Slash With Care
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From the Other River Bank: 10. Foundering
Why am I here? Faramir wondered as he listened to Mirhal argue against diverting strength to the south when the north was so very vulnerable. "We seek even now to rebuild three garrisons! What strength have we to send south, my lords?" the wiry councilor demanded. It was a good point, and ordinarily, Faramir would have supported it fully. Alas that the times were extraordinary, and it was only too evident that the same argument could be made to support Imrahil's plea for more assistance. For the Corsairs were not idle: Ithilien's scouts had reported the massing of their enemies in Umbar five years ago, and late last night, a messenger had come from the Prince of Dol Amroth bearing tidings of increased activity, coastal raids, and the possibility of a full-scale attack. The news was not wholly unexpected, for though periodic raids striking out from Pelargir and Dol Amroth had helped to delay the rebuilding of the fleet, there was now a considerable clutch of ships sitting in the Lord of Umbar's harbor and elsewhere. Were he the Haradric commander at Umbar, Faramir would hardly have hesitated to use those ships to harry Gondor and try to draw off strength from Minas Tirith or even Dol Amroth. Alas that the current captain is similarly ambitious!
As others weighed in with their opinions, Faramir sat in silence, mentally adding a tally mark each time he anticipated a councilor's position, and he wondered once again why he had been invited back to the council chambers. After yesterday's argument, I was certain I would be barred from further sessions! But this morning Verethon roused me early to tell me I was needed here. Why? Faramir's jaw still ached somewhat from his father's crushing grip, tangible reminder of his outcast status, and he stared at the steward down the length of the table. Irresistibly, his eyes drifted to the empty seat at the steward's elbow, which was even more of an anomaly than his own presence. Boromir usually sat there, but today he was absent, and no one on the council had overlooked that monumental irregularity. Many a dark and worried glance had been cast at the steward, but Denethor had ignored them.
To all appearances, the steward was his usual stern and somber self this morning, but to Faramir, there was something subtly wrong. Whatever it was, it did not diminish the steward's dominance of his own council; rather, it seemed to have made him even less tractable! Before ever the council had properly opened, Denethor's razor sharp glance had cut a brutal swath through the assembled lords, so that the arguments had been slow to start. Faramir, despite his reluctance to endure his father's regard, had actually been relieved to be the first to speak, for Ithilien's needs were uncontroversial and his report—precise, simple, and untroublesome—had helped to settle everyone's nerves a bit. The calm had not lasted, though—given the news, it was destined to be short-lived—and Faramir's mental tally slate was becoming quite crowded. With a soft sigh, he leaned forward to enter the debate.
"A point, if I may," he interjected into a heartbeat's silence as Mirhal drew breath. "We may be weak to the north, but each ship in that harbor shall cost us dear in the end. Pelargir is vulnerable. If Dol Amroth is pinned, it shall fall when our Enemy strikes. Levies from Ithilien and from Lebennin have joined Dol Amroth to harry the quays before, and we can do so again. We need not even field a large force, so long as we send archers enough to sink three or four vessels—fewer, even, if we catch some of them in the shallows. The wrecks will keep the others at harbor for some time, and a navy bottled in the Lord of Umbar's bay is no threat to Minas Tirith."
"Yet, my lord, you propose to move a large percentage of Ithilien's strength northwards. I do not see how you shall manage to find even so few as you speak of, since Imrahil reports that small raiders out of Umbar have slipped up Anduin and wreaked havoc among Lebennin's fisherfolk. And that would not stop those Corsairs not at dock from massing and attacking Dol Amroth itself," Mirhal replied.
"I do not doubt that you are correct, councilor," Faramir responded, "But we stand at the fulcrum now, and to either side lie unpleasant consequences. The south shall suffer: we cannot change that, whatever our actions, so we must accept it. But we may at least help ourselves in the north, and give Imrahil a few fewer ships to face should the Corsairs turn on him."
"But such a move does but postpone the hour," Mirhal sighed. "As they have before, they shall clear the waters and come again. And I am not convinced a small force could prevail against such strength as Imrahil reports. The Corsairs are grown strong, they have erected barriers and manned watch towers around the harbor. If we do not strike with force, we risk losing all."
