Several weeks after Éowyn's departure, the Council of Gondor was in session. Faramir tried not to shift uncomfortably in his chair. Despite the chamber's considerable size, high ceilings and wide windows facing east toward the Anduin, the room was nonetheless oppressively warm. The heat did nothing to help cool the tempers of the king's councilors, for the discussion that afternoon was a tense one. Several of the older councilors were urging Aragorn to consider breaking the peace and invading Harad.
"It is a preemptive measure," Lord Hathol of Sirith Vale argued. "For surely as soon as they can rebuild their forces, they will make war on us once again."
"What is the purpose of this invasion, then?" Prince Imrahil asked. "For we can defeat Harad's military and destroy its ability to make war for a time, yet it can still rebuild and seek war with us anew."
"Indeed," replied Forloth, the Lord of Lossarnach. "We should not merely invade Harad, but conquer it, and claim it for Gondor."
And so the debate was joined. Faramir glanced at the King, who listened intently but without comment. It was his custom to let his councilors thoroughly debate any issue of importance before speaking himself, so as not to unduly influence their views. Faramir waited until the other lords who wished to do so had spoken, availing himself of the Steward's privilege of speaking last.
When the others' eyes were upon him, Faramir drew a deep breath, and spoke in a quiet yet emphatic tone none in the council chamber had heard before. "I have listened to the arguments in favor of this endeavor carefully. We could destroy Harad's military once and for all," he said, nodding at Lord Hathol. "We could add a valuable fief to Gondor, share in its resources, and trade without paying the Haradrim tariffs that support its military," he glanced at Lord Forloth. "Further," he said, "We could free Harad's people from its brutal rulers, and they would enjoy the lordship of Gondor, with its fairness and traditions of justice."
"And yet, my lords, I must wonder -- can it be that we have learned nothing?" His voice was quiet, yet filled with intensity, and every eye in the room was squarely upon him.
"Can it be that once again Men of Numénorean blood would assert their will on foreign peoples, bringing not friendship and knowledge, but conquest? Indeed, we may sit in our tower and hold ourselves superior, of higher learning, and say to ourselves that we desire nothing but peace and prosperity, and to bring such values to other lands. But did not the kings of Numénor once say the same, while becoming the very dictators they claimed to despise? Did not such beliefs lead to their estrangement from the Eldar, and from the Lords of the West themselves? How could the children of Numénor's exiles consider following a similar path? How could we believe it would result in anything other than more war and death?"
He looked once again at the lords supporting the proposal. Several would not meet his gaze, while others wore expressions of open hostility. He met their eyes evenly. "Even were our motives beyond all reproach," he continued, "we must surely consider the terrible cost of such an endeavor. For a terrible cost we would indeed pay, my lords. Harad will not bow to any foreign king, and we would be forced to keep thousands of soldiers quartered there, in a land far away from home and kin, sacrificing many lives to put down what would surely be a constant state of rebellion. This generation has suffered the loss of enough fathers and sons and brothers, has it not? How many lives would you sacrifice for this conquest, Lord Hathol?"
"There are always lives lost in war," he replied, glaring at Faramir.
"Indeed," Faramir said coldly. "And perhaps that, more than aught else, should remind us that war should be our last resort, not our first." He felt his voice tighten in his throat, and inhaled deeply. "By your leave, my lord King," he said, turning to Aragorn.
Aragorn nodded. "I see the reasons for your proposal, Lord Hathol, yet I agree with the Steward and others who have spoken in opposition. The conquest of Harad would be too costly and require too many resources, and all of those are needed in our own lands at this time. While I will not hesitate to go to war if our security is threatened, I will not seek conquest for conquest's sake. Prince Faramir's words on where such designs have led our people before are wise." As the King paused, Faramir glanced around the table. The proponents of Lord Hathol's plan were disappointed, yet seemed satisfied enough with the King's response. "Given the hour and the oppressive weather, I think we shall adjourn. I thank you all."
Aragorn swept out of the chamber with Faramir beside him, as was their custom. Once outside, Aragorn asked, "How fare you, Faramir?"
"My lord?" he asked. "Aragorn," he corrected, for the King had asked him to address him by his given name when away from court and council.
"You seemed... not quite yourself, as you spoke," he observed.
Faramir shrugged. "I am a bit tense, perhaps, from the long day inside the chamber." His answer was carefully phrased for accuracy, but not precision, for he would not bother the King with his trivial concerns. In truth, this had been a long day in a series of long days, followed by rather miserable nights. Without Éowyn's presence requiring him to maintain the pretense of sleep, he had nearly given up the attempt altogether.
