Chapter 10: An Uneasy Peace
"Dead? What madness is this?" Boromir shouted, his distress and exhaustion fraying his nerves into misplaced anger. "I have heard no whisper in the city of the Steward's death! How can it be that my father is dead?"
Gandalf, as weary and worn as the man confronting him, yet managed to rein in his temper and answer calmly, "By his own hand, Boromir. He commanded a funeral pyre built for him in Rath Dínen, in the House of the Stewards, and burned himself upon it. "
"Nay, this is not possible. It is madness or lies..."
"It is neither. I watched him climb onto the pyre and light it, and I carried Faramir from the tomb myself."
"Faramir!" That brought Boromir up short. His face paled, and his hands clenched into helpless fists. "You told me that my brother lay in the Houses of Healing, guarded and cared for against Aragorn's coming."
"He does now. But your father deemed him beyond help and took him into the houses of the dead, thinking to burn his child with himself. Had it not been for the quick thinking of Pippin and the valor of Beregond, your brother would now lie in the smoking ruins of Denethor's tomb."
Boromir gave a strangled gasp and staggered under the weight of this blow. Aragorn's hand closed on his arm, steadying him, and the Ranger guided him a few steps to a stone bench, where he collapsed and buried his face in his hands.
It was late evening and the stars were out, gleaming fitfully through the last shreds of unnatural cloud that clung to the mountain's peak. Torches and watch fires glowed yellow from the plain below, turning the scene of the day's vicious battle into a twinkling carpet of grounded stars to rival the canopy above. Fires still burned in the city, a dull red in the darkness, and the streets were gripped with an exhausted stillness, but the fear was gone for this night, at least.
The beauty of the night was lost on the three companions gathered in the garden to talk of flame and death. All three had known great elation, great triumph, and great loss this day. All three had fought to the limits of their endurance and lived, only to face the long, cold, filthy and heart-wrenching business of cleaning up after battle.
Boromir had not rested since his last brief halt with the Riders, in the stonewain valley, a full day and night past, and he had not slept even then. After his ride from the gates, he had spent many hours laboring to organize the city's defenses, remove the refuse and the dead from her streets, and reassure her frightened people. Then he had sat at his brother's bedside, listening to Faramir mutter and cry out in his fever, until he was beyond the reach of beauty or comfort. Only pain still seemed able to reach him. The heat and urgency of battle had cooled to bloody ashes, and his triumph at the gates was forgotten in the grim aftermath.
Now, he sat in the calm, lovely gardens that surrounded the Houses of Healing, listening to Gandalf tell him of his father's cruel fate and wondering why he had struggled so hard to come home... to this. His city on the brink of ruin, his father dead, his brother dying, and all his efforts to regain his honor and his place reduced to hollow mockery. Aragorn sat beside him in wordless support, but Aragorn was as disbelieving as Boromir at the news of Denethor's madness and did not know how to react.
"When you met us in the street," Gandalf went on, remorselessly, "we had only just come from bringing Faramir to the Healers."
"I rode into the city through Rath Dínen." Boromir clutched at his head, as though the pressure of his fingers could force the unbearable words from his mind and memory. "I choked on the ashes... my father's ashes, and I wondered what treachery had brought flame and destruction to the very hallows of Minas Tirith."
"It was treachery, indeed. Sauron's arm has grown long, but even he could not reach into the hallowed places of this city, without the Steward's treachery to open the way for him."
"You dare to call my father traitor?!" Boromir growled, bristling with renewed hostility.
"What other name would you give a man who opens his heart to the whispers of the Enemy, is blinded to hope, driven to despair, and finally delivers himself to the death plotted by his foe?"
Boromir fixed his bandaged gaze on the wizard. He felt the truth of Gandalf's words, like the ache of an old wound in his heart, but that truth gave him no comfort.
Gandalf, responding to his unspoken question, said, "Your father had one of the ancient Seeing Stones, the palantíri, which he used to keep watch over ally and enemy alike. He cast his gaze too far and took no heed of danger. The Eye and will of Sauron snared him, and the palantír became enslaved to the Enemy, but Denethor would not believe that his great weapon had been turned against him. He was too proud to consider that a will greater than his own might control the palantír, or that the weapon itself was not meant for such as he to use. He believed what he saw in the stone and would listen to nothing said that contradicted his visions."
Gandalf hesitated for a moment, then added, softly, "He believed in your death. He saw, by the Enemy's design, your fall and imprisonment but not your escape. Pippin and I both told him that you lived, but he would not hear us. We were mere creatures of flesh and blood - deceptive, treacherous, plotting against Gondor and her lord with our tales of rescue and hope - while the palantír never lied."
"He thought me dead," Boromir murmured, distractedly. A deep pain welled up in him - the pain of loss, but worse, of recognition. For try as he might to deny the truth of Gandalf's words, he knew that the wizard had seen clearly into his father's proud, disdainful heart and read him aright. "Another betrayal to add to my account."
Gandalf smiled wearily. "You cannot carry the blame for this one, Boromir. Yes, your death was a terrible blow to Denethor, but it was not, in itself, enough to drive him to madness."
Boromir's answering smile was wry and humorless. "You comfort me."
"I mean to. You have learned much since you rode from Minas Tirith in search of Imladris. Do not fall back into the old habits of arrogance and obstinacy."
"Is it arrogance to accept the blame for my father's death?"
"Yes, if the blame is undeserved and the guilt is naught but a means to magnify your own suffering."
Boromir pondered his words for a moment, then gave a shrug of acceptance and said, "You are merciless, Gandalf the Grey. And as usual, you are right. I will mourn my father, but I will not carry the guilt for his death."
"Very wise, my Lord Steward. Faramir will soon find that he is not the only clear-eyed member of the family." Boromir winced at his choice of words, but the wizard gave no sign of noticing. "I wonder how great a shock it will be to him?"
At the mention of Faramir, Aragorn stirred and rose to his feet. "I must see to the sick and injured. Ioreth will have found the herbs I require, and I must not tarry. Boromir, I grieve with you, and with all the city, for your father's death."
Boromir nodded, wordlessly.
"Will you go in? I would have you there, when Faramir wakes."
Boromir rose to his feet, though he made no move to follow the Ranger inside. "I will come, but first, I would speak a word with Gandalf alone."
Aragorn squeezed his arm in understanding and strode quickly into the House. Boromir waited until he heard boots on stone flags and the sound of a door closing, then he turned back to the wizard, who waited patiently for him to speak. Now that he was alone with Gandalf, he felt suddenly awkward and found it difficult to choose his words.
The wizard relented and asked, with unusual mildness, "What troubles you?"
"Then you would do better to question Aragorn. It is he who will save Faramir, if any can."
"This is not about his illness. I would know if you spoke to him, before he was stricken."
"I did, briefly. He was not long in the city."
"How did he seem to you?"
"Weary and full of grief." Gandalf paused, then his voice took on a keen edge. "You do not want to hear about your brother's battles with Denethor, nor are you interested in the state of the garrison in Ithilien. What is it you want to know, Boromir?"
"Did he speak of me? Of our parting?"
"Of your parting, no, not directly. He questioned me about your capture and Saruman. He did not believe the rumors of your death, for he, unlike Denethor, accepted my word that they were false, but he wanted to know all that had befallen you since leaving Rivendell."
"And did you tell him?"
"Only what I felt was mine to tell. Much of it, I had no part in and would not discuss if I had."
Boromir heard the strain in his own voice, as he asked, "What of the Ring?"
"What of it?"
"Do not toy with me, Gandalf! Did you tell my brother of my attempt to steal the Ring?"
"I did not, but he knew of it, already."
