Long hours had passed since the sweet silvery tones of the third bell had sounded, calling those captains who were in the City to sit in council, yet Gandalf did not begrudge the time. He had learned much of what was passing in the realm of Gondor, and many of his questions had been answered. Throughout the morning, Gandalf sat listening and watching men's faces carefully as they shared news, considered reports, and sought counsel with one another concerning the defense of the City. Denethor presided, silent yet keenly observant of both word and manner. There was no discernible sign upon his face or in his bearing that indicated he was struggling with grief over the loss of Boromir, or that his people were upon the very edge of a battle that could crush them utterly. As ever, the lord Denethor was in control -- of himself, of those who looked to him for leadership, and of all affairs that touched on the safety of his City.
As he watched Denethor respond with cool decisiveness to a query made by one of his captains, Gandalf recalled his own words shared with Pippin earlier that morning:
"He is not as other men of this time, Pippin, and whatever be his descent from father to son, by some chance the blood of Westernesse runs nearly true in him; as it does in his other son, Faramir, and yet did not in Boromir whom he loved best. He has long sight. He can perceive, if he bends his will thither, much of what is passing in the minds of men, even of those that dwell far off. It is difficult to deceive him, and dangerous to try."
I fear he will not understand the hope we have placed in Frodo and his Quest, thought Gandalf. He will think it folly to jeopardize all we have on such a gamble. As great a leader as Denethor is, and as strongly opposed to Sauron, his vision is oft limited to the all-consuming need of Gondor; that which does not seem to serve Gondor's need is like to be seen as policy to be spurned. Yet he shall know of our secret hope, nonetheless. The lord Steward and his City of Guard are at the forefront of all we hope to achieve in the destruction of Sauron's evil, and Denethor needs all I can give him -- whether it be hope, or folly. His leadership and long knowledge of Mordor's strength and intentions have made our defense sufficiently strong that there is hope in opposition, if only enough to give Frodo time to accomplish his task.
Gandalf recalled that he had said as much to Théoden, when assuring the newly healed King that neither Rohan nor Gondor stood alone in their fight against the Enemy:
"...that way lies our hope, where sits our greatest fear. Doom hangs still on a thread. Yet hope there is still, if we can but stand unconquered for a little while."
Unconquered, for a little while, sighed Gandalf inwardly. May it be long enough to defeat doom!
Imrahil sat at ease in Denethor's private audience chamber, his deep chair drawn up close beside the brazier of coals. The stone walls of the chamber were chill in spite of the heaviness of the air outside, and the Prince welcomed the warmth of the fire after a long day in the saddle. The mulled wine served him by Dûrlin was also welcome.
He watched Denethor closely over the rim of his cup as he sipped his wine, troubled by the set hardness of his kinsman's face and the dull sheen in his eyes. Denethor was as courteous as ever, and his welcome as warm and sincere as such a proud, private man could make it -- but was his face more closed than usual? He seemed to Imrahil like a steed held on a tight rein, straining hard at the bit even as he stood seemingly quiet and at attention.
Glancing at Dûrlin, Imrahil saw him watching his lord with careful attention, and knew that he was not imagining things. There had been no time since Imrahil's arrival shortly before the sundown-bells to do more than greet the Steward briefly, but now that he was here with Denethor in private, Imrahil wondered if the news that would be shared between them was more grave than he had foreseen. Well, he would know soon enough.
"You asked after my sons," Imrahil said aloud, drawing himself back from his thoughts and addressing the question Denethor had just put to him. "Both Erchirion and Amrothos have accompanied me as knights in my company. Elphir, my heir, remains in Dol Amroth, to lead the people in my stead and guard against the danger to the coastal areas which comes from the Corsair fleets. He was loath to stay behind, for he feels deeply his kinship and his duty to you and your sons, but his family is young, and his place is there while I am away. At his request, I have brought messages from him for you, his uncle, and for Boromir and Faramir..."
He faltered, as a flash of pain crossed Denethor's face before it could be concealed.
He has had news of Boromir! Imrahil thought suddenly, his heart failing him for a moment. Grievous news, it would seem. I feared it might be so, when we heard nothing for so long...
"Alas!" sighed Imrahil. "Though you hide your grief well, I perceive you are in great pain. There is some tale of woe to be told here! And I fear it is a tale which involves Boromir and his quest. Ah, I see I am not mistaken! Is the rumor we have heard then true, that Boromir is lost?"
"He is lost, indeed, and I am bereaved," confirmed Denethor slowly, and though his face was composed once more, his voice rang hollowly and his eyes remained dull. "I have had news of his death from several quarters. On the eve of great battle, the captain we so desperately need at our side is lost to us, fallen in a strange land far from his father."
Dûrlin stirred, as if unable to hold himself still; sensing the movement, Denethor smiled grimly.