"After the sun sets, join Legolas and me in the practice grounds for a bit of exercise, then?" Aragorn asked as he turned towards the King's House.
Faramir was about to beg off when he saw Aragorn's expression, and thought the better of it, nodding. "Aye, after sunset," he said, turning toward his own chambers.
Aragorn watched Faramir leave, regarding him with some concern. He had heard rumblings of gossip from the chamberlain's staff that the Prince had not been himself as of late, but short-tempered and irritable. He wondered whether Faramir felt overburdened, overseeing the vast work involved in restoring Gondor while establishing his own realm in Ithilien.
Perhaps he had laid too much at Faramir's feet, but Aragorn had quickly grown to rely on him, not only for his knowledge of Minas Tirith and its bureaucratic structure, but for his sound judgment, and his warm, unassuming companionship. He was lighting his pipe, considering whether adding more staff might lighten Faramir's burden, when Imrahil approached.
The Prince of Dol Amroth was, as ever, genial and friendly. He was one of Aragorn's closest advisors and most valued friends, and he was pleased to see him outside the council chamber. "Good afternoon, my lord," he said with a smile. "I see you are still banished from the indoors when your pipe is lit."
He grinned. "Indeed. The Queen is not overly fond of this particular vice." He saw Imrahil's smile fade after a moment, and wondered what was on his mind. "What troubles you, my friend?"
"Did you speak to Faramir after the meeting?" he asked.
"How seemed he to you?" Aragorn could not help but notice the tension in the Prince's voice.
"Somewhat out of sorts," he said. "He claimed he was tense from the long day, but I wonder whether I have not asked too much of him," Aragorn admitted.
"He did not seem himself in the Council chamber. The manner in which he spoke was curious, and most unlike him."
Aragorn nodded. He remembered something the Lady Galadriel had said, in a rare quiet moment after his wedding. She had seen Faramir across the courtyard, then she said to him, "Mind your young prince, Elessar. You retrieved him from the darkness, yet a shadow lingers, though I know not whence it comes." He had acknowledged her words despite his surprise, for at the time, Faramir had appeared to be full of joy and renewed hope. It had been so easy, given the burdens upon both of them, to let her words slip from his mind. He chastised himself for a fool, for what else could one be called who ignored the Lady's warnings?
"Have you noticed aught before, my lord Prince?"
With a nod, Imrahil said, "Indeed. He dined with me last evening, and he was far quieter than I have seen him since the war. He misses his wife, I think, but something more is amiss."
Nodding, Aragorn said, "I will speak with him this evening. Perhaps he will unburden himself."
"I cannot help but worry for him," Imrahil said, his face shadowed with concern. "He is all that is left to me of my sister, and I love him as my own."
"I know, my friend," he said, sharing the Prince's concern. Aragorn turned the conversation to other matters as they walked toward Imrahil's house on the city's seventh circle, all the while considering how he might approach Faramir.
The practice ground was usually deserted at this time of day, but as Faramir approached just after sunset, he heard the sound of laughter on the air. Legolas and Aragorn were on the archery range, and though he was some distance away, Legolas turned as he entered the field.
"Good evening, Faramir!" Legolas called cheerfully. "Come, and enjoy witnessing your liege lord bested."
Faramir smiled as he heard Aragorn snort in response, even as he waved a hand to Faramir in greeting. Faramir walked across the practice ground, the torches along the surrounding walls already burning brightly, though full darkness had not yet come.
Aragorn and Legolas continued to let fly at their targets, Legolas nocking two arrows for each of Aragorn's, his elegant bow singing. The King was dressed in his ranger gear, Faramir saw, which was not all that different from the rangers of Ithilien, although Aragorn's had apparently seen more wear than most. His bow was shorter than the man-height longbow used by Faramir and his rangers; it lacked the range of the Ithilien bow, but it was a lighter draw and could be used more readily from horseback.
Faramir set down his own bow, quiver and practice sword as he neared Aragorn, looking across the field at their targets as he and Legolas continued to empty their quivers. The King, he knew, was a good shot, but his competitor was one of the finest archers on Middle-earth, and had the advantage of the lighter yet more powerful elven bow -- not to mention centuries of experience, and an Elf's keen sight and remarkable speed.
