Throughout his life, understanding had been a questionable gift. He knew that sometimes he applied his insight with impunity, and he tried to temper its effects with compassion. Even so, not all men were content to fall within his purview, did not like to see themselves completely known and explicable. His rank permitted it - sometimes forced it - but it had not been so with his father. Latterly, Faramir had concluded that his mistake had not been so much in understanding his father as well as he did other men, but in being at a loss with what to do with that knowledge. Deference had irritated Denethor; fear had provoked him; and as for compassion - Faramir would not have dared. And so round and round they had circled, eyeing each other, and mistrust had grown between them like a thicket, tinder dry.
A questionable gift, then; for to experience almost as if they were his own the emotion and mind of another was disconcerting - but it was an extra sense for him, another eye on men and their inner worlds, one upon which his judgement had come to depend. He explored others cautiously, for he knew too well how it was to be the object of an unremitting eye. Yet neither his own empathy nor his father's scrutiny had prepared him for the caress of those shades as they prised open the vault of his mind, and took possession.
His vision clouded over, and the chamber around him seemed to fade. He closed his eyes to clear them, and tried to speak.
What is it that you want...? But the words stuck in his throat and he could not make a sound. As he felt a wave of panic rise in his breast, a voice came through the mist, a young man's voice, and rising in concern.
'My lord steward? Are you ill?'
In his confusion, Faramir could not place the speaker. Had Fenatir followed him? But it did not sound like the porter...
'Are you ill?' the voice said again, more urgently this time. 'My lord Mardil, what ails you?'
Faramir opened his eyes.
He was in the council chamber in the White Tower, and a thousand questions flooded his thoughts at once. What happened? How do I come to be here and not in Rath Dínen? Did I faint? And then he let the question that had been knocking for attention coalesce into thought, as his eyes came into focus on the young man seated beside him, whose face seemed familiar but which he could not place. What did you just call me...?
'My lord Mardil,' the man said, as if in answer, and Faramir stared back at him in silent disbelief. 'Father,' the young lord said at last, hesitantly touching his arm, 'Are you ill?'
Dreams had been constant companions throughout his life - disturbing his sleep and growing in intensity in those later days, erupting at last even into the waking world. He dreamt less often in these days of peace, although still sometimes he would watch the wall of water take back the Land of Gift, would hear the cries of his retreating men become the crackle of a bonfire, would look upon her pale and fragile figure as she destroyed the monster - and then wake to marvel at the fact that she slept beside him. He knew the pellucidity of dreams, the special quality of their illumination, how they were brighter and sharper and more actual. And as the veteran of a thousand visions, he knew that what he saw now was real. He was sitting in the council chamber of the White Tower, the young man before him was called Eradan, and he was indeed the Steward of Gondor - and the first to rule the realm.
'What have you seen?' his son asked him, gently.
Faramir opened his mouth to speak again, to beg for release or at least for some explanation, and a voice came this time - but it was not his own, and he did not control it.
'They are dead,' Mardil said, with flat certainty. 'The King will not return. I should have tried harder to restrain him.'
Eradan did not reply at once, and bowed his head. 'Eärnur was not the kind of man to be denied,' he said at length. 'That you restrained him as long as you did was remarkable enough.'
Mardil rose and walked towards the long window to look eastward. The morning sun sparkled on the fountain and the White Tree glimmered. 'I fear we may long regret the day our grandsire spoke against the claim from the north.'
'This is the kingdom of the heirs of Anárion, sir,' Eradan answered quietly, but firmly. 'He had no claim.'
'And now we have no king,' Mardil said sharply; and regretted his tone as the younger man's head bowed again. 'Forgive me, my son,' he said, in a softer voice. 'I am filled with fear for this land. It did not take a Witch-king to sack Osgiliath! The ruling house of Gondor achieved that by itself! And where should we look now? For even if the council would accept an heir of Isildur, the northern kings are gone.'
Eradan walked across the chamber and set his hand again upon his father's arm. 'There is still the line of stewards.'
'We are servants of the king, Eradan - not kings ourselves. If we indeed seek another war within Gondor, that would be the surest way to achieve it.'
