For the thirtieth, or perhaps the three hundredth, time he stalked the shell-lined paths, brushing aside the shy blossoms of lavender as he continued his search. Always searching – but for what? Whenever he attempted to focus his mind, an overwhelming weariness embraced him, and he would sink to the lush grass for untold hours.
Upon awakening, duty drove him once more upon his circuitous path. He had work that must be done. This he knew, though he could not put name to the duties awaiting him. Always, there had been some task, some responsibility, demanding his attention – never a moment to call his own. She had not understood that.
She? The thought halted him, and the lavender leaned eagerly toward him. Did he search for a person rather than an object? He felt an instant of sorrow before fatigue overcame him.
Why could he not remember?
Silver hair fell forward to veil eyes clouded with regret as a grey-clad figure confessed, “My lord, I have failed you.”
Reaching out to lift her chin, her spouse shook his head. “Take no blame upon yourself, lady. You have accomplished far more than many believed possible in such a short time. However, sterner methods must now be employed. By order of Lord Manwë, our charge must be prepared to bear witness to the events unfolding upon the distant shores, and time there does not tarry.”
Concern shadowed the ageless face raised to meet his. “So much has he suffered, and the outcome remains uncertain. If Gorthaur is not defeated at this time, the guilt and shame might very well shatter his spirit for an age.”
His hand stroked the smoothness of her cheek. “Have you then given up hope, gentle one?”
“Nay, Ilúvatar ordained that even the discord of the Enemies will become tributary to the ultimate glory of the Music, thus Gorthaur’s defeat is inevitable. Yet,” her tone sank in sorrow, “no one, even your brother, who holds the knowledge of the future, is assured that good will triumph in this age; and for Men the flow of years is vast.”
“‘Tis truth you speak, sister,” a somber voice interrupted, and the pair turned to greet the shadow-clad speaker. “There is still uncertainty, but rest easy in the knowledge that I do not seek to harm, but to heal.”
Acknowledging his sincerity, the lady bowed her head and pointed to a narrow path. “You will find him there, in the sanctuary his mind created. The sternness that served as his shield in life has become an impenetrable barrier, allowing no memory of either sorrow or joy. Only his sense of duty remains.”
“Then I will find the means to defeat this barrier …” a reassuring hand rose, “…without causing harm to that which lies behind. Trust me, sister.”
Gathering the shadows of his raiment, he disappeared.
Rolling to his back, the man’s muscles tightened in expectation when he sensed he was no longer alone. Could this be the one for whom he searched?
“As you are awake, I would have words with you.”
No, not she, for the voice sounded undeniably male, and deep, with a richness that bespoke power. The timbre was unfamiliar as was the abrupt tone. Only his father dared addressed him thus, and then only when he did something foolish. Lost in the unexpected memory of his father’s lecture concerning the lack of wisdom in attempting to scale the mountains that rose above the city, he was unaware of the passage of time until the voice spoke again.
“Aye, an irresponsible act for one destined to be the leader of his people.”
Surging to his feet, he glared at the strange man seated upon a stone bench which had not been there before. No, not a man, nor any being he could recall. Dark of hair, his visitor was, with a paleness to his skin reminding one of white marble. And about him shone a luminescence similar to that of the Eldar, but this creature was no elf. For even as he drew a breath to respond, a shifting of features left moss green eyes, which studied him from beneath a mop of golden curls. No tale he ever heard said the Fair Folk could change their appearance with a blink of an eye. And tales aplenty had been told during visits to his wife’s family.
His wife? His mind latched upon the thought. Was it she he searched for? Try as he could, no memory of her would surface, only the continuing blankness that left him bereft and exhausted.
“Once upon a time you did.”
Again, the stranger responded to his thoughts, for he was certain that no word had passed his lips. Drawing himself up, the man stared down his nose with the imposing gaze that had loosened the bowels of more than one opponent.
The only reaction from his visitor was another change of appearance and a low laugh.
“Nay, Master Steward, I am not one of your courtiers to be cowed by a mere look.” White teeth flashed in a dark face while eyes that gleamed golden as a cat’s blinked with amusement.
The man repeated the word slowly before he sank down and dropped his head upon his knees. Like the waves that beat upon the cliffs of Belfalas, memories crashed against the barriers erected to shut out his shame. His sworn purpose to wield the rod of his office and rule in the name of the king, until He should return. And he had failed. In the end, his pride had overcome his duty.
