Someone was knocking at the door...
He jerked awake, and raised his head from the desktop where it had fallen after the struggle. He stretched his fingers out to the side, but the globe felt cold, and it had gone empty and dark. Beyond the shutters, he heard the distant tolling of the midnight bell. He had been dreaming, he realized; had thought he heard knocking. It must have been the bell.
He sat up straight in his seat. Before him, on the table, the candle was burning low, and the papers gathered had been scattered as he slept. He reached out to straighten them, casting a dispassionate eye over the uppermost sheet... Almost as an act of will, he set them down again. He knew he would read them better in the morning, and he had no great wish to waste his own time.
He stood up from his chair, sighing and stretching. He felt a draught of cold air pass across the room, and regretted the need for secrecy that prevented him from ordering a fire lit here— And then he heard the knocking. Someone was knocking at the door.
He frowned. He had left orders that he was not to be disturbed. Only the direst need would draw his servants into disobedience... At once, he thought of his son.
“Who is there?” he said, a little fearfully now.
There was no reply.
His sons, he recalled, when they were young, had played a game in the Tower along these lines – once only, and never on their father. He doubted there was anyone else in the realm bold enough, but his sons were both beyond such games now, and both well beyond the bounds of the City. He took in a sharp breath, displeased.
And then the knocking started up again. Swiftly, angrily, he crossed the room, dealt with the chain and the bolt, and threw the door open to look in disbelief at the old man who was standing there.
“You’re dead,” he said, there seeming – in the circumstances – to be nothing else appropriate to say.
Adrahil bowed his head. “So I am,” he replied. “And indeed it is the Gift of Men!” And then he smiled, and it seemed to Denethor that a change took place in him, and he was no longer simply old. His silver hair thickened and darkened, the lines on his face smoothed away, his back straightened and he stood tall and princely once again. All in all, the steward thought, he looked quite hale – for a man dead nigh on twenty years. And beneath the change, something remained – the sum of the wisdom of a life that had been both long and well lived.
Adrahil reached out and offered him his hand.
“Will you come with me?” His voice had the vigour of youth and the power of age.
“Where?” whispered Denethor. Was this to be the end, at last? he thought, and found he did not regret it.
Adrahil only smiled. His hand remained outstretched.
Denethor took it, and felt that it was warm. And then the world around him melted.
It seemed to him that they were soaring, like seabirds, across the land, heading westwards. Gondor lay in darkness beneath, with only a flickering light here and there from a hearth or a camp fire. High above, the stars shivered in the winter sky. He felt the cold upon his face, and then he saw a great darkness rise up before him, in the West, and he knew what it was – the Sea, vast and terrible.
They came to rest standing on the stone steps leading up to a grand hall. Carved on each of the great doors before them, face to face, were two swans, each with a single eye staring out. And then, suddenly, the doors were thrown open. A bright light flared up and shone out from inside, and Denethor was forced to shield his eyes from the blaze.
“Look up,” his guide said quietly, from beside him. “There is naught to fear. Not in this place.”
Denethor lowered his hand. Lamplight and music and laughter were spilling out like waves upon them.
“I always liked to keep mettarë well,” the Prince of Dol Amroth said, joyfully. “Come inside!” And he held out his arm in welcome.
Slowly, reluctantly, fearing what he might find, Denethor passed through the doors into the hall.
All of Dol Amroth, it seemed, was gathered here – and many too from Minas Tirith. He saw faces of men and women he knew were long gone, and murmured their names to himself, a chant for the dead. There, he saw, and ached, was his father; a big man in many ways, and in spirit not least. He was speaking to the prince, and laughing, and then he bent his white head to listen to one of his captains... But that man’s face was turned away and, from where he stood, Denethor could not see for certain who it was.
Then, standing at his father’s left side, he saw himself. Younger – but, still, not a young man – dressed in black edged with silver, staring out across the room. And he knew straight away what he was looking at, for he would never forget that first sight... He bowed his head.
He felt warm fingers alight upon his hand. “There is nothing to fear,” the spirit reminded him. “Look up.”
He raised his head, and turned it, and there she was – wearing a dark blue gown with white jewels in her long black hair, her head thrown back in laughter. Her vibrant colours stung his eyes.
Finduilas... The sound of her name seemed to fill the air, and he did not know if he had merely thought it, or if it had been wrenched from him.
And then she turned, and caught sight of the man in silver and black walking towards her, and her face began to glow. He spoke to her – and although Denethor could not hear the words, he remembered them well enough – and he offered her his hand, and she took it, and they went out into the centre of the hall and danced, while those gathered around watched with eyes as sharp and bright as birds’.
“How we missed her when she left us for your city,” Adrahil said. Denethor turned to look at him. The face of the prince was still young, but filled with the sadness that comes from loss, from change, from the passing of time and all things.
