Stewards of Gondor: Slashvese Arc
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From the Other River Bank: 5. Ties That Bind
Barren sand and ashes rising hot winds and a dark sky hung with dust. Yellow dust. Gold dust. Star dust perhaps, who could say? A white tower gleamed in the distance ere it faded to naught. Boromir Boromir That sing-song voice, still so very familiar! Leave me be! He struggled against the temptation. Hands upon his shoulders, sliding down over his chest to wrap about his waist, turning him about or did the world turn? Faramir's hands, Faramir's scent so very close Leave me alone!
You will never be rid of me, his brother murmured, voice echoing softly in the silence. Wind begins to blow again, hot and dry painfully hot like fire. Faramir, let me go!
You will never be rid of me. For your kind come always to me, my love you come always to me! And his brother's eyes blazed suddenly with red and cruel brilliance. The Eye! Sauron! Trumpets beneath the earth, and he was falling to pieces--
Boromir groaned as he crawled out of bed again, greeting the new day with curses once more for his nightmares. Why is it that I sleep better in armed camps than in my own bed? His dreams were certainly growing more intense with the passing days, and more disturbing at that! But he set his private worries aside, for the trumpets of his nightmares were transmuted now into the clear notes of Gondor's gate-watch. Who comes now to Minas Tirith? Whoever it was, the news was not good, for Boromir recognized the signal calls that chased the new arrivals up the streets of the Tower of the Guard. Hastily, he made himself presentable and darted from his chambers, still buckling his sword-belt. Though it was barely dawn, the halls of the Tower of Ecthelion were alive with the sounds of men rushing about, seeking to discover what had caused the alarm.
"Boromir!" The heir of Denethor whirled at the sound of his brother's voice. Faramir stood in the stairwell, having paused to let someone pass before him, then quickly he emerged from that narrow space and strode to Boromir's side, his eyes dark. "What have you heard?" Boromir asked, sensing that the other knew something of the morning's alert.
"Little enough beside the horns, but I saw the rider arrive. He bore the colors of Cair Andros," the younger man said with grim certainty. Boromir closed his eyes a moment, drawing a deep breath.
"Osgiliath we know is weak--it always has been. If Cair Andros has fallen ."
"I think it has not, for I saw no black flag," Faramir replied, shaking his head as he watched Gondor's elite scramble. "But Boromir, that isle is the gateway to Gondor from the Morannon, and it has always been understrength. We cannot lose both outposts at once, but neither can we hold them both. Not after the battle for the bridge."
"I know it, and Father must also, but I confess, I know not how he inclines in this matter. Osgiliath may be useless now but it has been a matter of pride for long. Let us hope that this messenger does not bring news of investiture!" Boromir muttered as he began once more to make his way to Denethor's war room. Without bothering to knock, he opened the door and strode in, and was mildly surprised when his brother followed him inside. Apparently, the younger of Denethor's sons had grown weary of being ever shut out. Their father glanced up from his work, face impassive as he took in the pair, seeming to accept Faramir's presence as expected. Already, Húrin of the Keys was there, as was one Lord Mirhal, and their faces were grim. "What news, Father?" Boromir asked without preamble.
"I fear Cair Andros has suffered grievous loss this past night," the steward replied, and if he did not permit anxiety to color his tone, there was a sharp edge to it that cut like a knife and commanded instant attention. "The messenger shall elaborate it for us, but I doubt not that we know already the meat of the matter: we are beset, and we shall soon be faced with an unpalatable range of choices. Faramir," Denethor's voice cracked like a whip, and his younger son stiffened as he stepped forward, meeting his father's eyes reluctantly. Boromir unobtrusively laid a supportive hand on the other's back before he could think the better of such an action. And though his brother appeared admirably composed, he could feel his heart beat, swift and powerful, and a shiver of he knew not what emotion worked its way up his spine.
"Yes, my lord?" Faramir asked.
"Ithilien works often with Cair Andros. Since you are come, acquaint these gentlemen with your opinion of the situation at the isle," Denethor replied, rising to beckon three more councilors into the chamber.
"As you wish, sir." Faramir stepped away from his brother, though not without darting a quick, grateful, but somewhat puzzled look at him ere he assumed the formal mask that his men knew well, for he wore it ever into battle. Boromir knew it too, but in his mind, that carefully neutral, intent look would be forever associated with these painful sessions with their father. And it was then that he realized that Denethor was watching him rather closely, and Boromir wondered whether the steward had caught the exchange between brothers.
