Steward's Sons, The
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How Many Years?: 1. How Many Years?
It was well I remembered the path clearly, or I could not have travelled it a second time. Mindolluin is treacherous: nature and man forged paths leading everywhere and nowhere; Húrin's sons did not tread them often enough to make the right road clearer than the wrong.
I held my torch out before me, searching the ground for some time, while my other arm lay comfortably over the Horn of Gondor that hung around my neck. I had worn it every day since that first walk. I realised, as I sought the path on which I would lead my own son, that I would miss its comfortable presence.
"Boromir," I called, turning back to face him where he lagged behind. He abandoned a furtive look down the mountain toward the pencil-thin towers of Minas Tirith far below. The seven circles would soon be ringing with song as the people celebrated his twentieth birthday, for they would not waste the opportunity that came only once every generation to mark the coming of age of the steward's heir. "They will still celebrate when you return," I assured him, "and they will sing all the louder for your arrival. But now you are needed here."
"The boy tries hard," Imrahil said.
I stopped mid-step. "Trying hard will not help him find the path when he must lead his own son this way," I said, trying to keep the irritation out of my voice. I heard Imrahil sigh and turned to face him, his torchlight dancing on my face. "Perhaps effort suffices in Dol Amroth, but in the White City it does not. The Shadow does not shrink back because we try hard, but because we remind it that Gondor is still strong."
Imrahil looked like he wanted to say more, but he restrained himself and continued silently up the hill past me. You flatter yourself, Denethor. The thought sprang unbidden to my mind. The Dark Lord? Fear you? And what chance is there that Gondor will survive long enough for Boromir to lead his son this way? The Stone had revealed to me the armies festering behind the Ephel Dúath, and I shivered to think of them. All hope seemed folly, but Gondor would persevere beyond hope, until the king returned.
That cold laughter filled my head then, as unyielding and uncaring as it always was when I dared the Stone. Yet neither troubling words nor troubling thoughts should mar such a day as today. I banished them back to the far recesses of my mind and tried to think about happier times.
I walked back to Boromir's side, holding my torch out in one hand to light the way and laying my other arm across his shoulders. The horn lay between us, pressed into my side. "Do you see that oak, my boy?" I pointed out a tree we had passed a few yards back. Its trunk was split into two halves, each twisting around the other until they merged into one some way above the ground. "That tree stood there when your grandfather Ecthelion led me along this path when I was your age, and he said it stood when he was a boy as well. Look for it, when you bring your own son this way, so you will know you are not lost."
Boromir nodded, breathing in the crisp early morning air. A bird swooped past and he turned his head towards me to follow its flight. Its song broke the pre-dawn silence, and Boromir's eyes danced as he watched it. Those are not the eyes of a soldier, I thought, surprised by this unusual display of mirth. Yes, a boy you are yet, for a few hours at least.
"Denethor!" Imrahil called from ahead. "I found the clearing!"
At that, Boromir shrugged off my arm and sprinted ahead, and I hurried after him. Aye, still a boy.
We made our way through the last of the woods until finally we broke through the trees and found the clearing. Imrahil stood reverently before the raised mound. Above us, Elbereth's stars fought the night's last fight with Anor, before they surrendered the heavens for another day. They always lost, yet they fought on each morning. Eärendil's ship had passed from these mortal lands some minutes before, bearing his precious jewel far away. With the silmaril gone, Boromir -- my own faithful jewel, more precious to me than any work of craft -- now had no rival.
Boromir and I gravely took our places beside Imrahil at the row of white stones that circled the mound at the centre of the hollow. We stood in silence, captivated by the simple image of a white ship and an eagle flying high above laid out in white pebbles on the grassy slope. Is that…?" I heard Boromir ask, and Imrahil answered him.
What words he spoke, I could not say. They faded away, my son and my wife's brother, and I stood in Boromir's place, looking into my own father's eyes, asking him the same question.
"Nine ships there were," Ecthelion had said to me, his hand resting around my waist, "and they fled before the black gale of Númenor, out of that twilight of doom into darkness blacker than the night. And the deeps rose beneath them in towering anger. Waves like unto mountains moving with great caps of tortured snow bore them up beyond the fell clouds, and after many days they were cast down upon our forgotten shores."
I looked across at him, and his eyes were clouded over, searching out the furthest West. Was Elendil's cloud, that cursed cloud he had sailed through from Númenor to Middle-earth, like the one that now shrouded my father's eyes?"
"Four they gave us for Elendil," I replied uncertainly, "and for Isildur three, and for Anárion two. What more mercy should we ask of them?"
Ecthelion smiled at that. "Aye, you are right, son. Such wisdom!" He ruffled my hair. "You must forgive an old man. Sometimes we forget that the greatest trial often holds an even greater gift."
"Father?" Boromir laid his hand on my shoulder, pulling me back from my memories. I saw the same question in his eyes.
