With thanks to Gentle Hobbit for permission to borrow a plot device from her story, "The Minstrel's Quest." And with thanks also to Vistula the Dúnedain for seeing to it that Sam is doing his duty!
Frodo stood near the bow of the ship, his cloak from Lothlorien blowing about him, watching as they traveled southward toward the bridges of Osgiliath. Late yesterday afternoon soldiers had again strung the roof over the enclosure where he and Sam still slept, and shortly before dinner it had begun to rain again, although that rain had blown away quickly enough. As sunset neared Master Faralion had brought him to the ships, and onto one where he’d set his harp specially for Frodo to hear the winds of sunset vibrating the strings and the wind in the rigging. Then as it grew dark he’d simply begun plucking strings and doing rills and chords randomly as the wind inspired him, smiling as he realized how much Frodo enjoyed this, his eyes closing as he listened to this wind song the Man was creating, now and then looking up to see the stars as glimpses of them were given as the wind blew the clouds across the sky.
At the end of the evening Faralion had given him a gift of tuned rods hanging from a circle of iron on fine line with a fishing weight in the middle with a light wooden chip below it to cause it to strike the rods as it was blown by the winds. The song and the chimes meant far more to him, Frodo realized, than had the lay the minstrel had written. The tuned rods were in Sam’s pack, and he planned to hang them near the window of the room in which he slept where he could hear them.
He’d had a nightmare about midnight, and awoke to find Gandalf was sitting in the tent with him, was leaning over the bed where he’d started up, hearing the fighting of the orcs again and thinking that Aragorn, Boromir, and Merry were being slaughtered as they came to rescue him.
“It’s all right, Frodo--it was but that insistent dream again,” Gandalf had murmured.
Sam had also awakened, was peering at him over the Wizard’s shoulder. “You all right, Mr. Frodo?” he asked.
Just then Aragorn had entered carrying a tray with four mugs upon it. It had been but tea, but tea made with spices that had distracted and soothed him. He touched briefly on the power of the Elessar stone, lay back more relaxed, smiled up into his friend’s eyes. The night rain striking the canvas roof overhead was now calming rather than reminding him of clashing weapons. He was aware of the Light Gandalf kept veiled, and saw the Light of Stars surrounding his friend. He remained unaware that the others were aware their own Lights were beginning to shine in response to Frodo’s own, and that they saw that Sam’s own Light glowed visibly as he watched from where he still sat on his own bed, clutching his own mug.
“Rest now, Frodo. Rest and be at peace.” Aragorn’s hand had brushed his eyelids and brow, and he’d slipped into another dream, one of distant white shores and the wind’s song played through ship’s rigging and on the strings of a great harp vibrating in the glow of Elbereth’s stars.
That had been last night. Aragorn stood behind him now, blocking the north wind that sped their ships downstream, his dark hair whipping about his face, his own eyes smiling, one hand on the fore mast and the other on Frodo’s right shoulder. Gandalf hadn’t come on the ship with them--he rode along the South Road on Shadowfax and would return over the patched central bridge of Osgiliath with the rest of the horses which had been unneeded by those who came by ship. The Rohirrim and Imrahil’s Swan Knights and many of the Northern Dúnedain had left the previous afternoon along with many of the supply wagons that were no longer necessary. The remainder of the wagons were coming after.
Merry had ridden along with the Rohirrim, and he and Pippin had been shouting wagers as to which party would arrive first at the camp on the Pelennor, although Frodo had seen both faces had gone pale at this new separation.
He looked up into Aragorn’s face, and remembered how grim he’d looked when they’d first seen him. He realized that he still saw concern there frequently, but seldom grimness any more. Instead his eyes were calm and full of a hope that Frodo had seen earlier in their journeys together so infrequently--once when he stood by the Lady Arwen in the Hall of Fire, that first night he was awake in Rivendell; a few other brief moments while they tarried in Elrond’s house; as he received the gift given him by the Lady Galadriel of the green Elessar stone that shone at the neck of his shirt under his cloak from Lorien; as he’d looked on Cerin Amroth as he’d looked on a memory of some meeting he’d known long before when Frodo had thought he saw two Aragorns there, the young Lord and the almost exhausted wanderer who’d guided them from Moria; in his eyes as they sailed on the current between the statues of the Argonath. The hope and pride were there now in his gaze, and this time, Frodo realized, they would stay and be confirmed.
He was singing quietly, a song sung in Adunaic, Frodo realized. He didn’t understand its meaning, but it seemed to be a song of sailing and ships. He’s won through, Frodo thought. He’s won through and will be King, and all will be renewed because he has come again at last.
The foreign thought carried in it a smile. Yes, the return of the King is at last coming to be; and you and Sam both have played your parts.
Frodo looked back, seeing Sam sitting on a bench amidships alongside Gimli, both looking very uncomfortable, but Sam at least was distracted by the Dwarf’s grumbling. “Unnatural things, boats,” Gimli said somewhat more loudly as Legolas came forward from the stern. “Unsettling how they refuse to stay steady. And yet you’d think of going off on one of them, would you, leaving the beauty of Middle Earth behind just when it’s beginning to flower anew?”
