The sun was setting, and all the field of Gondor was aflame. The river ran red, but the day was won. High above, in the sixth circle of the City of the Kings, the rays of the dying sun fell upon the faces of its steward and his heir. For a moment it seemed as if a flush of health had returned to Faramir’s face – then the sun departed from the sky and he went deeper into darkness.
Beside him sat his father, his son’s hand in his keeping, paying no heed to the women who rumoured around him, caring nothing for the wizard that came at times to stand and watch. The last of the sunlight falling on Denethor’s face brought no change. He remained the colour and the set of stone.
Grey shadows lengthened in the sickroom. Faramir was now barely breathing. Then the door clicked open, and a floorboard creaked as someone passed across the room. Slowly, Denethor raised his head. Across the sickbed, a figure was standing, silhouetted black against the window, yet silvered in light. Their eyes met, and the steward greeted the king.
“He sent you forth like a servant?”
Éomer’s voice had risen, and there were people hurrying past down the corridor, giving them curious looks. Aragorn raised his hand, gestured to him to soften his speech.
“He was quite clear that I am not welcome here.”
As if the forty years past had been but days. But, in truth, Aragorn had seen already how time had worn the White City. As he had passed, cloaked and hidden, up through the levels, he had seen more empty houses, more crumbling stone, had seen how all the streets were silent, stripped of their children, of their life.
“Did he remember you?” Imrahil asked, evenly.
Aragorn narrowed his eyes. The Prince was staring at a point in the hallway slightly beyond him. Imrahil had been a young man when he had left Gondor, and Thorongil had had no cause to visit Dol Amroth, but his reputation had been great.
“Yes,” Aragorn replied softly. “Yes, he remembered me.”
Imrahil gave him a slight smile. “Then little am I surprised at your welcome, my liege.”
“But at the cost of his son’s life?” said Éomer.
Aragorn and Gandalf exchanged a look.
“Maybe,” said Aragorn, and stared down the long corridor. A servant was making his slow way past them, lighting the lamps as he went. Aragorn curbed a sigh. The evening was drawing on, and there were others still in need of his attention. “Do we know what caused the hurt to the steward’s heir?” he said.
“A Southron dart,” Imrahil answered. “I drew it forth, but did not keep it – the wound was not deep. And that does not explain his fever—”
“No,” Aragorn agreed, “that would not be enough.”
“He had already ridden far under the Shadow before he rode out to battle,” Gandalf said. “And he and the steward did not part well.”
“His father’s mood has been most strange...” Imrahil murmured.
“And it worsened,” Gandalf said, and told him and Éomer of all that had passed in Rath Dínen.
There was a silence as they both took in the news. The servant had reached the end of the hallway now, Aragorn saw, but did not check his pace as he turned the corner, and disappeared out of sight. Someone walked past, on an errand to a nearby room. They shifted in a little closer, leaning together.
“We cannot leave him in there!” Imrahil said at last. “What might he yet do?”
“Beregond is there,” Gandalf murmured, putting out a hand to comfort him.
“And since the steward’s mood is dangerous, we have to move with caution,” Aragorn said, and then raised a hand to his brow. “But if, as seems likely, Faramir has succumbed to the Black Breath, then he will not heal without my aid, and even then it is not certain.” He stared once more at the lamps, as if they might offer him an answer.
At last, Éomer spoke, his voice urgent but low this time. “Lord, my sister waits... I beg you – go back in there and do what you must, or leave the steward to whatever madness it is that consumes him. For while we delay, Éowyn is dying.”
Seven lamps along the passage, and the shadows crowding in the spaces between. “Then my path is chosen,” Aragorn replied.
The curtains had been drawn, sealing out the end of the day. The steward was still sitting by the bed, holding his son’s hand. There was a fire in the hearth and on a side table a lamp now stood, casting a thin, pale light onto Faramir’s ashen face. In the corner of the room, slumped forward, sat Beregond, eyes still firmly fixed on the steward and his son. The air in the room was thick and close, and beneath it lay a sour smell – of sickness, of decay.
Aragorn turned to the women that stood by, speaking to them in a low voice.
“Bring me hot water, and quick.”
Denethor’s head snapped up. He rose from his chair and turned to face the men that had entered the room. His eyes fell briefly and bitterly upon Imrahil, and then settled on Aragorn.
“You were told to leave,” he breathed. “I will not have you in this room!”
Éomer stepped forward, hands clenched by his side, but at a sign from Aragorn he halted.
