Ten Thousand Years will not Suffice

by Agape4Rivendell

21  22  23  24  25  26  27  28  29  30 

Parts 21 - 30

25. 
Third Age - 3017 


21.

“There.” Imrahil signed the last piece of parchment and set the quill down. He sat back and breathed a sigh of contentment. “It is well and good. Everything done that needs must be done. Now, when the betrothal takes place, there will be no legal matters to cause delay.”

“Thank you, brother. Húrin,” Denethor turned to his Warden, “Take these papers and put them in a safe place. You will bring them out and hand them over to the Chamberlain the day of the betrothal.”

“Aye, my Lord Steward. Now, do you have a moment to go over these final plans for the feasting tonight?”

“I leave the feast in your hands, Húrin.” The Warden looked at him in surprise, but nodded his assent. “I have something of great import that I must needs be about.” He dismissed his cousin and turned to Imrahil. “I will see you on the morrow to discuss those boats.”

“Stay a moment, brother,” Imrahil moved to the settle and sat, motioning for Denethor to join him. He handed him a goblet of wine, but Denethor declined. “Boromir suggested you take some care of yourself. I would not be a good uncle if I did not watch over you whilst he is away.”

Denethor chuckled. He sat back and took the proffered cup. Closing his eyes, he felt his body sink slowly into the deep leather. It soothed him somehow. He gulped. “There really is no time for this,” he lamented.

“Nay. Stay but a moment. Gondor will not fall at this precise moment.” Imrahil relaxed himself. They had been so very busy these past weeks. The weeks to come would prove as stress-filled. Any moment snatched for respite had to be grabbed and held tightly. He heard a noise and looked towards Denethor. A tear ran down the Steward’s cheek. One lone tear.

“I am tired. Will you visit Faramir this noontime? I will be busy for most of the afternoon and would not see him alone so soon after his wounding.”

Imrahil nodded. He suddenly and deeply missed Finduilas. He remembered sitting in this very settle, with Denethor on his right and Finduilas sitting next to the Steward, holding his hand and smiling gently. His heart ached for his friend.

“You dwell on the past, Imrahil,” Denethor said quietly. It pained him to see Imrahil start at his words. Sometimes, his gift for seeing others’ thoughts was painful. He stood and left his study.

‘I am leaving a little too quickly, but I must see northward. I should have done this last evening, when I heard of the treachery. Húrin will be put out, but the people do not need me to carouse.’ He took the steps two at a time, despite the heavy hauberk. He had worn it so long now that its weight was hardly noticed.

When he reached the uppermost room, he paused and looked through the tower's window. The Pelennor sprawled before him, its spring green not quite as vibrant as it should be. Denethor remembered Boromir’s comment concerning the rain in Ithilien. He knew his son wondered if the One they do not name was responsible. As far as Denethor was concerned, anything was possible, the rains that flooded Ithilien and the drought that assailed the Pelennor. Both could be the work of the occupant of Barad-dûr. ‘Is there aught I can do about this? Nay. But I can fight his evil whispers; I can save my warriors.’

Stepping through the door, he walked slowly towards the table, gathering his thoughts and energies. He took the cloth from the stone and placed his hands on it, one on either side. Soon, swirls lit up the inner recesses of the Palantír and Denethor drew in a sharp breath. As it had done this past year, the smooth ball whispered to him, but he concentrated on where he wanted to look and not on the stone’s desires. The Entwash spread before him. He could see the fingers of the Mouths spread out from the east and flow towards the west and the Mering. Somewhere along that route was Éomer. He would find him for Boromir and send an errand-rider with specific directions.

What he found instead was a patrol being decimated by a large band of Orcs; the banner was that of Cair Andros. ‘The fools,’ Denethor thought, ‘Why are they in that area. Does not our treaty with Rohan state that is Rohirric territory? Had I not sent warnings to leave that area for the Rohirrim?’

This was the third such attack in less than a fortnight. Boromir had been correct; Denethor had kept these reports to himself. ‘That fool of a captain, Hador, is sacrificing his men for naught! They cannot hope to stop these raids without help.’ He turned away, no longer wishing to watch the slaughter. Besides which, there was nothing he could do. Looking further north, he found no signs of Rohirrim. Turning his eyes westward, he traveled for many miles until he spied clouds of dust further east, directly north of the Mering. ‘A large contingent of men, perhaps even an éored,’ he thought. At last, after many moments of increased focus, he saw the banner. ‘Eomer’s!’ The band was heading southward, obviously for the garrison at the Mering. He breathed a heavy sigh of relief.

‘It will take Boromir a week to reach there, a few days to discuss and resolve this issue and any other problems, and then another week to return. He has eighteen days before his betrothal; I fear my timing is wretched.’ He bowed his head in bitterness and that is when he felt it, a cold, dark fury reaching out to him, out from the Palantír.

He tried to pull himself away, but found his hands tightened to the stone. His vision was taken from fair, clean, bright Rohan and across the Anduin to the Ephel Dúath. His sight diminished as the walls of the Tower room seemed to enfold upon him. The air became stifling. He was pulled towards a valley that led eastward. Immediately, he knew where he was being drawn – Minas Ithil no longer, but Minas Morgul. He had not been close to that dark fortress since he was a boy. In fact, he had never actually seen the walls and tower. Tales told of a once beautiful place, wreathed in the hallow of the hills, moonlight streaming from it, moonlight, in fact, welling up through the marble walls. He shuddered. Marble such as Minas Tirith was built of. Was this really Minas Morgul he was seeing or was it the future and what Minas Tirith was destined to become?

A voice came, soft and gentle, filling his head and causing his knees to buckle. He gripped the globe tighter, refusing to be cowed. Cocking his head sideways, he listened, sure he would not succumb. Had not he met the Nameless One himself in this very orb and survived! The voice was not the same, so he relaxed a bit, enough to let down a small portion of his defenses, enough to let in the Witch-king. His eyes widened as he saw before him a being, black-robed and black masked.

“You know me well, Denethor,” the mocking voice sneered. “I am the Lord of Morgul, the Black Captain, and you will do well to hear me. All is lost. You wait for a king. I have one, Eärnur by name. Perhaps you remember him. He came to me and still lives by my power. So the king you wait for,” the sneer deepened, “has been here all along. Shall I return him to you?”

Denethor shivered. It was not true. Mayhap the voice was not even real. Mayhap it was his own fear that sounded in his heart. Quelling his fear, he listened on.

“I will bring him myself. Would you like that?”

A roiling laugh filled the Tower room, growing and building, echoing off the walls and cascading down upon Denethor, filling him with a terror the likes of which he had never felt before. His knees buckled again, but he bit his lip hard enough to draw blood and stood once again, firm. He was the Steward of Gondor, a son of Númenor, an heir of the Faithful, of the House of Húrin, son of Ecthelion. He would not succumb. He swallowed, his throat so tight it hurt. The taste of blood in his mouth wakened him, strengthened him; he pulled back a little way from the globe and sighed. “Be gone, spawn of Morgoth. I will not listen to your lies.”

The orb glowed and mists flowed through it. Denethor stared at the mists as they seemed to cover his very hands. He did not loose his grip. ‘Faramir! Boromir!’ He saw again Faramir on the cot, deadly white and still. He saw Boromir, lying in a strange craft, his arms folded, much as he had been that dreadful day Finduilas and he thought they had lost him in the little creek by the walls of Minas Tirith. But now, Boromir was full-grown and his face was still. Denethor groaned and fell; the Palantír dropped with a resounding thud that reverberated in his ears; it rolled from his hands to hit with a loud thump against the wall where it finally stopped. Quiet filled the chamber.

Denethor’s chin shook as tears welled and spilled. He sobbed; his throat so tight he thought he would die. ‘Boromir, my beloved, what have I done?’ His son could not be dead, his child, his own! Gasping for breath, he leaned against the cold marble wall and willed himself to be strong. His hands grasped the mail shirt and the feel of the cold hauberk steadied him. ‘It is the future,’ he told himself grimly. ‘Just as the sight of Faramir dead on the cot was the future, so is this. He is not dead. And he will not die, nor will Faramir. I will… What?’ What could he do? The warriors of Gondor died on a daily basis, sometimes a hundredfold in one day’s time. That Boromir and Faramir, and even himself, would die defending Gondor he had known since they were born. Yet, always, hope had covered his heart. He strove to discover how he could save them, but he knew he could not. He could not save Finduilas, nor Indis. Great sobs racked his body until he fell asleep on the cold, hard, marble floor with the Palantir across from him, swirling in malevolence. A hard laugh echoed off the walls and was gone.

~*~

Boromir sat in Guilin’s chair and waited for the captain to return. He had been angered by the order, Boromir felt the heat of the captain’s anger, and he had tried to assuage the captain's fears. He would only take two companies with him, the garrison could afford two companies, and it was for only a short time, a little over a fortnight. If he understood the reports that Guilin had shown him, though, the captain had every right to be angry. The garrison could ill afford the loss of two companies with the level and strength of attacks that had assailed the fort at Amon Dîn. Silently, Boromir cursed his father for not being more forthright in communicating the scope of attacks to the northern border of Gondor.

It was imperative that he found Éomer, and quickly. First, because of the rumours of discord and division, mayhap even treason, but mostly, because of the need for strengthened guards along Rohan’s northern borders. If Gondor was being attacked, so must Rohan. He would wait the night here, gather the best warriors from the garrison, wait for the promised missive from Denethor, and then ride to Rohan.

Guilin stepped through the door, his boots heavy on the floor as if the captain filled his steps with the anger that flooded him. “I found the books you asked for. These are my finest riders.” He pointed to a column of names. “They will be ready at first light. I assume you will leave at first light?” A hint of mockery was in the strong voice.

Boromir leaned forward and took the book in his hands. “Sit, Captain. I would speak with you a moment. Have you wine or ale?”

Guilin walked to the sideboard and poured two mugs of ale, then sat in a chair in front of his desk. He handed the ale to Boromir. “Two companies, you say?”

“Enough of that for the moment. How was your trip back from Osgiliath? Did you sight any of the enemy?”

“We did not,” Guilin sighed. “All was quiet. I had hoped it meant a quiet spring, but I fear now we will be under attack until the next snows.” The captain bit his lip.

“I believe the same. That is why I must take your men, for this short span of time, and give the alarm to Rohan. If they take care of their northern borders, the burden will be lessened for you. Do you not see that?”

“Of course I see it,” Guilin’s tone was dangerously close to insubordination. “Still, if we are attacked, with one hundred forty men missing from our ranks, and with the losses we incurred at the Nindalf, I see not how we will survive.”

“You will. They have not dared to attack this garrison. You are too close to Minas Tirith.”

“That does not stop them from there constant raids upon Eastern Osgiliath,” the captain interrupted.

Boromir snorted. “Osgiliath is vulnerable. Amon Dîn, I tell you, is not. Not yet. However, if we do not receive help from the Rohirrim, that day that you fear may come. I cannot do this without your men, Guilin.”

Guilin rubbed his hands over his forehead. “I understand, Captain-General. It will be as you wish. I will hold the garrison for your return. Now, I will muster those on the list so that you might meet them.”

Boromir nodded. The captain left the small room and Boromir took a great, gulping breath as he leaned back. His eyes widened and he jumped from his chair. Running to the door, he opened it and called loudly, “Captain Guilin!” The man was halfway across the compound; he turned and looked. Boromir motioned and the man turned and came towards him. Boromir returned to the chair and waited. When Guilin entered, he motioned for him to sit. The captain did so, puzzlement plainly writ across his face.

“Have you had recent dealings with the Rohirrim?”

“Aye. They come across the border now and then to trade for supplies. The garrison at the Mering Stream is quite some ways from the furthest eastern reaches of their border. A troop came through here a week ago.”

“How did you find them?”

“My Lord, I do not understand.”

“Were they friendly? Were they open? Were they distant? Were they brash?”

“Brash, Captain-General. I wanted to take their captain and spit in his face.”

Boromir sat back in surprise at the vehemence in the man’s voice. “How did you treat them?”

“With diffidence. Giving them the respect of one ally to another.” Guilin looked at him, questions spilling from his eyes. “Was I to do other than that?”

“Nay. And I am glad, profoundly glad, that you kept your temper. Have you reason for their demeanor?”

“I do not. For the last year… Nay, since the beginning of this year, their bearing has been changed. Has some event caused this?”

“Aye,” Boromir whispered, but kept his thoughts to himself. “You did well, Captain Guilin. Now, please bring the men to me. Mayhap Éomer and I can change this behavior on the part of the Rohirrim. Do not, and this is an order from the Steward himself, do not treat them other than as trusted allies.”

“Aye, Captain-General.” Guilin looked at him quizzically and left the room.

Boromir swore. “By every Vala known, the Enemy tears us asunder. And we go willingly, as lambs to the slaughter!” He downed the warm ale and closed his eyes, preparing for the next part of his journey.

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22.

Denethor opened his eyes, straining to see about him, to find where he was. His mind reeled; the pain so fierce, he knew not if he would survive. Closing them did naught but make the pain sharper. He gritted his teeth to quell the throbbing, but that motion only sent him over the edge and he screamed. Blood filled his mouth; the scream silenced by the biting of the soft inner skin. Slowly, inexorably, the pain lessened, the throbbing dulled to a quiet roar, the wound quickly closed. His lips shook as he tightened them. His fingers trembled as he frantically pulled his cloak tighter about him. The marble had turned to ice, his body burnt by its freezing tendrils.

An hour passed, maybe more. He did not believe he survived the onslaught of such agony, but he had, and a grim smile flitted briefly across his face. He was still alive; he was still sane; he was still in control; he was still his own lord. The smile grew into a hideous grin and he screamed his defiance. ‘You will never have me! You will never have my sons!’ His head fell back against the wall and his body swayed and fell to the side. A low, deep moan swelled from his gut and passed his lips ere darkness once again took him.

