The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda


Chapter 65: Pippin's Choice

‘What are you saying, Peregrine Took?’ demanded Gandalf, wheeling Shadowfax around to face the little hobbit and fix him with his stern gaze.
‘Denethor is going to burn Faramir alive!’ shouted Pippin, his small voice barely rising above the tumult of battle.
‘What?’ thundered the wizard.
‘It’s true’ cried Pippin, in tears now. ‘Denethor has put him on a pyre and he says he will burn and Faramir with him and he will not wait!’

And sobs overcame Pippin as he thought of Faramir and he was for a moment oblivious even of the fierce fighting raging all round them.
‘Then I must go…’ said Gandalf ‘even though many will pay the price for my absence from the battle at this moment…’
And he leaned over and seized Pippin by the collar and swung him onto Shadowfax, placing him safely before him then with only a thought he urged the great Meara up the narrow streets towards the first level of the city of Minas Tirith…

It was a dangerous and desperate ride; from all sides smoke and sparks blew into their faces from blazing houses and even this high the din of fighting echoed in the narrow alleys and tiny squares. Soldiers leaped out of the way of Shadowfax, looking up in concern to see Gandalf leave the ordering of the defence. But he merely cried out;
‘Make way! Make way!’

It seemed incredible to Pippin that only a day or so before he had gone this very journey when he and Gandalf entered the city. But the bright morning was gone, and with it many of the soldiers who had watched them from the walls. It was as if they had entered a nightmare….Pippin raised his head with a jerk; they had passsed through Fen Hollin, open and unattended, as should not have been, and entered the gloomy, silent street of the tombs, Rath Dínen. Now they were galloping along the white weed-grown pavement towards the iron-barred door of the House of the Stewards….

Would they be in time to save Faramir? Pippin’s heart was thumping in his chest as if about to burst. He wondered how they would enter the locked crypt, but without any command Shadowfax reared up and threw out his hooves and the great doors burst asunder and Pippin looked and saw the pyre yet unlit, and Denethor standing beside it, the torch ready in his hand….

‘Stop this madness!’ shouted Gandalf, but Denethor’s black-clad attendants stood as if turned to stone and made no move to prevent their lord firing the tinder dry fuel piled high under and around Faramir. Denethor looked up at Gandalf and a bitter smile twisted his face.
‘You are not lord here yet, Gandalf the Grey. I am still master of my own house, and of my own servants. The West has failed; all that is left is for us to burn...….’

And with that, the men standing round making no effort to stop him, Denethor threw the torch into the wood.

Faramir had been lifted gently from the bier and placed unconscious on the pyre, unaware of anything passing about him. But as he was laid on the sticks he murmured something, and Denethor, holding the torch, realised his son was calling his name. The sound smote his heart like a blade, but he held in his feelings, and resolved even more firmly to light the pyre.

‘Boromir was taken from me..’ he thought to himself ‘…borne away down the river to the sea on some Elven craft, never to return to my presence. Stolen from me and from his city. An honourable death, defending his friends! But what of his father? Does he not deserve the chance to say farewell too? No matter; this other son I will not lose; to Gandalf whom he loves almost as much as he loves me. Nor to this Frodo, whom he protected against his father’s will. No, this son they will not take from me, Faramir, the beloved. He and I will lie in death together here in the House of Stewards past…..’

And with that Denethor, with an agility that belied his age, leaped up onto the pile of kindling alongside his son.

Seeing the movement and sensing the danger to Faramir, Shadowfax bounded forward down the hall of tombs; unlike the rest of his kind, this great horse did not fear fire. The attendants scattered and Gandalf took up Pippin as a huntsman takes a terrier to earth a fox, and threw him onto the pyre. Pippin, feeling the flames lick his Elvish cloak, took hold of the unconscious Faramir and tried to pull him off the firewood. Denethor leaned down and seized the hobbit by his black and silver tunic.

Perhaps he was thinking of another hobbit, Frodo, who bore that weapon he had tried so hard to win for Gondor. Or perhaps he was angry at Pippin for returning after he had been dismissed. Whatever was the reason, Denethor caught hold of him so tightly that the hobbit began to choke and let out a strangled cry, more of surprise than fear, for in his heart he did not think Denethor would hurt him. And despite everything Pippin felt only love and loyalty towards the proud and warlike old man….

But when Gandalf heard Pippin cry out he turned and raised his staff and struck Denethor and knocked him backwards into the brushwood. Pippin took hold of Faramir’s tunic and throwing his own weight to the side he dragged the unconscious man with him, and they both fell heavily onto the stone floor.

