Stewards of Gondor: Slashvese Arc
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From the Other River Bank: 2. Honor Thy Father
The sun had not yet appeared over the horizon, but the eastern sky glittered a pale white-gold as Boromir lifted his head from the pillow to stare out of the window. As he watched, the gold grew in intensity, and a brilliant arc edged over the mountains. With a soft sigh, he laid his head down again heavily and contemplated arising. Though he had not woken during the night, his sleep had not been restful, and he was plagued now by half-recalled snippets of dreams. That restlessness made no sense to him, for what he could remember seemed almost mundane; certainly he remembered nothing particularly nightmarish, for which respite he supposed he ought to be grateful. But nevertheless, there was some trouble that attached to his nightly visions and he racked his mind to salvage just that bit more that would explain that sense of uneasiness. But to no avail, for even as he reached for them, the dream fragments seemed to melt away, like ice before the fire. Sighing again, Boromir acceded to the inevitable and dragged himself from his bed with all the enthusiasm of a condemned man.
For the air in his chambers felt heavy and hot against his skin, even allowing for the added warmth of the candles which had burned themselves out. And the water at his wash stand was tepid, which did nothing to help clear the fog of sleep from his mind. The worst days of summer lie ahead of us, too. This is but the beginning, Boromir thought resignedly. It was ever thus in the South, that shortly after Midsummer's Day, the weather grew hot and humid and all suffered until the end of August, when the cool northern winds brought relief. For Gondor's soldiery, this time of year marked a respite from the attacks of the Haradrim, who, though accustomed to worse heat, were ill-equipped to endure the cloyingly moist air. Even the orcs made themselves scarce if their masters would permit. Doubtless, the battle for Osgiliath would be remembered as the last significant fight ere Fall arrived, which explained why the steward felt it safe enough to hold his two ranking captains from their posts for so long.
Boromir, weather-wise from an early age, dressed in light clothing, forgoing the cloak he usually wore, and ran a comb through the snarls in his long hair. There were many commanders who adhered to the prejudice that overly long hair was a liability in a warrior, but Boromir found that it gave him less trouble than the alternative. No one knew precisely how it had happened, given that both Denethor and Finduilas had had uniformly straight hair, but his own tended to curl if cut shorter than shoulder length, and when it did, it was unmanageable. And I look ridiculous! he thought, with a slight smile for that one point of vanity. As a child, Faramir had seemed to suffer the same curse, but with time, the curl had largely gone out of his hair. Now it retained only enough wave to give it body, and his brother kept his hair shorn short for convenience, but just long enough for the weight to tame any residual unruly tendencies. Grunting as he worked through the last tangle, Boromir set the comb down and stalked to the windows. Glaring at the bright sunlight spilling into his room, he closed all of the shutters against the rising temperatures, and then left his chambers to see to what business he could.
From Minas Tirith, he could do little for Osgiliath, save to ensure that supplies and additional men were sent forth in a timely fashion. Otherwise, his chief duty was to aid his father, the better to learn his statecraft, but as Faramir's worries surfaced once more, he found himself dreading the prospect. After their conversation the night before, he was in no mood to tread that careful line between confrontation and deference. Yet as always, he had no choice in the matter. As a young man, and one who needed still to prove himself in the field, Denethor's sway over him had been complete, for he had lacked the confidence to trust his own judgment of his father's actions. As a grown man, however, he had other reasons to avoid bringing the full wrath of the steward down upon him, for Denethor could strip a man bare to the bones with just his eyes. Boromir had seen venerable councilors stagger out of his father's chambers in a daze, white-faced from shock, and such men rarely risked a second confrontation. Only my uncle Imrahil seems immune to Denethor's cold rage, and distance may account for much of that, Boromir thought. But to keep my distance, I dare not give the steward reason to suspect that my love for Faramir is anything but a brother's affection. If he knew…! He shuddered to think of it, for Denethor had a short way with those who were too flagrant in their affairs. To save his lover from the gallows on the charge of adultery, one of Minas Tirith's lords had had to sacrifice much of his family's fortune. "If you have not paid for his affections before, then you will do so now or learn to live with his loss," Denethor had informed the offending lord, and the man had had no choice but to agree, and thereby make of his lover a prostitute in order to keep him alive.
