Disclaimers: the usual
All this happens about 12 years prior to the War of the Ring.
Denethor pinched the bridge of his nose, fighting of the mounting headache. Perhaps seeing a healer about these damn headaches was not such a bad idea at all. When Faramir had ventured to suggest it, he did his best to look offended and angry, telling his son firmly that he was no frail court beauty to fuss about a plain headache.
Faramir had just shrugged, in his best 'do-as-you-wish-but-I-warned-you' manner, which Denethor was slowly coming to hate. Well, not exactly hate, but his younger son's ways certainly displeased him. One should not be that wise and calm at Faramir's age!
The Steward stared at the parchment before him. It was a letter from the aforesaid son of his, in Faramir's neat and very legible hand, written on the other side of Denethor's own letter which he had sent to his son earlier.
The letter was written rather dryly and matter-of-factly, which made Denethor frown slightly; just another report, most unlike a son's letter to his father. A brief account of the Rangers' latest activities…ah, they had had a short respite from fighting…good, the poor men must have been exhausted by now. The scouts had not reported any suspicious men or creatures recently…looked like fate had finally had some mercy on Faramir's company.
Wait a minute…what! "The wound in my side has taken no time to close, after Damrod's masterful stitching. Just as I told it would, and they indeed should not have wasted so much effort in trying to send me back to the City."
Denethor banged his fist on the desk, barely stifling the words that were about to leave his mouth. He had been wounded? And, judging by Damrod's 'efforts' to take Faramir back, the wound had been a serious one. The Rangers were not commonly known to overestimate their comrades' injuries.
Why the damn had he not known about it? Had he…skipped it somehow in Faramir's previous letter?
Denethor rummaged through the top drawer and found that one. Nothing. Well…the handwriting was a little shaky…could it be some effect of the pain or medicines?
The Steward sighed, still looking at the letter, then snatched a blank sheet of parchment and started writing.
A quarter of an hour later, he was eyeing his own writing, frowning. In short, translating all the high-flown turns of speech into the common language, he had just called his son an irresponsible fool who should know better than neglect his own well-being for the sake of vain pride, and told him angrily that such fools had no right to be in charge of a Ranger company… a page of very civilized ranting.
However, he found himself wincing at the tone of the letter. Perhaps, an odd thought struck him, a usual rant would be much better…feel much better. But it had been such a tiring day…and his head was all but bursting with pain now, nearly making him nauseous. Perhaps going to look into the damned Seeing Stone up the tower had not been the brightest of his ideas in the day…
He shuddered as the dark images shattered his attempt at making light of the thing. What does the young fool know about it all… It was quite easy to be oh-so-noble and chivalrous when one did not know what the Steward did… did not see what he has seen. If only Faramir could…
Shaking his head vigorously, he dismissed the thought. No, he would not put his son at that risk, much as it was tempting to see his unyielding belief in the possible good outcome shattered and to make him listen to his father's counsels more. Faramir was too susceptible to such things – take his dreams of Númenor. Boromir… He would probably just stare at the palantír for some time and then ask Denethor with poorly disguised irritation, "So, you have brought me all the way up here to show me a bloody glass ball? And what am I supposed to see there, Orcs knitting socks for their filthy feet?"
Still, it was too dangerous even for Boromir. His sons did not have the experience, the advantage of long years, to battle with the Dark Lord. He did. He knew it. And Faramir knew nothing, despite his kingly demeanour!
He sealed the letter, having decided to send it as it was, and called for a guard to fetch a courier.
Denethor sat waiting for the courier to come, frowning at the letter. He still felt faint remorse…but was his kind words what Faramir really needed? He was not a child anymore…and his own correspondence was far from warm and heartfelt.
But what if…
The door creaked, and Denethor's eyes snapped up, expecting to see the courier.
However, that was not so, for someone totally unexpected entered the study.
It was a child, a girl of about three years of age or a bit older, plump, curly-haired, wearing a rather dirty yellow dress and clutching a tiny kitten to her small chest. The poor thing mewled pitifully, no doubt half-suffocated in the child's cruelly loving grip.
The girl gave Denethor a startled stare, which gradually became disappointed.
"Not Mummy," she said accusingly.
"Definitely not," Denethor snorted, hoping the girl would go back to continue her search.
The little creature, however, appeared unabashed, and entered the room, eyeing the unfamiliar surroundings with apparent interest. The kitten looked around mournfully, with an air of total submission.
