'Like the Prince.'
Pippin sat on a stool in the corner of the Steward's chamber trying to remain unobtrusive while the barber sheared Denethor's hair close to his head. It made him look more fierce and severe, if that was possible. The Steward examined the barber's handiwork in a mirror the man proffered and directed that his hair be cropped closer still. Finally satisfied, Denethor dismissed the barber with a motion of his chin. The man departed with alacrity.
As soon as the door closed, Denethor walked over to the bed and dragged a chest out from under it. It was leather with metal edges and was secured with a black lock. Pippin could not quell his curiosity as the Steward began pulling things from it – a stained and patched green cloak that reminded Pippin of Bilbo's, a big leather belt, a long knife in a weathered sheath, a sturdy pack, and clothing that looked like it belonged to Strider.
'What is this for?' Pippin asked.
Denethor did not spare him a glance. 'For tomorrow,' was all he said. The tall man examined all of the items from the chest, tossing some of the clothes into a basket near the clothes press, putting other items into the pack. 'Stay here, I will be back.' Pippin tried to stave off sleep but was woken from his doze by the sound of Denethor speaking to someone at the door of the room. 'Yes, Gethron. Say nothing, but be at the gate.' A murmured assent and footsteps, then a door closed. Denethor had a bundle of clothing under his arm and a small wicker basket in one hand. He was soon settled in on his bed, sitting tailor-fashion with his back against the headboard and the clothes across his lap. 'You should get some sleep,' he said to Pippin as he rummaged through the wicker basket. When Pippin walked towards the door, Denethor said, 'No. Stay here and sleep.'
'We will need to be in the first circle early on the morrow,' Denethor replied as he threaded a needle he had taken from the wicker basket. 'The army marches out with the light.' Finally the grim man looked at the hobbit, his eyes glinting in his gaunt face. His voice was calm, even gentle. 'There is not time for you to go to the guesthouses and be fetched in the morning. Your gear will be waiting for you in the first circle garrison. Sleep across the foot of the bed here.' Pippin nodded, yawning, and clambered up onto the high bed. He was soon asleep.
A hand grasped Pippin's shoulder and shook him awake. It was still dark, though Pippin was by now used to rising at that hour. 'It is time, Master Perian,' Denethor said. Pippin jumped down from the bed and neatened his clothes. The Steward paid him no more attention, but knelt down next to his pack stowing a few last items. Gone were the robes the Steward usually wore, replaced by Strider's clothes.
A little more dirt and that could be Strider. Denethor buckled on his sword, shouldered the pack and cast the old cloak over it all. Pippin trotted after him when he left the room. Denethor led them through the Tower, past the dead tree in the somber court and down to the sixth circle and the Houses of Healing. Pippin hoped the Steward would give him time to check on Merry before they went down the City. As they entered the dim room where Faramir lay, a huge grey hound rose from the floor next to the captain's bed and bared his teeth at the intruders, making Pippin jump back into the hall.
'Stop it, Huan,' Denethor said sharply but softly, not dismayed by the guardian. His cloak swung and blocked Pippin's view of the bed. When he could see again, the dog was gone and Beregar was kneeling next to the bed, his grey head bowed.
'I did not recognize you, my lord,' the man murmured.
'Has he been dreaming?' Denethor asked, going to his son's side.
'No, Hollë has not stirred. '
'Good.' Denethor went to the bed and stooped over Faramir, smoothing back a lock of hair that had fallen across his son's face. 'You should see to your kinsman.'
It took Pippin a moment to realize that the Steward was speaking to him. 'Oh, yes, thank you, yes! ' he stammered, earning a glare from Beregar. Denethor paid no mind, all of his attention on Faramir. Pippin backed away from the door and hurried down the hall to Merry's room.
Faramir felt his father's warm hand on his brow. 'Faramir, wake. I need to speak to you.' The face he saw when he opened was strange, not his father, and he tried to sit up and ward the stranger off but the sudden move sent pain lancing through his wounded shoulder. 'Shh, shh, Hollë, it's me, Papa,' the man said.
