At the very end, it did flicker through his mind that he might not have chanced that first sight if he had foreseen the end. At the time - and each time after, as he strained a little further - it had been worthwhile. It had been necessary. It had been his duty.
He stretched his gaze first across the southern fiefdoms and across Rohan; this was safe, but worthwhile. Encouraged, he touched Isengard and then Ithilien; with caution, but he thought it necessary. For a long time, he averted his eyes from what lay beyond the mountains, pushed instead eastwards and into the far south, watching them move, watching them rise, watching them eye the West. Sometimes, it would seem as if he was the still point, while the world shifted and turned towards him. But the mountains loomed ever taller in his thoughts, and whatever else moved, he knew a still point lay behind them too. And at last he turned that way and looked, and saw the Eye.
At the very end, he could not say at what point those around him had dissolved. She had been spectral before they buried her; he who had signified purpose had been destroyed; and the other looked at him, saw him - and then lowered his eyes and disregarded him. It proved easy to displace this chaos, to set them all aside for the certainty of the still point. By the end he had achieved order, and a balance; between the Eye and the West, between the persistent will for domination and the resisting will in opposition, which had then snapped - and all that remained was the sacrifice, and the fire.
He could hear its dark music in his ears, hear the whisper build to a crescendo. He could feel it around him, feel the tongues of flame lick against his flesh. And he knew it was within him, tearing up through his veins and spreading out through his limbs, burning him up like fever. It was remorseless, insatiable - and ineluctable. It was the price that had to be paid.
The smoke rose, filling his eyes and stinging them, until he was forced to close them. He began to gasp, for the air around him had thickened, and clogged his breathing. In desperation, he groped around with outstretched hands - and touched the cold solidity of the wall. He leaned back against it, and its chill seeped through him. He put his arms about himself and then, slowly, he opened his eyes and raised them.
They were all there. Standing before him, an arc of grey figures, watching him. He looked down the line. Mardil, Eradan, Herion, Belegorn; onwards past Cirion and Hallas, to his great-grandfather, to his grandfather... and then he stopped and turned his head away.
They were waiting. But what could he say to them, these men who had ruled a kingdom but never usurped it, who had kept their faith and their oath so that he - who had not even been born to the part - could carry out their final act and surrender their charge to its rightful owner? What was there to say that would convince them that he was a worthy successor? His eyes strayed again to the end of the line, but still he could not look at him directly. From the corner of his eye, he could make out the shape of that final figure, and it seemed to be set a little apart from the rest; it seemed to break the line.
The shock of realization came like a physical blow. Bracing his back against the wall, Faramir slid to the ground and sat for a while with his head in his hands. This was indeed a test - but not of him, not of his own worthiness. His forefathers stood before him, awaiting the verdict of the living, awaiting judgement - and the last not least.
Did they truly know naught of all that had happened? Did Mardil Voronwė not know which banner now flew above the White City? Did Cirion not know that by yielding a part of the kingdom, the kingdom had been delivered? Did his father know nothing?
How could they know? he thought. Who else would come to tell them?
Faramir raised his head and, as he spoke, he looked in turn at each face of the familiar compound ghost.
'You did not fail,' he said, and his voice rang out across the chamber, with all the authority of a steward and a prince, with all the authority of the living. 'You did not fail. Your choices were right choices. There is a king! - '
Here each one seemed to sigh. Faramir looked at them again, one by one, and not, this time, in fear; and, coming to the end, their eyes met at last, and held.
' - And I have a son,' he said softly. 'And not a tomb.'
And at that, it seemed that the final figure fell into line, or perhaps the rest had shifted forward to accept him. For the merest fraction of a second, the completed line held - and then the shades dissolved into one another, into a grey mist. The air shifted, and Faramir felt a touch upon his face, that under other circumstances he might have called a caress - then the mist rose into the high dome, lingered for a moment, and was gone. Faramir lowered his head back into his hands.
In time, he looked up and saw that all the lanterns were burning again. He stood up, awkwardly, and looked around the hall. It was empty. He walked slowly towards the door, footsteps echoing, and, setting his hand upon the door handle, turned to look back for a moment. He would not come here again, he knew, not as a living man. There was no need. The dead no longer walked, and they are but a part of what we are. He pulled the door open, crossed the threshold, and left. Closing the door carefully behind him, he saw now that while the old one had borne the seal of the Stewards, that was not carved here. He traced his fingers across the device of the Princes of Ithilien. For the Ruling Stewards had departed, and in their surrender had achieved their purpose, and received their due.
Outside, dusk was fast approaching, and the mist had gone completely from the Hallows. The sky above was clear, but its blue would soon be dark. He walked quickly along the Silent Street, shivering a little from the chill of an evening in early spring. At his summons, Fenatir came and opened the gate, and Faramir passed through.
'Did you see your dead?' the young man asked softly.
Faramir looked at him in surprise; and then remembered how for some in Minas Tirith the dead were still close. 'Yes,' he replied. 'And released them.'
The young porter gave him a dry smile. 'Forgive me for saying so, my lord, but - they have needed you these many years,' he said, as he locked the gate. And since Faramir could not disagree, he just smiled back a little at their shared knowledge, and then nodded his farewell.
The mist had departed from Minas Tirith. Faramir stood for a while looking down at all the walls and towers of the circles below, watching the lanterns being lit. Above him, high upon the keel, a horn was signalling the end of the day. At home, too, they would be lighting the lamps, and his children would be playing, and she would take his hand and hold it. He turned away from the wall, and disappeared up into the high city.
A/N: Thank you to Niliwen for the Nuzgūl, M. for the plot, and Anglachel for a very good post to HA about Faramir.
The historical information is from Appendix A: 'Annals of the Kings and Rulers'. I also drew on the splendid account of 'Cirion and Eorl and the Friendship of Gondor and Rohan' from Unfinished Tales.