"What?! How could that be?"
"He met Frodo in Ithilien."
"Frodo..." Boromir whirled away, needing activity to vent his growing anguish, but he was adrift in an unfamiliar space and dared not move. His knee pressed against the cold stone of the bench, and he sat down heavily on it, muttering, "Frodo told him." A curse was wrenched out of him, as his hands clenched into fists upon his knees. "Frodo told him!"
"Do not condemn Frodo for indiscretion. I suspect Faramir guessed far more than Frodo said."
Boromir gave a harsh laugh. "I condemn Frodo? I would not presume so much."
"You would rather your brother did not know of the trial you faced?"
"The trial I failed, you mean." Boromir forced his fists to unclench and spread his fingers open to grasp his knees, willing himself to calm, to acceptance. But the knot of fear, shame and sorrow in his innards did not ease. "Nay, Faramir must know, for my betrayal cannot be hidden. Yet I would rather it had been left to me to tell him. And I wish..."
He broke off to swallow the choking pain in his throat, and he fancied he could feel the wizard's keen eyes upon him, kind but piercing, reading his heart whether he allowed it or no.
"I wish this, my greatest folly, did not lie between us at our first meeting."
"Do you think it will make a difference to your brother? To his affection for you or his gladness at your return?"
"We parted badly," Boromir murmured, as much to himself as to the wizard. "He wanted to pursue the quest himself, and I forced my father to let me go in his stead. He was angry, but worse, he was hurt as I've never seen him. I fear that he cannot forgive that hurt, after I usurped his place and betrayed the quest that should have been his."
"Faramir is not a man given to bitterness. I think you will find the wounds deep but not beyond your power to mend."
"I hope you are right, Gandalf. I would find one thing, in all this ghastly ruin, that can still be mended."
"'Tis not all ruin," the wizard said, his voice gruff but strangely soft in the darkness, "and much that was broken has already begun to heal."
Boromir tilted his head up to feel the night wind on his face, and he took deep, sighing breath. "And much never will."
"We are no longer speaking of your father or brother," Gandalf said, shrewdly. Boromir shook his head. "Of what, then?"
"It is foolish of me to ask, for the road to Isengard is closed to me, Saruman's offers refused, and my chance lost. But ask I must." He took another deep breath and ground out, his voice harsh with strain, "Tell me, Gandalf, lest I drive myself mad with wondering, could Saruman have healed my injury, as he promised? Does he have that power?"
A long silence answered him, and Boromir felt hope and embarrassment warring within him, as he waited. At last, Gandalf sighed and said, "I do not know."
"You are of his order. You overpowered him at the doors of Orthanc and broke his staff. If you do not know, who does?"
"No one but Saruman, himself, and you would not get a straight answer from him. Yes, I was once of his order and worked closely beside him, but then his power did not lie in the making of rings or the healing of wounds. He was a lore master, strong, wise and subtle. Then his eyes turned east, to the Black Land, and the wisdom of Saruman was consumed by the evil of Sauron."
"You tell me nothing I do not know, already."
"In his desire to rival Sauron himself, Saruman has turned his great abilities to the mastery of arts not his own. He has usurped powers that do not belong to the wizards, mayhap not to any race yet living in Middle-earth. I do not know where he learned to forge rings of power or breed new strains of orcs, but he has. And I do not know how far those powers go. I have seen his ring and his Uruk-hai. I see your face, now whole and sound, though Aragorn vows it was crushed to bloody ruin by an orc's blade. These things I know Saruman can do, but I know no more."
Boromir ground his teeth in frustration and blurted out, "But what do you think, Gandalf? What do you believe?"
The wizard sighed again, and Boromir heard the rustle of his cloak as he sat down upon the bench beside him. "What I believe will not help you find answers, Boromir."
"It may give me peace."
"Very well. I do not believe that Saruman has the power to restore your sight."
"Yet he did heal my face."
"He healed what was broken, but that is not the same as restoring what is lost. Do you know the full extent of your injury?"
Boromir looked away, turning his face from the wizard's gaze to mask his emotions. "Aye."
"Then you know that there is nothing left for Saruman to heal. I am sorry, Boromir, but I do not believe he has power enough to recreate something that has been thus destroyed.
"No force of evil can truly create - shape, influence, perhaps hasten the effects of time and nature, but not create. That is why the dark powers of the First Age could make orcs only by misshaping elves. And that is why Saruman, a far lesser power than those whom he imitates, can do no more than refine the existing race of orcs to make his Uruk-hai. They are terrifying in their strength and intelligence, but they are only orcs, when all is said and done. To give you back your sight would require a power far more profound than any Saruman has shown."
"Then it was merely another lie," Boromir said.
"So I believe, but if you choose not to believe the same, there is none will blame you."
"Nay. I trust your wisdom in this." Boromir hesitated, marshaling his courage to ask the final question in which lay his last hope. He could feel Gandalf's presence beside him, and he sensed that the wizard was waiting for the question, expecting it. "But what of you, Gandalf? You are the most powerful wizard of this Age. Can you do it?"
The answer was soft and sorrowful, but emphatic. "No, I cannot. If I had that power, I would have done it outside the walls of Isengard and spared you this time of doubt and darkness." Boromir nodded slightly, his face tightening with the effort of holding his pain in check. "I do not believe that such power exists in Middle-earth."
Boromir nodded again, more firmly, and said, in a clipped and strained voice, "I thank you for your candor."
"I am truly sorry. I would that I could give you hope, instead of more darkness."
"It is, in some measure, a relief. I can, at last, turn my back on Isengard and Saruman's lies."
"That is good." The wizard rose to his feet, leaning heavily on his staff. "Very good. I begin to have real faith in you, Boromir of Gondor."
Boromir ignored the rather sideways compliment and asked, "Do you go to find Aragorn?"
The man stood up and started to lift his hand toward the wizard, then thought better of it and let his arm fall to his side. He drew himself up stiffly and said, "I must be with my brother when he awakens."
"That would be best." Neither of them spoke for an awkward moment, then Gandalf said, a laugh in his voice, "Come with me."
As he caught Boromir's arm in a firm clasp and started along the path to the door, the wizard added, "The next lesson you must learn, my stubborn friend, is to ask for help when you need it. Otherwise, you will spend far too much time standing about, looking dignified, and getting nowhere."
Boromir gave a wordless grunt of disgust and followed Gandalf into the House.
They stepped into a cool, stone-flagged hallway that was redolent of fresh herbs and soap. There was not room for two men to walk comfortably abreast, so Boromir fell into step behind Gandalf, using the wall and the tapping of the wizard's staff for guidance. He was relieved to be free of Gandalf's clasp. It was one thing to accept a guiding hand from Merry or Pippin and another thing, entirely, to place that kind of trust in someone he had only just learned to accept as a friend.
He followed Gandalf around a corner and heard voices just ahead. Aragorn spoke in a low, insistent tone, and another man answered him. At the sound of that second voice, Boromir felt a surge of elation fill him and, forgetting caution, he stepped eagerly forward. Before he had taken two strides, he was stumbling backward, the sound of shrieked protests in his ears while fabric tumbled around him and tangled his feet.
He caught the wall for balance and righted himself, then he tried to kick the fabric away from him.
"My linens!" a vaguely familiar voice cried out. "You're trampling them!"
"I beg your pardon," he muttered, half in embarrassment and half in annoyance. He could hear his brother's voice, speaking softly to Aragorn, and he was anxious to reach him, but a treacherous morass of spilled linens and scolding females barred his way.
A startled gasp made him frown at the woman in confusion. "My lord!" she said in a strangled way.