The guard, two flights down, ran up the stairs as the cries echoed through the stairwell and out into the night. Desperately, he tugged at the handle but it would not turn. He heard the moan and grew frantic. He crashed his shoulder against the door, but it was built to keep out the Enemy; it would not budge. He called again and again, “My Lord Denethor! Steward! Open the door! My Lord?” But there was no answer. Only one thing to do. He ran down to the very bottom of the Tower, crying, as he exited, for the Warden of the Keys. The cry went up in the High Court. At last, Húrin was found and brought to him. Soldiers crowded around them, straining to hear what had caused such chaos.

“What? What has occurred that I have been brought from my bed this late at night? Are we under attack? Where is Lord Denethor?” The Warden's words, in the terror that filled the Steward’s stronghold, cut through the desperation of the guard.

“The Steward, Lord Denethor, is locked in the Tower room and he is hurt or ill. Something has assailed him. I know not what.” The warrior’s eyes were wild with grief and fear. “I heard his screams. Never, even in battle, have I heard such screams. Do you have the key?” He clutched the Warden’s cloak and tried to steady himself.

“I have no key for that room. Bring a timber and men. We will open it by force.”

The guard gave a short, choked laugh. “Nothing will open that door but the key. All is lost. Our Lord is dead.”

The wind swirled across the Citadel, the moon’s light darkened by a black, scudding cloud bank. All who saw it shivered; some cried out in fear. ‘The Enemy nears! He has killed the Steward! We are lost!”

Imrahil, running from his chambers in the guest hall, shouted above the furor. “The Steward lives! We will rescue him. Be still while we go to him.” He dragged the guard with him as he ran towards the Tower. “Bring the men and the timber. We will do what we can.” He motioned and Húrin joined him.

Six men followed the Prince of Dol Amroth; Húrin brought up the rear, fingering the keys upon his belt in helpless frustration. Imrahil heard him muttering to himself, but could not make out the words. He turned his attention from him and ran up the Tower stairs, two at a time.

‘Why do I not have a key for that room? When this is over,’ the Warden vowed, ‘I will have a key made, whether the Steward wills it or no!’

They reached the topmost room. No light shown under the door, only silence greeted them. Imrahil motioned for quiet. Gently, he knocked on the door. “Denethor? It is your brother. Please open the door.” He leaned his ear against the door, but heard nothing. Knocking more loudly, he called again. “Denethor! It is Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth. Open the door!”

There was no response. The guard moaned as Húrin took the keys and held them to the lock hole. Imrahil nodded in approval. The Warden tried each key, but attempt after attempt failed. At last, Denethor’s cousin looked at the Prince in despair. “None fit,” he whispered, “It is as I feared.”

Imrahil shook his head. “Bring the timber.” The warriors brought it forward. In the close confines of the winding stairwell, it was hopeless. They could not even manage enough room for the men to stand never mind have room to wield a piece of wood. The timber itself was too long; there was no room to position it. If they had a shorter one, he thought, it would break in the onslaught against the heavy oak door. Imrahil stood, undecided. “A fire! Bring hot coals, oil, kindling, and small pieces of wood. We will burn the door down!”

The guards ran back down the stairs as Húrin’s eyes filled. “How did you think upon that?” Imrahil saw the hope in the Warden’s eyes and wished he had as much in his heart. These doors were heavy and thick. It would take hours to burn through.

“It will work; it must!” the Warden cried.

Imrahil nodded, his own eyes blurred by tears. Only moments later, the guards returned with a pail full of red, hot coals. Kindling was placed on the floor along with bits of old parchment. Then, they soaked it all in the oil and the coals were poured over the mixture. Swiftly it caught; the soldiers carefully laid the pieces of wood, one by one, upon the flames. The red tendrils rose, engulfing the door more quickly than any had expected. They stepped back to escape the deadly heat. It would be but mere minutes, Imrahil realized, before the door went fully up in flames. There was hope!

~*~

By the time Boromir finished inspecting the men he would take with him, night had descended. He dismissed them, then walked slowly back towards the garrison’s office. Wearily, he pushed open the door and was greeted by the warmth of a blazing fire. He walked to it and took his gloves off. The cold of what was turning into a bitter spring had crept through the leather and into his fingers, making them stiff and sore. He flexed them and heard a slight cough. Turning, he found Captain Guilin looking at him. “Aye?”

“Are the men satisfactory, Captain-General?”

“They are. I… I see you gave me your finest.”

The man shrugged and Boromir smiled. “Would you like to come with me?”

“To Rohan?” The startled expression seemed filled with longing.

“Aye. You have not been to Rohan, have you?”

“I have not, my Captain.”

“Then, as you will continue to deal with the Rohirrim in your capacity as captain of Amon Dîn, I think it only fitting that you set foot upon their land. It is in the touch of the land that one knows her people and the Rohirrim love Calenardhon. How could they not, was it not once Gondor’s soil.” He laughed at the joke of it.

Guilin swallowed dryly. “But, who will you leave in charge of the garrison? It is a dangerous time, my Lord.”

“Who do you suggest?”

“The best would be Baranor, my aide. He has been here since before my time. The men trust him.”

“Beregond’s father is here?”

“You know him?”

“Not well, but I have served with his sons. Both of them are considered friends. They are now stationed at Osgiliath. Bring him to me.”

The captain nodded and left. Within moments, a huge man entered the room. His shoulders were broad and his hair black and straight and long; arms, covered in mail, showed scars running from the hands on up. The soldier’s crooked smile mirrored both of his sons’ crooked smiles. Boromir grinned. The man saluted and waited.

“It is good to see you again, Baranor. I cannot even remember the last time you visited our home. Please, sit,” Boromir offered him a chair at the captain’s table. “Captain Guilin, your hospitality has been outstanding, but I fear I worked through the daymeal. Is any food left?”

“Of course,” Boromir noted the man’s look of chagrin. “Forgive me, Captain-General. I should have noted it. There will be food in but a moment’s time.”

“Have enough brought for both Baranor and you.” He sat at the tale with the old warrior and smiled. “You have been in my family’s service for a very long time. Father told me you were a comfort to him when his friend, Amdir, died.”

“We were close, your father and I. I have incurred his displeasure.”

“Why say you that?”

“It is long since I have been stationed in the City. I deem, if not disfavoured, then forgotten.”

Boromir’s eyes watered. “If all I know of Amdir is true, his loss was beyond sorrow to my father. Mayhap he recalls the grief when you are near.”

“Two days after your sweet mother passed,” Baranor reminded him. “Aye. I have thought that the reason for my banishment.”

“If you deem it banishment, I will go to father immediately and have you recalled.”

“I am overly dramatic. If my Lord Steward needs me away from him, then I am glad to be of such service.”

“Nay. It is not right. Long have you fought for Gondor; now is the time to return to her City and savour your reward.” He beamed as the soldier bowed his head. “I know your sons. I spent time with them just a few short weeks ago in Osgiliath. Beregond guards the Causeway Forts and Iorlas the bridge. They are good men and true. You have much to be proud of.” The old warrior’s huge grin delighted Boromir. “They are also quite good at Kings and Stewards. I have lost to them a time or two. But now, I have a task for you. Will you stay here and command Amon Dîn until your captain returns? It should be less than a fortnight.”

“I will, Captain-General.”

“Then it is settled.” He stood and helped move maps and books and such off the table as Guilin and some aides brought in trays of food.

They sat and talked for most of the night, for Boromir was not concerned. The road to the Mering was straight and well-kept. It would be an easy ride. Baranor regaled him with tales of his father and Boromir learned much that night, much that furthered his respect and love for the Steward, his father.

~*~

If there was ever a time Faramir needed his strength, it was now, and now it had failed him. He had gone to the stables, it had been too long, and began grooming his mare. But within a very short time, he found himself weaker than a babe. The groomsman had had to come and help him to his rooms. Now, he lay on his bed contemplating his future. The shoulder was beyond sore. True, there had been poison in the arrows, but he thought he would have been further along in healing. He fell into a deep sleep, aided by the healing tea left him. The despicable groomsman, once he had seen him on his bed, had sent for a healer. He didn’t want his father to know he was still so weak. ‘There is so much to do before I journey south. I need to go to Osgiliath, at least to start what Boromir has planned for its defense.’ But sleep came and quickly.

~*~

The conflagration at the door quickly died as the greedy flames ate through the old oak. Imrahil jumped through the last of the fire and ran to Denethor’s side, but the Steward opened his eyes, pushed him away and crawled towards the other end of the room. Imrahil sat back in utter astonishment. After a moment, he ran after him. Denethor was wrapping his cloak around an object; Imrahil could not make out what it was. In a moment, Denethor leaned back against the wall and took a deep breath.

“Leave me be. I am well.”

“You are not, brother,” Imrahil said gently. “We will take you to your room. Húrin,” he motioned to the Warden, “Let us help him stand.”

The healer made to examine Denethor, but Imrahil stopped him with a shake of his head. “Leave him till we reach his chambers. He is surly now and will not agree to such help.”

Denethor growled and shoved him. Imrahil raised his eyebrows in surprise. ‘So much strength still here!’ The Steward made to stand, but his legs refused. Imrahil took one arm and Húrin the other. Denethor, the Prince noted, had decided to allow their help. They started toward the door. Denethor stopped and looked at the burned entrance. “This must be replaced immediately,” his voice still rang clear.

“Aye, my Lord Steward,” one of the guards said. The healer who had come with them said naught and followed them down the stairs. One of the guards ran ahead to call for servants to prepare Denethor’s chambers.

Once they reached the Steward’s private quarters, Húrin sent the guards, but one, away. The healer took his place at Denethor’s side and together, Imrahil and he walked the weakened man to his bed. By this time, the Steward’s own chamberlain had arrived and quickly took over. He gently sat Denethor on the bed and began to undress him.

“Leave me be. I am well. Just tired.”

“We will be in your out chambers. When you are ready to speak, send for us.” Imrahil saluted and left with Húrin close behind.

The two men walked to Denethor’s private study, leaving the healer behind to fight with the Steward over his care. Húrin sat heavily in the settle before the fire while Imrahil stood at the window, looking out upon the Pelennor. Slowly, he turned, his face drawn and white.

“He… I have never seen him like this. His face has aged ten years. His hair is more white than black. I cannot understand this. What evil lurks in that room? What has he been doing?” Tears streamed down the young Prince’s face. “It is unbearable to see him thus.”

“Aye. There was horror in that room.” The Warden looked up and grimaced. “The common people say the Lord Steward wrestles with the Enemy in that room. Is that possible?”

“Anything is possible,” Imrahil spat in his anger and frustration. “He has great powers; that he can use them so far from Barad-dûr I find hard to believe, but my eyes do not deceive me with the change that has come over Denethor. He looks to have faced death.”

Húrin nodded in misery. “Aye.”

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23.

Imrahil entered Denethor’s bedchambers and waited. The healer had gone, as well as Denethor’s manservant. The Steward did not open his eyes, so Imrahil crossed the room, moved a chair from near the fireplace, placed it next to the bed, and sat. He waited, for he knew that, though the Steward seemed to sleep, he had been the one who called him here. It was almost the mid night hour. ‘A very long day,’ Imrahil thought grimly.

The Prince of Dol Amroth almost wept as he saw the devastation upon his friend’s face. Pain, grief, fear… Was fear there also? He was surprised. When he had been a young soldier and served under Denethor, he thought he would never see fear upon the great warrior’s face, but now, it was definitely fear. “What have you seen, brother?” he asked quietly.

“Death,” the voice was strong and the eyes that quickly opened were clear. “I have seen it all my long life, but never in this fashion.” Denethor’s head tilted slightly. “I thought mayhap I was accustomed to it, but I am not.”

Imrahil leaned closer, resting his hand upon Denethor’s arm. “We have both seen much death.”

“Not like this, Imrahil. I,” he shuddered. “None other is to know this, especially my sons, do I make myself clear?” He continued upon Imrahil’s acceptance of the command. “I saw Boromir dead in a boat on the Anduin and Faramir dead on a cot in the Tower.” The Steward’s mouth was held in a tight, straight line. No emotion was in his words nor in his mien.

Imrahil clutched Denethor’s arm tightly. “It is a lie,” he hissed. “Like unto the lies he told in Númenor and before that. It is lies like those that turned the Elves from Valinor. Listen not to him, Denethor. I will support you in all you need to do to protect them. I swear on the grave of my sister, my father and my mother!”

“As do I, but it will be for naught.” He waived his arm as Imrahil attempted to protest. “Nay. I know it is lies, but the images, the sounds, the feel…” He shuddered. “Lies or no. It is possible, Imrahil, and we must do everything in our power to stay such horror.” He paused for another moment. “None know this either, my brother, and none ever will, but I have seen the Pelennor covered with the armies of the Nameless One. Their war machines were many; they drove before them Mûmakil and other beasts; Uruk-hai led the battle, too numerous to count. Imrahil!” Denethor took the Prince’s hand and held it tightly, “I could not see the green of the land beneath their feet, there were so many!” He lay back, exhausted.

“Do you know when?”

“Nay.” The Steward whispered. “That is the rub, is it not? But soon. The landscape of the Pelennor was not much changed. I noted some trees I am familiar with; they are about the same size. It will be within five years at the most.”

Imrahil dared not ask how the Steward knew.

“Go now and rest yourself, Imrahil. Tomorrow, we begin towards the end.”

“Nay. Towards the beginning of a new day for Gondor, Denethor. I promise. The men of Gondor are doughty. We will not fall. Minas Tirith will not fall.” He lowered his voice, released the strong hold he had on Denethor’s arm, changed it into a light touch and said, “Rest well. I do not want to have to answer to Boromir when he returns!” He smiled down at his friend. Denethor’s eyes were closed. Imrahil turned and left the room.

“How fares he?” Húrin stood, strode forward and asked as soon as the Prince came out of the bedchambers.

“He carries a heavy burden. I see hope in his eyes though. He continues to do battle, and we must stand beside him with swords drawn, Húrin. Else Gondor will fall.” He bid the Warden good night and walked slowly back to his own quarters.

