Faramir opened his eyes and saw that it was light. The window was open, and the curtains were drawn back and fluttering in the breeze. He breathed deeply. There was a fresh tang to the air that reminded him of something that he could not place; something that remained just out of reach.
Lying still for little longer, he looked up at the white ceiling, at the cracks chasing across the plaster. Then, summoning his strength, he glanced down to the foot of the bed. Beregond was there, asleep in a chair. Faramir smiled.
Would that he were awake, he thought, but from his face he needs the rest! Yet I have so many questions... How long have I lain here? Are my men safe? It seems that the city is not lost – but how? We did not have the strength to hold back the darkness (here he shivered a little) – what aid came that we did not foresee?
As he wondered, his eyes roamed around the room. On the wall opposite, behind Beregond, there was a hanging – rather frayed, the colours fading. He stared at the picture. A seascape – ships, and the suggestion of a haven. It was like many that had lined the walls of his childhood home; like many that still hung in his uncle’s halls. As a boy, he would sit before them and tell himself the stories of the tall ships that had fled the foundered land, seeking sanctuary, bringing the Kings of Men to Middle-earth.
The Sea, Faramir remembered, and smiled. That is it! I can smell the Sea. Fresh air, coming in from the West—
A slight sound at his side interrupted this returning thought. He twisted his head and saw that there in the chair at his bedside sat his father. He too was fast asleep.
Had Faramir not been so tired, he would have laughed out loud. I thought he never slept! I have not seen him do so in years... Proof indeed of what we had long since ceased believing – our father is like any other man! Boromir will laugh when I tell him this—
But Boromir was no longer there to hear the story told. Faramir gritted his teeth to stifle his hurt, but he was not quick enough to hold back a gasp.
Both sleeping men were woken by the sound. Denethor reached over and seized his hand. Beregond was out of his chair and by his side in moments.
“Are you hurt, captain?” he said, and Faramir heard real fear in his voice.
“I thought of Boromir,” he replied, before he could think even of the need for an evasion. His father’s grip slackened. Faramir hastened to cover his lapse.
“Would you help me sit, please, Beregond?”
Slowly and carefully, Beregond helped him to a sitting position. His father began to pile up pillows for him to rest upon – and still he had spoken not a word.
Faramir leaned back, and was suddenly aware of the dressing on his shoulder, of how the wound had been received. He looked straight at his father.
“My lord,” he said. “What news?”
Denethor turned to Beregond.
Beregond did not answer. Neither, to Faramir’s wonder, did he move.
“Are all my commands to be ignored now? I wish to speak to my son alone. Leave us!”
Still he did not move.
“Beregond?” Faramir said.
“I... am ordered not to leave you, captain,” Beregond replied, fingering the coverlet on the bed.
“But what could happen to me here – and with my father nigh?” Faramir smiled at him. “Perhaps you could find me something to eat. That would not take long, surely?”
Still he hesitated.
“I am hungry,” Faramir said.
Unwillingly, Beregond bowed. “As you command, sir,” he said, to Faramir, and made to leave, looking back unhappily over his shoulder before closing the door behind him. Faramir waited a moment, and then turned to his father once more.
“How were we saved?”
Denethor looked, unseeing, at the fluttering curtains, at the noonday sun falling upon the white walls.
“We are not saved. We are doomed. The Dark Lord’s hand has been stayed, yes – but not for long.”
Faramir leaned his head back against the pillows, and closed his eyes, waiting to be required again. His father continued speaking.
“All the East moves against us. He will stretch out to take us once more, and when that happens—”
A sudden, violent noise. Faramir jumped and his eyes shot open. Denethor was sitting quite still, his fist against his palm. His eyes were still staring far beyond the little room.
The old, too-familiar fear came back. You were never a young man, Faramir thought, and you seemed to age so quickly. He looked back up at the white of the ceiling above. Oh, Boromir! This was ever our shared burden. Why could you not come back to me?
He felt something brush against his face, turned to see his father’s hand reaching out to touch him. The fingertips seemed cold upon his flesh; against his will, he shivered.
“My son breathes yet,” Denethor said, and gave him a pale smile. “My son breathes yet.”
The door opened, the draught catching and lifting the curtains higher. The Prince of Dol Amroth entered, and stood for a moment in the doorway, staring at father and son.
“Valar be praised,” he murmured, and then crossed the room quickly, coming to sit on the bed. He set his hand against Faramir’s brow.
“No fever,” he said, and shook his head. “We had thought you were lost!” He took Faramir’s hand within his own, and smiled at him.
“As you can see,” Faramir replied, “I breathe yet.”
Imrahil laughed out loud. “And how is the shoulder?”
“A little pain, but naught I cannot bear – uncle, please, I have had no news.”
The prince glanced across the bed at the steward sitting opposite. “You are ill, Faramir,” he said, “you should not yet be troubling yourself—”
“If I hear naught, I shall only lie here and worry – uncle, I beg you! I am too tired to debate this.”
Imrahil sighed. “Very well, although you must rest again soon. The city was besieged, and the gate was broken. And then we were saved – twice – by the coming of our allies. The Rohirrim came at dawn as the gate fell, and then...” He halted.
“And then, later, a fleet of ships came with aid from the South. There was battle on the Pelennor, and the day was won.” He smiled. “Is that enough news for you?”
Before Faramir could say that it was not, Denethor spoke, a half-question.
“The ships had black sails...?”
Faramir turned to look at him. This is all news to him too, he realized. How can that be so? He felt the draught again, cold this time, and reached to pull the cover higher up around him.
Imrahil answered. “They had, as you say, black sails.”
Faramir leaned his head back against the pillows and stared once more at the ceiling. “I think I should rest for a while,” he said. “Alone.”
