"... I will say this: the rule of no realm is mine, neither of Gondor nor any other, great or small."
Though spoken quietly and calmly, Gandalf's words rang in the hall and gave Dūrlin, standing in attendance upon his lord the Steward, cause to glance keenly at Denethor to watch for his reaction to the stern declaration.
"All worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care," continued the wizard. "And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I also am a steward. Did you not know?"
With that he turned and strode from the Hall with the halfling running at his side.**
Denethor watched them go, still and silent as one of the statues lining the length of the vast chamber. Not until the polished metal door at the far end of the Hall had closed, and the echoes of that closing had diminished, did Denethor stir.
"I know of your stewardship, my lord Mithrandir," replied Denethor calmly and without anger. "May you succeed in the burdensome and difficult task set before you. Yet I repeat: I shall not be your tool. I am lord here in Gondor, and where your stewardship touches upon mine, I shall not give way. I alone know what is best for the care and saving of my people, and it shall be done according to my own design, with the knowledge I possess of what comes to us from the East.
"Your duty to other realms is worthy and necessary, but it will do those realms little good if Gondor should perish -- at Gondor's passing, the night you hope to prevent shall surely fall. Bulwark of the West are we, and all peoples shall be imperiled should we fail at last. You know this, or you would not have come here, to the place where the hammer will fall hardest and soonest."
Denethor abruptly slumped in his chair, as if all strength had suddenly been drained from him.
"Alas for Boromir!" he cried. "Alas that he should be lost to us, now when the strong Sword Arm of the White Tower would avail us most!"
Dūrlin leaned forward and laid a light hand upon Denethor's arm. Denethor allowed the touch, and seemed to derive some small comfort from it.
"Is it certain Boromir is lost, then?" asked Dūrlin hesitantly. "The halfling spoke of the news that Boromir had been found by Grithnir and his men, and was recovering from his wounds..."
"And what of the halfling's vision?" replied Denethor testily. "The vision of Boromir dead and the men with him mourning? It is unclear whence came that vision, for he spoke cautiously of the matter -- at Mithrandir's instruction, no doubt -- but I deem it to be truth and no deception. I know something of such visions, and they do not lie. Did you not notice, even Mithrandir was reluctant to gainsay the halfling's pronouncement of Boromir's loss? My son was dear to him, there is no doubt of that; he would cling to hope if he could, this halfling, and so would Mithrandir. That they do not, is significant to me."
Denethor rose, and turned towards one of the tall north-facing windows upon his left. The brightening light of morning shone revealingly upon his grief-lined face.
"There is no safe road left for him to come to me," Denethor murmured. "Even if he lives, his coming will be too late. All roads are closed. But he cannot come, for he is lost to me. I know it in my heart."
"Alas!" sighed Dūrlin. "Yet I cannot help feeling some small hope for my lord's return, though it seem impossible. Visions are not the same as seeing the event with the eye, and even such little hope brings comfort in the darkness of night."
"Do you think if Boromir were alive, I would not know of it in my heart of hearts?" demanded Denethor tersely.
"I know not, Lord," answered Dūrlin. "Your cares are many, and it is oft hard to see the light for the darkness that presses. Perhaps I am in error to hold out for hope, but I am a simple, practical man, and more wont to think simply. He may yet come."
"You are no simple man, Dūrlin," Denethor said with a faint smile. "Believe as you will, if it comforts you. I want no comfort that has its roots in doubt. I do not believe Boromir lives, and all my hopes now lie with his brother."
Denethor bowed his head; then, turning away from the window, he gestured towards the now closed door through which Gandalf and Pippin had exited.
"Let it be known that Mithrandir is to be allowed to come before me at any time, save only when I am resting. I sense there is news of great import which he has yet to share, that may be of use to me in ordering the defense of the City. You, Dūrlin, see personally to the needs of the halfling when the day is done; he spoke at length of his lost friend -- my Boromir! -- and his memories will haunt him keenly. Do I not know what pain the dark night brings? He will know that pain come evening. Comfort him if you can."
"I will do so with pleasure, my lord Steward."
"Go now about your daily duties. I shall call for you should I have any need."
Turning back to his chair, Denethor picked up the two shards of the cloven horn that he had laid aside when accepting Pippin's offered sword.
"Take with you Boromir's horn and put it away," he said, thrusting the artifact into Dūrlin's hands. "It cannot bring him back, and I no longer wish to see it."
Faramir was pleased with the ready state of the defenses at the fortress of Cair Andros, despite his preoccupied and somber mood. The ramparts were tall and strong, the watchmen upon the bastion well-placed and alert, and the men-at-arms were there in force. The island keep was vital to the defense of Gondor, for it guarded one of the few places on the River Anduin where an army from the East could safely cross in strength. It was therefore kept well-fortified on all sides, and heavily garrisoned with fighting men.
It was also here at Cair Andros that boats were kept for those who had errands upon the River. On the western shore, a picket of horses was kept in readiness for the use of Gondor's message riders and the Rangers who passed between Ithilien and Minas Tirith.
