36. Sons of The House of Hurin
Sons of The House of Húrin
The Steward of Gondor had finally escaped: from his inquisitive brother-in-law Imharil and his equally nosy nephew Elphir, from gossipy old Goslagil, Fat Forlong, Fair Hirluin, and the rest of the outland Lords, from Húrin of the Keys and his ever-watchful gaze, from the Citadel guards who would not allow him more than ten feet of distance from them, and most of all, from the man every one in Minas Tirith but he apparently believed was perfect—his insufferable elder son, Boromir.
Denethor shut the door to the council chamber behind him. He'd insisted that they leave him alone… At least for a while, even a quarter of an hour! He needed a moment of peace and quiet. He was desperate for a bit of space, to breathe deeply and think, and his private study was too dark and close.
And there, I might be tempted to ascend the stairway again… I have neither the strength nor the steadiness to do so, not now…
It had taken a significant part of the Steward's formidable will to simply cross the threshold of the door to Houses of Healing. He had not visited them, save only when he had no alternative, since Finduilas died; and he certainly had not gone so deeply into those all too familiar inner hallways, nor remained there so long. The lengthy stay at the Houses today had scraped him raw. His nerves, already stretched by the screeching voices of the Nazgûl, had very nearly snapped. The old, never truly healed wounds of grief had been ripped open by that young mother's—nay, that girl's--tear-filled grey eyes, so reminiscent of another mother he had knelt beside, so young, so lovely, so vulnerable. All I wanted to do was to protect her from harm, as I could not protect my own wife… The scent of the infant's skin had brought him close to tears of his own, closer than he had been in decades. He had not held an infant in his arms since… since Faramir…
But he was expert at concealing anything that might be construed as weakness. No one could know the turmoil within him. He was the Steward. He was Denethor the Second, on whose watch the Doom of Gondor would fall. So his grandfather Turgon had told him, long ago—and so he believed, without a doubt. He could not show fear, or grief, or soft-heartedness—he would not. No matter what befell him.
Denethor crossed to the windows that overlooked the Seventh Circle and gazed out. The murky air seemed even thicker here. He caught the gritty scent of ash. Orodruin must be belching smoke, churning the Enemy's Darkness into the sky to weigh down their spirits from above them even as the hordes of Mordor marched toward their walls.
The Courtyard was full of activity. Men marched to and fro, officers shouted and pointed, messengers sprinted. Was there an order to the mayhem below? He couldn't say; he felt that he no longer knew enough of the workings of the Citadel to be certain what was happening outside his own door.
The Steward was nothing if not ruthlessly honest, and he had to admit to a deep sense of shame. Their tour of the Circles had demonstrated that he had fallen far short in orchestrating their defence. Boromir had returned home in the nick of time for Minas Tirith. The Captain-General's infectious energy and fresh ideas had swept the City; the defenders spirits had never been higher. A part of him felt relief, that he could with good conscience release his tight grip on every detail, safe in the knowledge that their defence was in good hands—better hands. Another part of him was gnawed with guilt that he had failed his people so miserably.
Yet another inner voice—an insinuating voice that had whispered within him since he first stumbled upon the Anor-Stone's counterpart to the East—spoke of contempt for those, like his elder son, who still bothered to hope. That voice reminded him of the cold facts: the massive forces that had been unleashed against them were too many, too strong. There was no hope, save for a quick death, and it was an utter waste to pretend otherwise.
And yet... And yet he, Denethor, had spoken words of hope to Aerin, the young mother at the Houses. The name she had bestowed upon the infant boy—Estelion—had surprised and moved him. He found himself making fervent promises to the girl, smiling gently upon her, bolstering her faltering spirit… And he had meant every word. He had felt hopeful in that moment, in the last place he wanted to be in all of Minas Tirith, in the last place he expected to feel anything other than anguish.
Whence had that hope come? He looked out the window again, hardly aware of what he saw. A tall, broad-shouldered figure wearing a strange grey cloak caught his eye. Boromir… His eldest son was rushing forth from the Circle, heading for the stables and the Sixth Gate. As he sped by he seemed filled with a pale light. His handsome face was smiling eagerly, though the Undead creatures still shrieked from above. Every man he passed looked up; each face reflected that light and took it within him. The glow seemed to spread outward from Boromir as ripples in a pond.
Denethor felt his throat tighten. This unfamiliar feeling—it was yearning. He longed to be one of those men whose optimism had just been rekindled by the mere presence of his son. He ached to believe that hope had not already died, that the Doom of Gondor of which his grandfather had spoken could possibly be another sort of doom—her destiny, not her destruction.
He closed his eyes and leaned his head against the stone frame of the window. Boromir had forced it out of him. He truly had not ever seen the end of Gondor in the fiery depths of that dark and dangerous glass. He had, instead, allowed cold reason to rule him: the reason of sheer numbers. The numbers were irrefutable. Gondor would be overrun. It was only logical.
But reason and logic did not always predict outcomes. He himself was a case in point. Logic would never conclude that the loveliest, most vivacious, intelligent, sweet-natured—indeed, the best woman of the entire realm would fall in love with him. But Finduilas of Dol Amroth had done so. She had cracked open the hard carapace that had formed around him. Though her untimely death had smashed his unprotected heart, he had, for a while, been different. She had helped him become a better man than he could ever have been without her.