Boromir doubted that his father would threaten one of his sons with the other, if only because they were both his sons. But Denethor would find other ways to punish him, and Faramir would still suffer his father's disaffection. Perhaps Faramir is right to fear this coldness of his, for it does breed cruelty under the guise of sternness. But it is so deeply planted in our father, I would not know how to begin to root it out. He grimaced slightly, but then schooled his expression to reflect nothing more noteworthy than concern. He took a moment to settle himself and ensure that his mask would not slip and betray him, and then knocked at his father's door. The door opened, and his father's esquire peered out, but ere the young man could open his mouth to announce him, Denethor called from within, "Let him enter!" Boromir obediently stepped inside, gave the esquire a brusque, but not unkind, nod, and then went to where his father stood studying a map of Gondor. "Good morning. I trust you slept well?" Denethor asked, briefly glancing up at him, eyes narrowing as he saw the other's weariness.
"Good morrow, Father," Boromir replied, choosing to avoid the question. "How may I serve?"
"For the moment, you may tell me more of Osgiliath," the steward replied, raising his eyes to scrutinize Boromir's face. "The memory will fade with time, and I would learn what I can ere it fades entirely."
"I think you need not fear that!" Boromir replied softly, and Denethor's expression sharpened at his words, and his son quickly continued, "But when we arrived yesterday, we told you of the battle…."
"Yes, but in imprecise terms. I would hear from you now another recounting, and this time, take care to recall all that you can of these riders of whom you spoke with such dread."
Boromir would more gladly have offered to cut his tongue out rather than speak overmuch of them, but he could not refuse his father's command. And pride, too, resisted such unseemly fear of a mere recollection. So, drawing a deep breath, he said, "As you wish." He paused, ordering his thoughts as much as he could ere he continued, "The Haradrim attacked first, in the late afternoon of the twentieth of June. Some of the Ithilieners came flying back from their patrols to warn of their approach. They were at least a match for our forces, and we fought them long upon the eastern bank, until the sun went down. Just at dusk, the orcs came to their aid, and it was clear that they had lain in wait for the moment," Boromir shook his head. "The affray grew more fierce, seemingly with their coming, but now I think it must have been the presence of the riders that caused the Haradrim and the orcs to abandon their caution. 'Twas as if they were stricken with a madness, and cared not for injury or death, but where that shadow touched, they flung themselves into our faces and overwhelmed those in their path."
"And the riders? You saw them?"
"Yes," Boromir replied, and felt an involuntary shiver run down his spine, as memory momentarily overshadowed waking life. "Yes," he murmured in a low, sick voice. "I saw them. Horsemen in black, riding black steeds, they moved as one among our enemies, as sharks through a school of fish. The Haradrim and the orcs fled aside, and then closed again to follow them into our midst, for none could stand before the terror of those riders."
"But they were Men?" Denethor prompted.
"Some say they saw naught but a great shadow, or an emptiness, if one may speak thus; others say the sky itself seemed darkened unnaturally. All such reports ring true enough to me, but I did see cloaked forms upon horses, though I did not count them. Few in number, but that still enough. Of Man-form they seemed, but beneath their garb… I cannot say. For I could see no face… no face, though one spurred straight for me upon the bridge!" Such was the malice in that hideous, eyeless regard that Boromir had nearly been lost, frozen in place by a mixture of horror and awed incomprehension. At the last moment, he had leapt aside, and the rider had thundered past; the Haradrim had then come swarming forward in their wake. But with the passing of the shadow-riders, Gondor's ranks had recovered and closed once more against them. Badly outnumbered now, they had fought a battle of bloody attrition, hoping for nothing more than to inflict as much damage as they could ere they ended. "Those upon the west bank destroyed the supports, as I ordered, and the bridge collapsed beneath us. But it is certain that the riders escaped, and roam now at will in the west lands. What their purpose is, I cannot guess. Phantoms of the Dark Lord, I deem them, and I know not how to defend against the spell that they wield."
"There is no defense against such creatures that will long endure," Denethor responded, and Boromir frowned. The steward's voice was grim, and he shook his grizzled head slowly. "And with their coming, the game is opened and we have lost the first move!" The steward paused and regarded his elder son closely ere he continued in a gentler voice, "Mourn not overmuch hard necessity, Boromir, since I see that you blame yourself for the deaths of your men. You did well, and though the gambit failed, you would have had no other choice, not though a hundred men remained upon that bridge."
"I do not understand, Father," Boromir replied after a moment, unwilling or unable yet to accept such comfort. Instead, he turned back to the riders, and asked, "What manner of creature are they?"
"They are Men, my son," the steward said with a tight, frosty smile. "Servants chosen by the Dark Lord to be his own, and though their names be lost in the ash heap of forgotten history, still it is certain that Men they are… or rather were."
"What are they now?"