Faramir’s garments were soaked with oil, and caught fire. Pippin beat out the flames with his gauntlets but scarcely had he done so when Denethor appeared towering over him. Pippin shrank back as he saw the Steward draw a long black-handled dagger from his belt and say in a voice low with anger;.
‘You will not take my son from me….’

‘He does not mean to kill me, but Faramir….’ Thought Pippin in horror. But at that moment there was a blur of silver-white and Gandalf, dismounted now from Shadowfax, thrust his staff between Denethor and his son. The Steward moved to push the staff aside but Gandalf stayed him.
‘You cannot come to him, now or perhaps ever again. His path lies elsewhere, perhaps in healing, perhaps in death. But not by your hand, Denethor….’

And before the Steward could move Gandalf, with inhuman strength, leaned over and easily lifted up the sleeping man and bore him down the hallway of tombs and out into the dim morning air, not looking at Denethor again. Pippin jumped to his feet and ran after Gandalf. The attendants stood unmoving, staring at their lord.

Denethor gazed at the retreating wizard and whispered;
'Do not take my son from me....' but no-one could hear him over the flames, and he turned and with a few swift strides he gained the pile of brushwood, now well alight, and sprang onto it.

The guards cried out in horror, and at the door Gandalf stopped and looked back. Standing on the pyre, quickly wreathed in flames, Denethor took from under his cloak a round, dark, shining object which reflected back the red flames leaping up around him. Gandalf gasped and Pippin clutched the wizard’s cloak; a palantír! As if going not to death but to his rest at night, Denethor lay down on the pyre with the crystal on his breast and his hands crossed upon it.

‘So much is thus explained….’ murmured Gandalf, then wishing to spare Pippin the dreadful sight of Denethor burned alive he pushed the hobbit before him and hurried out of the crypt, still bearing Faramir. The flames roared up inside, and the guards and attendants, as if suddenly freed from some spell, turned and ran for their lives out of the tomb. The fire reached higher and higher, at last setting the wooden roof alight and it burned till in the end it fell in and crashed down upon the pyre of Denethor, burying the last of the Stewards of Gondor. Gandalf gazed back at the fiery sight and said to himself;
‘Thus passes Denethor son of Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor…..’

The wizard might have stood there longer, but Pippin tugged at his sleeve;
‘Gandalf! What about Faramir?’

And Gandalf, as if woken from a reverie, looked in the face of the wounded man and saw him draw a faint breath.
‘Will he be all right?’ asked Pippin anxiously. Gandalf shook his head and replied;
‘I do not know, Peregrine; more is at work here than just wounds caused by arrows; Faramir has been assailed by the poison of the enemy….we must take him to the Houses of Healing….’ And he added to himself; ‘although such healing as they can offer might not be enough for Faramir….’

Seeing the attendants standing round, Gandalf bade them bring a litter and he carefully placed Faramir upon it and covered him with a black guard’s cloak. They bore him back up the staircase to Fen Hollin, still unguarded and empty. Gandalf was about to accompany them to the Houses of Healing, which stood just above the Closed Door when from the battle plain below came a great ringing of horns.

Pippin and Gandalf ran to the wall and looked out across the Pelennor; still hidden in smoke they could yet see the waves of orcs and the lighter, scattered ranks of the Riders of Rohan, still contesting the battle.
‘I must return to the field!’ cried Gandalf.
‘But Faramir! Said Pippin. ‘You said he needs help….’
Gandalf did not answer, but Pippin saw his lip tremble and the hobbit bit back the words he wanted to say; he remembered that Faramir had been Gandalf’s pupil and he loved him. How much it must grieve the wizard to leave his friend when he was near death. But he was needed in the battle below….
‘I have tarried too long as it is’ said Gandalf gruffly. Then he looked at Pippin and there was a strange light in his eye;
‘Remain with Faramir, if you will…..’

Pippin instinctively glanced down at the battle; he knew in his heart that somewhere in the ranks of the Rohirrim was Merry, and he feared for him in the fighting and wished more than anything to find him again. An urgent feeling came over Pippin; he could not stay here, he must find Merry right away. Gandalf was striding over to mount Shadowfax again. Pippin glanced at Faramir and brushing away a tear he knelt beside the litter and whispered;
‘I will come back, Faramir, for I swore allegiance to your father, the Steward, and now you are Steward. I promise I will come back, when I have found my cousin…..’

But Faramir was still and cold and pale, and gave no sign that he heard, and Pippin, his heart torn in two, ran after Gandalf and the wizard pulled him up after him onto Shadowfax and galloped away through the city to the main gate and the battle still raging outside ….