And today, for a moment, that better man returned. It was the Denethor who loved Finduilas who had leaned forward and gently placed a kiss upon young Aerin's brow. He shivered; he had, for those few seconds, felt his beloved Finduilas standing near, watching him, and smiling.
The terrible thought came to him that he dishonored her memory by not allowing for illogical hope, however improbable. He felt a rush of sickening grief at the idea of disappointing her in any way. How else had he failed her? He swallowed back the bile that crept into his throat. Our sons… her sons… The only tangible remains of his beloved wife were the two men he had somehow pushed farthest from him.
And the time remaining to them might be so brief…
Denethor opened his eyes and looked out again. The Captain-General was gone; the Courtyard was settling back into what now amounted to the routines of a City on the brink of war. He heard a knock. The Steward straightened.
Húrin opened the door, his clerk just behind him.
"My pardon, Lord, but there are some papers I must review with you…"
Denethor gazed at the City's Chief Administrator as if seeing him anew. Though Húrin was a few years younger, his hair was already streaked with white, and his stooped shoulders concealed that he once had been as tall as the Steward himself. Yet despite his age, his eyes were still as bright as ever. He is a decent, hard-working man, burdened by a thousand cares, not the least a dour, cold master… He crossed to the head of the table and slumped into his chair.
"The business of the City does not stop for war, does it? Well, Master Húrin, tell me what I must know, and let's be quick about it…"
* * *
Boromir galloped as swiftly as he dared down the cobbled streets from the upper Circles toward the Gate, Maerod keeping pace as best he could. Word had come from the Causeway Forts: Captain Faramir and his guard had been sighted. By now they might well have come to the Rammas. His brother would be in the City before the Sun set—or before the greater darkness that would mark nightfall on this dim day.
He is coming at last. Boromir had a thousand questions for his brother, and an equal number of tales he was eager to share. The Captain-General ignored the shouts, the hands that reached out to him, the faces turned up as he rushed onward. Nothing else mattered, for now. He will be home soon…
They clattered across the wide courtyard that stood behind the still-open Gate. A crowd of soldiers had already gathered; Boromir spotted Commander Baranor and the young officer, Aratan. He waved as he approached.
"Hail, Baranor!" he cried. "Any news?"
"Hard to see clearly in this brown haze, but if I read the flags from the Forts aright, he passed there not five minutes ago... Sire, no!"
Baranor lunged and caught the Captain-General's reins when Boromir appeared ready to urge his horse onward.
"Captain-General, you cannot go to meet him! I'l not have it, Lord," Baranor bellowed. "We can't afford to have both of you beyond the walls, not now, with those fiends in the air!"
Boromir sighed as he leaned back in his saddle and gazed out of the Gate longingly. "I am all too aware of that, Baranor. Believe me, I wish it were not so—I would be out there in a moment…" He looked down at his Commander. "Have you sent guides to bring him safely through the new trenches…"
"They are already afield," Baranor said with a crooked grin. "And a sortie of cavalry is forming just outside the Gate… just in case."
"Good, good," Boromir muttered. "As always, you have anticipated my every thought…"
"That would be impossible," Baranor laughed. "But I do my best."
The Captain-General stayed astride his horse as his Commander reported on the afternoon's news, little of it good. Their patrols saw evidence of amassing troops of enemies in every direction but due West, from purple-headed Mindolluin and the peaks of the White Mountains above them.
"I am most disturbed by the absence of word, sire," Baranor said quietly. "We've no news from Cair Andros since dawn, when the Lord Faramir departed from there. Daerlin has been in the habit of sending a message by carrier-dove twice daily of late…"
Boromir frowned at the news. Cair Andros was their most vulnerable outpost, and would in all likelihood feel the first blow of invasion. "Keep me posted. If you hear…"
He froze and stared into the air above the Pelennor. Five creatures, clearly visible now as enormous, featherless bird-like things, had materialized from the gloom. He shuddered and suppressed a moan as the fell voices echoed louder now. They seemed to be searching for something on the ground… or for someone…
"Ei!" he cried. "The foul beasts! They attack Faramir and his men!"
The winged steeds of the Nazgûl wheeled and swooped. Below them they could see seven riders galloping desperately toward the Gate. They turned this way and that, avoiding the obstacles, following the pair of guides Baranor had sent forth. One beast swept lower, its hideous screech echoing loudly, its great claws extended. Several horses reared and screamed; three men were thrown down. A single note sounded, of a silver horn, and the rider in the fore turned his mount and rode back to his fellows.
"Fari's call! The sortie, man! Release them!" Boromir cried, as he stood up in his stirrups.
Baranor shouted, and an answering horn blew. In moments two dozen riders swept out onto the plain; but the beasts veered down still lower. The cavalry's horses reared and fought; their men could not command them to go beneath those foul wings.
Baranor reached up and yanked hard on the Captain-General's reins. "Sire, you cannot…"
Boromir's face was twisted in a grimace. He was about to raise his hand to shove his Commander away and ride out, whatever the consequences, when a wailing shriek came from the air. One of the beasts flailed and flapped erratically. The others drew back, flying upward. The screams continued as the creature struggled to remain aloft. The four others flew near it in some sort of ugly formation, and all five rose into the thick haze and vanished.