"Do I know you?" Boromir asked.
"Nay! That is... we... we met in the street, near the Citadel gate."
Recognition dawned, and Boromir felt a painful flush rise in his face. He stood in stiff silence, not sure whether to vent his anger and humiliation on her, or to stalk coldly away and leave her with her ruined sheets. Then the humor of the moment struck him, and he gave a rueful chuckle.
"I beg pardon for my rudeness, lord," she said, her voice wooden. "I did not know you for our own Steward's son in your foreign garments."
Boromir could not resist asking, "Are you only gracious to Denethor's sons? Or is it only to soldiers of Minas Tirith?"
"I was in a hurry, lord, and that frightened by all the noise. And you did spill my herbs," she added, a touch of the old acerbity in her voice.
"Aye, so I did, and now I've spilled your linens, as well. I am sorry."
She had resumed her wooden, humble manner, when she said, "'Tis no matter, my lord. Pray do not trouble yourself."
Boromir was in the process of crouching down to help her gather her scattered burdens, when Gandalf strode over to him, trampling the cloth beneath his booted feet.
"Come, Boromir, you are needed."
The woman held her tongue, even when Boromir rose to his feet again and walked over her linens in Gandalf's wake. The wizard tossed a gruff apology to the woman as he led Boromir swiftly away. He obviously had something of much more moment than dirty sheets to occupy his mind, and Boromir caught the edge of excitement in him.
They reached the doorway to Faramir's room, and Gandalf halted abruptly. Boromir stopped, with one hand on the wizard's shoulder, and waited for some sign from the men inside the room. He heard Faramir speaking in a low, weak, yet strangely elated voice to Aragorn, calling him king. A smile spread over Boromir's face, as a cold fear he had not dared to examine was lifted from him. Faramir lived. He lived, and he knew his king!
"You must rest now," Aragorn said to the injured man. "Rest, heal, and walk no more in shadow. Here is someone you did not think to see again, who will help you forget your evil dreams."
As Aragorn spoke, Gandalf stepped aside, and the Ranger caught Boromir's arm to draw him up to the bed. Boromir halted when his leg bumped the mattress, and he gazed down at the place from which his brother's voice had come with a slight, awkward smile on his face.
"Boromir?" The younger man's voice sounded incredulous, but whether he felt joy or regret beneath the surprise, Boromir could not tell. The mattress rustled, as Faramir pushed himself away from the bed to sit up, and feverish hands took Boromir's in a firm clasp. When he spoke again, there was no mistaking the joy. "Boromir! I knew Gandalf spoke the truth! I knew you would come!"
"Aye, Brother." Boromir did not know what more to say. He was lost in a flood of mingled relief, sorrow and gratitude that left no room in him for words.
With a tug on his hand, Faramir pulled him down to sit on the bed, then he caught Boromir in an embrace as heartfelt as any he had ever given him as a child. Boromir returned the embrace, holding his brother's body, still warm with fever, and remembering all the years of affection, conflict, peril and adventure they had shared. How could he have doubted that Faramir would welcome him home? How could he have feared that the one man in all the world who knew and loved him for who he truly was would fail to forgive him?
"Our father told the Council you were dead," Faramir said, his voice thick with unshed tears, "but I did not believe it. We heard your horn blowing from the west, and I was afraid, but I could not give you up for dead without some sign..."
"You are ill and weak," Boromir chided, slipping easily into his role as protective older brother, "and Aragorn has commanded you to rest. Lie back and be still."
Faramir obediently lay back against his pillows, but he held Boromir's hand tightly in both of his own, as though afraid that he would vanish if let go. Aragorn, who had stood quietly to one side while the brothers greeted each other, now moved up to stand over Faramir again.
"I must see to others in this House, so I will leave him in your care, Boromir. He must rest. Do not let him rise, and do not tire him with much talk. You may stay with him 'til I return."
"My lord King," Faramir said the words reverently, yet simply, as if he had been saying them all his life, "did you bring my brother home to Minas Tirith?"
"I played only a small part. 'Tis a long tale, Faramir, and one that will have to wait. But if you want to thank someone, start with the halflings, Meriadoc and Peregrin."
Aragorn dropped a hand to Boromir's shoulder and murmured, "Tell him what you deem wise, but do not burden him over much."
Boromir nodded understanding. "What of Merry and Éowyn?"
"I go to them now. I'll bring you word."
Aragorn left, taking Gandalf and the healers with him and leaving Boromir alone with his brother.
In the sudden quiet that descended on them, Faramir tightened his hold on his brother's hand and murmured, "It heals my heart to see you again, Brother."
Boromir smiled sadly, remembering the bitter words exchanged at their parting and his own absurd fears. "I thought of you often, wishing I had your wisdom to guide me on my journey."
Faramir laughed, and the tears in his voice only made the sound that much sweeter. "You would not have heeded me. You never did. Ah, Boromir, I have missed you!"
"And I, you."
The two men fell silent, overwhelmed by the rush of emotions, by the myriad questions that must be asked, the tales that must be told, and the many subjects that must be skirted at this first, uncertain meeting. Neither of them knew where to begin, nor could they master their voices to speak with the dignity they demanded of themselves. Finally, Faramir shifted his grip to clasp Boromir's forearm in a soldier's greeting - a gesture of respect between equals - and Boromir returned the salute.
Faramir's voice was still thick with unacknowledged tears, but he had mastered himself enough to speak evenly. "I knew you were alive, and I never lost hope that I would see you within the walls of Minas Tirith again."
"You must have known that no power in Middle-earth could keep me away from my city in such an hour, if I still lived to wield a sword."
"Our father despaired of you."
"He was betrayed into despair by the Enemy."
"And yet, he saw your fate clearly enough. He spoke of your capture and torture..."
"I do not know what he saw, or thought he saw," Boromir growled, cutting him off, "but it matters little now. I am neither dead, nor lost in the pits of Isengard, but here in the White City where I belong."
"Matters little?!" Faramir spluttered.
Boromir heard the outrage in his brother's voice and felt his own face harden. "I do not wish to speak of wizards or orcs or dungeons," he said, stifling Faramir's threatened outburst. "They are of no import, now that we are free of them and Aragorn is come to Gondor. I have brought you your king out of legend, Brother. Content yourself with that and leave the rest."
"You brought the king?"
"I did my part, as he did his in bringing me home." Boromir paused, feeling a twinge of disappointment that his brother seemed so doubtful, so disbelieving of his role in bringing the king to his throne. He went on, in a voice softened by sorrow, "I hoped that his coming would help to heal the rift between us, Faramir. I hoped that it would give you back your faith in me."
"I never lost faith in you."
"Even when Frodo told you about the Ring?" Silence answered him, and Faramir's clasp on his arm slackened. "Aye, Gandalf told me about your meeting with the ringbearer. I do not blame you for withdrawing from me. I would do the same, were it any other man, and for a time I did give myself up for lost. But Aragorn saw me through that despair. He persuaded me to hope, and he offered me a way to redeem my honor. I vowed to send Isildur's Heir to Gondor, to his throne, to save her from the Shadow in the East and to save me from a traitor's death. I have kept that vow, Faramir, for you, for myself, and for all Gondor."
Faramir did not speak for a few moments, and when he did, his words came slowly, almost reluctantly. "I understand why you want it. It would give you all you have ever desired."
"It would give me - has given me - nothing but grief and pain. It is an entirely evil thing, and I am grateful that fate and the halfling have carried it far beyond my reach."
"Yet you want it still."
