Chapter 22 – The White City
It took us three days to reach Minis Tirith, just as Gandalf had said. I barely noticed the land speeding past us. Barely remembered the stops for sleep and food. I only felt relief when the city rose before us. Here, I could try and get my jumbled thoughts in order.
We galloped towards the open gates, the horses snorting with excitement. We charged through the archway.
Gandalf called out to startled citizens, and I felt a faint amusement as they jumped out the way, their mouths open and eyes wide with astonishment.We arrived at the top tier and the horses slowed to a walk, foam dripping from their mouths. I saw Pippin staring at the White Tree open-mouthed. I looked at it too, and felt my stomach drop. It was dead.
"Gandalf! Gandalf! It's the tree!"
Pippin nudged Gandalf, his voice trembling slightly. I patted Fëa's neck nervously, wanting the sick feeling to fade.
"Yes, the White Tree of Gondor, the tree of the King. Lord Denethor, however, is not the King. He is a Steward only. A caretaker of the throne."
We dismounted as Gandalf talked. I glanced again at the tree. The last I had seen it, it was green with life and the air was heavy with its blossom's scent.
"Why is it dead?"
Pippin's voice sounded next to me, and I looked down at him. He looked up, and I almost sighed in frustration. There was such a sadness in his eyes; a sadness that had not been there when I first met him. He was carrying burdens that he did not need.
"It is dead because a King does not sit on the throne of Gondor."
I answered him, looking at the tree. It was a forlorn sight: a stark white tree, its branches feeble looking, set against the roiling black sky. I sighed and turned away, walking towards the doors to the hall. I half-listened as Gandalf gave instructions to Pippin. I was concentrating more on the light-headed feeling I was currently experiencing. It was not because I was tired, or because I was hungry. It was a half-beautiful light-headedness. It made me feel light and floaty, like a feather caught in a breeze. I had had this feeling before, but I couldn't remember when. I shook my head; I would figure that out later. Nodding at Gandalf, we walked in to the hall.
We strode quickly down the Hall of Kings, Pippin running a little to keep up. We approached Denethor, who was sitting on the Steward's throne, down from the King's throne. He was clutching something in his hands, but I could not see it clearly.
"Hail, Denethor, son of Ecthelion, Lord and Steward of Gondor. I come with tidings in this dark hour and with counsel."
Gandalf bowed slightly and I followed suit. The movement made my stomach feel heavy, and I straightened faster than usual. I tried to ignore the feeling but a thought whispered through my mind. It faded as Denethor slowly raised his eyes to Gandalf. I drew in a sharp breath as I saw what he was grasping: the broken Horn of Gondor. Boromir's horn.
"Perhaps you come to explain this. Perhaps you come to tell me why my son is dead."
His voice was rough, and thick with tears. My heart clenched as I thought of Boromir. Boromir who had died protecting Pippin and Merry; Boromir who I did not save. I heard a sniffle and looked down at Pippin, who had a far off look on his face. Before I could offer him some comfort, he spoke.
"Boromir died to save us; my kinsmen and me. He fell defending us from many foes."
He brushed past Gandalf and I, and knelt in front of Denethor. Gandalf made to move forward but I held him back, shaking my head slightly. As Pippin began to offer his service to Denethor, I spoke to Gandalf in a low voice.
"Do not berate him for his decision later. He feels he owes a debt. Let him lift this burden. He carries far too many already."
Gandalf sighed deeply but nodded. He turned back to Pippin who was still kneeling. He rolled his eyes and walked forward, nudging Pippin sharply with his staff. The hobbit jumped to his feet and came to stand by me, head hanging. I gently touched his head, and I caught a swift smile as he looked forward.
"My Lord, there will be a time to grieve for Boromir, but it is not now. War is coming."
Denethor did not respond. He simply sat, his face lowered towards the fragment of the horn, its once creamy exterior now streaked with grime. Gandalf looked back at me, a slight worry in his eyes. I took a few steps forward, noticing how heavy with sorrow the air had become. Gandalf spoke again, his voice more urgent.
"The enemy is on your doorstep. As Steward, you are charged with the defence of this city. Where are Gondor's armies?"
Denethor raised his head, staring at Gandalf. I could see the suspicion in his eyes and I decided to try a different tack.
"You still have friends. You are not alone in this fight. Send word to Théoden of Rohan. Light the beacons."
My voice was soft, and I hoped to offer comfort to the Steward. His glance slid my way, and I flinched slightly at the venom in his stare.
"I have heard of you, Elf Queen. A woman, ruler of a once great peoples. Where are the Elves now? Fled to their sacred lands, their tails between their legs."
I sprang forward, already reaching for my blades but Gandalf held me back, his staff blocking my way. Denethor sneered, making my blood boil. How dare he! He turned his furious eyes on Gandalf, who merely stared at him with a neutral expression.