Boromir gaped at his Commander, a smile on his face. From far above the two men heard the sound of cheering. The Captain-General spurred his horse.
"You cannot stop me now, Baranor!" he cried as he rode out to intercept his brother.
* * *
Denethor had pen in hand for his eleventh signature when the cry rose in the Courtyard. Faramir! Lord Faramir is come! He looked up, his fingers still gripping the pen. Húrin rose quickly and went to the door.
"The Ithilien patrol rides from the Causeway Forts to the Gate, sire," Húrin said when he returned. He nodded at the pile of paperwork. "I believe the rest of this can wait…"
The Steward eyed him sternly. "What are you suggesting, Master Húrin?"
"The East Battlement has a fine view of the Pelennor, my Lord," he said with a solemn bow.
Denethor sniffed; then in one movement he tossed the pen to the tabletop and rose. Húrin suppressed his grin until the Steward had passed him. He and his clerk followed as Denethor walked out the door without a word.
The Citadel guards snapped to attention as the Steward swept out the entrance and down the stair. Some had already gathered along the parapet, and a knot of men peered out from the great out-thrusting point of the high wall. Denethor passed the White Tree, pausing for a moment to bow his head solemnly before continuing onward. A shout went up.
"The Steward comes! Make way for the Steward!"
The crowd of awestruck men parted and fell back as Denethor strode swiftly, his sable cloak floating behind his shoulders. Their Steward, it seemed to them, rarely ventured outside the Citadel, much less to stand at the battlements. Indeed, more than a few of the younger Citadel guards had never seen their Lord from so close at hand.
The Steward and the Master of the Keys stood, side by side, leaning on the wall at almost the exact spot where Boromir and Imharil had lingered, just a few evenings ago. The Pelennor spread out below them. The maze of trenches and spiked obstacles loomed menacingly in the brown haze of late afternoon. An evil, shrill wail echoed from above. Nearby, a young guard groaned aloud.
"Hush, soldier!" an officer growled. "Control yourself, man!"
A murmur went up as the patrol was spotted far out upon the fields.
Dozens of hands shot out, pointing.
"He comes, at last!"
Denethor frowned as a rush of familiar anger filled him. My second son: obstinate, argumentative, uncontrollable… and now both sons shall close ranks against their Lord and father…
Black wings flitted in and out of the murk; the Nazgûl had marked the returning horsemen and circled lower. The soldiers watching from above cried out in alarm.
"Black Riders of the air!"
"Ride swiftly, Lord Faramir…"
Lord Húrin gripped the edge of the wall. "May the Valar protect them," he whispered, his head bowed.
The Steward's clenched fists leaned upon the parapet as he looked down in silence. All around him the men of the Citadel focused upon the figures galloping far below. He heard no words but those of distress for their beloved Captain, urging his safe passage. Why do they love him so? How has he manipulated them into such loyalty? And why does he deny me the same?
The winged creatures swooped lower. Denethor stared, willing the patrol to ride on unscathed. Gondor requires every able officer in this time of dire need, however her Steward might judge his personal attributes... A chorus of horrified shouts erupted from the wall as three riders were thrown by their panicked steeds. The man riding at the front pulled up and turned back.
"Lord Faramir! See how he will not abandon his men…"
"By force of will alone he commands both man and beast!"
The Steward's heart skipped a beat at the sight of the Captain of Ithilien galloping away from safety and back toward his fallen men. So he desires to appear, ever gallant and selfless…though mayhap the needs of his Realm should come before the needs of so few…
Suddenly, he felt a slight pressure on his arm. He glanced down; no one was there. But the sensation increased. A slender hand gripped his forearm. He could feel the warmth of a smooth palm, of long fingers squeezing him. His throat was dry. Is she… is she here… A quiet voice echoed in his mind. My son… Our son is in danger… Can you do nothing to help him, husband? Denethor swallowed hard as the hand held him more tightly. The mask on his face slipped; had any been watching, they might have seen a glimpse of anguish come and go on the Steward's stern face. Her son… Our son…
The distance from the Causeway Forts to the Gate was three leagues---when the path was straight, and the travelers unharried by beasts from the darkest nightmare. The winding way through the trenches and obstacles might add another half-mile. A short way—yet fraught with so much hazard... Could any pass through safely?
The Steward spun from the wall and grabbed the arm of the soldier nearest to him.
"Where is the officer of the watch? I need him—now!"
"Yes, my Lord!" the man gasped. He bowed and sped away. The Steward watched as the soldier ran to a stocky red-haired officer, grasped his wrist and pointed in his direction. The officer turned, and in moments was at Denethor's side.
"Sire? What need you, my Lord…"
"Rosdolog, isn't it?"
The man's eyes flew open in surprise as he nodded. He had no idea that his Steward spent time each month with Commander Baranor learning the names of every officer of the Citadel's Guard.
"Is there any man here armed with bow and quiver, lieutenant?"
Rosdolog blanched. "Bowmen, sire? Here?,,, Nay, sire…" His voice was hoarse. "Even if there were, my Lord, I wouldn't dare command any man to shoot from the wall at those…those things… If they missed, the risk would be too great to those below…"
Denethor's dark grey eyes flashed. "I command no one to this task. The responsibility is mine alone. Find a bow, Rosdolog—now. Run, man!" The lieutenant stumbled back a step—then he ran, shouting for help.
