39. Facing The Darkness
Facing The Darkness
Anborn was the first to acknowledge aloud what every man felt.
"They have returned," he whispered.
The Captain-General stood between the current commander of Ithilien's Rangers and Bröghur, the Captain of Osgiliath's regiment, beneath the ruins of the bridge over Anduin in the center of what had been the capitol of Gondor of old. Cross-braces and pillars leaned crookedly, and a few rotting struts supported a dozen warped beams over their heads. The river murmured softly not twenty feet from where they stood. In the deep shadows, Boromir could hear Anduin, and smell her. But the waters were black tonight, reflecting nothing but dark fumes that hung low in the sky. No torchlight, no lanterns--forbidden on the West bank, by his order. And he who commands in the East is cunning enough to do the same…
That the Eastern bank of the Great River was teeming with foes poised to cross, he did not doubt, whether or not they showed themselves. And Anborn was right—the Wraiths had returned. He didn't need to see them to know; he could feel them by the chill in his marrow. He had been aware of their approach, several hours after sunset. Boromir realized he had felt their presence first of any of his men. Since that wound in Moria, I have been more atuned to what cannot be seen… Yet despite the chill of the Wraiths, none of their scouts had spotted any Orc in the hideous black-and-silver livery of Morgul—an army known for the cruelty of its fighters. He shivered slightly as he raised his hand and tapped Anborn's shoulder. The lieutenant turned, and Bröghur's head also snapped toward him.
The Captain-General's fingers and hands flew in a pattern of signals. The officers watched the movements and nodded. Boromir took one last look at the river as the three men started weaving through the posts and fallen beams and up the bank. A flash—there! A torch… It was gone, snuffed out, as quickly as it had appeared.
But the signal was clear enough. They were coming. Now.
The three officers and their guard moved up the riverbank, dashing from one hiding place to the next, over a low wall and into the ruined streets and ancient rubble. Boromir knew the long-dead tangle of Osgiliath nearly as well as he knew the living city of his birth. It was perfect for his purposes this night. For his troops were vastly outnumbered by the hordes that would soon cross Anduin. He could not fight them straight on, no matter how much he desired to do so. He and his men were too valuable to be slaughtered here. Every defender that arrived in fighting shape to Minas Tirith would accomplish more from within even a besieged city than from this forsaken place. But he could do something: he could delay their march westward. He could not stop the invasion, but he could slow it. And if his plans played out well, he might even weaken it.
When the Captain-General arrived at the river and met with his officers, Bröghur laid out his recommendation. Boromir had argued fiercely against it—just as he had argued the opposite at Moria, when Aragorn and Gandalf insisted he would not be left behind. But his old commander was dogged, and Anborn supported him. The Captain-General was finally, begrudingly convinced to accept the plan as ruthless but necessary. Just one quarter of the Osgiliath forces—all volunteers, and nearly every man as old as Bröghur--would hold the front line for as long as they could, no matter their losses. The Ithilien Rangers and the remaining men of the garrison would fall back, taking a path that would draw their pursuers into the maze of concealed trenches, hidden spikes and oil-traps.
They had just reached the top of the slope when a thousand roaring voices broke out at their backs. Boromir paused and turned. Anduin was abruptly ablaze. The East bank was lined with fire, and the river sparkled. The invaders had set every torch alight at once, and every drum and brazen horn sounded. The screeches and jeers of an army of Orcs rolled across the water.
"My Lord!" Bröghur cried out in the sudden din. "Out of sight, now!" He grabbed his Captain-General's arm and yanked hard. Boromir was flung through a broken archway and behind a low wall. Shades shifted in the darkness of the ruin as soldiers appeared with arrows readied. Loud thuds and sharp cracks were heard on the slope below them as the first dozen projectiles struck.
"You're not to do such an idiotic thing again, do you hear me?" Bröghur hissed, his face red against his white-streaked beard. "D'ye think your father won't have me flogged and strung up if I lose his heir?"
Boromir grinned at his very first commanding officer as he rubbed his shoulder. He had served under Bröghur when he was a youth of eighteen—and had discovered how his gruff strictness covered a warm spirit, something his own father seemed to have lost. They had been close ever since. "Flogged, maybe, but strung up?" he laughed. "Doubtful, Brög… He's too stingy to waste an old bear like you!"