The Elf gave him one of his most serene and annoying smiles. “And if I should choose to remain for a time, would that displease you, Gimli? I may know the sea longing, but it doesn’t compel me to begin hewing trees and fashioning lath immediately, you know.”
Some level of concern slipped from the Dwarf’s features, and Frodo realized the Dwarf had been afraid that Legolas would be indeed choose to leave earlier rather than later. Pippin, who stood right at the bow by his friend Beregond, who was among the healing soldiers who shared this ship with them, turned and looked back at the Dwarf and then Frodo, his green eyes smiling, although when he looked up into the eyes of the Man beside him a level of concern could be seen. When Aragorn was finished with his own song, Pippin after some moments began another, one of Bilbo’s bath songs, and Frodo surprised himself by joining in, then heard Sam’s slightly deeper tones from behind them, then Aragorn himself adding his own voice.
They were going between bridge supports in Osgiliath when they finished, and Frodo looked up and asked, a long missing twinkle in his eye, “And when was the last time you were here as the Lord Captain Thorongil?”
Aragorn looked down, prepared to not answer until he saw that a hint of Frodo’s spirit of mischief was there. “You won’t tell Faralion, will you?”
Feeling triumphant for the moment, Frodo answered, “Not if you don’t wish me to. Is it such a great secret?”
“I intend to enjoy watching some of the older inhabitants of Gondor realize it as time goes on. I’m not certain when Imrahil will recognize me, but he’s not done so as yet.” He stretched, and his own eyes kindled with matching slyness. “I wonder if Varadorn will recognize me? He certainly didn’t when he came in spouting useless rhymes of lore about athelas when I was here after the battle of the Pelennor. I was so tired, and heartsick to realize Halbarad and Théoden had died, and exhausted and driven after the days of riding in the dark with the army of the dead following after and the fight at the Pelargir and the taking of their ships and the desperate row up the river and the long battle. The heat of battle had begun to settle at last, and then Gandalf was there to drag me up into the city wrapped in my Elven cloak to aid Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry.”
His face had gone sad. “I wasn’t given time to truly grieve, you know--certainly not that night. And then there was Varadorn, as vacuous as ever he was when I was here before. Then he was a very young herbalist’s apprentice, and he thought himself quite knowledgeable. I would come to him for the healer’s kit which every troop of Rangers was to carry with them, and half the time he would have substituted other herbs for the ones I wanted. I finally had to speak to Master Herbalist Danyavar, and after that at least the kits for my troops would be properly outfitted. He simply refused to believe that captains of troops might be knowledgeable about healing and herbs. I will be very pleased to allow myself to be elected into the Guild of Herbalists and Gardeners just to see the dismay on his face, I think.”
“I wonder how long it will take Master Faralion to work out you were here as Thorongil? I told him how old you were, and you’d think he’d have fallen over from the surprise.”
“And how do you know how old I am?”
“Bilbo told me. You did turn eighty-eight recently, did you not?”
The Man just looked down at him and smiled. “Yes, he would have told you. A great one for worming stories out of folks, your beloved cousin.”
Frodo looked forward toward the rubble on the Eastern shore, his face suddenly solemn. “Sauron’s folk did all of this?”
Aragorn nodded, and after a moment added, “Yes, over many long centuries. This was once the capitol of Gondor and Arnor united.”
Frodo turned deliberately West. “At least you can have an idea of what the shape of some of the buildings were on this side. Were you ever stationed here?”
“Yes, for much of two years. About the time Denethor decided he didn’t trust me. He wanted to keep an eye on my activities.”
After some moments Frodo asked, “He was the Steward of Gondor? Boromir’s father?”
“Yes. His father was Steward when I served here. A decent Man, Ecthelion. A worthy Man Denethor ought to have been, had he not given himself over to pride and suspicion. Very intelligent, well read, skilled at languages, a born diplomat for all his rather stern nature. Very knowledgeable about both realms, but unwilling to be seen as second-best in anything.”
“No one is best at everything, though.”
The tall Man sighed. “You know it and I know it, Frodo; but Denethor certainly didn’t wish that to be true of himself.” His face grew more solemn again. “It started in a practice bout with daggers. You must realize, I was trained with weapons literally from early childhood by my brothers, Adar, and Lord Glorfindel; and during my two visits to Lothlorien when I was younger the Lord Celeborn would spar with me. When I finally joined my own people I was beyond all of the other recruits in skill with sword and daggers, and was soon working with many older troopers to assist them to improve their abilities. Each year I was sent back to Imladris for three weeks to work again with the Elves, for my commanders insisted if I continued to practice against those of lesser skill I would lose my edge. It’s one reason when I practice I work so often with Legolas, for he challenges me to keep up my skills.