Boromir's mouth tightened into a hard line. As ever, his brother's piercing insight and ready tongue annoyed him, but he swallowed his usual angry retort and forced himself to answer with equal candor. "I want it still, but I am on my guard, now. I will never again believe its vile whispers." Giving Faramir a twisted, humorless smile, he added, "You do not hear the whispers, do you, Brother?"
"Nay, it does not speak to me. The Ring holds no temptation for me, only fear and dread."
"Then you are both wiser and stronger than I."
"You lack neither wisdom nor strength, Boromir, but you are much like our father," Faramir murmured.
"Aye, so I fear."
That caught Faramir's attention. His voice sharpened abruptly. "Fear? What mean you by that?"
Boromir sighed and rubbed his face, trying to banish his weariness and his grief to find a gentle way of telling his brother that their father had burned himself to death in his madness. His tongue had betrayed him, leading him into a conversation he did not want to have and setting doubts in Faramir's mind that he would have spared the sick, weakened man. It was enough that Denethor was dead and the Steward's chair held by a blind man in this time of terrible crisis. Faramir did not need to know how near he had come to sharing Denethor's fate, nor how closely Boromir's own journey of betrayal and despair mirrored his mad father's.
"You are troubled by more than memories," Faramir said, shrewdly. "What grave news do you keep from me, Brother?"
With another sigh, Boromir straightened his shoulders and turned a determined look on his brother. He knew that his features had hardened and his voice grown harsh, but he needed such armor against the pain of his own words and Faramir's reaction.
"Our father is dead, Faramir."
"Denethor? Dead?" Faramir shifted an elbow beneath him, pushed himself away from the mattress, and reached to clutch at Boromir's arm with his free hand. "How can this be?!"
"I told you that he was betrayed by the Enemy..."
"Treachery within our city?! Who would dare harm the Steward of Gondor?"
"Only the Steward himself, hounded to it by the lies of Sauron. He died by his own hand."
"Nay..." Faramir collapsed back against his pillows, and his hand went slack on Boromir's arm. "Nay, 'tis not possible... Denethor, son of Ecthelion, take his own life? At the very moment of our doom? 'Tis madness."
"Were you there? Did you speak to him ere he died?"
Boromir shook his head. "I came too late to curb his madness or to bid him farewell. I did not know until Gandalf told me, just before you awoke, what had befallen him."
"How... how did he die?"
"The full tale can wait. It is enough for you to know that Denethor is dead and I am, for the moment, Steward of Gondor."
Faramir, as was his wont, pounced on the unexpected phrase and would not let it pass unnoticed. "For the moment?"
"Isildur's Heir has come. Gondor has a king, and all has changed."
"Aye..." Faramir's voice trailed off into thoughtful silence, then he mused, very softly, "Our father is dead, and the Stewardship is ended with him."
"Aragorn will need a Steward to support his reign."
"But not to rule Minas Tirith and Gondor in his stead, as you were trained to do. Or to rule as king, as you have long hoped to do."
"All has changed," Boromir repeated, firmly. He did not like the doubtful note in his brother's voice or the unspoken, but painfully clear reminders of the long disagreement between them about the future of Gondor's throne and Gondor's favorite son. Only time would convince Faramir of his sincere loyalty to the king, and until Faramir believed, he would not put aside his doubts or his lingering hurt. As always, Gandalf had seen the truth of the situation.
"The king will make his choice," Boromir went on, his tone of voice brooking no argument, "and we will abide by it. I trust in his judgment."
"As do I," Faramir murmured.
"Then we have only to wait and safeguard the city against his coming."
Faramir hesitated, then said, "I will rest easier, knowing you have our city in your keeping. I and all Gondor have missed you sorely, Boromir. "
"You missed my sword, at any rate." Boromir forced wry amusement into his voice in a bid to dispel the gloom that hung about his brother. "I come home to find the city in chaos, the enemy pounding at the gates, and you taking your ease in bed. Clearly, you cannot manage without me. I should have listened to you and stayed home."
Faramir chuckled softly. "You should always listen to me."
"Aye. Between you, Aragorn and Gandalf, I am beset with great minds. I feel at a grave disadvantage." Boromir scratched his chin thoughtfully, then added, "I think I will take up farming and leave the affairs of Men to wiser heads and clearer eyes than mine."
Faramir laughed again, but Boromir heard the note of doubt in his laughter, as though he were not sure his brother was joking.
"I have talked enough of my own adventures and mistakes. Tell me something of yourself, Faramir. What has befallen you in the months since we parted?"
"They have been hard months - for me and for our people."
"I do not doubt it. Tell me."
Faramir heard the note of longing in his voice, recognized the hunger in him for some news of the land and people he loved so single-mindedly, and promptly launched into the tale of all that had passed since his departure. He spoke of the long, grim war, the abandonment of the garrison in Ithilien, the loss of the last bridge at Osgiliath, and the coming of the winged shadow. He said little of their father, but Boromir was wise enough in the ways of his family to recognize his father's hand in much of what his brother had done. And he knew that every careful gap in Faramir's tale could be filled by another strained and bitter scene with Denethor.
Boromir listened with a growing sense of guilt for having left Faramir so long, without his older brother's shielding presence. He had to remind himself that Faramir was a grown man with years of experience in dealing with a cold, critical father. And he took a perverse comfort in the fact that Denethor had chosen to take Faramir into death with him - a last, desperate, ill-timed gesture of love. When Faramir was stronger and ready to hear the full tale of his father's death, perhaps he, too, would take some comfort in the certainty that Denethor had loved him.
In the middle of Faramir's narrative, Aragorn walked into the room. He brought the Warden of the Houses of Healing in his wake, and the old woman, Ioreth. When Faramir's gaze touched his king, he broke off his story and fell into a waiting, respectful silence. Boromir turned to meet the new arrivals, a frown gathering on his face, until he heard Aragorn's voice.
"'Tis time and past time that your brother was asleep, Boromir."
Boromir rose obediently to leave, but he stooped over the bed to clasp Faramir's hand again in farewell. His brother clung to him with surprising strength.
"Must you go?" Faramir asked, and for that brief moment, his voice was that of the young child Boromir had loved and taught and indulged and protected with such fierce devotion. It was long, long ago, but that pleading voice seemed to wipe the years away and throw him back into his youth, with his small brother clinging eagerly to his hand.
"I must, but I'll not go far." He rested his free hand on Faramir's rumpled hair, resisting the urge to bend down and plant a kiss on his fevered forehead.
"Thank you," Faramir whispered.
Boromir smiled, gripped his hand for a moment, then turned away and let Aragorn pilot him out the door.
"He'll mend?" Boromir asked, as he stepped close to the Ranger.
"Aye, and all the more quickly for having you near. For now, go to Merry. He is awake and asking for you."
"Merry?" Boromir perked up visibly at that and started down the hallway. He got only a few paces from Faramir's door when he realized that he had no idea where to find the halfling. He stopped abruptly and turned to ask Aragorn, but the other man had returned to Faramir's bedside, and Boromir could hear him talking with his brother in a low voice.
Nonplussed, he stood in the middle of the hallway and wondered how long he would have to wait for Aragorn and how foolish he looked in the meantime. Soft footsteps approached him, and a man's low, measured voice spoke to him.
"Can I be of help, my lord Steward?"
Boromir hid his awkwardness beneath a slight scowl and demanded, "Who are you?"
"The Warden of these Houses. I came to see to your brother's comfort, but he is in the best of hands and needs nothing from me. What of you, lord?"
"I am looking for the halfling, Meriadoc."
"Ah, the perian. I do not know which room is his, but I will find someone to show you." The man turned away, his clothing rustling like dried leaves, then he called out, "Gil! Come here, girl!"
Yet another set of footsteps approached. "Sir?"