"Even if we do strike with force, we may lose all. But I believe that this could be accomplished, for we have succeeded against their defenses before," Faramir argued and carefully did not mention any precise dates or the name of the captain responsible for that victory. All knew never to mention Thorongil in Denethor's presence. "If we knew the hour of the Dark Lord's offensive, we might launch a raid just prior to it in the hopes of holding the fleet out of any confrontation, but we possess no such knowledge. Yet the Corsairs remain a significant threat, and though the cost may be high, we can at least mitigate it for the moment. We should not dismiss the possibility of attacking them out of hand, my lords." Faramir glanced at each man, gauging the reaction. Of the lot, he had the most recent military experience against the Corsairs, and he judged that about half of the council was inclined to follow his advice. The other half wavered, or else were opposed. Faramir made a swift decision then, and said in a low, grave voice, "Well do I know the gravity of perhaps committing men who shall go into battle knowing that they are a sacrifice. Yet I have done it; Boromir has done it, and because of this, we hold still the western bank of Osgiliath. It is ever a risk to make use of such tactics, but have we another choice? We cannot allow the Corsairs to remain unmolested, or we risk giving them free reign in the future, when we are engaged elsewhere and can do nothing to halt their advance." Mirhal met his eyes, and the two gazed at each other long, but Faramir could feel the other's resolve disintegrating….
"I still say that it is too risky, my lord captain," Mirhal made a last effort, and a little further down the table, Torost gave an exasperated sigh.
"Can you not see that risk becomes relative in such straits as these?" Torost demanded, and the argument was off again. Faramir, having made the best case that he could for a bad situation, sighed inwardly and sank back down into his seat to listen. And think! Well that the council attends to its business, however fractious, rather than hang their differences upon personal matters, but I, for one, would know where my brother is now. It was quite clear that no one, save Denethor, had anticipated his absence, and ordinarily—ah, that word again!—questions would have arisen instantly. Yet before the threat of the steward's eyes, no one dared Denethor's wrath by pushing him to speak ere he was willing to do so. The councilors had seen enough tension the day before, and were unwilling to suffer a repetition.
Besides, this could mean little, Faramir reminded himself. Denethor might have had an errand for Boromir, one that he does not feel the rest of us need know of yet. There could be a perfectly rational explanation for his silence and Boromir's absence. Mirhal was arguing now in earnest with Lord Torost, and Lord Geldan had the look of one who fought to hold his tongue; Húrin of the Keys leaned his head against his hand and waited for the explosion to come; and others were watching with the sort of fascinated dread that comes sometimes to those who stand powerlessly watching a disaster unfold. Faramir sat back in his seat and watched Denethor, who sat perfectly still save for the tapping of one finger upon the table top. Tap… tap… tap…. Seconds unwound in accordance with that slight, slow movement. There is a logical reason for my brother's absence…. And if I believed a word of that, I would look to see Eärnur himself return from Minas Morgul!
"Enough!" Denethor's voice instantly silenced the interlocutors, and Mirhal and Torost flinched slightly at the reproof in the steward's tone. "Imrahil's request shall be declined. Dol Amroth is well-defended and easily defensible even by a small force. The coastlands are more sparsely populated between that fortress and Anduin in any case, and if we must lose support against the Nameless Enemy, then let it be from that area rather than from Belfalas. And although some here would willingly risk a company entire—" Denethor pinned Faramir under his gaze a moment ere he continued "—we cannot afford an additional loss so soon after Osgiliath and Cair Andros." Faramir stared back at his father, and felt a knot forming in his stomach.
He has just made a mistake! Faramir was as certain of it as he had ever been of anything in his life. Worse, he could find no real reason for Denethor's apparent refusal to recognize the threat he was leaving to breed in peace. Granted the decision was a hard one—Faramir certainly did not relish the prospect of ordering or leading a battle that would almost certainly require a sacrificial unit—but in the end, the Corsairs would damage their own defense on so many levels it scarcely bore thinking on. But one did not argue that particular tone of voice, and though a part of his mind screamed that he had to say something, he simply bowed his head in acceptance of his liege-lord's decision. Mayhap if I had not crossed the line yesterday, I would argue harder today, Faramir thought guiltily. But he would not. Not now, and not until he knew what it was that had the steward on edge this morning. And where Boromir is!
