In the house that the heirs of Steward Mardil have held for hundreds of years in the first circle of Minas Tirith, the twenty-sixth and last Ruling Steward sits behind marble walls, watching the sands of the hourglass trickle down the moments.
He refuses to go to the window, or even to have it opened. Outside, the cries are loud enough to hear all too well. The usurper rides through the streets of the White City. The City that had entombed his lady, the City his son had died for, now throws open her broken gates to Isildur's upstart heir like a giddy strumpet opening perfumed knees. Faithless, thinks Denethor, all are faithless. Not for the first time, he wonders if he should have shut his heart against the wizard's words in the Hallows, and lit his own pyre.
"You are needed," Mithrandir had said. And, for Faramir and their City and Gondor itself, Denethor had shaken off despair and reclaimed his duty. He had led the defenses on the south wall, fighting in the front until the Morgul-spawn retreated, caught between the hammer of the captains who struck the foe on the Pelennor and the anvil of Minas Tirith itself. He had seen the return of Captain Thorongil in a captured Corsair fleet, the palantír's last terrible vision proven both true and utterly false.
Mithrandir had begged him to let the so-called Heir of Isildur come and heal Faramir; but Denethor would not suffer the outlander to lay hands on Faramir on the strength of an old woman's doggerel. Hands of a King indeed!
Denethor had only allowed the removal of the sick halfling, Meriadoc, and Theoden's stricken niece, to the tents of the Rohirrim, because their fates lay under Éomer King’s command and made no difference to Gondor. Then, exhausted, Denethor had sat by Faramir's bedside as the hours wore into the morning, and the healers and nurses and herbalists strove vainly to save his only remaining son.
Faramir had died as the sun had risen, never waking to forgive or even speak to his father.
In the dark days that followed, Denethor had turned once more to the Stewardship of his land, now his only care. He could offer no comfort to the white-faced Éowyn of Rohan, who had been brought back to the Houses of Healing for further care. The maiden had fled eastward, never to return, following the armies who had hurled themselves into the Enemy's maw. Still, Denethor had labored with all his strength to rebuild and fortify the White City. Finally, word had come of the Enemy's downfall, and with it, the claim of the northern upstart to the Kingship of Gondor.
Denethor had sworn to hold the City, and Gondor, against the pretender. But his Council, that band of recreants, had refused him! Some, like his kinsman Húrin, had been seduced by fancies or Elvish glamours; some had feared the thousands of Rohirrim commanded by the young king who called Thorongil "brother". And some, like his own brother by marriage, had doubted Denethor's soundness of mind. The Council had turned away from Denethor. They had carted off the Steward's Chair, saying that the new King would decide whether to name a new Steward to sit on it. Denethor had gone once more to Rath Dínen, broken the white rod of his office, and laid its remnants upon Faramir's tomb.
No one had taken Denethor's ancestral lands, his family wealth, or the heirlooms of the Ruling Stewards. No one had come to demand that Denethor swear fealty to the man who had stolen Gondor from him as well as his father's love. They had just left him alone, behind the sable curtains, surrounded by the servants who had once dutifully borne Faramir to the pyre, in the cool dignity of the ancient house.
Outside the windows, the people sing a song that Denethor does not recognize. He hears the trill and clang of bells, the clop of horses' hooves. If he were to open the windows, he would see the man who took his place swaggering through streets where once Denethor's own sons had so proudly walked. He wonders idly if they are throwing flowers down upon Thorongil's unkempt-- and now crowned--head. No, he will keep the windows closed. Perhaps he will call for tea, or wine. Denethor truly does not care much about eating and drinking anymore; but he will keep up his strength, if only to spite those who would prefer him gone.
The sands run their course. Slowly, Denethor turns over the hourglass.
Author's Note: This AU ficlet was originally posted on 5/10/08 at the HASA Birthday Cards Forum, to mark the birthdays of Dwimordene and Nath.
Thank you, Branwyn, for the usual excellent beta!