Húrin sat upon the settle once again, his hand held a goblet of mulled wine. He had decided to keep watch, but only a moment had passed when Denethor’s cry rang out. He jumped from the settle and ran into the bedchambers.

“I must have an errand-rider. Boromir awaits my missive. He must ride now.”

Húrin tried to calm the Steward, but nothing but a promise to send for one immediately calmed the man. Húrin ran to the door and summoned the guard. He then ordered him, loud enough for Denethor to hear, to fetch an errand-rider. The man saluted and left.

Denethor lay back in the bed and sighed. “I need writing paper.”

Húrin ran to the study and brought a writing board, parchment, a quill and ink to the bed. Denethor took it and began writing furiously. By the time he had finished, the errand-rider knocked on the door. At Denethor’s bidding, Húrin found the seal and the wax, warmed it and handed it to Denethor, who sealed the note and handed it to the rider. “Take this to Amon Dîn immediately. Let no one stop you and personally hand it to Captain-General Boromir.”

The rider saluted, took the proffered note, turned and left. Denethor lay back against the pillow, his face white as marble. “Thank you, Húrin. I will sleep now, I promise.” The shadow of a smile graced his face.

Húrin, thoroughly flustered, went back to the settle and poured himself a large goblet of wine. He sat and shook his head. ‘This is going to be a long night!’

~*~

Denethor pushed the covers back and stood. He walked to the window and looked out upon his beloved land. He clenched his teeth as the vision shown him in the orb threatened to overwhelm him, and then bent over to mitigate the pain that shot through his mind. ‘Too long did I look; I will not do that again,’ he thought miserably. The White Tree stood in the Courtyard. Not a leaf clung to it, but was not that the way it had looked all his life?

Yet, the Pelennor beyond was green in the flush of springtime, albeit a dry one. He watched as the land undulated in a slow drop to the river. It took his breath away, as always. A few lights twinkled in the dark to mark a farmhouse, a vineyard, or the occasional hostelry. He could not remember the last time he had ridden out and felt the clean wind on his face, the feel of his mount under him, and the smell of the rich soil of the farmlands. His head dropped in inconsolable grief. If this fell, if this fair land was trampled and ruined by the Enemy, could he yet live? He bit his lip and turned from the window.

The Pelennor was not the only target for the Enemy. He quickly dressed. ‘Where is my hauberk?’ he thought in irritation. ‘They have taken it away; that wretched servant of mine finally has his way and removed it from me.’ But no, a moment later he found it and put it on, then his tunic. He found his belt, scabbard and sword and quickly finished. At last, he found his overcoat, the fur-lined one that warmed almost any night on the parapet. He put it on and walked out the door.

He stopped as suddenly as he had started. Húrin sat by the fire. He swore under his breath, but then smiled grimly. The man was sound asleep; the goblet had fallen to the floor. Denethor squirmed at the thought of his faithful cousin. He should send him off to Belfalas or somewhere to lead a life of ease. Yet, here he had charged him with one of the most grievous duties in the realm, Warden of the Keys. He touched the man’s forehead in love as he passed.

The guard’s face openly showed complete surprise. Some part of Denethor wryly thought of the confusion of the guard: should he stop his Steward and send for aid or should he let him pass? ‘Well, I have no time for that now,’ Denethor thought, and barely nodded as he passed the man by. He knew, if he was quick and firm in his step that the guard would be nonplussed enough not to venture any action. He was right.

He walked the two flights up and found the door unlocked. He walked into the outer chamber and saw the fire was near spent. The room was cold and Denethor wrapped his coat closely about him. He walked through the outer doors and into the bedchamber. The fire here burned even lower. He put a few logs onto it and looked for a chair. One stood near the window. He brought it to the bed and sat down. A smell assailed him, familiar and unpleasant. ‘Ah, valerian tea. But why? What need has Faramir for this?’

He looked more closely at his son. Faramir did not stir. A slight sheen of sweet covered the boy’s forehead. His face looked as it did in the vision. Fear drove him to touch the boy’s chest. The slow, steady, though shallow rhythm eased his concern. Denethor swallowed as tears stung his eyes. He vowed, in the Tower room, that he would not cry again. Never would he be pathetic enough to allow the Enemy to do what he had done this night, find him weak and easily o’ercome. Never again.

A cock crowed somewhere in the vast expanse of Minas Tirith and Denethor stirred. ‘I should be away before he wakes, else he be concerned.’ But he had been too late in the thought; Faramir’s eyes looked at him quizzically.

“Ada… Father,” he noted the boy corrected himself. A shaft of pain pricked his heart.

“I was on my way to the Great Hall and decided to look in on you,” he lied fluidly. “Are you well? I see the tea?”

“I am weak,” Faramir’s voice spoke volumes. Dejection and frustration vied for control.

“It is the poison. One arrow laced thus would kill many a man, my son, yet you have taken two such hits. It is not unexpected, though frustrating.”

Faramir looked up in surprise. “It is frustrating! I went to groom my horse and had to be nigh carried back here.” A scowl lit his face and Denethor quelled a laugh.

“I understand such frustration.”

Faramir smiled tiredly, “I am sorry, Father, of course you do. Above all other men in Gondor, you know frustration. I seem to be a large part of it, of late.”

“Nay,” Denethor took Faramir’s hand and held it. “You are a large part of my life, that I will attest to, but not my frustration. This is a hard time for a soldier, Faramir, to be laid low, knowing there is much that needs your attention. Gondor will wait for your recovery.”

Faramir smiled, closed his eyes and slept again. Denethor stood, kissed his brow, and left the room. The walk to his own study on the first floor lasted a year at least, he thought miserably. ‘I am as weak as Faramir.’ He paused with his hand on the door, changed his mind and walked out onto the Courtyard. Passing through the tunnel, he entered the Sixth Circle and turned left. The training grounds lay before him. He walked into the building and found the armoury.

After a moment’s work, he was fully equipped; he walked into the sandy circle and faced the padded practice pole. He raised his word, swung it time and time again, and grimaced as the thuds reverberated through his body. He could feel his frustration leave him and a sense of calm finally returned. He would beat the Enemy as he beat this pole. No harm would come to his sons. ‘No harm will come to Boromir. No harm will come to Faramir. The Pelennor will remain clean and beautiful. Minas Tirith will stand till Arda itself falls.’ Over and over he chanted these words until his breath came in short gasps and his arms felt like lead.

An arm grabbed him as he pitched forward. “Brother,” Imrahil’s quiet voice pervaded the haze of exhaustion. “Brother,” he replied. “How kind of you to rescue me, again.” He heard Imrahil chuckle as darkness spread.

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24.

Riding slowly out of the garrison at Amon Din with Captain Guilin beside him, Boromir mused on the cryptic message from his father. True, the direction he needed was contained in the missive, but naught else: no greeting, no small scribble about Faramir and wedding plans, no fare well. Not oft did his father write so blandly and that worried Boromir. Trying to read behind the lines was useless – there were no lines to read! He swore under his breath and his brow furrowed even deeper. His horse, noting the disquiet of her master, took to snorting and pulling at the reins. Boromir had to shush her a number of times.

“She will not quiet until you do, Captain-General.” Guilin spoke low so none other could hear.

“I am tempted to return to Minas Tirith.”

Guilin looked at him in surprise. “Something in the Steward’s missive gives you concern?”

“There is naught in the missive but where Marshal Éomer is and that is enough to concern me. If our mission were not so vital, I would turn around right now.” He shook his head and bit his lower lip. “I do not understand it.”

“You sent a rider to Captain Faramir this morning, right after you received the missive. There should be a reply within days. Cannot you wait until then?”

“I must.” He heaved a sigh. His father had not looked well the last time Boromir had seen him, and though he had begged Imrahil to watch over him, Boromir was not sure if any could stop the Steward from doing anything that his father deemed necessary, no matter the hour or the danger. After listening to Beregond’s tales last night, and some of the hasty, yes that was the word, hasty actions of his father when he was a youth, Boromir was not certain that flair for adventure and danger did not still linger in his father’s mind. Would he in actuality go to Osgiliath himself? He had been headed that way after Faramir’s wounding. ‘Nay! He has more sense.’

“We could return to Amon Dîn and wait for your brother’s reply. We are only gone an hour.”

“Nay.” Another deep sigh. “We will ride at an easy pace. We might have a reply before we break camp tomorrow morning. I would that were so. But now, let us speak of Éomer and the Rohirrim.”

They rode with only three breaks, once in the morning and afternoon, and once for nuncheon. At last, as Anor set behind the mountains, they pulled up to the garrison of Eilenach. The men camped outside while Boromir was given the captain’s own quarters. Food and drink were rationed, as the winter had been hard. The men of this outpost were grateful for the oranges from Lebennin that Boromir brought with him. But more, they seemed awed that their Captain-General should deem fit to visit them. That same Captain-General found himself ruing the fact that he had not been to the Beacon Hills for a very long time. As soon as was possible, which meant near to the mid night hour, Boromir took himself away from the main gathering and went to bed. He fingered his father’s missive as he closed his eyes.

He had not been asleep more than an hour when there was a furious knocking on the door. He sat up and called ‘enter’ whilst wrapping a robe about him. ‘The errand-rider,’ he sighed as the man stood before him. He took the missive, thanked and dismissed the man.

Brother,

I have not seen Father all day. Uncle Imrahil states he is well, but I understand your misgivings and have tried diligently to ask towards father’s welfare. None gave it, until late this afternoon. Hence, the delay in the messenger’s arrival.

He is not well, Boromir. I feigned a relapse so that he would come to me. When he did not, I took myself to his chambers. Húrin sat in the parlour and barred my way. After a small bit of shouting, of which I am not proud, Uncle entered the room from father’s bedchambers. He saw I would not be swayed in my endeavor to speak with father, so he let me through.


The paper looked crumpled and Boromir spent a moment smoothing it out. At least, that is what he told himself; in fact, he needed a moment to steel himself before reading further.

I know not what has befallen him, Boromir. I would have sobbed if not for the look in his eyes, as if he dared me to show weakness. I pulled myself straight and saluted. Eru forgive me, I wanted to fall at his side and weep as a babe.

He spoke calmly and chastised me for causing an uproar, for my disrespect of his Warden, and for many other things. I was… surprised by his vehemence. But I will forgive that, I already have. It is the state of his body that causes me alarm. I cannot even describe it to you, Boromir. It is as if our grandfather stood before me – not our father. He has aged by ten years at least since last night.

I spoke of mundane things, Boromir. He knows I saw the betrayal of his body. To speak of it in the open would have been futile. I suggested I might go to Osgiliath and begin the work you planned for the garrison. He agreed immediately and told me to leave on the morrow.


Boromir shook his head in surprise!

He knows I have no strength. He was with me last night. I did have a small relapse. Nothing to be concerned about, brother, for it is only the weakness of the poison. It has not quite washed completely from my body, but I am well enough. But not well enough to go across the Pelennor. I only tell you this so you will understand my concern… nay! My alarm over his condition.

Do your best to complete your mission as quickly as possible and return to Minas Tirith. I leave for Osgiliath on the morrow. I promise,
and at this Boromir smiled, to ride slowly.

Your brother,
Faramir


Boromir crawled back into bed, pulled the covers over him, and shook. The Enemy had somehow reached Denethor. The lies were not enough. How could he have entered the Citadel? When he returned, he vowed, he would place extra guards in Denethor’s detail, he would search the Tower itself for secret passages, and he would set his own guard upon his father, one who would only report to him. His anger flared. ‘We will leave for Rohan at first light. We will stay only long enough to discuss the lies of the Enemy, then I will return home and make some sense of what is happening. Enough of this madness!’

~*~

Faramir lay back, exhausted. His walk to his father’s chambers was not, however, the reason. His mind reeled once again as he thought of the sight that had greeted him upon entry to his father’s bedchamber. As he had written Boromir, it seemed Ecthelion stared back at him. His father’s breathing was soft, but strong; yet, Faramir noted a slight trembling in Denethor’s hands. His face was waxen and covered with a slight sheen of sweat. His hair was more silver than black and deep furrows creased his brow accompanied by deep wrinkles along his eyes and mouth. Imrahil was wiping the sweat when Denethor batted his hand away. He had seen Faramir enter the room and wanted no show of weakness for his son. ‘Too late,’ thought Faramir. ‘He is beyond weak. What has caused this?’ He dared not ask.

“Father. I believe you have disobeyed Boromir.”

Denethor’s eyes steeled.

“Uncle Imrahil,” the Steward’s son turned to the Prince. “I see you are caring for my father as my brother asked?”

The hint of anger in his nephew’s voice stung. “I am, Faramir. As well as I am able.”

Faramir nodded, a half smile graced his face. “Mayhap I should let you rest and take your watch?”

“I need no watchers!” Denethor spat furiously. A touch of his old vigour helped him push himself up on his arms to sit up in the bed. “I need no nursemaid!” Then, much to his dismay, his arms gave way and he fell backwards into the pillows. “Wizard’s pus!”

Faramir laughed out loud. “Father. I do not believe wizard’s have pus.”

Denethor drew in a deep breath. “They certainly do, for every time I find myself in their presence, I find myself wiping spittle and pus from my mind!”

“Oh! I like that phrase, Father. May I use it when next I write to Mithrandir?”

At once, Faramir realized he had taken the jibe too far. His father’s experiences with Saruman flashed across Denethor’s face and Faramir knelt by his bed. “Forgive me, Father. I jest about something that causes you discomfort.”

“Get off your knees!” the Steward whispered, hoarsely.

Faramir stood. “May I sit with you for awhile? In all earnestness?”

“Aye. If you bring some tea with you. I am parched.”

Imrahil nodded and walked out of the room as Faramir sat in the chair by the bed. He bit his lip in faint imitation of his brother and Denethor could not help but smile.

“Tell me what happened, Father.”

“I stayed up too late. In fact, I do not believe I slept. I wanted to expunge some anger I was feeling and went to the training grounds. I spent some time hitting the practice pole. I went too far. Imrahil helped me save face by letting me collect myself before I walked back here. The people did not see it.”

