Someone was knocking at the door.
He pulled back from the lure of the visions set before him, raising his eyes to look instead at the world around him. A chilly morning was creeping in through a crack between the shutters; its pale light faltered for a moment against the glare of the globe, which blazed one last time and then fell dark. Then the tapping started up again. It was rhythmical, like the beat of a drum, and it was becoming more insistent. A voice spoke.
“My lord? My Lord Denethor?”
He licked lips that had turned ash-dry, found his tongue amidst the cinders.
“What is it?” he said, staccato.
“You asked me to fetch you, sire, when your son came. He awaits you now, my lord.”
He drew in a breath of cold air, sighed it out, and – with reluctance – covered the stone with a cloth stiffened from use. He felt the sharp pang of loss as its clarity abandoned him, dreaded and then felt once again the tapping and the knocking of doubt.
“Very good,” he said. “Inform him I shall be with him shortly.”
He listened to the footsteps departing down the stairs, and then rose from his seat. With a quick movement, he cast the shutters open, and the faint early light took its chance and slipped into the room. He looked out upon a city at the very end of the year. The sky surprised him with its blue, but it was even colder than he had expected. He shifted further back into his gown, reached out and snuffed between his fingers the single candle set upon the great black desk, and then went to the door.
Someone was knocking...
His eyes blurred and, for a moment, he thought that he could see something in the carvings on the door... the knots and the whorls of the wood whirled, and then resolved themselves into a bird, soaring... He shook his head, and rubbed his eyes, and his vision cleared. He had not slept enough, he told himself; and berated himself for such foolishness, before a day as long as today would be. He unhooked the chain with a clatter, drew back the bolt, and made his way down around the turns of the narrow stone stairway.
Reaching the lower levels, he went with quick steps down corridors, passing staff and servants as they hurried along, heeding little as yet to the bustle of the day’s business. When he reached his chamber, he stood for a moment in the doorway, looking in. There, waiting before the hearth, warming his hands over the fire, was his son. Denethor half-closed his eyes and, with his vision hazy, he could broaden the man’s shoulders slightly, add just a little height...
Denethor opened his eyes, and went in. Faramir turned at the sound of the footsteps, saw his father, and bowed in greeting.
“My lord,” he said, and stepped away from the fire, clasping his hands behind his back.
“Lord Faramir,” his father replied. “When did you reach the City?”
“Late last night, sir.”
“And your journey?” Denethor took a step towards him, regarded him closely. It was not an arduous ride from the coast, although it was a long one. Still, he was young enough.
“Went well – thank you, sir.”
Denethor gestured across the room towards the table that had been set for breakfast. They stood by their chairs and faced West, and Denethor watched, as he had often done, as something undefined, something unreachable, crossed his son’s face.
“Sit,” the steward said after a moment, waving his hand at the chair, and his son obeyed. They passed dishes and plates between them with a precision borne of years of practice. The younger man ate well; the elder much less. They spoke for a while of Faramir’s recent journeys, of the bargains he had driven with the lords of the southern fiefdoms, of policy, of strategy. And then they were silent.
“Tell me,” said Denethor, into the quiet, “how does the family fare in Dol Amroth?”
Faramir swallowed his mouthful of bread. “Elphir’s boy is walking now,” he said, “and is very like his father.” He smiled. “They are all well, very well. Thriving.”
“And the Prince himself, how is he?”
A beat of hesitation, perhaps?
“Our uncle,” Faramir replied, “is the same as ever he is. And Lothíriel,” he continued, without pause, “had the whole household upside-down in preparation for mettarë. You know how they celebrate it at the coast.”
“Indeed I do. I am surprised that they did not ask you to stay.”
Faramir picked up his cup. “They did.”
“But Ithilien proved too much of a lure?”
Over the rim of his cup, Faramir gave him a careful look. Both his sons, at times, bore that expression, Denethor thought, but Faramir more often.
“I had thought to stay in the city this year,” Faramir said, turning away slightly to stare out of the long windows set in the eastern wall. “Given... given Boromir’s absence—”
“He will be missed tonight—”
“No,” the steward said again. “I see no need for you. The ceremony will be quiet and quickly over. I would not keep you from whatever diversions Ithilien offers.”
Faramir turned back to his breakfast. He set down his cup, picked up a piece of bread, and buttered it, slowly. His father watched each of his movements, watched the flush rise up from the younger man’s throat and briefly colour the pale skin of his face. It passed, soon enough.
“What news may I take back with me?” Faramir said.
“If I could, I would take back news of your purposes for the company. There is need for more supplies—”
Denethor stopped him with a sharp laugh. “Petitioning the Steward as he eats his breakfast? At the very least, I must remark upon your daring, Faramir.”
“When last I was there, matters were becoming acute—”
“It is the same throughout the realm, or will be soon enough.”
“Ithilien is the front line, sir.”
“No, my Lord Faramir – Ithilien is beyond the front line. Which is the river now – as I thought you of all men might remember.”
“Which makes the Ithilien company all that more vital!” Faramir urged softly. “If the Enemy advances on the river – which He surely must, in time – the Rangers must be prepared to harry Him—”
“You seem most ready to doubt my wisdom in this—”
“I do not doubt your wisdom, sir – but would, if I may, offer you my counsel—”
Denethor turned his head away and looked out at the morning. “On this matter, Faramir, you have long since become wearisome.”
“Why will you not even listen to me?”
Faramir’s voice seemed to echo in the high, cold ceiling of the room. Slowly, Denethor turned his gaze back upon him. Faramir raised a hand to his forehead, reddening in anger and frustration. Denethor watched impassively. But the shield that the third had always been became, all of a sudden, more painful in its absence.
Faramir set his hands on the table before him. “My lord,” he said, his voice much quieter, “let me keep men there. Not a full company. But some. The Rangers would delay any advance—”
“What use is there in such a delay? The Enemy will cross the river, that much is certain. And we shall need all able-bodied men for the defence of the City.”
Faramir folded his arms, and lowered his head. When he spoke again, his voice had fallen to no more than a whisper.
“And if Minas Tirith falls, sir? What then?”
At last it had been said – and he had not been first to say it.
“If you would only leave some men beyond the river,” Faramir was saying, “then, if all else fails, some would yet remain to fight on—”
“You have so little faith in the strength of the White City?”
For a moment, watching his son’s face blanch, he believed Faramir might strike back. And then the younger man stilled himself, and even smiled, if faintly.
“That is beside the point, is it not? Since I have naught else in which to put my faith.” He pushed his chair back and set his hands upon his knees, and then looked up directly at the steward. “I have a long journey to make, and would prefer to begin it sooner rather than later. May I have your leave, father?”
Denethor held his eye for a little longer, and then lifted his hand in dismissal. Faramir rose and, when he reached the doorway, Denethor called after him. “Be back by noon of yestar. I would have you in attendance for those ceremonies at least.”
Faramir halted, and then turned. “Your servant, sir,” he said, and bowed, and left.
The day resumed its customary pace, and in the evening he spoke the words and lit the candles with the same resolve in his voice he had achieved for more than thirty years now. And then, his duty done, he withdrew upstairs, to his own private ritual. The year declined, and the visions rose before him, and he counted the numbers of the shades that were set against him until, exhausted, he fell – into sleep.