Within moments, both quivers were empty, and Legolas smirked as they gazed at their targets. Though he had shot twice as many arrows as the King, Legolas's arrows were unquestionably clustered more closely at the center of the target than Aragorn's.
The King studied the targets, furrowing his brow. "What think you, Faramir?" he asked.
Faramir considered a moment before speaking. "I think it was a noble effort, my lord, against a most formidable opponent."
Legolas laughed, and Aragorn smiled at Faramir. "Indeed," he said, clapping Faramir on the shoulder.
"You owe me a forfeit," Legolas said mercilessly.
Aragorn rolled his eyes. "I like it better when you and Gimli are the ones playing such games. When does he return?"
"After the wedding. He shall meet us in Edoras," Legolas said with a smile of his own, before running across the green to retrieve his arrows, and Aragorn's, too.
Aragorn turned back to Faramir. "How are you this evening?"
"Very well," he answered, hoping his voice did not betray his fatigue.
"I know it was a long afternoon," Aragorn said, "but I hoped some exercise might relieve the day's tension." He nodded, reaching for his bow and quiver, and Aragorn continued, "Perhaps you should warm up on the archery field, while I try to reclaim my forfeit from the Elf? For he promised me," he said, as Legolas returned with two quivers of arrows, "that he would spar tonight with a sword, rather than his knives."
Legolas wrinkled his nose. "I must have been under the influence of the King's excellent wine when I made that promise," he said, taking a practice sword from Aragorn. Aragorn winked at Faramir as he followed the Elf to the fencing pitch, a few yards away from the archery field.
Faramir tuned out the sounds of the shallow clanking of the practice swords against each other as he attempted to banish his fatigue and slow his breathing. He was back in Ithilien, lying in wait for his prey, focusing his mind on the target. He nocked and drew, ignoring the vague pain in his shoulder, then let fly, his arrow unerringly finding its target. He emptied his quiver, then studied the target with some satisfaction before retrieving his arrows. He rotated his shoulder experimentally, then went to join the King and Legolas, who were sparring with unreserved pleasure.
Faramir sat on the bench facing the pitch, absently massaging his shoulder as he watched the two great warriors circle each other. Legolas was undoubtedly swifter, but he was fighting with a full-length practice broadsword rather than his beloved long knives. They teased each other as each sought the advantage. After long minutes of successfully blocked blows, Aragorn finally slipped in under Legolas's guard, and shot out a leg to trip him as he tried to back away. Within a moment, Legolas was disarmed and flat on his back with Aragorn's blade at his throat.
"I reclaim my forfeit," Aragorn said with a grin, reaching out a hand to help his friend rise.
Legolas accepted defeat with good grace, smiling as he took the offered hand. "Shall we go again, with knives this time, perhaps?" he asked.
"Nay, Faramir came for exercise, perhaps it is time he had some," said Aragorn, lifting his sword in a salute and mock challenge. Legolas nodded and left the pitch, seating himself on the grass just beyond.
Faramir rose and joined Aragorn on the pitch. He had sparred with Aragorn before and knew he was clearly outclassed in swordsmanship, just as he could best the King with a bow. He usually enjoyed their spars, and valued the advice Aragorn offered. If only he weren't so tired tonight, he could enjoy this time with the King.
He shrugged his shoulder experimentally as he moved around the pitch, trying to chase away the soreness that had manifested during his work with the bow.
"Is your shoulder bothering you?" Aragorn asked.
He shook his head. "A bit sore. Nothing of concern," he demurred.
Aragorn nodded. "Shall we, then?"
And so they began. Each of them tested the other as they moved about the pitch, feinting, watching, seeking an opening in the other's guard. Their speed increased as they sought to repel each other's attacks, and Faramir felt his fatigue grow. If not for fear of disappointing the King, he would have begged leave, but he pressed on. The spar went on, their practice swords ringing in the warm evening air.
Faramir shook sweat from his eyes, and when he opened them again, his heart began to pound, his blood surging through his veins. The Haradrim were right behind him, their horses' hooves pounding furiously against the ground. He was confused for a moment -- he had not been on the Pelennor a moment before, had he? He swung his sword mercilessly at his opponent, a fell warrior of Harad wielding two curved blades...
One strong arm shook his shoulder, and the other held his sword wrist tightly in its grasp as he blinked to clear his vision. He was on one knee, and Legolas was at his side, holding him firmly. He panted, trying to regain his breath, and he then he looked down, and realized the tip of his practice sword was at the King's throat.