Faramir looked more closely. 'Yes, I see now. What? Why?' Faramir stared in confusion at the hair as close-cropped as Uncle Imrahil's and then with an unpleasant suspicion when he saw his father's attire. 'Father, what is this?'
Denethor sat on the edge of the bed and helped Faramir sit up. 'A final duty.'
'My Lord Steward, you speak dire words.'
'Yes. The host departs for Mordor this morning.' His father smiled grimly. 'It appears I will be Captain-General once more and take the field with Thorongil a last time.'
Faramir shook his head. 'No. You cannot. You are the Lord Steward. You must remain here.'
'And who else will lead Gondor? You are too wounded.'
'Anyone. Uncle Imrahil. Captain Gethron. Not you. You are Steward and there is no one else for…'
Denethor took Faramir's hand firmly in his own and pulled something from beneath his cloak. He laid the White Rod across Faramir's palm and closed his son's hand around it. 'Yes there is. You.'
'Father, this is madness…' Faramir fell silent at the haunted look on his father's face.
'No, Hollë. Madness is done.' Denethor's hand was shaking as he touched Faramir's cheek. 'I have broken troth. I am no more a steward. What my hand would have…' The words faded away and his father bowed his head in shame.
'I beg you, father and lord, do not do this,' Faramir whispered.
Denethor sat for several heartbeats, face averted, then sighed. 'My time is near done and I would reclaim some honor.' His face was composed when he raised his head. 'All of time is done, Faramir, and doom waits to master us. Yet estel is here, and so I ride.' The grim smile returned. 'It is not quite the folly it might seem, captain. On a hope and a chance, we take a token force and a ragged king to capture the Enemy's attention for a short time. You know this.'
'Yes, you told me the council's decision.'
'This force will not return.' Denethor put his hand over Faramir's and the White Rod. 'With luck, the sacrifice will work. I have seen greater miracles.' Faramir glanced at Beregar, who nodded agreement. 'But if there is no luck, then Gondor will need someone to lead her in her darkest days. Our house may not lay aside the charge placed upon us, to defend Gondor. '
'Is that not what you are doing?' Faramir demanded.
'I place Gondor into your hands and no matter our fortune before the Black Gate, she is defended.' Denethor stood and turned to Beregar. 'Hound, I charge you to defend the Lady's son.'
'She'd want me with you.'
Denethor shook his head. 'Nay, Huan. She wants me with her. And Morcollë.' With that, Denethor turned and left the room.
Imrahil stood with Calmacil and Marlong, quietly surveying the men gathering in the pale light of the impending dawn. Marlong's son, Mablung, stood near, waiting to be of use to the captains, as did Imrahil's man Borthand. Master Mutt had a shallow gash on his temple and many bruises and scrapes from the battles but was otherwise sound.
Imrahil's dreams had kept him from sleeping more than a few hours the last few nights and his head felt stuffed with wool. It was still difficult to accept that Thorongil had returned. Marlong hailed Gethron and limped over to talk to the other captain, Mablung trailing. The two elder men went towards the ranks of Gondorian soldiers getting into their companies in preparation for the march.
'Imrahil.' The Prince turned quickly at the sound of Denethor's voice and froze, shocked at his brother-in-law's appearance.
'Denethor?' It was wrong to see the Steward like this. Imrahil tried to remember a time when Denethor had cut his hair short, and could not. It did not help that Denethor was wearing an amused expression, obviously enjoying Imrahil's startlement. Then Imrahil noticed what else the man wore and confusion became dismay. 'What are you up to?'
'Oh, no, brother. I am not letting you…'
'You cannot forbid it, Imrahil, so you might as well help me.' Denethor's eyes glinted as they did when he knew he had successfully executed a clever plan.
'My Lord Steward…'
'…is resting comfortably in the Houses of Healing,' was the genial assurance Denethor tossed over his shoulder as he began striding off to the soldiers, the young perian Pippin trotting after him. Gethron waved at Denethor, motioning his lord to come over. So you are in on this madness. Imrahil sighed in exasperation and hastened to join them. I might as well know how deep the conspiracy goes. Mablung darted away just before they came to the group, sent on an errand by Marlong. Imrahil eyed a furled banner one of the soldiers held, knowing it was familiar but not being able to place it.