Faramir and his company had arrived that very afternoon, returning from their errand to Ithilien; they awaited now only the cover of darkness to begin the next leg of their journey. With a few chosen men, Faramir would be making his way to Minas Tirith to report to Denethor all that had occurred in Ithilien concerning his errand and the movements of the Enemy's allies; the rest of the company was to head southwards to reinforce the garrison at the fords of Osgiliath.
Standing atop the tallest rampart of the fortress, Faramir gazed south and west to the hill of Amon Dīn, darkening now at the onset of dusk. There but a day ago, the beacon fires had burned brightly, alerting all who were within view that the time for war was at hand.
Westward he cast his eye, knowing that the lighting of the beacons would have been accompanied by the sending of other messages of equal urgency. No doubt the Red Arrow was even now being sped on its way to Rohan, to bring Gondor's closest allies tidings of great need. Would they come? Would they come in time?
Eastward he turned, and observed with grave disquiet that even now the stars were being blotted out by the encroaching darkness seeping from Mordor -- another signal of imminent war. All that day as they traveled, the twilight had followed them. Ithilien would soon be under cover of darkness, and Faramir had no hope it would stop there; soon all the western lands upon the borders of Mordor would be in shadow. The Dark Lord's prepared assault was under way.
Northwards his eye strayed, reluctantly, and Faramir sighed heavily. Alas for Boromir, who had gone into the North and would now never return! Faramir sighed again, as he recalled with sorrow the tale of Boromir's fall, as told by the halfling Frodo.
Alas! he thought to himself. How we have need of you, Boromir! The words I spoke of you to Frodo were true: "a man of prowess, and for that he was accounted the best man in Gondor. And very valiant indeed he was: no heir of Minas Tirith has for long years been so hardy in toil, so onward into battle, or blown a mightier note on the Great Horn." But you will toil thus no more, nor blow again that mighty note, alas!
The scrape of a foot on stone caused him to turn, and he saw Mablung mounting the stair from the lower reaches of the keep.
"All is arranged, my Captain," Mablung announced as he approached. "There are horses for four men at the ready; the remaining mounts are out upon other urgent business."
"It is enough," replied Faramir. "You shall ride with me, as well as Damrod and Anborn. The others will go on foot to Osgiliath as planned. I will place Beregar in command, and conduct a final briefing with him before we depart. Are the horses fresh, or have they been ridden hard recently? I must hasten to Minas Tirith without delay, and it will not do to have a mount that is spent."
"The horses are fresh," confirmed Mablung. "Rodnor, in charge of the picket, assures me they are the finest of mounts and well-rested. He has been holding these horses in reserve, knowing you would have need of them upon your return from Ithilien."
"He has anticipated my need," answered Faramir, satisfied. "A trustworthy man, Rodnor. He had early word of the loss of Boromir; did you know? He knew of it from Halmir of the border patrol, who brought to my father the shard of horn found upon the northern borders. Yet he said nothing of it to anyone but me -- he spoke of it when last we passed this way, journeying to Ithilien, but promised to keep the matter to himself. He knew the danger of despair which results from a rumor broadcast too soon."
"Yet the rumor of Boromir's loss will have gone abroad by now, I should think," Mablung said, "whether an announcement has been made or no."
"No doubt," sighed Faramir. "It is difficult to keep such news quiet, when all look for his coming and feel keenly his long absence."
"He is sorely missed," said Mablung quietly. "All the more because his duties fall upon shoulders already bowed down with many cares."
Faramir smiled warmly as he clapped Mablung on the shoulder.
"Fear not, Mablung!" Faramir's tone was reassuring, even as his glance was rueful. "I am not yet in danger of toppling from the weight of my brother's duties. My shoulders are broad enough to carry the load of two if that is what is required of me. I do not begrudge it, though I miss having him here to share it!"
They stood together in silence for a time, gazing at the darkening sky to the East. The setting sun shone red upon the gathering gloom, yet could not penetrate the darkness with its waning light.
"The twilight from the Black Land approaches steadily," observed Mablung. "Sauron is moving, and that will prove ill for the halflings so recently our guests -- they will be walking into certain danger."
"They knew of that danger ere they ever began," replied Faramir. "Yet their errand is as important as any in these days, if not more important! It cannot be set aside, merely because of the danger involved."
"You will tell your father of this meeting?"
"Of course! If nothing else, I must tell him that I have disobeyed him by letting these travelers walk unhindered and unguarded, against the orders he set for me, for the protection of our lands. Perhaps he will approve my decision when he hears of the circumstances -- or, perhaps not! We shall see. Yet though he disapprove, I do not regret the choice I have made. I will stand by it. There is also the matter of Boromir to be told him; any news from one who traveled with my brother must be reported, though it increase our sorrow."
Yet some things there are which ought not to be spoken of openly, thought Faramir, turning his back on the enveloping shadow. May the Valar grant me wisdom! Father must be told of all that has passed, for the proper deployment of our defenses and the full tale of Boromir's quest and journey -- yet what shall I tell him of Isildur's Bane?
** Author's note: Gandalf's words to Denethor are quoted directly from the chapter "Minas Tirith" (ROTK).