Húrin came from the wall and stood near the Steward. He turned to his clerk and muttered in his ear. The clerk looked up, his eyes wide; he glanced briefly at the Steward before speeding off in the direction of the lieutenant. Soon the two men could be seen running side by side, the red-haired officer leaning down to listen to the clerk. Rosdolog nodded briskly, shooting a look in Denethor's direction before he disappeared into the Citadel's barracks.
"What sort of meddling are you up to now, Húrin?" Denethor muttered.
Húrin's eyes twinkled. "The lieutenant may be too young to recall that his Steward's record as a champion archer has never been broken. I thought it best to remind him…"
Denethor sniffed. "That record was set over three decades ago…"
"Aye," Húrin said in a whisper. "But I happen to know that not a week passes in the target range without a visit—from you. And from what I hear, your aim is as true as it ever was…" The Steward's brow rose as he gazed at his companion. Húrin's lip curled upward slightly. "There is very little that passes in this City that is not known to the Keeper of the Keys, Denethor."
Rosdolog came rushing toward them, a great bow clutched in his outstretched hands. Behind him ran a soldier carrying a grey quiver.
"My Lord," the lieutenant said in a hushed voice. He bowed and proferred the already strung bow to the Steward.
Denethor frowned as he took the thing into his hands. It was longer by far than any bow of Gondor, its polished wood lustrous, gleaming, and golden. It was intricately carved with a subtle pattern of leaves and stars, as though it were the finest work of a sculptor at the pinnacle of his skill, and not a weapon of war. The bowstring was of some delicate, silvery filament—yet, as he tugged it, the Steward felt the great tension and strength in that slender string.
"Whence came this?" he said quietly.
Rosdolog swallowed hard. "From the Captain-General's quarters, sire… He brought it back with him from his travels." He looked up fearfully at the Steward, who was now staring fiercely at him. "My Lord… It is the finest bow I have ever seen, and for the task before you, sire, I thought… I thought it would be fitting…"
Denethor stared for another moment, his eyes skimming over the carved wood, glancing at the grey leather of the quiver, embossed with a similar pattern of leaves and a shower of tiny stars, with stitches so fine the thread was all but invisible, at the white-feathered shafts of the arrows… Then he reached up and unclasped his cloak, shrugged his shoulders and let it fall to the ground behind him. He wrapped his fingers about the bow's grip and plucked an arrow from the quiver.
They stepped back, amazed, as with two swift leaps the aging Steward of Gondor leapt up onto the bench and then onto the wall itself. The men of the Citadel Guard murmured in astonished whispers as their gaze was drawn now away from the Pelennor and up to the tall, grey-haired and bearded figure balanced lightly above them, his sword hanging at his waist. The sheer outer wall dropped below him to the plains, hundreds of feet down.
Denethor placed his left foot forward and turned, raising the great bow of the Galadhrim, smoothly sliding the long arrow into place. He looked up into the dim afternoon, searching the darkening clouds.
Do not glance down… Your target is above… He felt that slender, warm hand upon his forearm once more, for just an instant—then it was gone. Five hideous creatures swung in and out of the clouds, lower and lower, their screeching cries echoing upon the walls of Minas Tirith. Faintly he heard a horn sounding, and far off, a voice calling out… He dared not think of the men upon the field, of his son upon the field… He drew the bow back fully; it required the strongest pull of any bow he had ever held. He chose one of the beasts. He marked the veering curve of its path… He drew in and held a breath… He released.
The arrow of Lothlorien spun away with a sharp hiss and instantly vanished into the gloom. The men collectively sucked in a breath; silence fell. The Steward reached out for a second arrow, never taking his eyes from the darkening sky. Rosdolog was there, placing the arrow carefully upon his palm. The second dart was ready; Denethor pulled on the bow again.
Then one of the winged beasts screamed and twitched. It tumbled and lost height, then flapping and screeching hideously, it flew up and away eastward. The cheer of the watching soldiers began as a low murmur and grew quickly to roaring pandemonium as all five of the winged beasts abandoned their attack on the retreating patrol and followed their wounded comrade.
Denethor let up slowly on the bowstring, not taking his eyes off the Nazgûl in the skies. He ignored the clamoring and cheering men about him and waited until the last pair of black wings had disappeared into the smoky haze. He lowered the bow and steadied himself on the narrow wall; he was trembling. He stood above them, waiting for his flesh to obey his will. It will not do to allow these men to see any sign of weakness from their Steward...
At last he turned, and waving Húrin and the young lieutenant away, he stepped down from the parapet, to the bench and to the ground without assistance. Men poured from where they had been watching the Pelennor to throng about the Steward.
"My Lord, what a feat!" cried Rosdolog as he took the bow into his shaking hands. Another soldier bent to pick up the Steward's fallen cloak; he held it out with shining eyes, grinning widely as his Lord nodded once to him before he took it and swung it about his shoulders.
Húrin reached out to clasp his arm. "That will be a tale for the histories! What we have just witnessed… " His voice fell to a choked whisper. "Sire, there are no fitting words for it! I…I…"
"Enough, Húrin," Denethor muttered. "Just help me get away from here." He began to weave through the crowd of men, each one smiling and anxious to reach out to press his hand. Rosdolog overheard his words and shouted.
