The white flagstones curled up and around the Tower of Ecthelion, lit by oil lanterns every half-rotation. Denethor remembered the days when he scampered up and down these stairs all day, chasing his brother and sisters as they played at knights and dragons. Now his joints ached as he made the ascent, so that the Steward was daily filled with gratitude for the great chair his wife Finduilas had installed in the Observatory for him. Something so simple, so straightforward that no-one had ever thought of it in the near 500 years since Ecthelion I had rebuilt it, and yet now Denethor fancied he would unable to make these weekly ascensions without doing injury to himself where it not for the comfort it gave him, physically and emotionally. The journey seemed to him as getting longer each time, and he looked forward to resting in its arms once again.
The council meeting had been long, running well into the night, and not particularly helpful, the emissary from the Blackroot Vale was particularly tiresome, ghost sightings indeed. Of course Denethor had heard the stories, the legends of the Dead Men of Dunharrow who lived under the White Mountains. And he had himself seen the Stone of Erech when he had travelled abroad throughout Gondor’s fiefs. ‘A man who does not know his realm is not fit to rule’, so said his father, and Denethor had taken it to heart. Every ten years since his inaugural tour at the age of nineteen he spent a year travelling Gondor, anonymously at first as a young man, living as any other traveller might as they worked from town to town, though in a much more comfortable fashion in his latter years. In this manner he travelled from the foothills of the Andrast Mountains in the west, to the banks of the Poros in the south and east, learning all he could of those who who dwelt within Gondor’s borders. Denethor never revealed his true identity to any save one, he could guess only too well the dangers such a divulgence would place both himself and, more importantly, the kingdom in. And so, despite an initial culture shock, he had been glad to live among the people as he travelled, the Steward’s son learned much and more about those he would come to govern.
For instance, those from Anfalas valued their own culture and language, and still sing their songs woven into oral tradition before any ship sailed out of Numenor. The people of Lamedon were fiercely independent of Minas Tirith’s cultural influence but among the proudest of their Gondorian heritage. And while the men from Dol Amroth were the most honourable and valorous of Gondor’s warriors, though from Anorien were unparalleled guerilla fighters, capable of crippling forces several times their size. Even the diets of Gondor’s people varied widely across the country, and Denethor developed a keen taste for several foods he had never experienced during his upbringing in Minas Tirith. Mushrooms grown in the Blackroot Vale that left a tang on the back of the tongue; venison from Lossarnach which sang when cooked in a cup of red wine; tomatoes from the vineyards of Pelargir that had imbibed a hint of the sea air in their juices; and his mouth was set ablaze by meats flavoured with illicit spices bartered over from Near Harad.
As Denethor spent time amongst the people, he grew to love them and care for their well-being, not in merely a dutiful manner but in some manner of affection. He knew now that such an emotional attachment could prove to be a weakness, and on more than one occasion Denethor found himself having to disassociate himself from a situation involving pain being meted out on them. The first time he had condemned a man to the gallows, Denethor had wept in Finduilas’s arms behind the closed door of their chamber, the pleas of the man’s wife ringing in his ears. He was no stranger to bloodshed or death, having served in Gondor’s army skirmishing with Haradrim raiders along the southern borders, and with the militia in Lossarnach hunting down bandits and marauders. But to hold a man’s life in his hands, to be saved or cast aside in cold blood when the guilt of him be in doubt, such was a matter to heavy for any man to reasonably bear. And yet as Steward that responsibility had fallen to him and a man was then dead who had taken breath only the morning before.
Normally such affairs would be dealt with by the magistrates, but this man had appealed to him directly, as was his right as a citizen of Minas Tirith should the ruling magistrate believe there to be sufficient cause. During the hearing Denethor has remained silent and impassive, as befitted a lord weighing life and death in his hand. Behind closed doors however, the newly appointed Steward had not been able to keep up the walls guarding his emotions and poured out his heart to his wife. Around no-one else would he allow this side of him to be seen, such displays would only serve to weaken his authority. Denethor knew of the taxing such constraint would have on him, but if it meant his people could place their faith and confidence in him unreservedly, then that was worth the price. And although the weight his responsibility never left him, Denethor became more practised at restraining his emotions when dealing with matters of state, withdrawing within himself and calousing his heart that he might better serve the people of Gondor
The Steward pushed open the door to the Observatory, hesitating just a moment before crossing the threshold. It was a large circular room with large shuttered windows that could be opened out to allow for a panoramic view of the Rammas walls and beyond. An alcove set into the black stone walls contained a lever, which when pulled caused a portion of the roof to slide open that the room might be exposed to the night air. Ostensibly this would give the room it’s title, though since it’s conception the Observatory had been intended for use as a room of inner sight rather than outward looking, for Stewards to contemplate and ponder as they struggled with their weight of authority and the heavier matters that came with their rule. Therefore it was to be left bare, that no trappings or furnishings might distract or divert attention.