Faramir had to blink back tears. “I am grateful for my uncle’s care. I think I have an apology to tender.”

“We do not deserve his love, nor his friendship.”

Smiling, Faramir took Denethor’s hand and winced at the paper-thin feel of the skin. “You are worth ever bit of love and friendship any have to give, Father. You do not stint yourself in your love for Gondor. Who cannot admire that? Who cannot love you?”

Denethor closed his eyes at the unexpected tribute. “I would rest, Faramir. You will leave for Osgiliath tomorrow?”

Faramir started in surprise. “If that is your command, Father.”

“It is. Your brother’s plans are on the desk in my private study. Take them with you and begin the process of rebuilding the garrison.”

“Aye, Father. I will return in time for the betrothal?”

Denethor did not answer. Faramir stood, gazing one last time on his father, then turned, shoulders hunched, and left the room. He passed Imrahil in the outer chamber without a word.

~*~

Six days later, the warriors of Gondor reached the Mering Stream. It was nigh unto dark, yet they were challenged. Boromir nodded his head in approval. However, approval turned to anger when his request to pass into Rohan was denied without a thought. He bit his lower lip and counted to ten in Quenya.

“I am the son of Denethor, Captain-General of Gondor. I would see Marshal Éomer.”

“He is not here,” the guard said disdainfully. “He was been summoned back to Edoras. Now be off with you, unless you have a writ of entry from Théoden King.”

Boromir clenched his hand on the pommel of his sword. “Did Marshal Éomer leave word as to when he would return?”

“I am not privy to his comings and goings. He is the nephew of the king and under no duty to tell me. Go back to Mundberg. You are not welcome here.”

Boromir could take no more. He swung his horse around and rode back to his men.

Guilin, having noted the angry gestures of the guard and his captain, spoke not.

“We camp here for the night,” Boromir said without further word.

Guilin ordered the preparations and sent out the pickets. He shook his head; they had not brought tents for they had planned on staying at garrisons along the way, which they had, and then the hospitality of the Rohirrim. He grimaced in a small moment of delight. ‘Now, Captain Boromir sees what we have endured these past months!’

‘I have four days,’ Boromir thought as his mind whirled at this turn of events, ‘before I must return to the City. I must wait and hope that Éomer returns quickly. And I must keep my temper else I ask one of my archers to shoot that pretentious guard!’

When morning came, while his men gathered what little supplies they had in preparation for breaking the fast, Boromir wandered away from the camp and found himself by the Mering. The river ran higher than normal, for the winter snows were melting off the White Mountains. A picket stood close by; he nodded, and continued. Stopping by the stream, he picked up a stone, fingered it and thought long and hard. He tossed the stone down and walked a little further. His mind was not on Rohan, but Minas Tirith and his father and brother. How weak was Faramir, he worried, and what had happened to his father? Where was his uncle? Imrahil had promised he would watch over Denethor. Of course, he couldn’t let his father know he had set his uncle as a nursemaid over the Steward, but if Denethor could not take care of himself in the small things, like eating, then what recourse did he have?

He sighed heavily and picked up another stone. This one was small and smooth to the touch. He smiled and pitched it across the water. Though the current was strong, the stone skipped four times. He laughed out loud and heard an answering snicker across the stream. Looking up quickly in alarm, he saw a Rohir standing on the opposite side. He took a breath. “Care to join in a contest?”

The horse-lord smiled and nodded. He held up both hands. Boromir looked around for ten stones. Within moments, he had his arsenal ready. At a nod, the Rohir went first. His stone hit the water smoothly and skipped three times. He bowed and Boromir took his first stone, rubbed it for a moment, then flung it sideways. It skipped four times, as his first had done. He smiled and returned the bow. For many moments, both men were consumed with the contest. Boromir was in the lead, but only by one skip. The Rohir had one stone left. Boromir was the last to shoot.

The Rohir’s stone hit seven times, easily skimming the stream. Boromir raised an eyebrow. ‘Good throw!’ He saw the grin split the man’s face and smiled. His last stone – and only three skips. He bowed in defeat. The horse-lord smiled warmly, then turned and left. Boromir was once again alone, all his previous concern washing over him stronger than before the brief respite.

When he returned to camp, food was laid out. Yesterday’s bread and some cheese. He snorted in disgust as the smell of bacon wafted across the Mering. The Rohirrim were eating in style! His anger flared again.

“Guilin!” he called and the man was at his side in an instant. “I am going for a ride into the Firien and then, perhaps, to our outpost at Amon Anwar. We should have camped there last night. At least we would have a passing meal this morning. I will return in time for the daymeal.”

Guilin laughed in outright shock! “You would leave without an escort?”

“We are hemmed in by the Rohirrim on our West and our outpost on the North. I will be fine.”

“And I will be dead if I allow this,” the captain said, his face turning furious. “To allow the Captain-General and heir to traipse about without a guard is treason!”

Boromir looked at the man in surprise, his quick retort quelled by the last word. In truth, he could understand the man’s fear. “Very well, we will take the whole company. We will spend the night at the outpost. I will send a rider in the morning to watch for Éomer.”

Guilin relaxed as Boromir squatted by the fire and took the proffered meager meal. As he bit into the hard crust, he muttered curses. While he ate, Guilin saddled his horse, then ordered the men to break camp.


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25.

“Have you lost your mind,” Imrahil hissed between clenched teeth, his hand painfully digging into Faramir's arm.

Faramir turned Steelsheen's head around and stopped, well away from the supply caravan heading for Osgiliath. “What do you know of loyalty and obedience?” he snapped, fatigue overwhelming him. “I am bid hasten to the garrison by my Steward; therefore I am as you find me.”

“You are not yet recovered from your wounds.” Imrahil let the harshness of his nephew’s words pass over.

“The wounds are healed. The poison will work its way out in time. I am not helpless.”

“Faramir,” Imrahil clenched his hands on his reins. “You should have told your father of the weakness of your body. He is not himself these days. He is not thinking clearly.”

“It is not that difficult a ride, Uncle,” Faramir smiled, moistness filling his eyes at his uncle’s concern. “I must do as father asks. It was not an order, not in the usual sense, but he needs me there. Do you not understand that? Whether he is himself or no, I owe him my allegiance. I am well enough to travel at the pace the caravan sets. Will you stay with me when we stop for nuncheon?”

Imrahil shook his head. “I cannot understand either one of you. At least Boromir is straightforward. He does not play games with me or with himself.”

“So you would that I be more like Boromir?”

The Prince fumed. “That is not what I meant. I would that you would stand up for yourself, at least in circumstances such as these.”

“As I said, I am not helpless. Perhaps weak, but that will pass. There is much to be done, Uncle. I want to be back home for Boromir's betrothal. I want to meet the lady.” Faramir smiled.

Imrahil returned the smile. “Since your companions set an easy pace, I must be content with your decision. Remember this, Faramir, you are not readily expendable. You are needed and most important to Gondor and to your father. Do not sell yourself short.”

“Let us continue this journey then. Tell me more about Míriel. Was she raised in Dol Amroth itself or is she from the lands nearby?”

“She has lived in Dol Amroth her entire life. Her father is on my council. Her mother is one of the social gadflys that love to stick their noses in everyone's business. Míriel is, fortunately, more like her father than her mother, else I would not have suggested her to Denethor. I like her. You will too, I am sure. As for Boromir,” Imrahil shook his head, “I do not believe there is a woman alive who can take his heart from Minas Tirith. She has a daunting task ahead of her. But I think she is ready for it. Court life in your city is not as convoluted as in mine. I think Indis had great bearing on that. She kept the intrigue to a minimum. Would not tolerate any. That was a blessing for Denethor. It was a grievous day, when she passed.”

“He misses her terribly. I think he has no one he trusts as he did his sister. I am told she was councilor to Ecthelion also?”

“That she was. Before my time. He turns to no one?”

“He listens to his Council, but usually," and Faramir's smile turned bitter, “Usually he does what he had planned before he even spoke with them. They grow frustrated. And bitter.”

“I can understand that. His spies and the other tools he uses to dredge information are unique. I cannot keep up with his thoughts myself. It must be very frustrating to not have the information he does and have to council him. I do not envy these lords.”

“Nor I. I know Boromir is becoming frustrated. He needs must have the reports father has, but father does not share them all. Boromir's hands are tied. At least now, I think, father has agreed to send all army related reports to Boromir. Father seems to know the enemies movements, but does not tell Boromir. How does one plan a campaign if one is blind?”

“Mayhap I can do something about that. When I return, if your father has recovered fully, I will discuss this matter.”

“Thank you, Uncle.”

The caravan pulled up and Faramir and Imrahil sat with the men and shared a cold meal and warm ale. Then, they broke camp and continued their journey to Osgiliath.

Imrahil hugged Faramir warmly before helping his nephew mount his horse. “I am still gravely concerned for your welfare. Boromir will be angry at your actions, you know.”

Faramir chuckled. “He will indeed. I have already sent a missive to him, so he will return to Minas Tirith, ready to tear me to shreds!"

“Return quickly, Faramir. Set the plans in motion and return to your warm bed. You will be needed for the betrothal, by me, if not by your brother.”

Faramir waved and set off after the supply wagons. Imrahil looked on, concern filling him. ‘I know not how to protect either man, Denethor nor Faramir. They are both stubborn. Mayhap, when Boromir returns, we can talk sense into these two!’ He shrugged and headed back to the city.

~*~

Derufin was delighted to see Faramir, then quickly frowned. “You are not well?”

“I am fine. Just a little weak. We have much work to do.” Faramir stumbled; Derufin caught him.

“A little more than weak, I think. Exhausted is more like it. Why are you here?”

“I am taking a short leave. I came to Osgiliath for its healing properties,” Faramir laughed roundly.

“‘Tis not a laughing matter. Are you taking over captaincy?”

“Nay! No such thing. I have plans that Boromir wants implemented. I will only spend a few days here. I hope this is not an inconvenience?"

“The only inconvenience is if you fall off your horse and crack your skull open. Which, from the state I see you in now, was a possibility on your long ride.”

“Damrod would not allow it,” Faramir smiled at the shadow behind him.

“Then come. Stay in my rooms. The bed is passable. Have you eaten?”

“We have. I would most appreciate a moment's rest.”

“More than a moment, Captain. We will discuss Boromir's plans in the morning, after you have had a good night's sleep and broken your fast.” He held up a hand to stay Faramir's response. “If you are stationed here for a year or a few days, you are under my command. And my orders are for you to retire to your quarters. I will not speak with you until the morrow.” The captain walked away.

Faramir did not miss Damrod's smug look. “So I am still to be treated as a babe.”

“If you act like one,” the Ranger said quietly.

“You wish Imrahil had talked me into returning to the City?”

“I do. This is... not my place to comment. I will order food for the daymeal when that time comes. I will be standing here if you need me.”

“Find quarters for yourself for the night. I refuse... " He swore loudly and a few of the men standing about looked at him questioningly. “Boromir will not let you find quarters, will he?”

“I think not, my Captain." Damrod smiled. “I am not going to share your room this time. I do not think you need a nursemaid any longer. I will be on guard in front of your quarters, if you need me.”

“Damrod,” frustration colored Faramir's mien, “I cannot have you standing outside of my quarters until we leave Osgiliath. You need your rest and your privacy, too. Please, find yourself a billet and stand guard when you feel you must, but then leave me. Please.”

“Aye, Captain. I think you are well guarded here. But I will remain at your side during the day. I wonder where Mablung is billeted. Mayhap, he will share a room with me.”

“Go and find him. I am going to sleep.” They had reached the captain's quarters by this time.

Damrod saluted and watched Faramir enter the building. He waited a few moments, then entered the room. It was as he expected; Faramir was asleep on the bed, uncovered, his boots and sword still on him. The Ranger shook his head, removed the sword, scabbard and boots, and covered his captain. He then left the room to find Mablung. He had promised Faramir he would not stand guard both day and night, but he had already decided he would watch during the day and Mablung would guard their captain at night. Boromir would be pleased.

~*~

The sun was well on her way to setting before Faramir woke. His body ached, not just his shoulder, but he put the pain aside when he noted the shadows in the room. Anger, frustration, and exhaustion took turns pummeling his thoughts. ‘There is so much to do,’ he moaned. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and tried to stand, but the room began to sway. He caught himself before he fell and lay back on the bed, cursing quietly.

“Captain?” Damrod opened the door. “Are you ready to break your fast?”

“I think five times over. I cannot get up,” he said, shamefacedly.

“I am not surprised. Almost six hours in the saddle and no dinner last night, no food yet today. I will return in a moment. Please, do not try to stand. Please,” and Faramir nodded.

“Thank you. I will return with a meal.” The soldier stepped back out the door as quickly as he had entered.

Faramir did not move. His mind screamed at him to stand, to not lie about, but his body had other ideas. He could not believe he had slept a full night and a day. He took a few short gulps of air, closed his eyes, and drifted off to sleep. When Damrod returned, he smiled and turned to Mablung, who had followed him from the dining room. “Almost time for you to guard him. If he wakes, he will be furious, just to let you know.”

Mablung frowned. “We only do our duty. He does the same. He will not be angry. At least,” and the frown turned to a smile, “not when I tell him Boromir would gut us both if anything else happened to him!”

Damrod laughed quietly.

“Will he recover his full strength?”

“He will, Mablung. Potent are the poisons of the Enemy, but the healers assure Lord Denethor he will recover, and none would dare lie to the Steward.”

“Aye. I will stand watch. The meal is all cold stuffs. I will keep it here in case he wakes before morning. Will you report to Captain Derufin?”

“I will. Do you suppose I should send a missive to Lord Denethor?”

“Hmmm. That might be a good idea. Not mention Captain Faramir's weakness, but to...”

“To what? If I send a missive without mention of the captain's state, he will wonder why his son did not send a missive himself. If I send one and tell of the captain's weakness... I do not want to do that.”

