Faramir sat alone in the Council Chambers, awaiting the coming of his father. The morning light outside was bright and the day was progressing, but inside the Hall, the gloom was still heavy. It did nothing to lighten his dark mood.
He felt empty and weak, lost in a grey sea of sorrow; waves of grief washed over him and he closed his eyes, resting his forehead wearily on the smooth table before him. The coldness of the stone was comforting somehow -- it matched the cold emptiness that seemed to be growing in his heart.
He heard a step behind him, but made no move to see who it was or acknowledge his presence. He heard the sound of striking flint and the flare of the wick in a lamp, and felt the warmth of light beside him even as he heard the gentle scrape of the lamp being set upon the table.
Faramir lifted his head slowly and turned towards the man who had spoken. It was Dūrlin.
"Have you eaten, my lord?" Dūrlin inquired, his voice full of concern.
Faramir shook his head. "I was not hungry."
"I thought as much," answered Dūrlin with a frown. "It is well, then, that I have come prepared."
He stepped from the room, but returned almost immediately with a tray laden with food and drink. Removing the dishes from the tray, he set each one out on the table before Faramir; when all was arranged according to his liking, he set the tray aside and poured the wine, handing the cup to Faramir.
"It will not do to go forth to your new responsibilities weakened in body as well as in spirit," Dūrlin said sternly. "In your sorrow, do not neglect your physical needs. You are the man they will look to now, and it is vital that you take better care."
Faramir stared at the wine in his cup, and swirled it thoughtfully before taking a long drink.
"You know, then?" he asked quietly.
"Yes, I know. There has been talk in the City, since the messenger Halmir came and went. And have I not seen the fear and pain written on the Steward's face these past days? Though he has said nothing to me, I have known something was amiss -- and what else could it be but grave news of Boromir? Just now I overheard your converse together... and I saw Boromir's Horn, split asunder..."
Dūrlin ducked his head and looked away for a brief moment.
"Forgive me, my lord Faramir," he said contritely. "I did not mean to intrude upon your privacy, but I come daily to his room to set things in order, should Boromir by chance return... I made to leave, but then... then I heard... Forgive me!"
"There is nothing to forgive, Dūrlin," replied Faramir quickly. "It is better this way, for I am not ready yet to tell our people of this grief -- yet I feel the need to have someone by my side who understands the gravity of what has taken place. And you, being close to Boromir, should know of this loss, before the others..."
"Thank you, lord. It is a grievous loss indeed -- and at this, our time of greatest need! I do not know the whole tale, but I know enough to be of service to you, for I understand well what this forebodes for you. As did your brother! Before he left us, Boromir spoke to me, and urged me to look after your needs. He knew your father would ask much of you during his absence, and that you would give it, even if it were beyond your own strength."
Sudden tears flowed down Faramir's face as he listened, but he sat quietly, his head bowed, and did not heed them.
"If Boromir were here now, I know what he would say to you," went on Dūrlin.
"And what is that?"
Dūrlin pushed forward a plate of food until it was under Faramir's listless hand.
"He would say, 'Eat, Faramir! A Captain of Men must keep up his strength, no matter the burden weighing him down! What service is such a man to Gondor if he falls on his face for lack of nourishment?'"
A smile broke through Faramir's tears.
"Yes, that is what he would say, indeed," he replied; reaching for a loaf of bread, he tore off a piece. "What other words of wisdom do you have for me, Dūrlin?"
"Only this. It does Boromir little honor if in our sorrow and grief we lose sight of all he held dear -- the defense of this people, this City. We cannot let ourselves give in to weakness and apathy, though our grief threatens to undo us. Such neglect of ourselves will not bring him back -- but it does honor to his memory to pursue with all our strength those same goals he always strove to achieve. We can still mourn him, but let us not allow our mourning to destroy what hope we have."
"Even in your grief, you see clearly, Dūrlin. I shall do my best to heed your advice."
He chewed thoughfully for a moment, his face troubled. When he spoke again, it was in a soft voice, as if to himself.
"Yet I would wish that it were as simple as taking meat at table to keep up my strength. Boromir spoke of my father asking much of me -- it has already begun. I know not what he has in mind as yet -- he is coming soon to tell me, after taking thought of all the possibilities. But whatever the task may be, I shall be doing the duty of two -- my own, and that of Boromir. Yet we are not the same; I am not Boromir -- and there may come a time when my decisions will not be those of Boromir. What will I do then, I wonder?"
Dūrlin hesitated, not knowing if it was his place to answer; but Faramir turned to him expectantly.