"Make way! Make way for the Steward Denethor! Make way!"
As they thrust a path toward the Citadel, Denethor turned to Húrin's clerk. "Have my private sitting room prepared; light the brazier, and have refreshments brought … Send them in as soon as they arrive…"
"Who, my Lord?" the clerk said in a quavery voice.
The Steward glared. "My sons, of course!"
* * *
The throng about the arriving patrol was thick, what with the sortie, those waiting at the Gate, and the jubilant men lining the streets of the First Circle. Boromir had to force himself to hold his emotions in check as he rode at Faramir's side beneath the high archway and up the main road through the City. He'd had but a minute—less than a minute—alone with his brother, a few hundred feet from the Gate. Hardly time to take in that he was really, truly home at last; barely enough for the briefest embrace as they leaned from their saddles toward one another; just enough for a grin and a laugh.
"Little Fari, look at you—you're all grown up!"
"Good old Bori…Where the hell have you been, you wandering bandit? What took you so long?"
Baranor, Aratan, Imrahil, Elphir: the Captain-General wished they would all simply leave them be, so that they could reunite properly. But war spared no time for such niceties as long, private conversations with one's brother and closest confidant. And the men of Minas Tirith cared nothing for quiet; the noise was deafening. Had they tried to converse, the brothers would have had to shout over the din.
Boromir looked at the Commander of the Ithilien Rangers, the crowd cheering about them as they trotted forward. He looks older… Much more than a year's worth of experience has fallen on his shoulders… The Black Breath is heavy on him… Ah, Fari, how I have longed to hear your wisdom, to pour out my heart to you, as I do to no other in all the world…
The younger son of the Steward gazed back, in silent acknowledgement of their shared desire for privacy. He's been ill, or maybe wounded—his face is leaner… Yet he seems different in another way: a lightness resides in him, I can see it, Faramir thought as he searched his brother's eyes. I have so much to tell him, so many questions to ask… Where do we begin?
"I'd prefer to forget duty and ride with you, brother, all day and night with no destination in mind, just to hear everything…and to tell you everything," Boromir sighed as they emerged from the Second Gate and to a quieter, less boisterous crowd. "But alas, you return with the hounded look of a Commander who has lost men in unending battles, only to face the next all too soon..."
Faramir's face was grim. "Three days ago we engaged a host of Southrons and routed them, but over half escaped, no doubt to regroup and attack again. And those are but one drop in the flood that soon will be unleashed. We lost but two in this latest exchange, but even that is too many. We are too few, Bori," he muttered. "Have the outlands reported?"
"Yes, but their numbers were not as I had hoped…" Boromir said. He glanced over his shoulder at the Prince, riding with his eldest son a few dozen feet behind them. "Uncle seems to have emptied Amroth for Gondor. He brought seven hundred knights and a thousand footmen, may the Valar bless him…"
"What of Rohan? The beacons…"
"..lit days ago, and the Red Arrow dispatched…"
"None. But…" He turned and gazed intently into his brother's eyes. "Another may come, Fari, someone unexpected—bringing hope beyond hope with him," he whispered. "If he comes in time…"
"Who? What are you saying, Bori?"
"More I cannot say, not here… We will find the time to speak, I promise. But for now, a warning." He stared forward and up as they rode, clattering on the stones. "He is in as foul a mood as I've ever seen him. Have a care… The one good thing is that a substantial portion of the bitter bile he usually reserves for you has already been spilled upon my head…"
Faramir frowned and nodded. "Mithrandir said as much…"
"Mithrandir!" Boromir said in a hushed cry. He reached out and clutched Faramir's forearm. "Then you have seen them?"
His brother eyed him sternly. "'Them?' Indeed I have, and I understand you will explain all, dear brother. I admit I am as curious to know the reason for a change in your heart toward the Grey Pilgrim as I am to discover the full meaning of the verse… and to learn why two Perian and a Wizard wander by night in Ithilien, heading east…"
To Faramir's surprise, Boromir tilted his head back and laughed with pure joy. "You have no idea what hopeful news you bear! My heart is indeed changed, and for the better, in every way! You will learn everything, very soon—I promise!"
The brothers rode upward, exchanging only such news as could be discussed in public: reports from the far-flung corners of the realm, the new defences in place in the City, the numbers of the reinforcements from the outlands. Boromir frowned, for he noted the pallor of his brother's weary features and dark circles beneath Faramir's eyes. The Wraiths… I should insist he detour to the Houses… But alas, the Steward is impatient; Father will be even more furious than usual if there is any delay…
They dismounted at the stables of the Sixth Circle, just behind the final Gate. As they walked together, side by side, the news came to them of the Steward's astonishing feat.
Boromir smiled, his eyes alight as he strode forward eagerly. Finally… Finally! He comes to his senses at last! But Faramir frowned as he followed more slowly. What can this mean? My heart longs to believe that he might at last feel differently toward me… But no, I dare not hope for it, he will never change… I know not whether he can change…
* * *
The Steward listened to his Commander in Ithilien recount the news of the Enemy's movements in the East with what appeared to be cold disapproval. His sons sat in armchairs drawn close together, Faramir seated nearest to the glowing brazier. Both had a goblet of mulled wine at hand, though only the elder son had touched his to his lips.
