Disclaimer: The usual – I own no one, etc. etc.
Note: This story stands alone, but makes a little more sense if you read "An Evening Together" first. This one is the second in a series looking at the relationships between the Steward's family.
Ties Broken by a Sword
Denethor strode down the hallway, one hand rubbing his temple. Only ten o'clock and already the headache was making its presence known. He stopped a moment, since the corridor was deserted, and pressed both hands against his head. The pain only seemed to slide away from his fingers, then quickly returned when he removed his hands. He cursed quietly before resuming his steps. It had been weeks since he had made his first and so far only attempt with the palantir. The simple act of touching the polished stone had caused a headache so severe he had feared he would be unable to get back to his chambers without fainting. Once there he had vomited violently, nearly overcome by the sensations roiling through him. It had been several hours before he felt himself once more.
That had frightened the proud Steward of Gondor, more than he wanted to admit, even to himself. He had been so sure that the palantir could be used by one who understood it, realized the danger and kept a wary eye. He was still sure of that, but his confidence in his own ability had been shaken. He argued with himself, his pride insisting that as Steward he had the right to use the palantir; not just the right but the duty. Sauron's armies crept closer to Gondor year by year, growing more and more bold. It was his responsibility to protect Gondor, and he meant to use whatever tools he had at his disposal.
But the price, the other side of his mind asked, can you pay it? Can you open yourself to whatever knowledge will come? Can you risk the Dark Lord looking into your heart, the way you want to peer into his? He had been sure that he could, that the risk would be worth it, in the end. But he had learned nothing in those few seconds that his hand grasped the globe, and ever since had been plagued with the throbbing pain in his skull almost daily. He had yet to work up his courage to try again.
Unconsciously he raised his hand and massaged his head as he continued down the hallway. Reaching the door, he barely noticed the guard who opened it for him and saluted. He passed through without a word, his mind on both the pounding ache in his head and the troop figures he was on his way to validate.
Outside the bright summer sunshine stabbed into his eyes and he stumbled for a few steps. Unexpectedly the pain increased and he felt hot bile in his mouth for a second before he swallowed. He stopped and forced himself to draw a shaky breath. Closing his eyes and shielding them with his hand, he stood thus for a moment, willing himself to push the pain down, refusing to let it take him.
"My Lord?" the door guard's voice startled him. "Are you well?"
"Of course I am well!" he snapped, forcing his eyes open and facing the man, whose own eyes were full of concern. "Look to your duty, sir."
"Yes, sir." The guard drew back uncertainly.
Denethor turned away and started down the pathway. He walked quickly across the white stone pavement, wanting to both finish his errand and get away from the guard's curiosity. At least he was facing away from the sun, now. Its heat on his back, through his dark robe, felt comforting rather than painful. The spasm in his head faded to a dull thump. He clutched the list of figures in his hand as he moved through the uppermost level of Minas Tirith, his thoughts only partly on the numbers he needed to discuss with his commanders, while the rest of his mind wrestled with the idea of trying the palantir once again.
If these headaches were to be a permanent reminder of his original attempt with the seeing stone, perhaps he had nothing to lose by trying once more. Something had to be done. The numbers on his lists were discouraging and frightening. Gondor was slowly but surely being overrun, invaded bit by bit in the south and east by enemies. True, there was no danger of the city itself being attacked this year, or even next, but little by little Sauron was encroaching upon their lands. His lands. Each foot of ground lost was a piece they could not afford to give up. Denethor stiffened. He must find a way to defend Gondor. If the palantir demanded his pain to reveal its secrets, so be it.
He was almost past the practice ground before the sound of voices caught his attention. He could hear faint conversation and the metallic thump of the padded swords that were sometimes used for practice. Turning abruptly, he changed direction and headed for the arched entryway, stopping short just inside the doorway. He remained unseen in the shadows and watched the scene before him.
Two young men stood in the practice yard, their swords held before them. Denethor let himself admire them for a moment, his young princes, for indeed they were in their father's eyes. They were both tall and well-formed, their dark hair lightly brushing their shoulders and although similar in coloring and movement, it was easy to tell them apart. At sixteen, the younger did not yet have his mature form, but even full grown he would be slighter in build, never quite as broad as his brother, who stood before him now taunting good-naturedly.
"Come now, little brother, try again," Boromir's voice was both encouraging and teasing.
Faramir said nothing, only gripped his sword tighter and nodded, his face immobile.
"All right, then, one, two, now," said the elder as they began slowly moving through a practice sequence. "One, two, one, two, three, good," Boromir began to speed up the drill as he counted through the moves. "Again, one, two, one, two," They moved faster now, and Denethor could see that Faramir was having difficulty fending off the thrusts by Boromir, who pressed his advantage. "One, two, three –" Boromir feinted, catching his brother off guard. Faramir pressed forward, only to be tripped up by his brother and end up on his hands and knees in the dirt.