"Here Elendil lies." I knelt down and opened my pack, pulling out two flowers carved from the wood of one of Nimloth's heirs. "The Valar keep his grave well." I laid one flower on the mound, adding it to my father's tribute, and that of my grandfather Turgon's before him. Standing up, I handed the other flower to Boromir and walked to the edge of the clearing. The ground fell away there, and I watched the sun's first light shine down on the glory that was Gondor.
Some time later I heard Boromir's footsteps behind me. "How many years?" he asked quietly. "How many years to make a steward a king?"
Now it was my turn to sigh. "You asked me that question before," I replied.
"I now ask it again," he insisted.
"And I answer you the same way," I said, trying to keep my voice calm. "In Gondor, ten thousand years would not suffice."
"And yet here we stand beside Elendil's grave. Ondoher is dead, and Eärnur rode into Minas Morgul near a thousand years ago! This king who shall return, where will he hail from? Perhaps he waits in Númenor and will one day spring out of the sea?" My head snapped around, my eyes begging Boromir to watch his words in front of his uncle. "It is as likely as anywhere else, father," he finished. "Gondor has no king to return."
I let my gaze drift far to the North, beyond where I knew the Argonath stood, beyond the horizon to Arnor, the land of the heirs of Arvedui, last king, home of the heirs of Isildur. Yet they had no claim in Gondor; that had been decided long years ago. Who else was there, then? Usurpers like Thorongil? How then could I tell Boromir that grown men should not ask such boyish questions?
He walked around to face me. "How many years, father?"
"The question is wise," I admitted softly, "but to ask it is foolish. You will be steward after me, and your son after you, until the king returns. And if he never returns, then you and I and our heirs will be stewards until death breaks our line or the world ends. And no one -- not I, nor your people, nor the Valar themselves -- will hold you in any less honour because the minstrels sang of Boromir the valiant Steward of Gondor."
Boromir nodded slowly, the words seeping in. And it was not Boromir son of Denethor who stood before me: for an instant, I saw Eärnur, high king of Gondor. The Shadow might return, but the Valar had sent me a mighty gift with which to fight it. I could not have asked for a more powerful weapon in this, the very hour of Sauron's return, the darkest hour the Faithful had endured this age. The boy was gone, for the moment at least, replaced by a man well suited to what honour would demand of him.
Imrahil approached and handed me a jewel-studded goblet. Boromir knelt without being told, pulled the scabbard and sword from his belt and passed them to his uncle. Imrahil grasped the hilt and held the sword out for me to inspect. I allowed my eyes to rest on the blade for a moment; custom demanded it, though I already knew its worth. Boromir had wielded it for four years already, since the day he joined the guard at sixteen, and it would serve him for many years to come. Today, we would put it to a new use.
I placed the goblet in Boromir's waiting hands, then took his sword and rested the flat of the blade on his shoulder. "In the name of Elendil, and Mardil, and all the Faithful, I name you, Boromir son of Denethor of the line of Húrin, my rightful heir. May your sword keep you and all Gondor safe, may your heart never falter, and may your legacy be a joy when the years have passed you by."
Boromir raised his head at that and met my eyes with a sincere look of his own. "Fealty and service to Gondor, and to her Lord, I now do affirm: to speak and to be silent, to do and to let be, in need or plenty, in my lord's dying and after his dying, from this hour henceforth, until death take me, or the world end. May my feet never falter, my hands ever find righteous work, and my heart stay true to what it holds dear this day. So say I, Boromir son of Denethor, Steward of Gondor."
I lifted the blade and returned it to Imrahil. Laying my hand at the base of the goblet, I raised it to my son's lips. As he drained it I heard Imrahil say behind us, "And so do I, Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth and kinsman of the Steward, hear and testify as long as I have breath to do so."
"And so do I also hear," I said at last, resolving not to let the tears welling in my eyes escape down my cheeks. "Though life may be bitter as this wine, may you drain it to the dregs as thoroughly as you have done here today." I took the horn that hung from my own neck and raised it to my lips, sounding it more fiercely than I had ever done before.
The birds in the trees around the edge of the clearing flew from the branches, and a great rush of wings accompanied my last call. Boromir bowed his head, and I settled the baldric around his neck. "Bear this horn to good fortune, my son. Sound it at need and a thousand orcs shall not keep your brothers in arms from your side."
Imrahil took the goblet from Boromir and I placed my hands on his shoulders and drew him up: Boromir or Eärnur or some new mix of the two, son of kings and son of stewards both. He bowed his head and I kissed his brow, contemplating his suddenly mature features. As I stepped back, he lifted his head and smiled at me, before we turned away to the path leading down Mindolluin toward Minas Tirith.
Whatever tomorrow brought, I would not return; whatever counsel I might need I would find elsewhere. 'Twould be sacrilege to spoil a haven such as this with anything so worldly.
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