Bröghur growled. "Fine—if I'm an old bear, you're an ignorant young cub. Showing your face in that blazing light! Fool! Now, get yourself to the rear lines, and to the horses, then get out of here quickly. See to it that this gwinig* doesn't show off his well-known head again, will you, Anborn?"
The taciturn Ithilien officer nodded curtly. Boromir looked at Bröghur. "We'll work our way there—slowly, like bears on the prowl." He saluted the older man. "Commander," he said softly, the ghost of a fond smile on his face. Bröghur returned the salute, and Boromir left, Anborn behind him.
The Captain-General and his brother's stern second-in-command moved westward while the clamor of invasion grew to the east. Flitting from ruin to ruin, a patrol of Rangers as guard, they slowly gathered men who had been hidden in the rubble to them. When the company reached four dozen, they dug in within a partially intact structure set upon a knoll. At Boromir's signal they, and other companies to the left and right of them, began showering the marching hordes with darts.
"Allow them their target practice for ten minutes," he muttered to Anborn. "Then give the signal again…"
Boromir was acutely aware that the Orcs crossing here, at Osgiliath, represented but a fraction of the foes crossing Anduin at this moment, all along the stream, north and south. And still no sign of those Morgul vermin… He must time his retreat precisely—delayed enough to slow the host in front of his lines but quickly enough that they would not simply be outflanked the moment they left the paltry shelter of the ruins behind and set out toward the Causeway Forts. It would avail them nothing to ensnare the troops of the Eye here only to find themselves surrounded by Southrons and Khândians between the river and the Rammas.
Above, a cold wail rose in the night. He closed his eyes for a moment; then he gave the signal to fall back. The line of men moved hurriedly through the fallen stones and crumbling lanes. A burst of fire exploded eastward, followed immediately by screams of agony. Their enemies had triggered an oil-trap.
"Looks like that was a success," Anborn said, a grim smile on his face as he gazed over one shoulder.
Boromir's face flickered red as he watched the flames for a moment. "The first one is always the most effective; the next, less so, for now they are warned." As he turned away he said a silent farewell to Bröghur and his volunteers. He suspected that none would be seen alive again.
*Gwinig: "little baby"
* * *
Through the day the City watched for signs of enemies approaching. Though morning came and the Sun began her circuit, the strongest light came not from the sky but from the Pelennor. East, South, North, flickering fires moved. A sudden flash signaled the razing of some farmhouse or haystack. Smoke billowed up to join the lowering haze. Though the hordes were yet far off, their progress could be felt as a low thrumming sound—the stamp of many thousands of booted feet, and the rumble of heavy machines, miles away but steadily moving forward.
In midafternoon Faramir snatched a few hours in his chambers. He slept fitfully; the low, insidious vibration beneath him and the memory of black wings flapping above invaded his dreams. The wings swooped lower and lower… His blood felt icy cold and his sight darkened as the Wraith's voice cried out… He was thrown from the saddle and could not regain control of his mount... Nearby, the Steward stood, wrapped in his sable cloak, his face hidden in the shadows… Faramir called to him, reached out… But Denethor did not move or respond…
He woke with a start to find his father standing in his sleeping chamber, gazing out the high window. At the sound of his stirring the Steward turned toward him. Faramir cleared his throat and spoke.
"Any word, my Lord—from East, or West?"
Denethor shook his head. They had said few words to one another since the puzzling conversation on the ramparts above the Gate. Faramir tossed back the blanket that had covered him and sat up.
"You need not rise," Denethor said. "Sleep for another few hours, while you can…"
Faramir swung his legs over the side of his bed. He had, from habit and for convenience, slept in his mail, removing only his boots, for which he now reached. "Nay," he sighed. "True rest seems to elude me." As he stood he swayed; he reached up and rubbed his hand over his eyes.
At once his father's hand was beneath his elbow, supporting him. Faramir looked up in shock. I cannot recall the last time Father touched me…
Denethor, too, seemed a bit surprised by his own action. His brows rose slightly as he met his son's gaze; but he did not let up his grip on his arm.
"The Black Breath still clings to you… Shall I summon a Healer?"
Faramir shook his head. "Thank you, sire, but no. They try, but I don't think they can do much… And they have more than enough to occupy them…"
"Still, you should at least take nourishment before you venture onto the walls again. I'll call for something to be brought to my parlor…" He dropped his hand and stepped to the door, opening it. "Come. Let us wait together, for a while, at least."