"Vessels to hold the Dark Lord's hatred, no more and no less. Thus no man can slay them, or so the legends hold. And now they are loose in the land!" Denethor sighed, bowing his head. "Well," he said after a moment, straightening once more, "it is done, the battle is lost, and we can do nothing to halt their progress. Nevertheless, I shall send messengers to all posts west of here to keep watch for them. But no one shall approach them or hinder them from any task save only in defense of others. We cannot afford to waste lives in a confrontation!" To that, Boromir nodded sharply in agreement. "Rohan, also, should know of these riders, and together we may at least learn something of their movements."
"Courtesy aside, will asking avail us anything?" Boromir asked skeptically. "Théoden King is fallen into a grievous state, and I would not put much faith in his cooperation in any venture."
"Nonetheless, by the oath that binds us, I may not keep this from him. And whatever dotage is upon him, there are others under his command who chafe at the bit and they shall help if they can. His son, for one, and that young firebrand of a nephew, Éomer," Denethor chuckled dryly. "That one may do much in the service of Rohan, but if he is not given proper guidance, he may also mar much. We shall see! At the least, he shall take care that little passes through the Eastfold unbeknownst to him." Boromir nodded thoughtfully, for he remembered Éomer, having met him once some years ago. Young he was, and the steward's son had swiftly perceived that Éomer was not entirely at ease in his new rank of Third Marshal. Nevertheless, he had impressed Boromir favorably, and the cloud of royal disapproval under which he was rumored to lie was a cause for grief not only in Edoras but in Minas Tirith. "I had intended to send to Edoras in any case, to inform the court of new laws that affect them."
Which brought last night's worries squarely to fore again, and Boromir frowned. To speak now will likely serve no purpose. But do I not owe Faramir that much, in payment for all that I make of him without his knowledge or consent? "The Rohirrim should certainly be put on their guard against the overzealous in the field," he replied, watching his father closely. Denethor did not look up for a moment, seeming to study the markers spread about Anórien. But then he did raise his head, and the weight of his displeasure was evident in the cold, set expression on his father's face. Nevertheless, Boromir pushed onward, "Faramir is right: there will be many mistakes made under this latest law, and I would be ashamed if one of them happened to concern one sent on Rohan's business!"
"That would be no accident, for if you read closely, you will note that those allied with us are exempt."
"As I said, Father, mistakes will happen. A flag is no protection against the fears that prey on the minds of all men these days!" Boromir refused to surrender, and Denethor grunted, straightening.
"And did you glean this from your brother as well?"
"I am always mindful of my brother's opinion, for he is more thoughtful than many."
"See to it that you do not give it greater weight than it deserves!"
"I am my own man, Father," Boromir said, a bit more forcefully, beginning to feel rather insulted. But offended pride had never saved anyone from Denethor's cutting attacks, and so he reined his temper in, and changed tack, "I know not why you trust him so little, Father. Do you not see that he is concerned for you and for this realm?" And can you not see, Father, that when you belittle him, you wound me as well!? Father and son stared eye to eye for a long moment, and perhaps Denethor sensed his thoughts, for some of the ice seemed to ease, and the glitter in his eyes faded slightly.
"I will not deny that his heart is in the right place," the steward said at last, in a gruff voice. "But his head is in the clouds half the time, and that I cannot tolerate. Be certain, since you are his keeper, that you keep your eyes open to what is needed here and now, and do not follow him too far afield."
"Yes, Father," Boromir replied, drawing a circumspect breath to settle his nerves. It was a rare day that he was able to back Denethor down in a confrontation, and he was not about to lose that victory now with too conspicuous a display of either relief or elation. By unspoken agreement, they moved on to other subjects, and Denethor did not mention Faramir again. By the time he released his elder son, the day was in its decline.
Much of the afternoon was devoted to executing Denethor's orders to him, and Boromir found time to speak with the quartermaster about his men in Osgiliath as well. And once those necessary chores were done, he found himself once again with little to do and missing his brother's company. I should stay away from him, his conscience growled. If I find him now, we will end by talking late into the night, and I know well where my thoughts will fly! Surely there must be some other task that needs doing, or I could find something to read…. But in truth, a commander away from his post had little to do, and Boromir had few friends in the city. As with most children born to great power, peers were hard to come by, and his childhood had been rather isolated by the standards of most people. And those friends I did have are largely afield themselves. Or else they have their own tasks to attend to here in Minas Tirith, and no time to talk. That left him with few alternatives, for it was too hot for most activities, and he had never been one to spend much time in the library. History held little interest for him, though he knew it well enough of necessity; philosophy was too far above him, and he knew it; poetry tended to bore him, and after Osgiliath, he had no mind to read about the successes of other commanders… and even less a mind to read of their defeats. No, the library was not an appealing prospect, much though it might be a relief from the merciless heat.