With an inward sigh, Faramir reconsidered the possible reasons for Boromir's absence, listening with but half an ear to his father's closing speech. Amid the defeats of the session, it was actually a minor victory in itself that his concentration was focused enough to permit him to follow the trend of his father's conclusions while entertaining other considerations simultaneously. After Osgiliath, he had been at the mercy of that rhyme, to the detriment of his ability to efficiently and effectively concentrate on aught else. But ever since Denethor had learned of the dream, its power over Faramir seemed to have been broken: he could sleep at night, and sleep deeply he did as his body and mind sought to make up for lost time.
Perhaps it needed but the attention of the right person, he thought. Mulling over that possibility, he decided it was not without merit. If so, then I ought to have brought the problem to Denethor immediately. But fear undermines judgement, and so also do pride and resentment, he admitted, and tasted the irony as bitter on his tongue. How much of my misery was of my own crafting, being due to my inability to trust my father with one of my dreams? 'My' dreams… Boromir has proved the lie of that notion! In the end, what am I to a dream? I am nothing—only a convenient vessel, but the jar that holds the water may believe itself to be far more, for is the water not in it? Is the dream not in the dreamer? It is so hard to let go of what feels so very personal! I ought to thank Boromir for seeing the truth of the matter, and for doing what I could not bring myself to do. Perhaps it is because he has never dreamt thus, and feels no attachment to such visions that he could entertain the notion of going to Father with it.
"If there are no further comments, then this council is closed," Denethor said then, and to the sounds of chairs scraping on flagstone, Faramir rose with the rest. Singly or in pairs, the councilors began to file out, but Faramir hesitated a moment. The steward was organizing his notes and the reports and dispatches that had been brought in that morning or last night, seeming quite intent upon the task. I would ask him about Boromir…. Faramir pursed his lips slightly, on the edge of speaking. But in the end, he turned and left in silence, sensing that Denethor was in no mood to tolerate unwanted company. If Boromir had some errand to perform, I shall likely see him soon enough, he reasoned. To which the skeptic in him replied, If! You do not believe that, surely? You know perfectly well why you hesitated: if the steward's temper is so foul and Boromir is missing, then they must have argued. And if it were an argument serious enough to banish Boromir from this morning's session, then Faramir, much to his shame, simply could not face Denethor with his questions.
But if he could not bring himself to turn about and retrace his steps to a second confrontation, he could at least see to other responsibilities and so not wholly waste the time given him. For he had still a number of men with whom he wished to speak before he set them on the route to Ithilien, for he had always felt it best to know something of those new to the company. Besides, this was no ordinary reassignment, and given the enormity of the task ahead of them all, he would vastly prefer to learn now the mettle of those who would share the burden and responsibility of maintaining Ithlien's borders. The sun was drifting towards eleven o'clock as Faramir stepped out of the tower and began the trek down to the lower circles of the city.
And as he walked, he kept an eye out for sign of his brother, though he would have been hard pressed to say what he would have done had he seen him. It had been hard enough to knock on his door last night, and harder still to leave on such poor terms. But the note of almost painful hope and apology in Boromir's voice had been too much for him to bear. He had felt his heart speed and nervous energy skitter instantly down every nerve, and that he had not backed away but turned away had seemed a miracle at the time. And what shall I do if he sees me and seeks me out? Thus far, he has let me come to him, and for that I am grateful. But soon enough, he shall try to call me to him, and I know not what I shall do then! He hoped that he would not run, or freeze, or shut down inside, all of which seemed equally plausible possibilities at the moment.
His response would depend, he decided, upon the level of need that Boromir displayed. A chance encounter that had no object, or else one born of some military or political matter, would be bearable. But if he has argued with Father, then have I the courage to face my brother? Or has fear crippled my capacity to care for him when most he needs it? For that matter, he could not be certain that Boromir would approach him in that context, for his brother was not one to share his troubles lightly. Ever the captain and warrior, Boromir hesitated to show weakness or pain to any, even to Faramir; rather, he was accustomed to support others in time of need. Which meant only that if he did seek Faramir out to discuss what had passed between himself and the steward, it would be a serious matter indeed, and demand the most delicate handling on Faramir's part. Square your shoulders, Faramir! He is your brother, and in truth he never asked of you aught else than what once you gave willingly!