Faramir tried to still his uneasy doubt at the seeming change in his father. Could these unexpected signs—his declaration of some horrible mistake, upon the Wall in the night; and now, this apparent concern for his wellbeing—be trusted? Or were these just a prelude to another harsh rebuke, to another withering comment? He wanted to trust. He wanted to believe. But he could not help but be wary as he followed the Steward to the same parlor where he and Boromir had met with their father when the Captain had given his report from Ithilien. That difficult evening had ended with a whisper of hope—hope that was all too quickly dashed, the very next day.
He took his seat near the now-cold brazier, and waited while Denethor went in search of a servant to fetch food and drink. The Steward returned in a few moments and entered. Faramir watched as his father stood once again at the narrow window that looked over the Courtyard of the Tree several stories below. He said nothing, and did not acknowledge his son waiting behind him. The silence was as thick as the gloomy air, and felt as oppressive. A servant arrived with a platter of sliced cheese, bread and two goblets of wine, and lit the brazier. The Steward signaled for his son to eat, but did not join in himself.
As he picked halfheartedly at the food, the Captain of Ithilien berated himself. You behave boldly in the face of a platoon of Orcs… No Southron warrior can strike you dumb with fear…and yet beside your own kin you sit mute, your heart hammering with dread… Faramir felt the press of time slipping away. All Mordor was loosed against them; Minas Tirith would soon be surrounded by foes. The opportunity to try again to reach out, to speak openly to his father, to hear an explanation for the mysteries he knew the Steward held close, was passing all too quickly. What did he risk by simply asking a question? A sharp word or two—no real harm done. Yet why did the thought of provoking his father's anger fill him with nearly as much terror as the stooping wings of the Black Riders of the Air?
Find your courage, he said to himself. You are a Commander of Gondor—born of the House of the Ruling Stewards. He set down his goblet and drew in a breath.
"Last night, my Lord, when we spoke upon the Wall…"
Denethor's gaze shifted; he turned his head partway toward the room, glancing over his shoulder. He did not answer.
"You said you were wrong about something… About what, Father?"
The Steward spun toward him and glared.
"I've told you I would explain later, when your brother returns!" he snapped. "Do you ask merely to vex me, or have you grown simple…"
Faramir stiffened and winced, as though he had been struck. He squeezed his eyes shut against the sharp sting of unbidden tears, his weariness overwhelming his ability, for the moment, to hide the ache in his heart.
Denethor's cutting retort died on his lips as he saw the hurt on his son's face. Why do you shout at him so? You lash out only because of your own pain, your own regret… It was as if a cloth obscuring his eyes had been yanked aside for the first time in decades. Like the silk that covers the Stone… His throat grew tight as the results of his thoughtless outburst—and of years of so many similar moments—were abruptly made clear to him. What have I done…
Faramir twisted on the chair, hiding his face, struggling to rein in his emotions. Do not let him see… It will only be worse… He despises any sign of weakness… Then the Captain of Ithilien felt his father's trembling hands upon his shoulders.
"My son… I…" Denethor's voice was hoarse. "I…I am…sorry…"
Faramir looked up. His father's face was twisted with bewildered grief—and at once, the son's sorrow was released in a torrent that he had been holding back for too many years. Denethor leaned down and gathered Faramir into his arms, as he had not done since he was a child of four. They held one another wordlessly, but not soundlessly—for neither could contain their gasping sobs.
Finally, as their separate but intertwined griefs subsided for a while, they slowly let up their grip on one another. Faramir took in a halting, slow breath and leaned back from where he had been pressing his face into his father's chest. As he opened his eyes, he saw that the Steward had dropped to one knee beside the chair. His father's dark eyes were upon him.
"For all the times I treated you ill… For all the ways I failed you… I ask not for forgiveness, for as yet I have done nothing to deserve it…" Faramir took in a breath, but Denethor held up a hand and went on. "Wait! Hear me. You have said that I have the Sight, and in a strange and twisted way that might have once been true... But I have been more blind than farsighted when it comes to that which is most important…when it comes to those closest to me…those dearest to me." He gazed intently at his son, and his face was ravaged with sorrow. "I have been less than a father to you for far too long, Faramir. That you have become a fine man and a wise commander is no credit to me—for others shaped you, not the least your brother… your Uncle, Imrahil… and yes, I see it now, Mithrandir as well… I see much now that before I could not—for I was blinded by my own pride, by a hidden darkness that ate at me, and by my own grief…"
Denethor stood and paced again to the window. Faramir remained seated, buffeted by a storm of feelings: relief, rage, disbelief, unbridled joy, deep anguish. He did not try to speak; indeed, he did not know if he could trust himself not to unleash the turmoil within him. The Steward went on, more hesitantly now, and without turning his face away from the window.
