Mirkwood's Blade - Chapter Thirty-four - The Steward's Reception
Then a spire of pure white crested the hill they were riding up, and Novarwen nearly fell off Brethil. It shone with the sun, so brightly that she couldn't see the tip of it. As they galloped farther up the hill, the White City of Minas Tirith came into view, and she gasped reflexively. City of kings, it rose, gleaming white and lofty and majestic, over the hill and - was. It simply was. There were no words, even in Elvish, for its beauty and splendor and power. Novarwen stared at it as Brethil, undazzled by the City's glory, followed Shadowfax through the gates. She still stared as Shadowfax and Brethil took their riders up through all the levels of the city, and as they dismounted and made their way to the Steward's hall on foot.
But she did not stare as they walked past a white tree, because of the look on Pippin's face. "It's the tree," he gasped. "Gandalf, Novarwen, it's the tree!" From his vision, she thought. He must have seen it. Then she recalled that she too had seen the City - but seen it burning. Something inside her cried out against the destruction of such beauty."
Gandalf was answering Pippin. Novarwen wrested her mind from her visions and back to the present. "Yes," Mithrandir agreed, "the White Tree, the tree of the king. Lord Denethor, however, is not king. He is a Steward."
Pippin's brow furrowed. "A caretaker of the throne," Novarwen explained quickly, and the hobbit's face cleared.
Gandalf stopped at the top of the stairs, just before the door to the hall. "Listen carefully," he said, looking not at Novarwen but at Pippin. "Lord Denethor is Boromir's father. To give him news of his son's death would be most unwise. And do not mention Frodo, or the Ring." Gandalf reached for the door, checked himself, and added, "And say nothing of Aragorn either." Again he made to push the door open, but turned back to Pippin. "In fact," he advised, "it's best if you don't speak at all, Peregrin Took." Pippin nodded, and only then did Gandalf push open the door.
Novarwen's first reaction to the hall was that it was dead. Every step she took resounded, echoing back from the walls. It must have been glorious once, when kings or past Stewards sat in it and held audiences, but now it was as silent as a tomb, and as cold as one. She raised her eyes to the far end, where she saw a man sitting on his great chair. His shoulders were hunched with sorrow, and he cradled something gently between his hands.
Gandalf stopped a few feet before the man and spread his arms in greeting. Novarwen and Pippin halted as well, one on each side of him. "Hail Denethor, son of Ecthelion!" the wizard said clearly. Denethor did not look up. His eyes were focused single-mindedly on the object in his lap. "I come with tidings in this dark hour," Gandalf went on, after an awkward pause, "and with counsel."
At last Denethor looked up. His face was twisted with grief, and as he lifted his head, Novarwen could see what the object was that he held - Boromir's horn, cloven in two. She swallowed convulsively, thinking of the doomed Man. "Perhaps," he said, turning the pieces of the horn in his hands, "you come to explain this. Perhaps you come to tell me why my son is dead." Novarwen closed her eyes tightly to hold back the tears that threatened to pour out. I wouldn't go to help him at first, she remembered. Maybe if I had, he would not be dead. Despite her initial impression of Denethor and his Stewardship, she felt pity for him for the first time.
Lost in her own thoughts and feelings, she was startled to hear Pippin's voice, laden with his own load of emotions, break the silence that had grown in the room after Denethor had spoken. "Boromir died to save us," he said. There was a choke in his voice, but he went on nonetheless. "My kinsman and me. He fell defending us from many foes." The young hobbit, regardless of Gandalf's attempts to stop him, moved before Denethor's throne and knelt in front of the Steward. "I offer you my service, such as it is, in payment of this debt." His sincerity touched Novarwen, and looking at Denethor, she could not believe the Steward was not touched as well.
She shot an angry glance at Gandalf when he swatted Pippin's back with his staff and muttered, "Get up." Pippin got quickly to his feet and stared at the floor. "There will be a time to grieve for Boromir," Gandalf promised, "but it is not now! The Enemy is on your doorstep!"
Novarwen remembered her vision, of the city in flames, and added her voice to the wizard's. "As Steward, your charge is for the city's safety. Where are Gondor's defenses?" Denethor, who had ignored or not seen her until now, suddenly noticed her - and shot her a cold look of pure hatred that made her swallow the rest of her words in shock. This is Boromir's father? she thought, clenching her fists to keep from stumbling back a few steps. Boromir was as proud as Denethor, but never this twisted, never this angry at a reprimand.
"You still have friends." Mithrandir spoke quickly into Novarwen's silence. "Send word to Théoden of Rohan. Light the beacons of Gondor." His eyes bored into Denethor. "You are not alone in this fight."
Denethor treated Gandalf to the same look that had so effectively silenced Novarwen. "You think you are wise, Mithrandir," he answered, "yet for all your subtleties you have not wisdom." Gandalf stiffened at the Steward's poisoned words, and his eyes became hard and frosty. "Do you think the eyes of the White Tower are blind?" Denethor hissed. "I have seen more than you know. More than you could dream of knowing, you or that Elf beside you who is so full of fine words." Novarwen's jaw clenched, and her hand itched to grasp her sword. "With your right hand you would use me as a shield against Mordor, and with the other you would seek to supplant me! I know who rides with Théoden of Rohan." A bitter, satisfied smile spread over Denethor's face as he registered the apprehension that his words brought to Gandalf and Novarwen. "Oh, yes," he murmured. "Word has reached my ears of this Aragorn, son of Arathorn, and I tell you now I will not bow to this Ranger from the North, last of a ragged house long bereft of lordship."
