The doors drew opened with an echoing clatter onto a great hall, washed in sunlight that spilled in through wide windows over head. Tall somber pillars of black marble marched in two even rows down each side of the high hall, the wide vaulting above gleaming like dull gold. No banners hung in here, no glimmering tapestries, or carven wood. But between the polished black pillars stood a silent company of tall images, kings of foregone days, now long passed from the circles of the world.
At the far end, upon a dais reached by many steps, higher even than perhaps Gandalf’s head, was set a high white throne beneath a golden canopy that hung down from the high ceiling from chains of gold. It was carven in the shape of a crown, and behind it, upon the white stone wall, was engraved the image of a tree in flower. The throne itself, was empty. But at the base of the steps ascending to the shining white throne, there was another throne. Black, and unadorned. And on it, sat a man, his dark hair flecked with many strands of grey. Against his chair leaned a white rod with a golden knob. He did not look up at the approach of the three. He was gazing at something intently in his lap that lay mostly concealed in the folds of his dark robe.
Gandalf did not speak. Pippin’s breath was quick and fast in the quiet. Lalaith drew in a long, weighted breath. Nothing stirred as their feet padded lightly over the floor, Gandalf’s staff tapping the smooth stone ever moment or two.
Even as they drew nearer, the old man did not look up, as if entirely unaware of their approach.
Behind Gandalf’s back, Pippin shot a questioning glance at Lalaith, but she shook her head silently, having no more answers than he.
“Hail Denethor, son of Ecthelion,” Gandalf’s voice echoed at last, somber yet warm also, as he drew to a stop before the throne of dark stone, “lord and steward of Gondor.”
The man who was Boromir’s father looked very like his son, and Lalaith imagined that he had resembled Boromir in appearance when he had been a young man. But now he sat bowed and weak, his shoulders sagged. He shuddered and sighed, but did not move, or glance up from the thing he held in his lap, from which the fold of his sleeve slowly fell away.
A sudden stab of fierce raw pain lanced through Lalaith as she recognized what he held, but she stood erect, and tight jawed, blinking her eyes fiercely. For this was not the place to weep.
“I come with tidings in this dark hour,” continued Gandalf when Denethor did not speak. “And with counsel.”
“Perhaps, you come to explain this,” the old man hissed, drawing from his lap the two halves of Boromir’s split horn. A soft gasp beside her, told her Pippin now recognized it, too. The old man glanced up with a bitter, pleading expression. “Perhaps you come to tell me why my son is dead.”
His lower chin trembled, as if any moment, he would break out into ragged sobs. The silence in the hall grew heavy. Gandalf drew and released a breath, though he did not yet speak.
“Boromir died to save us,” Lalaith’s eyes shot toward Pippin, who, against Gandalf’s command, had spoken. He nodded at Lalaith who watched him, her mouth now fallen partly open, “this lady, as well as my kinsman and me.” Skirting quickly around Gandalf’s robe, he came forward, and knelt before the bent old man. “He fell, defending us from many foes.”
“Pippin!” Gandalf protested, but Pippin did not glance back, his small earnest face gazing up into Denethor’s, which seemed slightly softened at the approach of the small Hobbit.
“I offer you my service, such as it is,” Pippin lifted his eyes, his gaze staid and solemn, “in payment of this debt.”
“Get up,” grumbled Gandalf, slapping his staff gently against Pippin, to which the Hobbit hopped again to his feet as the wizard stepped nearer the throne.
“My lord, there will be a time to grieve for Boromir,” he offered gravely, “but it is not now.” Gandalf drew in a breath, his eyes taking upon them a look of deep concern. “War is coming. The enemy is on your doorstep! As steward, you are charged with the defense of this city! Where are Gondor’s armies?”
Denethor’s mouth twitched strangely at these words. His eyes shot a momentary glance at Lalaith, to which she drew an involuntary step backward. His glance was sharper than his sons had been and a wild light lay half hidden in the shadows of his eyes. But there was pain also within his gaze, sadness and despair. And in that moment, Lalaith both feared, and pitied him.
“You still have friends.” Gandalf continued, his tone growing gentle and encouraging, and Denethor’s eyes snapped back to him. “You are not alone in this fight. Send word to Théoden of Rohan. Light the beacons.”
“You think you are wise, Mithrandir.” Denethor seethed, trembling with barely bridled emotion as he spoke. “Yet for all your subtleties, you have not wisdom. Do you think the eyes of the white tower are blind? I have seen more than you know.”
At these words, a cold shudder ran along Lalaith’s limbs, though she could not tell why. Something in Denethor suddenly reminded her of the blackness she had seen within the eyes of Saruman, though she could sense something else within this mortal also, some small part of him that lived and felt, and had compassion, some gentleness within him that had long passed from the soul of the fallen wizard.
“With your left hand, you would use me as a shield against Mordor. And with your right, you would seek to supplant me.” Denethor grated in a bitter voice. “I know who rides with Théoden of Rohan.” His eyes narrowed, calculating. “Oh, yes. 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,” Lalaith stiffened at the caustic tone spat from Denethor’s lips, “last of a ragged house long bereft of lordship!”
“Authority is not given you to deny the return of the king, steward.” Gandalf barked, to which Denethor lunged to his feet.
“The rule of Gondor is mine!” He shouted. “And no other’s.” His voice reverberated through the empty hall. Gandalf remained unmoved, and Pippin stood as if one struck mute with shock. Lalaith narrowed her eyes and fumed inwardly at the fierceness in his tone, at his caustic words concerning her dear and trusted friend, Aragorn. Yet she could not help but feel a shred of mercy, for she saw in his eyes a tiny glimmer beneath the anger and the hardness a small glimpse of the goodness that still lived in his heart.
For a long dreadful moment, Gandalf and Denethor eyed each other fiercely, before with a huff, Gandalf spun away.
“Come,” he ordered, and Lalaith turned after him, striding swiftly to match her pace to his as Pippin jogged along at his other arm, glancing back now and again at Denethor. The doors drew near, and the guards silently opened them. But just before the three passed into the sunlight, Lalaith glanced back, once again to see the aged steward sagged upon his throne.
Her heart caught raggedly upon a beat at what she saw. For his shoulders were shaking as he clutched Boromir’s shattered horn against himself. And he was weeping.