Faramir droned on in a halting, timid fashion—to his father's irritation--through reports of skirmishes and minor engagements, of the increasing evidence of imminent war, and had given a quick accounting of the ambush of the Haradric mercenaries and the felling of most of their great war-beasts. The Steward asked a few pointed questions, and his Commander responded with as much brevity, it seemed, as was humanly possible. The Captain-General's queries elicited more animated and detailed responses, or so Denethor observed with rising anger. And just who is Lord and Master here, I wonder?
Then Faramir had cleared his throat. He glanced at his father, then directed his words and gaze not toward his Steward, but at his brother.
"But some seven hours before that battle, in the midst of night, a strange event took place. An unexpected and curious meeting…"
The tale came out quickly. As if they had forgotten his presence beside them, the brothers leaned toward one another, Faramir speaking quietly of the appearance of Mithrandir with his two small companions in the forest of Ithilien. Denethor's hand gripped the arm of his chair, and he felt his face flushing with fury. The Grey Pilgrim, abroad in my lands without permission! And with him, the reason for the unraveling of my elder son's loyalty…That accursed Halfing, secretly bearing the Doom of Gondor…
"The Wizard took a poisoned Orc-arrow, upriver above the rapids of Sarn Gebir." Boromir said. "That he still appeared ill surprises me. He seemed well when we parted. The wound must have worsened considerably…"
"Mithrandir said that the Halfling tended him…"
"Good, I'm glad Frodo found the strength to drain the festering when the need arose." Boromir smiled, and a look of fondness appeared on his face. "Though a different, deeper sort of strength is hardly lacking in that one," he said softly. "Indeed, Frodo Baggins is, perhaps, the bravest person I have ever met."
Faramir's eyes flicked toward the Steward, as if searching for a signal of his approval—or disapproval; his father sat as still as stone. He looked at Boromir. "It would seem that the time has come to explain all, as was promised," he said quietly.
Boromir nodded as he, too, looked first toward his father.
"Go on," growled Denethor with an impatient toss of his hand. "There is nothing I or anyone else can do about this madness now …"
"Father has heard this remarkable tale before," Boromir said with forced cheerfulness. "Although he did not profess to enjoy it…" He took a sip of wine and began. "I need not repeat the words of the dream-verse to you, my brother, for you heard them more oft by far than I…"
The Steward had no desire to hear again the details of the plots hatched at his own realm's expense in a far off land, by Wizards and Elves and Half-Elves, and undeserving usurpers from the North. And so, he closed his ears, and opened his eyes. Denethor watched his sons with more intense focus than he had since they were small boys--since before Finduilas died. He could not recall the last time he had simply gazed at them, listening to the sounds of their voices, and not attended to the content of their words. He leaned back in his armchair and sipped his wine, looking from one to the other as their half-whispered conversation went on
Strange, that his sons did not much resemble one another when seated so near, allowing a detailed comparison. He had never noticed before how his eldest son was the very image of his father, Ecthelion, and his youngest bore a strong likeness to his grandfather, Turgon. And I see hints of the Swan in him… Faramir's brow was higher, his features finer, as Imrahil… as his mother…
But the Steward was acutely aware of another distinction between his sons, visible to him for the first time this evening. Boromir's visage was filled with light, a light that appeared to emanate from within him. The strength of his spirit seemed to spill out of the container of his flesh. But Faramir's light—he could see that his younger son had something nearly the same as the elder—was cloaked in heavy shadow.
He has traveled far beneath those foul wings today, the Steward mused. The Black Breath weighs on him. This conversation must come to an end, and soon…
At that moment a look of shocked comprehension dawned on Faramir's face. Denethor heard the word, Orodruin, and saw how Faramir's eyes widened with fear—and with awe. He began to attend once more to the conversation.
"That any would attempt such a quest is nearly unthinkable," Faramir whispered. "They are but Halflings! Have they the strength to carry it out? Have they the sheer will?"
"I once felt as you," Boromir said. "But in my months of travel with Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee, I learned just how much strength and will lies hidden in those two. Indeed, I've come to believe what Mithrandir said of them, and the Lord Elrond: that if they cannot carry out this task, no one can. And, of course, let us not forget that Mithrandir himself shall accompany them…"
Faramir looked up and stared. "But you can't think that Mithrandir will dare to risk entering the Black Land itself…"
Boromir frowned. "I don't understand…"
His brother's voice fell again to a whisper. "Think who—what—he is! He cannot go there; he would draw the Eye to him, and endanger them all the more!"
"But… But what are you saying? That he would let them go alone? That he would abandon them at the border of the most dangerous place in Arda?"