"As this council is well aware, Cair Andros, along with the Ithilien company, patrol Anórien and guard the most direct route across the river. For many years, however, that post has been hard pressed to fulfill its duties. We have enough men to hold the fortress on the isle, but not enough to make it an effective outpost without the aid of another company--Ithilien, as fate has had it. During the battle for Osgiliath's bridge, however, the part of the north Ithilien guard that stood with me suffered losses close to sixty percent, and of those companies stationed initially east of the bridge, nearly ninety percent were killed, either in the retreat or when the bridge fell," Faramir stated grimly, pinning each man under a weighty gaze as his words sank in. It was painful to announce that fact, but Denethor's younger son was not accustomed to flinching before the truth, though if the grim, shocked faces were any indication, the steward had not yet spoken to his council of such losses. But when Faramir met his father's eyes, Denethor merely nodded slightly, tacit permission to continue. "Osgiliath's garrison stands now at half-strength, and until my scouts are redistributed to cover the gap in our northern flank, Cair Andros is vulnerable. And with it, so also is Rohan, for we often protect a common border."
"Clearly, gentlemen, we are faced with a hard choice," Denethor broke in smoothly, taking control of the meeting. "Cair Andros's utility is limited, but its strategic position is such that we may not abandon it. As the men of Ithilien and the isle work closely in tandem, it would be convenient to strengthen the latter with troops drawn from the former, but the nature of Ithilien's operations demand a higher degree of skill than most other postings. I dare not bolster the one by weakening the other, especially now."
"What of Osgiliath's men, then?" Boromir asked. Like his father, he was reluctant to abandon Gondor's ancient capital, for it was his command even were it not a matter of pride. But Gondor needs more than symbols. And with the fall of the bridge, it is the most concrete thing I can offer. "Without the bridge, Osgiliath has little importance. Use the remaining garrison to support Cair Andros!"
"I doubt not that it shall come to that, but that does not solve the fundamental problem, gentlemen. We run short of men, while the Dark Lord's armies increase daily. If the disparity in our manpower continues to grow, it shall not need even a long war for attrition to wear away our ability to resist effectively. The transfer of Osgiliath's men is but a delaying tactic. If open war comes not soon, then we shall have no choice but to sacrifice all with the knowledge that it buys nothing, perhaps not even time enough to move some of our population northwest."
"But there is naught that we can do to prevent that disparity from increasing," Húrin pointed out, frowning. "We cannot breed and train a generation in the time given us; we can barely make a start at it!"
Ere anyone could say aught in response, though, the door swung open again, and one of the Tower guard approached, shepherding a man in the blue, black and white of Cair Andros. The man was white-faced, exhausted and there was in his eyes a nervousness that Boromir did not like. What horrors has he seen? he asked himself, wondering if the horsemen of Osgiliath might have reappeared in Gondor. But even they would need more time than that to pass from Rohan to the isle, and surely we would not have overlooked their journey were that so! From Faramir's intent look, he guessed that his brother's thoughts ran along similar lines, as the company seemed to hold its breath, waiting for the messenger to speak.
"My lords and steward," the Tower guard gestured to the messenger, "here is one Tarvelon, bearing news from Cair Andros." And the man bowed, retreating from the room until he should be needed again. Tarvelon, credit to him, faced the assembled council of Gondor and did not flinch, though he seemed to sigh softly, as though wishing he need not speak his part.
"My lord steward," the messenger said in a low voice, and his eyes flicked quickly over the others. "Councilors. I bring ill news indeed. A strong company of orcs and what we believe is a new breed of troll crossed into Anórien the night of the twenty-seventh. There they found and engaged one of our outrider companies, to our bitter regret! We know not yet the true cost of that encounter, but only three men staggered back to the fortress the next morning. And though they believe some others were scattered and so escaped, the majority of that company is lost, and their horses with them." Murmurs and several dark looks were exchanged, for though Gondor did not rely upon horses as the Riddermark did, still, those that they had were a precious resource, and one of the few measures that made Cair Andros' understrength company worth maintaining. To lose an entire outrider company in one night was a sore blow, and Boromir rubbed at the stubble along his jaw and mouth to cover his frown.
"Does Rohan know?" Faramir's voice rose above the other whispered comments, and all eyes fixed on him once more. "A company that strong usually has more than Gondor as its objective: often, a large force will strike northwest to raid the herds of the Rohirrim, and Ithilien cannot intercept so strong a unit on its way back to the Morannon. Not now. Not without help, that is."