“Nay, think not.”
Grey eyes, in a weathered face framed by hair black as ebony, captured his as the Steward raised his head to brush aside the pity in that voice.
“Never sympathy.” The stranger’s tone remained cool. “For you deserve none.”
“There you speak true.” A harsh laugh accompanied the words. “I failed, and my people paid for my failure with their lives. It was my task to protect them and …”
“You did. For long years you held at bay a foe far more powerful than any mortal has ever survived.”
“At what price?” Bitterness etched deep lines about the man’s mouth.
“What price would they have paid if you had not been there and done as you did?”
The whisper of the wind in the grass became the crackling of flames, and the memory of heat engulfed him; dark laughter echoing within his mind as his flesh seared from his bones. Lassitude descended upon him again, offering the comfort of forgetting, but this time he refused.
Stepping away from the temptation, his voice grew chill. “Who are you to attempt to placate me? I am Denethor son of Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor, and I know my duties better than you.”
His words were accepted with a regal nod of a fair head, until with placid insistence the stranger said, “No one else would have succeeded as you did.”
“Are you not listening?” Through teeth clenched in agony, Denethor exclaimed, “I failed, and my people…my sons…died for my failure.”
“Like their father, they were matched against foes far beyond them in strength.” Lifting a hand covered with the paper-thin skin of the very old, the unnamed being added, “And as with their father, even their `errors’ of judgement served goodness in the end.”
With a mirthless laugh, the Steward rejected the statement. “What goodness was served by my `errors’?”
“‘Twas you who put people in the right places so they might succeed in the tasks assigned them.”
Shaking his head, Denethor said, “Succeed? My city is overrun; the last bastion against the Darkness fallen. What manner of realm did I leave for the king?”
Rising from the bench, his inquisitor held out a hand, strong and bearing the calluses of a swordsman. Eyes of a deep blue met the Steward’s in challenge.
“Shall we see?”
Glistening walls arched upward while intricately laced columns stretched narrow fingers down to touch the smooth limestone floor. Atop a natural pedestal, lit by an unearthly light, stood a shallow silver bowl. The water’s surface rippled when a droplet fell from some point hidden amongst the shadows of the ceiling.
Cloaked in darkness, a tall figure stood gazing into the basin. Silver eyes mirrored the shimmering liquid as he turned. “The moment is at hand for all hopes to be realized, or to shatter and be denied for another age. Wilt thou look?”
The ruins of his pride anchored Denethor’s feet where he stood. “Truly there is no sympathy within your breast, for I can think of no greater punishment than to witness the defeat of my people.”
“‘Tis no punishment, Master Steward, but thou wilt not believe unless thou seest with thy own eyes.” The voice grew hard and more terrible for the seeming youthfulness of the speaker. “Look upon the water!”
Reluctantly, Denethor stepped forward and bent his head. The fluid within the basin began to glow; a pale light that grew increasingly brighter. Narrowing his eyes, the Steward made out three small forms battling upon a path that wound its way around the Mountain of Fire. While he watched, one of the figures threw another upon the ground and commanded it to remain; then turned and walked slowly up the path.
“So close, they have come so close,” he said, as understanding of what he saw became clear. “If only…”
“If only you had believed, you would have aided them. But such was not your purpose, Steward. Your task was harder to achieve. Your duty, and one you did well, was to distract the mind of Gorthaur, him you call Sauron. Never by word or thought did you release knowledge of the halfling’s quest, thus you served goodness.”
“Not from any such honorable motive did I act.”
“Did you seek then to serve Darkness?”
“Thus every act, every word, every thought, whether the result of pride, duty or some other purpose, served to further the ends of Ilúvatar, though you knew it not. But look again.”
Ripples ran from the center of the basin as another drop fell from the shadows and the scene changed to the chaos of battle. Faces grim with the knowledge of certain defeat flickered into view, only to be replaced by the sneering visages of creatures filled with the madness of their master. A madness the Steward recognized, for he had seen it upon his own face not long before he…
Abruptly, he turned from the bowl, pale and shaking, his breath coming in shuddering gasps.
“I burned him alive!”
His words echoed within the confines of the cavern, filled with guilt and sorrow and desperation.
The stranger watched impassively, until it appeared the man would choose to sink once more into a stupor of forgetfulness.