“When I was here in Gondor I primarily practiced with my aide, who was my cousin Hardorn. When we were younger I sent him to Rivendell to train much as I had. His name in Bree is Bowman, for he’s almost as skilled with a bow as most Elves. I’m an excellent archer for a Man; Hardorn is much better, although not up to the skills of Legolas--not quite, at least,” he said as the Elf came forward to bring steaming mugs to them. Legolas just looked deeply into the Man’s eyes, and turned away just a shade too smoothly. Aragorn and Frodo found themselves grinning again into one another’s gaze.
“One day I was asked to check out the skills of Lord Denethor. For the most part he was a superb duelist with daggers, but he kept repeating one move which became so predictable I realized it could be used against him. I stopped the bout twice to speak to him about correcting it, and he just shrugged it off.”
He watched as Frodo carefully sipped at the mug of thick broth he’d been given. He realized Frodo was tiring, and he gently indicated with pressure on Frodo’s shoulder he might sit on another bench nearby, before the fore mast. Frodo was reluctant at first, but was relieved when he did sit at last.
“When we continued he began to repeat the move again, and I allowed myself to take advantage of it. Suddenly he found himself disarmed, and he was furious. He insisted on continuing on with the sparring, but now he was angry, which is a dangerous thing to be when you are sparring. I had him disarmed again very swiftly, and had I not done so I suspect I’d have needed a cut stitched shortly.
“When a few days later he asked me to spar with swords I tried to beg off. We lasted longer, but in the end I managed to disarm him again. After that he began to shadow me, even, I’m told, tried spying on me. Where before when I made a decision or suggestion that differed from what he’d have done he and I could discuss it and compromise; now he would make sarcastic comments on what I’d suggested; or he would pointedly suggest highly practical and pragmatic reasons for accepting them that avoided moral issues. I felt that the widows of those who died in service to the realm should receive pensions that they not lose their homes; he sold the idea to the Council by insisting that if they were not given such pensions women would refuse to allow their sons, brothers, and husbands to join the army or the city guard or the Guard of the Citadel for fear of being left impoverished. He made the women of Gondor and particularly Minas Tirith sound as if they were more concerned with their comfort than with the security of the nation.”
He shook his head. “I honored him so much and felt him the first I’d met in Gondor I could speak with as an equal and brother, and it all fell to nought as his envy and suspicions grew. He grew more rigid and suspicious as time went on, until I finally stopped trying to take his feelings into consideration, as it angered him as much as ignoring them did.”
“And now he’s dead.”
“Yes. Now he’s dead. Pippin and Gandalf saw his end, and Beregond there awaits justice because he went against his orders to save Faramir from his madness.”
“And you must judge him?”
Slowly Aragorn nodded, keeping his eyes on the Man standing by Pippin still in the bow of the Ship. “Yes. It is death or exile to leave your assigned post without leave of captain or Steward. He realized from what Pippin told him that if no one intervened, Denethor would burn himself and his son alive, and went to aid Faramir, whom he loved dearly as a captain and future lord, now that Boromir would not follow his father as Steward of the realm.”
Frodo had gone stiff, the mug of broth in his hands forgotten. “Fire and falling stone,” he said.
Aragorn looked at him with concern. “The Ring showed you this?”
Slowly Frodo nodded. “It ever showed me scenes of death and destruction at the end.” His face had lost its color and humor. “What drove him to such an end?”
“Frodo.” Reluctantly the Hobbit turned his face up to that of his friend, and saw it was the face now of the King, stern and considering. “Frodo, you are not to blame for Denethor’s madness. Long had he been looking into the Palantir of Minas Anor, and as long had Sauron been feeding him partial visions so presented that although the stones cannot lie yet he misinterpreted what he saw, and instead of gaining knowledge he came to accept despair. Slowly had Sauron picked away at the foundations of his thought, using his very pride against him, even as his Ring used your compassion for others against you and tried to use my own desires and concern for your welfare against me. I know that Gandalf explained to you that the Ring and Sauron were in the end one. It was his will all others should fall to pride or fear or some other weakness, and he would feast on our bones. This was his will as an individual, and it was the will he put into the Ring as well.” He looked at the mug in Frodo’s hands. “Now drink that, but drink it slowly.”
Automatically Frodo complied. Aragorn watched with concern, feeling the turmoil returning to Frodo’s heart.
You had no part in his death, Iorhael.
I should have come sooner. I might have saved him, and saved Faramir much grief and anguish.
He had already chosen to accept despair, and you could not come any sooner than you did to the Mountain. Your duty was but to bring the Ring to the Fire, and that you did. He came to despair from pride. He would not accept the love of his son halved as he felt it to be, although that thought was false; would not wait till death took him doing his duty by city and people; would not stand second to the King returned; would not see himself diminished in his own eyes. It was his choice to destroy himself and to slay his son in the doing to deny him the choice before him, Iorhael. Denethor made his choice out of despair.
Faramir survives and accepts what changes must come, and will find they are merely changes for the better.
Aragorn saw the subtle change in Frodo’s posture, the slight softening of his stiffness, the resumed, if still somewhat dutiful, sipping of the broth. He again placed his hand on Frodo’s shoulder, and felt the tension slip slightly, and was relieved.