"Another messenger was sent west, my lord, but who knows whether he will arrive in time?" Or at all! Boromir thought, hearing the unspoken qualifier. Faramir glanced at him, and the older man offered a minute shrug, acknowledging their helplessness before this turn of events. One outrider unit. Osgiliath's survivors may fill places in the watch roster, but we have not the horses to put them where they are most needed. And Ithilien, too, needs bodies, and more than that, heads! Where shall we find them? The messenger remained some while longer, answering what questions arose, but it was plain to all present that Denethor had already struck the heart of the matter: they had not enough soldiers equipped to take the posts that were most in need and most needed.
When Tarvelon had been dismissed, Boromir asked, "Would Rohan agree to help us? They have horses aplenty, and riders trained in their use. Anórien is, as Faramir has said, a common border, commonly threatened, and there is much contact between our peoples there. It would be in their interest to work with us in this case."
"Éomer would do it," Faramir replied, glancing at Denethor swiftly ere he continued. "But I would hesitate to put it too bluntly. Already, he walks a dangerously thin line between the letter of the law and outright disobedience, and I would not wish to pressure him into an untenable position. I doubt not that if we give him his head, though, that he will come to us, as he has before." Yes, doubtless he shall, Boromir thought, unwilling to meet his father's eyes, recalling the steward's response to the latest overture from the Third Marshal. He rather expected Denethor to speak firmly with Faramir once the council was dismissed, for so far as Boromir knew, his brother had never openly mentioned such explicit cooperation between Rohan and Gondor. Given the steward's manifest unwillingness to try the precarious friendship that still existed between the two realms, the rebuke would likely become a scathing critique, and Boromir winced in anticipatory sympathy. And yet we ought to thank them both, for were it not for Faramir and Éomer's illicit cooperation, how many more losses might we have suffered? How many more would Rohan have suffered? How badly would Gondor have failed in its traditional obligations? But of late, that sort of battlefield honor had been a secondary consideration in the elaboration of policy, which troubled Boromir more than he liked to admit. Is it not ironic? he thought, considering his brother's willingness to take the initiative even in matters that touched upon treaties. Faramir seeks ever to earn his birthright, and he would serve Gondor as more than one captain among many if only Father would trust him with other responsibilities. And I, who am my father's heir, would gladly surrender a part of my duties to him if I could. But I cannot, and Father will not see the heart that Faramir has. Between them they tear me apart, quartering me on the ties of our love for each other!
The discussion went on and on, dragging itself over well-worn circles as everyone attempted to find some way out of the rut, only to stumble over the problem of skill and resources once again. But what else can we do? We approach the chasm, and there is no escaping the plunge, Boromir thought, aware of his brother's eyes upon him as the two of them listened silently. There was something about that solemn gaze that unsettled him. That burning regard reminded him too much of his nightmare, and in spite of all his caution, memory of that dream-embrace woke his longing once again. Remember how it ended! he berated himself, fearing that in his troubled frame of mind he might slip and accidentally reveal something of his hidden desire before his brother's piercing regard. Worse, Father might notice, and then where would I be? To which question, the answer came with immediate and unpleasant certainty: On my knees! As unobtrusively as possible, Boromir pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to ward off fatigue and frustration, but to no avail. And as he listened, and tried not to look at Faramir, the thought came suddenly to his mind: I must escape this place! I must get back to the field, if I can, else I fear I shall be trapped here indeed. But he had his duty, and that he could not abandon. So he bit his tongue, and bided his time, and hoped that when Osgiliath's men were restationed, that he would be sent with them rather than retained at his father's side.
And still, the discussion went on .
Faramir watched his brother carefully, and in spite of his exhaustion, he did not miss the subtle disaffection that his brother displayed. Something does eat at him, but what I know not. It was very unlike Boromir, and that worried him, for in a world of shifting grounds and fading stars, when all hopes seemed to spiral into darkness, he had always felt that he could rely upon his brother's unflagging character. But of late he, too, has seemed weary. And why not? We have both touched upon darkness, and glad am I that I did not need to give the order to collapse the bridge! Still . Boromir was gazing back at him now, and his grey eyes grew sharper, more inscrutable, and yet Faramir sensed the other's uneasiness grow. He watched as his brother pinched the bridge of his nose, then passed that hand over his eyes, as if seeking to wipe away some troubling thought. Mayhap it is only this situation. Hopelessness is a deadly disease, and we have been too long exposed to it. Boromir has perhaps seen the worst of it, for he is in Father's confidance and likely knows more of our peril than he could wish. Faramir would have done anything he could to help his brother and father, but the latter scorned him and the former was bound to silence over just those matters.