"You know where the perian is lodged, do you not? Take the lord Boromir to his room."
"Your pardon, sir, but Ioreth told me to finish with the washing." Boromir detected something close to panic in the woman's voice, and he sympathized with her. His guide was none other than the drudge he had bumped into twice, with such uncomfortable results.
"Nonsense, girl. Your errand can wait," the Warden insisted. "Show Lord Boromir where to find his companion, and I will explain to Ioreth what has delayed you."
"Aye." Her voice had gone wooden and dull again. "If you will come with me, lord?"
Her hand slipped through Boromir's elbow, and he thought he could feel her fingers trembling. As she started down the hallway, drawing him away from the Warden, he took pity on her and said, "You needn't be afraid of me." Then his sense of the ridiculous got the better of him, and he added, "I don't have my sword with me tonight, so I'm quite harmless."
"By your mercy, my lord, forget I ever spoke such words to you."
"As you wish... Gil? Is that right?" He frowned at the odd name.
"Gilthaethil." Even using her wooden voice, she managed to invest the name with a wealth of distaste. "Ioreth named me. She took it from some ratty old legend. I know not which one."
"Ioreth? The old woman who never stops talking?"
"She is your mother?"
"All the mother I have." Again, beneath the flatness of her tone was a clear message that the subject was closed and she had no intention of discussing it further.
Boromir gave an inward shrug and fell silent. His guide was an oddity - sharp-tongued and shrewish one moment, humble and apologetic the next, with an abrupt way of speaking that made her sound angry, no matter what came out of her mouth. Boromir felt a mild curiosity about her, wondering what she looked like and how she had come to work in the Houses of Healing, but it was a fleeting interest. The sound of high-pitched, familiar voices floating down the hallway toward him drove all other considerations from his mind.
His head came up, and a smile spread over his face, as he heard Merry say, "What I'd really like is a bite and a nice pipe. And where is Boromir, I wonder?"
Gil pulled her hand from his arm and said, curtly, "It's straight ahead, lord. Best hurry. You're waited for."
Boromir nodded his thanks and strode quickly into the room, his smile widening into a grin as he was met with a delighted chorus of welcome and voluble demands for supper.
*** *** ***
The next morning dawned clear and fair. Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth, strode through the city toward the shattered gates, summoned to a council of war by his new king. Except that Aragorn was not yet his king, having withdrawn his presence and his men from the city to camp upon the battlefield, like some lesser knight awaiting an audience with the lord of the city. Imrahil frowned slightly at the thought. He saw the wisdom of Aragorn's decision not to throw Minas Tirith into turmoil by claiming his birthright at such a time, but he thought, privately, that the future king was unleashing turmoil of a whole other kind by his hesitation. Imrahil had heard rumblings through the night - discontented, troublesome rumblings from soldiers and leaders he respected - that he could not entirely ignore.
As he walked through the city, the Prince could not but marvel at the diligence of her people and the progress already made to restore her scarred beauty. All traces of the dead and injured were gone from the streets, along with the foul missiles fired by the orcs over the walls. A few fires still burned, but they were no more than glowing embers now. Even the gates had been cleared, the shattered wood hauled out upon the plain for use in the funeral pyres. The Prince, in his fairness, gave credit for the work to the man he knew held command in the city, and his troubled mind was eased somewhat by this evidence of the Steward's skill.
Imrahil walked through the open archway and onto the bloody fields of the Pelennor, toward the tents of the Dúnedain. Aragorn's tent was unadorned by device or standard. Only the sentries at the opening, grey-clad warriors with fell faces, set it apart from those about it. Imrahil accepted the guards' salute and ducked inside the tent.
He found Aragorn and Mithrandir awaiting him, with the sons of Elrond, Éomer, Boromir and Aragorn's lieutenant, Halbarad. Chairs were set close about a camp table, on which were piled maps and lists scribbled hastily upon scraps of parchment, and all those present, save Halbarad, were seated. The Ranger chose to stand in silence at Aragorn's back, like a protective grey shadow, apart from the council but ever watchful.
Imrahil took a seat between one of the Elven lords - he could not tell which - and the King of the Mark. Aragorn gave him a weary smile, then pushed a map into the center of the table, where all could see it.
"We are met here to choose the manner of our deaths, my lords."
The council that followed both stirred and daunted the Prince of Dol Amroth. He heard death in the king's words, despair in the wizard's prophecies, and he saw the fate that awaited Middle-earth with a new and dreadful clarity. And yet, he could not abandon hope, when Isildur's Heir sat before him and the Sword that was Broken shone before his eyes, reforged and tempered in the blood of Gondor's foes. Aragorn and Mithrandir did not counsel despair, for which Imrahil was grateful. Instead, they warmed his blood with talk of challenging the Enemy, and they spoke of victory. Of the Ring of Power. Of a desperate quest upon which hung all their hopes.
When Aragorn stated his intention of marching on the Black Gates, Imrahil felt his blood fired with pride and a grim excitement. He would march with his lord to the very walls of Mordor, and he would die in this last, desperate bid for freedom from the Shadow. The knights of Dol Amroth would be remembered in song and legend, should any Man live to write them.
Finally, after all the troop dispositions had been made, all the strategies decided, and the date set for their valiant, lunatic offensive, Aragorn sat back in his chair and turned to the man at his right.
"I am sorry, Boromir, but you cannot ride with us. And this time, I'm making it a command."
To Imrahil's surprise, Boromir only smiled wryly and said, "I had not planned on it."
"I count on you to hold Minas Tirith for me. If I do not return, the city and the last defense of Gondor belong to you."
Behind Aragorn, Halbarad stirred restlessly, and Imrahil caught the glint of his eyes in the dim light, as his gaze touched the Prince. Neither Prince nor Ranger spoke, and the sons of Elrond seemed unmoved by Aragorn's words. Only Éomer responded, leaning over to clasp Boromir's arm and say, "I, for one, will ride with a lighter heart, knowing you are guarding the road behind us."
Boromir said, "See that you march back down it, my friend."
"Then we are in agreement," Aragorn said, as he pushed back his chair and rose to his feet. "In two days' time, we march with our combined armies. Elfhelm and the main force of the Rohirrim will ride against our enemies in Anórien. Boromir will command the garrison left in Minas Tirith, including the Tower Guard, and will rule as Steward until my return."
Halbarad spoke for the first time, his voice soft and grave. "And if you do not return?"
"Then all will be as it was before we rode from the black ships and unfurled the banner of King Elessar above the smoke of battle. It will be as if the King had never come." Aragorn stepped to the doorway and lifted the tent flap. Framed in its opening, they could all see the soaring walls of Minas Tirith and, if they tilted their heads well back, bright upon the highest tower, they could see a white banner snapping in the stiff breeze. Aragorn did not need to speak. No one in the tent missed the significance of that simple, white banner floating above the Tower of Guard, as it had done for more years than any mortal among them could count.
The princes, kings and lords filed out of the tent in thoughtful silence. Imrahil stepped into the fresh sunlight and moved slightly away from the guards, his eyes dwelling on the walls that rose before him. Éomer and Boromir strode past him, making for the shattered gates. Imrahil made no move to greet or delay his kinsman, but let them go ahead of him. He was gazing after them, unmoving, when another figure came up beside him and a soft voice murmured in his ear,
"In two days time, we ride against Sauron."
Imrahil turned to look at Halbarad, wondering why the Ranger had chosen to speak to him. He could see nothing in the other man's face but calm and remove, the grey eyes fixed unwaveringly on the two figures now approaching the gate, but when Imrahil glanced down, he saw that Halbarad's left hand was clenching and unclenching upon the pommel of his sword.