"How I come by the knowledge I am about to share is not important—not at this moment. If there is time, I will explain all… But know this: you were right, about the wizard. You were right. Mithrandir did indeed have a plan to aid the Halflings in their perilous errand… And he has rendered extraordinary service to Gondor, as well…"
The Steward's voice fell. Faramir rose and joined him at the window, listening in increasing awe as Denethor told him, in brief, what he had witnessed.
"He engaged the might of Minas Morgul, single handedly," Denethor whispered. "Two nights ago, it began… He held them off through a long night and a full day, destroying half their forces before he was finally overcome… Alas, he was taken alive. By now he is imprisoned in the blackest of Black Towers, at the mercy of… He can have had only one possible motive for such a terrible sacrifice: as a tactical diversion, to allow the Pheriannath to escape…"
Faramir's head reeled as the horror of it sank in. He recalled the shudder of dread he had felt, yesterday, near to sunset. His head bowed as he thought of the bleak determination he had seen in the Grey Pilgrim's eyes when he met the three travelers in Ithilien. And then twice in the span of minutes—after decades without--he felt the warmth of his father's touch again as the Steward laid his hand upon his shoulder.
"There is naught we can do for him now, but to carry on, with hope," he said quietly. "For know this: I was granted a glimpse of hope as well. The Halflings did escape. They have passed through Morgul Vale and beyond… I have seen it, and this time… This time my sight was indeed true…"
Faramir turned and studied his father's face. He read there that the Steward spoke truly. The faces of two small travelers came to his mind, and he silently wished them well, praying that they had the strength to overcome what perils lay before them. Then he frowned as another thought came.
"This would explain it," he muttered. "The Wraiths… The reports from Boromir said that no sign has been seen or felt of them since the night he left for Osgiliath. Though seemingly a fortunate turn of events, my heart said that something fell lie behind it… The Wraiths must have been recalled, to do battle against him…"
At that moment, both father and son stiffened and gazed upward into the grey gloom of the sky. A shrill high voice echoed far above.
"Nazgûl," Denethor hissed.
"They are back," Faramir said in a choked voice. "But what of Boromir?"
They heard the pounding of feet in the passage, and a knock at the door.
"Sire!" a man's voice cried. "The retreat, from the River…"
The Steward gripped his son's shoulder firmly.
"Go—I will await your return!"
Faramir nodded and strode quickly from the room.
* * *
From the walls of the City, the watchers wondered if the Great Sea had come to the Pelennor. In the dim light of late afternoon, when the shadows of the mountains to the west added to the darkness, it seemed that wave upon wave was rushing toward them. But these were no waves of water, but of living things. Aforemost came men of Gondor, those doughty men who had been clinging to their places at the River, upon the Rammas, at the Causeway Forts. They now retreated: walking, running, staggering, riding forward, some alone, others in pairs, many holding up a comrade, or carrying one between two. To the dismay of the watchers, more than a few stumbled and fell within shouting distance of their destination, never to rise again. At their backs, and in competing waves coming from either side and threatening to submerge them in the tumult, the enemies of Gondor flowed swiftly.
In the midst of the confusion upon the fields came a large company of soldiers in rank, marching in steady order, fewer than a dozen on horseback in the rearguard, holding the pursuers at bay with bow and sword. Again and again the horsemen thrust the following horde back, allowing a moment of reprieve in which they could turn their steeds to the west and return to their men. Again and again the line of Orcs bearing the Eye surged forward. And above them hovered black wings, circling like huge vultures, waiting for their prey to drop.
Baranor waited upon the archway above the Gate when Faramir appeared. A steady stream of men crossed through the maze of trenches and passed into the City. The commander eyed him closely.
"Captain, are you certain you're fit enough to be about? Your color, sire…"
Faramir cut him off with a gesture. "Give me the news, Baranor."