In the end, he simply wandered about the Sixth Circle, following the ramparts and causeways, taking what short cuts he knew while trying to remain in the shaded areas. Even the guards found excuses to cluster in strips of shade as they stood their watches, or else paced back and forth between towers, pausing in every shadow. Not that Boromir would complain of such efforts, for he knew quite well how hot and heavy chain mail could be after hours under a southern sky. Even his light tunic seemed to trap the damp heat against his skin, and he gazed balefully at the sun that hovered still too far above the horizon. Turning north, he recalled a particular spot on the eastern side of one of the guard towers where one might catch a breeze on a day such as this. Needing no further prompting, he struck out briskly for it, with no greater ambition than to escape for awhile from the heat.
The tower for which he aimed abutted the mountain, and as a precaution, there were high walls at odd angles all along the north side to prevent enemies from taking it and thereby gaining entry into the city. That architectural oddity meant that there were a number of alcoves and other spaces where one knowledgeable of the city's design and with the proper passwords might find some peace. And that I need! After this morning's long visit with Father I cannot seem to escape from the memory of Osgiliath! He sighed softly, rounding a bend. Past the guards who hastily saluted, then up the winding stairs he went, until he reached the fourth northward-facing door, and then he stepped outside onto the low-walled ledge. Following it east, he had almost reached his destination when he heard someone move up ahead. Curious, wondering who else had come so far, he quickened his pace and was in time to see–
"Faramir?" he demanded. His younger brother, sitting slouched on a low, stony bench nestled in an alcove, glanced up from his reading.
"Good day," the other replied somewhat absently.
"What do you here?" That elicited a snort and an appraising look, and Boromir realized how sharp his question had sounded. Faramir held up the book in one hand, silent and self-evident response, then asked:
"By your temper, I guess you came to escape your worries. Which ones, though?" And when Boromir made no immediate reply, he narrowed his eyes and guessed, "Father? Or Osgiliath?"
"Both," Boromir admitted. And neither now! the nagging voice of scorn added silently. Now I must forget Father and foes to guard against the distraction of my brother. But that was but a part of him, and after a moment's hesitation, he sighed softly, bowing his head, and leaned back against the wall, feeling the stones cool through his shirt. Faramir at least is an unwitting tormentor, and if I must suffer, then I would rather it be at his hands. Stop that! He tried too late to censor his own subversive imagination which had supplied that very… adroit… turn of phrase. And the image that goes with it! Why do I do this to myself? Or are we all idiots when the fit called 'love' takes us? That was doubtless a question for the philosophers, and he had no mind to pursue it, afraid to go down that path. Instead he asked, "What matter so heavy brings you to this place? History?"
"Nay," Faramir replied. "I have spent enough time among musty scrolls since this morning."
"The entire library is nothing but musty scrolls!" Boromir muttered.
"Not so," Faramir said, sounding amused.
"Oh? Then why came you here, if not for some fresh air? What do you read?" Expecting a title, he frowned when he heard naught but the flipping of pages, and darted a glance sideways. But the veil of his hair obscured his vision, and just then, Faramir began to speak again:
"There is a seed that blooms but once, that shapes all mortal hearts.
A birth of light that while it lasts
Doth in peace all worry cast:
A pain that heals, a whisper loud, yet when its sparkèd
Glory is past then doth man learn its nature true
The lighter side, the dizzied cry, the brazen hue,
Is within the darkness bound.
For in that dark doth love endure: the lover gone
It blooms anew."
I think I hate him! Boromir decided, wishing that were true, feeling wretched. He was suddenly glad of the fact that he had such long hair, for with his head bowed thus it formed an effective screen so that Faramir could not see him blush. Though whether that came of embarrassment or the heat that flared within him, or both, he was unwilling to speculate. Of all the books in the library, he had to pick a book of love poetry! And he had to read it to me instead of simply telling me what it was! What have I done of late to earn this torture? At which point, a half dozen examples of miscreance came to mind, beginning with the fact that he was hopelessly enamored of his brother and ending with the bridge of Osgiliath as it gave way; and so he heaved a silent sigh and tried to think of something unincriminating to say.
"Mm… I had not heard that before," he managed after a moment, and hoped his voice did not sound too strained. "Who wrote it?"
"Silvaríel of Arnor," his brother replied.