Or so I am told! Still, Denethor's younger son puzzled over his brother's impassioned plea the night before last, at once honest and yet hiding something. Hiding what? The more he thought about it, the less convinced he became that he had understood that excuse properly. There was something personal... in it--some private worry that Boromir refused to surrender to another. In fact, as Faramir heard again his brother's voice in his memory, those words felt as odd as the hand upon his back earlier that morning. Why can I not seem to find a way through to understand this? he wondered, and cursed his own molasses-minded fatigue that interfered with his reasoning. Denethor rapped his knuckles sharply on the table before them, and Faramir hastily drew his attention back to the matter at hand, berating himself once more for drifting so far when council was in session. But if the steward had noted his lapse, he gave no sign as he ended the debate, saying, "Rohan must know of our need, but we ought not to expect anything of them at this time. The pinch is not yet come, and short of it, I doubt they will mobilize, unless the Marshals do individually. But we may not deal openly with any of them. Faramir!" What now? Faramir felt his spine stiffen at his father's summons. "If Éomer sends to you, I would know it! And from now on, you will refer him to me, rather than dealing in secret. I do not need you to complicate matters!"
"As you wish, sir," Faramir replied, and bit his tongue against a longer reply. Send to you indeed! How does that help us? Éomer never sends to us unless it is a matter of immediate and mutual peril. If I wait for your approval, we may lose all. Steadily, Faramir, he rebuked himself, trying to rein in his temper. The steward has all of Gondor to think of, not one province! But though he understood the political motivation, he could not help but doubt the steward's judgment in this case. And of course, I dislike being humiliated in front of my father's council. But as always, there was naught that he could do to change Denethor's opinion of him, and he made himself accept the reprimand without visible resentment. I am only one captain, and though my rank as his son places me second only to Boromir, in truth I am still junior to many of the men on this council. Remember that, when your pride hurts! Father may despise you, but that does not make his judgment of your actions wrong. So he told himself, but believed it not at all in this case.
As the session ended, Faramir made his way out, brushing past his brother once more, who, at Denethor's request, was waiting for the room to clear so he could speak with their father. And as he passed, Boromir reached out and caught his shoulder, walking with him a little ways to the door as he murmured, in a voice pitched for his ears only, "You did rightly, whatever Father may say." Just that, and then he was gone again, turning back to Denethor. And though that helped to ease the sting of their father's rebuke, still, that touch did naught to help ravel the complicated knot of his brother's concerns. It had felt hesitant, almost as if Boromir were now reluctant to touch him, though he had done so readily earlier. There is some ambivalence there that I do not understand. Faramir sighed softly as he walked the halls alone, passing between little knots of men. Their lowered voices and taut shoulders told him that they discussed the latest bad news, and likely they knew as well as he did that Gondor was one step closer to destruction. As he passed, he felt their eyes on him, but even the out of favor son of a lord may not betray his insecurity. So Faramir left the tower with his head held high and refused to look back, but his heart was troubled. But not so much for Gondor at the moment as for his brother. Once we never thought to hide aught from each other, but in these past several days, Boromir has become elusive shadowy, almost. Why is that? Is it something I have done, in spite of his assurance otherwise? And as frustration, honed keen by exhaustion and disappointment, rose with the soaring summer temperatures, something snapped in him. I will know his secret, he decided. This has to end, because I cannot deal any longer with this doubt!
"How may I serve, Father?" Denethor looked up at his son's question, and gave a slight, humorless smile for the wary puzzlement in the other's voice. Clearly, Boromir anticipated more ill news, and was not eager to hear it.
"In many ways yet," he replied. "Whatever his faults, your brother is correct that we must address Rohan's needs, and if possible bind them closely to our own."
"They are already bound closely," Boromir protested. "Edoras simply will not see the truth!"
"Politics is not always truth, my son, it is often merely perception. We must make Théoden King, or the majority of his captains, perceive that their ties with Gondor are such that they may not stand by while we fight Mordor." Boromir's eyes flickered at that, for he liked not the implication of his father's disjunction.