Cautiously, Imrahil responded, "To death, it would seem, and yet I cannot despair of life when I ride with such as are gathered here. I do not see death in the lord Aragorn's face."
"You are wise. It is not those who ride with the Dúnedain who should fear but, mayhap, those who wait behind."
Imrahil turned to face him directly, his manner wary, and demanded, "Speak your mind plainly, I beg you."
"Very well. In plain speech, I am loath to ride away to war, leaving Minas Tirith in the hands of Denethor's son. I do not trust him to hold it in the king's name, nor do I trust his motives in seeking the favor of his liege lord."
"You speak of one who is close kin to me, one whom I hold in the deepest affection."
"Aye, but does your affection for Boromir blind you to his faults?"
"What do you know of his faults?" Imrahil retorted.
"I knew his father well - too well for my own comfort - and I know how like the father is the son. Denethor was ever hostile toward the exiles of Númenor. Think you he taught his son any more respect than he felt himself? Think you the proud Boromir will set aside his own ambitions and his father's teachings to walk a pace behind Aragorn throughout his life?"
"I saw no pride or ambition in Boromir today, only loyalty and a willingness to serve his king."
"Perhaps." Halbarad gazed steadily at the Prince, as though turning over his words carefully, giving them due consideration. "Perhaps he has put aside his own ambitions in deference to the king. But why?"
"Because Aragorn is a Man who commands such deference. Have we not all done the same?"
"We are not all Boromir of Gondor." Halbarad paused, letting that statement lie between them for a long moment, then he said, softly, persuasively, "If Boromir has accepted second place to Aragorn, it can only be because he knows himself unfit to rule."
"You will never convince Aragorn of that, or the people of Minas Tirith, who love him dearly."
"Aragorn is bound by a vow he made under extreme duress. He is a man both generous and noble, and he would not see another creature in needless pain. He made a promise to Boromir, when he believed them both destined for the most terrible suffering and death, and he must now live with that promise, however recklessly given. But if the nobles and allies of Gondor gave him an honorable way out, if we could persuade Boromir himself to release Aragorn from that vow, then he would choose a more suitable partner for his rule."
Imrahil said nothing, and Halbarad took his silence for agreement. Throwing all his urgency and conviction into his voice, he said, "Whether Boromir is merely biding his time to claim the crown for himself, or whether he is truly as broken in spirit as he is in body and no longer able to rule well, he does not belong at Aragorn's side. You know this to be true, for you spoke of it yourself on the battlefield. And if we two know it, how many more of the princes and captains Aragorn trusts will step forward to help prevent this evil?"
"Evil? You call my kinsman evil?"
"Denethor himself fell into evil, ere he died. Is Boromir of sterner mettle than his sire? I dare not hope it. And I tell you, in confidence, that the son of Denethor did great evil upon the road from Imladris. I know not what deed he did, for Aragorn does not speak openly of it, but its shadow weighs upon the heart of the king and all the Fellowship. Having fallen once into evil, how will Boromir withstand it at such an hour? When faced with such an Enemy? We all ride to our doom, yet methinks Boromir has already met his."
Imrahil eyed him narrowly, his face carefully neutral. "If I were to do as you suggest and persuade Boromir to refuse the Steward's chair, who then would take his place?"
"Denethor has two sons."
"Aye, but the greatest fault you lay at Boromir's door is that of being Denethor's son. Is not Faramir his son, also? Does he not deserve the same distrust as his brother?"
"You know them both well, Prince. What say you?"
Slowly, reluctantly, Imrahil answered, "I say that Faramir, more than Boromir, is like to Denethor in ability, but he has none of his sire's pride or haughtiness. He is... the noblest of a noble race, wise, just and honorable. There is none I would sooner trust to lead my people, save the King himself."
"Then why do you hesitate?"
"Because Faramir's worth does not make Boromir's any less. I value both my kinsmen, and I distrust your reasons for pressuring me thus. Tell me, Halbarad of the Dúnedain, why do you concern yourself with Gondor's Steward and Gondor's affairs?"
"They are my affairs, too. Think you I am some nameless wanderer of the North, recruited to fill the army's numbers? Nay, Prince Imrahil. I am Aragorn's kinsman, his trusted friend, his chief lieutenant and councilor. Through all the long years of his exile, I have fought at his side, because the same blood of Númenor flows in my veins, and the same longing to come home again. To Gondor. To Minas Tirith. To kingship, our birthright, and the return of our lost glory. I have earned the right to stand at his side, when he places the crown of Eärnur upon his brow, and to stay at his side through all the years to come. So speak not to me of Gondor's affairs!"
The prince smiled and gave a small bow. "I beg your pardon. And I begin to see."
"See what?" Halbarad demanded, his calm ruffled at last by his own impassioned outburst and by Imrahil's amused tone.
"Your true motives. Nay, Ranger," he held up a hand to silence Halbarad's protest, "I mean no offence. And in truth, I am more inclined to aid you, knowing why you ask it of me. But do not think you fool me with your lofty claims of protecting Gondor and her people from an unfit ruler."
He stared straight into Halbarad's blazing eyes and said, flatly, "You are jealous of your lord's affection for another. You would remove Boromir from the halls of power, so that none might challenge your place at Aragorn's side."
"If you believe these are my motives, why even consider siding with me?"
Imrahil's smile died, and his face grew grim. "Whatever your motives, your reasoning is sound. And my motives will remain my own."
Halbarad was momentarily taken aback by his hard tone, but he recovered his poise and asked, smoothly, "You will speak to Boromir?"
"Nay, he will not heed me! There is only one man yet living who might sway him."
"His brother, Faramir."
"Boromir would step aside, at his brother's urging? Giving that brother his birthright and place of power?"
"If Faramir asked it of him, I believe he would."
"And what will convince the Lord Faramir to ask such a thing of his beloved brother?"
"His own judgment that it is right and necessary."
"We must wait, then, upon Faramir's judgment?"
Imrahil bridled afresh at the Ranger's mocking tone. "I will speak to Faramir, sound him out on this matter. But be careful what you ask for, Halbarad. Faramir is no less formidable than his brother, and you will find him no easier to control or brush aside, should he sit in the Steward's chair."
Halbarad drew himself up, stiffly. "You choose to see me as a jealous hound, guarding a bone, but you do me an injustice, Prince Imrahil. In all good faith, I look for no more than the glory of Gondor and the welfare of her king. I do not like the Lord Boromir, I admit it. That dislike is born of years of bad blood and distrust between our lords and lands. Yet, I am willing to accept your word that his brother is not of like kind to him and may serve my liege lord in all honor and faith. I am willing to help another son of Denethor to the Stewardship, if you deem him worthy, as I would defend the current Steward, regardless of my dislike, if I believed him fit for that title."
Imrahil smiled, but it did not touch his eyes. "Save your speeches for the King's council chamber. I have said that I will speak to Faramir, and I will, but I make no promises beyond that. It will be no easy task to persuade Faramir that he should put his brother aside, and it will be an even harder task to persuade Boromir after him. Then there is Aragorn. I leave you to judge how ready our king will be to break his vow."
Imrahil smiled again, faintly, at the certainty in the other man's voice. "I bid you good day, then, Ranger." He turned, before Halbarad could speak again, and strode toward the city, headed for the Houses of Healing and a meeting he wished that his conscience would allow him to avoid.
Imrahil found Faramir in his room in the Houses of Healing. He lay quietly in bed, his gaze turned to the window that opened on the gardens and the city ramparts, and his face sad. At the sound of booted feet on the flagstones, he turned his eyes to the doorway. A smile of welcome lightened his shadowed face. He held out a hand toward the Prince.