He felt Imrahil press his hand, and then the Prince released it, and stood up.
“Perhaps that would be wise, for now,” he said. “And I must speak to the steward, if he would accompany me?”
Faramir watched them leave, and then gazed again at the hanging opposite him. The sea seemed stormy now, the haven a forlorn hope. He looked up at the ceiling instead, but now the cracks caught his attention. He wiped his hand across his brow. It felt clammy.
The door opened. Faramir jerked his head up.
But it was Beregond, bearing a tray piled high with plates. Faramir lay back again and watched as Beregond set the tray on the bed before him.
“The prince said that you wished to rest, captain,” he said. “But I shall remain outside the door in case you need me.” He finished with the tray, and looked at his captain. “You need only call.”
“Stay!” said Faramir, quickly – and then forced a smile. “Sit down, Beregond. There is far too much on this tray for me, and I am certain you have not eaten.” He offered him a plate. Beregond took it, and sat down.
“Tell me... tell me about the siege, and the battle. But first...” Faramir crumbled a piece of bread, “tell me how many men I lost.”
Walking side by side, and silent, the Steward and the Prince passed through the halls of the houses of healing. Servants stepped out of their way, bowing to them, and one held open the door as they went into the garden.
Ignoring the paths, they took a straight way across the neat lawn, heading with purpose towards the walls. They came to a halt near a clump of asphodel, a few early flowers like white stars against the stone. From the corner of his eye, Imrahil watched as the Steward took in his first sight of the battered Pelennor – its homesteads, smoking and ruined, and the tents of the captains that circled the city walls. Their bright banners fluttered in the fresh spring breeze. Denethor’s hand hovered for a moment above the stone of the wall, and then came down slowly, heavily, to rest upon it.
The wind caught at the long stems of the flowers standing beside them, and they wavered uncertainly. And then Imrahil began to speak, his voice soft, and he watched for even the smallest motion from the man that stood against him.
“Make no mistake, my lord Denethor, but if the choice were mine and mine alone, you would now be in chains.”
Denethor remained almost still, but Imrahil saw his hand press down against the wall.
“As it is,” the Prince continued, “I answer now to a higher authority and – at his counsel and by his grace – you continue to move freely.” He paused. “In this house – and for the moment, at least.”
Denethor brushed his thumb back and forth against the stone, like a caress.
“There are more pressing matters than you at hand,” Imrahil said. “The Captains of the West have debated this morning, and we are resolved in a common purpose – to draw the Eye away from where the Ringbearer and his companion were last seen. We set forth for the Black Gate two days hence. It is a bold strategy and one that has little promise of success. But in it lies our best hope.”
Denethor’s laugh was short and bit like winter wind sharpened on the mountains. Imrahil pressed on, resolutely.
“We send the greater strength of the Rohirrim against the enemy in Anórien. The city will not find itself threatened by Mordor. Which brings me to you.”
Denethor continued to stare out eastwards.
“Again, make no mistake – I would gladly see you stripped of your office, and authority pass to your son – or to another until his strength has returned. But this would lead to questions – and here I am mindful first of Faramir. As yet, your attempt upon his life is known only to those who saw it, also to myself, to the king of Rohan, and to the lord Aragorn. When Faramir is healed, then he shall be told. At the moment, such news might well finish the task you started. And there would be other questions, around the city. Why does the lord Denethor no longer command? Who indeed now rules in Minas Tirith? Such uncertainty would not serve in these last days. And so the banner of the stewards still flies above the White Tower – by the grace of the King. When we return—”
“If you return.”
Denethor turned his head, and Imrahil saw that he was now smiling.
“Make no mistake, my lord prince,” Denethor said, “the house of stewards has ruled this land since the line of kings ended. And so we remain, and shall remain – in unbroken line – constant, unyielding, implacable in the protection of our charge. If one comes to claim the throne, that claim must be examined. This is not a matter of preference. It is a matter of law.” The hand upon the stone was heavy now. “This is the realm of Gondor. A man may not simply raise an army, bring it to the gates of the City, and by that threat demand the throne. That is tyranny, my lord, and the Men of Minas Tirith have stood long against it, whilst others played in cockleboats along the coast, or wandered the empty wilds of the North.”
With effort, Imrahil marshalled a measured reply. “Fought long, you say? And yet your absence throughout the siege and the battle has not gone unremarked. But in one matter you speak the truth, when you say that the line of stewards is unbroken. For despite your efforts, the Lord Faramir lives yet, and is still well loved in this, his City.”
Denethor withdrew his hand from the wall, and began to toy with the plants at his side, running his finger along the thin white petals of the flowers. He took a long green stalk within his hand, bending it down, and down. And, for a moment, it seemed to Imrahil that he saw those starry flowers shrivel and the stem snap—
“And Faramir loves the City in return, and knows well his duty,” the Steward said softly. He released the stem, and it sprang up, straight once more. “I shall take my leave of you now, my lord,” he said, and seemed to sigh a little. “I would be at my son’s side.” He turned, and began to make his way back to the house.
“Wait,” Imrahil said.
Denethor stopped, and looked back. To most men, the Steward would appear unmoved, but Imrahil knew him well, and he saw the eyelids blink, saw the quake in the other man’s throat as he swallowed and then contained himself. Imrahil took savage pleasure in these signs. He took a step forwards, narrowing the gap between them.
“This city is rotten with your spies and servants,” he said, “but do not doubt that we watch you in turn.” His voice slipped lower, and he struggled to control it. “If you touch him... If you harm him...”
But the threat was empty, and they both knew it. For in two days, the Captains would set forth from the City, taking hopeless war to an Enemy bent on their destruction.