The older officer nodded. "We've had messages from the Causeway Forts, three in quick succession. Lord Boromir arrived with a goodly portion of the Osgiliath forces an hour before noon. Next came news of a stout attack, but they held on and pushed them back. Just now, a messenger arrived with a scrap—your brother's hand, no seal. I'm guessing he was in a bit of a hurry…"
He handed the torn piece of parchment to Faramir. On it were just four words: too many -- falling back. The Captain shuddered as a far-off screech echoed from the direction of the organized retreat. His already pale face looked ashen as he gritted his teeth. Then suddenly he leaned onto the parapet, his eyes riveted on the field below, from whence a rising note came.
"Bori's horn!" he cried, as he swung forward, pointing. Where moments earlier several hundred men had maintained order and marched double-step in straight rows, their lines were now in disarray. Men ran to and fro, and the horsemen behind them scattered—and with good reason, for a winged beast had swooped low, its horrible Rider draped in black robes easily visible. Back and forth the creature turned, its focus upon one of the riders—the one who had just sounded his horn. That thing is after Boromir!
"Baranor, release the sortie!"
Baranor shouted, and another horn sounded below as the commander ran to the stair, running headlong down to the Gate-level. Thirty cavalrymen sped out from the walls, a blue banner with its silver Swan of Amroth rippling in their midst. They swept behind the running men, attempting to build a living wall of man and horse behind which the soldiers could escape. But above them, the black winged dipped and swung, and the horses reared and balked.
Despite the confusion of horsemen and the flight of soldiers, Faramir was certain he knew which figure was his brother. And his heart nearly stopped with alarm, for even as the cavalry of the City arrived, the Captain-General leapt down from the saddle and onto the open field! He watched, aghast, as Boromir swept off his helm and tossed it down, then plucked an arrow from the quiver at his back and raised his great bow. His face was directed toward the lowering, dark sky. He pivoted, following the path of the flying beast, took aim, and released.
In seconds, the walls of Minas Tirith erupted in cheers as the winged beast screamed and veered, flapping eastward before it crumpled and plummeting to the ground in the middle of the advancing enemy troops. A black shape rose up, and the Orcs fell back from it. But in the next moment the cheers of the watching men turned to shouts of alarm.
"No!" Faramir cried in horror. "Blessed Eru, save him!"
Boromir, his eyes on his target, had failed to see the Orcs who suddenly surrounded him. His horse reared and lashed out, but to the dismay of those watching, the Captain-General vanished beneath the surging attack.
A tall knight with a blue cloak appeared, his sword slashing and sweeping; the Orcs within his reach fell. Five more knights in blue and silver rode up, raining blows upon the remaining Orcs.
Faramir held his breath. He saw his uncle dismount and lean down. The horsemen closed in…he couldn't see… Then Boromir's head appeared. Even turned to the side, his brother would recognize him anywhere. He raised his hand and gave a quick wave. Fari knew it was for him, though all Minas Tirith, it seemed was shouting and waving in return. He released his breath and waited for his racing heart to slow.
The Captain-General was soon mounted, and the retreating men parted for him and the Prince, who rode close beside him. Faramir turned and quickly followed Baranor's path down to the Gate.
The Captain-General rode beneath the archway just minutes later, his Uncle next to him. Beneath the grime on his face, his brother recognized the pallor of the Black Breath, and his weariness. Across his right cheek, Boromir's face was marked with a red slash, and he held his left arm clamped to his side. But he smiled when he spotted his brother.
"A few scratches, Fari," he said, as he pulled up on the reins. "Nothing serious…" He leaned down and the brothers clasped hands.
Faramir gazed up at his brother; his voice dropped low. "The Wraith appeared to be hunting you!"
Boromir's returning look was grim. "So it was, indeed," he muttered. "The evil creature called me by name! I had no choice but to dismount and fight. I am no Elf, able to shoot from a moving horse as accurately as from the ground…
"Mounted or stationary, that was a magnificent shot, Bori! You've unhorsed two now—you've bested Father at his own sport!"
Boromir laughed, then winced as the cut on his cheek stung. He reached up and touched it gingerly. "Nay—his feat was far more difficult, from a tremendous distance… and I would have been helpless to fell my first, in the pitch black night, without the aid of Mithrandir…"
Faramir's smile vanished at the wizard's name. He hesitated, then clutched Boromir's hand again. "On with you now, to the Healers. A few scratches, perhaps, but that needs a few stitches, at least… And you're hiding another injury, I see…"
"Another Orc-dagger wound, at the gap in the mailshirt where the sleeve joins the tunic," Imrahil said as he began steering away from the Gate and toward the tents, just seven streets up from the courtyard.