"Do not fear to answer me, Dūrlin," said Faramir kindly. "And do not think it above your station to speak your mind if I ask it of you. You were close to my brother, and you serve me and my father in these days. You know us as well as anyone, and I value your thoughts on this matter."
"I cannot say what you will do should that situation arise, my lord," answered Dūrlin slowly. "Only you can answer that, and only when the time comes. But I do not think you should fear such a time. You are a Captain of Men and confident in your own leadership; why should that change now, though Boromir be gone? I am not a fighting man, and I know little of such things personally -- but Boromir's mind and heart were open to me, having served him these many years. I say to you, he knew your worth and trusted you always -- do you likewise! Be yourself, and not Boromir. Take on his duties, but make them your own, if you can, and trust to your own wisdom, even as your brother did."
Faramir nodded gratefully, though he still looked doubtful.
"I see you are not convinced," said Dūrlin gently. "Perhaps... perhaps you do not doubt yourself, so much as you doubt how you will answer your father's need if it clashes with your own wisdom."
Faramir made to speak, but Dūrlin held up a hand and went on without pause.
"Forgive me for speaking frankly, my lord, but you gave me leave; and what I say now, is only what Boromir might say to you if he were here -- worry not overmuch for the future, for each day has enough care and need of its own. When the time comes for such decisions, you shall know what to do; you serve Gondor, and her people, and that will answer our need -- and your father's as well. He will see it in the end."
Faramir searched Dūrlin's face as he pondered the words he had spoken. He saw a man past his middle age, with grizzled hair and beard that may have once been red; his face was lined and creased, but more from laughter than from care, and his expression was open and honest. Faramir had never known him to speak vain words, meant only to pander to the fancy of his lord or say what he wanted to hear; no, when Dūrlin spoke or gave advice, it was given truthfully and forthrightly. He was loved and respected by all in the household of Stewards, but held in the highest esteem by Boromir, whom Dūrlin had served faithfully for many years. Faramir knew he would do well to heed what this man had to say to him.
He nodded again, and this time his face was clear of doubt.
"You speak well in my brother's place, Dūrlin," he smiled. "I hear your words, and I will take it to heart."
"Thank you, lord Faramir," replied Dūrlin with a bow. "Thank you for allowing me to speak plainly. Please tell me, is there anything else you require? I am at your service."
"I have all I need for now, Dūrlin, but for your listening ear. If I may, I would speak to you of Boromir and what seems to have befallen him."
"I wish for nothing else, my lord," said Dūrlin softly, and for a brief moment, his grief was plainly etched upon his face. "Please, tell me everything!"
Legolas had seen them from afar, poised upon the edge of the hill as if searching the horizon for a sign; even as he ran he watched Aragorn lift his hand to shade his eyes and gaze intently in his direction. They had spotted him; Legolas had no doubt that Aragorn would know it was he. Lengthening his stride, he ran all the more swiftly in his own eagerness to be reunited with his friends.
They were waiting for him at the foot of the grassy hill that sloped down towards the river to the west. As he approached, they rose quickly to their feet and ran to him. The companions embraced silently, the three of them together. They stood thus for many long moments, grateful to be together once more, yet afraid to speak of the news that each feared to hear from the other.
"It is good to see you, Legolas!" cried Aragorn, finding his voice at last. "Good indeed! But tell us quickly -- how fares Boromir? We... we cannot help but fear that you have come to us so soon, because he is lost to us. Say it is not so!"
"It is not so," said Legolas with a reassuring smile. "He is well -- better even than I had expected him to be, after this short amount of time since his wounding. He heals well, and his strength returns."
Gimli gave a glad cry, as Aragorn bowed his head and covered his face with his hands, so greatly was he moved at the news that Boromir yet lived. When he looked up again, much of the weariness in his face had been soothed and what remained was soon banished by a broad grin.
"This is the news I desired to hear, my friend!" he sighed in relief. "You did not leave him alone, then?"
"I did not. Men from Gondor arrived only a few days after we parted; with them was a healer of great skill. He took up Boromir's care where you left off; thanks to the healing properties of athelas in the hands of the king, and the strength that comes from the eating of Elven lembas, Boromir thrives."
"And how are his spirits?" asked Aragorn eagerly.
"Again, he is well," Legolas replied. "He was at first in great despair, as you suspected he would be. Well it was that I was with him then, or he would have soon been lost, in his despair and delirium! But that tragedy was averted. We spoke much together of what occurred, and he opened his heart to me about many things. He spoke what he felt, as indeed he ever has..."
Legolas looked thoughtful as he recalled some of what he and Boromir had discussed together.
"I believe I was able to encourage him -- and the coming of his men did wonders for his strength and morale, as well." Legolas smiled suddenly, and into his voice crept a note of awe and respect.