Faramir stared at him, his face stricken. "I… I don't know, Bori…"
Denethor had had enough. He cut in. "But I do," he said harshly. He rose to his feet and turned to the table, pouring himself another flagon of wine. "I have known Mithrandir far longer than either of you. He has no intention of entering the Black Land." He turned toward them again, and his face was drawn into a fierce scowl. "He will do precisely as you say, Boromir: abandon them. I have seen it before, time and again, how the Grey Wizard uses others, at whatever cost to them, until his schemes are hatched and his plots unfolded… then they are dropped, like so many unneeded tools…"
Boromir rose and faced his father. "I don't believe it. You don't know him, Father! He saved my life…"
"…because you were too valuable to lose! He planned to use you, later, as a shield." Denethor snapped. "It would not have served his purpose that the Captain-General of Gondor died prematurely, unable to lead the troops of the greatest realm of the West in waging a futile war to distract the Eye." He tossed back a mouthful of wine. "You quote the Half-Elven Lord, secure in his secret hideaway far to the north. He spoke truth, but in a twisted manner. The truth is, no one can accomplish this absurdly futile task—certainly not the two hapless fools now in the company of the wizard you admire so much." He snorted. "I would pity them their terrible fate--if I had pity to spare. It is for the fate of Gondor and her people that my heart's pity is spent."
Boromir's face flushed as he leaned toward the Steward. "Why must you always believe the worst, of everyone and everything?"
"That is the path of a prudent ruler: always to prepare for the worst possible contingency," he said coldly. "And this is not merely my opinion, Boromir. Your brother is correct: an Istar is the same sort of thing as the Enemy, and would be instantly recognizable to Him. Your friend Mithrandir would be even more of a fool than I think is possible if he were to enter the Black Land…"
"But I cannot believe he will send them there alone…"
Denethor sniffed. "Mark my words: we shall be seeing the Grey Pilgrim again, very soon, and not in the company of your poor little Halfling friends."
Abruptly, Faramir stood up, knocking his chair backward with a loud thump. The two other men turned to face him.
"I think you are both wrong," he whispered. "I think he plans something else entirely… I know not what… But his eyes… I saw his eyes…"
Faramir swayed, and he raised his hand to his brow. Both his brother and his father stepped forward, reaching out to steady him—but Boromir grasped his arm first. Denethor drew his hand back and let it fall as he stood nearby.
"Commander Faramir," the Steward said softly. "I command you to rest.Take him to his room, Captain-General, get him some hot food, and stay with him until the healer I shall summon from the Houses arrives… Nay!" he cried, as his younger son opened his mouth to speak again. "Say no more, save your strength. I know what harried your return across the Fields…"
But Faramir pushed his brother's hand away and turned fully to face his father. "My Lord… Father… I have not yet thanked you, for your astounding deed when those dark Wings assailed my men…and myself…"
Denethor stared into his son's eyes. "You need not thank me. I merely took the prudent course." He paused, and for an instant, his face softened; then his features were cold again. "Gondor has need of every able officer in these dire times." He nodded curtly; then he turned to Boromir.
"Now, then: Osgiliath…"
"Of course," Boromir interrupted. "I will not yield the River unfought, nor the Causeway, or even the Pelennor." He bowed stiffly. "I leave for the outposts of Osgiliath before dawn, my Lord. If you see me again, it will be with the flood of the Black Land hard upon my heels."
The Steward and his Captain-General stood eyeing one another for a long moment, seemingly vying for the upper hand. Finally Denethor snorted and glared.
"Well? Are you going to carry out my last command, or not? Get your brother to bed, at once!"
As the brothers walked together toward their quarters, Boromir seethed.
"'Prudent course…'! "Every able officer…'!" he snarled. "Pah! To speak to his own son in such a manner…! He hasn't changed a bit! Still as icy as ever… "
But Faramir was smiling. "Oh Bori, don't let him fool you! That was simply the best he could manage—but I saw more warmth in his eyes than in decades. I know not why or how, but he has indeed changed…"
* * *
Boromir stayed at his brother's side, seeing to it that Faramir ate and was tended to by the healer. Whether the man's ministrations had much effect to dispel the Black Breath, the Captain-General could not say. But the grim lines in Faramir's brow let up, and he seemed a bit stronger. When the healer left, Boromir made good on his promise to inform his brother of his secret hope—embodied by the remarkable Ranger of the North.
"You believe he is what he claims?" Faramir whispered.
"I have no doubt of it. Lord Elrond himself spoke for him, and the Elves reforged Narsil for him, afore we left Imladris…"
"The shards of Narsil!"
"Aye—but the blade is renamed: Andúril, Aragorn calls it, and its new sheath was made by the Elven smiths of Lothlorien…"
"Lothlorien! Bori, what an astonishing adventure you've had!"
Boromir smiled wanly and nodded, musing on how he had so brashly claimed the right to take that adventuresome journey, nearly a year ago. Faramir might have been better suited for such wonders, and understood everything more keenly… But I am glad to have been the one… I am glad that my heart has changed…
"There is so much more I would tell you," Boromir muttered. "Of Mithrandir, and the Halflings… Everything I saw and all the remarkable folk I met… But there is too little time."
"Soon, Bori—soon enough, if there is time at all left to either of us beyond the Darkness, we will have that ride you mentioned, with no destination in mind but to talk until we've run clean out of tales to tell…"
"There is one thing I need you to do for me, brother," Boromir said.