"That little devil got lucky," Boromir said over his shoulder, as his horse trotted after his uncle's. "At least, he was until Imrahil arrived… Thank the stars for the Prince of Dol Amroth—and for the skilled workmanship of Gondor's mail-wrights! It isn't deep, but it smarts…"
"Let us hope it wasn't a tainted blade," Faramir called after him.
"Don't think so… I've learned well enough what that feels like…"
The Prince and the Captain-General were gone, and Faramir turned to the Gate again. Men were streaming in hurriedly now, in lines of three and four across. The Captain of Ithilien pushed his way through. Just outside, Baranor stood talking to the Captain of the City Cavalry, still mounted on his dappled grey horse.
"…should be the last of them. The Osgiliath regiment was the largest, by far, and from what Anborn tells me we shouldn't expect any more beyond those already in sight…"
Baranor grunted. "Bröghur's fallen, then…"
The Cavalry Captain nodded. "By now. Wouldn't leave his post, I hear… Had some sixy with him, old campaigners… Gave the rest their chance…"
Faramir stood by them, listening. As is too oft the need in war—for some to have any chance, others must sacrifice all… He drew in a slow breath. All that is left is for us to carry on, with hope.
"Commander, when those in sight are within the walls," he said quietly, "the Gate must be closed."
"Aye, sire," Baranor said gruffly.
"And what of Rohan?" asked the cavalry officer sharply.
"Rohan will fulfill her oath—have no doubt of it," Faramir said. "But when King Théoden comes, his horsemen will be of far greater use on the Pelennor, not within the walls. Yet nothing is certain in these dark times. We can but keep watch, in every direction, for friend and foe."
Six more men, two half-carried by their fellow soldiers, came through the Gate. The Commander questioned them closely; they reported that none were behind them—as far as they knew. They searched the fields nearby, and saw no other approaching soldiers.
Faramir nodded to Baranor. "The Gate, Commander…"
The three officers retreated beneath the arch, as did all men on guard just outside the walls. Baranor whistled and signaled to the Gate-wardens, and the towering Gate, built of many layers of carefully cured hardwood and bound with iron, began grinding on its great hinges. Faramir stood watching, his face stern, knowing full well the consequences of his decision. Yet it must be done… The thick doors met, the interlocking projections fitted together, the open gap was closed and the ancient wooden bolts slammed shut.
Baranor shouted to the men waiting above on the new platforms. Three heavy iron bars slowly slid from one side to the other; men with winches and ropes worked furiously to guide the bars into place. With a loud screech of metal on metal, and a brash clang, the bars were lowered onto their waiting hooks. The Gate of Minas Tirith was shut. Any unfortunate enough to still be abroad in the Pelennor would now be left to their fate.
Faramir nodded to Baranor. "I leave you in command, for I must see to the Captain-General, and it is the Steward's will that he and I report to the Citadel as soon as can be."
* * *
The Captain of Ithilien found his brother just inside the first tent of the Healers. Ordinarily, those with relatively minor injuries were not attended here, but sent to the rooming houses farther up in the First Circle, or transported to the main Houses in the Sixth. But the Captain-General was no ordinary soldier.
The scene inside the tent was an unruly swarm of injured men, admiring onlookers, healers running too and fro and in the midst of all, Boromir, sitting on the edge of a low table. His chest was bare, his grey cloak, bloodied tunic and mailshirt tossed beside him. Lathron himself was placing the last few stitches into the gash on the Captain-General's face, while his chief assistant Candir was scowling at the hidden wound behind his shoulder. Next to Candir, Imrahil stood, peering inward. And strangest of all, kneeling behind Boromir, was the young Perian, Pippin, his face in a knot as he pressed a cloth to the wound.
"Press harder," Candir growled. "Don't play at it! You'll do your patient no favors with too light a touch…"
"Pay him no heed, Pip," Boromir laughed. "Be as gentle as you like… Ouch! Seems you're learning quickly…"
Pippin immediately let up the pressure he had been placing on the bleeding wound. "Sorry, Boromir," he muttered.
"Pah, give that to me!" Candir snapped as he tore the cloth from Pippin's hand. "You'll be of no use to any soldier that might live, that's clear…"
Lathron looked toward his assistant as he finished clipping the final stitch, a hard gleam in his eye. He smoothed a bit of unguent over the new sutures, then slipped around to the back of the table, to inspect his assistant's work. He frowned at the unlucky wound on the Captain-General's shoulder. The knife had partially severed a small muscle—but one vital to stabilizing the shoulder, and critical to the strength of a man's upheld arm. The hole bled copiously as soon as Candir pulled the cloth aside for his superior to see it.
