The pain was more bitter than any sword stroke as fire seared his face and hands. His hair smoldered in the hot wind, and the breath caught in his throat. With a scream, Denethor leaped from the pyre, his resolve cracking like an overheated stone. He had just enough wits to roll on the ground to smother the fire in his clothing.
The flames had spread to the wooden beams that supported the dome, casting a red glow over the faces of the dead. He crawled between the marble tables, past his father and his grandsire; then he stumbled through the door, still clutching the palantir. Voices echoed faintly along the road, but his choked calls for aid were drowned out by the roar of the fire.
He threw himself to the ground as, with a loud crack, the domed roof collapsed in a rush of sliding stone. The flames rose toward the open sky in streamers of red and gold.
Gone, all is gone. Boromir’s dead, Faramir will die, and the City will fall with the House of the Stewards. He cursed his own cowardice for trying to escape his fate. He still held the palantir. Its fiery heart was quiet, its black surface showing only the reflected light of the fire. It held no tidings, good or ill. A drop of water struck the palantir, and then another drop struck it, rolling down the black glass and onto his hands. Cool, blessedly cool on his burnt-black skin. Denethor thought it better not to look too closely at his injured hands. All about him, he heard the soft tapping of rain on stone.
He did not know how long he knelt in the empty street, his face turned toward the sky. His open mouth caught the rain until it ran down his parched throat. Behind him, the flames in the ruined building hissed and sank into silence. A sudden chill shook his limbs. Shivering, he stumbled to his feet. He was injured and weary, and his clothing was drenched. He had to find shelter from the downpour. Why? he asked himself. But already he staggered toward the nearest tomb.
Above the door, the name Eldacar was chiseled in the stone, but he knew that without looking. The high stairs were a challenge, and he had to crawl on his knees, dragging the palantir onto each step. Inside, the twenty-first king of Gondor seemed undisturbed by the siege on his City. Eldacar slept on, his face worn by grief but peaceful. His eldest son had been murdered during the Kinstrife, leaving his father to outlive him by fifty years. How could you go on? Denethor asked the dead man. How could you live when your hopes were in the earth?
The thrum of the rain slowed, and the light grew stronger in the tomb. Sunlight fell through the high windows in a trail of golden dust. Hands crossed on his breast, Eldacar was arrayed in velvet robes lined with rich fur. A long sword and a shield lay at his side. “Forgive me, lord,” Denethor murmured as he unfastened the front of the burial clothes, trying to ignore the agony in his hands. He was loath to disturb the dead even though the need was great. Injured and weak, he would soon perish from cold unless he found dry clothing. The body would have to be turned on its side, so he slid one arm under the king’s shoulder and grasped the dead hand. Then he dropped it with a startled cry. A strange sensation, like the touch of running water, spread up his arm and throughout his body.
Eldacar slept on unchanged, but the agony swiftly faded from the burns on Denethor’s face and hands and his weariness was eased as if a heavy burden had been lifted away. He felt not so much hope as the absence of despair. As he watched, the burnt-black skin sloughed away in long strips, leaving his hands a fragile pink like the inside of a seashell. Stunned, he stared at the old king’s face then dropped to one knee beside the marble table. There was no Man in Gondor who knew the old legends better. The hands of the King are the hands of a healer. He knelt in the sunlight and dust and wept with relief.At last, he bowed low in homage then rose slowly to his feet. If he lived, he would return to pay the proper respects. But now he must get back, back to his City and his ailing son. He did not doubt that Eldacar understood. The palantir he left in the tomb; for even though his wounds were healed, he still felt unsteady and its weight would only slow his journey.