"I have known Men and been among them before, but never have I seen such honor given to a leader as the Men of Gondor gave to Boromir. He is greatly loved, Aragorn, and highly esteemed by his men. They will bring him safely to Gondor if it is within their power to do so -- and if it is not, they will die defending him with their last breath. Their love for him is very great."
Aragorn sighed a long sigh and bowed his head once more, but only for a moment.
"Then let us leave him in their hands, and trust them to keep our friend safe until we can be reunited. May they be protected upon whatever road they take, for there are yet many dangers between Rauros and the walls of the White City."
"Aye!" agreed Gimli. "And danger lies ahead for us as well. My heart burns the less for knowing that Boromir is in good hands -- but the hobbits are still not freed, and now I am all the more eager to pursue them for their rescue!"
"Then the captives still live?" asked Legolas eagerly.
"There has been no sign to indicate otherwise," answered Aragorn. "The trail is still easy to follow, as you see before you. It leads towards Fangorn Forest; but I cannot see further."
"Then let us go up this hill, and I shall see what I can see," suggested Legolas. "Perhaps there is something to be seen with Elven eyes that will aid our counsel."
Legolas sprang forward and ran up the slope, and the others followed him to stand together, looking towards the forest.
"What do you see, Legolas?" queried Aragorn, after the Elf had stood gazing northwards, a keen expression upon his face.
"I see riders," came the answer. "Riders on swift horses, coming this way -- the same as those I saw from atop Amon Hen, riding northwards on some urgent errand. Five leagues only lie between us; they will be with us soon."
"Then there is no escape," said Gimli in a resigned voice. "Shall we await them here or go our way and hope they ignore us?"
"We will wait," replied Aragorn heavily. "It seems obvious they come back down the trail which we are following. They may have news of the Orcs or the captives, for good or ill."
"I see empty saddles, but no sign of hobbits," said Legolas.
"It may be that our hunt has failed," sighed Aragorn. "No matter; we shall go down to face whatever news they may have to give us."
"Let us hope we get news from them," Gimli muttered. "News, and not spears!"
Faramir stood beside his father's chair, listening quietly to the Steward's counsel. A map of Ithilien was laid out before them on the broad table; now and then as he spoke, Denethor would tap the parchment with a long finger, as if to emphasize what he was saying. As he leaned forward to gaze at the map more closely, Faramir felt a thrill of of having been in the same situation before. It had been in this same room as they studied maps together, that he and his father had heard the sound of Boromir's horn call, changing their lives forever.
"... The Haradrim who march to the Dark Land will have to pass through here, where the road narrows to enter a deep cutting. You would do well to set your ambush there."
Faramir looked at the spot on the map indicated by his father's finger, and nodded.
"Yes, that is indeed a good spot for an ambush; we will have the advantage, though our numbers be fewer. Did your message speak of numbers or the timing of the arrival of the Southron force?"
"No, but they come in great strength, and with them is at least one mūmak. You have some days to prepare, perhaps, but I cannot say more with certainty. Can you prepare your strike against them in time?"
"Indeed, it will not be a problem. The men stand ready; Henneth Annūn is fully manned. I will leave tomorrow at first light and join them there, to put in motion the remainder of the preparations. I keep in contact with those who can provide me with what information I lack concerning the movements of the enemy. Fear not; we shall be ready and in place in good time."
"Very good," replied Denethor.
Faramir turned away and went to pour wine for himself and his father. Denethor watched him silently as he pondered how best to phrase his next directive, without revealing too much of what he knew or suspected, as revealed in the palantķr.
The vision he had seen that morning was yet very clear in his mind -- two small figures, seeming as children to his eyes, but no child could wander amongst the rocks and gullies of the Emyn Muil as did these two. Could they indeed be Halflings, that were spoken of only in ancient lore, and more recently in the riddle that had come in a dream to his sons? Long had Denethor pondered that riddle which had taken Boromir from him; he thought he now could interpret much of its hidden meaning -- if only he had guessed more and sooner, before he allowed Boromir to go on the quest that had taken him to his death!
These Halflings, if that was what they were -- had they anything to do with the revealing of Isildur's Bane, as was spoken in the riddle? If so, did they bring that Thing with them? What was their connection to Thorongil, who now wandered the plains of Rohan, accompanied by a Dwarf? And what of Boromir? What did these folk have to do with his beloved son and the fate that had befallen him?
"Father? Is something wrong?"
Denethor looked up, startled, to see Faramir standing before him, holding out a goblet brimming with wine. He took it, and drank the wine down before answering.