"The teres minor is nearly cut through," Candir said gruffly. "Good thing your sword arm is your right, Captain-General…"
Boromir's eyes flew open with alarm as he tried unsuccessfully to see the wound. Lathron glared at Candir, but directed his words to the Captain-General—and to the surrounding men, listening intently.
"Worry not, my lord," he said firmly, his voice loud enough to be heard throughout the tent. "Though Candir is a skilled apprentice healer, he has much to learn." The senior healer caught Pippin's eye, and the Hobbit would have sworn he saw him wink. Candir flushed deeply, dropped the bandage and stepped back, his face sullen.
Lathron swiftly retrieved the fallen cloth and placed it carefully over the wound. "With proper care, and perhaps a few precisely placed sutures, your bow arm will function normally in no time, sire." Boromir relaxed the tension he'd been holding and sighed with relief. "Here--Peregrin, isn't it?" The healer smiled wanly at Pippin as he gestured for him to come closer. "It just takes a bit of time to learn the balance of gentleness and strength, lad." Lathron brought Pippin's hand forward and slid his fingers beneath his own. "There—like that." He demonstrated the correct pressure, then withdrew. Pippin bit his lower lip with concentration and held his hand exactly as he had been instructed. "Good, good… Hold it there, and watch for the decrease in the flow… You'll note it, soon enough…"
Lathron now returned to the front of the table to face his patient. Faramir and Imrahil were standing on either side of the Captain-General, frowning worriedly at the many scored abrasions and vivid bruises peppered over his trunk. Clearly, the pack of Orcs had made many determined attempts to penetrate Boromir's mail. Faramir looked up at the healer.
"And what of all these?"
"I am not concerned about bruises, however numerous or painful," he replied quietly, his eyes on the Captain-General's. "Bruises will heal. But my Lord, once the shoulder wound is tended—and, by the way, you should not raise a bow for at least three days--you must go without delay to the Houses in the Sixth Circle. I can see that the Black Breath is heavy upon you…"
"I will go when, and if, I have the opportunity," Boromir said dryly. "And forgive my insolence, Lathron, but if I am not mistaken, you healers have not had much success with combating its effects…"
Lathron nodded. "True enough, though of late I am told that the newly appointed assistant herbalist, the Lady Ivreniril, has had some success with a concoction she has discovered, with Master Turin's approval, of course…"
"Then I shall see to it that both of my nephews visit the Houses at once," Imrahil said with a firm look at Faramir.
"No, Uncle, I'm afraid you won't, not yet," Faramir said, with a sidelong glance at his brother. "The Steward is first in Minas TIrith, and his wishes were clear—that I return with the Captain-General and report to the Citadel at once."
Boromir had caught the urgency in Faramir's gaze. "Uncle, a favor…" He grinned. "I will never be comfortable with the idea that I have rank over you… But for now, if you are willing, take command here, in the First Circle and upon the Walls. The troops of the Black Land will soon penetrate our ring of trenches and spikes. The siege is about to begin in earnest—and I would have someone I trust implicitly in command of this first evening's defence."
Imrahil bowed, and soon departed in the direction of the Gate. Lathron took charge of the final touches and binding of Boromir's second wound. Pippin and Faramir together helped the Captain-General slide carefully into his tunic and mail. And then the brothers were gone, and the Healing tents returned to the business at hand: the wounded men who stood, sat or lay in every corner, and spilled out onto the surrounding streets, nearly two hundred of them, and more arriving every minute.
* * *
Boromir stared at the shimmering swirl of the wine in his goblet as he listened in amazed silence to his father's words. One startling pronouncement—the Palantir of Minas Anor!--had been followed quickly by another—Mithrandir, taken by the Enemy…Nay, say it not, say it not! He struggled to continue to attend to his father, speaking now of the Steward Turgon and the burdensome prediction that had spurred the Steward Denethor into claiming the right to use something no steward before him had dared.
His father paced slowly back and forth in front of the now dark windows that lined the northeast wall of the sitting room as he spoke. The brazier threw off heat, but not enough, it seemed to Boromir, to take the chill from him. Or, maybe, it was the Black Breath—for Lathron was correct, he felt the encroaching darkness weighing heavily on him. And on Fari… He glanced at his brother.