“Have Captain Derufin send one. As part of his usual garrison report. That way,” Mablung shrugged, “The Steward will be none the wiser and we have saved Captain Faramir shame.”

“Aye. I will speak with Captain Derufin now. A good solution,” the Ranger sighed, but before he could leave, Faramir opened his eyes.

“Mablung, Damrod. It is good to see you both. Forgive me. I need to relieve myself.” He blushed furiously. “I will need help.”

Damrod strode quickly to the bed and helped Faramir stand. Then, holding his arm, he walked him out the door and to the privy. He left him standing before it and stepped out of the door, waiting. After a few moments, Faramir called him. He walked back in and helped Faramir back to the captain's quarters. A few men stopped and looked as they crossed the compound, but none said a word. Damrod hoped Faramir had not noticed.

“Thank you,” Faramir said, his voice almost a whisper. “If I had the strength, I would curse every Orc in Middle-earth.”

“There is food, Captain,” Damrod said and held a plate before him. “And ale.”

“Thank you. I will sit at the table. I am beginning to hate that bed almost as much as the one in the Houses.” He smiled, daunted.

Damrod and Mablung stood by the door. “Nay! Please, sit with me. There is too much food anyhow. I would ask that you would share this meal with me. I am not used to eating alone.”

The two men looked at each other in consternation. Shrugging, they sat. “Thank you,” their captain said. “And thank you for not cutting this,” and he held up a piece of cold meat, “for not cutting this into little pieces as if I was a child.”

The Rangers laughed. “Boromir did not tell us that we had that duty also!” Mablung said with glee.

“Good. And do not tell him that either,” Faramir said. After the first few bites, his head had stopped spinning. He took a gulp of the ale and sat back. “Where is Captain Derufin?”

“He took a patrol out this morning. He should return shortly. I think they were headed south, towards Emyn Arnen.”

“Hmmm. Where are the maps and documents I brought with me?”

“Here,” and Mablung stood and walked to the captain's desk. “All laid out and ready for you.”

“Would you tell the captain I wish to meet with him this evening?”

“Aye. As soon as he returns.”

“Has there been any word from Boromir or the Steward?”

“None, Captain. Would you wish to send a missive to the Steward?” Damrod asked furtively.

“Aye. I would. I think I can make it to the desk by myself.” He turned towards Damrod. “I am surly, at times, and do not know enough to thank those who help me. I am sorry.”

Damrod lowered his eyes. “There is no need for thanks.”

“Here. Come look at this with me. Especially you, Mablung. You have been in Osgiliath for the last few days. I am sure Boromir asked you to look around and see what changes might be needed.”

“He did.” Mablung stood up and stepped behind the chair where Faramir sat. “He was particularly concerned with the docks. They make it too easy for the Enemy to land his troops. He suggested we use timber and concrete from the destroyed buildings to block them. There are enough ruins nearby that it should not be a difficult task. We will need fulcrums and levers and such, but it can be done. Especially since the Lord Denethor has restored the garrison to full strength.”

A horn was heard and Faramir motioned. Mablung ran from the room and after a few moments, Derufin entered with the Ranger. “Captain Faramir. It is good to see you up and about.”

“Thank you, Derufin. Are you ready to take over your own quarters again?”

“Not until you leave. Do not ask again. I have found a nice little billet away from the dust and the noise of the compound, and not many can find me.”

Faramir burst into laughter. “So that is why you have given me your quarters – to hide?”

“Aye. And it has worked quite well. Now, I will find some food and return. You have orders for me, I believe?”

“I do. But Mablung will bring you food. We just finished our meal. Unfortunately, my hunger got the better of me and there is none left.”

Mablung saluted and left as Derufin sat at the desk alongside Faramir. “These are very good maps,” he said, wonder filling his voice. “Where did you get them?”

“The Steward made them some years ago. I believe not much has changed?”

“Nay. Though some of the buildings have crumpled even further. Still, the docks and the bridge and the defenses are the same. This is incredible. A copy should be left here at the garrison.”

“Aye. I will see it is done when I return to Minas Tirith. Now, eat,” he smiled as Mablung walked in with a large bowl of stew and thick slices of bread.

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26.

The winds on the parapet blew colder than they had this past fortnight and Denethor wondered once again regarding the Enemy's hold on the weather. 'Is He that powerful? Can He tame the elements, bind them to His will?'

A hand lightly touched his arm. “My Captain,” Húrin said quietly, “You are troubled?”

“'Twas kind of you not to say outright, 'I was able to come upon your back unawares!’” Denethor turned to face his cousin. “When a soldier leaves the battlefield for the final time, he loses a part of himself.”

“Are you lost, my Lord?”

Denethor's breath hitched, but his reply was strong and his Warden missed the catch. “Lost in thought only, Húrin. Do you need something?”

“You asked me to apprise you when a messenger from Amon Din arrived. Boromir has begun his journey to Rohan.”

“Did you meet with the builders? Have you set a date yet for when they will start?”

“We met, my Lord. My estimate and young Faramir's were off by a wide mark. The builders believe it will take nigh unto ten years to heighten the Rammas.”

Denethor said not a word, but this time, Húrin did note a straightening of the broad shoulders of his Steward. “I still think it is best that we begin the project at the Causeway Forts. In two days time, I will ride to Harlond and survey the Rammas there. Then I will decide.”

“Faramir thought that the North Gate should be the next place to rebuild.”

“Nay. The North Gate will be the last. Our allies from Rohan help us guard the north. Preparations,” Denethor changed the subject, “for new silos and granaries are under way?”

“They are, my Lord. I am planning on building two granaries and one silo this year.”

They both turned as Imrahil walked towards them.

“Good morrow, brother - Húrin,” the Prince smiled warmly.

“Imrahil! I had forgotten our meeting. Have you broken your fast yet?”

“I have not. And you? Though that question seems to be moot. I am sure you have not.”

“And you would be correct in this, at least. Húrin, let us take our stalwart Prince to the dinner hall. I would the men see their Steward still lives, and,” he put his hand on Imrahil's shoulder, “that Dol Amroth's most beloved Swan Knight still graces Minas Tirith with his presence.”

Imrahil smiled gently. “I must return to my city when Miriel's cortege leaves.”

“You will be missed. Of all the lords of Gondor, your friendship and wisdom I prize the most.”

As they entered the hall, the soldiers all rose in unison. Cries of “Huzzah!” rang through the hall. Denethor beamed and saluted them. One of the servers ran to Denethor and offered a table. Another brought a tray of pastries and hot teas.

Denethor whispered to Húrin who left them. Imrahil and Denethor sat. The Prince watched as Húrin went from captain to captain. One at a time, the captains came forward to approach Denethor's table. He asked each to sit and questioned them about their duties, their men and their families.

After an hour and with scarce a sip of his tea or a bit of pastry, Denethor was satisfied. He had interrogated, praised and exhorted all the captains present in the hall. A warm glow hung over the men. When he stood to take his leave, the soldiers rose again and cheered him wildly. He saluted, then Imrahil, Húrin and he left.

“You must be exhausted?” Húrin wondered.

“I am exhilarated. They are good men, what few there are left. They know their duty, could you not feel it? They will fight till the end.”

“And you will collapse,” Imrahil gently chided him, “as will I if I do not get some real food into me.”

Denethor nodded and the three walked to the Steward's quarters. Denethor rang for a meal while Húrin and Imrahil settled themselves in deep leather chairs in the study. When Denethor joined them, Imrahil asked, “You were discussing granaries for food storage when I came upon you on the parapet?”

Denethor nodded.

“You have many great houses that lay empty and boarded. Instead of building new granaries, would it not be more frugal and quicker to turn a few of these into storage?”

Denethor nodded in surprise. “What think you of that, Húrin?”

“An excellent idea. As Steward, you can acquire empty homes in the name of Gondor. I will do a survey these next few days and attempt to discern which houses would best be suited for this need.”

“There are three problems, Imrahil, with your idea,” Denethor stated as he finished his tea. “Fire, mold and vermin. The upper portion of the houses would have to be sealed. We would have to use the largest homes, ones that had great ballrooms or great foyers. Because of the threat of fire, there could be no lit fires inside and the vermin would surely find their way in and eat what we have endeavoured to save.”

“The major problem, as I see it, is keeping the grain dry and mold free.” Imrahil stood and began pacing across the study, his face lit in excitement. “I propose using the spill drains that lie under most of the houses. Seal them off and then fill them with hot water. Of course, fires would have to be built on the outside to heat the water. But the cost would be much less than building new granaries. And the houses are already empty! You already have drain pipes running under the larger ones to take the spill from Mindolluin away from the City and to prevent flooding in the spring. Chose two houses that are directly over some of these spillways. The houses chosen should be far enough apart to prevent flooding. Stopper the ends of the drains, set fire near the top stopper for heating water, then flood the pipes with the heated water. Every morning, have the bottom stopper removed and the cooled water flushed out. Then – repeat the process.”

“Men would have to shift the grain at least twice a day to kept it from molding,” Húrin interjected.

“Aye. Twice a day they could move the grain from one end of the ballrooms or whatever to the other end. The casements would be left open to allow air to flow freely.”

“And,” Denethor stated wryly, “the cats of the City would be most pleased to prowl the perimeters to keep the vermin down.” Denethor stood and walked to the window. After a long moment, he turned and looked at his friends. “It is a good plan. Húrin, find the drawings for the sewers and locate the best houses. We will begin immediately. The Council will be furious; already the Lords of the Building Trades were rubbing their hands in anticipation of the stipends they would have received for building these granaries. Imrahil’s plan is much better, and,” he turned towards the Prince, “infinitely more economical. Gondor thanks you.” He pulled the man up from the settle and hugged him warmly. “I have said before, and I will say it again, you will be sorely missed when you return to Dol Amroth.”

Imrahil and Húrin spent the rest of the day in the archives while Denethor prepared for the next day’s Council meeting. As he had feared, many of the Council members were furious at the change of plans. Denethor could easily read their hearts. Yet, he listened attentively to their complaints, their counter suggestions and their outright fury at their loss of coin. In the end, he thanked and dismissed them. Grumbling could be heard well after he left the Council chambers.

Returning to his private study, he was not surprised to find Imrahil there and waiting for him. Before Denethor even sat down, Imrahil raged. “They are glad we are at war! Their eyes are filled with visions of wealth. Have they not lost sons in these years past? Do they not know the horror of war? How can they put their greed above the welfare of our people?”

Denethor held his hand up to stop Imrahil’s tirade, but it did little good, for in strode Húrin, his face filled with the same anger Denethor saw in Imrahil’s.

“How dare Lord Ohtar claim the houses we picked as his? His relation to the former owners is tenuous at best. At most, he is a twentieth cousin removed. The owners of these houses have been long dead and none have claimed them before this! The buildings have been left to rot. But now that he sees he might blackmail you into paying for their use… Argh!” the Warden snorted in derision and sat heavily on the settle next to Imrahil.

Denethor poured goblets of wine and passed them to his friends. His face, however, was as grim as theirs were angry. “I have already made my decision. We will go ahead with the plans and turn the houses into granaries. Ohtar can bring a formal complaint if he wills, but as I judge complaints…” A taut smile crossed his face for a moment. “And if he continues his complaint, I will have him thrown in the dungeons.”

Húrin’s face fell. “You would not?”

“Of course I would not.”

“But it felt good saying it, didn’t it?” Imrahil laughed. “Eased my anger too. Let us eat and prepare for tomorrow’s trip to the Harlond.” The servants had entered by this time and served the daymeal to the three.

~*~

Though the day dawned dark and miserable with the threat of rain from the east o’erhanging Minas Tirith, Denethor could not help but have a small moment of ease at the thought of leaving the City. He had not ridden in months; too many affairs of state lay before him and he had found every time he attempted to mount his horse, someone or something interrupted and he was forced to cancel his outing. Húrin had promised he would let nothing stop the Steward from his inspection of the Harlond.

Imrahil noted the rare good mood that engulfed Denethor and smiled warmly. “Your mount looks as happy as you do.”

Denethor took in a quick breath and relished the feel of Minas Tirith in his nostrils. Some thought his City smelt of age and neglect and refuse, but to Denethor, the City smelt of life, pure and clean, sharp as steel and bright as silver. His arms prickled with the feel of it, the joy of it. He had forgotten. He swallowed the tightness in his throat and urged his horse into a gentle walk.

“Why do we really go to the Harlond, Denethor? Húrin could have gone, would have at but your word.”

“I need to be seen. The people know of the threat from o’er the mountains and I would assure them their Steward has everything in hand. Just as I did with the soldiers in the dining hall. A captain must let his men see his strength, else they become anxious. The same is true with my people. I have too long kept in the confines of the City. True, I send Boromir and Faramir, but that is different. I am their Steward. I am their guardian.” His head raised a fraction and his back straightened. “They need a strong guardian, especially at this time, as strong as the Rammas Echor.” He gave a small grunt. “As strong as it will be once we finish the refortifications. I should have begun them long ago. Without Faramir’s urging, we might have been found wanting, Imrahil.”

Imrahil nodded. “I like the bent of his mind. He seems silent, perhaps withdrawn, but he thinks on his feet, and has a good grasp of lore. As do you, brother.”

“He is too much like me. Gondor needs more like Boromir, quick with a sword and a shield, ready to leap into battle without a thought, afraid of nothing.” His face beamed with pride. “He is Gondor, Imrahil. Have you watched him? No hesitation. His men know it too and follow him into the most loathsome situations. They care not. As long as Boromir leads them, they know they are in for an adventure. The lad relishes battle. I think he would be lost if there was peace.” Denethor’s voice dropped in wonder.

“Peace is a good thing.”

“Of course it is,” Denethor said testily, “and Boromir will rein himself in, when the time comes, and govern Gondor well. But for now, I am most grateful that he rides into battle as his namesake did, with fury and strength.”

“And he is grateful that he has the love and wisdom of his brother to council him, when he becomes Steward. Though I would not talk of that time now. He will have time to ‘rein in’ his battle lust long before you pass the Rod to him.”