The room had been neglected under recent Stewards, so that it was little more than a playground for Denethor and his brother and sisters as they grew up. In the latter days of his adolescence, Denethor began to spend more time in the Observatory, not for play but for study and thought and he began his preparations to succeed his father. And although Ecthelion II was a strong and healthy man, both he and his father considered it prudent that Denethor be ready to take up the Rod of the Steward at any time.
Denethor sank into the high backed chair set against the west wall, closing his eyes as he steadied his breath and stilled his mind. Sometimes he could imagine the scent his wife wore still lingered in this chair, as it had done from the time he came into this room as a newly appointed Steward and found Finduilas sitting in this chair that had not been there before. She was still wearing the robes wore for the anointing ceremony and must have come straight here to wait for him, knowing his desire for reflection. Before Denethor could speak, she rose to her feet , smiled and curtsied to him and left the room, leaving the door closed and a brief kiss on Denethor’s cheek. “There is no man who could better lead us,” she whispered as she left. “You will see us through this dark time.”
Thinking back, Denethor’s breath caught in his throat as he remembered her. She had always been melancholy, even when they had first met by the shores of Belfalas, but it was never without joy hidden under it. It was as though Finduilas saw the best in everyone, and mourned for them to be in such a world as this. He had tried to make it a better one for her, and in some things he had succeeded. But maybe if he had been a better husband to her, a better father even, perhaps she would still be there. Was it all his fault? No, he was nearly satisfied he had done all he could. The encroaching Shadow from the east had only worsened her condition and some days she would drown in despair of it. Their sons Boromir and Faramir were rays of sunshine in the darkness, but soon even smiles for them became scarcer, and more precious for it.
Childbirth had been difficult for Finduilas. Boromir especially took his toll, but it was Faramir’s arrival that weakened her enough for a chill to set in. It was four years in taking her, and she fought it for her sons with every ounce of her being, as a she-bear fights off a pack of wolves to protect her cubs. But in the end it proved too strong for her and she slipped away in her sleep one night. And despite his part in it, and contrary to what he thought, Faramir was not the subject of Denethor’s blame. No, Faramir brought such happiness to Finduilas and he would alway love Faramir for it, though she said it was because he reminded her of Denethor. Since she had said it, the Steward often pondered that words and noted there was some truth in them. Faramir was stayed and reserved, more adept with his books than his blades, though he was not afraid to take up arms when needed. He was a deep thinker and a keen reader of men, able to discern a great many things with the briefest of encounters.
In some sense, his wife was right; Faramir was his father’s son, but in these dark days that was not what Gondor needed. Denethor was not what Gondor needed, and he saw that. But Boromir was everything he was not, and Denethor loved him for it. His firstborn was a natural leader, who men seemed to give their trust and devotion willingly, a swordsman without parallel and a general beyond compare in Gondor’s recent history. He had his mother’s empathy and compassion coupled with enough of Denethor’s zeal for his kinsfolk that the former was harnessed and driven by the latter, and Boromir grew into a better man than he could ever have hoped to have been. Not in all of Denethor’s years had he seen anyone so beloved by the people. He himself was respected for his authority and ability, he knew that, and honoured even for it, but the love of the people he never had. Not even Thorongil had commanded such fealty, and he was a man who, Denethor had to admit, captured the heart of Gondor before his disappearance. Rumours abounded for years after the Great Raid on Umbar as to where he went, or even if the great Thorongil was still alive and had made his way back to Gondor. But Denethor knew the truth of the matter. He knew of the Dunedain of the North, even though most people had forgotten them, thinking Arnor’s history ended with the death of Arvedui in the ice of Forochel, and he knew of their Chieftains. And Denethor even knew of his whereabouts, in Imladris, for he sent his own son there to seek counsel and ensure they would not be shut out. For if the King of Gondor was to return, Denethor would not allow himself be taken by surprise.
Thorongil: it was painfully obvious to anyone who cared to look and see with their eyes. The Ring of Barahir could well be missed or mistaken for a mere trinket, so aged and worn was its appearance, but the visage of the Dunedain was unmistakable to Denethor, and even the name Thorongil was an indicator of his identity.
Part of his education involved Denethor’s reading through various records of the court deemed noteworthy for their historical value. According to these documents in the year TA2929, Denethor’s grandfather Turgon of the Line of Mardil, 24th Steward of Gondor sent greetings to Arador, 16th Chieftain of the Dunedain, on the occasion of the wedding of his son Arathorn to Gilraen, daughter of Dirhael and the seeress Ivorwen, who herself was a descendent of Malbeth the Seer. Upon recognising the ancient Ring of Barahir, the young Denethor had quickly deduced the composite nature of Thorongil’s name and therefore his true identity as the Heir of Isildur and Anarion both. And in his heart Denethor was filled with an anger and resentment of this man, this son of Kings who would conceal himself in the wastes of Arnor when Gondor’s need was greatest. He would not blame the ranger for the sins of his fathers in hiding themselves, they who should have stepped forward once the threat of Angmar has subsided and would have been welcomed with celebration and feasting by any Steward over the past 1000 years. But they forsook their duty, abandoned their people and left their charge in the care of his house, which for all its ability was not the line that ought have been ruling. The line of Kings had bereft itself of nobility in all but blood, and now this man had stepped forward out of the wild to contend its claim once again.