“You were not alone in missing her,” he answered, bitterly, for he had often thought that many had set their sorrow at her death ahead of his. And he knew that none had grieved for Finduilas as much as he.
Adrahil looked at him from ageless eyes. “No,” he said, “I was not.” He raised his hand. “Watch,” he whispered, and then dropped his hand again, quickly.
It was as if they were ripped out of the place, and this second severance from her was even crueller. It went dark. Denethor stumbled, fell forwards, and felt Adrahil steady him with a strong grip. He drew his hand over his eyes and, when he looked up once more, he found that they were standing in a little sitting room. It seemed to be evening – the curtains were drawn and the candles lit. Outside, the wind was lifting the leaves, and he heard the sound of the rain against the window. At the far end of the room, a little boy was sitting cross-legged before the fire, looking down at a book that was resting upon his knees. The door creaked, and the boy looked up and frowned.
“Where have you been?” he said. His tone was petulant. “I’ve been looking for you all day. I couldn’t find you!”
Denethor turned his head to see who was there. It was another boy, older, maybe as much as ten years old – he came in, pushing the door shut quietly. He was dressed very formally, in black; and Denethor could see that his face was tired and sad. He made a move as if to go to him, but the spirit stopped him. “Wait,” he said. “Watch.”
The older boy went across the room. When he reached the fireside, it seemed as if his strength suddenly left him. He slid down, to sit opposite his brother on the rug.
“I couldn’t find you,” the younger one said again, reproachfully. “I thought you’d gone away. I thought you’d left me.”
The older boy did not answer. He reached out for the poker, and began to dig at the fire.
“Father says we’re not to do that,” the little boy pointed out. “In case we hurt ourselves.”
The other poked at the fire even harder. His brother watched the movements anxiously, his head darting to and fro like a bird’s.
“I thought you’d left me,” he said again, subdued now. “I thought you weren’t coming back.”
“Don’t be stupid.” The other boy’s voice came out thick and harsh. “Where would I have gone?”
“I don’t know... With mother, maybe.” He hesitated, and then started again. “If you’ve come back, does that mean she’s coming back too?”
The older boy’s head shot up. His eyes were very bright, and very angry. “She isn’t coming back. She’s dead. There was a big stone box, and we put her inside, and then we put a lid on it. She’s gone.” He turned back to the fire, and stabbed at it with the iron, viciously.
After a moment or two, he looked up again. The younger boy was bent over his book once more. Now, however, he was tearing at one of the pages, slowly, and methodically.
“Don’t do that!” his brother cried. “Father will be furious with you!” He grabbed out to stop him, but the poker, falling from his grasp, fell sideways, and caught the little boy on his hand. Denethor jerked forward, but Adrahil reached out and stopped him. The little boy cried out in pain, and flinched back, and his pale skin went a bright and ugly red. He looked up accusingly at his older brother, who stared back at him, watching in horror as the smaller one’s eyes filled up and his face began to shudder.
“Don’t cry!” he begged him, in a hoarse whisper. “You’ll bring him in here!” He grabbed his brother’s hand and started to rub at it. “Look, it’s hardly hurt at all! I’m sorry! Just... don’t cry! Not today!”
The smaller boy swallowed once, twice, and pressed the heel of his unhurt hand hard against his face. He closed his eyes, screwing them tight shut for a moment or two, and then he opened them wide again, and stared at his brother.
“Look,” the older one said, lamely, holding up the hand to show where the skin was now no more than pink. “I’ve made it better.” He let go, and picked up the book. He examined the shredded page closely, frowned, and then very carefully folded the paper and tore off the damaged part. Then he threw it, and the other bits, into the fire – and looked up again at his brother.
The little boy stared at him for a moment, and then nodded, a little.
“Do you want to sleep in my bed tonight?”
He nodded again, more vigorously.
Adrahil turned to their father. “Did you not speak to them at all?” he asked, curiously. Denethor watched the boys leave the room together, and then answered. “Their uncle stayed for a while after the funeral, you may recall,” he said, as if that explained matters, but the words seemed a little hollow as he said them.
Where was I that day? he thought, and found that the memories were gone, or had never seeped through in the first place.
“You were with me,” Adrahil said, as if in answer, “from early in the morning, until you retired to bed. Did you mean to speak to them?”
“We did speak,” Denethor said at last, with some effort, “a few weeks after the event. I told them about the Gift of Men. They seemed to understand – at least, they did not have any more questions.”
Then the anger rose up in him again, the same cold fury he had lived with ever since she had gone, since she had left him. “Mother, daughter, sister – yes, she was all these things! But for me – for me alone – she was wife!”
“I know,” her father said, more to himself. “But still – they must have missed her.” And then he lifted his hand once more—
And once more the world melted, into darkness.