"You think you are wise, Mithrandir, 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. With your left hand you would use me as a shield against Mordor, and, with your right, you seek to supplant me! I know who rides with Théoden of Rohan. Oh yes….words have reached my ears of this Aragorn, son of Arathorn, and I tell you now…I will not bow this Ranger from the North. Last of a ragged house long bereft of Lordship!"
Denethor's face had turned a mottle purple as he ranted, spittle flying from his lips. I had held back but his remark about Aragorn tipped me over the edge.
"He is more a man than you will ever be, Denethor, son of Ecthelion. Authority is not given to you to deny the return of the King. Steward."
I practically spat the last word, my voice echoing off the walls. Denethor jumped up from his chair, trembling with rage.
"The whole rule of Gondor is mine and no others!"
He shrieked the words, his eyes narrowed. I stared at him, hardly believing what I was hearing. Without a backwards glance, I whirled around and stalked from the throne room.
Gandalf and Pippin found me later that night on the walls of Minis Tirith. My fury had subsided somewhat, for which Gandalf was grateful. He always maintained I could destroy a small village when I was in a rage. Gandalf stood on the balcony, smoking his pipe and looking out towards Mordor. Pippin was inspecting his newly issued uniform and equipment.
"So I imagine this is just a ceremonial position. I mean, they don't actually expect me to do any fighting."
I smiled a little as I detected the faint anxiety hidden behind his words. I stood and stroked his curls. He looked up at me, his eyes wide and glassy.
"You are in the service of the Steward now. You are going to have to do what you are told, Peregrin Took, Guard of the Citadel."
Gandalf spoke without turning around. I chuckled slightly and walked over to join him, leaning against the rail, Pippin beside me. I stared out at the night sky over Mordor, painted red by Oroduin. I spoke without quite realising I was speaking aloud.
"Our enemy is ready. His full strength is gathered. Not only Orcs, but men as well, legions of Haradrim from the South. Mercenaries from the coast. All will answer Mordor's call."
Gandalf looked at me, and I sighed. He gently rested a hand on my shoulder, and I shifted closer. He had always been a source of comfort.
"This will be the end of Gondor as we know it. Here the hammer stroke will fall the hardest. If the river is taken, if the garrison at Osgiliath falls, the last defence of the city will be gone."
Gandalf's words hung in the air, almost seeming to vibrate with the impending doom. Silence surrounded our little trio for a moment, and then Pippin piped up, sounding hopeful.
"But we have the White Wizard, and the Queen of the Elves. That has to count for something."
I laughed loudly, but it sounded forced; hysterical even. I felt my hand rest on my stomach. I didn't move it; it felt natural there.
"Sauron has yet to reveal his deadliest servant."
Gandalf spoke again, his eyes fixed on Mordor. I looked down at Pippin, who clutched the railings tightly. I reached out my hand and pulled him close, yet my other hand did not move from my stomach. Somewhere in the back of my mind, alarm registered but it disappeared as I tried to focus on it.
"The one who will lead Mordor's armies in war. The one they say no living man can kill…"
I cut Gandalf off, my voice coming out in a horrified whisper.
"The Witchking of Angmar!"
The hand holding Pippin fluttered up to the left side of my ribcage. Even through my tunic, I could feel the raised ridge of the scar the Witchking had given me on our last encounter. Abruptly, I pushed away from the railings and walked a distance away from Gandalf and Pippin. As I looked up at the stars, I realised my hand was still on my stomach. I looked down at it in confusion. I never rested my hand there. Never. Why was it resting there now? Comprehension began to dawn. No. NO! It was too soon! I shouldn't even be aware at this stage. I lifted my eyes to the sky again, locking on the brightest star. A single tear slid down my cheek as I thought of my beloved, and how very far we were from each other.
Legolas looked up at the stars, one hand clutching his pendant. It tingled against his palm. He smiled a little, knowing that Seraphina was okay. His eyes found the brightest star. He stared at it for a moment, thinking of her. Oh, how he wished he was with her! He should never have let her ride to Minis Tirith with Gandalf. He should have fought to keep her with him. He squeezed his eyes shut to keep the tears at bay, when he saw it. An image flashed behind his eyes. An image of Seraphina with a hand resting on her stomach, her skin glowing, and a smile of absolute bliss on his face. His eyes snapped open. No. It could not have happened. Then, it hit him. Hit him like an arrow to the chest. That night at Rohan. At the celebration. He stared at the star again, and terror rose within him like a wave. Yet, underneath that terror was joy. He could not help it; he could not help being delighted.
Thank you, my beautiful readers and followers, for being so patient, and staying with the story. I would have given up by now. Thank you so much!And can anyone guess what's up with Sera? Huh? Huh? ;)