The girl ended her tour of the Steward's study right in front of the desk, where only her bright eyes were visible over the top. Then, she went around it to Denethor himself, who was beginning to feel rather amused.
She was clearly impressed with the brass drawer knobs, reaching one of her small plump hands to stroke the shiny metal.
"Nice table," she dropped casually, looking like a queen giving a compliment to one of her lowliest servants.
"I am glad that you like it, my lady," he said.
"I don't have a table," she sighed miserably.
"But you have a very beautiful cat over there, and I do not," Denethor smiled.
The child seemed to be considering this for a while, then nodded, her dark curls dancing around her face.
"You don't," she said rather happily, clutching the poor animal tighter still.
Next, her sharp eyes picked out the sealed letter.
"Letter," she pointed to it.
"Aye, that is a letter, little one."
The girl looked at him in what appeared awe.
"You can write?" she breathed. Clearly, in her little mind, that was an accomplishment.
"I can," the Steward nodded. "And you?"
His own sons, at her age, would have covered parchment (and occasionally walls) in strange scrawl and claimed that those were letters; therefore, he expected an affirmative for an answer.
However, the child shook her head sorrowfully.
"No," she sighed, looking down onto the floor.
The kitten mewled again.
Denethor sighed and pulled the girl into his lap.
"I can show you how to write," he said, looking into the big dark eyes. "Just let your cat go, all right?"
She sighed resolutely and released the animal, which, to Denethor's surprise, did not run off, but headed for the hearth and curled on the rug there, awaiting his mistress. Apparently, things were not that bad for the kitten.
Denethor got another piece of parchment and spread it in front of the girl and himself.
"What would you like to write?"
"Mummy!" the girl squealed enthusiastically.
Denethor took his quill, dipped it in the ink and wrote a word.
"Look," he said, pointing to it, "this is how we write 'Mother'."
The curly head shook vigorously.
"Not mother. Mummy."
Denethor smiled and tried to reason.
"But Mummy is just for children, my dear. Why not to write a word for big girls?"
"It's not nice," the girl glared at him. "Mummy is nice. Don't want big Mummy."
"Oh, all right," Denethor consented, writing another word. "Here is your 'Mummy'."
His little visitor clapped her hands in excitement.
"Me, me!" she exclaimed. "Want to write too!"
She grabbed the quill with her fist, and Denethor laughed this time, noting absently that his headache had receded a lot.
"Not like that, child," he said. "Let me help you."
He wrapped the girl's clumsy fingers around the quill, covering them with his own. Carefully, he guided her small hand, writing a shaky word.
The child gazed at the scrawl in delight, then demanded, "Again!"
After some time had passed, Denethor understood that he had a very apt pupil. The girl was now able to reproduce the word without any difficulties, and her grip on the quill was remarkable.
The Steward, who felt much better now, smiled at the child.
"Very good, my dear. Shall we write 'Daddy' now?"
"No," the girl replied, continuing to scrawl.
"Why?" Denethor asked gently, already fearing the answer.
"Don't have Daddy," she shrugged indifferently. "Mummy says he didn't come back."
The kitten stretched and produced another miaow.
The girl started and looked towards it.
"Kitty is hungry," she informed Denethor. "Must feed kitty."
"Oh, by all means," Denethor said, lowering her to the floor. "What is your name, child?"
"Elabeth," she said, flashing him a radiant smile.
"Well, Elabeth, if you want to come and write something with me again, then do come."
Elabeth nodded several times, grabbed her kitten and was gone, grinning at the Steward again.
Denethor sat back in his chair, smiling to himself. Oddly enough, he had just played a nurse for someone's child – a girl! – and offered to teach her her letters. Where the heck would he find the time to do that?
His eyes wandered to the letter before him, just a little further than the little girl's work. The letter to Faramir…
"Not mother. Mummy."
"Mummy is nice. Don't want big Mummy."
"Captain Faramir, I am most disappointed…"
"Denethor, Steward of Gondor."
"My lord? I have been sent to collect the letter."
He stared at the courier unseeingly, focusing slowly.
"Leave and come back in half an hour," he said coldly.
When he was alone again, he took the sealed letter, stood up and walked to the hearth.
He crumpled the parchment in his hand and threw it into the flames, and then stood there until the letter was ashes.
Returning to his desk, he got yet another sheet, dipped the quill in the ink and started writing.
"Faramir, you young fool…"