"Authority is not given to you to deny the return of the king, Steward!" Gandalf snapped.
Denethor flung himself up and out of his chair. "The rule of Gondor is mine, and no other's!" he snarled.
Gandalf stood there for only a moment. Then he looked at Pippin and said brusquely, "Come," and wheeled around, striding out of the hall.
Novarwen chanced a glance back at Denethor. He had resumed his seat, and was once again turning Boromir's horn over and over in his hands, as though she, Gandalf, and Pippin had never been there. The sight chilled her to the bones, and she quickened her pace to get out of the hall as soon as she could.
Novarwen pulled a change of clothes out of her small satchel. She had packed it the day they left Edoras, so only essentials had had time to be put in it. Novarwen folded the long pants and the tunic and slipped them into one of the drawers of the small cupboard. Denethor's hospitality had extended to the three of them one tiny room - and nothing more, not even a separate room for her, the woman. Novarwen cursed miserly, blind Stewards under her breath as she pulled out more things from her satchel.
On the bed lay a diminutive uniform and shirt of chain mail, complete with a small sword. Pippin picked up the sword and drew it out of the sheath, then slid it back in. "So I imagine this," he said, in a cheerful voice that did not fool Novarwen for an instant, "that this is only for ceremonial purposes." He dropped the sword back onto the uniform. "I mean, they don't really expect me to do any fighting -" He looked out at Gandalf, standing on the balcony of the tiny room. "Do they?" he finished nervously.
Gandalf did not turn around, but his voice was full of irritation. "You're in the service of the Steward now," he grumbled. "You'll have to do as you're told." He puffed on his pipe and muttered, "Peregrin Took, Guard of the Citadel." Novarwen smothered a smile at Gandalf's annoyance and pushed her quiver and bow into a corner of the room, within easy reach.
Pippin made his way out onto the balcony. His arms just made it over the railing. "It's so quiet," he murmured.
"It's the deep breath before the plunge," Novarwen commented, coming to join the two of them on the balcony. She leaned against the wall and tipped her head back. What a lovely view, she thought sarcastically. A direct line of vision to Mordor. This room must be popular. But the silence won over her inclination to be sarcastic, and her thoughts fell silent.
"I don't want to be in a battle," said Pippin. He was trying to rein in his fear, but it slipped out in the strained tones of his voice. Novarwen stepped over to his side and put a hand on his shoulder for comfort. "But waiting on the edge of one I can't escape is even worse!" She felt him shudder under her hand before he looked up at Gandalf. "Is there any hope, Gandalf? For Frodo and Sam?"
"There never was much hope," Gandalf admitted heavily, resting his elbows on the railing. Then he looked over at Pippin, the well-remembered twinkle back in his eye, and added, "Just a fool's hope." Recalling the many times when Gandalf had called Pippin a fool, Novarwen felt herself smile.
Then she turned around and looked back into their room, her forehead furrowed. There was something still in there. Frowning, she straightened up and walked into the room. She found her satchel lying at the foot of the bed and put her hand into it. It connected with a solid-feeling leather-wrapped ball, and she pulled it out. The leather covering slid off it, and Novarwen relaxed as she saw what it was that she held in her hand. It was Galadriel's gift, brought to her on the eve of Helm's Deep - the Ainaglin, the round crystal that helped her with the visions that seized her at often inopportune moments. It felt good to cup the smooth sphere in her hands again, to feel its coolness, to see the feather-thin cracks that ran through it and the mist that swirled inside it. Novarwen closed her eyes and held it close to her, thinking happily of Galadriel.
When she opened her eyes again, Galadriel's face was swimming in the Ainaglin's mist. Novarwen nearly cried out, and almost dropped the Ainaglin. Luckily her hands held it, and she stared at her adopted mother's serene face staring her calmly in the eyes. "Ga - Galadriel?" she whispered.
Galadriel smiled, and her voice spoke faintly in Novarwen's head. I am glad you have managed to find this out, my daughter, she said. Now that you can communicate with me, I can help you train your gift.
Novarwen sat back on the stone floor, hard. Wait - I can talk to you through the Ainaglin, and you can train me?
And - when can you start?
Now, if you wish. Galadriel's mind voice sounded as though she were laughing.
Let me - let me think about this. Novarwen bit her lip. She should be trained, she knew that, but everything was coming so fast, and she just needed some time to calm down. I want to be trained, just - let me think.
As you wish. Galadriel gently withdrew from her mind, and her face vanished from the Ainaglin's mist. Novarwen sighed heavily and wrapped the Ainaglin up again, stowing it in her drawer. As she stood, she caught sight of a column of light visible from the balcony. She walked quickly onto the balcony - and stared in utter shock. The light - a thick, enormous column of green-white light - shot into the sky, but was coming from somewhere in Mordor. She gripped the balcony railing tightly to keep from wobbling on her feet, unable to take her eyes from that ominous green-white light.
"We come to it at last," said Gandalf's quiet voice on her right. Her head snapped around, and she looked sharply at him, but he too was staring only at the light, unmoving. "The great battle of our time."
Novarwen let go of the railing and ran back into the room. She pulled the drawer open and scooped up the Ainaglin, pulling off the leather covering. She cradled the crystal globe in her hands and thought of Galadriel.
Her face appeared in the Ainaglin. Yes? You have thought?
Teach me, please, Novarwen answered, her mind-voice shaking. Teach me now.