“Faramir is wise in lore.” Denethor’s brow creased. “He analyzes things overlong. A crisis comes and is passed before he takes action. I hope his time in Osgiliath is well spent. The needs there are many.”

“Faramir will do well. He does take longer to make a decision. He calls in his captains and asks their opinions. His men love him for that.”

“I am well aware of the love of his men. But a captain must have more than love, he must have loyalty.”

“Faramir has the loyalty of his men.” Imrahil’s own brow creased. “Is there aught I have missed.”

“He waits for the wizard.”

“You sent for the wizard.”

“I did indeed, at Faramir’s urging.”

Imrahil stopped his horse. Denethor pulled his own mount up.

“Do you doubt Faramir’s loyalty?”

Denethor squinted across the Pelennor, wondering what Faramir was about this day. “I do not, not yet,” he sighed heavily.

“He went to Osgiliath while still suffering from the effects of the Orc poison.” Imrahil’s jaw tightened. “Is that not loyalty?”

“What mean you?” Denethor looked at the Prince in surprise. “He was healed. He had returned to his own rooms. Had been discharged by the Warden of the Houses!”

“He was still weak, had just had a relapse the morning before you sent him off.”

Denethor turned his horse towards Imrahil and dismounted. Imrahil did the same. Denethor grasped the Prince by the arms and pulled him close, nails digging into Imrahil’s arms. “What say you? He was ill when he took the journey?”

“He was, Denethor. Did you not know?”

Lowering his head, he leaned against the Swan Knight and held him for a moment.

Imrahil felt the wavering of the Steward’s body and clasped him to his own. “He obeys you in all things,” he whispered.

“We will go to Osgiliath. I will send Húrin to the Harlond tomorrow.”

Imrahil nodded and crushed Denethor to him. “Your son will be pleased to see you.”

~*~
My deepest thanks to Rhyselle, Linaewen and Mr. Lin in regards to the granaries and the pipes and such. We had long discussions and I hope they are happy with the way Denethor decided to do this project!

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27.

The journey took well over four hours. In fact, Imrahil wondered if they would ever reach the garrison, for all sorts of folk came out when they heard the horses’ hooves. The farmers and their children waved, joy apparent on their faces, and their wives curtsied to their Lord. Denethor fairly beamed. He slowed the pace every time they came near a homestead, knowing the people hungered for his presence, his strength. And he gave it to them, as a cup o’erflowing. At last, they stopped for nuncheon at a hostelry halfway between Minas Tirith and the Causeway Forts. Soldiers of Gondor milled about the entranceway. As soon as they saw who approached, some ran into the inn while others quickly strode forward, hands to their chests in salute, their faces plainly showing their surprise.

Denethor nodded to them and let one of them take his reins. Another tried to give him a hand as he dismounted and he had to hold himself still. Though his hair was whiter than ever it had been in his life, he was not yet a dotard. Still, the soldier’s motives were pure, he felt, so he let the man help him dismount. Imrahil was at his side in a moment. Denethor asked the soldier his name and where he was stationed. Then, he turned to the others who looked expectantly to him. He spent some time with them, then, at Imrahil’s urging, he went into the inn. The keeper was at his side in an instant, offering a table in a back room. Denethor shook his head and insisted they be seated in the front of the inn with the other soldiers of Gondor.

The proprietor beamed from ear to ear. ‘This is so good for business,’ he almost rubbed his hands in glee. ‘Many will come to sit at the table that the Steward sat at. I must make a plaque or some such – I cannot believe my good fortune!’ He hurried forward to wipe the table with his shirtsleeve. Then, he ran to the back and brought forth two tall flagons filled with his best ale. Rarely did he serve this ale, not to the common soldiers of Gondor, but for the Steward, ‘only the best will do!’

Denethor looked at the man as he set the drinks before him. Something about the man’s curled lip, or perhaps the over brightness of his eyes, betrayed his thoughts to the Steward. “I would drink what you serve my men.”

The tone chilled the innkeeper to the bone. “My Lord,” he stumbled over the words, “this is what I serve your men.” He swallowed hard and Denethor watched the man’s throat constrict.

“This is not what you serve the warriors of Gondor. Bring me a flagon of that. And now.” The Steward’s voice was low but Imrahil himself felt a shudder, as of icy water, run down his back.

“Beg your pardon, my Lord Steward,” the man cringed, “I have just now received a new shipment. Here!” he called to the girl behind the serving table, “Clear the flagons of the soldiers of Gondor and give them the new ale, the one that arrived just this morning.” The girl looked at him in confusion. He turned towards her, his face contorted in rage. “Are you dense, girl? I’ll do it myself. Clear the tables.” She ran forward and took the flagons in front of all those in the common room and brought them back. The innkeeper started pouring ale into the emptied drinking vessels, then he motioned for the girl to take them to the men.

The men cried aloud in joy and raised their flagons to their Steward. One o’er zealous soldier stood on a table and led them in a cheer. Three huzzahs, a salute to their Steward, and the men quaffed their ale.

Denethor’s face never changed. He took his drink, returned the salute and downed his own ale. Imrahil could hardly drink, Denethor noted. The innkeeper returned. “Have you some sort of stew?”

“Lamb, my Lord Steward.” The proprietor’s diffidence troubled Denethor. ‘Was the man hiding something else?’ He nodded and shortly thereafter, a steaming bowl of stew was placed before Imrahil and him. The stew was good and Denethor put aside his unease. Denethor ate quickly and Imrahil followed suit; no words were spoken.

At last, as Denethor chewed the last bite of bread, he relaxed. Looking hard at Imrahil, he asked, “Do you remember Thorongil?”

“I was twenty and five years when he won the great battle against the Corsairs. I commanded a ship under him.”

Denethor nodded. “Of course.” Again, the Prince found himself under close scrutiny by his uncle. After another moment, Denethor sighed heavily. “By all rights…” he shook his head. “Nay! The people would have crowned him, had he come back to Minas Tirith. They thought nothing of their Steward nor of his Heir. I think that surprised my father. He heard the calls in the street, the same calls I heard for the Northerner to be crowned.” The eyes searched Imrahil’s face.

“I had heard rumours of… adulation,” Imrahil said quietly. “What did your father do?”

A choked laugh greeted his question. “Nothing. Thorongil left the battle site and was not heard from again. Mithrandir left soon after.”

“Did Ecthelion have him murdered?” Imrahil whispered.

“He lives.”

“Why did he not return to the City, take up the crown?”

“I know not. But my men would not regale me as they have today, nor as they did in the hall two days ago, if he were still here.”

Imrahil nodded. Denethor dropped some coins on the table and left the inn. Imrahil scrambled to follow him. By the time they reached the Causeway Forts, it was close to nightfall. The sentries challenged them and Denethor pulled his horse up in chagrin. “I do not know the password. I had not planned on leaving the Pelennor. I neglected to ask for it. Know you?”

Imrahil shook his head. “I do not.”

Denethor burst into laughter. “Then we might as well turn around and return to the City.”

“Your men will let you pass,” Imrahil said firmly.

“If they do, I will have them imprisoned.”

“You would not.”

“This time, Imrahil, I would. My orders are law. No one enters or leaves the Pelennor without the password. No one.”

The guard walked towards the riders. “The password,” then stopped in confusion. “My Lord Steward!” he saluted. “Forgive me, my Lord, the password?”

“I know it not.”

Turning in panic to the other guard, the first said, “The Lord Steward does not know the password.”

The second guard walked quietly towards Denethor. He drew his sword, saluted, and paused. Taking a deep breath, he said, “By order of the Steward of Gondor, none may pass without the password.” He bit his lip after saying this and Denethor noted that the first guard was almost hopping from one leg to the next. They were both clearly frightened.

“Would you send a rider for Captain Faramir? He is staying at the garrison in Osgiliath.”

“I will, my Lord Steward.” The man turned and barked an order to another soldier standing nearby. The man ran to the stables, mounted and rode across the Causeway towards Osgiliath.

Denethor dismounted and motioned for Imrahil to join him.

“They carry this too far, Uncle!”

“To be precise, they should hold us both as prisoners until they are given orders as to our disposal.” Denethor had to hold back another laugh. “I am grateful they have decided to leave us be, for the moment.”

A lieutenant strode quickly forward. Denethor knew he must have been sent for. He waited to see what would happen next.

“My Lord Steward?”

“Aye.”

“My men say you do not know the password?”

“It is true.”

“Then I must escort you back to Minas Tirith.”

Denethor nodded. “What is your name?”

The soldier blushed, but did not retreat. “Hirgon. I am in charge of this outpost.”

“May I stay until my son is brought to me?”

Now the lieutenant looked confused. “My Lord, your rule states- “

“That none may enter or leave the Pelennor without the password. I will not leave; I will stand here and wait for my son. You may have my sword.” He began to unbuckle the sword belt, but the soldier hurried forward. “It is not necessary, my Lord. I will give you one hour, then I must escort you back to Minas Tirith.”

Denethor nodded. The lieutenant walked back to the guards. Imrahil scowled, but Denethor had a pleased expression on his face. They waited.


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28.

The Warden of the Keys swore softly under his breath as he stood upon the escarpment, looking out upon the fields of the Pelennor. He could not find what he looked for, but he knew, with the certainty of his long relationship with Denethor, that the Steward was not where he should be. He swore again and turned towards the Tower.

Three soldiers ran from the tunnel leading to the Sixth Circle. Húrin stopped and waited. They ran; it pleased him to see this show of duty. Their swords hit their legs at the pace they set. Stopping before him, they saluted. The youngest, much to Húrin’s surprise, spoke. “My Lord. The Steward is not at the Harlond. We looked everywhere for him. At last, due to our diligence, we discovered a man who had seen him riding towards Osgiliath.”

Húrin bit his lip to keep from smiling. ‘Due to our diligence!’ The man was indeed young and obviously a proud pup. He nodded and motioned for them to leave. The speaker moved towards him, as if to continue, but the other soldiers took his arms and led him away. As they moved, he heard one of the soldiers say, “Due to our diligence? What an idiot you are. Do you not know it was our duty not our diligence. Now we look like fools, puffing ourselves out as Haradric peacocks!” The other cuffed the youngest on the side of his head. Húrin chuckled quietly. He remembered a time when Denethor had done something similar and Húrin had been the one to give him his comeuppance. His brow furrowed at the thought of Denethor. ‘Where is he? Is he truly going to Osgiliath? Well, wherever he is going, he is not going without an escort.’ He walked quickly into the Tower, ordering one of the guards to bring the Captain of the Guard to him.

As he entered his own office, he found Ragorn waiting for him. The captain stepped forward and Húrin could see the palpable tension on the man’s face. “Speak.”

“The Steward is not at the Harlond. Those I sent to meet him have sent an errand-rider saying he never arrived. Do you know aught?”

“I believe he is riding to Osgiliath.”

“Alone? And with no escort?”

“Prince Imrahil rides with him.”

“But he has no escort!” The man cried in outrage. “Why was I not told?”

“I have just discovered this myself, Captain. It would be best if you quickly assembled your company and followed him, ere he is lost in the hills.”

Ragorn scowled, but saluted and ran from the room. Húrin smiled. ‘Denethor will receive a tongue-lashing for this, if I know Captain Ragorn.’ He sat at his desk in relief, glad to know that Denethor would be looked after. Then, he grimaced. He was to meet with the Chamberlain to arrange the seats for the Betrothal Banquet. He held his head in his hands and moaned. ‘Where is Indis? She did this so well.’

In the meantime, Ragorn ran to the stables in the Sixth Circle, signaled and he and the company he had already called together rode down the streets of Minas Tirith and out into the fields of the Pelennor. Mile after mile passed under their horses’ hooves as Ragorn paced them. They arrived at the inn around the sixth bell and were told in excited tones that Denethor had indeed been there but had gone on to the Causeway.

Again, the company of Denethor’s personal guard rode eastward. At long last, they reached the Forts and discovered Denethor standing under armed guard. Ragorn jumped from his horse, his sword drawn before he landed. His full company immediately joined him as the guard from the Causeway ran forward. In moments, the air rang with the sounds of swords being drawn.

~*~

Faramir stood at the end of the broken bridge, the third of its kind that spanned the Great River. This one, though demolished, stood out about six feet over the water. He watched as the current caught on sunken debris and swished the river this way and that. ‘Treacherous to swim here,’ he thought mildly and fondly remembered the times Boromir and he had swam in the channels by Cair Andros. The water was warmer there as the river ran lower in the summer near the island fortress. He shook his head and pulled himself back from such reverie. He watched as the currents flowed swiftly past certain areas near to this side of Osgiliath and realized that the river was an ally, in places. Yet, as he watched, he noted how easily the old wharfs and docks made it for landings. ‘They should be torn down,’ he thought to himself, but a part of him dreaded the thought, for tearing the city further down only magnified the fact that Osgiliath was indeed dead and not soon to be resurrected.

Damrod called to him. “Captain. I think you should see these.”

Faramir turned and left the bridge, climbing down onto the ruins and over to Damrod.

“In here,” his aide said and pointed once they had passed in through a narrow hall.

The light was diffused and dust rose and choked them at every footfall. At last, they came to an opening where the light finally brightened, showing them docks, long lines of docks that opened right into the city itself. Faramir shivered. The enemy could pull their boats up here and enter the city with nary a problem. Swallowing hard, he walked further along. “This must have been some sort of entertainment area or such. Look at the wine bottles. Boats must have docked here and the people walked right into this inn. How many more are there along the river?” Despair shook his voice.

“There cannot be many, but I think a full scale search must be organized. Every one of these docks must be destroyed and the openings into these buildings must be sealed.”

Faramir nodded. He took a deep breath and both men left the building. “The sun will be down soon. We will mount an expedition tomorrow, at least three companies, and explore this part of the river. We would be helpless if an attack were launched now.”

Damrod agreed as they made their way to the garrison. Faramir heard his name called and turned in surprise. It was Mablung. “The Steward awaits you at the Causeway Forts, Captain Faramir.”

