Imrahil watched silently as the other captains filed out of the council chamber. They went without a sound, each one taken up with thoughts of duties to be performed, orders to be given, final arrangements to be reviewed with the men under their command. Time now was become a concern, for soon there would be no more opportunity for such preparations. Imrahil's own knights awaited his report of what had passed in council, and there were plans to be put into motion concerning what part Dol Amroth would play in the defense of the City. It had been judged by the captains that their numbers were too few to make an effective strike against Mordor; too much strength had been drawn away towards the threat of the Corsairs in the south. If Rohan came, there might be force enough for a stroke of war, but for now, the only thing to be done was to man the walls and wait.
He watched as Denethor gave crisp orders to the young Halfling who had attended the door, and the look of relief on the small one's face told Imrahil that he was to be allowed some respite after the performance of whatever task the Steward had just given him. The Prince smiled at that, and wished fleetingly that he could set aside his concerns as easily, if only for a short time. But his smile fell away as he caught sight of the stern expression on Denethor's face, and he sighed heavily.
Denethor looked up, his glance sharp and knowing.
"You think me harsh, do you not, Imrahil? You believe I have sent Faramir off on a fool's errand, to perhaps waste his life and the lives of his men in a vain defense of the Rammas and the River passage against forces too great."
An echo of Faramir's voice urging restraint sounded in Imrahil's mind:
"Today we may make the Enemy pay ten times our loss at the passage and yet rue the exchange. For he can afford to lose a host better than we to lose a company. And the retreat of those that we put out far afield will be perilous, if he wins across in force."
"I did not say so," replied Imrahil quietly.
"Spoken words are not necessary with you, my brother," answered Denethor. "Your thoughts are written clearly upon your face."
Imrahil smiled ruefully.
"If that is so, my brother, then perhaps you also see written upon my face a fear that there is some barrier between you and Faramir."
"Yes, I see that, also."
"Why is that, then? What has happened to make you so stern and cold towards your son?"
Denethor was silent for a long moment, and Imrahil feared he said too much. But at last, Denethor stirred and nodded grimly.
"What has happened is that Faramir chose to disobey me in a matter of great importance, thinking he knew better than I what course of action to take. What will come of his choice and how it will affect our safety remains to be seen. Today, at least, he has chosen otherwise, and does not oppose my will. Whatever his own opinion of my policy, I trust he will now be obedient to my commands."
"I do not oppose your will, sire," came the echo once more of Faramir's voice in Imrahil's ear. "Since you are robbed of Boromir, I will go and do what I can in his stead - if you command it."
Whatever the outcome! Imrahil thought, suppressing another sigh. He inclined his head to Denethor and hid his disquiet behind a smile.
"I thank you for your answer, brother," he said softly. "It encourages me that you are willing to speak of it to me, even a little -- though my heart is heavy to learn that such trouble has come between you."
"I trust your allegiance to me will not waver because of it?"
"It will not!" exclaimed Imrahil stoutly.
Denethor nodded, content with his answer.
"I thank you, brother. But you have some question still to ask me, do you not?"
"Yes," Imrahil said thoughtfully. "It is true that Faramir goes obediently to defend the crossing at Osgiliath, but what he said about that defense is also true -- there is great danger that it will be overcome and that the retreat will be in peril. We must take thought for that..."
"I have done so," interrupted Denethor. "A sortie shall be prepared and you shall lead it..."
Though time was pressing, Faramir did not hurry as he checked over his horse's barding, adjusting girth and bridle, and shifting the pad under the saddle for maximum comfort. Such adjustments were hardly necessary, for the grooms in the stables of Minas Tirith knew their office well and no horse went from their hands into battle improperly equipped. But Faramir found comfort in the familiar routine, and no groom begrudged the captain his ritual.
Boromir had taught him to take advantage of such quiet moments before battle to settle the mind and the heart, and to put aside all the discussion and disagreement that had gone before in planning and councils of strategy, in order to have before him only the final plan for the battle ahead. Boromir knew as well as anyone that fighting with a divided mind was begging disaster, and so he had developed this discipline of checking harness and tack as a way to steady himself.
Faramir had great need of such a steadying discipline. He leaned his head against the neck of his steed, and sighed, as he recalled the final words which had passed between himself and his father.
"I do not oppose your will, sire. Since you are robbed of Boromir, I will go and do what I can in his stead -- if you command it."
"I do so."