'Denethor, would you care to enlighten me as to how much foolishness I shall need to defend?' he said when he was close enough to speak.
'No foolishness,' was the too-mild reply. 'Faramir has not recovered enough to take the field, but there is naught wrong with his head, only his shoulder, so he has consented to serve as Steward and I take up his task as Captain-General.' Denethor's eyes strayed across the field, searching. A grim smile settled on his lips. 'I look forward to a final campaign with Captain Thorongil. '
Aragorn spoke to Borlas before dismissing the man to see to the ordering of the Grey Company. Elladan stood silent nearby, gazing at the scrim of mountains taking shape against the eastern dawn. Aragorn joined his foster brother in his contemplation of their fate. Folly. You have thought that before. Helm's Deep. Moria. Umbar. Success did not make them less folly. Elrohir walked up, trailed by their horses. Aragorn nodded a greeting to his other brother and offered his shoulder for Roheryn to rub his forehead against. Never more than a chance to begin with. That was all they ever had, of course, an opportunity to exploit the weakness of an insurmountable foe for a brief advantage. Now you sound like Denethor. Aragorn turned slightly and glanced up the walls of the City to the Citadel battlements where the Stewards' banner flew. And how is he wrong?
He had listened to Gandalf's account of Denethor's madness, first horrified, then relieved, and finally shaken at the account of the Steward's attempt to kill himself and Faramir. Pippin's version had been less harsh towards Denethor and Aragorn thought it to be closer to the truth. I left you alone for too long. Gandalf was becoming irritated at his refusal to require Denethor to step aside. "Press this advantage," the wizard had urged as they watched Denethor sit at Faramir's side in the Houses, bowed in grief and shame. "He will accede. He is guilt-ridden for his crime. In a few days, he may not be so amenable." Gandalf had not been amused when Aragorn pointed out that in a very few more days than that, they might all be dead.
Across the field, men were mounting up and banners were unfurled behind their lords. A small cheer was heard when Borlas shook out Arwen's banner, and several other banners were dipped in acknowledgement of the claim of the tree and stars. Aragorn looked for Imrahil's Swan. It did not move. Another reason not to humiliate the Steward, Gandalf. Not everyone is pleased at my return. The wizard himself he could see approaching on Shadowfax. With a sigh, Aragorn mounted Roheryn.
Back by the gate, a murmur of voices swiftly grew into a roar. Along the first wall, horns were winded and drums were beaten as the cheers grew louder. Gon-dor! Gon-dor! Gon-dor! Aragorn watched a banner pass from the shadow of the gate and into the first rays of the rising sun and felt his heart rise and sink in the same moment. It was Finduilas' black wing and he knew who would be riding beneath it. He watched it pass the Swan banner, which dipped in submission before falling in behind it. The ranks of soldiers hurried to flank the road from the gate to where Aragorn sat beneath his own. As the black wing passed, every lord of Gondor acknowledged the device.
'Aragorn, what is this?' Gandalf demanded, looking at the approaching banner with suspicion.
Aragorn waited patiently for Denethor to join him. The close-cropped hair was startling at first, but everything else about the man was so familiar – his eyes, his seat on the horse, the stained cloak, the sword, the air of command, and the expression made of equal parts arrogance and amusement – that the shorn head quickly became who Denethor had always been. 'Captain-General,' Aragorn genially offered in greeting, ignoring the wizard's sound of exasperation.
Denethor did not take his eyes from Aragorn's face, though a corner of his mouth quirked up. 'Captain,' was his equally polite reply.
'And what do you think of our plan?'
The Steward looked at him a long moment, expression odd. 'That we shall find out if our faith in you was well placed, after all.'
Aragorn had to swallow to make sure that his voice would be steady. 'Then let us not tarry.' He motioned for the Grey Company to fall in behind him. Denethor moved to his right hand, Imrahil to his left. With another signal, the three captains set out towards Osgiliath.