"I see," Galahir mused. "So the tales are true when they say you killed good men, but they do not tell the whole story."
"We have all spoke the words," Beregond said. "'Here do I swear fealty and service to Gondor, and to the Lord and Steward, in living or dying, until my lord release me, or death take me.' We were all serving who we saw as our lord, but I knew Denethor to be a madman. He was no fit ruler of Gondor, and in that way he was dead. So my fealty was due to Faramir. But the other men, they did not see what I saw. They did not think, they could not know--they still served Denethor."
"In which case you were no more a murderer than the thousands of men who killed Orcs and Southrons on the Pelennor," Galahir said. "That I can accept. But I hardly see how that makes Denethor one of the victorious dead."
"Denethor was not victorious in his death," Beregond admitted, "but he is both dead and victorious. He died on the Silent Street, but he won his victory long before that."
"I hardly see how that is possible. Of course, he fought many battles in his youth, but since you are spoke of some victory since then. Otherwise, why are you telling me of his death?"
"I do speak of some more recent victory," Beregond said, "but you seem content to guess at my meaning. Shall we continue this game of questions, or would you like me to finish my story?"
Galahir raised his hands in surrender. "Fine, fine--finish your story."
"Very well," Beregond said. "You have heard it said that, when the Ring-bearer and his Companion reached Orodruin, they had no hope of resisting the evil power that dwells there, and that their quest would have failed if not for the strength of will they showed months before? The same proved true with the Lord Denethor."
"Haste, haste!" a voice called from within the house. "Do as I have bidden! Slay me this renegade! Or must I do so myself?" The door was wrenched from Beregond's hand and forced open, and Beregond turned. Behind him stood the lord Denethor, clenching the black rod of his stewardship in one hand and his sword in the other. His face was pale but his eyes burned with a cruel flame.
Gandalf sprang up the steps, and the guards covered their eyes. It seemed that Gandalf was full of a blinding light, bright enough to pierce that Eastern cloud as well as the depths of their hearts. And they cowered.
Gandalf lifted his hand, and Denethor's sword flew from his grasp into the shadows of the house behind him. "What is this, my lord?" Gandalf demanded. "The Silent Street is no place for the living, least of all for those who bear swords. If your men lack for enemies, their service could be put to better use before the Gate."
Denethor narrowed his gaze. "So," he said, his voice as cold as the dead who slept in the house behind him, "the Lord of Minas Tirith can no longer command his own men?"
"He may," Gandalf answered, "but others may question that command when it is turned to madness or evil purpose." Beregond was encouraged by the power in Gandalf's voice, and he looked up at the wizard. But a fear lay on Gandalf's face, an expression more terrible than Beregond had ever thought to see on one so great. "Where is your son, Faramir?" Gandalf asked.
"He is burning, already burning," Denethor replied. "They have set a fire in his flesh. The West has failed, and soon all will burn: ash and smoke, scattered by the wind."
Before he could speak further Gandalf strode toward the house, and the steward could do naught but step backwards, allowing the wizard entrance. Pippin and Beregond followed. On they went, Gandalf stepping forward and Denethor backward, until at last they stood before the table where the guards had laid Faramir. Wood was piled under and around it, already drenched in oil, but no fire had yet been lit. Beregond's heart dared to hope: all had not been in vain!
Suddenly Gandalf sprang forward, leaping on top of the piled wood, and he gathered Faramir in his arms. Jumping down, he carried Faramir toward the door. "Father..." Faramir moaned, and Gandalf stopped.
Denethor shook his head as one awaking from a deep sleep, and the fire in his eyes died away. Beregond turned to look at him, and he was surprised to see a tear rolling down Denethor's cheek. Never in all his years of service had he seen his lord cry. "My son," Denethor called, "he calls for me. Do not take him from me!"
But Gandalf did not give Faramir to his father. "He calls," the wizard said, "but you cannot come to him, not yet. I take him to the Houses of Healing, where he must now seek healing--and whether he will find it or not, I cannot say. Whereas you must go down to the Gate and lead your people. I hope that a time shall come when you may yet see each other again, but that time is not now."