"Aye, one quite famous in her day. The daughter of a nobleman, she was blind, but touched by some grace, for she claimed she 'dreamed sightful' as she says elsewhere. All her poetry is centered round a paradox of feeling: 'pain that heals' and 'whispers loud' and such like. She is much decried in this late Age, but nevertheless, I find her words comforting. And insightful," Faramir added thoughtfully. "What think you?"
"I know not enough of her to form a judgment. Does she write nothing but love poems?" Boromir asked, fearing the response. For of a sudden it occurred to him that perhaps this was not some chance reading, that the choice of works had not been a matter of a moment's fancy. Does he love another? Jealousy born of an instant sank its fangs deep into his soul, and Boromir bit his tongue. What if he does? Surely that is a good thing if it is true. But why would he have said nothing to me earlier?
"A fair amount, but she speaks of other things as well," came the easy reply.
"Ah. And which do you prefer?" Boromir asked, striving for just that touch of nonchalance as he fished for the answer to his oblique question.
"In truth, it matters not. But whenever I think of Father, I recall this poem." Faramir shook his head, sitting up straighter as his gaze slipped right to where stood the Citadel. "It gives me hope that perhaps one day…."
"Perhaps one day pain truly will heal?"
"Yes, just that." Faramir responded softly, turning to see that Boromir had raised his head and was now watching him intently. His elder brother shook his head slowly, and a hint of a perplexed smile crossed his face.
"Whomever you marry had best be well versed in Silvaríel or I doubt she would know what to make of you!" At which Faramir gave a bark of laughter, letting his head fall back as he closed his eyes, seeming to try to imagine the scenario. And Boromir, staring at the graceful line of his brother's throat and the wistful look on his face, had to tear his eyes away quickly and step down hard upon rising desire when Faramir turned to him once more.
"Well, whoever she may be, she will have plenty of time for such scholarly pursuits. It seems pointless to seek romance when Father may at any time decide I may be more profitably married elsewhere for the sake of Gondor," Faramir sighed, and could not quite suppress the bitterness he felt at that prospect. "I sometimes marvel that he has not already done so." He cocked his head at Boromir and, struck by the turn of conversation, asked, "What of yourself? Do you hope for love or only for tolerance when the time comes?"
"As you say, Father rules my future, so there is no point in hoping for more than tolerance," Boromir replied, but there was in his tone just that touch of tension that underlay his resignation, prompting Faramir to ask further.
"So you have never loved another?" he demanded. "Not a single woman of Minas Tirith has ever caught your eye?"
"No… not yet," Boromir responded, relieved that his brother had phrased the question so in the end. For how would I have answered otherwise? And would he have heard the lie in my voice? Fortunately, he would never need to discover the truth. His brother fell silent as of a sudden a light wind sprang up, and if it was not truly cool, it seemed less hot than the surrounding still air, and Faramir gave a soft sigh of relief. And Boromir, watching him, felt relief run through him like water. So he does not love another. Not yet! I would say he were too sensible, but that I know him too well. One day that will change, for Faramir was never meant to be alone. Not like me. And how will I bear to see him turn to her ever? Intellectually, he knew quite well that he had never had a prayer of having his love requited, but that did not mean he would not hate the woman who ended as Faramir's wife. Jealousy was not a feeling he particularly liked, but for the moment he could set it aside, shelve it in the recesses of his mind and forget it. Until she arrives, or Father decrees a political match. I have still awhile longer to dream, I suppose…. "Tell me more of this poet of yours. What else has she written?"
Faramir tossed a rather surprised–but not displeased–look at him at that. "You were never one for poetry, Brother!"
"Humor me, then. You will some day have to instruct your wife, if you aspire to peace in your life. So, practice! Tell me of her!" Boromir replied, unable to resist the temptation.
"A passing strange wife you make me, even in role-play," Faramir replied, with a mischievous grin. But he was willing to accept his brother's invitation, for it had been a long time indeed since they had had so much time together that was not wholly taken up by matters of war or worry.
"For the water is wide, an' I cannot get over
And neither have I wings to fly
Give me a boat that will carry two
And both shall row… my love and I!"*
*A/N: By now, I think you know I suck at poetry with a capital 'S', so I don't know why I inflict it upon myself (or anyone else!). I unabashedly stole the above-marked verse from a folk song entitled "The Water is Wide." It's gorgeous, listen to the Steeleye Span version of it if you like. I just couldn't make myself try to write another poem for this, and I apologize to you all for the first one. Hopefully no one was permanently scarred by it!
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