The Captain-General smiled. "You've met two Halflings; but I traveled with four, if you can believe it, and one of them now resides here, in Minas Tirith. He is kin to the fair-faced fellow you met in Ithilien, Frodo Baggins. His name is Peregrin Took, but he is mostly called Pippin…"
Faramir chuckled. "These Halflings have such unusual names…"
"Oh, Master Took is unusual in more than just his name! He and I have become great friends, though he is still hardly more than a youth among his own folk. He has a merry tongue and mischievous manner, which hides a stout heart, which he will deny emphatically… Pippin boosted my faltering spirits when I recovered from the wound I took in the Mines of Moria…"
"Moria! You were wounded in Moria? Bori, your tale grows more fantastic with each telling!"
"I know, and you have not heard the half of it! We Nine Walkers packed a lifetime of adventures into a few short months… But here is the favor I would ask. I have no time to do it myself, so you must. Please, this coming morning if you can manage it, visit the Houses of Healing and ask for young Peregrin. He is employed there, in Meneldil's workshop. Greet him for me, and tell him that you have seen his kinsman. He is desperate for news of him, and I vowed to him that I would make certain he learned of any word I had of his cousin. He can be trusted entirely—he knows everything. He accompanied Frodo from their homeland in the far North and West, for months before I met them in Imladris, and if their tales are to be believed, they had many harrowing adventures of their own on that road, including a nearly deadly encounter with Wraiths."
Faramir shuddered. "They must have hidden strength…"
Boromir sniffed. "Indeed—Frodo survived a Morgul-knife wound given him by the Wraith-King himself…"
"Survived a Morgul-knife wound!..."
His brother nodded. "Keep all this in mind when you meet young Pip. These Halflings are not what they seem… And I think you also guess right about Mithrandir. He must have some plan designed to improve the chances for Frodo and his servant to fulfill their daunting task. I know the Wizard well enough now; it is not in his nature to abandon a friend." He smiled wistfully. "Even as unlikely a friend as I had been to him, to that point… But that is a longer tale, and must wait." He rose to his feet. "For now, dear Fari, I ride to Osgiliath. Keep the City and the Steward safely for me."
Faramir sat up and they embraced. The Commander of the Ithilien Rangers—and for now the Captain-General's representative in Minas Tirith—felt the warmth of his brother's spirit as he pressed him tightly to his chest.
"Don't worry," Boromir whispered. "I'll be back… sooner than you think. Sleep now, and in peace, for this one more night."
* * *
The windows of Denethor's private study faced eastward above the courtyard and the wall. The night was black; the Moon was hid beneath thick clouds. Far below, a few lights glinted on the fields; a faint line of torches marked the Causeway Forts. In the City, here and there a lantern shone; others were awake, working in preparation for the coming siege, or restless, as he was. He looked out, wondering if this would be the last night of peace for his City—for his realm—before the invasion.
His eyes were drawn to a sudden flare, far off and high up. It flashed and was gone. He stared; nothing. Had he imagined it? No—there, he saw it again. A faint flicker, directly across from where he now stood. But where…? The light must have come from the Ephel Duath… The Steward's eyes widened as a brighter, stronger light flashed again, and once more, illuminating the undersides of lowering clouds many miles distant, and giving glimpses of tilted stone and sheer rock faces.
Denethor stared across the broad vale of Anduin, from the shoulders of one range of mountains into another, from the wall of one great City toward, perhaps, her lost, once beautiful Twin Sister, now corrupted and defiled…Once before, he had happened to be here at this very window when a greenish, wavering gleam had risen from that exact spot, like corpse-light… But tonight, the flash had not been corpse-light; more like lightning, or a sudden blaze of fire.
There it was again. He was too far away to hear, but Denethor imagined that thunder must accompany that lightning. What sort of raging storm has descended on Minas Ithil… Minas Morgul?… And what did it mean? Surely nothing good, not for Gondor, at any rate. Anything that emerged from that foul crevice was evil--even light.
He watched the flashing of the light, on and off, now brighter, now less, for more than an hour before he reached a decision. He knew of one certain way to know what the storm represented, one way to prepare for whatever new devilry the Nameless One was concocting for them. He turned from the window and approached the tall bookcase, pressing inward on the third shelf. He heard the soft thud; he swung it forward. The dark stairway rose before him.
Denethor gazed into the Palantir of Minas Anor at the valley before the walls of Minas Ithil of old until the grey light of dawn came. His eyes stung and his head throbbed. No dawn would come, he knew, to the deadly vale at which he had been staring. No light would come for the person at whom he had been staring. The Steward had watched, skeptical at first, doubtful of the other's motives… then, as the scene went on and on, he watched with growing awe. I never would have believed it… I can still hardly understand it… But I cannot deny what I have seen…what he must be attempting to do…
Denethor sat back wearily and replaced the cloth that hid the Stone. He rubbed his brow with the tips of his fingers. The dreadful scene he had witnessed was not over yet. But the business of the White City could not wait, must draw him away—for now.
Faramir was right… The Steward considered whether to call his younger son to him immediately and inform him of what he had seen in the glass. But how would he explain it? Neither of his sons knew of the Palantir. And what would he say? How would he describe the unfinished nightmare unfolding in the Mountains of Shadow? There was nothing any of them could do to stop it, to help… No. He would wait. He would gaze again, later… And when the outcome was clear, then he would tell him what he knew.
And perhaps… perhaps the time has come, now that war is upon us, for the heirs to the Rod and the Chair to learn the full truth of what burdens are borne by the sons of the House of Húrin.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.