“Have you not been listening?” The gentleness of the voice seemed a deliberate goad. “Every action you made served to further a return to harmony.”
Tears unshed during his life streamed down his cheeks as Denethor shouted, “How could murdering my own son lead to harmony?”
“Easily enough, as you were told, your task was to put the right people in the right places.”
Bitterly, he replied, “Aye, I put my son in the right place. Upon the fields of the Pelennor, where he fell prey to the Witch King.”
A childlike hand waved across the gleaming water. The images dissolved and reformed to focus on a halfling’s face beneath a bright helm.
“And placed another in a position to save him, if he dared. Dost thou not remember?”
“You torture me with false hopes and riddles. Speak plainly.”
The stern visage of a great lord faced him. “Look within thy memories for the answer.”
Haltingly, his words emerging slowly as he fought against the command, the Steward said, “I ordered him out, believing I discerned the plans of the Dark Lord. Filled with the certainty that I had wrested the palantir from His control and seen the truth. For my folly, my son was returned to me burning with a fever that could not be assuaged. I felt the fire within his blood when I touched his skin. My city burned as well, and there was no hope. For either my son or my people. Burning, everything was burning.”
Closing his eyes in a futile attempt to shut out memories he no longer desired but could not halt, the man swayed. Then with iron will, he forced himself upright and continued.
“I was given the vision of a fleet sweeping up the Anduin, pillaging as they came. Despair filled me. My sons were lost. My city, lost. Madness took me. I forsook my post and denied my king in an attempt to escape the fate I had called down upon my people. I was a fool.” Denethor bent his head into one hand, though he could not shield himself from his shame.
“No fool. Your enemy is a master of deception, and twisted your perceptions until you lost sight of the truth. But only your mind was deceived, never your heart.”
Denethor’s empty laugh filled the chamber. “My heart died long ago.”
Moved by compassion seldom allowed voice, the shadow-clad figure said gently, “Know you not for what you searched? It is safe within the garden where I met you.” When the man’s face clouded in confusion, he added, “She has kept it for you.”
A wave of hope surged only to be beaten back, and the Steward stabbed a finger toward the basin, now glowing blood red. “The fact remains that I failed my sworn duty.”
Unreadable emotions danced across an alabaster face. “The ripples from your actions have not yet ceased. Your sons and others you set in place altered the halflings’ fate in immeasurable ways. Only the Wise know if it will be enough to affect the outcome of this quest.”
Obeying the hand that demanded his return to the basin, Denethor realized the water’s glow was not the blood of men, but the fiery blood of the earth itself. Upon the edge of a chasm, a small figure stood staring at his open palm. The plain gold band resting there glowed with its own life. For an instant, it seemed the halfling would fling the Ring into the bowels of the earth, but he slipped it upon his finger and vanished.
Denethor’s head dropped to his chest. “It is over. The quest has failed. The West is fallen.”
“There are others with tasks yet to accomplish,” came the stern response.
Forcing his eyes open, the Steward watched as a gangling creature appeared to wrestle an invisible foe. The fires of the mountain awoke and blazed brighter and higher until, with a cry of triumph, the emaciated beast held aloft a finger thrust within the circle of the Ring. Prancing in victory upon the edge, he catapulted into the abyss. Denethor flung a hand to shield his eyes when the mountain answered with a roar and an eruption of liquid fire.
The view within the basin changed to reveal the destruction of the dreaded stronghold of Barad-dûr. Towers collapsed into pits that opened from below, and the very earth shattered. Lightning seared the sky and revealed the Nazgul hurtling toward Mount Orodruin. Desperately they sought to halt the events occurring upon its slopes; but too late they were. Caught in the fiery ruin of earth and sky, they withered and vanished. A menacing shadow rose from the battered land and reached out to gather the Armies of the West within its black grasp.
The ghastly silhouette shimmered as another droplet fell from the distant ceiling to strike the surface of the water. An illusion? Or was the darkness dissipating?
Denethor dared not draw breath while a mighty wind unfurled the sable banner of the King, and blew aside the last remnants of looming darkness.
“It is done,” his unnamed host declared solemnly. “Pride blinded Gorthaur to his danger, until the very end. Thou played no small part in that blinding, Master Steward. The cost thou paid was high indeed, yet not so great as thou fearest.”
A golden glow spilled from the basin and the images shifted to the familiar walls of Minas Tirith. There two figures stood, hands clasped and hair streaming in the wind.