"Not all are so despairing, however," Denethor continued. "In spite of all evidence to the contrary, Dûrlin here continues to look in hope for Boromir's return. 'He may yet come,' he says. Let him hope, if he will; as for me, I cannot see it. What little hope I have left that we might stand against this coming darkness is in the hands of the king of Rohan, the hands of the captains of Gondor -- and the hands of the one son left to me."
Imrahil inclined his head to the Steward.
"I would hear more of Boromir and what seems to have befallen him -- for if one holds out hope for his return, then perhaps there is hope indeed!" said the Prince thoughtfully. "But now is not the time, I deem. Let us speak, rather, of the hope of which you speak, if that is what might encourage you. Tell me, what news have you of Rohan? And where is Faramir? I have not seen him; is he out on an errand upon the borders?"
"The Red Arrow has been dispatched, telling Rohan of our great need," answered Denethor gravely. "Théoden will come, if war upon his own front does not prevent him. Will he come in time to be of aid to us here in Minas Tirith? That remains to be seen."
Denethor stretched out his hand and picked up a rolled parchment that lay beside him on a low table, handing it to Imrahil.
"This written report is old, but still helpful for studying the mind of the Enemy and his policies, particularly as they encompass Ithilien and Gondor's eastern borders. Faramir is most useful to me there, serving me well as captain of the Rangers in Ithilien, where he harries the Enemy as he may. He keeps me informed of the passage of troops into the Black Land and of all such news which may guide me in keeping our defense strong. Of great value to me now is his presence there, for he is on guard against any stranger passing into our lands -- he is under oath to bring any such trespasser before me. I expect him soon, in fact, for surely the errand upon which I most recently sent him has been accomplished."
"Is there any such possibility of strangers passing through Ithilien, who are not the enemy?" mused Imrahil cautiously. "It seems unlikely, for it is perilous in these days to travel there! Still, there is this -- our borders have not been kept safe these many years by ignoring that which seems unlikely or not worthy of notice."
"Indeed," replied Denethor. "The smallest matter is of great import to me, and the most unlikely incident worthy of my attention, if such might in any way threaten the safety of this land in my charge. When Faramir returns we shall perhaps learn more..."
A gentle knocking at the door interrupted their converse, and Dûrlin stepped forward to answer the summons.
"Mithrandir is without and begs an audience with you," he said upon returning. "Shall I bid him enter?"
"Let him come," replied Denthor smoothly. "I have been expecting him."
Imrahil rose to leave as Gandalf entered, but the Wizard waved him back into his chair.
"Nay, Prince Imrahil, I beg you remain," Gandalf said with a bow to both the Prince and to Denethor. "What I have to say is for your ears as well, for you are a captain high in the counsels of the Lord of the City. With your leave, of course, my lord Steward."
Denethor nodded his acquiesence.
"Tell us, Mithrandir," he said with a sharp look at Gandalf's face. "What brings you here so late in the day? A new piece of news, perhaps, that has not yet reached my ears? Or possibly there is some matter which in your wisdom you have kept secret from me, but now wish to share?"
"Your sight is not dimmed by the many cares which weigh upon you, Denethor," replied Gandalf calmly, drawing a chair close and settling himself into it. "It is as you perceive. I do bring news of a matter which must be heard and taken into account as you plan your defense against the Dark Lord, for he and what he has wrought is at the very heart of it. This is the doom we have long foreseen, yet it is also our hope of release from doom, if we can but stand unconquered for a while longer."
Gandalf paused for a moment, as if gathering his thoughts or his strength, then continued with serene confidence.
"I would speak to you of Isildur's Bane..."
Despite his restless and troubled sleep the night before, Boromir awoke strengthened in heart and limb, and eager to press on. The air was brown with gloom that smote the heart with fear and despair, but Boromir would not be discomfited. The darkness served only to set his will in grim determination to push forward in spite of his pain and weakness.
Grithnir, concerned at the pace Boromir was setting, advised caution.
"Boromir, do you think it wise to expend your strength in such a manner? You could easily undo all you have gained by pushing yourself too hard, too soon."
"What use to conserve my strength when by tarrying I come too late?" answered Boromir sternly. "I am no longer so proud, Grithnir, that I think my presence alone will turn the tide of war, but my coming might still make a difference. Just as one small twig can turn the course of the stream and thus divert the river, so too might my presence at the coming battle be an influence for good. I dare not come too late, my friend!"
Boromir peered through the gloom as if trying to discern the mountains that were now shrouded and dark in the dim brown light. His face was set in an expression of unwavering resolve.
"I will rest when I must, Grithnir, and I will halt when I can go no further, but I will not hold back nor conserve my strength for a day that might never come. I must be home, and I shall not be forestalled nor prevented. No evil wind of Sauron's make shall hold me back, for I am done with despair and hopelessness. Come, put aside your fear for me, and let us be on our way. I have tarried long enough."