Faramir looked in surprise. “My father has left the City?”

“He has.”

“Boromir!”

The look of concern on Faramir’s face grabbed at Mablung’s heart. “Naught is wrong, according to the messenger.”

Running towards the stables, Faramir called for a mounted horse. Within moments, Mablung, Damrod and he were riding west to the Causeway.

~*~

Denethor stepped forward and raised his hand. “Cease! I am well, Captain Ragorn. Put away your sword. Lieutenant Hirgon, tell your men to lower their swords.”

At that very moment, Faramir pulled up, staring in horror at the sight before him. He stayed in the background; Denethor had not seen him, but Faramir watched in consternation as the Men of Gondor faced off against each other. Mablung made to draw his own sword, but Faramir held his hand. They waited at the edge of the impending conflict. Not oft did Faramir have the opportunity to watch his father; he waited, wondering what had caused this state of affairs and what the outcome would be.

Ragorn looked at his Steward in alarm. “They raise their swords to you!”

“They do not,” Denethor said passionately, then lowered his voice and sighed. “They raise them against you. Does it not seem a fairly dangerous thing to draw your sword in the presence of the Steward? What can the lieutenant think but that you have come armed to o’ertake me?”

His aide sputtered and fumed. “I would not raise my hand or my sword against my Steward.”

“Nor would I!” the lieutenant shouted. “We protect our liege lord!”

Denethor put his hand on the young man’s shoulder. “As does the captain of my personal guard. Know you not the livery?”

The lieutenant’s face blazed red; his breath caught. “I… I am sorry, my Lord, I did not note. I only saw their swords drawn.”

“Then put yours away.”

The lieutenant did as he was ordered, turned to his men and ordered them to sheath their own swords. Ragorn did the same. Both men saluted Denethor and waited.

“Have you not noted that our Enemy takes great pains to sunder us?” the Steward spoke quietly. “Have you not watched as those who live closest to the Ephel Dúath, those who refuse to leave their farm lands, cheat and lie and steal. They murder their neighbors whilst they plot against the realm.”

“That is only rumour,” Hirgon cried in protest. “None have actually seen it.”

“None have actually seen those who live in the lands east of the Harad Road. Yet, I know they are there, that they have turned to the Nameless One and pledged Him their fealty. His poison drifts on the air, over the mountains and down upon Osgiliath. Nay! Upon all of Gondor. You have now taken part in that poison.”

Both the captain and the lieutenant turned white. “Nay!”

“Aye! Any who turn a sword against me or mine, against my soldiers, my warriors, has succumbed to the Nameless One. You may as well go and join his leaguers in Minas Morgul.”

He watched as many of the men shivered. “Aye! You can feel him, can you not? But take heart. You are not alone. His poison has touched others. Yet, Gondor still stands. Imrahil and I stand in the gap. Boromir, Faramir and Húrin. We know and we fight against even these weapons. Will you not stand with us? Will you not fight dissension?”

Faramir strode forward and stood at his father’s right hand. His sword was sheathed but his eyes sparkled. Denethor looked at him, keeping the surprise from his eyes and from the men about him. “Go now back to your duties. Remember what you have seen and heard this day. Keep yourselves awake! Do not listen to the Enemy. Be strong together!”

The men of the Causeway saluted and walked slowly back to their barracks, their posts, and their duties. Ragorn and his men stood back and waited for their Steward’s next orders. Hirgon waited.

“Lieutenant. I now have the password. May I use your quarters for a half hour? I need to speak with Captain Faramir.”

“Aye, my Lord Steward. Please forgive me.” The man started mumbling and stuttering.

“There is naught to forgive. The Enemy knows our weaknesses, the weaknesses of all men, and will use it against us. You have shown exemplary leadership today. Continue as you have, watch for these signs among your men, and help them to fight.”

Hirgon led them to his rooms and left them. Denethor turned to Faramir. Gently taking him by the shoulder, he sat him on a chair. Imrahil stood by the door. “Faramir. Why did you not tell me you were still suffering from the poison? Why did you come here whilst still ill?”

“I am well now, Father,” Faramir protested. “I took my time on the journey and arrived in good health, reasonably good health,” he amended.

“Your uncle says otherwise. Am I to believe he lied?”

Faramir blushed. “Nay, but Father, you asked me to come here and I knew I was almost well. There is so much to be done.”

“Then you and I both listened to the whispers and succumbed.” Denethor shuddered. “I count on you, when I am weak, to council me. Will you remember that?”

“I do, Father.” Denethor watched as Faramir shook his head. “I did not think what you asked was so grievous.”

“Gondor needs her captains strong, Faramir. Remember that. Now, how fare you?”

“I am well. I was at the Northern Bridge. There are inns right along the water, Father, with docks that open right into the city. The defense work will be more arduous than I had thought.”

Denethor sat across from his son. “Do the best you can, whilst taking care of yourself. Then return for the ceremony. Your brother expects you there.” He smiled warmly. “As do I.”

“Will you come to Osgiliath, spend the night?”

“I will stay here tonight, if the lieutenant will not begrudge me a bed, and then inspect the Rammas here and then ride back to the City. Hurin can send inspectors to the Harlond.”

“Then I will leave you to your rest, Father.”

“Would you stay, at least for the daymeal?”

Faramir smiled. “Thank you, Father. I would like that.”

“Good.” They sat until the daymeal was brought, discussing Boromir’s betrothal, the Rammas, Gondor’s defenses, and when they finished their meal, they watched the stars before Faramir took his leave.

Denethor rested well that night.


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29.

Arthad walked the Citadel, a deep frown upon his face. He had been left behind to prepare for Boromir’s next posting. But Denethor’s army, under Boromir’s direction, was well oiled. In two days’ time, the Captain-General’s aide had everything planned and ready. So instead of helping guard his captain, he was left to walk the escarpment and wait. His warrior training accepted this; then, on the third day, as Anor broke over the mountains turning the sky into the most brilliant blue imaginable, he broke. He flung his covers from his bed, dressed quickly and ran to the parapet. The Pelennor spread before him, its green fields, little hamlets, sloping hills, and tree-studded lanes spoke of peace and tranquility. Arthad harrumphed. ‘Peace and tranquility! I am a warrior. I should not be here; I should be beside my captain.’

Yet, every bit of his training rooted him to the spot. He could not leave Minas Tirith without orders, and they would not come from Boromir. The warrior’s eyes sparkled. ‘Mayhap I can cajole the Steward into sending me as a messenger. Aye!’ the man fairly beamed. ‘I will offer myself as errand-rider.’ He ran back to his rooms, made his bed, suited himself in his livery and walked swiftly to the company’s buttery. After eating a quick meal, he strode to the Great Hall. His face fell as he learned that Denethor was in Osgiliath.

Making his way to the armoury, he turned a corner and smacked into Prince Imrahil. “Forgive me, my Lord. I was not watching…”

“You were a thousand leagues away,” the Prince laughed. “Who were you looking for?”

“The Steward, but I am told he is in Osgiliath.”

“He returned late last night. If you wait till the ninth bell, he should be in the Great Hall.” Before Arthad had a moment to turn, Imrahil took him by the arm. “You are Boromir’s aide, are you not?”

“I am. Arthad, at your service.”

“What do you here when your captain is away in Rohan?”

Arthad’s proud face fell. “I am preparing for Boromir’s trip to the North.”

“Ah, yes. To patrol the northern border?”

“Aye.”

“Why do you seek the Steward? I am sure you are capable of making the necessary preparations without the Steward’s help?”

The man squared his shoulders. “All is prepared and has been for over two days. I am, if I may speak forthrightly, at wit’s end. Everything is ready. And I stand here and twiddle my thumbs.”

“Hard lot for a warrior,” the Prince smiled kindly.

The man bowed his head.

“Well, would you mind spending some of that twiddling time at the training grounds with me? Mayhap a little sword practice would take your mind from your troubles?”

“I would most appreciate that, my Lord.”

After an hour’s thorough battering by the Prince, Arthad was exhausted. The man was at least twenty years older than he was and yet, he had held his own. Arthad had to surrender. He not only had held his own, the Prince had thoroughly beaten him too many times for Arthad to remember. ‘Remember?’ Tales of Elves told him by Boromir ran through his memory. If he wanted to, the warrior could say it was by that gift that Imrahil had beaten him, but he knew it was not. Pure skill. The warrior shook his head and offered his arm. “A good drubbing. I see this is why I was left behind. To hone my skills.”

“Nay, Arthad. Boromir has told me of your prowess on the field of battle. You have naught to be ashamed of. Mayhap it was my Elven heritage that o’ercame you today?”

The twinkle in the Prince’s eye made Arthad stop and wonder if perhaps the Prince had the same capability of mind reading that the Steward was said to have. He saluted the Prince, took the man’s weapons and armour, and walked to the bathing area. Depositing these accoutrements and his own, he walked into the bath area. Steam rose; Arthad looked forward to washing the grime of battle from him with pleasure. Though it was still spring, the heat rose from the Pelennor to the upper levels, and had made their practice more strenuous than during the winter months. Imrahil followed him into the large bathing area.

Both men sat for many long minutes, silenced by the feel of the hot water soaking their bruised bodies. At last, Arthad spoke. “It is at least another ten days before Boromir returns. Do you think the Steward might use me as an errand-rider whilst I wait?”

“Does he need errand-riders?”

“Always. Missives must be sent off to all corners of the kingdom. I ride well. I can protect myself if o’ertaken.”

“Then ask him today.”

The men finished their bath and walked slowly towards the Citadel. “Are you from Minas Tirith, Arthad?”

“I am, my Lord. Born and raised here, on the fourth level. My father, Tarcil, was a guard in the Sixth Company.”

“Ah. So you know Minas Tirith well?”

“I do, my Lord. Is there aught you need?”

“I would like to purchase a betrothal gift for Boromir. Might you know of a shop where I might find something to the captain’s liking?”

The man grinned from ear to ear. “There is a set of vambraces that has caught his eye. A leather worker on the third level has made a fine pair, embossed with the White Tree. The man has hidden strips of steel in them for further protection. The captain would be happy to have the pair.”

Imrahil slapped the man on the back. “Before we attend the Steward, would you show me the shop?”

Arthad laughed and turned about. Imrahil followed. The walk was not long and soon they were standing in front of a small shop in one of the lesser lanes of the Third Level. The smell was pungent, as it should be, but Arthad put his hand over his nose for a moment to accustom himself. Imrahil followed him in. After much bargaining and much laughter, Imrahil walked from the shop with the vambraces. “This deserves a drink,” he said and led Arthad to the Fourth Level. They sat and drank a cup or two of Gondor’s finest.

“Boromir will be pleased. He has wanted those for nigh unto six months. He wears his father’s, so he was honour bound to keep them, but his heart longed for these.”

“You know your captain well. I cannot thank you enough. Boromir is dear to me, as is his brother. I do not see them often enough.” The Prince shook his head. “We, all of us, are duty-bound, are we not, to leave our own thoughts and needs behind and place Gondor’s needs first? It is a hard life that we all lead, but I deem the hardest is lived by the son’s of Denethor.”

“Nay,” the warrior said quietly, “The hardest is lived by Gondor’s Steward. For he must be the one to push his sons forward. That is a hard thing, for a father to have to do.”

Imrahil looked at the soldier in surprise. “Aye. My father had to do the same, and his father before him. I am doing the same with my own sons.” The look of joy that had filled the Prince’s face not an hour before had fled. “I do not envy Denethor, for I fear his sense of duty far surpasses mine. I fear he would give everything for Gondor and I am not quite ready to do that. My sons are precious to me.”

“His sons are precious to him,” the warrior spoke heatedly. “But what course has he but the one he takes? Do not all the men of Gondor give of themselves and of their sons? What recourse have we? The Enemy breathes upon our neck.” Arthad shivered. “It is different in Dol Amroth. You do not see that every time you look up, or out your window, or over your shoulder.”

“I do not see the mountain and what it stands for. And you are right to chide me.”

“Nay. Forgive me. Boromir would have my head if he heard me speak such to you, his favoured uncle.”

“Favoured am I?” Imrahil smiled. “He is a most favoured nephew. Well, we best be about our business. I have much to do in preparation for Lady Míriel’s arrival and you have a request of the Steward.”

They toasted Gondor one last time then walked to the Citadel.

~*~

It was now short of a fortnight when the Lady Míriel was expected to arrive; the Citadel was awhirl in preparations. Húrin swore long and often as he tried to accomplish all the details necessary for such a large event. Not only was the betrothal ceremony to be planned and the Great Hall bedecked in finery, Merethrond had to be decorated, invitations were long o’erdue, meals must be planned for at least a fortnight, perhaps two, and guests' quarters had to be prepared. Húrin still had no idea how many were coming from Dol Amroth in Lady Míriel’s entourage.

Denethor quietly watched and finally came to a decision. Indis was sorely missed. These were the things she did with such flourish. Never a thing wrong, nor out of place, during her time as Steward's council. He sighed heavily but walked away before the Warden caught sight of him. He did not want his cousin to think he intruded, nor think the man was not up to the task. He must find someone else to plan the betrothal and the attendant activities concerning it. Húrin must prepare Gondor for war.

'Perhaps Boromir was right. Perhaps we should have left this go for another year. Preparations for war should take up all our time. But if war comes, as I very much expect, then an heir is of the utmost importance, if only to hide in the hills with its mother whilst Minas Tirith falls.' He swallowed hard at the thought. 'Another thing to prepare, hiding places for my people. Húrin has the evacuation well in hand, but where will they go? Perhaps some shelters should be set up along the River Gilrain. I have asked the lords of the different fiefdoms, from Lossarnach to Anfalas, to prepare to receive our refugees, but there is not enough room in their cities to accommodate the vast number that will be displaced.’ He had reached the steps of the Tower now and wondered, but good sense took over. He had not fully recovered from his last time with the stone. He would wait another day, perhaps two, before attempting to see what was happening in Rohan.