Disbelief warred with hope, and Denethor struggled to speak. “He lives?”
“Aye.” The stern lord was gone and a golden haired youth proclaimed, “He will fulfill the tasks you left undone, and bring honor to your house during the peace that you helped to win.”
Shame filled the Steward. “Ever I placed unjust burdens upon him.”
No false sympathy would the Vala hold out to him; though ever mindful of the vow to the gentle Estë.
“Aye, but every action has a purpose, and your son would not have become the man he needed to be, if you had not acted as you did. He loves you still, and when in his time he joins you, he will forgive you.”
“Will they all?”
No trace of pleading tainted the man’s voice, though a desperate yearning shaded his thoughts.
The stranger replied, “That you must discover on your own.”
Shell-lined paths gleamed beneath a starry sky and guided the man who wandered the shadowy confines of the garden, lost in the myriad of memories the twilight called forth. With the clarity of hindsight, the errors he had made blazed like beacons. The number of times he trusted knowledge gleaned from the palantir. Information designed to lead him ever further along the road to despair. His enemy had played him like a harp.
Yet, until the end, as his still-unnamed visitor had said, he held true to the Light. Rejecting Darkness, forcing it to maneuver in increasingly subtle ways, he had indeed managed to keep the eye of the Enemy fastened upon him, rather than upon the true danger. If such had been his task to complete, he had accomplished it.
At what price?
With a sigh, he stooped to pick a shell from those lining the path. His wife once begged a cartload of such shells from her father. Brought from Dol Amroth, they formed the paths of those gardens she created within the confines of their private courtyards. Riots of greenery bounded by stone walls; her attempt, he now realized, to create a haven for her spirit. Nonetheless, bit by bit her laughter had faded, until the coldness of the Stone City, and his own sternness, overwhelmed her. His heart had died then.
His hand closed tightly upon the shell. What remained for him, now that his duty was done?
About him, the night wind set the garden to dancing, then murmured the words of the stranger, “Know you not for what you searched? It is safe within the garden where I met you. She has kept it for you.”
The soft crunch of footsteps drew near. Had his ever-changing host returned?
“My lord, wilt thou forgive me for deserting thee?”
He knew this voice; it sang in his dreams. Was this another vision? Would he awaken once more to emptiness he had no means of filling?
Crushing the shell within his palm, he inhaled the faint scent of lavender. Without turning, he whispered, “Art thou real?”
She stepped before him, the hem of her wraithlike robe shimmering with silver threads. A hint of merriment hid in her voice, though her face remained solemn.
“As real as thou,” she replied.
Drinking in the sight of her, he cared not if he walked within a dream. Let the dawn never return, for he had no desire to awaken.
“Then, my lady, thou art a phantom, for I have passed beyond the boundaries of Middle-earth.”
“Aye, as have I.”
Hesitantly, Denethor stretched a hand toward her, only to have her retreat from his reach. To his dismay, she knelt at his feet, the dark shadow of her hair falling forward to brush the grass.
“I failed thee, my husband. I had not the strength to stand at your side and fight the darkness.”
“Nay, the fault is not yours,” he cried hastily and returned her to her feet. For a moment, he could not bear to meet her eyes, certain that his shame blazed in his own.
Then the final words of his host returned to him, “All that is asked is that one tries.”
“My lady, I beg thee, let there be no talk of failure between us. For if blame is to be assigned, my share would be vast indeed.” Placing a finger upon her lips to prevent any protest, he added, “The Shadow is gone; might we move forward without the burdens it placed upon us?”
“Gladly.” The warmth of her smile melted lines of care from his face. “Thy duties are done, my lord. Save to refresh thy spirit before we are called to join the harmony of the Great Music.”
“If thou art by my side, my spirit will never thirst.”
“Never again will I leave thee.”
The garden’s walls faded as Finduilas linked her hand with his.
Paraphrased from the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings:
Denethor took as wife, Finduilas of Dol Amroth; but before twelve years had passed she died. He loved her in his fashion, more dearly than any other. But it seemed to men that she withered in the guarded city. The shadows in the east filled her with horror. After she died, Denethor became more grim and silent than before, and would sit long alone in his tower deep in thought. It was afterwards believed that he dared to look into the palantir of the White Tower. In this way Denethor gained his great knowledge of things that passed in his realm, and far beyond his borders; but he bought the knowledge dearly.