"There is one more thing," he said slowly. "Another task to keep in mind while you are there in Ithilien. It may be that you will meet strangers passing through the land. Be cautious of them; do not allow anyone passage without close questioning. Need I remind you of the penalty for those who attempt to pass through our lands without the leave of the Lord of Gondor?"
"No, my father, I need no reminding. The penalty is death for those who will not swear allegience to the White Tower and her lord. Though it seems unlikely we shall meet such unexpected travelers. The land of Ithilien has long been deserted of folk, and only the men in our secret fastness remain -- and the servants of the Enemy."
"Nevertheless, I wish you to be on your guard. It is vital to the security of Gondor that no person be allowed to wander freely in our lands, particularly if I have not had word of them, and know nothing of their business. Such secrecy goes against our interests. In time of war, we no longer have the luxury of trust, and though death may seem a harsh answer, it is the surest way to keeping our borders safe from those who have set themselves against us."
Denethor caught Faramir's gaze and held it.
"May I count on you to deal with this matter, Faramir? To strike a blow that gives the servants of Sauron pause ere they pass through our lands again so freely, and to guard our borders against all who might come against us?"
"Of course, Father," replied Faramir with a slight bow. "I shall serve you as I have ever done -- with all my heart and loyalty."
Denethor nodded, satisfied.
"Then go, my son; go to Ithilien, and do not fail me."
Boromir lay back wearily upon his blankets, grateful for a chance to rest after his exertions of the morning. The exercise he had undertaken earlier in the day had tired him more than he cared to admit; but he was glad he had made the attempt. He would continue to drive himself hard in order to be ready for that day when they would begin the homeward journey. He hoped it would come soon, for he was worried that time was growing short for his people and his City. And something had occurred the night before to give him a new sense of urgency.
He still felt disturbed in his mind after his restlessness in the night. He had not spoken of it to anyone, but he had dreamed of Black Riders, and of the cries of Nazgūl in the wilderness. He had awakened in a cold sweat at the sound of a high shriek on the wind, piercingly shrill, wordlessly evil. There was nothing to be seen in the sky above, even if he could have seen through the trees from where he lay; the darkness of night had fallen, and with it came the quickening of the wind that precedes a storm. The others, preoccupied with the possibility of a storm, seemed not to have heard the cry or did not recognize it for what it was. Indeed, the storm had broken soon after; the sound of thunder came rumbling across the water as lightening cracked and brightened the eastern hills, and on the wind the smell of rain. But the storm had passed southwards and left them dry on the westward side of the lake.
Boromir had settled down for sleep once more, but it was long before sleep came. He worried about Frodo and Sam, and wondered where they were. Had they been caught in the rain as they wandered the eastern hills? Had they heard the cry in the wilderness of Nazgūl calling to one another, and felt the same terror and despair as had he? How much more terrifying it would be for them, for Frodo, who carried the Thing that would make those enemies invincible!
He sighed inwardly as he thought of the Ring -- as always, with regret for how It had changed him and how even now It ruled his fate and the fate of the world. Yes, he understood that much now, at least.
He shifted restlessly as his thoughts turned once more to Frodo and his plight. The task of the hobbits to find their path forward would be infinitely more difficult if Nazgūl were now patrolling the river and lands to the east. Boromir had no doubt in his mind that the cry on the wind had not been his imagination -- it had been real, and that did not bode well for the Free Peoples of the West.
The presence of patrolling Nazgūl could mean only one thing -- that the Enemy was considering a major offensive strike and was keeping closer watch on the movements of those who might oppose him, up and down the Anduin. The waters of Nen Hithoel above the Falls would make an excellent point of reference from the air, for Nazgūl and the beasts that carried them. Boromir recalled suddenly the winged shape that had advanced upon the Company that night upon the River as they passed the Sarn Gebir -- if it had not been for Legolas and his bow, they might have actually been caught.
He felt certain now that the creature had been one of the Nazgūl, on patrol for its Master. It would only be a matter of time now before those Nazgūl crossed the River and came west. Then the time of advantage for the enemies of the Dark Lord would be over, for what could be hidden from the eyes of his most faithful and frightening servants?
Boromir knew that Sauron had long been preparing war against the West, but since the attack the previous year on Osgiliath which he and Faramir had repelled, this was one of the first signs that the Dark Lord might be almost ready to strike his blow. Boromir felt suddenly very certain that the blow would fall soon, and that blow would fall first upon Minas Tirith.
He must get home again, before the hammer fell.
Acknowledgements and thanks go to Michael Perry for his book, "Untangling Tolkien," from which came the idea concerning the Nazgūl patrols.