He heard the disturbance in the hall before he saw anyone. A young rider. 'Ah!' he thought happily, 'A rider from Belfalas by the livery he wears. And of the Prince's own court. He will be glad to receive this missive.' He walked to his Chair and sat. The messenger strode forward. "I have a missive for Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth," the man bowed courteously.

“I will send--”

Imrahil ran into the Great Hall and up to Denethor. “My Lord Steward,” he saluted, smiling cheerfully. “O’erlong is the message in coming. If it contains what I think it should, our friend Húrin will be most pleased.”

Denethor allowed the message to be given to Imrahil and waited.

“The Lady Míriel will be here by the 10th of April,” the Prince read aloud. “Ivriniel is accompanying her, as I thought. And my beloved is coming too.” A huge grin split Imrahil's face. “It is o'erlong since last we were together.”

“My apologies for keeping you so long, but the journey home will be a pleasure, will it not?”

“It will indeed,” and Imrahil blushed at the knowing look Denethor gave him.

“Are your quarters sufficient for the both of you? I could move you to the third floor.”

“Nay. Sadly, we will not be spending much time in our rooms. The festivities, along with chaperoning Lady Míriel will take much of our time. Oh, my Lord Steward. Here is Arthad, Boromir’s aide. He begs a boon from you.”

Arthad took a deep breath and stepped forward, saluting his Steward. When Denethor nodded, he began. “I am left here by Captain Boromir to prepare for his next posting. I have completed all my tasks.” He paused and looked uncertainly towards Imrahil, who smiled and nodded for him to continue. “I am a warrior, my Lord Steward and chafe at this inactivity. Might I beg a posting as errand-rider until Captain Boromir returns?”

Denethor shook his head. “The Lord Boromir will be returning shortly. I cannot use someone who has only days to give. Though that has given me an idea of how to repay a certain lieutenant at the Forts. Húrin,” he motioned and the Warden was at his side in an instant. “There is a Lieutenant Hirgon in charge of the Causeway Forts. He has impressed me with his courage and his sense of duty. I would have him brought back here and made an errand-rider. He has most pleased me.”

Húrin nodded and wrote the request in his book.

“As for this young man,” Denethor turned once again towards Arthad. “I would have him be your helper for the moment. Put him in charge of the betrothal preparations. If he has so soon prepared himself for Boromir’s next posting, then he is adept at planning.”

Arthad stepped back in surprise and confusion. “I have not the skills, my Lord.”

“You have the skills. Preparing a battalion for war duty is more than will ever be required of you in this posting.” A small grin battled for prominence, but Denethor’s stern face won out. “Meet with Húrin after nuncheon. He will begin to show you your duties.”

Arthad swallowed, saluted and left the Great Hall, his shoulders slumped in defeat.

From that moment on, planning went more smoothly. Denethor and Hurin spent the next few days concentrating on preparations for war.



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30.

An hour after leaving the Mering, Boromir pulled up. Guilin did the same and waited. “I think it about time that the men have a day’s rest. The Mering is known for its fishing. Tell the men to dismount and relax. Any who want to throw in a line is welcome, as will their catch be welcome for nuncheon. We will resume our way to Amon Anwar after our meal.”

“Aye, Captain. It will be done.”

Boromir dismounted and walked away from the group. The sounds of their joy at the unexpected furlough echoed through the air. He could not help but smile; the smile turned quickly into a frown. ‘However am I to wed and be a husband and father? I will spend the next year on the northern borders and only return to the City at infrequent intervals. I will not even know the woman.’ He bit his lip. ‘Many before me have not known their spouses until the day of the wedding feast. Why should I be different? Though I had hoped…’ Sadness filled him. ‘I have thought of naught but war since I was six and now I am to put that all aside and think of home and family…’ He turned eastward. The foothills of the White Mountain lay before him. ‘If I but look in any direction, I can see the site of a battle long since past. Is this the legacy I want to leave my child?’ He shuddered. ‘The self-same legacy that Faramir and I have been gifted with? War and battle and death.’ Swallowing became difficult. ‘Even now, Faramir may lie dead on some patch of green in Ithilien. Do I want this for my son? How does father endure this? How does he send us off with the knowledge that he has? He knows more than I, sees more than I, and still he sends us out. And his people. He sees their suffering. I can think no further on this. I know my duty. It is the same as father’s. If I wed and have a son, I will,’ he drew a sharp breath, ‘I will raise him as a warrior.’ He turned back to his camp. He needed to hear the sound of soldiers.

They broke camp three hours after nuncheon. The sun had already passed well westward and was hidden by the mountains. Darkness began to engulf them as they entered the Firien. Light was the banter as they road towards the beacon garrison. Boromir’s heart had lifted as soon as he had returned to their camp. ‘My son could have no better life than this,’ he thought. ‘If only there was no war.’ The silence of the forest was hypnotic. ‘So peaceful, so green,’ he thought. He pulled his horse up. Something had caught his attention, but he knew not what.

‘Silence!’ He called to Guilin, but in the moment between his thought and his cry, the first scream rent the air. Orcs! A large number were coming from all sides. Guilin pulled his horse up close to Boromir’s; his drawn sword flashed in the waning sunlight. They were quickly surrounded. Men fell before they had unsheathed their swords. Boromir swore. ‘Where are my scouts? By the Valar, where are my scouts?’ But he had no further time to think. They were engulfed, encompassed and Boromir knew they were defeated. He looked about, trying to find some way of escape. The hoard was thick. Guilin fell, a dark splash of red quickly staining the front of his tunic. Boromir dismounted and tried to hold the man. He reached out and killed the Orc that had attacked him, but the Orc fell on top of him, its hard helm crashing down upon Boromir’s unprotected head. Boromir swayed and fell forward.

‘Silence.’ Tears filled his eyes. He lay still, waiting for his senses to return, waiting for the sword to slash through his tunic, waiting for death to come. It did not. He heard far off grunts and wondered who it could possibly be. He tried to open his eyes, but they were covered in some sort of film, sticky ooze running down his face. His arms still worked. He was surprised, for his head throbbed. He did not think any part of his body still functioned. He brought his hand slowly and carefully to his face and wiped away the slime. Trying to see in the blackness that engulfed him, he blinked and tasted a bitterness. ‘Orc’s blood; thankfully, not my own. But why does my head pound so?’ Slowly, memory returned to him. ‘Guilin!’ The grunts he had heard must be the Orcs. ‘But where are they?’ The noise was growing softer. ‘They are leaving. They take me for dead and they are leaving.’ He raised himself but found he could only move an inch or two. ‘Ah! The Orc still lies on my body.’ He pushed with all his might and his dead enemy slid off him; Boromir stood. ‘Ow!’ He swayed but fell to one knee and saved himself. He waited for the dizziness to subside, noting that darkness was not from his wound but that night had fallen.

‘Guilin. He was next to me. Where is he?’ He stood. Bodies lay all about him. ‘The Orcs will be back to collect more food. I wonder why they left.’ He stumbled over Guilin and heard a moan. “Guilin?” The moan grew louder. “It is Boromir. Where are you hurt?” There was no answer. Boromir wished with all his might that there were more light. He remembered the slash across the captain’s chest. He touched it and felt the blood; it was cool. He opened his tunic and tore his shirt and stuffed it up under Guilin’s own tunic. Wildly looking about, he tried to remember where he was, what part of the forest this was. ‘There is a cave nearby, if I recollect rightly. It is only a furlong away to the south.’ He pulled Guilin to a standing position. “Please, Guilin. You must help me. Can you walk?” The man did not reply, only groaned softly. “I will take that as an aye. Now, we are going to walk a little way, a short distance. You can do that!” He wrapped Guilin’s left arm about his shoulder and began walking towards what he hoped was south. After many long moments, he felt Guilin’s body become heavier. He stopped and waited, listening. There was still breath. He began walking again, more slowly as the weight of his warrior increased.

After an interminable length of time, he felt the ground begin to rise. ‘We are near the foothills,’ he thought in relief. ‘The cave is here somewhere.’ They broke out of the forest and the moon shone brightly upon them. Boromir offered a prayer of thanks to Ithil. Nothing was visible in front of him, but he saw a dark spot off to his left. He turned towards it, hoping it was the cave. Only moments passed and he reached the dark area. It was the cave. He sobbed in relief. ‘Empty,’ he prayed to the Valar, ‘please have it be uninhabited.’ He could not lay Guilin down to explore it; he would have to trust. He stooped and entered. The air was only slightly foul and dusty. It was empty! He sighed as he lowered Guilin to the ground. “Stay here, my friend. I cannot start a fire yet. The Orcs most likely are still about, but I know a stream that runs nearby. I will bring water. Be still until I return.” He hoped that Guilin heard and understood but he had not the time for a reply.

Another few moments and he was back, his water skin full. He helped Guilin to a near sitting position and offered the drink. Guilin swallowed a bit, then his head sagged. Boromir laid him back on the ground and took a quick swig himself. Then, he explored the cave. It was tiny, as he remembered. A twinge of remorse tugged at his heart. Faramir and he had played hide ‘n seek here when his father took them hunting as children. They had scared the pants off Denethor when he could not find them.

He knew the cave fairly well. There was a second chamber behind the first. He could only crawl into it, the ceiling so low. Firewood and kindling, just as he remembered. He felt it in his hands and sighed. ‘I can start a fire here and it will not be seen from outside.’ He crawled back into the outer chamber, put his arms under Guilin’s still form, and pulled him into the back chamber. He started a fire. Then, he examined Guilin. The gash was long and deep. He held the captain to him and waited. Within the hour, Guilin died in his arms. He never woke. For some reason, comfort for himself, he could not say, he held the man closer. His throat tightening, he whispered, “You were a good soldier, Guilin. I am sorry we spoke hard words to each other at Amon Dîn. You will be missed, by your men and by me. I knew I had your loyalty, even when you said things that you knew I did not want to hear, but needed to hear. You were a good friend.” He choked and stopped. At last, he pulled the body closer to him and dragged it off to the side of the chamber. “When I return, I will bury you, I promise.”

He leaned against the side wall, next to the body of his companion, and waited for morning. He planned to leave at first light, go further up the mountain to the beacon garrison and bring back a contingent to find the Orcs and destroy them, then to bury their fallen. Closing his eyes for a moment, he relaxed. The cold of the earth about him felt good; his head still throbbed but at least he was able to walk. His head nodded. ‘I cannot sleep, not now.’ He could not walk in here so he crawled through the opening into the outer chamber. As he stuck his head through, he noted that dark had fallen. He sighed and walked to the entranceway.

~*~

Morning was almost upon him. Denethor put down the globe and leaned back, wearily wiping his brow. No sign of Boromir. He walked to the window and looked out upon the Pelennor. The stars were lost now in the faint hue of Anor as it began its climb from behind the Ephel Dúath. Resting his hands upon the sil, he closed his eyes. Whenever he looked westward, he felt strong. Even if he looked into Isengard, still he was able to watch without the horrid fatigue that assailed him when he looked eastward. And yet, eastward was the Enemy. Waiting and watching for him. Ready to pounce at the slightest sign of weakness. He was tired. He had ridden late yesterday after having inspected the Rammas by the Causeway Forts and then, against his better judgment, the Rammas where it met the Harlond.

Faramir was right, as usual. The Rammas needed improvements by the Forts. It should be raised at least another two feet. But the cost and the manpower were beyond Gondor’s ability at this time. Better to concentrate solely on the Forts and leave the Harlond for another year. The wall was still strong by the quays; the merchants who used the Harlond made sure of that. He remembered the vocal sessions trying to raise the tariff on goods coming in. They screamed their fury, but his logic had won out, that time. The Harlond was safe, for the time being. The North Gate. He had told Húrin that could wait for another few years, but in truth, it should be raised. Denethor shook his head. It would not be this year, nor the next. Perhaps in three years?

He covered the stone and walked slowly down the stairs. ‘Why does it not show me my sons? And yet, I saw them - dead.’ He shuddered; the stone would only show them to him when they were dead. So now he had to hope that he would never see that again. He leaned against the cold white marble and laid his burning forehead against it. The coolness sent a shiver through his body. It felt like the cold flesh of the dead. He clenched his teeth, fear and agony vying to undo him. He pushed himself away from the wall and continued to the Citadel’s floor. Imrahil was crossing the Courtyard and waived to him. Denethor stared. He wanted desperately to look to the past again, to find Finduilas and revel in the sight of her. He knew he could not. The last time he had done that, a month ago he thought, he had found it nigh unto impossible to break away. The stone held him. Brought scene after scene to his eyes, of her dancing, of the birth of his sons, of their times in Rohan. The weddings. He held his breath again. He could not look upon her.

As he came to the Great Hall, Imrahil greeted him. “I have been wondering where you went off to. It is almost time. Lady Míriel will arrive soon. Arthad has been a great help. Her quarters have been aired and cleaned. I think she will be pleased. The windows look south. Is there a reason for that?” He put his hand gently on Denethor’s shoulder.

“Not today, Imrahil,” Denethor whispered, not looking at his brother. “Not today.”

Imrahil took the man in his arms and held him. The stiff body would not yield. “I will not press you. She is happy, wherever she is.” And he let Denethor go and walked away.

Denethor’s knees buckled but he caught himself before he fell. Turning swiftly to the tunnel, he walked through and to the practice field. He spent an hour there, then refreshed himself in the baths and returned in time to break his fast with Húrin. Another day of preparation for war.

~*~

Boromir watched as the sky turned a lighter shade of black. The sun would rise soon. He must get away. He returned to the inner chamber and snuffed out what remained of his fire. He took some dried meat from his belt and quickly ate it, followed by a slug of the water. He should refill his skin before he left. He looked once more upon Guilin. Saluting, he crawled back out. The outer chamber was filled with the most hideous stench. Boromir looked up in surprise. Orcs filled the cave. He stepped back, drawing his sword, and hesitated as the largest of the hoard laughed, if laugh it could be called. He stood firm as his heart sank.