Young Boromir

by Varda

Chapter 11: The Crystal Key

When Boromir and Dánacht had hurried away to lead the search for Faramir,
Denethor dismissed his guards and sank into the Steward’s chair in the Great
Hall of Minas Tirith, his long white hands gripping the black polished
armrests and his eyes staring into emptiness. Age had barely touched
Denethor; his shoulders were unbowed and his black hair carried as yet only
a few silver hairs. But now he felt old, and the chill of the great hall
penetrated to his very bones…

Long he sat, and darkness fell and lights were brought, but Denethor did not
heed them. The hour for dinner came and went, and Gandalf the guest sat in
lonely state in the long dining room, eating without appetite while the
servants moved about with downcast faces.

As Denethor sat deep in thought a flight of snow hit the horn windows in the
arched roof high above him and the wind keened. The Steward started; there
seemed to be voices in that wind…

‘Faramir is too like you, Finduilas…he is too gentle. This age has need of
valiant warriors, strong enough to defend Gondor…’
‘You are wrong, Denethor…’ in her voice, low and sad, there was still a hint
of stubborness. Her face, pale as always, turned to him with a question;
‘In this age of warriors, is it treason to love?’

Denethor suddenly got to his feet and called for lights. The servants
hurried to bring torches and the Steward made his way along dark corridors
to his quarters. There he dismissed all his attendants and not taking any
food or even a glass of wine he sat in a high carved chair, staring into the
fire….

‘If only I could see what is happening!’ he thought. ‘I fear for my sons,
even Boromir. For many mishaps and outrages occur in war, and courage is
oftimes not enough….’

He got up and paced the room, furnished sparsely, more in the manner of a
barracks than a palace. Suddenly he paused and reached down and drew from
the folds of his fur-lined gown a bunch of keys on a jewelled chain…

It was the custom for the Steward of Gondor to carry on his sword belt two
keys. One was of brass and the other of silver. On the head of the brass key
was stamped a portcullis and it opened the gate of the lowest level of the
city, the quarter of the Portcullis. The head of the silver key was wrought
in the shape of a tree and it was the key of the Great Hall of Minas Tirith,
the heart of the White City in the courtyard of which stood the White Tree
of Gondor. Both keys symbolised the stewardship of the kingdom, given to the
house of Denethor and some day to be returned to the King when he should
return.

But there was another key on the ring; a small iron key of ancient design
with a crystal set into its head. This key Denethor now drew out and gazed
upon as it lay on his open palm. A slight tremor in his hand betrayed a
struggle in his proud heart, then he shut his fingers upon the key as if he
had taken some great decision. Pulling a plain black cloak round his
shoulders he opened his door and ignoring the salute of the guard he walked
with quick determined steps along the corridor, down a winding stone stair
and out into the quadrangle behind the royal quarters…

The snow had abated, and only a few flakes still whirled down from the
grey-mauve sky. The small quadrangle was silent and white and Denethor
avoided the deep blanket of snow, keeping to the surrounding cloisters. When
he had crossed two sides he came to a tower in the North-east corner. This
was called the Treasure Tower, although it did not hold any treasures that
anyone knew of, as the house of the Steward was a warlike dynasty who took
no delight in precious baubles. But it was believed that certain valuables
of the family, ancient seals and documents and treaties, were kept within
its thick stone walls. There was only one door to the Treasure Tower, and
only one key to the door, the crystal key on the Steward’s belt.

His hands almost numb in the bitter cold of the snowy night, Denethor put
the key in the lock and although it had not been opened for many months the
key turned easily and the door grated open. Denethor glanced round the dark
snow-covered square then slipped inside and locked the door after him.

He stopped a moment, his back to the door, collecting his thoughts. He
should have brought a taper; the tower was dark and cold and smelt of dust
and mice. A prickling along his spine seemed to warn him to go back but he
was resolved, and taking a deep breath he ventured forward, seeing by the
faint light of embrasures set at intervals in the thick walls. He placed his
foot on the bottom step of a steep winding stone staircase that reached up
into the darkness, and ascended…

The Treasure Tower was high, reaching above the palace roofs around it, but
not as high as the White Tower. Denethor ascended for some time before he
reached a stone landing and a low door, clasped with iron bands and graven
with runes of warning. Denethor put out his hand and pushed the door open;
it was not locked and yielded easily. Still seeing by the faint snow-glare
from the narrow window slits, Denethor drew a deep breath and entered the
top room of the Treasure Tower.

He walked to the middle of the small octagonal room and stopped. There were
narrow windows all around deep-set in thick stone. No-one could see in and
he could hardly see out. But he did not wish to view over the city; what he
wished to look at was sitting on a bare wooden table in front of him,
covered with a black cloth, like a gravecloth. Even undisturbed after all
these years the thing before Denethor seemed to impart to the air around it
a strange tension, as if he were not alone in the room.

Doubt assailed Denethor and he hesitated again. But then he thought of
Boromir, and of Faramir, his youngest, who had the same grey eyes as
Finduilas, the same gentle manner. Gentle but stubborn….Denethor reached out
and snatched away the black cloth, revealing the Palantír….

It was no more than an orb of black stone, like jet or obsidian, polished to
a high shine. In the cold, thin light it gleamed faintly, placed on a round
silver disc that shone dully in the fading starlight. Denethor approached it
carefully, feeling slightly relieved that nothing had happened when the
cover was taken away. He felt foolish, to have feared that something would
snatch bodily at him or seek to imprison his mind. All these years he had
pondered should he use the Seeing Stone, and now it sat there, inert,
harmless. Denethor stepped up to it and brought his face close to it…

His features were reflected in the smooth black surface. He gazed at
himself, wondering now at the Stone of the Kings. It did not harm one who
had the right to rule Gondor; would it harm him? Suddenly he became aware of
a distortion in his image on the shiny orb. He gazed while his features
wavered then vanished. The globe began to shimmer, tongues of red and yellow
flame began to flicker far in its depths. Denethor began to feel uneasy, but
now it was too late to pull back; his gaze was held as a fiery eruption took
place far down in the world of the orb. Mesmerised now, Denethor stared deep
into the globe. Sights came and went in the wake of the fire; mountains,
dark and high, reared up against a sky devoid of a single star. And then
there was within the orb another orb; an Eye, growing greater and
brighter….Denethor stared, and could not look away…

‘Long have I awaited your coming, Lord High Steward of Gondor….’

Gandalf rose and stretched, and paced his narrow room, filling another pipe.
Sleep was impossible, and his thoughts returned to Faramir again and again.
But that was not why he did not sleep. A shadow had crossed Gandalf’s
spirit; some great evil had been stirred up in this city. Gandalf denied it
to himself but his instinct was strong. He sat down and sighed. Doubtless in
time he would find out what it was….