'You misunderstand me, sir. Indeed, no, we are not kings, and you speak as wisely as ever when you warn against civil war. But, sir - father - you must heed my counsel. This is a time for caution, yes, but not for hesitation. If our house does not stand firm now, then Gondor will be ruined. The kingship will become naught but a prize for warlords, to be bought and sold and battled over by mercenaries. Is this to be the fate of all the dignity of Númenor?' Eradan grasped his father's hands between his own, and Mardil felt from their trembling the grief his son was concealing. 'We are the house of stewards, sir. The kingship is not our property, but it is our charge. If we falter now, we will be failing in our duty as much as if we tried to seize the crown ourselves! If we leave the rule of Gondor uncertain, then someone will try to seize that crown. And I know in my heart that that man will not be one such as you, sir.'
Mardil Voronwë shifted his hands to place them about his son's. 'To rule as kings and not to be kings?'
'To rule in the name of the king - '
'Until he shall return.'
'Until he shall return.'
For a moment the air seemed to stand still, and then the Steward of Gondor shivered. A mist clouded his eyes, and he was recalled to himself.
Why have you shown me this? Faramir tried to say. What can I say to you? Always he had been proud of his forebears, of what Mardil and his successors had done to secure Gondor when the last king had gone; and to have felt himself the sorrow and fear that had gripped them and yet had not prevented the exercise of their duty - this humbled him even further. He watched now as the rule of the Stewards was secured and so the kingship protected. For Mardil's heirs were blessed with a time of peace, and used it well, for they did not doubt it would not last. Then Faramir watched that peace end; watched the uruks spew out from the east, saw Osgiliath ruined at last - and throughout asked still his silent, unheard questions - Why are you showing me this? What must I do?
He watched as Cirion led the lord of the Éothéod up Amon Anwar, watched on as the setting sun glanced upon a black stone set before a low mound, and the last rays of that dying sun seemed to set the letters carved upon the stone ablaze - lando, ambe, lando... Even in the midst of his fear, Faramir could not help but be awed to be here, listening to these words, watching these men; to be present at the moment when the realm was altered irrevocably, and an oath was sworn that had not been heard in Middle-earth since Elendil's day - an oath which had held for five centuries, and by which Gondor had been delivered.
As the sun died and the shadows of evening gathered, the company descended the hill. Before they departed, Cirion drew his son aside.
'We must return here soon, Hallas. This memorial was set at the mid-point of the kingdom, and that is the case no more.'
Hallas watched sorrowfully as the lines deepened upon his father's face. 'You must not doubt the wisdom of this decision, sir. Already this alliance has borne fruit - '
Cirion smiled. 'And I love that man as a son, and his people fill me with hope! They seem so young! Whereas we...' he sighed. 'Our power wanes, and we diminish, and from today the kingdom has shrunk again - '
'Yet still it endures, father. Still we endure.'
On and on he went, passing through the minds of his forebears, perceiving their thoughts, watching their choices, feeling the dark doubt and solitary fear that grip a man at the end, when he looks at the sum of his days and cannot judge their worth. How long will I wander like this? he thought. What must I do for them to release me? Or will they keep me here forever? This thought filled him with terror, but still it was not so dreadful as the truth which he tried to deny - that he was not wandering, that he was following his forefathers down all their days, and that he knew already the final destination.
He saw the White Tree wither and die, and Ithilien fall, and the sons of Folcwine give their lives for their oath at Poros. In the north, Curunír seized Isengard - the gift of the Stewards - and made it a fortress. And in the east, the Enemy declared himself, and the Shadow lengthened over Gondor. Each choice seemed now invidious, fraught with peril, and to come at no small cost. So it was that Faramir looked upon his grandfather as Ecthelion chose his captain above his son, saving Pelargir whilst knowing what the price would be. And when the Eagle of the Star departed and Ecthelion closed his eyes praying to the Valar to deliver Gondor, Denethor opened the door and climbed the stairs, and Faramir watched through his father's eyes as he gazed into the clear and cloudy depths of the palantír.
To be continued...