Denethor walked toward Faramir and took his son's hand in his own. Then he released it and met Gandalf's eyes. "Battle is vain. Why should we wish to live longer? Why should we not go to our death side by side?"
"Nay," Gandalf said, "that choice is not given to you. Or would you behave as one of the pagan kings, so corrupted by the Dark Lord that they slew themselves in pride and despair, and murdered their kin to ease their passing?" Gandalf turned his back to Denethor, carrying Faramir to the porch of the house and laying him on the bier the guards had brought him on.
Denethor followed, and for a moment he wavered. He stood on the porch, trembling as he looked on the face of his son, and Beregond thought he saw a great battle raging in the steward's eyes. If he guessed aright Denethor wished to go down to the field, to hope for a better day and a happier meeting with his son. But in the end Denethor had not the strength to fight on. He had struggled too long, for too many years against too great an enemy. Beregond remembered the rumours he had heard. Some say that as he sits alone in his high chamber in the Tower at night, and bends his thought this way and that, he will at times search even the mind of the Enemy, wrestling with him. Suddenly his lord seemed more tired than Beregond had ever seen him.
Denethor laughed softly to himself, a cold and cruel laugh, and Beregond never again saw him free of that fire that consumed him from the inside. The steward threw aside his staff and stood tall and straight again, and quickly he walked down to the bed where he had prepared the pyre. He returned with one of the seven stones, and, holding it before his face, the stone glowed as with a red flame. The flame cast itself on Denethor's features, and his face glowed red.
"Pride and despair!" he cried. "Didst thou think that the eyes of the White Tower were blind? Nay, I have seen more than thou knowest, Grey Fool. For thy hope is but ignorance. Go then and labour in healing! Go forth and fight! Vanity. I have seen the armies of Mordor, and her forces on the Pelennor are but the weakest finger of that great hand. The West has failed. Let all who would not be slaves to the Dark Land depart as quickly as they may.
"Hope on then!" Denethor cackled. "Do I not know thee, Mithrandir? Long have you hunted my libraries, searching answers to a fool's questions I thought at the time. But you are no fool. You have searched out Gondor's secret strengths and weaknesses. With the left hand thou wouldst use me for a little while as a shield against Mordor, and with the right bring up this Ranger of the North, this Thorongil," and he spat that word with a venom Beregond had not thought he possessed, "this Aragorn to supplant me. But I say to thee, Gandalf Mithrandir: I will not be thy tool! I will not step down to one such as you bring, last of a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity."
Gandalf looked at Denethor sadly. "At the very least, you shall not rob your son of his choice, while his death is still in doubt."
The flame in Denethor's eyes rekindled itself, more cruel and terrible than before. He tucked the palantír under his arm and with his other hand drew his knife, striding towards the bier.
"No, my lord!" Beregond cried, and he threw himself across Faramir. In life or death, I promised to protect my lord. I have long given my life, and if death is required as well--so be it.
"So," Denethor said, "thou hadst already stolen half my son's love. Now thou stealest the hearts of my knights also, so that they rob me wholly of my son at the last. But in this at least thou shalt not defy my will: to rule my own end." He threw down his knife and turned, scaling the steps in a single bound. "Come hither!" he called to his guards. "Come, if you are not all apostates!" Two of the guards approached, and he took a torch from one of them. Re-entering the house, he thrust the brand into the oil-soaked wood and climbed onto the bed.
As the flames roared around him and the smoke crowned his head, he broke the steward's rod on his knees and threw it into the inferno. Denethor laid himself down on the bed, clasping the palantír with both hands until his skin blistered and his bones charred, and the fire of his pyre at last met the fire that had long burned in the steward's heart.
Gandalf turned away and pulled the door shut, standing on the porch bowed as if by a great burden. The flames roared greedily inside; wood burned and stone cracked. All was silent for what seemed an interminable moment. At last Denethor cried out; and he was heard no more by living men.
"So passes Denethor, son of Ecthelion," Gandalf said. He and Beregond bore the new steward away toward the Houses of Healing.