"Then farewell! But if I should return, think better of me!"
"That depends upon the manner of your return..."
What makes us speak so to one another, when it is all too likely these will be our last words together? Faramir thought despairingly. Why, I was as irritable as he, and spoke just as proudly! Yes, he treated me as one of his underlings whom he little trusts -- yet I called him 'sire' rather than father, and indicated my obedience required a command from him. I should have been more gentle, and not let his cold manner sting me into putting even more distance between us. He grieves for Boromir, and he hides the keenness of his loss behind his anger, that is why he is so harsh, perhaps. Yet, I am grieving, also! Surely he must know that. Why must he be so stern with me? Why must I go out to an uncertain fate with cold words in place of a smile and a blessing...
"Do not let bitterness take root in your heart, Faramir."
Gandalf had come quietly into the stable and now stood beside Faramir. He laid a comforting hand upon Faramir's shoulder, and gripped it as if to accentuate his words.
"Do not go out in bitterness," Gandalf repeated. "Do not throw away your life rashly, thinking you are forsaken. You are needed here, and not simply for matters of war. Your father loves you, and he shall remember it ere the end."**
Faramir sighed heavily.
"I know he loves me, Mithrandir, though it seems often enough that he has forgotten it! I know it well. I am not bitter -- or, at least, I am striving to put bitterness and regret aside..."
"Regret for his manner and my own proud words as we parted. A father deserves better from his son, no matter what argument lies between them."
"You are a good son to him," replied Gandalf confidently. "One who gives him nothing but good, and he knows it. Think not that he compares you to Boromir in his sorrow and finds you wanting. It is not so!"
Faramir smiled ruefully at Gandalf's words.
"That thought is one to which I must not attend, not even in my darkest hours, lest I fall into despair from which there is no return! You do well to remind me that it is not so. Boromir would say the same, and no doubt more forcefully than you!"
"Fare you well, then, Faramir," said Gandalf. "May the Valar attend your going and your return."
"May the Valar attend me!" agreed Faramir fervently. "Take you good care of my father in my stead, Mithrandir, as much as he will allow. And tell my uncle, Imrahil, to do the same. Farewell!"
Gwaeron looked up as the outside door opened and a group of men trooped into the common room. They were covered in grime and soot, weariness showing in every line of their faces, but they had also the look of men satisfied with a job well done.
He gestured to a jug on the table.
"There is water for drinking, drawn fresh from the spring not long ago. I expect you are in need of it, after your long labor."
"Long it was, indeed!" exclaimed Larnach, reaching for the jug and dashing water into a cup. "Long and hot, for the embers still smoldered and had to be pulled down before fresh wood and kindling could be set."
"Would that a guard was still stationed here, as in days of old!" sighed Thorvel, grabbing the water jug from Larnach. He poured out several more cups and passed them around to the other men who gathered around. "Then we would have had help, and then some! The task of setting wood afresh for the beacon fire was almost too much for us few men!"
"I was afraid of that," frowned Gwaeron. "I should have aided you..."
"Nay! Mind not my complaining!" interrupted Thorvel. "Your task was here, along with Hirvegil, securing the waypost and caring for the horses that must be kept at the ready for Gondor's errand riders. We managed well enough! Urthal and Talagen lent a hand towards the end, as well, before they took up their duties manning the beacon for the next shift."
"Indeed, we managed well, though we were few," Iarnen said. "Even so, it took the better part of two days to accomplish it, and this evil murk from Mordor made it well-nigh impossible to work in the gloom."
The men nodded solemnly.
"It weighs on the heart, and makes heavy work an even greater burden," said Radhruin, with a shake of his head.
"But the task is completed, no?" queried Gwaeron. "Then all is well! We must keep the beacon ready to be fired if another signal comes -- though I do not expect one. Should Rohan answer Gondor's call for aid, it would be unwise to send of it by beacon fire. That would do little to keep secret the news of their riding."
"Well, at least this wretched darkness will aid them in that," commented Thorvel wearily. "The Riders of Rohan will travel as secretly as Orcs in this murk -- though I imagine Orcs will welcome it, while Rohan will be no less burdened by it than are we."
"I imagine that is the purpose of this brown fog," Radhruin said wryly. "Those who oppose Mordor are unmanned by it, while Orcs are strengthened. No doubt they can see keenly in the darkness, while we can barely see our hand before our faces! The vermin could be upon us before ever we saw them coming!"