Interesting, he thought. He knew Faramir very well, and if he was not mistaken, his younger brother had heard at least some of this distressing news before. He already knew, about Mithrandir… And that meant that the Steward had revealed this to him. When had they spoken? How, and why had his father been forthcoming with such terrible news—news that placed him in an unfavorable light? He watched closely, and noticed a certain ease between them—rather, he noted the absence of Fari's usual tense wariness in the presence of their father.
"Are you saying that you began gazing into that evil thing decades ago, even before Daerada passed on?" Faramir said.
Denethor turned to him, and the shadow of his former stern disapproval was on his face. "Yes, that is correct. But say not that the Palantir is evil. It is an ancient, priceless object of remarkable beauty and awesome power…"
"Yet it harmed you to use it, did it not?" Boromir saw that Fari's face was flushed, and his brother's eyes were locked on their father's. "The blood of Númenor runs as pure in you as in any man alive, Father… And yet you have aged more rapidly than should be the norm. Was it not the Stone that did this to you?" Faramir's voice was hushed with concern—and an openness that Boromir had not heard him express to Denethor in years, if ever.
Denethor sighed, and he crossed to the chair that sat between his sons. "I think not… For many years, I found the information I learned from it to be extremely valuable, for myself and for Gondor. It was in the Stone, for example, that I learned of the amassing of the armada of Umbar, when Boromir was just a boy… That singular discovery led to the destruction of their fleet and the prevention of what could well have been a disastrous invasion." He rubbed his fingers across his brow. "I think it was not the Stone itself—although of late I have wondered whether my claim on it, being false, allowed an injury, of sorts… No, it was the constant struggle, I believe, that has aged me… My struggle against the Nameless One, to resist his invading mind and will. For he also possesses a Stone—the Isil Stone—and oft I would sense his presence, and his attempt to take control of me…"
"But that is horrible!" Boromir burst out. "I had no idea, Father! The risk you took…"
Faramir interjected. "Nay, I would say it otherwise." He rose from his chair and knelt on one knee before the Steward, and looked up into his father's face. "I would say that the Steward Denethor the Second, during whose realm the doom of Gondor shall indeed fall—for better or for worse—has proved without doubt that the line of Húrin is a noble as any line of kings. What you did took enormous courage, Father…and tremendous strength. The cost to you was great, and still you did not flinch. The steel will required to fend off the Nameless One…!" He clenched his fist and held it before his breast in salute. "Gondor may never know the debt owed to you, for tireless courage and strength, my Lord… But we know it, now. And at this late hour, I want you to know that I am grateful, for what you have done…For everything you have done…"
The Steward frowned with amazement. "After everything… After all I did, and what I did not do, you can find it in your heart to thank me?" he whispered.
"I can, Father," Faramir whispered in reply.
"As can I, my Lord," Boromir said in a hoarse voice.
Denethor took in a deep breath and slowly released it. His face was stricken with grief and overwhelming weariness; he brought his hand up, trembling, before his mouth. He did not speak, and his eyes closed. But he nodded slowly. Faramir leaned forward and reached up, gripping his father's other forearm as it lay in his lap.
"And I would say also, that I am glad that you have now decided to set the Stone aside. There are risks that are too great, and knowledge whose price is too high…"
Denethor's eyes opened and he searched his younger son's face with a look of awe. "Whence came you by such wisdom, my son?"
Faramir sat back on his heels and sighed. "I know not that I am wise, more so than any other man… Perhaps I took to heart what I was told, as a sad, confused boy, and as a troubled youth…" His eyes glittered as they met his father's again, and his voice grew husky. "…that you were a wise man, and a good man, and that you loved me…"
"And who would have said such things of me?" the Steward scoffed.
"Mithrandir always said exactly that, when I poured out my small troubles to him… Just as he would always patiently explain, no matter how many times I asked him, about Mother, what she was like, how she became ill, and where she had gone…"
The Steward hid his face for a moment behind both his hands. His sons waited, the elder standing nearby, his hand resting on the back of the chair, and the younger kneeling at his feet. His shoulders shook, and a shudder went through him. Finally he raised his head. He looked up at Boromir, and down at Faramir, and a look of determination—softened with a faint smile—came over his anguished face.
"Then as Mithrandir has done, so must we: whatever we can, without thought for ourselves, to bring an end to this Darkness."
All three rose and walked together to the door and returned to their City under siege.
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.