The gates of the Fourth Circle loomed before him, and he easily slipped out into the lower circle. But on the other side of the gates there was a large crowd seeking admittance to the fifth level, for today was a market day, and many were the merchants seeking a way to avoid a heavier tax by selling in the Fifth Circle. Turgon it was who had come up with the idea of staggering the taxes according to the level of the city. The first level had the lowest levy, but also no formal market area, which almost forced merchants to the second level and a second set of taxes. The more valuable the goods, the higher up into the city one had to go to sell them, and the Sixth Circle had the most expensive market in Minas Tirith. It differed little in terms of available goods, but it was up to the warden at the fifth gate to determine which level a merchant could sell in.
Unsurprisingly, the merchants argued vociferously for the fifth level rather than be passed on to the last set of inspectors, even though selling one or two items in the sixth circle might very well cover the cost of the so-called "gate tax," but it was a risk to try to sell to the lords of the city on an open market. Faramir knew the wardens of the gates, and they were all of them honest men who made an effort to direct the merchants to their proper level; but though he knew this, and also how badly Minas Tirith needed the money, the system tended to sit somewhat ill with him.
It also, he reflected as he slithered between a pair of pack animals, made it difficult to avoid the crush. Glancing about, he spotted a secondary street which was less crowded and went in the direction he wanted to go, and so he made for it as quickly as he could. Reviewing in his mind the points he wanted to make before those who would likely precede him to Ithilien, he did not notice in time the flash of movement as he rounded the corner, and there came a startled yelp as he collided with someone. Someone much shorter than himself, he realized with a quick flash of chagrin for his carelessness as he reached out to steady the boy who rocked back from him. The lad looked to be nine or ten, with a mop of dark hair that curled over his ears and a pair of large, dark eyes that stared up at him in surprised embarrassment. Skinny, awkward, and apparently undamaged by their encounter, save for his ego, Faramir judged. Still, he asked, "Are you all right, lad?"
"Y-yes my lord," the boy replied, blushing darkly. "I meant no offense!" he added quickly.
"Of course not," Faramir reassured him, glancing about. "I see few children so high in the city. Where is your father?" If the boy were some merchant's son, it might take some doing to see him reunited with his family, but he would not see a child lost in the warren of Minas Tirith's streets and gates.
"Um… not far, my lord," the lad replied somewhat nervously. "But I can find him. You need not stay, sir."
That drew a sharp look from Faramir. "What mischief have you got into, son?"
"Naught! Truly, my lord! I only wanted to come and see him…."
"My father," the boy explained, warming to the subject rather endearingly. "He's up there somewhere—" he pointed toward the gate leading to the Fifth Circle "—and I thought… with everyone coming in…."
"You thought to slip in with them, is that it?"
"Yes, my lord," the child hung his head, but Faramir suppressed a grin as he caught the boy trying to roll his eyes upward so he could stare without seeming to do so.
"And what is your father?"
"A guard, sir!"
"I see. Well," Faramir glanced back at the throng of merchants once more, "I fear you shall not get past Nardistan if you know not the password. What shift has your father? Or do you know?"
"He left ere dawn, my lord, to come up here."
Which meant that he would shortly take his midday break, Faramir thought, and quirked a brow at the lad, who gazed back hopefully. I have enough chores for three men, and here I stand! he thought, with a slight shake of his head. But he had decided, and so he kept a firm grip on the boy's shoulder and tugged him before him, walking him back up towards the gate. "Come then, for you shall need an escort." Together, they made their way back up to the gate, and as they approached, Nardistan, the warden straightened, darting a somewhat puzzled look from the boy to Faramir and back again.
"My lord?" the warden asked as they approached. "And what has this imp done now?"
"You know him, then?" Faramir asked, and glanced down at the boy.
"Aye, he has been up here a few times today, my lord, trying to get in. Rascal!" Nardistan replied, though to Faramir's mind, there was rather less malice than simple exasperation in the man's tone. "That is Beregond's son."
"And when does Beregond's relief arrive?"