"We will have to trust to Hervegil's keen ears, then, since eyes will not avail us," Iarnen interjected. "Perhaps the drummers in the forest will also give warning of an approaching enemy. They say those who dwell secretly there are no friends to the Orcs."
"Let us hope that what they say is true," sighed Gwaeron, "for when war breaks upon us, we shall have need of such help along the Road."
"Rohan will come, will they not?" Larnach asked, his face creased with worry. "Surely they will come soon. The errand rider Hirgon should have reached there by now..."
"Indeed, he and those who rode with him may even now be returning -- with news to put hope back into our lord Steward's heart, if I know anything about Rohan's commitment to our alliance," replied Gwaeron. "We may see Hirgon stop here to change horses as he did before, or we may not. We are not the only waypost along the Western Road, after all."
"If they return with news of Rohan's riding, then that will indeed put the heart back into the lord Denethor," nodded Iarnen. "He and all Gondor will need such hope, after the word Hirgon brought us of the landing of black Corsair ships, and the rumors of the loss of Boromir."
At the mention of Boromir, there was a collective sigh of sorrow from the men present.
"I was glad Hirgon spoke to us of Boromir," said Gwaeron sadly. "He was reluctant at first, for the news of his likely death is not being circulated widely as yet -- but when I told him Boromir had changed horses here on his way north and that we knew of his errand, Hirgon relented."
"I, too, was glad to hear the news, though it was news of woe," Larnach agreed. "It is hard knowing that we were likely the last in Gondor to see him living!"
"A dubious honor, to be sure!" Iarnen sighed.
They were all silent for a long moment, then Gwaeron stirred.
"Now that you have wetted your dry throats a bit, go have a wash," he said, rising to his feet. "You are in sore need of it! While you see to that task, I shall go see what is keeping Hirvegil. It is some time now since he went to tend the horses..."
Gwaeron tread carefully as he crossed the area between the waypost buildings and the enclosure where the horses were tethered. The day's light showed only dully through the thick gloom, as if it were the twilight of evening instead of midmorning. He could not see the broad Road below, except dimly, and the beacon hill of Nardol that towered above and behind him was lost in heavy shadow.
"Hirvegil!" he called out as he approached the picket. "Is all well with you?"
Even as he spoke, he saw Hirvegil ahead of him, standing among the horses. Gwaeron was surprised to see that he was not alone. A tall man stood with him, dressed as one from Rohan.
"All is well, indeed!" answered Hirvegil, drawing the stranger with him as he moved forward to greet Gwaeron.
"Gwaeron, this is Guthwald, a scout of Rohan; he comes with amazing news! Look!"
Hirvegil reached out and pressed a small object into Gwaeron's hand. Gwaeron peered at it closely and gasped at what he saw.
"This... this is Lord Boromir's signet ring!" he stammered. "How does it come here? Could it be... could it possibly be that you have news of him?"
Guthwald bowed, his hand to his breast.
"I have news," he said solemnly. "Truth be told, I have seen him; it is he who gave this token into my hand, and I bring it as proof that the words I bear from him are truth indeed. I have been sent for horses to bring him hither, for he goes on foot across the plains of Anórien. Being wounded, he can only go slowly, and horses would be a great boon to him. He intends to stop here with you until Théoden King comes, and then accompany him to Mundberg."
Gwaeron stared at Guthwald and the now-grinning Hirvegil, stunned into silence at the news he had just heard.
"He lives, then?" A look of cautious hope spread slowly across his face. "But... you say he is wounded..."
"Sorely wounded, though he is mending. Weakness plagues him still."
"And he is coming here? Why, I can scarcely believe this news! And yet, I would have believed you without this token, for the Men of Rohan are renowned in Gondor as truthsayers!"
Guthwald bowed at the courtesy.
"I would hear the rest of this tale!" Gwaeron exclaimed. "How you came to be in Anórien, how you met our lord, as well as further word of King Théoden and the coming of the Riders -- but that full tale can wait until it can be told before the others. Come inside, now, Guthwald. Take food with us and be refreshed; share with us all you can of Boromir before you must be away. We will provide you with all you need to bring our lord home to us -- the sooner, the better!"
*barding = equipped armor for horses
**These words spoken by Gandalf to Faramir -- some of which are quoted directly -- are taken from The Return of the King, from the chapter entitled, "The Siege of Gondor."