"Think you that even Éomer and the other marshals would dare to keep Éorl's oath if the king breaks it, Father?" he asked, and carefully did not mention Faramir's own concurrent speculations on that matter.
"A much debated question," Denethor replied, prowling about the council table on which lay a map of Gondor and Rohan's borders. And perhaps because his brother was now much on his mind, Boromir, watching him, was struck by how very like Faramir he moved or rather, the reverse. Having a discerning eye where Faramir was concerned, Boromir had noted before how very alike his younger brother and father were. Physically, Faramir took after Denethor's lanky build, and his face had the same narrow, fine-boned structure. In fact, in everything except temperament, Faramir was his father's son, and today's parting shot had only demonstrated the extent of that vital difference. But even that animosity, he realized, came of a common source, and their temperaments differed as the opposite sides of the same coin differed.
And that troubles me, Boromir thought, recalling the flashes of bitter hurt and anger that his brother occasionally evinced, and more often of late than in all the years since he had left Minas Tirith. That troubles me deeply! For given that basic sameness, what might lurk in the depths of Faramir's soul? What would it require to make Faramir into our father? To leech him of his compassion and turn him into Denethor? And would I love him still were he to change so? It seemed horrible to hope that perhaps he would not; it seemed even worse to think that he might very well continue to love Faramir in any eventuality. But that a part of him actually wished that something would happen to transform his brother into a younger version of their father just so that he might not be troubled by his longings any more ? That was obscene. What is it in me that constantly seeks a way for life to maim him? he demanded of himself, disgusted. "I have given thought to it often of late," the steward continued, breaking his son's private reflections. "The Rohirrim are a proud people, but between their king and a wayward lord, I would not put much faith that the bulk of them will follow the lord. Not until it is too late. I cannot blame them for that, but Gondor's protection is my business, and it behooves me to encourage rebellion if it will aid us at the pinch." And seeing Boromir's frown, he snorted. "You do not approve, I see! I ought to have phrased it differently."
"Call it what you will, Father, but you speak of an assault upon the king's authority, do you not?"
"Say not an assault," Denethor countered. "Say rather that I seek to provide them with a more immediate reason to come to our aid. The Rohirrim are a close-knit folk, and slow to accept an outsider with no ties to them. And though Thengel married Morwen, she was not in the direct line of descent. But if another such marriage were to occur that linked Rohan firmly to us, then there would be many among the mighty of that land who would not accept that Gondor be left to its own defense, let Théoden say what he will against open war." And though such reasoning made perfect sense, Boromir felt a growing sense of dread anticipation rise in him. One that blossomed into full-blown fear as the steward pinned him under his gaze and continued, "Éowyn of Rohan is of an age for marriage, but the king has thus far refused her suitors, claiming them to be of unsuitable lineage. Yet I think he shall bow in the end to a proposal to bring our two realms closer together, and a steward's heir need not fear rejection for lack of a pedigree!"
Despite the heat of the mid-day sun, the practice grounds of Minas Tirith's soldiery were not empty. A solitary figure stood there, sword in hand, and moved with a steady grace and sureness through the drills and forms that any well-trained swordsman knew. But beneath that apparent focus, Boromir's emotions were in turmoil. Concentrate! he admonished himself, correcting for a slight flaw in his routine, feeling unaccountably irritated with that minor error. And then he was irritated with himself for such anger, knowing its source. I came here to forget Father's words! Drills such as these he could perform almost in his sleep, and no one but he would be the wiser for any mistakes of form. But today they did not help to focus his attention as they usually did. It was as if he had spent his focus already that morning, and having managed to accept his father's decision to arrange his marriage to Éowyn with at least outward equanimity, he no longer had it in him to contain his anger and his horror. Éowyn . He tried to remember her, to picture her in his mind, but nothing came to him, really. He supposed she looked like her brother, Éomer, but that did little to help him. Éomer he found attractive enough, but he could not seem to move from brother to sister, and he eventually gave up on the attempt. "She has attended on the king for many years now, since she was quite young. As such, she will certainly have listened to many a debate, and may even recall them. At the very least, she is devoted to her uncle's house and affairs, and that will reassure the Rohirrim," Denethor had said.
