Weakness Of Men, The
1. The Weakness Of Men
But the stricken soldier is not the sum of the man. More clearly than his grief I recall the sound of his laughter, rare though it was in the darkness of those times. I recall his strength, and his courage, and that his eyes were bright as sunlit steel, and clear as the waters of the Anduin, but for when he found some reason to doubt the one who led us. Some reason to doubt me. For though the wizard was our leader 'till he fell, the Steward's son looked always to the one whom strangers had declared his King. Looked with doubt, and with hope, in almost equal measure.
The trust he struggled to give me was a burden I had not wished for, and did not want, no more than I had wished for the burden of a crown. Had I not failed in the first, would I have come to bear the second? It is a question none can answer, for he is gone, and his brother ... his brother's steel is of a different sort. No, only Boromir might have fought me for that throne, but Boromir fell, and I claimed it.
I have heard him called proud, and stern, but he was neither when first I laid eyes on him, this son of Gondor. Rather, he moved like any soldier who finds himself after a long journey in a foreign land of uncertain allies: curious, beguiled by strangeness, perhaps awkward, a bit alone. Even among allies true, those who are so different may be no comfort, and comfort is much looked for by one who has traveled so far, and under such a burden as was on his shoulders. His father's need, the dark riddle in the dream, his own fears for Gondor. Though I did not know it all, not then, still, I knew enough.
What mood was on me that I did not speak when he entered the hall, nor even when he saw me? I had not met Denethor's eldest, but there could be no mistaking him. I knew one came from Gondor, and who but he? Though he was not as I had expected. Perhaps it was surprise that held my tongue.
No, 'twas not surprise, I confess it, but mistrust. Mistrust, already, for one I knew not, and for no other reason but the blood that flowed in his veins. The blood of his father, and the blood we shared. The blood of Men. So I did not speak, but waited, to see what he would do.
His countenance was as unwatchful as a child's, thinking himself alone in the hall, and he looked with open curiosity at the strangeness around him. I know not how he recognized my presence, for I made no movement, but he turned, and saw me watching him with eyes as black as mirrors in the dark, and no more revealing. He might have found reason for offense at my gaze, had he been what some have claimed, for it was a glance meant to disquiet, and to conceal. Well did I know the advantage to me of concealment, and of another's unease. Yet no offense he took.
You are no Elf, he said, in a voice that held surprise, perhaps pleasure at finding a Man in this unsettlingly Elven place, and what did I mean with my answer? The men of the South are welcome here, was my reply. I might as well have answered that there are no oliphaunts in Imladris, for all the sense it made, for sure his speech and dress marked him as a Man of Gondor, and well he knew it. He says I am no Elf, and I say he is welcome here.
But 'twas no wonder then that he asked me outright who I was. When, years later, I related this to Faramir, the younger only laughed, and said "Of course he did! he would not have been put off by something so simple as an answer that is no answer," though he did suggest his brother might have betrayed some hint of anger, or annoyance at least, at being so evaded. But Boromir's tone was all guilelessness, the voice of a Man who meets a Man in a world of Elves, and hopes for familiar companionship, and is perplexed to find it not.
And why did I not give it? I am friend to Gandalf the Grey, was all I said in reply to his query. Courteous in the face of my evasion, he spoke of our common purpose, and called me friend, though 'twas clear he now thought perhaps I was not, and thought to let me see it. He knew I hid, and he did not pursue, but he did not forget.
Long moments passed in which I could have spoken - a word of friendship, an unshuttered phrase that might have opened a path between us. Long moments, and an awkwardness he covered by looking about the hall, his eyes falling finally on the broken blade. His demeanor as he approached the sword of my ancestor was near to awe, his reverence for it like a song in his voice when he spoke, but colored with the ease of a soldier who admires not only an heirloom, but a weapon of war. A weapon as near to him as his own hand. For a moment, he forgot my presence, knew only the blade in his strong grip, and all that it carried.
I remember how his eyes widened in surprise when he cut his finger on the hilted shard. The sword of my ancestor, unblooded for three thousand years, dry as history's bones, was suddenly red with the blood of Gondor. Red with the blood of the Steward's heir, the man whose throne and people I would claim. Had I cut him myself, I could not have felt the irony more sharply.
I have drawn the blade, sometimes, and looked to find that point. Does the blood of the Steward's son still linger there? Was it burned into the blade when the Elves forged it anew? But their skill is too fine, and the steel is smooth as glass, and shows only my reflection when I look.
And when he turned his eyes to me again, to find me still regarding him, still unspeaking, unmoving, what can he have thought? What would any have thought, to be considered so coolly in such a circumstance? A wordless stranger who gives no welcome. What should I have expected?
But this was the son of Denethor, who did not look for the coming of the King, and a lifetime of hiding is not so easily put aside. I could have spoken, learned then whether the secrecy that surrounded my name had hidden me from Gondor's Steward. Had he known me, or had he not, we would have begun our journey without the shadow of my dishonesty between us, for though I did not lie, I neither spoke the truth. And so the hard words of Legolas were ringing in his ears, and in mine, from the start. This is Aragorn, son of Arathorn. You owe him your allegiance. His King handed to him on the knife-edged voice of an Elf.
But I knew him not, and I spoke not, and it was long days of travel before the unease between us softened into comradeship.
In Lothlorien, there was a moment. A moment I could have spoken, perhaps turned comradeship to friendship, built a wall of fealty between the Ring and his heart. Perhaps it was already too late, but again, I did not take the chance. I have seen the White City, long ago. Had I told him, then, that already I had served Gondor, already I had loved her, would his love for me have been secured? I listened to him, and I did not speak, and his eyes were alight with the joy of hope unlook'd for when he spoke of our coming to Minas Tirith, and the ringing of her silver trumpets. That light of hope in his eyes, which had been shadowed for so long.
