue veins and the numb curled fingers laid over each other. He remembered the touch of her hand, when they had still been in love, before the Shadow had fallen upon her….

Footsteps sounded and he turned. In the doorway stood his two sons, brought from weapons practice by the sword master, Dlí. He stood behind the boys, a thin man past sixty with narrow grey eyes and a lined humorous face. But he was not laughing now.
‘You sent for your sons, my lord’ he said, and Denethor nodded then said;
‘Leave us, Dlí….’

The man bowed and left and Denethor looked at his sons. They knew their mother was dead. Denethor guessed the word was gone through every street and square by now. Despite himself, he studied their faces to see how they had borne the news.

Boromir, the eldest, almost a man, stood stiff and straight and held his head high but his grief was betrayed by the marks of tears on his face. He knew his father despised weakness and he was striving to be brave, just as he strove to be the best in weapons practice….

But Faramir was another matter. Only a boy yet, he was close to his mother and now his face was pale with shock and sorrow. Even to his father he seemed no longer to be a child but to have aged in an hour and become an old man. He wept, the tears falling onto his leather fencing tunic. Denethor could not see it, but Boromir had an arm around his younger brother, and was holding him up…..

Denethor moved towards his sons and embraced first Boromir, then Faramir.
‘My sons, your mother….’

He said no more, because Faramir, braving his father’s dislike of weakness, had thrown himself on the bed and taking one of his mother’s hands kissed it, calling to her over and over.
‘Not dead….not dead!’

Denethor noticed that in the lamplight the boy had the same fair hair as Finduilas….

The same fair hair….a servant handed Denethor a pitcher of oil and the Steward roused himself and poured the contents on the sticks and brushwood piled round Faramir. Then he poured it onto his son, drenching his long tawny hair and his blood-stained tunic. Grief and guilt assailed Denethor. He stepped back and threw away the metal pitcher…..
‘No tomb for Faramir….’ He said again and took a torch from the trembling hand of an attendant…’he will burn…’

‘He’s not dead!’

The voice, quiet and soft but determined fell on Denethor’s ears like a call from the past, from a world of peace now lost…

‘He’s not dead!’

Denethor looked round and saw the hobbit, Pippin, standing inside the doorway. Those fools of porters, they should have kept the lad out; some streak of compassion yet lived in Denethor and he did not desire that Pippin should see what was about to happen. He was aware too that his attendants were becoming agitated, unsure and unwilling. They had been held to his orders by sheer fright and awe of the Steward. But Pippin’s insistent outburst would soon break their resolve and tempt them to disobey him, perhaps try to rescue Faramir. That could not be allowed to happen; they must be together in death, beyond the reach of Sauron …Denethor turned to Pippin and said;
‘I release you from my service….’

But Pippin approached nearer, looking in horror at the tangle of brushwood and Faramir lying pale and sick on it. He saw the torch in Denethor’s hand and in a flash he understood and turned to look up at Denethor.

As if the Steward could not bear the frank gaze of this brave little warrior, he said to Pippin;
‘My son is dying, and I will burn with him. We will burn like heathen kings before ship e’er sailed out of the West…’
‘But my lord, he’s not dead! Perhaps Gandalf could heal him….’
‘Do not comfort me with wizards!’ shouted Denethor, and suddenly he seemed to forget Pippin and raising his face to the vaulted ceiling he cried.
‘We will be together at last, even if it be only in death….’

And with those words he strode towards the pyre. Pippin ran after him, seemingly forgotten. He cried to the black-clad attendants, standing as if struck by lightning.
‘He is not dead! Faramir is not dead!’

But no-one stirred. In desperation, Pippin ran to the pyre and began to haul off the faggots of wood. Before he could remove even one bundle, a firm powerful hand grasped him by the neck of his tunic and hauled him back like a man pulling a bulldog off a greyhound.
‘Go!’ shouted Denethor.
‘I won’t, he’s not dead….’ cried Pippin, struggling. So Denethor turned and walked to the open door of the hall of tombs, dragging Pippin by the scruff of the neck as if he were a puppy. Denethor had great strength of arm even in his old age, and the young hobbit was no burden to him.

‘He’s not dead!’ Pippin was screaming now, trying to get his feet under him and clutching the Steward’s arm but feeling the cloak wound round his neck tighten. The steward's hand was pulling his tawny hair and he could not breathe but in his mind all the time was Faramir’s still, white face. He could not let him die.

Then Denethor reached the door and with all his strength he flung the hobbit out onto the hard white flagstones of the street of tombs. Pippin fell heavily and rolled over twice, then stopped, stunned, and tried to sit up. Before the door slammed behind him he heard Denethor say.
‘Peregrine, son of Paladin, I release you from my service. Go and die in whatever way seems best to you….’