As the prince crossed swiftly to the bed, he noted Faramir's pallor and the heaviness of grief in his eyes. He looked like a man suffering from wounds of body and spirit alike. Clasping the offered hand warmly, Imrahil said, "I am glad to see you awake and mending, Faramir."
"We have the king to thank for that."
Imrahil smiled at the warmth and wonder in the other man's voice. "Aye, for that and for many things. He won a great victory, yesterday."
Faramir's face grew even more drawn, and his eyes went back to the window, to the black shadow that still loomed to the east like a portent of doom. "But what has it gained us?"
"Time. A brief, uneasy peace, in which to marshal our strength and prepare for the final battle."
Troubled grey eyes fixed on Imrahil's face, and Faramir said, quietly, "You have come from the king's war council."
"What say Aragorn and Mithrandir? When will the final blow fall upon us, and what will they do?"
"Go swiftly to meet it." Imrahil sat down on the edge of the bed and let his gaze stray to the window. His face, though he knew it not, was as drawn and grim as that of the sick man lying before him. "In two days' time, the armies of the West will march to Mordor."
When Faramir made no comment, Imrahil turned curious eyes on him and said, shrewdly, "This does not surprise you?"
"Nay. It is the only path left to us."
"We cannot hope to breach its walls or shatter its gates. Sauron's armies will o'erwhelm us."
"There are other ways to win a war than with armies."
A slow smile appeared on Imrahil's face. "You know something of Mithrandir's secret hope. Have you, then, your father's long sight?"
Faramir's mouth tightened in pain, and he turned his head away from his kinsman's gaze.
"I am sorry, Faramir. I forgot, for a moment..."
Faramir spoke in a whisper so soft that Imrahil had to strain to catch his words. "Alas for my father. Alas for Denethor, son of Ecthelion."
"Alas for us all," Imrahil added, bitterly.
"Why do you speak thus?"
Imrahil now had Faramir's undivided attention, and he found it unsettling. The grey eyes seemed to pierce his flesh to plumb his very heart. "Does not all Gondor grieve for the death of the Steward?"
Faramir's gaze became even more piercing. "I know you well, Imrahil, and I know that you felt little love for the Lord Denethor. Respect, aye, and the bonds of kinship. Vows of fealty that you have never broken. But love? Nay. I do not need my father's long sight to perceive some other meaning in your words. I beg you, do me the courtesy to speak plainly."
Meeting that direct gaze, Imrahil silently cursed Halbarad's insinuations and cunning half-truths. The Prince of Dol Amroth would not stoop to such tricks, nor would the son of Denethor fall prey to them. If he, Imrahil, was right about the fate of Gondor and her new Steward, then Faramir would see it, too, and act to protect his people. If he was wrong, then Faramir was the man to tell him so. That left him only one course - to tell Faramir honestly what was in his heart.
Dropping his smooth and courtly manner, the Prince said, abruptly, "I do not weep for Denethor. I weep for his city and for his sons, whom he has left in desperate straits through his own arrogance and folly."
"'Tis not my father's fault that Sauron rises again."
"'Tis your father's fault that Minas Tirith and all Gondor are unprepared to meet his coming. And 'tis your father's madness that has bereft us of a leader when most we need one."
"The king leads us."
"Aye, but he will not accept his crown until the war is done. And in two days' time, he rides again to battle, taking all the nobility of Gondor and her allies with him, with no hope of victory. Even if this other, hidden weapon they have sent against the Enemy should succeed, what certainty have we that Aragorn - or any of us - will ride back again, alive, to Minas Tirith?"
"None. That is war."
"That is war, and we are soldiers. But what of those who are left behind? If Aragorn falls before the Black Gates, who will rule Gondor in his stead?"
Imrahil hesitated for a long, tense moment, then he asked, "Have you spoken to Boromir?"
"Aye. He was here when I awoke last night."
"How seems he to you?"
Now it was Faramir's turn to fall silent, as he searched his memory and weighed his words. When he finally spoke, his voice was both thoughtful and sad. "He is grieving for our father. He has ridden from battle into battle, from sorrow into sorrow. He is weary and troubled, beset by worries, and scarred by deep wounds that still pain him. I have never seen him so burdened by care."
"So I think. And I deem it our duty to relieve him of his burdens before they break him."
A frown darkened Faramir's face. "What are you saying?"
"That Boromir is no longer fit to rule Gondor - either as Steward to Aragorn's King, or as sole ruler after the king's death. You bid me speak plain, Faramir, and that is the plain truth as I see it."
"By what right do you make such a judgment?"
"By right of kinship and affection. As one who has known both you and Boromir since childhood, loved you well and watched you grow into the men you are. And as one who knows that you will not turn from the truth, no matter how painful it might be."
Faramir lay very still, absorbing his words, and Imrahil felt a deep regret that it had fallen to him to force a brother's hand in this way. Faramir alone, among all the people of Gondor, saw clearly who Boromir was, and yet loved him all the more dearly for it. He forgave his brother's faults, even as he acknowledged and condemned them. And he would not refuse to see them, now.
The look Faramir gave his kinsman was grave and calm, but colder than was his wont. "You believe my brother cannot rule, because he cannot see."
Imrahil opened his mouth to protest, then thought better of it and held his tongue. He had offered Faramir the truth, and so it behooved him to give it, no matter how unflattering to himself.
"I had thought better of you," Faramir said, quietly, and Imrahil flinched under his soft reproof.
"It is true that I find your brother's blindness troubling, but not for the reasons you presume."
"I presume nothing."
Imrahil had the sudden, uncanny feeling that he was facing a younger and more soft-spoken version of Denethor, with all the old Steward's needle wit and utter implacability. He caught himself licking his lips with nervousness, as he had done as a boy when confronted by the terrifying lord and required to admit some childish prank.
"Of a certainty, Boromir can no longer lead armies," Imrahil said. "Even if the soldiery will follow him, it is madness to send a blind captain into battle."
"As I'm sure both Aragorn and Boromir are aware."
"Yet he did just that, yesterday."
"He what?" Faramir's calm abruptly shattered, and he pushed himself up on his elbows to demand, "Do you mean that my brother fought in the battle?"
"Aye. He led the Guard against a company of orcs and drove them from the gates. He saved the city."
Faramir gaped at him, astounded. "Aragorn allowed this?"
"Aragorn knew nothing of it, until Boromir rode up to us on the field. In fact, it seems that the king had commanded Boromir to stay in Rohan until sent for - a command he chose to ignore."
Faramir collapsed back against his pillows, a rueful smile on his lips. "Aye, he would." The smile became a chuckle. "How like my brother."
Faramir sobered at the harshness in Imrahil's voice. "Boromir has fought all his life to safeguard Minas Tirith and her people. Would you have him stop now, when the survival of all Middle-earth hangs in the balance?"
Imrahil shook his head. "I, too, would expect nothing else from the Captain-General of Gondor, but therein lies the problem. Think carefully, Faramir. Think beyond your love and admiration for your brother to the man that he is. A man who cannot live but by the sword, who cannot bear to come second to any, who cannot accept anything less than greatness in himself. Is that the man you know?"
"Now think... what will that man do, when all that he has known, all that he has looked upon as his birthright, is taken from him? The crown of Gondor goes to Aragorn, her armies to you, and what is left for Boromir?"
"The Stewardship, for which he was groomed since birth."
"Not like this. Not without the true power to rule or command of his armies. I see only two paths before him. Either he defies all reason, defies the king himself, to keep his place with the army..."
"Which would mean his death," Faramir murmured.
