24. Night Watch
Boromir sat on the stone bench under the East Wall of the Seventh Circle, near the point where the fortress jutted outward like the proud prow of a great ship of Númenor of old. His uncle stood nearby, leaning on the parapet and gazing outward into the night. The outlands' commanders had given their reports and retired. The Steward, the Prince and the Captain-General had lingered in the council chamber, where Imrahil, as nearest kin to the line of the Stewards, had been privately informed of the full outcome of Boromir's long journey. Uncle and Nephew then excused themselves, eager to continue the conversation they had begun when Boromir met the Prince of Dol Amroth as he approached the City Gate.
"Any direct word from Fari yet?" Imrahil said quietly.
"Nothing—not even yesterday, when I inspected Osgiliath. But he would not send a messenger—not now, when there are no men to spare for such polite niceties. Father says he will come tomorrow." Boromir smiled grimly. "And I have learned one thing in my life: if the Steward Denethor says something is about to happen, it will. I have never known his foresight to be wrong."
The Prince glanced at his nephew with a sharp frown, but Boromir was looking away, toward the White Tree glimmering faintly in the darkness. He could not have been more wrong about what lay right in front of his face, when my sister was dying and he could not accept the truth of it… Imrahil watched the Captain-General, and to his surprise, the usually stoic face of his elder nephew had softened with sadness.
"What are you thinking, Bori?"
Boromir's eyes dropped. "I was thinking that I never thought to live to see…" His voice fell to a whisper. "…to see the end of the line of Ruling Stewards." He looked up, and the grief written on his face was edged with longing. "One way or another, it has come to it: either Gondor will fall, and even the memory of the Faithful Stewards shall fade into darkness, or… or we shall become unnecessary." A faint smile returned. "I think you'll like him, when he comes here, Imrahil. He reminds me of you, if you'd like to know… And of what Father was like, long ago, before... before he closed himself off."
The Prince's jaw clenched as he looked sternly at Boromir. "It matters not that I—or any of us--like this man. What matters is that he is, in truth, what he claims to be. What matters is what sort of man he is: can he lead, and is he deserving of respect and honor?"
"He is a leader. He inspires courage in the hearts of men…and those of other races, as well…"
"Yet it was, in truth, Mithrandir who lead your company."
Boromir frowned. "It seemed to me, rather, that the two of them led jointly. There were times when Aragorn dared to disagree with Mithrandir…" He smiled wryly. "…though the wizard usually won."
Imrahil smiled faintly at his own memories of the strong-willed Grey Wanderer, who had been a rare but memorable visitor to Dol Amroth, most recently just a few years ago. "I can believe that," he muttered.
"You shall respect him, Uncle," Boromir said emphatically. "I certainly learned to give him that, and much more. The blood of royal Númenor truly flows in his veins."
"Yet such blood is not sufficient for kingship. Many can claim such lineage. The Stewards of the House of Húrin are one such line, as are the Swans. Denethor certainly has the sight…" Although, the Prince said to himself, there has always been something that felt strange to me about Denethor's foreknowledge, so very different from my dear Finduilas' farsightedness…always so peculiarly detailed, and so much darker... He studied Boromir. "This Northerner seems to have the healing touch..."
"He saved my life, plain and simple."
"Elrond Peredhil himself trained the man, you say?"
"And raised him as his foster-son, in Imladris."
Imrahil shook his head in wonder. "You have seen such marvels on your travels, Boromir: characters from the Elder Days, leaping from the pages of ancient books. I envy you."
"I hope you'll have the chance to meet a few of those characters yourself, Uncle." Boromir's face shifted and grew hard. "I wish the Steward felt as you do."
Imrahil looked toward the Citadel, where a light burned in a high window. "Your father has many burdens, Boromir. He is still the Ruling Steward, and Gondor's immediate perils weigh heavy upon his shoulders. The news you bring might seem to you to carry nothing but hope, but Denethor has lived through other times that threatened to divide Gondor from within. And our history is all too full of examples of the false claims of upstarts and usurpers—and even of true-blooded claimants who nevertheless wrought strife and conflict. Do not judge him, not on the brink of this onslaught that he has, by his own strength of will, managed to successfully hold at bay--until now." The Prince paused. "You were wise, to withhold the news of the coming of this man who claims to be Isildur's Heir from any but the Steward and myself. It is not yet time."
