1. Chapter I
[Author's note: Adrahil, father of Ivriniel, Finduilas, and Imrahil, does not serve my purposes, so I'm taking The Peoples of Middle-earth as non-canonical, and killing him off a few years early, in the same year that Denethor's father Ecthelion dies. I like the dynamics of Imrahil having to deal with his difficult brother-in-law better than Adrahil dealing with his son-in-law.]
Faramir always had mixed feelings about visits to his uncle Imrahil in Dol Amroth. It was one of his favorite places in the world, and in this land that his late mother had loved, he always felt closer to her. Then too, his father had ceased to travel here after his beloved wife's death, giving Faramir some relief from his relentless demands and reproaches.
On holiday, though, Boromir always had less time for him, with cousins his own age he hadn't seen in forever and too many new places to explore, never waiting for Faramir's shorter legs. At home, where a subtle wariness of Denethor's pride discouraged too great a familiarity between the Steward's sons and the sons of lesser men, they had only each other. Here, Boromir and Faramir were just another pair of children running around. A relief in many ways, except when something was wrong or confusing--and many practices were different here--and Faramir had no one to ask.
He never thought to ask the adults.
One of the different expectations here was that the children did not dine separately, and Aunt Ivriniel, his mother's elder and still unwed sister--even her own brother Imrahil, in whose house she dwelt, commented that with her sharp tongue, it was little wonder if she had no husband--took offense if guests did not clean their plates at mealtime. Faramir could not fault her hospitality, but she heaped his plate so high. She ruffled his hair on the first night and told him she'd put some meat on his bones; then every night after when his appetite lagged behind her generosity, he could feel himself failing her again.
He was thankful Boromir was reliably good about that, even on holidays when they hadn't spoken all day: executing expert plate maneuvers whenever Ivriniel's back was turned and Faramir's foot nudged his ankle under the table. Boromir ate with the appetite of a twelve-year-old boy beginning to outgrow his clothes faster than they could be tailored, and after a long day of running in the invigorating sea air, he was always willing to slide some of Faramir's unfinished supper onto his own plate. Sometimes he had to take a few deep breaths in order to finish the last few bites, but he never needed to be rescued.
One evening they were unlucky, and Ivriniel turned too quickly when someone called her name. Her eyes, as sharp as her tongue--but neither as sharp as Denethor's--landed on the brothers while the food was still in transition.
Caught in the act, Boromir shrugged at her with a small, wry smile, as though to say his opponent had outwitted him fairly, but Faramir could only sit frozen and wait for the blow to fall.
Ivriniel's eyes narrowed. "No wonder he's skin and bones," she scolded. "I wouldn't have thought you'd stoop to bullying food out of your own brother-"
Both Faramir and Boromir erupted at the same time, Faramir breaking his fearful silence in the need to come to his brother's defense.
"I was helping him-!"
"I wasn't hungry! I couldn't finish it-"
"I'd heard tales of who was the favored son," she continued, ignoring their protests, "but I didn't think matters had gone this far."
"I wasn't hungry!" Faramir cried passionately. Without realizing it, he had half risen to his feet and his hand flew to the side to clasp Boromir's wrist, exactly as Boromir did so often to him, a gesture of unspoken reassurance to say I won't let them hurt you.
"Oh, you'd say as much, of course," she told Faramir dismissively. "I'd fear to speak against him too, if I were five years the younger-"
Boromir was fuming through his nose and his face turning bright red. "I'd not have had to help him out if you weren't too blind to see what's under your nose, such an interfering, unreasonable, old-"
Don't say it, don't. Don't.
Faramir cringed in sympathetic anticipation, knowing that once again Boromir's reckless impulses had led him into trouble. Even at home, Faramir might be the one always criticized for falling short, but it was Boromir who more often faced outright punishment for misdeeds.
All the voices overlapped in the following outburst, but Uncle Imrahil's won. "Ivriniel, let it go. I'll talk to them later."
"You're going to overlook this behavior? You're going to let him speak to me that way?"
Imrahil had a gift for staying calm and enduring the brunt of his sister's rages. "This is my table. I'll speak to them later, and I'll find out the truth of the matter. Any punishment that is necessary, I will dole out. This is my house."
"Uncle, you can't possibly think I would-"
"Enough. We'll speak when tempers have cooled," Imrahil said firmly, cutting through Boromir's indignation. "The topic is not open for discussion now. Faramir, sit down."
Shaking now more from anger than fear, Faramir obeyed. He sat through the rest of the meal in silence. If he'd had little appetite before, he had less now.
Imrahil had a long night. He met with his nephews first, separately, aware that Faramir might not speak up in Boromir's presence.