"Wrong!" laughed Boromir, reaching out his hand to help him up from the dusty ground. "Try it again." Shaking his arm to release the tension, Faramir raised his sword again.
Denethor followed their practice with interest, noting with dissatisfaction how Boromir held back this time, allowing his younger brother to catch himself several times. The pain in the back of Denethor's skull, which had eased somewhat before, now grew, became an insistent hammering. Did Boromir not realize he did his brother no service by easing up? Did Faramir understand what he was doing? The Steward grimaced. Twice more they went through the drill, beginning slowly, then speeding up. Each time Faramir was knocked flat in the end by his bigger brother. Denethor watched as Boromir pulled his younger sibling to his feet once again. "Your feet are too big," he said, shaking his head. "You need to grow into them." He wiped his sweating face with his sleeve. "And that sword." He looked up at the sun. "That's enough for now."
"Indeed?" Both young men looked up in surprise as their father stepped from the shadowed doorway. "Do you always leave a lesson unlearned?" Denethor felt the pressure in his head increase to an excruciating level as he moved into the sunshine again. He noted the looks on their faces, surprise on Boromir's; open dismay on Faramir's. They exchanged dubious glances. Their father's behavior had been erratic of late, and his sudden appearance combined with the easily read displeasure on his features raised their guard. He walked toward them, frowning his disapproval.
"You cheat your brother by holding back your attack," he hissed accusingly at Boromir. "No enemy will give him that consideration. How can he learn to defend himself if you do not push him?" He stopped beside his eldest and put a hand on his shoulder. "I know your motivation; your affection for him." His gaze shifted to the younger boy beside him. "This is not the place for it."
He turned to Faramir with a deep frown. "And you, you should not let your brother's love be used to excuse your poor effort." Faramir's grey eyes darkened mutinously and he opened his mouth, then reconsidered and clamped it shut.
"Father!" Boromir tried to defend his brother. "He only learned that drill last week. And that is a new sword, heavier than his last. He is doing well with it."
"You think so, do you?" Denethor's voice held a dangerous note. "Perhaps against one who does not fight to win, one who pulls back his thrusts and does not take advantage of mistakes. There are no orcs or easterlings like that, boy." He looked at Faramir and shook his head, inadvertently sending the pain coursing down his spine. He suppressed a groan. "They would cut you to ribbons." As he spoke, he had a sudden mental picture of his younger son being torn apart by a horde of shrieking orcs. Combined with the pulsing agony in his head, the thought sent a nauseating shudder through him. He ground his teeth together and turned hard eyes upon his sons. "Do it again."
They looked at him for only a moment before returning to their practice positions. "Ready?" Boromir's voice was uneven. "One, two, one, two." They went through the moves again, slowly and evenly. This time Faramir managed to hold his own.
"Again," Denethor growled under his breath. They repeated the drill. As they did, he glared at Boromir. "Speed it up." Boromir began moving faster, thrusting his sword toward Faramir with greater intensity and swiftness. The younger boy tried to ward off the moves, but he was no match for the five years and forty pounds the older had on him. He tripped, as he had before, and would have fallen yet again, if Boromir had not suddenly stepped back, interrupting the sequence.
"What are you doing?" Denethor looked at him with fury.
"Father, it's not fair, I'm so much bigger than he is," he said, trying to keep his voice reasonable. "We were just practicing when you came…"
Denethor felt both his headache and his anger blossom into rage. "Just practicing?" he sneered. "The object of practice is to learn to do it right, isn't it?" The younger man said nothing, only shifted his eyes away from his father. "Very well," said Denethor. "Come, Faramir, you and I will try some 'practicing.'" He stripped off his robe, tossing it and his infantry list into the doorway behind him and stood before his sons in his tunic and trousers. He held out his hand for Boromir's sword. Reluctantly he handed it to him, shooting a commiserating look at Faramir as he stepped away from them.
Denethor wrapped his hand around the pommel and swung the blade experimentally a few times. Drawing himself up into the ready position he faced his son, trying to read those inscrutable grey eyes. Faramir took up his position, his mouth a tight line slashed across his face.
"Ready, one, two, one, two." Denethor moved through the drill, a familiar one he himself had learned more than 40 years ago. As he plied the sword, he found his mind working coldly. He must make sure Faramir could protect himself, ensure that he would be able to hold his own when the time came. He doesn't realize, he thought to himself as he parried the boy's blows with little effort. He does not understand what he will be fighting against. With a slight twist to the right he managed to deceive Faramir, who lunged to meet him and ended up on the ground once more.