Boromir took in and released a long breath. "I do not like it, but I agree with you. Aragorn had some perilous errand of his own—what, he would not say and I cannot guess, but he was intent on carrying it out. It seemed clear that his road to Minas Tirith was fraught with risk. Whatever hope such an announcement might bring would serve only to magnify the despair, were things to go awry..." He sniffed. "My father says it is the one shred of evidence that I have not lost my senses entirely."
Imrahil's brows rose. "You may well have lost your heart, Nephew, and given over your allegiance to this one who would be King, but I do not believe you have lost your senses. And before you declare that the days of the Faithful Stewards are come to an end, think on this: if this man is all that you say, he is not likely to regard the wise council and loyalty of the House of Húrin as unnecessary."
* * *
Denethor gazed out into the darkness from his private study. The room was small and spare, with tall narrow windows and a small brazier set in the center for warmth. Along the west wall, next to a floor-to-ceiling bookcase, a plain wooden table was placed, with a heavy armchair beside it. Lamplight fell on a sheaf of papers he had left spilled open, his pen lying where he had tossed it, a drop of black ink threatening to spoil the parchment. An untouched goblet of wine stood nearby.
He looked East: where his younger son prowled the deadly forests of Ithilien; where Orcs and troops of mercenaries from Rhûn and Khând and Harad gathered; where his Enemy waited for the ideal moment to unleash the long-prepared final blow. As shimmers in a dark glass, Denethor had seen the armies, had counted their huge numbers marching on the roads his ancestors had built, and had beheld the reserve forces that were encamped beyond the Mountains of Shadow. He had weighed his own paltry defenses against those awesome hosts, and had fought back the bile that threatened to rise in his throat again and again.
This evening had brought the last of the outlying troops to Minas Tirith. Even with these reinforcements, and counting only those foes west of the mountains of the Nameless Land, they were overmatched by twenty-fold—perhaps more. He had told no one of this, not his eldest son and Captain-General, not Imrahil, not Húrin of the Keys. There was no point in telling anyone of the massacre he knew awaited them. His only, bitter comfort was that his beloved wife had not lived to see what was coming, that he would not be forced to slay her so that she would not suffer the sack and rape of the White City.
He would not panic. He would carry out his duty, and when the time came he would bear what seemed his unavoidable fate without wavering. For months, his Enemy had gloated from within the depths of the Stone, promising that his servants would take especial care to bring him alive before the seat of Barad-dûr. The Dark Lord vowed that the Last Steward of Gondor would be entertained as a guest of the Black Tower, for as long as his most skilled servants' arts could prolong it. And when his life was near its end, the Nazgûl would be commanded to make him one of them. He would not die. He would become a wraith, enslaved for as long as the Dark Lord Himself endured; so Sauron had whispered in Denethor's ear, over and over, night after night.
Denethor turned from the darkness beyond the window and gazed at the tall bookcase. The lamp guttered in the wind and shadows wavered over the spines of his personal collection of books: histories of Gondor, Arnor and Númenor; treatises on the rule of law; strategies of war; and here and there a few treasured volumes of poetry. He walked toward it and brushed his fingertips over the well-worn bindings of Lays of Beleriand. Finduilas had given it to him, and he had read it aloud to her as she slipped into her final sleep, his eyes on the page and not on her face as she took her last breath. He had not opened it since.
Leaning forward, he placed his hand on the third shelf from the top, and pressed inward. He felt rather than heard a dull thud as the heavy wooden latch was released. He reached around the case and pulled, and the entire bookcase pivoted silently forward. Behind it stood a door. Denethor withdrew a black key from his pocket and unlocked it. Beyond, a narrow stair led upward.
When he was barely twenty, his grandfather Turgon had revealed the stairway and hidden upper chamber on one of the last days that the old man still had the strength for such a climb. Ecthelion knew of the secret doorway, but Turgon judged the worthiness of his heir, and realized it was up to him to prepare his grandson. He had pressed the key into his grandson's trembling hand. Denethor never forgot what his beloved grandsire said. I will be remembered as the Steward on whose watch the Enemy of Old returned, but my sight tells me that the Doom of Gondor shall fall during the rule of Denethor the Second.