I care not for her qualifications, Boromir thought. Indeed, I care not for her! But it is as I said before, Father rules my future. How many other heirs have married for expediency, rather than for love of any sort? But others might at least learn to love their wives, the voice of doubt replied. Does that matter? he asked himself, trying to counter that nagging voice. Many doubtless did not learn to do so, and in the end, it is Gondor that I serve in all things. If this is what is needed, then so be it! Surely I did not think to remain forever a bachelor, given my station? Perhaps not in his head, but his heart seemed to have assumed so, flesh and blood being weaker than bodiless, abstracted logic.
"You have gone through the same set of drills for more than an hour now, Boromir, ever since you left Father's presence." The voice from behind him startled him so badly that Boromir whirled, automatically bringing up his sword in a sharp cut, as if to ward off an opponent. Faramir! His brother lounged against the doorframe of the armory, arms folded across his chest. The heat was such that he had his overtunic draped about his shoulders, and the plain white shirt beneath was open at the collar. Boromir wiped sweat from his brow and out of his eyes as he stared at him. Faramir was to all appearances quite nonchalant, but his tired eyes were serious as he gazed across the open yard, and when he spoke, his voice held a certain brittle edge that made Boromir's stomach knot to hear it. "An hour, and I think your form worsens. Clearly you gain no peace, brother. Why not try something else?"
"Have you been watching all that time?" At his brother's sharp nod, he asked rather sharply, "Why?"
"I have had much on my mind," Faramir replied, which caused Boromir to narrow his eyes as he regarded him. The younger man seemed almost to unfold from his position, tossing the discarded garment onto a low bench and taking up a practice sword that someone had left there. "But why do you ask questions whose answers you know well?"
"I know not whereof you speak," Boromir hedged.
"Do you not?" Faramir asked, raising the dulled weapon in a salute as he came to stand across from him. "You seemed composed enough this morning, until Denethor called you aside. Seemed, I say, for there is something that troubles you that has troubled you, and for long, I should say. What could Father have said that brings forth desperation so strongly?"
"What makes you think it is anything Father said?" Boromir demanded in automatic defense. That earned him a withering glare, and he flushed, realizing how stupid that must sound. It is always Father, is it not? Or Faramir himself! "It is nothing, Faramir. Believe me!"
"I would that I could," the other replied, settling into a high guard stance. "But I fear that your behavior counts against you, brother." A slight, sad smile that was nonetheless edged with a certain anger twisted his brother's mouth, as he said, "You were ever a poor liar!" A pause, then, and seeing that Boromir did not move, "Come now, drills have done naught to clear your mind, and why should they? You need a target that stands clearly before you. And so do I!" With that, Faramir struck, moving into a quick series of testing feints that Boromir countered easily. What has gotten into him? the older man wondered, and feared that he knew the answer. Still, it was not in him to surrender so easily.
"If you think to clear my mind with a challenge, then you shall have to try harder than that! I am in no mood for play, Faramir," he replied, and struck back, throwing himself into the fight. Faramir met him head on, which Boromir found rather unusual, for his brother's style tended to be more subtle, at least in the beginning. But then again, I would not have thought he would approach me thus, either! Valar help me, what does he know? What does he suspect? His brother caught his blade on his own, then pushed off of it into a quick spin that added momentum to the low swing that Boromir had to jump over. Faramir ducked beneath the follow-up, and ere he tucked into a roll, his left leg shot out. He caught Boromir's ankle, and the older man cursed as he stumbled and nearly did fall.
"Then let us not seek mere diversion here," Faramir panted as he came quickly to his feet. The two of them stood there, breathing hard, and the sun's light dazzled their eyes, but not enough to deter them. Faramir attacked again, putting together a long combination that Boromir managed to deflect, though his brother's sword once whistled so close to his head that he felt the blade rustle his hair. As Faramir brought his weapon down and across his body on the back stroke, Boromir angled his sword and caught the blade against the crossguard. Striving against each other, seeking that extra bit of purchase that would break the lock, they stared at each other over crossed blades, and Faramir asked, "Tell me, since you would be in earnest, what troubles you? Something lies between us, and I would know what it is!"
"Nothing lies between us," Boromir grated, lying through his teeth as he thrust hard, backing his brother down ere he followed through with a hard, overhand cut. Faramir side-stepped it, then had to parry quickly as Boromir shifted his grip and swung back to his left. Steel rang again, and Faramir turned on his toes, gracefully brushing the other's sword aside.
