"Faramir?" Boromir thrust his head between the pillar and the wall, ducked beneath the lintel, and squinted. His body blocked most of the light, and for a moment he could barely make out the shape of his brother hunched over a company of wooden soldiers. "There you are. Why did you not answer me when I called?"
Faramir looked up, but still did not answer. His wooden army had been sadly reduced to a handful of infantry and one lopsided cart. Two of the soldiers had been stood on their heads in the cart, and three more were lined up on Faramir's knee. Boromir decided not to ask.
He pulled himself into the crawlspace. He was only ten, but lately he had to scrunch down and twist to get through the low, narrow entrance; in another year he might not fit at all. Faramir, only half Boromir's age and size, might be glad to have their refuge to himself, but for now he shifted back to make room for his brother. "Here," Faramir said as soon as Boromir settled next to him, and handed him one of the leftover soldiers.
"Thank you." Boromir held the soldier, uncertain what the game was, while Faramir pushed the cart with its bizarre cargo back and forth across the narrow space. "I couldn't find you anywhere. I checked here twice before."
Small hands marched another pair of soldiers up to the cart. In they went, joining their fellows in upside down confinement.
Boromir turned his own soldier around in his hands, keeping it proper side up, although it was difficult to tell. Finlon, Captain of their mother's guard, had made these for Boromir when he had been even younger than Faramir was now. Little more than painted wooden pegs even in their glory, they had long since faded into dim brown shades of their former selves, but Faramir had eagerly appropriated them as soon as he was old enough to know what they were.
"Why do you still play with these? Finlon just made you a whole new set for your birthday." Five small squadrons, in fact, one for every year of Faramir's life, and beautifully carved, but so far they had remained untouched in their box. If Boromir were not too old to play with such things on his own, he would have gladly taken them himself.
Faramir held out his hand without looking. Boromir gave him the last soldier, who promptly suffered the doom of his companions. The brothers stared in silence at the cart of upside down wooden warriors, until at last Faramir sighed and slumped sideways to lean against Boromir. "I want to see Mama."
Boromir echoed his sigh. "You cannot. You know Father said so."
"Why? You went. She loves me, too, you know."
"Of course she does. You know that."
"Then why can't I see her?"
He turned his face a little, watched his breath stir the fine hair on the top of his brother's head. He could see the breaths themselves, misting into the cold air, and he remembered why they rarely came to this comfortless stone nook in the winter. "I do not know."
Never had he been capable of lying to Faramir, and even this half-truth scratched at his conscience. For although he did not fully understand their meaning, he still remembered the words his father had spoken, and the chill of foreboding they sent through him.
No, not Faramir. He is too young to understand. Let him remember his mother as she was before, not like this.
"You wouldn't have liked to be there," he added. "Mother was asleep almost the entire time. It tired her, being brought home from the Houses."
Asleep, apart from one weary smile and a brush of her fingers across his face. They had let him sit with her for a few excruciating minutes, measured by her rattling breaths. Then his father had come, laid a hand on his head, and drawn him away from her bedside.
She is tired now, Boromir. It is time to leave.
Faramir pulled away to look at him. The set of his face recalled Denethor in council, brows drawn and lips pressed, when backing down was not a possibility. "If she's asleep, then I won't bother her if I'm there. Please, Boromir."
Boromir gnawed at his lip. She had always wanted to see Faramir, when she was in the Houses of Healing. She surely would have asked for him now that she was home, if she had not been so weary from the trip. It could do no harm, to let Faramir see that she was safe and recovering. "Just for a minute," he said slowly.
Faramir's head bobbed, and his eyes lit up. "Just for a minute."
Denethor had left two guards at the entryway to the private chambers of the Steward and his Lady. Boromir peered around the corner, shoving Faramir back behind him. Agnos, and of course, Finlon. Agnos he might have been able to deal with, but he knew from long experience that as much as Finlon adored his Lady's children, they could not wheedle him if he thought it would compromise her interests. Boromir had no doubt this would be one of those occasions.
"Not this way," he whispered. "Come on. We'll go in through the back."
Pulling Faramir behind him, he backtracked through the family wing, through their own rooms to the back corridor. His brother followed without question, but he quailed when Boromir started up the short flight of stairs that led to their father's private study. "No, we can't go in there!" he hissed, pulling back against Boromir's grip.
"He won't be in there, silly." Boromir gave him a sharp tug to move him forward again. "He's in with his council. He said he would be."
The business of Gondor will not wait for our grief to be done. Summon me only if she wakes again.
There were no guards posted here; there never were, for who would dare enter the private sanctum of the Lord of the City without his leave? Even his sons had never played there unless Denethor invited them to do so. A chill crawled through Boromir's innards. It was not the usual pleasant tingle of the forbidden, but a gripping cold. The heavy, dark wood of his father's desk seemed to loom over him, though his head had cleared the top of it for over a year.