“It may be that I can heal your son,” Aragorn said, quietly.
“I want naught from you—”
“It is not your choice to make!” Éomer shot back. Imrahil set a hand upon his arm.
The air in the little room was heavy. Denethor looked down at Faramir and something in him seemed to give.
“Take it all,” he whispered, raising his hands to his head, “but do not take my son.”
“I will take naught that is not given freely,” Aragorn replied. “There is a faint hope yet! But if you do not let me call him, then he will surely die.”
Denethor sat back down in his chair and closed his eyes for a moment. “Then you may call him,” he said at last, wearily. He reached out to set his hand back upon his son’s brow – and it brushed against Aragorn’s, already in place.
Their eyes met. The fire crackled. Denethor drew back.
Aragorn knelt down beside the bed, and it seemed to those watching that he grew grey and weary. As he called Faramir’s name, his voice became fainter and fainter, as if he too were now wandering in some dark place far beneath the shadow.
“He is lost,” Denethor whispered. “It was a fool’s hope.”
Imrahil came to stand behind him, setting his hand on the back of the steward’s chair. “Patience,” he said, gently. “This is beyond our understanding. The paths of our lives are not set and the way ahead may still be open.”
Barely had he finished speaking when the door was thrown open, and Bergil ran in, clutching to his chest a handful of leaves in a cloth. Aragorn took some from the boy, and comforted him, and then went back to the bedside. He breathed upon the leaves, and then he crushed them and threw them into the water the women had brought. A clean sharp scent stole through the air.
“Faramir,” Aragorn said and, although his voice was still soft, it had the clear force of command, “Awake.”
The fragrance of athelas filled the room, banishing the stale odour of despair. Denethor’s head remained bowed.
Faramir stirred and woke. Looking up, he saw Aragorn, and his eyes sparked and shone.
“My lord,” he said hoarsely, like a man near dead of thirst. “You called me. I come—”
Slowly, regretfully, Faramir turned away from Aragorn and towards the figure sitting, head lowered, at his side. And to those watching, it seemed that a fire of longing flickered in his eyes.
“Father,” he said. “I heard you... I heard you call. I could not follow. Forgive me.”
Their fingers met and clasped. Denethor raised his son’s hand to his lips, and kissed it.
“I am so weary...” Faramir whispered to him.
“Sleep,” his father answered. “I shall stay at your side. I shall be here when you wake.”
Faramir turned his head back again – almost, it seemed, as if he sought permission. “Rest a while, as your father has said,” Aragorn told him. “Take food – and be ready.”
“I will, lord,” said Faramir, and his eyes began to close. “For who would lie idle,” he murmured, and only those near to him heard, “when the king has returned?”
Aragorn closed the door behind him and looked again along the lamplit hall. Everything had aged. But beyond repair?
Beside him, Imrahil set his hand upon the doorframe, and he stood staring at the carving of the tree upon the door, as if by will alone he might peer into the chamber and see what passed within. Then he sighed and drew the hand wearily across his eyes.
“I must wonder at the wisdom of leaving them together,” he murmured.
“Beregond will remain on guard,” Gandalf replied. “He will let no harm befall his captain.”
Imrahil shook his head. “But he tried to kill him. His own son, and he tried to kill him.”
“There are many in the city in need of healing,” Aragorn said, running a finger over the plaster on the wall. “And not all are confined to their beds.” He picked at the plaster with his nail. It crumbled away.
“But this is the steward—!” Imrahil struggled to restrain himself. “This is not simply anger on account of my nephew, sire. This cannot be brushed aside.”
“And it will not be,” Aragorn replied. “But other matters are more pressing. We have enemies enough without strife amongst ourselves.”
“And the tale should not carry further,” Gandalf added. “Faramir at least should not hear until he is healed. There is enough doubt in the city without uncertainty about its Lord. For now, it should appear that the steward commands still in Minas Tirith.”
Aragorn laid his hand upon Éomer’s arm. “You have waited long enough,” he said. “Let us go to the Lady Éowyn.”
All that night Aragorn and his brothers went about the city, and the rumours spread of the lord who bore a green stone – an Elfstone – and whose hands brought healing. But in the morning, when the heralds sounded the new day that none had thought would come, the white banner of the stewards was flying in place of the swan ship at the top of the Tower, and it seemed to men that they had woken from a dream. A dream of peace and restoration that moment by moment slipped away, as the waking world washed over them.