It was for this reason Denethor harboured antipathy toward the son of Arathorn. Not for approaching Gondor under an assumed name, he himself had done similar during his travels, but for not revealing himself on seeing Gondor’s need. His father Ecthelion loved Thorongil as another son, and the Ring of Barahir testified to his identity. Denethor was sure other tokens and proofs were housed in Imladris that could be called on to verify his claim. Thorongil could have announced himself and claimed the throne of Gondor, and the country would have been heartened and encouraged at the return of the King. With fresh vigour they would have pushed back the Harad beyond the Haradwaith, reclaimed Umbar and made peace with the tribes to the south. To the north, the Varaigs and Easterlings of Khand and Rhun could have been defeated with fresh alliances negotiated with Dale and Erebor under the renewed authority of the King, authority that despite their centuries of rule, the Stewards were lacking. And to the east, bolstered by the forces of Gondor’s outlands and the Eoreds of Rohan, Minas Morgul could be reclaimed and the Black Gate of the Morannon itself be besieged, and so keep the Dark Lord stopped up in Mordor as a spider in a bottle. But instead of seeing the needs of his erstwhile people, this Thorongil chose only to look to his own desires, abandoning them on the cusp of his ascension. And while Denethor had no love for the man, because of his duty and his love for Gondor, recognising its need of a King over a Steward, Denethor would have gladly bowed his knee and pledged his devotion, fealty and services to Thorongil, or Aragorn as Denethor later discovered his true name was, though few in the south knew it.
No, the rule of Gondor had been left to the sons of Mardil, and they would see them through this dark time. Denethor knew the hope of her people was waning, but if there was one man who could rekindle that flame it was his eldest son. Boromir thought nothing of himself, only looking to serve the people. He was loyal to his father, to Gondor, and Denethor had foreseen the time was swiftly coming when Boromir would take up the mantle of Steward. The loyalty of Faramir was also absolute, but his uses and abilities were different. A skilled ranger and tracker, more suited to guerilla warfare than Boromir, but had come under the influence of the Grey Pilgrim on one of his many journeys to the White City. But when word came to Denethor of Mithrandir’s disappearance, Faramir became the obvious choice to send to the Council called in Imladris. Boromir was needed here in Gondor, and Faramir’s undoubted talents in the wild would serve him better on the road there and the journey back.
Denethor opened his eyes and gazed into his lap. The time was coming when the hammer-stroke would fall upon Gondor. He would need all of his fore-sight and knowledge to shepherd his people. Boromir has been sent to delay its coming as long as possible, and even now warred with the servants of the Dark Tower travelling through Ithilien. The Steward stood and turned to the east, raising in his hands an orb no bigger than a foot in diameter, yet its weight belied its size as even in his younger days Denethor needed both his arms to lift it.
Dark it was, black as jet, yet as he looked the stone’s visage changed and he saw his firstborn in a forest, digging in a deep pit and laying down spikes and staves. Pride swelled within Denethor as he saw his son at work, striving even at this late hour to do his duty. He turned north and saw hosts of orcs and goblins gathering before the plains of Morannon, and facing them was his son Boromir, resplendent in white armour on his armoured destrier with the host of Gondor at his back. This must be of the future, for that vision could not be so yet. We must then take the fight to them at some point, though to victory or death he knew not. Turning to the north-west the stone went dark again, showing nothing but shadow. But as he looked beyond, shifting its gaze further afield, a thong of flame cracked across the glass surface and was no more. Then he beheld them, the Council, the Wise. And yet for all their wisdoms they lacked subtlety, for in the midst of them stood a halfling with his hand outstretched, and there he saw it: a small ring of golden hue, and yet the vision of the palantir bent in around it. Then the stone went dark, as though someone knew of his gaze and wished to hide the Council from him. A voice clear and melodious, though desperate with anger cried aloud, “You fool, he’ll see!” and Denethor recoiled as though he had been struck. The palantir fell to the ground and the Steward laughed. He would deal with the White Wizard in his own time, but for now he smiled. Isildur’s Bane had indeed been found, and was in the hands of a halfling. The dream of Boromir and Faramir had been true then, and now doom is near at hand. But whose? And by whom will it come to pass?
Denethor stood, he could dwell on these matters later. Now he needed to brief his captains Mablung and Damrod, whom he trusted most in the city for they bore his sons. On leave after surviving the Battle of Osgiliath, no-one would miss them if he had need of their services. North would he send them, to the hill-country of Emyn Muil. Much had he seen in the palantir’s depths, not least the sight of his son with two halflings crossing the Anduin into that country. The two captains should therefore go and meet them there, to lend aid to their journey. Isildur’s Bane would come to Gondor, to be safely hidden deep in the vaults. Never to be used, except at the utmost end of need.