"You're hurting my arm. Let go." Faramir was trying to pull his hand free, although his wide eyes looked as spooked as Boromir felt.
"Then walk faster so I don't have to drag you," Boromir retorted, but he relaxed his grip on his brother's fingers. "Come on, through here."
A small, undecorated door stood at the back of the study, hidden from the casual visitor by a cleverly angled credenza. Boromir laid his palm flat against the plain wood and pressed, feather light. It gave a hair's breadth - unlatched, as he had counted on.
He pushed a little harder, easing the door open with only a slight creak to betray them. When he had won a gap exactly as wide as he was, he sidled through and around it. "Carefully," he whispered. "Remember, there are steps on this side."
Faramir slipped through without brushing either door or jamb and joined Boromir on the short stair. He retook Boromir's hand, but dragged his feet when Boromir took a step down. "We should close it."
"Hush," Boromir responded instinctively, though Faramir's voice had barely been audible. "There's no point. We'll need to get back through later."
He pulled Faramir down the rest of the steps. A screen hid the sitting room of the Steward's family quarters; Boromir poked his head around it. A fire burned low in the hearth, but the room was empty of people.
Go now. All of you. You can do nothing more here. You never could.
They scurried across the room to the west suite and their parents' bed chamber. The door stood ajar, and Boromir pushed it open with even more care for silence than he had shown in the study. He entered, and after a moment, Faramir followed.
Light poured down through the high windows. The scent of flowers and steaming herbs filled the room to drive out the sickness, and Boromir inhaled deeply, his heart already lightening. Their mother lay still in the center of their parents' great cedar bed, swathed in a snowy down cover.
"Mother?" Boromir called softly as they approached the bed. A shiver ran through his brother; he felt it through their joined hands. "Mother, I've brought Faramir to see you."
She did not move or answer, and he thought she was still asleep. But then her eyelids fluttered and her head turned toward them. "Faramir," she said, her voice a wispy, raspy breath.
"Mama," Faramir cried and broke away from Boromir to clamber onto the bed, all his hesitance forgotten.
"My baby boy." Her fingers lifted from the covers just enough to brush Faramir's arm. Her gaze flicked to Boromir. Although her face had the hue of the grey wall behind her, her eyes shone like dark stones in the river. "Thank you, Boromir."
"Mama, I won a great battle. There were lots of men and horses and birds...."
Boromir, who had seen neither horses nor birds on Faramir's battlefield, unless they had perished early and thoroughly in the campaign, shook his head and turned away to tend to more adult things. The fire had died low, letting the chill creep back into the room. Boromir tossed in sticks from the kindling box until it crackled fiercely once more.
"Then Boromir came and helped me, even though we already won...."
The fire restored, Boromir wandered to the table set with jugs of warm water for washing and cool for drinking. Their mother's voice was so hoarse; she needed a draught to soothe her throat.
"I wanted to bring you the prisoners, but I forgot them. I can bring them later if you want, Mama...."
Someone had refilled the pitcher recently, and it felt heavy as he lifted it. He could not spare a hand to steady the cup, so he poured with great care, biting his lip in concentration.
The water formed a graceful crystal arc from one vessel to the other, shaking only once from his unsteady grip.
Faramir's shriek sent the blood surging through him. He whirled around; his hands flew apart and the jug crashed to the floor.
Finduilas lay in exactly the same position as she had when Boromir turned away. Her gaze was still turned to Faramir, but her eyes had gone cold and dull as they stared up at and through her son who knelt beside her. Faramir shook her arm, his pleas beginning to fragment into sobs.
Boromir slipped and stumbled, cut his hands as he caught himself on the shards of the pitcher. He had seen that look before, in the Houses of Healing, in the eyes of an old soldier who had just rattled his final breath. His father had pulled him away, and they had not spoken of it until much later.
He had to do that now. He had to pull Faramir away, but when he finally reached the bed, Faramir resisted Boromir's hands. "Boromir! Something's wrong with Mama. She can't hear me."
He pulled again, harder, at Faramir's arms, but his brother jerked from his grasp. At last Boromir had no choice but to climb onto the bed behind Faramir, and using all the leverage of his greater weight, wrenched Faramir around.
"Don't," Faramir moaned, but he stopped struggling and let Boromir pull him close so as to hide his eyes in Boromir's shirt.
"Shh." Boromir stroked the back of Faramir's head, holding him fast against his shoulder. Over his brother's back, he met his mother's dead gaze.
They stayed locked in that pose as a slow age passed. Boromir could hear water dripping: probably the familiar sound of the water clock their mother had brought from her home in Dol Amroth, but it might have been the water he spilled, dripping and running and ruining the rugs. He should go look, clean it up, but he could not look away from his mother's face.