He was hesitant to speak even alone with his uncle, and Imrahil could see him choosing his words with a care beyond his seven years. He never once mentioned his father, but Imrahil knew the man--not well, but one would have to be blind to miss Denethor's intensity--knew him well enough to know that he couldn't be anything other than the driving force shaping the lives of his sons. As the picture emerged, of Faramir's pained and unquestioned awareness that if he were only older, taller, stronger, he could stop disappointing the adults, Imrahil's lips tightened.
"I'm not used to eating so much," he explained to Imrahil's feet. "Only when I come here. I'm sorry. Maybe soon I'll start growing too. Will you tell her I didn't mean to offend her hospitality?" he asked, looking up then to meet Imrahil's eyes. "I don't know if she believes me."
"I'll tell her," Imrahil assured him. "You've a good heart, and I'm sure Ivriniel knows that." Ivriniel did, in fact, having commented a number of times on how much of her beloved sister she saw in him.
A fury was building in Imrahil, but he didn't quite know yet at whom it was directed. This could still be a story Faramir had been instructed in, a script he was sticking to. Imrahil had to draw him out and get him talking spontaneously about his brother, but this boy was too clever to be lured easily with conversational gambits. A little of his father in him too.
His conversation with Boromir was no shorter, though more heated words filled what had been long and reluctant silences from Faramir. In the end, Imrahil's sympathies lay with Boromir, but he had to put down his foot.
"As for you, Boromir, you will apologize to your aunt. Everything she said, and did, was to protect your brother."
"Indeed?" Boromir didn't trouble to hide his resentment. "She protects him once a year?"
To that Imrahil could give no answer. He only repeated, "You will apologize to her publicly, as you insulted her publicly. In return, because it seems she was hasty in jumping to conclusions and misjudged you, I will offer you an apology from the house of Dol Amroth, also publicly."
He'd judged Boromir aright: the formal language bypassed his outrage and hurt feelings to reach the part that Denethor had trained well as his heir.
Boromir was nodding, knowing his part. "Then I will accept the apology in my role representing the Steward of Gondor." Here, though, he fixed his uncle with an intent stare. Whatever blood ran in Denethor's veins and gave him the gift of petrifying men with his eyes and reading their very thoughts, had passed over his elder son, but nonetheless Boromir carried about him an earnestness that would serve him well in his forthright dealings as he grew to manhood. "But don't you ever think I would let anyone hurt Faramir."
Had Imrahil any intention of letting Faramir be hurt, there would have been no mistaking the threat in Boromir's voice.
He put a hand on the boy's shoulder, remembering that Boromir was in fact a boy, however deeply he might feel the responsibility he bore. "If half of what Faramir tells me is true, I would have been blessed to have had an older brother such as you." Imrahil didn't mention that he'd spoken first to one of the attendants who'd accompanied his nephews from Minas Tirith, seeking a witness to Boromir's character before he could fully trust Faramir's loyalty to--or fear of--his brother. "Come now, and we can get this apologizing business over with."
Imrahil sent for his sister last. Since the death of his wife in childbed earlier in the year, Ivriniel had filled the roles of lady of the house, hostess, and stepmother to his young children, though he privately thought he'd best begin seeking a second bride soon. Bitter unwed sisters only served so long.
"They're a close-mouthed pair, but I prevailed upon them to confide in me finally. Evidently Faramir took your injunctions to clean his plate to heart, and he feared disappointing or offending you. You can be," Imrahil said gently, "the slightest bit prickly at times."
Ivriniel huffed. "Prickly or not, if I kept pressing food upon him, he should have seen it was kindly meant and spoken up. He must have a backbone in there somewhere."
Imrahil looked at his sister pityingly. "Ivriniel, I...don't think speaking up is an option where he comes from. I gather that expectations are expectations."
She was unconvinced. "How was I to judge his appetite if the food kept disappearing? Did he think I would force him to eat every bite until he was sick?"
"He might have thought that, yes," Imrahil said steadily. "I don't know. What troubles me is how quickly and instinctively Boromir stepped in to gloss over the difficult parts for him, never questioning that it was necessary. I do wonder what goes on in that home."
"Nothing good, I'm sure of it," she said darkly. "He'd be better off here."
"That is a possibility." Imrahil's demeanor remained calm, the perfect counterpoint to his sister's temperament. Some said she should have been the man in the family--she might have said it herself in an unguarded moment--but others found him easier to work with, politically and diplomatically.
"Ha!" she exulted. "You thought of it too."