"Another clumsy lie, brother mine! I see the way that you look at me! And there is that in your touch that makes me doubt you!" Faramir's eyes flashed bright silver, and for a moment, Boromir's defense faltered badly. Indeed, he had no defense, for against the sick shock that ran through him, he could not seem to muster any resistance. Valar save me, he knows! He must! And what shall I say? What could I possibly say that would excuse me? Naught! Faramir, however, suffered from no such shock, and he took advantage of his brother's moment of immobility to cut hard to the inside and then come back at him with a short combination that almost drew blood. As it was, in his distraction, Boromir found himself staring down the length of his brother's sword, his own weapon out of position to one side. "What say you, Boromir?" Faramir asked. And seeing his brother's expression, he realized, with a terrible, sinking sensation, that there could be no avoiding the conversation that he had sought for so many years to avoid.
"What should I say?" he asked in a low, harsh voice.
"Whatever is true, I should hope! Since Osgiliath, you have not been yourself. And I did not blame you at first, for who among us who saw the horror of that shadow can say truly that he is himself today? But this has gone too long in silence and guilt, Boromir. Speak!"
"Find a way," Faramir replied evenly, without wavering or standing down. And if I refuse, Brother, will you end my misery and stab me with that sword? It may be blunted for practice, but in your hands it can still bite deep enough to kill. And perhaps that would not be so terrible a thing! If Denethor succeeded in his plans, he would need Faramir as never before, even though it was largely because of his brother that he could not stomach the idea of marriage. But if after this they could share naught but anger and disgust, then there was a part of him that wondered why all of it ought not to end now. He stared mutely at the Faramir, unable to speak, and something akin to despair stirred in him and then just as quickly it twisted, transmuting into a rare spite for all the long years of struggle and denial of his own nature--for the decades during which his brother had played the innocent tormentor, merciless in his guilelessness. And it was suddenly more than Boromir could bear! Faramir, for his part, perceived the shift in his brother's mood, and caught his breath. Uncertainty and a touch of bewilderment flickered in his eyes, and in that moment, Boromir struck. Faramir staggered back, hastily flinging up his guard again as his older brother attacked.
"You wish to know what troubles me?" Boromir demanded between ragged breaths as he pressed his advantage with all the fervor he normally reserved for the battlefield. For what is this if not a war? See what comes of a too-curious mind, brother! "You truly wish to know? Then listen well!" Faramir ducked under a strike and rolled to clear the range of a backhanded swipe ere he managed to regain his feet. He was retreating now, seeming at once startled by Boromir's ferocity, but also determined to see this through. "I have done all that Father has asked of me since I was old enough to decide such things. I have never disobeyed him, I have always bowed to his wishes, and I have tried to serve Gondor to the best of my ability, Faramir. Valar know that I have tried! I would give my life, but that I can sacrifice but once! And while I live, all that I am shall never be enough, for even were Sauron to cease in this very instant, Father would find still more for me to be and do. There are things that I do that I hate myself for having done! That I hate myself for accepting! But I cannot refuse them either--I cannot refuse our father's will!"
"And what--" Faramir's question was interrupted as the younger man parried and then dodged the back-thrust that followed "--what is Father's will now, Boromir, that it has touched you so close?" Faramir demanded, voice harsh with the strain of defending himself against the fury of his brother's onslaught. And as he asked, he glanced back, for he realized that he was running swiftly out of space to maneuver. Cutting hard to the left, he tried to turn them both, but his brother was too canny a swordsman. Not that Faramir was incompetent--he was a match for any man save perhaps his brother and possibly a younger Denethor--but his own weary, grieving frustration was little indeed to oppose the powerful emotion that fueled Boromir's strokes. With a curse, Boromir drove him back still further, 'til the wall of the armory was but a few feet distant.
"He would have me marry Éowyn of Rohan!" Boromir snarled, and as he caught Faramir's sword on his own, he thrust back with such force that his brother grunted in anguish as he hit the wall and all the air was driven out of his lungs. But Faramir, too, had seen too many battles, and he did not collapse. Fighting breathlessness and the tingling numbness that radiated out from his abused spinal column, the younger man stared at Boromir with darkened eyes, feeling his brother's body close as the two of them leaned hard against their locked weapons, seeking to hold each other in place. "Is that not enough?"