"Just now, I should think," Nardistan replied, then called over Faramir's shoulder, "Ah, no sir, that will not do! Back in line, and let the inspectors do their job! Sorry, my lord," the warden added.
"Will you let us through at least, so as not to take more of your time?"
"Well… since you will vouch for him, my lord, I suppose I may," the man said, gesturing for two men to clear the way a bit, and Faramir escorted the lad through the cavernous entryway. "Beregond ought to be along shortly, my lord! Third Company guardsman!" Nardistan called after the pair.
Faramir raised a hand in acknowledgment and quickly hustled the lad to the side, where they would present no obstacle to the flow of traffic. "Rascal, are you?" he asked, smiling as the boy blushed again. "Well, since you are here on my honor, I trust you shall not abuse it, hmm?"
"Of course not, my lord! And thank you for letting me in! The warden does not trust me."
"He does but his duty, lad. You ought to know that children are not permitted to come so high without an elder."
"I would never bother anyone…."
"Bergil!" a voice called out, and both Faramir and the boy turned toward it. A guardsman came swiftly towards them, an expression of mixed astonishment, fondness, and exasperation on his face. "Why have you come? More, how came you to pass the gates?"
"He brought me in, Father," Bergil replied, indicating Faramir. Beregond raised his eyes to search Faramir's face, and he blinked in wonder, then quickly bowed.
"My lord, I am sorry if he troubled you! I did not think that he would ask—"
"He did not, so you need not apologize," Faramir replied. "He seems an honest enough child, for all that he dares Nardistan's displeasure at the gates." Beregond gave a slight smile at that, shaking his head.
"He is at that!" the other said with the glow of quiet pride in his son, and Faramir glanced at Bergil as the boy grinned and leaned against his father. "Well, my lord, I shall see to him now."
"How came he all this way, if I may ask?" Faramir asked, curious.
"Well, he has a good instinct for escaping his keepers, for none are his mother. My wife…last year, she…." Beregond paused, and instantly, Faramir regretted his question.
"I am sorry," he murmured, laying a hand on the other's shoulder. "Forgive me, I should not have asked." Beregond only shrugged a bit and with an effort, tucked his pain away once more, covering the last traces of it with a brief smile as he draped an arm about Bergil's shoulders.
"We should not take any more of your time, my lord Faramir," Beregond suggested, and the steward's son gave a smile and nodded for the truth of that statement. "Thank you for seeing him through that mess."
"Yes, thank you, my lord!" a wide-eyed Bergil added quickly.
"Come then, let us go. Good day to you, captain!" With his arm still about Bergil's shoulders, Beregond quickly guided his son away down the street, leaving Faramir to watch after them. Bergil was already chattering excitedly, and his father laughed at something, reaching down to tousle the boy's hair. Faramir sighed softly. Born to privilege and instilled with a deep sense of responsibility, he admitted that he was largely content with his lot, in spite of the pains and trials. He therefore envied few men, but by the Valar, he felt almost jealous of Bergil in that instant! Watching Beregond's easy manner with his son, he was very much aware of what he had lacked as a child, and it was hard not to compare that affection with Denethor's distance and isolation.
Come, Faramir, you have work to do, he reminded himself, tearing his eyes away from the retreating pair. Once more, he made his way down, through the gates, down the alleyways, seeking a way down to the Third Circle. At each gate, there was a crowd and he wound up taking a rather circuitous route to avoid them. Still, he did not curse the longer walk, for Faramir never tired of exploring (and re-exploring) the ways of the ancient city. Were it not for Father, I would have been reluctant ever to leave these walls, even for fair Ithilien.
Just at that moment, he registered a figure on the periphery of his vision… a very familiar figure. "Boromir!" His brother jerked at the sound of his name, glancing over his shoulder out of reflex. For a split second, the brothers stared at each other, and the passers-by who wandered heedless between them, intent upon their own business, seemed as ghosts—insubstantial and powerless to break the spell that held both men transfixed. But then Boromir shook himself and turned away, quickly following the crowd that moved up towards the gates. Faramir hesitated only a moment before he abandoned his task to follow him. For in that brief contact, he had felt a horror twist within him as he saw the leaden look in his brother's eyes, as if the spark of life had been extinguished. Valar help me, what happened between those two? Had he had any doubts as to the reason behind Boromir's absence in council, they were quelled in that instant's regard: Denethor and Boromir had done more than argue. And despite his earlier reflections, despite his own agonized misgivings and fears, Faramir refused to let his brother suffer alone. Not when I know too well what it feels like to bear Denethor's scorn!