"NO!" shouted Denethor, feeling as though his head might burst. "You cannot do it that way." Reaching down he jerked Faramir to his feet. "Do you want to die, boy?" He pushed him away and raised his sword again. It was easy to read Faramir's eyes, now. They burned with anger as he picked up his sword and resumed his stance.
Good, thought Denethor. Hate me, want to hurt me. Make killing me your goal and let's see what you can do. He had the metallic taste of his pain in his mouth, now, mixed with the oily one of fear for his more temperate son. Suddenly he reached down and pulled the padding from his sword.
His eyes flashing, Faramir immediately did the same. Casting aside the leather wrapping, he faced his father. Though his expression showed nothing, Denethor could feel his rage and resentment. They tensed, ready to begin.
"Father!" Boromir's voice caught them both unaware. They had forgotten he was watching. "That is too dangerous –" He faltered, taken aback by the identical icy gazes he received from both father and brother. At any other time Boromir might have laughed at how much Denethor and Faramir looked alike at this moment, but now all he could feel was surprise and a little uneasiness.
Ignoring him, they returned to their positions.
"Ready?" Denethor asked. Faramir nodded once, a quick jerk of the head. "One, two, one, two, three." The sound of clashing metal now rang out across the practice yard, no longer muffled, but piercing the morning air. Denethor stepped forward, driving his son before him as he continued counting. "One, two, one, two, one, two, three." The splitting pain in his head seemed to strengthen him and he held nothing back, putting all his weight, skill and years of experience into his assault. He could feel his heart pounding, matching the pounding in his head as he swung the sword. With a crushing downward stroke he knocked the sword from Faramir's hand and forced him back until he fell. Before he realized it, his sword lay against Faramir's throat. He stood over him, his breath coming in ragged little gasps.
"My Lord! My Lord!" Boromir's words seemed to come from far away. Denethor shook his head, trying to clear out some of the pain, and looked at his eldest, standing only a few steps away, his hand reaching out toward his father, his face pale. "My Lord, you have bested him," he said softly. Returning his gaze to the boy at his feet, he saw a thin line of blood creeping out from where the tip of his sword was pressed against Faramir's flesh. The eyes that met Denethor's were hard, glittering with fury and haunted with just a hint of fear. Remorse swept over him as he instantly moved the sword.
"Faramir, I'm sorry, I got carried away." He put out a hand to help him up, but Faramir gave him a dark look and got to his feet unaided. Retrieving his sword he shook his arm a little and once more assumed the ready position.
Denethor closed his eyes briefly and rubbed a hand over his face. What was wrong with him? He could have killed him. For just a moment it was as if he had forgotten who he was fighting. It was this headache. He wondered for just a moment if the encounter with the palantir had done more than just cause him pain. Had there been some sort of injury inside his head? He opened his eyes and looked at his son before him. Faramir stood ready, his body taut and his eyes flat, without emotion. Wordlessly, Denethor turned and handed his sword over to Boromir. Gathering up his robe and his paperwork from the doorway, he walked away from his sons.
Once he had moved out of sight of the practice yard he stopped and leaned his head against the stone wall beside him. Was he was going mad? Had the palantir broken his mind? He pressed his forehead against the cool stone, feeling his pulse thundering through his head. Perhaps the stress of ruling Gondor had finally overwhelmed him. He took a deep, shuddering breath. Steps coming toward him pulled him upright instantly and he was composed when Boromir rounded the corner.
"Father?" He stopped, then continued forward hesitantly. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine." He tried to smile reassuringly. Boromir did not look convinced. He frowned as he approached his father.
"What happened back there?" His grey eyes, so like his brother's, except that Boromir's were always so easy for his father to read, now showed worry and concern, and something else carefully held in check. "You cut him!" His tone was reproachful.
"I know," Denethor felt another pang of guilt. "I'm sorry -".
"I told you it was dangerous –" Boromir interrupted angrily. "Why didn't you listen?" He stood before his father, hands planted on his hips. "Why do you always push him so hard?"
Denethor felt his own anger return. "How dare you speak to me in that tone." His voice was hushed but held a warning. "Just because you are of age does not mean you can address me in such a manner." He felt the jagged pain move across the back of his head.
"He loves you, can you not see it? He tries. He wants your approval." Boromir lowered his voice slightly but it remained sharp. "He does not understand why you will not give it. Nor do I." Denethor said nothing and he continued. "You hurt him, today," Boromir said, the edge creeping back into to his voice. "More than you know, more than a cut on the neck. You embarrassed him. You scared him." He stared into his father's face, his own puzzled. Sighing, he went on. "You do not even commend the things at which he excels, his studies and music, things that I know you yourself enjoy." He saw his father's face darkening with anger and hurried on. "Do you know he can tell you every Steward and every King, in order, back to Isildur himself? He knows their years of rule, their children, their history. Did you know he can sing every one of those stupid Elvish songs in that blue book in the library? Can you not speak well of one thing that he does?"