"If the Lord Denethor is so unfond of his younger son, he might consider himself well rid of him. We are in the perfect position to offer fosterage, being close kin of the wife he loved-"
"Until he killed her," she interjected.
"He still loves her. You've not been to Minas Tirith since the funeral."
"I've not been because if I go, I'll tell him what I think of him, and there'll be civil war in the land, for he's a vindictive old bastard. You can go because so long as you don't remind him that he killed your sister, her ghost stands between you and renders him declawed by guilt." Imrahil was frowning at her skeptically, and she argued, "You find him less difficult and intimidating than most other men who must speak to him, do you not?"
"Perhaps," he conceded. Still she could not fluster him.
"Declawed," she repeated, smug at the thought that least one person held the upper hand on him.
"Well, do you wish to foster Faramir?"
Ivriniel shook her head impatiently. "If fosterage is offered, it'll be from you, not from me. You're the Prince of Dol Amroth. He's your brother-in-law."
"He's yours as much as mine-" he began in amusement.
"He is nothing to me!" she exploded. "I have no dealings with the man, and the sooner he joins 'the wife that he loved', the happier I'll be."
"I'll write the official letter, then. It may be best after all that you leave dealings with him to me. It must be your name that I invoke, though. I have sons of my own, and no excuse for needing the company of more. Nor have I any wish to let either of my children into his hands as part of an exchange of noble offspring."
That argument reached Ivriniel. "Use my name, then. We'll clear up this misunderstanding of tonight, and I think Faramir will be far better pleased to be brought up by me."
Denethor handled much of his correspondence personally, only in part from a disdainful opinion of his secretaries' grasp of complex affairs, and in large part because he wanted--needed--to remain apprised of all the matters of state. He read everything that came to his desk, and he would either draft the outline of a response and give it to an underling to flesh out, or in cases that warranted a full response from him, he would order only a fair copy to be made, without a word altered.
Correspondence from Dol Amroth might be either political or personal, given the ties with his late wife's family, and seeing that his sons were currently guests in the house of Imrahil, he subjected that envelope to the blade of his letter-opener first. There might be a note from Faramir enclosed, or from Boromir if he could be made to sit still. Denethor was under no illusions that the boy did anything but run wild while he was in his uncle's care, but he always permitted himself a secret smile when Boromir came home tanned and glowing. If only Finduilas...
Arresting that line of thought before it could lead down paths of grief and divert him from the morning's work under which his desk groaned, Denethor lifted the letter and began to read. His customary scowl deepened with each line. Some nonsense about Ivriniel being childless and lonely, and willing to take one or the other--ha!--of the boys on for an extended visit, or even a fosterage if the Steward should see political value in such an arrangement.
If she were lonely, why didn't the shrew marry and bear her own children? No, that deceitful boy had been complaining of his treatment again, however much he always denied it.
As though he couldn't see through that neutral "one or the other of the children," Denethor scoffed. Just let them try to keep his son from him against his will.
He wrote out the formal salutations of the letter impatiently, and then considered how best to open. Definitely a letter to write in his own hand.
Brother, he began with relish, I know you think me a fool, but...
Another difference between Dol Amroth and home was that in their bedchamber--which here they shared--they could hear their guardians shouting. If Denethor was furious at some failed mission, or an insult to his authority, distance and thick walls would keep them blissfully oblivious until morning.
"What does fosterage mean?" Faramir asked as quietly as he could. His tossing and turning had fed into Boromir's already uneasy imaginings, and Boromir knew sleep would be long in coming. They'd heard their names clearly, but the dialogue was too faint to follow, save for the occasional word uttered at higher volume. High-handed...denied...mistreatment...unfit. And fosterage.
Boromir moved first onto the rug between their beds, and Faramir followed, sitting cross-legged opposite him. His face was pale in the moonlight.
"Is it like hostage?"
Boromir suppressed a nervous laugh. Sometimes. He almost didn't want to explain, because he wasn't quite sure himself what was going on, but Faramir was always hearing things and picking up words faster than Boromir could keep up with. If he didn't learn it from Boromir, he'd find out soon enough.
"Fosterage is when two families--noble families--try to strengthen political ties by having the children of one brought up in the household of the other." Boromir hesitated, plucking at a loose thread on the rug. "I don't know how common it is or if it's even still practiced."
"Or whose idea it was?" Faramir asked, having grasped the essential point.
"No, no one's said aught to me."
"I want to go home," Faramir whispered, the one who'd been most eager to come here in the first place. So did Boromir, but he couldn't let his uncertainties show. Faramir was already too good at reading him.
"Do you want to come up for the night?" he asked with a gesture toward his bed. Faramir looked over Boromir's shoulder at the offered haven, tempted, but then he shook his head.