I know that my own eyes were dark.
For indeed, I loved Gondor, even then, but I did not want her throne. All those hard days on the journey from Imladris I had struggled to desire it, had struggled to desire what I knew I must claim. All those days, I had tried to push from me the fear I felt at claiming it. And all those days, I watched him fall further into the darkness of the Ring, and the foul song it sang to him that seemed so fair.
And watching him, I felt the despair of my heritage. Isildur, and Boromir, and the weakness of Men. Was it my weakness as well? If I came to Minas Tirith, if I claimed the throne, what then? To rule over the children of him who brought us here? Yet if they were his children, they were my brothers, and how could I abandon them?
And in his clear, bright eyes was all the weakness I so feared. In his bright eyes I saw myself reflected: King and deceiver, heir to evil, the evil that my ancestor could not cast away, and that this one now craved with an aching hunger. When I did not desire to clasp him to me with bonds of brotherhood, I desired to thrust him from me as a leper, for fear his miserable weakness would become my own. For fear that it was my own.
And so my downfall. My last chance, though I did not know it then, to lead us down a different path. And once again, I did not take it. Oh, I did not take it, nor clasp him to me, but thrust him from me as a leper.
Minas Tirith is the safer road. You know that. I heard him, but I did not listen, for though he spoke his heart truly, yet there were dangers there he did not believe. Where he trusted his people, I trusted mine. And my people were not his. Not truly.
From there we can regroup. Strike out for Mordor from a place of strength. And he believed it to be true. I saw no shadow on him then, no dark song. He was sincere in his desire - to go to Minas Tirith, but not to stay there. Strike out for Mordor from a place of strength. And at his words, I saw my ancestor, and heard again the voice of Elrond, telling me of Isildur's hard face and bright eyes when he had refused, and fallen, and kept the Ring, and I saw us falling, the Ring in the hands of Men again, who would strike out for Mordor to conquer, not to slip in unnoticed and ruin. And it would be the ruin of us all.
My face, I warrant, was as hard as my ancestor's when I answered Boromir, fear boiling up in me and turning to anger that he would press me so. I knew as I said it that my thought was ill-chosen, but I could not draw it back. There is no strength in Gondor that can avail us.
He spoke to me then harsh words, angry words; spoke bitterly of my faith in the Elves, my failures towards my people - our people. Yes, there is weakness, there is frailty, and I recall thinking how truly he spoke, but there is courage also, and honour to be found in men! His voice so full of hope, so eager for my faith, and bewildered by the coldness that he met. I wanted to ask him, what courage? what honour? But the answer stood before me, in the shape and likeness of Boromir of Gondor, Steward's son, who followed the leadership of a king he never wanted, who yet defeated a temptation that had been the fall of nine strong Kings of Men, who had fought by my side, and who wanted - nay, demanded - that I be worthy of the trust he knew that he must place in me if ever he would stay a civil war. Who wished for me to accept that, and offer my faith in return, at last. My faith in him, and, more than that, my faith in the people I would rule.
Was it so much to ask of me, then, for the people whose governance I would take from him? How else would I rule Gondor, if not? As a despot, who lords his will over a people he neither trusts, nor admires, nor respects.
And hardest of all to hear, the hardest truth: You are afraid! His voice was an accusation, from one who knew no cowardice, for though all that lives knows fear, the fear he spoke of smelled of cowardice indeed. Was it cowardice to hide my heritage when there were Men who desired above all to slit my throat and end my threat? Men who would take any excuse to bring war to Gondor - a second civil war, heedless of the Enemy we yet faced?
All your life, you have hidden in the shadows, scared of who you are, of what you are!
And so I was. So I was. Afraid, and furious to be confronted with it, here, by the sum of all my fears. The weakness of Men calling me a coward.
And my anger rose like bitter poison in my mouth. At first I turned away, but all those long days of being burdened by the faith he would have given me, and the crown I did not want, and the weight of all those lives pressing on the small chance that I could lead us right, all drew me back to him to throw in his face the cruelest promise I would make to him, and almost the last.
I will not lead the Ring within a hundred leagues of your city.
And still I can hear the contempt in my voice, and still I would call those words back to me. But it was finished the moment they slipped from my tongue. He would not trust me again, until he died.
Was that the moment of his fall? My grief returns a thousandfold with the thought, for though 'tis long past fixing, how could I live with my own heart to know that it was my weakness that tipped the balance, and threw down the jewel of Gondor?
I draw the blade now, bright as his eyes. I hold it before me, gaze at my reflection as I once saw myself reflected in him. Had I spoken, perhaps the story would have unfolded differently. Had I spoken, perhaps all would have come to ruin, or perhaps he would have ruled beside me, my Steward. Or perhaps he would have challenged me. We choose our paths, we make our way, and we hope that we go not too far amiss.
There is no blemish on the reforged sword. Did the blood of the Steward's son strengthen the steel, as his death steeled my will for the battles we faced? His death, and my last promise to him.
I have wondered, since then, what part I played. I recall his laughter, as easy and joyful as the music of the falls which carried his body from us. His eyes were bright as the steel he bore, and clear as the waters of the Anduin, and he looked on me with doubt, and hope, in almost equal measure. I still recall the love in his voice as he lay dying, and the faith he gave me 'ere the end, the promise I made him, and I own I kept it. And if through all these years I have wished we might have had each other's faith before we did, yet I am grateful that we had it at the end, and I can hear his words, if I listen.
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