Without warning Denethor's hand shot out and grasped Boromir's sleeve. He pulled his eldest away from the wall, toward the edge of the path, his hand like iron on his son's arm. Boromir allowed himself to be dragged along, confused and slightly alarmed by his father's behavior this day. Reaching the low stone wall that edged the walkway, Denethor roughly turned him to face the east. A black cloud hung over the mountains, its underside glowing brightly with the reflection of lava and flame, while the distant rumble of thunder could be felt, more than heard.
"Look to the east, Boromir. Do you see that? THAT is your future, and your brother's." He spat the words out. "When Sauron's armies come; when Gondor is invaded and your brother is being hacked to death by an orc's blade, no one will care about Elvish songs." His eyes were desperate as he stared into his son's face. "There will be no one to hear about the lines of Kings and Stewards if our country is destroyed by the Dark Lord." He released Boromir's arm as if the touch burned and stared towards Mordor with haunted eyes. "There will be nothing but death and suffering," he muttered. "If we do not find a way…"
He turned to back to Boromir, a grim look on his face. "Tell your brother I'm sorry," he said stiffly. "It was not my intent to harm him."
"You should tell him, Father." Boromir's voice was cool.
"No, he would not listen to me, not now." Denethor said. "I will depend on your good will to make him see."
"But –" Boromir could see he had made the decision and stopped himself. His father's actions had been odd, lately, and this morning's events were most alarming. Better to not risk further angering him. "Yes, my Lord." He bowed slightly and walked away with his head down, feeling that he had accomplished nothing.
Denethor watched him go with the uncomfortable awareness that something had changed today, between his sons and him. Something was now irretrievably broken. He could not pinpoint it, could not identify exactly what it was, but some thin thread that bound them all together had been broken. He stood on the pathway for a long while, sickened by both the realization and the agony in his head, which had once again flared to a horrific level.
Gathering both his thoughts and his wits, and setting his jaw against the pain, he turned back to his original course and headed toward his commander's headquarters. He had made his decision. He would attempt the palantir again, tonight, regardless of the pain it produced. Perhaps he could find a way to keep his country safe and his sons unharmed.
When Boromir returned to the practice area, he found Faramir still running through the motions of the drill. It was after eleven, and Boromir could see his brother's face was drawn with exhaustion. His arm trembled from the strain of holding the heavy sword.
"Faramir," he called, "Stop. Let's go get something to eat."
"Come, now." Boromir approached him and tried to take the sword from his hand.
Angrily Faramir jerked it away. "Leave me alone." He tried to continue with his practice but he was worn out and slow and in time-honored big brother fashion, Boromir casually wrapped his hand around the one holding the sword, and hooked his arm around his younger brother's head, holding him in a headlock.
"Stop it!" Faramir furiously twisted his body to try to pull away, while his older brother just tightened his grip. He waited patiently as Faramir struggled, flailing at him with his free arm, without result. He instantly loosened his hold, however, when he felt him finally relax against his chest. Gently he pulled the sword from his brother's hand, and let Faramir rest his head against his shoulder for a moment.
"You have done enough for today." He said quietly.
Faramir pulled away and looked at him, fatigue and confusion plainly written on his face. Boromir could see the line of blood trickling down his neck from where the sword had nicked him. "I can never please him." Faramir said simply.
"That is not true."
"Yes, it is." Faramir arched his sore shoulders and closed his eyes for a moment. Opening them, his clear gaze met his brother's. "The only way I could make him happy is to be you. But I'm not."
"You are not supposed to be me," said Boromir softly.
"Well, being me is not good enough, not for him." Faramir's voice was tired, drained of feeling.
Boromir said nothing, wishing he had the words to comfort his little brother. There were none, for it had become evident to them both of late that while he had their father's favor, Faramir would almost always be found lacking in whatever he did. He settled for ruffling his brother's dark hair and giving him a gentle shove. "It is good enough for me," he said with affection in his voice.
Faramir permitted himself a small smile. "I know." With a sigh he took his sword back from Boromir. "Show me how to do it again."
"You're tired." Boromir protested. "We can work on it later."
"Yes, I am tired. We will work on it now."
Boromir shook his head. "Stubborn." You are so much like Father, he thought to himself, knowing that to voice the thought would infuriate his brother. He retrieved his own sword. "I will only do this three more times, then I am going to lunch," he said with a warning scowl. "And so are you."
"Agreed." Faramir planted his feet and raised his sword.
"Ready?" Boromir started counting and swung his weapon. "One, two, one, two, three…"