Do something, her lifeless eyes demanded.
But what? he asked her silently, his own eyes wide with growing fright. What had his father done, that first time Boromir had seen someone die? He had pulled Boromir back, then he had reached down and closed the dead man's eyes.
Boromir had done the first, but could not do the second. He stretched one arm out, but he could not touch his mother's face. Faramir was heavy and awkward in his arms, still trembling. Hot tears dampened his shirt where his brother's face pressed against him. If he moved, if he let go, Faramir would pull free, he would turn, he would see her again.
"I'm sorry, Mama." Boromir choked down a rising sob of panic. "I can't."
Outside the door, footsteps thumped and pattered down the hall, carrying the voices of several people closer. It seemed forever before the door opened and the murmurs became intelligible.
"I could swear I heard a crash. Lady Finduilas, are you hurt?"
"Boromir? What are--? Both of them! Finlon, Agnos, how did they get in here?"
"Not past us. Where is the nurse? Asleep by the fire, I do not doubt."
Then the shouting began in earnest.
Hands grasped at them, trying to pull them from the bed, pull them apart, but Boromir kept his arms locked around his shaking brother and his eyes locked on his mother. Guards, maids, and people he did not even recognize bent over her, felt at her neck and wrists and mouth, but no one closed her eyes. The tremors from Faramir began to echo in Boromir. A scream was rising in his throat, and he swallowed hard, forcing it down. Just when he was sure it would choke him, he heard the door slam hard against the wall. One of the maids gasped. Boromir let out a long, ragged breath in relief. Their father was there.
"Lord Denethor." All around them, people genuflected, though only Finlon found the voice to speak. "My lord, your wife-"
"Get out." Denethor's grim voice came from just above them, and his hand closed over Boromir's shoulder. "All of you, get out. Now."
The chamber emptied as quickly as it had filled. The door shut, softly, and their family was alone.
"Boromir. You can let go of your brother now. I think he wishes to breathe." Denethor stroked his hand over the top of Boromir's head, and he found himself able to unlock his grip on Faramir.
Their father sat down on the bed in front of them and eased Faramir from Boromir's arms. Faramir whimpered and tried to slide away, but Denethor held him, then gently, but inexorably, turned him to face their mother's body.
"Do not be afraid!" he said softly. "Follow your brother's example. You are not afraid, are you, Boromir?"
"No, Father," said Boromir, wishing his voice held a stronger note of truth.
"Mama is dead." Faramir stared at her slack face in just the way Boromir had striven to prevent, unheeded tears spilling from eyes wide with horror. Boromir wanted to grab him back, hide him from it again, thus defying its reality.
"Yes, Faramir. This is death. Look on it well and know it." Denethor sounded as calm as though he were speaking of history long past. He had known, Boromir slowly realized, as even Faramir had known in his own way. Everyone must have known that the Lady of the City had not come home to get better. Everyone but Boromir.
His father's voice drew him back from the looming edge of grief. "The days are growing darker, my son, and you will see the face of death many times. But you will be a commander of men, and your duty is to teach them not to fear. That is the greatest thing you can do for them, and for those who have died."
With that, Denethor stretched out his hand and passed it over his wife's face. "My Finduilas," he murmured, and then at last her eyes were closed.
Inside Boromir, something snapped, and he slumped down like a broken puppet. Denethor turned and put his hand back on Boromir's shoulder, the same hand that had shut their mother's eyes. Boromir fought the urge to cringe away.
"My small soldiers," their father said. "You are already the strength of Gondor, are you not?"
"Yes, Father," Boromir answered by rote.
"I know you have questions, both of you. Do you wish to talk more now?"
"Yes, Papa." It was Faramir this time who replied. Faramir always had questions, and although his cheeks still shone with the tears Boromir was too old to shed, his eyes had already begun to glimmer with his need for answers.
The smell of herbs and fire suddenly clogged Boromir's nose and throat. "No, Father," he choked out. It was unbearable. Sliding out from under his father's hand, he fled from the room.
Hours passed and the sun had long since set before Boromir sought company again. Even then he avoided the somber populace of the Citadel, looking only in the places he thought his brother might be. He had spent most of the day rebuilding his courage, and the mournful sympathy he saw in every face threatened to flatten it once more.
Faramir was not in his bedroom, nor the playroom, and when Boromir thrust a candle into their hiding place, he found only the toy cart, now empty of its unhappy wooden passengers. At last he dared to approach his father's study door again, hoping that Denethor's mood would be mild enough to help him find his brother and then let them be. To his surprise, the room stood empty, save for a small figure kneeling before the fire, concentrating on some task that left him oblivious to Boromir's entry. "Faramir?"
His brother looked up. His eyes were still red from weeping, but his features were still and calm. "There you are," he said, then looked back into the fire. "I wanted to look for you before, but Pa-Father said you needed to be alone."