"Or he hangs his sword and shield upon the wall to gather dust, and he becomes everything he despises. Powerless, useless, weak. A discarded soldier with no strength left in him."
Faramir said nothing, and Imrahil leaned forward to clasp his arm, throwing all his sincerity into his next words, willing the other man to understand and believe him. "I am afraid for him, Faramir. When I look at him, I see only defeat, despair and the slow wasting of a valiant man."
"There is a third path."
"My brother accepts his fate, learns a new duty and serves his king in the ways left to him."
"It is not in his nature to accept such a fate."
"You do him small justice, kinsman. Boromir is a strong man."
"Do you not mean proud?" Again Faramir fell silent, and again Imrahil pressed him. "He has the pride your father taught him, and the arrogance to confuse that pride with strength. But what will become of his strength, when his pride is laid in the dust and his life is confined to trailing after his king in darkness?" Faramir winced, and Imrahil paused to let his harsh words sink in. Then he went on, with quiet intensity, "Tell me honestly, Faramir, do you believe your brother has that kind of strength? Or do you merely wish it?"
It took Faramir some minutes to answer. He lay staring out the window, his face a mask of pain, while Imrahil waited patiently for his decision. When he finally spoke, his voice had gone flat and hopeless.
"I do not know. The brother I remember would not endure such a life as you describe. He would..." Faramir broke off to swallow the tightness in his throat.
"He would end as his father ended," Imrahil supplied.
"Pride and despair are a deadly brew."
"But the man I spoke with last night is not the brother I remember. He is changed."
"The poison is already in him. He fights it; he covers it with bravado and wild acts of valor, like his ride from the gates, but the desperation is there, consuming him."
Faramir shook his head. "I do not know. Perhaps you are right, but even so, I cannot think that denying him his place as Steward will help him. Will it not trample his pride all the more completely?"
"Aye, and that pains me. But you and I, for all that we love Boromir, must think first of Minas Tirith. If I am right and Boromir is destined to follow his father into despair, even into madness or death, there is naught that we can do to save him. We can only hope to keep his fall from inflicting yet another wound upon a battered and bleeding land."
"So you would have me take my brother's place at Aragorn's side and lock him in a dark closet, where his gibbering will not disturb the dinner guests?"
It was Imrahil's turn to flinch, but he did not back down, for all the brutality of this crudely-painted picture. "I would have you persuade Boromir that it is his duty to Gondor, her king and himself to step aside and let you assume the mantle of Stewardship. He would do it, for you."
"Aye," Faramir's voice had gone dangerously soft, "perhaps he would. This is why you came to me, instead of going to the lord Aragorn with your concerns."
"Lord Aragorn has made a vow that he will have Boromir for his Steward, or he will have none. He will not break that vow, unless Boromir himself asks it of him."
Faramir gazed steadily at the prince, his face unreadable. "Ah. I begin to see. I am persuaded to approach Boromir, he is persuaded to step aside, and Aragorn is thus persuaded to foreswear himself. 'Tis a twisted road you travel, kinsman."
Imrahil looked away, unable to meet Faramir's eyes. "'Tis a hard and ugly road, but I must see it to the end. I cannot shirk my duty."
"Who set you upon it? You are not alone in this, nor did you choose such a plan of attack."
"'Tis true, I am not alone. The lord Halbarad, of the Dúnedain, asked that I sound you out, but there are others. Many others."
"There would be. My brother has never lacked for rivals or enemies."
"Some of them are old rivals, I admit. And I would warn you that Halbarad is not to be trusted. He speaks of Gondor's weal, but he is driven by envy and dislike of your brother, no higher motive."
"And yet, you come to me at his bidding."
"I come to you, because I do have Gondor's welfare at heart. Sometimes, we cannot choose our allies."
Faramir got an arrested look on his face, and his eyes went distant, as though he were remembering some far-off scene. Whatever the memory, it was not a pleasant one, and the lines in Faramir's face deepened visibly. Imrahil did not dare to interrupt him, nor to press him for an answer. He could only wait, until the other man gave a weary sigh and turned his clear, grey eyes back to the prince's face.
"I know something of the trials my brother faced upon his journey. I will not speak of them, for that would betray secrets that are not mine, but I will tell you this. Boromir has met a much harsher enemy than Saruman, and he has struggled against a greater darkness than mere blindness. That he lives and smiles and enjoys the favor of the king is no small victory for him, and it gives me great hope. But I am also afraid, for I do not know what hidden wounds he carries that may yet poison him.
"I will not promise to side with you in this, Imrahil, but neither will I dismiss your fears. I will promise only to watch my brother and think on what you have said."
"There is not much time. The army marches soon..."
"And Boromir will keep our city safe against your return. Of that you can be sure. Be content, Imrahil."
"He is well enough, for the present, I suppose."
"He is. And should our last hope fail, should our army die in the jaws of the Enemy and the Shadow spread throughout Middle-earth, what matters it then if a blind madman leads us?"
"You will consider what I have said?"
"I will consider it."
"Then I am content." Imrahil got to his feet and clasped Faramir's hand in farewell. "I will come again, if time allows."
"Or I will come to you. I shall be up and about in time to see the army off."
"I am glad." Imrahil gripped his arm and smiled with real happiness. "I am most glad. Farewell, kinsman."
As Imrahil disappeared into the dim hallway, Faramir heard a murmur of voices from another part of the House. He recognized his brother's curt tone and the high-pitched voice of a halfling. They sounded as if they were drawing closer, but suddenly, they were interrupted by a loud crash and a cry of protest.
After a stunned moment, he heard Boromir say, "Gil?"
"Aye, my lord," a woman answered. "I beg your pardon, my lord. 'Twas my fault."
"Of course it wasn't. What was in the bucket, Gil?" Boromir sounded both resigned and foreboding, even muffled as his voice was by distance.
"Naught but the wash water, my lord." Was the drudge laughing? Faramir thought he heard a tremor of amusement in her voice, and he found the possibility of her laughing at his brother infuriating.
"Shall I help you mop it up?"
"Nay, my lord! 'Tis but a moment's... 'Ware the puddle!"
There was another crash and a curse, then Boromir's chagrined voice, saying, "I beg your pardon. I should not speak so in front of a lady."
"I am not a lady, and you did not offend my ears. But please, lord, go away... outside... somewhere dry, before you break your neck!"
The halfling piped up, saying, "There are no puddles down this way, and Merry's room is just around the corner. Let's see if he's awake. I say, Boromir, your cloak is dripping wet. And you squelch when you walk!"
"Aye, thank you, Pippin," Boromir growled. "I'd not have noticed, else."
"What a dreadful mess you're making. Only look at those tracks..."
"On your way, Master Perian," the drudge snapped, "and let me mind the floors."
"That's a fine way to address a soldier of Gondor," Pippin remarked, his voice trailing off as he moved deeper into the sprawling House. "Just as if I were a child, instead of a battle-hardened veteran."
Faramir lay in silence, listening for the sound of booted feet approaching his door, both hoping and fearing that his brother would seek him out. He heard nothing but the muted sounds of the drudge mopping up her spilled water, the bucket scraping on the stone flags as she moved it. When even that noise had died away, and Boromir still had not come, Faramir relaxed. Letting his weary head sink into the pillows, he closed his eyes and covered them with one unsteady hand.
Too much had happened. Too much had been laid on his shoulders, too hard on the heels of his own brush with death. But at least he had been spared this one ordeal - confronting his brother with Imrahil's dire warnings still fresh in his ears. He had been given a brief respite in which to think and gird himself for the next, more painful skirmish in the endless war that was the life of Denethor's son.
To be continued...