"I'm too old," he decided. "I'm not a baby."
"No," Boromir agreed. "Let's go camping, then. We'll pretend we're soldiers." He had to think of some distraction before Faramir overheard anything more to upset him. Boromir had to tell himself insistently that he hadn't heard the words "civil war" while they were talking; he'd simply misheard.
Faramir looked at him with a question in his eyes.
"You take the sheets from your bed--quietly--and I'll take mine, and I'll show you."
Three long days passed before the next development. Boromir seemed to forget the half-overheard row as soon as it was over, but Faramir kept thinking about what it might mean.
He tried to watch, he tried to learn, but he could never ask. He himself couldn't quite articulate why asking questions was so hard for him, when coming up with them by the dozen was effortless. All the reasons were jumbled in his mind. He was tired of being the younger one who always needed help and clarification; his tutors always praised his quickness, and so he feared asking a question that would make him look anything less than bright and perceptive; and the Lord Denethor was disinclined to explain himself anyway.
He missed his confidant, but Boromir had finally been successful in his campaign for a later bedtime despite the shared room, and so they had few chances to speak. Meals were more awkward since the confrontation, and the brothers were now seated across from each other--Ivriniel's idea or Imrahil's, they did not know. At least his portions were more manageable, though he still felt shame at needing the allowance made. That their cousins might long have had their portions distributed according to the appetite of each was not something that occurred to him, nor even to Boromir. Though cleaning one's plate might not be important in their home, it was an expectation here, and their duty as children was to obey.
On the third night, Boromir entered his bedchamber with skinned knees and a weary but happy smile. He didn't remember leaving his bed a mess--in fact he hadn't been near it since he bounced out first thing in the morning--but there was a definite dark lumpen shape about it, barely visible in the light of the candle he carried and now held over it.
The form was stirring even now, because Boromir had forgotten to be quiet when he entered, and he knew what it must be.
"Too old-" he began lightly, and he blinked against the sudden onslaught of explanation.
"You keep coming in late, and I'm always asleep, and I wanted to talk to you," Faramir rattled off, his words tumbling over one another in desperate haste. "It was a strategic position!" he burst out, defying his brother to tease him.
Boromir, who'd been preparing to do just that, sighed. "Very well, calm down, don't let anyone hear you. What brings you here?"
Faramir sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed, grinding the sleep from his eyes with his fists. Boromir set down the candle near the wash basin and sat beside him. Evidently Faramir was too old to share a bed for comfort, as they had not done since shortly after their mother died, years before.
"They asked me today if I want to stay here, in Dol Amroth, when you go back to Minas Tirith. They can't make me, can they?"
Boromir's eyes widened. He'd feared something of this sort, though unsure how it would play out. "I take it you wouldn't rather? What did you say?"
"I didn't know what to say," Faramir confessed. "I don't want to ruin 'political ties'. Can they make me?"
"No, of course not," Boromir reassured him, but both brothers knew that what "they" could or could not do was all but a moot point; it was what "he", Steward of Gondor, could do. "I won't leave you here alone."
"I know you wouldn't, but what if they make you?"
"I just won't go, that's all." Boromir was not unused to pretending a confidence he didn't feel. He had a nagging sense, from listening to instruction and stories, that with a life of military and political leadership ahead of him, he'd best learn early and well the art of bluffing. "Father'll have me out in a trice, and you'll be with me, and all will be well."
"What if Father doesn't want me back?" Faramir asked, in barely a whisper.
"He does. I won't leave you here."
"What if they don't give you a choice, though?" Faramir pressed.
"You're coming with me," Boromir insisted. "I decide."
As much as he adored his brother, Faramir knew enough of Boromir's limits to be skeptical of the more grandiose claims, but he couldn't help letting himself be reassured anyway.
"Stubborn rock," he said affectionately. It was their private joke: Faramir, already displaying an early gift for language, had argued that if "boron-mir" were an "enduring jewel", another word for jewel was stone, or rock, and in that case "enduring" could mean only one thing. "Aptly named," he always teased.
"Get on to bed, then, little brother who's almost not little any more. Go on. I won't let anything happen."
They left Dol Amroth riding side by side on horseback, summoned home early by the Steward. Faramir took his leave of his mother's family with mixed feelings, already dreading the lecture he sensed was looming in the north, but relieved not to be left behind, unwanted and forgotten.
"Told you so," Boromir vaunted.
"You can't fool me," Faramir retorted, leaning over to speak softly, edging as close as his pony would let him get to a larger horse. "You had naught to do with this decision."
"Hush." Boromir winked. "I decide. You're coming home with me."