"Just for a little while." Boromir knelt next to his brother.
"It's all right. But I'm glad you want to be with me again." Faramir had the last remnants of his grand army arrayed on the hearth rug before him. As he spoke, he took two of them with great care and cast them into the blaze.
Aghast, Boromir cried out and tried to seize Faramir's hands. "What are you doing?"
"Father said we should burn the dead, like we used to." Faramir lined up two more of the fallen on the edge of the fire.
Boromir grabbed for them, but he was too late to save them from tipping into the flames. "Stop it! You have no right. They're not yours!"
"They're not yours anymore, either," Faramir shot back. "They don't belong to anyone. They're dead."
"No!" Boromir seized the last soldier and clutched it defiantly in his fist. "They were mine, not yours, and you can't just destroy them."
They stared at each other in tense silence. His hand ached around the wooden figure as Boromir glared into his brother's reddened grey eyes. In that moment, he hated Faramir, with an intensity that frightened him. He hated him for crying, for taking the comfort of their father's embrace, for not having to be the brave one, the grown up one, but pretending to be so wise and staid now.
"No!" he shouted again, and hurled the toy into the fireplace with such force that it bounced off the back wall and flew out again, making Faramir flinch from the shower of sparks. His fists clenched in front of him, and a scream of rage rose up too swiftly from him to control it. Nor did he want to. He knew he was frightening Faramir, but he could not stop shouting until his voice hoarsened into nothing.
Then he crumpled, panting, head dropping down to stare at his cramping hands. "It's mine," he whispered. "You can't take it away."
A dark head intruded into his field of vision, and then small arms wrapped around his neck. His own arms moved by instinct to encircle his brother. "I'm yours, too," Faramir whispered into his ear. "No one will take me if you don't let them."
"I won't." His sight blurred from the tears that splashed onto the dark hair under his cheek. The first sob tore at his scoured throat, breaking the dam of his carefully constructed stoicism; after that he could do no more than let his grief wrack his body as it poured out of him.
Eventually the flood died down to a spattering of hiccups. Faramir, who had held still and solid in Boromir's convulsive embrace, wriggled a little to get free. Embarrassed, Boromir let go of him entirely, but Faramir only shifted to lean sideways against him, and they sat together in silence for a while.
He could not see Faramir's face, but the tone of this voice left no doubt that he wore a familiar pensive frown. "Yes?"
"Are they going to burn Mama, do you think?"
Boromir closed his eyes and swallowed against a swell of nausea. Faramir was developing a penchant for morbidity that could not be normal for anyone, let alone a boy of only five summers. "No, of course not."
"Good. It doesn't seem like a nice thing to do to someone."
"It isn't. It's barbaric, whatever idea Father may have put into your addled head. Mother will be buried in Rath Dinen, with Grandfather, and Father when he dies."
"And you'll go there, too, won't you?"
"No. You heard Father. We're to be soldiers. We'll die gloriously on the field of battle and be buried where we fall."
Faramir craned his neck to look up at him, still frowning. "I don't think I would like that, either."
"Then just throw yourself off the battlements now and be done with it. Then we'll all have peace and quiet for a change."
Ignoring him, Faramir crawled to the other side of the hearth and stretched himself out under a table for a moment. He came back clutching something which he thrust into Boromir's hands: the last faded soldier, only slightly scorched from his brush with the inferno.
"He's yours, too. We can bury him. Or he doesn't have to be dead, if you don't want him to be."
Boromir held up the toy and considered its fate. It had been made out of love and long used with love, but in the end, it was only an object, and a silly thing to cry over. He smiled and handed it back to Faramir. "You can keep it for me, if you want."
Faramir took it, and what was left of the painted wooden face looked glad for the reprieve as Faramir tucked it away in his belt. "We could give him to Mama," he suggested hesitantly. "He could guard her, like Finlon does."
"I think that is a fine idea. Your mother would like that, very much."
Twisting his neck, Boromir saw his father standing over them. Denethor's eyes glittered wetly, but his mouth curved in a gentle smile.
"I'm sorry-" Boromir started to say, still ashamed that he had run, but Denethor bent and kissed his brow, silencing him.
"Hush, my son. Even the bravest man must sometimes seek his peace in solitude." Denethor scooped Faramir from Boromir's lap, kissing him as well. "Now, my little warriors, I shall bear you to your beds. Your mother and your City will have great need of your courage on the morrow."
Boromir was indeed weary now, so weary that it did not seem strange to be lifted up in his father's arms as he had not been since he was little older than Faramir. The ache in his head and throat dragged at him, drawing his eyes shut, and he sighed. Tomorrow he would be brave. He would be strong. He would be everything his father asked of him. And no one would take away what he loved again.