That key had passed from Steward to Steward from the time of Mardil; no one had dared use the Palantír since Eärnur was lost. But Denethor had taken his grandfather's prophesy to heart. Gondor's doom was approaching, and it was his responsibility to protect her from it, whatever the cost to himself. He had been peering into the Stone of Minas Anor since before he was Steward, for Ecthelion did not relinquish the White Rod and the Black Chair for another three decades after his own father died. The strain of wielding the Stone had aged him prematurely, and the ever-worsening reality that he saw in the Palantír's depths had shattered any hope he once held that the Doom of which Turgon spoke was anything other than utter destruction. So, it falls to me to stave off that Doom for as long as my strength holds, and to bear the final consequences…
Then Boromir returned with his startling news. Denethor's long-smoldering, bitter resentment at the burden he had borne in silence burst forth. His son's explanation of the words of the verse and Boromir's incomprehensible refusal to claim the only weapon that might yet save his country and his people had infuriated him more than a lifetime of Faramir's sullen insolence. I gave my youth and my life to save Gondor, and you have squandered her only chance! he seethed to himself. His son seemed to expect his wrath, and had met his father's eyes with cold fury in return. What changed you, my Boromir? You are a stranger to me! Denethor drew what seemed the most logical conclusion: that so many months of travel with the Grey Pilgrim had tainted his eldest son, just as the influence of the wizard upon Faramir had turned him against his lord and father.
Yet, he could not deny the shudder he had felt when Boromir told of the Fellowship's flight from the dreadful Mines of Moria. How close his eldest son had come to death! However much Mithrandir had swayed him, the Steward found that he still loved his son dearly, and would grieve his loss greatly. And that same meddling, prideful wizard who had stolen his sons' hearts had done what Denethor would have thought impossible… and not simply because of the strength required. Why would he do such a thing? It could not have been merely from compassion, or for friendship. That seemed as improbable as the deed itself. The old schemer expects something of great value in return. And the Steward was determined to refuse payment, if asked, whatever the price.
Ah, yes, I have it… the Steward's throat had gone dry when he heard Boromir's description of the Ranger of the North. It could be no one else. Thorongil. And Mithrandir, he recalled, had been a great friend of the Northern Captain. Denethor had suspected all those years ago, and he was certain now. His eldest son had ransomed his fealty for the healer's touch—curse it!--that marked the spawn of Elendil over the centuries. So! The Grey Pilgrim thinks to demand my alliegance to his favorite pupil, in payment for my son's life! Think again, wizard! He cursed under his breath. The Steward of Gondor had washed his hands of one son; he could do so again. For he would rather see his City burn and live a thousand years as Sauron's slave-wraith than recognize that one as his liege-lord.
He lit a small lantern and climbed slowly up the steep, spiral stairs that led to the upper chamber. The room was small and round, and had only slits for ventilation, hung with heavy black drapes. In the center sat a pedestal, covered with a circle of black silk. The middle of the silk bulged upward.
Denethor placed the lantern on the pedestal and reached for the cloth. He hesitated. Which direction should he gaze tonight? Should he search for the hapless Perian that Boromir had sent off with no one but that old meddler to prevent the Dark Lord from regaining his priceless weapon? Should he find his younger son, and train his mind on his? Faramir mght well intersect the Halfling's path. Could his younger, weaker son yet be steered to serve his Lord and his realm, and not his own private fantasies of ancient honor? Or should he seek for Isildur's Heir, and confirm what he knew in his heart was true?
His hand slowly dropped. One thing he could never be, and that was disloyal to his duty. Whatever he saw in the Stone of the Tower of Anor of old, he knew from long and painful experience that the Dark Lord was soon likely to discover in the stolen Stone of the Tower of Isil; for the Palantíri had once been closely linked.
If he sought the Perian, Sauron's eye might well be drawn to him, and his curiosity roused. That would turn a mad, hopeless plan into utter disaster. If he focused upon Faramir, his son could all too easily become even more of a target for the many foes between him and safety than he already was. Denethor's love for his younger son was hidden behind a shield as harsh as hardened hide—but that love had not died. He would not purposefully endanger his own child. And if he searched for Thorongil—for Aragorn son of Arathorn, as Boromir had named him--the Eye would see him too. And although Denethor the man would rather die—or worse—than see the King come again in the form of that particular man, the one who had usurped his own father's affection, and perhaps worse, the affection of the soldiers under his command, Denethor the Steward could never to do anything that might harm his country.
He had no desire to gaze again upon the might of Mordor amassing across Anduin. The range of the Anor-Stone did not reach to Rohan, where, he fretted, Théoden should by now have received word of the lighting of the beacons, if he did not yet already hold the Red Arrow in his aged hand. Would the King of the Mark honor the old treaties, or would the war that Denethor's spies had informed him marched on Rohan prevent the Horselord's muster in time--or at all? The Stone could answer none of these questions that twisted in the Steward's gut. There was no point in looking, not tonight, not ever again. Greater knowledge would do nothing to thwart the fell doom that awaited him and his people.