"Enough? Is what enough? Is this your ill news?" he managed, utterly confused by this unexpected turn. For of all the revelations that Boromir might have made, this seemed the most harmless. For a moment, his brother simply stared at him, as if he could not comprehend Faramir's question. Then a look akin to denial flashed across his face, and Boromir hung his head, lowering his sword as his shoulders shook with some odd emotion. Does he laugh or cry? Faramir wondered, half-collapsing against the wall now that he had no reason to stand straight, and he knew not what to hope. He had come here hoping to drive whatever it was that troubled his brother into the open, but it seemed he had walked into a mire. What have I stirred in him, and why?
Boromir, for his part, wanted to be sick, but amazement still held the upper hand over revulsion. He does not know! Or does he? I was so certain that he did, and now . Now, the world seemed to spin dizzily about him, and he fancied he could hear the mocking laughter of some evil demon. But he squeezed his eyes shut against such illusions, and willed the ground to steady itself. What is in his heart and mind now? Does he see it now? Boromir could feel the other's gaze upon him, and he feared to face it, knowing the power of those gorgeous eyes and the mind that lay behind them. But surely he knows surely ! And if he did, then what point was there in hiding? Valar help me, he is so close so very close I can almost feel him against me! Boromir bit his lip hard, amazed to discover that even now, when everything hung on the edge of a knife, that he could still want his brother so badly. And for all the times that he had hugged Faramir, or held him close, or tussled with him in their periodic fits of playfulness, it seemed that he had never felt his presence so strongly as now, when their bodies hovered on the edge of contact without ever touching. Perhaps it was the knowledge that he had crossed the line that lent to the eroticism of the moment: for although uncertainty tore at him, his decision was made at last.
Faramir frowned, watching as Boromir slowly raised his head once more and locked eyes with him. A very odd fire seemed to burn there as his brother cocked his head slightly, staring at Faramir as if to pierce through to his very soul. The younger man's brow furrowed as he struggled with the sensation that he looked the answer to all his questions in the face and yet could not--quite--fathom it. It was as the feeling of losing a word when one needed it, and one felt it skitter about one's mouth without ever being able to pronounce it. What what do I see? Boromir saw his puzzlement, his painful incomprehension, and some of the light died in his eyes, as a sound almost like a soft sob escaped him; and for a moment, Faramir's confusion was mirrored in his brother's face. Boromir lifted his left hand and ever so gently brushed a strand of sweat-soaked dark hair from Faramir's eyes. Then he paused a bare second ere he let that hand stray down the side of Faramir's face to cradle his cheek. His thumb trailed down over Faramir's lips, as if pressing them closed to contain a secret. The puzzlement in Faramir's eyes waxed greater, and he blinked as Boromir pressed his forehead against his brow and shook his head minutely, as if in exhausted disbelief.
"My poor Faramir, can you truly be such an innocent?" Boromir asked, the whispered question breathed out into the gap between their lips. And when Faramir said naught, only struggled with the glimmer of understanding that had begun to break its way through his muddled confusion, Boromir continued softly, "As always, so unwitting, and yet so very near the mark. Were it any other, I would not believe that he could aim so straight, and yet know not his quarry!"
"Boromir ?" Faramir could hardly speak, overwhelmed by the import of that confession. His brother felt so very close--he could feel the heat trapped between their bodies--and Boromir's breath gusted raggedly. The hand on his face dropped now to his shoulder, then to his chest, and he could feel his own heartbeat race against the pressure of the other's palm. Varda above me, what do I say? What do I do? I know he loves me I know that but I never thought ! For the first time in his life, he felt his brother's touch as alien, unwanted, and he shivered. Surely not! But when Boromir backed slightly, just enough so that they could look each other once more in the eyes, there was no denying the truth.
For his part, Boromir no longer wished to deny it, for having been brought to the point of admission by mutual misunderstanding, the only scrap of dignity he had left lay in his willingness to own that confession. But he could say nothing, only wait and watch the horror and incredulity work through his brother. And grieve, for Faramir shall never trust me again after this. I cannot even blame him, for the shame is mine! That was why, rather than let his brother walk away from him, Boromir withdrew a pace, tossing the practice sword at the other's feet. Faramir's eyes darted to the weapon, then back to his brother's face with wary confusion, and Boromir spread his hands slightly and bowed, a warrior accepting his defeat. It was his shame, his own displaced, misdirected, helpless--hopeless!--desire that had led them to this point, and an odd sort of pride woke from the ashes of Boromir's self-esteem. A moment longer he gazed at his brother, committing to memory the scene. Then he turned on his heel and walked quickly away, and tried to pretend that his heart did not break.
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