Dodging through the stream of people, Faramir kept Boromir ever in his sight, though it was clear that his brother sought to lose him, pressing on at a terrific pace. But Faramir had spent years tracking foes with the best foresters Gondor had to offer, and he clung to the other's trail like a hound on the hunt, gaining slowly but steadily. Ever and anon, Denethor's elder son would glance back to mark his adversary, but that dulled, lifeless look did not dissipate, which only spurred Faramir onward. Boromir turned a corner, and Faramir cursed, knowing whither his brother went. The market square of the Third Circle opened broad off the end of the street, and Faramir stood a moment, trying to get his bearings amid the influx of people.
Have I lost him? Ithlien's captain took a hesitant step forward, glancing right, then quickly left, then back again in a slow scan of the area. Boromir and he both had the height of their forebears, though Boromir had a few inches on him, so it ought not to be so difficult to spot him in crowd. But then again, Gondor's citizens also had Númenórean blood in them, and in the sea of faces, even Boromir might not stand out immediately. Steady, Faramir! Do not lose your discipline now. He is here… somewhere. Where could he go? He has no business here, save to lose me. There are six ways out, and I bar one of them. The square was crossed by one major carrefour, and a lesser street as well. Boromir seemed to wish to go higher, and if he takes the downward path, he shall have a long walk back…. Faramir began pushing through the throng towards the ascending side of Rath Celebdar, the lesser street. The distance was not too great, and as he cleared the crowd at last, he was just in time to catch sight of the hem of a cloak as someone turned left into an alleyway.
With a soft oath, Faramir abandoned dignity and sprinted the distance to come skidding round the corner. "Boromir!" The tall figure halfway up the narrow street stopped at last and tension seemed to ripple through his frame. When Faramir was perhaps five feet away, Boromir turned at last, meeting his brother's concerned gaze with a certain defiance that yet reeked of defeat and anger. The younger man cocked his head, slowing his advance noticeably, for something in the other's manner warned him not to approach too recklessly. As one does not approach an injured creature lightly! The comparison was unavoidable, and Faramir sucked in a breath at the hunted wariness in the other's gaze. "We missed you in council this morning," he offered carefully.
"Father did not," Boromir replied stiffly. "And I doubt that you did either."
"What happened?" Faramir asked, choosing to ignore the rebuff.
"Give it some thought, brother, and I doubt not you shall be able to tell me in such detail that I shall believe you were present!" Boromir snapped rather bitterly, and turned away, making as if to continue on his way. Which was when Faramir's caution abandoned him, and he reached out and caught his brother's arm to restrain him.
With a low growl, Boromir broke his brother's grip and pulled away with hardly a pause. "Leave me be, Faramir!" he tossed back over his shoulder, sounding at once sharply angry, anguished, and weary beyond belief. Swiftly, he cut down the alleyway as it turned back to a main thoroughfare. Faramir, stunned, stood stock still and watched as his older brother, with a toss of his head, squared his shoulders and rejoined the crowd on the streets. Not another word from him, and though he likely seemed still the proud, determined prince to any who looked upon him, Faramir ached for the hollowness that lay behind that mask. What under Varda's skies did Fath-Denethor say to him? And though at the moment Faramir felt almost physically compelled to run after Boromir, he made himself remain where he was, recognizing the other's need for time and privacy.
Later, he promised himself. Later I shall go to him. Let him recover himself a bit ere he is forced to deal with another, and especially me! In the mean time, he had his chores—duties to Gondor that must always come before any personal relationship. With an effort of will, he returned to the market square and began to make his way across it, letting the buffeting of the crowd against him jar him out of his dazed state. 'Tis better thus, he reasoned, drawing a deep breath. I need time as well, or I fear I shall be more of a hindrance than a help. Valar help us both! Until tonight, Boromir! he thought, sending that vow out into the void, and hoping that somehow, his brother would hear it.
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