And yet... And yet, the Palantír called to him. The whispering voice was already there, behind his eyes, describing his fate, gloating over the flaming wreckage that would soon be all that remained of his beautiful City. His head throbbed as he rubbed the heels of his hands into his temples, trying to crush away the pain.
He reached down. He pulled the black silk aside. He gazed into the depths of the Stone. The images whirled in fire and smoke, and came into focus. Denethor felt a shudder of dread. He was there, smiling cruelly, laughing—and try as he might, the Steward could not look away.
* * *
Faramir paced along the walkway inside the walls of the fort of Cair Andros, listening to the murmur of Anduin flowing in the night. He needed sleep—desperately, if he were truthful. The Southrons had been routed, though too many had escaped northward, deep into lands thick with enemies and beyond where he would allow his men to pursue them.
At least we deprived them of most of their monsters—the mûmakil. He'd seen the massive beasts put to terrifying use in other battles. No horse would go near them, and they could kill men in more ways than the Captain of Ithilien cared to enumerate. The carcasses would stink for months, but no matter. Let their great bones enrich the soils of Gondor. The creatures' huge curving tusks were of a lustrous white material, easily carved yet hard as stone—and coveted by artisans and jewelers of every land. He sniffed. A fortune in Haradric ivory lies beneath the trees of Ithilien… if any are brave, or foolish enough to seek for it.
He frowned and rubbed his fingertips over his brow, as if to push away his errant, aimless thoughts. His mind had been circling like that for days, dwelling on trivial details, twisting and turning back on itself. Place an Orc in front of him and his focus was unwavering. But weeks—nay, months—of fitful sleep and, perhaps more importantly, simple loneliness had taken its toll on the Captain of Ithilien. Faramir was more reserved, and only Bori had been able to coax his brother to confide in him when his heart was troubled.
But Boromir had left on his journey eight months ago, and there was no one else to whom the Steward's younger son could turn. The months wore on with no word of Boromir's whereabouts, and the Enemy grew increasingly bold. For every day he spent in his rooms at the Citadel of Minas Tirith, Captain Faramir spent ten in the field, chasing foes. The younger brother's heart grew troubled, indeed. Faramir tried to do everything, to be everything that his brother had, in addition to his own duties. Left alone to pull the weight of two men, he also bore Denethor's piercing scrutiny—and suffered his cold contempt.
Bori could soften him, a little… well, at times he could… Faramir's second lieutenant nearly had to restrain his Captain from crossing to the western bank and continuing on to Minas Tirith in darkness.
"Captain, be reasonable." Mablung was twenty years Faramir's senior. "You are exhausted. If Lord Boromir is there tonight, he will still be there tomorrow. We can cross as early as you like, and ride as fast as you please… but tonight, you must get some sleep."
Sleep. How sweet that would be—a night of restful sleep. But sweeter still would be the chance to see, to embrace, to just talk to his brother. I have so much to tell you, Bori, and you undoubtedly have a fortnight's worth of tales to recount… His circuit of the walls had brought him to the eastern side. He had left the majority of his men on the east shore, commanding them to slip southwards and strengthen the garrison at Osgiliath. Anborn would lead them. They should be camped somewhere in secret by now, halfway to the great Road that led from the ruins of the ancient city and up into the Nameless Pass.
The Captain paused, peering into the shadows that obscured the dark peaks of the Ephel Dûath. Where are you, Mithrandir? Where are you going, and why? Who are these Halflings, and what grave task must they do? The wizard had said that Boromir would explain all. By the tone of warm affection in Mithrandir's voice, the Captain guessed that somehow the chilly dislike between his brother and the wizard had finally thawed. Faramir could hardly wait to hear the explanation for such compelling riddles.
He shivered. A part of him knew the answer to at least one of his questions. The three mysterious travelers, he had already surmised, intended to enter the Black Land. They go to Mordor. What could be of such import to take them there, of all places? And by the look in their eyes—at least, in Mithrandir's eyes, and in the Halfling's named Baggins—they have no hope of return…
The fort of Cair Andros was not large. In ten minutes, Faramir had paced a third of the way around its circuit. He now faced south and west, toward Minas Tirith. Home. Boromir would be waiting for him, if his luck had held. And Father… Faramir drew in a deep breath and released it with a sigh. The Steward Denethor had a will of steel—but so did his sons.
The Captain of Ithilien turned from the wall and found the stairway. Mablung saluted as Faramir retired to his small chamber. His last thought before sleep took him was …Beware, Father… for the first time in far too long, we shall face you together...